Prologue 1: A Thousand Stars
Hundreds of brightly clad Athapones milled about the royal court as they had every day for centuries. The court’s carbon and crystal walls soared above them twelve stories tall. Though it was dark outside, within the palace, alternating transparent and mirrored wall cells created a bright, confusing blend of colored lights and reflected images.
The center of the room held a raised dais, upon which rested the Emperor of Athapon. Emperor Chaln 2 sat surrounded by his magnificent guardsmachines, each a shining and perfect biped twice the size of any native Athapone. Though the guardsmachines were molded as near-naked Athapones, their shining skin of thick metal and ceramic rendered them near invulnerable to most weapons. The throne under the Emperor was actually seven solid diamond thrones interposed together across nine dimensions, or so the artisan who had presented it claimed. The brilliant lights of the hall shone in its facets, darkened only by the Emperor himself as he sat upon it.
The Emperor’s court felt his bad mood. He glared at his supplicants from his throne, grumbling about everything that came to his attention. Any conversation occurring upon the Imperial Dais was amplified and transmitted to be heard by every member of the court, whether physically present or not.
His court feared his current disposition, though not for their lives: the Imperial Codex asserted that every Citizen’s life was protected. He could only cause extensive inconvenience by giving orders and making laws. The Emperor was not a Citizen, and thus could be killed by any Citizen willing to replace him.
Yet the Emperor ruled on. Surrounded by cowardly immortals, he led Athapon, so long as he did not push anyone too far. Emperor Chaln 2 had grown bolder over the centuries. No Athapone would be willing to give up their Citizenship and kill him for any minor issue, since then their own life would be in danger in turn.
One woman, a newcomer, dared to approach the throne despite all the signs. The woman was tall, elegant, and striking. She wore a sparkling green dress that showed off her perfect light brown skin. Jewels adorned her at ear, forehead, and neck.
A Herald stepped forward meekly to introduce the woman, but the Emperor sent him scampering away with a look. The woman was not fazed. She stepped onto the Imperial Dais before the bedazzling Imperial Throne.
“I am Historian Daphne 447,” she said, dropping to her knee. Her voice echoed through the vast chamber, overpowering the low murmurs of courtesan chat. She held up her perfect face just long enough to be appreciated before bowing her head, causing it to be lost in abundant golden hair. The Emperor leaned forward. Everyone in the court held their breath, ready to see what punishment he would bring to bear on the insolent Historian.
The Emperor’s eyes played across the beauty of his guest upon the dais. Fate rolled its dice. The Emperor smiled. Apparently, the fact he had enjoyed a different mate every night of his long, long, life did not diminish his appetite for her.
“You’re a vision, Historian Daphne four, four, seven. Tell me of yourself.” He spoke each digit of her unique identifier as a separate number, with a brief but distinct pause between each. This was an affectation only the Emperor had which none dared copy lest he begin to issue decrees restricting the speaking patterns of Citizens.
“I specialize in the ancient history of lost civilizations, forgotten wars, and extinct races across the universe.”
The court hummed with the subdued sounds of an impressed audience surrounding them.
“Interesting,” the Emperor said neutrally, examining her lithe body and tanned skin. He leaned forward on the throne to focus on the Historian with greater intensity.
“I am aged one hundred imperial rotations on this very day,” she replied formally. “It is a memorial birthday indeed, to be able to speak with your staggering magnificence.”
The Emperor slid still closer to her, bringing him to the edge of the throne. He drank in her youthful beauty. Himself aged over three hundred imperial rotations, the Emperor had been kept alive by the finest scientists birthed across a thousand planet-bearing stars. As it was, he looked only at the cusp of middle age.
“Your birthday! So wonderful, my beauty. Ask of me anything. Anything at all to please you.”
That earned the Historian many dark glares from the Citizens of the court. In one bold move, she had earned what they sought and made it seem effortless. Historian Daphne 447 paused the exact right amount of time to pause. Her sense of decorum was without flaw.
“I am a Historian, so... perhaps an event of great moment to record... perhaps... a conquest launched?”
The Emperor’s eyes became large and round. Then a look of awe and wonderment took hold of his face. Finally, he simply smiled.
“A conquest launched!” he exclaimed in glee. “Cartographer!” he bellowed.
From amid the throng, a hologram of an Athapone dashed forward to grovel.
“Yes, my Emperor?”
“Who and where are you, Cartographer?”
“Cartographer Carter 713, on Brisbane the Fifth, on the Moor in Ariticus.”
“Very good. And tell me, what enemies do we have in the universe?”
“None, my Emperor.” The Cartographer’s voice was apologetic.
An awkward pause reigned. Only a handful of the Emperor’s closest dared to watch the proceedings openly; though surely a million others watched events unfold surreptitiously from all across Athapon and beyond.
The Emperor put a finger to his chin.
“Then tell me, what powerful forces exist outside the Empire? What strong, fierce foe can we find? We need a formidable enemy, most deadly and ferocious, one that is not lightly stirred, so that the campaign will be of great import to the lovely Historian Daphne four, four, seven.”
“No such are known to me, my Emperor,” said the Cartographer cautiously. He glanced at the mesmerizing Historian with disdain. Yet even his eyes flickered across her body for a fraction of a second.
The Emperor frowned. He turned back to look upon the glowingly beautiful Daphne.
“Then we will send out scout ships to the farthest corners of existence!” The Emperor declared.
“Pardon my insolence, Most Grand and Powerful of Emperors of a Long Line of the Divine,” Daphne said, bowing low. “I myself know of an enemy. A foe so terrible they strike fear into the hearts of a hundred races.”
“What? What is this foe?” the Emperor asked, shifting eagerly on his brilliant throne.
“Well, sir, there is Vovok.”
“Vaaaavok,” echoed the Emperor slowly. “That place really exists?”
“It does, Most Grand—” replied Historian Daphne until cut off by a wave of the Emperor’s hand. “It does,” she finished.
There was a half second of silence.
“I do not know—”
“Its location is buried in the depths of time,” Daphne interrupted swiftly. “But I have uncovered it.”
A virtual star map appeared in their minds, a three dimensional image of the huge Empire spinning around and around until finally coming to rest on a red glowing point well outside even its extensive boundaries.
“How ever more intriguing you are!” the Emperor exclaimed. “Armorers! Master Builder!”
“Yes—” said several Armorers simultaneously.
“And yes, your Majesty,” finished the Master Builder without missing a beat.
The Emperor advanced to the edge of his balcony. He flung out his arm across the dark ocean that lay hundreds of meters below.
“With me. Look out upon the placid waters of the Grand Marnmir.”
The addressed court subjects came to the many balconies of the main palace. A few were there incarnate; the others were holographic ghosts from a handful of distant cities. They flitted off after him like drones following a queen bee in flight.
“There,” the Emperor said. His finger pointed dramatically across the Marnmir. A video feed of the ocean came up on a virtual display before his outstretched arm. The view shot forward across the waters to bring a distant island into plain sight.
“That island. What a fine spot for a fortress. A tall tower of blackest obsidian rising from the ocean. And it shall have only rooms dedicated to war inside it. No other diversions can be introduced; it must be pure.”
“Yes, Emperor,” said his sycophants in a chorus. They scraped before him and sent out the orders. The Emperor remained looking out upon his floating viewpane as flying construction machines descended upon the site and began work. He did not re-engage the stunning Historian who awaited him upon the dais.
Twenty minutes later, it was done. The black tower rose tall, as tall as the royal palace, barely visible across the ocean. It looked sharp and wicked as any grand war tower should. Already supply carriers zipped about its many balconies and towers, filling it with machines and war materiel. Only then did the Emperor return to his dais and the Historian.
“It will be done, Historian Daphne 447,” he proclaimed.
Daphne dropped to her knee once more. “My most heartfelt thanks!”
“My Emperor. Shall you be sharing your chamber with Historian Daphne 447 tonight?” asked a robotic Servant.
The Emperor opened his mouth to answer in the positive, but then Daphne cleared her throat loudly. All eyes turned to her. Such daring!
“Upon your triumphant return, perhaps?” she suggested slowly.
“Upon my... yes! Splendid!” the Emperor jumped upon the idea with great relish. “A prize withheld until achievement is doubly satisfying! Please schedule a different partner from the Royal Waiting List tonight,” he said.
“As you wish, Emperor,” droned the Servant.
Historian Daphne 447 rose back to her feet. She held her head incrementally higher and allowed herself a small smile. The rest of the court looked upon her with hatred, but she did not appear to notice or care.
Prologue 2: My World
“The Imperial Spy Master,” announced a herald in silver and gold. A tall, dashing man dressed in black and silver bowed just outside the dais.
“Spy Crovak two, three, three,” the Emperor said. “Come forward and report to me your gleanings of distant Vovok.”
“The Historian Daphne 447 was correct, my Supreme Overlord,” said Crovak. “Vovok does exist, and it is a terrible foe. And well-informed. In fact, so much so, they have already learned of your impending campaign against them!”
One single week had passed since the sensational historian had appeared out of nowhere and ignited the war against legendary Vovok. No one dared ask how the Imperial Spy Master had already learned of an enemy so distant. Most Citizens did not concern themselves with such matters.
“Superb!” responded the Emperor, leaning forward as he always did when stimulated.
“The news only gets worse, my—” Crovak hesitated as the Emperor’s face twitched in impatience. “I’ve learned much more.”
“Go ahead, Spy Master.”
“The Vovokans have created a Death Machine of the grandest design imaginable,” reported the spy. “You would be best served by allowing us to spirit you away before the machine can travel here.”
The Emperor laughed. It was a long, full laugh despite his age and many adventures which had slowly wearied his sense of humor into complacency.
“We have decided to strike. The Imperial Conquest Fleet is on its way.”
“I do not know if—”
“The Imperial Conquest Fleet cannot be defeated,” said the Grand Admiral and the Foremost Armorer simultaneously. “And the Imperial Home Fleet sits above, ready to deflect any who would dream of striking Athapon herself,” added the Lord Guardian of Athapone.
“The Death Machine is a collection of nine spheres of weaponry,” the spy said. “Each sphere utilizes a deadly technology of the first order, collected from a different warlike race that came to conquer Vovok within the last aeon. Only at the center lies the machine itself—”
The Emperor tilted his head slightly indicating boredom.
“We will destroy it.”
“My Emperor?” Crovak said, but the Emperor was no longer listening.
“Space has been folded around the construct,” announced the Fleet Controller. “There are multiple layers of differentiated spacetime around the object. They are stacked together, each tucked into the other.”
The Imperial Conquest Fleet approached the Vovokan Death Machine on an intercept course, ready to confront it before continuing on to Vovok itself. Hundreds of ships of all sizes and classifications were arrayed in a complex pyramid of force that had defeated countless enemies over the centuries. The Athapons had stagnated, but they had accomplished so very much before their achievements had ground to a halt.
“Let me guess. Nine of them. Navigate to the central object and destroy it,” the Lord Admiral of the Imperial Conquest Fleet ordered.
“Aye, Lord Admiral.”
The ICF headed onwards, approaching the first space fold of the outermost, first sphere. The ships slipped through without affecting their systems, though the officers felt a disturbing blip of consciousness as they entered. Then they were within the first sphere, headed toward its center, where the entrance to the second sphere awaited.
The ICF’s long range scans lit up with contacts. The Athapones accelerated sensor drones ahead of them to collect information.
“The Vovokan fleet,” said the Lord Admiral. “Composition?”
“Homogenous, Admiral,” replied the foremost scan officer. “Thousands of small ships. We are closing.”
“Fire at will,” the Lord Admiral commanded. Some of his largest, most powerful vessels were already within range. Their enormously powerful energy weapons lanced out into the depths of space. Vovokan ships started to explode. They filled the depths of the void with pinpoints of light as they died. Dozens of the small enemy vessels disintegrated, but it was only a fraction of the whole. The rest kept coming through the intense fire of the ICF.
Suddenly the tactical displays in their heads exploded with new information.
“Massive launch, sir,” scan officer said.
“Fighters? Missiles? Kinetic weapons?”
The scan officer did not reply for several seconds. The launch moved closer.
“Missiles,” the scan officer said.
“Full countermeasures ready to be deployed,” a weapons officer confirmed. He spoke as if he himself would do the activating, but of course it was a myriad of computers that would conduct the point defense. The officer merely sat at the top of a reporting chain that spanned dozens of androids, gynoids, robots and computers.
The ICF continued to fire on the small ships while a huge wave of missiles closed. The enemy ships released a second wave of missiles, then turned and dispersed. The ships of the ICF could not pursue. They slowed to delay the arrival of the missiles that had locked onto them.
Athapone warships started to explode. First one, then ten, then a hundred vessels crumpled under the massive onslaught of missiles. The Vovokan ships had saturated the fleet’s point defenses. The first wave of incoming weapons was finally destroyed. The second, smaller wave of missiles approached the surviving cruisers of the fleet. This time the ICF spread itself into a concave disc to receive the missiles and concentrate its fire on the danger. Fewer ships fell to the onslaught. Only a score of ships erupted into bright points of light before the missiles were gone.
“The missile boats scatter, Lord Admiral,” said the hollow voice of the scan officer.
Apparently their payload had been delivered. And it was enough. One third of the ICF had been destroyed. The Lord Admiral looked at the readings and actually asked for multiple confirmations, unable to grasp the vast damage.
“Punish them,” he said, though his battleships at the center were already firing at the retreating ships and killing many of them.
“We approach the second space fold,” a navigation officer said.
“We’ve broken their back,” the Lord Admiral said. “Press onwards.”
The ICF crossed another wrinkle in space, entering a new zone that was the second sphere of the Vovokan Death Machine.
“A second fleet approaches,” summarized the First Scan Officer. His voice began to sound strained. “Small craft once again.”
“Can we survive another launch like the last?” the Lord Admiral asked.
“Yes, but only one more,” a weapons officer said. “There are fewer ships this time.”
“They’re on an intercept vector,” the scan officer noted.
“Put the cruisers farther ahead of our battleships,” ordered the Lord Admiral. No one questioned his cowardice; they were there with him on the same flagship.
“These are different ships,” someone supplied. “Their signatures are quite different. Gunboats perhaps...”
The long range weapons of the Imperial Conquest Fleet reached out again and swatted down dozens of the Vovokan ships. Still others exploded as ICF missiles struck them. But then the enemy formation closed and struck.
“Short range energy weapons,” the First Scan Officer reported. “We’re taking some damage.”
“Nothing like the missile attack,” said another officer. “These are weaker.”
More ICF ships vaporized into the vacuum of space. The tiny raider ships struck viciously, then withdrew with superior speed. The atmosphere on the flagship became tense. These immortals realized their largely robotic fleet had taken heavy losses. That meant the officers themselves might face death at last.
“They’re turning away!” the First Scan Officer said.
“Of course. They’ve had enough. We broke their back in the first sphere,” said the Lord Admiral.
The confidence of the officers rose incrementally. Despite their terrible losses, it seemed the Vovokans might not have what it took to win.
“They’ve got a handful of missile ships and these raiders, but they can’t take us on directly,” the Lord Admiral said. “We have the advantage. Press on.”
The raiders harassed the fleet again within the hour. Once again the ICF fended them off with losses on both sides. The battle was beginning to look more even, which meant the Athapones could expect more losses. The fleet plunged on toward the next space pocket. They finally entered the next fold without a third skirmish.
“We’ve advanced past the second sphere!” the Lord Admiral said. “Let’s slip through the third sphere without engagement. We must simply reach the center and chop the head off this monster.”
“They didn’t follow us,” said the First Scan Officer. “Raiders were moving in from our flank, but they’re gone.”
“Focus on reaching our goal. We don’t need to engage,” the Lord Admiral said. “Get us to the center.”
The Lord Admiral saw it too. Dozens of ships exploded at the vanguard of the fleet.
“Stop us! Full halt relative to the center of the spheres!”
“Aye, Lord—” started the Fleet Controller, then the flagship exploded into a vapor of tiny molecules that scattered across space never to be reconstructed again.
Chapter 1: Who Wants to Be Alone
Than felt a body stir next to him. He felt the soft touch of a female leg against his own. Then another from the other side. He felt annoyance rising to dispel sleep. The contact wasn’t accidental. They were waking him. He made an irritated noise.
“I know, Thanatos,” came the soft whisper of the gynoid named Haven. Something was definitely up. Her use of his birthname meant official business was afoot. How long had it been? Forever. Yet he remembered the hint.
Than opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was the glorious landscape of Refuge’s body laid out beside him. The gynoid looked stunning, with strong, long legs and a flat stomach. Than avoided staring at her magnificent breasts. It was work time, apparently.
Work. Sigh. In due time.
Haven had already put on a robe, though she hadn’t bothered to clasp it shut, showing off a vertical streak of beautiful white skin and a shock of black pubic hair. She stood patiently beside the bed, awaiting his action. Her face looked perfect even without any artificial accents. Her long black hair fell straight behind her.
Than rose to a sitting position. He stretched his powerful arms. Looking down over his own body, he examined a spot of pink skin on his shin the size of an apple.
“My leg is looking better. Some exercise, perhaps,” he announced. The leg had been bruised badly in a training exercise involving armored quadrupeds wielding short range shatter rings. Than had been limping for three days while the reconstruction took hold.
“Would you like to try on some lightning vipers?” suggested Sanctuary from his left. She emerged from the scant cover of a white sheet, all tan skin and glowing blond hair.
And breasts, Than thought, looking away. His third gynoid stroked the ledge of his sculpted deltoid playfully.
“No, I think some real exercise now that I’ve healed.” The virtual training had its benefits, but Than was eager to try out his new leg.
“Very well then,” agreed Haven, reaching for a straight longsword from the rack on the wall. “We can take five minutes. Duke Redrick 11 said it was urgent, yet the Home Fleet lies dormant above us.”
Refuge and Sanctuary reacted. Their lazy movements became more directed. Each of the gynoids slid out of bed and sought a weapon of her own. Refuge took up a sword like Haven, though she chose a smaller, curved katana. Sanctuary picked a double ended spear and twirled it.
Than’s eyes slid over his pistols and rifles, which were unsuitable for real indoor exercise. He settled on the axe rack and picked up a heavy old battleaxe.
“This should work,” he said, testing its edge. “A bit dull, though.”
“Do we need clothes?” asked Refuge. She stood away from him, her bright red hair falling midway down her back. The firm curves of her buttocks were mesmerizing.
You certainly don’t, Than thought wryly.
“Since we’re in a hurry, let’s go with light synthetics,” he said. He activated his wardrobe with a thought. The bed retracted, sheets, pillows, and all, to be replaced by a pair of metal rods holding his light combat suits. He chose a flexarmor skinsuit designed for light melee combat. He told the suit to open, allowing him to slide it on in about twenty seconds. It sealed back up after accepting him.
His gynoids had prepared just as quickly. They still looked amazing, though at least now, less fetching for simple lack of exposed flesh.
One of the eight mirrored walls of his huge bedchamber slid straight up revealing a short tunnel ten meters long. It ended in a wide set of double doors. Than sent a command through his intracranial computer link. The far doors opened away from them.
Two huge stormtroopers blocked the way. Their glossy black armor gleamed in the illumination of the ceiling panels. Each held a long shaft with a curved end.
What is that they’re holding? Than had never seen weapons like that. He looked them up with his link. The answer came immediately: they were ancient weapons called “hockey sticks”.
Hockey sticks, hrm. Some kind of curved bladed end. Interesting. Thrust or swung, I wonder?
A gynoid rushed toward each of the stormtroopers. The hockey sticks swung out in powerful arcs. On Than’s left, Sanctuary ducked the swing and thrust at a trooper’s armored foot with her spear. At the same time, Refuge vaulted over the attack aimed at her, slicing at the enemy’s head with her katana. Than’s curiosity was dispelled.
Both attacks were unable to seriously harm the troopers through their massive protection. Than assessed the situation. Tactically, he would be most effective getting behind one of them. If they turned to face him, then a gynoid could get behind them. But if he moved between them, he expected to encounter more of the troopers beyond. Then he would be surrounded.
Than shot forward straight between the fighting troopers and gynoids. A moment before he passed Sanctuary, he tossed his heavy battleaxe to his left, increasing his maneuverability. As he passed the two troopers, he saw two more troopers enter through a bright gold archway on the far side of the chamber.
As expected. I have only a second or two.
Than turned, then dove for the back of the leg of Sanctuary’s trooper. He slid along the floor and embraced the thickly armored leg in his arms. He curled into a ball, planted his right foot, and squatted up, lifting the leg from the floor. Then he shoved, hard.
The trooper sprawled forward toward Sanctuary. She darted away to the center of the room, avoiding the falling enemy. Than bolted up to run across the back of the trooper, running away from the new ones closing from behind. After stepping over the enemy, Than picked up his huge axe from the floor, lifted it, and chopped off the head of the trooper in one enormous exertion.
Now Than, Sanctuary, and Refuge faced three troopers in a straight line across the room.
The trooper facing Than swung his weapon. The hockey stick was lighter than Than’s battleaxe, but Than was able to block by accelerating the haft of the axe to block, while keeping the heavy blade relatively still. Then he smashed the top of his axe straight into the trooper’s helmet. The trooper absorbed the blow well. The lip of the helmet lifted just enough for Than to see the black shroud covering the trooper’s throat. The trooper dropped his hockey stick and grabbed Than’s axe. Than released the axe and thrust into the gap under the trooper’s helmet with two iron hard fingers. The trooper gurgled and dropped to his knees. Than caught the axe as the trooper released it.
Than looked back down the mirrored entrance corridor. Haven fought beyond, besieged by three stormtroopers. He turned to join her. The next second she speared her sword through the throat of one, piercing the armor at its joint, but her sword was stuck. Than sprinted back toward his bedchamber to assist the gynoid. As he watched, one of the troopers brought their stick back to strike, while Haven struggled to remove her sword from the slain trooper.
Than knew he wouldn’t make it. The enemy’s stick was faster, just beginning its swing. But Haven could see the strike coming a mile away. She pretended to pull on her sword until the last moment, then let go of the pommel and fell back. The swing cleaved through thin air and continued on around to strike the other trooper. Then Than’s axe smashed into the swinging trooper’s helmet.
Than, somewhat irked by the unfair flanking maneuver of three troopers directly into his bedchamber, took one long step to the pistol rack, snatched up a slugthrower and actuated it once, twice, dispatching both troopers. They fell, each with a clean hole in their helmets. Fortunately they had no blood, saving Than’s room from a gory spraying.
“What happened to exercise?” Haven asked innocently.
“I’m curious why Duke Redrick 11 contacted us,” Than lied, wondering if the gynoid would believe his assertion for even one second. The sounds of combat ceased from the far room as Sanctuary and Refuge finished off their troopers with a kiai and a clatter.
Than took a deep breath.
“That feels better,” he said. As he turned to go toward his shower tube, he opened a channel to the duke who had caused the gynoids to interrupt his sleep.
“This is Archon Than. Why did you awaken me?”
“The Empire has need of you once more,” said Duke Redrick 11. “Come to the Imperial Palace and I will speak with you incarnate. I do hope you will have cleaned up by that time.”
Than routed a view from Refuge into his brain. He saw himself as she saw him: a tall, strong light-skinned man with straight black hair and green eyes. The skin of his face was clear. A light sheen of sweat coated him; perhaps this was the source of the duke’s remark? Than wondered if nudity was currently in vogue on Athapon; he could not recall.
Athapones. They don’t know the value of exertion.
“I assure you my security is up to anything you need to say now,” Than said.
Redrick simply closed the connection. Than turned his head to Refuge.
“Finally. After all this time,” he said off-channel.
“Of course, darling,” Refuge purred, stripping off her armor as they headed to the shower.