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Authors: Ian Douglas

B009NFP2OW EBOK

BOOK: B009NFP2OW EBOK
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Dedication

For Brea, who made it all possible

Prologue

Agletsch Data Download 783478

Extant Galactic Civilizations

Classification: Red-Alfa

Civilization Classification Code: A548B7C

Polity Name: Sh’daar

O
THER NAMES:
Sh’daar Empire, Sh’daar Network, N’gai Cloud Civilization

H
OMEWORLD:
Unknown, but assumed to be a number of planets located within the core of Omega Centauri T
-0.876gy
, a small, irregular galaxy located roughly ten thousand light years above the plane of the Milky Way’s spiral arms and 876 million years in the past. This dwarf galaxy was absorbed by the Milky Way approximately 700 million years ago, and exists now, in vastly reduced form, as the Omega Centauri globular star cluster, some sixteen thousand light years from Sol.

H
ISTORY:
In the remote past, the N’gai Star Cloud was dominated by the ur-Sh’daar, a collective of advanced, star-faring civilizations. At a time estimated to be between 876 million and 900 million years in the past, the ur-Sh’daar went through the so-called Vinge Singularity, when accelerating technology effected a still poorly understood transformation that brought about the collapse of the ur-Sh’daar culture. While a majority of the sentients comprising the ur-Sh’daar seem to have vanished—translated, perhaps, to a parallel universe, an otherwise inaccessible higher dimension, or even a virtual reality of their own making—many beings were unable or unwilling to make the transition. Known as Refusers, these remnant groups and cultures rebuilt their civilization after the galactic catastrophe that became known as the
Schjaa Hok
—the “Transcending.” These Refusers ultimately became the Sh’daar.

G
ALACTIC CONTACT:
The ur-Sh’daar created a number of artificial wormhole pathways between their galaxy and the Milky Way, variously known as gateways, as Sh’daar Nodes, or as TRGA cylinders—for the Texaghu Resch gravitational anomaly, the first such device discovered by Humankind. Since these pathways traversed spacetime, meaning space
and
time, some gave the ancient Sh’daar access to their remote future—our present. There is evidence of Sh’daar activity within our own epoch around twelve thousand years ago, with the extermination of a race called the Chelk, somewhere in the vicinity of the Texaghu Resch star system and the TRGA cylinder.

Over the next twelve thousand years, numerous other technic species within Sol’s galaxy were either destroyed or forced to abandon or curtail certain lines of scientific research or technological development—notably the so-called GRIN technologies: genetics, robotics, information systems and processing technologies, and nanotechnology. Among these are Sh’daar client races with which Humankind has been at war since 2367, including the Turusch, the H’rulka, the Nungiirtok and their Kobold symbiotes, and the Slan. One other Sh’daar client species within our own galaxy with which Humankind has been in contact since 2312 is the Agletsch, a mercantile race that has provided Humankind with much of what it knows about the Sh’daar.

S
H’DAAR POLITY COMPOSITION:
As noted previously, the Sh’daar properly is a grouping of numerous technic civilizations, none even remotely human in appearance or psychology. Some, including the Sh’daar Refuser remnant, appear to exist now solely in electronic form, occupying computer networks or artificial bodies mimicking their ancient existence as ur-Sh’daar. Other Refuser species still exist in corporeal form—including the Sjhlurrr, the F’haaz-F’heen swarm symbiotes, the Adjugredudhra, the Groth Hoj, the Zhalleg, the Baondyedd, and numerous others. The total number of distinct species within the Sh’daar Network numbers in the thousands.

T
ECHNOLOGY:
Though the Sh’daar seem determined to limit the technology of other species in certain key areas, their overall level of advancement is somewhat beyond that of Humankind
circa
2400. This seeming paradox is best explained by their desire to prevent Transcendence in other technic species, a process that appears to be linked to GRIN technologies but not to gravitics and drive technologies, military weaponry, or energy. The Sh’daar seem to fear those technologies that bring about radical change in body or mental processes within both artificial and organic intelligences.

According to Agletsch sources, the Sh’daar possess the technology necessary to detonate stars and obliterate entire star systems.

Whether the Sh’daar xenotechnic paranoia is religious or philosophical in nature, or based on the Sh’daar equivalent of hardheaded practicality, is at this point completely unknown. . . .

Partial extract from Agletsch data transmission

14 March 2420

Chapter One

25 September 2424

TC/USNA RSV
Endeavor

The Black Rosette,

Omega Centauri

16,000 light years from Earth

1330 hours, TFT

Nothing like it had been seen ever before, even in a galaxy as strange and as wonder-filled as the Milky Way. The USNA deep-space research survey vessel
Endeavor
edged as close to this particular wonder as her captain dared, as clouds of drones and AI reconnaissance vessels probed the outermost fringes of the Rosette’s twisted central vortex.

They called it the Black Rosette—six black holes balanced in a tight, gravitational embrace and whirling about a common center. Each was slightly larger than Earth; each possessed a mass of some forty times Earth’s sun and was moving at almost 26,000 kilometers per second . . . better than 0.08
c
. A total mass 240 times that of Earth’s sun, rotating that quickly, twisted the fabric of the spacetime within which it was embedded and did unexpected things to the geometry of local space. From the perspective of the crew on board the
Endeavor
, organic and otherwise, it appeared that the central void between the whirling black holes was filled with soft white starlight. As the
Endeavor
drifted past the open face of the Rosette, however, details of that light shifted and changed, revealing, it seemed, a succession of starscapes, densely packed alien starclouds and constellations flickering from one to another . . . a gateway into myriad alternate panoramas of thick-strewn stars.

At certain angles,
Endeavor
’s sensors detected fierce storms of radiation emerging from the gateway; at others, the emerging radiation was at normal background levels, though a certain amount of hard gamma continued to flood through local space from the six mutually orbiting black holes. The whirling sextet appeared to be enmeshed in a thin, hot cloud of gas drawn from surrounding space, and the planet-sized black holes were made somewhat visible as the resultant blue-violet plasma was greedily devoured in shrieks of gamma and X-ray radiation.

Endeavor
’s commanding officer, Captain Sheri Hodgkins, checked the ambient radiation levels on the research vessel’s skin and decided that they were quite close enough. In fact . . .

“Pull us back a few hundred kilometers, Mr. Colger.”

“Aye, aye, Captain. Maneuvering . . .”

Hodgkins was linked through her cerebral implants to the ship’s AI, and in the window open within her mind she could see the
Endeavor
pulling back slightly from the massive whirlpool ahead. Like most large star-faring vessels of Earth,
Endeavor
was mushroom-shaped, her labs and drives within her axial stem, her hab and command modules rotating about the stem, and both tucked away within the shadow of an immense mushroom cap. The water within the shield cap both provided fuel for her fusion drives and protection from sleeting radiation at near-
c
velocities. The shield was serving now to deflect or absorb most of the radiation from the Rosette ahead; her magnetic hull shields provided some protection, but she didn’t want to take chances with the radiation storm outside the ship’s hull.

Endeavor
’s two escorts, the destroyers
Miller
and
Herrera
, maintained their formation on the survey vessel. No one was quite certain what the Sh’daar response would be to a survey probe this deep inside their cluster. For sixteen years the Omega Treaty had held. And yet . . .

“Captain, we’re detecting movement inside the vortex.”

“What kind of movement?”

“Multiple targets at very high speed! Closing vector! . . .”

“Helm! Pull us back! Comm! Alert our escorts!”

But the
Miller
was already breaking in two, its central spine and portions of its mushroom cap dissolving in a smear of white hot plasma.
Herrera
had time to lock on and trigger her main particle beam weapons, but within seconds her grav shields had overloaded and she was being pounded into fragments by a storm of relativistic particles snapping up out of the vortex.

Endeavor
was hit, her shield cap ripping open and disgorging a vast and glittering cloud of gleaming crystals as her water reserves hit hard vacuum and froze. Hodgkins grabbed the arms of her command chair as the bridge shuddered, then tore free, tumbling wildly into space.

“Comm! Emergency broadcast! . . .”

. . . and then the bridge was engulfed by the expanding white flare of a small detonating sun as her fusion core ruptured.

F
ive seconds later, the AI of a robotic HVK-724 high-velocity scout-courier on station 1.5 million kilometers away noted the destruction of the expedition’s three capital ships and immediately engaged its primary program.

Earth lay sixteen thousand light years away. At its maximum Alcubierre warp effect, the courier would arrive in another forty-four days.

7 November 2424

Confederation Naval Base Dylan

Arianrhod, 36 Ophiuchi AIII

0618 hours, TFT

“Bay doors are open,” the voice said in her head. “VFA-140, you are clear for launch.”

Lieutenant Megan Connor felt her fighter shake and tremble, the shock of a nearby explosion propagating through rock, the ferrocrete of the fighter bay dock, and the structure of her fighter. “Copy, Arianrhod Control,” she said. “On my command, Dracos, in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . .
launch
!”

Acceleration slammed her back against the embrace of her fighter’s cockpit as she hurtled down the magrail toward a distant point of light. The point expanded with startling swiftness, then exploded around her, a burst of brilliant, golden daylight as she emerged into the open air.

She thoughtclicked a control, and the intermittent singularity off her fighter’s bow flared into a dazzling arc-bright glare, the microscopic black hole gulping down atmosphere in flaring blue-white light. Behind her, a pair of incoming missiles slammed against the mountain housing the Confederation base but she held her Stardragon level, forming up with the other fighters matching her vector to left and right. The Silverwheel Sea, vast and straw-yellow, surged beneath her fighter’s keel.

More missiles incoming. “Going vertical!” she called to the others, “in three . . . two . . . one . . .
break
!”

Together, the flight of nine SG-112 Stardragons swung to an ascending vector, streaking up into a brilliant golden sky stacked high with billowing clouds. Falling skyward at five hundred gravities, the fighters swiftly punched through the clouds and fast-thinning atmosphere and into open space.

“Combat mode,” she snapped. “Formation break!” The Dragons’ adaptive nanomatrix hulls shifted and flowed, changing from sleek, black deltas to Y shapes, the weapons pods extended at the ends of the three forward-canted wings. Those two incoming missiles had curved upward, following the flight of Draco squadron Stardragons all the way up from the deck. Lieutenants Allende and Larson, bringing up the rear of the formation, loosed bursts of KAM pellets—kinetic-kill anti-missile projectiles that slammed into the Slan warheads and detonated them 10 kilometers astern.

Within Connor’s in-head display, a Slan destroyer changed vector to intercept them, the image magnified to show the flat blade of a hull and eight projecting shark fins, the vessel painted a flat white with bold red slashes and blotches. Little was known about the Slan save that they were another Sh’daar client race. The characteristic color scheme of their warship hulls, Intelligence thought, might represent some predator from the Slan homeworld, but even that much was pure guesswork.

She selected the destroyer with her inner eyes, selected a weapon—a VG-44c Fer-de-lance antiship missile—and clicked the blinking launch icon in her mind. “Ferdie armed!” she cried. “Fox One!”

A nuclear-tipped missile slipped from her low-keel fin and streaked toward the destroyer. The other fighters were peeling off in every direction, engaging a sky filled with targets. . . .

The star 36 Ophiuchi was a triple-star system just 19.5 light years from Earth, and 10 light years from the enemy-occupied system of 70 Ophiuchi, and the world Osiris. The A and B components, both K2-class orange stars, circled each other in an extremely elliptical mutual orbit lasting 570 years, the two coming as close to each other as 7 astronomical units and receding out to as far as 169 AUs. Currently, they were 30 AUs apart, and 36 Oph B appeared as a tiny orange spark in the blackness well beyond the nearer disk of 36 Oph A. A third, smaller red-orange star, 36 Ophiuchi C, orbited the two main stars at a comfortable distance of 5,000 AUs, or some eight hundredths of a light year, a spark so wan and dim it could not be picked out by the naked eye.

The system was still young—less than a billion years old—and filled with asteroidal debris and comets. A dozen comets blazed with icy light, their tails smeared across the heavens away from the orange sun. The planet dubbed Arianrhod by its colonizers was properly 36 Ophiuchi AIII, the third of four small and rocky planets. Located a little more than half an AU from its sun, it lay near the center of the system’s habitable zone. Mostly covered by liquid water, the world was twice the mass of Earth. The major landmass was the Caer Arianrhod Archipelago in the southern hemisphere, and was the location of the research colony of Silverwheel.

Arianrhod offered Confederation xenoplanet specialists the splendid opportunity to study an Earthlike planet still in the final stages of formation. Earth itself must have looked much the same 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. The atmosphere was a poisonous brew of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide. Volcanoes dotted the vast and rolling oceans, and asteroids and comets continued to slam into the young world, generating apocalyptic tidal waves. Silverwheel, most of it, was underground, as was the large USNA naval base protecting it. The land, when it was above water, was rocky, barren, and lifeless.

Yet, despite this, life bloomed in the oceans, raising questions about the nature, variety, and extensiveness of early life in Earth’s seas. It was known that life had appeared in Earth’s seas within a scant few hundred million years of the formation of a solid crust . . . but that life had remained single-celled and relatively simple for the next 2.5 billion years or so, and hadn’t learned how to manage the multicellular trick until about a billion years ago. Multicellular life forms, some of them as complex as things like colonial jellyfish and free-swimming tunicate worms, had already evolved in Arianrhod’s seas.

Theorists had suggested that life might have evolved not once, but many times on Earth; others suggested that radiation from the planet’s sun had given evolution a swift kick in the ass. Arianrhod offered xenobiologists the unparalleled opportunity to watch the process in action. The planet had been named deliberately for an ancient Celtic goddess of fertility, rebirth, and the weaving of cosmic fate. Someday, in a billion years or so, this world might be another Earth; in the meantime, it offered Humankind an unparalleled chance to study planetary evolution. Silverwheel’s twenty thousand inhabitants were almost all scientists and their families.

The Slan attack had not been entirely unexpected.

Osiris, 70 Ophiuchi AII, had been hit and overrun twenty years ago by a combined Turusch-Nungiirtok assault force. Osiris, though, was one of a handful of so-called garden worlds, planets with oxygen-nitrogen atmospheres and extensive biospheres where humans could live and work without cumbersome biosuits or nanoskins. The government council at Silverwheel had been hoping that the enemy wanted to take over pleasant, Earthlike worlds, not poisonous biomes-in-the-making like Arianrhod. And as year followed year, they’d begun to relax. Arianrhod did not appear to be on the enemy’s target list.

Until now. Unlike the civilian government at Silverwheel, the Navy had long suspected that one or another of the Sh’daar client species would make a grab for 36 Ophiuchi, and deployed three fighter squadrons to defend the system. Two, the Dracos and the Reapers, had been stationed at the naval base protecting Silverwheel, with a third, the Blood Knights, operating out of an orbital base called Caer Gwydion. Picket drones in the outer system had noted the approach of a sizeable naval force two days ago, apparently coming from the general direction of 70 Ophiuchi.

The fleet, which had turned out to be Slan, was a mix of the lance-blade destroyers and a large number of planetary bombardment vessels, code-named Trebuchets by Confederation Military Intelligence. The three squadrons had been flying almost nonstop, with brief returns to base for rearming and repairs between missions. Caer Gwydion had been struck by a trio of two-hundred-megaton warheads ten hours ago and turned into an expanding cloud of hot gas.

But the surviving fighters continued to hurl themselves at the enemy force, as their numbers dwindled and casualties mounted.

Lieutenant Sheridan’s Stardragon took a direct hit from a Slan beam weapon, her fighter vaporized in an instant, like a moth in an open flame.

“All Dracos!” Connor called. “Vector on the Trebs on planetary approach! Let’s see if we can break up that attack!”

The alien Trebuchets were ungainly, boxy affairs utterly unlike the sleek destroyers. Each was a little more than 200 meters in length, painted black with random, bright green slashes, and carried piggyback a single massive nuclear missile with a five-hundred-megaton fusion warhead. They approached in waves, lining up on the target planet and loosing the missiles as they streaked inbound. Even from 15,000 kilometers out, Connor could see the periodic twinkles of detonations concentrated on the northern coast of the Sumatra-sized landmass where Silverwheel lay buried, and more planetbusters were inbound. Even the deeply buried research colony wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer against that savage planetary bombardment.

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