The Battle of the Void (The Ember War Saga Book 6) (4 page)

BOOK: The Battle of the Void (The Ember War Saga Book 6)
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“Now,” Delacroix lifted a finger like a college professor, “knocking it down is one thing. Keeping it down is another. A certain graviton density can retard the formation of a new field.” A line of minelayers stretched out from the Xaros moon. Mines shot away from the
Abdiel
-class ships and filled the space along the moon’s route with graviton particles. “We do this and it will slow their advance by up to fifteen years, even send them off course if we can maintain the effects long enough. I make the assumption that the Xaros can’t make a sharp turn when steering a moon.”

“What’s the catch?” Makarov asked.

Delacroix cleared his throat. “I need to set off no fewer than twenty graviton mines within three thousand kilometers of Abaddon’s surface.” The assembled captains shook their heads and mumbled curses under their breath.

“That’s practically knife-fighting range with the drones wrapped around the surface. You understand that?” Makarov asked.

“I do, ma’am.” Delacroix raised his chin slightly. “You asked me how to slow it down. This is the only way the math works.”

“Thank you, Captain. I only ever want the unvarnished truth from any of you.” Makarov swiped a screen and the tactical overlay with the entire fleet returned. “Our next course of action is to destroy the rings—which will take down the field, correct?” she asked Delacroix, who gave her a thumbs-up.

“The rings around Ceres are of a composite metal that’s a good deal stronger than even our new aegis armor,” Kidson, her chief gunnery officer said. “Ibarra and his probe weren’t real forthcoming about how to wreck the rings—or even the Crucible—should the need arise. Now we’ve got to figure this out on our own.”

“I don’t know how much damage we have to inflict on the rings,” Delacroix said. “Maybe a single solid hit, maybe we have to break it into a thousand pieces.”

“So we’re in for some discovery learning,” Makarov said.

“Ma’am.” Delacroix’s holo shifted to that of a woman with a long braid of red hair, Commander Brantley from the destroyer
Halifax
. “I’ll take the hit and play devil’s advocate. If we’re in a bad tactical situation, why don’t we return to Earth? Come back with a better solution.”

“The short answer is ‘we can’t,’” Delacroix said. “That moon creates enough of a dip in space-time that our single jump engine doesn’t have the power to get us all back to Earth. We could all jump away, but then we’d sit in deep space for years waiting for the engines to recharge with dark energy.”

“I can get the
Midway
back,” Makarov said, “but I will be goddamned before I leave anyone behind. We knock this thing on its ass and it’ll take us a few months at full burn to get clear of the mass shadow. We’re sending everything we learn back to Earth at light speed. That’ll give them months of warning about what’s coming their way. Succeed or fail.”

Makarov swiped her touch screen and a new tactical overlay appeared. Her captains leaned in to study. Some crossed their arms in frustration; others nodded slowly.

“We need information,” Makarov said. “And for that, we’re going to give the hive a good kick.”

CHAPTER 5

 

Hale buckled himself into the turret ball and grabbed the control sticks. He swung the turret through its full range of motion, spinning the
Breitenfeld’s
flight deck around him.

“Standish, how’s the dorsal turret?” he said into the IR.

“Little sticky going past the aft, nothing to worry about, sir,” Standish said. “Can barely move my arms after my hundredth squat thrust into a pull-up but who’s complaneing? Certainly not me. Learned my lesson, I tell you.” 

“We’ve got the armor bolted down,” Cortaro said through Hale’s comms. “Bit tight in here. Let’s hope whatever we’re bringing back isn’t too big.”

“I’ve got clearance to lift off,” Egan said. “I thought I’d have more time to break in my new co-pilot, but beggars and choosers, right?”

“Lafayette assured me that my piloting skills are thoroughly adequate,” Orozco said.

“You hear that everybody?” Standish asked. “He’s adequate.”

Standish and Cortaro’s icons blinked and entered a private channel.

“Get us off the deck and engage the cloak, Egan,” Hale said.

“Roger, sir.”

The Mule shuddered and rose higher. Hale felt the shuttle jiggle as the landing gear retracted. The hull wavered and faded into nothing as its cloak activated. Hale glanced from side to side. The seemingly absent Mule made him feel like he was almost floating in midair inside the turret ball. 

“Cloak looks good,” Hale said.

“—Never wear a corporal’s stripes if you don’t—”

“Cloak good!” Standish said over Cortaro before he switched back to the other channel.

“Here we go,” Egan said as the Mule accelerated forward. The shuttle passed through the
Breitenfeld’s
open bay doors moments later. Hale scanned the sky until he found the Crucible; tiny gold flecks imbedded in the thorns twinkled against the wall of stars of the distant galactic arm. He looked back to the ship, but it was gone. Hidden behind its own cloak.

There, seemingly floating in the vast depths of the void, Hale got a sense of his own importance in the grand scheme of the galaxy, and it felt utterly irrelevant.

“Cut your forward velocity to zero in eighty-seven seconds,” Malal said.

“What happens at eighty-eight?” Egan asked.

“You will smash into the outer hull and not survive the experience. That would complicate my task,” Malal said.

“Reducing speed,” Egan said.

Hale felt a slight tug against his restraints as the Mule slowed.

“Stacey. I don’t see a damned thing out here other than the Crucible,” Hale said. “Are you sure—”

The vault appeared right in front of the Mule. The outer sphere was enormous, easily a dozen miles wide and far larger than any spaceborne object humanity had ever constructed. Titan Station could have fit in the gaps on the outermost sphere with room to spare. Geometric shapes and swirls played out across the surface.

“See it?” Stacey asked.

“Yeah, it’s here all right. How do we get in?” Hale asked.

“Stop close to the surface, but do not land on it,” Malal said.

“Roger,” Egan said and the Mule closed on the vault slowly. “I can see it…but it’s not anywhere on my screens. There’s not even a hint of gravity from that thing. I did a flyby on Deimos. Even something that small played hell with navigation.”

The Mule came to a stop almost fifty yards above the surface. The outer sphere raced past with enough velocity that it reminded Hale of the time he and his brother played too close to the train tracks as children. Jared had come precariously close to getting hit by a speeding locomotive and both had received a licking from their mother’s wooden spoon when their parents learned of the incident.

“How are we going to get inside?” Hale asked. He caught a few glimpses of the fourth layer of spheres, but the gaps never stayed open for more than a few seconds.

“Open the hatch,” Malal said. A few seconds later, the unsuited Malal floated past Hale and stopped feet from the vault’s surface.

“I’m
not
getting used to him,” Standish said. “Just so everyone knows.”

Malal reached for the surface and tendrils of coherent light stretched from his fingertips to the spinning metal. A plane of blue-white light stretched across the surface, and the spheres continued moving without any apparent effects. The plane grew until it was wider and taller than the Mule, and then stopped.

Malal lowered his hands. The plane faded away, revealing a long tunnel with a bright light in the far distance. The tunnel looked like it went on for miles and should have cut through the moving spheres. Yet the tunnel and spheres didn’t interact, even though everything from Hale’s point of view told him the tunnel should have been ripped apart or jammed the spheres into motionlessness.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Egan said.

Malal floated to the side of the tunnel, bent at the waist slightly, and motioned for the Mule to go inside like he was a doorman welcoming them to a hotel.

“Get us inside, Egan. I don’t like it out here anymore than you do,” Hale said.

 

****

 

Hale grabbed a lever on the side of the turret and pulled. His seat came loose and he dropped down onto the Mule’s deck. Two of the Iron Hearts were still bolted to the deck in their compact travel forms; four of his Marines dragged the third down the ramp and onto the tunnel floor. Hale ran down the ramp and found Stacey and Malal near the Mule’s nose.

“Malal, what is with this place?” Hale asked. “How far does this thing go?” The end of the tunnel seemed to fade away into the distant light. Malal stood still, eyes closed.

“He’s…thinking,” Stacey said. “Trying to communicate with the vault.”

“Is this in line with what he told you we’d find here?” Hale asked.

“We certainly didn’t expect a Xaros Crucible. Or slightly less than Earth standard gravity and a breathable atmosphere waiting for us,” she said.

Hale tapped his forearm screen. The air was thin, equivalent to almost eight thousand feet above sea level on Earth, with a higher percentage of oxygen.

“Yarrow?” Hale asked.

“Should be good to breathe, sir. Might take us a bit to acclimatize, but it’ll take the strain off our life support for sure,” Yarrow said.

Elias rose to his full height behind the Mule. His new armor had a more ascetic character than the old blocky armor he’d worn at the beginning of the war. The cut of optics into the helm, shoulder pauldrons and molded breastplate almost made it look like Elias had come from a medieval battlefield, if the knights of old carried twin-barreled gauss cannons and a rail gun that could destroy a starship with a single hit.

How far we’ve come since the day I got Ibarra out of Euskal Tower,
he thought.

“Stay on internal air until we’ve got a better read on the rest of this vault,” Hale said. “Stacey…” The lieutenant turned around and found Stacey with her helmet off and tucked into the crook of her arm.

“Was I supposed to wait?” she asked. “Yes, I see that vein on your forehead twitching. Should have waited.”

Malal’s head jerked up. “I have found what we seek. Follow me.”

“Why did you have to look?” Hale asked. “Isn’t everything just where you left it?”

Malal walked down the hallway, his bare feet slapping against the lit squares.

“Echelon formation,” Hale said. “Two armor lead, one rear.”

Elias and Bodel stomped ahead of Malal, the hum of their gauss cannons heavy in the air as they passed. Cortaro, Bailey and Standish fell in a few steps behind the armor, weapons ready.

“This is foolish,” Malal said. “You think we’re at risk in here? In my vault?”

“Why don’t you worry about getting us to the codex and I’ll handle security,” Hale said. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the hallway meld together beyond the Mule. The twisting bulkheads snapped apart, and the opening they’d come from was gone, replaced by a hallway that extended to a distant point of light.

“Ugh, sir?” Egan asked.

“I saw. Malal…how’re we supposed to—”

“You don’t understand, human. Your mind cannot even grasp how this vault functions. Tell your walking machines to stop. They passed the door,” Malal said.

“What door?” Nothing but an endless hallway stretched ahead of them.

Malal stopped and turned to his right. He snapped his fingers, and a sealed doorway twice the height of the armor appeared without a sound, embedded against the bulkhead.

“You use pocket dimensions,” Stacey said. “The Qa’Resh have the same technology.”

“They have a feeble imitation of my technology. Cribbed from the decayed remnants of my civilization. Did they ever tell you where they came across the ruins? One of my brethren must have been sloppy before the ascension.” Malal touched the door and it slid aside, revealing a pitch-black wall.

“Who wants to go first?” Malal asked.

“Into what? There’s nothing there,” Hale said.

“What do you mean?” Stacey asked. “You don’t see the garden?”

Malal tilted his head to Stacey. The flush of a dark-colored rash spread over his face then faded away.

“Your mind can’t grasp a multidimensional space, perhaps like explaneing color to the blind. One of my labs is beyond this door. Go on,” Malal said.

“Then why can she see something?” Hale asked.

“Perhaps she is not entirely human,” Malal said.

Stacey shrugged her shoulders slightly. “It’s complicated.”

“To hell with this.” Hale stepped toward the doorway. His reflection appeared, like he was staring into polished obsidian. He stopped a foot away from the doorway…and his reflection did the same with a slight delay.

Hale stepped into the doorway, his limbs tingling as he passed through. His lead foot found nothing but air and he stumbled forward, splashing into water up to his knees, and found himself surrounded by wide-leafed plants that came up to his shoulders. The plants’ thick stalks ran from lumps of mossy soil that just barely broke the surface of ice blue water and stretched out for dozens of yards in a haze-filled enclosure. The water lapped at a patch of ground covered in silver grass. Hale made for the solid ground, sloshing water around him as he moved.

Elias came through the doorway, his cannons up and ready.

“What is this?” Elias asked. His helm swung from side to side. “My thermal lenses must be malfunctioning. Everything in here is the same temperature.”

Hale got onto the patch of ground. The haze thickened until he couldn’t see more than a dozen yards away from him. The sound of more Marines and armor splashing in the water carried through the air.

“Up here.” Hale waved a hand in the air. Cortaro directed the team into a hasty perimeter on the silver knoll.

Malal and Stacey stayed in the water. The ancient entity touched one of the plants and motes of light ran up and down the stalk and filled the leaf with streaks of light. Hale jumped into the water and stopped next to the pair.

“This is your lab?” Hale asked.

“No.” Malal cracked the stalk with his hand and ripped the leaf away. The plant withered instantly, leaving him holding a blackened mass.

“I don’t know what this is.”

 

****

 

Malal’s feet shifted through the silver grass. He bent over and plucked a blade free, then tossed it into his mouth.

“Did he leave the water running, or something?” Standish asked Stacey from the edge of the security perimeter. She’d kept her eye on Malal, waiting for him to “reorient himself.” “Maybe these plants are some sort of ancient alien mold that just got out of hand.”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” she said.

“I would hope yours would be better,” Standish said. “On account of you being his chaperone and hobnobbing with all that crazy stuff on Bastion.”

Malal walked off into the haze.

“Follow him,” Hale said.

Stacey ran over to Malal and matched his pace. The grass grew longer, covering their ankles as they progressed through the haze.

“Care to explane what all this is?” she asked. “Some experiment of yours gone out of control?”

“I’ve located my lab. Some…thing managed to break into my vault and alter the landscape,” Malal said. “Not Xaros. Not anything I recognize.”

The haze faded away. Neat rows of white trees with tall, arched branches reached twenty feet into the air. The trees glowed from within, the light diffusing into darkness not much farther into the air. There was something very familiar about those trees…

“They altered the landscape? Can you even find your way around anymore?” she asked.

“The intruders locked everything into place beyond the first dimensional door. The compartments are now linked together, whereas I’d had them all within their own domains. Whatever did this violated my vision, my plan,” Malal said.

“How can you tell?” she asked.

“I feel the energy from the power grid.” Malal put his hand on a glowing tree and the bark darkened and cracked beneath his touch. “Feel the growth polluting every corner of my sanctum. Feel it linked to each and every project that I spent millennia perfecting.”

BOOK: The Battle of the Void (The Ember War Saga Book 6)
4.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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