Authors: Simon R. Green
Tags: #Deathstalker, #Twilight of Empire
Praise for Simon R. Green’s DEATHSTALKER PRELUDE
“Green moves his plot at top speed, and his characters are alive and his background solid.”—
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
“Lots of action … and plenty of exotic dangers and scenes, the kind of story you read to clear your mind of everyday hassles.”—
Science Fiction Chronicle
Other books by Simon R. Green
The Blue Moon Books
BLUE MOON RISING
BEYOND THE BLUE MOON
BLOOD AND HONOR
DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN
The Hawk and Fisher Series
HAWK AND FISHER
WINNER TAKES ALL
THE GOD KILLER
WOLF IN THE FOLD
GUARD AGAINST DISHONOR
NO HAVEN FOR THE GUILTY
The Deathstalker Series
The Search for Owen Deathstalker
Deathstalker Prelude (aka Twilight of Empire)
The Nightside Series
SOMETHING FROM THE NIGHTSIDE
AGENTS OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS
HEX AND THE CITY
PATHS NOT TAKEN
SHARPER THAN A SERPENT'S TOOTH
HELL TO PAY
THE UNNATURAL INQUIRER
JUST ANOTHER JUDGMENT DAY
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UNCANNY
A HARD DAY'S KNIGHT
THE BRIDE WORE BLACK LEATHERS (Forthcoming)
The Secret Histories
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN TORC
DAEMONS ARE FOREVER
THE SPY WHO HAUNTED MEN
FROM HELL WITH LOVE
FOR HEAVEN'S EYES ONLY
The Ghost Finders Series
GHOST OF A CHANCE
GHOST OF A SMILE
DRINKING MIDNIGHT WINE
PIT OF DESPAIR
And author of the New York Times bestseller ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES
First published by Ace, a division of Penguin Group, Inc., in March 1993. Also published in the UK by Gollancz, an imprint of Orion Publishing Group.
Published by Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. as an e-book in November 2010.
Copyright © 1993 by Simon R. Green.
All rights reserved.
Cover art by Isaac Stewart.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
INSIDE Base Thirteen, nothing moves. Doors remain closed, elevators are still, and shadows lie undisturbed. One by one the flickering lights gutter and go out, and a growing gloom stalks the empty steel corridors. The few computers remaining on-line mutter querulously to each other in the growing dark, until finally they fall silent in the night.
In the silence, in the dark, something stirs.
Something in the Storm
pinnace fell away from the mother ship, a gleaming silver needle against the endless night. It hung for a moment above the Rim World called Unseeli, and then its nose dropped, the engines roared silently, and the pinnace slipped into Unseeli’s churning atmosphere like a knife into a belly. The engines burned bright, powering the slender ship through the violent storms by sheer brute force. Lightning flared round the pinnace’s hull, and winds gusted viciously from every side, but nothing swayed the ship from its course. It punched through the roiling clouds with arrogant ease, dropping like a stone towards the metallic forest below.
Unseeli had no oceans and no mountains, only an endless arid plain covered by a brightly shining forest stretching from pole to pole. A forest whose colossal metal trees knew nothing of leaf or bud, autumn or spring. They rose unbending from the grey earth in the millions, cold and unfeeling, like so many gleaming metal nails. Towering almost to the edge of the planet’s atmosphere in places, the huge trees stood firm and unyielding against the turbulent storms. Winds whipped viciously around leafless branches, radiating out from smooth, featureless trunks in needle-sharp spikes. Violet and azure, gold and silver and brass, the trees reached up into the thunder and lightning to welcome the falling craft.
Captain John Silence sat slumped in his command chair, watching the sensor display panels before him. They changed from moment to moment with bewildering speed, far too fast for him to follow. Which was why the ship’s AI was piloting them down and he had nothing to do but strain his eyes at the displays. The thick storm clouds hid the metal trees from sight, but the AI picked them up on the pinnace’s sensors and changed speed and direction accordingly, making decisions and evaluations in split-second bursts. Since the AI could think faster and react more quickly than Silence ever could, even when he was mentally linked to the onboard computers, there was never any question as to which one of them would get to pilot the pinnace down. But the AI was programmed to be considerate of people’s feelings, so it might let him actually land the pinnace, if it didn’t seem too difficult.
Deepening his concentration, Silence accessed the ship’s sensors through his comm implant. The bulkhead walls before him were suddenly transparent as the sensors displayed a real-time simulation of what was happening outside the ship. Dark, swollen storm clouds rushed toward and around the pinnace at heart-stopping speed, and lightning struck viciously at the craft. Silence winced inwardly, but kept his face calm so as not to upset his passengers. The storm could rage and spit all it liked; nothing could harm the ship as long as its force screen was up. Gleaming metal trees appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye as the pinnace surged this way and that, threading a path through the metallic forest to the landing pads by Base Thirteen. The storm clouds were too thick and too dark for Silence to make out the forest itself, but his imagination pictured it as an endless, vicious pincushion; solid metal spikes waiting for him like the sharpened stakes at the bottom of a pit dug to trap animals.
The image disturbed him, and he cut off the display and swung round in his chair to see how his passengers weredoing. A good Captain never neglected his crew. Supposedly, loyalty was programmed into them these days, but it never hurt to be careful.
The ship’s young esper, Diana Vertue, was looking distinctly green about the gills from being tossed around by the pinnace’s sudden changes in direction. Investigator Frost sat beside her, cool and composed as always, her face almost bored. The two marines, Stasiak and Ripper, sat behind the two women, passing a gunmetal flask back and forth between them. Silence’s mouth tautened. He hoped it was just alcohol, and not some new battle drug they’d cooked up in the medlabs. Officially he was supposed to encourage such initiative, but Silence didn’t believe in chemical courage. He preferred the real thing whenever possible. Chemicals wore off.
“We’ll be touching down soon,” he said evenly. “There shouldn’t be any immediate danger, but keep your eyes and ears open anyway. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, we’re going in pretty much blind on this one. The mission’s simple enough. Base Thirteen isn’t answering any calls. Our job is to find out why.”
“Yes, esper Vertue?”
“According to the computers, Unseeli is a dead world. Nothing’s lived here since all indigenous species were wiped out after the Ashrai rebellion, ten years ago. …”
“That’s right,” said Silence as the esper paused.
“But if that’s the case, Captain, if there’s nothing on this planet that could be harmful, why all the panic? It could just be a case of cabin fever. It’s not exactly unknown, out here on the edge of the Empire.”
“A good point, esper. But four days ago, Base Thirteen declared a Red Alert emergency, raised a force screen round the Base, and cut off all communications with the Empire. The Empire doesn’t like being cut off. So, we’regoing in to find out what’s happened. Don’t frown, esper; it’ll give you wrinkles.”
“I was just wondering, Captain; well, what is the Investigator doing here?”
“Yeah,” said Investigator Frost. “I’ve been wondering that too.”
Silence took his time about answering, openly studying the two women. They made an interesting contrast. Diana Vertue was short, slender, and golden-haired, and reminded Silence very much of her mother, Elaine. The young esper had only just turned nineteen, and had that arrogant innocence that only youth could produce and maintain. She’d lose it soon enough, trying to maintain law and order and sanity out on the edge of the Empire, among the newly developed Rim Worlds. There was little civilisation to be found on the new frontier—and even less law, never mind justice.
Investigator Frost was only a few years older than the esper, but the difference between them was that of the hunter and its prey. Frost was tall and lithely muscular, and even sitting still and at rest, she looked dangerous. Dark blue eyes burned coldly in a pale, impassive face framed by short-cropped auburn hair. The jolting descent didn’t seem to be bothering her at all, but then, it wouldn’t. Investigators were trained to withstand much worse than this. Which was at least partly why they made such efficient killers.
Silence realised he’d paused longer than he’d intended. He leaned forward in his chair, frowning as though he’d just been marshalling his thoughts, knowing even as he did that he wasn’t fooling the Investigator one bit.
“You’re here, Investigator, because we don’t know what we’re going to find when we get down there. There’s always the possibility that Unseeli has been visited by some new alien species. This is the Rim, after all, where starships have been known to disappear into the long night, never to be seen again. And aliens are your speciality, are they not?”
“Yeah,” said Frost, smiling slightly. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“On the other hand,” said Silence, “Unseeli is a mining planet, and the metals extracted here are of vital importance to the Empire. Any number of factions might have an interest in disturbing production. Which is why I’m overseeing this mission myself.”
“If it’s that important, why are there only five of us?” asked the marine Stasiak. “Why not go in mob-handed with a full Security team, surround the Base and then charge in and hammer anything that moves?”
“Because Base Thirteen controls all the mining equipment on Unseeli,” said Silence steadily. “Systems are already running at barely thirty per cent efficiency. We don’t want to risk damaging the Base and making things even worse. And, as the esper pointed out, there’s always the possibility this is just some new form of cabin fever, and all the Base personnel need is a nice little chat with the
psych department. We’re here to find out what’s going on and to report on it, not run a crash-and-burn mission on the only people who can tell us what’s happened.”
“Understood, Captain,” said the other marine, Ripper. “We’ll run this one nice and easy, by the numbers. No problem.”
Silence nodded curtly, and studied the two marines unobtrusively. Lewis Stasiak was average height and weight, only in his early twenties but already looking hard-used and running to seed. His hair was a little too long, his uniform rumpled, and his face had a kind of slackness to it. Silence recognised the danger signs; Stasiak had gone too long without any real action or challenge, and grown soft and careless. Which was at least partly why Silence had chosen him for the exploratory team. If something wentwrong, Stasiak wasn’t going to be any great loss. It was always useful to have someone expendable on hand, to send into dangerous situations before taking a look for yourself. Still, it would be well to keep an eye on the man. Marines who got sloppy tended not to last long under pressure, and when they snapped they had a nasty habit of taking down anyone who happened to be with them at the time.
Alec Ripper, on the other hand, was everything that Stasiak wasn’t. Ripper was a career marine, and looked it. Twenty-nine years old, fourteen years in the Service, big as a brick outhouse and twice as mean. Sharp and tidy from his close-cropped head to his shiny boots. Four medals, and three commendations for courage in the field. Could have been an officer, if he’d only had the right Family connections. As it was, he’d been a noncom twice, busted both times for daring to suggest a superior officer might just possibly be wrong. That wasn’t wise in the Service. Especially in front of witnesses. Also, according to the records, Ripper was a good soldier and a better fighter, with a positive gift for survival. If anyone was going to come back alive from this mission, it was Ripper.
If anyone was.
They didn’t know about Unseeli. Silence knew. He’d been here before, ten years ago, when the Ashrai came sweeping out of the forest in endless waves, slaughtering every man and woman in their path. He remembered the awful things they’d done, and the worse thing he’d done to stop them. The Ashrai were dead now. Extinct. Along with every other living thing on the planet.
The pinnace lurched suddenly to one side, the roar of the engines seeming to falter for a moment before regaining their normal rhythm. Silence spun round in his chair and glared at the displays before him. Warning lights were flaring red everywhere, but there was no sign of any actual damage yet. He accessed the sensors again, and theship seemed to go transparent before and around him. Dark storm clouds boiled around the pinnace, streaming away to either side with breathtaking speed. The ship lurched again, and Silence’s stomach quivered in sympathy as the pinnace changed course and speed with reckless indifference to its passengers’ sensibilities. Glowing metal trees appeared and disappeared around them, come and gone in a flash, but Silence could tell it wasn’t just the trees that the pinnace was trying to avoid. There was something else out there in the storm. Something that had waited a long time for revenge, and didn’t give a damn that it had been dead for ten long years.
“Marines, man the guns,” said Silence harshly. “Investigator, access the sensors and tell me what you see. Esper, I want a full psionic scan, as far as you can project. I need to know what’s out there.”
The marines’ faces went blank as they accessed the pinnace’s firing controls through their comm implants, their eyes filled with what the gunsights showed them. The Investigator’s cold face hardly changed at all as she looked quickly around her at bulkheads that were suddenly transparent. The esper looked at Silence uncertainly.
“What exactly am I scanning for, Captain?”
“Something, anything; for whatever’s out there.”
“But … there’s nothing there, Captain. It’s just a storm.”
“No,” said Silence. “It’s not just the storm. Run a scan, esper. That’s an order.”
“Aye, sir.” The esper’s eyes became fixed and unseeing, and her face was suddenly blank and untenanted as her mind leapt up and out beyond the pinnace.
The storm boiled around her, but could not touch her. Metal trees burned in her mind like brilliant searchlights plunging up through the clouds, guttering here and there as automated mining machinery tore through a tree’s roots. Apart from the trees, there was no life anywhere in range of her esp, and yet it seemed to her that there was something at the edges of her mind, sensed only as swift flashes of movement and an occasional feeling of being watched. Diana forced her esp to its limits, pushing at the range of her scan, but was unable to get a clear view of whatever it was. If there was anything at all …
Stasiak grinned nastily, feeling the pinnace’s guns swivelling back and forth, responsive to his thoughts. Four disrupter cannon, state of the art and fully charged, were scattered the length of the pinnace and ready to kick ass at his command, or merest whim. But there was only the storm and the wind and the endless bloody trees. According to the sensors, there was nothing out there worth firing at. He found a secure line and patched into Ripper’s comm implant.
“Hey, Rip, you see anything?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.”
“Yeah, sure. You ask me, the Captain’s got ants in his pants over nothing. This world’s dead, Rip; everyone knows that.”
“Maybe. There’s nothing on the sensors. But I still keep getting the feeling that we’re not alone up here. Stand ready, Lew. I don’t like the feel of this at all. And if it does all hit the fan, don’t waste your shots; place them carefully. Remember, these cannon take four minutes to recharge between each shot. A lot can happen in four minutes.”
“Yeah, right,” Stasiak stirred unhappily in his seat, trying to look every way at once. Now that Ripper mentioned it, he could feel it too. Something waiting, watching, hiding just out of range of his sensors. His mind caressed the fire controls, feeling them respond like hounds straining at the leash. The pinnace’s AI was programmed against activating the guns itself except in the direst emergencies, to keep it from getting ideas above its station, but it toosensed something was wrong about the storm, and in its own way was just as eager for action as Stasiak was.