The answers Captain Jonathon "Coop" Cooper and the crew of the Ivoire seek lie in the Boneyards. But they must wait for Boss and her team to dive it, explore the wrecks, and piece together what happened in that faraway place.
Boss loves the challenge. Thousands of ships, centuries of history, all play to her strengths. In her absence, she trusts Coop to defend the Nine Planets Alliance against the Enterran Empire.
But an encounter from Coop's recent past shows up to haunt him, an encounter he never told Boss about, an encounter that could threaten her future, his life, and the fragile peace between the Alliance and the Empire.
"Kristine Kathryn Rusch is best known for her Retrieval Artist series, so maybe you've missed her Diving Universe series. If so, it's high time to remedy that oversight."– Don Sakers, Analog
"The Diving Universe, conceived buy Hugo-Award winning author Kristine [Kathryn] Rusch is a refreshingly new and fleshed out realm of sci-fi action and adventure. And the latest offering…doesn't disappoint."– Dave Dickinson, Astroguyz, on Skirmishes
"…there's wreck diving, space battling, and even a bit of romance here. Throw in plenty of suspense and several plot twists, and you have adventure SF in the old tradition."– Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine
CAPTAIN JONATHON "Coop" Cooper sank into the command chair on the Ivoire, and tapped the right-hand controls.
"Let me see that screen again," he said to Mavis Kravchenko, his first officer. She was a large woman whose size came from being raised in the real gravity of one of the Fleet's land-based sector bases.
Sometimes Coop thought she was as solid as the ground she was raised on.
Kravchenko worked two different consoles. She preferred to stand as her hands flew back and forth between them.
Right now, everyone on the bridge focused on Kravchenko, even though they pretended not to. Coop had a full crew running the Ivoire—or, at least, as full a crew as he could manage with half of his most experienced crew on the Shadow. His former second officer, Lynda Rooney, had taken her favorite people with her when he promoted her to command the Shadow, which was the only other functional Fleet ship in this sector.
Hell, the only other functional Fleet ship in this entire universe for all he knew.
He tried to keep thoughts like that out of his head. Even though he'd been here for more than five years now, the change in his circumstances still surprised him.
"You got the screen, Captain?" Kravchenko asked, using a tone that made him realize she'd asked him at least once before.
He tapped one more control. A holoimage of the sensor console rose in front of him. Kravchenko was running it in infrared rather than a normal visual spectrum. That didn't bother him. For this, infrared was probably better.
"I got it," he said, and peered at the information before him.
Images, trails, gigantic circles, all of which would mean nothing to the untrained eye. But Coop saw energy signatures, populated planets, and faraway stars. He layered heat signatures and energy readings onto the screen, then he opened a second holographic screen with the standard visual images of the same section of space.
On the visual, he could see the stars but not the energy or heat signatures. He also couldn't see what had caused those signatures.
On the layered infrared screen, he saw a dozen Enterran Empire vessels spreading out in one of their typical search patterns.
Cloaked ships. The Empire's cloaks were primitive, but effective. He had to actively search for them—and they certainly weren't visible to the naked eye.
He felt a familiar frustration. In the past, he could have easily handled a situation like this. His experience gave him a dozen different ways to deal with an aggressive space-faring culture like the Empire.
Except his experience and his training no longer applied. Now he had to be creative. Now he had to think like a smart man in a room full of children.
That wasn't fair, of course. The cultures here had a lot of smart people. They just lacked the knowledge he had and the technology he was used to.
Six years ago, he'd been a captain among many, part of a Fleet that went from sector to sector, never back where it had been. He had been one man in thousands, living a life spread across hundreds of ships, several star bases, and at least two sector bases at one time. He had superiors and subordinates, family here and on other ships, friendships that had spanned decades.
Now he had less than five hundred people who had gone through the same dislocation that he had. None of them were his superiors, all were his subordinates, and none were blood relatives. The only person with whom he had any personal history at all was his ex-wife Mae, who had become a friend.
He had a new life here in what had once been an unimaginable future, and by many counts, it was a good life. But sometimes the changes overwhelmed him.
Like right now. He needed at least twenty other Fleet ships, outfitted with the latest (Latest? The word made him smile to himself) sensor technology. He wanted to set up a full sensor blanket, so that nothing could cross the border from the Enterran Empire into the Nine Planets Alliance without him knowing.
But he only had two fully-equipped Fleet ships, and twenty more vessels, most of which he wouldn't even dignify with the word "ship." They were everything from the Nobody's Business, which was old, creaky, and designed for fewer than fifty passengers, to what passed for warships on Cros'll, the nearest of the Nine Planets to the border. Those ships were so badly designed that Coop was afraid one shot out of their weapons array might explode the ship and everything around it.
He felt like he was leading a squadron of two ships and a bunch of working ship models. Most of the ships around him wouldn't even have qualified as entries in the ship-building contest that the Fleet once ran every few years for its engineering students.
But Coop couldn't tell any of the so-called captains that. Just like he couldn't tell them how he had acquired his own training. Any sentence that began with "Five thousand years ago…." was guaranteed to cause the disbelief to begin.
What he needed at the moment was a sensor blanket, dozens of scout ships, and some intel from inside the Empire. But he had no intel that he could trust, a few scout ships that he couldn't spare, and no way to blanket anything with any kind of sensor, let alone block entrance into this region of space.
Kravchenko was doing her best. She had been actively searching for Empire ships. But she wasn't searching alone. He had most of the engineering crew monitoring the border. If he couldn't use ships to set up a sensor blanket, he would have his own people do it as best they could.
The rest of the bridge crew monitored their stations, apparently trying (and sometimes failing) not to glance at what they could see of Coop's screens.
"How long have the ships been there?" he asked Kravchenko.
She shrugged. "We didn't pick them up until an hour ago, sir."
An hour. He didn't believe that. He wondered if the ships wanted to be seen. After all, it was better for the Empire if the Nine Planets' ships crossed the border into Enterran space.
Then the Nine Planets would have invaded the Empire, not the other way around.
But his rag-tag army had instructions not to fire first or to cross that border ever. He had instructed all of the so-called captains to make sure they gave the Empire absolutely no reason to invade the Nine Planets.
If the Enterran Empire wanted to attack the Nine Planets Alliance and ruin more than a century of what could only charitably be called peace, then it could. And it would destroy untold amounts of property, as well as millions of lives.
The Empire probably wouldn't win against the Nine Planets—the Empire had never won against the Nine Planets—but the Empire would make life here miserable, which Coop wasn't willing to let happen.
He had promised Boss that he would guard the borders to the Nine Planets, and that was what he planned to do.
Boss. She was an interesting woman. She had been the first person he'd seen in this new time period, wearing what, he thought at the time, was an ancient and outdated space suit.
He later learned so much technology had been lost that his people seemed amazingly advanced to the civilizations now. Boss had helped him with the transition.
She had also wormed her quirky, eccentric way into his heart.
He wondered what she would think of his rag-tag army. She had suggested part of it; the rest Lynda Rooney had cobbled together with some local help.
But Boss wasn't here to see how it all worked. Boss was far away, in another sector, trying to find more ships.
Then Coop sighed as he caught himself in another lie, this time to himself. Boss wasn't just looking for more ships. She was digging into a boneyard of Fleet ships they'd discovered a few weeks ago, hoping to find out what happened to his people all those millennia ago.
"Do the ships see us?" he asked.
"I have no idea," Kravchenko said.
"I can monitor their chatter," Officer Kjersti Perkins said. She was his chief linguist, and had become one of the more invaluable members of his bridge crew. She could float from console to console, handling many of the problems that he didn't even see.
"If they won't notice, go ahead," he said.
"I have no idea what they'll notice and what they won't," Perkins said.
He smiled. She could be very literal at times. "Do your best," he said.
He wasn't sure whether or not he cared if the empire ships noticed. He had revealed his own ships days earlier. Initially, he had kept both the Ivoire and the other Fleet vessel, the Shadow, under a standard cloak. Standard for the Fleet, anyway. Even their simplest cloak was too sophisticated for the ships around him.
Before Coop's chief engineer had left with Boss, she had tried to build a simple Fleet cloak onto the Business. It hadn't worked. Fleet technology didn't blend easily with modern technology. Everything had to be adapted and modified, and no one had time for that.
Not after the attacks on the Empire's research facilities.
Coop frowned at those ship images. The Empire had every reason to attack the Nine Planets Alliance. All of the Empire's stealth-tech research facilities had been bombed or destroyed in the last two months.
Coop had destroyed the main facility himself, although he initially hadn't meant to. Boss had roped him into the attack, which she had believed would be a simple rescue mission.
Coop knew from the beginning there was no such thing as a simple rescue mission, particularly deep in enemy territory. He had initially refused to participate.
But Boss would have gone without him, and that might have been the end of her. He had decided at that moment that, after all of the losses he'd suffered, he couldn't suffer another. He had gone with her. What's more, he had actually planned the mission.
He had kept Boss alive, but at a cost. One of those costs had been riling the Empire. He had known it was coming, but Boss hadn't seen it. She wasn't military, and she wasn't used to dealing with a variety of governments. And much as she loved history, she wasn't good at seeing perspectives other than her own.
If Coop had been working for the Empire, he would have tracked down the ships and the attackers who had gone after the research facilities and destroyed them all. He suspected that the ships out there were doing exactly what he would have done in their place.
They had tracked someone or something here. Maybe they had intel that had brought them to the border between the Nine Planets Alliance and the Enterran Empire. He knew these ships hadn't tracked him across Empire space to the border, because the Ivoire and the Shadow hadn't crossed regular space to get back. They'd used their anacapa drives, a technology that the Empire didn't even have.
The anacapa allowed ships to move from one place to another in a matter of seconds. When the anacapa worked, it was an amazing device. When it malfunctioned, it killed or—in his case—displaced the ship in time. Five thousand years of displacement.
The Empire had no idea what an anacapa was. But it was conducting dangerous experiments with something it called "stealth tech," which was a primitive form of the anacapa drive. The Empire believed that stealth tech was a cloak, and nothing more.
And Coop would like to keep it that way.
"Get me the specs on those ships," he said to Officer Anita Tren.
She was tiny and barely saw over a console. But she could gather information faster than anyone else on his current bridge crew.
"I've already been working on it," Anita said. "We've got five warships out there, with five battle cruisers and five larger ships that can either move people and materiel or simply transport passengers. This is a show of force, Coop."
"I got that," he said. "But for whom? The Nine Planets? Or is something else happening at this end of the Empire that I don't know about?"
"We've been monitoring the information feeds in the Empire for a while," said Second Engineer Zaria Diaz. Coop liked having her on the bridge when Yash wasn't here. Diaz, who was as tiny as Anita Tren, had a talent for finding problems that no one even knew existed yet.
"And?" Coop asked.
"And nothing," Diaz said. "If they're here, they're here for us."
"Cloaked," Perkins said. She clearly didn't understand it.
"They're trying to sneak into the Nine Planets?" Anita asked.
"I don't think so," Coop said. "I think they want to appear before us and scare the crap out of us."
The bridge crew laughed. He appreciated that too. It had taken a lot to scare his people six years ago. Ever since they came into this strange future universe, they rarely scared at all.
They'd faced the worst, and survived it. He knew that some of them, even now, probably preferred death.
His thoughts rested for a moment on his former first officer, Dix Pompiono, and then he shook it off. Dix had given up. It was one thing to die in battle, another to die by your own hand.
Coop didn't respect the second choice.
"Shouldn't we warn them somehow?" Perkins asked.
"Warn them of what?" Coop asked.
"I don't know," she said. "That we can take them out if we want to. We have superior firepower."
One on one, Coop's ships outmatched theirs. Maybe even two or three to one. But two of his ships against fifteen of theirs, ten of them battleships in one way or another? He didn't want to go through that particular match-up.
"We're not doing anything unless they cross that border," Coop said.
And maybe not even then.
He only had pieces of a plan, not an entire plan. He hoped Boss would get back soon.
He hoped she would have answers.
He hoped she would bring back dozens of working ships.