Skywatch Fleet Operations Command
Allegheny Base
Four Months Earlier

Jason Hunter strode along the cavernous outer circle of Fleet Base Allegheny. A magnificent view of Core Three’s most habitable planet dominated the view outside the soaring panorama windows built into the outer edge of the station’s main section. No ships were docked at the base, which was enough of a departure from normal routine to set everyone on edge. It seemed most of the personnel had a little extra urgency in their steps. It wasn’t hard to imagine why. Hunter was late to the party once again. The obligations of his ship and battle group had been a little exaggerated of late, even if his personal orders and mission were set aside.

His new orders were among those that could not be so easily overlooked. Admiral Powers had now survived two attempts to depose him as commander of the Southern Banner Fleet. Each time, the admiral launched a campaign of consolidating his control and influence in response. Commander Skywatch seemed content to let the intrigue play out right up to the moment he needed everyone’s attention focused on more important matters. A non-specific but easily understood memo to the general staffs of the fleet’s major commands put the jockeying and scheming on indefinite hiatus. In the words of a rather competent commentator in the Judge Advocate’s office, Admiral Barman had made it clear the wound suffered during the schism had bled, been stitched and was now bandaged. It was time to move on. Most of the senior officers appreciated the CINC’s position. At the same time, they knew it wasn’t that simple, no matter how badly they wanted it to be.

Admiral Benjamin Powers had reinforced his position to the point none dared challenge him. It was fortunate he had taken the time to protect himself, as it was now clear his battle groups were likely to be the vanguard of humanity’s bid for survival. Having to fight two wars at the same time would only jeopardize those his armies and fleets were sworn to protect.

The mobilization of enemy forces was the event officers like Jason Hunter had trained for their entire lives. It had only been a few years since the metaphorical bugles on the battlefields of the First Praetorian War had fallen silent. During the intervening “peace,” ominous whispers were heard instead. Some voices in humanity’s halls of power didn’t seem content with a simple military victory. They wanted the Sarn to be reminded of their subordinate status in all other matters of state. Sanctions were proposed. Some were more cruel than others. Civilians suffered. Offers of cooperation and mutual assistance were rejected and answered with belligerence and condescension. It was the statecraft equivalent of repeatedly punching two fingers into someone’s chest after confronting them over something trivial. Humans recognized the tactic right off. The Sarn were alternately confused and terrified. Their former enemy stood at their hemmed-in borders. The humans brandished their weapons and reminded the Imperial staff both explicitly and implicitly no Sarn civilian was safe. Throw in a little famine, a little disease and a handful of outright threats, and it wasn’t surprising in the least what happened next. What was both inexplicable and astonishing about the whole affair was the fact the so-called anti-alarmist faction was responsible for almost all of the provocation. They had kicked the neighborhood stray dog day after day. And now, the dog was fighting back.

At this point, however, the recriminations had been rendered academic. The reasons for the mobilization were best discussed by those appropriately equipped and tasked. The captain of the battleship Argent had orders to post several new officers to his command. The “come as you are” nature of his first mission was a luxury the Perseus Strike Group could no longer afford. The Citadel ships, including Argent’s sister ships Bushido and Queen Sile (see-lay) were going to be called on to fulfill their originally proposed roles as more adaptable and less expensive stand-ins for the over-engineered heavy battlewagons. Like most admiralties, Skywatch Command wanted it both ways. Wherever hostilities commenced, they wanted a carrier for force projection and a battleship for strike operations. They wanted everything for half price and at twice the normal deployment speed. It was up to officers like Hunter to say “yes sir” and do their damnedest to make it happen. The whole point of the Citadel-class design was to do it all. The old adage “easier said than done,” proved more stubborn than originally imagined, however.

Admiral Powers was firmly convinced the new posts aboard Argent were his idea. Captain Hunter knew otherwise. Over the months he had served with the admiral, Jason had learned the fine art of planting ideas and letting them bloom. His clumsy but ultimately successful bid to swipe Sixth Armor from its former home in the Marine Infantry Command had taught him to avoid announcements. The new way proved almost effortlessly successful when Argent snagged the 118th Superjacks and their enigmatic flight leader the moment the squadron was activated. That coup only got him to 80% readiness, however. If Perseus were going to war, its flagship needed to be fully loaded and staffed, and the battle group needed to be properly ordered.

So important were these tasks the admiral himself had graciously offered his own executive conference as the rendezvous point for Argent’s commander and his new officers. Hunter finally arrived at the deck five reception, where a middle-aged civilian administrator was sitting at the “none shall pass” desk engaged in a phone call. Jason removed his cover and tried his best to communicate the fact he was in charge of the meeting beyond the closed door, but the look on the woman’s face told him he was going to have to be content with staring at the impressive model of the starship Wisconsin bolted to the reception area’s widest wall for a few minutes.

It never failed to amaze lower-ranking officers how luxurious flag officer facilities were. The couches and chairs in the spacious reception were almost as impressive as the fifteen-foot-long highly detailed model hanging on the wall. Hunter was reminded of Powers’ plan to give him the Wisconsin just before their engagement in and around the Rho Theta system. She was a fine ship, to be sure: Sleek, powerful and outfitted with the latest and greatest weapons and targeting electronics.

But Hunter was a traditionalist. “Dance with who brung you” was a cardinal article in the captain’s ideology. If he couldn’t be at the controls of a little fighter, then he belonged on the bridge of his big fighter. Argent was his only girl.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Captain Jason Hunter. I’m scheduled to lead the meeting in the executive conference at fourteen hundred.”

The administrator didn’t look impressed. “Aren’t you a little young for all that brass, captain?”

“I like to think I’ll live long enough to grow into my new wings, ma’am.”

That seemed to reassure all the appropriate official sensibilities. “You have the room until sixteen hundred.” The door clicked.

“Attention on deck!” All the new faces and blue camo uniforms were momentarily confusing. None were familiar.

“As you were.” The assembled officers and senior enlisted took their seats. Hunter was quietly thankful there weren’t any maps in the room. There was nothing the captain’s atavistic responses reacted to faster than “gathering around the big map.” It conjured images of snow-choked columns of misery advancing on armor-infested death traps in places like Bastogne and Aachen. One would think humanity had come far enough to leave such images in the past. But it had often been noted humans had a habit of vigorously manifesting exactly what they claimed to not want with a generous side of stupidity for good measure.

Hunter placed his cover on the table before the lectern at the business end of the room. “Perseus Strike Group has orders to secure the Core Seven system against possible attack by Imperial forces operating out of El Rey and Prairie Grove. My flagship is understaffed and under-equipped, which is why Admiral Powers ordered this meeting.”



The blond-haired man wore a commander’s uniform and looked to have only a few years on the captain. “Permission for all personnel present to speak freely?”

“Granted. What’s your name and billet, commander?”

“Commander Mike Torad. Tactical Training Squadron. Port Arlington Base. I’ve been recommended for CIC duty.”

“You like to take the initiative, Mike?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. I need officers who aren’t afraid to make decisions. My XO plans to invite you all to a brief reception aboard ship so you can meet my senior officers and the commanders of my battle group escorts. In the meantime, there is a high likelihood we are going to war any minute. An Imperial capital group, comprised of some of the same crews we engaged at El Rey, is mustering reinforcements at system’s edge. There are Skywatch personnel on the surface and in space behind those forces. We have had no significant contact with them since our withdrawal.”

“What are our orders with regard to Imperial forces, sir?”

“To defend human star systems, commander.”

Another officer spoke up. “Were those the same orders we were supposed to be following when we lost the Concordant and the Conquistador at El Rey?”

“I lost the Concordant and Conquistador, mister,” Hunter replied, his eyes narrowing. “If you came all this way looking for excuses you’re going home disappointed.”

“We just want to know where you stand, captain,” Torad said. “Rumor has it not everyone is as committed to defending Alliance space as we are.”

“When was your last field post, commander?”

“Eleven months ago.”

“Review the Perseus logs for that time interval. I think you’ll find detailed accounts of our commitment to defending Alliance space.”

“Let’s drop the ranks for a minute, shall we, captain?” Torad said with a challenging tone.

“Agreed,” Hunter replied icily. This was not unexpected. The aftershocks of the schism were still rolling through the rank and file. Every officer had their ideas about who was and was not living up to the ideals of Skywatch duty. It was a symptom of the corrosion caused by suspicion and doubt, and there were few who disputed the source of those two particular poisons.

“I’m not going to El Rey to talk. I lost four people during the last year. I graduated the Academy with three of them. If I have to hammer dragon pelts to the hatch outside my quarters and stack bodies in the hall that’s exactly what I intend to do. I want all my shipmates on the same mission.”

“So your mission is vengeance, then?”

“If that gets the job done.” Torad’s eyes were just as sharp and intense as the captain’s. “The terms you offered the Imperial commander at El Rey are no secret, sir. You seemed awfully concerned about the starving children behind enemy lines. I want to know about your concern for Vance Drake’s wife and his three kids.”

“What’s your point, Mike? You think I should have ordered a five-million-ton warship into battle with a three-to-one disadvantage in firepower in order to avenge Vance Drake’s kids?”

Torad didn’t answer immediately, but the look in his eyes told the captain everything he needed to know about the man’s appetite for blood.

“I don’t have the luxury of making command decisions based on how I feel.”

“Argent didn’t fire a shot.”

“We engaged ground defenses and enemy formations in space without escort. We planted charges inside the enemy base.” That last remark caused more than a few eyebrows to raise. “For someone who has had eleven months to find fault, you sure haven’t turned all the pages.”

“You left Conquistador to die.”

“The Sarn have strike fighter technology, gentlemen. Skywatch wasn’t prepared for that eventuality. Skywatch still wouldn’t be prepared for that eventuality if Argent hadn’t survived to raise the alarm. The only reason there aren’t four hulls burning in space out there is because my senior officers saw the ambush coming. There are men at the Hudson Base that need to be rescued. The starship Concordant is out there somewhere with men and women waiting to be rescued.” The captain’s voice intensified. “Skywatch doesn’t have time for you to sit here on your sorry ass and pine for the dead, commander.”

“I just want to know your intentions, sir.”

“I don’t have to justify my decisions to you or any other member of my crew. I’m putting the rest of you on notice. You want a post aboard a ship of the line you better leave the insubordinate attitude in your quarters.” Hunter closed his folio. “We’ll worry about the briefing later. Dismissed.”

The new officers rose and made their way out of the conference room. They looked sullen. It was no way to start a war, to be sure. The captain gathered up his cover and keydisc. He stopped for a moment and considered the enormous Skywatch logo emblazoned on the wall. Somewhere hidden deep inside what the heraldry represented, the captain knew he would find the strength to do his duty. He wondered, however, if he could find enough strength to dispel the doubts festering in the hearts of his officers and crew. He knew humanity had everything it needed to achieve victory. But there was no way they would survive if mankind lost courage.

It was no mystery who would be responsible for inspiring that courage.

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