Humans like to believe that they are somehow above the other apex predators that evolved on Old Earth. We as a species like to believe that we are civilized because we have laws that codify our conduct, that we don’t run about murdering each other for a cookie or a toy. The fact of the matter is that our civilization is an illusion and the idea that wars are not fought over cookies and toys is utter and total fantasy. We have lied to ourselves for generations that wars begin because of ideals when, in fact, they begin over grand prizes—women, land, resources—if you can put a name to a material thing, humans have fought over it since the dawn of time. So much for civilization making us better than that from which we came.
— Erich Quizibian, Roots of Disaster: Predicting the Death of the Human Race, c. 5073 PD
18 Novem, 5249 PD
“How long?” America asked softly as she leaned over Alana’s shoulder at the pilot’s console.
Alana shook her head slightly. “Another thirty-six hours at least. I’m not sure exactly what the course he laid was, but as long as we don’t get yanked out by something at the Whispers, we should be home soon. If we get yanked out at Whispers, it’ll be at least another ten hours to a jump point. System’s a walking astronavigation hazard.”
And yet it’s the only gateway to outlying systems like Eridani Trelasia. Anyone who wants to get there has to make it through the Whispers first. Ezra tried to smother a smile. There were stories that said the Wanderers had chosen the Whispers as one of their strongholds simply because the system was difficult to navigate. It had been settled in the era of Farragut and LeSarte—there were even rumors that they’d found shelter at the Whispers for a time.
“Knowing Brendan, he plotted it close,” Ezra said, rising from his spot next to the unconscious pilot. His friend’s vital signs hadn’t wavered in the last forty-eight hours, which was probably a good sign, though it was hard to tell with these scenarios. Anytime an implant malfunctioned, there was the distinct possibility that there was more going on than what they were aware of.
Beyond the viewports was the mottled gray of jumpspace. Ezra stared at it for a moment before he shook his head. “Do you know how close we are to the Whispers now, Alana?”
“Not sure. Could be passing through it right now, could be a dozen light-years out.”
The viewport suddenly flared white.
The ship bucked. Metal screamed. Ezra and America flew across the cabin as it abruptly tilted at a forty-five degree angle, the artificial gravity not strong enough to compensate for the sudden stress. Brendan and Grant tumbled from the bunks; Grant came awake with a shout.
“What the hell is going on?” he bellowed, taking his wife by the arm and picking her up off the deck.
Alana grasped the console with one hand, knuckles white, her brows knitting as she tried to make sense of the readings. “We hit a gravity well that shouldn’t have been where it was,” she snapped. “Give me a minute and I’ll be able to tell you more. There’s a lot of crap going on right now in the system that doesn’t make sense.”
Ezra shook his ringing head and crawled across the deck toward Brendan, not quite willing to trust his feet yet. “So we just got yanked out of jump?”
“Violently,” Alana said, her tone dry. “Give me a minute.”
Brendan’s eyes were open, tiny crescents as Ezra made it to him. A little blood trickled from the pilot’s nose and his lips barely moved as he whispered, “What just happened?”
“Not sure,” Ezra told him. “Can you get back up into the bunk?”
Ezra slid his arm under Brendan’s shoulders and helped his friend heave himself back into the low bunk. The pilot was tight-lipped and pale by the time he was horizontal again but his bloody nose was already stopping.
Must have been from smacking his head on the deck. “Going to check your pupils,” Ezra warned, digging a penlight out of his pocket.
Brendan groaned, but didn’t look away. “Fine. Where are we?”
“The Whispers, maybe,” Ezra said, glancing back over his shoulder toward Alana for confirmation.
She wasn’t paying attention to either of them. Grant and America clustered around her, blocking his view of the windows, but he caught a glimpse of all three looking pale.
His stomach dropped. Not good.
He shook himself and turned back to Brendan. “Just let me check something, then I’ll give you something to help you get back to sleep.” Not sure if that’s the best course, but right now I’m not sure either of us can handle him awake and asking a lot of questions right now.
“Just give me the sedative,” Brendan mumbled, eyes sliding shut. “I know a crisis when I sense one. Might as well sleep through it if I can’t be helpful.”
Ezra shivered and shook his head, giving his friend a quick once-over despite the request. Other than Brendan being awake and the minor nosebleed, there wasn’t any change.
But the fact that he woke up when he hit the deck was a good sign. He prepped a dose of sedative.
The ship slewed sideways abruptly. Ezra caught himself with a shoulder against the wall and one hand curling around the edge of the bunk.
“Better strap me down,” Brendan muttered even as Ezra started to sedate him.
“Yeah,” Ezra said. “I’ll get right on that.” If something else doesn’t go wrong. Dumping the empty sedative canister into his kit, he yanked the crash webbing down across Brendan and the bunk before he levered himself to his feet.
Grant and America had strapped themselves into two of the seats nearer to the console. Ezra braced himself against one of them, peering past Alana and out into space. He could see white hulls in the distance and a planet beyond them. Light flashed from the ships above down toward the planet.
Then the screams hit and he jerked back, half landing on America in her seat, half meeting open air. He tumbled to the deck and sat for a moment, stunned.
Planetary bombardment, he realized dimly as the mental screams echoed inside his skull. Those ships are killing the planet.
They’re killing the Whispers.
He swallowed bile. “Who are they?” he asked, his voice shaky. I knocked Brendan out just in time—either to not hear them, or to have nightmares about them. He closed his eyes briefly. I’m sorry, Brendan. Never would wish something like that on you.
“Can’t tell,” Alana said. “Not getting any IDs on them and they’re too damn far out for any visual markers. They’ve scattered the asteroids. That’s what yanked us out—a really big chunk of rock.”
Must’ve been a massive chunk to yank us out. Ezra glanced up toward America. “Are you okay, Meri?”
White-lipped, she nodded. “I will be. Any closer, I don’t think any of us would be.” She reached past Ezra and grasped Grant’s hand.
Ezra found his feet, jaw tight. “What should we do?” he asked as he grasped the back of Alana’s seat, leaning toward the console, toward the windows.
“We’ve got two options,” she said. “We either try to get closer and do what we can—if we can—and hope we don’t get blown out of the sky, or we try to clear the system before someone realizes we’re here.”
He began to ask why she sounded like the first option wasn’t a viable one, then his eyes lit on drifting debris that was still smoldering.
More than one ship died here today.
“Hell,” he said in a soft voice. “They killed everyone they saw in the system on the way in.”
“No witnesses,” Alana said.
Damn. “Who would do it?” he breathed.
“The question should really be who wouldn’t,” America said, her voice as quiet as Ezra’s.
“Get as many readings and visuals on those ships as you can, Alana,” Grant said. “The Foundation may need them. The Guard will.”
Ezra tried not to wince.
You knew a war was coming, Ezra. This is only the first salvo. You had to know that.
“We’ll have to tell the Marshals as soon as we make the system,” he found himself saying.
Alana shook her head. “No. Nothing over channels. We’ll tell them face to face and we’ll hand them this shuttle’s logs in person.”
“They need to be warned, ‘lana.”
She glared at him even as she angled the ship between a piece of hull bigger than their shuttle and a rocky asteroid that wasn’t much smaller. “Yeah, they do, but I don’t want D’Arcy Morgause getting his hands on this before the Marshals do. I don’t want him to be in control of this.”
Ezra’s mouth went dry. “Why not? Do you think he would do something—”
“I think he would do nothing, and that’s what concerns me.” Alana’s jaw set, her teeth grinding. “The man’s a snake and I don’t trust him. He’s not the spymaster we need.”
“But he’s the one we have,” Ezra said, resting his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t like it, either.”
Alana just shook her head, staring out at the debris and the ships in the distance. “He won’t care that the Whispers is dead. He might not even believe it when we tell him.”
He shook his head. “Then we make everyone else believe. At some point, he’ll either have to believe, or he’s not going to be of any use to anyone at all.”
“He’ll say we dummied it,” Alana said, anger threading tension through her voice, through every muscle. “That it’s just sensationalism, if we get reports from the outside. That it’s all exaggerated.”
Ezra squeezed her shoulder gently. “We have to trust the Council to see through whatever he says.”
“Can we?” Alana whispered, eyes bright with tears she’d never let present company see her shed. “Can we take that risk?”
“Prepare for the worst,” Grant rumbled behind them. “Hope for the best.”
Ezra nodded mutely. That was their only chance.
America unfolded slowly from her seat and headed for one of the consoles. “Well,” she said. “I suppose it’s time I figure out if I’ve still got the technical skills I used to. Maybe I can get us some better images with the sensors.” After a moment of studying the console, she crouched and yanked one of the panels free, fingers reaching inside, into the board’s guts.
“How many hours until we can jump?” Grant asked.
“Six hours to the jump point,” Alana said, shaking her head. “Better than it could be, but we’re still going to have to clear the debris field and make our run. Sensors aren’t showing anything alive in our path, though.” The commando glanced up at her uncle. “We have to hope it stays that way, because I don’t know if we can fight our way clear of this system. We were rigged for speed, not for a fight.”
Ezra shivered, still leaning against Alana’s seat. “I guess I’d better spend the next six hours praying, then,” he murmured. He hadn’t talked to God in a long time—not since his father died.
Dad would say He doesn’t forget. I hope he was right about that.
Alana reached up and squeezed Ezra’s hand. He shot her a weak smile.
“Everything helps,” she said, her voice a bare whisper.
All he could do was nod. His gaze trailed toward the windows again. It looked like the Whispers was burning. The screams were still echoing softly in his head, though dimmer now, quieter.
Most of the population was already dead, then.
“Bastards,” he whispered as he stared out the window. “They’re going to pay. Somehow. Someday.”
“Someday soon,” Grant Channing confirmed, his voice soft and deadly. “And the price will be high indeed.”