Authors: Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Tags: #Science Fiction
TABLE OF CONTENTS
For Sheila Williams once again,
Because this series would not exist without her
THANKS ON THIS ONE go to my husband, Dean Wesley Smith, who always seems to find the best way out of a serious plot hole.
Thanks also to Allyson Longueira for shepherding this project into existence, to Colleen Kuehne for keeping me honest, and to Dayle Dermatis for making room in her hectic schedule for one more project.
And more thanks than I can express to Lee Allred, who helped me immensely with all of the military structure. Any and all errors are mine, of course, but I couldn’t have even pretended to do this right without Lee’s help. I also want to thank him for creating the writing term “disembodied organization,” which will go along with “fake detail” in my future teaching terminology.
Thanks to the readers of the series who keep me honest. Special thanks to the readers of
Asimov’s SF Magazine
, who’ve read this series from its humble beginnings.
CAPTAIN JONATHON “Coop” Cooper sank into the command chair on the
, and tapped the right-hand controls.
“Let me see that screen again,” he said to Mavis Kravchenko, his first officer. She was a large woman whose size came from being raised in the real gravity of one of the Fleet’s land-based sector bases.
Sometimes Coop thought she was as solid as the ground she was raised on.
Kravchenko worked two different consoles. She preferred to stand as her hands flew back and forth between them.
Right now, everyone on the bridge focused on Kravchenko, even though they pretended not to. Coop had a full crew running the
—or, at least, as full a crew as he could manage with half of his most experienced crew on the
His former second officer, Lynda Rooney, had taken her favorite people with her when he promoted her to command the
which was the only other functional Fleet ship in this sector.
Hell, the only other functional Fleet ship in this entire universe for all he knew.
He tried to keep thoughts like that out of his head. Even though he’d been here for more than five years now, the change in his circumstances still surprised him.
“You got the screen, Captain?” Kravchenko asked, using a tone that made him realize she’d asked him at least once before.
He tapped one more control. A holoimage of the sensor console rose in front of him. Kravchenko was running it in infrared rather than a normal visual spectrum. That didn’t bother him. For this, infrared was probably better.
“I got it,” he said, and peered at the information before him.
Images, trails, gigantic circles, all of which would mean nothing to the untrained eye. But Coop saw energy signatures, populated planets, and faraway stars. He layered heat signatures and energy readings onto the screen, then he opened a second holographic screen with the standard visual images of the same section of space.
On the visual, he could see the stars but not the energy or heat signatures. He also couldn’t see what had caused those signatures.
On the layered infrared screen, he saw a dozen Enterran Empire vessels spreading out in one of their typical search patterns.
Cloaked ships. The Empire’s cloaks were primitive, but effective. He had to actively search for them—and they certainly weren’t visible to the naked eye.
He felt a familiar frustration. In the past, he could have easily handled a situation like this. His experience gave him a dozen different ways to deal with an aggressive space-faring culture like the Empire.
Except his experience and his training no longer applied. Now he had to be creative. Now he had to think like a smart man in a room full of children.
That wasn’t fair, of course. The cultures here had a lot of smart people. They just lacked the knowledge he had and the technology he was used to.
Six years ago, he’d been a captain among many, part of a Fleet that went from sector to sector, never back where it had been. He had been one man in thousands, living a life spread across hundreds of ships, several star bases, and at least two sector bases at one time. He had superiors and subordinates, family here and on other ships, friendships that had spanned decades.
Now he had less than five hundred people who had gone through the same dislocation that he had. None of them were his superiors, all were his subordinates, and none were blood relatives. The only person with whom he had any personal history at all was his ex-wife Mae, who had become a friend.
He had a new life here in what had once been an unimaginable future, and by many counts, it was a good life. But sometimes the changes overwhelmed him.
Like right now. He needed at least twenty other Fleet ships, outfitted with the latest (Latest? The word made him smile to himself) sensor technology. He wanted to set up a full sensor blanket, so that nothing could cross the border from the Enterran Empire into the Nine Planets Alliance without him knowing.
But he only had two fully-equipped Fleet ships, and twenty more vessels, most of which he wouldn’t even dignify with the word “ship.” They were everything from the
, which was old, creaky, and designed for fewer than fifty passengers, to what passed for warships on Cros’ll, the nearest of the Nine Planets to the border. Those ships were so badly designed that Coop was afraid one shot out of their weapons array might explode the ship and everything around it.
He felt like he was leading a squadron of two ships and a bunch of working ship models. Most of the ships around him wouldn’t even have qualified as entries in the ship-building contest that the Fleet once ran every few years for its engineering students.
But Coop couldn’t tell any of the so-called captains that. Just like he couldn’t tell them how he had acquired his own training. Any sentence that began with “Five thousand years ago….” was guaranteed to cause the disbelief to begin.
What he needed at the moment was a sensor blanket, dozens of scout ships, and some intel from inside the Empire. But he had no intel that he could trust, a few scout ships that he couldn’t spare, and no way to blanket anything with any kind of sensor, let alone block entrance into this region of space.
Kravchenko was doing her best. She had been actively searching for Empire ships. But she wasn’t searching alone. He had most of the engineering crew monitoring the border. If he couldn’t use ships to set up a sensor blanket, he would have his own people do it as best they could.
The rest of the bridge crew monitored their stations, apparently trying (and sometimes failing) not to glance at what they could see of Coop’s screens.
“How long have the ships been there?” he asked Kravchenko.
She shrugged. “We didn’t pick them up until an hour ago, sir.”
An hour. He didn’t believe that. He wondered if the ships wanted to be seen. After all, it was better for the Empire if the Nine Planets’ ships crossed the border into Enterran space.
Then the Nine Planets would have invaded the Empire, not the other way around.
But his rag-tag army had instructions not to fire first or to cross that border
. He had instructed all of the so-called captains to make sure they gave the Empire absolutely no reason to invade the Nine Planets.
If the Enterran Empire wanted to attack the Nine Planets Alliance and ruin more than a century of what could only charitably be called peace, then it could. And it would destroy untold amounts of property, as well as millions of lives.
The Empire probably wouldn’t win against the Nine Planets—the Empire had never won against the Nine Planets—but the Empire would make life here miserable, which Coop wasn’t willing to let happen.
He had promised Boss that he would guard the borders to the Nine Planets, and that was what he planned to do.
Boss. She was an interesting woman. She had been the first person he’d seen in this new time period, wearing what, he thought at the time, was an ancient and outdated space suit.
He later learned so much technology had been lost that his people seemed amazingly advanced to the civilizations now. Boss had helped him with the transition.
She had also wormed her quirky, eccentric way into his heart.
He wondered what she would think of his rag-tag army. She had suggested part of it; the rest Lynda Rooney had cobbled together with some local help.
But Boss wasn’t here to see how it all worked. Boss was far away, in another sector, trying to find more ships.
Then Coop sighed as he caught himself in another lie, this time to himself. Boss wasn’t just looking for more ships. She was digging into a boneyard of Fleet ships they’d discovered a few weeks ago, hoping to find out what happened to his people all those millennia ago.
“Do the ships see us?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Kravchenko said.
“I can monitor their chatter,” Officer Kjersti Perkins said. She was his chief linguist, and had become one of the more invaluable members of his bridge crew. She could float from console to console, handling many of the problems that he didn’t even see.
“If they won’t notice, go ahead,” he said.
“I have no idea what they’ll notice and what they won’t,” Perkins said.
He smiled. She could be very literal at times. “Do your best,” he said.
He wasn’t sure whether or not he cared if the empire ships noticed. He had revealed his own ships days earlier. Initially, he had kept both the
and the other Fleet vessel, the
, under a standard cloak. Standard for the Fleet, anyway. Even their simplest cloak was too sophisticated for the ships around him.
Before Coop’s chief engineer had left with Boss, she had tried to build a simple Fleet cloak onto the
. It hadn’t worked. Fleet technology didn’t blend easily with modern technology. Everything had to be adapted and modified, and no one had time for that.
Not after the attacks on the Empire’s research facilities.
Coop frowned at those ship images. The Empire had every reason to attack the Nine Planets Alliance. All of the Empire’s stealth-tech research facilities had been bombed or destroyed in the last two months.
Coop had destroyed the main facility himself, although he initially hadn’t meant to. Boss had roped him into the attack, which she had believed would be a simple rescue mission.
Coop knew from the beginning there was no such thing as a simple rescue mission, particularly deep in enemy territory. He had initially refused to participate.
But Boss would have gone without him, and that might have been the end of her. He had decided at that moment that, after all of the losses he’d suffered, he couldn’t suffer another. He had gone with her. What’s more, he had actually planned the mission.
He had kept Boss alive, but at a cost. One of those costs had been riling the Empire. He had known it was coming, but Boss hadn’t seen it. She wasn’t military, and she wasn’t used to dealing with a variety of governments. And much as she loved history, she wasn’t good at seeing perspectives other than her own.
If Coop had been working for the Empire, he would have tracked down the ships and the attackers who had gone after the research facilities and destroyed them all. He suspected that the ships out there were doing exactly what he would have done in their place.
They had tracked someone or something here. Maybe they had intel that had brought them to the border between the Nine Planets Alliance and the Enterran Empire. He knew these ships hadn’t tracked him across Empire space to the border, because the
hadn’t crossed regular space to get back. They’d used their
drives, a technology that the Empire didn’t even have.
allowed ships to move from one place to another in a matter of seconds. When the
worked, it was an amazing device. When it malfunctioned, it killed or—in his case—displaced the ship in time. Five thousand years of displacement.
The Empire had no idea what an
was. But it was conducting dangerous experiments with something it called “stealth tech,” which was a primitive form of the
drive. The Empire believed that stealth tech was a cloak, and nothing more.