Acting Commander Sabrina Mallory stood on the spacious central flight deck of the battleship Argent. There were only 200 men and women left aboard, securing the cabins and powering down the life support systems. They were neutralizing the ship that had saved Vice Admiral Charles Hughes’ life and then protected it without anyone knowing what was really happening. Mallory had requested a leave from Jayce Hunter’s special ops mission to at least be there. Someone had to be there, even if they had as tenuous a connection to the mighty warship as she did. Perhaps it was true that starships had spirits. If so, Sabrina could think of nothing more cowardly than to abandon Argent at a time like this. There was no excuse for compounding her failures any further.

Jason Hunter’s spirit lingered in every corridor. If she stopped long enough, she could almost hear his voice and his laugh, especially on the bridge. She remembered how it felt when he told her she was in command. When he entrusted the pinnacle of his fiery career to her hands. Her mind filled once again with the images of the battle over Bayone Three. How Jason stood on the bridge like a king’s champion, wielding a five million ton weapon like a mountain king might swing a stone maul. How his orders rang. She had never felt such energy. She had never trembled in adrenaline fueled anticipation. Fire had never lit in her eyes like that before. It was as if the man’s very soul was strengthening his entire crew and drawing upon the depthless energy of the courage carried by his fathers.

Had he truly given his life to protect the people of Starhaven?

When only Argent remained, stark against the stars and standing over a battlefield littered with the smoking remains of her vanquished enemies, only Sabrina knew how she had experienced that victory. It was as if for a brief moment, her captain had been handed the blade of Justice herself and instructed to put and end to evil wherever he found it. Lighting filled the skies thereafter. They were not bolts of vengeance thrown by Zeus, but the gunnery of a Skywatch ship of the line dispensing defeat and destruction to all that challenged her.

When it came time for Jason’s chosen second in command to do the same, however, the results were different. Sabrina Mallory was many things, but if Bayone Three had taught her anything, it was that some could aspire to ride across the heavens in victory and others could only watch. Even though Jason’s sister was convinced he was playing another one of his elaborate pranks on his enemies, Sabrina couldn’t shake the guilt she felt over failing to live up to the mystique. If Argent had a voice, Sabrina desperately wished she could hear it. She imagined a soothing and reassuring timbre, like that of Athena. Wisdom formed into words. She knew the battleship would absolve her of her sins. No weapon of war so noble would ever perform an act as petty as holding a grudge. Sabrina wondered if she could accept Argent’s absolution, however. Would it be an even more egregious act to blame herself when even Captain Hunter’s ship would forgive her inadequacy?

Or would she have to hear the words from Jason himself? She could imagine his face and she knew what he would say. When he promoted her, it felt as if she had been knighted on the very dais of a king’s throne. She went from a cruiser’s weapons expert to a full commander in charge of more than four thousand men and women in the space of a few weeks. It was Jason who had made it all possible. He was the only reason she had the confidence to pass her force command evaluation, and to do it in record time. She joined a fraternity of only 39 active duty officers with such a qualification. Sabrina had always been good at passing tests, as long as those tests took place in simulators and classrooms. When the real test came, she was found wanting, and she suspected even Jason Hunter himself wouldn’t be able to pass it off with one of his trademark smirks and a witty remark.

I was in command here, she thought as she paced along the row of Yellowjacket fighters. Argent had been pressed into service as a staging and warehousing platform for planetary craft that couldn’t land elsewhere. None of the shuttles, corvettes or fighters aboard were equipped or fueled for service. None of them even belonged to Argent. It was the final indignity. It was true Sabrina had gotten what was left of the battleship’s crew home. But somewhere back in the Bayone system, the majority of her forces were stranded. Even though Atwell’s little disappearing planet trick had been figured out, there was no way the powers that be were going to let Mallory rescue the rest of the men and women she had left behind. That would be left to others: Men and women who weren’t there when the starship Dunkerque was incinerated and Commander DeMay’s crew was lost.

She suspected that might have been among her biggest failures. Jason had placed the care of the crew in her hands and in her first official act she had been forced to retreat under orders knowing full well her entire star wing was fighting for its life only a few million miles away. She could have disobeyed orders. She could have led Argent back into the fray. She could have braved the unknown and risked death to prevent the massacre of thousands of fellow officers and crew. After all, it was her command. It was her call. It’s what Jason Hunter would have done.

But she wasn’t Jason Hunter. If recent events had taught her nothing else that much was crystal clear. She still had her rank and she still had her designation and qualifications. Acting Commander Mallory was a qualified Force Command officer and one of the fleet’s leading experts on deployment and tactics for CX class cruiser weaponry including the brand new fusion torpedo. Having accomplished that much at her age would be considered not only extraordinary but frankly astonishing under any other circumstances. On paper, she was almost qualified to teach those subjects now, except that her classes would be made up of cadets only a few years younger.

At the same time, if her actions or inaction did, in fact, cost Jason Hunter his life and cost Argent her star wing, she would go down in history as one of the most thoroughly defeated command officers who had ever lived.

Sabrina Mallory caught herself and tried to settle her breathing. She stood under the three-story-tall emblem of the 85th Wildcat Squadron and tried to compose herself. She knew the pilots wouldn’t blame her either. But for those pilots to absolve her of her mistakes they would have to survive first. She tried to put thoughts of Bayone Three out of her mind. She came back to Argent to protect what was left of her former office. Now all she could do was wonder if she had simply fled again to avoid facing what the forces she was sworn to lead were facing right now.

She was alone on Flight Two. She remembered meeting the master chief only a short distance from where she was standing. She remembered how proud she was that day.

I was in command here.

Mallory deactivated the deck lights. One by one they plunged huge sections of the facility into darkness. Only the service beacons played across the metal deck. It gave the huge flight platform an eerie feeling. She slipped into the loadlane with her hands in the pockets of her jacket. She wasn’t authorized to stay in her quarters, but she didn’t have anywhere else to go. It was only a short walk to the magneto-lifts.

Maybe this time she could get to sleep before the tears came.

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