Prologue

Howard Timothy Krandler was a merchant, technically. His real job was as the junior sensor technician on the Trader ship, Itinerant Fortunes. What the meant was long hours staring at a screen that never showed anything interesting for weeks, or sometimes months at a time. It meant sitting in a dark little closet of a room for four hours every day, eight on Saturdays. It also meant that Howard had not seen his son or his wife for two years.

Howard sighed, pushing his chair a little further away from the console. They should be at that colony world, Tellinov, in another two weeks. Then they would spend a few days unloading the cargo, while the captain went off to find a buyer, and some more cargo. Then another few weeks in phase space, then another colony, and another one, Howard had another six months on his contract. Then, maybe he could go home, for a few months, maybe see his son again before the lad was sixteen.

The screen was still blank. Howard had been sitting in that cursed chair for two hours now, only two more to go before one of the other techs takes over. Idly Howard tapped his fingers against his leg, staring out at the Phase space rushing past the porthole. Howard was always slightly disturbed by Phase space, it never seemed natural to him, the switching out of his proper dimension.

Sometimes Howard half-wished that pirates would attack, or some unknown alien species would make contact, or anything at all would happen. Howard reached into his private compartment on the sensor console, and removed an old holo portrait. Three people stared up at him, a light skinned middle-aged man, brown hair, quickly turning to grey, brown life-filled eyes, a cheery smile across his face, Howard ten years ago, the week before he went off on a Trader vessel, the week before they had almost lost everything. The other two in the holo were Howard's wife, Amanda and his son Caleb, Amanda, before her sisters died, before the lines on her face, the premature loss of youth, and Caleb, only five years old, Howard had only seen him twice after this holo was taken, Howard could hardly imagine him at fifteen years old.

Howard's shift ended with out even as much as a blip appearing on the sensor screen. Howard spent the next few hours in his quarters. The smiling man in the holo was gone. Howard no longer had that smile, no longer that twinkle in the eye, ten years as a deep space trader would do that to you.

Ten years ago Howard ran a small grocer for his wife's family on Hiberia, a prosperous world deep in Trader space. Amanda had two sisters, Vanyla and Hanna, both of their parents had died when Amanda was sixteen, and her sisters looked after the family business. Then along came the shuttle accident. Vanyla and Hanna went to meet a potential new supplier, whose ship had just docked. The pilot's wife had left him the night before, and he made a mistake. The shuttle crashed into the docking port, and Vanyla and Hanna were killed.

Soon after the business failed, the supplier left, and Amanda did not have the gift of her sisters. Howard was forced to find other work. The only thing that presented itself was a low ranking crewer on a deep space Trader ship. Nothing had changed over the last ten years.

The next day Howard pulled a shift at the primary sensor station, on the bridge. Howard had never liked bridge duty. Too much Phase space in front of him, and the company was bad.

The Itinerant Fortunes was owned and captained by Richard Jallon, Captain Jallon was giant of a man, over two meters tall, and well over one hundred kilos. Captain Jallon had a very particular way of doing just about everything on his ship. Howard had seen what many a novice crewer looked like after a confrontation by the Captain. Most of them ended up shaking and close to tears. The man was not known for his gentle manner.

Howard entered the bridge, like all the other rooms on the Itinerant Fortunes it was too small, and was filled with beeping machines. When he was only a first year crewer Howard was always being distracted by those beeps. Howard now found them relaxing. Spending so much time on a starship does strange things to a man, mused Howard.

Captain Jallon sat in his chair at the center of the bridge. The man once served in the defense fleet of his homeworld, Howard knew the name, but could not remember it. The Captain still clung to some of his military ways on his ship.

"Sensor Technician Krandler, reporting, sir!" Said Howard, who had snapped to what he considered 'attention'. Captain Jallon glanced up from what looked to be a game on his seats build-in computer, and made a gesture of dismissal.

"Take your station Krandler." Replied the Captain.

Howard crossed the room to his console, a tiny thing in a cramped corner of the room, and sat down. The screen, as always was blank. Howard settled in for the long four hours ahead.

The first hour passed with Howard still waiting for something to happen, it was a habit Howard still carried from the days when he still thought space travel exciting. The second hour passed, with Howard only glancing at the screen every minute or so. The third hour, only every ten minutes, in the fourth hour Howard only checked the screen twice.

When his four hours ended Howard left the bridge. The next weeks were spent in the same pattern, spending four hours a day, eight on Saturdays, sitting in front of his console, either on the bridge, or in the secondary sensor room, spending the rest of the time counting off the days left in his contract.

Two weeks later the Itinerant Fortunes arrived at Tellinov, Howard was on duty in the bridge, and got to enjoy the landing. The Itinerant Fortunes was a small enough ship to land on the surface, and not have to dock at one of the orbital platforms.

The next two days were spent in the back-breaking work of unloading the thousands of boxes and crates of various pieces of higher technology that Tellinov could not produce itself and various exotic goods. Captain Jallon went in search of another cargo, and the crew was free to wander outside of the unloading dock. In Howard's experience all unloading docks looked the same, drab steel walls, no color, no art, and no fresh air.

Tellinov had a temperate climate, with some astonishing forests and interesting wildlife, but Howard had been there before, in his second year on the Itinerant Fortunes. Much had changed, many of the places Howard had visited were completely different now, and it all seemed too much like Hiberia. Howard spent most of his time on the ship. He wished he had the money to send a message to his family, back on Hiberia.

When the Captain returned Howard was almost glad to begin the equally back-breaking task of loading the various goods he had obtained onto the Itinerant Fortunes. Finally after a week on Tellinov they were headed home, the next planet was three months back into trader space from here on the edge. Howard would be able to go home soon; maybe he would be there for Caleb's sixteenth birthday.

Howard was on duty in the secondary sensor room, a posting he preferred over the bridge, he did not have to put up the act of watching for something to happen. Howard liked the times when he was on duty close to a planet, he could watch all the traffic entering and leaving orbit. Tellinov had very little traffic, being a small, perimeter colony world. The planet did however have a constant militia presence in space; pirates were common in these parts.

It would be about two hours before they cleared the gravity well of Tellinov and were able to make the jump to Phase space. The militia ships were taking part in what appeared to be some kind of drill.

Suddenly an alarm began to blare from outside the secondary sensor room. The intercom speakers crackled into life.

"All hands, this is Captain Jallon, the Tellinov defense forces have notified me that a large number of ships are approaching Tellinov from out side of Trader space, this may be a large pirate attack. They want us to turn around and land, until things calm down."

Howard's heart kicked up its pace. The sensor screen was still blank, but the pirates would be here soon. After only a few minutes the screen began to flash, beeping urgently. Dozens of ships were dropping out of phase space, from several directions. This was hardly a pirate attack.

Howard pressed the intercom button.

"Bridge, this is the Secondary Sensor Room, I am picking up dozens, no hundreds of ships dropping out of Phase space. It's a whole armada! We gotta get out of here!" Howard had begun to panic. The militia was undoubtedly enough to deal with a few pirates, but this was something else. There was no way that they could fend off the fleet that had just neatly surrounded Tellinov.

"Secondary Sensor Room, this is the Bridge, hold it together Krandler. We are going to land, and wait this out. We'll be fine." The Captain sounded confident, like he had been through this before. Howard knew it was an act.

Howard keyed his console to scan one of the ships in the armada more closely. It was an ugly thing, with odd architecture. Howard had never seen anything like it.

The Militia ships formed a protective ring around the planet, twenty odd light frigates against and armada of ships. Howard knew that this Armada could walk right over the whole system.

Part of the Armada moved forward, Howard franticly counted the dots on his screen. Twenty, thirty, forty, over fifty ships moving forward. Clouds of strike craft blooming out in front of them. The center of the formation held a massive ship, just as strange as any of the others, it seem to resemble a turtle from Howard's view.

This group came ever closer to the Militia ships. What did they want? Suddenly strange green triangles of energy lashed out from the strange fleet. The Militia ships returned fire, one by one the militia ships were engulfed in flames and exploded. In a matter of moments all but two fleeing ships had been destroyed.

Howard's sensors showed that not a single on of the strange Armada was even heavily damaged. Howard glanced out his porthole. The wreckage was so far away that Howard could not see any of it with his eyes. Suddenly something flashed past the porthole, so fast Howard did not see what it was. An explosion rocked the ship. They were being shot at! Howard pulled up a readout of the ships systems on his console. The sunlight engines were not responding. The Itinerant Fortunes was helpless, adrift.

From aft of Howard's station there came the sound of cannon fire. The Captain was shooting back. Itinerant Fortunes only had two small cannons, it was a futile gesture and no doubt the Captain knew it.

Howard's sensors showed strikecraft swarming around the Itinerant Fortunes. Explosion after explosion tore through the ship. The cannons fell silent after only a few moments. Howard tried to call the bridge, but the intercom was not responding.

Howard knew that the Itinerant Fortunes would be destroyed. He had to get to one of the life pods. Howard slapped the release on the door. An explosion ripped down the corridor towards Howard. Howard threw himself back into the sensor room. Sparks cascaded from his console. The screen was dead.

Howard pulled himself up from the floor. Piles of melting plastic and metal were heaped in front of the door, the explosion had filled the corridor with fire, every panel was twisted, the ceiling tiles were hanging off.

Yet another explosion knocked Howard to the floor. Howard arm landed on a tangle of melting wires. Howard screamed in pain, clutching his burned arm to his chest he hobbled up the burning hallway to the bridge.

Just as Howard touched the panel to open the bridge door a massive explosion threw him against the wall, scorching his back. Howard collapsed to the floor, moaning weakly. It was then Howard realized he would die, here in space, dozens of lightyears from Hiberia, from his family. Howard staggered to his feet.

The bridge was devoid of life. Captain Jallon lay in front of his chair, blood slowly dripping from his head. The other crewers were all sprawled over their consoles, or lying on the floor, none were moving.

Howard glanced at the planet below, and then did a double take. Massive explosions were erupting on the southern continent. Howard knew now, this was no pirate attack, this is an invasion.

Howard ran to the communications console, and keyed for a transmission to the nearest Trade order outpost.

"This is Howard Krandler, junior sensor technician on the Itinerant Fortunes, in orbit of Tellinov. The planet is being attacked!"

Who ever was at the other end did not answer.

"I say again, Tellinov is being attacked, hundreds of ships, everywhere, their firing at the planet!"

There was no response. No one was there. Howard watched as another explosion blossomed on the planet's surface. Howard fell to his knees, all thought gone from his mind.

Howard watched as a group of fresh militia ships rose from the planet. The strike craft broke off their attack on the Itinerant Fortunes. Howard watched as they were destroyed. Howard watched as explosion after explosion erupted from the planet. Howard watched, and talked the computer relayed his words to the Trader outpost on Minerva, from there it was relayed to all over Trader space. Howard's words were the first record of this terrible new threat.

Howard watched as a single ship lazily corkscrewed towards him, watched as it spit green fire, his voice trailed off, and then spoke one more sentence.

"This is it."

Then Howard Krandler stopped talking.