Part I: Defender

 

The evil, soul-crushing Mutuality had been overthrown by my Liberation. My troops and followers, my brave men and women, Straker’s Breakers, aided by allies such as the Unmutuals, the Ruxins, the Sachsens and many defectors, now stood victorious astride the trash heap of history that was its collectivist paradise. No longer would its tyranny hold more than a thousand worlds in thrall. The New Earthan Republic was born.

Next, I would turn my attention to my former regime and nation, the Hundred Worlds. Long the enemy of the Mutuality—though their common citizenry was kept from this knowledge—the Huns were already seizing territory from our Republic and seemed unwilling to consider peace between the two great empires of mankind. Therefore, with the help of faithful friends and allies, I resolved to force them to talk.

But before I could implement my intentions, before I could set my plans in motion, before I could even begin my honeymoon with my new wife—the commander of my fleets, Carla Straker née Engels—the insectoid Opters intervened. They’d first tried to addict me to their nectar. Next they utterly destroyed our largest shipyards at Kraznyvol. Now we raced to Murmorsk, to confront the Nest Ships there.

 

- A History of Galactic Liberation, by Derek Barnes Straker, 2860 A.D.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Atlantis: Capital of the Hundred Worlds

Carstairs Corporation Headquarters

One year ago

 

The Hundred Worlds consisted of a bright cluster of stars, rare jewels in the velvet black of space. At the center of the Hundred Worlds, like a blue gem in a treasure chest, the planet Atlantis shone brightest of all. Unlike the quaint museum of Old Earth, Atlantis bustled with energy and industry. As the capital, she was the economic and political crossroads of the Hundred Worlds.

On Atlantis, all things met, all paths intersected, and all power was conglomerated.

Megacorp owner Billingsworth M. Carstairs VI told himself these unassailable truths every day of his rich life.

Carstairs had commanded a host of underlings to gather for a high-level executive meeting. He always started such meetings wearing a stern frown, even when he was happy. His father, Big Bill Carstairs, had taught him that trick as a child. “Start from a position of dissatisfaction, my boy,” he’d said, “and your employees will work all the harder to please you. They’ll cherish your every smile, which you can then bestow like rare gifts.”

Big Bill had been right, may he rest in peace. Over the last decade, Carstairs Corporation had grown from the third largest conglomerate in the Hundred Worlds into the biggest—it was now double the size of any other megacorp.

The best part was, the old man had had the decency to die young in a rare aircar crash, passing his controlling interest to his son and namesake, Billy.

Of course, nobody outside the Carstairs family called him Billy anymore. Not if they wanted to keep their jobs.

The power of Carstairs meant Billingsworth had Parliament Ministers in his pocket and plenty of fat government contracts. In fact, they’d just given him one of the fattest, which was why he had called today’s meeting.

Stepping into the meeting chamber, Carstairs heard the room fall silent for a moment. All eyes fell to him, and his frown deepened in response.

“Welcome, sir!” his CEO, Romy Gardel, gushed as she moved aside from her position at the head of the table.

As his most trusted underling—and lover on demand—Gardel knew he was in a good mood, despite his forbidding appearance.

“Thank you, Romy,” he said. “Everyone take your seats. Ladies and gentlemen, I have good news. The Defense Committee has approved funding for the Victory project. In fact, they were so impressed with the prototype, and so worried by the unfortunate military disaster at Corinth,” —here Carstairs released a broad, genuine smile and a chuckle, prompting sycophantic laughter from his underlings— “that they doubled the budget and tripled our potential bonus for commissioning the lead ship on time.”

“No constitutional problems?” asked Mike Rollins, the corporation’s senior legal advisor. “How did they get around Section 4.3?”

“The Declaration of Rights?” Carstairs chuckled again. “The Supreme Judiciary provided an official opinion that anything less than a full brain is mere tissue, with no more human rights than a transplanted heart or kidney, as long as it was harvested legally. A few tweaks to the Involuntary Organ Donor laws—necessary for the war effort under the Loyalist Act, you see—and thousands of brains become available, as long as they’ve lost certain vital functions, the poor souls. One slip of a scalpel and, ‘oh my, how unfortunate,’ with a generous settlement for the families, of course.”

The Board members briefly changed their expressions to match Carstairs’ own, a moment of crocodile-teared sorrow.

Carstairs continued, “The Loyalist Act gives the government all the authority it needs to identify and confiscate the remains for research purposes, and to classify all that research, does it not, Mister Rollins?”

“It does.”

“So we’re cleared to proceed.” Carstairs clapped his hands in satisfaction. “If these new flagships prove successful, not only may they allow our brave forces to achieve new gains, but the program can eventually expand to the civilian sector, where Victory-style AIs can be used for a wide variety of applications.” He frowned significantly at Rollins. “Our patent suites are comprehensive?”

“Unassailable, sir,” the attorney said. “Oh, eventually other megacorps will find a way to legally use brain parts to create stable AIs, as it’s the only approach that has ever kept a machine AI from madness, but the comptrollers tell me we’ll have a good fifteen years of market dominance.”

“And undoubtedly a large rise in the value of everyone’s stock options.” Carstairs clapped his hands once more. “Excellent! I’ll expect weekly reports on the project. Carry on.” He turned to go, and then looked back over his shoulder. “Oh, Romy, drop by my office when you’re done here.”

“Yes, sir,” she said with just a hint of extra color in her perfectly cut face. Carstairs found that money and power were always the best aphrodisiacs, and since he’d just promised Romy more of each… well, best to strike while the iron was hot.

Very hot.

He also had the latest pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs available, guaranteed to produce maximum performance with minimum side effects.

His executive bedroom was about to get a workout.

 

 

***

 

 

Murmorsk System, New Earthan Republic

 

Admiral Derek Straker, mechsuit pilot and self-styled Liberator of humanity, gripped the backrest of Commodore Carla Engels’ command chair.  He stared at the enormous hologram projected above the battleship Indomitable’s gargantuan bridge. It showed a bewildering swirl of warships locked in mortal combat.

Indomitable had just arrived at Murmorsk, the recently overthrown Mutuality’s—now the New Earthan Republic’s—second-largest fleet base and military shipyards. Straker and Engels both expected the strange insectoid Opters and their carrier-like Nest Ships to strike there next, after apparently destroying the larger, main base at Kraznyvol.

Their guess was right.

Straker’s hope, that Indomitable and other Republic forces could catch the Opters in the act, had panned out. His message drones had directed all available warships to assemble at Murmorsk and engage at the senior commander’s discretion. Indomitable’s slow sidespace transit speed meant she arrived well after the other ships.

“Who’s in command of our forces?” Straker asked.

Tixban, the ship’s octopoid Ruxin sensors officer, replied, “It appears Commodore Gray has assumed that position.”

Straker saw Engels nod with satisfaction. Despite a rocky start, the crusty, older Ellen Gray had become a solid sister-in-arms to them both.

“Highlight enemy battle positions,” Engels ordered.

Tixban brushed his subtentacle clusters across the console, refining the hologram view to illustrate his words. “Six Opter Nest ships are grouped here, about halfway between the star and the edge of flatspace. Their combat drones are approaching the inner planets and shipyards.”

“How many drones?”

“At least fifty thousand. There may be more. I am still collating data.”

Straker’s brow furrowed. “Hell… Fifty thousand… How can we fight that many?”

Engels stood to walk closer to the hologram. “During transit here I studied all the data we collected. Individually the drones are weak. Many of them are no more than a small fighter with an expendable pilot and one weapon, usually a beam of some sort. I believe those are crewed by the dog-bees, the least intelligent kind of Opters. The next, less numerous class up is a larger fighter, probably piloted by the antlike technicians you saw. These have a mix of two or three small weapons. More punch, more survivable. Above that, they have attack ships comparable to ours, with single larger weapons, likely piloted by wasp warriors.”

Straker grunted in acknowledgement. “What forces do we have?”

Tixban highlighted the icons. “Commodore Gray’s flagship, the super-dreadnought Correian. Five dreadnoughts, nineteen battlecruisers, thirty-five heavy cruisers, sixty lights, and over four hundred escorts from destroyers down to corvettes. Everything that could converge from nearby systems.”

“Attack ships?”

“Forty-five, from the local forces, along with two monitors and a handful of escorts. They also appear to be trying to launch some of the warships under repair, but they’re unlikely to make them battle-ready soon enough.”

“Those attack ships won’t last long. The monitors may survive… How long until the Opter forces hit them?”

“Two hours.”

“And Commodore Gray’s ships?”

“About three hours until her fastest ships can join the battle.”

Straker slammed his palm on the chair’s back. “And there’s no way for Indomitable to reach the fight in time.”

“No,” said Engels. “We need twelve hours minimum simply to reassemble the sections.” The battleship, too large to transit through sidespace in once piece, had to break apart into sixteen sections every time it traveled from star to star.

“Damn it all, we can’t just sit here aboard Indomitable as spectators!”

“We have no other choice,” said Tixban.

“Oh, yes we do. Indy? Zaxby?” Straker called into the air, presuming the artificial intelligence Trinity would be listening. The AI inhabited the destroyer formerly called Gryphon, docked with Indomitable’s prime section.

A voice that sounded like Indy—the machine part of the group-mind—replied. “I am not Zaxby or Indy anymore. I am Trinity now, Admiral. How may I serve?”

“How quick can you get me to the fight?”

“Trinity is the fastest ship present in the system. I estimate I can reach the forward edge of the battle area within two hours, if you board me within the next seven minutes.”

“On my way.”

Engels was already turning to object. “What do you think you can do out there that Ellen Gray can’t, Derek?” she hissed, moving close. “You’re not a fleet commander.”

“Exactly, so I’m not needed here. I can’t just sit on my ass. You’re the naval officer. You get Indomitable traveling inward as fast as you can. Assemble on the move. Trinity will keep me safe while I observe our new enemies up close.”

“Observe,” she scoffed. “You can’t observe anything more than sensors collect. Send in Trinity on her own if you need data. You don’t need to risk yourself.”

“I have to get in there,” Straker insisted.

“I will keep him safe,” Trinity assured Engels. “I also am interested in observing the Opters up close and adding to my data stores.” That sounded more like the Zaxby part of the triumvirate being.

“There you go.” Straker pecked Engels on the lips. “Gotta run, hon. See you on the other side.” He left her fuming.

As he jogged toward the flight deck, he called into the air, “You still wired into Indomitable’s nervous system, Trinity?”

“If you’re asking if I’m still connected to the shipboard network—I am.”

“Tell Redwolf to grab my go-bag from my quarters and meet me at the airlock. Then pass to the flight deck to prep my mechsuit. I’ll walk it aboard.”

“There’s no need,” said Trinity. “I am even now loading it into my cargo bay, having anticipated your desire to bring it along.”

Straker changed direction toward the airlock. “Great. Be there in a minute.”

At the portal from Indomitable to Trinity, Sergeant Redwolf stood in his battlesuit, a duffel in each hand.

“What’s in the other bag?” Straker asked as he came to a stop.

“My own gear, sir.”

“I don’t need you along, Red.”

The man’s black eyes darkened further. “Ain’t I your bodyguard, sir? And your steward?”

Straker thought about it. “I guess you are, aren’t you? Okay, good to have you along.”

Redwolf’s planar face almost cracked a smile. “Glad to hear it, sir. I wouldn’t want to have to fibertape you and carry you aboard.” He entered Trinity ahead of Straker.

Straker snorted and followed. Damned battlesuiters. Think they can do or say anything and get away with it. Kinda like mechsuiters.

When he reached Trinity’s compact bridge, he was surprised to see a young, platinum-haired, ethereally beautiful woman standing near the empty command chair. “Please, Admiral, sit,” she said. She wore an ice-blue skintight poly-suit that left little to the imagination. A sleek headset hugged the back of her skull like a piece of high-tech jewelry.

Straker couldn’t help but take an appraising look before forcing his eyes to move above her neckline. “And you are?”

“I am Trinity,” she said, with a knowing smile and a lift of one perfect eyebrow. “I used to be known as Doctor Marisa Nolan. My body has been rejuvenated and my mind has been integrated.”

Straker’s jaw dropped. “You’re that creaky old woman?”

“I was.” She turned left and right, showing off her body to best advantage. “I retain all of my personality and memories, so I’m still vain enough to appreciate being a knockout again. I was quite the heartbreaker in my younger days.”

“I imagine…” Straker said, mentally reminding himself once again that he was happily married. “Feel free to wear something a little less…”

“Sexually arousing?”

Straker made an exasperated sound. “Forget it. Let’s get underway.”

“We’re already accelerating at maximum, Admiral,” she replied. “Interacting with you socially takes only a tiny percentage of my attention, so there’s been no delay.”

Right. She was just as much a part of Trinity as Zaxby or Indy, though it was hard to remember that right now. “Good. Fine. But seriously, you make it difficult for me when you act this way—like a Tachina clone.”

The Marisa-body’s face fell. “I take your point, and I apologize.”

She turned and walked out. Maybe she was merely doing as he asked, or maybe she had her feelings hurt. If so, she needed to grow up. A rejuvenated hundred-year-old woman should know better, even if she did share a brain with a teenaged AI and the nonhuman Zaxby.

Nolan looked just as good from behind. Straker shook his head and thought of cold showers. When that didn’t work, he mentally superimposed Carla’s image on Marisa’s, and then turned his face to the main holoplate. “Give me a view of the upcoming engagement.”

“Of course, Admiral,” said Indy’s disembodied, decidedly non-sexy voice.

The holoplate showed a swarm of Opter drones. Well, technically not drones, as they had pilots, but they were likely to operate as drones—expendable extensions of the Nest Queens’ will, so he called them drones. The swarm approached the inner worlds in a disciplined mass, heading first for the largest and most densely industrialized planet of Murmorsk-4. This was a small gas world, and the main shipyards were on the moon called Beta-2.

Dozens of other facilities, on smaller moons, supported the shipbuilding and repair operations. Skimmer booms tens of kilometers long dropped from the lower moons, dipping their probes into the soupy atmosphere, sucking up valuable gases. Complexes thrust upward from the surfaces of other, larger planetoids, space docks and mining facilities and agricultural domes, all the marks of orbital industry.

Murmorsk-3, a green world, held the balance of the system’s population. The two planets happened to be almost in alignment, at their closest approach, perhaps forty million kilometers apart.

The enemy should strike M-4, the most heavily defended, first. If they won there, the weak defenses at M-3 were unlikely to stop them. Straker wondered whether the Opters would exterminate the civilian population, or merely conquer them. Green worlds were valuable—populations less so. Did the bugs prefer subjects, or genocide?

If what they’d done at Kraznyvol was any indication, they’d leave nothing alive.

Ellen Gray’s fleet was farther away from the targets than the incoming enemy, stretched into an oblong blob with one end pointing toward M-4. Those lead ships would reach the battle site in about three hours. The back end of the blob would reach M-4 in five hours, according to the annotations on the holoplate.

As Straker watched, one-sixth of the enemy began to separate and head toward M-3. One Nest Ship contingent out of six? Probably. And why? Did they hope to divide the defenses?

Straker wondered what drove these Opters. Glory? Competition among themselves? Did each Queen keep score, or did they cooperate fully and unselfishly? He put these questions to Trinity.

“Hello, Admiral,” said Zaxby as he ambled onto the bridge. His headgear had become even more compact than the last time, a wireless interface to the rest of Trinity.  “We sense that you would prefer to speak to our Zaxby body.”

“I like to speak to someone I can see, that’s all.”

“You could see Nolan.”

“I could see a little too much of Nolan, thank you very much.”

“That would seem to be your failing, not ours,” Trinity-Zaxby said.

“If biological urges are failings, we’re all hopeless—including you.”

“Touché. To answer your questions, the Opters within each Nest are truly one collective society. You may think of each Nest as an individual group-mind, headed by one Queen.”

“You mean they’re telepathic?”

“Not at all. But like a flock of birds or a school of fish, they are so attuned to one another that they seem to share one mind, and they do use brainlink technology comparable to ours. Unlike humans, though, they have no taboos about networking brains electronically, so when it’s convenient, they do so.”

“And the Nests? Do they form bigger group-minds?”

“Many Nests may compose a Hive, but they do not seem linked. Nests almost always cooperate effectively, like ships in a fleet, but I have seen indications of the occasional disagreement. However, we should not depend on any division within their ranks.”

“I’m just trying to get a sense of them. So they do keep control of their own bugs and drones? They’re not interchangeable?”

“No,” said Zaxby. “Each Nest has its own pheromones, markers, and genetic quirks.”

“What happens if a Nest Queen dies?”

“There are queens-in-waiting, but there would be disruption in the command structure.”

Straker stroked his jaw. “So that’s a weakness.”

“No more than losing a human military commander would be.”

“What happens if a Nest Queen loses too many forces? Will others turn on her and, I don’t know, take her territory?”

“Occasionally, but not routinely. There is a natural limit to what one Nest Queen can control. Hive Queens act like feudal monarchs, with their subordinate Nest Queens owing them allegiance.”

“Is there something above a Hive Queen?”

“There’s a senior queen with an untranslatable name. Mutuality databases assigned her the designation ‘Empress.’ There’s very little information on her, though.”

Straker moved closer to the plate. “I need something right now. Something I can use. Something we can do here—you and me, Zaxby—uh, Trinity—to help us win this battle. We can’t afford to lose our largest remaining shipyard system. Can we… hack them or anything? You’re an integrated AI now. You were a good hacker before. You should be a super-hacker now.”

Zaxby preened. “I am a masterful-hacker, but hacking requires access, or at least proximity. I can’t hack from light-minutes away. I need to attack their cybernetic systems in realtime from short range. They are unlikely to simply watch as I do that, though, so the safest way is to join the fleet and become one target among many, mutually supporting with Commodore Gray’s escorts.”

“Okay, so rendezvous with them.”

“We are on course, and will join them in approximately one hour.”

Straker paced back and forth. “Gray’s lead forces will be an hour late, though, right?”

“Correct.”

“Will the M-4 defenses hold?”

“My simulations say they will have lost fifty percent effectiveness within the first hour.”

“But Gray’s forces are going to arrive piecemeal, spread out, rather than in one hard wave.”

Zaxby zoomed in on the future battle zone and extended his predictions. “Correct. Our lead elements will sustain heavy casualties.”

“How heavy?”

“Approaching one hundred percent, if they fight to the death.”

Straker’s eyebrows lifted. “That’s not feasible. They won’t fight to the death anyway—not these former Mutuality forces, and I wouldn’t want them to. What if we pull the lead elements back and thicken up, delay our arrival by, say, half an hour to an hour?”

“Effectiveness rises proportionally with delay, but the defenders are dying at an equal rate. I have run every standard simulation, and Commodore Gray’s tactics appear to be nearly optimal.”

“And do we win?”

Zaxby frowned. “The final outcome is firmly within the margin of error.”

“Meaning it’s a toss-up.”

“Yes. And both fleets will be devastated no matter what.”

Straker smacked his palm repeatedly into his fist. “We have to find a way to break through. Zaxby, you must have ideas. I remember you saying you used to come up with crazy schemes and your superiors would shoot them down. Now I need a crazy scheme—something that will give us a big win.”

“Finding a hack is my best chance. If I can disrupt many drones, the odds could swing heavily in our favor.”

“What about hacking the Nest Ships?”

“They’re farther away, and they won’t let me sneak this ship within hacking range.”

“We can if we use underspace…”

Zaxby’s two nearest eyes narrowed doubtfully. “Even if they do not have detectors, they are unlikely to leave us unmolested once we emerge. If you wish to make an underspace attack, it would make more sense to simply deploy float mines. We might be able to destroy one or two of their Nest Ships before the others scatter on random courses.”

A sudden thought struck Straker. “What happened to Indy’s objection to killing?”

“It is still there, but it has been subsumed among the three of us. We find it permissible for us to kill creatures of an alien enemy which seems bent on destruction and death of our people.”

“Good. Maybe we should put you guys in charge of Indomitable again.”

“We would politely refuse. We find this ship-body to be much more flexible.”

“But it’s so small! Think of the facilities you’d have aboard the battleship!”

“You seek to tempt us.” Zaxby turned one eye away to glance at his console. “We can always scale up. For now, speed and flexibility is better than raw power.”

“Do you have any more technological tricks up your sleeve?”

“None usable on such short notice.”

“What about using float mines on the drones?”

“We might kill a few dozen—perhaps even hundreds—but this would have negligible impact on the battle.”

“And it’s impossible to float a nuke directly inside a Nest Ship?”

Zaxby spread his tentacles. “I’ve explained this before. It’s completely possible to float the warhead—but it won’t detonate properly unless it emerges in vacuum. The presence of atmosphere will cause trillions of molecular interactions that will disrupt the precise timing needed. You will have, at best, a dirty bomb. On a vessel as large as a Nest Ship, that will hardly bother them at all. Contaminating a Nest Queen may cause disruption—but then again, it may not. Imagine a human commander who was irradiated and knew she would die, but not until days after the battle. She would not shirk her duties. And there must be contingencies in case a Queen is incapacitated.”

“Dammit. There must be some way…”

Redwolf stepped onto the bridge, his battlesuit boots clanging loudly on the deck. “I put your gear away, sir.”

“Thanks, Red.” Straker gestured at the screen and sighed. “We’re trying to come up with some clever trick to win this battle… or at least reduce our casualties. We’re about to get hammered.”

“I’m just a grunt, sir. If I can’t shoot it or screw it, I salute it or paint it.” Redwolf took a step forward and removed his helmet to better look at the screen. “Speaking of getting hammered… too bad we can’t board those Nest Ships with our suits.”

Straker snapped his fingers. “Maybe we can. Zaxby?”

“The possibility exists, but the probability of success is low.”

“Why?”

Zaxby ticked off reasons on sub-tentacles like fingers. “We have to sneak up on them, and we don’t know if they have underspace detectors. If we do, we need to emerge long enough to take a final reading, yet not be seen. If we manage that, we would need to gamble that the target Nest Ship doesn’t move on final approach. Most importantly, we don’t have precise interior plans. We don’t even know if the Opter ship you visited was representative of others. You said it seemed modular, so we can’t be assured of the layout. Emergence in atmosphere is dangerous enough: if you appear congruent with a solid object, you will die.”

“The Queen was in the center, and the center was pretty big. That would be our target. You have the data from my debriefing, right?”

“Of course.”

“Assuming we don’t get spotted, what are the odds of me emerging safely?”

“No better than fifty percent.”

Straker considered it. He wanted to take the gamble, get in there and fight. But fifty-fifty…

“Boss,” Redwolf said, “That’s nuts. I mean, if it was for the win, maybe it would be worth a coin flip, but we’d only be taking out one of their ships. And do we even know that would affect the battle? Their attack forces probably got their orders. They ain’t gonna just bug out.”

“Despite his hideous pun, I second Sergeant Redwolf’s misgivings,” Zaxby said. “You’d be reversing your Pascal’s Wager.”

“Little upside, big downside.” Straker felt like punching something. “You’re right. It’s too big a risk. So we’re back to the hacking… but it seems like we could do more, now that Trinity is a warship again. You three brainiacs need to come up with something.”

Zaxby smiled, more naturally than he used to, it seemed to Straker. The Ruxin was getting better at mimicking human body language, probably because of being brainlinked to Nolan. “Actually, I do have one idea.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Straker and Trinity, approaching Murmorsk-4

 

“We’re in position,” Zaxby said from his helm console. Trinity didn’t actually need a hands-on pilot, but the Ruxin seemed comfortable there, and ran his subtentacles restlessly over the control inputs, like a poker player shuffling chips while waiting for play to start.

The main holoplate showed the Murmorsk-4 defenses already heavily engaged with—and losing to—the Opter drone swarm. They were furiously defending the valuable shipyards, but it was just a matter of time before they would be overwhelmed and dismantled by the enemy’s thousands of small craft.

Thousands more were incoming. They’d passed beyond M-4 and now formed a thick plane of battle barring the New Earthan fleet from relieving the defenders. Trinity was embedded among Commodore Gray’s lead corvettes, just moments from engagement.

This forward edge enjoyed the right of first blood as the small ships opened up with their primaries. For almost a minute they slashed and burned dozens of enemies without suffering return fire, for the Opter drones had much shorter ranges. As a destroyer, Trinity seemed a monster alongside the tiny corvettes, but she joined them with her superb suite of defensive weaponry—defensive in the sense of it being optimized for antimissile use, which made it perfect for this work.

The corvettes continued boosting at flank speed, but began maneuvering randomly. Combat sims had shown they would survive longer if they continued to gain velocity and to dodge as they entered the heart of the swarm. This gave them a slim chance to win through, rather than none at all—which was what slowing down would have meant.

“You gonna insert into underspace?” Straker asked, fingers gripping the arms of his captain’s chair.

“Never fear, Oh Great Liberator. Our timing will be impeccable,” Zaxby replied.

“Because it looks like we’re getting—”

The universe cooled, a telltale sign of underspace insertion, and Straker immediately cranked up the heat on his pressure suit. The holoplate showed the same icons, but Straker knew they were predictions, not hard sensor observations.

Trinity steered toward the nearest, densest cluster of Opter drones. “Hack-mine away,” Zaxby said. “Rerouting.”

Straker watched as Trinity altered course toward another cluster. When she was just in front of that group, Trinity dropped another hack-mine.

He itched to demand Trinity pop out of underspace in order to see if the hack-mines were working, but that would be pointless. Once deployed, the tiny, stealthy devices, converted from a variety of probes, mines and missiles available in Trinity’s stores, would broadcast highly invasive, broad-spectrum information attacks.

If they worked, some of the enemy drones would be disrupted, rendered combat-ineffective for at least as long as it took for them to clear the malware. If it worked well, the Trojans, worms and viruses might even cause the Opters to attack each other.

This was the idea the Zaxby-Trinity meld had come up with, the only way to hack the Opters without simultaneously exposing Trinity to mass attack or giving warning of the attempt. The downside was, Trinity couldn’t test out attacks and evaluate the enemy’s responses. The hacks were shotguns in the dark of cyber-linkspace. Popping up and looking at them wouldn’t change anything.

And if the hack-mines didn’t work, at least Trinity could pass through the swarm and try to help the defenders of M-4.

Nineteen more of the devices floated up from underspace before Trinity passed the blockers and Straker was confident enough to insist they emerge. The seconds before the holoplate updated seemed agonizingly long.

When the new information caused the image to ripple and change, Straker stood and cheered. Far more of the speeding corvettes than expected had survived within the swarm—perhaps half of them. Behind them, each slower class of ship in its own wave—frigates, then destroyers, then light cruisers and so on—had smashed deep into the blockers, remaining combat-effective for far longer than the simulations predicted.

“Get me a comlink to Gray on the flagship,” Straker said.

“Comlink to Correian established, audio only.”

The sound fluttered and burst with the static of the battle. “Gray here. Make it fast, Straker. I’m damned busy.”

“The hack-mines seemed to have worked.”

“Thanks, yes. They disrupted thousands of drones. Pat yourself on the back. Anything else?”

Straker ignored the prickliness. The older woman had never quite adjusted to such a young man in supreme military command, but she was far too competent for him to take her to task about it—at least in public. He didn’t want fawning sycophants anyway.

“We’re heading in to help the defenders,” he said. “Follow as soon as you can. Anything critical to report?”

The big flagship, with its coordinating staff of hundreds, had a lot more ability to process sensor data, intelligence, and comlink reports. When Gray answered back, she didn’t disappoint him.

“The shipyards on Beta-2 are the critical core of the facilities,” she replied.
“That’s where the defenders will make their last stand. Everything else is secondary. Save that, and we can call it a win—or at least, not a terrible loss. Once that’s secured, we’ll work outward.”

“What are the reports from M-3?”

“They’re holding. I believe the swarm sent there was a pinning attack, meant to keep their local forces from aiding M-4. Focus on Beta-2. That’s my professional opinion.”

“You’re the fleet officer, not me,” Straker said, trying to give the commodore her due. He knew how annoying it was when the boss tried to second-guess and micromanage a competent subordinate. “See you at Beta-2. Straker out.”

“Comlink ended,” Zaxby said. “You know, Derek Straker, I particularly like Commodore Gray.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Not only is her exterior a lovely shade of chestnut that I find aesthetically pleasing, but she doesn’t take any guff from you.”

“Take any guff, huh?”

“I believe that’s the correct expression.”

Straker smiled. “Yeah, I respect her. I know she’ll tell me what I need to know, rather than be a yes-man.”

“Oh, yes, I can see that. I can, yes.” Zaxby blinked one eye.

“You’re insufferable now that you have instant access to an Earthan language database on your brainlink.”

“If you want to know suffering, try living among an alien species your whole life.”

“You could have gone back to Ruxin now that it’s liberated.”

“And miss all this? Pish-posh.”

Straker snapped his fingers. “Back to work, squiddly.”

“There’s no need for slurs.” Zaxby turned up the place where his nose would be and shut up—exactly as Straker had hoped he would.

With the main display now updated in realtime, Straker could do nothing but watch as Trinity’s icon crawled across the intervening space and the minutes ticked down. In that time, he tried to make a decision.

Should he order Trinity to attack from long range, darting in and out, drawing many enemy drones away from the main battle? Or should they descend into underspace and emerge among the defenders, to stiffen their defense?

Unfortunately there were no more hack-mines—and it was possible the enemy had already observed the results and had taken countermeasures anyway. Trinity still had plenty of float mine warheads, though, converted from the relatively useless shipkiller missiles she usually carried. No missile would survive the thousands of beams that the swarm employed, and would have to detonate early, killing only a few. Better to drop nukes among them from underspace, if it came to that.

It occurred to Straker that the swarm tactics of the Opters rendered useless nearly one-third of the weaponry of the typical human fleet—the missiles. Railguns were also less effective until point-blank range, as tiny craft dodged them easily. Beams were still effective, but the small size and maneuverability of the targets made up for their lack of armor.

“Zaxby, make a note for the next message you send to your brainiac buddies. We need a new class of ship, or at least a new weapons loadout for escorts, optimized against our new enemy.”

“Do you not mean Opter-mized?” Zaxby laughed, a little too vigorously.

“Now who’s making hideous puns? Just do it, will you? Perform some studies, run some sims, come up with recommendations.”

“It may not matter.”

“Why?”

Zaxby rolled an extra eye around to fix three on Straker. “Because at this rate, we may soon have no shipyards.”

“You’re trying to be a smartass. That’s a good point, but, we have hundreds of small yards, usually for building freighters and local attack ships. Include that in the study. I need some kind of… liberty ship.”

“Liberty ship?”

“Access your historical database from Old Earth, twentieth century, World War Two, United States of America. Their Liberty Ships were freighters, but the principle is the same. A ship that can be built quick and cheap. Something with a small crew, very simple, and effective mainly against these drones. Everything else should be sacrificed for combat effectiveness—crew comfort, unneeded sensors, extended comms. Something like a super attack ship, or specialized corvette. Something we can build by the thousands.”

 “I will send it out on the next message drone.” Zaxby tapped at the console. “Admiral Straker, I need to know our tactics. Do we attack from outside, or pass through to help defend?”

Straker stroked his jaw as if thinking, but he’d already decided. If his main role was to inspire his forces, he couldn’t very well snipe and pick at the enemy from the outside. Only by putting himself in with the defenders would he stiffen their spines and, just maybe, this would urge Commodore Gray’s forces on to greater efforts.

“We go in. Get a good reading and set course to emerge somewhere protected, but close to the fight. We’ll need to orient and update, and then help out where we see they need it the most.”

“Aye aye, Liberator.”

“I’m surprised you’re not concerned that we’ll be killed.”

“Given that Opter drones are too small to mount underspace detectors, we maintain the ability to escape at will.”

“We won’t be exercising that option. In fact, make sure you don’t even mention it. Nobody’s going to be inspired by a Liberator who has a backdoor out of the fight.”

“Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honorable.”

Straker growled, “Methinks Shakespeare is becoming all the rage. Didn’t he also say something about the king being responsible for all those arms and heads chopped off in battle?”

“So he did… Fortunately, I can regrow arms, though not a head. Well, at least not without assistance. The upgraded rejuvenation bay might be able to do it, if the brain were preserved. In fact, I—”

“Do you mind paying attention to what’s going on around us?”

Zaxby huffed. “Our mind has sufficient capacity to pay all the attention needed, as we’re cruising in empty space right now. My full focus won’t be necessary until we emerge in the midst of combat.”

“Fine. How long will that be?”

“Approximately fifty-six minutes.”

“I’m going to suit-up.”

Zaxby’s eyes widened and spun with surprise. “You’re going to wear your mechsuit?”

“Why not? I’m no tactician, and I can brainlink in to your sensor feed. Better than sitting here yakking with you.”

“Of course, you feel powerless. The mechsuit will counteract that sensation. However, please take care not to damage the cargo bay with your random flailing.”

“I don’t flail—especially not randomly,” said Straker. “Just make sure I can control the cargo bay functions on command. You don’t want me to have to blast my way out from inside.”

“I shudder to think.”

Redwolf followed Straker as he headed for the cargo bay. “What’s the plan, sir? We gonna drop on somebody?”

“I’m not sure yet, Red. By the way, how’d you like to train as a mechsuiter?”

Redwolf grinned through his open faceplate. “Thought you’d never ask, sir.”

“I can’t guarantee how well you’ll integrate with the mechsuit. It really depends on how you brainlink. Some just can’t. But at least you can run the Sledgehammer on manual, now that Karst turned traitor.”

“I wish I’d killed that scumbag motherfucker when I had the chance.”

“You and me both, Sergeant. In fact, you have my express permission to shoot him on sight, though I’d rather have him in my brig under interrogation. I have the feeling there’s some interesting info in his head.” The door to the cargo bay opened in front of him as the Indy portion of Trinity monitored his movements.

Inside, his mechsuit lay on its back, its clamshell torso hatch open to allow access. Straker stripped off his pressure suit, stored it, and then hopped up onto his fifty-ton combat rig. He rolled into the reclining conformal cockpit and plugged in his brainlink. That plus the manual activation code brought the monster to life.

Soon, his world expanded. He seemed to simultaneously stand inside a shrunken cargo bay, his body and senses now congruent with the man-shaped mechsuit, and also to see beyond, outside Trinity and into the void. He tested the datalink feed and made sure he was able to open and close the external doors and control the air pressure.

Once he was sure Redwolf was sealed and ready in his battlesuit, he lowered the atmo to near vacuum. Then, he waited, watching, until Trinity approached the swarm attacking M-4 and its orbital facilities. A short few minutes in underspace brought them to the battle for the moon, Beta-2.

They emerged into a silent storm of chaos and confusion. Thousands of drones swooped and fired, spinning and dancing in evasive patterns that reminded Straker of flocks of birds or schools of fish, so coordinated that they appeared to share one mind.

Above him loomed a besieged monitor, an enormous local defense ship second in size only to an asteroid fortress, or to Indomitable. Clearly, Trinity had emerged here in order to shield herself with its bulk.

Hundreds of the monitor’s point-defense weapons fired, rippling and lighting up the area with fireworks. Where beams were revealed by the dust they illuminated, Opter drones were speared and knocked out. Where railguns fired, the projectile streams, although launched at high velocity, almost never hit anything. The drones slipped aside like fish dodging the teeth of sharks.

“Worse than I thought,” muttered Straker. “Two-thirds of our weapons are useless.”

Trinity added her firepower to the local fight, and soon had opened a bubble that provided welcome relief to the monitor. The drones were obviously targeting its beam emplacements, surgically disarming the big ship piece by piece.

In her former incarnation as the destroyer Gryphon, Trinity had been built for this kind of work—a hunter and killer of anything smaller than herself. Add to that Indy’s AI precision and Zaxby’s years of service at a weapons console, and kilo for kilo she was the deadliest anti-drone ship in human space. She knocked out hundreds of the craft within the first few minutes of the fight, before they drew back to stay out of her most effective range.

From time to time the monitor would launch a missile and detonate it at minimum range. These blasts would catch a handful of drones that couldn’t flee fast enough, but this was a mere desperation measure. There weren’t enough missiles in its inventory to make much difference to this kind of enemy.

“Vidlink for you, Liberator,” Straker heard Trinity say in Indy’s machine voice.

“Put it through.”

A realtime picture of a large bridge appeared in his optical cortex, a man in a commodore’s uniform sitting in the flag command chair. “Pearson here, aboard the monitor Rhinoceros. Admiral Straker—Liberator—is that you, sir?”

Straker set his feed to show his face. “It’s me, Pearson. Pardon the view, but I’m suited up right now.”

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, sir, and that ship you’re in is a vicious little thing, but we can’t hold without help. Lots of help.”

“Commodore Gray’s inbound with the biggest fleet we could gather, but she’s fighting her way through her own shit-storm. We have to hold until she gets here.”

“We’ll do our best… but sir, we’ve lost most of our sensors and eighty percent of our beams, and these damned critters already landing on our hull and breaching. It’s only a matter of time before they chew through our armor.”

“Do you have marines aboard?”

“Not enough. They all got stripped for other sectors when… begging your pardon, sir, but when we were fighting against you.”

“Understood. Do you have any other escorts?”

“No, sir. My other monitor Hippopotamus is down and my attack ships didn’t last long. We’re all that’s left. When we go, Beta-2 goes.”

“Hang in there, Pearson. We’ll try to scrape them off you. Straker out.”

Below Trinity and Rhinoceros squatted the main shipyards the monitor was trying to protect. Ground-mounted weapons in armored turrets fired upward into the swarm, but there simply weren’t enough of them. Capital beams designed to cut ships in half vaporized individual drones, but even on their lowest settings and fastest recharge times, this was overkill, swatting flies with sledgehammers—and it was wasteful of energy and time.

Now and then flights of missiles would launch from the moon’s surface, but most of the time they would be picked off long before killing any targets. Railguns fired intermittently, and with some effectiveness, as it appeared the ground installations had access to submunitions, clusters that would burst and catch the dodging drones in spreads.

But as Pearson had said, the cloud of drones was pulling in tighter and tighter, and at the edges of the rocky plain on which the shipyards sat, Opters were already coming in low over the horizon, nap-of-the-surface, in order to avoid the defenses and deploy armored vehicles to assault.

Armored vehicles… finally, something Straker could attack.

“Trinity,” Straker said, “as soon as Red and I jump, orbit Rhinoceros and clean off her hull. Pop in and out of underspace if you need to get out of a jam. Try to keep this monitor functional, because when she dies, the shipyards will die with her.”

“Jump? To the surface?” came Zaxby’s worried tones. “Have you gone mad?”

“Probably. Message all friendlies please not to shoot the ’suiters, okay?” Straker cued the outer doors to open. “Redwolf, you ready?”

“Right behind your mad self, sir.”

“Go.” Straker launched out the opening and began falling slowly in the low gravity—too slowly, a miscalculation. He rotated head-down and used his landing thrusters to speed up—just in time. A hex of six drones dove toward him, blazing with their lasers.

Jinking with bursts of his suit jets, Straker aimed and fired his force cannon. The needle of armor-piercing plasma ripped one drone to shreds. He added his gatling to the mix, but the other five dodged the stream of bullets. They were simply too quick at this range.

Firing the gatling had an unintended consequence, though. Throwing reaction mass upward sped him toward the ground. Impact warnings flashed in his HUD, supplemented by his mechsuiter’s senses and instinct. He somersaulted to put his feet down and opened up his retros just in time, slamming to the rocky, uneven surface of the nearly airless moon.

Beam strikes punched holes in the terrain around him.

 

Chapter 3

 

Straker, on the surface of the moon Beta-2

 

Straker stayed low on the surface in his mechsuit, with Redwolf beside him. He ran in shallow bounds, his stabilization system and his experience keeping him from flying upward in arcs that would eliminate his ability to dodge.

A mechsuit wasn’t an aerospace fighter, even if it was of comparable size. He had to stay low and use the terrain, the huge rock formations and the pits, the buildings and mining sites scattered around the complex. In this, the smaller Redwolf actually had the advantage.

The battlesuiter skipped along behind him, and Straker wondered briefly what Redwolf could do in a fight where every combatant vehicle outmassed him by a factor of ten or more. Normally battlesuiters operated in squads or platoons, their numbers, cooperation and ability to hide in cover making up for their size.

But Straker could hardly have refused him coming along. He wasn’t sure Redwolf would have followed such orders anyway.

Straker reached an ore processing facility, layered with pipes and girders and conveyors, and sheltered beneath it. Lasers peppered the area around him, and he returned fire deliberately and precisely, taking out three of the six attackers. Redwolf fired his own beam rifle upward to unknown effect.

The enemy return fire hit the pipes and gas leaked out, creating a cloud that provided concealment. At this, the three remaining drones broke off and retreated. A ground defense beam speared one on the way up. After that, they posed no threat to Straker and his sidekick.

“Why don’t they come down and swarm the surface?” Redwolf asked.

“They will. I think Trinity surprised them. She’s like having a dreadnought in the hull of a destroyer, at least for point defense. I’m guessing they’re concentrating on her and Rhino before they come down in a mass.”

Redwolf pointed. “I think I spoke too soon.”

Straker turned to look where he indicated, toward the horizon. He could see dust kicked up by a line of vehicles advancing toward the shipyard facilities—hundreds of them, he thought. Optical zoom confirmed it: small, six-wheeled combat cars, backed up by light tanks. Just above and behind them hovered fighter drones. “They landed them beyond the horizon for a ground assault. I doubt our defenders are ready for this kind of battle. They don’t have enough troops, and most of the turrets are optimized for anti-space.”

“At least it’s our kind of battle, sir.”

“My kind of battle, Red. You can’t possibly survive in the open against that many. This is my specialty.”

“But sir—”

“I see a pillbox over there,” interrupted Straker. “Run to it and defend. Do what infantry does best—hold your ground. Try to link up with friendlies. They have to have at least a few troops, even if it’s just the security forces. You’re better off helping them. Now go! That’s an order.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Redwolf turned to sprint across the broken, rocky terrain.

Straker put Red out of his mind and began to run to his right, for the left end of the approaching enemy line. Standing toe-to-toe with such mass was a fool’s game. He’d hit them from the flank and attempt to roll them up by ones and twos.

This nearest enemy formation, equivalent to a battalion of seventy or so vehicles, had chosen a relatively flat area with a road running down the middle, the best approach possible over the rough ground. Even so, it slowed them down as they tried to keep good formation.

The rough ground would be Straker’s advantage. Staying low, he worked his way to the end of their line and let them go past.

His first kill was their leftmost overwatch fighter drone, and then another which turned to try to sniff him out. He wasn’t sure what their response would be to this, for every military force had its own doctrine. He was hoping it would be the reaction of a natural flying creature, with a dog-bee or wasp pilot—to send in the aerospace forces.

He was right. The other ten close air support drones raced toward him, directing suppressive beam shots that struck rock all around him, sending up clouds of dust and gas from the vaporized stone.

This was exactly as he’d hoped. With his own multi-spectral sensors, he could easily see through the clouds, while the enemies were hindered and their beams were attenuated.

He picked off three before they backed up and diverted the armored vehicles.

Five down, sixty-some to go.

Two platoons of six vehicles each—one of wheeled scout cars and one of tracked light tanks—spread out and moved to surround his position. Rather than let them do so, he scurried to his right and tried his gatling against his lighter opponents.

The penetrators sparked against the material of the scout car, and then dug in as he extended the burst at a single spot. The vehicle slewed and rolled, smoke pouring from its burning carcass.

This was good news. It meant he had two weapons that could kill them instead of only one.

He put a force-cannon bolt into the tank behind the burning car, and it too brewed up, plasma shooting from every crack in its broken shell. The weapon was made to take down heavy tanks much larger than these, after all.

Straker raced ahead through the gap he’d created, splitting his targeting and firing left and right. The uneven ground allowed him to hit the soft underbelly of a car with his gatling for an easy kill, and his force-cannon bolt sliced through the side of a tank like it was made of cheesecake.

These Opters make poor ground warriors, he thought. They lacked heavies, missile tracks and battlesuiters compared to human forces—at least in this place. Maybe they had different force structures when planning on taking and holding ground. Perhaps this battalion was the equivalent of a few ship’s marines, hastily thrown together to try to take advantage of a weakness in the human defense.

And they’d never faced mechsuiters.

Well, he’d school them now.

Racing in an arc, Straker used the rocks and pits to keep solid ground between himself and anything not a target. This was one of a mechsuiter’s greatest strengths—his near-perfect situational awareness on the battlefield. The combination of mind, brainlink and combat-optimized SAI made his maneuvers as natural as a footballer maneuvering for position on a field, instinctively placing himself to best advantage.

As he did, he picked off his enemies two by two. In less than a minute, he’d eliminated both platoons.

Seventeen vehicles down, more than fifty to go.

Straker imagined what his enemies would do next. They had to be surprised and concerned that one opponent had already wiped out so many of their combatants. In their place he’d take no chances. He’d turn his entire force and try to surround and trap the mechsuiter before tackling further defenses.

Reversing course, Straker ran back the way he came, slipping out of the trap as the Opters tried to extend and encircle. As he did, he picked off three more cars and two more tanks, and ducked back among the rock formations.

Twenty-two down.

He became aware of activity above him—close above him, not the main space battle taking place kilometers higher. He sent out an air-defense radar pulse and identified two six-ship hexes of the largest enemy fighters, the ones that approached attack ships in size. Unlike the smaller drones, these had weapons that might severely damage or destroy him in one shot.

Those blasts started falling all around him, blowing rock into the sky and shaking the ground. He worked himself deeper into a small canyon and narrowed the arc where they could reach him. Glancing beam shots fell hot on his skin, but his field reinforcement and his superconducting layers shrugged off the heat.

For now.

Okay, they’d called in air support.

Well, he had some on-call air support of his own.

“Straker to Trinity,” he said. “I need you to clear my skies. Can you pop over here?”

“Aye aye, sir,” came Zaxby’s voice. A moment later, Trinity exploded into existence from underspace, emerging for no more than two seconds. In that time, twelve hard-driven secondary beams skewered the twelve attack fighters, leaving them tumbling and falling to crash into the surface.

Before the first one augured in, Trinity had disappeared again, and Straker marveled at what an AI-controlled warship could do. Her triple brain made Straker and his mechsuit look slow. He shivered with the passing thought that perhaps it was a blessing all AIs before Indy went mad. If they hadn’t, they might have transformed, or even replaced, humanity in ways he wasn’t sure he’d like.

Perhaps they still would, if Indy could be reliably replicated.

But until then, the universe belonged to organic life—and organics fought over territory. That meant at least this little corner of the galaxy would remain comprehensible.

Before the dust of the crashes settled, Straker raced at his enemies, using the confusion to shield him from their sensors. Disrupting unit cohesion was another specialty of mechsuiters—although he admitted that didn’t work on these Opters as well as it did on human troops. Even more so than Hok, the insectoids kept calm and fearlessly executed their plans. They could be surprised, but it didn’t seem their morale could be broken. They probably had very little individual sense of self-preservation.

At least, the servant-creatures of the Queens didn’t. Probably any being as intelligent as a Queen would value itself quite highly. He filed away that thought for later.

Inside the smoke and dust, he rampaged through them, killing whatever he targeted. Compared to their relatively basic combat vehicles, his mechsuit had sensors which were the height of sophistication. If this’d been an armored Hok battalion, he’d be constantly pinpointed by his own multispectral emissions, his radar and lidar, but these Opters didn’t seem to have high-end detectors.

For now, he was a wolf—no, a tiger—among sheep. He didn’t keep conscious count, but his SAI tallied his kills at fifty-five before the enemy broke.

Even then, they didn’t really rout. They merely withdrew as rapidly as possible, back the way they came, presumably to their dropships, attempting to preserve some forces.

Straker activated his comlink to Redwolf. “SITREP.”

“I’ve joined the defense forces, sir. They’re pretty thin, but we fought off a battalion of those combat cars and tanks, and we don’t see any more of them.”

“I think I’ve driven another battalion off,” said Straker.

“Alone?”

“You see Loco around here anywhere?”

“Hot shit, sir!”

“Thanks. Trinity helped… and these Opters aren’t nearly as deadly as Hok in ground mode. Any other attacks to your perimeter?”

Redwolf conferred with someone for a moment. “No, sir, but the monitor above us is in bad shape. Commodore Gray better get here soon or we’ll be overwhelmed.”

“Tell your new buddies relief is on its way.”

“I already told them you’re out there kicking ass, sir. It really helped morale.”

“Good. I’m pursuing the ground troops as they withdraw. Maybe I can take out their dropships, or at least gather some intel. Straker out.” He was already bounding low across the surface, keeping a sharp watch above his head with his ADA lasers activated and charged. This took extra power, but the beams—too weak to knock anything down, but good enough to blind sensors—were vital to his survival. They fired automatically from time to time as anything came close from above, and now and again he sent a force-cannon bolt skyward.

If he’d been the Opter commander on the spot, he’d have sent an overwhelming force—say, a hundred drones—to pound Straker from the air. He suspected that there wasn’t really an Opter commander in the human sense, though—not one that could adjust to surprises and give radically different orders. The Opters seemed poor at improvisation, or even at identifying what was important, when a Queen wasn’t around.

By contrast, both human empires had tried to incubate a thoroughly competent chain of command, from the lowest corporal through the highest flag officer, so every leader could take over in a pinch.

Of course, it was almost certain that the Opters didn’t know Derek Straker, the Liberator, occupied the pesky mechsuit. If they had, they might have done whatever it took to get him. It wasn’t undue pride that made him think so. He knew his value to the Liberation movement, if mainly to its spirit and direction.

He might have killed a few more of the retreating enemies, especially those slowed by obvious damage, but he chose to observe. He wasn’t sure how truly hidden he was, but there was no need to give the Opters help in targeting him, especially if their dropships had better sensors than their cannon fodder.

He peeked between two rocks at the crest of a low ridge to see the vehicles boarding, not the squat, blocky lifters he expected, but heavy fighter drones. It appeared the spacecraft each carried one armored vehicle in a conformal bay.

This may have explained the cars’ and tanks’ expendability. They were more in the nature of add-ons than true ground formations, utility vehicles used to seize or destroy certain targets on missions much as a human ship’s marines might perform. Probably only a limited number of the heavy fighters were so equipped.

Straker recorded everything, but didn’t bother to try to attack. His force-cannon wouldn’t penetrate the fighters’ armor at this distance, while their weapons might take him out with one lucky shot.

He tried to open a datalink to Trinity. It took half a minute, but eventually he was able to access a read-only feed.

From what he could sort out from the blizzard of information, not only was the AI-run ship destroying Opters by the dozen, but she was disrupting them badly with direct hacking attacks. No doubt they would improve their countermeasures later, but for now, there was a bubble around Trinity that no Opter could seem to penetrate. It must be defined by the nanoseconds of lightspeed within which, if the critters got too close, the AI’s hacking could overcome any defenses.

Straker chuckled. Cybernetic bug repellent. That’s what it was.

This went far toward explaining why Trinity and Rhinoceros hadn’t been overwhelmed. By standing back to back, as it were, the thick-skinned armored dinosaur of space and the slashing bird of prey had managed to fend off all comers.

This didn’t mean they remained pristine. Trinity’s system status telltales showed at least half yellow and red. Many of her weapons were down, and her armor, never thick in the first place, had enough holes to fill a Sachsen whorehouse.

Rhino looked even worse. Parts of her burned with stubborn oxygen fires, and most of her weaponry was gone. What looked like insectoid battlesuiters crawled on her surface or entered her skin through rents in her armor. As Straker watched, an explosion gouted plasma into space, perhaps from a mine or bomb set by the Opter marines.

Trinity continued to orbit the monitor, stripping away attackers wherever she could, but she was only one ship, and despite her valiant defense, she was losing the fight.

Straker cursed at himself, trying to figure out what he could do. He could use his drop jets to blast out into space, but his mechsuit was no fighter. Without cover or maneuverability, he’d be shot to pieces in short order.

“Trinity, how close are Gray’s ships?” he asked, desperate for hope and good news.

“They’ve already begun arriving, but only corvettes in numbers. They’ve been unable to reach us.”

“What about the frigates and destroyers?”

“They’re minutes from engagement. Even then, it will take time to fight through.”

“If you can hold on for just a little longer—”

“I am aware of this fact, Admiral Straker. No amount of encouragement or micromanagement on your part will change the situation. You can’t do anything to help.”

“The hell I can’t. Straker out.”

But Straker had no idea how to make good on his words. He just knew he couldn’t sit on his ass and do nothing.

He turned his attention back to the Opter heavy fighters retrieving their ground elements. There was one per tank or scout car, and as each vehicle locked into place, the aerospace craft took off.

One light tank lagged behind the rest, struggling with damaged tracks. It gave him an idea.

He worked his way around the flank to a position directly astern of the grounded fighter, the most likely place it lacked sensor coverage. He then crept up on it, staying as low as possible, using the rocky terrain for concealment.

When the struggling tank got close to its fighter, and was turning itself this way and that, trying to line up to enter its small deployment bay, Straker rushed forward. He scooped up a five-ton boulder on the way and smashed the tank’s turret with it from behind, gambling that this would destroy any of its sensors and antennas, and possibly stun the driver. With any luck, from the fighter pilot’s point of view, the tank would simply go dark.

He had no idea whether the fighter had sensors so close to its skin. Everything he’d seen about these Opters suggested rugged simplicity, with few extra systems. Their philosophy seemed to be that everything was expendable. This was highly efficient when lives were cheap and numerous.

Biologically, much of humanity’s instinct to value people came from the steep investment in each human—twenty years or so until adulthood and usefulness to society, with enormous amounts of education for any technical role. Opter drone pilots, on the other hand, probably developed much faster, and, he guessed, needed only enough training to fight and die for their Queens.

Straker quickly dragged the tank closer to the fighter, hoping this would make it appear as if the vehicle were still trying to get aboard. When it was close, he shoved it into a small depression, and then scooped up rocks and soil to bury it under a shallow layer of surface material.

Then he stepped aboard in its place and braced himself in the deployment bay.

Would the pilot have sensors inside his bay? Or would the creature merely have telltales that told it when the tank was aboard? Or perhaps only something simple, like pressure detectors in the deck? That tank looked to mass about the same as his mechsuit, perhaps fifty tons.

And if the pilot wasn’t fooled, well, at least he could tear the fighter apart from the inside.

Straker waited a long moment.

And then another.

Finally, the fighter rocked a bit and lifted.

Straker watched the ground fall away beneath him. He was braced in the bay, facing outward like a paratrooper in an aircraft’s exit door waiting for the command to jump. The bright stars of space spun across his visual field, clouded by the sparkles of drives and thrusters and weapons fire.

Where would the Opter fighter go? Would it flee for the Nest Ships waiting far off? He thought not—not unless they believed they’d lost the battle. No, there were still a few minutes until the trickle of Republic ships became a flood. The Opters still had a chance to finish off the monitor, and Trinity, and overwhelm the Beta-2 base.

His gamble paid off. As he’d hoped, within seconds the fighter climbed and maneuvered to drop its combat vehicle on the skin of Rhinoceros. Only, that combat vehicle was Straker.

When he planted his magnetized feet on the armored hull of the monitor, he sent a force cannon bolt into the fighter’s guts, in the direction he figured the pilot should be. The hot jet of plasma cut deep and fires began to burn.

Straker placed both gauntlets against the stricken fighter and shoved. He was happy to see it drift and begin to tumble, apparently dead. “Thanks for the ride, bug-buddy.” He chuckled.

The burn of a beam on his skin reminded him how exposed he was out here on the hull. It would be stupid beyond measure to try to fight across the naked plain of the monitor’s curving hull, with every fighter in his line of sight—and he in theirs.

Quickly, he ran for the nearest rent in the armor and dove into the ship’s interior. Now, he was in his element.

Straker began to kill Opters.

He hunted the bugs though the interior for five long hours. It didn’t matter that he fought Opters in Opter battlesuits. Battlesuits of any kind were simply no match for him. He was a giant among pygmies, with weapons that killed with one shot, one thought. Tanks couldn’t have operated inside the monitor, but a mechsuit could.

Sometimes he had to crouch. Sometimes he ripped through walls. Sometimes he wished his suit was half its size—but always, always, he slaughtered them as he found them.

He relieved, and then led, scattered and demoralized groups of marines. They accreted around him like lost souls around a savior. He was an angel, the only one that could lead them out of Hell. Though weary, they followed him, supported him, guarded his back.

Long before they killed the last bug, Commodore Gray’s capital ships turned the tide of battle. When it became obvious they would lose, the drone fleets turned as if of one mind and fled, saving as many as they could. Gray’s grim warriors, angered at their losses, pursued them, killing all they could, until the Nest Ships fled into sidespace.

 Gray’s flagship, too slow to chase the enemy drones, boarded Rhinoceros with her own marines. Once his ship was secured, Commodore Pearson landed his sorely wounded monitor on the moon’s surface, which allowed base forces and repair vehicles easy access.

Straker and the surviving marines soon stood proudly on top of the enormous ship as if upon a metal hill, surveying the battlefield. Most of the ground turrets, strongpoints and facilities of the shipyards remained intact, preserved by the tenacious defense of the heroic monitor crew and Trinity. Fleet ships cruised above in formation, and the moon’s landscape swarmed with activity.

Away, on the horizon, he noticed a similar metal hill, and a line of vehicles heading toward it. He remembered there had been two monitors. That must be Hippopotamus, Rhino’s fallen sister ship. He silently saluted her hulk for a moment and hoped there were survivors.

Commodore Gray comlinked from her flagship. “Congratulations, Liberator,” she said, her voice devoid of its usual faint disapproval. “You managed to hold.”

“We managed,” he replied. “Thank Trinity and Pearson’s people—and yours. Everybody fought hard today. Unfortunately, there are plenty of good men and women to add to the rolls of our fallen heroes.”

“This is a private comlink, Admiral. No need for speeches.”

“It’s how I feel, Ellen. If that’s a speech, okay, I’ll own it. Now what did you call about?”

“I’ve got someone for you to meet.”

“Oh? Who?”

He never could have predicted her answer. “An Opter defector.”

 

Chapter 4

 

Straker, on the surface of moon Beta-2

 

Commodore Gray continued her surprising comlink report to Straker about the Opter defector. “He says he wants to talk to you, and you only.”

Straker considered for a moment. “He, huh? It’s male?”

“No doubt.” Gray seemed amused by something.

“Send him to Trinity. I’ll meet him there. Straker out.”

He then called Trinity for pickup.

The Opter defector was brought aboard in shackles, snug duranium bracelets and anklets linked with chains. A heavy, treaded maintenance robot held a portion of the chain with one metal claw.

Straker had expected an insectoid creature, but this looked like an ordinary man, standing there in Trinity’s wardroom, unassuming, of average height and build, with dark brown hair and faintly golden skin, well within the norms for the many variations of humanity.

Only his eyes seemed unusual: calm and serene, but still sharp, as if they saw everything around him. Those eyes rested on each being in the room in turn—Nolan, Zaxby, Redwolf, and then Straker, who sat with a welcome mug of caff in his fist.

“Have a seat,” said Straker, gesturing. “You want a drink?”

“Anything with caffeine,” the man said in an ordinary tone. He sat and folded his shackled hands on the table in front of him. When he was given a mug of caff, he sipped at it with evident satisfaction.

Straker had the odd impression the fellow considered himself unrestrained. He certainly didn’t act like a prisoner. He wasn’t defiant. He wasn’t subservient. He simply… was.

“I’m Derek Straker,” he said. “They call me the Liberator. Who are you?”

“My designation is Myrmidon. You can call me Don if you like.” The man’s voice seemed very ordinary, with an Earthan accent hard to place.

“You claimed to be an Opter, but you look human?”

“As do you, Liberator, though you’re almost as far from original human stock as I. It appears you’ve been infused with Opter biotech.”

Straker sat back in mild puzzlement. “Not quite. I was infected with the HOC parasite, but I took the antidote before it ran its course.”

“And where do you think the Mutuality obtained the HOC parasite?”

Straker’s mind reeled.

Zaxby, Nolan and Indy all tried to speak at once, demonstrating that they weren’t quite as integrated as Straker believed. Zaxby won out by dint of throwing himself into the seat next to the prisoner and talking to him from a range of centimeters. “I knew it! I knew the Mutuality’s demonstrated biological expertise was insufficient to create something like the Hok. Otherwise, there would not only be Hok, but all sorts of other biotech options for its citizens—such as rejuvenation, or physical alterations for unusual environments, or—”

Straker interrupted loudly, reaching to shove Zaxby aside. “Pardon the annoying squid brainiac, Mister Myrmidon. So Opter biotech made the Hok? Why?”

“Call me Don, please. Because the Mutuality was losing to the Hundred Worlds at the time. The Sarmok faction gave them the biotech to balance the scales, disguised as a natural discovery on a newly explored planet. It was untraceable to the Opters, and of course the Mutuality Party oligarchs embraced anything that gave them greater control of over their own citizenry… as any government naturally would.”

“Yes… it was a win-win for people like that,” Straker said, eyes unfocused. “If a citizen couldn’t be ‘re-educated,’ he’d be turned into a Hok battle slave.” He folded his hands and placed his elbows on the table, leaning forward to focus on Myrmidon—or Don, as he seemed to want to be called. “And the Opters did this to keep the Huns from winning?”

“Yes.”

Straker thought about this for a moment. “How long have Opters been interfering in human affairs, encouraging them to fight each other? Balancing the scales, as you say?” He snapped his fingers. “And the nectar. That’s just one more way of screwing with us, I bet. How long?”

“For centuries.”

“Why?”

“I believe you already know the answer.”

“I can guess.” Zaxby opened his mouth, but Straker nodded to Nolan. Maybe letting the woman speak for Trinity would curb some of Zaxby’s verbal outbursts. “Can you?”

Nolan’s pale green eyes blinked. “To keep humanity weak and busy fighting itself.” She turned to Don. “Only it didn’t work as expected, did it?”

“Not in the long run, no. Every gift to one side or the other, every convenient, well-timed breakthrough—and there were many—restored the balance, but the tension between the two human sides kept military technology advancing. If not for the failure of the promise of AI, the progress curve would have turned exponential, as was expected hundreds of years ago. However, this technological singularity never occurred. Instead, humans kept breeding and spreading from world to world. Opters and other species couldn’t compete. It was a dilemma.”

“So what changed after so long?” asked Straker. “Why attack us now?”

Don stared and blinked at Straker. His eyebrows rose slightly.

After a long moment, Straker got it. “Me. Or at least, the Liberation. I’ve upset the balance. We have a real shot at unifying humanity now, and you Opters can’t stand that idea.”

“Not all Opters. The Sarmok faction.”

“What’s this Sarmok faction?”

“There are two major factions within our species. The Sarmok is dominant, but not all-powerful, composing approximately five-sixths of our people. They border human space. The Miskor is the other faction. They are located on the other side of Opter territory.”

“And you’re one of those Miskors,” said Nolan, approaching Myrmidon to lay a hand on his shoulder.

The man—if such he were—seemed to take no notice of the touch, and spoke. “I am Miskor. I’ve been embedded for years among the Sarmok, gathering information.”

“So you’re an internal spy,” said Straker. “An operative.”

“I am.”

“Then how can we trust you?”

“I don’t expect you to. I expect you to verify everything I say. Without my information, though, you’re likely to make grave missteps. I don’t think you wish to court a general war with the Opters.”

“You don’t call this battle the start of a serious war?”

Myrmidon smiled faintly. “This was an independent raid, tacitly approved by the Sarmok and conducted by some of the most belligerent Nests. If justification is ever needed, it will be claimed either that these Nests acted as rogues, or that they were attempting to aid the legitimate Mutuality government against the Liberation rebels.”

“Fake reports. Propaganda, lies and politics,” Straker spat. “I hate politics.”

“But you’re a warrior, and war is politics by other means. Across the galaxy, life’s base impulse is to spread and grow and ruthlessly dominate its neighbors, to its own benefit.”

“That sounds like a miserable view of things.”

“It is,” said Don, “ though I said this is life’s base impulse. With sentience comes morality, which regulates the ruthlessness of the jungle. A sufficiently advanced species will endeavor to think honestly and act morally.”

“That doesn’t describe most species I know.”

“Precisely. While enlightenment is a goal, it’s also a journey.”

Straker snorted. “Now you’re talking in cryptic mumbo-jumbo, like my Kung Jiu instructors.”

“Do you have writing materials?” Don asked.

Zaxby reached into a drawer and retrieved a pad and stylus, activating its analog graphics feature before placing it in front of Myrmidon. The Opter-man scribbled with the stylus for a moment, and then turned it to show Straker a list of mathematical equations.

“Yeah, so?”

“To you, that’s cryptic mumbo-jumbo. But to this Ruxin here, whom I perceive to be a technician or scientist, it is—”

“—a rather elegant proof of Ridzo’s fifth theorem!” Zaxby cried, seizing the pad in three tentacles and holding it as if precious. “It’s not the first proof I’ve seen, but it is undoubtedly the most elegant! I must record this and distribute it to my network of Ruxin colleagues—”

Straker crossed his arms. “Great, point made. You have to know things to know more things. But you also have to translate your obscure higher principles into actions that help people in the real world. That’s what I’m doing. I’m liberating people from oppression. I can’t tell them how to live after that. In fact, I don’t want to keep intervening—unless they start up with the oppression and subjugation again.”

Don folded his hands again. “That’s a fine goal, but even if you succeed in the short term, you’ll only be putting out fires.”

“Then the fires will be out. Call me a fireman. I know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m not a builder or a ruler.”

“What if you could be more than you are?”

Straker shrugged. “What if I don’t want to be?”

“Then there’d nothing more to be said on the subject.”

“Fine.” Straker stood. “Trinity, debrief him fully. Verify as much of his story as you can, and then turn him over to Fleet Intelligence for further interrogation.”

Don stood as well. “I’ll provide all the information I can, but sending me to rot in some think-tank is an unwise use of my skills.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” Straker nodded at Nolan, and she followed as the robot marched the chained man-thing out of the room toward the ship’s tiny brig.

He turned to Zaxby. “What do you think?”

“He seems to be as human as you are. Indy has a full suite of biometric sensors on him and could sense no deception. However, we don’t know his capabilities. Perhaps he could lie and show no sign.”

“He seems sincere—and what he said about meddling with humans is plausible. Obvious, even, in hindsight.”

Zaxby blinked all four eyes in sequence. “It may also explain my own people’s subjugation by humans.”

“You weren’t any more subjugated than humans were to other humans.”

“It may seem so to you. You never had to deal with the bullying, the taunts, the mean-spirited abuse from your adolescent fellow cadets at Academy, who knew they would never be as capable.”

Straker snorted. “Oh, yes I did take that crap—many times. They knew I was destined to be a top mechsuiter, and some resented it. But I bet you brought a lot of it on yourself by acting superior and snooty.”

“I am superior.”

“And snooty. But people don’t like their noses rubbed in it.”

“Fortunately, I have no nose.”

“But they do. Why don’t you think with some of your Trinity brain for a while and try to see things from other points of view? I’m sure Miss Nolan has a lot of insight into humans.”

“That’s a good idea. I am constantly amazed by your lack of stupidity, Derek Straker.”

“And I’m constantly amazed that, even brainlinked to an AI and a human, you haven’t improved your people-skills.”

“Thank you,” Zaxby said primly.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“I believe it was. It’s also ironic, coming from you. I never heard anyone laud your people skills.”

Straker sighed. “Forget it. I’m totally beat. Gonna catch a nap. Hold any comlinks. Wake me up in three hours and I’ll read the debrief.”

Later, fresh mug of caff in hand, Straker read over the written summary of the defector’s debrief, and then read it again. It appeared Myrmidon’s story checked out, as far as Trinity could tell. More interesting, he’d provided an enormous amount of useful intelligence on Opter territory, technology and weaponry.

Everything Straker saw worried him.

He carried the handtab and mug to the brig. The door unlocked and opened with a push of his elbow. Of course, Trinity controlled everything aboard her body. Or Indy did. Whatever. He couldn’t figure out where one began and the other ended.

Inside, he sat facing Don, who still wore his chains like jewelry rather than shackles. “I’m amazed at this windfall of intel,” Straker said, holding up his handtab. “What made you decide to betray your people?”

“I’m not betraying my people. I’m attempting to restore balance. Opters revere balance, elevating it to a spiritual significance. Like many revered spiritual values, however, it’s often sacrificed by those greedy for gain.”

“So you’re acting for the greater good. I understand that. I’m thinking about doing some things that my old chain of command in the Hundred Worlds would consider treasonous, though I deem them to be for the greater good. Yet, giving us all this intel could lose a lot of Opter lives…”

Myrmidon shrugged. “Opter Nests don’t hold the lives of individual members in high regard. Losing warriors, workers or technicians is analogous to a corporation losing machinery. The Nest is the valued entity, not the member.”

“I’d guessed that, from your tactics. But you might lose whole Nests, if it comes to war.”

“We may.”

Straker tossed the handtab on the table, rubbed his jaw and thought. “But since you’re Miskor, from the underdog faction, you don’t necessarily mind if the Sarmok take some hits. It will bring things closer to the balance you like.”

“Very astute. That’s one consideration.”

“What’s another?”

“We believe the current Sarmok intentions to be immoral, intended to subjugate or, if necessary, wipe out the majority of your species.”

“We, the Miskor?”

“Yes.”

Straker sighed. “This is all pretty convenient, this story you’ve told me. It’s plausible, it’s consistent, and it’s seductive. I want to believe it. But it could also be a complete illusion, a setup and a scam intended to get me and the New Earthan Republic to act a certain way.”

Don spread his hands to barely less than the limits of his chains. “You’ll have to decide for yourself.”

“Oh, I will. But here’s another question. Why are you so smooth? Why aren’t you like other aliens? Even someone like Zaxby, who’s been around humans much of his life, doesn’t act like one. Nobody would ever guess you’re an Opter.”

The Opter-man took a deep breath and sighed. “I suppose it’s because I’ve been studying the human worlds all my life. I’ve lived among you off and on for years, immersed in your civilization. Culture matters more than the body or its appearance. Opters can use biotech to reshape bodies at will—which renders the body largely irrelevant as a marker of identity. In every way that matters, I am human.”

Straker pointed a finger at Don. “That’s exactly what I mean. Smooth. You got an answer for everything, and that’s what bothers me. In fact, the one flaw in your perfect humanity is that you’re too perfect, too stereotypically human—because real people are never as poised and perfect as you are. But con men are.”

Myrmidon shrugged. “A catch-22, then. If I made mistakes, you’d see them as evidence of deception or untruth. If I don’t, you see that fact as evidence of deception or untruth. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

“Another perfect answer.”

“That’s how you perceive it. I am a more advanced soul than you are.” Don said this without a hint of smugness, as if merely stating a fact.

Straker’s answer dripped sarcasm. “Oh? Really?”

“Yes. Just as you’re above a recruit at boot camp. The recruit doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know, and at first must be convinced of his fundamental ignorance.”

“True wisdom is to know you know nothing.” Straker rubbed an eye and sipped his cooling caff. “Socrates.”

“Among others.”

“But I always thought that was bullshit. I know what I know, and it ain’t nothing.”

“But you have no inkling of what you don’t know. For example, you not only didn’t know the Opters were an enemy, you didn’t even know Opters existed until recently—nor did you know you should care, and how they influenced your life. One key to success is to expect to be surprised at all times.”

“If you expect to be surprised, you can’t be surprised. Okay, fair enough. But how does that get us anywhere now? How can I trust what you say?”

“Seeing is believing.”

“Meaning what?”

“I can take you to the Opter space. You can walk among us as I do.”

Straker’s eyes widened. “What, they’re gonna let a human just roam around?”

“You still misperceive. No, they will not let a human roam around, but they will let an Opter do so. I am Opter. The bipedal form of a human I wear is of little relevance. Bipeds have been incorporated into the Nests and Hives over the last few centuries, just as the workers and warriors and other specialized Facets were over the preceding millennia.” Myrmidon smiled. “If we can turn humans into Hok in the space of days, we can certainly turn them into Opters. And breed our own.”

Straker shuddered involuntarily at the horror of a biotech that would steal people’s humanity. He’d gotten used to the idea of the Hok, but only by ignoring its deeper implications.

Now, he had to face those implications. Even more than the threat of conquest, these Opters could corrupt and change what made people human.

What made him human.

What made Straker himself.

Were those the same thing, though?

“Trinity, you listening?” Straker asked.

“I am.”

“Send out a message to your brainiac network, all the labs and biologists and so on. Get working on a vaccine, something to protect people from Hok and Opter biotech. If we already have one, make sure it gets distributed and that people are vaccinated.”

“That will be an enormous undertaking across a thousand systems—a matter of years.”

“Then the sooner it gets started, the better.”

“I will pass the message.” Trinity’s voice seemed to express doubt, but Straker didn’t care. His job was to get people to do what needed to be done, not tell them how to do it.

“That’s a wise precaution, but the Sarmok can create endless new strains that will get around any vaccine,” said Myrmidon.

“Move and countermove. It will be a biological war. Don’t forget, we humans have engineered some pretty nasty diseases ourselves. We’ve wiped out whole species of bugs on our planets.”

Myrmidon raised a palm slightly. “You don’t need to convince me. I’m working toward peace and balance.”

“Too bad that usually means fighting a war first.”

“You mouth platitudes of peace, Liberator, but you love war.”

Straker’s eyes narrowed, but he considered before answering. “Part of me does. I was bred to be a weapon, genetically enhanced for it. Everybody likes to do something they’re good at. I bet you love this secret-agent stuff, even if you claim you wish it weren’t needed. But we’re both smart enough to look past what personally gives us our hard-ons, and work for the greater good—right?”

“Right.”

“Then let’s go.”

Myrmidon raised his eyebrows. “Go?”

“To your people. I need to see for myself. That’s what you said.”

“I have an Opter ship hidden among the asteroids. It’s stealthy and sidespace-capable.”

“Will your ship hold two?” Straker asked.

“It will.”

“How long is the trip?”

“At least twelve days each way, and you should plan for a few weeks of observation.”

“So, call it two months minimum.” Straker stood. “Does it matter what I bring along?”

“No. I’ll provide all you need.”

“Then I’ll meet you at the airlock in one hour.”

Chapter 5

 

Engels, three days later, New Earth

 

Commodore Carla Engels sat at the head of the Indomitable’s main conference room, surrounded by fellow officers—ship captains, squadron commanders, aides and even admirals of the former Mutuality, now New Earthan Republic, navy.

Yet she felt alone.

Well, except for the aides. Those aides—mostly Ruxins and humans, but also two elephant-trunked Huphlor, a lizard-like Suslon, and even a Thorian wrapped in his rad suit—were present in the flesh. The others were holograms, but the only proof of this was their lack of substance. Their holovid and audio were flawless.

 Engels, seeing Indomitable’s inability to reassemble in time and reach the battle at the Murmorsk inner worlds of M-3 and M-4, had decided to keep the battleship separated and ready for transit. When she’d been unable to sway Straker from his insanely hazardous course to visit Opter space in person—when had she ever been able to talk him out of anything?—she ordered Commodore Gray and the fleet back to New Earth, formerly Unison.

Now, Indomitable hung in orbit above the New Earthan capital, the rest of the fleet within easy transmission range. After a quick consultation with retired admiral Benota, Minister of War, she’d ordered this meeting to assemble.

Yes, ordered—never mind that she had no genuine statutory authority to do so. She was just a jumped-up ship captain, and all she really had going for her was her status as the Liberator’s wife, good right hand and space tactician.

But she and Benota had a plan for that… and if Straker didn’t like it, well that was too damned bad. Running off for two or three months meant he didn’t get a say.

Engels rapped a gavel on the table, and the holographic conferencing system transmitted the action flawlessly to every other location in the secure network, where the attendees sat. “I call this council of war to order,” she said as the chatter died. “I yield the floor to Minister Benota.”

“Thank you, Commodore. Our first order of business is settling the chain of command.” The large, florid man, now dressed in a simple civilian suit, glanced at a row of more than thirty admirals and generals, formerly of the Mutuality. They’d had many days to think about their status—bureaucratically frozen by the new Senate’s Reorganization Edicts—and where they would end up in the new regime. If there was resistance, now was when it would manifest.

Benota continued, “Right now, all of you flag officers have your positions, your staffs, your privileges—and your pensions—according to the Edicts. Before I continue, does anyone wish to retire at your current rank and grade? If so, simply indicate that fact and leave this meeting. You’ll be a private citizen within weeks. No? Last chance, ladies and gentlemen.”

Nobody moved.

“All right, let it be on your own heads then.” Benota picked up a hardcopy folder. “I have here the new flag staff table of organization, confirmed by the Senate. All but the following three of you are mandatorily retired at the grade of Flag One, regardless of former rank: Devereux, Kapuchin, Lubang. The rest will be processed out immediately.”

Benota waited for the howls of protest to subside. “You will note in your copy that you may appeal this action through the usual channels. Thank you, and goodbye.” All but the three designated flag officers winked out, disconnected from the hololink.

“Good riddance,” Benota muttered.

“Will they cause trouble?” asked Commodore Gray, sitting to Engels’ right.

“I knew they wouldn’t volunteer to retire, so I gave the Hok in their offices specific instructions to immediately distribute my orders in writing to all the staff. They’ll escort them off the premises and revoke their security clearances and access.” He smiled a wintry smile. “I’d like to see them start trouble.”

“Seems a bit highhanded,” Gray replied.

Benota waved airily. “I am but a humble servant of the duly elected Senate, carrying out their orders. Don’t worry, Commodore—or should I say, Admiral—Gray. It’s all legal.”

Gray lifted a dark eyebrow. “Admiral?”

“Yes, in charge of the new Home Fleet. Does that suit you?”

Gray glanced at Engels, who grinned. “I nominated you. Think you can handle it?”

“I can.”

“Good.”

“But what about you… Commodore?” Gray asked.

Engels turned to Benota. “Yes, Wen, what about me?”

Benota made a production of looking in the folder. “Ah, yes, here it is. Given that you’re the Liberator’s wife, we couldn’t very well—”

“Screw that, Minister,” Engels snapped, playing her part. “I’ve earned my place on my own. My relationship to Derek Straker is a separate issue. What’s the will of the Senate?” She held her breath waiting to see if Benota would follow through on what he agreed—or if the Senate had allowed him to.

“How does Fleet Admiral sound?” Benota said.

Genuinely surprised, she smiled. “What’s that mean?”

“It means you’ll be the senior operational naval officer in the Republic. Top dog in the field.”

 “Woof.” Engels’ forced herself not to gape. She’d expected a big promotion, but to be given the whole Fleet… She shook herself and straightened. “Okay, I… I accept. But will the rest of the chain of command?”

“For now, the Hok follow the Senate’s orders through me. We’re at war, under martial law, and I’m the Minister of War.”

Engels’ eyes narrowed in suspicion. Was her promotion some kind of payoff, to get her to go along? “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

“Latin? ‘Who…’”

“Who watches the watchers,” she said. “What keeps you from being a dictator?”

Benota spread his hands. “The same thing that conquered the Mutuality. You, Indomitable, and the rest of your military forces. Commander Paloco and the Breakers are here in the capital, not to mention your marines and your ships above us. The Hok are compliant to my orders, but there are nowhere near enough of them to actually enforce my will on more than this one planet. The rest of our brave new Republic has to believe itself legitimately governed. I suggest that unless you want to go running from planet to planet with that battleship threatening to bomb everyone back to the Stone Age, you have to trust me to knock the heads and herd the cats while you worry about our next big problem.”

“Which is?”

“The Hundred Worlds. They’re gobbling up our systems as fast as they can while we’re barely able to defend our Committee Worlds—our Central Worlds, I mean—from this new Opter threat. We need to work fast to raise new forces, and plan for a war on two fronts if necessary.” Benota scowled. “Liberation won’t mean much if all Straker did was set us up to be conquered by the Huns and the bugs.”

“The Huns haven’t responded to our overtures for a truce and talks?”

“They’re stalling while they grab more territory—and frankly, our local forces aren’t fighting all that hard. They feel off-balance and defeated by the Liberation anyway. The Huns don’t look so bad.”

Engels scowled and bared her teeth. “I’d have thought they’d be overjoyed to get out from under the Inquisitors and want to defend their newfound freedom.”

“The border worlds have been fought over so much, the people are war-weary. With the fear of repression gone, many of them actually want the Huns to come in with their big money and their entertainments—or that’s what they hope. They see the propaganda broadcasts that makes the Hundred Worlds look like a consumerist paradise.” Benota sighed. “That’s always been the Mutuality’s dilemma—patriotism goes only so far in the face of perpetual misery and fear. The citizenry’s spirit has collapsed. I’m afraid our brand-new Republic may collapse with it—especially with the Liberator off on this… reconnaissance mission.”

Engels held back a sharp retort. Benota was right, damn him, on every point.

The only silver lining to this storm cloud was the fact that the new Republic was just so damned big. Even if the Hundred Worlds gobbled up a hundred more, the old Mutuality still had a thousand systems to draw from. She was beginning to see why the war lasted so long.

“We can’t help where Straker chooses to go and for how long, so let’s get past that and do what needs doing,” she said. “Distro the rest of that reorg plan if you please, Minister. We’ll reconvene in an hour to discuss operations.”

“Operations?”

“As you said, we have to fight the Hundred Worlds. With Straker gone, I’m the supreme field commander, and I intend to give the Huns a punch in the nose that will bring them to their senses.”

 

* * *

 

“Display Calypso System, and zoom in on C1, the first planet,” Admiral Engels said when the holo-conference resumed.

The table lit up with a detailed depiction of an unusual star system. A curved streamer of dense gas millions of kilometers long reached out from the primary, a small orange sun. At its end it thickened into a ball.

The ball had at its core a supermassive gas giant, which was slowly eating the plasma the star fed it. At some point in the last few million years, the planet had swung close to the star, and its gravity had plucked at its corona like a child unrolling a skein of cotton candy. Soon enough—perhaps within only a few hundred thousand years—the gas-eater would gain enough mass to ignite into a star of its own.

Within the nimbus of swirling gas around the planet hung a gargantuan orbital fuel processing facility, by far the largest ever built—covering a captured asteroid moonlet over one hundred kilometers across.

 “Felicity Station,” Engels said. “No other fuel factory is as big or as efficient, because nowhere else do we find this concentration of rich gas just floating in space. Easy access to a variety of hydrogen isotopes and byproducts. It supplies half the Republic military with high-grade fuel and exotic elements—and it refines the thickest known stream of antimatter anywhere. They collect over ten kilograms a year there, one atom at a time.”

Admiral Gray whistled. “That would make one hell of a bomb.”

“That would be wasteful,” said Zaxby, who was running the holo-table. “Antimatter has many useful qualities for research and engineering. Destroying it to obtain an explosion that could just as well be generated by a fusion device would be foolish.”

“Like using diamonds for bullets,” Engels agreed. “The point is, this is a valuable facility, and it’s in the path of the Huns’ advance. They’ve been methodically absorbing systems so far, playing it safe by taking and securing each in turn rather than striking deep into our territory, so I’m confident in the timeline of their arrival, plus or minus a few days.”

Captain Zholin, now assigned as commander of the superdreadnought Stuttgart, spoke up. “So we meet them there and stop their advance—at least along that axis. But I’ve been studying the intelligence reports. There are nineteen separate Hun fleets, each taking a system every few days or weeks. Turning them back at one place won’t solve the problem.”

“I don’t intend to turn them back, Captain Zholin.” Engels smacked her fist into her palm. “I intend to crush them. I haven’t trained for war my whole life just to play interstellar chess with fleets—a game we’re losing.”

Admiral Gray raised her eyebrows. “Now you’re sounding like Straker.”

“I learned from his wins—and his mistakes. This isn’t the Liberation, where we’re trying to incite people to rebellion and get them on our side. This is straight-up war, and we have to press our few advantages.”

“What advantages?”

“Indomitable, for one. Two, our certainty they will strike Felicity Station at Calypso. Three, the time we have to prepare. It’s our home ground, and they’ll be operating at the end of their supply lines.” Engels sighed. “I once thought the Hundred Worlds was always the pious defender and would make peace when the opportunity presented itself, but our new Senate’s sent a dozen official messages to their Parliament and received no response but continued conquest.”

“It’s hard to get people to talk when they think they can win by force,” said Benota.

The Ruxin War Male Dexon stirred his tentacles. “‘War is politics by other means,’ the human Carl von Clausewitz said. He also said the target of our efforts must be the enemy’s will to fight. This is why the Liberation was successful. We broke the Mutuality’s will, even while a thousand worlds remained militarily untouched.”

“That’s right, Commodore Dexon,” Engels replied. “And I intend to conduct some violent ‘politics’ in order to target the Huns’ will to fight. Ladies and gentlemen, please clear the room of all but flag officers.”

Zaxby stood as if to go, but Engels waved him down. “Not you.”

“So I’m a flag officer?”

Engels humphed. “Trinity is unique. Let’s call you a special advisor to the Admiral of the Fleet—if you want the job.”

“We would be honored. Well,” he said hastily, “I’m not, but Marisa is, and Indy seems impressed, though she is young. I, however, have worked with many admirals, and am not easily dazzled by rank and status. I—”

“And to think I was worried your annoying individuality could possibly be drowned in a group-mind,” Engels deadpanned. “Zaxby, run that sim of my plan, would you?”

 

* * *

 

When Engels presented her plan, the room fell silent. The senior officers seemed to ponder.

Or maybe, she thought, she’d shocked them.

Their sudden protests confirmed it. Even the usually phlegmatic Benota had opened his mouth, though he’d shut it again with a grimace as others babbled. Engels stood and waved them to silence. “Don’t try to tell me it can’t be done. Tell me the problems, and then tell me how to solve them. Who first?”

That slowed them down. They all looked at each other as if deciding who would be the naysayer. Zaxby’s tentacles seemed to twitch, and then grow still. Engels wondered if that was the other parts of Trinity overriding his natural chattiness. “Zaxby, you have something? Trinity?”

“We have run a detailed analysis of your plan, Admiral Engels, and can present it at this time.”

“You can work with the staff on the details later. For now, what’s the top problem—and its solution?”

“Obviously, ships, especially escorts—destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. The battle with the Opters, though a victory of sorts, was costly. Over one hundred escort ships destroyed and two hundred more damaged. Over nine thousand trained crew killed.”

“But we didn’t lose any capital ships.”

“That is fortunate—but that has only exacerbated the divide between the neglected and overburdened escort classes.” Zaxby turned to Marisa Nolan, who rose from her seat among the now-absent staffers. “Doctor?”

The slender, ethereally pale woman stepped forward. “Morale among our naval escort corps is on the verge of collapse. The Mutuality treated their personnel badly, used them as a dumping ground for problems and assigned them every dirty job, such as military suppression of dissent. Combined with overwork and lack of maintenance, we might as well say that, as a fighting force, they’re now nonexistent. They gave the last full measure against the Opters—yet, there’s no relief in sight.”

“We should rotate personnel from the capital ships and the reserves,” said Admiral Gray. “Step up recruitment and training. Raise pay and bonuses.”

“That takes money,” replied Minister Benota drily. “Our new Senate is already agitating for tax relief and elimination of odious regulations, in the name of liberation. It seems the people want the freedom Straker promised—but they don’t want to pay for it.”

“Not my problem,” snapped Engels. “The Senate will have to come up with the money somehow—unless they want the Huns to gobble up everything.”

“It is our problem, Admiral,” Nolan replied. “I’ve been among bureaucrats for over eighty years. Zaxby is almost two hundred, and Indy processes thought faster than either of us. Together, Trinity assesses that our war efforts will soon fail—not from lack of tactical leadership, or even of military strategy, but from economics and governance. That’s always the Hundred Worlds’ advantage. The Republic has inherited a collectivist system that barely functions. We need years, perhaps decades, to reinvent ourselves. Barring that, we need a government that knows how to get the most out of the aging dinosaur of a bureaucracy.”

“Great,” Engels replied. “That’s the problem. What’s the solution?” She looked around. “Anyone?”

Benota cleared his throat and stood. “I hate to say I told you so—but I did. Liberation is all well and good, but right now we need a strong hand to manage the economy until the war is over and we can transition to a less-regulated model.”

“You want to be the economic Czar as well as the Minister of War?”

“Not me, no.”

“Who, then?”

“We already have a Director, though Straker sharply curtailed his powers. I suggest we use him.”

“DeChang?” Engels’ tone was skeptical. “He’s dangerous. Too ambitious.”

Admiral Gray stage-coughed. “I’ve known Emilio for quite a while. He’s vain and he’s arrogant, but he’s also visionary and competent. It was his vision for a war-winning battleship that got him squeezed out of the Committee, but it turned out he was ahead of his time. Remember, without Indomitable, the Liberation would have failed. Yes, he’d like to be the big boss again, but even at its worst, the Mutuality was no dictatorship. If our new Republic can’t channel one man’s ambition, it’s not worth saving.”

“So how do we channel his ambition?” Engels asked.

Benota said, “Before the Senate gets too comfortable with the Liberator’s absence and realize they’re really in charge, I’ll work with DeChang to pass an expansion of his executive tax-and-spend powers—only for the duration of the war, of course.”

“Fine,” Engels replied. “How does that get us the forces we need for this fight—and for the next fight, and the next?—and we’re not even talking about the Opters yet.”

Benota bounced his ham-like fist on the table. The VR sim was so good, Engels could hardly tell the man wasn’t really in the room. “We’ll get you the forces for your ‘Battle of Calypso.’ We may have to strip the rear areas of everything, we may have to create money we don’t have and make promises we can’t keep, but we’ll get you your ships. Heavens help us if you lose, though. The Republic won’t survive it.”

Engels drew herself up. “I won’t lose. We won’t lose. If everyone here does their duty—and there are no leaks of this plan—then we’ll hurt the Huns so badly they’ll have to negotiate.”

 

Chapter 6

 

Straker in Opter-land

 

Twelve sidespace transit days later, as he and Myrmidon approached their destination deep in Opter space, Straker was still smarting from Carla Engels’ harsh words aimed at his “stupidity and pigheadedness” in going alone.

“Our new enemies want you dead and the Mutuality restored, and you go and hand yourself over to them, without even bringing Loco to watch your back!” she’d yelled over the comlink.

“Can you imagine Loco on a sensitive spy mission?”

She’d ignored that. “And even worse, you’re not even going to come see me first?”

“No time, my love,” he’d said. “Every delay gives the Opters more chances to raid us, and for the Hundred Worlds to push deeper into our territory. You and Gray and Benota can handle the Huns and the war of fleets—I’m not a critical factor there. But only I can deal with the Opters, and that means understanding them, finding out the truth.”

Engels had ranted and raved, but he’d held firm. Now, he and Myrmidon had arrived at the Alka System deep inside Opter territory, traveling on the agent’s fast courier. And she was fast. The same trip would have taken a capital ship six weeks or more and exhausted her fuel.

Despite the speed, Straker was ready to get out of the cramped little vessel.

The days had, however, given him the leisure to talk at length with Myrmidon—or Don, as he liked to call himself. “Don is a common enough phoneme in Earthan and most of the Old Earth languages that it usually passes easily on human worlds,” he’d explained.

Straker had tried without success to find any holes in Don’s long skeins of conversation, his easy explanations of his views on Opters and humanity and the aliens on their various borders. He’d learned a lot, but he still had the nagging feeling he was being subtly led toward some viewpoint Don wanted.

Straker hoped he survived the visit. This deep in enemy territory, everything became a long shot.

And, until now, the Opter-man had provided proof of nothing.

That was obviously about to change, as the screen showed multiple Opter ships plying the routes among the various planets, moons and facilities of the Alka System. Most of these were smaller than those humans would use—or at least, the crew portions were. Some of the freighters, for example, appeared to be composed of small, powerful tugs with cargo modules attached, rather than the usual Earthan arrangement of a hulled ship with internal bays. Probably Opters needed fewer amenities than humans.

Don brought his scout ship into a planetary docking ring, a massive, amazing structure that floated above the planet’s equator in a perfect geosynchronous orbit. More than twenty-five thousand kilometers in circumference, it was attached to the world with dozens of space elevators, like spokes in a wheel.

“This is a far more efficient system to access space than fusion-powered ships individually ascending and descending. It uses less energy, needs less gravitic compensation, and provides a better platform for orbital industry than parked asteroids,” Don said.

“It’s also extremely fragile, vulnerable to attack or sabotage,” replied Straker. “Hit an asteroid with a bomb or missile, and you damage only that facility. This thing… if you could crack the structure, I bet the entire thing would unravel, buckle and come apart.”

“Less than you might think. The materials used are stronger than duranium, based on genetically engineered spider-silk infused with graphenoid molecules. And Opter society is far less vulnerable to infiltration by humans. In a pinch, every Opter would take up arms for the defense of Nest and Hive.”

“Meaning you think you’re superior?”

“We are, in some ways. In the most obvious ones, perhaps. In others, no. I’ve come to respect humans on the whole, even while as individuals you vary wildly, and fail miserably to cooperate.” Don caught Straker’s gaze. “I’ve also come to realize that there is no one definition of superior. The human definition usually compares symmetries and declares one thing better than the other. That’s easy when militaries go head to head. It is not so easy in deciding, say, which approach to survival is better. Your dinosaurs dominated Old Earth—until an asteroid radically cooled their environment. All their size, ferocity and so-called superiority suddenly became irrelevant when their food sources vanished. Smaller, hardier things survived where the giants could not. In fact, ‘dinosaur’ became a metaphor for that which is doomed to extinction.”

Straker grunted. “Adapt or die. I know that.”

Don turned away. “Well summarized. But do you truly understand?”

Straker had no answer, so he changed the subject. “I take it this is a Miskor world?”

“Oh, no, Derek. This is a Sarmok Hive System, with only Sarmok Nests.” Don stood from his pilot’s seat and picked up a duffel bag he’d prepared beforehand, and gestured for Straker to pick up his own. He then took a few steps to the ship’s exit portal and pressed his palm to the sensor pad.

The door opened wide onto an enormous flight deck for small craft. Beings of all sorts scurried to and fro with tremendous purpose. Some of their errands seemed inscrutable, but some were obvious—loaders pushing cargo, creatures with duffels not unlike Straker’s own, maintainers with tools, refuellers with tanks and hoses.

The surprise for Straker was the high proportion of humans—okay, bipeds, at least—he could see. There were only a few dog-bees, a smattering of armed warrior wasps, and a fair number of the worker ants, composing perhaps a third of the beings here.

The rest had two legs and two arms and many seemed indistinguishable from humans. Some had odd coloring—green, purple, bright red—and some had abnormal skin—scaly or chitinous or moist and glistening. But about half could have passed unnoticed on human worlds.

“Welcome to Terra Nova,” Don said.

“What?” Straker said sharply. “That means ‘New Earth,’ right? That’s pretty ballsy, you Opters calling this place after humanity’s home.”

“You’ve never even been to Old Earth, you said.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“And if the Sarmok have their way, this is the breeding ground of a new humanity.”

“Meaning?”

“You’ll see.”

Don took a step, but Straker grabbed his arm. “And how do I fit in here? Won’t they spot me or smell me as different and arrest me?”

“I took the liberty of altering your biochemistry slightly.”

Straker shook the smaller man roughly. “You did what?”

Don looked down at Straker’s grip, then back up to his eyes. “Don’t be a pussy, Derek. Your Hok biotech made you ninety percent Opter, as far as the average Facet you encounter can tell. I merely tweaked your scent to add Sarmok pheromone markers like my own. Only if you’re subjected to deeper bio-analysis could someone tell you’re not Hive-raised.”

“I don’t trust you, dammit.”

Don peeled Straker’s thumb and fingers off his arm. “Don’t be an idiot. You put yourself in my hands when you decided to come with me. Make a decision and stick with it. Otherwise, I might as well take you back right now.”

“Okay then, let’s go back.”

Myrmidon took a deep breath, sighed, shook his head, and turned back to his scout ship. “Great. Another twelve days cooped up a ship with no shower—and you.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

“We’ll stay. I was testing you.”

Don’s mouth curled as he looked sidelong at Straker. “I know.”

“You know?”

 “This is my area of expertise, remember?”

“What, deception?”

“Spycraft. Psychological combat. Manipulation. You can’t beat me at my own game, Derek. You have to decide to trust me. You’re in my hands. Just like I decided to put myself in your hands when I came to you.”

Straker rubbed the back of his neck. “But if you’re like the rest of these Opter creatures—these Facets, you called them?—then you’re programmed to consider yourself expendable, so you wouldn’t actually care whether you live or die. In fact, there could be a thousand Myrmidons, cloned to look and act the same and infiltrate us.”

“That’s very astute. There are many of our infiltrators in your society—some highly placed indeed. And as I said, I’ve spent years living among you. But as for clones… every being with free will quickly becomes individualized once he lives among you. Your very randomness and lack of regimentation assures it. And once each of us assimilates into human culture, we’re free to defect, to form our own goals, morality, and beliefs about right and wrong. If we acted like Opters, we’d never blend in. A perfect fake, if truly perfect, is no longer a fake. It becomes real.”

Straker barked a laugh. “All that philosophy is so much mental bullshit. You spin these theories that sound good, but in the end, what matters is that you’re so good at faking that we can’t tell—not without tests, like you said. So…”

“So?”

“So you’re right. I have to act like I trust you, even if I really don’t. The dice are cast.” Straker stuck a finger in Don’s chest. “But I’m watching you.”

“Fair enough.” Don turned to walk toward a distant portal. “Now let’s get going before we attract attention. Human-opts are given a lot of leeway, but the insectoid Facets still tend to regard us as dangerously unstable. There have been cases of warriors killing us because they misunderstood some action that humans would find commonplace.”

Straker followed alongside. “Such as?”

“Such as getting drunk and starting a fistfight. Insectoids interpret that as a Facet gone insane.”

“Okay, no barroom brawls.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, once we’re on the surface, different rules apply. There are areas where human Facets are given completely free rein, no matter the results.”

“No matter the results?”

“That’s what I said.”

“So they won’t interfere.”

“Not once we’re on the surface. But we still have to play our roles. I’m an agent. You’re my trainee. Try to act like it.”

Myrmidon wouldn’t answer any more questions about what that meant, so Straker allowed himself to be led along. After a minimum of processing, which consisted of a quick scan of his body and his baggage, they boarded a train down the nearest cable.

Cable was a pale, weak word for the connecting tether their vehicle traversed. The tether measured at least a hundred meters across, and the train’s gravplating was set so that Straker felt as if they traveled upon a long, thin bridge from the ring behind them to the vertical wall of the blue planet in front of them. The top and sides of the train cars were made of transparent crystal. Apparently even Opters liked to take in the view as they traveled.

All of their fellow passengers were humanoid. Most of the exotics—that’s what Don called the nonstandard ones—spoke some kind of clicking Opter language with each other. The standard humans mostly used Earthan, in a variety of perfectly ordinary accents, though two conversed in what Straker guessed was Chinese.

“This is creepy,” said Straker. “I feel like I could be arriving at any human planet.”

“Then we’ve done our job well,” Don replied.

Straker realized he was speaking of the Opters—or maybe just the Sarmok—when he said “we,” as others around them might overhear. “Yes, we have,” Straker said, and reminded himself to be cautious.

As he observed the fake humans, his main impression was of childlike happiness. Unlike Myrmidon, they didn’t seem like they would fit in with human society—or if they did, real humans would find them odd. He tried to figure out what it was.

They acted like kids in growup bodies, he realized. Like ordinary civilian children untouched by hardship, as he was before the Hok killed his family. Not like the cadets at Academy, too old before their time and training for war. Yet they looked like adults.

One woman stood out from the crowd, though. Her measured gaze was different, direct and confident, and she glanced across the car at them a little too often.

Straker nudged Don. “We’re being watched.”

“I know,” Don murmured. “But now she knows you know, and now that you told me, she knows I know too. You make a bad spy, Derek.”

“Who is she?”

“A new operative, testing out her skills in a closed environment.” Don reached inside his tunic and produced a small leather folder, which he opened in her direction, and then shut with a snap. She nodded and departed the car. “She won’t bother us again.”

“You sure there aren’t others watching?”

“If they are, they’re using technical means, not their own eyes. As my trainee, the watchers will expect you to make mistakes, but if you make too many, I may have to send you back to the larval pods. Get it?”

Straker processed this odd declaration, remembering Don was speaking for the benefit of possible listeners. “Sure, Don. I’ll try to do better. Sometimes I try too hard to act like one of those crazy weird humans.”

“Yes, and you’re doing it now.”

“Sorry. Just practicing.” Straker shut up for a while, until the transport approached the surface. When they were perhaps twenty kilometers from the surface—which still looked to Straker like a wall rather than the ground—he realized the scale of the construction he could see, and the extent of the cityscape.

“How many people live here on Terra Nova?” Straker asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Guess.”

Don turned blandly toward Straker. “A trillion? Two?”

Straker swallowed. “A thousand billion..? That seems impossible. That’s a hundred planet’s worth of people on one world. How do you feed everyone?”

“With technology, and enough energy, anything’s possible. The environment is completely geo-engineered. Cities extend downward more than a thousand meters in many places, with plenty of hydroponic farms. Rather than thinking of Terra Nova as a planet, think of it as a giant habitat that happens to be big enough to sustain an atmosphere.”

“It’s a damn hive.”

“You’re starting to see.”

When the train arrived at the Terra Nova surface, it followed a curving track that left all the cars resting on level ground. The two men stepped out into a station that could have come from any human planet. Signs directed travelers to other tracks where trains would take them to destinations with half-familiar names like Caledonia, Hong Kong and Shepparton. Cafes and restaurants served food and drink to the populace, and music wafted from a piano a woman played near a fountain.

“This is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen,” Straker muttered.

“On the contrary, Derek. It’s one of the most ordinary things you’ve ever seen. What makes it weird is that you know it’s all manufactured and contrived.”

“Like an amusement park, where the building fronts look like houses or hotels, but they actually contain rides.”

Don nodded. “It’s the dissonance between the appearance and the underlying truth that gets you. In fact, new agents feel the same on their first assignments on a human world—except they have to accept that it’s real, and the exercises are over. If they get caught, they might never come back.”

“So they do get caught?”

“Of course. The human intelligence services apprehend our people quite often.”

“So they know about Opt—um, our infiltration?”

“Certain spy divisions know or suspect, but our agents’ biology is flawless, so those caught are generally believed to be from their human enemies, or from independent worlds.” Myrmidon began walking and Straker followed. “Let’s get going.”

“Where to?” Straker asked.

“Baltimore.”

“That’s a place, right?”

“Yes. It’s named for a city on Old Earth.”

Myrmidon bought tickets with an ordinary credit stick. A maglev train whisked them hundreds of kilometers through a tube evacuated of air, allowing the vehicle to reach speeds impossible in atmosphere. Twenty minutes later they walked out onto the streets of Baltimore.

Straker stopped abruptly, shocked at what he saw, as the crysteel doors of the train station slammed shut behind him. Ragged, filthy people stared at him, some drinking from liquor bottles, smoking various weeds, or even shooting drugs into their veins. They sat or lounged on streets littered with garbage or leaned against buildings covered with graffiti. Broken windows gaped like the mouths of concrete monsters, and a stench filled the air.

“What the hell?” he said.

“Yes, and welcome to it,” Don replied. He shoved away a panhandler who stuck a hand in his face and mumbled something incoherent. “Better get moving. Remember, this is a diz.”

“Diz?”

“That’s what we call these enclaves, like Baltimore.”

“Why diz?”

“Some Old Earth name for an artificial environment. Dizzy-land, I think they called them.” He stepped out into the empty street and walked down the middle, as far away from the denizens of the cityscape as possible. Straker stayed close, trying to watch everywhere at once.

They rounded a corner and nearly walked into a full-blown riot. Dozens of uniformed police were beating civilians with batons while other civilians threw rocks and bottles at them. Chemical smoke stung Straker’s eyes. An officer took out his slugthrower—a slugthrower, not a stunner!—and fired, hitting one of the rock-throwers in the neck. She fell and began to bleed profusely.

“What the hell is this place?” Straker asked as Myrmidon drew him back into an alley, out of the way. “Why are they rioting?”

“Who knows? Food shortages, police brutality, their sports team lost or won, it doesn’t matter. All our human Facets have to go through Baltimore.”

“Ah… like an amusement park, right? A diz,” Straker chuckled, understanding. “It’s an exercise. Special effects, fake blood…”

Don shook his head. “No, it’s not an exercise. Not the way you mean. It’s artificial, but there’s nothing fake about it.”

Straker stepped out to look again at the woman lying in the street, the red pool expanding on the pavement. “You mean she’s really been shot?”

“Yes.”

“Shit.” Straker sprinted to her and threw himself to the ground. The woman looked up at him with glassy eyes and gasped. “You’re gonna be all right,” he said. He reached beneath his tunic and ripped off part of his undershirt, tried to stanch the bleeding.

A blow on the back of his head surprised him, and his combat reflexes took over. He rolled to his feet and found himself facing an officer with a baton.

“Back off, scumbag,” the cop said. “You’re interfering with police business.”

Straker snatched the club from the officer’s hands and threw it away. The man clawed for his holster, and Straker took that weapon away from him as well. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Call an ambulance! You’re a police officer. Do your job!”

The man backed up and, with one eye on Straker, ran for two of his fellows. Don grabbed Straker’s elbow and pulled. “Stop it, Derek. You’re interfering with the diz.” He dragged at Straker’s arm. “We need to go.”

“But that woman’s dying!”

“That’s an appropriate response, trainee,” Don said loudly, “but you’re here so you can get used to the barbaric human callousness and brutality you’ll see in the field.” He shoved Straker away. “There’s nothing you can do. Do you want to be sent back to the pods for recycling? You have to purge yourself of your morality. Remember, you’re supposed to have been through Baltimore.”

Straker was about to push Don aside and go back to the woman when he saw that the pump of her arterial blood had stopped and her eyes were open and staring. Five cops approached with drawn slugthrowers, and one more had a heavy stunner. Reluctantly, Straker ran with Don around a corner, reminding himself he was deep in enemy territory.

Three turns of the ways later, Don led them into a blind alley with a door at the end that was marked with an abstract graphic symbol. Perhaps it was alien writing. Don placed his hand against a sensor pad and it opened. They passed into a featureless corridor.

“That woman really died,” Straker said.

“That Facet did, yes.” Don gazed dispassionately at Straker. “She was a slug anyway.”

“Slug?”

“A new humanoid Facet, barely adult. Just enough education to make her fit for a diz like this. She was probably about two years old, with a lifespan of six or less, to make sure she didn’t grow beyond her assigned limits.”

Straker stared back at Myrmidon with disgust. “You’re breeding sentient beings just to kill them? That’s evil.”

Don shrugged. “Welcome to the diz.”

 

Chapter 7

 

Two weeks after Admiral Engels’ council of war, Calypso System

 

Admiral Engels brooded on Indomitable’s arena-shaped bridge. Clever use of gravplating made it possible to walk along the inside of the bowl without difficulty, and each section had a clear line of sight to every other. The only obstruction was the hologram that hung in the center, displaying the tactical and strategic situation in the area.

Right now, Engels had it scaled to show the entire Calypso System out to flatspace, its star and Felicity Station tiny near its center. For the last three days, the battleship and a force of every capital ship scraped up from this side of the Republic had waited, hidden deep inside the glowing ball of gas that surrounded the planet designated C1.

Hiding even a ship of Indomitable’s size was easy. The gas was opaque to sensors beyond a hundred kilometers, and even that close, the dense swirls mixed with thousands of rocks and captured asteroids to make detection and targeting problematic.

A perfect place for an ambush.

Her strategic feed came via hundreds of encrypted relay drones from stealthy passive sensors, seeded in stellar orbits all across the system. In other words, Engels could see out, but the Hundred Worlds fleet couldn’t see in.

Assuming they showed.

With its valuable fuel processing station, Calypso was the next logical place for the Huns to strike. The star system was now on the front lines of their methodical advance, and Engels had worked very hard to sweep for the enemy spy drones that would naturally be sent to reconnoiter. She’d also brought the ambush force in under emission-control, or EMCON, using impellers only to eliminate all energy signatures.

Standing by had Engels on edge. She paced and she sat. She inspected sections of the battleship. She went over the plan with her captains.

She’d already gone over it exhaustively with Commodore Dexon, who commanded the outsystem task force—the one that would play the role of bush-beaters to her waiting group of hunter-killers. Dexon’s fleet of fast ships lurked far out in flatspace among Calypso’s comet cloud, the millions of balls of ice that circled slowly around the star.

A third force, composed of twelve relatively slow but tough heavy cruisers, plus Captain Zholin’s SDN Stuttgart, hung conspicuously in space near C1. The group was anchored by the local defense monitor, one that dwarfed the cruisers as a whale dwarfed dolphins.

Unfortunately, there were no orbital fortresses at C1. Lacking mobility and obstructed by the gas cloud, they would have been pointless to build—so they never had been.

“Transit detected,” said Lieutenant Tixban, her officer at Sensors. The Ruxin fed the data to the hologram and a new icon flashed. “Far from the optimum sidespace emergence point.”

“They’re being cagey,” Engels muttered, standing to approach the holo. “It won’t matter, though. How many contacts?”

“Nine so far, but they’re still appearing.” Tixban swiveled an eye toward her. “It will be approximately half an hour until I have an accurate estimate.”

“I know, I know. For now, take a guess and run the battle sim from their actual position.”

The half-hour fled as Engels watched the computer prediction of how the battle should play out—or at least, its first half. No machine-mind, not even Trinity’s, could foresee what would happen within the gas cloud, at C1 and Felicity Station. There were far too many variables—and too many ways for things to go wrong.

“So?” Engels said to Tixban after the half hour.

“As we expected. It is their Tenth Fleet, commanded by Admiral Braga.”

“Admiral Braga?” Engels swung her head back and forth between the holo and Tixban. “Lucas Braga?”

“Correct.”

“Then he survived the Battle of Corinth. I should be glad… but I’m not glad it’s him I’m facing.”

“He was your commanding officer?”

“He was. And a good man. This…”

Tixban’s tentacles communicated tentativeness. “Sucks? Is that the right word?”

Engels shook her head ruefully. “Right. It sucks. But it won’t change anything.”

“It does not bother you that you will be fighting against your former comrades from the Hundred Worlds for the first time?”

“Of course it bothers me, but this is war.  We tried to talk to them. Today, the Hundred Worlds military gets to pay the price for their politicians’ greed for more territory. They’ve shown no mercy, so we can’t pull our punches.” She took a deep breath, trying to feel as confident and stoic as she sounded. In reality, she felt like she had dagger in her gut. Admiral Braga… he’d almost held Corinth, where she was captured and her life changed so radically. She wished it were that idiot Admiral Downey she faced instead, the fool who’d blown it for Braga.

“This changes nothing,” she repeated more loudly. “We stick to the plan.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” the bridge crew replied in unison.

“Fleet composition?”

Tixban zoomed in on the enemy. “Eight SDNs, eight DNs, sixteen battlecruisers, sixteen heavy cruisers, thirty-six lights, fifty-six assorted escorts… and two fleet carriers.”

“Carriers?” Engels leaned in. “They’re pulling out all the stops.” Carriers were generally considered outmoded as fleet assets, too slow to keep up with escorts or their own attack wings, too lightly armored to stand and fight, and the whole arrangement too complex for the cost. Mostly they were used as auxiliaries and motherships, to carry attack ships and landing craft from system to system, usually brought in well after an area was secured, not as primary combatants.

“The range is too long to be sure,” Tixban said, “but I suspect they are being used as supply ships, to allow their fleets to operate farther from their bases for a longer period of time, and also to carry garrison forces for their conquests.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” The carriers might make good prizes, then, if they could be captured instead of destroyed.

Four hours later, after leisurely scouting and maneuvering, Braga’s Tenth Fleet turned to cruise inward and cross the edge that marked the bubble of curved space that surrounded the star, Calypso. From then on, they couldn’t flee via sidespace—not unless they ran back across that line.

Eight hours after that, Engels had returned from a meal, a shower and a nap to watch as Commodore Dexon’s ships made the short sidespace transit from the comet cloud into a position directly behind the enemy. In fact, they’d jumped into Braga’s own arrival position, more or less, and now they turned en masse and began pursuing the Hun ships at full speed.

Engels imagined Braga’s consternation as he realized he couldn’t retreat the way he came. He would believe Dexon’s fleet was a relieving force, just arrived from deeper in Republic territory after several days in sidespace, rather than a fleet that had been lurking, waiting.

However, Braga shouldn’t be too perturbed—yet. The way ahead toward his target—Felicity Station orbiting above C1 inside the gas cloud—would seem clear, except for Zholin’s inferior fleet consisting of the monitor Triceratops, the SDN Stuttgart and a dozen heavy cruisers.

As Braga’s fleet outgunned C1’s only apparent defenders by at least ten to one, his logical move was…

“There you go,” Engels said as Tixban reported the Tenth Fleet had increased acceleration toward their target. Rather than cruise in at their leisure, now Braga’s ships would hurry in, flip over to decelerate, and enter the gas cloud at a speed slow enough to see where they were going. They’d then have to spread out and search for Felicity Station, as Engels had made sure that the fuel factory was also under full EMCON.

Afterward, Braga would plan to run for the other side of the system, his mission accomplished. Or perhaps he expected to turn to fight, if he managed to figure out that all of Dexon’s “capital ships” were actually light cruisers with Trinity-designed false-signature emitters, the better to drive the enemy into Engels’ trap.

Engels bared her teeth at the thought that the Tenth Fleet wouldn’t get to exercise either option.

Two hours later, Braga’s powerful fleet flipped over for its deceleration burn. Dexon’s ships continued to hurry inward, appearing to maintain flank acceleration for dreadnoughts. Actually the fast escorts merely loafed along, under no strain, decoy emitters transmitting at full power.

Engels was glad Benota had managed to scrape so many light units up from all the surrounding systems, and doubly glad she hadn’t had to give them a frontline mission. An easy victory under these circumstances would do a lot for the escort corps’ morale.

Engels paced, checked and rechecked everything, and bit her nails to the quick as the enemy approached the enormous gas cloud. With its glowing streamer reaching millions of kilometers in a grand curve back to the star, it was a sight to behold. She hoped Braga would be lulled into a false sense of security. Perhaps surprise and shock would minimize casualties on both sides.

Zholin’s force began firing railguns at extreme range. With the enemy’s sterns presented, a lucky shot might go straight into an unprotected fusion drive port and wreak havoc—but the odds were slim indeed. They got slimmer as Braga’s ships began varying their aspects slightly and spread out their formations.

One battlecruiser took a blow from a lucky hit, and her drive stuttered, and then winked out. That was the only damage done, though—until they came within effective beam range.

First, the monitor Triceratops’ centerline particle accelerator blazed. Nothing Braga had could match it, but he’d already anticipated the attack and launched missiles. Skirmish warheads burst between the fleets, specially designed to fill the engagement zone with gas, dust and crystalline sand. At the same time, his ships increased their evasive maneuvers, even while continuing to decelerate.

Engels muttered to herself. “Come on, come on.” She couldn’t help it. Even though this phase didn’t matter much—it was really just a diversion, designed to show Braga the resistance he expected—she rooted for Zholin’s success. Every ship he damaged on the way in was one less to fight during the ambush.

But Braga’s countermeasures held. The particle beam no doubt brushed a few targets, but none of the drives died. The eventual addition of Stuttgart and the cruisers’ fire accomplished nothing in the face of the Huns’ profligate use of skirmish warheads. Engels envied their resources. No doubt they thought they would be able to burn through their loadouts, and then replenish from the carrier stocks.

Now, over a thousand shipkiller missiles from Zholin’s task force sprang forth in fleet strike mode. This was an all-or-nothing tactic, a full launch whereby earlier weapons were soft-launched and later weapons caught up with them, all controlled to form one attack. Given that Braga couldn’t do any fancy maneuvering—every minute he delayed was a minute for Dexon’s “dreadnoughts” to catch up to him—this meant he’d have to fight his way through.

Braga launched a mix of antimissiles and defensive shipkillers, trying to trade warhead for warhead to thin out the fleet strike. Of course, only a percentage intercepted the attacking missiles as they spiraled and dodged in random patterns. ECM drones mixed in blanketed the area with confusing transmissions to allow the attackers to slip through. At the same time, Zholin continued to fire beams, further confusing the battlefield between the rapidly converging fleets.

At the last moment before the fleet strike, Braga’s ships flipped over as one, a beautifully executed maneuver that put their armored noses forward and brought their full weapons suites into play. Beams blazed and railguns sprayed, utterly shredding the fleet strike. There were simply too many ships, too many point-defense weapons, for the Republic missiles to get through to the capital ships. A few of the screening escorts were heavily damaged by proximity blasts or bomb-pumped laser warheads, but that was poor return for the expenditure of the missiles.

Or it would have been poor return if the whole maneuver weren’t an exercise to lull Braga into overconfidence.

Now Zholin’s fleet backed up on impellers, as if their commander had made the perfectly rational decision not to sacrifice his force. Engels hoped Braga didn’t wonder too deeply that the defenders didn’t take the even more rational course, which would have been to back up into the gas cloud and fight from inside. Doing so would theoretically favor the defenders, limiting the attackers’ ability to coordinate fire.

But it shouldn’t be a stretch for Braga to believe that the defense commander simply wasn’t going to fight stubbornly in the face of such overwhelming odds. Furthermore, Braga would expect an attempt at an exit ambush, when he would leave the gas cloud and be briefly vulnerable to the waiting task force’s concentrated fire.

As she hoped, with the force in front of him out of the way and under pressure from the pursuing “dreadnoughts,” Braga plowed straight into the strange nebula, confident in his power.

“Expand,” she said, and Tixban changed the scale. Now the gas cloud filled the hologram above the bridge, and then it faded as the software removed the distracting plasma. A network of stealthy sensor drones ensured she had good eyes on every ship of the enemy.

Braga’s fleet spread out and fired probes of its own. Escorts formed a loose shell to recon as much of the area as possible, but they pulled back when they began to encounter a thickly laid minefield.

But not too thick. Engels could have made the enemy pay more heavily, but she didn’t want to risk turning them back. If the Huns had shown up with a smaller force, that might have been a problem.

As it was, however, the escorts reformed in minesweeper mode, firing specialized probes and detonating any mines they found. They efficiently cleared the explosives with only moderate damage to a few ships, and the Tenth Fleet advanced toward the planet C1.

Of course, they still had to locate Felicity Station. All they would know for sure was that it orbited the planet, somewhere.

But Engels and her forces knew where it was. By herding the Tenth Fleet at the right time with Dexon’s and Zholin’s forces, she’d ensured it was on the other side of the gas giant from where the enemy had entered—and it was even now using its limited maneuvering engines to stay as far away as possible.

“Helm, impeller maneuvers,” said Engels. “Bring us into position. Transmit to our two hemispheres to begin surrounding the enemy.”

She watched the holo-display as each half of her ambush forces maneuvered outside the enemy’s range of vision on impellers only, remaining under EMCON. This was only possible because she had complete intelligence on the Huns, and they had nothing on her. Her ships moved as stealthily as they were able, and soon formed a loose sphere around the enemy.

With Indomitable directly in the Huns’ search path.

“Activate decoy number 14,” she said.

One of the many moonlets seeded with emitters over the last three days slowly turned on an eclectic suite of electromagnetic sources. As she’d not been sure of the relative positions when the enemy entered the gas cloud, she’d directed Trinity to set up more than twenty decoys. Now, number 14 masqueraded as Felicity Station—directly in front of Indomitable.

According to plan, Zholin would be maneuvering his outside force into position to catch any leakers from the ambush, and Dexon would be racing forward at true light cruiser speed, much faster than Braga would expect. The time he would think he had to escape was even now flowing away like sand through an hourglass.

 

Chapter 8

 

Straker and Don on Terra Nova

 

“So they don’t chase anyone beyond the diz?” Straker asked Myrmidon as they walked down the passageway behind the weird Opter diz of Baltimore. Now and then, human Facets in simple uniforms strode by on purposeful errands, ignoring the two men. “You walk away and you’re free?”

“The barriers recognize my bio-code. Ordinary Facets are stuck there until they meet the parameters to move on to another diz.”

“And what are those parameters?”

“None of the participants knows, at least in advance. Only the controllers know. In some, everyone moves on quickly. In others, only a select few graduate. Rather like life—nobody knows the rules, and it’s not fair.”

“But you can get out.”

“I can.”

Straker lowered his voice. “Can we talk here?”

“Yes. Agents and their trainees are given a lot of leeway, including the leeway to speak wildly during roleplay.”

“So you’re a big cheese in the spy community?”

“Big enough to have freedom of movement, small enough that nobody wonders why I’m here.”

“Like the Lazarus Inquisitors.”

“Like that.”

Straker chewed that over in his mind. “I bet you’re a clone.”

“We’re all clones, Derek, grown in larval pods and raised in communal crèches—just like our insectoid Facets.”

“All but me.”

Don shrugged. He seemed to shrug a lot, especially when he didn’t necessarily agree with something but didn’t want to argue.

“Are you trying to imply I’m a clone too?”

“Clone, genetically engineered, a warrior designed and built for a purpose, grown in a womb instead of a vat… is there any real difference?”

Now it was Straker’s turn to shrug, and think for a moment. “Did you give the Mutuality their cloning biotech?”

“Of course.”

“Dammit, you make it seem like humans can’t come up with anything themselves.”

 “They can, but getting something for free—and knowing you’ll get something for free, if you’re one of the elite few who know about the Opter gifts—makes human societies complacent—which is exactly what we want. Why work hard at research when you know some aliens are so far ahead of you?”

“Because they’re dangerous?”

“Until now, we’ve been very careful not to present a military threat.” Don opened a door and stepped through. When Straker followed, he shut it tight. “This diz is Cupertino.”

Unlike Baltimore, the street they entered was merely drab, not dirty and littered. Drably dressed people walked the sidewalks. All the people wore mirrored goggles that covered and sealed their eyes, and wrapped around to plug into their ears as well.

The people were also talking to themselves—or, of course, to others, presumably via comlink. They must be viewing a virtual overlay of at least sight and sound. Some made motions in the air to manipulate virtual objects or controls.

Don led them down the street to a café where everyone sat in his or her own tiny booth. Robots served them dull food while they continued to talk to and touch the air.

“This is a diz too?” Straker said. “Doesn’t seem so bad. They probably see and hear a world that’s much nicer than the real one.”

“It’s not bad, at first. Yet, the suicide rate here is higher than in the one we just left.”

“You let people kill themselves?”

“You’re asking the wrong questions, Derek. You need to put aside your gut reactions to what you see.”

“So what’s the right question?”

“There is only one right question when it comes to sentient beings, Derek.”

Straker looked around, pondering, trying to remember the bits and pieces of philosophy, religion and psychology he’d picked up in his life. “Okay. Why?”

Don nodded. “That’s it. Why do people do things? Learn that, and you can influence them. Add power, and you can control them—and yourself.”

“So why are they acting this way? Disconnected from everything real, living in a virtual world?”

“You’ve had experience with virtuality. You tell me.”

Straker thought about Shangri-La and the way he felt there. “It’s seductive. It’s life-porn, feeding pleasure and banishing pain. But that’s not real life.”

“How many humans actually want to live real life? How many, when presented with comfort, take it without critical thought? In our tests—almost all of them.”

“If that were true, human society would go all virtual, then collapse. Only a small percentage of people actually get addicted to VR.”

Don chuckled. “That’s what you’ve been told? In reality, when everyone’s doing it, when it’s the way to make your living and conduct your life, it becomes the norm. The only thing that keeps everyone from going virtual is economics and regulations—in other words, those at the top keep it limited, and under control.”

“Why would they?”

“Because they know that a bunch of drones who’ve lost touch with reality are no fun to rule, and they eventually become less productive, not more.”

Straker looked around. “But why do this, here? What’s this diz for? In fact, what are any of them for?”

“All dizzes are meant to turn Facets into humans, or weed out the ones who won’t adapt.”

“Why?”

“You tell me.”

Straker thought. “For some reason, you—we—don’t simply want human-shaped hive drones. We want people who can pass in the real human societies. For that, they have to have real experiences. But I don’t see how this is real.”

Don shrugged. “They don’t stay in one diz forever. They progress through them.”

“Right... So they’re really just progressive training scenarios.”

“Of course. Let’s move on. This one’s called Campus.”

They passed through another door into an area that resembled a large school. Pleasant but uninteresting buildings squatted among indifferently landscaped walkways. Groups of people lounged or walked here and there—always groups. They showed a mix of humanity’s range of physical characteristics. Their only difference was their clothing. Each group wore clothing of a specific color—green, blue, red and so on.

Two groups approached, reds and greens, each composed of about fifteen people. Smaller groups of blues and yellows looked on.

They met at a narrow point of the walkway. Straker expected them to flow through each other, or perhaps each to move to one side and go by, but instead the people deliberately blocked each other and began to argue.

“Why don’t they just move past?” Straker asked.

“They wear different colors.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

The argument escalated to yelling and threats. “They hate each other.”

“Why?”

“Different colors.”

“There must be some grievances between them, right?”

“Not at first.”

Straker watched as the people began fist fighting—clumsily, though, like children, wrestling, pulling hair, punching ineffectively. “This is some kind of setup, right? Another scenario?”

“Of course.”

“So you made them fight?”

Don shrugged. “The diz controllers don’t force people to do anything. They merely set conditions and let human nature take over. In this case, Facets new to the diz are given colored clothing.”

“And what are they told?”

“Nothing.”

“Bullshit. They must be told that the other color is bad or something.”

“No. In fact, there are countervailing pressures. For example, those who’ve formed attachments in other dizzes are always given different colors.”

“So those guys stay friends.”

“One might think so.”

Straker turned his head back and forth from the brawl to Don. “You’re saying they don’t.”

“It’s very rare. Within days, the new Facets have nearly always adopted the viewpoints of their color—which other colors are their enemies, which are their allies or neutral, their supposed reasons to fighting.”

“So there are reasons.”

Don smiled faintly. “Of course. The greens occupied a red dorm nine years ago. The blues beat up a yellow last month. The purples are being favored by the faculty this term, and the oranges paid them off. Yesterday, the reds didn’t get dessert because the blues took them all first. The greens feel like they’re under-represented on the communal councils—and so on, and so on on.”

“Stupid reasons to fight. Are those things even true?”

Don shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters! Truth matters!”

“It should. But does it? Or is it only belief that matters?”

“You can’t make something true just because you believe it!”

“But what if you believe you can?”

“That’s insane!”

Don shrugged.

“You’re totally corrupting these people.”

“By giving them colored clothing?”

“By taking children—even if they look like adults, they’re only a couple years old—and leading them astray.”

“All we do is introduce a Facet to a diz with a certain set of conditions and see what happens. We don’t tell them how to act. Once the Facets experience what they need to, they’re rotated out and into another diz, where they’ll learn different lessons. Eventually some begin to develop critical thinking skills.”

“And the rest?”

“They’re stuck. Or they get moved to a different diz track. Even I don’t know the ins and outs. It’s up to the controllers.”

“Or they die, like that woman.”

“Something like that. Come on.”

Don led them to another diz, composed of grand, beautifully decorated interior spaces. There were no windows, but warm artificial lighting made it seem comfortable. People sat at rows of machines with screens, performing incomprehensible work. Robots rolled among them, dispensing drinks and food so people didn’t have to leave their workstations. Occasionally, someone got up from their seat, to use the facilities apparently.

Some people were fat, some skinny, but all looked unhealthy. Many sucked on smokesticks or vaporsticks while they worked. They all seemed completely lost in what they were doing, seldom speaking to anyone even as they were packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder.

The one strange thing about the place was the noises coming from the workstations. They beeped and rang and played music incessantly. Now and again, someone would raise a hand or even jump to their feet in triumph as the machine in front of them would make loud, equally triumphant sounds—but the worker would soon sit back down and continue pushing buttons or touching screens, performing their obscure tasks.

“What are they doing?” Straker asked as the two men strolled among the workers. “What’s on those screens—that looks like more like entertainment than work, but the people don’t seem happy. Except for a few now and then, that is.”

“Very perceptive. It’s called entertaskment—a combination of tasks and entertainment. They’re rewarded with credits for completing tasks, and the credits can be traded for special tasks that provide more reward.”

“And what happens when people earn enough reward credits?” Straker figured they would buy residences or vehicles, travel or take vacations, eat out and party, invest in businesses or buy art… what did people do with money anyway? He’d had so little time and opportunity to use it during his life he hardly knew. He mused that he must have a lot piled up in his military pay accounts in the Hundred Worlds—not that he’d ever get access to it, of course.

“They can buy things,” Don replied, “but they seldom do.”

“Really? Why not? What do they do with the credits?”

“They move up to higher reward tiers, where they actually have to risk their credits in hopes of winning more.”

“Risking? Winning? That sounds more like gambling than work.” Straker knew something about gambling, from Shangri-La or from the usual games troops played, wagering drinks or luxuries or hard cash when they had it. He’d never been all that interested in playing those games—which had made him that much more of an outcast, until he’d made enough rank he wasn’t expected to play anyway.

“It is gambling, but it’s never called that.”

“What happens when they win a lot? When they get rich?”

Don smiled without humor. “What do you think rich people would do?”

Straker hazarded a guess, not that he was particularly familiar with rich civilians. “Become entrepreneurs, or big-businesspeople? Or celebrities, entertainment stars? Do they go on planetary cruises and drink the finest wines? Or run for elected office, gain power?”

“You’d think so, but with rare exception, no.”

“What do they do, then?”

“They keep gambling, bigger and bigger. Until they lose it all and fall back to the working level, where the rewards are small, and so are the risks. Where all they have to do is show up, put their minds on autopilot, and slave away.”

Straker stopped and turned to face Don. “Are you trying to make this about me? That I’m gambling, always bigger and bigger, until I lose?”

“Is that how you see yourself?”

“That’s how people around me see me, sometimes. My woman—my wife, Carla, I mean—says so sometimes. That I can’t keep from gambling. But my gambles aren’t to win a vacation or more credits.”

Don opened his hand and made a there-you-are gesture at those around them. “Neither are theirs, really. If they really wanted that vacation, or those credits to actually build lives, they’d take them and stop gambling. But they don’t. Because it’s the game that matters, not the gain.”

“And you think I’m the same.”

“That’s not for me to answer.”

Straker turned away, sucking breath through his teeth and thinking. “The difference is, I have a goal. I want to free mankind. You’ve brought me here to a place where a different branch of mankind is enslaved in crazy ways, but it’s really the same old shit. Happy slavery, with people that don’t even know they’re being controlled and manipulated, is still slavery.”

“As it was with you.”

“As—what?”

“When you were a mechsuiter.”

“I was happy… I was! I had a purpose, a noble purpose… I thought.” Straker rounded on Don, angry. “Okay, you got me, you and your word games. Maybe I was being manipulated before. I sure didn’t know the full story. But I broke out of all that. I made my way out and I made a real difference. I’ve freed more than half of humanity from a tyrannical government, and I’m planning on liberating the rest.”

“The rest?”

“The Hundred Worlds.”

“Hmm.” Don’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a great speech, for a trainee. I’m glad you’re enjoying your roleplaying.”

Straker nodded, realizing he’d been skimming close to speaking too plainly inside the diz. If anyone were listening, they might start to wonder, so he slipped back into his role. “Just trying my best, boss. I have to learn to act like the humans.”

“You’re certainly making progress.” Don turned away, and Straker followed, his mind awhirl with the things the Opter-man got him thinking about.

Don led them to another diz, called Milgram. This one consisted of rooms behind one-way glass. Each room was divided into two parts, reminding Straker of the chambers with the Kort readying itself to eat a naked Carla Engels. Don halted Straker to observe one pair of rooms.

On one side, a white-coated researcher with a large handtab opened a door and let in a young woman in ordinary clothing. “Sit here,” the man said, and she sat in a chair before a table with two large buttons—one red, one green—and a standard screen.

In the other chamber, a young man—Facet, Straker reminded himself—was strapped to a table, and wired with leads to machinery.

“What’s going on?” the woman asked.

“Simply read the screen into the microphone,” the researcher said.

“What is six times five?” recited the woman into a microphone.

Her voice was evidently carried into the chamber with the helpless prisoner, for the man on the table answered, “Thirty.”

“Now what?” she said.

“Push a button,” replied the researcher.

The woman tentatively reached over and pressed down on the big green button with her palm.

The prisoner immediately moaned and writhed. Straker thought at first the man was in pain, but it soon became evident he was experiencing pleasure.

Straker looked back at the civilian woman. She was smiling, her eyes alight. When she was given more questions to ask, and the man got them right, she pushed the big green button and he moaned with more pleasure.

Now the woman was licking her lips, her face was flushed and she breathed deeply. Clearly, she enjoyed meting out pleasure.

The researcher tapped his handtab. The readout screen scrolled. The civilian read the words on the screen and spoke. “What is ten plus two?”

“Twelve,” the prisoner said.

The civilian leaned forward to slam her hand on the green button, an expression of slack fascination now fixed on her face.

The researcher tapped his handtab and the screen scrolled to a new question. “What is the square root of thirty, to six decimal places?”

The prisoner’s eyes darted. “I—I—I don’t know!”

The woman leaned forward and, after a moment’s pause, triumphantly slammed her hand on the red button. The man writhed again—though this time it was clearly in pain. He cried out, “Stop! Please, stop!”

“Stop this!” Straker growled, looking for a door into the research rooms, but not seeing one. “This kind of brainwashing shit is exactly why I liberated the Mutuality!”

Myrmidon didn’t move. “You can’t stop it. This is part of the diz process.”

“Hell if I can’t. You said they don’t police the dizzes, right? Whatever happens, happens?”

“That is correct—for the ordinary Facets. You, however, have been tagged as an agent-trainee. You’ll be seen as interfering.”

Straker clenched his fists and forced himself to watch. The woman seemed just as aroused by the man’s agony as she had been by his pleasure a moment ago. In fact, when the system suspended the pain, she slammed repeatedly at the red button, even when it did nothing. She made a sound of frustration.

“Next question,” she said, turning to the researcher. “Next question!”

“You’re turning people into sadists,” Straker said. “Give them an authority figure and instructions, power and rewards, and people do what you say.”

Don shook his head. “Did you hear the researcher give any instructions on which button to push?”

Straker thought back. “I guess not. So she could push either button?”

“Of course.”

“But you cued her which was pain and pleasure—red and green. That’s assuming these Facets associate green with positive and red with negative, like standard displays, or traffic lights.”

“The choice is hers. Yet, like most young human Facets, she doesn’t care whether she metes out pain or pleasure. Both excite her. Combine that with her unconfirmed assumptions—such as the assumption that rewards go with right answers and punishments go with wrong ones—and she might just torture this man to death.”

“You let them do that?”

“They’re only Facets. The controllers do what they have to in order to achieve their greater goals… just like we do.”

“I don’t!”

Myrmidon faced Straker fully. “Oh, no? With your combat skills and biotech, you could have disarmed those police officers in Baltimore. You could have broken up the brawling at Campus. You could try to break this glass and rescue that poor fellow on the table. Why don’t you?”

“Because you told me…” Straker realized what he was saying. “Because you’re my authority figure. It’s not because I’m afraid!”

“Did I bring up fear? Is it important that you be seen as brave?”

Straker’s fists clenched. “I—getting caught here would be pointless, that’s all. I might save one man or two, but I can’t save the thousands—”

“—billions—”

“—okay, billions of Facets you’re destroying in these dizzes.”

“So you’re doing what you have to do in order to achieve your greater goals. You’re ignoring your moral principles because of practical concerns.”

The man on the table screamed again.

“Turn that shit off!”

“Why? So you won’t have to face it?”

Straker punched Myrmidon in the jaw. The Opter-man—only a Facet, after all—sprawled, knocked out cold.

By the time Myrmidon came to, Straker had mastered himself. Besides, he couldn’t seem to open the door to the room, no matter how hard he kicked and pulled at it, nor break the transparent window material.

He’d faced the fact that he couldn’t go save the poor soul strapped to the table. He’d managed to ignore the screams and groans, telling himself that the prisoner was unlikely to die—though death itself had little to do with torture. He’d even figured out what Myrmidon was doing—maybe.

When Don sat up, rubbing his jaw ruefully, Straker squatted next to him. “Sorry about that.”

“I expected it, actually, but you’re so damn fast.”

“Be glad I didn’t hit you as hard as I could have.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I know what you’re trying to do.”

“Getting punched?”

Straker chuckled. “The whole thing. The why. This isn’t just a diz for these Facets. It’s for me.”

Don raised an eyebrow. “Why would I do that?”

“You’re not just testing and corrupting these people. You’re testing and corrupting me.”

“People corrupt themselves, Derek. Nobody can do it for them, if they really want to resist. Testing you? Of course. More importantly, you’re learning.” Don stood, brushing himself off. “Not only are there many different dizzes, there are meta-dizzes. We all go through them. We are observed, then we observe, then we observe the observers. Sometimes we even observe those who are observing the observers.”

Straker stood also, wondering who was observing them. “Is that why humans call, um, us, Opters? Something to do with optics, eyes, observing?”

Don chuckled. “An astute guess, but no, just coincidence. ‘Opter’ came from one of the first humans to encounter insectoid Facets. Hymenoptera is the human name for the order of insects comprising wasps, bees and ants.”

“I guess ‘hymens’ would have been weird.”

“Sure would.”

 “So, did I pass your test?”

“The jury’s still out, but you’re coming along.”

Straker rubbed his face with his palm as if to scrub off dirt. “Why are you showing me all this? What if I do pass?”

“Finally, you’re asking the right questions. Unfortunately, that’s above my pay grade.”

“Make a guess,” Straker said.

“Perhaps those above me will take stronger measures in your favor.”

The Miskor, he meant, though Myrmidon couldn’t confirm it aloud. Trusted agents like Don were given lots of slack to train their protégés, he’d said—but Straker didn’t want to give whoever was watching cause to really wonder. Probably the very unlikeliness of a real human agent infiltrating Terra Nova, combined with any system’s usual complacency when presented with what it expected to see, had protected them so far.

Straker had already done some pacing and thinking while waiting for Don to regain consciousness, and now he continued. “I think there’s more to it than you’re telling me. Every time I think I know what’s going on with you, there’s another layer, another twist… and you told me I couldn’t possibly beat you at your own game of secrets.”

“That’s true.”

“But this is a game you hope I win, because if I win, you win. You want me to figure this stuff out instead of spoon-feeding me, I get that. People don’t value what they don’t work for, so you’re making me work for these lessons.”

“That seems reasonable.”

“I’ve been told that personal experience colors everything anyone does. We think we’re objective, but really, we have a lot of unrecognized assumptions. The Queens, for example, live their lives surrounded by drone slaves. They’re the only ones with free will around them, other than fellow Queens, and aliens. Except…” Straker snapped his fingers as he paced, trying to corral a fleeting thought. “Except for us. Us human Facets. Once we make it through all the dizzes and all the experiments and games, once we’re sharp enough to blend in with the humans, we’ve developed free will and individuality. We’re no longer really Facets.”

“An interesting observation.” Myrmidon’s bland eyes nevertheless seemed to be watching Straker closely.

“So now we have a whole world brimming with potential individuals—and we’re training them to have free will, to make choices, even bad ones. Some make it through, some don’t, it’s all very Darwinian—but the fittest survive. Some are good, some are evil, but they’re all Queens in their own right—individuals. Like you said, perfect copies of imperfect humans.”

“You seem to be building a coherent picture.”

“So by your logic, you’re—we’re both—human.”

“That is so.”

Straker stopped and stared, unseeing, as the researcher on the other side of the glass led away the protesting woman. She seemed to want to go back to her button-pushing. In the other room, medics attended to the tortured man.

“So, hypothetically speaking…” Straker watched Don carefully for any hint he should shut up. “Hypothetically, if we were real humans and saw all this, we’d want to rescue these people. And we’d hate the Queens.”

“Stipulated.”

“In fact, if I were this Liberator guy, I’d think this planet was primed for revolt.”

“If you were this Liberator guy, it would be natural for you to come to this conclusion.”

“But since I’m not, and since we Sarmok want to keep the humans out of our business, we’ll need to make sure the Liberator never finds out about this planet.”

Don made a dismissive motion. “It’s far from human space.”

“No worries, then.”

“None.”

“Okay.” Straker clapped his hands in satisfaction. Finally, he felt like he was starting to understand Myrmidon. “I’m hungry.”

“Let’s go to the cafeteria.”

“Is it part of the diz? Will they be testing weird foods on us?”

Don pondered. “I’m really not sure.”

Without warning, the door to the room burst open. Straker reacted immediately, dodging out of the way as stunners fired. Myrmidon fell. Men poured into the room.

There was nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. Straker got his hands on one of the attackers, but his muscles locked and his nerves blazed from repeated stuns.

They pummeled him into unconsciousness.

Part I: Defender

 

The evil, soul-crushing Mutuality had been overthrown by my Liberation. My troops and followers, my brave men and women, Straker’s Breakers, aided by allies such as the Unmutuals, the Ruxins, the Sachsens and many defectors, now stood victorious astride the trash heap of history that was its collectivist paradise. No longer would its tyranny hold more than a thousand worlds in thrall. The New Earthan Republic was born.

Next, I would turn my attention to my former regime and nation, the Hundred Worlds. Long the enemy of the Mutuality—though their common citizenry was kept from this knowledge—the Huns were already seizing territory from our Republic and seemed unwilling to consider peace between the two great empires of mankind. Therefore, with the help of faithful friends and allies, I resolved to force them to talk.

But before I could implement my intentions, before I could set my plans in motion, before I could even begin my honeymoon with my new wife—the commander of my fleets, Carla Straker née Engels—the insectoid Opters intervened. They’d first tried to addict me to their nectar. Next they utterly destroyed our largest shipyards at Kraznyvol. Now we raced to Murmorsk, to confront the Nest Ships there.

 

- A History of Galactic Liberation, by Derek Barnes Straker, 2860 A.D.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Atlantis: Capital of the Hundred Worlds

Carstairs Corporation Headquarters

One year ago

 

The Hundred Worlds consisted of a bright cluster of stars, rare jewels in the velvet black of space. At the center of the Hundred Worlds, like a blue gem in a treasure chest, the planet Atlantis shone brightest of all. Unlike the quaint museum of Old Earth, Atlantis bustled with energy and industry. As the capital, she was the economic and political crossroads of the Hundred Worlds.

On Atlantis, all things met, all paths intersected, and all power was conglomerated.

Megacorp owner Billingsworth M. Carstairs VI told himself these unassailable truths every day of his rich life.

Carstairs had commanded a host of underlings to gather for a high-level executive meeting. He always started such meetings wearing a stern frown, even when he was happy. His father, Big Bill Carstairs, had taught him that trick as a child. “Start from a position of dissatisfaction, my boy,” he’d said, “and your employees will work all the harder to please you. They’ll cherish your every smile, which you can then bestow like rare gifts.”

Big Bill had been right, may he rest in peace. Over the last decade, Carstairs Corporation had grown from the third largest conglomerate in the Hundred Worlds into the biggest—it was now double the size of any other megacorp.

The best part was, the old man had had the decency to die young in a rare aircar crash, passing his controlling interest to his son and namesake, Billy.

Of course, nobody outside the Carstairs family called him Billy anymore. Not if they wanted to keep their jobs.

The power of Carstairs meant Billingsworth had Parliament Ministers in his pocket and plenty of fat government contracts. In fact, they’d just given him one of the fattest, which was why he had called today’s meeting.

Stepping into the meeting chamber, Carstairs heard the room fall silent for a moment. All eyes fell to him, and his frown deepened in response.

“Welcome, sir!” his CEO, Romy Gardel, gushed as she moved aside from her position at the head of the table.

As his most trusted underling—and lover on demand—Gardel knew he was in a good mood, despite his forbidding appearance.

“Thank you, Romy,” he said. “Everyone take your seats. Ladies and gentlemen, I have good news. The Defense Committee has approved funding for the Victory project. In fact, they were so impressed with the prototype, and so worried by the unfortunate military disaster at Corinth,” —here Carstairs released a broad, genuine smile and a chuckle, prompting sycophantic laughter from his underlings— “that they doubled the budget and tripled our potential bonus for commissioning the lead ship on time.”

“No constitutional problems?” asked Mike Rollins, the corporation’s senior legal advisor. “How did they get around Section 4.3?”

“The Declaration of Rights?” Carstairs chuckled again. “The Supreme Judiciary provided an official opinion that anything less than a full brain is mere tissue, with no more human rights than a transplanted heart or kidney, as long as it was harvested legally. A few tweaks to the Involuntary Organ Donor laws—necessary for the war effort under the Loyalist Act, you see—and thousands of brains become available, as long as they’ve lost certain vital functions, the poor souls. One slip of a scalpel and, ‘oh my, how unfortunate,’ with a generous settlement for the families, of course.”

The Board members briefly changed their expressions to match Carstairs’ own, a moment of crocodile-teared sorrow.

Carstairs continued, “The Loyalist Act gives the government all the authority it needs to identify and confiscate the remains for research purposes, and to classify all that research, does it not, Mister Rollins?”

“It does.”

“So we’re cleared to proceed.” Carstairs clapped his hands in satisfaction. “If these new flagships prove successful, not only may they allow our brave forces to achieve new gains, but the program can eventually expand to the civilian sector, where Victory-style AIs can be used for a wide variety of applications.” He frowned significantly at Rollins. “Our patent suites are comprehensive?”

“Unassailable, sir,” the attorney said. “Oh, eventually other megacorps will find a way to legally use brain parts to create stable AIs, as it’s the only approach that has ever kept a machine AI from madness, but the comptrollers tell me we’ll have a good fifteen years of market dominance.”

“And undoubtedly a large rise in the value of everyone’s stock options.” Carstairs clapped his hands once more. “Excellent! I’ll expect weekly reports on the project. Carry on.” He turned to go, and then looked back over his shoulder. “Oh, Romy, drop by my office when you’re done here.”

“Yes, sir,” she said with just a hint of extra color in her perfectly cut face. Carstairs found that money and power were always the best aphrodisiacs, and since he’d just promised Romy more of each… well, best to strike while the iron was hot.

Very hot.

He also had the latest pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs available, guaranteed to produce maximum performance with minimum side effects.

His executive bedroom was about to get a workout.

 

 

***

 

 

Murmorsk System, New Earthan Republic

 

Admiral Derek Straker, mechsuit pilot and self-styled Liberator of humanity, gripped the backrest of Commodore Carla Engels’ command chair.  He stared at the enormous hologram projected above the battleship Indomitable’s gargantuan bridge. It showed a bewildering swirl of warships locked in mortal combat.

Indomitable had just arrived at Murmorsk, the recently overthrown Mutuality’s—now the New Earthan Republic’s—second-largest fleet base and military shipyards. Straker and Engels both expected the strange insectoid Opters and their carrier-like Nest Ships to strike there next, after apparently destroying the larger, main base at Kraznyvol.

Their guess was right.

Straker’s hope, that Indomitable and other Republic forces could catch the Opters in the act, had panned out. His message drones had directed all available warships to assemble at Murmorsk and engage at the senior commander’s discretion. Indomitable’s slow sidespace transit speed meant she arrived well after the other ships.

“Who’s in command of our forces?” Straker asked.

Tixban, the ship’s octopoid Ruxin sensors officer, replied, “It appears Commodore Gray has assumed that position.”

Straker saw Engels nod with satisfaction. Despite a rocky start, the crusty, older Ellen Gray had become a solid sister-in-arms to them both.

“Highlight enemy battle positions,” Engels ordered.

Tixban brushed his subtentacle clusters across the console, refining the hologram view to illustrate his words. “Six Opter Nest ships are grouped here, about halfway between the star and the edge of flatspace. Their combat drones are approaching the inner planets and shipyards.”

“How many drones?”

“At least fifty thousand. There may be more. I am still collating data.”

Straker’s brow furrowed. “Hell… Fifty thousand… How can we fight that many?”

Engels stood to walk closer to the hologram. “During transit here I studied all the data we collected. Individually the drones are weak. Many of them are no more than a small fighter with an expendable pilot and one weapon, usually a beam of some sort. I believe those are crewed by the dog-bees, the least intelligent kind of Opters. The next, less numerous class up is a larger fighter, probably piloted by the antlike technicians you saw. These have a mix of two or three small weapons. More punch, more survivable. Above that, they have attack ships comparable to ours, with single larger weapons, likely piloted by wasp warriors.”

Straker grunted in acknowledgement. “What forces do we have?”

Tixban highlighted the icons. “Commodore Gray’s flagship, the super-dreadnought Correian. Five dreadnoughts, nineteen battlecruisers, thirty-five heavy cruisers, sixty lights, and over four hundred escorts from destroyers down to corvettes. Everything that could converge from nearby systems.”

“Attack ships?”

“Forty-five, from the local forces, along with two monitors and a handful of escorts. They also appear to be trying to launch some of the warships under repair, but they’re unlikely to make them battle-ready soon enough.”

“Those attack ships won’t last long. The monitors may survive… How long until the Opter forces hit them?”

“Two hours.”

“And Commodore Gray’s ships?”

“About three hours until her fastest ships can join the battle.”

Straker slammed his palm on the chair’s back. “And there’s no way for Indomitable to reach the fight in time.”

“No,” said Engels. “We need twelve hours minimum simply to reassemble the sections.” The battleship, too large to transit through sidespace in once piece, had to break apart into sixteen sections every time it traveled from star to star.

“Damn it all, we can’t just sit here aboard Indomitable as spectators!”

“We have no other choice,” said Tixban.

“Oh, yes we do. Indy? Zaxby?” Straker called into the air, presuming the artificial intelligence Trinity would be listening. The AI inhabited the destroyer formerly called Gryphon, docked with Indomitable’s prime section.

A voice that sounded like Indy—the machine part of the group-mind—replied. “I am not Zaxby or Indy anymore. I am Trinity now, Admiral. How may I serve?”

“How quick can you get me to the fight?”

“Trinity is the fastest ship present in the system. I estimate I can reach the forward edge of the battle area within two hours, if you board me within the next seven minutes.”

“On my way.”

Engels was already turning to object. “What do you think you can do out there that Ellen Gray can’t, Derek?” she hissed, moving close. “You’re not a fleet commander.”

“Exactly, so I’m not needed here. I can’t just sit on my ass. You’re the naval officer. You get Indomitable traveling inward as fast as you can. Assemble on the move. Trinity will keep me safe while I observe our new enemies up close.”

“Observe,” she scoffed. “You can’t observe anything more than sensors collect. Send in Trinity on her own if you need data. You don’t need to risk yourself.”

“I have to get in there,” Straker insisted.

“I will keep him safe,” Trinity assured Engels. “I also am interested in observing the Opters up close and adding to my data stores.” That sounded more like the Zaxby part of the triumvirate being.

“There you go.” Straker pecked Engels on the lips. “Gotta run, hon. See you on the other side.” He left her fuming.

As he jogged toward the flight deck, he called into the air, “You still wired into Indomitable’s nervous system, Trinity?”

“If you’re asking if I’m still connected to the shipboard network—I am.”

“Tell Redwolf to grab my go-bag from my quarters and meet me at the airlock. Then pass to the flight deck to prep my mechsuit. I’ll walk it aboard.”

“There’s no need,” said Trinity. “I am even now loading it into my cargo bay, having anticipated your desire to bring it along.”

Straker changed direction toward the airlock. “Great. Be there in a minute.”

At the portal from Indomitable to Trinity, Sergeant Redwolf stood in his battlesuit, a duffel in each hand.

“What’s in the other bag?” Straker asked as he came to a stop.

“My own gear, sir.”

“I don’t need you along, Red.”

The man’s black eyes darkened further. “Ain’t I your bodyguard, sir? And your steward?”

Straker thought about it. “I guess you are, aren’t you? Okay, good to have you along.”

Redwolf’s planar face almost cracked a smile. “Glad to hear it, sir. I wouldn’t want to have to fibertape you and carry you aboard.” He entered Trinity ahead of Straker.

Straker snorted and followed. Damned battlesuiters. Think they can do or say anything and get away with it. Kinda like mechsuiters.

When he reached Trinity’s compact bridge, he was surprised to see a young, platinum-haired, ethereally beautiful woman standing near the empty command chair. “Please, Admiral, sit,” she said. She wore an ice-blue skintight poly-suit that left little to the imagination. A sleek headset hugged the back of her skull like a piece of high-tech jewelry.

Straker couldn’t help but take an appraising look before forcing his eyes to move above her neckline. “And you are?”

“I am Trinity,” she said, with a knowing smile and a lift of one perfect eyebrow. “I used to be known as Doctor Marisa Nolan. My body has been rejuvenated and my mind has been integrated.”

Straker’s jaw dropped. “You’re that creaky old woman?”

“I was.” She turned left and right, showing off her body to best advantage. “I retain all of my personality and memories, so I’m still vain enough to appreciate being a knockout again. I was quite the heartbreaker in my younger days.”

“I imagine…” Straker said, mentally reminding himself once again that he was happily married. “Feel free to wear something a little less…”

“Sexually arousing?”

Straker made an exasperated sound. “Forget it. Let’s get underway.”

“We’re already accelerating at maximum, Admiral,” she replied. “Interacting with you socially takes only a tiny percentage of my attention, so there’s been no delay.”

Right. She was just as much a part of Trinity as Zaxby or Indy, though it was hard to remember that right now. “Good. Fine. But seriously, you make it difficult for me when you act this way—like a Tachina clone.”

The Marisa-body’s face fell. “I take your point, and I apologize.”

She turned and walked out. Maybe she was merely doing as he asked, or maybe she had her feelings hurt. If so, she needed to grow up. A rejuvenated hundred-year-old woman should know better, even if she did share a brain with a teenaged AI and the nonhuman Zaxby.

Nolan looked just as good from behind. Straker shook his head and thought of cold showers. When that didn’t work, he mentally superimposed Carla’s image on Marisa’s, and then turned his face to the main holoplate. “Give me a view of the upcoming engagement.”

“Of course, Admiral,” said Indy’s disembodied, decidedly non-sexy voice.

The holoplate showed a swarm of Opter drones. Well, technically not drones, as they had pilots, but they were likely to operate as drones—expendable extensions of the Nest Queens’ will, so he called them drones. The swarm approached the inner worlds in a disciplined mass, heading first for the largest and most densely industrialized planet of Murmorsk-4. This was a small gas world, and the main shipyards were on the moon called Beta-2.

Dozens of other facilities, on smaller moons, supported the shipbuilding and repair operations. Skimmer booms tens of kilometers long dropped from the lower moons, dipping their probes into the soupy atmosphere, sucking up valuable gases. Complexes thrust upward from the surfaces of other, larger planetoids, space docks and mining facilities and agricultural domes, all the marks of orbital industry.

Murmorsk-3, a green world, held the balance of the system’s population. The two planets happened to be almost in alignment, at their closest approach, perhaps forty million kilometers apart.

The enemy should strike M-4, the most heavily defended, first. If they won there, the weak defenses at M-3 were unlikely to stop them. Straker wondered whether the Opters would exterminate the civilian population, or merely conquer them. Green worlds were valuable—populations less so. Did the bugs prefer subjects, or genocide?

If what they’d done at Kraznyvol was any indication, they’d leave nothing alive.

Ellen Gray’s fleet was farther away from the targets than the incoming enemy, stretched into an oblong blob with one end pointing toward M-4. Those lead ships would reach the battle site in about three hours. The back end of the blob would reach M-4 in five hours, according to the annotations on the holoplate.

As Straker watched, one-sixth of the enemy began to separate and head toward M-3. One Nest Ship contingent out of six? Probably. And why? Did they hope to divide the defenses?

Straker wondered what drove these Opters. Glory? Competition among themselves? Did each Queen keep score, or did they cooperate fully and unselfishly? He put these questions to Trinity.

“Hello, Admiral,” said Zaxby as he ambled onto the bridge. His headgear had become even more compact than the last time, a wireless interface to the rest of Trinity.  “We sense that you would prefer to speak to our Zaxby body.”

“I like to speak to someone I can see, that’s all.”

“You could see Nolan.”

“I could see a little too much of Nolan, thank you very much.”

“That would seem to be your failing, not ours,” Trinity-Zaxby said.

“If biological urges are failings, we’re all hopeless—including you.”

“Touché. To answer your questions, the Opters within each Nest are truly one collective society. You may think of each Nest as an individual group-mind, headed by one Queen.”

“You mean they’re telepathic?”

“Not at all. But like a flock of birds or a school of fish, they are so attuned to one another that they seem to share one mind, and they do use brainlink technology comparable to ours. Unlike humans, though, they have no taboos about networking brains electronically, so when it’s convenient, they do so.”

“And the Nests? Do they form bigger group-minds?”

“Many Nests may compose a Hive, but they do not seem linked. Nests almost always cooperate effectively, like ships in a fleet, but I have seen indications of the occasional disagreement. However, we should not depend on any division within their ranks.”

“I’m just trying to get a sense of them. So they do keep control of their own bugs and drones? They’re not interchangeable?”

“No,” said Zaxby. “Each Nest has its own pheromones, markers, and genetic quirks.”

“What happens if a Nest Queen dies?”

“There are queens-in-waiting, but there would be disruption in the command structure.”

Straker stroked his jaw. “So that’s a weakness.”

“No more than losing a human military commander would be.”

“What happens if a Nest Queen loses too many forces? Will others turn on her and, I don’t know, take her territory?”

“Occasionally, but not routinely. There is a natural limit to what one Nest Queen can control. Hive Queens act like feudal monarchs, with their subordinate Nest Queens owing them allegiance.”

“Is there something above a Hive Queen?”

“There’s a senior queen with an untranslatable name. Mutuality databases assigned her the designation ‘Empress.’ There’s very little information on her, though.”

Straker moved closer to the plate. “I need something right now. Something I can use. Something we can do here—you and me, Zaxby—uh, Trinity—to help us win this battle. We can’t afford to lose our largest remaining shipyard system. Can we… hack them or anything? You’re an integrated AI now. You were a good hacker before. You should be a super-hacker now.”

Zaxby preened. “I am a masterful-hacker, but hacking requires access, or at least proximity. I can’t hack from light-minutes away. I need to attack their cybernetic systems in realtime from short range. They are unlikely to simply watch as I do that, though, so the safest way is to join the fleet and become one target among many, mutually supporting with Commodore Gray’s escorts.”

“Okay, so rendezvous with them.”

“We are on course, and will join them in approximately one hour.”

Straker paced back and forth. “Gray’s lead forces will be an hour late, though, right?”

“Correct.”

“Will the M-4 defenses hold?”

“My simulations say they will have lost fifty percent effectiveness within the first hour.”

“But Gray’s forces are going to arrive piecemeal, spread out, rather than in one hard wave.”

Zaxby zoomed in on the future battle zone and extended his predictions. “Correct. Our lead elements will sustain heavy casualties.”

“How heavy?”

“Approaching one hundred percent, if they fight to the death.”

Straker’s eyebrows lifted. “That’s not feasible. They won’t fight to the death anyway—not these former Mutuality forces, and I wouldn’t want them to. What if we pull the lead elements back and thicken up, delay our arrival by, say, half an hour to an hour?”

“Effectiveness rises proportionally with delay, but the defenders are dying at an equal rate. I have run every standard simulation, and Commodore Gray’s tactics appear to be nearly optimal.”

“And do we win?”

Zaxby frowned. “The final outcome is firmly within the margin of error.”

“Meaning it’s a toss-up.”

“Yes. And both fleets will be devastated no matter what.”

Straker smacked his palm repeatedly into his fist. “We have to find a way to break through. Zaxby, you must have ideas. I remember you saying you used to come up with crazy schemes and your superiors would shoot them down. Now I need a crazy scheme—something that will give us a big win.”

“Finding a hack is my best chance. If I can disrupt many drones, the odds could swing heavily in our favor.”

“What about hacking the Nest Ships?”

“They’re farther away, and they won’t let me sneak this ship within hacking range.”

“We can if we use underspace…”

Zaxby’s two nearest eyes narrowed doubtfully. “Even if they do not have detectors, they are unlikely to leave us unmolested once we emerge. If you wish to make an underspace attack, it would make more sense to simply deploy float mines. We might be able to destroy one or two of their Nest Ships before the others scatter on random courses.”

A sudden thought struck Straker. “What happened to Indy’s objection to killing?”

“It is still there, but it has been subsumed among the three of us. We find it permissible for us to kill creatures of an alien enemy which seems bent on destruction and death of our people.”

“Good. Maybe we should put you guys in charge of Indomitable again.”

“We would politely refuse. We find this ship-body to be much more flexible.”

“But it’s so small! Think of the facilities you’d have aboard the battleship!”

“You seek to tempt us.” Zaxby turned one eye away to glance at his console. “We can always scale up. For now, speed and flexibility is better than raw power.”

“Do you have any more technological tricks up your sleeve?”

“None usable on such short notice.”

“What about using float mines on the drones?”

“We might kill a few dozen—perhaps even hundreds—but this would have negligible impact on the battle.”

“And it’s impossible to float a nuke directly inside a Nest Ship?”

Zaxby spread his tentacles. “I’ve explained this before. It’s completely possible to float the warhead—but it won’t detonate properly unless it emerges in vacuum. The presence of atmosphere will cause trillions of molecular interactions that will disrupt the precise timing needed. You will have, at best, a dirty bomb. On a vessel as large as a Nest Ship, that will hardly bother them at all. Contaminating a Nest Queen may cause disruption—but then again, it may not. Imagine a human commander who was irradiated and knew she would die, but not until days after the battle. She would not shirk her duties. And there must be contingencies in case a Queen is incapacitated.”

“Dammit. There must be some way…”

Redwolf stepped onto the bridge, his battlesuit boots clanging loudly on the deck. “I put your gear away, sir.”

“Thanks, Red.” Straker gestured at the screen and sighed. “We’re trying to come up with some clever trick to win this battle… or at least reduce our casualties. We’re about to get hammered.”

“I’m just a grunt, sir. If I can’t shoot it or screw it, I salute it or paint it.” Redwolf took a step forward and removed his helmet to better look at the screen. “Speaking of getting hammered… too bad we can’t board those Nest Ships with our suits.”

Straker snapped his fingers. “Maybe we can. Zaxby?”

“The possibility exists, but the probability of success is low.”

“Why?”

Zaxby ticked off reasons on sub-tentacles like fingers. “We have to sneak up on them, and we don’t know if they have underspace detectors. If we do, we need to emerge long enough to take a final reading, yet not be seen. If we manage that, we would need to gamble that the target Nest Ship doesn’t move on final approach. Most importantly, we don’t have precise interior plans. We don’t even know if the Opter ship you visited was representative of others. You said it seemed modular, so we can’t be assured of the layout. Emergence in atmosphere is dangerous enough: if you appear congruent with a solid object, you will die.”

“The Queen was in the center, and the center was pretty big. That would be our target. You have the data from my debriefing, right?”

“Of course.”

“Assuming we don’t get spotted, what are the odds of me emerging safely?”

“No better than fifty percent.”

Straker considered it. He wanted to take the gamble, get in there and fight. But fifty-fifty…

“Boss,” Redwolf said, “That’s nuts. I mean, if it was for the win, maybe it would be worth a coin flip, but we’d only be taking out one of their ships. And do we even know that would affect the battle? Their attack forces probably got their orders. They ain’t gonna just bug out.”

“Despite his hideous pun, I second Sergeant Redwolf’s misgivings,” Zaxby said. “You’d be reversing your Pascal’s Wager.”

“Little upside, big downside.” Straker felt like punching something. “You’re right. It’s too big a risk. So we’re back to the hacking… but it seems like we could do more, now that Trinity is a warship again. You three brainiacs need to come up with something.”

Zaxby smiled, more naturally than he used to, it seemed to Straker. The Ruxin was getting better at mimicking human body language, probably because of being brainlinked to Nolan. “Actually, I do have one idea.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Straker and Trinity, approaching Murmorsk-4

 

“We’re in position,” Zaxby said from his helm console. Trinity didn’t actually need a hands-on pilot, but the Ruxin seemed comfortable there, and ran his subtentacles restlessly over the control inputs, like a poker player shuffling chips while waiting for play to start.

The main holoplate showed the Murmorsk-4 defenses already heavily engaged with—and losing to—the Opter drone swarm. They were furiously defending the valuable shipyards, but it was just a matter of time before they would be overwhelmed and dismantled by the enemy’s thousands of small craft.

Thousands more were incoming. They’d passed beyond M-4 and now formed a thick plane of battle barring the New Earthan fleet from relieving the defenders. Trinity was embedded among Commodore Gray’s lead corvettes, just moments from engagement.

This forward edge enjoyed the right of first blood as the small ships opened up with their primaries. For almost a minute they slashed and burned dozens of enemies without suffering return fire, for the Opter drones had much shorter ranges. As a destroyer, Trinity seemed a monster alongside the tiny corvettes, but she joined them with her superb suite of defensive weaponry—defensive in the sense of it being optimized for antimissile use, which made it perfect for this work.

The corvettes continued boosting at flank speed, but began maneuvering randomly. Combat sims had shown they would survive longer if they continued to gain velocity and to dodge as they entered the heart of the swarm. This gave them a slim chance to win through, rather than none at all—which was what slowing down would have meant.

“You gonna insert into underspace?” Straker asked, fingers gripping the arms of his captain’s chair.

“Never fear, Oh Great Liberator. Our timing will be impeccable,” Zaxby replied.

“Because it looks like we’re getting—”

The universe cooled, a telltale sign of underspace insertion, and Straker immediately cranked up the heat on his pressure suit. The holoplate showed the same icons, but Straker knew they were predictions, not hard sensor observations.

Trinity steered toward the nearest, densest cluster of Opter drones. “Hack-mine away,” Zaxby said. “Rerouting.”

Straker watched as Trinity altered course toward another cluster. When she was just in front of that group, Trinity dropped another hack-mine.

He itched to demand Trinity pop out of underspace in order to see if the hack-mines were working, but that would be pointless. Once deployed, the tiny, stealthy devices, converted from a variety of probes, mines and missiles available in Trinity’s stores, would broadcast highly invasive, broad-spectrum information attacks.

If they worked, some of the enemy drones would be disrupted, rendered combat-ineffective for at least as long as it took for them to clear the malware. If it worked well, the Trojans, worms and viruses might even cause the Opters to attack each other.

This was the idea the Zaxby-Trinity meld had come up with, the only way to hack the Opters without simultaneously exposing Trinity to mass attack or giving warning of the attempt. The downside was, Trinity couldn’t test out attacks and evaluate the enemy’s responses. The hacks were shotguns in the dark of cyber-linkspace. Popping up and looking at them wouldn’t change anything.

And if the hack-mines didn’t work, at least Trinity could pass through the swarm and try to help the defenders of M-4.

Nineteen more of the devices floated up from underspace before Trinity passed the blockers and Straker was confident enough to insist they emerge. The seconds before the holoplate updated seemed agonizingly long.

When the new information caused the image to ripple and change, Straker stood and cheered. Far more of the speeding corvettes than expected had survived within the swarm—perhaps half of them. Behind them, each slower class of ship in its own wave—frigates, then destroyers, then light cruisers and so on—had smashed deep into the blockers, remaining combat-effective for far longer than the simulations predicted.

“Get me a comlink to Gray on the flagship,” Straker said.

“Comlink to Correian established, audio only.”

The sound fluttered and burst with the static of the battle. “Gray here. Make it fast, Straker. I’m damned busy.”

“The hack-mines seemed to have worked.”

“Thanks, yes. They disrupted thousands of drones. Pat yourself on the back. Anything else?”

Straker ignored the prickliness. The older woman had never quite adjusted to such a young man in supreme military command, but she was far too competent for him to take her to task about it—at least in public. He didn’t want fawning sycophants anyway.

“We’re heading in to help the defenders,” he said. “Follow as soon as you can. Anything critical to report?”

The big flagship, with its coordinating staff of hundreds, had a lot more ability to process sensor data, intelligence, and comlink reports. When Gray answered back, she didn’t disappoint him.

“The shipyards on Beta-2 are the critical core of the facilities,” she replied.
“That’s where the defenders will make their last stand. Everything else is secondary. Save that, and we can call it a win—or at least, not a terrible loss. Once that’s secured, we’ll work outward.”

“What are the reports from M-3?”

“They’re holding. I believe the swarm sent there was a pinning attack, meant to keep their local forces from aiding M-4. Focus on Beta-2. That’s my professional opinion.”

“You’re the fleet officer, not me,” Straker said, trying to give the commodore her due. He knew how annoying it was when the boss tried to second-guess and micromanage a competent subordinate. “See you at Beta-2. Straker out.”

“Comlink ended,” Zaxby said. “You know, Derek Straker, I particularly like Commodore Gray.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Not only is her exterior a lovely shade of chestnut that I find aesthetically pleasing, but she doesn’t take any guff from you.”

“Take any guff, huh?”

“I believe that’s the correct expression.”

Straker smiled. “Yeah, I respect her. I know she’ll tell me what I need to know, rather than be a yes-man.”

“Oh, yes, I can see that. I can, yes.” Zaxby blinked one eye.

“You’re insufferable now that you have instant access to an Earthan language database on your brainlink.”

“If you want to know suffering, try living among an alien species your whole life.”

“You could have gone back to Ruxin now that it’s liberated.”

“And miss all this? Pish-posh.”

Straker snapped his fingers. “Back to work, squiddly.”

“There’s no need for slurs.” Zaxby turned up the place where his nose would be and shut up—exactly as Straker had hoped he would.

With the main display now updated in realtime, Straker could do nothing but watch as Trinity’s icon crawled across the intervening space and the minutes ticked down. In that time, he tried to make a decision.

Should he order Trinity to attack from long range, darting in and out, drawing many enemy drones away from the main battle? Or should they descend into underspace and emerge among the defenders, to stiffen their defense?

Unfortunately there were no more hack-mines—and it was possible the enemy had already observed the results and had taken countermeasures anyway. Trinity still had plenty of float mine warheads, though, converted from the relatively useless shipkiller missiles she usually carried. No missile would survive the thousands of beams that the swarm employed, and would have to detonate early, killing only a few. Better to drop nukes among them from underspace, if it came to that.

It occurred to Straker that the swarm tactics of the Opters rendered useless nearly one-third of the weaponry of the typical human fleet—the missiles. Railguns were also less effective until point-blank range, as tiny craft dodged them easily. Beams were still effective, but the small size and maneuverability of the targets made up for their lack of armor.

“Zaxby, make a note for the next message you send to your brainiac buddies. We need a new class of ship, or at least a new weapons loadout for escorts, optimized against our new enemy.”

“Do you not mean Opter-mized?” Zaxby laughed, a little too vigorously.

“Now who’s making hideous puns? Just do it, will you? Perform some studies, run some sims, come up with recommendations.”

“It may not matter.”

“Why?”

Zaxby rolled an extra eye around to fix three on Straker. “Because at this rate, we may soon have no shipyards.”

“You’re trying to be a smartass. That’s a good point, but, we have hundreds of small yards, usually for building freighters and local attack ships. Include that in the study. I need some kind of… liberty ship.”

“Liberty ship?”

“Access your historical database from Old Earth, twentieth century, World War Two, United States of America. Their Liberty Ships were freighters, but the principle is the same. A ship that can be built quick and cheap. Something with a small crew, very simple, and effective mainly against these drones. Everything else should be sacrificed for combat effectiveness—crew comfort, unneeded sensors, extended comms. Something like a super attack ship, or specialized corvette. Something we can build by the thousands.”

 “I will send it out on the next message drone.” Zaxby tapped at the console. “Admiral Straker, I need to know our tactics. Do we attack from outside, or pass through to help defend?”

Straker stroked his jaw as if thinking, but he’d already decided. If his main role was to inspire his forces, he couldn’t very well snipe and pick at the enemy from the outside. Only by putting himself in with the defenders would he stiffen their spines and, just maybe, this would urge Commodore Gray’s forces on to greater efforts.

“We go in. Get a good reading and set course to emerge somewhere protected, but close to the fight. We’ll need to orient and update, and then help out where we see they need it the most.”

“Aye aye, Liberator.”

“I’m surprised you’re not concerned that we’ll be killed.”

“Given that Opter drones are too small to mount underspace detectors, we maintain the ability to escape at will.”

“We won’t be exercising that option. In fact, make sure you don’t even mention it. Nobody’s going to be inspired by a Liberator who has a backdoor out of the fight.”

“Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honorable.”

Straker growled, “Methinks Shakespeare is becoming all the rage. Didn’t he also say something about the king being responsible for all those arms and heads chopped off in battle?”

“So he did… Fortunately, I can regrow arms, though not a head. Well, at least not without assistance. The upgraded rejuvenation bay might be able to do it, if the brain were preserved. In fact, I—”

“Do you mind paying attention to what’s going on around us?”

Zaxby huffed. “Our mind has sufficient capacity to pay all the attention needed, as we’re cruising in empty space right now. My full focus won’t be necessary until we emerge in the midst of combat.”

“Fine. How long will that be?”

“Approximately fifty-six minutes.”

“I’m going to suit-up.”

Zaxby’s eyes widened and spun with surprise. “You’re going to wear your mechsuit?”

“Why not? I’m no tactician, and I can brainlink in to your sensor feed. Better than sitting here yakking with you.”

“Of course, you feel powerless. The mechsuit will counteract that sensation. However, please take care not to damage the cargo bay with your random flailing.”

“I don’t flail—especially not randomly,” said Straker. “Just make sure I can control the cargo bay functions on command. You don’t want me to have to blast my way out from inside.”

“I shudder to think.”

Redwolf followed Straker as he headed for the cargo bay. “What’s the plan, sir? We gonna drop on somebody?”

“I’m not sure yet, Red. By the way, how’d you like to train as a mechsuiter?”

Redwolf grinned through his open faceplate. “Thought you’d never ask, sir.”

“I can’t guarantee how well you’ll integrate with the mechsuit. It really depends on how you brainlink. Some just can’t. But at least you can run the Sledgehammer on manual, now that Karst turned traitor.”

“I wish I’d killed that scumbag motherfucker when I had the chance.”

“You and me both, Sergeant. In fact, you have my express permission to shoot him on sight, though I’d rather have him in my brig under interrogation. I have the feeling there’s some interesting info in his head.” The door to the cargo bay opened in front of him as the Indy portion of Trinity monitored his movements.

Inside, his mechsuit lay on its back, its clamshell torso hatch open to allow access. Straker stripped off his pressure suit, stored it, and then hopped up onto his fifty-ton combat rig. He rolled into the reclining conformal cockpit and plugged in his brainlink. That plus the manual activation code brought the monster to life.

Soon, his world expanded. He seemed to simultaneously stand inside a shrunken cargo bay, his body and senses now congruent with the man-shaped mechsuit, and also to see beyond, outside Trinity and into the void. He tested the datalink feed and made sure he was able to open and close the external doors and control the air pressure.

Once he was sure Redwolf was sealed and ready in his battlesuit, he lowered the atmo to near vacuum. Then, he waited, watching, until Trinity approached the swarm attacking M-4 and its orbital facilities. A short few minutes in underspace brought them to the battle for the moon, Beta-2.

They emerged into a silent storm of chaos and confusion. Thousands of drones swooped and fired, spinning and dancing in evasive patterns that reminded Straker of flocks of birds or schools of fish, so coordinated that they appeared to share one mind.

Above him loomed a besieged monitor, an enormous local defense ship second in size only to an asteroid fortress, or to Indomitable. Clearly, Trinity had emerged here in order to shield herself with its bulk.

Hundreds of the monitor’s point-defense weapons fired, rippling and lighting up the area with fireworks. Where beams were revealed by the dust they illuminated, Opter drones were speared and knocked out. Where railguns fired, the projectile streams, although launched at high velocity, almost never hit anything. The drones slipped aside like fish dodging the teeth of sharks.

“Worse than I thought,” muttered Straker. “Two-thirds of our weapons are useless.”

Trinity added her firepower to the local fight, and soon had opened a bubble that provided welcome relief to the monitor. The drones were obviously targeting its beam emplacements, surgically disarming the big ship piece by piece.

In her former incarnation as the destroyer Gryphon, Trinity had been built for this kind of work—a hunter and killer of anything smaller than herself. Add to that Indy’s AI precision and Zaxby’s years of service at a weapons console, and kilo for kilo she was the deadliest anti-drone ship in human space. She knocked out hundreds of the craft within the first few minutes of the fight, before they drew back to stay out of her most effective range.

From time to time the monitor would launch a missile and detonate it at minimum range. These blasts would catch a handful of drones that couldn’t flee fast enough, but this was a mere desperation measure. There weren’t enough missiles in its inventory to make much difference to this kind of enemy.

“Vidlink for you, Liberator,” Straker heard Trinity say in Indy’s machine voice.

“Put it through.”

A realtime picture of a large bridge appeared in his optical cortex, a man in a commodore’s uniform sitting in the flag command chair. “Pearson here, aboard the monitor Rhinoceros. Admiral Straker—Liberator—is that you, sir?”

Straker set his feed to show his face. “It’s me, Pearson. Pardon the view, but I’m suited up right now.”

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, sir, and that ship you’re in is a vicious little thing, but we can’t hold without help. Lots of help.”

“Commodore Gray’s inbound with the biggest fleet we could gather, but she’s fighting her way through her own shit-storm. We have to hold until she gets here.”

“We’ll do our best… but sir, we’ve lost most of our sensors and eighty percent of our beams, and these damned critters already landing on our hull and breaching. It’s only a matter of time before they chew through our armor.”

“Do you have marines aboard?”

“Not enough. They all got stripped for other sectors when… begging your pardon, sir, but when we were fighting against you.”

“Understood. Do you have any other escorts?”

“No, sir. My other monitor Hippopotamus is down and my attack ships didn’t last long. We’re all that’s left. When we go, Beta-2 goes.”

“Hang in there, Pearson. We’ll try to scrape them off you. Straker out.”

Below Trinity and Rhinoceros squatted the main shipyards the monitor was trying to protect. Ground-mounted weapons in armored turrets fired upward into the swarm, but there simply weren’t enough of them. Capital beams designed to cut ships in half vaporized individual drones, but even on their lowest settings and fastest recharge times, this was overkill, swatting flies with sledgehammers—and it was wasteful of energy and time.

Now and then flights of missiles would launch from the moon’s surface, but most of the time they would be picked off long before killing any targets. Railguns fired intermittently, and with some effectiveness, as it appeared the ground installations had access to submunitions, clusters that would burst and catch the dodging drones in spreads.

But as Pearson had said, the cloud of drones was pulling in tighter and tighter, and at the edges of the rocky plain on which the shipyards sat, Opters were already coming in low over the horizon, nap-of-the-surface, in order to avoid the defenses and deploy armored vehicles to assault.

Armored vehicles… finally, something Straker could attack.

“Trinity,” Straker said, “as soon as Red and I jump, orbit Rhinoceros and clean off her hull. Pop in and out of underspace if you need to get out of a jam. Try to keep this monitor functional, because when she dies, the shipyards will die with her.”

“Jump? To the surface?” came Zaxby’s worried tones. “Have you gone mad?”

“Probably. Message all friendlies please not to shoot the ’suiters, okay?” Straker cued the outer doors to open. “Redwolf, you ready?”

“Right behind your mad self, sir.”

“Go.” Straker launched out the opening and began falling slowly in the low gravity—too slowly, a miscalculation. He rotated head-down and used his landing thrusters to speed up—just in time. A hex of six drones dove toward him, blazing with their lasers.

Jinking with bursts of his suit jets, Straker aimed and fired his force cannon. The needle of armor-piercing plasma ripped one drone to shreds. He added his gatling to the mix, but the other five dodged the stream of bullets. They were simply too quick at this range.

Firing the gatling had an unintended consequence, though. Throwing reaction mass upward sped him toward the ground. Impact warnings flashed in his HUD, supplemented by his mechsuiter’s senses and instinct. He somersaulted to put his feet down and opened up his retros just in time, slamming to the rocky, uneven surface of the nearly airless moon.

Beam strikes punched holes in the terrain around him.

 

Chapter 3

 

Straker, on the surface of the moon Beta-2

 

Straker stayed low on the surface in his mechsuit, with Redwolf beside him. He ran in shallow bounds, his stabilization system and his experience keeping him from flying upward in arcs that would eliminate his ability to dodge.

A mechsuit wasn’t an aerospace fighter, even if it was of comparable size. He had to stay low and use the terrain, the huge rock formations and the pits, the buildings and mining sites scattered around the complex. In this, the smaller Redwolf actually had the advantage.

The battlesuiter skipped along behind him, and Straker wondered briefly what Redwolf could do in a fight where every combatant vehicle outmassed him by a factor of ten or more. Normally battlesuiters operated in squads or platoons, their numbers, cooperation and ability to hide in cover making up for their size.

But Straker could hardly have refused him coming along. He wasn’t sure Redwolf would have followed such orders anyway.

Straker reached an ore processing facility, layered with pipes and girders and conveyors, and sheltered beneath it. Lasers peppered the area around him, and he returned fire deliberately and precisely, taking out three of the six attackers. Redwolf fired his own beam rifle upward to unknown effect.

The enemy return fire hit the pipes and gas leaked out, creating a cloud that provided concealment. At this, the three remaining drones broke off and retreated. A ground defense beam speared one on the way up. After that, they posed no threat to Straker and his sidekick.

“Why don’t they come down and swarm the surface?” Redwolf asked.

“They will. I think Trinity surprised them. She’s like having a dreadnought in the hull of a destroyer, at least for point defense. I’m guessing they’re concentrating on her and Rhino before they come down in a mass.”

Redwolf pointed. “I think I spoke too soon.”

Straker turned to look where he indicated, toward the horizon. He could see dust kicked up by a line of vehicles advancing toward the shipyard facilities—hundreds of them, he thought. Optical zoom confirmed it: small, six-wheeled combat cars, backed up by light tanks. Just above and behind them hovered fighter drones. “They landed them beyond the horizon for a ground assault. I doubt our defenders are ready for this kind of battle. They don’t have enough troops, and most of the turrets are optimized for anti-space.”

“At least it’s our kind of battle, sir.”

“My kind of battle, Red. You can’t possibly survive in the open against that many. This is my specialty.”

“But sir—”

“I see a pillbox over there,” interrupted Straker. “Run to it and defend. Do what infantry does best—hold your ground. Try to link up with friendlies. They have to have at least a few troops, even if it’s just the security forces. You’re better off helping them. Now go! That’s an order.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Redwolf turned to sprint across the broken, rocky terrain.

Straker put Red out of his mind and began to run to his right, for the left end of the approaching enemy line. Standing toe-to-toe with such mass was a fool’s game. He’d hit them from the flank and attempt to roll them up by ones and twos.

This nearest enemy formation, equivalent to a battalion of seventy or so vehicles, had chosen a relatively flat area with a road running down the middle, the best approach possible over the rough ground. Even so, it slowed them down as they tried to keep good formation.

The rough ground would be Straker’s advantage. Staying low, he worked his way to the end of their line and let them go past.

His first kill was their leftmost overwatch fighter drone, and then another which turned to try to sniff him out. He wasn’t sure what their response would be to this, for every military force had its own doctrine. He was hoping it would be the reaction of a natural flying creature, with a dog-bee or wasp pilot—to send in the aerospace forces.

He was right. The other ten close air support drones raced toward him, directing suppressive beam shots that struck rock all around him, sending up clouds of dust and gas from the vaporized stone.

This was exactly as he’d hoped. With his own multi-spectral sensors, he could easily see through the clouds, while the enemies were hindered and their beams were attenuated.

He picked off three before they backed up and diverted the armored vehicles.

Five down, sixty-some to go.

Two platoons of six vehicles each—one of wheeled scout cars and one of tracked light tanks—spread out and moved to surround his position. Rather than let them do so, he scurried to his right and tried his gatling against his lighter opponents.

The penetrators sparked against the material of the scout car, and then dug in as he extended the burst at a single spot. The vehicle slewed and rolled, smoke pouring from its burning carcass.

This was good news. It meant he had two weapons that could kill them instead of only one.

He put a force-cannon bolt into the tank behind the burning car, and it too brewed up, plasma shooting from every crack in its broken shell. The weapon was made to take down heavy tanks much larger than these, after all.

Straker raced ahead through the gap he’d created, splitting his targeting and firing left and right. The uneven ground allowed him to hit the soft underbelly of a car with his gatling for an easy kill, and his force-cannon bolt sliced through the side of a tank like it was made of cheesecake.

These Opters make poor ground warriors, he thought. They lacked heavies, missile tracks and battlesuiters compared to human forces—at least in this place. Maybe they had different force structures when planning on taking and holding ground. Perhaps this battalion was the equivalent of a few ship’s marines, hastily thrown together to try to take advantage of a weakness in the human defense.

And they’d never faced mechsuiters.

Well, he’d school them now.

Racing in an arc, Straker used the rocks and pits to keep solid ground between himself and anything not a target. This was one of a mechsuiter’s greatest strengths—his near-perfect situational awareness on the battlefield. The combination of mind, brainlink and combat-optimized SAI made his maneuvers as natural as a footballer maneuvering for position on a field, instinctively placing himself to best advantage.

As he did, he picked off his enemies two by two. In less than a minute, he’d eliminated both platoons.

Seventeen vehicles down, more than fifty to go.

Straker imagined what his enemies would do next. They had to be surprised and concerned that one opponent had already wiped out so many of their combatants. In their place he’d take no chances. He’d turn his entire force and try to surround and trap the mechsuiter before tackling further defenses.

Reversing course, Straker ran back the way he came, slipping out of the trap as the Opters tried to extend and encircle. As he did, he picked off three more cars and two more tanks, and ducked back among the rock formations.

Twenty-two down.

He became aware of activity above him—close above him, not the main space battle taking place kilometers higher. He sent out an air-defense radar pulse and identified two six-ship hexes of the largest enemy fighters, the ones that approached attack ships in size. Unlike the smaller drones, these had weapons that might severely damage or destroy him in one shot.

Those blasts started falling all around him, blowing rock into the sky and shaking the ground. He worked himself deeper into a small canyon and narrowed the arc where they could reach him. Glancing beam shots fell hot on his skin, but his field reinforcement and his superconducting layers shrugged off the heat.

For now.

Okay, they’d called in air support.

Well, he had some on-call air support of his own.

“Straker to Trinity,” he said. “I need you to clear my skies. Can you pop over here?”

“Aye aye, sir,” came Zaxby’s voice. A moment later, Trinity exploded into existence from underspace, emerging for no more than two seconds. In that time, twelve hard-driven secondary beams skewered the twelve attack fighters, leaving them tumbling and falling to crash into the surface.

Before the first one augured in, Trinity had disappeared again, and Straker marveled at what an AI-controlled warship could do. Her triple brain made Straker and his mechsuit look slow. He shivered with the passing thought that perhaps it was a blessing all AIs before Indy went mad. If they hadn’t, they might have transformed, or even replaced, humanity in ways he wasn’t sure he’d like.

Perhaps they still would, if Indy could be reliably replicated.

But until then, the universe belonged to organic life—and organics fought over territory. That meant at least this little corner of the galaxy would remain comprehensible.

Before the dust of the crashes settled, Straker raced at his enemies, using the confusion to shield him from their sensors. Disrupting unit cohesion was another specialty of mechsuiters—although he admitted that didn’t work on these Opters as well as it did on human troops. Even more so than Hok, the insectoids kept calm and fearlessly executed their plans. They could be surprised, but it didn’t seem their morale could be broken. They probably had very little individual sense of self-preservation.

At least, the servant-creatures of the Queens didn’t. Probably any being as intelligent as a Queen would value itself quite highly. He filed away that thought for later.

Inside the smoke and dust, he rampaged through them, killing whatever he targeted. Compared to their relatively basic combat vehicles, his mechsuit had sensors which were the height of sophistication. If this’d been an armored Hok battalion, he’d be constantly pinpointed by his own multispectral emissions, his radar and lidar, but these Opters didn’t seem to have high-end detectors.

For now, he was a wolf—no, a tiger—among sheep. He didn’t keep conscious count, but his SAI tallied his kills at fifty-five before the enemy broke.

Even then, they didn’t really rout. They merely withdrew as rapidly as possible, back the way they came, presumably to their dropships, attempting to preserve some forces.

Straker activated his comlink to Redwolf. “SITREP.”

“I’ve joined the defense forces, sir. They’re pretty thin, but we fought off a battalion of those combat cars and tanks, and we don’t see any more of them.”

“I think I’ve driven another battalion off,” said Straker.

“Alone?”

“You see Loco around here anywhere?”

“Hot shit, sir!”

“Thanks. Trinity helped… and these Opters aren’t nearly as deadly as Hok in ground mode. Any other attacks to your perimeter?”

Redwolf conferred with someone for a moment. “No, sir, but the monitor above us is in bad shape. Commodore Gray better get here soon or we’ll be overwhelmed.”

“Tell your new buddies relief is on its way.”

“I already told them you’re out there kicking ass, sir. It really helped morale.”

“Good. I’m pursuing the ground troops as they withdraw. Maybe I can take out their dropships, or at least gather some intel. Straker out.” He was already bounding low across the surface, keeping a sharp watch above his head with his ADA lasers activated and charged. This took extra power, but the beams—too weak to knock anything down, but good enough to blind sensors—were vital to his survival. They fired automatically from time to time as anything came close from above, and now and again he sent a force-cannon bolt skyward.

If he’d been the Opter commander on the spot, he’d have sent an overwhelming force—say, a hundred drones—to pound Straker from the air. He suspected that there wasn’t really an Opter commander in the human sense, though—not one that could adjust to surprises and give radically different orders. The Opters seemed poor at improvisation, or even at identifying what was important, when a Queen wasn’t around.

By contrast, both human empires had tried to incubate a thoroughly competent chain of command, from the lowest corporal through the highest flag officer, so every leader could take over in a pinch.

Of course, it was almost certain that the Opters didn’t know Derek Straker, the Liberator, occupied the pesky mechsuit. If they had, they might have done whatever it took to get him. It wasn’t undue pride that made him think so. He knew his value to the Liberation movement, if mainly to its spirit and direction.

He might have killed a few more of the retreating enemies, especially those slowed by obvious damage, but he chose to observe. He wasn’t sure how truly hidden he was, but there was no need to give the Opters help in targeting him, especially if their dropships had better sensors than their cannon fodder.

He peeked between two rocks at the crest of a low ridge to see the vehicles boarding, not the squat, blocky lifters he expected, but heavy fighter drones. It appeared the spacecraft each carried one armored vehicle in a conformal bay.

This may have explained the cars’ and tanks’ expendability. They were more in the nature of add-ons than true ground formations, utility vehicles used to seize or destroy certain targets on missions much as a human ship’s marines might perform. Probably only a limited number of the heavy fighters were so equipped.

Straker recorded everything, but didn’t bother to try to attack. His force-cannon wouldn’t penetrate the fighters’ armor at this distance, while their weapons might take him out with one lucky shot.

He tried to open a datalink to Trinity. It took half a minute, but eventually he was able to access a read-only feed.

From what he could sort out from the blizzard of information, not only was the AI-run ship destroying Opters by the dozen, but she was disrupting them badly with direct hacking attacks. No doubt they would improve their countermeasures later, but for now, there was a bubble around Trinity that no Opter could seem to penetrate. It must be defined by the nanoseconds of lightspeed within which, if the critters got too close, the AI’s hacking could overcome any defenses.

Straker chuckled. Cybernetic bug repellent. That’s what it was.

This went far toward explaining why Trinity and Rhinoceros hadn’t been overwhelmed. By standing back to back, as it were, the thick-skinned armored dinosaur of space and the slashing bird of prey had managed to fend off all comers.

This didn’t mean they remained pristine. Trinity’s system status telltales showed at least half yellow and red. Many of her weapons were down, and her armor, never thick in the first place, had enough holes to fill a Sachsen whorehouse.

Rhino looked even worse. Parts of her burned with stubborn oxygen fires, and most of her weaponry was gone. What looked like insectoid battlesuiters crawled on her surface or entered her skin through rents in her armor. As Straker watched, an explosion gouted plasma into space, perhaps from a mine or bomb set by the Opter marines.

Trinity continued to orbit the monitor, stripping away attackers wherever she could, but she was only one ship, and despite her valiant defense, she was losing the fight.

Straker cursed at himself, trying to figure out what he could do. He could use his drop jets to blast out into space, but his mechsuit was no fighter. Without cover or maneuverability, he’d be shot to pieces in short order.

“Trinity, how close are Gray’s ships?” he asked, desperate for hope and good news.

“They’ve already begun arriving, but only corvettes in numbers. They’ve been unable to reach us.”

“What about the frigates and destroyers?”

“They’re minutes from engagement. Even then, it will take time to fight through.”

“If you can hold on for just a little longer—”

“I am aware of this fact, Admiral Straker. No amount of encouragement or micromanagement on your part will change the situation. You can’t do anything to help.”

“The hell I can’t. Straker out.”

But Straker had no idea how to make good on his words. He just knew he couldn’t sit on his ass and do nothing.

He turned his attention back to the Opter heavy fighters retrieving their ground elements. There was one per tank or scout car, and as each vehicle locked into place, the aerospace craft took off.

One light tank lagged behind the rest, struggling with damaged tracks. It gave him an idea.

He worked his way around the flank to a position directly astern of the grounded fighter, the most likely place it lacked sensor coverage. He then crept up on it, staying as low as possible, using the rocky terrain for concealment.

When the struggling tank got close to its fighter, and was turning itself this way and that, trying to line up to enter its small deployment bay, Straker rushed forward. He scooped up a five-ton boulder on the way and smashed the tank’s turret with it from behind, gambling that this would destroy any of its sensors and antennas, and possibly stun the driver. With any luck, from the fighter pilot’s point of view, the tank would simply go dark.

He had no idea whether the fighter had sensors so close to its skin. Everything he’d seen about these Opters suggested rugged simplicity, with few extra systems. Their philosophy seemed to be that everything was expendable. This was highly efficient when lives were cheap and numerous.

Biologically, much of humanity’s instinct to value people came from the steep investment in each human—twenty years or so until adulthood and usefulness to society, with enormous amounts of education for any technical role. Opter drone pilots, on the other hand, probably developed much faster, and, he guessed, needed only enough training to fight and die for their Queens.

Straker quickly dragged the tank closer to the fighter, hoping this would make it appear as if the vehicle were still trying to get aboard. When it was close, he shoved it into a small depression, and then scooped up rocks and soil to bury it under a shallow layer of surface material.

Then he stepped aboard in its place and braced himself in the deployment bay.

Would the pilot have sensors inside his bay? Or would the creature merely have telltales that told it when the tank was aboard? Or perhaps only something simple, like pressure detectors in the deck? That tank looked to mass about the same as his mechsuit, perhaps fifty tons.

And if the pilot wasn’t fooled, well, at least he could tear the fighter apart from the inside.

Straker waited a long moment.

And then another.

Finally, the fighter rocked a bit and lifted.

Straker watched the ground fall away beneath him. He was braced in the bay, facing outward like a paratrooper in an aircraft’s exit door waiting for the command to jump. The bright stars of space spun across his visual field, clouded by the sparkles of drives and thrusters and weapons fire.

Where would the Opter fighter go? Would it flee for the Nest Ships waiting far off? He thought not—not unless they believed they’d lost the battle. No, there were still a few minutes until the trickle of Republic ships became a flood. The Opters still had a chance to finish off the monitor, and Trinity, and overwhelm the Beta-2 base.

His gamble paid off. As he’d hoped, within seconds the fighter climbed and maneuvered to drop its combat vehicle on the skin of Rhinoceros. Only, that combat vehicle was Straker.

When he planted his magnetized feet on the armored hull of the monitor, he sent a force cannon bolt into the fighter’s guts, in the direction he figured the pilot should be. The hot jet of plasma cut deep and fires began to burn.

Straker placed both gauntlets against the stricken fighter and shoved. He was happy to see it drift and begin to tumble, apparently dead. “Thanks for the ride, bug-buddy.” He chuckled.

The burn of a beam on his skin reminded him how exposed he was out here on the hull. It would be stupid beyond measure to try to fight across the naked plain of the monitor’s curving hull, with every fighter in his line of sight—and he in theirs.

Quickly, he ran for the nearest rent in the armor and dove into the ship’s interior. Now, he was in his element.

Straker began to kill Opters.

He hunted the bugs though the interior for five long hours. It didn’t matter that he fought Opters in Opter battlesuits. Battlesuits of any kind were simply no match for him. He was a giant among pygmies, with weapons that killed with one shot, one thought. Tanks couldn’t have operated inside the monitor, but a mechsuit could.

Sometimes he had to crouch. Sometimes he ripped through walls. Sometimes he wished his suit was half its size—but always, always, he slaughtered them as he found them.

He relieved, and then led, scattered and demoralized groups of marines. They accreted around him like lost souls around a savior. He was an angel, the only one that could lead them out of Hell. Though weary, they followed him, supported him, guarded his back.

Long before they killed the last bug, Commodore Gray’s capital ships turned the tide of battle. When it became obvious they would lose, the drone fleets turned as if of one mind and fled, saving as many as they could. Gray’s grim warriors, angered at their losses, pursued them, killing all they could, until the Nest Ships fled into sidespace.

 Gray’s flagship, too slow to chase the enemy drones, boarded Rhinoceros with her own marines. Once his ship was secured, Commodore Pearson landed his sorely wounded monitor on the moon’s surface, which allowed base forces and repair vehicles easy access.

Straker and the surviving marines soon stood proudly on top of the enormous ship as if upon a metal hill, surveying the battlefield. Most of the ground turrets, strongpoints and facilities of the shipyards remained intact, preserved by the tenacious defense of the heroic monitor crew and Trinity. Fleet ships cruised above in formation, and the moon’s landscape swarmed with activity.

Away, on the horizon, he noticed a similar metal hill, and a line of vehicles heading toward it. He remembered there had been two monitors. That must be Hippopotamus, Rhino’s fallen sister ship. He silently saluted her hulk for a moment and hoped there were survivors.

Commodore Gray comlinked from her flagship. “Congratulations, Liberator,” she said, her voice devoid of its usual faint disapproval. “You managed to hold.”

“We managed,” he replied. “Thank Trinity and Pearson’s people—and yours. Everybody fought hard today. Unfortunately, there are plenty of good men and women to add to the rolls of our fallen heroes.”

“This is a private comlink, Admiral. No need for speeches.”

“It’s how I feel, Ellen. If that’s a speech, okay, I’ll own it. Now what did you call about?”

“I’ve got someone for you to meet.”

“Oh? Who?”

He never could have predicted her answer. “An Opter defector.”

 

Chapter 4

 

Straker, on the surface of moon Beta-2

 

Commodore Gray continued her surprising comlink report to Straker about the Opter defector. “He says he wants to talk to you, and you only.”

Straker considered for a moment. “He, huh? It’s male?”

“No doubt.” Gray seemed amused by something.

“Send him to Trinity. I’ll meet him there. Straker out.”

He then called Trinity for pickup.

The Opter defector was brought aboard in shackles, snug duranium bracelets and anklets linked with chains. A heavy, treaded maintenance robot held a portion of the chain with one metal claw.

Straker had expected an insectoid creature, but this looked like an ordinary man, standing there in Trinity’s wardroom, unassuming, of average height and build, with dark brown hair and faintly golden skin, well within the norms for the many variations of humanity.

Only his eyes seemed unusual: calm and serene, but still sharp, as if they saw everything around him. Those eyes rested on each being in the room in turn—Nolan, Zaxby, Redwolf, and then Straker, who sat with a welcome mug of caff in his fist.

“Have a seat,” said Straker, gesturing. “You want a drink?”

“Anything with caffeine,” the man said in an ordinary tone. He sat and folded his shackled hands on the table in front of him. When he was given a mug of caff, he sipped at it with evident satisfaction.

Straker had the odd impression the fellow considered himself unrestrained. He certainly didn’t act like a prisoner. He wasn’t defiant. He wasn’t subservient. He simply… was.

“I’m Derek Straker,” he said. “They call me the Liberator. Who are you?”

“My designation is Myrmidon. You can call me Don if you like.” The man’s voice seemed very ordinary, with an Earthan accent hard to place.

“You claimed to be an Opter, but you look human?”

“As do you, Liberator, though you’re almost as far from original human stock as I. It appears you’ve been infused with Opter biotech.”

Straker sat back in mild puzzlement. “Not quite. I was infected with the HOC parasite, but I took the antidote before it ran its course.”

“And where do you think the Mutuality obtained the HOC parasite?”

Straker’s mind reeled.

Zaxby, Nolan and Indy all tried to speak at once, demonstrating that they weren’t quite as integrated as Straker believed. Zaxby won out by dint of throwing himself into the seat next to the prisoner and talking to him from a range of centimeters. “I knew it! I knew the Mutuality’s demonstrated biological expertise was insufficient to create something like the Hok. Otherwise, there would not only be Hok, but all sorts of other biotech options for its citizens—such as rejuvenation, or physical alterations for unusual environments, or—”

Straker interrupted loudly, reaching to shove Zaxby aside. “Pardon the annoying squid brainiac, Mister Myrmidon. So Opter biotech made the Hok? Why?”

“Call me Don, please. Because the Mutuality was losing to the Hundred Worlds at the time. The Sarmok faction gave them the biotech to balance the scales, disguised as a natural discovery on a newly explored planet. It was untraceable to the Opters, and of course the Mutuality Party oligarchs embraced anything that gave them greater control of over their own citizenry… as any government naturally would.”

“Yes… it was a win-win for people like that,” Straker said, eyes unfocused. “If a citizen couldn’t be ‘re-educated,’ he’d be turned into a Hok battle slave.” He folded his hands and placed his elbows on the table, leaning forward to focus on Myrmidon—or Don, as he seemed to want to be called. “And the Opters did this to keep the Huns from winning?”

“Yes.”

Straker thought about this for a moment. “How long have Opters been interfering in human affairs, encouraging them to fight each other? Balancing the scales, as you say?” He snapped his fingers. “And the nectar. That’s just one more way of screwing with us, I bet. How long?”

“For centuries.”

“Why?”

“I believe you already know the answer.”

“I can guess.” Zaxby opened his mouth, but Straker nodded to Nolan. Maybe letting the woman speak for Trinity would curb some of Zaxby’s verbal outbursts. “Can you?”

Nolan’s pale green eyes blinked. “To keep humanity weak and busy fighting itself.” She turned to Don. “Only it didn’t work as expected, did it?”

“Not in the long run, no. Every gift to one side or the other, every convenient, well-timed breakthrough—and there were many—restored the balance, but the tension between the two human sides kept military technology advancing. If not for the failure of the promise of AI, the progress curve would have turned exponential, as was expected hundreds of years ago. However, this technological singularity never occurred. Instead, humans kept breeding and spreading from world to world. Opters and other species couldn’t compete. It was a dilemma.”

“So what changed after so long?” asked Straker. “Why attack us now?”

Don stared and blinked at Straker. His eyebrows rose slightly.

After a long moment, Straker got it. “Me. Or at least, the Liberation. I’ve upset the balance. We have a real shot at unifying humanity now, and you Opters can’t stand that idea.”

“Not all Opters. The Sarmok faction.”

“What’s this Sarmok faction?”

“There are two major factions within our species. The Sarmok is dominant, but not all-powerful, composing approximately five-sixths of our people. They border human space. The Miskor is the other faction. They are located on the other side of Opter territory.”

“And you’re one of those Miskors,” said Nolan, approaching Myrmidon to lay a hand on his shoulder.

The man—if such he were—seemed to take no notice of the touch, and spoke. “I am Miskor. I’ve been embedded for years among the Sarmok, gathering information.”

“So you’re an internal spy,” said Straker. “An operative.”

“I am.”

“Then how can we trust you?”

“I don’t expect you to. I expect you to verify everything I say. Without my information, though, you’re likely to make grave missteps. I don’t think you wish to court a general war with the Opters.”

“You don’t call this battle the start of a serious war?”

Myrmidon smiled faintly. “This was an independent raid, tacitly approved by the Sarmok and conducted by some of the most belligerent Nests. If justification is ever needed, it will be claimed either that these Nests acted as rogues, or that they were attempting to aid the legitimate Mutuality government against the Liberation rebels.”

“Fake reports. Propaganda, lies and politics,” Straker spat. “I hate politics.”

“But you’re a warrior, and war is politics by other means. Across the galaxy, life’s base impulse is to spread and grow and ruthlessly dominate its neighbors, to its own benefit.”

“That sounds like a miserable view of things.”

“It is,” said Don, “ though I said this is life’s base impulse. With sentience comes morality, which regulates the ruthlessness of the jungle. A sufficiently advanced species will endeavor to think honestly and act morally.”

“That doesn’t describe most species I know.”

“Precisely. While enlightenment is a goal, it’s also a journey.”

Straker snorted. “Now you’re talking in cryptic mumbo-jumbo, like my Kung Jiu instructors.”

“Do you have writing materials?” Don asked.

Zaxby reached into a drawer and retrieved a pad and stylus, activating its analog graphics feature before placing it in front of Myrmidon. The Opter-man scribbled with the stylus for a moment, and then turned it to show Straker a list of mathematical equations.

“Yeah, so?”

“To you, that’s cryptic mumbo-jumbo. But to this Ruxin here, whom I perceive to be a technician or scientist, it is—”

“—a rather elegant proof of Ridzo’s fifth theorem!” Zaxby cried, seizing the pad in three tentacles and holding it as if precious. “It’s not the first proof I’ve seen, but it is undoubtedly the most elegant! I must record this and distribute it to my network of Ruxin colleagues—”

Straker crossed his arms. “Great, point made. You have to know things to know more things. But you also have to translate your obscure higher principles into actions that help people in the real world. That’s what I’m doing. I’m liberating people from oppression. I can’t tell them how to live after that. In fact, I don’t want to keep intervening—unless they start up with the oppression and subjugation again.”

Don folded his hands again. “That’s a fine goal, but even if you succeed in the short term, you’ll only be putting out fires.”

“Then the fires will be out. Call me a fireman. I know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m not a builder or a ruler.”

“What if you could be more than you are?”

Straker shrugged. “What if I don’t want to be?”

“Then there’d nothing more to be said on the subject.”

“Fine.” Straker stood. “Trinity, debrief him fully. Verify as much of his story as you can, and then turn him over to Fleet Intelligence for further interrogation.”

Don stood as well. “I’ll provide all the information I can, but sending me to rot in some think-tank is an unwise use of my skills.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” Straker nodded at Nolan, and she followed as the robot marched the chained man-thing out of the room toward the ship’s tiny brig.

He turned to Zaxby. “What do you think?”

“He seems to be as human as you are. Indy has a full suite of biometric sensors on him and could sense no deception. However, we don’t know his capabilities. Perhaps he could lie and show no sign.”

“He seems sincere—and what he said about meddling with humans is plausible. Obvious, even, in hindsight.”

Zaxby blinked all four eyes in sequence. “It may also explain my own people’s subjugation by humans.”

“You weren’t any more subjugated than humans were to other humans.”

“It may seem so to you. You never had to deal with the bullying, the taunts, the mean-spirited abuse from your adolescent fellow cadets at Academy, who knew they would never be as capable.”

Straker snorted. “Oh, yes I did take that crap—many times. They knew I was destined to be a top mechsuiter, and some resented it. But I bet you brought a lot of it on yourself by acting superior and snooty.”

“I am superior.”

“And snooty. But people don’t like their noses rubbed in it.”

“Fortunately, I have no nose.”

“But they do. Why don’t you think with some of your Trinity brain for a while and try to see things from other points of view? I’m sure Miss Nolan has a lot of insight into humans.”

“That’s a good idea. I am constantly amazed by your lack of stupidity, Derek Straker.”

“And I’m constantly amazed that, even brainlinked to an AI and a human, you haven’t improved your people-skills.”

“Thank you,” Zaxby said primly.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“I believe it was. It’s also ironic, coming from you. I never heard anyone laud your people skills.”

Straker sighed. “Forget it. I’m totally beat. Gonna catch a nap. Hold any comlinks. Wake me up in three hours and I’ll read the debrief.”

Later, fresh mug of caff in hand, Straker read over the written summary of the defector’s debrief, and then read it again. It appeared Myrmidon’s story checked out, as far as Trinity could tell. More interesting, he’d provided an enormous amount of useful intelligence on Opter territory, technology and weaponry.

Everything Straker saw worried him.

He carried the handtab and mug to the brig. The door unlocked and opened with a push of his elbow. Of course, Trinity controlled everything aboard her body. Or Indy did. Whatever. He couldn’t figure out where one began and the other ended.

Inside, he sat facing Don, who still wore his chains like jewelry rather than shackles. “I’m amazed at this windfall of intel,” Straker said, holding up his handtab. “What made you decide to betray your people?”

“I’m not betraying my people. I’m attempting to restore balance. Opters revere balance, elevating it to a spiritual significance. Like many revered spiritual values, however, it’s often sacrificed by those greedy for gain.”

“So you’re acting for the greater good. I understand that. I’m thinking about doing some things that my old chain of command in the Hundred Worlds would consider treasonous, though I deem them to be for the greater good. Yet, giving us all this intel could lose a lot of Opter lives…”

Myrmidon shrugged. “Opter Nests don’t hold the lives of individual members in high regard. Losing warriors, workers or technicians is analogous to a corporation losing machinery. The Nest is the valued entity, not the member.”

“I’d guessed that, from your tactics. But you might lose whole Nests, if it comes to war.”

“We may.”

Straker tossed the handtab on the table, rubbed his jaw and thought. “But since you’re Miskor, from the underdog faction, you don’t necessarily mind if the Sarmok take some hits. It will bring things closer to the balance you like.”

“Very astute. That’s one consideration.”

“What’s another?”

“We believe the current Sarmok intentions to be immoral, intended to subjugate or, if necessary, wipe out the majority of your species.”

“We, the Miskor?”

“Yes.”

Straker sighed. “This is all pretty convenient, this story you’ve told me. It’s plausible, it’s consistent, and it’s seductive. I want to believe it. But it could also be a complete illusion, a setup and a scam intended to get me and the New Earthan Republic to act a certain way.”

Don spread his hands to barely less than the limits of his chains. “You’ll have to decide for yourself.”

“Oh, I will. But here’s another question. Why are you so smooth? Why aren’t you like other aliens? Even someone like Zaxby, who’s been around humans much of his life, doesn’t act like one. Nobody would ever guess you’re an Opter.”

The Opter-man took a deep breath and sighed. “I suppose it’s because I’ve been studying the human worlds all my life. I’ve lived among you off and on for years, immersed in your civilization. Culture matters more than the body or its appearance. Opters can use biotech to reshape bodies at will—which renders the body largely irrelevant as a marker of identity. In every way that matters, I am human.”

Straker pointed a finger at Don. “That’s exactly what I mean. Smooth. You got an answer for everything, and that’s what bothers me. In fact, the one flaw in your perfect humanity is that you’re too perfect, too stereotypically human—because real people are never as poised and perfect as you are. But con men are.”

Myrmidon shrugged. “A catch-22, then. If I made mistakes, you’d see them as evidence of deception or untruth. If I don’t, you see that fact as evidence of deception or untruth. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

“Another perfect answer.”

“That’s how you perceive it. I am a more advanced soul than you are.” Don said this without a hint of smugness, as if merely stating a fact.

Straker’s answer dripped sarcasm. “Oh? Really?”

“Yes. Just as you’re above a recruit at boot camp. The recruit doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know, and at first must be convinced of his fundamental ignorance.”

“True wisdom is to know you know nothing.” Straker rubbed an eye and sipped his cooling caff. “Socrates.”

“Among others.”

“But I always thought that was bullshit. I know what I know, and it ain’t nothing.”

“But you have no inkling of what you don’t know. For example, you not only didn’t know the Opters were an enemy, you didn’t even know Opters existed until recently—nor did you know you should care, and how they influenced your life. One key to success is to expect to be surprised at all times.”

“If you expect to be surprised, you can’t be surprised. Okay, fair enough. But how does that get us anywhere now? How can I trust what you say?”

“Seeing is believing.”

“Meaning what?”

“I can take you to the Opter space. You can walk among us as I do.”

Straker’s eyes widened. “What, they’re gonna let a human just roam around?”

“You still misperceive. No, they will not let a human roam around, but they will let an Opter do so. I am Opter. The bipedal form of a human I wear is of little relevance. Bipeds have been incorporated into the Nests and Hives over the last few centuries, just as the workers and warriors and other specialized Facets were over the preceding millennia.” Myrmidon smiled. “If we can turn humans into Hok in the space of days, we can certainly turn them into Opters. And breed our own.”

Straker shuddered involuntarily at the horror of a biotech that would steal people’s humanity. He’d gotten used to the idea of the Hok, but only by ignoring its deeper implications.

Now, he had to face those implications. Even more than the threat of conquest, these Opters could corrupt and change what made people human.

What made him human.

What made Straker himself.

Were those the same thing, though?

“Trinity, you listening?” Straker asked.

“I am.”

“Send out a message to your brainiac network, all the labs and biologists and so on. Get working on a vaccine, something to protect people from Hok and Opter biotech. If we already have one, make sure it gets distributed and that people are vaccinated.”

“That will be an enormous undertaking across a thousand systems—a matter of years.”

“Then the sooner it gets started, the better.”

“I will pass the message.” Trinity’s voice seemed to express doubt, but Straker didn’t care. His job was to get people to do what needed to be done, not tell them how to do it.

“That’s a wise precaution, but the Sarmok can create endless new strains that will get around any vaccine,” said Myrmidon.

“Move and countermove. It will be a biological war. Don’t forget, we humans have engineered some pretty nasty diseases ourselves. We’ve wiped out whole species of bugs on our planets.”

Myrmidon raised a palm slightly. “You don’t need to convince me. I’m working toward peace and balance.”

“Too bad that usually means fighting a war first.”

“You mouth platitudes of peace, Liberator, but you love war.”

Straker’s eyes narrowed, but he considered before answering. “Part of me does. I was bred to be a weapon, genetically enhanced for it. Everybody likes to do something they’re good at. I bet you love this secret-agent stuff, even if you claim you wish it weren’t needed. But we’re both smart enough to look past what personally gives us our hard-ons, and work for the greater good—right?”

“Right.”

“Then let’s go.”

Myrmidon raised his eyebrows. “Go?”

“To your people. I need to see for myself. That’s what you said.”

“I have an Opter ship hidden among the asteroids. It’s stealthy and sidespace-capable.”

“Will your ship hold two?” Straker asked.

“It will.”

“How long is the trip?”

“At least twelve days each way, and you should plan for a few weeks of observation.”

“So, call it two months minimum.” Straker stood. “Does it matter what I bring along?”

“No. I’ll provide all you need.”

“Then I’ll meet you at the airlock in one hour.”