Absence of Blade (Expansion Series #1)

The war should have ended years ago.

Professional assassin Gau Shesharrim wants to retire. But as his desperate colony’s best operative against the superior Terran forces, retirement is easier said than done.

For six years, Terrans and Osk have fought for control of the barely habitable planet Olios 3. The Terrans should have won easily: their Expansion fleet outclasses the Osk in ships, weaponry, technology. Operatives like Gau have held the line through espionage, sabotage, and assassinations, but every failed mission brings them closer to defeat.

Gau’s commanding officers are gambling his life on one more mission. If he can assassinate General Shanazkowitz, leader of the Terran forces, it might turn the tide.

The bitter, war-weary Gau accepts the assignment with one hope in mind: that it will end the conflict.

But what Gau discovers on the mission could be his colony’s doom.

Absence of Blade is the first volume in the Expansion space opera series, a sci-fi epic that reads like a thriller.

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Chapter 1

Gau Shesharrim studied the defenses around the target. He tapped the holographic map’s corners to zoom in on points of interest, loosing a little sigh as he did so. He needed maps for his briefings, but schematics disappointed him. A flat piece of holofoil could never express all the nuances of the real building with its hidden nooks and sharp, concealing corners. All the parts vital to his work.

“So tell me,” said the other Osk beside him. “Do you think you can kill this woman?”

Gau turned his gaze from the table. Tev, the Osk running the briefing, was a nervous creature displaying the low-level anxiety and nervous tics of an official of middling influence. He’d been hovering by the holotable the whole time, offering useless speculations about the guard and defenses of the building depicted in the incomplete map. Gau had ignored him as he scanned through what intelligence there was.

He let his teeth show in the edge of a smile. “Easily.” Gau’s voice was a dry rustle the other Osk had to lean forward to hear. “Getting to her and then out will be the hard part. Still, the guard seems to be light, and the building itself offers plenty of hiding places for those with a little imagination.”

“If I felt it was beneath your capabilities, the task would go to another. Don’t take this lightly.”

“I never take missions lightly.” Gau’s professional mask never moved, but inside he suppressed a sneer. From his appearance alone it was clear Tev was neither soldier nor seph. He had never fought or killed. The dark mane framing his long snout was cut short in the style of a noncombatant. Under the loose white robes emblazoned with the crest of Za colony, Tev looked underfed, the gray flesh of his torso and spindly arms stretched tight over the bone. He lacked the muscles of a fighter. Gau wondered if the blades hidden in the bony sheaths that grew under the other Osk’s arms had ever seen use. The bone will be sharp but brittle. And yellow, he thought. Yellow like a new hatchling’s.

Gau let his smile creep wider, closing teeth on his contempt. “I am merely assessing the mission aloud for your benefit.”

Tev dipped his head in acknowledgment. “If you have any misgivings with the assignment, or the intelligence …”

“I don’t,” said Gau. “There won’t be any problems.”

“That’s a fine attitude, if your objective is to get killed,” said a new voice, full and sharp as a hand slapped on sunbaked stone.

The hapless official almost jumped out of his robes. Gau turned from the table to face the new Osk, his face a lid over his own surprise. He’d been caught off guard; that didn’t happen often.

“And who exactly are you, to say that?” Gau asked the newcomer icily.

The Osk leaning next to the door was taller and broader than Gau, with the body of a fighter; Gau could see that even through the dark traveling cloak that draped his chest and lithe abdomen. Beneath the cloak, segmented seph armor sheathed the Osk’s legs and lower body down to his conical tail. A bright red mane spilled in an uncut cascade down his back.

Four armored boots clacked on the ceramic floor as the new Osk stepped closer and inclined his head.

“Mose Attarrish. A registered seph like yourself. And a specialist in remote reconnaissance. I collected the data for the map you’ll be using. I received permission to attend this briefing in case you had any questions about the schematic. We’ve never met before, but I have heard of your… work.”

“Ah.” Gau’s tone thawed by a fraction. “And I have heard of yours.” For a moment, the two sephs appraised each other. Gau could read nothing in the dark orbs of Attarish’s eyes, and his scent was a similar blank. Yet he could imagine what the other seph was thinking. He would be trying to see past the physical fact of Gau—not much taller than a child, rawboned and wiry, soft of voice and stance—to what everyone knew. Attarish would be trying to see him as Gau Shesharrim, the greatest seph in Za; Gau, who had killed more Terran leaders than any of the rest of them; Gau, who might yet win them the war.

Tev bobbed into Gau’s field of vision. “If you have no further concerns, I suggest you begin preparations for the flight.” He rubbed his hands together. “It is long, and since you must arrive at night …”

“Yes.” Gau cut him off. Actually, he was grateful for the nervous official’s interjection. Now Gau wouldn’t have to find out if Attarish was one of those admiring types who grew disappointed at the fact of him. And he was impatient to be off, doing what he did best. Gau stalked past Attarish to the vertex of the seedpod-shaped chamber. Its white walls peeled away, a doorway blossoming onto the corridor beyond.

“Tell the hangar to prep the Carnivore. I’ll be ready to leave in a sixty.”

* * *

Blasted rock stretched to the horizon as Gau piloted the Carnivore above the dead lands that separated Za colony from Nheris. Altitude washed out most of the details, but if he squinted, Gau could make out whorls and tortured escarpments of volcanic rock swooping toward the glimmer of ocean behind him and stretching interminably ahead. The sky above was a black dome even in daylight; his ship scraped the upper layers of the planet’s atmosphere, almost in orbit.

The vault of Olios 3’s atmosphere and higher orbit teemed with around five thousand ships at any given time, of which Gau’s craft was but one more. shared the skies with around five thousand ships at any given time, scattered around the upper atmosphere and orbit of Olios 3. Less than half of them were Osk, though the Fleet was busily growing itself larger whenever it received a new influx of material from Oskaran, which wasn’t often. The rest of the orbital presence, halfway around the planet’s rim, belonged to the Terran Expansion.

Despite harassment from Osk ships, the Terran fleet was growing every day. Terran nanoassemblies could construct ships in a matter of hours; the Fleet had to wait weeks for its ships to gestate and fuse their biomechanical parts—and get blown apart by Terran guns while they did so. A few sephs had been sent on missions to sabotage the nanoassemblies, with minimal success. Gau’s kind were not spacers—they were planet dwellers with spacefaring technology. The difference shaped Osk strategy: Za was needed to win Olios 3 on the surface, using people like Gau.

* * *

Night had fallen by the time Gau landed on the outskirts of Nheris. The Terran capital clung to a tiny strip of arable land between the planet’s massive ocean and the moonscape of cooled lava that spilled across its single continent. The terrain around Za was much the same. Terraforming Olios 3 was a dream, lurking beyond the unknowable horizon of peace; neither colony could devote resources to such plans in the middle of a war.

The Carnivore settled silently into a wooded strip at the edge of Terran territory and switched off its sensor-jamming systems. The hull of the flattened ellipsoid had camouflaged for the journey, turning the ship into a blotch of shadow. A door folded open in its side.

From the doorway Gau scanned his surroundings, flicking his gaze from side to side. A meager parkland of stunted trees stretched to the horizon. At the very edge of his sight stood an outpost, but he could see no movement there.

He stepped from the safety of his craft and began to check each piece of his articulated black armor, tugging on the fastenings of his chest plate, flexible throat guard, greaves, and vambraces. All secure. He raised the angular helmet with its segmented neck plates, brushed his black mane out from beneath it, settled the headpiece again. He pulled on his armored gloves, checking to make sure the openings to the bony sheaths on his arms weren’t blocked by gauntlet or vambrace. Gau turned back toward the Carnivore and sent a command through the circuits in his armor. The lines of the craft blurred into a collage of black and white, darkened to gray, then leapt back into focus in the image of a large boulder. The camouflage program was one of several modifications Gau had made to the craft, a gift from Za’s government when he had first arrived on Olios 3 to aid the war. Any Osk leaders worth serving provided a personal craft to the sephs they employed, to give them the mobility for their missions of protection, sabotage, and sanctioned murder.

Gau slipped into the cover of the trees and started toward the city center, moving like the shadow he’d been trained to be.

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