Authors: Sean Williams,Shane Dix
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Space Opera
The Dark Imbalance
Evergence Book Three
Sean Williams & Shane Dix
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2001 by Sean Williams and Shane Dix
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
For Richard Curtis and Ginjer Buchanan, without whom this project would have remained forever incomplete.
“One knows what a war is about only when it is over.”
H. N. Brailsford
“Unser Leben geht hin mit Verwandlung.”
(Our life passes in transformation.)
Rainer Maria Rilke
The former COE Intelligence Head of Strategy didn’t need to study her stolen fighter’s instruments to know that something strange was going on in Sol System. Something strange and very unsettling.
Page De Bruyn swung her fighter down into the plane of the ecliptic, braving a navigational nightmare as she went. The reopening of the Sol anchor point behind her had allowed—and continued to allow—a flood of vessels into the system. In the first few minutes, she catalogued fifty vessels whose design matched none in her records, and logged markings of fifteen new nations. None of them was the one she sought—and she had barely touched the surface. According to the fighter’s instruments, the total number of ships, stations, and launchers present in the system might well be on the order of several hundred thousand. Given that she hadn’t properly surveyed the innermost and outermost extremes, she wouldn’t be surprised if that figure doubled by the end of the day.
Possibly a million ships, then, representing maybe tens of thousands of nations, near and far. She had heard of larger gatherings, but never in a solar gravity well. Even the combined fleet that had assembled in this very place to destroy the Sol Apotheosis Movement two thousand years earlier had, according to records, numbered barely ten thousand ships. Whether or not that record was accurate, she was now unsure, but the point remained: nothing like this had occurred in or near the Commonwealth of Empires before. And it would make finding her quarry that much more difficult.
As she skimmed the morass, she was scanned and hailed twice but not challenged. There didn’t seem to be a central authority operating anywhere. The system was a mess. But the longer she looked at it, the more she realized that this might not be a bad thing after all. It might even work to her advantage. She could travel freely through it, confident that no one would notice a single fighter among the other ships. That was indeed a good thing, for the journey to Sol System had been long and exhausting, and she was going to need rest to prepare for the days ahead.
She had to work out what was going on, and how it related to an unaspiring orphan whom she appeared to have completely underestimated. And to do that, she needed to be closer to those who had spurned her.
She instructed the fighter to hunt for COE signals among the babble of transmissions filling the spectra around her. It wasn’t a sophisticated craft, but it would do that for her. Once registered as TBC-14, she had renamed it
upon stealing it from Intelligence HQ. Although she was, theoretically, a fugitive from justice, in reality she had enough friends remaining in high places to divert attention from her, provided she didn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers too soon.
The time would eventually come, though, when she wouldn’t care whom she offended or how she offended them. The question of why she had been so abruptly dismissed from her post in COE Intelligence was proving a vexing one, and one that became increasingly far-reaching the more she probed. She refused to let it go unasked.
Obtaining an answer was all that mattered to her, now. That, and revenge...
Six hours after she had arrived in Sol System,
detected signals from a vanguard of the COE Advance Fleet. De Bruyn ordered the fighter to approach, carefully. She didn’t know quite what to expect—although, given the COE’s proximity to Sol System, it was only natural to suppose that it would have a role to play in the emerging power base in the system, however small. That there would be such a power base before long she didn’t doubt, for it was the nature of Humans to coalesce into groups. Maybe not one single group, but something larger than isolated clusters. Looking for such an emerging group in the obvious Pristine camp was something she was sure others would be doing also.
Whether this focus of attention on the Advance Fleet would work to its advantage or detriment was difficult to tell. De Bruyn wasn’t convinced the. COE Armada commanders had the ability to exploit such a situation properly. It needed someone with a flair for intrigue, someone prepared to be ruthless, someone who knew an opportunity when she saw it.
She smirked in the dim light of
s cockpit. It would be the COE’s loss, disposing of her the way they had. She would show them that she wasn’t someone to be trifled with, to be used up and tossed away. She would pursue the mystery of her dismissal no matter where it led. And if it brought down the Eupatrid himself, then so be it. She would allow nothing and no one to come between herself and the answer...
The thought of that name made her fists clench, as it always did.
that woman! Roche had disobeyed her superior officers, jeopardized her mission as an Intelligence Field Agent, even caused a diplomatic incident over the theft of the
and yet she had been allowed to walk away—
And the sole person who seemed to care about righting this wrong was penalized for being “unduly enthusiastic.”
De Bruyn would give Burne Absenger—chief liaison officer with the COE Armada—
That she promised herself. She would expose the truth: a truth so large even
would choke on it; a truth she sensed hiding deep in the data, deep in the mystery that was Morgan Roche.
All she needed was information. All she wanted was
No matter how long it took, she was dedicated to finding it.
She sent a coded message to a drone on the edge of the Advance Fleet. It relayed her message to a nexus deeper within the COE camp. There, her message triggered a coded response from a communications AI, which sent another message higher still in the command structure. From there, it was out of her hands—but she was sure one of her contacts would see the message and work out what it meant. It was just a matter of tracing her message to its source. To her.
In the middle of the second largest fleet ever assembled by Humanity, she settled back to wait.
And when, finally,
told her that it had recognized the distinctive camouflage signature of the
as it entered the system, she clasped her hands together with something approaching eagerness. This was precisely what she had been hoping for. If Roche thought she could just walk in and throw everything into a spin to suit her own ends, whatever they were, she was about to be disappointed.
De Bruyn sent a brief, coded message to a Dato warship she had found lurking nearby, notifying it that the stolen property of its Ethnarch had arrived in the system.
Then she settled back to see what happened next.
The feet of Morgan Roche’s suit came away sticky as she stepped across the bridge of the
toward the commander’s chair. She stopped a meter from it, staring with a mix of apprehension and disgust at the fist-sized object lying on the brown-spattered cushion. She didn’t need to touch it to know that it was organic.
She nodded mutely as her gaze panned around the bridge, the light from her suit’s helmet cutting through the dark to reveal the carnage: here, a dismembered body, there, walls splashed with swaths of blood. She couldn’t smell the blood through the triple-thickness armor of her powered Dato suit, but she could imagine its stench.
“Commander Roche?” The voice of the Basigo first officer crackled loudly in her ears, his accent as thick as that of a Hum peasant, and not dissimilar.
She didn’t respond for almost thirty seconds; it took that long for her to find her voice—and even then all she could manage was a grunt of acknowledgment.
“Commander?” the first officer repeated.
“Forget the ‘Commander,’ “ she said. “I’d prefer that you just call me by my name.”
“Whatever,” the voice shot back impatiently. “Have you found what you were looking for?”
Her helmet light once again caught the organ in the commander’s chair, and she winced. “Yes and no,” she said, turning from the disturbing sight. “You say you intercepted this vessel on your last orbit?”
“We were in close to the primary when it intersected our orbit. We hailed it, but it didn’t respond. We thought it was a derelict, so we boarded it.”
Looking for bounty,
she didn’t doubt.
“That’s when we saw your name.”
She nodded. She had seen it too, painted in blood on the wall in front of the main airlock, where no one could miss it. The fact that it was painted in letters six feet high made certain of that.
“And its orbit was highly elliptical?” she said.
“Aye, that it was,” he said. “Would’ve swung past us and headed way out-system if we hadn’t slowed it down a touch during docking.”
Headed right for us,
she concluded, privately. The Box had superimposed trajectories before she had come aboard. Barely had they arrived at Sol System’s anchor point when the ship they were chasing had been hurled at the
like an insult, filled with the blood of its crew.
But even if the Basigo scout hadn’t intercepted it, Kajic would have seen the ship approaching long before it became a serious threat, and avoided it with ease. Such a crude tactic would never have worked. Roche knew that it was never intended to.
“Repeating herself,” Ameidio Haid had said upon the discovery. Jelena Heidik, the clone warrior who had hijacked the
had committed the same atrocity in Palasian System within days of her first awakening, that time to the crew of the
“Honing her skills,” he added somberly.
Heidik had gone on to single-handedly kill more than five hundred thousand people in Palasian System before escaping. Roche shuddered to imagine what she could accomplish here, in Sol System.
“It might be a trap,” said Uri Kajic from the
on a channel the Basigo weren’t listening to.
<1 sense no life.> Maii’s words came from the same source but by utterly different means. The reave’s voice sounded like a whisper in Roche’s skull, as though the very cells of her brain were listening. It came with an image of a bone picked clean by the elements.
Roche nodded, waiting to see if Cane himself would say anything, but he didn’t. The clone warrior she had once been happy to call
—who was at least distantly related to the woman Jelena Heidik—had been reticent since his awakening from the coma in which he’d been imprisoned by Linegar Rufo. Under the circumstances, she wasn’t sure she blamed him. Nevertheless, it still made her uneasy....
“We’ve lost her, haven’t we?” said Haid from elsewhere in the ship.
Roche glanced at the pools of blood around the bridge. “I think so,” she said, unsure whether to feel relieved or piqued. The clone warrior presumably had more important things to worry about now that she was in Sol System. And Roche would have no chance of finding her unless Heidik chose to attack—a notion she didn’t particularly care to entertain.
Switching back to the Basigo channel, Roche came to a decision. “We’re going to disable all the drives except for attitude adjustment and program a warning beacon. It shouldn’t be disturbed any more than it already has been. Do you agree to that?”
“It’s not my place to decide,” said the first officer with some relief. “They’re your bodies, not mine.”
... ?” Roche started, a sick feeling rising in her stomach.
“Hey, they were addressed to you,” he said. “And that’s good enough for me.”
* * *
By the time Roche and Haid returned to the
the Basigo ship had already gone, powering in-system on a torch of blue energy as though its crew was keen to put as much distance between it and the death-ship as possible. Roche could at least empathize with this. Behind her, the
had been scuttled with cold efficiency, its navigation AIs wiped. Its only remaining sign of life was the beacon, warning people away.
“Heidik knew we were following her,” Roche said aloud as she stepped out of the back of her suit and down onto the rubberized floor of the changing room. The moment the suit was empty, it walked itself to an empty niche in the wall for recharging.
Haid watched her from a bench in one corner, his dark skin and biomesh glistening with sweat. “It couldn’t just be a lucky guess?”
“She wrote my name in six-foot letters on the bridge of that ship, Ameidio, using the blood of the people she’d murdered.” Roche ran a hand across her stubbled scalp. “Trust me, she knew we were coming after her, and exactly when we would arrive, too.”
“She could have destroyed us if she’d really wanted to,” Haid mused.
“But she didn’t,” said Roche. “My name was written there for someone to find, and that wouldn’t have happened if the ship had been destroyed.” She slipped a loose top over her head. “No, the
was only intended as a parting shot—a spit in the eye.”
“That’s one hell of a spit,” said Haid humorlessly.
She shrugged wearily, as though settling a burden on her back. “Our options now are limited. We keep looking for her—although just how we’re going to do that, I don’t know. Or we warn whoever’s in charge to keep an eye out.”
“You really think someone is in charge, here?”
“Not yet. But that won’t stop someone trying.”
Haid paused before saying: “There’s something I still don’t understand, though, Morgan.” He didn’t wait for her to respond before continuing: “How
we know where she was going?”
Roche avoided meeting his eye. “I told you, the Box talked about the gathering here before we left Palasian System. Before it was destroyed.”
“Yeah, but how did
know?” said Haid. “We could have been heading into a trap.”
Roche snorted. “Didn’t we just do that?”
“You know what I mean,” said Haid. “The Box could have been sending us—”
Kajic’s voice over the intercom interrupted him: “Morgan, you’re receiving another hail.”
“I don’t suppose the Basigo simply forgot something?”
“No,” said Kajic. “It’s a representative of the Eckandar Trade Axis in what looks like a Commerce Artel ship. They’re radiating an impartial sigil, anyway.”
“What do they want?”
“They haven’t said. I can open a line if you like.”
“Give me a minute to get to the bridge.” Roche indicated for Haid to come with her. He tossed the towel aside and followed her from the changing room, along a stretch of corridor and to an internal transit tube. Two harnesses awaited them there, ready to whisk them across the ship.
Not that their physical presence was actually required on the bridge. The
was as advanced as anything the Dato Bloc could build; in some areas it was even slightly ahead of the Commonwealth of Empires. Roche could run the ship in every respect from any point within it—or beyond its hull, if necessary. But being at the heart of the ship helped her concentrate, she had found, and it was as good a place as any for everyone to gather.
Maii was there when they arrived. So was Cane. The dark-skinned clone warrior watched impassively from where he stood off-center in the large room, facing the main screen. On it was an image of a ship: flat, petal-shaped, with a sheen to it like that of polished bone. There were no visible markings, although on ultraviolet a repeating pattern of symbols raced around the undulating rim. Artel sigils, as Kajic had already noted.
There was no obvious means of propulsion to the ship, but it advanced steadily toward them.
Thinking of Heidik, Roche said: “Be careful, Uri. It could be a trap.”
“I am battle-ready,” said Kajic.
“I would not attack like this,” said Cane, facing Roche. “They are foolishly exposed. Until it is clear who are your enemies and who are your allies, it would be best to wait.”
“Then what is it they want?” asked Haid.
“Let’s find out.” Roche indicated for Kajic to open a line to the Artel ship. “This is Morgan Roche of the vessel
“Ah, Roche.” The long, gray face of an Eckandi in middle age appeared on the screen. “My name is Alwen Ustinik. I am sorry to trouble you, but, having been advised of your arrival, I thought it prudent to contact you as soon as possible.”
“Advised? By whom?”
“An associate. I do not speak for myself, of course. I am merely the representative of a number of interested parties. The Commerce Artel has many such representatives scattered throughout this system, as I’m sure you would expect. Even at a time such as this, the possibilities of trade are enormous. So many new contacts to make and avenues to explore...”
She’s trying to distract me,
Roche realized. “Get on with it, Ustinik.”
There was a pause, then a smile. “Naturally,” Ustinik said. “The people I represent have an interest in seeing justice served, as I’m sure you do too, Roche. When people are hurt, they desire recompense—or, at the very least, a sense that some attempt at retribution has been made. How one dispenses punishment depends on one’s society, of course, but there tends to be more overlap than dissent, I have found. The majority decides, and, where the justice system fails, it is often up to the Artel to facilitate corrective dialogue.”
Roche sighed. “Can we get to the point here? I have no idea what it is you’re talking about.”
“I am talking about war, Roche,” the Eckandi said evenly. “The ultimate destabilization an economy can experience. Yes, it may have its short-term benefits, but in the long term it leads to nothing but hardship. The legacy of death and heartbreak is enduring; everyone pays in the end.”
Roche thought of the clone warriors, spreading dissent throughout the galaxy, and guessed that Ustinik had been sent to get her hands on Cane. Why? For a show-trial, perhaps, to suggest that her “associates” knew what they were doing. Or in a last-minute, desperate attempt to obtain information...
“I’m not turning him over,” she said, despite her own misgivings about having him around.
“Please reconsider. I speak on behalf of those who have had the misfortune in the past to be on the receiving end of his business dealings. He is a mercenary and a terrorist who has not fully atoned for his crimes—”
“Wait a second.” Roche gestured the other woman to silence. “Are you talking about
The Eckandi frowned. “Yes, of course.”
Roche frowned also. “But what the hell would you want with him?’
“I am here to ensure his return to a corrective institution,” said Ustinik, “where the remainder of his sentence can be carried out.”
Roche was momentarily taken aback. “His sentence was repealed by the High Equity Court—”
“Not formally—and under some duress, if the information I have at my disposal is correct. I am told that, quite apart from the crimes committed before his capture, he was also the leader of a resistance movement on Sciacca’s World, and that this movement overthrew the legally appointed warden of the planet.”
“The warden was corrupt, and colluding with the Dato Bloc—”
“The Artel doesn’t get involved in regional disputes, Roche.” Ustinik’s tone was calm but commanding; not once did her pitch rise, nor her face display any annoyance or anger. “There is still such a thing as due process. My clients are dissatisfied with a pardon extracted at gunpoint. If they do not make an example of his flagrant disregard for the law, where will it end?”
“It wasn’t like that. If you’ll let me explain—”
“No explanations are necessary,” Ustinik cut in again. “Or desired. To resist would only implicate yourself further, Roche.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“My clients’ words, not mine.” The woman’s smile was economical and short-lived. “I am a mediator, nothing more.”
Roche’s fists clenched. “And I have more important things to worry about.”
“Regardless, the facts remain: you helped Ameidio Haid evade justice, and you continue to shield him from those who wish to see that justice served in full. I doubt they will smile on your venture, no matter how important you think it is. Turn him over to my custody, and you will have nothing further to worry about.”
Anger flared, but Roche kept it in tight check. “Give me ten minutes to think about it.”
“You have five.” Ustinik killed the line without any change in facial expression.
“You should’ve asked her who she was representing,” said Haid after a few moments.
“I was hoping you might be able to answer that one,” said Roche.
“Well, there are a number of people it could be.” The ex-mercenary shrugged. “Maybe all of them. I was busy for a long time, Morgan.”