PROLOGUE

The supply train was just over three hundred chains in length, barreling along the open plain and outpacing sound by threefold. Ahead of the bronzed bulbous head of the floating engine, a crackling blue shimmer of lightning was all that showed the energy field that kept the bow shock wave from destroying everything. The linked machine passed silently, a ghost in the night as it swept toward its destination.

The third car of the train was dark, mostly empty, with only a handful of people standing watch, and most of them were barely able to focus on the blur of the landscape as it sped past. Toward the front, however, one woman stood with eyes glittering in the night, alert and active as she watched. The touch of silver gleaming from behind her irises was the only hint that she was running enhanced at the moment, but it was all a careful observer would need.

“Have you seen anything, my lady?”

Mira Delsol half turned, the silver fading from her eyes, and shook her head.

“Only the heat fog in the distance, Stephan,” she said. “Nothing else moves along the great bowl.”

Stephan El nodded.

Nothing, not even the greater viewing lenses, could penetrate the permanent heat fog that hid details from sight. Only remote viewers had a chance, and they were finicky beasts at best.

“Well,” he said, “that is no surprise, my lady. No one knows of this run, not even the royals. There are no leaks to be found.”

“Air escapes through solid steel, Stephan,” she said darkly, eyes turning back to look out over the landscape that was blurring past. “Count only on that.”

“There is a half century of men-at-arms aboard with us, plus a knight and—”

“Two knights. Never forget it.”

“You are too humble, my lady,” he said, but smiled nonetheless.

If it was a slightly bitter smile, Mira said nothing. Stephan was a knight, yes, but she was Cadre. They were a cut above, legends in their own lifetimes, so calling herself a knight was almost irritatingly humble of her.

“The point is, my lady,” he said softly, “what force stands a chance against a half century and us?”

Mira shrugged, knowing that he was right in a very real way. Few forces in the area could be mustered that would be a serious threat to the train, not with its air screens fully charged while it tore across the desert at hypersonic speeds. Add to that the strength of the half century posted on board, and then Stephan and herself.

No, he is right. There’s no force for a thousand leagues either crazy or stupid enough to meet us head-on, and nothing for even farther that could catch us from the back. I’m being paranoid, thought Mira.

In that, at least, she wasn’t alone.

Someone had assigned a Cadre member to guard duty, something that just didn’t happen without cause. So, paranoid or not, she reached inward and cycled her enhanced senses again before looking out the great window to the dark landscape as it flashed by.

The silver hint returned to her eyes as her vision shifted, growing sharper and more defined. It let her spot details in the blur of the closer terrain as well as pick out the occasional animal padding through the flat bowl of the Great Desert. Beside her she noted Stephan pick up a pair of portable field viewers and join her.

She felt some pity for Stephan. He was a good knight, but he’d never managed to qualify for a Cadre slot despite near constant attempts. It wasn’t a shade on his record. Fewer than one in a hundred made it into the Cadre, and that was from the one in five hundred who successfully earned their helms as knights. He’d already beaten the odds just making it to where he was. It was nothing to feel shame about, but she knew that he felt just that.

Mira didn’t pity him for not achieving his goal. She pitied him for not realizing just how high he had already climbed.

Some men could fly to the Great Islands, and still it would not be high enough.

Mira leaned forward and glanced both ahead and up, noting the laser-straight line of light cracking open the skies ahead of them.

“We’ll shortly ride into the new light,” she said. “Nanna’s Great Island moves past.”

“Aye.” Stephan nodded, looking out as well. “So it does. The heat will be on us soon too. The fog will worsen.”

He had a point, of course. When the Great Island moved from between them and the sun, things would grow hotter quite quickly. There was little rain and no cloud cover in this region and, as far as anyone could tell, the environmental wards had grown less and less over the years. That was why they had put the testing range so far out this way, where few people cared to go and where there was next to nothing to destroy.

The heat fog was a minor issue, really. It never went away after all. It just waxed and waned, so while it would be a problem, it was really just a matter of degrees. Still, she wouldn’t care to be caught out in that heat, not without the environmental controls of the train to cover them.

It would be a trial to endure, of that there was no doubt.

“Wake a squad of the men-at-arms,” she said. “Double the forward watch. Let us be sure that the field remains solid. It would not do to lose shielding now.”

“True enough.” Stephan nodded, stepping back. “It will be done, my lady.”

She snorted, half smiling as she turned to look at him. “How long have we known one another, Stephan?”

“Almost five years,” he admitted with a bit of a grin.

“I’ve never known you to call even nobles by those old titles,” she said, “so why have you begun with me?”

“Those soft-ass fools never earned a thing in their lives,” he told her simply. “You made Cadre, my lady. That’s worthy of a little respect.”

She laughed softly, shaking her head. “Call me my name, Stephan. You need not do more than that.”

“Yes, well,” he said as he stopped by the door to the next car, “that too is worth a little respect … You’re still too damned humble for your own good, though.”

The door slid back and he stepped through before she could respond, the low hum of the levitation system filling the cabin until the door slammed shut again.

“Never did know the difference between humility and pragmatism, Stephan,” she said to the empty car. “Some of us just don’t like the attention.”

That was something she knew that he would—no, likely could—never fully understand or appreciate. Some people lived for the glory; some just lived for the challenge.

* * *

Wakened, the reinforcing squad of men-at-arms moved forward on its orders to better secure the train. Mira left them to their concerns as she continued her watch, thinking about what they were carrying and their destination.

They had been traveling fifteen hours already and had another ten remaining at their current speed. That would solidly put them in the center of Lanthan Imperial Territory, defended not only by the might of the Imperial forces but also by the sheer inhospitality of the Great Desert.

It will have to do, I suppose.

The shadow of the Great Island was racing past, and she could now see the sky ahead of them. It appeared out of the heat fog, a little over fifty degrees up, and only came to sharp clarity at about eighty degrees. As always the sky was mostly white, with occasional swirls she knew to be distant cloud formations. Some slates of gray and even occasional blobs of blue were defined as well, but the most visible features were the other Great Islands that could be seen as they moved slowly around the distant sun.

“My lady …”

“Report,” Mira said softly, not turning around.

She heard the man-at-arms salute, his open hand clapping to his chest, palm faced up.

“The prisoner is secure. All systems on board remain at their nominal state. We arrive in nine hours, forty minutes.”

“Very good. Dismissed.”

The man saluted again, then retreated, leaving Mira to her thoughts as the train burst out of the final shadow of Nanna’s Great Island and into the open heat of the desert sun. With full light now, and a double duty of guards posted around the train, Mira stepped back from the post and made her way back through the cars.

The remaining men-at-arms assigned to the train were camped out in the troop cars. She walked through quietly. Many of them had just finished a double shift and were still on emergency call, so they needed what rest they could get. Her objective was three cars back, barricaded by four men-at-arms who barred her way as she approached.

“Stand at rest,” Mira ordered, tilting her head and gesturing them out of her way.

They moved.

She walked into the secure car, a long empty expanse with a single cell in the center and a lone man sitting within.

“We can’t be there already,” he said as she approached, “not unless they’ve improved the train’s speed a bit since my day.”

“We have another ten hours,” she said, her tone cool. “But I’m sure you knew that.”

“Of course. Mira, I believe … Delsol?” he asked, raising his head to look at her for the first time.

Mira nodded. “I am.”

“I saw you test for Cadre. Impressive. Pity you didn’t test a few years earlier. I’d like to have recruited you.”

She snorted. “I am no traitor.”

“Is that what they call me?” the man asked. “I believe that I really need a better image coordinator.”

“I think you missed a few,” she countered. “Monster, I believe, is the most popular.”

“Well, slaughter a few thousand people and you do get a bit of a reputation,” he said, standing up. “I honestly should have killed more. No one really seems to mind if your kill list tops a million for some reason. The difference between a murderer and a statesman, don’t you know?”

“Statesman? You led a revolt against the lawful government, using chemical warfare as your lead weapon. That’s not statesmanship; that’s a psychotic break,” Mira told him. “What troubles me most is just how many knights you got to go along with your insanity.”

“Ah, insanity.” He smiled. “The fun thing about insanity is that it is often so very hard to tell it apart from brilliance.”

“Outcome would be one way to tell them apart,” Mira said.

“So very true,” he agreed. “So I suppose we’ll find out shortly which it is.”

She was about to respond but froze, eyes narrowing as she turned to look at him sharply. “You are in a maximum-security cell on a train bound for the most secure facility in the empire.”

“Yes, yes, I am.” He smiled at her. “Tell me that you don’t really believe that’s a coincidence?”

Mira chuckled softly, shaking her head. “Don’t try your mind games with me. I just wanted to know how a disgrace like you ever made Cadre in the first place.”

“Please, love …” He smiled. “You’re young yet, still filled with all that lovely idealism.”

He walked over to the field separating them. “I suppose you still believe in all that ‘corps is mother, faithful forever’ nonsense. Took me a long time to shake the mind molding and see the way things really are.”

“And just look where that got you,” Mira said, shaking her head. “A failed coup.”

“It’s only failed if I’m not sitting on the throne when it’s over, love,” he countered, smiling, “and it’s so very far from over.”

A siren blaring in the distance stopped the conversation. Mira half turned, looking forward, then glanced back at the prisoner, who was now looking far too smug for her comfort. She lifted a link to her ear and touched it on. “Delsol. What is it?”

“My lady, there is an ambush ahead of us. Men flanking the tracks with weaponry we can detect from here. Should I send more men-at-arms to the front?”

“No!” she snapped. “If they have weapons to bring down the shield, we’d lose every man standing. Call back our forces from the engine and have them arm for siege.”

“Yes, my lady.”

Mira cut the link and looked back at the prisoner.

“As I said, we’ll see when the game is over,” he said.

“If they bring down the shield, they’ll crash this train. That’ll put everyone on board at risk,” she said as she walked across the compartment and opened an electronics panel, violently ripping out a group of wires. “Some more than others.”

“What did you just do?” he asked, his tone suspicious.

“I am not stopping this train,” she told him, eyes meeting his. “If they want to stop us, they’ll have to do it … catastrophically … and you will have to endure it without inertics to cushion the blow.”

“You can’t do that … ,” he said, his tone almost wondering. “That’s against all regulations.”

She opened the door and stepped out, her voice wafting over her shoulder. “Do what? That was clearly battle damage.”

The door slammed shut behind her, leaving the prisoner alone in the dark once more.

* * *

The siren was wailing as Mira strode through the train, heading for the front of the long line of speeding cars. She reached up with her right hand to tap the trinity emblem on her left shoulder, not breaking stride as she activated the device with a thought and motion.

A shimmering iridescent field flowed around her body as she moved, expanding until her entire form was covered in glowing energy, and solidified into a gleaming white shell. In full armor now, Mira paused between cars, climbing up and knocking open the access hatch before pulling herself up.

“Delsol,” she said, speaking over the comm line in a calm voice. “Report.”

“Enemy ambush is three minutes ahead, my lady.”

“Clear the front car,” Mira said softly as she planted her feet on the roof of the train. “Everyone brace for impact. If they can take out the shield, this is going to be a rough ride.”

Mira didn’t bother acknowledging Stephan’s reply. She was too busy focusing on running forward along the moving train cars. The magnetic levitation of the vehicle was quite smooth, but enough vibrations passed back from the forward energy shield to keep her plenty busy when combined with the buffets of wind sweeping around. Through the display floating in front of her face, she could already see what her men had reported.

The ambush looked professional, two lines set up with an elevated cross fire clearly intended to catch the train as it passed. She didn’t know if the enemy had enough firepower to do the job but had to assume that if they were this far out in the desert, they had probably come prepared.

“Stephan, have you broken out the heavy weapons yet?”

Stephan’s voice came back almost instantly. “We have, my lady. What are your orders?”

“Stand by to engage from the second car,” she ordered. “They might get the first shot. But let’s be sure to get the last.”

“As you say, my lady.”

Confident that Stephan and her men had things well in order, Mira hopped the space between the second and first car. Now she was almost directly behind the forward energy shields, sheltered from the rushing wind and all but the heaviest weapons. Unfortunately, she was quite certain that whatever weapons the enemy had, they would not prove to be lightweight.