Master Chief Petty Officer Duncan Buckmaster was traditionally assigned to fleet duties, but at the moment, Argent’s marines and 14th Infantry’s troops were working as a more or less combined service. Darya Komanov was also working a little outside her normal rounds. She was an intelligence chief normally in command of covert operatives working in places where weapons fire meant everything had gone to hell and it was time to abort and escape. Now, weapons fire was a signal her side was winning. The problem was she couldn’t get a clear idea exactly what she was supposed to be fighting, and her ground base’s tactical section wasn’t helping much at the moment.

“What’s the word?”

“Both of our remote reactors are still on line. Commander Curtiss tells me operations are nominal. Absent some kind of catastrophe they should provide us with stable power reserves indefinitely.”

“That’s some good news for a change.”

Zony Tixia strode into the garrison operations center. “High gain antennas are back on-line. We should have full spectrum communications across all Skywatch controlled territory. Commander Flynn reports all of our birds have achieved stable orbits at latitudes six through eight and we have space superiority over Bayone Three for the time being.”

“Tactical, give me a unit-level status of the battlespace.” Komanov took a sip of tea as the forty-foot-wide reactive display covering the long wall of the operations center shifted to a top-down view of the southeast region of Bayone Three’s largest continent. Starhaven and the 14th Infantry garrison were situated roughly in the center of the map, with the decommissioned Lethe Deeps planetary defense base at its upper edge. Not far from the garrison were the two temporary reactor sites established by Yili Curtiss and her combat engineering team. The Skywatch forces were gathered around the garrison. The technical term to describe their strategic situation was “surrounded.”

“Opinion, master chief?”

“It’s a blivet.”

Komanov smiled. A couple of the younger technicians looked confused.

“Mister Leach?”

“The biggest threat on that map are the forces to the southwest.”

“You mean the heavies to the southeast, don’t you sir?” Buckmaster replied.

“Explain,” Komanov said.

“These are skirmish forces dressed up to look like regular infantry,” Leach offered. “The Cecrops siege units are regular main armor, but I think they are a diversion. Whoever planned this little operation apparently knew we would be working with inferior numbers and firepower. They knew we would have to make a choice where to break out along that line, and they are banking on us hitting the heavies first.”

“Interesting theory,” Komanov replied. “You’re advocating a feint and then hitting one of those three battalion-sized formations with overwhelming force, hoping the heavier units can’t take advantage of the time lag to get to the garrison before our forces can recover and meet them head on?”

“It only works if we can get Commander Flynn to thread the needle.” Leach highlighted the starship Constellation which was no longer in orbit over the garrison. Komanov and Commander Flynn had both wisely deduced the Sarn ground units would be in range to engage the orbiting destroyer unless Flynn broke orbit and maneuvered his ship into deep space.

“I see where you’re going, lieutenant, and I like your style,” the master chief said, leaning back and folding his stout arms with a satisfied grin. If Captain Hunter had accomplished nothing else, he had staffed his ship with some hotshot young officers and given them a mark to match.

Leach looked pleased. It was a rare honor to get a public compliment from the Chief of the Battleship, even if technically he outranked the man. It was no secret Buckmaster was practically guaranteed to be at least 20 and in some cases more like 25 years older than any other member of Argent’s crew, whether they were officers or enlisted. Duncan was literally the “old man” of the ship. There were marines and fleet aboard Argent who had never seen six service stripes on a uniform before, and more than a few junior officers had made the inevitable mistake of saluting the master chief on the occasions he was required to wear his Class A and ribbons. The crew had taken to calling the mistaken salutes and the embarrassment and apologies that followed “brass seizures” until Colonel Moody overheard the term and brought the practice to an abrupt halt.

Were his chevrons replaced the master chief’s decorations could easily have been found on an admiral’s coat. His three purple hearts inspired stark disbelief in nearly everyone who didn’t know Buckmaster’s service record. A kind word from the master chief was second only to a compliment from the captain himself.

“I propose Constellation approach Zone Two from this position, fifteen degrees uprange from the target location. Once there, she can establish a powered geosynch orbit and be in range to acquire targets while simultaneously being over the horizon and untargetable by the direct fire weapons from Zone Three southeast of Starhaven.”

“Outstanding,” Komanov said. “Orbital fire support to soften up their formations. We hit the forward line with gunships and medium armor, and then drop the 12th Mechanized on their flank. Zone Two’s firepower will be tied up dealing with us, leaving our orbital platforms free to target anything in range.”

“With respect, ma’am, doesn’t that leave the heavy forces in Zone Three with a clear shot straight through the Starhaven perimeter and into our defenses?” The technician was white-faced, expecting to be vaporized where he sat. The look on his face was one of pure youthful courage. He obviously believed it had to be said.

“You’re forgetting something, private,” the master chief said.

The young man looked at Buckmaster.

“We have 85 fighters and a whole lotta pilots with nothing to do.” The master chief’s grin was so wide the young marine private couldn’t help but smile.

“Get this to Captain Tarcus,” Komanov said. “I want Sixth Armor at J-Point in fifteen minutes.”

The private slipped his headset back on. “Aye, ma’am. Coding your message.”

The master chief took a break from the activity in the command center and followed the corridors to the garrison crew quarters. One of the bays had been set aside for Admiral Hughes and was even labeled as such. A battalion marine was still stationed at his door per Commander Hunter’s orders. Even though she had important duties elsewhere she wanted the admiral well cared for and protected.


“Aye, master chief.” The marine stepped aside.

Buckmaster knocked.


The master chief stepped inside. Admiral Hughes was dressed in a Skywatch t-shirt and service trousers. He looked fit and alert, which was always good to see, considering what the man had apparently been through at Gitairn.

“Master chief! Come on in. Great to see you!”

“What have you added to the reading list while I was away?”

“Red Badge of Courage.” Hughes smiled as he looked over his glasses. “Reading takes my mind off being surrounded by guns and explosives so other people with guns and explosives can’t harm me.”

“Appropriate,” Buckmaster replied as he took a seat. “Sir, I’ve noticed something unusual and I want to get your opinion on it.”

“By all means.”

The master chief produced a handheld and called up the Skywatch personnel files for the admiral. He handed the device to the older man. “You are still listed as missing in action.”

“Makes sense. Nobody outside of our little club knows I’m alive. At least not yet.”

“The commander would probably agree this gives us some interesting advantages, sir.” Buckmaster said. “Your command codes haven’t been deactivated yet. The members of the commander’s special forces recon unit are all technically suspended. The closer we get to home, the less authority we have.”

“So I’m the only guy who can open the ice cream shop?”

“That’s affirmative, sir.” Buckmaster took the handheld and began configuring it to transmit an encrypted directive. “Now we certainly don’t want to send up a signal flare here, but there is one thing you can do with those command codes that will definitely give us some important options when the excrement hits the rotating air circulation device...”

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