925/10 M0500 TCT // 448ᵉ
The urgent warbling of a ringtone cajoles Risnil Rani awake. Rubbing sleep out of her eyes and sucking in deep breaths of air, she wonders what in all Haven has to be on fire for someone to be harassing her this early in the morning, and she reaches for a tablet. And then she stops, because the part of her brain that recognizes ringtones has just woken belatedly up, and she lunges, naked, across the room for the secure phone built into the wall.
A midnight voice call on the messaging net is bad. A midnight call on her highly secure military-grade hardline is a national emergency.
Tel Casran is under attack. Or enemy fleets have been detected on approach in neighboring systems. Those are the thoughts that wind themselves tight around her throat as she grasps in the dark for the receiver, and squints out through the crack in her gauzy grey curtains in search of burning buildings, for any sign of bombing runs or orbital bombardments.
“Risnil,” she rasps into the handset, pausing to cough to clear her throat. “Situation report.”
“Ma’am,” says a voice. “You need to come in.”
“Are we under attack?”
“No, ma’am. But… You need to see this in person.”
Risnil opens her mouth to sandblast the receptionist for her vague answer, to demand a full and detailed accounting on the double, and stops short. Something about the girl’s voice was wrong. Its cadences were those of awestruck terror, of someone who has just seen something life-alteringly fearsome, someone who is coping by refusing to process what she has just seen.
“I’ll be there directly,” she says instead, and hangs up.
She grabs a robe from the rack, wraps it carelessly around her body, and pushes aside the window curtains. The Capital is soaked with the monsoon season’s rain. Flecks and drops of water alternately dart past the glass and smear or splatter themselves across it. She drops the curtains, throws a trenchcoat over her shoulders, straps on her boots, walks out the door without leggings or armwraps or any other scrap of dignity in her dress but for the two green beads still holding one of last night’s frayed and ragged braids together.
Her hab block has, among other military-grade amenities, an emergency underground link to the Core Line, but ordering in a train at this hour would take longer than walking. She heads out the ground door instead, pulls her coat tight around her as the cold hits her. There’s rapitrans station out front, and she hurries towards it. Glowstrips embedded in the underside of the entrance ramp’s handrails light up to acknowledge her authorization, bathing the ramp in a diffuse green luminance. A tram rolls in before she has time to freeze in the weather, as though the city itself can feel her urgency.
It’s sparsely filled. Late-night medics and military officers at the end of night shifts, plus the occasional restless soul between their first and second sleeps. None of them recognize her. The tram begins moving again. Risnil watches dully as the landscape and city buildings speed silently pass, and rain spatters diagonally across the windows, and she speculates. Tries to imagine what cosmic catastrophe must have beset the People to provoke that call.
“Central Tower Platform. Doors to the left and right.”
Risnil steps off the tram. The bulk of Central Tower looms over her. She breezes through the array of optical turnstiles guarding the front entrance, nodding to the soldiers on patrol, and heads inside. The building is dark and empty save for a handful of safety lights gleaming in the void and the dim moonlight streaming in through the windows. She walks to the lift, its panel lighting up to acknowledge her presence. Its machinery whirs into motion and soon the doors part, leading her into a spacious, warm car. A strip of floors lights up on the wall, and she taps one that only fifteen people in the universe have access to.
She leans against the wall as the doors press shut and closes her eyes. Adrenaline will only last her so long. She can already feel the rush beginning the wear off, and when it does, she’s going to crash so hard there might as well be a strung-out Rosie in her pilot seat.
The counter on the wall blinks steadily higher. Floor 10. Floor 1A. Floor 1F. Floor 23. Finally it reaches Floor 30, and the doors part. She barges out. A guard brandishing a reader plate moves to intercept her, and then sees her face.
“Forgive me, ma’am. I didn’t realize it was you—”
She pats him on the shoulder. “You’re doing fine, officer. Keep up the good work.”
“Yes, ma’am!” He salutes, backing away.
“Ma’am—” The receptionist at the front desk rises to greet her as she approaches.
“Sofi! Ever a sight for sore eyes.” Risnil wipes her brow. “Be my personal heroine and brew me a fresh mug of turios, will you? Better make it a Serpali blend; I am a dead woman walking and it’s going to catch up with me any moment now.”
“Yes, ma’am! At once, ma’am.” Sofi gestures towards a door. “They’re waiting for you in the situation room, ma’am.”
Her stride wavers. “How many of them?”
“All of them, ma’am.”
A fresh spike of adrenaline surges and Risnil nods. “Thank you, Sofi.”
The door to the situation room glides back, and Risnil hurries inside. Only fifteen people in the universe have unrestricted access to this place, and now they’re all here. In the center, the huge tactical display is lit up, showing a dull red orb where it usually shows spacefleet diagrams.
Director Rostan Rani, commander-in-chief of the Worlds Security Overdirectorate and for twenty unbroken years the bulwark standing between the People, enslavement, and utter annihilation, glances over at Risnil as she shrugs out of her coat and hangs it on a rack. It’s an hour past midnight and Rostan is in her full regalia, face freshly washed, eyes bright, hair tied back in a prim ponytail, crisp black beret poised atop her head. At Risnil, bare-legged in her pajamas, hair tangled and eyes bleary, she doesn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow in disapproval.
“Ris,” she says. “You’re here. Good.”
Risnil mentally upgrades the situation from national emergency to galactic emergency.
“Rossi. What the fuck is going on? What’s that on the display?”
Rostan glances at Director Sarian. “Carnelian,” she says.
Risnil blinks. “Carnelian? Capital-of-the-Empire Carnelian?”
“Until about three hours ago, as far as we can tell.”
Risnil steps closer to the display, scrutinizing the array of glittering voxels. The sphere is definitely a planet. It looks nothing like Adamant Carnelian of Imperial Glory, population twenty billion, throneworld of the Sixth Empress, and seat of her sprawling government.
“What am I looking at?”
“Visible-light photography as transmitted by a spy-ship twenty minutes ago.”
“The surface looks…”
“Molten, yes. There’s no sign of population, structures, or even landmasses. The planet’s surface has been annihilated.”
Risnil takes a deep breath. This is real, she tells herself, staring in morbid fascination at the display. This is actually happening.
“Brief me, please.”
Rostan clasps her hands behind her back. “Director, if you would?”
Director of Clandestine Inquiry Sarian Cormasi nods. She steps forward, salutes. “As of triple-oh TCT, none of our embedded assets on Carnelian had checked in,” she begins crisply, Risnil wondering how the fuck anyone can be that lucid this soon after being dragged out of bed. “Our clandestine buoy was still intact and answering operational signals. We assumed either our entire network had been rolled up somehow, or the buoy was malfunctioning. A spy-ship was dispatched from Clandestine Station Carnelian-1 with orders to attempt radio contact with our operatives, and failing that, ascertain their location and exfil if possible.
“On approach to Carnelian, the ship noted no radio signals apart from a small number automated orbital satellites and buoys. Wreckage was noted in orbit previously occupied by transit stations and thousands of satellites, cause of destruction unknown. After reaching photoscopic range, the ship identified a surface anomaly and closed visual range to investigate. This,” she gestures at the display, “is what they found.”
“Thank you, Director,” Rostan says quietly. Sarian bows and steps back.
“What the fuck happened?” Risnil blurts out. “Did the Echoes cluster-nuke the whole damn planet?”
“Telemetry isn’t consistent with widespread nuclear attack. And the devastation is too comprehensive even for gigaton-range warheads,” Director Sarian responds quickly.
“I swear on the stars — if I didn’t know better, I’d say they were hit by an asteroid,” Director Ciruen comments. She’s sitting backwards on a chair, leaning heavily on the back, staring raptly at the display.
“Merciful skies,” Risnil murmurs. “You mean this… could have been a freak accident?”
“Could have been, but wasn’t,” says Ciruen. “None of the known asteroids in the system were on a collision course, and all remain accounted for.”
“What if it escaped detection?”
“Rosies would still have had some forewarning. They would have evacuated the Empress if nothing else. We know for a fact they didn’t. The last transmission from our Palace operative indicated all was well three hours before going silent.”
“So the Sixth Empress is dead.” Risnil gives a low whistle. “This… is a lot to take in.”
“I think we can safely assume this was an attack,” Rostan interjects.
Risnil shivers. “Is the Union capable of this? This? I don’t even want to imagine the kind of weapon that could melt the face straight off a planet in under three hours. Thank all fortune they haven’t found Tel Casran yet.”
“We have no idea what the Echoes’ capabilities are, ma’am,” says Director Sarian quickly. “Until we have evidence otherwise, we need to assume this was a decapitation strike against the Empire by the Thalisan Union.”
“We need to start scraping telemetry from surviving satellites,” says Ciruen. “Maybe we’ll find something that’ll give us some idea what happened here.”
“Agreed.” Risnil nods. “But I’m not optimistic. Rosie satellites are primitive. It’s unlikely many even have onboard storage.”
Sarian clears her throat. “Right now our spy-ship is performing telescopic light-delay analysis to place exactly when this happened. Depending on how long ago it was, we might be able to capture coherent visuals of whatever happened to Carnelian.”
“Good.” Rostan exhales. “One thing we know for sure — this is the end of the Empire. With twenty billion dead, their economic center wiped off the map, and all their top brass neutralized, they’re astropolitically irrelevant.”
“Just like that,” murmurs Risnil. She shakes her head. “I never imagined the War would just… end like this.”
“There’s still the Echoes to account for,” says Rostan grimly. “If they’re responsible for this, we’re in a desperate position. Until we know what happened, we can’t even begin to formulate a defensive strategy.”
“If one is even possible,” Sarian adds.
“In the mean time, we need to get our offensive strategies into gear fast,” Rostan continues. “The Empire’s leadership has been wiped out. The main threat from the remnant is of a noble or general consolidating power. I move that we begin a strategy to break the central government permanently, disunite the worlds out from under the Crown.”
“Is that wise?” Risnil frowns. “It would be easier to negotiate with a central government than a thousand petty warlords, with whom I remind you we have no truce.”
“Diplomacy may be our best option here for once,” Ciruen pipes up. “This was a Thalisan strike. Even the Rosies know we're not capable of this. So their anger is going to be concentrated against the Union. If we make peace, we could establish ourselves as legitimate power-brokers within the old Imperial territories, ensure our hegemony over what states may form out of the rubble.”
“That’s an… interesting thought,” says Risnil. Rostan nods. “How do you mean, exactly?”
“Our economy is intact, as are our military and supply lines. We’re in a position to offer reconstruction aid.”
Risnil sucks in a sharp breath. “If you’re going to ask me to ask our people to start building homes and ships for the empire that tried to conquer us—”
“Hear me out, okay?” Ciruen drums her fingers on the back of her chair. “We can weave ourselves into the power structure of a new empire so its leaders are utterly dependent on us. They’d become a puppet state.”
“This is coming dangerously close to a violation of shevret,” Rostan interjects. “You of all people should be concerned by that.”
“I agree.” Risnil nods slowly. “This is a very radical strategy you’re proposing.”
“I’m not saying we establish trade ties!” Ciruen says quickly. “They have nothing material we want. But we can offer stability. We have functional covert services, communications networks. We can use those to elevate someone.”
“I still don’t see the advantange over partitioning the entire Empire.” Rostan shakes her head. “What’s the use of a client state that can offer us nothing besides the temptation to break shevret? One that has endless opportunities to break free of our hold? If we divide the territory into mutually hostile worlds — maybe even mutually hostile landmasses if we’re lucky — keeping the remnant pacified would be as simple as crossing off any overly-successful warlords.”
“The advantage is of a unified foreign policy,” Ciruen explains patiently. “Three thousand fragmented worlds, many bearing a grudge against us — we’d be fighting border skirmishes for the millennium. Do you want to be on a war footing forever?”
Rostan rubs her chin thoughtfully. “I think it’s a trade worth taking. It could become a drain on resources but it would never seriously threaten the stability of our government. And I think there are benefits to limiting demobilization.”
“Oh, here we go.”
“Ciri,” Risnil says reprovingly. “Let’s hear her out.”
“We all know what she’s going to say.”
Rostan glances between them. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to upset you, Ciruen. But we are a military society. We were founded on those principles. Being soldiers is in our blood. The occasional border skirmish would keep people focused. Remind them of the sort of galaxy we live in.”
“Or we could take our first real chance to change the sort of galaxy we live in,” Ciruen exclaims in exasperation. “Not to mention establish what could be an eventual ally against the Echoes.” She snorts in disgust. “Presuming they haven’t glassed all our worlds by sunset.”
“We tried that route before.”
“We were already at war. And I remain convinced the ceasefire talks were sabotaged.”
“Comrades.” Risnil clears her throat. “Being at each other’s throats is the last thing we need right now.”
“Forgive me for the disharmony,” Rostan murmurs, inclining her head. “Ciruen, you know how deeply I respect you. I do not mean to dismiss your ideas out of hand.”
“Then don’t!” Ciruen sighs. “We can find a compromise, can’t we? One that ends this awful war without further bloodshed, that doesn’t entangle us too much with the Empire?”
Risnil taps a foot thoughtfully. “What about the occupied worlds?”
Rostan raises an eyebrow. “What about them?”
“We obviously can’t induct them. But we can’t hand them back to the nobles, either. They’re pacified and their leadership is firmly loyal, but totally dependent on us.” She purses her lips. “There are about a hundred right now, yes?”
“One hundred and twenty-six, yes.”
“We could spin them off into their own confederation. One allied with the People, one under our control, as a buffer between us and the Empire. A client state would not be limited by shevret. It could assist in reconstruction of the Empire, maybe even recruit more worlds to its ranks. Most importantly, it could trade with the Empire, making war an unattractive prospect.”
“Good! This is good.” Ciruen nods. “I like it. It’s humane, it’s realistic, and it ties up a lot of loose ends. Rossi?”
“It could work,” Rostan murmurs pensively. “It could work. There’s a lot that could go wrong. It would be an enormous undertaking, and—” She smiles, interrupts herself. “Well. That’s what the People are here for, isn’t it?” She turns to Director Shascir Tosdashi of the Foreign Policy Directorate. “Director, get your people on this right now. I want a detailed first-draft proposal for a client state on my desk by noon.”
Shascir salutes. “Very good, ma’am.”
“Of course,” Rostan adds grimly, “we have no idea what the Echoes are planning to do with the Rosie worlds. Unconditional surrender is the birds’ only option at this point.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Sarian chimes in. “I have my people trying to coopt what remains of the Imperial intelligence network. There are a million domestic spies out in the cold now, and finding a new master could be an attractive prospect to some of them.”
Rostan nods approvingly. “That should dramatically improve our intelligence-gathering capabilities.”
“On a more immediate subject,” says Ciruen, “assuming the attack on Carnelian was by a new Thalisan weapon, I think we can expect a peace overture soon.”
Rostan frowns. “How so?”
“They’ve just unveiled their very own new capacity that— how did you put it, Rossi? ‘Vastly alters the calculations of war.’ COLD AUTUMN went online, what, two moons ago? The timing is too close to be a coincidence. They weren’t prepared for a fair fight, so now we’ve given them a bloody nose, they want out. And they’ve just shown us what they can do to Tel Casran if we don't like the peace terms they offer.”
“They don’t even know where this planet is!”
“We can’t assume that. Even if we could, we could hardly assume they would never find it; with what we’ve seen of their industrial capacities I’m confident they’re shiftscanning our entire volume for strategic targets. And even if by some miracle they miss this system somehow, they certainly do know where plenty other worlds of ours are already, and Tel Casran’s survival wouldn’t matter much with the rest of the Central Worlds glassed. Fortifications against nuclear attack won’t hold up against whatever hit Carnelian, we can be damn sure.”
Rostan closes her eyes, sighs deeply. “No. You’re right.”
“We never wanted to be at war with either of these uasforar,” says Risnil. “I for one would be perfectly happy to accept any armistice that didn’t degrade our sovereignty.”
“As would I.” Ciruen bobs her head. “But what if they demand surrender? Unconditional surrender, even?”
“We fight to the death,” Rostan replies coldly.
Ciruen pales. “Assuming the worst about their new weapon — Rossi, you’re talking about suicide!”
“Surrender would be no different. If they want to destroy us as a culture, they’ll have to do it the hard way.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Risnil murmurs quietly. “We’ve done some damage to the Echoes since COLD AUTUMN came online. Nowhere near what they’ve done to us, but all our intelligence shows they’re more sparsely populated.” She looks grimly at Rostan. “If we rescind our policy against countervalue strikes and commit all our fissiles to this war, we force them to choose between a bilateral treaty and a war of mutual extermination. Given what details we’ve been able to glean about their culture, I think they’ll choose the former, at least eventually; atomize a few civilian encampments and I expect their leaders will become anxious for peace.” She glances about the room. “But we’re talking about risking the life of every woman, man, and child among the People. The three of us alone have no right no impose that fate.”
Director of Fleet Operations Matlis Curpodi steps forward, salutes. “I think I speak for all my people, ma’am,” he says, “when I say I want to go down swinging. I will gladly die for the People, if that’s what it takes.”
“I wouldn’t say gladly,” comments Shascir, “but I would rather die than permit profligate uastahinar to defile and dismantle our entire way of life, to spit on our thousand years of hardship, labor, blood, and triumph. I can imagine nothing worse than that.”
“When I joined my unit, I swore my last breath to our nation, ma’am,” Director of Ground Operations Vigdar Tirmadi adds. “As did we all.” She straightens, salutes as well. “I meant what I said. I would personally rescind my own deferment and join our comrades in open battle if that’s what it took.”
“I am loath to sacrifice any more of my agents,” says Sarian wearily. “But I know them too well to think any of them would choose a life of submission to a barbarian race over death as a loyal and resolute soldier.”
Risnil looks to each of them in turn, studying their faces. There is fear, but there is determination.
She touches the intercom contact. “Sofi—” she calls.
“Ma’am, I’m so sorry, the infuser is taking forever to warm up—”
“Never mind that. Could you come in here a moment?”
Rostan gives Risnil an odd look but doesn’t object.
Sofcas peeks her head nervously through the door, paling at the sight of the assembled dignitaries. “I’m — I don’t think I’m cleared for this—”
Risnil beckons. “I need — we need to ask you something.”
“O—okay.” The receptionist steps gingerly over the threshold like it might bite. “How may I assist you, ma’am?”
“Comrade Sofcas Carmani.” Risnil takes her by the hand. “If you had to make the choice between letting the Echoes decide the fate of the People or fighting to the death, what would you choose?”
“I—” Sofcas looks around the room, her eyes suddenly wild. “Oh. Oh, no. Are they—”
“It hasn’t come to that, comrade,” says Risnil gently, squeezing her hand. “But if it was your choice to make, would you want to live subjugated to an alien power? Would that be worth peace? I need to know.”
Sofcas purses her lips. She looks between the Big Three. “I—” she murmurs, her hands trembling.
Then she stops. For a moment, her hands clench into fists. She looks Risnil in the eye, and her body is suddenly steady, her expression resolute and unwavering. Steps back, stands perfectly straight. One hand leaps to her brow, the other darts behind her back, and for all her civilian wear, the tiny receptionist looks in that moment like a hardened soldier.
“I’d say paint the skies with their blood, comrades,” she says in a voice full of passion and fire. “It would be my honor to die for my people. And my pleasure to see them die for theirs.”
The room exhales collectively. Risnil smiles. Rostan smirks. “Thank you, Sofi-surin,” the former replies, returning the salute. “If we ever must give our lives in action, I pray I have the honor to do so by your side.”
Behind her, the other directors join her in saluting Sofcas, even Ciruen.
“That will be all.” Risnil bows. “You may return to your duties, comrade. I apologize for the intrusion upon your time.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Sofcas returns the bow. “Think nothing of it.” She turns on her heel, heading back to the lobby in a calm, purposeful stride. The door slides shut behind her.
Risnil turns back to the assembled directors. She says nothing.
“Sometimes,” Ciruen murmurs, her eyes distant, “it’s good to be reminded.”
“The Echoes will accept an armistice or they will pay in the blood of their own,” Rostan declares. “That is how we’ll respond if they sue for peace.”
Risnil takes a deep breath. “Now that that’s out of the way—” She looks around the room. “How are we all doing?”
The leaders present look at each other. Their postures soften slightly. Sarian lets out a deep sigh.
“I knew someone on Carnelian,” she says. “One of our agents. He’s — he was a friend of mine. And a damned good agent.”
“I’m so sorry.” Ciruen squeezes her arm. “I can imagine what you’re going through right now.”
“How about you, Ciri?” Rostan says gently. Ciruen gives her a small smile.
“Better now. A lot better.”
Rostan touches her on the waist and Ciruen moves closer, sighing softly and closing her eyes as they embrace. “We’re in this together,” Rostan says quietly, touching Ciruen protectively on the back of her neck. “No matter what.”
“Rossi, what about you?” Risnil interjects. “You’re putting on a brave face but—”
“I’m fine,” Rostan says quickly. “I’m always fine, comrades. Don’t worry about me. We have enough else to worry about.”
“Are you sure?”
Rostan smiles. “Some of us were made for this, Ris.” She takes her by the shouder. “I’m here for the rest of you. That’s why I’m here.”
Risnil inclines her head. “I envy your strength sometimes.”
“And I envy your wisdom.” Rostan steps back. “It’s going to take a lot of both to get us through to the end of this war.”
“But,” Ciruen says, her eyes again fixed on the tactical display, “I think the end is finally in sight.”