When mankind realized Earth would become uninhabitable, Humans built space habitations. Their first allies arrived in 2073 and shared their technology to power ships through space corridors that fold space and time. Only 58 years into their struggle for survival, an enemy emerges. In the wake of this threat an organic menace is only beginning to be recognized, ensuring the annihilation of every living thing if, together, they can’t find a way to stop it.
Newlyweds Tori Bertoletti and Raze Salen–the heart and soul of the Human spacefaring liveship the Aero–are separated. Ambassador Raze continues to negotiate formal alliances while Tori and the best scientific minds in the galaxy try to figure out how to stop the organic menace swallowing the universe in darkness. Meanwhile, civil war threatens to erupt between Earthers and Spacers and the leader of the Napoleonic Sinshe has defected. But can he convince his people…including his own sons leading the armada against all other worlds and cultures…that they’ve been indoctrinated and enslaved to lies against their will?
GENRE: Science Fiction ISBN: 978-1-925574-75-3 ASIN: 91, 196 Word Count: B087J9HZHZ
Carron FuRod opened his eyes but doing so only made his withdrawal symptoms worse, and he squeezed them shut again. Even the shadowy light streaming down from the ceiling was too bright. He was both cold and hot, his muscles aching, especially where his arms were chained over his head.
Whenever he closed his eyes, the faces of his men, long lost now, rose up to accuse him of treachery. Chiraseki. Linglau. Carron could still see the look of betrayal in their eyes just before he’d abandoned the ship. They would never believe he was saving them from the horror he himself would soon face, sundered from the Code and the Seph his body craved.
“Don’t you see? Nothing can be worse than acting in defiance of the Pureblood Prophet’s Code, kidnapped by an enemy, proving you’re weak. I won’t see you like that. I’ll take the torture to prevent that for you.”
But neither of them had reacted in comprehension to his words, only saw that he would rather murder them in cold blood than allow them to be separated from the Code that dictated their lives.
He’d fired and the radiation seared the skin from their skeletons. As they fell screaming, seizures and tremors overtook them, but finally they were silent as they slipped into unconsciousness…merciful death. Disgust had filled Carron as he looked upon what the weapon had reduced them to.
He would never forget the betrayal in their eyes, the sounds of their screams.
He hadn’t killed his own men, Chiraseki and Linglau, easily, nor without lingering regret. Choi and Itong had taken their own lives when the withdrawal started rather than disobey the Code, as the weaning would ensure. If Chiraseki and Linglau had only done the same, he wouldn’t have to hear their screams in his head now, agonizing over whether he’d betrayed them or saved them.
Carron had been telling himself they had to die. There’d been no other choice. But the niggling voice inside him while he’d been on the ship had insisted he hadn’t wanted to fight them and himself while he was inevitably going through hardline withdrawal. He couldn’t risk that one or both of them could overpower him and prevent him from getting back to the Sinshe-Shojani base at Neth-beo, aligning himself once more to the Code and taking his rightful place as Supreme Monarch.
Nothing had worked out the way he’d intended. His half-brother Halon had become Supreme Monarch in their father’s place–something he’d anticipated, though certainly not the way it’d happened. Carron had also expected Halon’s recent treachery. Yet his pursuit of Halon had been snatched by the enemy. Either Halon had engineered an escape or his kidnapping by the enemies had been legitimate. Carron hadn’t had time to determine which was the case. The end result was that Carron’s actions hadn’t given him the evidence he’d desperately needed to depose the bane of his existence, Halon.
Though the weaning had left Carron defenseless, unable to function, doubting the wisdom of the Pureblood Prophet’s doctrine, he hadn’t been broken completely. But can I convince Halon’s own sons of his treachery? By now the eldest, Khimara, would have assumed his father’s role temporarily.
He’d been brought back to Neth-beo in their fastest ship, after he’d sent the distress call from the shuttle he’d stolen from Paladin leaving behind those going through the same withdrawal he was. He’d killed some of them outright when they mutinied against him, refusing his orders even after Halon had fallen purposely or accidentally into their enemies’ hands.
I don’t have the evidence I need to prove Halon has been going through withdrawal for the past 15 spins. He did so willingly, deliberately. I know he did. I’ve been watching him relentlessly, saw the signs…but damnably nothing that could be corroborated. I predicted he’d suddenly make a break for his ship, Paladin, requesting only a bare minimum crew to run the ship. I also guessed he wouldn’t contact me–his second-in-command.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for the fact that he drained the Seph tanks on board Paladin, deleted the Prophet’s doctrine, locked out the computer so it only obeyed his commands, and also set a course that I believe would have taken him to his beloved grandmother, Arie. Taken him straight to perfidy that would have destroyed the Sinshe eventually. I couldn’t decrypt the sub rosa communication he sent. It’s doubtful anyone could have. He was too careful.
Because of that, I have nothing. I didn’t get the evidence I need to prove the testimony of what I recorded in the shuttle before the withdrawal turned me into a traitor as well. Khimara will see my words in the recording as little more than the ravings and rantings of someone made insane by the excruciating weaning.
Carron had no idea how long he’d been in this prison cell. How long he’d been going through the withdrawal. Whenever he came to, he wished for death–anything to stop the pain, the agony of having his mind torn in two.
I’m loyal. Loyal to the Pureblood Prophet’s Code. Father trusted me to remain strong, even if the worst happened. Without me, the Sinshe way will die. Glory in standing beside the Mighty Ruro will pass into lesser hands–
But without the Code, I could live my life the way I want to. No boundaries. No rules. Freedom. My men and I could go, settle somewhere we could live without restriction, without someone else’s ideal of who we are and what we should be. We could truly be free…
The question of why he hadn’t been put under the indoctrination again immediately after recapture bothered him for a moment until he accepted what he’d always known about Halon’s sons: They would remain loyal to him no matter what. Even if Carron provided irrefutable evidence of their father’s disloyalty to the Code, he suspected they would stand by him. If they’d put me back under the indoctrination immediately, I might have been too calm, too convincing in laying the evidence of Halon’s treachery at the Ascendant Monarch’s feet. No, Khimara wants me ranting and raving to ensure his father holds his place as Supreme Monarch–and Khimara will attempt to rescue his father as soon as possible. That’s not a matter up for debate.
A loud scraping sound roused him from his stupor, forcing him to open his eyes and blink painfully against the dim light before his eyes adjusted and then were taxed once more with the admittance of a wash of strong light when the cell door screeched open.
He heard a familiar voice–not harsh or angry. Khimara ordered the guards to let him down from his bonds, gently. “He’s still weak from the withdrawal. Hold him upright.”
As soon as the chains were loosed and his bare feet touched the cold floor, his stomach rolled tumultuously. He fell to the ground, heaving out his guts and once more wishing for death just to have this agony pass him by.
Carron had never been strong, never been wise. He’d realized that at an early age, when he saw he couldn’t measure up to those around him. He’d been shunned by the other children, never fit in, and even the breed mothers had seen something in him…something ruthless and tainted. They avoided him, doing little more than care for his base needs.
I made myself strong. I had to. And that was when I realized I possessed something no one else did. I could talk others–the weaker ones–into following me, easily manipulate them into doing my bidding.
That hadn’t helped him when he started his warrior training at the age of ten revolutions. Even surrounded with his band of misfits, none of them could withstand the relentless indoctrination that broke them again and again, making them suffer for any rebellion and resistance. There, he was again not good enough, not smart enough, only fit in with those he could cajole and seduce into secretly following him.
He’d soon submitted himself fully to the Pureblood Prophet’s doctrine…but his only pleasure came from darkness, shadows. He considered that his reward for pledging his loyalty.
Once his training began in earnest, he learned a terrifying, empowering truth about himself: He was a first-son FuRod, the most celebrated and elite of the purebloods. He and his countless half-brothers were in line to be Ascendant to their father, Supreme Monarch Hilongko. Only the first-son tier were acknowledged by their god to be worthy of ruling the cosmos.
Their father had gathered his sons to him and personally saw to their rigorous, brutal training to become elite warriors and–for one of them–ascension to the Supreme Monarchy. From the very beginning of Carron’s training, his and the other siblings’ half-brother Halon had been the clear choice for Hilongko’s Ascendant, and their father had never hid this fact from any of them.
Halon had been a loner as well, didn’t care about any of them, certainly not about fitting in. He followed the Code without question, excelled in everything he put his hands to. None of their brothers could best him, offer him the slightest challenge. To this spin, the records he’d set, the honors he’d taken in the Trial of Emulation concluding their warrior training remained unmatched, uncontested. No one had come close to beating him before, during or after.
Carron hadn’t had the ability, any more than their other brothers had. Yet he’d worked hard, his jealousy driving him, in his quest to impress their father. He didn’t have the brains to excel…but he had something else his father valued: He had unequalled ruthlessness and charisma. Though Carron had hidden his bond with the men who were loyal to him, somehow his father had seen something in him. At first, he’d punished him and his followers mercilessly for their association. When that correction didn’t work spin after spin, he’d finally used a gray area of devotion to the Code to his advantage.
Even Hilongko had been unable to fathom, predict or fully trust Halon, who was nothing less than the perfect Pureblood FuRod warrior.
“I can’t fault him,” Hilongko had said to Carron in private. “He is worthy in every way. But no one will place trust in someone that cannot be analyzed. Halon is beyond our scrutiny. He is the master, above any who have come before or exist now. And I can’t take the risk that his goals may not be in line with the Prophet’s. You alone, Carron, can I entrust with this last duty–perhaps the most important of all. You and you alone will ensure that the Prophet’s wisdom continues indefinitely, until Pureblood FuRod come into the Mighty Ruro’s kingdom once and for all. You must turn the tide if the Prophet’s plans for dominating the galaxy are jeopardized.”
The trust his father had placed in him had kept him loyal even when the withdrawal threatened to convince him to run, defect. Take his warriors–Chiraseki, Linglau, Itong, Choi, who’d boarded Paladin with him to stop Halon, along while Talak, Ziatar, and Az were left behind to serve him in whatever happened as a consequence. If they couldn’t secure domination, they would withdraw, start a new life of freedom without duty or rigid boundaries. But they would know they were cowards as they did so.
That leaves me. I’m the last hope for glory.
Carron was lifted, taken to a bright room, cared for, and when he could sit up by himself, Khimara came to him again. The door was locked behind him and the sound resounded in his sensitive ears. Only the Ascendant Monarch was in the room with him. The guards had remained outside.
Carron’s eyes followed the elite warrior without blinking. In doing so, he again noticed how muscular and lean Halon’s eldest son was, as lethal and lithe as a sunji carnivore of old on their home planet, Shojan. Something stirred in Carron when his eyes met the golden ones of the Ascendant Monarch.
“How do you feel?” Khimara asked gently.
Is he playing at befriending me before he tries to break me? Or am I wrong about his ambitions and loyalty to his father? Does he hope to usurp his father’s position in his absence?
Like their father, all of Halon’s heirs were perfect Pureblood FuRod warriors…impossible to fathom, predict or fully trust. But Carron had spent the better part of his hundred-some revolutions of life in the shadows, seeing what wasn’t meant to be seen, discovering the dark pleasures that awaited. He wasn’t without leverage.
“I’ve been better,” Carron admitted.
Khimara nodded, not sitting down, but standing several feet from him, adopting a stance of military precision though compassion emanated from him as well. “You left a recording in the shuttle when you sent out your distress call. Do you remember what you said?”
Carron evaluated his options. Something inside his gut warned him not to smear Halon in his oldest son’s presence. Not yet. “I remember little, Ascendant Monarch. Withdrawal is not for the faint of heart. But I remain ever loyal to the Code. I will willingly submit to the Prophet’s doctrine.”
“Why do you call me Ascendant Monarch? Do you believe my father defected?”
Carron swallowed, lowering his head over spread legs in the hard chair. “Yes, I do believe he did that.”
“You didn’t provide the necessary proof of such a thing in your recording. Your ravings aren’t proof of anything but your withdrawal.”
“If I’d been able to provide the necessary proof, I would have, my lord. Believe me.”
“You stated that you turned Paladin around from the course that seemed destined to return to the Sinshe homeworld Shojan and the orbital habitations the alien squatters built in our region of space.”
“The fact that my father’s warship was headed there seems like valid proof that he was going to destroy the orbital habitations, not defect. What made you believe he had contact with our enemies or the Hiiwa-Shojani there?”
At Hilongko’s behest, Halon himself had ordered Shojan to be decimated with nuclear weapons almost a century before. From time immemorial, the Shojani fought a civil war on Shojan that fractured the natives into Sinshe-Shojani–the strong and chosen by the Mighty Ruro–and the Hiiwa-Shojani, the weak, not destined for paradise or honor. That day in 2052, Hilongko had intended for the Sinshe to dominate their lesser brothers once and for all. But a rebel leader, Halon’s beloved Mare Arie, had led the people into the bunkers beneath Phares, the largest city occupying more than a third of the interior of the planet, that the FuRod had spent hundreds of revolutions creating and stockpiling in the unlikely event their enemies overpowered them.
That the Hiiwa were able to survive was something Carron still couldn’t come to grips with. That a mere seed mother had been the leader of the rebellion was even more unthinkable. Women were nothing–good for producing offspring and serving males. Carron had stopped underestimating the weaker sex ever since he’d learned what they’d done to circumvent Sinshe dominion.
“I believe he’d been in secret communication with the grandmother that raised him before he entered warrior training.”
Khimara looked at him expectantly, wanting to hear the proof for that supposition as well.
“My lord, I’ve done everything in my power to gather the necessary proof. But your father is shrewd beyond comprehension. I serve only the Code.”
Whatever happens, I can’t let the agony of withdrawal make me look LIKE a raving lunatic. I have to stay in control.
“You said you took the Supreme Monarch in custody after you stole on board Paladin because he was showing every sign of being weaned from the Prophet’s doctrine. You found the Seph tanks drained, and the computer impossible to access. Yet you managed to turn the ship around and you headed to Qu, where you intended to take control of the planet inhabitants and turn them to our cause.”
“That should have been done long spins ago, my lord–as soon as we returned to Neth-beo from sending the Humans a warning about squatting in our territory.”
“You’re not Supreme Monarch. You’re only my father’s Second. That choice wasn’t yours to make. Why didn’t you immediately return to Neth-beo and turn my father in?”
“Qu was much closer and the objective required in sight. I didn’t anticipate Halon escaping my custody.”
“Did you actually see my father taken into custody by the enemy?”
The battle required all Carron’s attention, even after he was told Halon escaped his state room, where he was imprisoned–somehow, impossibly. Carron never anticipated so many enemy ships converging on Paladin. How did they even know of his intention to overtake Qu? Halon must have told them. Nothing else made sense to him. If only he’d been able to decrypt the sub rosa communication, perhaps he could prove that.
Though none of the enemy ships had been a match for Paladin, Carron had accepted that he couldn’t win against so many. His only chance was to get away, call for backup. He’d only just managed that much. There hadn’t been time to search the ship for Halon until after the enemies broke off pursuit. But he had later. Countless times, over and over, scouring every last inch. Halon had been nowhere to be seen. Was it inconceivable that there were hiding places no one else but the Supreme Monarch knew of? Damnably yes. No other conclusion could be reached.
Khimara gave him a reproving look for the speculation that lacked solid evidence–just like everything he’d stated thus far.
“You do realize, Carron, that your actions are those of a traitor? Just because you’re telling me now you want to be put back under the Code doesn’t make your own actions any less suspicious.”
“I did what your father didn’t have the nerve to do himself.”
“And what exactly was it you believe you needed to do?”
“I attempted to conquer an enemy and use them for our purposes, as well as occupy their planet. That is the Prophet’s wisdom. Your father couldn’t get himself to take that risk. He sat back, waiting, risking that the enemies would discover our secret base and attack–before our weapon is ready to launch. I believed he and Dagita were in cahoots even before Halon made a run for it with his ship.”
“Is that so? Because Dagita is no longer anywhere to be found on Neth-beo.”
Carron frowned. He hadn’t found Dr. Dagita on Paladin after his infiltration either. He’d searched for him at the same time he searched for Halon, thinking the two were working together–weaned and rebelling against the Prophet’s doctrine.
“What do you think happened to my father? Or to Dr. Dagita?”
Carron shook his head. “There was an…anamoly on the ship. I couldn’t be sure what it was because our sensors were malfunctioning after being hit with weapons’ fire from an enemy ship. We were firing on them sporadically and blindly as a result of that hit. But I believe that’s when a small enemy team boarded Paladin long enough to retrieve Halon and potentially Dr. Dagita. Halon must have contacted them to tell him exactly where he was in order for them all to get in and out so quickly. They may have planned to target our sensors to give them that edge.”
“But you have no proof of any of this?”
Carron took a deep breath, aware how he’d failed, aware that simply confirming with another “no, no proof” wouldn’t help him. He wouldn’t be able to legally depose Halon, and the longer he tried, the less believable anything he said would be.
If I want to save myself, I have to figure out what Khimara wants. Does he doubt his father? Does he simply want to rule? Or is he loyal to Halon? He gives nothing away, not a single telltale sign either way.
Khimara had treated him decently thus far, though, and perhaps he could be persuaded to usurp his father, make Carron his loyal Second.
“My lord, I promise you I believed your father and Dr. Dagita were traitors. Everything I did was to serve the Code. And I remain loyal in that regard. I’m in your hands. Put me back under the Code. I’ll submit willingly. I serve the Prophet, regardless of who stands beside Mighty Ruro as Supreme Monarch. I support you, whatever you choose to do with the information I’ve provided. Think about it: Life could be different if you ruled, my lord. As the one who follows most closely the Prophet’s Code, your choices would be adhered to. As your Second, I would keep any secrets you felt you had to keep.”
Khimara’s eyes narrowed…nothing more.
“The Prophet gave guidelines, merely guidelines. If you prefer one of the seed mothers over the others, why shouldn’t you indulge yourself with her, allow her to sire all your sons and new breed mothers? This is a gray area in the Code, after all,” Carron offered in a gentle, careful tone.
Carron and his men had stealthily followed all of Halon’s sons, spied on them, gathering intel. Only once had Carron seen something that he planned to use at the opportune time. He’d seen Khimara with the seed mother, Kimtee, in the coition chambers. He’d been aware their embrace wasn’t common, the way they’d kissed, mated, whispered treacherous words of love for one another.
Most of the breed mothers remained on the mounting table and spoke not a word as they submitted passively to the duty they’d been born to in offering themselves as a willing vessel for warriors to impregnate and sire strong sons. Carron himself had endured the humiliation each month after his medical testing to ensure he had many sons to follow in his footsteps, as all pureblood warriors were required to.
For another long moment, Khimara looked upon him without revealing a single thing about what he was thinking, believing, scheming. Then he walked to the door, knocked, and ordered the guards who appeared at the ready, “Get him back under the Code without delay. He’ll be allowed to stay in this room, under the strictest guard, his needs cared for, until I give the order otherwise.”
“As you decree, my lord.”
Khimara passed out of the cell without another word or glance back at Carron.
He’ll kill me. What else can I conclude? He’s either ruthless and intends to seize control in his father’s absence…or he’s as loyal to his father as he seems to be to the Code. That leaves me with few options.
I can’t fulfill my father’s last request of me, can’t do what he entrusted me and me alone to undertake if the empire falls into confusion, far from the Pureblood Prophet’s vision of FuRod dominion. Unless Talak, Ziatar, and Az know of what’s become of me and remain my faithful followers… Carron embraced the thought as his only recourse. Only then can the Prophet be resurrected. By my hand.
Khimara had departed and four guards entered, pulling Carron up without finesse, now that the Ascendant Monarch wasn’t there to dictate the prisoner’s treatment.
Carron steeled himself, withdrawing inside himself. Long foretold was the prophecy that the slumbering Pureblood Prophet would awaken, arise and seize the glory he’d envisaged from the beginning.
By the Mighty Ruro, I’ll be by his Prophet’s side when the kingdom of the Sinshe is ushered in at long last.
Aboard Paladin docked at Dynasty Habitat Alpha, Halon stood beside Captain Lowell while the Sinshe and ally tech teams safely brought communications aboard the vessel back online. Had they done it when they captured the adrift ship in the space corridor, all of Neth-beo would have been alerted to not only their location but also to their illegal eavesdropping on secure Sinshe communication channels. With all the guards and monitors in place to prevent the Sinshe from being aware they were snooping, they could learn what was going on at Neth-beo, even in the state room of the Supreme Monarch, where Halon strongly believed his oldest son Khimara would arrange secret meetings with his many half-brothers.
“What do they think happened to Paladin?” Captain Lowell asked Halon cautiously when the tech specialist announced they were ready to bring the ship’s communications online. “Are you sure they don’t already have something in place to prevent us from eavesdropping if they suspect we’ve captured Paladin?”
“Either they haven’t risked going to search for Paladin because they believe that’s a distinct possibility, or they saw the debris and assumed the Sinshe on board Paladin did what true warriors would rather than risk capture.” Death before falling into an enemy’s hands.
Not really a question, Lowell muttered, “That’s why you insisted we scatter the debris from when we blew up the lifepod you defected with in the place Paladin was last seen in the corridor?”
“Their long-range sensors will assure them the debris is of Sinshe design. I doubt they’d venture nearer, in case of ambush. At that point, I can’t imagine they would have considered it worthwhile to analyze the debris closely either, since they would be forced to consider that corridor compromised if an enemy had clearly infitrated it and blown up the Sinshe lead ship there. They would have gotten out as fast as possible after verifying the debris was of Sinshe design. Given either alternative, they wouldn’t consider Paladin a factor anymore. Whatever we do with it will be fine, especially with all the safeties the tech teams have built in. But I suggest that we only eavesdrop on Neth-beo in short bursts instead of continuously. The longer that port of connectivity is active, the more likely some junior comm officer will find the breach and realize something untoward is afoot.”
“I agree. All right, boys, let’s fire it up and take a listen for anything worth hearing.”
Halon and Captain Lowell stood side-by-side, alert to any possibility as the connection was established, tested for anonymity, then cleaned up of as much interference as possible.
For a time, they listened to random communcations taking place all around Neth-beo–the orbital military base, the planetary sectors. There was nothing spoken they didn’t already know about the high state of alert until Halon adjusted the communication band to his private state room, saying, “This sub rosa channel is known only to me and my sons and connects my private state room to my ship. I established it when my sons were old enough in order to communicate privately with them while I was away from Neth-beo.”
“Is it safe to access?” Lowell asked in alarm.
“I think we can access whether it’s safe if we listen for a short time. If we hear Paladin is no longer being searched for, we can assume we’re safe eavesdropping.”
His oldest son’s voice broke through with a bit of static and distortion. “–Father was deliberately kidnapped and weaned by the allied enemies in an attempt to ‘cut the head off the snake’.”
“Is that what Carron reported?” Leton asked.
“No. He believes Father defected deliberately. But none of the so-called evidence he’s provided corrobrates that scenario even remotely. The enemies were obviously waiting for the opportunity to capture him alive, and I believe they took that chance during the battle at Qu. Carron claims sensors were scrambled and there was an anamoly that couldn’t be identified. He says it happened then, and I believe that much.”
“The aliens assume we’re weaker without our leader,” Vatarro added drily.
“We can’t leave him in their hands,” Khimara said–not a suggestion but a command from their Ascendant Monarch that Halon was certain his eldest’s half-brothers took as such. “I intend to rescue Father personally. Whatever it takes.”
“What about Paladin? Shouldn’t we retrieve our most valuable dreadnought in case the enemies try to capture it?”
“When we received Carron’s distress call, I sent one of the meran cruisers to investigate. The Zurg-rtu space corridor is compromised. The enemies destroyed Paladin just outside the corridor. I don’t believe our adversaries will risk ever using it again, but it’s also closed to Sinshe traffic from this point on.”
“If you leave Neth-beo, Carron’s goons will attempt to overthrow,” Doikaa interjected cautiously.
“That’s why you need to to assert your position of authority,” Khimara said. “I’ll begin establishing your place of temporary leadership immediately to ensure there’s no insurgency when I announce my intentions to launch a rescue.”
“We also have to ensure Carron remains in custody,” Leton said forcefully. “If he escapes, we won’t be able to maintain the Monarchy until Father returns. Are you sure it was a good idea to put him in a soft prison?”
Khimara made a frustrated noise. “Believe me, Leton, it wasn’t my choice. But, until we have Father back, I don’t want to do anything to make Carron’s men rebel. Right now they believe we’re erring on the side of caution, taking care of him, not doubting him, not planning to execute him, getting him back to Code. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s in a high-security prison. He can’t escape, nor will his followers be able to gain access to him there.”
A moment’s silence had Doikaa asking, “What is it, Khimara?”
“Something Carron said,” Khimara said thoughtfully. “We haven’t been able to find Dr. Dagita. In his absence, we’ve also verified that the weapon was sabotaged. Carron seems to believe Father and Dr. Dagita were weaned and working together to defect.”
“If the weapon is damaged…”
“Right now, that’s not the major concern. It wasn’t ready to be brought online and now that it’s been compromised, it’s even less so. I have to promote the next science engineer to effect repairs.”
“What’s your plan?” Vatarro asked.
“Without the weapon, we have to assume our enemies won’t be helpless against us, though they are no match for our warbirds. No, I believe the best way to retrieve Father is to go in stealth with no more than three ships, steal onto the habitat I believe they’re holding him in orbit of Shojan. After we locate him, a small team will go in cloaked to retrieve him. It’ll be dangerous…but I believe the risk will be worth it if we can retrieve Father and potentially Dr. Dagita.”
“We have a lot of work to do to secure Neth-beo. How soon will we undertake the mission?” Leton asked.
“I have to establish Doikaa as successor first. And we need to plan this carefully. I’d like to send one small, advanced ship–one highly cloaked and undetectable–to do reconnaissance of the orbital habitations. If we can learn the layout and potential areas Father and the doctor may be held, we improve our chances of infiltrating quickly and quietly. Only when we’re absolutely certain we can retrieve Father will we commit to the mission.” Khimara paused for a moment. “Are we agreed?”
Each familiar voice that offered confirmation weighed heavier on Halon. In the moments that followed, the sounds of boots filing out and a door closing ushered in silence. Lowell ordered the connection severed, confirmed they were still safe, then glanced at Halon. “Are your sons loyal to you?”
“Loyalty to anything but the Code is forbidden,” Halon murmured. “But…yes, I believe my sons are loyal to me.”
“All of them?”
Halon took a deep breath that did nothing to dispel the heaviness making him feel like he was suffocating. “Yes.”
Embarrassed by the burning behind his eyes, he stood up straighter, putting his hands behind his back to shield the emotional stakes in this war that he and Vespera alone had spoken of in the confines of his own soft prison. “Captain Lowell, you heard my son say he sent a cruiser to verify whether Paladin was intact. They discovered the debris and took it for what was left of the lead dreadnought. This matter has been dismissed from their minds, as such.”
“You have an idea?” Lowell asked in interest, clearly hearing something in his voice. “Something to do with that small stealth recon ship your son wants to send in advance to discover your location?”
“No. But I do believe we need to do everything in our power to ensure that ship is captured. It’ll be in stealth mode, but I can plot the course the ship will move to approach Dynasty.”
At Lowell’s nod, Halon drew in a fortifying breath. “As I told you, this war can only be fought by attrition. Whittling away at their numbers. Making the enemy our ally by capturing whoever they send at us and putting them through the weaning process until we have enough of an army gathered to make our move on the Neth-beo base.”
“How do we do that? Three of your dreadnoughts are more than a match for twenty of anything we have to throw at them, even with the upgrades.”
“My sons believe Paladin was destroyed, myself and Dr. Dagita captured by the enemy to weaken them. But what if we make them believe I got away from the enemy, stole a ship, with Dr. Dagita accompanying me, and we were the ones who retrieved Paladin from the space just beyond the Zurg-rtu space corridor? I believe we can convince the 85 on board when we captured the ship to help corroborate that idea to my sons.”
“What is your idea?” Lowell asked.
“We find exactly the right place away from where we found my ship. There, we’ll ‘hobble’ Paladin, send a distress call to Khimara to tell him I escaped with Dr. Dagita and we got away with Paladin and its small crew, but now we’re dead in the water. If we choose the location carefully, we can surround the three dreadnoughts my son comes with to retrieve me. The allied ships can keep them focused on a battle while I take remote command of the ships from Paladin. That’s something we’ve built into our ships from the beginning to ensure none of them ever falls into enemy hands. Once we have control, we flood each with a gas that will put everyone on board asleep. Then we can send crews onto all the ships to secure them. We return to Dynasty and begin the process of weaning everyone we’ve captured. We could add potentially thousands to our numbers in a single swoop. The trickiest part will be finding just the right place for the ambush…as well as using Paladin’s computer to hack into each of the three dreadnoughts without belying our assertion that the ship is adrift.”
“Can you do it?”
“Of course. The 85 that were on board Paladin and I trained for the scenario hundreds of times.” Halon lifted an eyebrow. He’d worked with the other cultures long enough to know that they tended toward being cautious even if it meant losing a valuable opportunity. “I don’t need to tell you, Captain Lowell, the faster we work out the logistics of this plan, the less chance of bringing the whole armada down on our heads. And we would have a massive advantage we don’t have now.”
The captain said he’d set up a tactical meeting as soon as possible, ordering the tech team left behind on Paladin who would be randomly and systematically eavesdropping on Neth-beo to record everything and alert them with any developments.
As soon as they disembarked, Captain Lowell told him to grab a meal and maybe some shut-eye before the next tactical meeting with all the allied military leaders. Halon nodded, sensing more than seeing his guards drop in place on either side of him as soon as the Human captain left his side.
Halon had gotten used to the measuring of his footsteps in time with the soldiers who escorted him everywhere, the weight of awareness brought about by every word out of his mouth, the sense that each movement was being evaluated for potential manipulation or deception.
He couldn’t fault those gathered from all the cultures on the Dynasty habitations. In their place, he wouldn’t have relaxed until absolute substantiation of trustworthiness appeared. He was still an unknown quality, despite all he’d done to prove the loyalty of himself and the Sinshe allies they’d rescued. He’d given them detailed schematics to allow them to markedly improve their planetary, orbital and ship defenses, weapons, and stealth capabilities so they were a match for Sinshe equivalents. They had the full blueprints for the weapon of mass destruction his people had been building to subjugate–or destroy–individual planets and its peoples. That the Human Captain Lowell now called him “Halon” instead of “Sinshe” was the best he could hope for at this point.
In the last fifteen spins, Halon had fallen into a rhythm since they’d captured his ship, Paladin, right from under the noses of the Sinshe. The 85-some souls aboard had been weaned from the Seph and indoctrination and were now loyal to Halon, if not to the allies he’d turned traitor to align himself with in hopes of taking down the bigoted, billions-strong empire he’d helped build. The Code might always be there, whispering their disloyalty in the backs of their minds. But he was free. These brainwashed Sinshe were also free for the first time to choose not to be tyrants who wanted nothing more than to dominate the entire galaxy and every culture that lived within it.
It won’t be easy, but somehow we’ll free more. Free enough to prevent the Sinshe from conquering every habitable world, one at a time, and making them slaves to the Code.
Each spin, he spent endless tide cycles with the military leaders, strategizing their next move here at the Galactic Alliance Embassy, headquarters for the cultures that had signed formal peace treaties with each other. With every new spin, more of them arrived. They were also still evacuating Hiiwa from Shojan–those escaping the nuclear winter on the surface of the planet or the underground bunkers where they’d survived for the better part of nearly 80 years. After tactical meetings, he visited those he’d consigned to sure death when he’d been ordered by his father, then Supreme Monarch, to use nuclear weapons to wipe out all life on Shojan. Halon needed to see their hatred and fear, needed to face the devastation he’d caused his own brothers and sisters by obeying an order he’d grieved to have made. Nothing he did could ever absolve him of that stacking sin. But seeing them, allowing and accepting their scorn and abuse without excuse, assured him he would never go back to the despot he’d been made into with his Sinshe warrior training and the Prophet’s relentless proselytization. His grandmother Arie had joined him during his daily visits, and he’d seen firsthand her influence on the Hiiwa. Countless times, watching her interact with them, he’d concluded they wouldn’t have survived without her.
He also spent as many tide cycles as he could each spin talking with those who’d been aboard Paladin and forced into detoxification after he’d drained the Seph tank and permanently deleted the Prophet’s doctrine from the ship computer. They were in military block medical detention. The Vreah and Hiiwa researchers had worked tirelessly to develop a drug to significantly reduce the symptoms and side effects of hardline withdrawal from the Seph, and many of the surrendered Sinshe had recovered in record time with the treatment. While the mental ramifications couldn’t be easily healed by any medication, all of them seemed to realize the Prophet’s oppression had to stop with them.
Halon himself had procurred the necessary research and technology from the Vreah, utilizing those basics to build a weapon of mass destruction. Just after Halon completed his warrior training and been given the lead Sinshe warbird Paladin to command, his father had ordered him to infiltrate the Vreah and get what was needed to construct a weapon on a unprecedented scale. It was then Halon had met Vespera Vos, the youthful daughter of the Vreah galaxy ambassadors. At that time, young as she’d been, Vespera had been a budding scientist, studying negative energy and matter-dark matter power sources that the Vreah used to heal their planet and others around the galaxy.
“By whatever means necessary” Halon’s father had instructed and had even insisted he forego the indoctrination in order to ensure success. Without the Prophet’s so-called wisdom obscuring his vision, Halon had seen life…and love…in a way he never could have conceived of previously. He and Vespera had fallen in love almost instantly, a love that was doomed to failure, given their vast differences and agendas.
Yet in the decades upon decades they’d been apart, they’d never forgotten each other. Seeing her again after he defected had led to an attraction neither of them could fight despite the obstacles–chiefly that the allies around them were monitoring him constantly, ever-ready to stop him dead in his tracks if he proved treacherous.
Halon’s spins were filled so he barely had time to sleep properly. All through the tide cycles of each new spin, his mind was never far from Vespera, waiting for him. Both of them were certain their sneaking around hadn’t gone unnoticed. Yet no one had called them on it. Their stolen moments included nothing like whispering state secrets, spying, or planning coups behind the backs of their allies. If they’re insistent on eavesdropping, they’re more likely to hear words of love, commitment to an eternal union, ecstasy.
Halon had been assigned quarters near military block medical detention. The soldiers escorting him didn’t accompany him inside but took up positions directly outside the door.
His anticipation rose with the soft whisk of the doors closing automatically behind him. Vespera had been coming to his assigned quarters whenever she got the report about him returning there, as she did automatically now.
Ignoring the lure of food, he moved straight to the only private space inside the otherwise single room structure–the bathroom. The Humans apparently valued this kind of privacy alone, even in a prison. But he and Vespera had decided that, while they would only see each other in his cell, there was no point to hiding here in the cramped confines of a commode. They both accepted that the intimacy of their relationship was well-known by all the military leaders. At the moment, it wasn’t considered a threat, though he suspected they intended to continue monitoring it “audibly” for as long as need be.
Still, she remained inside the small alcove, perhaps believing he wasn’t alone, and so he went to her. In the dark, they didn’t speak for several minutes as they greeted each other warmly. “You’re my light, vlassa,” he murmured at last when they drew back to breathe.
But she was strangely silent, prompting him to call for the lights in the alcove. He gulped when he saw tears sparkling in her eyes. “Vespera, what–?”
She didn’t torture him. Putting her hand over his mouth, she whispered immediately, “I’m pregnant, Halon. This may be the first natural, not implanted, pregnancy in centuries…and the first interspecies pregnancy in history.”
The weight of hearing his sons voices, unable to predict the future, his uncertain ability to save them, settled on him again. He wanted to weep and yet he couldn’t seem to speak, react, do anything but stare at her in awed wonder.
I don’t deserve a second chance. I don’t deserve to get my wish that all my children can be saved from the coming war and potential annhilation. I’ve done nothing at all to deserve redemption…
His heart surged at the gift he couldn’t refuse or regret, regardless of the outcome.