The fall of civilization begins on the dark frontier.
It has been three years since the Naplian Empire invaded Terran space in a desperate gamble to secure serjaum fuel reserves. They conquered the Baedecker Star System, but not without making a dangerous new enemy—humans. Heroes of the Baedecker invasion have fought on all fronts, scattered across the galactic region by battles and raids. The chance to bring another ally aboard shows promise, but only if a veteran starfighter pilot can overcome his prejudices—and if a rebel turned cyborg can uncover the truth about his missing comrades. With Terran forces drawn deeper into war and intrigue, their actions could spell the doom of millions.
The Sanctuary of the Revered Barad was one of the oldest houses of worship in the Briddarri Kingdom, dating four millennia and housing some of the most ancient relics of sacred history. Six towers of weathered white stone topped with obsidian domes stood like sentinels around a central pavilion, its crumbling walls reinforced with modern guardstone and covered with a transparent dome. From the sky, a riot of colors formed by tapestries, weapons, and manuscripts on display in the pavilion provided the only relief from stark black and white.
To Lira Lin Reen, it was like gazing on a tiny flower in the midst of a barren meadow.
Such a beautiful sight.
Even more beautiful with the knowledge the humdrum artifacts sheltered a certain rare gemstone worth millions.
Lira adjusted the altitude controls on her grav-harness. It looped around her arms, across her waist, and up her back. The field was low-level enough to avoid the casual sensor grid employed by the Sanctuary's caretakers, but strong enough to hoist a woman of her size—details she'd never shared with another living soul, thank you very much—a full klick in the air over the Sanctuary. Security wasn't especially tight at this target.
The problem was its position atop a sheer rock face, surrounded on the other three sides by a roaring waterfall.
Slowly she descended, her view obscured by passing clouds. The sky was moonless, a rarity for Dorraddin Prime. The Briddarri planet's single satellite only reflected the sun's light in its entirety once every three years. But its absence made her approach all the easier, clad head to toe in a concealment suit so dark it was almost black. Its color shifted to a softer shade with a velvety sheen, speckles of white and swathes of darkness spreading across her arms and legs. She glanced up at the stars and clouds as her background. The grav-harness and concealment suit were money well spent.
Lira came in low, using the grav-harness to fly over the towers. Between their tops and the pavilion's transparent roof, the air blew crisp and clean. She could smell freshwater spray and musty brick through the suit's breathing filters. Lira brushed sand off the edge of the nearest tower. The wind caught it, swirling it in a miniature dust devil.
It scattered over the detection grid, making a small section of otherwise invisible beams flare green.
She checked her timepiece. Thirty seconds. Had it been enough money? Bribery was an inexact science. Plus, there was the possibility of her mark being a true Briddarri rinndda. Zealots for the kingdom were always fickle.
Thirty-five seconds later, she brushed more sand. Nothing.
Lira killed the grav-harness and dropped like a stone. She hurtled toward the glass, counting time in her head. The fewer electronic devices on a job, the better. Owners of valuable items could be counted upon to employ all manner of countermeasures, so she minimized.
Five meters from the transparent roof she turned the harness back on. It slowed her, but for a moment she felt a spike of fear. Had she miscalculated the drop?
She immediately smothered the irrationality. Of course not. She was Blue Kitt.
She left nothing to chance.
Lira's feet dangled a meter over the surface. Such a delicate performance. She was glad the tech she'd bribed had played his part.
She leaned over, hovering in prone position. The plasma cutter sliced a hole a half meter across, a faint pink glow the only visible sign of its blade. As soon as it was finished, she touched the cutter to the beveled disc and triggered the pulse.
The circle vaporized in a puff of burst molecules.
Lira waited ten seconds. Each one passed like an eternity, like the hours spent as a little girl in the town Warrior House. Even now she winced at the remembered droning of the commandant as he extolled the virtues of Barra Bridd, listing the names and deeds of the honored ancestors who'd fought in Briddarri conflicts against the Naplian Empire and numerous other adversaries. If she totaled up those hours, how much of her life had been wasted on those dead men?
She'd more than made up for it.
When no alarms sounded, and her wrist scanner indicated no life sign movements, Lira somersaulted and dove through the narrow hole.
Inside, the pavilion was huge and dark, big as the Orriddius caves beneath her hometown. Display cases spread out in neat rows all around her as she stood atop a tile dais. It depicted the warriors' paradise of Barra Bridd, complete with the streams of errdda eptar ale in deep emerald. She knelt, picked at one of the tiles. Not gemstone. Pity. A bonus would have been nice for this job.
A sound. Footsteps on stone? She rolled into shadow, behind a case of stone tools, and waited. Her suit blended with the dark.
Not a person. Virry scuttlers, likely. Eight-legged arachnids the size of her hand. Harmless to humanoids, not so much to the slugs that crawled the cliffs.
Lira ignored the suits of gilded armor, the ancient projectile weapons inlaid with ivory, the open books penned in virrseed ink. There were dozens, hundreds, each one meticulously cataloged with an approximate date of origin, planet of provenance, and historical background. When Lira had been inside the Sanctuary on a tour six months ago, she'd taken the time to read a few. While she had no love for the warrior class and their stranglehold on life in the Briddarri Kingdom, she could appreciate her people's rich history.
Tonight, she was focused on one thing.
The Seerrstone of Marronda glowed with a pale rose phosphorescence as if it beat with its own heart. The gem could be easily palmed and pocketed, even encased in the platinum filigree case. Lira marveled at the heat emanating from its surface. She longed to cradle it.
And sell it. Because even the lowest bid among criminal collectors could bring her 500 million.
Well, she'd have to hold on both those dreams for a moment. The Seerrstone was locked inside a plas-glass box atop a stone pedestal, the sides of which were draped with vines. Lira brushed aside a strand of the deep purple leaves as gently as if she were brushing her hair.
The gem was protected by a Kor-Kaard 509, a B-series security unit. Lira pursed her lips, narrowed her eyes. She'd seen it clearly during the tour, and spent months reviewing the specifications. More well-spent credits gave her the chance to train on five of them. It had taken her three tries before she'd been able to avoid triggering the alarms. Three failures, two successes.
She enjoyed those odds.
Lira tucked the vines around the edge of the case. She used a simple bolt remover to detach the flat silver panel at the front of the unit, revealing a mess of wires, circuits, and glowing indicators beneath. She recognized ninety percent of it, which meant this unit had been customized beyond the standard specs.
She dug into her pocket, trying not to think about the four guards and eight robots who ran night security for the building. Her timepiece was clear. She had ten minutes remaining until a Briddarri ex-soldier and two 'bots came through the pavilion. Say this much for her people's traditions, punctuality helped her line of work immensely.
The gel slipped from her hands. Lira caught the packet before it could hit the floor.
Space, what a mess it would have made. It oozed inside its container, a mush of pulsating orange fringed with tiny cilia. She positioned the packet over the front of the access panel and tore it open.
The gel leaked slowly into the compartment, seeking out heat and electricity from the various components. It wrapped everything it found in sticky goo.
Lira adjusted her wrist scanner. The gel's progress was so sluggish; she wanted to reach in and give it a shove. Numbers ticked down. Hurry along, come on!
She got the green lights she craved. The gel's chemical reaction to the circuitry took hold as planned. It slowed the operating system at such a level that she could interfere with the case without fear of activating the alarms. Worst case scenario, the security system would see the slowdown as something to be flagged for later maintenance.
Lira reached for the latches holding the plas-glass case down and stopped to tap her left shoulder three times with the first two fingers of her right hand—the Briddarri gesture for luck.
The latch clicked as loud as weapons fire to her ears, but nothing happened.
Not pausing to rejoice, she flipped the rest of the latches in rapid succession and eased the case back on its hinges. The Seerrstone brightened in response to her motion. She was amazed by its warmth, even through the filigree wrapping.
A klaxon screamed.
Red lights pulsed.
What? How? She tucked the gem into her pocket and ran for the center of the room.
Too late. The guard came on the run, a burly Briddarri male in a drab tan jumpsuit, but there was nothing drab about the stunpole in his hands. A meter long, its top third crackled with electricity. A good poke from that and Lira's body would go as limp as a child's riddadd, a floppy puppet.
The pair of drones hovering with him didn't improve her chances. Each one was the size of her head, a flattened diamond with two dangling pincers. Air rippled around their tiny jets.
She tapped her wrist unit. The suit responded in reverse of its usual camouflage tactics, brightening until she was a gleaming white figure sprinting toward the guard. The visor protected her eyes, but it was enough of a glare to make them water.
The guard covered his face and cried out.
Lira grabbed the handle end of the stunpole, using it as leverage, and swept his feet from under him, a move made simpler by his forward momentum. As he dropped, she wrenched the stunpole away. Pain shot up her arms. His grasp was stronger than she'd anticipated.
He hit the floor with the sound of a sack of food being dropped.
The drones gave no warning, no demand to submit. They swept in and reached for her with arms that elongated to three times their standard length.
Lira spun out of their reach, tucking into a roll, and when she came up, she bashed the first drone across its flank with the stunpole.
Sparks exploded. The drone went completely dead; its engines sputtering. It crashed against a plas-glass case, leaving a virry scuttler's web of cracks.
The second drone pivoted in midair and slashed at her with those spindly arms. A claw cut across her suit, severing fabric and the woven circuitry. The effect was instantaneous: Lira's blinding light doused, and her suit turned a plain charcoal. It ignored the surroundings, as useless as if she'd worn the guard's plain jumpsuit.
Lira stabbed the stunpole into the cluster of optical domes on the drone's front half, smashing them to bits.
By now the guard was up and grabbed her about the waist. She put an elbow to his nose, cracking bone and spraying bright green blood. A quick jab with the stunpole left him twitching on the stone floor.
Shouts, and more footsteps.
The blasted grav-harness better still be operational.
Lira leaped straight up, and let the anti-gravity shoot her into the air. She scraped her already raw shoulder against the hole cut through the transparent ceiling, and then she was out, wind whipping around her, cold air biting the wound.
A shuttle banked overhead, spotlight illuminating her in a circle of harsh white.
Farrudd. That route was cut. But she never went into a place without at least four more ways out.
She twisted onto her side and shot out past the towers. Didn't matter if she set off all the rest of the alarms now, and as she passed through the security grid, that's exactly what happened.
Then she was out, in the black night, with water roaring from the falls all around her. She dove down the wall of spray, every sound drowned out.
Only thing she could hear was her own laughter.
A week later, she walked into the central park of Gira, capital city of Dorraddin Prime.
Ramper trees were in full bloom, showering everything and everyone with pale yellow blossoms. Couples giggled and swept them at each other.
Lira walked softly, blending with the crowds and individuals dressed in springtime clothing. The cut on her shoulder was healed, and she bared both to the sun's caress in a flowing yellow blouse. If she stayed out long enough, she might get a deeper verdant tone to her skin.
There was a single bench along this path, a walkway of tan stones. She sat on it and started reading her scroll.
Soon the surface of the bench was coated in blossoms. She brushed several from beside her, as if making room for another person, and brushed the rest off her striped skirt.
The transceiver on her index finger adhered to a blossom and spun off into the air, propelling itself on minuscule fans built from the molecular level up.
The message would get to its recipient, and they'd know the job was a success. Seven days and no one had followed her. No one had made any sign that they knew she'd stolen the Seerrstone.
Two more weeks, and she'd be rich. Well, richer.
"Lira Lin Reen?"
A young couple stood by her. She was shorter than him, and both had matching blue and brown hair—such was the fad among couples these days. He seemed too ugly for her, with his stockier than usual build and way too tall body.
It was in that instant she realized they were both stern-faced, absent any sign of ardor for each other.
She was on her feet and flipping backward over the bench when the stun pulse from behind hit her. Lira slapped hard to the grass, face down in the blossoms.
Impossible. How had she so badly miscalculated? How had they gotten her?
They put binders on her wrists, which Lira could barely feel. "You are hereby detained by the Bureau for Law and Discipline," the woman said. "For the theft of state property. Your rights as a citizen of the Briddarri Kingdom have been frozen. Your ancestors are hereby shamed."
She didn't panic. She kept her cool, even when they dragged her to her feet and slammed the handles of stun-rods into her gut. Pain wouldn't matter.
The others were watching. They'd know and spread the word. Blue Kitt would survive.