Teaser Tuesday: HELLHOLE INFERNO

On August 12, Tor Books will release HELLHOLE INFERNO, the grand finale of my science fiction epic trilogy with Brian Herbert.  To whet your appetite, here’s a sneak preview.

The planet HELLHOLE, devastated by an ancient asteroid impact, is inhabited by only the hardiest and most desperate colonists.  It is one of 54 remote frontier worlds forced to pay tribute to the corrupt Constellation, which is ruled by decadent nobles.  An exiled rebel general, Tiber Adolphus, was tough enough to keep his colony alive on Hellhole, and he has now mounted a second rebellion against the Constellation, much larger than his earlier failed attempt.

This time Adolphus aligns himself with the Xayans, a resurrected alien race from Hellhole, thought to have been destroyed in the long-ago asteroid impact.  As the ancient civilization awakens, the Xayans encourage converts from among the colonists to immerse themselves in strange “slickwater” pools and acquire ancient alien memories. Their goal is to gather sufficient numbers to achieve ala’ru, an accelerated evolution that will transform them into godlike beings.

General Adolphus rallies his fellow rebels from across the vast Deep Zone to fight for their independence, while the ruthless leader of the Constellation, Diadem Michella, vows to eradicate the rebellion and all colonists on Hellhole.  The Xayans add their “telemancy” defenses to the General’s conventional military resources, until they reveal an enemy far more terrifying than the Army of the Constellation: a faction of rogue Xayans bent on the extermination of their race . . . and the destruction of any planet that happens to be in the way. The rogue Xayans have already turned worlds into rubble, and now they have set their sights on the original homeworld.

As a barrage of deadly asteroids hurtles toward Hellhole, and the Constellation’s gigantic space fleet arrives for a final engagement against General Adolphus, the hardy settlers are caught between a human enemy that wants to raze their colony to the ground and much more powerful aliens who can destroy not only themselves, but human civilization, as well as the foundations of the universe itself.

Hellhole-Inferno

1

Three Constellation warships descended through a sky spider-webbed with vapor trails.  Pilots guided the bristling vessels to the staging field at the Aeroc military complex, where they joined the numerous other warships already landed in formation.  By now, Commodore Percival Hallholme had lost count of the new arrivals, each one with new armor and reinforced shielding, loaded with all the armaments the Diadem’s government could muster.

As he assessed the massive preparations, Percival nodded to himself and muttered, “Putting everything on the line this time.”

After stinging defeats at the hands of rebellious Deep Zone planets, led by his nemesis General Tiber Adolphus, the Constellation was expanding the war.  No hesitation, no reservations, no mercy.

And not much of a plan, Percival thought, but he didn’t express such reservations out loud.  It would not be appropriate for the ostensible commander of the operation.

This influx of additional warships—all of them rounded up by Lord Selik Riomini—increased the confidence among the Diadem’s fighters, although Percival knew that the sheer quantity of ships would not guarantee a victory.  He had faced General Adolphus before, numerous times, and in their last encounter at Hallholme—a planet named after the Commodore and not-so-affectionately nicknamed “Hellhole” by the colonists—Percival had suffered an embarrassing defeat, forced to retreat.

Now it was time for a rematch.

The Aeroc military yards were bustling.  The upbeat victory tempo of “Strike Fast, Strike Hard!” rang out from widely distributed loudspeakers.  The Commodore watched attack ships loaded with fresh, untrained recruits who had rushed to sign up after Diadem Michella saturated them with propaganda and fear. She painted Adolphus as a monster and a threat to human civilization itself, and worse, the rebel General had allied himself with a mysterious alien race that could possess innocent victims, filling their minds with bizarre memory-lives.

The crisis was enough to inflame the population—at least those who believed the Diadem’s words and concurred with her fears.  Many people were not so easily swayed.  And Percival knew full well that the old woman’s portrayal was not precisely accurate. Nevertheless, he was bound by his duty.

As he crossed the parade ground to the towering military headquarters building, he wore a crisp new uniform from the Army of the Constellation.  It was more modern and stylish than the old uniform he’d worn during the General’s first, failed rebellion fifteen years ago—back when Commodore Hallholme had made his name as a hero.  In historical images from those old battles, Percival had looked younger, fresher, bright-eyed, optimistic . . . and gullible.

Although he still sported the same distinctive muttonchop sideburns and steel-gray hair, he looked older and thinner now, carrying the weight of years and regrets.  His degenerative limp was much more pronounced.  He had retired at the end of the last rebellion and intended to stay out of the limelight, wanting nothing more than to tend his grapevines, play with his grandsons, and let his son Escobar be the next renowned military hero.

But as the new rebellion went sour, Percival had been dragged out of retirement and pressed back into service at the Diadem’s command. His fresh uniform was adorned with colorful, even gaudy, medals—some of them earned, some merely for show.

Forcing himself not to show weakness or hesitation despite his chronic limp, he strode at a brisk pace that exuded authority.  With briefing documents tucked under one arm, he walked past fountains and military memorials, obelisks engraved with thousands of names of the fallen, but his thoughts were preoccupied. Diadem Michella and Lord Riomini had requested a special briefing, and Percival knew he would have to tell them what they wanted to hear.

Five sleek fighters streaked across Aeroc’s sky, performing aerial maneuvers, which impressed those who were impressed by that sort of thing.  A man like Commodore Hallholme knew that combat would require more than tricks this time.

He mounted the marble steps of the pillared headquarters building and glanced at the engraved quotes from past heroic commanders.  One of his own pithy sayings was included somewhere, but he had never bothered to find it.  Pennants of noble families hung outside the arched entrance, arranged according to their financial sacrifice.  Inside the hall, red banners carried the names of lesser families who had lost sons and daughters during the bloody battles of the General’s first rebellion.

Percival lifted his chin and made his way down the oddly empty hall to the giant simulation chamber.  With a glance at his chronometer, Commodore Hallholme saw that he was precisely on time, and he entered.

The curved ceiling of the simulation chamber was embedded with high-res holographic projectors.  During wartime the chamber had been used for combat scenarios and tactical planning, but in the decade of calm after Adolphus’s exile to Hellhole, it was primarily used for wealthy noble officers to experience immersive simulations of the Battle of Sonjeera or other famous engagements—particularly the ones in which Commodore Hallholme had defeated the rebel General.  That way the participants could imagine being heroes themselves.

The Diadem and the Black Lord sat in VIP participation chairs in the prime viewing area.  They did not rise as Percival presented himself to them.

Diadem Michella Duchenet was so ancient that she might have been a poorly preserved museum piece.  Thin and wrinkled, she was not frail, but intimidating in her old age, with bird-bright eyes and quick movements.  Defying her own mortality, Michella remained lean and healthy, kept herself fanatically fit, as if she intended to rule for yet another century.  Over her long reign, the old woman had survived many battles, and Percival knew not to underestimate her.  Generally, Michella liked to present a sweet, maternal demeanor, convinced that her people loved and adored her, but she was as comforting as a bed of glass shards.

Beside her, Lord Riomini sat dressed entirely in black, as usual.  Two decades younger than Michella, the Black Lord’s body was soft, his eyes hard.  Though he was primarily a politician and businessman, he was not afraid of command and had seen battle first-hand.  But unlike a commander who simply had a war to win, Riomini had something to prove: he wanted to be the next Diadem.

Percival held out his briefing papers. “I have the report you requested, Eminence.”

Upon his return to Sonjeera in defeat, the Commodore had offered his resignation, but Diadem Michella refused to accept it.  Since then, he felt as if he were more of a military trophy than a useful participant.

Instead of taking the report, Michella lifted a hand that was overburdened with jeweled rings.  “We are not here to discuss inventory, Commodore, but to talk about your upcoming conquest of the Deep Zone.  Fifty-four valuable worlds have broken away from the Constellation. We need them back.”

Riomini added, “The lost wealth is incalculable.  The political embarrassment is even more devastating.”

Arguments and replies boiled up within him, but Percival held himself silent.  Better to say nothing than to point out that this current clash was an unnecessary crisis of the Diadem’s own making.

“Present your overview, Commodore.”  Riomini operated controls linked to his seat, and the vault filled with stars, showing the settled systems of the Constellation, the twenty central Crown Jewel planets and the fifty-four outlying Deep Zone worlds.

Percival nudged the controls of the galactic model himself, calling up a standard template.  Bright blue lines radiated outward from the center of the star map to each one of those worlds.  Twenty established lines connected the Crown Jewels, and an additional fifty-four extended into the less-populated Deep Zone, connecting the dots.  “With Sonjeera as the hub for all stringline travel, Eminence, you control all of the stringline paths, and thus all commerce throughout the original Crown Jewels as well as the new DZ worlds.”

Another nudge of the controls, and a secondary webwork of red lines radiated from one of the distant unobtrusive points—planet Hellhole—in a network that linked every one of the Deep Zone planets.  He was sure Michella understood the credible threat that Adolphus could wield—had wielded.

“The General’s independent stringline network gives him a strategic advantage that we cannot overcome.  Now that he has secretly laid down those alternate iperion paths, the DZ no longer needs the Constellation.  And because his rebels are fanatically independent, they are willing to sever every one of the old lines binding them to Sonjeera if they feel threatened.  We know the General will do it, cutting the entire Deep Zone loose from the Constellation.  He’s already cut his own direct stringline to Hellhole.”

That was how Adolphus had stranded the first Constellation retaliatory fleet—commanded by Percival’s son Escobar. The General had left the fleet adrift in empty space, and then he had seized all those ships, taking thousands of soldiers prisoner—including Escobar.  “It’s an ancient tactic, an army blowing bridges to deny the enemy access across vital rivers or canyons.  For General Adolphus, those canyons are many light-years wide.  If we attack him directly, he will do it without hesitation, and then we’ll never be able to get him.”

Both Riomini and the Diadem listened, but they appeared bored.  “That is old news, Commodore,” the Black Lord said with a quirk of a smug smile.  “You’re not aware of what has changed.  That is why we summoned you.”

Michella couldn’t contain her excitement.  “We have a route into the Deep Zone—one the General will not suspect.”

Riomini reached out to touch the hovering image of an insignificant Deep Zone speck at the edge of the frontier network.  It glowed when he selected it.  “This is how you will achieve victory. Tehila.”

Percival was familiar with the names of all Deep Zone worlds, but this one meant nothing to him.

Michella explained.  “When the General declared independence for all the frontier worlds, by fiat, he did so without the knowledge, cooperation—or desire—of many Deep Zone worlds.  When he embroiled them in this unnecessary war, not every planet was pleased to be part of it.  In fact, most of them were shocked.”

Riomini’s mouth twisted in a cruel grin.  “Theser was certainly shocked when I demonstrated the consequences of their unwise choice.”  The Black Lord had led a punitive assault that turned Theser into a smoldering, uninhabited rock.

Percival still didn’t understand.  “How does Tehila factor into this? What is its significance?”

The Diadem said, “Tehila’s planetary administrator Karlo Reming never had any desire to leave the Constellation, and now he wishes to come back into our protective embrace.  He and his people want our forgiveness.”

Percival raised his eyebrows,unconvinced.  “All of his people want that?”

“Enough of them,” said Riomini.  “Administrator Reming is about to stage a purge to get rid of any Adolphus loyalists.  Then he will seize and secure the stringlines, both the path to Sonjeera as well as their connection into the Deep Zone network.  Through him, we will have a back door right to the General’s doorstep.” 

Michella’s papery lips formed a terse smile.  “The way will be wide open for you, Commodore.  Your fleet is almost ready.  Take those ships to Tehila, secure the planet and establish a beachhead from which to swoop down on the General.  Crush planet Hallholme just like the asteroid that struck centuries ago.”

Upon hearing the new option, Percival felt an unfamiliar hope.  “That will give me a chance to rescue my son, along with the other prisoners the General is holding.”  He suddenly remembered.  “And your daughter too, Eminence.  I will do everything in my power to see that Keana is returned safely to you.”

Michella gave an unconcerned wave.  “Defeating General Adolphus and restoring order throughout the Deep Zone is your primary goal, Commodore.  Naturally, I love my daughter, but she is an adult and she went to that awful planet of her own free will.  Now she’s been possessed by one of those hideous aliens.”  The old woman shuddered visibly.  “I doubt there is a cure for it, so I have to consider her already lost.  They are casualties of war—my daughter, your son.  A price we have to pay.”

Riomini spoke up, as if wanting to make certain he was included. He shook his head.   “And my poor grandniece with her two boys, left fatherless when we lost Escobar.”

“Escobar is still alive,” Percival said pointedly, “as far as I know.”

“Yes, let us hope he is,” Michella added without any apparent sincerity.  “For now, begin planning your military operation.  Move your ships from Aeroc and stage them at the Sonjeera hub.  Be ready to move as soon as Administrator Reming has taken over Tehila and opened the door for us.”

HELLHOLE INFERNO will be released in eBook formats and hardcover on August 12. You can preorder your copy now!  Also, as a special, Tor Books is offering the Kindle version of the first book in the trilogy, HELLHOLE for only $2.99 right now.

HELLHOLE US cover

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