Boulders and canyons. Huge boulders and deep, red canyons as far as the eye could see in all directions. And a misshapen moon hanging in the hot afternoon sky. The shadows were already growing longer and in a few short hours the stars, the troubled, faded stars would slowly appear in the night.
"From spires to dirt, Captain."
"Yes, sir. Not where I'd like to be." First class guardsman, Captain Farrer threw a handful of that dirt to the ground and looked at the broken moon.
"I know you would rather be fighting. Even knowing it's futile."
"My place is here, sir." He straightened his back a little. "But yes, sir, I'm a soldier of the Empire."
"And a fine one, Captain."
"It's an honor to serve, sir." And he meant it, even if his voice hinted otherwise.
"It's hard for me too. It cuts to the bone."
"All the people on all the worlds are with you sir."
And then silence.
This lifeless world of vast red, unmoving sands and blue-green skies was named, by those who first landed here, Firespring. One of only four planets around a type two star on the very edge of the beautiful Milky Way. Chosen for dark purposes over two centuries ago in paranoid times by a paranoid Emperor. A part of a great plan that spanned a million worlds and held the destiny of a thousand billion lives beneath those unmoving sands.
The great grandson of that Emperor now sat with his personal guard on an uninteresting promontory near the edge of a canyon. The weight of those lives lay heavy on his shoulders. Unforseen shadows now bearing down on the worlds of his Empire darkened his eyes like fire-blackened wood.
Calron, second to honor that name, son of Drakus, was undeniably the most popular Emperor of modern times. More popular, even, than his father, who's campaigns at Serengoon and Black Wing were already legend. Calron II, wiser than his age would suggest, had toured the Empire for seven long years, visiting viceroys and sector governors with fleeting tours of key worlds and worlds neglected through nothing more than non-strategic location.
He talked with loyal soldiers in peripheral garrisons and listened to ordinary people in the populous centers of local government, giving them what they wanted while making it known, through example, that serious punishment met serious disorder. Crime, on the key worlds, at least, was low. The energies gained from the momentum of change and expansion where being publicly pushed forward by the young Emperor. He returned to the Imperial home world, Proxima Venturi a revered man of the people with the support of a galaxy behind every decision he could possibly make.
New alliances through new, spacefaring worlds with valuable resources had meant many new spacedocks constructing vast ships. These heavy cruisers would push the Empire out to the very edge of the galaxy through peaceful touch and where necessary, forceful encouragement. For a world to receive it's first contact with an outside species through such devastatingly imposing vessels, there usually was no further need for coercion. Certainly, demonstrations of the power of such mammoth vessels through opposition to join a galaxy of Imperially ruled worlds was not normally required. The hulking bodies of the visiting ships implied huge might, and the technologies of many worlds.
The insignia on the fine uniforms of every Imperial soldier carried the name of Calron II.
The Empire was proud and old, reaching into it's 40th century with an elegant wisdom. And the Emperor represented that wisdom. It's people saw their royal figurehead as the latest in an illustrious, long line of thinkers, fighters and leaders. All, of course, royal in blood and motive.
Before the Empire there was emptiness, vastness and the isolation of worlds. Islands alone in a big, dark ocean. The discovery, by several worlds, of super-stable wormholes that enabled such an Empire to cross space was itself four thousand years old. The alliance of these worlds produced the seeds of Empire, their combined technologies, their means of expanding. The eddies and currents of space, once measured in light years, was now a single map of well-traveled wormholes in each and every ship's navigational station. The giant ships of the line could cross the galaxy in a series of wormhole jumps in the time it used to take a ship to travel from planet to planet within a star system under rocket power.
But for all good things there must come and end. And, as one is rudely awoken from deep sleep after being physically shaken, the Empire was so shaken from it's contented slumber. A shadow darker and more vast than all the nights since the dawn of time now stretched across the galactic worlds. A sudden intrusion of fierce and silent evil had quickly and decisively destroyed the peripheral planets and descended, without mercy, on the seats of power in the central kingdoms.
The Emperor's Palace was alerted to the attack in time to send Calron to Firespring, to the most important ball of dust in the collected worlds. For this unassuming rock housed The Trigger. And Calron was the only person in the galaxy who could activate it's immense and final energies. Admiral Santilles, commander of the Seventh Fleet at Fornax, looked in disbelief at his tactical screen. Numbers were disappearing every few seconds on all parts of his previously full grid. The numbers were his ships and the grid was his advancing first wave.
"Sir! The enemy is still unseen." His first lieutenant, Askis, shouted from his station, forward of the Admiral.
"What? Clarity lieutenant!" Roared Santilles.
"Sir, none of the scouts or recon ships have the enemy on scope." Askis' eyes darted about his display, taking in the brief communications from the eyes of the fleet. "They report heavy gravity wells and and light distortion just beyond the Kindesser System.
"Target those readings!"
"Sir. They do precisely that, but the force subwave has no effect and the guided lightshells are being dissipated seconds after launch."
The admiral's face grew new lines of anger as he fought to rethink the current fleet structure and put into place emergency fallback maneuvers. He did not understand how this could be happening and here, Repulse Class fighter ships were disappearing in front of his eyes, their ferocious beams of deathly destructive energy dying immediately after dispatch.
"Recall the fleet! Fall back to Evius!"
"Sir!" Askis shouted to the Admiral, now standing by a porthole, looking at his crumbling ranks. "The enemy shows itself!"
Outside, beyond the glass porthole and filling the space beyond the flagship, hung a giant oval object. Black, featureless, motionless. Looking something like a smooth pebble with its length in the vertical and stretching at least two kilometers. It showed no signs of inward life. Two Imperial fighters closed towards the hulking mass in erratic trajectories. They appeared to distort and then flatten. No explosion, no physical drama whatsoever. One second of rapid approach followed by erasure from existence without detectable forces emitted from the enemy, nor resultant energy.
Admiral Santilles turned to his lieutenant with an order and was then wiped from the galactic plane, along with the indestructable Seventh Fleet.
Into the only structure on Firespring now strode, with some urgency, the Emperor and his guard. Through the small ante room they rushed, towards the incoming transmission.
The buildings functional design, grand in appearance to the average citizen, took the form of a tapering, cylindrical tower above an oval-shaped building containing a royal chamber, communication room and quarters for guards and pilot. Captain Farrer was both guard and pilot. His ship, walking distance from the structure.
"I have a feeling, Captain, this will not be good news."
Farrer said nothing and kept the required half step behind his Emperor and commander.
They could hear the voice of the messenger before they walked into the communication room.
"Firespring, this is Evius Station. Firespring this is Evius Station. Please respond."
Calron took the seat next to the communication panel. "Evius this is Firespring. Go ahead."
"Sir, the enemy is upon us. The Seventh Fleet has been destroyed, Tantalus Sector has fallen and we've heard nothing from the entire Eastern Arm. The twelve fleets deployed in that region are silent. Proxima Venturi -" A short silence that seemed endless to the Emperor. "No word, sir."
"Understood, Commander." Calron looked into mid air. "Any communication with the enemy?"
"None, sir." They do not answer."
The Emperor closed his tired eyes and thought for five long seconds. "Lieutenant, order all remaining colonies to go underground or flee to safety. Survival is paramount."
And with that the channel was closed and Emperor and soldier sat quietly in the knowledge that the only option was to pull the trigger. The activation of the grid, laid through many years and connected through lensing subspace projectors was the final action to be taken in a hopeless battle against the ruthless, steamrolling evil carving it's way through the galaxy.
The mechanism to unleash the cascade of energies was housed under the surface of Firespring. The Emperor, and only the Emperor, could ignite it once his brain scan and voiceprint was detected and accepted. Once triggered, every known wormhole in the galaxy would collapse, stopping the advance of the enemy. It would also mean isolation for all the individual worlds of the Empire. It would no longer be an Empire. Wherever there was an enemy presence, it seemed most likely the systems nearby would fall. For the colonies as yet unreached by the intruders, there remained hope.
"Sir." Captain Farrer looked at Calron with the distant eyes of a man sentenced to death. "I will wait outside for you."
Calron closed his eyes again. Could he do it? Could he isolate himself from his people, to remain here on this lifeless rock for the remainder of his days? Was it to be that he might stop the advance of the shadows of destruction for the sake of pockets of survivors but the death of the Empire? And he could not be certain that they were using the wormholes. The early warning outposts had not been able to detect the enemy within them. Nor anywhere for that matter. Their technologies were a thousand years ahead of those of the Empire.
How could one person be expected to decide such a fate? And after thousands of years of prosperity and community, was the remaining life in this ancient spiral galaxy to be a dusting of island worlds in a vast silent sea once again?
Outside, the good Captain sat on the promontory they had earlier occupied. He looked out into the red distance and thought of home. He thought of his family and his men who, right now, were fighting a hopeless war against an utterly ruthless and silent invader. All the mighty weapons and previously invincible fighting ships that had once upheld the integrity of the Empire were now no more effective than sticks against bullets.
He was both heavyhearted and bitterly frustrated.
The sound of slow footsteps then disturbed his thoughts. He turned to see Calron walking towards him. Farrer tried to find some clue in his eyes as he reached the rock on which the Captain sat. Had he done it? Had the Emperor struck a final blow? Were they to remain here forever?
They looked at each other for several seconds. Several seconds that were eons of history and light years of Imperial life waiting for its Emperor to act.
"I couldn't do it." Calron said in dead tone. "I will not do it."
Farrer lifted his head very slightly. His commander continued.
"There must be a way. This is not right."
And as if to anticipate an order, the Captain stood.
"Let us go, Captain. Our world needs us. We must find a way to defeat them or die trying."
Farrer smiled a narrow smile and they walked, with broad steps, to the small ship and to a waiting galaxy who needed their Emperor now more than ever.