include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Blood Star by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Blood Star by Brett Fitzpatrick (Distributed by Smashwords) Copyright 2019 Smashwords


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Chapter 1



A small ship slipped into local space near one of the most populace planets in the whole of the Tarazet Star Empire, a world named Allamy, dropped to a low orbit, then inserted itself into the atmosphere and landed, but only for the briefest moment. It was soon lifting off again and boosting away from the surface. Chase watched the ship fly overhead, never tiring of gazing at its complex silhouette of multi-directional thrusters, heat vanes, weaponry, and sensor systems. The whole ensemble was organized into a roughly arrowhead shape that was very pleasing to the eye. There were a few areas of damage, but nothing so major that it spoiled the spaceship’s lines. All in all it was an immense source of pride to him.

“The Silver Star," he said to his companion. "Beautiful, don’t you think?”

"It is underpowered for its size," his companion said.

"Have you no poetry in your soul, Rowena?" Chase asked, glancing away from the receding spaceship just long enough to give her a dark look.

Rowena didn't react except to shrug almost imperceptibly. She was an ancient design of android, many hundreds of years older than he was, and her extreme age was obvious from the many scuffs and scratches on her face and hands. She had taken to wearing human clothes to protect her metallic skin, including a cap and gloves, leaving only the slim and sculpted lines of her silver face exposed to the elements.

Chase himself, though much younger, was also past his prime, with a biological age somewhere in his forties, even though he had lived a little longer than that.

"Do you know how many times you have commented to me about the beauty of your ship?" Rowena asked.

"Not exactly, no," Chase admitted.

"I do," she said.

"So?" Chase prompted.

"So what?" Rowena said, with a slight smile of the few facial actuators around her mouth.

"So... how many times?" It was clear from his tone of voice that Chase was genuinely curious.

"It's a lot," Rowena said.

"What's your point?" Chase asked, disappointed now that it was becoming clear he wasn't going to get an exact number.

"My point is," Rowena said, "I wish you were more of a conversationalist. The art of conversation is important, you know, an it is something you can practice and learn."

"Nice," Chase said, frowning at her, but then he was distracted by a discharge of energy above.

There was a flash and rumble as the Silver Star triggered one of the gossamer-delicate grav mines floating around in the atmosphere. He looked up in time to see his spaceship rimmed in coruscating light. He was worried for a second, but he soon relaxed when no drones or fighters came to investigate. He could see his ship, seemingly unharmed, continue to climb.

“What a sight,” he breathed.

“Beautiful?” his companion ventured, her tone ironic.

“Beautiful,” Chase grinned, ignoring the android’s snippy tone entirely. “But we can’t gaze at it all day. We have to get on with what we came here for.”

“Sure,” Rowena nodded. “Let’s do this thing.”

“First we find my local guy, Thane,” Chase said.

***



Far across space from Allamy, Captain Sperry was being briefed by his second in command, a man named Levo, about the results of some routine inspections when it happened, when the sky tore open with no warning at all. One moment the stars had been right, and the next they were very, very wrong. It was like a rip in the stellar field, and through the hole Sperry could see another, different expanse of stars. It was a horrendous sight, one to make even a seasoned fleet commander doubt his sanity.

What in the name of all the powers is that?” Levo asked, the unauthorized ship forgotten.

I was hoping you could tell me,” Sperry growled. “Is it a natural phenomena?”

Our sensors are going crazy,” Hellic, the helm officer, told him. “The local gravity field is fluctuating like a plate of jello.”

And then something appeared in the hole that ha been ripped through the fabric of space. The starfield on the other side shifted, went out of focus and came back to sharpness in an instant, and where before there had been empty space, now there was a small, dark yellow disk.

Is that an enemy craft?” Sperry asked, some instinct telling him that it was an evil thing, and that it intended to do harm to him and his ship, the Howling Wind.

I’m not getting anything on the sensors that makes any sense,” Hellic told him, a little more tension in her voice than just a moment before. “I’m not detecting any faster than light technology being used, but that thing is coming toward us at enormous speed, and the size... The size of it... These readings have to be wrong.”

Tell me anyway, Hellic,” Sperry barked. “I need information.”

The sensors are telling me that it is orders of magnitude bigger than any ship I have ever seen before.”

The tactical systems are detecting an armored hull... and shields,” Levo said. “I’m getting estimates for armor density and thickness... Wait, this is wrong. The scale is in kilometers. That has to be an error, doesn’t it?”

Priority message from fleet command,” Montrey, the communications officer said, before a hologram of a fleet command officer appeared on the bridge.

Message to all military craft,” she said. “There is an anomaly in space, very near the planet of Zan-Zoma, our system’s most populous planet. The nearest main ship to the center of the zone of disturbance is the carrier, Iron Grip. All units converge on Iron Grip at maximum sub-light speed. Power up shields and weapons and await further orders.”

The hologram snapped out of existence, replaced for a second or two by a 3D graphic, depicting the slowly-turning logo of the Zoma System Defense Fleet.

We have our orders,” Sperry bellowed. “Shields up, weapons hot, lay in a course. Let’s go, people. Sound battle stations. Let’s wake everybody up, and go find out what this is all about.”

He watched with a grim smile as his command crew swung into action, and then turned his attention to a large tactical hologram at the center of the bridge. It was displaying fleet positions, which were all updating as the individual units maneuvered to converge on the Iron Grip. But the symbol indicating the status and position of Iron Grip kept jumping and flickering.

What’s going on with my tactical display?” Sperry growled.

It’s not the display,” Hellic told him. “It’s space itself that is glitching.”

Bring up some visuals,” Sperry ordered.

The bridge was buried at the center of the Howling Wind, where it was theoretically safer from enemy fire than if it was projecting from the hull. This had the disadvantage that there were no windows, and so the only way to see what was going on – other than by peering at the spiderweb tactical holograms that were complex 3D sculptures made out of points, each point showing the position of a unit or group of units, and lines, showing vectors – was to use large, flat holograms that acted as screens.

Dominating the bridge was a single flat hologram showing the ever-growing disk at the center of the disturbance to local space, and at the captain’s command it was joined by a new screen, showing the Iron Grip. Iron Grip was a huge ship, ugly, with no effort at streamlining for atmospheric entry. It looked most like a collection of fighter and drone bays, held together by clumps of weapon systems and support areas, all covered over in armor and studded with heat vanes, shield projector nubs, and FTL sails.

It’s under attack,” Levo gasped. “The Iron Grip is under attack, but I don’t see any incoming fire.”

It’s coming apart,” Hellic whispered. “It’s the gravity storm unleashed by this rip in space.”

This can’t be,” Sperry muttered, offended at the wrongness of what was being done to the fabric of his home system.

They all watched as the armor of the carrier started to warp and come away. Delicate structures like sensor booms and communications masts were being twisted and torn off. And then there was an audible gasp from several throats around the bridge, as the carrier, with its enormous structural integrity and layers of armor, suddenly failed completely. The fabric of the formidable fighting craft ripped in a diagonal line, traveling from just above the prow to just below the stern. Fighters and drones were being launched at the same time as massive chunks of hull came away, dissolving the spaceship’s outline and replacing it with a whirling mass of debris and small attack craft.

By the powers,” Sperry gasped. Nobody else on the bridge spoke or made a sound.

The fleet command officer’s hologram reappeared, this time without any prior warning from his communications officer.

Change of orders,” she said. “Change of orders. Change of orders. Avoid the center of the distortion. The gravity field there is too unstable. Remain in stable gravity space. I repeat, stay in stable gravity space.”

The hologram winked out, again with the fleet logo left spinning for a second in its wake before disappearing completely.

What is the gravity gradient near us?” Sperry asked.

Not great,” Hellic said, “and our current course is taking us deeper into the gravity maelstrom. Our structural integrity fields are working hard, but the stress they are under is climbing all the time.”

Belay our current course,” Sperry said. “Hold us here... for now. But keep an eye on the gravity sensors, and tell me if they start to head in the wrong direction, okay Hellic?”

Yes, sir,” Hellic replied.

Look through the rift,” Levo said then, as he leaned toward the hologram screen to see better. “The disk is growing. I thought it was maybe a saucer and we were seeing it from above, but it’s not. It’s a globe... a big globe... By the powers, it’s a planet, an artificial planet, made out of some gold or bronze metal.”

That’s not possible,” Sperry told him. “There’s no such thing as an artificial planet. Such a thing couldn’t be built with our current level of tech-”

It’s Drifter Prime,” Levo said. “It is an artificial planet, all right, but we didn’t build it. It has been hanging in space since before we came down from the trees. Powers knows who really built it.”

Not hanging in space... Drifting,” Hellic corrected him.

But the Drifter Prime site is half a sector away,” the captain protested. “It can’t be here.”

It isn’t here... At least I don’t think it is, not really,” Hellic said. “The rip is connecting two different areas of space, like a portal or a bridge. We can see Drifter Prime, even though it is hundreds of light years away, or more.”

I have never heard of anything like that before,” Sperry said, unable to believe his own eyes.

And the rift is expanding," Hellic said. “We have to move, if we want to keep the load on our structural integrity fields from going critical.”

Understood,” Sperry said, with a swift, decisive nod. “Get us out of here.”

Accelerating,” Hellic said.

As the captain gazed at the viewing screens he saw another ship caught by the enormous tidal forces swilling around at the edge of the rift, moments before it was torn apart, like an impatient child ripping the wrapping paper off a gift.

By the very powers,” Sperry muttered. “The area of disturbance is expanding fast. The fleet is scattering but it is overhauling the slow ships and the ships that were nearest to Iron Grip.”

They watched as mighty naval warship after mighty naval warship was overhauled and torn panel from panel. Leaving sometimes just a twisted structural skeleton, sometimes just a cloud of debris, to mark where the ship had been.

The flagship,” Levo gasped, as the inexorable progress of the gravity disturbance continued. “It’s going to catch the flagship.”

Just as he said that, the hologram of the fleet command officer returned. “All fast ships converge on the flagship,” she said. “The admiral must be evacuated. I repeat the admiral must be evacuated. This is a priority, red, command. All fast shi...” Her words trailed off and she looked over her shoulder. “What's that?” she asked, before reaching for a helmet that was just outside the hologram camera’s field of view and lowering it over her head. She worked quickly to connect it to the neck ring of her slim suit of armor, and then the hologram cut out, replaced by the spinning logo.

It has them,” Hellic said, voice reverent, awed at what was happening to the mightiest spacecraft in the system, “and nobody will be escaping that, not even the admiral.”

They all watched as the disturbance chewed into the side of the flagship, its proud guns unable to even fight back against the fate that was overtaking it. The hologram logo, still slowly spinning and forgotten on the bridge, went fuzzy and disappeared as a long strip of the flagship’s ablative armor was torn away.

The flagship is the best we have,” Levo said. “If any ship can withstand the gravity storm, then it’s that ship.”

Maybe you’re right,” Hellic said. “The disturbance is expanding more slowly. And the flagship’s engines are still burning at full power. They might just make it.”

The entire bridge crew watched in tense silence as the admiral’s craft powered forward, the engines roaring.

No,” Sperry said. “It’s too late for them. They’re already doomed. The gravity shear has sliced off too many heat vanes. They can’t dump the heat those engines are pumping out. They have two choices now. Either kill the engines and wait for the hull to slowly crumple like a tin can, or-”

The captain’s words were interrupted by a bright flash as the engines of the flagship went critical. The entire rear of the ship was caught in an expanding fireball that reached the capacitors storing power for the ships rear weapons turret. They exploded too, and the combined explosion tore the entire back of the ship off.

Or push the engines till they blow,” Sperry continued his thought in a low, shocked voice.

By the powers,” Hellic said. “Actually it’s both. The explosion left them drifting in space, and now the gravity storm is crushing what’s left of the ship.”

Who is in charge here now?” Sperry groaned, as he looked away from the tragic sight. “Find out who is in command. I need some orders.”

Working on it,” Montrey shouted.

Do we fall back to the planet?” Levo asked. “Howling Wind is capable of atmospheric insertion.”

The disturbance is slowing,” Hellic said, “but the sensors are predicting that it will graze the planet. That is going to have severe consequences for the environment.”

By the powers,” Levo grunted.

It took ten minutes for Hellic’s predictions to start to come true. The upper surface of Zan-Zoma’s atmosphere started to spin in complex patterns, and then clouds formed at the edges between each vortex.

I’m getting orders now, captain,” Montrey said.

From who?” the captain asked.

Unclear,” the communication officer replied. “The communications net has so many holes in it, trying to use this console is little better than shouting into a can on the end of a piece of string.”

What are the orders?” the captain asked, irritation in his voice.

Rescue mission,” Montrey replied. “All ships with atmospheric entry capabilities are to descend to the surface at the main spaceport, or as near as we can get, and start taking on population. We are to evacuate as many as we can.”

Lay in the course, Hellic,” the captain ordered. “It’s time for The Howling Wind to descend into the storm.”


***


A huge distance away, in an area of space untouched by the chaos and destruction descending on Zan-Zoma, a cold gas giant was orbiting its insignificant star. The gas giant didn’t even have a name, and it looked surprisingly delicate in the star’s wan light. It was ringed in bands of color, that became chaotic where they were whipped by storms, giant arcs of auroral light played about its poles, and its rings and moons added to the complexity by casting shadows on the upper layers of its clouds. This apparent delicacy was an illusion, of course, because in reality the planet was as dense and robust as any other in the system, more so, in fact. The system itself was unnamed, far out at the edge of human space, with nobody around to gaze on the gas giant’s beauty, but if there had been, they would have seen a spaceship emerge from the upper layers of the remote gas giant, where it had been hiding and licking its wounds.

This spaceship was becoming famous throughout the Tarazet Star Empire, as people heard about it and the rebellion it was at the spearhead of. They called it the Drifter Ship, though its real name was Galaxy Dog. It’s alien outline was becoming famous, but it had changed since it was last seen. Now it was bigger than ever, with thicker armor, and denser structure. It was a like an organic structure that had toughened up, or an architectural edifice that had been buttressed against strong winds that had almost been its undoing. It was recognizably the same ship, but mightier, more robust, more ready to face the challenges ahead.

Within the Drifter Ship were four crew, a woman named Altia, a man called Knave, a robot that went by the name Jay, and deep within the ship’s systems themselves, an AI named Yort. Knave, Altia, and Jay had come together in a space within the Drifter Ship that they called the observation deck. There too, the changes that the spaceship had been going through were very obvious.

Look at this window,” Knave, a muscular man with light brown skin, straight black hair, and epicanthic folds, said. He got up from the luxuriously upholstered bench he had been sitting on, went to the window, and patted it with the flat of his hand. “It’s bigger now than it was before, and you can see that the transparent armor is thicker.”

The whole hull is thicker,” Jay, a robot of human design, but constructed of bronze, alien Drifter metal, agreed. “It’s like the Galaxy Dog went into the clouds a badly chewed up caterpillar, and now it’s coming out as an iron butterfly.”

A bronze butterfly,” Knave corrected.

The changes are incredible,” said Altia, a tall woman with dark brown skin, an afro, and a regal face. “It is like the spaceship wasn’t built to a design, but instead was built to a general layout, like a living thing. And the layout can be made more robust or allowed to fade and become more gracile, depending on what circumstances require.”

Gracile?” Knave said, glancing at her, eyebrow raised. He had never heard the word before in his life.

Gracility is slenderness,” Altia said. “It is a term used in discussion of morphology. It means something like being slim. This spaceship, however, has definitely gone the other way, and become more robust.”

And I don’t remember asking it to do that,” Jay said. “Did any of you ask it to do that?”

No,” Altia said.

No,” Knave echoed. “I would have asked it to do this a long time ago. The new, bulked-up look is cool.”

So why now?” Altia asked. “The spaceship has repaired damage before-”

Many times,” Jay added.

We do get into some scrapes,” Knave nodded, ruefully.

-but it has never responded like this before,” Altia continued, ignoring their comments. “So, the question is, why now? What has caused this?”

We did get our asses kicked a lot harder last time than we ever have before,” Knave said. “Of course, Jay decided to throw the ship at an entire flotilla of the Tarazet Deep Space Fleet, all on its own-”

Hey, hume,” Jay said. “I saved your ass, and your ass too, Altia, by doing that.”

Sure,” Knave nodded, waving a hand dismissively, “but Galaxy Dog was little more than a skeleton when it limped away, held together by structural integrity fields and adhesive tape. Maybe hardening up like this was a reaction to all that damage.”

That is possible,” Altia said. “Very possible. But there is something else that may have triggered this change. An event.”

Okay, I’ll bite,” Jay told her.

Yeah, what event?” Knave promoted.

The opening of the Eye,” Altia said. “The emergence of the Dark Wings into our galaxy. I suspect that Galaxy Dog is not reacting to past events, rather it is reacting to what is to come.”

They all three fell silent then, and Knave returned to sit beside Altia on the upholstered bench, watching the last wisps of cloud stream past the window as they moved further and further away from the surface of the gas giant.

The ship has repaired itself,” a disembodied voice said.

Yort,” Knave said, surprise and pleasure in his voice.

It’s good to hear your voice,” Altia said.

Welcome back, buddy,” Jay added.

I feel that I, too, am healed of a malady that has been afflicting me,” Yort said.

Malady?” Knave said, again looking to Altia for help, eyebrow again raised quizically.

Look it up,” she told him, “you only get one definition per day, buster.”

What’s going on, Yort?” Jay asked. “Has the spaceship grown in size because of the Dark Wings, or the Eye?”

Your guess, Altia, about why Galaxy Dog has grown more robust are correct,” Yort told them.

Which one, the eye or the Dark Wings?” Knave asked, but Yort ignored him and carried on speaking.

And this is why I too feel as though I have a renewed purpose,” the ship’s computer said. “The appearance of this threat, here, in this galaxy, is a catastrophe, and I feel that we are compelled to react to it.”

React how?” Knave asked.

We have to stop it,” Altia said.

It must be prevented,” Yort said, at exactly the same time.

Oh,” Knave said, “sure, I mean I get that.”

Really?” Jay said. “I don’t get it. The Dark Wings are a new threat, I get that part, but the Tarazet Star Empire has been fighting a bunch of aliens, the Buzzers, for longer than anyone can remember. The Dark Wings are just another alien threat, like the Buzzers, right? I mean, that’s bad, sure-”

You didn’t see them,” Knave said. “These guys are not like Buzzers.”

The Buzzers are an annoyance, nothing more,” Yort said.

Knave thought back to his time in the Tarazet Navy, before he deserted. He thought back to surface combat, to running around in a suit of power armor, commanding a pack of drones, as the navy fought the Buzzers for control of one planet or another. He had seen buzzers the size of grav tanks, watched them rip combat drones apart with one pair of arms, while still firing mass drivers with the other pair. He had seen Buzzer swarms on more than one occasion. They were huge collections of insect-like spaceships, equal in size and power to anything the Tarazet Star Empire could field. The two forces, Buzzer and human, were so equally matched that it was no wonder the war just dragged on and on.

Well,” Knave muttered, “I would rate the Greater Buzzer Swarm as more than just an annoyance.”

What makes the Dark Wings different?” Jay asked.

The Eye,” Yort said. “The Dark Wings are different because they have opened the Eye. They are an exponential threat. They use the Eye to invade and attack.”

The Tarazet Deep Space Navy has nothing that can stand against the power of the Eye,” Altia said. “There is nothing in this galaxy that can stand against it.”

Knave glanced at Altia, always surprised at her depth of knowledge of the ancient, lost, Drifter culture and its technologies.

You are incorrect, luckily,” Yort said. “There is one unit that can move against the Eye with some small hope of success.”

I have a feeling I know who he’s talking about,” Jay said.

I think I’m starting to get that same feeling,” Knave agreed.

The answer is obvious,” Altia said.

This unit,” Yort continued, confirming what they were all thinking. “This unit can be used to prevent a full-scale invasion of this galaxy by the Dark Wings before it truly starts.”

But we are just one ship,” Knave complained.

No, Knave,” Yort said. “Galaxy Dog is much more than just one ship.”

Knave waited expectantly for Yort to continue, but no more explanation came. “What did that mean?” he asked, turning to Altia for enlightenment.

I don’t know,” she said, pensively.

She knows,” Knave said to Jay, with a grin. “I can see in her eyes that she knows, she just doesn’t want to spill the beans just yet.”

So,” Jay said, ignoring Knave, “what course do I lay in. Where do we want to go?”

Zan-Zoma,” Altia said. “We have to see what is happening there.”

Yeah,” Knave nodded. “I’m not happy about it, but I agree. All kinds of rumors are leaking out about a huge invasion. Nobody can keep a lid on it, not even the Tarazet Fake News Department-”

That’s not what it’s actually called,” Altia interjected, but halfheartedly, more out of some reflexive habit of using terms correctly than any desire to defend the government of the Tarazet Star Empire.

Whatever they’re calling themselves, we aren’t getting the whole story,” Knave said.

Whatever it is, it’s something big,” Jay said. “It could be these Dark Wings. You know Knave, when I got mixed up with you I never bargained for all this. I never had you down as the hero type. I had you pegged as a drinking buddy, at most.”

That’s all I was back then,” Knave nodded. “All the heroism and rebellion was added into the equation by Altia, here. She’s the one who wants to take down the entire Tarazet Star Empire.”

Altia frowned at Knave’s gross simplification of what had happened to start them down the road to rebellion.

Before we can overthrow the Empress, we will have to save her, and her empire, and the entire galaxy,” she said.

The entire galaxy?” Jay said, as he headed out of the room, on the way to the bridge. He still wasn’t convinced that any force, no matter how advanced their technology, could threaten an entire galaxy. “I’ll lay in a course for Zan-Zoma, right into the eye of whatever storm this turns out to be. All in a day’s work for a galactic hero...”

His voice faded out of earshot, though he was still talking, seemingly to himself. Altia snuggled her head into Knave’s shoulder and stroked his chest.

I think better when I’m resting my head on your arm,” she said. “And I have a lot of thinking to do.”

Go ahead,” Knave said, “the Galaxy Dog is a fast ship but there is still time before we get to Zan-Zoma. Quite a bit of time.”

We have time,” Altia whispered. “Time enough... perhaps.”

Knave smiled at the realization that she was almost certainly talking about something else than he was. He knew the tone of vice she used when she was working on one of her ideas.




Chapter 2


Some time later, Knave stood alone in a chamber deep in the belly of the Drifter Ship. It was an area that had recently been host to a human mercenary named Vella along with a Buzzer scientist who as far as Knave could tell, didn’t have a name. Knave’s thoughts turned to Vella, remembering a conversation they had had while sitting this dimly lit dining area. The table at the center of the area was hexagonal and the room, like the rest of the interior of the spaceship was a gloomy melange of shades of predominantly bronze with some silver and gold added to the mix. They had been eating simple food from a food synthesizer, while Vella was studying a hologram that was displaying pictures of an engine of war.

Knave remembered how he had recognized it immediately as a mech, but he couldn’t straightaway say what class it was. He had been a drone handler during his time in the military, and hadn’t had a lot to do with mecha.

What are you up to, Vella?” he had asked, as he shoveled another chunk of food into his mouth.

Trying to work something out,” she had said, as he put his spork down.

Leaning closer to the hologram now, he could see that along with the detailed representation of the mech there was another shape that was more of a sketch. It was a similar height to the mech but had very few recognizable features.

What’s that?” Knave remembered asking.

It’s supposed to be a Dark Wing,” Vella had said. “I tried to import pictures from my gun cameras, from when we fought them, but it didn’t work. Whatever lashed up hologram projectors you have on this ship, they were not interested in uploading my pictures.”

The technology here can be temperamental,” Knave had nodded understandingly. “Only Altia can really get it to work right.”

I guess,” Vella had said.

So, what is it you are trying to work out?” Knave had asked. “Maybe I can help.”

It’s a bit of a lost cause without better data,” Vella had muttered, reaching for a slice of her synthesized food and slumping back in her chair at the same time. “I had the idea that the creatures weren’t uniform in height, that they in fact varied quite a lot. Some were only huge, while others were frickin' ginormous. My background is in mecha, so I was using various different designs to compare them against. I was working out which Dark Wings corresponded in height wih which mech class.”

Okay, that makes sense?” Knave had said.

It does?” Vella retorted, with a skeptical grin.

It does to me, at least,” Knave nodded.

Okay,” Vella said, sitting forward again and putting down her half-eaten slice. “At a very rough estimate, I think they vary in height between an Axon-class mech and a Death Tower-class design.”

Ha, mecha have cool names,” Knave said, as he reached for a hologram projector, fired it up, and pulled up schematics for the two designs she had mentioned.

The Death Tower is big,” he said after a while. “I mean really big. Are you sure?”

No,” Vella shook her head. “Maybe it just seemed that way to me at the time. I was in a tiny suit of power armor, barely twelve feet tall, and it was dark and creepy inside that artificial planet. What was it called... Drifter Prime? Maybe the hostiles just looked bigger than they really were.”

Though... on second thoughts,” Knave said, “I think you might be right. I think a couple of them were this big.”

Knave remembered that at that moment the Buzzer scientist had come into the room to join them. Her enormous, insectile body filled the hexagonal doorway as she came through it, projected forward on her two sets of lower limbs. The blank eye sockets in her metal and chitin face directed at Knave. She leaned against the table with one set of upper limbs, while using the other to gesture with as she talked.

Human, Knave,” she said. “I am enjoying being a passenger on the Drifter Ship-”

Galaxy Dog,” Knave corrected her. “The ship’s name is Galaxy Dog.”

Yes, yes,” the scientist waved a three-fingered claw dismissively. “But I must ask to now be returned to my people as swiftly as possible. I have thought hard about this, and I must insist. I have information in my data storage lacunae that will be of invaluable benefit to the Greater Hive.”

We can drop you somewhere,” Knave said.

Vella had killed the hologram as the Buzzer arrived, Knave remembered. He touched a control set into the tabletop, and reactivated the file he and Vella had been using to try to estimate the average size of the Dark Wings.”

Both the Buzzer scientist and Vella were gone now, but Knave had a feeling that Vella’s efforts to compare Dark Wings to Mecha might just prove useful. He punched another button to have the console dump the information into a hard copy, and picked up the little bronze disk it spat out.

The Buzzer scientist had been dropped off within buzzer space, Knave remembered, at a location where her compatriots would swiftly find her, an asteroid with a small automated base. Knave, Altia, and Jay had watched the asteroid dwindle away to nothing as they left her behind. Knave tried to remember if there had been any hint back then of the massive changes the ship would soon undergo as it grew to the more massive dimensions of the ship's architecture surrounding him now.

He didn’t think so but it was hard to be sure. He mentally queried the ships data sphere, to find out the positions of Altia and Jay, and immediately sensed that they were both on the bridge.


***

On the bridge, Knav dropped the bronze disk into a console and called up a hologram and used it to display the file he and Vella had been working on, with its collection of mecha designs and its impressionistic renderings of various sizes of Dark Wings.

Remember Vella?” he asked ’s, as Altia and Jay turned their attention to him. “She was typical military, even in her down time, she had to keep herself busy. She was using mecha as a measure to work out the average size of a Dark Wing, just for the sake of it. That’s how she relaxes.”

Did you want to keep her?” Jay asked.

We had to drop her off, you know that, Knave,” Altia said. “She is a very brave fighter, and her help was invaluable, but we don't carry passengers. We can’t afford to.”

Sure,” Knave nodded. “I understand. I just thought this data she was working on was useful, that’s all.”

"I guess," Jay said. "But our mission is urgent, we could take some time to look at it soon, but not now."

"Very soon," Altia said.

"We fit it in on the way to Zan-Zoma," Knave said. “I have the feeling there is some insight here. Something important.”

"All right," Altia said, knowing by now that Knave’s hunches often contained some grain of useful information, even if he wasn’t always able to articulate what it was. "I’ll take a look. I promise."

A silence descended on the bridge as they gazed a second longer at the data Vella had prepared before leaving the ship. She had become a friend in the short time the crew had known her, and they were all sorry to see her go.



***



A few hours later, Galaxy Dog encountered a rebel spaceship, a frigate named Belias, limping along at half its maximum FTL speed. Both ships decelerated to slower than light speed, and the Galaxy Dog immediately started maneuvering to dock. A hologram, in the usual Drifter tints of luminous bronze and gold, appeared on their bridge as they matched speed. It was the captain of the rebel ship.

"My name is Spines," the woman said.

"My name is-" Knave started to say.

"You don't need to tell me who you are," Spines interrupted, looking around the three command seats of the Drifter Ship. "You are Knave, you are Altia, and you are Jay. You are the three brave warriors for social justice who started this rebellion. It is an honor to meet you all, even if only via hologram. And it is a privilege to see your spaceship, the famous Galaxy Dog, with my own eyes."

"Er... Yes... Okay," Knave said, unused to being complimented, or to having people be impressed by being in his mere presence.

"You can send a shuttle over to collect this whenever you are ready," Altia said, holding up a sealed data tube. "It will be valuable in helping The Roundhead to understand this latest threat.."

"The shuttle is launching, and it will be docking with you in ten minutes, or so," Spines told them.

"Your craft, the Belias, looks to have seen heavy action," Jay noted.

"Yes," Spines nodded. "We have been stationed at Pagarata. We will be returning as soon as we have replenished our ablative armor... oh and there is some urgent work that must be done to our main weapons turret. That is why we are out here, so far from the action. There aren't so many ship yards that can do the job, at least not shipyards friendly to the rebellion."

"We were at Pagarata," Knave nodded, "before we went off on this new mission."

"Is your mission complete?" Spines asked. "We are making good progress at Pagarata, but having Galaxy Dog in the combat could decisively swing things for us. It is very important that the rebellion takes this planet, strategically and symbolically. He sooner you return, the better."

"We are aware of that," Altia said, a little brusquely. "I'm including all the information we have about our current mission in the data tube. When you read what it contains you will understand why our current mission must take priority."

"You're allowing me access to the information? It isn’t sealed for The Roundhead’s eyes only?" Spines gasped, an expression of shock on her face. "Even though it is not a mission I am involved in?"

"Yes," Altia said.

"And even though I am far below you in the rebellion's chain of command?" Spines pressed.

"Well, yes," Altia said, looking to her left, to where Knave was sitting, for an explanation of why Captain Spines was so incredulous.

"You were an imperial captain before joining the rebellion, right Spines?" Knave said, prompting the captain of the other craft to answer with a simple, dumbfounded nod.

"The whole crew joined the rebellion with me,” she added, a second later, “but before that we were with a Tarazet system defense fleet."

"Okay, I thought so," Knave nodded, as though this explained everything. "Just giving information to anyone who might find it useful is not the way things are done in the Tarazet Navy," Knave said to Altia.

"You can say that again," Jay said, with an electronic chuckle.

Captain Spines probably isn’t used to it,” Knave continued, warming to his theme, and tapping the side of his nose for emphasis. "Everything in the Tarazet Deep Space Navy is on a strictly need to know basis."

"I had dealings with the navy, and I rarely had problems obtaining the information I required," Altia objected.

"But you were at the top of the tree," Knave told her. "A simple infantryman like I was, or even a captain like Spines, we didn't get given any info at all. Not even about the planets we were invading, except maybe a tactical briefing."

"Even for a ship's captain,” Spines confirmed, "it was very difficult to gain an overview of what was going on."

"We have to change this when we found New Tarazet," Altia said. "Everything has to be more open, more inclusive."

The hologram of Captain Spines looked at Knave, who simply shrugged in return. A shrug that said, ‘Yes, I agree with what Altia just said, and I'll be interested to see if we ever make it happen.’ Knave could express a wide range of emotions and ideas with his shrugs.

"How long before you return to Pagarata and rejoin the battle to take the planet?" Jay asked.

"Difficult to say," Spines answered, "but, I imagine it could be as quickly as a couple of weeks."

"That soon, huh?" Knave muttered. "Well, good luck, and let's make a New Tarazet."

"New Tarazet," Spires grinned back, and her hologram faded.

"I guess I'd better get this data tube down to the docking bay," Jay said.

I’ll come with,” Knave told him.

Just moments later, they watched a shuttle come through the force field sealing the docking bay in Galaxy Dog's nose. It was was not a modern design. In fact it was an ancient looking craft, still painted in Imperial colors, but with a rebel symbol now haphazardly daubed over its former markings.

The rebel forces had been experimenting with various identifiers, symbols, and logos, but one was starting to win the war of popularity and acceptance. Knave supposed it was popular because it was relatively easy to paint, even by hand. It was a bronze hexagon, with a black semicircle within it. The bronze hexagon was a motif taken from the alien architecture of the Drifters. It represented the rebel base, and it represented Galaxy Dog. The black semicircle, on the other hand, represented the distinctive domed and semi-transparent helmet worn by the spiritual leader of the rebellion, The Roundhead.

"What a wreck," Jay muttered.

"It flies," Knave observed, "and it's going away from combat, for now."

"But you’re glad you’re on the Galaxy Dog, not the Belias, right?" Jay asked.

you know,” Knave told him, “the old me would have said no. By the powers no. Get me out of here. But something’s changed. I’ve gotten used to heading into danger, not because some admiral sens me into harms way, but because I can see it’s necessary, you know?”

I do know,” Jay told him.




Chapter 3


The ground below the Howling Wind was chaos, making it difficult to pick out a landing place. But they put the huge spaceship down on anyway. They had to deploy undercarriage systems that hadn’t been used in as long as anyone on the ship could remember, forcing the people immediately below the spaceship to scatter and run.

The external ramps were then opened and armored marines emerged to try and force some order into the stream of people trying to escape Zan-Zoma.

"Atmospheric disturbance is increasing, Captain," Hellic said.

"Can we still get to orbit," captain Sperry asked.

"Yes," his helm officer told him. "It will have to get a lot worse than this before we won't be able to punch through it."

"Keep an eye on it, Hellic," Sperry said. "This whole evacuation mission will be for nothing if we fill the ship with people but we can't get them out of the atmosphere."

"Understood captain," Hellic said, as a tremor was felt through the bridge of the Howling Wind.

The crust of the planet had been riven by quakes, some small, some a little bigger, for the past ten hours and they were very swiftly increasing in force and duration. The captain observed the operation at the ship's ramps via hologram screens. He saw where his marines were working hard to get as many people aboard ship as they could. He saw the city in the background of one of the views on the screens, just as another, bigger, quake hit, and he saw a tower collapse. One moment it was just another part of the city skyline, and then it crumbled away in a mess of tortured structure and dust.

"How many do we have?" the captain asked, sucking his teeth pensively.

"About four hundred," his second in command told him. "We can take about three times that, maybe more."

The captain nodded grimly at the pitifully small number of people, compared to a planetary population of a couple of billion.

"Things are slowing down," his second in command added. "The ramps are clogged. The situation is deteriorating."

Sperry nodded grimly. The Howling Wind, was a modern, sophisticated, and highly automated frigate, which meant the crew was small and space aboard was limited. On top of this, the frigate was no dropship or cargo carrier, it was designed to be provisioned in space by specialized replenishing ships. This meant its loading ramps were narrow and steep, an afterthought to the design, and that was causing a bottle neck to taking on evacuees. This was slowing down the efforts of his marines to evacuate as many people as possible, and things weren’t helped by the panic spreading through the crowds of people waiting to be lifted off to safety. His marines were trying to get people aboard in orderly lines, but as soon as a line formed, it descended again into a chaotic mass of people, fighting each other for survival.

"Get all our drones out there," the captain ordered. "It will make more space and the marines need the help imposing some kind of order."

"The ramps are already full of people coming the other way," Levo reminded him.

"I don't care," the captain growled back. "Drop them out of the belly airlocks if you have to.”

"Activity at Drifter Prime," his tactical officer told him.

They had debated what the structure was for some time, but it was a close match for the limited records they had in their ship's data cores for Drifter Prime, and the stars that could be seen through the anomaly were consistent with that conclusion, so they had reluctantly been forced to accept that a weird warp bridge of some kind had opened between the two points in space, accompanied by a storm-like gravity disturbance strong enough to cause disastrous crust movements and volcanism on the surface of Zan-Zoma.

"Activity?" the captain said.

"My targeting systems are telling me that Drifter Prime is launching missiles at Zan-Zoma."

"Missiles?" the captain let out an incredulous gasp. "That doesn't make any sense. An artificial planet opening a warp bridge and firing missiles through it at another planet. That just doesn't make sense. What extra damage can a bunch of missiles do, that the destabilizing crust isn’t already doing?"

The entire situation was so far outside anything the captain had ever experienced before that he was still having trouble comprehending what was going on.

"I'm getting a feed from Respectful," the communications officer said. They don't have atmospheric insertion capabilities. They're still in orbit, very close to the rift. Too close for comfort, if you ask me."

"Show me," Sperry said.

The main view screen, which had been showing a stream of humanity rushing up the ramps of the Howling Wind switched to a view of the surface of Drifter Prime. Other screens switched to, to a wide view of the planet, and also to various details picked up by Respectful's drones and fighters, which had all already been launched.

The respectful was silhouetted against the giant, bronze, artificial planet, a dark shape against the bright orb, glinting in the sun at the heart of its own system, but also in beams of light getting through the rift from the star at the center of the Zoma system. Against this bright background the Respectful, in an image captured by one of its drones, was gray, its details indistinct, the only thing easily seen the fact that it was a boxy, unstreamlined carrier design.

"There," Hellic said. She pointed at one of the video feeds being sent from Respectful, a closeup of a section of the malevolent artificial planet's surface. They saw long golden shafts emerging, traveling fast, but not at the extreme speeds of missiles or mass-driver rods.

"They aren't munitions," the captain said. "They're attack craft."

"How are they traveling through the gravity storm at the rift unscathed?" the helm officer asked.

"Are we sure they're hostile?" the second in command asked.

"How long before they reach Zan-Zoma?" the captain asked.

There was a short pause as the tactical officer worked with the ship's battle computers. Nobody took their eyes off the images of the golden shafts as he worked.

"I'm guesstimating about half an hour," he said.

"We'll still be on the surface when they arrive," Levo noted.

Nobody said a word in reply, but everyone's eyes were glancing backward and forward between the screens showing the marines doing their best to load the human cargo onto the Howling Wind and the screens showing the oncoming golden shafts, as aerodynamic and tapered as javelins.

"How many of them are there," the captain asked, as the first wave of golden spears was crossing through the worst area of the gravitic disturbance.

"Tactical systems are estimating numbers in the millions," the tactical officer said.

"Millions," Levo gasped in disbelief. "Who commits millions of ships to an invasion of a single planet?"

"It doesn't make any sense," Sperry said.

"They're taking losses," Hellic said. "The gravity shear is slicing them up."

"What level of losses," the captain asked, warily.

"This is a rough estimate at best," his tactical officer told him. "There is a lot of inert metal floating in that rift, damaged sections of our ships, and the gold javelins. I would guess, easily twenty percent."

"They are willing to accept twenty percent losses, to a fleet of millions," the captain muttered. "That's frightening. How can they afford to take losses like that, in the first wave of invasion of a single planet?"

Sperry watched tensely and growled in shock as he saw ships of the Zoma System Defense Fleet move to intercept some of the golden javelins as they emerged into more stable space, where gravity storms weren't trying to tear everything to shreds.

"What care they doing?" He almost wailed. "Do they really think that can be anything more than a gesture?”

"The surface is becoming more stable," his second in command called out.

"Huh," the captain grunted. "What do you mean... more, stable."

"He's right," Hellic said. "The gravity anomalies are easing, the rift is closing. In fact the gravitic shear no longer encompasses the planet at all.

"That's cold comfort," Sperry said. "Look at the destruction that has hit the planet already. The atmosphere is just a collection of warring super hurricanes and the earthquakes have taken out half of the spaceport and surrounding city."

"There is extreme volcanism, too," his helm officer told him. "Huge volcanoes popping up all over the surface."

The captain hung his head for a moment, as he fought to acclimatize to the enormity of it all. He was watching the death of a planet, descending from the heavens with no warning at all.

"We're getting the order to abandon evacuation attempts," his communications officer yelled. "The javelins will be entering the atmosphere in minutes. Command wants us on our way into orbit by then."

"Who is in command?" the captain yelled. "Who keeps giving us these orders? On what authority?"

"Still unclear," his communications officer told him.

"We're only at half capacity, captain," his second in command told him. "We can take hundreds more, if we ignore that order and stay just a few tens of minutes longer."

"Just a few tens of minutes," the captain repeated, as he watched pictures of battleships and carriers, some of the most powerful units in the system defense fleet, move against the golden javelins. The attacking ships fired giant mass drivers, banks of lasers, and flights of missiles. He watched the damage caused to a single golden javelin, which obviously had shields, judging by the way it shrugged off a lot of the incoming fire. Those shields were soon overloaded, however, and the golden javelin's armor started to come away in clumps. Craters appeared, where wads of heavy metal the size of rail cars had slammed into the target, followed by missiles, seeking out any such denuded points to unload their own charges of destructive energy. Some impacted on the surface, enlarging craters, while others attempted to penetrate and dump their loads of explosive force into internal structure.

"Yes," Sperry hissed as he saw the golden javelin come apart, the front and back, equally tapered so it was difficult to tell them apart, sent tumbling in different directions.

Almost everyone on the bridge joined in a small celebration, in one way or another. Some screamed out in triumph, some punched the air, everyone delighted at the sight of Tarazet ships, ships of their own fleet, taking out enemy javelin after enemy javelin. And then came the reaction.

Deep within the hail of golden javelins, a meager handful, in relation to the host, changed direction. They all picked out one or other of the attacking Tarazet ships and accelerated on collision courses.

"What the...?" the tactical officer gasped. "They're ramming? Don't they have ranged weapons?"

It was only seconds later before the first javelin ship impacted a Tarazet craft. The unfortunate ship was a destroyer named Agile Strike, which was theoretically a formidable vessel. It had powerful shields and a good covering of armor. It also had a good compliment of close defense guns for shooting down missiles and engaging drones, fighters, and power armor. None of these systems were the slightest use in defense against the golden javelin.

"It's decelerating," the tactical officer gasped, confused.

"Too fast an impact will destroy them," the captain guessed. "The hostiles, whoever, or whatever, they are, want that ship... and the crew... as a prize. It’s the only explanation."

The bridge crew watched in horror as the golden javelin pierced the shields, then the armor of the Tarazet Navy craft. That first impact showed that the hostiles had overestimated the defensive capabilities of the craft. The golden javelin cut it into two pieces, amid explosions of ignited decompressing air and munitions, and thousands of fragments of metal. The other javelins slowed even more after that, but the second ship to be hit was also utterly destroyed. By the third impact, the javelin judged its attack speed perfectly. It hit with enough inertia and velocity to penetrate shields, armor and structure without destroying its prey.

The point of the javelin slid into the side of the spaceship, a corvette named Trusted Adviser, like a knife jammed into an apple. Or more like a spear, considering the relative sizes of the two craft. The Tarazet spaceship, a relatively small corvette, was tiny in comparison to the golden javelin.

Spaceship after spaceship was hit the same way, sometimes the javelin penetrating just one side of the hull but sometimes the javelin had enough momentum to burst sickeningly all the way through, to allow the sharp tip to emerge like some obscene tongue.

"By the powers," Levo said.

"I have never seen any-" the captain started to say, before he was interrupted by his tactical officer.

"If we want to avoid the same fate as those ships, we have to go now," he said. "If we go now, maybe I can keep us away from them. Any delay and we are going to be flying through them."

"Or them through us," Levo said. He was starring in horrified fascination at a battleship, the Valiant Charger, that had the tip of a javelin penetrating through it. The impact of the hostile craft had left the two craft spinning in tight circles, the Valiant Charger shedding debris as it spun. The ship's main guns had been turned on the javelin that was sticking through its own hull, and they were firing from within the minimum protective distance of the javelin's shields. Huge craters appeared and tons of the golden metal of the monstrous craft were sent flying away with every shot, until the Valiant Charger cut the hostile craft in two and, its engines still functional, started to move at high speed away from the remains. That was when a second javelin hit it, nearer to the prow, this time a glancing blow that sheared the battleship’s front section off. With its nose missing and the front section of an alien javelin penetrating it amidships, the Valiant Charger started to slow, its lights flickering and its heat sinks glowing hot. Captain Sperry knew that slowing engines, power distribution problems, and rapidly climbing heat were very bad signs, and he was not surprised when, just as a third javelin was reaching it, the Valiant Charger detonated in a huge flash of white light, blowing off the front section of the javelin that was trying to impale it.

"Get our marines on board," the captain ordered, through gritted teeth. "And raise the ramps."

"But we have room for hundreds more-" the helm officer started to protest, but she was instantly shouted down by the captain.

"Now," he bellowed. "Do not make me have to give orders twice, not now, not in the middle of all this... all this..."

"Horror," the second in command muttered, finishing the captain's thought for him.

Of course, they couldn't take off immediately. Just closing the ramps involved terrifying scenes of brutality as the marines fought their way aboard, through a press of people, kicking and shoving desperate civilians from the sides of the ramps as they clambered back aboard. All as the Howling Wind lifted off, on gravitic power, with people falling from whatever precarious handholds on the hull they had found.

By then the golden javelins were entering the atmosphere, some still with system defense ships impaled on their points. Flames erupted from the hulks of the human spaceships as the friction of entry into the atmosphere heated them and ripped away huge sections of armor and structure.

"We're too late," the second in command said.

"No," the tactical officer said. "As soon as the hostile craft enter the atmosphere, their maneuvering becomes very restricted."

"Of course," the captain said. "Their elongated shape is streamlined for a fall from orbit. They don't have any wings to allow them to maneuver. Take us out of the atmosphere, helm, and make sure we don't get between the rift and the planet. We may survive this yet."

The helm officer was gazing at an image of one of the system defense ships, blazing and impaled on a falling javelin. The ship was unrecognizable now, a burning clump of wreckage.

"Do you think anyone is on board?" she asked.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-33 show above.)