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THE STORY SO FAR
Two decades have passed since the end of the Elemental War, the terrible conflict that raged across the Spiral Arm, devastated the alien Ildiran Empire, and tore apart the Terran Hanseatic League. The defeated hydrogues have retreated into their gas-giant planets; the fiery faeros have withdrawn into their stars and cause no further mayhem; the watery wentals have lost most of their power and are quiescent in ice planets and ocean worlds. Only the verdani, the sentient worldtrees on the forest planet Theroc, remain active, communicating through their green priest representatives. The humans and Ildirans have had twenty years to rebuild and recover. King Peter and Queen Estarra rule the new Confederation, a union of human colonies as well as the gypsy Roamer clans.
Mage-Imperator Jora'h, leader of the Ildiran Empire, announces a new initiative to explore beyond the populated worlds of the Spiral Arm, which will be spearheaded by a new ship, the Kolpraxa. Commanding this expedition is Tal Gale'nh, a talented young halfbreed officer of the Ildiran Solar Navy, protégé of Adar Zan'nh and the son of the Mage-Imperator's consort, the green priest Nira. Gale'nh is one of Nira's five halfbreed children, the result of an illicit breeding program; the others are her daughter Osira'h (fathered by Jora'h himself; her special abilities to control the hydrogues and faeros were a key weapon that saved the Ildiran Empire during the Elemental War); Rod'h (fathered by the hated Dobro Designate, the second most powerful of her children, who was never called upon to do his duty because Osira'h succeeded in his stead); Tamo'l (fathered by a lens kithman philosopher); and Muree'n (fathered by a warrior).
The Kolpraxa ventures into the unexplored spaces beyond the Spiral Arm, while some of the crew are concerned about the Shana Rei, supposedly mythical creatures of darkness that oppressed the Ildiran Empire long ago. The human historian Anton Colicos earlier proved that the Shana Rei were mere fiction, bogeymen used to cover up other events in Ildiran history, but after the uproar caused by that shocking revelation, Colicos discovered other records that show the Shana Rei may have been real after all. This knowledge is heavy on the minds of theKolpraxa's crew as they encounter a mysterious dark nebula that seems to be growing. As they approach to investigate, the shadow cloud expands and engulfs the ship, cutting them off entirely.
Back in the Ildiran Empire, Gale'nh's siblings sense that something has happened to their brother. Osira'h, at an astronomy station near an active star, is studying the surviving faeros that flit about in the churning stellar layers; Rod'h is in the Ildiran capital, clashing with Jora'h and Nira as he tries to erase the shame of his father's hidden breeding program; Tamo'l is on the ocean world of Kuivahr, running a medical sanctuary for a group of surviving "misbreeds," malformed mistakes left over from the breeding program; and Muree'n is testing her fighting abilities with the female warrior Yazra'h. With their halfbreed connection to Gale'nh, they know that theKolpraxa is lost.
In the Confederation, the Roamer industrialist Lee Iswander runs a risky but profitable metals-processing operation on the lava planet Sheol. Roamers are known for living on the edge and doing the impossible, but many of the clans are uneasy about Iswander, whose hard business attitude is at odds with the more close-knit and casual behavior of the clans. One of Iswander's workers, Garrison Reeves, believes the Sheol operations are unstable due to orbital changes, but Iswander dismisses the concerns. Garrison's hard-edged wife Elisa is Iswander's deputy, and she sides with the industrialist, angry that her husband is causing difficulties in her job. Convinced of the danger, Garrison steals a ship and flees Sheol with their son Seth. Outraged and betrayed, Elisa asks permission from Iswander to pursue them, and he agrees. She flies after them.
Iswander, meanwhile, wants to be the next Speaker of the Roamer clans. He thinks the scruffy gypsies need to be brought into the modern era of business. He goes to the Roamer seat of government, a space habitat called Newstation, to make his case. Iswander is by far the most qualified person for the Speaker job, and his own rival is a glad-handing loser, Sam Ricks. Iswander's real nemesis among the clans, however, is Olaf Reeves-Garrison's stern, hard-line father, who insists the clans should return to the old ways. Olaf's followers even refuse to accept Newstation as the Roamer capital, but instead devote themselves to a hopeless dream of rebuilding the old, destroyed Roamer center of Rendezvous. After a fierce debate, the disgusted Olaf withdraws his clan's children from the Roamer school of Academ, saying they will depart for deep space, where they have found a new home, a derelict city where they can be left alone.
Garrison flies out into unexplored space with his son, where they come upon a cluster of organic drifting nodules, huge gas bags, like space plankton. Seth names them "bloaters." They hide there, but a furious Elisa tracks them down, charges into the bloater cluster; she rails at Garrison for kidnapping their son and, when he tries to escape, she takes a potshot at him. The shot goes wild and strikes one of the bloaters-triggering an astonishing chain-reaction explosion that rips through the entire cluster. Garrison and Elisa barely survive, but each thinks the other was destroyed.
Back on Sheol, Garrison's worst fears are coming true: the lava operations are unstable. Iswander returns from Newstation to meet the trader Rlinda Kett and her two deputies, Tasia Tamblyn and Robb Brindle, who have arrived to pick up a shipment. The operations begin to collapse, and the workers frantically try to evacuate, but it is a complete disaster. Rlinda Kett manages to rescue many, including Iswander, but 1,543 people die. In disgrace, Iswander returns to Newstation, where he loses the election for Speaker to the incompetent Sam Ricks. He has also lost his fortune and his reputation, and in shame he takes his family back to the ruins of Sheol to lie low. That is where Elisa finds him after she limps home from the bloater explosion. All seems lost, but Elisa reports an unexpected opportunity that could save clan Iswander: those bloaters are filled withstardrive fuel. No one else knows it. If Iswander could find more bloaters, he would quickly rebuild his fortune.
Meanwhile, Zhett Kellum and her husband Patrick Fitzpatrick run a traditional Roamer skymine that harvests stardrive fuel from the gas giant Golgen. Their daughter Shareen, a genius in the making, has gone off to a special school on Earth, where she is miserable, and she wants to come back to the family skymine. Zhett's father, Del Kellum-a former clan Speaker-has retired and built a distillery to process the exotic kelp strains on the Ildiran sanctuary world of Kuivahr, where Tamo'l has established her refuge for the misbreeds. The kelp strains also have unusual medicinal properties. A mysterious man, Tom Rom, comes through the Klikiss transportal and buys samples of the medicinal kelp from Del Kellum. Tom Rom claims that his employer, Zoe Alakis, is doing specialized research, but he departs without giving further details. Tom Rom also acquires medical records from Tamo'l about all her misbreeds.
Zoe Alakis is the owner and ruthless administrator of a private medical research facility, Pergamus, on a poisonous planet. Completely isolated, she conducts dangerous research to build a personal collection of diseases and cures. Zoe is paranoid, lives in a sterile dome. Her father died of a terrible disease, and Tom Rom has been her faithful majordomo for years; he will do anything to protect her and get her the specimens she needs.
After Tom Rom departs Kuivahr, Del Kellum goes to Golgen to visit his daughter Zhett on their skymine, where Shareen has returned from school on Earth, glad to be back above the clouds; Shareen is accompanied by her study partner, Howard Rohandas, who wants practical knowledge instead of just book learning. A great storm appears deep in the clouds, inky black shadows well up like dark blood-and gigantic hydrogue warglobes rise from the core to warn the skyminers. A smothering shadow-the Shana Rei!-has contaminated the planet and engulfed the powerful hydrogue empire. The Kellums evacuate the skymine and barely get away before the blackness poisons the entire gas giant.
On a joint military expedition on the fringes of the Ildiran Empire, Adar Zan'nh joins General Nalani Keah, commander of the Confederation Defense Forces, as they explore ice moons. They are astonished to flush out a small infestation of evil Klikiss robots, treacherous enemies thought to have been destroyed in the Elemental War. Led by Exxos, the black robots hid on the ice moon when all their comrades were wiped out in the war. Now, Exxos and his robots try to flee, pursued by General Keah and Adar Zan'nh. As the embattled robot ships race away they encounter another shadow cloud, which scrambles the technological systems of the pursuers. Seeing their only chance, the robots plunge into the shadow cloud-where they are captured by the Shana Rei, powerful and incomprehensible beings who want to unmake the universe itself. As his only way to survive, Exxos makes a bargain with the Shana Rei that he and his robots will assist in their war.
When the battered ships return to the Ildiran Empire, the Mage-Imperator sends Adar Zan'nh out to find the lostKolpraxa. Osira'h goes along, because she can follow her telepathic link to her brother Gale'nh. Out in the emptiness, they find the Kolpraxa entirely encased in a black shell, cold and dark. Aboard, they discover that all of the Ildiran crew are gone; the only survivor is Gale'nh, nearly driven mad, claiming that the Shana Rei attacked, but he somehow was able to resist the shadows owing to his halfbreed genetics. Adar Zan'nh and Osira'h rush him back to lldira, where he can be healed.
At the Confederation capital of Theroc, General Keah arrives to report to King Peter and Queen Estarra about the shadow cloud and the black robots. Zhett Kellum also reports about the shadows swallowing up Golgen. The King and Queen put the military defenses on high alert to prepare against this powerful, unknown enemy.
Arita, the daughter of the King and Queen, is fascinated with nature; she and her boyfriend Collin both grew up wanting to become green priests; they trained hard and studied, but when they went into the forest to be accepted by the trees, Collin emerged as a green priest, but Arita was rejected, although the sentient trees altered her mind somehow. Now, Collin leaves Arita to join a group of isolationist green priests led by Kennebar, and they retreat to an uninhabited continent, the Wild.
Arita's brother, Prince Reyn, is being groomed as the Confederation's next leader, but he has a secret illness, a degenerative condition that seems to have no cure. Keeping his illness to himself, Reyn goes to Earth, where he asks Rlinda Kett to connect him with Dr. Benjamin Paolus, a preeminent neurological researcher. Paolus studies Reyn, but offers little hope for a treatment. Next, Reyn goes on a diplomatic trip to Ildira, where he will learn about the Empire. He is welcomed by Mage-Imperator Jora'h and Nira, but spends most of his time with Osira'h, who takes him under her wing. As they grow fond of each other, Reyn reveals his condition to Osira'h, and she vows to use all the resources of the Ildiran medical researchers to find him a cure.
While Reyn is on Ildira, the shadows strike-but not in a direct physical attack. The Shana Rei have found a way into the Ildiran telepathic network of thism, and they possess weak-minded Ildirans to attack a procession of Jora'h and Nira. The insane Ildirans are killed, and the Mage-Imperator is shaken with the knowledge that the shadows may be infecting the entire race, attacking from within....
Back in the Confederation, Garrison and Seth have returned to his estranged clan at the abandoned site of Rendezvous. Olaf Reeves always dominated Garrison, wore him down, and now Olaf demands that the two accompany the rest of the clan out to their new home in space. But Garrison refuses to let Seth be raised in such an oppressive environment. The rest of clan Reeves flies away, while Garrison takes Seth back to Newstation, where he will find work and the boy will go to school.
Meanwhile, thanks to the information Elisa brought him, Lee Iswander has established a thriving, though secret, worksite in the middle of another bloater cluster, where they are extracting stardrive fuel, ekti-X. It seems an inexhaustible supply as they drain bloater after bloater. Now they have to distribute the fuel, so Iswander can build up his fortune again. Elisa meets with Xander Brindle, the young son of Robb Brindle and Tasia Tamblyn, and his partner Terry Handon, both of whom work for Kett Shipping. They work a deal to distribute ekti-X.
Eager to recover from his disgrace, Iswander presents a large and valuable load of ekti-X to King Peter and Queen Estarra on Theroc. Many people are desperate to know where he is getting so much stardrive fuel and so cheaply, but he refuses to reveal his source. As he departs from Theroc, Iswander takes a green priest with him, Aelin, who will assist with distant communication.
Olaf Reeves and the rest of his family arrive at their new home in space-a huge derelict city far from any star system. No one knows who built the alien space city. The clan settles in and reactivates the systems, while others explore the giant city, looking for clues about the original builders. They discover a library of records showing a previously unknown race, the Onthos, who took shelter there in deep space, and then they find hundreds of Onthos bodies-all of them dead from a plague. Before long, the members of clan Reeves also grow sick and begin to die en masse.
Rlinda Kett, who supplied clan Reeves with what they needed for their new home, is concerned about them. One of her old friends, Orli Covitz, recently came to Rlinda after the breakup of her marriage, looking for something to do with her life. Rlinda signs on Orli and her faithful compy DD as pilots of a trading ship and sends them to go check on clan Reeves. When Orli arrives at the derelict space city, though, she discovers that every single member of clan Reeves has died from the alien plague. And now Orli is infected as well....
Prince Reyn's doctor, Benjamin Paolus, is secretly working for Zoe Alakis on Pergamus, and he delivers samples of Reyn's exotic illness. Paolus is paid well for the information. Tom Rom is eager to keep delivering rare samples for the Pergamus library, and when he learns about the Onthos plague, Tom Rom sets off for the derelict city, determined to acquire the virus for Zoe's collection.
In the space city, Orli doesn't dare allow the plague to spread, so she copies all the medical and archaeological data on the unknown alien race, before she destroys the city and flies away as her own symptoms grow worse. She will transmit the data to the Confederation, and then die out in space where she cannot infect anyone. But Tom Rom arrives; Orli offers him her data, but he wants the organism itself. She tries to escape, but he hunts her down, and traps her on an asteroid, where he boards her ship and steals vials of her infected blood, which he will take back to Pergamus. Orli is distraught, thinking she has failed; DD manages to fix her ship and they fly away.
On his way back, Tom Rom experiences an accident aboard his ship, and he too is infected with the plague. As his own symptoms worsen, he flies to Pergamus to give Zoe this specimen, knowing it will be the last thing he does.
Back at the Iswander bloater-extraction yard, the green priest Aelin learns of all those who died from the Onthos plague, and he also hears mysterious voices from the bloaters themselves. Eager to make contact with them through his telink powers, he takes a scout pod into the bloater field, where he is caught in a power surge that crackles among the nodules. His treeling is destroyed, and he is nearly killed; Aelin is never quite the same afterward, both euphoric and delirious.
Meanwhile, Mage-Imperator Jora'h has nightmares, sure that he is infected by shadows. Tal Gale'nh struggles to recover from his horrific ordeal on the Kolpraxa, and he fears the Shana Rei have a hold on him. Zan'nh strengthens the Solar Navy defenses, but no one knows what weapons might be effective against the creatures of darkness. Anton Colicos and other Ildiran rememberers comb through ancient records of the Shana Rei, looking for any clues, and they discover plans for "sun bombs" that caused great damage previously.
General Keah and Adar Zan'nh continue war exercises, hoping to be ready for the Shana Rei. During maneuvers over the frozen planetoid of Plumas, a shadow cloud appears and enormous Shana Rei ships emerge, accompanied by a destructive force of black robot battleships. After a desperate battle, suffering great losses, the Solar Navy and the Confederation Defense Forces retreat, completely trounced by the enemy.
King Peter and Queen Estarra go to Ildira to discuss the incomprehensible war, and also to see their son Reyn, eager to bring him back home. Reyn reveals to his parents that he is suffering from an incurable disease, which shocks the King and Queen, but they vow to do everything possible to find a treatment. Another uprising of shadow-possessed Ildirans occurs, and they barely escape with their lives. Mage-Imperator Jora'h sends Osira'h back to Theroc with Reyn, hoping that she will be safer there.
When Elisa learns that her son Seth is in school at Newstation-not killed in the bloater explosion after all, as she had assumed-she leaves the Iswander extraction field and rushes there, determined to get her son back. She seizes him from the school and takes him with her out to the ekti operations. Too late to stop her, Garrison pursues Elisa, following her to the hidden industrial field, where he is captured to prevent him from revealing the source of ekti-X.
While he is trying to get his son released, an ominous shadow cloud appears before the industrial operations. Exxos and the black robots begin to attack, and the Iswander employees evacuate. In the chaos, the slightly deranged green priest Aelin escapes, but instead of trying to get away, he flies out to the bloaters, which call to him. He removes his environment suit and immerses himself inside one of the bloaters, the protoplasm he calls the "blood of the cosmos," through which he receives great revelations. The invincible Shana Rei, however, hang over the bloater field, and then simply withdraw without explanation. Unable to believe he has dodged the bullet, Iswander puts his people back to work immediately.
Not long afterward, Orli and DD stumble upon the bloater extraction field. Orli is near death from the plague, and all she wants to do is transmit the database she took from the Onthos space city before she dies; DD will self-destruct the ship to remove any chance of contamination. But Aelin insists he knows how to cure Orli-she merely needs to immerse herself in the blood of the cosmos. Garrison talks with her extensively on the comm, convinces Orli that she has nothing to lose, so she makes the attempt. She is cured! As she regains her strength in a quarantined section of the Iswander operations, Garrison grows very close to her, but neither is allowed to leave and reveal the ekti-X operations. Soon enough, though, that becomes unnecessary: as the drifting bloaters come close to a star, they undergo a metamorphosis that transforms them into astounding flying creatures that race off into space. Afterward, as the Iswander operations disperse, Orli goes with Garrison and Seth to a quiet colony planet, Ikbir, where they hope to live quietly.
Tom Rom, on the verge of death, barely makes his way back to Pergamus, bringing a sample of the Onthos plague-in his own bloodstream. Zoe refuses to let him die, though, and devotes all the resources of her medical facility to discovering a cure. Tom Rom is kept in an orbital isolation facility as he is treated, and Zoe leaves her sterile dome for the first time in many years so she can be with him. He pulls through, thanks to a treatment discovered in the wealth of information held in the Pergamus library.
On Ildira, shadow-possessed Ildirans gather weapons and march on a peaceful human enclave, where settlers have built a human town to share their culture with Ildirans. It is a complete massacre, all the humans slaughtered-and the Mage-Imperator knows this will be an appalling strain on their alliance with the Confederation. Desperate to understand, he orders studies on the dead bodies of the shadow-possessed Ildirans, but when researchers cut into their brains, gouts of deadly black smoke rise up and wipe out the medical specialists; the laboratory itself is annihilated in order to stop the spread. Jora'h doesn't know how he can stop the shadow that is surely within all of them....
The Shana Rei also strike Theroc, drawn there to wipe out the worldforest, which causes them pain. As black robot ships attack General Keah's warships, the Shana Rei vessels begin building an enormous barrier in orbit, an eclipse plate that will block out all sunlight and smother the sentient trees. The Confederation Defense Forces cannot defeat these powerful opponents, no matter how many weapons they use. But then Adar Zan'nh arrives with a battery of the ancient sun bombs, which destroy part of the "nightshade." Osira'h also uses her special telepathic powers to summon the fiery elementals that caused such havoc during the Elemental War. She controls the faeros, convinces them to attack the creatures of darkness, and all together they succeed in driving away the Shana Rei, though at great damage to the faeros, which retreat again to hide inside their stars.
As the worldforest recovers from the attack, a hundred strange ships arrive in the Theron system, an alien configuration never seen before. All hundred ships land in the worldforest, and, to the amazement of King Peter and Queen Estarra, aliens emerge-the Onthos, refugees who were nearly eradicated by the Shana Rei long ago. The Onthos claim that they, too, were tenders of a worldforest, now destroyed, and they gather under the great trees, requesting sanctuary.
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