Text copyright ©2016 by the Author.
This work was made possible by a special license through the Kindle Worlds publishing program and has not necessarily been reviewed by Nick Webb. All characters, scenes, events, plots and related elements appearing in the original Legacy Fleet remain the exclusive copyrighted and/or trademarked property of Nick Webb, or their affiliates or licensors.
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A Pew-Pew Space Opera-Loving Geek
In the Making
Table of Contents
A Word to My Reader
About the Author
The First Swarm War – Book Two
Cover Art by Tom Edwards
Formatting by Polgarus Studios
Also by Chris Pourteau
Tales of B-Company: The Complete Collection (Military Sci-Fi)
Stormbreak: The Serenity Strain, Book 1 (Apocalyptic Horror)
Ironheart: The Serenity Strain, Book 2 (Apocalyptic Horror)
Shadows Burned In (Psychological Thriller/Family Saga/Horror)
Tails of the Apocalypse (Apocalyptic Sci-Fi)
Tales from Pennsylvania (Dystopian Sci-Fi)
Other Legacy Fleet Kindle World Titles
Invincible: The First Swarm War - Book One by David Bruns
Tripoli by Aaron Hubble
Vigilance by Will Swardstrom and Paul K. Swardstrom
Meridian by Moira Katson
Ascendance by Saul Tanpepper
Hammerfall by David Adams
Alt.Chronicles: Legacy Fleet by Samuel Peralta
Vengeance by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason
Lunar Base, Sol System
The music was too loud for his liking. It was some goddamned random-rhythm synth crap without a beat to tap your toes to. And the air smelled like someone had blast-tested thruster engines through dirty underwear.
The man in the corner motioned to the waitress, putting two fingers in the air. The drink he’d ordered before sat as-yet untouched on the table—but two more couldn’t hurt. Maybe he could drink his senses dull.
“Same thing, sir?” she shouted as she walked up. He nodded and received her customer-tip-me smile in return before she retreated to fill his order.
That must be the guy now, he thought, leaning back in his chair. The man just entering the bar was nearly as wide as he was tall. He stood looking from side to side, searching, until he found the dark figure eyeing him from across the crowded room.
Approaching the corner table, the fat man yelled over the music, “Name’s Barstow!” and stretched out his hand. It hung in the air a few seconds, then dropped. “So, one of those, eh? All stink and no suave.”
Good call, Fats. Goddamn, that synth crap was grating on his nerves.
“Mind if I sit down?” asked Barstow. “My lower back’s killing me.”
I’ll bet it is, thought the man in shadow as he stared at the fat man’s belly. He tossed his hand toward a chair and Barstow sat down.
“Am I addressing the famous—or should I say infamous—Codeine?” Barstow’s bushy eyebrows danced with drama. “Why do they call you that anyway?”
Codeine inhaled slowly, then leaned in so he didn’t have to shout over the shrieking that passed for music. He smelled the fat man’s cheap cologne. Sweat seemed to be the main ingredient. “Because I take away the pain.”
“What … like the drug?”
Codeine stared for a moment. “Yeah, like the drug.”
The folds in the fat man’s neck ballooned as he dropped his head. “Wait—I get it! A bounty hunter named Codeine. I get it!”
“Keep your fucking voice down,” the hunter hissed. He drew in another breath. Let’s get this business over with. “You have something for me?”
The waitress was approaching with the drinks. Codeine sat back to allow her room.
“Hey, thanks!” said Barstow, grabbing the second shot before it hit the table. A quick flick of his wrist and the glass was empty. “How about another, honey?” He slapped her on the ass, making her jump. “You hear me?”
Her face took on that look—the one that debates the merits of keeping your job versus the virtues of teaching someone manners.
Codeine saved her the decision. He leaned forward again, placing a hand on the fat man’s arm. “She heard you,” he said. Barstow tried to withdraw, but Codeine’s grip held him like iron.
“Sir,” she said, addressing the hunter, “would you like something else?” Her smile was one hundred percent for her hero.
Codeine nodded. “Bring him whatever he wants. And me another one of these.” He finally downed the whiskey in front of him. Before the fat man could commandeer it, he reached out to claim the remaining shot the waitress had just set on the table.
She looked to Barstow. “And what would you like, sir?” The question was standard. The tone wasn’t.
“Give me an Armstrong A-hole. Extra bitters.”
She made a note and walked away. The jerky synth-jazz seemed to score her movements.
“Gonna give me my arm back?”
Admiring the waitress’s swinging hips, Codeine let go and sat back. “You got my package or not?”
Barstow nodded, smiling with his teeth on parade. “I like to get to know my partners a little before I do business.”
The fat man drew himself up. “You hunters are all alike. No manners.”
“Hand it over or I walk.”
Barstow blew out spit with his disdain. “You can’t. You were specifically requested. And you don’t say no to these people—”
“I say no to whomever I damned well please. Now, hand it over or I walk.”
“Fine,” grumbled the fat man. He felt around the numerous pockets of his heavy coat.
“Payment is one million credits,” Codeine reminded him. “Half up front. Half on fulfillment.”
“This would be the up-front part.”
“Check your account.”
Codeine dialed it up. Sure enough, he was five hundred thousand credits richer.
“All good?” Barstow leered as he handed Codeine a personal access data device.
In answer, the bounty hunter took the PADD. Flipping it around, he swiped his thumb across the access button, half expecting Barstow to have to unlock it for him.
Identity confirmed, the readout showed. Access granted.
It was already coded to him? That gave Codeine a moment’s pause. So, his client wasn’t any guttersnipe gunrunner, no colony black marketeer. Whoever they were, they could afford to throw away credits on impressive encryption. And they knew enough about him to have bio-tailored the device to him ahead of time. He was about to ask Barstow who their mutual employer was when a shadow fell across the table.
“One asshole,” said the waitress with emphasis. It wasn’t clear if she referred to the drink. “And here’s your drink, sir,” she said, nodding to Codeine. “And, sir?”
“You asked me to let you know if any badgers showed up.” She edged to her left by a foot or so. And there they were, talking to the bartender. Two military police with the newly minted IDF insignia displayed on their arms. The bartender was nodding as they asked him questions.
Never a good sign, thought Codeine. “Thanks,” he said, producing two gold sovereigns from his pocket. Her eyes went wide. “These’ll cover things, right?”
She stared at the United Earth Federation symbol on the back of the coins. Even in the Crater’s dim light, she could see the old-fashioned gold eagles glittering yellow. Handheld money was rare in an age of digital transactions. And hundred-credit sovereigns were stories-after-work worthy.
“I—I can have Joe credit you the difference, I suppose—”
“Keep it. Call it an asshole handling fee,” Codeine said, dipping his head at Barstow. The fat man sneered, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was none too subtly eyeing the MPs over his shoulder. “What’s your name again?”
“Wanda.” She smiled, and her eyes softened from courteous to inviting.
He’d seen the look before, the one wondering whether or not he’d still be around when she got off shift. No time for that now, he reminded himself.
“Wanda, I’d suggest you take a break for a few minutes.”
“Oh, thank you, sir, but I can’t. I’ll get fired.” Her server’s smile became a wicked grin. “But, um, I might be able to get off early—”
“Take a break. Now. And do it away from here,” said Codeine. His eyes flicked at the restrooms in the back.
Wanda held his gaze a moment, but what she found there seemed to chase away the hope for a hookup. “Um, okay then. Sure.” She backed up from the table and headed for the restrooms at the back of the bar.
“They follow you here?” asked Codeine, shooting the last whiskey.
Barstow took a long draw on his A-hole. “Impossible. They can’t—”
Codeine shushed him. The two MPs had finished up with the bartender. One of them stepped out among the tables, eyes scanning the patrons.
Codeine dropped his hand to his thigh and loosened his .45 blaster in its leather holster. The MPs were taking their time asking questions, so he thumbed the PADD again. Its display spun up. A dull, green glow lit up his face, framing it sickly in the shadows. His eyes traced the client’s request. Two simple sentences. Instructions. The second line forced an eyebrow up his forehead. With a smile, he looked toward the door in the back where the waitress had disappeared.
“Yeah, she’s a piece, ain’t she?” said Barstow. His swollen face jiggled, his eyes flashing with fantasies.
Codeine ignored him. The soldiers were headed their way. He propped his feet up on a corner of the table, executive style, and tucked the PADD inside his jacket.
“You gentlemen locals?” asked the first MP as he walked up. He was an officer, the senior of the two both in rank and age. The younger man, a foot soldier, hung back playing bodyguard, one hand poised on his sidearm.
“No,” said Codeine. It had been a stupid question. No one was a local at Lunar Base.
“Where you from, then?”
“Mars,” said Codeine.
“Oh, yeah?” The officer sidled up behind Barstow. The fat man’s eyes moved nervously from side to side, trying to see around his own head. “I have a sister lives on Mars. Athena Colony. Ever been there?”
The bounty hunter blinked. “There’s no Athena Colony on Mars.”
“What?” The grayhair waved his hand at the noise, a gesture that apologized for having old ears.
Codeine leaned forward and caught another whiff of Barstow’s sweaty cologne. “There’s no Athena Colony on Mars.”
“Oh, yeah? I must be thinking about one of the other planets. Macedonia, maybe.”
“Must be.” The hunter dropped his hand below the table as the bodyguard moved farther to the officer’s left, opening a second line of fire.
“Why don’t you bring your hand back up where I can see it?” asked the older man without even glancing down. “My young friend here gets nervous in places like this. All the noise and booze and women.” He laughed a these-kids-today sound.
“Sure thing,” said Codeine. He met Barstow’s eyes. They were wide with the fright of a man who knows death is standing right behind him and he dare not turn around.
“Now,” said the officer. He wasn’t laughing anymore.
Codeine pulled the trigger with his sidearm still in the holster, and a .45 slug took the soldier in the upper thigh. As the officer pulled his piece, the hunter stood quickly, flipping the table over. Barstow tumbled backward into the older MP, whose shot went wild. Codeine fired a second time, plugging the wounded soldier in the gut. He fell lifeless to the barroom floor.
The hunter ducked and turned, a second shot from the officer whistling past his head. The crowd was screaming and diving under tables, the minor-keyed synth music screeching all around them. Codeine rolled the table aside and turned his barrel on the grayhair.
Two sharp reports finally gave a downbeat to the jazz. The bullets punched the officer backward. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Codeine scanned the room. Frightened customers, down low with their hands over their heads. The bartender nowhere to be seen, probably below the bar.
Barstow rolled around on the floor, struggling to get to his feet. “Holy shit!” he said between labored breaths. “No wonder they wanted you!”
Codeine leveled his .45 at the fat man’s chest and fired.
A stunned look at first, then pain ripped across Barstow’s face. “God, it hurts,” he said. And after a long, wheezing moment, he cried louder, “It hurts!” His knees buckled, and he crashed into the table behind him. Cowering patrons scrambled away from his dying bulk.
The hunter moved forward. The breathless Barstow’s stare widened helplessly, hopelessly as Codeine approached.
“God, it hurts,” the fat man gasped. “I’m on your side! Please don’t—”
A shot, and a third eye weeping blood opened wide on the fat man’s forehead. Barstow ceased his complaints about the pain of dying.
“You’re welcome,” said Codeine. The music had stopped, he noticed. Maybe someone kicked a plug out of the wall in their haste to stay alive.
So, things were looking up.
“It was just business, Fats.” Codeine stepped over Barstow’s corpse. But that wasn’t quite all there was to it. He liked the waitress, and he hadn’t liked the fat man much. So—there was the silver lining in this very public shitshow.
With the IDF now sniffing close on his trail, it was time to beat feet. He angled after Wanda, heading for the Crater’s backdoor and repeating the client’s instructions in his head. Those two small sentences worth a million credits.
Kill IDF Captain Samantha Avery. Shoot the messenger.
Half the contract already fulfilled. Half his compensation already in the bank.
Time to beat feet. Time to find this Avery woman and finish the job.
On Maneuvers near the Asteroid Cloud Known as Devil’s Den
Captain Samantha Avery jogged the corridors of ISS Avenger, ear cocked to the red alert blaring all around her. She could feel the sweat sling off her triceps, trickle down the backs of her knees. It felt like she’d been running for hours.
“Weapons Officer, too slow! Too slow! You gotta get those rail guns reloaded faster!”
Avery hung on every word coming over shipwide comms but kept running. This is his ship for now, she told herself. His way or the highway.
Avenger shook, spilling Avery off-balance, and she caught herself against a wall. She paused to catch her breath between the whoops! of the alert klaxons.
The rapid fire of the mag-rail guns spat from the ship’s cannons on the port side. Avery could hear it, tinny and sputtering, through the ship’s speakers. She could feel it thrumming in the cold metal of the wall beneath her palms. The deck pitched slightly before the artificial gravity caught up. She leaned into the wall as Avenger came about hard to port, aiming its heavy laser turrets into the flaming hole created by the rail guns. The ship’s—her ship’s—hull groaned with the effort of turning at too tight an angle.
Goddamn it, Malcolm. What are you doing to my—
“Enemy disabled, Commander!” came the report from Sensors. The echo of the young ensign’s excitement sounded strained as it bounced along Avenger’s austere walls. Avery let herself relax and exhaled.
“And Avenger?” asked Commander Malcolm Brent.
Here it came.
“Um—we were destroyed fifteen seconds ago. Sir.” The ensign at Sensors, Buckland if she recalled the duty roster correctly, sounded downright disappointed to be dead. Even if it was only a simulated death.
“Damn it!” Brent’s frustration echoed around the ship. Broadcasting simulations was a choice Avery had made when they’d begun running drills a week after her commissioning as Avenger’s captain. It gave the active crew an audience, and that created competition between shifts. Off-duty personnel critiqued their peers and, likewise, endured critiques themselves when on duty. In the little time they had left, unit cohesion was being tempered in the forge of shared defeats and victories. Plus, it let her keep tabs on the drills while she jogged her own nervous energy away through the ship’s corridors.
When Avery had taken command, they’d had two months to prepare for the next round of Swarm attacks. Now they had one. At least, that’s what UEF Intelligence kept telling them. A damned small amount of time to create an efficient war machine driven by a crew dedicated to fighting for one another. And most of them were as new to Avenger as she was.
IDF Intelligence, Avery corrected herself as she swigged water and listened to Commander Brent take the battle report. We’re not UEF anymore. She was still getting used to that bright, shiny IDF symbol on her arm too, and the insignia of the shared service pinned over her right breast. She stared down at it. A failed attempt to rope in the Russians was all the IDF was to her. She and her best friend Addison Halsey, captain of ISS Invincible, had shared more than one conversation over a bottle of scotch about the meaningless rebranding of the service.
“Integrated Defense Force,” she whispered to herself. It sounded good to civilians. It made them feel more secure. And maybe that made it worthwhile. “I guess that counts for something.”
As she wiped the sweat from her forehead, a crewman rounded the corner in front of her and skipped a step as he took in her slick skin and wet running gear. She returned the quick salute he made as he passed by. They were still getting used to her as their captain. Mack White, their old CO who’d been promoted to the Admiralty after the Swarm fled Earth orbit, was a little more formal than she. Make that a lot more.
Well, she could be formal enough when the situation called for it. Like when her XO got her ship blown up. She heard Brent acknowledge the final statistics over the speaker. They weren’t good. The fact that it was only a simulation didn’t matter one damned bit.
“Captain to Bridge,” she said into the wall comms. “XO, report.”
“Ma’am,” grumbled Commander Brent’s reluctant voice. “I guess you heard.”
“Of course I heard, Malcolm. The whole damned ship heard.” She wiped her hands on her shorts and took a moment to wonder if they were wet from perspiration or exasperation. “My question is, why? Yesterday we were running ten seconds hotter. We had a sixty percent kill rate against the Swarm carrier. We’ve had, what, seven simulations so far today? And how many kills?”
“Two, ma’am. But the last simulation had the inertial dampeners operating at half efficiency. That’s not realistic. If we’d been able to turn faster—”
“Sounded like we were slow on the reloads to me. And as for the dampeners, ever hear of mechanical failure, Commander?”
A pause on the other end. Either the comms system had actually failed or the Bridge had gone silent.
“Of course I have, ma’am.”
“So in combat, those dampeners might actually fail too.”
“Ma’am, I can’t be expected to predict every—”
“Who’s at the helm? Lieutenant Hathaway?”
“Yes, ma’am,” came the distant reply.
“Bring Avenger around for another pass at that asteroid we call a cumrat carrier. I’m coming up there.”
Another pause before an admonished Brent answered stiffly, “Yes, Captain?”
“I’ll be up in ten minutes. I’ll be your XO on the next run. That’s a job I had for a long time. But make no mistake—this is your simulation. I’m there in an advisory capacity. And I want to get a bird’s-eye view of what’s blown us up so often today. You’re right. You can’t predict everything in every moment. But we have to be ready to react to anything at any moment. Understand the difference?”
“Aye, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” She thought she heard him relax just a bit on the other end of the horn.
“See you in ten. Avery out.”
As she flipped the wall switch off, she noticed something about the corridor’s still air. She sniffed. Something was foul. And that something was—her, she realized.
She was due on the Bridge in … less than ten minutes, now. And while she might be a little less formal than Admiral White when it came to off-duty attire, stinking up her own Bridge was a little over the line.
And her cabin was three decks up.
“Guess I’d better sprint the last leg,” she said to no one.
* * *
“Captain on the Bridge!”
Avery adjusted her tunic again as the lift doors closed behind her. She hadn’t had time for more than a towel and a quick dose of deodorant. Her new IDF uniform, cranked out of production fast and with no time to be fitted properly, seemed to chafe in all the wrong places. Time to exercise some of that tradition of military discipline. Stiff upper lip and all that.
Brent stood up from the command chair as she stepped down into the lower Bridge deck they called the pit. “The Swarm carrier was a tougher nut to crack than usual, Captain. Their outer hull plating had been reinforced by the simulator. Took our mag-rails longer to penetrate and open up a hole for the lasers to get in and fry them from the inside.”
“So—we didn’t last long enough to do the job because the enemy innovated their defensive systems.”
Brent motioned with his head. “Again, ma’am, we couldn’t predict—”
She looked up at him and he stopped speaking. It was a strange thing, commanding others taller than herself. Brent was six-foot-two, and her five-foot-eight frame seemed slight next to his. But the rank on her collar made up the difference.
“Commander Brent, we don’t earn our millionaire’s pay to be clairvoyant,” she said. “But we are expected to adapt to our situation.” Turning to Sensors, she said, “Buckland, as we attacked, were the energy curve differentials evident? Could you see we weren’t making the same headway against their plating as before?”
Buckland blinked. He was straight out of the Academy, she remembered. “The data looked a little funny, ma’am.”
“A little funny.”
“Did you report this funny data to the captain?”
Buckland seemed perplexed. “You weren’t on the Bridge, ma’am—”
Oh, Jesus. They might as well light a red approach vector for the goddamned cumrats.
“The XO was the captain in the scenario, Ensign,” she reminded him.
“Oh. Right, ma’am. Um, no, I didn’t—”
“I didn’t think—”
“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all day, Ensign.” Avery placed her hands behind her back and stepped onto the upper deck of the Bridge. From there, she could just about look Brent in the eye straight on. “Comms, is shipwide still on?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Lieutenant O’Brian.
“All right, people, listen up. Some of you are veterans,” she said, glancing at Hathaway. She noted the amused look of what the hell is the Academy churning out these days? on his face before she fixed Buckland with a glare. “Some of you aren’t. But here’s the thing—it doesn’t matter.”
Avery turned to face Brent. “It doesn’t matter your length of service. It doesn’t matter your record of service. All that matters is that you do your duty to the best of your ability. When the Swarm—when those cumrat bastards come for us, they won’t care how wet behind the ears you are. They won’t care how many medals you earned ten years ago. All they’re trying to do is kill you and everyone you love.”
She turned back to Buckland. “Everything matters. Everything. See an unusual readout? Bring it to my or the XO’s attention. There’s no textbook for this. There’s no template. We’re making this up as we go along. Understood?”
A chorus of “yes, ma’ams” echoed around the Bridge.
“Very well. Commander?”
“Let’s run that simulation again. I’ll stand behind you and monitor—”
“Captain Avery,” said O’Brian, “message coming in from Fleet. It’s Rear Admiral Pierce, ma’am.”
At Churchill Station? Wonder what he wants.
Brent moved aside as Avery stepped back into the pit and took her position in the command chair. The angular face of Rear Admiral Sir Henry Pierce lit up the screen.
Speaking of stiff upper lip.…
His British lineage stretched far back into military tradition, all the way to Nelson at Trafalgar. Damned near a millennium. But from everything Avery had heard, much of it lately from Halsey stationed at Britannia, he’d mined his military DNA from the shallow end of the gene pool.
Pierce stared down his hawkish nose at her. “Captain Avery, so nice to finally make your acquaintance. I’ve heard quite a lot about you.”
Avery moved in her chair. Apparently she hadn’t finished sweating when she’d slipped her ill-fitting trousers on.
“Admiral Pierce, sir, likewise. What can I do for you?”
“You are ordered to proceed with all speed to the Britannia System to join our defense force.”
She shared a quick look with Brent. His head tilted slightly, reflecting her own curiosity.
Pierce’s face settled into a look of patrician annoyance. “I would think it was obvious, Captain. The enemy has returned.”
Earth, Sol System
The President’s Bedroom, the White House
President Quentin Chamberlain sat up in bed, finally surrendering to the insomnia that had plagued him off and on for weeks. He’d gotten used to medicating himself to sleep, but that hadn’t happened last night. Milly had been insistent—he relied too heavily on downers at night and uppers to fuel him during the day. Earlier that evening, he’d insisted he needed a whiskey or three to relax, but she’d persuaded him to embrace another method. He’d fallen asleep rather quickly after they’d made love.
But a nightmare had shaken him awake a couple of hours ago, and what felt like his constant state of paranoia now demanded he stay that way. A growing sense of dread, of knowing the end was near, had possessed him ever since Russian President Oleksiy Ivanov had refused his suggestion of partnership in the Integrated Defense Force. They’d proved it could work when the alien threat first attacked, but Ivanov, epitomizing Russian coldness, had rebuffed the Western president’s offer.
“It’s never as good as it seems,” Ivanov had said at that meeting, schooling Quentin in the dark pragmatism of the Russian outlook on life. Ivanov had seemed determined, almost dedicated, to proving that truism by damning the entire human race to extinction by refusing Chamberlain’s offer of alliance.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Quentin stared over his shoulder at Milly snoring softly beneath the covers. He was half-tempted to accidentally jostle her awake as comeuppance for bribing him into unmedicated slumber. What had it gotten him anyway but another nightmare, another night of irresistible insomnia?
But he didn’t disturb her for two reasons. One, he knew she was right. He was too reliant on pharmaceuticals to manage his moods. Too mired in his own self-doubt to allow himself to feel them, deal with them. And the second reason—she’d stood by him his whole political career, through losses and victories, media scandals and opponents’ crucifixions. Sometimes Quentin wasn’t sure if it was him she loved or the power behind the throne. Probably both, he thought, and why not? But in the end, it didn’t really matter.
So he let her sleep. At least one of them should.
The drugs and alcohol were just the tip of the iceberg. He’d acted anything but presidential in the last month. Ever since Admiral Martin Shasta’s Global Intelligent Laser Defense system had failed when the traitor Jason Baltasar, captain of Invincible, sent the codes to the enemy. Baltasar’s betrayal had inoculated the Swarm against GILD’s drone platforms, wasting all that money, all that R&D time. Infected by the Swarm, Baltasar had almost made it possible for them to conquer earth. If not for Addison Halsey and her single-minded dedication to retaking her old ship…. Halsey, Avery, Preble, and the Russians—hell, even the Chinese after they discovered their own compromised personnel—they’d all played a part in saving the peoples of Earth. The entire human race really.
What a team they’d made, Quentin thought, shaking his head at Ivanov and his cold Eastern philosophy. All the old grievances, the old nationalisms had fallen away beneath a united desire to kill the aliens. Cumrat bastards, the troops had begun calling them. Even in the ivory towers of Washington, they’d heard that one.
There were still secrets among the powers, sure. GILD had been one of those, until Ivanov made sure the other major powers knew about it during the summit meeting thrown together to address the Swarm threat. The Chinese had been appalled by GILD.
Or maybe that was just Sun’s playacting, Quentin allowed. Chinese Premier Sun Wu had been revealed as yet another Swarm agent. Just like Baltasar. He’d taken the Russians’ word for that and would have questioned the truth of it, had one of the Chinese ships not attacked his UEF forces. And now the CIA had verified that Sun died a traitor, assassinated by someone in his own Politburo.
Eventually, the Chinese had turned on their own traitors and pitched in against the Swarm too, and together they’d beaten back the enemy. And thus was born the brilliant idea of the Integrated Defense Force. The first of its kind—a multinational coalition of unprecedented scope and cooperation.
Blocked by a goddamned Russian.
Milly’s snoring crescendoed. Quentin turned and touched her side.
“Roll over, honey.”
She murmured and complied. Her snoring stopped.
The IDF. A great idea stillborn by a single word from Ivanov.
“That pompous bastard,” Quentin whispered. “Pride goeth before the fall of the whole goddamned human race.”
It was as plain as the bulbous, veiny nose on Ivanov’s sweaty, flushed face. The self-important shit wouldn’t even take Chamberlain’s calls these days. The Russian leader seemed content to sit in the Kremlin while the hours counted down to the next Swarm invasion everyone assumed was coming. Less than a month now, his advisors told him. Less than a month to pull a species-saving rabbit out of a hat.
Quentin got up and poured himself a drink of water. Downing it, he thought again of his nightmare. He’d been in the Situation Room with his Cabinet a month from now, plotting strategy. The Swarm was coming. They were popping up in every sector. As the dream unfolded, Quentin issued some order or other to the head of the Joint Chiefs—deploy this fleet here or there … something. He couldn’t remember the details.
The man, his new IDF uniform replete with flags and medals, had merely refused. Then, one by one, the members of his Cabinet had simply turned and smiled at him.
“Can’t we just be friends?” they asked in unison. “You cumrat bastard….”
Every last one of them—Swarm agents.
Quentin shuddered as the yellow fear coursed through him again. The whiskey decanter next to the water pitcher seemed to call to him. He downed the last of the water and reached for it. His hand was still shaking, and the decanter clinked loudly against the glass as he poured. Cringing, he glanced over at Milly. She still lay on her side, facing away from him.
A swift tilt of his wrist and the burn racing down his throat made everything feel better. He sighed and poured another drink. Grimacing at his own weakness, he set the whiskey back down, the glass bottom clacking on the silver tray.
Staring hard at his glass, he rolled it around, watching the light fold in and out of the dark, amber liquid. Maybe with its help he could rest some more, at least for a few hours. It would give him a good night’s sleep, or at least allow him to sleep through what was left of the night, and help him focus later in the day. He stared at the Kentucky Reserve shining darkly in the glass and decided it’s what he needed for them. To be the leader they needed him to be.
The president of the United Earth Federation froze.
“Quentin, is everything all right?”
He turned slightly, keeping his body between the bed and the serving tray, then downed the second whiskey in one gulp.
“Fine, dear. Just … having a glass of water. Couldn’t sleep.” Half-truths are only half-lies, right? He set his glass down.
“Come back to bed,” she said, sleep making her words long and loose. “I sleep better with you in the bed.”
Quentin smiled wanly. Someone still needed him to be him.
Oh, stop being such a goddamned whiner, he thought savagely, the old, take-no-prisoners politician he’d once been returning. You’re the president of the UEF, for Christ’s sake.
He sat down on the bed next to her. Winter in Washington was a beautiful thing, especially around Christmastime. The sheets always stayed cool, even with the furnace going.
Milly reached out and touched his back. “If I were more awake, I’d make sure you got back to sleep,” she purred. “Worked like a charm earlier.”
But his mind was elsewhere, and he missed her meaning. “Have I ever told you the story of my great-great-great-whatever-the-hell grandfather? Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain?”
The first lady made a noise he couldn’t quite read. But it definitely sounded sleepy.
Quentin chuckled. “Of course I have. What? A hundred times?”
“A hundred and three,” Milly said, her voice clearing with reluctant wakefulness. “Not that I’m counting.” She sat up on her elbow in the bed. “What’s once more between spouses?”
He turned to smile at her and saw the way her silk nightgown glistened in the crisp moonlight angling in through the window. It had been a gift from Premier Sun, the traitorous sonofabitch. Though he’d had good taste in negligees, Quentin had to admit.
God, he loved Milly. How could the Swarm possibly defeat them with her by his side?
“So, tell me again,” she said, sidling up next to him. Quentin’s eyes lingered on her pale skin, on her nipples teasing him behind the shimmering silk.
“Since you know the story so well, I’ll just hit the highlights,” he promised.
“He was a hero, Milly. The kind that doesn’t seek aggrandizement. Just the right man in the right place doing the right thing at the right time. If he hadn’t done what he did at Gettysburg—the Confederates had just about convinced the North they were more trouble to keep around than they were worth. If the Rebels had won at Gettysburg that day … nothing could stop them from taking Washington, imprisoning Lincoln, and solidifying the Confederate States of America as a separate country. England might’ve even come in on their side…. It was Lawrence that kept that from happening. Oh, I know, it was a three-day battle. But day two, honestly, was really the deciding day. And keeping the Confederates off Little Round Top, securing the Union’s left flank—that was the deciding factor. If it weren’t for him—”
“We’d all be speaking with a Southern drawl?” drawled Milly.
Quentin grinned. “Something like that.” Then his expression faltered. “Those genes are in me, Milly. Somewhere.”
Her other hand found his shoulder. Her faith in him found his eyes. Some people saw weakness of character when they looked at his face, Quentin knew. But when she looked at him, what he saw reflected in her eyes was an intelligent man with the moral drive to do the right thing.
“Yes, they are. And you didn’t need the Reserve tonight to find them,” she said softly.
He stiffened at first. He wanted to become indignant and deny it. But her voice reassured him and her hands remained soft, so he relaxed again. His breath. It was on his breath.
Some wily politician you are.
“I’m sorry. I lied earlier about—”
“Don’t be sorry. Be sober. Lawrence was sober, right?”
Quentin’s smile returned. “During the battle, anyway.”
“Right. And that’s all I ask, too.”
A knock came at the door. Quentin glanced at the clock beside the bed. 4:20 a.m. What crisis now?
“Come,” he said, squeezing Milly’s hand and standing up.
The door opened slowly and Rob Francis, his chief of staff, wedged into the doorway. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. President.”
“Not at all. We were already awake.”
“Good too-early-morning, Rob,” said Milly and yawned.
“What is it, Rob?” asked Chamberlain. “Media conspiracy theorists up early this morning?”
Francis shook his head. “No, sir, Mr. President. It’s the Swarm. They’re back.”
Quentin’s stomach dropped. “Are you sure?” he asked, suddenly wishing for his nightmare to return. At least he could wake up from that.
“Confirmed by long-range sensors, sir. We just got a meta-space transmission from Churchill Station at Britannia.”
Quentin nodded, a cold chill creeping up his spine. From the corner of his eye, the Kentucky Reserve sang to him.
Just for the battle, Quentin, Milly said in his mind. Then I’ll pour it for you.
“Hard to tell yet, sir. But they’re coming this way for sure.”
Coming this way, he repeated in his mind. Like the Confederates charging up Little Round Top. And no one else to stop them. Just Chamberlain and the men he could muster. They were all that stood in the way of extinction. And none among them named Ivanov.
“Get the Cabinet to the Situation Room. Half an hour, tops,” he said. “And get me Ivanov and—who’s the current Chinese premier again?”
“Wei, sir. Wei Mao.”
“Right, Wei. Put in a call to him, too. Whoever answers first—” That’d likely be Wei, he knew, but maybe the new threat would inspire Ivanov to pick up his goddamned phone. “—put them through to me immediately. And see if you can get Masoud el-Hashem of the Caliphate too. God knows we need everybody we can get.”
“Yes, sir.” Francis backed out and shut the door behind him. The president stood still for a moment, caressing the decanter from afar.
“What are you thinking, love?” asked Milly.
Quentin forced himself to take his eyes from the whiskey and look at his wife. “I’m thinking this battle is already too long for my liking.”
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
Rear Admiral Sir Henry Pierce’s Office
Captain Addison Halsey stood in Rear Admiral Sir Henry Pierce’s office analyzing the 3D tactical display of Britannia Sector in the center of the room. On the lower left side of the map, Britannia—a world of two billion souls and second only to Earth in population—revolved around its yellow sun. Above the planet, Churchill Station, the British Fleet’s headquarters in the sector and Pierce’s seat of command, stood guard. One planet farther out in the solar system from Britannia, the gas giant Calais, tracked its own solar orbit with the hundred or so superstructures of the Wellington Shipyards scattered around it. The UEF had other shipyards to be sure, but Wellington was the workhorse of the Fleet’s production yards.
Captain John Richards of ISS Endeavour walked in briskly, asking, “What’s the estimated time of arrival, sir?” He’d been at the Shipyards overseeing Endeavour’s resupply when recalled to the admiral’s office with the other ship captains in the sector, so it had taken him a little longer to oblige the admiral’s orders to report. Because Endeavour was the only Constitution-class British vessel in the area, Pierce had insisted they wait on him. Most of the British fleet was scattered to hell and gone on maneuvers as far out as Francia Sector. Some kind of morale-building exercise across fleet lines. Endeavour and her support ships were the skeleton crew left on duty at Britannia.
No one had expected the Swarm to return so quickly.
“Military Intelligence tells us less than an hour,” explained Pierce. His nasal tone seemed to combine suspicion with impatience.
“Now there’s an oxymoron,” said Halsey, expelling her own indignance. “Military Intelligence, I mean.”
“Captain Halsey, please refrain from expressing any of that American sass in my presence. It’s a pointless waste of time. Especially now.”
She returned her gaze to Pierce. “Of course, Admiral.” When she was XO of Invincible, it had more often been Captain Baltasar’s place to deal with the upper echelons. Now she was learning one of the less-appreciated duties of a captain’s job: politics.
“Less than an hour?” scoffed Noah Preble, captain of Independence. “How the hell could they slip inside our long-range sensors like that?”
“The Swarm has infiltrated our ranks, Captain Preble, from top to bottom, it seems,” said Pierce. “Something I know you’re intimately aware of.” His tone almost sounded accusatory.
“I am, sir,” he said, sharing a glance with Halsey. Together they’d stopped Baltasar’s attempted subjugation of Earth, and with the news the Chinese premier himself had been a Swarm agent, too—no one trusted anyone anymore.
“Then it will not come as a shock to you to suspect that perhaps our own intelligence service has been infiltrated,” said Pierce. “And feeding us misinformation.”
The admiral’s proclamation hung in the air. Of course that could be the case. Would be the case, were the roles reversed and the IDF planning an invasion. First rule of warfare—feed false intelligence to the enemy.
“So, the Swarm seeded bad intel with IDF Command to lull us into a false sense of security,” said Halsey.
“It would seem so, Captain,” said Pierce. His face became determined. “To date, they’ve exhibited a single-minded strategy of overwhelm and destroy. But we’ll best them yet, ay?”
With Pierce’s eyes holding her at attention, she didn’t dare look at her fellow captains. What she wanted to say was, Well, sir, that strategy almost worked. What she said was, “Yes, sir.”
Life as an XO had been so much simpler.
“Right. Now, we haven’t much time. These are my orders. Captain Richards will command the defenses of Wellington Shipyards until a relief fleet from Earth can reach us,” explained Pierce. He pointed at a red blip that was now blinking on the sector map. “We anticipate the Swarm will enter Britannia Sector here. Captain Richards?”
“Thank you, sir.” Richards stepped forward. His accent spoke more of Liverpool than London, and for some reason, that brought Addison comfort. “We don’t have much time, I’m afraid, so I’ll get to the point. Endeavour and her escorts will take point over Wellington Shipyards.” Richards’ voice had a decided cadence of recitation as he clasped his hands behind his back. “Keeping those facilities intact will no doubt prove crucial to the war effort. Captain Preble, your Independence and Halsey’s Invincible will hold here at Churchill Station until we ascertain the exact entry point and strength of the enemy.” He finished up, looking uncomfortable.
“My orders to the letter, Captain Richards.” Pierce was positively beaming. “Well done, indeed.”
“But sir,” said Halsey, “everything we’ve seen from the Swarm indicates a tendency to overwhelm the enemy, just as you said. By splitting our forces, we’re inviting—”
“Thank you, Captain Halsey,” said Pierce, his staccato English a crisp acknowledgment. “But this plan protects both of the major assets in the sector—not to mention the billions of UEF citizens on this planet—as best we can until help arrives.”
“Sir, if I may.”
“Yes, Captain Preble?” Pierce’s tone hinted at forced indulgence.
“I have to agree with Captain Halsey. Britannia and Calais are nearing their farthest orbital arcs from one another. One force reacting to the needs of the other, especially at intrasystem speeds, would be slow. If we stationed our entire task force halfway between Britannia and Calais, we could essentially achieve the same coverage while keeping our firepower concentrated.” He looked at Richards. “John, surely you see the tactical advantage of combining our forces.”
“Captain Richards has agreed, after some discussion, to my plan, Captain Preble,” said Pierce. His patience for debate was clearly waning.
Ah, thought Addison. So that’s it. A glance at Richards found a sympathetic expression but one shackled by the chain of command.
“Sir, if I may—” began Halsey.
“You may not,” stated Pierce. “We don’t have time for this. I’m in command here, and these are your orders.” His words spat forth like mag-rail slugs. “Am I clear?”
Halsey brought herself to attention, and Preble followed suit. She found a spot on the wall just over Pierce’s left shoulder.
“Crystal clear, sir.”
“Very well. Dismissed. Get to your ships and your assignments.” As the others saluted and he returned it, Pierce added, “And best of luck, Captains. We’re the dam holding back the flood.” Whatever his flaws, Pierce felt the mettle of the moment. He was obviously trying to inspire his command.
Halsey turned on her heel and followed Richards and Preble.
“I’m sorry, chaps,” said Richards after the door slid shut behind them. “I’ve been arguing with him over comms for half an hour. He thinks this is a good plan.”
“At least you’re in charge of the sector task force,” muttered Preble as they walked to the shuttle bay. There was no more capable captain in the IDF than John Richards.
“Thanks, Noah. I’m lucky to have you two here. Bloody stupid, scattering the fleet to the four winds like that. Integrated training my pimply, tight Liverpudlian ass!”
Hearing those words expressed with the lazy vigor of a Liverpudlian mouth made Halsey laugh. “How’d Pierce get his job anyway?” she asked. Churchill was alive with preparation as personnel fast-walked here and there. Pre-battle systems checks droned over comms station-wide.
“His papaaaaa,” said Richards, affecting an upper-class tone. “Bought him a rank too, when the admiral was a wet-behind-the-ears military school grad. He’s served in backwaters until a year ago, but the British Admiralty installed him here to finish out his career with at least the appearance of distinction. So he could have something to crow about at the club, I expect.”
Preble rolled his eyes as they reached the shuttle launch bay.
“Well, I guess this is it. Good hunting. Put that American sass to good use, ay?”
“You too, John. Watch your tight Liverpudlian ass out there.”
As their fleet commander headed off to Endeavour, Preble turned to Halsey. “Take care of yourself, Addison,” he said. “Make that ship of yours live up to its name.”
“You too, Noah. You too.”
Bridge, ISS Invincible
“Captain, the Swarm just jumped in,” announced Zoe Proctor, sensors officer. She turned to Halsey. “Six carriers. Right where the admiral thought they’d be.”
Damn, thought Addison. And we’re out of position to help. John’s on his own. “Very well, Lieutenant. Mr. Jameson,” she said to the Helm, “plot a course to intercept on my command.”
“Captain? Our orders are to remain at Churchill until further—”
“I’m well aware of our orders,” she said to her XO. “I also want to be ready to move.”
“Aye, Captain,” acknowledged Ethan Blake. He was a good man, she knew, a solid executive officer capable of carrying out any order from what she’d seen in the past month. But he had the creative thinking of a garden slug.
“Captain, I have the visual from Wellington.”
The viewscreen shimmered, and the peaceful grace of Churchill’s rotation was replaced by the chaos at the Shipyards. Half a dozen Swarm carriers had entered local space at the sector’s edge, slowly moving forward like sharks approaching prey. Hundreds of enemy fighters streamed forth as the Swarm capital ships crawled into heavy weapons range of the Shipyards. In response, Endeavour’s own fighters launched to meet them.
“Captain, Independence is calling.”
Halsey nodded to patch them through. It might be a conversation better had in her ready room, but she knew they didn’t have time for that. Her bridge crew was tough. They’d have to get tougher before this battle was over.
“Go ahead, Captain Preble.”
“You seeing this, Addison?” There was no greeting from Preble. Just angry impotence, a need to move into action. “John’s a sitting duck out there.”
“I see it, Noah. He’s got Wellington’s fighters to support him, and their heavy guns.”
Preble scoffed. “Wellington’s fighters are trainers with rusty barrels. Pierce is an—” He stopped short, perhaps remembering he was on a public channel. “So far, our sensors show no other forces threatening Britannia. It’s just those ships hitting Wellington.”
Just those, thought Addison with irony. “We concur,” she said absently. The images on the viewscreen enthralled her. Wellington’s cameras showed the Swarm fighters making their attack runs on Endeavour and her dozen escorts, destroyers and frigates. The strongest task force in the sector looked like a pee-wee league facing a pro team out there. John Richards was a good captain, but numbers were numbers.
“Let’s see how things unfold, Captain,” said Preble. “But I’m getting ready to engage. To hell with orders.”
“Acknowledged,” said Halsey. “Invincible out.”
The Swarm was coming on just like they had before. The six carriers prowled forward, content to have their fighters harass the enemy, distract them like skirmishers on a Napoleonic battlefield, probing for weakness. Endeavour maneuvered forward in a graceful arc to port, unloading its starboard mag-rail guns on the incoming fighters. Addison imagined John’s working-man’s-hero voice barking orders that became firing solutions. The space between Endeavour and the Swarm fighters streaking toward Wellington was infested with slugs as fighter after fighter exploded briefly, then winked out in the airless void of space.
They don’t care, Addison realized. She watched what appeared to be an endless stream of enemy fighters exit the carriers, replacing their dead comrades. They don’t give a damn how many of their own they kill to defeat us.
“Richards will run out of slugs before they do fighters,” said Blake at her right arm.
“Let’s hope not, XO.” She turned to Communications. “Can we tap into Captain Richards’ feed, Lieutenant?”
“Aye, ma’am, they’re livestreaming.”
Standard protocol, Addison remembered. It wasn’t something she’d had to think about since memorizing regulations at Fleet Academy. To preserve the record of a battle when the mission seemed suicidal, a captain had standing orders to stream events on an encrypted channel to CENTCOM. Who knew if the captain under fire would ever have the chance to launch a buoy with the battle logs? Or, if they did, if it would be tracked and blown up by the enemy.
“—bring Surprise and Atropos in behind us to guard our engines,” came Richards’ voice. He sounded calm to Halsey, relaying orders at a pace his officers could understand the first time. Not excited, not frightened for sure. Facing down death was just business as usual for Richards. She wondered if she would be that calm if it were her. “And get those bloody starboard guns reloaded!”
Endeavour’s port mag-rail guns had made a hole in the cloud of Swarm fighters, and two frigates began maneuvering to guard Endeavour’s engines as the bigger ship swept wide to port. Two broad, green beams leapt out from the leading Swarm carrier. They sawed through the first of the frigates, splitting the ship in half, and its forward section angled downward. Driven by the engines, the frigate’s stern continued forward before erupting into a fireball of ignited fuel. The second frigate nearby was caught in the blast, and a chain of multiple explosions ripped it apart.
“Jesus—” said Proctor.
“Steady, Lieutenant,” said Halsey, trying to inject some of Richards’ composure into her words. What she’d wanted to do was gasp in grief. To tally the crew lives that had just been lost. What she needed to do was lead by example. “That goes for all of you. Remember, you’re officers of the UE—of the IDF. And the cumrats are animals. No better than animals.”
“Yes, ma’am,” replied Proctor.
The rest of Richards’ task force angled away from the sudden threat of the twisted frigates as they sputtered and died in vacuum. Endeavour’s starboard guns were firing again, targeting the replenished ranks of enemy fighters now making their attack runs at the Constitution-class starship.
“Warspite and Hotspur, come in under our belly so we can protect you,” Richards ordered. “Focus on that. We’ll hold off those fighters.” The reception cut out. “CAG, your discretion,” was Richards’ reply to the unheard question. The two destroyers and their escort frigates angled downward, creeping slowly toward Endeavour’s protective underside.
Three Swarm carriers were now in range of the IDF task force and fired their energy weapons, but Endeavour’s angle took the brunt of the attack on its hull. Damaged but intact, Richards’ ship continued to concentrate fire on the enemy’s fighters, running interference for the escorts to maneuver.
“All vessels, concentrate fire on that lead carrier,” said Richards. “Rail guns only! Make a hole, lads!”
“I think they’re actually making headway with the fighters,” said Blake. “It looks like there are less of them to me.”
Halsey mumbled under her breath. “Right. Now there’s only a few thousand.” She’d kept it low. As captain, morale was something she set, now. She didn’t have the luxury of grousing publicly.
The fighters teeming around Endeavour changed their tactics. They came in underneath, beyond the firing arcs of the bigger vessel’s rail guns, and concentrated on Warspite and Hotspur. The destroyers’ point defenses worked overtime, their firing solutions careful to avoid the underbelly of Endeavour or the IDF fighters now indistinguishable in the crowded space over the Shipyards. That caution hampered their ability to respond.
“Captain, Wellington’s fighters are finally engaging!”
Halsey pulled her eyes away from the lightshow surrounding Endeavour and saw the older X-B99s finally getting into action. The first thing she noticed was their lack of unit cohesion. And then she remembered—they were flown by personnel stationed at Wellington. Trained as she’d been trained, as they’d all been trained to be sure, but used to only monthly drills at best. Their daily jobs were putting ships together, not blowing them apart. They were older personnel flying older ships, who’d never planned on fighting for their lives against an alien enemy.
The slaughter happened fast. The Swarm carriers closed the distance. Up against the enemy fighters, the Wellington defenders, flying lazy and slow, died quickly. Meanwhile, the carriers focused their main efforts on slicing Endeavour’s escort ships to ribbons before engaging the bigger vessel. The livestream transmission was a harsh melody of courage and determination and screams and anguish, one sounding much like the others in the chaos.
“Get me Admiral Pierce,” said Halsey. When no acknowledgment was forthcoming, she looked to her comms officer. Lieutenant Nichols stared fixated at the screen, her cheeks wet. “Lieutenant! Get me Admiral Pierce!”
“Ma’am! Yes, ma’am.”
“Captain,” began Blake, “what are you doing?”
Hotspur exploded on-screen. Over the livestream, she heard Richards’ bridge crew cursing as the nearby blast streaked red and black death across Endeavour’s secondary hull.
“My job, Commander.”
“Admiral Pierce on comms, ma’am,” said Nichols.
“Admiral, request permission to advance Invincible and Independence to aid Endeavour,” she said without preamble. She knew she was speaking for Noah, and she knew he wouldn’t care. There was only one answer now, if the sector was to survive.
“Denied, Captain. You must stay over Britannia and protect Churchill Station at all costs.”
All costs. Once again the tally of lives in Richards’ task force flashed in her mind.
“Sir, if we don’t support Endeavour, she’ll be destroyed. And the Swarm fleet will come here next and dispatch us piecemeal as well. We must combine our force if we’re to—”
“Denied, Captain! Your duty is to carry out my orders to the letter! Churchill Station and your ships are all that stand between the total destruction of Britannia and its survival. If you can’t—”
She turned to Nichols and made a slicing motion with her hand. An indignant Pierce disappeared, replaced again by the Battle of Wellington Shipyards. Endeavour was turning again, slowly as she must, as Richards attempted to bring her barely damaged port guns to bear against Swarm carriers. She had indeed cleared many of the enemy fighters away, but her own fighters too had been winnowed to a few dozen.
Now it was a battle of capital ships.
Six on one.
“Oh my God,” said Proctor.
Halsey searched on-screen for the source of her officer’s despair. Then she saw it. The destroyer Atropos, one of three remaining escort ships in the task force, had abandoned the dubious protection of Endeavour’s underbelly. And she was making a suicide run for the lead Swarm carrier, straight for the forward starboard section alive with rail-gun damage.
“It’s been an … serving … Captain Rich…” came the broken transmission. “Omega Prot … in effect. Ram … speed, Helm.”
Green beams lanced out from several of the Swarm carriers, but Atropos moved too quickly, swooping under their firing arcs. Abandoning all care for survival, she’d put all power into her engines in hopes of making a difference in an otherwise hopeless engagement.
The hitch in John Richards’ voice softened to silence as the screen flared bright. Atropos aimed its bow at the flaming forward quarter of the Swarm carrier, and multiple explosions signaled the end of the enemy vessel.
But no cheers erupted across Invincible’s Bridge. All was silent save for the steady stream of overlapping battle reports coming from Wellington Shipyards.
And one captain’s quiet orders, issued with grim determination.
“Comms, get me Captain Preble,” said Halsey. “Helm, prepare to q-jump to the Shipyards.”
Flight Deck, ISS Independence
Lieutenant Lazarus Scollard III worked through the pre-flight checks of his X-23 fighter. Even after a few weeks, he was still getting used to the lockstep process. He’d been more familiar with holding his pirate ship, SS Renegade, together with chewing gun, baling wire, and a kind word to the navicomputer. Having a well-maintained, top-performing ship under him felt almost uncomfortable.
“Squadron leaders, report in,” said Laz mechanically. “Let’s do this by the book.”
“Red Leader, standing by.”
“Blue Leader, standing by.”
“Gold Leader, ready to go, CAG.”
And so it went through Independence’s ten fighter squadrons. Squadron leaders verified the ready state of their two squads of four fighters each.
As the acknowledgments ticked off one after the other in his ear, Laz tried not to calculate the numbers. Eighty from Independence, another eighty from Addie’s Invincible. A couple hundred from Churchill. Against how many thousands the Swarm was throwing at them?
Captain Preble had piped Endeavour’s streaming battle report through to senior commanders. It had pretty much been what everyone expected. Pretty much what one carrier and its task force of support vessels standing against six enemy capital ships would have to be.
Thousands of Swarm fighters against a few hundred, all emitting that damned droning through open comms. It was goddamned unnerving, that sound. It made Laz’s pirate instincts want to cloak and run. But that was yesterday. He hoped Mimi and the others were well away from here and spending their Chinese millions in good health.
“CAG, this is Independence Actual,” came Preble’s voice. “Status report.”
“Ready to go, Captain,” Laz replied. In the past few weeks, he’d come to know Noah Preble pretty well. If Laz couldn’t be enjoying the good life with the others, he’d decided, at least he’d signed up on the right ship. Addie had invited him to stay with her on Invincible, but he’d made the harder decision, to leave, for both of them. Had he stayed—no, he wouldn’t let his mind go there. He needed to focus. “Just give the word.”
“The word is stand down, at least for now,” said Preble. “Have the deck chief secure your birds. It’s about to get bumpy.”
“We’re jumping to Wellington.”
“Uh … intrasystem?”
“Spinning up the q-jump drive now,” said Preble. “Get those birds tied down.”
“Um, aye, sir.”
Well that was a bit of unplanned-for not-by-the-book. Intra-system q-jumps were generally frowned upon unless absolutely necessary. Something about quantum efficiencies, the need to dispose of potential energy so near system suns, and too many local jumps having lethal meta-space effects on local space bodies, especially habitable planets. Apparently circumstances warranted rewriting the manual here.
An alien invasion and overwhelming odds will do that, Laz thought. “CAG to all squadron leaders,” he announced over comms. “Hold launch prep.” He ignored the questions that peppered him and slid back his canopy.
“Deck Chief! Hey, Franklin!”
A burly man with two days’ worth of scruff on his face placed his fists on his hips. “Yeah, Lou?”
“We’re standing down. Secure our birds till I tell you different.”
“But sir,” Franklin said, cocking his head. “We just prepped for launch.”
“Boots, Chief, boots! Get ’em back on! Or clean up the mess when these birds get tossed around the deck!”
Franklin’s face hardened, and he started shouting orders to his maintenance crews.
Laz watched them scurry, wondering just how long they actually had till the jump.
Bridge, ISS Invincible
“You ready for this, Noah?”
Preble nodded on the left side of the split viewscreen. On the right, the Battle of Wellington Shipyards raged. The Swarm carriers had given ground in the wake of their first major loss, but they were maneuvering to surround Endeavour. Two of the frigates, Adamant and Gibraltar, engaged the fighters arcing toward the Shipyards, which now had no fighter cover. Fires burned across Endeavour’s hull, and most of the guns on her starboard side were silent.
“Are you sure about these jump coordinates?” he asked.
“Joining a crumbling line of defense isn’t the way to win this thing,” Halsey replied. “We have to think outside the box here, and Proctor’s the best. But you’re the senior captain. I’ll defer to your—”
“No, no, I like it,” said Preble. “Has balls.”
“Captain Halsey, Admiral Pierce is demanding you power down your q-jump drive and acknowledge his hails,” said Nichols. “He’s become quite, um, insistent, ma’am.”
“Sounds like the same interference is keeping you from receiving the admiral’s orders as it is me,” said Preble.
“Yes, it’s a tragedy,” said Halsey. “You secure your birds yet?”
An explosion on-screen, Adamant, made both captains wince. Now, all that stood between the Shipyards and five Swarm carriers was a crippled Constitution-class starship, one heavily damaged escort frigate, and a handful of exhausted fighter pilots.
Preble looked off-screen and nodded at the notification he’d received. “Birds secured.”
“Captain,” said Nichols, “Admiral Pierce says that if you don’t respond immediately, you will stand and face a court-martial the moment this is all over. As will.…” She hesitated, then said softly, “Anyone who follows you.”
Halsey glanced back to her comms officer, then briefly around the Bridge. “Every second we delay, more of us die out there,” she said. “And the chance to stop them here … here … shrinks. If you’re going to mutiny, do it now.”
Only her XO seemed hesitant, but the moment had him in its thrall as well. Halsey eyed him and he nodded. No one said a word against her.
“Captain?” she asked Preble.
“Damn the torpedoes,” came his reply.
Halsey smiled, finishing the quote. “Full speed ahead. Helm, q-jump to the designated coordinates.”
“Aye, Captain. Three … two … one … jump!”
* * *
Invincible shuddered as she passed through q-space. Her deckplates rattled, coffee cups fell from consoles, and seconds later, the ship appeared within the ionosphere of Calais’ third moon. The jump had been precise, skimming the moon’s gravitational field, and that’s what made the ride a little rough. It would also, if Zoe Proctor’s theory proved right, shield them temporarily from Swarm sensors.
I sure hope Noah had those fighters tied down, thought Addison. She hated to think of Laz as a red smear on the flight deck of Independence. She turned to Proctor. “Lieutenant?”
“Jump complete, and we’re in one piece.”
“That’s a start. Independence?”
“She had a little rockier go of it, but she’s where she’s supposed to be,” answered Proctor.
“Very well. Status of the enemy?”
“No change,” said Proctor. “But the fighters are really giving the Shipyards hell. And Gibraltar … she’s gone, ma’am.”
And now Endeavour stood alone.
“Captain!” said Nichols, her finger pressed to her ear. “Endeavour is begging Churchill for reinforcements. She’s lost her q-jump drive, and most of her starboard armament. No fighter cover left to speak of either. She’s getting hammered. Maneuvering on thrusters only to bring what’s left of her port guns to bear.”
Goddamn, but John Richards was giving it all he had, she thought. Every last measure of devotion to duty.
It was high time that man had someone standing with him.
“Launch fighters,” she ordered. “Echelon approach. Focus on the carrier closest to us. I want them adding their firepower to the same spot our mag-rails target, understood? XO, coordinate with the CAG.”
“Aye, ma’am,” said Blake.
“Helm, flank speed. Weapons, target the closest carrier.” She nodded at the screen. “I want alternating crews on reloads. The only reason our guns should stop firing is because they’ll explode otherwise. Clear?”
“Crystal, ma’am,” said the weapons officer.
“Comms, open a shipwide channel.”
“Channel open, ma’am.”
“Crew of Invincible, this is Captain Halsey. We’ve engaged the Swarm. You’ve no doubt heard rumors of how hopeless this battle is. We’ve lost a dozen ships to their one, and we’re severely outgunned. But we’ve beaten them before, and by God, we’re about to do it again. Keep your heads. Stand fast at duty stations. Fight for your families. Fight for Earth!”
Halsey paused a moment, knowing they needed more than that. And then it came to her. “Remember the sacrifice of your shipmates in the fleet. And remember the Atropos!” She motioned for Nichols to cut the feed, then closed her eyes briefly and took a breath. “And Comms?”
“Ma’am?” asked Nichols.
Halsey gave her a grave look. “Start streaming our battle reports to CENTCOM.”
Nichols’ eyes lingered on her captain’s. “Aye,” she replied, turning to carry out the order.
Stand fast, John, Addison projected into the ether. We’re coming.
Flight Deck, ISS Independence
“Squadron launched, Actual,” Laz reported. The boots were off and the birds were flying.
Independence and Invincible were coordinating their fighters, aiming the biggest punch they could at the nearest carrier. Invincible’s mag-rails were already pumping hundreds of slugs into the enemy ship’s engines. The Swarm fighters were away from home and harassing the virtually defenseless Shipyards. But if they came back to protect their carriers, it was the IDF fighters’ job to keep them busy.
“Mustang, watch it,” Laz warned Invincible’s CAG on his private channel. “I’ve never trusted computers to do my flying for me.”
Lieutenant Don “Mustang” Havers clucked back over comms. “Look after you and yours, Lafitte. If I need my ass wiped, I’ll call you.”
Laz grinned at the pirate reference. Making covert deliveries for excessive amounts of credits had its allure, but he had to admit—nothing made him feel more alive than combat in a cockpit.
“Blue and Gold Squadrons, form up on my right wing. Let’s provide cover for the Indy’s kids on the first pass. Ballbreaker, you’re our eyes on their birds at the Shipyards.”
“Red Leader, acknowledged,” replied Ballbreaker. Laz could hear the eagerness in her voice. In becoming a fighter pilot, she’d made exactly the right career choice.
The Swarm carriers were waking up and began peppering the air around the IDF pilots. Laz cursed as burst after burst flamed space in his peripheral vision. “Okay, it’s getting choppy, people,” he growled. “Stay sharp.”
“Jesus, look at the ass end of that cumrat carrier,” a voice buzzed over comms. Sounded like Captain Obvious to Laz. C-O always seemed to feel the need to verbalize what everyone else could already see. “It’s like we’re drilling through their hull one slug at a time.”
“Keep the briefings brief today, C-O,” said Laz. “And watch your sixes, people. Momma’s peepers will be lighting up anytime now.”
And on cue, lasers streaked out from Invincible and Independence, both ships moving in at top speed, one above and one below, to attack the Swarm from the rear.
“Break, break, break!” yelled Laz. The lasers were the signal to get the hell out of Dodge before the fighters got caught in a secondary explosion. Both fighter wings swept away, more afraid of dying with the enemy than by their flak fire. The warships’ heavy lasers pierced the fiery hole drilled deep by the mag-rails in the starboard-aft quarter of the closest carrier. As the fighters floored their throttles to evacuate the area, a huge blast erupted from within the carrier’s superstructure.
“Hey-hey! Hey-hey!” gloried Mustang. “One down and only four to—”
“Contact! Enemy fighters redeploying from Wellington,” broke in Ballbreaker. “And the rest of those carriers, too.”
Leaving the crippled Endeavour hovering in a cloud of its own leaking gases, the Swarm capital ships were turning, two by two, back toward the attacking IDF ships. Independence and Invincible, their momentum from Calais carrying them forward, were about to be surrounded by twice their number.
“I think they know we’re here,” said C-O.
“I think you’re right,” said Laz. Watch your ass, Addie. “Mustang, engage those enemy fighters. Keep them out of the mix.”
“Kill the bastards!” shouted Ballbreaker.
“What about the plan?” asked Mustang.
“The plan was a surprise attack,” Laz replied. “We surprised ’em. Time for a new plan.”
“Multiple bogies coming in!” called C-O.
Wave after wave of Swarm fighters spiraled their way. Space was so thick with them they seemed to outnumber the stars.
“Squadron leaders, engage at will,” said Laz. His cheek hurt, and he realized he was grinding his teeth. Instead of releasing his jaw, he throttled forward, lining up the nearest enemy in his gunsights.
“You heard the pirate,” said Mustang. “Let’s score some booty.”
Bridge, ISS Invincible
“Captain, we’re headed straight for the middle of them,” said Lieutenant Jameson at the helm. “Should I reverse engines?”
“Negative, Lieutenant. In fact, maintain flank speed.”
“You heard me. Zoe, we’re ahead of the Indy, right?”
“Very well,” she said, a plan unfolding in her mind. “Weapons Officer, keep those mag-rail teams on both sides of the ship aiming at pinpoint targets on the two Swarm vessels as we pass between them. And send those targeting coordinates to the Indy.” They’d move straight forward, one ship behind the other, like a battle line of ships from the Age of Sail. Maximize their firepower and split the enemy force in two.
“You want us to attack two carriers at the same time?” asked Weapons Officer Mike Sandoval with disbelief.
“Did you people finally decide to mutiny after all?”
Sandoval’s eyes widened. “No ma’am, I just—”
“Then follow my orders! Lieutenant, send this to the Indy: I’ll open the door, you light the fire.”
“Aye, Captain,” acknowledged Nichols, turning back to her console.
“Captain, we’re charging right between four enemy carriers,” said Blake under his breath. “Maybe a more prudent—”
“The time for prudence is past, XO,” replied Halsey. On the viewscreen, she could see more fires burning across the hull of Endeavour than she could count. The warship drifted in space, random detonations igniting new fires along her scarred length. “Now it’s do or die.”
“Independence acknowledges, Captain,” reported Nichols.
“Very well. Sandoval, report.”
“Guns are glowing hot but firing, ma’am,” he said, his voice fearful but proud as they flew into the heart of the enemy kill zone.
Invincible lurched, its Bridge lights flickering momentarily.
“Damage Control reports we’re taking heavy fire from both sides, Captain,” said Nichols. The red-alert klaxons began to howl.
Halsey ignored her. “Pinpoint accuracy, Weapons,” she ordered, almost too quietly to hear over the red alert. It had sounded more like a prayer. Then, a little louder: “Helm, try to avoid crashing into Endeavour, if you would.”
“We’ve made it through the gauntlet, ma’am!” Jameson shouted.
“Very well, Helm. Please contain your surprise. Zoe?”
“Independence is following in our wake, Captain. Their lasers are exploiting the holes we opened up!”
“And they say the military can’t even organize a square dance,” Halsey said with a lopsided grin.
“Captain, our fighters are taking heavy losses. They’re still heavily outnumbered by the—”
“I see it, Lieutenant.” As the helmsman swung them hard to starboard to avoid ramming Endeavour, the fighter battle came into view. Tiny metal fireflies arced and dance and twisted around one another. Addison wondered where Laz was in all that confusion … if he were even still alive at all. “Take us into that cloud,” she said to Jameson. “Weapons, point defenses are your priority now. Let’s see if we can help those flyboys.”
“Are we abandoning Independence?” asked Blake.
“Of course not, XO,” Halsey replied. “But we’ve got to turn around somewhere.”
Swarm fireflies began winking out as Invincible’s forward batteries engaged.
They took another hard hit astern. The artificial gravity on the Bridge failed briefly, then stabilized. The overhead lights went black, and Blake nearly fell from his chair. Several bridge officers grunted as their ribs impacted consoles. A deep, rumbling vibration rattled the deckplates, then faded as the crew righted itself. The lights returned.
“Direct hit to our starboard engines. They’re cutting right through our shields! Some of the sections in Engineering are self-sealing. Crews are trapped and—”
“Thank you.” Halsey closed her eyes briefly. Rescue would have to wait. “Helm, status?”
Another heavy fist smashed into Invincible. This time the Bridge lights stayed off.
“Get those emergency lights stabilized,” barked Halsey. “Helm, status!”
“Momentum is carrying us through the fighter cloud, but our maneuvering is severely restricted, Captain,” Jameson called over the noise.
“Our combined attack destroyed a third carrier, ma’am,” reported Proctor, staring at her readouts. “Independence is in better shape and turning faster.” She looked up at Halsey. “Now it’s three to three.”
Several deadly green energy beams slammed into their hull again. More like three to one and a half, thought Addison, staring at Endeavour’s drifting hulk. There but by the grace of God go—
“Captain, Independence is maneuvering away from us to avoid Endeavour and that dogpile of fighters,” continued Proctor. “Now all three remaining Swarm carriers are between us.”
Halsey traded a look with Blake. So, now theirs was the force divided. But not for long.
“Keep us turning, Helm,” she said. “We have to get back on offense.”
“Aye, ma’am,” came Jameson’s earnest reply.
Invincible shuddered again. The Swarm ships were slicing into her weakened aft quarter, and with the engines already damaged, there was little they could do to avoid it.
“Ma’am, all three carriers are concentrating their fire on us,” said Proctor. “Independence is coming around, but….”
“Sandoval, can you bring our forward batteries to bear on the nearest Swarm vessel?”
“Half, Captain. We’re turning too slowly. And they’re staying out of the arc of our mag-rail broadside batteries.”
A heavy explosion rocked them again, creating a chain reaction. Fire erupted from Sandoval’s panel and he cried out, blown backward onto the Bridge deck. Halsey leapt from her chair to check his condition, and Blake was right behind her to man the weapons station.
Sandoval was dead.
On-screen, the three Swarm carriers, two of them virtually undamaged, accelerated toward them.
“All batteries—forward, port, and starboard,” called Blake into comms, his voice sharp and acrid in the smoke rising from the weapons console, “fire your guns as they bear on the enemy. Repeat: fire your guns as they bear!”
His eyes found Halsey’s, and to her they seemed to share the same, desperate thought: Independence, where are you?
“Captain, that last blast took out our maneuvering thrusters,” said Jameson. “We’re locked into our current course.”
Halsey stared at the viewscreen. Now they were rudderless, their course set by Newtonian physics and their own thrust. But she dared not cut the engines, not yet anyway, or they’d be easy prey for the Swarm.
Ahead, the carriers made way for Invincible as she pressed forward, unable to steer. The enemy’s lasers blazed as they approached point-blank range.
Well, John, looks like we won’t live up to our name after all, Halsey thought. My first command….
“Captain, new blip on sensors, coming in behind us,” said Proctor, her voice desperate.
Halsey blinked in the smoke that smelled like fried wire. More Swarm? When was enough enough?
“Captain!” Proctor’s voice again, stronger and brighter. “It’s Avenger!”
“They give you a shiny new starship, and this is how you treat her?” The voice, frazzled by interference and smug with confidence, was the sweetest sound Halsey had ever heard.
“Sam?” She cleared her throat. “Is that you, Sam Avery?”
“As usual, saving your ass. It’s like we’re plebes at the Academy all over again. You look a little tired. Stand down and let us take over, Addie.”
Halsey got to her feet, smiling. “Like hell.”
Britannia Sector, near Calais
Bridge, ISS Avenger
“Weapons, that carrier on the left, the one swinging starboard,” said Avery, pointing. “Target lasers on that fizzling fire on its port side. Let’s finish what Invincible started.”
Avery pressed a button on her arm console. “CAG, launch fighters. Let’s get some fresh players on the field.”
“Mr. Brent, I’d like you to coordinate the fighter attack.”
“Captain,” he said, tentative but firm, “perhaps I’d be better tasked pressing the attack on the carriers.”
Sam regarded him, wondering if he might still be smarting after her assessment of his performance during the drills at Devil’s Den. Well, they didn’t have time for that bruised-ego crap now. “XO, I need the best tactician I’ve got making sure those enemy fighters stay occupied. I need you to bring our pilots home. I’ll handle the carriers.”
Darting his eyes aside, Brent nodded reluctantly. Sam wondered for half a second if he might press his argument, but instead he turned and signaled their CAG to carry out her orders.
“Helm, run interference for Invincible. Let’s give the cumrats another target to shoot at.”
Turning back to the screen, Avery took stock. Endeavour, burning and drifting. Independence, coming around and finally back in the fight again. And Invincible—what the hell was Addie doing?
“Captain,” said Buckland at sensors, “Invincible has cut her engines and … engaged a tractor beam?”
Avery raised her eyebrows and stared expectantly at the screen. Invincible’s momentum carried her between the Swarm carriers, her guns blazing only to starboard to avoid catching Avenger in her firing solution. But she was now beginning to angle starboard more sharply than Newtonian physics should allow.
“What’s happening there, Buckland?”
“Captain … Invincible has locked a tractor beam on the Swarm carrier to her starboard side and is using the other ship’s forward motion to turn!”
Sam smiled. Just like at the Academy, indeed. Halsey had been famous for throwing male opponents twice her weight when they came at her in sparring practice. All you gotta do is let the other guy do his thing, Sam remembered her saying. Then just twist, turn, and get out of the way.
“Independence is firing her lasers into the hole we widened,” reported Buckland.
“Ensign, I feel left out,” Avery said. “Target that hull breach and fire.”
The Indy approached from the Shipyards and Avenger from Calais as their shared target attempted to avoid both ships. Lasers lanced out from both IDF vessels at the same time. Gouts of flame licked outward from the enemy ship’s hull, and internal explosions began to rip it apart at the seams.
“And now there are two,” said Avery. Independence soared past overhead, a bit close for liking, on her way to aid Invincible. Halsey’s ship had changed its course only slightly with the tractor beam gambit. But the mass of one starship grappling and swinging another had pulled the Swarm carrier off course. The enemies appeared to circle one another like battle-scarred tigers. “Bring us around, Mr. Hathaway. Course one-one-two-mark-five.”
“Course one-one-two-mark-five, aye.”
But as Helm executed the order, Buckland at sensors gasped.
“Ma’am, enemy fighters are bugging out. I—uh—I think.” His disbelief was evident. Avery glanced over her shoulder to find him scanning his screens again. “Um, make that they’re definitely bugging out.”
The view changed to the swirling mass of fighters between the battling starships and the Shipyards. And then she saw it—a steady stream of Swarm fighters heading for the carrier with the least damage. In the lower quarter of the screen, a crippled and too-rapidly moving Invincible pounded her dance partner with the help of Independence. A white-hot hole drilled by mag-rail slugs grew like a tiny sun in the enemy carrier’s port side.
“Sonofabitch,” breathed Avery. “We might win this thing after all.”
“Should I recall fighters, Captain?” asked Brent.
Avery shook her head, frowning. “Not yet, Malcolm. We haven’t won yet.”
With half the Swarm fighters in flight, the lone carrier still in good shape jumped away. No sooner had it vanished than the starship held by Invincible’s tractor beam erupted into a fireball. Almost the entire bridge crew of the Avenger leapt from their chairs shouting victory. A few even traded high fives.
Avery turned and smiled at Brent, who was sitting calmly. “Well, XO, it looks like we survived after all.”
“Aye, ma’am. Looks that way.”
She reached over and shook his hand. “Good work with the fighters.” Maybe that would start to make up for her earlier critique at Devil’s Den.
He gave her a wan expression in return. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“Captain, joint communiqué coming in from Independence and Invincible.”
“On-screen. Helm, plot a course for Endeavour. Comms, have medevac teams standing by.”
“Well, you certainly know how to make an entrance,” Noah Preble stated. His half of the split screen almost looked like he’d just rolled out of space dock. The Swarm had hardly touched Independence. By contrast, the image from Halsey’s ship showed the Bridge’s lights flickering. Insulation and wiring hung down from the ceiling behind her head. Smoke obscured her haggard, grinning face streaked with blood and sweat.
“Oh, she’s always been that way,” joshed Halsey. “Late to the party and a look-at-me strut as she comes in the door.” She looked off-screen and nodded, muttering.
“Addison, what’s your status?” asked Preble, clearly concerned.
“I’ve got medics and engineers tripping over one another below. Trying to fix hull breaches and rescue the wounded, one compartment at a time. Damage Control tells me we’ll have maneuvering thrusters back online in short order, and we’re not in danger of running into anything at the moment. We’re backing our engines. I guess if we had to sustain major damage, the Shipyards is the best place to be.”
Preble nodded. “We’re in better shape, obviously, but need a refit ourselves. I think when we ran out of slugs, we started shooting knives and forks out the barrels. Status, Avenger?”
“We’re barely touched, sir,” said Avery. “Heading to Endeavour now.” That statement evoked a moment of silent solemnity from the captains on-screen. “We’ll effect rescue operations and begin a preliminary assessment of what can be salvaged, sir.”
“Very good, Sam. Give me a report as soon as you can.” This time it was Preble who glanced off-screen. “Acknowledged, Lieutenant.” To his fellow starship captains, he looked like he’d just stepped in something smelly. “Pierce is calling. I think I’ll let it ring a while.”
Halsey grunted, then asked, “Noah, can you take our fighters on board for the time being? Our hangar deck is a bit of a mess.”
“Of course. Have your CAG coordinate with Lieutenant Scollard.”
Preble’s head turned again. “All right, goddamn it!” He blinked and took a breath. “Apologies, Lieutenant. Put him through in ten. I guess I’ll have to deal with the admiral sometime,” he said to his viewscreen. “Might as well be now.”
“Sorry, sir,” said Halsey.
“Sorry? Don’t be! You just saved the sector, Captain Halsey. That’s my headline to Pierce.”
Halsey inclined her head. “Thank you, sir.”
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
The Crow’s Nest (IDF Officers Club)
Halsey took a second shot of whiskey and grimaced. It wasn’t the good stuff, but it was good enough.
“You should slow down,” said Avery. “I’m pretty sure they have plenty, even for this crowd.”
Halsey blinked lazily at her oldest, dearest friend. Sam was right, of course. She should slow down. In fact, she probably shouldn’t be here at all. She should be overseeing the repair and refit of Invincible. But Commander Blake had offered to take that duty, and in turn, she was planning to visit their wounded in Churchill’s Infirmary first thing in the morning. She’d wanted to go sooner, but the station’s doctor advised against it. Too many burns, too much pain today to shake hands and talk about how much better things would be tomorrow. By the morning, the survivors would be stable, the doctor said, and up to seeing their captain.
So she, Sam, and Noah Preble had made a date to meet at the Nest and debrief about the battle. Discuss what had gone right, what had gone wrong. With John Richards severely wounded in the Infirmary, it was Preble, as senior captain in the engagement, who was giving a command performance for Rear Admiral Pierce. So he hadn’t shown up yet, and so far, the talk between Avery and Halsey had only been small.
Across the bar, the crowd caroused. The remaining officers from the three ships’ fighter crews had formed a klatch. Nine or ten of them, by her count. They were the loudest of the louder groups in the bar, though Laz was uncharacteristically one of the more reserved revelers. He’d nod and smile and take the occasional slap on the back in good stride. At least he’d survived.
Thank God, thought Addison. If I’d lost him….
What? What, then? They weren’t anything to one another now. Were they? That’s why he was CAG of Independence and not Invincible.
But the whiskey wouldn’t let her get away with that lie. She knew just the opposite was true. He was on Independence because they’d meant something to each other once. And part of her—several parts of her, in fact—longed for that again. She watched him laughing with Mustang Havers, Invincible’s CAG. She watched Havers swoop and dip his arm, recalling their dogfights with the Swarm. He and Laz were comrades in arms, friends forged in the fire of battle. Addison realized with horrified embarrassment just how hotly jealous of her own CAG she was.
She poured herself another shot.
“Hey, here he is finally,” nodded Avery.
Noah Preble approached the table looking more exhausted than he had after the battle just a couple of hours ago. He had an empty water glass with him. It made a loud clock! on the tabletop as he set it down.
“Pour me a drink.”
Avery gave him a look as she reached for the bottle. “That’s not a shot glass.”
“Oh, I know. Saves time when ordering doubles.” Preble gave her a knowing look. “Like now.”
“Sir, aye, sir!” she teased, pouring a generous amount of whiskey into his water glass. Signaling the civilian waiter, she said, “We’re going to need another bottle.”
He nodded and moved off.
“Pierce was that rough?” she asked.
“You have no idea.” Preble took a long gulp from his glass. “Ugh. What is this cheap shit?”
“It’s free to you, that’s what it is,” Halsey replied.
“Can we defer discussing the admiral a moment?” asked Avery. “I want to talk about the Swarm. I mean, they could be back anytime.”
“Yeah, good idea,” said Preble, avoiding Halsey’s gaze.
“Our shields were useless,” noted Avery. “Whatever’s powering those Swarm lasers—it’s like we don’t have shields at all.”
“Maybe we don’t, for the Swarm anyway,” said Halsey. She pulled her eyes from the carousers to stare at Avery. “Maybe they somehow ignore the rotating frequencies we cycle through. Just pass right through, like they’re not even there.”
“That’s not how it was when they attacked at Ganymede or Earth before,” said Avery. “Maybe they’ve adapted to bypass our tech.”
“Maybe they’re using tech we haven’t even thought of yet,” said Preble, taking another swig. He set the empty glass on the table. “I’m a glass is half full kinda guy. So fill it halfway, would you?”
Avery smirked but accommodated him.
“Their hulls are certainly unique,” observed Halsey. She thought back to boarding the Swarm ship with Laz and the rest of the Renegade crew a month earlier. Their sensor readings of the hull’s strange composition. That base metal unlike anything on Earth.
“Apparently so are ours, from their perspective,” said Preble. “The tungsten in the Connie-class ships, I mean. It’s not—pardon the pun—invincible, but we sure last a lot longer against them than our escorts do. Since shields are apparently useless now, the more traditional metal in their hulls … it’s like those cumrat lasers are warm knives cutting through butter.”
The captains yielded to an unspoken need for a moment of silence as each pictured scenes from the battle in their minds. The space around Wellington, thick with enemy fighters heavily outnumbering their own pilots. Hotspur, Gibraltar, Warspite, Surprise—all twelve of Endeavor’s escorts lost, one after the other. Endeavour herself, one capital ship against six with superior technology, bravely standing alone in the darkness of deep space. And Atropos—a suicide run, the ultimate sacrifice made in the hope their comrades might somehow survive. Omega Protocol.
But they’ll become immortal in the hearts and minds of recruits for the rest of time, thought Halsey. If the human race survives, that is.
She held out her shot glass and Avery refilled it, then her own. Halsey raised her hand. “Remember the Atropos,” she said quietly.
Preble nodded solemnly. “Remember the Atropos. And all the fine men and women who died today.”
The three starship captains clinked their glasses together and drank.
“Ship. Shipmates. Self,” mumbled Halsey. The whiskey was showing.
“What?” asked Avery.
“Old Navy saying.” Halsey waved her hand with its empty glass. “It’s about priorities.”
Avery nodded, understanding, and poured them both another drink.
Preble sighed. “There’s something else we need to talk about.”
Halsey eyed him blearily. “Pierce.”
“Pierce? What about him?”
Halsey snickered at her old roommate. “That’s what you get for showing up late to the party.” She’d said it more harsh than playful. Okay, Sam was definitely right. It was time to throttle back on the booze. Wouldn’t do for her officers, or any officer, to see her drunk in public. Unbecoming. “You enjoy the bliss of ignorance,” she finished, waving her empty shot glass again.
Avery looked from one to the other. “What the hell are you two talking about?”
“He, uh…” began Preble.
“Go on, Noah, say it,” said Halsey, straightening up. She tried to clear her head by force of will. The official notification deserved some respect, even if the admiral issuing the order didn’t.
“Say what?” asked Avery.
“He’s insisting on a court-martial,” Preble stated, staring into his glass. “For refusing the orders of a superior officer.”
“Refusing the orders of a … what’s he talking about?” demanded Avery.
Preble briefed her on Pierce’s pre-battle orders and their initial, split-force deployment. His explanation took longer than it should have with Halsey’s personal commentary added in. The interruptions were mostly composed of the four-letter word variety.
“That plan was idiotic,” said Avery. “And for the love of God, you saved the system with that jump to Calais! Any first-year plebe could see that. If you both hadn’t gone to the aid of Endeavour….” Avery just shook her head.
“I don’t think Kilgore will let it stand,” said Preble, gesturing for calm. “But for now, it is what it is.”
“How is John?” asked Halsey.
“Stable,” said Preble. “He lost an arm. Too much burn damage.”
“What about his ship? The crew?” Avery asked.
A momentary pause as Preble took a slug of whiskey. “Endeavour can likely be refitted in time. Most of the hull—that goddamned tungsten hull—survived intact. Full of holes and mostly slag, of course, but reparable. She’ll be in drydock for the foreseeable future, though.” He reached for the whiskey again.
“And her crew?”
His next words were heavy as stone. “What crew?”
Halsey’s jaw tensed. “That stupid sonofabitch—”
“The whole crew?”
Preble poured drinks for each of them before making his own glass optimistic again. “Not the whole crew but the majority. So many holes … most of the bulkheads closed like they should’ve. Many didn’t. There’s a theory there were Swarm agents among Endeavour’s crew. Sabotaged the damage-control systems.” He shrugged like they’d never know for sure. “Most of the bridge crew survived.” Preble said it like it was a consolation prize.
“Fucking cumrat bastards,” Halsey breathed.
“Anyway, there’s more,” said Preble, turning to Avery. “As soon as our ships are rearmed and spaceworthy, you and I are to proceed to Outpost Heroic One in the Veracruz Sector. Because CENTCOM thinks our intelligence network’s been compromised, they want a reconnaissance in force there to meet the Swarm.”
“We’re splitting our forces again?” asked Avery.
“This is different,” said Preble. “I actually agree with CENTCOM. We need eyes in the outlands, eyes we can trust. And the only ships able to survive contact with the enemy, it seems, are Connie-class vessels. And that means you and me. The Admiralty wants to keep most of the fleet, including Constitution and the others, closer to Earth.”
“That strategy would be fine if this were nineteenth-century Europe,” said Avery. “But the Swarm can hop right over Veracruz into whatever sector they want.”
“They can,” nodded Preble, “and they might. But having us in their backyard while they execute another major attack like at Wellington.… We don’t know much about them, but they make war like linear thinkers. CENTCOM doesn’t think they’ll leave us in their backyard, so they figure the Swarm will stop to deal with us before hitting Britannia or any of the other, more populous inner sectors. So command is willing to take the risk. And if they do bypass us and attack closer to home? We’ll be able to jump them from behind.” He turned to Halsey and grinned half-heartedly. “I think your backdoor maneuver at Calais inspired them.”
“Bully for me,” blustered Halsey. She looked at the near-empty bottle of whiskey but didn’t reach for it. She didn’t want to sober up, but she needed to. “So when will Pierce’s marines come to arrest me?”
“Oh, Addie—” began Avery, reaching forward.
But Halsey pulled away. “When?”
Preble sighed. “They won’t be coming. But you should consider yourself under station arrest. Pierce knows Invincible isn’t going anywhere, and even he doesn’t think you’ll go AWOL and run.” Reluctantly, he added, “You can expect formal charges within the next twenty-four hours, though.”
A half-drunken look of relief came over Halsey’s face. “Oh, good!” She began to stand, swayed a bit, and steadied herself against the table. “A day of freedom left.”
“Addie, what are you doing?”
“Well,” said Halsey, ticking off her answers on her fingers, “tomorrow morning when I’m sober, I’m going to visit my wounded in Sickbay.” Her eyes traveled across the bar to where the pilots were still drinking and somehow managing to inflate the actual number of Swarm fighters they’d faced. “Tonight? I’m going to get laid.”
Avery looked around till her eyes lit on the object of Halsey’s desire. “Do you think that’s wise?” she asked.
With the furniture as guides, Halsey made her way across the bar to where Laz was standing and laughing with his comrades.
Earth, Sol System
The Situation Room, the White House
President Chamberlain listened as Admiral Kilgore rattled off the statistics from Britannia. Twelve ships destroyed. One of their biggest, most powerful warships, the flagship of the British fleet, damaged almost beyond repair. Thousands of IDF personnel dead. He closed his eyes as the admiral moved on to their plans to better prepare in the coming days. When she finished, there was silence as his National Security Council absorbed the information.
“How the hell could this have happened?” asked Kathy Wakefield, secretary of state. “How could we have been caught so flatfooted?”
Winston Huxley leaned forward. “We, uh … we might’ve had moles inside the intelligence community.”
“Madam Secretary, the situation is fluid.”
“Fluid? Is that the best you can do? You’re the director of the goddamned Central Intelligence Agency, Win. Your spies spy on other spies. Do you have reliable intelligence that security was compromised or not?”
“We have several suspects in custody now.”
“And?” pressed Kyla Torres, national security advisor.
“And they’re remarkably forthcoming,” offered Huxley. “Almost too forthcoming. It’s like….” The others waited. “It’s like they don’t want to hide anything.”
“What do you mean?” asked Torres. “They’re proud of being traitors?”
Huxley shook his head. “It’s not like that. It’s not like they have a political agenda. Near as we can tell, their bank accounts haven’t mushroomed in recent weeks, either. All the normal things we look for, the reasons for betraying one’s country … aren’t there.”
“Then how do you know—” began Wakefield.
Again, the other council members took a moment to process. A few appeared to consciously close their mouths.
“What?” asked Torres.
“We asked. And they told,” said Huxley. “They confessed.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” scoffed Wakefield.
Huxley nodded. “Exactly. Hence—a fluid situation.”
“I thought we’d vetted all personnel in security-sensitive positions over the age of forty,” said Chamberlain, opening his eyes. “How did these people slip through?”
“For starters, we’re not sure how the Swarm is controlling them. Mind control? Some kind of biological agent? As for the age factor—two of the three persons of interest are in their mid-thirties.”
“I thought you told us any Swarm spies would be former orphans in their forties,” stated Wakefield. Her tone was accusatory. As if Huxley himself might be suspect for feeding them misinformation.
“Madam Secretary, our profile is evolving. Preliminarily, that seemed to be the case. Now—”
“So what you’re telling us is anyone can be a Swarm agent,” she said, staring daggers. “Maybe even you? I mean, what better way to open the postern gate to Earth than to infiltrate the top level of the CIA?”
Huxley took on a thoughtful, if defensive, expression. “Or the State Department.” He added rather belatedly the courtesy, “Madam Secretary.”
“Ladies and gentlemen….” But the room had heated up. No one was listening to the president.
The CIA director held Wakefield in an iron gaze. “Is it?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, please!”
Wakefield took a long drink of water.
“Can we please play nice? In theory, company is coming.”
“Of course, Mr. President,” said Huxley.
With a final look of defiance at the CIA director, Wakefield nodded curtly.
“Rob, any luck?”
“Chinese Premier Wei has not gotten back to us. But Russian President Ivanov should be dialing in shortly. I think he was finishing up his lunch.”
Really, thought Chamberlain. Not the other way around? If anything, he’d expected a callback from Wei before Ivanov, given the Russian president’s aloof attitude lately. But leave it to Oleksiy to finish a meal before attending a summit on the defense of the human race. “While we’re waiting,” he said, “Admiral Kilgore, what is the latest on GILD? Have we figured out a way to bring it online without handing the Swarm the keys?”
“Possibly, Mr. President,” said Kilgore.
Her voice sounded tired, and Chamberlain couldn’t blame her. She’d assimilated a lot of data in the past few hours—not the least important of which was that everything she and the Admiralty thought about the Swarm and its proximal threat was likely flawed at best and dead wrong at worst. And then there were the combat losses. But now she was focused, and he admired her for it.
“When Captain Halsey was aboard the Swarm vessel, before it self-destructed, she discovered something unusual about the aliens’ hull,” began Kilgore.
“Halsey?” questioned Wakefield. “Is this the same Captain Halsey now up on charges for disobeying her superior?”
Kilgore shifted in her seat. “Henry Pierce might outrank Halsey, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call him her—”
“Isn’t she being court-martialed?” pressed Torres.
“Court-martialed?” Chamberlain wasn’t sure he’d heard right. The Hero of Earth and, as he understood it, Britannia too—court-martialed? “Look, that’s a topic for later. Ivanov might call any minute, and I want to hear this first. Continue, Admiral. Briefly, if you can.”
“Of course, Mr. President,” she said. “On board the Swarm ship, Captain Halsey noticed their hull was composed of various metals and alloys, most of them familiar. But one of those metals … well, sir, it’s not on the periodic table.”
Chamberlain waved his hand. “I went into politics for a reason, Admiral. Chemistry isn’t my strong suit. Your point?”
“It doesn’t exist on Earth, sir. Or any other planet we inhabit.”
“What does this have to do with GILD?”
Kilgore turned to the secretary of state. “Admiral Shasta thinks he can reprogram the platform’s sensors to target only structures built with that metal.” She looked around the room. Not seeing the understanding she’d hoped for, she continued, “Our ships would be safe. Only Swarm vessels would be targeted by the drones. By default.”
“But only Swarm vessels with this alien metal in their hull.”
“That’s right, Mr. Huxley.”
“Is that every Swarm vessel?” asked Torres.
“We have no way of knowing that, ma’am,” answered Kilgore. “But the carriers, certainly.”
“Wait, isn’t Shasta the brainiac who created the AI commanding this weapons platform of tomorrow—which was instantly hacked by the enemy, I might note—in the first place?”
Kilgore took a breath. “Actually, the codes that protected the Swarm ships against the platform were handed over by a Swarm agent.”
“Yes, indeed they were,” said Wakefield. “One of your sterling-silver captains, in fact. Baltasar was it?”
The president waved Wakefield to silence. Everyone seemed to be on her shit list today. Of all of them, Kilgore deserved it the least. Today of all days.
“The Admiralty thinks they can reprogram GILD, then?” he asked.
Kilgore nodded. “Our scientists are figuring out what makes the metal unique as we speak. We’re being cautious, Mr. President. We don’t want any friendly fire incidents if we can prevent them.”
“Yes, no more screw-ups would be nice,” said Wakefield.
Before Chamberlain could respond, his chief of staff knocked on the door and stuck his head in.
“Mr. President. I have President Ivanov on the line.”
“Oh good, it’s the Russians,” muttered Chamberlain. “Someone civil.” He stared at Wakefield until she blinked and looked away. “Put him through, Rob.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. President,” came Ivanov’s overly friendly, heavy voice. His words were clipped. Chamberlain wondered if he affected that Russian stereotype to score points with his political rivals or cow them into compliance.
“Actually, it’s quite early in the morning here, Oleksiy,” said Chamberlain.
“Ah yes, of course. Waking to a nightmare instead of from one, ay?”
If you only knew. “Something like that. I’m meeting with my National Security Council now, Mr. President.”
“Indeed. I just had lunch with my own Security Council,” replied Ivanov gravely. “Very disturbing, these events at Britannia, no? It would seem our assumptions about how long it would be until we met the aliens again were a little off.”
“A little,” said Chamberlain. “Oleksiy, I guess you know why I’m calling. I know, when I formed the IDF, you weren’t keen on joining.” He paused a moment, as much to tamp down his own latent frustration on that point as to give his counterpart a moment to remember the conversation. “And I’m not calling to resurrect that discussion. But I am calling to ask for your help. Again.”
There was silence on the other end. A kind of grumbling contemplation, followed by Ivanov clearing his throat of its trademark gravel-and-cigarettes rumble. “I see. And what does Premier Wei say? And Supreme Leader el-Hashem?”
Chamberlain took a long sip of water till he emptied his glass. It was good that it wasn’t alcohol, he decided. He tended to run off at the mouth when he’d been drinking. “I’m still trying to reach Premier Wei. I have not yet reached out to Mr. el-Hashem but will do so, of course. But, Oleksiy, we both know—Russia’s is the most formidable military force next to the IDF.”
“Next to, Quentin?”
Shit, Chamberlain thought. He’d forgotten that damned Russian pride. But he had his own, too.
“There are ladies in the room here, Mr. President. Can we not whip them out and compare lengths right here and now?”
Ivanov’s bombastic laughter made Kathy Wakefield jump in her chair. That alone was worth the price of admission of her earlier sour attitude, Chamberlain decided.
“Right you are, Quentin! That’s what I love about Americans. Right to the point and no taboo is too sacred.” The grumbling contemplation returned. “But to your point, Quentin—yes, of course, we shall join forces again against this alien threat. We are one species, no? We—how do you say?—whip them once, we whip them again, yes? Together!”
Chamberlain visibly relaxed. Ivanov’s agreement had come entirely too easily, he knew. But a win was a win. “As to the command structure—”
“Let our admirals work that out. That is why we pay them!”
The president looked around the table. Every last member of his cabinet wore the exact same expression: shocked surprise. Leave it to Oleksiy Ivanov to finally find something they could all agree upon.
“Quentin, not to be rude—I must go for now. I will direct my Security Council chief to talk to your head of the Joint Chiefs, yes? But rest assured: you have the full support of the Russian Confederation and her unparalleled military might.”
Chamberlain forced himself to take a fake drink from his empty water glass. He didn’t care if the others saw. It was something to keep him from speaking too soon, appearing too fawning.
“Very well, President Ivanov. You have the gratitude of the entire UEF,” he said, trying to sound generous but not pompous. “And my personal thanks, Oleksiy.”
“That means so much, Quentin, coming from you. I will go now. To the future! As friends!”
An Undisclosed Location in Russian Space
Russian President Oleksiy Ivanov switched off the feed. As soon as the camera’s red eye winked out, so did his amiable smile. He sighed and poured himself another vodka. The three he’d had before making the call to Chamberlain had loosened him up some. The trip here had worn him down, as it always did, and the vodka had helped. At least he couldn’t feel the stiffness in his joints anymore, even his lower back. Some people could tolerate multiple, extended jumps through q-space without batting an eyelash. Ivanov wasn’t one of them.
He downed the vodka and exhaled fatigue. The luncheon excuse was an inspired deception on the part of his aide. The call from the UEF president had come in while his ship, Command Point Alpha, was still docking. He could’ve taken the call on board, he supposed, but the doctor’s office with its cushioned chair and built-in Russian oak bookshelves served as more convincing window dressing. With any luck, it looked enough like an office in the Kremlin to fool the gullible amerikanskiy.
Ivanov doubted anyone would look closely enough at the feed to spot Arina Chuchnova’s doctorate in biogenetics hanging on the wall behind him. Chamberlain was likely so happy the Russians were once again a part of his little coalition, he was canceling his National Security Council meeting to change his underwear. Ivanov chortled at that image but only briefly. Before he sat down, he should’ve spotted Chuchnova’s diploma and moved it out of shot before making the call. But he was getting old, as his achy joints reminded him.
Ivanov poured another vodka and raised his glass.
To the future! As friends!
Indeed. A private little joke, that.
That’s the word Balasz Soldova kept using to describe their relationship. Or, more accurately, the word his Swarm masters used when speaking through him. Once the research team had identified the right sub-spectrum of meta-space to find the frequency connecting Soldova to the aliens—well, the Russians hadn’t been able to shut them up.
They’d been quite forthcoming about their plans to conquer humanity. Made no attempt to hide them whatsoever. Oh, they’d called them by a different name. Our expression of friendship was one way they put it. Our desire to bring you into our greater cooperative society of species was another, more verbose favorite phrase.
“Our sole goal is to bring mankind into our coalition of civilizations,” Soldova had said in one conversation. “A collection of worlds and peoples coexisting peacefully with one another, each using their particular gifts to benefit the whole.”
We tried Communism once, Ivanov had thought bitterly in response to that. And every third generation or so, Lenin’s ghost returned to haunt Mother Russia in the form of neo-Communists when the status quo was less than satisfying. But it always failed, mired in the morass of its own unsustainable weight, however deeply its tenets might take hold in the moment. So Soldova’s expression of benefiting the whole by working as one couldn’t help but rub Ivanov the wrong way. Still, outwardly he’d smiled and nodded. He knew the pig the Swarm was selling, no matter how they dressed it up. And he knew the trick was letting the salesman believe he’d found a patsy, an easy mark. That kept the power of the negotiation in Oleksiy’s hands.
It was an old lesson, dearly bought, that had served him well his entire political career. When Ivanov was a boy, a man had come to his village selling a bottle of something he called lekarstvo. Sickness had swept through the elders and newborns that winter, and many had died. Young Oleksiy, the eldest son, shouldered three times the work to keep the rest of his family alive because his father too had fallen ill. He loved his father, his mother, his little sister Marina. The boy was only too glad to do the extra work, to be the man of the house and prove himself worthy of his father’s trust.
And then the man had come to town with his lekarstvo, his bottled cure. Oleksiy had begged his father to let him spend the ten rubles to buy it. Old Lady Marinov had bought a bottle, he said, and she was feeling better. Laughing even, and singing. But his father had called the traveler a zhulik, a shyster, and refused his son the rubles.
Oleksiy had begged until he cried. He didn’t want his father to die. And then, when the illness finally took the old man, pustules weeping blood long after his heart had stopped, Oleksiy had cried again, and inconsolably, for days.
Ivanov knew now that his father had been right, of course. The man who’d come to the village with his lekarstvo had been a charlatan, a man selling false hope that tasted exactly like vodka. But false hope had seemed to cure Old Lady Marinov. She actually had gotten better. And if his papa had allowed Oleksiy the ten rubles—a pittance now but a fortune then—perhaps he might have lived too. Even if the lekarstvo was a fake, maybe he would have lived like the old lady had lived. Lived to chase down the shyster and thrash him for taking advantage of old people and desperate parents terrified of burying another child.
That’s what Soldova’s language reminded Oleksiy of now. A traveling salesman with a good pitch that wrapped what you knew to be true in what you hoped could be true: a one-ruble pig wearing a ten-ruble, painted smile.
Members of a greater cooperative society of species.
Slaves with velvet shackles.
Ivanov poured another vodka. That was six, now. Or was it seven?
He shrugged. It was the Russian cure for everything, wasn’t it? He made a gritty sound from the back of his throat as the thought made him chuckle again.
The Swarm was an intergalactic snake oil salesman, a magician selling lekarstvo for a disease that didn’t exist. But Oleksiy had learned a valuable lesson as a boy. Always make friends with the magician. That way, you learn how he performs his tricks … and how to avoid being taken in by them.
Dr. Arina Chuchnova’s voice sounded distant.
He looked up and smiled. She was a beautiful woman. He loved redheads, and that smile she wore all the time now looked so inviting. And Arina had brains sitting atop all that beauty. He stared at her supple body wrapped in a sexy white science coat. He thought of reaching up and so tenderly undoing the knot that held her hair pulled back, of setting her data PADD aside. But as the fantasy moved forward, as he pictured himself on top of her, his lower back began to ache again.
Getting old. There was no lekarstvo for that.
“Yes, Doctor?” He again found the smile he’d worn for the call with Chamberlain.
“Soldova is asking to speak with you, sir.”
“Well, then. We mustn’t keep him waiting. Who knows what magic he will show us today?”
Ivanov waved her off as he lifted himself, slowly, from the chair.
“Do you need help, Mr. President?”
He kept the smile in place. “How kind of you to ask. No, I can manage. Let us go and talk with our new friends.”
* * *
As he approached Soldova’s cell, Ivanov marveled at how his comrade’s circumstances had changed. When he’d first met him, Soldova had been cowering in a corner behind the thick, plastic transparent wall that separated them and claiming no knowledge of any Swarm or being their agent. Some judicious application of physical stress—and lack of atmospheric pressure—had awoken the connection.
Now that they were friends, his accommodations were more comfortable. Soldova sat naked in a lounge recliner staring at ancient human vids he never seemed to get enough of.
“Hello, Balasz,” said the Russian president pleasantly. “And what are we watching today?”
“An ancient social experiment,” replied Soldova without looking from the screen. “Something called Three’s Company.”
“Indeed?” Ivanov had no idea what he was talking about. “And is this experiment informative?”
Soldova turned to him, pressing the pause button. “We are learning so much about you, especially about your capacity for deception.” He affected a smile. It reminded Ivanov of the painted pig again. “Oleksiy, why have you committed your military to aid the UEF president?”
Ivanov was nonplussed but tried not to show it. The half a dozen shots of vodka weren’t his friends in that moment. He considered acting ignorant but knew instinctively that was the wrong road. Politics had taught him some invaluable life lessons as well. Truth, first. Then reshape it.
“I have to say, I’m astonished by how quickly you know this,” said Ivanov, injecting his voice with genuine admiration. “I just now completed a call with—”
“Our link provides us with information almost instantaneously,” interrupted Soldova. “When one of us learns something significant, we pass it to the others.”
“Shared consciousness through meta-space?” Ivanov flashed a look at Chuchnova, who was typing on her PADD. That could be downright dangerous, he thought. “How efficient.”
“Indeed. And you have yet to answer my question.” The smile widened, plastered on Soldova’s face. Even through the vodka haze, it made Ivanov uncomfortable.
Time for the reshaping.
“My promise to Chamberlain was a Trojan horse,” said Ivanov.
“A deception. To pretend to agree to help when, really, I have no intention of helping.”
“Ah, you are pretending to be something you’re not,” said Soldova, motioning toward the vidscreen. “Like in the experiment.”
Ivanov shrugged. “I suppose. By promising Chamberlain Russian aid, he will come to rely on it in planning his defenses. And when our ships don’t, in fact, help at all, he will be all the weaker. And you will be the stronger for it.”
“Ah,” said Soldova again, that unnerving smile still firmly in place. “You help us by deceiving him.”
Soldova nodded. “I understand. Thank you for explaining, Mr. President.”
Ivanov nodded. “Of course. Was there anything else?” His knees were aching. And that damned expression on Soldova’s face reminded him of a psychotic clown. He needed a drink.
“Not at this time,” said Soldova. “I have more research to do.”
The president inclined his head. “In that case, my trip here was long and I must—”
“But, President Ivanov, understand one thing.” The tone changed. The smile stayed. “Never attempt to deceive us. For I have merely to think a thought….”
Ivanov heard the data PADD clatter to the floor, then saw a blur of motion to his right. He turned quickly to find the point of a data pen pricking his Adam’s apple. Chuchnova had reached her free hand around to grip the back of his neck, and the rubber glove she wore bit at his skin. Her ruby red lips parted, less inviting now. “…and we will find a new friend to lead your people to their better future,” she finished for Soldova.
Ivanov blinked, nodding curtly. Now that was a new magic trick.
He really needed that drink.
Britannia, Continent of Kent
Getting out of the Sol System was easy. Getting here, though—that had been challenging. More so than he’d anticipated, and he knew he had the aliens to thank for that. Then again, he had the aliens to thank for his cover, too. Military personnel were flying fast and furious around the UEF, and one more officer flitting among the chaos created little suspicion. Good thing he’d managed to commandeer an officer’s uniform.
To the naked eye, Codeine appeared as one more replacement among many, and all of them headed for their berths aboard the Defense Force warships in orbit above Britannia. A lot of officers and crew alike had died in the battle the day before. And while the Admiralty hadn’t been keen on sending more ships to the Britannia system to aid in its defense, they’d had plenty of personnel to spare. So here he was, with forged orders to report to the ISS Avenger without delay.
Stepping off the transport onto the wharf at Tilbury, Codeine did his best to blend in. It wasn’t very hard. At that moment, Tilbury was a mixed, murmuring mass of civilian and military personnel, half of them coming and half of them going. The civvies, most trying to carry all their worldly possessions in overstuffed, hastily packed luggage, vied for space on the passenger liners headed—well, anywhere but Britannia. Rumors were rampant that the Swarm would return at any moment to finish the job of obliterating the planet. Mothers huddled with children, and fathers shouldered against one another to get to the front of the line and purchase overpriced luxury liner tickets. A few harsh words here and there could be heard between elbows, but no one complained about the prices for passage off planet.
The incoming crowd, while much smaller, was also more smartly dressed. Codeine stood in a milling line with other IDF personnel, waiting to be ushered onto transports for their final destinations. The uniform he’d procured from the dead lieutenant on Lunar Base stretched snugly along the length of his tall frame. The duffle bag over his shoulder made him look like everyone else, and if anyone inspected it, they’d find the personal effects and spare uniforms once belonging to an earnest, now dead IDF officer. Should they dig more deeply, they’d find the tools of an assassin’s trade wrapped inside the sheep’s clothing of the other.
“Sir?” said a pretty blonde ensign with a PADD in her hand. “Can I scan your assignment?”
Codeine stepped up so her scanner could read the chest insignia he’d also taken off the unfortunate lieutenant. The data encoded in it had originally destined the officer for the ISS Constitution in orbit at Lunar Base. But a little hacking later, and the tall man wearing the slightly tight officer’s uniform was being herded onto the first transport of replacements destined for Churchill Station.
“Where you headed, sir?” she asked.
“Assigned to Avenger,” he said, trying to sound as tired and bored with lines as she did.
The ensign nodded. “I heard she did okay yesterday. Not too many losses.”
“Lucky me,” he groused. “I was in a sweet deployment in Tokyo when they decided I needed to grab my gear and come out here. No idea who I pissed off.”
“Well, everything seems to be in order, Lieutenant Barstow, thank you,” she said blandly, already looking past him to her next check-in.
“Ensign, can you answer a question for me?”
Her eyes returned to his. She seemed to really see him for the first time, and his disarming smile easily pushed aside her boredom with duty. “Of course, sir, I’ll try.”
“Why were we rerouted to a civilian port and not simply shipped directly to Churchill?”
“Ah, sir, you haven’t heard?”
Codeine calculated whether his ignorance of whatever she was talking about would seem odd. He decided to risk it. “Heard what?”
“About the court-martial.”
He nodded, feigning recognition. “Oh, that. Right.”
“Between that and security after the Swarm attack up top,” she said, jerking her thumb toward orbit, “Churchill is severely restricting traffic. Rear Admiral Pierce is strict when it comes to regulations. Everyone’s being dumped here first, sorted out, and sent on smaller shuttles. Makes for less bodies passing through so fast up there.” Then she noticed his insignia and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“Well, you’re security, right Lieutenant? And they’re being extra cautious delivering personnel now. I mean, now that’s irony, huh?”
Codeine flashed her his best sardonic grin. “You said it.”
“Hey, can you two make moon eyes off duty? I got places to be. There’s a war on, y’know.”
“Sorry, Captain!” called the ensign.
“I’ll just get out of your way,” said Codeine with a wink. He moved past her, careful to brush by just a little closer than he needed to. Behind him he heard the impatient captain clamoring again and grinned, knowing the ensign was watching him walk away. Sometimes his job could be just plain fun.
* * *
“You’re not on the duty roster. In fact, you’re not on the crew list at all.”
Codeine shrugged in the airlock of the shuttle attached to Avenger’s secondary hull. This Rear Admiral Pierce really was a stickler for procedure. They were checking details on both ends of the trip. He’d been counting on the chaos of the attack to slip aboard. “I don’t know what to tell you, Chief,” he said. “My orders specified I deploy with all speed to—”
“What’s holding up the line?” asked a marine master sergeant behind him. She sounded tired and ready for a shower.
“Sorry ma’am!” called the deck sergeant. “A little data snafu.”
“Well un-snafu it! I’ve gotta download some data of my own, if you know what I mean.”
Codeine laughed amiably with the handful of other replacements still behind him in the shuttle. “Maybe my transfer orders got dropped in the chaos? Lots of info moving between here and Earth in the last forty-eight hours.”
The chief grunted. “Maybe. Still, I got orders.”
“Do your orders include swabbing the deck?” called the marine. “Cuz they’re about to.”
The chief winced.
“Look, I don’t want to cause trouble,” said Codeine. “How about you make a note and let me on? Follow up after things settle down a little bit.” The chief looked him in the eye, and Codeine shrugged again. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”
“Actually, we all are. To Veracruz, and within the hour.”
“All the more reason to move along!” called the master sergeant behind Codeine. She’d begun bouncing where she stood. “And speaking of movements….”
Making a noise that said he didn’t get paid enough to swab shit off a deck, the chief backed up and waved Codeine through. “I’ve scanned your orders into the official record. We’ll sort it out ASAP.”
“Yeah, thanks Chief,” said the marine, following in close order. “Better have me on the list or its pickup duty for you.”
Codeine left the two of them to their procedure and made his way without haste aboard Avenger. The first thing he should do as a newly billeted officer was report to the officer of the day and find quarters.
“Lieutenant?” he asked a thirty-something woman. “Where can I find the OD?”
She considered the question. “Probably down on G-deck. You a newbie?”
“Best get down there and get your gear stowed,” she said. “We’re shipping out as soon as we’re resupplied.”
Codeine nodded as she moved past, intent on her own pre-voyage duties. He decided to take a while to get to G-deck. The closer they were to shipping out when he introduced himself to the OD, the less inclined they’d be to put him through the ringer like the deck chief had.
A good hunter was a patient hunter, Codeine knew. He didn’t mind waiting till his target stepped into his crosshairs. Sooner or later, they always did. Until then, he’d play his part as a straight-laced lieutenant intent on doing his duty.
And bide his time.
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
The clock buzzed, shaking Laz awake. He blinked sleepily and registered just how hot it was under the covers. Then a grin spread across his face as he remembered. It had been even hotter last night.
Addison Halsey’s arm lay across his chest. The alarm hadn’t woken her. No surprise there. She’d been drunk and playful and full of fire last night, just like back at Fleet Academy. All sense of the proper starship captain in her early forties had fallen away with seemingly little effort, as had her uniform. She’d made love to him like it was her last night in the universe.
Pierce. An idiot with too much braid, too much power was all he was.
Laz glanced down at Addie’s tussled hair, reached up to brush it from her temple. Her sleep had been deep once they’d exhausted themselves. She looked so at peace lying in his arms. No Swarm. No responsibilities. No court-martial. He took her wrist between his thumb and forefinger and lightly lifted it.
“No need,” Addison sleep-mumbled, her eyes still shut. “I’m awake.”
“Sorry about the alarm,” said Laz, letting her arm return to his chest. He liked it there. “I’m supposed to report to Independence by 0900 hours.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “What time is it?”
“Ah.” Her lips stretched into a smile. She seemed to be remembering last night too. “Plenty of time, then. That was nice, by the way.”
“Your stroking my hair.” Addison nestled her head in the crook of his arm and opened her eyes. “You need a shave, Lieutenant.”
“Right. And it’s 0831 now.”
She furrowed her brow and pouted like a little girl told it’s too close to dinner to have a cookie. “You in a hurry to leave me, Laz? Get what you want and then—”
“Don’t even kid about that, Addie.”
Her playful smile returned. “Sorry. I’m in a dark humor kind of mood.”
Now it was his turn. “After last night?”
“Ha!” she said, reaching under the covers. “Despite last night, you stallion you.”
“No-no, now, no time for that. I have to report.”
The pout of the little girl denied returned. “What kind of a pirate are you?”
Laz sighed. “The retired kind.” He pulled the covers away and shivered when the cool air hit the sheen of sweat covering his body.
As he stood up, she made cat noises. “Nice six, Lieutenant.”
“Stop it,” he teased. But if he were honest with himself, Laz reveled in every moment. Because soon the memory of their time together would be all he’d have. Maybe all he’d ever have, given the war. This might be the last time they’d ever see each other. That thought—more than the war, more than her trouble with Pierce—scared the hell out of him.
“Oh, all right,” she breathed, sitting up and putting the heel of her hand to her forehead. Her hangover looked to be in full control. “I think I liked you better when you were a scoundrel.”
“Me too, sometimes. When are you due in Pierce’s office?”
“1100 hours. But I want to say goodbye to Noah and Sam. And I need to visit my crew in the Infirmary in case.…” She didn’t finish, but she didn’t have to.
“It won’t stand, Addie,” said Laz, pulling on his trousers. A shower would have to wait. “Kilgore won’t let it stand.”
Addison moved her head in a noncommittal way. “Maybe, maybe not.” She began putting on her Fleet-issued underwear. “But I’ve got things I want to do before I have to face Pierce.” Looking around, she asked, “Is there a brush around here anywhere?”
* * *
The hug lasted longer than she’d intended, but not long enough. When she finally released her old roommate, Sam Avery tried to inject strength and hope into her eyes.
“I’ve submitted my official log to Admiral Pierce and CENTCOM. So has Noah. Both have input from John Richards. It would be obvious to a first-semester midshipman that it was your action that saved the sector. Pierce will have to see that. And if he won’t, CENTCOM will.”
Halsey nodded her appreciation. “The thing that bugs me the most? This is taking me out of the fight.”
“Not for long, I have no doubt,” said Noah Preble, approaching. “Sam’s right. This is a goddamned drumhead drama. Admiral Kilgore is already on her way here, in fact. She’ll straighten things out in due course.”
“I hope so,” sighed Halsey, looking at the smartband on her wrist. “I’ve gotta go though, guys. I want to visit the Infirmary before I have to deal with Pierce.” She started to turn away, then stopped and returned her eyes to both of them. “You both be safe. Bring your ships home. Bring your crews home—and yourselves. Don’t make me have to break out of the brig to come save your asses. I’m in enough trouble as it is.”
Sam’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Now, that’s a plan I hadn’t thought of.…”
“Try not to ding up that new ship too much, Avery.” Halsey threw her a lopsided grin as she walked off. “And for the love of God, don’t show pictures of your loved ones to anyone! In the vids, that’s always when the hero bites it.”
Avery chuckled after her as she and Preble watched Halsey go. Sam’s bright smile faded quickly. “I think I’m more worried about what Pierce is going to do to her than I am about facing the Swarm again,” she said.
“I wouldn’t worry about Addison Halsey,” said Preble. “She can take care of herself. And, speaking of the Swarm….” He began walking toward the berths where Independence and Avenger were docked. Avery followed.
“Yeah, I know. We’re resupplied and ready to leave orbit. Are you sure about this mission to the outlands, Noah? Something feels sketchy about leaving Britannia with only two heavily damaged warships to defend her.”
“Admiral Kilgore is on her way with the Intrepid. Apparently the Russians are sending a fleet to help defend the Shipyards.”
“The Russians?” asked Avery, incredulous. They’d helped out a month ago, true enough, but everything she’d heard indicated they’d returned to their state policy of not playing well with others. She waited as a pair of crewmen passed them in the corridor, then whispered, “Ivanov has signed up for the IDF after all?”
“Don’t think so,” Preble replied. “Seems like the same terms as before, from what Kilgore said in her transmission. But right now, we’ll take all the help we can get.”
Avery flashed a beggars-can’t-be-choosers expression. “How are your replacements?”
“Green and shivering,” groused Preble. “But the Swarm will knock that out of them soon enough.”
Their paths ahead were about to diverge, leading each to their own ship, so before they had to part, Avery touched Preble’s arm. “Fair sailing, Captain Preble. Keep the wind at your back.”
Preble inclined his head. “And to you, Captain Avery. We leave orbit in ten minutes.”
They shook hands hard and went their separate ways.
Bridge, ISS Avenger
“Enjoy some downtime, Lieutenant O’Brian?” asked Avery as she exited the lift.
“Captain on the Bridge!” said the comms officer. “And yes, ma’am. Got halfway through another sea adventure!”
Avery shook her head as she stepped down into the pit. While everyone, including her, had been out drinking and decompressing their after-battle jitters away, Bernie O’Brian had lost himself in one of those ancient novels of sailing ship battles he loved so much. She marveled sometimes at just how much of that tradition still remained in the service nearly a thousand years later. Only the technology had changed. And they sailed the Milky Way now, not the Seven Seas.
She scanned the Bridge as final preparations were being made to depart Churchill Station. “Where the hell is Malcolm?” asked Avery as she sat down in the captain’s chair. “He should be here overseeing operations. Comms, page the commander.”
“Aye, ma’am,” said O’Brian, flipping a switch. “Commander Brent, report to the Bridge. XO, please report to the—”
The lift doors swept apart, and out stepped the commander. Avery turned to him. He just stood there a moment. His eyes look a little wild, she thought. Too much drinking and decompressing, I guess. Maybe O’Brian’s way was better.
The lift doors began to close again, and the commander reached out his hand to prevent them doing so. His gaze shifted to the center seat on the Bridge. “Captain,” he said, staring hard at her.
“Are you all right, Commander?”
Brent stepped stiffly from the lift without answering. It was like the laundry detail had put extra starch in his uniform.
“Aye, ma’am. I’m fine.”
But he didn’t sound fine to Avery. He sounded detached. And his eyes looked like he’d taken a fistful of amphetamines.
“Commander, are you quite well?” she asked.
Brent took his seat next to her. “As I said, ma’am, I’m fine.” With his captain’s gaze appraising him, the XO cracked his neck and attempted an amiable grin. It seemed forced. “I think I just slept wrong, ma’am. Nightmares.”
Avery’s expression became sympathetic. After the battle they’d just been through, different people dealt with compartmentalizing their emotions during the course of their duty in different ways. Some got drunk afterward. Some lost themselves in a novel. Some had bad dreams.
“How many pills did you pop to get up here this morning?”
Brent looked at her, his eyes still wide. They reminded her of propped-open windows.
“Just one, ma’am.”
“Pill, Captain.” He didn’t seem to register her attempt at humor. “Just the one pill.”
Leaning over for the sake of discretion, she asked, “Can I assume you’re capable of performing your duties, Malcolm?”
His expression flashed anger. “Ma’am, I can absolutely assure you—”
Avery held up her hand. At least he was feeling normal enough to take offense at her implication. “Very well, XO. If that changes, you’ll let me know.”
“Of course, Captain,” he said tautly. “Helm, prepare to release docking clamps. Lay in a course for Outpost Heroic One.”
As her XO went through the preparations to leave orbit, Avery sat back in her chair. Her eyes turned to the viewscreen, but her ears remained focused on Brent’s voice as he checked in with each duty station. Something wasn’t right with him. And she had no idea what the wrong was.
“Lieutenant O’Brian,” she said mechanically. “Signal Independence. We’ll follow her lead.”
“All stations report ready, Captain,” said her XO, his voice sounding nearly normal now.
“Very well. Mr. Hathaway, let’s get where we’re going.”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” replied the helmsman.
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
Rear Admiral Sir Henry Pierce’s Office
Addison hated waiting. Had ever since she was a little girl and her father was overdue—as he almost always was—to pick her up for the weekend. Some part of her had always dreaded the possibility that he might not show up at all. That rarely happened, but her father’s near-perfect track record did little to assuage her little girl’s fears as she sat, waiting for Pierce to summon her.
She glanced at the clock on the wall. 1115 hours. The military was known for launching on time, whether that be missiles or courts-martial. And Admiral Pierce’s reputation for running his day like an exercise from the service manual was well known. Something was up.
The door to the office opened and Pierce’s aide, Commander Shays, poked her head out. “The admiral will see you now, Captain.”
Halsey stood up, pressing her tunic just a little bit straighter. Whatever she thought of the admiral himself, whatever she thought of the charges—it was time to get serious. Time to put the sass aside. She entered Pierce’s office keenly aware of the marines standing at attention as she passed between them.
“Come in, Captain Halsey. Have a seat.”
Not Pierce’s voice. A woman’s. Pierce sat scowling behind his desk, his gaze roaming over Halsey’s uniform. He had the expression of an academy upperclassman searching a plebe for demerit-worthy infractions. The admiral reached out and turned the video monitor on his desk to face her.
“Admiral Kilgore.” Halsey’s acknowledgment was muted by surprise. She glanced at the nearest chair but refrained from sitting. “I’d prefer to stand, ma’am.”
“As you wish,” replied Kilgore. The meta-space transmission fritzed a bit, then stabilized. “Forgive the informality of my attendance here. I’m en route from Earth to coordinate the Russian contribution to Britannia’s defense force. And I didn’t want to miss this meeting.”
Halsey reconned Pierce’s face. No surprise there. She found the aristocratic demeanor she’d come to know before, during the briefing prior to the Battle of Wellington Shipyards. But accentuated somehow, as if it had become even more set in stone. Cold, pallid cheeks surrounding a prominent nose from which, Halsey had no doubt, Pierce had spent his privileged life looking down on others. It seemed to extend like a runway for launching daggers from his ice-gray eyes.
Pierce began. “Captain Halsey, you are here because you disobeyed a direct order from me during the recent action against the Swarm at Wellington Shipyards. Are you cognizant of this fact, and do you stand ready to plead?”
Wow. It really was like he was reading from the manual and filling in proper names as he went along. She opened her mouth to answer.
“Actually, Admiral, this is an informal meeting,” interrupted Kilgore. “We’re here to assign Captain Halsey counsel and to set the tone for a more formal hearing that I have every hope and expectation will be resolved quickly and to the satisfaction of the service.”
“Ma’am, I don’t need counsel,” said Halsey. “Admiral Pierce is correct that I disobeyed a direct order.” Pierce’s crow-like face began to crack with a smile that suddenly curdled as Halsey continued. “However, I would do so again in the same circumstances because—”
“Captain Halsey, shut up,” said Kilgore. “You will answer a direct question with a direct answer and that is all. Consider that an order. And don’t disobey this one.”
Halsey closed her mouth.
“Admiral Kilgore, Captain Halsey’s insubordination is clear,” said Pierce. “Your inserting yourself in these proceedings is highly irregular.” He seemed to lace his voice with as much Englishness as possible. But Kilgore was a Midwestern girl from way back, and his accented attempt at superiority fell on deaf ears. “By the Articles of Interstellar Law, I have sole authority to—”
“This whole damned war is highly irregular, Henry,” Kilgore said. Her words were almost playful, but her tone most assuredly was not. “And anyone that treats the court-martial of an IDF captain with a sterling record like Halsey’s like it’s a midshipman’s come-to-Jesus should have their….” She stopped herself in recognition for their audience of junior officers. “Apologies, Henry. It’s been a long couple of days.”
“Ma’am,” Pierce acknowledged stiffly.
“And on that note—Captain Halsey, I’ll be assigning my aide, Commander Olsen, to act as your counsel during the formal hearing. We’ll conduct that tomorrow morning at 0900 hours, after I’ve had a chance to settle in, see to the Russians, and hopefully find a long, hot shower. Until then, you are restricted to Invincible to oversee repairs.”
“Admiral!” exploded Pierce. “Captain Halsey should at least be kept here on station under guard until such time—”
“Negative, Admiral,” said Kilgore. “We have no idea how soon the Swarm might be back. The reconnaissance force we sent to Veracruz is a good set of eyes to have out there, but Wellington Shipyards is a strategic asset and obviously a target—no reason to think the enemy won’t be back to finish the job.” Almost to herself, she muttered, “And only the Russians know what the hell the Russians will do.” Staring hard from the screen, she concluded, “Until found guilty, Captain Halsey will continue to do her duties as commander of Invincible—in this case, get it ready to get back in the fight.”
Addison struggled to keep the smile off her face.
Pierce’s thin cheeks seemed to surrender to their natural, sallow state. “Aye-aye, ma’am.”
Kilgore nodded. “Captain Halsey, get back to your ship and do your damned job. I’ll have Olsen hail you when we’ve arrived.”
“Aye-aye, Admiral,” said Halsey, saluting smartly.
“You are dismissed, Captain,” Pierce said.
“Yes, Admiral.” She turned on her heel in a parade-perfect about-face and strode from Pierce’s office.
Sector 519, 9 lightyears outside United Earth Space
Bridge, ISS Avenger
Avery sat staring at the emptiness of Mother Universe on the forward screen. She could hear the ping and whir of Buckland’s sensor readouts behind her, as she had for the last several hours. Malcolm sat to her right, apparently well and performing his XO duties, albeit mechanically, by rote. She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair.
“Current readings, Mr. Buckland?” asked Brent.
I kinda wish he was a little less efficient, Sam joked to herself. That makes about the hundredth time he’s asked that. She wondered if she’d hear the damned question in her sleep, if she ever got any again.
“Sensors show all clear, sir,” replied Buckland, suppressing a yawn. All of them, it seemed, were managing the dual challenges of pedantic survey duty compounded by the post-victory celebrations. “Moving on to grid 519-Alpha-Alpha.”
“Very well, Ensign,” replied the commander. “Captain, are you all right?”
“Fine, Malcolm, just a little tired,” she replied without opening her eyes. They burned with fatigue. What she wouldn’t give right now for a shot of whiskey. Then again, maybe the regulation against drinking on duty was a good thing. “But it was nice of you to ask.”
Hathaway at the helm failed to stifle his boredom as successfully as Buckland had. His yawn echoed around the Bridge before the helmsman, remembering protocol, issued an embarrassed, “Sorry, Captain.”
He should be sorry, she thought. Hathaway’s yawn had prompted Avery’s own jaw to start stretching. “Think nothing of it, Lieutenant,” she said to cover it. Leaning over to Brent, she whispered, “Maybe we could all use one of your pills.”
“Of course, Captain. Or I can call Doc Yaklin and he—”
“I was joking, Malcolm.”
The XO nodded. “Listen, Captain … why don’t you get some rack time? I can handle the surveys.”
Oh, you angel in a uniform you. But what she said was, “That’s not necessary, XO. But again, I appreciate the thought.”
“Ma’am, maybe you should get some shut-eye,” said Hathaway. “If the Swarm does show up….”
Sam thought about it. He had a point. A sidelong glance at Brent confirmed he appeared to have shaken off whatever strange mood he’d come on duty with. And there was nothing out here but dust and vacuum.
“Mr. Buckland, how much longer to complete the assigned course of surveys?” she asked.
“Approximately an hour and fifteen minutes, Captain.”
“Captain, I just received a message from Captain Preble on the Independence,” said O’Brian at comms. “Apparently you’re invited to a dinner with Commodore Wheatley at 1700 Heroic time, ma’am.”
Sam wanted to hang her head. She settled for flexing her fingers.
“Very well, Lieutenant. Send acknowledgment to Independence and give Captain Preble my compliments. Tell him I’ll be there with bells on.”
“It’s an old expression, O’Brian. Never heard of it in those naval novels you read?”
“Um. No, ma’am.”
“Send the message, Lieutenant. Without the bells.”
“Okay, you talked me into it, Malcolm. I’m going down to my quarters for an hour of rack time. I’ll be back on the Bridge before Ensign Buckland finishes his last sweep. Anything—and I do mean anything—out of the ordinary, you call me. Understood?”
“Aye, ma’am.” Then, more earnestly but beneath his breath, Brent added, “I can handle the duty.”
“Very well,” she said, rising and stepping toward the lift. “Lieutenant O’Brian, wake-up call in one hour flat.” The comms officer acknowledged the order. “Ladies and gentlemen, I bid you a fast yet unexciting passage of the next hour.”
“Pleasant dreams, Captain,” said O’Brian.
As the lift doors closed in front of her, she saw her XO move to the center seat. Something in the back of her mind was buzzing, a warning. But she wrote it off as paranoia fueled by fatigue.
Outpost Heroic One
“Welcome to the ass end of space, Captain Preble,” said Commodore Wheatley. “Nice of CENTCOM to send us a couple of ships of the line to look after us.”
Noah Preble laughed. “Well, Mike, someone had to come out and make sure you didn’t make things worse with the Swarm. We’re already at war with them, right?”
Michael Wheatley smirked. He had a reputation for picking fights whatever the odds of him winning them might be. It’s why he was in command out here on the border between UEF space and the vast unknown beyond it. Most of those sectors didn’t even have names yet, only numbers. And some of them butted up against Russian Confederation territory.
“I’d like to have you and Captain Avery to dinner, if you don’t mind space rations. Here at Heroic, we barely have toilets that work. Some j-hole installed half the pumps backward.”
“I hear they’re planning to make you a full starbase with nuclear armament and enough mag-rail guns to stop a Russian dreadnought,” said Preble.
“I’ve heard the same thing. Ever since the Swarm caught the IDF with its pants around its ankles and one hand busy.” Wheatley looked unconvinced. “For now, we still have to remember to flush up.”
Preble tried not to laugh. “Why don’t you join Sam and me as my guest? We’ll have our cook whip up something that doesn’t taste like it came out of a can.”
“What? And get used to dependable artificial gravity and taking a piss without ducking? You’ll spoil me, Noah.”
“I always try to spoil my superior officers, sir. It’s how I’ve advanced so far at such a tender, young age.”
Wheatley actually cracked a smile. “Very well. I like to support up-and-comers with a talent for brownnosing.”
“I sent Avery on ahead to make a survey of Sectors 518 through 520. Her last logs indicate an ETA of 1600. Dinner at 1700 hours?”
“I’ll have my ensign make sure the shuttle is fueled up.”
“See you then, sir.”
Somewhere in Q-Space
Avery’s alarm assaulted her ears. How could that be already? She’d just lain down, hadn’t she?
Wait a minute, she hadn’t programmed an alarm at all. O’Brian was supposed to call and wake her up. And the noise banging around the walls of her quarters was Avenger’s red alert.
She shot out of bed and hammered the comms switch. “Bridge! Report!”
“Captain!” came Hathaway’s relieved voice. “We keep getting hails from Veracruz Sector demanding we answer. I know the XO ordered me not to, but I decided to sound the red alert and wake you up anyway—”
“Mr. Hathaway? What hails? What’s going on up there? Where’s Commander Brent?”
Her brain was still knocking down the cobwebs of interrupted sleep. Avery glanced at her bedside clock. She’d been asleep almost three hours! A quick conversion told her it was 1730 Heroic local time. She was late for the dinner with Wheatley, she realized. And that was the least of her worries. Something about the ship felt wrong, too.
“He’s gone below, ma’am,” said Hathaway, sounding mystified. “He said he was going to wake you up personally to ask if we should respond after all, run-silent orders or no run-silent orders.”
“What run-silent orders?”
“The ones Commander Brent passed along from CENTCOM.”
That warning she’d heard in her head when leaving the Bridge competed with the ship’s klaxon for her attention. But she shoved it aside. She’d have to deal with Brent later.
“Pipe the signal from Veracruz down here, Lieutenant. I want to know what the hell is going on out there.”
Fuzz and popping. Avery pictured O’Brian at his station turning knobs and dials as he tried to clean up the signal.
“…Avery, respond … long-range … Swarm force … Independence … alone. Avenger, respond!”
It sounded mechanical, like an automated message. Desperate, almost pleading. She recognized the voice. The signal wasn’t coming from Heroic but from Independence Actual—from Noah Preble himself.
“Lieutenant O’Brian, acknowledge that hail! Why the hell haven’t you done it sooner?”
“Commander Brent put us on radio silence, ma’am,” he said, echoing Hathaway. “He said Admiral Kilgore’s orders explicitly stated we were to remain dark all the way back to Churchill Station.”
“All the way back to.…” Avery knew why the ship felt off to her. The harmonic thrum of Avenger riding q-space was the reason. They were no longer surveying the outer sectors at sublight. She was tempted to start cursing but instead processed O’Brian’s report. Kilgore had ordered Avenger to return to Churchill? Had the Swarm returned? But Preble’s broken communiqué suggested he was about to be attacked in the Veracruz Sector, if he hadn’t been already. Was the enemy attacking Veracruz and Britannia simultaneously?
“Let me see those orders, Lieutenant. And maintain red alert but turn that blasted noise off!”
“They were eyes only for the commander, ma’am,” said O’Brian. “And he said he was to purge them upon reading. All he would tell us is that the Russians are making trouble at the Shipyards, and Admiral Kilgore ordered us back ASAP as a show of force.”
Avery took a breath. “Mr. Hathaway, what’s our position?”
“Two light-years from Britannia, ma’am. We’ll be there shortly.”
Sam’s palms felt clammy, a cold realization creeping up her spine. Addie’s story of Baltasar’s betrayal and how his actions seemed so strange before he’d sold out humanity to the Swarm came to the front of her mind. It had taken Addie too long to see it, and that was her greatest regret about the entire incident—not relieving Baltasar sooner, even if it had meant charges of mutiny. She hadn’t wanted to see it, she said, hadn’t wanted to admit to herself that her captain could be a traitor. Just like Avery hadn’t wanted to listen to that alarm going off in the back of her head about her own XO.
“Mr. O’Brian, hail Admiral Kilgore’s flagship. I want a direct, encrypted channel, and right now.”
The pieces of the puzzle clicked abruptly into place. Hours had passed since she’d hit her rack. Brent must’ve manufactured Kilgore’s orders, if they ever existed at all, with the plausible story of the Russians making trouble at Britannia. What seemed more likely—if her instinct was right, and Brent really was a traitor—was that it was all an elaborate ruse to pull Avenger out of position, leaving Noah to face the Swarm alone at Veracruz. A calm descended over Sam as she realized the extent of Brent’s treachery.
The vidscreen lit up with the red face of one very pissed-off admiral. “Captain Avery, what the hell is going on? Why are you returning to Britannia?”
“Admiral Kilgore—I don’t have time to explain, except briefly. I believe my XO is a Swarm agent and has deliberately pulled us away from Veracruz to enable a Swarm incursion. I’m reversing course immediately to lend Independence my assistance. Can you spare ships to reinforce from Wellington?”
Despite the dire news she’d just received, Kilgore’s face relaxed a little. “No ships there to spare. I’ll be on station within the hour, but the Russians haven’t arrived yet. You’re all we’ve got in range. Preble’s burning up comms trying to find you.”
“I’m changing course for Heroic now, Admiral. Avery out.”
The screen went dark before Kilgore could speak again.
“Avery to Bridge. Mr. Hathaway, reverse course. Jump us to Heroic as soon as practical. Push the q-jump drive to the limit. Mr. O’Brian, send an encrypted message to the Independence: ‘Returning at best possible speed.’ And Mr. Hathaway?”
“You’re acting XO. Notify security that Commander Brent is to be taken into custody. And he should be considered armed and dangerous.”
“You heard me, Lieutenant. And tell them it’s a silent search. No shipwide announcements. Get the marines on it, too. Two-man teams. I’m on my way up.”
Her cabin door had hardly slid aside when Avery was thrown violently against a bulkhead. Pain exploded upward from her left thigh. Avenger had suddenly, unexpectedly dropped out of q-space, and the inertial dampeners had failed to keep up. Lifting herself from the wall, she thumbed the comms switch again.
“Bridge! What the hell was that?”
“Hathaway here, ma’am. That was the q-jump drive going down. Someone yanked the main converters offline. And we’ve lost contact with Engineering.”
“Someone? I think I know who,” she said through clenched teeth. “Have a security detail meet me in Engineering, Lieutenant. And see if you can raise Independence.”
“Um, that won’t be necessary, ma’am.”
“Captain Preble just began livestreaming on an encrypted channel.”
Sam closed her eyes. Shit. “I’m going to Engineering, Mr. Hathaway. Secure the Bridge. Our first priority is to get those goddamned engines back online.”
“Aye-aye, Captain.” Hathaway’s voice was solemn and assured. The Bridge was in good hands, she knew.
“And our second is to catch that Swarm-loving sonofabitch. Sound intruder alert throughout the ship.”
No need for a silent search now. Once again, the klaxons squawked around Avery as she double-checked the clip in her sidearm, strapped it on, and limped into the corridor.
Bridge, ISS Independence
“CAG, launch! Give Wheatley’s people what cover you can.” Preble was calm, but his voice sounded raw and splintered.
“Aye, sir,” replied Laz. He knew why the captain was angry, no matter how Preble tried to mask it. Where the hell was Avenger? Why wouldn’t Sam answer their hails? He didn’t want to think about the possibility, but he couldn’t help it—had the Swarm turned her like they had Baltasar when they’d first attacked?
No, not Sam Avery, he told himself. Laz shook his head to clear it. “Squadrons, launch! Let’s give those transports some time to load up.”
“You got it, Boss!” said Ballbreaker. “Red Squadron, form up on me.”
When the three Swarm carriers had first lit up the edge of the sensor grid, Commodore Wheatley was dining with the captain, Laz, and a handful of Preble’s bridge officers. The conversation ran hot wondering what the hell had happened to Avenger in Sector 519. Why had she gone radio silent? Preble feared the worst.
And no sooner had he voiced those fears than the three Swarm carriers jumped into Veracruz Sector. As the officers scrambled to get to the Bridge, Wheatley put forward the idea that perhaps they’d just gotten their answer to the question of Avenger’s fate. But Preble had refused to believe that Avery and Avenger were lost.
Wheatley resisted at first, but Preble quickly convinced him to order Heroic’s evacuation. The outpost was no starbase—it hadn’t nearly the firepower it needed to face a formidable Swarm force. And with only Independence to defend her, Heroic would be in a lot worse shape all too soon. The enemy would slice the outpost and its defenseless transports to ribbons with those emerald lasers of theirs. Had Avenger been with them, maybe they’d have had a chance.
Laz watched as the Indy’s fighters took to the stars two at a time. With Addie’s orphans needing a home while Invincible’s flight deck underwent repairs, plus the handful of Endeavour’s survivors, they had nearly a hundred and fifty pilots launching to shield the evacuees.
Not enough but almost twice their regular complement.
“Where the hell are they?” asked Chopper, Blue Squadron leader. “Why aren’t they raining death down on us yet?”
A few titters of laughter came over comms. Laz appreciated the gallows humor. The Swarm wasn’t known for its patience. And they’d been spotted at the edge of the system almost half an hour ago. Chopper’s question was a good one. Why hadn’t they attacked yet?
“Keep your eyes sharp,” warned Laz. “One on sensors, the other on space. They’re sneaky bastards.”
“Transport Greyhound is away,” came the report over Heroic’s general channel. “Transport Mayberry now docking at—”
“Turn that crap off!” ordered Laz, sparing a glance below as Greyhound cleared the outpost, red-alert lights bouncing off its hull. It had been one thing to keep tabs on evacuation procedures before the enemy was in range. Now was a different story.
Too many people, too little time—that was Heroic’s problem. Laz knew the chaos was only beginning to unfold as military personnel and the few civilian contractors ran over each other cramming into those transports. As slow as they were loading evacuees, Laz knew in his gut all of them weren’t going to make it.
“Ask and ye shall receive,” grumbled Little John from Gold Squadron. His deep baritone resonated through comms. “Multiple contacts, one-one-seven-mark-five.”
Multiple contacts was the understatement of the decade. Laz’s empty sensor screen suddenly came to life with tiny dots so numerous and close together they seemed to form one big blob of enemy combatants.
“Here they come!” yelled Captain Obvious.
“Assman, follow me in,” said Ballbreaker. “Let’s give them someone to shoot at who can shoot back.”
Ballbreaker and her seven X-23s peeled away from the rest of the group.
“Chopper, take Blue Squadron up high and fly CAP,” Laz ordered. Flying eight fighters up top to provide high cover against the Swarm was a bit like deploying an umbrella in a hurricane, but they’d have to play the cards they were dealt. “All squadrons, you are cleared to engage.” Where the hell are you, Avery? “Keep your heads, people. We’re buying time here.”
With our lives, he added silently.
Laz winced as Ballbreaker’s war cry filled everyone’s headsets. Red Squadron throttled up, leading the rest of the Indy’s pilots into the heart of the Swarm fighters. Blue Squadron climbed high, trying to get above the enemy wave streaking toward them. Laz held position a moment longer assessing the tactical situation, then dove in behind the others.
“Mustang, take your Invincibles and engage that cluster trying to flank us on the right,” said Laz. With their forty-seven birds, Mustang Havers and the rest of the fighters from Halsey’s ship made up a third of their number.
“Acknowledged,” said Havers.
“Gameboy, watch your six,” said Little John. “You’ve got three setting you up—” A bright flash ended the need for a warning. “Goddamn it, people, you can’t fly straight like that, this isn’t a flyby for your family!”
“Ballbreaker, you’re going too far too fast,” barked Chopper from the CAP.
The tsunami of enemy fighters was slowing down, at least in the center of their formation. They seemed to be emptying space, allowing the charging IDF pilots forward.
“Something ain’t right,” said Ballbreaker as she scorched another cumrat. “It’s like they’re opening the front door.”
She was damned right about that, Laz thought. The Swarm fighters were banking wide into two wings, one left and one right, while those holding the center seemed to be reversing engines. A trap.
“Keep an eye on your sensors! They’re—all squadrons, break down! Break down! Dive! Dive! Dive!”
The hundreds of Swarm fighters on the advancing wings swept in an arc toward one another, creating a huge circle in space around the IDF ships. Most of the Indy’s birds followed the order to dive down to escape the tightening enemy encirclement, and comms traffic was jammed with frantic squadron leaders trying to get their pilots out alive.
“CAG, permission to pull the CAP down,” requested Chopper over the leader channel.
Laz hesitated. They’d barely engaged and were virtually surrounded. Those transports needed time. And the tiny CAP of Chopper’s squadron was the only reaction force they had in reserve.
“Pull it down!” yelled Laz. “Take some pressure off while we regroup.”
To his right, flashes of light. Mustang and the other Invincibles were sweeping, diving, looping, firing. Doing all they could to keep the flank secured while their fellow pilots slipped out of the cumrat trap.
The diving maneuver robbed the Swarm of a quick victory, and now the enemy fighters set aside their grand strategy to pair off with their IDF targets. A hundred and fifty dogfights—ships darting, lasers slicing—lit the frigid darkness of space.
“CAG, watch your six!” shouted C-O.
Laz’s ship rocked. He banked hard left and angled down, head swinging from side to side until he found the Swarm fighter lighting up his tail. He leaned forward on the stick and dove his X-23 into a vertical loop that threatened to remind him what he’d had for dinner. A few seconds later, and he was riding up the other side of the loop until he emerged from beneath the Swarm pilot. A pull of the trigger and the enemy was down one more ship.
“Thanks, C-O,” breathed Laz.
The comms were getting desperate. Voices calling for help. Pilots screaming, suddenly cut off.
So much for regrouping.
By the numbers, every pilot was in a fight for their life against ten Swarm opponents. Laz knew they wouldn’t last long dogfighting against those odds. He had to change the rules of the game. Had to take away the enemy’s advantage of numbers. Or the Swarm fighters would dispense with them and move on to blowing up the transports in no time.
In the depths of space, just coming into visual range, the enemy carriers prowled forward.
And then it came to him.
“Ballbreaker! I want you to lead the whole wing toward that nearest Swarm carrier.”
“You heard me. Get in as close as you can. I want the deck chief picking Swarm shit out of your manifolds. Get in so close you negate their numbers advantage.”
If they could get in among the carriers, which seemed to have no point defenses other than the fighters themselves, they could use them as cover. Like weaving in and out of asteroids. Laz sure hoped he was right about their lack of point defenses.…
“All squadrons, all pilots! I want you to run like hell from those fuckers! Form up by squadron on Red Leader. Use the enemy carriers as cover.” Laz switched to the channel reserved for squadron leaders. “Ballbreaker, you’re the running back. Everybody should be nosing your ass in a race to cuddle up to the lead carrier. Got me?”
Her enthusiasm for what seemed like a suicide run made his ears hurt. “Come on, stick jockeys, follow me!” she yelled. All over the grid, IDF fighters began shaking loose from their Swarm pursuers to make a beeline for the lead Swarm ship.
Bridge, ISS Independence
Noah Preble felt helpless chained to his duty station of protecting the outpost while its personnel stuffed themselves into defenseless tin cans.
“Comms, plug us in to the CAG’s channel. I want to hear what’s going on out there.”
“Aye, Captain.” She flipped a switch, and the hum of meta-space briefly filled the Bridge.
“Ballbreaker, you’re going too far too fast,” barked one of the squadron leaders. Chopper, it sounded like. On-screen, IDF pilots were flying balls-out, straight into the heart of the mass of enemy fighters. A handful against a horde.
Preble was getting goddamned tired of being outnumbered and outgunned.
Where the hell was Sam Avery? Not dead, he was sure of it. Not without a transmission … something.
“Keep an eye on your sensors! They’re—all squadrons, break down! Break down! Dive! Dive! Dive!”
Scollard sounded scared, and Preble couldn’t blame him. But as he watched the deadly ballet unfold on-screen, something about it wasn’t quite right. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. One thing that was clear, though. Scollard and his people weren’t going to last long out there.
“Lieutenant, sit-rep. Status of Heroic’s evac?” asked Preble.
“Transport Greyhound just lifted off, sir. Mayberry is taking on personnel. Saint Christopher is landing on the second pad.”
“Those pilots are charging into the mouths of the guns,” observed Wheatley, standing behind the captain’s chair. He was a man who could appreciate personal sacrifice. “I wish I was with them.”
It wasn’t clear if he referred to the pilots fighting for their lives or his own outpost personnel. But coming from Wheatley, it wasn’t false bravado. Preble knew how he felt.
The three Swarm carriers, still out of visual range, crept forward on the tactical display in the lower right of the viewscreen. Their slow advance struck Preble as odd. Probing forces like this one, like at the Shipyards, seemed awfully subtle for the Swarm. Why were they coming on so slowly? It wasn’t for fear of a few IDF fighter squadrons, that was for damned sure.
Something about what Wheatley had said tickled the back of Preble’s brain. Charging into the mouths of the guns. Like infantry of old, braving death as the enemy stood their ground and fired cannons loaded with canisters full of metal balls at point-blank range. The canisters made the cannons into giant shotguns that scythed through whole ranks at a time—and still the enemy infantry would walk forward, determined not to break and run.
That’s how Scollard’s pilots struck him as they hurtled toward the Swarm. Only the enemy fighters weren’t standing in a line—they were pulling back their birds from the middle, funneling themselves around either side of the oncoming IDF formation. The farther the IDF fighters penetrated, the more the Swarm fighters pulled their center back, flowing left and right as Scollard’s people sped forward.
Like they were making wings around them.
“CAG, permission to pull the CAP down.” Chopper’s voice again. “CAG!”
“Pull it down! Take some pressure off while we regroup.”
The Swarm’s tactics suddenly became clear to Preble. Scollard had ordered his pilots to regroup, but they wouldn’t have a chance. From his vantage point orbiting Heroic, he could see what Laz couldn’t see. The Swarm had extended its fighters around the IDF pilots like the horns of a bull, encircling them right and left. And now they were turning inward, hitting the Indy’s fighters from all sides with a latticework of laser fire.
The IDF pilots would be massacred.
Scollard’s voice came over the CAG’s channel again. He was ordering Ballbreaker to lead a charge.
“I don’t believe it, sir,” gasped the sensors officer. “They’re actually flying toward the carriers!”
“Looks more like they’re flooring it,” said Wheatley admiringly.
Preble could do with less of the commodore on his Bridge. Glory was all well and good until you started draping flags over coffins. But he thought he understood what Scollard was doing. In open space, it wouldn’t take long before the Swarm eradicated the Indy’s squadrons with their crossfire. But by charging at the carriers, Scollard’s pilots could use the enemy’s own bulky ships as cover while dogfighting their Swarm opponents.
His fingers itched. He wanted to stand up, not sit in the damned chair. He wanted to be in the fight. But that wasn’t his mission. His mission was to hang back and guard the outpost.
“Greyhound has q-jumped, sir.”
“Time until Heroic is fully evacuated?” asked Preble.
“Fifteen minutes, Captain, best guess.”
Scollard’s people didn’t have fifteen minutes. The CAG’s channel was full of squadron leaders struggling to inflict the most damage on the Swarm while keeping their people alive. Moving closer to the carriers had pulled the Swarm fighters there with them, dismantling the trap of the bull’s horns. But they were still outgunned ten to one.
He just couldn’t sit here and watch them be exterminated en masse.
“Helm, plot an intercept course for that lead carrier,” said Preble. “Let’s give our birds some fire support.”
“Captain,” began Wheatley, “you mean to leave Heroic undefended? All it’ll take is one of those carriers to end-run around the Indy while the other two keep you busy. If you can delay a few more minutes, the other transports—”
“Commodore, our pilots don’t have a few minutes. And as soon as they’re gone, the Swarm will make short work of your transports and the whole damned base. We can delay them and buy your transports time by going on offense.”
After a moment’s consideration and to Preble’s surprise, Wheatley nodded. “Do it, Captain.”
“Full thrusters, Helm. Weapons, lay down fire on the enemy fighters along the fringe of that dogpile as we go in. When we get too close to our own, transfer targeting to the nearest carrier. Same strategy as before: open the cans with rail guns, cook ’em inside with lasers. Understood?”
A chorus of aye-ayes came back to him. Preble stood up and stepped forward as Independence came alive beneath his feet. He felt her engines through the deckplates as the massive ship moved forward. The weight of fate settled into his gut, and Preble wondered if that’s what John Richards had felt as he faced a similar, superior Swarm force at the Shipyards. Without turning from the viewscreen, he said, “Comms, begin livestreaming our real-time battle report to CENTCOM.”
No hesitation there. No cursing. Just a devotion to duty.
Hang on, Laz. Just a little bit longer.
* * *
The comms traffic was thinner but more desperate for that fact. Fewer voices competed for bandwidth.
But the strategy’s working, thought Laz as he barrel-rolled out of Swarm gunsights. Enemy laser fire spotted his left wing, and he felt the sudden imbalance in his maneuverability. Another X-23 took out his attacker.
“Scorch one cumrat. Geez, Boss, you’re supposed to be good at flying, right?” taunted Ballbreaker.
“I see how you got your name,” he groused back. “And thanks.”
But the strategy was working. Getting in among the big carriers had them lasting longer against the enemy than they would have in open space, and they were leading the Swarm fighters away from their transports. At least when we’re finally all dead, it’ll take ’em longer to get back to Heroic, Laz thought sarcastically.
A massive shadow stretched over his canopy. For a moment, he thought he’d swung too close to one of the enemy carriers. Then he saw the familiar running lights as a hail of slugs smart-targeted a handful of Swarm fighters around him. To him, the explosions shone like fireworks celebrating a holiday.
“CAG, this is Actual,” came Noah Preble’s rock-solid voice. “Try to stay out of our firing solution, would you?”
Laz smiled as the warship’s mag-rail guns shot death from their spinning barrels. He knew he ought to enjoy the moment while it lasted. Because it wouldn’t last long. Ask and ye shall receive, Little John had said. Okay, I’d like a miracle wherein all three Swarm ships spontaneously phase into another dimension.
Instead, heavy green laser fire burned past him, targeting the tungsten hull of Independence. But the Indy seemed to shrug it off as she crawled forward, her mag-rails now striking the lead carrier.
“All fighters, this is the CAG. Momma Bear has joined the fight.”
“Stow that, Chopper!” said Laz. “New mission: support the Indy by keeping those fighters off her back.” Experience told him the Swarm pilots would refocus their own mission now to protect the carriers. And their primary targets would be the Indy’s mag-rail batteries. Without those, her lasers couldn’t penetrate that damned mystery metal lining the enemy’s hull. “Prioritize the enemy squadrons targeting the Indy’s broadside batteries.”
“So, all of them, then?”
“Yes, Assman. All of them, then.”
A Swarm fighter flew right into his crosshairs, and without even aiming, Laz turned it into a fireball.
One down, a thousand to go.
His X-23 shuddered with enemy fire raking his tail. He jogged right, testing the limits of his g-force compensators.
And the hits just keep on coming.
Somewhere in Q-Space
Engineering, ISS Avenger
“How much longer?” Avery demanded, shielding her eyes. They’d been cutting their way into Engineering for what felt like an hour. The bulkhead doors were sealed tight from the inside.
The constant shush of his laser torch forced the tech to speak up. “Another thirty seconds, ma’am.” His voice echoed inside his protective visor.
Annoyed at the delay, Avery looked over the four-man security team around her. One of them, one she didn’t know by name, made her do a double take.
Kind of old for a lieutenant, thought Sam, realizing rather self-consciously that he was, in fact, about her age. But she’d known a few security officers like that. That branch of the service didn’t attract the most diplomatic sort to its ranks. Maybe this guy had been the apocryphal hardass who didn’t deal with authority very well. The rule that proved the exception. Maybe he’d been a commander once and been busted back a time or two for insubordination.
“You new?” she asked the lieutenant.
“Yes, Captain Avery. Just transferred in.”
She nodded. “I don’t remember requesting a new lieutenant. We didn’t lose any security officers in the action at Britannia.”
The lieutenant gave her a half smile. “I just go where I’m ordered, ma’am.”
The rest of the security detail grunted assent.
“What’s your name?”
“Barstow, ma’am. People call me Fats.”
“Fats?” She made a show of looking him over. He was anything but.
“Childhood nickname,” he supplied. “It stuck.”
“And there we go,” said the tech, flipping off the torch.
Avery tapped him on the shoulder, and he backed out of the way. She drew her sidearm and looked to the four-man security team. “Ready?”
They all nodded.
“I want Malcolm Brent alive,” said Avery. “We need intel.” She looked to the lieutenant commander standing at the manual override on the door. “Ready, Drake?”
The assistant chief engineer nodded. “Ready, ma’am.”
“On three,” said Sam. “One…two…three.”
Drake cranked the override handle around once, then again. The door cracked halfway open.
Engineering was dark. A faint metallic smell, almost gritty, wafted out to them as the air released into the corridor.
Farrell, the commander of the security team, stuck two fingers in the air and jabbed them to the right. Barstow and an ensign went in. The officer jerked his head to the left, and he and his partner entered.
Avery hung back. Part of her wished the marines were with them, but she had them shining a light in every dark corner of the ship, kicking over cargo containers, scouring the ship for Brent.
She turned to Drake at the wall box. “Get those lights on ASAP. I don’t care what you have to—”
The lights in Engineering flashed on. Avery looked in and found Barstow’s hand on the switch. He wore a smirk that said always try it first.
Yeah, an attitude about authority.
Then Barstow’s expression changed. She followed his gaze.
“Oh, Jesus,” said the ensign next to Barstow.
There were three bodies. At least three. But so much blood. Like it had come from twice that many.
Avery stepped inside and punched the wall comms. “Sickbay! Get three medical teams down to Engineering! Double-time it!”
“Sickbay, acknowledged,” came the hurried reply.
“Captain, please stay outside the room,” said Commander Farrell. He scanned the upper level of Engineering. “Beta team, clear that side.”
“Maybe I should stay with the captain,” suggested Barstow. “In case—”
“I’ll be fine, Lieutenant, thank you for your concern,” said Avery, ignoring Farrell’s request and stepping through the half-opened doors. “You gentlemen clear the room.”
Barstow nodded and began searching. As his partner moved to follow, the ensign slipped and barely caught himself before hitting the floor ass first. A bloody streak painted where his foot had slid. The young man blanched like he might lose his lunch.
“Keep it together, Ensign,” said Barstow. “You’ll likely see worse before we’re done here.”
“Yes sir” was the squeamish reply.
The corpses lay in three places, soaked in blood. One technician near the q-jump drive control panel looked like she’d been dropped where she stood. Brent must’ve come up behind her, slit her throat quickly, thought Sam. She’d bled her life out from her carotid artery. It still cooled, sticky and red on the deck.
That must’ve alerted the others.
The second corpse, a maintenance technician by his overalls, sprawled on the floor, a wrench in his hand. Sam couldn’t see his face, but he had multiple wounds in his chest. He’d fought with Brent. And lost.
Drake ran past her captain to the officer crumpled in a sitting position below the q-jump drive converters. Jesse Steinman, the chief engineer, looked like he’d died defending his beloved engines. The austere silver of his engineer’s tunic was stained a dark red that hadn’t stopped flowing even after reaching the floor. His legs splayed out in front of him, his head drooping lifeless on his chest, he almost seemed to be asleep. His assistant chief engineer knelt beside him, choking back her grief.
Avery moved to stand behind her. She let Drake have a moment. “Commander Farrell, report,” she said quietly. Farrell looked down over the gangway he was searching above.
“All clear over here, sir.”
“And here. And Captain,” Farrell said, motioning behind him as he leaned down, “there’s an access panel back here that’s cockeyed. I think that’s how our rat escaped.”
Cumrat, you mean.
So, Brent was loose in the ship’s infrastructure. And no one knew where to hide better than Avenger’s former XO. “Commander, I want you to bring up the ship’s schematics. Everywhere that accessway leads, I want you to run it down. Grid it out. Coordinate with the marines, but you’re in charge of the search, understand me? And remember, I want this sonofabitch alive!”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” said Farrell. “Hey, you two! Search that section one more time. Make sure every door, panel, or air vent is locked down. Then we’ll run this shitbird to ground.”
Barstow and the ensign nodded.
Avery knelt down beside Drake. She was brushing the curl of hair away from Steinman’s forehead. It took three tries to move it. The stubborn lock was plastered in place by blood.
“Lieutenant Commander!” It came out harsher than Avery intended. But time was short.
Drake turned but seemed to look right through her captain.
“Lieutenant Commander Drake … I need you to focus.”
“Ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”
“I know he was your friend. And he was a good officer. But I need you to focus now. I need you to take over as chief engineer.”
The woman stood up by instinct, arms stiff, cheeks streaked.
“You are now my chief engineer, Commander. Do you understand?”
“Ma’am! Yes, ma’am!”
The medical teams were climbing through the half-opened door from the corridor. Once inside, they paused for a moment, taking in the carnage.
“Do you know how to get these converters back online?”
Drake’s face seemed offended at first, then hardened to duty.
“Of course, ma’am.”
“You’re an officer aboard the ISS Avenger. Respond like it!”
Avery leaned in to whisper. “We’ll grieve later, Cynthia. Now, I need you to do your duty and get us back in the fight.” She leaned back. “Can you do that, Commander? Can you get us back in the fight so we can kill the cumrats responsible for your crewmates dying in cold blood?”
Drake’s eyes, which had remained distant, suddenly focused on Avery’s. “Aye-aye, Captain.” A quiet response but with steel in it.
“How long to reengage the q-jump drive?”
Avenger’s new chief engineer did the calculations quickly. “Fifteen minutes, ma’am. He didn’t pull any parts. Must’ve been in a hurry.” Drake glanced down at the deck around them. “Brent just shut it all down. But we should run systems checks to ensure no other—”
“You have five minutes. Watch the levels as you restart. If something redlines, call me on the Bridge. Otherwise, skip the protocols and get my engines back online.”
Drake nodded and turned away to begin firing up the converters. She stopped short as Steinman’s body blocked her. Then she carefully bent down and, with Avery’s help, moved him to one side. Wiping red smudges on her uniform, she began keying the restart sequence into the panel.
The captain walked over to the medical teams. “Take these bodies down to Sickbay. Do it quickly. Do it discreetly, if you can.” The officer in charge acknowledged the order as Avery pressed the wall panel.
“Captain to Bridge.”
“Hathaway here, ma’am. Did you find Commander—did you find Brent?”
“Not yet, XO, but we’ve retaken Engineering and are spinning up the q-jump drive. Have Helm lay in a course for Heroic. I want double crews manning the mag-rails. And I want to jump as soon as we’re able.”
“Avery out.” As she turned, she found both security teams comparing notes in the middle of the room. “Farrell? If you’re done here, get on the grid. I hate the idea of going into battle with that bastard running around inside the walls of my ship.”
“Agreed, ma’am. But we were just consulting—it’s Lieutenant Barstow’s opinion, and I agree with him, that you should have a security detail assigned to your protection. This….” He gestured at the slaughter around them. “Brent isn’t in his right mind.”
“He’s a Swarm agent, Commander,” Avery observed.
“That may be, but he’s also—as we call it by its technical term in the Security biz—batshit crazy. You need someone guarding your six.”
“That’s probably true,” she said, “but I won’t take any of you or the marines off the search to guard my ass. I can do that just fine myself.”
“Captain,” began Barstow, “as you said yourself—we’re about to go into battle at Heroic. If Brent really is a Swarm agent, you’d be his number one target. With Avenger’s XO and captain both out of commission, our offensive capability would be significantly hamstrung. I really must insist—”
“Now I see,” said Avery.
Barstow stopped speaking. “Ma’am?”
“Why you’re still a lieutenant,” she said, indicating his salted temples. “You just don’t know when to take no for an answer.”
Farrell began, “Ma’am, I actually agree with the lieutenant—”
“No. You have my order. Now get to it.”
“Ma’am!” acknowledged Farrell. “You heard the captain. We’ll start on F-deck.”
Barstow nodded, reluctantly it seemed to Avery.
It was touching to know her crew cared for her. Turning on her heel, she found the medical team picking up the limp form of the woman with the slit throat. Swallowing hard, Avery tried not to stare as she walked past them on her way to the Bridge.
Outpost Heroic One
“Mustang, tighten up! Tighten up!”
Laz felt like an old timey record with its needle stuck. The Invincibles had lost so many and their losses had proven so constant, he found himself repeatedly telling them to close up formation.
The Swarm fighters were pushing hard against the flank and were finally overrunning the few Invincibles remaining. It was only by the grace of Preble’s firing solution the transports hadn’t already been lost. Heroic’s meager point defenses were holding, but the flood of cumrats had already topped the dam.
The Indy’s CAG dipped and turned, that damned left wing with the holes in it forcing him to overcompensate with thrusters. It played hell with his ability to line up on the enemy. One engine flared briefly as fuel burned off to die in the vacuum of space.
Laz felt the crosshairs even before his proximity alarm sounded. He knew the cumrat was back there, and the laser blasts cracking around his cockpit told him he couldn’t outmaneuver their weapons lock, not with an engine down and that damaged left wing. He felt hounded like a three-legged fox in a swamp.
“Mustang, prepare to take over as—”
His X-23 jerked left, then right, and his helmet hit hard against the canopy window. The proximity alarm rang in the cockpit, and for a moment, he couldn’t see anything but stars exploding across his vision. Then a sharp thump from behind buffeted his ship, and on instinct he hard-sticked left. The sharp g-forces combined with his cracked skull to send waves of nausea from his brain to his belly. Laz shook his head to clear it and immediately realized what a mistake that was.
“Say again, CAG?”
“Ignore him,” said Ballbreaker as she swooped by Laz’s ship. “I solved his problem for him.”
Laz evened out his bird into a long, elliptical loop away from the heart of the fighting. He’d dodged the enemy for the moment and took a deep breath to clear his vision. “Thanks again, Ballbreaker.”
“You’re buying the first three rounds back at Wellington,” she teased.
God love ya for an optimist, thought Laz. “You’re on.”
In the moment’s respite from immediate danger, he blinked his eyes back into focus and assessed the situation. He’d given up trying to coordinate with Preble, who was too busy fending off the three carriers to talk. They were down by half their fighters, and those goddamned carriers just kept skulking forward, as if savoring the coming moment of their assured victory. Laz angled his bird to get a better view of the bigger picture. Preble had his battle and Laz had his, and with any luck they’d both die well.
Independence was still maneuvering, but one of her main engines was dark. He couldn’t tell if she’d lost her q-jump drive or not. There were a dozen fires, green flames licking into space from enemy laser penetration, burning along her asteroid hull. Firing nonstop, her starboard broadside mag-rails looked largely intact, but a third of her portside guns were gone, obliterated by surgical strikes by Swarm suicide jockeys.
The enemy was learning.
A glance back at Heroic—closer now than earlier since the Swarm’s relentless advance had slowly moved the entire battle back to the base—showed him several transports still docked, still loading. Why was it taking so long?
Goddamn, they had one job. One.
“Hey, Laz, if you’re done sunning yourself, we could use a hand swatting these mosquitoes,” nagged Mustang. He was trying to sound cocky, Laz could tell, but the words were mired in fatigue. Stressed to the maximum by a thousand split-second decisions since the battle had begun, Havers was tired. They all were. And that meant slower reflexes as the adrenaline tapped out. Half their number gone and Independence slowly, inexorably being beaten to a pulp. If they’d needed every man before….
Laz spotted a Swarm pilot zeroing in on a member of Blue Squadron, who crept along at half speed. The pilot was a sitting duck. Indy’s CAG announced his return to the fight with his right thumb and a spray of lasers ending one more cumrat’s life.
“Oh, good! You’re back,” teased Chopper, whose ass had just been saved.
“Shut up and shoot, slowpoke,” said Laz.
* * *
Independence yawed around Preble, groaning with the stresses of multiple strikes. The deckplates beneath his feet felt less confident somehow, though he knew that was crazy. He caught himself on the pit’s railing and waited as the Indy righted herself.
“Get those stabilizers under control!” yelled his XO.
The viewscreen was alive with battle, but Preble focused on the tactical display in the corner. He glanced up to confirm what he thought he saw.
“Helm, hard to port. That carrier is coming straight at us. Get our starboard guns facing and focused.”
“And prepare full thrust. I’d also like us out of her way.”
“Another hit aft, sir.”
The Indy shook again, but this time she was giving instead of getting as her hundred starboard mag-rail batteries unloaded on the bow of the oncoming carrier. A small halo of slug damage bloomed dead center of the Swarm ship’s primary hull.
“Helm, hit the gas before she rams us amidships.”
Independence seemed to groan in response to the helm’s demands.
“Captain! Heroic reports their last transport is loaded and taking heavy fire from Swarm fighters,” reported Hayden at tactical. “I think they’ve finally overwhelmed the outpost’s defenses.”
The tactical officer’s report had almost been unnecessary. The explosions of Outpost Heroic One’s primary buildings were evidence enough of the enemy’s progress.
“XO, get me the CAG. Redirect all fighters to support the transports still evacuating.” At least half a dozen ships had already escaped into q-space, headed for Mars. Three remained, including the one currently the target of half a hundred enemy fighters.
“Niña’s shields have failed.” Hayden shared a look with his captain. “They’re not going to make it, sir.”
“New contact, bearing five-eight-eight-mark-six,” said the sensors officer. “It’s Avenger, sir!”
“What?” Preble leapt to the upper deck to stare over her shoulder. The Indy shook with the Swarm’s latest assault.
“Get that woman on the horn!” yelled Wheatley, sitting himself in Preble’s chair. “I want to know what the hell—”
“Belay that!” barked Preble. “We don’t have time—”
“Captain, Avenger is engaging the fighters attacking Niña. The other two transports have jumped away.”
A Swarm carrier moved by them on-screen headed for Avenger. A bright, green light lanced across the viewscreen, stealing Preble’s attention.
“Damn it!” yelled Hayden. “Niña’s lost, sir.”
Independence shook hard with tremors again. The ship lurched, throwing Preble to the pit’s floor. He met the deck with his right shoulder, and pain shot down his arm. Wheatley reached down a hand and hauled the Indy’s captain to his feet as the deck calmed.
“Comms, recover our fighters ASAP,” said Preble, wincing and rubbing his shoulder. “Order the CAG to land his birds hot on the deck.”
“Captain—we just lost our q-jump drive,” said the XO. Preble could hear it in his voice. Game over. And no more Heroic, no more transports to protect. So this was it, then. Even with Avery here now, they had little chance against three carriers in good condition. And all those fighters…. They needed to retreat, but without a q-jump drive, that was impossible. Following protocol, Preble passed the order to prioritize engine repair.
“Sir, the three carriers are angling away from us. Their fighters are breaking off from ours.” Hayden looked up solemnly. “All heading for Avenger.”
Preble exchanged looks with Wheatley. The old warrior’s resigned expression spoke for him.
“Lieutenant, get me Avenger. Ship to ship. Then order the CAG to redirect his pilots to Captain Avery’s deck.”
The Swarm was indeed moving past them, no doubt seeing them as a helpless wreck, Preble thought. Distant rumblings signaled secondary detonations inside Independence.
Now I really think I know how John Richards felt.
“Noah! Thank God you’re still alive,” said Avery on-screen. The transmission fritzed and stabilized and fritzed again. “I’m sorry we’re so late. We were—”
“You need to retreat, Captain. The Swarm will be on you in seconds. Recover my birds and get the hell out of here.”
“Captain Avery!” shouted Preble, striking the arm of the captain’s chair. His patience had left him, along with hope. “Our q-jump drive is offline and internal damage is spreading. You can still get out of here in one piece—”
“Helm, turn us bow down, thirty degrees along the z-axis!” interrupted Avery, issuing orders offscreen. “Take it on the hard shell, Lieutenant. O’Brian, have the flight deck prepare to receive the Indy’s fighters. They’ll be coming in hot.”
On-screen Avenger shivered as Avery and her crew held on tight.
“Go, Captain Avery,” said Wheatley. “As soon as you’ve recovered those fighters. Or before, if you have to. That’s a direct order.”
“Sam, they’re headed for Britannia next, I’ll wager. Addison needs you there.”
Avery’s face contorted. He knew her well enough to know how much she hated it when she felt fate deciding her next action.
“Noah, your birds are hitting the deck. We’re holding position until all of them are at least in the hangar bay.”
“Or until you can’t hold any longer and still jump away, Captain. You heard the commodore,” said Preble.
Avery hesitated, then nodded. He knew what she was thinking. She was thinking about having to leave brave pilots behind, the ones who’d survived the Swarm onslaught and bought Heroic’s personnel the time they needed. The ones who’d survived only to sacrifice themselves in the final moments of an impossible battle.
Well, Independence wasn’t out of the fight yet. “Weapons Officer, fire everything we’ve got left at that rear carrier,” said Preble. “Let’s try to distract them while Avenger prepares to jump.”
“Aye, Captain,” came the soft reply.
“Helm, lay in a course for—”
“Captain!” said the comms officer. “Engineering reports q-jump drive back online!”
Avery overheard and shared a look of you’ve got to be shitting me for half a moment with the Indy’s captain.
“Noah, go! I’ll cover while we finish recovering your birds. We’re right behind you!”
Preble hesitated but only for a moment. “Helm, q-jump us the fuck out of here.”
“Sir, we haven’t had time to verify destination coordinates—”
“Roll the dice! Avenger, spin up and follow as soon as you can!”
“Acknowledged,” said Avery, cutting the feed.
Preble watched the screen wide-eyed as Indy pilots raced through space for the haven of Avenger’s flight deck. Avery’s mag-rails blazed, spraying thousands of slugs at the Swarm ships prowling toward her. Then the screen went white with the star-streaked oblivion of q-space.
Earth, Sol System
The Oval Office, the White House
“I’ll arrive at Churchill Station within the next half hour, Mr. President,” Kilgore said. “When I’ve got boots on the ground, I’ll have a better assessment of the situation for you.”
Quentin Chamberlain nodded at the screen. “Thank you, Admiral. I hope to God Independence is repairable. And it’s essential you find out what happened with Avenger. If Avery is compromised, I want her taken into custody immediately. We can’t afford another very public betrayal like Baltasar’s. Our alliance with the Russians is paper thin as it is. If Ivanov loses confidence in our ability to vet our own personnel….”
“I understand, sir.” There was interference in the meta-space transmission, then it cleared.
“Speaking of personnel issues, what’s the status of Captain Halsey’s court-martial? I don’t have to tell you, Admiral—these kinds of events only erode public confidence in the IDF and my administration.”
Quentin couldn’t be sure with the less-than-pristine feed, but Kilgore appeared to be biting her tongue. “That’s more smoke than fire, sir,” she said finally. “I won’t bore you with the details, but the upshot is this: Henry Pierce needs to have a corncob pulled out of his ass.” Her impatient expression changed quickly as she recalled to whom she spoke. “Apologies, sir. Dealing with the Halsey situation is one of the top five items on my to-do list. Right after assessing the spaceworthiness of Independence and Endeavour, determining whether or not Sam Avery is a Swarm spy, and, oh yes, defeating the Swarm.”
But Chamberlain missed her sarcasm, distracted by the mental image of Kilgore extracting a corn cob from Pierce’s derriere. It made him chuckle. He’d met the man once, and her assessment sounded exactly right to him. Despite her obvious disdain for the Englishman and concern over the threat of a human apocalypse at the hands of the Swarm, it felt good to giggle a little at the absurdity of it all.
“I’m sorry, Admiral, I don’t mean to laugh,” he said, trying to be kind.
“Oh, sure you do, sir.”
The president raised his eyebrows, half a smile still occupying his face.
“And I don’t mean to offend, sir, by saying that. But being able to laugh at the ridiculous realization that we’ve managed to survive this long as a species is one reason we’re fighting this war, right?”
The irony of that fueled full-blown laughter from the president. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
His chief of staff poked his head in the door. “Sir?”
“One moment, Admiral. Yes, Rob?”
“Premier Wei is calling.”
That quickly sobered Chamberlain’s expression.
Finally. It had been two days since Rob woke him up in the middle of the night to pull together the cabinet meeting where, surprising everyone, Ivanov had easily offered Russian support against the Swarm. Two days since his calls to Premier Wei had begun to go unanswered. And remained that way … until now. With a finger, he requested a moment’s indulgence from Francis.
“Admiral, what is the Swarm’s disposition?”
“We have every expectation that they’ll hit us again here, given Wellington’s strategic value as a production facility. But nothing yet,” she said. “In all honesty, Mr. President, we have no idea what the Swarm is up to. They punch, we duck. Knowing where they’ll hit, though? That’s our greatest weakness. Maybe they’re mustering at Outpost Heroic … at Heroic’s former location. We should’ve built a starbase there fifty years ago.”
Chamberlain allowed a moment of silence out of respect for the souls lost on the Niña and the pilots and crew of Independence, who died defending them. “Admiral, I uh—I have another call I have to take. You’ll report back to me within, say, four hours on the status of your to-do list?”
“Of course, Mr. President. I’m reviewing battle reports from Heroic as we make our final approach to Churchill.”
“Very good, Admiral. Thank you … and stay safe.”
Kilgore saluted. “Mr. President.”
He returned the salute to her fading image, then nodded to Francis. “I’ll take it in here, Rob. And send in Kyla Torres. I want her listening in.”
“Mr. President,” acknowledged the chief of staff.
As he waited for the call and his national security advisor to step in, Quentin took a moment to breathe. He needed to center himself before engaging Wei. He knew little about the premier, other than that he was older—in his sixties, a generation older than Sun had been. He didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. After Huxley’s reluctant admission about the lack of reliable intel regarding infiltration by the Swarm, all bets were off for profiling who might or might not be an enemy agent. Quentin had no way of knowing if he was about to speak to another world leader already planning to betray him.
Francis popped his head in again. “Line one, Mr. President.”
Kyla Torres walked in past the chief of staff. “Mr. President,” she said respectfully.
“Close the door, Rob.” Chamberlain indicated a chair out of camera view in front of the Resolute desk. “Kyla, you’re a silent witness here.”
The president hit the speaker button, and Wei’s face appeared on the screen. “Mr. Premier,” he said formally. “Thank you for calling me back.”
Premier Wei Mao of the Chinese Intersolar Republic inclined his head. “President Chamberlain, so nice to finally make your acquaintance in person, such as it is.”
Quentin absorbed Wei’s image. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected—a flowing, black-silk robe with dragons on the sleeves? A Fu Manchu moustache hanging wispy and mysterious from the premier’s face? What he observed was a man on the verge of elderly, about the same age as himself, dressed in a dark, practical, modern business suit with a thin tie and wearing eyeglasses—an unusual affectation in an age when corrective eye surgery was usually performed in utero. Three-dimensional images sat on the bookshelf behind him. They appeared to show family, including grandchildren, very much like the motion photos surrounding the back of Chamberlain’s own chair. Wei, dressed in everyday clothes, hugged and smiled at the youngsters, who laughed with delight. The motion images were strategically placed facing the camera, so the individual they framed appeared to value family, whether or not that was true.
So they do that over there too. His earlier amusement returned. He tried to keep it from his face. Maybe this was a man he could talk to, Quentin thought as he observed the kindly grandfather smiling and waving in the photos. Wei’s predecessor had always seemed so damned cold and intractable.
“I also wish to offer my apologies for how long it has taken me to respond to your kind requests for conversation,” Wei continued. “The … transition … to my administration has been somewhat … nontraditional.”
Chamberlain gave him his best American fuggedaboutit expression. “I certainly understand, Mr. Premier. The Swarm threat has created difficulties for all of us.” That was putting it mildly. “When we learned that Premier Sun might’ve been a Swarm agent….”
The formal cast of Wei’s face cracked a bit. Quentin thought he might have just stepped on a landmine of international protocol and blown the legs right out from under any possible partnership. Eastern leaders could be so sensitive sometimes. Or Western leaders so insensitive, he reprimanded himself. A quick look to Torres reflected back the oops! faux pas horror he managed to keep from showing on his own face.
Wei’s eyes fell to the side for a moment as if he were making an assessment, a decision. Then he engaged Chamberlain again, and to the president’s surprise, his expression warmed to resemble the one in the family photos behind him.
“Do you know much of my background, Mr. President?”
The question threw Chamberlain for a loop. Outrage, denial of Sun’s duplicity … these were the reactions he’d expected from his fellow head of state.
“I must admit, in all candor, Mr. Premier, I do not.”
“Candor indeed. Exactly my point here. I have visited America many times, Mr. President. Yes, it’s true. Don’t look so surprised.”
Quentin had to admit—the man’s English was superb. Almost native North American.
“I attended college in the northeast, in fact. Rutgers. Have Mr. Huxley’s spies not briefed you on this?” His tone was almost incredulous but also amused. He seemed to enjoy informing Chamberlain of background he should, by all rights, already know—not to mention name-dropping the president’s own CIA director while doing it.
Remembering something his old high school band director once told him, Quentin recovered quickly. “Winston has had other things to keep him occupied lately, Mr. Premier. But I’m glad to hear this from the horse’s mouth.” If you’re going to play a wrong note anyway, blast it.
Wei’s formality finally broke and he laughed. Chamberlain dared not assess Torres’ expression for fear of losing his own composure. He could see in his peripheral vision how stunned she was at the speed at which a first, formal meeting had devolved into … whatever this was becoming.
“Your Americanisms were a shock at first. Our culture, as you no doubt know, is based on tradition, on formality of expression. On propriety. The first time I heard an American dirty joke, I thought the blood would pour out of my ears, I was so embarrassed.”
Not going to look at Torres. Not going to look at Torres.
“My father was a businessman, Mr. President. I traveled with him as a child and a teenager. My mother did not, of course. Tradition.”
Chamberlain nodded, taking it all in.
“I fell in love with America early on. Your architecture. Your purple mountains majesty. Your loud entertainment, colorful in so many ways. And later, your women, so beautiful and exotic to a young man from the Far East used to silk kimonos and deferential attitudes. I even came to appreciate your dirty jokes. Now that I think about it, those last two are probably related.”
Now he couldn’t help himself. Quentin chuckled. “I have no doubt, Mr. Premier.”
“I attended Rutgers to study international business. And took over for my father in the family business when he suffered ill health. It is how I came to prominence in the Politburo.”
“Indeed, sir.” That much Chamberlain knew. Wei Mao was one of the wealthiest men in China. Quentin remembered seeing a campaign blurb once, years ago: He Who Can’t Be Bought.
“So your candor earlier—about Premier Sun. Believe it or not, it took me a moment to remember I was talking to an American. I find it quite refreshing. In a way, it feels nostalgic, if that makes sense.”
Chamberlain offered him a smile. He already liked Wei much better than he’d ever liked Sun. “I think I understand, Mr. Premier.”
“I’ll have my bio sent over to Mr. Huxley for you,” said Wei with a last attempt at humor. “But we have other matters to discuss, no?”
“Indeed, sir. Your military has no doubt briefed you that the Swarm has returned?”
Wei’s expression changed. He was all business, now. “Not only returned. But also destroyed a number of your starships, including the Endeavour and Independence. You have my sympathies, Mr. President, for the loss of your brave soldiers.”
Chamberlain nodded solemnly. It was something to do while he made a mental note to find out from Winston Huxley how Chinese intelligence seemed so much better informed about them than they were about the Chinese.
“Actually, Endeavour and Independence are still in one piece. Mostly.”
Torres was waving a hand at him. They know enough about us already. No need to spoon-feed it to them, her gesture said. But Quentin ignored her. They were past that kind of thinking now.
“That is good to hear, Mr. President.”
“I’m calling to ask for your help, Mr. Premier. Can we count on the Republic to come to our aid as you did a month ago?”
Wei’s face took on a pained look. “That was a troubled time, Mr. President. As you so frankly mentioned earlier. We are deeply shamed by Premier Sun’s betrayal. By the unprovoked attack by one of our captains on your ships.”
“I understand, sir, and I appreciate your sentiments on the matter.”
“Let me be equally candid, Mr. President. I am still cementing my hold on power. The Swarm’s infiltration of the previous administration went beyond its head. We are still—as you might say—mopping up the mess.”
Torres was swinging her head back in forth in an exaggerated way. He’s lying. He’d never tell you that if it were true. Quentin took her opinion under advisement. Was Wei already making an excuse for refusing to commit ships? Maybe, for all his cordiality, he too was under Swarm control.
Goddamn, I hate being in the dark. The not knowing.
“So you cannot commit ships, then? Or will not?”
Wei hesitated. He appeared to be weighing the options Chamberlain had just given him in the way the president asked his questions—was his refusal to help a necessity of circumstance or a personal choice? “I cannot send ships at this time, Mr. President. But I will make this commitment to you—I will do everything I can, as expeditiously as I can, to firm up the integrity of my administration. To root out any remaining Swarm influence. And to contribute when I can, whatever I can, to your valiant defense of our species.”
Lots of pretty words.
More what he’d expect from Sun in his day. But the expression behind them, the tone. There was a true pledge there, a firm handshake in Wei’s voice he’d never heard from the man’s predecessor.
“Mr. Premier—I appreciate your willingness to help. Might I ask that we keep this dialogue open? The war has come back to humanity’s doorstep. The time might come, and very soon, that we all either stand together or fall apart.”
Wei’s somber expression softened. “I studied Lincoln too, Mr. President. At Rutgers. Yes, of course. In the future, I will … answer sooner.”
Quentin nodded, allowing a half grin to show. “Thank you for your time, Premier Wei. I look forward to that call.”
Wei nodded, and the viewscreen went dark.
“He’s lying, sir,” Torres said as soon as it did. “No leader in the history of China has ever been that forthcoming or transparent. They wouldn’t stay leader for long if they did.”
“Is he lying, Kyla? I’m not convinced.”
“The weight of history, sir.”
Well, there was that. What was that old truism from psychology? The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Then again, predictors weren’t guarantees.
“I’m more concerned about the future, Kyla,” said Chamberlain. His eyes wandered over a decanter of Reserve nestled in a small bookshelf across the room, lingered, then lit on the face of his national security advisor. “Let’s give him a little time to settle into his new job before we decide he’s lying.”
Torres shifted uncomfortably. “Well, at least the Russians are on our side.”
Quentin considered the feeling those words evoked in him. The Russians were sending ships, it was true, though they seemed to be taking forever to reach Britannia. The Chinese weren’t. And yet, he trusted Wei and his earnest intentions more after one conversation than he did Ivanov’s genuine commitment of military forces after years of getting to know the man.
“Yes, there’s that.” Chamberlain looked Torres in the eye. “For what it’s worth.”
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
As she took her seat at the defendant’s desk, Halsey scanned the officers of the review panel. There was Kilgore, of course, serving as judge. And the jury of her command-rank peers—Avery, Preble, Pierce, and William Vickers, captain of Kilgore’s flagship Intrepid. A mix of silver-haired legends and young starship captains fresh off the line, all arrayed in full dress uniform. But it wasn’t the momentous occasion or fear of being busted out of the service or even imprisonment that threatened to crack her composure. It was seeing Avery and Preble there.
A formal hearing required three officers of command rank to sit the panel. Commodore Wheatley had followed his personnel to Mars, though any one of the dozen or so destroyer captains now at Churchill Station could have joined Vickers and Pierce. But, over Pierce’s objections of conflict of interest, Kilgore had allowed Avery and Preble to join instead. Neither had slept since returning from the rout of Outpost Heroic One. Preble seemed exhausted.
Admiral Pierce reached out with a small hammer and tapped a brass bell three times. “This general court-martial is now in session.” Pierce’s tone was very formal, very British. “Commander Sacks, if you’ll read the charges, please.”
Before the prosecutor could do so, Commander Olsen, aide to Admiral Kilgore and Halsey’s counsel, rose and addressed Kilgore directly. “If it pleases the court, we’ll waive the reading in hopes of expediting procedure. I’m not sure the Swarm has the patience for propriety.”
Pierce began to bluster, but Kilgore nodded. “The court appreciates your indulgence, Commander.” She turned to Sacks. “Prosecutor, make your case. And get on with it. Only the enemy gains by our drawing this out.”
“Very well, ma’am,” said Sacks, standing. “I really only want to question Captain Halsey, and briefly.”
“Captain Halsey, if you’ll stand and raise your right hand?” said Sacks. “Do you solemnly swear that the evidence and testimony you provide to this court will be truthful to the best of your knowledge?”
“Very well. I’ll keep this simple, Captain. During the action at Wellington Shipyards, did Admiral Pierce order you to maintain your position in defense of Britannia rather than q-jump to engage the Swarm at Wellington?”
“Did you disobey that order, Captain?”
Addison focused on the wall behind the officers sitting at the table in front of her.
“Were you in your right mind at the time, Captain?” asked Sacks.
Halsey blinked. “What?”
The prosecutor cleared his throat. “It was a simple question, Captain. Were you somehow mentally or otherwise impaired when you made the decision to disobey Admiral Pierce’s order? Did the stress of the situation somehow influence your—”
“No, it did not!”
Sacks paused. “Would you say you have a hot temper, Captain? Are you keen to act without thinking?”
A fit of coughing interrupted her before she could answer. Avery excused herself to the rest of the panel. She knows me too well, thought Halsey, silently thanking Sam for giving her a moment to carefully consider her next words.
“I have sometimes been accused of that,” she said evenly. “But never as it relates to my command deci—”
“Thank you, Captain. No more questions, Admiral,” said Sacks, sitting down promptly.
Kilgore’s gaze lingered on the prosecutor before turning to her aide. “Commander Olsen?”
He stood up. “Captain Halsey, you’ve admitted disobeying a direct order from the commanding officer of this sector. I have just one question for you. Why?”
Olsen had told her in their prep work the night before what he intended to ask. He’d helped her shape her response. She had the impolitic tendency, he’d told her, of being too goddamned honest and to the point. Because the order was idiotic was not an acceptable response.
“Endeavour was severely outgunned and would’ve been destroyed. And then the Swarm would’ve reached Britannia for certain, and we likely could not have stopped them toe to toe.”
“You believed you’d lose a straight-up fight with the Swarm force if they made it all the way to Britannia, with just Invincible and Independence and Churchill’s defenses to face them?”
“Objection!” said Sacks. “Who’s testifying here?”
“Sustained,” said Kilgore. “Commander Olsen, let her speak for herself, please.”
“Apologies, Your Honor. Captain, do you credit your intrasystem q-jump and surprise attack on the enemy with giving you and Captain Preble the edge in stopping the Swarm?”
“Objection, Your Honor,” said Sacks, rising again. “What might or might not have happened after Captain Halsey disobeyed Admiral Pierce’s order is irrelevant.”
“Irrelevant?” said Olsen. “I’d remind my colleague that without Captain Halsey’s decisive action, we likely wouldn’t have a courtroom to try her in.”
“Gentlemen,” Kilgore interrupted. “Mr. Olsen, what’s the purpose of this line of inquiry?”
“Getting to that ma’am.”
“Well, hurry up.”
“Stow it, Mr. Sacks. I’ve ruled.”
The prosecutor sat down as Olsen cleared his throat.
“You’ve answered a question, Captain, but you haven’t really answered the one I asked. Why did you disobey Admiral Pierce’s order?”
Halsey hesitated. This is where it got uncomfortable, every time she’d rehearsed it. This is where they had to roll the dice way outside the box. Because by strict interpretation of the military code, she was guilty as hell.
“Because in my judgment, his order was….”
“Captain?” prompted Olsen.
“Unlawful,” she finished.
Silence descended on the room, as if the panel strained to recapture her words with their ears, to make sure they’d heard her right.
“That’s preposterous!” exploded Pierce, pounding his fist on the table. The ceremonial bell in front of him hummed with the impact.
Sacks, who seemed as flummoxed as any of them, finally recovered himself. “Objection, Your Honor! Unlawful on what grounds?”
The room quieted down again, save for Pierce’s heavy breathing.
“Captain?” prompted Olsen. “On what grounds did you consider Admiral Pierce’s orders unlawful?”
Addison swallowed into a dry throat. “On the grounds that following them would’ve cost the lives of billions of Britannians.”
“Outrageous!” Pierce stood so fast, the table screeched over the floor away from him. “This woman willfully disobeyed me and is now cloaking mutiny under some trumped-up excuse—”
“Sit down, Admiral Pierce!” said Kilgore.
“Admiral, this is unacceptable! My family has been in the naval service for generations! I will not sit here and listen to her malign my character—”
“You will sit down, Admiral Pierce! That’s an order!”
Red faced and blustering, Pierce stood a moment longer, his eyes spearing Halsey through and through, before collapsing into his chair.
“Admiral … members of the jury panel….” Sacks was clearly making an effort to speak slowly. “I think we all see what’s going on here. Captain Halsey—and her learned counsel—know very well that the only reason the Military Code of Justice allows for disobeying a direct order from a superior officer is if that order is deemed unlawful. This is Captain Halsey’s desperate and transparent attempt to avoid a dishonorable discharge and incarceration. A subordinate cannot simply decide they will not follow an order because they don’t think they’ll like the outcome.”
“Won’t like the outcome?” said Olsen. “Is there anyone here that would like to see the outcome of billions of dead civilians on Britannia?”
“That’s conjecture!” said Sacks. “No one can know for sure that would’ve been the result of Admiral Pierce’s order to maintain position.”
“Thanks to Captain Halsey,” said Olsen, injecting his words with gratitude.
Kilgore held up her hand again and addressed the defendant directly. “Captain Halsey, is this what you truly believed? That Admiral Pierce’s orders would have resulted in the destruction of Britannia? Because, Captain, from where I’m sitting, Commander Sacks’ argument is the best one I’ve heard so far. This sounds like an excuse for mutiny.”
Addison looked Kilgore in the eye. “Ma’am, it was my judgment that the admiral’s orders would not only have resulted in the destruction of Britannia, but also the Shipyards and Churchill Station—vital military assets in the war with the Swarm.” She turned her eyes to the silent Pierce, whose rippling cheek and clenched fists spoke for him. “I do not say this to malign the admiral’s character or his family’s honorable history of military service. But yes, it’s what I believe.”
Kilgore exhaled loudly. “This is your defense, then?” she asked Olsen. She sounded disappointed, as if she’d expected more of him. Maybe had even hoped for more by assigning her own trusted aide to Halsey’s defense.
“Commander Sacks? Are you content to let these facts stand in evidence?”
“I absolutely dispute the idea that Admiral Pierce’s orders were unlawful. That is not an established fact,” he said. “But for the sake of expediency—if this is the rope Captain Halsey chooses to hang herself with….” Even he seemed dissatisfied that the imminent judgment, no matter how justified, would be arrived at by such a course.
“Very well,” said Kilgore. “Captain Halsey, you will exit the courtroom with Commanders Sacks and Olsen while the panel deliberates. And I wouldn’t go too far, if I were you. This won’t take long.” There was no malice in the admiral’s words, only sadness. “Wait outside.”
Addison saluted and left the room with the advocates.
Oh, Jesus. My career is over.
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
“Discussion?” Kilgore’s tone was perfunctory. Unenthusiastic.
“Halsey’s guilt is obvious,” sniffed Pierce. “The chain of command is absolute, sacrosanct. I say we take the vote now and get back to defeating the Swarm!”
“Commander Olsen was right,” said Preble, sitting up and smoothing his tunic. “Without Addison Halsey’s actions, none of us would be sitting here now.”
“Irrelevant! And you can’t know that, as Sacks argued,” said Pierce.
“Oh, yes I can,” Preble insisted. “With respect, I was there, Admiral. And I’m every bit as guilty as Captain Halsey for going to Endeavour’s aid. In fact, I was senior by rank. If anyone should be on trial here, it’s me.”
“Captain Preble’s point is well taken,” said Vickers. “No offense, Noah, but Admiral Pierce—why aren’t you charging him?”
“She was the instigator,” Pierce said. “She bears the responsibility.”
Avery leaned forward. “This is starting to sound more like a personal vendetta to me.”
“The facts are the facts,” said Kilgore.
“And one of those facts is that Captain Halsey believed following the admiral’s order was unlawful,” said Preble, adding, “as did I. All those lives—”
“Collateral damage isn’t against the law,” said Vickers. The words seemed to crawl reluctantly out of his mouth. “It’s harsh, but the Military Code of Justice is all that matters here.”
“Collateral damage isn’t against man’s law,” said Avery. The inflection in her voice was leading.
“Captain Avery? What other law is there?” asked Kilgore.
“There is natural law, ma’am. Moral law.”
Pierce expelled his disdain. “This conversation is pointless.”
But Kilgore leaned forward. “Explain what you mean, Captain Avery.”
“Captain Halsey felt that to follow Admiral Pierce’s order would result in billions of people dying. In the loss of the entire sector and its shipbuilding capacity—vital to our war effort. She made a moral choice to go to Endeavour’s aid. To stop the Swarm before they destroyed the Shipyards and advanced on Britannia—if she could.”
“And so did I,” added Preble again.
“She disobeyed the direct order of her superior officer!”
“Yes, Admiral Pierce, she did,” said Avery. “But it’s not like she deserted her post. In fact, she charged into the mouth of the lion’s den. She saved John Richards’ ship and, by all reasonable accounts, this entire sector. She made a choice based on personal morality. And when you cut away the window dressing, isn’t all law based on the moral thing to do?”
“I have to agree with Admiral Pierce,” said Vickers. “I admire Addison Halsey as much as anyone here. She—and you, Sam—I remember you both from your senior year at the Academy. But your argument—however thought provoking and philosophical—is a slippery slope that would allow any soldier to question any order based on his or her own personal moral code. We just can’t have that, or all military discipline—our very ability to win wars—is compromised.”
“I think it’s time we voted,” said Kilgore. “I have Russians waiting. And who knows when the Swarm will return. All those in favor of guilty?”
Pierce’s hand shot into the air. Vickers’ rose more slowly.
“All those in favor of acquittal?”
Sam lifted her arm. So did Preble.
“Deadlocked. I guess I’ll have to cast the deciding vote,” said Kilgore. “Therefore, as much as it pains me to do so—”
The comms whistled. Kilgore’s brow furrowed. They sounded again, and she pressed the button to answer. “What is it, Lieutenant? This is a closed hearing. I wasn’t to be disturbed.”
“Ma’am, I have a request for testimony to be heard on behalf of Captain Halsey.”
“The trial phase is over, Lieutenant. Tell whoever it is—”
“Ma’am, it’s Captain Richards. He’s calling in from Sickbay. More specifically: the doctor is calling for him.”
The panel exchanged looks.
“Very unorthodox, Admiral,” said Pierce. “The testimony phase—”
Kilgore muted the call. “Captain Richards’ prognosis is very grim. If he has something to say, I want to hear it.”
“Very well, Lieutenant, patch him through.”
* * *
Halsey stood outside the briefing room, staring at the Constitution-class ships hanging in their berths at Wellington. Independence and Avenger had returned sometime in the middle of the night, the Indy limping in, its q-jump capacity cut in half. Avenger had escorted the Indy every step of the way. That was Sam Avery for you—always willing to help an old lady across the street.
Halsey couldn’t see the ships with her naked eye—the Shipyards were halfway across the sector. But accessing the wall monitor, she’d called up Wellington’s exterior cameras. The giant metal framework of the dock held the Indy in place like a baby in a cradle. Bundled cords of electrical wiring and hoses full of vital fluids replenished her. Technicians and engineers danced in slow motion around her hull, assessing her spaceworthiness and making repairs.
No, the baby image was wrong. The hard, outer shell of the Indy’s asteroid hull was scorched by enemy fire. Huge, star-like black craters along her portside mag-rail batteries told the story of cumrat kamikaze pilots on their final runs. The Indy was fairly new, but to Halsey’s eyes she appeared aged and worn. The bundles and hoses were lifelines—life support, really—holding death at bay. Once again the image of an old lady came to Addison, this time in a hospital bed, surrounded by metal arms to keep her from falling. Hooked up to tubes that fed her and carried away her waste and kept her alive.
Her eyes traveled to Endeavour, in even worse shape. Her thoughts turned to the ship’s captain in the Infirmary in worse shape still. Next to Richards’ ship was her own Invincible. She owed Wellington’s work crews, every single man and women among them, a round or three of drinks. They’d worked double and triple shifts to bring Invincible’s internal systems, armaments, and engines back online in record time. They felt like they owed the old girl, one crew chief had told Addison. For shielding them. For saving them.
Lastly, Avenger floated within its own berth, but unlike the other vessels, little activity surrounded her. While she’d suffered some damage at Heroic, most of her necessary repairs were internal from damage caused by Laz’s fighters landing hot on her deck during the retreat.
At least he survived. I should’ve been there to help. But at least Laz made it.
Small miracles were still miracles.
Avenger’s crew was handling her refit with support from Wellington’s Supply Depot. The Shipyards’ resources were stretched thin, and the three more heavily damaged Constitution-class ships had been triaged first. But Avenger was also under informal quarantine until the traitor, Malcolm Brent, was found. Avery had ordered it herself.
Halsey shook her head. Another traitor, like Baltasar, right under their noses. And who knew how many more Swarm sleeper agents lay in wait, like spiders ready to spring? People were growing distrustful of comrades they’d known for years. Every dropped tool, every imperfect performance at a duty station, every personal slight—all drew suspicion now.
The comms beeped behind her.
Maybe the Swarm doesn’t have to beat us in space. Maybe we’ll turn on each other like a pack of rabid dogs, slobbering with our own paranoia.
“Captain? They’re ready for you.” Commander Olsen gave her a heartening smile.
Maybe that was their plan all along.
“Let’s get this over with, Commander.”
* * *
As Halsey came to attention once again before the panel, Kilgore didn’t waste time. “Consider yourself the luckiest officer in the fleet.” Addison shifted her gaze among them. Pierce looked pissed. Avery offered a covert smile.
“Let me be clear, Captain. You haven’t been absolved of the charges. But Rear Admiral Pierce has agreed—after some convincing—to drop them.”
She looked at Pierce and blinked. “Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me,” he growled. “Don’t you dare. If I had my way, you’d be busted out of rank and into the brig.”
“And you came this close to both,” said Kilgore. “But we cannot afford to lose a command officer of your caliber, Captain Halsey. Not now. The record will reflect the charges were dropped and that no official finding of guilt was made. Which happens to be true, since we never finished the vote.”
“Can I ask how—”
“You may not. I have a Russian strike force to receive. And everyone in this room has one priority, now—to make sure the fleet we have is prepared for the next Swarm incursion. This incident has played itself out, and I won’t speak of it again. Understood?” She was looking at Pierce, who nodded stiffly.
Addison stood straighter, if that were possible. “Ma’am, yes ma’am.”
Kilgore picked up the tiny ceremonial hammer and rang the brass bell three times. “This hearing is concluded.” No sooner had she said the words than Pierce leapt to his feet and exited the room.
Still reeling from the sudden turn of events, Addison barely felt Olsen shaking her hand. As Kilgore approached, she said, “Captain, I meant what I said. You got goddamned lucky here. If there weren’t a war on … but between you and me? You did the right thing.”
“You voted for acquittal, ma’am?” asked Olsen.
“Oh, hell no. I was going to throw the book at her, spine first,” she said. Then, looking Addison in the eye: “But you still did the right thing.”
With a silent thumbs-up, Vickers followed her out as Sam and Noah stepped over.
“Congratulations, Addison. Pierce finally saw the light,” murmured Preble with a tired grin.
“Yeah, about that….”
“It was John Richards,” said Avery. “His testimony persuaded the panel—even Pierce—that we have more important things to worry about right now than strict adherence to the Military Code of Justice.”
“And I think Sam’s argument helped just a little. Your friend here is quite the philosopher,” added Preble, stifling a yawn. “Okay, I’ve hit a wall—for the third or fourth time. I need to check in on the Indy’s repairs, then hit my rack. Maybe the Swarm will let me catch a few winks.”
“Good night, Noah,” said Addison. She reached out and touched his arm. “And thank you.” He waved wearily and left the room. She turned to Sam. “So, what was it like in there? What’d you say?”
“That’ll have to wait.” Avery grasped Halsey’s shoulder in friendship. “I’ve got a traitor to track down. I’ll tell you one thing, though,” she said, turning for the door. “You couldn’t pay me enough to go into politics.”
Earth, Sol System
The Situation Room, the White House
“Are we friends again, Quentin? You have your ships.” Ivanov sounded both self-satisfied and generous, baiting the UEF president to express his gratitude.
“Indeed, Mr. President.” Chamberlain made him wait a moment longer. “On behalf of the Britannia Sector and the UEF … thank you.”
Ivanov nodded an it-was-nothing gesture. “Admiral Kilgore,” he said, looking at the lower-left corner of his screen, “how are things with Admiral Volkov? I made it clear he was to answer to your operational authority.”
“The admiral has been very accommodating,” said Kilgore dubiously. “Thank you, Mr. President.
Chamberlain caught the tentative optimism in Kilgore’s voice. He understood the reason for it. Until they’d actually reached Churchill Station, he hadn’t quite believed the Russian ships would show up, despite Ivanov’s assurances. Then Volkov had met with Kilgore and made it clear that while his internal command structure would remain intact, he would follow her orders as she coordinated Britannia’s defenses.
Still, Quentin didn’t trust how well things were going. When humanity had first encountered the Swarm, Ivanov had been predictably nationalistic in his opposition to anything more than an informal alliance. Now he was willing to place his strike force under IDF command? It all seemed to come a bit too easily.
“Very well,” said Ivanov, “and remember this about Leonid—never let him drink before noon, eh?” The Russian’s laughter boomed over the meta-space link.
Kilgore smiled stiffly. “Sound advice for anyone, Mr. President.”
Chamberlain maintained his composure but couldn’t help but wonder if Kilgore ascribed Ivanov’s rosy cheeks to the same cause he did.
“Indeed, Admiral. Well, I will say goodbye, then. Quentin?”
“The best of luck in this endeavor. For all our sakes.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
Ivanov disappeared from the screen, and Kilgore’s image swelled to fill it. Chamberlain surveyed his National Security Council expectantly. Kathy Wakefield blew out a breath she’d held for a while, expressing their collective relief.
“Keep your eyes on Volkov, Admiral,” said Winston Huxley. “He’s known for having greasy palms. But also for being a good party man. He’ll do whatever Ivanov tells him.”
“That’s what worries me,” said Wakefield.
“Me too, Kathy.” Chamberlain shrugged. “But the ships he promised are there.”
“To fight for which side?” asked Kyla Torres.
“I guess we’ll find out.” Kilgore’s wry answer was matter-of-fact and devoid of her earlier hopefulness.
“The business with your captains, Admiral—resolved to your satisfaction?” asked the president.
“Yes, thank God. Two distractions we didn’t need. Pierce has dropped his charge of mutiny against Addison Halsey, and after debriefing Preble and Wheatley, I’m satisfied that Sam Avery is not compromised. Avenger’s logs and crew interviews back up her story that it was the XO, Brent, who sabotaged the ship when Heroic called for aid. She’s currently leading a shipwide search for him now. What about the Chinese, Mr. President? And the Caliphate? I know el-Hashem doesn’t have a lot of ships, but….”
“Premier Wei has his own problems at home, at the moment. I’m still hopeful he’ll lend us aid in some form, though,” said Chamberlain. “As for the Caliphate—all quiet on the eastern front.”
“Typically taciturn,” grumbled Wakefield.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t send more ships to Britannia, Admiral?” asked the president. “I know you feel doing so would leave Sol too exposed, but….”
Kilgore inhaled deeply. The question of where to muster the best defense clearly weighed on her. “Until we have better intel about the enemy’s intentions, sir, I’m doing my best to have my cake and eat it too. I’ve got three ships of the line in relatively good shape—or, at least, improving shape—commanded by three of my best captains. I’ve got a dozen destroyers and every fighter I could muster from here to Veracruz Sector, and I’ve got my own Intrepid. Churchill Station’s armament is nothing to sneeze at either. So far, the Swarm hasn’t attacked with more than half a dozen capital ships at one time. We’ll manage.”
“How do you know they’ll hit you there again?” asked Wakefield. “I mean, they directly attacked Earth before. Then they went dark for a month. Then they hit Britannia, then Heroic, way out in the boonies. It’s almost like a reverse invasion. Their strategy seems pretty random.”
“I agree that it’s unusual, Madam Secretary,” said Kilgore. “Which is exactly why I’m leaving the bulk of our fleet closer to home. I’m speculating, but I think the Swarm gambled on Baltasar’s ability to ensure a quick victory during the first phase of their campaign. When that failed, they decided to take a more measured approach. I think the first attempt on Britannia was the probe of an enemy still smarting from initial failure. Their current strategy seems more traditional and focused on taking out our strategic assets—perhaps as an attempt to ensure success when they hit Earth harder next time. The attack on Heroic is evidence for that theory. We’re now blind in that sector. They could be mustering a fleet there right now, preparing to launch from the ashes of the outpost. That’s what I’d do: everything I could to make sure the next attack on Earth assured total victory.”
“But we can’t assume they think like us,” said Wakefield. “We can’t assume anything.”
“Precisely,” replied Kilgore. “Which is why I’m keeping our forces concentrated around strategic assets. I can’t be sure where they’ll strike next, but if my theory is right, they’ll hit Britannia again. Take out the Shipyards, take out the planet—deplete our ability to respond and torpedo civilian morale through mass casualties, both at the same time. The homeland is our most precious asset of all, of course. So the bulk of the fleet stays home.”
“Understood, Admiral,” Chamberlain said. He paused, then added, “Neither I nor my advisors are questioning your judgment, you know. I just want to make sure you have everything you need, where you need it.”
“Oh, I know, sir. But sometimes it helps my own clarity to explain things to non-military types.”
“To dumb it down, you mean?”
“I’d never call you dumb, sir. Just not a subject-matter expert in this area.”
Chamberlain grinned. “Ever consider running for office?”
“Only when I’m depressed, sir.”
Laughter around the table. “Don’t get yourself killed, Melinda. You’re one of the few military types who make me laugh.”
“You should hang out with more of us then, sir. Kilgore out.”
God go with you, thought Quentin.
“What’s the status of the research on that alien metal?” asked Wakefield. “What are they calling it anyway?”
“That alien metal,” said Torres with a straight face as she swiped her PADD several times. “There was a joke about calling it Addisonium after Halsey as its discoverer, but so far, no actual name.”
“Let’s skip to the report part of your report, Kyla,” said Chamberlain.
“Yes, sir. The metal, which seems to make up most of a Swarm vessel’s hull, has a unique spectrographic signature. One that makes their ships extremely resistant to traditional weaponry. Its base element—whatever we end up calling it—isn’t found anywhere on Earth. Or in the known universe, according to the tech team.”
Wakefield cocked her head. “What does that mean, Kyla? Are you saying the cumrats don’t come from this universe?”
Torres shrugged. “I’m saying our scientists have never seen the metal before. And its molecular composition precludes formation in this universe to the best of their knowledge.”
“What’s the likelihood we could replicate the benefits of this metal in our own hulls?” asked the president. “Obviously, our shields are useless against those Greek fire lasers of theirs.”
Torres shrugged again. “Reverse engineering recovered alien tech is one of the top priorities of IDF’s Science Division, sir. Nothing implementable yet, though.”
“I’m still not sure I understand this whole ‘not of this universe’ thing,” said Wakefield.
Chamberlain turned to Huxley. “What have the agents you’ve captured told you about the Swarm’s origins?”
“Very little, Mr. President. Most of their rhetoric is repetitive and blue sky. They can’t seem to understand our persistence in resisting them.”
“I assume you’ve tried, er, enhanced interrogation techniques?” asked Wakefield.
“Oh, yes, Madam Secretary,” said Huxley. “We know we’re on the clock, here. Whatever the Swarm has done to indoctrinate them gives them the ability to suffer pain until death unless they choose otherwise. Some have spoken quite freely. But they seem content to die rather than answer certain questions.”
“So, nothing new there,” said Chamberlain. “What’s the status of the project to reprogram GILD to target the alien metal?”
“Admiral Shasta’s simulations are working well,” said Torres, scanning her PADD. “A few field tests and we should—”
“Field tests?” Wakefield’s tone was incredulous. “We’re about to have a field test on our front doorstep!”
“Admiral Kilgore left standing orders for Shasta,” Torres said, reiterating a fact everyone at the table knew well. “Until he can guarantee our own ships won’t be inadvertently targeted—”
“Mr. President,” interrupted Wakefield, “we don’t have time for normal procedure. You can override Kilgore’s order and get GILD deployed in the Sol System immediately.”
“Mr. President,” said Rob Francis, speaking for the first time in the meeting. “We can’t sustain another failure like what happened before. If GILD were to target our own vessels by mistake, public opinion—”
“Public opinion?” growled Wakefield. “If we don’t deploy that damned platform, there won’t be a public left to have an opinion.”
Quentin studied a blemish in the wood of the tabletop as the voices around him continued to thrust and parry. Deploy now, before it was too late. Wait until Shasta was sure of his tech or risk a military and very public disaster.
His ancestor, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, came to mind. He’d seen the English teacher’s image captured in countless, romanticized portraits of that fateful day at Gettysburg. The Union colonel was dirty, tired, but standing tall on the ridgeline. The 20th Maine’s ammunition had run out but Confederates were plentiful, and they stalked toward the crest of Little Round Top, intent on overrunning the Union Army’s left flank and rolling them up all the way to Washington City. Lawrence had had a decision to make—charge downhill with bayonets fixed, an ancient, almost unheard-of-in-the-age-of-gunpowder maneuver, or fight them hand to hand on the hilltop and likely lose to the much greater numbers of the enemy. And likely die. The Chamberlain of that era hadn’t had a lot of time to decide. And neither did his descendent, who stood at the crossroads of history in another time when all moments mattered.
“Get the platform online,” he muttered distantly, still picturing his ancestor on that ridge.
The debate among his advisors raged on.
Quentin slammed his hand on the tabletop, and after a moment, the voices died down.
“Mr. President?” said Francis.
“Get GILD online,” Quentin said, more forcefully now. “Kyla, call Shasta. I want the platform operational within twenty-four hours.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”
“And someone please … please … get me a goddamned drink.”
Britannia Sector, near Calais
Engineering, ISS Avenger
“You’re sure you’ve run him to ground?” asked Avery. “And everyone’s evacuated?”
Commander Farrell nodded. “When we tracked him doubling back to Engineering, we put two-man teams in the accessways and sealed the bulkheads behind them. They’ll flush him into the main engine room. There’s nowhere else he can go now.”
“Back to the scene of the crime,” muttered Barstow. One of the marines in the platoon behind him locked and loaded. Cocking his ear to the sound, Barstow cleared his throat. “Ma’am, might I suggest we enter with minimum personnel? We go in with a team of jarheads, he could spook.”
“Hey, watch your mouth,” came an anonymous voice from the milling crowd of flak jackets and muscles behind them.
“So what if he spooks?” asked Farrell. “The man’s psychotic, and he’s got nowhere to spook to. We should shoot first and ask questions later.”
All eyes turned to Avery.
“Barstow’s right,” she said. “I want to capture this sonofabitch, not kill him. Yet. If we take the marines in with us, there’s a much greater chance a trigger gets pulled. Or he’ll hole up somewhere, some nook in main Engineering, and we’ll have to dig him out like a tick. The Swarm is coming, and we don’t have time for that. If this doesn’t work? We can always send in the marines then.”
“Ma’am, that is a seriously FUBAR idea,” said Macon, the marine platoon leader.
“Maybe,” acknowledged Avery. “But it’s what we’re doing. Seal the door behind us, Lieutenant Macon. But stay close on comms. Understood?”
After a moment, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Farrell, Barstow—let’s go. Before he can do any more damage.”
The bulkhead doors opened, and Avery and the two security officers entered. When the doors didn’t close immediately, Avery glanced back to find a hesitant Macon, his hand hovering over the controls.
“Follow my orders, Lieutenant,” she said.
Nodding, he touched the panel and the doors slid shut with a metallic click.
Barstow touched the controls on their side, and the word Locked glowed red on the wall display. “Just to make sure he doesn’t get past us,” he said.
“You kidding?” said Farrell. “Past us into the loving arms of a dozen tender marines? Unlock it, Lieutenant.”
“No, he’s right,” Avery said. “We need Brent contained. And Macon has the override code.”
She turned to assess the room. The last time she’d been in here, bodies had littered Engineering. Blood was everywhere, shiny and slick across the sterile, gray deck plates. And the air had smelled like vaporized copper.
“Brent?” she called. “We know you’re in here. Come out and all this can be over.”
Her ears strained to hear a response. A defiant curse or maybe the sound of a nervous foot on a latticed gangway. Anything. But what bubbled forth was the tittering laughter of an impetuous child.
Or a raving lunatic, she thought.
An intense feeling of déjà vu washed over Sam. Flashbacks to another incident in an engine room, when a different officer had gone off the rails and murdered the last survivors of the Russian scout ship Tarantula. She’d been a first-class midshipman in the Academy then, she and Halsey together, and at the time they had no idea what caused Bryson to lose it. Just like she had no idea now what had driven Brent crazy. Bryson had died, along with half a dozen Russians, and she’d barely escaped the ship’s destruction with her remaining away team. But now, as the cold collection of decades-old puzzle pieces clicked into place, Avery wondered if humanity’s first brush with the Swarm hadn’t come long before anyone knew enough to name them.
“Brent … Malcolm—this doesn’t have to end in your death. Something’s wrong with you. Something’s snapped. Let us help you put it right,” she said.
The giggling returned. “You don’t know,” came Brent’s voice, low and sweaty. “You don’t know how wonderful it is, where I am.”
Her ear traced the hollow whisper to the second-floor gangway over her shoulder. He was burrowed back in one of the access tubes that ran between the decks, she guessed. Where the two-man team supposedly creeping toward him from the far end was, she had no idea. But the close-quarters, ringing metal of the access tube made his hoarse voice echo eerily in the silence of the powered-down engine room.
They really would have to dig him out like a tick.
“Farrell, you and Barstow—”
A short report, a single shot, cut her off. She turned sharply to see a piece of Farrell’s skull bouncing off the engineering panel. In slow motion, it seemed, the bullet drove blood and brain out of his head. The commander was staring right at her, eyes wide in complete surprise, before he slumped to the left and his leaking skull careened off the cold metal of the console. He fell wet and heavy to the deck, then was still.
Stunned, Avery followed the bullet’s trajectory back to its source—straight to the end of Barstow’s barrel. She was dumbstruck, speechless. She couldn’t take her eyes off his gun hand, now rounding on her.
Just like on the Russian ship.
“I liked him,” said Barstow. Then he shrugged, as if some things couldn’t be helped.
“Barstow … what the hell—”
“It’s Codeine, actually,” he said, waving the barrel as he spoke. Her eyes followed it, unable to see anything else. “And this isn’t personal. Just business.”
That brought Sam back to herself. On reflex, she brought up her weapon.
Codeine fired, knocking the pistol out of her hand. “And don’t think about comming Master Sergeant Muscles out there,” he said as she fell back against the engineering board, nursing her stinging hand. “You’ll be dead before you say a word.”
Avery dashed her eyes to where his thumb jabbed, and they lit on the bright red Locked status of the bulkhead doors.
“Oh, I hacked the security codes the day I arrived. The key to success? Good prep work. He won’t be coming through there without a blowtorch,” said Codeine. “And you won’t be alive long enough for that.”
“Who are you?”
“Someone contracted to do a job. That’s all.”
“Someone hired you to kill me? Why?”
The bulkhead doors buzzed. Macon was trying to get through.
“I’d love to stand here and play twenty questions,” said Codeine, “but we need to finish up our business.”
“You’ll never get out of here alive. Those marines will shred you when they come through that door.”
“No, they won’t,” he said. “One psychopath is all I need for an alibi. Brent jumped us, and you heroically saved me but died doing it. Has a certain irony to it, eh? Goodbye, Captain Avery. Whatever pain you’ve felt in your life, I’m glad to help end it.” Codeine aimed his pistol squarely at her forehead.
A scream echoed off the silver walls of Engineering. Avery mistook it for the assassin firing his weapon, but she couldn’t understand how she could be dead and yet see Codeine tackled to the floor, born down under the weight of Brent’s madness. Then she felt the sting of Codeine’s bullet in her left arm, the heated metal burning through muscle and sinew and bone.
Brent jabbered incoherently, his hands wrapped fast around Codeine’s neck. The men rolled around in a heap, but the assassin recovered, bringing his weapon around. Brent ducked and threw his shoulder up, knocking Codeine’s pistol away. Avery dived to the floor as the shot went wild.
“You have to die! You have to die!” yelled Brent.
Codeine tried a different tack, arcing the pistol up from below, and fired twice. Brent grunted with the impact but didn’t falter. He held Codeine to the floor with one hand and grabbed the gunman’s wrist with the other, and the two of them stayed locked there, struggling for dominance. Codeine’s eyes bulged in their sockets from Brent’s one-handed manic strength.
Sam stretched across Farrell’s body, reaching for the dead man’s sidearm.
“What the hell?”
She heard a voice and feet on the landing above. Two marines were emerging from the accessway Brent had launched himself from.
“Shoot Barstow!” ordered Avery.
But the marines stood, unsure, their rifles raised and watching the lunatic they’d been running to ground wrestling with a ship’s security officer.
Codeine gasped, using his free hand to claw at Brent’s deathgrip. But his strength was failing with lack of oxygen, and the other hand, the one with the pistol—it was pointing at his own chest now, forced their by Brent’s preternatural strength. With a final scream, Brent bore down and the pistol’s barrel met Codeine’s chest. Three muffled pop-pop-pops sounded. Codeine’s back arched once, a disbelieving expression becoming pain on his face, before death slowly rattled the last of his life from his lungs.
“Did it for you, Captain!” Brent rose, his voice frenzied as he rounded on Avery. His six-foot-two frame loomed as he stood. “Kicked them out finally! Did my duty!”
Two infrared targets the size of a fingertip centered on his chest.
Brent moved forward, blood from being gutshot soaking through his tunic.
“What do we do, sir?” asked a young voice from the gangway above.
“Marine, shoot that motherfucker!”
“No, wait!—” cried Avery.
There were two short bursts of automatic weapons fire, and Brent wrenched backward, then resumed his advance on Avery. One of the tiny red dots moved to his forehead, and a third burp of gunfire obliterated his skull. The force snapped the headless corpse backward, flat to the deck beside the dead assassin.
As her hand wrapped too late around Farrell’s pistol, the echo of gunfire rang in Sam’s ears. She could hear marine boots clattering on the metalwork stairs above, now approaching from both sides of Engineering. And the incessant click-click-click of Macon’s attempts to get through the hacked computer lockout of the bulkhead doors.
The marines were on the ground floor before Avery could move again. They approached, rifles firm against their shoulders, all infrareds targeting the downed Codeine.
“Ma’am, you all right?” one of them asked, dropping his rifle as he approached her. “We need to get you to Sickbay!”
Avery nodded, trying to rise while favoring her injured arm. The marines formed a perimeter around the dead men.
“See if you can override that door,” she said to the trooper helping her to her feet. “Macon’s probably already suffered an aneurysm.”
God, her arm hurt.
“Ma’am,” he nodded, moving off.
Avery approached Codeine’s body, the three marines making way for her with their weapons but staying alert. She eyed the dead man warily, but his eyes stared vacantly at the brightly lit ceiling. Sam knelt down and pressed two fingers against the side of his neck, then began searching him with her one good hand. She found a PADD that wasn’t standard IDF issue.
She thumbed its power button, but the device only displayed the warning unauthorized access. Glancing down with some distaste, she reached for the assassin’s hand and pressed her own thumb atop his over the PADD’s button. The screen came to life.
Avery called up the message menu and found only two items there. One looked like the confirmation for a bank transfer. The other…
Kill IDF Captain Samantha Avery. Shoot the messenger.
The intent of that last bit seemed obvious. But who the hell would want to kill her enough to hire an assassin?
She thumbed up the second message. It indicated the successful transfer of five hundred thousand credits, with a promissory note of five hundred thousand more once the job was completed. Now, who the hell would spend a million credits to kill her? And again—why?
Sam pulled up the first message again. It displayed clearly, then fritzed out. A third phrase winked into life.
What the hell did that mean?
Errant computer code, she thought. Or legacy content, half deleted.
The new text faded again, leaving only the assassin’s deadly, two-sentence contract visible. Across Engineering, she heard the bulkhead doors open, followed by the tromp of a dozen sets of heavy marine boots.
“Captain Avery! You all right?” called Macon. His platoon dispersed to secure the room with mechanical efficiency.
“Mostly, Lieutenant,” Sam replied absently. “Except for this bullet hole in my arm.” She couldn’t take her mind off the discovery she’d just made. Who the hell would want to kill her so badly they’d pay the price of a small freighter to do it?
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
The Crow’s Nest (IDF Officers Club)
“So, was it a mistake?”
Laz played with the plastic sword spearing the cherry in his Old Fashioned. Addie watched sidelong, not daring to look straight at him. She didn’t want him to feel pressured to answer the way she hoped he would. But his lack of response as the ice clinked against the side of his glass seemed to be his answer.
The wrong one.
“No, of course not,” he said finally, and she breathed again. “It’s just….”
Now she did look directly at him. “Just what? Why’d I have to come looking for you after the court-martial? I know you’re busy reorganizing the Indy’s fighter groups, but … Laz, talk to me.”
“I’ve lived two decades regretting what happened between us at the Academy,” he said. Addie’s ears perked up. It was the first time he’d ever spoken of the personal cost their breakup had caused him. Of his public shaming and her very public disavowal of him. “Then the other night, you came to me drunk, and it was like something I’d dreamt of for so long was actually happening.”
She raised an eyebrow as he made eye contact. “Not the drunk part, I hope.”
Laz looked away, realizing what he’d said. “No, of course not.”
The clinking got louder.
“I was kidding, Laz,” she said. “Trust me—I knew exactly what I was doing. I’ve missed you, too. Hard as that was to admit to myself when you first boarded Invincible. And not knowing what would happen when we faced the Swarm again.… I’m in my forties now. And the older I get, the more I realize time is the most precious commodity there is.”
“Something like that.”
He nodded. “Me, too.” Laz lifted the plastic sword, yanked the cherry off it between his teeth, and followed it down with a swig of Old Fashioned. She watched him do it, memorizing the image for no good reason she could think of other than the fact that it was Laz being Laz, enjoying the simple pleasure of a drink with her in a bar. A familiar, yet newly recovered sensation that felt decades old in how it warmed her from the inside.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Every time the Swarm attacks and I survive—you survive—I feel like another thousand grains of sand have run through the hourglass of luck we seem to have. Eventually, there won’t be any more sand. Or luck.”
Addison waited for him to continue. She could hear the earnestness in his words, the caution in them, as if by speaking he were tiptoeing through a minefield. When he looked at her again, she thought her heart might melt through her eyes.
“I’m afraid of losing you again,” he croaked. “I couldn’t take that. I threw you away last time. And now the Swarm might take you away. I couldn’t live with that. Not now.”
She reached out and touched his arm, and Laz’s hand lightly covered hers. “You’re not going to lose me.”
“You don’t know that!”
The venom in his voice made her want to pull away, but he held her hand firmly in place.
“I’m sorry. I’m just—afraid, Addie.”
“I know,” she said. “I know. But when all this is over….”
He nodded, finding her eyes and holding them. “Yeah, then.”
“Well, well, well! Look who it is!” boomed a woman’s voice behind them.
The two jerked apart like teenagers caught necking on the front porch. Halsey turned to find Mimi Ferreira, followed by Topper and Little Dick, approaching the bar.
“Heya, Skipper!” said Topper. “Looks like we made it in time for the big show.”
Addison noticed Mimi’s gaze lingering on them. She’d seen their connection, their touching. You missed your chance, Addison thought. So keep your distance.
Laz stepped off his stool and grasped Topper’s hand, then Little Dick’s. There was an uncomfortable half moment before he accepted Mimi’s offered hug. Her eyes found Halsey’s over his shoulder, but Addison couldn’t quite read them. Jealousy? Acknowledgment of an opportunity lost? And then the hug was over.
“Didn’t expect to see you guys here,” said Halsey with a smile for the men.
“Oh, Laz didn’t tell you?” Mimi had a leading, I-know-something-you-don’t smarm in her voice. “We’re getting the band back together!”
Halsey turned to see an awkward grin frozen on Laz’s face. “I’ve secured a letter of marque from the IDF. I’ll be flying Renegade again if the Swarm returns. When the Swarm returns.”
Addison took a moment to process that. “You’re resigning as Indy’s CAG?” Her gut shot a warning to her heart. Was he bailing again on the service, like he’d done over twenty years ago when he cheated his way to expulsion? Was he leaving her again?
“Not exactly. You know Renegade, Addie. Maneuverable and with a cloak that, let’s just say, isn’t standard Fleet issue. My job is to get behind the Swarm and provide close-up intel to help better coordinate our defenses. Noah and Admiral Kilgore know they need all the help they can get. Ballbreaker’s stepping in as Indy’s CAG, temporarily at least.”
Nodding, Addison took it all in—the information, the flood of emotions. If the Swarm attacked again, Laz would be flying Renegade behind enemy lines like the pirate he’d once been, aided only by a handful of crew and the last grains of sand in that lucky hourglass of his.
“Well,” she said after a moment. Then, inanely, “Sounds like a plan.”
Mimi clapped her hard on the shoulder. “Buck up, Halsey! It’ll be like old home week to have Laz back.” She winked, and Addison had zero doubt Mimi knew exactly what kind of images for old home week were forming in her mind. “It’ll be fun!”
Will it, now.
“Hey, Skipper, we’re refueled and restocked. Kilgore asked us to start flying reconnaissance as soon as possible. We better get going.”
“Right. Give me a minute, guys. I’ll meet you at the exit.”
Topper and Little Dick shared a knowing look, then ambled off. Mimi took her time, but she went too.
“I should’ve told you,” he said. “I just wasn’t sure how. I didn’t want you to think I was bailing on the Fleet again. On us.”
“It makes absolute strategic sense,” said Addison, more formally than she’d intended. Then, more kindly, “Take care of yourself, Laz. Let’s pick up our discussion after we’ve blasted the Swarm back to whatever hell they came from.”
He nodded like that was all he’d intended before taking his leave, then grabbed her by the shoulders, leaned in, and kissed her fiercely. Addison let herself fold into it, reaching her hands around his back and pressing him closely. When they parted, their eyes seemed magnetized.
“Carpe diem,” said Laz.
* * *
“My government is not happy with your president, Admiral Kilgore,” said Leonid Volkov from across the conference table. He waved his glass around to make his point. “Bringing GILD online begins another arms race. This you know.”
“That’s going a bit far, wouldn’t you say, Admiral? And please don’t insult our intelligence by suggesting your government isn’t pursuing exactly the same kind of technological edge.” For once, Pierce’s superior tone, honed to perfection, didn’t grate on Kilgore’s nerves. In fact, she appreciated it quite a bit in that particular moment. But, for diplomacy’s sake, she raised a finger from the table that quieted the Englishman’s zeal.
Kilgore thought she saw the familiar Russian bluster building on Volkov’s face. Then he paused, took a sip of vodka, and smiled broadly. “I wouldn’t say, Admiral Pierce, that we’re pursuing the same kind of edge.”
Pierce recognized a diplomatic out when he saw one. “Of course not, sir. I’m sure yours is vastly superior,” he said wryly.
The Russian admiral laughed. “Of course. Of course!”
So, Pierce can be useful after all, thought Kilgore. Who knew?
“Melinda, I must compliment you on your vodka. It is surprising to find such quality all the way out here, so far beyond Russian space.”
Kilgore couldn’t help herself and glanced at the clock. 1315 hours. At least it wasn’t before noon.
“Thank you, Admiral, I’m glad it’s to your liking. And now that you’ve logged your official protest to the deployment of GILD in the Sol System, can we get to the purpose for this meeting?”
She called up a 3D rendering of the Britannia Sector. Two primary locations were shown as green circles—Britannia itself and Wellington Shipyards. She zoomed in closer to Britannia, then angled thirty degrees off to another planet in the system. Inches of air represented millions of miles in space.
“We’d like you to position your strike force here, near Athena, the fourth planet in the system. The asteroid belt should afford you some cover. And, if we’re lucky, obscure you from Swarm sensors.”
“Is there any proof of that? Our scientists have no idea how Swarm technology works. Have you been holding out on us again, like with GILD? Our intelligence tells us you’re reverse-engineering Swarm hull tech to—as Admiral Pierce says—‘give yourself an edge.’ Can the same be said for their sensor technology?”
“It’s true,” said Kilgore, letting those words hang strategically in the air, “we don’t know how Swarm sensors work. But hiding in the background radiation of the asteroids beats leaving your ships in plain sight, doesn’t it?”
A faint smile tugged at Volkov’s lips, and he took another sip from his glass.
He knows how to play the game too. Then, in Leonid’s own voice inside her head, she added a comical, Of course!
“Of course,” he said at almost the same moment. “And you wish us to stay in reserve, at least at the outset of hostilities?”
“Well, as your own Clausewitz said, Admiral, ‘no campaign strategy survives first contact,’” said Pierce.
Kilgore winced as Volkov leveled a look at the Englishman. “Clausewitz was Prussian, Admiral Pierce, not Russian. But I can understand how you might be confused about the two.” He leaned over and lightly tapped the table to draw Kilgore’s eye. “That is often true of the English, when it comes to history.” Volkov winked. “Embarrassed for want of a proper P.”
Before Pierce could voice offense, Kilgore moved on. “You will be my flanking force, Leonid. If the Swarm attacks this sector again—and my gut says they will—the IDF will be the anvil, and you will be my hammer.”
“Ah!” expelled Volkov. “How metaphorically appropriate for Mother Russia! I like this plan, Melinda. We will hold position near Athena until you tell us otherwise.”
The bosun’s whistle sounded. With apologies for the interruption, Kilgore thumbed the button.
“Vickers here, Admiral. Long-range sensors from Starbase Midway in the Maori System report a large Swarm force vectoring this way. They’ll be here within the hour.”
“How large, Bill?”
“Larger than anything we’ve seen before, ma’am. And they’re flying faster than anything we can put into space. They mean business this time.”
“Acknowledged. I’ll join you on Intrepid shortly. Have the repair crews at Wellington tighten the last bolts on the Indy and get her and the other ships out of drydock and into space, Captain. We fight the war with the fleet we have.”
“Acknowledged. Admiral, Endeavour is still without engines.”
“Damn it. We need every ship!”
“Admiral, if I may?” Volkov downed the last of his vodka and stood, preparing to join his fleet. “Does the Endeavour have weapons?”
“Aye, ma’am. They’ve reinstalled about half her mag-rail batteries. But what good will that—”
“Place minimal crew aboard to operate her maneuvering thrusters,” said Volkov. “And double her gun crews. Get her into space near the Shipyards. Let her defend them as best she can.”
Kilgore thought it through. “A mobile weapons platform?”
“Da. Not as mobile as your GILD system, maybe,” he said with a wink at Pierce, “but not as useless as tits on a boar either.”
She nodded her appreciation. “Captain Vickers, give the order. I’ll see you shortly.”
She rose and extended her hand to Volkov. “Best of luck, Admiral.” She really was glad, Melinda realized with some surprise, to have Volkov and his strike force with them.
“When I call, charge your Russian bear self out of your cave and tear those cumrats a new asshole.”
Volkov smiled as he shook her hand. “There is an old Russian saying, Admiral: Ne trevozh medvedya v berloge—on prosnetsay golodnym. ‘Beware rousing the bear from his winter sleep. He always wakes hungry.’” He held her hand a moment longer than propriety demanded.
“I like you, Melinda. Try not to die.”
Britannia Sector, near Calais
Bridge, ISS Invincible
“Release docking clamps, Mr. Jameson.” Ethan Blake’s voice was calm, Addison noted. Calmer, maybe, than she felt herself.
“Maneuvering thrusters, aye.”
Halsey felt the raw power of Invincible come to life around her as the ship inched out of her berth. She could see Independence already moving beyond the Shipyards, and Avenger, the ship in best shape, in the lead beyond her. Kilgore’s battleship, Intrepid, stood off from the Shipyards, standing guard as her sister ships took to space again. Endeavour hung back, waiting for Invincible to clear the yards, before she used her own thrusters to take permanent post duty over Wellington as a last-ditch bulwark against the Swarm.
“Captain Preble on meta-space,” said Nichols at comms.
“Put him through, Lieutenant.”
Noah’s face lit up the viewscreen. At least he looks well rested, thought Addison.
“So, here we go again, Captain Halsey. Second verse, same as the first?”
“If it means victory, I’ll sing the whole damned song,” she replied. “How’s the Indy, Noah?”
“Engines are about sixty percent, but I don’t see too many q-jumps in our immediate future. We’re fine. You just watch your own ass.”
“Captain Halsey,” interrupted Nichols. “Starbase Midway just went silent. Their last transmission confirmed a massive Swarm force moving this way. More than twenty carriers.”
“You get that, Noah?”
“I heard. Looks like we’ll have our hands full.”
Addison grunted. Her thoughts turned to Laz, already running silent and dark somewhere near one of the outer planets in the sector, waiting for the very large rat to spring their very small trap.
“Take care of yourself, Noah. Invincible out.”
The screen faded to stars again.
“Captain, we’ve cleared the Shipyards,” said Blake. “Intrepid is falling into formation on Avenger’s wing. Spartan and the other destroyers, too.”
“Very well. Steady as she goes.”
Four large starships—five, if you counted the nearly immobile Endeavour—and a handful of destroyers against the Swarm. And this time, the enemy was attacking in force.
Addison fancied she could feel the sand trickling through the bottleneck of Laz’s hourglass, one grain at a time—each one more precious than the last for its increasing rarity.
Bridge, SS Renegade
“So you and her are a thing now, huh?”
Laz had expected the question, had even been waiting for it, he supposed. And now—as they hung cloaked in the silent blackness of space, hidden he hoped from enemy sensors—was as good a time as any to deal with it.
“Yeah, Mimi, we’re a thing now.”
His confirmation was met with silence.
“A thing again, you mean. That’s good,” she said unconvincingly. “Y’all fit together.”
He ignored the double entendre in her voice, opting instead to keep the conversation as short as possible.
More silence. Laz spared a glance at the sensor readouts. The circular screen showed all clear. He noted four green blips crawling away from Wellington. Addie commanded one of them.
“I’ve taken good care of her,” said Mimi.
“Renegade. We refitted in Caliphate space. Cleaned the anti-fighter batteries—they always seemed to jam at the worst times, remember? Retuned the engines, even optimized the cloak to use less power. Put some of that take from the Chinese job to good use.”
Mimi sounded proud, and she had a right to be, Laz decided. She’d taken good care of his ship. Her ship now, he reminded himself.
Renegade had been his life once, the only love in his life. Now he had his first real love back—at least the opportunity to make it work with her again. Mimi could have the ship, and a hundred others like her, if only he and Addie could make it out of this war alive.
“You’ve done right by her all right,” he said.
“I’m happy for you, Laz,” Mimi said, the words tumbling out of her. Like they’d been leashed, held in her throat, and she’d finally decided to release them. “A little jealous, I can’t lie. But—happy for your happiness.”
Laz looked her in the eye, and all their adventures—the close scrapes, the payoffs, the stolen nights together in his bunk or hers, fending off the loneliness of long nights in deep space—it all came back warmly in his belly. He was devoted to Addie, but still he loved Mimi for the depth of friendship they shared. “I appreciate that, Mims.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d called her that. During one of those quiet nights, no doubt, entangled in one another’s arms after stealing a bit of life together from an indifferent universe. His gaze lingered on her raven hair, and his memories began returning to places they shouldn’t.
“How about you?” he asked quickly. “Happy? The pirate’s life for you and all that?”
“Oh, hell yeah!” she said, her face brightening. “After this, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve got lined up. Remember the Minsk run? Okay, double that and add—”
Renegade’s proximity alarm went off. Their eyes fastened on the ship’s sensor screen. It went from clear to cloudy in seconds. An advancing wave of bright green light flowed over and around the dwarf planet-asteroid named Glastonbury Tor, headed straight for them.
“Holy Christ on the cross,” said Mimi.
Every instinct in Laz wanted to hit the q-jump drive and get the hell out of there. But he had his mission. And Addie was depending on him.
“I sure hope you didn’t low-bid those cloak upgrades,” he whispered.
Bridge, ISS Avenger
The proximity alarm beeped, startling Avery in the captain’s chair. She’d been mulling over Brent’s betrayal and the assassin’s mission again. And realizing just how lucky she’d been in Engineering, where Brent’s madness, his homicidal need for blood, had seemed to work to her advantage. Or maybe it was more than luck. What had he said? That he’d finally thrown them off?
Thrown who off, she wondered. The Swarm? Had Malcolm managed to cast off the enemy’s brainwashing in time to … do his duty, he’d said. To save her from the assassin?
But now it was time to focus.
“There they are,” said Buckland at sensors. The tactical display of Britannia Sector replaced the stars on the viewscreen. In the northeast quadrant, a fogbank of overlapping sensor returns crept forward. “My God, Captain, how many of them are there?”
Too many, thought Sam. “Launch fighters,” she said, her injured arm pulsing at her.
“Bridge to Fighter Bay, launch all birds,” said Hathaway on her right, his promotion to XO now confirmed.
O’Brian signaled from comms. “Admiral Kilgore is hailing us, ma’am.”
Melinda Kilgore’s face appeared, the ping and whir of sensors resounding behind her. The battleship Intrepid was the newest gold standard for IDF warships, with even better armament than her own Avenger. Intrepid bristled with twice the complement of mag-rail batteries of a Constitution-class starship, able to deliver a broadside of devastating destruction along a 360-degree front all at once. She was a spacefaring weapon of mass destruction, gun barrels bristling like sharpened teeth—a massive gunboat in space.
Not wasting words on a salutation, Kilgore kept it simple.
“You know your job, Sam. Attract the lightning bolts to enable the rest of us to get close enough to punch hard. And protect your engines, for God’s sake. Your maneuverability is key to our strategy.”
“Acknowledged, Admiral. We’ll do our part.”
“I’m sure.” Kilgore’s cheek twitched. “Godspeed, Captain.”
“And to you, ma’am.”
The screen returned to the tactical display. The Swarm fogbank had rolled closer.
“Captain, we’re receiving encrypted sensor data from Renegade’s position behind the enemy fleet. Looks to be a couple dozen Swarm carriers and ten to fifteen thousand fighter escorts coming in. They’re staying tight across their front.”
“Like ancient warriors with shields locked,” muttered O’Brian.
“Stay focused, Lieutenant. Thank you, Mr. Buckland.”
Sam sympathized with Laz and his pirate crew watching and waiting in the shadows as, all around them, the most powerful force in the known galaxy crawled over them. Like locusts hungry to ravage Britannia and her sector planets. To strip the Shipyards of their ability to help the IDF defend mankind.
Not while I have breath in my lungs.
“Mr. Harkness,” said Avery, “aim for the center of that cloud. Let’s punch a hole for the Admiral, shall we?”
The helmsman nodded. “Aye, ma’am.”
“And Mr. O’Brian?”
“Run out the guns.” She grinned over her shoulder at the young enthusiast for a bygone era of sailing ships and broadside cannonades. “Beat to quarters!”
Britannia Sector, near the Dwarf Planet Glastonbury Tor
Fighter Wing Alpha
“Well, shit on a stick,” said Pops Banacek. “I ain’t never seen so many of ’em before.”
“Don’t let it spook you, old man,” said Ballbreaker over the hum. No matter how often they knew to expect that infernal Swarm buzzing over comms, once they got in range, it was still unnerving. “They’re just cumrats sitting in tin cans.”
How she ever let Scollard talk her into stepping in as Indy’s CAG, she’d never know. She loved leading a squadron of eight, but coordinating eighty with two other fighter wings? She felt like a babysitter, and she didn’t give a tinker’s damn about maintaining morale. As far as Ballbreaker was concerned, you did that by killing cumrats. All she wanted to do was redline the throttle and charge in head first, like always. Fire and fire and fire again until there were either no more cumrats left or the Swarm did for her. But this was her job for today, and she’d made the pirate a promise.
She stared at her sensor readouts, the enemy still too far away to pick up visually. The massive, green cloud edged forward, millimeter by millimeter, enemy fighters in the lead.
“Red Squadron, form up on me,” said Ballbreaker. “Listen up, Independents. We’re the tip of the spear.” Jesus, how she hated talking like that. “We punch through first, and we punch through fast. No stopping to do-si-do with the enemy. We make them chase us into their own backfield. Understood, squadron leaders?”
As they sounded off in her headset, a glint ahead caught Ballbreaker’s eye. A glance down confirmed it. They were almost within range of the tidal wave of Swarm fighters heading their way.
“Mustang, you back there? Or did you decide to let us carry the ball … again?”
“Shove it up your ass, Ballbreaker. Or if you like, I can do that for you. Cuz we’re right behind.”
“Enjoy the view.” She grinned. “McCall?” She didn’t know Avenger’s CAG personally, but he’d bought her a drink at the Crow’s Nest. She already liked him.
“Here, Ballbreaker, right behind Havers.”
More flashes ahead as the light of Britannia’s sun glimmered off the hulls of enemy fighters. Five, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, five thousand—they filled in her field of vision like silver lights winking on. And only five hundred of their own to oppose them. Three wings in three waves, one from each of the Constitution-class ships, charging through enemy lines without stopping—that was the plan, anyway. Once engaged, it was every wing, every squadron, every pilot for themself, all with one mission … to clear a path for Avenger and the other ships of the line right through the middle of the enemy’s advancing wall of carriers.
“All right, people, the party’s come to us,” she said. “Let’s do this thing!”
Headsets filled with cheers and battle cries as space around her cockpit began popping with enemy flak.
“For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful,” cracked Little John.
The pre-battle rah-rah period was past. It was time to get down to the bloody business of the day, and today’s strategy wouldn’t be elegant. Even the enemy seemed to know that. No elaborate bull-horn maneuver to surround the IDF fighters this time—they were coming on as a ravenous horde intent on crushing the meager flying force opposing them.
“Bandits at twelve o’clock!” shouted Captain Obvious. “And eleven and ten and nine….”
Ballbreaker sloughed off her CAG role like an ill-fitting suit as the sky around her filled with Swarm fighters. Adrenaline shot through her veins as she redlined her throttle, and the first chicken of the day drove straight for her. It tried to break right before colliding, but Ballbreaker was ready and barrel-rolled in the same direction, tracking the fighter’s evasion with her fire. When she scorched it and flew through its fireball, she squealed over comms for five hundred IDF pilots to hear.
“I hope you’re hungry, people! There’s plenty for everyone!”
Bridge, ISS Intrepid
Kilgore watched as their fighter wings echeloned, one behind the other, into the enemy’s lines. It felt a bit to her like watching bugs splatter on a windshield. But since the IDF pilots weren’t turning to fight, many were getting through to the line of Swarm carriers behind the protective cloud of cumrat fighters. The Indy’s wing had already passed the storm of Swarm resistance and was threatening the first capital ship.
The enemy pilots were adapting to circumstance and circling back on the sixes of the birds that slipped past. That’s where the second and third waves from Invincible and Avenger came in. If they could disrupt the greater numbers of the enemy long enough, Avenger herself, followed by Intrepid’s massive firepower and the other starships, could divide the oncoming Swarm battle line. It was an old strategy: break a stronger enemy into weaker parts and defeat each one in turn, rather than face superior numbers as a cohesive force. It was also a long shot. But it was humanity’s only chance at victory here.
Who’re you kidding, Melinda? There’s no victory here, only death delayed.
The Swarm force was just too overwhelming.
But maybe with the Russians’ help, we’ll show them what the human race is made of, by God.
“Admiral, Spartan reports its task force ready to engage enemy fighters,” said her comms officer.
Behind her, she heard the order relayed to the destroyer’s captain. Spartan and her escorts had one task: plunge headlong into the cloud of Swarm fighters and provide close fire support to the fighter wings. Useless against the carriers, the destroyers’ shields would offer some protection against attack by the enemy fighters. Then the bigger ships, led by Avenger, would take on the line of carriers.
“Everything according to plan,” said Captain Vickers, his eyes, like hers, glued to the viewscreen. “And it’s a good plan, ma’am.”
“So far,” she replied. “So far.”
But it all hinged on the blocker following up the destroyers and charging through that weakened enemy line.
It all hinged on Avenger.
Bridge, ISS Avenger
“Flank speed, Mr. Harkness.”
“Flank speed, aye.”
Avenger aimed for the heart of the hornet’s nest, where Swarm fighters and IDF destroyers were packed so thick, no clear path through seemed obvious.
“Once we make it to the other side of that enemy line, what then?” asked Hathaway.
Avery didn’t answer at first, though she appreciated her XO’s optimism. Once we make it through….
“We kill them, Mr. Hathaway. We kill the bastards before they kill us.”
“Simple enough,” he acknowledged.
“Captain, we’re entering the Swarm lines. Implementing firing solution.”
The high-velocity scream of the ship’s mag-rail batteries drowned out the constant buzzing of the Swarm as Avenger spat thousands of rounds a minute at the enemy fighters. Explosions were constant around them as Swarm pilots met death.
“Mr. O’Brian, you transmitting to CENTCOM?”
She nodded. Whatever the outcome here, however long they lasted against the Swarm, at least the leadership back home would have a record of the battle to analyze, to use in planning future tactics against the enemy.
“Ma’am, encrypted transmission from Renegade. Our fighters made it behind enemy lines!”
Avenger shook as she came into range of the Swarm carriers. Sam could see them on-screen now, huge and coming on, refusing to break formation as the IDF force penetrated their battle line.
It’s almost like they’re too busy to stop and deal with us, she thought. Well, that’s just insulting.
In that moment, Sam knew Kilgore was right. The Swarm was here to destroy the Shipyards and exterminate the entire sector. Turning to fight would only delay that mission.
“Captain,” continued O’Brian as reports came in, “Spartan reports four destroyers gone. The carriers are targeting them, though they haven’t slowed their advance on Wellington. And we’ve lost a quarter of our fighters in the run up the middle.”
Avenger shuddered again. They were almost on top of the carriers.
“Reconfigure firing solution to target the carriers to port and starboard,” said Avery calmly. “It’s time for Operation Can Opener.”
They were passing between the nearest two carriers now, and there was the reassuring sound of Avenger’s rail guns again, spinning out slugs non-stop, broadsides against the enemy ships to port and starboard. The carriers answered in kind with their deadly, green energy beams, and it was only by the grace of her tungsten hull that Avenger survived those first moments of close action. Avery glanced at the ceiling, to offer a silent prayer or assess hull integrity as her starship groaned around her, she wasn’t sure which. The great bulk of the carriers disappeared from the viewscreen as Avenger slipped behind them and straight into a vicious storm of fighter combat behind.
“Get me Admiral Kilgore.”
Bridge, ISS Intrepid
“Very good, Captain Avery. We’re following up on your targets.”
“Orders, ma’am?” asked Avery, the screen fading to snow and snapping back.
“Give ’em, hell, Captain.”
Avery grinned. “Aye, ma’am. Avenger out.”
“Split screen,” Kilgore said. “Dual targets.” Each half of the viewscreen now showed the enemy carriers closing to either side of Intrepid. The battleship’s batteries spun up, the slugs widening to raging infernos the hot holes drilled by Avenger into the carriers’ sides. Minor explosions vomited bright green from within both vessels.
And still the Swarm wasn’t stopping, wasn’t turning to fight.
“Captain Vickers, we’re passing through their line,” reported Tactical. “Looks like the cumrat fighters are targeting Avenger’s engines on the other side.”
“Lieutenant, retarget forward batteries and clear the bugs off Avenger’s tail,” Vickers ordered. “Retarget aft batteries to provide cover for Invincible and Independence as they follow up on primary targets.”
“Comms, get me Admiral Volkov on meta-space, encrypted,” said Kilgore. “It’s time to have the Russian bear charge out of his cave.”
A low rumble passed through Intrepid—enemy laser fire against the tungsten plates of the battleship’s hull. Unlike the Constitution-class ships with their solid tungsten hulls created from hollowed-out asteroids, Intrepid was only plated in tungsten to make her more maneuverable in space. It was an experiment in balancing speed with defense, modeled after the overlapping scales of the Swarm’s own hull design.
I guess we’ll know how well that works by the end of this, thought Kilgore.
“Ma’am, something strange….”
“The Russians … they’re not answering.”
“Jamming by the Swarm?”
“Um … no….”
The deck under her feet vibrated with enemy laser strikes aft. Was it her ship’s shaking or suspicion that sent tiny shivers up her spine?
“Tactical,” said Vickers, “scan the asteroid cluster near Athena.”
“Ma’am, Invincible and Independence have engaged the primary targets.”
“Understood.” All well and good and according to plan. But if the Russians didn’t do their part and flank the Swarm, the entire IDF force would be left behind enemy lines.
Cut off. Easily surrounded.
“Captain Vickers, I’m reading nothing but asteroids….”
Never trust a fucking Russian. Kilgore blinked once, slowly, and exhaled. Goddamn you, Volkov!
The Russians had bugged out.
They were on their own.
Behind Enemy Lines
Bridge, ISS Invincible
“Target those explosions and fire!”
On Halsey’s command, laser batteries erupted to port and starboard as Invincible passed between the carriers assaulted first by Avenger, then by Intrepid. Fires already burning inside the enemy ships began to spread. Minor blazes became major firestorms. Even as the Swarm ships returned fire, a new set of lasers arced in, targeting the same points of attack. Independence cruised five hundred meters below her sister ship, doubling her fire power.
“Careful to stay with the Indy, Helm,” said Halsey. Each ship was the other’s insurance, moving and firing as one unit, a key tactic of Kilgore’s divide-and-conquer strategy. She’d even graciously named it the Halsey Maneuver because it had worked so well in the previous battle.
“Captain, energy buildup in the port vessel,” said Zoe Proctor at sensors. “Destruction imminent.”
“Helm, flank speed. Signal Independence to increase speed to—”
To port, the Swarm carrier began disintegrating from the inside out, consumed by its own energy overload, before exploding in space. Invincible shook as the shock waves reached her, but she’d passed far enough beyond her target—the effect was minimal. Halsey’s bridge crew shouted in triumph as the green-and-orange fireball blossomed on the main screen. No sooner had their celebrations begun to wane than a second, much milder shock wave reverberated through Invincible’s deck plates.
“That’s number two!” shouted Proctor, and again the Bridge cheered.
Halsey allowed herself a momentary, broad smile and accepted Hathaway’s proffered handshake of congratulations.
“Zoe, is the Indy still with us?”
“Nichols, hail Independence.
Well, they’d made it through round one of a fight that, if they were lucky, would last longer than two rounds. They’d accomplished Kilgore’s first benchmark of taking out two carriers at once, blowing a hole in the Swarm’s line of attack. Now? Now it was fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants time. And doing that as a team in the middle of the present chaos would prove damned difficult, Halsey knew.
“Congratulations, Addison, nicely done!” Noah Preble’s face beamed through the hazy screen.
“How’s the Indy, Noah?”
“Minor damage, nothing to worry about. Let’s turn these buckets around for another pass. You call the play.”
“My thoughts exactly. Attack Plan Delta, starboard. Let’s see if we can get these bastards to slow their roll.”
“I’m on it. Independence out.”
Halsey took a breath, but before she could order the maneuver, Nichols interrupted.
“Incoming, Captain. Priority signal alpha to the fleet. It’s Intrepid.”
Priority signal alpha? An emergency transmission to the entire fleet? In the middle of a battle?
That seemed a bit redundant.
“Put her through, Lieutenant.”
Bridge, SS Renegade
“Those Russky sonsabitches,” breathed Mimi. “Never trusted ’em.”
Laz stared out Renegade’s window at the battle before them. One thing was sure—he didn’t need a sensor screen to track the Swarm ships now. Fighters from both sides circled and dived and died less than a million meters away. Avenger and Intrepid were turning hard to port while the Indy and Invincible banked sharply starboard. All were turning for another pass to exploit the break in the Swarm’s line of battle. But without the Russian task force—hell, even with the Russian task force, had it stayed—they seemed to be only delaying the inevitable.
The score and more of Swarm carriers were finally beginning to turn and deal with the persistent annoyance of the IDF’s attack. Well, Kilgore achieved her goal, he thought. Stop the advance on the Shipyards by breaking apart the seemingly impassable wall of enemy ships.
The dog had caught the car it had been chasing. Now what?
“Well, I guess that’s our cue,” said Mimi.
“Time to get the hell out of here,” she said. “You heard Kilgore. Without the Russians, it’s a suicide mission. Britannia’s nothing but a sector full of future debris and dead worlds. It just doesn’t know it yet. She gave us leave to go—so let’s go!”
Topper stuck his head in. “She’s right, Skipper. We should head to Caliphate space. They aren’t even in the war, not yet. Maybe the aliens will leave them be. Nothing more we can do here.”
Laz was semi-focused on the laser show out there and less than half-listening to his old crew in here, but really he was thinking about Addie. The carriers had turned their full attention to dispensing quickly with the IDF ships before moving on to their primary targets in the system. The enemy fighters were making suicide runs at Independence, taking out her mag-rail batteries one impact at a time. And Addie wasn’t running.
Mimi wasn’t wrong, he realized. The math was set in concrete. It was only a matter of time.
He muttered something under his breath.
“Boss?” Little Dick had elbowed Topper aside.
“I said, I swore an oath. Again.”
Mimi sighed. “Laz, I get it. I really do.”
“No, I don’t think you do. When I left Renegade, I left piracy behind. I picked back up a standard I’d thrown in the dirt twenty years ago.”
“For her?” asked Mimi. Her words, like her tone, were chopped.
Laz didn’t answer at first. That was a good question. “Partly,” he said finally. “But mostly for me.”
“Skipper, I get that. I admire it, even,” said Topper. “But we’re pirates, not Fleet officers like you. Like her. We didn’t swear no oath. And suicide and I don’t get along.”
Laz plastered the old rogue’s smile across his face. “Might not be suicide. Might get lucky!”
His winking attitude was met with silence. They weren’t raw recruits raised on romantic tales of service and honor. They were used to their hearts hammering as they got away just in time with the plunder.
“I’m plotting a course—”
“Mimi, wait. A minute ago you said this place was a starship graveyard waiting to happen.”
“Well, there’s a lot of high-tech booty in a starship graveyard. Wouldn’t be the first time we dug up a body to pull a ring or two off fingers.”
Little Dick shuddered. “You’re a goddamned ghoul.”
“You think I was born yesterday?” demanded Mimi. “We bolt, we avoid the fireworks, we come back and plunder later.”
“And maybe miss the best stuff,” mused Gizmo, who’d crawled out from under his bearings. “Someone else could get it first. That alien shit would bring … well, a lot on the black market.”
“Fine,” said Mimi. “Then we sit here cloaked and wait out the storm. Then start digging.”
Laz took a breath. “Guys, say the Swarm exterminates the sector. Hell, let’s say the whole human race, because from where I’m sitting, that looks like a pretty good goddamned possibility. How long you think you’ll be living a pirate’s life of luxury?”
Topper grunted. “Didn’t think of that.” He shared a look with Little Dick. “No black market to sell to then, maybe.”
“Guys!” said Laz, exasperated. “Priorities!”
For a moment, the only sounds aboard Renegade were the constant pings of sensor returns and the static-filled drone of the Swarm underlying the combat reports streaming in.
“Dibs on salvage?” pressed Topper. “No IDF regulation military bullshit?”
“Done,” said Laz.
“Our claim is our claim,” groused Mimi.
“Fine, then,” said Little Dick. “As long as there’s a decent percentage, let’s save humanity.”
Bridge, ISS Independence
Independence rocked, the force of the Swarm beams resounding through her hull. Preble’s fingers ached with the effort of holding fast to the captain’s chair for so long. This was getting real old, real fast.
“They sure seem to like us, sir,” said the XO.
“It’s my new aftershave,” grumbled Preble with more bravado than he felt. The Swarm had turned away from the Shipyards, all right, just like the admiral wanted. And for some reason, they’d chosen the Indy to pound on first. “Mr. Hayden, target our starboard batteries at that oncoming carrier. Coordinate with Invincible to—”
“Sir, starboard batteries are down to twenty-five percent. The Swarm has been cumikazing emplacements again, and we were still below strength when all this started.”
“Helm, hard a’port!” ordered Preble.
“Hard a’port, aye!”
We’ll never turn in time, and we’ll end up with our engines hanging out, he thought. But if we don’t get our port batteries on them, we might as well ram them like the Romans.
As the great ship swung slowly to port, a distant explosion sounded from somewhere deep inside Independence. A rolling rattle traveled up the thorny length of her tungsten spine, followed by the hull groaning.
It’s like she’s in pain. The Indy quaked harder than before, and Preble’s fingers screamed at him as he held on. We won’t last long like this. Not with twenty carriers gunning for us.
“Tactical, report! What the hell was that?”
“Sir, the Swarm … their fighters are flying straight into our exhaust ports! They’re targeting the engines, sir!”
They’re flying up our tailpipes? A cold certainty descended over Noah. The Swarm were in a hurry to win, and their first target was clearly the Indy.
“Concentrate point defenses on the stern. Protect those engines at all costs!”
“Comms, raise the CAG on meta-space.”
“Trying, sir. It’s very confused….”
The engineering station exploded outward, its officer thrown to the deck, her uniform smoking. Preble punched a button on his armrest.
“Sickbay, medical team to the Bridge.” Only static answered. “Sickbay? Sickbay!”
The Indy shuddered again, her hull knocking repeatedly as impact waves echoed in the ship’s superstructure. The Swarm carrier trolling forward on the viewscreen suddenly began to turn on its vertical axis. No, it wasn’t the cumrat rotating.
It was Independence.
“I know,” said Preble, his stomach lifting in his belly. “We’re losing the lateral stabilizers.”
“Trying to adjust, sir,” said the helmsman.
Noah glanced to the useless engineering station and spotted a low fire beginning behind its controls. Then his eyes found the downed officer who’d been sitting there. Preble leapt to her side but found no pulse beneath the roasted flesh of her neck.
“Enemy carrier is veering off, sir,” said Hayden.
Preble looked to the screen and found it straightening again, settling like his stomach. He crawled across the deck as the Indy stabilized and resumed his position in the command chair.
“Comms, did you raise the CAG?”
“No, sir, sorry, sir. Everyone’s scattered. Unit cohesion….”
“Status of the engines?”
“We’re still maneuverable,” reported Hayden. “But not for long. With those suicide runs, it’s only a matter of time before—”
Preble held up his hand. “Helm, track that sonofabitch that just changed course. Can we catch him?”
“Catch him, sir?” A few moments of assessing readouts, then the helmsman answered, “I think so, sir.”
“Then fire as our portside guns bear. And when he alters course again to avoid our fire, aim our nose at his midsection.”
Preble exhaled and stared hard into the young man’s eyes.
Behind Enemy Lines
Bridge, ISS Invincible
“Independence is flagging, ma’am,” reported Zoe Proctor. “Energy readouts spiking. The fighter strikes crippled her engines.”
Halsey watched as fire and gases streamed from the Indy while she executed a long, tortured turn to port. She tried to gauge what Noah was doing. She’d hailed him, but comms were down.
He’s traveling in the only direction he can without sacrificing speed, trying to bring the only batteries he has left to bear, she thought. Exactly what I’d do.
“Helm, back our engines and bring us around to course one-one-eight-mark-eight. I think Noah’s trying to intercept that carrier before it gets out of range. We’ll add our firepower to his, just like before. Let’s introduce those cumrats to the loving embrace of Mother Universe.”
Hold on, Noah, just hold on. None of that heroic crap, you hear me?
Far from the Indy in one dim corner of the viewscreen, she could see Avenger and Intrepid turning too, but their vector had them too far off to help. They’d widened the hole in the enemy’s line in the opposite direction and had problems of their own as the other half of the Swarm fleet concentrated its firepower on them. It was up to Halsey and Invincible to help Preble.
On-screen, Independence unloaded her portside rail guns in a broadside of the Swarm carrier she’d been pursuing. A round, fiery flower blossomed in the side of the enemy vessel.
A flash on the viewscreen, and the Indy’s stern suddenly ignited. The flames erupted into space at first, fed by the pressure of the ship’s fuel. But soon the jutting fire guttered out, retreating back into the ship as the pressure waned.
“Captain! Independence is down to her last engine! And she’s lost her lateral thrusters altogether.”
“Damn it, Helm, turn us faster! Weapons, target those coordinates and fire, mag-rail followed by laser.”
She’ll never catch that carrier now. Independence can barely steer….
With the fire now muted from the Indy’s stern, the enemy fighters renewed their attack on her engines, throwing themselves at the ship’s weakening point defenses. Then the aft guns of Independence suddenly went silent, even as cumrat fighters pressed their attack.
“What the hell?”
“I don’t understand why the Indy’s ceased fire. Maybe her point defenses failed….”
But then it became apparent to everyone on the Bridge why Independence had gone silent. Renegade had appeared near the Indy’s stern, blasting first two, then a third Swarm fighter into pieces.
Oh, no, Laz. You were supposed to stay hidden. You were supposed to stay safe!
The pirate ship swooped low, luring some of the fighters away to chase her, but before the guns of Independence could spin up again, a Swarm pilot flew straight into her one remaining exhaust port.
The explosion began there, then cascaded forward within the Indy’s superstructure. Fuel, armaments, and atmosphere mixed, and the mighty tungsten hull of the warship fractured from the inside. Fault lines cracked wide and blistering destruction blazed through. Internal pressure blew tiny, spinning crewmen into deep space.
“Noah!” Halsey’s voice cracked. “Shields to maximum!”
Independence exploded, and Invincible quaked with the brutal force of it.
Still dancing with the enemy fighters, Renegade had been much closer.
Oh, Jesus. Laz?
Bridge, ISS Avenger
Sam Avery watched the fireball erupt on the forward screen, her mouth dropping open. Independence was lost. At that exact moment, Avenger’s lasers imposed the same fate on a Swarm carrier Intrepid had just drilled open amidships.
Oh, God, she thought. Noah?
There was no celebration now at the enemy ship’s destruction like there had been earlier, when they’d first broken through the Swarm’s battle line. When there’d been hope for a victory against all odds. Now, there was only despair at the death of Independence and a frantic need to keep their own weapons firing, their own engines protected.
Avenger seemed to vibrate constantly now under Swarm fire. The enemy fighters had long since overwhelmed Fleet pilots, and that had freed up thousands of cumrat birds to concentrate on the larger warships.
How long till we suffer Noah’s fate?
“Captain, we’ve lost half our armament on the port side to cumakazies.”
“Acknowledged. Helm, keep our starboard guns facing,” she said, without having to think about it. Then the throbbing pain in her right arm focused her. “O’Brian, get the CAG on the horn!”
“McCall’s dead, ma’am. I’m not sure who’s in charge anymore, there are so few—”
“Skip it.” Sam Avery stared at the chaos on-screen and, for the first time in her command life, had no idea what to do. Even though he’d failed, maybe Noah’s strategy of ramming was all they had left. Take with them however many Swarm ships they could before it was too late and they died without even that honor to take with them.
“Ma’am, Admiral Kilgore’s hailing us. She’s ordering the fleet back to Wellington so we can pick up Endeavour’s firepower. We’re falling back!”
Sam squinted at the screen and the fading fireball that had been Independence. But she couldn’t see Invincible anywhere. Please, Addie, be all right.
“Very well, spin up the q-jump drive.” Kilgore’s fallback plan had always required a short, intrasystem q-jump, whatever the dangers such a maneuver might carry with it. She’d figured if the battle went badly enough that they needed to fall back, they’d never be able to make it on thrusters alone.
“Captain, I’m reading….” said Buckland at sensors. “New sensor contacts! A shitload of ships!”
What? Had the Russians come through after all?
The raging battle faded as the viewscreen switched to find the sun of Britannia rising bright over the lush green-and-blue silhouette of the sector’s mother planet. And out of the sun, its rays shining like heralds, flew fire on dragons’ wings.
Bridge, SS Renegade
Mimi, breathless, stared out Renegade’s cracked viewport.
“Where the hell did the Chinese come from?”
Laz raised an eyebrow. “China, I’m guessing.”
They’d barely avoided the Indy’s destruction and now sat cloaked again apart from the battle, effecting minor repairs. Following Kilgore’s orders, they’d just plotted the jump back to Wellington when dozens of Chinese warships emerged from q-space, their bows painted like the gaping jaws of dragons, to engulf the right flank of the Swarm fleet. With their fighters slamming against the IDF starships at the heart of the battle line, the carriers engaged by the Chinese had zero defenses. Pressed and surprised, the Swarm ships seemed to be lashing out blindly with their lasers, striking true only now and then, as the more maneuverable and elegant Intersolar Republic ships better concentrated their firepower.
A carrier exploded, and Mimi jumped into Laz’s arms and kissed him full on the mouth. When they parted, they both realized what had just happened.
“Sorry,” she said, backing away and smoothing her top. “Heat of the moment.”
“Don’t tell your girlfriend.”
After an awkward moment of watching the Chinese finish their first pass along the flank, Laz cleared his throat. “We’re lucky you upgraded her armor,” he said. “Or Renegade would’ve never survived the Indy’s….” But he couldn’t finish.
“I’m sorry, Laz, truly I am,” said Mimi. “I know you had a lot of friends on that ship.”
He looked away from her, focused on the renewed battle beyond Renegade. “Noah Preble gave me a second chance. I owe him.”
She smiled, though he couldn’t see. “Then let’s give ’em some payback.”
Laz turned to his old companion in petty crime, his old friend. “Not afraid of dying anymore?”
“Oh, I’m terrified. But I figure we ought to earn that salvage. It’s dearly paid for, now.”
Laz grinned at her. “The time for the cloak is over?”
She winked. “Time now for the dagger.”
Bridge, ISS Invincible
The lights flickered again as three Swarm beams hit at once.
“Drop the shields and divert the power to the engines,” said Halsey. They’d needed the shields to protect them when the Indy exploded. But they were worthless against the Swarm’s green laser fire. Maneuverability was all.
After the Chinese arrived, Kilgore countermanded her order to redeploy around Wellington, and now the Swarm fleet was down six carriers. The Earth forces were actually holding their own, though the more powerful enemy vessels had destroyed a quarter of the Chinese ships.
An annoying, beeping came from behind Halsey. It wasn’t a red-alert klaxon. Wasn’t a system warning alarm. What the—
Invincible was slammed again, and this time the lights stayed off longer before returning to half illumination.
“Ma’am….” began Proctor at sensors. “Ma’am, I….”
“Spit it out, Lieutenant.”
“Ma’am, I think … I think the Swarm ships are leaving.”
What? Halsey felt her heart leap with hope inside her chest. Then, “Tactical on the viewscreen.”
The 2D map appeared, a confused collection of tiny avatars, the representatives of huge starships, dotting its surface. The now disjointed group of red Xs in the middle of the screen, what remained of that once seemingly unbreakable line of Swarm carriers, was winking out, one at a time.
It was then Halsey noted the battering of her own vessel had ceased. In fact, the Bridge had grown deathly silent, with the exception of the odd, intermittent sparking of overloaded circuitry. And that damned, irritating signal from the sensors station.
“Proctor, what the hell is that noise?”
“Sorry ma’am,” Proctor answered. Halsey watched her flip a switch, and the noise ceased. As the last of the red Xs winked out, Proctor stared at the forward screen with the strangest look on her face.
“Lieutenant Nichols, get me Admiral Kilgore on meta-space.”
But Halsey couldn’t take her eyes off Proctor, who couldn’t take hers off the screen. And then she saw Zoe smile.
Britannia Sector, near Calais
Ready Room, ISS Invincible
“Explain,” said Halsey.
Proctor sat across from her as Invincible pulled into her old berth at the Shipyards for repairs. The Swarm fleet, which had attacked not only Britannia but other sectors as well, had suddenly and completely evacuated their forces. While the Battle of Glastonbury Tor, as it was already being called, had broken almost evenly at the end, elsewhere Earth forces had not fared so well. And yet, the Swarm had retreated as one unit from every sector of friendly space, all at the same time.
“Remember when you and the Renegade crew went aboard the Swarm vessel? After Lagrange Station?”
“And the device you found in the control room?”
“You mean the chapel? The room with the hieroglyphics?”
Addison thought back on that experience—creeping through the Swarm vessel, grey goo everywhere. Finding the control room that looked more like a holy place of worship with its seven quadrants feeling distinctly individualized yet uniquely connected. Laz’s constant worrying for her safety like a mother hen…. That sentiment was something she could certainly relate to. At least I know he’s okay, she thought, her heart filling again—feeling again.
She met Proctor’s gaze. “We thought it was a clock of some kind.”
“Exactly. I’ve been decoding the hieroglyphics, and I think your first guess was exactly right. You were watching a countdown.”
“Wait, Lieutenant, who authorized you to—”
“No one, ma’am.” Proctor looked sheepish. “It was a pet project on my own time, Captain. I—I was curious about the data you brought back.”
Well, now. “A” for initiative.
“Go on, Zoe.”
“Well, I couldn’t exactly decode the hieroglyphics, but I created an algorithm that established a sort of proxy mathematical language for them. The hieroglyphics were a way to track time, though not in the conventional way we do, by seconds and minutes. But it was definitely a countdown clock.”
“Countdown to what?”
Zoe hesitated. “Well, ma’am—to when they vacated our space.”
“What?” Addison considered what Proctor was saying. The Swarm had invaded UEF space on a time clock?
“That alarm you heard on the Bridge—I’d set a personal timer to let me know when the time, as my algorithm had translated it, ran out.”
Halsey nodded. “And it was right after that alarm that the Swarm started retreating.”
After a few moments, Halsey asked, “You think you can reverse-engineer that algorithm of yours to figure out when the countdown started?”
“Um … maybe, ma’am. It really is just a proximal language that estimates—”
“Pretty good estimates so far, Zoe.”
“I guess so, ma’am.” The embarrassed look returned, tinged with a bit of self-conscious pride. “To what end, though, Captain?”
“Well, assuming your theory of the Swarm attacking on a schedule is right—and if you can tell me what the starting point of the countdown was, and convert that to how we measure time—it might tell us when to expect the cumrats to come back.”
Zoe’s eyes widened. “And that would give us time to prepare. We’d be ready for them this time! I’ll get right on it, ma’am!”
Halsey smiled. “I have every confidence, Lieutenant.”
Churchill Station, Upper Orbit, Britannia
The Crow’s Nest (IDF Officers Club)
“To Noah Preble and John Richards,” Sam said, raising her glass. “And to all the fine captains and crews who served and sacrificed in defense of Earth’s peoples.”
Laz and Addison raised their glasses as well. Richards had passed away during the battle. The sad news had reached them before they’d even docked at Wellington.
“Ship. Shipmates. Self,” added Halsey. “They exemplified the finest qualities of the service.”
“Hear! Hear!” said Laz before downing his whiskey.
“So, where to next for you, Laz?” asked Sam, nodding to the Renegade’s crew a few tables over. “Back to being a pirate?”
Laz shared a look with Addison, and Sam thought there was a volume of communication in that simple glance.
“The pirate’s life is not for me,” he said with a smile which, Sam noticed, also tugged at Addison’s lips. “I’m a Fleet man, now—finally, I guess. Kilgore was spitballing some ideas a couple of hours ago. Talked about putting together an arm of the service that concentrates on advanced scouting missions in the outer reaches. Wants me to talk my crew into helping set it up.”
“I heard she’s promoting you to lieutenant commander,” said Sam. “And wants you to head up the program.”
Shrugging, Laz said, “I heard that, too.”
“I heard she wants to rebuild Heroic,” said Halsey. “Make it a full-blown starbase this time.”
Laz nodded. “Part of the initiative to beef up the outer sectors. They want to be prepared next time.”
“Speaking of that,” said Avery, “Zoe Proctor’s algorithm is the talk of CENTCOM. A hundred and fifty years before the Swarm come back? Pretty damned precise for translating an alien language.”
“Zoe Proctor is a science prodigy,” said Halsey with what sounded like a mother’s pride. The whiskey was starting to add a lilt to her voice. “I’d take it at face value. Hey, Sam, how’s the arm?”
Sam shifted and winced. “It’s there. It’ll heal.”
“Any idea who hired this Codeine character?” asked Laz. “Or why?”
“None at all, on either score. Although, the PADD he was carrying had a Russian power core.”
Laz grunted. “Of course it was the Russians. It’s always the Russians.”
“But why would the Confederation want you dead?” wondered Halsey. Then, a bit more playfully, “Sam, what’d you do to piss off the Kremlin?”
“Maybe it wasn’t the Russians,” said Avery. “Maybe the PADD was just Russian tech.”
That evident mystery silenced them all for a heartbeat or two.
“Do you really think Brent kicked out the Swarm’s influence in the end?” asked Halsey. “Actually saved you?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Sam shrugged and scowled again at the evident pain it caused. “And he said something at the end, but … I don’t know.”
“Well, at least you have plenty of time to figure it out,” said Laz, pouring them all another round.
“A hundred and fifty years,” said Sam thoughtfully. “Plenty of time, right?”
Addison shared another look with Laz, and another smile. “Plenty of time for a lot of things.”
Earth, Sol System
The Situation Room, the White House
“At last we’re all here,” said Quentin Chamberlain. Around the table sat his National Security Council. On-screen were Chinese Premier Wei, Russian President Ivanov, and a very harried-looking Melinda Kilgore. “Let me begin by offering you, Premier Wei, my sincerest gratitude for your intervention at Britannia. Without it, I have no doubt the Swarm would’ve taken billions of lives. No doubt whatsoever.”
Premier Wei bowed his head in acknowledgment. “I am only glad that we made it in time, Mr. President.”
“I take it your problems at home have been—” Quentin chose his next words carefully. “—taken care of?”
Wei allowed himself a brief smile. “The situation is much more stable than when we last spoke,” he said. “We even purged a handful of foreign agents that had access to uncomfortably high levels of the government.”
The UEF president noticed Ivanov seemed a bit uncomfortable upon hearing that.
“Mr. President,” said Ivanov, “I feel I owe you an explanation—”
Chamberlain reached forward on the table, and Ivanov’s voice went silent, though his lips kept moving. “Oleksiy … Oleksiy … I’ve muted you. We’ll get to you in a minute.” He ignored the offended look on the Russian’s face. “Mr. Premier, apologies for the interruption. But I just have to ask—why?”
“Why, Mr. President?”
“What finally convinced you to send ships? I’m not ungrateful, obviously. I’m just curious.”
“Ah, that. Well, as you no doubt know from Mr. Huxley’s intelligence briefings,” he said with a wink toward their previous conversation, “I’m deemed somewhat progressive for my country, my culture. But there are some aspects of tradition that—if I set them aside—would make me less than Chinese. Whatever I thought of his policies, Premier Sun’s betrayal of our people and humanity as a whole was unforgiveable. I understand about Swarm control. I understand that, perhaps, he had no choice. Nevertheless, his actions brought shame upon our people—upon our entire republic. There was honor to be restored there, a balance to put right. And I have done so now.”
Quentin nodded, understanding. “Indeed you have, sir.”
“And now, I have business here at home to attend to. Not everyone values tradition as much as I do,” he said with irony, “and I still have some hearts and minds to win in the Politburo. Until we speak again, Mr. President.”
“Until then, sir. And thank you again.”
Wei’s image faded, leaving a red-faced Ivanov and the haggard admiral on-screen. Chamberlain reached forward. “Go ahead, Oleksiy. You were saying?”
There appeared to be a battle raging behind the Russian’s eyes. The better angels of his nature seemed to win.
“Mr. President,” he grumbled, gearing up again. “As I was saying—I wish to offer apologies on behalf of the Russian Confederation and myself personally.” These last words seemed strained, Quentin thought. But at least Oleksiy said them, and appearances were important. “Admiral Volkov’s departure from Britannia Sector was ill timed, to be sure.”
“But,” continued the Russian president, “we had credible intelligence the Swarm was preparing an attack on Yalta Sector. Like Premier Wei, I too have a Politburo to answer to. My pleas to support your defense force fell on deaf ears, and Admiral Volkov was ordered to return to protect the Motherland.”
“Without even saying goodbye?” Kilgore’s tone was disbelieving and flippant at the same time.
“Admiral Kilgore, to you especially, I wish to offer my sincerest personal apologies. I am conducting a full, internal investigation of Volkov’s actions and pledge to provide a complete report to you when it is done—unredacted.” Ivanov punched the desk in front of him with his index finger to emphasize the last point, which he clearly thought a significant gesture.
“Uh-huh.” Kilgore was not convinced.
“Apology accepted, Oleksiy,” said Chamberlain. Ignoring the incensed scowl on Kilgore’s face and the generally shocked looks around his own conference table, he continued. “We look forward to receiving that report.”
“Very good, Mr. President. And thank you for your understanding. Now, like Premier Wei, I must beg off further discussion at this point. I want to appoint a special investigator immediately to look into this matter.”
“Of course, Oleksiy. You do that.”
Ivanov nodded and signed off, leaving Kilgore’s extremely unhappy face the only one left on-screen.
“He’s lying, Mr. President!” insisted Kathy Wakefield.
Everyone began talking at once but stopped when the president held up his hand.
“Of course he’s lying,” said Chamberlain. “But we know he’s lying. And he probably knows we know he’s lying. It’s politics, Kathy. We have to live with the fact that Ivanov controls the second most powerful military in human history. We gave him his way to save face, and now we know just how much we can’t trust him. Thank God that knowledge wasn’t bought at a higher cost than it was.”
Kilgore’s face had slowly relaxed on-screen as the president explained. “Keeping your enemies closer, sir?”
“Always a sound strategy,” sighed Chamberlain. “And speaking of strategy, this report you forwarded … from Lieutenant Proctor. Do you really think she’s onto something with this?”
“Captain Halsey seems to,” answered the admiral. “We’re having our Science Division reanalyze Proctor’s data and check her calculations. But her numbers seem good.”
“But a hundred and fifty years? Why that long?” asked Wakefield.
Kilgore shrugged. “As you pointed out in our last meeting, Madam Secretary—we can’t know why the Swarm do what they do because we have no cultural frame of reference, other than our own, for judging their actions. But we must use this time to prepare.”
“How can you be sure they’ll return?” asked Kyla Torres.
The admiral paused. “I can’t be sure, Ms. Torres, for the same reasons I don’t know why they have this apparent cycle. But I can be sure of this—if I’d tried to conquer a species and I was as powerful as the Swarm and I got my ass handed to me twice in two months—as soon as that dinner bell rang again? I’d be all in.”
“That’s a human reaction,” noted Wakefield.
Again Kilgore shrugged. “Just so, Madam Secretary. But we don’t dare not prepare.”
“No,” said Chamberlain. “We don’t dare do that. Admiral, Kyla tells me there might be a way to reverse-engineer the alien metal to enhance our own starship hulls?”
“Yes, Mr. President. It’s still theoretical, but the briefing I just read says that while the Science Division can’t reproduce the base element that makes the Swarm hulls so strong—it’s from a different universe, after all—they can simulate its molecular properties through software. They’re calling the R&D effort Project Intelligent-Adaptive Superstructure.”
Rob Francis clucked his tongue. “Not very catchy.”
“Well, Mr. Francis, they’re engineers. What do you expect?”
The president laughed. “Touché, Admiral. I’m sure whatever corporation gets the contract will come up with something snappy and slap a trademark on it.”
“I have no doubt, sir.”
“How are your people, Melinda? My condolences on the loss of Captains Richards and Preble and all those who gave their lives to preserve our freedom. I don’t mean that to sound like a speech. I just … well, I just mean it.”
“Thank you, sir. Every one of our ships needs major overhauling, but if Zoe Proctor is right, we have plenty of time for that. And I have some ideas about how we can best put the time we have to good use. My first priority is to improve our eyes and ears in the outer sectors, where the Swarm seemed to come from. Trust me, sir: you’ll be hearing from me soon about funding.”
Chamberlain nodded. “Whatever resources you need, Melinda. Whatever you need.”
An Undisclosed Location in Russian Space
“An impressive performance, Mr. President.”
Ivanov reached for the bottle of vodka and poured himself a drink. “Would you like one, Balasz? The war seems to be over, at least for the time being. No reason to stay sober now, eh?”
The naked Soldova, who’d been standing just off camera during the conference call, approached the desk. “Do you think Chamberlain believed you?”
“Doubtful. Volkov pulled out right when he was needed. Chamberlain and the rest will deem it ‘typical Russian duplicity.’”
“So you’re preparing for war, then?”
“Of course not! Chamberlain wouldn’t dare! Didn’t you notice how he allowed me to extricate myself gracefully from the situation?”
Soldova sat, which was a relief to Ivanov. His neck was tired of keeping his eyes up for decorum’s sake.
“I’m not sure I understand. He knows you deceived him. And you know he knows. And yet you will continue to work together as if no betrayal had ever occurred?”
Ivanov smiled. “Mr. Soldova, you have just described human politics, human nature, to a T.”
Soldova became reflective. “Deception is a very confusing enterprise.”
“Now you are getting it, my friend. Now you understand.”
“But that’s just it. I don’t understand at all.”
Ivanov downed his vodka in a single swig, then reached for the bottle again.
“I believe I will have that drink now,” Soldova said, pushing an empty glass forward. “So tell me, what happens next in this grand deception? I’m absolutely intrigued.”
“More exciting than watching a boring old documentary, eh?” Ivanov poured the vodka. “The military will manufacture the report I promised Chamberlain that explains how Volkov and my chief antagonist in the Politburo are Swarm agents. How they colluded to undermine the defense of Britannia by pulling our ships from the sector over my strenuous objections, just when those ships were needed most. Then they will both be shot by firing squad and the footage leaked everywhere. Then I will supply the written report to the UEF, the Chinese, and the Caliphate showing the men’s compromised status as a symbol of transparent Russian cooperation among the community of nations.”
“But those men are not our agents.” Soldova sipped the vodka and grimaced. “Wait, another deception? To sell the idea of the first?”
“A convenient and necessary one and for that very purpose, yes. Plus, I rid us of a loose end and a primary rival of my own in one fell swoop. And what about you? Will you go to sleep like the rest of your … people?”
Ivanov gulped the vodka quickly, and Soldova mimicked him. He seemed to enjoy it more that way.
“No, and it isn’t sleep at all. It’s more a period for focusing on other priorities, you might say. With each initiative, we fully commit ourselves to its accomplishment.”
“So I’ve noticed,” said Oleksiy. He reached forward and refilled their glasses. “But you didn’t succeed here.”
“No. And neither did you. Your assassin failed.”
Ivanov nodded because it was, after all, true. “I still don’t understand why you wanted one junior starship captain dead. True, Avery did acquit herself well in battle, but … all those resources, all that effort.”
“By way of explanation, I will offer you only this—we will return, and we intend to shape the future we return to. And Avery’s daughter is the greatest threat to our success in that time.”
“Avery’s daughter? You speak as if you know how the future will unfold already, Balasz. I—I assume you are being metaphorical. Or, perhaps, metaphysical?”
“Your linear concept of time is like so much of your understanding of the universe,” said Soldova. “Limited and childlike. Time is three dimensional—accessible across the plane of spatial existence, with the right technological….” At Ivanov’s perplexed expression, Soldova waved his hand. “Nevermind, Oleksiy. You don’t need to understand.”
Ivanov shrugged. When a magician refused to explain the trick, all you could do was ponder it later. “So, you will be back then. That is the only course for your race, yes? Conquering other, useful races like us.”
“Yes. Despite your ignorance in some areas, your unique mastery of the art of deception is a quality we’d like to add to ourselves. And on that topic, Oleksiy….” Soldova’s voice became calm, cautioning. “I have said it before, but after this invaluable lesson you’ve taught me today, I feel I should reiterate—never … ever … try to deceive us. You have a place at our table. But it is our table.”
The Russian president’s face became stone. “Why, I wouldn’t think of ever deceiving you, Mr. Soldova. You know, if you still have your human memories, you know that we Russians sometimes call vodka lekarstvo—the cure for all ills of the body.” Raising his glass, he continued, “Let us toast the everlasting health of our alliance, Balasz. To the future!”
Soldova lifted his glass and touched Ivanov’s.
Uncharted Territory, 126 Light-Years from United Earth Space
The Orphanage Settlement New Galilee
“Mother, can we go outside and play?” asked Cassandra. “The wind isn’t bad.”
Sister Elaine Cornwell cocked an ear at the thick metal walls. There was a rare, mid-afternoon lull. The temperature would still be harsh, but at least there was no wind chill to add to it.
She surveyed the roomful of students. The younger ones like Cassandra worked on artistic endeavors designed to encourage creativity. The older children studied advanced subjects: mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy. She watched them at their tasks—finger painting, solving differential equations, studying human history. Studying war.
Glancing at the clock on the wall, Elaine noticed it was nearly the end of lessons for today anyway. “Children?” she called. A group of younger teens debating the Mongol invasion of China went silent, followed quickly by the rest. “How about we finish early today? Spend some time outside?”
“Yes, please!” in its various forms teased a smile to her lips. Cassandra wiped her fingers vigorously on a rag. And without even being told, mused Elaine.
“All right then, but remember to wrap yourselves up! The wind’s low, but so’s the temperature!”
“Yes, Mother Cornwell,” the children chorused in reply.
Elaine led them into the bright sunshine. Giggles and other happy sounds of children released from their school-prison filled the crisp, chilly air. Several of the larger kids grabbed a ball and headed for the gaming field.
Her eyes followed Martin, the oldest, as he organized kickball teams. He’d be leaving soon, when he turned eighteen. Off to IDF Fleet Academy. She’d miss him. He was one of her favorites.
A mother shouldn’t have favorites, she scolded herself.
Some of the kids seemed less like children and more like creatures she was merely charged with raising to be productive citizens. But Elaine viewed most like they truly were her children. She’d born every one of them into life, albeit from a test tube and an incubator, not from her womb. She’d nursed every one of them past the helpless, parasitic stage of newborns, through the inevitable rebelliousness of infancy, and finally shaped their personalities along a predetermined course. There were artists, scientists, mathematicians—virtually every aspect of human culture and society represented in them.
Forty years had passed since the aliens had first touched her, brought her into their fold. And in that time, she had raised and sent among the human race more than fifty of her charges. Each had ventured forth to explore their own gifts—as scientists, artists, inventors—leaders and followers of every stripe. Her life’s work for the greater galactic cause, painted in flesh and blood.
Of the one hundred embryos originally taken, less than twenty remained in stasis. Many had graduated, as Martin was about to, and sought their destiny among the stars. To find their places in the hierarchy of human society, to become cogs in the great machine of expansion unfolding across the galaxy.
Elaine sat her aging body carefully down on a weathered rock and glanced back at their school room, once a cargo compartment of the SS Galilee. She chuckled as she remembered the day she’d emerged to find that another of her favorites, Sebastian, had spray-painted “New” over the starship designation.
Perfect. That’s exactly what we are. A new hope for humanity in a place where God’s work can unfold undisturbed. We live in a harsh forge, yes, but one that will shape my children into the hardest steel for the work they must do.
Sebastian had gotten extra rations that day.
Her wrist comms beeped.
“Sister Cornwell, an ice storm is forming ten kilometers to the north. Estimates place the storm here within the half hour.”
Elaine sighed, watching the children at their various forms of play. They’d had so little time outside lately. “Tell me when it’s ten minutes away, Moses?”
“Acknowledged, Sister Cornwell.”
Sometimes, with only the children and Moses to talk to, she missed the adult conversation and companionship of her old crew. But in the early days, before the crops had begun to grow, she and the newborns had needed sustenance. And the others, newly awakened and brought into the brotherhood, had gladly submitted themselves to that need. They all knew what she knew: nothing mattered more than growing healthy crops of children. They were humanity’s future.
Elaine watched them laughing and jumping, and her smile returned. Even the cold in her bones seemed less when she focused on them. Work was important, of course it was. Learning was important. But play was important too.
The future will need play, she thought.
There’s a point in Avenger where Avery, after entering Engineering with Farrell and Barstow, has a moment of déjà vu. As she steps cautiously inside, looking for Malcolm Brent, something feels eerily similar to an incident that happened when she was still at the Academy. So, you might be wondering, what’s that all about? In December, Alt.Chronicles: Legacy Warrior, a second set of short stories set in Nick’s Legacy Fleet Kindle World, will be published. (You can find the first set, Alt.Chronicles: Legacy Fleet, here.) One of the stories in Warrior, “Tarantula,” tells the tale of Samantha Avery and Addison Halsey as fourth-year midshipmen on a training mission that doesn’t quite go as planned. You’ll find the reasons there for Avery’s feelings of foreboding in this novel.
I want to take a moment and thank the folks who helped make Avenger a reality. First up is Nick Webb, of course, whose outstanding Legacy Fleet Trilogy provided the sandbox for me to play in. When Nick invited writers to share in his vision via Kindle Worlds, I immediately threw my hat in the ring. Nick, thanks for all the support and encouragement along the way and the awesome world you created.
Second up: David Bruns, my partner in The First Swarm War series. David and I cooked up the idea of exploring this earlier conflict between Earth and the Swarm, and David took the first step with his excellent novel, Invincible. It’s really him you have to thank for our world-within-Nick’s-world, and it was great fun accepting the baton from David and running with it in Avenger. If by some chance you came to my novel first, I urge you to pick up Invincible and see how the story of Avery, Halsey, and the rest of our heroes really started. David’s novel is an excellent fusion of political thriller and pew-pew space opera, and I felt like I had a lot to live up to while writing my sequel. Thanks, David, for inspiring me to reach a little higher.
My first reader is my wife, Alison. Her feedback is always honest but encouraging, and simply having her ask excitedly for the next chapter is as much a motivator as anything I can think of to actually sit down and write it. Thanks, babe, for being my #1 fan (without the need for hobbling blocks or a sledgehammer).
Tom Edwards of Tom Edwards Design created the awesome cover for Avenger. He’s the artist responsible for most of the Legacy Fleet covers. He really manages to capture the broad, awe-inspiring feeling of space opera in his work, and I was lucky he was available to work on Avenger.
Michelle Benoit, my proofreader, and I go way back—a couple of decades, in fact. I met her in the early ’90s when she was helming a Star Trek: The Next Generation fanzine called Federation Standard, and we’ve been good friends ever since. Her eagle eyes and willingness to say “Um, this is wrong” is why I value her services as my editor.
I’d also like to thank my advanced review copy (ARC) readers, who took the time to read Avenger while it still had typos in the text. Without ARC readers, many independent authors (including me) would have very lonely launch days—involving more cricket chirps than mouse clicks—so I really appreciate the role they play in the publishing process. Thank y’all for reading an early version of Avenger, warts and all.
Finally, thank you, dear reader, for the time you spent reading this novel. I’m still pleasantly surprised when people I don’t even know choose to spend their time reading my stuff. In the end, time is shorter for all of us than we’d like it to be, so your spending time reading my work feels like a great gift from you to me, every time. I hope you enjoyed Avenger and found it time well spent.
A Word to My Reader
If you enjoyed Avenger, I’d like to ask you for one small favor before you go. Please take a moment to review this novel at Amazon. As a reader of independent authors, you’re both our market and our marketing force. Reviews are a key factor in promoting a work’s visibility—to other readers, of course, but also to critics and booksellers, who use reviews to determine, for example, what books to feature in promotions.
But reviews also help other readers just like you decide if they should spend their money—and their time—on a published work. Providing a review is like presenting a public service announcement to your fellow readers, something you also benefit from when they do the same for you. Please recognize that by leaving a review, you’re making a real contribution to the world—and the quality—of independent publishing.
Thank you for that.
About the Author
Chris Pourteau has been a technical writer and editor for over twenty years. He published his first novel in 2013, and in November 2015, he edited and produced the collection Tails of the Apocalypse, which contains short stories from fourteen of the most talented independent authors writing today. Each story is set in a different apocalyptic scenario and features an animal as a main character.
Among his other works of fiction, Chris has published a compilation of military sci-fi, Tales of B-Company: The Complete Collection, to the praise of readers and fellow writers alike. If you’d like to let Chris know what you think about Avenger, or if you just want to say howdy, feel free to email him at [email protected] or sign up for his monthly newsletter at http://chrispourteau.thirdscribe.com/newsletter, and he’ll send you free stuff.
Chris lives in College Station, Texas, with his wife, son, and two dogs.