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“Dark Fall” by David Weber


•I•


Hear now my song and weep.


Hear of the blackness of Dark Fall,

Of death, dust, destruction of all.

Hear now of terror on night-black wings,

Of heartbreak and horror—the end of all things,

Of destruction below and death from the sky

On the day human history died.

The Dark Fall Saga

* * * * * * * * * *

Navigation Deck
Generation Ship Calvin’s Hope
March 552 Post Diaspora

“It’s confirmed,” the leaden voice said in Vincent Anderson’s headphones. “No way. The damage at ground level is even worse than we expected. We’d need three times the resources we’ve got to establish even a temporary foothold down here. And it’s still getting worse.”

“Understood,” Anderson said. He drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Come on back up. Looks like we’re going to have to come up with something brilliant.”

“Lots of luck with that,” the voice said harshly. Then there was a pause, and Anderson visualized the owner of that voice drawing her own deep breath. “I’m calling in the survey parties now. We should be back aboard in a few hours.”

“Good.” Anderson’s voice was soft. “I need you, Trish.”

“I know, Babe. See you soon.”

Anderson killed the circuit and pushed off against the captain’s chair to send himself across the nav deck to the main visual display. The command section, like the engineering core, was outside the spin section, and he’d always loved the microgravity. It made him feel lighter than air, with a buoyancy that went beyond the merely physical as he floated here, watching the endless stars recede into infinity.

But not today, he thought. Not today.

It was late in Calvin’s Hope’s day, and he’d decided to take the watch by himself. It wasn’t as if the nav deck needed manning, and the truly critical parts of the huge ship’s infrastructure had always been managed from Engineering and Environmental. But there’d been someone here—usually only a single someone, admittedly, but someone—every day for the last three and a half centuries.

Well, he amended, hooking a toe through a safety loop, for the last four centuries, as the rest of the universe had told time. The time dilation affect at fifty percent of light-speed was significant, and Vincent Anderson had spent his entire forty-three years—subjective—tearing through the cosmos at that velocity. His parents had spent their entire lives doing precisely the same thing, and so had their parents. In fact, his great-great-grandparents had been only in their thirties when the shuttles delivered them to their new home in space. He was the eighth captain Calvin’s Hope had known since it departed the Sol System, 135 years after the Beowulf Expedition, on its own long, lonely voyage, and they were farther from Earth than any humans had ever traveled.

Angelique Calvin hadn’t lived to see the ship that bore her name depart. She’d driven the expedition with every gram of her steely will, though. She’d personally rammed it through the Earth Union’s committees and bureaus and petty tyrants, despite their bitter opposition to interstellar exploration. She’d personally designed the generation ship’s drive, but she’d known she wouldn’t be making the voyage aboard the project to which she’d devoted her entire adult life. There was no room for octogenarians aboard a starship. But on the day the transmission confirming the Beowulf Expedition’s safe landing in their destination star system, her son Angus had begun the countdown for Calvin’s Hope’s launch.

Now, four hundred and two years later, the great-great-grandchildren of that ship’s crew had reached their destination.

Vincent Anderson looked at the image of the world they’d come so far to reach and tried not to vomit.

Officers’ Lounge
Generation Ship Calvin’s Hope
March 552 Post Diaspora

“—and that’s it,” Shirley McKellen, Calvin’s Hope’s chief environmental engineer, said in a flat voice. “Our reserve will carry us another seventy-five years—maybe ninety, if we stretch it hard and start winding our population down pretty damned quickly—and that’s about it.” She smiled without any humor at all. “I’m sure three quarters of a century seemed like an ample safety margin to the mission planners.”

“And it should’ve been,” Seong Cho Mee, the ship’s logistics manager pointed out. She shook her head. “No one could have predicted this, Shirley!”

“I didn’t say they could have,” McKellen replied. “And, trust me, no one’s blaming you, Cho Mee.”

“Of course we aren’t,” Anderson said. “It does establish our parameters, though.”

“Would that give us enough time to convert the ship into a long-term orbital habitat?” Patricia Anderson asked.

“No,” Joe Vogel, the ship’s chief engineer, was a blunt-spoken man at the best of times. Today his voice was hard, almost harsh. The others looked at him, and he shrugged. “Like Shirley says, the mission planners provided what they thought would be plenty of margin, but they expected us to move dirtside. In theory, we’d have enough enviro margin to give us the time for something like that, Trish, but the ship’s too banged up and at least thirty percent of her systems—including the fusion plants—are within twenty, thirty years of their design lives. We don’t have the right tech base—or one that’s deep enough—to build new ones, either. We can probably baby the ones we have along, keep them up and running for quite a while, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

“But if that’s our only option . . .” Patricia said.

“If that’s our only option, we don’t have an option—not in the long-term,” her husband said quietly. “Joe’s right. When they built her, they did a hell of a job, but no one ever expected her to turn into an orbital habitat at the other end. She’s designed to get us to a planetary environment, not support us indefinitely in space.”

“Then we are well and truly screwed,” Leonidas Konstantopoulos, the ship’s chief medical officer growled, and heads nodded heavily around the table.

They shouldn’t have been screwed, Anderson thought bitterly. Angelique Calvin had taken the time to do it right, and KCR-126-04 had come up golden after her painstaking, exhaustive astronomical examination of possible destinations. The G4 star the expedition had renamed “Calvin” in her honor had multiple planets; one of them was squarely in the “Goldilocks zone”; its size and mass had promised a gravity almost identical to that of Earth; and spectroscopic analysis had confirmed an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and an abundance of H2O. KCR-126-04 was a long way from Sol–just over 201 LY—and very few of the other stars in its vicinity were good candidates for habitable worlds, but that, too, had been fine with Calvin. Anderson sometimes thought that was because she’d known she wouldn’t be making the voyage. Perhaps she would have settled for a destination closer to Sol—like Beowulf, only fifty years’ travel from humanity’s homeworld—where her colonists were more likely to have close neighbors if she had been. But perhaps not, too. Given the inability to exceed the speed of light, even “close” interstellar neighbors were hardly right next door, so the likelihood of ongoing physical contact between them wasn’t all that great.

But Anderson was pretty sure she’d had other reasons, as well. He himself had never lived under the Earth Union’s authority. All he had to go by were the history books, the history vids and holos. His own life experience had been utterly different from anything they portrayed, and even if that hadn’t been so, the personal notes left by the original crew made it clear the official histories had been . . . filtered to suit the Earth Union’s view of the universe. He didn’t understand that, either. Not experientially. But he’d read Angus Calvin’s journal, and he knew Angelique had wanted a destination so far from Sol that the poisonous political ideologies she believed were choking her homeworld to death would never reach it.

Apparently, she’d figured 200 light-years was probably just about far enough.

Besides, Calvin III was such a perfect destination. Despite the distance, they’d known that.

They’d selected three alternate destinations just in case, though. They could have diverted to any one of them in the first thirty or forty years of the voyage if they’d discovered their chosen home was less desirable than they’d thought. But they’d used those decades for additional observation of Calvin III, refining their knowledge of it as they drew ever closer to KCR-126-04, and every one of those observations had only confirmed its suitability. Indeed, Maryellen Abramatsovna, the expedition’s original astronomer, had noted in her journal that Calvin III “could have been Earth’s twin . . . only better!”

So those alternates had been passed up and Calvin’s Hope had continued toward her destination.

And, as she came within only two light-years of journey’s end at last, everything had changed.

“Is there any hope at all of colonizing the surface?” Seong asked.

“No,” Patricia Anderson said gently. She’d inherited the position of chief astronomer as well as command of Calvin’s Hope’s survey shuttles. Now she shook her head, her expression grim. “We knew it was going to be bad from the moment the Hammers hit, Cho Mee. We just never let ourselves believe how bad.” She shook her head again. “I don’t have the library resources to nail down all the details to do an accurate comparison, but sixty-six million years ago, it was Earth’s turn to get hit. They called it the ‘dinosaur killer,’ and it left a crater over a hundred and eighty kilometers across. But Earth only got hit by one of the damned things, and it was only about fifteen kilometers in diameter. Hammer Alpha was two-thirds again that big, it was traveling faster . . . and it hit less than ten years ago.”

She paused, her expression haunted, and Anderson touched her fist as it clenched on the tabletop. They knew exactly when the massive asteroids had hit, and his wife still woke, weeping, from nightmares of that moment.

Angelique Calvin had seen to it that Calvin’s Hope’s telescopes were the finest technology could build. They were capable of awesome resolution . . . and Patricia had been visually observing their new home when the terrible glare of Hammer Alpha reached her. Calvin’s Hope was still four years from turnover and more than five and a half from Calvin III, and that sudden boil of light had two years to cross the Gulf between her and the planet. Patricia had known what she was witnessing had happened years before . . . and that hadn’t made it one bit less horrifying.

She hadn’t seen the asteroid before impact. The cameras had captured it, but it had taken significant enhancement to actually pick it out in the instant before it hit atmosphere. Such a tiny thing, compared to the scale of a planet. The computers said it had been no more than twenty-five kilometers across, but it had been traveling at over 50 KPS when it hit atmosphere at an angle of sixty-four degrees. And if she hadn’t seen it coming, she’d seen the horrific impact only too well.

She’d been mapping Calvin III’s continents, humming to herself as she evaluated probable landing sites, and the strike had been squarely in her field of vision. She’d seen the atmosphere splash away as the Hammer entered it. She’d seen the incredible fireball, seen the huge vapor plume hurl fiery ejecta clear into the thermosphere. She’d seen the atmosphere go dark and curdled, seen the planetary albedo change in a matter of hours. She’d watched the spectral analysis shifting and known—known—what that celestial desecration might mean for the survival of her friends and family.

And then, eight hours later, Hammer Beta landed.

She hadn’t seen that one. Alpha’s companion had come in on the far side of Calvin III . . . which had put it almost squarely in the middle of the Angelique Ocean. Beta was smaller than Alpha, but its ocean impact had made it even deadlier, in its own way.

“It’s a frigging nightmare down there,” she continued harshly, “and it’s still getting worse. The direct energy release was almost seven hundred yottajoules—that’s one-point-five trillion megatonnes—in a fraction of a second. If you’d been standing two thousand kilometers from the impact point, your clothes would’ve caught fire from the thermal pulse, and all of that heat was transferred to the planetary atmosphere. Alpha’s crater is over six hundred kilometers across, and everything that used to be in that hole had to go somewhere. Debris—rocks, dust, volcanic glasses—was blown as much as fifty kilometers from the surface, and when it reentered the lower atmosphere, it was so hot it set fires anywhere there was fuel. It was like putting the whole damned planet into an oven, but after the fires, came the cold. There was so much crap in the atmosphere that it was like throwing the switch on one of our freezers. What hadn’t burned froze, and it was a coastal strike. Two thirds of the crater are inland from what used to be the coastline, but Alpha vaporized something like five hundred and sixty million cubic kilometers of rock, a lot of it shallow sea bottom with heavy concentrations of limestone and gypsum. The sulfur content from that’s having a catastrophic impact on the atmosphere and pushing the albedo even farther.

“And then there was Beta.” Her face was like iron, her eyes full of ghosts and horror. “It was a deep-water strike, deep enough there was a lot less sea bottom involved, so it contributed less rock and sulfur to the mess. But it still sent tsunamis clear around the planet—at least three separate waves—and vaporized over two hundred thousand cubic kilometers of saltwater. That helped scrub some of the precipitates out of the atmosphere, but they came out in salt rains that poisoned everything they hit. We’re ten-plus years into the event now, and it’s still getting worse, not better.

“I knew from our orbital observations what it was going to be like down there, but it was only an intellectual awareness. It wasn’t real to me. I’d seen it through our telescopes. Now I’ve actually walked through it. For the first time in my life, I’ve stood on a real planet . . . and I wish to hell I never had.

“We’ve all seen the HDs of Earth—the sequoias, the savannas, the rain forests and plains. Well, there’s none of that on Calvin III. Not anymore. Oh, there are tiny pockets, but only tiny pockets, and with the entire atmosphere still in flux, God only knows if any of them can go on surviving. There’s evidence of high tectonic instability, too. We can’t be sure without longer to observe, but it seems to be increasing steadily, and it looks like the meteor strikes may have activated an area of volcanism bigger—and more destructive—than Earth’s Deccan Traps. In the end, that may release as much atmospheric contamination as both Hammers combined. It’ll be over a longer period of time, but that only means it will prolong the agony, delay any possible recovery time for hundreds—thousands—of years. We don’t have the data or the right software to model this with any degree of reliability, but the computers say that something like eighty percent of the planet’s animal life died within the first six or seven local months, and the process is still underway. The best models we can build suggest that nothing bigger than an Earth raccoon is likely to survive down there, and it probably won’t reach bottom and begin rebounding—if it ever does reboundfor a long, long time. This is a geological event, the kind of thing that takes millions of years to work through, and we don’t have millions of years.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head for a moment, then opened them again and faced the logistics manager squarely.

“It’s still getting worse, Cho Mee,” she repeated softly. “We’re past the catastrophic impact stage. Now we’re in the long, dragged out dying stage. I don’t see any way we could possibly build a settlement or a habitat down on the surface with a chance in hell of long-term survival.”

“But in that case . . . ?”

Seong’s voice trailed off, and Anderson looked at her.

“In that case we have to find another option. And if we can’t find one, then we’ll damned well make one. We didn’t come two hundred light-years just to give up at the end of the trip, by God!” His gaze circled the table, his eyes hard. “We’ve got those seventy-five years Shirley mentioned,” he reminded them. “That’s not long enough for us to make Beowulf, or even any of our original alternative destinations like Bryant, even assuming the ship systems had that much endurance left. But we’ve got time to think and plenty of time to re-tank from the gas giants, once we get the atmospheric distillation plant deployed. So we’re not going to run out of air or power tomorrow, and the last damned thing we’re going to do is to panic or let anyone else in Calvin’s Hope panic. Is that clear?”

The others glanced at one another, then looked back at him, and nodded. They were hesitant, almost timorous, those nods. But they grew stronger, more determined—even confident—and he nodded sharply back to them.

Now if he could only feel as confident as those nods.



•II•


Midnight came midday with the curse of God.

Mountains took flame and valleys were clawed

By talons of fire and fountains of stone

As children died in the darkness alone

When light disappeared and Home was crushed

In floodtides of death and a torrent of dust.


Tumult, destruction, devastation, and fear.

And out of the darkness, silence.

The Dark Fall Saga

* * * * * * * * * *

PNS Pilgrim
J-156-18(L) System
September 1882 Post Diaspora

“Ready to proceed, Sir.”

“Very good.”

Captain Thoreau acknowledged Engineering’s report, sat back in his command chair, and gazed around his light cruiser’s orderly bridge. It was just as neat, its personnel just as intent and focused, as always, yet he could almost taste the suppressed excitement humming about him, and he hid a smile of his own. It wasn’t often that someone with no Legislaturalist connections landed a plum like this one.

“Dr. Rendova?” he said.

“Ready whenever you are, Captain,” Dr. Danielle Rendova replied.

The brown-haired hyper-physicist sat surrounded by the additional instrumentation which had been installed on Pilgrim’s bridge. The light cruiser’s sensor suite had already been excellent—the Pathfinder-class had been designed from the keel out for survey work—but it had been beefed up for her current mission, and those additional sensors reported to Rendova’s consoles.

She’d done quite a lot of that beefing herself. Well, she and her graduate-student assistants. It was unfortunately true that the Peoples Navy wasn’t oversupplied with hyper-physicists. For that matter the People’s Republic as a whole wasn’t oversupplied with any sort of trained scientists. Its educational system didn’t produce a lot of those. Rendova—thank God—was the exception that proved the rule, and she knew it. She came from a powerful Legislaturalist family, but her frustration with the schools which had produced her almost despite themselves was apparent.

“You heard the Doctor, Lieutenant Zagorski,” Thoreau told his astrogator. “Are the transit vectors locked in?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“In that case,” Thoreau waggled his fingers at the maneuvering plot, “I believe we might want to get a move on.”

“Yes, Sir!” the lieutenant said with a huge smile and turned to his helmsman.

“Eight gravities, Chief.”

“Eight gravities on Astro’s programmed heading, aye, Sir,” Chief Coxswain Clouseau acknowledged, and Thoreau looked at the quadrant of his com display dedicated to Engineering.

“Prepare to rig foresail for transit on my mark, Ms. Glaston.”

“Standing by, Sir,” Commander Sarah Glaston replied formally.

“Threshold in one-five seconds,” Zagorski reported.

“On your toes, Chief,” Thoreau said quietly.

“Yes, Sir.”

Clouseau never took her eyes from her own displays as Pilgrim slid gently across the threshold of the unexplored hyper terminus. The survey ship tracked directly down the path Zagorski had programmed, based on Rendova’s painstaking survey of the torrent of gravitic energy cascading through the wormhole. If everything went as planned, Clouseau should have nothing to do until Pilgrim emerged on the far side of the terminus . . . wherever that might be. If things didn’t go as planned, she was about to find herself extraordinarily busy.

Briefly, at least.

“Threshold!” Zagorski’s tone was calm but more than a little crisper than usual.

“Rig foresail for transit,” Thoreau said.

“Rigging foresail,” Glaston responded instantly, and half Pilgrim’s impeller wedge vanished as her forward Beta nodes shut down. Her forward Alpha nodes reconfigured in the same instant, dropping their own share of the cruiser’s impeller wedge to project a Warshawski sail—a circular disk of focused gravitational energy, three hundred kilometers in diameter—instead.

“Stand by after hypersail.” Thoreau watched the flickering numerals in the Engineering window of his plot as the cruiser continued to creep forward under her after impellers alone, inserting the foresail gently—gently—into the gravitational vortex.

“Standing by after hypersail,” Glaston said, and Thoreau knew she was watching the same numbers climb on her own displays as the sail moved deeper into the terminus. The rate of increase was slow, given the absurdly low speed of any first-transit through an uncharted terminus, but catching it at the right moment was still—

The numbers stopped flickering. The values kept climbing, but the digital display’s steady glow indicated the foresail was drawing enough power from the grav waves twisting eternally through the terminus to provide movement.

“Rig aftersail,” Thoreau said crisply.

“Rigging aftersail,” Glaston acknowledged, and Pilgrim shivered as her impeller wedge disappeared entirely and her after hypersail blossomed at the far end of her hull.

Chief Clouseau’s hands were calm and steady, but Thoreau’s stomach still twisted itself into a brief knot as the cruiser slid into the terminus’ interface. The queasiness always associated with crossing the hyper wall was substantially more intense in a wormhole transit. It was also briefer, however, and he ignored it, never looking away from his plot. The waterfall display along its right side rose sharply, climbing towards the transit point. It took longer than any wormhole transit Thoreau had ever before made, which wasn’t a good thing where the nausea quotient was concerned. On the other hand, it seemed to be tracking exactly along Dr. Rendova’s projected vector, and he could stand quite a bit of tummy upset as long as—

The universe hiccuped.

No one had ever been able to measure a wormhole transit’s duration, and this one was no different. One instant, PNS Pilgrim was just over five light-hours from the thoroughly useless red dwarf listed solely as J-156-18(L). The next instant she was . . . somewhere else.

“I have a G4 star at three-niner-point-seven-five light-minutes!” one of Rendova’s assistants sang out.

Thoreau exhaled the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, but he never looked away from his plot as the numbers began spiraling downward once again.

“Prepare to reconfigure to wedge, Commander Glaston,” he said, then glanced at Zagorski. “And while we’re doing that, Astro, why don’t you start your observations. I think we should find out where we are, don’t you?”

The Octagon
City of Nouveau Paris
Haven System
People’s Republic of Haven
December 1882 Post Diaspora

“You’re kidding me, right?” Vice Admiral Amos Parnell said.

“I wish I was.” Admiral Adelaide Laforge grimaced sourly. “Unfortunately, Rousseau ‘s serious, and Harris has signed off on it.” She shrugged. “End of story.”

“But it’s frigging ridiculous!” Parnell scowled. He was due to replace Laforge as Chief of Naval Operations in less than a T-year, and he wondered how much of his irritation stemmed from the fact that when he did, it would be his ineffable joy to deal firsthand with their political masters.

“I didn’t express myself quite that . . . concisely,” Laforge said dryly. She was his aunt by marriage, as well as his superior officer. As such, she habitually addressed him with a greater degree of frankness than she would have shown others. “Rousseau’s an idiot, but she’s got too much clout for that. I did suggest that any results would be . . . problematic. But I think she and the rest of her crowd just can’t accept that we can’t find some way to use it, now that we’ve got our very own hyper-bridge.”

Parnell snorted, but stubborn self-honesty made him admit he felt much the same way. No one had ever expected to discover a wormhole terminus barely seventy light-years from the Haven System. In fact, the discovery had come as a distinct shock to the survey crew which detected it literally by accident. Their ship hadn’t even been supposed to visit the unprepossessing, planetless star with which it was associated. Indeed, her skipper had stopped off at the M3 dwarf en route to the far more promising J-193-18(L) system to let his crew train on a star about which everything was already known . . . only to discover that not quite “everything” had been known after all.

J-156-18(L) was useless as a home for mankind, but there’d been vast excitement in Nouveau Paris when the wormhole was reported. It had been very quiet excitement, however. Wormholes were rare and precious commodities, and the government of Hereditary President Harris had no intention of letting the rest of the galaxy learn about this one until it had decided how best to utilize it. Dr. Rendova, the PRH’s leading hyper-physicist, had been dispatched aboard Pilgrim, under the tightest possible security, within T-months. She’d completed her survey more rapidly than anyone had expected, and Pilgrim had discovered that J-156-18(L) was one terminus of a 653.17-LY hyper-bridge, twenty percent longer even than the fabled Manticore-Beowulf bridge.

And that its other terminus was the KCR-126-04 System.

KCR-126-04.

Parnell’s mouth tightened, because that was one of the bleakest bad jokes in the entire universe. That star system—also known as the Calvin System—lay at the heart of one of the tragedies of pre-Warshawski sail history, and a more useless piece of real estate would have been impossible to imagine.

Parnell had often wondered about the courage—or insanity—required to set out for the stars aboard the original sublight, multi-generation starships. He spent too much time aboard modern starships to contemplate an entire lifetime bounded by a ship’s hull with any sort of equanimity. Calvin’s Hope, though, had set forth on a longer journey than any which had gone before her, and the record made it clear that the colonists had invested not just money but intelligence and imagination in providing against their voyage’s risks.

Unfortunately, no one’s imagination had included a dinosaur killer fit to dwarf the impact which had put a punctuation point to Old Terra’s Cretaceous period. From the available evidence, the monster which hit Calvin III—some experts theorized there might actually have been two of them in a short window, although the second crater (if it existed) had never been found—had struck less than fifty years before the colony ship should have reached its destination.

No one knew if she actually had. What they did know was that even today, thirteen standard centuries later, Calvin III was a bleak, barren place whose shattered ecosystem had scarcely begun to heal. In fact, most climatologists and biologists leaned towards the theory that what they were observing wasn’t a recovery at all, simply the final throes and death rattle of an entire planet’s slow, lingering murder.

In 402 PD, no colony could possibly have survived upon its surface.

No trace had ever been found—in the KCR-126-04 System, or anywhere else—of Calvin’s Hope and her doomed passengers. The “slow-boat” colony ships had been designed for one-way trips, without the endurance and capacity to return to their destinations. The colonists who’d settled the planet Grayson had discovered the downsides of that, and Calvin’s Hope had departed the Sol System almost a century and a half earlier than Austin Grayson and his followers. Her design had been less capable to begin with, and she would have exhausted virtually all her planned endurance just reaching the Calvin System. There was no way she could possibly have taken her passengers home again, and no message had ever been received from her across the two light-centuries between Calvin and Old Terra. Perhaps she’d sent one which had never been detected, but none of her shipboard transmitters had ever been intended to reach across so vast a distance.

Nor had there been any reason they should have been, for there’d been absolutely no point in sending out a cry for help seven hundred years before Adrienne Warshawski made hyper-space safe for colony ship-sized transports.

Still, the colony ought to have been able to build the capacity to at least tell the rest of the human race it was there. It hadn’t, and when a survey ship with a hyper generator and proper Warshawski sails was finally sent in 1306 to see what had become of the expedition, it found no evidence Calvin’s Hope had ever even reached KCR-126-04. And so she had vanished into history, There were all too many interstellar “Flying Dutchmen,” like the Agnes Celeste, but Calvin’s Hope had the distinction of being the earliest of that long, long list of legendary shipwrecks and mysteries.

For Bradley Thoreau and his crew, it had been like setting out for an exciting day in the galaxy’s biggest amusement park only to arrive in a bleak, desolate tomb. But the Cabinet, immune to the poignancy of the long-ago tragedy, had immediately started laying ambitious plans to utilize the warp point. After all, it lay only two hundred light-years from Old Earth and only a hundred and fifty from Beowulf. Surely that had to be useful!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

The nearest inhabited star system, Bryant, was little more than fifty light years from Calvin. It also had absolutely nothing to offer the People’s Republic in trade. The same was pretty much true of Conestoga and Yasotaro—the latter a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Office of Frontier Security—the next two closest star systems. And there weren’t any other candidates for human settlement in the vicinity. While KCR-126-04 might be only two hundred light-years from the Sol System, J-156-18(L) was most inconveniently placed from a lot of perspectives. Astronomers had given the area a close look long ago, but with universally negative results. Many of the stars and its vicinity were in complex multi-star systems, where planetary orbits were unlikely to be stable long enough for complex life to evolve on their surfaces even if they happened to be in a liquid water zone. There were several singletons or extremely distant components of multiple-star systems, but most of them were cool red dwarfs or orange dwarfs edging towards the bottom of their classification. Most of their planetary satellites were either tide-locked to them or frozen over. None of them had showed the spectrographs the presence of oxygen-nitrogen atmospheres, at any rate.

And the problem wasn’t just at the KCR-126-04 end of the bridge, either. J-156-18(L) was seventy-two light-years from the Haven System, which meant ninety percent of the People’s Republic was closer to Trevor’s Star than to the PRH’s end of the new bridge. And the trip to Sol was a hundred and fifty light years shorter from Trevor’s Star via the Manticoran Wormhole Junction than it would have been from J-156-18(L) by way of Calvin.

Of course, the People’s Republic and the Star Kingdom of Manticore weren’t on what one might call the best of terms. Roger III was not one of Haven’s great admirers. In fact, as crown prince, he’d been the driving force behind the Star Kingdom’s naval buildup for over a decade even before taking the throne twenty-five T-years ago. Which, Parnell admitted, indicated quite a bit of foresight on his part. The People’s Republic’s sights had been set on the eventual . . . acquisition of the Manticore Binary System—and its massive wormhole Junction—ever since it had first begun planning its expansion under the DuQuesne Plan over a T-century ago.

At the moment, however, everyone on both sides was careful to smile politely in public and the Manticore Junction remained open to the PRH’s trade and even Haven-flagged merchantmen. That made the Trevor’s Star-Manticore route far more economically and logistically valuable than the Calvin System could ever be. And although very few people knew it, within the next year—two years, at the outside—Trevor’s Star would be an obedient member of the People’s Republic, which would simplify matters ever further.

All of which meant KCR-126-04 was something of a white elephant. No doubt the hyper-bridge had a great deal of potential value, somewhere down the road. At the present, it offered very little.

Now if only Ingeborg Rousseau would accept that minor point . . .

“She genuinely thinks we should be using Calvin as a staging base against the Manties?” he asked, and Laforge shrugged.

“Like I say, I think at least part of this is just that she can’t accept that our shiny new toy isn’t somehow of immense value. She thinks we should be building up a new base in Calvin, rather than plowing funds into Barnett. As nearly as I can understand her logic—I’m hampered, you know, because my brain actually works—she thinks it would let us set up a ‘strategic pincer’ when the centicred finally drops. It would let us attack Manticore from an ‘unexpected direction,’ you know.”

“‘Unexpected direction’?” Parnell stared at her in disbelief.

“That’s what she said.” Laforge raised both hands shoulder high, palms uppermost. “I did explain to her that approach vectors aren’t really a factor in assaults through hyper-space. Unfortunately, she seems to think a lookout in the crow’s nest will see us coming before we cross the alpha wall.”

Parnell shook his head, then drew a deep breath.

“Do you think we could find someone else to take over your job when you retire?”

“No such luck,” his aunt told him. “Trust me, this is one job we want to keep in the family. And that means you’re going to have to deal with people like Rousseau for a long time. Get used to it now.”

Parnell nodded glumly. The good news was that there weren’t very many Ingeborg Rousseaus. One was too many, of course, but most of Hereditary President Sidney Harris’ senior advisers had at least a vague notion of how hyper-space and simple physics worked. Rousseau, unhappily, did not. What she did have was an amazing amount of clout through her political alliances and family connections.

“So what the hell do we do?” he asked finally.

“What do you think we should do?” Laforge countered. “Think of that as a Socratic question.”

“Wonderful.” Parnell sat back in his chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

“Look busy,” he said finally. Laforge raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. “The last thing we need is to start diverting funding and resources from Barnett to pursue one of Rousseau’s boondoggles. So it seems to me what we need to do is nod gravely, take her suggestion seriously, promise to explore all the possibilities, and then send a half dozen or so survey ships through to do that exploring. Let me pick the right person to run the operation, and I’ll guarantee reports that keep us looking until even Rousseau gets tired and finds something else to amuse her.”



•III•


In blackness and terror hands clawed through the dust,

Seeking in vain for the living

As the lonely wail of a terrified child

Called to ears that could no longer hear.

And hearts turned to stone in the night of the soul

As they cursed Death that he’d left them behind.

The Dark Fall Saga


* * * * * * * * * *

RHNS Tourbillon
Sanctuary Orbit
Refuge System
March 1916 Post Diaspora

“I can’t believe even Pierre and Saint-Just would have done something like this,” President Eloise Pritchart told Admiral Thomas Theisman. She thought about what she’d just said for a moment, then snorted harshly. “I suppose what I really mean is that I don’t want to believe it.”

The two of them stood on the admiral’s bridge of Theisman’s temporary flagship, gazing at the main visual display as RHNS Tourbillon decelerated into Sanctuary orbit. Sanctuary was a gorgeous blue, green, and tan marble ahead of the battlecruiser and the feeble sunlight of the K8 star its inhabitants called Refuge gleamed from the vast sprawl of its orbital shipyards. The steadily growing skeletons of capital ships seemed to be everywhere, long chains of in-system freighters trekked steadily towards them from the orbital smelters, the tiny dots of hard-suited construction workers glowed like twice a thousand fireflies, and she had to admit it was a tremendously impressive sight.

“To be fair, although it feels distinctly unnatural to even try to be fair to the two of them, they didn’t start it, Madame President,” Theisman said. “We can thank President Harris and the Legislaturalists for that.”

“And for so many other things, as well.” Pritchart’s magnificent topaz eyes darkened with memory and old pain. “But Pierre could damned well have done things differently once he took over. And what he should have done was go public, even if he didn’t want to give up the system’s exact coordinates! Damn it, these people deserved better than this! They should’ve at least had the rights he was prepared to let our own people have, and they didn’t get even that much!”

“I can’t be sure, but I suspect from some of the file copies of memos between him and Saint-Just that he seriously considered going public immediately after the coup,” Theisman said. “That was before he realized they had to continue the war against the Manties if they were going to stay in power, of course. I think Saint-Just accepted that they would before Pierre did and that that’s why he argued against the idea of telling anyone who didn’t absolutely need to know that the place even existed, much less how it had come to exist.”

“You’re not making it any better, Admiral,” Pritchart said, turning to look at him coldly.

She still didn’t know Theisman very well. For that matter, she still wasn’t positive he’d meant it when he insisted the head of the provisionally restored Republic of Haven had to be a civilian. To be fair, he hadn’t showed a single sign that he didn’t mean it, and Javier and Lester Tourville both spoke of him in glowing terms. So did Kevin Usher, which counted—counted for a lot—with Eloise Pritchart, and he certainly seemed sincere. But she’d seen too much “sincerity” over the years, and it was her job to be suspicious. Haven had staggered from façade democracy, to totalitarianism, to a dictatorship that was still worse for far too long. She’d lost a beloved sister, more friends than she could count, and too many pieces of her own soul fighting that process.

It would end. It would end now, with her. With Thomas Theisman, too, if he was serious, but it would end, whatever it cost and whatever it took.

“I’m not trying to make it ‘better,’ Madame President,” the Chief of Naval Operations and Pritchart’s Secretary of War replied, meeting her cold eyes. “I’m trying to explain it.”

“And to justify going right on doing it.”

Pritchart’s voice was even colder than her eyes, and Theisman’s nostrils flared ever so slightly. He started a quick reply, but stopped himself. Then he nodded.

“For certain values of ‘going on doing it,’ that’s exactly what I’m suggesting, Madame President,” he said very levelly. “I fully agree that the way in which Harris and Public Safety went about doing it was reprehensible. Unfortunately, I can’t shoot Saint-Just all over again for it.” Something that could have been anger flashed in Pritchart’s eyes as he reminded her who’d actually accomplished the Committee of Public Safety’s overthrow ten T-months before. “Nor does the fact that their decision about these people’s fundamental rights was as immoral as everything else they did mean we don’t need the star system’s capabilities. Or that we don’t need to keep its very existence as dark as we possibly can for as long as we possibly can. I don’t like it, either, Madame President, but it’s part of my job to tell you things like that.”

It was Pritchart’s turn to pause before she fired back. She gazed up into the face of the taller Theisman for a long, taut moment, then gave him the grudging nod his honesty and forthrightness deserved. One thing she had discovered about Theisman was his total lack of patience with the carefully phrased, easily disavowed, cover-your-ass sort of policy recommendations which had become the norm under the Committee of Public Safety. When he sent her a memo, she could at least be certain it said what he truly thought, set forth in clear and logical progression, without obfuscation. She might not agree with it, but she never had to wonder if he’d told her the truth as he saw it and given her his very best advice based upon it.

“Believe me, Admiral,” she said finally, “I understand the basis for your argument. And if Wilhelm and Kevin are right about High Ridge, your points are even stronger . . . from a military and pragmatic perspective. It’s the morality that bothers me. Expediency is a slippery slope. Rob Pierre discovered that.”

She sighed and looked back at the visual display.

“I knew him before the coup,” she went on in a softer tone, almost as if she were speaking only to herself. “I know the Committee of Public Safety turned into something he’d never envisioned, never wanted, when he started, and he changed in the process, too. I don’t want to go down that same slope. I won’t.”

“With all due respect, Madame President, you’re not Rob Pierre and I’m not Oscar Saint-Just.” Her eyes came back to him, and he shrugged. “Well, you’re not Pierre, and I’m pretty sure I’m not Saint-Just. The fact that my proposal disturbs you so deeply pretty much proves that in your case. The fact that I’ve made it does seem to indicate the jury may still be out in mine, I suppose. But while I don’t think I’m another Saint-Just waiting to happen, there is one thing I have in common with him.”

“And what might that be, Admiral?” Pritchart asked warily, and he smiled ever so slightly.

“Oscar Saint-Just was a sociopath, which I don’t think I am,” he told her. “But he was a very loyal sociopath. Rob Pierre was Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety, and even when Saint-Just disagreed with him, he never forgot who was Chairman and who wasn’t. I may disagree with you upon occasion, but I’ve got a pretty good memory, too.” He shrugged again. “Madame President, you’re President of the Republic of Haven . . . and I’m not.”

She looked at him for another long moment, then nodded slightly.

“Point taken, Admiral,” she said. “Point taken.”



•IV•


So darkness fell.

So safety died.

So ruin came,

And Refuge set

In blood above Despair

The Dark Fall Saga

* * * * * * * * * *

Landing Valley
Planet Sanctuary
Refuge System
March 1916 Post Diaspora

The shuttle banked gracefully, standing on its port wing tip, and Eloise Pritchart gazed down at a mountain valley. It was a shallow valley, except where the river had cut a path down its center. There the almost flat valley floor plunged for over thirty meters, suddenly and steeply, to the level of the stream.

Thin plumes of steam rose from the jagged, truncated summits of two mountains at the northern end of the valley. A lake filled the bottom of the yawning caldera where a third, even larger mountain had once stood on its eastern rim, and she shivered inside as her eyes traced the tortured, frozen lava field stretching down from it into the valley’s heart. The volcanologists the PRH had exported to the planet all agreed no fresh eruption was imminent, but they also agreed there’d been at least six of them over the past twelve or thirteen centuries.

As the shuttle swept lower, she saw the shadows of the excavations along the eastern bank of the Despair River, between the stream and the caldera, and that inner shiver turned into an arctic chill. The archaeologists working the site didn’t even look up as her shuttle passed overhead. Their attention was on something that had happened long, long ago.

On the reason that river was called Despair.

“God, what must it have been like?” she wondered out loud.

“I doubt anyone who wasn’t here could even imagine,” Theisman said softly from the seat beside hers. “And, frankly, I’m glad I can’t.”

“I think I agree with you.” Pritchart leaned her forehead against the viewport, gazing aft to keep the excavations in sight as the shuttle’s flight path straightened and it began to climb once more. They were still a thirty-minute flight from Mountain Fort, the planetary capital. Or administrative center, at least. But as sobering as she’d found the overflight, she’d insisted on making it before they landed.

“I think I agree,” she repeated, sitting back in her seat. “Especially if Baranav was right when he dated Anderson.” She shook her head. “How could anyone find the will to go on after two disasters like that?”

“We’ll never know,” Theisman replied. “Not for sure. But I think Anderson probably got it pretty close to right. Parents don’t lie down and die when their kids’ lives are on the line. And most of the people with any quit in them were probably dead even before it happened, given everything they’d already been through. They had to’ve been tougher than nails to get as far as Sanctuary in the first place.”

Pritchart nodded soberly as her mind ran back over the incredible cascade of coincidences, unlikelihoods, and outright impossible accomplishments that had brought her and Theisman to this planet at this moment.

From their perspective, that cascade began only forty T-years ago, when Admiral Laforge had handed the assignment to find a use for the Calvin Terminus off to one of her underlings with instructions to Do Something and keep the damned politicians off her back.

The “something” turned out to be a follow-up expedition charged with evaluating the system’s possible military utility and what it would take to capitalize upon it. Everyone involved had understood it was basically make work to keep the politicians happy, but they’d been told to spend long enough to make it look good and to produce a comprehensive report demonstrating how earnestly the Navy had complied with its orders. In the event, Captain Braun the expedition’s commander had decided that since the Calvin itself was obviously unsuitable as a site for any planetary installations, to survey the closest half-dozen or so neighboring star systems for possible alternate bases.

One of those star systems had been KCR-126-06, a multiple-star system consisting of KCR-125-06-A, an A-class giant with no less than three companions: two red dwarfs—KCR-125-06-B and KCR-125-06-C—in relatively tight orbits and a distant, almost equally dim K8, which had apparently been captured only a few hundred million years ago. The likelihood of a habitable world in a system like that was minute, given what was likely to happen to any planetary orbits. For that matter, A-class stars didn’t produce many planets in the first place, and they usually didn’t last long enough for any planets they did form to evolve into something suitable to maintain complex life forms. Even if that hadn’t been true, the red dwarfs were close enough to have precluded any planet formation in KCR-125-06-A’s liquid-water zone.

Not only that, KCR-126-06 had actually been looked at—sort of—by astronomers over a thousand T-years ago. There wasn’t much to see—the giant and its red dwarf companions had no planets at all, and KCR-125-06-D was so close to a red dwarf itself that the chance of a planet in its liquid-water zone not being tide-locked to it was unlikely in the extreme. In addition, the K8 star was surrounded by an extraordinarily dense interplanetary dust cloud. That cloud had precluded any close look at the inner system, and coupled with the rest of the entire KCR-125-06 System’s unprepossessing astrography and the general lack of worthwhile real estate in the region, no one had seen any reason to look any closer. The chance that there might, possibly, be a marginally habitable planet hidden inside all that dust did, however exist—theoretically, at least—and looking for one should certainly convince the Navy’s political masters of how thoroughly it had applied itself to carrying out its vital mission.

What Braun had never even imagined he might discover in the process was the answer to what had become of Calvin’s Hope.

No one knew how she’d come to her final resting place, 9.7 LY from her original destination, in the L5 Lagrange point between the second planet of KCR-126-06-D and its very large, solitary moon, but they did know it must have been the stuff of legends.

It was amazing enough that Calvin’s Hope still existed, but she was only a bare hull, stripped to the bone by her passengers and crew before they’d left her forever for the planet they’d named Sanctuary. Not even the Legislaturalists had been prepared to disturb—desecrate—her after all these centuries, and the subsequent development of Sanctuary’s orbital industry had been kept scrupulously clear of her final resting place.

How she’d crossed the almost ten light-years from her original destination to the feeble warmth of the K8v star her passengers had renamed Refuge was one of the things no one would ever know, however. Simply finding Sanctuary in Refuge’s narrow habitable zone in a system where interplanetary dust was so dense even ships with military-great particle screening dared not attain velocities much in excess of 0.5 cee must have been a monumental task—after all, no one else had found it since, although, to be fair, no one had looked all that closely with so much other, more desirable stellar real estate available to anyone with a hyper-generator. But the KCR-126-06 System had been the only haven the Calvin Expedition could possibly have reached before their vessel’s internal systems failed.

Calvin’s Hope’s specifications were readily available, given that it was one of the most famous Dutchmen in galactic history. And from those specifications, she couldn’t possibly have had more than a century or so of reserve endurance. With that limitation, she couldn’t have accelerated to her designed cruising velocity and stayed there long enough for her scoop field to replenish her reaction mass. That limited her to a maximum velocity of no more than ten percent of light-speed, if she meant to decelerate at the end of her voyage.

And KCR-126-0 6 was the only star system which lay within less than a century’s travel—at 0.1 cee—of Calvin’s Star.

That meant they’d had no choice but to look at it far more closely than any less desperate astronomer ever had since. And then—somehow—they’d had to actually make the ninety-eight-year voyage. The story of how they’d done that must have been in Calvin’s Hope’s computers once upon a time, but her computer cores had been stripped along with everything else that could possibly be taken down to Sanctuary, and so no one would ever be able to celebrate her epic achievement as it properly deserved.

Yet she’d done her job. Somehow, she’d gotten her people to a new home after all. She delivered her cargo of fragile human beings to a habitable planet—quite a lovely one, actually—despite the fact that it really shouldn’t have existed and that she’d never been intended for the additional voyage, and the colonists must have heaved an enormous sigh of relief.

But the universe hadn’t been finished with the Calvin Expedition just yet.

There was no written history of the colony’s earliest days, either. None of the official histories other colonies maintained. Not even a single diary.

What there was was only a heroic saga, Dark Fall, attributed to the semi-mythical bard Anderson, the Sanctuarian Homer. Sanctuarian historians believed Dark Fall had probably been composed within a hundred local years after landing, because its earliest known manuscript version was in still recognizable Standard English, and Standard English had been a dead language on Sanctuary for over a thousand T-years. Later written versions had also been found, in at least three of Sanctuary’s indigenous ancient languages, although with significant variations. Clearly it had been passed on in a purely oral tradition during the colonists’ long, desperate struggle to survive after the events it described.

Sanctuary had lost its entire pre-colonization history during that struggle. It had lost even basic literacy and evolved its own mythic interpretations of how humankind had come to exist. When literacy reemerged, it was in entirely different languages, and in the wake of their own belated Scientific Revolution, Sanctuarian scholars had put Dark Fall into the same category as all the other obviously fanciful creation myths.

Until the Standard English manuscript was discovered. It wasn’t complete—at least a dozen stanzas were missing—but the Sanctuarian languages retained enough loan words from Standard English for those scholars to make at least a partial translation of it and realize what it purported to be. Despite its obvious antiquity, the majority of those scholars had continued to consider the entire saga and all the nightmare events it described a pure work of fiction. But not all of them had concurred, and the historian Baranav had become the Sanctuarian Schliemann when he decided to take Anderson at his word, despite the mockery that evoked from the majority of his colleagues.

The mockery which had ended abruptly when his research and excavations located the mythological city of Home on the banks of the Despair River and confirmed the saga’s fundamental accuracy. And confirmed the reason why, according to Anderson, that river had been renamed.

According to Dark Fall, the colonists’ chosen site for the enclave they’d named simply Home had been in a fertile, sheltered mountain valley well-watered by the glacier-fed river they’d named Hope. After the ordeal of finding a habitable planet in the first place, Landing Valley had seemed a paradise. But no one had suspected how tectonically active the mountains around Home were. Not until sometime shortly after the last shuttle had made its final trip into space and returned, when a mountain above Landing Valley had exploded in an eruption that had dwarfed that of Old Terra’s Vesuvius in 2024 PD. It had been followed by a series of seismic shocks which had gone on for days or weeks—or even months. Dark Fall claimed they’d lasted for an entire year, but surely that had to be an exaggeration!

Or possibly not.

Baranav’s excavations had conclusively demonstrated that there’d been multiple eruptions over the centuries since the one Sanctuary’s geologists had labeled the Dark Fall Eruption, but the one which had overwhelmed Home had apparently been both the first and the worst. However long it had lasted, the disaster had been more than sufficient to bury the enclave under forty meters of pyroclastic flow and mud.

Anderson claimed that well over half of Home’s inhabitants had died in that dreadful eruption, and the remainder had been left with only scraps of technology as they faced the task of somehow surviving on their alien homeworld.

Eloise Pritchart had no idea how they’d done it, but they had. Yet if humanity had survived on Sanctuary, it had done so only after a struggle at least as terrible as that of any planet its species had ever settled. Unlike a planet like Grayson, Sanctuary didn’t try to kill them every single day. Indeed, aside from the Dark Fall Eruption, it had hardly tried to kill them at all. But Dark Fall had almost been enough by itself. Though the Sanctuarians might have survived it, they’d lost not only all advanced technology but all true memory of who they were or how they’d come to the world upon which they lived.

By the time the People’s Republic discovered the KCR-126-04 Terminus, Sanctuary had just finished reinventing the telegraph, discovered the germ theory of disease, and begun the transition from waterpower to steam. The planetary population had increased to almost two billion, because aside from its volcanism—which was, admittedly, more pronounced than on all but a handful of other inhabited worlds—Sanctuary’s environment was extraordinarily benign. The planet was a bit on the cool side, but it had very little axial tilt, which gave it extremely mild seasons, and even they were moderated by the fact that eighty-three percent of its surface was water. The original colonists had been selected in no small part to provide as diverse a genetic cross section as possible, which must have given it some cushion against disease, despite how savagely it had been winnowed, and human biochemistry was resistant to almost all of Sanctuary’s native diseases and parasites.

But Sanctuary’s steadily growing population had remained trapped at the bottom of its gravity well, which was particularly ironic, given Refuge’s deep-space industrial potential. Had they retained access to the technology with which they’d arrived, Refuge would inevitably have become one of the most populous, heavily industrialized star systems in the known galaxy. It possessed not one asteroid belt, or even the three belts of a star like Manticore-B. It had five of them, including the Epsilon Belt fifteen light-minutes beyond the system hyper-limit. Once upon a time, the Epsilon Belt had been Refuge’s fourth planet, until the star was captured by the far more massive KCR-126-06-A and lost its outer planets. It had hung on to Refuge IV—or its bits and pieces, at least—but only after the planet was torn apart into an incredibly dense 62,000,000-kilometer wide asteroid belt. Indeed, subsequent comparison of meteoric residue from the Calvin III Crater with the Epsilon Belt suggested that the dinosaur killer which had devastated the colonists’ original destination had been a stray from Epsilon.

And that didn’t even count the six additional asteroid belts of Refuge’s stellar companions, all within fifteen light-hours of Sanctuary.

Anyone but the People’s Republic of Haven would have immediately announced the discovery of the lost Calvin Expedition's descendents. The Legislaturalists, however, had seen an enormous opportunity. Not only was Refuge incredibly rich in raw materials, but it offered a labor force almost two billion strong. A labor force without a single clue about what lay beyond the bounds of their own planetary atmosphere . . . or of the staggering wealth their system’s astrography represented.

A labor force which ought to be eager to repay its deliverers for the wonders of the modern technology—the almost magical technology—they brought with them.

It was the sort of situation a bureaucrat in the Solarian League’s Office of Frontier Security could only dream of.

Of course, there’d been a certain amount of startup expense, but once the Sanctuarians had been given the tools, they’d dug in just as enthusiastically as the Manties’ Graysons. And the Legislaturalists—and, later, the Committee of Public Safety—had been able to send thousands upon thousands of teachers, doctors, supervisors, and engineers from places like Cerberus and the other prisons in which they had stowed away so many “dangerous recidivists.”

Which was how, thirty-four T-years later, the Refuge System had come to be home to the Bolthole Complex, the biggest and most modern shipyard and industrial nexus of the entire Republic of Haven. Indeed, despite its still small population (by Core World standards), Bolthole’s capacity was superior to that of any Fringe World and at least a quarter of the League’s Core systems, and it was still growing.

An industrial complex, she thought now, which rightfully belongs to the people of Sanctuary, not to us! And what possible rightwhat excuse—can we have for keeping those same people penned up inside their own star system? Hasn’t the galaxy done enough to these people without us taking advantage of their tragedy?

No doubt it had, but Theisman was obviously right about at least two things.

At the moment, he and his fleet commanders—especially Javier Giscard and Lester Tourville—were engaged in a bitter five-way civil war which would ultimately decide the future of the Republic of Haven. If Theisman’s Navy won, Eloise Pritchart might actually be allowed to restore the Péricard Constitution, the goal for which she’d fought for over forty T-years. If it lost, God only knew what would become of the Republic. The momentum had been shifting steadily in Theisman’s favor for the last several months, but that was always subject to change, especially if they suffered heavy losses. Little wonder the Secretary of War thought a secret shipyard, hidden away in his back pocket in case he needed it, would make a splendid insurance policy.

As the last commanding officer of the Capital Fleet under Oscar Saint-Just, he’d been thoroughly briefed on Bolthole’s capabilities, although they’d only just begun actually delivering ships—all of them to State Security, at that point. He’d also been able to discover its location, and the fact that Saint-Just had personally selected People’s Commissioner Jacqueline Hammond, one of his most senior and trusted StateSec commissioners, to oversee Bolthole and ensure its reliability.

And Thomas Theisman had been only too well aware of the consequences if a shipbuilding complex of that capacity remained in the hands of StateSec loyalists.

Which was why he’d dispatched PNS Cordelia Ransom to carry his own people’s commissioner, Dennis LePic, to visit Hammond with a personal dispatch from Saint-Just . . . who’d happened to be dead at the time. As a fellow people’s commissioner, LePic had been able to get close enough to personally deliver his actual message—from Theisman, not Saint-Just. As it happened, he was an excellent shot, and his “administrative assistants” had delivered the same message simultaneously to Citizen Commissioner Hammond’s entire staff. At which point the “StateSec” superdreadnought which had transported them to Refuge brought up her sidewalls, identified herself as a regular Navy ship (which was no longer named for Citizen Ransom, for some strange reason), and suggested it would be a very good idea to listen to the new System Administrator.

There’d been some scattered resistance by State Security personnel. But no one had been that foolish within range of RHNS Péricard’s energy batteries, and what little resistance there had been, in more distant parts of the system, had ended quickly. Hammond and her staff had been dead, the “supply ship” which had accompanied Péricard to Refuge had disgorged two entire brigades of Marines loyal to Theisman, and the Navy personnel assigned to Bolthole all knew the new Secretary of War’s reputation. Ninety percent of them had rallied to LePic, and that had been that.

Yet Theisman had refused to use any of the superdreadnoughts being built in Refuge against his opponents, and that was because of his second—and, Pritchart thought, far more important argument—for maintaining the Bolthole status quo.

She’d seen enough of Thomas Theisman by now to realize Javier had been right. None of the warlords contending for Rob Pierre’s mantle were remotely his equal as a strategist or as a leader, and not one of them could match his ability to inspire the men and women under his command. Those men and women truly believed they could end the long nightmare which had enveloped their star nation for so long, and they believed he was the commander who could make that possible, and they would follow him to the heart of Hell itself to make that happen. Eventually, he was going to win, with or without the Bolthole ships, and, in the process, allow Pritchart to restore not just the Péricard Constitution but also a Republic worthy of that constitution.

And when she did, what happened next?

Neither Theisman nor Pritchart had any desire to continue the People’s Republic’s conquering ways, but they had a moral obligation to liberate any Havenite star systems currently under occupation by the Manticoran Alliance. Pritchart was realist enough to accept that not all those star systems wanted to be liberated, and it was hard to blame them, given the contrast between their experiences under foreign occupation and what they’d endured under the “benevolence” of their legal prewar government. Assuming the Manties and their allies were prepared to agree to genuine plebiscites to determine those systems’ future, she had no objection to their declaring their independence of the Republic which had acquired so many of them through conquest.

Unfortunately, it was becoming increasingly obvious the Manties had no intention of agreeing to anything of the sort.

Neither Pritchart nor her foreign policy experts—including Kevin Usher, one of the canniest analysts she’d ever met . . . and the only one she trusted without qualification—were sure exactly why the High Ridge Government refused to negotiate in good faith, but it was obvious that it did. And not just about future plebiscites. Elaine Descroix, the Manticoran Foreign Secretary, might keep blathering away about the need to be certain the Pritchart Administration was likely to survive before Manticore “legitimized” it by negotiating with it. Her correspondence might include all sorts of dangled carrots for the wonderful day when Pritchart had demonstrated—to Manticoran satisfaction, of course—that her government was going to survive. But in the meantime, Descroix had no intention of beginning even preliminary discussion of a single one of the points in contention between Landing and Nouveau Paris.

Not one.

And that meant that, for whatever reason, Prime Minister High Ridge had decided against negotiating an actual peace treaty. And, far worse, the current balance of military power justified his arrogant refusal far too completely for him to be likely to change his mind anytime soon. The Republic of Haven Navy had none of the pod-laying superdreadnoughts armed with the multidrive missiles which had driven Oscar Saint-Just to the brink of surrender before the last-second Cromarty Assassination put High Ridge into the premiership. The Havenite Civil War, for all its bloodshed and carnage, was being fought by obsolete ships armed with obsolescent weapons, and only the fact that none of the adversaries had access to modern weapons had permitted it to go on so long.

Just as any imaginable confrontation between those obsolete ships and the massive firepower of the Royal Manticoran Navy could end only in one-sided massacre.

Without some effective countermeasure to the Manty wall of battle and the Star Kingdom’s new-model LACs, there was no way to force High Ridge to come to the negotiating table in good faith. He was one of the very few interstellar politicians who, in Pritchart’s considered opinion, was at least as bad as the Legislaturalists had been, and he believed—with reason—that he held the whip hand. As long as he did, he would continue his current policies, and it was entirely possible—likely—that if he suspected even for a moment that the Republic was in the process of acquiring that sort of countermeasure, he would order the RMN to resume the offensive immediately to force Haven’s unconditional surrender before it did.

Which was Theisman’s entire point, because exactly “that sort of countermeasure” was what was being built right here in Refuge.

How do I resolve this? she thought bitterly. I’m the President of the Republic of Haven. Obviously, my first and highest responsibility is to my citizens, not the Sanctuarians or anyone else in the damned galaxy! And over and above that, what about my responsibility to the men and women like Javier and Lester—and Theisman—who’ve already fought and died for the Constitution we’re trying to restore? But morally, how do I justify continuing to treat Refuge and everyone living here the same way Frontier Security treats its “clients” . . . only more so. At least the rest of the galaxy knows the Protectorates exist! That puts some limits on what OFS and its cronies can get away with where they’re concerned. But Refuge . . . .

She leaned back against her seat’s head rest as the shuttle raced onward toward Mountain Fort and closed her eyes.



•V•


Long grass blows on the banks of Despair,

Guarding the graves of the dead.

Mountain storms weep for the sleeping,

And the God of the vanished

Walks through the hills

Calling the names of the gone.

The Dark Fall Saga

* * * * * * * * * *

“Madame President.”

The tall, silver-haired man stood and walked around his desk to offer Eloise Pritchart his hand. Like most Sanctuarians, he was dark-skinned and that silver hair had once been dark brown, but his eyes were a light, startling blue. And like far too many Sanctuarians, he’d been too old for Prolong when the People’s Republic discovered Refuge.

At least that’s one damned thing the Legislaturalists got right, Pritchart thought as she crossed the spacious office to meet him. They even offered it universally, not restricted solely to people working for them, the way they did the advanced degree programs.

Shirkahna Ambart,” she responded taking his hand in the three-fingered grip that was the Sanctuarian version of a handshake.

Shirkahna was her host’s title, which the protocolists told her translated literally as “shepherd” but could also be translated as both “warlord” or “sentinel.” Apparently, Sanctuarian was a . . . flexible language. But however it translated, Shirkahna Ambart VIII was the hereditary ruler of Ankhassar, Sanctuary’s most ancient and powerful pre-rediscovery empire. That had simplified things when the Legislaturalists went looking for someone to run the native side of the planet for them.

Like all Sanctuarians, the shirkahna used only one name publicly. Legally, Sanctuary usage attached both a patronymic and a matronymic, so technically, he was Ambart Ambartson-Melynyson, although no one would ever address him as such.

“Please, be seated,” he invited, escorting her across the sunny chamber towards a conversational nook below the windows overlooking the paved courtyard below. Sheila Thiessen, the head of Pritchart’s personal security detail, drifted silently and unobtrusively along behind. Aside from bodyguards and high ranking military officers, no armed Sanctuarian was ever allowed in the shirkahana’s presence, yet Ambart took no notice at all of Thiessen’s presence.

He waved Pritchart into a comfortable armchair, looking out through the tower window at a deep blue sky. Anvil-headed cumulonimbus clouds swept towards Mountain Fort, crowned in the flicker of distant lightning, and the temperature had been dropping steadily when she arrived. In fact, her shuttle flight crew had clearly been relieved to get her safely on the ground before the looming thunderstorms arrived.

She hoped the weather wasn’t some sort of metaphor for her visit.

Below the fourth-floor window, the city of Mountain Fort sprawled out about the looming castle which had given its name to the entire city. Mountain Fort had been Ankhassa’s imperial city for the past six hundred local years. Its population would scarcely have qualified as a moderate-sized town on Nouveau Paris, but its quarter-million people made it the largest city on Sanctuary and the low-lying architecture of a pre-counter-grav civilization made it look even larger.

“Thank you for making an opportunity for me to meet with you,” she said as Thiessen settled behind her shoulder.

“Under the circumstances, it seemed the thing to do.” Ambart’s Standard English carried remarkably little in the way of an accent, given that he’d been in his early thirties before he’d learned to speak it. There was some, of course, but she’d heard a lot worse from the Dolist slums, and the edge of dry amusement came through clearly as he tilted his head to one side.

“In fact,” he continued, “I was rather surprised that you requested a meeting. I believe the highest ranking member of Haven’s government ever to visit Refuge—civilian member, I mean—was Foreign Secretary Bergen when he signed our initial treaty with my father. And I fear the People’s Republic’s—I mean, the Republic’s—representatives’ contacts since have been a bit more, ah, peremptory, shall we say?”

“I don’t doubt it.” Pritchart shook her own head. “My . . . predecessors weren’t noted for ‘wasting’ courtesy when they didn’t need to.”

“I’m afraid that’s been my own observation,” the shirkahna said. “Which, I trust you’ll forgive me for pointing out, seemed to just a bit . . . ironic for such an egalitarian regime.”

Pritchart hid a wince, although his point was well taken. Especially coming from a man whose family had ruled almost a third of his homeworld for the last several centuries.

“You’re right,” she said. “In fact, having waded through the last thirty or forty T-years of reports, memos, and correspondence, I’d have to say I detect a certain . . . imperious note in all of the previous regime’s conversations with you.”

“I’m sure you do. Although, to be fair, I doubt many Sanctuarians would find that out of place. The average lifespan here on Sanctuary, even for those without Prolong, has increased by thirty percent since the Republic discovered us. The standard of living has probably risen by no more than, oh, ten or twenty thousand percent, and it’s continued to follow a steadily rising trajectory for over half my lifetime.” He smiled almost whimsically. “Against that backdrop, a certain degree of what I suppose one might call proprietary authority is probably understandable.”

“Understandable but not exactly commendable,” Pritchart said. He arched an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged with less than complete happiness.

Shirkahna Ambart,” she said then, “I’ve come to see you not simply because some sort of courtesy visit from the Republic’s chief executive is so long overdue, but also because I find myself in a quandary. A deep and, to be honest, very difficult one.”

He raised his eyebrows politely, and she sighed.

“I’m not my ‘predecessors,’” she said, “and it’s important to me to prove that. Not simply to myself, but to the galaxy at large. For over a century, the People’s Republic of Haven was like a cancer, consuming its interstellar neighbors, twisting interstellar law to suit its own purposes . . . when it didn’t simply ignore it completely. Lying on a galactic scale whenever that suited its diplomatic ends. What it did to its own citizens, including those in Nouveau Paris, not just in the conquered star systems, was unforgivable. Reprehensible. Criminal.”

Her expression was grim, her tone harsh.

“My colleagues and I have started repairing the worst of those criminal acts, but it will be decades—possibly lifetimes, in some cases—before even our own citizens fully accept that. There’s nothing I can do to hasten that process except to ensure that the rule of law is followed for everyone, not just the current regime’s friends and supporters, and not just when my administration finds it convenient. If I do that long enough, if I use a big enough hammer when anyone else doesn’t do that, perhaps eventually I’ll be able to earn back the trust of my own citizens.

“But in addition to those internal problems, I have a star nation’s interstellar reputation to restore. To be perfectly blunt about it, there isn’t a single star system in the galaxy which has any reason to accept the honesty or integrity of any statement originating in the Republic. The Legislaturalists and the Committee of Public Safety have spent the last hundred and thirty T-years making certain no one did. That’s an even deeper hole to dig our way out of and, to be honest, it damned well ought to be.

“Which is what brings me here today.”

She paused, and Ambart leaned back in his own chair, elbows propped on the armrests while he steepled his fingers under his chin. He regarded her thoughtfully for several seconds.

“Why?” he asked simply.

“Because just as with our own citizens, no other star nation is going to believe what I say,” she told him levelly. “They’re going to judge me, and my Republic, and the Constitution I’ve sworn to restore, by what I do. And that means I can’t simply do what’s expedient. There’s an ancient phrase from Old Terra: ‘Purer than Caesar’s wife.’ If the Republic means to earn back any sort of interstellar legitimacy, then its actions—my actions, my decisions and policies—have to demonstrate that I’m ‘purer than Caesar’s wife’ when it comes to interstellar relations. I can’t afford ambiguity, can’t afford anything that even looks like a continuation of Legislaturalist or Committee of Public Safety practices and duplicity. Opponents and rivals will twist anything they can to portray my Administration as the same old People’s Republic with no more than a change in labeling. I can’t—I won’t—give them a single extra piece of ammunition if I can avoid it.”

“I see.”

He lowered his hands, clasping them across his abdomen, and smiled faintly.

“Since you’ve been candid enough to bring up your predecessors’ perhaps somewhat less than stellar record of human rights abuses and . . . acquisitiveness, I suppose I might be candid enough to admit that I’ve acquired a rather better understanding of the interstellar realities than those predecessors would have preferred. Would it shock you to learn that not all of the State Security personnel sent here to keep an eye on us truly were stalwart paragons of the Revolution, immune to . . . inducements from certain of my own people?”

“Frankly, given the quality of the people who worked for StateSec, I’d be astonished if they had been.” Her voice was desert dry. “In fact, I was more than a little astonished Secretary Theisman managed to get Administrator LePic and his people here before one of those ‘paragons of the Revolution’ sold its location to one of the SS holdouts.”

“I’ve met the Admiral several times now,” Ambart said. “Before I met him, I probably would have shared your amazement. Now, though . . .”

He shrugged, and Pritchart nodded.

“I agree,” she said. “But that rather brings me to the point of my visit. You see—”

“Please.” Ambart raised one hand, his tone courteous as he interrupted her. “Allow me to speculate upon your purpose for a moment.”

She paused, then nodded and sat back in her own chair.

“As I say, not only were certain StateSec personnel amenable to persuasion, but there’s a certain downside to using political prisoners to kick start a planet’s economy. As a consequence, I’ve managed to educate myself on the realities of the People’s Republic—and, if you’ll excuse me for saying so, on the degree to which you appear to differ from them—rather better than Citizen Pierre or Citizen Saint-Just would have preferred.

“I was completely sincere earlier when I mentioned just a few of the uncountable ways in which the People’s Republic has improved the lives and the happiness of my people here on Sanctuary. If you’ve never lived in a society in which people routinely die of appendicitis, like my own grandfather did, or of diabetes—in which no one even dreams there might be a vaccine against cancer or what I believe they used to call Alzheimer’s—you can’t possibly appreciate the true magnitude of those improvements. So even though it had become apparent to me that the People’s Republic was far from the epitome of interstellar justice it had portrayed itself as, I felt very little resentment. It’s true that the independence of my dynasty was sharply curtailed when we became a Havenite protectorate, but in absolute terms, compared to our pre-protectorate position, we’re as much better off as our poorest subjects.

“My point is that Hereditary President Harris and Chairman Pierre—even Chairman Saint-Just—had a legitimate claim to have enormously improved almost every aspect of life here in Refuge. Not only that, they did it without directly intruding—not excessively, at least—into the personal lives of our people. They were prepared to allow us to retain our own law codes, our own customary usages, so long as we accepted our position as their secret arsenal.”

“And your position as second-class citizens in your own star system,” Pritchart said bitterly. “I’m not unaware of the extraterritoriality demands the People’s Republic has made on your people.” She gestured at the armed bodyguard standing at her own shoulder. “And I’m not unaware of the restrictions placed upon some critical aspects of your educational system. Like the ones which forced you to acquire that understanding of interstellar realities through . . . unofficial channels, let’s say.”

The shirkahna pursed his lips and cocked his head, rather like a bird considering some interesting tidbit. Then he shrugged.

“True enough,” he conceded. “In fact, a growing number of our intelligentsia have been murmuring quietly about that very point for the last few years. It’s only murmuring, so far at least.” He smiled slightly. “Trust me, my family’s secret police have had several centuries of experience telling the difference between genuine unrest and simple intellectual unruliness. For the vast majority of our people—well over ninety-five percent, I’d estimate—it remains a nonissue, in most ways. As long as the intrusion into our customs remains limited, it should stay that way.

“Yet I was never sure how long the intrusiveness would remain limited. You see, I had gotten at least a glimpse of the truth behind the façade they presented to us. For the moment, our value to them was both enormous and impossible to doubt and their arrangements here seemed to be working very well for them. But what would happen if someday that was no longer true? What would happen on the day my subjects began demanding the sort of self-determination about which our modernized education system has, as you just pointed out, been remarkably silent?”

“Or the day when your subjects began to question just who ought to own everything they’ve built over the last thirty T-years or so,” Pritchart said quietly, and he nodded.

“Or on that day,” he agreed. “Mind you, I can see the argument that none of that building—certainly none of it outside our own atmosphere—could possibly have happened without the People’s Republic’s massive investment of education, technology, and money. It isn’t unreasonable for the people who made its construction possible to be the ones who own it.”

“Your people may feel that way now,” Pritchart said. “They may even be right to. But ultimately, it wouldn’t exist without all the sweat and effort and human capital Sanctuary’s provided, either. And quite aside from that, your star system’s natural resources were there long before the Peoples’ Republic discovered you or invested a single credit in Refuge. Whatever might be true of the infrastructure that’s been built since, they ought to belong to you, not to outsiders.”

“I will confess that that thought has crept through my mind a time or two,” he admitted. “I’m not quite as blind to our own contribution to the Bolthole complex as my earlier remark might have suggested, and I’ve wondered more than once, over the years, how Chairman Pierre or Oscar Saint-Just might have responded if my people began asking the same question. I’m afraid I didn’t like the conclusions I reached.

“Then Admiral Theisman . . . rearranged things. I found myself with a new and totally unknown power structure to deal with, so I set about learning what I could about him, as well. And about you, when you became President. So I wasn’t quite as surprised by your remarkably courteous request for a meeting as you might have assumed I’d be.”

“You weren’t?” Pritchart asked, watching his expression, listening to that measured exposition in something suspiciously like fascination.

“No.” He shook his head. “You had to come, Madame President. Whether you were sincere in your protestations renouncing the People’s Republic’s imperialism or not, you still had to come. Either to explain to me—courteously, no doubt, but firmly—why despite your complete commitment to individual rights and the sovereignty of star nations it would be impossible to extend those same rights and sovereignty to my star system. Or to explain to me that those rights simply didn’t apply to Refuge. Or to lie to me, and to promise me that they did—or would, as soon as humanly possible—while you saw to it that nothing of the sort actually happened. Or—” his eyes sharpened suddenly “—to tell me that they did apply . . . and that you were prepared to make them available to Refuge immediately.”

Pritchart winced internally. The shirkahna was even more astute—and better informed—than she’d assumed he would be.

“You’re exactly correct,” she said after a moment. “In fact, I came here to discuss a variant of one of those with you. And not, I’m afraid, the final one.”

“Ah?”

He regarded her calmly, and she squared her shoulders and met his gaze.

“I have two mutually conflicting problems,” she said. “As I’ve said, unless I’m prepared to demonstrate by my actions that the Republic of Haven is no longer the People’s Republic of Haven, no one will believe it isn’t. But my second problem is that Baron High Ridge, the Manticoran prime minister, is clearly unwilling to negotiate an actual peace treaty. At the moment, he’s excusing his delay on the basis that he’s not sure which of the competing regimes will end up in control in Nouveau Paris. In fact, all of our sources suggest Manticore is quite confident that under Secretary Theisman’s direction of the war, my administration will be the last one standing. If High Ridge had any intention of negotiating at any time, he’d already have opened at least preliminary conversations with us. He hasn’t, and that’s incredibly stupid of him. Whatever happens, the Republic of Haven isn’t going to just disappear, so anyone with a measurable IQ should realize how much to Manticore’s advantage it would be to engineer what they call a ‘soft landing’ for an administration that doesn’t want to continue the war. One that isn’t going to come looking for vengeance in another fifteen or twenty T-years.”

She paused until the shirkahna nodded. No one whose dynasty had ruled for as long as Ambart’s could fail to grasp the points she was making.

“We believe his . . . intransigence has a lot to do with the military advantage the Royal Manticoran Navy and its allies currently enjoy. He doesn’t see any reason he has to negotiate, because the tactical and strategic imbalance is so vast that there’s nothing we could do to compel him to.”

Ambart nodded again.

“And that’s the reason my administration can no more afford for Bolthole’s existence or location to become known to the Manticorans than Pierre and Saint-Just could have. The Manties have intelligence assets in all of our known shipyards; we’ve identified many of them, but there have to be far more we haven’t. If we were to begin laying down starships capable of fighting their starships toe-to-toe in any of those yards, they’d know about it long before the first ship was completed. And if someone like High Ridge knew about it—”

“I believe the applicable term would be ‘preemptive strike,’ Madame President,” Ambart said.

“Precisely.” She nodded.

“And you’re confident your adversaries don’t have those intelligence assets here in Refuge.”

“We’re as close to certain of it as intelligence matters ever get,” she said flatly. “If they knew enough about Bolthole to have infiltrated any of their spies into it, the Royal Manticoran Navy would already have come calling on you. Which, I’m afraid, could still happen if they find out about it,” she finished unflinchingly.

“So Refuge has become even more important to you than it was to the Legislaturalists or to the Committee.”

“Unless I’m prepared to accept the Manticoran refusal to negotiate, yes. And I can’t accept that.” She shook her head. “Not only do I owe the Havenite star systems currently under Manticoran occupation the protection of my government, but if the Manties won’t even negotiate with us, how long can I maintain the pretense that my administration really is the Republic’s legitimate government? A government powerless to even end the unjust wars of its predecessors? A government so ineffectual—so irrelevant—its adversaries won’t even talk to it?”

She shook her head again, and those topaz eyes were dark as night.

“It isn’t only foreign perceptions that concern me, Shirkahna Ambart. There are millions—probably billions—of Havenites who were horrified by the Committee’s overthrow. People whose power, whose wealth, whose influence disappeared or was severely damaged when Admiral Theisman deposed Saint-Just. People whose patriotism is invested in the People’s Republic of Haven’s military might and imperial accomplishments. And, even worse, people who simply see an opportunity to fish for personal advantage in the chaos. Who don’t care about restoring the Constitution. Who see only the chance for them to become the decision-makers, the ones with all the power, and the hell with the rule of law or individual rights.

“If I can’t convince the rest of the Republic’s citizens that I’m the legitimate President and that my administration is a legitimate, effective government, the bottom-feeders will see their opportunity. And if they take it, they can destroy everything Admiral Theisman and I are trying to accomplish.”

“And this High Ridge’s . . . intransigence, I believe you called it, is likely to convince them they do see such an opportunity?” Ambart murmured, but the question was actually a statement, and she nodded.

“I want to believe that whatever is motivating him represents a temporary situation. That he has a domestic objective, and that once he’s accomplished it, he will negotiate with us. I can’t afford to plan and operate on that basis, though. For that matter, even if it’s true, it’s entirely possible that attaining his domestic objective will take long enough to create the situation I’m afraid will destroy my domestic objective of restoring genuine representative government to the Republic.”

She paused, letting that settle for a moment, then leaned back in her arm chair and laid her forearms along the armrests.

“What I would like to do—what I need to do, if I’m going to demonstrate that the restored Republic genuinely respects interstellar law—is to acknowledge Sanctuarian sovereignty here in Refuge. I need to announce the discovery of your people to the galaxy at large. I need to withdraw all of those Havenite ‘advisors’ and ‘administrators’ who are actually controlling your educational system and every facet of your economy. And, above all, I need to transfer ownership of the Bolthole Complex and all of its supporting infrastructure to Sanctuarian ownership. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do, it’s the legal thing to do, and from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, if I did that and then announced it to the entire galaxy, it would absolutely demonstrate that we are no longer the People’s Republic of Haven.

“But because of High Ridge’s . . . arrogant, stupid, shortsighted blindness, I can’t do it. This is the only place Secretary Theisman and I can possibly build the fleet that might make High Ridge pay attention to us. I can’t give that away, however much I might wish to.”

“I see.”

Ambart regarded her thoughtfully for endless seconds. Then his nostrils flared.

“Among the other things I’ve learned about through those unofficial channels of mine is the Solarian League,” he said. “In particular, about its ‘Office of Frontier Security.’” He smiled thinly. “I’m reasonably certain your predecessors would have been even more unhappy to discover that I’ve learned about OFS, given the way it’s behavior with the ‘transstellars,’ I believe they’re called, mirrors what’s happened here in Refuge.”

Pritchart hid another mental wince. A rather deeper one, this time, given how well taken Ambart’s comparison was. But the shirkahna wasn’t finished.

“The difference between Frontier Security and its arrangements, as I understand them, and what you’ve just said to me, Madame President, is quite profound, actually.”

“It is?” Surprise drew the question from her, and his smile broadened.

“Yes,” he replied.

Her raised eyebrows invited him to continue, and he shrugged.

“Madame President, I believe you mean every word you’ve said. Oh,” he waved one hand in a brushing away gesture, “I’m sure that even you are likely to . . . shade meanings, even unintentionally, but you’re refreshingly different from most Sanctuarian politicians and every System Administrator the Legislaturalists or Pierre ever sent us. You actually believe what you’re saying, and you’ve actually tried to tell me the truth.”

“I do. I have.”

She couldn’t keep the surprise at his analysis out of her voice, and he chuckled.

“You may get over it in time,” he told her almost reassuringly. “At the moment, however, you’re still too much the revolutionary and too little the self-seeking politician to make a satisfactory liar.”

“I’m not entirely sure you mean that as a compliment,” she said.

“Oh, I do. For now, at least, and not simply because it makes it much easier for me to discuss matters such as this with you.” His expression had sobered. “Humans have lived on Sanctuary for almost thirteen hundred years, Madame President. We’ve seen a great many wars, a lot of politics, in that time. I’m not as unaware as you might think of the enormity of the task you’ve undertaken in seeking to reform something like the People’s Republic, and you’re right. You can’t succeed in real reform without breaking the pattern of the political leaders who allowed it to become so corrupted in the first place. And despite any of the People’s Republic’s transgressions against the people of Sanctuary, I want you—I need you—to succeed. Despite everything, we owe far too much to Haven for me to want any other outcome than to continue in a mutually beneficial relationship with a reformed Republic.

“My discussions with Administrator LePic and with Admiral Theisman have told me what kind of men they are, what dreams they dream. This conversation has shown me the woman—the dreams—behind President Pritchart, as well, and I would far rather deal with her than with anyone who might someday replace her.”

Shirkahna Ambart,” she said after a moment, “understand that the Republic of Haven is not Frontier Security. You’re right, I’m sure, about all of the . . . beneficial fallout of Haven’s presence in Refuge. And you’re certainly right about who provided the capability to build the Bolthole Complex and its supporting infrastructure. But this system belongs to Sanctuarians, not Havenites. It has to. On behalf of my government, I would propose an ultimate ownership stake of, say, thirty percent in the existing infrastructure for the Republic, with the understanding that we would intend to privatize it eventually. And the further understanding that Sanctuarian investors would be given the first opportunity to bid on any privatization offers.

“I’m prepared to sign a treaty formalizing that understanding immediately. And, regardless of your decision to accept or reject that treaty, I intend to withdraw all Havenite authority to control any aspect of your educational system or your economic system outside the Bolthole shipyards themselves. Obviously, I will recognize Refuge’s sovereignty at the same time.

“In return, I would ask you to continue to conceal the existence and location of your world. And I would ask you to assume the risk—the very real risk, should Manticore somehow discover Bolthole’s existence and location—of a major attack on your star system which could well result not simply in massive destruction but in major loss of life, as well.”

“You realize you don’t have to ‘ask’ for anything?” Again, his tone made the question a statement. “There’s clearly nothing we could do—in the short term, at least—about any of those matters.”

“I think you may underestimate yourselves a bit.” Pritchart’s tone was dry. “Over the decades, the People’s Republic learned quite a bit about what passive resistance and selective sabotage can do to military and industrial production.”

“I imagine it did.” Ambart chuckled, but his expression remained serious. “All the same, my point remains.”

“Perhaps it does.” Pritchart shrugged. “But many, many years ago, on the most terrible day of my life, I decided what I was willing to put on the line for my beliefs. It came from an ancient document I once read, and it was only three words. Very simple ones, but words that expressed both the least I could justify giving and the highest price I could conceive of paying. I try to bear them in mind every day, especially now that I’m actually in a position to rebuild the Republic of Haven of Michèle Péricard.”

“And those words are . . . what—?” he asked softly.

“‘Our sacred honor.’” Her voice was equally soft, her eyes somber with memory. “Our sacred honor,” she repeated. “That’s what my friends and I put on the line the day we decided to stand and fight. That’s what we believe in, what we stand for, and that means being honorable. It means conducting ourselves so that the people we’ve lost would approve of what we’ve done. And it means I have to give you back—return to you, not bestow it upon you like some gift—your own star system and your own future. But when I do, I have to do it in a way that preserves my own star nation and everything I gave my sacred honor to thirty-seven T-years ago. And I have to ask you to understand—and accept—that.”

Ambart considered her in silence once again. Beyond the tower window, lightning flared and flickered, and the first rumble of rain drummed on the tower roof. Thunder rolled, and she waited until, finally, he sighed.

“I wonder if you have any idea, truly, of what a remarkable woman you are, Madame President,” he said.

“I don’t think I’m remarkable at all,” she replied. “Or, if I am, it’s only because the events in my life made me that way. And the price it took to get me to understand what I needed to do was too terrible for me to not try every day to be worthy of it.” A tear glittered at the corner of her eye, and she shook her head. “It’s not just my mirror I need to be able to look into, Shirkahna. It’s my memory.”

“Perhaps one day I’ll ask you about that memory,” he said, and his voice was gentle against the background grumble of thunder. “But not today.” He smiled again, more warmly. “I’m certain we’ll have many opportunities in the future for me to ask. Perhaps when we sign that treaty of yours in the next few days. Or perhaps on the day—some years from now, I’m sure—when you join me in a toast to the privatization of our friends in the Republic of Haven’s interest in our star system’s infrastructure.”

Her eyes widened ever so slightly, and his smile grew broader.

“Or perhaps even on the day when Refuge seeks admission to a Republic of Haven worthy of the men and women fighting to restore it.”

* * * * * * * * * *

But Dark Fall ends.

Dawn comes at last to even deepest night,

And men unafraid,

And women of valor

Walk bravely into the light.

The Dark Fall Saga



Copyright © 2018 David Weber


David Weber is the creator of the internationally best-selling Honor Harrington science fiction series, in which this story is set. The latest entry in the Honor Harrington series, Uncompromising Honor, is out in October. In a huge climax to many storylines, Honor and the RMN take on the ancient Solarian League in a fight for survival and freedom.