The Eternity War: Pariah is the adrenaline-fuelled first novel in the Eternity War, a brand-new SF trilogy from Jamie Sawyer – set in the same universe as his acclaimed Lazarus War novels.
When the call came, the captain was dreaming of his ex-wife. Of a cabin they had shared on Ganymede Docks; a tiny cubicle that Naval Logistics had audaciously called “shared accommodation”.
Katrina. That had been his wife’s name.
Captain Erich Doltrane was still his.
It was almost gut-wrenching how the gossamer blonde of Katrina’s hair – of a woman who had been dead for the better part of a decade – was replaced so suddenly with the austere grey of the starship’s interior. Doltrane found himself roused from a dream in which it had been warm and bright, and into the dark reality of the Alliance Navy battleship. And not just any battleship: his battleship, the European Confederation starship Hannover. That fact carried an extra weight to it, somehow, because he knew that as captain the welfare of every one of the two-thousand-strong crew aboard the vessel was his responsibility.
He had been expecting the call, but that hardly made it any less terrifying.
“I’m up,” he said, groggily. Knowing that the ship’s internal comms system would detect his verbal response. Added: “I’m awake.”
“Good morning, Captain Doltrane,” came the smooth tones of the ECS Hannover’s artificial intelligence programme. It sounded almost smug.
“Is it?” he replied. The AI was a personification of the battleship’s machine-mind, and Doltrane didn’t trust a machine that was so obviously far beyond his own mental capabilities.
He struggled to throw off the shroud of sleep, and swung his tired legs over the edge of the bunk. Rubbed callused fingers at his eyes. He made a conscious effort to avoid looking at the data-slates piled on his duty desk, each filled with weird geometric designs and gut-churning alien symbology. The ship’s warning siren wailed on and on in the background, echoing through the decks.
“There is an urgent alert from the command intelligence centre,” the ship’s AI said. “Alpha priority. Your immediate attendance is required.”
Doltrane thought about how similar the AI’s voice was to that of his ex-wife. Cold, calm, inexplicably collected. Both were, for all intents, dead.
“I did say immediately,” the machine insisted, an air of urgency in its modulated tone.
“You’re a bitch,” Doltrane said, as he thrust his feet into his deck-boots, fastened the lapel of his Alliance Navy uniform. “I’ve already said that I’m awake.”
“I do not understand your response, Captain Doltrane.”
“You wouldn’t. We’re out here in the unknown, and you don’t give a damn.”
“It will not be the unknown for long, Captain. We have reached the coordinates.”
The cabin’s overhead LED lights flickered on as Doltrane stumbled to the mirror above a tiny sink in the corner of the room. Having his own wash facilities was one of the few perks of being captain of the European Confederacy battlecruiser.
“Herr Kapitän,” came another voice, interrupting the alert tone: this time recognisably human. “If you’re quite done sleeping, this cannot wait.”
That was Lieutenant Javovich, and she sounded excited.
“I’m on my way, Lieutenant,” Doltrane said.
He splashed warm recycled water over his face from the stagnant pool in the bowl. Confident that the comm connection was closed, he said, “This, Katrina, is what comes of chasing ghosts . . .”
He could swear that he heard his ex-wife’s voice through the airshaft above the sink: that shrill cackle of a laugh that had at one time amused him so.
* * *
The ship was by now light-years from the nearest human outpost; on the very brink of explored space. Three days had passed since the quantum-jump to the Hannover’s present location, and in that time Captain Doltrane had slept little. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this was verboten space: that this was forbidden.
The ECS Hannover was currently deep within the Maelstrom, in a sector of turbulent space that Science Division had labelled as “the Gyre”. Had it not been for the present Naval operation, Doltrane was quite sure that he would never have heard of the place. The Gyre was just one of so many stellar anomalies within the Maelstrom; statistically, a tiny and largely insignificant feature of the shattered realm occupied by the alien Krell. And yet, greater minds than Captain Doltrane’s had ordained that there was something out here worthy of investigation . . .
“But it isn’t the location that makes this wrong,” Doltrane whispered to himself.
It’s the mission, Katrina whispered back.
The lack of sleep was getting to Doltrane. When he was a younger man, he had been more capable of working such long watches without rest. Things were different now, and he found exhaustion affecting him in many ways. He had been hearing things. Sometimes, just occasionally, even seeing things.
The walk from Captain Doltrane’s cabin to the command intelligence centre wasn’t far, but it seemed that whatever Javovich had to tell him simply wouldn’t wait, and the younger lieutenant met him halfway. Pushing aside bustling sailors and over-amped Marines in full battledress, Javovich snapped a salute at the captain.
“Glad that you could make it,” she said, with a blistering smile. She spoke with off-world accented German; a sixth-gen immigrant to the Vega III colony. “The ship has been trying to contact you for several minutes.”
Javovich had a certain cold beauty to her features, and a caustic wit to match. She was impeccably clad, uniform immaculately pressed and pale blonde hair pulled tight beneath her service cap, despite the stressful circumstances. Doltrane found himself almost envying the younger woman.
“I’ve barely slept in three days,” Doltrane said, increasing his pace towards the command centre. “I think that I’m entitled to a little shut-eye before . . . before the event . . .”
Doltrane’s words trailed off. He realised, with some self-chastisement, that he was frightened. In some ways, being here, at the culmination of the battleship’s mission, should have salved his anxieties. Instead, knowing what they were about to do – having read the reports on the subject – it just made him feel so much worse.
If Javovich noticed his unusual reaction, she didn’t respond. Instead, the young lieutenant kept speaking. “We’re running green on all systems. Command staff are on standby. We’ve reached the coordinates.”
“As I expected,” Doltrane said. “And the readings are the same?”
Javovich handed him a data-slate, which twitched with complex holographic info-feeds. Doltrane gave the slate a perfunctory glance; truth be told, he didn’t understand much of what the Science Division team told him, but what he could absorb was bad enough. He handed the slate back to Javovich.
“They’re the same,” she said, referring to the readings. “Sixteen dead stars. Over a hundred dead planets.”
Doltrane swallowed. “Dead Krell planets.”
“Does that make it any better?” Javovich asked. “Planets are planets. Either way, the Gyre is dead.”
“Do we have visual yet?”
Javovich raised a thin eyebrow. “We do, and that was why I ordered that you should be roused.”
“And?” Doltrane said, with a sharp intake of breath that was completely autonomic.
Fear, Katrina whispered. It’s called fear.
“And you need to see this for yourself,” Javovich said.
* * *
Doltrane pounded into the command centre, registering the fully manned terminals and primed weapons stations. He passed an eye over the holo-displays, watched the tightly disciplined crew work. All had been handpicked by him for this operation.
Meanwhile, the command centre’s view-ports were open, displaying the near-vista of the Maelstrom. Although stars twinkled and shone out there, even Doltrane recognised that there were not as many as there should have been. The captain tried to dismiss that thought as ridiculous – because such an evaluation could surely not have been made with the naked eye – but it was pernicious and invasive.
Doltrane paused at the tactical display. The view-ports could only tell part of the story, and the ship’s scopes had assembled the rest as a holographic projection; refined the unexplained horror of it all down to green wireframe images. Sterile and simple.
“As I said,” Javovich muttered, “I thought that you would want to see this for yourself.”
Sixteen stars had been extinguished in as little as a month. Sixteen living, breathing stars. The classification and other technical data pertaining to them scrolled across the holo, confirming that those suns had not died naturally. Each was now in the throes of a fast and painful demise: burning up their cores, sheeting out vast coronas of exotic energy, consuming what should’ve been millennia of power in a galactic instant . . .
“Good morning, Captain,” said Science Officer Heath, standing at Doltrane’s shoulder.
The old captain almost jumped at the voice. “Morning, Herr Heath.”
“Welcome to the Gyre. It is wondrous, isn’t it?”
The Hannover’s computer had plotted the anomaly in great detail. The worlds that had once orbited those dying stars had been rearranged. The dead nubs of rock were in a pattern, swirling inwards: like a huge spiral.
“I do not find it so,” Doltrane replied, still staring at the images.
The crew were mostly Euro-Confed, and as many as Doltrane could justify were from German home-colonies. There was no prejudice here but Doltrane liked to be surrounded by a crew that reminded him of home. Science Officer Heath stood out as the only American – specifically, of Proxima Centaurian descent – among the command cadre. He was also, by far, the most unpopular senior official aboard the Hannover: a man whom Doltrane had fought to have removed from the expedition, to no avail.
The captain slipped into his command throne, and Javovich took her seat as executive officer beside him.
“Latest readings to my terminal, if you will,” Doltrane said.
“Aye, Herr Kapitän,” Javovich replied.
“They are most interesting,” Heath pitched in. “The stars in question, had they naturally aged, would surely have become neutron stars or black holes . . .” Heath shrugged. “This was a deliberate act.” There was now a fixed grin on his thin lips. “Someone did this.”
“Or something . . .” Doltrane said.
“Can you imagine the power required for such an accomplishment?” Heath muttered. He shook his head in amazement. “And at such speed . . .”
“That is what concerns me,” Doltrane said.
It’s as though those stars were murdered, Katrina taunted.
Doltrane ignored his dead wife and instead examined the starship’s flight data. As he expected, the Hannover was currently cruising towards the heart of the Gyre, taking readings from whatever was attracting the planets. Doltrane felt that gnawing inside of him again; a black hole forming in his stomach.
You shouldn’t have come here, Katrina whispered.
“You think I don’t know that?” Doltrane hissed by way of reply.
“I’m sorry, Herr Kapitän?” Javovich asked.
“I wasn’t talking to you, Lieutenant.”
“Are you feeling well, Herr Kapitän?” Javovich said. “Perhaps I should summon medical attention—”
Her voice was swallowed by the wail of a siren. Doltrane caught Heath’s face – fatted by a lifetime of work in the labs, of a career spent safely in the Core Systems – dropping.
“Holy Gaia!” someone exclaimed.
“Stations!” Doltrane yelled, superfluously.
The tactical display snapped into focus. Space seemed wrong: as though its established limits had somehow been warped, been modified. Scanner returns began to pour in, began to – inexplicably – confirm the existence of the enigma.
Then he saw it.
This was why the Hannover had been sent out here. This was the objective. So vast and alien that Doltrane couldn’t look directly at it. His eyes couldn’t comprehend the enormity of it.
“It’s firing on us!” Javovich said. Then, because even under pressure she was still a damned good officer, into her console she declared: “All hands, brace! Enigma is conducting offensive action—”
“Null-shield up!” Doltrane shouted back, knowing that he was giving the command too late.
The Hannover shook.
“The shields aren’t responding,” someone replied. “Something inside the Gyre – or perhaps some weapons we haven’t seen before – is interfering with our systems—”
Another impact cut off the response. This was stronger, and damage readings filled Doltrane’s console: a hull breach in the aft, a vented fuel cell on the engineering deck.
There are people on those decks, Doltrane thought.
Correction: There had been people on those decks.
“Weapons systems online,” another officer declared. “Taking defensive action.”
The command centre shuddered around Doltrane. He saw the Hannover’s plasma warheads igniting in space ahead; saw exotic gases chain-react to the explosions. Maybe, just maybe, they had caught something, but Doltrane wasn’t sure at all.
Javovich pulled him back into the room, as another impact hit the Hannover. “Herr Kapitän! We must sound the mayday!”
Doltrane shook himself awake. “Execute that command.”
There was a deafening boom as something inside the Hannover’s spaceframe gave way. The scent of fire carried on the air.
“Why is this happening?” Heath yelled, spinning past Doltrane, scrambling for purchase in the evaporating gravity. “It wasn’t supposed to be active!”
“We were wrong,” Javovich spat back.
“This ship is no longer viable,” said the AI, voice carrying above the developing chaos aboard the battlecruiser. “All personnel are to take immediate safety precautions, and abandon this ship. Evacuation pods are available on all decks.”
“Go!” Doltrane yelled to Javovich. His eyes were pinned to the view-port, at the shape forming there.
“I can’t leave you, Kapitän!”
“That’s an order,” he replied, with no conviction at all.
“We have to send a transmission!” Heath said, snagging the corner of the tactical display: floating there. “Someone has to know what happened out here—”
“Just go!” Doltrane shouted. “It doesn’t matter any more!”
Javovich grappled a console, hauling herself away from the command terminal at which Doltrane still sat.
Another impact shook the spaceframe.
The thing outside had grown in proportion, had become so massive that it seemed to absorb space around it . . .
“You were so right, Katrina,” Doltrane whispered.