“What have you got, SCOM?”
“We’ve received a sitrep from commander Montpelier, and I think we’re starting to see a pattern developing. I like to get ahead of things if I can, sir.”
Commander Cochrane O’Malley stood at the tri-axis display on Argent’s war deck. On it, Star Wing Commander Zack Roscoe had called up a map detailing a multi-system deployment and threat assessment. Surrounding the two senior officers was a bank of sixteen displays showing everything from flight deck fuel status to external views of the ship to communications pattern analysis from the two Skywatch cruisers that had just arrived in the Rho Theta system. The tri-axis display was the starship equivalent of lambskin scrolls spread across wooden tables and decorated with carved wooden markers. It called to mind torchlit strategy sessions in the tents of the XO’s Celtic ancestors. O’Malley’s highest-ranking pilot indicated the Mycenae Ceti system first.
“This is the position we all first believed they were trying to protect.”
“And who do you think ‘they’ are?”
“The Sarn, sir. Even though that monster weapon of theirs is obviously not a Sarn design, they are the ones calling the shots, and I think there’s no question now they are responsible for the incident on M-Ceti Four and also responsible for putting President Baines’ daughter in danger.”
“You think they knew?”
“No doubt, sir. Shea never travels quietly. When she hits dirt, especially in a contested area, she makes a point of announcing herself to bolster her political support at home. We don’t have an ambassador there, but the Core Council makes a point of rotating middle-ranking diplomats through on a regular basis, if for no other reason than to keep an eye on the political situation. They knew. The Council knew. And the Sarn undoubtedly knew. If Shea wasn’t their objective, she was most definitely a convenient target of opportunity.”
By now Lieutenant Roscoe had the XOs attention. Now it was time to drop the bomb and see if he could clean it up before Commander O’Malley’s patience wore thin. “I don’t agree with the captain’s decision to approach the arm unilaterally.”
“You prefer a more measured approach?” O’Malley replied. “Mix some defense in with the offense?”
“Sir, take a look at this. We’ve got enemy activity in Rho Theta. Not just sightings and stray transmissions, but jammed short range communications, landing parties on the Proximan station, a disabled cruiser and now we’ve got long-range pickup of task-force-sized unidentified contacts in both Prairie Grove and El Rey. They haven’t breached the systems yet, sir, but look at the strategic situation.” Roscoe stabbed each location on the map with an insistent finger. “Rho Theta, Prairie Grove, El Rey. They’re all in line to do two things. First, they cut off Core routes to the Kraken expanse, which means they cut off our reinforcements. Second, they create a rather familiar situation for the residents of Gitairn.”
“Well, nobody going to go near Raleo any time soon, so that creates a situation where enemy formations that can take Bayone have the option to hit Manassas, Dante’s Twins, Uniform Tango, Blackburn and possibly push far enough into the Reach to take a swipe at Core Five.”
“First, they have to solidify their footholds in these three star systems. But they can’t be using M-Ceti as a forward base. Not with the political situation so out-of-control and confused. There aren’t any star systems in the Kraken Expanse that are close enough to provide adequate supply lines.”
Lieutenant Roscoe waited. He knew the commander would see it soon enough.
“That’s my point, sir. Whatever the Sarn are doing, it’s coming from the Atlantis sector. They don’t have to use M-Ceti as a forward base. They’re using it as a target!”
O’Malley leaned on the light table and adjusted his glasses. “Alright, you start with Sarn space here. You go one way, you’re entering the Atlantis sector. You turn in our direction, you have Mycenae Ceti and the Kraken Expanse. You keep going towards Core Space and you get Rho Theta, Prairie Grove and El Rey. Beyond those systems is the Gitairn Expanse, Raleo, Bayone, Uniform Tango. And then Core Space, starting with Core Five and Vicksburg here.”
Roscoe followed along, waiting to see if the XO would back his idea.
“Your theory is the Sarn have teamed up with whatever is in Atlantis space, and that’s why they are pushing forward with unidentified ships, monster weapons and unusual aggressiveness.”
“The captain was right. They lost more than two-thirds of their hulls in First Praetorian by some estimates. They can’t possibly be in any position to go on the offensive. That is, unless they get help.”
O’Malley looked up. “What could they offer some new faction that would convince them to risk their own fleets in a showdown with us?”
“That I can’t guess, sir,” Roscoe said. “Maybe these Kraken guys were looking for a war and the Sarn brought them what they wanted. Maybe they were looking for a place to test the World Burner. At any rate, if we approach the arm, even if we surprise them by showing up in a place where they don’t expect us, we could end up in real trouble. If a Kraken squadron pops up out of nowhere when we’re conducting strike fighter ops, it could end up being worse for us than Bayone.”
“What’s your alternative?”
Zack took a deep breath. “Admiral Hafnetz is due in two days. We’re set to rendezvous with Strike Fleet Achilles at Repeater Five here, at the edge of Kraken space. I propose we provision three squadrons, one built around the Saint Lucia, one around us and one around the Cristobal Vasquez. We can reinforce from Blackburn with the cruisers Rival and Klondike, the admiral can pick up Destroyer Squadron Eight headed by the Nathaniel Greene and the refitted Saratoga. Battle Group Three can reinforce through Manassas with the cruisers Alexandria, Klondike and Sierra and the destroyers Excalibur and Constellation.”
“And attack in the other direction, instead of a surprise attack on the arm? What about the president’s daughter?”
“I’m in favor of a special operations mission for that, sir. The captain’s instincts about sending SCIC and a recon marine unit are spot on. They can hit dirt without making a sound, grab Shea and be out-system by the time anyone knows the gate was left unlocked.”
“Meanwhile, we match up formation for formation instead of knocking out the Sarn supply lines.” O’Malley leaned on the table again. Zack could see the wheels were turning. He had to admit the new XO was a bit more cerebral than the high-speed/low-drag senior officers headed up by Captain Hunter. His questions were incisive and each one invited the lieutenant to not only reveal more of his thinking, but develop his ideas further: Exactly the kind of thing that executive officers were supposed to do well.
Zack had now broken in three execs. Doctor Doverly was exactly what he expected. She was the Jack of Hearts, for Heaven’s sake! They may as well have hired the front-girl for a heavy metal band and sent her on an autograph tour. He and Annora had gotten along like a house on fire, mainly because they shared one important thing in common, and that was being fighter pilots. The other dimension of the commander’s personality was comforting to Roscoe in a way. He had never met a military doctor with as formidable a reputation before. Doverly lived up to her image and then some. She was a hell of an executive officer, but even Zack could tell she was being pulled in too many directions. As medical chief, she was not only in her element but she still brought the Bandit Jacks mystique with her. Zack knew it was a hard decision for Hunter, but it was one that had to be made.
Sabrina Mallory was a brilliant weapons officer, and she had gotten up to speed on fighter ops faster than anyone Zack could remember serving with, but like all the senior officers aboard Skywatch’s newest battleship, Sabrina was overwhelmed. She had been given two major promotions in a matter of days, and before she even had a chance to think about digesting all that entailed, she found herself in a one-of-a-kind war against an enemy no human alive could have imagined. The fact anyone could even dream a young officer could overcome all that at once was ridiculous. Mallory was in the right place. She just didn’t have enough time.
O’Malley, on the other hand, had the seasoning and the creativity to balance all his responsibilities while managing the fiery personalities in the upper ranks. He could go toe-to-toe with anyone aboard for sheer mental strength, and he looked and sounded like the consummate diplomat. He was the exact counterbalance for the more impulsive captain. He was the ego to Hunter’s id.
“The supply base at M-Ceti Eight was a key target for our supply disruption mission, but now it’s going to serve as nothing but a tar baby,” Roscoe continued. “If we get pinned down at system’s edge– with all due respect, sir, we’ll get cut to pieces and make it twice as hard for the admiral to make any progress. We still haven’t seen anything but two Kraken ships, and one of them is that monster weapon over M-Ceti Four.”
“You think they have their own squadron? Or squadrons?”
“They’re out there somewhere, sir. They have to be. There’s no way they would let something as expensive as that World Burner thing maneuver in open space unescorted. I wouldn’t be surprised if they towed it.”
“Alright, SCOM. I’ll take it to the captain. I think he might favor hitting one of the three unidentified formations with everything we’ve got instead of matching them system by system, but either way, your point about moving on the arm first is well taken.”
“Thank you sir. I–”
A yeoman came running around the corner on to the war deck with a panel reader. “Commander Black Prince is requesting fighter cover over Rho Theta Five, sir. They’ve located the Sussex.”
“Possible,” the yeoman said. Roscoe looked over at the XO for approval. O’Malley nodded.
“Have Desiree prep the 118th, an engineering corvette and a Nemesis and notify Commander Doverly we will need a prepped and equipped SAR crew in ten minutes. Go!” The yeoman vanished again at a run.
“Jets in 20, sir. I’ll have a launch request for you.”
“Understood, lieutenant. Good luck.”