Following Fortune's Pawn and Honour's Knight, the space adventure continues in this action-packed military science fiction novel featuring mercenary Deviana Morris.
Commander Brian Caldswell, head of the little-known and terribly named Joint Investigatory Spatial Anomaly Task Force, stood on the bridge of the Republic battle cruiser he’d requisitioned from fleet command an hour ago, staring through the huge observation window at the void beyond, a void that should have been a thriving planet of sixteen billion people, and wondering how everything could have gone so wrong so quickly.
Seven years now they’d been fighting the phantoms. Seven years of working constantly, of never seeing his wife, of missing his daughter grow up. But in those seven years, they’d never failed. They’d never missed an alarm or arrived too late to save whatever colony planet the phantoms had chosen to nest on. Even these last eighteen months, when the phantom attacks had grown so frequent it didn’t seem possible to catch them all in time, Caldswell’s team had always pulled it off. Always, that was, until yesterday.
“It’s pointless to feel guilty.”
Caldswell kept himself from jumping just in time, sliding his eyes over to look at his partner. John Brenton was right beside him, his arm almost brushing Caldswell’s shoulder, and Caldswell hadn’t heard a thing. Damn creepy symbiont, he thought with an angry breath. Dr. Strauss wanted to put one of those things in him, too, but that wasn’t happening. Caldswell had spent the first fifteen years of his career running slave-freeing missions against those damn lizards—like hell was he going to let the doctor shove one into his brain.
“Even if we’d left the second the gravity alarms went off, the planet would still have been completely destabilized by the time we’d finished the jump,” Brenton went on, staring down at the small knot of refugee ships that huddled in the battleship’s shadow, the ten thousand people who were all that remained of the Republic core world of Svenya. “The only thing we can do now is make sure it never happens again.”
“And how do you suggest we do that?” Caldswell said quietly, glancing over his shoulder.
Behind him, Maat lay on the floor, curled up in a ball under Brenton’s coat. Dr. Strauss, the universally renowned plasmex doctor who’d been assigned as Maat’s caretaker, was on his knees beside her. He was talking to her in a soft voice, trying to cajole her into getting up, but Maat didn’t even seem to hear him. She just lay there, her dark eyes glassy and empty but still afraid. The sight made Caldswell want to pull his hair out, because it meant they were probably going to have to drug her again.
As a powerful plasmex user rescued from the pits of a xith’cal lab, Maat had always been unstable, but they’d never had to drug her until this year. With the added workload from the increase in phantom attacks, though, her fits were rapidly getting out of control. They’d had to drug her nearly unconscious just two days ago, and Caldswell never would have ordered it again so soon, but the moment they’d arrived at Svenya she’d gone into hysterics, nearly killing their entire crew before Brenton managed to get her with the syringe.
She’d screamed herself into unconsciousness, babbling about a god, a monster that spanned the sky. At the time, Caldswell had dismissed it as more of Maat’s raving, but that was before he’d heard the phantom they’d come here to hunt had reduced an earth-class planet to rubble in less than a galactic standard day. Now he wasn’t so sure she was wrong.
“She’s strong,” Brenton said earnestly. “She’ll snap herself out of this.”
“And what if she can’t?” Caldswell asked. “What if this thing really is as huge as she claims? Our biggest phantom was, what, fifty feet?”
“Forty-five,” Brenton said. “But she handled it.”
“And she went to pieces at the sight of this one,” Caldswell said, nodding like Brenton had just made his point for him. “Did you see the ships it destroyed? Huge freighters crushed like tin cans. Damn thing must be miles long, and it’s still out there.”
With Maat out of commission, Caldswell had been forced to track the phantom by sending scout ships to fly until they hit the phantom’s aura and blacked out. As spotting methods went, it was only slightly less dangerous than randomly shooting the cannons until they scored a hit, but Caldswell had to know if the thing moved. Svenya had been the largest colony in this system by far, but the other planets still had populations in the millions. If the monster made a move toward one of them, Caldswell needed to know. Not that he knew what he’d do if that happened. “Maybe we should try nuking it again?”
Brenton scoffed. “The nukes don’t work on the little ones. A phantom this size wouldn’t even feel it.” He shook his head. “Maat’s power is the only thing that can touch them.”
“You tell me, then,” Caldswell snapped. “There’s a monster out there capable of destroying a planet in a day that we can’t see, can’t track, and can’t shoot. Just seeing it was enough to scare our only viable weapon into a coma, and I’m supposed to be sending a message to fleet command right now to report that we’ve got this under control. So you tell me, John, what do we do?”
“Tell the truth,” Brenton said. “Tell them we don’t have it under control because something like this can’t be controlled. Our best bet is to evacuate all the remaining colonies and close off the system. It’s never been proven that phantoms can travel faster than light. If we give it enough space, we might never see it again in our lifetime.”
“There’s also no proof that they can’t travel faster than light,” Caldswell replied. “Seven years and we still don’t know jack shit about how they move. We don’t even know if this monster is the only one of its kind. The phantom population has been increasing exponentially all year, and we can’t even say why or where they’re coming from. For all we know, this is the new normal.”
The end of humanity, Caldswell thought with a cold clench. He’d always thought the xith’cal were the worst threat to mankind, but the lizards were nothing on this enemy, the monster they couldn’t see coming. “We have to do something,” he said, turning back to the empty window. “Find some way to wall it in or—”
He cut off as a deep groan rattled through the ship. The noise was more pressure than sound, squeezing his mind in a way Caldswell recognized too well. It was the phantom’s scream, but he’d never heard one this deep or this huge. The ship lights flickered in answer before Maat’s power neutralized the phantom’s aura, and Caldswell let out a long breath.
“It’s getting closer,” he said as the scream faded, looking back at Maat and her doctor. “Ben! How soon can you wake her up?”
Dr. Strauss looked up at his name and began to shake his head wildly, sending his wispy white-blond hair flying around his paper-pale face. “It would be unwise in the extreme to disrupt her harmony. Her mind is still in trauma from being put under and from whatever she saw. If you bring her up now, the risk of a full-scale psychotic breakdown increases exponentially.”
The lights flickered again as he spoke. This time, though, only the low-energy emergency runners came back on, and Caldswell swore under his breath. “Do it,” he ordered. “We’ll deal with the consequences later.”
“We don’t even know if she’ll be able to do anything,” Brenton said, grabbing Caldswell’s arm. “Are you really willing to risk damaging her? Our only weapon?”
“If that thing catches us while she’s asleep, we’re all dead for sure,” Caldswell said, plopping himself into the gunnery control seat. Phantoms couldn’t be killed by physical objects or energy attacks, but they didn’t like them. If he could land a big enough hit, maybe he could buy them some—
The battleship lurched beneath him as something crashed into the port side. Something enormous. Even at low power, the thrusters righted them immediately, but Caldswell had had enough.
“Wake her up!” he shouted, punching the button to authorize live fire on all guns. Before he could shoot, though, a new scream ripped through the bridge, sending a stab of pain right through his head. His first thought was that another phantom had joined the attack, a much smaller one, but then he saw Maat lurch to her feet, her mouth open as she screamed again.
As always, Brenton got to her first. “Easy,” he whispered, pulling her into his arms. “Who’s coming?”
Maat buried her face in Brenton’s chest, and Caldswell felt a twinge of guilt. She was nearly twenty now, but when she did that, she looked just like the little girl they’d rescued so long ago. The little girl they should have been protecting, not using like this.
“Who?” Brenton asked again.
Maat’s whole body shook with a sob. “The ones who speak in the dark.”
Brenton glanced at Caldswell, but the commander just shrugged. Maat said cryptic shit all the time. But before he could try and guess what this particular riddle was about, a flash outside put everything else out of his mind.
Light bloomed in the empty space that had been the colony of Svenya, pushing through the darkness like all of reality was just oil floating on water. Caldswell had never seen anything like it, though he knew enough to guess it must be some kind of hyperspace exit. As for the ships that came through, though, he couldn’t guess at all.
They looked like deep-sea fish, their flat bodies marked with gorgeous blues, greens, and purples that glowed with their own light. They dwarfed the battleship Caldswell had requisitioned, but they moved with a grace that belied their hugeness, an effortless, natural motion that he had never seen in any machine. If it wasn’t for the fact that he could see obvious doors in their sides and prows, he would have sworn the giant vessels were alive. Whatever they were, though, they were beautiful. So beautiful Caldswell could have stared at them forever, but he couldn’t, because the final shape that blossomed out of hyperspace stole his attention completely.
If the mystery ships had been huge, this thing was gigantic, as large as any of the xith’cal warships Caldswell had fought—only this, he was sure, was no ship. Unlike the others with their rainbow colors, the last thing to exit hyperspace was as black as the void behind it. Once the hyperspace flash faded, Caldswell could catch only glimpses of its surface in the reflected light of the other ships: a wide, pointed head framed by millions of tendrils; a shiny, shell-black surface; and deep, terrible pits that could have been eyes or mouths or something else he couldn’t even imagine. He was still staring at it when the other ships opened fire.
Caldswell grabbed the console on instinct, because from where he was sitting, the beautiful ships seemed to be firing straight at him. But the brilliant beams of blue-white fire never hit the Republic battleship. Instead, they struck the invisible mass of the phantom floating between them.
For one terrifying moment, the entire sky was ablaze. For the first time ever, Caldswell saw the whole of the phantom’s body as the alien’s fire lit it up from within. The thing was even bigger than he’d imagined, and he’d imagined big. Miles, he’d guessed, maybe hundreds of them. Now, with the truth spelled out in fire, all he could think was that he’d been a fool. The phantom’s snakelike body stretched from one end of Svenya’s dust cloud to the other. It was as big as a planet, bigger even than the enormous black monster commanding the attack, and it wasn’t going down quietly.
The creature burned for nearly thirty minutes, thrashing in agony, taking several of the beautiful fishlike ships out in the process. It was only by pure luck that it didn’t hit Caldswell’s battleship again. But the unknown aliens kept up the attack until, at last, the phantom gave one final shudder and started to disintegrate. That was all Caldswell saw before the alien’s fire snuffed out and the phantom’s body vanished, invisible once again, though he knew if he could somehow reach out there, he would still feel it falling apart.
All through the attack, Maat hadn’t moved. She just stood there clinging to Brenton, her eyes locked on the light show outside. When it finished, she collapsed into a sobbing heap.
Dr. Strauss was at her side at once, helping Brenton move her to the captain’s chair. Caldswell was about to go over as well when the voice spoke in his head.
Enemy of our enemy.
The words weren’t words exactly, not as he knew them. They were more like impressions, meanings layered together to form something richer than language. For a moment, Caldswell thought he was imagining things, but then Brenton and the doctor snapped their heads up as well, looking around like they’d heard it, too. Meanwhile, Maat began to cry harder.
Outside, the beautiful alien ships were coming toward them with the huge black shape at the center. They moved so fast, there was no chance to run even if Caldswell had wanted to. But he wanted no such thing. He ordered the helmsman to hold course before walking up to the prow of the bridge just as the aliens came to an abrupt halt in front of them, the huge fleet floating like giants over the lone Republic ship.
Who speaks for all?
The words brushed over Caldswell’s mind like impatient fingers, demanding to know who was in command. He could see from Brenton’s face that he’d felt it as well, but Caldswell was commander here, so he was the one who answered.
Any worries that the aliens wouldn’t be able to hear him vanished when he felt the presence in his mind focus, the impressions growing louder and clearer, as though the speaker had turned to face him. Enemy of our enemy, it said again, only now the words implied kinship and cooperation. We offer you aid.
“And we appreciate it,” Caldswell replied. “Thank you. We never could have killed that thing on our own.”
We know this, the alien said dismissively. And now you know it as well. You are dead without us.
Caldswell fought the urge to scowl. “What kind of aid are you offering?”
Protection, the voice said, the word itself a wall. The universe has been torn open, and the corruption is seeping through. This attack was only the beginning. More are coming.
“More” was the word Caldswell’s brain supplied, but the alien’s impression was infinitely larger, an endless flood. “How many more?”
Countless, the voice answered. More than either of us can fight.
Caldswell nodded. “So you want to work together.”
Amusement trilled through his mind like a swirling feather. We do not fight unless forced, it answered. Violence is a risk we cannot take. We are vital; therefore, we cannot be allowed to end.
“Is that so?” Caldswell said, folding his arms over his chest. “Then what exactly would we be getting out of this aid if you won’t fight?”
Survival, the alien replied, filling the words with the feeling of an open hand. We are lelgis, those without end, and we offer you our knowledge and the opportunity to save your race. We will show you how to forge the weapon that can kill the ones you know as phantoms, and in return, you will hunt them until we are all safe. The voice paused, letting this sink in. And then, almost like an afterthought, it added, We also require an offering.
“What kind of offering?” Brenton said, making Caldswell jump. He hadn’t realized the others could hear this as well until Brenton spoke, but when he looked back, his partner was glaring murder at the black alien above them. “You seem to be getting the sweet end of this deal while we do all the work.”
Without us, you will die, the lelgis said lightly. You need us, and to aid you, we require the one called Maat.
“What?” Brenton shouted, but Caldswell put out his hand.
“Explain,” he said.
She has the potential to be like us, the lelgis said solemnly, the words heavy with power. Give her to us, and we will forge her to be the tool that saves this universe.
Caldswell could feel Brenton’s rage building from across the room, so he made sure to speak first. “What would that entail, exactly?”
The enormous black alien moved a little closer. She will stop the flood in our stead, it said, offering up the picture of a door closing. Without a barricade, the corruption will overwhelm us all, and this sad, dead planet will be but the first in an infinite line of tragedies. But with her, we can stop them. A single sacrifice so that all may live.
Caldswell bit his lip, trying to think this through, to tease out what was really going on. Before he could, though, the alien spoke again. This offer will be tendered only once, enemy of our enemy. Accept and save your species, refuse and perish.
“Don’t do it, Brian,” Brenton said, suddenly beside him. “Don’t even think about it. We can’t trust them. We don’t even know what they are.”
“You saw what they killed,” Caldswell said. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but without them we’d be dead right now.”
“Maat is our only weapon against the phantoms,” Brenton said, his voice rising. “You can’t just give—”
“Maat is breaking!” Caldswell yelled. “You know that damn well. Even if she wasn’t, do you really think we can keep going like we have been over the last few months? Some of us need to sleep, Brenton, and we can’t guard the entire universe with one girl. Not at the rate the phantoms are multiplying. We need a better solution, and if they’re offering one, we’d be idiots not to hear it out.”
“So you’d just give her over?” Brenton shouted. “Sacrifice her to some alien—”
“Yes!” Caldswell shouted back, jabbing his finger at the floating rocks that had been Svenya. “If it means something like this will never happen again, I’d give them my own daughter!”
Caldswell regretted his words the moment they were out of his mouth, but it was too late. The alien voice was already crooning in his head.
Good, it whispered, petting him with their approval as the aliens turned their fleet around. Follow.
“Do it,” Caldswell ordered, ignoring Brenton’s horrified look. Moments later, the battleship took off after them, following the aliens into the dark.
Once the ship was moving, Caldswell stomped over to Brenton to take Maat from him, but the symbiont wouldn’t let go. Maat was trembling in his arms, staring at Caldswell with terrified eyes. “I can see what they want,” she whispered, her voice breaking like old glass. “Don’t let them take me.” Tears appeared in her eyes. “Please, Brian, don’t do this.”
When he didn’t answer, she flew into a rage. As Brenton and Dr. Strauss wrestled her back into the chair for sedation, Caldswell slumped into his own seat to watch the lelgis fly. He knew Brenton wouldn’t stop fighting him on this. Brenton always took Maat’s side, but it didn’t matter. Caldswell had made up his mind. If the lelgis could give him the weapon that had burned that monster out of the sky, or any weapon that could reliably kill phantoms on the scale they needed to be killed on, then he would pay any price. He would climb up on the altar with Maat himself if they wanted, so long as they gave him the power to stop the goddamn tragedies.
After all, he thought, slumping down, what were a few more deaths compared to the billions of lives already lost? What was anything, so long as no more planets died? Nothing, he decided. Nothing at all.
Five days later, Maat was given to the lelgis as promised, and at the far corner of the newly restricted zone that had been the Svenya System, construction began on the prison that would later be known as Dark Star Station.