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Deep in space lies the black hole known as Angelmass, so called because it emits enigmatic particles with the unusual ability to render humans calm, reasonable, and incapable of lying—which would normally be seen as a good thing.
But not by everyone.
For while Empyrean human colonies on the edge of the galaxy utilize the power of the “angels,” the Earth-based Pax empire views the emissions as a threat that could be used to subvert humanity.
Academic Jereko Kosta is pressed into service by the Pax to spy on the Empyrean, joining the crew of a ship actively hunting the particles. But what he learns turns out to be both scientifically fascinating and morally frightening.
When the Pax make an aggressive move that may lead to all-out war with the Empyrean, Kosta is the only one who can stop the conflict between the human powers and force them to see that the angels they’re about to fight over are far from holy . . .
Timothy Zahn combines provocative ethical questions with the same level of vivid sci-fi action that made his Star Wars: Thrawn a New York Times bestseller to deliver “a serious SF novel sneakily posing as an enormous golden-age thrill ride” (Locus).
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About the Author
Timothy Zahn is the New York Times–bestselling science fiction author of more than forty novels, as well as many novellas and short stories. Best known for his contributions to the expanded Star Wars universe of books, including the Thrawn trilogy, Zahn also wrote the Cobra series and the young adult Dragonback series—the first novel of which, Dragon and Thief, was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Zahn currently resides in Oregon with his family.
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There were two of them waiting as Jereko Kosta climbed awkwardly up the ladder through the shuttle hatch: a young ensign and an equally young crewer second class, both clothed in shiny black and silver Pax military uniforms, the glistening red and blue threads of the Komitadji's insignia pattern swirling with arrogant pride across collarbone and shoulder. "Mr. Kosta," the ensign said, his hand twitching halfway into an automatic salute before he seemed to remember the man facing him was a civilian. "Welcome aboard the Komitadji. Commodore Lleshi's compliments; he'd like to see you on the command deck immediately."
Kosta nodded, fighting against a strange fog of unreality as he looked around the docking bay's spotless gray walls and ceilings. The Komitadji. He was actually aboard the Komitadji. "Understood," he said, trying to match the ensign's neutral tone and not entirely succeeding. "I have just the two bags ...?"
"They'll be stowed aboard your ship," the ensign assured him as the crewer brushed smoothly past Kosta and disappeared down the ladder into the shuttle. "If you'll follow me, please?"
The slidecar door was in a protected alcove in the docking bay's rear wall. The ensign ushered him in and keyed a switch, and they started up toward the center of the ship.
Toward the center of the Komitadji.
It was, Kosta thought, like being aboard a living legend. Not even the crystal-walled towers of academia had insulated him from the stories of the huge ship's military victories; and even if they had, the eight weeks of intensive training he'd just finished would have quickly remedied any such omission. Practically every one of Kosta's military trainers had had his or her favorite story to tell about the Komitadji, stories that were invariably told with a sort of grim glee. For the military, as well as most ordinary Pax citizens, the Komitadji was a symbol of pride and glory and power. A symbol of the protection and strength that was the Pax.
To be traveling the corridors of a legend would have been impressive enough. To be traveling the corridors of a ship that had achieved such legendary status in barely five years of active service was truly awe-inspiring.
The trip to the command deck seemed to take an inordinately long time, even for a ship the Komitadji's size, and to be unreasonably complicated besides. It added an extra tinge of nervousness to Kosta's already mixed feelings about his place in this mission; and it was only as they switched slidecars for the third time that it finally occurred to him that the inefficiency was probably deliberate. On a warship, it didn't pay to make critical control areas too easy to get to.
The command deck, once they finally arrived, was just as Kosta had pictured it: a long room filled with consoles and black/silver-suited men and women working busily at them. He looked around, hoping to spot the captain —
"Kosta?" a voice boomed down from above him.
Kosta craned his neck. At one end of the room a small balcony-like ledge jutted out over the command deck. An older, silver-haired man stood at the railing, gazing down at him. "Yes, sir?" Kosta called back.
The other jerked his head fractionally and turned away. Wordlessly, Kosta's escort led the way to a lift platform beneath the rear of the balcony. The memory-metal cage wrapped around the platform, and a moment later it opened again on the balcony.
The older man was waiting for him. "Kosta," he nodded gravely in greeting, his eyes flicking up and down in quick evaluation. "I'm Commodore Vars Lleshi. Welcome aboard the Komitadji."
"Thank you, sir," Kosta said. "I'm — well, it's ..." He broke off, feeling suddenly like an idiot.
Lleshi's mouth twitched in a faint smile. "Yes; it is big, isn't it? Did you get your final briefing below?"
"Yes, sir," Kosta nodded, trying to shake the feeling of being the new kid at school. "As much briefing as they thought I should have, anyway."
Lleshi eyed him. "They were a little short on details?"
"Well ..." Kosta said hesitantly as it occurred to him that sour-mouthing a military prep unit to a officer of that same military might not be a smart thing to do. "They kept it a bit on the light side," he said, toning his comments down to something tactful. "I get the feeling I'm supposed to play a lot of this by ear."
"You were expecting a script?" another voice put in scornfully.
Kosta turned, his throat tightening reflexively, to see a thin-faced man in a painfully neat, totally unadorned gray civilian suit striding toward him from one of the command boards at the balcony's side edge. "I — ah — I'm sorry?" he asked, floundering for words.
"I asked if you thought you'd be getting a script for this," the other repeated. "You've just undergone the finest intensive-training course money can buy. I'd have thought the absolute first thing they would have beaten into you is that spies play nearly everything by ear."
Kosta took a careful breath, fighting against the old automatic submission urge. This man wasn't his adviser, or his dean, or his department chairman. "I'm sure they taught me as best as they could in eight weeks," he said. "Perhaps I'm just not good spy material."
"Very few people are naturally that way," Lleshi cut in, throwing a brief glance at the other man. "But on the other hand, this isn't your average spy mission, either. As Mr. Telthorst has a tendency to forget. For secret information, you send a spy. For secret academic information, you send an academic." He favored Kosta with a tight but reassuring smile. "And for twenty years' worth of secret academic information, you send an academic with a knack for digging nuggets out of froth."
"That person being you, we all hope," Telthorst said sourly. "Otherwise this whole thing will be nothing more man a colossal waste of money."
Kosta gazed at him, again fighting against the urge to apologize. But at least now he finally had the man pegged. "I take it, Mr. Telthorst, that you're the Komitadji's Adjutor Corps representative."
There was a faint sound from Lleshi that in a lesser man might have been a snicker. Slowly, Telthorst turned his head to look at the commodore; just as slowly he turned back to face Kosta. "I am not," he said, quietly and distinctly, "a representative of any kind. I am a fully qualified Adjutor, authorized to sit at Supreme Council meetings and to advise the government on any and all matters dealing with the financial and economic well-being of the Pax, or of any group, subgroup, world, nationia, district, or sub-district within it."
His glare turned colder. "Including such totally inconsequential matters as the academic debts incurred by tridoctorum students from small towns on minor worlds of backwater planetary groups. Your debts, Kosta, and whether they will be canceled or not."
"I'm sorry," Kosta managed, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut. The veiled power lurking beneath that icy disdain was every bit as intimidating as the Komitadji itself. "I didn't mean any disrespect."
"I trust not," Telthorst said. He looked again at Lleshi. "And I, in turn," he added grudgingly, "didn't mean to imply you were unprepared for your mission. You understand that liberating the people of this so-called Empyrean from their alien domination and bringing them under Pax enlightenment is going to be a very expensive proposition. My job is the same as that of every Adjutor: to make sure the Pax gets its money's worth."
"I understand," Kosta said, his reflexive fear fading into a rather annoyed nervousness. He was about to risk his life in enemy territory, and all Telthorst could think about was how much money it was costing. "I'll do my best not to waste the Pax's investment in me."
Telthorst's forehead creased, just a bit — "I'm sure you'll do fine, Kosta," Lleshi put in before Telthorst could speak. "But enough talk. Your ship is in the Number Six cargo hold — you'll be taken there directly from here. You know how to handle it?"
"Yes, sir," Kosta said. He did, too, after a fashion, though almost everything the ship would need to do should already have been preprogrammed into it.
"Good," the commodore said. "Remember that you're not to leave the cocoon for a minimum of twelve hours after you've been dropped. That's a minimum — if Empyreal ships are still poking around you'll obviously need to sit tight longer. Just take your time and don't panic. You should be totally undetectable inside the cocoon, and if we do our job properly they'll never even notice you leaving the Komitadji. We should also be getting a data pulse from the automated sleeper drop on Lorelei as soon as we arrive, provided we're grabbed by the proper net and our timing is on mark. If there's time, I'll dump a copy to you before you're dropped. Once you're down, go to the coordinates programmed into your ship's computer and pick up the final current-conditions compilation, the false identity papers that should be waiting for you, and the access information for your credit line."
"A very limited credit line," Telthorst put in. "Keep that in mind, and try to find ways to be economical."
"Yes, sir, I will," Kosta said, trying not to grimace. Money again. With Adjutors, it was always money. "If that's all, Commodore," he added, "I'll get down to my ship."
Lleshi nodded. "Go ahead. And good luck on your little trip to heaven."
"Thank you." Kosta looked the commodore square in the eye. "I won't fail, sir."
"Scintara Catapult Control, Commodore," the man at the communications board called up to the balcony. "We have signal green."
"Acknowledged." Lleshi gave his status board a leisurely scan. Ship's rotation was at zero, energy weapons charged and ready, missiles loaded into their tubes and stand-by armed. Everything in place for a little jaunt into enemy territory. "SeTO?"
"All green, Commodore," Senior Tactical Officer Campbell reported from his console. "Alpha and Beta both. Ship and crew at full battle stations."
Peripherally, Lleshi saw Telthorst swivel around from his observer's console at one side of the balcony. "Beta?" he asked, a suspicious overtone in his voice. "What's Beta?"
"It's a simulation run," Lleshi told him. "Fighters at station; that sort of thing. We do intend an eventual invasion of these systems." He eyed the Adjutor, noting the other's tight-lipped expression. "Your last chance to get off here if you'd rather," he offered.
Telthorst returned his gaze without blinking. "Your last chance, Commodore, to not risk this ship."
Lleshi looked back at his board, fighting back a flash of very unprofessional anger. Zero hour was not the time to reopen old arguments. They had no choice but to use the Komitadji on this, for reasons Telthorst already knew. "Helmsman: Move us into position."
A visual representation of the focal point of Scintara's hyperspace catapult sat directly in front of the Komitadji on the helm display: a hazy red ellipsoid hanging in space, undulating slowly as its three axes rhythmically fed from and into each other. In the early days of catapult travel — and it was a thought that always intruded into Lleshi's mind at this point — a ship that didn't fit entirely within that focal area risked leaving pieces of itself behind while the rest was thrown across the light-years. Without the discovery of paraconducting metal, a ship the size of the Komitadji would never have been possible.
Such a wonderful thing, progress.
The proximity alarm trilled: the Komitadji's bow had touched the focal ellipsoid. "Stand by," Lleshi ordered. "Scintara Catapult, you have the timer. Launch at T-zero."
Scintara acknowledged. Thirty-eight seconds later, with a metallic stutter of stress from the paraconducting underskin, the stars abruptly disappeared from the viewscreens.
Lleshi took a careful breath, mind and body slipping automatically into full combat mode. It was nearly three hundred light-years from Scintara to the Empyreal world of Lorelei: just under six seconds of hyperspace travel. "Stand by," he murmured, more from habit than any expectation that his crew wasn't ready. He settled himself ... and, as abruptly as they'd disappeared, the stars were back.
"Location check," he ordered. The nav display had sprouted multicolored relative-V arrows now: many of the "stars" on the visual were, in fact, asteroids. But that didn't necessarily put them in the right net — all the nets around Lorelei seemed to be deep in the system's extensive asteroid belts. "If we're in the right net, key for data retrieval."
"Focused pulse transmissions from the planet, Commodore," the comm officer reported. "We're in the right net. Copying now."
"Tactical coming up now, sir," the SeTO said. "Defenses as expected."
Lleshi nodded, his eyes on the tac display ... and it was indeed as expected. Arrayed in a rough triangular pyramid two hundred kilometers on an edge around the Komitadji were four small ships. Each of them carried the pole of a hyperspacecatapult; together, they guarded the center of the net field that had — somehow — snatched the Komitadji from its original hyperspace vector and deflected it to this precise point. Any three of those ships, acting together, could throw the Komitadji right back out of the system, in any direction they chose.
And if they did so immediately, young Kosta might as well not have bothered coming aboard.
"Message, Commodore," the comm officer announced. "They remind us the Empyrean has closed its borders to ships of the Pax, and request that we state our business here."
Lleshi smiled tightly. So the first part of the gamble had succeeded: the Komitadji's sheer size had caught the Empyreals off guard. Even now they were scrambling to recalibrate their catapult as they tried to make the invaders waste time with useless conversation. He threw a glance in Telthorst's direction, saw only the back of the Adjutor's head. "No return message," he said quietly. "Attack pattern Alpha."
The Komitadji's lights dimmed slightly as, on the tactical, four lines of blue light lanced out, one focused on each of the distant catapult ships. Behind the laser beams four yellow plasma jets boiled out; following right on their heels the red lines of a dozen Spearhawk missiles shot similarly outward. Lleshi was pushed back into his chair as the Komitadji's engines roared to life, driving the ship away from the center of the pyramid. The Empyreal ships moved to stay with them, the Spearhawk missiles shifting vectors in turn to match the movement. The Komitadji's computers refocused the lasers, launched new plasma clouds —
And a second later, almost in unison and at least thirty kilometers out from their targets, all twelve Spearhawks exploded.
"Premature detonation; all missiles," Campbell reported. "Plasma and lasers having no discernible effect; catapult ships still tracking us. Second Spearhawks away."
"Data pulse retrieval complete," the comm officer called as another set of twelve Spearhawks appeared on the tactical, arcing toward the defenders. "Copy dumped to cocoon."
Behind the four beleaguered catapult ships eight similar spacecraft had now appeared on the tactical, emerging from cover behind various asteroids. Back-ups, already starting to configure themselves into catapult arrangement. "Cocoon launch on my command," Lleshi ordered, frowning with concentration as he watched the second group of Spearhawks climb toward their targets. With the detonation codes already computed by the Empyreals, this set ought to go considerably closer to the Komitadji than the previous ones had —
In twelve simultaneous flashes, they did ... and surrounded by light and fire and expanding clouds of debris, the Komitadji was momentarily hidden from enemy view. "Cocoon: launch!" he snapped.
The Komitadji didn't lurch — it was far too big for that — but Lleshi imagined he could feel the dull thud of the explosive springs as their cargo was blown clear of the Number Six hold. "Third Spearhawks away," Campbell called.
"Fire Harpies," Lleshi ordered. "Random minus one pattern."
"Acknowledged. First Harpies away."
On the tactical the twelve Spearhawk trails were abruptly joined by fifty more, bursting outward from the Komitadji like the time-lapse flowering of a strange and exotic plant. Almost lost among them was the tiny spot drifting with maddening leisure from the Komitadji's starboard side. "Hard aport," Lleshi ordered. "Draw the catapult focus away from the cocoon."
Excerpted from "Angelmass"
Copyright © 2002 Timothy Zahn.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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