Book: Siege of Earth



Siege of Earth


Siege of Earth


D. J. Holmes

https://www.facebook.com/Author.D.J.Holmes

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Comments welcome!

Copyright © D. J. Holmes 2019

Cover art by Ivo Brankovikj

https://www.artstation.com/artist/ivobrankovikj


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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to any persons living or dead, business establishments, events or locales are entirely coincidental.




Prologue

New Rostov, capital of the Russian Space Federation, 5th April 2473 AD.

High Admiral Korolyov stood with more than a thousand other naval officers and senior government officials. They were watching the execution of three men who, just a day before, had been their superiors. Blood splattered across the ground and onto the shoes of the officers standing closest to the execution. As the executioner lifted his heavy broadsword and let it drop again, more blood splattered across the large courtyard. The officers and officials were gathered outside the Duma, the home of the Federation’s legislatures. As had happened many times in the past three hundred years, it had been deemed fitting to execute the three men in front of the building from which they had ruled.

Korolyov kept his face impassive throughout the executions. It wasn’t that he hated the three men who had led the Russian Space Federation until yesterday. He hadn’t liked them any more than he liked the three men who had declared themselves the Federation’s new Trivium. The previous three had just been too slow in responding to the present opportunities. A certain faction had contacted him seeking his aid. He hadn’t agreed with their politics any more than with the three men now lying dead just meters from him. They had however offered him the one thing he couldn’t refuse. Action. The opportunity facing the Russian Space Federation wasn’t just a once in a generation opportunity. It was a once in a century, if not a millennia opportunity. The other space powers would never be as weak as they were now. If vengeance was to be had, if justice was to be secured for the people of the Motherland, the Space Federation had to act.

As one of the new Trivium began to speak, talking up the many new policies he would enact, Korolyov looked up to the sky. Though he couldn’t see the fleet, he could picture it with his mind’s eye. Even as the executions were being broadcast around New Rostov, the seat of the Federation’s power, the fleet was on the move. Old warships, some of them more than fifty years old, were moving away from New Rostov to Cartier and then New France. Orders had gone out to gather the main Federation battlefleet from the edges of its colonies. Squadrons and fleets long kept hidden from prying Allied scout ships would soon be on the move to New Rostov. When they were combined they would form the greatest battlefleet left in the human sphere. All Koroylov had to do was prepare the provisions and munitions that would be needed for the long campaign he had laid before the new Trivium. Victory would soon belong to the Russian Space Federation.

Koroylov was slightly taken aback by his confidence. Just yesterday he had been a Rear Admiral. With no political connections, his rise to that position had been slow, though even his previous rank had been higher than he had ever imagined. Since he had first learned of the Federation Navy as a child, he had dreamed of going to space. What the other human nations had then done to his Federation had only cemented that desire. Growing up on a small backward mining colony had encouraged him to do whatever it took to escape his birth world. Eventually he had been offered a place in the navy’s cadet academy. From there, hard work and a desire for vengeance had allowed him to rise far beyond his wildest dreams. Yet his rise had come to a halt. He had never expected to go beyond Rear Admiral. To gain anything more than a desk job as an Admiral, one had to be trusted by the Trivium or have other political benefactors. As the child of a mining technician, and a poor one at that, Korolyov had neither. He had thought himself destined to spend the next decade behind a desk, until, at the whim of some political figure, he would eventually be drummed out of the navy, having become surplus to requirements.

Then, just two weeks ago, everything had changed. He had been contacted by an intermediary. Some members of the Duma had been unhappy with the Trivium and they wanted a regime change. Korolyov knew there were always rumors and plots afoot. Rarely did the ruling three men of the Russian Space Federation remain the same for more than five or six years. Yet he had never been enticed into one before. He had held no interest in power. Everything had changed with the news from the American colonies. The discovery of the two alien races beyond Haven had shocked the Russian people as much as it had shocked the rest of humanity. The sudden invasion of the American colonies by a third hostile race had been just as shocking. Then report after report had come in detailing defeat after defeat.

The news had been so bad that there had been a movement within the Duma to send aid to the Americans. Koroylov had spoken out against such a move. It had been the first time he voiced a political opinion. Someone had noticed. When news finally came in about the defeat of the alien invasion, the movement to support the other human powers had died overnight. But looking back, Korolyov now realized his name had been noticed.

When not one of the previous Trivium appeared willing to take advantage of the new balance of power within the human sphere, others decided to act. Now Koroylov faced them as they stood over the bodies of their political opponents. He was under no illusions. The three men would dispose of him if they thought he was becoming a problem. He also knew that when he left Russian space with his fleet, none of them might be in charge when he returned. None of that mattered now. The coup had been successful, the Federation Space Fleet was his to command and he intended to use it. Like a spear he would thrust his ships into the gut of his people’s historic enemy. The other space powers were weak, and they were about to pay for their historic crimes. And Earth will be ours, Korolyov promised himself. One day soon, he would set foot on the real Motherland and when he did, Russian rule over their homeland would never be taken away again. Of that he was supremely confident.



Chapter 1

Since its founding, the Empire has been involved in twenty-three multi-system wars. I have studied the first-hand accounts from those who survived the first engagements of each. In every case there was one common theme among those who found themselves the defenders; surprise. For some reason, when we are not the ones actually planning to attack another species, we fail to expect we ourselves could be attacked.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Intrepid, Cartier system, 11th April 2473 AD.

“Captain, several buoys are picking up some strange signals. There may be something moving into the system, but I’m not sure. The tracks are unusual,” Sub Lieutenant Reaves reported.

From his tone of voice, Captain Hanson guessed the Sub Lieutenant had been trying to figure out what the buoys were detecting and had given up.  “Let me see,” he requested.

When the sensor data uploaded into his command chair, the first thing Hanson checked was the position of the buoys obtaining the sensor readings. Crap, he thought. It wasn’t just one or two that were malfunctioning, nine were reporting some kind of contact, and they were on a direct line to Kazan, the sole Russian system with a shift passage to Cartier.

“The readings aren’t like the ones we have on record. They’re all scrambled. If it is a Russian ship trying to sneak into the system, it may have some new stealth tech,” Reaves suggested.

“You’re right, they are certainly differ…” Hanson cut off mid-sentence. Reaves had missed it, but his trained eye only took a fraction of a second to make sense of the intermittent contacts the buoys were detecting.

For a moment, he was taken back nine years to when he had been a Sub Lieutenant himself. On board his first ship as a lieutenant, HMS Drake, he had been on watch when they discovered the Chinese fleet that had entered the Void seeking to add the territory to China’s colonial empire. He had been on a small frigate then as well. He remembered his ship suddenly feeling so small and fragile compared to the massive fleet they had discovered. The memories came flooding back, for he felt the same way now.

“Battle stations,” he snapped as soon as his mind cleared. “Send a signal to Cartier, alert the defending forces we have a large fleet incoming. Power up the engines. Plot a course to the New France shift passage. Maximum acceleration.”

As his officers jumped into action, many still not really understanding what was going on, Hanson studied the sensor data. Since the Russian War of 2439, Cartier had become a frontline system in the cold war between the Russian Space Federation and most of the other space powers. Over the last ten years more than thirty thousand advanced stealth buoys had been deployed along Cartier’s mass shadow and further into deep space. They watched for any Russian ships trying to sneak into the system.

Since their deployment, they had detected more than twenty attempts by the Russians to send stealth ships into the system to spy on its defenses. This time the buoys were detecting something different. Reaves had struggled to make sense of the sensor readings for he had been trying to put all the data together to give a profile of one contact. There wasn’t just one contact however, there were at least ten. And if there are ten, then there are more, Hanson said to himself, many more. There was only one reason why so many Russian ships would try and enter the system. War.

“More buoys are reporting in, they’re picking up more anomalies. The first ones are firming up as well. They’re definitely multiple ships. I can see that now,” Reaves reported.

Hanson looked at Reaves and shot him a smile. “Don’t feel bad. The computer didn’t figure out what was going on either. We know now though.”

“It will take forty-five minutes for those ships to detect our increased emissions and change course,” Intrepid’s First Lieutenant reported.

“Then we’ll see what is coming against us before we jump out,” Hanson replied. So far, the buoys had detected eleven ships. He was sure there were far more. Once whoever was commanding them knew he had been discovered, there would be no point in trying to hide.

“They’re cruising in at around 0.2c,” Intrepid’s navigation officer updated everyone. “If they increase their velocity to their maximum when they figure out we’ve detected them, it will take them four hours to reach Cartier.”

Hanson kept quiet. Four hours wasn’t long enough for reinforcements from outside the system to even learn about the Russians ships, never mind for them to come to Cartier’s aid. If the Russians had come in the strength he suspected, the planet would fall. Whilst his navigation officer sounded excited at the prospect of witnessing battle, he felt otherwise. In his fifteen years of service with the Royal Space Navy he had seen plenty of fleet engagements. He didn’t need to see anymore. Yet he knew it was unavoidable. The Russians’ appearance was a surprise, but at the same time it made sense. With so many human ships committed to the American colonies, and from all the reports, so many having already been lost, the space faring powers were weaker than they had been for more than a century. Now was the best time for the Russians to strike, especially if they didn’t care about endangering the whole human race by leaving the door wide open for another attack from the Flex-aor. It seemed they didn’t.

It is all part of the plan, Hanson reminded himself as he pictured Cartier’s fall. Since the last war with the Russians, the planet had been largely evacuated. It was essentially a fortified world. Its role was to blunt and slow down any Russian invasion so as to give the Allied Fleet stationed at New France time to prepare to face the invaders. At least that was the plan. How many ships are still at New France? How many have been transferred to the American colonies? Hanson wondered. His superiors kept moving ships back and forth from New France to Cartier and other nearby systems to keep the Russian spies on New France guessing. It had worked, at least, Hanson wasn’t sure how many ships were still in the Allied Fleet tasked with protecting French Colonial Space. Given how much a threat the Flex-aor had turned out to be, Hanson was sure that the real number wouldn’t be encouraging.

“Keep updating the holo display with new contacts as the computer identifies them, then relay the information to Cartier,” he ordered. Already the count was up to thirteen.

“Captain, should we not be heading to Cartier to rendezvous with the fleet there?” Third Lieutenant Lookman queried. He was manning the tactical console.

“No,” Hanson replied as he realized Lookman was asking the question many on the bridge were thinking. “Open a COM channel to the entire crew,” he requested.

When the COM officer nodded to let him know a channel was open, he started speaking. “This is the Captain. By now most of you will have heard about what’s going on. Currently we have,” he paused as he checked the holo plot again, “fifteen confirmed contacts heading into the system from Russian space. I expect that number to increase dramatically. It can only mean one thing; the Russians are seeking to restart hostilities. I have orders from Commodore Lightfoot detailing that in the event of a Russian invasion our primary mission is to get back to New France with the intel as soon as possible. We can get to New France quicker than any other ship in the system, and that is what we must do. I know it’s hard, we all have friends in the Cartier fleet, but it is our duty. Hanson out.”

Lookman nodded at him when he glanced at the tactical console. “Thank you, Sir, I understand.”

Hanson nodded back and glanced at the holo plot. The count was up to twenty. “Is that right?” He asked when he noticed that a couple of the ships had been identified already.

“I’ve double checked the readings,” Intrepid’s First Lieutenant answered. “They’re both Behemoth class ships. I think the second one is even the Moskva herself. She was one of the few Behemoths that escaped New France in the Russian War when the Allied Fleet retook the system.”

Hanson had to shut his mouth. It had been hanging open. The Russian war had ended thirty-four years ago. Even then the Moskva had been old. Now she would be completely outdated. The giant ship hadn’t even had valstronium armor back then. “What intelligence files do we have on her? Has she been refitted?”

“The only file the RSNI has on her lists her whereabouts as unknown, presumably broken up for scrap materials.”

“That’s clearly not the case,” Hanson responded. “I wonder what other surprises the Russians have in store for us?” He didn’t like the answers he came up with.

The next three hours went by quickly. In total, the detection buoys picked up thirty contacts. Then, when the Russians detected Intrepid’s course change and rapid acceleration, they gave up all pretense of trying to hide. When their full fleet accelerated, sixty-four more contacts appeared. Some were clearly older ships like the Moskva, but others appeared to be much more modern. The defenders at Cartier were outnumbered four to one, though the planet’s orbital defenses would even the odds slightly. Even so, Hanson knew the battle was lost.

As he watched the fleet defending Cartier organize itself to receive the invaders, a part of him wanted to see the ships break orbit and follow Intrepid towards the shift passage to New France. They were all about to lose their lives. Yet, he knew the French Commodore commanding the defenders had her orders. She couldn’t leave the orbital defenses unguarded. They would easily be taken out by the Russians. Her death and the death of her ships would buy the fleet at New France time to repel the Russians.

“We can jump in twenty minutes,” Intrepid’s navigation officer reported.

Just in time to see the Russians fire their first salvo, Hanson thought as he checked the estimated time the Russian fleet would enter range of Cartier. “Very well, jump us as soon as we cross the mass shadow,” he ordered. There was no point hanging around to see how the battle went, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

When the Russians opened fire, one thousand four hundred and fifty-five new contacts appeared on the gravimetric sensors. Hanson clenched his hands into fists.

“It’s those blasted behemoths,” Intrepid’s First Lieutenant said, echoing Hanson’s thoughts.

The behemoths had caused the French and British fleets a real problem in the previous war. What they lacked in valstronium armor, they made up in sheer size and weight of missiles. The defenders of Cartier wouldn’t survive more than two or three missile salvos from their opponents.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Hanson said as the missiles raced towards their targets. He was still watching when Intrepid’s navigation officer reported that the ship was about to jump into shift space. Even when the holo projector changed to show the plot of shift space, he kept staring at the point where the missiles had been. Soon they would be claiming the lives of his brothers and sisters in arms.

When he finally spoke, the gravity in his own voice surprised him. “I want maximum acceleration through shift space, when we have to jump back to normal space to change course, not a second is to be wasted recharging the shift drive capacitors. I want to set a new record for reaching New France.”

“Aye Captain,” his officers responded almost in unison. They too sounded serious.

*

HMS Marlborough, in orbit around New France, 14th April 2473 AD.

Commodore Lightfoot gave the punching bag a quick one-two. Then he struck out at it again, and again. Sweat was dripping down his forehead. Five months, he said to himself, striking the bag with each word. Five months since the last British ships left. And here I am, still twiddling my thumbs while thousands of my countrymen give their lives fighting these alien invaders. His eyes stung from the sweat running over his eyebrows and into them. He didn’t care, the pain simply added to his rage and gave him the energy to lash out at the bag once again.

Taking half a step back, he crouched and tensed his leg muscles as he prepared to jump into the air and strike at the bag. Just before he sprang into action, a beep from the COM unit built into the gym’s wall caught him off guard. His kick nearly missed the bag. When it beeped again, he strode over towards it. Before tapping it, he took a couple of deep breaths and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “What is it?” he asked.

The voice coming through the COM unit was that of his Flag Captain, Captain Anderson. Right away Lightfoot knew something serious was happening. “Commodore, Intrepid has returned from Cartier. Russian ships have entered the system and attacked the planet’s defenses. I’ve only scanned the first few lines of Captain Hanson’s report, but it doesn’t make for good reading.”

Lightfoot swore. “I’ll be on the bridge presently, I’m in the gym. I need to wash up and then I’ll join you. Send orders to all our ships. All shore leave is cancelled and any ships that are taking on supplies are to expedite their transfer from the orbital stockpiles.”

“Aye Commodore. I’ll send the orders out immediately, it looks like whoever decided to keep us stationed out here knew what they were doing after all.”

Lightfoot let out another expletive in reply. Then he ended the COM channel. All the way to the shower he continued to swear. The traitorous Russians were going to destroy everything. Now was not the time to settle old grievances. Now was the time for humanity to band together. They could be the end of us all, Lightfoot growled as water cascaded over his body. He clenched his fist and punched the wall. Curse them, we are going to make them pay. If war is what they want, they are going to get it. A grin spread across his face. The frustration that had been swelling within him over the last five months had just found a release. He had been drilling his ships endlessly to keep his crews from wallowing in shame at the fact they hadn’t been sent to face the Flex-aor. The British ships under his command were as ready for war as any he had seen.

You’ve bitten off more than you can chew, Lightfoot said to his imaginary opponent. He was familiar with the intelligence files on a number of high-ranking Russian Admirals. Whoever was commanding the fleet that had probably conquered Cartier, he intended to crush them.

*

An hour later Lightfoot’s shuttle touched down in one of Centaure’s hangar bays. Centaure was the sole battleship the French Navy had stationed at New France. Within a couple of minutes an aide had led him to the French flagship’s main briefing room. As the doors automatically slid aside to admit him, he was surprised to see Admiral Baudin had organized a small gathering. Normally the supreme commander of the Allied Fleet at New France enjoyed hosting as many of his officers as he could. This time there were just six other men and women present. Baudin had his second in command and his Flag Captain with him. The senior Admirals of the German, Japanese and Chinese forces were there as well. Normally the American fleet would have a significant number of ships stationed at New France too. However, they had all been ordered back to American colonial space. Lightfoot nodded to Baudin as he sat down.

“Thank you for coming Commodore, now we’re all here, we will begin,” Baudin said after returning Lightfoot’s gesture. “You’ve all seen the report from Intrepid. It might have been helpful for us if her Captain had hung around a bit longer to observe the outcome of the battle.”

Lightfoot squirmed in his seat. He wanted to defend his subordinate. As far as he was concerned, Hanson had done the right thing. The battle for Cartier probably hadn’t lasted more than an hour if the Russians had pressed their numerical advantage. On the other hand, it could have drawn out for several hours if the Russians played it safe. If Hanson had waited, the Russian fleet could have arrived just behind him. In any event, he had been following orders. Orders Baudin had approved. Before Lightfoot could decide whether to come to his subordinate’s defense, Baudin pressed on.

“Nevertheless, we have received a timely warning and that is almost as good. We have to assume that Cartier has fallen. The Russian fleet will be coming here next. We may have more ships than them, but from Intrepid’s data, it’s clear the Russians can put out a heavier missile salvo. We know the condition our fleets are in. No reinforcements are coming. We have to stop this Russian invasion here and now or the Russians will have unfettered access to all of French colonial space and perhaps British space as well.”

Lightfoot nodded. The RSN did have other warships in British colonial space, however they were thinly spread out. The vast majority of the British fleet was in American colonial space. From the reports he had read, most of them had been destroyed or taken some battle damage. If New France fell, there was no way the British fleet could rally enough ships to stop the Russians attempting to invade British space after they secured the French territories they had coveted for the last century.

“We have a sound plan in place,” Admiral Tanaka. “New France’s defenses are strong. Our fleet may be weakened, but the force that attacked Cartier will be hard-pressed to take New France.”

“I do not think we can stick to the plans drawn up before the Flex-aor invasion, we do not have the ships at our disposal to deal with all the eventualities that those plans were intended to deal with,” Baudin countered. “Simply staying in orbit and waiting for the Russians to attack us could cost us dearly. If the Russian fleet decides to circumvent New France and jump behind the front line, we won’t have the ships to give chase and defend New France. I believe we need to head out and confront the Russian fleet as soon as it enters the system.”

Both the German and Chinese Admirals tried to speak at once. Neither liked Baudin’s plan. Lightfoot took a moment to consider their concerns before joining in the conversation. “I see where you’re coming from Admiral. The Russian fleet was a surprising mix of old and new warships. Our intel suggested they should have more newer designs than Intrepid detected at Cartier. They could send the fleet that attacked Cartier past us and into our more lightly defended rear areas. If we gave pursuit, a second Russian fleet could easily take New France. Engaging whatever comes through the shift passage would prevent this.

“Yet doing so is very risky. If there is a second fleet operating alongside the fleet we have detected, we could find ourselves outnumbered and isolated very quickly. In the middle of the system away from New France, we wouldn’t have any backup. If we stay in orbit and fight alongside the orbital defense platforms, any battle that ensues will be far more likely to end in our favor.”

Baudin nodded. “Your analysis is spot on as always Commodore. There is one factor you’re not considering though. We’ve all seen the reports from the American colonies. Even successful battles fought over inhabited planets have resulted in cataclysmic levels of destruction. If we can avoid that happening at New France, we must. Facing whatever ships the Russians intend to attack us with in open space is the only way to achieve that. Don’t worry,” Baudin continued as he raised a hand towards Lightfoot as Lightfoot opened his mouth. “We’re going to cover the end of the shift passage to Cartier with patrol ships. If a Russian fleet comes through that we cannot handle we will fall back to New France. But it is my intention to break orbit and move out to meet them. If it’s just the fleet that Intrepid detected, they should have been seriously weakened by engaging Cartier. We will finish them off.”

Lightfoot still wanted to protest. Billions of credits had been ploughed into beefing up New France’s orbital defenses. It made no sense to fight without them. No tactical sense at least, Lightfoot reminded himself as he processed Baudin’s reasoning. If the Russians were invading Britannia, he supposed he might think differently. Certainly, many of the American colonies had been ravaged as huge chunks of broken ships or nuclear missiles that had overshot their targets burst through their atmosphere and impacted near inhabited areas. And then there was the damage that the colonies’ orbital industries had suffered. “Okay,” he said slowly. “But I still think there is something more going on here. We need to be careful. We cannot risk losing even one battle. We don’t have the reinforcements to continue the fight if that happens.”

“I understand the risks involved,” Baudin acknowledged. “We won’t offer battle unless we are confident of victory. Now, let’s put our minds together and figure out how we’re going to take on this Russian fleet.”

*

As soon as he returned to his flagship, Lightfoot made his way to the bridge. “What’s Intrepid’s status?” he asked.

“She should enter two-way communication range in ten minutes,” the COM officer reported.

“Very good, put Captain Hanson on with me as soon as she does,” Lightfoot ordered. Moving to his command chair he sat down and thought through the questions he wanted to ask Hanson. The captain had no doubt spent the last four days reviewing the sensor data of the Russian invasion. He wanted to see what conclusions his subordinate had reached.

“Commodore Lightfoot,” Hanson said when his face appeared in front of Lightfoot. “What orders do you have for me?”

“None that you’re going to like I’m afraid Captain,” Lightfoot replied. “But first, I have a few questions for you. What do you make of this Russian attack? You have had time to think everything through.

“Speak freely Captain,” Lightfoot insisted when Hanson hesitated.

“It doesn’t make sense Commodore,” Hanson said, his confidence growing as he continued. “We know the Russians have more modern warships. Cartier’s defenses aren’t the strongest, but the fleet that attacked them has to have taken some losses in the battle. If the Russians had brought their full strength, they could have much more easily taken the planet. Why waste warships like that?”

Lightfoot finished Hanson’s sentence, “Unless there is something else afoot.”

“Yes Commodore, but what?”

“That’s what I intended to ask you Captain. You’ve had a few days to think through what is going on.”

“Well… I have a couple of theories. None of them add up though. The Russians could have had a second fleet operating in stealth within the Cartier system. Either they could have joined the battle after Intrepid jumped out, or they are waiting to see if reinforcements will be sent from New France. They could then attempt to ambush us if we returned. Alternatively, they could simply be hiding to lure us into a false sense of security. Neither tactic seems to make sense though.”



“Why is that?” Lightfoot queried, his interest piqued.

“It’s the older ships in the Russian fleet, especially the behemoths. Why include them in the first fleet? The Russians know we would detect and recognize them. If they had a second fleet, their ruse would work better if it contained all their older ships. We wouldn’t be expecting it then. As it is, we are wondering where the rest of their fleet is because we know we are not facing all their warships.”

“Yes,” Lightfoot nodded. “What then are they planning to do with their other ships. A raid on Alpha?”

“That was my thinking,” Hanson replied. “If they have a sizable fleet they could chase off the ships defending Alpha. From there they can then launch a raid into our colonial space or invade French space via the backdoor. Either way, raiding Alpha would all but guarantee no reinforcements would come from Earth. The politicians would be too scared of the Sol system being raided. Every ship would be held back to protect our vital industries. By attacking Alpha, the Russians would all but guarantee themselves free rein to dissect French colonial space.”

Lightfoot ground his teeth together. In all the commotion since the news had arrived he hadn’t had more than a couple of minutes to sit down and think through the wider strategic situation. What Hanson said made a lot of sense. Threatening Earth would send shockwaves through the political leaders. They would be scared of what the Russian fleet could do if they entered the Sol system. He very much doubted they had any chance of actually taking Earth, but they could do a heck of a lot of damage throughout the system. Even the threat of a raid would tie up a great number of warships. And if the Russians have more ships than our intel suggests? Lightfoot asked himself. The Russians had surprised them by keeping so many of their older warships in service. What if they did have more modern warships as well? Could they actually try taking Earth? The question isn’t if they could do it? The question is, do they think they could? When Lightfoot thought about it like that, a shiver went down his spine. The French colonies were more vulnerable than they had been for a century, that was true. But so too was Earth. Would the Russians be that daring?

“Commodore?” Hanson asked as Lightfoot remained silent with his thoughts.

Lightfoot shook himself. “I’m sending you to Earth. You’re to make all haste. If the Russians do intend to attack the Alpha system, they may wait to see how their invasion of Cartier fares. You may make it to Earth before anything happens. Or, you may have to try and sneak through whatever forces are there. Either way, the Admiralty needs to know what is going on here and what the wider implications are.”

“But Commodore, we already had to flee from Cartier. My crew are ready to fight.”

“I know Captain, your record speaks for itself. I don’t have time to argue with you though, I need to speak to Admiral Baudin about this. Set course for Earth, I’ll transmit my final report before your ship jumps into shift space. If we are right, you may find yourself in the midst of the fighting anyway. If the Russians haven’t attacked Alpha by the time you get there, hopefully the Admiralty will send a fleet to reinforce the system.”

“Understood Commodore, we’ll get news to Earth as soon as possible. Hanson out.”

Lightfoot stared at the screen for several seconds. He was still thinking through what the Russians would do, what he would do if he was in their position. He knew the Russian Space Federation was greatly angered by what had happened in the Russian War. They had essentially been forced to abandon their ancestral homeland due to the unpayable reparations that had been demanded of them. Instead of paying, the Russian government had evacuated as much of its population as it could to its colonies and then had closed its borders to every other Earth nation. Forcing them out had not been the wisest strategy. Since then the British Star Kingdom had been at war with China and India. The terms enforced upon both countries hadn’t been nearly so severe. As a result, relations with China had been warming considerably since the peace had been signed. With India things weren’t going quite so well, but the animosity they held for Britain was nothing like what the Russians held against France, America and his own nation. That made the Russians unpredictable. Anger made men do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Trying to figure out the Russian intentions was not much better than a guessing game. Giving up, he requested a COM channel with Baudin. The French Admiral needed to know what he was thinking.




Chapter 2

Those who lead from the front always gain the respect of their subordinates. This is drilled into every cadet at every naval academy across the Empire. Our history has shown us that even mediocre leaders can get extraordinary feats of bravery and martial prowess out of their subordinates if said subordinates can see that their commander is willing to risk his own life for victory. It is one lesson I have repeated often to my own cadets and the historical examples at hand to help illustrate my point have always been numerous.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Tsar, New France system, 15th April 2473 AD.

Admiral Yuri Checkov strode onto the bridge of his flagship. Tsar was the second newest ship in the Russian navy. A true modern battleship, she boasted fifty missiles in each of her broadsides.

“Admiral on deck,” the soldier guarding the entrance announced. Everyone jumped to their feet and held a salute.

As he walked over to his command chair he had to hide a small grin. He was still getting used to his new title. He and Korolyov had first met at the naval academy. They both came from poor backgrounds and had become firm friends. Though their career paths had seen them serving on different ships, they had stayed in contact. Often they had met in bars to drink vodka and romanticize about how they would lead the Russian Star Federation to glory one day. They would avenge the shame that had been brought upon their nation and win such riches for the Russian people that no one would know the poverty they had both grown up with. Both had known that this had been nothing but the fantasies of men who would likely never rise above the rank of Captain. It had been fun nevertheless.

Yet now they were doing it for real. His friend’s sudden rise to the position of High Admiral had allowed Captain Yuri Checkov to ride his coattails. Korolyov had needed a subordinate he could trust to carry out his planned invasion of French Colonial Space. So far, it was working out well for Checkov. Cartier had been taken with minimal losses and now he was about to confront the Allied fleet based at New France. “At ease,” he said, when he made it to his command chair, allowing his officers to drop their salute and return to their work. He had deliberately made them wait to emphasize his authority. He had been a Captain just two weeks before and he reckoned his officers needed the occasional reminder of his new status.

“We’ll exit shift space in three minutes, Sir,” an aide reported.

“Very well, keep to our schedule,” Checkov replied. He intended to repeat the same strategy from Cartier, he would drop out of shift space well away from New France’s mass shadow and cruise into the system. The last thing he wanted to do was allow the Allied fleet to ambush his forces. He wasn’t in any particular rush, the Allies had to know he was on his way. Playing it safe was the best strategy for now. When he had located his primary targets, then he would go for the kill.

He swiveled his chair away from the main holo display. Instead he made a clear effort to watch over his subordinates, even Pavlov, Tsar’s Captain. He wanted everyone on the bridge to know that he was keeping an eye on them. Experience told him that an extra fear factor helped boost efficiency, especially in combat situations.

“Exiting shift space,” a navigation officer announced.

“No nearby contacts,” the sensor officer updated several seconds later, “scanning further out.”

“All ships are present and accounted for. They’re forming up into formation attack-three,” another office reported.

He sat in silence as his ships cruised into the New France system. Occasionally he would steal a glance at the plot of the system as it updated, for the most part, he watched his officers, looking for any signs of inefficiency. He wouldn’t think twice about replacing someone with a more competent officer if there was a problem.

Even with just the occasional glance at the situation developing as his ships entered the system, it was obvious things weren’t how he expected them to be. There wasn’t nearly enough thermal activity coming from New France’s orbit for his liking. The Allies were up to something. “I want a spread of stealth recon drones, focus in on sectors forty-three through to forty-eight.” If the Allies weren’t preparing to defend New France, it meant only one thing, they wanted to fight in the open.

It took nearly an hour for his drones to find the Allied fleet. When they did, Checkov had to hide his displeasure, they weren’t exactly trying to hide, yet his officers had failed to find them. Their fleet was already drawn up in a battle formation. Like his ships, they were cruising through space slowly while keeping their emissions to a minimum. Their position was a predictable one though, if they had been trying to ambush him, they would have tried to get in behind him. Instead, they were holding the high ground above and between the shift passage to Cartier and New France. It was a good position to swoop down and intercept his fleet if they wanted. When the final count on the Allied fleet was tallied, Checkov had to hide another grin. They outnumbered his ships, but many of the Allied ships were frigates and corvettes. His fleet actually out massed theirs. These new aliens really have done a number on the Allies’ fleets, Checkov thought. Korolyov’s plan had assumed that he would be fighting at a disadvantage in numbers and technology. Instead, the odds were almost even. Maybe we could actually win!

“Let’s let them know we have found them,” Checkov said. “Fleet will turn onto heading seven point four six eight. Switch to formation attack four. Increase thrust to seventy percent military power.”

“Orders sent Admiral,” an aide reported.

Checkov was impressed by the speed of the Allied fleet’s response. Within a minute they had powered up their engines and altered into an attack formation that mimicked his own. They think they can win a stand-up fight. Checkov had split his fleet into three sections, placing his oldest ships in the center. There they could be protected from coming under too much missile fire by his more modern ships. And putting them there will reemphasize that they are the weakest part of my fleet, Checkov thought, just as Koroylov wants.

The Allied fleet had put their only battleship in the center of their formation. Tsar’s sensors had identified it as Centaure, the French flagship. That meant the ships around it were probably French warships.  They will be the best ships in the Allied fleet, our primary targets. The other Allies had sent their best ships to the American colonies months ago.

“Central squadron will drop back laterally two hundred thousand kilometers from the rest of the fleet,” Checkov ordered. It was the natural thing to do. If the most powerful enemy ships were lined up against his center, allowing his wings to edge ahead and draw more fire made sense.

When the Allied fleet didn’t react, Checkov nodded. Baudin was no fool, he wasn’t going to push his center any further forward and uncover it from the point defenses of the rest of his fleet.

“Our fleet will enter missile range in eight minutes,” a tactical officer reported. “With their lower base velocity, the Allies will have to wait another minute before they can return fire.”

“Concentrate our first salvo on their center, let’s see if we can anger Baudin. After that, inform each squadron they can pick their own targets.”

“Aye Admiral,” Tsar’s COM lieutenant confirmed.

Checkov’s fleet opened fire first. One thousand two hundred missiles shot out of their missile tubes and accelerated towards the Allied Fleet. Both fleets were on almost parallel trajectories as they converged with one another. As soon as his ships fired, Checkov ordered them to alter course slightly. He didn’t want to close the range just yet. His maneuver would force the allies to accept a long-range missile duel or make more of an effort to close with his ships. Checkov knew that if he tried to charge into plasma cannon range now, the Allies would think he was desperate and pull back. He had to lure them in.

The Allied Fleet waited until it had fired its missile salvo, numbering just over a thousand, before it changed course. As Chekhov had hoped, they altered their heading to try and reduce the distance between both fleets. It was exactly as Koroylov had predicted. Their intelligence suggested that most of the Allied nations had better missile tracking technologies. That meant a close in missile duel were there was less time to track incoming targets favored them.

“Alter the fleet’s heading two degrees to starboard,” Checkov ordered. He had to play along and keeping the Allied fleet at distance was what a normal Russian Admiral would be expected to do.

As his first missile salvo approached the vanguard of the Allied fleet, Checkov had to admit he wasn’t holding out much hope. He had seen how good the Allied point defenses were in the Cartier system. Missile for missile, it didn’t seem like the Allies had much of an advantage, though the British penetrator missiles were very effective. However, the Allies’ flak cannons were significantly more effective than the ones Checkov’s ships were equipped with. Their improved tracking sensors also had a significant impact.

When the Allied point defenses opened up and flak cannon shells, plasma bolts, laser beams and AM missiles filled space with destructive force, his missile salvo was quickly whittled away. Still, twelve missiles breached the wall of point defense fire. Most of them found targets and exploded. A destroyer and frigate were wiped out and a medium cruiser turned its nose away from the battle and pulled out of formation. An update on the holo display suggested several other Allied ships had suffered proximity hits but there was no sign of any serious damage.

Then it was the Allies turn for their missiles to seek out targets. Eighteen got through and explosions rippled along the Russian line of battle. One particular flotilla was hit hard, six missiles got through their point defense fire. British missiles no doubt, Checkov concluded. A medium cruiser in that flotilla was taken out when it suffered three direct hits. Throughout the rest of the Russian fleet one other ship was destroyed and two forced out of formation.

Before the British missiles reached their targets, Checkov’s fleet fired a second missile salvo and it now closed with the Allies. More explosions signaled that missiles had got through. When the sensors cleared enough to make sense of what had happened, three Corvettes were gone and several other ships had suffered varying degrees of damage.

“Signal Commodores Nikitin and Ilin, inform them that they have permission to move their flanks away from the center during this next missile salvo,” Checkov ordered before his ships engaged the second Allied missile salvo.

“They’ve both acknowledged Admiral,” Tsar’s COM officer reported.

Checkov watched as missiles punched through his fleet’s defensive fire. As the surviving missiles accelerated to terminal attack speed, Russian ships powered up their ECM and began to twist and weave in an effort to shake the missiles’ lock. Some were successful, others weren’t. Russian naval crews died as their ships were damaged or destroyed. As each flotilla and squadron reshuffled itself back into formation after their evasive maneuvers, both the forward and rear flanks of the Russian fleet edged away from their center. It was designed to look like an unintentional result of how the battle was unfolding.

Checkov let two more missile salvos be exchanged before he gave his next order. In that time both fleets suffered more losses. The numbers slightly favored the Allies, with their superior point defensive fire and the British penetrator missiles, the kills they were scoring were reducing Chekhov’s fleet quicker than he was reducing theirs. Still, both sides were suffering badly. More importantly, the Russian fleet was splitting into three parts as both flanks fell further and further away from the center. The Allied fleet was also beginning to split as its squadrons maneuvered to keep their primary targets in optimal firing range. “Send orders to our central squadron, plan Bear Trap will be initiated with this next Allied missile salvo.”

Here we go, Checkov thought as the fifth Allied missile salvo tore into his fleet. He had concentrated all four of his behemoths in the center of his fleet. As Allied missiles detonated all around them, three of them appeared to suffer massive damage. Chunks of armor and sections of hull were blasted off, leaving a trail of debris behind them. The acceleration rates of the three damaged behemoths dropped and they began to fall out of formation. Then the other behemoth and all their escorts slowed to stay in formation. Ordinarily Checkov would have ordered his rear flank to accelerate and close with his center to provide support. Yet that wasn’t a possibility now, both groups of ships were too far apart to support each other.

Baudin seized upon the opportunity. The rear flank of his fleet moved to heavily engage Checkov’s rear and prevent them coming to the behemoths’ aid. The center of Baudin’s fleet went to full military power and altered its heading onto a sharply converging course with the damaged behemoths. Because of Chekhov’s earlier maneuvers, the Allied ships had been closing with his fleet with a much higher acceleration rate. Now, as the French flagship and its consorts funneled huge amounts of energy into their impulse engines, they rapidly closed the distance. It was clear what Baudin intended, rather than allow the behemoths to continue to use their impressive number of missile tubes to bombard the Allied Fleet, Baudin was going to close to plasma cannon range and finish them off quickly.

As all these maneuvers took place, each fleet fired another missile salvo. They came crashing in and added to the mounting carnage. This time, all four of Checkov’s behemoths spat debris into space.

As the electromagnetic energy from the thermonuclear detonations dissipated and Tsar’s sensors cleared up it was obvious nothing had really changed. The Allied center was still charging full speed towards Checkov’s wounded center. The behemoths and their escorts were trying to pull back while still presenting their broadsides. Even as he watched, another missile salvo erupted from the Allies. His ships returned fire moments later. It took just three minutes for the missiles to criss-cross each other in space. Then they found targets and detonations erupted throughout both fleets. A number of bridge officers on Tsar called out damage reports being sent in from other ships. Checkov largely ignored them, they were immaterial at this point.

“They’ve crossed the point of no return Admiral,” Tsar’s tactical officer reported excitedly.

Checkov didn’t respond directly. He had been watching the tactical display as well. Of course he had, his entire plan revolved around drawing the Allied center in. “COMs, signal our center, it’s time to spring the trap.”

As soon as his orders reached the four behemoths, they altered course. As one they turned their noses back towards their opponents and gunned their engines. All four of the massive ships had been overhauled within the last five years. They had impulse engines as modern as the French ships that were closing with them and many more heavy plasma cannons than they had once had. Given the higher velocity the Allied center was carrying, there was no way they could decelerate before the behemoths closed into plasma cannon range. Just as importantly, whether the allies realized it or not, they weren’t nearly as damaged as they appeared. Before dispatching Checkov to Cartier, Koroylov had ordered a number of freighters broken up and their hull sections bolted onto the behemoths. What the Allies had thought was heavy battle damage had been purely fictitious. Four fully operational behemoths were closing with them.

“They’re trying to decelerate, they know they’re in trouble!” Pavlov said as he nearly fell off the seat from leaning forward so much. “Koroylov’s plan is working.”

“It would appear so,” Checkov replied as he sat back in his command chair. He had followed Koroylov’s plan exactly, now it was time to see just how effective his friend’s tactic was going to be.

*

HMS Marlborough

Lightfoot bit back whatever order he had been about to give when he saw the Russian center reverse course. The acceleration rates the behemoths and their escorts were exhibiting far exceeded anything they were supposed to be able to pull off. His eyes turned to Admiral Baudin’s flagship. Right away he knew it was too late. The French element of the Allied fleet was going to come under the energy weapons of the Russian center. If the four behemoths that had appeared nearly crippled seconds ago were actually fully operational, the French ships would be ripped apart. They would return the favor but numbers were on the Russian’s side. Then any Russian ships that survived the deadly exchange would be free to turn and engage the flanks of the Allied Fleet. The battle was lost.

Lightfoot forced himself to turn away from the hopeless situation the French ships were about to find themselves in. Instead he checked the range between his ships and the Russian flank he was engaging. He didn’t even have time for a proper calculation. He had to estimate it by eye. There was nothing he could do to help Baudin, but he had to act fast if the battle was going to be saved. “Take us onto heading three point seven four four. We are going to close with the Russians.” There was nothing else Lightfoot could think to do, if he tried to close to plasma cannon range, the Russians’ forward flank would likely pull back. So far, they hadn’t shown any desire to close to energy weapon range. If they did pull back, it would give him some space to come to the aid of whatever French ships survived their close engagement with the behemoths.

“The Russian forward flank is changing course, they are turning towards us as well,” a bewildered sensor officer reported.

Lightfoot could hardly believe it. It was one thing for the Russians to sacrifice their older behemoths, but he was facing a squadron of modern warships. Why would they be willing to trade ships on a one-for-one basis? No answers came to him and he dismissed the question. If they survived it was one he could ponder later. He glanced over at his squadrons’ weapon status. “All Chinese and British ships are to hold fire with their missiles,” he ordered. Another use had just come to him for them.

“The French are about to engage with their energy weapons,” one of Marlborough’s bridge officers warned everyone. All eyes turned to the main holo projector. It had been zoomed in on the behemoths and their escorts as they closed with the French fleet. First heavy plasma bolts reached out from both fleets to melt their way through valstronium armor and the insides of enemy ships. Then laser beams shot from what French ships still survived. Seconds later, another volley of plasma bolts ripped into both fleets. Then it was all over. There were no undamaged ships left. Those that hadn’t simply exploded from the weight of destructive fire, were tumbling through space in various directions as secondary and tertiary explosions ripped through them. All four behemoths were gone, but so too was Baudin’s flagship and all the battlecruisers and heavy cruisers in his fleet. Nothing larger than a light cruiser survived on either side, and they were all damaged.

Silence descended on Marlborough’s bridge. Every eye was still watching the shattered remnants of both squadrons move past one another. Then Lightfoot watched as first one and then other heads turned as they moved to look at the Russian squadron that was approaching them. He knew what most of his junior officers were thinking. “That’s not going to be us,” he said to them all. “Get back to work and do your duty. Prepare the squadron to launch their missiles on my command. They will detonate them five seconds after launch and carry out evasive maneuvers. All ships will open fire with their energy weapons when the enemy enters range.”

He hoped his orders were clear enough. There was no time to say anything more. Just fifteen seconds after the last ship confirmed receipt of his order he spoke again. “All ships, open fire.”

From the British and Chinese ships under his command one hundred and forty missiles were slingshotted into space by their acceleration tubes. Lightfoot couldn’t help but grimace at the number. When the battle had begun, his first salvo had numbered two hundred and twelve. His fleet had taken a real battering.

Right on cue, the missiles detonated. Lightfoot didn’t have to say anything, Anderson had already given the order and Marlborough began to twist and weave. It took just seven seconds for the ships in his squadron to catch up with the explosive force released from the missile detonations. Flying through such dense clouds of electromagnetic energy blinded the British and Chinese ship’s sensors. Crucially though, they kept the Russian ships’ sensors from seeing the Allied ships as well. Then, when the British and Chinese ships burst through the quickly dissipating electromagnetic energy, they were all in different positions. In contrast, the Russian ships were exactly where they had been. The British and Chinese gunners locked onto their targets and opened fire with heavy plasma cannons. The Russian gunners only took an extra second or two to lock on, yet by then plasma bolts were already tearing into their ships. Only two thirds of the Russian ships managed to open fire.

Lightfoot was thrown around in his command chair as one and then a second plasma bolt burnt through Marlborough’s outer hull. The lights remained on in her bridge though and her reactors continued powering the six heavy plasma cannons the battlecruiser still had operational. “Laser cannons, and then hit them again with the plasma cannons,” Lightfoot shouted over the din on the bridge.

The Russians knew about the advanced laser cannons many of the Allied nations had developed thanks to the technology the Vestarians had given them, yet they had not been able to steal the technology for themselves. Heavy laser beams tore into the undamaged Russian ships, snuffing several of them out before they could recharge their heavy plasma cannons. Then both sides exchanged another wave of plasma bolts.

Though Lightfoot clung to his command chair, this time there were no hits to his flagship. Only six Russian ships had survived to fire a second round of plasma bolts and none of them had been close enough to prioritize Marlborough as a target. They had been close enough to be targeted themselves however, and every one of them was destroyed or heavily damaged.

“I want damage reports from all surviving ships,” Lightfoot demanded, trying to remain calm. Many of his bridge crew wanted to lift their voices and cheer the fact they had survived. He felt the same way, yet the battle was far from over. “Check the status of the Russian ships around us, if there are any that look like they may get underway again we need to hit them with missiles before they do.”

Turning away from his bridge crew, Lightfoot brought up the holo projector on his command chair. Throughout the close in energy duel, Marlborough had been recording the wider battle. He replayed the last couple of minutes to see what was going on. Several ships from the Russian center were trying to get underway and accelerate out of the battle zone. His heart sank when he saw that there were no French ships trying to do the same. Behind the carnage that had once been the center of both fleets, the rear flanks of the Russian and Allied fleets were still exchanging missile duels. The Allied ships were holding their own, but each side was fighting the other to a standstill.

“All ships that can will turn onto heading nine point one four five,” Lightfoot ordered. He had to bring what aid he could to the German and Japanese ships fighting for their survival. When he turned back to look at his fleet, he couldn’t help but groan. Only eight other ships were able to make the turn and stay with Marlborough. He had started the day with thirty under his command.

*

Tsar

“I think we’ve done what we came to do,” Chekhov said to his bridge crew. His rear flank had been hammering the Allied rear, but the British and Chinese ships were closing with what was left of his fleet, there was no point letting his ships fight at a disadvantage. The battle was already a success. “Signal the fleet, all ships that can, are to withdraw to Cartier and then back to New Rostov. Let the survivors know they have fought well and served the Federation proudly.”

In his mind, Chekhov was already writing the report he would send Koroylov. Overall the plan had worked well. The Allied center had been crushed. It was a neat trick the British and Chinese forces had used, but their squadron had been decimated. The Allied Fleet at New France was a shell of what it had once been. It would no longer have any part to play in the events that were to come. “Take us out of here, we will return to New Rostov as well.”



Tsar turned and crossed over the New France system’s mass shadow. Then the battleship jumped into shift space. As she did, Checkov patted his command chair. Don’t worry, he thought to his flagship, you’re not quite as expendable as those other ships, but you’ll see action soon enough.

*

HMS Marlborough

“They are retreating!” someone shouted.

Lightfoot’s eyes shot up. He had been reading a damage report on one of his medium cruisers. It’s true, he thought. What was left of the rear flank of the Russian fleet was pulling back. They were angling to join up with the survivors of their center that were already making for the shift passage back to Cartier. Lightfoot considered giving pursuit. With what was left of his squadron and the Japanese and German squadron, they could probably pick off a handful of Russian ships. Then his eyes settled on the hundreds of rescue beacons that littered the space the two fleets had fought their way through and he changed his mind. There were thousands of escape pods and at least thirty crippled ships that, even if they couldn’t be salvaged, had crew stranded on them. They needed his help.

“All ships will break off engagement and begin rescue operations,” Lightfoot ordered. His eyes sought out the nearest frigate that was not damaged. “Contact Hai Hu’s Captain, I want him to plot a direct course for Earth. Our Admiralties need to hear about this battle as soon as possible. Let him know I will transmit a report to Hai Hu before they jump out of the system.”

“Aye Commodore,” Marlborough’s COM officer acknowledged.

Lightfoot nodded to her and closed his eyes. He was still trying to figure out what had just happened. The Russians had basically sacrificed an entire battle fleet. Not sacrificed, he told himself. They traded it. They traded theirs for ours. It didn’t make any sense unless… Lightfoot heart stopped for a moment. When the thought hit him, he knew it was the only thing that explained what had just happened. It didn’t make any sense unless the Russians had a far bigger prize on their mind. The vast majority of the Allied naval strength was concentrated in the Combined Fleet in the American colonies and it had been devastated by the Flex-aor. By taking out the New France fleet, the Russians had taken out the only fleet that could stop them invading Earth. There was nothing to stand between them and taking humanity’s homeworld for themselves. They aren’t just going to raid the Sol system, they’re going to try and conquer it, Lightfoot realized. In desperation he looked at the battered remnants of the New France fleet, there were nowhere near enough ships left to put together a force that could help Earth. Even Marlborough with the comparatively light battle damage she had received would need weeks in a repair yard. Three proximity hits had burnt away much of her valstronium armor and the two plasma bolts that had struck her had taken out several missile tubes and heavy plasma cannons. She was far from battle ready. The reality of the battle he had just fought hit Lightfoot like a nuclear warhead. Earth was on her own.




Chapter 3

With Sun Gates and Shift Gates, speed records for traversing between a series of star systems are largely a thing of the past. Once however, it was a source of pride.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Intrepid, Alpha System, 6th May 2473 AD.

Hanson was confident his frigate was going to gain the prestige of being known as the ship to make the fastest journey from New France to Earth. In three weeks they had covered a distance that usually took closer to four. To achieve such a feat, he had been redlining his reactors. He had little doubt that when he got to Earth all three of Intrepid’s reactors would have to be stripped down and thoroughly examined before they would be certified to be safe to operate again. At the moment, he didn’t care. He had spent much of the journey contemplating what the Russians might be up to. With more time to think things through, he was even more sure than when he had spoken to Commodore Lightfoot. They had to have bigger plans than just taking New France. At the very least they probably had their eyes on the entirety of French colonial space, and probably British space as well. A part of him hoped that was all they were planning. If they had something even bigger in mind, it meant they had gone crazy or had a lot more ships than anyone realized.

“Alpha Fleet Command has replied,” Intrepid’s COM officer announced. “They have acknowledged our warning. Commodore Diederichs reports no unusual activity has been sighted in the system or by his scouts further up the shift passage to Russian space. He says they will step up their patrols, and Alpha Fleet has been put on a war footing.”

Hanson nodded. “Good. Acknowledge their COM message.” As he spoke he did his best to hide his relief from his bridge crew. If there had been no sign of the Russians around Alpha yet, then maybe their ambitions weren’t as big as he feared.

“Shall we reduce our thrust Captain?” First Lieutenant Turner asked.

“No,” Hanson replied with a shake of his head. “Our news is still vital. If the Russians aren’t going to launch an attack here, then they are concentrating all their forces against French colonial space. If so, time is still of the essence, it will take far to long for reinforcements to be sent to Commodore Lightfoot and Admiral Baudin as it is.”

“Understood. I guess we will be entering the record books after all.”

“Assuming our reactors hold out of course,” Hanson replied.

For the next couple of hours Hanson watched the Alpha system go by. There were eight planets orbiting the system’s star. The fifth was the only one habitable to humans. Though Alpha had been the first world outside of the Sol system colonized by humans, its orbital industry was very small compared to planets like New France or Britannia. So many nations had rushed to colonize Alpha that the world had quickly developed into a warzone. Control of its nine continents was shared between fifteen different political bodies. As a result, no major power had invested any significant amount of money into the system for more than a century. Even Alpha Fleet Command was an independent body under the jurisdiction of the UN Interplanetary Affairs Committee. If even a small Russian squadron attacked the planet, it would quickly fall. Of course, there would be no real reason for the Russians to want Alpha, they would just be burdening themselves with the responsibility of sorting out the mess on the surface.

As if to prove Hanson’s musings wrong, alarms went off from several stations on Intrepid’s bridge.

“What is it?” Hanson demanded. “And shut those up,” he followed up.

“It’s Alpha Fleet, they are going crazy,” Sub Lieutenant Reeves reported. “Something has them spooked. Look at the gravimetric sensors.”

Hanson did just that. It was obvious something was up but it was hard to tell what. Many of the warships that had been sitting stationary in orbit were powering up their engines and moving away from the planet. Yet they were moving in ones and twos or small groups, there was no coordination. They’re meant to be a battle fleet, Hanson thought with disgust. Almost every Admiral from the navies of the major space faring powers was repulsed by the idea of commanding any of the UN fleets that patrolled the four systems with shift passages linking them to the Sol system. Commanding a make shift group of ships tasked with defending a planet or system of no importance to the ship’s crews, under the supervision of the UN Interplanetary Committee, was not an enviable task. Yet Diederichs should have his ships better trained than this.

“Signal them and find out what the hell is going on,” he ordered.

Given Intrepid’s distance to the Alpha colony, it would take an hour for his message to reach the planet and a reply to be sent back. As he waited and watched the gravimetric plot the picture became clearer. About half of the war ships under Diederichs’ command gathered up into a formation clearly designed to defend the planet. The rest however were making for the shift passages out of the system to Earth, or towards British, French and Indian colonial space.

“Are they running?” Turner asked. “Why?”

“No ide..” Hanson made to reply but he was cut off by Sub Lieutenant Reeves.

“New contacts,” he shouted. “Lots of them. Our electromagnetic sensors have just picked them up. There is a battlefleet heading for Alpha.”

Hanson didn’t need to ask, he knew who they were.

“We’re getting a COM message from that fleet, it’s not encrypted,” the COM officer reported.

“Let’s see it,” Hanson requested. Whatever it was going to say, he knew it wouldn’t be good. Judging by the time it would have taken the message to reach them, the message would have reached Alpha right about the time the pandemonium had broken out.

A stern looking man in the uniform of a Russian Admiral, no, High Admiral, Hanson corrected himself, appeared on the holo projector. A moment later he began to speak.

“My name is High Admiral Koroylov. The Russian Space Federation is reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. Our Motherland will be liberated from the clutches of the traitorous Allies. I know some of you who are listening to me now did not fight in the war of betrayal forty years ago. I am giving you this one chance, take your ships and leave. My fight is with the French, the Americans and the British. Any other ships that leave will be spared. This is your only chance. Leave now or be destroyed.”

“I can’t believe they are actually running,” Turner growled. “Our sensors are suggesting all the Indian and Argentinian ships in Diederichs’ fleet are fleeing.”

“Forget about them, there is nothing we can do about it now. What about the Russian fleet? What are their numbers?”

“So far we have detected one hundred and forty ships,” Reeves answered. “Though I don’t think that is all of them. Until they make some kind of course change and we can identify individual signals with the gravimetric sensors, we won’t be able to get a complete picture. There are too many ships in too close a formation for our electromagnetic sensors to make each ship out clearly at this range.”

“Keep updating me on the count anyway,” Hanson requested. One hundred and forty was already too many. If the count was right, the Russians must have brought every single warship they didn’t send to New France with them. That’s assuming our intelligence on their strength is correct. Whether it is or not, one thing is for sure. The Russians haven’t just come for the Alpha system. They can only have one target.

“Can’t we do anything to help them?” Reeves asked.

Hanson looked over to the Sub Lieutenant. He was staring at the holo screen and the massive fleet that was closing with the twenty ships that had stayed with Diederichs’ flagship.

“I’m afraid not,” Hanson replied. “The intelligence we have is too important. There is nothing we can do but watch.” Again, Hanson thought but didn’t add. Cartier and now Alpha. It is as if destiny is laughing at me. Alpha stood even less of a chance of holding out against the Russians than Cartier. Once again he was being forced to watch the fall of a world from the safety of half a system away. Men and women were about to die while he sat in comfort.

“Keep every sensor locked on that Russian fleet. I want as detailed a report to bring to the Admiralty as possible. If we can’t fight, at least we can try and hurt the Russians in a different way.” Hanson gave the order as much for himself as his crew. He had to do something. If he didn’t the shame would overwhelm him.

When the Russian fleet fired one thousand eight hundred missiles at Diederichs’ fleet and Alpha’s orbital defenses Hanson forced himself to watch. He knew it would be over in one salvo. It was. Not a single ship or defense platform survived. Alpha was at the Russian’s mercy.

“Get me whatever intelligence files we have on this Koroylov,” he demanded when the last missile detonated. He wanted to know the man who had become the focus of his rage.

*

9th May, London, Earth.

Admiral of the Red Jonathan Somerville, First Space Lord, Knight of the Order of Bath, senior officer of the British Admiralty, was enjoying the first real R&R he had had in nearly a year. The small bistro on St. George’s street in London had been one of his favorite places to eat out as a child with his parents. He had booked it to re-live the memories.

Just two months ago the news had come in about Cunningham’s victory over the Flex-aor at Connecticut. Right now, his nephew was on his way to, or more likely on his way back from raiding the alien staging base that had been used to invade American colonial space. With luck, in another month or so news would return from Cunningham to inform Earth that the Flex-aor incursion was officially over. Of course, no one knew if or when they might launch another attack. But Somerville intended to enjoy the lull in hostilities as much as he could. For the first time in more than a year Earth was not under threat of alien invasion.

“How are your studies going?” he asked the younger of the two women he had invited out to breakfast.

“Well... I think Si...,” Emilie replied rather shyly, cutting off just before she addressed her uncle with the honorific he had banned her from using. “Have you spoken to my tutors?”

Suzanna laughed. “There’s no need to be so afraid my dear. Jonathan won’t bite. He was just making conversation. He wants to get to know you better, we both do.”

“Ok,” Emilie replied slowly. “I’m sorry. It’s just this is all new to me.”

“We understand,” Somerville said with a wink. “No one is trying to rush you.”

“Thank you. I do want to get to know you two as well. It’s just, I’m not used to people taking an interest in me. Andréa was bad enough. Then to find out who my father was and to have Captain Somerville come and meet me. It was all a bit of a whirlwind.”

“And since then, nothing,” Somerville finished. “I’m sorry I didn’t contact you sooner. As you can imagine the last year has been beyond hectic. And I didn’t want to come see you when you were at the academy. That wouldn’t have done you any favors.”

“I know, and thank you for that. There are already enough rumors as it is,” Emilie replied.

“Such as?” Suzanna prompted.

Emilie blushed. “I’d rather not say.”

“Don’t worry about us, we’re used to such things. You would hardly believe some of the things people in London say about me,” Suzanna assured her.

“Well some say Admiral Somerville is my father, and that’s why Captain Somerville pushed through my application to the academy. Others say Captain Somerville is my father, or that I am his lover.”

Suzanna had to put a hand over her mouth to hide her laughter. “James, your father. That would mean he fathered you when he was fourteen. I can assure you, his experience with women isn’t that extensive.”

“Has it effected how the other cadets or lecturers treat you?” Somerville asked in a rather more serious tone.

“Oh, no,” Emilie replied. “Not really. Not from the lecturers certainly. There are some cadets who aren’t very happy with me, but that could be as much to do with what they know about my background. I’m the only cadet from Alpha at the academy.”

“Hhmmph,” Somerville replied slowly.

“Don’t be like that,” Suzanna said as she placed a hand on his arm. “The last thing she needs is an over protective great uncle making trouble for her. She grew up on Alpha, I’m sure she can survive the academy.”

Somerville gave Emilie another look. Dressed in a reasonably tight fitting, flowing dress, no one would ever think such a beautiful young woman would have grown up on Alpha. Yet Emilie hadn’t just grown up, she had excelled. She was the first woman from Alpha to get a Masters from Oxford and, if his guess was right, she would be the first woman from Alpha to captain a British warship. Though he wouldn’t let Emilie know, he had snuck a look at her first-year scores and tutors’ comments. She was easily top of her class in most of the criteria. If he hadn’t looked at her file, he would have thought the shy young woman sat before him would never have been able to top out in areas like leadership potential, but she had. Looks can be deceiving, Somerville reminded himself. Emilie was growing into a formidable woman. When he looked at Suzanna, he couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t as if he needed a reminder that looks could be deceiving. Suzanna looked every inch the beautiful wife one might expect a famous naval officer like his nephew to have. Of course, there was far more to her.

“What are you smiling at?” Suzanna asked as she raised her eyebrows.

“Just admiring your dress,” Somerville lied with a smirk.

“Hhmmph,” Suzanna replied as she copied his tone from moments ago. “Do I need to have a word with your wife about you and other women?” she asked, and then couldn’t help but grin as he tried to keep his face impassive and failed.

“It’s good to see you are so easily entertained,” Somerville quipped. “What with Earth and humanity under threat of extinction and all.”

“Oh don’t spoil the mood. I’ve read the same classified reports you have. If their staging world is as undefended as it was when our scouts located it, James will make quick work of it. And if not, he’ll have the sense to bug out. We’re supposed to be relaxing, enjoying ourselves for once.

“To that end,” Suzanna continued as she turned to Emilie, “forget about your classes, what about your classmates. Any boys catch your eye?”

Emilie turned red again. “No, not really. I have been focused on getting as much simulation time in as I can. I want to get on to the command track when I get into third year.”

Somerville vividly remembered the hours he spent in a simulator when he had been a cadet. It meant he knew just the question to ask next. “And who have you been simming with? You must have a pretty committed friend to play First Lieutenant for you?” All command simulations required at least one other person to be in the simulation. After all, in any battle situation handling your crew was just as important as out fighting your opponent.

“A guy,” Emilie said as her red cheeks darkened.

“And I suppose that’s all you’re going to say?” Somerville followed up.

Emilie only nodded.

“Don’t worry,” Suzanna said. “I’ll get the rest out of her later.”

“Where are we going?” Emilie asked, jumping at the chance to change the topic.

Suzanna gave her a knowing look, then proceeded to tell her about the shops she wanted to visit while she was on Earth. Somerville wasn’t sure what they all sold, or where they all were. From the sound of it though, it appeared as if Suzanna intended to visit London, Paris and Milan all before the day was out. Now I know why she suggested we meet for breakfast, he surmised. Content to just listen to the two ladies talk, Somerville tucked into his food and savored every bite. He couldn’t remember the last time he had enjoyed just being able to eat without having to rush through a meal to get to one meeting or another.

“And your wife, I’m sad she wasn’t able to make it. I would like to have met her too,” Emilie said a couple of minutes later.

“Yes, she was sad she missed you,” Somerville replied. “But she is away in Washington at the minute. As I’m sure you can imagine, being the wife of the First Space Lord is a job in and of itself. Now that you are on your summer break though, I believe she intends to take you out to a play or something along those lines when she is back. She has been having to hold herself back from contacting you even more than I have over the last year.”

“Well, that is something else for me to look forward to,” Emilie said with a smile. Then it dropped from her face. “What am I supposed to wear to a play?”

Suzanna shot her a grin. “Don’t worry about that. We’ll find you something today. Our shopping trip is going to be as much a part of your education as your time at the academy. If you’re going to travel up the ranks of the RSN, you’ll need to learn how to play the game of politics with the best of them. Especially when people find out who you are. And like it or not, fashion is as much a part of politics as anything else.”

Emilie’s face said just how much she didn’t like that idea.

Somerville couldn’t help but chuckle. “You can’t wear your cadet’s uniform everywhere you go. Your dress is a good start, but I imagine Suzanna will have filled out your wardrobes by the end of the day.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not going to be that bad,” Suzanna said as she placed a hand on Emilie’s. Then she changed the subject to spare the young woman. “Still no word from your Father?”

“No,” Emilie said with a shake of her head. Her eyes didn’t lift off the table.

“That’s alright,” Somerville said in as comforting a tone as he could. “News from Britannia has been intermittent since the alien attack. Lots of COM messages have been lost or not even sent. I’m sure he will get in contact with you eventually. He may not win any awards for dad of the year, but when Richard hears about you, he’ll want to meet you.”

“But James told me about his drinking. What if he has been receiving my messages and just hasn’t bothered replying?”

“Your uncle and your father have a checkered past. I wouldn’t take everything James thinks about Richard at face value. Yes, your father has a serious problem with drink, and a few other vices. But he is still a Somerville, he will want to know you. Once he sees a picture of you he will want to get in contact. He loved his mother as much as James did and you are the spitting image of her.”

“Thank you,” Emilie said as she lifted her eyes. “I will send him another message then.”

“Now that things aren’t so hectic with the Flex-aor threat. There’s a much greater chance he will reply,” Suzanna added.

Emilie nodded. “What about you. Have you heard from James? Can you tell me, where he is now? You mentioned an alien staging world? Will he be returning home soon? I’d like to thank him again.”

Suzanna glanced at Somerville before answering. She had slipped up in mentioning X-38. “He has one last mission. I can’t say anything more than that. But I did get a letter with the news about the victory at Connecticut. He asked about you. He wanted to make sure I was staying in contact with you. He’ll be happy to hear that we met in person. I know you won’t have time during this break, but sometime, you’ll have to come out and visit me at Haven. It’s only three weeks now using the wormhole. As to when he will be back, that’s a better question for his Admiral than his wife.”

“I think that is a better question for the Flex-aor,” Somerville answered. “We have them on the run. Assuming they don’t have any more tricks up their sleeve, I hope Titan will be back in the next four or five months. She is in sore need of some time in a repair yard.” Before he could say anything more the COM unit on his tunic vibrated.

“Don’t,” Suzanna said. “You can ignore it just this once. This is the first time you have been able to get away to sit down for a meal with us.”

Somerville gave her an apologetic look and then reached into his tunic to pull out his COM unit. Flipping it open, he saw he had a high priority alert. At once his heart started to race. It must mean news had returned from American space, what had the Flex-aor done now? When he began to read the message, he let out a sigh of relief. The news was from New France. Then he read further. Looking up, he didn’t even try to hide the concern in his eyes. “I have to go. Right away.”

“What is it?” Suzanna asked as she stood with him.

“The Russians, they have attacked New France. Another fleet has just taken Alpha. They will be on their way here now. With all our ships in American space, I’m not sure we can defeat them.”

“What should I do?” Suzanna asked.

“There is nothing you can do right now. I don’t really know too much myself. I have to go,” Somerville repeated. “No doubt Whitehall will update you when we have analyzed the intel that just reached us.”

Suzanna held out her hand. “Good luck then. We know we are in safe hands.”

Somerville took her hand, then turned to Emilie and saluted. “It was nice to meet you cadet. Farewell for now.”

“Farewell, uncle.”

Somerville smiled when she used the name he had asked her to call him. Then he turned and left. He already had his COM unit out and was calling for an aircar to come and pick him up. Then he sent another message to one of his aides. There was one thing he knew already, news needed to be sent to the Combined Fleet in American space.




Chapter 4

One thing never changes when it comes to human politics. It was true in ancient Greece, it was true in the First Galactic Expansion Era, and it is true now; differing factions will always put their own needs above those of the collective. Inevitably friction arises, even between the closest of allies.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Vulcan, 9th May 2473 AD.

“How long until the conference is scheduled to start?” Prime Minister Fairfax asked as he sat down.

“Six minutes,” Somerville replied. “You just made it.”

Fairfax nodded. “Sorry I was late, I had to brief my Secretary of Trade. A bill is passing in parliament even as we speak releasing emergency funds to most of our larger trade companies. They’re not going to be happy when we requisition their freighters and goods.”

“No,” King Edward agreed. He was already sitting in one of the chairs in Somerville’s office. “But it must be done. We must take every precaution, even if this Russian threat turns out to be far less than it appears.”

“Is there anything either of you would like me to bring up in this conference?” Somerville questioned. He had spent much of the last three hours speaking to both men via COM link, but this was the first time all three of them had a chance to speak together.

“Do you think we should invoke Plan Kappa?” Fairfax asked. “It wasn’t exactly designed for this situation.”

“That depends,” Somerville answered slowly as he thought about it. Plan Kappa had been put in place after the Flex-aor had nuked Farnsworth. It called for all warships in the Sol system to be put under the command of one Admiral so as to fight together to beat off the threat of invasion. “Our orbital defenses are strong. If we keep our fleet in orbit we stand a good chance of fending off any direct Russian attack. That would be better than throwing away our ships in an all or nothing battle. It depends on who would be elected to lead the defense fleet if Plan Kappa was enacted. Our files on Koroylov are very patchy. One thing is clear though, he has risen through the ranks of the Russian Federation Fleet on merit. There are some Admirals in the Sol system I wouldn’t trust with a frigate, let alone an entire battle fleet.”

“It also depends on what the Russians intend,” Edward added. “If they plan to raid our shipyards and are successful, given the losses we have suffered at the hands of the Flex-aor, it could take us decades to rebuild our fleet. In that time, the Russians could return with a far larger fleet. If that is their intention, we cannot let them get near our orbitals, we would have to meet them in open space. Yet, if they want to capture Earth, then fighting without our orbital defenses only plays into their hands.”

Somerville nodded. “Admiral Baudin faced the same choice at New France. He chose to fight in open space. I only hope that he was successful. There is one difference for us though. Every major power has spent billions of credits over the last year beefing up Earth’s defenses. If the Russians are only planning a raid against our shipyards, they will have to fly right into the teeth of all our defenses. They would take heavy losses and probably not be able to do too much damage. We have a lot of point defenses around Vulcan.”

“I concur, the Russians wouldn’t have sent such a fleet against us unless they had a far bigger goal. We all know what they really want, renewed access to their homeland. That has been their goal for decades,” Fairfax said.

“There is something else,” Somerville added, though he was reluctant to bring it up for he didn’t like the implications of what he was going to say. “By all reports, the Indians and the Argentinians have, on the whole, fought bravely against the Flex-aor. Yet we cannot ignore that they fled at the first sign of danger in Alpha. If Plan Kappa is enacted, and there are Indian and Argentinian ships in the defense fleet, they could be a problem.”

“Are you saying they couldn’t be trusted?” Edward asked.

Somerville looked to Fairfax. “I think that is as much a political question as a military one.”

Fairfax stuck out his lower lip as he thought. “That is a troubling thought.”

“It is,” Edward agreed. “If the Russians managed to defeat our fleet, or worse, capture Earth, it would be a whole different ball game for some of the smaller space powers. Especially the ones with grudges against the major powers. They could have their pick of our colonies and we couldn’t lift a finger to stop them.”

“Do you think the Russians have made overtures to the smaller nations?” Fairfax asked. “MI6 has not heard of any such thing.”

“Neither has RSNI,” Somerville answered, “but would they? The Russians managed to keep all the planning and preparation needed to launch an attack on this scale from us. Our focus has been elsewhere over the last year. They could have been talking to the Indians and Argentinians for months. But that hardly matters, even if they just reached out now, how would the lesser powers react?”

“That is a question I cannot answer,” Fairfax admitted.

Edward sat forward in his seat. “Then that is an answer in itself. We can’t risk our nation, our colonies and our future on the trustworthiness of the Indians or Argentinians, they both have ample reason to dislike us.

“So we are agreed?” Somerville asked. “We push to keep the fleet close to Earth? Doing anything else is too risky. This way we can look after our own interests.”

Both men nodded.

“Then we have to oppose Plan Kappa, if it is enacted, then our ships would be under the elected commander’s control. Unless I am elected, which I very much doubt, we would be risking everything by placing our trust in an unknown commander and the unknown loyalty of our rivals.”

“Agreed,” Fairfax said. “This is one instance where we have to go it alone. We have a responsibility to our people first.”

Edward nodded again when Somerville turned to look at him. “I concur.”

A beep from Somerville’s desk told him the holo conference was about to begin. “This should be fun,” he commented as he turned on the holo projector. The room around them changed to show a large circular table that flowed out from Somerville’s chair. Within seconds the faces of the ranking Admirals of the other space powers appeared around the table. It was their responsibility to work together in the event of an imminent threat facing Earth. Everyone had agreed that leaving it up to politicians would mean it would take too long to make the critical decisions that such situations called for.

When the last Admiral appeared, Marquis, the head of the French Colonial Navy, was the first to speak. “The Russian fleet could be just hours away from reaching Sol. We must act fast. For this reason, I propose we enact Plan Kappa immediately. Our ships must be readied for battle at once. Under one commander we can face the Russians and drive them back. They must be made to pay for their impudence.”

Somerville was surprised by Marquis’ boldness. He’s gunning for the command for the defense fleet, he realized. If we vote to enact the plan right now, there will be no other option for the position. Plus, he’s probably concerned about New France, he will want to see this Russian fleet driven back as quickly as possible so reinforcements can be sent to French colonial space.

“I do not think that is wise,” he said, speaking up before anyone else could agree with Marquis. “The Russians will be coming for Earth. Each of our fleets has drilled to fight alongside our orbital defenses. We will fight best if we fight as individual fleet units. If, or when one fleet gets into trouble, others can then come to their aid. If we form up into one fleet, we will be leaving other parts of Earth’s orbitals vulnerable.”

“I am amazed that the famed Admiral Somerville is suggesting we hide behind our orbital defenses,” Admiral Mulla of the Indian Navy almost sneered. “I would have thought you of all people would be championing standing up to the Russians and pushing them back.”

“Perhaps, if circumstances were different I would,” Somerville conceded. “Yet our fleets have been decimated by the Flex-aor invasion. We cannot risk what little ships we have left in an all or nothing battle. Especially when the Russians outnumber us. Earth’s defenses are strong, stronger than they have ever been. We should use them.”

“And risk our shipyards coming under attack?” Fleet Admiral Hewitt questioned. “That is an unacceptable risk. The United Colonial States will not let the Russians endanger our shipyards, they will be vital for the recovery of our fleet. None of us yet knows just how much of a threat the Flex-aor pose. They could return with another invasion fleet at any time.”

“I concur,” Mulla said.

“As do I,” Grand Admiral Koester of the German Space Navy said. “We cannot let the Russians get close to Earth.”

“And what if they are here to conquer and not just raid?” Somerville asked. “The Russians are not stupid, they will not have launched this attack unless they believe they can win.”

Marquis actually laughed. “The Russians cannot take Earth, that is absurd.”

“They may not be as sure as you are of that,” Somerville countered. “We are as weak as we are ever going to be unless the Flex-aor hit us with another invasion fleet. Now is the best opportunity the Russians will ever get to retake their homeland.”

“They have to know we have been building up our defenses for the last year,” Hewitt replied. “We all know they have plenty of spies on Earth. The Russians are not fools.”

“The question for us to consider then, is who shall lead the fleet?” Koester asked, clearly trying to push things forward.

A number of eyes turned to Marquis. “Your people are the Russian’s fiercest rivals. Out of all of us, you know their tactics the best,” Hewitt said. “I might have suggested Admiral Somerville, we know how competent a commander he is, but I do not understand the position he is taking.”

“I would be happy to lead the fleet,” Marquis replied. “I am confident that together we can drive off the Russians before they do any lasting harm. Shall we vote on enacting Plan Kappa?”

Somerville again found himself having to speak up before anyone else could. “I think we should wait one hour. It will give each of us a chance to discuss the ramifications of this decision with our political leaders. Then we can vote after having carefully considered the issue.”

“We may not have an hour to spare,” Marquis said.

“We can all begin preparations for our fleets to go into battle. In fact, I’m sure we all already have. One hour won’t delay things significantly. You can begin preparations for however you plan to lead the fleet,” Somerville suggested.

“Fine,” Marquis conceded. “We will reconvene to vote in one hour.”

“Very well,” Somerville agreed, satisfied that he had least bought Fairfax some time. As soon as he spoke, faces started disappearing from the holo conference.

“I think we all have work to do,” Fairfax said. “I will contact my counterparts in the American and French governments. They need to be made aware of the potential threat the Indians and Argentinians pose.”

“I will try and speak to the other Admirals. Though I’m not sure many will take my call after how that conference went,” Somerville offered.

“You’d better try,” Fairfax responded.

“I have an idea of my own,” Edward said as he stood. “If you will excuse me gentlemen. May I use one of your adjoining offices?”

“Of course,” Somerville replied, “one of my aides will show you.”

Fairfax stood. “I will do the same. We can meet back in fifty minutes and see what we have accomplished.”

“Good luck,” Somerville called after them. He didn’t hold out much hope.

*

Forty minutes later Somerville was interrupted by a knock on his door. A screen on his desk told him King Edward had returned. “Enter,” he called out commanding the door to open. Rising to his feet, he gave Edward his customary salute. “My King,” he began to say then cut himself off. Behind Edward, Christine Na came swooping in.

“Admiral,” she said with an easy smile. She made her way over to him and held out her hand. “It’s good to finally meet you. I feel like we have met before though, James always spoke very highly of you.” For a second Somerville thought he saw something cross Christine’s face, but it was gone even quicker than it appeared.

“Ah... my lady,” he said after bending forward and touching the back of her hand with his lips. He was racking his brain, trying to remember what to call her. She was no longer a British Princess but a Chinese Empress.

“It’s ok,” Christine said with another smile, “You’re not the first British nobleman to stumble over how to address me. Please, let’s just sit. My Father says you have something important to talk to me about.”

“Eh, yes,” he replied as he looked over to Edward.

“Emperor Na is currently visiting New Shanghai. At the moment Christine is the senior ranking Chinese government official in the Sol system,” Edward explained. “After we are done here she has a scheduled COM call with Admiral Shijie.”

“Ah, ok. Well in that case, let me bring you up to speed. I’m sure you know about the approaching Russian fleet.”

“I do Admiral, and of your reluctance to enact the Kappa plan, Shijie has updated me,” Christine replied.

“Well, let me share my concerns with you Empress. I couldn’t say it publicly, but I am concerned about the Indians and Argentinians, their ships fled from battle at Alpha. If we were to group all our ships into one fleet and they were to flee again, it would leave us exposed. I also do not think the Russians are here to just raid our shipyards, I think they see this as their opportunity to permanently shift the balance of power in the human sphere. They are here for conquest. If that is the case, we cannot risk our fleet in open battle, we must hide behind our defenses and wait for reinforcements to come. Then we can drive the Russians away without risking defeat.”

“I see,” Christine replied. She took a moment before saying anything more. When she did speak again, she asked a series of questions. Somerville did his best to answer, her understanding of tactics and strategy was impressive. When he asked her about it, she glanced over at her father before replying.

“I have had a growing interest in naval combat over the past number of years, I am well versed in most of the recent battles the RSN has been involved in.”

Somerville wasn’t quite sure what she was saying and he got the impression he didn’t want to think it through, so he pressed on. “So you will speak to Shijie then?”

“I believe so,” Christine said as she stood. “I will want to hear his view of the situation and put a few questions to him, but unless he has a good counter to your concerns, then I am inclined to agree with you. I better go and speak to him now.”

“Of course, my Lady. Thank you for coming to talk with me.”

Christine chuckled, “I may be an Empress, but when a King who also happens to be your father suggests you do something, it’s hard to say no.”

“Nevertheless, I am thankful you came. Good luck with Shijie,” Somerville said as Christine walked out of his office

After she left Edward sat down. “So, how did it go with the other Admirals?”

“Not great. Some listened, out of respect at least. Most understand my concerns. They believe that the fleet can retreat to Earth if the Russian fleet that comes against us proves to be too strong.”

“I see, well then I fear the vote is going to go about as well as the first holo conference,” Edward surmised.

When Fairfax returned he didn’t have good news either so Somerville steeled himself for what was going to be a confrontational holo conference.

“It’s time,” Somerville said when Fairfax finished updating them on how his political calls went. Reaching forward he turned on his holo projector again. Within a minute he was surrounded by the other ranking Admirals of Earth’s nations.

“Before we vote, I would like to say something,” Somerville said to open the meeting.

“I hope it is to throw your support behind Marquis,” Hewitt said. “Your Prime Minister didn’t do a better job with my President than you did of convincing us to hide behind our defenses.”

“I am afraid not my friend,” Somerville replied, trying to sound as conciliatory as possible. “I do not say this lightly, nor with the intention of making enemies. Nevertheless, I want you all to know that I will not be voting in favor of Plan Kappa, and further, if it is passed, I will not be sending the British Star Kingdom’s warships to join the Common Defense Fleet. I, my Prime Minister and my King are agreed on this. Fighting away from Earth’s defenses is too great a risk for us to allow it.”

As soon as he finished speaking, Somerville looked over to Admiral Shijie expectantly. Shijie looked at him, visibly swallowed, and then began to speak. “And neither will I. I believe Admiral Somerville has laid out the best course of action for us all. The Chinese fleet will not be joining any fleet that tries to meet the Russians in open space.”

Murmuring broke out among the other Admirals, most were looking behind them, presumably at unseen aides or their own political leaders who were with them as Fairfax and King Edward sat near Somerville.

“Traitors,” Marquis spat. “You are both betraying the agreements you made with us all. We all agreed to Plan Kappa. If it is enacted by a two thirds majority, every space power must join all their forces to our defense fleet. You are not just betraying us, you are betraying our homeworld.”

“Don’t be over dramatic,” Somerville replied. He and Marquis had enjoyed a relatively good working relationship up until now. Somerville guessed France’s old enemy raising its ugly head was putting a lot of stress on Marquis. If New France had already fallen to the Russians, the blame would be on his head. “Plan Kappa was put in place for the eventuality the Flex-aor reached Earth. The Russians were never part of the discussions.”

“No matter,” Marquis said as he swung away from him. “Even without the British and the Chinese, we can still beat back the Russians if we join forces. Let us vote. If we all go out to war, I do not believe the British will just sit back and watch.”

I’m not bluffing my friend, Somerville thought. Then he thought of Edward and Fairfax, if every other nation sent warships to face the Russians, they might give into the political pressure and order him to send the fleet anyway. They will have to find another First Space Lord to give that order.

It only took a minute to hold the vote, in the end everyone but Somerville and Shijie backed adopting Plan Kappa, with Marquis assuming overall command.

“Ready your fleets ladies and gentlemen,” Marquis ordered as soon as the vote was finished. “I will be ordering us to break Earth orbit in eight hours. Every ship that is able must join us. The names of those that don’t will go down in history,” he added as he glanced at Somerville before ending his connection to the conference.

Somerville ended his and looked from Fairfax to Edward. “Our course is set then.”




Chapter 5

I can’t imagine how the Emperor and his staff do it. According to the last census the Empire has 8.1 trillion individuals living within its borders. They are spread across seven hundred worlds and whilst the majority are human, more than one trillion are species with citizen’s rights. Despite the diversity and sheer scale of the Empire, somehow the Emperor keeps us all united, striving into the future as one.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD

“Or is it?” Fairfax asked in response to Somerville’s words. “Can we keep our ships back if everyone else sends theirs out? Think of the optics as far as the public is concerned.”

“The optics be damned,” Edward growled. “If Marquis is wrong, our ships may be the only ones left to save Earth. We have laid our cards on the table, now we have to stick to our bet.”

Somerville nodded. “If the other powers send their ships out to meet the Russians and they lose, Earth’s static defenses will need our ships to have any chance. Yes, historians will forever ask if we could have changed the tide of the battle by fighting with the others, but if we are convinced it is a mistake to engage them in open battle, then we cannot let outside forces pressure us into doing otherwise.”

“So be it,” Fairfax said. “I will trust your judgement, it hasn’t failed us yet. What do you think the Russians will do if we do not come out to face them? Or if they beat back Marquis’ fleet?”

Somerville took a moment to consider the possibilities. “They may try and launch a major attack against where they think our defenses are weakest, yet it would be a very costly affair. Even with the numbers they have, it wouldn’t be a sure thing. If I was the Russian Admiral, I would prepare to besiege Earth. They have to know that it will take months for significant reinforcements to return from American space. They could capture Mars and put a blockade around Earth. Without the food and other materials we import from our colonies, we will be in a bind. Over time the Russians can grind down our forces until we surrender or they think they can launch a major push against us.”

“Then we need to start food stockpiling right away,” Fairfax replied.

“Rationing as well, I would suggest,” Edward said. He held up his hands as Fairfax turned to him to complain about how the population would react. “Do you know how much food we import? I doubt, we would have enough food to last a month if all incoming supplies stopped. There are fifteen billion people on Earth, plus another quarter billion on the moon.”

“We will need to ration a lot of other materials that will be important to the war effort,” Somerville added. “If it turns into a long siege, our fleet will need all kinds of things that we can’t produce on Earth to keep it going.”

“Very well. I’m going to put a team together to think through what we’re going to need and what problems we will encounter. I want recommendations from both of you for who should be a part of it,” Fairfax decided.

“No problem,” Somerville replied. Edward just nodded.

A beep from Fairfax’s jacket halted their conversation. “Turn on your holo projector, go to one of the news casts,” he said after pulling his COM unit out. “One of my aides says we need to see what is going on.”

Within seconds an image of Paris filled the room. There were hordes of protestors and riot police trying to herd them away from an old stone building with the British flag flying above it.

“Our embassy?” Somerville queried.

Fairfax nodded. As he did, the reporter began to speak. “Just minutes ago, groups of protestors formed around the British embassy in Paris. They have gathered in response to the news coming from the UN that Plan Kappa has been enacted by the leading Admirals of each space faring power.

“A Russian fleet attacked the Alpha system three days ago. Plan Kappa has been enacted to allow Earth’s fleets to work together to meet the Russian fleet. In a surprise twist, we have received reports that the British Star Kingdom and Chinese Empire have both refused to allow their ships to join the common defense fleet. As you can see from some of the signs the protestors are carrying, the move by the British is being seen as a betrayal. Reports are already coming in of similar protests in Madrid and Rome.”

Somerville changed the COM channel. The next news broadcast had a similar image behind its reporter. “One source close to the French Navy has suggested that Empress Na of China met with Admiral Somerville before the decision to oppose Plan Kappa was made. If that is the case, it’s hard not to see the former British princess being used as a puppet to further British interests.”

Somerville switched off the holo projector with an angry slap on its controls. “That was fast.”

“Too fast,” Edward grunted. “Those protests have to be prearranged.”

“Of course they were,” Fairfax said as he stood. “But it doesn’t lessen the impact they will have. Our counterparts are going to use every trick in the book to pressure us to back down. I have to go and deal with this.”

“I understand,” Somerville said as he too stood and shook Fairfax’s hand.

“I best be off too,” Edward added. “No doubt there will be fires I’ll have to put out as well.”

Fairfax stood aside to let the King exit Somerville’s office first, then he turned to Somerville before he left. “I hope you know what you are doing.” Before Somerville could reply, he was gone.

Knowing he was unlikely to get more than a couple of moments to himself, Somerville sent a message to Suzanna. He didn’t know if she and Emilie had continued their plans to go shopping around Europe’s capitals, but if they had, it would probably be best for them to return. Then he composed another message to the woman who ran James’ estate for him. He had met Andréa a couple of times, but he knew James thought her an economic wizard. He instructed her to buy up any foodstuffs that were scheduled to leave Earth. Earth still exported some produce that was hard to grow elsewhere. As soon as news of an impending Russian attack got out, they would try and get their wares off planet. Fairfax wouldn’t be able to get the finances in place to buy up a lot of the stock within the next few hours, but Andréa would.

When she acknowledged his message, he turned his mind to who would be best to sit on the working group Fairfax wanted to set up. Then he turned his attention to his fleet, he was going to assume personal command of all British forces in the system. Within a minute he had an order written up for them to report to Vulcan to begin live fire drills. The news broadcasts might think he had suddenly become a coward, but he knew different. When the time to fight came, he wanted to make sure his ships would give a good account of themselves.

*

HMS Vulcan, 16th May 2473 AD.

To Somerville’s surprise, and everyone’s relief, everyone except Fairfax that is, it took Koroylov and his fleet a full week to reach the Sol system. During that time, the British Prime Minister had to fight off a seemingly endless string of foreign leaders and internal parliamentary revolts as Earth’s nations and a large subsection of the British population protested Britain’s refusal to join their ships to the Common Defense Fleet.

When the Russians did arrive, it almost came as a relief to everyone involved. Somerville had been asleep when his COM unit woke him with the news. Within a minute he was dressed and in one of Vulcan’s operations rooms watching the Russian fleet advance. Koroylov wasn’t even trying to hide his numbers this time. As soon as his fleet exited shift space, they powered up their engines and set course for Mars. Every gravimetric sensor within the system could detect the new threat. At least Fairfax will get a reprieve, Somerville thought. That was about the only positive he could take out of what he was looking at. The Russian fleet was impressive.

“Two hundred and eighty contacts. It looks like forty of them are freighters, but even so. That’s even more ships than Intrepid detected at Alpha,” an analysist commented.

“I doubt those freighters are carrying supplies,” Somerville added. “They will have a large baggage train back in the Alpha system, no doubt suitably protected by an escort fleet of its own. Even if the ships Intrepid detected at Cartier were all the ships the Russians sent against the French colonies, they have been busy. Their combined numbers are at least fifty percent larger than our best intelligence reports suggested.” Which begs the question, what other tricks will Koroylov have up his sleeve?

“The defense fleet is powering its engines, they are turning onto a vector for Mars and breaking orbit,” a sensor officer reported.

Somerville nodded. It made sense. If the Russians intended to attack Mars, moving the defense fleet there to bolster Mars’ orbital defenses was the obvious move. Mars’ defenses were a fraction of what Earth had, yet they were still impressive. Which Koroylov has to know, Somerville thought. Yet he continues on towards Mars. The fact that Koroylov had targeted Mars first was worrying. If he was intending to just raid the Sol system, the best move would be to go straight for Earth. If he was planning a siege, taking Mars would be the natural opening move. Which means he thinks he can take Earth.

“Should we join our fleet to the Common Defense Fleet if it is going to be fighting over Mars?” the Captain in charge of Vulcan’s operations room asked.

Somerville could sense everyone around him pause in what they were doing. He knew the morale of the RSN had taken a major hit over the last week. They were always the first to charge into danger. Yet now they were holding back. Not many of the lower ranks understood his reasons for giving the orders he had.

Feeling the weight of their confusion, he thought about his reply for a moment. He wasn’t immune to the feelings of his subordinates. A part of him did want to go. Fighting with Mars’ defenses wasn’t the same as fighting with Earth’s, but it might be enough. Might isn’t good enough, he said to himself. It would still be an all or nothing battle, and we would be outnumbered. That was enough to reaffirm his earlier decision. “No,” he answered. “There is more going on here. Something isn’t right.” His sense of foreboding had been increasing since the Russian fleet jumped into the system, not decreasing. He wasn’t going to risk his fleet until he had to.

*

RSFS Ekaterina, Sol system

“One hundred and seventy-three is the final count,” an aide reported to Koroylov. “They’re all heading to Mars rather than on an intercept course for us.”

Koroylov nodded. Spies on Earth had already transmitted detailed information on everything that had happened in the Sol system over the last week. He knew Marquis was leading the Common Defense Fleet. So he wants to defend Mars, that’s just fine with me.

“And the British and Chinese ships?” he queried.

“They are still in orbit around Earth. There is no sign they intend to leave,” the same aide responded.

“Keep an eye on them.” When he had first read the spies’ reports he had been sure the news was a ruse. Yet as Marquis’ fleet continued towards Mars and the British and Chinese ships didn’t move, he wasn’t so sure. Another thirty minutes and they wouldn’t be able to come to their ally’s aid if fighting did break out around Mars. Maybe they don’t want to fight, Koroylov mused. No matter. Now or later, I will deal with all the major powers. “Transmit the coded instructions to our spies. They are to proceed with contacting the minor nations.”

“Which nations should they target?” Vitko, his flag Captain asked.

“All of them,” Korolyov answered.

Vitko stared at him for a moment. Next to Checkov, Vitko was his oldest friend. They hadn’t gone to the naval academy together, but Vitko had been a junior officer on his first command. Since then, Koroylov had used the little influence he had to ensure Vitko had risen through the ranks of the Russian Fleet. Koroylov wasn’t inclined to explain himself to his friend though, so he just stared at his subordinate until Vitko nodded slowly and turned to carry out his Admiral’s instructions. Koroylov knew Vitko trusted his command decisions, he needed everyone else to see it. Most of the other officers on the Russian Fleet’s flagship were still getting used to him.

After sparing a glance at them, Koroylov turned his attention to the strategic situation. The British and Chinese refusing to come out and fight was going to create a problem in the long term. He knew that. But perhaps he could turn it to his advantage. The Earth powers had spent much of the last century competing and even fighting with one another. Stay behind your defenses for now, he thought to Admiral Somerville. You may save your fleet, but you are tearing apart the thin strands of trust between your allies. And I will make sure they are shattered soon enough. As soon as they got his command, his spies would contact all the minor powers on Earth with offers of peace if they supported Russia’s right to have access to her homeland again. No doubt some of the minors would tell Britain, France and America about the offers. Koroylov allowed a small smile to spread across his face. That will spread the mistrust.

“Two hours until we enter missile range of Mars,” Vitko reported. “Will we prepare to enter a wide orbit to maintain a missile duel with the defenders?”

“Yes, pass the word on to our fleet, we are not going to close with the planet until every warship and military defense platform has been reduced to debris. Alert General Varstick, he may begin prepping his men for their part in the attack. Impress upon him again the importance of capturing his targets intact.”

“Yes Admiral,” Vitko replied. “Shall we increase acceleration? If we act now, we can reach Mars just after the Combined Defense Fleet, we can strike them before they have had time to link up with the planet’s defenses.”

“No,” Koroylov replied with a shake of his head. “Let them have time to prepare. It will only make our attack all the more impressive. We are fighting against the morale of Sol’s defenders as much as the forces in front of us. Give the order to disperse to our screening ships. It’s time to lock down this system.”

Thirty-four ships broke away from the Russian fleet. Over the next several hours, they covered the shift passages that led out of the Sol system and took control of the major mining operations around Jupiter and the asteroid belts on the edge of the system. Soon explosions registered on Ekaterina’s holo plot as freighters that refused to surrender were destroyed. They quickly faded as the rest of the ships that couldn’t make it to safety realized the Russians weren’t in a mood to show mercy.

Instead of watching his smaller ships take control of the system, or Marquis’ fleet as it raced towards Mars, Koroylov found his attention on the British and Chinese ships still orbiting Earth. He knew Somerville’s reputation. As a captain Somerville had fought in the last war his nation had started against the French. Some military analysts thought Russia’s forces might have won but for Somerville’s unexpected intervention. As an Admiral and leader of the British fleet, Somerville had masterminded victorious wars against the Chinese and the Indians. He cannot be underestimated, Koroylov reminded himself. He knew why his attention kept coming back to Earth, his gut told him Somerville would be a thorn in his side unless he dealt with him quickly. Soon, he thought before forcing himself to focus on Mars.

“Fleet will assume formation delta-seven,” he snapped when his ships were twenty minutes from missile range of Mars.

As his ships moved to bring all their missile tubes to bear on humanity’s first true colony, Koroylov hoped Marquis was scratching his head at what he was seeing. The freighters at the center of his fleet, and the largest capital ships that were now coming into clear view of Mars’ sensors had additional components strapped onto their hulls. His flagship and the three other battleships in his fleet were also towing additional components, though it was unlikely anyone would notice until it was too late.

Koroylov had come up with the idea after studying the first battle the British and Indian forces had fought over the Haven system. His predecessor had been developing similar weapons to the ones the Indians had used, but as far as Koroylov knew, no one had thought to use them as he intended to. It had taken nearly a month to gather all the weapons together. Now there were only a few of them left back in the Alpha system. They were being kept for an emergency. The rest, all the components that had been built since his predecessor began the program five years ago, were about to be thrown at his enemies. He was betting on the fact that their surprise would win him his first fleet engagement.

“The Allies are powering up Mars’ point defense satellites, there sure are a lot of them,” Vitko reported.

Koroylov nodded. “They have spent quite a fortune upgrading the defenses in this system, the Flex-aor threat must have scared the politicians of Earth half to death.”

“Our best estimates suggest the defenders will be able to open fire in five minutes,” an aide reported.

“Acknowledged.” Just another way their cooperation weakens them. The British and Americans could open fire much sooner and the other major powers wouldn’t be too far behind. Yet they had to wait until the least advanced ships in their fleet could fire their missiles, so that they all reached his ships together.

“Open a COM channel to the Allied fleet,” he ordered. He began to speak again when the channel was open. “Ships of Earth, I intend to give you only one warning. My quarrel isn’t with you, it is with your Admirals and your governments. Leave Mars now and you will be spared. I do not wish to shed any more blood than is necessary. Especially the blood of minor nations. You have done nothing against my people except make a bad choice in friends. Leave now and your fleets will be spared.”

Koroylov waited for some kind of reply or response from the ships in orbit. The only response he got was inaction. No ships tried to leave the Allied fleet. So be it, he thought when his ships came into range. “Fire.”

After detaching some of his smaller ships to seize the rest of the system, he still outnumbered Mars’ defenders by almost twenty percent. From his warships, two thousand six hundred and eight missiles were launched. His surprises released their missiles as well. Originally designed as mines, the missile pods were single shot launch tubes that could be left in space to ambush unsuspecting ships. Koroylov had attached twenty-four of them to each of the freighters he had brought with him. Another two hundred and forty had been attached to or towed into the system by his capital ships. Each missile pod carried four missiles. Combined, they added another four thousand eight hundred missiles to his opening salvo. Death and destruction were about to rain down on the defenders of Mars.




Chapter 6

The official date for the end of the First Galactic Expansion Era is hotly debated. Some believe the Flex-aor invasion brought an end to humanity’s colonization efforts, others argue that it should rightly be ended on the date High Admiral Koroylov’s fleet entered the Sol system. In the end, the exact date doesn’t matter. Historically what must be noted is that from around this time, the events that gave rise to the Empire forced humanity to look inward rather than outward towards new discoveries and new planets.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

RSFS Ekaterina, Sol system, 16th May 2473 AD.

“Allied ships and stations are returning fire,” an aide reported. “Their salvo is haphazard.”

“We’ve startled them,” Koroylov replied, unable to keep the excitement form his voice. The ships from the major powers had all fired together, they knew how to fight together. But many of the ships from the smaller nations hadn’t timed their missile launches perfectly. No doubt their crews had been taken aback by the sheer weight of fire coming at them.

“Order the freighters to move forward. Evacuate their crews.”

“Yes Admiral,” an aide answered.

The allied fleet and orbital defense stations had fired three thousand missiles. Normally such a salvo would pose a serious risk to his fleet. This time his freighters had another surprise up their sleeves. Boosting their engines as much as they could, they moved in front of the rest of his ships. When the allied missile salvo reached them, hundreds of point defense plasma cannons opened up. As Koroylov expected, Marquis or one of his subordinates had ordered all but a handful of their missiles to ignore the freighters. As a result, the freighters shot down more than sixty missiles before an allied missile got close enough to one of them to threaten it.

“Now,” Koroylov ordered.

An aide sent a COM message to the forty freighters. They were spread out in a wide formation so as to look like they were trying to intercept as many missiles with their point defenses as they could. That was only partly true. When the COM message reached them, every one of them overloaded their reactors. Massive explosions engulfed the area of space the allied missile salvo was passing through.

It took Ekaterina’s sensors a couple of seconds to be able to see through the dense cloud of electromagnetic energy given off by the explosions. When the holo plot next updated, Koroylov estimated that at least four hundred missiles were missing. He hoped that many more had had their targeting sensors fried and so would prove harmless. There is only one way to find out. “Alter course by half a degree towards Mars,” he ordered.

It only took several seconds after his ships changed their trajectory to see that another five hundred missiles or so didn’t change their vectors to compensate for his maneuver. “Get me an exact count on how many missiles we are facing now.”

“There are still two thousand or so tracking us,” Ekaterina’s sensor officer reported.

“Inform the fleet they can engage the incoming missiles at will,” Koroylov responded. Two thousand missiles were still a lot, but with nearly one hundred and fifty ships in his fleet, they would easily fend off most of them.

“Admiral, the British and Chinese ships in orbit around Earth, they are breaking orbit and heading in our direction,” another officer reported, he sounded alarmed.

“Calm down,” Koroylov replied. “They are an hour away at least. We’ll be finished here before they can come to their friends’ aid.” Despite his words, he turned to stare at the visual representation of the British and Chinese ships. They were indeed accelerating away from Earth. Why? he questioned. Why come now? What help can you be?

“Allied missiles entering range of our point defenses,” Ekaterina’s sensor officer said, forcing Koroylov to turn his attention back to the battle at hand.

Instead of watching how his point defense gunners fared against the Allied missiles, Koroylov focused on his own salvo. He was far more interested in how much damage it would do. His entire campaign depended on this one oversized salvo crushing his opponents.

Inadvertently, his fists tightened into balls as allied point defenses thinned his salvo. They’re good, he was forced to conclude. He had assumed the allies had sent their best ships and crews into American colonial space to fight the Flex-aor. I’m sure they did, Koroylov decided, their second echelon crews are just more impressive than I anticipated. Still, they need a miracle, he reassured himself.

“Send order sixty-six,” he called. Now that the defenders were fully focused on his missiles, it was time to reveal his last trick.

“Sent,” an aide informed him.

Seconds later, the impact of his order became clear. At first only one, then a second and then quickly, nearly half of the orbital defense platforms around Mars went dark. Their sensors stopped tracking the incoming Russian missiles and their point defense guns fell silent.

“Admiral?” Vitko asked, a stunned look on his face.

“A little surprise FIS have been working on for the last decade,” he replied. “The FIS director only came to me with it a week before we left. Let’s just say they managed to infiltrate a number of the orbital defense platforms. You can imagine what havoc they are causing.”

Vitko smiled. “I guess sometimes those FIS pukes can come in handy.”

“Yes, and their comrades on Earth will be carrying out their own mischief as well,” Koroylov replied. On the journey from New Rostov he had gone back and forth about using the Federation Intelligence Service sleeper agents now, or when he came to assault Earth. Marquis’ decision to defend Mars with his fleet had made his decision for him.

Returning his attention to his missile salvo, Koroylov relaxed slightly as he saw his missiles were faring somewhat better. Already the allies had shot down nearly a thousand. Yet they were now only twenty seconds out from their targets. In those twenty seconds, another two thousand disappeared. The rest however, were free to close in for the kill.

All of them had been given specific targeting instructions. Defense stations and warships from the major Allied powers were a priority. Minor power warships were only secondary targets. Koroylov hoped that if more minor power ships survived than major powers, it would add to the suspicion within the Allied ranks.

He banged his fist on his command chair as the first few missiles struck home, then he did so again and again as two more hits were registered by Ekaterina’s sensors. Then more and more explosions appeared among the Allied defenders, far too quickly for Koroylov to count. Before he could see how devastating his attack had been, Vitko ordered Ekaterina into a series of evasive maneuvers. The Allied missiles had reached their targets.

It only took Koroylov a second to see why Vitko had ordered the evasive maneuvers, there was one missile targeting his flagship. They proved unnecessary though, a good shot from a plasma gunner connected with the missile when it was just five thousand kilometers from Ekaterina. A small cheer went out from some of the bridge officers.

“Double that gunner’s pay for the month,” Koroylov called out. That would encourage the other gunners the next time they were needed.

As other explosions registered on Ekaterina’s sensors, the mood on the bridge became serious again. Other Russian ships were dying.

“Bystryy, Ryzann, Mogocha, Tsvet, Arfa and Rys are all gone Admiral,” an aide reported. “At least twenty other ships are reporting various degrees of damage.”

Koroylov knew each ship in his fleet. He had lost a medium cruiser, three destroyers and two frigates. He paused for a moment. They were the first ships, and the first men and women who had been lost under his command. Mentally he seared their names into his brain. He never wanted to forget them. He wanted the anguish he was feeling now to fuel him in the future. Many thousands of Russians had died in the past for the Motherland, now there were new names to add to the list. Once he was sure he wouldn’t forget their names he switched his focus. “What about the Allied forces? They are our main concern.” He knew that in the reality of war, his fleet could easily handle the loss of a cruiser and a few destroyers, if his attack had been successful. He held his breath as he waited for a reply.

“All but two defense platforms have been destroyed,” Ekaterina’s sensor officer reported a moment later. “We’ve devastated Marquis’ fleet, there are less than sixty ships left. Many look like they have taken damage. Buccaneer is gone.”

Cheers went up from the officers around him. Koroylov found himself joining in. The stress and tension of the last two months drained out of him as he shouted. Despite all his training and all the planning and simulations he had run, he had never been sure. This had been his first fleet battle. Even when the FIS agents had acted, he had still had a small sliver of doubt. Now it was gone. The Allies could be defeated. No, he said to himself, they had been defeated. Marquis’ flagship was gone. Without his leadership, the remaining ships would lose their cohesion, they would no longer be a threat.

“Fire our second salvo as soon as every ship has reloaded,” he ordered loudly as he sought to return order to his bridge. “Let’s finish this.”

*

HMS Vulcan, Earth Orbit.

Somerville’s mouth fell open when the massive missile salvo that was released from the Russian fleet appeared on the holo plot. There was next to no hope for the defenders, the number of missiles was simply far too large. Earth’s defenses would struggle to fend off such an attack, he realized. Now he understood Korolyov’s confidence. He has the strength to back it up. Movement around him made him glance away from the holo projection for a moment. A number of his subordinates had turned to stare at him. He quickly shut his mouth. They needed an Admiral who was in control.

Someone said what they were all thinking, “That could have been us.”

“It could have,” he said with a nod. “But it is not, at least not yet. I want every scrap of sensor data we have on that missile launch analyzed; I want to know how they managed to fire so many missiles from so few ships.” He didn’t add what he was thinking. If the Russians could repeat that feat, they would be next.

As his subordinates got on with the task he had assigned them, Somerville ran the numbers in his head. Even with so many missiles coming at them, something of Marquis’ fleet would survive, they would be heavily outnumbered by the Russians. We can still save some of them. The realization made him spring into action.

“Signal the fleet, every ship is to prepare to break orbit. Let McCracken know I want him to move towards Mars. Contact Admiral Shijie as well, inform him that we’re going to try and save some of Marquis’ fleet. I’m requesting his ships join ours. Make sure he knows I’m assuming personal command. And prepare to send a message to Marquis,” Somerville added as he jumped to his feet. “I’m transferring my command to Neptune. I’ll record the message I want sent on my way to shuttle bay one. Make sure someone has a shuttle prepped for me.”

As he walked off the bridge he pulled out his COM unit and began to speak into it. It would take fourteen minutes for Marquis to receive his signal. The French Admiral wouldn’t be able to do anything to save his ships from the first Russian salvo, but he could put in place a plan for the survivors to escape. As soon as he was done, he sent the message to the sensor officer on Vulcan’s bridge. Then he picked up his pace as he made his way to one of Vulcan’s many shuttle bays. When he got there, the shuttle already had its engines running.

“We’re ready to lift off as soon as you’re on board,” an officer with a co-pilot rank insignia on his uniform said when he approached.

“Well let’s get going then,” he replied as he walked past the officer and up the shuttle’s rear loading ramp. He found the closest seat and strapped himself in. The officer walked past him and into the cockpit. Moments later the hum from the shuttle’s engines increased as it lifted off. Soon he was looking out of one of the view ports at open space.

Just four minutes later the shuttle touched down on Neptune’s deck. At once he jumped to his feet and hit the button to release the rear ramp. As it descended a small band began to play. Somerville waved them silent as he exited the shuttle. “Thank you for the welcome,” he shouted as a very young looking third Lieutenant approached him. “This is a battle situation, there is no time for formalities. All of you, return to your stations.” Turning to the Lieutenant he continued more quietly. “Show me to your bridge please.”

“Yes Admiral,” the Lieutenant replied with a salute.

Though he had been on Neptune more than enough times to know his way to the bridge, he fell in step behind the Lieutenant and allowed her to lead him. When he walked onto Neptune’s bridge every officer was standing holding a salute. “At ease,” he called, then sought out Commodore McCracken. “Don’t worry Commodore, I’m not here to relieve you. I want you to take your ships towards Mars at once. We’re going to try and provide cover for any ships that manage to escape the catastrophe going on there. I’m here so Shijie sends his ships too. And so I can monitor the situation in real time. I’ll try not to step on your toes.”

“I understand Admiral, you are most welcome on board my flagship,” McCracken replied.

“Ha,” Somerville responded. “I had many Admirals visit my commands when I was a younger officer. Not once were they welcome. Yet here is where I need to be. So you will have to put up with me. You are the commander of the Home Fleet, take your ships out.”

“Aye Admiral, I was just about to give the order,” McCracken answered. He turned to one of his junior officers and nodded. “Transmit the order.”

As the bridge officers settled into their normal functions, Somerville found himself an unoccupied command chair and sat down. He silently berated himself when he realized he had forgotten to take any of his staff with him when he had rushed from Vulcan to Neptune. It’s probably for the best, he concluded as he looked around Neptune’s bridge. It was already hectic as officers moved around, working together to get the Home Fleet out of orbit and into a defensive formation. Any more officers and I would very quickly run McCracken’s patience with my presence here dry.

“Our COM relays are picking up a coded message coming from the Russian fleet. It is short, but heavily encrypted,” an officer reported.

Before anyone could query just what he was talking about, alarms went off. “What is it?” McCracken demanded over the din.

“One of our defense platforms is reporting a serious fault. Its reactors have gone into emergency shut down,” a Lieutenant shouted.

“It’s not just ours,” another added. “More than twenty defense platforms are reporting problems. Eight have had a containment breach in their reactors, they’re being evacuated. Space around them is being evacuated as well, they could overload and blow.”

“Admiral, it is not just Earth’s defense platforms,” a third Lieutenant updated everyone. “We’re getting similar readings from the orbital platforms around Mars.”

Somerville was already watching as, on the holo plot, nearly half of the orbital defense platforms around Mars went offline. As soon as the Lieutenant had spoken of the problem he had known what he was going to see on the sensor data from Mars. Koroylov had just ensured his oversized missile salvo would all but wipe out Mars’ defenders.

For a moment, he considered ordering his ships back into orbit. If a number of defense platforms were destroyed, Earth would be vulnerable. Plus, there probably wouldn’t be anything left of Marquis’ fleet to save. No, he told himself, we have to try.

“Admiral Somerville,” a Lieutenant from the COM section said to get Somerville’s attention.

“Yes?” he responded.

“We got a COM message for you from Admiral Shijie. It was relayed from Vulcan. He says he has placed his fleet under your command.”

“Send to him, ‘Thank you. I will take care of them.’” Inwardly Somerville thanked Empress Christine. He was sure she had encouraged Shijie to allow his ships to go with the British.

“Both missile salvos are approaching their targets,” an officer reported.

Everyone turned to watch. More than a few groans escaped the well-disciplined officers’ lips as Russian missiles decimated orbital defense platforms and warships alike. By comparison, the Russian fleet got off lightly. A new twist on an old tactic, Somerville concluded when he replayed what Koroylov had done with his freighters. Sacrificing them had ensured his fleet was relatively untouched by Marquis’ missile salvo.

“Admiral?” McCracken said. “If we’re not going to engage the Russian fleet, what is your plan?”

“That depends on what the remnants of Marquis’ fleet decide,” he answered. “I’m hoping they try and make a run for it. They will achieve nothing by staying.”

“I see,” McCracken nodded. “We’ll give them some cover if the Russians try to give chase.”

“Exactly,” Somerville responded.

“They’re breaking,” a sensor officer shouted, as if to confirm Somerville’s plan.

“Not breaking,” McCracken corrected. “Tactically withdrawing. There is no sense in those Captains throwing away their ships and the lives of their crews.”

Glancing around the bridge officers, Somerville could see some weren’t entirely convinced. Retreating wasn’t usually the British way, especially if they were leaving helpless civilians to the mercy of the Russian fleet. There were more than half a billion humans living on Mars.

Whatever Neptune’s bridge officers thought, the survivors of the Russian attack seemed to be in a hurry to get away. As Somerville watched the holo plot track them, he was happy to see they were taking his advice. Using Mars as a physical barrier, they were zipping around the planet before breaking orbit. The Russians could easily fire another salvo with a flight plan to navigate around the planet. Indeed, within a couple of minutes of the Allied ships fleeing, they opened fire. However, from her position so far from Mars, Neptune’s sensors could watch as the survivors split up as soon as they rounded the planet. The Russian missiles would round Mars to find their targets weren’t where they were expected to be. Some ships would still be lost, but Somerville hoped their losses would be minimal.

“Their second salvo is a lot smaller than their first, even counting the loss of those freighters. Do you think they are conserving missiles, or did they employ some special tactic with their first salvo?” McCracken pondered.

“I think we’ll have to wait until we can get access to the more detailed scans of those survivors,” Somerville answered.

“The Russian fleet is moving,” a Lieutenant reported. “It’s splitting up as well.”

Koroylov knows what the survivors are doing, Somerville concluded. He had probably sent a probe around Mars with his missiles to track the survivors. He was sending half his fleet after them to fire as many salvos as it took to finish them off. The rest of Koroylov’s fleet closed with Mars. When they were still quite far out, more than a hundred smaller ships launched from the warships. To Somerville’s eyes they looked slightly bigger than standard shuttles.

“Boarding craft,” McCracken suggested. “They’re trying to board the orbital stations before anyone can start their self-destruct. He must intend to use Mars as his base of operations.”

Somerville nodded, he had come to the same conclusion hours before. Koroylov hadn’t come to the Sol system to mess around. He was here to stay.

“Admiral, there is something strange,” a Sub Lieutenant reported from his station.

“Yes,” Somerville and McCracken said in unison.

The Sub Lieutenant looked back and forth between both Admirals. “Just update us,” Somerville prompted. “Now is not the time to hesitate.”

“It’s the survivors from Marquis’ fleet, there are hardly any French, American, German or Japanese warships among them.”

“Let me see,” Somerville requested. “You’re right,” he followed up when the figures came up on the holo projector. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but given what had happened at Alpha, he didn’t think it was a good sign. It’s not good at all. But a problem for later. Right now, we have to get them to safety. “That is something to ponder later. Right now, we have to focus on helping them, whoever they are. Those Russian warships look intent on destroying every single ship, no matter its nationality.”

The Russian fleet pursuing the survivors had rounded Mars. Summerville was sure they would open fire at any moment. They did, and then they fired again and again. Somerville could do nothing but watch as the survivors were whittled away. Koroylov hadn’t sent enough ships after them to take them out in one or two missile salvos. Yet every time a new wave of missiles came in, more survivors were taken out.

“Do you think they will want to fight?” McCracken asked as the British and Chinese ships closed with the fleeing survivors.

Somerville pondered the question. There were one hundred and five Russian warships chasing the survivors. Under his command he had the thirty ships of McCracken’s Home Fleet, and another twenty-two Chinese warships. The survivors of Marquis’ fleet had been reduced from forty-nine to just thirty-one ships. Nearly every single one of them had been damaged though. If Koroylov wanted, he could order his ships to engage, they wouldn’t have much of an advantage. But even if the Allied ships won, they wouldn’t be in any condition to fight again or defend Earth. “No,” Somerville answered despite his analysis. “Korolyov’s attack on Mars was carefully choreographed. He wanted to do the maximum amount of damage whilst sustaining the least amount of losses. If he planned his first attack so carefully, he will have another plan for Earth. I doubt he will want to risk losing half his fleet so early in his campaign.”

“Let’s hope so,” McCracken replied.

“Indeed.”

“The Russians are firing again,” an officer reported. “The survivors will reach us before the missiles reach them.”

“Prepare the fleet’s point defenses,” McCracken ordered calmly. The fresh ships of his fleet and the Chinese fleet would be able to handle the missiles without having to break a sweat.

Somerville ignored the Russian missiles, instead he watched the Russian ships intently. Are you going to blink? he asked Koroylov. A small smile spread across his face moments later. The Russian fleet had begun to decelerate. We saved them, he thought as he sat back in his command chair. Out of all the ships Marquis had taken to Mars, they had only managed to save thirty-one. Yet it was better than nothing.

The battle for Mars is over, he thought as he watched the Russian fleet turn to join their comrades in orbit around the red planet. The siege of Earth has begun.



Chapter 7

One of the more mundane topics in military history is the study of the logistics of multi-system campaigns. Students are slow to see the need to track every spare energy coupling and record each kilo of sugar. Of course, many of the Empire’s greatest military successes and failures can, in large part, be attributed to the effectiveness of the fleet’s supply trains.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

RSFS Ekaterina, Sol system, 6th June 2473 AD.

“Enter,” Koroylov called when someone electronically knocked on the door to his office. He was finishing a letter to his wife and could easily put it to one side.

“High Admiral,” Vitko said as he stepped through the hatch. “Rear Admiral Suvorv has just sent a report. His squadron has captured another convoy that tried to push through the Beta shift passage. He lost a corvette, but captured twelve freighters intact and drove off the escorts.”

“None of the escorts were destroyed?” Koroylov asked, already guessing the answer.

“No.”

He sighed. It was usually the same story. The Beta shift passage led to Chinese, German and Japanese space, as well as a number of planets held by minor powers. They had been trying to force convoys through for nine days now. Somehow, when a fight broke out, their ships escaped while crippling or destroying one of his. In the grand scheme of things, the loss of a corvette was insignificant. Yet the losses would add up eventually. “What was the convoy’s cargo?”

“Foodstuffs and munitions,” Vitko answered. “The foodstuffs will serve us well, and there should be enough for us to send some to Mars’ population. I’ve already put together a small flotilla to escort the freighters with munitions back to our space. The Trivium will be happy. With all the freighters we have been capturing, this war will almost be paying for itself.”

“Perhaps,” Koroylov replied. He wasn’t so naive to think all the money from the prizes he was sending back would find its way into the Russian government’s accounts. Others would be taking the profits to line their pockets. “But every prize we have to escort back is taking ships away from the Sol system. Ships we can’t afford to lose. How many freighters have we captured now? A hundred? Sure, their contents could pay for more new ship construction, but we won’t see those ships for two or three years. We need to win this war long before that.”

“Shall I alter our policy with our prizes?” Vitko asked. “We can hold freighters with important cargos in Mars orbit for longer and send larger convoys back to New Rostov. We wouldn’t need as many escorts then.”

Koroylov nodded. “What is the food situation like on Mars?” he asked, his Flag Captain’s comments had reminded him of another unexpected issue he was facing.

“Not great. The local governments are still refusing to communicate with us, but we have spies on the surface and we can watch what is going on pretty closely from orbit. Most governments have instilled martial law so there hasn’t been any real unrest. They also have a lot of forces guarding their strategic sites as if they expect us to launch a ground invasion. As far as we can tell, their food situation isn’t too bad. A lot of effort went into making Mars self-sustaining back when it was first colonized. The local government representatives have readily accepted the food supplies we have landed though. Of course, whilst still refusing to communicate with us.”

“And still no sign of the Russian colony rising to support us?” Koroylov asked with a frown.

Vitko shook his head. “Our former colony was gobbled up by the Americans, French and Germans. They all have heavy numbers of troops in their territories enforcing martial law. As far as we can see, there have only been isolated outbreaks of violence. General Varstick is monitoring the situation. His troops are ready to land if something more serious occurs.”

Koroylov nodded. “I don’t know whether to wish for the Russian population to remain passive or for them to take up arms. A protracted ground battle sucking up more of our resources is the last thing we need. Though I’m not going to abandon our people if they do rise up. We are here to free them after all. But if they aren’t showing any signs of welcoming our return, what are we to make of that?”

Vitko paused before answering. When he did, Koroylov could tell he was choosing his words carefully. “Have you read the recent history reports about the Russian colony?”

“Some, I would hardly think I have gone through them all.”

“Well, the area of Mars that our ancestors claimed turned out to have a number of heavy metal deposits. As a result, the focus of its economy quickly became mining. You know what it is like living on a mining colony.”

“And?” Koroylov promoted. “You can speak freely with me, it is just the two of us here.”

“Well, if you compare the orbital images of our former colony now, with what it was like before the last war, a lot has changed. The nations who divided our colony between them have obviously spent a lot of credits developing the infrastructure and diversifying the economies of their sections. I’m not saying the people might prefer someone else’s rule, but perhaps they aren’t as motivated to fight to come back under our jurisdiction as we might have initially hoped.”

Koroylov eyed his subordinate. “Those are dangerous sentiments. It sounds like you are suggesting a free market economy is better for a nation’s people than a controlled economy?”

Vitko shrugged. “You said I could speak freely. I’m not questioning the wisdom in our governmental structure. Just our perception of the people from our former colony on Mars. Think about it. If one of our assets ever reported back to say the people were better off or happier without us, do you think that asset would have lived long? Or that we would have seen the report? To be frank. I’m surprised the Trivium didn’t send Inspectorate officers with us.”

Koroylov grimaced. The Inspectorate was the Trivium’s personal intelligence service. Every time a new Trivium took power, its leadership had to be replaced. Doing so never seemed to dent the Inspectorate’s reputation, the lower level agents were more than willing to ruthlessly weed out opposition to the state, it didn’t seem to matter to them who was actually in control. “You may have a point. But those are not issues it is wise to discuss. We can leave Mars to itself for now. It’s not going anywhere. And if we are successful elsewhere, we will be the ones determining its future. Have we heard anything more from our contacts on Earth?”

“Nothing beyond what you already know. They have continued to ration their food. It looks like they are going to great lengths to plant as many additional crops as they can. I can only conclude that they are preparing for a long siege. Our contacts in what they call Old Russia report quite a lot of Allied personnel moving into the most fertile areas to help the locals increase their food productivity. Their fleets and orbital defenses remain on high alert as you would expect.

“May I ask,” Vitko continued. “What do you intend to do if and when the Combined Fleet comes at us from American Colonial Space? Our latest intel suggests that their numbers would nearly be a match for our fleet. We can’t fight them, the warships gathering at Beta and the ships still orbiting Earth.”

Koroylov had been asking himself the same question since he had left New Rostov. He knew he would have to fight off the Combined Fleet. It was the most dangerous threat to his fleet. The ships and crews that had survived the Flex-aor invasion would be by far the deadliest ships his fleet would have to fight. Of course, he had an idea or two about how to neutralize the threat, he wasn’t sure how likely they were to work though. “You worry about that,” he responded. “If we can take Earth before they show up, then all the better. If not, then we’ll deal with them first. I have a plan in motion for that eventuality.”

“Our new friends?” Vitko responded.

“Potential new friends,” Koroylov reminded him. “Yes, that is one option. But there are others. Is there anything else for now?”

“No Admiral.”

“Very well. Alert me if there are any more updates from our engineers in the Kuiper belt.”

“Yes Admiral.”

*

10 Downing Street, London, 7th June 2473 AD.

As Somerville walked along the street towards Fairfax’s official residence, he had to resist the urge to lift his hand and cover his face. There had to be more than a hundred holo-news reporters filming him and shouting questions. He knew the answer to none of them, and even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you, he thought. He hated reporters. Curse you Fairfax, you know I like to work under the radar.

As much as he meant the words, there was no ill will in them. Somerville knew exactly what Fairfax was doing. Ever since the defeat of Marquis’ fleet, almost unanimously, Earth’s news outlets had changed their tune. Now they were treating the British First Space Lord like some kind of prophet. Suddenly they remembered the role he had played in the last war with Russia, and in other conflicts since. Everyone knew that without the British and Chinese ships, Korolyov’s fleet would already be parked in Earth orbit.

What was true of him however, was not true of Fairfax. Within the British media he was getting all the blame for the hardships the people were facing. In one sense the media and opposition were right. All of Fairfax’s governmental planning had been focused on preparing Britain for a possible Flex-aor attack. In such a case, it was expected that the Flex-aor would have gone straight for the kill and tried to nuke Earth from space. No plans had been put in place for enduring a long siege. Fairfax was playing catch up, and he was having to do it fast. Almost every day new bills were going through Parliament as his party did all they could to stave off the worst effects of the near total blockade Korolyov had put around Earth.

The result of Somerville’s rise in popularity, and Fairfax’s drop, was that it did Fairfax’s approval ratings good to be seen to be regularly consulting with his leading Admiral. That meant constant trips to 10 Downing Street for Somerville.

As he stepped up to the only working front door among the small terrace of houses, an armed guard reached out and opened it for him. “Thank you,” Somerville said to the unknown soldier.

“Sir,” the soldier replied with a salute.

“Right this way,” an aide said with a wave of her hand. She had been standing just inside, clearly expecting him. “The Prime Minister is waiting.”

When he entered the room the aide brought him to, Somerville was surprised to see King Edward was also present. He hadn’t expected the three of them to be meeting, Fairfax must have something sensitive to discuss, he concluded.

“Ah, Somerville,” Fairfax said as soon as he walked into the room. “I trust you didn’t give all those heckling reporters another reason to berate me?”

Somerville winked at Edward. “It was tempting. Maybe then you will allow me to use the back entrance.”

“You can at least pretend to like playing politics you know. It would make it easier for me to use your good reputation,” Fairfax complained.

“From the news reports I’ve seen, you have a lot more to be feeling guilty about than my feelings.”

“That would seem to be the general consensus,” Fairfax agreed with a hint of a smile. It quickly disappeared. “We have a problem.”

“Besides the Russian fleet blockading Earth and our people facing a very real risk of starvation he means,” Edward added.

“Yes, yes, another problem. One that is going to be very delicate. Hence this meeting. This decision needs to be made quickly and confidentially,” Fairfax explained.

“Well, spit it out,” Somerville requested. “You have got our attention.”

“MI6 has found out that the Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians are communicating with Russian representatives on Earth.”

“What?” Edward shouted. “After we rescued their ships!”

Somerville tried to stay somewhat calmer. “Do we know at what stage these discussions are at?”

“No, at least, nothing concrete,” Fairfax answered. “I think we can all presume what is being discussed though. Sooner or later Koroylov is going to make his move. As soon as he has whatever else he is planning ready. At best estimates, our ships from American Colonial Space will still be a month away. To the Indians, siding with the Russians probably looks like the safe bet. Even if the negotiations are only at a very early stage. We cannot let them continue.”

“What are you purposing?” Edward asked.

Fairfax looked at Somerville and raised his eyebrows. Somerville knew exactly what Fairfax wanted. “The Cochrane Initiative.”

Fairfax nodded. “It is the only option we have.”

“But you are talking about something that could start a war on Earth’s surface.”

“I don’t think it will come to that,” Fairfax replied.

“What is this initiative?” Edward demanded.

“Something Fairfax had me request the RSNI look into after we learnt about the Indian and other ships fleeing from the Russian ships at Alpha,” Somerville answered.

“It calls for British and American marines to board the Indian, Argentinian and Brazilian ships and assume control of them,” Fairfax added. “And their orbital stations.”

Edward sat back in his chair and blew out a loud whistle. “That could bring us all down. What if those governments decide to retaliate?”

“We threaten them with orbital bombardment,” Fairfax answered simply.

Edward looked to Somerville, “You are ok with this?”

“I have asked RSNI to put together an operations plan, that is all. I’m guessing we’re here to decide if such a plan is now necessary.”

“Indeed,” Fairfax said. “And if the Russians attack us now, never mind whatever else Koroylov may be planning, and the Indian warships and defense stations went over to his side. Could we win?”

Somerville didn’t need to think about his answer. “No. We wouldn’t stand a chance. Not if our ships had to fight the Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians while fending off Russian missiles. Perhaps, if the Indians and co simply refused to fight with us we could hold out. Without their point defenses the Russian fleet would outnumber our combat strength, but it would take the Russians so long to break down our defenses that they would take a hammering too. In such a situation, things could go either way. A lucky hit taking out one of our defense platforms in the first salvo, or if we managed to cripple one of their battleships could tip the scales one way or another.”

“If it came to such a situation, even if they started out on the side-lines, the Indians and Argentinians would have to pick a side. If we won and they stayed on the side-lines, we would do everything we could to take their power from them. The Russians probably wouldn’t treat them too kindly either. They wouldn’t wipe them out, but they wouldn’t trust them,” Edward added. “If they are going to betray the rest of us, it only makes sense for them to go all in with the Russians.”

“Exactly,” Fairfax said. “We cannot allow them to do that. If we do, it is the end of our Kingdom, the end of the other major space powers. The Russian Space Federation would eventually be able to exert their control over all of the human sphere. At least, whatever they didn’t give to their new allies. With Earth in their hands and their own colonies, and given the losses we have all suffered against the Flex-aor, they could slowly gobble up our colonies. This is a life or death situation.”

“What do you think the political ramifications of such a decision will be?” Somerville asked.

“Well, assuming the Americans are on board with launching the initiative, I think the other major powers will accept our actions. They will be able to figure out the implications of some of the lesser powers betraying us. We will have to pass retrospective declarations of war of course. It will be a struggle to get them through the Commons, but with our King’s support in the Lords, they should pass there.”

“The reporters will have a field day,” Edward suggested. “I can see the opening headlines now. King and Prime Minister not satisfied with fighting Russians, unprovoked attacks launched on allies.”

“I have all the intel on the secret meetings ready to hand over to the Americans,” Fairfax explained. “Once the attacks are under way we can leak them to the press. If we can sway public opinion our way by stoking up outrage at the Indian’s betrayal, the reporters might not be our biggest headache.”

“No,” Somerville agreed. “It will be the Indian and other governments. If we declare war, even a limited one with some technicalities about only fighting in Earth’s orbitals, they will be furious. We would be driving them into Russia’s camp. Even without their ships or orbital stations, they could still cause us a lot of problems.”

“That brings us back to orbital bombardment,” Fairfax said. “It will have to be analyzed and planned carefully. But the Cochrane Initiative may have to be widened to include some pre-emptive strikes against ground targets. If we show the Indians and others we are serious, it will keep them in line.”

Somerville sat back in his chair. “Are we really talking about this?”

Both men looked at him, but neither spoke. He took a deep breath as he answered his own question. If the Indians were really talking with the Russians, then they were forcing the other Allies’ hand. It was his duty to protect his people and his Kingdom. Even if protecting it risked its very existence. The threat of a nuclear war on Earth’s surface hadn’t really been feared for a couple of centuries. Yet how would the Indians react to having their fleet and orbital stations taken from them?

“Ok,” he said. “I get it, we are. I will review your intelligence with the head of RSNI. Then we’ll send it to the Americans. If they concur, we will put the Cochrane Initiative in motion.”

“Make sure the Americans know to keep this on a need to know basis. This cannot leak,” Fairfax warned.

“I understand. I will deliver the intelligence to Admiral Hewitt personally and make sure he goes straight to his President with it.”

“Then we are all agreed? If RSNI concurs with MI6’s reading of the situation, we reach out to the Americans and put Cochrane into play?” Fairfax asked.

Reluctantly, Somerville nodded. When he looked to Edward, his King was doing the same. Damn you Koroylov. The Russian Admiral was wreaking havoc on the settled order of things.




Chapter 8

Ally or enemy, Earth’s history tells us the difference between the two can be as small as a couple of hours, or a new election, or an accidental discharge of a weapon. Sadly, since the founding of the Empire, nothing has changed in that department.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Three hours later Somerville was back at his desk on Vulcan. His mind was in a haze. Before him he had reports from RSN Intelligence, RSN Marines, two American Intelligence services and the US Marines. All were giving various predictions about the likely success of launching boarding parties to seize the Indian, Argentinian and Brazilian orbital forces. Each report had its own take on how the operation should be carried out. Beyond actually trying to figure out the best way forward, he was becoming increasingly worried about operational security. It had only been hours since he had spoken to Fairfax and already several organizations were involved.

He was so engrossed in what he was reading he didn’t hear his office door buzz twice. Only when his COM unit vibrated in his pocket did he set his datapad down. “What is it?” he asked the aide who manned the desk outside his office. “Your two pm visitor is here to see you. I let her on through but she says your door isn’t opening.”

“Oh… right,” Somerville replied as he tried to remember who he was supposed to be seeing. “Who is it again?”

“Governor Somerville, Admiral. The meeting has been in your diary for several days now.”

“Of course,” he replied as he quickly reached out and hit the button to open his door. “Thank you.”

“Did I catch you in the middle of something?” Suzanna asked as she moved into the office.

Even though she was wearing more formal attire befitting a representative of His Majesty’s Government, Somerville couldn’t escape noticing that his nephew’s wife still looked stunning. For a moment, he felt sorry for his nephew. By now he would have heard about the Russian attack on Earth. No doubt he would be charging back from the borders of American space. He’s going to return to find a Russian fleet between him and his wife.

“Yes, you did,” he replied after taking a moment to watch her take a seat opposite him. “I’m sorry. I forgot we had arranged this. Something important has come up.”

Suzanna sat forward in her seat. “Have you found out what Koroylov is planning? Is an attack imminent?”

Somerville shook his head. “No, not yet. His ships are still blockading the planet. Beyond that, they haven’t made any aggressive moves. Though about a third of his fleet has moved up the Beta and Delta shift passages. I imagine they are causing havoc in those systems.”

“Hhmmpph,” Suzanna replied as she sat back. “Do you really think he has a master plan? Couldn’t his plan be to just to starve us into submission? Everyone seems convinced Koroylov is some kind of master tactician. He’s turned into every kid’s bedtime boogieman.”

Somerville smiled. “You may be right. The news broadcasters have been foretelling our doom for days now. Yet I suspect there is a hint of truth behind what they are predicting. Our intelligence files on Koroylov are scant. One thing is clear though, he rose through the ranks of the Federation’s navy on merit. His campaign so far has shown those reports were correct. If I was in his shoes I would not have launched this incursion into the Sol system without an endgame already planned out. He is up to something. Starving us out may be his endgame, but I doubt it.”

“I suppose,” Suzanna admitted. “He hasn’t made any kind of demands has he? I guess that means he only has one thing on his mind.”

“Yes, all our analysts are saying the same thing. The Russians want complete control over Earth,” Somerville agreed. “Some of the smaller nations are already talking about offering the Russians access to old Russia. I’d bet they have contacted him to try and feel out such an offer. But so far there is no indication Koroylov has shown any interest.”

Suzanna shook her head. “How did your… ah, I guess I should say our government, get us into this mess?”

“You’ve no doubt read the history files,” Somerville grimaced. “A bad peace. The Russians and French have been squaring off against each other for more than a hundred and fifty years. For many of us the last war was the final straw. I certainly remember what I was like back then. I was young and restless, after the war I was also angry. Throwing the Russians off Earth seemed like the just thing to do. I was too junior to be involved in the peace negotiations of course, but it seems those above me felt the same.”

“Even I am familiar enough with the history of Earth to know that was a bad idea,” Suzanna replied. “A bad peace always leads to a second war. And now here we are.”

“True, I have tried to learn that lesson with the Chinese and the Indians. Though I’m not sure I have done any better than my predecessors.” Somerville lapsed into silence as he thought about his role in bringing the RSN’s most recent war to a close. He had tried to be fair with the Indians, yet now they were talking to the Russians about betraying him and his nation.

“Where have you gone?” Suzanna asked after several seconds.

“What?”

“You’re eyes drifted off. What were you thinking about?”

“The past,” Somerville answered as he shook himself. Suzanna didn’t need to see him brooding. “It’s ok, there is nothing I can do about it now.”

Suzanna’s eyes narrowed as she studied Somerville’s face more closely. “You seem distracted. Should I come back?”

“No, no,” Somerville said as he shook his head. “I arranged this meeting. We have some important matters to discuss.”

“Very well, then before we get down to them, I have one more question. Do you have any idea what Koroylov might be up to? What is his master plan? Why hasn’t he attacked yet? The cutthroat fighting of politics I can handle, I’ve grown up with it. All this waiting around, looking to the skies wondering when Korolyov’s major offensive will come, it’s fraying my nerves.”

Somerville rolled his shoulders a couple of times to work out some of the tension as he thought of a reply that might appease Suzanna. After a couple of seconds, he gave up. “To be honest, I don’t. No doubt it will involve some subterfuge and trying to knock out our defenses with minimal losses on his part. My strategists have come up with a number of things he may be thinking of trying. We’re working on counters to all of them. But as yet our intelligence on his fleet operations hasn’t pointed us in any one direction. As to why he hasn’t attacked yet; probably it will take him time to put his plans into place. Heck, he may just be waiting for more of those missiles pods that he used to decimate Marquis’ fleet. Though my analysts assure me they can’t have too many more of them. Probably, though, Koroylov is waiting to deal with the Combined Fleet,” Somerville explained. Right away Suzanna’s complexion changed. Her eyes darted about as she thought. Then she slowly nodded.

“He doesn’t want a powerful force still in play when he attacks Earth,” she guessed.

“Exactly,” Somerville answered. “Strategic warfare isn’t too dissimilar to politics, though I don’t pretend to like or understand much of what you and Fairfax enjoy getting up too. If Koroylov attacks us and the battle isn’t a complete success, James and Admiral Cunningham’s fleet could show up in a month or two and retake Earth very easily. I suspect Koroylov is waiting to deal with the Combined Fleet. Once it is out of the way, he can attack us immediately or take his time to pick us apart. There will be no other force capable of challenging him.” Especially if the Indians and others change sides, Somerville thought but didn’t add. He didn’t want Suzanna worrying any more than she already was.

“Can James beat him?” Suzanna asked in a quieter tone.

“Of course,” he replied with a smile. “Have you known your husband to be beaten by anyone? I have no doubt that between them, Cunningham and your husband will have a surprise or two up their sleeves for Koroylov when they meet. Don’t worry, I have a plan or two as well. When the time comes, I intend to make Koroylov keep as many ships covering Earth as possible. If he tries to move off and fight the Combined Fleet before it reaches Earth, he is going to have to do so with a lot less ships than he has now.”

“You’re right,” Suzanna said as she matched Somerville’s smile. “He will show Koroylov a thing or two.”

“Exactly. Now, let’s get down to why you are here. I am a busy man after all,” Somerville said to change the topic. He enjoyed talking with Suzanna, but his eyes kept drifting back to his datapad and the reports he had to finish and approve.

“Of course,” Suzanna replied. “You want an update on the hearts and minds campaign I presume?”

“Yes, at least, an update on your part in it. I know Fairfax drafted you in somewhat against your will.”

Suzanna smiled again. “I haven’t known that man for long, but I think he has a habit of doing that.”

Somerville forced himself to chuckle. “That he does.”

“Well,” Suzanna said as she laid her hands on his desk. “Where to begin? I guess with my part. The British Kingdom has taken responsibility for the Siberian plains east of the Urals, for about one thousand kilometers. The Germans are working further east of us. In total, about sixteen million former Russian citizens still live there. Novosibirsk has turned into a pretty powerful city state. But further north is what many people call bandit territory. Most of the towns and villages have remained independent of one another. Some have spent the last forty years fighting each other, others simply trying to survive and fend off the actual bandit groups that rove the countryside. It’s a mess really. I’m surprised the Earth powers didn’t do something about it sooner.”

“Another failing,” Somerville said with a sigh. “After the surrounding countries annexed the parts of former Russia they wanted, no one else really cared about the rest. There were far more lucrative prospects in space, prospects that didn’t have hundreds of thousands of hostile people. So they have been left pretty much to themselves ever since.”

“Well it shows,” Suzanna replied, not trying to hide her disapproval. “I have been put in charge of the Ural Mountains and the towns and villages immediately east of them. Many of them have been reduced to subsistence existence and what little trade they depended on dried up within a couple of days of the Russian fleet entering the system. Everyone is hoarding what little they have.”

“That is why you are there. How is it going?”

“Slowly,” Suzanna admitted. “Oh, it’s relatively easy to oversee the provision and distribution of supplies,” she continued with a wave of her hand. “What little Fairfax has allocated to my sector, that is. I’m not sure we’re winning over any hearts and minds though. The people are by far the toughest I have ever met. To survive and eke out a living in those conditions, they don’t like to rely on anyone. The only positive is that I think they distrust their former government as much as they distrust us. I was expecting to be going into an area eager for Koroylov to win and return order to their land. Yet I don’t think they are any more enamored with the idea of the Russian government returning than with the little help we’re offering them.”

“So Fairfax’s campaign isn’t working?” Somerville asked.

“Probably not to the extent he hoped,” Suzanna answered. “At least, not in my area. Perhaps in the lowlands it is. In fact, I know it is working somewhat better there. As you know I’ve also been working in the area with Andréa and the Somerville Foundation. We’re not handing out free supplies, but we’ve been going into the more underdeveloped areas that have fertile land. Working with the locals, we’ve planted a number of fast growing crops. I know Andréa has been struggling to get some local leaders to work with us. Yet most that have been receiving government aid have been more open to our Foundation coming in, they like the idea of being able to develop their own land. So we are winning some hearts and minds I suppose. Mainly though, they are just keen to receive food, and help to grow more for themselves.”

Somerville nodded. Fairfax’s plan was partly a PR stunt and partly an effort to make sure the Russian people didn’t try and rise up and cause mayhem on Earth’s surface while Koroylov was besieging the planet’s orbitals. No one had any real fear that the areas of Russia annexed by Finland, Ukraine, China and some of the other Earth powers would try and revolt. The former Russian citizens were far better off now than they had been. The vast wilderness of Siberia was another matter. Home to more than fifty million people, Russian agents could easily raise an army of saboteurs who could attack civilian and military targets across the planet. The reports he had heard from other sources were all very similar to what Suzanna had just told him. There was very little love among the former Russian people for their old government. Many wanted to form their own nation and rid themselves of the raiders and bandits that plagued them. But few wanted to go back to the way things were.  “Is there any way the RSN can help your people on the ground?” he asked. Fairfax had reminded him just a couple of days ago that if the PR part of the operation was to work, the RSN needed to be seen to be involved. “I’m sure you can understand; Fairfax thinks the optics of the RSN helping former Russian towns can only look good on the news channels.”

Suzanna took a moment to think before she spoke. “You could help with security. Heck, probably even with delivering some of the supplies, if you want to be seen to be involved. I can speak to my logistics officer. If you want to assign a handful of RSN shuttles to my sector we can make use of them. I can speak to the other sector overseers and suggest they contact a member of your staff to do the same.”

“Perfect,” Somerville replied. “I’ll put someone in charge from my end and you can work out the details with them.”

“I’ll make sure they are sent to towns with reporters embedded in them.” Suzanna said. “Fairfax will be happy.”

Somerville rolled his eyes. He knew the supplies being diverted to Siberia were very limited, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable with them being used for what was essentially an endeavor to win political points.

“Don’t pout,” Suzanna snapped in as condescending a tone as she could muster. “Missiles and lasers can’t win every battle. At some point the First Space Lord is going to have to learn that. Don’t forget the Russian ships and their crews can pick up all our news reports. They will be seeing us helping their former comrades who are suffering from the hardships their own ships are causing. Who knows what impact that will have?”

Somerville rolled his eyes and changed the subject before Suzanna could say anything more. “How are the Foundation’s efforts to increase food production going?” At least with the Foundation, he knew Suzanna and Andréa would be trying to do some genuine good.

“It’s going well, overall at least. Beside the sites in Siberia, four other areas have been identified as under-utilized. Large swathes of land have already been bought or leased and the infrastructure needed to bring in the equipment to work them is under construction. In the grand scheme of things, it will be a small effort. Perhaps it will increase the British Kingdom’s ground based food production capabilities by a couple of tenths of a percent. But if your analysis is correct, every meal we can provide is going to be needed.”

“In the long run it will help us hold out just that bit longer in this siege,” Somerville added. “That in itself may be what gains us victory. Are there other sites that may be developed as well? The more the better as far as I am concerned.”

“I don’t think so,” Suzanna answered. “At least, there are none that I have been made aware of. The price of land and farming equipment has been skyrocketing. Mostly it is governments buying up what they can. It’s hard to compete with court orders forcing companies to sell to their own governments.”

“I can imagine. I’ve lost track of all the laws Fairfax has been passing. I just hope that when all this is over, it will be easy to return our economy to the way it was. What is it?” he asked when Suzanna screwed up her face.

“According to Andréa, even if the Russians were driven off tomorrow, their effects will still be felt for the next few years. The longer this goes on, the greater the financial impact it will have. Governments are already driving themselves into debt. This siege is likely to drive Earth’s economy into the tank. Without access to our colonies, the settled order of the markets is going to collapse.”

“Is she sure?” Somerville asked. “I have not heard any such predictions.”

“If Fairfax or the other governmental leaders were getting those kinds of reports, do you think you would hear about them? Every government has already passed laws stopping their internal stock markets from devaluating too quickly. If the news reports were letting the real financial experts give out their predictions, there would be riots. People would want to sell all their stocks overnight.”

“That’s not good,” Somerville said as he shook his head. “The effects could last years?”

“Is there any chance the siege will be lifted in the next month or so?”

“No,” Somerville answered. “It will take that long for the Combined Fleet to reach us.”

“Then the effects will last a couple of years at least Andréa says, likely even more if the siege is drawn out further.”

“So what position is the Foundation going to be in with all this?”

“We’re going to take a hit, there is no way around that. But we have a good level of cash reserves, and we’re preparing to buy up a lot of industries that are beginning to go under. Heavy manufacturing industries, shipping industries and armaments industries are all but out of business already. There simply aren’t the resources coming in to allow them to maintain production. We can buy them up cheap and when this is all over, we’ll be in a position to kick-start our economy.”

“That’s assuming this does all end well,” Somerville pointed out.

“Of course. But if it doesn’t, losing more than a billion in investments is going to be irrelevant.”

“Touché,” Somerville replied. “Tell me, has Andréa carried out any simulations for how the siege will impact our food supplies?” He was getting daily reports on Earth’s economy but given what Suzanna had shared, he wasn’t sure he could trust them. If Fairfax’s people weren’t giving him the full picture regarding Earth’s economy, he suspected they weren’t on other things too. Mentally he made a note to have some firm words with the Prime Minister. It was understandable if some of the reports were doctored, they were seen by thousands of junior staffers. But he and the other senior RSN Admirals needed to have all the facts available to them as they planned Earth’s defense.

“She has, but I don’t recall exactly what they said. They were very bleak. I think her analysts were predicting some countries would begin to starve within a couple of months. A lot of the reports spoke about the importance of moving foodstuffs around. So making sure countries where crops are being harvested now can provide food for other countries is essential. Then in turn those countries can return the favor when their harvests were due. I think the predictions vary a lot depending on how well that is done.”

“Can you get her to send me the most recent predictions?” Somerville asked. “It would be good to get a look at something that wasn’t written by a government bureaucrat.”

“Of course. I’ll give her a call when we are done here,” Suzanna assured him. “In return, there is something else I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Yes?” Somerville asked. “I hope it is quick.” He had been about to dismiss her.

“Well…” Suzanna said slowly. “You can certainly make it quick. From all the intelligence reports I have been given access too, I understand none of our messenger ships have made it out of the system. The Russians have intercepted them all.”

“As far as we can tell,” Somerville confirmed with a nod. “The Russians are going to great lengths to stop any information getting out.”

“Then my people on Haven won’t know exactly what is going on here, beyond that New France and the Alpha colony were attacked. Moreover, the rest of the British colonies won’t know very much.”

“They will be able to guess,” Somerville replied. “When they don’t hear from us, they will know. I have no doubt ships will be dispatched to the Alpha system from our colonies to investigate. They will find out soon enough, even if we can’t get a message through to them.”

“I understand,” Suzanna said. “It is Haven I am thinking about. They will be able to guess too, but without my intervention, they may not know what to do. As you know, we have been building a small fleet to send to help fight the Flex-aor. The Vestarians were as well. If I could sneak out of the system and return to Haven, I could gather all the ships we have and come back with aid. We desperately need it.”

“No,” Somerville said at once. “It is far too dangerous. Eight of the nine ships we have sent out to break the blockage had been confirmed as killed in action. I will not permit you to go. Nor would Fairfax or King Edward. You are too important to us. Too important to me.”

“But think about it rationally,” Suzanna countered. “Scimitar is classed as a civilian ship. The Russians won’t see her as much of a threat. Probably they will not make much of an effort to chase us down. Then, when it’s too late, we could show our true capabilities and outrun whatever ship is sent to intercept us. You could even carryout some other fleet maneuvers to cause more of a distraction.”

“No,” Somerville said more firmly. He stood and walked over to the observation window in his office. He peered out at Earth for a moment and then looked to where he knew the Indian ships that had survived the battle of Mars were stationed. “I’m not going to discuss it anymore. We all have our duty. Yours is with the hearts and minds program, and with the Foundation. I’m not going to send you gallivanting across space. That is final. Now, if there is nothing else, I’m afraid I have some rather pressing matters to attend to.” When he turned he could see a trace of hurt on Suzanna’s face. It quickly vanished.

She replied to him in as formal a tone as he had ever heard her speak, all the while she held his eyes. “Very well. You are the First Space Lord. I will bow to your wishes. I just hope that when the missiles start flying again, we will not miss having our allies’ ships with us.”

Before he could reply. Suzanna was on her feet. “I’d best be off. I know you are a busy man uncle. Don’t hesitate to contact one of my aides if you need to meet again. Thank you for your time.” She was out of his office before he had time to figure out a way to apologize.

It’s probably for the best, he decided as the door shut behind her. He did have work to do.

*

Two days, Suzanna thought as she walked back to her shuttle. That was how long she had to prepare. She didn’t know exactly what was going on, but Somerville was planning something. Something that had him stressed out. And something that is happening in two days. She had seen that much on his datapad. And it involves the Indians, she reminded herself. She had seen that as well. It couldn’t be anything good. Relations between the Indians and the British had been bad for decades. They did flee from Alpha when it was attacked as well. I wonder...

Suzanna shook her head. Her thoughts were leading her down a dark path. Whatever is going to happen, I need myself a good pilot. One familiar with military protocol. Scimitar had been crewed by foreign office personnel. Though James had bought her the ship so she could quickly travel back and forth from Haven, the foreign office had insisted they crew it for her. She was the British Governor of Haven after all. To her frustration, the crew had been reassigned when the Russians had attacked, they had been needed elsewhere. A smile spread across her lips when the answer came to her. She knew a young cadet who had scored very highly on her flight school tests. And who knew military protocol.

Opening her datapad she checked to see where the cadet had been reassigned. The naval academy had been temporarily closed down with the Russian invasion. Instead all the cadets had been assigned to various other roles. Even better, she thought when she saw where the cadet was stationed. She can transfer to my sector today.




Chapter 9

Throughout the First Galactic Expansion Era sieges were very rare. Since then they have become more common, never more so than our most recent war with the Antarians. Besieging their fortified worlds and starving their ground troops into surrender was often the only way we could dislodge them.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Muzhi, former Russian territory, Siberia

Four hours after her meeting with Somerville, Suzanna was back in her administrative base in Muzhi. The Russian village was within sight of the Ural Mountains, she just needed to lift her head and look out Scimitar’s observation window to see them. Despite some protests, she had insisted she use her ship as the operations center for administering aid to the local populace. It made perfect sense. From her ship’s bridge she could oversee the twelve shuttles she had under her command. Plus, her quarters were much more comfortable than the makeshift prefab buildings that other distribution centers were using to house the overseers of each district.

Currently, all but two of her shuttles were out delivering supplies. She had an aide monitoring them and that allowed her to focus on the latest manifest detailing what supplies were about to be flown in from Britain. It had arrived while she had been away and she was sorting out what to send where. Not exactly taxing work, she thought as she sat back in her chair to take a moment’s rest. She was used to dealing with Haven councilors or British MPs. With Haven out of touch, her skills weren’t in demand. When Fairfax had talked to her about volunteering her services she had been more than willing, though this had been all he had found for her.

An alert from her desk told her one of her shuttles was returning. When she saw which one it was, she turned back to her manifest. She had ten minutes to finish up. Then she had a visitor to greet. It took her slightly longer than she had anticipated. Matching the incoming supplies with the requests from the local leaders took a delicate touch. No one could get all that they wanted, yet she had to try and please everyone nonetheless.

As soon as she was done she sent it to Scimitar’s bridge. The aide working there would use it to prioritize what supplies would be loaded onto the shuttle that had just landed. When it was away, she sprang to her feet and walked down Scimitar’s single corridor to the ship’s rear ramp. Stepping out onto the cold Siberian ground, she made a face as her boots squished into a centimeter of mud. So many people had been coming back and forth to see her that they had tramped the area around her ship into a mess.

Ignoring the mud as it stained her boots, she made her way to one of the auxiliary barracks that had been set up. With the shuttle pilots, maintenance crews, army protection detail and personnel needed to unload and load the supplies, she had one hundred and forty-five people working for her. Portable army barracks had been flown to provide sleeping quarters for them all. Checking her datapad to see what bed the newest member of her team had been assigned, she found her way to the correct sleeping compartment and knocked on its door.

“Come in?” a familiar voice called out. “Suzanna,” it said in surprise when she walked through.

“Emilie,” Suzanna replied as she smiled at the look of surprise on her niece’s face. “Welcome to Muzhi.”

“This is the sector you are overseeing?” Emilie asked, still looking surprised.

“It certainly is, why do you think you were transferred here?”

“You asked for me personally?” Emilie followed up. Her eyes narrowed as she spoke.

Suzanna reached out and touched the younger woman’s arm. “Don’t worry. I know you don’t like the idea of favoritism, but I have my reasons. You’ll understand soon. I didn’t transfer you here to make things easier for you.”

“Ok,” Emilie said, though she didn’t sound convinced.

“Come on,” Suzanna said as she spun and walked out of the compartment, forcing Emilie to move fast to keep up. “I’ll show you.”

“How many towns do you oversee?” Emilie asked as she waded through the mud alongside Suzanna.

“One hundred and six, and more than triple that number of villages,” Suzanna replied. “It’s a nightmare trying to stay in contact with them all. Some haven’t even been visited yet to see what state they are in. What was your sector like?”

“Pretty much the same,” Emilie replied. “Except there was no mud,” she added as she lifted a boot higher to inspect just how much mud was on it. “It hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks where I was.”

“Lucky for some,” Suzanna commented.

“Whhooaa,” Emilie couldn’t help saying as they rounded a portable barracks and Scimitar came into view. “She’s beautiful.”

Suzanna shot Emilie a grin and winked at her. She couldn’t agree more. “The benefits of having a rich navy officer for a husband,” she explained. “Technically she’s classed as a pleasure yacht, but she’s far more. On top of all the latest civilian tech, she has military grade armor and point defenses, and a few other surprises as well. I’ve been using her as my operations center. The Foreign Office kitted her out with a full communications package as I was using her as my official transport between Haven and Earth.”

As they walked closer to the ship, Suzanna took a moment to admire it. Scimitar had been designed for atmospheric as well as space flight. As a result, she had eye catching sleek lines. She was sure James had asked for her builders to make an extra effort in her looks as well. By now she was intimately familiar with the ship’s looks having spent months on her. As she looked at it afresh through Emilie’s eyes, it was nice to be reminded how much effort James had put into it for her.

“Are you assigning me to work in here?” Emilie asked as they walked up the ramp.

“I guess you could say that,” Suzanna answered. Instead of leading her to the bridge, she led Emilie to the ship’s only briefing room. It doubled as the ship’s simulator. After switching the simulator on, she stood back and gestured for Emilie to take a seat. “I want you to familiarize yourself with Scimitar’s controls and her capabilities. If you’re willing, you’re going to be my pilot.”

Emilie looked up and narrowed her eyes. “Where exactly am I supposed to be flying you? We are besieged after all.”

Suzanna sat beside her niece. “I know you have only finished one year at the academy, but you should be able to read the situation. We are in a bad spot. Most of the major powers’ colonies have been stripped bare of warships to fight the Flex-aor. With the destruction of Marquis’ fleet, only the Combined Fleet has the strength to defeat Koroylov, and many of those ships are in sore need of a refit or lengthy stay in a repair yard. More ships are needed. Haven still has some ships in its fleet, and when I left a number of new ships were nearing completion. The Vestarians also have a growing fleet, I know they would join us if I asked. We just need to get there.”

Emilie held her gaze. “And how are we going to do that? I assume as you’re asking me to help, you haven’t got permission from higher up?”

Suzanna rolled her eyes as she smiled. “You’re too smart for your own good. But yes, you’re right. Admiral Somerville out right rejected my proposal. If we’re going to do this, we have to do it against his will. I know it could get you in trouble. But I wouldn’t have transferred you here if I didn’t think I needed your help. I had a sneaky look at your pilot scores, you are more than capable of getting us out of here.”

Emilie burst out laughing. “Maybe I could,” she finally said. “Maybe if there wasn’t an entire Russian fleet out there snapping up every ship that tries to leave. But the last time I checked, that wasn’t the case.”

“Don’t worry, I have a plan,” Suzanna replied. She dove into her suspicions with Emilie and how she hoped to use them to their advantage. “So that’s it,” she finished. “In just over a day and a half we’ll have a window. It will probably be our only chance. We may fail. At best we could be captured, at worst killed. But I think we have to try. We can’t just let James and so many others risk their lives. If we can do something, we have to try.”

Emilie looked away for a moment, thinking through all the possibilities. She’s a smart one alright, Suzanna thought. She’ll go far. If I don’t get her killed that is.

“Alright,” Emilie said with a very serious face as she looked back. “You have convinced me.” Then she broke out into a cheeky grin. “Besides, it will be far more exciting than overseeing a shuttle loading crew like they had me doing in Tomsk. Or traipsing around here in the mud with your staff.”

“Perfect,” Suzanna said as she reached out and touched Emilie’s hand. “You better get to work then. We can fly the ship together with just the two of us. There is no one else on Earth I trust enough to let them know what we are planning. No one we can take with us at least. I do need to give Andréa a call. There are a couple of things she can arrange that will give our break for freedom a better chance of success. You get to work here and I will call her.”

“Yes boss,” Emilie replied. Then her hand shot up in a salute. “Or should I call you Captain? Or is it Governor?” she added as she winked.

“Just get on with mastering this yacht. Our lives are going to depend on it!” Suzanna shot back as she feigned indignation. “You’ve only just arrived and you’re already on the verge of insubordination, no wonder the leader of Tomsk sector was so willing to part with you.” She quickly turned and left the younger woman with her mouth open. Suzanna allowed herself a small smile as she walked towards her office, she had a call to make to London.

*

Muzhi, former Russian territory, Siberia, 9th June 2473 AD.

“All set?” Suzanna asked Emilie as she stepped onto Scimitar’s bridge.

“Yes, our fuel reserves have been topped up and everything is stowed away. Your aides left twenty minutes ago. I’ve ordered everyone to keep clear of Scimitar, we should be able to take off as soon as you give the order.”

“Perfect. You have had enough sim time to get us through this?”

“Are you going to call this off if I say no?” Emilie asked as she turned in her swivel chair to look at Suzanna.

“I suppose not,” she replied as she sat. She wrinkled her forehead as she reconsidered her plan, and not for the first time.

“Don’t worry,” Emilie assured her. “Scimitar is just a little smaller than a corvette and I’ve more than thirty hours in the corvette simulators.”

“How many do you need to be classed as a corvette pilot?”

Emilie’s cheeks reddened. “One hundred and fifty over the three years at the academy. Plus you have to pass the actual tests. Still, thirty is better than nothing. I’ve clocked another eight in Scimitar over the last couple of days. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to handle her, even if we get into a fire fight.”

“I guess we’re going to find out soon enough,” Suzanna replied.

A series of beeps from her chair interrupted their conversation.

“What is it?” Emilie asked.

“An update from Andréa. Foundation ships in orbit are detecting an increase in civilian traffic around the orbital defense stations. I think this is it. Power up the engines.”

They had to wait twenty seconds longer for something to happen. Scimitar’s sensors detected two explosions within moments of each other. “Get us into orbit,” Suzanna ordered before her ship’s sensors had made sense of what was going on.

Emilie didn’t reply. The increased hum from Scimitar’s reactors and engines answered for her. As the ship accelerated through the atmosphere the situation in orbit became clearer. Or rather, more unclear. Warships and civilian ships were racing around on erratic flight profiles. At least two Indian warships were fighting with several British ones. Other ships looked like they had lost power while mayday messages were screaming out from numerous orbital stations.

“It’s pandemonium out there,” Emilie called over the various beeps and alarms coming from Scimitar’s consoles.

“So it is,” Suzanna agreed. “Have you got the most recent tracks for the Russian ships?”

Emilie took a moment to check her console before replying. “Yes, Andréa just sent them. Plotting us a course out of here now.”

“Don’t wait for my say so. Go to sixty percent maximum acceleration out of orbit as soon as you’re ready.”

Less than a minute after the first explosions had erupted, orbital wide messages were broadcast. The British and Americans were warning all civilian ships to remain calm and to move away from any active engagements. Thirty seconds later a flight control officer tried to contact Scimitar personally. Suzanna ignored the COM message. There would be no warships or orbital customs shuttles available to give chase to them. They would all be too busy.

“Look,” Emilie shouted.

Suzanna spun to look at the part of the holo projection of local space that Emilie was pointing to. It took her a couple of seconds to make out just what had caught the younger woman’s attention. Then she saw it. More than four hundred civilian ships were trying to get themselves out of the various combat zones. Most were trying to change orbital paths. Yet thirty-three had turned their noses away from Earth and blasted into open space. All of a sudden, there were numerous contacts joining Scimitar on a mad dash towards the Russian fleet.

“The Russians are finally reacting,” Suzanna observed. Though Scimitar’s sensors weren’t the most cutting-edge military tech that was available, they were pretty close. As a result, they could easily detect the ring of smaller ships that encompassed Earth and the larger squadrons beyond them. On the holo display it looked like several of the larger squadrons were moving to rendezvous with one another whilst the smaller ships were angling to intercept the fleeing freighters and pleasure craft.

“Koroylov is moving his fleet closer in case there is an opportunity for him to attack,” Emilie informed Suzanna. “If the fighting in orbit goes on much longer, he may think a full-on assault is worth the risk.”

“Somerville will be aware of the possibility,” Suzanna replied to reassure her. “Either he has a plan in place to fend off any assault, or he plans to have secured all the Indian orbital assets long before Koroylov can get close enough to open fire.”

“Looks like a Russian frigate is trying to intercept us,” Emilie said. “this one here,” she added as a contact began to flash. “I’m turning us away. At our current acceleration rate, they will still get into missile range in twenty-five minutes.”

“Can we outrun them?”

“No chance,” Emilie answered as she shook her head.

“Then stick to the plan.”

Over the next five minutes the excitement in orbit began to die down. Two Indian and one Brazilian warships were destroyed. The rest either surrendered or powered down their weapons. Suzanna couldn’t tell if they had been successfully boarded or sabotaged. In truth, she didn’t even know if Somerville’s plan included boarding parties, she just figured trying to capture the ships made far more sense than destroying them. All the orbital defense stations owned by the Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians had gone dark. I guess your plan worked uncle, Suzanna thought. She wasn’t sure how happy she was about the entire fiasco. She could guess why he had felt it necessary. If some of the Earth powers were thinking of siding with the Russians, they could hand humanity’s homeworld over to the Russians within a day. And reshape the balance of power through humanity’s colonies. Even so, I wouldn’t like to be in Fairfax’s shoes right now. No doubt things were even more hectic on Earth’s surface than they were in orbit.

Just moments after the fighting in orbit came to an end, all but one of the ships accelerating away from Earth cut their engines. They turned their noses one hundred and eighty degrees and returned to their starting points.

Suzanna sent Andréa a mental nod. The Captains of those ships would all be getting reprimands from Earth’s space control, yet they would also be getting healthy payments from the Somerville Foundation. They did their jobs, Suzanna thought as she studied the holo projection. With so many contacts approaching them, the ships Koroylov had picketing Earth had been forced to work on their own to intercept each ship. As a result, only one ship was anywhere near Scimitar. If they could escape from its clutches, Scimitar would be all but home free. Assuming they don’t have other ships patrolling out deeper in the system, Suzanna cautioned herself. More than one British ship had made it past the inner blockade only to mysteriously disappear before it managed to escape the system.

“We’re being hailed by that frigate,” Suzanna told Emilie when the frigate got closer. “They are demanding we cut our engines and power down our reactors. They say there won’t be any warning shots, if they have to fire a missile, they’ll only be firing one.”

“I guess we better do as we’re told,” Emilie replied.

“I would suggest you do.” James had told her that Scimitar had a good chance of shooting down two incoming missiles, depending on their ECM capabilities. She and Emilie had gone back and forth over what to do in this situation. They could have refused to cut their engines and tried to fight their way past the frigate. The odds would have been about fifty-fifty for whether they would have made it. Instead we chose the even more stressful way, Suzanna thought as she sat in her command chair and watched the Russian frigate come closer and closer.

“The Tartastan,” Emilie said when the frigate got close enough that they could read the name painted on its hull.

“They’re signaling again,” Suzanna said. “They want us to turn to match their heading. They’re going to send over a boarding shuttle.”

“I’m ready,” Emilie replied.

When Suzanna looked up Emilie was already staring at her. Slowly Suzanna nodded and forced herself to relax. It was out of her hands. She watched the two holo representations of Scimitar and Tartastan. The Russian frigate had one of its missile tubes open and one of its plasma cannons powered up. Both were pointed at Scimitar. Moments later a smaller craft appeared out of the frigate’s hanger bay and approached.

In compliance with the frigate’s command, Emilie rotated Scimitar around its axis. As she did, one of Scimitar’s hidden compartments came to bear on the frigate. The only sign of danger was the smallest of energy surges as Emilie sent the order for the compartment’s external doors to open. A millisecond later two plasma cannons appeared already aimed at the frigate. Both fired before Tartastan could react. One bolt hit the frigate’s plasma cannon turret, melting it to slag. The other hit one of the frigate’s engines.

Even before she knew how accurate her shots had been, Emilie hit the button to kick-start Scimitar’s fusion reactors. She used Scimitar’s maneuvering thrusters to keep the approaching shuttle between her ship and the frigate’s missile tube. Their only hope now was that the Russian Captain wouldn’t fire and risk hitting his own men.

“Come on, come on,” Emilie urged as she watched the plasma cannons recharge. “Firing,” she shouted when they were ready.

Two more plasma bolts struck the Russian frigate. One passed right through its hull and blew out the other side, bringing internal bulkheads and bodies with it. A second later a secondary explosion rocked the frigate, then there was another one and then a third. The frigate went dark.

“I’m not detecting any power readings,” Emilie shouted.

“Then get us out of here,” Suzanna replied equally loudly. “Maximum thrust.”

“What was that?” she shouted a second later when a jolt threw her about in her seat.

“That shuttle,” Emilie answered. “It’s firing on us with its small plasma cannons. They won’t be able to penetrate our armor though. It’s not a problem.”

“But a lucky hit might damage our engines,” Suzanna reminded her. “We have to take it out.”

Emilie nodded, but Suzanna could see she looked reluctant. “This is war,” she said to the younger woman. “We are parts in a much bigger picture. We must get out of here. Many lives could be depending on it. We can’t take any risks.”

Emilie nodded more firmly. “Cannons will be charged in ten more seconds.”

“Fire when ready,” Suzanna replied as she felt another small tremor run up her command chair.

Despite her reluctance, Emilie’s aim was true. “Good shooting,” Suzanna said when the shuttle disappeared in a small explosion. “We can talk it through later. Right now, I need your head in the game. What is the situation with the rest of the Russian ships?”

It took Emilie nearly thirty seconds to reply. “I think we’re in the clear. Several ships are accelerating onto intercept trajectories. But they can’t catch us.”

Suzanna smiled and clapped her hands. “We did it! Well done!”

“Thank you,” Emilie replied. “It was a team effort. There is no way we would have made it without Andréa’s help.”

“I’m sure she knows,” Suzanna replied. “We’ll have to make sure she gets a big Christmas bonus.”

“James can afford it,” Emilie replied with a grin.

“Hold that thought,” Suzanna said. She was getting a COM message from Vulcan. She knew who it would be and he wouldn’t be happy.

“Admiral Somerville,” she said formally when his face appeared on the holo display. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Cut the crap Suzanna,” Somerville growled. “I specifically forbade you from trying to leave the system.”

“You’re forgetting, I’m not just a British citizen. I’m a citizen of Haven, and as such I am free to return to my homeworld whenever I please. You or the Russians can’t stop me,” Suzanna said defensively.

Somerville hung his head. “You may think you have already succeeded. But you haven’t. Haven is still a long way away. There are going to be many Russians ships between you and your home. Even with all of Scimitar’s upgrades, you have put your life in great jeopardy. What will I say to James when he gets here?”

“Tell him the truth, I have gone to get aid,” Suzanna replied. “I’m sure he will understand for even when the Combined Fleet gets here, they are going to be badly outnumbered.” She didn’t want to get into an argument with him. But she wasn’t going to back down.

“It’s not too late to turn around. You can make it back to Earth before any Russian ships catch you.”

Suzanna shook her head. “We can’t do that. Our mission is too important.”

“We?” Somerville quizzed.

“Hi uncle,” Emilie shouted. “We know what we’re doing.”

Anger shot across Somerville’s face. He quickly got it under control. Mostly anyway, it was still clear in his voice. “You brought her with you?”

“I needed a pilot,” Suzanna replied. “One I could trust. She was transferred to my command in Siberia, so technically she has just been following orders.”

“What am I going to say to James if something happens to both of you?” Somerville’s tone was pleading. “How will he cope if both of you are killed?”

“He will know we had a duty to fulfill,” Suzanna replied calmly. “He will understand. Now, may I make a request. If you have any orders you want us to pass on to any ships we meet beyond Alpha, I suggest you send them to us. You may not have another chance to get a ship out for a while.”

Somerville let out a loud sigh. “Fine,” he grunted. “I’ll contact you again before you jump out. Tell me though, how did you know when to time your escape?”

“I may have glanced at a file or two on your datapad when we spoke last,” Suzanna admitted.

Once again Somerville’s face contorted. Suzanna spoke before he could say anything. “If that is all for now, we’re going to be going radio silent soon. I’ll have to end my transmission now. Make sure you send us whatever reports you want us to pass on.” She ended the COM channel. Just as she did Somerville’s face changed to look even angrier. He had his mouth half open when it disappeared.

“I’ve never seen him so upset,” Emilie responded. “He’s usually the calmest person in the room.”

Suzanna forced herself to smile. “You’ll learn. Even the best of men can lose their control. Especially when a woman or two are involved. He won’t be happy with us for a while.”

“Well if we manage to bring back some help, hopefully that will appease him,” Emilie suggested.

“I’m not sure,” Suzanna said as she remembered the look on Somerville’s face. “Even then I think I’m going to be in his bad books.”

“I’m sure we’ll think of something to cheer him up. You do know we can’t go into stealth mode for another twenty minutes. The nearest Russian ship will catch us otherwise.”

“I know,” Suzanna said. “It was just the best excuse to cut him off.”

“I see,” Emilie responded.

*

When Scimitar’s superior acceleration allowed her to outrun the inner cordon of patrolling Russian ships, Emilie put the yacht into stealth mode. As well as having advanced stealth coating that absorbed the electromagnetic radiation used by a ships’ active sensors, she had a gravimetric stasis field that wrapped small levels of electromagnetic radiation around the hull. When activated, she wasn’t just a black hole in space, she quite literally disappeared. The starlight from distant stars was bent around her so that to a ship’s passive sensors, it would look like Scimitar didn’t even exist.

For several hours Emilie piloted Scimitar through the Sol system making random course changes. Rather than go directly for the Alpha shift passage, they headed out beyond the system’s mass shadow into the areas of space filled with dark matter clouds. Scimitar couldn’t jump into shift space because of the dark matter, but it allowed her to take a very wide arc around the ships patrolling the end of the Alpha shift passage. Twenty hours after breaking orbit, Scimitar passed out of the dark matter clouds and into the Alpha shift passage. She then charged her shift drive and jumped. Admiral Somerville had transmitted the orders he wanted sent on hours before.




Chapter 10

Nothing beats experience. Cadets that have spent years in the academy often learn more in their first experience of real combat than they ever do behind a desk. Yet the training is vital for it gives them the framework to enter and thrive in combat situations. This is the philosophy of every Imperial Academy and it has served the Empire well.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Shift space, approaching the Alpha System, 13th June 2473 AD.

As she stepped onto Scimitar’s bridge Suzanna couldn’t help but watch Emilie. Her heart went out to her. In the four days it took to get to the Alpha system, she had made a big effort to get to know Emilie better. She knew the ties of family would only go so far. If they were to work together for the next few months, they needed to form a closer bond. Suzanna had expected breaking down Emilie’s barriers would be tough. Alpha was a rough place. Everyone there learnt quickly to keep themselves to themselves and be wary of everyone else. Yet she had found a chink in the young woman’s armor. Having been forced to kill for the first time, Emilie had been quite emotional during the first couple of days. It had allowed Suzanna to comfort her niece and encouraged Emilie to open up to her, probably in a way she had never done before.

She works so hard, Suzanna thought. It is all she knows. With a father she had never met and a mother forced to prostitute herself to care for Emilie, her childhood had been something Suzanna struggled to imagine. Books and holo documentaries had been the only real friends Emilie had ever had. And yet she seems so relaxed around others and so personable. Suzanna knew it was partly an act. Emilie was still very insecure. Though the academy is working that out of her. When it came to flying Scimitar, there wasn’t a hint of insecurity. Emilie was confident in her abilities.

“How long now?” she asked as she moved further into the bridge.

Emilie smiled when she looked up at her. “Just twenty minutes. We’re going to exit subspace well before the system’s mass shadow. Hopefully whatever ships are in the system won’t be expecting any hostiles coming from Sol.”

“Hopefully not, but they will get a warning soon enough,” Suzanna reminded her. Their sensors had detected a Russian ship heading for the Sol shift passage to Alpha just before they left the system. Suzanna was sure the ship carried orders for the Russian fleet in Alpha to hunt Scimitar down.

“Our flight plan should keep us safe. We’re not even really going to enter the system. We’re just going to skirt the edge until we can head straight for the Gift,” Emilie said in a reassuring tone.

“I know, but so do the Russians. They would be foolish if they didn’t have some forces closely monitoring the approaches to the Gift. We have to be careful,” Suzanna replied.

“Well that’s certainly our plan. Hopefully we will stay well clear of anyone who is in or around the system.”

Suzanna nodded. “That’s my aim.”

When they jumped out of shift space and began to cruise into the system, it seemed Suzanna’s desire to go undetected would be met. For six hours they made their way around the edge of system’s mass shadow. They were trying to get to the point where they could turn away from Alpha’s sun and head into deep space. The shift passage that would take them to the Gift and on to Haven required a ship to spend two days cruising in normal space first, for the passage didn’t directly connect to Alpha. They just had to round Alpha’s star before they could turn towards their destination.

As they cruised around the system, Scimitar’s passive sensors detected more than twenty Russian warships operating within the system. None made any course changes towards them. Even when a new contact appeared from the shift passage to Sol and the patrol activity from the Russian ships increased, no ship got close enough to detect them.

“Ten more minutes and we can power up our engines for a proper burn if we want. No ship will be able to detect us then. We can fly straight for the Gift shift passage and they can’t stop us,” Emilie said.

“No ship we have detected,” Suzanna reminded her. Emilie was still quite naive when it came to tactics. Suzanna had to keep reminding herself she had only spent a year at the naval academy. In so many other things Emilie excelled, yet there were blind spots she had yet to fill in. When Emilie didn’t reply, Suzanna looked over at her. She was bent over her console, peering at something intently.

“What is it?” Suzanna asked.

“Some weird readings. They’re coming from near the Aurora shift passage.”

“What do you make of them?”

“I don’t know. Wait, the Russians seems to be reacting to them. A ship has just changed course towards them,” Emilie answered.

“Could they be Allied ships, trying to operate in stealth?” Suzanna followed up.

“Maybe,” Emilie answered. “I have no experience of interpreting anomalous readings. I suppose it could be from a group of ships using their maneuvering thrusters to change course.”

“And there is that Russian supply flotilla coming to the system,” Suzanna said. They had picked it up a couple of hours ago. It had jumped into the Alpha system from Russian space and was heading to the shift passage to Sol.

“You think someone is targeting it?” Emilie queried.

“It makes sense. We have probably ruined their attack. Every ship is on high alert since the ship that followed us from Sol arrived. If those anomalies are ships, they probably had to change course prematurely to avoid being detected.”

“What do we do?”

“Get Somerville’s orders ready. We can transmit them on an encrypted signal if they are Allied ships. If they are detected, they will have to retreat, probably to Aurora in French space or maybe to British space. Either way, they can take Somerville’s orders with them.”

“I’ll be ready to transmit in a few seconds. What encryption should I use, diplomatic or military?”

Suzanna thought about it for a moment. The diplomatic encryption software Scimitar had was more sophisticated than the military one. No one had thought her ship would be carrying high level military orders. She knew Lightfoot would be able to decrypt her diplomatic software. Yet Lightfoot might not even be alive. The last they had heard from New France, there had been a Russian fleet closing in on them. “Use the military one,” she answered. “If Lightfoot isn’t there, or if he has been killed, at least someone will be able to decipher Somerville’s orders.”

“Understood,” Emilie replied. “Look,” she called seconds later. “Those contacts are moving again. They’re reacting to the Russians. They have to be Allied ships!”

Suzanna stared at the holo plot for a few seconds. Scimitar’s computer was confirming that the anomalies were likely to be Allied ships. Their course changes were too uniform. As she watched, almost all the Russian ships in the system reacted. Except for the warships escorting the supply convoy, they all turned onto an intercept trajectory for the Allied ships. “That confirms it,” Suzanna said. “They have to be Allied ships. Will they be able to escape?”

Emilie’s fingers danced over her command console. Predictive 3D lines appeared in front of all the contacts in the system showing the likely courses of each warship. Emilie then stared at the holo plot for a few moments. “I think so,” she answered slowly. “They have abandoned trying to stalk the supply convoy. They are making a run for it. Several Russian ships could get into missile range, but there won’t be enough of them to really threaten the Allied ships. Assuming they are warships.”

Alarms from Emilie’s console made both of them spin their heads down from the holo plot. “What is it?” Suzanna demanded

“I don’t know,” Emilie shouted back as her fingers moved across the console again. She swore a couple of times as she hit the wrong buttons and had to re-input the commands.

“Calm,” Suzanna said as she lifted her hands and spread her fingers out in what she hoped was a soothing gesture. “Taking a few extra seconds figuring this out won’t kill us.”

Emilie paused and looked around at her, then she nodded slowly.

“Close your eyes,” Suzanna commanded in a comforting tone. “Take a deep breath. Now, let it out. Ok, open your eyes again. What is going on?”

When Emilie opened her eyes, they swiveled to her console and her fingers began to dance again. “New contacts have been detected. They are altering course to intercept the Allied ships.” Emilie paused for a moment. Then her head shot up. “They are coming almost directly towards us!”

“How?” Suzanna blurted out. Then she changed tact. Think you fool, you need a clear head too! She berated herself. “Never mind how, where are they? Show me on the holo plot.”

“Of course,” Emilie responded in a very similar tone to the one Suzanna had just used with herself.

“How did they get there?” Suzanna found herself asking as soon as the new contacts appeared. There were three of them, they were all outside the Alpha system. The answer came to her as she finished speaking. “They were guarding the approaches towards the shift passage to the Gift.”

“If we had of kept on our current course and they hadn’t given their position away, we might have run right into them,” Emilie said. “You were right, they did have more ships hiding.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Suzanna said using a phrase she had picked up on Earth. “What options do we have? Will they detect us do you think?”

“I’m no expert on Scimitar’s stealth tech, but I don’t think we want to take the risk. All three ships’ sensors are pumping our gigajoules of electromagnetic energy. And they are going to come very close to us.”

“Then we have no choice. We have to run. We can’t stay in stealth.”

“Run where?” Emilie asked. “There are ships everywhere.”

Suzanna opened her mouth to reply. Then she shut it again as she looked at the holo plot. Emilie was right, there were ships everywhere, and they all had their sensors operating at full power. Almost any direction they might try and sneak in would end with them running into one Russian warship or another. Her eyes darted left and right as she looked around the system. There didn’t appear to be any safe way to go. Then her focus came back to the small group of Allied ships. Emilie had suggested they had a good chance of escaping. “If we accelerate at maximum towards the Allied ships, can we reach them before they jump out?”

Emilie took her time to reply, as she ran the calculations. “No, we would just miss them.”

“But they could wait for us. Would it put them at much risk?”

Again Emilie didn’t reply right away. “They would only have to stay within the system for another fifteen minutes of so. Assuming they alter their escape vector to close with us.”

“Will any of the Russians be able to intercept us first?”

Emilie smiled when she looked up from her console. “I don’t think so. If the Allied ships alter course to join us, they can protect us from any missiles that might be fired our way.”

“Lay in the new course, bring the engines on line as soon as you are ready. We’re going to have to take the chance.” Suzanna said.

To neither of the two women’s surprise, all three Russian ships altered course to pursue them as soon as Scimitar revealed her presence by changing her velocity. “The closet ship is a frigate. It will be able to fire on us in forty-five minutes,” Emilie reported. “It can only fire one missile from its forward tube.”

“And you are confident we can handle it?”

“Yes, I have run a lot of simulations with Scimitar’s point defenses. I am pretty confident.”

“Pretty?” Suzanna repeated back to her.

“If the frigate just fires its forward tube at us, we can shoot it down. If the frigate turns and presents its broadside, it can fire two missiles. That might be trickier.”

“Open a COM channel to the Allied ships,” Suzanna requested. They needed their help as soon as possible.

“It’s open,” Emilie informed her.

“Allied ships,” Suzanna said using her formal diplomatic tone. “This is the British Star Kingdom Diplomatic Yacht Scimitar. We have escaped the Russian blockade of Earth and are carrying dispatches for any senior Allied fleet commanders. Can you rendezvous with us and escort us out of the system?”

When she finished, she sat back in her command chair. It would take her message thirty minutes to reach the Allied ships, and almost the same time for their reply to come back.

“I’m sure they will come to our aid,” Emilie said. “We just have to survive long enough.”

Suzanna didn’t reply, though she was thinking the same thing. Silence descended as they watched the nearest Russian frigate close with Scimitar. Though their ship could out accelerate the Russian ship and escape, their opponent was carrying a much higher velocity towards them. For a short time at least, the frigate would be able to get into missile range and hammer them.

When the counter Emilie had put on the holo display reached zero, informing them that Suzanna’s message should have reached the Allied ships, both women sat forward in their seats. Suzanna held her breath.

“They’re turning,” Emilie shouted as she jumped to her feet. She spun and beamed at Suzanna. “They’re going to rendezvous with us.”

Suzanna returned her smile then motioned for her to sit down. “I don’t think a future RSN Captain is meant to jump around the bridge of a starship like a young school girl.”

Emilie’s face reddened as she looked around, then she smiled again and sat down. “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”

“Don’t worry, I felt the same. I just have a little more experience hiding my feelings than you.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t do you any good to dance around in Parliament or Haven’s Council Chamber,” Emilie replied.

Suzanna laughed. “Certainly not. Now, analyze the Allied ship’s new trajectory. Do we need to make a course change to close with them?”

Emilie’s eyes widened. “Right,” she snapped as she turned back to her console. “I suggest we turn onto heading seven three four point six,” she said a few moments later.

“Do it,” Suzanna ordered. “Then ready the point defenses.” The frigate closest to them was still going to get a number of missile salvos off before they could out accelerate it.

“They’ve fired,” Emilie reported ten minutes later. “One missile tracking us.”

Now husband, it’s time to see if the money you spent on my ship will pay off, Suzanna thought.

It took the missile nineteen minutes to close with Scimitar. Just before it entered range of their ship’s point defenses, a COM message arrived from the frigate. “They want us to cut our engines. They’ll detonate the missile if we do,” Emilie reported.

“Ignore it, open fire as soon as you can,” Suzanna replied.

The next few seconds were the scariest of Suzanna’s life. She had been on board ships in battle before, but those ships had been crewed by hundreds of highly trained and experienced Royal Navy personnel. As more and more of Emilie’s plasma bolts and AM missiles zipped past the Russian missile, Suzanna’s fear heightened. Half of her was willing her young niece on while the other half was questioning her wisdom in bringing someone with so little experience.

The tension grew so much that when a plasma bolt scored a glancing blow on the missile and threw it off course, Suzanna jumped to her feet with a scream. “Yes! You did it. You did it,” she added as she ran over and shook Emilie’s shoulders. Before Emilie could say anything, she pulled the young woman to her feet and give her a hug. Then she pushed her back and held her at arm’s length as she grinned at her. “You did it,” she repeated.

When she finally spoke, Emilie was trying to keep herself from breaking into a similar grin. “Of course I did it Governor. That is why you brought me on this mission. I thought though, you were trying to teach me to control my emotions? Isn’t dancing around the bridge of a warship like a schoolgirl a bad thing? Did I misunderstand?” As she finished, she failed to control herself and broke down in laughter.

Suzanna gave her a mock punch to the shoulder. “You’re meant to do as I say, not as I do. Isn’t that how it’s meant to go?”

Before either of them could say anything more, an alarm from Emilie’s console ended both their smiles. “Another missile launched from the frigate,” Emilie said as she glanced down. “They’re obviously not very happy with us.”

“Well, you shot down one, I’m sure you can do it again,” Suzanna replied.

“Let’s hope so,” Emilie said as she returned to her console and sat down. “I need to analyze that last missile to see if I can improve.”

Suzanna nodded, “I’ll leave you to it.”

Before the second Russian missile reached Scimitar’s point defenses, the Russian frigate fired a third missile. As Emilie continued to analyze her performance against the first missile, Suzanna used her ship’s computer to try and figure out how many more missiles the Russian frigate would get to fire. By her estimate, they would get off another two before Scimitar’s more powerful engines boosted the yacht out of range. Four, Suzanna thought, she just has to take out four more.

“Here we go,” Emilie shouted as the second Russian missile came into range.

Once again plasma bolts and AM missiles reached out. This time Suzanna felt more confident, though as the Russian missile came closer and closer the tension in her shoulders rapidly increased. When an AM missile collided with the Russian missile and both contacts disappeared in the resulting explosion, Suzanna stopped herself from shouting, but she did pump her fist. When the third missile came in she forced herself to relax. Emilie took it out as well. As the fourth was approaching, Emilie swore.

Suzanna sat forward again, “What is it?

“The frigate is turning, it’s going to bring its starboard missile tubes to bear on us.”

Suzanna swore as well. She knew what that meant. The frigate was giving up trying to chase them. Instead it was going to take them out by firing two missiles from its two starboard tubes. “Don’t worry about it, focus on the missile closing with us now.”

Though she had told Emilie do that, Suzanna racked her brain trying to think of some way they could defeat two missiles. In her mind she replayed all the battles she could remember James fighting in. At different times he had used novel tactics to trick incoming missiles, yet none of them would work for her. When Emilie shouted with joy at having hit the fourth Russian missile, Suzanna’s eyes settled on her. There’s nothing I can do but trust her, she realized. “You have this,” she said out loud. “Those four were just warm-ups for these two. It’s time to show those Russians what you’re made of.”

When Emilie turned around, her stare was piercing. Then she gave a slight nod. “I will give it my best. I didn’t come all this way to fail at the first hurdle.”

Suzanna motioned for Emilie to turn back around. “Then get to it. Neither did I.”

When the two missiles came into point defense range, Suzanna was tempted to close her eyes. She didn’t want the strain of watching shot after shot miss. For Emilie’s sake, she forced her eyes to remain open. She wanted to be able to help if she was needed. This time the tension was unbearable. Both missiles got to within fifteen seconds of hitting Scimitar before Emilie finally managed to get a shot on target. A plasma bolt struck one of the Russian missiles dead on. The missile detonated a couple of seconds later. “You’ve got this,” Suzanna repeated as all of Scimitar’s point defenses focused on the remaining Russian missile.

As it came closer and closer, its evasive maneuvers increased. Suzanna could feel beads of sweat running down her back. The missile was only six seconds away from hitting them. This is it, she thought. Now or never, come on Emilie.

“I can’t get it,” Emilie shouted out in frustration. Before Suzanna could say anything, she pivoted her seat around. Her hands reached out and grabbed Scimitar’s flight controls.

“Wha...” Was all Suzanna got out before the sudden evasive maneuver Emilie threw Scimitar into caused Suzanna’s harness to tighten around her. For the next several seconds Suzanna lost all sense of spatial awareness as her ship dodged and weaved so much its inertial dampeners couldn’t contain the g-forces that were being exerted upon them.

“Powering ECM to full,” Emilie yelled through gritted teeth.

With her hands on either side of her command chair, Suzanna forced her body around to see the holo projection. When her eyes located the missile, it was right on top of them. She winced and every muscle in her body tightened as she prepared for an explosion. Yet on the holo plot, the missile simply streamed right past Scimitar. Suzanna’s mouth fell open. She waited another second, thinking the projection had been delayed or something. Then she had to ask. “Did it miss?”

“We’re still here aren’t we?” Emilie yelled as a huge grin split her face. “And we’re out of range of that blasted frigate. It can’t hit us anymore. We’re going to make it to the Allied ships!”

Suzanna collapsed into her chair and let her arms hang at her side. She let out a deep breath. “That was too much. Let’s never do that again.”

“What? That was fun. Now I know why James and Admiral Somerville joined the Navy. That’s far more exhilarating than any simulation.” Emilie replied.

If it wasn’t for the wink Emilie gave as she spoke, Suzanna would have rushed over to the younger woman and throttled her. “Just make sure we are on the quickest trajectory to rendezvous with the Allied ships, I want to get out of the system as soon as possible,” she replied.

*

It took another hour for Scimitar to rendezvous with the Allied ships. The Russian frigate closest to them actually decelerated during that time. Its Captain didn’t want to come under the guns of the Allied fleet without more backup. Fleet is maybe an over optimistic term, Suzanna decided after studying the formation of ships they had joined. There were four British ships, a light cruiser, two destroyers and a frigate. With them were five more destroyers and six more frigates from the French, German and Canadian navies. She was thankful there weren’t any Indian ships among the flotilla. That would have been awkward.

“The light cruiser is requesting an open COM channel,” Emilie informed her as soon as they came close enough to the Allied ships for two-way communication.

“Patch the cruiser’s Captain through,” Suzanna requested.

“Captai...,” She began when a face appeared in front of her. She quickly cut herself off and readjusted her sentence. “Commodore, it is a pleasure to see you. My apologies, I wasn’t expecting you to be commanding this flotilla.”

Commodore Lightfoot gave her a small smile and a nod of recognition. “Governor Somerville, it is good to see you. I’ve already read through the orders the First Space Lord sent with you. I must say, I’m surprised he sent you, and in such a small ship.”

Suzanna shared a glance with Emilie before replying. “I wouldn’t exactly say the First Space Lord sent us. You could say we took advantage of the confusion that was going on at the time to break the blockade. When it looked like we were going to be successful, Admiral Somerville transmitted the orders I transmitted to you.”

“I see,” Lightfoot replied diplomatically. “In any event, I very much appreciate the fact you have managed to break the blockade. We have been very concerned about what condition Earth is in. I’m afraid most of our fears have been realized. Yet, there is still hope. With Admiral Somerville commanding our fleet, Earth will be a tough nut to crack.”

“He will do everything he can to keep Koroylov from succeeding,” Suzanna agreed. “I’m just not sure it will be enough. Hence why I’m here. I intend to seek the aid of the Vestarians and bring Haven’s fleet to Earth as well. If you are willing, I intend to put them under your command. I’m happy I found you alive. What condition are your forces in?”

Lightfoot grinned. “A little better than it looks at least. Most of my larger ships are carrying out repairs. You won’t know I suppose. We fought the Russian fleet that invaded Cartier at New France. We won, but the cost was high. Most of the French fleet was wiped out. Since then I’ve been harassing the Russian forces in the Alpha system with the ships that I have battle ready. As more heavier ships come out of the repair yards, we will be able to put up more of a fight. If you can bring Haven’s fleet and whatever the Vestarians have, we will be a real thorn in Koroylov’s side. Almost every day there are supply convoys going through this system. Whatever the Russian Admiral is doing in the Sol system, it is requiring a lot of war materials.”

“Then my decision to leave Earth was the right one,” Suzanna said. “I just have to get to Haven as soon as possible. We had intended to use the Gift, but we would have been detected by the Russian ships that are now pursuing us. I want to thank you for coming to our aid. And apologies for ruining your attack. I imagine it was the arrival of a ship from Sol informing the Russian ships in the system of our escape that heightened their patrols. We are in your debt.”

“Nonsense,” Lightfoot said with a wave of his hand. “You’re the niece of the First Space Lord of the Admiralty, the wife of one of our most famous commanders, and the Governor of Haven. The British people are already hugely in your debt, this is just a small repayment.”

“You have my thanks nonetheless,” Suzanna insisted. “I know we are not home safe yet. The Russians will be able to bring your flotilla under fire before we reach the system’s mass shadow.”

Lightfoot’s face took on a more serious appearance. “Indeed, they will. I should take my leave and prepare my forces. It is good to see you Governor. One of my subordinates will transmit orders to your yacht. We have to make use of your point defenses. Every ship will be needed. We will talk more once we get out of here.”

“Thank you again Commodore,” Suzanna replied. “And good luck.”

“Orders are coming in from Prometheus now,” Emilie let her know when the COM channel ended. “We are to take up position astern of Lightfoot’s flagship.”

“Proceed,” Suzanna responded. “And don’t forget, every other ship in this flotilla will be watching. Don’t slip up.”

“Way to put the pressure on,” Emilie said as she swiveled back to her console.

Suzanna didn’t know enough about fleet engagements to understand why Lightfoot had placed her yacht where he had. Yet, she did know him. No doubt their position would provide the most protection for Scimitar whilst also allowing her point defenses to join the fight.

“A tactical officer from Prometheus is requesting authorization to slave our point defenses to Prometheus’ tactical controls,” Emilie reported.

Suzanna had to hide a small smile at Emilie’s tone. “I wouldn’t take it as an insult. Their sensors and fire control inputs are probably far superior to ours.”

“I guess,” Emilie replied reluctantly.

With Scimitar’s flight controls programmed to keep station with Prometheus and her point defenses being controlled by an officer from Lightfoot’s flagship, neither Emilie nor Suzanna had anything to distract them as the Russian warships closed in. Like the frigate that had been pursuing them, several other Russian warships had decelerated to avoid contact until they had a powerful enough fleet to engage the Allied ships. When they did, they closed to missile range and opened fire.

Forty-four missiles were launched at Lightfoot’s flotilla. His ships responded with forty-six of their own. One Russian missile got through and it only managed to score a proximity hit. Both Suzanna and Emilie yelled and punched the air as the Russian frigate that had pursued them was hit by a British missile. It wasn’t destroyed outright, yet it did fall back to safety. When they looked at each other, neither tried to hide their emotions. Instead they grinned.

Even though that Russian frigate pulled back, the next missile salvo was larger. Two more destroyers had caught up and joined the Russians attacking them. Fifty-two missiles were launched towards Lightfoot’s flotilla. This time, more missiles got through. Suzanna let out a groan when a British frigate suffered a proximity hit. The proximity explosion buckled the frigate’s outer hull. It fell out of formation as its engine shutdown. “No,” she shouted at the holo projection of the Russian ships. She knew what the frigate falling out of formation meant. Lightfoot couldn’t slow down to protect the stricken ship. It was lost.

“They can’t even launch their shuttles,” Emilie complained as she turned around. “We are accelerating too hard; their shuttles would never catch us.”

The look Suzanna shared with her niece told her that they were both thinking the same thing. The frigate’s crew were either going to be killed or captured and it was their fault. Their loss was due to Lightfoot’s decision to help them. If he hadn’t waited for them, his ships would already have jumped out of the system.

“The Russian ships are broadcasting on an open frequency,” Emilie said. She paused for a second and it was clear she was listening to the broadcast through her earpiece. “They’re demanding that the crew of the frigate surrender. They say if the crew try to self-destruct the frigate, they will be treated as enemy spies.”

Suzanna nodded, she knew what that meant. They would be executed.

“The frigate’s firing her plasma cannons,” Emilie added. “Why? They won’t do any damage at such extreme ranges.”

Suzanna didn’t answer, she didn’t understand it herself. At least, she didn’t until the Russians opened fire with their next missile salvo. They fired sixty-two missiles this time. With more missiles coming at them and already one ship down, she feared that more Allied ships were going to be lost. Then eight of the missiles angled away from Lightfoot’s flotilla and towards the damaged British frigate. As soon as they did, Suzanna understood. The Russians didn’t want to risk the frigate getting into plasma cannon range. They had to take it out with their missiles. The frigate’s Captain had been showing the Russians that his heavy plasma cannons and point defenses were still fully operational.

“The frigate is launching shuttles and escape pods now,” Emilie shouted. “It’s too late though, the energy given off from those missiles is going to get some of them.”

Suzanna had to make an effort to keep her voice level. “I’m sure they know. They are allowing us to escape.” She forced herself to watch the missiles close with the frigate. Its point defenses took out three. Then, to her surprise, the frigate carried out a number of evasive maneuvers. Someone was still commanding it. Two more missiles overshot the frigate but the fifth and sixth struck home. The frigate disappeared in a blinding explosion a second later.

As if in a rage about their lost comrades, the gunners in Somerville’s flotilla tore into the rest of the Russian missiles with abandon when they came into range. Not one missile found a target. Ten minutes later, Lightfoot’s flotilla reached the system’s mass shadow and jumped into shift space. Suzanna and Emilie shared another look. They had made it through another Russian occupied system. Now it was time to get to Haven and bring back the ships needed to save Earth.




Chapter 11

It is amazing to think what the Combined Fleet managed to accomplish against the Flex-aor, especially with technological capabilities that would be outdated less than half a decade later. Yet at great cost they did manage to drive the Flex-aor back, albeit temporarily. Thankfully, when they returned, we were ready for them.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Victory, Utah system, 24th June 2473 AD.

Admiral von Kleist smashed his fists onto the conference table as he jumped to his feet. “This is unacceptable! We have wasted far too much time as it is. Our ships should have broken orbit a week ago!”

“He’s right,” de Gama agreed as he swiveled around in his chair to look at Cunningham. “We agreed to wait when the news first came about the Russian’s attack. But it has been a week. This news changes everything.”

James forced himself to bite back a retort. Rear Admiral de Gama’s Brazilian ships hadn’t fired a single shot in anger against the Flex-aor. He had no right to speak to Cunningham in such a condescending tone. Holding his tongue, he looked to his senior commander expecting some kind of explanation. Cunningham simply returned James’ stare and raised an eyebrow. James groaned inwardly then cleared his throat. “We’ve all been shocked by the news of Admiral Maquis’ defeat. But we cannot respond too hastily. We have accomplished much this last week. We could depart with a sizable fleet right now, that’s true, but the longer we wait, the stronger our fleet will be. Every day ships are coming out of the repair yards.”

“Damaged ships,” de Gama retorted. “I’ve read the engineers’ reports. Most of the ships being released are still suffering from various problems. To say they are battle worthy may be true, but they’re far from full functionality. My squadron was ready to leave seven days ago, it is ready to leave right now. It’s ready for whatever faces us. We cannot wait any longer.”

“Your ships and crews are also raw and untested,” Acting Commodore Sato replied. “I would not bet on them outperforming our ships coming out of the repair yards.”

De Gama turned and glared at Sato. Sato simply stared past him. When their eyes met, James gave Sato a slight nod of thanks. He had come to trust the Japanese commander over the last couple of months. Their attack on the Flex-aor staging world had forced them to work closely together.

“And yet he speaks sense,” Rear Admiral Thurot countered. “The Japanese colonies are not in danger. France’s colonies are, I cannot afford to wait any longer. There is a Russian fleet threatening New France and another one threatening my homeworld. I cannot sit idly by in American space for another day, let alone another week.”

“Neither can I,” Admiral Woo added. “The Russians have insulted the honor of my Emperor. Whilst we were fighting for the safety of all of humanity, they have attacked us from behind. No honorable enemy would do such a thing. We must meet them in open battle.”

“I am in as much of a hurry to bring our forces to Earth as any of you,” Rear Admiral Armstrong, the senior surviving American commander agreed. “Many of our colonies are reeling from the Flex-aor invasion. We need supplies and aid from our colonies beyond Earth that will now not be coming. Yet we cannot divide our forces. We stood together against the Flex-aor and won. The Combined Fleet cannot be broken up now. We must fight together against the Russians. You’ve all seen the number of warships they have in their fleet. I don’t know how they did it, but we cannot defeat them alone. Marquis and the others divided their forces and look at what happened.”

“You mean the British and Chinese fleets failed to support the rest of our ships,” Thurot spat. “Marquis could have won if he had been supported by his British and Chinese allies.”

Woo’s face darkened. When Cunningham remained silent, James jumped in before the Chinese Admiral could respond. “You know there’s more to it than that.” Though he hadn’t had time to speak with his ranking officer since the latest packet ship had arrived with news of the Russian invasion of the Sol system, he had read the brief battle report that his uncle had managed to send before the Russian ships had blockaded Earth. He knew Cunningham had as well, and no doubt they were of the same mind. “The Russians found some way to dramatically increase the number of missiles they can fire in a salvo. You’ve all seen the report. The first salvo they fired at Marquis’ fleet all but won the battle. If the British and Chinese fleets in the Sol system had been there, they too would have been wiped out. If the Russians can repeat such a feat, they wouldn’t have too much trouble taking out our fleet, or worse, Earth will have fallen. Either way, we need every single ship we can bring. If we fail, there will be no second chance.”

“So you want us to just sit around and twiddle our thumbs until news of Earth’s fall reaches us?” de Gama asked.

“No,” Cunningham answered, finally speaking.

“Then how long do you want us to wait?” Von Kleist asked. “We have followed you since Walker’s death. You have led us well. Yet the situation has changed. We cannot allow Earth to fall.”

Cunningham leaned forward and took a moment to look each of his subordinates in the eye. “One more week,” he said. “In one week we will have enough ships repaired and enough supplies taken on to return to the Sol system and fight a prolonged campaign. That is how long I intend to keep the Combined Fleet here.”

Thurot waved his hand at Cunningham in anger. “We can’t wait that long.”

“Perhaps,” Cunningham said, cutting him off. “And yet you have no choice. I am the commander of the Combined Fleet. If you want to break up the fleet and leave, you can do so. But my ships will not be leaving for one more week. Seeing as the British ships make up nearly one fifth of our forces, it would be suicide for you to try and fight the Russians without us. Rear Admiral Somerville was correct. We cannot react hastily. We’ve just fought a massive all-out war against the Flex-aor. Our forces are weak, damaged and spread out. One week may sound like an eternity to some of you, to others it may not sound like a long period at all. Yet it is what we need. Our crews need to recover, our damaged ships need repairs, more supplies need to be gathered and every day we wait ships that were spread out to counter the Flex-aor threat return. This is my decision. The news of Marquis’ defeat is disappointing, yet it doesn’t change the tactical situation. Earth is under siege, yet its defenses are formidable. As soon as we’re ready we will move forward and either drive off the Russian invaders or join our forces to Earth’s defenses. Charging straight at the Russians unprepared and disorganized is probably what this Koroylov wants. I don’t intend to make things that easy for him.”

De Gama opened his mouth to speak but Cunningham raised a hand to silence him. “I didn’t bring you here for a debate. I brought you here to understand my intentions. Whether the Russian fleet that invaded French colonial space was successful or not, I do not think whatever Allied forces are left there will be able to lift the Russian’s siege. We are the only force that can put an end to this Russian invasion and that is exactly what I intend to do. You can join me, or rush in and give Koroylov another victory. The choice is yours. What will it be?”

“You led us well against the Flex-aor,” Acting Commodore Sato answered quickly. “The Japanese Imperial fleet will continue to follow your orders.

For a couple seconds no one else spoke. James looked at the gathered commanders waiting for someone else to speak. It seemed they were all waiting and glancing at one another as well. The silence dragged on for several more seconds.

“One more week. You give us your word?” Admiral Woo asked.

Cunningham slowly nodded.

“Fine,” Woo replied begrudgingly. “My ships will remain with the Combined Fleet.”

“As will the American ships,” Armstrong added. “There will be no victory if we do not fight together.”

Woo and Armstrong’s decisions opened the floodgates and several other Captains and Admirals agreed to follow Cunningham’s plan. Only Thurot, de Gama and the senior Indian naval commander, Captain Mulla failed to speak.

“Thurot?” Cunningham prompted. “Your ships will be vital if we are to succeed.”

Thurot glared at Cunningham. “We will not abandon our allies. If the Combined Fleet is not leaving for another week, then we will wait for you.”

James saw something flash across Cunningham’s face, it was only there for a split second and then Cunningham had his emotions under control. Was it anger, James asked himself, or embarrassment? But at who? On paper his uncle’s decision not to allow the British and Chinese ships to join Maquis seemed like the right one. At least, it had been proven so by the Russian fleet’s easy victory. Yet it has sown division among us, James realized as he stared at the gathered admirals. The air of camaraderie they had enjoyed over the last year had disappeared.

“Thank you my friend,” Cunningham replied. “And you too, de Gama, Mulla, will your ships continue to fight with us? You cannot defeat the Russians on your own.”

De Gama shared a glance with Mulla. “Perhaps not, but we could take our ships to Sol today. We could sneak through or even fight our way through the Russian blockade and add our ships to the defensive fleet. At least then we would be more use to our people than we are sitting around here.”

“That’s certainly true,” Cunningham replied with a nod. “You are both free to do as you see best. I would expect nothing less from either of you. I wish you good luck on your endeavors. If you do choose to stay however, your ships will be most welcome. I believe defeating the Russians will take everything we have got.”

Silence descended once again as Cunningham gazed at de Gama and Mulla for several seconds. When neither spoke he nodded slowly. “Very well. You all know my intentions now. You’re all dismissed. Go back to your ships and get them ready to depart. Expedite the repairs on your damaged ships as much as you can. I will send over fleet formations and battle simulations within the next couple of hours. We’ve been fighting the Flex-aor for the last year, we need to remember how to fight human opponents.”

As the rest of the Captains and Admirals filed out of Victory’s conference room, Cunningham remained in his seat. Following his commander’s lead, James didn’t stand either. When the automatic door slid closed leaving them on their own, Cunningham turned to James. “Well, that didn’t go as badly as I expected. We have won our first victory.”

“Sir?” James replied.

“The Russians have been France’s enemies for more than a century and by extension, ours and the Americans. Yet the other major and minor space powers have had little or no quarrels with them. The Combined Fleet was formed to fight against a common threat. It could have broken apart around this table. If it had, Koroylov might have won here and now. Instead, they are reasonably united. The Russians have made a mistake. By trying to take Earth they have united everyone else against them. We still have to beat them of course, but this was our first victory.”

James couldn’t hide his doubt. In response Cunningham raised both his eyebrows. “You don’t think so?”

“I’m just not sure about waiting,” he replied. “If the goal is to keep our fleet together, departing now would have gained universal approval. We could have then taken a leisurely approach to the Delta system and allowed some of our damaged ships to catch up with us.”

Cunningham shook his head. “No. When we head for Delta, we will do so as quickly as possible. I do not want to give Koroylov time to prepare to face us. By delaying, he may think that we have suffered more losses against the Flex-aor then we have. A rapid approach may catch him off guard.”

“What about Earth? If it falls before we get there we will have failed everyone.”

“Yes, and that is something we may have to live with. Yet I wouldn’t write off Earth’s defenses just yet. You’re forgetting, I commanded Home Fleet for more than four years. How many of the Admirals or Captains gathered around this table have commanded their nations’ fleets based in the Sol system?”

James had to take a moment to think through all that had been sat around the table with him. “None,” he answered after a few moments.

“Exactly, and what do you think I was doing during those four years?”

“Planning out numerous defense strategies in case of an attack. Specifically, in case of a Russian attack,” James answered.

“And?” Cunningham prompted.

Realization dawned on James. “And planning how to attack Earth’s defenses so as to counter whatever strategies an enemy might employ.

“Exactly,” Cunningham nodded. “Earth is a tough nut to crack. Especially with all the added defenses that have been built over the last year. Even with his more powerful missile salvos, Koroylov will not be able to simply storm Earth’s defenses, not if he intends to hold the planet. A frontal assault will decimate his fleet, allowing us to walk in and finish him off. I’ve no doubt he has a plan he intends to carry out, but it will likely require time to put it together. We need to use that time to gather as much strength as we can and drive him off before he can act. It’s true, we may get to Earth and find that it has fallen, but if that happens, we will need every ship we can gather from all our colonies to retake our homeworld. Delaying for another week is to our advantage either way.”

“I see,” James replied.

“But?” Cunningham said picking up on James’s tone.

“Why didn’t you give this explanation to the senior fleet commanders? They would have followed your plan more readily.”

“Perhaps,” Cunningham replied. “Or perhaps those who had come here to argue would have argued anyway. This way, almost all of them have nailed their colors to the mast. They know they cannot succeed without our ships and they have committed themselves to following my command no matter what. It’s better I know each commander is with me now, rather than find out that some still think they can go it alone at a later date.”

“What about the Brazilians and the Indians? We will need their ships.”

Cunningham nodded again. “We will, and we’ll find out in the next hour or two if we will have them or not. My money is on them staying. De Gama is all talk, he won’t have the guts to go up against Koroylov on his own. Mulla is more of a fighter, but he is not stupid. He will keep his ships with ours.”

James brought his thumb and forefinger up to stroke his chin as he thought through what Cunningham was telling him. One way or another, it seemed every ship in the Utah system would break orbit under Cunningham’s command.

“You see my boy,” Cunningham said as he stood to his feet and clapped James on the shoulder. “There is more to being a senior fleet commander than ordering around ships. You have to know your allies and your enemies. The news about Marquis’ defeat was bad, very bad in fact. But breaking up the Combined Fleet would have been far worse. We will depart in one week and when we do, we will be ready to take on Koroylov’s fleet and drive it back into Russian space. Then our governments can decide what to do next.”

“Pushing on into their space and relieving them of their shipyards would have my vote,” James replied as he stood. “Assuming the Flex-aor don’t return.”

Cunningham’s face took on a somber look. “Yes,” was all he said as he turned to walk out of the conference room.

As James followed him out he couldn’t help but notice that there were more and more grey hairs on Cunningham’s head. I wouldn’t want his responsibility for all the credits in the Star Kingdom, James thought. He knew Cunningham had recalled every ship in the American colonies except those that had been sent to X-38. Even with the new Russian threat, Cunningham was probably having sleepless nights as he thought about the Flex-aor, James knew he was.




Chapter 12

Many historians look back at the wars between the different human factions before the War of Doom with the Karacknids in disgust. As we shall see in our analysis of this critical stage in humanity’s development as a galactic power, the wars were necessary. They were like the first few wobbly steps of a new born deer, without them the Empire would not have been able to rise to its feet with such assurance.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Titan, Utah system, 2nd July 2473 AD.

Sitting on his command chair on Titan’s bridge, James was trying to decide if the first week or second week of waiting had been worse. In the first week, almost every hour a new ship had jumped into the Utah system with news of the Russians’ attack on the Alpha system and the expected follow up attack on Earth. Then, when news of the Russians’ advance and victory at Mars had finally reached them, not a single new ship had arrived. The Russians had completely locked down the Sol system. No news was getting out. Constantly hearing about the Russians’ advance had been hard, but now, not hearing anything, having to sit and wonder just what was going on in the Sol system, James concluded, was worse.

Pulling himself away from his thoughts, he realized his fingers had been tapping a tune on his armrest. At once he stopped himself, it wouldn’t do for his subordinates to see their commanding officer fidgeting. Five past midnight, he said to himself as he glanced at his chair’s inbuilt clock. Cunningham’s week agreed at the last commander’s conference had ended five minutes ago. Every combat worthy ship was ready to break orbit. Like Titan, their bridges were full of officers waiting for the command to leave.

He’s making us wait, James realized as five minutes became six, then seven. When fifteen minutes had passed he couldn’t stop himself from shifting around in his chair to get more comfortable. Finally, after one more minute, something happened.

Victory is signaling,” Titan’s COM officer reported. “The fleet will break orbit and form up around the flagship.”

“Take us out,” Captain Romanov ordered in response.

James had to fight to not shake his head ruefully at Cunningham. He had made everyone in the fleet wait sixteen minutes to remind them all who was in command. It was a small thing, but it wouldn’t be lost on anyone.

*

HMS Titan, Bison System, 23rd July 2473 AD.

The next three weeks were largely uneventful for the Combined Fleet. James found himself spending a lot of time running simulation battles with Cunningham and the other senior fleet commanders. With Romanov commanding Titan, and the rest of the British Captains proficient in managing their own commands, there was little for the commander of the British portion of the Combined Fleet to do while they travelled through the American colonies towards Sol.

One thing that did catch James’ attention was the number of supply freighters clogging up the systems they passed through. He had spent the better part of a year on the front lines fighting the Flex-aor and he hadn’t realized just how much shipping Earth’s naval powers had sent into American space. One task he was thankful he had been able to delegate to a subordinate was sorting through all the freighters. Cunningham wanted every freighter with supplies that Earth might need subsumed into the Combined Fleet. If and when they got to Earth, everyone expected the planet to be hurting. Before the siege, millions of tons of freight had been delivered to the planet every day, without it, Earth’s economy would be taking a nose dive.

The first real event that broke the monotony of jumping from one American system to another occurred in the Bison system. When the Combined Fleet entered the system, they were met by a small flotilla of warships.

“It’s the UN fleet that was stationed in the Delta system,” Lieutenant Jamison reported. “I recognize a couple of the ships from when Redoubt passed through the system.”

The catch in Jamison’s voice wasn’t missed by James as she spoke. She had transferred to Titan twelve days ago. Her previous ship, HMS Redoubt had been far too damaged for the repair yards in Utah to do anything with her in less than a couple of months. Cunningham had ordered the light cruiser abandoned and distributed her crew among the rest of the British ships to make up for battle losses. From what Romanov had told him, she was fitting into the command hierarchy of Titan well, but it was obvious she still missed her old ship. Who wouldn’t? James asked himself. Though he was now a Rear Admiral, he was still sitting on the bridge of Titan.  He had refused to transfer his flag to another ship. Even though there were more powerful battlecruisers and a battleship in the British fleet.

“Good work,” Romanov replied to Jamison. “Let’s get a detailed track on them and work up a firing solution. We may as well get some practice in.”

“Aye Captain,” the Fourth Lieutenant replied.

With nothing else to do, James sat back and watched the bridge crew carry out a mock engagement. Just after the UN squadron had been destroyed in the simulation, Victory transferred the report the squadron’s commander had prepared. James scanned through it before updating the bridge. “It looks like a Russian squadron jumped into the Delta system. Rather than engage them in what would almost certainly have been a defeat, the UN squadron’s commander chose to fall back. The Russian squadron took out Delta’s orbital defenses and occupied the system. That was two weeks ago. I think it’s safe to assume the Russians have taken control of the Beta and Gamma systems as well. They have Sol well and truly locked up.”

“And I’m sure they have sent scout ships into the American colonies. They’ll get plenty of warning that we are on our way,” Romanov suggested.

James nodded. “It’s what I’d do. With enough warning, Koroylov can bring his main fleet to Delta to face us. That way, he won’t have to worry about Earth’s defenders attacking him in the rear.”

“What do we do?” Second Lieutenant Scott asked. “If the Russians can hit us with such massive missile salvos, we don’t stand much of a chance.”

“That was the one glimmer of hope,” James replied. “The squadron which attacked Delta’s orbital defenses fired a normal sized missile salvo for the number of ships in their squadron. Whatever trick Koroylov used against Marquis’ fleet, it wasn’t repeated at Delta.”

“Of course, he could just be keeping the trick in reserve for when he fights us,” Romanov said.

“Indeed,” James replied. “But given the circumstances, we have little choice but to confront him and see what happens.”

Twenty minutes later, Cunningham called a holo conference with his senior commanders. As soon as they were gathered, he began to speak. “We’ve been traveling at a brisk pace since leaving Utah. I intend for us to move even faster now. Koroylov will know his main threat is our fleet, yet it’s very likely he has ships patrolling all four of the systems connecting to Sol. If we move fast, we can get to Delta before Koroylov can concentrate all his ships into one fleet. I don’t see any other strategic option open to us. We need to push forward quickly and force Koroylov to engage us on our terms. To that end, we’re going to leave our supply freighters behind. I’m transferring the ships assigned to protect the freighters back to our main fleet. The UN squadron will take over protecting them, they have no battle experience and we would lose efficiency if we tried to integrate them into our fleet at this stage. As soon as we’re done here we will push towards the Delta system at maximum possible speed. Any questions?”

No one spoke as Cunningham looked around at the projections of each senior commander. “I’m just eager to get to grips with this Koroylov,” Admiral Woo said.

“As am I,” Rear Admiral Thurot agreed.

“Then let’s be about it,” Cunningham replied. “If Koroylov is able to fire a larger than expected missile salvo at us at the beginning of the fleet engagement, we will push our damaged ships forward as planned. Make sure their crews are drilled and prepared to abandon ship quickly. Beyond that, it will come down to which side has the better crews. My money is on our people. Good luck to you all.”

Within moments of the holo conference ending, new orders came in from Victory. “Send the orders on to the rest of our ships,” James ordered. “Then increase our acceleration to the fleet’s maximum. Maintain formation with the flagship.”

*

HMS Titan, Delta System, 2nd August 2473 AD.

What had taken the UN squadron twelve days to cover, the Combined Fleet traversed in just ten. Along the way they encountered two small Russian warships. Both had been detected and destroyed by the forward screen of light ships Cunningham had spread out ahead of his main fleet. James had been pleased to see that HMS Endeavour, his previous ship, now under the command of Captain Becket had scored one of the kills. Even though the only two ships detected had been rundown and destroyed, everyone knew there were likely others that had escaped undetected. As the Combined Fleet jumped into the Delta system, no one was under the impression that the defenders would be caught by surprise.

“No ships in our immediate vicinity,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards called from the sensor station. “No sign of any ships on the gravimetric sensors either,” she added a moment later.

“What are the electromagnetic sensors picking up?” James queried.

Lieutenant Scott answered. “They’re detecting several ships in orbit around Delta. There are nine, possibly ten. Nothing larger than a medium cruiser.”

“Keep working on the sensor data that’s coming in,” Romanov ordered. “I want each of those ships identified.”

“Orders from the flagship,” Sub Lieutenant Grey reported. “The fleet is to launch recon drones according to plan Zeta-four.”

“Proceed,” James ordered with a nod to Romanov.

As more than a thousand drones shot from the Combined Fleet James watched them spread out in a conical fashion. Cunningham clearly wanted to make sure there wasn’t a large Russian fleet hiding nearby before he took his ships deeper into the system. After the drones had spent fifty minutes searching for hidden ships, Cunningham gave the order to advance.

As soon as his ships powered up their engines and began to move, they appeared on the gravimetric sensors of the Russian ships orbiting Delta. They responded almost immediately. Together they powered up their engines and broke orbit. Rather than coming out to face the fleet that outnumbered them more than ten to one, they took off towards the shift passage back to Sol.

“That would suggest that Koroylov isn’t in the system,” Romanov said. “Or at least, that’s what he wants us to think.”

“Exactly,” James replied. “If he is out there, he could be using the ships to bait us into a trap.”

“New orders,” Gray announced. “Fleet is to change trajectory.”

“It looks like Cunningham is in agreement,” Lieutenant Scott said when the new course for the fleet appeared on the holo projector.

Delta’s star was almost directly between the shift passage the Combined Fleet had just exited and the one leading away from the system towards Sol. Rather than use the star’s gravity to slingshot his ships towards the shift passage, Cunningham intended to give the star a wide berth. It would add more than an hour to their journey across the system, but it was an unpredictable course. Reinforcing the idea that Cunningham was suspicious something was up, moments later he ordered a second wave of recon drones dispatched.

“Still no sign of anything out of the ordinary?” James asked forty minutes later.

“Nothing,” Scott replied with a shake of her head. “If the Russians have any warships nearby, they have drastically improved their stealth technology.”

“Still no word from the Delta colony?”

“None Rear Admiral,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards answered. “Several of our ships have been trying to hail them since we entered the system, but there has been no reply.”

That made James suspicious. There was only one planet in the Delta system that was even remotely habitable. And even saying that was a stretch. Delta four, the system’s fourth planet, was home to just four thousand humans. They lived under the surface in several mining enclaves. The toxic atmosphere meant no one stepped outside. The colony was essentially insignificant, yet if the Russians had gone to the trouble to make sure they couldn’t contact the Combined Fleet, it was possible they knew something important. Perhaps they have information on the whereabouts of Koroylov’s fleet? James wondered. “Keep trying,” he replied. “I imagine Cunningham will want to send a ship or two to investigate if they don’t reply soon.”

“Contacts,” Edwards shouted excitedly. “Multiple new contacts on the gravimetric sensors.”

James’s eyes whipped to the holo projection of what the gravimetric sensors were picking up. The new contacts were appearing on the edge of the system right at the shift passage to Sol. At first there were just six of them, then in fours and fives more and more appeared. Within ten seconds, one hundred and ninety-six ships were accelerating into the system.

“He wasn’t hiding,” Romanov concluded. “We managed to get here ahead of him.”

“So it would seem,” James replied. “Let’s not jump to any conclusions. They could be a fleet of freighters designed to make us think Koroylov’s fleet is on the other side of the system.” There was one thing James had learnt in his years in the RSN. The commander who accepted that things were as they appeared to be, usually didn’t survive the battle.

Only after another thirty minutes was James happy to put his suspicions to rest. As the new contacts accelerated into the system Titan’s sensors confirmed with growing certainty that they were warships. Many of them were easily identifiable from the data that had been sent to them on Koroylov’s engagement with Marquis’ fleet.

Cunningham came to the same conclusion for it wasn’t long until he ordered another course change. Content that Koroylov was looking for a straight up fight, Cunningham put his Combined Fleet onto an intercept trajectory with the new contacts.

“Is this wise?” Romanov asked James quietly after the Combined Fleet had finished its maneuver. “Koroylov just out numbers us, but we know he has more ships elsewhere. If we fight him in a straight up fight we’ll probably win, but we’ll not be in a state to fight whatever ships are still in the Sol system. Plus, if Koroylov is willing to fight us head on, he must have some kind of trick planned.”

“Put yourself in Koroylov’s shoes,” James replied. “He probably concentrated as many ships as he could as soon as he heard about our approach. He has to stop us getting into the Sol system. The risk we could combine our strength with my uncle’s would be too great otherwise.”

“He could still be up to something,” Romanov pointed out.

“No doubt, but what else would you have Cunningham do? Don’t forget our real objective. If we can take out half of Koroylov’s fleet today, then he will never be able to take Earth. I’d bet on our ships against his in an even fight any day.”

Romanov nodded slowly. James knew he understood what he was saying. As far as the battle was concerned, from Cunningham’s perspective, the Combined Fleet was expendable. Taking out Koroylov’s fleet and breaking the blockade of Earth was far more important.

For two more hours the fleets approached each other. Each made several course changes as Cunningham and Koroylov tried to move their fleets into the optimal position for an engagement. Koroylov favored a missile duel at range whilst Cunningham wanted to be in a position where his ships could charge into plasma cannon range if the situation called for it. In the end neither Admiral could outmaneuver the other, both fleets would enter missile range at roughly the same time, and neither would have a significantly higher closing vector than the other. The Combined Fleet’s momentum would allow them to continue to close with Koroylov’s fleet, but it would be at a rate that a prolonged missile duel would ensue before either fleet came into energy weapons range of one another.

As both fleets grew closer and closer, James could feel the tension on the bridge around him grow. No one knew how Koroylov’s fleet had managed to fire so many missiles at Marquis’ fleet when they had fought over Mars. The sensor data on the battle they had received had been taken by a freighter that had been on the edge of the Sol system and had been patchy. However Koroylov had managed to do it, everyone’s fear that they were about to face the same tactic was growing.

“We have the Russians in missile range,” Second Lieutenant Scott reported from the tactical console. “Every ship in the fleet will be able to open fire in another forty-four seconds.”

“Acknowledged,” Romanov replied.

James’ back muscles tensed as he waited. The Russians would be able to open fire slightly before the Combined Fleet. With ships from so many different nations, Cunningham was forced to hold his fire until every ship could fire together. The Russians didn’t have such a disadvantage.

“They’re firing,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards shouted.

James held his breath as hundreds of new contacts appeared around the Russian fleet. He wasn’t the only one doing so. Koroylov had one hundred and ninety-six ships in his fleet. Within three seconds, two thousand one hundred and ninety-four new contacts appeared on the gravimetric sensors. When the number stopped climbing, James took a deep breath.

“That… I think that’s them all,” Edwards said as she spun to look at James. “They haven’t fired any more missiles Capt… eh, I mean Rear Admiral.” The relief on her voice was obvious.

Before anyone else could comment, Scott spoke up. “The fleet is opening fire.”

James knew exactly what to expect, but he studied the gravimetric plot nonetheless. From the one hundred and eighty-two warships in the Combined Fleet, one thousand nine hundred and eighty missiles shot into space and accelerated towards their Russian targets. Something is not right, he thought as soon as he looked at the two salvos of missiles racing towards one another. Koroylov’s ships hadn’t changed course, their only intention appeared to line themselves up with Cunningham’s fleet and duke it out until one side gave up. Yet without their massive opening missile salvo, they barely have any advantage. Their fleet will be decimated.

“We are receiving an encrypted message,” Sub Lieutenant Gray shouted from the COMs console with a lot more alarm than her most recent report. “The Russian fleet is transmitting a message to us. It’s using an old RSN encryption. And I’m detecting other COM messages directed at the other ships in the Combined Fleet, I recognize some of their encryptions. There are older American and French ones, as well as some from the minor nations. There are at least twelve different encrypted messages being transmitted by the Russians.”

Instinctively James knew that whatever was happening wasn’t good, yet, he had no idea what Koroylov was doing. “What is going on?” he demanded. Right away he knew no one could answer him. Cursing himself silently, he made a more meaningful request. “Decrypt that message immediately. I want to know what it says.”




Chapter 13

You never want to go into battle with someone holding a knife at your back. For most Admirals, facing one enemy is usually enough danger.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Titan, Delta system.

“It some kind of text message requesting that we stand down,” Sub Lieutenant Grey reported several seconds later.

“Let me see,” James demanded. “Send it to my command chair.” Looking down he read what Koroylov had sent.

British commander, know that our quarrel is not primarily with you. For too long now the Russian people have been kept from their homeland. We simply wish to reassert our right to govern our own homeland just as your Star Kingdom does. If your ships stand down, we will redirect our missiles. There is no need for us to be at war with one another. The French are our real enemies. Once they have been defeated and we have been allowed to return to mother Russia, hostilities can come to an end. Stand down and we will do the same.

James shook his head. What is Koroylov trying to do? No British Captain would ever respond positively to such a message.

“Admiral Cunningham is requesting that every ship that received a message from the Russians transmit the decrypted message to his flagship,” Grey updated everyone.

As soon as the Sub Lieutenant spoke, James knew what Cunningham was thinking. The British ships would never respond to such a request. Probably the others wouldn’t either, but what if they had been sent something else? How would the Indians respond to an offer of peace if the Russians offered them Haven and the British colonies?

“Sensors, track our allies in the Combined Fleet. Monitor the power readings and positions of their plasma cannons. If any ship even so much as looks like it might be preparing to fire on another Allied ship, I want to know about it.”

“Aye Captain,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards responded.

“You think the Russians are trying to turn us against each other?” Romanov asked as he spun to look at James.

“I think they’re trying,” James responded. “I don’t know that it will work, but we can’t take any chances. If I was them, I would at least try.”

“That can’t be why Koroylov is approaching us with such confidence, can it?” Romanov replied.

The question sent a shiver down James’s spine. Before he could answer though, another voice interrupted him.

“Thirty seconds until Russian missiles reach point defense range,” Lieutenant Scott reported. “If something is going to happen, now is the time.”

Time seemed to slow down. James turned to look at the holo projection of the Combined Fleet. A split second after Sub Lieutenant Edwards spotted something suspicious, he saw it as well.

“The Indians are turning their ships, their plasma cannons are coming to bear on the Flagship,” the Sub Lieutenant shouted in alarm.

“Evasive maneuvers,” James ordered. His body was shoved into his command chair as Titan’s inertial compensators struggled to cope with the sudden course change Sub Lieutenant Denver threw the heavy cruiser into. “Target the Indian ships with our plasma cannons,” he ordered through gritted teeth. Moments later a shudder ran through his command. He could tell right away that it was from an energy weapon penetrating Titan’s hull rather than evasive maneuvers. “Where did that come from?” he managed to bellow despite the tightness of his restraints.

“A Brazilian destroyer,” Scott reported after a slight delay. “Our evasive maneuvers threw off the rest of its shots.”

“Take it out,” James ordered. “Signal the rest of our ships, all Indian and Brazilian warships are to be treated as hostiles. They must be destroyed…” A massive explosion on the holo projector cut him off. “No,” he shouted. Four Indian warships had fired their plasma cannons at Cunningham’s flagship. James had just looked in time to see a secondary explosion rip the British battleship in two. The Combined Fleet tore itself apart as Indian, Argentinian and Brazilian ships opened fire on their comrades. Though they had been caught by surprise, the rest of the Combined Fleet reacted with lightning reflexes. Just seconds after numerous explosions ripped through those who had been betrayed, the betrayers were bloodied as Indian, Argentinian and Brazilian ships blew apart under heavy barrages of plasma cannon fire. Then, as if things couldn’t get worse, Russian missiles detonated all around what had once been the Combined Fleet.

“Point defenses,” Romanov ordered.

“The British fleet will turn to trajectory five three one point four. Formation turtle three,” James followed up. As the missiles rained in on the already confused and battered Combined Fleet, James dismissed the ships that were blowing up from his mind. If he was going to withdraw any ships from the maelstrom swirling through the Combined Fleet, he couldn’t dwell on the already overwhelming losses they were suffering.

As Sub Lieutenant Denver did his best to keep Titan dodging and weaving, Lieutenant Scott shot down missile after missile that tried to target the heavy cruiser. Two managed to get through her wall of defensive fire, one missed completely when Denver pulled Titan’s nose up sharply. The second didn’t score a direct hit. But when it got to within fifty meters of the cruiser’s hull, it detonated. A wave of electromagnetic energy came crashing into her valstronium armor. Once again James’ restraints tried to suffocate him as they tightened around his chest.

“Damage report,” Romanov requested.

“The hull has been penetrated on the port side, section four, decks two and three. Two missile tubes are unresponsive. That was the plasma bolt strike. The missile that detonated just off the starboard bow has burnt off a lot of our armor, we’ve lost a lot of point defense and sensor blisters, but there was no hull breach,” Lieutenant Cartier reported from the auxiliary bridge.

James didn’t listen to Romanov’s reply. Instead he focused on the holo projection of the Combined Fleet. When the electromagnetic energy given off from all the thermonuclear detonations dispersed enough for Titan’s sensors to see around her, he was stunned by what he saw. The Combined Fleet was a wreck. More than forty ships were simply gone, no more than clouds of debris hurtling through space. At least another thirty ships were damaged almost beyond recognition. Few had any power levels or signs of life coming from them.

“Signal all remaining Allied ships,” James shouted over the din of the bridge. “Tell them to make for the shift passage back to American space. Maximum possible speed, every ship must redline their reactors and engines. Damaged ships will have to be left behind.” As he spoke, he shared a look with Romanov. They both knew what that meant. Even if they managed to escape the Russian fleet, less than half of their ships would be getting out of the system alive.

“The Indian, Argentinian and Brazilian ships are moving off,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards reported. “They are moving onto an intercept trajectory with the Russian fleet.”

“Traitors,” Romanov spat. “How could they? They murdered Admiral Cunningham!”

“And many more,” James added. “But the why doesn’t matter now. We have to get as many ships out of this fiasco as possible. The British Star Kingdom’s future, Earth’s future, depends on it. Sensors, how many flagships are left in the Combined Fleet?” When no answer came back, James spoke lighter. “Sensors, how many?”

“Jus... just one,” Edwards replied hesitantly. “Acting Commodore Sato’s heavy cruiser is pulling away with the other Japanese ships. The flagships of Admiral’s Woo, von Kleist and Thurot are all gone. The Indians targeted our battleships. None survived.”

More than one bridge officer swore. James swung around to study the ships that were fleeing with Titan. He had heard Edwards’ words, but he struggled to believe her. Yet he couldn’t deny it. There was no ship larger than a battlecruiser left in the Combined Fleet, the Indians and the other traitors had chosen their targets well. “How many ships are breaking away at maximum acceleration?” he requested as he forced himself to analyze the situation.

“Eighty-seven,” Scott replied. “There are forty-three other ships trying to escape, but none of them are achieving more than sixty-five percent of what should be their maximum thrust.”

James took a deep breath. He knew what had to be done, yet he didn’t want to give the order. For a moment he closed his eyes and thought of Cunningham. The Admiral had been his mentor when James had been at the Academy. Then James had fought with him and seen him win great victories in the wars with China and India. Now he was gone, and the responsibility was on James’ shoulders. With his eyes still closed his mind shifted onto his uncle and then Suzanna. He knew she was on Earth, he had received a letter from her when he had returned to Utah from X-38. When he opened his eyes, he knew he had no choice. Cunningham and his uncle would not hesitate to do what he knew he had to. “Open a COM channel to all the damaged ships. I want to speak to their Captains.”

After a moment Sub Lieutenant Grey nodded to let him know the COM channel was open. James closed his eyes again to concentrate, and then began to speak. “My friends, we have all fought together against a common foe in the Flex-aor. Together we drove back their invasion fleet and defended our peoples. Yet now we have been betrayed in a most despicable manner. I’m afraid I cannot save you, you know what the Russians intend, they will try and chase the undamaged ships of our fleet down and then they will come for you. I cannot save you, but together, you can save the ships of the Combined Fleet that are undamaged. What’s left of our fleet must escape intact, it is the only chance Earth has. I cannot order you to do this, but I ask it nonetheless. Let me assure you that we will avenge you. Godspeed.”

When he opened his eyes, James found everyone on the bridge watching him. Some had their mouths open, others looked horrified. He knew if he had heard a senior officer giving a similar command twenty years ago he might have felt the same. The burden of command changes everything, James repeated to himself. It was something his uncle had told him more than once. “Stop staring,” he snapped. “Our next missile salvo will target those traitors, I want every one of their ships destroyed. Pass the word to the rest of our ships that are able to open fire. We will fire as one.”

“Your orders have been transmitted Admiral,” Grey responded seconds later.

“Fire when ready Lieutenant Scott,” James said.

Rather than getting any more despondent by studying what was left of the Combined Fleet, James shifted his focus to the Russians. He felt a slight bit of satisfaction when he saw eight ships were missing from their numbers. The Combined Fleet’s opening salvo had done some damage. Yet in the grand scheme of things, it was all but insignificant. Koroylov had his full fleet charging as fast as they could towards the scattered remnants of the Combined Fleet. He intended to chase down the undamaged ships and hammer them with long-range missile salvos before they could jump out of the system. Then he would be free to finish off the damaged ships at his leisure. Though James knew that was Koroylov’s plan, there was nothing he could do about it. The Combined Fleet had lost all cohesion, and the number of ships already destroyed meant that what was left had no hope of standing against Koroylov ships. He did have a plan after all, James realized. He had no idea how Koroylov had managed to convince the Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians to betray their allies. Yet he had come to the Delta system confident that he could. There was no other explanation for why Koroylov would have given battle on even terms. Damn him, James thought, the Russian Admiral was decimating every Allied fleet he fought against.

“We are firing,” Scott reported.

“Acknowledged,” James replied. Inside he felt a small surge of pride. Even with the horrific losses the Combined Fleet had suffered and the sudden betrayal from their allies, what was left of the fleet had managed to reload their missile tubes faster than the Russians.

From their warships, just over five hundred missiles shot towards the fleeing traitors. Between them, the Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians only had twenty-six ships left. James was confident that at best, only a handful would survive the missiles tracking in on them. Their smaller salvo would have been brushed off by the Russian fleet, yet the traitors wouldn’t reach the safety of the Russian point defenses in time. They were going to pay dearly for their actions.

“Russians are opening fire,” Sub Lieutenant Grey announced. “It looks like their salvo is targeting us,” she added once Titan’s sensors were able to detect the trajectory of the incoming salvo.

James didn’t reply, instead he watched the damaged ships of the Combined Fleet. They were strung out in a long line going back from Titan to the point where the first Russian missile salvo had struck them. First one, then a handful more stopped trying to accelerate away from the Russian fleet. Instead they turned to put themselves directly between the Russian salvo and the undamaged ships that were fleeing. Following their lead, within a short period of time, every damaged ship moved onto the same trajectory and formed up into a defensive formation.

“What are they doing?” Grey asked. “They cannot hope to stand against the Russian salvo.”

James didn’t look at the Sub Lieutenant. He obviously hadn’t understood the implications of what James had said to the Captains of the damaged ships. He didn’t have the heart to tell him.

“No,” Romanov answered. “But they can force the Russians to focus their missiles on them while we escape. They are making sure we get away.”

“But… But,” Grey said as she tried to find something to say.

“But nothing,” Romanov replied. “This is war, the Russians must be defeated at any cost. Our friends are about to pay that cost. We need to make sure we get out of here and live up to the sacrifice they have made for us.”

Sub Lieutenant Grey fell silent, though she nodded slowly at Romanov before turning back to her console.

Before the Russian missiles closed with the damaged Allied ships, the salvo James had fired at the traitors hit home. Though they tried their best, the point defenses of the Indian, Argentinian and Brazilian warships weren’t capable of matching the missile technologies of the British and American ECM missiles. They failed to even shoot down half the missiles that closed with them. Evasive maneuvers allowed a brief respite for some of the traitors’ ships, yet the vast majority suffered direct hits. Within thirty seconds, the thirty-three traitors’ ships had been reduced to nine, and at least three of them were heavily damaged.

“Take a note of those ships that survived,” James ordered. “I want to know their names and their Captains. If we ever encounter them again, we will show them no quarter.”

“Agreed,” Romanov replied.

“Put the damaged ships on the main holo-projection,” James requested. He wanted everyone to watch what was about to happen.

In silence, Titan’s bridge crew watched the one thousand nine hundred Russian missiles close with their friends and allies. Six British ships were among the thirty-three preparing to face off against the Russian salvo. Together they shot down almost five hundred Russian missiles. Then the missiles started to explode. So many detonated in quick succession that Titan’s sensors could not make heads or tails of what was happening. When they finally were able to peer through the dense electromagnetic energy given off by the nuclear detonations, more than half of the damaged ships were gone.

“So many,” Scott said, the dismay in her voice unmistakable.

James didn’t say anything. There was nothing he could say for Titan’s bridge crew or even for the rest of the ships fleeing under his orders. Every man and woman on board what was left of the Combined Fleet knew they were lucky to be alive, that others had given their lives for them to escape. The question was, were they actually going to escape? James had been watching the plot of his ships’ progress towards the shift passage out of the Delta system. Thanks to Cunningham’s pre-battle maneuvering, his ships had already been heading in the right general direction. Their greater acceleration rates compared to the Russians meant he was confident they could outrun Koroylov’s fleet. They just had to get out of missile range.

As if to confirm his fears, the Russian fleet opened fire. Of the damaged Allied ships that were left, James suspected many of them had taken further direct or proximity hits from the last salvo. There was no way they could absorb another full salvo. As the Russian missiles accelerated away from their motherships, they began to split up. Koroylov knows it too, James concluded. Only three hundred Russian missiles were targeting the damaged ships, more than fifteen hundred were coming for the ships fleeing with Titan.

“We’re going to save our missile salvo and use it to target their missiles,” James informed everyone. “Pass the word to the rest of our fleet.” It was an old trick, one the Russians were no doubt ready for, yet there was nothing else he could do. Firing his missiles at the Russian fleet would maybe destroy one or two targets if they were lucky.

“Signal Endeavour and Falcon, I want them both to increase their acceleration rates and head to Nantucket,” James ordered. Though he had ordered all the ships to redline their reactors, he knew both ships had been holding back to stay in formation with Titan. They were the fastest ships he had left and he needed them to use their speed now. “Our freighter fleet there and the UN warships need to know what happened. They need to pull back deeper into American colonial space as quickly as they can. Koroylov won’t stop here, now that he has us on the run he will try and take Nantucket and perhaps push further into American space.”

“Both Captains have acknowledged,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards responded after contacting them.

James nodded to her and then turned to look at the main holo projection of the battle. The three hundred missiles Koroylov had targeted at what was left of the damaged Allied ships were trying to weave their way through a wall of point defensive fire. Twenty seconds later the first missile reached its target. It struck home and the explosive force from its warhead ripped a Chinese light cruiser into three large chunks that spiraled away from one another. In just a handful of seconds every other ship in the formation Koroylov had targeted was hit with several direct or proximity hits. As the final Russian missile detonated, not a single Allied warship was left. They had all been destroyed.

“The optim..” Lieutenant Scott started to report and then broke off as her voice cracked. She cleared her throat, took a breath and then tried again. “The optimal point for firing missiles is coming up.”

“Coordinate with the rest of our ships, fire when you think best Lieutenant,” James replied. He wanted to say something to comfort her but there were no words. It could easily be Titan who was next on the receiving end of such catastrophic destruction

Five hundred and forty missiles shot towards the incoming Russian salvo. Every missile detonated just before they intersected the Russian missiles. The actual explosions destroyed sixty Russian missiles. James ordered his ships to alter course slightly. Six hundred and thirty-two missiles vectored after his ships, the rest continued on, their seeker heads burnt out by the electromagnetic energy given off by the Allied missiles’ detonation.

“Rear Admiral, Commodore Sato has contacted us, he is requesting permission to launch the modified recon drones,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards reported.

“Reply; ‘permission granted,” James responded. “Then order all our ships to do the same.”

The modified recon drones had been Sato’s idea. They built on a tactic he had developed for fighting the Flex-aor. The drones would take up position above and below the Combined Fleet. They were equipped with the most advanced sensor packages the Allies had. As Russian missiles came in they would track every single one of them and relay the data to the Combined Fleet. With point defense plasma cannon bolts, AM missiles, flak cannon rounds and explosions from nuclear missiles that detonated prematurely, in an anti-missile engagement, a ship’s sensors could be overwhelmed. The modified recon drones were meant to limit the confusion. Against the Flex-aor the tactic had proved very successful for the aliens fired many more but less powerful missiles in their salvos, resulting in far more confusion. Every little will help, James thought as the first drones were released. They should have been deployed before the first Russian salvo had hit home. In all the confusion, no one had been able to do so.

When the Russian missiles came close enough, they were greeted with a wave of flak cannon fire. Flak rounds burst amongst the Russian missiles, releasing tens of thousands of pieces of shrapnel. More than a hundred missiles were taken out as they flew through the cloud of destruction. Then it was the turn of the AM missile launchers and point defense plasma and laser cannon gunners. Thousands of green bolts, orange streaks from AM missile exhaust plumes and red laser beams filled space around Titan and her sister ships as the point defense ordnance reached out to strike the incoming threats. The Russian missiles were reduced to less than four hundred, then three hundred. As soon as they were reloaded, the flak cannons opened fire again. With less Russian missiles left, they were less effective, still the flak cloud took sixty more.

“Fleet will begin evasive maneuvers in five seconds,” James ordered as the number of Russian missiles decreased. When they got into terminal range, there were just sixty left. Then, as Titan and the rest of the Combined Fleet pushed their ECM to full and began to turn and weave, he lost track of everything but what was happening to Titan. Three missiles were tracking the heavy cruiser. Through pure luck, or skill, Lieutenant Scott shot down the first and second one with two successive AM missiles. When her focus switched to the third one, James knew there was going to be a problem. The missile was coming in from the direction of Titan’s starboard nose section. That area had already suffered a proximity hit and there were far fewer point defenses there to shoot it down.

Instinctively he grabbed onto his command chair with both hands. To his amazement, the missile missed striking home, yet as soon as it realized it was going to miss, it detonated. For the second time in the battle, a wave of explosive force crashed into Titan’s nose. The series of metallic groans that reverberated through the bridge told him that the damage was far more serious this time.

As soon as Titan’s inertial dampeners got the g-forces under control he had to stop himself from crying out for damage report, that was Romanov’s responsibility.

“How bad is it?” Titan’s Captain asked.

“Not good,” Cartier responded. “We’ve got multiple hull breaches in our nose section. None of the three forward missile tube crews are responding to any attempts to hail them.”

James forced himself to turn away from the ongoing conversation between Romanov and Cartier. He needed to know about the fleet’s situation. “Scott, what’s the fleet’s status?” He requested.

“Four ships destroyed, three others are falling out of formation heavily damaged,” she replied instantly. “We’ve just passed out of the Russian’s missile envelope. We should be safe now.”

She didn’t add that the damaged ships that were falling back were far from safe. She didn’t have to. Everyone had seen what Koroylov did to damaged ships.

“Order the crews of those ships to abandon ship and scuttle their commands. I won’t give the Russians any ships they can repair and put into service against us,” James ordered. He turned and sought out the holo projection of Delta’s mass shadow. They were still two hours away from the point where they could jump out of the system to safety. And Koroylov will be right behind us all the way. Of the one hundred and eighty-four warships of the Combined Fleet that had entered the Delta system, just sixty-eight remained. Koroylov would be able to chase them through the American colonies until they came to a world with a significant level of orbital defenses. And those are all on the other side of the American colonies, James thought. Since the beginning of the Flex-aor invasion, defenses had been stripped from the inner American colonies and moved out to the border regions. Even if he doesn’t take Earth, Koroylov can raid the American colonies for all their wealth.

Reaching down to his command chair he pulled up a map of the nearest American systems and began to figure out his next steps. He had to limit the damage Koroylov might do. For the foreseeable future, his fleet was trapped in American space. If there was any hope they were going to repair, rebuild and rearm, he needed the industrial might of the American colonies intact. He was so engrossed in his planning that he missed the detonation of the three warships he had ordered scuttled. Only when Lieutenant Edwards announced that the fleet was ready to jump to shift space did he look up. As his ships jumped out of the Delta system, he didn’t feel any relief. Escaping was almost irrelevant in the face of the utter catastrophe the last few hours had brought upon the Combined Fleet. They would not be coming to Earth’s aid any time soon.




Chapter 14

The First Battle of Delta, or, as some still refer to it; the Backstabbers’ Battle, has gone down in infamy. From one angle, it is remembered as one of the most one-sided victories in the wars of the First Galactic Expansion Era. From another angle, it is a battle that is greatly lamented. So many of the brave men and women of the Combined Fleet who saw off the Flex-aor invasion were killed before they ever got to return home. If the ships and crews of the Combined Fleet had survived to face the Karacknids in the Second Battle of Earth, many lives might have been saved. Despite what position a historian takes on the significance of the battle, all are agreed on one thing, de Gama does not get good press.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Titan, Nantucket system, 8th August 2473 AD.

For James, the four-day trip down the shift passage from Delta to the Nantucket system was spent almost entirely in one of Titan’s briefing rooms. He had been using its holo projector and simulator to plan and test as many different strategies as he could come up with. Desperately looking for some way he could make a stand at Nantucket with the limited forces he had available. He knew what abandoning the system would mean. Koroylov would be able to capture all the supplies stored in orbit and possibly even extort the inhabited world’s population out of much of its wealth. Nantucket was a relatively unimportant world, having started out life as a small mining colony. Yet it was the first system the United Colonial States had colonized, and thus over time, it had grown into a world with a population of three hundred thousand people.

Despite trying every trick in the book, James could not come up with any way to defend the planet. What little orbital defenses Nantucket owned had been moved to the borders of American space to combat the Flex-oar threat. There was nothing James could think of that would prevent Koroylov from capturing much of the supplies and other materials within the system. No doubt all of them would be used to further his own war effort.

With a sigh James leant forward and shut down the final simulation. It was obvious his latest idea wasn’t going to prove successful. None of the tactics he had come up with to draw Koroylov’s fleet away from the freighters Cunningham had gathered within the system looked like they would work. Koroylov simply had too many ships. He could detach the faster ships from his fleet to pursue the freighters, while closing with what was left of the Combined Fleet with his main force. Trying to dance around Koroylov’s fleet to distract him would only end with more warships being lost.

Standing, James stretched and made his way out of the briefing room. It only took him a few strides to reach the sliding doors to Titan’s bridge. “Admiral on deck,” the first officer to spot him reported. Everyone spun and saluted.

“At ease,” he ordered after returning the gesture.

“We’ll be exiting subspace in five minutes,” Romanov informed him.

“What do you think we will find?” James asked as he moved to sit in his command chair.

“An orderly retreat?” Romanov replied, sounding far too hopeful.

James arched an eyebrow. They had already discussed the Commodore who commanded the UN ships. As far as either of them were concerned, he had been a career paper pusher. Jake Tremblay held the rank of Captain within the Canadian Interstellar Navy, though it had been bumped up to Commodore by the UN when he took command of the fleet protecting the Delta system. There were only two Canadian ships left in the Combined Fleet and James knew both of their Captains were fighters. He doubted the same could be said for Tremblay. The only saving grace for the UN fleet was that there were no Indian, Argentinian or Brazilian warships within it. That would have been a disaster.

“One can hope, can they not?” Romanov replied.

“I suppose,” James conceded, though he didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. The Nantucket system was full of freighter Captains who had fled the Flex-aor invasion. Now they were facing an attack from the opposite direction. Even if Tremblay was a far better commander than his record suggested, James expected most of the freighter captains to be moving as fast as they could away from the approaching Russian fleet no matter what anyone said to them. In part that’s what he wanted, yet he knew that if confusion took over, ships would be lost.

“Pass the order to every ship in our fleet, we’re taking a direct route to the shift passage to Springfield, best possible speed. I want to put as much distance between us and the end of the shift passage as possible before Koroylov’s fleet arrives,” James ordered as soon as Titan exited shift space.

When the holo projection of the system updated with all the data Titan’s sensors were collecting, he looked over to Romanov and they shared a glance. The situation was worse than James had feared. Chaos seemed to have taken over. There were at least three hundred contacts streaming away from Nantucket towards the shift passage to Springfield. None were in any kind of order. Around the planet itself there were hundreds more contacts, all in various stages of powering up their engines or breaking orbit. The UN ships, a medium cruiser, two light cruisers, three destroyers and four frigates had moved a few light seconds away from Nantucket but otherwise they appeared to be sitting stationary doing nothing. About half a light hour ahead of the Combined Fleet, HMS Endeavour was also sitting stationary. From what James could tell from the fleeing freighters, it looked like Captain Becket had arrived in system with her news a couple of hours ago.

As Titan and the rest of James’ ships cruised into the system, the chaos around Nantucket only increased. “I think some of the locals are mistaking us for Koroylov’s fleet,” Romanov commented.

James shook his head. “I wouldn’t be surprised.” Commodore Tremblay should have made sure everyone knew that at least some survivors were coming back from the battle in the Delta system.

As soon as she was able to establish two-way communications, Captain Becket opened a COM link with Titan. “Rear Admiral Somerville, I apologize. I tried to communicate to Commodore Tremblay your desire for him to organize an orderly retreat. I don’t think he completely understood what you expected of him.”

“It’s not your fault,” James replied. “And I wouldn’t blame Tremblay too much. How would you like to try and organize several hundred scared freighter Captains? Though I will admit, it looks like he could be trying a little harder. What have you got to report?”

“Nothing beyond what I imagine you can see from Titan’s sensors. Most of the freighters that Cunningham brought with us are already accelerating towards the Springfield shift passage. Any freighter that wasn’t already full began taking on supplies and civilians. I tried to urge them to break orbit immediately and flee, but a lot of their Captains refused to listen. I think they are charging pretty hefty rates for any civilians that want to escape.”

James ground his teeth together. “I will take care of it. I want you to fall back behind our main fleet. I’m putting three destroyers and two frigates under your command. I want you to hang back and engage whatever light ships Koroylov sends out to screen his main fleet. Don’t take any risks, but if you can, encourage them to take you on. Slowing down Koroylov’s fleet even for a few minutes will allow more freighters to escape.”

“I understand Rear Admiral, I will do my best,” Becket replied.

“I have complete confidence in you,” James responded. “Just remember, don’t take any unnecessary risks. We are going to need every warship we can get in the coming months.”

“Open a general COM channel, broadcast on every frequency,” James ordered once Becket’s face disappeared. He continued as soon as a Sub Lieutenant nodded to let him know the channel was open. “This is Rear Admiral James Somerville, senior surviving officer of the Combined Fleet. A large Russian war fleet will be entering the system within the next hour. Any ships that can enter shift space must break orbit from Nantucket immediately. Leaving now is your only chance of escape. If you delay you are putting yourself and your crew in harm’s way. Any ship that fails to follow these directions will not come under my protection. Evacuate now or you’ll find yourselves prisoners of the Russian Star Federation. These are your two choices and I urge you, do not delay.”

“Do you think they will listen?” Romanov asked once James finished speaking.

“They better,” James replied. “Send another message to Commodore Tremblay. Inform him that his ships are being drafted into the Combined Fleet. They are to rendezvous with us and take up positions in our formation.”

“Aye Rear Admiral,” Sub Lieutenant Grey replied.

It took twenty minutes for James’s message to reach Nantucket. As soon as it did, a number of ships broke orbit, yet many more didn’t move. “Fools,” Romanov said with a shake of his head.

Over the next thirty-five minutes other ships did break orbit in ones and twos, though it appeared they were only doing so after taking on whatever supplies or passengers they had been loading. That meant that when the announcement came that everyone on Titan’s bridge had been expecting, there were still more than sixty ships in orbit.

“New gravimetric contacts,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards reported. “They’re right on the edge of the Delta shift passage.”

Romanov swore as everyone turned to look at the gravimetric sensors. “He didn’t even jump out further up the passage. He came out right on top of the mass shadow. Any ships in orbit around Nantucket are doomed.”

“He knows he has nothing to fear from us,” James replied. “Plus, I imagine the traitors gave him plenty of intel on the freighter fleet Cunningham gathered here. No doubt Koroylov wants to capture as many of them as possible.”

Romanov shook his head in disgust. “Well he won’t be disappointed.”

“Forty ships are breaking off from Koroylov’s fleet,” Edwards reported as soon as Titan’s sensors got a firm fix on the new contacts’ trajectories. “They’re heading straight for Nantucket. The rest are moving onto an intercept vector for us.”

“Remind Captain Becket that I don’t want her taking any risks,” James ordered.

“COM message sent,” Sub Lieutenant Grey confirmed.

Though it frustrated him greatly, James was slowly becoming accustomed to his role as a fleet commander. After giving what orders he could, there was nothing more for him to do but to sit in his command chair and watch events unfold around him.

Commodore Tremblay moved his ships to rendezvous with the Combined Fleet. Once they were slotted into position James ordered a slight course change so as to bring his ships closer to the largest group of fleeing freighters. Then he watched Captain Becket and the ships he had given her enter a contest of maneuver and counter maneuver with the fastest ships Koroylov had dispatched to Nantucket. Twice Becket managed to get her small squadron into missile range of the Russians at a point where her momentum allowed her to fire whilst the Russians could not reply. Two Russian frigates took minor damage and had to fall back, but otherwise Becket was unable to slow the attack. After allowing her to tangle with the Russian warships for an hour, James sent the order for Becket to pull back. There was nothing more she could do.

As the acceleration rates and maximum velocities of the Russian ships became clear, Lieutenant Scott marked out which freighters would escape and which would be caught. Pretty much every ship that hadn’t left before James gave his order for Nantucket to be evacuated was going to fall under the guns of the pursuing Russian ships before they could jump out of the system.

“By my count, that is sixty-nine ships that won’t make it out of the system,” Scott said as she gave her final report. “From the manifests of the ships that we have access to, there is over one billion credits worth of materials on those freighters. And that’s not counting the value of the freighters themselves.”

James nodded his thanks to Scott. He brought a hand up to his face and rubbed both cheeks. Once again he knew he had a tough order to give. Yet again, there was no choice in the matter. “Open a COM channel to those ships,” he requested.

“With the authority invested in me as the senior commander of the Combined Fleet that your governments instituted, I am ordering your freighters evacuated and scuttled immediately. The war materials and supplies your ships are carrying cannot fall into Russian hands. The war with the Russians has become a war of attrition. None of you signed up to fight in a naval battle or a war, but that is where you find yourselves. Scuttle your ships now and direct your escape pods to Nantucket. I’m confident Koroylov has no intention of invading the planet’s surface, you will all be safe there. I will keep a record of all the freighters that are scuttled. No harm, financial or otherwise, will come upon you for following my orders. On the other hand, if you do not scuttle your ships, rest assured that when the war is over, there will be consequences. You will be court-martialed for treason against your own nations.”

As soon as the order was sent, James crossed his arms and waited patiently for it to travel across the system to its recipients. As the message reached each freighter, they began to show signs that they would comply. Within the space of forty minutes, sixty-four of the freighters had been abandoned and destroyed. Five continued as if James hadn’t spoken. He sent one more COM transmission to each of them. When they still didn’t respond he used his authority to pass judgement on their Captains. He transmitted a system wide order to apprehend each freighter’s Captain and senior officers if they ever came into the hands of the authorities on Nantucket or the ships under his command. Though he guessed many of the freighter crews within the system would think he was being too harsh. James didn’t care. He wasn’t doing it out of a desire to punish those who had disobeyed his order. Before the Russian advance could be stopped, more freighters would come under their guns. He wanted every freighter captain in the system to know what would happen to them if they handed over their ships to Koroylov.

To confirm the necessity of his order, everyone still within the system watched as the fastest Russian ships caught up with each of the freighters one by one. After having warning shots fired at them, four of the freighters cut their engines and surrendered. The fifth one, the one closest to the system’s mass shadow refused to slow down. James guessed that its Captain was probably hoping the Russians wouldn’t fire on the freighter and simply let it escape. He had no such luck, plasma bolts tore through the freighter’s engines. A secondary explosion blew up the freighter’s reactor and most of its personnel quarters. Probably some of its cargo would be salvageable, but James suspected its crew were all dead.

Just two minutes after the freighter’s demise, Titan’s sensors observed the small squadron Koroylov had dispatched to the inhabited planet reach its target. They easily destroyed the planet’s light orbital defenses and then settled into orbit. The population was at Koroylov’s mercy. Whatever Koroylov had planned for the planet, James wasn’t able to see, for Titan jumped out of the system before anything else happened. She was the last Allied ship to leave. One thing was clear to James though, the main bulk of Koroylov’s fleet hadn’t started to decelerate. They were heading straight for the shift passage to Springfield. Koroylov intended to continue the pursuit. The more than four hundred freighters that had escaped Nantucket were soon going to find out they were far from safe.

*

The flight time in shift space was only fourteen hours to Springfield. It didn’t give James long to decide what to do when his fleet got there, but as his options were severely limited, it didn’t really matter. As soon as his ships jumped out of shift space, he immediately ordered his fleet onto the trajectory for the shift passage from Springfield to the Bison system. The Springfield system didn’t have any inhabited worlds and there were no defenses of any kind within the system that he could use to make a stand. He sent an order for the gas mining station around the system’s gas giant to be destroyed and the various mining facilities in the system’s outer asteroid belts abandoned. He doubted Koroylov would have much use for the raw minerals that were harvested within the Springfield system. He would have to convoy them all the way back to Russian space to make use of them. The refined He3 that the gas mining facility produced was another matter. Koroylov could use it to fuel his battle fleet. Shipping He3 from the Springfield system to Earth would be a lot easier than from New Rostov. James didn’t intend to allow Koroylov such a luxury.

“I’m getting multiple complaints from freighter Captains,” Sub Lieutenant Grey said as the Combined Fleet accelerated past many of the slower freighters that had reached the Springfield system before them. “They want to know why we’re abandoning them.”

James stopped himself from sighing. “Transmit my words system wide.” He continued when Grey signaled that she was ready. “As you can see, I have not ordered my fleet to hang back and protect your ships. The situation makes that impossible. If we try and protect you all, my fleet will be wiped out. If Koroylov can destroy us, the entire American colonies will be open to invasion. I’m afraid I must ask that many of you make the same sacrifice that those in the Nantucket system made. You must scuttle your ships before the Russians can capture them intact. I know there is no populated planet for you to escape to. Scuttling your ships will mean you fall into Russian hands. Yet this is war, it is a price you will have to pay. As in Nantucket, any Captains that disobey this command will be court-martialed.”

“We’re getting a lot of responses,” Sub Lieutenant Grey reported. “Not many of them are positive.”

“I don’t have time to speak to every freighter Captain in the system. Just repeat my initial message,” James replied. Deep down a part of him did not like having to treat civilians so harshly, yet that part of him wasn’t going to make him change his mind. Earth, the British Star Kingdom, the Combined Fleet, they were all in a dire situation. Desperate measures were required.

To James’s relief, when Koroylov’s fleet made its appearance, the freighters closest to the shift passage that led back to Nantucket immediately launched their escape pods and self-destructed. Many of those further away didn’t do so immediately, but James hoped they would follow suit when it became clear the Russians would capture them. Scott had worked out how many freighters would make it across the system and into shift space before the Russians could capture them. The numbers weren’t pretty. Less than a hundred freighters were going to make it to the Bison system. That was less than a third of the number Cunningham had brought to Nantucket. Worse, of the ships that had already been in the Nantucket system when the Russians attacked, only thirty were going to escape.

“We’re getting a message from the Russian fleet,” Sub Lieutenant Grey announced. “It must have been transmitted as soon as they exited shift space. It’s audio only.”

“Let’s hear it,” James requested.

“Allied freighters, know this, the Russian Star Federation does not recognize your rights under any of the laws of war. Your nations banned us from Earth forty years ago. That was a crime of the highest order. As a result, we owe you nothing. If you abandon your ships and scuttle them, we will not be picking up your escape pods. You will be left in this system to rot. Surrender your ships to us intact or die in the cold of space, those are your options.”

“Admiral, almost every freighter in the system is trying to contact us,” Grey informed James as soon as the audio message from Koroylov finished playing.

James closed his eyes as he thought through what he should do. He couldn’t order the freighter crews and any refugees they had on board to their deaths. He just couldn’t.

“It’s not your fault,” Romanov said gently. “Koroylov is forcing your hand. He is the one sentencing those people to death.”

James opened his eyes and shook his head. “It wouldn’t just be him. People’s lives are more important than supplies. I can’t order them to give up their lives, they are civilians.” Turning to Sub Lieutenant Grey he requested another COM message be recorded.

“Admiral Koroylov has shown the measure of Russian honor. I will not order you all to scuttle your freighters for it may mean your death. However, I do wish to remind you all of the importance of the cargoes you carry. They could mean the difference between the Russians winning this war and losing it. I am officially rescinding my order to court martial any freighter crew that doesn’t scuttle its ship. I leave the decision in your hands. Know this though, I will do my utmost to return to the system as soon as possible and rescue any freighter crews that choose to scuttle and abandon ship. On that, you have my word as a Rear Admiral in the Royal Space Navy.”

As Titan and the Combined Fleet accelerated through the Springfield system, James had nothing else to do but watch as the Russian fleet caught up with freighter after freighter. As he expected, very few chose to scuttle their commands. Those that did earned his respect. He brought up the files Titan had on each freighter that was scuttled and burned the names of each freighter’s Captain into his memory. He intended to do whatever he could to come back for each of them. Despite their brave efforts, in the end the Russians captured far more freighters than were scuttled. Most of them were herded together and then a small detachment of warships escorted them back towards the shift passage to Nantucket. As Titan and her consorts jumped into shift space, the last sensor reading they had on Koroylov’s fleet showed it was still accelerating after them. It appeared Koroylov intended to pursue them into the Bison system as well. One thing was clear to James, if he didn’t do something different, no freighters would be escaping from Bison.




Chapter 15

It is a hard line to walk as an academy teacher and as a Captain of a warship. On one hand, you want to instruct those under you to follow the regulations, they have been developed from centuries of battle experience. On the other you want them to always be innovating for often it is the novel strategy that wins the day. Identifying Commanders who can get the balance between these two opposing philosophies right and rapidly promoting them is one of the greatest successes of the Imperial Navy.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Titan, Bison System, 13th August 2473 AD.

As soon as his ships jumped out of shift space into the Bison system, James ordered the Combined Fleet to make for the Bison colony. Watching so many freighters surrender to Koroylov had forced his hand. He would run no more. Bison was home to thirty million colonists. Due to its large population, it had ten Mississippi class orbital defense stations and more than four hundred defense satellites. The Mississippi defense stations were just one third the size of the larger Freedom defense stations that the Americans built around their most important worlds, yet they still packed a punch.

On the trip from Springfield to Bison James had come to a decision. If Koroylov wanted a fight, he was going to give him one. It was highly likely that in a stand up fight his ships would be wiped out, yet Bison’s defenses were strong enough that Koroylov’s fleet would take a hammering trying to do so. There were other warships in the American, British, Chinese, German and Japanese colonial territories. If James could take out a significant portion of Koroylov’s fleet, then the chances were, those ships would make it impossible for whatever of Koroylov’s fleet survived to properly maintain a blockade around Earth. Koroylov would know that as well. He was going to call the Russian Admiral’s bluff.

The only other option open to him was to continue to fall back. Yet Bison had three shift passages that led deeper into American colonial space. By surrendering Bison, he would be allowing Koroylov’s fleet to raid its way across the American colonies. If Koroylov wanted to, he could even split his fleet and head back to Earth while leaving enough ships to cause havoc in the American colonies. If that was to happen, James would find himself wasting months trying to chase down Russian raiders. Even if he got his fleet repaired and resupplied, he couldn’t move against Koroylov’s Earth forces if there was a fleet in his rear. It was just one more reason to stand and fight over Bison.

“Order all the freighters ahead of us that can get there in time to make for Bison,” James commanded as soon as Titan’s bridge crew had finished scanning the area around the Combined Fleet for threats. “Order the rest to scuttle their ships and make for Bison in their escape pods. Tell them the Combined Fleet will be making a stand in this system. Their only hope of avoiding the Russian fleet catching up with them is to scuttle and make for Bison.”

“The order has been sent,” Sub Lieutenant Grey informed him as soon as she put the message together.

“Thank you,” James nodded. Whilst he wanted to save as many freighters as possible, he had an ulterior motive. He intended to draft whatever freighters made it to Bison into the Combined Fleet’s service. Their point defenses would be pitiful against Russian anti-ship missiles, but if he could encourage some of Koroylov’s weapons to target them instead of his warships, the Combined Fleet would last that bit longer. Plus, it was far better the freighters be destroyed by Russian missiles than fall into Russian hands.

“Send a data package to Bison Orbital Command, include all the details of what has happened since the battle of Delta. Inform Captain Richards that we will be entering orbit and joining our fleet with his defenses. He is to begin preparations necessary for a large-scale fleet action over his planet.”

“It will be sent momentarily Rear Admiral,” Grey replied from the COM terminal.

James waved his hand to acknowledge her report and then turned in his command chair to face Titan’s tactical console. “Lieutenant Scott go through all the manifests of the freighters that will make it to Bison ahead of us. See what each freighter is carrying. If we can, I intend to get each freighter to dump its cargo in high orbit above Bison. I want to make a debris field that any Russian missiles will have to pass through. It might only take out a handful of missiles, but they will be a handful more our point defenses won’t have to engage. See what we have to work with and figure out the best way to deploy their material.”

Scott smiled. “Aye Captain, I can do that. Perhaps we could even hold a few freighters in high orbit until the Russians open fire, then when we have a better line of sight on their incoming missile salvos, we can have the freighters jettison their cargo.”

“Better yet,” Romanov suggested from Titan’s Captain’s chair, “If we rig the freighters with just the right number of explosives to break the freighters up and disperse the debris from their hulls and cargoes along a certain trajectory. Then we can maneuver the freighters into the face of any incoming missile salvos and detonate them. They’d be like giant flak cannon rounds.”

James shot Romanov a scandalous look. “It’s one thing to order freighters scuttled to prevent them from falling into Russian hands, it’s another thing to blow them up ourselves. I don’t think any of Earth’s governments, nor the shipping companies that own the freighters will look to kindly on that.”

“If we do nothing, they will all be destroyed anyway. What is the expression? In for a penny, in for a pound? What have we got to lose?”

James tilted his head to one side as he thought it through, then he nodded. “All right, you both have a point. Work together and see what you can come up with. If we have to, we can send Marines to commandeer the freighters we want. In fact, pass the word to Major Higgins, he is to prepare his men and coordinate with the marines throughout our fleet. We probably need a squad of marines and one or two engineers on each freighter to make sure what we want is carried out. You may organize that as well Romanov.”

“The joys of being a Flag Captain I suppose,” Romanov said with a grin. “I’ll get right on it.”

For once James found himself with more things to do than time he had to do them. Over the two hours it took his fleet to reach Bison he had to coordinate his defense plan with Commodore Sato and the remaining senior Captains within the Combined Fleet. He had to liaise with Captain Richards, the commander of Bison’s orbital defenses. Tying in the defensive and offensive weapons of a fleet comprised of a mix of ships from more than ten nations with the American’s orbital defenses was a tricky business.

To add urgency to their planning, an hour after the Combined Fleet jumped into the Bison system and an hour before they reached the Bison colony, Koroylov’s fleet announced its presence as it powered up its engines and accelerated into the system. At first Koroylov set his fleet on a course through Bison towards one of the shift passages that led deeper into American colonial space. As soon as their sensors detected James’ fleet heading towards the planet, they changed course. It looked like Koroylov was more than willing to fight. In front of his fleet as it approached, a long string of freighters detonated as they were scuttled. No more freighters would be falling into the clutches of his advance screening forces.

*

RSFS Ekaterina, Bison System.

“It looks like they are finally prepared to put up a fight,” Vitko, Koroylov’s Flag Captain, said to his Admiral. “We will wipe them out in a handful of broadsides and then there will be no standing fleet in the human sphere that can threaten us.”

Koroylov nodded but didn’t reply. He was deep in thought. Thanks to the Argentinian ships that had switched sides, he knew exactly what condition the Combined Fleet was in and who likely commanded it now. Unless he had been killed from the damage Titan had taken in the Delta system, Rear Admiral Somerville was now the senior ranking Allied officer. Since learning that, Koroylov had closely studied the files Russian Fleet Intelligence had on Somerville. He had already known of the man’s reputation. He had been a Captain up until the Flex-aor’s invasion. That he was now a Rear Admiral spoke volumes of the deceased Admiral Cunningham’s opinion of Somerville. From what Koroylov could tell from the intelligence reports he had, Cunningham’s respect was well placed. This Somerville has to know that his fleet is the only force that can stop me from taking Earth. Why is he making a stand here? There are other more heavily fortified systems he could fall back to. What is he planning?

“I want a spread of recon drones to cover Bison and the Combined Fleet, give me a close-up analysis of what they’re doing.”

“Should we send the same ultimatum to the freighters ahead of us?” Vitko asked. “If we don’t, they will start to detonate their reactors again.”

“No,” Koroylov replied with a shake of his head. “The escape pods from any freighters that self-destruct will be able to make it to Bison. Unless we are willing to keep our fleet in orbit and blow-up any escape pods that try to land on the planet, our threats would be empty.”

“A pity we couldn’t do that,” Vitko replied. “We certainly struck gold with the freighters we’ve captured so far.”

Koroylov held Vitko’s eyes for a moment. “When all this is over, we’re going to have to live alongside the rest of the space powers, even if they are our subjects. We can’t abandon all human decency or they will hate us forever.”

Vitko held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I know that, but what if we threatened it anyway? They wouldn’t know we didn’t mean it.”

Koroylov shook his head. “The threat would almost be as bad as the deed. News would spread of what we threatened. Leaving escape pods to fend for themselves is one thing, seeking out and destroying them is another. Don’t forget, we’re trying to win more than a war here. We’re trying to win a position for the Russian Star Federation at the head of the human race.”

Koroylov held Vitko’s stare until his Flag Captain nodded. He trusted Vitko with his life. Yet, he represented a concerning stream of thought within the Federation’s Navy and indeed the Russian Star Federation itself. Many saw the other human nations as enemies that weren’t worth mercy. They had expelled the Russian people from their homeland after all, as merciless an act as most Russians could think of. Yet Koroylov had long ago decided there was a better path. Being needlessly cruel to one’s enemies always caused more problems than it solved. The anger of his own people against the Allies had shown him that. He didn’t want such a group of people directing their animosity at him.

“The initial readings from our drones are starting to come in Admiral,” one of Ekaterina’s bridge officers reported.

“Send them to my command chair.” Silence descended around Ekaterina’s bridge as Koroylov studied the sensor data. Everyone knew not to disturb their Admiral. “These sensor blips, what do you make of them?” he asked after a couple of minutes.

“I’m not sure Admiral,” the sensor officer replied. “They could be escape pods from some of the freighters, or drones the Combined Fleet is putting in place to use during the coming battle.”

“Or they could be shuttles could they not?” Koroylov queried.

“I guess Admiral,” he replied. Then more confidently. “Yes, they could be. If they were all shuttles, it looks like they are coming from some of the warships in the Combined Fleet and going to several of the freighters heading towards Bison.”

“Exactly,” Koroylov replied. Though he didn’t elaborate any further. Instead, with the swipe of his finger, he changed the display on his command chair to the intelligence file the Argentinians had provided him on Bison’s defenses. Though he had read through it several times he skimmed it again. With Bison’s defenses and whatever Somerville was planning to do with the freighters that were streaming towards the inhabited planet, his fleet was soon going to find itself in a costly battle. One that we can win, Koroylov knew, but at what cost? For several more seconds he stared at the Combined Fleet as it entered orbit around Bison and prepared to fend off his fleet. Then he came to a decision. Whatever Somerville was planning, he had no intention of risking his ships to it. Earth was the real prize. The American colonies could wait. With Earth under his control, he could return to finish off the Combined Fleet at his leisure.

“Order the fleet to reverse course. Put us on a trajectory for the shift passage back to the Springfield system. Then order Rear Admiral de Gama to report to my office. I have a task for his ships.” Koroylov ordered.

“Are you sure Admiral? We have the remnants of the Combined Fleet at our mercy,” Vitko asked, his tone of voice clearly betraying his concern at his commander’s sudden change of heart.

“I am sure,” Koroylov replied in a tone that made it clear he had no intention of debating the issue. “Earth is our target. The Combined Fleet can’t threaten us anymore. Not for months. By then it will be too late.”

Vitko nodded. Koroylov returned the gesture and his mind turned to de Gama. His ship had been badly damaged in the battle of Delta, but not so badly that it wouldn’t be repairable. By now Koroylov hoped its crew had taken it to Brazilian space and begun repairs. Koroylov had kept de Gama on Ekaterina. He had wanted to keep his most up to date source of intelligence on the Combined Fleet close by. If he was taking his fleet back to the Sol system though, de Gama would be helpful in other ways. As part of the agreements he had made with the Argentinian, Brazilian and Indian governments, they were sending what ships they had in their colonies to join his command. After the other Allies had attacked their forces orbiting Earth, they had been more than happy to switch sides. De Gama was the most experienced flag officer available to him. He should be able to keep the Combined Fleet at bay. Shouldn’t he? Koroylov asked himself. As he thought about the answer, he decided a few Russian ships would need to be placed under de Gama’s command as well. Yes, Koroylov thought. Between the Brazilians, Indians, Argentinians, and a Russian flotilla, they should be able to field a strong blocking force in the Delta system. They would be enough to stop any counter attack from the Combined Fleet. And with the Combined Fleet dealt with, we can begin to put the final stages of operation Hailstorm into action, Koroylov said to himself. His anticipation was already growing.

*

HMS Titan, in high orbit around Bison

“They’re decelerating!” Sub Lieutenant Grey shouted in surprise. “The Russian fleet, it’s turning around!”

James couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face, even though he knew most of Titan’s bridge officers had turned to look at him. Koroylov had blinked. At least, he hoped he had. The Combined Fleet would get some respite to carry out repairs.

“It looks like we went to all the hassle of commandeering those freighters for nothing,” Romanov said.

“Don’t release them back to their Captains just yet,” James answered. “It could be some kind of ruse. I want the fleet to launch a continuous stream of recon drones towards the Russian fleet. If they really are retreating, we’re going to make sure a few ships don’t fall out of formation and remain in the system in hiding. If they managed to sneak up on us they could cause us a few headaches.”

“Aye Admiral,” Romanov replied. “Lieutenant Scott, coordinate the drone launches with our other ships.”

“COMs,” James said after Scott acknowledged Romanov’s command. “Contact the ships in our fleet. Inform the Captains we will have a conference on board Titan in three hours. I want full readiness reports from each of them before that.” If Koroylov really was pulling out, he had given the Combined Fleet some breathing room. James intended to use it as best he could. The first order of business would be to try and return some semblance of order to the ships under his command.

*

HMS Titan, orbiting Bison colony, 15th September, 1473 AD.

As soon as HMS Endeavour returned from the mission James had sent her on, he called a meeting of the senior ranking officers of the Combined Fleet. He also invited Captain Richards of Bison’s orbital defenses. They all needed to hear Becket’s report and decide what to do next.

“Thank you for coming,” James said to open the meeting, the fourth since Koroylov had retreated from Bison. “We have carried out as many repairs as we can without sending any ships back to the repair yards in Utah. It’s time to decide what to do next. Captain Becket, we will hear your report first.”

“Thank you Rear Admiral,” Becket said, then took a deep breath before continuing. “Captains, Admirals, as you know I was sent to scout out the Russian positions. There is only a light Russian presence in the Springfield system. Endeavour’s sensors only detected two light warships patrolling the shift passage to Nantucket. Likely there are more, however it appears Koroylov just left a light screening force in the system to provide an early warning if our ships move against him.”

James nodded, Becket was showing nothing the ranking officers of the Combined Fleet didn’t already know. Along with Endeavour he had sent several destroyers into the system to pick up the freighter crews that had scuttled their ships. A couple of Russian warships had tried to interfere but they had been chased off.

“Nantucket is a different matter. We detected one heavy cruiser, six medium and five light cruisers in orbit. There are also other light warships in orbit and scattered around the system. Most of them are either Brazilian or Argentinian, though the heavy cruiser and two of the medium cruisers are Russian.”

“No doubt they are designed to be a blocking force,” Rear Admiral Sato concluded. “If we tried to take back Nantucket with anything but our full force, they would easily defeat us. And if we did come with every ship we had, they could simply fall back and warn Koroylov about our intentions. He could then return and chase us off again.”

“Who’s to say the traitors won’t reinforce their fleet in Nantucket?” Captain Richards asked. “The Delta system is very close to Brazilian and Argentinian colonial space. Both space powers have struggled to find new worlds to colonize. They have looked on the extent of our colonial space with envy for more than a century. If they have thrown their lot in with the Russians, I’m sure they will be more than happy to send more ships to reinforce those already at Nantucket. Given the losses we’ve suffered against the Flex-aor and Koroylov’s fleet, the Brazilians and Argentinians on their own could probably field a strong enough fleet to invade American colonial space.”

“There was something else I picked up,” Becket said. “From some of the stray military communications we detected, it appears de Gama is the commanding officer over the forces in Nantucket.”

Her words brought more than one sharp intake of breath and a few barely audible swear words. Becket had already warned James, but he still felt his subordinates’ anger. “If that is the case, then it will certainly encourage the Brazilians to send whatever ships they have left in their space to reinforce him. What better way to show their commitment to their new allies? The question is what do we do next?”

“Surely we hardly have the forces to do anything next?” Commodore Hawking answered. He was now the senior ranking officer of the American Colonial Navy. Of all the Allied navies, the Americans had suffered the greatest losses against the Flex-aor. With Rear Admiral Armstrong’s death when his flagship had been destroyed in Delta, Hawking was the last officer of flag rank who commanded a module unit in American space. The rest were commanders of orbital stations or repair yards. Though the situation was bad for the Americans, it wasn’t much better for the other navies. James had promoted every almost senior captain from each nation’s navy to the rank of commodore in order to fill the gaps in his command staff. He had also promoted Commodore Sato to Rear Admiral and made him second in command of the Combined Fleet.

“The best we can hope to do is to hold Bison and redeploy defenses from our border systems here,” Commodore Hawking continued. “We can make Bison impenetrable to anything but a full attack. Then over time our shipyards in Utah can repair the ships we still have out of commission and produce new ships. Surely this is the only strategy that is open to us in the long-term. We have tried to confront Koroylov and failed.”

“We failed because we were betrayed,” Commodore Tianpei responded with a growl. “We owe Admiral de Gama a debt of honor. We should move forward and wipe out his traitorous fleet.”

“That won’t work friend,” Sato said as he placed a hand on Tianpei’s shoulder to calm him. “We all know de Gama, he will run as soon as he sees us.”

“Yet that could be a good strategy,” Commodore Tremblay suggested. “If we take our fleet and threaten Nantucket, de Gama will run. He will have to call for Koroylov’s aid. Koroylov will have to pull his ships away from besieging Earth to confront us. Without a burdensome freighter convoy, we could simply fall back. In the long run it won’t accomplish much, but if we keep probing de Gama’s defenses, we would be able to distract Koroylov and maybe prevent him from attacking Earth. Yes, it’s nothing more than a delaying strategy, but one that could buy us time.”

“A fair strategy,” James commented. “Yet not one that will allow us to force Koroylov out of the Sol system any time soon. Most of our ships in the repair yards at Utah will take three to six months to be made battle ready. Most of the American shipyards have halted construction on new ships for the resources needed for them have been devoted to repairs. Realistically, it could take us years to put together a fleet much larger than what we already have here. We have to defeat Koroylov with what we have got.”

“Defeat Koroylov?” Commodore Hawking asked as he raised his voice. “We only have three heavy cruisers and sixty other warships. How on Earth can we defeat a fleet of more than two hundred warships?”

“We don’t have to defeat them,” James answered. “We just have to get our ships to Earth. You all know Earth’s defenses are formidable. Whatever Koroylov has planned to try and take the planet, if we can add our forces to Earth’s defenses, we may be able to thwart his intentions. That may be all we need to do to force him to fall back to Russian space. He can’t keep his fleet operating in the Sol system indefinitely.”

“How would we do that?” Tremblay asked. “Cunningham tried to get the Combined Fleet to the Sol system and he failed. How can we accomplish that with what little ships we have left?”

“I have one idea,” James replied as he brought up a data file on the conference room’s holo projector. As he had intended, the conversation had turned in the direction he wanted. “We need to get to the Sol system without Koroylov being alerted to our approach, right? That means we have to hit the forces in the Springfield and Nantucket systems quickly and prevent them from fleeing. My uncle used a trick once that I think we may be able to replicate.” As he manipulated the holo projection, James outlined his plan. It was a gamble, even he knew that. But short of staying in Bison or launching a few feint attacks, it was the only thing he could come up with. After nearly an hour of discussing the finer details with his officers, James felt confident that they were ready to come to a decision.

“Then we are in general agreement, this is how we will proceed?” he asked. When his question was answered by nods from most of his subordinates he continued. “Then I will draft orders to be immediately sent to Utah. We will commandeer the Argentinian, Brazilian and Indian ships that are being repaired there and as many other damaged ships as we need for our plan. I know it’s a waste to throw away good ships, but they will be no good to us in six months or a year. We need them today. It will take five weeks for my orders to reach Utah and the ships to get here. As soon as they do, I want to be ready to launch our attack. Let’s make sure that our ships and crews are as prepared as they can be.”

“Agreed,” Sato replied. “We may have been defeated, but as we have already shown against the Flex-aor, one defeat does not mean the Combined Fleet is beaten. We will learn from our losses and come back to haunt this High Admiral Koroylov. With Rear Admiral Somerville leading us, we are still a force to be reckoned with.”

James wanted to correct Sato, he was still only an Acting Rear Admiral, but when the other officers voiced their agreement with Sato’s sentiments, he let it pass. “Well, I have no problems with encouraging Koroylov to fear us,” he said. “But for now, seeing as we have come to a decision, shall we retire? I have had my chef prepare a meal for us. Let’s retire and we can eat.”




Chapter 16

To this day the people of Haven are stubborn and proud, but if you can win their friendship, you will have gained a staunch ally that will stick with you through thick and thin.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Diplomatic ship Scimitar, Haven system, 29th July 2473 AD.

“Is that… Is that a battlecruiser?” Emilie asked in awe as she peered through Scimitar’s view screen.

Suzanna had to blink a few times to focus on the orbital station Emilie was pointing at. She had been staring at her homeworld, soaking up its beauty. It had been nearly a year and half since she had last been home. When her eyes finally found the construction yard Emilie had indicated, she grinned as she realized she was correct. “Retribution,” she said. “Parliament gave us permission to begin constructing capital class warships just over a year ago. I didn’t realize she was so close to completion, it looks like they have gone all out on her, doesn’t it?”

“They sure have,” Emilie replied. “It looks like she is pretty much finished. And she’s big, bigger than any battlecruiser I’ve ever seen. And look, there is a heavy cruiser in the construction bay beside her. If they are nearly space worthy, they are going to come in very handy.”

“Indeed,” Suzanna agreed. “We just have to get the Haven Council to agree to release them over to Lightfoot. Don’t forget about that small hurdle.”

Emilie waved a hand at Suzanna as she continued to stare at the new warships. “That won’t be a problem for you auntie. You’re the Governor of Haven, they have to do what you say.”

Suzanna let out a chuckle. “That’s not exactly how it works. You’ll see.” Before she could say anything more, an alert from Scimitar’s COM console let them know someone from the planet surface was contacting them.

“It’s the office of the First Councilor, we are to land near the Council Chambers. First Councilor Pennington is requesting you meet with her at your earliest convenience,” Emilie said after she read the COM message.

“Let them know we will be landing momentarily and will come to the Council Chambers right away,” Suzanna requested.

As Emilie focused on guiding Scimitar through Haven’s busy orbitals, Suzanna kept her attention on her homeworld. In just the short time she had been gone, there were a lot of changes. Whilst trade between the human nations, Vestar and Kulthar was nowhere near the level most economists projected it would rise to, there was more than enough going on to attract huge investments to the Haven system. Suzanna counted at least nine new orbital installations and seven more that were under construction. They all looked like they served some kind of trade related purpose. Either they were docking stations for the transfer of cargo or orbital storage facilities where trade commodities could be stored before being sold or transported somewhere else. In orbit there were far more freighters than she had seen before. It seemed the war with the Flex-aor hadn’t stifled trade in this part of the human sphere too much. No wonder the family business is doing so well, Suzanna thought. She had been sent an update from her family’s orbital gas mining station. From my gas mining station, she corrected herself. She was the last Rodriguez. Both her parents had passed away when she had been young and she didn’t have any siblings, only cousins.

When Haven had become a British protectorate, she had owned the only gas mining station within the system. It had attracted a lot of investment from British corporations. There were now two other competing operations within Haven space, one in the Haven system and a second in the Independence system. Yet neither were on a scale to really compete with her operation. It meant that every freighter she was looking at was a source of income for her company. Not that I need much in the way of money, the businesses and companies owned by my husband’s foundation outsize everything within the Haven system by several factors, Suzanna thought, though she was still proud. Her parents, grandparents and great grandparents had devoted their lives to building and expanding their gas mining station. Each generation had seen some fruit from their labor, but now foreign investment was allowing her to take it to another level.

“That is the Council Chambers?” Emilie said as they passed through Haven’s upper atmosphere, she sounded less than impressed.

“Don’t judge,” Suzanna scolded her. “I told you, the buildings were designed to replicate the shape of the colony ship that brought my ancestors here. It may not be to your liking, but it is to ours. Besides, you’ll find the interior of the Chambers themselves impressive enough. Your time on Earth is spoiling you.”

“It’s certainly better than anything we had on Alpha, I’ll give it that. Is that weapons damage I see on some of the walls?”

Suzanna nodded. “It’s a reminder.”

Emilie looked over to Suzanna but when she saw the look in her eyes, she didn’t ask any more. Besides, she already knew where the damage was from. She knew exactly what the Indians had done to Haven. She had read all she could about it after they had left Lightfoot’s fleet. After having been chased out of the Alpha system into French colonial space, they had been forced to take the long way to Haven, through Indian colonial territory. For the last forty-five days Emilie hadn’t had much to do but run simulation battles and read up on the history and diplomatic files from Scimitar’s database. More than once she had wished she’d had the foresight to load up some other reading material or some holo dramas before they had left Earth, but it had never occurred to her. The flight she had taken from Alpha to Earth to attend Cambridge had been her only previous experience of space travel.

Maybe I should have simmed some more landings, Emilie thought when she saw the amount of air cars buzzing around the Council Chambers. “It looks like Pennington is in a hurry to see us. We have the pad closest to the Chambers,” she said when Haven control sent through its final clearance to land.

“She’ll want to hear the latest news from Earth. I doubt that many courier ships have been sent this way,” Suzanna guessed.

*

“Welcome home Governor Rodriguez,” First Councilor Pennington said as she turned to greet Suzanna and Emilie as they walked into her large ornate office. “It’s good to see you again,” she added after embracing Suzanna. “I wasn’t expecting you to return, not with the latest news we’ve heard about Earth.”

“It’s always a pleasure to return,” Suzanna replied. “Though I wasn’t sure I was going to make it myself. Let me introduce you to my niece, Emilie Kansas. She has accompanied me from Earth. She is a cadet in the RSN, though she’s been given a field promotion to Ensign.”

“An honor to meet you Ensign,” Pennington said as she turned and embraced Emilie. “Any relative of Captain Somerville is welcome on Haven.”

“Thank you,” Emilie replied, bowing her head slightly. She felt awkward going through the formalities with two such high ranking women, even if she had spent the last two months stuck on a small yacht with one of them.

“Now,” Pennington said as she turned to Suzanna. “Let’s not dilly dally. We haven’t heard anything from Earth in three months. Not since New France was attacked. What is going on? Have the Russians been beaten back?”

Suzanna shook her head. “No, far from it. The attack on New France was just a diversion. A much larger fleet has invaded the Sol system. Half of Earth’s defense fleet has been wiped out and the rest is bottled up in Earth’s orbit. The planet is under siege.”

Pennington’s face whitened. She moved around her desk and sat down then gestured for Suzanna and Emilie to do the same. “Then it’s worse than I feared. What does this mean for us? If Earth hasn’t been taken yet, then the war isn’t over. Is that why you are here?” Pennington looked up sharply.

Suzanna took a deep breath. She had wanted to work up to telling Pennington what she wanted to ask of her people. It seemed she wasn’t going to get the time. “Yes it is. Earth needs our help. Or at least, the major space faring nations do. If the Russian fleet can capture Earth, they will seek to redraw the political and colonial landscape. The British, French, American, German, Japanese and Chinese will be reduced to a shadow of their former selves. The Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians have thrown their lot in with the Russians. Between them they will divide up most of humanity’s colonies. Earth’s defenses are strong, but with the losses the Allies have suffered fighting the Flex-aor, they cannot fight off the Russians alone. They need our fleet. I have come to request the Council send a fleet to join Commodore Lightfoot. He is commanding what Allied forces remain this side of the Alpha system.”

Instead of answering, Pennington spun in her chair to look through the large glass windows of her office. They provided a magnificent view of much of Haven’s capital, Liberty. Both Emilie and Suzanna peered around Pennington’s shoulders to see what she was looking at. It only took Suzanna seconds to realize. The panorama of the city was a reminder of the Indian invasion. Huge cranes dotted the landscape. Some were constructing new buildings to replace ones previously destroyed. Others were still being used to clear away rubble or carry out repairs to buildings that were trying to be salvaged. Some sections of the city looked new, clean and fresh, clearly having been restored, whilst others lay in ruins. Liberty was far from its former glory. Suzanna motioned for Emilie to remain quiet until Pennington broke the silence.

“You want to bring another war to our system?” she finally asked.

“No, not to our system. But yes, to our people. The Russians are just as big a threat to us as they are to the British or any of the Allies. Now that the Indians have joined them, we know that once Earth falls, we will be in their sights. Besides, we voted to become a British protectorate. It means we have obligations to help the Star Kingdom just as much as they have obligations to us. Obligations they have fulfilled.”

Pennington swung back around to look at Suzanna. “I know that the British have kept their obligations. We would all be dead or hiding in some cave somewhere fearing the next Indian patrol would capture us if it wasn’t for the British. I know that we need to help now if we can. If for no other reason than that it’s better to fight over Earth than over Haven. We have suffered enough already, I don’t want to see more of it here on Haven. That’s not my hesitation.”

“Then what is?”

“We have all been reading the reports of the Flex-aor attacks as they have been coming in. They rallied our people together; great sacrifices have been made to expand our fleet in as short a time as possible. Yet if the Allied Fleet at New France has been crushed, and the Allied ships in the Sol system defeated and the Combined Fleet in American space decimated by the Flex-aor, what difference can we make?”

“All the difference in the world,” Emilie said passionately, unable to stop herself. “Admiral Somerville still commands a powerful fleet defending Earth. And the Combined Fleet is not decimated, Admiral Cunningham and my uncle will come to Earth’s aid. The war is far from over, it’s just, they’re going to need a little help. That’s all.”

Suzanna reached over and placed a hand on Emilie’s forearm and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Then gestured for her to take a backseat in the conversation. “Not quite how I would have put it,” she said turning back to Pennington. “But that sums up the situation well enough. There are still enough forces in play that the Russians can be beaten. It’s just going to take everything we’ve got.”

“And you believe one heavy cruiser, three light cruisers and their escorts are going to be enough to tip the balance?”

“They will,” Suzanna replied. “Especially if you throw a brand-new battlecruiser into the mix. Plus,” she went on hastily as she saw Pennington was about to object, “Haven isn’t the only destination I plan to visit on my trip. After I’m done here, I intend to go to Vestar. They owe their freedom to James, I’m going to ask them for help on his behalf.”

Pennington stood. “You don’t do things by half do you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “No, you never did. Well then, given Earth is under siege, I imagine time is of the essence? It’s not hard to guess what you’re planning. The Council is having a session this afternoon. You intend to submit a motion?”

“If it has your backing,” Suzanna answered. “That’s why we came to you first. I want it to be a joint motion. It will not pass without your support. I wouldn’t come here proposing such drastic measures unless I thought they were essential. Essential for the British Star Kingdom yes, but also essential for Haven’s future. The two are inextricably linked.”

Pennington turned to stare out her window again. “You’re asking an almost impossible thing of me, of our people. A decade ago we knew nothing of the other human nations. And we didn’t want to know anything. Now you want to drag us into a galactic war.”

“A war that is coming to us whether we enter into it or not,” Suzanna replied gently.

“Be that as it may, I don’t think many of our counsellors will see it that way. Since First Councilor Maximillian entangled us in the politics of Earth, nothing but trouble has come our way. I know, I know,” she went on hastily, “you do not see it that way. And you may be right. But objective facts don’t always win out over feelings. Even in Council Chambers.”

Suzanna nodded, though Pennington couldn’t see. She was all too aware of that truth. Instead she waited, knowing how difficult the decision Pennington faced was.

“Whatever decision I make, I could be the last First Councilor of Haven. If we send our fleet and we lose, Haven will be conquered. If we do nothing and the Allies win, the British Star Kingdom will not look on us to kindly.”

“Or you could do nothing and make it easier for the Russians to win, which means Haven will be conquered,” Suzanna added.

Pennington turned back around. “If those are my options, then I guess the decision is easy.” She paused to take a breath then looked up and held Suzanna’s eyes. “All right, but I cannot guarantee you a battlecruiser. If, and I emphasize if, the Council agrees to send our fleet to war, Retribution will only be going if Admiral Harborough deems her fit for service.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Suzanna replied with a grin. “Together we may yet save Earth and repay the British for what they have done for us.”

“We may,” Pennington said, though her face had a far more serious look than Suzanna’s. “But if we have any hope of doing that, we have a lot of work to do before the Council meeting.”

Suzanna straightened her face to hide her excitement. “We do. Let’s get to it.”




Chapter 17

For centuries political theorists have debated whether the founding political philosophies of the Empire were correct. Humanity’s history, and the history of other races we have access to, has given us a plethora of political systems to analyze. Whilst the debate can go back and forth, I think the history of the Empire speaks for itself. In more than five hundred years we have had only two civil wars, though the Na revolt hardly counts as such, and one attempt at a popular revolution. With the exception of these incidents, the Empire has provided a fair and democratic form of government that has led the human race through some of its most deadly threats.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

As she sat in the visitor’s gallery looking around the large Council Chamber, Emilie had to admit it was impressive. The First Councilor who had built it had spared no expense. Whilst it was very practical, with each representative seated in an alcove able to extend to allow them to address their peers, it was also beautiful. Each alcove was ornately carved out of wood, something Emilie knew was scarce on Haven. The rest of the chamber was just as impressively decorated with large paintings and other Earth artifacts. For people who wanted to get away from Earth, they clearly appreciated some of the culture they left behind, she concluded.

She turned away from a particularly impressive painting when the din in the chamber died down. One of the alcoves was extending so that every council member could see whoever intended to address them. Emilie had to take a second look to recognize Suzanna. She had changed out of her diplomatic uniform and donned the traditional dress of a Haven Councilor. I guess she trying to make an impression, I hope it works, Emilie thought as Suzanna began to speak.

“Councilors of the free people of Haven. It is my privilege to be the Governor of our people, yet it is not solely as the British appointed Governor of the Haven Protectorate that I come before you today. You all know me, I am a citizen of Haven, a former member of this esteemed Council. It is as much in these capacities that I come before you now today.

“I know you all watched the war with the Flex-aor with trepidation, fear and then excitement when news of the Combined Fleet’s victory at Connecticut reached us. You have all heard of the despicable Russian attack on the Allied Fleet at New France. I am here today having travelled from Earth to inform you that what you feared is true. The Russian attack on New France was simply a diversion. A much larger Russian fleet invaded the Alpha system, destroyed its defenders and invaded the Sol system itself. After defeating the Allied Fleet in Sol, the Russian fleet now lays siege to Earth. The Russians are bent on nothing less than the complete reorganization of the status quo. Once they have taken Earth, they will strip the major space faring powers of their colonies and carve them up. The Indians, Brazilians and Argentinians have joined the Russians. Together they have betrayed all of humanity. While the rest of us have been fighting off an alien threat that would wipe us out, the Russians have backstabbed us all.

“I therefore come before you on behalf of not just the British Star Kingdom, but of Earth and its people, to ask for your help. Even more importantly, I come before you as a citizen of Haven. I don’t come to ask you to help me, but to help yourselves. We must intervene in this war! Not just because we are a British protectorate and owe them our freedom, but because our future depends on it. We have seen what the Indians did to our planet and our people. They are now on the Russian side, if the Russians win, Haven will no doubt be gifted to them. Whether it’s six months from now or a year or two, if we do not act, we will have Indian warships in our system and Indian troops in our cities. That cannot be allowed to happen. For this reason, I and First Councilor Pennington are bringing a joint motion to this chamber. We are requesting that the Haven Council vote to send our fleet to the New France system to join Commodore Lightfoot’s forces and aid him in liberating Earth. The First Councilor has put all other motions for today’s assembly on hold. This is the most important issue before us. Decisive action is required.”

As soon as Suzanna stopped speaking a chorus of voices broke out. Several alcoves lit up to inform everyone that the council member there wished to speak to the council. Emilie could only make out a few words here and there, but she didn’t get the impression that many of the council members were happy. They did however stop speaking when another alcove moved out to hover beside Suzanna’s. As she was wearing the same clothes that Emilie had met her in several hours ago, she didn’t struggle to recognize First Councilor Pennington.

“As you have all heard, I have put my name to this motion and now I put my voice to it as well. None of us have any desire to be embroiled in Earth politics. We just want to be left alone. Yet that is impossible and it will never again be possible. For the last decade we have struggled with this simple fact. By being reconnected to Earth, everything has changed for us. We must accept that given the threat that faces us. We were all prepared to send our ships to fight the Flex-aor. We recognized the threat they posed to us. The Russians and the Indians pose almost the same threat. If Earth falls, Haven will follow. Supporting this motion and sending our warships to aid the British Star Kingdom is the only way I can protect Haven as First Counsellor. This is why I’m urging all of you to vote in favor of releasing our fleet to the command of Commodore Lightfoot. Now, as is our custom, others may speak on this motion before we make our decision. Councilman Maguire, I invite you to speak first.”

Emilie strained to make out Maguire’s features as his alcove moved out to a position where he could address his peers. She knew who he was, she had read the news reports. Alongside Pennington, he had led the resistance that had fought the Indian invasion. From the discussion Suzanna and Pennington had had earlier, she also knew that he was likely to be the most influential councilman who would oppose their motion.

“The news you bring us is grave Governor Somerville,” Maguire began. “Yet what can Haven do about it? We are still recovering from the Indian invasion. Our fleet is small. We are all but insignificant. Why should we risk everything when our contribution is all but meaningless? If we do nothing, whichever side wins will know that we simply wish to be left alone. If the Russians and Indians are carving up all of the major power’s colonies, Haven may not be high on the list of priorities. Perhaps, they would leave us alone. But even if they didn’t, it’s likely we would be able to negotiate some kind of treaty with them. Perhaps one that is not too different from the current treaty we find ourselves a part of with the British.

“However, if we do send our ships to fight with the British, it will be a decision we can never take back. We will be declaring to the other human nations that we are a political player in their schemes. Forever after we will be drawn into their constant jockeying and fighting for position. To vote for such a motion will not just mean sending Haven citizens off to die in a foreign system, it will mean committing Haven to an unending stream of foreign wars and invasions. As much as I appreciate everything the British Star Kingdom has done for us, the risks of trying to help them now outweigh any small benefit our fleet might prove to be. What do you say to this Governor Somerville?”

Emilie had to bite her tongue to stop herself from shouting when Suzanna paused before speaking. She wanted to tell Maguire to wise up! Yet she wasn’t surprised when Suzanna was more diplomatic with her words. “Your assessment of the implications of passing this motion is perceptive Councilman Maguire,” Suzanna said with a nod towards Maguire’s alcove. “I’m not trying to hide anything from any of you. You all must know what this motion will mean. Nevertheless, your reasoning is flawed in two ways. You fear that passing this motion will commit Haven to the political intrigue within the human sphere. It is true, the motion will include us in this intrigue, yet we are already a part of it. We have been a part of it since Haven was discovered. Already three major space battles have been fought in our system. Our planet has been invaded by two ground armies. Whether we pass this motion or not, are we not already a part of this intrigue? The question before us today is not whether or not Haven can continue the isolationist policies we pursued for the past several centuries. The question is, on whose side are we on? Will we side with those who have helped us fight for freedom, or those who would enslave us?”

Suzanna paused again. This time she looked at many of the council members. Emilie could feel the weight of her words sinking into everyone in the chamber as Suzanna drew the silence out almost to the point where it became uncomfortable. Only when her eyes had covered the entire chamber and returned to Maguire did she continue. “The second flaw in your reasoning relates to our battle fleet. It may be small yes, it may be heavily dominated by frigates and destroyers rather than the battlecruisers and battleships we might wish to have. Yet our ships could still prove vital to the Allied cause. All of the major powers have had their fleets decimated by the Flex-aor. The Russians have already suffered losses. No major power has the strength it once had. If our ships are combined with those the Allies still have and perhaps even with the warships of the Vestarians, we can make a crucial difference. I for one would rather be on the side of the Allies than trying to plead terms with the Russians after they have defeated all their enemies. There is no future for Haven down that path.” Again, Suzanna let silence fall on the council chamber for several seconds, then she motioned to say she had said her piece.

“I’m not suggesting we submit ourselves to the mercy of the Russians!” Maguire replied passionately. “If they win, and they come for Haven, we will fight. The other human powers already know just what kind of resistance the Haven people can put up when a foreign army tries to land on our soil. We have done it once before, we can do it again. However, it may not come to that. It certainly will if we have lost our fleet fighting in some foreign system. But if our fleet is here, and the Russians have expended their strength against the Allies, then we would be the ones in a position of power. If we continue our military build-up while everyone else is fighting, we could negotiate a settlement as equals.” When Maguire had said his piece, he waved to one of his colleagues when their alcove approached.

“There is another point to consider,” a Councilwoman Emilie didn’t recognize started to say. She glanced at an information screen in the viewing gallery. Councilwoman Helena Martin, she read. A brief bio told her that she was a part of the same party as Councilman Maguire. I hope she’s a bit more positive, she thought as she zoned back into what Martin was saying. “The Indian fleet has been decimated by the Flex-aor. Whatever warships the Indians have left will no doubt suffer even more casualties against their new enemies. Why should we fear them? Councilman Maguire is right, the Russians will likely suffer heavy losses as well. If we can continue to expand our shipbuilding abilities, then we would become a new power in this part of space. The Russians would have to negotiate with us as equals. With so many other richer colonies at their mercy, why would they want to waste ships attacking us? The Indians might want to yes, but they would be no threat to us.”

“You’re only looking at things in the short term, both of you,” Pennington countered. “If Earth falls, the Russians and Indians will have the combined shipbuilding capacity of every major space faring power at their disposal. It may take a few years, but eventually they would be able to out produce us and overwhelm us. Then we would find ourselves right back where we were before the British Star Kingdom intervened on our behalf. Conquered and essentially enslaved by a foreign power.”

Emilie slumped in her seat as Pennington gave way to another Councilman who had ordered his alcove forward so he could speak. After he was done speaking, another one came forward and then another. For half an hour, arguments were brought out in favor of or against the motion. Then, to Emilie’s mind, the debate began to go around in circles. No new arguments were brought. Instead the same points and counter points where debated back and forth. More than once she had to cover her mouth to hide a yawn from the other onlookers in the viewing gallery.

“I think we have all heard enough,” Suzanna said when her turn to speak finally came around again. “There’s no point any of us wasting more time rehashing this anymore today. I suggest we hold the vote on my motion. Time is of the essence, if our ships are going to be of any use in lifting the siege of Earth, they must begin preparations to leave as soon as possible.”

“I do not think that would be prudent Governor,” Maguire replied. “There are still many more things members of my party wish to discuss.” As he spoke, he waved with his hand towards a section of alcoves, as he did, the indicators on each one of them lit up to announce their owners wished to address the Council.

Suzanna took a moment to peer at the lit alcoves, then she turned back to Maguire. “Many of your peers have already spoken. What more do they have to say?”

“That is not for me to guess,” Maguire answered. “The rules regarding a motion brought to this chamber without prior notice are clear. We have the right to discuss this issue until every council member feels it has been adequately debated. I feel confident that what the fellow members of my party have to say will be important to helping us come to our final decision. I’m also sure that what they have to say will bring us to the end of our Council session today.”

Emilie sat forward. A filibuster? she asked herself. She hadn’t realized the Haven council had such an archaic provision within their rules and regulations. The practice had nearly destroyed more than one democracy on earth before FTL travel had been discovered.

“You intend to waste all of our time? Now, at a time like this?” Suzanna shot back, her cheeks had noticeably reddened. “Haven’t you been listening? There’s no time to play politics. I need a decision today.”

“I don’t deny that you a feel you need a decision today Governor, yet not everyone shares your view. I will not let Haven citizens be sent off to die in a foreign system. Our ancestors left Earth to free us from their political infighting. If we send our fleet out of our space, we will be betraying everything they believed in. If it comes to it and we have to fight the Russians or the Indians or whoever, we should do so in our own system defending our own homes. If that’s what my actions bring, then so be it. But I will not send people off to die in someone else’s war. And if I can prevent you from doing the same, then I will do so, by whatever means I can.”

Emilie wanted to scream at Maguire, she thought Suzanna must surely feel the same. Yet when she looked at her, she seemed far calmer than she should. When she spoke, her voice was completely flat. “So be it Councilman, it is your right. I will take my leave then. If you will not help, I intend to seek the Vestarians’ aid. I never thought the people that once attacked our homeworld would have more honor than our own councilors. Yet it seems you have proven me wrong.”

Maguire opened his mouth to speak, but Suzanna had already ordered her alcove back to its docking position. After closing his mouth, he turned and gestured for one of the other council members to speak. Emilie stared around the Council chamber for several seconds. She was expecting someone else to speak out or demand that a vote be held. Yet everyone’s attention had shifted onto the new speaker. Whatever they felt about Suzanna and Maguire’s exchange, they weren’t showing it. The only thing that happened as the debate continued was that Pennington’s alcove slowly returned to its docking position and Pennington disappeared.

Only when Emilie saw that Pennington was leaving did she think to look for Suzanna. She was gone as well. It hit Emilie that she would be heading back to Scimitar. If she didn’t think her people would help her, she would want to get to Vestar as quickly as possible. Jumping to her feet, Emilie ran out of the viewing gallery. I guess I won’t be getting a tour of the city after all, she thought with disappointment.

Breaking into a fast jog, she wove her way through various corridors in the Council Chambers, she only had a vague idea of where she was going. Fortunately, when she turned the next corner she saw Suzanna and Pennington walking briskly away from her. Slowing her pace slightly, she moved up to fall in step behind them.

“I will order Admiral Harborough to begin preparations for his fleet to move to join with Lightfoot,” Pennington was saying when Emilie got within earshot. “If I can, I will encourage him to expedite Retribution’s space trials. Maguire can filibuster for a few days, maybe a week or two, but eventually we will hold the vote. If it fails, I will simply reintroduce it. I have come to trust you Governor. If this is our only option, then we must see it done.”

“Thank you Rebecca,” Suzanna replied as she reached out and took Pennington’s hand. “I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye but I’m glad you’re with me on this. You will handle the Council far better than I.”

“You intend to leave right away?” Pennington asked.

“I cannot do anything more by staying here. Maguire will filibuster for as long as he can, and then the vote will be held. If it’s going to pass, you’re the one who will get it passed. Hopefully, by the time I return, we can add our fleet to whatever ships the Vestarians are willing to lend us.”

“If they’re willing to lend any to you.”

“From the stories James has told me, I have hope,” Suzanna replied. “Now, if only I could find my pilot, we could be getting going.”

“I’m here,” Emilie called from behind the two women. “I guessed you’d be heading to Scimitar.”

“Very good,” Suzanna replied with a smile. “I hope you’re ready to meet your first aliens?”

Emilie nearly missed a step when it hit her. If they were going to Vestar, that would mean they would be meeting Vestarians. Of course that’s what it means you idiot, she said to herself. Then she smiled, she had always wanted to meet the Vestarians or the Kulreans. Maybe I’ll get a tour of their capital?




Chapter 18

In one sense the Vestarians are very different from us. Anyone meeting a Vestarian for the first time cannot help but recognize this, even if they are familiar with other alien species, there is just something alien about their mannerisms. And yet, of all the allies and enemies humanity has made, there is a sense in which the Vestarians are most like us. Their personalities and way of thinking are oddly human.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Diplomatic ship Scimitar, Vestar system, 12th August 2473 AD.

“Contacts! Bearing three four two point five. They’re closing fast,” Emilie called in alarm as soon as Scimitar jumped out of shift space. “I think there’s three of them. From the rate of acceleration, they can only be military vessels.”

“Cut our engines,” Suzanna ordered. “Let’s not look threatening. Scan the nearest ship. Confirm that it is Vestarian. Get ready to boost us out of here if it’s not.”

Emilie’s fingers flew over Scimitar’s command console. “Engines have been powered down. The contacts are still approaching. They were on a direct intercept course for us even before we exited shift space.” She turned around and looked at Suzanna. “How is that possible? No one is that lucky.”

Suzanna shrugged. “I’m no expert on Vestarian technology. Let’s worry about that later. Have they tried to contact us yet?”

Emilie answered with a shake of her head. “We’re not in two-way communication range yet.”

“How long?”

“Two minutes,” Emilie answered after a glance at her console. “Scans confirmed they are Vestarian destroyers. I’m putting them on the holo display.”

Both ladies looked up from their command chairs to study the Vestarian ships. Emilie had seen images of them before at the Academy, yet she had never studied them closely. Now she struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. Everything seemed slightly off. Weapons emplacements and radar arrays weren’t where they should be. The whole shape of the ship was confusing. Whereas humans built their ships in the rough shape of a cylinder, the Vestarian ships were more like wedges. They were wider than human ships and their noses sharpened to a point. A very aggressive design, Emilie realized. It meant the Vestarian warships had more forward-facing missile tubes and lasers, yet they had to have sacrificed a significant amount of their stern weapons. They intend to do the chasing, not running away, she decided.

“Functional I would say, wouldn’t you?” Suzanna asked. “Not beautiful, but certainly functional.”

“Functional enough to take us out with ease,” Emilie replied, she hoped the lack of concern on Suzanna’s voice was real and not forced. She’d learnt that the expression on the Governor of Haven’s face and the tone of her voice rarely betrayed her true feelings.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Suzanna said with a wave of her hand. “The Vestarians are very serious about protecting their border, but they’ve never attacked a human ship. I think they just want to make sure we know that they could if they wanted to. Broadcast our diplomatic credentials. Let’s see what they make of them.”

Emilie reached over and punched the button that was set up to broadcast Scimitar’s identity and registration details on a broad unencrypted spectrum. It took ten seconds for the transmission to reach the Vestarian destroyers. Five seconds after it did, their acceleration rate decreased significantly.

“You see, they are slowing. I imagine they are decelerating to match our current velocity?” Suzanna asked.

“It looks like it,” Emilie replied. “Though that could still mean anything. Maybe now they just want to board us.”

Suzanna smiled at her young niece. Then she nodded. “Perhaps. Yet multiple human freighters visit the system every month. There’s no reason for them to be overly aggressive towards us. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. There is no way we can get away now is there?”

“No,” Emilie replied as she turned to look back at the holo representation of the three destroyers. In her mind’s eye she could easily see missiles and lasers reaching out to strike Scimitar. Even though it had been more than two months, she still dreamed about the missiles she had been forced to shoot down defending Scimitar in the Sol and Alpha systems. In her dreams some of them got through. A beep from her console brought her focus back to the matter at hand. “The lead destroyer is hailing us.”

“Put it on the main holo display,” Suzanna requested.

Scimitar, this is Captain Gal’dac of the Vestarian Navy. Keep your engines powered down and your weapons off-line until we can confirm your identity. Once you have been processed, you will be free to continue on into the system.”

When Emilie turned to catch Suzanna’s eye, Suzanna nodded. Emilie nodded back when she had opened a COM channel. “Captain Gal’dac, I am Suzanna Somerville, Governor of Haven and wife of Captain James Somerville. I have come to speak to Vestar’s Parliamentary President. I must say, I’m impressed at your ships’ ability to intercept us so quickly. Your military capabilities are even more impressive than I have been told.”

Gal’dac showed no emotional change as he listened to Suzanna. Though as soon as he began to speak, it was clear he was excited. His four arms waved about frantically in rhythm with his words. “Governor Somerville, it is an honor to have you visit our system. I’ve nothing in my records about a state visit. You have to forgive my ship’s aggressive actions. We did not know you were coming. If we did, someone more important than I would be here to greet you. For this I apologize.”

“There is nothing to apologize for,” Suzanna replied with as warm a smile as she could. “This wasn’t a scheduled visit, circumstances have forced me to come here. The British Star Kingdom and the people of Earth need the help of their friends and neighbors. I wish to travel to Vestar and speak with your Parliamentary President.”

“I will have you on your way as soon as I can Governor. I hope my people can prove to be as good a neighbor to you as your husband proved to us in the past. My ships will carry out a detailed scan of your vessel and then you may proceed. I’ll send a communication ahead of you to alert my government that you’re coming. They will no doubt prepare a warmer welcome for you.”

“Thank you Captain, we are eager to be on our way and I appreciate your promptness. I will make sure to mention it to your ranking officers, as well as your efficiency in intercepting us.”

“Thank you Governor Somerville. It is an honor to have spoken with you,” Gal’dac said before his face disappeared as the COM channel ended.

“Well that went quite well,” Emilie suggested. “He was not quite as threatening as I was expecting.”

Suzanna winked in reply. “The name Somerville goes a long way here. Your uncle is highly regarded given how he helped the Vestarians free themselves from the old political system most of them suffered under. Plus, his Foundation helped the Vestarians jumpstart their orbital industries. Marrying James meant that many on Haven look at me as an outsider, here it will have the opposite effect. I guess our political marriage is bearing fruit after all.”

Emilie sat back in her chair and her eyebrows furrowed. Then she saw the gleam in Suzanna’s eyes. “Don’t worry,” the older woman said with a chuckle. “We didn’t just marry for political reasons, though that was how Prime Minister Fairfax wanted it. Thankfully, your uncle and I had already developed a bond.”

“I never realized,” Emilie replied. “I thought you married because you met on Haven and fell in love.”

“In part we did, but I think we would have been forced into marrying one another either way. That’s one of the burdens of being a Somerville. You are not always free to do what you want. You have to do what’s best for the British Star Kingdom, or in my case Haven. If you decide to adopt your father’s surname, it may be one of the prices you have to pay some day too.”

Emilie shook her head. “I have no time for boys. I want to become a naval Captain like James. That’s more than enough for me to be getting on with.”

Suzanna couldn’t help smiling again. “Indeed it is. I guess we just have to wait and see what happens. Now, you’re meant to be my sensor officer. Isn’t it about time I got a report on what’s going on in system?”

“Yes, of course,” Emilie replied as she sat forward. “And…” She paused for a moment as she looked down at her console, “Gal’dac has just given us permission to get underway. He sent us a trajectory we should take in system.”

“I suggest we follow it then.”

Emilie nodded and sifted through the sensor data that was coming in. “It’s better I just put everything on the main display,” she said after a few seconds.

When the holo projection changed to show the entire system, Suzanna understood. There were hundreds of contacts throughout the system moving along various trajectories. Most were going from two or three large clusters of asteroids at the edge of the system in towards Vestar. Others though were moving on seemingly random paths. “What are those ships in the outer edges of the system doing?”

“I have no idea,” Emilie answered. “Most of the nearer ones I can get a good read on seem to be warships. If all of them are, they’re obviously following some kind of patrol pattern. Yet it’s hard to make heads or tails of it.”

“What is Vestar itself like?” Suzanna asked as she shrugged. Her military experience was far too patchy to even make an educated guess on what the Vestarian Navy was up to.

When Emilie altered the holo projection so that it zoomed in on Vestar, she was disappointed by what she saw. The alien planet looked just like one of the many other colonies she had seen visual displays of. Overall the planet itself appeared much darker than Earth, it had a lot less water covering its surface and its continents were rockier and more mountainous rather than covered by vegetation. Yet many human colonies had a similar appearance and it wasn’t unique. Neither were the many orbital stations that were easy to make out even at such a great distance. To all intents and purposes. Vestar could just be another human colony, Emilie concluded. Not the weird alien world I was looking forward too. Then she reminded herself of Gal’dac, he had certainly been alien enough. I’m sure there are plenty more Vestarians for me to meet, that’s something to look forward to.

“We have a few hours before we reach orbit. Let’s try and analyze as much of the sensor data as we can. I want our computers to run an estimate on the strength of the Vestarian Navy and their industrial output from the solar industries they have built. Let’s see how good Scimitar’s sensors really are,” Suzanna requested. She had read numerous reports on the Vestarians continued economic and industrial development, yet Scimitar’s sensors were top of the line, there might be something new she could learn as they travelled towards the alien homeworld.

*

Suzanna didn’t have as much free time as she had thought she might. Gal’dac’s message had caused quite a stir. Before Scimitar made it to Vestar, several warships rendezvoused with her and accompanied her into the system. Each time a new ship arrived, Suzanna was drawn into a longer and longer conversation with a more senior officer. By the time Scimitar settled into orbit, she was accompanied by Overlord, the flagship of the Vestarian Navy, two light cruisers and four destroyers. Suzanna didn’t understand the thinking of the Vestarians when they had named their flagship after the title their previous rulers used. The intel report on the Vestarian Navy she had read said that it gave the Vestarians pleasure to think that their Overlord now served them, rather than they serving him. Yet if Suzanna was in their shoes, she would simply want to forget what had come before and forge a new path. I guess that’s why they’re aliens, Suzanna said to herself as she watched a shuttle approach Scimitar. It had come up from Vestar’s surface to take them down to Amack, Vestar’s capital.

“You’re confident that we can leave Scimitar in orbit?” Suzanna asked Emilie, not for the first time.

“Perfectly,” Emilie replied as she stood and turned from her console. “All orbital traffic has been warned to stay out of our way. If something does happen, the flight computer will take appropriate action. If need be, I can override it from the surface as well. You don’t need to worry auntie, there are plenty of other things you should be focused on.”

“All right, well, the shuttle is about to dock. I guess we better go and board it. I don’t know anything about the safety records of Vestarian shuttles, do you?” Suzanna asked. She had met with Vestarian trade representatives before when they had come to Haven. Yet she had never boarded one of their ships. Now that she was about to take a shuttle to the surface, she was slightly nervous.

“No, but I’m sure they are just as good as ours,” Emilie said. She picked up the pace as she moved past Suzanna. For her part, she was eager to meet a Vestarian in person.

“Did you check the data packet sent up from the surface?” Suzanna asked as she fell in step with Emilie.

“Yes, Tak’ar is still the Parliamentary President. It seems he won his last election by quite a margin,” Emilie answered.

“Good,” Suzanna replied with a nod as relief washed through her. She had known an election had been scheduled to take place a couple of months ago. Tak’ar and her husband had a history of working together. She hoped his continued role as Parliamentary President would make her mission easier.

When they boarded the shuttle Suzanna sat back and watched as Emilie tried to engage the two shuttle pilots in conversation. She had to hide a grin. The young Ensign’s attempts at trying to find a common topic of conversation with the aliens was amusing. To Suzanna, it seemed like the pilots had specific instructions not to enter into idle conversation. Eventually Emilie gave up and resigned herself to studying the orbital infrastructure and the view of the planet as the shuttle descended. Suzanna joined her.

As they flew over Amack, Suzanna spotted the former Overlord’s Palace. It was now a museum. It certainly is impressive, she admitted to herself. Far more impressive than the Haven assembly buildings. The building the shuttle finally landed on was something else entirely. It looked newer than many of the buildings around it, but beyond that, nothing made it stand out.

“This is it?” Emilie asked.

“I guess so,” Suzanna said as one of the pilots unbuckled herself, then turned and gestured for Suzanna and Emilie to disembark. I guess they do want to break with the old in some regards, she concluded. If this was the office of the Parliamentary President, it couldn’t be more different than the former Overlord’s Palace.

“Governor Somerville, it is a pleasure to meet you,” the Vestarian that approached them as soon as they disembarked from the shuttle said. The alien offered a hand for Suzanna to take.

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” Suzanna replied. The female greeting her was wearing the military uniform of the Vestarian Navy, but Suzanna didn’t recognize its rank insignia.

“This is Admiral Jil’lal,” Emilie said quickly as she stepped up to greet Jil’lal.

“Of course,” Suzanna replied as her eyes widened. “My apologies Admiral, I should have recognized you. James has told me a lot about you.”

“Do not worry Governor, I know it is hard for humans to tell us apart at times. I’m afraid your attendant has me at a disadvantage,” Jil’lal said as she turned towards Emilie.

“This is Emilie Kansas, she is James’ niece,” Suzanna answered.

Jil’lal’s face lit up. “Captain Somerville’s wife, and niece, both here. It is certainly my pleasure to greet you both. Come, I will bring you to president Tak’ar, he will be eager to meet you.”

As Jil’lal led them through the president’s building, Suzanna raised an eyebrow towards Emilie. “What? Emilie whispered. “It’s not my fault I’m the only one who consulted the visual records of Vestarian officials is it?”

Suzanna gave the younger women a cold stare to let her know what she thought of her humor, then turned to engage Jil’lal in small talk. Here and there, she threw in a question about Vestar’s political landscape. James had shared his amazement on more than one occasion at how quickly the Vestarians had picked up and adapted a number of human political systems for themselves. When the Overlords had ruled, they had done so with an iron fist. Every town and city was ruled directly from the Palace. Before the Overlords’ reign, the Vestarians had been split into many different countries. With the Overlord’s fall, they had instituted a planetary Parliament to rule on issues that impacted all Vestarians. At the local level though, each former country had formed its own federal state. The result was that the political situation on Vestar could shift quite quickly and radically in different directions, though given Tak’ar’s recent electoral success, it seemed like the general populace approved of his party’s approach.

“Here we are,” Jil’lal said when they came to two large doors at the end of the corridor. “Tak’ar should be waiting for us.” Gently she reached out and knocked.

“Come in,” a voice called. Jil’lal pushed open the door and stood to one side to let Suzanna and Emilie enter before her.

As she walked into the room, Suzanna was surprised by its size. It had to be far bigger than any other room in the President’s building. In fact, it almost looked too big to be part of the building their shuttle had landed upon. The room itself was dominated by a large table. Suzanna couldn’t guess what it was made from, but whatever it was, it was foreign to her. It was long and rectangular with eight seats down either side. At the far end there was one large seat, an alien was sitting in it. Suzanna guessed it was Tak’ar. At the opposite end of his side of the table, two smaller chairs sat facing him. Continuing into the room she was surprised when Tak’ar didn’t stand to greet her. Instead he remained silent. With more concern than she had come into the room with, she moved forward and sat in one of the two seats that faced him. Only when Emilie sat down beside her did Tak’ar move.

Leaning forward in his chair he peered intently at Suzanna. “The Governor of Haven has always been welcome on Vestar. We know we owe your people a debt, the attack the Overlord launched against your planet brought great shame on us. I am glad I finally have the opportunity to apologize to you in person. Nevertheless, you have been the Governor of Haven now for five years. Why has it taken you so long to come here?”

Suzanna felt Emilie’s head swivel round as the younger woman stared at her. This was not at all how she had expected the meeting to begin. With a very slight wave of her hand she signaled to Emilie to look natural, just as she was trying to do. Inside though, she was frantically trying to think of a reply.




Chapter 19

The Kulreans on the other hand, though we have had centuries of dealings with them, are still largely a mystery to us all.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

“I wish to offer my sincerest apologies Parliamentary President,” Suzanna said as she forced herself to reply to Tak’ar’s stern tone. “I’m afraid my duties have kept me extremely busy over the last five years. The people of Haven have been focused on rebuilding our capital and our orbital infrastructure after the Indian invasion. As Governor of Haven, I have had to spend a great proportion of my time on Earth. Earth politics and the politics of the British Star Kingdom have taken precedence over a state visit to Vestar. I want to assure you however that the Havenite people see the Vestarians as friends and neighbors. I had hoped that the trade agreements I had signed with the two delegations you sent to Haven would have communicated that to you.”

Tak’ar sat back slightly. “They did, to some extent at least. However, it has been my experience that words are easy to say, yet when it comes to actions, if they are much slower in coming, they can speak far more.”

“I hope my coming here now in some way shows the authenticity of the friendship the Haven people wish to have with the Vestarians,” Suzanna replied. Then her own words got the better of her. She had been busy. She had good reasons for not visiting Vestar before. “And may I extend Haven’s hospitality to you as well Parliamentary President. You too have been more than welcome to visit Haven over the last five years.”

As Tak’ar looked past her to where Jil’lal was still standing, Suzanna thought she caught a hint of a smile on his lips. “Touché, Governor. You have a point. However,” he continued after a moment’s pause, “rumors have reached us of the dire situation within the human sphere. An alien invasion has almost wiped out your battle fleet. Now the Russian Star Federation seeks to exert its control over the other human nations. You have come here because you need our help, not because you wish to strengthen the friendship between Haven and the Vestar. Am I not correct?”

Suzanna swallowed hard. If she was on Earth or even on Haven, she might have hoped that she could have talked her way around the question with some political evasiveness. In those contexts, everyone would have known what she was doing, yet it would have been expected nonetheless. On Vestar she didn’t know if that would work or would be seen as insulting. How did James handle Tak’ar? she found herself asking. The answer was obvious. He didn’t have a political bone in his body. At least he didn’t before he met me. He would have led with the truth.

She couldn’t stop a small smile as she said what she knew James would. “You are correct Parliamentary President. I have not come to visit. I come seeking the aid of your people. A danger faces the human nations, one that will impact Haven and, eventually, Vestar. That is why I am here. I believe we need each other’s help. This is how firm friendships are founded. Not with state visits, but with common causes. I am here to better the bonds between our two peoples, yet it is not my primary goal.”

Tak’ar sat back in his chair slightly. “You’re speaking plainly, that is good. Not every human representative that comes to meet me speaks plainly. You are afraid that the Flex’aor will launch a second invasion. You wish the Vestarians to send ships to help defend the American colonies? You would not be the first human to ask for help in this matter. Since we have heard of the Flex-aor, our shipbuilding endeavors have been dramatically increased. Do you have news of a renewed Flex-aor attack?”

“I do not,” Suzanna answered. Tak’ar’s words encouraged her to get straight to her main concern. “That is not the threat that has brought me here. It is the Russians that have me most concerned at the moment. They have destroyed almost all the other human ships that were not fighting the Flex-aor and now they have besieged Earth. The Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians have joined them. If they are successful, I fear that Haven will be invaded and its independence lost. In time I believe that Vestar will follow. The Russians will not want to allow any independent threat to their control remain. I believe both your people and my people’s future are linked. We are at a turning point. If Earth should fall and the major space faring nations be conquered, the reasonably good relations both my people and yours have enjoyed with Earth will disappear. A more militaristic and domineering humanity will look at Haven and Vestar as opportunities for conquest. I’ve come here to request that your people join your fleet to that of Haven. There are still some British and other warships that resist the Russians. With our aid, it may be possible to stop the Russians from attaining victory. That is why I am here.”

Tak’ar clasped all four of his hands together and Suzanna took it as a sign that he was thinking. He didn’t speak for nearly a full minute. Then he stood. Suzanna made to stand as well but he waved her back down. “Please Governor, remain seated.”

As she settled back into her chair, Tak’ar made his way around the table and pulled out a chair beside Emilie. “The news you bring is far graver than I suspected,” he said once he sat down. “I feel I must apologize for my tone with you. I confess, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you ever since you were appointed Governor. There will always be a special place in the heart of my people for your husband. However, I wanted to communicate to you that our Parliament was surprised that you haven’t visited sooner. If what you say is true though, that is a small issue. Tell me, what has happened. I know little about these Russians other than that the other human representatives I have spoken to fear them.”

Suzanna allowed her muscles to relax. She understood what Tak’ar had been doing. He wasn’t just one person, in situations like this he represented the entire Vestarian Parliament. Yet he changed his approach as soon as the situation changed, she thought. I could grow to like him. After taking a deep breath, she launched into a detailed description of everything that had led her to leave Earth and seek the help of Haven and Vestar. As soon as she started describing what she knew of the battles between the Russian Navy and the other Earth powers, Tak’ar waved for Jil’lal to sit with him. She had been standing against the back wall of the room up until that point. When she joined them, she began to ask questions about the details of the battles. On more than one occasion Suzanna turned to Emilie to answer. The young woman knew far more about military matters than she did. As soon as Tak’ar learnt who Emilie was, he was more than happy to have her join the discussion.

When she finally finished telling them about her time on Haven and her hope that when she returned the Haven Council would have voted to dispatch their fleet, Suzanna brought her hands together and rubbed her knuckles with her thumbs as she sat back. “That is the situation before us. I fear that if your people and mine don’t intervene, we will face a new enemy along our borders. And that is to say nothing of what might happen if the Flex-aor do attack again.”

Tak’ar shared a long glance with Jil’lal. Then he turned his gaze back to Suzanna. “I don’t see that my people have any choice in the matter. You’re right, if the Russians take over we could find the full might of all of Earth’s militaries coming against us. It only makes sense to intervene now and stop that from happening.”

Emilie almost jumped out of her seat. “Then you will help us?”

Tak’ar nodded slowly. “I believe we will. We would have to get Parliament’s permission of course, but if both I and Admiral Jil’lal recommend this course of action, it should be easily approved.”

Emilie swung round to look at Suzanna. Suzanna recognized the look on her face, she suspected her own face was showing something similar, despite her efforts to hide it. They were both amazed that it was going to be so easy. She had been expecting it to take days to convince Tak’ar of the necessity of intervening. After the Overlord had attacked Haven, she knew the Vestarians were wary about sending warships out of their system. They hadn’t wanted to give humanity the wrong impression.

“Is something wrong?” Jil’lal asked in response to the look on the two human faces.

“If you don’t mind my asking, why have you agreed so quickly?” Suzanna replied. “I thought keeping your fleet within the Vestarian system was a key component of your party’s politics.”

Tak’ar nodded in a very human way. “It was. The Flex-aor changed that. Since we heard of them, we have been building up our fleet in anticipation of having to lend support to humanity. Up until a year ago most of our ships did not have FTL capabilities. We spent a great deal of our industrial capacity refitting as many of them as we could. Both our general populace and our Parliament recognize the wisdom in using our fleet to fight battles in faraway systems rather than waiting to fight similar battles around Vestar. I do not think that it will be too hard to convince Parliament that the Russians are almost as bad a threat to us as the Flex-aor.”

“I hope you’re right,” Suzanna replied. “By the time I return to Haven, I’m counting on the same argument to have won out there, but I doubt the process will have been as easy as you believe it will be here. The next most pressing question I have then, is how many ships do you have that can join us, and how soon can they leave?”

Tak’ar looked to Jil’lal to answer. “Overlord finished her refit three weeks ago. Her last shift drive test was yesterday. The analysts are still going over the readings from the tests, but so far nothing anomalous has been detected. Along with her, we have three heavy cruisers, five medium, eight light and twenty other smaller ships that have working shift drives. If we need to, they could depart within a couple of days. They all have enough supplies and munitions on board for a three-month operation. No doubt they will be needed for longer than that. To keep them in the field we will have to organize supply convoys. The plans have already been drawn up, I just need to activate them.”

“Are two days quick enough for you Governor?” Tak’ar asked.

Suzanna couldn’t hide the relief on her face. “That will be more than quick enough,” she smiled. “If we can leave in two days we might even get back to Haven before they have made a final decision. The speed and your willingness to help may encourage the Haven councilors to get off the fence and make a decision.”

“The real question is, will our ships make enough of a difference?” Jil’lal asked. “The size of the Russian fleet is impressive and from what you have said, the losses the Earth nations suffered against the Flex-aor have given the Russians a distinct advantage. Even with our ships and the Haven fleet, can we make a difference?”

“Honestly,” Suzanna said, “I’m not sure. If we could get all our ships under Commodore Lightfoot’s command we should be able to cause Koroylov some real headaches. It really depends on the Combined Fleet and Admiral Cunningham. The last reports that made it to Earth from the American colonies suggested about one hundred and eighty warships were left in the Combined Fleet. Koroylov has the numbers to beat them, but not if we can add our forces to the mix.”

“That does depend on one thing,” Emilie said.

“What is that?” Suzanna asked.

“Well, we don’t really know the military capabilities of Vestarian warships.”

“Of course,” Suzanna said. She almost slapped her forehead. She had been thinking like a politician, on Earth one warship was just like another. “If you don’t mind us asking, how do you think your ships compare to human warships?” she asked turning to Jil’lal.

Jil’lal glanced at Tak’ar, she seemed to be looking for permission for only when Tak’ar nodded did she answer. “I believe our point defenses would match the efficiency of most human warships. Our laser technologies were ahead of yours when we first met and the Kulreans have helped us develop them further. I suspect our heavy laser cannons would also be more advanced. In a missile duel though, your anti-ship missiles are much superior to ours. In short, we can defend ourselves pretty well, but we would need to outnumber human warships in order to break through their defenses with our own missiles. That is how our simulations usually work out at least.”

Suzanna let herself smile. “Now that I think about it. That is better than what I might have anticipated. From what I remember of the first battle of Haven, James and Endeavour were able to take on many more of your ships with ease. At the very least then, I think with the addition of your ships and Haven’s, Commodore Lightfoot’s fleet will allow us to be a very sharp thorn in Koroylov’s side. Perhaps that may be enough of a distraction to stop him taking Earth and allow the Combined Fleet to finish him off. Even if all we can do is spoil his invasion plans, that is all we need to do in the short term. Over time, the far greater shipbuilding capacity of the Allies will allow them to offset the current Russian numerical superiority. We just have to hold out long enough.”

“I have heard of Commodore Lightfoot,” Jil’lal said. “He is a well-respected commander. I’m sure that together we will be able to find a way to hurt Koroylov’s fleet.”

The tone of Jil’lal’s voice almost made Suzanna shiver. It had changed instantly from the relaxed way in which she had been speaking to them, to one with a very distinct predatory edge. Clearly Jil’lal was a warrior not to be messed with. “I’m sure Lightfoot will enjoy meeting you,” she replied.

A knock at the door made everyone pause. Tak’ar got up and opened it slightly to speak to whoever was there. Turning back, he didn’t close the door, nor did he open it any wider. “Governor, it looks like my other guest has returned from his tour of the city. I left word for him to be brought to us, I thought you would enjoy the opportunity to meet another one of your neighbors. I’m not so sure you will convince him to join your cause, but perhaps you would like the opportunity. May I introduce my wife Mul’li’la and Pemel, the leader of the great people of Kulthar. Pemel is also here on a state visit.”

Suzanna jumped to her feet and spun as a completely different looking alien stepped into the room. Before she could greet him, Mul’li’la stepped forward and offered her hand. Suzanna took it as she tried to get her emotions under control. The Kulreans were a far more advanced race than the Vestarians or humanity. If they could be convinced to help against the Russians, their aid would tip the balance against the Russians. Yet, she knew that delegates had been sent to the Kulreans to ask for help against the Flex-aor. They had offered some small technological advancements, but they had refused to offer military aid. As far as she knew, none of their warships had FTL capabilities. In principle, they refused to take part in any armed conflict. What warships they had were purely for defense.

“Grand Leader Pemel,” Suzanna said after stepping around Mul’li’la. “I didn’t expect to meet you here, but I’m very pleased that I have this opportunity. I want to thank you on behalf of the people of Haven and the British Star Kingdom for the technologies you have shared with us over the last number of years. I know many hundreds of millions of lives have been improved thanks to your people.”

Pemel took her hand and shook it before speaking. “I’m glad to be able to meet you in person as well Governor Somerville. I dare say, there are a few more of our technologies you would like to get your hands on.”

He smiled as he spoke so Suzanna didn’t take it as an insult. “True,” she conceded. “Especially since the Flex-aor attacked us. I don’t know if you knew, but my husband believes that the Flex-aor have something to do with whoever gave the Overlord advanced military technologies. In one of the last letters he sent me before the Russians attacked Earth, he said one of his officers thinks there are some technological similarities between the weapons the Overlords had and Flex-aor weapons systems.”

“What evidence does he have?” Jil’lal asked as she jumped to her feet. Even to someone who had just met Vestarians in person for the first time, her anger was clear.

“I don’t know,” Suzanna answered as she turned back to her hosts. “I didn’t think to mention it before. It was just a passing comment James made as he shared his concerns with me. I expect that he will have plenty of data to share with you whenever he is able to get back in contact with us.”

“But that won’t happen until the Russians are cleared out of the way,” Tak’ar commented as two of his hands stroked his chin. “Just another reason to lend you our aid.”

Mul’li’la reached out and touched Tak’ar’s shoulder. “Lend them our aid? What have you agreed to in such a short time my husband?”

“Only what needs to be done my love. Our neighbors need our help and Jil’lal and I intend to give it to them. I suspect that Governor Somerville would like to ask the same of Pemel. Though I know what he will say.” Tak’ar nodded towards Pemel, indicating to Suzanna that she should ask.

“We better sit,” Suzanna said as she turned to take her place at the table. When they were all sitting she summarized what was going on between the human nations. For Tak’ar and Jil’lal’s sake, she kept her description as short as she could.

“So you see, if the Russians take Earth, they will likely set their sights on Haven, Vestar and maybe even Kulthar as well. In fact, if they think they can force you to give up your advanced technologies, I’m sure that they will.”

“They can try,” Pemel replied. He had listened to her entire story silently. “My people may still view violence with abhorrence, but we have learnt our lesson from the Overlord’s attack. A human war fleet of a hundred ships couldn’t threaten our homeworld now.”

“What about one of two hundred, or three hundred?” Emilie asked, speaking up for the first time in quite a while. “If the Russians take Earth and divide up the major power’s colonies between their new friends, they could have a fleet of five hundred warships, even a thousand if they really wanted to. It may take a decade, but the technologies you have would no doubt be worth such an expenditure in their eyes.”

Pemel shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how many ships they might have; my people would not bow down to the threat of violence. We would destroy our technologies before we would hand them over.”

“Helping us would offer you an alternative,” Suzanna suggested. “Tak’ar has seen the value in preventing such a scenario from occurring. I’m sure you can as well?”

“I can see the value,” Pemel conceded with a slight nod. “But that doesn’t change anything. My people will never be willing to get involved in the internal struggles of another species. I will confess, part of my reasoning for coming to Vestar was to get an update on the war with the Flex-aor. The news that had reached us so far was very concerning. There was a growing movement within my government to lend you more support in the form of some moderately advanced military technologies. From what Tak’ar has already told me, that is no longer needed. If such a threat does arise again, then we would certainly consider offering our aid. Especially if it turns out that there is some connection between whoever gave the Overlord their advanced military technologies and these Flex-aor, but that is another matter. The internal struggle between your species’ nations is not something we will involve ourselves in.”

Suzanna let out a deep breath. “Okay. I guess that’s what I expected. I had to ask though.” A part of her wanted to try and argue, to change Pemel’s mind. But everything she knew about the Kulreans in general and Pemel in particular told her it was a wasted effort. That he had admitted they had even considered sharing more technologies was a massive leap. She had no hope she could get anything else from him.

“I would expect nothing less,” Pemel replied. “You are responsible for protecting your people as best as you can. In your situation, I would no doubt do the same. Just as if you were in mine, you would understand my answer. Now, I’m sure there are many other things we can discuss that will be more fruitful. Seeing as we are both here, we may as well take advantage of the situation.”

“I’m sure you all have a lot more to discuss,” Mul’li’la agreed as she stood. “However, it is supper time. I’ve already instructed our chef to prepare something for you all. We should retire and see what he has come up with. He’s been practicing his human cooking for a while. Once we’re all fed, I’m sure you’ll all be keen to get back to negotiations.”

“Food sounds good,” Emilie said as she jumped to her feet.

“Yes,” Tak’ar agreed. “It will take at least a couple of days to get Parliament’s permission and for Jil’lal to get her fleet ready to depart. We have plenty of time for negotiations. Let’s eat.”

Suzanna acquiesced with a slight nod and stood to join everyone else. Two days, she thought as they filed out of the room. Haven better be ready for us when we return.




Chapter 20

Every battle, ancient and modern is studied vigorously at the various naval academies by those on the command track. You never know when an ancient tactic may be the one that wins the day.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Endeavour, Springfield system, 21st October 2473 AD.

“Contact Sierra one is altering course. I’m detecting energy bursts from her starboard ventral maneuvering thrusters,” Lieutenant Olive reported. “It looks like she is turning into the system.”

“Range to Sierra one?” Becket asked.

“Still three hundred thousand kilometers,” the Sub Lieutenant at Endeavour’s navigation console answered.

“Sierra two is altering course as well,” Olive updated.

“A routine course correction, their patrol pattern seems pretty standard,” Endeavour’s First Lieutenant commented.

“Indeed it does. Keep us steady helm,” Becket replied. She smoothed her facial features to hide any emotion. Endeavour had spent the last eight hours in stealth, silently cruising along behind the two Argentinian frigates patrolling the shift passage from Springfield to Nantucket. Three hundred thousand kilometers was just inside heavy plasma cannon range. It was also just over the threshold Argentinian frigates’ passive sensors might be able to detect Endeavour. Cruising along right behind the frigates put Endeavour in a cone of reduced sensor visibility. It wasn’t exactly a dead zone, but the design of Argentinian frigates meant their passive sensors were approximately thirty percent less effective peering directly astern. The frigates’ large impulse thrusters left little room for passive sensors and the exhaust gases further degraded their ability.

All that changed when the frigates altered course. Turning their rears away from Endeavour brought other passive sensors to bear on Becket’s command. It would take three minutes for her ship to pass back into the cone of reduced sensor efficiency. Yet those three minutes were the most dangerous of her mission. Becket wasn’t concerned about her ship; Endeavour’s heavy plasma cannons were keeping a constant track on the two frigates. It was her mission she was concerned about. It was crucial she wasn’t detected until the right time. Already Endeavour’s bridge crew had sat through two other course changes from the frigates. Each time they had to endure another one, the likelihood of failure increased. Gripping her command chair tightly, Becket mentally counted down the time until Endeavour crossed back into the zone of reduced sensor efficiency.

“Course change,” she commanded as soon as they did. “Bring our nose around to parallel the frigates’ course. Do it slowly helm.”

“Aye Captain,” the Sub Lieutenant responded.

As soon as her ship was tucked in safely behind her two targets, Becket allowed herself to relax. With a tap on her command chair she brought up her mission parameters. According to Rear Admiral Somerville’s plan, the next phase should begin within an hour. The thought of another hour on Endeavour’s bridge forced Becket to stifle a yawn. She had spent the best part of the last ten hours on the bridge. It had taken nearly three days to sneak across the Springfield system and locate the two patrolling frigates. Then another twelve hours to slowly catch up with them. Becket had spent all but two of those hours on the bridge. She was tempted to leave and try and capture a power nap, it was unlikely the frigates would be making any more course corrections. Not before things would kick off. Yet because go time was so close, she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep.

“I’m going to order some extra strong coffee from the galley, anyone want anything?” she asked her bridge crew. After jotting down the orders, she sent off the request. Then she turned back to staring at the holo plot of space around Endeavour. She had to picture where the other three ships under her command might be. Alongside Discovery, Endeavour’s sister ship, two American stealth ships were out there. All three ships had fought under her command at X-38 and she knew their Captains well. No one knew how many patrol ships Admiral de Gama had placed in the Springfield system, but she doubted there were more than another couple. If there were, James’ plan might fall apart very quickly when the fighting kicks off, Becket thought.

When her coffee came, she sipped it slowly, trying to eke it out until something happened. Having a warm cup in her hand and something to sip was at least a small distraction from the tension of waiting. Just as she raised her mug to take the last sip, alarms went off around her.

“New contacts on the gravimetric plot,” Lieutenant Olive snapped. “Multiple new contacts entering the system from the Bison shift passage. “They’re accelerating directly towards the Nantucket shift passage. Acceleration rates suggest military ships.”

“Right on time,” Becket said as she set her mug down. “Tactical, update targeting data on targets Sierra one and Sierra two every five seconds.”

“Aye Captain, they won’t get out of my sights,” Endeavour’s tactical officer responded.

“I’m designating the new contacts as squadron Bogie one,” Olive reported. “At their current acceleration rates, they will cross the system in just under six hours. First electromagnetic readings from them should reach us in a little over forty-five minutes.”

Becket nodded to acknowledge her update. More waiting, she thought. If the ranking Captain on the two frigates in front of Endeavour was smart, he would hold off dispatching one of his frigates to update de Gama until the electromagnetic energy given off from the reactors and impulse engines of the new contacts reached him. Then he would be able to get a firm fix on the identity of the new contacts.

Forty-two minutes after the first group of contacts appeared, a second group suddenly began accelerating across the system. They immediately appeared on Endeavour’s gravimetric plot. “New squadron, designated Bogie two accelerating into the system. They are on a direct intercept course with Bogie one,” Olive reported.

“That was cutting it close,” Endeavour’s first Lieutenant commented.

“He can’t get too close to them otherwise there’d be nothing for de Gama to rescue,” Becket replied.

“Passive sensors are picking up the first trace emissions from Bogie one,” Olive announced. “They are consistent with the records we have on file for the Indian, Argentinian and Brazilian warships that were damaged fighting the Flex-aor. Sensor profiles indicate there are five cruisers, nine destroyers and six frigates. Three of the ships’ reactors are giving off dangerous fluctuations. It’s as if the reactors are being red lined or have encountered some kind of fault.”

“Or still need repair from battle damage,” Becket suggested. “Just as its meant to look.”

“That’s one of the options the computer suggests ma’am,” Olive replied. The Lieutenant cut herself off before she said anything more. Instead she bent down over her console. Just a second later her head snapped back up. “Contact Sierra two is preparing to come out of stealth. She is powering up her reactors and initializing her impulse drives.”

“She’ll be turning to port and making for the mass shadow,” Becket said. “Now we’ll see just how good Endeavour’s passive sensors are. Guns?”

“Were still tracking both Sierra targets. As soon as Sierra two gets out of plasma cannon range we’ll track her with our missiles, don’t worry, we have her Captain,” Endeavour’s tactical officer replied.

“I know, I’m just making sure,” Becket responded. “If there is even a hint of either ship powering up their plasma cannons, fire first and ask permission second.”

As Sierra two turned away from her consort and accelerated towards the system’s mass shadow, Becket felt the tension around her rise. Once again Endeavour was under the gaze of the frigate’s most powerful passive sensors. Yet as the minutes ticked on, there was no sign the British exploration cruiser was detected.

“We’re outside their passive detection range,” Olive reported six minutes after the frigate had started to accelerate. “We should be safe now.”

For another ten minutes nothing happened, then contact Sierra two disappeared across the system’s mass shadow and jumped into shift space. In fourteen hours it would reach Nantucket and when it did, it would be screaming to de Gama about a squadron of warships that were crewed by Brazilians, Argentinians and Indians. A squadron that was being chased down by another squadron of warships, warships that could only be Allied ships. Hopefully it’s enough to entice de Gama, Becket thought. She turned her attention back to the frigate in front of Endeavour. Rear Admiral Somerville didn’t want any secondary reports reaching de Gama. They might contradict the one report he did want his adversary to get.

“Guns, confirm all plasma cannons locked on Sierra one,” Becket requested.

“Confirmed,” Endeavour’s tactical officer replied.

“Fire,” Becket ordered.

Six heavy plasma bolts shot from the exploration cruiser. All six struck the frigate. Explosions ripped the small warship into three sections, secondary explosions vaporized two of them. Only the frigate’s nose was left spinning into space.

The appearance of six plasma bolts seemingly from nowhere was the signal the other allied ships had been waiting for. Two of them had found other ships patrolling the shift passage to Nantucket. One Russian destroyer and two Indian and Argentinian frigates were struck by plasma bolts before their sensor officers realized what had happened to their comrade.

“Active sensors, full power,” Becket ordered. “Navigation, take us towards the Nantucket shift passage.”

Discovery and Maine confirm three kills Captain,” Endeavour’s COM officer updated. “Minneapolis is signaling as well, she didn’t locate any patrol ships.”

“Acknowledge each COM message then order every ship to go to full powered active scanning. If there is another ship out there, I want to find it before it can escape,” Becket ordered.

For thirty minutes her ships searched for any ships that may have escaped their attention. When none were found, Becket was happy to conclude that they had destroyed all the ships de Gama had placed in the Nantucket system. “Order the squadron to form up on Endeavour, we will jump to shift space as soon as we cross the mass shadow,” she said to her COM officer. Part one of Endeavour’s mission was complete. She had another important role to play.

*

The restraints on ISF Godavari’s tactical command chair tightened around First Lieutenant Scott as the medium cruiser jumped out of shift space. Scott waited for several seconds as Godavari’s computer confirmed the medium cruiser and her consorts had safely arrived in the Nantucket system. Then she sent a command to the ships around her with the touch of a single button. As one, they accelerated towards Nantucket. A touch of another button ordered Godavari and the other ships in her squadron to start screaming out on every COM frequency. They alternated sending messages that included up-to-date sensor data on the Allied ships that were pursuing them with the identification codes the former crews of the ships had handed over before their ships had been commandeered.

With her two tasks done, Scott opened a display on her command chair and scanned through a stream of computer code. She had written it herself. It was why she had insisted she be the one to command this mission. Being on Godavari’s bridge gave her a couple of extra days to refine her code. It also meant that if any last-minute changes were needed, she would be able to make them.

Thirty minutes after her ships entered the system, alarms informed her that more ships had jumped in behind her. The small Allied squadron that had pursued her across the Springfield system accelerated after her. She peered over the sensor data Godavari’s computer was analyzing for her. There was no sign of any warships in orbit around Nantucket. That was good, it meant de Gama had likely taken the bait. Yet there was also no sign of his ships anywhere else. Hopefully that means he thinks he will be able to ambush the Rear Admiral, Scott thought. I just hope he doesn’t think too much about what’s happening.

For another twenty minutes Scott sat in silence as she reviewed her code while sporadically checking Godavari’s sensors. She jumped when a small beep was omitted by her command chair. Someone was trying to contact her via laser COM link. Whoever they were, they were right on the extreme range of a laser COM’s functionality. Bringing the message up on the screen, Scott listened as Admiral de Gama requested an update on her squadron’s condition. Scott brought up a series of files that had been pre-prepared and she activated Godavari’s laser COM. Selecting one file, she transmitted it. It was a holographic representation of Godavari’s previous captain giving a very brief rundown of his experience escaping the Utah system and being chased by the squadron behind Godavari. Of course, it was all CGI, but given that the techs who had made it had Godavari’s previous Captain in custody, it looked perfect.

Scott exhaled deeply when a confirmation came back. It was quickly followed by orders to alter course. Scott furrowed her eyebrows. From the general direction of the laser COM she had a fair idea of where de Gama was hiding his fleet. The course correction he was ordering would bring her ships slightly closer to his position, which in turn would draw the Allied ships behind her closer. Yet a course correction from her ships would not make any sense if she really was fleeing the Allied squadron. Excluding de Gama’s hidden fleet, Nantucket was the closest safe harbor. Altering course would give away de Gama’s presence.

Scott cursed to herself. No prerecording had been prepared for this eventuality. She typed a text message. She queried the order, suggesting that if de Gama had ships near enough to intervene, any course change from her squadron would give away his presence. When she sent it, a bead of sweat ran down the middle of her back. Either de Gama knew something was up and he was playing with her, or he was an even worse commander than Admiral Somerville believed.

When a reply did come back, it simply acknowledged her message. Scott was left with no clear answer as to what was going on. Patience, she said to herself as she took a few deep breaths to calm her racing heart. One way or another, you’re going to get your opportunity. With that thought she brought up the status of the bridge’s escape pod. It was fully fueled and ready to go, just as it had been the last ten times she had checked. This time she began its prelaunch flight checks.

A series of alarms made her jump again. Her cheeks reddened at her reaction. She was thankful there was no one around to watch her. Then her face changed again. Determination took over. De Gama had taken the bait. He had just announced his presence. His ships had been cruising in stealth towards the Springfield shift passage, clearly intending to catch the Allied squadron pursuing her ships. Yet space was big and his ships hadn’t been lined up on a direct intercept course for the Allied squadron. In order to get Rear Admiral Somerville’s ships into missile range he had been forced to change course and fire up his impulse engines. As Godavari’s computer factored in all the variables, it became apparent that de Gama had lit up his engines at the earliest point he could.

Ordinarily it was the smart thing to do. He had waited until the exact moment when the Allied ships crossed the point of no return. There was no way Rear Admiral Somerville’s small squadron could decelerate and escape before de Gama brought them into missile range. Yet if they immediately began decelerating, some ships might escape. No doubt that’s what de Gama wanted his opponent to try. For although some ships might escape, it would give his point defenses a much better chance of intercepting whatever missiles the Allies threw at him. With their ships decelerating, the Allied missiles would reach de Gama’s ships with a considerably lower closing velocity compared to his own missiles. That’s not happening today, Scott thought with a grin. The Allied ships didn’t slow at all. With three medium cruisers, eight light cruisers, and fifteen destroyers and frigates, Somerville had brought only one third of his fleet with him. Yet it was just the right amount of ships to lure de Gama. The Russians had left de Gama one heavy and two medium cruisers along with an assortment of other light ships to reinforce the Brazilian and Argentinian ships that made up the bulk of his force. Ordinarily they would have been enough to make Rear Admiral Somerville think twice about attacking the Nantucket system. Yet they were about to get a nasty surprise.

When the next beep rang out from her command chair, Scott simply glanced down. She had been expecting this one. De Gama’s squadron was about to pass hers as it raced to try and destroy the Allied ships still accelerating into the system. Scott unbuckled her restraints and stood. She cast one final glance at the readout on her command chair. The targeting data from her code still looked good. Then she moved across the bridge and stepped into the escape pod. Smacking the button to close and seal its hatch, she sat down and buckled herself in. Forcing her muscles to relax, she sent the command to launch the pod from her datapad. Small explosive charges shot the escape pod away from Godavari. The high G forces from the pod’s impulse engines threatened to force Scott’s eyes closed, then, after just three seconds, they disappeared. The pod had cleared its mothership and was awaiting further orders. Scott counted down from five and then, just before the escape pod exceeded the range of the transmitter in her datapad, sent her final command to Godavari. The slave circuit she had attached to Godavari’s tactical console received the signal and executed her code.

Godavari’s COM unit sent the updated targeting data to every ship in her squadron. As one, they fired. Scott was close enough to see the streaks of focused plasma zip through space towards some distant target. A second later missiles erupted from every ship that had been in her squadron. The targets were too far away for her to see their impact, but she had been in more than enough battles to picture the destruction she had just unleashed.




Chapter 21

Though technologies have changed drastically, the essence of interstellar combat is still the same; to win one must overwhelm the defences of your opponent and bring as much destructive power against his ships as possible. Whoever accomplishes that first wins.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Argyll, Nantucket system, 22nd October 2473 AD.

James had tried very hard to keep his contempt for de Gama out of his tactical thinking. He hadn’t wanted to underestimate his enemy. It seemed he needn’t have bothered. De Gama had taken the bait hook, line and sinker. The prize of being able to ambush a small Allied squadron had blinded him to what was really going on. James had thought the strategy a long shot, but one worth trying. The odds of the Indian, Brazilian and Argentinian ships that had been undergoing repairs in the Utah system escaping before the Allies had been able to capture them had been minuscule. Yet de Gama had been willing to believe that that was what happened.

As he sat on HMS Argyll’s bridge and watched the plasma bolts and missiles streak towards de Gama’s fleet, he felt a tinge of sorrow for the Brazilian Admiral. He had arrived too late to fight the Flex-aor. If he had been involved in those battles, he might have learned some humility. Now his overconfidence was about to see him lose the first and likely last battle he would ever command. Then James remembered the plasma bolts from de Gama’s flagship striking HMS Victory. Those images drove away any compassion he had. “Fire our first salvo as soon as we come into range. I don’t want to give those traitors even one extra second to reorganize themselves.”

“Aye Rear Admiral,” Argyll’s Captain acknowledged and then barked orders to his officers to relay the command to the other ships in James’ squadron.

The first plasma bolts struck their targets. The former Indian, Brazilian and Argentinian ships James had commandeered had all been heavily damaged. Their weapons compliments weren’t as powerful as they had once been. Yet they were more than enough to wreak havoc among de Gama’s ships. Frigates and destroyers were blown apart by plasma bolts and several larger cruisers were severely damaged or crippled.

The shock of coming under attack clearly bewildered many of the officers in de Gama’s fleet. Only the Russian and Indian warships managed to return fire with their heavy plasma cannons. More than half of Lieutenant Scott’s ships were destroyed by their fire. Those that were left fired a second volley of plasma bolts. Their priority targets were undamaged enemy ships and more of de Gama’s fleet were blown apart or crippled. Then de Gama’s ships returned fire as one. In the blink of an eye, every single ship James had commandeered was blown apart.

As the last one disappeared from Argyll’s sensors, James dismissed them from his thoughts. They had served their purpose. “Make sure you get a lock on Lieutenant Scott’s escape pod,” he ordered. She was the only person who had been on any of the ships. The rest had been slaved to her control.

“I already have her Rear Admiral,” Argyll’s sensor officer informed him. “’I’ve released a buoy that will transmit her vector to the rest of the fleet when it arrives. Even if we are destroyed, the fleet will get her.”

James looked over and caught the eye of the sensor officer, she clearly understood James’s concern for Titan’s First Lieutenant. He gave her a slight nod. “Thank you.”

“Missiles away,” Argyll’s tactical officer reported. One hundred and six new contacts appeared as the squadron James had put together to chase Scott’s ships opened fire.

“Lieutenant Scott’s missiles are entering attack range,” another officer reported. “They can’t fire on us until they deal with that threat.”

James silently commended Scott, he had no doubt she timed it to be so. What ships were left in de Gama’s fleet had broken out of formation and were desperately diving and weaving as they tried to throw off the sensor locks the incoming missiles had on them. At the same time, they were spitting out defensive fire at the anti-ship missiles. Most of the missiles were destroyed for there was nowhere near enough of them to saturate de Gama’s point defenses, others lost track thanks to the evasive maneuvers and ECM of their targets. Yet because of the confusion caused by so many ships being blown apart by plasma bolts, several broke through to reach their targets. Four mini stars appeared in the midst of de Gama’s fleet as thermonuclear warheads detonated, releasing their destructive payload. When the energy from their explosions dissipated, two more ships were gone and a third was falling out of formation.

It took de Gama nearly a minute to reorganize his ships into a new formation, then they finally opened fire with their own missiles. Just three minutes later, James’ squadron fired their second salvo. By the time James’s first salvo reached de Gama, there was a third Allied missile salvo on its way.

“Multiple hits,” Argyll’s sensor officer reported. “One medium cruiser and two destroyers have disappeared from the plot, at least three other cruisers took proximity hits.”

“Fleet will switch to formation barrier-three,” James ordered. He lapsed into silence as his ships rearranged themselves into a tight group where every ship’s field of point defense fire would overlap. Before Scott’s surprise attack, de Gama’s ships had outnumbered his by a factor of three to one. Heavy plasma bolts had nearly evened those odds, the follow-up missiles had tilted the battle in James’s favor. Now the battle was even more lopsided. Of course that was purely looking at a numerical perspective. James knew the confusion and disorder Scott’s attack had caused tipped the balance even more in his favor. De Gama’s first missile salvo had just eighty-eight missiles in it, his fleet would hardly be threatened by them.

As the missiles came streaking in, flak cannon fire and then point defense plasma cannons, laser cannons and AM missiles whittled away at their numbers. Only four made it to attack range and three of them lost track when James’ squadron powered up their ECM. The final missile scored a proximity hit on a light cruiser. Agincourt had to fall out of formation, but she wasn’t badly damaged.

Having suffered more losses from James’ first missile salvo, when the second burst through de Gama’s point defenses, even more missiles found targets. A medium cruiser was blown apart when two missiles struck it. Other ships were badly damaged and forced out of the battle.

“We’re getting a COM message from some of the ships in de Gama’s fleet,” Argyll’s COM officer shouted out excitedly. It’s the Argentinian ships. They’re striking their colors.”

“Order them to detonate their anti-ship missiles at once or they will receive no quarter,” James snapped. He swung around to peer at the gravimetric plot. Four seconds later one quarter of the incoming enemy missile salvo disappeared as their missiles self-destructed. “Redirect our missiles away from the Argentinian ships.” They were already turning away and falling out of formation but James wanted to make sure no missiles were wasted on them.

“Those swine!” Argyll’s Captain swore.

James looked back at the holo display just in time to see what Argyll’s Captain had spotted. The rest of de Gama’s fleet had altered course slightly. They were bringing their heavy plasma cannons to bear on the Argentinian ships. Within the blink of an eye, the six ships that had peeled away from de Gama’s fleet simply disappeared. More than ten heavy plasma bolts tore through each one of them, ripping them apart.

James let a growl escape his lips. “They betrayed us and murdered those who had fought alongside them against the Flex-aor. Now they betray their new allies as well. We will have justice this day.” He knew what de Gama was doing. If the battle went against him, any ships that surrendered would be added to the Allies order of battle. De Gama, or more likely Admiral Koroylov, didn’t want the Allies getting their hands-on even one additional ship. Yet de Gama could have ordered the Argentinians to abandon their ships before destroying them. Instead he had opted to simply kill every person aboard them. He will pay, James promised the hundreds of crew members who had just been slaughtered.

De Gama’s fleet turned to engage the third missile salvo James had fired at them. It was a futile effort. Their point defenses took out four fifths of the incoming ordinance, but that left twelve to reach their targets. Half of de Gama’s undamaged ships were taken out or badly damaged.

In contrast, James’s ships shrugged off the next two missile salvos. By that time, they had already released their fourth and fifth salvos.

“It’s pointless, why don’t they surrender?” Argyll’s Captain asked, voicing the thoughts of many of Argyll’s bridge officers.

“They can’t,” James answered. “At least, not with de Gama’s flagship and those Russian medium cruisers still there. Any ship that surrenders will be destroyed. The Russians won’t want even a single frigate falling into our hands.”

Around him a number of bridge officers nodded as they realized what was going on. The war with the Flex-aor had told them all the importance of numbers. With both sides having already suffered so many losses, even a ship as small as a frigate could turn the tide when it came to driving Koroylov out of the Sol system.

“De Gama’s flagship has suffered two proximity hits,” an officer reported as another missile salvo crashed into de Gama’s fleet. “It’s reducing speed, the rest of the formation are slowing to keep with her.”

Argyll’s Captain looked over to James. He had been about to give the order for another missile salvo to be fired. With one already on its way, a sixth salvo would be overkill. James didn’t hesitate, he simply nodded. Moments later ninety more missiles streaked across the blackness of space. They only had twelve targets to aim for. By the time they got there, the salvo ahead of them had reduced that number to five. Every one of those remaining ships had suffered at least one direct hit. When the final salvo reached their targets and exploded, not one of the ships of de Gama’s fleet was giving off any power readings. They had all been destroyed or battered into wrecks.

“New contacts,” Argyll’s sensor officer reported.

His tone of voice told James where they were coming from. On Argyll’s gravimetric plot seventy new ships appeared behind his squadron. Every warship he had gathered in the last six weeks had just jumped into the system.

James stood. Their arrival meant one thing, it was time to push on to Sol. “I’ll take a shuttle back to Titan. Start recovery operations, pick up as many survivors as you can. We don’t have time to take any of those wrecks under tow. Signal their crews that if they want rescue, they will have to abandon ship. Make sure you pick up Lieutenant Scott first.”

“Aye Aye, Rear Admiral,” Argyll’s Captain said enthusiastically. When James turned back to him he was grinning. “May I say, congratulations on your victory. That was one of the most one-sided battles I have ever seen.”

James allowed himself a small smile then looked around, catching the eye of the other bridge officers as they had all stopped to look at him. “You all fought well today. The congratulations are yours and our squadron’s. Make sure you pass my words onto them. However, let it also be a lesson to you all. Always assume the worst. If de Gama had figured out our trick, we would have found ourselves heavily outnumbered. Today was a big risk. One I wouldn’t want to have to repeat. Yet if we’re going to stop Koroylov, we may have to take even bigger risks. Thank you all for your diligence to duty today.” With one more nod of appreciation to Argyll’s Captain, James turned and left the bridge. He was eager to get back to Titan and get on with the next stage in his plan.

*

When James returned to Titan, there was one final problem he had to see to before he could focus on what would come next. De Gama had survived. He had been picked up by one of the rescue shuttles and instead of being brought to Argyll, he had been sent to Titan. James had retired to his quarters to take a quick shower. Even after years of battles, his uniforms were always drenched in sweat by the time the action was over. As soon as he heard about de Gama he donned his best dress uniform and proceeded to Titan’s main shuttle bay. As he went, he sent orders for Titan’s senior officers to join him.

When de Gama stepped off the rescue shuttle the surprise on his face was clear. A full naval honor guard had been formed to greet him. For a couple of seconds, he peered at everyone who was gathered in the shuttle bay, then he recovered himself and descended the shuttle’s ramp. James stepped forward to greet him. When de Gama’s eyes met his, the Brazilian raised his hand in a salute. His eyes bulged slightly when James didn’t return the gesture.

“Rear Admiral de Gama of the Combined Fleet. In light of the fact that the Sol system is currently under siege and Earth itself may have been conquered by the Russians, I am the senior ranking Admiral within the Combined Fleet. Currently there are not enough surviving Admirals to form an official court martial. Therefore, responsibility to deal with your crimes falls on my shoulders alone. I hereby find you guilty of treason and murder. You are sentenced to death.”

De Gama’s eyes continued to bulge through James’s speech. As James spoke his last word, de Gama sneered and opened his mouth as if he was about to laugh. Whatever he was about to say was cut off as James slowly and deliberately moved his hand towards his hip. His dress uniform included a short cutlass and a gunpowder side arm. In one quick motion James pulled the gun out of its holster and raised it to de Gama’s head.

“You can...” de Gama began to shout. It was drowned out by the sharp boom from James’ weapon. The bullet struck de Gama’s forehead and his body slumped to the floor.

James turned and walked out of the shuttle bay. He knew every eye was upon him. For once, he didn’t care. Legally he had been within his rights to execute judgement. There was no way of knowing if there was any higher authority still left on Earth. Yet that had not been his motivation. He had done it for Cunningham and the thousands of other Allied crew members de Gama had murdered. No doubt the Brazilian government and some other nations would scream complaints against what he had just done, yet that was a problem for another day. As far as he was concerned, justice had been served.

*

HMS Endeavour, far side of the Nantucket system.

It took a full three hours for the electromagnetic energy from the battle between James’ squadron and de Gama’s fleet to cross the Nantucket system. As it did, two ships picked it up and watched the scene unfold.

“Contact, bearing four three two point six six,” Endeavour’s sensor officer reported. Becket tilted her head around to look at him. It wouldn’t do for Endeavour’s captain to appear more excited than her sensor officer. He’s certainly gaining plenty of experience, Becket thought. There wasn’t even a hint of concern in his voice.

“It’s a military ship Captain, no doubt. Its acceleration profile is far too high for anything else. She is coming up on our stern.”

“Send the track to tactical. If they’re watching the in-system battle unfold, they won’t be paying much attention to space in front of them. We’ll stay exactly where we are.” Whoever was commanding the approaching ship clearly didn’t care about being detected. They were accelerating so hard that Rear Admiral Somerville’s ships would be able to detect them from halfway across the system. They only care about one thing, Becket guessed, warning Koroylov. No doubt that was why the ship had been lying in stealth at the far edge of the Nantucket system. If anything happened within the system they would be able to jump to the Delta system and then on to Sol to warn Koroylov to give him time to react. Not this time you don’t, Becket thought, Rear Admiral Somerville had anticipated such a move. “Fire,” she ordered when the enemy ship entered heavy plasma cannon range.

Once again Endeavour’s six heavy plasma cannons belched destructive plasma. The bolts tore through the small frigate, reducing it to nothing more than an expanding ball of debris. No word would be getting to Koroylov of de Gama’s defeat.




Chapter 22

Of all the Imperial Admirals of history, I feel for Admiral Nakumoro. She was given an impossible task by her Emperor and left to do it with next to no logistical or military support. That she failed is no surprise, that she held out as long as she did, speaks highly of her capabilities.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

RSFS Ekaterina, Sol system, 30th October 2473 AD.

High Admiral Koroylov stared out of his office’s view screen. He had his feet up on the small conference table while he sat back in his chair. For more than an hour he had been idly watching the distant blue and green ball slowly rotate. Ekaterina was close enough that her optical sensors could easily make out the hurricane approaching the Florida Keys. It had been five and a half months since he had first taken his fleet into the Sol system. His master plan for actually taking Earth had initially been scheduled to be launched after just five months. Yet having to chase the Combined Fleet into American space had cost him some time. It was also proving slightly harder to organize aspects of operation Hailstorm than his planners had anticipated. It won’t be long now though, he thought. He was just waiting for the final word to come from the task force he had sent into the Oort cloud. Everything else was in place. Earth would soon be his.

And then what? A small voice in the back of his mind asked. Koroylov ground his teeth in frustration. Nagging doubts seemed to be increasingly dogging his thoughts. Doubts about his plan of attack, doubts about the future of Russia’s hold on Earth, doubts about the Russian people themselves. Perhaps even doubts about the Trivium and the Duma, he admitted to himself. Second-guessing his final plans for conquering Earth was understandable, he had been stuck in the Sol system blockading Earth for far too long. Inactivity bred melancholy. The brief diversion to defeat the Combined Fleet had reinvigorated him for a few weeks, but then the monotonous task of watching over humanity’s homeworld had taken hold of him again. In that sense, he understood his nagging doubts about operation Hailstorm. His doubts about the rest were more concerning.

The sheer weight of information about Earth and its inhabitants his ships had gathered, the constant reports he had been getting from Russian officers he had landed on Mars and the intel reports from the sleeper agents on Earth simply overwhelmed the years of propaganda he had been fed. Like-for-like, Mars and Earth’s inhabitants enjoyed a far better and freer standard of living than the people of the Russian Star Federation. Growing up, Koroylov had seen first-hand just how difficult things were for the majority of his people. From what he heard about the Alpha colony, some of its people were worse off than the majority of the Russian star Federation’s population, but Alpha seemed to be an anomaly. Koroylov was pretty certain that the main colonies of the space faring nations resembled Earth and Mars rather than Alpha. If that was the case, then conquering and holding Earth and the many human colonies the Trivium had their eyes set upon would be a far more difficult task than he had ever realized. Initially he had been shocked to learn how unwilling many of the Russian people living on Mars and Earth had been to support his forces. Now he understood why, things were much better for them than they had been for their parents and grandparents. If the Russian people wouldn’t support his invasion, how much more difficult would it be to subdue the populations of the other space faring nations? In that regard, defeating their fleets and orbital defenses seemed like child’s play. And once the Trivium realized just what wealth the Earth population had, they would covet it all for themselves.

The economy of the Russian Star Federation was tightly controlled by the Trivium. Most industries and resources were focused on feeding the ever-growing Federation army and navy. Or the ever-deepening pockets of the Duma members, Koroylov admitted. All the intelligence he could gather suggested that most of the Earth nations taxed their citizens less, rarely intervened in their industries and devoted less of their GDP to military spending. Yet they had been able to match the Federation’s military expansion. At least until the Flex-aor had showed up. If the Trivium tried to remake Earth and every other human colony into the image of the colonies of the Russian Star Federation, there would be mass revolts across the human sphere. Every Russian citizen would have to be drafted into the army to have enough ground troops to subdue every planet.

Yet justice demands that the Earth nations pay, Koroylov reminded himself. They had taken the Russian peoples’ homeland from them. In many ways, it was the Earth nations’ fault that so many Russian people in the Federation suffered the way they did. They deserve what is coming to them. What else could he say to his doubts? Right and wrong may not be as clear-cut as he had thought when he had launched his invasion, yet he was fighting for his people, his nation. It was what he had been trained to do and it was what he would do. Earth would fall and he would mop up what was left of the Earth nations’ scattered fleets. Then it would be up to the Trivium to determine the future of mankind. Perhaps the politicians would learn something from the Earth nations and the Russian Star Federation would change along with the rest of humanity’s worlds. That’s for the future to figure out. Whatever would or might happen, he had an injustice to right. That was all that mattered. Koroylov nodded to himself, confirming his own thoughts. Then, with an effort, he dismissed his thoughts and simply enjoyed the beauty of humanity’s homeworld. When he lost himself in its magnificence, his nagging questions disappeared, at least for a short while.

Sometime later the door chimed to let him know that one of his aides sought entrance. Koroylov glanced at the nearest holo display. He smiled when he saw who it was. Flag Lieutenant Orlov was in charge of his communications. He knew what the young officer was coming to tell him. Captain Popov was ready to proceed. With a hand gesture Koroylov gave the command for the hatch to open. He took his feet off the conference table and sat up straighter to receive his subordinate.

“High Admiral,” Orlov said by way of greeting. “We’ve just received a COM message from Leningrad, Captain Popov reports that the last of the comets have been arranged into formation. They are ready for Lukaov’s flotilla to proceed with the next stage of the operation.”

“Excellent, reply to Popov and pass on my congratulations for a job well done. Then signal Lukaov and order him to proceed to rendezvous with Leningrad. Also, inform General Varstick that the attack will commence in roughly twenty-four hours. He may begin final preparations for his part.”

“Aye, High Admiral. Will I inform the rest of the fleet that operation Hailstorm will begin soon?”

Koroylov shook his head. “There’s no need, they will know what Lukaov’s flotilla’s maneuvers mean. We will arrange a Captains’ conference on board Ekaterina for six hours from now. I want all Captains and their First Officers. We will run through the operation one more time to make sure everyone knows their part. That will be all for now.”

“Thank you High Admiral, there were several other COM messages that have come in over the last couple of hours. A supply flotilla from New Rostov arrived bringing news from the Federation,” Orlov reached over and handed Koroylov a datapad. “I have uploaded them onto this for you.”

Koroylov gave Orlov a brief smile with half of his lips, then motioned with his eyes for Orlov to leave him to it. His aide knew that he liked to hold something in his hands as he was reading reports. “I’ll call for you if I need you,” he said, as Orlov backed out of the office.

Tapping the datapad to switch it on, Koroylov glanced down the list of files Orlov had prepared for him. The two most pressing were the ones he had mentioned. A direct communication from the Trivium, and the manifest from the most recent supply convoy. With another tap, Koroylov opened the manifest. He knew the Trivium would be unhappy if they saw him passing over their message. Perhaps that was why he did it. Though the supply condition of his fleet was a growing concern.

As he scanned the materials that were being shipped to his fleet, the hand holding the datapad tightened to the point where his knuckles grew whiter. Damn them all. The Trivium had barely sent two thirds of the supplies he had requested. Worse, he knew they could easily give him what he needed. He had one of his aides inventorying all the freighters his fleet had captured and sent back to Federation space. There was more than enough war materials being taken off the Allies to meet the needs of his fleet. You know where it’s going, the small voice in the back of his head said. This time, he didn’t try to suppress it. The Trivium were no doubt taking the lion’s share of the captured war material and dividing it among themselves. Selling it and keeping the proceeds would make them all wealthy men, not that they needed any more wealth. So be it, he thought. With a couple of finger gestures, he activated the COM unit built into his conference table.

“Captain Vitko, signal Commodore Masorin at Mars. Inform him that all captured supply freighters scheduled for departure back to Federation space are to be held in orbit. I want every piece of equipment that our fleet could use taken off those freighters before they are allowed to leave. We cannot afford to send supplies back to Federation space if what we need is not going to be shipped to us.”

Vitko raised his eyebrows as he looked at the holo projection of his Admiral’s face. “I’m guessing the Trivium didn’t sanction this new policy? They’re not going to be happy when they hear about it.”

“We are about to begin the next phase in our campaign, we need all the war material that is compatible with our fleet’s systems that we can get. That’s a good enough excuse for me. The Trivium will just have to accept it.”

“I hope so,” Vitko replied. “I wouldn’t want to see what they have to say if they don’t. But then, if we have taken Earth by the time they hear about this idea, they couldn’t be too displeased.”

“No indeed, I would hope not. I have more work to do Captain, see that Commodore Masorin understands that no usable supplies are to be passed over. That is all for now.”

“Understood High Admiral,” Vitko said as Koroylov ended the COM connection.

Reluctantly, Koroylov opened the message from the Trivium. He read through it twice before setting the datapad down. As he did, he shook his head. The Duma were getting restless and it was making the Trivium nervous. The war had been going on for eight months now. No doubt the costs to the Russian Federation were mounting up. Costs that the Trivium would be held responsible for. They had essentially given him permission to rewrite his own orders. He had come into the Sol system to capture it and restore honor to the Russian Star Federation by regaining control of the Russian people’s homeland. Now the Trivium were saying they would be happy with Earth’s orbital structures being raided and destroyed. Taking out Earth’s orbital shipyards, industries and commercial stations would no doubt set back the economies of the other space faring powers by decades. It would give the Star Federation time to continue its military build-up and, in a more limited way, continue a war of attrition, chipping away at the Allies’ other industrial colonies.

They fear I will lose their fleet assaulting Earth, Koroylov concluded. They would rather have a partial victory now than risk defeat. In one sense he understood, his invasion had won significant victories already. If he was defeated trying to take Earth, then everything he had achieved so far would be thrown away. Yet they don’t understand how powerful the other nations really are. They could lose their orbital industries and still recover and out produce us. Our entire economy has been gearing up towards war for the last thirty years and we just managed to match them. If they devote themselves to rebuilding, they will overtake and crush us.

The Trivium simply didn’t have a true understanding of the situation. Before making a final decision, He picked up the datapad and read the Trivium’s message again. There was no hint that the three most powerful men in the Russian Star Federation had been paying attention to the updates and warnings he had been sending them about the true strength of the Allied populations. If they weren’t factoring in the intelligence he was sending them, then their strategic assessment was flawed. That meant there was only one option before him; Earth had to be conquered. That was the only way the Russian Star Federation would prove victorious in the long term.

Setting the datapad down, Koroylov spun his chair around so he could look out the view screen again. He couldn’t help but wonder what that kind of victory would mean for the planet before him. Its people would suffer, its economy would be ruined. No doubt trying to control Earth would suck the Star Federation’s economy dry as well. Yet there was no other choice. His nation and his fleet were firmly set on their course. If they pulled back they would be guaranteeing their own defeat. Maybe not in a year or two, but within a decade an invasion fleet would be entering orbit of New Rostov seeking to decimate the capital of his own nation. It was Earth or New Rostov, that was the only choice Koroylov had, and he knew which one he had to make.

*

An hour before the conference he had scheduled with his senior officers, Koroylov was still in his office. He had the main holo display on his conference table active, projecting Earth, its orbital defenses and the Allied war fleet. His fleet was moving in to an attack position. Even so, Koroylov had his eyes closed. He was so familiar with his strategy that he could play out the simulation in his mind. He was reliving the worst-case scenario he had been able to come up with. In it, the Allies quickly figured out his ruse and countered General Varstick’s forces. The allies themselves then launched a couple of surprises his way that severely crippled one quarter of his fleet. Even so, he drove on with his ships, eventually closing to plasma cannon range to finish off the warships and orbital defenses that refused to die in his missile barrages. When the last ship was destroyed, he opened his eyes. Even if things went far worse than he considered likely, victory would be his.

His eyes opened in time to see the door to his office slide open. Another one of his flag officers came rushing in. His heart skipped a beat and began to race. His flag officers were only permitted to enter without permission in emergencies.

“I’m sorry High Admiral, but you weren’t responding to hails,” Lieutenant Skolbin said.

Koroylov’s heart rate increased even more. There wasn’t even a hint of fear at having disturbed her Admiral in Skolbin’s voice. Whatever had brought her into his office uninvited, she felt no remorse. “What is it?”

“A battle fleet has just entered the system, they are accelerating now. There are more than eighty contacts.”

“From the Beta shift passage?” Koroylov queried. He blinked as he tried to get his head around the numbers. He’d been expecting a strong push from Beta. The Japanese, Germans and Chinese had been mustering what warships they could there. But the latest scout that had returned from Beta had reported less than thirty ships had been gathered against him.

“No High Admiral,” Sklobin answered as she reached forward and altered the input on his holo conference. The display changed to show a real-time representation of the Sol system. A battle fleet was accelerating from the Delta shift passage towards Earth.

Koroylov couldn’t help but swear. Then he jumped to his feet. “I see from your tone of voice they are not our new allies?”

“Their drive signatures are consistent with British, American and other Allied warships High Admiral. Most of them are the survivors of the Combined Fleet that we defeated in the Delta system.”

Koroylov cursed de Gama. The Brazilian Admiral had struck him as an incompetent fool. Yet, he had been the most senior commander, and the Brazilians had brought more ships to Delta from their colonies to reinforce de Gama’s fleet. Yet if the Combined Fleet had made it into the Sol system, then de Gama’s fleet had been lost. Especially if the incoming ships were commanded by James Somerville. Koroylov rued the fact that his ship hadn’t been destroyed in the Battle of Delta.

“De Gama has been destroyed then,” Koroylov said, voicing his conclusions out loud. The losses cut him deep. He didn’t care about the Brazilian ships, but he had left ten Russian ships with de Gama. More than three thousand Russians were now dead. He forced the number from his mind. No doubt he would add them to the tally he was keeping, but now wasn’t the time. He had a serious problem on his hands, the Combined Fleet was coming in along the sector Lukaov’s flotilla had been assigned to. They had spent the last five hours accelerating towards the Oort cloud. They were way out of position. If he didn’t act immediately, the Combined Fleet could make it to Earth and add their ships to the defenders. That would completely skew the calculations he had used in his invasion plans. It would throw back his timetable by weeks, if not months.

“Come on,” Koroylov snapped as he rushed past his subordinate. “We have work to do and not a moment to spare.”




Chapter 23

Only two times in Earth’s history have her people faced real danger because of interstellar threats. The first time was when the Russians laid siege to Earth and cut off all extra-solar supply freighters. The resultant depression lasted nearly three years. The second was during the Second Battle of Earth. Though the causalities numbered in the hundreds of millions, there was no depression following that battle. Humanity’s anger, their determination to rebuild and the New Emperor’s reforms saw rapid growth as Earth prepared for revenge.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

“Where are they now?” Koroylov asked as soon as he stepped onto Ekaterina’s flag bridge.

“A quarter of a light second from the system’s mass shadow. Wait, their trajectory is altering. They’re turning towards Mars,” Captain Vitko reported.

“Take Ekaterina to full military power, direct course for Mars. All our fleet elements are to follow suit,” Koroylov ordered. He turned to stare at the holo projection of the Combined Fleet. He couldn’t believe the numbers, Somerville must have scrapped up every military ship he could get his hands on. And he is no fool, Koroylov reminded himself. If Somerville charged his fleet straight for Earth to bolster its defenses, he would have to tangle with at least some elements of the blockading force. It would be at best a 50-50 chance that any ships would get through. Yet he doesn’t have to get to Earth to lift the siege.

All the supplies Koroylov’s fleet had available within the Sol system were stored in the freighters and stations orbiting Mars. He couldn’t afford to lose them. Somerville had obviously guessed as much. Koroylov had no choice. Ordering his ships to proceed to Mars at the best possible speed would mean his fleet would arrive in bits and pieces, but he had to beef up the planet’s defenses as quickly as possible. For a second he considered ordering the freighters to break orbit. Then he dismissed it. Somerville was a slippery opponent. If he ordered his freighters to leave Mars with a limited escort, Somerville might slip by his main fleet and crush the freighters. “Work out the ETA at Mars for each element of our fleet. Then get me a breakdown of the make-up of that Allied Fleet. I want to know exactly what we are up against.”

As a series of acknowledgements came from the officers arrayed around him Koroylov nodded, though he wasn’t sure anyone was looking his direction. Then he sat in his command chair. In front of him, dominating the bridge, Ekaterina’s main holo projector showed the Sol system. His fleet was split into six squadrons of between twenty-five and thirty-five ships. They were arrayed around Earth, keeping a very close watch on the planet. Ekaterina and the squadron of ships around his flagship were turning and accelerating towards Mars. As his orders were transmitted across the system the other six flotillas would follow suit. In orbit around Mars he had another small flotilla of twelve warships providing cover for his supply base. A seventh squadron, that commanded by Commodore Lukaov, was accelerating away from Earth towards the outer edge of the system.

When Koroylov’s eyes rested on Lukaov’s ships his fist clenched into a ball and he only just stopped himself from punching his command chair. Lukaov had been accelerating out of the system for several hours now. They were well out of position. Whatever was going to happen with the Allied ships would be over by the time they got back to lend any aid. He shouldn’t have ordered all his fleet elements to Mars. No doubt his COM officer would have already transmitted that order to Commodore Lukaov. In his haste, he hadn’t thought about where Lukaov’s ships were. Now he couldn’t change the order or his subordinates would realize he had made such a basic mistake. So be it, he will just have to return to the Oort cloud when all this is over.

“The ETAs are on the main holo projection High Admiral,” an officer reported. “We have an analysis of most of the Allied ships. From the data the Indians provided us with, we’ve been able to identify most of their warships. Somerville’s flagship Titan is one of the two heavy cruisers they have. There are eleven medium, sixteen light cruisers and the rest are destroyers or frigates. There are eight ships we couldn’t get a definitive identity on, though their drive signatures suggest they are more light cruisers or destroyers.”

“Good work,” Koroylov responded. “Keep working on those unknowns, they must be ships that Somerville has managed to scramble up from somewhere. Probably they were patrolling some American colony that wasn’t on the front lines. That will be why the Indians never encountered them. Still, I want to know exactly what strength Somerville has.”

“Yes Admiral,” the officer replied.

Koroylov focused on the six squadrons that were accelerating towards Mars and their projected courses. Damn, he thought as soon as he played out what was likely to happen. Two of his squadrons would get to Mars before Somerville’s ships could decelerate and take up an attack position. Numerically, his two squadrons and the flotilla of ships already in orbit around Mars would outnumber Somerville’s fleet. Yet if he wanted to, Somerville could fire four or five salvos at the freighters and orbital stations. He would have to absorb a similar number of salvos from the Russian defenders, but his fleet could probably fend off that many salvos with only a few losses. The nearly defenseless freighters and orbital supply stations around Mars wouldn’t be able to do the same. Somerville could fire his salvos, destroying much of Koroylov’s supplies, and then flee before the next Russian squadron arrived. “Signal Rear Admiral Kreutz, he is to take his squadron to one hundred and ten percent military power. He has to reach Mars before the Allied Fleet. Signal Commodore Krymov as well, his ships will increase acceleration to one hundred and twenty percent and close with the flagship.”

“Aye Admiral,” Ekaterina’s COM officer acknowledged.

Koroylov turned to his Flag Captain. “Vitko, take Ekaterina to one hundred and ten percent as well. I want to be closing with Mars by the time Somerville gets into missile range. We’re not going to slow down to enter orbit, if he tries to flee, we will pursue him and bring him to battle.”

Vitko nodded, but held the gaze of his admiral for a second longer than necessary. Koroylov moved his hands in a slight calming gesture. He knew what Vitko was thinking. The British and American ships could exceed their normal operating limits for a short period of time without suffering too many catastrophic failures. Russian ships didn’t have the same reputation. Koroylov was walking a tight line. If Russian ships were damaged or destroyed because of his orders, the Trivium would not be pleased. Losing ships in a victorious battle was one thing. Losing them simply because their reactors or impulse engines were overworked was another. Koroylov had no intention of putting his thoughts into words in front of his bridge crew, but he knew Vitko would understand. Somerville’s fleet had to be defeated. Somehow, he had scraped up enough ships to be a threat. If his fleet could be wiped out now, then the only major force that could stop Earth’s eventual fall would be gone. That was worth risking a few Russian warships. One I should have taken at Bison, Koroylov realized.

“The allies are reacting,” an officer reported. “They are increasing their acceleration rate by five percent.”

Koroylov waited for the projection in front of him to update. Somerville’s increase in acceleration would allow his fleet to enter missile range of Mars before Rear Admiral Kreutz’s squadron could get there. “Order Kreutz to increase his acceleration rate again, he must beat the Allied Fleet to Mars. He has permission to order some of his older units to drop out of formation if they cannot maintain such rates.”

Over the next twenty minutes Koroylov grew increasingly frustrated. Somerville kept changing his acceleration rates. Sometimes he increased them even higher, then he dropped back again. As a result, the different Russian squadrons that were racing towards Mars had to keep altering their acceleration rates as well. It was too risky to keep a squadron exceeding the safety limits of its reactors and impulse engines when they didn’t need to. That meant that when the Allied Fleet decelerated, he had to order his squadron to decelerate. Only to then have to order them to accelerate again when Somerville’s fleet increased its acceleration rate.

“Damn him,” Koroylov swore as he punched his command chair when it became apparent he had to order another course alteration. “He’s toying with us.” He clenched his hands and rested both arms on the command chair’s armrest and let out a breath. He is not toying with us, he’s toying with you, and it’s working. He wants you angry rather than thinking calmly. “Signal each squadron commander, they are free to proceed to Mars at their own discretion, but they must arrive in relation to the Allied Fleet as per the orders they have already received.”

Over the next several minutes Ekaterina’s COM officer passed on the confirmation from the commander of each Russian squadron. Koroylov focused on keeping calm and analyzing the situation. If Somerville was trying to get him angry then there was a fair chance he was up to something. Putting the immediate threat to Mars out of his mind, Koroylov tried to figure out what else Somerville might be planning. With his own personal holo projector he brought up a display of the system and considered what else might be going on further away from Mars. There were no anomalous reports coming in from any other of the warships or sensor platforms he had distributed throughout the system. Nothing else strange seemed to be going on. Then the obvious hit him. It was so simple Koroylov nearly swore again. At present, he had all of the squadrons under his command racing towards Mars. Every second they did so, they were opening up a corridor between the shift passage from the Delta system to Earth. If Somerville had a second fleet, or even a fleet of supply freighters, he could run them straight to Earth. Koroylov knew he had overreacted, and it was almost too late to rectify the situation. Almost, he said to himself.

“I have new orders for Vice Admiral Shkuro, his fleet is to decelerate and make for these coordinates,” Koroylov said as he frantically typed coordinates into his command chair and sent them to Ekaterina’s COM officer. “Our squadron and Rear Admiral Kreutz’s will decelerate to normal military acceleration rates.”

Now we’ll see, Koroylov thought. If there was a second fleet out there intending to try and make a run for Earth, they would have to react soon.

“What are you thinking High Admiral?” Vitko asked. “Is Somerville setting up some kind of trap?”

“Not a trap, at least I hope not. I think he’s trying to draw us out of position.”

“New contacts!” Ekaterina’s sensor officer shouted as if on cue. “More ships are lighting off their engines. They’re coming from the Delta shift passage.”

“They’ll be headed for Earth,” Koroylov predicted. The question was, were they war ships or freighters. Surely Somerville can’t have more warships?

“Acceleration rates are low. They’re consistent with cargo freighters. So far we detecting sixty of them. A number of the gravimetric profiles match profiles we have for Allied warships though. According to the Indian intelligence, most of the ships were undergoing repairs at Utah.”

“How many warships?” Koroylov asked.

“At least twelve, maybe more. There are still more contacts appearing on the gravimetric sensors. The second enemy fleet is now up to sixty-seven ships.”

Before Vitko or Koroylov could reply, the sensor officer spoke again. “One of the contacts is a battleship. It’s the Lexington. She was supposed to be heavily damaged fighting the Flex’aor.”

Koroylov resisted the temptation to rub his forehead as he thought through the implications. Somerville was clearly trying to force a large supply fleet through to Earth. Vice Admiral Shkuro’s squadron couldn’t take on a battleship on their own. Shkuro’s largest warship was his flagship, a battlecruiser. Rear Admiral Kreutz had one battleship, together they could probably crush the supply fleet and its escorts. Yet they could get hurt too. There was nothing else for it, he was going to have to split his squadron. Alongside Ekaterina he had two more battleships.

“Order Kruetz to reverse course and join Shkuro,” Koroylov informed his COM officer. “Vitko, we’re going to split our squadron. You can handle the specifics, but I want Nikolai and Soyuz to turn back and join Shkuro’s squadron as well. They can take a few escorts with them, give them the oldest ones we have. The rest will stay with us. We will continue towards Mars at our best possible speed.”

Vitko nodded. “We’ll not have enough ships to pursue Somerville, but will stop him hitting our supplies.”

“That will have to be enough for now,” Koroylov agreed. “Once we crush this second fleet, we’ll focus on Somerville. The ball will be in his court, but our forces will be concentrated by then.”

A curse from one of Ekaterina’s bridge officers cut off Koroylov’s conversation with his flag captain. “What is it?” Vitko demanded.

“The medium cruiser Riga has just fallen out of formation. Initial reports suggest that one of her reactors has gone into an emergency shutdown. It almost overloaded.”

Koroylov didn’t say anything. He left his officers to get on with handling the situation. Instead he focused on watching the different squadrons as they moved across the system. Two more ships fell out of formation over the next thirty minutes. One frigate was so badly damaged when one of its impulse engines exploded that she would have to be sent back to New Rostov. The other ship, a destroyer, only suffered minor damage.

As both Allied fleets continued along their trajectories, Koroylov’s concern grew. On one hand, despite the new orders he had given, the second Allied fleet was still accelerating towards Earth. Whoever was commanding it clearly hoped to push past the ships he had sent to intercept them and make it to Earth. To a certain extent, that made perfect sense. Koroylov knew that Earth’s population and industries were screaming for certain supplies and war materials. Even one or two freighters filled with the right supplies reaching Earth would help the defenders considerably. Yet as things stood, Vice Admiral Shkuro would intercept the fleet of freighters well before Earth. It was highly unlikely many, if any of them, would survive.

On the other hand, Somerville’s fleet was continuing on its trajectory. Even though it would find itself outnumbered if it actually tried to attack Mars. It had served its purpose in diverting many of the Russian ships away from Earth. If Koroylov was in Somerville’s position, he would have pulled back by now. Yet he hadn’t. Something else had to be going on.

For another ten minutes Koroylov racked his brain. He could think of nothing. Somerville couldn’t get his warships to Mars before enough Russian ships would get there to beat him back. There was nothing else Koroylov could see that he could do with his ships.

“Detecting movement from Earth. The Allied ships are breaking orbit,” an officer shouted in alarm.

Of course, Koroylov said to himself. He swung around to see what the main holo projector was showing. He could picture what the Allies final plan must have been. The Allied Fleet from Earth would accelerate out to rendezvous with their supply fleet. By the time they got there, Vice Admiral Shkuro would have decimated the supply fleet, but if Shkuro’s ships took enough damage in the engagement, they would be vulnerable. If they were lost, Koroylov would lose nearly one third of his fighting strength. Yet there was one flaw in the Allied plan. They couldn’t have counted on him sending two battleships to reinforce Shkuro. Koroylov opened his mouth to request an order be sent to Shkuro to close to energy weapon range with their supply fleet. The freighters would have no energy weapons and they could be overwhelmed before the fleet from Earth arrived. Then Shkuro would be able to crush the Earth fleet as well. Koroylov would gladly trade almost one third of his ships to strip Earth of its defenders. Just before he gave his order, he cut himself off. He had just seen the trajectory the ships leaving Earth were settling onto. They were heading away from the Allied supply fleet. Their destination was some point in space that made absolutely no sense.

Koroylov felt his mind do somersaults as he tried to forget what he had been thinking and re-analyze the situation. The Allied move made no sense unless they were willing to abandon their supply fleet. “Signal Shkuro, tell him to launch a spread of recon drones towards that supply fleet. I want a full analysis of the fleet’s make up,” Koroylov demanded. He lapsed into silence as he thought. His eyes drifted back to Somerville’s fleet. Something didn’t look quite right.

“Navigation, when should Somerville’s fleet begin its deceleration burn if they intend to slot into a high orbit around Mars to bombard our defenders?”

The Lieutenant Koroylov was looking at took a few seconds to work out an answer on her console. When she turned around she couldn’t bring her eyes to meet Koroylov’s. “Four minutes ago High Admiral,” she answered in a quiet voice.

Koroylov bit back a reprimand. Now wasn’t the time for recriminations. They would come later. Most of which will fall at my feet.

“They could be intending to decelerate harder than their safety limits allow,” Vitko suggested.

Koroylov shook his head. He answered Vitko to give himself time to figure out what to do. “They’re not interested in bombarding Mars. Heck, they’re not even interested in trying to run a supply fleet to Earth. Somerville is trying to get his warships to Earth, that has been his plan all along. He is not going to slow down, he is going to slingshot around Mars and then decelerate to meet the Allied Fleet that is moving away from Earth. With our forces so spread out, we won’t be able to get enough ships in front of them to stop them getting back to Earth.”

“They can’t…” Vitko began, but trailed off as he finally saw what was going to happen.

“Navigation, what velocity will Somerville’s fleet have when it passes Mars assuming it doesn’t decelerate?” Koroylov asked.

“They’ll be up to their maximum safe velocity, 0.62c,” the navigation officer answered quickly. Clearly trying to make up for her previous oversight.

“How close will they need to come to use Mars’ gravity to slingshot them towards the fleet that is leaving Earth now?”

“A couple of light seconds would probably be enough to bend their trajectory towards where they want to go.”

“How long will they be in missile range of our defenses?”

“No more than two minutes. Each side will have just enough time to fire one missile salvo,” the navigation officer answered.

“And in that time, only one of our squadrons will have reached Mars,” Koroylov said. It would be enough to fend off most of the Allied missiles that would no doubt be targeting his supply freighters and orbital stations. Yet some would get hit. In return, Somerville’s fleet would probably escape scratch free. It would be very hard to hit them moving at such high velocity.

“We can still hurt them as they pass,” Koroylov said as he decided there was only one option for him to try. “I want Ekaterina and the rest of the ships in our squadron to begin flushing missiles immediately. Fire them towards Mars on a ballistic trajectory. I want each successive salvo timed so that they all reach Mars together. We’ll pass over control of the missiles to Commodore Masorin, he can activate them all together and upload targeting data when he gets a firm lock on Somerville’s ships. Pass the word to the squadrons ahead of us, they are to do the same.”

Less than a minute after giving his order, Ekaterina released sixty missiles into space. Five minutes later sixty more followed, and then sixty after that. From all the Russian ships still headed towards Mars multiple salvos were catapulted into space. None of them registered on a gravimetric sensor for they didn’t engage their engines.

Though they weren’t visible to any Allied ships, Ekaterina knew the velocity of each missile and they continued to appear on her holo projection. Koroylov watched them as they closed with Mars. He barely glanced away when Shkuro sent a report on what his recon drones had found out about the supply fleet. He wasn’t surprised to see that many of the contacts turned out to be nothing more than drones altered to give off the appearance of Allied warships. He did note another one of his mistakes he would have to dwell on later. It had been far too easy for Somerville to use drones to trick his analysts. They had been relying on the Indian’s intelligence too much. The drones had been programmed to perfectly mimic ships Somerville knew his analysts would be looking out for. In essence, the supply fleet was a hoax. Yes, there were some freighters there but they were probably empty. They were never meant to make it to Earth. What was worse, he couldn’t order Shkuro to close to plasma cannon range before opening fire on what freighters there were. Shkuro’s ships were too far away. Any COM message would reach them after they had opened fire. The Vice Admiral fired more than a hundred missiles at the supply fleet, a hundred missiles that the Trivium would be very slow in replacing.

In the back of his mind Koroylov could hear that small voice talking to him again. This time it was telling him he had been outwitted. Somerville had beaten him. Not a single warship had been destroyed on either side, yet the battle was already a defeat. Earth’s defenders were going to be heavily reinforced. It would delay his invasion by at least a couple of months. With an effort, Koroylov silenced the voice. Yes, strategically he had lost today. But he still had one hand left to play. He fixed his eyes on the missiles that were approaching Mars.

Due to their far higher velocity, Somerville’s ships opened fire first. Six hundred and fifty-six missiles streaked towards Mars’ defenders. The number made Koroylov sit forward. It was at least ninety more missiles than Somerville’s ships should have been able to fire. The unidentified ships, he remembered. They had to be bigger than light cruisers and destroyers. They had to be medium and heavy cruisers. Just another part of Somerville’s ploy. At least the last trick will be mine.

Just as he consoled himself with that thought, two thousand two hundred missiles ignited their impulse engines as Commodore Masorin took control and directed them into the path of Somerville’s Squadron. From Commodore Masorin’s ships, another one hundred and six missiles raced out.

Koroylov pictured the look of shock that would wash over the crew on Ekaterina’s bridge if they suddenly found more than two thousand missiles tearing towards them. He hoped something similar was happening on the bridge of Somerville’s flagship. Now let’s see if we can clip the wings of some of his ships, Koroylov thought. Any damage his missiles could do to the reactors or engines of Somerville’s ships would prevent them from decelerating and moving towards Earth. They would have to be left behind. Perhaps we may even hit Titan, Koroylov hoped.




Chapter 24

Missile technology has gone through several periods of rapid advancement. The missiles of the First and Second Galactic Expansion Era wouldn’t be able to penetrate the shields of our modern warships. Yet in their day they packed more than enough of a punch.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Titan, Sol system.

When the first Russian missiles appeared on the sensor plot, everyone on Titan’s bridge stopped what they were doing. The missiles were coming from a strange vector, not from the ships in orbit around Mars. Then hundreds more appeared. Within a second, far more missiles than anyone had expected were accelerating towards the Combined Fleet.

James felt panic threaten to well up and overtake him. Koroylov had found a way to increase his missile salvo numbers in the past. Is he doing it again?

Lieutenant Scott was the first to figure out what was going on. “The missiles are from the other Russian ships, the ones that haven’t reached Mars yet. They’re coming in with very low closing speeds.”

Of course, James thought, as much out of relief as anything else. The Russians had fired their missiles in ballistic mode and handed control of them to the warships defending Mars. That meant the missiles were coming in on a less than ideal trajectory. Now that their engines had been engaged, they were going to have to expend a lot of energy turning onto a closing trajectory with his ships.

Confirming Scott’s assessment, the fleet around Mars opened fire with their own missiles. They were targeted straight at his ships and their closing rate was much higher.

“The salvo from Mars will enter point defense range in six minutes, the larger salvo two minutes after that,” Scott informed the bridge.

“Alter the fleet’s heading to five four three point two,” James ordered. It was a small change, as much as he could make and still allow his fleet to easily rendezvous with the Allied ships that were accelerating away from Earth. Yet it would extend the time it would take the larger missile salvo to reach his ships. His point defense gunners should have more time to clear the first salvo and prepare themselves for the second. The second Russian missile salvo would catch up to them only after they had passed Mars and his ships would be running away from them. Such circumstances were ideal for point defense gunners, for with slow closing velocities, missiles were far easier to hit. Yet with so many missiles incoming, some were sure to get through.

Before either salvo came into range, James’ missiles reached their targets. Every missile had been targeted at a freighter or orbital station. From the year and half he had spent operating on the borders of American colonial space, he knew all too well the difficulties of keeping a large fleet fully supplied so far from its home base. Koroylov had to be having the same problems. That meant supplies were a high priority target.

His suspicions were confirmed when the Russian warships around Mars moved to interpose themselves between the incoming Allied missile salvo and the freighters in orbit. Despite their best efforts, twenty missiles avoided every point defense weapon fired at them. Nineteen found targets among the freighters and orbital stations. Every missile strike resulted in a confirmed kill.

When the last missile detonated, James nodded to himself and turned back to the incoming Russian missiles. It was time to pay the price of getting his ships to Earth. His diversionary tactics had proven partially successful. Yet he had always known there was a good chance his fleet would take a battering before they got to Earth. Now that battering was about to come.

As the point defense weapons of his ships opened up, tens and then hundreds of the missiles in the first wave were savaged. Only three survived the onslaught. Two were distracted by ECM and the final one struck a destroyer. Whatever internal damage the hit caused, it was critical, for within a couple of seconds the destroyer disappeared in a blinding flash.

James looked over to Sub Lieutenant Edwards. “The HMS Campaigner,” Titan’s sensor officer informed him.

Though he kept his face motionless as he nodded to her, internally he grimaced. He felt every loss the Combined Fleet suffered, even more so now that he was personally in charge. Yet he couldn’t deny that losing a British ship hurt that bit more.

“Thirty seconds,” Scott updated everyone.

“We need your best everyone,” Romanov said to his bridge crew. “Every missile we let through is one less ship that will be able to help defend Earth.”

James nodded at his Flag Captain’s words. “Transmit that message to every ship in our fleet,” he requested. He was certain everyone in the Combined Fleet knew the stakes, yet it wouldn’t hurt to remind them.

“Message transmitted,” Sub Lieutenant Grey reported. “Acknowledgements coming in.”

When the point defenses opened up again, James kept his eyes focused on the overall count of Russian missiles on the holo-display. It started at two thousand and sixteen. As they flew through the first wave of shrapnel thrown out by the flak cannons, it was reduced to just over seventeen hundred. Then the other point defense weapons opened up. As the Russian missiles were closing at such a slow velocity, the Combined Fleet would have far higher hit ratio than normal. Even so, as the number continued to dwindle, it was clear it wasn’t dwindling fast enough.

Despite all the fire they could hurl at the oversized Russian missile salvo, sixty-four missiles made it to attack range. It was almost enough missiles for every ship James had. As the ships of the Combined Fleet powered up their ECM and began to twist and weave, twenty-five missiles lost lock. The rest closed to score direct or proximity hits. All around Titan thermonuclear detonations erupted.

The first James knew a missile had targeted his flagship was when he was thrown to one side in his command chair. Despite his harness tightening, he smashed his right elbow and shoulder badly. The lights on the bridge died a moment later and a screeching could be heard and felt as Titan’s superstructure was bent and twisted from the force of whatever had hit it.

As the emergency lights flickered on the bridge, James saw a number of officers reaching up to touch or check areas of their upper body that had been hurt. He himself was rubbing the back of his shoulder but it didn’t feel like anything was too badly damaged.

“Damage report?” Romanov demanded. He had a nasty cut on his forehead.

Instead of waiting to hear from the auxiliary bridge, James pulled up the holo-projector on his command chair. The main holo projector didn’t appear to be functioning and he wanted to see the status of his fleet. It took a couple of seconds, but his chair managed to display what data Titan’s sensors were collecting. Even without hearing the damage report, James guessed Titan had lost a lot of sensor nodes, for the visuals of his fleet were patchy. Even so, he could see that a number of ships were missing. Crucially, there were also a number of ships on ballistic trajectories. It looked like they had lost their propulsion systems or engines.

“Sub Lieutenant Grey,” James called out. The Sub Lieutenant didn’t hear him over the other commands and loud conversations that were going on as Titan’s bridge crew frantically worked to get their ship under control. “Sub Lieutenant Grey,” James repeated even louder.

“Yes, Rear Admiral?” the Sub Lieutenant replied.

“Request damage reports from every ship in the fleet. Prioritize the status of every ship’s reactors and impulse drives.”

“Understood, Rear Admiral,” Grey responded.

Over the next ten minutes James learnt that Titan had suffered two proximity hits. The internal damage had been minimal, but a lot of valstronium armor had been burnt off. Quite a lot of point defense weapons and sensor nodes had been lost as well. Other ships in his fleet hadn’t fared so well. Eight ships had been destroyed outright and sixteen had suffered severe damage. James prioritized the ships whose propulsion systems were down. With no main engines, they wouldn’t be able to decelerate and rendezvous with the Allied Fleet from Earth. He managed to get three of the most damaged ships taken under tow. Yet eight more were too heavily damaged to begin their deceleration burns with the rest of the Combined Fleet. They were all stuck on a ballistic course of 0.62c that would take them further and further out of the Sol system.

“Open a COM channel to Lexington,” James ordered.

When Lexington’s Captain appeared on his small holo projector, James gave the American captain a salute. “Captain Hancock, I’m sorry for your losses.”

“Thank you rear Admiral. I’m sorry my ship will not be able to join the Titan. We have let you down. We came here to add our ships to Earth’s defenders.”

“Don’t apologize Captain, it’s not your fault,” James replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “And don’t get yourself down, you’re not out of this war yet. I’m putting you in command of the damaged ships that won’t be able to make the rendezvous point. You are to stick together. Let your trajectory take you out of the Sol system. Wait out there until your ships are functional again. If you have to abandon one or two, or even cannibalize them you have my permission. Once you have your ships back in working order, I want you to see what mischief you can cause. Hit Koroylov’s supply convoys if you can, I want you to give him a few more headaches.”

As James spoke, the disappointment on Hancock’s face slowly changed into a feral grin. The hurt in her eyes gave way to a renewed determination. “I understand Rear Admiral. We’ll do what we can. You’re right, we’re not out of this war yet. Not by a long shot.”

“Exactly,” James said with a nod. “Keep us updated. Remember that squadron of Russian ships accelerating towards the outer system when we jumped in? They were clearly up to something. So keep your eyes and ears open.”

“Will do,” Hancock replied.

“Very well Captain, I have a fleet to see to. Good luck.”

“And to you, keep our homeworld safe,” Hancock replied.

“Receiving a COM message from the flagship of Earth’s defenders,” Sub Lieutenant Grey informed him as soon as he was done with Hancock. She paused for a second as she read something on her terminal. “It’s from your uncle. Admiral Somerville is commanding Earth’s defenders. He is requesting you report on board his flagship when our fleets rendezvous.”

“Acknowledge his request and transmit our mission logs. Send them both to his flagship and to Earth. Our governments will want to know what the Combined Fleet has been doing for the last several months. Has a report on Earth’s condition been sent to us?”

Grey shook her head as she spoke. “Nothing has come to us from Earth yet.”

“No doubt they don’t want the Russians deciphering whatever they might send,” James replied. It seemed plausible, though if no update had been sent yet, it could only mean bad things. “Good work everyone. We’ve finally made it. Earth owes you all a great debt.”

*

HMS Neptune

“Uncle,” James said as he stepped off the shuttle that had brought him to Neptune. He held out his hand to the First Space Lord of the Admiralty. To his surprise his uncle pushed his hand away and pulled him into a hug.

“It’s good to see you boy,” Somerville said as he gripped James tightly. After a couple of seconds, he released him and held him at arm’s length. “You’re looking good given everything you’ve been through.”

James wanted to say the same for his uncle, but as he studied the man in front of him, he was shocked to see how much his uncle had changed. His hair had greyed considerably and the skin around his face was tight and gaunt. In fact, his uniform didn’t fit any part of his body nearly as tightly as it once had. There was still a gleam in his uncle’s eyes, but even it seemed faded. He opened his mouth to say something but his uncle cut him off.

“Don’t fuss over me, I get enough of that from Rebecca.” As he spoke he reached out and turned James to face the hatch that led out of the shuttle bay. “Come, we have a lot to discuss. Neptune is pretty crowded but I have managed to find my own small office. We can chat there.”

As they walked, James kept the conversation light. He sensed his uncle didn’t want to talk openly in public. Instead of asking about the situation on Earth, he asked about Neptune and the ships under his uncle’s command. In response, his uncle kept his sentences short and to the point. That only made James’ concerns grow.

When they reached the office his uncle had spoken of, he couldn’t hold back his questions any more. As soon as the hatch closed, he asked the question he had been dying to ask. “Admiral, I have to know, what is the situation on Earth?”

For a second his uncle’s face almost crumpled. It appeared as if he was going to cry. Except, James knew that would never happen. “Before we get to that James, I owe you an apology,” his uncle began, his voice conveyed even less confidence than his face. “You, Cunningham and the Combined Fleet. Your defeat at the Battle of Delta was my fault. I pushed the Brazilians, Argentinians and Indians into Koroylov’s camp.”

James allowed a small smile onto his face as relief washed over him. If this was why his uncle was so concerned, then perhaps the situation wasn’t as bad as he feared. “Nonsense uncle,” he began, purposefully lightening his tone. “Yes, at first we were confused but we eventually learnt why they betrayed us from the survivors we picked up from De Gama’s fleet. As soon as I heard, I understood. If you attacked their orbital defenses, I’m sure you had a good reason. You don’t owe me an apology for doing your duty.”

To James’ surprise, when he met his uncle’s eyes, his uncle glanced down. He shook his head as he spoke. “I do. I should have known what mayhem attacking our allies would cause for the Combined Fleet. Somehow, I should have found a way to get word to Cunningham. His death is on my hands.”

“The burden of command is something one must learn to bear if he is to do his duty,” James replied. “I seem to recall a wise man telling me something along those lines not too long ago. They have been a strength to me over the last couple of years. I hope you’re not telling me they are no longer true?”

Somerville cleared his throat and finally looked up and held James’ eye. “No, I remember saying that. It’s just, we’ve all been under a lot of strain here. Reading your report earlier, realizing that the reason why the Combined Fleet hadn’t arrived sooner was down to my actions. Sometimes the burden proves heavier than you ever realized it could.”

“That is something we can both agree on uncle,” James replied as he stood and moved to one of the side tables. He pulled the top off the decanter of whiskey his uncle had sitting there and poured two full measures into the accompanying glasses. “I think we could both use a drink.”

“Agreed,” Somerville replied.

“Now, that’s enough apologies” James said after handing a glass to his uncle. “How about you tell me how things are going on Earth? How long has Koroylov had you under siege now, six months?

“Six months and fourteen days. And things are not going well. Not at all.” Instead of saying anything more, Somerville lapsed into silence. Once again his eyes fell below the table.

“Uncle?” James prompted.

“Sorry,” Somerville responded as he appeared to give himself a slight shake. “I was just trying to figure out where to start.”

“Well, how about with Koroylov? Has he launched any attacks yet? What do you think he is planning? Will the ships we brought be enough to thwart him?”

Somerville’s eyes widened as James spoke. “Of course. You will know nothing.” Instead of continuing, Somerville lapsed into silence again. Just when James was about to prompt him to continue, he did so on his own accord. “Well… since defeating Marquis’ fleet at Mars, Koroylov has made no direct push against Earth. But that is about the only good news I can give you. He has captured every other station in the system. He has, or at least he had, fleets occupying the Alpha and Delta systems. He also sent small squadrons to Gamma and Beta. I haven’t received any direct reports from Beta, but there has been a steady supply of captured freighters moving through the Sol system back to Russian space. Though even their numbers were dwarfed by the number that came from the Delta shift passage a couple of months ago. We feared such a high number of captured freighters suggested Koroylov had won a victory over the Combined Fleet. It caused massive political upheaval. Without the Combined Fleet there are not many on Earth who think we can win. Though he hasn’t made a direct attack against Earth, many are ready to surrender to him as it is.”

“What?” James nearly jumped out of his seat as he spoke. “How can that possibly be?”

“Food,” Somerville answered with one word.

“It can’t be that bad,” James began to say. Then he thought about how scrawny his uncle looked. “There has been rationing already?”

“Yes. For everyone in the British Star Kingdom. And we have been doing better than some. Some nations are already on the brink of starvation. The harvests in the northern hemisphere are about to be gathered in. It is hoped that they will be enough to stave off starvation. Yet we have used up almost all the food stores on Earth just to survive this long. No one thought Earth would be cut off from all four quadrants of the human sphere. No one really realized how dependent we are on imports.”

James nodded as he tried to think through what his uncle was telling him. “I imagine the political pressure is mounting to come to some kind of agreement with Koroylov?”

“That would be an understatement,” Somerville replied. “Nearly half of Parliament is crying out for a general election. Everyone knows Fairfax will never sue for peace. But they think they have enough popular support to oust him in an election. It’s the same in the US and many of the other democracies. Either their governments have already caved to public demand, or they are wobbling. And that’s not to mention the Brazilians, Argentinians and Indians. Their people are starving as well. We’ve had to move pretty much every Allied army unit to the borders with those countries to stop them invading their neighbors and taking what little food they could steal. Neither their governments nor their populations are very happy with the fact that they are on the Russian side and they’re still starving.

“It’s a pity we couldn’t take their food from them. I’m guessing the cost in lives would be too great.”

“I wouldn’t repeat that Captain. We have to be careful,” Somerville replied quickly as he held James’ gaze. “After this is over, we will have to figure out a way to get on with those who have betrayed us. If we don’t, this war may never end. Invading their countries is out of the question. And that doesn’t even take into consideration what the news reporters and opposition would say. The Navy has already lost most of its popular support thanks to our attack on our allies’ orbital stations. If it was even suggested that we were thinking of launching a ground invasion… Well… I don’t know what would happen, but it would be bad.”

“Hmmph,” was all James was willing to say in reply. The Allied nations were facing starvation only because the Indians, Argentinians and Brazilians had betrayed them. As far as he was concerned, taking their food was a legitimate act of war. Then a voice in the back of his head that sounded very like his wife scolded him. It was the governments of those countries that betrayed us, not the people. Reluctantly James had to admit that forcing tens of millions of civilians to starve wasn’t really the kind of thing a British naval officer should be suggesting. For a moment he was ashamed of himself, even if he hadn’t really thought through what he was saying. “You’re right, I’ll not mention it again,” he said by way of apology. Then he pressed on, he still didn’t feel like he understood what was happening. “So are you saying the military situation is stable but the political could go either way? How does the Combined Fleet’s arrival fit into all this?”

Somerville shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted you have made it. If Koroylov was planning to launch an attack any time soon, he will have to reassess his strategic options. Perhaps he may simply decide to give up. Yet he has to know things are bad on Earth. If we can’t break his blockade. Sooner or later, he will win.”

“So we’ve just bought Earth’s population more time to starve? Is that it?”

“That’s if we even hold together that long,” Somerville replied not even trying to sugar coat things. Before seeing his uncle’s appearance and body language, James would have thought his uncle could only have said such a thing in jest. Yet he was deadly serious. “I’m no politician but I have spent enough time around Fairfax to see that your arrival could be like a spark to a powder keg,” Somerville continued without changing his tone. “A lot of the other nations have been clamoring to remove me from command of Earth’s defenses. They still blame me for not aiding Marquis’ fleet. And many of the minor nations have been buying into the propaganda that Brazil, Argentina and India have been putting out about our attack on their orbital stations. Many believe it was unprovoked. Or at least, unjustified. Nearly every nation has tried to make some kind of contact with Koroylov. Some say I used the entire siege to further my own ambitions.”

“That’s ludicrous,” James growled. “Surely they know you would do anything to protect the Star Kingdom, and Earth for that matter.”

Somerville shrugged again. “Fairfax knows, and our own populace knows. But the other politicians? Especially those of the minor nations. Look at it from their perspective. As far as they can see, whether the Russians win or we win, they stand a chance of continuing on in power. Yet the longer the siege goes on, the more unpopular they become and the more likely they will be ousted. A bad peace looks better to them than a long siege. And in the midst of all this, everyone is looking for scapegoats to funnel the anger of their people towards. Most politicians seem to think it’s better that the populace is angry at me or Fairfax than their own governments.”

“I still don’t see how the Combined Fleet’s arrival can be a bad thing.”

Somerville leaned forward. “Until now, the only warships of any significance left to the Allied nations have been Chinese and British. That meant it was impossible for anyone else to argue that they should command Earth’s defenses. Now you have brought back ships from many different nations. Some will see this as an opportunity to wrestle power away from me. Ordinarily I would be happy to step down. But there aren’t many battle experienced Admirals left. Though now that you’re here, we may have a solution to my unpopularity. The remaining Allied nations can hardly say no to one of the victors of the battle of Connecticut taking command of Earth’s defense fleet, can they?”

“Me?” James asked, unable to hide his surprise. “Even if you’re unpopular, you are by far the best qualified to lead us if Koroylov does attack.”

Somerville smiled for the first time as he replied. “Perhaps a couple of years ago, but you haven’t been keeping track as well as I have. Given everything that has happened, you have far more battle experience than I ever did. What’s more, you’ve proven yourself a very able commander. Who else could have got the Combined Fleet here? You were outnumbered more than three to one and yet you managed to outfox Koroylov.”

James didn’t know what to say. He had been hoping that by getting to Earth he would be able to hand over responsibility for the Combined Fleet to someone more senior. He wanted less responsibility, not more. And yet sooner or later, Koroylov will attack, James thought. That, or by the sound of things, the fleet may have to break this siege. Either way, there will be at least one more battle against Koroylov. Deep down James wanted to be the one to face the Russian Admiral.

This time Somerville let out a chuckle. “I’ll take it from your silence that if the opportunity arises, you will not say no.”

“I’d rather you are in command uncle. But, if the only other option is you being removed and replaced by someone else, then you’re right, I’d rather it was me. I have unfinished business with Koroylov.”

“Well, I don’t know how things are going to play out, but as far as I’m concerned, you need to be commanding our forces,” Somerville replied. “If and when the next battle comes, I can’t think of anyone better to be leading Earth’s warships into battle.”

“At least, if Koroylov hasn’t attacked yet, our arrival probably means he won’t in the next day or two. We’ll have time to sort out the political side of things. I’m sure Fairfax will know what to do,” James said, partly to change the subject. His uncle always heaped far too much praise on him.

Somerville’s face changed again and became more serious. “Oh, he’ll know what to do all right. Getting it done may be a different matter. Our Prime Minister has been using all his political acumen to stay in power and fend off those pushing for peace. I’m not sure how much energy or political capital he will be able to lend us. Though I have no doubt he will give us whatever he has left.”

“Well,” James began as his thoughts turned back to his wife. “I’m sure Suzanna will have an idea or two. How is she doing? I’m sure Fairfax has found something useful for her to do.”

In the blink of an eye Somerville’s face returned to the look he had begun the conversation with. “I’m sorry James, Suzanna is not on Earth any longer,” he admitted. “She left on Scimitar to try and break the siege.”

It took a couple of seconds for James to process what his uncle had just told him. Then he had to look away. He couldn’t stand the look of loss on his uncle’s face. All of a sudden, he felt claustrophobic. It was as if the room had shrunk to less than half its size. In the pit of his stomach he felt a ball tighten. He was terrified to ask what his uncle meant.

“I told her she couldn’t go James, you have to believe me. If I had known….”

The way his uncle trailed off caused James’ fear to spike even more. “Known what?” he tried to demand, though it came out more like a croak.

“She wanted to take Scimitar to try and break through the blockade. She thought that if she could get to Haven, she could bring back help. I forbade her. Of course I did. Yet somehow she learnt of our plan to attack the Argentinian, Brazilian and Indian orbital stations. In all the confusion, Scimitar broke orbit and slipped past the inner Russian patrols. The last communication we received from Scimitar, Suzanna and Emilie were nearing the edge of the system and preparing to go into stealth.”

“She took Emilie with her?” James responded, he was beginning to find his voice again. “How did they think they could get through the Alpha system? Heck, Koroylov no doubt has ships patrolling the edge of the shift passage to Alpha. He will be patrolling the Gift and French space is a war zone. How are they going to get to Haven?”

Before his uncle could answer more questions came to James’ mind. “When did they leave? They could have already been captured or killed couldn’t they?”

“They left months ago,” Somerville confirmed with a nod. “We haven’t heard a word from them since. Though we also haven’t heard anything from Koroylov. If he had captured Suzanna he might have tried to use her in some way.”

“Perhaps,” James said as he looked down. He wasn’t very confident that was the case. But even if it was, it only meant that it was more likely she was dead and not captured. As soon as he acknowledged that fact, the knot in his stomach tripled in size. It felt like acid was running through his bowels. He felt ill. Even so he forced himself to look at his uncle. “When did they leave?”

“They left on the ninth of June. It’s been more than four months now. I’m sorry James. I don’t know what else to say, she was gone before I could have stopped her.”

A part of James wanted to lash out at his uncle, but he knew that was stupid. Suzanna was stubborn, if she wanted to leave, she couldn’t have been stopped. And she’d come to see the people of the British Star kingdom as her own. She would happily have risked her life for them. She would have seen it as her duty, James said to himself. The words he had said to his uncle rang hollow in his own mind. The burden of command. He rose to his feet. “I have to head back to Titan. She is bound to have left a message for me before she left. If it hasn’t already, it should be transmitted to Titan from Earth soon.”

“Okay,” Somerville said as he stood as well. “You go and see. But when we get to Earth, Fairfax, King Edward and many others will want to talk to you. We didn’t even get to talk about what happened to de Gama. That is not going to go down well either. Whether you like it or not, you have walked into a political hornet’s nest. Defeating Koroylov is going to be just one of the impossible tasks you are going to find yourself drawn into now that you’re back. Trust me, I’ve been in the thick of it for months.”

James barely heard what his uncle said. He was already thinking about what Suzanna might have written to him. He was sure she would have listed a number of excuses, which she would have called reasons, for why she needed to risk her life. “Thank you uncle, I will contact you via COM link after I return to Titan. We can talk more then.”

“Go on,” Somerville said as he realized James’ mind was elsewhere. “We’ll talk more later.”




Chapter 25

It is fascinating reading the personal correspondence of the various Admirals from the Pre-Imperial Ages and the Imperial Age itself. Whilst they do at times share updates with their loved ones, usually the topics of their conversations revolve around much more mundane things. Reading their correspondence gives a far more human picture of some of humanity’s greatest leaders.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Titan, Sol system, approaching Earth.

With a swipe of his finger James closed the latest briefing file his uncle had transmitted from Neptune. A glance out his office’s observation port told him Titan was still a few minutes away from settling into orbit around Earth. His fingers twitched as he thought about getting up and going to the bridge. Instead of moving though, his mind went back to the letters he had read as soon as he had returned to Titan. With another flick of his finger, they appeared in front of him. Though he had read them several times already, he began to skim through them again.

Suzanna’s first few letters alternated between her concern for him as he fought the Flex-aor, and daily or weekly rundowns of the mundane things Suzanna had been getting up to. Then everything changed on the ninth of May. That was when the first news of the Russian attack on New France reached Earth. It wasn’t hard for James to read between the lines and see that Suzanna was genuinely concerned by what she had been hearing in her diplomatic briefings. The tone had changed when Koroylov’s fleet entered the Sol system. From that point on, Suzanna had been keeping her emotions under check. She didn’t know if or when James would receive her letters, but it was clear that she was trying not to worry him too much.

Being able to read between the lines meant that when he came to her last letter, he could easily picture how Suzanna had felt. Though she had been doing everything she could to help the hearts and minds project, she had known it would make next to no difference. Andréa and the Somerville Foundation had been keeping her up to date with accurate projections for Earth’s food needs and the yields from the coming harvest. The writing had been on the wall for weeks. If Koroylov didn’t use his massive advantage in warship tonnage to crush Earth’s defenses, they would crumble from within as famine set in. Given the great distance between Earth and Haven, Suzanna had felt that even one day’s delay in sending for help was a day she couldn’t afford to waste. As James’s eyes came to rest on the last paragraph of the letter dated the day Suzanna had left Earth, he slowly read her words.

James, I know you will be mad with me for what I’m about to do. Jonathan has forbidden me to go. I’m sure if you were here, you would too. Yet what else can I do? I could send someone else on Scimitar. But would the Haven Council listen to them? Would the leaders of Vestar? They both know who I am. They both know who you are. It has to be me. I pray that you will receive this after having made it back to Earth and driven off Koroylov. I pray that Jonathan won’t have bad news waiting for you. If Scimitar is destroyed trying to escape, I want you to know that I love you. You know that already. But I want you to know it anyway. The risks I’m taking are for my people, they are for the British people, but they are also for us. If we are to have the future we want for ourselves, someday even for our children, the Russians cannot be allowed to take Earth.

I cannot wait around in the hope that you and Admiral Cunningham will make it in time. I have to act. I know you will be angry, but I also know that in time, you will understand. I’ve never met anyone who understands the weight of duty more than you. I’m sorry I’m putting you through this, but it is something I must do. Perhaps I will return to Earth to find you have already saved the day. Perhaps you will return to find that I have. I hope it is one or the other. I look forward to that day. I will always be yours. Suzanna.

She’s not dead, she can’t be, James said to himself as he re-read Suzanna’s last two sentences. They didn’t bring him any comfort, nor did they ease the pit of acid that seemed to be bubbling in the bottom of his stomach. It hadn’t gone away since his uncle had told him about Suzanna’s attempt to break through the siege. James closed his eyes. He breathed in slowly. He couldn’t hide the truth from himself. He was worried, more worried than he had ever been. He had risked his life a hundred times going into battle during his career. As he progressed up through the ranks in the RSN, both the scale of the battles and the responsibility on his shoulders had increased. At first as a young lieutenant, he had been fighting to help protect his friends, then the crew that he captained, then the fleets he commanded and the people and worlds he was protecting. Yet in all those battles, the fear of what he would lose had never affected him like this. Worse, there was nothing he could do about it. Suzanna had escaped and she was now on her way to Haven, or she had been captured or was dead. There was nothing he could do, and there was no way he could know. What am I supposed to do about this? he asked himself. It was as if his mind had stopped working at its normal efficiency. He couldn’t concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing, not entirely at least. In the past, he had prided himself on his ability to compartmentalize. When it came to fighting a battle, he was usually able to put all secondary thoughts out of his mind. Perhaps that’s what I need, James reasoned.  A battle. Sitting in my office isn’t the same. Yet unless Koroylov was going to launch a surprise attack, there was no battle to be fought. He was stuck with his fears.

“Acting Rear Admiral,” Captain Romanov’s voice said over the open COM channel from the bridge.

“Yes Captain,” James said, more than happy for the distraction.

“We’ll be slotting into orbit in ten minutes. I was going to COM you to let you know as I thought you would want to come and have a look at Earth’s defenses. We just got a COM message from London though. Your presence has been requested at Admiralty House as soon as possible. I’ve already ordered a shuttle prepped in shuttle bay two for you.”

“Thanks Romanov, I guess I’ll have to see the sights later. Make sure we get a good look at everything there is to see. We’re going to analyze it once I get back. A fresh perspective on Earth’s defenses will probably do my uncle some good.”

“Don’t worry Admiral, we’ll keep our eyes open. I’ll tell the bridge crew that there is a reward for whoever finds any potential weaknesses. Romanov out.”

James closed the COM channel and opened another one to his steward. “Fox, my presence has been requested on Earth. You better set out my dress uniform. I’ll be departing in ten minutes.”

“I already have it laid out for you in your quarters Rear Admiral,” Fox replied.

“Acting Rear Admiral,” James corrected. He had let Romanov and a few others get away with dropping the acting when they were in American space. Now that they were back in the Sol system that kind of thing couldn’t continue. Technically, his official rank was still that of Captain.

“Yes, Acting Rear Admiral,” Fox replied. Though the way he pronounced the extra word suggested he didn’t like it very much. “Are you coming through now?”

James nodded though he knew Fox couldn’t see him. “I’ll be there presently.”

He looked out the viewport once more. Earth already appeared much closer. A number of ships and orbital defense stations were visible. Despite his interest in them and his curiosity at why he was being summoned to Admiralty House, he was too aware of the discomfort in his stomach. He knew it wouldn’t help any, but he couldn’t resist. Before stepping out of his office he glanced down and re-read the last couple of sentences from Suzanna’s letter again. Only then did he close his terminal and move towards his quarters. His uncle had predicted a political hornet’s nest was about to erupt. It seemed he was correct, Titan hadn’t even reached Earth yet and he had been summoned to Admiralty House. There’s nothing to do but get on with it, James thought as he stepped out of his office and into his quarters. Fox was holding up the tunic from his dress uniform. His British and Swedish medals firmly fixed in place.

*

A hornet’s nest indeed, James said to himself as he stared out one of the observation windows of the shuttle that was taking him to London. Multiple shuttles were launching from almost every ship in the Combined Fleet as they settled into orbit in formation around Titan. Within a few seconds they split up as they each made their way to whatever country or orbital station they were going to. All the senior captains of the Combined Fleet, James thought. They’ve all been summoned to give an account to their political masters.

To distract himself from the grilling he knew he was likely to receive at Admiralty House, James put the shuttles out of his mind and cast a critical eye over the warships and orbital defense stations that came into view as his shuttle wove around them on its way to London. Normally, the outward appearance of a ship or station didn’t say too much about its abilities or efficiency. It wasn’t quite true with Earth’s defenses. On more than one of the orbital stations signs of wear and tear were clearly visible. In most instances, it was a lack of stealth coating over the valstronium armor that gave it away. Probably the stealth coating was produced outside the system and imported, James concluded. Hence why it hadn’t been replaced, there was no more to go around. Orbital stations were almost impossible to hide from an attacker, but a lack of stealth coating would make it that little bit easier for an incoming missile to target the station. If there had been some available, no doubt it would have been replaced. Mentally James made a note to check what extra supplies of stealth coating the Combined Fleet had. No doubt some could be released for repairs. One thing his ships had in abundance was spare parts to repair battle damage, the American colonies had been flooded with war supplies to help fight the Flex-aor.

As the shuttle descended through Earth’s atmosphere and thick clouds, James couldn’t help but smile when the blue and green of Britain came into view. There were other planets that were more striking, but none matched the natural feeling of home that the landscape of Earth evoked in him. The alternating patches of forests and fields, towns and rivers, sea and mountains just seemed right. It had been nearly three years since James had last seen Earth with his own eyes. This is what we were fighting for, he reminded himself as he thought of the men and woman who had died fighting the Flex-aor since then. Even though Earth faced a new crisis, he didn’t want their sacrifices to be forgotten. The Russians might take Earth and seek to rule it, but at least they wouldn’t bombard it from space with nuclear missiles like the Flex-aor.

James was able to make out Bristol and Cirencester, though he couldn’t see it, he could guess where Badminton House was. A part of him longed to go there, to the home he and Suzanna shared, even though he knew she hadn’t been living there before she left. As soon as I’m done with Admiralty House, he promised himself.

In the space of another minute, the shuttle descended to the point where his viewport was dominated by London’s landscape. “Where are we going pilot?” James asked when the shuttle moved north of the Thames. Admiralty House was on the south.

“Sorry Acting Rear Admiral, I thought you had been informed. We received new orders just before we took off from Titan, we are to land at Buckingham Palace.”

James bit back a groan. “Very well,” he replied. He had been expecting to debrief a number of high-ranking Admirals at Admiralty House. It would be even worse at Buckingham Palace. No doubt those same Admirals would be there, now so too would King Edward and probably quite a few other important political figures.

When the shuttle touched down two of the King’s Guards stood at attention to greet him. “This way Sir,” one of them said before turning on the spot and marching towards one of the entrances to the Palace. As James moved to follow him, the second fell in step behind him. As they approached the Palace, the door opened and the two guards at the door stepped aside to allow James to enter. Neither of his escorts followed him. Once inside, an aide in a fine suit appeared as if out of nowhere. “Greetings Duke Somerville, and welcome to Buckingham Palace. I’ve been instructed to escort you to the White Drawing Room.”

“Lead on,” James said, as he tried to remember what the White Drawing Room was. “The White Drawing room is one of the smaller reception rooms, isn’t it?” he guessed

“It is, your Grace.”

James wanted to tell the aide to drop the formalities, aristocratic titles weren’t used within the RSN and he forbade others from using them around him outside the RSN, yet he knew a Buckingham Palace aide would never dream of doing such a thing. “Am I just meeting with King Edward then?”

“I’ve been instructed to bring you to the White Drawing Room to await the King’s pleasure. He will be holding court in the Throne Room presently. Your presence has been requested at the ceremony.”

James knew he would sound stupid for asking, but clearly someone had kept him in the dark. “Ceremony?”

The aide nodded. “Vice Admiral Cunningham will be receiving the Victoria Cross posthumously; his wife and family are here to receive the medal.”

So soon? James asked himself. He knew asking the aide would only reveal his ignorance. King Edward and Prime Minister Fairfax would have received the first report he transmitted hours ago when his fleet entered the Sol system. In theory, they would have had plenty of time to prepare for such a ceremony, yet that didn’t explain why they would have gone to the bother. They’re clearly up to something, James concluded. And no one bothered to tell me, that probably means I’m not going to like it.

Realizing there was no point asking any more questions, James followed the aide quietly. He took the seat the aide indicated in the White Drawing Room and spent the next ten minutes entertaining himself by looking at the detailed paintings decorating the room. Most of the men and women in them he had never heard of, though he was surprised to find one painting of a former Duke of Beaufort. The painting was from the eighteenth century and though the Duke wasn’t a Somerville, James guessed he was some distant relative. There were some uncanny resemblances between the former Duke and his father and brother. They have the same chin, James concluded.

When the door to the reception room opened, James stood expecting to be called to whatever ceremony King Edward and Fairfax had put together. Instead the aide stepped in carrying a tray. “Refreshments your Grace?” the aide asked.

“Yes, I suppose so. Thank you,” James replied. He stayed on his feet and watched as the aide came in and laid the tray on a side table.

“Tea or coffee?”

James didn’t routinely drink either, but seeing as he was in Buckingham Palace, he thought there was only one option he should go for. “Tea, please.”

Instead of sitting down after the aide had poured the tea and retreated from the room, James walked around. He wanted a closer look at some of the pictures and as it seemed he was going to be waiting a while longer, there were a few ancient books in the bookcases he wanted to investigate. He reckoned he was waiting another half an hour before the door opened again.

“If you will follow me Your Grace, the ceremony is about to begin,” the returning aide requested.

“Of course, lead on,” James responded.

After walking through the maze of corridors that made up Buckingham Palace, the aide stopped in front of two large doors guarded by four King’s Guard. The aide nodded to one of them who was holding a large brown scepter. In response, the guard turned and banged the scepter on the door twice. After a few seconds it slowly opened and the aide stepped through. In a much louder voice than James would have thought possible from the aide, he announced his guest. “The Honorable Duke of Beaufort Acting Rear Admiral, James Somerville.

James took a deep breath, then stepped through the door. Though he hated the needless pomp and tradition of such ceremonies, he had learned that accepting them and getting on with it was the quickest way through them.

“Ah, our honored guest has arrived,” King Edward bellowed from the opposite end of the throne room. He was sitting on the ornately decorated throne that had been used by British monarchs for more than a millennium. “Please approach Duke Somerville and take your place.”

With a wave of his hand, the aide escorting him signaled for James to follow him. James looked around the throne room. More than two hundred people had been gathered for this ceremony. They were all seated facing King Edward. To the sides and at the rear of the Throne Room were several holo-news crews documenting the ceremony. And maybe even broadcasting it live, James thought. If King Edward and Fairfax were up to something, they were probably broadcasting it live.

The aide stopped right in front of King Edward’s throne and gestured towards the free seat that faced the King. James wasn’t surprised to see his uncle sitting in the seat adjacent to his. Across the aisle, Prime Minister Fairfax was seated as well. James nodded to Fairfax, taking care to keep his face straight. Then he gave his uncle a grimace as he sat down. “What is going on? he whispered.

“How would I know?” the First Space Lord replied with a wink.

“Now that we are all here,” King Edward bellowed, cutting off any further conversation. “The ceremony can begin. If Duke Somerville would join me?”

For a second James stared at King Edward. Then he felt his uncle’s hand on his shoulder, pushing him to his feet. Biting back a sigh, James stepped up to the throne and turned to face the assembled audience.

“Now, I would also invite Mrs. Victoria Cunningham to approach.”

When James saw Cunningham’s wife stand, his heart went out to her. She would only have learnt of her husband’s death a few hours before. Yet she was clearly doing her best to keep her face from showing too much emotion. Slowly she made her way to the front of the throne room and stood on the other side of King Edward. When she did so, Edward continued to speak. “I and the people of the British Star kingdom owe the late Vice Admiral Cunningham a debt that we can never repay. More, that debt is owed by all the people of Earth. Cunningham fought the Flex-aor invaders bravely more than once. His actions were vital to the victory that finally stopped their advance at the Connecticut system. Then, at the Battle of Delta, Cunningham gave his life as he sought to defend our Kingdom. It is for these reasons that I intend to award Vice Admiral Cunningham with the Victoria Cross. This is the highest medal for gallantry in the presence of the enemy that this throne can award. Given Acting Rear Admiral Somerville’s close relationship to Vice Admiral Cunningham I have requested that he be the one to present the medal to Cunningham’s widow. If you would, Acting Rear Admiral.” As he spoke, Edward picked up a case that had been sitting on the armrest of his throne, he gently opened it and held it to towards James.

Delicately James reached out and lifted the medal from the case. He turned and stepped towards Mrs. Cunningham. She turned slightly away from him to make it easier for him to pin the medal onto the dress she was wearing. It had a special patch sewn into to it to take the medal. Once he had it attached, he held out his hand to her. “I want to personally thank you for your husband’s sacrifice,” he whispered so only she could hear. “His leadership and courage will always be an example to me. The victory won against the Flex-aor and the victory we will win against the Russians will be because of him.”

James could see Victoria open her mouth to say something in reply, but nothing came out. He recognized from her face that her facade was about to break. Still holding her hand, he pulled her into a hug. “You do not have to hide your emotions. It is okay to cry if you can’t help it. No one will think any less of you.”

In response, James felt as much as heard Cunningham’s widow release a sob into his shoulder. More quickly followed. Still holding her with one arm James directed her off the platform Edward’s throne sat upon and escorted her back to her seat. “I hope we will have time to talk more after the ceremony,” he said as he helped her sit down.

“Yes, I would like that,” Victoria replied in between sobs. “Thank you James.”

With a nod James turned and began to make his way back to his seat.

“Not so fast Acting Rear Admiral,” Edward called out. “If you would re-join me please.”

This time as James walked past Fairfax, the Prime Minister couldn’t help but flash a cheeky grin in his direction. James wanted to roll his eyes at the Prime Minister but he didn’t have the courage to do so. Instead he looked up at King Edward as he approached. “Your Majesty?”

“Vice Admiral Cunningham is not the only one being recognized at this ceremony,” Edward replied. “In light of your actions against the Flex-aor as first a Flag captain, then as Acting Commodore and then as Acting Rear Admiral, Captain James Somerville, Duke of Beaufort, you are hereby awarded the Distinguished Service Order for Gallantry in command in the face of the enemy.” From some hidden compartment in his throne, King Edward produced another case which he opened to reveal another medal.

James had to shut his mouth from surprise. The Distinguished Service Order was the second highest medal the crown could award for combat operations after the Victoria Cross.

“If you would,” Edward requested when James didn’t turn to make it easy for the king to pin the medal onto his uniform.

“My apologies,” James said hastily as he offered his left chest to his king.

“Now,” Edward said as he stepped back. “We are not quite done with Captain Somerville just yet. Given his experience and the command ability he has demonstrated both as an Acting Commodore and then as Acting Rear Admiral, specifically in relation to his bringing the Combined Fleet to aid Earth’s defense, the Board of Admirals has decided to promote Captain Somerville to the permanent rank of Rear Admiral. I’m now going to invite our First Space Lord to present Rear Admiral Somerville with his rank insignia and gold cuff rings.”

When James spun to face his uncle, he knew the shock on his face would be evident for all to see. He couldn’t help it, even when he remembered that the whole ceremony was being recorded. No one in the history of the RSN had been promoted from Captain to Rear Admiral. He had been looking forward to less responsibility. Not more. As his mind began to race, he forced his body to stand still as his uncle unfastened his Captain’s rank insignia from the shoulders of his uniform and replaced them with those of a Rear Admiral. They have already given up trying to keep my uncle in command of Earth’s defenses, James realized. There was only one reason why King Edward and Prime Minister Fairfax would move to promote him so quickly. He knew there were other RSN Rear Admirals and Vice Admirals on Earth, yet he had far more battle experience than any of them. They must fear the other nations will move quickly to push someone else forward to take command of Earth’s defenses. They want to be ready.

“Now,” Edward said once Admiral Somerville returned to his seat. “The Rear Admiral may return to his seat. We are finally done with him. I do have some other medals that have been earned in the service of our Kingdom’s Royal Space Navy. We will turn to those now.”

As James sat down, other Captains and officers who had been with him fighting the Flex-aor and the Russians made their way up to receive medals. It wasn’t lost on James, nor he hoped anyone else present at the ceremony, that more than two thirds of those who approached King Edward were the relatives of those who had died rather than officers who had survived all the battles that had been fought. As the first few came up, James felt his anger rising. If Edward and Fairfax had organized the whole ceremony just to promote him so quickly, he intended to have words with them. King and Prime Minister or not, naval officers were not simply fodder for political gain. As the list went on and on, and as the seriousness and compassion Edward showed to each relative who came up didn’t waver, James realized that whatever else the ceremony was doing, it was a genuine recognition of the service and loss that the men and women of the RSN had faced fighting the Flex-aor. Perhaps it’s good that the nation is seeing this, James thought as he turned and stole a glance at the holo-news teams that were recording it.

“Come on,” his uncle said after King Edward brought the ceremony to a close. “This day is not over yet, we have a shuttle to catch.”

“Where are we going?” James said, refusing to move, “I’ve had more than enough surprises already this day.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you. The RSN’s latest Rear Admiral has some new responsibilities to fill. Come on, I’ll explain on the way.”




Chapter 26

The holographic visuals of Buckingham Palace, The White House and some of the other ancient seats of political power are impressive, though it is hard to imagine they would match the Imperial Palaces. Their destruction in the Second Battle for Earth was of little consequence given everything else that was going on. Yet now it is a pity they have been lost to antiquity.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

James was glad his uncle was there to lead him through the maze of corridors making up Buckingham Palace. Within a couple of turns he lost any idea of where he was. When they eventually made it to a door that led outside, a King’s Guard opened it for them. Across the courtyard there was only one shuttle sitting on the landing pad. James recognized it immediately. “The Prime Minister’s shuttle?”

“Yes my boy,” Fairfax answered from behind him as he stepped out of the Palace. “You’ll be traveling in style today.”

James shot his uncle a look. “Don’t worry,” he replied. “We’ll tell you once we are aboard.”

With nothing else to do, James let Fairfax and his uncle go ahead of him. He intended to fall in step behind them, yet a number of politicians and political secretaries came out of the Palace, forcing him to step aside. Clearly, they were with Fairfax for they followed him towards the shuttle. James ended up being the last one to board. Pushing past a few politicians who were looking for a seat, James made his way towards where Fairfax and his uncle were sitting. As he moved up the shuttle he nodded to a few naval officers who had already been aboard the shuttle. When he got to his uncle, there was a political aide sitting in the seat nearest to him. “I’m afraid you’re in my seat Sir,” James said to the man. “The First Space Lord promised me this one.” He wasn’t in the mood to just sit somewhere else and be left wondering what was going on. The man in question looked to Fairfax. When the Prime Minister nodded he got up and, after apologizing, made his way down the shuttle to find another seat.

“I gleaned from your reports that you have matured into a natural leader,” Fairfax said as James sat down. “I didn’t realize you had developed a bit more political backbone as well.” He glanced at Admiral Somerville and spoke to him. “That will no doubt serve him well in the days ahead.”

“I think you are mistaking irritation for backbone,” James answered. “First I was summoned to Admiralty House without a clear reason, then diverted to Buckingham Palace, then surprised by a ceremony in the throne room and asked to hand out the Victoria Cross with no prior warning or instruction. I think it’s time I was filled in on exactly what is going on.”

James spoke to Fairfax, but as the Prime Minister looked past him to his uncle, James turned to stare at his uncle. Admiral Somerville shrugged towards Fairfax. “He’s right, I wouldn’t be too happy myself if I had just gone through all that without some notice.”

“Well,” Fairfax said and paused. “To be honest, it’s largely your uncle’s fault. He’s the one who said it would be easier just to invite you along and deal with the fallout instead of wasting time trying to convince you to go along with our plan. And, in truth, time was of the essence. We didn’t have time to convince you of what needed doing.”

James didn’t know who he wanted to tell off first, his Prime Minister or the most senior ranking Admiral in the Royal Space Navy, but he felt both of them needed to hear a piece of his mind. He hadn’t spent the last six months trying to get to Earth to be pushed around like a political pawn. Before he could say anything, Fairfax held up his hand. The gesture came with such authority that James bit back what he was about to say.

Fairfax nodded at the change in James’s face, then he continued to speak. “I know we’ve messed you around. If we had more time, I would have told you. We do owe you a great deal, what King Edward said in the throne room came from both of us, not just him. But we had to move fast. Before your ships rendezvoused with Admiral Somerville’s fleet, my sources received word that the Italians and Spanish were preparing to call an emergency meeting of the UN Interplanetary Committee. That’s where we’re headed now, New York. The emergency session is scheduled to begin in a couple of hours. Your uncle told me he’s already given you a brief overview of the political situation. Now that the Combined Fleet is here, many will want to remove your uncle from commanding Earth’s defenses. We have simply built up too many enemies in the political and military hierarchies of our allies. If things were different we’d be happy to let your uncle stand down and an Admiral from another navy take his place. Yet the fighting with the Flex-aor and with Koroylov has bled the Allied navies dry of experienced senior commanders. Given what our and the American’s Navy did to the Indian, Brazilian and Argentinian orbital defenses at your uncle’s command, it would be all but impossible for me to fight to keep him in command. But you on the other hand, that is at least possible. Now that you officially have the rank of Rear Admiral, you will outrank any of the other officers who have returned with the Combined Fleet. Though of course no one will know that just yet, I’m planning on releasing the recordings of the ceremony in a couple of hours. That should catch our opponents out. And so you see, we had to move fast. In fact, we still have to move fast. My staff and I have a lot of groundwork to lay in the next couple of hours. I hope you’re ready to make a claim on becoming the next commander of Earth’s defenses. I’m thinking Supreme Allied Commander has a nice ring to it. Doesn’t it?”

James opened his mouth to say that such a title was over the top when he caught the twinkle in Fairfax’s eyes. The Prime Minister was teasing him. “There’s not going to be such a title,” he shot back.

Fairfax’s twinkle turned into a smile. “On the contrary, there is. At least, that’s what my spies tell me is going to be proposed. Though it’s not intended for you. Whether or not it is accepted it is another matter. I just wanted to see what you thought of it first.”

James looked to his uncle for help. The older Somerville shrugged. “What difference does a name make? I’m sure whoever thought it up thinks it will play well with the public. That’s not an area I wish to wade into.”

“Exactly,” Fairfax said as he sat up straighter. “Given James’ popularity within the Star Kingdom at least, I’m sure if he was to be appointed to the position of Supreme Allied Commander, no one in Britain would be complaining.”

“Britain isn’t Earth,” Somerville replied. “I know that much at least.”

“No,” Fairfax said with a shake of his head. “You’re right.” When he turned back to James his face was serious once again. “And that business with De Gama won’t do you any favors in that regard.”

“What do you mean?” James asked. “I was within my legal rights to pass judgement on him.”

“Perhaps you were,” Fairfax answered and then let a few moments of silence pass. “Perhaps you were,” he repeated. “There were no other senior admirals to hold a court martial. That was true. But you were intending to return to Earth. You knew there would be enough Admirals here. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done the same thing in your shoes. I’m just saying, I think there was more than just a desire to see justice done influencing your actions. And if I can see that, then no doubt others will as well and they will jump on it. Don’t forget, there are many within our alliance that think we and the Americans overstepped when we attacked the Indian, Brazilian and Argentinian orbital defense stations. They will see your execution of de Gama as an extension of our war mongering.”

As James looked from Fairfax to his uncle, he didn’t know what to say. Since he executed de Gama, his final exchange with the Brazilian Admiral replayed in his mind every night before he went to sleep. It wasn’t something that was voluntary, yet it happened every night nonetheless. Despite that, he had been doing his best not to think about it. When he did, he only did so to remind himself how much de Gama deserved what happened to him. Yet he couldn’t deny what his Prime Minister was saying, he could have put de Gama in the brig and waited until he reached Earth. For several seconds he examined his feelings. “You’re right,” he admitted. “I could have waited for a court martial. But de Gama deserved justice and the Combined Fleet needed to see that. We all thought there was a good chance we were coming to the Sol system to die. I didn’t want de Gama to be killed by a Russian missile. I didn’t particularly enjoy having to carry out the sentence myself, but someone had to do it and I wasn’t going to order someone else to do it in my place.”

Fairfax looked over to Admiral Somerville and then back to James. “Like I said, I could imagine myself doing the same thing in your shoes. But it is still going to cause us a minor headache, if not a big one. But if someone does ask you about it, I would answer along those lines.”

“Okay, I will,” James replied. “Now, I’m sure there are a hundred other things I need to know about what’s about to happen. Perhaps you could both fill me in some more. By my count, we only have another ten minutes or so before we land in New York.”

“Yes,” Fairfax agreed. “Let’s get to it then.”

*

Within minutes of their shuttle landing at the UN buildings in New York, James found himself on his own. Fairfax, his uncle and their staff had dispersed to meet and talk with as many contacts as they could. With nothing else to do and no one to talk to, James made his way to the Interplanetary Committee chamber. He had appeared before the Committee twice before so he knew where he was going. When he got there, he found the British delegation’s assigned seating and sat down. Not much had changed. Officially, there were nine permanent members of the Interplanetary Committee, though the representatives for India, Brazil and Argentina had been temporarily banned from taking up their seats. Besides the nine major space faring powers that each had a permanent member, there were three other rotating seats the minor space powers took turns occupying. That meant that there were twelve raised daises at the front of the room. Aides were walking back and forth preparing each dais for its occupant. In front of the main dais, there were another sixteen smaller daises. James had never seen them used before, but aides were preparing them as well. It’s going to be a full house, James thought. An emergency meeting of the Interplanetary Committee obviously allowed every spacefaring power to have a representative present. Normally the representatives of the minor spacefaring powers sat on smaller sub committees, clearly, they were all going to be involved in the main Interplanetary Committee today.

James idly watched the aides as they went about their tasks. It seemed no one else was interested in coming to the Committee chamber yet. No doubt they were all busy like Fairfax and his uncle. That was fine with James, it gave him a chance to examine his own feelings. He had been a Rear Admiral for more than an hour and hadn’t really thought about the new reality he found himself in. In one sense, he knew nothing had changed. Under Vice Admiral Cunningham and then after Cunningham’s death, he had been exercising the authority of a Rear Admiral. If he was honest with himself, he still longed for the freedom that being a Captain gave. Commanding a single warship, with nothing to worry about but the morale and efficiency of your crew and with luck, an independent command. Those were the responsibilities he had loved fulfilling in the past. Yet he couldn’t deny that times had changed. He saw things differently now. He couldn’t just hide away as a Captain. Commanding a fleet, he knew that was what he had to do now. But commanding all of Earth’s defenses? That was another matter. Something he wasn’t sure he was prepared for. For one, it would inevitably drag him into the political squabbling that constantly went on between the spacefaring powers. It would be impossible for him to avoid. If he was to take command, everyone would be second-guessing every decision he made and someone would always be upset. When that someone was likely to be a leader of one nation or another, that meant tens of millions of people would inevitably be set against him. Are you up to the task? James asked himself. If it was just facing Koroylov in a one-on-one battle, he knew he would be more than willing to step up. Not that he thought he could definitely win, but he knew he could give Koroylov a good fight. But what if the politicians tie one of your hands behind your back? Worse, what if you mess up and let them tie one of your hands behind your back?

For the first time since hearing Suzanna had left Earth, James realized that he was going to miss her in more ways than one. If she had been here, she would not have thought twice about pushing him forward to take command of Earth’s defenders. Crucially, she would have had his back politically. But she’s not here, so what would she say now? James knew the answer as soon as he asked. Pretty much since their wedding night, Suzanna had been giving him lectures on politics. For the most part, he had drowned them out, but he knew something had got through. Certainly, her influence had helped him work within the multinational command structure of the Combined Fleet. The fact that he had watched her work through political struggle after political struggle on Haven and in London had opened his eyes to the need to dabble in politics.

James knew his uncle hated the very idea of dabbling in politics and resisted doing so as much as he could. He had shared his uncle’s view wholeheartedly, and in some ways he still did, but Suzanna had tempered his dislike for politics with an understanding of its necessity. Still, James thought, if she was here, I suspect even she would pass on the idea of being thrown into the midst of the endless circle of squabbles that went on between the Allied spacefaring powers. It would be a nightmare.

Wherever his train of thought was going to take him next, it vanished. His heart stopped for a millisecond and then started to race. Someone else had entered the chamber from a side exit, and she clearly wasn’t an aide. Her dress was far to regal. The Empress of China, Christine Na, looked around for a moment. When her eyes settled on James, she moved towards him. Instinctively James sat up straighter. He felt his hands go clammy. What is she doing here? He had only spoken to her once since she had had married Emperor Na. Then it had been a very short and polite public conversation when Suzanna had been at his side. James looked away as she approached. He didn't want to make eye contact. He also had to stop from closing his eyes. He knew that if he did, his memory would take him back to their time together. Back to when he had been the captain of the lowly exploration frigate Drake, and before that. Back to when he had wanted to marry the eldest daughter of King Edward of the British Star kingdom. She had rejected him, or at least she had been forced to reject him by her father. Now she was married and so was he. So what did she want?

The delicate sound of a woman clearing her throat caused James’ head to spin around. Christine was standing beside him. He had gotten lost in his thoughts. He jumped to his feet. “My apologies Empress. It is good to see you again,” he said instinctively.

“It’s good to see you too James,” Christine replied as she held out her hand. “Please, call me Christine, we have known each other for too long to use titles. Though I hear you are now a Rear Admiral as well as a Duke.”

James took the hand Christine offered and lowered his lips towards it. He passed just centimeters away and then raised his head. Only close acquaintances actually touch their lips to a lady’s hand and he didn’t want to cross any inappropriate boundaries. He thought he saw a slither of annoyance cross Christine’s eyes but whatever it was, it disappeared quickly.

“Your sources are well informed,” he replied as he stood up straight.

Christine allowed a small smile to play on her lips. “My sources are my father, so I would hope they are.”

“I take it you are here to participate in the emergency Committee meeting?” James asked.

“Yes, as I imagine all heads of state will be here. Emperor Na was in the Chinese colonies when Koroylov attacked. He has been unable to return. As the next senior government figure, I have been running things in his stead. At least trying to. It seems that no matter what I do, we cannot get enough food to feed our people.”

Part of James wanted to reach out and touch Christine’s shoulder to comfort her, now that she was closer, she looked wearied from her responsibilities. He held back though, again not wanting to cross any lines. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said instead. “I didn’t realize everything was falling on your shoulders. I’m sure it has been very difficult. I’ve only heard a little bit about the many problems you have all been facing, but I’ve heard enough to guess.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Christine said as she raised her chin. “I’ve been too focused on myself of late anyway. Here I am complaining to you when you are the one who has gone through far greater hardships. After all the losses you suffered fighting the Flex-aor, then to lose Cunningham and so many others when you were betrayed. I’m sorry for everything you have had to go through in the navy. I know your career has been difficult.”

James took a second to reply. He didn’t know if she was speaking just about the last couple of years, or further back when they had been together and her father had tried to interfere in his career. He decided it was safer to assume she was just talking about the recent war. Before he managed to think up an appropriate response, Christine continued.

“In part, that is why I wanted to speak to you. I have been following your career and I wanted to pass on my personal condolences for the many friends and crew members you have lost. I also wanted to personally thank you. I have heard from Acting Commodore Tianpei about how you fought the Flex-aor and took over the Combined Fleet after Cunningham’s death. You probably don’t know this, but he fought at the battle of Excalibur. He was a First Lieutenant back then. Even though you might expect him to hold a grudge, he spoke highly of you.”

“No, I didn’t realize,” James answered. “Certainly, he didn’t give me any reason to be concerned about our working relationship. He stepped into Admiral Woo’s shoes admirably after Woo was killed fighting de Gama. And I appreciate your words Christine. Just as I have appreciated the support China has given the Combined Fleet over the last couple of years. I know in large part that has been down to your influence. The victory at Connecticut was only possible because every nation played its part, so I owe you my thanks.”

Christine turned away for a moment and James thought that she intended to leave having said what she came to say. Instead, when she turned back he thought he saw a trace of a tear in her eye. A couple of quick blinks took it away. “You are still the man I remember,” she said in a tone that reminded James of when she had been younger. Pressing on, she rolled her shoulders and raised her chin. “But that is not the only reason why I wanted to speak to you. I’m sure by now Fairfax knows why this emergency meeting has been called. Some within our alliance feel the time has come to remove your uncle from command of the Allied Fleet. I’m guessing Fairfax intends to put up a fight as much as he can … but I can also read between the lines. If he can’t have your uncle, I imagine he would happily substitute you in his place.” As she spoke, Christine reached out and touched James’ elbow. “I simply wanted to let you know that if such a proposal comes before the Committee, I will be instructing my representative to support it. As I said, I have followed your career. I don’t think there is anyone better to lead our forces if Koroylov attacks. I know you have never liked politics, given your history I’m not surprised. And I can imagine how the idea of taking over command of Earth’s defenses would seem to you. But I want you to know that we need you, not just the Royal Space Navy, but the people of China, the people of Earth. If the Russians take Earth and impose their rule and form of government, everyone’s lives will be ruined, if not outright destroyed. And think about the Flex-aor, if the Russians rule humanity’s colonies, would they have the technological edge and economy to beat back another invasion?”

Despite how surreal the situation felt, James couldn’t help but smile.

“What is so funny?” Christine asked, almost sounding angry.

“I’m sorry, it’s not you,” he replied hastily. “It’s just, I was sitting here wondering what Suzanna would say if she was here. I imagine it would sound something a lot like what you have just said. She has been trying to dip my toes into politics since we got married. I wouldn’t say she has had much success, but at least I recognize that the political side of taking command of Earth’s defenses would be a necessary evil.”

Christine’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Then she too smiled. “If you can acknowledge the necessity of it, then I’d say Suzanna has had more than a little success. I will have to pass on my thanks to her when she returns.”

James dropped his eyes to his feet. For a moment his concern for Suzanna had been forgotten, yet at the mention of her absence it came flooding back.

“I’m sorry,” Christine said hastily as she reached out and touched his elbow again. “I know she left to try and bring help from Haven. Have you heard any news about her?”

James shook his head but didn’t look up. “No, there has been no news. But, the chances she actually made it through the Sol system and then the Alpha system and then whatever other patrols the Russians have…” James trailed off.

Christine’s touch turned into a pinch. James almost pulled his elbow away at the pain. “Hold on there,” she scolded. “We’re talking about the same Suzanna aren’t we? Suzanna Rodriguez, now Somerville? I have followed her career as well. I dare say she is more formidable than either of us. Would you agree?”

“I guess,” James admitted, though he hadn’t followed Christine’s career quite as closely as she clearly had his. He suspected she was just as formidable as Suzanna given how she seemed to have settled into being the first foreign Empress of China in the nation’s history.

“Then you cannot lose hope. You need to trust her. She knew what she was doing when she left and no doubt wherever she is, she still knows what she’s doing. I’m sure she wouldn’t want you wallowing in self-pity.”

James looked up and held Christine’s eyes. He wanted to deny it, to tell her to back away. She had no right interfering in his emotions. Yet he knew she had put her finger on exactly what he was doing. Suzanna would be far crosser than Christine if she saw his self-pity.

“Are you going to try and deny I’m right?” Christine asked as if she was reading his thoughts.

“No. I guess it wouldn’t do me any good.”

“Exactly,” Christine said with a small smile.  “It seems being married has taught you one or two other important lessons. Something else I can thank Suzanna for.”

For a few moments neither of them said anything as they reflected on their own emotions. Then seemingly at the same time, they both became aware of Christine’s hand still on James’ elbow. Together they moved apart. “Well…” Christine said and then hesitated for a moment before going on. “That is why I sought you out. I wanted to make sure you knew you had China’s backing. I believe we need you leading our forces, and I wanted to make sure you understood why.”

“Thank you Empress,” James replied, choosing to use her title again. “Your words have been helpful. I give you my word, if the responsibility falls on my shoulders, I will do my best.”

“That is all I can ask for James,” Christine said. “Now, I have a hundred other things to see to before the emergency meeting begins. It has been a pleasure talking with you. I am glad you managed to make it back to Earth, despite the circus the Combined Fleet’s arrival is causing.”

“I will not take up any more of your time then, Empress. Thank you for speaking to me,” James replied.

“Farewell,” Christine said as she turned to leave.

“Farewell,” James replied copying her strangely formal goodbye. As Christine walked away he realized why she had used it. It was unlikely they would speak in such a personal way again. Clearly it was as difficult for her as for me, he realized. Perhaps more? He asked as he remembered a few looks that had crossed her face. He didn’t understand what that might mean, and nor did he have the time to think about it, for other people had started entering the chamber, the emergency meeting was about to begin.




Chapter 27

One cannot properly understand the First Galactic Expansion Era without studying the impact the UN Interplanetary Committee had on how events unfolded. Initially set up to administer the Alpha system, its powers slowly swelled far beyond its original remit. It is not surprising bringing it to an end was one of the first things the first Emperor did.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Fairfax and Admiral Somerville entered the chamber pretty much at the same time. They both came over and sat either side of James. “Well?” Admiral Somerville whispered as he leaned across James to speak to Fairfax.

“I think it’s safe to say you are out,” Fairfax whispered in reply. “The Spanish aren’t just intending to rename your position, they want to form an entirely new one. Supreme Commander of the Allied Fleet will be a new rank that supersedes the highest-ranking field officers in each national navy. That’s how they are going to get rid of you. They’ll create this new position and then elect a new commander to fill it.”

“And all the political capital in the world won’t get me voted in after we attacked the Indians and the others,” Somerville concluded.

“Exactly, if I tried, I’d only lose what little influence I have left.”

“So be it,” Somerville said a little louder as he sat back in his chair. “Perhaps it’s time I thought about early retirement.”

James gave his uncle a dig in the ribs. “Now is not the time for humor. Even if you are removed, the RSN still needs you.” He turned back to Fairfax. “So what’s the plan then Prime Minister? How do we proceed from here?”

“The Spanish have tabled a minor motion to open the emergency committee meeting. Once that is out of the way, the Italians will bring up the new fleet rank they intend to introduce. We’ll play nice and announce that your uncle is withdrawing his name for consideration. After that, it will be a fistfight between you and whatever other names come to the fore. Hopefully it will come down to your reputation and the skills you have already demonstrated. Despite how political all this is, I can’t imagine the other nations will appoint an inferior commander just to spite us.”

“Do you know who the other front runners are?” Somerville asked as he leaned in again.

“I suspect Acting Commodore Sato will quickly come to the fore,” Fairfax answered. “Empress Na isn’t going to push any of her people and after the Chinese and us, the Japanese have the third largest fleet in Earth orbit. From the little I’ve seen of his file, he handled himself well against the Flex-aor and the Russians. My people have already found a couple of skeletons in his closet though, we should have enough ammunition to throw his nomination in doubt.”

James closed his eyes. He could see how things were going to go. Fairfax and anyone else who opposed Sato would try to attack his character and capabilities. Just like those who were going to oppose him would attack his own. The coming meeting would be an endless repetition of insult and attack after insult and attack. Once word got out to the fleet at large, even if someone was appointed, confidence in them would be hit hard. “No,” he said with his eyes still closed. Then he opened them and repeated himself even louder. “No. This cannot be how this meeting will go. Sato was my number two when he attacked the alien staging planet. Since Cunningham’s death he stepped into that role again. I trust him. What if I am happy to serve under him?”

Fairfax held James’s eyes for a couple of seconds before speaking. “Is he a better commander than you?”

James shrugged. “He could be. With more experience and time to develop his skills, he could be.”

“That wasn’t the Prime Minister’s question,” Somerville said. “Is he better than you now?”

“No,” James answered reluctantly. “But, for the sake of unity, for the sake of the morale of our fleet, a unified choice would surely still be preferable. How could the fleet follow Sato if you have torn his character and command ability to shreds? How could they follow me if our opponents do the same? I’m sure Sato would be more than willing to work with me as his number two. I would be happy with that.”

Fairfax turned and stared at the row of daises in front of them. One hand come up and stroked his chin. He didn’t speak for nearly thirty seconds. Then he turned back to James. “If you would be happy being his number two, would he be happy being yours?”

“What are you thinking?” Somerville asked.

“Let’s say we don’t oppose Sato’s appointment. Instead we let the Japanese and others talk him up. I know for a fact he is here today. No doubt he will be available in the audience to answer any questions that may be put to him. What if James adds his own praise for Sato?”

“Well then Sato would get the appointment wouldn’t he?” Somerville answered.

“He would, unless James also asked Sato who he thinks should lead Earth’s defenses. What do you think your friend would say to such a question Rear Admiral?”

James hesitated as he tried to put himself in Sato’s shoes. “I… I honestly don’t know. I would like to think he would recognize the benefits my experience would bring. But he has his political masters bringing pressure on him as well.”

“As well as you, you mean,” Fairfax finished. “And yet, do you intend to lie or misrepresent yourself today?”

“No,” James answered. “I suppose, neither would I expect Sato to.”

“Then maybe this is our best approach. We forget about all the political horse trading and let those behind this emergency meeting orchestrate it just as they intend. If Sato is put forward, we’ll ask him who he would appoint. Those that are going to support him can hardly oppose the person their own candidate prefers, can they?”

“It’s a devious plan,” Somerville replied. “And a risky one.”

“Yet one that would save the morale of our fleet,” James said speaking over his uncle. This was a far better outcome than what he had feared. He didn’t intend to let Fairfax change his mind again. “Whether it’s Sato or I leading our defenses, I think we will be a better fighting force this way than if the fleet thinks its leader was appointed as a result of a game of political one-upmanship.”

“All right,” Fairfax said as he lightly bounced his fist off the armrest of his chair. “I’m not saying I’m fully committed to this idea, but we’ll see how things play out and respond accordingly. Just make sure you follow my lead Rear Admiral. You may be married to one of the most proficient political operators I have met, besides myself of course, but you’re still a babe among wolves here.”

“I’m all too aware of that,” James replied as he turned his attention to the front of the chamber. The representatives were just beginning to file in.

It took nearly ten minutes for them all to be seated and there was another fifteen minutes of introductions and formal procedures before anything meaningful actually occurred. Finally, the chair of the UN Interplanetary Committee, a position currently held by the American representative, called for the first item on the agenda. Given that the agenda of emergency meetings wasn’t released until the actual meeting, James wasn’t surprised to see Fairfax sit forward in his chair as it was announced.

“I will now call on the representative for Spain to speak on the issue they have added to today’s agenda,” Representative Wilson said before sitting down.

“Thank you, Chairman,” the Spanish representative said as she stood. “The first item of business I propose this Committee address is the need to censure one of the Captains in our fleet. Specifically, Captain James Somerville of the Combined Fleet.”

James looked at Fairfax in time to see him twitch in his seat. That Fairfax hadn’t mentioned the first item of business to him suggested the British Prime Minister hadn’t known what the Spanish representative intended to bring up. They had obviously gone to great lengths to hide it from Fairfax’s spies. It also meant the Spanish had guessed what Fairfax had been planning.

James turned to his uncle, he had tensed up as well and both his hands had formed fists. A smart play, he thought as he turned back to the Spanish representative. Though she was staring at him with malicious intent, he was surprised by how calm he felt. Clearly, she was trying to rule him out of the running for commanding Earth’s defenses from the get go. If they could pass an official censure against him, it would be all but impossible for Fairfax to argue that he should be given command of an entire fleet.

“Captain Somerville,” the Spanish representative continued, “while he was an Acting Rear Admiral commanding the Combined Fleet, shot and murdered a prisoner of war. It is my belief that this Committee should officially censure Captain Somerville and subsequently refer his actions to our war crimes subcommittee for investigation and potential legal prosecution. This is not the first time Captain Somerville has been accused of war crimes before this Committee and I believe my proposal should be handled with the utmost seriousness.”

James felt rather than saw his uncle tense up even further. He could guess what he was about to do. When it came to the reputation of his nephew, James knew his uncle had a soft spot. He quickly placed his hand across his uncle’s chest. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” Somerville hissed. “Don’t denounce these accusations for the lies that they are! Why not?”

“It’s what they want you to do,” James explained. “If you stand up now, they’ll accuse you of war crimes as well for attacking the Indians. They are baiting you.” James didn’t know how he knew it, but he was pretty certain that’s what the Spanish representative was trying to do.

“I don’t care, I’m not going to let them tarnish your reputation like this. War crimes? That is unacceptable,” Somerville replied.

James jumped to his feet before his uncle could. It was the only thing he could think of to do. The Spanish representative stopped what she was saying and looked down at him. A smile slowly spread across her face. “The accused wishes to address this Committee?” She looked over to the American representative. “I am happy to let the Captain speak.”

“The chair acknowledges Captain Somerville,” Representative Wilson said.

In a moment of clarity, James realized what he had to say. If he had been thinking in anger it wouldn’t have come to him, but as Suzanna had said to him many times before, a clear mind always beats one distracted by anger or passion. “I do not wish to deny the allegations Mr. Chairman. It is true, as I have included in all my reports, I did shoot Admiral de Gama. It is not something I’m ashamed of, nor something I tried to hide. I was acting as the ranking commander within the Combined Fleet. The fleet that was instigated by this Committee. Therefore, I was acting under the authority of this Committee. By all means, I would like my actions to be investigated by the war crimes subcommittee. I have been accused of such crimes before and completely exonerated of all charges. No doubt the same will happen with these charges. The right for a ranking commander to hold a court martial in times of war is a precedent that has stood for more than a millennium. However, I do take issue with the call for a censure. If the war crimes subcommittee is to carry out its task impartially, something the esteemed Spanish representative would surely wish to happen, then it can hardly be expected to do so when the full Committee has passed censure against me without having taken the time to fully examine all the evidence. That is unless it is your intention Mr. Chairman to hold a full legal investigation before we move on to the second item on today’s agenda.”

“A very valid point Captain Somerville,” the American representative replied. James thought Wilson almost winked at him. “What do you say Representative Lopez, can we compromise the impartiality of the war crimes committed by passing a censure now? Or are you suggesting we begin official investigations into your allegations today?”

“I do not want to begin investigations today,” Lopez replied quickly.

“But you are suggesting that we vote to censure Captain Somerville for his actions and open up grounds for an accusation of bias within the war crimes subcommittee?” Wilson followed up when Lopez was slow to say anything more.

She looked over to the Italian representative. James didn’t see any sign that the two had communicated nonverbally, but when Lopez looked back to the Chairman of the Committee, her shoulders sank. “No, I guess not.” Her voice rose slightly as she continued, “Still I would like it on record that I will be referring Captain Somerville’s actions to the war crimes committee for them to investigate.”

“That is perfectly acceptable Representative Lopez,” Wilson replied. “As Captain Somerville has already agreed to such a referral, we can acknowledge your request and move on to item number two. The representative for the Italian government may now speak on the item they have brought.”

“Maybe we will make a political operator out of you yet,” Fairfax whispered to James as he sat down. “Where did that come from?”

“I’m not sure,” James answered. “Though I have been before the war crimes committee before, so I guess I’m somewhat familiar with its procedures.” The last time he had been to the Interplanetary Committee had been to face such charges. They had been brought by the Indian government. Though of course, when all the evidence had been presented it had been clear to any impartial observer that his actions had been justifiable.

“Thank you Chairman,” Representative Canicio said as he stood. “As everyone here today knows, the arrival of the Combined Fleet has changed Earth’s situation significantly. We are still under siege yes, but the Russians’ numerical superiority has been reduced. Further, now that the siege has been broken once, we have confidence that it can be broken again. We all have ships in our home colonies that are seeking to return to Earth and bring some of the supplies we desperately need. Therefore, to ensure that the recently arrived ships of the Combined Fleet, and the ships and orbital defenses already in place around Earth operate smoothly together, I wish to propose that a new rank within the Allied Fleet be instigated. What we need is a Supreme Commander of the Allied Fleet to oversee the multinational force that defends Earth. This rank will be the highest military rank recognized in all of our national navies and therefore will allow the Supreme Commander uninhibited control over the forces that he or she will need to adequately defend humanity’s homeworld from the Russian invasion. It is my government’s belief that this rank should be instigated forthwith. There is no time to waste in incorporating the Combined Fleet into our defenses.” With a nod to the committee’s chairman Canicio sat down, clearly having said all he felt he needed to.

“Thank you Representative Canicio,” Wilson said as he stood again. “The representatives have all heard the proposal, would someone like to second this before we discuss it?”

James caught Fairfax giving a slight wave of his finger out of the corner of his eye. In response, the British representative, Joanne Hendrickson, someone James only knew by reputation, quickly got to her feet. It looked like she beat the Spanish representative only by a few milliseconds. Instead of waiting to see who the Chairman would invite to speak, she immediately began to talk. “I would be very happy to second that proposal. Both in the war with the Flex-aor, and as our various forces have fought against the Russians, British naval officers have played key roles in the command structures of our fleets. We recognize the need to have clear and competent leadership.”

“Thank you Representative Hendrickson,” Wilson said as Hendrickson sat down. “The proposal has been seconded. It is open for discussion from the other representatives of the floor before we take a vote.”

As a number of representatives and other government officials in the audience took the opportunity to question the proposal, James let the back-and-forth wash over him. It was clear a few minor details had to be worked out, like just how far the Supreme Commander’s authority went. As he suspected though, the Commander would only have control over the active military units each fleet had operational. That was fine with him. He didn’t want to be responsible for each nation’s shipbuilding, repair and supply endeavors. Nor he imagined would Sato or whoever else might be appointed to the position. When it came time to vote on the proposal it was passed unanimously.

That’s the easy bit out of the way, James thought. Now for the hard part.




Chapter 28

To civilians, military ranks are a thing of fascination. Within the Imperial navy all that matters is who is above you and who is below you in the chain of command.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

“I presume the Italian representative wishes to proceed to appointing a naval officer to this new rank?” Wilson asked.

“Indeed I do,” Canicio replied. “I have some thoughts on this issue I would like to share on behalf of my government and the Italian Admiralty. As you all know, Admiral Somerville, the First Space Lord of the Royal Space Navy has been operating as the ranking commander of our defenses since Admiral Marquis’ defeat and death in the battle of Mars. To some it might appear that he would be the natural officer to step into this new position. However, I think there are a number of mitigating circumstances that would rule him out.”

“You’re up,” Fairfax whispered across James to his uncle.

With a sigh, Admiral Somerville stood. He waited patiently for Wilson to invite him to speak as Canicio continued.

After a couple of minutes or so Canicio paused just a second too long and Wilson jumped on the opportunity. “If you don’t mind Representative Canicio, Admiral Somerville appears to have something to say on this issue. I’m sure you can return to your assessment of his abilities after he has had a chance to respond to what you have said already.”

James was surprised Canicio didn’t even try to hide his displeasure at being interrupted, but he acquiesced. “Thank you, Representative Canicio,” Somerville began, not trying to hide the scorn in his voice. “I apologize for interrupting you, but I wanted to make it known to this Committee that I wish to withdraw my name from consideration for the role of Supreme Allied Commander.” Around the room whispers broke out as a number of naval officers and government representatives frantically spoke to one another. Seemingly unaware of the commotion he had just caused, Somerville continued. “I was happy and more than willing to lead our forces when the dire circumstances we faced called for it. However, now that there are younger and more energetic officers available for such a position, I am happy to hand the reins over to them. Whilst I have a fair amount of battle experience, most of it was earned several decades ago. There are commanders amongst us who have far more recent experience fighting the Flex-aor and the Russians. I am happy to resume my role as the First Space Lord of the Admiralty and leave the actual fighting to one of them.” As he sat down, James shot his uncle a look when he couldn’t help but release another sigh. Somerville merely winked at him.

“Well Representative Canicio, I get the impression from Admiral Somerville’s words that he wouldn’t agree with your appraisal of his past actions, however, given that he has removed his name from the running for this new position, it would seem any further critiques of his abilities are unnecessary at this time.”

“It would seem so,” Canicio conceded, though he sounded like he wanted to continue nonetheless. “In that case, I would like to suggest that Captain Gattuso be appointed to the rank of Supreme Allied Commander. He is the highest ranking Italian naval officer with experience of recent active service. He fought fearlessly against the Flex-aor and was instrumental in bringing the Italian element of the Combined Fleet safely back to Earth. Given that no officers with a higher ranking than Captain returned with the Combined Fleet. It is my government’s belief that Gattuso will serve us all well and protect Earth.”

James fought the urge to snort as he thought about Gattuso as a potential Supreme Commander. Gattuso only commanded a light cruiser and the Italian contingent of the Combined Fleet consisted of Gatuso’s cruiser and two frigates. It was hardly the command experience that prepared one for leading an entire fleet. The Italian had fought bravely at every opportunity he had, yet he hadn’t shown any particular desire to hold any higher rank. James’ impression of him had been of a fist fighter. Gattuso loved to get his ship in close to the enemy and pummel them until one or the other was destroyed. That was fine in a Captain, but it probably wasn’t the best tactical impulse in an Admiral.

“They’re just setting him up as a fall guy,” Fairfax whispered as he leaned over. “Wait and see.”

That did seem to be what was happening. After Gattuso’s record was examined, a German Captain and then a French one were suggested by their representatives. As James knew all three potential candidates, a pattern was obvious, each one had a slightly better combat record than the last. The representatives seemed to be working towards a common goal. Then a spanner was thrown in the works when the Canadian representative stood to speak. “It seems to me that the discussion for the appointment of a Supreme Commander should not just be focused on the rank an officer held before they were sent out to fight the Flex-aor. We should be examining the command experience each candidate has already accrued in a fleet command slot. Both Acting Rear Admiral Somerville of the Royal Space Navy and Acting Commodore Sato of the Japanese Navy have actual experience commanding fleets in action against the enemy. Even more significantly, the Canadian Navy’s own Commodore Tremblay has held his commissioned senior rank since before the Flex-aor invasion and he too has experience fighting the Russians. I therefore propose that he be appointed as the Supreme Commander. No doubt he would be ably assisted by Captains Somerville and Sato if they were promoted to hold deputy ranks within our fleet. Perhaps we should form the position of Deputy Supreme Commander as well.”

“That is a valid point,” Chairman Wilson said in response. “However, it will have to be a point of business that is raised at the next committee meeting. At present appointing a Supreme Commander is the matter at hand. Does anyone wish to support the idea of Commodore Tremblay being considered for the position?”

For the first time in the emergency meeting, silence descended on all those assembled. James looked around to see if Tremblay was present. He hoped he wasn’t, the embarrassment would be hard to live down. Everyone in the room knew that being appointed to command the four fleets that oversaw the Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma systems was not a glowing seal of approval. Given the fact that Tremblay hadn’t fought in any of the battles against the Flex-aor or the Russians except for the Combined Fleet’s dash to Earth, it wasn’t surprising that no one wanted to speak up in his favor. His so-called battle experience was not something that instilled much confidence.

“Well then,” Wilson said after allowing the silence to stretch out for nearly thirty seconds. “Perhaps we should turn to discussing Captains Sato and Somerville. It is the position of the American colonial government that these two candidates would be the best to hold the rank of supreme commander. Both have shown considerable tactical and strategic capabilities in how they have carried out their duties against the Flex-aor and brought the Combined Fleet to Earth. Representative Lopez, you have something to say?” Wilson asked as Lopez stood.

“Yes,” Lopez said with a nod. “Given the proposal I made earlier, I think it is inappropriate for Captain Somerville to be considered for this position. He has agreed to let his actions be reviewed by the war crimes committee. Until the outcome of their investigation has been finalized, he should not be appointed to any senior rank in our defense fleet. It would significantly damage morale if he was appointed and then removed within a week or two.”

James looked at Fairfax, it seemed like he was going to have to stand up for himself again. To his surprise, Fairfax shook his head slightly. Okay, James thought as he relaxed back in his chair. I guess we’re going to see how this plays out. For more than twenty minutes other representatives, naval officers and analysts were invited to speak on his capabilities. A number of his command decisions were intimately dissected. Though a number of officers did speak well of him, it was clear they had been directed to focus on what negatives they could think of. As the mounting testimony went on and on, James could sense the tension in the room building. Everyone was wondering what was going on as no one from the British delegation, or indeed from the American or Chinese spoke up to defend him. It got to the point where one of Empress Na’s officials got up and came to whisper in Fairfax’s ear. The official then returned to Christine and spoke to her. Whatever was said didn’t seem to appease Christine for she turned around and stared intently at Fairfax. In response, the British Prime Minister gave a slight shake of his head.

After what seemed like an eternity, the discussion turned to Sato. Though a few representatives tried to oppose his nomination, the overwhelming thrust of the discussion was positive. The only surprise that came out of the discussion was that the Japanese Navy had already made Sato’s acting commission permanent. He was now Commodore Sato. That made him the highest ranking officer nominated to the position of supreme commander. Besides me of course, James thought. It seemed his uncle and Fairfax hadn’t rushed his promotion at all.

“Now it’s time,” Fairfax whispered. He sent a hand signal to representative Hendrickson.

It took a few more minutes for Hendrickson to get a chance to speak, when she did, she was brief and to the point. “The British government and Admiralty certainly recognize the skills and merits Commodore Sato has shown over the last two years fighting the Flex-aor. Perhaps no one has had a chance to observe these skills better than Rear Admiral James Somerville. Commodore Sato served as his second in command when Rear Admiral Somerville led the attack on the alien staging planet and again after Vice Admiral Cunningham’s death. I’m curious Rear Admiral, what is your opinion of Commodore Sato’s fitness for this position?”

As James stood again, he felt every eye in the room focus on him. There were a few whispers of ‘Rear Admiral,’ as people grasped the rank Hendrickson had referred to him with. “Turn around and take in the audience,” Fairfax whispered. “Let them all see your rank insignia, he explained when James looked at him in confusion. Obediently James turned slowly, meeting eyes with a number of naval officers that he knew before he turned back to Hendrickson.

“Thank you Representative,” he replied. “Given my most recent promotion to senior flag rank, the weight of command has lay heavily upon me as I have considered the various officers nominated to this most important position.” A part of himself was disgusted at the fact that he was playing up his promotion, but if it was what Fairfax wanted, he understood it was important. “Commodore Sato has shown courage in the face of the enemy, flashes of tactical genius, and a good strategic understanding of both the situation we faced when fighting the Flex-aor and the current situation with the Russians. I have every confidence that he would lead our defenses well, if and when Koroylov launches an attack against us.” His piece said, James sat down abruptly.

Silence descended for a few seconds, it was as if everyone expected him to add something more. When it was clear he wasn’t going to, Chairman Wilson took over again. “Well then,” he said failing to hide his surprise. “If Captain, eh, I mean Rear Admiral Somerville’s view reflects that of his government, then it would seem we may have reached a position to officially propose and second that Commodore Sato be appointed to the rank of supreme commander of the Allied Fleet. Prime Minister Fairfax?” Wilson asked as Fairfax stood, “Would you like to propose Sato?”

“Perhaps in a moment,” Fairfax replied, a mischievous grin on his face. “I wish to confirm that Rear Admiral Somerville’s assessment of Commodore Sato reflects that of my government and the Admiralty of the Royal Space Navy. Before we move on to an official proposal however, I do wish to ask him a question directly.”

“By all means,” Wilson replied.

“Commodore Sato,” Fairfax began. “You have served with Rear Admiral Somerville for a considerable amount of time. You have fought in three battles that he has commanded, and you have seen him organize and lead a subsection of the Combined Fleet, and then the Combined Fleet itself. In your professional opinion, is there anyone better qualified to lead the Allied Fleet against Koroylov?”

James looked over to where Sato was seated. Sato looked at the officials to either side of him and then slowly stood. He paused for a few seconds and then locked eyes with James. “No,” he said loudly and clearly. “If Rear Admiral Somerville is willing to take the appointment, I do not think there is a better officer to lead us.”

“Thank you for your honesty Commodore Sato, Rear Admiral Somerville has already spoken very highly of your integrity to me. It seems he is a good judge of character. Let me ask you one more question. If you had of been in then acting Rear Admiral Somerville’s shoes when the traitor de Gama had been captured, would you have executed him?”

This time Sato took a little longer to reply as he thought about his answer. “Honestly, I cannot say for sure. I would have wanted to. I don’t think there would have been any question in my mind about the legality of doing so. I guess, it would have depended on what good it would have accomplished for the fleet. All the senior officers of the Combined Fleet noticed an increase in morale after de Gama’s sentence was passed and carried out.”

“So you don’t think the war crimes committee will find Rear Admiral Somerville guilty of any illegal acts with regard to de Gama’s execution?” Fairfax followed up.

“No,” Sato answered, clearly he didn’t feel he needed to elaborate.

“Got you,” Fairfax whispered in triumph so only James could hear. James didn’t quite know who he was speaking to, Sato, or all those who had orchestrated to have both his uncle and James removed from consideration. Either way, it seemed like Fairfax had won. To drive the nail home, Fairfax turned back to Wilson. “Given that this Committee meeting has already affirmed the esteemed capabilities and judgement of Commodore Sato, I would like to request that Commodore Sato’s suggestion that Rear Admiral Somerville be appointed to the position of Supreme Commander of the Allied Fleet be proposed and accepted by all. As Representative Lopez has ably stated, the morale of our defensive fleet will be critical in any future battles. Unanimous approval for a Supreme Commander would certainly strengthen morale.”

From the looks on the faces of a number of representatives, James guessed they were far from happy. He knew that was a good sign, it meant they recognized Fairfax had them over a barrel. Despite everything that had been said about him, it seemed he was about to become the Supreme Commander of the Allied fleet. They could hardly promote Sato when he had just admitted he wasn’t the best man for the job. Two promotions in one day, James thought. It was hard to believe. Then, as his mind turned to what Suzanna would think, he was reminded of the knot in his stomach. She would want to celebrate, both his promotions and the political victory Fairfax had scored. Yet she’s not here to celebrate, she’s maybe not even alive. Despite the victory, James only felt hollow.




Chapter 29

The history of orbital battlestations is a fascinating topic of study. Their development is a microcosm of the larger arms race that dominated the First Galactic Expansion Era and the War of Doom. Yet once the War of Doom ended, they all but ceased to exist. Their existence is one of the anomalies of interstellar war from that time period. To any rational strategist, it makes far more sense to concentrate your production capabilities on mobile warships. Constructing large battleship sized orbital stations that just sit in orbit of systems that may never see action during a war is a great waste of resources. Of course, back in those days, the Human Sphere was so small, it was no doubt hard to get away from the mindset that key colonies needed fixed defenses.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Battlestation Pegasus, Earth orbit, 2nd November 2473 AD, two days later.

“Impressive,” the Supreme Commander of UN Earth Defense Fleet said as he rested a hand on a large anti-ship missile. “They are much larger in person than I imagined. What do you think Sato?”

“They’ll certainly do the job. It’s a pity all our defense stations don’t carry these,” Commodore Sato replied.

“Thank you, Commodore, and, ah, em, Supreme Commander,” First Class Engineer Rivers replied, tripping over the title of the man who now commanded Earth’s defenses.

“Commander will do,” James said with a chuckle. “I know half the news reports about me suggest I love all the attention, but Supreme Commander is a bit more than even my ego can handle on a day-to-day basis. Tell me, how many of these new Trident missiles does Pegasus carry?”

“Two hundred and ten,” Rivers answered. “Enough for three salvos, then we will have to resort to the old mark fourteen missiles, though they still pack a pretty heavy punch.”

James nodded at the engineer’s pride. “Indeed. I have seen first-hand just what they can do. Hopefully, these Tridents will perform even better. An extra twenty percent ECM and fifteen percent payload is no small thing. You have done well to modify Pegasus’ launch tubes to handle them. Some may have overlooked your efforts, but if Koroylov launches his attack, three salvos of Tridents will give the Russians a real headache. You should be proud First-Class Engineer Rivers. You and your engineering section,” James said loud enough for everyone in the missile storage bay to hear. “Now it’s up to the gunners to make sure they are actually used properly.”

His final sentence brought a few chuckles and one or two shouts of agreement from the engineers and other crew who were working in the storage bay. “It was a good idea to pull the Trident out of R&D,” James said as he turned to Captain Chadwick, the commander of Pegasus. “I’m surprised you had so many of them available.”

“I can’t take any credit for that Commander,” Chadwick replied. “In actual fact, it’s a minor miracle. There were only sixty of them when Koroylov’s fleet entered the Sol system. The R&D types have scraped together the components to build the rest. Ordinarily I’d be pretty skeptical about using missiles that haven’t even passed their efficiency trials, yet every missile has been hand built by the best technicians in the US Colonial Navy. I’d say they will prove to be the most reliable missiles that our defense stations fire, if it comes down to a shootout.”

“Then I’ll have to pass on my regards to your R&D section. Perhaps I can see if the other navies can rummage up enough spare parts to get a fourth salvo put together.”

“That would be much appreciated,” Chadwick said as he turned to look at the Trident missile that had been brought out for James to examine. “I’m not sure where we’d put them, but that’s a problem I wouldn’t complain too much about having to tackle.”

“No, indeed,” James chuckled. “Let’s head to the bridge, there are a few minutes before the strategic planning committee.”

“Of course Commander,” Chadwick replied and turned to lead James and Sato out of the missile storage bay.

As they walked through Pegasus’s interior corridors, James made a few comments here and there to Sato. Mainly though, he reflected on what he had seen over the last several hours. It had taken much of the last two days for all the details of his appointment to be worked out. But as soon as he had been officially assigned to the position of Supreme Commander of Earth’s defenses, he had appointed Sato as second in command and embarked on a tour of the defense stations, ships and personnel that he was responsible for. He knew most of the Captains on the ships that had been part of the Combined Fleet, but the rest of Earth’s defenses were new to him. What he had seen had been encouraging and at times, concerning. The hardware at his disposal was on the whole, somewhat lacking compared to the ships of the Combined Fleet. The best and most modern warships had been sent to fight the Flex-aor. What had been kept behind to defend Earth had been second-tier ships for the most part. There were the occasional anomalies. Pegasus’ new missiles were one example. Mentally James made a note to assign more light ships to defend Pegasus in the event of a missile duel. The orbital defense station would certainly pack a punch and if Koroylov’s officers were on the ball, Pegasus would be targeted for destruction.

Whilst the hardware wasn’t the most impressive, the crews he had met were another matter. Almost to a man, the crew members reflected what he had seen in First Class Engineer Rivers. Morale had been James’ biggest concern before his survey of Earth’s defenses. Within the Combined Fleet, after having suffered so many losses against the Flex-aor, and then the defeat at the Battle of Delta, morale had been a big problem. In part, that was why he had executed de Gama so quickly. The Combined Fleet had needed to see justice being administered.

On the other hand, the morale of Earth’s defenders hardly seemed to have been impacted by their experiences. Despite being under siege for six months, and despite the hardships everyone was suffering due to food rationing, the crews he had met were very motivated to fight and perform their duties as best they could. Rivers was just one of a number of officers he had met who had gone out of their way to improve the efficiency of their weapons. Individually their efforts wouldn’t make much of a difference, but collectively they would combine to increase the combat effectiveness of Earth’s defenses by several percentage points. James hoped his tour and the words he had shared would further motivate them all.

Some commanders may have just started giving orders and expected everyone to obey, but his experience in the Combined Fleet had told him he needed to show himself to the men and women he expected to follow him. Having a crew that was motivated to fight, and willing to follow their commander was essential. If for no other reason than to encourage them to keep seeking to bring out the best in themselves. The better his crew, the higher his ships’ combat effectiveness would be. James knew that was what an attack on a planet’s orbital defenses came down to. Whoever could launch the most missiles or punch the most missiles through the other side’s defenses would win. The adaption of Pegasus’ missile tubes for the new Trident missiles was one example of a small step that increased his command’s ability to do just that. As Earth’s defenders couldn’t flee, any battle was likely to be a battle of attrition rather than maneuver and tactics. The Tridents would more than make up for all the effort that had gone into making them available.

“Here we are Commander, Commodore,” Chadwick said to James and Sato as he stepped aside to allow them to enter Pegasus’ bridge.

“Impressive,” James said, a word he’d used many times during his tour. Though he had forced himself to use it now and again, this time there was no need. Pegasus was the U.S. Navy’s newest orbital defense platform. It had been built to provide a command and control center for all of the US Navy’s orbital defenses. James reckoned there were three times the number of officers arrayed around the bridge than there were in Titan’s bridge when it was fully manned. Dominating the center of the bridge was a truly massive holo projector. Currently it was displaying Earth, its defenses, and the latest tracks of the Russian ships in the system. A cursory glance told James that nothing much had changed since he had last updated himself on the situation. Koroylov had his battle fleet split into three formations. Each formation consisted of a core of battleships and battlecruisers. Fanning around them were lighter ships that were keeping a close eye on Earth and preventing any ships from escaping or slipping in to bring supplies.

“If you like Supreme Commander, I’m sure the Chief of Naval Operations would allow you to command Earth’s defenses from here. There is no better equipped ship or station.”

James was tempted now that he had seen Pegasus’ bridge. The massive holo display would give him an unrivaled tactical awareness if there was a battle. And the CNO of the American Colonial Navy had already offered Pegasus to him. “I’m afraid I have to decline your kind offer,” he replied. “I’m still a Captain at heart, when the fighting starts, I would feel much more at home on the bridge of a star ship.” Certainly, that was part of James’s thinking, he didn’t want to share the rest with Pegasus’ bridge crew. When the fighting started, he intended to lead from the front, that was something he couldn’t do on the bridge of an orbital battlestation whose position was fixed.

Knowing he still had at least ten minutes before the first meeting of the strategic planning committee he had put together, James took the time to walk around the bridge and speak to several officers. More than one of them asked him about the battles he had fought against the Flex-aor or about specific American ships that had been involved in the fighting. The look on some of their faces was all too familiar to him. He had seen it over and over again during the last couple of days. Among the different Earth navies, there was a collective guilt. Those who had been left behind on Earth had lost many friends and ships they had known in the fighting with the Flex-aor, while they had been tucked up safely in the Sol system. That’s as much a driving factor in their morale as anything else, James concluded after speaking to a First Officer who had lost a sister in the fighting against the Flex-aor. She had barely been able to hide her guilt and desire for revenge. Though she wasn’t likely to get her hands on a Flex-aor any time soon, it seemed she had decided hurting the Russians would do well enough.

“You certainly oversee an impressive defense station,” James called to Chadwick loud enough for everyone on the bridge to hear him once he had completed his walk around. “I don’t doubt Pegasus will outperform every other orbital defense station in the Colonial Fleet in the simulations I have planned for the next few days. Perhaps you may even take pride of place among all of Earth’s orbital defenses. I know that is the target you should be aiming for. It just so happens, Titan, my flagship, took on as much extra food supplies as we could before we left the American colonies. Things were in a bit of a disarray out there so we just took what we could get. An American freighter was able to supply us with the ingredients to make six thousand Chicago style pizzas. It’s my intention to offer them as a reward for the best orbital defense station and best ship in the coming exercises. I imagine if you win, you’ll only get a couple of slices each, but I suspect that might be motivation enough. What do you all say? Do you think Pegasus has what it takes?”

For a second or two there was silence as the bridge officers looked from James to Chadwick. Then one junior officer shouted, “Hell yeah.” Before he finished others added their own shouts as smiles spread across every face.

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m looking for,” James shouted as the noise began to die down. “If you do win, I promise to deliver the pizzas personally.”

Another round of rambunctious shouting followed James’ last words. He saluted the bridge officers as they continued to shout and turned to leave the bridge. “You may lead us to the main briefing room now Captain,” James said to Chadwick.

“Certainly Commander.” Chadwick replied.

“I have to admit, I never thought I’d be motivating crew members with the simple offer of pizza,” Sato said as he fell in step beside James.

“Me neither,” James admitted. “I just hope that I don’t come to regret it. Six months from now six thousand pizzas might seem a heck of a lot more important than they do at the moment.”

“If we are relying on six thousand pizzas to feed us all in six months’ time, we will already be defeated,” Sato replied. “I’m sure a little extra rations here and there won’t make much of a difference.”

“I suppose you’re right. Tell me, what have you thought of what we’ve seen today?”

Sato didn’t reply immediately and they walked on in silence for several steps. “Overall, I’d say things seem a little better than I expected. Given the political situation and the morale among most of our populations, I thought we would have a real fight on our hands to mold Earth’s defenses into one unit. It seems that between your uncle and Admiral Shijie, that has already been done, at least at an operational level. Morale wise, the lower ranks are in much better condition than I thought.”

“But?” James asked when Sato didn’t go on.

“But I’ve had a chance to at least skim over the strength estimates of Koroylov’s fleet, if he wants to, he can take Earth at any time.

“He will get hurt if he tries,” James reminded Sato. “He has to know that, especially now that we are here. We just have to make sure he is reminded of that fact. The stronger we look, the less likely he is to attack.”

“True,” Sato replied. “But I’m not sure time is on our side.”

“No,” James agreed quietly. He walked on in silence. There was nothing more he could say to that. Unless Koroylov made a mistake or additional forces were found somewhere, even the cursory understanding he had gained of the tactical situation over the last couple of days suggested time was not on their side.

*

“I want to thank you all for gathering here on Pegasus,” James said as soon as the last member of his strategic planning committee had taken their seat. “No doubt I will have to address all the senior commanders in our Navies and indeed all our Captains as well. However, working out strategic operations with such large groups would be unwieldy. I have selected you to form an inner working group. We will bounce ideas off each other and formulate plans and simulations for the rest of our forces to run. If need be we can draw the others with expertise into the meetings on an ad hoc basis.

“To begin, I want to thank Admiral Somerville and Admiral Shijie for how they have commanded their forces and worked together to this point. Commodore Sato and I have just finished a tour of our forces and we were impressed. Both of them are far more familiar with the current strategic situation and your ongoing advice and support will be invaluable.

“Hopefully it will only take a few days to cement the Combined Fleet into Earth’s defenses. With the appointment of myself as Supreme Commander, we should be able to form a more streamlined command structure that will also help things. To begin with, I would like to invite Admiral Somerville to brief us on the current state of Earth’s defenses. Once we are all up to speed on the key issues, we can begin to make plans. Admiral Somerville, if you would,” James finished as he motioned for his uncle to stand and sat down himself.

As his uncle began to speak in detail about all the preparations that had gone into strengthening Earth’s defenses James looked at the officers he had gathered. Alongside his uncle and Shijie, he had invited Commodore McCracken, the next most senior British officer with combat experience. The newly promoted Commodore Hawking, the senior United Colonial Navy commander from the Combined Fleet sat beside his superior Admiral Gibbon, the Chief Naval Officer of the UCN. Commodore Tianpei, also of the Combined Fleet and now the most experienced Chinese officer of flag rank sat next to him. Finally, there was Commodore Sato, his designated second in command. He had put in a request to form additional new ranks within what was being called the United Nations Navy. Sato would be appointed as Deputy Supreme Commander, Hawking and Tianpei as Lieutenant Commanders. Each would hold their new ranks in addition to the ranks they held within their own navies. James had argued in the brief he had sent to the Interplanetary Committee that a clear command structure was needed in the event that his ship was disabled or destroyed.

“And so that is our total numbers at present,” Somerville said as he concluded. “Forty large orbital defense stations, each one roughly analogous to a freedom defense station. Then fifty smaller ones and thirteen hundred defense satellites. Our mobile forces consist of two battlecruisers, seven heavy, eighteen medium and forty-three light cruisers. Fifty-one destroyers, forty-five frigates and eighteen corvettes. In terms of missile throw weight, we can match about half the Russian fleet’s throw weight, if Koroylov was to concentrate all his forces into one formation. On a more positive note, with our defense satellites we have a point defensive capability roughly equal to that of Koroylov’s fleet. Of course, given the limited engines on our orbital defenses, it will take at least three hours to concentrate most of them in and around the area where Koroylov plans to attack once his intentions become clear. As you all know, we’ve already moved most of our critical orbital infrastructure into geosynchronous orbit. Most of our defense stations are arrayed around our infrastructure to protect it, but some outlying stations will have to be brought in if and when Koroylov attacks. Of course, if he chooses to attack a different area, all our stations will have to be moved. We have enough tugs to move half of them in one go. The rest will have to use their own boosters until we can get tugs to them.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” James said as Somerville nodded to him and sat down. “We will get to the details later, but boosting each orbital defense platform’s thrust capacity and rigging some of our light ships to assist the tugs are ideas I would like to discuss with you. For now, I’d like to invite Lieutenant Alvarez of Colonial Fleet Intelligence to update us on the Russian’s actions since they captured Mars and their most likely plan of attack in the event of a frontal assault. Lieutenant Alvarez?” James had seconded Lieutenant Alvarez from Colonial Fleet Intelligence. She came highly recommended by Admiral Gibbon. James intended to put her to use sifting through all the intelligence briefs being sent to him by each of Earth’s navies. For now, Alvarez was just operating on the information she had from her own Colonial Fleet Intelligence.

“Thank you Supreme Commander. In essence, since his victory in the battle of Mars, Koroylov’s actions have been focused on consolidation and besieging Earth. Within a day of taking Mars he dispatched squadrons to the Beta, Gamma and Delta systems to secure them. At the same time, his main fleet took up position around Earth and, since then, has prevented every attempt we have made to slip ships past his siege.”

James had to grind his teeth together to keep his face impassive. Colonial Fleet Intelligence was aware of his wife’s attempt to slip past the Russians, though he already knew that they had estimated that her chances of success were very slim, hearing it again still hurt.

“We do not know exactly what has happened in the Beta system. Most of the Russian squadron sent there have not yet returned. Given there has been a steady stream of captured freighters traversing the Sol system from Beta and back towards Russian space, it would seem that the Russian squadron has secured the system and has prevented any effort by the Germans, Japanese and Chinese to send aid our way. Until the Combined Fleet’s return, we had guessed the same was happening in the Delta system. Now that has been largely confirmed.

Though Commander Somerville’s victory over de Gama liberated the Delta system, as expected it has proved short lived. Yesterday sixteen ships, including a heavy cruiser, were dispatched from Koroylov’s main battle fleet. They headed to the Delta shift passage and disappeared. Presumably they will take control of the Delta system and keep the shift passage to Brazilian space open.

“Given that the Argentinians are now firmly in the Russian camp, we believe the Gamma system is undefended, the ships that had been sent there returned a couple of months ago. When it comes to the Alpha system, we are completely in the dark. Our best estimates suggest that at least a battleship and an accompanying task force is likely stationed in the system. Koroylov has to be aware of the threat posed by whatever is left of the ships we had in the French and British Star Kingdom’s colonies. If the Alpha system was lost to the Russians, they would quickly run out of supplies.

“Within the Sol system itself, Koroylov has turned Mars into his staging area. Many of the colony’s orbital stations were captured intact and in the last six months several new ones have been constructed. It seems they are being used to resupply his fleet or provide limited repair facilities. Though no large-scale troop landings have taken place on Mars, many of the local political representatives are working with the Russians in a limited capacity. They are not colluding as such, but they are seeking to ease the effects of the Russian occupation. As far as we can tell, every other military and civilian station or colony within the Sol system has been brought under Russian control. Russian soldiers have been landed on Ceres, Titan and Europa. Most of our solar industries have been taken over as well and put to use for the Russians. There are several smaller civilian stations that went dark when the Russians entered the system, we don’t have any certain data on many of them, they could still be trying to hide or they could simply have been evacuated. It seems that’s what the Russians are doing to most stations or colonies that are of no use to them. Their populations are being taken off and deposited on Mars.

“At face value then, it seems that Koroylov has been doing everything consistent with preparing for a long-term siege. With Mars under control and a constant stream of supply freighters coming from Russia, Koroylov has at least a 50-50 chance of forcing us to surrender without having to fire another missile. Certainly, if the siege lasts another six months or longer, the projections for our own food supplies look somewhat bleak. In theory we could hold out for longer, but civilian pressure and the likely riots and attempted revolutions may force us to request terms from Koroylov. If our analysts can see that, there’s no reason to believe the Russians can’t as well.”

“At face value?” Sato asked going back to Alveraz’s earlier words. “Are you suggesting all Koroylov’s ongoing preparations for his siege are simply a ploy?”

“I wouldn’t say a ploy,” Alvarez answered. “A backup plan perhaps, or indeed it may be Koroylov’s main plan. However, a couple of factors have come to light that suggest there may be more going on. There are some within Colonial Fleet Intelligence that believe Koroylov will have to launch an attack against Earth sooner rather than later.”

“Go on,” James said as he sat forward in his seat. He knew most of the details about the efforts Koroylov had been going to in order to make sure the Sol system was completely under his control. However, in the brief reading he had done, he hadn’t come across anything that strongly suggested Koroylov actually did intend a frontal assault in the near future.

“There are three anomalous things we have come across. On their own they would be just that, anomalous. Together some of our analysts think they are worth taking further. I fall into that category,” Alvarez began to explain as she brought up a new display on the briefing room’s holo projector. “First, the number of supply ships coming in from the Alpha system has been slowly decreasing over the last four months. Yet at the same time, Koroylov’s fleet maneuvers and the battles his dispersed forces have been involved in have been increasing. One would expect the level of supplies coming in to be maintained or even increased as his campaign continues. That doesn’t appear to be what we are seeing. Alongside this, the number of captured freighters Koroylov is sending back to Russian space has decreased. It’s only a guess on our part, but we believe he may be holding back captured freighters with supplies he needs.

“Second, the number of troop ships in orbit around Mars has been steadily increasing. Yet, none of our contacts on Mars have observed any serious troop landings. That suggests the forces are being built up for another purpose. The only real target must be Earth. If Koroylov was counting on a long-term siege to force our nations into surrendering, building up ground troops would seem redundant. Especially if their supply situation is causing them trouble. If we offered some kind of conditional surrender, presumably Koroylov wouldn’t need ground troops to keep us in line, the direness of our situation would force us to keep ourselves in line. That would be the whole point of a siege. The fact that more and more troop ships are arriving at Mars suggests Koroylov thinks he will need the troops for some kind of assault. That would fit with an attack against the orbital defenses and a ground landing to seize control of our main government centers.

“Third, and this is the weakest indicator. Though it is noteworthy nonetheless. A number of ships have been detected appearing and disappearing from Koroylov’s main battle fleet. Of course we are acquiring and losing contacts all the time as his ships move around. There is a pattern that has been identified though. Some of the ships appear to disappear just after going on to new trajectories that would take them to the outskirts of the system. Similarly, when we have picked up new contacts, a few of them have been on trajectories that would suggest they are coming in from the outer system. Leaving or coming back in, the contacts I’m mentioning do not appear to have been traveling to or coming from a shift passage. Whatever they are doing, Koroylov seems to have his ships involved in some unknown activity on the outer edges of our system. If he simply plans to besiege us until we surrender, there would be no need for such strange behavior.

“As I said, on their own each point could probably be easily explained away. But together they suggest that Koroylov may be forced to attack through lack of supply, or indeed has always been planning to launch an attack,” Alvarez said in conclusion.

“Thank you Lieutenant,” James said. “I can see your point. Gentlemen, what do you think?”

“The supplies and the troop transport could be explained away,” Commodore Hawking answered. “Every analysis I have read suggests that the Russians could only have built such a massive fleet by putting a huge strain on their economy for at least the last decade, probably the last two. It’s hardly surprising that the supply situation may be beyond what they can actually handle. Their buildup of troops isn’t too surprising either. Perhaps they feel they may need to land troops on Mars to put down an uprising of some form or another. It is the strange behavior of Koroylov’s ships that raises my concerns. It makes no sense.”

“Unless the Russians have some sort of resupply and repair station on the edge of the system. They could have brought it in after Koroylov captured Mars,” Admiral Somerville suggested. “A kind of backup base that they prepared in case they had been unsuccessful in taking Mars.”

“Unlikely,” Alvarez responded. “All of the ships we detected heading out to the edge of the system had recently spent time in Mars orbit, presumably taking on supplies. It’s almost as if they were preparing for an extended time out on the edge of the system.”

“But why?” Sato asked. “There’s nothing out there but asteroid mining facilities.”

“At this point your guess is as good as mine Commodore,” Alvarez answered with a shrug. “But for whatever reason, there is something going on. Something that doesn’t appear to help Koroylov lay siege to Earth.”

“This is something we have to think about some more,” James commented. “Clearly Koroylov is up to something, whether it involves a frontal assault or his siege. Either way we need to try and figure out what he is doing. I have at least one idea about that. We have ships from the Combined Fleet that were too damaged to decelerate with us to make it to Earth, it will take them at least a week to affect repairs, but their trajectory is taking them out of the system. Perhaps we can order them to investigate. Alvarez if you can identify some of the likely areas on the edge of the system where the ships were going, we can send our damaged ships in to investigate.”

“Aye Supreme Commander, I will run some analysis on our tracking data and identify a couple of likely areas worth investigating,” Alvarez responded.

James nodded. “Very good Lieutenant.” He turned to the rest of his subordinates. “Whether Koroylov intends a frontal assault or not, we need to do everything we can to prepare for one. There is nothing we can do to help the politicians keep order and feed our people so we have to focus on our duty. One fact is crystal clear, if Koroylov wants to attack, he stands a very good chance of winning. Therefore, we need to come up with some ways to tip the odds in our favor. There are only two ways we can do that. Either we can increase our defensive capability, or we can chip away at Koroylov’s strength. I propose we try and do both. For a start, once our mobile units have been worked up into a cohesive unit, we’re going to start carrying out some active operations against Koroylov’s besieging units. Koroylov will have to make a mistake to let us actually bring a portion of his fleet to battle, but if we can isolate some of his ships and take them out, it will slowly whittle away his strength.

“Additionally, I want us to make more of an effort to slip some blockade runners past Koroylov’s ships. We need to find out what is going on beyond the Alpha and Beta systems. There should be a sizeable chunk of Allied warships operating in those areas. If we can encourage them to put more pressure on the forces Koroylov has garrisoning the Alpha and Beta systems, it will weaken Koroylov’s force here. Every little thing we can do to reduce the strength he has facing us is vital. I don’t think he will launch an attack against Earth if he faces losing the majority of his fleet. We must do everything in our power to persuade him that attacking would only win a pyrrhic victory.

“Now, tell me what you think of my ideas and let me hear yours. These meetings are primarily going to be brainstorming meetings. We can then go away and work with our own subordinates to simulate and refine the ideas and plans we come up with. Let me hear what you’re all thinking.”

For the next two hours James let his subordinates discuss ideas with one another. A number of potential tactics and strategic plans were brought up, analyzed and either dismissed or refined. In the end several good plans had been gone over and Alvarez had taken a note of each. In the coming days James planned to work on each of them and introduce simulations to his forces to prepare them. It would take a few weeks before he could put anything concrete into action, but as soon as he could, he intended to bring the fight to Koroylov. Sitting around and waiting for the battle to come to him wasn’t his style.




Chapter 30

It is a testament to the Kulrean’s technological capabilities that the translation software they shared with humanity in the twenty sixth century is still in use today within the Empire. It makes you wonder what other technologies they have yet to reveal to us.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Marlborough, New France system, 17th October 2473 AD.

Commodore Lightfoot stood as the ensemble of officers filed into Marlborough’s main briefing room. As they took their seats, he cast his eyes over them. He was certain that no more diverse a group of officers had stepped foot on Marlborough’s decks before. Captains Villeneuve and Nagumo commanded what was left of the French and Japanese navies that had been stationed at New France before the Russian attack. Commodore King led the Canadian reinforcements that had been sent from the Canadian colonies. There were also Captains from the Spanish, Italian and Mexican navies. Each of those nations had a single colony beyond the Alpha system. Three days ago, they had simply been the officers that had made up his coalition of ships. Now they felt like old friends.

Beside Captain Nagumo, Captain Chen of the Chinese Navy was a surprise face. Only a few hours ago his light cruiser squadron had jumped into the system. Emperor Na had sent them to New France via the Void to provide what assistance they could. If Chen was a surprise, the other newcomers were downright shocking. Even though Lightfoot knew of the mission Suzanna had left New France on, he had been taken aback when the fleet she gathered had jumped into the system. Admiral Harborough of the Havenite Defense Force had come in a battlecruiser no less, and with the large capital ship he had brought another twenty-four warships. Then there was Vice Admiral Lackesh, or Jil’lal as she insisted on being called. Though Lightfoot was still getting used to having an alien walking around his ship, he was more than glad of the warships she had brought. Altogether, he had seventy-four warships to command. His strength had more than doubled with the arrival of Suzanna and her friends.

When his eyes rested on the Governor of Haven, she gave him a slight smile and a nod. Lightfoot nodded back and realized everyone else was looking to him as well. He cleared his throat and stood up. In front of everyone was a holo projection of the space between New France and the Sol system. “As this is the first time we have all gathered like this, I want to take a moment to thank you for committing your forces to this cause. Our intel on Earth’s situation is now months old. However, given what our scouts have ascertained from the Alpha system, it seems that Earth has not yet fallen. No damaged warships have been spotted returning to Russian space for repair, suggesting that no major battle has occurred. There is also a steady stream of supply ships heading towards Sol. That means we are not too late. Our fleet may be dwarfed by the forces Admiral Koroylov has gathered, but that does not mean we cannot have a say in how this war will end.” As he spoke his next sentence he did so slowly and allowed his eyes to meet each of the officers. “I am therefore thankful for each and every one of you gathered here with me.” Lightfoot paused as several officers nodded to him or made some other gesture. He took a deep breath before continuing.

“That said, it’s time to decide on what we are actually going to do with our forces. Time of course, is of the essence, yet we must act wisely. We don’t know what has happened to the Combined Fleet. They may have made it to Earth already. Though the lack of damaged Russian warships returning to Russian space suggests that is unlikely. Therefore, they may still be trying to get to Earth. Or, Koroylov may have already defeated them. At this point, we have to assume the worst. That means our force is the only fleet of any significant size that can still oppose Koroylov. We have to maximize the threat we pose.

“This is the strategic situation,” Lightfoot continued as dots appeared on the holo-map. “There’s one Russian battleship and approximately fifty other warships guarding the Alpha system. We believe the Russian Admiral Yuri Checkov commands the forces at Alpha. Strung out beyond Alpha towards the Gift and New France, Checkov has another ten to twenty light ships operating as scouts. Several Russian scouts have been detected operating in the Aurora system for example. We don’t know if they have penetrated any further into French colonial space, but it is possible. Within the Sol system itself, according to Governor Somerville’s intelligence, which is now more than four months old, Koroylov has a fleet of three hundred and twelve warships. Though some have been dispatched to the Beta, Gamma and Delta systems to garrison them. Even so, within the Sol system Koroylov has a fleet more than three times our size. The question is, how can we use our meagre forces to break Koroylov’s siege?”

“Even with the recent arrival of our new friends, I don’t see that the strategic situation has really changed,” Captain Villeneuve commented. “Either we use our ships to continue to raid the Russian supply lines and weaken Koroylov’s hold on the Sol system. Or, we could try and sneak into the Sol system and add our ships to Earth’s defenses. For those of you who are new, the debate between both options is one we have gone over many times before. We have tried limited raids with varying success. Though riskier, actually trying to sneak past the Russian fleet and get to Earth would probably have more of an impact on Koroylov’s siege. I think this is the approach we should consider.”

Before Lightfoot could jump in, Captain Nagumo protested, as he did every time Villeneuve suggested heading straight for Earth. Their argument was one that had gone round and round in circles for weeks. “And as I have said numerous times, the problem in your thinking is that Checkov has scouts in more than half the systems between here and Earth. There’s no way we can sneak past them. With the addition of our new friends, sneaking past them will be even harder. If we tried, we’re far more likely to reach the Alpha system and find Koroylov has taken half his fleet from Sol and is already waiting to greet us.”

“I think the others get the gist of the ins and outs of both approaches,” Lightfoot managed to say, though only after Villeneuve got in a quick rebuttal of his own.

“Perhaps,” Admiral Harborough commented as he lent forward in his chair, “we need to redefine what a strategic victory looks like. If we were to advance on the Alpha system in the open, it would force Koroylov to pull ships away from the Sol system to deal with us. That in itself could be a strategic victory. If the Combined Fleet is seeking to reach the Sol system, our distraction could be just what they need. Alternatively, even if the Combined Fleet is out of the picture. If we can pull a large enough number of ships out of the Sol system, it will hamper Koroylov’s ability to keep Earth under siege. If we move on Alpha and threatened their supply lines Koroylov will have to react. Then, when he does, we can simply fall back. I don’t particularly like the idea of an endless cat and mouse scenario. But if we play our cards right, we can attack the Russians when we find them at their weakest, and pull back when they try to deal with us in force. When the Indians invaded Haven that was the tactic our resistance fighters used. They struck the Indian ground troops where they were weak and fell back when they were strong.”

Lightfoot nodded to show his appreciation of Harborough’s contribution. “Reluctantly, I have been thinking along the same lines. The RSN’s battle doctrine has always been to seek out decisive battles. But in the face of such overwhelming force, we dare not risk our fleet. Even so, such a strategy does not sit well with me. In essence, we would be fighting with only a glimmer of hope for success. We could put together the greatest series of raids and retreats in the history of human warfare and still Earth might fall to Koroylov.”

“What other option do we have?” Chen asked. “Between the Chinese Imperial Navy, the Germans and Japanese we have nearly thirty warships gathered on the edge of the Beta system. In theory, we could take our fleet through the Void and link up with them, yet even then, our numbers wouldn’t be enough to defeat or seriously threaten Koroylov. And doing so would take months, months Earth probably doesn’t have. That is why Emperor Na sent me here, New France is the best strategic location to threaten Koroylov’s supplies from. Raiding his supply lines and forcing him to pull ships away from the Sol system is our only realistic strategy.”

Lightfoot was afraid Chen was right, but he didn’t want to say so at this stage in the first meeting of the senior officers of his fleet. So he sat in silence in the hope that someone else had something to contribute.

“What about the Gift?” Suzanna suggested. “I thought using it would be out of the question for it would take us weeks to return to Haven and then to travel to the Gift and to jump through it. Yet if we are thinking in terms of a long-term raiding strategy, perhaps the Gift could give us the strategic advantage we need. If our fleet jumped out of the Gift, we could engage whatever scouts Checkov has placed nearby to watch it. Even if they got away, by the time they reached the Alpha system, we would be right on their heels. Unless Checkov had his entire fleet stationed on the edge of the Alpha system waiting for us, we could charge for the shift passage to the Sol system. We’d likely beat Checkov there and make it to Sol before Koroylov could react.”

“We have discussed that idea already Governor,” Villeneuve responded. “While I agree with the desire to get our forces into the Sol system as quickly as possible. There are two issues that are concerning. The first is that we believe Checkov has placed mines around the exit of the Gift. We didn’t know this when you left for Haven, but on one of our raids we identified two Russian minelaying ships returning to Alpha on a trajectory that suggested they had been at the Gift. If the exit has been mined, our fleet could be decimated when it translates through the wormhole. Second, even if we did make it into the Sol system along the lines you have suggested, Checkov would be right behind us with his entire fleet. We would find ourselves in the Sol system trapped between two Russian fleets. Granted, if that’s the only way we can get to the Sol system I would still be in favor. But if by stealth and subterfuge we can get there without Checkov breathing down our necks, it would be a far better option.”

Suzanna looked to Harborough who nodded to show he agreed with Villeneuve’s assessment. “I see,” she said as she looked back to Villeneuve. “I’ll admit I didn’t foresee those two possibilities.”

“Maybe we are being too timid,” Jil’lal said. Everyone in the room turned to look at her. Though she had sat perfectly still as she listened to everyone else, as soon as she began to talk, her four arms moved around quickly, accompanying her words with various gestures. “I think Harborough is right, we need to hit this Koroylov where he is weakest if we are going to defeat him. Yet, it seems to me that we are allowing his numerical strength to frighten us. Perhaps, it is his greatest weakness.”

“What do you mean?” Lightfoot asked in a tone that showed his curiosity had been piqued.

“From the limited intelligence reports I read on the way from Vestar, it seems that to have such a large fleet Koroylov has brought almost every Russian warship to the Sol system. He is therefore taxing his supply capabilities to the full to keep them operational. Over the last couple of months, I have learnt a little something about the difficulties of keeping a fleet operating for an extended period of time at the far end of a long supply line. If one or two of my scheduled supply convoys is disrupted, it will hurt my fleet’s effectiveness. Of course, it will not negate it entirely, however, if Vestar itself was raided, then I would be forced to take my entire fleet home. New France is not just a strategically important system in relation to the Alpha system, but also to New Rostov. There is more than one way to the Sol system from here. I propose we go through Russian space. We can raid New Rostov and do as much damage as we can there, then we can quickly push on to the Alpha system. This Admiral Checkov will not be expecting an attack to come from his own territory. We may catch him unprepared and will either be able to defeat him or slip around his forces. Or, if he is ready for us, we can fall back through the Alpha system to New France. If we have been successful at New Rostov, we may not have to fight any other Russian fleet.”

Suzanna looked at the gathered naval officers in excitement. She thought Jil’lal’s idea was an excellent solution to their problems. Though she was aware her own judgement in these matters wasn’t what counted. To her surprise, on the officers’ faces she saw mixture of caution and what she thought was even smugness. They think Jil’lal’s plan too risky, Suzanna realized. Far too risky by the look on their faces. Instinctively she knew what was happening. The other officers were questioning Jil’lal’s competence to assess the strategic situation. As far as they were concerned, the Vestarians were complete amateurs to naval warfare. Jil’lal’s suggestion had confirmed some of their suspicions. She swallowed as she prepared to jump in and deflect from Jil’lal’s plan. She wanted to do it nicely rather than allow some other officer to insult Jil’lal as he or she dismissed the Vestarian’s plan. She stopped herself when she saw the look on Lightfoot’s face. Rather than concern, there was a spark in his eyes and a small smile twitched on his face. “Commodore Lightfoot,” she said before anyone else could speak. “What are your thoughts?”

Lightfoot didn’t reply immediately. Instead he took a moment to think as he stroked his chin. “I must confess, moving on New Rostov is not something I have considered. Though now that our force is significantly larger, it is something I should have. At the very least, it is another option to consider. If we want to try and draw Koroylov’s fleet away from the Sol system, threatening New Rostov would be even more effective than threatening Alpha. I think Jil’lal is onto something. With the forces at our disposal, we may be able to do more than that. Before Governor Somerville broke through the Russian blockade I had sent a request to Britannia for all the reinforcements they could send to us. They have been trickling in, even before the Russian attack, the British colonies were essentially empty of warships because of the need to fight the Flex-aor. Now there is nothing left but a small force defending the Cook system. One ship that I didn’t expect to heed my request for help was HMS Ark Royal. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with her since she entered the system.” Leaning forward, Lightfoot tapped a few commands into the holo-projector to change its display. When he was finished, a large ship roughly the size of a battlecruiser came into view. Though it didn’t look like any other warship the assembled officers had seen before.

Captain Chen was the first to figure out what he was looking at. “A missileboat platform. That’s what she is isn’t it?”

Lightfoot smiled. “Indeed,” he replied. “After your Navy’s attack on the Cook system in the British-Chinese war, we have been seeking to develop a similar capability.”

“But we abandoned the approach, it failed,” Chen responded.

“That’s a matter of perspective I guess,” Lightfoot explained. “We certainly felt the damage your missileboat attacks did. Though we have sought to perfect their capabilities some. Let me explain.” Over the next five minutes Lightfoot outlined the capabilities of HMS Ark Royal. Then he turned back to Jil’lal’s plan. “So you see, with Ark Royal’s help, Jil’lal’s suggestion is a viable strategy we should explore in more detail.”

Several officers nodded. Lightfoot smiled. “Then this is where I’ll bring things to an end for today. I will have my staff work out a number of attack scenarios and we can meet to discuss them tomorrow and refine what approach we might take. Thank you all for your contribution. Before you return to your own ships, I have had some refreshments prepared. I would very much like to get to know our new friends on an informal basis. If we’re going to be fighting together, we need to know each other’s personalities and capabilities.”

“Agreed,” Admiral Harborough replied. “If we’re going to meld our ships into a fighting force there is a lot of work ahead of us, both in terms of working out procedure and our interpersonal relationships. We have made a good start on the first, I’m more than happy to begin the second over a meal.”

*

“I want to thank you for slotting Emilie into your command structure,” Suzanna said as she touched Lightfoot’s elbow and turned him towards her. He had been lifting a sandwich off the buffet table. “I appreciate you accepting my request.”

“It was no problem,” Lightfoot replied after taking a bite. “Her Academy scores were impressive and all the experience she had on Earth with the siege and then gallivanting around the galaxy with you makes her an asset I’m happy to have. Marlborough took some serious losses in the second battle of New France. I’m sure it will take her a few weeks to settle in, but we’re going to work her hard and make sure we get the best out of her.”

“Well I wanted to thank you nonetheless,” Suzanna said. “She would have happily stayed with me on Retribution but if she is to have a future in the RSN, she needs to be on a British warship.”

“That she does, though her activities with you won’t hurt her future career prospects too much. Hobnobbing with Haven Council members and the political ruler of an alien species aren’t things you find in every Ensign’s CV.”

“I can imagine that might be the case,” Suzanna replied with a chuckle.

“There was something else I wanted to talk to you about,” Lightfoot said as his tone turned more serious. “Whatever plan we finally decide on, I think it would make more sense for you to wait behind at New France. There is no need for you to risk yourself in whatever risky plan of action we come up with.”

“No.” Suzanna replied firmly. “I am not staying behind to hear what happens weeks or months after the event. The British Star Kingdom and Haven’s future depends on the success of your operation. I intend to see this through to the finish.”

“There’s no need for you to risk your life as well. If we manage to defeat Koroylov, then you can return to Earth. If we fail, you will be needed to help lead Haven and the British colonies in whatever comes after.”

“That may be, but it is irrelevant. I have risked my life to see the Havenite and Vestarian warships that have joined your fleet make it here. I was the one who convinced them to come to fight. I intend to go with them into battle.”

“You do know that in war time, a Commodore out ranks a Governor?” Lightfoot asked.

“Perhaps in the RSN,” Suzanna replied as she allowed a small smile to play on her lips. “But not in the Haven Navy. I intend to go into battle on Retribution. Admiral Harborough has already accepted my request. If I die, I want to die fighting with my people.”

Lightfoot looked down at the deck for a second and looked back up at Suzanna. “You anticipated my intention to leave you behind didn’t you?”

Suzanna allowed her small smile to return. “Perhaps.”

“I guess I should have known to be more prepared when speaking to such a high-ranking politician. I should have got Harborough on my side first.”

“That would have been wise,” Suzanna replied.

Lightfoot let out a sigh of exasperation. “All maneuvering aside though, can’t you see there’s no need for you to risk your life?”

“All maneuvering aside, can’t you see how the Havenite and Vestarian crews would respond to me staying behind? They followed me this far. Wouldn’t my abandoning them hurt morale?”

Lightfoot rolled his eyes. “You wouldn’t be abandoning them.”

“But It would hurt their morale would it not?” Suzanna pressed. “Is that something a Commodore of the RSN is supposed to let happen?”

Lightfoot let out another sigh. “Don’t tell me you’re about to outwit me when it comes to warfare as well?”

“Understanding the morale of your populace is just as important in politics as in war,” Suzanna countered. “You’re still fighting me in my realm.”

“In that case, I concede defeat. Though I intend to put it in my log that I spoke to you about staying behind. If something happens to you I want James to know that I tried to dissuade you from coming.”

“If something happens to me, James will understand,” Suzanna answered. “That is, if he is around to hear about it. If we get to the Sol system and the Combined Fleet still hasn’t made it to Earth, he will likely already be dead. I can’t imagine anything but death would stop him from doing his duty.”

“No,” Lightfoot agreed with a nod. “You’re right. That gives us another reason for hope. We are not alone in this and there are others trying just as hard as us to defeat Koroylov.”

“Indeed, but the Combined Fleet is unlikely to win on their own. We need to move forward with the plans we discussed today as quickly as possible.”

“We will,” Lightfoot promised. “But we must do so only when we are prepared. We must move quickly, but at the same time we cannot take any unnecessary risks.”

“Don’t worry,” Suzanna said as she touched Lightfoot’s elbow again. “I understand something of the difficulties in melding different forces together. I’ve heard enough from Jil’lal and Admiral Harborough over the last few weeks about such matters. Between working out a common set of command signals and overseeing the logistics of operating so far from our two homeworlds, I’ve hardly heard about anything else from either of them.”

This time it was Lightfoot who chuckled. “I’m no prophet, but I can guarantee you there will be a lot more where that came from.” He paused for a second as he looked away before turning back and allowing a cheeky grin to spread across his. “An idea has just occurred to me. Given your past experience overseeing the supply of food and other materials to old Russia, you would be an ideal candidate to take on some of the extra workload our supply officers will face. If you’re going to travel with the fleet, it would only be right that I find something useful for you to do.”

Suzanna failed to hide the alarm that shot across her face at Lightfoot’s idea. “If you will excuse me Commodore,” she said as she squeezed his elbow and gave him a wink. “I believe one of your junior officers is trying to get my attention. I better go and see what he wants. Thank you for your time.”

“As always Governor, it has been a pleasure,” Lightfoot replied and gave a small bow as Suzanna exaggerated her retreat from him.

*

“Well?” Suzanna asked after Lightfoot’s reception was over. She had made her way into Marlborough’s lower decks and found the second officer’s quarters. “How are you fitting in?”

Emilie did her best to keep her face impassive but it only lasted a few seconds before a wide grin broke out. “Look at these,” she said as she pulled two golden pips out of her pocket. “They are Sub Lieutenant’s,” she explained when Suzanna’s facial expression showed she didn’t understand.

“You’ve been promoted already?” Suzanna asked as her excitement grew to match her niece’s. “But you’ve only been here a couple of days.”

“It’s only acting at the minute. But after six months it is automatically confirmed. Marlborough’s Third Lieutenant has been putting me through some simulations and decided I would be more useful being bumped up to Sub Lieutenant. We lost five Sub Lieutenants in the second battle of New France. I have been placed in the third watch as a COMs officer. I guess all that communicating you’ve had me doing with different planetary control stations when we were on Scimitar has paid off.”

“I knew there was a good reason I was making you do all the menial tasks,” Suzanna chuckled. She pulled her niece into a hug. “I’m proud of you. Just look after yourself.” She didn’t want Emilie’s name added to the list of Sub Lieutenants Marlborough had lost.

“Don’t worry, I don’t intend to be taking any unnecessary risks. Besides, I think it will be far safer returning to the Sol system in the middle of such a large fleet. After our escape on Scimitar, being a Sub Lieutenant on a heavy cruiser is going to seem pretty boring.”

Suzanna actually allowed herself to laugh. “The naivety of youth,” she said as she continued to laugh. “You will soon want to take back those words. Trust me, you will be seeing plenty of action. And before then, you’ll not be getting any time to be bored. I know for a fact Lightfoot intends to drill our new fleet harder than any has ever been drilled before. You’ll be wishing you had a spare hour or two to be bored in a day or so.”

“Perhaps I will,” Emilie replied as she pulled the other woman into quick hug. “But for now, I have to get going. My watch starts in five minutes.”

“Well don’t let me get you into trouble. I’m just glad I managed to find you. I wanted to make sure you were settling in, but it seems I needn’t have bothered. I’m sorry you won’t be with me on Retribution. But this is where you belong.”

Emilie nodded. “It is. I’m sure when all this is over I will have to return to the Academy to finish my second two years. But already I know this is where I want to be. Thank you for getting me transferred.”

Suzanna arched an eyebrow. “Lightfoot requested you.”

Emilie shook her head. “Don’t try that political stuff on me. I’ve spent months with you now auntie. I’m starting to learn to read you. I know he didn’t personally request a first year Academy student to join his flagship. Still, I intend to do him proud nonetheless.”

“You will do us all proud,” Suzanna said as she placed her hand on Emilie’s shoulder and gave her a squeeze. “Now, I will get out of your hair and let you get ready for your watch. If you need anything don’t hesitate to contact me. You are a COM officer now, I hope that means you know how to actually use a COM system.”

Emilie stuck her tongue out and waved goodbye before turning and moving quickly up the corridor. “Stay safe,” Suzanna called after her. If Emilie replied, Suzanna didn’t hear it. Shrugging, Suzanna turned and made her way back through Marlborough’s lower decks. She too had work to do. Everyone in what Lightfoot had designated the Liberation Fleet was going to be very busy over the next few weeks.




Chapter 31

There was a time when space battles were devoid of fighters and bombers. That time has long since passed. Whilst their effectiveness has waxed and waned as technologies have developed, there isn’t a battlefleet in the galaxy that doesn’t deploy some squadrons of the nimble space craft.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Ark Royal, outer edge of New Rostov system, 7th November 2372 AD.

Captain Rachel McGrath sat in the cockpit of her fighter, wiggling her fingers back and forth as she stared at her flight stick. She had launched from Ark Royal’s launch tubes more than a hundred times, yet never on an actual mission. At any other time, she would have been cross at the tension in her hands. Reacting like she was a schoolgirl about to go on her first date was not something she allowed herself to do. Yet she couldn’t help herself this time. She had spent much of the last five years involved in the research and development of her fighter; including being the main test pilot for the first prototype. Now she led one of Ark Royal’s three fighter squadrons. It had even been her name for the fighters that had stuck. Spitfire had seemed an eminently appropriate name to her. Its predecessor had helped the British Kingdom win one war in the past. She was confident that her fighter would help win a war in the future. Plus, her fighter’s twin plasma cannons literally spat destructive fire at its enemies. However, she hadn’t expected to be rushed into combat so soon. The war she had been thinking of winning had been years in the future. Hence her nerves.

“Sword squadron, this is flight command, final systems check requested,” Commander Barton asked over her COM channel.

“All units, report systems check,” McGrath requested her squadron over the squadron COM channel. When everyone had affirmed they were ready to go, she switched to speak to Barton. “All birds report ready to launch Commander.”

“You launch in thirty seconds Captain, good hunting. Show the rest of the fleet what you guys can do.”

“Copy Commander. We intend to. Sword One out.” McGrath replied. She gently placed her hands on her flight stick. Technically her input wasn’t needed as Ark Royal’s launch tubes shot her Spitfire into space, but she wanted to be ready for the unexpected.

As the launch sequence began, McGrath felt herself being pushed into her flight seat as the Spitfire’s inertial compensators powered up. Her restraints tightened around her. The electromagnetic launch tube would boost her fighter up to 0.05c in just three seconds. A decade ago this would have been a feat no human could have survived. That had changed with the rediscovery of Haven. Isolated for more than a couple of centuries, the Havenites had developed their own inertial compensators. Though similar to those developed on Earth, they had some very interesting differences. Differences that Earth scientists had gone to town on. Then with the infusion of Vestarian and Kulrean tech, real breakthroughs had been made. The newest warships in the fleet were benefiting from the same technology, yet the benefits of the new compensators were only truly going to be felt in smaller ships. The new compensators’ efficiency had an inverse square relationship to the mass of the ship it was working with. As her Spitfire was just one quarter the mass of even a standard anti-ship missile, the compensator had a near miraculous effect. Her Spitfire was designed entirely around the new compensators.

After the Chinese missileboat attack on the Cook system in the Void War, the use of light attack craft had already been under investigation when the new compensators had been designed. McGrath and a number of others had immediately seen how the new compensators could radically alter their work. In essence, the compensators protected very small masses from the effects of high g forces. That meant both a fighter’s pilot and its more delicate technologies could undergo g-forces never before dreamed of. It allowed the Spitfires to achieve very high rates of acceleration and deceleration. McGrath knew the technology was being worked into AM missiles to make them more effective, but in the long run, it was the return of fighter craft to naval warfare that the compensators would be known for. Today would go down in history as the first time they were used. She just hoped that her contribution would be looked back on in a positive light.

Ark Royal was also a new design. She was the modern version of an ancient aircraft carrier, though she did carry some missile tubes and heavy plasma cannons so she could stay with a battle fleet and contribute in a normal engagement. However, at the moment she was technically only eighty percent complete. She had been released from her construction yard as soon as Commodore Lightfoot’s urgent demand for reinforcements reached Britannia. Of the four squadrons Ark Royal was meant to carry, only three were present and only the first was a full-strength squadron. Today they would all go into battle and, ready or not, they had to live up to expectations.

“Sword one, you launch in five, four, three,” a flight operations officer informed McGrath. In response, she forced herself to relax and closed her eyes. The initial acceleration was disorientating, especially if one tried to watch as her ship was accelerated out of Ark Royal. With her eyes closed, the only thing that told her she was being launched into space was a slight increase in the hum coming from the inertial compensator. A moment later her COM unit gave a small beep.

She opened her eyes and was greeted by a dense star scape. It’s certainly beautiful, McGrath thought as she stared at the stars around the New Rostov system. After giving herself a couple of seconds to take in her surroundings, she stared down at her passive sensor display. As expected, the nearest ships in the Allied Fleet were being detected, but none of the three other fighters of her flight were visible. Essentially a Spitfire was an engine with an inertial compensator, two plasma cannons, a pilot seat and one plasma missile. The whole thing was outfitted with the most advanced ECM and stealth equipment the British Navy had. By itself, being so small was a great advantage to a Spitfire, but with her other abilities, she was a very hard target for a warship designed to fend off larger anti-ship missiles to detect, never mind hit. Again, her Spitfire’s stealth abilities owed their existence to the new inertial compensators. Stealth technologies that were too sensitive to endure the high rates of acceleration that anti-ship missiles went through could be fitted to the Spitfires. In simulations the combination had proved deadly, but McGrath knew they were simulations. Real life was always different. In real life things usually went wrong.

With her flight maintaining radio silence, McGrath had nothing to do for the next fifty minutes but take in the stars. With the velocity Ark Royal had been carrying into the New Rostov system, her fighter was cruising in at 0.25c. The two other flights of four fighters that made up her squadron were consecutively one and two minutes behind her, though they had been launched at slightly higher velocities to allow them to close up without using their own engines.

When the timer running down on her HUD reached zero, McGrath tightened her grip on her flight stick. The countdown meant she had thirty seconds to wait for the first part of Commodore Lightfoot’s attack plan to begin. Her squadron, and indeed the rest of Ark Royal’s fighters and the entire Liberation fleet, had been drilling for this moment for nearly a week.

Right on cue, the frigate Inverness lit off her engines and accelerated out of the New Rostov system as if she was heading back to Cartier. Several hours ago, she had snuck into the system. Now she was making it look like she wanted to leave, and in a hurry. To any Russian ships patrolling the shift passage, it would look like Inverness had been on a reconnaissance mission, got spooked by something, and was now trying to flee the system as quickly as possible.

For twenty seconds nothing else happened. McGrath tried to calm herself as she waited. Then a new contact appeared on her Spitfire’s passive sensors. It was quickly followed by a second. As the new contacts accelerated it was clear they were trying to intercept Inverness. Her Spitfire’s computer identified them as a destroyer and a frigate. The frigate was closest to her position. “Computer, transcribe my words. Start now; ‘Flight one will take on the frigate, flights two and three the destroyer. Engage at will.’” As soon as her words appeared as text on a secondary display, she transmitted them to her squadron. Rather than break radio silence, her Spitfire transmitted a short burst of energy on the same wavelength as the background radiation given off from the system’s star. Her squadron was monitoring the frequency expecting just such a transmission.

McGrath counted to five to give the pilots in her flight time to receive her order, then she swiveled the nose of her Spitfire towards the frigate and slowly fired her maneuvering thrusters to curve her trajectory towards it. The single plasma missile attached to the underside of her fighter was also a new design. Upon contacting an enemy ship, its warhead would detonate, releasing a stream of plasma into the target’s armor. The effect was essentially the same as getting hit by a heavy plasma cannon from a battleship. It wouldn’t destroy most warships, but it would cause a lot of damage. If several of them could be coordinated against a single target, even a battleship could be taken down. At least that was how the simulations worked out. Now they were going to see just how accurate they were.

When she began her maneuver, the frigate was still ten minutes away from the maximum range of her single missile. It felt like an eternity passed as the range closed to five minutes. By the time it closed to three minutes, sweat was running down her back and forehead.

A beep of alarm made her heart stop for a second. Then it began to beat furiously. The frigate had powered up its secondary search radar and was directing it at her fighter. At such a close range, the frigate’s crew would get some kind of return from her craft. Her training took over. She flicked on her COM unit and began to speak. “Flight one, our cover has been blown. Accelerate to launch position. Evasive maneuvers as we go.”

McGrath gunned her engine. She barely felt the acceleration as her compensator adjusted for it. In two minutes, her fighter went from 0.25c to 0.4c. It was a feat no one but the Britannia branch of the RSN research and development bureau had ever seen before. Whether out of fear, or confusion, the frigate opened up with its point defense plasma cannons at a range that wasn’t even effective against large anti-ship missiles, never mind her small fighter. Even so, McGrath’s heart began to beat even faster as a plasma bolt zipped by her fighter close enough that she could see it. “Keep on course,” she said to her flight to encourage them. “Fire, fire, fire,” she ordered as soon as they came into range.

From each of the four Spitfire fighters, a single plasma missile detached and accelerated. As soon as they fired, the Spitfires peeled off and rapidly decelerated to avoid the frigate. They needn’t have bothered, the frigate’s gunners recognized the threat the missiles posed. Despite their surprise and ignorance about what they were facing, they shot down two of the missiles. Ordinarily the frigate might have stood a chance of avoiding the other two missiles. However, the plasma missiles, not needing the fuel storage to allow them to cover long distances, were much smaller and more maneuverable than standard anti-ship missiles. They easily kept with the frigate as the frigate’s pilot dived and twisted away from them. Both struck the frigate exactly where they had been aimed. The missiles detonated almost simultaneously and sent two balls of plasma bursting through the frigate’s impulse engine. The frigate lost all drive and careened through space on a ballistic trajectory. A couple of small secondary explosions suggested power couplings or some other important components had been badly damaged.

McGrath stared at the frigate for a few seconds, partly in joy at having pulled off the first successful attack with a space fighter, but also upset that she hadn’t got an outright kill. Even as she watched her sensor feed, Inverness decelerated and turned towards the frigate. I’ll get a partial kill at least, she thought. Inverness would finish off the stricken Russian ship. The sight of the British frigate decelerating made her alter the view of her sensors. Where the Russian destroyer had been, there was nothing but an expanding ball of debris. Eight Spitfire fighters were pulling away from it and forming up into two flights of four. Someone had achieved a kill. “Good shooting Sword squadron,” McGrath said over the COM channel as she smiled. “All flights form up on me, let’s return to Ark Royal. We can rearm and see if Commodore Lightfoot has any more targets for us.” As she listened to her pilots congratulate themselves, McGrath couldn’t help but smile even wider. Their part of the mission was complete. Whoever was commanding the Russian forces in New Rostov wouldn’t be getting any prior warning of an invasion fleet coming their way. Even if the Russian frigate and destroyer had managed to get off a contact report, there wasn’t much they could have told their superiors. All they had detected was a single enemy frigate and a series of anomalous sensor contacts.

*

HMS Marlborough, edge of the New Rostov system.

Inverness reports the Russian frigate has been destroyed Commodore,” Marlborough’s COM officer reported.

Lightfoot nodded, he had watched the sensor contact disappear on Marlborough’s main holo-display. “Acknowledge their report and inform Captain Turner she can continue on to the mass shadow and go into stealth. She can then catch up with us at her best possible speed.”

“Aye Commodore, transmitting Inverness’s orders now.”

“Once you’ve done that,” Lightfoot continued, “inform the fleet that they may stand down from battle stations. I want our crews to get a chance to get a warm meal before we get closer to New Rostov. We’ll go back to battle stations in four hours.”

“Understood Commodore.”

As officers stood down from their stations and made their way to the officers’ mess hall, Lightfoot stayed in his command chair. Nor did he get up a couple of hours later as the watch changed. His fleet was slowly cruising into the capital system of the Russian Space Federation. He had no intention of leaving Marlborough’s bridge for even one second. “There seems to be a lot less activity in system than we expected,” he commented to Anderson, Marlborough’s Captain, when he returned from his quarters. The Russians had reacted pretty quickly when Inverness had made her appearance known. Three destroyers had been dispatched to the shift passage to Cartier. Clearly, they were tasked with finding out exactly what had happened to the two ships that had been patrolling the shift passage. Around New Rostov itself though, only two heavy cruisers and an assortment of escort ships had made their presence known. Lightfoot had been expecting a much larger defense fleet.

“They may have some more ships powered down or undergoing repair,” Anderson replied. “They surely must have more than a couple of heavy cruisers defending their capital.”

“Or Koroylov really did strip Russian space bare of every warship they have to put together his invasion fleet,” Lightfoot suggested. “I wasn’t just talking about the lack of warships. For a system that is meant to be the base of operations for more than three hundred warships, you would think there would be a lot more supply freighters and other ships moving about. Since we’ve been in the system, only a small flotilla of freighters has jumped out towards Alpha and I counted only fifteen coming into New Rostov from the rest of Russian space.”

“Our scouts in the Alpha system have been reporting a gradual slowing down of the number of supply freighters heading towards Sol,” Anderson replied. “Maybe the situation is even worse than their reports suggested.”

“Perhaps,” Lightfoot conceded.

“You suspect some other reason?”

“It feels like we are looking at the calm before the storm. Koroylov may have brought all the warships he had available with him when he invaded the Sol system. But it could also be that he has recently called for reinforcements. Perhaps he has emptied New Rostov of all of its warships and supply freighters because he is preparing for a final push against Earth.”

“You are suggesting we are too late?” Anderson asked.

Lightfoot shrugged. “Who can know. I’m just voicing a concern.”

“Well, maybe we should look on the bright side then,” Anderson suggested. “At least the lack of warships will make this part of our operation a little easier.

Lightfoot grunted in reply. He wanted to look at things that way, but the strategist in him couldn’t help but look beyond the next few hours. He couldn’t shake the feeling that things only seemed like they were going his way so that when they turned against him, he would be unprepared.

“You can’t complain about the Spitfires’ performance. They have more than met our expectations,” Anderson responded.

“True,” Lightfoot conceded. He had reviewed Captain McGrath’s attack a number of times and he was impressed. At face value, the successful attack suggested that once large numbers of the Spitfires could be produced, they would change the face of fleet engagements. Despite the data, Lightfoot doubted things would change so radically. A counter to the fighters would be found, but for now at least, they were a threat the Russians weren’t prepared for. “Let’s hope our second attack proves just as successful. Though with so few ships around New Rostov, it may be a wasted gesture.”

“Maybe we should change their targeting priorities?” Anderson asked. “Perhaps we should target a few Russian orbital defense platforms. That would make the Trivium nervous, wouldn’t it? Maybe they would think we were planning an orbital invasion of our own.”

Lightfoot paused to consider the suggestion. It was tempting. “No,” he said with a shake of his head. “Perhaps we will be back some day to punish the Trivium for their invasion, but I imagine it will be a long time from now. We need to hit their supplies, even if there aren’t as many as we imagined.”

Rover should be in position now Commodore,” Marlborough’s tactical officer informed Lightfoot, interrupting his conversation with his Flag Captain.

“Thank you Lieutenant,” Lightfoot replied. He looked over to Anderson who nodded to say he was ready. Lightfoot nodded in return and turned to Marlborough’s COM officer. “Signal the fleet, we will initiate attack plan beta one.”

“Transmitting now Commodore,” the officer replied.

Anderson snapped out orders. “Bring up our reactors to normal operating levels. Eighty percent military thrust on our impulse engines. Power up the main search radar as well, let’s start getting a firmer fix on what is in orbit around New Rostov.”

All across the Liberation Fleet ships followed the flagship’s example and within seconds, the Liberation Fleet had announced itself to everyone in the New Rostov system. Now they know what all the commotion near the shift passage was about, Lightfoot thought. The Russian response wasn’t slow in materializing. New Rostov’s defenses came to life. Large defense platforms, smaller weapons satellites and several other warships powered up their reactors and became easily identifiable. A number of ships detached from repair yards or construction facilities and rendezvoused with the other defending warships. Yet all told, New Rostov’s mobile defenders were far less impressive than Lightfoot had expected. Only twenty-eight warships defended the capital of the Russian Space Federation. His fleet could have easily blown them apart. New Rostov’s fixed defenses were far more formidable. If he wanted, Lightfoot could do a lot of damage to the planet’s orbital infrastructure, yet he would lose his fleet if he tried. Whoever was commanding the Russian forces would know that as well, but to all intents and purposes, it looked like Lightfoot intended to make the attempt anyway. That was how it was supposed to look. For the next thirty minutes Lightfoot’s fleet approached New Rostov in a threatening manner. He wanted the Russians to sweat.

“We just got a signal from Rover Commodore,” Marlborough’s COM officer reported excitedly. “A Russian destroyer jumped into the Alpha shift passage.”

“Begin deceleration, turn us towards the Alpha shift passage,” Lightfoot ordered. The message he had wanted sent had been sent. In five days Admiral Checkov would get a message screaming that the capital of his nation was under attack. No one could ignore that. By the time Lightfoot’s fleet arrived in the Alpha system, Checkov’s fleet would be out of position and caught unawares. As he stared at New Rostov, Lightfoot wondered what the Russian commander there was thinking. In one sense it didn’t matter, the ruse had worked. And you’ll have something else to think about in a few moments, Lightfoot reminded himself. After all, his feint wasn’t entirely a feint.

*

Captain Ian Samuel had been the second test pilot in the Spitfire program. He liked to think he was a match for Captain McGrath when it came to handling the new naval fighter they had worked on together. They had competed fiercely against each other in all the simulations and drills they had developed for their squadrons. Samuel’s squadron wasn’t quite at full strength yet, he only had ten of the twelve fighters that were meant to form his command. Not for the first time, he wondered how McGrath had fared in her mission. His squadron along with the half strength Red squadron had launched from Ark Royal two hours before Sword squadron had been scheduled to launch. They had spent the six hours since then cruising into the system, looping around New Rostov. Now they were approaching the capital of the Russian Space Federation on an opposite vector to the one Lightfoot’s fleet was travelling on. Travelling in stealth mode with all their sensors powered down, no one in the two squadrons knew what had happened to the two Russian contacts they had detected powering up their impulse engines when Inverness had made her appearance. Certainly, they had disappeared pretty quickly. No doubt thanks to Sword squadron. But Samuel still had a lot of questions. He didn’t know how effective the plasma missiles had been. Nor if Russian ships had detected McGrath’s Spitfires before they launched their attack, nor even if all of McGrath’s ships had survived their mission. For the past four hours those questions and more had been going around and around in his head. Despite his rivalry with McGrath, he was concerned for her. He wanted to know if she had made it or not.

A beep from one of his secondary sensor displays stopped Samuel’s thoughts cold. His gravimetric sensors had detected Lightfoot’s fleet when it had accelerated towards New Rostov half an hour ago. Now they had begun to decelerate. Lightfoot was confident a message was on the way to Admiral Checkov in the Alpha system. It’s down to us now, Samuel thought. His two squadrons were just fifteen minutes away from entering missile range of New Rostov. Lightfoot had planned his operation pretty much to perfection. Everyone still had their attention firmly fixed on his ships.

Samuel knew that in different circumstances, his Spitfires’ passive sensors would have struggled to identify definitive targets given the amount of activity going on in New Rostov’s orbitals. However, with all the electromagnetic energy Lightfoot’s fleet was bombarding the Russian capital with, his passive sensors were picking up a lot of reflections. Two large freighter docking stations stood out clearly from amongst the other orbital stations on the side of the planet his Spitfire was racing towards. What’s more, there were only a few orbital defense stations nearby and they were using their limited engines to change orbit and move around New Rostov towards the point Lightfoot’s fleet had been accelerating towards. After confirming the coordinates of the docking stations, Samuel transmitted them to his squadrons, making sure his transmission mimicked the background radiation from the system’s star. Then he rolled his shoulders to work some of the tension out of them and settled into his command chair to wait.

As he came closer and closer he resisted the urge to order his ships to come out of stealth and accelerate. The faster his ships were going when they launched their missiles, the faster the missiles would be going and thus the harder they would be to hit. Yet none of the stations near them were powering up their active sensors. If they didn’t know Samuel’s fighters were out there, then they wouldn’t be manning their point defenses. Surprise was going to be better than speed in this instance.

When his Spitfire was just eighteen seconds from its optimal launch point, he finally broke radio silence. “All fighters go to max acceleration. Launch on my mark.”

Suddenly twenty new contacts appeared on every gravimetric plot in the system. In the long journey into the system, Samuel’s spitfires had been ever so slowly increasing their velocity. When they came out of stealth, they were travelling at 0.3c. In fourteen seconds, they increased their velocity to 0.38c. Then they launched their missiles. They in turn began to rapidly accelerate, adding more velocity.

It took the missiles just twelve seconds to close with the two freighter docking stations that Samuel had selected as targets. Several point defense plasma bolts from a couple of nearby defense satellites reached out to try and swat them down but they all missed. None of the plasma missiles missed their targets. Both docking stations were hit by eight missiles each. For a couple of seconds it seemed as if the missiles had done hardly any damage. Then secondary explosions caused one station to disappear in a massive fireball. It took out all eight of the freighters that had been docked with it. The second station didn’t explode, rather it slowly broke into several sections. Each one quickly lost altitude as New Rostov’s gravity sucked the crippled and disintegrating station down towards the planet’s atmosphere.

By the time the missiles struck home, Samuel was pulling up hard and vectoring away from New Rostov. In a prearranged maneuver, the twenty fighters of his command split into pairs and each selected a different vector to curve around New Rostov. As they went, they carried out intense evasive maneuvers. Though no one on the Russian orbital defense platforms nor warships knew exactly what was going on, they were able to detect the intense deceleration the Spitfires were carrying out to avoid colliding with New Rostov. That was all they needed to target the fighters. Within seconds of the destruction of both orbital docking stations, hundreds of plasma bolts and anti-missile missiles reached out to try and strike down the fighters.

Several plasma bolts got close enough to Samuel’s cockpit that he actually saw them zipping by. His Spitfire gave a beep of alarm when an AM missile momentarily locked onto his fighter. However, it lost lock again almost as quickly as it gained it. Within seconds, he had slingshotted around New Rostov and was heading out into space. “All fighters check-in,” he ordered over his COM channel, not worrying about breaking radio silence now.

When two fighters didn’t check-in, Samuel had to fight back a swear word. “Justice four, Red three, check-in, repeat check-in,” he requested again. This time there was radio silence. “All right everyone, we’ve lost Justice four and Red three. We will remember them when we get back to Ark Royal. Let’s just make sure we get there in one piece. Keep your eyes open. There could be another Russian ship or two out here between us and safety,” Samuel said as he fought to keep the sense of loss out of his voice. Until today, he had just seen himself as a test pilot. He had never been in combat before. Now he had lost people under his command. He imagined Commodore Lightfoot would see the exchange as more than fair. They had just destroyed two massive orbital docking stations and multiple freighters for the cost of two small fighters. Yet Samuel suddenly realized he didn’t see it that way. He had spent the last year and more training Justice four, and Red three had been a promising pilot as well. As he thought of their faces, it dawned on him that they wouldn’t be the last pilots lost under his command. That made his flight back to Ark Royal after his first successful mission far less enjoyable than he had imagined it would be.




Chapter 32

The Second Russian-Allied war was actually shorter than the first, however despite there being no large-scale ground battles, there was far more devastation caused.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Marlborough, New Rostov-Alpha shift passage, 13th November 2473 AD.

“Thirty seconds,” Marlborough’s navigation officer announced.

“Acknowledged,” Anderson responded.

Lightfoot didn’t speak. He didn’t trust his voice to stay even. He was about to take the greatest risk of his naval career. Jumping into an enemy occupied system right on the edge of shift space was usually inviting disaster. Especially if the enemy system commander knew your fleet was nearby. In such circumstances, it was normal for a commander to position his fleet to ambush any attempt to enter his system. Yet in this instance, Lightfoot intended for Checkov to know about his fleet. The Russian warships sent from New Rostov to Alpha to warn of Lightfoot’s attack on the Russian Federation’s homeworld should have arrived three hours ago. With luck, Checkov would already have his fleet accelerating hard towards the shift passage to New Rostov with the intent of coming to his homeworld’s aid. That was exactly where Lightfoot wanted him to be. If Lightfoot had jumped his fleet into the system normally, Checkov could have pulled back to the Sol system and joined forces with Koroylov. Now, Checkov would have to fight with whatever ships he had. Of course, that didn’t change the fact Lightfoot was jumping his fleet blindly into an enemy system. Anything could be waiting for his forces.

The only thing that happened when the countdown reached zero was a slight jerking feeling and a fleeting wave of nausea. They were the only things that signaled Marlborough had reverted to normal space. “Multiple contacts on the gravimetric sensors, multiple clusters of ships accelerating on different velocities!” a Lieutenant shouted almost immediately.

“Calm down!” Anderson ordered his subordinate. “Sort through the contacts, report them in order of threat assessment.”

“Yes Captain,” the contrite officer replied with more control. “The nearest fleet of contacts is five light minutes ahead of us. They are accelerating into the system. Gravimetric returns suggest a mixture of warships and freighters. A second larger group of contacts is moving from Alpha towards the New Rostov shift passage. They are a light hour into the system.”

As well as describing the situation, the Lieutenant had projected the new contacts on the holo-display. Given what he’d seen in the New Rostov system, Lightfoot was able to guess what had happened. Koroylov had called for reinforcements for his final push on Earth. New Rostov’s defenders had been stripped in half and a large freighter convoy had been dispatched. They must have left the New Rostov system just hours before he launched his attack. Now his fleet had caught up with them in the Alpha system. Whilst they were accelerating into the system, Checkov had gathered his fleet and was accelerating to the shift passage to jump back to New Rostov. Presumably he planned to pick up the freighter convoy’s escorts along the way. It couldn’t have worked out any worse for his fleet.

“Prioritize identifying the escorts of the nearest fleet,” Lightfoot requested. Their presence changed everything. Given the number of gravimetric signatures coming from Checkov’s fleet, Lightfoot knew they hadn’t received any reinforcements. His fleet could take them. But he hadn’t counted on having to deal with the freighter convoy’s escorts as well. “Show me the intercept points if we continue on our current trajectory,” he requested. On the holo-projector a simulation began. Lightfoot had his fleet accelerating at maximum military power into the system. It would take less than forty-five minutes for his ships to catch up to the slow-moving freighter convoy. If Lightfoot kept his force accelerating as they engaged the freighter convoy, Checkov’s fleet would enter missile range twenty minutes later.

“The freighter convoy has a battlecruiser in it,” the Lieutenant reported. “There’s two heavy cruisers as well. So far we’ve detected eight other medium and light cruisers, and fifteen destroyers or frigates. We’re still firming up the specific classes of the smaller ships.”

Lightfoot did the math. His fleet outnumbered the freighter convoy’s escorts by a factor of three to one in missile throw weight. Ordinarily he would be delighted at such a one-sided engagement. But the Russians would hurt his fleet and that would offset his advantage against Checkov. “Get me a conference call with Admirals Jil’lal and Harborough,” Lightfoot requested.

“We have to go through them,” he said coming straight to the point when the two other admirals’ appeared on his command chair’s holo projector. “We don’t have time to delay. That supply fleet must be bringing reinforcements for a final push on Earth. That means Koroylov is planning an attack soon. We’re going to get hurt but I don’t see any other way. We need to push through to the Sol system.”

“I’m in agreement Commodore,” Harborough responded. “We wanted to get Checkov out of position. We have done that. There’s not going to be a better chance at taking him on in a fair fight. We have to just take what hurt comes our way from this freighter convoy.”

“That’s how I see it as well,” Jil’lal said as she waved her arms around passionately. Then she closed all her hands into fists. “Let’s strike them and keep striking until their fleet is no more. Then we can go to Earth.”

“Thank you for your support Admirals. I’m going to launch our fighters against that battlecruiser. If we can take it out of the fight, we’ll have a much easier time with this first fleet. Jil’lal, I think now is a good time to test your new missiles as well. They’re not going to do us much good in the Sol system if we don’t make it there in the first place.”

“I will see to it immediately Commodore,” Jil’lal responded, her hand still in fists. “It is an honor to go into battle with you both. Captain Somerville and his crew fought alongside my people when we overthrew the Overlord. I’m glad we can be fighting on your side today.”

“As am I Commodore,” Harborough said. “I’m confident you can see us through this.”

“Thank you both,” Lightfoot repeated. “See you on the other side.” He nodded sharply and cut the channel. He looked up to the holo-projector just in time to see the Russians’ reaction. He didn’t need a sensor lieutenant to inform him what was happening. The freighters and a few light escorts were veering off on a tight angle. The main bulk of their escorts increased their acceleration as they moved to join with Checkov’s fleet. Checkov was giving him a choice. He could go after the convoy of freighters and destroy most of them, but then he would be forced to fight Checkov and his reinforced fleet on nearly equal terms. Alternatively, he could let the freighters go and have a shot at engaging their escorts before Checkov’s main forces came into play. “Keep our current heading,” he ordered when Anderson looked to him. “If we destroy the freighters and don’t make it to Sol it will be for nothing. We’ll take Checkov first and then the freighters. Send orders to Ark Royal, I want all three fighter squadrons launched. They are to target the battlecruiser leading what was the freighter convoy’s escorts. I want that warship destroyed.”

Lightfoot knew that all the ships in his fleet had been at battle stations even before they jumped into the New Rostov system. He wasn’t surprised therefore to see the twenty-six Spitfire fighters on Ark Royal launch within three minutes of his initial order. Given the distances involved, there was no room for being sneaky in this attack. Instead all twenty-six Spitfires rapidly accelerated towards their target as soon as they formed up. Everyone in the system would detect their gravimetric signatures, yet detecting them and knowing they were coming wasn’t the same as being prepared for the whirlwind of destruction they were about to unleash.

It took the fighters ten minutes to catch up to the Russian squadron that was designated Bogie one on Marlborough’s holo-display. Like in the New Rostov system, the Russians, figuring they were facing something unexpected, opened fire with their point defense weapons at extreme range. For five seconds or so the twenty-six Spitfires weaved and jinked around, dodging everything thrown at them. Lightfoot winced when one of the contacts suddenly disappeared. He held his breath, expecting more to disappear. Thankfully none did. Instead, when they reached attack range, twenty-five new contacts appeared as the Spitfires launched their plasma missiles. The Russians shifted their fire towards the missiles allowing the Spitfires to break away and avoid any more danger. Ten plasma missiles were shot down, but that left fifteen to close with the battlecruiser. Two missed, the rest struck home. One moment the battlecruiser was accelerating through space, the next it was nothing more than a series of fireballs as multiple internal systems detonated and ripped the warship apart.

On Marlborough’s bridge, cheers erupted and fists were pumped into the air. “Get those fighters back and re-armed as soon as possible,” Lightfoot ordered. He had their next target firmly in mind. Checkov’s battleship was going to hammer his fleet. If the Spitfires could take it out, it would dramatically shift the odds of success in the coming battle. No doubt Checkov would be thinking of counters to the fighters, but Lightfoot doubted they would be enough.

“We’ll be in range of Bogie one in five minutes Commodore,” Captain Anderson updated Lightfoot. “It looks like we’ll get in three salvos before Checkov gets into range.”

“Three will have to be enough,” Lightfoot replied. He knew it wouldn’t. Some of the ships in Bogie one would be able to join Checkov. He intended to do as much damage to the rest as possible though. “Make sure Ark Royal stays at the back of the fleet. I don’t want her getting damaged unnecessarily.”

Lightfoot took a few moments to look over his fleet’s formation. He wanted to double check his preparations. He moved a couple of divisions around to maximize the effectiveness of his fleet’s point defense fire given the relative position of the Russian ships. Then, when he could think of nothing more to change. He looked back at the Russian warships. There were just thirty seconds until his ships entered missile range. “Fire,” he ordered as soon as the time came.

Six hundred and forty missiles were launched towards Bogie one. In reply, the Russian warships fired two hundred and eighty of their own. Lightfoot checked the number of laser warhead missiles Jil’lal’s ships had fired. There were thirty of them. No doubt all she has, Lightfoot thought. The missiles were prototypes. Not even as far along the development stage as the Spitfire fighters he had pressed into service. Jil’lal had taken them from the research and development team that had been working on them on Vestar when she had left. The idea behind them was indeed novel. Lightfoot thought they might change the future of naval warfare as much as the Spitfires would. Yet they were completely untested. No one knew if they would be in any way effective. It was a risk using them, but it seemed today was the day Lightfoot was taking any risky opportunity that presented itself.

Keeping his eye on the prototype missiles, Lightfoot watched as the numbers were reduced to just twelve by the Russian point defense fire. Then, five seconds away from reaching the normal attack range of anti-ship missiles, they detonated. Normally, in those five seconds the Russians might have expected to shoot down half the number again. Yet they didn’t get the chance. Each missile detonated with the force of a typical thermal nuclear warhead. However, the force of the detonation was concentrated almost exclusively through several focusing crystals designed to convert the energy into grazer beams. The beams of gamma rays pierced through space and struck Russian warships. Each missile created a grazer beam half the strength of the strongest heavy laser cannons a British battleship was equipped with. Even so, when the beams struck several Russian warships, they melted through their valstronium armor and caused havoc within. Six beams found targets. A heavy cruiser and medium cruiser were both hit and appeared to shrug off most of the damage. The other four beams hit destroyers and frigates. The much smaller ships weren’t so lucky. Three ships were destroyed outright and the other was all but crippled.

“They worked like a charm!” Captain Anderson shouted as he slapped his thigh. “By golly they worked.”

“They certainly did,” Lightfoot agreed. “It’s a pity we don’t have a few hundred more of them.” He was about to say more, but the familiar sound of Marlborough’s point defenses opening up cut him off. Instead he watched the incoming Russian missile salvo. Though his ships dealt with most of the missiles, a Canadian frigate and a Vestarian destroyer were both crippled and had to fall out of formation.

“Let’s hit them again!” Lightfoot demanded.

Without the prototype Vestarian missiles, the second and third missile salvos weren’t as devastating. Yet by the time Marlborough’s sensors could peer through the waves of electromagnetic energy given off by the nuclear explosions from the third salvo, more than half of the ships of Bogie one had been knocked out of the fight. In return, just five more Allied ships had been lost. Now the real battle begins, Lightfoot thought. Checkov’s main fleet was about to enter missile range.

“What’s the status of our Spitfires?” Lightfoot demanded.

“They’ve all landed and Ark Royal is refueling and rearming them now Commodore,” a Lieutenant reported. “The latest estimate of the launch time for Sword squadron is eight minutes. Justice squadron will be four minutes behind them and then Red squadron three minutes after that.”

“We can’t wait for them to form up together,” Lightfoot replied. “I want each squadron to go in as soon as they launch. Tell their squadron Captains to coordinate their attacks with our missile salvos. Use our salvos as cover.”

“Commodore,” Marlborough’s tactical officer called out as soon as Lightfoot’s orders had been acknowledged. “Checkov isn’t slowing his fleet down.”

Lightfoot swung around to look at the holo-projector. Checkov’s fleet was charging straight towards his own. What was left of Bogie one would soon be passed by Checkov’s ships and left behind.

“What is he doing?” Anderson asked. “We outnumber him, closing to plasma cannon range would be suicide.”

“The fighters,” Lightfoot said. “And the Vestarian missiles. Checkov knows he is against forces he doesn’t understand and can’t defeat. He is closing to fight the one type of engagement he knows he can hurt us in.” What was left of Bogie one fired another salvo. As the missiles passed Checkov’s fleet, they fired as well, significantly bolstering the number of incoming missiles. Lightfoot nodded in approval. Bogey one would keep firing to add to the mayhem that Checkov’s fleet was about to cause. “All ships full deceleration burn immediately,” Lightfoot ordered. He needed to give his fighters time to rearm and launch. “We have the superiority in missile numbers, we need to use it to maximum effect. We’re only going to get three salvos in with Checkov’s acceleration rates before he closes to plasma cannon range. Let’s use them!”

*

McGrath punched her cockpit in frustration. Her fighter had been refueled and rearmed and she had maneuvered it into a launch tube when her launch order had been cancelled. She opened a COM channel to the flight operations officer when she felt Ark Royal throw itself into a tight twist. Incoming missiles, she realized. Her launch had been delayed because a Russian salvo was about to hit them. A part of her thanked whoever had decided to delay the launch. She didn’t like the idea of trying to fly through a series of thermonuclear explosions. At the same time, she didn’t want to be on Ark Royal if she was hit. She’d rather be in space ready to fight. The next few seconds were filled with terror as Ark Royal twisted and turned in space. McGrath didn’t know how many missiles were targeting the carrier and every muscle in her body tensed as she waited for something to strike her ship. As the seconds dragged on and nothing happened she forced herself to relax. The evasive maneuvers ended. The missile or missiles had clearly missed. Then a familiar voice came on the COM channel.

“You’re launching in ten seconds Sword one,” Commander Barton announced. “Confirm flight status.”

“Everything is green and ready to go,” McGrath replied.

Seconds later she was shooting out of Ark Royal and into space. With no need to hide her presence, she immediately gave orders to her squadron. “Form up on me. Let’s move away from the fleet and see what is going on.” As she directed her fighter away from Ark Royal and the rest of the Allied fleet, McGrath couldn’t miss the damaged and crippled ships that were all around her. Already the fleet had taken two salvos from Admiral Checkov’s main fleet. The Russians had to be hurting as well, but it looked like her side was not doing so well. “All right everyone, follow me in,” she ordered as soon as the eleven fighters of her squadron slotted in around her. She had lost her first pilot taking on the Russian battlecruiser. She forced the thought of losing more out of her mind. She couldn’t afford any distractions, that would definitely get someone killed.

“We’re going to follow in the third missile salvo Lightfoot fired. We’ll have to burn our engines pretty hard to catch up with the missiles. Let’s go.” Punching her throttle, McGrath pushed her Spitfire to the edge of its capabilities. Behind her, the whine of her fighter’s inertial compensator increased to an almost unbearable pitch. She had to tense her stomach muscles against the g-forces building upon her. Even her vision narrowed slightly as she pushed her body as well as her fighter to its limits.

“Captain McGrath, it looks like the Russians are pushing out frigates ahead of their formation,” Commander Barton informed her from Ark Royal. “I think they are meant to counter your attack. Lightfoot wants you to hit Checkov’s flagship at all costs. You have to fly through them.”

“Acknowledged,” McGrath replied quickly. She didn’t want to say anything more, lest her feelings got her into trouble. She understood Lightfoot’s need, but she didn’t like putting her pilots through such dangers.

“Listen up pilots,” she said switching back to her squadron channel. “Our target is that big ass battleship. We take it out and Checkov’s fleet will be gutted. They know that too, they’re pushing frigates forward to provide a shell of point defense units to stop us getting in close. We have to fly through whatever fire they can put out to reach our target. We have simmed these kinds of situations before. Now it’s time to do it for real.”

When her fighter caught up to the latest Allied missile salvo, McGrath slowed her rate of acceleration to match the larger anti-ship missiles. She kept her squadron half a light second behind them. She wanted to enter the Russians’ field of defensive fire just after Lightfoot’s salvo had detonated. That was when the Russians’ sensors would be at their weakest. “Switch to stealth mode,” she ordered her squadron. “Let’s give the Russians something to think about while they are shooting at those missiles.”

From her position, she had a bird’s eye view of the Russians’ attempt to shoot down Lightfoot’s salvo. Seemingly just in front of her, missile after missile detonated or veered off course as it was hit by point defense fire. Then all across the Russian fleet explosive fireballs appeared as thermonuclear missiles struck home. McGrath couldn’t tell how many ships were damaged or destroyed, but Checkov’s flagship was still very much in the fight. “All right ladies and gentlemen, this is it. Fire as soon as you get into range and then get the hell out of there. Let’s do this.”

There was no time for any of her pilots to reply for plasma bolts had already begun to zip past them. Knowing that her fighter’s stealth capabilities wouldn’t work so close to a fleet of warships pumping out gigajoules of radar waves, McGrath powered up her ship and began to twist and turn as she weaved back-and-forth. In the space of six seconds she zipped past a frigate trying to take her and her wingman out. An explosion in her peripheral vision made her swear.

“Sword two, do you copy? Sword two?” She swore again when there was no reply. Then all thoughts of her wingman disappeared when Checkov’s ship came into range. Screaming in rage, she pulled the trigger to release her missile and flung her fighter away from the Russian battleship and the hundreds of plasma bolts that were reaching towards her. Even as she pulled away she watched as her missile raced towards the battleship. Within a second of her firing, eight others joined it. The Russians shot down five, but three struck the battleship in quick succession. McGrath shouted in victory when at least one of the missiles caused a secondary explosion within the battleship’s hull which blew out several decks and at least a couple of missile tubes.

For a moment there was a sense of peace around McGrath. Everyone had stopped shooting at her and she looked around at the Russian fleet without any fear. The moment passed almost as suddenly as it came for seemingly out of nowhere, the space around McGrath’s fighter suddenly turned into an asteroid field of debris. All around her ships detonated and spewed massive chunks of armor, hull and internal components into space. McGrath instinctively whipped her fighter around a large nose section of what had once been a destroyer hurtling her way. Then she had to dive to miss a wave of smaller shards of something. She was only partially successful and a couple crashed into her fighter, knocking off a couple of ECM antennas. McGrath had reacted on pure instinct and only when she was through the debris did she realize what had happened. Lightfoot’s fleet had opened up with their heavy plasma cannons and laser turrets. His ships had decimated the Russian ships.

She knew the Russians would have fired at almost the same instant. She turned her head to look at the Allied Fleet. It was close enough for her to see the devastation the Russians had caused. Ships were blowing up in front of her eyes whilst others were disintegrating from the damage they had already suffered. Switching COM channels, she sought out someone from her carrier. “Ark Royal, this is Sword one, what is your status over?” When no one replied she tried again. “Ark Royal come in. Sword squadron is ready to return and land.”

“What do I do now?” McGrath asked herself when no one replied. All of a sudden, she felt very alone. As she swung her fighter around towards what was left of the Allied Fleet she tried to find one ship that wasn’t damaged. It was an impossible task. What do I do? she asked herself again as panic welled up within her. She hadn’t trained for this. No one was responding and she didn’t even know if the battle was over yet.




Chapter 33

Even today High Admiral Koroylov is known as a novel strategist.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

UCSS Lexington, edge of Sol system, 15th November 2473 AD.

Captain Hancock stared at the holo projector on her ship’s bridge. She squinted as she tried to figure out what she was looking at. It didn’t help her any. “What is going on?” she asked her bridge crew, hoping someone had some idea. When no one immediately answered, she looked from face to face. Most of her officers didn’t look up from their consoles. “Okay, COM our consorts, see if they have any idea and link the data from their passive sensors to ours.”

As her subordinates carried out her orders, Hancock rubbed her forehead as she stared at the holo plot. She had one British destroyer and two German frigates with her, they were the only ships that she had managed to get operational over the last two weeks. Initially, after flying past Earth on a ballistic trajectory, her crews hadn’t been able to do much more than carry out emergency repairs. They had to keep their work to a minimum for fear that giving off too much electromagnetic radiation would give them away. Koroylov had sent a small squadron to follow her ships. Thankfully they hadn’t been able to catch up to the damaged Allied ships, but they had followed close behind for a couple of days.

As soon as Hancock got the engines working she had altered course slightly to throw off their pursuers. It had worked and a couple of days later the Russians had given up. After waiting another day to make sure they were definitely gone, Hancock ordered her ships to decelerate and carry out proper repairs. Due to their damage, it had taken another three days to come to a halt relative to the sun. Then more repairs had been carried out in earnest. Finally, she had felt confident enough in the few ships she had brought with her to set out on the orders Supreme Commander Somerville had transmitted. Since then she had been investigating various sections of the outer system at Somerville’s direction. She had been skeptical about finding anything so far outside of the Sol system, and yet, now they had. The only problem was she had no idea what they had found.

“None of the other Captains have any idea what they’re looking at either,” Lexington’s COM officer reported. “Their data should be updating our holo display now.”

Hancock fought the desire to rub her forehead even further, things still didn’t seem clear to her. “Anyone got any ideas yet?” she asked. No one spoke up. “You have permission to speculate.” For several seconds it seemed like no one was going to say anything. Then Lexington’s XO broke the silence.

“They’re far too big to be man-made ships. Yet that is no natural formation. What else is there out here so far from the inner system?”

“Comets?” Lexington’s sensor officer said, answering the XO’s question.

For a second the XO’s face looked like he was going to dismiss the junior officer’s suggestion as absurd. That was Hancock’s reaction as well. Then she took a second to actually consider it. What else was there out here? The Russians have had months to prepare something like this. How hard would it be? She had no idea about the answer to her last question, but she guessed she was looking at the answer on Lexington’s passive sensors.

“You might be on to something,” Lexington’s XO replied as his thoughts followed those of his Captain.

“But what would the Russians want with comets?” another Lieutenant asked.

Hancock was about to echo the question when the answer came to her. “Impossible,” she couldn’t help saying out loud. “They wouldn’t.” She closed her eyes for a moment as she pictured the only purpose Koroylov could have for so many massive comets. She had always thought she had a good imagination and it wasn’t hard to picture balls of fire filling up the wide-open sky of Idaho, her home state. It was just as easy for her to picture her two young daughters staring up at the coming disaster unable to comprehend what they were seeing. That made her snap her eyes open. Everyone on Lexington’s bridge was staring at her. “He’s going to use them to attack Earth. Either those things are being towed, or they have built impulse engines onto them. They’ll be accelerated to Earth and then rammed into the planet’s atmosphere. Earth’s defenders will be forced to use their missile salvos and heavy energy weapons to break the comets into smaller chunks that will burn up in the atmosphere. They will have no choice; it will be that or watch Earth be pulverized.”

“But if our defenses can destroy them, why go to all this bother?” A junior Lieutenant asked.

Lexington’s XO had already seen where his Captain was going. “Because when Earth’s defenders are wasting all their munitions on the comets, Koroylov will rush his fleet in and take them out. Earth’s defenders will have to decide between saving their civilian populations or saving themselves. They won’t be able to do both. Chances are, a good portion of the fixed defenses will be taken out by the comets as well.”

Hancock nodded. “Koroylov could take Earth and hardly lose a ship. No wonder he’s been so patient, he’s been preparing this for months. XO, prepare an initial brief along with our sensor data to send back to Earth. Supreme Commander Somerville needs to know about this immediately. If they are going to come up with some way to stop these comets, they will need all the time they can get.”

“What about us?” the XO asked.

Hancock turned back to the holo display. She studied the comets for several seconds. “Once the comets get into the inner system, Koroylov will be able to escort them all the way to Earth with his fleet. Yet right now, they are vulnerable. I’m sure there are ships out there with them, but maybe not enough to stop us getting close. A few thermonuclear missiles will take out some of those smaller comets. If we can reduce their numbers, it will give Somerville a chance to counter the rest.”

When Hancock turned back to her XO, her subordinate was staring at the holo plot as well. He slowly turned and nodded to his Captain. Both of them knew what Hancock was suggesting. If there were any warships amongst those comets, Lexington and her consorts would be wiped out. Yet if they could take out even a handful of the comets, it would prove immensely beneficial to Earth’s defenders.

“Prepare your report XO. COMs, open a channel to our consorts, I wish to speak to their Captains,” Hancock ordered.

After informing the other Captains of her plan, Hancock turned to working out an intercept trajectory. She wanted to curve her approach to the comets so that she would come up behind them. If there were any ships escorting the comets into the inner system, they would not be expecting an attack from the rear. The only problem her ships had was that they were all quite heavily damaged. None of them could reach anywhere near their previous maximum acceleration rates, and all of their stealth systems were heavily compromised. The reality was that they would not be able to sneak up on a vigilant warship, no matter what they did. After doing her best to work out the optimal approach her ships could take given their condition, Hancock transmitted it to the other ships under her command. “Execute course change,” she ordered her helmsman after the other ships confirmed her orders.

She waited on the bridge for forty-five minutes to watch the large sensor blips. It still wasn’t clear exactly what they were, but as her ships came slowly closer, they only grew more distinct rather than disappearing. Given their size and shape there was nothing else they could be but comets. What a task, Hancock thought. The sheer work involved in finding and collecting all the comets must have been a herculean effort. Clearly Koroylov had come into the Sol system with the equipment and ships to do this from day one. We should have known he had some kind of sneaky plan prepared. We’ll see if his plan can survive contact with my ships though.

“I’m going to retire to my quarters,” Hancock informed everyone as she stood. Lexington had just completed the most active part of her course change, if no Russian ships had detected them yet, they probably wouldn’t until Lexington got much closer to the comets. “I’m not going to lie to you, this could be a one-way mission. Make sure you take the time to send any transmissions back to Earth that you want. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

When she got to her quarters Hancock sat in front of her personal computer terminal and opened the latest letter to her husband. She reread the most recent couple of paragraphs and finished the letter off. Then she began a visual recording. “Matthew,” she began but had to pause to wipe her eyes. “Jane, Julia, I want my final message to be personal. I don’t know what will happen over the next several hours, but I can guess. If things go the way I fear, then this will be the last time I get to speak to you. I wish I could hold each one of you and say this in person.” She had to pause again and closed her eyes to stop more tears coming. She took a deep breath and continued. “When you hear about what I am about to do, you may be angry at my choice. I can understand that. Leaving you all has never been something I wanted. I know life has been hard with me being in the navy. Yet it is what I have had to do. This is the best way I have of protecting you. What is about to happen today is no different. If these comets make it to Earth, you could all be killed. I cannot allow that. I do not want to be taken from you, but if this is the price of your safety, then I will gladly pay it. I hope one day you will understand. I love you all and I always will. Look after one another, protect one another.” With her right hand Hancock touched her lips and then blew a kiss towards the recorder. “You will be in my heart right up until the end. I love you.”

Hancock forced herself to switch off the recorder. She wanted to say so much more but she didn’t trust her emotions. She needed to keep herself together for what was about to happen. Moving to her bed she lay down and tried to close her eyes, even if the Russians were lucky, they probably wouldn’t detect her ship for another four or five hours. She needed to rest so that she would be at her best.

Sleep wouldn’t come. She tossed back and forth, thoughts of her family going round and round in her head. With a sigh she got up and pulled up a display of the cluster of comets. Zooming in, she examined them in more detail. If she couldn’t sleep, she could at least figure out which comets were the best targets. An hour later she stood and stretched. She spared a glance at the holo recorder but shook her head. Instead she moved to the door and proceeded to the bridge.

“Status report?” she asked as soon as she sat in her command chair.

“No change Captain,” Lexington’s Second Lieutenant reported. “No sign any Russian ships have detected us. We haven’t detected any Russian ships amongst the comets either.”

“Very well, I will relieve you Lieutenant, go and get some rest. I’ll be calling everyone to battle stations in three hours.”

“Thank you Captain,” the Lieutenant said as he stood.

Hancock took a moment to look around the bridge and familiarize herself with who was on watch. Then her eyes settled on the holo-display. With nothing else to do she watched the comets slowly get closer and closer. In her head, she played out a number of scenarios for what she would do if and when the Russian ships, she guessed were escorting the comets, detected them. There was no scenario that allowed her ships to escape, but she wanted to be ready to do the most damage.

“Call the ship to battle stations,” she ordered when the time came. “Signal our consorts, tell them to prepare to go to our maximum acceleration immediately upon my command.”

“They have all acknowledged Captain,” Lexington’s COM officer reported moments later.

“Now we’ll see how good their passive sensors really are,” Hancock commented once her XO and the rest of her officers were back at their posts.

Hancock was pleasantly surprised by the Russians’ ineptness. Even though her ships were slowly closing with the comets in stealth mode, the various degrees of damage the ships had suffered should have made them easy to spot. Yet there was no reaction from the Russians until her ships got within half a light minute of the rearmost comet.

“Active sensors pinging us,” Lexington’s sensor officer shouted. “Bearing three three two point six.”

“Acknowledged,” Hancock replied and forced herself to wait patiently. In her mind, she counted the seconds as they ticked by. Within three seconds, another ship had lit off its active sensors, by the time six had passed there were two more. She waited another four seconds before acting. “Bring us onto heading three three four point two. Maximum acceleration.”

Lexington’s course took her away from the four Russian ships that had revealed their locations and towards a cluster of comets which were small enough that one or two missiles should break them up. “Target cluster foxtrot-two, pass on the targeting data to our consorts as well. We’ll open fire as soon as we come into range.”

“I’ve got ID’s on the two nearest Russian ships. Designating them Bogies one and two. Bogey one is a heavy cruiser, Bogey two is a destroyer,” Lexington’s sensor officer updated everyone.

Hancock had to bite back a curse. The heavy cruiser on its own would decimate her small flotilla. “Hold course,” she said in an attempt to focus her subordinates’ minds on the task at hand.

Over the course of the next minute, bogies three and four were identified as destroyers. Another Russian ship made its presence known when it lit off its engines and turned onto an intercept course. It had been cruising a couple of light minutes ahead of the cluster of comets, clearly acting as a forward scout. It was a medium cruiser. That settled things in everyone’s minds. Even if some of the Allied flotilla managed to escape the heavy cruiser’s fire, the medium cruiser would finish them off.

“We’ve entered missile range,” Lexington’s XO reported.

“Fire,” Hancock ordered.

Twelve missiles shot out of their tubes and rapidly accelerated towards six of the smaller comets. Hancock’s ships were close enough to determine that there were no tugs pulling the comets, each had several impulse engines which had been built into them. Hancock had targeted her missiles such that they would take out the majority of the impulse engines in each comet. Even if they didn’t break up, they would not be able to be accelerated towards Earth. At least not any time soon.

“Bogey two and three have opened fire, twelve missiles incoming,” Lexington’s sensor officer announced as soon as twelve new contacts appeared on the holo- display. “Bogey one is firing as well,” she added seconds later. “The count is now twenty-seven incoming missiles.”

“Alter course, put us onto heading three four seven point seven,” Hancock ordered. “Let our other ships know that they can open fire as soon as they have reloaded. The Russians can’t get to our missiles before they strike home. Let’s do as much damage as we can.” Turning away from the incoming Russian missiles would reduce the effectiveness of her point defenses but it would give her ships a few more vital seconds to reload and fire a second salvo. At this point that was all that mattered.

Everyone on Lexington’s bridge watched the two groups of missiles head towards their targets. Then, when the Russian missiles entered point defense range, everything seemed to happen at once.

“Opening fire with our point defenses,” Lexington’s tactical officer shouted as point defense plasma cannons and AM missiles tried to intercept the Russian ordinance.

“Missile tubes two, four and five are ready to fire, launching now,” Lexington’s XO added seconds later.

“Captain, Captain,” the sensor officer shouted over a number of other voices trying to get Hancock’s attention.

“What is it?” Hancock asked as she tore her eyes away from the display of the incoming Russian missiles.

“The comets, some of them have point defense weapons, they’ve opened up on our missiles.”

Hancock couldn’t stop herself cursing this time. “Show me,” she demanded. “Belay that,” she snapped, changing her mind. There was no time to analyze was happening. If that’s what her sensor officer said, she had to trust it. “Transmit your sensor data to Earth immediately. Somerville needs to know the comets have point defenses built into them.”

Turning back to the main holo display, Hancock saw that the Russian missiles were less than five seconds away. The other ships in her flotilla had managed to fire four more missiles between them. Together they had shot down eleven Russian missiles. It’s not going to be enough. In desperation, she turned back to her sensor officer. “Sensors?”

The sensor officer punched the final button on her command console and spun round. “It’s sent.”

Relief flooded through Hancock. She had just enough time to turn back to the holo-display and see that three missiles were targeting Lexington. Knowing it wouldn’t work she give the order anyway. “Evasive maneuvers.” As the g-forces on her body increased from the maneuvers, Hancock allowed her eyes to be forced shut. She pictured the last time she had held her daughters. She had kissed them both on the forehead before handing them back to her husband. They were her last thoughts as all three of the Russian missiles scored direct hits on her damaged medium cruiser. One missile penetrated several decks and detonated just thirty meters from Lexington’s bridge. Hancock and the rest of her officers disappeared in a fraction of a second.

Though no one was alive long enough to see it. Their first missile salvo took out four comets. The few missiles of their second a further two. Their sacrifice had not been in vain.




Chapter 34

The best laid plans can be disrupted by one unlucky happenstance. Of course, the best strategists can draw up plans to take account of such things if they were to happen.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Ekaterina, inner Sol system.

“Show me,” Koroylov demanded as he stormed onto Ekaterina’s bridge. He had been woken in the middle of his sleep cycle with the news. To say he was grumpy was an understatement. He was furious.

“I have the sensor data from Commodore Lukaov ready to play on the main holo-display,” Ekaterina’s COM officer informed her Admiral.

“Yes,” was all Koroylov said in response. He sat in silence, almost constantly shaking his head as the Allied attack on the comets Lukaov was supposed to be escorting played out. From a professional standpoint, he knew Lukaov’s defensive formation had been the optimal one. No one could have expected an attack to come from the rear of the collection of comets. There were no shift passages within six light hours and no Allied ships should have been able to sneak up on Lukaov’s squadron. Yet they did, Koroylov growled to himself. And he knew exactly what ships they were, even without enough sensor data to confirm it. Somehow the Allied ships from the Combined Fleet that had failed to decelerate and enter Earth’s orbit had come back to haunt him. They must have continued on a ballistic course to the edge of the system and then snuck in behind Lukaov’s squadron. “The fool,” Koroylov couldn’t help but say out loud. “Order Lukaov’s Flag Captain, who is it again? Captain Radiz isn’t it?” Instead of waiting for a response he carried on. “Yes, it is. Order Radiz to arrest Lukaov and take over command of the squadron. Lukaov will face a court martial for this.”

“Yes High Admiral, I will transmit the orders immediately,” the COM officer replied.

Ordinarily Koroylov detested punishing subordinates without a proper investigation, yet they were on the eve of the most important battle in the Russian Space Federation’s history. Fear tactics were the norm within the Federation Navy, though since taking command, Koroylov had all but done away with such practices. Now, he had no choice. The rest of his commanders needed to know the price of failure. Nothing else can go wrong!

“Tactical, run analysis of plan Hailstorm, what is our chance of success given the comets we have lost?” Koroylov demanded.

“I’ve already worked out an initial breakdown. A more detailed one will be ready in half an hour or so, but I don’t think the numbers will change too much High Admiral,” Koroylov’s tactical officer responded.

“Give it to me then.”

“With less comets, it increases the risk of interception of General Varstick’s soldiers by six percent per shuttle. Overall, that only changes the chances of us successfully taking Earth’s orbitals by five percent. Now plan Hailstorm has a ninety-five percent chance of success. However, our loss estimates for our fleet are up by fifteen percent. That is where we will feel the loss of the comets the most. With less comets to shoot down, the Allies will be able to hit our ships with more ordinance.”

Koroylov raised both his hands and slowly rubbed them along the top of his head as he thought through the new tactical situation. Once they took Earth, he could easily hold it even if his fleet suffered a fifteen percent higher loss rate. Yet now the Allies knew about the comets. It was likely they would come up with some way to negate his plans. Moreover, he didn’t trust his computer analysts, they always downplayed the effect commanders had in engagements. He was up against James Somerville, the new Supreme Commander of the Allied Fleet. It was likely his presence alone would cost him another ten percent of his fleet. “What’s the best guess at an ETA for replacing the lost comets?” he asked as he stroked his chin. His eyes were closed as he thought.

“Five months minimal Admiral, we would have to send to New Rostov for some of the engines and other material we would need,” the tactical officer answered.

“Damn,” Koroylov said, not even trying to hide his dismay. He couldn’t afford to allow the siege to go on that much longer. His ships would probably start to run out of supplies before then. And five months was a big assumption. If the Trivium was already starting to decrease the amount of supplies they were sending him, it would be next to impossible to get them to send the materials that were needed to fit and prepare more comets for plan Hailstorm within the next five months. It’s now or never, Koroylov realized. “We are going ahead with the plan,” he announced. “Signal Radiz to proceed with all haste. Our cover might be blown, but if we attack fast enough, it won’t give the Allies time to come up with a counter to our strategy. Contact General Varstick, inform him that I want him to commit two thirds of his strategic reserve to Hailstorm as well. That will make up for the increased risk each shuttle is going to take.”

“Yes High Admiral,” was the reply from several officers before they carried out his orders.

Koroylov closed his eyes again as he tried to play out how things would go from here. By now, the Allies on Earth would have received whatever transmission their ships had sent before they had been destroyed. They would be discussing what he could be planning to use the comets for. Whether they figure out exactly what I have in mind or not, they’ll be trying to intercept the comets, Koroylov knew. And they know an attack is imminent. For a long time Koroylov sat in silence as he tried to think of the likely responses the Allies would make. Then he thought of his own counters. Only after he had a few firm ideas prepared did he begin to give orders. “Signal the rest of the fleet, order all our units but those defending Mars to concentrate on Ekaterina. Our cover is blown, it’s time to prepare for our part in plan Hailstorm.”

*

HMS Titian, Earth orbit.

“Thank you for coming at such a short notice,” James said to the members of his strategic working group. “Commodore Hawking has had the most time to go over the info Captain Hancock sent us so I’ll let him explain to those that aren’t up to speed.” James nodded to the American officer and waved for him to take over.

“As you can see,” Hawking said as he gestured towards the holographic image in front of their working group, “Captain Hancock encountered an anomalous cluster of comets. On closer inspection, it was clear their formation and direction were not natural. We now know what Koroylov has been doing these last six months. As many of us feared, he did come here with a plan to attack Earth. What you’re looking at are thirty-one comets that have been taken from the Oort cloud and boosted onto an intercept course for Earth.”

Hawking paused as a couple of the members of the working group gasped. James understood, he had felt the same when he had heard. “Surely a surface impact from even just one of those comets will wipe out all life on Earth?” Commodore Tianpei asked. “What is Koroylov thinking?”

“According to the sensor data captain Hancock managed to transmit before her ship was destroyed, impulse engines have been fixed on to the comets. They are strong enough to accelerate the comets to Earth, however they would not be enough to divert the comets from a surface strike at the last minute. Given the acceleration rates Hancock observed, the comets will reach Earth’s atmosphere in nine hours.” Again, Hawking paused as more gasps escaped normally well controlled lips. “To answer your question Commodore, it seems that is exactly what Koroylov intends. At least, he is willing to run the risk of such an occurrence. Our thinking is that Koroylov intends to detonate the comets just before they reach range of our point defenses. If the comets are broken into chunks of less than one ton, being made mostly of ice, they should burn up in our atmosphere. However, before they reach Earth’s atmosphere, they will pummel every ship and orbital station in their way.

“In essence, we predict Koroylov will use the comets like giant shot gun shells. Then, he will have his ships coming in right behind them. Our point defenses will have to decide between blowing up the larger chunks that could damage our orbital industries, or even strike Earth’s surface, and the Russian missiles and Russian ships that will be coming in behind them. It seems Koroylov has found a way to take Earth without risking the loss of a significant proportion of his fleet.”

“So, there you have it,” James said sensing that Hawking was done with his summary. “We have nine hours to figure out how to counter Koroylov’s plan. What are we going to do?” As James looked from face to face, there was silence. For a second James’ heart sunk, he had called his working group together because he needed ideas and his spirits lifted. It seemed Koroylov had outmaneuvered them again. When his uncle began to speak James spun to listen. He was relieved someone was saying something.

“The one thing I suspect we can’t do is take our fleet up to try and intercept these comets,” Somerville said. “For all we know, that’s exactly what Koroylov wants. The idea that he is going to bombard Earth’s surface with them may just be a ruse. Koroylov’s fleet still outnumbers us three to one, if we did try to intercept the comets and blow them up, his fleet would just take us out.”

“Agreed,” James said with a nod. “If it is a ruse, we’re not going to fall for it. So what else can we try?” When silence again threatened to stifle the mood of the meeting James urged his subordinates on. “Captain Hancock and the other ships with her gave their lives to get us this warning. If they hadn’t, the first we would have known would have been when the comets were detected closing with Earth. We have to make the best use of this time.”

“Stealth ships,” Admiral Hewitt blurted out. “Two of our stealth frigates returned with the Combined Fleet. There are other stealthy ships within our fleets. We could send them out to try and sneak through the Russian fleet and engage the comets. They only have to stay hidden long enough to get into missile range of the comets. We know their course, we can put a squadron of powered down stealth ships right along the trajectory they’re going to take.”

“It would be a suicide mission,” Somerville commented. “It would have to be volunteers only and even then, it will be a long shot. Koroylov will have to know we’d try something like that. He’ll have his picket ships on full alert.”

“And yet it is one option,” James said. “I think we have to try it. So that is one plan, we need more though. These comets have to be stopped at all costs.”

“Seeing as the comets’ trajectory to Earth cannot be disguised or altered, perhaps ballistic projectile weapons are the key?” Commodore McCracken suggested. “The British ships have tungsten spears they can fire from their flak cannons. Other ships from some of the other nations in our fleet have similar capabilities. We could also fire missiles from our tubes without their warheads or engines. If you put enough ordnance up along the trajectory of the comets, some of it is going to get through. All we have to do is score a glancing hit to knock some of the comets off course, or cause them to break up.”

“Just like with the stealth ships, I don’t think it will be too hard for Koroylov to figure out we’ll try something like that. His picket ships will be watching out for ballistic contacts. They’ll take them out with their point defenses easily enough,” Hawking countered.

“Perhaps,” McCracken conceded with a nod. “But if we concentrate our fire into as short a burst as possible, we may be able to overwhelm what they can handle. Especially if we coordinate it with an attack from our stealth ships. The tubes on British warships can recharge themselves within thirty seconds. Given that each shot won’t need any updated targeting information, across our fleet we could cycle through tens of thousands of ballistic ordnance shots within a couple of minutes. That’s bound to be enough to cause the Russians a headache.”

“I like it,” James commented. “We will have to improvise to find enough ballistic ordnance to fire from our missile tubes. We can’t use standard missiles, we’re already short of them as it is. I’ll send a message to Captain Romanov to start looking for such material right away. Keep brainstorming.” As the others discussed the ins and outs of the idea, James pulled out his datapad and sent a quick written message to Romanov. It would be enough for him to pass the request onto the heads of the procurement offices of each national navy. There really was no time to spare.

“How about trying something our Supreme Commander almost attempted at Bison?” Sato asked.

“What do you mean Commodore?” Admiral Shijie responded.

“When we thought Koroylov was going to attack us at Bison, Commander Somerville commandeered as many freighters as he could get his hands on. We were going to accelerate them at the Russian fleet and then detonate them at the last minute. Essentially, we were going to do what Koroylov intends to do with the comets, with our freighters. We could do the same thing here, except the freighters could be targeted at the comets. If we leave it to the last moment, Koroylov won’t have time to destroy the freighters or take out the debris that detonating them will cause. We could send the freighters around the far side of Earth and accelerate them on an opposite trajectory to the incoming comets. They could use Earth’s gravity to slingshot around and position themselves in the comets’ way. We detonate them, and the debris will cause the comets to break up.”

James silently stared at Sato for most of a second. He wasn’t sure if his second-in-command was joking or not. At Bison he had planned to detonate the freighters just as the Russians had entered missile range. That was the only way to ensure that the Russians didn’t use their point defenses to simply take out the debris. They would have to do the same in this situation. Yet Hawking’s analysis suggested the Russians intend to detonate their comets just before missile range. So the comets would already have been detonated before the freighter fragments struck them. “Do you think it will have any real impact?” He asked. “If we detonate the freighters around the same time Koroylov detonates the comets, will we not simply have two waves of debris passing one another?”

“We will,” Sato said with a nod. “Probably, we are not going to get too many hits, but every hit will be one chunk less our point defenses have to worry about. Plus, where do you think Koroylov’s ships will be?”

“Right behind the comets,” James said as it dawned on him what Sato was thinking. “They’ll have hundreds of chunks of freighter debris coming right at them.”

“Yes, and probably right at the point they would be intending to open fire with their own missiles. Their sensors will have to track every collision between our freighters and their comets, and every piece of freighter debris that has its trajectory changed by an impact, and however many missiles we can fire at them. The whole situation will play hell with our own tracking, but at least both sides will be pummeled rather than just us.”

“I like it,” James said as a feral smile spread across his face. It was his first positive facial expression since he had received the report from Captain Hancock. “If there’s one thing we have a lot of excess of, it’s freighters in orbit with nothing useful to do. I’ll send another note to Romanov. We have to begin commandeering the freighters as soon as possible.”

“If that’s how far out of the box we’re allowed to think, then I have a few more suggestions,” Admiral Hewitt said.

“Fire away,” James said, though he didn’t look up from his datapad as he typed.

Ten minutes later, after a few more strategies had been discussed and weighed up, a beep on James’ datapad told him that someone was outside Titan’s main briefing room. “Hold that thought Commodore,” James said as he interrupted Sato. “I ordered Titan’s First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Scott, to analyze the likely effectiveness of Koroylov’s attack. She was a science officer before transferring to the RSN command stream. Let’s hear what she has to say. Hopefully it will give us a better idea of how to counter these comets.” With a tap on his datapad he ordered the briefing room’s door to open. “You may enter Lieutenant,” he called.

“Supreme Commander,” Scott said as she stepped through and saluted. “Admirals,” she added as she turned and looked at the gathered officers.

James could tell from her stance that she was more than a little nervous. “At ease Lieutenant, you’re among friends. Please, share what you have found so far.”

“Thank you Commander,” Scott replied, though she only relaxed slightly. “To begin, what my initial simulations have found could be classed as good news.”

James wanted to interrupt her, he could see the look of incredulity on several other of his subordinates faces as well. Yet he bit back anything he might say. He trusted Scott.

“We haven’t done a lot of survey work with comets in the Oort cloud, however what details we do have suggests their make-up is typically around ninety-eight percent ice. The rest is space dust that has been trapped within the ice. Thankfully, there are very little heavy metals within the dust material so the dust itself will burn up pretty easily in the atmosphere as well. By my estimate, we should be able to allow chunks up to three tones in weight to penetrate our atmosphere. We could even stretch it to four tones if we wanted to. When the ice melts off the comets, the dust will be left. However, the dust won’t be concentrated into a single entity. As the comet chunks melt, they will scatter the dust throughout the atmosphere. If there are any concentrated solid dust particles larger than a pebble they stand a good chance of striking the surface, yet from what survey data we have, it’s quite unlikely any pebble size solid material will exist. Additionally, the laser anti-air defenses every major town and city on Earth is equipped with should be able to track and detonate any pebble size debris that comes through the atmosphere. The comet chunks themselves will still pose a serious threat to Earth’s surface. Anything over five tones won’t fully melt. Even a small ball of ice travelling at one fifth the speed of light will give off more energy than several of our most powerful thermonuclear warheads. If any do get through, they will probably explode in the atmosphere rather than make it all the way to the Earth’s surface. But as you can imagine, such large explosions even at altitude will do a lot of damage. That said, if we can break up the larger comet chunks before they reach the atmosphere, we should be able to protect our civilian populations.”

“Okay,” James responded. “That is good news. But what about our fleet and orbital defenses. Can we actually take them out? And if we can, can we defend ourselves at the same time?”

“The simulations are inconclusive Commander,” Scott answered. “If I was Koroylov, I would arrange for the comets to be detonated into small chunks no larger than ten tones. That will give us thousands of chunks to track and engage. Added to that, a direct hit by one of our point defense weapons may not guarantee a kill. It could break the comet into two five ton chunks thus giving us two new targets to track. However, on balance, my simulations suggest that if Koroylov adds his own missile salvo to the wave of comet chunks, we will be hurt pretty badly. Not enough to take the fleet or our orbital defenses out in one go. The following battle will no doubt hurt Koroylov, but it’s unlikely we can win a drawn-out engagement after being hit by the comets.”

“How long do you think it has taken Koroylov to assemble the comets he has?” James asked.

“Well,” Scott said and paused to gather her thoughts. “I’m not an expert on mining comets, I suppose no one really is. There’s far too much ice in them to make it worthwhile. From what I know of the Oort cloud though, it is a very difficult environment to maneuver a ship in. It would probably take a couple of weeks at least to land on one of the larger comets, set up the impulse engines and their accompanying reactors, then it would probably take another few weeks just to ease the comet out of the Oort cloud. Given that timeframe, there would only be certain comets that could be approached. To get so many comets, I’d say Koroylov has been working on this almost from the time he captured Mars.”

“So the comets he has heading towards Earth were probably gathered together three weeks ago for them to be where they are now on their way to Earth?” James followed up.

“Yes,” Scott answered with a nod. “They would have had to have been dispatched from the Oort cloud around the time the Combined Fleet arrived in system.”

James smiled at his former Lieutenant, clearly she had seen where his thoughts were going. “Exactly,” he said turning to the other officers sat around him. “Koroylov has been planning this from the start. That means he would have known how many comets he needed to guarantee success. He couldn’t have known the Combined Fleet would make it to Earth, nor could he have known that Hancock would destroy some of them. He has to have less comets than are optimal for his strategy. Perhaps we stand more of a chance than we have initially feared.”

“If that’s the case,” Hewitt argued. “Why is Koroylov continuing with his plan? He could start to decelerate the comets he has and then wait until he can gather more.”

“He may,” James conceded. “Certainly, we’ll find out in the next few hours. However, if it took him months to gather what he has, he may not have the supplies or patience to wait several more months to gather more. You all read the intelligence briefings I have, less and less supplies are coming in from New Rostov. Not enough to threaten the efficiency of Koroylov’s fleet, not yet at least. But the decrease is strange. Given that he is getting closer and closer to victory, you’d expect supplies to be pouring in. Perhaps this is Koroylov’s one chance.

“Tell me Lieutenant Scott, how many of the comets would we have to take out to give ourselves a good opportunity to be in a position to really hammer Koroylov’s fleet if they follow through on their attack?”

“Thirty percent at least according to my simulations,” Scott answered immediately. Clearly she had anticipated where James’ thoughts would go. “If we can do that, we should have enough point defense capabilities to make sure Koroylov’s first missile salvo doesn’t completely savage our forces. Then we’d be in a position to go toe to toe with his fleet. Likely, if Koroylov pressed the battle he could still take Earth, but he wouldn’t have much of a fleet left afterwards.”

“Then that’s our target ladies and gentlemen,” James said. He proceeded to fill Scott in on the ideas they had discussed so far. “Now,” he continued after bringing her up to date. “What other fiendish tactics can we come up with?”




Chapter 35

When you read the battle honors of James Somerville it is like reading a history of the end of the First Galactic Expansion Era. There is hardly a major battle he didn’t fight in. Some historians debate which battles best prepared him for the War of Doom. It is an interesting question; however, it is one we will never be able to answer. One thing is certain, it was his role in the Second Russian-Allied war that equipped him to lead fleets and not just ships into battle. 

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

After possibly the most frantic three hours of his life, James found himself sitting on Titan’s bridge. He was taking a moment for himself to mentally catch his breath. After dismissing his strategic working group, he had been in contact with more than forty different officials on Earth trying to scrape together all the resources his plans required. Even though he had delegated each plan to one of his subordinates, his title as Supreme Commander was needed to encourage and bully a few officers and political figures.

“Commander, Captain, our gravimetric sensors are getting a trace signal from the edge of the system,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards reported. “The trajectory is consistent with the flight information Captain Hancock sent regarding the comets.”

“Thank you Sub Lieutenant,” Romanov responded. “It looks like Koroylov isn’t going to hold off after all,” he added as he turned to James.

“No,” James replied. “And that’s okay with me.” Part of James had wanted Koroylov to postpone his attack. Whatever happened in the next few hours, James knew that tens of thousands of lives would be lost. Yet, if Koroylov delayed, it would mean that when battle was finally joined, the odds would be even more in his favor. If a Russian attack was going to come, it was better happening now rather than later. “Send orders to our stealth ships to proceed,” James ordered.

“Aye Commander,” Sub Lieutenant Grey responded.

James looked around Titan’s bridge to get a feel for how his subordinates were reacting to the impending attack. Never before had a human fleet stood in the way of a cluster of comets racing towards their homeworld. It was a concept that could easily cause some to lose their nerve. However, even a casual glance told James he needn’t worry. Every officer on Titan’s bridge was so busy working to organize the plans he had put in motion that it seemed they didn’t have time to stop and react to the first visuals of the comets.

“I’ve got a reasonably firm fix on their acceleration profiles,” Edwards updated everyone a couple of minutes later. “It looks like they have increased their rate of acceleration. The estimated time of entry into Earth’s atmosphere is five hours and forty-three minutes. When the comets reach us, they’ll be travelling at 0.22c.”

“Send out the updated ETA to all our forces,” James ordered. “Make sure Commodores Sato and Hawking confirm receipt of the transmission. They will both have to update their own plans accordingly.”

“They’re going to lose thirty-five minutes; do you think they can still make any difference?” Romanov asked quietly as he lent towards James.

James shrugged. “It will hurt the effectiveness of their plans, but we have to live with it.” He had anticipated Koroylov would try and speed up his attack now that he had been discovered.

For the next half an hour James silently watched the comets as they came closer and closer. They were travelling pretty slowly but Koroylov had all their impulse engines working at maximum capacity, bit by bit they were building up a substantial velocity. In contrast to the peaceful approach of the comets, Earth’s orbitals were a hive of frantic activity. Hundreds of shuttles were moving about transferring crew and munitions to the freighters that had been commandeered into the fleet’s service. Then, after James received a COM message from Commodore Hawking to report that he was ready to start delivering ballistic munitions to the Allied forces, things got even more hectic. Hundreds more shuttles lifted off from Earth’s surface carrying tungsten spears, half completed missiles and other projectiles that could be fired from the electromagnetic missile launch tubes of the Allied forces. There was so much going on that James found himself dragged into helping coordinate the delivery of munitions.

So many problems and disputes arose that three hours went by in a flash. He was startled when after ending his most recent COM call, Lieutenant Scott informed him it was time to launch the ballistic munitions. Before replying, he checked his command chair’s chronometer and glanced at the holo-display to confirm the comets were at the point Scott was indicating. “Very well,” he replied. “Inform the fleet we will open fire in one minute.”

Upon his command, more than two thousand ballistic projectiles were catapulted into space along the trajectory of the incoming comets. Thirty seconds later, a second salvo was fired, then a third, fourth, fifth and sixth followed close behind. A seventh consisting of only four hundred projectiles signaled that all the munitions Hawking had been able to gather had been spent. “That’s it,” Scott reported. “We have shot ourselves dry.”

“Pass on my thanks to Commodore Hawking, he did well to gather so many projectiles in such a short time,” James replied. “Now we shall see how effective they are.”

Having been accelerated to a velocity of 0.08c, the projectiles would have an effective closing rate of nearly 0.3c when they reached the comets. In terms of ship to ship battles, that wasn’t a very high closing rate and given that the projectiles were on a ballistic course, they would be easy to target. However, there were a lot of them, and it would only take one to strike a comet to throw it completely off course.

“Missile launches,” Sub Lieutenant Gray shouted five minutes before the first salvo of ballistic projectiles was meant to reach the comets. “I have three missile launches half a light second in front of the comets.”

“It’s one of our stealth corvettes,” James guessed. “A Captain had clearly feared being detected and fired first. That, or one of the Russian patrol ships detected one of our ships and opened fire.” Either way, the Russian ships now knew something was afoot. Not that it really mattered. Koroylov had more than sixty light warships in front of the comets screening them. Then, arrayed around the comets themselves, he had his entire battle fleet. Every ship was pumping out gigajoules of electromagnetic energy as they sought to make sure no weapon or ship could get anywhere near the comets without being detected.

“More missile launches,” Grey reported. “They’re coming from contact Sierra thirteen. The new missiles are tracking in on the area where the first missiles came from.”

James nodded and watched in silence as the Russian missiles homed in on whoever had opened fire first. Only when the missiles came close to their target and the ship carried out some evasive maneuvers, were Titan’s sensors able to identify it. It was the British frigate Recompense. James grimaced as the Russian missiles exploded. He hadn’t known Recompense’s Captain personally, she had been a part of Earth’s defense fleet, yet he mourned her death. His orders had sent her out with almost no hope of success. Yet only one ship has been detected, James reminded himself. Every second allowed the other six corvettes and frigates he had sent out to get closer. In reality, he only held out much hope for the two American stealth frigates that were part of the attack group. They were by far and away the most advanced stealth ships beyond Endeavour and Discovery. Both of the British exploration cruisers had too many point defensive batteries to waste on a Hail Mary play. They were still with the main fleet. The frigates and corvettes were more expendable.

Over the next three minutes James’ fears were confirmed, four more ships were detected and destroyed or opened fire just before being detected. One Russian ship was destroyed in return, but for the most part, the Russian patrolling ships were larger and able to defend themselves.

“That’s five down,” Romanov commented, though everyone had been able to count. “I imagine it’s just the two Americans left now.”

“Indeed,” James responded. “They’re almost in range though.”

“Four new missile launches,” Grey shouted. “And there is another four,” she added a moment later. “They’re boosting towards the comets.”

“They got into range!” Romanov responded excitedly. “Their missiles will get there just after the first wave of projectiles.”

“So it would seem,” James replied, trying to keep the tension from making his voice crack. Within seconds of opening fire, both American ships were destroyed. They had been close enough for the Russian ships to open fire with their plasma cannons. In return each American stealth frigate had taken out a Russian ship, but they were gone nonetheless. James felt the loss even more than the other ships. He had commanded and fought with the American stealth frigates against the Flex-aor and the Russians. They had proved invaluable in the past. Now they were gone. It hurt more for before the day was out, many of the ships and friends he had made over the last two years fighting the Flex-aor would be gone as well.

Alongside his grief, James felt his excitement rise with Romanov’s. The missiles were getting closer and closer to the comets. Then, before they were close enough to detonate, all hell broke loose. Every point defense weapon on every Russian ship erupted into activity. Moments later, hundreds of explosions appeared throughout the screen of Russian patrol ships and a wall of explosions marched its way towards the comets as point defenses took out ballistic projectile after ballistic projectile. The eight American missiles were caught in the maelstrom and Titan’s sensors lost all ability to track them.

Partly in frustration and partly in delight, James strained his eyes as he tried to make them out on the holo-projector. He was desperate to see if they were being hit by Russian anti-missile fire or if they were getting through. He couldn’t stand not knowing, and he knew that if his ship was struggling to detect them, the Russians would be struggling as well.

“I think three of the American missiles have been taken out,” Scott reported. “Yes, I can confirm. Five are still maneuvering.”

A second after she spoke, James saw what she was talking about. The Russians had taken out every single projectile in the first salvo. In the few seconds delay between when the next salvo came into range, Titan’s sensors detected five contacts still accelerating towards the comets. They disappeared again as the Russian ships engaged the leading projectiles in the second salvo.

Once again, space around the Russian ships and the comets was filled with explosions. There was no sign of what exactly was going on. At least, not until one of the comets exploded. One moment it was accelerating as normal, then, in the next, it was vaporized into a thousand small chunks of ice. All around James, Titan’s officers jumped up and shouted in victory. James looked over to Romanov and grinned and punched his fist. No one would know whether one of the missiles or a projectile had struck the comet, but even taking out one had been worth the sacrifice of the corvettes and frigates James had ordered forward. He felt relief wash over him. Destroying one, when there were twenty-eight others still accelerating towards Earth was a small thing, but it was a start.

Without missiles to worry about, the Russians easily dealt with the third, fourth and fifth salvos of ballistic projectiles. When they engaged the sixth, James had all but given up hope they would accomplish anything. A small explosion amongst the Russian ships caught everyone by surprise. “What was that?” Romanov snapped. “That was too small to be a comet surely?”

“I think it was contact Sierra seventy-three,” Edwards reported. “I’m not detecting it any more. The explosion was in its vicinity. We had designated Sierra seventy-three as a heavy cruiser.”

“I’ll take it,” James responded. It wasn’t much, but obviously the heavy cruiser’s Captain or tactical officer had got so caught up in taking out the projectiles going for the comets that they had missed one coming directly for them. “Now,” he said a little louder to all of Titan’s bridge crew. “That is phase one of our defense complete. It’s time to prep for phase two. Signal Commodore Sato, tell him to begin his freighter fleet’s approach.”

*

Over the next fifty minutes James felt the tension on Titan’s bridge rise considerably. The initial elation at having destroyed one comet quickly faded as the rest came closer and closer. What made it worse was that everything that could be done to prepare for the comets’ attack, had been done. Titan’s officers had nothing to do but watch them grow closer.

“The calm before the storm,” Romanov commented. “Does it ever get any easier?”

James shrugged. “You have seen almost as much combat as me. Some waits are easier than others, but they are all difficult.” That was the one thing the holo dramas always missed when they sought to portray the great space battles of the past. The distance between systems meant that campaigns were fought out over months, not an hour or two in a hologram. Even a solar system was a massive piece of real estate. Though two fleets could detect each other from one end of a system to the other, actually closing and engaging could take half a day or more. That meant there were almost always long waits as both sides watched the other approach.

When the comets were five minutes out from the point where Scott estimated Koroylov would detonate them, James requested a COM channel be opened to the Allied Fleet. “Men and women of Earth and humanity’s colonies. This is Supreme Commander James Somerville. You all know what we face, you can all see the comets approaching us. If we don’t succeed in taking them out, they will strike our defenses and maybe even Earth. Many of you fought with me against the Flex-aor. We know what we can accomplish together. Many of you have only heard of the victories of the Combined Fleet. You were forced to wait in the Sol system and watch others fight on your behalf. Now it is your opportunity to show what you can do. All nations are threatened by this Russian attack. We must all stand shoulder to shoulder to fend it off. I have confidence that we will not just destroy these comets, but Koroylov’s fleet. Let’s send these Russian invaders back to their colonies with their tails between their legs. Let’s put an end to this siege. Commander Somerville out.

“I meant it,” James added to his bridge crew after his short speech was broadcast to the fleet. “I want us to hammer these comets, and then we’re going to hammer Koroylov’s ships.”

“Aye Commander,” more than one Lieutenant replied energetically.

“We’ll give them a bloody nose the likes of which they’ll never forget,” Romanov added. “Let’s do this!”

“Here come the freighters,” Scott half shouted. “Look at them go.”

More than three hundred freighters came barreling around Earth, skimming the upper atmosphere. James could understand Scott’s excitement, they looked magnificent as they left small trails of fire behind them. Commodore Sato was pushing them to the very limits of their capabilities. He already had the safety limits on their reactors and engines disengaged. The freighters were accelerating at rates higher than they had ever done before. That was especially impressive given that Sato had opted to fill every freighter to the brim with raw minerals and other dense products.

Within thirty seconds of coming into view, the freighters shot past the orbital defenses and warships of James’ command. Thirty seconds later, they passed beyond Earth and formed up into a tight formation facing the incoming comets.

“Order Captain Jackson and the other upgraded frigates to break formation and head to their waypoints,” James ordered before returning his attention to the accelerating freighters. The frigates had been his idea, an advance on a tactic Sato had developed. The frigates were outfitted with the most advanced sensor systems Earth’s nations had. They would move away from Earth and together would be able to triangulate the positions of every incoming chunk of comet. Leaving the overlapping defenses of James’s forces meant that they would be easily picked off by the Russians, but like the stealth ships sent against the comets, their sacrifice had been deemed worth it. If they helped make sure all the comet chunks were taken out quickly, six frigates were a small price to pay.

“Freighters will detonate in five seconds,” Scott reported.

James started to count down, just as he guessed everyone else on Titan’s bridge was doing as well. When the moment came, it almost seemed anticlimactic. Rather than a mass of explosions, the four hundred freighters simply broke apart into multiple hull fragments. Their cargo spilled out as well creating a cloud of debris that hurtled towards the twenty-eight comets. For several seconds nothing happened, then the Russians reacted. Like the freighters, the comets simply disintegrated as the Russians detonated them. Within the space of seconds, the two groups of contacts had gone from less than five hundred, to more than fifteen thousand.

“Koroylov’s ships are decelerating hard,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards reported. “They’re spreading out to avoid any freighter debris that misses the comets.”

“Order the fleet to fire,” James requested.

“Acknowledged,” Scott responded.

From the orbital defenses and warships under James’s command, three thousand six hundred missiles were launched. If James had wanted to, they could have targeted the Russian warships. Yet that was not their target. He intended to detonate them right in front of the hailstorm of comet chunks coming towards his forces. If he could get rid of enough comets now, his forces had more than enough missiles left to concentrate on Koroylov’s ships later.

“Something is not quite right,” Scott reported a little more quietly than normal.

“Why? What do you mean? James asked quickly.

“I’m not sure,” Scott replied. “I’m working on it now… They are not all comet chunks!” she shouted seconds later.

James didn’t hear her. The two waves of debris had come crashing into each other just as Scott spoke. Massive explosions lit up Titan’s holo-display as chunks of comets and freighter debris collided, releasing their kinetic energy. Each time two contacts collided, they were reduced to their constituent molecules by the sheer force of the impacts. As amazing as it was to see, there were not nearly enough of them. The rising count of collisions on the main holo-display hadn’t passed a hundred yet. Within six seconds it was all over. Thousands of contacts were still streaming towards Earth.

“They’re not all comet chunks,” Scott shouted again over the noise of Titan’s bridge.

“What?” James shouted back, not quite hearing her.

“Those anomalous contacts, they are not comet chunks. They are man-made ships. That’s why they are hard to identify, they have some stealth systems active.”

Ships? James repeated to himself, not able to grasp what Scott was saying. Then his mind began to race. What was Koroylov trying to do? What could small ships achieve? Our tracking priorities! He screamed at himself. The targeting computers of the Allied fleet were tasked with taking out the bigger comet chunks first. They were supposed to be the main threat. Stealth ships would look smaller than they actually were and wouldn’t be prioritized by the targeting computers. They have to be assault shuttles, James realized. Koroylov was trying to board Earth’s defenses and take them over from the inside.

“Switch the fleet’s targeting parameters, ask them to focus on those ships!” James demanded. “Then send out a general signal, prepare to repel boarders!”

Before anyone could respond to his orders, the missile salvo he had fired detonated. Nearly a thousand chunks and ships disappeared or were thrown off course. That left more than ten thousand incoming, and no one knew how many of them carried Russian soldiers.

“Transmitting your orders now Supreme Commander,” Sub Lieutenant Grey reported as soon as the electromagnetic interference from the nuclear detonations allowed her to do so.

Almost immediately, James felt Titan’s inertial compensators push him into his seat as they increased their output to compensate for the maneuvers Titan’s pilot was putting her through. The standard response to a boarding attempt was to carry out small random course changes. It made it very hard for assault shuttles to latch onto a ship. The orbital defense platforms wouldn’t have the same opportunity to defend themselves. They would be Koroylov’s targets.

“Order our mobile forces to prep their marines to launch and come to the aid of our orbital defenses. They may need backup,” he ordered. If Koroylov could take out the defense platforms, or even temporarily knock them out of the fight, his fleet could quickly finish off James’ warships. And that’s assuming we survive this hailstorm of comet chunks.

“We’re engaging the comets,” Scott reported as a massive wall of point defense fire reached out to take out as many contacts as possible.

James had to fight back a groan as hundreds of ECM jammers suddenly appeared amongst the comet fragments in response to the Allies’ point defense weapons. Clearly Koroylov had installed them onto the comets. All the ECM, combined with the maneuvering assault shuttles and the literally thousands of other contacts were going to swamp his point defenses.

Despite his fears, James forced himself to watch as comets and assault shuttles were swatted out of existence. On the holo-display it seemed like a wave of mini explosions was rushing towards Earth as the lead comet chunks and shuttles were destroyed, only to be instantaneously replaced by more and more that continued to plough on towards their targets. The wave of explosions rapidly closed with Earth’s defenders and engulfed the warships and orbital stations under James’ command. James knew the explosions he was seeing now had to include at least some ships and orbital stations. Seconds later, comet chunks detonated as they struck Earth’s atmosphere whilst others burst through. Long streaks of fire marked their progress towards the planet’s surface.

Seemingly all at once, Titan’s officers shouted updates at James. “We’re getting reports that the first assault shuttles have been detected landing on our defense platforms,” Sub Lieutenant Grey reported from Titan’s COM station.

“I think we got most of the comet chunks Commander,” Scott reported, sounding slightly more enthusiastic. “There are some chunks over the six-ton range that got through to Earth’s atmosphere, but we got the vast majority of them. Our ground defenses are engaging the larger chunks.”

“At least three orbital defense stations and two warships have been destroyed by the comets,” another officer informed him.

Before James could respond to any of the reports Sub Lieutenant Edwards added her own. “The Russians have opened fire! All their missiles are concentrated on our ships.”

James didn’t know where to look on the holo-plot, Earth was being peppered by comets, its orbital defense platforms were being boarded by assault shuttles, and more than four thousand missiles were racing towards his ships. All he could think to say was, “return fire as soon as we can.” Then he lapsed into silence. The battle was out of his hands. All across Earth’s orbital defense platforms, men and women would be fighting to repel the invading Russian soldiers. If they failed to keep their stations in the fight, Koroylov’s attack would be over in five or six missile salvos. That was all it would take to wipe out James’ ships.




Chapter 36

Koroylov’s strategy in the First Battle of Earth was certainly novel. Some have tried it since, but none have been able to pull off the same kind of surprise. As with normal asteroids and comets, with enough warning of their approach towards a planet, they are easily dealt with.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

HMS Vulcan, low Earth orbit.

Jonathan Somerville sat hunched over in his command chair as he watched chunk after chunk of comet get blasted apart as they shot past the RSN’s largest shipyard. Unknown to him, he had his fists clenched into tight balls.

“Show me Earth,” he commanded as the last chunk shot past Vulcan.

As soon as the image on the holo-projection changed, his fists tightened to the point where they hurt. All across Earth, streaks of orange marked comet chunks punching through the ever-thickening atmosphere on their journey towards the planet’s surface. “How many of them will reach the ground?”

“Calculating,” an officer shouted in reply. “Perhaps as many as fifteen. Nine will strike oceans, the other six are being tracked by US ground defense. They may not hit the surface, but they will get pretty close. The Americans are engaging them now.”

Somerville swallowed the lump in his throat. The trajectory of the incoming comets meant anything that got through would strike somewhere along the North American continent. Most were going to miss on the Pacific Ocean side, but some were not. The North American continent was one of the most built up areas on Earth.

A series of alarms stole his attention away. “What is it?” he asked, only half turning to the damage control officer.

“We just lost several point defense turrets around heavy plasma cannon four,” the officer reported

Before Somerville could reply, he was jolted in his seat and a faint ringing noise echoed through the bridge. Immediately Somerville’s mind went to the warning his nephew had sent. “Assault shuttles,” he shouted. “Send a detachment of marines to plasma cannon four immediately. Warn the gunners to prepare to defend themselves.” It was standard procedure for assault shuttles to take out the point defenses around the site they planned to land on. The thud had to be the shuttle attaching itself to Vulcan’s hull.

As Vulcan’s COM officer started to respond, another jolt threw everyone about. Two more followed in quick succession. “Find out where those came from!” Somerville demanded. “Order all crew members to arm themselves and report contact with Russian soldiers immediately. Someone better get our heavy guns out of the storage lockers as well. The bridge will be their main target.”

Several officers jumped to their feet as they made to obey his orders. They had to brace themselves as another jolt nearly threw them to the deck. “Get me Major Denning. I need to consult with her right away,” Somerville added when another thought came to him. The Russian soldiers would be trying to take control of the shipyard, no doubt Koroylov wanted it intact. But if they couldn’t take it, they would likely have other orders. If he couldn’t take Vulcan for himself, Koroylov would want the shipyard out of the coming battle. Vulcan had the armaments of a battleship. The assault shuttles probably carried thermonuclear warheads that could be detonated if the Russian soldiers failed in their primary mission.

“Contact reports are starting to come in Admiral,” the COM officer reported. “Plasma cannons four, seven and eight are all reporting Russian soldiers advancing on their positions.”

“Pull up a schematic of Vulcan on the main holo-projector,” Somerville requested. “Start overlaying information as it comes in. Mark out our damaged point defense weapons as likely assault shuttle landing sites. The Russians will have destroyed our point defenses to stop us using them to blast their shuttles.”

As the holo projection changed to show Vulcan’s massive superstructure, three areas flashed red, showing confirmed landing spots. Another three were flashing orange. They were sites that hadn’t been visually confirmed, but were suspected due to damaged point defense nodes. Somerville racked his brains to remember how many soldiers a Russian assault shuttle could carry. He couldn’t remember exactly, but he reckoned it was around thirty. That gave the attackers one hundred and fifty soldiers. Vulcan had a marine detachment of four hundred and fourteen. Yet they were spread throughout the giant shipyard. The Russian troops were far more concentrated. The pattern of their landing sites wasn’t random. They circled Vulcan’s bridge. If they can secure the bridge they can lock the marines out of Vulcan’s central hub, Somerville realized. That wouldn’t be good.

“Major Denning,” Somerville exclaimed as relief washed over him when the commander of his marines marched in. She was already fully outfitted in her combat gear.

“Admiral,” Denning replied with a formal nod. “I’ve been monitoring the situation from my CIC. We already have marines moving to intercept each of the boarding parties. They are clearly trying to make for the bridge. I have a squad of marines with me to reinforce your officers.”

“Thank you Major,” Somerville replied. “I wanted you here to make sure we coordinate our response. We can’t stop the Russian incursion right away. We have to let them gain some ground.”

“Excuse me Admiral?” Denning responded as her face lost some of its formality. “I don’t think you understand the seriousness of the situation. I have sixty marines between us and the Russian landing sites. We can’t afford to give them any ground if we’re going to stop them before they reach us.”

“There’s more at stake than just fighting off their incursion,” Somerville replied quickly. Time was of the essence. “Each of those assault shuttles will probably be loaded with a thermonuclear warhead. If the Russian soldiers think they won’t be able to take the bridge, they will detonate their warheads. Vulcan will be destroyed anyway. You need to coordinate your marines that are on the other side of the Russian landing zones. They need to hold off counter-attacking until they have enough strength to storm each shuttle. They also need to coordinate their efforts. If the Russians fear we are trying to take their warheads out of play, they may detonate them anyway.”

“Right,” Denning said as her eyes darted back and forth. “Let me think,” she added as she raised her hand. She half turned away from Somerville and began to speak quietly, communicating with her officers. After twenty seconds or so she turned back. “It will take five minutes for enough forces to be gathered at each landing site. We have to hold them off until then. I’ve requested for the feed from my CIC to be patched through to us.”

“I’ve got it,” a bridge officer reported. “It’s on the holo-projector now.”

Somerville and Denning turned to look at the updated situation. Each marine’s location was projected onto the map of Vulcan’s internal structure. A lot of other smaller dots were intermixed with them. “What are these?” Somerville asked.

“We track each handheld weapon stored on Vulcan,” Denning answered. “Each dot is a crew member armed and hopefully prepared to engage the Russians.”

Somerville nodded and noticed that several dots had just entered Vulcan’s bridge. He turned to see the officers that had left handing out plasma pistols and rifles. When one stepped towards him he took one of the pistols.

“Let’s hope you don’t need that Admiral,” Denning said as she eyed the pistol in Somerville’s hand.

Instinctively he grabbed it a little tighter. Her look didn’t suggest she had much confidence in his abilities. If he was honest with himself, neither did he. “What’s happening now?” he asked as he set the pistol down on the armrest of his command chair.

“Our forces are engaged in a fighting retreat,” Denning explained. “I have marines closer to the bridge setting up fortified sections. The rest of our forces will slowly fall back until they get to them. By then, we should be in a position to seize the shuttles. We’ll also launch a few probing attacks against the Russian soldiers left defending the shuttles. They won’t be meant to succeed, but if we don’t launch some kind of attack, they will start to grow suspicious.”

“I see,” Somerville replied. “And the purple dots, they are Russian soldiers?”

“Yes, confirmed contacts at least. As they go the Russians are hacking into our surveillance software and disabling it. The purple dots are soldiers our surveillance systems or our marine tracking systems have identified.”

“They have a lot of them pushing towards us,” Somerville couldn’t keep himself from saying. For each dot that represented a marine or a RSN crew member, there were at least two and sometimes three Russian dots pushing them back along Vulcan’s corridors. Somerville reckoned the nearest group of Russian soldiers couldn’t be more than five hundred meters from where he currently sat. He didn’t know if it was his imagination or not, but he thought he could hear some explosions and weapons fire over the hum of noise coming from the activity on Vulcan’s bridge.

“They are trying to take this position as quickly as possible,” Denning commented almost nonchalantly.

Somerville looked up at her, she was standing slightly to one side of his command chair. She hadn’t even taken her face away from the holo-projector when she spoke to him. A part of him wanted to take comfort in the confident expression on her face, but he knew from long years of service that it was probably a forced expression. Feeling out of his depth, he turned back to the holo- projection. The Russians were steadily getting closer. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Despite his years of battle experience, the feeling of having highly trained killing machines charging towards him was entirely new. Only when the first Russian boarding party reached one of the defensive points Denning’s marines had set up and was rebuffed, did Somerville start to relax.

Almost as soon as he did, his mind went to the comet chunks that had penetrated Earth’s atmosphere. On his command chair, he pulled up an image of Earth from Vulcan’s sensor data. Relief washed over him when he saw that the two chunks heading for major cities had been intercepted. A third had touched down in a sparsely populated area of northern Canada. Things hadn’t gone so well with the final two. One of them had burnt up and exploded a kilometer above rural Minnesota. The damage it caused looked like it covered more than fifty square miles. The loss of life probably wouldn’t be too high, but it wouldn’t be zero. The final comet chunk had impacted in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. A significant section of the mountain it had struck had been destroyed and it looked like avalanches had been started all around the area. Again, there was bound to have been some loss of life.

Changing the view on his holo-projector, Somerville got an updated readout on the Russian fleet. Whether Koroylov had meant to actually cause the comet impacts on Earth’s surface or not, he had. He needed to pay. Even as he watched, a salvo of missiles detonated among Koroylov’s fleet. Yet, he knew the Allied fleet had to be taking a serious hammering as well. At present only half of Vulcan’s missile tubes were firing with the fleet and a full quarter of her point defenses were inactive. Either they had been destroyed or their crews were currently fighting off the Russian soldiers. “We need to get Vulcan fighting at optimal efficiency as soon as possible,” he said to his officers and Major Denning. “Supreme Commander Somerville needs us.”

In response, several officers threw themselves into their work. But no one said anything. They couldn’t, they were all already doing as much as they could.

“Ready to storm the assault shuttles,” Denning reported as if she hadn’t heard Somerville’s desperate plea. “On your command Admiral.”

“Do it,” Somerville replied at once.

On Vulcan’s main holo-projector he watched as groups of marines charged towards the sections the shuttles had landed on. Somerville could picture the intense firefight. At least, he had seen enough holo dramas to imagine how they would depict it. Grenades, plasma bolts and whatever other weapons the marines and Russians could hurl at each other would be filling the corridors. No doubt each battle would come down to who had the most numbers.

On the holo-projector everything turned into a mess of intermingled dots. Then, almost as soon as it had started, the frantic activity of the dots around the assault shuttles ended. In less than sixty seconds it was over. Each of the six shuttles had been secured. More than forty marines had been injured or killed, but they had done it.

“You were right Admiral, warheads have been found on each of the shuttles,” Denning informed him. “We have technicians disarming them as we speak.”

Somerville opened his mouth to congratulate the major but she held up a hand, pausing him. Another hand rose and pressed an unseen earpiece deeper into her ear. In response to whatever she heard, her head spun back around to the main holo-projector. “The rest of the Russians are making a desperate push for the bridge. They know their backup plan has been taken out of play.”

Somerville was already staring at the holo-projection. At first, he couldn’t see what Denning was talking about. Then one of the defensive checkpoints Denning’s marines had set up was overrun. In the blink of an eye three marine dots and four crew member dots disappeared as they were killed or blasted out of existence. Moments later Russians were pouring over their positions and streaming towards the bridge.

“Defensive positions!” Denning shouted in a commanding voice Somerville hadn’t heard before. “Kill the lights. Everyone take cover now. That’s an order!” she snapped when only her marines moved.

Somerville stood, his plasma pistol once more in his hand. But then he paused. He didn’t know where he was supposed to go. “This way Admiral,” Denning said as she placed a hand on his shoulder and guided him towards one of the larger command consoles. “Get behind here,” she added as she pushed him gently to the floor. “Don’t get up unless you see Russians coming towards you. If you do, start shooting and don’t stop. Understand?”

“Yes Major, do whatever you have to. Don’t let them take the bridge.”

“I’ll do my best,” Denning replied. She stood and moved to find her own cover. “They’re right outside,” she shouted seconds later. “They’ll be setting charges to blow the hatch. Keep your head down and cover your ears. As soon as the explosion is over, start firing. At least two defense checkpoints have been overrun, there could be more than twenty of them about to come barreling in.”

Somerville could hardly believe what Denning was saying. Besides her, there were eight other marines on the bridge. They could hardly hold off twenty Russian soldiers. “Everyone,” he shouted when he realized that his own officers would have to beat back the Russians. “This is not the battle we thought we would be fighting, but we must win. You’ve all had training. Use it.”

If anyone was going to shout a response, it was lost when Denning screamed for everyone to cover their ears. Somerville just got his hands up when a massive explosion tore through the bridge. Sparks ignited everywhere as bits of shrapnel careened off command consoles, deck platting and the ceiling.

Somerville waited a second before uncovering his ears and opening his eyes. When he did, the battle was already raging. Plasma bolts were zipping past him in numerous directions. Every time one struck an electrical console, it caused a minor explosion. All around him marines, RSN crew members and Russian soldiers were falling. Screams filled the air.

Somerville chanced peeking around the console he was hunkered behind to get a glimpse at the main entrance. There were Russian bodies lying all around it. Several plasma rifles protruded through the hatch, shooting randomly into the bridge, but it didn’t look like the Russians had successfully penetrated Denning’s defensive fire. Then another explosion smashed him against his console. The concussive force rocked his head and his ears began to scream. Despite the pain he forced his eyes open. The explosion had come from the opposite end of the bridge. The Russians had blown in the auxiliary entrance. Instinctively he raised his plasma pistol and fired. The first shots were wild and inaccurate, but he managed to gain some composure and he hit the third Russian soldier who tried to rush through the hatch. The first two were already taking cover and starting to catch some of the defenders in a crossfire with their far more accurate and deadly fire. Somerville wanted to train his pistol on them, but more and more Russians were trying to force their way through the auxiliary hatch. He couldn’t stop shooting at them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the Russians turn his rifle towards his position. Somerville had less than a second to realize that he was the Russian’s next target. Instinctively he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, waiting for the pain. When nothing came, he snapped his eyes open again just in time to see Denning kicking the dead body of the Russian away from the console he had been hiding behind. She had maneuvered around to shoot him in the side. From his position she laid down fire on the Russians trying to come through the auxiliary hatch.

Shaking himself, Somerville crawled around the console he was using for cover so that he wasn’t exposed to the new angle the Russians were attacking from, then he lay down his own covering fire on the auxiliary hatch. “Thanks,” he managed to call to the major.

She half turned to him and shot him a grin. “Don’t mention it,” she shouted back, all the while her rifle continued to spit plasma bolts at the hatch.

It seemed to Somerville that the fighting went on for another thirty seconds or so and then died down. Every Russian who had made it into the bridge had been killed, and whether through the main or auxiliary entrance hatches, no more seemed able to gain entrance.

“I think we have driven them off,” Denning shouted. “Reinforcements are less than a minute away.”

Somerville wanted to jump up and shout something as much out of relief as a sense of victory. He thought better of it. He didn’t want to make himself a target. For a couple of seconds a deathly silence descended around him, only broken by the occasional groan from an injured combatant. Then Somerville saw several black balls come hurtling through the auxiliary access hatch. Each one gave a distinctive clang when it hit a console or a section of the deck plating. There were more clangs than there should be. Others must have been thrown in from the main entrance.

Denning stood from behind her cover. She was holding one of the balls. Her head immediately whipped from looking at it to Somerville. “Down!” She shouted as she hurled it back towards the auxiliary hatch.

Somerville knew from the look in her eyes that any movement was pointless. There were more than ten of the explosive devices. The Russians had given up taking the bridge. They were going to destroy it. His thoughts immediately went to his wife. She was in London, safe from the comets that had reached Earth’s atmosphere. Then he thought of his nephew. Defeating the Russians had always been a long shot and everyone had known the losses would be terrible. With his last thought Somerville prayed his nephew would survive. Then the explosive devices detonated and the bridge was vaporized by a giant ball of expanding plasma that no one could survive.




Chapter 37

Ekaterina

Koroylov was jostled in his command chair as an Allied missile detonated one hundred meters off his flagship’s port bow. He ignored the damage reports that came flooding in to his subordinates. Instead, he focused on the Allied fleet. So far, he had hammered them with two missile salvos. They were taking a lot of hurt. Reluctantly, he had to admit they were hitting back almost as hard. “What’s the latest status of their fixed defenses?” he requested.

“Two more defense stations have been destroyed,” Ekaterina’s sensor officer reported. “We got communications from the boarding parties to say they were going to detonate. They failed to secure either station. With the four others that our marines already took out and the eight destroyed by comet chunks, that’s a total of fourteen destroyed. Our soldiers have secured four, removing them from the fight as well. Of the rest, twelve are fighting at what appears to be their regular combat efficiency, the remaining sixty-two are all compromised to a greater or lesser extent.”

Vulcan has just gone off-line!” another officer shouted excitedly. “She didn’t fire any missiles in the Allies latest salvo and her energy ratings are falling.”

“Keep monitoring the situation,” Koroylov said.

“We’re firing again,” Ekaterina’s tactical officer announced.

Koroylov watched as three thousand three hundred and eighty missiles erupted from his battle fleet. It was the fourth salvo he had fired. The first two had already hit home and the third was just minutes away from causing more havoc among the Allied ships. It’s working, he said to himself. The Allies had done far more than he had expected to counter his comet tactic. They had used the few hours warning they had received well. Nevertheless, they hadn’t been prepared for General Varstick’s soldiers. At present trillions of credits worth of orbital defense stations were sitting on the sidelines of the missile duel that would decide Earth’s future. Long may it continue, Koroylov hoped as he watched his third salvo tear into the Allied fleet.

Point defense fire from the Allied ships, the orbital defense stations that were operational and the thousands of smaller defense satellites reduced his missile salvo to less than forty missiles. Nevertheless, as they closed with targets and detonated several Allied ships blinked out of existence. Others lost power or were badly crippled.

*

HMS Titan

James had to fight to keep his face impassive. His command was being torn apart around him. Ships and orbital stations were being destroyed at rates even he hadn’t seen before. The officers on Titan’s bridge were all looking to him. If they lost their confidence it would be transmitted to all the other ships in the fleet as they communicated with their counterparts. He had to keep it together for their sake and for the fleet’s sake.

Seconds after the last Russian missile in their latest salvo detonated, taking out a frigate, his subordinates began to give him a rundown of the latest losses. The numbers and ship names washed over him but they didn’t really sink in. It didn’t matter how many ships or crews were lost. Whatever was left had to keep fighting. There was no other option. One report did force its way through his cold exterior though. “Repeat that,” he snapped. “What about Vulcan?”

“The Russian soldiers made it to Vulcan’s command bridge,” Sub Lieutenant Grey repeated, this time her voice quivered. “No one knows what happened yet, her entire bridge was destroyed. All the Russian soldiers have been killed or captured, but there were no survivors on the bridge. Commodore McCracken has taken over from the auxiliary bridge and is trying to get Vulcan and our other defense stations back in the fight. I’m sorry Commander.”

“Carry on,” was all James could bring himself to say. He wanted to close his eyes and think back to the last conversation he had had with his uncle. It had just been a couple of hours ago. They had wished each other well, each knowing that the coming battle would be the most dangerous either of them had ever faced. Now Jonathan is dead, James said to himself. And I will probably be close behind him. “Send a COM message to all our defense platforms,” James requested. “Tell them to use whatever measures necessary to repulse the Russian borders. If they have to blowup sections of their own commands, do it. Whatever it takes. We need them back in the fight at once.”

“I’m getting acknowledgements Commander,” Grey reported. “The orbital defense Captains are promising to do what they can.”

“Thank you,” James replied. His mind wanted to go to his uncle, but he pushed those thoughts aside. He couldn’t afford any distractions. “Signal Warrior and Trafalgar, I want them to get closer to Redoubt,” he ordered as he rearranged what was left of his fleet to prepare them for the next Russian salvo.

*

“High Admiral, we lost Rostov in the last Allied missile salvo.”

Rostov?” Koroylov asked as his mind tried to grasp what his officer was telling him. “She hadn’t taken any damage previously. How many missiles struck her?” Rostov was the newest battlecruiser in the Russian fleet. She should have been able to shrug off a number of hits. He didn’t remember a large number of missiles closing in on her.

“Just one,” the officer replied.

“One?” Koroylov almost shouted in surprise.

“Yes High Admiral, our sensor readings suggest the missile was far more powerful than any other Allied missile we have encountered before.”

“Where did it come from?” Koroylov asked as his eyes spun back to the holo-projector and the Allied Fleet around Earth. If the allies did have new missiles, they couldn’t have many of them or they would have already caused more damage.

“We think it was from the US orbital defense station thirty-four. It’s their newest station. We shot down all their missiles but one in the last salvo.”

Then we were lucky, Koroylov thought as he stared at the defense stations. Their efficiency was rising. They were getting over their shock of being boarded and General Varstick’s troops were being pushed back. The battle was at a turning point. A glance at a secondary readout told him his next salvo would be going out in thirty seconds. “Target the next salvo at the defense stations,” he said. “Let’s try and hit them while they’re still fighting off whatever boarders are left. Make sure you focus on that American defense station.”

More than one officer stopped what they were doing and looked at him. Koroylov felt their thoughts. Any orbital stations he destroyed would kill the Russian soldiers within them. He was well aware of that. “You have orders to carry out!” he bellowed as he turned to look at those who had stopped. “This is war.”

As the officers frantically updated their targeting data, Koroylov stared at the holo-projection as he assessed the situation. Focusing on the defense stations would give what remained of the Allied war fleet some respite. They would continue to hurt his fleet. Yet if he didn’t switch to the defense stations now, they would soon start to cause some real trouble. This is going to be as bloody as I feared, Koroylov reluctantly admitted to himself. He hated firing at his own men, but he had no choice. He was committed to the battle now and when he thought about the benefits of actually conquering Earth, he couldn’t back down. There is one other option we can try, he reminded himself. He had been toying with the idea since the Allies had discovered his comets before he had intended. The Allied fleet was crippled enough that it was a real temptation. Not yet, he decided. He needed to weaken the orbital defenses some more. “I want two quick salvos focused on the orbital defenses. Signal all our ships, we need to fire as quickly as possible before they regain their efficiency.”

*

HMS Titan.

A thick dark smoke filled Titan’s bridge. Several command consoles were on fire and despite the bridge’s anti-fire systems, they were still burning. James had one hand over his mouth and he was vigorously rubbing his eyes with the other. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Status report?” he asked and burst into a fit of coughs.

When no one immediately answered him, he knew the situation was bad. Titan had taken at least one hit, possibly two. Added to the two proximity hits she had already suffered, his flagship was probably all but out of the fight. “Status report?” he shouted again, hoping that someone was alive and able to reply. He thought he heard someone trying to do so, but they were drowned out when one of the vents on the bridge sucked the air out of the compartment. James could feel fresh air being pumped in from a lower vent. Within a couple of seconds the smoke cleared and James could see his subordinates. Several lay slumped over their consoles or in their command chairs. But most appeared to have just suffered minor cuts and bruises. They were frantically trying to get their consoles to update them on the situation.

“Seven warships have gone from our fleet Commander,” Lieutenant Scott reported. “I can’t ascertain which ones yet.”

“We took a direct hit and a proximity hit,” Romanov reported. “We’ve lost several missile tubes, but Titan is still in the fight Commander.”

“See to your ship Captain,” James replied. “Don’t worry about keeping me informed.”

“The next Russian missile salvo!” Lieutenant Grey shouted, though she broke off in a fit of coughing.

“What about it?” James demanded trying to keep any frustration out of his voice.

“Sorry Commander,” Grey replied, then coughed once more before going on. “They’re not targeted at us. Look! The Russians have switched their targeting priorities. They’re focusing on the orbital stations.”

James couldn’t help but let out a deep breath of relief as some of the tension disappeared from his shoulders. “That gives us a chance people. Let’s get our ships back in formation and start hitting the Russians. Our orbital defenses will be able to absorb a few missile salvos before taking serious losses. We need to hit the Russians now or we are going to lose this battle.”

His subordinates responded immediately as they began to communicate with the other ships in what was left of James’ fleet. “Concentrate all fire on their capital ships,” James commanded. He had been focusing most of his fire on the lighter ships in the Russian fleet. It was a standard British doctrine, whittle away the easier destroyed lighter ships that were heavy with point defense weapons and then go for the kill on the enemy’s larger ships. Now was the time.

*

Ekaterina

Koroylov looked at his hand when he felt something wet run down his wrist. He was shocked to see blood. Immediately he released his fingers, but it was too late. He had been so caught up in the battle that he hadn’t noticed how deeply he dug his nails into the palms of his hands. He looked around to see if anyone else had seen and then casually wiped the blood down the side of his trousers. So far, he had hit the orbital defenses with two missile salvos. Twelve more of the massive monstrosities had been destroyed. Yet those that weren’t, were quickly coming back into the fight. Even Vulcan had fired twenty missiles in the last Allied salvo when just minutes before his subordinates had thought the British construction yard had been taken out of the fight. It’s now or never, he thought. He opened his mouth to give the command that he knew would condemn tens of thousands of the men and women under his command to death. The only order he could think of that would guarantee victory. His ships had to close to energy weapon range. That was the only place his fleet still had an advantage. He could wipe out the Allied warships in one go and with the defense stations still distracted, they would be far less of a threat in a quick plasma cannon duel than a prolonged missile exchange. His fleet was going to get battered, but at this stage an energy weapon duel would be far less disastrous than a missile exchange.

Before Koroylov could speak, an officer cut him off. “New contacts! New contacts! Ships have just jumped out of the Alpha shift passage and are accelerating towards us!”

Koroylov shut his mouth. It had to be Admiral Checkov. He had sent orders for his second in command to join him in the Sol system for the final push on Earth. Yet Checkov hadn’t appeared and Koroylov had been forced to attack without him. Yet if he was here now, his numbers could turn the tide of the battle. No, they won’t, Koroylov said to himself as he forced himself to face reality. He desperately didn’t want to have to close to energy range but Checkov’s sudden appearance wasn’t going to get him out of giving that command. If he pulled his forces back and waited for Checkov to join him, the Allies would have ample time to get their orbital stations back to full combat readiness. That would more than offset the additional missile tubes Checkov’s fleet would bring to the battle.

Again Koroylov opened his mouth to give the order to advance, but again a junior officer beat him to it. “High Admiral, the new contacts, they are freighters. The acceleration rates indicate they are freighters, not warships. There are more than fifty of them.”

Koroylov growled in disgust. The Trivium had promised him a final freighter convoy with supplies before he made his attack on Earth. The convoy was already over three weeks late. What good was it arriving now! Anger surged through him, both at the Trivium and Checkov. Both had let him down. Both had forced him to attack knowing that he was going to take heavy losses. Before anyone else could interrupt him, he barked out an order. “General signal to all ships. Advance on the enemy and close to energy weapon range.” He needed to put an end to the carnage.

*

“Commander, we have new contacts coming in from the Alpha shift passage,” Sub Lieutenant Grey shouted in concern. “It must be Russian reinforcements. Wait. The acceleration profile suggests they are freighters.”

“Forget about them,” James said when he heard Grey’s last sentence. “The battle will be over long before they get here.”

For the first time since James had heard of the comets his hope was rising. By switching targets to the orbital defense stations, Koroylov had given his fleet a reprieve and a chance to reorganize. The orbital defense stations were giving a good account of themselves. Even as many of their crews were fending off Russian borders, they were fighting as well as they could. No one could fully grasp what was going on now that the battle had become such a mess, but James thought the tide was turning. Koroylov’s fleet was taking too many losses. He couldn’t sustain such losses and hope to have any kind of fleet left once he took Earth. He would be forced to fall back.

With a single report, Sub Lieutenant Grey dashed James’ hopes. “The Russian ships are advancing Commander. There trying to close the range.”

Whether Sub Lieutenant Grey realized or not what her report meant, James did. Koroylov wasn’t just trying to close the range for a missile duel. He was coming in for the kill. Right from the start Koroylov had possessed a massive advantage in larger capital ships. James had no battleships compared to Koroylov’s four. Now, with so many battlestations already destroyed, Koroylov had an even bigger advantage when it came to energy weapon combat. His battleships could shrug off several hits with ease, whereas James’ fleet would be vaporized in one exchange of fire.

“Those freighters Commander,” Lieutenant Scott said as she altered the holo- projector to show the edge of the Sol system.

“Not now!” James said as he whipped his head towards her in anger. Didn’t she realize what Koroylov’s move meant? The battle would be over soon as his ships got into energy weapon range. “Those freighters are meaningless!” James added with a growl. “We need to get ready to fight an energy weapons duel with Koroylov!” Though he could see no way they could win, he was determined to do as much damage to Koroylov as possible.




Chapter 38

“I’m sorry Commander,” Scott replied as she raised her voice and held James’s gaze. “The freighters aren’t meaningless. Look at them!”

Reluctantly James turned his head, if for no other reason than he would be able to shout at Scott again after he looked at what she wanted. “Look at their acceleration rates,” Scott urged him. As he did, James knew something was not right. The freighters were pushing themselves far faster than they needed to. They were risking a reactor overlord. Why?

The answer to his question came as he was staring at the holo-projector. More than fifty new contacts suddenly blinked into existence on the gravimetric plot. They were all accelerating straight towards Earth. Just as importantly, their acceleration rates were far higher than any freighter. They were warships. Warships the Russian freighters were fleeing from!

“She did it!” James shouted in joy. There was only one place so many warships could have come from. Suzanna had done it. She had gathered the Havenite fleet. And possibly even the Vestarians as well, James realized as the numbers dawned on him.

“We’re starting to identify those ships,” Sub Lieutenant Grey reported. “I’ve got British, Chinese, Japanese, Canadian and Havenite warships. There’s also others that the computer is suggesting are Vestarian.”

“Their acceleration rates aren’t quite as high as we might expect,” Romanov said as he too stared at the data. “They must have taken some damage getting here, but boy am I glad to see them!”

“Show us Koroylov’s fleet,” James requested. In one sense, everything had changed. In another, nothing had. Koroylov could still follow through with his attack and take Earth. The newly arrived Allied Fleet could do nothing to change that. It all depended on what Koroylov did next.

*

Ekaterina

As soon as the second group of contacts appeared on Ekaterina’s gravimetric plot, Koroylov understood why Checkov had been delayed. Somehow the Allies had gathered another fleet and defeated Checkov. Now they had come to the Sol system to lift the siege on Earth. Rather than allow the anger and rage that threatened to engulf him take over. Koroylov forced himself to take a deep breath and closed his eyes. He needed to think clearly, now more than ever. He could push on and take Earth. He knew he could. The cost would be high, but he would succeed. Yet the second Allied fleet would be right behind him. They would hit his fleet whilst he was securing Earth’s orbitals. It was very unlikely any of his ships would survive closing to energy weapon with Somerville’s fleet range without taking some damage. I can’t take Earth and risk losing it in the same day, Koroylov realized. He needed to deal with this new threat first. Once again anger threatened to overtake his emotions. If he pulled back now, he wouldn’t be able to attack Earth again, not without coming up with some other plan. Pulling back meant committing to besieging Earth for months more. Given that he suspected the incoming freighters were the height of the supplies he would be getting from New Rostov, it meant months more of his ships struggling to maintain their own efficiency. Koroylov couldn’t even think of how he was going to repair those that had taken damage today. Yet he couldn’t push on to Earth without a guarantee of victory. He couldn’t throw away all the lives that would be lost without knowing they would have at least died to accomplish something.

“Pull us back,” he reluctantly ordered. He said it so quietly that he had to repeat himself louder before anyone heard. “Pull the fleet back. We need to engage this new threat. Pull us back and form the fleet into formation diamond-four. Send all the damaged ships back to Mars with a small escort.” Having given the order, it felt like all the energy suddenly flowed out of him. Koroylov slumped back into his command chair. The day’s fighting wasn’t over yet, but he had been defeated. Despite months of planning, despite having the numerical advantage, somehow the Allies had beaten him. Sure, he was about to crush another Allied fleet, but his failure to take Earth would go down as a defeat and worse, Koroylov was no longer sure he could win the war. Everything he had planned and accomplished over the last year would be for nothing.

*

Titan

James saw it before anyone else could shout a report. Koroylov’s fleet was decelerating. Every Russian warship was slowing its approach. He is pulling back, James realized. He is going to engage the Havenites and Vestarians. “I want two more broadsides fired at the Russians,” he demanded immediately. “Any warship or orbital station that fails to fire twice more will feel my anger,” he added. The Russians would probably get out of missile range before most ships could fire two more salvos at them, but he needed his command to try. The Havenites and Vestarians were going to be heavily outnumbered.

“Commander, we’ve identified one of the ships. It’s HMS Marlborough. Commodore Lightfoot’s flagship. The only other larger ship in the new fleet seems to be a Havenite battlecruiser,” Lieutenant Scott informed him.

“Thank you Lieutenant,” James replied as he grasped what she was trying to tell him. Commodore Lightfoot was likely to be the one commanding the newcomers. He would have the most battle experience among whatever Admirals were out there. James didn’t know Lightfoot too well, but he knew they shared a kindred spirit when it came to combat. James knew exactly what he would do if he was in Lightfoot’s position. The Russian fleet outnumbered Lightfoot ships by at least three to one, but the Russians had just been fighting a massive engagement. If Lightfoot could close with them and take out a significant proportion of the Russian fleet, Koroylov would be forced to fall back to New Rostov. Especially if Lightfoot had already taken out the Russian garrison at Alpha. James’ next orders came without him having to even think them through. “Signal our mobile forces, I want an operational assessment on every warship. We’re going to take our fleet out and pursue Koroylov. If he tries to engage Lightfoot’s fleet, we’re going to be right behind him.”

*

Ekaterina

Koroylov could hardly believe what he was seeing. The second Allied fleet was charging straight towards his forces. Though just over a quarter of his fleet had been destroyed or badly damaged assaulting Earth, his forces massively outnumbered the new Allied fleet. Yet they were still coming. Even more amazingly, what was left of the Allied fleet that had been defending Earth was pursuing his ships. Both Allied commanders apparently intended to commit suicide against his fleet. And it would be suicide, they would both be crushed and not an Allied warship would survive. They’re insane, Koroylov said to himself as he shook his head. They’re going to throw away every warship and all of their crews for nothing... Wait, maybe not for nothing, Koroylov realized as he put himself in the shoes of his opponents. They were defending their homeworld at the cost of their own lives. As he thought about it, he hoped he would do something similar if his homeworld was under attack. If the Allies could destroy enough of his ships, he couldn’t continue to maintain a siege. You’d have to pull back with all your damaged ships to New Rostov and postpone all offensive operations until they were repaired.

And you don’t know the capabilities of those Vestarian warships, another voice in Koroylov’s mind warned him. It only looked like the second Allied fleet was charging on a suicide mission. But what if they weren’t? They could have some new capabilities that meant they were confident of success. They had obviously fought their way through Checkov’s fleet after all. The additional analysis his subordinates had been able to do on the second Allied fleet suggested most of the ships were carrying some kind of battle damage. That suggested their fleet had fought Checkov with roughly equal numbers. If they had of outnumbered Checkov, they would have crushed his fleet without taking too much damage. If they had fought with equal numbers and still managed to push through to the Sol system, they clearly had some kind of advantage rather than a purely numerical one.

“We will split our fleet,” Koroylov decided. “Vice Admiral Shkuro will take his battleships and eighty other ships and engage the fleet from Earth. The rest of the fleet will form up around Ekaterina and we will engage the newcomers. If it turns out we need assistance, Shkuro will disengage from the Earth fleet and reinforce us. It shouldn’t be too hard for Shkuro to do so, the Earth fleet is badly damaged.”

As his orders were being carried out, Koroylov fixed his attention on arranging his fleet into a new formation and selecting targets for the first missile salvo. “High Admiral,” a sensor officer said drawing Koroylov’s attention away from what he was doing. “Yes, make it quick,” he responded. The second Allied fleet was just ten minutes away from coming into missile range.

“I’ve got some anomalous contacts on the gravimetric plot. A group of contacts are accelerating faster than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“Show me,” Koroylov demanded as a spike of fear shot through him. The Allies did have something new they were bringing against him. When the main holo-display changed to show a group of twenty-two extremely small contacts racing towards his fleet, Koroylov couldn’t figure out what he was looking at. Whatever they were, he could guess what they would be targeting. “Send all our frigates ahead of the main battlefleet. Form them into a screening formation. I want them to engage these new contacts before they reach our capital ships.” Whether they were some kind of new missile or something else, Koroylov didn’t want them getting anywhere near his larger warships.

*

“This Koroylov is good,” McGrath said to the fighter pilots under her command. She was leading every Spitfire Fighter Ark Royal had left. She didn’t even have enough to make two squadrons but they were going to have to be enough. “He has sent frigates out to screen his capital ships. We will have to fly through them to get to our target. We’ve done it before. Let’s do it again. This time I’d like to get a clean battleship kill to paint on the side of my Spitfire.” McGrath smiled at some of the replies from her pilots. Despite the high losses they had suffered in the fighting in the Alpha system, they were all still in high spirits. Everyone wanted to add to the kill count their fighters were building up.

McGrath shivered as she thought back to Alpha. Both Lightfoot’s flagship and Ark Royal had been hit by energy weapons. Both ships had lost their COM systems. For a full twenty seconds she had been left in the dark wondering if her fleet had been wiped out. Then, the Allied ships had fired their energy weapons a second time, announcing that they were still in the fight. McGrath could still remember the relief that had flooded through her. Other memories of Russian frigates targeting her fighter forced her to suppress the feelings. New frigates were about to try and do the same thing.

“Evasive maneuvers,” she ordered before her fighters came into range of the Russian frigates. As plasma bolts passed her, McGrath allowed her fear to sharpen her senses and tightened her hold on her flight stick. She was growing accustomed to the fear and she allowed it to focus her attention on twisting and weaving her fighter in a random motion. Three fighters were taken out by the frigates’ fire, but then her squadron was past them and in the clear. “This one,” she said to her pilots as she selected one of the Russian battleships. “Let’s give her everything we’ve got.” Tilting her fighter’s nose slightly, she lined up her ships with the Russian battleship. “Fire,” she ordered.

As soon as the missiles were away McGrath was forced to forget about them, for thousands of plasma bolts reached out to try and strike her fighter as it streaked through the Russian formation. There were so many Russian ships that those on the edge of their fleet couldn’t target the missile she had just fired. They could target her fighter and she had to dodge and weave once more. In what seemed like a blink of an eye she was through the Russian fleet. As soon as she was clear, she looked at the Russian fleet on her sensors. Several other pilots had obviously done the same for suddenly her cockpit was filled with shouts of success. The Russian battleship was falling out of formation. It was streaming gas and wreckage from several massive holes. They might not have destroyed it outright, but they had taken it out of the fight.

“Sword one, this is Ark Royal. Good shooting. Return home for refueling and rearming,” Commander Barton ordered McGrath over the COM channel she had opened with Ark Royal.

“Acknowledged,” McGrath replied. Then she switched to her squadron channel. “Sword squadron, check in and then form up on me. We’re heading home to refuel and rearm.” As her fighters checked in, McGrath learnt of another two losses. She was now down to seventeen fighters.

“Captain, I think this battleship should be our next target,” Duffy said over the squadron COM channel. “I got pretty close to it as I shot through the Russian fleet. It looks like she’s already taken some pretty heavy damage. Look at the visuals I got.”

As the visuals came up on one of her secondary holo-displays, McGrath almost swore at Duffy. He had almost touched the Russian battleship he had got so close. He had no need to be risking his life and fighter so cavalierly. Then she paused when she saw the damage the battleship had taken. On her starboard side, the side she was keeping away from Lightfoot’s fleet, she had taken at least one, if not two direct missile hits. Her innards were wide open to space. Even just one plasma missile hit could rip her apart. McGrath assessed the strategic situation. Though she held the rank of Captain, technically she didn’t have the standard training of a Lieutenant in the Navy, let alone a Captain or Admiral. Yet from what she was able to see from her fighter’s sensors, the two battles that were about to play out between the two Allied fleets and the two Russian fleets were going to be severely one-sided. Even with one Russian battleship out of action, Lightfoot’s fleet was heavily outnumbered. Will we even get the chance to refuel and rearm? McGrath asked herself. What were the chances Ark Royal would survive one let alone two or three missile salvos from the Russians? She would have to survive at least two for McGrath to get her fighters landed, rearmed and launched again. That was too many. Ark Royal wouldn’t survive. “We’re not going back to Ark Royal,” she said to her pilots over their COM channel.

“What you mean Captain?” Duffy asked beating everyone else to speak first.

“Think about the odds, we’re never going to get refueled and rearmed and back into the fight in time to make a difference. But we’re still in the fight now, we still have our plasma cannons. We could hit that battleship right on its open wound. We could take it out of the fight before the first missiles are launched.”

“I’m in,” Duffy replied immediately.

“This is for volunteers only,” McGrath said before any else replied. “It may not work, but I don’t see that there is anything else we can do to change this battle. Everyone who is in, turn on my mark, we have to do this quickly. Three, two, one. Mark.”

McGrath couldn’t help but smile. Every single one of her fighters had turned with her. She wasn’t really surprised when she thought about it. What fighter pilot was going to pass up the chance to try and take out a battleship with the pea shooters the Spitfires were equipped with? The twin miniature plasma cannons each Spitfire had were designed to take out enemy anti-ship missiles. It had been thought that a Spitfire could use its impressive acceleration to take out enemy missiles before they began their evasive maneuvers. That was yet to be tested. It seemed the plasma cannons were about to be tested on a battleship instead.




Chapter 39

Before the War of Doom the largest space battle fought by humans was the Battle of Connecticut. Despite this it was the First Battle of Earth that sent shockwaves through humanity. Not many navy personnel survived the Battle of Connecticut to share stories of battle. On the other hand, everyone on Earth watched the First Battle of Earth in real time. Images of comets punching through the atmosphere, giant battlestations exploding as if they were nothing, and the defense fleet nearly being wiped out had a wide-ranging impact on the psyche of Earth’s population and the subsequent elections.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Ekaterina

“Those contacts are turning around High Admiral,” the sensor officer reported. The fear in her voice was unmistakable.

Koroylov didn’t respond. His mind felt like it was about to give up. He had been desperately trying to figure out what had happened to Moscow. Now the damned miniature ships were turning around. Surely they weren’t going to launch another attack? Were they? He couldn’t keep losing battleships, if he did he would be hard pressed to defeat the meagre Allied fleet that was charging towards him, let alone ever take Earth.

As he stared at the small contacts, Koroylov willed them to turn, to flee back to where they had come from. They failed to listen. Instead they continued to close. Koroylov tried to give some kind of command. But he cut himself off when he could think of nothing to say. His frigates were already engaging the small contacts but the amazingly agile evasive maneuvers they carried out made it extremely difficult to hit them. Two were taken out, but the rest pushed through his screening forces and then began to weave and twist and turn as his capital ships opened up with their point defenses.

“They’re going for Sevastopol,” someone shouted.

It took Koroylov a second to realize why that should concern him so much. Then he remembered the damage report from Sevastopol. He opened a COM channel to Sevastopol’s Captain from his command chair. He was going to order the Captain to turn his ship. It was too late. On the holo-projector the remaining fifteen small contacts lined up on Sevastopol. A stream of plasma bolts was released by each contact. Five of them were taken out as they couldn’t carry out the same intricate evasive maneuvers while hitting Sevastopol. Even so, they did more than enough damage to the battleship. So many plasma bolts entered her damaged sections that the last few actually blew out the other side. Sevastopol lost structural integrity. The engines that were still accelerating caused Sevastopol to snap into two. Her rear section kept accelerating, while her nose section broke off and spun away. Seconds later, the entire rear section of the battleship detonated. Koroylov knew every crew member on that part of Sevastopol had just died. No one could have reached their escape pods in time.

He allowed his hands to fall to his side as he gave up on the open COM channel to the now dead battleship. Suddenly the restraints on his command chair felt very tight. Even Ekaterina’s large command bridge seemed to shrink around him. The feeling almost made him throw up and he closed his eyes. He had failed to take Earth. Now his fleet was being ripped apart and he couldn’t even fire back. The losses just kept mounting. And for what? Koroylov asked himself, not for the first time. Even if we destroy the Allied fleets our losses will be severe. How could he take Earth after having lost two battleships in the space of less than two minutes? After destroying the Allied fleets, he would have to fall back to New Rostov and he would be executed by the Trivium. They would put him and his family to death, for no other reason than to encourage the other Russian Admirals to try harder. Then, when he was replaced, the entire fiasco of the last six months would be repeated. The Allies wouldn’t be in a position to threaten New Rostov, so the Trivium would simply repair and rebuild their fleet and try again. Of course, they would probably be overthrown by a new Trivium, but whoever replaced them would think they could do better. If that happened, it would condemn another generation of Russians to economic destitution as Trivium after Trivium exploited their own economy in an effort to rebuild the Federation fleet.

Opening his eyes, Koroylov wanted to stand and swear at the new Allied fleet that had forced him to abandon taking Earth. They had put an end to his hope of seeing Russian honor restored and, more importantly, seeing prosperity returned to his people. He was under no illusions now. His time in the Sol system had taught him one thing. The Trivium’s planned economy approach to economics had been crippling the prosperity of the Russian people for generations. He had hoped that with the capture of Earth and the other human colonies, their success and prosperity would force the Trivium to change their ways. Russian propaganda would fall flat in the face of the technologies and wealth that would be captured with the fall of Earth. Yet that was not going to happen. A short fleeting victory and then death, is that all that I have left before me? Koroylov asked himself.

Turning to the holo display, he saw that his fleet had already opened fire on the second Allied fleet. Vice Admiral Shkuro had done the same against Earth’s fleet. As Koroylov stared at the missiles, they suddenly looked very different to him. They were weapons of war yes. But war was meant to be a tool wielded for the betterment of one’s nation. The missiles racing towards the Allied fleets were no longer such tools. They were going to guarantee another cycle of war and destruction that would benefit no one. It dawned on Koroylov that the missiles could be used against targets other than the Allies. If war was meant to be for the betterment of one’s nation, he could still use the missiles for what they had been built for. Instinctively he almost shoved the thought out of his mind. Years of training and propaganda made the very idea he was contemplating fill him with horror. Yet his recent experiences made him hold onto a slither of the idea even as other parts of his mind tried to squash it. Then, as logic asserted itself over his fear, Koroylov allowed himself to seriously consider it. Quickly, he recognized its merit.

Yet it goes against everything you believe in, he said to himself. And he knew it did. He was reevaluating everything he believed in, everything he had trained and fought for all his life. But what were you really fighting for? It was forcing himself to examine his inner motivations that made Koroylov’s mind up. He had been fighting for his people, for his nation. Now, given what he knew about the way the other human nations really worked, there was only one way he could continue to fight for those things. He didn’t know if his fleet would follow him, nor if he could even be successful. But given the options before him, it was the only thing he could do. His honor, his love for his nation left him no other choice.

Yet he hesitated once again. Images of his wife and daughter filled his mind. If he did what he knew he had to, they would be at risk. If news reached New Rostov of what he was thinking before he could get them to safety, they would be killed, or taken as hostages. Before leaving, he had put in place a plan for them to escape the Russian capital system. All he had to do was get word to them and they could flee before anyone could grab them, yet he couldn’t guarantee he could get word to them first. Can you forsake what would be for the best of all the Russian people to keep your family safe? Koroylov asked himself. No easy answer came. Then he remembered what was his likely fate if he didn’t follow through with his new plan and instead returned to New Rostov unsuccessful. Execution. And with him, the Trivium would probably execute his whole family. I have no other choice, for my country and for my family, Koroylov decided as he unbuckled his restraints and stood to his feet so everyone on Ekaterina’s bridge could see him.

“Send the self-destruct signal to all our missiles,” he ordered.

“Excuse me High Admiral?” Vitko, Ekaterina’s Flag Captain asked. “What did you say?”

“I want all our missiles to self-destruct now!” Koroylov said as firmly as he could. “This battle is over. Too many lives have been wasted today. We cannot take Earth now. Send the order.” Koroylov held the gaze of his oldest friend. “Trust me Captain. I know what I’m doing. This is a battle we cannot win. But there are others we can.”

He could see confusion and concern dance across his subordinate’s eyes, but slowly they cleared and Vitko nodded. “You heard the High Admiral, send the signal to our missiles,” he repeated.

*

HMS Titan

James had never been briefed on the Spitfire program and when they launched their attack against the Russian fleet and destroyed two battleships, he had been just as surprised as everyone else. That surprise was dwarfed by what he felt when the two salvos of missiles heading towards his and Lightfoot’s fleets self-destructed minutes away from entering attack range. He wasn’t the only one taken aback. For more than five seconds everyone on Titan’s bridge sat still, staring at the holo-projector, unable to believe what they had just seen.

Sub Lieutenant Grey was the first to break the silence. “We are getting a COM message from one of the Russian battleships. The officer says they are speaking on behalf of High Admiral Koroylov.”

It took James a few seconds to drag his eyes away from the holo-projection. He could hardly believe the Russian missiles had disappeared. He kept searching for them, expecting them to reappear. “What does he want?” James asked absentmindedly, having still not fully taken in Grey’s words.

“They say High Admiral Koroylov wants a cease fire. With your permission, he will withdraw his forces to Mars and allow negotiations to open regarding an armistice.”

“An armistice?” James repeated slowly as he grappled with the concept. It made no sense to him. Koroylov had the numbers to win. Why would he give up?

“Captain, our missiles are still active,” Romanov reminded him.

That pulled James out of his stupor. If Koroylov was about to surrender, he couldn’t allow his own missiles to hit the Russians. “Acknowledge Koroylov’s request. Inform him that he may withdraw. Send the signal to self-destruct our missiles. Make sure Commodore Lightfoot knows to do the same.”

“Acknowledged Commander,” Lieutenant Scott replied as she carried out James’ orders.

James momentarily found himself at a loss for words. He didn’t know what orders to give next. He had been about to throw the remnants of his fleet into a battle where death had been all but guaranteed. Now the fighting was suddenly over. Koroylov’s two fleets began to move onto a vector for Mars. Lightfoot’s ships changed their course slightly as they moved onto an intercept course for his own fleet. Then the signs of damage that became apparent on Lightfoot’s ships snapped James back to reality.  “Signal Commodore Lightfoot. Request that his fleet fall into formation with ours. We’ll fall back to earth. There are lots of damaged ships and stranded crews that will need rescue. Send a signal to Earth as well. Inform our nations what has happened. They will want to get some kind of negotiating team together to meet with Koroylov as soon as possible.”

As the idea of negotiation sank in, James realized that he would not be involved. No one at the UN would want him speaking for them. No doubt he would lose his command position as soon as the UN realized the threat of invasion had passed. “Then get me a direct COM channel to Koroylov. Inform him I wish to speak with him.” If James wasn’t going to be part of the negotiations, he wanted to understand why Koroylov had just done what he had done. He might not get another chance to speak to the Russian Admiral.

When Koroylov’s face appeared on Titan’s main holo-projector everyone on the bridge went completely silent. “High Admiral,” James said to acknowledge Koroylov’s presence.

“I hear they are calling you Supreme Commander Somerville,” Koroylov replied. “It seems that our governments like to lavish impressive titles on those whom they give the responsibility for life-and-death.”

James nodded. He didn’t want to respond any further. He hadn’t contacted Koroylov to share niceties. The Russian Admiral had just killed tens of thousands of his countrymen. Including his uncle. “I contacted you because I need to understand. We have both lost countless lives today. You could have beaten our fleets. Why stop now?”

Koroylov smiled slightly and then his face returned to the stern look it had had moments before. “I’m not sure you will be able to understand Supreme Commander.”

“Perhaps, or perhaps not. We won’t know unless you explain,” James pressed.

“Very well. When I was confident we could take Earth with acceptable losses, I was willing to fight. I have my orders from the Trivium. Yet I will not throw my men away for no good purpose. There’s no need for any more bloodshed today.”

“That I can understand. But it still doesn’t explain your actions. You could have crushed our fleets and then retired to Mars. That would have put you in a far better negotiating position.”

“You’re right Supreme Commander. Probably I could have destroyed your fleets and then pulled out. Yet the cost would have been too high. And then your fleets wouldn’t be around anymore. It may be that that wouldn’t play out in my favor. I do not wish to negotiate with your government on behalf of the Trivium. I intend to speak with them on behalf of myself and my fleet. There is a reason I don’t intend to simply run back to New Rostov.”

James chose his next words very carefully. His mind was racing with the unspoken intentions behind Koroylov’s words. “You fear returning to New Rostov if you don’t return as the conqueror of Earth? I have heard what the Trivium does to the commanders of unsuccessful fleets.” James was all too aware of the purges that had taken place amongst the high-ranking naval commanders after Russia’s failure to take New France decades ago. And unsuccessful was putting it nicely. It was easy to imagine how the Trivium would view Koroylov’s failure to take Earth or even press home his numerical superiority.

“I would guess that what you have heard may not even tell the whole story,” Koroylov conceded. “Let’s just say that my senior officers may not be too keen to return to New Rostov empty handed once they have had a few hours to think about how today’s fighting ended. So let me be frank with you Supreme Commander in the hope that you can be frank with the leading politicians of your Allied nations. I was brought up on the propaganda of the Russian Star Federation. However, in the last few of months I have come to see some of the errors of my youth. It appears that there may be a better way for me to serve my people than as the conqueror of Earth. Perhaps the leaders of your nations might see things in the same light.”

“Perhaps they will,” James said as his mind went to Prime Minister Fairfax and King Edward. He wasn’t sure how they would respond to the suggestion Koroylov was making. He wasn’t even sure what Koroylov was suggesting. But whatever the Russian had in mind, it was better than having to engage his fleet in a suicide attack.  “I will share your words them. For now, you have my word that we will not seek to dislodge you from Mars until preliminary negotiations have taken place.”

“Thank you, Supreme Commander, your word is enough for me. Let’s see to our wounded and mourn our lost.”

“Very well High Admiral,” James said.

“I hope that the next time we speak to one another it will not be as opposing Admirals Supreme Commander. You fought well today. A Russian knows how to honor a worthy opponent.” To James’ surprise, Koroylov gave him a Russian salute. Instinctively he returned it with one of his own. Then he nodded and ended the COM channel.

“He was not what I expected,” Romanov commented. “Not nearly as bloodthirsty as the holo-news broadcasts made out.”

James shot him a look. “You should know better than to believe the holo-news broadcasts. But don’t forget, he did just fling thousands of comets at our homeworld. That is not something I will soon forget.”

“No,” Romanov said as he nodded in agreement.

“How is our fleet doing? I want to prioritize what ships need our attention first. Koroylov is a problem we can leave for another day.”

“Commander,” Sub Lieutenant Edwards said to get his attention. She continued when James turned towards her, “we have a request from the Haven battlecruiser Retribution for a shuttle to come and dock with us.”

James sought out the Haven battlecruiser on the holo-display. The battlecruiser looked like it had taken several energy weapon hits. “Who commands Retribution?”

“Admiral Harborough is in command of the Haven forces,” Edwards replied.

“Tell Harborough that we will have time for face-to-face meetings when we return to Earth. Right now, we shall concentrate on our injured and battle damage.”

“But Commander, it isn’t Harborough who wants to come aboard. It is Governor Somerville.”

James’s eyes widened in surprise. He looked again at Retribution. Suddenly the damage seemed far more serious. His wife had been onboard. She could have been killed. His concern passed when he realized she was alive and wanting to board his flagship. The tight knot in the pit of his stomach disappeared. She is alive, he repeated to himself. She is alive!

“Permission granted,” Romanov said as James went through a rollercoaster of emotions. Romanov turned to his Admiral with a wide grin. “I think I can handle the fleet for a few minutes. Go and greet her. Her shuttle is already on the way. She saved the day after all. I think she deserves an honor guard from the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces.”

James jumped to his feet as he blinked rapidly to forestall any tears. “Thank you, all of you,” he said to his bridge officers. “You have all saved Earth this day.” Even as he spoke his last sentence, it finally dawned on James that that was exactly what they had just done. The threat from Koroylov had passed, at least for now. The siege of Earth had been lifted.

Clearly the same thing dawned on the rest of Titan’s bridge officers for they started to cheer at James’ words. He waved at them and shook the hands of officers that he passed on his way out of the bridge. Even as the hatch closed behind him, their cheers followed him down the corridor. The same cheers were taken up across the Allied Fleet as Romanov broadcast James’ words to all of them.

When he got to shuttle bay two, a strangely designed shuttle was already touching down on one of the landing pads. Even before the access ramp touched down, a blue and yellow swirl leapt off it and nearly sprinted across the hangar bay floor. James picked up his pace to meet her. Arms outstretched, he pulled his wife into a firm hug. For several seconds he just enjoyed the feeling of holding her and the smell of her hair and her perfume. Then he spoke gently into her ear. “You made it! I thought for sure you would have been killed or captured. When I got here and found out you had left, I could hardly bear it.”

Suzanna squirmed out of his arms and took half a step backwards so she could look up at him. Then she gently punched him in the chest and looked at him sternly. “Now you know how it feels for me. Always waiting and wondering where you are and what you’re doing.” She was unable to hold her face for long and it quickly broke into a smile and tears rolled down her cheeks. She buried herself in his chest. “I could say the same about you, you know,” she continued as her tone changed. “We didn’t know if you had made it to Earth or not. We thought we would be coming into the system to find Earth already fallen. But it wasn’t. You were here.”

“We are both here now,” James replied. “And I’m not letting you out of my sight. The fighting is over. I think I’ve had enough of being Supreme Commander. What do you say to retiring and settling down in Badminton House? Or we could to go Haven. We could finally spend more than a few weeks at a time together.”

“That sounds lovely,” Suzanna replied as she took half a step back. “But I know you too well. You’ll never leave the Navy. Especially now that everyone is calling you Supreme Commander!” she said with a smile. “How did you manage to pull that off?”

James made to answer. But then it seemed as if Suzanna actually took a moment to consider his proposal. “It’s a nice thought though…” Suzanna said and then considered it some more. “At the very least, they better give you plenty of leave. But what about Koroylov? Doesn’t he still pose a threat?”

“I’m not sure,” James replied. “I just spoke to him. I think he wants to make some kind of alliance with us.”

“Alliance? After besieging Earth for seven months. What is he thinking? Is he deluded?” Suzanna spurted as her anger grew.

“Reading between the lines, I think he wants help to overthrow the Trivium. From what he said, it sounded like he has grown disillusioned with the idea of taking Earth for the Russian Star Federation. I’m not sure what Fairfax or King Edward will say, but I suspect they will want to use him.”

“Yes,” Suzanna said with a nod as a thoughtful expression crossed her face. “If his fleet stays loyal to him, he could be very useful. He could put an end to the Russian threat once and for all.”

“That’s enough politicking for now,” James scolded as he recognized where his wife’s thoughts were going. His idea of retirement had just been a wishful thought, but even if it hadn’t, he knew from the look on Suzanna’s face that she would not have gone for it. She was just as committed to her work as him. “You and Fairfax can get on with your scheming once we get back to Earth. Come, let me introduce you to my bridge crew. They’ve become like a second family over the last couple of years. I can’t believe how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other. Then you can help me put our fleets back together. You brought one fleet here, you may as well help me look after it.” James took Suzanna’s hand and led her out of the hangar bay. He didn’t intend to let go for a very long time.

Epilogue

Six months later.

UN Interplanetary Committee Chambers, New York, Earth.

James and Suzanna were in their finest attire as they attended the Peace Accords signing ceremony. James was wearing his full Rear Admiral dress uniform complete with dress sword. Suzanna was in a dress she had picked out yesterday. Though they had mixed feelings about where they were and what they were about to be a part of, they had wanted to look their best. At least, Suzanna had insisted that they should.

The last six months had been a whirlwind. For the first month after the Battle of Earth, they had enjoyed quite a lot of time together as Titan and the other ships under James’ command underwent repairs. Then they had been parted once again. Suzanna had been drawn in by Fairfax to help with the negotiations between the Vestarians, Havenites and the other Allied nations. James had been tasked with another mission. Despite his personal dislike for his orders, he had carried them out to the best of his ability. Begrudgingly, after four months of campaigning together, he had to admit that he had begun to see Koroylov as a friend as well as the enemy whose orders had resulted in the death of his uncle.

With James’ fleet at least technically under Koroylov’s command, James had led the Allied fleet into Russian space. They had quickly captured New Rostov and subdued any other Russian system that refused to acknowledge Koroylov as the new President of what Koroylov was calling the Russian Republic. Most of the finer details of the Republic’s constitution were still being worked out, but from what James had seen, Koroylov was genuinely committed to bringing democracy to what had been the Russian Space Federation. History told James that it would be a long and bumpy ride, but from his conversations with Koroylov, he knew the Russian Admiral was well aware of the difficulties before him.

Once Koroylov had been put in power, James had returned with his ships. Now he and Suzanna had been invited to be part of the signing ceremony of the Russian Peace Accords and the new UN Military Mandate. James was delighted to be present for the former, the latter on the other hand, he and Suzanna considered a disaster.

Even though the siege had been lifted for six months, Earth was still in the midst of a depression. With so many freighters lost in the wars with the Flex-aor and the Russians, there were shortages of many commodities on Earth. Though that was bad, the general unhappiness among Earth’s population had led to many political changes. As far as James was concerned, that was far worse. The damage the new governments would do, he believed, would hurt Earth far more in the long run.

One political change that had been unavoidable was Prime Minister Fairfax’s defeat in a general election. He had held off calling the election in the midst of the siege, but he couldn’t hold off once Koroylov had called for a ceasefire. In Britain and many of the other major space faring nations, new governments had risen to power. Governments backed by populations who were fed up with war and wanted an end to the fighting. That in and of itself wasn’t bad. But the result was the UN Military Mandate. The mandate would essentially do away with all national space navies and form one UN Navy. The UN Navy would be responsible for protecting Earth and the rest of the human colonies from alien attack. At present, it was a requirement that each nation contribute two percent of its annual budget to the UN Navy.

James thought the whole thing was going to be a disaster. Not once in the history of the UN had it competently handled anything. The UN fleets of the past had been a laughing stock. Worse, two percent was nothing. If the Flex-aor or the as yet undiscovered alien race that James feared was out there attacked humanity, James feared they would find Earth an easy target. It was the arms races of the last century that had prepared humanity to fight off the Flex-aor. Two percent of each nation’s annual budget was nowhere near enough to protect humanity from the threats James believed were yet to be faced. Yet no one who mattered had listened to him.

He had been relieved of his position of Supreme Commander. Now he didn’t know whether he should resign his commission in protest or try and stay in the new UN Navy to guide the new fleet as best he could. He had even debated with Suzanna about attending the ceremony. She had forced him to come to witness the signing of the peace accords. If they had been on different days, nothing would have convinced him to attend the signing of the UN Military Mandate.

James was pulled out of his brooding when everyone around him stood and began to clap. Suzanna looked down at him with a scolding face and then pulled him to his feet as well. James began to clap as Mikhial Vitko, Koroylov’s former Flag Captain, signed the Peace Accords and handed them to the French representative on the UN Interplanetary Committee. She signed them on behalf of the Allied nations. The clapping continued until the peace accords were taken away to be stored for historical record. Then, when the clapping died down, Vitko went through the formal ceremony recognizing him as a UN Interplanetary Representative. Koroylov had chosen him to speak for the new Russian Republic on the revamped Interplanetary Committee. The first thing Vitko did was sign the UN Military Mandate. He then passed it on for all the other Representatives to sign on behalf of their nations.

James couldn’t help shaking his head. He knew Koroylov wasn’t a fan of the mandate either. Yet Koroylov saw it as a necessary evil. The Russian President hoped he could use his influence and experience to ensure the UN Navy was a real fighting force. James had his doubts. He didn’t think Koroylov or Vitko fully appreciated how incompetent the UN could be.

Everyone stood again to clap when the final Representative signed the mandate. When Suzanna tried to pull him up again, James shook his head. Suzanna then leaned down and whispered loudly to him, “there are holo-news recordings of the ceremony. Everyone will know you didn’t stand.” Even her words didn’t change his attitude. He didn’t care how it impacted his future. He wasn’t going to stand or clap for such a foolish document. Maybe they will retire me after all, James thought as everyone around him continued to clap. After all the friends he had lost and the ships that had been destroyed under his command, the idea was more attractive to him than it had been six months ago.

It was the thoughts of those lost friends, and those still alive, that forced James to his feet, to his own surprise. Even as they had gathered in New York, James was all too aware that Gupta was still patrolling X-38 looking for the Flex-aor in case they returned. There were also many other officers he cared deeply for, not least his niece. She had already been drafted into the new UN fleet. James forced himself to clap, albeit it sparingly. If humanity was going to be defended by a weakened over bureaucratized international Navy, it would need experienced commanders more than ever. James’ sense of duty, the debt he owed his fellow officers, meant he had to try and serve in the new order that was being formed around him.

Suzanna gave him a small appreciative smile and then rolled her eyes at all the pomp and ceremony that was going on. James smiled back. At least he had her. She would see him through whatever crazy ideas the UN was going to come up with next.

The End.

As always, I hope you have enjoyed my latest novel. If you have, please take the time to leave a review with some stars. Reviews are becoming more and more important on amazon and so every review helps the series continue.

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As a bonus, I have included the prequel novella to my Empire Rising series ‘Stand into Danger’ below. It tells the story of young Jonathan Somerville’s experiences in the first war with Russia that is the backdrop to ‘Siege of Earth.’ The novella was previously available on amazon, so you may have purchased it before, but if not, enjoy the bonus novella.

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Stand into Danger


Chapter 1 – Welcome to the War

Thirty-four years before the events of the Siege of Earth:

3rd September, 2439, edge of the Ouvea system.

The Royal Space Navy warship Achilles jumped out of shift space into the French system of Ouvea. On the bridge, Captain Jonathan Somerville paced back and forth as he waited for his ship’s sensors to update the bridge’s main holo display. His ship was returning to Earth from the Indian colonial system of Aror.

Over the last hundred years, relations between Britain and India had been little more than cordial. Yet, the two nations didn’t share any space borders and so they were open to a degree of cooperation. Somerville had just spent a month carrying out war exercises with elements of the Indian Defense Force. Under different circumstances, he should have been pleased to be coming home after a successful mission. In the one on one combat simulations Achilles had outclassed her Indian opponents. Somerville had also had the opportunity to use Achilles as a flagship to command a number of Indian units in a series of simulated fleet engagements. He knew he had done well in those too and it would look good on his personnel file, if the Admiralty ever considered him for promotion to flag rank. For that reason, Jonathan had been keen to return home and so jumping into the Ouvea system should have been a relief as he entered French colonial space on his way back to the Sol system.

Something was wrong however; he could feel it. After the month-long exercises, Achilles had waited at Aror for orders to return to British space, but none had come. Then the Indians had informed him that a number of expected freighters from Earth were overdue. That had been all Somerville needed to hear. He had immediately broken orbit and headed for the shift passage out of Indian space.

“Let’s see what is going on in system,” Jonathan requested as his ship’s passive sensors began to sift through all the electromagnetic energy bombarding the medium cruiser.

Moments later a Lieutenant fed the data to Achilles main holo display. Around the planet there were two ships that looked like they were boosting out of orbit. Further out, a third was making its way towards the shift passage that led to New France. There was also substantial heat radiation being given off by a number of orbital factories. From the data he had on the Ouvea system, Jonathan could immediately see that two heat sources were missing. Ouvea was supposed to have two orbital battlestations. Neither was radiating heat into the cold of space. At least they hadn’t been several hours ago when the sensor data Achilles was picking up left Ouvea’s orbit.

Before he could react, alarms began to go off from the gravimetric plot. He immediately shifted his attention to the display, but the Sub Lieutenant manning the tactical station beat him to it. “Missile launch! I repeat, missile launch. They are angling towards us!”

Somerville froze for a moment. Where did they come from? His next thought catapulted him into action as his anger kicked in. Who would dare fire on a King’s ship!

“Navigation, bring us to full military power immediately, then prepare to go into evasive maneuvers,” Jonathan shouted. “Tactical bring up our point defense network, then figure out how many missiles we are dealing with. Sensors, have you got a fix on the ships that opened fire yet?

“Sir,” Lieutenant Jackson at the tactical console called out. “There are six missiles homing in on us now. Our point defenses are beginning to track them. I’m also bringing up the Electronic Counter Measures.”

Jonathan breathed a sigh of relief. In the combat simulations against the Indians, Achilles had been able to fend off upwards of twelve missiles. Unless these six carried very sophisticated jamming modules, they wouldn’t pose much of a threat.

“Jensen?” Somerville said as he looked at the Third Lieutenant, who was manning the sensor console.

“Hold on sir,” she answered. “There are two ships beginning to accelerate. They must have been in stealth mode with their engines and reactors powered down. They are separating now. One is moving towards our nose while the other is angling down towards our engine sections.”

Exactly what I would do, Jonathan thought. The main firepower of a warship was its missile armament. Each carried a thermonuclear warhead that could cause serious damage to a ship from even a proximity hit. Each human ship had missile tubes down its port and starboard sides and Achilles, being a medium cruiser, had eleven missiles in each broadside. Her two attackers were angling to bring their full broadsides to bear on Achilles while she could only use her single forward and rear missile tubes.

“Not today you don’t,” Jonathan whispered to himself. “Navigation, bring our bow up seven degrees then turn to engage the first ship. Tactical, as soon as you have a clear shot fire a full broadside, I want that first ship destroyed.”

By now Achilles’ main computer had been able to get a read on the opposing ships and Royal Space Navy Intelligence data had identified them as a Russian frigate and a destroyer. Somerville grunted in satisfaction. One broadside of eleven missiles would soon dispatch the frigate. Then they should be able to deal with the larger destroyer. All they had to do was survive the six missiles approaching them.

Achilles completed her maneuver and brought her missile tubes to bear on the first frigate just in time to give Achilles’ tactical officer a few vital seconds to fire his broadside, before he switched his full attention to commanding the point defenses.

As Jonathan watched, the space around Achilles erupted into a dazzling display of lights. It began as her first eleven missiles tore off after their prey and then continued as her small point defense plasma cannons opened up on the Russian missiles. They threw hundreds of green bolts of super heated plasma towards the approaching missiles. The plasma bolts were soon joined by anti-missile missiles as they too tried to intercept the approaching Russian weapons. Within seconds the plasma bolts had struck one of the Russians missiles.

A gasp from the tactical officer was the first sign that something was wrong. Jonathan saw it a moment later. As the first AM missiles reached out for the Russian missiles the sensor track on them suddenly went blurry. One AM missile still struck a Russian missile, but the rest failed to hit their targets. As the five remaining Russian missiles continued towards Achilles, the tactical officer fired off another round of AM missiles. Even as they were streaking out towards their targets, two Russian missiles were hit by plasma bolts and exploded.

Yet again however, the sensor track on the Russian missiles suddenly got fuzzy as the AM missiles attempted to intercept them. This time all the AM missiles missed. The tactical officer swore.

Now only ten seconds out, Jonathan knew there was no time for another round of AM missiles. “Navigation, evasive maneuvers now!” He shouted.

Even as another Russian missile exploded from a plasma bolt, Somerville feared his ship was about to take a beating.  As the navigation officer threw the ship into a series of wild maneuvers Jonathan overrode the safety restrictions on Achilles’ ECM. A number of circuits and relays burnt out but those that continued to function threw a powerful wave of electromagnetic energy at the approaching missile, trying to confuse its guidance systems.

Whether from the flying of his navigation officer, the ECM or just blind luck, the last two missiles overshot their target. Both their seeker heads immediately sent orders detonating their warheads in an effort to score a proximity hit. The twin explosions erupted in space, the nearest one only a thousand meters off Achilles’ starboard bow. The bridge shook and Somerville was thrown around in his command chair despite its tight restraints as the wave of the thermonuclear blast washed over his ship. “Status report!” He demanded.

“No hull breaches,” one of the Sub Lieutenants announced. “We have lost a number of point defense cannons from our forward starboard sections but the armor held. No reports of causalities coming in yet.”

Satisfied they were ok, Jonathan turned back to the main holo display to watch their anti-ship missiles as they approached the enemy frigate.  He needed his first salvo to destroy its target so he could turn and face the other one.

Sparing a glance at the destroyer, he saw it was still trying to work its way around behind Achilles. For the moment though, Jonathan had little choice but to let the destroyer continue unopposed. If he turned after it before destroying the frigate they were engaging now, he would just be presenting his stern to the larger destroyer and that would be inviting disaster.

Silence descended on the bridge as everyone watched, willing their missiles on to their target. No one had expected the Russian missiles to prove so successful. Sparing a glance at his crew, Jonathan saw that a number of them were tapping their command consoles and Jensen was biting her fingernails. No one quite knew what to expect from the frigate’s defenses. No one had fought the Russians in a shooting war for more than eighty years. They were a complete unknown, and they had already shown their missiles were impressive.

When the missiles entered point defense plasma cannon range, the frigate opened up on them. Soon AM missiles were streaking away from the frigate. Eleven became ten and then nine. Two more disappeared as a plasma bolt ruptured one missile’s fuel tank, the explosion taking another one with it. Still, the frigate wasn’t destroying them quick enough. In the end, five missiles came tearing in on it. Three got direct hits and when the fireball dispersed, nothing was left of the frigate.

Jonathan let out a deep sigh, only now realizing he had been holding his breath. He hadn’t been sure his missiles would get the job done. The missing French battlestations and the impressive Russian missiles had him a bit spooked. They had worked though, and now it was time to send some after their second attacker. “Navigation, bring us about. Get our port missile tubes to bear on that destroyer!”

“Aye Captain,” navigation said eagerly.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Jensen called from the sensor console. “I think I know what those missiles are doing to confuse our point defense fire.”

“Yes?” Jonathan queried as he looked at her. While everyone else was focused on the second Russian frigate, she had her head bowed over her sensor console.

“It’s actually rather simple,” she began. “We use the same search radar frequency for both our point defense network and the seeker heads on our AM missiles. That way our missiles can use Achilles’ radar to augment their own targeting data. The Russian missiles must have some form of radar analyzer; they are determining the frequency of our radar, then, when the AM missiles get into range, they send out their own radar beams on the same frequency. The multiple returns are confusing our AM missiles’ targeting computers and causing them to miss.”

“Can we prevent them from doing it again?” Somerville asked, as he jumped to his feet and rushed over to Jensen’s command console.

“Yes sir,” Jensen answered. “It’s not perfect, but for now we can change the frequency for our main search radar array. It will mean our AM missiles won’t be as effective but at least they won’t be confused when the Russian missiles beaming out their own radar.”

“Very good,” Somerville said as he clapped her on the shoulder. “Make the necessary changes.”

Just as he gave the order, the gravimetric sensor beeped to announce that the remaining destroyer had finally managed to reload its missile tubes and had fired four more at Achilles. It was too late. Achilles was already turning to face the threat and her main point defenses could target the incoming missiles. As she turned, her port missiles tubes came to bear and eleven missiles shot out after the destroyer.

The Russian missiles were the first to reach their target. Thankfully, Jensen’s alteration of the tracking radar frequencies worked just as expected. A wave of AM missiles reached towards the approaching Russian missiles and plucked two out of existence. Plasma bolts got the other two. The Russian frigate didn’t fare so well. They managed to destroy nine of the eleven British missiles, but the remaining two came crashing into the small ship. They both struck her amidships and blew the destroyer in two. Seconds later the destroyer’s reactor overloaded vaporizing the rear section of the destroyer and bathing the forward section in so much radiation that no one could have survived.

“Set course for Ouvea,” Jonathan ordered after giving his officers time to check for survivor nonetheless. “Take us into orbit. We need to find out exactly what is going on here.”

“Sensors,” he called to Lieutenant Jensen. “Keep a close watch on the system. If there is even a whiff of another Russian ship, I want to know about it immediately. I’m going to survey the damage of the ship. You all did well today, just as we have trained,” he said as he stood and left the bridge.

*

Several hours later Jonathan was again pacing back and forth on the bridge. As Achilles approached the French colony on Ouvea, she had beamed out communications on all the channels her communications officer could think of. Yet there had been no reply. It was as if every ship and station in orbit, and every town and city on the planet, was asleep.

As he was considering what to do next, his thoughts were interrupted by the Sub Lieutenant who had taken over the communications console when the watch had changed. “Sir, I’m getting a communication from one of the stations in orbit. It looks like it is relaying a message from the planet.”

“Put is on the main holo display,” Jonathan ordered as he hoped he was finally going to get some answers.

Moments later the image of a large bearded man in combat armor appeared. The markings on his breastplate indicated that he served in the Russian Army. His rank insignia marked him out as a Lieutenant General. There was also a formation insignia engraved into his combat armor, but Jonathan didn’t know what it signified, though it did look important.

“British ship,” the man began, “this system is now under the administration of the Russian Space Federation. Your presence here is illegal. I demand that you leave immediately. If you remain, we will take it as an act of war. If that happens, I can’t be held responsible for the population of this planet. If missiles start shooting around so close to orbit accidents could happen.”

“Short and sweet,” Somerville said for his bridge crew after the Russian cut the communication channel. His quip had been for show though; inside he was seething. He knew what the Russian commander was threatening. The population of the planet was obviously nothing to him. For some reason the Russian Space Federation had decided it wanted to claim the Ouvea colony for itself. If the Russians intended to annex the system, this Russian soldier’s superiors might even reward him if some of the population were to meet an untimely end. A native population would only get in the way once the Russians started bringing in their own colonists.

Jonathan’s fists bunched up into balls and he began to grind his teeth as he replayed the Russian’s words in his mind. It was just like Radian IV all over again. Back then he had been a freshly minted Commander. In his new frigate, Brute, he had been sent to an isolated mining station to investigate reports of an uprising. When he arrived, he had found six men who had fallen out with the station’s administration and taken thirty workers hostage. The Captain of Brute’s marines had stormed the section where the hostages had been, but the men had used them as human shields. In the end, twenty had been killed. Seeing all those bodies torn up by plasma rifles still haunted his dreams. He hated cowards who hid behind civilians. It was the worst form of cowardice. This Russian will pay, Jonathan swore to himself.

“Record this and send it,” he ordered once he had calmed himself enough to control his reply.


He then stood and looked towards one of the imaging devices on the bridge. “Russian commander, this is Captain Jonathan Somerville of the Royal Space Navy. It is customary to identify yourself when dealing with foreign representatives. My ship, HMS Achilles, is in the Ouvea system at the request of the French government. Two of your naval ships fired upon my ship without any provocation. I take that as an act of war. Your presence on Ouvea is another act of war. I hope you haven’t become too comfortable. We’ll be finishing this conversation in person very soon. Good day sir.” As he finished he made sure he projected his most confident smile.

“Message sent sir,” the communications officer said. “May I ask,” she continued, “do you really intend to try to liberate Ouvea?”

“Certainly not,” Somerville answered. “But it won’t hurt us for him to be thinking about what we might be planning.”

“What action do you purpose we take then?” William Hamilton, Achilles’ First Lieutenant asked from his position at the tactical console. “Are we really at war with Russians? If they have invaded French space, should we get involved?”

“We have already been involved,” Jonathan answered. “But you are right, we need to be cautious. And we need intel. But I also want to hurt this snide Russian commander. Without naval cover, his position is very weak. If we can take out some of his ground equipment as well we may encourage the locals to rise up against him. Whether they do or not, we will have to move on to New France. We simply don’t have the manpower to take on the Russian Army. There is nothing we can do for the populace of Ouvea at the moment. If the Russians have invaded this system it can only mean they are trying to conquer all of French colonial space. If so, then there is going to be fighting at New France. That is where we are needed.”

New France was France’s colonial crown jewel. Outside of the Sol system it was their largest manufacturing base and generated huge tax revenues. It had been discovered ninety-five years ago and since then, the French government had been pouring resources into the system. The last report Jonathan had read estimated that the population had risen to over five hundred thousand. It was also the most heavily defended system in French space, with a large percentage of France’s fleet based there. If there was a war going on, he needed to find out what was happening in New France. That was where he could get real help for Ouvea from.

“So how are we going to get any intel?” Hamilton asked. “The Russians obviously have the planet locked up tight. Not a single signal has got out. They must have some kind of jamming equipment.”

Somerville brought up an enhanced image of the instillations in orbit around Ouvea. “There,” he said pointing to a smaller station, “that is a transit hub for cargo and passenger freighters. The crew of those ships will probably still be on board too. The station they are docked at is too small to house them all. We’ll send in a force to cut out one of the freighters. We’ll get our intel from the freighter’s crew and sensor logs.

“Sensors,” he continued, “I want you to carry out a detailed survey of the planet. Look for any heavy concentrations of Russian soldiers and material. Focus on the main cities. If the Russians have landed enough troops to subdue an entire planet, there are likely to be large staging areas near the main population centers. We’ll hit as many of them as we can with ground attack missiles as a distraction while our marines get us a freighter.”

As everyone quickly began to put Jonathan’s plan into action he took a few moments to compose himself and think about his next words. With a couple of touches to his command chair he opened a ship wide COM channel. “Achilles, this is your Captain speaking. By now you all know we were attacked by Russian forces as we entered the Ouvea system. It now seems the colony has been invaded by Russian troops as well. If the Russians had attacked this system, then they have likely attacked the rest of the French colonies. That means going through whatever forces the Russians have out there is our only way of getting home. We have all trained hard to make Achilles the fighting ship she is. I’m afraid our abilities are going to be tested to their extreme. If we want to get home, we’re going to have to stand into danger’s path. I know you will all do me proud. Jonathan out.”


Chapter 2 – Intel


3rd September, 2439, inner Ouvea system.

Third Lieutenant Jensen checked the fastenings on her combat suit for the fourth time. She hadn’t worn the armor since basic training. Every naval officer had to be qualified to use them in the rare case a ship was boarded by hostiles. Not that such an event was ever likely to happen. Certainly, since leaving the navy’s lunar academy, she had never had to practice with the suits aboard the various ships she had served on.

Jensen was standing in one of Achilles’ two shuttles, surrounded by marines in heavy combat gear. Their equipment was bigger and bulkier and yet they looked much more at home in them. Achilles had a crew of over four hundred men and women, sixty of which were Royal Marines. It was a tradition dating back to the time of the wet navy’s of Earth. As well as serving as combat soldiers, the marines doubled as crewmembers for Achilles. Although their duties were light as they were expected to spend a lot of their time training for combat.

Almost Jensen was jealous of them. She had never really spent much time with the marines before, but as she stood among them now, their excitement and sense of comradery was infectious. She had hoped to join the navy all her life. The idea of cruising between the stars, exploring new systems and protecting Britain’s colonies had always been a romantic dream of hers. Despite the frequent boredom that came with spending months out in space, she knew that her career choice was everything she had wanted. Yet if she had of joined the marines, then she would have been able to go to space as well as serve within a very tight knit community.

Moreover, she probably would have been better prepared to face actual combat. In one sense, the battle with the two Russian warships had been icing on the cake on her career. She had never longed to see combat but she had been training for it all her adult life. It had been satisfying to finally test her abilities for real. Yet the marines’ thirst for battle that was evident in their talk was unlike anything she had ever seen before. After the battle with the Russian ships, when she had been able to get some time alone to think over what had happened, she had almost had a panic attack. In the heat of the moment the danger hadn’t really sunk in. Alone, in her quarters, the shock had hit her. She knew it would be something she would be having nightmares about.


Yet almost all of the marines had seen combat before. They knew what to expect from this mission and still they were excited. Sure, she was excited about the upcoming mission. It wasn’t often an officer got to go off ship. If they succeeded in capturing their goal she would also get the chance to command her own ship, albeit only for a few hours. Though maybe the Captain would find it useful to keep the freighter for a while and she could continue to command it.

But the marines weren’t just excited about the mission. They were thirsting for the promise of combat. Almost all of them were boasting about their skills, about how many Russians they would personally take out and how they would single handedly complete the mission. No doubt some of it was macho showmanship, even from the female marines. Yet they were just different to naval personnel. While Jensen trained to test her tactical awareness and skills against a faceless, distant opponent, the marines trained to match their bodies and reflexes against someone up close and personal.

As Jensen listened to their bravado, she realized they had to believe they were the best, for anything less would mean death. The devastatingly powerful plasma rifles all of Earth’s armed forces carried ensured that when it came to close quarters fighting, there would only be one survivor. If the marines were full of thoughts about not being good enough or not making it back, those thoughts would become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Keying her COM unit, Jensen opened a channel to the rest of the naval personnel who were on the shuttle with her. “Listen up everyone,” she began, “the marines know their business. When we get to the freighter stay behind them. Let them carry out their mission. Once they have cleared the freighter, then it’s our turn. Neither the marines nor I need any heroes getting in the way. Is that understood?”

After a chorus of ‘Yes sirs’ came across the COM unit, Jensen allowed everyone to go back to their thoughts. They would be launching from the ship in minutes.

*

“Have you managed to locate any targets for us?” Jonathan asked the Sub Lieutenant who had taken over Jensen’s position at the sensor console. He was staring at the holograph projection of Ouvea that dominated Achilles bridge.

“Yes sir, I’m putting the data on the main holo display now. Tactical already has the targeting information,” came the reply.

Somerville simply nodded and then began to study what the Sub Lieutenant was able to decipher about the Russian positions. As he suspected, there were sizeable landing zones around some of the major population centers. The images showed the Russians frantically trying to move most of their equipment away from the landing zones and into the populated areas. They knew Achilles would never fire on civilians. However, some of the equipment looked too big to be moved quickly. There were prefabricated barracks, large supply dumps and heavy artillery. Jonathan would be happy to relieve the Russians of those.

“Sir,” the First Lieutenant said, breaking into his thoughts. “Its time to launch the shuttles, shall I give the order?”

“Proceed,” Jonathan said. After punching a number of commands into his command chair he continued. “Tactical, I want you to hit these targets first. Make sure you take everything out. Then you can move onto targets of your choice. Keep hammering them until we run out of ground attack missiles or targets. These Russians have pissed me off.”

“Aye sir,” the Lieutenant manning the tactical station said with glee.

“Begin firing. I want everyone’s attention on us,” Jonathan said and then switched his attention to the shuttles that were just lifting off. They fired their thrusters to re-orientate themselves towards the docking station and then went silent. The plan was for them to use their momentum to coast up to the station, firing off their engines only at the last second to bring them to a halt. If there were any Russians on the station, they would know they were about to be attacked, but they should only get a thirty second warning. That would give his marines the element of surprise.

On his command chair, he opened another holo display so that he could watch the progress of the ground attack missiles. The first salvo was still five minutes out, but Russians were already beginning to flee from the landing zones. Any thought of saving more equipment had been abandoned. Ground attack missiles didn’t have a nuclear warhead; they didn’t need them, their momentum alone created a more than large enough explosion when they hit the planet’s surface. explosives.

*

Sitting beside the pilot in shuttle one, Marine Lieutenant Cassells was raring to go. His men would have the hardest job, but he was ok with that. While the marines and naval personnel in the other shuttle would dock with one of the French freighters and take control of it, he was tasked with capturing the docking station’s main control room. Every freighter berthed at the station was held in place by docking clamps; that meant capturing the freighter wasn’t enough. Whoever was in the control room could override the docking clamps’ release mechanism and keep the freighter trapped. Cassells’ guess was that the Russians already had the clamps locked down.

“Sixty seconds,” the pilot called out to the marines in his ship. “Beginning deceleration burn in three, two, one.”

Cassells was thrown forward in his seat and he heard a number of marines crash into each other behind him. Like all spaceships the shuttles were equipped with inertial dampeners but the pilot was operating his shuttle at its limit so as to give the Russians as little warning as possible. He struggled to push himself back into his seat but the force from the deceleration burn was too much. Instead he allowed the seat’s restraints to hold him until the shuttle hit the docking station with a thud.

“That was close,” the pilot said with a grin on his face. “Borders away!” He then shouted over the COM channel.

Cassells swore into his helmet. Pilots! His men didn’t need any orders. Certainly not ones from a cocky shuttle pilot. As he took off his restraints and made his way to the boarding ramp the pilot had lowered, his men were already pouring onto the docking station’s hull. Stepping off the shuttle onto the hull, Cassells felt the boots of his combat armor immediately switch on their magnets to give him grip. The marines were already splitting into two groups and sprinting to their targets.

Taking the lead in his squad, Cassells took off towards their target. Sergeant Hughes was already on his knees planting the shaped charges when he got there. The Sergeant’s squad, accompanied by Cassells, was to take the control room while a third squad would form a blocking force. From the schematics they had been able to get of the docking station, there was only one place where a sizeable force of defenders could be housed. If they wanted to get to the control room to help defend it, they would be limited to a couple of corridors. The third squad was already above those corridors, about to blast their way into them and set up defensive positions.

When Hughes jumped away from the charges and held up three fingers, everyone crouched down. The shaped charges went off with an explosion of light, but the concussive force and sound Cassells was used to from training on planets was missing. He barely registered their absence though, he was already jumping through the access hole they had blown in the station.

Pausing inside to make sure all his men were with him, he stepped to the front, “I’ll take point.”

Rushing down the corridor, he held his plasma rifle ready to blast anything that moved. As he rounded the first corner he came face to face with a large composite door that had automatically locked in place when the station detected a hull breach. Clicking his COM unit he asked, “how’s it coming Jones?”

“Almost done sir,” came the reply, “just a couple more seconds… There it’s attached.”

Cassells nodded to Hughes, who keyed the device he had connected to the door’s controls and overrode the locking mechanism. Jones had been left behind to place a membrane over the breach. It stopped the atmosphere from leaking into space and allowed them to trick the station’s central computer into opening the sealed doors.

As the door opened, Cassells sprinted on. Rounding the next corner he immediately threw himself to the floor. Two Russians in combat armor were already there and bringing their plasma rifles up to aim at him. His sudden drop meant their fire went over his head. His return fire tracked in on one of the Russians, the superheated plasma burning right through his armor. Before the second Russian could track his fire down onto Cassells, one of the other marines rounded the corner and opened fire, taking him out.

“Good shooting Jackson I owe you a beer once we get back to Achilles,” Cassells said. As he approached the downed Russians and turned the next corner he brought up the schematics of the station on his HUD. The soldiers must have been guarding the control room for its entrance was right in front of him.

“Ok marines, this is our target.” Cassells said over the squad COM. “Remember, check your aim. Your plasma bolts will shred the command consoles in there. We need to be able to access the docking clamps after we capture our objective.”

Stepping back, he allowed Sergeant Hughes to come forward again. This time he pulled out a long cord of plastic explosives. He fixed the cord in place roughly shaping out a rectangle the height of a marine’s combat armor.

“Brace yourselves,” he said over the COM as he stepped back. Again everyone crouched down as the explosive went off. Only a fraction the size of the explosives that had been used to breach the hull, the blast was still impressive in the confined corridor. It blew the door into the command room and almost toppled some of the marines. Yet, as soon as the concussive wave washed over them, they were on their feet and storming into the room.

Three Russians had been blasted off their feet and another was in a crumpled heap with part of the large door on top of him. Further into the room, three Russian soldiers in combat armor were still more than ready for a fight. Plasma bolts came raining down on the marines and the first two through the door both caught bolts to the head and chest.

Cassells didn’t have time to mourn them for he was the third man through the door. Immediately he swept to the right and took cover behind a command console. In front of him explosions erupted as plasma bolt tore into it. Gritting his teeth, he moved further to the right and jumped up to engage the Russians. He couldn’t allow them to destroy all the command consoles.

As he jumped up he saw one Russian go down from a plasma bolt to his knee. Another, who was pouring fire into the doorway, tried to switch his aim to Cassells as he rose but Cassells beat him to it and plasma bolts tore into his armor and blasted through him.

The final Russian realized the hopelessness of his situation and let out a string of Russian curses as he charged the doorway, trying to take out as many of the marines who were still trying to enter as possible. With a swing of his rifle Sergeant Hughes cracked the Russian’s rifle out of his hands. He then performed a perfect roundhouse kick, catching the charging Russian in the face and knocking him to the ground.

Cassells looked at his Sergeant as the rest of the marines poured into the command room. “What?” Hughes asked, “You said we were to check our fire.”

Cassells shook his head while chuckling, “show off,” over the COM for all the squad to hear. Dismissing the Sergeant’s antics from his mind, he shifted his focus to look for the command console that would access the docking clamps. Pleased to see that the console hadn’t been hit in the fire fight he said a silent prayer of thanks. It only took him a couple of seconds to switch the console on and navigate his way through the controls to the one he wanted. Mission complete, he thought as the console informed him the docking clamps had been released.

Switching his COM to the mission channel he spoke to Lieutenant Jensen, “Cassells here, the docking clamps have been released. We’re making our way back to the shuttle now.”

After her reply he contacted the Sergeant leading the blocking force. “How are you doing Grant?” he asked.

“We’re coming under heavy fire sir, Corporal Fisher is down but we are holding them off.”

“Ok, we’ve secured the control room. Fall back to our position and then we’ll evac to the shuttle.”

“With pleasure sir,” the Sergeant replied.

*

A few minutes earlier Jensen received a call over the COM channel from the Lieutenant leading the marines from her shuttle. “Lieutenant Jensen, we have secured the freighter. No Russians were onboard, I’m moving my men to the docking hatch in case they try to force their way in when they realize what we’re trying to do. The ship is yours.”

“Good job Lieutenant,” she replied. “I’m making my way to the bridge now.”

With a wave, she led her team of navy personnel off the shuttle and onto the station. It took her a couple of minutes to get to the freighter and then to make her way to its bridge. When she did, she was pleased to find three French traders awaiting her.

“Ah Lieutenant, am I glad to see you,” the eldest man said extending his hand. “I am Pier, the most senior crewmember left. The Russians took our Captain and Executive Officer away when they captured the station.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jensen said. “Do you mind if we borrow your ship?”

“Not at all,” Pier replied, “if it means we get out of here.”

“It sure does,” Jensen said, turning to her team she continued, “Spread out. I want all the command consoles manned. Power up the engines and inform me when we are ready to move.”

As she sat in the Captain’s chair her COM unit beeped. “Yes?” she said. When Lieutenant Cassells informed her the clamps had been released she immediately ordered the freighter to back away from the station and make for open space.

*

Somerville was watching the visuals of the docking station anxiously as Achilles continued to pound the Russian positions on Ouvea. It had been almost ten minutes since a flash from the station had indicated the marines had blown their way onboard. Any minute now the freighter should be powering up and undocking if the mission was going to plan.

“Signal from Lieutenant Jensen,” the First Lieutenant called. “She has captured the freighter and is about to disengage from the station. She is requesting coordinates for a rendezvous.”

“How many targets are left?” Somerville asked the tactical officer, relieved to have finally heard from the Third Lieutenant.

“Just three more sir, we’ll be able to break orbit in two minutes.”

“Navigation, set a course for the shift passage to Cartier. Engage once we have hit the last target. Send your course to Jensen as well. She can break orbit and match our course.”

“Aye sir,” the officer replied.

As the freighter detached from the docking station and began to accelerate out of orbit, Somerville sat back in his seat to enjoy the images of the last missiles raining down destruction on the Russians.

When the last missile hit and Achilles was breaking orbit he opened up a COM channel to the planet, knowing the Russian commander would be listening. “Don’t think we’re finished here, we’ll be back and I will be seeing you soon.”


Chapter 3 – Misdirection

8th September, 2439, edge of the Cartier system.

Jonathan was awoken by the alarm he had set before retiring to his quarters. Donning his uniform, he made his way to the bridge. When he got there he sat in the command chair and reviewed the sensor displays. Everything was exactly the same as when he had left five hours ago.

Instead of jumping to the edge of Cartier’s mass shadow – the closest point to a star the shift drive would work. Achilles and the French freighter, Clara, had exited shift space ten light hours away from Cartier’s star. There they had spent ten hours carrying out the alterations to the freighter that were necessary for Jonathan’s plan.

Cartier was a critical system. Shift passages led away from it towards Russian colonial space and New France. Apart from the shift passage from the Alpha system into Russian space, Cartier was the only avenue of invasion if the Russians were determined to expand their Federation. Whatever else they were about to find in Cartier, Somerville was sure there would be Russian warships. Achilles and Clara were preparing for just that eventuality.

“Has the work been completed?” Somerville asked the officer of the watch.

“Lieutenant Jensen contacted me ten minutes ago with a situation update. The Chief Engineer is still over with her but they expect to be ready in another half hour at the most,” came the reply.

“Very good, send a general signal to the crew, inform them we will be going to battle stations in an hour. Let them get something to eat now while they have the chance,” Somerville ordered. He loved to read about naval history; centuries before man had set foot on the moon it had been a custom in the British navy to send the crew for a warm meal before battle. As far as he could, he liked to keep those traditions alive. Plus, it just made sense. His plan called for a lot of waiting around and if his ship had to cross swords with another Russian warship, it was likely to be a lengthy affair, for Somerville was determined he would only fight on his terms.

The Russians still hadn’t found their own source of valstronium. The discovery of the metal in rare asteroids at the very edge of the Sol system and, later, in other systems, had revolutionized ship design. Without the metal the Russians were forced to armor their ships in nano-carbon titanium composite. Their ships were therefore bulkier and so not as maneuverable. Compounding this problem, the lack of valstronium meant lower top speeds as the metal provided much greater protection against the cosmic particles that a ship encountered in space. The faster a ship traveled through space the more damage would be caused to the ship or the crew by a cosmic particle strike. As valstronium provided greater protection it meant ships armored in the metal could reach higher top speeds. Achilles could max out at 0.28 the speed of light. The Russians would be lucky to get to 0.20.

Of course, when it came to a missile duel the difference in maneuverability and top speed counted for little. What mattered was who could force the most missiles through their opponent’s point defenses. Yet the advantage Achilles had over whatever Russians warships were in system meant she could choose when and where the missile duel took place. Unless they got very lucky, or Somerville made a mistake, he knew he could avoid action until his time and place of choice. Though that meant the crew could end up spending hours at their battle stations waiting for the right time to strike.

As Somerville was reviewing his plans one more time he didn’t notice the time passing. When someone entered the bridge and he looked up he was surprised to see it was the Chief Engineer.

“Captain,” he began, “I’ve finished up over on Clara, she is ready to go.”

“Excellent,” Somerville responded. “I guess it’s time to get this show on the road.”

“Communications, open a channel to Jensen for me, then ask the First Lieutenant to report to the bridge,” Jonathan ordered.

Hamilton had come to him and requested command of the freighter when Somerville had detailed his plan to the senior officers. Jonathan had denied his request. If Achilles was involved in a pitched battle in Cartier, or more likely in New France, Hamilton would be vital. He was too important to risk on Clara. Jensen had proven herself commanding the freighter in Ouvea and overseeing the alterations Jonathan had requested, she deserved her chance to stay in command. Besides, Somerville had to admit to himself, he had a growing soft spot for the young officer. She had a fine future ahead of her.

When her face appeared on the holo display Somerville smiled. “Excellent work Lieutenant, I hear you are ready to go?”

“Yes sir,” she answered. “We are all set on this end.”

“Very well, you may jump immediately. We will be half an hour behind you. Happy hunting. Achilles out,” Somerville said as he closed the COM channel.

As Clara disappeared off Achilles’ sensors Somerville set a timer. They didn’t want to appear right behind the freighter. The idea was to let Jensen get away whilst still threatening her. Five minutes before the timer reached zero he called his ship to battle stations. Then, when the time came, Achilles jumped into the Cartier system after the freighter.

Everyone on the bridge was silent as they waited for the sensors to update the main holo display on what was happening in the system. The first thing to appear was Clara. She was further into the system, accelerating at more than her maximum safe limit, screaming out on every COM channel for help. Somerville didn’t have to listen in to the COM signal to know what was being said. He didn’t speak Russian so he couldn’t understand it anyway.

Corporal Weir had been the best Russian speaker they could find among Achilles crew and so she had remained on board Clara with Jensen. At the moment, she was shouting in her thickest Russian accent about a British destroyer that had attacked the system picket force in Ouvea and bombarded the planet. With any luck, she would be able to trick whatever warships were in the system into thinking Clara was under Russian control and had just managed to escape from Ouvea.

As the sensors continued to update the bridge on what was happening further into the system, he guessed that their ploy was working. The gravimetric sensors showed two ships accelerating from Cartier’s inner system towards the fleeing freighter. Judging by their acceleration profiles one was a light cruiser while the other was a destroyer. Larger than the frigates they had engaged at Ouvea, the destroyer would have four or five missiles and the light cruiser seven or eight on each broadside. Alone, they would be no match for Achilles, together they could give her a run for her money. If Somerville’s plan worked that wouldn’t be a problem he would have to worry about.

If they believed the report from Clara that Achilles was only a British destroyer, they would be in even more trouble. In order to help the ruse Achilles had many of her systems powered down and one fission reactor switched off. To anyone looking at the levels of electromagnetic radiation coming from her she would look like a smaller warship. Everything was set for the Russians to walk right into their trap.

Further into the system things were harder to make out. None of the planets were habitable and so there was no colony with its orbital industry. Nevertheless, because of the strategic importance of the system, the French had set up a military base in orbit around the sixth planet. It was a gas giant and they had also built a gas mining facility to extract He3 to fuel the fission reactors of their ships. The military station and gas mining station were both clearly still intact as they were radiating heat into space. Around each station there were numerous ships, picked up by the gravimetric sensors as they maneuvered about. Many of them were only appearing briefly and then disappearing off the plot as they used their engines sparingly to alter course or enter orbit.

“Sensors, I know it will be hard but try and identify as many of those ships around the gas giant as you can. If we deal with these warships we need to know what else might be coming after us.”

“Yes sir,” the officer acknowledged.

“Ok, navigation, time to play our part. Take us after Clara, remember, not too fast. We don’t want to catch them before they get to the Russian ships.”

*

For the next two hours Achilles and Clara raced into the system, one behind the other. On an opposite course, the two Russian warships charged out to meet the British warship. To further aid the deception, Clara begun to beam out her sensor recordings of the battle that had occurred around Ouvea. The Russian ships were already coming under full acceleration but if they could have, Jensen was sure they would have tried to come even faster after seeing their ships destroyed and their ground troops bombarded.

Sitting on the bridge of the freighter Jensen was getting more and more nervous as the two Russian ships closed the range. If they got suspicious, all it would take for them to destroy Clara was one missile or heavy plasma bolt. The freighter would crumple and break apart in seconds. Yet, so far, they were holding their fire. If would only take another twenty minutes for them to come into range of Clara’s modifications.

Those twenty minutes were the longest of her life. Every second seemed to take an eternity. Not knowing if each would be her last; she tried and failed to quash thoughts of her family and friends. Finally, at last, the moment of action came.

“Pilot, take us out,” she commanded.

The pilot of the shuttle gently fired its maneuvering thrusters and lifted off from the freighter’s deck. What had originally been one of the freighter’s cargo sections had been cut open to allow the shuttle to be flown into the empty cargo hold. Gently, the pilot took his ship out the same way he had taken it in. Then, once they were in open space, he killed the engines and allowed the shuttle to drift away from the freighter.

“We’re out,” he needlessly announced to Jensen and the crewmembers who had been manning Clara. Forty minutes before they had all left their posts and crammed into the shuttle. Now they all turned to look out the viewer towards the freighter.

Jensen waited as long as she dared before triggering the second modification that Achilles’ Chief Engineer had made to Clara. When the timing was just right she pressed the button in the shuttle’s cockpit that sent the signal to Clara. Immediately, a small explosion erupted from the nose section of the freighter. Too quickly for the Russian ships to react, a part of the freighter’s frontal armor flew off into space revealing three large anti-ship missiles. Without electromagnetic acceleration tubes they would have to get to their target on their own acceleration.  However, Jensen had waited long enough to ensure the Russians were to close to escape.

As soon as the frontal armor cleared out of the way, she hit her second button and all three missiles ignited their engines and raced away from the freighter. The Russian ships were headed almost directly for the freighter at 0.2c while the freighter was travelling at 0.17c.  The velocities meant the closing speed of the missiles was the equivalent of 0.37c, even before they fired off their engines. With their engines going immediately to full burn the flight time would be just over fifty seconds.

Silently, Jensen willed the missiles on to their targets. Things weren’t going to go all her own way though. Someone onboard the light cruiser had quick reflexes for its point defenses began to open up on the incoming missiles. There just wasn’t enough time however, although they managed to take out one missile, the other two came crashing in.

Jensen had targeted all the missiles at the light cruiser for she knew Achilles could handle the destroyer on her own. One of the missiles over shot its target and detonated just behind the light cruiser. Still, as the blast wave hit the cruiser it visibly shook on the screen Jensen was watching. The final missile was right on target. It hit the light cruiser amidships and its momentum ensured it penetrated deep into the cruiser’s side armor before it detonated. The explosion tore a giant hole in the ship, ripping the spine right out of it. As its engine continued to accelerate the rear of the ship, the pressure on what was left of the central superstructure snapped the remaining support struts. In front of Jensen’s eyes the cruiser broke in two. Both halves began to spin away from each other, venting debris and bodies into the cold of space.

The Russian destroyer, unharmed by the missiles, obviously still saw the freighter as a threat for she quickly turned to present her port missile tubes at Clara. A full broadside of four missiles quickly homed in on the freighter and ensured she came to a quick end. Jensen couldn’t help but feel sorry for the freighter as it broke apart under the explosive force. She had served her purpose well, yet Clara was her ship. In just a few days she had developed an emotional connection to the little freighter that she couldn’t explain. Without blinking, she watched as the freighter continued to break up and its debris scatter until last sign of her ship fade from the shuttle’s sensors. Only then did she closed her eyes as she felt an overwhelming sense of loss.

*

The lost freighter was the last thing on Jonathan’s mind. Coming in hot behind Clara, Achilles was about to enter missile range of the destroyer. He wanted to make this a clean sweep and take it out before it could do Achilles any damage. After the battle with the two Russian warships at Ouvea, he knew their missiles could penetrate the Russian point defenses. One broadside should do it.

“Fire!” he shouted as soon as the destroyer came into range. The exhaust plums of the eleven missiles that streaked off towards their target momentarily blinded the ship’s sensors. When the sensors cleared, they showed four Russian missiles bearing down on Achilles. As both ships had fired at extreme range the destroyer managed to fire another salvo before it had to raise its point defenses to protect itself. Somerville could have fired another salvo too but he wanted to see what damage his first one caused before wasting more missiles.

His judgment proved correct as the destroyer’s point defenses only managed to take out five of the British missiles. The rest closed with the destroyer and at least one got a direct hit, causing enough damage to put it out of the fight.

Achilles fared much better. Her point defenses were designed to take on many more missiles than the two salvos of four that tried to destroy her. In the end none of them managed to get even close enough to score a proximity hit.

As the last missile exploded from a plasma cannon hit the crew on the bridge cheered. Somerville let them enjoy the moment but he knew that they were getting carried away. As yet, Achilles hadn’t come up against an equal foe. The light cruiser and destroyer together would have given her a real test but, thankfully, Jensen had taken removed that possibility. If they had to face similar odds again Somerville knew they couldn’t count on being so lucky.

When the crew had calmed down he gave the order for the sensor officer to send a signal to Jensen and her shuttle. They had been drifting without any systems powered up so the Russian destroyer wouldn’t detect them. Now it was time to get them home.

Leaving the retrieval of Jensen to the junior bridge officers, Somerville brought up the sensor data that had been collected on the ships further into the system. As soon as the two Russian warships had been destroyed the remaining warships had broken orbit from around the gas giant and began to make for Achilles. The rest of the ships had scattered. The sensor officer’s readings suggested that the ships fleeing were military freighters while the warships were another light cruiser, a destroyer and two frigates. Achilles could never take them all on and hope to survive.

Turning to his first officer Somerville asked, “What do you suggest we do now?”

Hamilton was a good tactician. Somerville had already recommended him for promotion. Aggressive and yet careful to his aggression at the right time, he was just the sort of officer the RSN was trying to get into command positions.

“We could make a run for it,” he began as he manipulated his own controls, altering the main holo display. A dotted line appeared in front of the representation of Achilles, bending away from the approaching ships towards the shift passage to New France. “They wouldn’t be able to get into range of us so we would make a clean get away. We have already caused enough damage to be satisfied here. As you have already said, we could be needed elsewhere.

“However,” he continued slowly, “Those fleeing military freighters make a very tempting target. If the Russians are bent on conquering New France I would bet they are filled to the seams with soldiers, or at least the supplies they need for the soldiers they already have in New France. We could cause them a lot of damage if we could take out even one. It would be a shame to pass up such an opportunity.”

“So what do you purpose then? I don’t intend to risk this ship unnecessarily, no matter how juicy the targets are,” Jonathan asked.

“We have the speed and maneuverability advantage. I say we use it. We keep heading for the remaining Russian warships. Let them think we are willing to go toe to toe with them. Why not? We have already destroyed a light cruiser and a destroyer. Who’s to say we shouldn’t be over confident?

“Then, at the last moment, once they are committed, we can maneuver up and over them. Look at these three freighters here,” Hamilton said, pointing to three freighters that were scrambling away from the gas giant towards the shift passage to New France.

“We can make for them. As soon as we try to out maneuver the warships the freighters will alter course to avoid us, but by then we should have built up enough speed to get into range and fire off a broadside at one or two of them as we pass. Then we can just head on to New France.”

“And what if the Russians release their frigates? They are faster than their light cruisers and destroyers. They could catch us and do some damage. If they managed to score a hit on us we could fall back into the clutches of the light cruiser and destroyer,” Jonathan pointed out.

“That’s a risk sir,” Hamilton conceded, “but one I think we should consider taking. Even if they released the frigates to use their full acceleration they would be allowing them to get into range of our missiles. We would make quick work of them.”

“Ok,” Jonathan said making up his mind. Standing he vacated the command chair. “You have the bridge Lieutenant. I want to see you put your ideas into practice.”

“Yes sir,” Hamilton said eagerly. Every Lieutenant in the RSN knew to grab an opportunity to exercise command authority with open arms. There was fierce competition for promotion and command experience always looked well on a Lieutenant’s personnel file.


Chapter 4 – Confrontation

15th September 2439, New France system

Eight days later Achilles was once again sitting at the edge of a French system as her sensors updated the bridge crew on what was going on around them. Hamilton had pulled off his plan perfectly. After dancing around the Russian warships he had managed to get into range of one of the freighters he had identified as a target. A single missile had taken it out. Somerville hoped the Russians would feel the loss.

In anger, two Russian frigates had tried to fire their missiles at Achilles but they had misjudged the range. Two minutes before reaching the British ship the missiles ran out of fuel and went ballistic. A small course change from the navigation officer had avoided them.

After destroying the freighter they had headed for the shift passage to New France. Now they were trying to figure out what to do next. As Jonathan peered at the sensor data, he knew he had a dilemma. New France was a hive of activity. There were tens of ships moving around in orbit and more moving about the inner system.

Crucially, there was no sensor data on the large battlestations that should be around the colony. There was also a large gathering of ships about a light hour from New France facing the shift passage that lead further into French colonial space and all the way back to Earth. It looked like they were prepared to engage anything that came through the shift passage. The implications were obvious. Whatever fighting had occurred in the system was now over. The Russians had firmly established themselves as the owners of New France.

The loss of the system meant that it was Somerville’s duty to get past the Russians and head for friendly space. He had no doubt that Britain and America would stand by France. Neither power wanted to see the Russian Space Federation get any stronger. There would be a fleet coming to liberate New France. Judging by the size of the naval forces the Russians had amassed in the system the fleet would need all the help it could get. The RSN had only eight medium cruisers. There were more under construction along with two new heavy cruisers that had just been designed. Yet it would take months for them to be finished. Achilles, therefore, constituted a significant proportion of the RSN’s firepower. She would be needed in the coming battle. Somerville couldn’t risk her here and now. However, he was still thinking about the dilemma before him.

If the fleet was on its way to New France it would need as much intel on the Russian defenders as possible. Somerville had a duty to collect that information. He also felt a duty to the people of New France. No doubt the Russians had landed ground troops just as they had at Ouvea. The populace would be going through a tough occupation. Somerville wanted to find a way to give them some hope, to let them know they weren’t on their own.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Jensen called from her position at the sensor console. “I’m picking up thermal blooms from the planet. There were four of them in quick succession. All were in a region near one of the ships in orbit.”

“Ground strikes,” Hamilton informed her. “The Russians are bombarding the planet. It means there must still be some resistance from the French. RSNI intel from before the invasion suggests the French had over eighty thousand troops stationed on the planet. They must still be putting up a fight. Though I imagine it is a living hell down there, trying to fight a ground war with ships in orbit bombarding you every time you move.”

Suddenly, Jonathan didn’t feel torn anymore. He knew what he wanted to do. “Navigation, lay in a course for the shift passage back to Earth. Though don’t plot a direct route. Make it look like we are trying to avoid the main Russian fleet and make sure our course takes us close to the sixth planet.”

“Yes sir,” the navigation officer said a little confused.

The sixth planet was a large rocky planet with a thick layer of ice up to five kilometers deep in places. Its surface temperatures were far too cold for a colony, although the French had set up a couple of mining facilities on its surface. Importantly, at its present position, it lay almost directly between the shift passage Achilles had just exited and the shift passage that eventually lead back to Earth. Therefore, it wouldn’t look too strange for Achilles to plot a course close to the planet.

“Here’s my plan,” Somerville said to the confused faces on the bridge. “As soon as we light off our engines everyone in the system will pick us up on their gravimetric sensors. Our course will make it clear we want to get out of New France and to safety. Whoever the Russian commander is, he will see an opportunity to destroy a large British warship isolated and alone. He’ll no doubt move his main fleet to intercept us and may even dispatch a flotilla to harry us and make sure we don’t try to attack their ships in orbit. We’re going to play along, at least until we get near the sixth planet.”

*

Three hours later, the time came for Achilles to make her course change. Sure enough, the Russian commander was moving the main part of his fleet closer to the shift passage that would be Achilles eventual route of escape. He had also dispatched a smaller force to move closer to the colony in case Achilles tried anything. As soon as she turned her nose towards the sixth planet the smaller fleet reacted. They immediately began to decelerate hard to swing deeper into the system. Rightly predicting she would use the planet’s gravity to go for the Russian ships orbiting the colony. They hoped to intercept the British ship before she made it to the colony. Up to this point though Somerville had been holding back Achilles’ full potential. Once she swung around the sixth planet, using its gravity to sling shot her towards the French colony, he ordered the engines to full power. The extra thirty percent thrust from the engines caught the Russians off guard. They had no answer and so were quickly left astern of the charging Achilles.

The Russian system commander had been taken aback by Achilles sudden burst of speed for his response was slow. Eventually, four destroyers began to move out of orbit around New France and formed up to engage Achilles. The freighters and military transports also began to break out of orbit and move away from the planet, escorted by a light cruiser and two frigates. That left only two more destroyers in orbit.

Jensen continued to report thermal blooms, indicating the remaining destroyers were continuing to bombard the defenders. Several had been close to the larger cities and one had been right on top of a small town. The Russians had never signed the UN resolution on Interplanetary Warfare but it was still shocking to see them bombarding a planet so ruthlessly. Even if the town they had hit had been evacuated, and Somerville hoped it had been, there was no need to destroy civilian homes and businesses. Another missile struck near to the capital city of Lozere and Achilles was now close enough to watch the shock wave roll into the city. Homes on the edge of the city were crumpled and the wave of damage and destruction continued on for almost a kilometer into the city, tearing roofs off houses, smashing windows and no doubt causing many injuries and deaths as it went.

That was the last straw, Somerville said to himself in anger. Standing, he gripped his hands into fists and gestured to the navigation officer. “Change of course. Take us directly for those four destroyers.”

Somerville had planned to avoid them, fly past the planet and make contact with whoever was leading the ground resistance to get all the intel they had. Then he was going to high tail it out of there.

Now, he had seen enough. The commander of the Russian forces had made a mistake. If he wanted to deter Achilles he should have sent the light cruiser with the destroyers. Escorting the freighters, it was too far away to have any impact on the coming battle. A part of Somerville wanted it to try and come back once the Russians realized he was going to fight. If he could take it out as well, all the Russian freighters and military transports would be at his mercy.

Nevertheless, his mind was made up. Those destroyers had caused the last damage they were going to do to the planet. “Tactical, target the lead two destroyers, as soon as they come into range open fire. Then switch to the next two with your second salvo. Two broadsides should deal with them, we can mop up whatever is left after that.”

“Is this wise sir?” Hamilton asked.

“Probably not, but we can’t just fly by and watch the planet and the populace be bombarded into rubble. We’ve already shown Achilles can handle herself against the Russians, now we just need to prove we can handle a few more,” Somerville answered.

“I want you to take control of the point defenses personally,” he continued. “Our tactical officer can handle our own missiles. You just make sure none of the Russians get through.”

“Yes sir,” Hamilton said as he got up from his chair and moved over to stand beside the tactical officer.

*

Forty minutes later the Russian ships came into range of Achilles. The British missiles obviously had a slight range advantage for Achilles was able to open fire first, sending eleven missiles tearing off after their targets. The Russians followed suit less than a minute later, sending sixteen missiles against Achilles. As each ship had fired at their maximum range, the flight time for the missiles was a little over fifteen minutes. That allowed both sets of ships to fire off another salvo at each other before the first came crashing in.

Jonathan watched the gravimetric plot closely as his missiles reached their targets first. As the contacts on the gravimetric plot representing the British missiles began to disappear among the Russian ships, at first nothing seemed to happen. Then a cheer went up on the bridge as one blip began to falter and lose acceleration. This was quickly followed by another blip disappearing all together. They had scored hits on both of their targets.

There was no time to dwell on their success for the Russian missiles were about to close with Achilles. At the tactical console Hamilton was sweating. He knew the first two Russian salvos were going to be a close thing. Achilles was designed to be able to defend herself against twelve or thirteen, maybe as many as fourteen separate incoming missiles. Sixteen was a lot.

As they entered the maximum range of Achilles’ point defenses he opened up on them with the plasma cannons. Sixteen became fourteen and then twelve. When they were close enough the AM missiles began to fire taking down more of the incoming projectiles. In total Hamilton fired thirty of the smaller missiles. They struck eight of the Russian missiles and the plasma cannons took out another two. That still left two nuclear tipped warheads homing on Achilles.

“It’s not going to be enough,” Hamilton called.

“Evasive maneuvers now!” Jonathan ordered.

Sending the ship into a dive and then a roll the navigation officer tried his best to throw off the aim of the last two missiles. Achilles’ frantic movements, combined with her ECM, fooled one of the missiles and it continued off into space, searching for a target. The second however, didn’t lose its lock. At the last second another jerk by Achilles took her out of the missile’s path. Sensing it was no longer going to get a direct hit the missile detonated its warhead. The resultant thermonuclear explosion immersed Achilles’ nose section in explosive force.

On the bridge, the crew were thrown around in their harness as they sat at their consoles. Once Somerville got his bearings back he called out, “Damage report.”

It was the Second Lieutenant who answered over the COM channel from the auxiliary bridge. “We have taken a proximity hit to our bow section. Some of our valstronium armor was burnt off but it’s reshaping itself to fill the gaps now. More importantly, we have lost forty percent of our point defenses in our nose section.”

“Thank you Lieutenant,” Somerville acknowledged, “what about causalities?”

“I’m getting reports of two fatalities so far. There are at least several serious injuries as well. Hold on… I’ve just heard from starboard missile tube eleven. They have reported a fatality and damage to their missile tube. It looks like it is going to be out of action for a while.”

“Very well, I’m putting you in charge of the repairs. See our injured get the attention they need. We have a battle to fight,” Somerville ordered.

“How long until the next Russian missiles reach us?” he asked the bridge.

“Six more minutes,” Jensen answered.

“I’m not sure we can survive another salvo,” Hamilton said, “with our forward point defenses so damaged we’re likely to take a second hit if another missile homes in on our bow.”

“Train some of the other point defense plasma cannons to cover our damaged sections. Then get to work repairing as many of the damaged ones as you can,” Somerville ordered.

“Everyone else listen up,” he continued a little louder, “those Russian missiles are smaller than in our destroyers. A larger missile would have caused us much more damage. We can take maybe two more proximity hits, maybe even a direct hit, but anything more and we’re toast. You all know how long we have. See what you can do to give us a chance.”

Immediately, everyone turned their attention back to their consoles looking for a way to save their ship. Somerville thought he had an idea of his own so he opened up the control files for the forward missile tube. Designed to be used in a stern chase, the single forward tube allowed Achilles to fire a missile after a ship it was directly following. Along with the store of missiles in its magazine, there was also a number of survey probes that Achilles could launch into a system to explore it.

They were larger than missiles and had a much bigger fuel tank. Somerville opened up the flight software and began to rewrite some code. When he was done he ordered the probe loaded into the tube. A status symbol on his screen indicated that the probe would be ready to launch in three minutes. It would be close but it would be ready just in time. Hopefully it would work.

Unnoticed by everyone on the bridge the British missiles had already reached their targets. By the time Somerville was done, both destroyers had disappeared off the gravimetric plot.

“Here they come,” Hamilton shouted when the next salvo of sixteen Russian missiles was about to enter plasma cannon range. Once again they and the AM missiles reached out to try and stop the incoming missiles from raining down death and destruction on Achilles and her crew. Again Hamilton proved his skill with the point defenses, sixteen was quickly reduced to eight, then seven and even down to five.

A beep at Somerville’s side alerted him to the fact that someone had accessed the secondary radar emitter without his permission. It was meant to be held in reserve in case the primary emitter was damaged. Before he could question who had powered it up, Hamilton shouted from the tactical console. “They are losing lock, the Russian missiles are losing lock on us!”

Somerville saw his chance. He triggered the forward missile tube and a survey probe launched from Achilles. The alterations he had done to its software immediately sent its engines into overdrive. Within seconds the engine housing began to melt. Moments later it catastrophically failed, the excess heat immediately causing the large fuel tank of the probe to explode in a giant fireball. In the few seconds it took the fuel to completely burn up the Russian missiles saw another target on their thermal scanners, one just as large as Achilles. Already confused, four of them locked on to the brighter target and flew past Achilles. The remaining missile tried but failed to lock on to Achilles. With no target in range it self-destructed. The blast barely touched the British warship and was easily held back by its valstronium armor.

Somerville didn’t quite know what happened but he was glad to be alive. “So who wants to own up to using the secondary radar array against regulations?” he asked the bridge at large.

Everyone stared at him, clearly not sure what he was talking about. Slowly Jensen raised her hand. “Care to explain?” Somerville asked.

“Well,” she began nervously, “I thought maybe I could get the Russians trick to work against them. After the first salvo I want back into our sensor data and checked the radar frequency of the Russian missiles from our previous engagement at Ouvea. The missiles they fired there and the ones from the four destroyers’ first salvo here all used the same frequency when they were trying to lock onto us. I only managed to confirm they were the same sixty seconds before that second salvo was about to hit us. There was no time to try and explain to Hamilton to get him to switch the frequency of our main radar so I powered up the auxiliary array. I hope that was ok?”

“Ok?” Jonathan said delighted. “Of course it was ok. Well done Lieutenant. You have shown a lot of promise. Your personnel file is going to look a lot more impressive when we get back to Earth.

“Now,” he said turning to address everyone. “Let’s deal with those last two destroyers in orbit around New France and see if we can get in contact with whoever is leading the resistance down there.”


Chapter 5 – Reunion

22nd September 2439, Aurora system.

Once again Somerville was pacing back and forth on the bridge as Achilles jumped out of shift space into another French system. After taking out the final two Russian destroyers that had been bombarding the colony of New France they had barely slowed down long enough to attack some of the Russian ground forces themselves.

General Ney, commander of the surviving French army units on New France, had contacted Somerville. He had given them all the sensor data he had on the Russian fleet, as well as a situation report to be passed on to the French government. After getting a list of targets Ney wanted hit by Achilles’ last six ground attack missiles, the two men had said their farewells. Neither knew if the other would survive the coming battles but they had each wished the other luck.

Somerville had been shocked as he watched a replay of the initial battle for New France. The Russian fleet had come in and smashed the French fleet in minutes. They had then moved on to the colony’s battlestations and reduced them to space debris almost as quickly.

Their ease of victory was evident in the sensor data. The Russians had constructed a new type of warship. A close up of one of the ships revealed a name in Russian that someone on New France had translated as ‘Behemoth’. The name was fitting. Achilles was one of the largest ships in the Royal Space Navy. She could fire a broadside of eleven missiles. Soon the first two heavy cruisers would be finished and they would take the honor of being the biggest and most heavily armed. The Russian Behemoths would dwarf even those ships.

In the replay of the battle, Jonathan had seen each of them fire thirty missiles in every salvo. The Russians had five of them and alone they could rain down one hundred and fifty missiles on their enemy. After reviewing the battle, Somerville had taken a closer look at the ships in the Russian fleet that were guarding the shift passage that led back to Earth. Sure enough, the five Behemoths were there, waiting for any French ships that came to try and help New France.

Jensen had missed them before because they were powered down, conserving fuel. As soon as Achilles used the colony’s gravity to sling shot herself towards the shift passage home, they had powered up and tried to intercept the British ship. Thankfully, the replay of the battle had given Somerville a vital piece of information, the acceleration and top speed of the Behemoths. He had used that data to calculate the best route around them. It had added over six hours to their journey out of the system, but it had allowed Achilles and her crew to escape without having to go toe to toe with the monsters.

When the Russians had realized they weren’t going to capture the medium cruiser with their larger ships they had released their smaller light cruisers and destroyers to chase her down. Jensen had used her radar trick on the first missile salvo that had come Achilles way and the return fire had damaged a light cruiser. That had given their pursuers second thoughts and Achilles had escaped unharmed.

At the time, Jonathan had been reluctant to use Jensen’s trick again. When they had first used it, the Russian ships who had fired the missiles had already been destroyed. No one had seen what Jensen had done. Now the Russians knew they had copied their idea. It wouldn’t work again and Jonathan knew there were still large battles to be fought, battles where the trick would have come in very handy. Yet escaping with the data he had on the Russians had been his priority and so he had been forced to use the trick.

Thoughts of his escape from New France were driven from Jonathan’s as the sensor feed for Aurora updated. There were over fifty ships accelerating into the inner system. Crucially, they were coming from the other side of the system. From the shift passage that lead to the Alpha system, which, in turn, lead back to Earth. The fleet was heading towards the large military base the French had built on a rocky moon that orbited one of the system’s gas giants to secure their border system. It appeared as if a response fleet from Earth had already been put together.

“Navigation plot us a course for the French military base, take us there at eighty percent thrust,” Jonathan commanded.

“Aye, sir,” came the reply.

“COM’s, transmit our report on the Russian forces to that fleet, whoever is in command will want to know what is going on as soon as possible.”

“Transmitting now Captain,” Achilles COMs office replied.

“Thank you, now open a ship wide COM channel Lieutenant,” Jonathan requested. His ship was now out of harm’s way, at least for the immediate future. Jonathan wanted his crew to be able to relax in that knowledge. When the officer nodded to say the channel was open he took a deep breath and began, “Achilles, it is my pleasure to report that we have rejoined the fleet.” Pausing he allowed the cheers to echo around the ship. Even the bridge crew joined in. The last few weeks had been taxing on everyone, never before had a British spaceship had to fight its way through not one but three occupied systems. Every crewmember was now a veteran of interstellar war. There wasn’t an enlisted man or woman in the RSN who had seen more combat than Achilles’ crew.

“In celebration, I am doubling the food rations for the day. I want all of you to prepare a feast for yourselves in your off duty hours. I also want to add how proud I am of you. We drilled hard for our war games with the Indians. Little did we know what was going to follow but you all handled yourselves marvelously. The Admiralty will be impressed with the report I am sending them and I’m sure the news broadcasters will want to interview many of you. Well done everyone. Enjoy yourselves, you have earned it. Somerville out.”

Looking up at the bridge crew he held everyone’s eye for several seconds. It happened that Jensen was on watch again and when he looked at her he added, “And especially well done to you Lieutenant. Without your quick thinking those four destroyers at New France would have had us.”

As she looked down in embarrassment, Jonathan moved on to survey the rest of the bridge crew. When he was done he stood and turned to Hamilton who had been on the bridge in case they had run into more trouble at Aurora. “You have the bridge First Lieutenant, I’m going to retire to my quarters.”

“Aye sir,” Hamilton said. As Jonathan stood, he stood too and saluted his Captain. “Thank you for getting us home sir,” he added.

*

When the first communication from the fleet arrived, Jonathan opened it in his quarters. He was surprised to find that it came from the French Admiral Villeneuve. Villeneuve was well known among the British naval officers. There were regular war games between the two navies and Villeneuve was regarded as the best the French had. Somerville had assumed he had died at New France. The last he had heard; the Admiral had been posted there. Clearly he had survived, and Jonathan had little doubt that Villeneuve would share his desire for revenge against the Russians.

Unsurprisingly the French Admiral was requesting Jonathan report on board his flagship for a conference of Captains. Included in his orders was a list of the ships in the fleet. Jonathan was happy to see that his guess was right. Many of the UN nations had decided to stand with the French against the Russians. There were several destroyers from Japan, Germany and Brazil. More important were the two American and two British medium cruisers that accompanied the three French ones. Counting Achilles, the fleet now had eight of the warships. Somerville wasn’t sure that would be enough against the Behemoths. But they would certainly be able to give a good account of themselves. He had sent the battle data General Ney had given him to Villeneuve along with his own report of what had happened over the last few weeks so the French admiral would know what he was up against. The decision about what to do with the giant Russian ships was now, thankfully, out of his hands.

Jonathan understood the need for a conference though. Commanding Captains from six different nationalities would be a difficult undertaking. Getting them all fighting as one unit would be even harder. Still, Jonathan was eager to get stuck in. Someone had to teach the Russians a lesson and he was keen to get back to the Ouvea system and make good on his promise to the Russian ground commander there.

*

After his shuttle had been cleared to land on Villeneuve’s flagship Argonaute, Somerville was ushered into the medium cruiser’s conference room. To say the seating was cramped was a major understatement. With over fifty Captains crushed together babbling in various languages, the scene was more like a street bazar on the diverse Alpha colony than a naval briefing. When Admiral Villeneuve walked in, accompanied by Vice Admiral Jamison of the Royal Space Navy and Vice Admiral Hopkins of the US Interstellar Navy, the room went silent. Everyone stared at the Admiral expectantly.

“Welcome to my flagship ladies and gentlemen,” Villeneuve began in perfect English. “First, let me congratulate you on your performance at the Alpha system. We only had a week to drill together before leaving Earth and you performed better than expected. Though there is still a lot of room for improvement.”

Somerville already knew what he was referring too. The Russians had sent a small force into the Alpha system to occupy its orbitals and slow down any response to their invasion from Earth. He hadn’t been surprised to learn that the Russians hadn’t actually tried to land any troops to occupy the colony. The Alpha system had been the first system discovered by the shift drive. Even though it had a planet that was just barely habitable, it had caused great excitement on Earth. Every nation had rushed to send colonists to the planet and claim a part of the landmass for themselves. When more habitable planets had been discovered the Alpha colony had quickly fallen by the wayside and no Earth government had had any interest in trying to manage it. The hodge-podge of nationalities had also caused its own problems as the different groups struggled with each other for the limited resources of the barren planet. In the end, the UN had to take control of the colony and now oversaw its governance.

After the combined fleet had been formed out of the available warships in the Sol system, the first thing they had done after spending a week drilling together was advance on the Alpha system. All the Russian forces had either been quickly destroyed or managed to escape.

“I also need to congratulate our newest addition to the fleet,” Villeneuve continued. As every eye turned to Jonathan he suddenly realized Villeneuve was referring to him. “Captain Somerville has shown us all how it’s done. If his reports are to be believed, he has already dispatched ten Russian warships. More importantly, he has provided us with vital intel on what we are going to face when we get to New France.”

With a nod to one of his flag officers an image appeared on the conference room’s main holo display. “This is a Russian Behemoth,” Villeneuve explained. “We have all been wondering how the Russians so easily defeated the defenders at New France. Now we know. Without valstronium armor they are slow and immensely unwieldy, but they more than make up for their weaknesses with sheer weight of fire. Each ship has a broadside of thirty missiles. For all intents and purposes they are battlestations with shift drives attached to them. No one was expecting anything like this. It must have cost the Russians trillions of credits to construct such monsters. But that just means one thing. It will cost them trillions of credits when we blow them up.”

Villeneuve’s last comment brought a number of chuckles from around the room but Somerville saw something deeper in the Admiral’s eyes. He recognized it from his own attitude after his encounter with the Russian commander at Ouvea. Villeneuve was angry. His country had been attacked and his people were being killed. He was eager for payback.

Going on, Villeneuve switched the holo display to show the Allied fleet. “We have been promised more British ships from the Cook system and an American flotilla was expected at Earth four days after we left, so they should be close behind us. Once we have these reinforcements I plan to head to New France. We know the Russians are waiting for us. At the first battle of New France we weren’t ready. Now we know what to expect, with a bit of luck my analysts believe we can show the Russians that their Behemoths aren’t as invulnerable as they think.

“For now, a couple of our ships need repairs at the military station. The repairs will take up to a week and so during that time the rest of us will be drilling almost constantly. We still have a lot of work to do to get our fleet fighting as one. Your senior commanders have already been briefed on the details of my plan. I’m sure you are all enjoying getting to know each other so well in this cramped room, but we’re going to split into our different national units. You’ll find your assigned briefing on your datapad. Dismissed.”

As Jonathan squeezed out of the row he was sat in, a number of officers came over to shake his hand. Most of them were unknown to him but he was delighted to see a couple of American Captains he had met before. Not being a big fan of crowds, he tried to excuse himself from the fanfare but there were just too many Captains who wanted to hear about combat with the Russians. Thankfully he was saved by an aide of Admiral Villeneuve who pushed his way into the crowd that had developed around him. “The Admiral would like to speak to you before you meet with Vice Admiral Jamison,” he said.

“Certainly,” Jonathan replied with relief, “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said to the disappointment of his fellow Captains. “Another time, you can buy me a drink and I’ll tell you all about it,” he added with a chuckle.

The Admiral’s aide led him through a side door out of the conference room and into a smaller briefing room. Villeneuve was standing talking to one of his flag officers. When Jonathan came in he broke off the conversation. “Congratulations again Captain,” he began as he offered his hand.

Jonathan took it and was impressed by the strength of the Admiral’s grip. Villeneuve was over eighty now but he still had a strong sense of vitality. Jonathan guessed the desire to liberate his people’s colony had given him a new vigor.

“I wanted to tell you myself, with Vice Admiral Jamison’s permission I’m giving you a field promotion to Commodore. I don’t know if your Admiralty will honor the position once this war is over, but for now I need to use you. Next to Vice Admiral Jamison, you are the most experienced British officer I have and if anything happens to him, I want you to be ready to lead the British forces. Understood?”

“Yes sir,” Jonathan said a bit taken a back. “I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I ask son,” Villeneuve said with a grin. “I’m sure you’ll do fine. Now tell me, what do you make of the Russian’s resolve. Do they have the stomach for a protracted war?”

“Well sir,” Jonathan said and then paused to buy himself some time to think. “You have seen my report. Even when the odds were against them, the Russian warships I encountered were quick to engage. The fact that they have landed such large quantities of ground forces and have been so ruthless in weeding out any resistance certainly suggests they plan to stay. You know better than I that the Russians have been demanding access to valstronium for years. New France’s deposits don’t compare to Britannia’s, but beggars can’t be choosers. I don’t mean to cause insult, but your colonial empire is the low hanging fruit. Britain and America’s navies are much more developed than yours and we can count on a larger industrial base if it came to a long-protracted war.

“My guess is they thought they could grab New France and hold on long enough to build their own valstronium armored warships. You know my government can’t spare too many ships to aid you. We have the Chinese to worry about. And the Americans are all the way on the other side of human space. The Russians probably decided to strike while your navy was still too weak to win on its own. They have made a mistake though. My government has no desire to share a border with Russia and China and the Americans don’t want to see even a hint of a resurgent Russia. I believe we have the forces necessary to stop them. They will certainly try and fight, they have no other option now. But we can win.”

“Agreed,” Villeneuve said with a smile. “Your assessment matches my own. We’ll talk more later I’m sure, but I just wanted to get your feel for the situation. Now, you better go and meet with Vice Admiral Jamison and the rest of your naval officers or they might start without you.”

“Yes sir,” Jonathan said as saluted and then turned to leave the briefing room.

Down the corridor, he made his way into the room being used by the British officers. Everyone else was already there and when he sat, Jamison stood to address his Captains.

“First, let me introduce you all to our newest Commodore. Stand up Commodore Somerville,” Jamison said, smiling as he gestured for Jonathan to stand. “Admiral Villeneuve has seen fit to promote our accomplished friend to temporary flag rank for the duration of this fleet’s mission, so he’ll be acting as my second in command. Somerville’s Achilles will be docking with the French military station for now however. As I understand it she will need all the time in the repair yard she can get?”

“I’m afraid so Admiral,” Jonathan replied. “We could fight tomorrow if we have to, but we have a fair few repairs we’d like the help of a repair yard to put right.

“Well, due to Somerville’s recent promotion he will be transferring over to my flagship, Custodian, so he can be involved in our fleet drills,” Jamison explained. “If anything happens to me, he needs to be up to speed and I’m sure we will all benefit from his experience. I trust your First Lieutenant can handle the repairs in your absence?”

“Certainly sir,” Jonathan answered. “He will enjoy getting out from under my watchful gaze for a few days.”

“Very good.” Jamison said. “Now, we’re here to work out our position in the Allied fleet. Let’s get down to business.”

*

Two hour later Jonathan was sitting in one of Achilles’ shuttles on his way back to his ship. Jamison had given him a few hours to gather what he would need for the next week and hand over command to Hamilton. As he was waiting for the shuttle to complete the flight between the two warships, he pulled out his personal datapad. He hadn’t had time to see if the fleet had brought any messages from Earth. Pleased, he saw that his wife had sent him two letters. Both were filled with news of her life and her burgeoning career as a writer. Jonathan loved to read and he was slowly building a collection of old fashioned paper novels. It was how they had first met, they had both been searching for the same novel in a dusty old bookshop in London. After agreeing to share it they had then shared a meal. Her second letter was also filled with her hopes and dreams of starting a family when he got home. Apparently she had already begun renovating a number of rooms in the large seventeenth century house his father had given him. It had been in the family since they had first built it.

When he opened the next message he saw the source of his wife’s pinning. His brother had sent a communication announcing the birth of his second son; James Bartholomew Andrew Somerville.

Somerville felt a sudden connection to the boy. As the second son of the heir to the Dukedom of Beaufort his future was already set in stone. While his older brother would inherit the title and most of the family’s wealth, he would be consigned to a supporting position. Somerville knew exactly what that was like for he had played the role all his life.

His elder brother, James’ father, had been the apple of their father’s eye. All the focus and attention had been on him. He was the one who would continue the family name. He was one who would lead the family business to greater and greater heights. The younger siblings were just there to support his leadership.

It wasn’t all-bad Jonathan had to admit. It had allowed him to enter the navy. That was an appropriate place for the son of a nobleman to earn his family some honor. If he had been the oldest, he would have had to stay on Earth and learn to lead the family business. Maybe someday James would join the navy too. Somerville looked forward to taking the boy under his wing. Certainly, they would have a lot in common. If that was ever to happen though, he had a lot of Russians to get through first.


Chapter 6 – Close the Enemy

9th October 2439, New France System

On both the visual feeds and the gravimetric sensors the Allied fleet looked impressive as it exited shift space and formed up on the edge of the New France System. It had taken them a few days longer than originally planned, but they were finally here. The Russian reaction was swift. Their fleet immediately lit off their engines and began to move to engage the intruders. Somerville’s intel had already proved its worth though, for the fleet had exited shift space with the most velocity they could safely carry into the system. As soon as the fleet formed up, they boosted to their maximum acceleration and angled away from the Russian ships.

Villeneuve had given the Russian commander a problem right from the get go. The French Admiral had rightly identified the Behemoths as battlestations with engines. That’s how they should be used, Jonathan thought as he watched them try desperately to catch the more nimble coalition fleet. If they had been kept closer to New France, any attempt to liberate it would have had to go through the giant ships. As it was, Villeneuve was about to successfully circumnavigate them and make a break for the planet. The Russian commander could detach his smaller ships to chase Villeneuve, but they would be outnumbered.

In the end, he chose to follow the coalition fleet towards New France. As he did, he could only watch hopelessly as hundreds of shuttles began to pour out of the coalition ships disgorging thousands of troops onto New France to take the fight to the Russian soldiers. The Russian ships that had been in orbit had already fled and were making their way to the shift passage to Cartier as they sought safety.

As Jonathan watched Achilles’ two shuttles dive into the planet’s atmosphere carrying his marines, a beep informed him he was receiving a COM message from the planet. When he accepted it, General Ney’s face appeared. His uniform looked considerably more crumpled and the general appeared to have lost some weight. The passion in his eyes was the same though. “Welcome back to New France,” he began, “I see you have brought some of my compatriots with you. I am in your debt mon ami.”

“Nonsense,” Jonathan said, “I’m just doing my duty. I’m glad to see you’re still alive though. I’m sure the last weeks have been a living hell. Hopefully you can have a bit more fun with the Russians now that you can tackle them on a level playing field.”

“Indeed I will,” Ney said with a feral smile, “They won’t know what has hit them. When all this is over, I’ll have to have you down to the planet for a meal with my wife. We can show you around. Let you see what we are fighting for.”

“It would be my pleasure, we are about to round the planet now though, so until then,” Jonathan said with a salute. As Ney saluted back he switched off the COM and refocused on his ship.

Villeneuve had taken the coalition fleet deep into New France’s orbit in order to drop as many shuttles as they could as they flew past the planet at their top speed. He then used the planet’s gravity to slingshot the fleet onto a trajectory out of the system, directly towards the approaching Russian ships. If they wanted to attack the ground troops, they would have to go through Villeneuve’s fleet first.

“Signal from the Flag,” the Lieutenant manning the communications console called to Jonathan. “All ships form line of battle.”

Somerville smiled. The historical reference wasn’t lost on him. He loved to read books on the Earth wars that occurred during the age of sail. Back when ships were forced to go with the wind, the best way to engage an enemy fleet was to form a single line of ships to present as many cannons at the enemy as possible. In the modern era of interstellar war things were remarkably similar. Whoever could bring the most missiles to bear on the enemy fleet would likely win.

As the different sections of the coalition fleet moved into their allotted slots in the formation, a counter appeared on the main holo display. The Russian fleet would enter missile range in twenty minutes. For Jonathan, time seemed to slow down as he surveyed the Russian fleet. Surrounding the five Behemoths were twenty light cruisers, thirty four destroyers and ten of the smaller frigates. The coalition fleet had nine medium cruisers, eighteen light cruisers, thirty destroyers and twenty five frigates. The approaching battle was going to go down in history as the largest space battle in humanity’s history. Whichever way it went, the battle would prove decisive. If Villeneuve lost, France would have to concede their colonies to Russia. Even if Ney won the ground war on New France, the French government would have no more ships to send to support him. On the other hand, if the Russians lost, their colonies would be at the mercy of the coalition forces.

As if aware of the significance of the battle, the Russian commander began to slow his ships as soon as the coalition ships came around the planet. He wanted to keep Villeneuve’s fleet within his missile range for as long as possible.

When the counter on the holo display showed sixty seconds to go, Jonathan took his eyes off the approaching Russian fleet. “Prepare to fire,” he ordered. In his head he counted down the remaining time. “Fire!”

As one, the ships of the coalition fleet opened fire and a ripple of multiple missiles igniting their engines could be seen going down every ship. Just over four hundred missiles raced off towards the Russian fleet. Moments later, the Russians replied by firing their own salvo of four hundred and eighty.

As both fleets were approaching each other on almost converging courses the flight time for the missiles was less then ten minutes. Five minutes in, both salvos passed each other in the dark emptiness of space. Then, when they entered range of their target’s point defenses, space lit up like a fireworks display. Green plasma bolts tore through space, trying to hit the dodging missiles, while AM missiles added their explosions to the display of color. The occasional hit that ruptured a missile’s fuel cell added even larger explosions to the mix.

The coalition forces managed to reduce the Russian missiles to about thirty before they had to go into evasive maneuvers. As the remaining missiles began to explode among the fleet, Jonathan watched the damage reports coming in. A frigate and three destroyers were the first to be reported lost. Then two light cruisers reported taking hits. One of them blew up seconds later while the second fell out of the line of battle, no longer able to keep in formation with her engines damaged. One of the medium cruisers also reported taking a proximity hit but her valstronium armor held and she remained in position.

Villeneuve had ordered the first salvo of missiles aimed at the Russian light cruisers. Without valstronium armor they were much more vulnerable to a proximity hit and a direct hit from any of the coalition’s larger cruiser missiles would knock them out of the fight. The Behemoths were much more heavily armed and were going to take much more of a hammering before they gave up. The French Admiral had other plans for them. As the British missiles came roaring into the Russian fleet their point defenses began to shred them, but not quickly enough. Twenty missiles burst through the point defense fire into the Russian fleet. Twelve of them got proximity or direct hits. The Russian fleet was still too far away for Somerville to watch the explosions in real time but on the gravimetric plot he watched as seven Russian light cruisers either disappeared or fell out of formation.

Even before the first salvo of missiles from either fleet had reached their targets both groups of ships had fired a second and another eight hundred and eighty missiles silently passed each other on their way to bring death and destruction. Their passing was what Villeneuve had been waiting for, for he instantly sent his next signal to the f