Meanwhile, the story of Edeard, the Waterwalker, continues to unfold. With time running out, Inigo, the First Dreamer, must decide whether to release Edeard’s dangerous final dream. And Araminta must choose whether to run from her responsibilities or face them down, with no guarantee of success or survival. But all these choices may be for naught if the leader of a rival faction enters the Void. For it is not paradise she seeks there, but dominion.
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The starship had no name; it didn't have a serial number or even a marque. Only one of its kind had ever been built. As no more would ever be required, no designation was needed; it was simply the ship.
It streaked through the substructure of spacetime at fifty-nine light-years an hour, the fastest anything built by humans had ever traveled. Navigation at that awesome velocity was by quantum interstice similarity interpretation, which determined the relative location of mass in the real universe beyond. This alleviated the use of crude hysradar or any other sensor that might possibly be detected. The extremely sophisticated ultradrive that powered it might have reached even greater speeds if a considerable fraction of its phenomenal energy hadn't been used for fluctuation suppression. That meant there was no telltale distortion amid the quantum fields to betray its position to other starships that might wish to hunt it.
As well as its formidable stealth ability, the ship was big, a fat ovoid over six hundred meters long and two hundred meters across at the center. But its real advantage came from its armaments; there were weapons on board that could knock out a half a dozen Commonwealth Navy Capital-class ships while barely stirring out of standby mode. The weapons had been verified only once: the ship had flown over ten thousand light-years from the Greater Commonwealth to test them so as to avoid detection. For millennia to come, primitive alien civilizations in that section of the galaxy would worship as gods the colorful nebulae expanding across the interstellar wastes.
Even now, sitting in the ship's clean hemispherical cabin with the flight path imagery playing quietly in her exovision, Neskia remembered with a little shiver of excitement and apprehension the stars splitting asunder. It had been one thing to run the clandestine fabrication station for the Accelerator Faction, dispatching ships and equipment to various agents and representatives. That was easy, cold machinery functioning with a precision she could take pride in. But seeing the weapons active was slightly different. She'd felt a level of perturbation she hadn't known in over two centuries, ever since she became Higher and began her inward migration. Not that she questioned her belief in the Accelerators; it was just the sheer potency of the weapons that struck her at some primitive level that could never be fully exorcised from the human psyche. She was awed by the power of what she alone commanded.
Other elements of her animal past had been erased quietly and effectively: first with biononics and acceptance of Higher cultural philosophy, culminating in her embrace of Accelerator Faction tenets, then by committing to a subtle rejection of her existing body form, as if to emphasize her new beliefs. Her skin now was a shimmering metallic gray, the epidermal cells imbued with a contemporary semiorganic fiber that established itself in perfect symbiosis. The face that had caused many a man to turn in admiration when she was younger now wore a more efficient, flatter profile, with big saucer eyes biononically modified to look across a multitude of spectra. Her neck also had been stretched, its increased flexibility allowing her head much greater maneuverability. Underneath the gently shimmering skin her muscles had been strengthened to a level that would allow her to keep up with a terrestrial panther on its kill run, and that was before biononic augmentation kicked in.
However, it was her mind that had undergone the greatest evolution. She'd stopped short of bioneural profiling simply because she didn't need any genetic reinforcement to her beliefs. "Worship" was a crude term for thought processes, but she was certainly devoted to her cause. She had dedicated herself completely to the Accelerators at a fully emotional level. The old human concerns and biological imperatives simply didn't affect her anymore; her intellect was involved solely with the faction and its goal. For the past fifty years their projects and plans had been all that triggered her satisfaction and suffering. Her integration was total; she was the epitome of Accelerator values. That was why she'd been chosen to fly the ship by the faction leader, Ilanthe, on this mission. That, and that alone, made her content.
The ship began to slow as it approached the coordinate Neskia had supplied to the smartcore. Speed ebbed away until it hung inertly in transdimensional suspension while her navigation display showed the Sol system twenty-three light-years away. The distance was comfortable. They were outside the comprehensive sensor mesh surrounding humanity's birthworld, yet she could be there in less than thirty minutes.
Neskia ordered the smartcore to run a passive scan. Other than interstellar dust and the odd frozen comet, there was no detectable mass within three light-years. Certainly there were no ships. However, the scan picked up a tiny specific anomaly, which caused her to smile in tight satisfaction. All around the ship ultradrives were holding themselves in transdimensional suspension, undetectable except for that one deliberate signal. You had to know what to search for to find it, and nobody would be looking for anything out here, let alone ultradrives. The ship confirmed there were eight thousand of the machines holding position as they awaited instructions. Neskia established a communication link to them and ran a swift function check. The Swarm was ready.
She settled down to wait for Ilanthe's next call.
The ExoProtectorate Council meeting ended, and Kazimir canceled the link to the perceptual conference room. He was alone in his office atop Pentagon II, with nowhere to go. The deterrence fleet had to be launched; there was no question of that now. Nothing else could deal with the approaching Ocisen Empire armada without an unacceptable loss of life on both sides. And if news that the Ocisens were backed up by Prime warships leaked out . . . Which it would. Ilanthe would see to that.
He straightened the recalcitrant silver braid collar on his dress uniform one last time as he walked over to the sweeping window and looked down on the lush parkland of Babuyan Atoll. A gentle radiance was shining down on it, emitted from the crystal dome curving overhead. Even so, he could still see Icalanise's misty crescent through the ersatz dawn. The sight was one he'd seen countless times during his tenure. He'd always taken it for granted; now he wondered if he'd ever see it again. For a true military man the thought wasn't unusual; in fact, it was quite a proud pedigree.
His u-shadow opened a link to Paula. "We're deploying the deterrence fleet against the Ocisens," he told her.
"Oh, dear. I take it the last capture mission didn't work, then."
"No. The Prime ship exploded when we took it out of hyperspace."
"Damn. Suicide isn't part of the Prime's psychological makeup."
"You know that and I know that. ANA:Governance knows that, too, of course, but as always it needs proof, not circumstantial evidence."
"Are you going with the fleet?"
Kazimir couldn't help but smile at the question. If only you knew. "Yes. I'm going with the fleet."
"Good luck. I want you to try and turn this against her. They'll be out there watching. Any chance you can detect them first?"
"We'll certainly try." He squinted at the industrial stations circling around High Angel, a slim sparkling silver bracelet against the starfield. "I heard about Ellezelin."
"Yeah. Digby didn't have any options. ANA is sending a forensic team. If they can work out what Chatfield was carrying, we might be able to haul the Accelerators into court before you reach the Ocisens."
"I don't think so. But I have some news for you."
"The Lindau has left the Hanko system."
"Where is it heading?"
"That's the interesting thing. As far as I can make out, they're flying to the Spike."
"The Spike? Are you sure?"
"That's a projection of their current course. It's held steady for seven hours now."
"But that . . . No."
"Why not?" Kazimir asked, obscurely amused by the investigator's reaction.
"I simply don't believe that Ozzie would intervene in the Commonwealth again, not like this. And he'd certainly never employ someone like Aaron."
"Okay, I'll grant you that one. But there are other humans in the Spike."
"Yes, there are. Care to name one?"
Kazimir gave up. "So what's Ozzie's connection?"
"I can't think."
"The Lindau isn't flying as fast as it's capable of. It probably got damaged on Hanko. You could easily get to the Spike ahead of them or even intercept."
"Tempting, but I'm not going to risk it. I've wasted far too much time on my personal obsession already. I can't risk another wild-goose chase at this point."
"All right. Well, I'm going to be occupied for the next few days. If it's a real emergency, you can contact me."
"Thank you. My priority now has got to be securing the Second Dreamer."
"Good luck with that."
"And you, Kazimir. Godspeed."
"Thank you." He remained by the window for several seconds after he'd closed the link to Paula, then activated his biononic field interface function, which meshed with the navy's T-sphere. He teleported to the wormhole terminus orbiting outside the gigantic alien arkship and through that emerged into the Kerensk terminus. One more teleport jump, and he was inside Hevelius Island, one of Earth's T-sphere stations, floating seventy kilometers above the South Pacific.
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