Book: A Relentless Fury



A Relentless Fury



A Relentless Fury

The Great War, Volume 3

Ralph Kern

Published by Ralph Kern, 2020.


This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.

A RELENTLESS FURY

First edition. June 3, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 Ralph Kern.

Written by Ralph Kern.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Author’s Note

Acknowledgments

Thank you to all the readers who bought, read and reviewed A Titan’s Vengeance.

And thanks to Caroline for putting up with me while I write these novels

Again, to Tom Edwards, who created an amazing cover. Steve for his awesome typography. Shay for her editing. Tim and Don, for their great proofing and suggestions. A special thanks to Carl, who has taken the time to start putting together an awesome tech guide for the series and also his vast experience serving in the military helps add authenticity for the series and to Jamie for the art and videos he does for this series.

And a heart-felt thanks to all those who serve.

Mailing List:

www.Ralphkern.com

Facebook:

Facebook: Ralph Kern Writes

Email:

[email protected]

Pre-order Book 4 of The Great War here:

A Heart of Ice

Chapter 1

Major Corla

The Talos Rift – Starbase Oppugn

Staccato flashes of explosions and streamers of weapons fire erupted as the battle raged on and around the metal-clad surface of the asteroid which was Starbase Oppugn.

Not that Major Gan Corla had time to admire the light show as he drove his stick over to the right. The muscular, powerful S-91 Wolf fighter responded eagerly. The black tip of its nose met the flank of the last remaining Kingdom destroyer, and he squeezed the trigger.

His fighter vibrated as its powerful twin pulse cannons opened up, stitching lines of blue fire across the flank of the vessel’s already brutally damaged hull. The rounds slammed into the ship, leaving a gouging trail of destruction and a web of azure lightning as the destroyer’s already tortured dispersion fields desperately sought to redirect the massive amounts of energy.

They failed.

Something blew inside the hull, opening a rent in the ship’s once-proud visage. A billowing cloud of gas erupted from the hole and—Corla gave a thin smile of satisfaction—tiny writhing figures of Kingdom spacers. He felt no sympathy for the dying enemy. They had been given every opportunity to side with the Neo Hegemony. To become part of the glorious new coalition redefining the galaxy. Their government had declined, and now they would receive no mercy.

The three hundred meter long destroyer began to roll, streaming gas and debris as it descended lazily to the structure-encrusted planetoid below. Seconds later, it ploughed through the buildings, modules, and industrial units barnacled on the gray surface, leaving a furrow of destruction.

“Destroyer is down,” he called tersely.

He flashed over the landscape, looking for more targets of opportunity. The jump mechs and breaching pods had slammed into the surface an hour ago, and the fighting had been fierce since. Most of the weapon emplacements had gone now, thank Father Terra. They’d caused the ignoble end of four of Corla’s squadron. Men and women, without his skill maybe, but the Hegemony would sorely miss their services.

Still, the battle was nearly won. It was only Kingdom stubbornness keeping the fighting going. The squat cylinders of dozens of breaching pods had disgorged thousands of troops into the base. The sad remnants of the enemy fleet was even now routing from the system, likely totally fleeing the Talos Rift, and would be headed home with their tails between their legs. Only a rear guard had remained, a few men and women in the base. Yet with the destruction of the destroyer, they now had no way off. No way to escape.

If they had a shred of dignity to them, they’d be wrecking as much critical equipment as they could. Undoubtedly the reason they’d been left behind in the first place.

Not that it would make a difference to the Hegemony. Their engineers were ready to come in and set up everything they needed to turn Oppugn into a stronghold within days.

“All ships, all mechs,” General Horgan’s voice rang out clearly over the comm. “We have received a surrender from the remaining Kingdom leadership. All units are to go to self-defense authority only.”

Corla’s lips curled in a sneer. Cowardly bastards. They should be fighting to the last man, woman, or child. Like a Neo would. Instead, they were throwing themselves prostrate on the floor.

He flicked his thumb over his stick, activating the safeties for his vicious weapons. As much as his instincts were to keep fighting, to keep firing, to keep punishing the filthy Kingdom forces, he was also a good member of the Neo party. Defying orders was for lesser men and women.

And, his sneer softened, as for the senior officers who had surrendered, they would soon be enjoying the “hospitality” of the Executors who would undoubtedly have questions for them. Questions which would be asked in their special facilities, with answers extracted in an agonizing manner.

Actually, he mused with icy consideration, death would have been the easy option for them.

He gave a dry chuckle as he pulled up. He began circling over the crater-strewn surface of Starbase Oppugn, keeping a watchful eye for any enemy which might want to try a suicidal counterattack.

The conquest of the Talos Rift was nearly complete. Only one last Kingdom redoubt remained. And when that was taken, then the vicious battles for the Sphere would be as good as over. The supply lines would finally be open, giving them a route between the Arcadian Sector and the inhospitable expanse of the Dyson Sphere lying in the Ishtar system...and the limitless bounty of HE3 contained within.

And that fuel, that lifeblood for the Hegemony war machine, would be used to end this bloody conflict once and for all.

Chapter 2

Admiral Darrow

New Avalon – The War Rooms

“Oppugn has fallen.” The words had to overcome the rage and frustration which choked his throat. Now was not the time to let raw emotion get in the way of icy professionalism. And that was what Admiral Jonathan Darrow considered himself—a consummate professional. He looked around the War Cabinet, his eyes finally locking on the prime minister and braced himself for the woman’s inevitable fury.

It never came. Lattimore nodded and spoke calmly, quelling the burble of chatter which rose in volume from around the ancient oak table. “Thank you for your report, Admiral.”

The war had turned into a grim meat grinder of lives, ships, and fighters. On both sides. Yet, the bombing raids striking the worlds of the Kingdom, so obviously designed to sap the citizens’ morale, instead bolstered it. And, thanks to the deal cut with the Federation, every destroyer lost in the Reach or the Talos Rift was being replaced.

Equilibrium, of the most brutal kind. A balance. The scales weighed by lives, ships, and aerospace craft on both sides. Neither side managing to gain the advantage over the other.

Until now.

Starbase Oppugn was critical to the war effort. One of only two Kingdom bases in the Talos Rift. An area of space wedged between the Arcadian Sector and the Sphere. Each had the ability to launch strikes at the Hegemony’s supply lines. But with Oppugn gone, the other, Valestra, was now alone and vulnerable.

“What is the current status of Starbase Valestra?”

Darrow shifted in his seat, settling forward and clasping his hands. He knew that each and every cabinet member would be seeking to divine meaning from his body language. Cold and calculated was how he needed to play this.

“Critical, Madam Prime Minister,” he said, forcing an ironic confidence into his words. “Fuel for their ships’ reactors and fighters stationed there is depleted. Even supplies are dangerously low. I am informed that the personnel at the base are on half the calories they should be in an effort to eke out their food for a little while longer.”

“Valestra has no practical value,” a voice drawled. Darrow fought from snarling at the man who spoke up. Horace Roth-Myers, a man so highbrow, he didn’t speak as much as slur through his own entitlement. Yet, despite the soft, well-articulated voice, his views were so extreme, he made the average Neo look like a bleeding-heart liberal. The Member of Parliament for Adrion wasn’t even a part of the cabinet, instead he’d wormed his way in as a “special advisor.” Rumors, unsubstantiated of course, were that he was a war profiteer with investments in many of the most preeminent arms companies in the Kingdom. For him, war wasn’t lives shattered and worlds conquered, it was the bottom line in an accounting report. “Perhaps allowing the base to fall will allow us to refocus our efforts on fronts of interest to us.”

You’d like that. There was no doubt Roth-Myers was in the camp which believed the Kingdom could hold. And, during that time, his profits would grow. Yet, he managed to balance on that particular thin line by not appearing to be too pro-war. Seemingly, he was content with merely administering a gentle drip of poison to influence events for his own financial gain.

“And perhaps, fronts of interest to us,” Darrow responded, lacing diplomacy into his voice, “include maintaining a presence in the Talos Rift, especially a base within striking range of the Hegemony home worlds, not to mention providing a base of operation close to the Sphere.”

“Perhaps,” Roth-Myers purred, wafting a hand dismissively. “Yet it concerns me that—”

“What concerns me,” Lattimore interjected sharply, “is ceding more ground to those Hegemony bastards. And that is beyond mere strategic considerations. We ask our citizens to be strong. Lost Earth, I dread to think how much money we give to PR companies for propaganda purposes. Yet, should we start abandoning more and more of them to their fates, sooner or later their fighting spirit will abandon them.”

“Very good.” Roth-Myers nodded sagely. “But perhaps the admiral would like to tell us just how he would seek to provide Valestra the support it so sorely needs. Then”—he gestured around the table—“the government can decide if it is practicable.”

Lattimore turned in her chair slightly, angling her body to exclude the odious man from conversation. Roth-Myers was no fool, he knew what she was doing and merely responded with a condescending smile. “And what would you need, Jonathan?”

He paused, the cogs whirring behind his eyes. If he asked for too much, the cabinet would simply shrug and side with Roth-Myers. “What Valestra needs most critically is fuel, food, and fighters. That means we’ll need a convoy.”

“Convoys passing through the Rift come under relentless assault.” Roth-Myers raised his lazy voice in volume to emphasize the relentless. “Which is why—”

“Which is why,” Darrow spoke loudly, cutting off the man, “the convoy would need adequate protection to get through.”

“And even then, you would be unable to guarantee their safety—”

“There are no guarantees in war, Horace.” Darrow fought down the urge to snap the response back to him, satisfying himself with a condescending smile of his own.

“Enough.” Lattimore held a hand up, obviously tired of the interplay. “Jonathan, put together a plan for me. I will review it and, if I like what I see, I will approve it.”

“Madam, the resources we’re talking about are—”

“I will not cede Kingdom territory, Horace. Being a patriot and what not”—Lattimore stood, her chair rocking back—“I’m sure you understand. Thank you, everyone. We will reconvene in twenty-four hours. Jonathan—my office, if you please.”

***

“Why the hell do you keep that arse around?”

“I didn’t call you here for gossip.” Lattimore raised her eyebrow as she lowered herself onto her office chair. “It’s unbecoming of a prime minister.”

Darrow paused as he made to sit. It was a common game she played: just let them know she was in charge with a subtle piece of chastisement. A tactic which decreased in efficacy every time she used it.

“But,” she continued, “he has powerful friends, and commands a good portion of Parliament. I give him the occasional titbit, like a special advisor role, he swells with pride and carries them with him.”

“Hmm.” Darrow felt unconvinced.

“Besides, and most importantly, he is a good morality check.” Lattimore smiled, genuinely this time as she gestured for him to continue sitting. “If he says something is a good idea, there’s a very high chance it’s a load of amoral bullshit.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, that’s just politics, and that’s my job. I work very hard to keep you apart from that, so you can focus on winning this bloody war.”

“Speaking of which...”

“Speaking of which, despite my fine words, would giving up Valestra be so bad?”

“You’ve been listening to Horace too much.” Darrow leaned back. “We lose Valestra, we may as well give up on the Sphere. We give up on the Sphere, the Hegemony gets access to an exploitable fuel source. For now, it’s one of the few edges we have over them. Within a year, their HE3 production would beat ours. Within three, it would rival the Federation. Within four, after some time in the Executors’ dungeons, you’d be hanging by the neck from rafters of the Winter Palace—”

“Something I very much hope to avoid,” Lattimore said dryly.

“Valestra helps us keep the pressure on,” Darrow continued. “We can attack their convoys bringing fuel from their segments of the Sphere, and support our own forces in that hellhole.”

“You’ve won me; I’m just reality checking.” Lattimore drummed her fingertips on the varnished wooden desk in consideration. “What’s it going to take to get through the Rift?”

“We’ll need enough transports to make it worth it. And we need to understand we’ll lose a lot of them.”

Lattimore blinked slowly, her own calculation going on behind her eyes. “And an escort commensurate with that, I presume.”

“Great minds think alike.” Darrow smiled. “But yes. If we want to get them through, then we’d need a considerable portion of the fleet.”

“And it needs to be within a month?”

“After a month, the Galts can just walk in and take the place anyway. Our conversation would be irrelevant.”

Lattimore leaned back in her chair, staring up at the unclad armored ceiling of her War Room office.

“Make your plans, Jonathan.” She sighed, coming to a decision. “I’ll approve them.”

Chapter 3

Captain Draper

Enris System – KSS Ghost

The red-lit bridge was cramped, sharing as many characteristics of a transport’s cockpit as those of a naval vessel. There were only a few places where one could even stand up straight amid the clusters of equipment and blinking instrumentation encrusting even the overhead spaces. Not a single inch of the stealth’s cabin went to waste.

Lieutenant Commander Nisha Draper, captain of Ghost, watched the target on the plot with calm, cold intent from her command seat, as if she were a lion sighting a gazelle on the savannahs of Lost Earth. The Iconian freighter cruised on, unaware that she was being stalked by a tiny, lethal vessel, the Kingdom stealth, Ghost.

“Her engines are burning hard for her size.” Tommy Grimes, the sensor systems petty officer huddled over his console, staring with fierce intensity at the readings of the ship they’d spent the past day stalking. “I reckon she’s carrying a full load, skipper.”

“So we have us a fat, wallowing pig here.” Draper didn’t take her eyes from the plot. A good sensor officer could divine unbelievable amounts of information from the passive devices a stealth primarily used to hunt, and Grimes was assuredly one of the best. He would patiently parse the scant scraps of data which came in. Taking his time, slotting those hints of information into place as if it were a jigsaw which would form a picture. Still, it took even him time to piece it all together, and to tell her exactly what they were hunting.

“Aye, skipper.” Grimes nodded, the sweat glistening on his brow from the poor climate control of the stealth. “She could be a good solid million to add to the tonnage.”

Draper leaned back in her chair. The freighter’s single escorting destroyer was on her far side, poorly positioned to intercept Ghost. They could put a torpedo into the freighter and disappear before the tin can could even consider taking revenge.

She rapidly processed it, working through a mental flowchart. For a stealth to attack was always a risk, and it was her job to balance that against opportunity. And even if it was a viable hit, they only carried ten of the bulky ship-killer torpedoes aboard. Valestra was running damn short of them. She had to know her prey was worth it.

The million-ton estimate helped with that consideration. Whatever the bloated thing was hauling, it contained a lot of it, and the only things which moved these days was cargo vital for the war effort.

“We’re going for it.” She snapped, her decision made and the time for procrastination over. Grimes grinned hungrily in response.

Over the next hour, the stealth sneaked closer. So close, that if they had a window on the tiny vessel—which they didn’t—they could have looked out and seen their quarry with the naked eye.

Draper pressed a button on her chair’s armrest. With the whir of servos, the attack array rotated down from the ceiling, replacing her more general consoles with those needed to prosecute the attack without distraction.

“Ready tubes one and three,” she murmured, trusting her bridge crew would hear and obey her command. The display before her zoomed in on the heavy freighter. She wasn’t an elegant design. More like a long truss with a bridge and crew compartment at one end, and blazing engines at the other. Storage modules and tanks were fastened along the truss, seemingly haphazardly. In large, amateurish lettering, the ship’s name was emblazoned on her side. Clara.

An isolated part of consciousness vaguely wondered who Clara was. The captain’s wife? His daughter? Mistress? A dog? She frowned, disregarding the thought. It was irrelevant. Personifying the people she was going to kill was the road to madness. A road she wasn’t going to take.

Her practiced eye swept over Clara, looking for the impact points which would cause the most damage. She could break its back with one torpedo. Putting one in the engines, too, would guarantee a kill. Maybe, if they got lucky, or if the ship was poorly maintained, even spark off a reactor overload. That would save the cargo from any hope of being salvaged.

That would be mission accomplished.

She flicked her eyes to the tactical display. The destroyer was still beyond the freighter, relative to their position. As they’d closed on their prey, Draper had ensured she’d kept Ghost in opposition to the sleek Iconian vessel.

Now was the time to strike. Modern combat jammers could spoof missile and torpedo AI with incredible efficiency. But a stealth’s torpedo worked in a different way. They were more dumbfire weapons, not vulnerable to such countermeasures. And now was the moment of maximum vulnerability for the freighter.

She laid a cursor on both points she wanted to hit: the engines and halfway down the truss. A pair of targeting lasers lanced out, painting the ships. Some modern warships—hell, even a few merchantmen now—covered their hulls in sensors to detect the lasers. Often that would be their first, and only, warning a stealth was hunting them.

Clara was clearly as shoddy and old as she looked. Her engines didn’t flare in response to being targeted. She didn’t began a wild attempt to evade Ghost, and most tellingly, her escorting destroyer didn’t respond one iota.

They had a clear shot. She flicked her thumb on the fire control, raising the safety. A clunk resonated through the ship as two external torpedo tube doors slid open.

Draper smiled thinly. This was as textbook as it got. And there was no reason to delay anymore. There was no need for melodrama. Her voice was clear, and as cool as if she were ordering a coffee. “Fire one. Fire three.”

Loud thuds echoed through the two–hundred–meter long, midnight-black frame of Ghost as the torpedoes launched. On her tactical display, the two blinking icons raced forward. A beeping noise increased in frequency as they closed on the enemy ship.

Too late, Clara responded. Much too late. Draper’s smile turned into the wolfish grin of a predator who knew they had caught their prey. Clara’s and her escorting destroyer’s engines flared as they tried in vain to accelerate and evade. Seconds later, an explosion blossomed on the side of the freighter. The two ends began folding in together as the spluttering flame of her drive pushed the stern past the dismembered bow. Then the second torpedo slammed into the engine module. The effect was catastrophic. In an instant, the space where the ship had once been was transformed into a flaming maelstrom of devastation as the ship’s reactor breached.

Another million tons of cargo was not going to the Regime or its coalition ally, the Hegemony.

A loud bong noise filled the bridge. The gong-like audio tell-tales that they were being hit by a sensor blast, presumably from the destroyer. On the tactical, more rippling echoes came from the warship, which powered up and over the dispersing remains of the Clara as if she were a sprinter hurdling a frame.

Now it was Ghost’s turn to be hunted. Draper’s practiced eye warily watched the destroyer. Her vector was just offset by enough of an angle to tell her the enemy ship hadn’t picked them up. If it had, it’d be coming dead at them, saturating the space around Ghost with pulse fire until she took a hit.

And just one could kill the vulnerable ship.

“Secure for repositioning,” Draper called. She’d already had their route out planned in the back of their mind. “Heading, one-two-niner by oh-four-eight. A half-gee under silent running.”

“Half-gee, silent running, aye.” The helm, and executive officer, Lieutenant Nick Hargreaves, called. From two hundred meters behind her, the hum of the engines grew to a rumble.

The thin line showing Ghost’s trajectory stretched out from her position, reaching below the destroyer, keeping the still expanding cloud of debris of Clara between them. Ripples continued washing from the destroyer as it sought to find them with its powerful stealth-hunting sensors.

Draper was no amateur, though. She kept the wreckage between them, letting the blooming bubble of wreckage and destruction which was the corpse of the freighter shield her. The two ships pirouetted around that central point, slowly growing farther and farther away from each other.

Soon, the destroyer would give up and return to the remains of Clara. To see if any life pods had survived the destruction.

It was odd, Draper thought as she shut down the tactical—the array folded itself up and receded back into the deckhead above—how little she felt at the undoubted deaths of dozens or more people. There was a time, not so long ago, when witnessing the kind of destruction she had just wrought would have kept her awake for days.

Not any longer. She didn’t hate her enemy. Not at all. Instead, she knew she’d become hardened and cold. Sympathy for the defenseless foe she had just mercilessly cut down could wait until after the war was won.

Lieutenant Commander Nisha Draper was twenty-six years old, and entrusted with one of His Majesty’s stealths and the lives of the thirty-one men and women aboard her. And that, to be blunt, was the one and only thing she did care about.



Chapter 4

Flight Lieutenant Rick Richards

Regis System – KSS Corvus

“Looking good, ma’am,” Flight Lieutenant Jason “Rick” Richards murmured quietly to the pilot in front of him.

Lieutenant Commander Rose Faraday pulled her gloved hand back, easing the throttle down. The rumble of engines from behind the cockpit of the two-seater trainer Tempest reduced in power as they swung around behind the stern of the carrier Corvus. The perspective of the huge vessel changed, the ship twisting from an elongated cylinder, with a flight deck threaded through the center, to a circle bisected by a rectangle surrounded by the welcoming flashing illumination of the landing lights. He felt a buffet as they passed through the wash of her two engine nacelles, throttled down to steerageway lest they atomize the tiny fighter.

The woman was good, for Navy that was, Rick thought. She’d been wasted on the Cyclone torpedo bombers. Those old kites were more a test of nerves than piloting skills, her previous job being, pretty much, to ignore enemy flak and anti-aerospace fire, keep straight and level, and deliver a torpedo into an enemy warship.

The rear of Corvus’s hanger bay expanded. Within, rows of fighters and bombers were visible lining the central runway threading through the center of the ship.

“Remember, we’re a little lighter than a Cyclone.” Rick casually lay his hands on the controls, just in case the navy pilot was going to do anything crazy as they came into the traps. Carrier landings had long been considered one of the trickier maneuvers in flying. “The buffer field will be more violent.”

“I got it.” They swept toward the bay, slamming through the rear atmosphere forcefield, sending ripples of energy around them. The first buffer caught them and Rick felt himself being jammed violently forward into his harness, reducing their velocity from a relative hundred meters per second to fifty. Then they hit the second field, halving their velocity again.

The retros on the front of the fighter burned, killing off the rest of their velocity. Smoothly, the Tempest sank to the deck.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

“Okay, how do you think that went?” Rick asked, tugging his musty helmet from his head and setting it in his lap.

“I think...okay.” Faraday flicked switches, powering down the fighter. Again, Rick nodded in approval. The woman had enough of what the pilots called “spare capacity” to be able to hold a conversation and do a technical task like shutting down her bird at the same time. “Kicking myself I needed a second volley on the target drone.”

Rick pulled his gloves off and smiled. If he was honest, Faraday was much better than “okay.” As much as he wouldn’t admit it out loud, these Naval Aerospace Arm pilots were damn good. Maybe not a match for Viper Squadron, but they certainly weren’t as horrendous as he’d expected them to be when he took this job.

After months of intense combat over New Avalon and dangerous reconnaissance missions, Rick had found himself being rotated back into training, ostensibly to cascade the skills and drills he’d acquired through hard and bitter experience down to the new pilots graduating from flight school. That’s what his boss had initially told him, anyway. When he’d railed against the posting, the boss had ordered he sit his arse down, and told him in no uncertain words that he needed a rotation away from the lines before exhaustion killed him.

A month into his posting at Holfield, the Kingdom Aerospace Forces training school, he’d been climbing the walls when an opportunity come up. He was one of the most experienced Tempest pilots in the KAF, and the navy wanted help training up pilots for their brand-new carrier-variant. So now, he was attached to the 825th Naval Aerospace Squadron as their Chief Flying Instructor, having spent two weeks on the naval conversion course—principally learning just how “fun” carrier work was.

“Yeah, from what I saw, you simply overcompensated. People get surprised by how smooth the Tempest flies. They think they’ve got to be firmer with ’em than they have to be.” Rick patted the console in front of him. “But, just to kill the anticipation, I’m passing your check-ride, ma’am. You’re now a fully-fledged real pilot.”

Faraday gave a scoff of laughter as she pressed a button. The cockpit slid open and a waiting technician grabbed her outstretched hand and hauled her out the cockpit. “I’d like to think I was a fully-fledged pilot while you were still a twinkle in your daddy’s eye.”

It was Rick’s turn to let out a laugh as he climbed down the metal stairs abutting the side of the fighter. This was a young person’s war. Rick was twenty-four years old, standard. Faraday, at most, was pushing thirty. If he was being ungenerous.

Together they crossed the bustling flight deck, stepping aside to allow a taxiing Tempest to rumble past.

“Are you settling in okay?” she asked.

Rick rolled his eyes, thinking of the metal shoebox-sized cabin which was now his home. “It’s a little...basic aboard.”

“You KAF types don’t know what real luxury is.”

“Sure we do: an apartment on base and a mess where the beer flows like water.” Reaching a hatch, they slipped from the expansive flight deck to the claustrophobic warren of corridors and made their way to Faraday’s office.

“Not thinking of transferring your commission yet then?” Faraday asked as she took a seat behind her desk.

Rick gave a deprecating shrug. Frankly, the thought of being stuck permanently on a carrier held little appeal. What he really wanted was a rotation back to Viper Squadron. Failing that, any combat position in the KAF. The truth of the matter at the moment was that, short of hunting down that big bastard ship, Behemoth, the NAA—the Naval Aerospace Arm—wasn’t getting the same opportunities to get stuck into the fight as the KAF.

“Perhaps,” he settled on. He didn’t want to insult his hosts, beyond friendly interservice rivalry, after all. He reached into his thigh pocket for his tablet and unfolded it. “But that’s for tomorrow. Right now, we have the fun stuff.”

“Admin.” Faraday drew her chair close to the desk.

“Admin.” Rick nodded and began tapping at his tablet. “Right, the takeoff was nice but I have to grade you a B on it for the wobble coming off the catapult. A hint for how to overcome that is...”

And with that, they settled into a debrief of every aspect of their check flight.

Chapter 5

Captain Cutter

Starbase Victory

Achilles bore her scars as she should, like a proud warrior. From the fires of battle over Asteria to the brutal slugfest with Behemoth—every pitted crater in her armor, every gash in her hull told a story of heroism and victory.

At least that’s what he should be thinking. Hal Cutter frowned as he looked over his ship from the observation lounge overlooking her slip.

Instead, to him, those scars spoke of the sacrifice of spacers. Those who had served on Achilles herself, those who served in the fleet, and those civilians who had answered the call.

He quelled those thoughts. Now wasn’t the time to dwell. Apparently, even in the midst of this damn war, a captain’s duties still involved being on the social scene, comfortable in the luxury of the VIP lounge where they were celebrating the battleship’s return to the line. Turning, he felt his smile grow from forced to genuine as he saw his wife holding their young baby, Carter, in her arms and showing him off to a smitten and cooing Delia Sherrington.

Cutter stepped forward, holding a finger out and letting his son curl his chubby fingers around it. “Don’t tell me you’re getting broody, Delia.”

“Not quite yet.” The captain of Ajax smiled and reached out as Iona proffered the child to her. The uniformed woman took Carter in her arms and gently rocked him. “Well, maybe a little. But then Ajax, you know...Lost Earth, what a jealous child she would be.”

“Oh Achilles is for sure,” Cutter said, before he could stop himself.

Iona raised an eyebrow at her husband. To the room, the disapproval in her face would merely be mocking. Cutter knew differently, though. As far as she was concerned, his ship, the navy, this war, was keeping him away from home. Away from her and Carter. Where he damn well should be.

“Sometimes,” Iona settled on, “it would be nice if Hal would remember that a ship is just a ship.”

Sherrington’s eyes twinkled in amusement and understanding as she glanced up at him. A ship wasn’t just a ship, not to her captain. She was home, both protection and ward. And the millions of tons of battle-steel had a personality of her own. She needed both gentle nurturing and a firm hand. The bond he felt was, not that he’d ever admit it to his wife, nearly as strong as that he felt for Iona and Carter.

Oh, that had only recently changed. After they’d faced this war, together. When they’d become blooded in the fires of battle, together. It seemed a distant memory that before Port Rorian and Asteria, he’d been ready to resign his commission and go work for one of the private cargo lines.

Besides, these days, it was infinitely more dangerous to be in an unarmed freighter than it was on one of the most powerful ships in the fleet. Despite hunting and killing Behemoth, the Reach was full of Hegemony Astral stealths. And the losses crossing that expanse of space were horrific.

Still, with Achilles in dock, he really should be a little more self-disciplined about finishing on time. Getting home to their apartment to see his boy off to bed each night, not staggering in past midnight and then heading out of the door at 0600 hours.

Tomorrow, he resolved. From tomorrow he would make sure he left work at 1800 hours unless the damn Neos were knocking on New Avalon’s door.

Sherrington bobbed Carter in her arms, apparently uncaring of the smear of greasy fingers on her immaculate black dress tunic and the tugging on her uniform’s golden braiding. “Speaking of Achilles, Hal?”

“She’ll never look quite as pretty again.” Cutter inclined his head to the observation port, ignoring the rolling of Iona’s eyes. “Not short of being dry-docked for a full-on refit.”

“Fat chance of that.” Sherrington rocked her head back as Carter let out a milky belch. “Not with the commitments the fleet is currently servicing.”

Cutter nodded as he took Carter from her, letting the woman pick up her Buck’s fizz from the white cloth-laden table and take a sip. The tempo of operations was ridiculous. Intel had confirmed the existence of Behemoth’s brother-ship, Leviathan. But for the moment, the Hegemony seemed content to simply allow him to be head of a fleet in being. Existing solely so that the Kingdom had to commit an even larger force to ensure he was locked in the Vadir System and unable to break out. At some point, the navy would have to pull together enough ships to go in and take down that battleship. But for now, that looked impossible with the sheer amount of wide-ranging escort and defense duties required to protect against the dreaded enemy stealths in the Reach. They had to be content that the Hegemony Astral couldn’t actually use the deadly battleship lest it be hunted and destroyed.

“Yes, the thought of drifting up and down the Corridor doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.”

“Nor me.” Iona pursed her lips. And with good reason. Crossing the Reach would take him away from Starbase Victory for weeks at a time. The best he could hope for would be for Achilles to resume her place in the home fleet’s order of battle. At least then he would get to come back to his family on a semi-regular basis.

“Well, I heard on the grapevine”—Sherrington cast her eyes left and right conspiratorially toward the myriad civilians and officers in the room—“there might be something else coming up the pipe line. Something big.”

Cutter turned his nose up at a pungent smell coming from his son, even as Iona took the hint from Sherrington that this shop talk wasn’t going away.

“Considering,” Iona said, “the two factors that ‘loose lips sink ships’ and Carter appears to need attention, I will leave you two to talk shop. For the moment.”

She pulled Carter into her arms, and made her way out the room as Cutter and Sherrington’s eyes tracked her.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” Cutter said. “What do you know that I don’t?”

“The Talos Rift,” Sherrington said. “Specifically Valestra.”

“Go on?” Cutter frowned.

“It’s on its knees. Low on fuel. The personnel there are down to eating rats and weeds, and may even be forced onto the infantry field rations soon.” Cutter chuckled; the joke was likely poor taste in more ways than one, considering how notoriously bad army rations were. “Scuttlebutt has it, we’re putting together a convoy.”

“That would be a hell of a gauntlet to run.”

“No shit,” Sherrington replied. The Talos Rift, was an expanse, although nowhere near as wide-ranging as the Reach, but nonetheless a collection of relatively inhospitable systems abutting the border of the Arcadian Sector. The occupied Republic, the Hegemony, and a number of other conquered nations overlooked the Rift. And, most crucially, at the far side of the Rift lay the Iconian Regime, an ally of the Hegemony. Together, they and others, formed a new fascist power bloc known as the coalition.

The coalition members were generally smaller, less professional outfits than the Hegemony itself, but still sizable in their own right. Valestra was nearly embedded in Iconian space and that made it vulnerable. The Regime’s Navy could bring a significant force to bear. And that was before their aerospace forces entered the fray.

Any run through the Rift would face the full might of two of the leading star nations of the coalition.

“I’ve been quietly telling my boys and girls to drill for intense aerospace attacks.” Sherrington’s voice grew serious. “Small ship attacks, too.”

Cutter nodded. That wasn’t a bad idea, at all. Someone could probably walk from one side of the Rift to the other with the amount of stealths and FACs the coalition had in there. “I thought Intel had it the Iconians were struggling for fuel, though?”

“Ain’t we all.” Sherrington nodded. Every star nation had its cross to bear on that front. But the Iconians were rumored to have it worse than most. “So they’re only going to bring their big guns out of port to play if it’s worth it. And I reckon they’d view a fat juicy convoy as worth it.”

“Well let’s hope that fat juicy convoy has a nice, big burly escort.”

“It’d be good to earn our pay again, Hal.”

Cutter turned to look back out the observation window at his battle-scarred ship. Yeah it would be, but at what cost? Lost Earth, he hoped not as high as the one they’d paid against the Behemoth.

“Any idea when?”

“It’s gotta be soon,” Sherrington said quietly, looking over his ship. The sister to her own. “Or there won’t be a Valestra to reinforce.”

“Well, if your rumor mill is true,” he said dryly, “it’ll please High Command no end to deploy again.”

“Darrow?” Sherrington shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Negative.” Cutter smiled as his eyes flicked to the hatch his wife had just left through. “I mean my real boss.”

“Oh.” Sherrington gave him a knowing look, humor flashing in her eyes. “Yes, her enthusiasm will know no bounds.”

“Yeah.” Cutter took a gulp of his fizzing drink, draining half the glass. “I’ll look forward to giving her the good news.”

Chapter 6

Lieutenant Commander Draper

Valestra Harbor – KSS Ghost

“Take us on in, Nick,” Draper addressed the back of her helmsman’s head.

Before them, imbedded in the surface of the huge station, Valestra, the massive circular harbor doors split ponderously open. Light washed out of the widening gap, revealing the interior of the huge lock.

Ghost was coming home.

The station was ancient. Structures covered every square meter of its surface, so much so that it was impossible to say Valestra had once been a mere asteroid orbiting a barren world, unremarkable except for its position in the Rift and the abundance of metals hidden within. A thousand years of history was barnacled onto the surface, from every era since the colonization of this area of space. From the utilitarian modern straight lines, to the sweeping renaissance architecture of the golden age. Even some of the original settler’s ships had been cannibalized in the distant past, forming the foundation of a station which had changed hands dozens of time throughout the centuries.

Now, it belonged to the Kingdom.

The stealth pushed forward into the lock, a chamber big enough for even the largest of freighters. Around them, the metal tube rotated, the interior of the station relying on the Coriolis Effect to give the pretense of gravity, rather than plating every deck of the station.

Patiently, Ghost waited while the outer lock closed. The ship creaked and groaned as atmosphere flooded the chamber. With a rumble that could be heard even through the stealth’s thin hull, the inner door opened.

The tiny warship emerged from the entrance locks and into the Grand Harbor, a space three kilometers wide and a dozen long which cored the center of Valestra. Hundreds of ships could port here with ease at the lock end where, at its height, millions of tons of cargo a day would be transferred. At the far end, glistening cities encrusted the cylinder walls amid lakes, fields, ruins, and relics from its long history. Valestra was a shining beacon of Kingdom might lying in the center of the Talos Rift.

Or at least it should be. On the faintest push of thrusters, Ghost moved past the nearly empty slips and quays of the docks, her prow pointed at the fields harvested bare of all crops. The only civilian ships left in the harbor were ones that had been trapped here at the beginning of the war.

Few merchant ships and freighters dared come here. They were unwilling or unable to brave the passage through the Rift to reach the base. The relentless assaults by the Hegemony Aerospace Corps and Hegemony Astral had whittled down the defending KAF fighters to a mere handful, and those were mostly grounded due to a lack of fuel. The Navy was in an even worse state. Once, a dozen warships had defended this port.

Now, there were only a few left. And those had been given slips on the surface so their guns could add to the station’s defensive batteries in a last-ditch effort to fend off the attack they all knew must come.

And that left the only striking power Valestra—the only way to project its influence beyond the range of the guns on its surface—as the 10th Stealth Flotilla.

Draper couldn’t help but feel a hint of amusement at the thought of Ghost being part of a flotilla. That implied more than one, when she was really alone. Oh, there were vague promises of being reinforced. Of stealths running the gauntlet through the Rift. But she’d believe that when she saw it. The few that came were ferrying minuscule amounts of supplies before swiftly running home to the Regis System.

Nick Hargreaves exchanged short, clipped messages with the harbormaster. Ghost drifted into her assigned slip in the military zone and with the thud of mooring arms gripping her, came to a rest.

***

The curved hatch slid open, revealing the gangway beyond and the silhouette of a figure.

Draper stepped forward, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light. A stealth was a dark, cramped environment. In most areas, there was just the illumination from consoles. If she had her way, she’d only bring the stealth in when night had fallen across the station. To be exposed to normal lighting was uncomfortable to her after long patrols.

Squinting, she set her cap on her head and marched forward.

“Welcome home, Nisha.” The silhouette resolved itself into Vice Admiral Bellingham, standing with his hands clasped behind his back. The man’s thin lips were always upturned, as if he were permanently smiling. Something which gave him a somewhat kindly, if slightly simple demeanor.

That wasn’t truly the case, Draper knew. And that had caused many an officer to underestimate him. Still, the grudging acceptance of her and Ghost seemed, over the course of the long siege, to have transformed into something else. Maybe, if she was correct, into respect as to her stealth’s capability.

“It appears hunting was good.” Bellingham turned on his heel and marched back up the gangway. Draper took it as an invitation to fall in next to him as her crew emerged, blinking, from Ghost.

“Aye, sir. The Clara,” Draper confirmed as she glanced sideways at the head of station. “A large Iconian freighter. We slipped away before her escort had anything to say about the matter.”

The upturned lips somehow managed to express disapproval without moving a millimeter. Most of the old guard of the navy viewed stealths as somehow dishonorable. Silent assassins who took down the enemy without a fair fight. That view had only been reinforced a few months ago, when a Hegemony stealth had somehow snuck into Starbase Victory-controlled space and destroyed the ageing battleship King’s Challenge, and compounded further after Achilles’s and Ajax’s “glorious” and “noble” battle against Behemoth when they’d interrupted search and rescue efforts.

Draper gave a mental shrug. Frankly, she didn’t care what the old bastards thought of her and her stealth. What she did care about was destroying coalition ships. And the more the better.

“Quite.” They turned from the gangplank onto the quay itself. Draper glanced over at Ghost. Her Spectre-class pride and joy. Her sleek form, shaped like a thick knife, was just over 200-meters long and as black as midnight. Her main weapons, the four torpedo tubes, were currently closed and hidden on her bows. She did have a single light pulse cannon which could be extended from its hiding place in the hull to attack a truly defenseless prey, or as a last-ditch protection against an aerospace fighter which might have somehow found her.

Bellingham gave a sigh, halted, and turned to her. “Sadly, we cannot dwell on your successes. Our situation here has become immeasurably graver.”

Graver than now? Draper waited for the man to continue. Beyond him, dockhands walked slowly toward Ghost, pushing dollies filled with meagre supplies toward the now open cargo hatch. Their faces were thin and gaunt, the sign that their rations had been cut. Again.

“Oppugn is lost,” Bellingham spoke slowly, as if he were still processing it himself. “We are now alone in the Talos Rift.”

Draper nodded. Shocking news, she supposed. Although it seemed these days, not much raised her pulse. It simply brought in different factors for her to consider. “That is understood.”

“Lost Earth, woman.” Bellingham ground his teeth. “You really have ice water instead of blood, don’t you?”

She shrugged, this time for real. “If you say so, sir.”

Bellingham’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head slightly, as if disregarding what he was going to say in response. Instead, he looked up, his eyes taking in the vast cylinder of the harbor and cylinder beyond. “Unless something changes, dramatically, this will all soon belong to the Hegemony. Or the Iconians. However they decide to carve up this spoil of war.”

“And it is incumbent on us to stop them from taking it,” Draper replied. “By any means.”

Bellingham gave a scoffing laugh, a hint of sarcastic incredulity in his voice. He pulled himself together a moment later. Hopefully, Draper thought, by remembering he was a bloody navy officer, and an admiral at that. “Yes, Nisha. That would be our objective.”

For the first time, she noted the red-rimmed tiredness around his eyes. Unprofessional, to say the least. He should be disciplined enough to get sufficient rest, or failing that, hide his exhaustion from his subordinates. The old guard were soft. Soft and arrogant. And now that the war wasn’t going the way they’d hoped, nearly paralyzed.

“Admiralty House has informed me...promised me, in fact, that we will be getting supplies. Sufficient food, fuel, parts, and weapons to mount an effective defense of this base. Then I can sortie my ships, and not simply use them as glorified gun turrets. We need to be able to send up our fighters and bombers, and become a force to be reckoned with again in the Rift and support operations in the Sphere.”

“The best defense is a good offence, sir.”

“Correct.” Bellingham nodded. “And for the fleet to do so, we will need to send what forces we can muster to support the convoy.”

And she knew what that meant. There was only one force they could truly muster here at Valestra at the moment to take the fight back out there.

Ghost.

Bellingham saw she got it, and reached out and gripped her upper arm. “Nisha, I’m not asking you to go up against freighters or other targets of opportunity like before. I need your stealth to take the heat from the convoy coming through the Rift by any means necessary. Whether that is decoying enemy warships away from them or—”

“Or killing them,” Draper interrupted. She felt her teeth bare in a grin. The admiral rocked back on his heels under her predatory gaze.

Ghost was a hunter. Whether her prey was a freighter or a warship, she’d find a way to take down it down. And if that helped the convoy get through? Then that could only be a bonus.

“Those are your orders, Nisha,” Bellingham said. “Do what you need to do.”

She turned back to her ship. Her beautiful Ghost. Here, in the harbor, she looked out of place. But when she was where she belonged, in the darkness of space—invisible—that was where she was supposed to be. Her lips settled into a thin smile.

Soon she would be where she was happiest. Away from this place. She’d be unleashed on the enemy, hunting them again.

Bellingham shook his head. His words were under his breath, but Draper’s keen ear just caught them. “What have we done to our children?”

Chapter 7

Admiral Darrow

Starbase Victory

The smart-glass table was surrounded by nearly every admiral in the home systems. Over thirty of them in total, each and every one of them arguing with Darrow as to why they couldn’t simply release ships to assist with the convoy.

Not that there was much of a convoy.

Yet.

The display he’d had set up on one wall looked depressingly empty. It had perhaps been a little optimistic that it would be full of ships’ names by now, but still, a little more progress would have been welcome.

It was well within his remit to simply shanghai ships from home fleet, and those not yet assigned. He was the First Space Lord, after all. Pretty much the only person who could deny him was the Prime Minister herself. And she’d made it clear that he had free rein to make the reinforcement of Valestra happen. But still, that general directive butted up against actual practicalities. He needed the admirals to work out giving him the ships, without diminishing capability more than necessary. If he bluntly pirated them away, then the effect on the wider theaters of war could be worse than if the convoy ran light.

“Look, Mariana,” he said in exasperation, fighting to keep his finger from wagging at her. “I’m asking for one bloody heavy tanker. Not a diamond-encrusted sports pinnace.”

“And, sir, with all due respect,” Admiral Hanson, the head of logistics retorted. He bristled. That term generally meant anything but. “I’ve told you, I don’t have one to use.”

And bang, they’d hit another sticking point. Tankers were the safest way of transporting the notoriously unstable HE3 that ships and aerospace craft used as fuel. But Hanson was telling him that all the Kingdom’s were picking up supplies in the Federation. That left the HE3 having to be transported in temporary storage containers. He didn’t envy the crews of the transports who would be carrying those if they came under attack. A single errant pulse round could make the whole damn ship go up.

A chime came from his tablet. He glanced down at it and a message flashed up from Lattimore. Move on. Leave the tanker to me.

While he was unsurprised the prime minister was eavesdropping on the conversation, he frowned in confusion at the actual content of the message. What did she mean by that? Did she have a spare tanker lying around the cabinet office? He shrugged. Fine, he’d trust her for the moment...and he’d use his newfound acquiescence to get something else from Hanson.

“Very well, if you can’t find me a tanker, I’ll need the ten heavy transports you’ve found upped to twenty.”

A murmur of conversation rose around the room. He had no doubt they wouldn’t be able to find twenty hulls. But, they’d negotiate him down on that to a reasonable figure. And as long as that figure was higher than the ten he had now, he was happy.

Hanson glanced over at her attaché and whispered frantically. A moment later she grabbed his tablet off him, clearly impatient, and began scrolling through the screens on it.

“Okay, decision time,” she finally said. “I have four more transports loading for our bases in the Void. I can re-task them.”

“Sir...” Rear Admiral Domenic Laughton of the distant Void fleet had come home a few days ago precisely to argue for extra resources. Now it might be that he’d have to go back to his commanding officer, and tell him that he had somehow managed to come back with less ships than he’d started with.

Darrow looked down a moment as he contemplated. The garrisons in the Great Void were clamoring for reinforcement and resupply. Everyone knew, except the Federation it seemed, that it would only be so long before the Dawn Empire stuck their oar into the waters of a war which seemed to be growing in scope every damn day. Pulling supplies from there would leave the area vulnerable to that future attack.



But, Valestra was under siege now. It needed supplies now. And it was going to fall if it didn’t get them. Now.

“We’ll take them.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Laughton snapped in frustration. “The Empire will take that as a—”

“Watch your tone, sir.” Darrow let his voice rise, the honorific emphasizing his point. This bickering was driving him insane. Quite why he’d got it into his head that he could escape this as the First Space Lord he didn’t know. Back as a young officer, he’d thought he could just cut orders to his subordinates without debate. How naive and foolish did that seem now? “I appreciate you’ve been away from polite society for the past couple of years, but you will remember your place when addressing this company.”

He calmed himself, letting his voice settle. The man, despite his coarseness, did have a point. “Domenic, we will cross that bridge when we come to it. But for now, Valestra is facing real danger, as opposed to a hypothetical one, as likely as it is that the Empire will make its play.”

“Sir,” Laughton acknowledged as he looked around the room. “I apologize for my language. I trust my esteemed colleagues will take it for what it is, passion to defend His Majesty’s Kingdom and domains.”

“Of course, Domenic.” Darrow inclined his head at the young admiral. “Of course. And leave Admiral Roth to me. I’ll make it clear to your boss how fervently you...argued your case.”

A few dry chuckles met his response. There, boy. You have an olive branch. Now please be quiet.

“So,” Darrow continued when it had subsided. “We have fourteen transports. Now we need to talk about protecting them adequately.”

He braced himself for a long afternoon, and for the debates to really begin.

***

“Right through.”

Darrow nodded at the prime minister’s personal assistant as he walked through the antechamber to her office. He returned the scowl of the man, which was barely covered by a thin veneer of politeness. Well, he had been known to steamroll past the man on occasion. He raised his hand to knock on the thick metal door of the prime minister’s office when he heard her call, “Enter.”

It slid open and he stepped in, only to pause when he saw someone else in the prime minister’s starkly appointed War Room office. Someone he recognized.

“Ambassador Welles. A pleasure, sir.” He inclined his head.

The suited man stood and paced quickly around the chair and grabbed Darrow’s outstretched hand in his own vice-like grip. Darrow could feel the man’s callouses. Rumor had it, the ambassador fancied himself as much of a farmer—sorry, Darrow corrected himself—a rancher—as he did a diplomat, and held a huge holding on Liberty, capital world of the Federation.

“Pleasure’s all mine.” Welles pumped Darrow’s hand, nearly crushing every bone in it. He fought to hide the wince. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Admiral. Led the fleet which took down that big-ass Galt ship yourself.”

“Indeed.” Darrow extracted his hand and clasped it behind his back, fighting every urge to check to see if actual damage had been done to it. “And you, sir. Your exploits as a pilot in the First War make for some fascinating tales, I hear.”

Welles grinned back, the diplomat far too savvy to know that was anything but fluff. Yet nonetheless, Darrow would warrant, he’d be as keen to tell old war stories as any veteran.

“We all have to do our part.”

“That we do.”

“Gentlemen.” Lattimore couldn’t quite hide the amusement on her face at Darrow subtly flexing his hand behind his back as she gestured to the chairs before her desk. “Please, take a seat.”

“Thanking you.” Welles sat in a chair, which creaked under his bulk. “So, I hear you have some shipping problems.”

Darrow raised a questioning eyebrow in response, flicking his gaze over at his Prime Minister. The New Avalon Kingdom and the Liberty Federation were allies, but even so...

“Yes, we do, Ambassador,” Lattimore answered. “And those are problems which we believe you might be able to help us with.”

“Go on.” The man leaned back in his chair.

“We’ve been fighting this war for a long time, without direct support—”

“Let me stop you there,” Welles said, his cheerful voice turning frosty in an instant. “We have given you over fifty destroyers—”

“Which we paid for by ‘gifting’ you sovereign territory in return.” Lattimore waved away the objection. “Come now, Bob. You know as well as I do that you’re going to get involved in this war sooner or later. And I mean directly, not with us merely as your proxy.”

“What you know” —Welles let the ice melt on his face, replacing it with a knowing smile— "and what I know is different from what my government formally knows. You ain’t going to be gettin’ a declaration of war from me.”

“Not today, at least,” Lattimore acknowledged.

“Not today,” Welles confirmed with a conspiratorial wink.

“Let me cut to the chase,” Lattimore said. “You currently have Caravel, with a full load of HE3, coming down the Corridor of the Reach. I’d like to be able to use her to resupply our bases in the Talos Rift.”

“Base,” Welles replied. “Singular. The way I hear it, Oppugn belongs to the coalition now. That leaves you one base left—Valestra.”

Damn, the Fed’s intel is good. That hadn’t even been released to the general public yet. And wouldn’t until just before the first refugees arrived back in the Regis System.

Lattimore inclined her head. “Be that as it may, the Talos Rift garrisons still need supplies urgently. The fuel that ship can transport would be vital.”

“Madam, the thought of good Federation spacers getting involved in your war is simply...” He took a deep theatrical breath before continuing, “Unacceptable.”

“Then gift us the Caravel,” Darrow cut in. “Let us crew her.”

“Shipping supplies across the Reach is one thing,” Welles replied. “Even taking out any stealth that decides it wants to take a bite out of ’em. This is another. We’re talking a Federation vessel directly operating in the Arcadian Sector in defiance of our strict non-interventionist policy.”

Darrow felt his eyes narrow. Diplomacy wasn’t his forte, he knew it. Lost Earth, it was legendary among the upper echelons of the fleet. But, it seemed that Welles was hinting at something. The man, having spent much of his time in the Kingdom, was a staunch advocate on Liberty for getting involved in the war. A view shared publicly by the president. It was their voting public, and by extension, their government which was nervous at the thought of sending their sons and daughters into battle.

Bottom line, Darrow was fairly sure Welles, and the president, would give him the ship if they could. They just simply couldn’t.

But that left another option.

“Perhaps,” Darrow started speaking slowly, exchanging his gaze between his prime minister and the ambassador, “it would be incumbent for me to simply seize and requisition the Caravel. After all, it is so vital for our war effort.”

Welles nearly theatrically rolled his eyes, as if to say, “finally.”

“There is precedent.” Lattimore returned a knowing smile. “The Royal Right of Requisition was used in our recovery mission at Asteria. Several Federation vessels were sequestered as part of Operation Replevin.”

“I must protest this kinda talk in the strongest possible terms,” Welles said unconvincingly while holding up a hand. “The seizure of one or more of our vessels would simply be...unacceptable. Frankly, the last lot you took caused one hell of a shouting match in the Hall of Freedom.”

“Well, I’m sorry, Ambassador,” Lattimore said. “That would have to be the way it would have to be.”

“And there’s nothing I can say to dissuade you from that notion?”

“Not a damn thing.”

“But, but, but...” Welles opened his hands in mock supplication. “The bureaucratic nightmare that will open up for us is simply...intolerable. It would take me weeks to sort it all out.”

He leaned forward, his expression growing firm as he looked Lattimore dead in the eyes. “Four weeks, to be exact.”

“And President Hughson?”

“Mike will likely be messaging you with his personal disapproval shortly.” Welles stood and straightened his tie. “Right, I need to get back to my office. Get started on all the paperwork this will generate.”

He turned and looked back at Lattimore. “By the way, you remember that real estate on Gorling in the Void? You know, that we wanted as part of the destroyers-for-bases program which your side of the table’s canny folk somehow managed to negotiate down? We still think that would make a mighty fine military establishment when all the dust settles.”

Lattimore gave a thin smile in response. “You’ll have His Majesty’s answer on that by the time Caravel docks.”

“I thought I might.” Welles winked and left the room.

Darrow’s eyes tracked the door closing before leaning back. “You really had better have needed that tanker, Jonathan.”

“Gorling?”

“They wanted it, and I literally sold the farm for that ship,” Lattimore said. “Well, someone’s farm. And they won’t be happy when the Federation construction mechs move in and start uprooting their livelihoods.”

Chapter 8

Flight Lieutenant Richards

Regis System

“Lost Earth,” Sampson breathed as they took in what was before them.

Rick still had a few spares to pick up in the training roster, and he wasn’t going to let the time it’d take for Corvus to cruise down the gravity well from New Avalon geostationary orbit to what was apparently a full-scale fleet summons at Starbase Victory go to waste.

But, as Lieutenant Sampson had made the Tempest dance and frolic around its mothership, Corvus had closed in on its destination. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many warships in one place.”

Before the huge, hollow cylinder of Corvus, dozens of ships gathered in a vast shoal around the starfish-shaped base.

“I have,” Rick said quietly, a montage of images from the dreadful fighting over Asteria and Port Rorian playing through his mind. Explosions rocked the fleet, wreckage surrounded by billowing clouds of their lifeblood gases. Bodies floating frozen. But those vessels had mostly been civilian ships. These were navy. Other than, that was, for a few freighters. Whatever was going on here was strictly going to be a military operation.

One which it looked like the Kingdom Navy wanted their new Aerospace fighters being involved with, Rick noted. In the center of the formation, two more huge carriers squatted. Every other kind of warship was represented, from battleships down to sleek and nimble destroyers. Even the transponders of nearly invisible stealths pinged within the fleet.

“What do you reckon, Rick?” Sampson asked, “We going back to the Republic?”

He paused. He’d ran recon flights over the occupied territories. He knew just how well defended the Hegemony had made their newly conquered worlds.

And as impressive as this fleet was, it simply didn’t stand a chance against the swarms of fighters and fortifications the Hegemony had set up. No, whatever they were doing, they weren’t headed back to the Republic. This had to be something else. “Don’t know, man.”

“There’s a shit ton of destroyers out there,” Sampson mused, seemingly working through some theories of his own. As a navy man, he knew warships far better than Rick did. And he would undoubtedly be able to discern meaning from the makeup of the fleet. “And only a couple of battleships. You know what this looks like to me?”

Sampson turned in his seat to look over his shoulder, and Rick caught a glimpse of his horribly scarred face through his visor, the injury apparently caused during an attack run on the Hegemony battleship, Behemoth.

“Eyes front,” Rick snapped. Distractions killed more pilots than cancer. Well, that and the Hegemony’s Aerospace Forces.

“Sorry.” Sampson turned back, focusing on what was ahead. “It looks like it’s configured for escort. Just on a massive scale.”

“You’re the navy man, not me,” Rick said. “Let’s head on in and find out what’s happening.”

Sampson pulled the Tempest around in a loop and powered far to the rear of Corvus before sweeping the agile fighter around onto its landing path.

***

“8-25th.” Faraday stood by the briefing podium, before the rotating image of an Eagle overlaying a planet. Curved around the underside was the squadron’s motto: Nothing Stops Us. “As you’ve undoubtedly seen, something big is afoot.”

“No shit,” Sampson muttered from next to Rick. They’d come straight from the hanger and were both still in their full flight suits, with their heavy helmets and complex survival equipment jutting out and making their neighbors uncomfortable. The scars on Sampson’s face were even more profound with his face uncovered. When his Cyclone had been hit by flak, a backdraft of flame had surged into his suit. That was something for which there were a dozen and one safeguards to prevent against, but it had still somehow happened, causing varying degrees of burns over much of his body. How the man had managed to bring his Cyclone home, Rick would never know, but he’d done it. Then, if that wasn’t enough expression of his toughness, he’d shrugged off the six-month-long skin regeneration therapy, instead choosing just to have his pain centers stabilized so he could get back in the cockpit.

Faraday stepped to one side as a 3D representation of the Arcadian Sector appeared on the screen behind her. It rushed in closer until it showed the area of space known as the Talos Rift.

Rick leaned forward in his seat. No one had actually invited him to this briefing, but then, no one had denied him entry either. As far as he was concerned, if he was attached to the 8-25th, then he’d stick to their hips.

The Rift was an expanse of space, filled with dead and inhospitable stars, like the Reach and the Void, only nowhere near as large. At the bottom edge lay the Sphere, while the upper edge was surrounded by Occupied Republic space, Hegemony space and then the Iconian Regime. A crown icon pulsed in the middle of the gap, one of the two bases the Kingdom had in the area.

And the other? Rick leaned forward and clenched his teeth as he searched for it. The icon denoting Oppugn was Kingdom territory had changed. Instead, it now bore the Black Sun of the Hegemony.

“I have just returned from a briefing, and the long and short of it is that we’re going to be running escort on a resupply mission out to Valestra.”

“Told you,” Sampson leaned over and whispered in Rick’s ear. Groans washed throughout the room. Undoubtedly, some had still harbored a hope they’d be mounting an assault on the Hegemony, or even the Iconians. Instead, they were going to be relegated to convoy patrols.

“As you can probably imagine,” Faraday raised her hand and her voice to forestall the interruption. “We fully expect the Hegemony and their coalition allies in the area, the Iconian Regime, to oppose our efforts.”

She extended out a light wand and tapped it onto the briefing screen. “We will be entering the Rift here, through the Scyllian Choke.” She drew the light wand across, leaving a slightly wavy line. “Then be passing through Harding’s Folly across into the Davon System, and finally into the Karis System where Valestra is situated.”

The journey, as shown on the screen, wasn’t long, Rick thought. Not by the epic distances involved with the Reach and the Void, at least. The issue was that just about every damn inch of it abutted enemy-controlled space in a long curve. They would be in reach of enemy fighters and bombers the whole way in.

“We, along with wings from Osprey and Caracaras, will be providing the fighter support—”

“Good thing we’ve got us some shiny new Tempests then,” Sampson growled.

“Indeed,” Faraday agreed. “And it’ll be our intention to have air cover up for the entire cruise into Valestra.”

There were no groans at that. Rick was impressed, despite himself, at the casualness which the navy pilots took the news. The flight scheduling would be grueling, with pilots spending long hours in the cockpits. Only the briefest of dozes. And wolfing down quick sandwiches between sorties.

“So, kids, now you know where we’re going, and what we’re doing. I’ll want flight commanders to stay behind so we can begin the scheduling plans.”

“Ma’am,” the crews chorused.

The pilots shuffled out, and Rick picked himself up to join them. He may have been of Flight Commander rank, but as the chief flying instructor, he didn’t actually have a flight to command.

“Rick.” Faraday inclined her head at the four pilots making their way to her, her expression telling them to wait a moment.

Rick stepped over. “Ma’am?”

“What’s your intention, Rick?”

“Pardon?” he asked confusedly.

“Well, you’re in a pretty unique situation here, Flight Lieutenant. Although you’re attached to us, you don’t actually have a position in our order of battle.” Faraday gave a shrug. “Simply put, you can leave before we ship out.”

Could he? He looked at the faces of the men and women, kids really, filing out, and the not-much-older faces of the flight commanders. They were good—he supposed his interservice rivalry could stretch to that level of compliment. But he was better. He’d battled the Hegemony. He knew how they flew. How they fought. They were cunning bastards. Able to extract the most from their fighters. These kids had barely sat in their new Tempests.

Besides, a training posting frankly sucked. He wanted to be back in a combat posting. And if command was not willing to do that just yet? Then he had no problems in playing the system. “Way I see it, ma’am, your pilots could benefit from some continued training on the cruise out. If that means I have to show them how it’s done against real Hegemony fighters pilots? Then that’s what I’ll do.”

Faraday’s smile disappeared. She nodded tersely. “Thank you, Lieutenant—”

“Flight Lieutenant,” Rick gently corrected with a wink. “I’ve not gone fully native yet.”

“Well, I’m not saying that every time I want to address you,” Faraday retorted. “It’s frankly long-winded and ridiculous.”

“Ma’am.” Rick pursed his lips together in faux indignation.

“I’ll build you into the roster.” Faraday grew serious. “You know how grueling it’ll be, and frankly anything that gives my boys and girls a moment’s more respite will be appreciated.”

Rick nodded in response. Yeah, the practicality of having one more ass on a seat would mean an extra person to cover for a schedule which already looked to be brutal.

“Dismissed...Lieutenant.”

Rick nodded and made to turn away before pausing. “Ma’am, I’ll do my best to help you get your people up to speed, but the Hegemony are good. Damn good.”

“I know, Lieutenant,” Faraday said. Her eyes flicked to the scarred form of Sampson, while her hand touched her shoulder, seemingly unconsciously. “This isn’t the first time the 8-25th has gone up against them.”

“But not their Aerospace Corps. Those bastards are a different breed.”

“And only you can save us?” Faraday gave a mocking smile before growing serious. “Honestly, Rick. Any tips and tactics you can give us will be appreciated. As is you being with us out there. But we’re grownups, we’ve fought them before, and we have every intention of kicking their fascist arses back to Galton if they come at us.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

“Get gone, I have rostering to do. And you have sims to set up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You mean, aye aye, ma’am.” Faraday grinned. “You’re in the navy now, spacer.”

Chapter 9

Captain Holloway

Caravel – Regis System

Caravel didn’t have many luxuries, but by virtue of her sheer size, what she did have was presence and space. A lot of it. The ship itself was mostly a three-kilometer-long spine adorned with crew modules, stowage gantries, and engines. But when the massive HE3 tanks were added, she took on a whole new bulky appearance.

But not as much presence as what was before her. Captain Tang stood before the floor-to-ceiling windows, which stretched around the long thin curvature of the austere bridge, and gave a low whistle.

The ship’s sensors had told him there were a lot of ships out there, and as they’d approached Starbase Victory, retros burning to slow them, they had resolved that many of them were Kingdom warships.

They’d pulled together one hell of a fleet. Clustered in the center were a pair of huge, muscular battleships and three equally large aerospace carriers. Scattered around them, even larger freighters squatted, each looking fully loaded with modules of equipment and tanks of gases and liquids, while dozens of cruisers and destroyers prowled watchfully around the edges of the collection of ships.

He didn’t think he’d seen that many warships gathered in one place before. There were more than had been involved in the now legendary recovery of the Kingdom Expeditionary Forces from Port Rorian.

“Sir,” his comms officer called over to him. “I have the Kingdom cruiser, Spartan, directing us to heave to for a customs inspection.”

Tang gave a shrug. He wasn’t an overly jumpy man, but the sheer amount of guns which could be trained on him right now meant that he was going to comply with whatever the hell they wanted. He’d even dance the lambada if they told him too, and they wouldn’t need to say “please.”

“Very well,” he replied. “Ensure our vector is obstruction free, and cut thrust.”

With a rumble, the ship orientated itself, pointing to an empty patch of space. Just off to their port, the sleek, aggressive form of a cruiser slid into view. A burst of fire erupted from her engines, matching her to the bigger ship’s velocity. Moments later, her flight deck slid open and, one after another, half a dozen assault shuttles speared out of the bay.

Are the Kingdom finally taking customs inspections seriously?

Tang frowned. Normally, these kind of things were done nominally. A squad, or section, or whatever the Kingdom called it of Marines would board. They’d poke their heads into a few lockers. Make sure their storage tanks actually contained fuel, and then leave an hour later. They rarely even got fussed about low-level contraband, instead casting a knowing glance at whoever it belonged to and taking a kickback in compensation for not looking too close.

Not this time.

Six shuttles could bring a full company of Marines aboard. Enough to do a proper search, bow to stern. It might, he ruminated, have something to do with what looked like a significant fraction of the Kingdom fleet out there.

The boxy shuttles docked on ports up and down the length of the huge ship.

The comm officer pressed his hand to his ear and nodded before looking up at the captain. “Sir, the head of the boarding party is sending their compliments and requesting you meet them in lock four.”

“Very well, Ms. Foales.” Tang turned and walked to the thick metal hatch at the rear of the bridge. “You have the con.”

***

Aeryn Holloway stood, her hands clasped behind her back, in the threadbare corridor abutting the lock. A diminutive man stepped around the corridor, reaching out a hand toward the armored and helmeted Marine with the twin pips of a lieutenant on his breast rank slide standing next to her.

“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant. I’m—”

“Captain Tang,” the Marine’s electronically modulated voice finished for him.

“Well, welcome aboard,” Tang said, confusedly glancing at Holloway and looking at her for the first time. He must have wondered why a navy officer bearing the golden star of a ship-at-space commander had tagged along on the boarding party. She could sympathize. In the usual course of events, a customs check would be quite a way below her paygrade, given to young officers so they could conduct independent operations which couldn’t cause too much harm if they screwed it up. It was time to put him out of his misery.

“Captain, thank you for your prompt adherence to our directives,” Holloway said. He wasn’t going to like this, and as a shipmaster of nearly twenty years’ experience, Holloway wouldn’t blame him one bit for the angry response which was sure to come.

“Well, with that amount of hardware out there, and”—he flicked his eyes at the Marines clustered around her—“aboard, it seems best to leave no doubt as to our compliance.”

“Indeed, Captain.” Holloway pulled the tablet from her pocket, already set to display a document. “It is with some regret, however, I have to inform you that Caravel is being seized by His Majesty’s Navy pursuant to the Royal Right of—”

“Excuse me?” Tang inclined his head, a faintly bemused smile on his face. “Did I hear you correctly that you are seizing my vessel?”

“Yes, sir,” Holloway responded.

“And just who the hell are you?” Tang’s tone had changed from bemused to angry in a flash. The Marines in their armor shifted in response, as if the statue-like men and women were coming alive at the tone of his annoyed voice.

“I am Kingdom Fleet Auxiliary Captain Aeryn Holloway,” she responded. Reserve, although he didn’t need to know that. “And I am taking command of Caravel.”

The small comm on Tang’s belt started to beep and, keeping his anger-filled eyes locked on her, he brought it to his mouth. “Yes?”

His expression turned to one of surprise, and he pulled the small unit away from his ear and pressed the button on its surface, activating its conference mode. A small hologrammatic figure of a man appeared, one that Holloway recognized as Robert Welles, the Federation Ambassador to the Kingdom.

“Captain Tang.” The unit was old, the voice tinny, and the image flickering. “The Kingdom government has just informed me of their intention to seize Caravel. Something which I am, of course, objecting to at the highest levels. I promise you, this will be sorted, Captain. But until then, I urge you to acquiesce to these...boarders’ demands until we can sort this out on our end.”

“Mister Ambassador,” Tang spat. “They are not boarders, they’re damned pirates.”

“Nonetheless, Captain,” Welles said. “I very much need you to not turn this into more of a diplomatic incident than it already is. Follow their instructions to the letter. As far as my legal counsel is advising me at this time, their authority is legitimate.”

The figure flickered and disappeared, leaving the captain red-faced. He looked around at the sixteen Marines gathered in the corridor before keying his comm again.

“All hands, this is your captain,” he spoke slowly. Holloway knew he must have been tempted to tell the crew to resist. And if they did, they wouldn’t stand a chance. It was likely that whatever weapons they had would, at best, bounce off the Marines’ combat armor. The worst case would be if they had some true military grade weaponry aboard. If that was the case, then the Marines would be forced to respond in kind. And that would only end in one way...a total bloodbath for the Federation civilian spacers.

“We have been boarded by Kingdom forces who have stated their intention is to seize this vessel.” He looked back and forth from Holloway to the Marines. “At this time, their authority is legitimate. Stand down and please follow their instructions. Captain Tang, out.”

He shut down his comm and Holloway held her hand out. He tossed it over to her and she deftly caught it in her hand. “I hope you know the Federation isn’t going to take this lying down.”

“I’m sure they won’t, Captain.” She glanced at the imposing figure next to her. “Lieutenant, please signal the prize crew to come aboard. It’s time to take command of Caravel.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Chapter 10

Captain Cutter

Regis System – KSS Achilles

“Lost Earth, Hal.” Admiral Arden Roe stepped up onto the command podium with the First Space Lord. Frowning as he looked, with the eye uncovered by a patch, up and around the expansive space. “You battleship brats truly are spoiled.”

Cutter exchanged a knowing smile with Darrow. Roe was a destroyer officer through and through, used to tight corridors, small spaces, and a sore head from not ducking quite low enough under hatch sills. It was a rarity even for an executive officer to get their own cabin. But, that in itself led to a sense of esprit de corps amongst the destroyer crews. The skippers and admirals were even worse, a strange hybrid of naval officer and fighter pilot, exceeded only by the oddballs who crewed the stealths.

“In fact, this luxury makes me feel borderline agoraphobic,” Roe continued grumbling. He caught one of the rotating chairs in a hand and squeezed it experimentally. “Soft.”

“Arden,” Darrow snapped playfully. “There comes a day in every senior officer’s life when they have to move out of, or rather into, their comfort zone. The moment you pinned on rear admiral epaulettes was that day for you.”

“It could be worse—I could be skippering a desk.” Roe looked up at Darrow, his single blue eye burning with intensity.

Cutter physically fought the urge to backpedal. Roe had a reputation. A deserved one, as a damn good combat commander. But he also had a reputation of not knowing when to shut the hell up. Something which had kept him in the lower echelons for far longer than his innate skill suggested it should.

“That can be arranged, Arden.” Darrow kept his face straight for a long moment, before the smile cracked back through. “Look, Arden. You’re going to have a lot of balls to juggle. And doing it from a console tucked away in the corner of the bridge on Sabre or one of the other tin cans is going to lose you a lot of situational awareness.”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it.” Roe moved around to the front of the chair and looked across at Darrow. The First Space Lord gave a nod and Roe lowered himself into the executive officer’s seat. Cutter felt a tug on his heart. That seat, up until recently, had been occupied by Hannah Ashford. Before that fateful day when they’d first met Behemoth, that was.

Maybe, Cutter conceded as he squashed the memory back down, it really was just a persona the rear admiral put on.

“Captain? All this fancy claptrap is new to me. I’m not going to soften any of my staff by having them join me on this luxury liner, so I’ll be leaning on your XO to support me.”

“Aye, sir.” Cutter glanced down to the holo-display where Lieutenant Commander Banning chatted to his gunnery officer, Haynes. “Although, I do tend to keep Eve busy.”

“Unbusy her.” Roe leaned back in his seat. For a horrible moment, Cutter thought the admiral would prop his booted feet up on the console before him. Thankfully, he didn’t. “I’m taking the burden of strategic and tactical decisions from you. That frees you up for the control of Achilles. She’ll help me with implementing orders. Sound fair?”

From just about any other admiral Cutter could care to mention, that kind of comment would have sent the hackles rising on his back, seeming like a usurpation of his position. From Roe, though, it seemed almost like a sensible streamlining of the process. And, if Cutter was honest, the veteran admiral had more than earned his trust over Asteria.

He gave a nod.

Roe leaned forward and called down to Banning, “Hey, good news, you’re a staff officer now.”

Banning started as she turned and looked up; her mouth opened and closed like a goldfish. Damn, she was young, thrust by circumstance into being an XO on a battleship well before grade or age. To find herself an admiral’s bagman was near unprecedented.

“Relax, Commander.” Roe held up his hand. “You’ll still be up here on the bridge. I’m certainly not intending to use that fancy new CIC you have tucked out of the way to keep errant admirals from under your feet.”

She looked around like a startled deer for a moment, before making her way up to the command podium. “But, sir, my position is Achilles’s XO.”

“Then it’s time to wear two hats.” Roe leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Besides, Eve, you want command of your own heavy unit at some point, right? You need a tick in the box for being an admiral’s bagman.”

“Sir,” Cutter cut in. “I’m sure we can accommodate your request—”

“Order, son. Order.” Roe grinned, taking the sting out of his words. He theatrically brushed some imaginary dust from his epaulettes. “If Admiral Darrow here is going to hold me down and pin these on, then I may as well start using the firepower they bring.”

“You really are a bull in a china shop, aren’t you, Arden?” Darrow grimaced at the rear admiral. “You’ve been here for less than five minutes and you’ve already acted like a wrecking ball, slamming into poor Hal’s command structure.”

“Speaking of command structure.” Cutter frowned as his eyes flicked to the densely populated holo. With dozens of ships, the gathered fleet was bigger even than the one which had hunted the Hegemony battleship, Behemoth, and that had been headed by Darrow himself. “The hierarchy seems remarkably...slimmed down.”

A smile flashed across Darrow’s face. In days of old, a fleet of this size should have been commanded by an admiral, with a vice admiral acting as their second in command. One of Roe’s rank, a rear admiral, would effectively be third in the chain and situated on a vessel far away from the flagship, as an insurance policy in case it was taken out.

“I thought it best to keep the command structure somewhat...agile. What with modern communications and all, I will effectively take personal command of the fleet from Admiralty House. Admiral Hanson will be my vice. Arden is entrusted to be the lucky devil who actually deploys.”

“Ah,” Cutter responded. He’d learned that Darrow was somewhat less of a traditionalist than the majority of the staid old men and woman at flag rank, but still, he must have been fighting a hell of a lot of flak to get that through. It practically took the rulebook and threw it out the airlock.

“Leave the politics to me, son,” Darrow said quietly, as if reading his mind. He gestured down at the holo toward the cluster of transport ship. “You just have to concentrate on getting those ships through.”

“We will, sir.” Roe’s face grew serious.

Darrow nodded and looked around the room, checking to ensure they were out of earshot of the bridge crew. Cutter and the others on the podium took the hint and moved in closer.

“This goes no further,” Darrow said. He looked down for a moment before his eyes flicked up with a renewed intensity. “We’ve war-gamed this as often as we could, in the time we had available, and there are no versions of events where we don’t take losses. On many simulations, we lose every transport we send.”

“We still have to try, though,” Roe murmured back.

“No, you have to succeed,” Darrow corrected. “Caravel is the critical ship. She carries the fuel Valestra needs for her own fighters and ships. I don’t care how you do it. She needs to get through, but...”

“But?” Roe asked.

“If even a single other freighter gets through, then I will deem this mission an unmitigated success.”

Cutter blinked. It was that critical? Valestra was that much on the wire?

“Those boys and girls need you to win,” Darrow continued. “Carte blanche.”

Chapter 11

Captain Holloway

Regis System – Caravel

Holloway stood on Caravel’s bridge, her hands clasped behind her back, looking out over the fleet. Dozens of ships were filtering into position, the transports, battleships, and carriers at the center. The muscular cruisers provided a middle ring of defense. Swarms of sleek destroyers and stealths prowled the outer edges.

And they were late to the party, something the increasingly irate voice of the fleet coordinator was making abundantly clear.

Caravel’s bridge was a wide, thin affair, curving around the bow of the huge tanker. Not, Holloway thought, of a particularly ergonomic design. The navigation station was all the way over on one flank, necessitating her to actually move to review it, rather than have the information available at a glance from her command chair. Yet, one had to remember this wasn’t a warship and, in the normal course of her duties, things simply didn’t need to happen fast. Everything could be done at a slower, more considered pace. Human convenience was secondary to that of the vessel’s primary purpose—to move massive quantities of HE3 between the stars.

She turned back and settled into her uncomfortably high command seat which, even at its lowest setting, meant that she couldn’t quite place her feet flat on the floor. Lost Earth, everything on this ship seemed to be set up to be slightly irritating. She turned in the chair, pushing with her toes, toward the engineering status console at the rear of the bridge. “Mister Lorking, please tell me we’re ready.”

“Aye, ma’am, just about,” the engineer said distractedly. She rolled her eyes at the vagueness of the report and fought the urge to snap at him for something more accurate.

Any ship had its quirks and foibles. And it seemed Caravel had them in spades. The original crew had lived with her for years. They would have known that engine three’s thrust capacity was a little lower than rated, which meant the rest had to be throttled down to compensate. And that the start-up sequence for the reactor had about three or four extra steps which weren’t in the manual, instead they were scrawled on the bulkhead in marker-pen. Including, alarmingly enough, the temporary shutdown of safety protocols in a specific sequence.

Yes, Holloway lightly slapped the console built into a ring before her seat. All ships had personality. Caravel more than most. And with the original crew too surly and uncooperative to give anything like a proper handover to her spacers, that meant they had to learn all of her character flaws on the fly. Quite literally.

“Got it!” Lorking called with a triumphant pump of his fist. With a judder, they began to thrust forward. The vibration of the engines, discernible even from nearly three kilometers away, raised and lowered in pitch.

“Thank Earth for that,” Holloway muttered. She turned and addressed the helmswoman nearly out of view around the curvature of the bridge. “Ms. Grantham, if you’d be so kind as to signal fleet coordination command and let them know we are finally underway.”

***

“What amateurs,” Rick mumbled under his breath as he soared high over the fleet. He’d flipped inverted, and looked up at the motley collection of vessels, now clustered above his head.

The two battleships, Achilles and Ajax, along with the carriers, sat at the front and rear of a cluster of transports and carriers forming the central core of the fleet.

Or at least they should be. One of the transports, the big tanker, Caravel, looked to be out of formation completely and burning hard to catch up, causing mayhem among the escorting force as she barreled through. The other transports didn’t look much better, their positioning sloppy as hell. Some were too tight. And he could see another, Palm Bay, drifting close to Ajax and blocking out half her firing arcs. Unless she wanted to get a broadside from the battleship if—when—they were attacked, that ship really needed to move its big fat ass.

They had until they left the Regis System to get into some semblance of shape, because the next stop was going to be The Scyllian Choke, and that was contested territory.

He glanced up, wincing with grimness, as another wave of frosty chatter washed across the comm. Another ship was falling out of formation.

We’re gonna need to get our act together, or we’re gonna lose them all.

He shook his head. He wasn’t here to solve every problem. It was up to the Kingdom Navy’s admiral, or whoever had responsibility for that mess, to grip it. As for Flight Lieutenant Richards? His responsibility, on paper anyway, was still instructional. The fact that he sure as hell wasn’t going to be sitting on the bench when the Hegemony Aerospace Corps pounced on them was by the by.

“Okay, Lieutenant.” He snapped out of his ruminations and addressed his current student, flying alongside him in, what he would admit, was a fairly tight formation. “While we’re waiting for that mess to sort itself out, we’ll run through an intercept exercise.”

He banked over, surging away from the fleet. “I’ll be a bogey, jumping in from the fleet’s portside. You need to figure out what I am, and what you’re going to do about it.”

Throttling up, he surged away from the collection of ships as his student acknowledged.

With the flick of switches, he reduced the power on his pulse guns to one percent, preparing for the simulated combat to come.

Chapter 12

Major Corla

Bellerophon Three

The Black Sun icon of the Hegemony shone brightly on the large screen, overlooking the darkened briefing room.

Major Gan Corla couldn’t see his pilots as anything more than rows of impersonal silhouettes as he moved to the edge of the stage. He snapped to attention and slammed his right fist to the left side of his chest. “Hail Prime.”

“Hail Prime.” The reply came in a roaring glorious unison and he felt a smile wanting to break out on his face. He suppressed it—his chest might have swelled in pride at the discipline and training he’d instilled in these men and women, these sons and daughters of Galton...of the Neo way, but that didn’t mean he should reward them with weakness and emotion.

“Our agents in the Kingdom have reported anomalous movements among their naval and civilian shipping,” he said without preamble. A good Galton was renowned for his or her efficiency and being laconic in their speech. Small talk or chitchat? That was for those who did not wish to win.

And most assuredly, the one thing Gan Corla did want was to win. Want to—

A flashback washed through him. The ochre skies of Asteria. The spires and towers of Port Rorian burning to the west. His S-91 Wolf fighter juddering and riddled with pulse gunfire, one engine destroyed. His status displays—those which still worked, that was—flashing red in desperate protest. His remaining engines went critical. Fuel sprayed from dismembered pipes. The harsh tone of the flight computer demanding repetitively that he eject. He’d glanced up, seeing his rival retreating away, leaving a trail of smoke. His or her fighter as heavily damaged as Corla’s own. The alarms and voice grew more insistent.

And then he’d done it. He’d surrendered. He’d reached for the yellow- and black-striped ejection handle and yanked it. His cockpit had blown off, exposing him to the furious wind, and a moment later he’d exploded into the freezing cold air—

He snapped to. He’d faded out for a second, maybe two. Father Terra, he hoped not for longer. The flashbacks came at the most inopportune of times. Yet, thus far he’d managed to hide his shameful secret from the medics. And more crucially, his elite squadron. All it would take would be for one of them to notice, then every shred of authority he had would be gone in a heartbeat.

“The moment of reflection I have just afforded you,” he said, inwardly fuming at the weakness of the statement, “means that the consequences of this should not be lost on you. We must establish what the true objective of these movements are. A mere training exercise? Reinforcement for their activities in the sphere? An effort to retake Oppugn? Perhaps an invasion of the Republic itself? We simply do not know at this time. And that is something we must find out. The one thing we do know, is whatever the inferiors are planning is major.”

Corla let his gaze wash across the darkened room, knowing his pilots would see the intensity of his gaze. “We will be conducting reconnaissance operations until we know exactly what the enemy is intending. And then, we will take steps to defeat whatever they have in mind.”

***

Corla stepped out of the prefabricated briefing hut and stormed along the path toward the flight line. He fought to keep his face sanguine while inwardly raging.

That bastard. That Kingdom bastard had done this to him. Before he’d encountered that fighter pilot over the skies of Asteria, he’d known, simply known, that he was the best in the skies and in space. Nothing and no one could defeat him. And that had been stolen from him by some thieving Kingdom scum!

Was the pilot who had done this even still alive? He didn’t know. The last time he’d seen them, they appeared to be losing altitude, angling down to the front lines where the fighting was at its fiercest.

Rounding a green-painted hanger, the row of squat, muscular S-91 Wolf fighters came into view, and he felt his furiously beating heart calm a touch. As it always did when he saw those mechanical beauties. He made his way up the line, pushing his fist to his chest and giving distracted calls of “Hail, Prime” to the ground crews frantically working on the fighters.

His squadron, Fighter Wing 26, would be transferring up to one of the orbital fortresses, just as soon as the damage that’d been inflicted when they’d taken the world a month ago, as part of the campaign to take Oppugn, had been repaired sufficiently. Until then, they were in the ignoble position of being based under Bellerophon’s still-dust-filled skies on a planet-side aerospace field.

It was of no matter, though. The magnificently engineered craft operated as well in atmosphere as they did in space. He reached his fighter and ran his gloved fingertips over its black nose cone. He glanced left and right and, seeing no one in listening range, leaned close and whispered to his fighter, “Soon, girl, we’ll be up again. Then, if that bastard is still alive, we’ll find them. And take revenge for them destroying your big sister, no?”

Chapter 13

Captain Cutter

The Scyllian Choke – KSS Achilles

The forward screen stretched away from Cutter. A moment later, he felt himself being catapulted forward, catching up with his ship, and the universe went back to normal again.

“Starfix in,” Lieutenant Commander Eve Banning called. “We’re at the Scyllian Choke.”

“Thank you.” Cutter stood. Going hyper always made him feel a little queasy. Not quite as bad as some, however. For a few unfortunates, it was so bad they vomited, or passed out. Normally, those kind of people tended to either self-select themselves out of the navy, or the medics put a big red stamp on their file, consigning them to a planet-side posting at best, or a medical retirement at worst. A few—very few—of them were able to overcome it.

Over the next hour, a staccato of flashes filled the holo as the rest of the fleet came through. The icons next to each ship went from yellow to green as they individually signaled they were in a nominal condition.

Finally, after far too damn long, he turned to Roe. “Everyone’s accounted for, sir.”

Roe nodded as he stood, leaning over the railing. “Thanks, skipper. Eve, if you’d be so kind as to link in with our carriers. Let’s get those fighter jocks up and earning their three square meals a day. I want ’em in a standard patrol CASP.”

Cutter shook his head at Roe’s back. His informality was utterly alien to the flag ranks of the staid and old Kingdom Navy. Yet somehow, he still managed to efficiently snap out his orders. It was no secret the rest of the admiralty felt he’d been promoted far beyond his ability. But that was when they measured ability in terms of keeping to the navy’s tired dogmatic ways. Truth be told, most of them hadn’t seen combat against an enemy who could actually fight back. Something which had cost the ambitious Admiral Albright, and the fifteen hundred spacers who’d followed her, dearly when she’d taken the Kingdom’s flagship, Cronus, into battle against the Hegemony Astral battleship, Behemoth.

Perhaps this new age required a new type of commander.

From the three carriers, Corvus, Osprey, and Caracaras, a flurry of icons appeared—their fighter squadrons launching. Cutter watched them slide into place around the fleet into a combat aerospace patrol formation. Perhaps, if he admitted to himself, not quite as sharply as the KAF escorts who had protected them on the way to Port Rorian had. By all accounts, they had not long transitioned to the new carrier-variant Tempests, so he supposed that was to be expected. But, once they left the Scyllian Choke, a barren system which marked the entry to the Talos Rift, they would be far beyond the range of the KAF bases. And those carrier pilots were going to be the fleet’s best defense against the Hegemony Aerospace Corps.

The fleet accelerated forward, burning hard to cross the system and headed toward Harding’s Folly, the next system on their route to Valestra.

“You know, Hal.” Roe settled back into his chair and twisted to face him. “There was a time when I used to hate the thought of commanding anything bigger than a destroyer. Perhaps a cruiser, at the outside. Always seemed a bit dull to command a capital ship. You always have to stick firmly to your place in the line. No freedom, no chance to really show any kind of verve or...express yourself.”

Express yourself? Cutter shook his head. Another feature of Roe’s he didn’t know whether to admire or write a strongly worded memo about was the fact the man seemed to enjoy his job far too much.

“I like to think we did against Behemoth,” Cutter finally retorted.

“Maybe, son. Maybe. Still, don’t you envy those more independent commands?” Roe’s single eye twinkled.

“Perhaps. At times.” He did have a point. Battleships tended to lack the flexibility of the smaller ships.

“You know this war will soon spread, don’t you?” Roe said. “The Dawn Empire has its beady little eyes on our holdings in the Void. We’ll soon be sending a good portion of the fleet out that way. The Hegemony is massing its forces at the border of the People’s Worlds. It’ll only be so long before that goes up in flames, too, and we’ll send a contingent to help them out. And seventy-five percent of our flag ranks can’t even be entrusted to seal up their own battlesuit boots. We’re going to need good men and women out there, Hal. Ones who know their arses from their elbows.”

“Flag rank seems a long way away, sir.”

“What I’m saying, in my roundabout kind of way, is that you’ve fought in two of the biggest naval engagements of this war, Hal.” Roe looked at him, the good-natured humor being replaced by earnestness. “I think it’s time for you to be looking up at the next step of the ladder. Maybe get a full combat command in one of those theaters.”

Cutter frowned, taken aback. He’d been a battleship skipper for less than a year prior to the start of the war, and most of that was work-up and space trials for Achilles. Before that, he’d been the XO on the ancient King’s Rally to learn the ropes on a big gun ship, and a cruiser command on the Gladiator before that. The thought of a commodore’s loops on his epaulettes was...strange.

“As flattered as I am—”

“Sir,” Banning called. “I have a high-speed bogey crossing our vector.”

The holo zoomed in, rotating as it did. The dashed green line of the fleet’s trajectory through space was crossed by a red one.

“Ah, the game’s afoot.” Roe stood without delay, his chest and voice rising. “Move to condition two throughout the fleet. I want an intercept attempt on that bogey. Unless it miraculously turns out to be the king’s own racing pinnace, I want it shot out of my skies. Nothing gets close to our fleet.”

On the holo, an icon depicting a flight of Tempests accelerated hard in an effort to meet the unknown target.

***

Corla’s teeth chattered from the vibrations of his Wolf’s powerful engines burning at maximum. He was driving so hard, not even his inertial compensators could take the edge off, leaving him still having to cope with five gees of acceleration.

It didn’t take the brains of the Prime to discern that the collection of at least sixty contacts was the hated Kingdom.

Over the long months bleeding into years of the war, both sides had whittled down the other’s intelligence-gathering and observation stations to nothing in the contested systems. That only left largely ineffective passive platforms, and crewed recon flights.

Corla had elected to take a brute-force approach to running recon missions in the Choke. Jumping fighters in and burning them furiously through the system, and jumping out once they’d crossed a significant portion of it.

By luck, or fortune, it had been his own turn next on the roster when one of the few surviving intrusion detectors had felt the wash of exotic particles across its sensor arrays. The sign that unknown targets were jumping in.

Squinting over his right shoulder, he felt the strain on his neck from the incredible g-forces he was being subjected to. Through the smart glass, he saw his trajectory ladder extending out the side of his Wolf. He was thrusting perpendicular to his course in an effort to wrestle his vector around for a better look at his foe.

He wouldn’t be passing too close to the enemy fleet. His velocity was far too high for him to be able to alter it enough to get near to them. But he should be getting within range to at least get some good readings on what they were.

His threat detectors growled in warning, the sign an enemy search radar had him. He glanced down at the console before him. A blinking set of contacts rose up and away from the fleet, attempting to match his own vector, clearly in a desperate effort to intercept him.

They wouldn’t succeed, not by Corla’s quickly thought-through calculations. He was too fast, and getting faster, and they were coming at him from what was relatively a standing start.

***

Damn it, come on. Rick gritted his teeth through the pressure on his chest. There was not a chance the Kingdom Tempests could catch up using just a conventional engine burn.

The bar graph of his jump drive tuning itself rose painfully slowly. The frustrating problem with the jump drives was they needed to “tune in” so that the craft would come out of its jump at least roughly at the right velocity, and headed in the same direction as their target. If they didn’t, then their target would simply disappear into the distance in fractions of a second at orbital and in-system speeds. But the higher the difference in velocity, the longer that tuning took to compensate for the difference.

And that bogey was moving damn fast.

Rick, Faraday, Sampson, and Pierce were burning hard in an effort to decrease the difference in velocity between them and the bogey, and speed up that tuning process as much as possible.

Fighting through the pressure which seemed to want to snap his neck, he moved his eyes to see their relative trajectory lines. The four Tempests were ahead of the bogey’s course, accelerating hard even as the target was far away, beyond the fleet and headed toward them fast.

At the current speeds they were talking about, it would be around fifteen minutes before the tuning, and their own boosting, would allow them to jump for an intercept.

And by that time, the enemy would have reached perigee with the fleet and would probably be headed home, satisfied its mission was complete.

There just wasn’t any way on Lost Earth they were going to make this intercept. Rick had flown enough recon missions to know that whoever that pilot was, they knew damn well what they were doing, although what could only have been a healthy amount of luck would have played into it. The fighter being at roughly the right place, at the right speed.

“Ma’am,” Rick croaked, his vocal chords vibrating from the sheer power of his engines raging. “This...ain’t...happening.”

“We...have...to...try,” she gasped back.

Yeah, yeah we do. But simple mathematics showed this ain’t going to work.

“Request...break.”

“Say...again?”

Screw it. Rick throttled down, and the pressure on his chest eased in an instant. The three other Tempests surged forward, disappearing into tiny flaming comets among the stars within seconds.

Finally, he could think and speak again.

“Look, ma’am.” He panted, able to speak clearly again. “We ain’t going to make this intercept like this. Permission to jump now, and try for a shot.”

“Impossible...too fast...”

“You let me worry about that,” Rick retorted.

“Dammit...! Fine.”

That’s all I need.

Rick tapped at his jump computer, reprogramming the jump drive. This was going to be one hell of a shot, if he could manage it. The stuff of legends. Something to tell the grandkids about.

If I should live that long.

He finished his calculations and drove the throttle forward. The engine rumbled in response, the invisible elephant lowered its fat ass to sit on his chest again.

Taking a deep breath, he squeezed his eyes closed for a second. Then let them flash open.

Now.

He flicked up the safety on the handle of his throttle and pressed the red button there. The universe disappeared in a flash of red light. And a split second later, stars reappeared through his canopy.

He glanced down at his sensor screen. He’d jumped much closer to the bogey, no, he confirmed it, the bandit. His sensors had just identified it as an S-91 Wolf fighter, one of the lethal fighters fielded by the Hegemony. Something which had torn through the Kingdom forces at Asteria.

It streaked toward him, its rate of closure frighteningly fast. He killed his engines again. Any minor reduction in their relative velocities would have minimal impact on proceedings now.

With the hiss of thrusters, he spun around. His cannons gimballed. The two crosshairs, that of the lead, the point he’d have to aim for to hit the speeding enemy, and the crosshairs showing which way his guns were pointed kissed.

He squeezed the trigger.

***

What on Father Terra?

One of the intercepting fighters had jumped into his path. There wasn’t a chance in hell it could have tuned its jump drive so quickly.

He flicked his eyes painfully to his sensors and quickly took in the stream of numbers rolling next to his foe’s icon. The rate of closure was still immense; his jump drive had been unable to tune itself to reduce it more than moderately.

Was he dealing with an amateur who had panicked and jumped early, or was it—

It was more an afterimage than anything else. It took even Corla’s quick-firing synapses a few seconds to piece together just what had happened.

A line of tracer fire flashed before his cockpit, probably little more than a kilometer in front of him. Then his Wolf thundered through the space so recently vacated by the blue flare of pulse rounds.

The enemy had damn near hit him! A nearly impossible shot at the differences in velocity they were talking about.

He killed his main engines and spun his fighter around. Already the enemy had receded from weapons range. He reached up and tapped the canopy. A window opened and an image grew as the camera zoomed in.

Something tickled the back of Corla’s neck as he swung back around onto his course and drove his throttles forward. The same tickle he’d had when he’d fought that enemy over Port Rorian.

He cast it to the back of his mind. For the moment. He had a job to do. He glanced down as his Wolf lanced past its closest approach to the fleet, gathering a wealth of information.

And then he tapped his comm console, sending it to those back on Bellerophon Three who eagerly awaited.

***

Rick pursed his lips as he looked at the zoomed-in image of the enemy Wolf. As if wanting to see who had dared take a shot at it, the Wolf had cut thrust and spun around briefly as the pilot had reacted to his shot, revealing a black nose cone.

The same nose cone as the fighter over Port Rorian had sported.

The bastard had survived the fight.

And he was here, in the Talos Rift.

An urgent beeping came from his comm. He glanced down, seeing the general fleet channel lighting up. Shaking away the funk, he tapped his console, changing the channel.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday.” A petrified voice nearly burst Rick’s eardrums. “This is Corvus. We’re taking incoming—"

The comm washed out in static before rapidly being replaced by the urgent calls of the fleet coordinators trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.

He snapped his head over to look at the distant fleet. A bright bloom of light dimmed the stars themselves with its intensity.

Shit.

Chapter 14

Captain Holloway – The Scyllian Choke – Caravel

Holloway watched in horror as the stricken carrier tumbled out of formation trailing fire. Three huge wounds in Corvus’s side disgorged billowing plumes of gas and debris, as if the ship was bleeding out.

She reached up and tapped her console. On the smart glass of the main window, a frame opened showing tiny figures twisting and turning amid the devastation. Her eyes locked on one, clad in just a shirt-sleeved ship rig. He spasmed, clutching at his throat.

And then curled into a fetal position. Tumbling, locked in an eternal forward roll.

Lost Earth. The breath caught in her chest. People were dying. There were dozens of them out there. More, probably.

Another explosion blossomed in the carrier’s frame, causing her to start. The ship seemed to physically bend in the middle, her keel undoubtedly broken. Holloway recoiled back into her seat, expecting at any moment for the worst to happen. For the ship to disappear in a bright flash as the ship’s fusion core catastrophically failed.

It could go at any moment. The crew aboard would be frantically trying to stop it, but if it did fail, at the distance Caravel was from Corvus, then there was a damn good chance that she’d cause massive damage to her. Perhaps even take the tanker with the huge carrier.

From their position, they could see into the stern end of the hanger. What was left of the fighters in there being scoured away by storms of debris and flame.

“Pull us back,” she murmured, her voice too weak to be heard. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Pull us back. I want some separation between us and Corvus.”

***

“Get me a vector on those torpedoes and I want the destroyer screen to take down that bloody stealth,” Roe snarled as he spun in his chair. “Confirm Corvus’s reactor has been safed?”

The forward screen was filled with the image of the huge dying ship. A series of explosions had torn massive rents in her sides and looked to have ignited the storage tanks where the fuel for the fighters and bombers was kept, adding to the chaos and devastation.

The screen highlighted a flurry of fleeing escape pods, and the beacons of spacers in their battlesuits, the lucky ones from what Cutter could see, floating free from the ship’s hull.

“Track those pods,” Cutter snapped. This wasn’t going to be like when he’d watched Cronus and thousands of spacers die before his eyes. Not a chance in hell. “Every damn one of them.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Banning called, her voice high-pitched. “I’ve got Captain Barden on the comm.”

“Put her on.”

The image of the devastation to Corvus’s hull was replaced by the chaos aboard. Captain Estelle Barden was buckled into her chair, her visor down but not hiding the angry black eye and welt growing on the side of her face. Around her, sparks cascaded and the ship’s lighting flickered on and off, causing a strange strobing effect. The whoop of the evacuation alarms sounded redundantly, and spacers fled, crawling hand over hand to the exits, their legs dangling useless behind them.

“What’s your status, Estelle?” Roe asked, his voice taunt.

“We’ve got the reactor safed, sir.” She looked down at her console as the screen rocked violently. “We think. But I’m showing massive structural failures throughout the ship. It looks like we’re going to lose integrity completely, so I’ve signaled a level two evac.”

Sensible, Cutter acknowledged, considering how bad the damage looked. A level two evac got everyone who wasn’t essential off, leaving only a core in the hope of saving the ship...or prevent it falling into enemy hands.

Roe agreed with a nod. “Casualties?”

Barden gave a helpless shrug. It must have been hell aboard the massive ship. The butcher’s bill would only come much later, Cutter suspected.

“Okay,” Roe acknowledged. “I’m going to direct some ships your way to begin search and rescue operations. Meanwhile, Estelle, I promise you I’ve got people hunting for the bastard that did this.”

“We had seconds of warning,” Barden’s voice was nearly a sob. Whether of frustration or rage, Cutter couldn’t tell. As close as he’d come, he’d never had a ship shot out from under him as viciously as she just had. “We didn’t even have time to evade.”

“It’s got to be close. We’ll find it,” Roe snapped. He paused for a moment as he glanced down at his console. Cutter saw it showed a status display of the once-proud carrier. Except now, every inch of it flashed red with horrific damage. “Okay, Estelle. Decision made. That ship is far too battered to get back to port. She’s in contested space and I can’t detail off adequate protection. By my books, that makes recovery impossible.”

Cutter felt a sickening feeling in his stomach as he heard the man working through his thought process.

Roe paused for the briefest of moments. Then spoke. Clearly and decisively. “I want her scuttled.”

“Sir? I...”

“Pull yourself together, Captain, and get everyone off. That includes yourself,” Roe continued. “I don’t want a single living spacer left behind and I don’t want any nonsense about going down with your ship. Am I understood?”

Lost Earth. Cutter blinked. Roe had just called for the abandonment and self-destruction of billions of sovereigns of ship. The decision had taken him seconds.

This is why I can’t be an admiral. I would have sacrificed this whole mission for one carrier.

The silence from Barden stretched on for a long moment before she spoke. “Aye aye, sir.”

The screen shut down as she unbuckled herself, replaced again by the view of the shattered carrier. She’d rolled even further from formation, huge chunks of her coming apart and more escape pods racing away from her. The ship steadily dismantling itself as explosions continued wracking through her spaceframe.

“We’re going to need search and rescue shuttles checking that debris,” Cutter said quietly. “There could be people trapped in there.”

Roe nodded, his lips downturned in a frown. He tapped on his tactical console. “Okay, Ms. Banning, cut me a message for Cutlass. My compliments to Captain DeVere, he is to manage SAR operations along with Bowie, then scuttle her remains by whatever he judges to be the most efficient and complete means. They are then to return to New Avalon with all survivors. I want a QE back to Starbase Victory, again with my compliments, but as we are still within range, just, of them providing aerospace cover. They are to do so for rescue operations immediately. Our own aerospace fighters are to intensify cover of the fleet itself.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Hal, check my thinking.”

“Sir?”

“Is that everything? We’re denying Corvus to the enemy. We have cover for the SAR operations. We have cover for us, and we have a squadron of destroyers finding that sonovabitch who just sucker-punched us. Anything I haven’t thought of?”

“We need to tighten up the formation,” Cutter frowned, wracking his brain. The fact the admiral was even asking for a sanity check on his orders showed how different a breed he was from the majority of the Kingdom’s flag ranks. “We’re losing some destroyers to the SAR and hunting the stealth that did this. And by my count, we’ve just lost a third of our own fighter screen, we’re going to need to protect ourselves better.”

“Agreed.” Roe hunched over his console, working furiously on the screen. A minute later, he looked over at Banning. “Commander, a revised formation for you. Get that across to the relevant ships. I want everyone tucked in close. Chances are that stealth was part of a pack so we have to be ready for more trouble.”

“Sir,” Banning cried. “Scimitar has a fix on a possible contact. She’s engaging.”

Roe grunted in acknowledgement as they watched the destroyer arc around, her guns already blazing as she sought revenge.

The expanding cloud debris hunks from the remains of Corvus fell behind the fleet as they powered forward on the jump vector headed for Harding’s Folly.

***

The stars reappeared in a flash as Rick jumped back to the fleet and threaded his way through the collection of ships.

From somewhere ahead, a streamer of blue pulse fire erupted from one of the destroyers, Scimitar. A flash. Something invisible nearby erupted in a devastating explosion.

Revenge, he hoped, for what that sly bastard had just done to the fleet.

Hope you think it was worth it. The explosion bloomed, embers of flaming debris racing out. And no sign of any life-pod transponders.

He banked over the shattered remains of his adopted home, Corvus. The huge cylinder of the carrier had completely lost integrity. All around her were clouds of escaped gases and debris, and fortunately, the blinking lights of SAR shuttles and a pair of destroyers picking through the remains of the ship.

Lost Earth, what a mess. He’d seen ships go down over Asteria. Dozens of them. But they’d been civilian vessels or smaller destroyers, for the most part. Not a huge, indestructible-seeming capital ship like Corvus.

How many of the crew got off? He felt his chest tighten at the thought. The glimpse of faces in the corridors. His fellow pilots in the briefing room. There had been well over a thousand onboard. And now they were dead, or huddled in escape pods desperately escaping the wreckage.

With a red flash, Faraday’s Tempest jumped in next to his, followed a moment later by Sampson and Pierce. There was no chatter. The squadron comm net was silent. Their fighter controller either busy saving themselves.

Or dead.

Where now?

They couldn’t get back to Kingdom space. They’d burnt the two jump cycles their fighters could manage. They needed to dock on one of the other carriers.

“Fleet command, India One,” Faraday spoke hesitantly. Was she mourning? She had to have dead friends onboard...she’d been stationed on Corvus far longer than he had. Hell, three quarters of her squadron alone were unaccounted for. “We’re running low on fuel.”

“Roger, India One. We’re just pulling ourselves together here. Wait out.”

“I know,” Faraday’s voice was tight, choked. “And acknowledged.”

Silence reigned over the squadron net. Had they been forgotten about in the chaos? They were dry on fuel after their high-speed burn to catch up with the recon bandit.

With the Ace.

Rick glanced down at his console. His fuel levels were dipping into the red.

“Want me to...shout up?”

A sniff. Then the commander’s voice came through. Clearer. Stronger. “Negative. I got it. Fleet command, India flight from Corvus. We have just completed an intercept mission and are at bingo fuel. Requesting advice for landing.”

“India Flight, this is Fleet Coordination,” a woman’s voice replied. “We’re just looking into that now. Standby—”

“India Flight, this is Osprey Actual,” a voice interrupted. “Sorry to butt in. I am clearing my deck. We’ll be crowded on Osprey, but please come on in. Switch to channel one-one-zero for the landing officer.”

“Thank you, Osprey Actual. India Flight switching to one-one-zero, out.”

Rick slotted into Faraday’s wing, the four fighters swinging around in formation before throttling up, headed toward the cluster of ships which were leaving the corpse of Corvus, and the expanding blossom of debris which was her attacker, far behind.

And their new home. The Carrier Osprey.

Chapter 15

Major Corla – Bellerophon Three

Corla could have activated the VTOL mode of his Wolf and come straight down onto a landing pad. But they’d been ordered, in no uncertain terms, that such a thing was a waste of fuel. Instead, he banked his Wolf around onto the approach for the runway. With the flick of a switch, his landing gear rumbled down and gave a clunk as the wheels locked into place below him.

The runway swelled before him, lodged neatly in the sun-drenched valley on a world in the outskirts of the Republic. The airfield buildings, those that hadn’t been destroyed in the invasion, at least, lay in orderly rows. As were the fighters which the base serviced. Everything was as it should be, the epitome of Hegemony efficiency.

Something he normally took pride in. Normally.

This time, his thoughts kept ranging back to the recon mission. How close the enemy had come to hitting him with an impossible shot at such tremendous speed differences, and at such a range.

The logical portion of his brain knew there must be other Kingdom pilots out there with the ability of the Pilot. Ones with the same raw skill as the one who he had fought over Port Rorian. But his gut was telling him something else. That this was the same person. The same one who’d managed what he thought was impossible. To shoot him down.

Dammit! The runway bloomed in his vision. The laser landing system which guided him in on the optimal path bleeped repetitively in concern.

He pulled back on his stick, near belatedly flaring the muscular fighter. It hovered for a few seconds above the tarmac, then gently sank. With a brief screech, the landing gear kissed the tarmac.

His fighter juddered as he braked hard, slamming the throttles back past their natural stop, activating the thrust reversers with a thunderous roar.

Corla took a breath. What was wrong with him? He needed to focus. With an enemy like that Kingdom pilot out there, he couldn’t afford to make the kind of mistakes he was. He needed to aspire to the perfection that all Neos should. Not let fears and worries get in the way.

He pushed down on the right rudder, taxiing off the runway, and followed the paint-daubed line around the row of fighters to its assigned place.

With the flick of switches, he shut down his fighter and angrily pulled off his helmet. Sweat dripped from his brow and he swiped his flight suit sleeve across his brow. A moment later, the grinning face of a tech appeared next to the cockpit.

With a whine, his canopy opened.

“Morning, sir,” the tech said cheerily. “Cut the landing a little fine there.”

“What?” The words cut through Corla’s funk like a knife. He turned to the tech. “Say that again?”

The man must have seen something in his eyes. He dry swallowed even as his grin turned pained. “Are you okay, sir? Any issues with the fighter? If the landing control computer is—”

Corla reached out and grabbed the man by the scruff of his working rig and hauled him close. The man’s hands reached for Corla’s, trying to pry the grip open. “You think you’re funny? Perhaps you think we’re friends? Maybe you even think we can engage in banter? Do you?”

The man shook his reddening head, choking noises coming in response as Corla squeezed his throat harder.

“What?” Corla snarled. “I didn’t hear you?”

“No,” the man gasped desperately.

“No what?” Corla eased on his grip a touch.

“No, Major.”

Corla released his hold, pushing away at the same time. The tech fell back from the ladder, thudding to the ground nearly two meters below. Other techs gathered around him protectively as he drew himself onto his knees.

“Report to Executor Lerger,” Corla snapped at the inferior below as he stood up in his cockpit. “I’m sure she will be very interested in your lack of professionalism. Inform her I will be attending shortly when I have completed my intelligence downloads.”

The man’s face went from red to white in an instant. His comrades physically recoiled from him, as if he were somehow the bearer of a horrific contagion.

“Sir?” the tech asked, desperate pleading in his voice.

“Was I somehow unclear?”

“No, Major.” The man rolled onto all fours then scampered away from the fighter.

Corla shook his head in disgust at what he had just seen. How the hell did these idiots think they’d win this war?

***

“Hail Prime.” Corla snapped his fist across his breast as he entered the repurposed office building.

The woman sitting behind the desk wore the black suit of an Executor, unadorned by rank or regalia markings.

“Hail Prime.” She stood, returning the salute. Then her eyes tracked to his left. He turned his head, following her gaze. “Major, why is this man gibbering about how sorry he is?”

The technician who he’d been forced to admonish quivered in the corner.

“It occurs to me, Executor, that here on the outskirts of the occupied Republic, we are letting familiarity get in the way of professionalism and discipline,” Corla said slowly. He had admitted to himself grudgingly, in the short walk over, that he may have...overreacted. Still, that left the small problem that something had to be done now that he’d raised the tech to the Executor’s attention, lest it was his judgement which was questioned. He fluttered his hand dismissively. “This man is merely the latest example of many. The straw which has broken the camel’s back, some might say. It is your responsibility, I believe, to take the appropriate measures.”

The Executor pressed a forefinger to her lips as she stared at the terrified man in consideration. “You are right, Major. We will need to gain a fuller understanding as to the reasons for this and what the underlying cause may be. Perhaps it is my failing in not being as tough as I should be.”

She tapped the console on her desk. A moment later, one of her deputies, clad in a leather trench coat, entered. “Take this man to the brig. I will have some questions about his performance which he will need to answer.”

The deputy nodded and rested his hand on the pistol at his belt. He inclined his head at the door. The trembling tech left wordlessly, his face drained of all color.

“More crucially...” Corla waved a hand at the desk chair, setting the so-recent unpleasantness behind him. Lerger nodded, and he took a seat. “My recon flight raised an issue.”

“Go on.”

The Executors wore many hats in the Hegemony. They were a powerful military contingent in and of themselves. They enforced discipline, and rooted out undesirable elements. They also were the conduit for the military, including his pilots and crews, to get information back to high command.

Corla laid his tablet on the desk and pressed a key to cast his camera and sensor footage across to the Executor’s screen taking up one wall.

An image of the dozens of enemy ships making their way through the Scyllian Choke, the entrance of the Talos Rift, filled it.

The Executor frowned as she looked at it. “What are we looking at here?”

Corla shrugged. “This has come straight to you. I’ve not put it through the analysts yet. Maybe ten transports. A couple of battleships and a handful of carriers. Lots of smaller ships, probably escorts.”

“And you thought a tech catching you on a bad day was more pressing news to me than this?” Lerger narrowed her eyes as she turned to stare hard at him.

Curling his lip contemptuously, Corla looked back at her. She may have struck fear into the hearts of the more lowly, but he had connections. And he was one of the heroes of the Hegemony. He certainly wouldn’t be easily intimidated by her type.

“It is of no matter.” She blinked first.

“Just before I jumped, I registered an explosion on one of the carriers.”

Lerger nodded. “That is no surprise. There are stealth packs operating in the Rift who had access to your telemetry. It seems prudent that they took the opportunity to attack. It is, however, unlikely they would be in a position to make a fuller report until they evade the escorts which are undoubtedly hunting them as we speak.”

Or had been destroyed, Corla thought. The stealth skipper must have been brave to prosecute an attack against those kind of odds.

She stood, clasping her hands behind her back. “I will report this to high command immediately.”

Corla rose from the chair. “And I will prepare the squadron to mount an attack.”

Lerger nodded. “Agreed. Standby, however. While matters of an operational nature are of course within your purview, let us see, shall we not, if we can acquire some more support for your efforts.”

“That would be most welcome.”

“It is perhaps time to enlist the aid of our Iconian allies in the region.” She turned and lowered herself back onto her seat.

“My preference would be for this to be a Hegemony operation.” He frowned at her. The Iconians? Useless pompous shadows of the Hegemony with their little “Regime.”

“I understand, Major.” Lerger leaned back. “However, this is their backyard. And frankly, it is time for our new coalition partners to start earning their status as our allies.”

“Very well,” he said resignedly. “But I want operational command of the aerospace elements. I’m not being led by some...inferior.”

“Naturally.” The Executor nodded. “Excuse me, Major. I have some work to do.”

“Of course.” Corla snapped his heels together. “Hail Prime.”

“Hail Prime.” Lerger tapped her fist dismissively to her breast.

Chapter 16

Lieutenant Commander Draper – Iconian System – KSS Ghost

Even the soft bleeping of Ghost’s instruments and the quiet chatter of her crew was intrusive to a woman who valued silence. Still, even though she was the captain, it would be a little unreasonable to demand they keep their mouths closed throughout her stealth at all times.

And what was definitely unreasonable was that the Iconians could somehow hear them. Yet, that was what she imagined. That somehow, despite the physical impossibility, the soundwaves would carry through the vacuum of space to the eagerly listening ears of their enemy.

Ridiculous, Nisha. She wasn’t a woman overly given to flights of fantasy nor a wandering mind, but something about being this deep in enemy territory meant her mind worked overtime, constantly cycling through possible threats and how to overcome them.

Or, maybe, it was some kind of genetic memory of her nautical forebearers on Lost Earth.

Equally ridiculous, she scolded herself.

She rotated in her chair, looking at the tactical display adorning the bulkhead.

Ghost had slipped into the Iconian System and was drifting, unpowered on a course arcing through the spiraling inner planets of the primary star. Her passives hungrily hoovered up every available piece of information.

And it was busy, as well it should be. This was the capital of the Regime. The Hegemony’s most significant ally.

She focused in on Tiberon. The capital world, ringed by massive orbital fortresses, vast docks, and civilian and naval shipping.

A thin smile crossed her face. Rumor had it that the Iconians’ fuel supplies were in a desperate state. They may have the largest battleship force in the Rift—four, at the last count, with another two under construction. It was a force which would have rivalled the Republic’s, perhaps even have given pause to the might of the Kingdom Navy. But the reality was they were relegated to little more than floating fortresses circling endlessly in orbit to supplement the capital’s defenses.

The alert chimed and the view spiraled in closer.

“Interesting,” she breathed as a stream of icons poured away from one of the larger shipyards. First a few, then a dozen.

Then more.

“Mister Grimes, what are we looking at here?”

The sensor officer huddled over his console, his glistening brow furrowed in concentration. “I’m just working it up now, skipper.”

Draper nodded. They were at too high a range to get an accurate reading with passives, she knew. And as tempted as she was to give an active pulse, that would give them away to the many ships and patrol boats in the system, not to mention the Regime’s aerospace fighters, any one of which would likely be able to take out Ghost in a straight fight.

No, there was a longer game to be played here.

Over the next few hours, more sparse information trickled into Ghost’s eager sensors. Grimes poured over it with the focus of an obsessive compulsive while Draper waited with the patience of a saint. She knew better than to poke or prod him. He would report when he had something to say. To be a stealth’s sensor operator required skills bordering on magic, and interpreting the passives was as much an art as technical ability.

“Skipper, I have some initial findings.” Grimes finally turned to her. Draper stood and walked to his station, ducking her head beneath the piping and cabling filling the cramped space.

He gestured at his screen as Draper hunkered over his shoulder. “These three here, I reckon they could be heavy cruisers. We’re getting a lot of engine burn without a high level of acceleration. If I was a betting man, I’d say that one”—he gestured at one unremarkable icon—“is Granith. Just ’cause of the way the sensor pulses—”

“If that’s your assessment, I don’t need the fine detail,” Draper cut him off as she squinted at the display. “Granith, you say? That would make the other two Braze and Trigue.”

“Exactly, skipper. I’m confident on calling bogey two as Braze. The third not so much.” Grimes shrugged. “But I think it’s safe to assume that’s the Iconian 3rd Cruiser Division, which would be about right to call it as Trigue. Three more contacts I’m calling as probable light cruisers. Sorry, skipper. I’m struggling to determine which from this range. The rest are destroyers.”

Draper pursed her lips and nodded distractedly. Three heavy cruisers, three lights, and their escorting flock of destroyers was quite a deployment for the fuel-starved Iconian Regime. The only way they would sortie that amount of ships was for a purpose. A very specific purpose.

Like an attempt at intercepting the convoy coming through the Rift.

She pulled away from the console, considering the still-blinking icons on the screen, slowly accelerating toward the Karis hyper vector. She didn’t know what the convoy escort was like, but rumor had it, it was big. Probably much bigger than the force that the Iconians had mustered. But the crucial difference was this assault fleet wouldn’t be constrained with having to protect anything. It would be a mailed fist, slamming into the convoy. The destroyers screening the heavy cruisers, which would have one purpose and one purpose only—to wreak devastation among the transports.

“What you thinking, skipper?” Grimes turned his head, eyeing her.

“I think we may have found our objective, Mister Grimes.” She couldn’t help but give a thin smile.

He returned it as he looked up at her with tired eyes, the perspiration on his face glistening under the red battle lamps. “Odds will be long, skipper.”

“When is it not for a stealther?” Draper murmured as she turned back to take her seat on the cramped bridge. “Mister Hargreaves, I want us shadowing them. Quiet as you can.”

“Aye aye, ma’am.” Her helm officer tapped his console.

With a soft whine from somewhere behind, the stealth’s fusion core trickled energy into the ship’s engines.

The hunt was on.

Chapter 17

Captain Cutter – Scyllian Choke – KSS Achilles

With every safety deliberately deactivated on the carrier’s reactor, and her computers wiped, the huge ship exploded.

A flash of light. Then there was nothing left of the once proud vessel but an expanding shockwave of fiery embers.

Cutter watched as Roe spoke intently with Banning, a somber look on the admiral’s face. A moment later, he slowly made his way to the command podium and mounted the steps. He settled into his seat, his lips pursed and brow furrowed.

They sat in silence for a long moment. He gave up trying to busy himself checking the ship’s status displays, and instead asked the question he was desperate for the answer to. The information the whole fleet wanted to know.

“How many, sir?”

The admiral took a deep breath in, his lips curling into a hollow mockery of his normal, jaunty grin. “The good news is we pulled 929 crew from Corvus and her lifeboats. Surprisingly few of them with serious injuries.”

“And the bad?”

Roe lowered his eyes, the seriousness taking over once again. “231 men and women, Hal.”

Cutter closed his eyes. 231 sons and daughters. Wives and husbands. Mothers and fathers. In another age, before this damn war started, that would have been a frightening amount to lose. A tragedy which would have shocked the navy to its core.

Nowadays, it was just more numbers for the butcher’s bill. And when balanced against the tens of thousands at Port Rorian, and the thousands lost to the Behemoth, not that many.

He shook his head. How had they reached the stage where hundreds dead was seen as “not that bad”?

Corvus had four fighters up, running an intercept,” Roe continued, his voice still strong. “But the rest were unsalvageable.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah,” Roe muttered. “One damn stealth snuck in and in a single shot took out twenty percent of our fighter coverage. At least the bastard is dead.”

Cutter grunted. It was some small satisfaction, he supposed. Whoever the captain of that stealth had been, they’d been cunning enough to sneak their way through the destroyer screen. One less of the supremely competent Hegemony Astral’s skilled attack skippers and crews was to be welcomed. “What does this do for our aerospace support?”

The cold, calculating math seeped into his mind again. The simple fact was, that Corvus was—had been—the oldest, and smallest of the three carriers with thirty fighters and bombers aboard. The larger Osprey and Caracaras carried fifty each. The truth was, losing one of them would have been critical. Corvus, though, as hard a blow as it was, wasn’t quite a showstopper.

It was just a hell of a gut punch.

“It’s going to be hard on the pilots and carrier deck crews, once we move into Harding’s Folly.” Roe rubbed his chin as he contemplated the long hours the pilots and crews would be putting in, flying combat patrols over the fleet.

There just wasn’t any getting around that. Not right now, anyway. There were no other carriers which could be dispatched to pick up the slack. Every available ship had already been dragged into the convoy. When they entered Harding’s Folly, they’d be well out of range of the nearest KAF base.

“Everyone’s going to have to take a step up here.”

“Yeah.” Roe rubbed his chin again. “Screw it. Commander Banning, pipe me through to the fleet.”

“Sir?” She looked up at him from her position by the holo.

“We’ve just taken a big hit,” Roe said, his voice becoming firmer, regaining its confidence. “That means we’re going to have a lot of scared spacers out there. I think it’s a time to put a little battle-steel up their spines.”

“Sir.” Banning tapped her console, and nodded at the admiral.

***

Caravel’s bridge had been deathly silent since the tumbling wreckage of Corvus had receded out of view. Holloway watched as the huge ship became nothing more than a star, against a backdrop of others.

Then, in the distance, came a flash of light. What was left of the ship being scuttled.

For Holloway, the sickening emptiness in her stomach was her body’s physical reaction to so much death and destruction.

She’d tried to maintain her composure, as a captain should, as she’d been trained to do in the course the navy gave to “upgrade” civilian shipping line officers to the Fleet Auxiliary. She was a civvy at heart, though. A few short months ago, the closest she’d ever been to combat was breaking up the inevitable fistfights of spacers with too much time on their hands, and too few ways to vent their frustrations.

“Ma’am,” the soft, subdued voice of the communications officer said. “We have a fleet-wide message from Admiral Roe.”

She spun in her chair. “Put him on.”

On the forward window, the admiral’s framed face appeared.

“Officers and spacers of the fleet, this is Admiral Roe. A moment of your time.” The old pirate paused, as if gathering his thoughts. “You may have noticed those Hegemony bastards put a damn big hole in one of our carriers. That is something every spacer in the fleet will feel as a personal punch to the chops. Me as much as any of you. Due to this, and without the means to safely recover her in contested space, we have been forced to scuttle Corvus.”

He paused again. “Make no mistake, it hurts. I know it hurts. And the Hegemony knows they’ve hurt us. But Valestra needs the supplies we carry. So, I’m going to need you all to pick yourselves up. To stand firm. And to not let despair take you. We will get through to our destination, but I’ll need each and every one of you to do your part. To help us break through. To do your bit in making sure we succeed. Roe, out.”

His face disappeared. Replaced by the collection of ships gathered ahead of Caravel.

Holloway rested her chin on her fist as she watched the fleet before her. Fine words, but there’s still a long, long way to go.

Chapter 18

Major Corla – Harding’s Folly

A staccato of dozens of flashes signaled the Kingdom fleet had entered Harding’s Folly. Embers of sparkling exotic particles dissipated in a glorious electric display as the ships of the Kingdom poured back into real space.

Corla drifted in his fighter, unpowered. Watching for what was to come.

It was time to see just what the Hegemony was truly facing here in the Rift. And see how good this enemy really was.

He tapped his console, activating the QE link back to the Bellerophon system. “Execute.”

He didn’t receive an acknowledgement. Nor did he expect one. What would happen next would be all that was required.

Corla leaned back in his seat and waited.

He had a show to enjoy.

***

“The fleet is all through and assembling into formation,” Commander Banning called.

“Thank you, Eve,” Roe responded.

Cutter glared at the holo. Harding’s Folly was well inside the striking range for the Hegemony fighters’ jump drives staging at the bases in the shattered remains of the Republic. It was, most assuredly, game time.

“Contacts,” Commander Banning shouted. The holo spun dizzyingly, focusing on a collection of icons. A swarm of fighters and bombers surged from the expanding ripples of exotic particles washing out the sensors. “I have many bogeys.”

Swiping down his visor, locking it place, Cutter buckled up his harness. “Set condition one throughout the ship. Anti-aerospace batteries up. Dispersion shields up. Prepare for combat maneuvers at my discretion.”

The battle lamps on the bridge switched to a hellish red glow as he glanced across at Roe. The admiral bellowed out orders quickly and decisively, “I want the alert fighters up. Commodore Fast? I want the 15th destroyer flotilla positioned between us and those incoming on the double.”

“What do we have, Eve?” Cutter called out.

“I make it...thirty plus bogeys,” Banning responded sharply. “I am calling them as bandits. Probable Raptor fighter-bombers of various configurations.”

“Understood.” Cutter frowned. Thirty wasn’t a hell of a lot. Not really, against a fleet of this size.

On the holo, he watched as the fleet started to reposition to face the attack. A stream of Tempest fighters surged from the carriers even as the destroyers raced to get into position.

“Game time.” Roe grinned.

***

The opening to the flight deck raced toward Rick as his Tempest tore forward on its electromagnetic catapult. A moment later, he exploded into space.

“Good cat,” he bellowed, snapping his stick over to make room for the other fighters magnum-launching behind.

Space was congested, filled with dozens of ships and fighters. On his HUD, he saw the red box outlining the direction from which the collection of enemy Raptors was coming.

“Form up on my wing,” Faraday snapped. “The tin cans are going to be putting up a hell of a lot of defensive fire. Whatever you do, don’t drift into that or your careers are going to be very short.”

Rick banked over, joining his flight leader. Sticking like glue to the woman, even as the other fighters somewhat less sharply moved into position.

“Time to play, girl.” He reached out and patted the console. This Tempest may not have been a Kingdom Aerospace Force bird, but she’d made a brave effort on the intercept. It was time to see what she did in a real dogfight.

***

From his position, high above the fleet, Corla watched the battle unfold almost in 2D. Thirty Raptors, the Hegemony’s finest multi-role attack craft, surged toward the enemy. Some were configured as pure bombers, able to lob their massive ordnance toward the enemy. Others were fitted out as torpedo bombers, sleeker, more pinpoint weapons. Yet others, with a single medium pulse cannon, were able to stitch devastating lines of destruction before them.

Corla frowned slightly. The Kingdom reacted well, their legendary discipline holding firm. A squadron of destroyers curved around with surprising rapidity, interspersing themselves between the fleet and the incoming Raptors. A moment later, a beautiful, twinkling flurry of lights appeared, lighting space in their path. A flak barrage creating a deadly wall of fire and destruction.

The Raptors swung up, over, and around the pops of defensive fire. The explosions tracked them, even as they began evading and threading toward the fleet.

***

A whole quadrant of Rick’s view became an exploding maelstrom as the destroyer and cruisers laid down a flak screen.

“Wait for it...” Faraday urged.

The Tempests circled the inner core of the fleet, keeping away from the tumultuous light show the enemy Raptors would be passing through. The Raptors may have been comparatively well armored for aerospace craft, but that didn’t mean he envied them having to run that gauntlet. Not one bit.

“Wait for it...” she repeated.

The sleek wedge of one of the Raptors blew through the flak screen. Then another. They slammed through the fleet. More burst through, some of them streaming smoke and debris.

“Fleet Actual, shut down flak screen,” Faraday called loudly. “All fighters, break and attack.”

As if a switch had been flicked, the barrage ended, leaving just glistening, dispersing embers of fire.

Rick slammed his throttle forward and felt himself being rammed back into his seat harder than his compensators could cushion against. His sensor display was a mess, and once again, like over Asteria and Port Rorian, he was reduced to trying to pick out the enemy by sight alone.

Backdropped by one of the huge battleships, a Raptor tore by with a bulky looking cannon slung underneath it. Rick wrenched his stick over, pulling himself in a circle so tight he slammed painfully into the thick padding of his seat. The nose of his fighter touched the rear of the rapidly moving enemy craft and he squeezed the trigger.

Two streamers of pulse fire lashed out, passing a few scant meters from his quarry’s wing. The Raptor nosed down, responding to his attack, flashing under Achilles so close that its engine wash caused a crackle of blue lightning across the battleship’s dispersion shielding.

Growling in frustration, Rick glanced around, seeking another target. A pair of Raptors ripped by in the opposite direction, too fast to even think about reacting to.

There.

Rick lined up on another speeding toward one of the freighters. He squeezed his trigger firmly. Two lines of pulse fire reached for it.

And kissed its wing.

The Raptor began spiraling. Rick gritted his teeth, nervous for a moment at the thought the damn thing would slam into a friendly craft in the heavily congested space.

Then, a red flash as it activated its jump drive, the enemy fleeing.

Dammit. Rick winced. He couldn’t even give himself a partial on that one.

He glanced over as an explosion blossomed, then a Tempest tore through the dispersing cloud of debris. The other Raptor.

“Splash one,” Faraday called, her voice cool and calm.

A fourth enemy aerospace craft streaked across his view and he hauled his Tempest around. The bandit hugged close to the complicated hull of one of the huge transports, firing its light guns as it went.

Rick’s crosshairs met its exhaust and he squeezed the trigger. He kept his fire locked tight on the target. Round after round slammed into it. The Raptor disintegrated under the onslaught, turning from pristine craft into a fan of fiery debris peppering the transport’s hull, leaving scars and blemishes.

“Splash one,” he snapped, already pulling away from the hull of the transport and looking for his next target.

“Better hope you ain’t gonna get billed for that freighter’s paintwork, Rick,” Sampson called, his voice high and excited from adrenaline.

Rick frowned, putting the lack of comm discipline to one side. There’d be time enough to admonish the man later.

His frown turned to a hint of a smile as he hunted. Sartis Shipping could send him an invoice for the damage if they were so inclined.

***

Corla watched the spectacular light show, occasionally glancing down at his sensor console. Many of the icons denoting enemy ships flickered from “unknown” to named as the Raptors’ sensors read just what they were facing and compared it to the Hegemony intelligence databases and the returns of his own recon flight. Completing the picture of what was out here.

He nodded in satisfaction. That would be enough. They knew now what they were facing and their dispositions. That meant they could put in place real plans to take on this encroaching enemy.

He locked his tight beam laser on the lead Raptor. “That’s enough. Withdraw. Immediate execute.”

The Raptors didn’t respond. They didn’t need to. Instead, a ripple of red flashes interspersed between the ships of the Kingdom fleet as the fighter bombers escaped.

He gave a thin smile. The mission had most definitely been accomplished. Not only did they have the rest of the ship types, they had an idea on how good the navy’s fighters were.

Considering what he’d just seen, he wasn’t very impressed. Oh, they had managed to score some kills, but not nearly as many as they should have. Not nearly as many as his forces would have.

He gave a thin smile and reached forward to activate his own jump drive.

Chapter 19

Captain Cutter – Harding’s Folly – KSS Achilles

“...And again, good work, boys and girls.” Roe stood on the command podium, his hands theatrically wedged on his hips as if he were a captain on the poop deck from the age of sail on Lost Earth. “Roe, out.”

He stepped away from his console and walked over to Cutter. “Right, reality check. Those fascist bastards were either severely incompetent or—”

“Or, they were probing our defenses.” Cutter finished the thought. There was no damn way the Hegemony was stupid enough to think such a small force would have been successful against the defenses of the fleet. Their objective was to test the convoy, figure out exactly what they were facing, and ascertain which ships were here so they could plan for it.

It’s what he would have done in that situation.

Roe nodded in agreement. They both knew that the Hegemony was far from incompetent, and that left only the other option. “Okay, we’ll count our blessings we haven’t taken any real damage or losses and stick at condition two throughout the fleet. I don’t want to be caught with our pants down if...when they come back.”

“Sounds good to me, sir.”

Cutter inclined his head at Banning. She gave a nod of acknowledgment before leaning over her console to transmit the orders to the fleet.

***

Caravel’s bridge crew gave a collective groan and Holloway could sympathize. Being at condition two meant they were stuck in the tight, uncomfortable battlesuits steadily stewing in their own juices. Quite literally.

The only plus side was if Caravel got holed, it meant death wouldn’t be instant. Still, after a few hours in the damn things, many of the crew would begin to view that as almost preferable.

The attack had been quick, and fortunately light in terms of damage. Still, a flurry of Hegemony fighter-bombers had roared across the fleet. One crossed so close across the bow of Caravel that she swore she’d have been able to reach out and touch it.

But then, it had been over just as quickly, the enemy beaten off by the massive amounts of firepower their escorts had put out.

Or had they?

When the enemy had activated their jump drives and fled, the bridge crew had cheered like they were the supporting crowd at a soccer game where their team had just won. But she suspected their attack served a different purpose. And, considering the order to stick at the second-highest alert they could, that was a view which was shared by the fleet commanders.

Yeah, staying at condition two was a good call. Better a little bit of discomfort, and going home to her family, than relaxing in defiance of orders and being left a frozen corpse floating in the depths of space for all eternity.

Chapter 20

Major Corla – Bellerophon Three

Fighters and bombers roared deafeningly through the dawning sky in an oval holding pattern, patiently waiting their turn to touch down on the battered runway of the aerospace field.

Loitering wasn’t for a squadron leader, though. One of the perks of command, and the fact he had vital intelligence to share, meant as soon as the critically damaged birds were down, he had been one of the next to land.

Corla slid down the metal ladder abutting the muscular squatting form of his Wolf, landing on the tarmac between a pair of silent and now deferential techs, and looked around. In the few hours he’d been away, the base had gone from a frontier field of the Hegemony to one upon which dozens, if not hundreds of aerospace craft from all across the coalition were staging.

Lerger, he admitted, had done a damn good job stripping every available asset from neighboring commands to mount a truly decisive assault on the Kingdom fleet.

Speaking of which...

The woman walked toward him across the pockmarked tarmac of the taxiway, her leather trench coat swishing back and forth in time with her steps. Pacing to keep up beside her was a man dressed in the flamboyantly cut flight suit of an Iconian Regime Aerospaca Colonnello.

Corla fought to keep his lips from curling into a sneer as the man marched toward him. He came to a halt with a theatrical double step.

Iconians. Full of pomp and ceremony. But really? Ill-disciplined inferiors. Once the most immediate threats are done, it’d be their turn to feel our boots pressing them to the muck.

“Major Corla,” the executor announced, pleasingly and properly giving the Galton officer primacy over mere rank in the introductions. “Meet Colonnello Farodia.”

“Colonnello.” Corla beat his fist against his chest in a casual, disdainful salute.

The man waved it off, not even bothering to return it with the Iconian salutation. “Major, I would love to say it is a pleasure to meet you, but the circumstances. They appear testing and troublesome, no?”

“Testing, undoubtedly.” Corla inclined his head as he took the measure of the pompous fool. The potbelly above his waist a contrast to his own trim form, and the slouch of his shoulders spoke volumes as to his lack of discipline. He was, Corla decided, a waste of air. “Troublesome, no. We are warriors and this is what we live for.”

The roar of a landing Iconian fighter-bomber, an Aggresar if Corla wasn’t mistaken, drowned out Farodia’s response. His lips opened and closed like a goldfish’s. Undoubtedly, he was saying something insightful. It was a regret he was missing whatever this pearl of wisdom was. Corla waited until the craft taxied away and the racket lowered to a level in which they could speak once again, before gesturing at the commandeered command center, not bothering to ask the Colonnello to repeat himself. “Come.”

Together, they crossed the hot shimmering tarmac, the thunder of engines preventing any more discussion until they entered the air-conditioned darkness of the still battle-damaged structure.

“Colonnello,” Corla placed his helmet gently on the circular briefing table glowing in the center of the darkened operations room. “You have undoubtedly received a briefing packet outlining what we are facing out here—”

“Yes, yes,” the Colonnello interrupted with another wave of his hand, his face lit by the display. “Our intelligence services have concluded we are looking at what could be an invasion force, with a likely target of the Sphere.”

Corla flashed a confused look at the Executor, whose lips turned down disapprovingly in response. Where on Father Terra had they gotten that from? “An invasion force?”

“Why else would they move such a large fleet through the Rift? Yet, it is a force too small to mount a viable attack on the Occupied Republic, Galton space, or indeed the Regime. That leaves the only target as the Sphere.”

“With respect to your analysts, Colonnello—” Lerger’s voice held anything but respect.

“You? How should I address you?” Farodia turned to her with a patronizing smile. “You are an Executor, are you not? Is that sufficient? Or do you hold a rank? You and your little secret police agency confuse me.”

Corla blinked. Lerger might have been one of the less...robust Executors he had known. And he knew he had the political capital as a hero of Port Rorian to negate the usual fears borne by people toward them. But even he knew there was a line. And public disrespect was it.

It was a pity that the Colonnello didn’t fall under her jurisdiction. If he had been of the Hegemony, his next stop would likely have been Lerger’s private chambers in the basement of the command center.

“Executor is the correct form of address.” Lerger’s voice was ice. No doubt she was already thinking of the horrendous things she would wish on him in her facility.

“Very well, Executor.” Farodia turned back to the table and leaned over it. “The analysis is sound. We are facing multiple transports, with a significant warship presence containing serious hitting power in the form of the battleships. We can only conclude they are—”

“Colonnello,” Corla interrupted the idiot, putting steel in his voice as he tapped his tablet, casting his captured data to the table. It flickered to life; tiny red holograms of Kingdom ships blinked into existence, hovering above the shiny black surface in the formation they’d last been seen in. Many of them, thanks to the probing attack, now had the designation of individual ship names, or at least classes, next to them. Corla gestured at the rotating wireframe models of the enemy vessels. “Look at them. They have two battleships of the Vengeance class and seven cruisers, most of which are Warriors. But the majority of the warships are of destroyer tonnage. This force is built to protect the transports. Not to cut into enemy territory and offer bombardment support for an invasion.”

“It is sufficient to get into the Sphere,” Farodia said with a shrug. “They could easily mount an attack on one of the coalition entrances.”

“There are better courses for them to follow,” Corla said in exasperation. How could this man be so stupid? Disbelieving the evidence of his own eyes? “This convoy serves one purpose and one purpose only. That is to reinforce Valestra before they lose it. An objective which is crucial to them so as to maintain a presence in the Rift.”

“I suppose,” Farodia replied. “Its destination is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. We will destroy it here and now, no? To that end, the Regime has committed over a hundred fighters and bombers to this endeavor.”

An impressive amount, Corla supposed, on such short notice. The Hegemony had managed to only obtain a little more than half of that number of frames. The Aerospace Corps was so heavily committed in every theater, especially staging for what would be a major assault on the savage, infested worlds of the People. No commander would be in any mood to release anything unless the leadership put a gun to their heads first. To be fair to Lerger, she’d done impressively well to get the sixty Raptors and Wolfs she had obtained.

“As well as sortieing our mighty fleet,” the Colonnello continued as Corla fought to quell a scoff of derision. Mighty fleet? Most Iconian ships were stuck in port due to lack of fuel unless the situation was truly dire. And as for their battleships? They may as well be relabeled as what they actually were—orbital forts.

“Once we confirm the enemy’s final objective...which, I’m still betting on being the sphere...” The Colonnello gave the Executor a wink. Corla winced, wondering if he was about to watch a man have his testicles torn from between his legs. Somehow, the woman contained herself from indulging in one of the Executors’ preferred methods of punishment for inferiors. “...Then they will be committed.”

“And,” Lerger said, her voice audibly straining with restraint. “How many ships is the Regime committing to this end?”

“Six cruisers, three of them heavies, and a suitable destroyer screen to get them to their targets. We also have available a large number of our fast attack craft,” he said, the pride dripping like Iconian olive oil from his words. “Of course, this would need supporting by your and our aerospace power to even up the odds for them.”

Corla nodded. As much as he would have appreciated the Regime committing one or more of their four battleships, realistically, that was never going to happen. The sad truth was both qualitatively, and quantitatively, the Kingdom truly had the coalition outmatched in terms of raw naval might. Or they did now that Behemoth was nothing but dispersing wreckage somewhere out in the Reach and his brother-ship, Leviathan, was bottled up in the Vadir System.

It is no matter, he thought grimly. If we can’t beat them at their own game, we will simply change the game. That had worked over Asteria, and it would work here. The cruisers would not be trying to engage in a fight on even terms, or linger to exchange fire with their foes. They would be a mailed fist which would slam into the flank of the convoy and then blast through to the other side before escaping.

The operations center shuddered as another fighter came into land.

“Regardless of what their ultimate intention is,” Corla said when the thunder of its passage had abated, “it is imperative that we reduce their escort as much as possible before your ships get here.”

Farodia gave a casual shrug and a wide smile. “They are not my ships, they’re our ships. For our friends, the Hegemony. And for our new coalition.”

Corla glanced at Lerger, the disapproval on her face barely hidden for the man. She gave the slightest of nods.

“For the coalition,” Corla responded, not breaking eye contact with the Executor.

Well, for the Hegemony, any benefit to our useful idiot allies is barely purely incidental.

“For the coalition,” Lerger slowly agreed.

Chapter 21

Flight Lieutenant Richards – Harding’s Folly – KSS Osprey

“You’re afraid of whoever that is, aren’t you?”

Faraday’s voice broke Rick’s concentration as he sat, staring at an image in the pilots’ office of Osprey, their new home. He’d spent the short downtime between combat air patrols reviewing the footage of the Hegemony’s Raptor strike. And he’d grown convinced that it wasn’t a strike at all.

Sure, the enemy fighter-bombers had surged through the fleet taking potshots when they could; they’d even done some light damage to a few ships. But they hadn’t stuck around. They hadn’t pressed any particular advantage.

The Hegemony was too good at what they did to simply throw away their craft in vain. He’d formed the opinion that they had been simply testing the Kingdom fleet’s defenses.

And the Ace was there, or had been. Rick had been damn sure of it. Once the adrenalin of combat had dissipated, he had felt it in his very bones.

So, he’d dug into the flight logs and sensor readings. He’d put himself in the place of the person coordinating a probing mission. Where would he position himself? Up and down were relative terms in space, but still, above or below the fleet would ensure he had the best view of what was happening. Far enough away that he didn’t risk a member of the convoy’s defenses stumbling over him. Near enough that he could take in everything. And he’d be close to that perfect point, but not on it, so as to ensure a smart adversary wouldn’t find him.

He’d found the ethereal hint of a sensor return hovering far above the fleet. Then he’d dug even more and found one of the destroyers taking part in the defensive screen had swept its high powered visual sensors over that patch of space as she’d come about. A scope of sufficiently high resolution to show what that return was in in that area.

His reward? A hazy, grainy image, at the very limits of resolution, of a Wolf fighter, powered down. A hint of a black nose cone. And a dark silhouette of a helmet within the unlit canopy.

Rick spun in his chair to face Faraday. She leaned in the open hatch. Sipping on a coffee. Rick inclined his head at it. “If you’re hoping to get some shut-eye, ma’am, that’s really not going to help.”

A smile flashed across her face, and she stepped into the pilots’ office and sat on the chair opposite Rick. “They’re still sorting out our billets. Frankly, trying to snooze in an emergency sleeping bag on cold metal decking isn’t going to do my back any good.”

“Yours and mine both,” Rick agreed. Osprey was a much larger carrier than Corvus. And more modern, to boot. But she had been running with a high complement to start with. Not to mention it looked like every spare bit of space which absolutely didn’t have to be clear was being used to transport food and supplies destined for Valestra. That meant it was taking longer for the crew to sort out something approaching comfortable sleeping accommodations than it normally would for the refugees from Corvus.

“Anyway, you’re changing the subject.” Faraday gestured at the screen with her mug. “Who is that?”

“Honest answer? I don’t know.” Rick swung back around in the chair and double-tapped the fighter’s cockpit. It zoomed in, pixelating into blocky squares of color. “We danced a few times before in the Thuine System and over Asteria. Maybe even in the battle of New Avalon, but I never confirmed that.”

He gave a humorless chuckle as he turned his gaze back on the image. “So yeah, you could say we’re acquainted. Whoever that is, they managed to shoot down my old CO, a guy called Phil Wainwright. A few others, too. Hell, we even managed to shoot each other down over Asteria. Although I managed to land with—”

A flashback of the wrecked school just outside of Port Rorian sprang into his mind. The young man, no boy, really, who had sacrificed himself just so he could survive. One of those he had gone to Port Rorian to try to save. How he’d failed. How the kid had been—

“Rick? You okay?” Faraday’s voice cut through the memory.

“Sorry.” He shook his head, shaking the cobwebs away. “Tuned out for a moment there.”

“You have the thousand-yard stare,” Faraday said quietly.

“Who hasn’t in this damn war?” Rick snapped back. He’d lost count of the number of friends who were gone. Their bodies still unrecovered. Left floating in the darkness between worlds. That would be his destiny. He knew it. It was just a question of where and when. The only other thing he knew was he would fight tooth and nail until it happened.

“True.” Faraday smiled sadly. She gave her own head a shake, as if she was putting away her own painful memories. “So, you were saying?”

“Yeah, right. Anyway, this asshole...” The fact the pilot was just a silhouette made the image somehow worse. As if it were a horror-holo where the monster was deliberately being kept just out of view. “Whoever it is has shot down a hell of a lot of pilots. Both at Rorian and at the Battle of New Avalon. Intel still doesn’t have a name or any idea who it might be. But back in Viper Squadron, we just used to call him the Ace.”

“And this Ace is the best?”

“I’m better!” Rick turned sharply to her. He quickly quashed down the surge of anger which coursed through him at his primacy being questioned. “I mean, I’ve taken the Ace before. I can take him again. I just need to do it before that pilot does some real damage to the convoy.”

“Rick, in the navy, we’re a team.” Faraday’s voice was sharp. “We don’t just wander off to hunt Moby Dick when the whim takes us. You say this prick is a danger to the convoy. Fine, I’ll buy that, but we will take the Ace together.”

“You’ll just get in the way,” Rick said, his voice getting quieter, his thoughts turning to the burning wreckage of Wainwright, his former CO’s fighter plummeting to the ground. “You’ll get yourself killed if you try.”

“You arrogant ass.” Faraday shook her head. There was no venom to her words, but they did sound disturbingly like a statement of fact. “I probably didn’t make myself clear, what with just being a Lieutenant Commander and all. You’re a guest with the navy, and that means you follow my orders, or you can get out and float home. You want a shot at this guy? Fine. But we’ll do it together.”

“But—”

“Together, I said.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It wasn’t a question, pilot. You’re in the navy now. The correct term to show you’ve heard and acknowledged an order is, ‘Aye aye.’”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Rick said with a smile.

“Good. We’re briefing in two hours. You close that down and you go find a nice piece of decking to take an hour’s shuteye. That is also an order, by the way.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Rick repeated and tapped the screen on the closed padlock icon. The image of the Ace disappeared.

“See? Who says KAF pilots can’t learn.” Faraday smirked as she stood and stretched her arms up above her head before making her way to the hatch.

Rick went to follow, casting an eye back at the now blank display.

She might have ordered him to shut his eyes, but he’d damn well be awake, mentally revisiting anything and everything he knew about that bastard.

***

Major Corla sealed his flight suit legs around his boot and stood upright. Around him, other pilots finished their own preparations. Some of them even giving quiet prayers to Father Terra.

Superstitious fools.

He’d managed to grab a few short hours’ sleep, and then he’d been back in the operations room, coordinating with the other squadron leaders and their Iconian equivalents before briefing the men and women under his direct command.

It still niggled him. The feeling at the back of his neck that the enemy, his enemy was out there. A wild card in the situation which no amount of planning would account for. A rush of blood surged to his head. A deep rage threatening to boil over.

Corla clenched his fists, fighting down the anger. He didn’t know which was worse: that there was an enemy out there with nearly his skill, or the effect that knowledge had on him. There was no place in the Neo cause to take things personally. Theirs was a movement which transcended such small things.

He shook his head, bottling down his emotions.

Yes, what he was feeling was unbecoming of a Neo. Cold and calculating is what would win this fight.

Not the dramatics of a child or an inferior.

He grabbed his helmet from his locker and swept out of the locker room into the bright sunshine of Bellerophon.

Before him, over a hundred and fifty fighters and bombers were warming up. Ready to mount an attack which would smash the Kingdom convoy to pieces.

And if the Pilot was out there...? Then he’d smash him to pieces, too.

Chapter 22

The Fleet – Harding’s Folly

The ship was huge...not that it was an excuse for her to have only seen the bridge, her quarters, and the threadbare mess deck. For every other vessel she’d skippered, or even crewed, there’d been a lot of homework before she’d boarded. Learning the specs, the capabilities. The deck plans. How to get from A to B. Even simply walking the decks, pressing the flesh with her crew.

For Caravel, she hadn’t had more than a few hours’ notice that not only was she crewing her, but taking command.

Which made it even more wince-worthy when Captain Holloway realized she’d gotten herself completely and utterly lost in the labyrinthine vessel when she’d decided to go for a walkabout to try to learn her ship.

She paced down the corridor, only the occasional flickering LED lighting her passage, striving to spot something recognizable before she had to go to the embarrassing lengths of calling someone on the comm for a hint of where on Lost Earth she should be going to get back to an area she knew.

Turning another corner, she spotted what looked to be the main longitudinal corridor far ahead.

Suddenly, the ship shuddered. The whoop of alarms bleared from the speakers.

“Shit,” she muttered, picking up her pace and running for the corridor.

***

“Contacts, I have many contacts!” Banning shouted.

Dozens of red icons popped into existence on the holo as Cutter flipped his visor down. Far more than the initial probing attack. Far, far more. Lost Earth, it looked busy as hell out there. “Set condition one. Light pulse batteries to self-defense authority.” He squinted at the display. Damn, they’d struggle to get an effective flak screen up. There were too many friendly ships about, and he certainly didn’t want to be spraying out rounds without consideration as to what might be in their path.

Roe, hunkered over his console, occasionally glanced up at the tactical holo. “I want the 15th DESRON to reposition over to the port flank of the convoy. And a full magnum-launch for fighter cover. I want every single bird on the carriers’ flight decks up. Yesterday.”

Cutter gritted his teeth, staring at the mess around them. The system juddered, attempting to count just how many bogeys were coming at them. Dozens at least. But, with a sinking sensation in his stomach, it was looking like it would be measured in the triple figures. And those bogeys were rapidly turning into confirmed bandits. Not that there was any doubt what they were in the first place.

***

Rick slammed back into his seat. His Tempest surged forward on the flight deck, and speared out into space.

Explosions tore through the night. Streamers of blue pulse fire ripped by, creating a nightmare spider web to barrel through. He rolled and banked, striving to evade the worst of it, narrowly missing being taken out by the convoy’s own defensive screen.

“8-25th, there’s going to be a damn big chance of blue-on-blue here. Stay tight. And keep your transponders blaring at eleven out of ten,” Faraday snapped as she weaved onto his wing.

Rick looked around, An Iconian Aggresar tore past, its heavy guns flashing. Explosions twinkled along the cruiser’s flank it was targeting. Rick didn’t hesitate for a second. He pushed his stick over, swinging in behind the cross-shaped craft.

His crosshairs sought the twin flares of the enemy’s engines and he squeezed the trigger. Twin lines of pulse fire found the fighter-bomber. It spiraled away, its devastated carcass shedding debris as it died.

Rick plunged his stick forward, ducking his fighter under the spinning remains. Smaller debris thumped into his armored canopy. For a horrible moment, he thought it would crack under the onslaught, and then he was through.

“Splash one,” he called, hauling back up on the stick as a freighter suddenly loomed large in his view. A second later, clear space, relatively anyway, was visible.

“Already?” Sampson called, his voice incredulous.

“Yeah.” Rick hauled his stick around, craning his neck as he searched for another target. A Raptor streaked down from on high, a Tempest already on its tail. “I’m not one for waiting—”

“Comm discipline!” Faraday cut across sharply.

Fair point. Rick burned after the Raptor and its pursuer. The Tempest lashed at it with fire.

The enemy pilot was no amateur, not like the Iconians. Jinking and weaving, the Raptor evaded the worst of it then arced around in a maneuver which must have damn near turned the pilot to mush. The other Tempest broke off as Rick followed it through.

He squeezed his trigger, fire spitting at the Raptor even as it launched a torpedo.

Dammit.

It speared into a freighter, the Palm Bay. A shotgun blast of debris exploded out the opposite side, spraying into space.

“Come on,” Rick snarled, his crosshairs playing over the enemy fighter-bomber even as it sped away.

Something smashed into his Tempest, sending it spinning. He dragged his stick over to the right, stabilizing his fighter as he glanced over to his left, a gaping hole in his port wing. Something big had hit him.

Damn it, he’d been either hit with another Raptor’s heavy cannon or some asshole navy gunner had just plugged him. He looked up; the enemy he’d been hunting had disappeared in the melee of flashes and explosions.

“I have one on me,” Sampson’s voice was scared and desperate.

Rick tapped his comm console, isolating Sampson on his sensors. A box appeared on his HUD nearby. The blue bolts of the pursuing fighter’s pulse cannon streaked past the harried Tempest.

“I’m on ’em.”

He drove his throttle forward, racing toward the enemy. His cockpit vibrating as he accelerated hard.

The enemy fighter grew in his vision. It twisted in pursuit of its prey, revealing its nose.

Its black nose.

***

Corla squeezed the trigger. The pulse fire lashed at the enemy Tempest, tearing the wing from its flank.

Pulse fire ripped across space before his fighter, and he drove his stick forward, ducking under it.

Father Terra! His kill had been denied.

The streamer of fire continued reaching for him, a Tempest tearing after him in pursuit through the debris-filled space. He swung around, seeing the wounded fighter.

“Persistent,” he breathed. He glanced across as a huge object reached his peripheral vision. A transport rumbled past. Gases and debris streamed from a gash in her flank. Ramming the throttle forward, he sped toward the ship, hauling up at the last second and hugging her hull close.

The patter of debris struck his cockpit. One impact left an ugly white welt across it. He pressed his yaw pedal, even as he pushed his stick over, corkscrewing his Wolf around the freighter’s giant hull.

He glanced upward, confident that the enemy Tempest wouldn’t have, couldn’t have pursued him.

Blue fire tore past his cockpit. He looked down at his rear-view display. The enemy had followed him, tracking his course relentlessly.

“You!” Corla snarled. He knew it. It was the enemy Pilot. The one who’d taken him down over Asteria. He felt the blood rushing to his temple.

No, not now. He bottled down the surging rage which threatened to overcome and overwhelm him. He shook his head, physically dispelling it.

Focus. Stay focused.

Corla hauled his throttle back as he yawed around. He cried out in pain from the sheer g-forces of the maneuver. It was so violent, structural failure warnings bleared through the cockpit. His nose dragged around, settling on the Tempest circling in an attempt to pursue him. His Wolf was flying backward, scant meters over the freighter’s hull with the Tempest in pursuit. A near suicidal move for anyone but him.

The Tempest settled into his sights and he squeezed his trigger.

***

“Lost Earth!” Rick snarled as weapons fire flashed past him.

The enemy pilot was mad, there was no other explanation. He was flying ass backward so close to the devastated hull of the Palm Bay that any one of the dozens of protuberances sticking out could strike the Wolf and destroy it. Whether by luck or judgement, the enemy fighter somehow managed to avoid it all.

Blue fire surged past his cockpit as the Ace opened up again. Rick pushed his stick over, evading the worst of it even as he fired back.

The stern of the freighter flashed past, exposing the soccer-pitch-sized engine nozzles to his view. The Wolf’s engines flared, and in a maneuver which must have damn near crushed the Ace, it reversed its momentum and snapped forward, ducking under the freighter out of view.

“Dammit.” Rick dove, arcing around, seeing if he could find the enemy again.

“Two, what’s your status,” Faraday called.

“The Ace is here,” Rick snapped back. “I’m engaging him now.”

“Belay that,” Faraday snapped. “We have a large formation of Raptors and Aggresars incoming on the freighters.”

Where is he? He looked frantically around. The underside of the freighter flashed by in a blur of  machinery and complexity, the tanks and storage modules swiss-cheesed by the debris from the ship’s own wounds. Clouds of gases billowed from rents in her underside. It was a mess of detail and he only had his eyes to find the enemy in this environment.

Flashes of weapons fire filled space. All around him, people were fighting. And dying. An explosion bloomed on the flank of Palm Bay, something within her exploding. A flurry of emergency transponders filled his HUD, adding to the chaos as escape pods erupted from all sides of the huge ship.

He slalomed his way through, jinking left and right as the pods launched into space as if the freighter had fired an old-fashioned broadside from the days of sail on Lost Earth.

Where are you?

He hauled his stick back. Seeking his enemy.

***

“Where are you?” Corla snarled, his eyes hunting for his nemesis. The niggle. The fear that this foe brought on was pushed aside and replaced by a laser-like focus. He had to kill this bastard.

Had too!

“Major, we need cover here. We’re taking heavy losses,” Major Tor Bessel, the commander of the Raptor force, called. “You need to get us through their aerospace cover for our strike.”

Corla ignored him as he hauled his stick over, sweeping across the wounded freighter below. An explosion tore through her side and a moment later his HUD was filled with more pods racing past him as the crew frantically escaped the destruction of their ship.

Glancing around, he saw the quad burn of a Tempest’s engines frantically evading the fleeing crew’s pods.

“I have you.” He wrenched his stick over, feeling himself being driven violently into his thickly padded seat.

***

“Get here. Now!” Faraday shouted.

Weapons fire flashed past his cockpit and he glanced back. The black-nosed Wolf was hot on his tail, hunting him.

He began coming about. He plunged his stick forward just in time to miss the cylinder of an escape pod lancing into open space on a column of fire.

More fire ripped by. Dangerously close to the fleeing pods.

I’ve got to take this fight somewhere else or these poor bastards are going to get minced.

He slammed his throttle forward and hauled his stick over, rolling in a corkscrew through a collection of destroyers lashing streamers of pulse rounds at the fighters swarming all around them. Flashes of fire followed him, the Ace doggedly glued to his tail.

He swept around, a menacing swarm of red specks filling his HUD as he came about.

Lost Earth, Faraday wasn’t joking. There were a hell of a lot of incoming on the way in. And their target was...

Caracaras.

No! I need to get there.

Glancing back, Rick saw the Ace still in hot pursuit. Somehow, he’d managed to evade everything that bastard had thrown at him. But that wouldn’t last long. The Ace was too damn good.

He needed options. And he needed to get into the real fight quick time. He didn’t have the luxury of messing around with the Ace.

The vast bulk of Achilles cruised into sight. Her myriad anti-aerospace guns spitting out horrendous amounts of firepower in a savage deluge.

Rick opened a channel to the battleship. “Achilles, 825-2 with fire mission. I need a bandit shaved from my behind. I’m bringing them down your port side in three, two...”

***

Corla rolled dizzyingly after the evading Tempest, firing and growling in frustration as the enemy somehow evaded his fire again and again.

The Kingdom fighter suddenly angled down in a momentum-killing move which would—should—be suicide.

“Where are you going?” Corla pushed his stick down, following him through his dive.

“Shit,” he bellowed, snapping his stick over as a wall of battle-steel suddenly filled his view. Dozens of light pulse guns opened up on him and he desperately evaded. He spiraled around and through the near-solid curtain of pulse fire streaming all around him.

Something pinged through his wing, a round damn near taking it off. Another flashed by too close to his nose.

And another. And another. He carried on rolling, desperately evading.

“Shit.” He snarled. He had no choice; he would only last seconds trapped in the battleship’s defensive arcs of fire. He slammed his hand on the control to activate his already tuned jump engine. A moment later, a flash of light washed over him.

Chapter 23

Captain Cutter – Harding’s Folly – KSS Achilles

“Fire mission complete,” Banning shouted. “The enemy bandit bugged out.”

“Good,” Cutter snapped, already putting the enemy fighter out of his mind. “One less problem to worry about.”

But he had many more. There were dozens more enemy fighters, bombers, and attack craft. And a good chunk of them had formed themselves into a spear aimed straight at the heart of the Kingdom fleet.

“Mister Singh, come about, heading...” He glanced at his console, quickly assessing what was shown on its densely populated display. “Two-seven-four relative by zero-six-zero relative.”

“Two-seven-four by zero-six-zero relative, aye.”

The huge ship barreled around, striving to get her flank presented at the attack which was developing. Hell, Cutter thought, it wasn’t developing. It had developed. Those Hegemony bastards were about to take a bite out of the fleet, and there was only Achilles to stop them.

“Mister Haynes, fire at will.” Without delay, the vicious anti-aerospace guns lashed out at the incoming fighters and attack craft. There must have been the best part of a hundred surging forward. A few Tempests, those not fighting their own desperate battles against the Wolf fighters running escort, surged into the melee as Cutter ground his teeth.

There was no way they’d be able to let up. Those Tempests would have to fend for themselves in Achilles’s firing pattern. And as they’d just shown that bandit, that was not a nice place to be.

Achilles steadily came broadside to the attack, bringing more weapons to bear. Dozens of emplacements fired. The heavily armored incoming Raptors absorbed the fire but still, more than one succumbed, turning into expanding fans of flaming debris pinging off the battleship’s thickly armored hull.

Then they were past. Cutter glanced at the tactical holo, for the first time seeing their enemy’s true target.

“Signal Caracaras. Tell them they have—” It was too late. Torpedoes lanced out from the swarm of enemy attack craft. A dozen and more launched and streaked in front of the Raptors and Aggresars.

Caracaras’s huge engines flared and she desperately shifted with far more agility than her huge frame would suggest. Torpedoes raced past her on plumes of fire.

And then, as she swung about, one flew straight into the rear opening of her flight deck. Followed a second later by another.

From the carrier’s forward hanger opening, billowing flames surged out, the atmosphere within turned to a raging inferno before the fires succumbed to the vacuum and were doused. Another explosion rocked the ship, this time from one of her engine nacelles running along the side of her main hull. The exhaust spluttered and died. A moment later, a safety measure activated, ejecting the nacelle from the hull. It spiraled away then exploded violently, flaying the side of the ship, even exposing the stripes of decks and internal structures.

“Search and rescue prep up,” Roe shouted as the carrier limped forward, her central core hanger a fire-gutted tube. “Lieutenant Banning, I want a status on Caracaras as soon as they’ve sorted themselves out enough to report.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Cutter watched the attacking fighters break like a wave over the carrier’s hull. Whether by luck or judgement, who knew, somehow the ship avoided the other torpedoes which slammed past her.

Bright red flashes filled the forward screen. The torpedo bombers, now that their payloads were spent, fled back to their bases leaving death and destruction in their wake.

More and more enemy fighters disappeared, following them. Undoubtedly, their attack having been deemed a huge success.

Cutter slumped in his seat, flicking up his visor and panting. Sweat trickled down his brow in long rivulets.

Lost Earth. He stared at the image of Caracaras. She didn’t look mortally wounded. She’d taken the hit on her flight deck, an area armored to protect against accidents and mishaps. But then, what was a carrier for if not for actually carrying aerospace craft? Even from a quick look visually, it was obvious her hanger was completely destroyed.

They had, for all intents and purposes, just lost another carrier.

***

Rick filed into the stream of fighters, some now homeless, circling around Osprey. The surviving fighters were still up while Commander Oren, Osprey’s Commander Air Group, was figuring out what the hell to do with them. From the brief snippets of comm chatter he’d heard, it sounded as if they were landing fighters, and the most badly damaged were unceremoniously being pushed back out into space to make room for the next one landing.

He glanced at his wing. It looked damaged, but beyond the root. The only saving grace, he supposed, was with the modular design of the Tempest, it would only take a couple of hours to fit a replacement and then his steed would be back in the game, as good as new.

Thank Lost Earth. His Tempest may have been a carrier variant, not a proper KAF model, but he was growing damn attached to it. It had seen him through three combat missions in two days.

Missions which had included the Ace.

A surge of anger washed through him and he frantically beat his hand into the armrest. That bastard had done it again. Every time he showed his black nose, more people died. More damage was done. More lives were destroyed. More friends and colleagues gone.

“825-2, you’re next down.” The voice of the landing officer cut through. He banked around to the stern of Osprey and smoothly slid the throttle back. With a ripple of energy from the atmosphere curtain, he punched through the atmosphere veil and slowed to a perfect landing.

As he opened up his canopy, an engineer appeared, her working rig stained and blackened. She busied herself around his Tempest, assessing it critically.

“What’s going on, chief?” Rick asked. “It look an awful lot like you’re dumping fighters?”

“The CAG wants us to keep the best. Anything that can’t be saved or is so battle-damaged it’s gonna take too long to repair”—she hunkered under his wing, looking up at the damage with an appraising eye—“we’re pushing overboard to keep the deck free for magnum-launches.”

“Shit.” Rick finished the shutdown procedure and swung himself up and out of the cockpit. “How’s this one looking?”

“A keeper,” she said, then stood and dusted off her knees. “Just.”

She waved a hover-tractor over. It hitched onto the attachment at the nose of the fighter and pushed it back, away from the landing run. The battered craft was tucked tightly into the side of the flight deck. Rick winced. A magnum-launch would be a nightmare with the ship this congested. The deck officer was going to have to really sort their shit out, and quickly, before the enemy rallied up again.

“Flight Lieutenant!” An angry voice called across the deck. “The pilots’ office. Now.”

Rick turned, seeing Faraday already marching toward the hatch leading into pilot country. With a sigh, he tucked his helmet under his arm and set off after her.

The pilots’ office was like any across the fleet. A few consoles dotted around for them to do their paperwork on. Holos and pictures stuck to the walls. Memorabilia and trophies from a dozen ports of call were shoved on shelves. And, a more recent fixture, a kill board on the bulkhead. Osprey’s top pilot had a grand total of four.

Cute, Rick thought to himself.

“Out,” Faraday snapped at two sweat-stained pilots already settling down to diligently write up their logbooks.

The two looked at each other. Faraday was a guest here on Osprey, but still, she was a lieutenant commander and that trumped them. They gathered up their belongings and walked out.

The hatch barely closed when she turned to Rick, her face red and full of rage. “What the fuck was that?”

“Ma’am?”

“I ordered you back to the defensive line and you ignored me.”

“I couldn’t disengage, I was—”

“Bullshit,” Faraday interrupted. “Do you know why I’m a damn good squadron commander?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell—” Rick saw the wrath in her face. Now wasn’t the time to be flippant, post-combat adrenaline high or not. “Please tell me, ma’am.”

“Because I have spare capacity. I was dog fighting away, and I kept one eye on my birds. You were screwing around, hull-dancing on a transport. You could have pulled away at any time and helped us push back that attack. Instead, you went hunting your little friend.”

Rick leaned forward, planting his hands on the desk. “If that bastard had got to anyone else, he would have torn them apart. Just ask Sampson.”

“That bastard distracted you from your objective!” Faraday shouted. “Which was to protect the fleet. Now Caracaras is a useless hulk.”

“I was protecting the—”

“We don’t have many fighters left, Rick. And with the number of pilots we have packed onto this carrier now...” Faraday’s voice had quietened to an eerie calm, her anger being replaced by icy resolve. “Frankly, for once it’s not the aerospace crew who are at a premium. If I can’t count on you, you’re off the roster.”

“What?” Rick said incredulously. What the hell is wrong with her? “I’m the best combat pilot on this ship.”

“And?” Faraday lowered herself into a seat. Her anger, even her iciness, gone. Instead, her slumped shoulders showed her exhaustion. “What’s the point in you being the best if you don’t fit into our—my—plans? I could put another pilot in that fighter who would be where I want them to be, when I want them there.”

Was she joking? Rick searched her face for any hint the threat was idle. It showed nothing but resolve. “You need me out there—”

“Typical arrogant pilot.” Faraday shook her head sadly. “Like us all. But we aren’t indispensable, Lieutenant. None of us. We have a fleet to defend, not egos to feed.”

“Ma’am?” Rick stepped around the desk to Faraday. Didn’t she understand? With the Ace out there, these amateurs would be butchered, and from the way she was talking, he was getting benched. “Please. I need to be on the flight line.”

“Last chance, Rick.” She held a hand up. “I shit ye’ not. This is your last chance. If you go maverick again, you’re going to be watching the next fight through a porthole. Am I understood?”

“I—”

“Am I understood?”

“Aye aye, ma’am.”

“It was a question. ‘Aye, ma’am’, is the correct response this time.”

Rick gritted his teeth, feeling something between mock and real exasperation. “Aye, ma’am.”

Faraday stood, her eyes still narrow and intent. “I have to go brief the CAG. Pull yourself together, and have a good long honest conversation with yourself.”

The woman left the room, leaving Rick standing, his helmet dangling in his hand.

Why didn’t she understand? When the Ace came back, whoever faced them would be massacred. It wouldn’t be a fight. It would be murder.

But another part...a small, niggling part of him knew she was right. He’d let the whole fleet down, getting so focused on a single enemy. Like he had, he knew in his darker moments, at Port Rorian.

He couldn’t let doubts overwhelm him. Doubts in his abilities. Doubts in his skills. That would build in hesitation. But he was also an officer in his Majesty’s military, too.

And he would follow orders.

Chapter 24

Captain Cutter – Harding’s Folly – KSS Achilles

The fleet voyaged on. Most, if not all ships were pockmarked with damage, yet the losses could have been much, much worse, Cutter supposed. Seven fighters lost in combat. But more crucially, the damage to Caracaras’s flight deck had reduced them to a single carrier. Over fifty men and women had died in agony on the burning flight deck as the torpedoes had slammed into it, and many more had been grievously injured.

The fighter compliment was horrendously low. A squadron of Tempests had been reconstituted, plus ten aging Cyclone fighter-bombers. A few more were being worked on, but, as of the here and now, that was what the aerospace cover had been reduced to. The fighter pilots had responded magnificently. Battling ever-worsening odds. By the best estimates, including probables, thirty-nine enemy craft had been destroyed and an enemy stealth smashed.

But, more important than any single military asset, one of the freighters was gone. Their whole damn reason for being in the Rift. Vital supplies had been consigned to the black in the last attack. Supplies which were sorely needed by Valestra.

And they were only halfway there. The next stop was the Davon System. Deeper in the Rift. And closer to the enemy bases of the Hegemony.

As Cutter busied himself tending his ship, Admiral Roe had to do the same thing, but with consideration for the entire fleet.

“How bad is it, Captain?” Roe asked the shimmering figure before him.

Commander Lomas, captain of the Dagger, shook his head, distress evident on his too-young face, his voice cracking ever so slightly.

“Her back is broken—” The static-streaked holo froze briefly, and the speaker spluttered before the connection re-established itself. “She isn’t even going to stay together for a tow.”

Roe nodded, baring his teeth briefly in consternation. A moment later, the expression dropped from his face, a steely resolve setting in. “Very well, Captain. Please conduct an orderly evacuation of your ship. I am ordering her to be scuttled.”

Lomas stood silently, the holo occasionally juddering through the tortured comm lines.

“Captain,” Roe said, his voice growing firm. “I am awaiting your acknowledgement.”

“We can save her,” Lomas blurted out, and Cutter’s heart broke in sympathy.

Roe looked down for a moment, before letting his eyes once again meet the holo’s camera. “Son, your ship’s keel is smashed. She’s taken too many hits. If we wait, if we try to save her, I have to detail an escort. It’s like the army says: if you kill a soldier, it’s a tragedy, but the rest of the platoon can go on. But wound one, and then two other troops have to stretcher that soldier back. I can’t afford the ships to protect yours, which will be going to the boneyard anyway from what you’re telling me. Dagger’s gone. And nothing we can do will bring her back.”

Lomas nodded, his face a picture of misery. Cutter didn’t know Lomas, but his age, and his billet on a destroyer, told him this was his first command. His first love. And that made what he was about to do, euthanizing his own ship, heartbreaking.

“Let her go, son,” Roe said quietly.

The young commander gave a jerking nod. A moment later, the holo shut down.

“Lost Earth, Hal.” Roe sighed, settling back into his seat. “That was awful to do, but this could have been worse. Much worse.”

“Problem is, sir, I reckon next time it will be.” Cutter folded his arms, looking down at the tactical holo. The fleet had started to shake out into a proper formation again. The core of transports and heavy ships protected by a cloud of destroyers, which had regathered themselves into something resembling a formation. “We’re barely halfway there, and we’re down the best part of two thirds of our fighter strength.”

Roe grunted in response. The man stared at his console at the spreadsheet showing on it, as if trying to generate more fighter cover by sheer force of will.

Was the mission still viable? Or were they going to all be sitting ducks, waiting for the Hegemony Aerospace Corps and their allies to tear into them again? Waiting for them to whittle down the fleets defenses even more? Their targets were obvious. Strip the fleet’s fighter cover, and the job would be immeasurably easier for them.

Waiting?

Why the hell are we waiting?

Cutter turned and sat, tapping on his console as he did, searching for the intelligence database. A directory came up, showing headers he had the clearance to look at.

Aerospace bases. He clicked on it, and the folder opened.

A star chart appeared. Flanking the uninhabitable worlds of the Rift, around the upper edge of the chart, lay the Republic, the Hegemony, and the Regime. The systems with known aerospace bases were each surrounded by a circle depicting the jump range of fighter forces.

One stood out, standing on the edge of Republic space, abutting the Hegemony’s territory and the Rift. The radius encompassed both systems the fleet had traveled through, and the next one they would be headed into, the Davon System. Even, at its very edge, the Karis System where Valestra lay.

In other words, the perfect staging ground.

“Sir,” Cutter said slowly, forming his thoughts even as he spoke. “We’re reacting here. Just taking everything they’re throwing at us. We need to think of a way to take the heat off us.”

“You’re speaking because you have an idea, don’t you?” Roe looked over at him.

“Yes, sir.” He gestured at his console. “This base here at Bellerophon. That has to be where they’re hitting us from.”

He tapped on the console, the view zoomed dizzyingly in. The star swelling to a system, and then focusing on a world. The ground rushed up toward the camera, revealing a grainy map of an aerospace base containing a couple of crisscrossed runways. The blobs of fighters were dispersed around the base, along with scattered buildings and structures.

“Not a great image,” Roe mused.

Cutter glanced at the stamp. The intel had been gathered by a recon flyover a couple of weeks before. Whichever brave bastard had done it, this far from support, hadn’t had time to stop. They’d just torn past at high speed, taking what pictures they could. But it was enough.

“I’d bet a good chunk of money that as soon as they saw us coming through the Rift, they started staging their forces there, at Bellerophon.”

“And if we hit them...” Roe said slowly, his thoughts obviously following the same paths his were.

“Then we get our own back.” Cutter nodded. “And, as an added bonus, we take the heat off us.”

“Frankly,” Roe said, stroked his chin, “at some point we’re going to start facing navy assets. We can handle them, but not without aerospace cover. Which at this rate, we’re not going to have. And when they take us on, they’ll be far more effective with their own aerospace cover. Which will be provided from there.”

Roe placed a forefinger to his lips, contemplating what he was looking at.

“I like your thinking, Hal,” Roe said after a long moment, the fact he’d come to a decision obvious in his expression.

“I’m sure Sun Tzu has something to say about attack being the best defense.” Cutter grinned, trying to emulate the buccaneering admiral.

“Attack him where he is unprepared,” Roe mused as he looked at the map. “Appear where you are not expected.”

“Sir?”

“Sun Tzu. I believe that was the quote you were searching for.”

“It really is only a pretense, isn’t it, sir.” Cutter couldn’t help but give a chuckle.

“Hush.” Roe’s face took on a mock seriousness. “I have a reputation to uphold. Being all scholarly is most definitely not part of that.”

“Understood, sir.” Cutter grinned. “Your secret is safe with me.”

Chapter 25

Flight Lieutenant Richards – Davon System – KSS Osprey

Faraday stood next to the tense CO of Osprey’s aerospace group, Commander Earnest Oren. The flickering holo of Admiral Roe loomed over them as he told them his bright idea. Oren’s back was ramrod straight, and the look on his face one which showed the orders he was getting were simply ridiculous.

But that, in itself, was what made the plan workable. The enemy sure as hell wouldn’t be expecting it. An attack on their own territory, when the fleet should be preoccupied with defending the convoy.

“Sir, we can muster our ten Cyclones, and configure them for ground attack.” Commander Oren winced, as if he didn’t quite believe what he was saying. “But that is literally everything we have in terms of decent aerospace hitting power. Our Tempests aren’t fitted out yet for ground attack or anti-shipping. If we come across Coalition navy assets—”

“I appreciate you probably think I’m going a bit peculiar in my old age, but I had already figured that out,” Roe replied with a grin. “If we come across enemy navy assets, I guess it’ll be time for the cruisers and battleships to start earning their keep. You leave them to us.”

“Okay, sir.” Oren didn’t look happy. Not one bit. And, Faraday supposed, who could blame him? He was being asked to send ten of his pilots into enemy territory to attack an enemy base filled with Lost Earth knew how many enemy fighters. It could pay off. Big time. But far more likely, it was going to be a suicide mission.

“Son,” Roe stared intently. “I can’t emphasize how much it has to be now. That base is obviously designed as a Rift aerospace defense station, not a strike base. That means it’ll take them a long time to cycle their craft through and regenerate an attack.”

“Meaning,” Faraday cut in, “this is the chance to catch them with their pants down.”

“Exactly.” Roe nodded.

“Sir.” Faraday turned to Oren. “I’ve recently transitioned from Cyclones to Tempests, and I’m still checked out on them. I volunteer to lead the attack.”

“I need you here,” Oren said sharply. “I still have the CASP to run for the fleet, and you’re the most senior Tempest pilot I have.”

“Not exactly, sir.” Faraday closed her eyes. The fact she was going to suggest what she was going to suggest filled her with dread. Could he trust him? Or would he continue his one-man crusade to take down the Ace.

Did she have a choice?

“We can give command of the CASP to Lieutenant Richards—”

“The KAF pilot you spent the past few minutes bending my ear about?” Oren said incredulously. “The one who is, I quote, an undisciplined idiot who jeopardized the fleet?”

“Who’s also the best pilot we have,” Faraday retorted. “Lost Earth, he’s probably a contender for the best Kingdom pilot, full stop.”

“Stop,” Roe snapped, interrupting her in her tracks. “I’ve told you, we don’t have time to debate this. I want the strike in before the coalition can regenerate their attack capacity. Executive decision. This Lieutenant Richards, whoever the hell he is, and whatever the hell he’s done, will manage the CASP. Lieutenant Commander, I want that base smashed. Commander Oren, make it happen.”

“Sir,” Faraday and Oren chorused.

“Roe, out.”

“If we’re doing this. Let’s do it.” Oren turned to Faraday. “Go get kitted up. I want you briefing your crews and away in twenty minutes.”

“Sir.” Faraday nodded. She grabbed her helmet from the briefing room chair she’d set it on and marched out into the pilots’ office adjacent as she keyed her comm. “All Cyclone-qualified pilots, I want you on the flight deck in five for a briefing.”

Rick loitered outside, waiting to get into the operations room. His flight suit was open, exposing a sweat-stained shirt beneath. “You, walk me down to the flight deck.”

He filtered in next to her as she stormed down the corridors of Osprey. After a minute’s silence, she turned to him. “We’re leaving the CASP in your hands.”

“Ma’am?” The young man asked confusedly. And no wonder. Last time she’d spoken to him, she’d been giving him a full-scale bollocking. She gave a mental shrug. That was how fast things were moving out here. And he had to accept it, or he could float home.

“I just need to know, can I trust you?”

“Of course—”

“Trust you not to continue your own personal crusade against the Ace,” she continued. “You have the whole fleet to consider now. You have to protect them. And you have to look after my pilots.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” They entered the expansive hanger. Already the Cyclone pilots gathered near a dolly stacked high with bulbous bombs. “Because if a single one dies while you’re off on your vendetta, I will have you keelhauled without a suit. And no, I’m not exaggerating. Am I understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She turned to the small semi-circle of pilots and raised her voice. “Pilots, we’re going to mount an attack on Bellerophon Three. There is an aerospace base where we believe the enemy is staging from. Coordinates will be updated to your flight computers as we sortie.”

She paused, taking in the scared, exhausted young pilots before her. “Make no mistake. This is a mission we’re performing on the rush. We keep it simple. We jump in. We deorbit. And we turn the base into a field of craters and put holes in anything that looks like it can fly. Then we get out. Everything’s going to be PDQ on this operation. Clear?”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” the pilots said, one and all of them with enthusiasm on their tired faces. The thought of taking it to the enemy for once cutting through their weariness.

“Listen,” Faraday said, lowering her voice. “We’ve bent over and taken everything the enemy has given us. Frankly, my ass is sore and I’ve had enough of it. We’re going to show them that no one screws with the Kingdom. Now mount up, it’s time to take the fight to them.”

Faraday clapped her hands. The pilots turned and jogged to their Cyclones, pulling on their helmets and fastening up their flight suits as they went.

“Remember what I said, Lieutenant.” Faraday slipped her gloves on and clenched her fists as she looked sidelong at Rick. “I will be back. And I will be pissed off if you screw up.”

“You can count on me, ma’am.”

Faraday climbed the ladder leading up to the cockpit of the old fighter-bomber and dropped into it. Lost Earth, it looked so damn quaint in comparison to the Tempests. She’d become so spoiled, even in the short time she’d been flying the sleek, advanced war birds.

But it was of no matter. The Cyclones were what she had cut her teeth on. They were the craft the fleet had used to help bring the mighty Behemoth down. And they were the craft which would show those coalition bastards exactly what it meant to cross the Kingdom.

With the flick of switches, she powered up her steed. Her console flickered to life. Fans whirred. Her HUD activated, cascading information across the canopy.

“Strike One, ready,” she called.

“Strike One, roger. Launch at discretion.” She gave a slight smile. That wasn’t something you heard every day. This was happening so damn fast, the deck crews hadn’t even had chance to organize the launch properly. They would be putting up birds as fast as they could be cycled.

Faraday drove the throttle forward. The Cyclone’s old but powerful engines burned hard. Cones of fire stretched across the flight deck. With a neck-jarring snap, the catapult raced forward, dragging the fighter-bomber with it. She erupted from Osprey’s flight deck, the acceleration of her engines slamming her back into the worn leather seat.

“Good cat.”

She angled around, making for the rally nav-point as a volley of Cyclones streamed out from the bow of Osprey. The ten Cyclones fell into formation. The bar chart on her console filled as the jump drive tuned itself to their destination.

After moments, and an eternity, it reached green.

“Engage.”

The fleet disappeared in a flash, to be replaced by the bloated green and blue sphere of Bellerophon Three. Around her, the rest of her squadron appeared from jump drive. Above her, the heavily damaged wheel of an orbital fort rotated, the circular station covered by gantries and repair ships putting the hulk back together.

Could’ve been a priority target, she thought, to smash that base before it could be repaired and put to Hegemony use. But that’s not what we’re here for.

She pushed her stick forward. The bloated planet rose in her view. In apparent slow motion, the world grew closer. The horizon flattening to a vast map table.

Her cockpit began to shudder as she struck the first ethereal wisps of the planet’s upper atmosphere. Moments later, flames flickered around her and the old fighter-bomber groaned in protest. All around her, the burning comets of her squadron followed her in. Punching through the thermosphere with her.

The ride smoothed, the star-speckled darkness of space giving way to the deep blue of Bellerophon Three’s skies. Below her, the rolling whitecapped waves of one of the world’s four oceans rolled by at a blur.

She glanced at her nav display.

Perfect. They’d de-orbited just where they needed to be. A box appeared on her HUD. The position of the enemy base. Red icons of aerospace craft milled in a landing pattern, undoubtedly still being cycled down for repair, refueling and rearming.

But, despite the traffic, there was no sign of interceptors coming for them.

For the first time in what felt like forever, she gave a thin smile.

Let’s see how you bastards like it.

Chapter 26

Major Corla – Bellerophon Three

“It was hardly a resounding success,” Lerger said coldly, gazing over the operations room table at him, “considering the resources which were poured into the attack. Resources that I burned a substantial amount of my political capital to obtain.”

Corla fought the instinct to snap at the woman. He didn’t fear her, not exactly. But he was fully aware that even his status as a hero of the Hegemony couldn’t completely protect him from the Executor. If she truly wanted his hide, she’d find a way. He’d have to play it smart.

The enemy of my enemy, Corla thought, as he looked across at Colonnello Farodia for support. The Colonnello simply stood, his eyes locked on the holo table between them. His hand reached into his flight suit breast pocket and he pulled out a packet of nicsticks and lit one with a trembling hand.

He took a long draw on it before expelling a juddering breath of smoke. The stench of the stick filled the command center.

Corla wafted a hand irritably in front of his nose. Maybe this coward wasn’t worth thinking of as an ally. From the state of his shakes, one little attack had given him the jitters. The war looked to have inflicted him with cowardice.

The Colonnello took another draw on his nicstick before uncaringly stubbing it out on the edge of the table and giving a little shudder.

“I beg to differ, Executor,” he finally spoke. “The damage to their carrier, Caracaras, will further, and sorely, deplete their aerospace cover. This attack may not have been a huge success against their freighter shipping, but it has laid the path for the next to be.”

“Perhaps.” The Executor sighed. “Lest I remind you, we don’t have infinite amounts of aerospace craft to maintain endless assaults. My question to you, Colonnello, is when the Iconian Regime will reciprocate and have the rest of your forces engage.”

“Relax,” the older man said patronizingly with a dismissive flutter of his hand, a hint of his initial attitude coming through. “Now that the Kingdom’s aerospace cover is much diminished, the Regime’s fleet can be brought to bear. The best cruisers, the finest destroyers. Our fast-attack craft. All of them will play their part.”

“When?” Lerger repeated in exasperation. “Because it would be nice if it were before their fleet arrives at Valestra, unloads, and voyages back to New Avalon.”

“I said to relax,” Farodia retorted, his voice growing harder. “They will—”

The rising wail of the aerospace raid siren suddenly erupted from the speakers around the room, reverberating through the command center.

What the hell? Corla turned sharply to the main screen. Dozens of Hegemony fighters and bombers circled, still waiting their turns to land on the congested runways. But further out, ten red symbols speared toward the base.

“Probably stragglers...” the Colonnello said weakly, false hope in his voice, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he swallowed nervously.

“It’s not fucking stragglers!” Corla shouted. He needed to get into a fighter. He grabbed his helmet from the chair he’d set it on and raced outside, to be greeted by the dusk air and darkening skies. All around him, the thunder of aerospace craft, low on fuel, low on charge, and desperate to land, filled the air.

He began running for the flight line, knowing that his fighter wasn’t even close to being refitted, recharged, and refueled from its last sortie, but not knowing what else to do. He glanced up in the direction he knew the enemy ships were coming in from. Something glinted, then shrieked across the base, more an afterimage burned on his retinas than anything physical. One of the huge drum-shaped fuel depots exploded with devastating force as whatever it was slammed into it.

The ripple of a burning shockwave flung Corla painfully to the cracked tarmac. He picked himself up onto his hands and knees, shaking the cobwebs from his head, even as his ears rang like a bell.

They’re here! The fucking Kingdom is here!

He shakily stood, stumbling forward toward the flight line. Flashes of blue pulse fire zipped into the base structures and the circling and grounded craft.

A burning comet plummeted to the ground. He caught a glimpse of a cross-shape at its head. One of the circling Aggresars had been taken down. The ground shook as it impacted and exploded.

***

The long crisscrossed tarmac runways of the base grew in Faraday’s canopy. Buildings sat in clusters around it—large hangers. Fuel depots, hangers, and service structures. Between them, rows of aerospace fighters squatted, far more than a base of this size could permanently hold, while on the widely dispersed landing pads more coalition craft hunkered.

This was it. This was the source of the attacks on the convoy.

And unfortunately, for the Kingdom anyway, here also was the small Republic township of Ruane. She shook her head again. A pity. If they knew for sure the place didn’t have civilians in there, then it wouldn’t be just conventional rockets and explosives they’d be dropping on the field. A nuke or a plasma yield bomb could have taken the whole place out in one fell swoop.

The crosshairs on her HUD lined up with another cylindrical fuel depot. The warbling in her ear became a single tone and she pressed the button on the side of her stick.

A smoking trail erupted from the front of her fighter. The rocket speared ahead of her, slamming into the HE3 depot. A fireball rolled up as the gas within ignited. Fortunately for the people of Ruane, and the Neo bastards below, it wasn’t primed. While combustible, it didn’t result in the whole damn valley turning into a burning conflagration.

She squeezed her trigger. Harder than she intended. Blue fire from her pulse guns tore through the sky. She let her nose play across the base. She didn’t even have to aim properly. There were so many targets, that she was guaranteed a hit on something important just by pointing in the right general direction.

The specks of circling Coalition fighters and bombers starburst in all directions, seeking to escape the fury of the Cyclones thundering in. She adjusted her aim and squeezed her trigger again. Fire lashed through the scattering craft, riddling some.

One began corkscrewing, streaming smoke and fire behind. She lost track of it in the bedlam of explosions and smoke below.

She arced her Cyclone around, coming at the base head-on again. A curser played in her HUD. As it swept over the center of the base, she keyed another button on her stick.

The gravity bomb detached from beneath her Cyclone. It followed an arc down to the spot where the curser had been when she’d let it go.

Another huge explosion tore through the base. All around the devastated base, she saw the specks of people running or ducking into what cover they could find. The mad panic obvious, even from this height and distance. She grinned; it felt damn good to be kicking the hornet’s nest.

Glancing down, she saw fires blazing all through the base, some licking at the dispersed enemy craft. Multiple towering columns of black smoke reached up into the darkening skies.

Streamers of anti-aerospace and personal weapons fire belatedly reached up for her Cyclone and she easily dodged out of the way. The poor gunners would have to be checking and rechecking their fire, there were so many coalition craft still up here.

But, that was also their cue to bug out. They’d swept in and torn the base apart. But soon, the enemy would pull themselves together. All it would take would be for a couple of Wolfs to shake off their daze and come for them, and her near-obsolete Cyclones would be torn apart.

“Attack wing, that’s it, folks,” she called, louder than she intended. “Full burn. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

She slammed her throttle forward even as she hauled her stick back. Flames washed from her engines as she raced toward space, her altimeter reeled upward, showing her climbing fast.

The first twinkle of stars cut through the darkness.

They were away. Faraday breathed a sigh of relief. There was no sign of pursuit. No meaningful counterattack. They’d given the coalition a taste of their own medicine. A sharp, vicious assault where they’d cut through the enemy like a hot knife through butter.

Lost Earth, it felt good.

***

Corla staggered past the burning wreckage of what had once been a Raptor. Its landing gear had given way, planting its nose ingloriously in the dirt. Now that once-magnificent war machine would never fly again.

Wiping the stinging smoke from his eyes, he gave a guttural growl and looked around. How much damage had this attack caused? There was no way to know, not until the crews could manage some kind of stock take. But it looked like most of the fuel dumps were gone. The munitions stores, too.

Turning, he made his way shakily through the smoke toward the command center. Thoughts of pursuit gone for the moment, and revenge would have to wait. He was a son of Galton, and duty came first. And in this case, duty meant he had to find out just how many craft were still serviceable and whether they still had a viable base.

The command center appeared through the smoke, one corner of it gone, as if a bite had been taken out of it, exposing the operations room. Within, he could make out dark mounds—a moment later realizing just what they were. The broken bodies of officers and enlisted.

He stepped inside, coughing and spluttering from the acrid stench. The wails and moans of the injured all around combined with the red glow of flickering flames, turning the room into a hellish reflection of what it had been so recently.

He caught sight of a familiar leather coat on the floor. Dropping to one knee, he rolled the body over. A moan emanated from it, more an animalistic expression of pain than anything associated with a human being. Then he saw the Executor’s face. The left side of it was a tattered mess, her once icily beautiful Galton features ruined. One of her eyes looked to have been destroyed, replaced by a gloopy mess.

Corla sighed, letting the woman rest back. One of her clutching hands reaching upward, and he swatted it away.

“A medic will be with you shortly,” he said as he stood, pulling away from her bloody form before she dirtied his flight suit.

What a mess. He looked around. There was no way he could use this area to coordinate a retaliatory strike. And Lerger, he gave a brief look down at her moaning form, was in no position to help. He moved to a console, sweeping the glass and debris from it with a sleeve.

The base’s status displays were cracked and flickering, but he did have some information. Like that he had twenty percent of the fuel supplies left in the dumps.

That would have to be enough. And maybe it would be. Not for all the aerospace craft they had here...but then they didn’t have them all left anyway.

But first, he had to land those craft which were still circling, growing lower on fuel with every passing moment. He brought up a map on the spluttering systems. Both runways were damaged. Badly. Perhaps rapid repair crews could do something about that. But more crucially, he needed to get the craft down quickly before they dropped from the skies or burned more fuel than they had to.

There, the taxiway to two-four. It was less than ideal. Shorter and narrower than an actual landing runway, but it was clear, undamaged, and would do the job.

He reached down to a corpse—a savage wound in his torso had ended his life—and plucked the headset piece from his bloody face, wiped it on a clean patch of clothing, and slipped it over his ear.

“All craft, listen closely,” he said. “I will get you down. The runways are damaged, so you need to come in on taxiway adjacent two-four.”

He felt a figure looming behind him; he turned and glanced at it. Colonnello Farodia stood. His face bloody, his eyes containing a thousand-yard stare of someone who had seen too much.

“The bastards,” the Colonnello muttered. “The absolute bastards.”

“Pull yourself together, man,” Corla snapped. “We have a job to do, and an attack to save.”

Chapter 27

Lieutenant Commander Draper - Karis System – KSS Ghost

The vast gas giant, Phaeros, had swollen to the point its turgid red storm-riddled horizon had flattened to a line stretched in front of Ghost.

And then the stealth had sunk lower, so she was weaving her way around the massive storm heads. Lightning violently coursed through them, striking the stealth’s camouflaged hull, sending electricity crackling over the plating. Above them, the occasional complex, machinery riddled forms of orbital refineries swept over in their eternal orbits, their automated sensors oblivious to the tiny stealth’s presence.

Draper rolled in her bunk, restless, watching one such massive structure pass by through the small screen attached to the bulkhead next to her. Many of these stations were abandoned, their crews pulled back to Valestra or having escaped the system all together. Yet, the corporations who owned them were too greedy to scuttle them in the hope they could be regained by the Kingdom in this heavily contested star system.

Maybe the corporations were right to gamble. If the convoy could get through and reinforce Valestra, lying deeper in-system, then they could be reclaimed.

But it was far more logical to simply take them out. To prevent them falling into Iconian hands if the system was lost.

In that case, their destruction would do the coalition some real long-term damage. Hampering their aspirations with a well-placed torpedo. Oh, the coalition would still want Valestra. But the loss of the refineries would be one hell of a blow to their hopes for the system.

She wasn’t here to do that, however. Not yet, anyway. There was still hope for the system. And while there was, Admiral Billingham wouldn’t give her the authority to scuttle them.

She gave up on sleep, swinging her legs down off the cot. She was already dressed in her battlesuit, as she should be. Who knew when they would be called to combat, after all? Outside the concertina door of her cabin, the calls of her crew echoed through the ship. She frowned—silence was the way of a stealth crew. Not idle chitter-chatter. But still, she supposed, the most basic needs of morale had to be considered. And sometimes, people just needed to talk and vent.

She swept the door aside. Opposite her cabin, the hatch leading to the galley was open. Smells of cooking washed out as the chef tended his stove, stirring his pot. He gave her a brief nod and she returned it as she twisted to allow past a pair of spacers crying, “Gangway.”

A stealth was a tight affair, the narrow passages claustrophobic. Most spaces didn’t let anyone even of average height stand up straight. Being a spacer aboard was definitely not for everyone. And that’s what made her crew special. She continued up the central passage, past rows of sleeping compartments, each with their shutters down. Only the officers got their own quarters, and even the captain’s cabin was smaller than a lieutenant’s on a cruiser. The enlisted spacers had to hot bunk, often too exhausted to swap sheets, and crawling into beds warm and smelling of their previous occupants.

Then she ducked through the relentless chugging of machinery in the life support spaces. Like everything on a stealth, it was more a corridor than an individual cabin or room, encrusted with pipework, tanks, and consoles ensuring they had adequate atmosphere, temperature, and pressure to live. Squeezing past a crewman, she passed into the bridge.

“Captain on deck,” Lieutenant Hargreaves hissed.

Good, at least he knew she preferred quietness, rather than bellowing out the traditional greeting like they were on a conventional warship.

Draper twisted around into her command chair and drew across the console on its articulated arm and fired up the display.

Using all her skill and ability, she’d got ahead of the Iconian fleet as it had spiraled out from Tiberon and entered the Karis System. Then she’d watched and waited, planning for their next move. Soon, they’d headed toward Phaeros, the gas giant, which—fortuitously for them—lay near the incoming vector from the Davon System.

Again, she’d beaten them into orbit. Coming her way were six cruisers and a whole flock of destroyers in escort, not to mention a dozen, if not more, fast-attack craft—small, lethal ships designed to race in and deliver torpedoes to a target and flee.

In other words, slightly more suicidal versions of stealths.

The Iconians had mustered quite a force. And, it didn’t take the brains of an archbishop to figure out their intention was going to be to pounce from orbit around the world and intercept the Kingdom fleet as it made the final run to Valestra.

A solid plan, she acknowledged grudgingly. The Iconian Regime’s military didn’t exactly have a good reputation in the Kingdom nor, she understood, amongst their coalition allies. But with what they had available, they would be able to land one hell of a blow.

The fleet was advancing, and in a few short hours would be reaching Phaeros’s orbit.

She supposed she should be self-congratulatory, reading her enemy’s intentions. Positioning herself ready to ambush the ambushers. As far as she was concerned, that was the hallmark of a good stealth skipper. Now she had to consider how she was actually going to do enough damage to the fleet to give them pause.

And that was going to be the real trick. She frowned as she watched the huge fleet roll toward her single, lonely stealth.

But she would do enough. That was for damn sure. That was what her orders were. And she was going to accomplish her objective, no matter the cost.

“Ma’am?” Grimes said quietly as he stared intently at his console. “The FACs.”

Draper looked down at her console again and cocked her head in consideration. A cluster of ships Grimes had spent the past few hours identifying as Iconian fast-attack craft split off from the fleet and surged forward. She frowned. They could only be doing one thing, positioning for some kind of pincer movement.

“What do you want to do?”

Draper tracked her eyes between the diverging enemy forces, the cruisers and destroyers coming straight at her, the fast-attack craft already spearing ahead for the hyper vector.

She could maybe, just maybe get a torpedo strike in on the FACs as they swept by Phaeros. But to what point? Even if she hit, she could only achieve a one-hit, one-kill ratio. There’d still be a dozen of the light ships pushing for the fleet.

No, her gaze turned on the cruisers. She would leave the FACs to the convoy’s defenses. Ghost was going after bigger game. Something that would make a concrete difference.

And be one hell of a coup, if she could pull it off.

“Nothing. We have more important targets than them.”

She let her lips turn in the slightest smile of anticipation of the battle to come.

Chapter 28

Captain Cutter – Davon System – KSS Achilles

The holo display showed the vast, mostly empty, expanse of the Davon System. The fleet approached the vector leading to the Karis System.

The home stretch. Once they arrived in that system, it was a straight run in-system to reach Valestra. And this damnable mission would be over.

The cost to get here had been high. He knew, when they’d set out from Victory, this would be a tough mission, but he hadn’t quite believed how much. The fleet had looked huge and invincible, yet it had been whittled down to a shadow of its former self.

Cutter’s eyes drifted to the opposite side of the system. The Caracaras, a few other damaged ships, and the three destroyers detailed to escort them home had left them in Harding’s Folly, cruising at best speed for the vector back home.

“I have ten bogeys jumped in and inbound on the fleet,” Banning suddenly called. Cutter watched as the holo focused inward with dizzying speed. A collection of yellow icons appeared far to the fleet’s port side and streaked toward the collection of ships.

“Set condition one,” Roe called. “All ships to acquire targets and hold.”

This has to be ours, Cutter thought. But then the Hegemony are cunning, and they are smart. They know we’d think that.

A moment later, the icons blinked and turned green as the IFFs picked up the Navy Cyclones’ transponders, and he gave a sigh of relief.

“I do like,” Roe murmured from where he stood next to him, “that when I count them out, and count them back in again, those numbers are the same.”

“Too bloody right,” Cutter agreed.

“Right.” Roe slapped the railing as his voice raised. “Someone get me the lead pilot, Faraday I think her name is, on the blower.”

A moment later, Faraday’s visor-covered face appeared on the main screen. “Sir, Lieutenant Commander Faraday here.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense,” Roe snapped back.

Her face cracked into a grin. “We hit their base, sir. Hard.”

A cheer erupted on the bridge. Good news had been in short supply since this mission commenced, and now the crew were leaping on it when it came.

“What’s the initial damage estimate, Commander?” Roe asked, patting his hand down to quell the noise.

“Efforts were focused on the fuel and ammunition dumps. Looks like we caught a few birds as collateral in the explosions and as targets of opportunity as we deorbited.” Faraday’s voice was clipped, and Cutter could see the woman’s eyes darting around her cockpit as she flew her Cyclone. “Obviously the intel cell will have to do a proper job on the sensor and gun camera recordings, but I reckon anywhere between seventy-five percent and ninety percent of their regenerative ability was hit.”

Cutter nodded approvingly. Taking out the birds themselves was one thing. A very important thing. But it was always going to be a tricky thing to take them out in sufficient numbers to make a difference. It was far more efficient to take out their ability to refuel and rearm their fighters. That would hamstring their forces as much as if they’d been out and out directly destroyed.

“Good work,” Roe said. “Get your people back down on Osprey. Sounds like you’ve earned a beer. When this is all over, of course.”

“Aye aye, sir.” The image shut down, replaced by the blazing engines of the ships powering ahead of Achilles.

“First bloody bit of good news we’ve had since hitting the Rift,” Roe said, clapping Cutter on the back so hard, he rocked forward. He flashed a tolerant grin at the admiral. He was right; there was something good about dishing out havoc to the enemy rather than just taking it.

But, the smile dropped from Cutter’s face. Soon, they would be in the Karis System. The home stretch, and the enemy would throw everything they had left at them, that was for sure. And chances were, they would still be able to pull together a decent-sized force.

***

Rick’s Tempest rolled into formation next to the larger—and visibly older—Cyclone, and he raised a thumb at the silhouette of the pilot nestled in her cockpit. The craft’s lower hull was blackened from a high-speed deorbit. A few holes were in its hull. But, overall, and considering they’d just taken on a Hegemony stronghold, it was in remarkably good condition.

“Sounds like you handed them their arses, ma’am.” He keyed his transmit button. He was on the depressingly small combat air patrol, leading a pathetic-sized flight of two. Another eight Tempests he’d set up in two more flights, working rotating two-hour-long shifts. There simply wasn’t enough fighters for more and to keep a quick reaction force in reserve, too.

It was grueling work. Pilots dozing and eating in their cockpits between sorties. It was only by superhuman effort and determination of the pilots in keeping their focus, not to mention the fact they were augmented by an unhealthy amount of stims prescribed by sickbay, which kept serious mistakes from happening.

“These old Cyclones aren’t quite past their use by date yet.” Faraday’s voice was upbeat, her body probably still coursing on an adrenaline high.

“No, they are not.” Rick smiled through the exhaustion weighing down his lips. Not that he’d trade his Tempest for one of them. Even this navy variant which, he had to admit, he was definitely developing a soft spot for. “Not for all the tea in the Orabon.”

“Right, I’m going to bring my guys in.” Faraday refocused.

“I’ve got another forty-five mins left on patrol, boss,” Rick replied. “I’ll see you back on Osprey for a victory coffee.”

“It’s a deal. Faraday, out.”

Banking over he swept back toward the freighters and ships of the fleet, letting the triumphant Cyclones return to base.

Chapter 29

Major Corla – Bellerophon Three

Smoldering embers continued to drift down over the devastated base in a gentle rain. Fire mechs sprayed foam over the ruins of still-burning fuel and ammunition dumps, while shell-shocked techs did their best to assess just how badly they’d been hit.

Corla scowled at the disheveled collection of fighters and bombers as he marched alongside Colonnello Farodia toward the command center. One, a Raptor, was hopelessly bogged down in a patch of mud, having had to taxi over the grass to escape the bedlam. Unfortunately, the fire mechs had turned that particular patch into a swamp in their efforts to save the base, denying them use of yet another of the lethal attack craft.

What a disaster. He inwardly raged. And much of that was directed at himself. How arrogant had he been to think the Kingdom wouldn’t hit back. He was better than that. He should have anticipated it, and had a combat aerospace patrol up instead of dedicating his whole force to the attack. The Prime had decreed the Kingdom weren’t inferiors—in fact, they were natural allies of the Galton Master Race – They just didn’t know it yet. Corla had a different view, but he sure as hell was starting to come around to that thinking.

In total, his force had been more than cut in half by the enemy attack. Relatively few craft had been outright destroyed, although many more sported varying degrees of damage. What had really done the harm was the destruction of the fuel dumps.

He might have—or had—nearly two hundred craft here at the base, a mixture of Wolves, Raptors, Aggresars, and a smattering of other types. The issue was that he couldn’t actually refuel the damn things. That was what had really cut into his numbers.

The decisive knockout blow the aerospace forces were supposed to deliver was not going to happen.

He reached the fire-blackened command center, techs and mechs still pouring over it to bring it back up to full operational capacity, and stepped inside. All around, the displays flickered, and there had not even been time to scrub the pools of blood from the floor.

The men and women gathered in the crowded, stinking room were the best squadron commanders—mostly Hegemony, but some Regime—left.

He swallowed down his doubts. Now wasn’t the time for pathetic self-pity. They still had a job to do. And he was damn well going to do it.

“Hail Prime,” he shouted loudly and confidently, causing Farodia to start. The Hegemony pilots slammed their fists to their breasts, chorusing a reply. He turned to the older man. “Sir.”

The Colonnello stepped forward and swallowed. “Pilots. That we have been hit hard is beyond doubt, no? But we must pull ourselves together again. Because we need to. But remember,” he said, “we have hit their fleet and done damage already. And now the Regime’s ships are in position to help...”

Inspirational... Corla rolled his eyes. The Colonnello’s little speech had trailed off, as if he didn’t know where to go with it. Corla stepped forward.

“Pilots,” he bellowed, causing Farodia to start again. “As brutal as that arithmetic of our losses are, the fact is we have done far worse to the Kingdom fleet. One of their carriers has been destroyed. Another sorely wounded and driven away. We have them outnumbered still. And badly. We will win.”

He stood, glaring at them, daring any of them to disagree. “The next time, we are going to allow our Regime Navy friends an opportunity for glory. They have dispatched a fleet who will join us in defeating this damned convoy once and for all. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir.” The Galtons spoke in perfect unity, of course. The Regime pilots...not so much.

Corla sniffed and turned, gesturing at the flickering screen. On the damage display, the last-known formation of the enemy fleet could just be made out. The core of battleships, freighters, and the last remaining carrier. Ahead of them, a sharp arrowhead of cruisers, and a shell of destroyers surrounding them all.

“We will bypass the destroyers, leaving them for the navy to smash through. Our objective will be to further reduce the aerospace cover and to attack the transports themselves.”

He looked around the room. “Remember, as tempting as it may be to add a warship, a destroyer, perhaps a cruiser to your kill count, their destruction is not our goal. If you can take one, then take it. But if it’s a choice between a freighter and a warship, you will go for the freighter. Now, mount up. We will go on the signal from the fleet. Hail Prime!”

They responded crisply, filing out of the room to make their preparations in the midst of the chaos going on outside.

Corla turned to Farodia. The man lit up a nicstick and desperately sucked on it, nearly half its length turning to ash in a single inhalation.

“Your fleet better do its damn job,” Corla scowled.

Farodia just looked at him with eyes still wide with fear and shock.

“Inferior,” Corla muttered, shaking his head and turning away from the officer.

Chapter 30

Captain Holloway – Davon System – Caravel

The cruisers at the head of the convoy stretched into infinity amid a flash of light. Next, the battleship Achilles. And then, at last, it was Caravel’s turn.

Holloway gripped her armrest. Every single step on this road from New Avalon to Karis had been beset by those damn coalition forces. And there was nothing that said that they would let up. If anything, it would be the opposite. Their attacks would only get more desperate and more intense for the final run across the system to Valestra.

“Jumping in three,” the helmsman counted down, his nervous voice audibly dry. “Two. One.”

The prow of Caravel stretched away, then—as if the whole ship was made of elastic—the rear snapped forward into the flash of exotic particles.

A second later, they were through and into the Karis System.

And into a vision of chaos.

“Brace for burn!” the Helm bellowed.

One of the cruisers ahead of them already tumbled, her prow streaming debris and wreckage from a gaping wound. The collision alarms bleared out, the trajectory ladder on the display stretching through the grievously wounded vessel.

“Evasive maneuvers,” Holloway shouted as she recoiled in her seat. “Best discretion!”

Caravel’s huge engines throttled up, blazing plumes of fire which undoubtedly scorched the ships appearing from hyperspace behind her. The ship twisted down, narrowly avoiding the cruiser which struggled to bring herself under control.

A torpedo raced across the vista, slamming into a cruiser. A shotgun spray of debris erupted from the opposite side.

Something glinted beyond. A box appeared around it on the smart glass of the main window.

Caravel’s taking incoming!

“Lost Earth.” Holloway hunkered down in her chair as the torpedo streaked closer. This wasn’t fair. They had no chance. No warning. It would hit any second.

The weapon slammed into the ship’s hull. Holloway was flung forward out of her seat, striking the console, the metal of its edge biting into her midriff before she slammed into the deck. A moment later, she felt herself drifting from the deck as artificial gravity gave out. For a moment, panic overcame her daze from the blows. If the engines were still burning, she’d be subject to the laws of physics.

Instead, she found herself flopping in the air.

The whole ship shuddered and groaned as Holloway reached for the back of a chair, desperate to find some purchase. Suddenly, she found herself flying back toward the rear of the bridge, landing painfully, spread-eagled on the bulkhead as the misfiring engines started up again.

“Shut the engines off, or keep them on,” Holloway gasped, her stomach winded as she found herself rising, weightless again. She braced in anticipation for them to fire again, slamming her back down to the rear bulkhead.

The helmswoman, Lieutenant Grantham, thankfully buckled in, reached for her console. “I’m shutting down engine two, that’s the one that’s malfunctioning. Looks like its safeties are damaged. I think I can get the grav stabilized, too.”

“Do it.” Holloway pushed herself down the rear bulkhead and braced her feet to the deck.

A moment later, gravity—this time artificial rather than simply from the acceleration of the ship—cut in. Holloway settled on her feet and jogged painfully to the nearest console.

“How bad was it?” she asked. The readings on the console flickered and she frowned. The automated monitoring systems on this tub were sporadic, at best. Years of modifications and bodging meant that it was going to be up to the repair crews to pick their way painfully through the ship to figure out just how much damage had been caused.

The question was, did they have time?

All around Caravel, more ships of the fleet flashed into real-space, filling the vicinity around them. Their skippers likely horrified at the sight of the two wounded cruisers and damaged tanker.

“Get us back into formation.” The last thing they needed was to collide with something in the congested mess before them as the destroyers reacted, flinging out powerful sensor pulses in an effort to find the enemy stealths which had just hit them.

***

“For every victory, these fucking Galts are making us pay,” Roe growled just below the volume the mic would pick up. “Captain, how’s your ship looking?”

The static-laden screen juddered, and froze before playing again. “—Damage to one of our engines. We’ll struggle to keep up—”

Roe pursed his lips and pinched the bridge of his nose.

There was no way they could slow the entire fleet for one ship, even Caravel. The attacks they were under were relentless.

“Make best speed, Captain,” Roe said. “Roe, out.”

“Sir?” Cutter said quietly. That was a death sentence for the limping vessel. If they fell behind, they’d be picked apart. “That ship contains the majority of the fuel for Valestra. If we lose her, we may have to do this whole damn mission again.”

“I know, son. I know,” Roe replied. Cutter could see the exhausted weariness in his eyes. The man, like all of them, had been on the go for days. With scarcely an hour’s unbroken sleep, enervation was taking its toll.

“She’s not lost, sir.”

“What do you suggest we do?” Roe snapped. “Wait for her? At the speed she can put out, we’ll be under attack for another two days. And at the rate we’re losing escorts, there’ll be nothing but our escape pods pulling into Valestra.”

“Then detail off some escorts,” Cutter urged. “Look, we’ve lost two transports, including Caravel. And two carriers are gone. We can tighten up the fleet to protect what’s left and afford to lose a few destroyers.”

“You may not have noticed...” Roe gestured at the holo. It was focused on the two stricken cruisers. A gaping hole had been punched through the center of one of them, the other with what looked like a bite taken out of her bow. “But we’ve just lost two cruisers, too. Both of which I have to spend units to take under tow.”

“Then don’t, sir,” Cutter said quietly. He couldn’t believe what he was about to suggest. “Two more cruisers are two more cruisers. But if we lose Valestra, we may well lose the war. Without Caravel, then there’s a very real danger that will happen.”

“What are you saying, Hal?”

Cutter sighed, looking up at the main viewscreen. The two smashed cruisers lay at odd angles relative to the fleet, the precious lifeblood of their gases leaking out into space through their wounds. To be brutally honest, from mere sight, it looked like even if they brought them home, they’d be scrapped.

“Scuttle them, sir,” Cutter said quietly. “Look at them. Even if they’re repairable, by the time they’re out of dock, the war will be decided, one way or the other. Chances are, they’re not even salvageable for anything more than parts, anyway.”

“We seem to be losing more ships to our own damn scuttling charges than to the enemy,” Roe growled. “I can’t order the destruction of more of our own ships, Hal. As it is, I’m going to be crucified by the admiralty for calling it on the Corvus.”

“Since when have you cared what those cranky old fools thought?”

Roe gave a humorless snort of laughter, a hint of his old spirit breaking through the exhaustion. “True, but you’ve never had to sit in a room with them, having your hide stripped from you.”

“Perhaps they’d like to be out here with us and see the reality we have to face. And the decisions you have to take.”

Stroking his chin, Roe came to a decision. “You’re right, Hal. And I do, of course, have a reputation to uphold. Fine, I agree. We’ll detail an escort for Caravel. With any luck, and Lost Earth, we’re owed some, any further attacks will be concentrated on us, allowing her to slip in. As for Samurai and Knight? It’ll be a damn sight quicker to build two new cruisers from scratch than repair those.”

Cutter nodded. He didn’t feel victorious for having won the debate. Not one bit. But it felt right.

For the next hour, they watched as the destroyers expanded their search, the ripples of their sensors washing across space. Occasionally, a glimpse of a retreating stealth was sighted and the escorts descended on the position. All to no avail.

One of the most damnable things, Cutter ruminated, about war was sometimes, revenge would simply never come. Perhaps the stealth will be destroyed at some point in the future, vengeance unknowingly being exacted by whichever lucky ship takes it out.

Soon, the crews had evacuated the ships. One of them, Samurai, blossomed into a huge explosion, her embers spreading in a glorious starburst as her self-destruct annihilated the vessel.

Knight was far more stubborn. Her core had auto-scrammed, preventing her total destruction by overload. And that meant it had to be done the old-fashioned way.

“Target locked,” Mister Haynes said quietly. Normally, the man expressed glee when he got to fire his big guns. Not this time. This time, he was targeting one of the Kingdom’s own ships.

Achilles’s huge cannons had swung around to lock on the cruiser. With her dispersion shields down, and the vessel so sorely wounded, it was doubtful more than a volley or two would be needed to reduce her to her component parts, dissipating in the solar winds.

“Fire as she bears,” Cutter said.

A ripple of echoing thumps resonated through the ship. On the main screen, a volley of eight heavy pulse rounds crossed space in a flash. They slammed into the immobile ship, a ripple of explosions across her already damaged flank.

The wounds bit deep into her hull. The ship bucking under the blows. Cutter lowered his head at the heartbreaking sight of another once-proud ship dying. The vessel, unprotected by even the weakest of active shields, exploded into an expanding ripple of debris. The embers flickering and glowing before the icy cold of the vacuum quelled the heat.

“Commander?” Cutter asked, his question obvious.

“I’m reading total destruction. The computer core and back-ups are vaporized,” Banning responded, her voice cracking.

“Good,” Cutter said, fighting to thread decisiveness into his voice. They couldn’t leave anything for a coalition salvage crew to find. The cores had been wiped, of course. But procedure in this situation was to ensure their physical destruction, just in case some footprint or shadow of critical data could be recreated by patient enemy computer forensics agents.

Ripples of explosions continued rocking the bigger chunks, to the point where they were no longer recognizable of once forming a ship. A flashback crossed Cutter’s mind—the horrendous and savage assault which had so efficiently eviscerated the Kingdom’s flagship, Cronus. Then the slower, but no less final fate which had beset her slayer, Behemoth, by Achilles’s own guns.

Admiral Roe took a deep sigh, then turned to Ashford. “Commander, signal Katana’s section. They are to accompany Caravel the rest of the way in.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Four sleek destroyers peeled out of formation, forming a diamond around the limping freighter.

It had to be enough, Cutter told himself. It had to be. Hopefully, the fleet itself would act as a diversion for Caravel, absorbing the attacks which were sure to come. And the tanker could make her steady way to port unmolested.

Hopefully.

Problem was, he didn’t believe it for one moment.

***

Holloway felt a deep, abiding sense of dread as the rest of the fleet reduced from an armada gathered around her to the specks of drive flames lost amid the myriad stars ahead.

She understood, in her heart of hearts, the call that Admiral Roe had made. Oh, he’d tried to sell it to her. Saying that he was using the bulk of his fleet as a diversion to draw the enemy’s attention from the tanker.

He might even be right.

But, even with the escorts surrounding her ship, she had never felt so alone. In the middle of the Rift. Enemies all around her.

Chapter 31

Major Corla – Karis System

The cockpit was dark, even the ambient lighting of the instruments turned down to reduce the slightest chance of detection in the close-range knife fight which was to come.

Corla squeezed his tired eyes for a moment, allowing them to rest for a moment. It had been a grueling week. Father Terra, he’d logged more flight hours in that time than he had even at the height of the Battle of New Avalon or over Asteria. Stims and caffeine had reduced in efficacy. Weak thoughts of trying to source narcotic uppers like Quick, or old-fashioned amphetamines played through his mind.

Sleep wanted to claim him.

His eyes flashed open. No. Not yet. When the job was done. When the enemy was dealt with. Then it would be time to rest. He’d treat himself to a solid eight hours.

The attack force he’d pulled together was the best they could muster. And he was damn proud of what they’d managed to accomplish out of the ruins of the aerospace field on Bellerophon. Thirty Iconian Aggresar torpedo-bombers, a squadron of Raptor fighter-bombers, and twelve Wolf fighters. It may not have been the decisive force he’d envisaged but then, with an enemy carrier destroyed, another driven off, and the third undoubtedly depleted, he hopefully wouldn’t need it.

And, he did have an ace in the hole.

A shadow fell across his cockpit as a silhouette obscured the looming gas giant, Phaeros, which—by a fortuitous quirk of orbital mechanics—lay between the vector for the Davon System and Valestra in the inner system. She was one of the seventeen fast-attack crafts which had joined them from Iconia. The sleek, menacing vessel’s angular prow gave it the form of a dagger which would strike at the heart of the convoy. Like his aerospace squadrons, the FAC wasn’t emitting on any spectrum, relying on its passive sensors to tell it when to come to life. They might not be the near invisible stealth boats—they could be detected, even when trying to run quiet—but what they lost in sneakiness, they more than gained in speed and firepower. If life had been different, Corla mused, and he’d joined the Astral, a FAC would be what he’d want to command. For a low tonnage vessel, they were remarkably effective.

And they had even more firepower available. Iconian cruisers and their retinue of destroyers lay in wait, clustered close to the storm-riven surface of Phaeros, ready to rise up and inflict the final hammer blow on the bastard Kingdom’s effort at resupplying Valestra.

Four forces, all poised and ready to slam into the convoy mercilessly.

There was no way they would survive this fight.

Near the Karnov Boundary, the fourth force—a stealth pack—waited. This would be the first time they’d work in concert with the secretive vessels. They operated under a completely separate, and highly classified chain of command, and with good reason. They were hard-hitting, but as delicate as eggshells if the enemy knew where they were. Corla didn’t even know how many there were assigned to the Rift. Not many, he wagered, with the majority operating in the Reach. Even so, coordinating between the aerospace craft, the naval craft, and the dark ships of the Hegemony Stealth Corps was a triumph of organization.

One of the stealths, maybe even the only one, had a comm laser locked on the lead FAC. Which in turn distributed the intel and visuals it gathered to the waiting strike force.

A staccato of flashes appeared on his display, the enemy’s combat aerospace patrol arriving in advance of the main column.

Corla wrapped his hand around his stick, the other reaching for his throttle. He itched to fling himself into battle.

Not yet. They were still too far away.

More flashes came. These much bigger, brighter. He reached up, tapping on his canopy. A window opened, the screen zooming in. The muscular shape of a Kingdom cruiser, prowling out from the cascade of exotic particles heralding its arrival in system.

On time. The Kingdom’s punctuality was almost Galtese in its efficiency. He shook his head, a sneer sneaking across his lips. To think, they had chosen to defy, to resist, destiny rather than ally themselves with those who would rule the Galaxy.

He glanced up again at the Regime FAC hovering above. What he’d give to have traded the Iconians for someone...competent. Someone like the Kingdom. A race which, while not the purest of human gene stock, the Prime had decreed as close to the Galton ideal.

Instead, they wanted war.

And, truth be told, he wanted war. Against them. Against the enemy Pilot. The one who’d shown such skill.

Simple math told him the odds were he was gone now. Caught in the destruction reaped upon the carrier they’d tentatively identified as Caracaras.

But he knew better. That Pilot’s destiny wasn’t to die in some mishap or accident. It would be at the hands of a superior warrior. A warrior like Major Gan Corla.

He felt his hand tremble as his thoughts turned to his nemesis.

He quelled it. His fear? Anticipation? A hunger to meet and best someone who was his equal? It was of no matter. They would be defeated. The Darwinism of the past few days had meant he’d selected only his finest pilots. Each and every one of them blooded in the skies and space over the Republic and the Kingdom.

More flashes rippled: the transports. The huge battleships which formed the core of the enemy fleet. The sole carrier left.

Something exploded in the midst of the enemy fleet. He squinted, furiously interpreting the data he was receiving. And then another explosion. Two of the enemy cruisers rolled out of formation, streaming debris from their wounds.

He felt his chest swell with pride. The Hegemony Astral stealths hadn’t balked when such a huge opponent as the convoy had come stream rolling their way. They’d attacked!

More flashes as the rest of the fleet entered the system behind the two crippled cruisers as they fell further from formation. He chuckled as a ship—a tanker—emerged from hyperspace and frantically tried to evade an incoming torpedo and the devastated ships before it. Another explosion on her flank as she was struck by another streaking projectile, despite the ship’s desperate manoeuvre.

The escorting destroyers erupted into action. Powerful sensor pulses rippling out, searching for what had caused such damage. The data feed from the stealths abruptly stopped and Corla blinked at the sudden dearth of information coming in.

It made sense, he supposed, that they would switch to running completely silent as they sought to evade detection.

They’d performed magnificently. As a good Neo of the Hegemony should.

He turned his attention back to the fleet, only now the ships reduced to mere blinking icons swirling in desperate maneuvers as they sought to protect their wounded ships. More explosions rippled. Without the detailed information sent by the stealths, he couldn’t know what had happened. Hopefully it was the cruisers they’d hit succumbing to their wounds, and not the stealths.

There was no way of knowing. Not yet.

An hour, then more slipped by. The enemy formation coming back together again. He watched as they sacrificed the two damaged cruisers, deciding they were too badly smashed to warrant saving.

And then they swept toward his collection of fighters, attack craft, and FACs, sensor blasts rippling out of them. His strike team weren’t stealths. Their invisibility wouldn’t last long against that level of scrutiny.

But then they didn’t have to. They just had to be closer.

He reached for his console. He’d completed the checklist on each and every system up to the point where it was at the pre-start stage. A single press of a button meant his Wolf would erupt into life. And those of his wingmen and the Iconian light warships would follow suit.

Steady, he thought. The remaining cruisers swept closer to him. A battering ram of hundreds of thousands of tons of battle-steel. They had to commit themselves to the vector. So they would be caught between them, and the huge fleet lying in wait at Phaeros.

Steady...

***

Rick fought the urge to flick his visor up and wipe his dry, tired eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept in a bunk or a cot. His last catnap had been in this very seat, while technicians had attached fuel lines, charging cables, and checked over his Tempest for damage.

Its nose and flanks were pitted and scarred. Signs of the debris the fighter had flung itself through in the frantic fighting. His weary mind thought back to the final briefing on the flight deck of Osprey.

“Lieutenant... Flight Lieutenant,” Faraday’s voice was clipped and sharp. Its cool tones reminded him of Squadron Leader Phil Wainwright, his former CO. All around them were the industrial sounds of a carrier’s flight deck as fighters were rearmed and serviced. “You take the Tempest squadron.”

“Where the hell are you going to be?” Rick asked, as he slid his gloves on and interlocked his fingers to set them right on his hands.

The commander gave a thin smile. “Let’s just say, I got a taste back for my old ride. I’ll take the Cyclones up as part of the CAP—”

“Are you shitting me?” Rick turned to her. “You got lucky over Bellerophon that no Wolfs showed up. You’ll be a sitting duck for them.”

“Maybe, but we’ll be on an even keel with their Raptors and Aggresars.” Faraday shrugged. “And have some anti-shipping capacity, if it comes to it. Look, Rick, I get what you’re saying. That’s why it’ll be your job to keep their fighters occupied while we take on the heavier stuff...”

Rick looked out his canopy. A V formation of the heavy, venerable Cyclones swept into position off his starboard side. He winced as he looked at the dated, near obsolete lines. The damn things had no place in a modern war, the pilots just flying them because they were the only things they had left with any guns.

And then there was the fleet. So many had been whittled away by a process of attrition. A carrier destroyed, and another sent into retreat. Two cruisers and a destroyer—nothing but expanding dust. Many more damaged and limping home. And, of course, hundreds dead. What was left of the fleet was powering its way through this last system.

Above him, a huge battleship scrolled by across the gas giant looming beyond, Achilles emblazoned on her flank. He shook his head. What he’d give for another carrier instead of that goliath. The navy needed to understand, the days of big battleships was over. Not that they ever would. They were too addicted to the view that bigger was better when it came to warships. And someday soon, the whole galaxy would see that.

He knew it, and he was only a lowly fighter jock.

***

Ghost rocked and shuddered as she was buffeted by the intense winds blowing through Phaeros’s atmosphere, only increased by the fact the Kingdom stealth was in a retrograde orbit—circling the world opposite to its motion, adding to the relative speed against the atmosphere.

Draper knew she wasn’t a sentimental woman. To some skippers, a ship took on a life of its own. A marriage more real than they often had with their human partners. To her, it was battle-steel, plastic, firepower and, of course, the thirty-one crew aboard. To Draper, all that formed a weapon. A lethal weapon with a singular purpose.

The shoal of Iconian ships whipped by, as they did every forty-seven minutes, their own orbit prograde, circling in the direction of Phaeros’s rotation. The enemy fleet thought it had snuck into the Karis System. That it was hiding. That the Kingdom hadn’t found it. That they would emerge and fall on the Kingdom convoy which Ghost’s sensors showed was even now emerging into the system.

Turning her attention to the friendlies, Draper frowned. She saw how few ships were coming. There was supposed to be dozens of ships in escort. Half the destroyers were missing. Two of the cruisers gone. She blinked in surprise. Two of the mighty carriers were nowhere to be seen. Destroyed or driven away.

That the convoy had been butchered on the long hard route from the Regis System was obvious. And if they’d lost that many ships, it was a reasonable assumption that many of the rest would be hurting and sporting battle damage.

She shrugged. It was fair to say, it was her job to stop more of them from hurting.

Chapter 32

Captain Cutter – Karis System – KSS Achilles

“Bogey, bogey, bogey. Engine flares!” Banning shouted. “I have many engine flares.”

Cutter had been on edge since the attack by the stealth. He knew another attack would be coming and he wasn’t surprised in the slightest. The coalition had one last chance to take the convoy out as it crept toward the inner Karis System. An opportunity they couldn’t miss.

He looked down at her station from the command podium. “What have we got, Commander?”

Banning frowned at her console. “I’m calling them as bandits, sir. Not quite destroyer-sized.”

The icons on the holo were a concentrated mass of colors.

“What and how many are we dealing with here?” Roe snapped the question out.

“I’m calling them as FACs, sir. Looks like we have seventeen in total.”

Cutter bared his teeth as he flipped his visor down. Fast-attack craft were something which the Hegemony and the Iconian Regime had—in the dark recessions stemming from the first Great War—become experts in constructing and using. They were smaller and cheaper than just about any other warship type out there. They didn’t have the range or endurance of a true black space vessel, but they were fast and nimble.

And packed a hell of a punch for their size.

“Signal Spartan. I want Captain Hennessey and her group interposed between us and the FACs,” Roe called. “And I want all destroyers guarding our flanks. Last thing we need is—”

“More bogeys,” Banning shouted. “I’m calling them as bandits. I have many aerospace craft incoming.”

The amount of contacts on the holo suddenly multiplied. Exponentially.

***

The fighters swept in an arrowhead formation ahead of the bombers and FACs. A wedge that would penetrate deep into the flank of the convoy.

Corla grunted under the acceleration of his Wolf’s powerful engines. He knew the enemy he would face. Every spare moment since Port Rorian, he had studied the Kingdom’s hated Tempests. He knew what advantages they had over his craft. And he knew what advantages he had over them.

And there was one among them who knew just how to get the most out of their craft.

The time for stealth and subterfuge was over. He activated his sensors and the smart glass of his canopy populated with a colorful montage of icons. And there were a lot of them. Dozens.

He’d thrown himself against this fleet so many times, he was growing immunized to the hint of nervousness he’d first felt on seeing its size.

The fear bubbling in his belly had a different source.

The enemy Pilot.

Corla shook his head, despite his neck aching from the exertion of fighting the immense forces he was being subjected to, physically trying to discard the weakness coursing through him. He couldn’t let it rule him. Let the fear slow his reactions, or cloud his decisions. The enemy was too good. The only pilot who’d ever proven his match would tear through Major Gan Corla like he was nothing, if he wasn’t at peak performance.

Focus, you idiot. His self-admonishment was as distracting as his self-pity. He needed to get a grip. Fast. If the enemy Pilot was out there, Corla would deal with him. Like he had dealt with dozens of enemies before.

Bright plumes of engines burning hard scribed a line across space as the Kingdom fleet reacted to the assault. The five remaining cruisers shifted, fighting against their own momentum. Seeking to put themselves between his strike force and the bulk of the incoming FACs. A sensible move, Corla conceded, putting powerful ships in their way. Vessels which would fare equally well against both the bombers and the small warships powering toward them.

He gave a thin smile, glancing down at his console. He saw the red circle of their estimated weapons range as he drew closer.

In a few minutes, the wash of anti-aerospace fire would sweep over his squadron, and heavier fire slashing into the FACs burning hard in his squadron’s wake. Even those five battle-weary cruisers would put out a maelstrom of fire. Devastating in its effect.

His squadrons and the ships alongside would be eviscerated.

Or so the Kingdom Navy would hope.

His smile turned into a grin.

***

Cutter’s visor was down, as it should be when at battle stations. Along with the rest of the crew’s.

“They’re either suicidal bastards...” Roe narrowed his eyes as he contemplated the holo. The admiral’s hands were clasped behind his back. A dignified posture, taught in the academy. It was supposed to convey an easy confidence by stopping obvious fidgeting. Except Cutter could see the man’s fists clench and unclench. “I don’t like this one bit, Hal. They’re up to something. Get me Sabre on the comm. I want—”

“Torpedo, torpedo, torpedo,” Banning shouted. “I have many tracks incoming.”

From a half-dozen nondescript positions before the cruisers, the blinking icons of incoming torpedoes appeared.

“Fucking stealths again,” Roe growled, swinging himself into his seat and reaching over his shoulder for his harness.

“Track those incoming,” Cutter shouted. “Project impact points and likely targets.”

The volley of torpedoes surged in closer, an audible beeping noise increasing in frequency as they closed on the Kingdom vessels. A tidal wave of destruction right into the screen of cruisers. The five large ships’ powerful engines flared as they burned hard in an effort to evade. Slowly, too slowly, the ships began to scatter out of the way.

Cutter’s breath caught as the first torpedo speared past the Gladiator, a second disappeared into her engine plume, a firecracker pop appearing in the fusion flame.

“Come on,” Cutter whispered, hoping, praying to Lost Earth they would evade in time.

It was in vain.

A huge explosion tore through the flank of Berserker. The wounded vessel’s drive spluttered. Cutter leaned forward, as if he could discern what damage had been caused to the ship just by examining the small digital graphic on the holo.

Berserker rolled from her course, whether an evasive maneuver or out of control, he couldn’t tell yet. More torpedoes swept in and through the area the cruisers had just vacated.

The wave of remaining projectiles raced into the collection of ships ahead of Achilles.

The transports.

Their whole reason for being here.

“No,” Cutter breathed. A moment later, he realized there was no panic. Not anymore. It was simply a statement. He was watching the inevitable, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

He looked up, this time through the fore-screen. The magnification was already turned up by one of the bridge crew to better show the destruction headed their way.

A torpedo slammed into the stern of Space Empress. Fire and debris erupted from her rear quarter. Her engines shut down, the ship dropping back through the ships of the convoy trailing her. Ships scattered, desperately seeking to avoid both the stricken freighter and the incoming torpedoes sowing chaos through their lines.

A second torpedo plunged into the mid-section of C. Manley. A moment later, shafts of light blazed out from the gaps in her complicated superstructure. Explosions riddled her frame, breaking her back. The huge ship cracked in two, the bow drifting away from the stern, shedding a flurry of escape pods.

Conveyor took a blow, the explosion ripping through a cargo bay. The wound savage, but from the first look, not terminal. Something which wasn’t the case for Space Princess. Her engine was nearly sheared off, clouds of gas escape from the ragged remains of where her propulsion systems had once been.

“I want our destroyer screen flushing those stealths away,” Roe shouted.

A moment later, the tin cans raced forward, arcing around the bedlam, their powerful sensor pulses rippling out of them. On the holo, intermittent return appeared. The hints of enemy stealths. Immediately, the destroyers opened fire, saturating the area with volley after volley of light pulse cannon rounds.

Alarms blared as another wave of torpedoes raced in, this time from the enemy FACs. All of them surged toward the shoal of transports which huddled together protectively.

“That’s enough of that,” Cutter shouted. “Mister Singh, give me an intercept on those damn fast-attack craft. I want them in our sights and dead.”

“Aye aye.”

Cutter took a moment, glancing at Roe who nodded in approval. He had the final say, but this was moving into the realms of a dogfight. And that meant it was his responsibility to take command. If those FACs broke into the convoy proper, it would be over. They’d lose everything they had left.

“Sir,” Banning called. “I am getting engine signatures from Phaeros. Many engine signatures.”

More? Of course there was. This was the coalition’s last play. They’d throw everything they had into the mix.

And that would mean these new contacts would be—

His XO turned and looked up at the command podium, fear in her eyes. “I think it’s the Iconian fleet.”

He wanted to just shout, to tell the Hegemony to give him a damn moment. To play fair. To stop sending wave after wave at them.

And that was their intention. To wear down morale. To whittle them down. To get them to make more and more mistakes, until the whole convoy was nothing but dissipating dust.

Roe gave a low guttural growl, then looked over at Cutter. “We knew the Regime’s navy would chance their hand at some point.”

“Yeah.” Cutter watched as the holo span dizzyingly and focused on the world falling behind them. More and more icons appeared. The better part of two dozen. Two dozen fresh warships, and they could only be coming one way.

Toward them.

“Chin up.” Roe’s voice was unconvincing. “Just more targets for our gunners.”

Chapter 33

Flight Lieutenant Richards – Karis System

In every direction Rick looked, explosions bloomed. Stricken and damaged ships filled his view. He pushed his stick across, desperately avoiding the cloud of debris and bodies erupting like geysers from the ragged, dismembered wreckage of the C. Manley.

Lost Earth, he could even see the shattered individual decks and cabins, where she’d been sliced in two by the torpedo.

Debris banged on his canopy in a relentless drumbeat, leaving scratches and scuffs. For a moment, fear surged through him that a chunk would smash through the toughened cockpit, embedding itself into him.

Then he was through into clear space. Or as clear as it got when surrounded by devastated ships. The banging reduced to a mere patter.

“Bandits,” Faraday’s voice rang over his comm. “We have incoming. Many incoming.”

Game time.

Banking his Tempest around, diving under the ragged remains of another transport, a cluster of red icons appeared in his canopy. A streamer of blue pulse gunfire spat out from what must have been extreme range.

It flashed by close to him. Far too close.

The Ace.

The Ace was here. It had to be. Only that bastard could take a shot with any kind of accuracy at that range. Rick didn’t know who it was...who the other person was. His nemesis. They’d never met, and never would, but he could sense their malevolent presence. One, or both of them, would die in this war. That was for damn sure. And it was likely it was going to be by the other’s hand.

Rick rolled away as another volley of pulse rounds sought him. He came back straight and level and squeezed his trigger, answering back with his own vicious weapons. A streamer of fire streaked from his guns, back toward the still-distant but closing enemy fighters.

Come on.

Another volley surged by him. The long-range invitation to duel being answered in kind.

A bright flash turned his cockpit a stark monochrome. The sign of a reactor going critical. His visor automatically tinted, blocking out most of the blinding rays. A moment later, all that was left were floater afterimages. The aft-section of the huge freighter which had been C. Manley was finally gone, replaced by an expanding sphere of wreckage. The only relief—the fire had ceased from the enemy fighter, undoubtedly temporarily blinded by the freighter’s death bellow.

A flurry of torpedoes flashed in front of his ship. First one, then another, struck a desperately evading freighter, leaving ragged and huge holes in it.

“Boss,” he shouted. “Looks like the FACs have an opinion about us being here.”

“Radio discipline,” Faraday snapped. Rick gave a wince. He prided himself on his professionalism. And he was acting like a buck pilot officer. “But yes.”

A deep bass voice boomed from his earpiece, Admiral Roe. “All fighters, you are tasked with taking out enemy aerospace assets. Leave the FACs and enemy ships to us.”

Enemy ships? Rick checked. There was nothing in front of him...and then he looked at the sensor display on his console.

Oh shit. In close orbit of Phaeros, the huge gas giant the fleet was approaching at intersystem speeds, another collection of ships had appeared, burning hard to break orbit. And there was a hell of a lot of them.

“You heard the man,” Faraday called. “We can only do what we can do. Let’s get in the fight.”

Rick yawed around, aiming his nose back at the shoal of rapidly approaching coalition fighters and bombers.

Motion caught his eye as the flashes of weapons fire resumed. The massive bulk of the one of the battleships turned ponderously as it sought to pick its way through the chaos of the evading ships, its course obvious. To fill the gap left by the horribly damaged squadron of cruisers who’d been eviscerated by the stealths and FACs.

He felt a flicker of a smile cross his face. Looks like the navy were bringing their big guns to the party.

Let’s see how you like those apples, you sons of bitches.

He just had to hope they wrapped it up before the rest of the Iconian fleet arrived.

Flashes of pulse gunfire streaked past him. Damn it, Rick. Focus your ass.

That was too close. He banked around, letting his crosshairs settle on the fighters surging toward him, and squeezed the trigger.

Chapter 34

Major Corla – Karis System

It had to have been the enemy Pilot. It had to be.

Corla bared his teeth as he dropped into place, high and behind the hard-burning Raptors and Aggresars of the attack wings. The return fire from the defending Tempest had been too accurate for it to be anyone else.

The fleet was a rapidly approaching collection of lights in the distance. The fury of their engines scribing long lines across the star-speckled heavens.

He flashed past the outer screen of destroyers hunting the stealths, which had torn into the convoy with wild abandon. The enemy warships spat vicious fire as they passed.

An anti-aerospace gun acquired a Raptor, tearing chunks from her wing. The craft tumbled in a corkscrew, a total dead-stick as it disappeared into the night, the pilot or the controls incapacitated.

But the others made it through. The fire reduced in volume, the destroyers undoubtedly nervous about hitting their own ships.

“Cut speed,” Corla roared.

They careened closer, retros firing to bring down their extreme velocity. The enemy ships bloomed in size from indistinct specks.

A massive, boxy freighter sat side-on before them. Perfectly positioned. The Raptors opened fire with their heavy cannons. Fire stitched across her flank, the pulse rounds penetrating deep into the unarmored ship’s hide. For good measure, Corla fired into the ship’s complicated drive array.

The drive spluttered and shut down, the ship disabled. Corla hauled up on his stick, curving away from the target, all the time looking around, the environment too congested with ships and debris to focus on his sensors.

This was a dogfight, which would be done the old-fashioned way. With the naked eye being used as much as sensors to discern the enemy. A fight like those which legends told of happening in the skies of Father Terra.

Flashes of blue pulse fire tore before him. He wrenched his stick over and down. Diving under it, even as his nose sought the enemy attacking him.

There.

A Tempest raced for him. As he continued his turn, Corla squeezed his trigger. Twin streamers of pulse fire lead toward the fighter, perfectly offset. The rounds slammed into its nose and fuselage. A moment later, it disintegrated into a tumbling ball of debris.

Another down.

He found himself facing back toward the transport. A Raptor strafed along its flank, riddling the already brutally damaged ship with fire.

A moment later, a blinding explosion caused him to cover his eyes reflexively with an arm. Automatically, his canopy tinted in an effort to stop his retinas from burning out.

Steadily, the canopy normalized, revealing a roiling ball of plasma where the transport had been. A shockwave of fire and debris washed over a neighboring vessel, causing its light dispersion fields to spark and crackle under the intense energies.

And, of course, there was no trace of the attacking Raptor.

He scowled. What a waste. The transport had been dead anyway. That idiotic pilot had simply given his life in the inferno for nothing.

Shaking his head, he looked around for his next victim.

No. Corla looked around for him.

***

The ball of plasma dispersed in fury as it grew in size. The unimaginatively named Big Shipping became nothing more than expanding particles rippling into space before Rick’s fighter. The fiery gases reached the Astra and coursed over her, blackening and burning the ship’s hull.

Escape pods erupted from Astra, spreading fast and far away from the ship.

Idiots. Rick ground his teeth. Banging out into this bedlam when they should be trying to save their damaged ship.

Frantic chatter washed through the comm. The noises of men and women dying in the silent coldness of space.

“Bandit on my six, I’m—” The panicked voice was cut short, only to be replaced by the other, equally desperate calls and comms.

A flight of cross-shaped Iconian Aggresars raced past, pursued by a pair of Cyclones. Even the unwieldy Kingdom fighter-bombers were more than a match for the near-obsolete enemy craft. Fire lashed out, the Aggresars wiggling as they desperately sought to evade.

“I’ve got ’em,” Faraday’s voice sang out. “Firing.”

Faraday’s Cyclone opened up again, fire tearing an Aggresar into its constituent atoms. Another three scattered desperately away. Faraday’s wingman swept around to follow one, guns flashing fire.

“No, stay on the attackers,” Faraday snapped. In vain—her Wingman already drawn off course even as she continued firing, hitting another that stoically remained on course. A second later, a flash of red as it activated its jump drive.

Something malfunctioned. The Aggresar exploded as its jump drive catastrophically failed. A kill’s a kill, boss.

Rick willed his fighter to go faster, creeping into a stern chase with an Aggresar locked onto a freighter. He squeezed his trigger. Another fighter-bomber disintegrated under his fire, even as Faraday ruthlessly destroyed another.

The last remaining Aggresar launched a torpedo. It speared forward, crossing the distance in a heartbeat between the Iconian craft and the transport it was targeting.

It slashed into the Galaran. An explosion tore a huge crater out of the transport, setting the ship tumbling.

“Lost Earth, we’re losing too many.” Rick snarled, resisting the urge to beat his console in frustration. If they lost many more, then they may as well turn the damn fleet around and head home.

“It’s done,” Faraday’s voice was near laconic in its focus. “We need to concentrate on saving the others.”

More escape pods erupted into the frenzied space joining the dozens, if not hundreds, already out there. A destroyer came about, thundering after the volley of tiny vehicles in a desperate effort to rescue the survivors.

Chapter 35

Captain Holloway – Karis System – Caravel

The repairs had been frantic and desperate. Damage control crews had poured over the battered ship, patching, jury-rigging, or just plain bodging her together so she’d at least hold for the short distance she had left to go.

Caravel juddered and groaned as her engines spooled up. The status displays showed the huge ship should manage to at least make some headway, Holloway hoped. Her sub-light engines had been mauled.

The ominous creaks and groans echoing through the bridge, coupled with how the ship was layered with years of repairs, maintenance, and upgrades, both official and unofficial, made Holloway uneasy. A change somewhere, something which hadn’t been written down, could affect something somewhere else. A vast, intricate butterfly effect which could cause the ship to turn into nothing but a spray of debris and broken bodies falling through the system.

“Ma’am.” The helm officer looked as nervous as she felt. “We’re ready.”

He didn’t need to say what was implicit in his words. That they were as ready as they’d ever be, rather than simply “ready.”

“Then let’s do this,” Holloway said, fighting to keep her voice firm. The longer she delayed, the longer her nerves would have to worry away at her psyche.

Beyond the wide-set windows of her bridge, a flash of light came. The feeds from their escort, Katana, told them there was a fierce battle up ahead.

“Pumps primed, igniters ready.”

Come on, Caravel, hold it together.

“Fuel flow is clean. Ready on your mark, Captain.”

She glanced at the flickering sensor display. The four destroyers had withdrawn while they attempted the start-up. Wisely. If Caravel went up, along with the vast quantities of HE3 she contained, then nothing within a hundred kilometers of her would survive.

“Engage.” She swallowed. The status displays blinked and flashed. The spiderweb display of internal drive components spun and rotated as the whole system rebooted, flashing yellow and green in turn.

A rumble emanated from deep within the ship’s hull. Elemental forces clashed and crashed together as the fusion core, burning within the ship as hot as a sun, transmitted immense energy to the drives.

Any second now, she’d be obliterated. Holloway was sure of it. She’d be reduced to her component atoms, dissipating on the stellar winds. She focused her attention out front, desperately trying to take in the last thing she would ever see.

Flashes and pops of light came from far ahead. Not far offset from the bloated gas giant the convoy’s course would take them past.

Battle is so beautiful, when viewed from afar, Holloway mused as she waited for the inevitable. It was sterile. No one got hurt, not really. It was just a glorified light show.

But that’s not what it was. It was a maelstrom of fire and death. Lives extinguished in the blink of an eye. Ships crumpling and dying. Explosions tearing through corridors. For some of the lower deckers, the first time they might even know they were in battle would be when the hull sloughed open, the vacuum sucking them into oblivion.

A bright bloom of light swelled. That must have been a huge explosion, like the one which would surely take Caravel. It could only have been a freighter going up. Dying under the coalition’s relentless assault.

Damn it, she wasn’t a warship captain. She was a simple reservist who had never expected to actually be called up. Her real job was moving cargo. She had no place here, in the Rift, under constant assault by the Hegemony and Regime. Her ship hurting, and desperately trying to restart her engines. That ship which had just exploded had a huge fleet to protect her. With a measly four tin-can destroyers around Caravel, and no aerospace fighters, her fate was as good as written. To die in fusion fire.

As the thoughts raced through her head, she could feel her heart thumping in her chest. She took a deep breath, for the first time understanding what people meant when they said they were going to have a full-scale anxiety attack. She turned back to the engineering display. More components changed colors as the drive activated itself. The crew looked forlorn, hunched as if they, like her, expected to be ended any second.

She took a deep breath, fighting down the panic which threatened to overwhelm her. No, she had to regain control. There was no going back. There was no giving up, and letting someone else take over. There was no running. And there was no hiding.

The displays flashed green.

“Drive is online!”

Holloway gave what must have been a sob of relief even as the crew looked at each other, uncertainty on their faces, as if they couldn’t quite believe they were still alive.

Caravel had to go forward. And there was no relief. Her course would take them into the storm.

“Secure for acceleration.” Her voice caught, the beating of her heart echoing through her chest. “The best acceleration we can manage.”

“Aye aye.”

With a juddering pressure on Holloway’s chest, Caravel powered forward.

Straight toward the battle raging ahead.

Chapter 36

Captain Cutter – Karis System – KSS Achilles

“We’re almost in position,” Banning called.

Achilles, with Ajax trailing behind her, had curved around, battering outside the floating clouds of debris, presenting their broad sides at the swarm of FACs harrying the fleet.

Torpedo after torpedo had riddled the ships and transports. And as far as Cutter could see, most of the warships had taken varying degrees of damage.

And worse, the ships which had been in orbit around Phaeros were fresh. They may not be capital ships, but a core of cruisers, with destroyers surrounding them to escort them in, would smash through the defensive line.

Oh, they’d make the Iconians pay. In blood and wreckage, that was for damn sure, but all it would take would be one of those cruisers getting into the midst of the freighters and lashing out with their vicious medium pulse cannons. Lost Earth, even one of the destroyers could do the same job. They could unleash a hell storm.

Their wards’ fragile hulls would crumple, their cargos spilling into the void.

And then this mission would be over and they might as well all just go home.

Painfully slowly, Achilles came about, starting to present her flank to the FACs while all around her fighters swirled in a vicious dogfight.

There was some consolation. Soon, they’d start getting their own back on those tiny warships which had already done such harm.

***

The Cyclone weaved and avoided Corla’s fire even as it desperately lashed out with its own pulse guns at the Aggresar in front before it could release a torpedo. The old Iconian attack craft came apart, the debris slamming into the flank of a freighter.

This one’s good.

Both sides’ aerospace forces had been whittled down, Corla’s elite pilots killing as many as had been killed. It was, he supposed, a testament to how superior the Hegemony Aerospace Corps was that, despite all the anti-aerospace fire from the escorts, they were achieving parity in kills. It was somewhat aided, he supposed, by the fact the Iconians were running interference. And soaking up the Kingdom’s attention.

But he was running out of time, and fighters. To one side, the two mammoth battleships had nearly come broadside to the swarm of FACs still firing torpedoes into the mass of ships. Their heavy turrets were already sending huge bolts of raw energy toward the smaller and more agile ships. So far, the FACs had somehow evaded their fire. But it would only be a matter of time before Achilles and Ajax brought their much more numerous secondary batteries to bear, weapons far better suited to dealing with the small craft than the main guns.

A series of personal duels were being fought among the ships of the fleet. But he still hadn’t caught sight of his nemesis, not since the first opening salvos.

This pilot though, the one who made their ancient Cyclone torpedo bomber fly with such skill, would be a worthy kill. He had seen them take out at least two Agressars. And, though conditions were confusing in the chaotic melee, chances were it had been responsible for at least one of his Hegemony Raptors.

Pulling his stick over, he drove his throttle forward. His Wolf leapt forward, as eager to taste blood as its master.

He swung in behind the Cyclone. The pilot saw or sensed him. The bulky fighter rolled down and around, trying to outturn him.

He smiled. Not a chance. You aren’t a Tempest.

Corla eased back on the throttle. He could easily overshoot the near-obsolete torpedo fighter-bomber if he wasn’t careful. His crosshairs met the enemy craft and he squeezed his trigger.

Twin streamers of pulse fire lashed out.

Father Terra smiled on the pilot. Luck, judgement, whatever it was, it didn’t matter. Somehow his prey evaded, rolling and spinning up.

***

“Bandit on my tail.” Faraday’s voice wasn’t quite panicked, but the undertone of fear was palpable.

The Aggresar Rick was pursuing streaked over the surface of the transport, its guns spitting at any protuberance or structure which fell in the pilot’s sights.

Rick’s finger tightened on the trigger, taking up the slack then releasing it. There was no way in hell he could open fire without hitting the friendly.

“Shit,” Faraday snapped, causing Rick to blink. The professional woman must be in real trouble if she was losing comm discipline. And here he was, fighting to get one more kill.

“I think it’s the Ace.”

Screw it. Rick hauled back on his stick, pulling away from the massive bulk of the ship and the enemy which would live to fight...at least until he’d dealt with the Ace.

Don’t worry, I’ll be back to finish this. He glanced down at his sensor display. Where the hell was she?

In a Tempest, she wouldn’t last long against the Ace. In an unwieldy Cyclone, her life expectancy would be measured in seconds, if that. A flashback coursed through his mind—his former CO, Squadron Leader Phil Wainwright. The desperate dogfights over Port Rorian. How Rick hadn’t got there in time to save him from this same predator.

Focus!

He looked desperately around. The view through his canopy was bedlam. Lines of tracer fire crisscrossed in every direction. Fighters swept and danced, digital brackets showing whether they were friendlies or not.

He swung around, looking across the debris-strewn space filled with broken and shattered ships and desperate individual battles. Two specks, one bracketed in green, the other in red, danced. Blue flashes of light stretched between them.

There you are.

“Boss, I’m on my way.”

She grunted in reply, too preoccupied to give more of an acknowledgement than that.

He drove his throttle forward so hard, for a moment he thought he must have broken the lever. His engines rumbled in response, and the pressure built on his chest before the dampeners smoothed it out.

“Come on, girl. Let’s go finish off this bastard once and for all,” he muttered.

His fighter vibrated hard. Debris pinged from his canopy and nose cone. He winced as something struck the plate glass with enough force to leave a crack.

He couldn’t stop. Tapping his console, he deactivated the inhibitors on his engines. He felt another kick in the chest as he accelerated even harder. A safety alert chimed on his console, his engines burning so fiercely there was a real danger he would slag the exhausts. He swatted the warning away. He couldn’t stop.

The crosshairs on his HUD met the still-distant red box icon containing his enemy. He squeezed his trigger. Pulse fire streamed toward the enemy.

A clean miss. Lost Earth, he was virtually on the opposite side of the battle. The Ace probably didn’t even know they were under attack. He lined up again as the Wolf circled around for another attack run on Faraday’s Cyclone. Fire lashed out, streaming past her craft. He winced. The volume of fire had visibly reduced as it passed the green box. Faraday had taken hits.

“Status?” he demanded curtly.

“I’ve taken damage,” the response was strained. “Dampeners down. Probably an engine is going as well.”

Damn it, with the dampeners down, she would be subject to all the g-forces of her maneuvers. She wouldn’t be able to evade nearly as hard. She was already a sitting duck for the enemy, and that had just gotten worse.

He squeezed his trigger again—he had to get close enough to at least break the Ace’s concentration. If he could just distract the bastard, then she might stand a chance. The Ace came about again in a sweeping bank. This one surely would be terminal for Faraday. It would end her.

Rick’s fire streamed between the Wolf and its prey. The muscular craft turned abruptly to stop itself from running headlong into it and swept away from its attack run.

“Boss, get clear,” he snapped. He thundered closer, the enemy fighter going from an invisible and distant object to the glint of something real and physical. “I’ve got this sonovabitch.”

The Wolf spun around amid a complex flurry of RCS burns, the black tip of its nose swinging to meet him. From behind it, the flare of engines silhouetted the fighter. A beacon inviting him to the fight they both wanted.

***

Corla grunted and hauled his stick to the right as pulse fire flashed in front of him. Father Terra, he’d been so damn close to finishing off that Cyclone, and some Kingdom piece of crap had interrupted his hunt.

He looked up at the source, his HUD automatically bracketing the enemy who’d opened up on him with a red icon. Then gave a double take. That had been one hell of a shot.

It could only mean one thing.

Fear coursed through him. A fear which he had grown to associate with that he felt when about to take part in some extreme sport. The squirrel-suit skydiving of his youth. Or the jump from a high cliff into the lakes of Galton. Something which petrified him, but also gave a thrill. The thought that this could be it. This could be the end.

But still going ahead and doing it anyway, lest his compatriots thought less of him.

Corla gave a shudder, all he would allow himself. He was the only one who could take out the enemy Pilot. And he damn well would. He’d prove, once and for all, that the Hegemony was superior to the Kingdom.

In every way.

He hauled his Wolf around, his nose aimed for the distant enemy, and he drove his throttle forward.

Chapter 37

Lieutenant Commander Draper – Karis System – Phaeros Orbit – KSS Ghost

“They’re moving, skipper.” Mister Grimes’s voice was intent and focused, the glow of his console reflecting from the perspiration on his face. He didn’t break concentration for one second as he delivered his succinct report.

As he shouldn’t.

The main screen refocused away from looking through the cloud-streaked view above, moving away from the staccato of explosions ripping through the beleaguered convoy, and swung to face ahead. The battle raged even as the ships closed on the gas giant.

Draper flipped up her visor long enough to suck a mouthful of water from her strawed bottle. She swallowed down the tepid liquid. She didn’t want to tap into her battlesuit’s reserves until she absolutely had to. Hydration was important. Without it, she would lose focus. And that was something she needed to maintain when they went into combat.

Intermittently, through the murky clouds ahead, she could see the sparks of the Iconian Regime’s fleet beginning their burn. Seeking to escape from the gravitational shackles Phaeros had bound them in, spreading like a fan as they did, their course set to arc them up and over Ghost.

Draper finished her bottle, then opened her seat’s armrest and stowed it away.

The convoy was being ravaged by the Regime’s FACs. Torpedo after torpedo slammed into the freighters and transports which would—should—be resupplying Ghost’s home base.

And, when those six cruisers and their destroyer escorts entered the fray, the odds of any getting through at all would rapidly diminish. Oh, they’d take losses from what was left of the cruisers and battleships, but there was no doubt in her mind the losses to the remainder of the merchant shipping would be horrendous.

“Secure to condition one throughout the ship,” she said quietly. Lieutenant Hargreaves looked at her for a long moment. His brow glistened in the low red light of the bridge. Then he nodded.

“Condition one, aye aye.”

Tapping her console, Draper activated the 1MC, the intercom piped through her tiny warship. “All hands. The relief fleet is heavily engaged with coalition forces. Any heat we can take off them increases the chances of the convoy getting through.”

Draper pursed her lips. Her speech, she realized, wasn’t in the slightest bit inspiring to the men and women of her command. She knew stealthers were a different breed from the rest of the navy. From the rest of military. Hardened. Used to living in the kind of claustrophobic conditions which made a destroyer seem like a luxury liner. Most were quiet, introspective, used to finding privacy within themselves even in the crowded confines of the stealth’s mess. Some might say they were quirky. Others would go further and say they were cold-hearted psychopaths. Whichever way—and to be blunt, Draper let that kind of chatter wash over her—stealthers were professionals.

Still, the odds here were long, she acknowledged. Perhaps, a little inspiration would be in order.

“Crew of Ghost,” she restarted, “We’re going to attack that Iconian Fleet. And we will stop them in their tracks.”

She paused, collecting her thoughts. Damn, she was no good at this. It felt awkward. Forced. But she was in too deep now. She had to close it out. “Make no mistake, the convoy is counting on us. And we will not let them down.”

There, that would do. She closed the channel down.

Mister Hargreaves turned to her, a wry grin on his face. “You’ve put some steel in my spine, ma’am.”

Draper narrowed her eyes, a surge of anger at his unprofessional attitude. Which then butted into something within her...an amused admiration for his stoicism in the face of what looked to be insurmountable odds.

“Thank you,” she settled on. The moment was broken; she focused back on her tactical display. It was time to get down to business.

The fan of Iconian ships continued to spread out, the destroyers flanking and above the cruisers.

“Mister Grimes, I’m going for the Iconian flag, Granith, and three other cruisers.”

“Aye, ma’am.” Grimes nodded. There wasn’t doubt or hesitation in his or the other bridge crew’s faces. That pleased her.

“After I empty the tubes, we crash dive into the atmosphere, as low as you dare. Because we’re going to have a lot of pissed-off destroyers gunning for us.”

“That we are, ma’am,” Hargreaves replied.

She keyed her attack computer. It rotated down from the deckhead, encircling her in a cocoon of displays and controls.

The cruisers, the enemy fleet’s hitting power, resolved from sterile red icons into sleek, muscular warships, visible to the naked eye through Ghost’s high-powered scopes. Clouds whipped by between them, briefly obscuring and then revealing them.

The stealth only had four torpedo tubes, and that meant she couldn’t hit them all. But she would sure as hell settle for taking out two-thirds. Lost Earth, she’d settle for putting the flag out of action.

The collection of ships before them continued fanning out, rising from the murky upper atmosphere of Phaeros as Ghost, in her opposite orbit, raced toward them. Yet the core of them, six Iconian cruisers, clustered together. An easy target. Perhaps the last time they would be before they scattered into an attack formation.

Targeting icons appeared on four of the ships she selected. Data flowed in: relative velocity, ship type. Ambient conditions from the gas giant’s upper atmosphere and intense gravitational well. All the information she’d need to factor in to take the shot.

Steady.

Her finger tapped on each of her torpedo tubes, highlighting them in a blinking red. Then she played her curser over the targets. Crosshairs appeared on four of the rapidly approaching cruisers, her console chirping as the stealth’s passive sensors dialed in the ships.

No, they weren’t ships anymore.

They were her prey.

“Targets acquired,” she said quietly, yet her voice carrying clearly over the silent bridge. In the bow of the stealth, a distant series of “thunk” noises came. The torpedo autoloaders moving the huge weapons into position.

She frowned in concentration, priming the torpedoes. Letting the ambient conditions flow into the dull command systems of the weapons. The timeframe she had to accomplish this was measured in seconds.

The enemy ships crept higher, trailing streamers of fire. Her eyes flicked to their relative velocities. If she launched her torpedoes too early, then the enemy cruisers would have enough warning to evade. And, the escorting Iconian Brasso-class destroyers had a hell of a lot of delta-V capacity. They would be able to adjust course, and scythe down on her vulnerable ship. That would be a death sentence for her and Ghost. She would die to accomplish her mission if she had to, but she wouldn’t waste her life. Or those of her crew.

She didn’t break concentration on the screen for a moment while her hand found the pistol grip of the firing mechanism, and wrapped around it.

Narrowing her eyes as the enemy closed on the optimal firing position, she flicked up with her thumb. The trigger guard lifted automatically, sending a signal forward.

A whine came from the bow—the torpedo tube doors opening. Her finger rested on the trigger. This was the time when a stealth was at its most vulnerable, when she attacked, the open torpedo tube doors breaking the finely engineered stealth characteristics of her ship.

The ships rose higher over the horizon. And then reached the point which she had mentally marked as the time, and the place.

“Firing four,” she said simply. Her finger squeezed the trigger, and then released.

A rumble washed through the stealth as the torpedoes raced from their tubes. On the screen, she saw the four deadly weapons spearing through the upper atmosphere of Phaeros, streaming fire behind. A beep came from her attack computer. Followed a few seconds later by another. Then another, the intervals reducing in frequency as the torpedoes closed on their targets.

Beep...a delay, then beep.

The noise of a gong being struck emanated from the bridge’s speakers, the ship’s interpretation of a sensor pulse rippling across her hull.

“Ma’am,” Grimes said, his voice icily calm. “Enemy escorts have sighted torpedoes. Looks like they’re trying to bracket us with sensor sweeps.”

“To be expected.” Draper nodded. “It’s time to get out of here. Give me a deorbital burn. Take us deeper into the atmosphere.”

Grimes, his work done, exchanged a glance with the helmsmen who clutched the stealth’s yoke.

“Aye aye, ma’am. Diving on the double.”

Dong!

Another sensor sweep washed over them. On the display, the four torpedoes streaked higher toward the collection of cruisers and destroyers. The enemy ships began evading, the cruisers desperately struggling to fight their momentum and steer away from the incoming weapons even as the destroyers burned hard to lower their orbit.

The chirp of torpedoes increased in frequency.

Beep... Beep...

Dong!

Flashes came from their guns.

“Incoming,” Grimes said.

Draper toggled the attack computer. It rotated up into the deckhead. She had no torps left in her tubes, and it was nothing more than a distraction. Now it was just a matter of surviving what was coming for them. “All hands, brace for impact and chop.”

“Aye aye.”

Dong!

A rumble came from Ghost’s engines. Before them, the murky horizon rose up the screen as the stealth literally dove into the billowing layer of clouds below. Lightning coursed over and through them in forked flashes.

The first bolts of the destroyer’s light pulse rounds rained down around the craft. Although “light” was a misnomer. To the unarmored stealth, even a single impact would cause critical damage.

Beep, beep, beep.

“Give me flank,” Draper said, proud her voice didn’t exhibit a single hint of stress. An unsettling feeling turned her stomach as the stealth’s artificial gravity competed with the huge mass of the gas giant. Above them, the four streaks of the torpedoes sped toward the enemy ships.

The cloud layer drew closer. Lightning crackled and coursed through the bloated mass. Thunder boomed against Ghost’s hull, even the thin atmosphere of this altitude carrying the sound.

The beeps of the torpedo monitors grew closer and closer...and became a single whine.

Beeeeeeeep...

She looked up again as the first torpedo slammed into the bow of one of the cruisers. An explosion blossomed. The whole ship tumbled over in a summersault of hundreds of thousands of tons of metal, shedding embers from her wrecked forward sections. Draper squinted. She could just see the flare of RCS thrusters firing frantically to bring the ship under some semblance of control.

A second torpedo speared into the stern of another cruiser, a light one this time. Immediately, the engine plume cut out, replaced instead by a dark smoke-like trail of debris from her smashed drives.

Another torpedo raced past its target. And then the final one narrowly missed a rapidly evading ship.

“Two out of four hits,” Grimes confirmed. “One looks a dead stick, the other is pulling itself back together again.”

“Call it on the two hits.” Draper frowned at the display even as the ship shuddered and rocked from its passage.

“Partials, I’d say.” Grimes leaned close to his console screen. “They’re out of the game, but probably still salvageable.”

“Understood.” Damn. Would have been nice to have taken them out. But warships, even Iconian ones, were designed to be able to contain damage. Besides, if anything, a partial would be worse for whoever was in command over there. It meant they’d have to protect them rather than push on with diminished forces.

Yes, Draper conceded to herself, maybe in this case a partial wasn’t just a second best, but the optimal outcome.

Dong!

The stealth shook violently, focusing her back on the here and the now. A throbbing boom echoed through the stealth, lightning smashing into her flank. Lost Earth knew what that would do to the camouflage capabilities of the vessel. But probably nothing good.

The enemy had slipped over the top of them, some enemy destroyers firing back and down at Ghost, even as others rapidly moved to assist the beleaguered cruisers.

Dong... Dong... Dong...

Come on, Draper silently urged. The enemy fire was getting accurate. They must have acquired them. Hell, they were probably visible, streaking through the skies of this world like a shooting star. It was a race between whether Ghost could slip deep enough below the cloud layers before the first blow struck.

A round sizzled by, so close the heat of its passage set off a damage warning. Then another.

Ghost rattled as she raced through the top of a cumulous cloud. The sky went from visible to pitch black and then visible again, turning the bridge into a dance hall light show.

Come on!

Another round smashed by. Lightning coursed through the dark cloud.

The whole ship bucked and heaved, driving Draper painfully against her harness. Sparks showered down from the claustrophobic low deckhead and a horrendous booming noise washed through the ship.

Chapter 38

Captain Cutter – Karis System – KSS Achilles

A cheer erupted through the bridge. Officers and enlisted pumped their fists.

Two of the Iconian cruisers, one of the heavies and a light, had sustained horrendous damage. Debris and gases billowed from savage wounds even as they crested, tumbling, over the horizon of the gas giant.

The other ships gathered around them protectively. Instead of continuing their burn to break orbit, the flotilla cut their engines, sweeping down the face of the world, their attempt at intercepting the fleet curtailed.

“I don’t know who that was”—Cutter flashed a grin at his commanding officer—“but they’ve just given us the best damn news all day.”

“Has to be a stealth out of Valestra,” Roe mused. “Maybe I’ll change my opinion on those sneaky bastards.”

Cutter gave a snort. Yeah, stealths had given him nothing but headaches up until now. But then, they’d always been on the other side. Now he’d seen just how brutally effective they were when they voyaged under the same flag.

The moment was broken. Achilles rocked as a Raptor raced along her flank, fire flashing into her armored hull. Cutter shook his head. Now was not the time to get focused on that distant victory.

The incoming group of FACs loosed another volley of torpedoes as the enemy fighters and bombers swarmed all around them.

They streaked past Achilles’s bow and into the midst of the fleet. Havoc exploded throughout as Cutter grimaced in sympathetic pain.

His ship plunged through the ethereal drive trails of the weapons, his broadside presented to the enemy light warships. It was time to give them a dose of their own medicine.

“Mister Haynes,” Cutter growled. “Fire at will.”

Lieutenant Commander Haynes flicked a glance up at the command podium. “That would be my pleasure.”

He turned to his banks of gunners and roared, “Fire!”

At once, a ripple of thuds and thumps echoed through the ship. Sixteen of the medium pulse cannon secondary batteries joined the heavier resounding thumps of the primaries. On the holo, streamers of fire washed out from Achilles, her sister ship following her. A sleet of energy pulsed into the swarm of FACs.

Like a shoal of disturbed fish, they broke apart under the horrendous onslaught. Engines flared hard as the ships sought to escape. The individual ships became obscured on the holo as they raised their EW shrouds—each of the small crafts’ suites not strong enough to stop the battleship’s powerful sensors, but collectively, it created a void.

It was no matter. More volleys of shots tore through the space where the enemy ships would be. The main viewscreen swung around, the optical cameras on Achilles’s hull focusing on that area. The space was bedlam—ships flying in every direction, the Iconians discipline failing them completely.

“Damn good job we weren’t facing a Galt FAC squadron,” Roe said introspectively, his arms folded. Cutter couldn’t help but agree. The Hegemony forces would, no doubt, have held their discipline and continued the onslaught. “But at the moment, I’ll settle for disrupting their attack runs.”

“Aye,” Cutter responded. Lost Earth, what he’d have given to take the controls of one of the gun turrets himself. Felt the satisfaction of his shot being the one which tore through one of those damn FACs which had caused so much pain and damage to the fleet.

But, Roe and he had spoken of this before. That wasn’t his place, not anymore. Like it wasn’t Roe’s place to lead a single ship in combat, no matter how much he clearly wanted to.

The fast-attack craft starburst away. Several of them trailed debris from hits from the secondary batteries, or at least he presumed it was the secondaries, because a hit by one of the primaries would have left nothing but dispersing dust. Two enemy FACs looked to be dead sticks, their vector taking them toward Phaeros. Cutter gave a thin smile. There would be some frantic repairs occurring on those ships. From the look of things, their course would take them into the gravity well where they’d be dragged down into the gaseous depths.

“Keep firing, Mister Haynes,” Cutter said. Now was not the time to let up. Not for even an instant. “I want them...discouraged from pulling together for another attack run.”

“Aye aye.”

He took a deep breath, turning back to Roe. For the time being, the threat was over. Or at least mitigated for the foreseeable. “Think they’ve got anything left?”

Roe slid his visor up. His face glistened with perspiration, yet his single eye burned furiously. “Captain, with those cruisers licking their wounds from whoever just butchered them, the enemy destroyers probably thinking discretion is the better part of valor without their big friends and with the FACS clearing off. I’d say something has just gone right today. But let’s not count our chickens before we get a grip on those aerospace fighters.”

Cutter gave a grunt of acknowledgement, all he could manage at the moment. Roe seemed intent on tempting fate. The enemy aerospace craft still swirled and circled around. The sheer volume of enemy fighters had reduced, but then so had the friendlies. The outmatched Cyclones had taken a horrendous beating. And even the Tempests, designed for this kind of close-in knife fight, looked to have been whittled down.

Two craft in particular caught Cutter’s eye, caught in a fierce and frantic battle. Even the tattered remnants of their wingmen looked to be wary of how vicious the conflict was.

Leaning forward, he found his eyes locked on the confrontation. Both pilots were skilled, that was without question. And all it would take would be a single mistake from one or the other, and they’d be dead in a flash.

***

Rick cried out in pain as he pulled his Tempest around, the limiters on his maneuvering thrusters off. He needed every last erg of energy and newton of force his tortured fighter could give.

Come on, old girl.

His vision washed out to black as the blood rushed from his head, the nose of his Tempest creeping around on the hard-burning Wolf. He knew he could beat the Hegemony fighter in a turn, but someone hadn’t told the enemy pilot that. With a deftness which nearly defied physics, the Ace snapped around, the flare of the Wolf’s engines and thrusters an uncharacteristic bright white, showing the pilot had disengaged his safeties as well.

He pulled his stick harder. The fighter groaned in protest, and the nose began creeping back to the enemy.

The crosshairs of his gimballed cannons fought to match the cross-haired target leading the enemy fighter. The point he had to aim for to hit.

With a snap roll, the Wolf went relative inverted and nosed down hard into the tumbling wreckage of one of the destroyed freighters.

“Come on!”

Rick burned to follow, wincing as even more debris from the wrecked freighter slammed into his canopy. Goddamn, his canopy couldn’t take much more abuse. One good hunk of metal would smash clean through it, and be just as likely to take his head off.

The Wolf rolled past the distended, distorted fuselage of the ship, corkscrewing around. Rick made to follow, his cannon lashing fire at the enemy. Explosions rocked the shattered remains of the ship. Lost Earth, he hoped there was no one still aboard, desperately striving to reach the safety of an escape pod.

He put it out of his mind. He had to. If he fought with one hand tied behind his back, he was dead. The Ace was too damn good for him to fight with self-imposed limits.

Something flashed in front of him, a tumbling section of a huge fuel tank. He reacted, slamming his stick over and throttling back.

Shit, that was too damn close.

***

Corla cried out as he corkscrewed around the smashed wreckage of the freighter. Multiple gees of force punished his body. Debris pinged disconcertingly from his canopy. Even the occasional afterimage of a frozen body, ejected from the holed ship.

He glanced in the rear screen. The enemy was gone, no telltale flash of weapons fire. Or glow of thrusters.

The enemy pilot would be after him soon enough. Doubt filled Corla. And not for the first time when facing this foe. He couldn’t outfly them. That much was clear.

But maybe he could outthink them.

He darted his head around. There. Just what he wanted.

A huge cargo bay on the remains of the hulking ship had been cracked open, spilling its pallets of goods everywhere. He rotated his fighter and hauled back on his throttle, activating the reverse thrusters. Deftly, he backed into the cavernous space, shunting aside floating crates.

Calm.

Calm for the first time since this latest battle had commenced. He hadn’t realized how fast he was breathing. His heart beat furiously. The ache in his neck from tension and the hard maneuvering bordered on agony.

Something caught his eye. A small source of light. He focused on it. It looked to come from an office space hanging over the ruins of the bay. Maybe some kind of loading control room. Within, a battlesuit-clad figure looked straight at him. A slight motion gave away that the poor bastard was still alive. Trapped in this shattered ship.

Not a glorious way to die. Corla stared at the figure. And felt nothing. Not even sympathy.

The figure noticed him, and moved to the window and frantically beat on the thick plate glass.

Theatrically, Corla brought a finger to his visor.

Hush, little spacer.

He cast the unfortunate person from his mind and refocused on the star-speckled space visible through the rent in the ship’s hull. His enemy would be looking for him. And he intended to be the first to strike.

His comm gave a crackle, the signal distorted by the ruins of the freighter.

“Major, Colonnello Farodia,” the accented voice snapped. “The attack is broken on the main fleet.”

No shit!

The cowardly FACs were beaten away. The bastard Iconian fleet had turned and run at the first sign of trouble. Only the tattered remnants of his aerospace forces were left.

“It is time, Major,” Farodia continued, “to get our asses out of here. The enemy has at least five more ships, which have appeared on the edge of sensor range. Let’s go before they arrive.”

Corla felt his brow furrowing, even as he stared out of the gaping wound in the freighter. Five more ships? There were no reinforcements for them to bring to bear. That meant it had to be a detachment of ships which had been left behind.

Five ships far more vulnerable than those gathered here, protected by the Kingdom fleet.

His fingers wrapped and unwrapped around his throttle as he gritted his teeth. Every fiber of his being wanted to stay in wait for the enemy Pilot he knew, even now, hunted him. To finish this battle here and now.

The damage his aerospace forces had caused on the enemy had been devastating and Starbase Valestra was no doubt on a knife’s edge. But, if those ships were actually more freighters coming in, they might contain enough supplies for the base to still be viable. They would retain the ability to strike at the Sphere, and deep into the heart of Iconian territory.

He gave a low, guttural growl. He wanted to end it. To just concentrate on the fight before him. But he had a duty beyond merely facing his demons. A duty to the Hegemony.

“Negative.” Corla came to a decision. Much of their prey had been taken here. Most of the freighters were reduced to floating wreckage. Yes, many of the warships were still combat effective, but they could only win the battle. The cargo ships were what would win the war. “All units are to disengage and make at full emergency burn for the new arrivals. No exceptions.”

Corla drove his throttle forward. The drifting crates and debris thumped into the Wolf’s nose as he thrust out of the bay. He speared out of the remains of the ship, his engines burning hard.

He glanced for the briefest of seconds at his sensor screen, seeing the collection of five unknown icons far away. He hauled his nose around and accelerated toward the distant target.

***

Rick looked around frantically at the warped and twisted remains. The bastard had to be hidden in here somewhere. It was how the Ace liked to operate. One of the tricks up their sleeve. Lying in wait for their prey, and then pouncing like a stalking predator.

From over his shoulder, something erupted from the darkness of a wrecked bay. The engines burned so hard it caused the canopy to tint.

He hauled his fighter around. Damn it, his vector was off, pulling him away from the enemy even as his Tempest rotated. He squeezed his trigger. A hopeless and impotent attempt at a hit, even as he throttled up to pursue.

The Wolf rapidly opened up the range, its superior acceleration quickly outpacing him. All around the fleet, other coalition craft attempted to disengage, some of them unsuccessfully. They fell prey to the sad remnants of the defending Tempests and Cyclones.

Are they bugging out?

They couldn’t be. They had jumped in, and they had an easy way out. They could simply jump out to the relative safety of their home base.

Then he saw where they were headed.

Caravel, and her few escorts on the far edge of sensor range.

Son. Of. A. Bitch!

Chapter 39

Captain Holloway – Karis System – Caravel

The battle raged fiercely.

Holloway gave a swallow. What must it be like in the middle of that hell? Lines of pulse fire tracked across the heavens. Explosions tore through the distant fleet, visible on maximum magnification.

“Ma’am?” Her sensor officer turned to her, perspiration glistening on his brow. He swallowed. “It looks like they’ve fought off the attack but...but...”

“But what?” Holloway kept her eyes locked on the viewscreen, hypnotized by what she was watching.

“We have incoming,” he said, his voice taut and dry. “Ma’am. Many incoming.”

“Position?”

“They look to have disengaged from the main attack. They’re headed in from dead ahead.”

Nodding, Holloway reached for her high seat and lowered herself onto it. This was it. They were under attack. Again. This time without aerospace fighter support, the four destroyers their only line of defense.

The sleek escorts bravely pulled themselves in, bracketing Caravel in their protective embrace. Holloway squeezed her eyes closed. She was so damn helpless. She had nothing to fight with. Not even the smallest of guns. No way of defending herself from what was coming, other than relying on others.

The smart glass of the viewscreen interfaced with the sensors. Bracket icons pinged into existence as more and more of the enemy attack craft were detected. A veritable swarm of them.

The only consolation, she supposed, was that there weren’t nearly as many of them as on the previous attacks. The enemy force must have been whittled down horrendously. But then, at the moment, they didn’t have anything like the same level of protection of the convoy, either.

“Ma’am,” her XO said. He gave a swallow, as if his throat was parched. Like hers was, too.

“I know.” Holloway finally settled on. There was nothing to be said. No orders which she could give. The escorts would either protect them, or they wouldn’t.

The enemy drew closer and closer, the sensors resolving what they were. A handful of lethal Wolf fighters. A pair of deadly Raptor fighter-bombers. A gaggle of Iconian Aggresars.

This was probably all that was left of their attackers. The problem was, it was all headed their way.

***

“Come on!” Rick shouted in frustration. He was driving his Tempest so hard, chances were the engines would need a total strip-down at best when—if—he landed. More likely, the techs would simply toss the savaged Tempest over the side.

Don’t worry, old girl. I won’t let that happen.

An Aggresar, slower than the Hegemony fighters and bombers, crept into range.

Screw it. Rick pulled his nose across just enough. He squeezed the trigger. A moment later, the Aggresar was replaced with an expanding fan of debris as it came apart before his disdainful attack. The pilot had probably been terrified. Knowing that death could come at any time, and suddenly finding themselves — if they had somehow survived — tumbling amid a disintegrating craft.

He didn’t feel any sympathy. He might have once, but not anymore. He had seen far too much death, too much destruction to let any emotions into his thoughts which might stay his hand.

Hate, though—hate and determination. That could be harnessed and used in place of the obsolete emotion of sympathy. Somewhere ahead, among the burning engine plumes, was the Ace. Someone who had directly killed more of his friends than the whole of the rest of the Galton war machine combined. Someone who had killed his friend and senior officer.

That, for sure, earned the Ace a special place in hell. And, he intended to deliver him there personally.

He scowled as he swept by another Aggresar, this one too far off his course for him to target the craft without losing a substantial amount of headway.

Not that it looked like he would be able to catch up with the Wolfs. Even the Raptor’s powerful engines were pulling them away as they flared hard, with scant regard for safety. The enemy ships were designed under the Hegemony doctrine of “Zoom ’n’ Boom” rather than the “Turn ’n’ Burn” of the Kingdom’s.

Here and now, desperately pursuing the remains of the enemy strike force as it closed on Caravel, though, it made for one hell of a disadvantage for him and one hell of an advantage for them.

The constellation of burning engine plumes pulled further and further ahead, vanishing amid the stars. On his sensors, he saw the four destroyers of Caravel’s escorts desperately moving to intersperse themselves between the vulnerable tanker and the approaching enemy.

What was going to be the enemy’s play? Decelerate into the fight? Give themselves the time to really hammer home the attack? If they did that, then Rick could keep burning and catch up with them. But then, he’d quickly overshoot. He’d have the chance of taking out maybe one or two of the enemy before he sailed past. And that was probably being generous.

Or would the enemy reverse the tactic? Keep burning the whole way? That would mean they had no loiter time. They’d flash past Caravel and her escorts, giving themselves the chance for a single volley in the hope that they’d hit something critical and destroy the ship.

Damn it, whichever they did, it would dictate which tactic he himself should use.

He looked forward, the engine flares completely lost. There was only the occasional Aggresar, which he soared past. They would fall prey to Faraday’s trailing Cyclones who, even now, were burning hard to catch up.

What would the Ace do? That was the question. If that pilot wasn’t the ranking enemy, the coalition forces would still be fools not to cede to whatever plan the Ace would come up with.

Rick’s mind tore through a montage of his dealings with the enemy pilot. The desperate fight over Port Rorian. The Ace’s bomb run at Victory. The rumors of how he’d fought in the Battle of New Avalon. Each of the relentless attacks on the fleet.

And then, like a revelation from Lost Earth, it flashed in his mind. He knew what the Ace would do.

Because it was what he would do.

***

It was a tanker. Not just a good target, probably the most important one. The cunning bastards had used the whole damn convoy to act as a decoy for it.

Keep burning, or decelerate?

That was the question.

Corla’s eyes flicked to the rear viewscreen. The pursuing fighters were lost in the inky blackness of space. The only sign from this distance that a desperate battle had occurred a faint glowing cloud of expanding gases the size of a fist, rapidly shrinking, on his screen.

“Weapon check.” He refocused on the problem at hand.

“Raptor one-four, zero torps.”

“Aggresar Glory-five, zero torps.”

“Aggresar Honor-two, zero torps.”

The voices rattled on. The order of battle had been so badly fractured, individual pilots called out their weapon loads rather than their squadron leaders.

And it didn’t sound good.

And then, “Raptor two-six, single anti-shipping torpedo.”

Finally. Someone had a weapon left. Something that could do some real damage. He waited. Listening to the last few to call in.

Everyone else was dry.

Raptor two-six had the last torpedo. Just one. And that wasn’t enough to guarantee a kill on such a huge ship unless it was placed exactly right.

He couldn’t simply burn past the huge tanker, unleashing a volley of torpedoes as he did.

They’d have to slow down. Make sure that torpedo went in somewhere it would do real damage. And, if it came to it, take that ship apart with just their guns.

The four destroyers had arranged themselves into a screen. Their fire would be vicious, that was for sure. They were clear of friendlies, and they’d be able to use every flak gun and light pulse cannon they had.

His tattered aerospace squadrons would be flying into that mess.

There was no choice. For the coalition...no, he thought, screw the coalition, the cowardly inferiors. This was for the Neo Hegemony. They had to do this. No matter the cost.

“All craft. Stand by to decelerate on my mark.”

Voices acknowledged, some cowardly Iconians trepidant and uncertain. But, he had to grant them, others with eagerness and glee.

And, he heard with pride which would have made his chest swell—if he weren’t tightly bound with a harness—calmness and professionalism from the Hegemony pilots. They were good sons and daughters of Galton.

“Mark.”

He eased back on his throttle and swung his nose around. Facing backward to his relative motion. The cloud of gas and debris of the remains of the distant battle swung into his view. With a firm, decisive motion, he drove the throttle forward. He felt the pressure build on his chest, as if an elephant which had dwelt on the plains of Father Terra was lowering its fat ass on him.

His engines burned hard, seeking to slow him down enough that his standard retros would bring him down to combat speeds.

Chapter 40

Captain Cutter – Karis System – KSS Achilles

Cutter felt his teeth grinding at his own impotence. The enemy FACs were gone—destroyed, damaged, or simply fled before the onslaught which Achilles had laid out. The Iconian cruisers had been driven away by their mysterious friend at Phaeros.

Search and rescue efforts were already underway amongst the tumbling wreckage and shattered ships. Shuttles, tenders, and the agile destroyers hunted around for fleeing escape pods and battlesuit-clad figures flung from their ships. Work parties were, even now, cutting into the remains of the battered hulks.

Even what cargo they could take was being industriously saved by work crews.

And, even better, the enemy fighters and attack craft had been driven off.

Or had they? They had fled from the immediate vicinity of the main portion of the fleet.

Toward a new objective.

Caravel had reappeared on the edge of the sensor range, limping toward the fleet with her detachment of escorts. And the tattered remains of the coalition forces had seen them, too. They must have known that, as vicious as their assaults had been, there wasn’t much more they could accomplish here. The Tempests and even Cyclones had fought with desperate efficacy and reduced their numbers. And the destroyers would whittle them down even more.

So they’d turned to the hurting tanker. The ship Cutter had hoped would be able to sneak in while the fleet took the brunt of the attack. The engine plumes of the Hegemony aerospace craft burned bright as they plunged toward their prey.

Four destroyers, before the war, would have been an impressive escort. Now, it seemed insubstantial and ethereal. And there wasn’t a single fighter in range to intervene.

But they were trying.

On the holo, the racing coalition craft formed an extended and disheveled line reaching for Caravel at their best speed. And behind them, the Kingdom pilots burned hard. One of them, in particular, far ahead of the others. Picking away at the Iconians’ slower Aggresars. But there was no chance he’d catch up with the bulk of the Hegemony craft.

The Hegemony had always had the edge on acceleration over the Kingdom.

But, they still had to try.

***

Rick glanced at the bar chart steadily rising upward, before flicking his eyes up at the receding plumes of fire ahead of him, already out of range of his guns.

“I’m showing a charge in your jump engine,” the harried fighter controller called across the comm. The poor man likely had little more to do at the moment than monitor the telemetry from his wards. And he’d undoubtedly be wincing at the punishment the fighters had taken.

“Yeah,” he grunted, all he could manage through the horrendous g-forces crushing down on his chest even through his inertial dampers.

“You doing what I think you are?” Faraday interrupted, her tone gentle and probing. “Because when those destroyers open up, they won’t—can’t—drop their flak screen for you.”

“I know.” His voice juddered from the vibration of his engines.

The plan had almost worked before, against the enemy recon flight. This time, he was determined that it would. He looked up through his canopy. The enemy were too far ahead for him to see them, even under zoom. But his sensors told him what he needed to know. The enemy fighters had turned nose to tail, their powerful engines decelerating them fiercely.

It was his only advantage. The Hegemony pilots would have to save their remaining jump charge to get home. Rick, on the other hand, would be able to get back to base under conventional power.

His console gave a chime. His jump drive had tuned, matching the enemy’s vector. He still wouldn’t be able to quite match their acceleration, but he sure as well would have the drop on them in maneuverability.

“Okay, Rick. See you on the other side.”

He grunted in response.

It was time. Let’s do this. One more time, old girl. Into the fray.

He reached up through the crushing gravity and tapped his console. A moment later, a red flash engulfed him, and he emerged back into the black amid a cloud of exotic particles. Before him, the five ships, the four destroyers, and a huge lumbering tanker appeared, visible to the naked eye as toy-sized objects.

He looked round, his sensor rapidly trying to reacquire the enemy craft.

There.

A Raptor raced virtually next to him, caught mid-yaw as it sought to come back around. Its engines facing straight toward Rick.

The most vulnerable position possible.

He squeezed his trigger. Blue pulse fire lashed out, carving the portside engine nacelle from his prey’s fuselage. The dismembered fighter-bomber’s other engine continued flaring for a moment, sending the craft into a flat spin, debris tearing away in long curved streamers. Something flashed from the center. A flicker of a figure sitting in an ejector seat. Then they were gone.

Rick turned his attention from the Raptor. It was gone. The pilot had ejected.

More importantly, where was the Ace?

He looked around. A Wolf, this one with a yellow nose, had completed its turn, facing back toward the fleet of five ships. Plumes of fusion fire erupted from its retros, trying to slow enough to bring it to a zero distance - zero velocity intercept on its targets.

The Wolf dropped back toward the collection of ships as Rick brought his nose to bear. He squeezed his trigger. The Wolf snapped into a roll, somehow dodging the incoming fire and then returned it. Rick winced as blue pulse tracer tore past his cockpit far too close for comfort. The Ace may have been the best Hegemony pilot, but the others were damn good, too, and forgetting that or underestimating them for even a second would kill him.

He squeezed his trigger again, fire lashing all around the enemy fighter, his guns awkwardly gimballing in an effort to target the enemy. The Wolf returned the fire. Pulse rounds slashed back and forth between the dueling craft.

Come on!

His Tempest shuddered. An alarm whooped. He’d taken a hit. He didn’t look down. He didn’t have time to check his damage status.

Pulse fire washed over the front of the enemy. A round disappeared into the Wolf’s cockpit, shattering it. Hollowing it out, the pilot undoubtedly dead. Probably before they even realized it.

No time to feel sympathy. He’d just butchered two enemies in under thirty seconds. But the Ace would know he was here now. His best advantage—surprise—was gone.

He looked around desperately, then rolled to take in what was below him. His stick felt like mush, the maneuver juddering and stilted. Damn, that hit must have taken out the thrusters controlling his longitudinal attitude.

He flipped inverted just in time to see a black-tipped Wolf appear from nowhere and open fire. It was so close he practically felt the heat of their passage. It looked like the enemy had cut his deceleration, and instead was going to keep the fight at higher relative velocities.

Where the Wolf fared better. Rick grunted. He couldn’t afford to let the Ace dictate the battle. That would be death, for sure.

Hauling his throttle back, he swung his nose around, striving to bring it to bear on the enemy. The Wolf flashed forward, disappearing stern-first toward the rapidly growing destroyers and tanker.

His crosshairs sought the receding enemy fighter. He squeezed his trigger anyway, in the desperate hope a stray round would tag the muscular craft. The Wolf cartwheeled over, bringing its nose back to bear.

Fire surged back from the Ace.

And then space erupted with silent blossoms of fire. Twinkling orange embers spread gracefully out. A beautiful sight, like a firework display on Colonization Day.

Or it would be beautiful, if it wasn’t actually lethal and deadly flak rounds exploding all around him.

The destroyers had opened up with their own defenses. And he was caught in the middle of it.

Chapter 41

Major Corla – Karis System

An expanding blossom of flak erupted dead in his sights. A piece of shrapnel struck his cockpit, cracking and starring it.

Corla flinched, fighting the urge to bring his hands up. Even just fractionally closer, that exploding round would have flayed his fighter and left nothing in the cockpit but a bloody smear.

Instead, he drove his stick over, seeking to thread his way through the explosions. All around him, space had turned a fiery red. He winced at each bang as his hull was riddled by fist-sized shot. An urgent chirping reached his ear. He glanced down at his status displays. His port engine flashed yellow and an unnatural judder fed back through his stick.

He, or his strike force, wouldn’t last long in this mess.

But then neither would the enemy Pilot.

An Aggresar raced past him, its tail section spilling a black cloudy trail. A moment later, it exploded as another flak round caught it. Another screamed past. This one looked intact. It flashed red. The coward had chosen to jump out rather than stay and fight.

He put it out of his mind, disregarding it as the vibrations caused by the battle further damaged his savaged port engine. He reached down, flicking it off. His acceleration cut as he frantically tapped at his console, rebalancing the thrust between the surviving primary engine and remaining two secondaries.

Closer. He had to get closer and get beneath the flak pattern of the destroyers, or his Wolf would be butchered.

Through the cacophony of fireworks, he caught a glimpse of the huge tanker. Throttling up, he drove toward it. A moment later, he was clear of the flak barrage. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the madness he had just been engulfed by. The Aggresars and Raptors were far better armored and able to survive that kind of defense than his Wolf, but even they were having a rough time.

Fighter-bombers plunged out of the cloud of shrapnel and fire. Aggresars, their guns flashing as they drove down on the enemy tanker. And thank Father Terra, the lone surviving Raptor, carrying its torpedo.

Another Wolf screamed out of the maelstrom, missing what looked like half its fuselage. Then behind it, the lone Tempest’s weapons fire still pouring into his wingman’s already devastated fuselage.

The Pilot!

Only the Pilot would keep focus while all hell erupted around them.

Corla growled through the pressure, torn whether to turn to face his nemesis or press on. Every instinct told him to come about. To finally have it out with the bastard.

The lumbering tanker swept across his view as he banked.

“Shit,” he spat. “Shit, shit, shit.”

He was a soldier of Galton, and orders always must come first. Killing the Pilot was what he wanted to do. Winning the war, though? For the sake of the Hegemony and the Neo cause? That was what he needed to do.

Slamming his stick back over, the tanker crept back into his sights.

***

Holloway watched as the enemy fighters erupted from the cloud of flak fire. Most of them trailed smoke and debris from the horrendous damage they’d received.

They’d been whittled down. Maybe as many as half of those who had been approaching were now gone. Some of those would have undoubtedly jumped away rather than face the defenses laid down by the destroyers. But there were still more than enough of them to devastate Caravel.

And there was only one lone fighter to defend them now that the destroyer screen was breached.

Her ship shuddered as a streamer of pulse fire slammed into her flank. Alarms whooped, even this light ordnance having a devastating effect on the unarmored ship. She gripped her armrest as another large fighter-bomber—a Raptor, she thought it was—swept around in a long arc which would bring it perpendicular to her flank.

“Roll us, get our damaged side away from that craft,” she snapped. Tortuously, groaning every degree of the way, the huge vessel began to spin on its axis as she tapped her console. “Any fighter, we have a Raptor incoming on an attack run.”

***

The Ace thundered toward the midriff of Caravel, her damage clearly visible to the naked eye. Huge rents in her flanks from previous battles exposing the innards of the ship. One engine totally dead.

Come on.

Rick didn’t have a clear shot of the Ace. And even a glancing blow from his guns would tear deeply into the already damaged ship, something which didn’t concern the Hegemony pilot in the slightest. Fire streamed out, causing a flurry of explosions on the tanker’s flank.

He stayed glued on the Ace’s tail. Waiting for his opportunity to squeeze the trigger.

“Any fighter, we have a Raptor incoming on an attack run.”

Rick growled in frustration, glancing up at the flashing red icon speeding around. Chances were, that enemy only had guns left. But...if it still had a torp? Then that would damn well kill Caravel.

The engines of the Wolf, one spluttering from a blackened nacelle, corkscrewed dizzyingly. The enemy had wanted this fight as much as Rick had, that was for sure. He felt it in his bones. A strange antagonistic kinship with his opposite number. But when it had come to it, when the Ace had seen the opportunity to attack Caravel, they hadn’t let their enmity get in the way. They’d gone for it.

Screw it, if that Neo asshole could see the bigger picture, then so could Flight Lieutenant Jason “Rick” Richards.

He pushed his stick over and throttled up. The Wolf disappeared from his canopy, replaced by the distant glint of the Raptor curving its way around the flank of Caravel. Yeah, that thing sure as hell looked like it was positioning for a torpedo run.

Rick drove his throttle forward hard, slamming back into the seat as he did so. The enemy fighter-bomber completed its turn, thundering toward the tanker. He arced in behind.

His crosshairs found the Raptor and he squeezed the trigger. A single line of tracer speared out from his port gun. He glanced in confusion to his right.

Why wasn’t his starboard gun firing—?

Something exploded, spinning him over and over. Warnings chirped and whooped. His damn gun had overloaded and exploded. Maybe it had taken damage coming through the flak. Or maybe it simply wasn’t designed to see this much use in a sortie.

It didn’t matter. It was the hand he’d been dealt.

He growled, fighting to bring himself under control, so at least he could get his port gun to bear on the Raptor. Fire flashed past. Through the dizzying spin, he glanced at his rear viewscreen. The black-nosed fighter swung in behind him weaving drunkenly, as if it struggled to hold course.

Damn, probably the only thing saving him at the moment was his unpredictable spin and whatever damage the Ace had taken. The Raptor spun back into view. He squeezed the trigger. A helix of blue fire stretched between him and the enemy.

Something flared away from the enemy.

Torpedo launch!

He kept his finger on the trigger, hoping against hope that he somehow hit the projectile. Rounds slammed into the Raptor, tearing into its engines. The flares from them died. The Raptor was a complete dead stick. Beyond the dead fighter-bomber, Caravel grew in size.

He eased off the trigger. His aim was too chaotic. The torpedo lanced into the huge ship. A moment later, a massive explosion burst from her mid-section, engulfing the Raptor which had launched it.

“Lost Earth,” he breathed, pulling his Tempest around before he followed the torpedo and Raptor into the exploding maelstrom. The ship slewed from his view.

Fire flashed by him again. More than one round slamming into his fighter even as urgent warnings rang out.

Chapter 42

Captain Holloway – Karis System - Caravel

Holloway watched in horror as the Raptor raced toward Caravel. A Tempest fighter, their lone protector this close, desperately hunted the fighter-bomber. An explosion bloomed on the side of the fighter, sending it tumbling wildly and uncontrollably. Whether it was hit, or suffered some kind of malfunction, she didn’t know. What she did know was that their guardian was hurting. Desperately, it struggled to regain control, bringing its nose to bear and opening fire.

Something flared beneath the heavier craft.

The torpedo speared toward them, trailing a plasma exhaust. The threat-warning sensor beeped urgently, the frequency rapidly increasing.

“Incoming. Brace, brace, brace!” she cried out before closing her eyes. There was simply nothing more she could do. The beeping became a continuous tone.

A deafening boom washed through the ship. She slammed forward in her chair, the harness biting deep. The bridge crew who hadn’t been strapped in were flung forward. Wails of sirens and alarms blared as sparks cascaded from ruptured power conduits. Every screen and console which wasn’t shattered issued urgent warnings and alerts.

An officer picked himself up, his hand going to the back of his neck, rubbing it, his expression dazed. Then he seemed to see the fire which broke out next to him and grabbed an extinguisher.

Somehow the gravity plating had held. Lost Earth only knew how.

“Report.” Holloway finally found her voice.

Before anyone could answer, an ominous creaking and groaning came from all around her.

An intact screen switched views, showing Caravel in plan view. The image shed elements of detail, one piece after another. The storage tanks disappeared, then the hull. Even the engines and sections which made up the habitable parts of the vessel.

In seconds, it had reduced to the most basic component of the ship. A long spar stretching the length of the vessel. Caravel’s keel. The single most important physical structure on the ship. Half way along, it flashed red. The site of the torpedo impact.

“Lost Earth,” she murmured. The two ends of ship might have only been at the slightest of angles to each other, but what that signified was critical.

Quite literally, her Caravel’s back was broken.

Her ship gave another shudder. She looked up to see an enemy fighter flash across the main view, fire spitting from its cannons.

This was it.

They were dead.

***

Rick cried out from the g-forces as he fought to bring his stricken, wounded fighter under some semblance of control while still trying to evade the lethal enemy pilot out there. Outside the cockpit, an uneven fog whipped around. His Tempest was bleeding out. Fuel? Coolant? His own oxygen supply? He didn’t know.

He still hadn’t had a chance to take stock of the damage to his bird, but one thing was clear. In his training, by the manual, this situation called for punching out.

Fighting the forces acting on his body, he reached up for the yellow- and black-striped eject handle and wrapped his gloved fingers around it.

You can still fight. The voice was insistent. Nagging. He still had a gun left and he still had breath. He shouldn’t give up.

He released his grip on the handle, moving it back to the throttle. Pulse fire washed across his canopy. Missing by meters, if that.

The Wolf raced through the space murky with the tanker and his fighter’s lifeblood, and plunged past him. Or his canopy turned past the black-nosed opponent. He didn’t know any more. His inner ear was completely screwed. The ball of his artificial horizon, set to the plane of the system, was rolling and spinning unpredictably.

Come on! Just land in front of my gun. Just for a moment. Lost Earth, give me one last chance to take this bastard out.

***

Corla grunted in frustration. The Tempest was twisting and turning, half occluded in a cloud of its own gases and debris as he overshot. His engines were damaged, causing an unpredictable lag on thrust as he sped or slowed. His maneuvering thrusters were shot, probably only half of them, if that, still working.

The enemy fighter looked in horrendous shape, same as the huge freighter behind. A massive wound had been opened in her flank, biting deep inside the huge ship. Ruptured power lines sparkled, even fires burned in defiance of the vacuum, fed by ruptured atmospheric lines. He couldn’t be sure—he was maneuvering too fast while trying to get his nemesis back in his sights—but it looked like the whole ship was bent. And that couldn’t be a good sign. The handful of surviving Aggresars and Wolves strafed the ship, the rounds slamming into sections which were already horrendously damaged.

He hauled his stick around, fighting to get his nose back on the Tempest. The four destroyers loomed in the background, their fire light and ineffective. Only taking shots when they could be sure of not hitting Caravel.

If only they had more heavy weapons left. They could add some of the warships to the count. The tanker looked to be as good as dead, and that meant their mission was done. They would be able to play.

The Tempest, jets of RCS thrusters spearing out of it at odd angles, desperately strove to bring itself back under control.

He continued pulling around in a long arc. It was almost anticlimactic. The Tempest was nearly helpless. The pilot would have been better off ejecting. Now he was just going to die.

The crosshairs kissed the enemy fighter and Corla’s finger squeezed on the trigger. Taking up the slack.

Perhaps the older pilots and officers of the Neo Hegemony Aerospace Corps, those misguided fools who still thought war was somehow chivalrous, would have granted this now-helpless enemy mercy. Corla gave a snort through his nose. And they would be utterly wrong. This bastard had killed more brave sons and daughters of Galton than cancer. Men and women to whom the Galaxy rightfully belonged. The Master Race.

Still, Corla eased his throttle back and staying his finger, matching speeds with the wounded fighter. Had this one been of Galton, they would undoubtedly have had a place in this new galaxy the Neos were creating. Smart. An excellent warrior. Relentless. Not like the pathetic genetic inferiors of the Iconian Regime or the distant Dawn Empire.

Perhaps, when the war was done, he would seek out this Pilot’s family. Their genetic stock deserved to be integrated into the Master Race’s own.

He sighed, his finger loosening slightly on the trigger. Yes, maybe the old timers were right and the days of chivalry shouldn’t die. Hopefully this man or woman had a sister or daughter. Corla almost wished he could tell his adversary that he, Major Gan Corla, would vow to find them and make them his. And preserve this warrior’s genes in the Prime’s glorious new empire.

His grip tightened back on the stick, his finger tightening on the trigger.

A flash of red tinted his canopy. An old Cyclone raced by, battered, trailing smoke. Then another appeared.

And another.

Fire lashed all around him. He dipped his wing, banking around hard to get out of the rain of fire pouring down on him.

Pulse fire smashed into his fuselage and a scarred Tempest screamed past so close its engine washed over his fighter.

Warning alerts chimed all over. He glanced over, his quick mind counting at least six enemy fighters all around him. A Tempest poured fire into a Aggresar, destroying it in short order. A Cyclone tore apart another Regime craft.

The last of the convoy’s combat air patrol had finally tuned their jump drives and pounced on them. Already the odds had changed.

Dramatically!

He glanced down at his damage console. Systems flashed red from all over his fighter. It hadn’t been skill with which he had survived this new onslaught. It was luck. He had been fortunate to survive the surprise attack, but what was clear was that he was in no position to continue the fight in his tortured craft.

“No,” he snarled, looking up at the wounded Tempest. His nemesis. The fighter turned, juddering about to bring its guns to bear. They were so close he could see the figure of the pilot through their cracked canopy.

He pulled his stick over. Something ground and spluttered within the fuselage, but the fighter didn’t respond more than that.

“No!” he repeated. His victory had been snatched from him.

The Tempest torturously came around, its nose fighting to get its one operable gun to target him. Behind him, he could see the three Cyclones and two Tempests coming about. Their next target would be him.

Corla gave a growl of frustration. A guttural, primal growl. Then reached for the one system which had miraculously survived.

***

“Come on!” Rick shouted, spittle flecking the inner surface of his helmet’s visor.

The Tempest shuddered and groaned as it came about. The Ace had the chance to finish him, that was for sure. But hadn’t done so. Whatever the reason for the delay was just an extra second which Rick was determined to use. One last chance to win this. One last opportunity to do his part in the war.

He looked over his shoulder, seeing the Wolf there. Stalking him. The muzzle of its guns pointed, aimed, and ready.

A flash of red. Then another. More came from all around Rick. A Cyclone, Faraday’s, surged out of the cascade of twinkling exotic particles already spitting fire. A flurry of shots slammed into the Ace’s fuselage.

Immediately, the Ace reacted, rolling away. A Tempest swept by, firing. The fighters overshot, sweeping in toward Caravel, riddling the few surviving Hegemony Wolfs and Aggresars left. In seconds, they were dead, or jumped out amid flashes of red.

He snapped his head back round to find the Ace. The Wolf rocked and shuddered, streamers of gases and debris escaping.

Rick pushed the stick around more. The vibration and whines grew in intensity. Something clanged. A piece of a nose cone falling away and striking his canopy, starring it even more.

Please, just let me get my cannons to bear. Please.

The trembling, flickering aim point reached for the Wolf.

A flash of red.

The Ace was gone. Fled.

Dammit! Rick beat his fist against his armrest. “Damn you. Damn you.”

“Clear,” Faraday called. “I have no enemy contacts.”

Rick cut what was left of his thrust, resting his head back into the seat. Exhaustion washing over him. He’d been so close. So damn close.

“Rick?” Faraday’s concerned filled voice emanated from the comm. “You’re not looking good there.”

No shit. His fighter groaned.

But he wasn’t going to suffer the ignominy of ejecting and having SAR come to get him. He could take his fighter home. She deserved it. She’d held together through everything that had been thrown at her. And still kept fighting.

“Let’s head on in,” Faraday said.

Faraday’s own horrendously battered Cyclone fell in next to him, looking like it was barely holding together itself. A single Tempest turned back to Caravel. The least damaged, providing what small cover the last of the convoy’s aerospace wing could give.

Slowly, Rick eased his fighter around to the distant convoy and gently pushed the throttle forward. For the first time, he looked and took stock of his Tempest. Nearly every system flashed red or yellow. Now was not the time to rush things.

***

Over the next hour, they crept back to the fleet. They passed the remains of the destroyer screen. Each emitted their powerful sensor sweeps, hunting the stealths which riddled the system. There, at the center, squatted Osprey.

Rick arced around in a gentle sweep to her stern toward the tiny but welcoming rectangle of her flight deck. He slid his throttle back, the Tempest rumbling and groaning like a wounded beast. Decelerating slowly, the reassuring voice of the landing officer calmly calling corrections for him.

He surged through the atmosphere veil, entering the flight deck. He jarred forward as he slowed himself, coming through the capture fields, each one shaving a bit of speed from him.

And then his Tempest settled to the deck amid billowing clouds.

Immediately, fire drones raced over, the nozzles of their turrets aiming at his fighter and spraying it down with a thick gloopy foam.

Damn, how bad must it look from outside? He flicked his switches, killing the power. Shutting down every system. Leaving nothing to chance. The last thing he wanted was to go up in here.

His cockpit opened and a tech reached down and unclasped his harness before he found himself ignobly dragged out. He swatted away the grasping hands, turning and sliding down the ladder and stumbling away from his fighter.

“Lost Earth, old girl,” he muttered as he looked back at his Tempest. Her length was flame-scorched. Riddled with pulse round and flak holes. The entire flank by her port gun was a tattered mess of wreckage.

The ground crew ran to him, sweeping him in a protective grip and dragged him away from the smoking craft. “What the hell?”

A huge freight-mover bot lumbered over like a massive crab and gripped his fighter in its claws.

“No!” Rick shouted, realizing what was happening. They couldn’t do this. He struggled in the arms of the ground crew to get back to his bird. “No!”

With creaks, groans, and panels falling from its flank, the fighter was carried toward the stern of the carrier. The fire suppressant foam stopping the mauled fighter from going up.

“Please don’t!” Rick shouted, twisting his shoulders, trying to pull himself from the tech’s grip. “Please.”

“She’s gone, sir,” the crewman said. “Landing officer wants it off the ship. ’Sides, the damn thing’s good for nothing more than scrap now.”

Rick pulled himself away and turned on the tech, his fist automatically clenching. How dare he? How fucking dare he!

The tech saw his aggression, recoiling, his hand raising to ward off the blow. And then he saw the man’s—the boy’s, really—face. Cut, blackened, and grease-stained through his open visor. Blood stained his battlesuit in quantities which told Rick it wasn’t his.

For the first time, Rick took in the rest of the flight deck. Bedraggled recovered fighters squatted on the deck, although none as badly scarred as his. A search and rescue shuttle disgorged stretcher-bearers. Moaning figures twisting and in pain slumped on the deck in a makeshift triage center.

The deck itself looked as if it had taken fire. Dinner plate-sized pulse round holes covered the bulkheads. Some of them still glowed at the edges. All around, the bustle and chatter of crews frantically working to save what and who they could.

Rick unclenched his fist, instead turning it into a pat on the kid’s shoulder.

“Sorry.” He glanced down at the tech’s chest, seeing his name, Brandt. “Just been a long few days.”

“I know, sir.” Brandt nodded. He gave a sniff and looked up and around at the cavernous and damaged flight deck. “It has for us all.”

Rick turned and looked at the stern. His fighter had just about reached the opening. Something was smoking from within, a thin wisp curling. If the Tempest went up, who knew how many it would kill. Maybe none. But these people didn’t need their lives being made any harder.

The freight bot pushed the fighter off the end. It floated away behind the carrier. Then it slewed out of view as Osprey maneuvered so no incoming craft risked striking it on the way in.

“Goodbye, old girl,” Rick murmured, snapping off a salute in the naval form, his palm facing down. “It was an honor to fly with you.”

Chapter 43

Captain Holloway – Karis System – Caravel

“Ma’am.” The helmet-clad face of the tech looked out from the screen on her console. Behind him, she could see the fractured black metal of the keel spar. A huge, solid structure, the spine of the ship, which held her together. “The crack’s gone deep. This ain’t just a dry dock job. She’s for the boneyard.”

Holloway nodded, it was what she suspected. The cost of digging out the keel and replacing it was probably more than that of commissioning a whole new ship. Everything on the huge vessel was built around its keel spar.

“Can we patch it enough to ignite the main engines and get us in?”

“Yeah, about that,” he said. “With the uneven burn of the damaged port engine adding torque, which we need to constantly correct against...well, the added stress on the frame might be what snaps the spine completely.”

Dammit. Holloway grimaced, a vision of the huge ship shattering itself into pieces in her mind. “Okay, leave it with me.”

She leaned back in her chair, looking out the viewscreen. One of the destroyers prowled into view. The sleek, aggressive-looking ship providing close support. It was followed by another. Both looked identical, the only difference their names emblazoned on their 300-meter-long flanks.

She furrowed her brow. Those four destroyers would surely be recalled soon. Probably after ordering her to take Caravel’s crew and then leave the ship.

The ship, which was so nearly at her destination. Her momentum had arced her in-system, well within the orbit of Phaeros. The Valestra planetoid was a mere AU away. Nothing in the context of modern space flight, yet an insurmountable distance in the human scale.

So near, yet so far.

She gazed at the patrolling destroyers. Anytime now, they would signal that they had to abandon ship. That they had to leave Caravel and her precious load of fuel. Fuel which might well, if not win the war, at least go a long way to preventing it being lost in the Talos Rift.

Holloway couldn’t let that happen. Not after so much heartache and effort. All for a hunk of metal nestled deep in the superstructure of her adopted ship.

All it needed to do was hold. To be braced enough that it wouldn’t finally crack.

Braced?

Braced!

An idea started to form in her mind how she was going to save her ship, and this mission.

Chapter 44

Major Corla – Bellerophon System

A shuttle had met Corla in Bellerophon Three’s orbit. His battered Wolf was far too damaged to even contemplate entry into the world’s atmosphere. So, he’d suffered the ignominy of pulling himself from the near-wreckage of fighter on a safety line and hauling himself into the open shuttle hatch where a loadmaster had deigned to grab him.

He now sat in the shuttle’s jump seat. Silent and brooding. He’d come so close. Part of him, the weak side, tried to justify what had happened. The weak side of him, which had been fed lies by even weaker teachers and their pathetic utterances of consolation when he’d lost at sports. Lines such as “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part which counts.” He snorted. Hopefully those teachers had been re-educated. Or were guests of the Executors, unable to continue giving their inferior mantras.

He’d lost. There was no dressing it up in any way.

Corla slammed the base of his fist into the bulkhead next to him. The loadmaster in the shuttle turned and looked at him sharply. He must have seen the expression on Corla’s face and wisely chose to keep quiet. As he should. He would be lucky if he wasn’t reported to the Executors for grabbing hold of a senior officer when he’d pulled him into the small boxy craft.

The cabin vibrated as they hit atmosphere. The view out of the small porthole flickering from the flames which would be engulfing the re-entering shuttle. A few moments later they were through, soaring over the green verdant lands and the bare rocky mountains.

A column of smoke rose on the horizon before disappearing from view as the shuttle banked around onto its final approach. The engines throttled down as the shuttle descended through the skies to land at the former Orillion Republic Aerospace Base. With a jerk, it touched down, rolling down a runway which was bumpy and scarred. The quickcrete-patched repairs would never feel as good as the original, but it did make the surface usable again. Steadily, the shuttle slowed to a crawl, and turned sharply from the runway onto the taxiway. A few moments later, it came to a halt and the hatch rumbled open.

Ignoring the loadmaster’s hand proffered in assistance, Corla stood, blinking as he made his way into the daylight and stood in the hatch opening, surveying the shattered scene beyond.

The base still bore the scars of the Kingdom’s desperate counterattack. Iron colored shafts of smoke rose from a dozen or more points. A couple of Aggresars had landed. They were more or less intact, although one’s landing gear had given way, sinking its starboard wing to the ground.

Of course, a Hegemony Wolf had landed and taxied correctly. Still, Corla would have to check if that had been one of the pilots who had prematurely jumped away. That was, of course, unforgivable. And would earn whoever had done so a trip to explain to the Executors just why they had shown such cowardice.

Speaking of which.

“Major Corla.” A man clad in a black leather trench coat stepped forward. Hanster, was it? Lerger’s deputy. He smiled, the same welcome a shark would give to its prey. “We’re so pleased you made it back.”

Corla nodded in greeting as he trotted down the metal steps set into the inner surface of the hatch. Something in the man’s expression exuded a sinister menace.

“Executor Lerger seeks the pleasure of your company in the sickbay.”

“Does she now?” Corla retorted. He made to walk past the man. “Sadly, I am too busy. I have another attack to generate and plan. And you can perhaps see that I don’t have much time or material to work with.”

The Executor gripped Corla’s bicep, squeezing it in a firm hand. Corla responded with a glare he knew had withered lesser men and women. It had no effect. “I’m afraid, Major, that she insists.”

With a sneer, Corla stared into the Executor’s eyes. They were filled with a sanguine insistence, the expression of a man who would get him to where he was ordered to be. Whether that was in one piece or not was entirely optional. It was only then he noticed two black-armored figures behind the Executor. Only these weren’t guarding the base; the sinister opaque helmets faced in his direction. The skulls on their chest denoting their position as the Death Guard, the paramilitary arm of the Executors.

“Very well.” Corla gave a tight nod. He shrugged from the Executor’s grip and altered his course toward the base’s small hospital.

***

The door slid open. Lerger had been given a private chamber in the sickbay. The woman stood, her back toward the entry, regarding a medical screen which had been set to show a chart of the Talos Rift. Her leather-gloved hands were clasped behind her back.

“Major,” she said, without turning. Something in her voice sounded wrong. Slurred slightly. And the pain was evident in it. She turned her head to the right, still not looking directly at him. Her icily beautiful face in profile. “I am so pleased you took the time to visit me here.”

“Your dog didn’t give me much choice in the matter.” Corla brought himself to an at-ease position. “When perhaps my time would be better afforded preparing for another attack.”

Lerger’s lips curled in a smile. “Your...aggressive eagerness is to be commended, Major. However, no, there will be no further attacks.”

She turned fully toward him. Unbidden, he took a step back. The left side of her face was sloughed and burned. The skin glistened, the transparent restorative gel pack working to save what it could of her flesh. But there was no doubt it would never look the same again, that was for sure. And as for her eye? The socket was filled with the disconcerting block orb of a medicant, undoubtedly working to repair what damage it could within. Her hair had receded back from her face. A horrific contrast to the beauty of her right side.

He brought himself back under control, already cursing himself for the momentary weakness. Then he felt a bubble of amusement. The woman had been like this for less than a day. A horrific, deformed mess. And yet, she had already learned how to gain advantage from it. Father Terra, the Executor probably thought it a bonus that she looked so fearsome.

To think, had she not been such a dangerous snake, he would have taken great pleasure in bedding her. Now, she looked so disgusting, the mere thought of his previous lust made him shudder.

“So what is our plan?” he finally asked. “Because there is nothing left to stop them from reaching Valestra. Our forces in the Sphere will come under renewed attack, and all this will have been for noth—”

“Major, if you’d wished to have involved yourself in strategic decisions, then you should have sought a promotion.”

Corla cocked his head at the awkward use of past tense. He should have? He still could. He was the best damn fighter pilot in the Hegemony. His reason for not doing so was pure and simple. He didn’t want to be taken from the cockpit.

“But now, we have new orders for you.” Lerger looked intently at him through her glistening blue eye. “Vital ones.”

“I live to serve the Prime,” he replied, his eyes narrowing in confusion.

“You will be afforded the opportunity to do so.” She smiled, yet only with one side of her mouth. “You will be sent to help prepare for the opening of a new front in this Great War, the People’s Front, and work toward our true objective of wresting control of their worlds.”

Corla blinked. “The People’s Front? There is no People’s Front.”

“Yet,” Lerger replied.

“We’re commencing another attack?”

“Momentum, Major, must be maintained. And I’m sure the People’s Republic is a place your maverick style can be utilized,” she said frostily. “See it as...being unleashed against a new enemy.”

Unbidden, the enemy Pilot’s damaged fighter sprang into his mind. So close to being destroyed. If he went to this new People’s front, the chances of finishing what he’d started was nil.

“Our work here is not done, Executor.”

“For you, it is.” She turned away from him, to face back toward the screen, her demeanor showing he was dismissed. Dismissed as ruthlessly as when he’d left her injured in the command center.

Was that the reason for her... harshness? Did she remember that? Remember it, and note it?

Corla narrowed his eyes and snapped to attention, his right hand beating to his chest. “Hail Prime.”

“Hail Prime,” she answered. Not returning the salute.

Grinding his teeth, he walked to the door. Just before he passed through, her slurred voice stopped him.

“You know, Major. If you hadn’t been such an arrogant prick, I would have bedded you.” He frowned. The woman’s words were a perverse mirror of his own thoughts. She turned again to him, her warped face on grim show. “Perhaps I still will.”

An icy shudder of fear and disgust rippled up his spine.

Chapter 45

Lieutenant Commander Draper – Karis System – KSS Ghost

Ghost’s prow pushed through the turbulent swirled mass of Phaeros’s cloud layer. Her hull was scarred and pitted by repeated lightning strikes and near misses from the enemy’s pulse fire. Her stealth camouflage pixelated and stuttered, malfunctioning badly from the abuse she had undergone, both man-made and natural.

The Iconian fleet had withdrawn, slinking back on the vector for Iconia. The thought of taking on the advancing Ajax and remaining cruisers detailed to chase them away was clearly too much for them. With their flagship, Granith, a holed, shattered mess under tow, and another of their light cruisers barely making headway, discretion, for them, was obviously the better part of valor.

And that left Ghost in the clear.

Draper hadn’t known what to expect on this attack. But survival had not been high on the list. Going against an entire enemy fleet, singlehandedly, and coming out the other end?

The ancestors of Lost Earth must really have been smiling on them.

But now, the skinning they’d taken meant that Ghost had no choice. She had to go home. Her crew needed rest, the ship needed refitting.

And hopefully, the yellow warning icons on the status display depicting her hull would turn green again and, in time, she could go back out on the hunt.

Slowly and as stealthily as she could manage—after all, they didn’t know that some Iconian fighter or bomber wasn’t circling in the hope of exacting revenge—Ghost rose from beneath the surface of Phaeros and began making its way home.

***

The destroyer’s loading ports were open. High tensile buckytube lines ran from the small warship to Caravel’s engine nacelle. Slowly, she reeled herself in, closing on the tanker which dwarfed her.

That was the simple part of the ad hoc operation, Holloway acknowledged. The other part was much more delicate and intricate.

Caravel’s helm chattered constantly with their counterpart on the Katana, the ship moving itself first by meters per second. Then centimeters. And finally millimeters. The numbers had to be checked and rechecked. Not a single extra iota of force could be applied to the now-delicate Caravel than had to be.

The destroyer settled against the side of the much bigger ship, crossing the cavernous hole the torpedo strike had left. The crater was so huge, only the bow and the stern touched the scarred and pitted hull.

But it was enough.

As soon as the ships kissed, waiting EVA suit clad crew and engineers swarmed over it. The sparks of welding torches lit up the hull in flickering, strobing lights.

It seemed, to Holloway, almost too simple. A brute force response to a problem. There was no elegance to it. The Katana would act as a splint, adding her structural integrity to what was left of Caravel’s. Broadsword, the other destroyer attached to the tanker’s hull, would provide thrust finely tuned to equal Caravel’s remaining engine in an effort to reduce any torque.

The numbers worked, or so her chief engineer claimed. Still, when she’d asked how sure he was, he simply gave a shrug. Who knew what further structural damage lay undiscovered throughout the ship from the relentless attacks she had undergone? Maybe the whole damn vessel would come apart.

Or maybe, just maybe, it would be enough to bring their precious load of fuel to Valestra.

She watched intently as the modifications were completed. There would be no time to test. No opportunity for trial runs. The coalition’s aerospace forces could drop in at any time. It had to work, or it wouldn’t.

“Okay, ma’am,” the engineer finally said, his tired voice uncertain and strained. “I think we’re as ready to go as we’ll ever be.”

“Good work,” Holloway said tightly as she slid her suit’s visor down. There was a damn good chance the whole ship could simply crumble around them. Yeah, they might not have been able to test, but they sure as hell were going to take it slowly and not rush this. “Helm, synchronize with Broadsword and give me one percent thrust.”

“One percent thrust, aye.”

The comm channel chattered as he spoke to his counterpart on the destroyer. The engine thrust from the ship had to be perfectly balanced with the tanker’s intact engines. To add to the complexity, they couldn’t simply slave the two ships together. Not only was Caravel a civilian vessel, and Broadsword military, they hailed from different nations. The interfaces simply didn’t line up.

A vibration resonated through the ship. Slowly, the ship’s velocity crept up.

“Five percent.”

“Five percent thrust, aye.”

The vibration grew harsher. The whole ship gave a shuddering rattle. Holloway looked up and around her. Expecting at any moment for a rent to appear in the bridge’s bulkheads and suck her out into the icy void of space.

But she held.

The velocity crept up and up. At this rate, they could cross the system and could reach Valestra in mere weeks.

Which, even if the coalition’s aerospace forces had nothing left within easy striking range, it would only be so long before they began to move new assets into the conflict zone. And the damn stealths which had scattered before the hunting destroyers of the convoy’s screen might want to chance their hand. Or maybe the Iconian fleet would come about in one last expression of vengeance and riddle them with pulse rounds and finish them for good.

They had to go faster.

“Give me ten percent.”

The ship gave a groan. From somewhere forward of the bridge, a metal panel tore off, racing back along the hull. It clanged against the bridge’s smart glass screen, staying pinned there for a moment before the vibration of the engines made it scribe a juddering arc off and away from their view.

They had to have more. She wanted back in days. Tops. less, preferably.

“Twenty percent.”

“Ma’am.” The engineer flashed her a concerned look. “I ain’t—”

“Helm, twenty percent,” she snapped sharply.

“Aye aye.”

The groans grew in intensity, as if she were a great beast of burden crying out in pain of being spurred on.

“Just hold it together,” Holloway murmured. On the smart glass before her, the velocity built higher and higher. Her acceleration was nowhere near what she could achieve—when undamaged, at least—but it was far better than she expected.

She looked down at her console. The trajectory line curved into the inner system, spearing in toward the distant world which the asteroid containing Valestra orbited.

It would be another day until they reached turnaround, the point where they’d have to gently bring the broken ship nose to tail and coax her in for a rendezvous.

A whole new issue, and something she wasn’t looking forward to at all.

But, one problem at a time.

“Let’s try twenty-five percent.”

Chapter 46

Captain Cutter – Karis System – KSS Achilles

The fleet had clustered protectively around its wards, the four freighters—all that remained of the original fourteen after the relentless onslaught of the coalition.

Ajax had returned to position, giving up pursuit of the broken Iconian fleet as it fled on the jump vector to their home system.

A pity, Cutter thought, it would have been nice to chase them down. To hound them, and pick them off. That would have been one hell of a tactical victory. But it wouldn’t have been a strategic one, and it wasn’t their mission. If he was a betting man, he’d have said that was the reason the enemy stealths had disappeared, trying to set up some kind of ad hoc ambush for the battleship. The convoy, or what remained of it, had to take priority. Getting them to Valestra.

And they were almost there.

The fleet arced down toward the rocky brown, lifeless world Valestra circled. The mountains and valleys rolled by as they sped through low orbit.

Ahead, a bright light crested the horizon. First, with little to distinguish it from the veil of stars. Slowly it grew into a silver sphere.

Without atmosphere, there was no sense of scale. The whole structure looking as if it were a toy.

But it carried on growing. More details popped into existence. Shapes and structures appeared, encrusting its surface. Warships, trapped without fuel or supplies, and unable to move, lay in slips. They were little more than glorified turrets, their cannons—many not even powered—aiming warily out into the void of space.

“Sir, I have Valestra control on the comm.” Banning smiled across the bridge. “They are passing their compliments and requesting to speak to Convoy Actual.”

Roe stood from his chair and theatrically tugged his battle-suit straight. “By all means, Commander.”

The shimmering top half of a man resolved itself in the holo. His chest was riddled with medals and braiding. Cutter had never met him, but still, he recognized the person before him. Vice Admiral Bellingham who, since martial law had been declared on the distant outpost, was the defacto governor. From what he’d heard, Bellingham wasn’t so bad, not as far as the dogmatic old spacers who ran the navy generally were, but combat, and the hardships it entailed, were certainly not what he was used to.

“Arden,” Bellingham said, his rich cultured tones at odds with Roe’s rougher-around-the-edges demeanor. “Bloody good to see you, old boy.”

“And you, sir.” Roe grinned back at the man, “Apparently you requested a home delivery.”

“Too right we did,” Bellingham replied. “We’re getting a little sick of rat-packs and keeping the heating off in here.”

“In that case, and with your permission?”

“By all means, Arden. Get them in.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Roe said, his voice growing serious. “My escort force will set up a perimeter, but if you could get your ships refitted, refueled, and on cover PDQ it would be appreciated. My people have taken a hell of a beating over the past few days and we’re running pretty low on fuel ourselves.”

“So, I can see.” Bellingham nodded. “We’ll relieve you as soon as we can. Bellingham, out.”

The figure disappeared, replaced by the tactical display.

“Pompous prat,” Roe muttered.

“Sir?” Cutter asked, feeling a flicker of a smile cross his lips.

“Oh, nothing.” Roe shook his head, physically disregarding his train of thought. “Right-e-o. Let’s get ’em in shall we?”

“Sounds good to me.”

On Valestra, a circular array of piercing strobe lights activated, showing the entrance to the harbor lock. The huge doors ponderously slid open.

The four surviving freighters crept inside the lock, which was big enough for them all at once. And then, steadily, the lumbering doors closed.

They’d done it.

They’d been told that getting even one of the freighters through would be considered a success. At first, that had seemed ridiculous. The movement of so much material and personnel, with such an unambitious goal. But then they’d faced the might of the Hegemony and the Iconian Regime. Suddenly, that didn’t seem preposterous. It seemed as if it would have been a miracle to get any of them through at all.

“Still one more, Hal,” Roe murmured. He nodded at the distant twinkling speck of light on the holo which threaded its lonely way in-system. “Let’s just hope the poor bastard holds together.”

***

Rick’s lips curled in distaste. It seemed somehow morbid to fly another fighter so recently after losing his last.

The poor old girl, who’d been ingloriously dumped out of the carrier.

He’d had a Tempest shot out from under him before. And yeah, that hadn’t exactly been a cakewalk. To lose another was just maybe a heartbreak too far, though. And this one, he’d felt a strange sense of kinship with.

“There she is,” Faraday called from behind.

Rick grunted in response. They were flying Osprey’s only twin-seater trainer-variant Tempest. Even that had been pressed into service in the desperate final fights. And had somehow remained intact, more or less, although Lost Earth only knew how. Faraday’s rank prerogative had meant she had stolen it from its pilots, and elected to take him up with her to help nurse the limping Caravel in.

The tanker was a mess, that was for sure. Even from a dozen kilometers out, her space frame looked brutally damaged. A 300-meter-long destroyer was being used as a brace to try to hold the damn thing together, while another was doing the work of a whole engine nacelle.

She’d turned around. Lost Earth only knew how she’d remained intact during that maneuver, but she had. The stresses on her frame must have been horrendous while steadily, she’d decelerated into the approach for Valestra Harbor.

A dozen Tempests from the base circled the ship warily. They’d been refueled by the small quantities of fuel the freighters had brought in. It hadn’t been quite enough to get all of Valestra’s destroyers up and running. But it gotten enough out to get the most badly damaged escorts of the convoy relieved, so they could begin the process of much needed repairs.

Rick sighed. He felt empty. Even in this late stage, he should know better than to relax or let his guard down in the slightest. Maybe that was why Faraday had decided to come with him. Maybe she saw it as an alternative to simply benching him. The old-fashioned trick of getting him back in the saddle to stop him dwelling too much on bygones.

On the poor old girl.

He pushed the stick over, falling into position alongside Caravel. They could have, perhaps should have, left this to Valestra’s revitalized fighters and pilots. But, he suspected, that wasn’t Faraday’s way. And it wasn’t his. She, like him, wanted and needed to see the job done.

For a long time, there was silence over the intercom. Then, the lieutenant commander’s voice spoke quietly, “So, are you thinking of staying? Maybe transferring your commission?”

Rick flicked his visor up and gave his eyes a vigorous rub with the back of his fist as he contemplated her question.

The past few days had been horrible. Worse than the battle over Port Rorian. Probably worse than the Battle of New Avalon, even. It had been relentless, grueling. The attacks nonstop.

But, that wasn’t the problem. Not really. The unsettlement he felt wasn’t about the fact he’d just gone through one of the fiercest aerospace battles of the war thus far. He could sleep, and recover. He could drink and forget, or remember dead comrades. He could fight, and still get his revenge.

The issue was, he was a KAF pilot through and through. The aerospace wing of a carrier wasn’t his home, Viper Squadron was. That was where he belonged. Sure, for the moment, the action may have been here, in the far-flung provinces of the Kingdom. Places like Valestra. But at some point, the Kingdom would be taking the war to the coalition.

And the KAF were going to be the ones to do it. They were the ones who would take on the lion’s share of the fighting in the Arcadian Sector. And he wanted to be part of that. He wanted to go home. Not to a base, a bunk, or a ship.

To his real home.

To Viper Squadron.

He had unfinished business there. Business he hadn’t been able to finish here with the navy. Business which involved the Ace.

“No. ma’am,” he finally answered as he swept the Tempest around the bow of Caravel. “It’s been an honor and privilege to be out here with you, but—”

“The navy isn’t for everyone,” Faraday answered for him. “Don’t worry, I get that.”

“It’s been interesting, though.”

“Oh, it most certainly has been.” The dry humor of understatement laced through the woman’s voice. It grew serious. “Rick, you’re the best damn combat pilot in the Kingdom, and no, I’m not blowing smoke up your arse. Just remember though, KAF, Navy, or crop-dusting, no pilot is an island. We all operate in a team. And that’s how we get done what we need to get done.”

He felt a frown cross his face. Yeah, he may be the best combat pilot in the Kingdom. He knew it. And he was quietly pleased a pilot as good as Faraday did, too. But there was still another out there that matched him. Someone who might even be better than him. What he did know was that only he stood a chance against that bastard or bitch.

The only question was, which would lead him to the face-off that both of them must know would come—the Kingdom Navy or in the Naval Aerospace Arm?

His gut told him it was back with the KAF.

And that determined where his destiny lay.

Chapter 47

Captain Cutter – Valestra Harbor

“Lost Earth, gentlemen,” Vice Admiral Bellingham said as he walked toward Cutter and Roe. “I’ve just finished reviewing the logs. You chaps sure went through hell.”

They stood on a platform overlooking the docks in the vast cylinder which formed Grand Harbor. Below them, mechanical arms whirred and clanged, stripping one of the battle-damaged blackened freighters which had come in of its precious cargo, unveiling the skeletal frame of the ship itself.

The same was happening in three other slips. The sheer speed and enthusiasm in which Valestra’s crew undertook the task spoke volumes about the urgency and need of the supplies the ships carried.

“That it was,” Roe responded tiredly as he leaned on the railing looking over the unloading.

Something had changed within the man, Cutter thought. Oh, the buccaneering image was still there. The eyepatch, the swagger, and the affected drawl. But the difference was, that had genuinely been the man at the start of the war. Confident and assured in the unrivaled power of the Kingdom’s Navy. But now, little cracks in the façade spoke volumes. He didn’t believe it anymore, not really. He no longer took for granted the Kingdom’s dominance.

None of them did.

“I sometimes wonder,” Bellingham mused quietly as they gazed outward over the cavernous space, “whether in our own arrogance, we allowed this to happen. If we’d been tougher, stronger in peace, we could have prevented this war in the first place.”

Before he could stop it, Cutter felt a snort of derision expel from his nostrils.

“You have a different opinion, Captain?” Bellingham turned, his eyebrow rising. The rare moment of introspection from the old vice admiral interrupted.

“Yes, sir, I do,” Cutter said. Screw it, he’d earned the right, in fire and blood, to have an opinion. And he was damn well going to give it. “We crushed the Galts under the weight of our sanctions from the first Great War. They lived in near starvation and misery for decades. So when some arsehole Prime comes along and gives them someone to blame, and a plan to make their lives better, is it any wonder they jumped at what he had to offer? No matter how ridiculous.”

“You’re starting to sound like a damn Neo sympathizer, Captain.” Bellingham’s voice was ice.

Cutter felt himself bristling. He stood upright, his back straightening and fists clenching. How dare he? “I—”

“How dare you, sir,” Roe’s voice had grown to a low rumbling bass. His words unknowingly mirrored Cutter’s thoughts while his body came about like one of his destroyers readying to give a torpedo spread. “My man here has faced the worst of what those Neo bastards have to face. Port Rorian. Hunting the Behemoth, and now crossing the Rift. And you question his allegiance? You, sir, owe my officer an apology.”

With every word, his voice had raised an octave, and by the final one, it had grown to a shout. Bellingham raised his hands, as if warding off the shorter, junior man’s anger.

“The good captain could have perhaps been more careful with his phrase—”

“Your next words better be ‘I’m sorry’, sir,” Roe roared, his face red. “Or I swear on the surface of Lost Earth, I’ll voyage my whole fleet back to Starbase Victory and Valestra be damned.”

“You wouldn’t—”

“I’m sorry!” Roe bellowed in a furious prompt.

For a long moment, the two men glared at each other. And then contrition cracked over the senior officer’s face. “You are quite right, Arden. Captain, my apologies. It has been trying times for us all.”

Roe opened his mouth, as if he was going to continue hammering Bellingham. Cutter shook his head. To what purpose? To further humiliate him? Roe caught his eye and nodded, apparently satisfied.

A cold surliness washed over the platform. The mechanical sound of busy machines pulling the precious cargo modules from the ships covered the silence.

The bing-bong signaling a public announcement rang. “All personnel, be aware we have an arrival signaling intent to enter Valestra Harbor.”

“Excuse me gentlemen,” Bellingham said, his voice still tight. “I would surmise that is Caravel arriving, and I must return to control.”

Roe nodded, as if dismissing the vice admiral.

He skulked off, Roe’s eyes tracking him. The moment he was out of earshot, “What a pompous arse.”

“Probably nothing compared to what he’ll call you the second he manages to QE Old Man Darrow.” Cutter grinned.

“Ah, Darrow ain’t so bad,” Roe said with a slap to his back. “He’ll probably give him a round of abuse for being an idiot.”

Cutter held up his hand, his fingers crossed.

At the end of the vast chamber, the ring of lights surrounding the huge lock doors began to flash. Their final ward was about to arrive.

***

The groans had been joined by the shriek of tortured metal warping. Bangs and pops echoed through the ship as supports and structures succumbed.

The final deceleration maneuver had tested the jury-rigged repairs to their absolute limits. The ship’s status displays showing more red of critical damage than yellow or green. The lights and consoles flickered and faded. A moment later, the battered power core came back online. The only consolation, Holloway had been assured by her chief engineer, was that the damn thing was close to an automatic scram—an emergency AI-governed shutdown—rather than actually blowing.

Still, Holloway thought as she looked around the shuddering bridge, in an ideal world, she would have parked well away from Valestra and had the cargo transferred by shuttles and tenders. A process which, considering how much fuel they carried, would take days or longer. The only problem with that was they would be a sitting duck for any coalition stealths or fighters who might decide to drop in. So, it had been decided—once a full diagnostic report had been sent, of course, reassuring Valestra the core wouldn’t go critical—that Caravel would be allowed inside. Hundreds of maneuvering drone-tugs had been dispatched, clustered on every structurally sound surface. Easing the ship in to her final destination.

The ship gave another throbbing, echoing groan.

“Just a little farther,” she breathed.

The circular outer doors of Valestra dwarfed even the massive battleship guarding next to it. Slowly, they dilated open, revealing a welcoming red glow, as if from a warm campfire, from within the harbor’s lock.

The watchful fighters flying protective cover turned and flocked away as Caravel approached her final destination. Their job, for the moment, done.

“Thank you,” Holloway said simply. Her comm wasn’t on. But she was damn sure she would be buying the flyboys and girls who had watched over her more drinks than they could ever hope to imbibe.

The tanker slowly slid inside, the tired ship protesting with every burn of thrusters to keep her on track. The outer doors closed, and atmosphere flooded the lock, enveloping the ship in a hissing cloud of gas.

The inner doors opened. The glow of the huge harbor chamber washed across the smart glass screen.

“Steady,” Holloway said, knowing it was unnecessary, but needing to say it. “We’re nearly home and dry. There’s no need to rush things.”

“Aye aye, skipper.”

Caravel slid inside Valestra proper, slowly plodding its way toward the waiting slip. Cargo cranes and pumps clustered around it on all sides, ready to take the vessel in a welcoming embrace. And then she saw them.

Hundreds, thousands even, of antlike specks of people were gathered, seemingly on every available surface. They watched as Caravel came in. She tapped on her console, zooming in. Their waving was clearly visible, and their cheers, silent through the viewscreen, still obviously loud.

Then the console suddenly shut down. Along with every light in the bridge. The only illumination came from the unenhanced smart glass, now no more useful than regular plate window.

“Report?” Holloway snapped.

“The reactors scrammed.” The chief engineer had swapped to a tablet, his console dead. “Overloaded the powernet before it did. Backup generators are probably fried.”

So close.

“Prognosis on repairs?” She looked at the dark silhouette of her engineer, his face illuminated by the display of his handheld.

He shook his head. “The power core is dead, ma’am.”

Holloway sank into her seat. The poor ship. She had literally brought them to the very cusp of their destination before dying. It was as far as she could manage, dragging her ruined body to the doorstep like a loyal, but mortally wounded dog. And only when she knew her wards of people and cargo were safe, it was then that she let go and let life slip away.

She looked down. The poor, poor ship. She ran her hand on the armrest, feeling the need to give it a comforting stroke.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s okay. You did it.”

The drones clustering over them continued undaunted, bringing the battered corpse to its final rest.

***

Cutter shook his head. He couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen a ship so badly and heinously wounded as what now crossed through the harbor.

He heard a roar, for a horrible moment thinking it was the sound of atmosphere rushing from some unannounced breach. Then he realized the noise for what it was. The sound of the dockworkers cheering in pure celebration as the ship approached her assigned slip.

Suddenly, every running light on the vessel flickered and died, leaving just the spluttering thruster glows of hundreds of tug-drones gently nursing the massive ship in. The cheering stopped, as if switched off, silence washing through the harbor.

“Come on,” Cutter murmured. “You’re nearly there.”

A thud resonated through his feet as the dead Caravel came to a rest in her dock.

And with that, the cheering resumed. Only this time, with even more intensity than a moment before.

Chapter 48

Lieutenant Commander Draper – Valestra Harbor – KSS Ghost

The stealth’s clocks showed it was well past midnight on Valestra. And that suited Lieutenant Commander Draper just fine. The less people to see her, and her ship, the better.

Ghost had slowly picked her way through the system, wary—as a vulnerable stealth should be—of enemy craft dropping in. They may have been deadly as a weapon, but they couldn’t protect themselves from Hegemony or Regime Aerospace Fighter pilots with keen eyes. The scars and damage to her camouflage armor had made her even more vulnerable, even more obvious.

Draper wasn’t the type of person who got nervous, or at least she had learned to swallow it down. She boxed off her fears or just plain ignored them. But she was careful. And patient. She didn’t need to rush. And she’d been content on taking three days to get home. Burning her engines rarely. Letting simple astrophysics do the lion’s share of the work.

Interrogative pings bounced back and forth as they approached the base. The convoy’s escort ships clustered around the entrance, joined by the freshly fueled vessels already based at Valestra. No chances were taken, and that sat just right with Draper. She knew firsthand how deadly a stealth was. She’d shown the coalition, too. The Iconian Regime had been sent a message they wouldn’t soon forget.

The Kingdom’s sentry ships, if they had the slightest doubt, would shoot first, shoot some more, and then finish up with another volley just to make sure rather than risk a stealth getting in their midst.

But the pings were accepted. And Lieutenant Hargreaves chattered quietly with the station officer. Approach vectors were given, and the door dilated open to accept them.

Emerging into the subdued lights of the nighttime harbor, Ghost slid toward the military slips.

She was home. And safe.

Or as safe as anyone could be in this war.

They set down and the crew ran through the shutdown procedure quickly, quietly, and efficiently. The power core closed down, the stealth instead supping on the base’s energy grid. The dismissed crew gathered their belongings, eager to stretch their legs. Probably eager to be able to stand up straight without risking hitting their heads on the exposed pipework and machinery of the tight vessel.

And soon, Draper was alone. Alone save for Ghost, that was.

She’d never personified her ship. Her first command. To her, it was merely battle-steel and plastic. She barely personified the crew. Oh, she knew to smile in the right places. Say the right things. Officer training, and later command school, had imbued in her those qualities at least. But to her, it had always been vaguely academic.

As far as she was concerned, her crew were there to do a job. They were paid to do it and that made them simply part of the machine which was Ghost.

Which is why she surprised herself as she stood on the empty red-lit bridge. She felt something, a twinge of emotion at being alone with Ghost. As if it really was a living entity. One which had performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Taking on an entire enemy fleet and driving them away.

She reached to her command console and gave it a single pat.

“Good girl,” she murmured.

She paused, looking around to make sure that no one had seen her. It would have been intolerably embarrassing if they had.

Stop being silly.

Shaking her head, not knowing whether to be amused at herself or angry at the weakness she had come so close to exhibiting. She finally shrugged, disregarding it. She must just be tired. It had been a very long week, after all.

Draper walked back through the narrow cabins of the stealth, twisting and turning past the machinery which filled the spaces. Past the empty bunks and abandoned mess, quietly pleased that her crew had left everything neat and tidy.

She reached the short passage leading through the hull to the outer hatch. On the gangplank, she saw two figures standing, looking in. One of them a shorter man with a strange patch over one eye, and the epaulettes of a rear admiral on his shoulders, the other taller and a full captain.

She frowned. During her promotion board to Lieutenant Commander, she’d had to know who the key flagstaff were. She’d felt vaguely it was about some ego trip by the admiralty, so they knew they were held in appropriate awe by their officers. The second she’d left the boardroom, knowing it was a success, she’d filed that information away in a folder in her brain marked as “irrelevant,” caring only for who was her direct command staff.

She noted this one wore a battlesuit that was not quite as neat and clean as most admirals’. In fact, it looked pretty worn. As did the captain’s. She gave a mental nod, seeing his name: ADM ROE.

“Sir.” She came to a halt and snapped to attention, giving a crisp salute.

“Lieutenant Commander Nisha Draper?” the admiral asked rhetorically, her own name emblazoned on her breast as his was. His voice was a deep baritone as he returned the salute in a manner which could only be described as jaunty. She whipped her hand down, released from it. “It truly is an honor.”

“Sir?” she repeated, this time with a quizzical lilt to her tone as her eyes flicked between the admiral and the captain. CPT CUTTER, she read.

“You saved our arses, Nisha,” Cutter cut in. “That Iconian fleet wouldn’t have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back, it would have been a full-on hay bale landing on its spine from a great height.”

Some people were just so verbose. She gave a mental roll of her eyes. “I saw an opportunity, and I took it.”

“That kind of initiative is to be admired.” Roe turned to look up the passageway into the cramped confines of Ghost. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on one of these things. They make a destroyer look spacious.”

“They do,” Draper confirmed. The admiral and the captain exchanged a look, as if they weren’t quite sure where to take the conversation. Well, if they were to ask closed questions, then what did they expect? That she’d simply waffle on without prompting?

Roe finally gave a chuckle and shook his head. “Early heads up, you’ll be going in for a medal. I’ll need your recommendation for which of your officers and crew are deserving, too.”

“My stealth is one single unit, sir,” Draper replied. As all ships should be, but—she acknowledged—most weren’t.

“Sounds as if I have to sign off on a lot of forms then, doesn’t it?” Roe smiled.

Draper nodded in reply. Maybe this brass got it. He didn’t question her statement. She looked up and around the cavernous harbor. The two men lingered when all she wanted to do was to go somewhere quiet, finish whatever admin she needed to do, and then curl up in a bunk.

It was obvious they weren’t going to let her go so easily. They were after something.

“Perhaps, Admiral, Captain”—she nodded at each of them—“you would like a brief tour of Ghost?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Roe gave another chuckle. “Don’t worry, we won’t take up too much of your time. We’re just eager as kids to see the vessel which may have won the Talos Rift for us singlehandedly.”

Draper pushed her lips into a smile as she turned and gestured them back along the gangplank. “Welcome aboard Ghost. She doesn’t have an official class. On paper, she’s designated as a War Emergency Short Hull – Stealth. Some, however, call them Spectres after the first ship of her class...”

She led them inside the dark and tight confines of her stealth, more comfortable to at least be talking about practicalities and realities than meaningless recognition and awards for simply doing one’s job.

Chapter 49

Admiral Roe – Regis System – KSS Achilles

The crossing back to New Avalon had been thankfully uneventful, for the most part. The occasional recon flight by first Iconian aerospace craft, and then as they traveled nearer home, Hegemony ones, were easily fended away.

Even the vicious stealths had backed off. With the fleet not tied to protecting their wards, the escorts could operate far, far more effectively as a combat unit.

Or, the coalition forces were simply licking their wounds.

Roe completed his log. The butcher’s bill had been horrendous. A carrier gone, another badly damaged and likely to be dry-docked for months, if not years. Two cruisers and a destroyer nothing but clouds of glittering debris along with nine freighters.

Nine! He sighed, shaking his head. He tapped his cabinet door and it sighed open, revealing a bottle of scotch. He plucked it out, along with a tumbler. Pouring the amber liquid in, he filled the plastic glass a little too full.

Nine was an unbelievable number of hulls. Yet his orders had been clear. Even one arriving at Valestra would have been a success.

But worse than all that was the 550 spacers, officers, and civilians consigned to the cold of space.

It had been a small mercy, he supposed, that the majority of ships destroyed had not gone up catastrophically. If they had, that number would have been ten times higher. Most of the crew in the lost ships had been able to get off. Thousands were billeted in the storage bays and spare spaces of the fleet.

But that was still 550 men and women who wouldn’t be going home. And whose bodies would likely never be returned to their families.

And in return, they’d voided a couple of stealths. Shot down, by their best estimates, around sixty enemy aerospace fighters. Mostly the older Iconian Aggresars, but the much more capable Wolfs and Raptors had also fallen prey to their guns. Sure, he mused, the Regime’s fleet had been given a beating which they wouldn’t soon come back from. The replays of the damage caused to the two cruisers especially meant that the ships were more likely to be scrapped than repaired, but still, in Roe’s eyes it felt as if he’d failed.

He hadn’t brought everyone home. He’d taken more losses than he’d given.

Hopefully someone, somewhere in the halls of Admiralty House thought the payoff was worth it. And, he supposed, it was. Valestra had the supplies it needed: food, fuel, weapons, crated fighters and bombers. Enough to carry on the fight for months and take the heat off other fronts. They could even support the campaigns in the deserts of the Ishtar Sphere, where ground forces were engaged in savage battle with the Hegemony.

Yes, it was undoubtedly a strategic victory.

But it sure as hell didn’t feel like a tactical one.

He glanced up at the display on his adopted office’s bulkhead. Achilles had almost reached Starbase Victory. Her home.

And the First Space Lord would definitely be wanting an accounting.

***

“Take a seat, Arden.” Admiral Jonathan Darrow gestured at one of the brown leather sofas in his office. There were two of them, facing each other, positioned for more informal meetings and chats.

Roe settled into its comfortable embrace. It creaked as the plush padding compressed under his weight.

Darrow stood from his desk and tugged his uniform straight before walking to the opposite couch and sitting.

“Well, Arden, that was one hell of a furball.”

Was that criticism? Arden couldn’t quite interpret through the Old Man’s expressionless visage. He’d lost a lot of tonnage in ships on his watch, and that had to be answered for.

To think, the buccaneering Arden Roe of a few years ago didn’t fear criticism. In fact, he embraced pissing off the admiralty in a perverse way. He was confident in his own abilities and somehow always came up trumps. Hell, he was one of the few of the current generation of officers who had actually seen any action prior to the war. He knew he was a good combat skipper. And then destroyer squadron commander. But, even as one of the most blooded officers, he’d mostly spent his time fighting bush fires in the far-flung provinces of the Kingdom.

This war was different. The enemy was competent, well equipped, and determined to change the battlefield from the one the Kingdom had dominated, and twist it to their own advantage.

In other words, those bastards weren’t playing by the rules. And that made everyone nervous. The navy was facing real losses. The endless stealth attacks in the Reach. The ceaseless bombing of New Avalon itself.

“Don’t worry, Arden.” Darrow sighed and leaned back. “I’ve seen what you faced out there. Relentless wasn’t the word. The fact you got any of those ships through was a near miracle.”

“Cheers, sir,” Roe replied, relaxing slightly. “It did get a touch hairy.”

“So I see.” Darrow crossed his legs. “Strategically, we won this round, or at least that’s what I’m going to be telling the prime minister, to soften the blow of how many ships we lost.”

“Yeah.” Roe nodded. “I suspect she’ll still go apeshit, though.”

Darrow raised an eyebrow briefly, a disapproving look crossing his face, chased away a second later by a wry grin. “Yes, she will. But that’s my cross to bear.”

“I don’t envy you, that’s for sure.”

Darrow stood again, walking to a cabinet and pouring two glasses of sherry from a decanter. “I need to bounce something off you.”

“Sir?” Roe asked. The change of subject was abrupt. But then, the man had something of a distracted air to him.

“This war...” Darrow turned and proffered a glass to Roe. He took it and together they took a sip. “It’s expanding, far faster and further than ever we thought. There are rumors, Arden, dark rumors, that the Hegemony is seeking an alliance with the Dawn Empire.”

Roe closed his eyes briefly. It didn’t rain, but it poured. The Dawn Empire. The mysterious star nation on the far side of the Greater Void. Reclusive, traditional, but given their performance in the first Great War, some of the best damn spacers in the Galaxy. “You think they’ll threaten us here? They’re a long way away.”

“No.” Darrow shook his head. “Or at least not directly. To get to us, they’d have to pass through the People’s Republic. Last time those two butted heads, the casualty count for them both was in the millions. If they came a different route, it’d be through the Federation’s territory. And that won’t be allowed. The Feds have long since been trying to strangle them with sanctions, so they’d definitely take a dim view of the Empire sending an expeditionary force across the Void then through the Reach.”

“What then?”

“We have assets in the Void. Bases, some troops. But they were stripped to the bone. It’s my belief they’ll make a play for them.”

“So we give them up.” Roe shrugged. “Withdraw from them. We’re pressed hard enough as it is. Tangling with another enemy, especially one as good as the Empire is rumored to be, will stretch us too thin.”

“You speak a lot of sense.” Darrow took a gulp of his sherry and planted the empty glass on the coffee table between them. “But our policy is we will not give up a single piece of territory. And that, is as they say, that.”

“But—”

“Arden,” exasperation crept into Darrow’s voice. “Consider this the hand we’ve been dealt. No ceding turf. We need to send someone out to the Greater Void.”

“Fine,” Roe replied. “Shall I pack for a long trip?”

Darrow pursed his lips as he tapped the leather armrest, his expression one of contemplation.

“No,” he said finally. “No. There’s other considerations. Our convoys in the corridor are still being smashed hard by stealths. I need someone who knows their arse from their elbow heading up the navy’s escort and protection offer.”

“Babysitting then.”

“Yes,” Darrow said. “I’m sick of logistics beating down my door and demanding more cover. I’ll trust that you can manage to get blood from a stone. But I am going to need someone to head the expedition out to the Void.”

“Cutter.” It was a simple choice. “If you’re looking to put someone halfway across the galaxy, at least he’s blooded.”

Darrow gave a chuckle and nodded at his desk. “Sending him far away would shut Bellingham up. That arse is apparently smarting after you chaps had words. I received a strongly worded letter letting me know his suspicions of Neo sympathies.”

“You should just cashier the obsolete oaf,” Roe muttered.

“Would love to. It’s politics, sunshine.” Darrow grimaced. “But no. We need to send someone out there, but not Cutter, I have something else in mind for him. I was thinking of Ajax to lead the expedition. Delia Sherrington has been in nearly as many fights as Hal Cutter and yourself.”

“Fine,” Roe said. “She’s a damn good skipper.”

“As to our Neo sympathizing friend—”

“Sir...” Roe rumbled warningly.

“Relax.” Darrow fluttered his hand dismissively. “I was thinking of sending him up to the Storm Belt.”

“What on Lost Earth is up there?” Roe asked in confusion. That region of space stretched around the Arcadian Sector and abutted the People’s Republic. But in terms of business, there wasn’t much up there...unless. “You think the People will finally break their non-aggression pact and join the war?”

“Or”—Darrow interlocked his fingers—“the Hegemony will break it for them.”

“Interesting,” Roe mused as he swirled his glass before draining it. The conquest of the People’s Republic was one of the Neos’ stated objectives. Something they’d appeared reluctant to do while the Kingdom was a thorn in the Hegemony’s side.

“That it is,” Darrow said. “And we need to be able to capitalize on that fast.”

Roe nodded. “Sounds like this war is going to get a hell of a lot busier, sir.”

“That it will, Arden.” Darrow stood, recovered the empty glasses, and walked back to the cabinet. “Much busier, I’d wager, and that’s why we’ll need our best combat commanders in the Storm Belt.”

Chapter 50

Major Corla – Galton Orbit

Corla hadn’t been home in months. But as he emerged from the glittering, dissipated swirls of energy and exotic particles of his jump, Galton was revealed to him.

The world still bore the scars of the first Great War. Huge craters pitted the surface, visible even from space. The night side was dark. The glittering spiderweb of lights, which should have shown where cities lay, were conspicuously absent as part of the Neo-mandated blackouts. In orbit, massive production complexes circled in endless orbits, producing and servicing the vast war machine of the Hegemony military.

He sighed. It was sad that war had reached his beautiful world, but not unexpected.

The Hegemony’s prodigious production capability hadn’t gone unopposed. The Kingdom had taken its toll with their own long-range aerospace raids. More than one station was a tattered wreck clouded in debris. Tugs and tenders desperately scooped up the wreckage before it could spread and cause more damage throughout orbit and on the surface.

Major Corla throttled forward, sweeping toward his assigned station. A pair of Wolf fighters tore past him, checking him over, automatic interrogatives pinging between the craft.

They wouldn’t know it was him, though. His new Wolf hadn’t yet been daubed in his distinctive paintwork. He hadn’t had the chance to have his fighter repainted, swapping the yellow nose for his customary black. That would have to be addressed, and quickly. It felt wrong, uncomfortable, and unlucky to be flying without his black nose. If he’d been called to go into combat, he might have point-blank refused until that had been sorted. But, for a ferry flight, he could just about tolerate it.

His comm chimed, a face appearing in a discrete window on his HUD.

“Inbound Wolf, please follow my trajectory plan.”

“Acknowledged,” Corla replied simply. There was no need for anything more.

“Be advised, traffic is heavy.”

A trajectory ladder extended before him, sweeping and curving around the stations and orbital facilities.

Passing by one, he looked up at it. The signs of a wartime industry in full motion. Supply ships abounded, many of them old and decrepit. Pushed into service long past their expected lifespans.

And that, he supposed, was the dichotomy of the Hegemony military. To glance at, it was the most powerful in the sector. The fighters, like the Wolfs, second to none. The stealths lethal and innovative. The army one of the biggest in the galaxy. The mechs brutal wonders of engineering.

It was all very impressive.

Until one looked closer. Then you saw the fraying around the edges. Rumor had it that horses and other beasts of burden were being used in some theaters. The shipping was ancient. To focus on a few things, and do them well, meant the budget had to come from somewhere...and that somewhere was what wasn’t directly engaged in this war.

He swept past the squat disk of another station, this one a naval yard surrounded by a vast cloud of repurposed freighters, rebuilt to act as massive troop transports. What was conspicuously absent was actual warships.

He snorted. What warships the Hegemony had, that was. The Prime had made it clear, after the loss of Behemoth, that the Astral was to refocus its efforts on stealth production.

It wasn’t going to be warships which would win this war anyway, he knew. The Kingdom had too much of a lead on that front. Perhaps the murmurs of an alliance with the distant Dawn Empire would rebalance that. But for the here and now, it was going to be aerospace craft, mechs, and armies which would take on the bulk of this grisly business.

He carried on following the trajectory ladder, sinking down through the atmosphere. And toward where he would receive his next orders.

Orders he already knew were that he was to take on the might of the People’s Republic.

Only by accomplishing them as quickly as possible, would he be able to get back to finding the Pilot.

And completing unfinished business.

***

Damn, it was good to be home.

Rick had arrived back on Starbase Victory late station time, and by the time he’d reached the crew room allocated to Viper Squadron, it was empty. A good thing. He wasn’t ready yet to meet the men and women—boys and girls, really—who now filled its ranks.

He dropped his duffel in the entryway and looked around the cluttered room. Worn leather armchairs sat haphazardly. Mementos filled every flat surface, each one with a story to tell. Some he recognized, some were new.

Holo pics adorned the walls showing faces he didn’t recognize. Here, one showed the squadron members in Victory’s mess, smiling at the camera. There, one showed a pulse-riddled fighter, a relieved-looking young woman sitting in the cockpit. He moved around the wall, looking, searching through the barnacled history of the squadron.

And he found what he was looking for. Another holo. This one showing an equally young group. In the center, Rick stood, one arm clasped drunkenly around an equally inebriated-looking young woman, Sienna Quinn. Next to them, a man in his thirties grimaced resignedly at whoever took the picture. Squadron Leader Phil Wainwright. The other members of Viper Squadron—the original, that was—clustered around them.

Trailing his fingers through the shimmering holo, Rick thought of how much he’d aged in the short time since that was taken. How much Viper Squadron had changed in the relentless meat grinder of this war.

“What would you two think now?” he murmured as he looked at his old boss and his best friend. One dead, and one lost. Probably forever. “You’d laugh your asses off. Well, you would, Quinn. As for you, boss? Don’t worry. I’ll look after ’em for you.”

He gave a sad smile, and snapped off a salute.

Then, Squadron Leader Jason “Rick” Richards turned and walked from the room. He wanted to get a good night’s sleep and be fresh before meeting his first command, and true love.

Viper Squadron.

And, of course, get back to the task of hunting the Ace.

THE END OF BOOK 3 OF THE GREAT WAR

Thank you so much for reading, I sincerely hope you enjoyed. There isn’t long to wait for the next book. It will be out on September 16thand you can preorder here:

A Heart of Ice

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Author’s Note

There are many battles, events, and situations in the Second World War which are firmly embedded in the public consciousness, but many more which have slipped from memory. For this author, the British replenishment of Malta was one of these events.

It was one of the most grueling convoys of the Second World War.

With Crete lost, Malta was the last bastion of British territory in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a vital base from which attacks on the Axis powers could be conducted. So a plan to reinforce Malta was created.

Operation Pedestal, from the 3rd to the 15th of August, 1942.

The operation was considered so critical, a sizable portion of the British fleet was committed to escorting the fourteen transports through the Mediterranean, including two battleships, three carriers, seven cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers.

So desperate was the situation, it would have been deemed a success had even a single transport arrived in Malta.

The fleet ran the gauntlet, facing wave after wave of fighters, bombers, U-boats, and enemy ships.

One of the challenges when writing a book of this type is combining readability with reality. Operation Pedestal was subject to many more attacks than is portrayed in this book. The onslaught was truly relentless. What you read here is equivalent to around half of what those brave sailors, pilots, and Royal Marine gunners faced.

In total, an aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle was sunk, along with two light cruisers and a destroyer. Nine merchant ships were also destroyed, as well as thirty-four fighters. A second carrier and two cruisers were damaged, along with three other merchant ships. Between 350 and 500 people died.

On the Axis side, two submarines, and between 48 and 60 fighters and bombers were destroyed, along with another submarine, a light cruiser, and a heavy cruiser that were heavily damaged. Around 100 Axis personnel are listed as missing or killed.

HMS Unbroken

KSS Ghost is based on the British U-Class Emergency War Short Hull, also known as the Undine class, submarine, HMS Unbroken.

How must Captain Alastair Mars, and the crew of his submarine, HMS Unbroken felt with the might of the Italian fleet bearing down on them? Knowing that he, and his tiny fragile vessel, was all that stood in the way of the enemy tearing through the British fleet.

He was twenty-six years old, in command of a submarine, and that is what he and his crew faced. Their actions undoubtedly saved many lives.

His is a sad story. One that ends in arrest for insubordination, going AWOL, and dismissal. But let there be no doubt, he was a hero who held the line against odds that even Leonidas of the Battle of Thermopylae would have thought daunting, and his actions damaged two Regia Marina (Italian Navy) cruisers, effectively knocking those powerful ships out of the war.

SS Ohio

The oil tanker SS Ohio was, by many measures, the most vital ship in the convoy. It was originally an American vessel, commandeered for British use. The damage she sustained in the course of the operation was horrendous and, sadly, irreparable.

While her seizure obviously generated ill feeling, it must be noted that to this day, SS Ohio is honored as the savior of Malta.


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