Jack Two and Jack Five flew in a precision one-two follow formation, emerging from the Orestes jump gate precisely four hours after exiting the Bayone system. They were navigating on their own authority as Skywatch officers. Technically they had no orders or official destination, but from a practical standpoint either Annora Doverly or Lucas Moody were of sufficient rank to write destination orders and encode the necessary checkpoint passes. As long as they didn’t start doing dangerous stunts in the spacelanes, they were largely immune from interference by civilian authorities. Orbital Guard and the auxiliary had a handful of ways to at least delay fleet units, but it was rare to find anyone aboard an ORG boat with a command rank. Such officers were rare enough to be permanently assigned to ground stations or spacelane control decks on civilian planetary receiving yards.

The last thing Commander Doverly had done before being ordered off the starship Argent was to dump all of the ship’s SRS data to a portable storage device. She snagged Commander Islington’s tactical officer and used Komanov’s powerful garrison computers to sift through it. It didn’t take long before she had a four by six emissions and ECM signature on the starship Shrike. As the lead fighter for the semi-official mission, she was not only following a hunch, but also following what the navigational computer aboard her fighter insisted was a residual trail matching the data on Captain Cerylia L’Orleans’ flagship.

“So what you’re telling me is you don’t think the Condor Pirates are up to something. You think our captain is up to something?” Moo asked over the directional commlink.

“We know Jason. And we know this is the kind of thing he would come up with and not tell us.”

“But he lets us in on all of his plans!”

“Not since he got promoted and ordered to take command of Argent, Moo. He’s been very cagey about telling us the whole story. I think he figured it was time for some misdirection. The battle over Bayone Three was lost. Our attack force had to ditch on the surface. Our command and control was shot out of space by riflecutters. Even if we wanted to, it would have taken Zony two hours to re-establish the datalink and by that time we would have been carved up in orbit.”

“You never got over that Ace of Spades trick.”

“That’s our Jason. That’s exactly what he would try to do. Take himself out to confuse the enemy. Let the music play. See where the fight goes. Getting L’Orleans involved just makes it easier for him to keep his crew out of it and keep us out of danger.”

“Sure. We’re always in danger.”

“Well then, keep us out of unnecessary danger.”

“Who authorized seven-zero on the flight deck?”

“Seven zero?”

“The fighter he flew out there. No weapons. A half-configured transponder. The damn thing wasn’t close to flight-ready. Someone would have had to manually disengage the deck launch safety systems to even get that thing into a rail tunnel.”


“He could, but he doesn’t have clearance to disengage the flight safety systems. Those are all computer controlled and require a senior officer. And no, it wasn’t Sabrina. I asked.”

“And it wasn’t one of us. That sonofabitch. He unlocked his own bank safe!”

Jack Two rocketed across the Core Two perimeter with Moo’s fighter right alongside.

“And the course we’re following only makes sense if he was working with L’Orleans in advance. Why the hell would a wanted fugitive allow herself to be pinged by Argent’s SRS banks well within range of our point defense right before the captain’s flying paint locker explodes into a cloud of debris and then fly directly into Core space with a deliberate ECM signature for us to follow?”

“How far behind are we?”

“A day. Perhaps a little more.”

Moo pulled up his own navicomp readout. The projected course he and Annora were following was as clear as a bell.

“Gale River. What the hell is at Gale River?”

“The ships that just got wrecked at Bayone.”

“And one other, commander. A ship of your acquaintance.”

Annora pulled up the LRS passives for the shipyard. Right in the center of the carnage was the undamaged hull of the heavy missile cruiser Saratoga.

“What the hell are you up to, Jason?” she muttered.

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