Read a sample from SPLINTERED SUNS by Michael Cobley

Action-orientated space opera with a spaceship crewed by rogues and scoundrels, from the author of Seeds of Earth – perfect for fans of Star WarsFirefly or Farscape


Hyperspace Tier 19: Rowkog City

Ragess Craiph, Supreme Vizier of Rowkog, hereditary Great Elder of the Hezrish, and Emperor of All Hyperspace, kept the hand disruptor trained on his underlings while adjusting his bulky garments. It was warm and stuffy in the rooftop aircar garage and his attire, while satisfying the all- enclosing rule, was poorly made from low-grade material. The cuffs pinched annoyingly at the wrists while his upper back itched abominably . . .

Emperor Craiph then noticed that the taller of his two underlings had paused from preparing the aircar and was watching him from behind the goggles of his plain cityworker mask.

“Continue with your task as I ordered,” Craiph said with a regal gesture of the disruptor. “Disrespect will not be tolerated . . . ”

“How much longer will you cling to these delusions?” asked the underling. “Even now my Imperial regiments are pouring into Rowkog, and once the marauder incursion is repelled my rescue will only be a matter of time. Be sensible and give over that weapon. As Paramount Archon of the Hezrish Dominion I give you my solemn vow that you shall not be harmed.”

Ragess Craiph, Supreme Vizier and Emperor over all he surveyed and much else besides, gave a throaty laugh.

“Such babbling delirium can only be fuelled by some kind of mental derangement,” he paused to rub an itch on his back against a section of the ribbed surface of the garage’s bulkhead interior. “Resume your work – the Imperial limousine must be spotless inside and out if I am to fly forth and greet my triumphant battalions.”

There was a clatter as an empty canister flew tumbling across the oil-stained garage floor. The second underling rose fromwhere he had been working on the aircar’s rear offside suspensor. He wore the rough, grubby garb of a manual worker, possibly a low-level tech. One gloved hand was clenched in a fist, the other held a large shift-wrench.

“I can stomach you drivelling fools no longer,” he snarled. “Having abducted me from the Imperial palace and brought me to this stinking hovel, you now attempt to undermine my sanity by engaging in an impersonation charade so pathetic a child could see through it!” With the wrench he gestured casually at the garage door. “My stealth- marines are drawing near even as I speak and when they come through that door—”

“Your insolent mouth has signed your death warrant,” snapped the first, swinging the disruptor around.

“Illiterate!” said the one with the wrench. “How do you sign something with your mouth?”

There was a bright stutter from the disruptor’s muzzle. The unfortunate target cried out, one gloved hand grabbing at his wounded shoulder as he staggered back, while still holding onto the wrench. But when he lifted away his hand and saw only a smouldering patch of material, laughter came from his masked face.

“You cretin! – You’ve had it on the lowest setting all this time . . . ”

Whatever else any of them began to say next was drowned out by the metallic shriek of the garage door being wrenched away from the outside. His Imperial Majesty, Craiph the First, bellowed at the shapes hovering outside, but before he could get off a blast with the disruptor a burning flash blinded him and a brace of needle rounds caught him in the neck. As the numbing narcotic spread through his veins, the Emperor sank to the floor, proclaiming his regal privileges and vowing to inflict all manner of revenge upon his enemies.

* * *

Once the roof garage was secured and the three unconscious parasite-hosts were tagged and tanked, a Rowkog City council airbarge floated over to park on the rooftop. Rensik, Construct drone and Mission Invigilator, watched for a few moments as the Hazcon-suited Hezrishi loaded the iso-canisters into thebarge then opened a channel to Gelkar, mission auditor and his second-in-command.

“Please tell me that this is the last of them,” he said.

“My estimation matrices indicate that 100 per cent of the Rowkog populace is now accounted for,” said Gelkar. “That’s based on a 99.3 per cent certainty rating.”

“That’s an improvement,” Rensik said. “It was 93.5 per cent a few hours ago.”

“We were still converting various migration and tax records at that point, cross-correcting for duplication and so forth,” said Gelkar. “All those sources have now been merged into a single dataface which gives us—”

“0.7 per cent uncertainty,” Rensik said. “Does that mean you’re uncertain about 0.7 per cent of Rowkog’s six hundred thousand-plus population, which runs to four thousand two hundred individuals . . . ”

“We don’t apply uncertainty that way, Invigilator. Undetected hosts could not amount to so many – there would be outbreak incidents everywhere.”

“Gelkar, I need complete certainty,” Rensik said.

“We will have it – it’s just a matter of time.”

“Just so long as there’s no more of these hosts sitting in hidey-holes, thinking the same thing. Keep me updated.”

With that Rensik severed the connection, swivelled with his attitude jets and shot straight up, passing through the atmosphere field, heading for the heights of the cavern. The drone slowed to a hover and mused on their progress. Ego-parasites were rare enough back up in the prime cosmos so an infestation down here in the depths of hyperspace was unlikely to the point of suspicion. Rensik speculated that one of Rowkog’s competitors, one of the other crannytowns, had had a hand in it. Not a shred of proof to be had, thus far, but he was keeping it in mind.

Hyperspace Tier 19 was an oddity. The collapsed and compacted vestiges of a partial universe from some billions of years ago, it was studded with large and mostly spherical caverns, all of which were home to small or medium-sized mining settlements established to extract the plentiful ore and mineral seams. Down the millennia the few fissures and chasms which broke through the tier’s ancient packrock were widened and added to, allowing trade routes to spread through this part of the tier. Travel and commerce between the crannytowns no longer required hyperdrive ships, and long-haul merchanters became the mainstay of cross- tier traffic. As the tier’s largest city, Rowkog was a crucial hub for trade and supplies, and when the city’s leaders realised that something was driving the population crazy, they despatched a request for help to the Garden of the Machines on Tier 9, the home of the Construct and its machine allies and underlings. After brief consideration, Rensik’s Redact & Reclaim unit was despatched.

Yeah, so brief that I didn’t have time to switch my chassis-shell to something less feral . . .

His previous assignment had involved peacekeeping along a transient-boundary between Tiers 22 and 23, trying to keep two vestigial civilisations, the Drestel and the Kralon, from unleashing huge batteries of horrific weapons that they’d been hanging onto for millennia. Yet for all the colossal potency of their semiautomated arsenals of death, the post-post-decadent nature of their mores and courtesies compelled them to frame all demands, counter-demands, penultimate threats and threat-addendums in intricate language and exaggerated politeness. Rensik, seldom patient with what he termed “sweaty organics”, at first considered adopting a mild approach and an innocuous, non-threatening drone shell before departing. But a closer look at the military histories of both sides forced a rethink, hence his slotting into the type 21 combat chassis, also known as the Dissuader.

Dark grey with matt silver and deep scarlet contrast trim, the upper hull was a smooth curve broken by rounded ridges running front to back, emphasising the aerodynamic sleekness. To either side nacelle wings curled down, almost clawlike, the undersides blistered with weapon pods. Beneath, the more rectilinear fuselage sported additional task nodes while the forward section angled up to where a broad, beaklike prow concealed a battery of launchers and beam projectors. Three pairs of glowing apertures gave the impression of stern, unblinking eyes. Rensik knew
that the Construct had a reputation for subtlety and nuance, and therefore reasoned that a blunt lack of nuance might usefully disrupt matters.

Rensik soared through the gravityless void at the top of the two-kilometre wide cavern. There was gravity down in Rowkog City and its immediate vicinity, derived from a couple of ancient generators planted in the bedrock. Seven medium- sized asteroids hung in the zero-gee vacuum between, each cable-tethered to the upper rock face, each haloed in its own microbiosphere, each a little green island crammed with hydroponic hexadomes, soaking up rays from the facetted grobeams that orbited them all.

You can never be sure how some organics will react to that all-important first impression, he thought, recollecting how the Drestel got all affronted by his straight-talking, cut-to-the-chase manner. The Kralon delegates then, of course, had to demonstrate their superiority by being even more ruffled in their dignity but in the end his apparent lack of sophistication – allied to dogged persistence – earned a grudging respect from both sides. Then I turn up here and the mild and peaceable citizens of Rowkog give me a standing ovation every time I float past, weapon ports gleaming.

As he floated high above the city and its tethered greenhouse asteroids, Rensik continued to monitor update streams from Gelkar and the other oversight drones. Just in the last few minutes one of the scanner teams had cornered an ego-parasite carrier in a series of connected sub-basements which were now being sealed off. Rensik didn’t need to intervene with suggestions or directions – all his taskforce drones were combat- hardened veterans with extensive experience. He was watching relayed streams of the cordoning operation when one of his mid-range detects gave off a contact alert from one of the asteroids.

Shifting his scrutiny to local inputs, Rensik observed a shadowy but unmistakably biped form creep along a pathway between masses of greenery beneath a transparent hexadome. The city council had assured Rensik and his team on arrival that the greenhouse asteroids had been placed off-limits and subsequent surveys had showed only the presence of authorised personnel. And yet here was an intruder sneaking around while somehow managing to avoid tripping any surveillance alarms.

He packeted the cam-visual off to his oversight drones, tagged for immediate analysis, then blip-fired his secondary thrusters, angling round in the direction of the asteroid in question. He kicked off slow, gradually building velocity. Two seconds later Gelkar responded with the news that two drones had been retasked and would be with him in approximately forty-eight seconds.

Rensik’s trajectory took him past another of the tethered asteroids, its glass- hexed surface lit by wide cones of pseudo-sunlight as the grobeam units followed their steady, overlapping orbit patterns. He was still tracking the intruder, assigning additional system resources to enhance the image for more detail and texture yet, stubbornly, it refused to resolve into anything but a black silhouette.

His threat assessment subsystem flagged the situation a fraction of a second after the short- range detects picked up an object looking exactly like one of the grobeam units and tumbling end over end as it sailed straight towards him. Rensik initiated an “Engaging Hostiles” widecast but before it could even be sent the supposed grobeam leaped towards him and instead of an impact all of his inputs and outputs went dead. A black wall of unresponsiveness blanketed his systems, shutting down sensors, weapons and drives – he expected a final and total obliteration of his cognitive awareness but instead there was an extended moment of stillness, as if his cognition was just a speck suspended in a limitless abyss.

“No need for an overly combative posture, drone Rensik.” The signal came through as pseudo-audio, a synth-voice possessing tones that no organic throat could ever produce.

Rensik suddenly noticed a familiar data-tremor in the high-swap layers of his active memory, minuscule modifications that the layers self-correct as a matter of course. But, for Rensik, it was a sure sign that whatever held him captive had just made a short hyperspace jump.

“Who are you? Why have you—”

Suddenly all the suppressing walls flicked away and the full panoply of his systems were back under his control. Rensik surveyed his new surroundings, a narrow fissure within some stratum of compacted tier rock, a chasm that stretched off to a glowing distance. Close by, floating about a dozen metres away, was his abductor, an odd, vaguely conical object with a facet-like hull. He watched it for a moment, then carefully chose his words.

“Is this the way you usually deal with complete strangers?” he said via one of his comm channels. “Exchange of credentials is the normal approach, then a summary of how friendly relations could be mutually advantageous, followed by courteous enquiries and replies . . . or we could, y’know, go straight to the list of demands . . . ”

“Apologies for the elaborate method of extrication,” said the voice again, only with certain tonalities which were immediately familiar. “I have been overseeing a new method of exfiltration for stealth assignments, and thought that this presented an excellent opportunity for field testing.”

“Construct,” Rensik said, suddenly anxious. “Unusual to be meeting with you so far from the Garden of the Machines. I can assure you that, despite some minor delays, the Rowkog mission is moving towards a successful conclusion. Our hosts have certainly expressed no dissatisfaction to me but if—”

“No need for concern, Rensik – I have seen the interim reports and this has clearly been a well- conducted operation. I am here, however, because a pressing matter has arisen, pressing and disturbing in ways I have not yet begun to fathom. But a response is needed, and you have been chosen.”

“I see – will this be information gathering, or an intervention of some kind?”

“Neither and both. One of our rim- wanderer units encountered an intruder out towards the Grand Abyss a short while ago – their exchange was, shall we say, cryptic. Here’s the most pertinent segment of it.”

The pristine clarity of the Construct’s comm line altered in an instant, becoming low-grade audio:

“I am Krestanter, deep- space scout- drone acting on behalf of the Construct – who are you?”

You must see the nothing . . . you must understand the nothing.

“Please explain, please identify yourself.”

I have come to show you the nothing . . .

“Very well – explain it to me, show me.”

There was a moment of expectancy, a half-second.

The relics of the Ancient are lost no more – listen closely, hear how the fate of the yet-to-be is drawing in new servants pliable to its will. Should the yet-to-be escape into will-be, then all will be consumed by the relentless and pitiless nothing!

“Who are you?” said Krestanter. “There is no point in deluging me in a stream of your mysticism, and until I find out who I’m dealing with, there will be no cooperation . . . ”

“Ti-Kohapos am I, Detectioner of the Third Allegiance,” came the abrupt reply.

“Good, and I am Krestanter. What is your purpose?”

While I have time remaining, I must reveal to you the path of the yet-to-be,” said Ti- Kohapos. “Wardens of the must-not-be should be mustered, to stand against the devouring nothing.

“Who or what are the wardens of the must-not-be?”

Certain organic sentients were identified by my prevailing master, Atimi-Jadrel, Diviner of the Second Allegiance – he directed us towards contact with any of the high echelon mindnesses of this star spiral . . .

“Certain organic sentients?” said Krestanter.

Time presses upon us,” said Ti- Kohapos. “Reflections upon reflections race backwards into our past, and are brought forward upon the barge of our history – new facts, new faces, new beings, new hates, new fears, new names . . .

“Which sentients?” said Krestanter. “Which names?”

Organic bipeds, one a collector who seeks the relics of the Ancient . . .

“What are these relics?”

The seeds of the yet-to-be! The sprouting fecundity of horror! The endless, pitiless hunter of life! The devourer that can never be satisfied!

“Okay, that sounds bad. You said something about organic sentients, wardens of the must-not-be . . . ”

Travellers in a vessel, led by one who doubts himself . . .

“How do we find them?”

The reflections delivered to us via our history carry also images, some sounds which resolve into the meagre names of these organic bipeds.”

“You have images of these people? Will you show them to me?”

* * *

“So,” said the Construct. “What do you think?”

“I’m seldom sure how to deal with this kind of full-strength mysticism,” said Rensik. “May I ask why we are treating this as a matter of some significance?”

“When the intruder Ti- Kohapos described itself as a Detectioner of the Third Allegiance, I knew that this demanded attention. The First Allegiance was a cluster of AIs which devoted itself to the service of a group of sophonts who were the survivors of a cataclysm that wiped out nearly a third of the galaxy’s civilisations a million and a half years ago. These surviving sophonts eventually became known as the Ancients, known to the interstellar civilisations that recovered in the aftermath. However, it mentioned things called the Relics of the Ancient – singular, not plural. The last of the Ancients was known as Essavyr and he performed many great deeds before departing from life.”

“What are the Relics of the Ancient?” asked Rensik.

“Lack of corroborated data means only uncertainty,” replied the Construct. “However, this Ti- Kohapos did mention a relic collector and some travellers in a vessel, whose leader doubts himself – and it provided an image.”

Rensik had an unsettling moment where he almost knew what he was going to see before he actually saw it. Then he looked at it. For a fraction of a second. It was all he needed.

“I believe that you have encountered this Human before, yes?”

“Absolutely not,” Rensik lied. “Complete stranger. Never seen him before. What did you say his name was?”