Prologue

(Death)

“Execute!” The deep baritone rolled from an imposing figure sitting in the command chair, the sound rumbling across the deck passing over the numerous crewmen who waited in tense anticipation for his order. That same voice was duplicated, immediately and precisely, across hundreds of light years to thousands of other ships and literally millions of individual mind-links. A single command which signaled genocide. The impending death of billions. An extension of the man, the ship shuddered slightly as it slipped into the absence of space. The planetary and deep space displays, which a moment before showed the incredible beauty of the home planet and above its crescent, the maelstrom of the galactic core, flared to black as the great vessel skipped across an arm of the galaxy towards its destiny.

Six hundred and eighty three light years in the blink of an eye the ship popped back into existence, appearing suddenly and without warning over its target. A scene repeated over and over in hundreds of systems as the grand scheme came to fruition. A plan intended to silence their enemies once and for all. To put an end the damn slugs and their endless meddling, thought the Commander. Grim was the smile that creased his thick lips and wide beardless face. Once and for all they would bestow upon the collected races undisputed galactic superiority. A plan hatched in secret and known only to ten living beings besides himself. A plan executed through the artificial entities which were the technological heart of the vast merchant empire known as the Collective. Entities such as the battle globe he now commanded which were as close to artificial life as any race had yet to achieve.

This vessel had abilities far above any other class of computer. It could think and function on its own and possessed a personality which was apparent in its interaction with the Commander and the ships crew. A personality that was a mirror of the man in the command chair, all implemented through trillions of nano-robots coursing throughout the ship as well as within the bodies of the Commander and every member of the crew.

In an instant the dark screens flared back to life their target appearing below them. Sul-Anroth! Green and beautiful and thriving in every way that a living planet should. The Commander mentally halted that thought. I must not think of it as a living world, only as a target. A target to be destroyed to serve the greater good.

There was only time for that single thought to rip through the Commander’s mind as the vessel began its pogrom of destruction. Swarms of fighters swept out from the ship as uncountable missiles and pulsed rays of energy screamed away on their preprogrammed missions of extermination. Inwardly he smiled. No sentient being could derive satisfaction from global death, but a well executed plan was another matter entirely. He allowed just a ghost of a smile to brush to his lips. A smile which faded instantly as reports began to flood his neural inputs. Inputs which fed incredible amounts of information directly into his brain from the communications center of the ship. One silent report snapped his eyes to the big screen to his front just as the brilliant flash of a massive explosion signaled the end of the Aurora, one of three brother ships he’d tasked to subdue the planet below. He was stunned to inaction. The Aurora held over a hundred thousand souls, all of which were now nothing more than expanding clouds of gas.

His surprise quickly turned to shock as his own ship was lashed by waves of energy unleashed from planetary defenses and suddenly appearing enemy warships. Reaching forward he gripped the railing with his huge two thumbed fist, squeezing tighter and tighter as report after report told the incredible story. All over the galaxy from every sector the reports were the same; his secret attack was far from secret. Unknowingly he’d flown his entire armada and the hopes and dreams of the Collective into an ambush! And nothing he could do could stop it. Instead of his forces overwhelming their enemies, both sides were without mercy pounding each other into oblivion. He could do nothing but listen, watch and witness as ship after ship and planet after planet died.

Below him the green jewel distorted and twisted from impact flashes as the battle raged. Superheated gases exploded with enough power to escape the atmosphere like ruptures in a balloon, some large enough to reach his ship. He was no longer a participant in the events; he became merely a voyeur watching in clinical detachment as the battle played itself out. Yet it was a detachment that lasted only a moment longer as his ships’ defenses began to fail. Energy beams burst through overwhelmed plasma shields and lashed her skin, the breach allowing missile after missile to scream in. Most were destroyed by the near in defense batteries, each explosion coming successively closer showering the hull with superheated plasma and supersonic chunks of debris. His enemy’s plan was simple and utterly devastating. They launched everything they had against a single spot in the defenses until, overwhelmed they failed.

The great vessel screamed in pain as its artificial neurons were twisted and burned. Each second saw more and more of his defensive batteries fall silent while more and more of the attacks reached the ship. The Commander saw where the hull would fail just before it happened, yet it was still a shock as overloaded circuits burst into sparking hissing fire all around the deck. Screams of the injured drowned all other sound, one shriek far louder that any other. A technician directly in front of him burst into angry yellow flame, a living candle which paraded around the deck until it tripped then lay jerking in orgiastic spasms of death. The Commander physically ducked as the cloud of greasy smoke wafted toward then over him, the black vapor bringing the stench of burning wiring singed hair and extremely well roasted meat to assail him in a palpable wall. At that same instant, the already dark displays shattered inward from the cracking of over stressed bulkheads. They sprayed in an arc, the flying shards spreading even more misery upon his crew.

Miraculously, or perhaps by the sick humor of some alien god, the Commander remained unscathed and connected still to the constant flow of horrific information. Personal eyewitness to the audacity and folly of his race. It was a situation that was remedied in a millisecond. The integrity of the hull was suddenly breached and the insignificant soft bodies of his crew flew from their positions, sucked into the vacuum of space through a single small crack. A puncture no bigger than the fist the Commander left gripping the rail, torn from his body as he himself was sucked toward oblivion. The Commander flew across the deck and smacked bodily against the bulkhead temporarily plugging the rent with his abdomen. CA’maron-Milik, Military Commander Supreme and Chief Investor of the Collective, had only a millisecond more of life as the pressure built and he felt his body begin to rip apart. There was no pain, it simply happened too fast. There was only a single moment to feel the great shame of failure and issue a final mental command, “Abandon ship!” Then he was gone, reduced to a long stream of bloody paste screaming at the speed of sound toward the inferno below.