From the surface, the planet Maruzar’s rings look like continuous bands of gold. Some say there are three of them, some say seven. But this is only a trick of the eye.

The rings are made up of billions of rock fragments, dust, ice crystals and gas, the remnants of the moon Varan that exploded three thousand years ago. And among those fragments still float the wreckage of untold numbers of ships, the remnants of a rebel invasion fleet that was destroyed along with the moon.

And not all that is flotsam is dead.

A chance collision of orbiting rocks had set off a chain reaction, a mere chance in millions, over centuries sending one moon fragment hurtling into another until one hit something that floated among them but was no rock. Knocked out of its orbit and slowed by the impact, the dark object fell toward the planet below. It came down as a flaming bolide, its outer shell ignited by the sheer fury of its passage through Maruzar’s thinning air, until it crashed into the shrinking Valkis Sea. It struck the water with a great explosion of steam and spray, plunged almost to the bottom of the now-shallow sea, then strangely, shot back to the surface like a breaching dragon, fell back, and bobbed like a log.

Automated systems long dormant were somehow jarred back into wakefulness, perhaps by the impact, perhaps earlier.

Remmon Zaor sat up, blinking in momentary confusion as the stasis pod he’d awakened in clamshelled open. He had no idea where he was or why. He was inside a smallish vehicle of some sort, dimly and unevenly lit as many of its glowpanels and instruments were dead. He recognized it as an escape capsule.

The air inside the escape capsule was hot and stale, as if the ventilators were failing. The entire vehicle was moving gently up and down, disorienting at first, until part of him realized it was on water. His gaze was drawn to the dim, flickering display panel. It showed a sea outside, hard sunlight striking sparks from the aquamarine wave crests that were sweeping past, a near-indigo sky bisected by a great glowing golden arc. Half-forgotten memories told him this was a planetary ring.

His dark bronze brows knitted in puzzlement. Where was he? The ocean moon, Gamilan? No, the fleet he’d been with had been headed for Maruzar, had it not, and the council of rebel lords commanding it had ordered the armada to mass behind Varan. Was this Varan, then? No, Varan had no rings. He stood up, nearly fell, steadied himself.

Normal gravity, the gravity he’d grown up with. This was Maruzar, then. But the throneworld had no rings! And what were those shapes sailing across the face of the oddly swollen, sullen coppery sun? The wind was blowing them closer, and as it did Remmon Zaor saw they were creatures of some sort, with long thin tentacles suspended beneath a cluster of bulging, apparently gas-filled membrane sacs.

They had no eyes or mouths, yet the things seemed to have a predator’s interest in the capsule. They clustered around it, somehow steering themselves across the wind, and felt its slick surface with their limbs. But the capsule was still hot from its fiery fall, and the first creature’s probing tentacles shriveled away. It sprang skyward.

And fell. Things were hitting all the creatures’ gasbags, and they were jerking spasmodically and jetting in random directions as their lifting gases escaped, before sinking into the water.

Remmon Zaor saw the gasbags had been pincushioned with arrows. Arrows from the bows of the men crowding the prow of a strange ship, which was plowing through the waves straight for his escape capsule.