Inversion Factor Zero Part Three

The interior of Saint Andrew’s was that special kind of dark that happened on overcast days when the sun was near the horizon. Lieutenant Leach often surmised it was darker than night, if that were even possible. The bite in the crisp air reminded him of the minutes before a storm, even though he was positive there was no chance of rain. His party’s stark artificial lights flashed back and forth as the team worked in a two by two formation to clear the facility.

“What have you got, able crewman?”

“Life signs in the vicinity, sir. Can’t lock their location,” Tooley replied.

“Probably some level of lead in the stone used to build this place,” Able Crewman Robinett replied. “Could be responsible for the interference.”

“What about structure?” Leach replied, playing his handheld torch across the ceiling. The rotted straw and wood framing looked worn. There was nothing remarkable about the larger rooms. The furniture was gone, which the lieutenant thought was odd. Otherwise, the place looked and felt abandoned.

“There’s a basement roughly half the square footage of the main level. Living quarters are located on the second floor bearing one one six.”

The team moved slowly up a narrow passage towards an open window. The curtains looked as if they had been dipped in mud.

“Life reading,” Tooley said quietly. “Clean signal. Bearing three two five. Fifteen yards.”

Leach raised his blaster and pointed the torch with his off-hand. The squad moved as one up the hall to an open doorway leading to a side chamber. The lieutenant leaned forward. The girl was maybe fourteen years of age. Harmless, except for the fact she was pointing a Sarn disruptor pistol at Leach.

Tooley moved to the edge of the doorway behind the lieutenant and ran a fast biometric analysis on the girl. Leach held his hands up and stepped into the room.

“We’re not going to hurt you. I promise.”

The girl’s hand trembled. “You stay back! I’ve seen flintlocks! I know what they can do!” Her hair and clothing made it look like she had been roaming the village for days. Leach wasn’t a doctor, but he guessed she was malnourished. She had definitely been wearing the same clothes for a while.

“You’re right. It would do a lot of damage. But you don’t need to worry, because we’re here to protect you. Now why don’t you hand me that pistol and let’s find you some water and something to eat.” Leach did his best to keep his voice steady and reassuring. The girls’ eyes told the story. The recent days of her life had likely been nothing short of catastrophic. It was something the lieutenant and all the other officers leading landing parties had been expecting. Nobody knew for sure what the Denominator had done or said to these people, and it was a foregone conclusion none of them were prepared for the technology he had brought with him. Hell, the Skywatch crews pursuing him weren’t prepared.

There were so many unanswered questions. It was Leach’s job, however, to make sure the answer to this question didn’t result in dead crew members or civilians. He held his hand out. Moments earlier, he had done a magnificent job of slipping his own weapon under his tunic without anyone noticing. He smiled.

“Come on. We’re here to help.”

The girl’s eyes darted back and forth between the lieutenant and the three crewmen behind him in the doorway. It seemed like Leach’s words had an effect, because the tenseness in the girl’s shoulders subsided. The weight of the gun she was holding rapidly overcame her strength. The weapon dangled in her grasp for an instant before Leach slid his fingers around it and expertly set the safeties. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it had been set on maximum power. One shot would have turned the southwest corner of the church into a two million degree cloud of protoplasm and debris.

While two of Leach’s squad members broke out some water and food for the girl, the lieutenant and ACFC Tooley performed an analysis of the room. It was the only room so far they had found furnished, which was enough to raise the antennas of the landing party by itself. The presence of a disruptor pistol and more importantly, a Sarn disruptor pistol, was more than enough to set Leach on high alert.

“It’s not a mock-up, sir. That weapon is charged and active.”

“Where did she get it? Did Hunter’s fugitive run through here passing out alien weaponry?”

“Unknown, but if the population of this village has access to our level of technology, we better be prepared for something other than wooden furniture and metal plates.”

“Agreed. Run a standard sweep on this thing. If there’s anything unusual about it, and especially if there is anything that tells me where it came from, I want to know about it. Robinett, I want a medical scan of the girl. Make sure she’s healthy enough to travel and find her some shoes. We’re scheduled to check-in with the Sai Kee in a few minutes.”

“Aye, lieutenant,” Robinett replied.

“Anything between here and the exit I should know about?”

“Negative, sir. No contacts within three hundred yards.”

“When you’ve completed your analysis report to me in the main hall.” Leach leaned out into the narrow corridor to make sure there wasn’t a squad of Sarn blood guards marching towards him, then he slipped out and started towards what he surmised was the church’s dining room. He was drawing on his admittedly rusty knowledge of history to guide his curiosity. They still hadn’t found the sanctuary or any of the other areas recognizable as “church” to a layman, but there was something about the large room they had just left that just didn’t sit right with the lieutenant.

Whatever it was, he wanted to make sure it was part of his report to Commander Hunter.



Destroy All Starships is the companion series to Inversion Factor Zero!
Available now!

Inversion Factor Zero Part Two

Zony Tixia prided herself on her ability to interpret SRS data. It was one of the key functions of a signals tech. If a commanding officer or section chief asked “what the hell am I looking at?” the signals specialist had to be able to provide some kind of answer. What a starship can see, the old teaching went, made the difference in any operation. The Short Range Scanner banks were the workhorse eyes of the fleet, while the high gain antennas were the ears. Zony was the expert in both.

When unusual readings on the surface of Raleo Two was picked up by the starship Sai Kee, after the attack, the SRS banks got the best look. At least that was the theory. Commander Hunter had look-down probes in the sky, and had even ordered her ship to employ energy-intensive multi-spectrum scans at a time when the relatively small vessel could least afford it. And yet, despite all the technology they had mustered, after an hour of trying to interpret the data, Zony still couldn’t make heads nor tails of what had actually happened on the planet surface.

“Any luck?” Yili was stirring creamer into a coffee-filled “smash-em-up cup,” Skywatch fleet’s nickname for the ersatz hot beverage containers dispensed by the autoserv machines in hallway galleys.

Zony didn’t answer.

“Uh oh, I know that look, and that non-answer,” Yili said. She stood at the light table in what had been designated as the new Sai Kee war deck. The playback of the SRS visuals went by at five frames per second. The pickups had been trained on an area near what everyone had agreed was the “obelisk” Colonel Atwell had mentioned in so many of his stories about the Ithis and their galactic civilization. On the screen, the man identified by Skywatch Intelligence as “The Denominator” emerged from the structure carrying something in his hand bright enough to cast sharp, intense shadows in every direction. The sensor locks on the energy readings and the distortion from the obelisk suddenly shifted and began moving in the direction the Denominator was traveling, and then the view went white.

“You need sleep, commander. You’ve been at that light table for hours.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Zony replied. “I have 40 minutes of full spectrum readings tracking this guy from his ship to the obelisk and then back out into the atmosphere again, and all I can say for sure is he isn’t Colonel Atwell.”

“Possible Atwell was concealing his identity? Jamming our instruments?” Yili asked, taking a sip of the fleet’s best coffee. Commander Tixia and the master chief had made a point of transporting the Ajax-Argent coffee brew to their new command. Chasing down end-of-the-world maniacs was one thing. Doing it while enduring bad coffee was simply not tolerable.

“It’s possible. I can’t vouch for any of these readings. What I can say is whatever he carried back out of that structure had its own gravity.”

“Well doesn’t everything have its own gravity?”

“According to the telemetry, sufficient mass would have made him a half-ton heavier, even on Raleo II, and as you can see, he’s almost running when he re-establishes LOS with probe four.”

“I’ll be pickled,” Yili said. “Raleo II’s gravity is what, 0.7 Terran? That thing’s the size of a football and it weighs 1200 pounds?”

“If these gravimetrics are accurate,” Zony said, rewinding the playback.

“You’re not buying it.”

“Everything goes white 2.7 seconds after he emerges. There’s no way he could have detected probe four, or us for that matter. We were geosynchronous at an altitude of 318 miles. Probe four was nine degrees off our polar intercept at an altitude of 211 miles. Even with all the right equipment, he would have needed a half dozen passes to localize, and even then he would need even more gear to overload the wavelengths.”

“Couldn’t do all that in three seconds.”

“There’s something else going on here, engineer. Something jammed our instruments with technology I’ve never encountered.”

“Let me stop you right there, commander pink. There is no way Jayce is going to authorize another trip to the surface. The landing parties are one thing. Her senior officers aren’t.”

Zony looked up. “She has to. It’s the only way to run down the facts. The Able Crewmen are eager hard-chargers, but they don’t have the experience to know what they are analyzing.”

“Now let’s get this straight. This is a Hunter we’re talking about. If she gets it in her mind something down there is dangerous–”

“She’ll let me go.”

“Sure, with a squad of paranoid marines armed with rocket launchers! You’re the one and only ‘can’t risk’ crew member on this trip.”

“Okay, I’ll recruit a landing party and we’ll arm ourselves.”

“You’re going to have to tell her why.”

Zony rewound the footage again. “Because if what I suspect is true, we can solve the mystery of that obelisk and everything we discovered at Bayone.”

“We’ve gotten stonewalled before. Jayce was about as unhappy as I’ve ever seen her after the Lethe Deeps incident.”

“This time I’ve got the goods. How long has it been since we’ve heard from our landing parties?”

“Everyone is due to check in at the cardinal orbit in about 20 minutes. We can’t get clear reception until then.”

“Good, because we still don’t know what they found when they hit the surface.”

Curtiss left the signals expert to her SRS telemetry. Zony wasn’t entirely sure yet, but there was something unusual about the white-out. It wasn’t the fact that it happened, it was the way it happened. Commander Tixia had reviewed thousands of hours of SRS data in her career and in her time at the Academy. It was a truism in the signals corps that all the best stuff always happens at the beginning and the end of any given “tape” as the blocks of telemetry data were called. For whatever reason, unusual readings always seemed to congregate at the beginning and end of the tape.

When it came to the footage from probe four, the truism was gradually emerging. The commander was zeroing in on the last 0.68 seconds of information recorded by the probe. After that interval, the device stopped trying to gather information, likely due to the fact it was unable to do so. When look-down probes encountered such situations, they responded by transmitting a “loss of signal” error, also known as “LOSIG.” Probe four’s LOSIG was received right after the 0.68 seconds of unusual information it recorded. Somewhere in the visual interference and static was what Zony began to suspect was rather important information. If she stuck with it, she might be able to coax it out of the storm of nonsense in the last bits of SRS telemetry.

Then she needed to know what Hunter’s landing parties had found.



Destroy All Starships is the companion series to Inversion Factor Zero!
Available now!

The Praetorian Imperative Chapter Three

The following is a sample chapter from Book One in my Destroy All Starships series: The Praetorian Imperative available now in the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!
— Shane

“It was like time shattered.”

The conference room aboard the starship Sai Kee was not quite as luxurious as the three line officers remembered from their time aboard much larger vessels, but it was also sparse and lacked distractions, which was a key advantage for this particular meeting. Jayce had been granted leave by Admiral Tucker to pursue a priority target. Before mustering her forces and settling the Raleo situation once and for all, the commander decided to get the inside story directly from the source.

Vice Admiral Charles Hughes had recovered to the point where he at least looked like he was part of Skywatch again. He wore the closest approximation of an admiral’s uniform the Master Chief could find in the ship’s stores. It helped that none of the other officers or crew present aboard the frigate were officially assigned to her. In the short time they had manned her as their more-easily-managed forward-deployed ship, Commander Jayce Hunter and the other members of her storied “recon” unit had made themselves at least temporarily at home. Yili Curtiss had engineering in top shape. Zony Tixia had overhauled the tiny ship’s communications equipment, giving her the equivalent of a destroyer’s electronic warfare capability, and Hunter herself had helped re-orient the weapons systems into something a little more efficient. Sai Kee was no longer underpowered, which was good news because captain and crew were on a mission.

Jayce Hunter personally believed most of the dangers faced by Strike Fleet Perseus and its various attached units were the result of incomplete information regarding their adversary. So she made a series of briefings with Admiral Hughes the top priority for herself and the other senior officers before another moment was invested in tracking down whatever was going on in the Raleo star system. They needed answers, and they needed them soon. There was no way either Hunter was going to tolerate reality-bending question marks while they were trying to keep humanity itself alive.

“What exactly does that mean, admiral?”

Hughes took a breath to speak. Hunter realized she needed to keep things focused and shifted gears.

“Scratch that. Let’s go back to the beginning. Dunkerque is ordered to Gitairn. Why?”

The admiral sighed. He looked weary, but the other officers and Master Chief Buckmaster knew he wasn’t as frail as he had been. “Skywatch Command briefed myself and Captain Leary before we departed. Our initial course took us to each of the key waypoints along the Reach. The plan was to make Dunkerque visible to any potential aggressors.”

“So you weren’t trying to avoid detection?”

Hughes nodded. “That is correct.”

Buckmaster leaned back in his chair and tugged at his beard. “So much for the ‘blown cover’ theory.”

Hunter persisted. “Admiral, why just the Dunkerque? If the purpose was to ‘show the flag’ as Jason believes, how would a single strike cruiser deter an aggressor?”

“You have good instincts, commander,” Hughes said with a chuckle. “I asked the same question before we departed and didn’t get much of a coherent response. There were a lot of words, but none of the admirals giving the orders were present when the right questions were asked. Those who were there didn’t have much to say. It was all very confusing.”

“The kind of confusing you get when people are trying to cover their tracks,” Zony Tixia said abruptly. “Jason said they were after us. Maybe they were after the admiral too. It would give them the perfect excuse to order Argent into the region to investigate. Once we get here, we became a target just like Dunkerque.”

Hughes nodded at Zony’s reasoning.

Jayce still had her arms folded. “I have to admit, admiral. She has a point. Argent was a target for at least two major attacks, and so were we.”

“Perseus was attacked?”

“Correct. They came after us when we were in formation at Station Nineteen. Ships started appearing out of nowhere during a long range energy weapons attack. Fury was hit hard. We almost lost the Constellation. I think whatever they were trying to accomplish at the station got disrupted by us. They took a swipe at Exeter and were driven back. Then they took out after our whole task force. When that didn’t work, they sent an even heavier force after my brother.”

“All to protect Barker’s Asteroid and one sentinel,” Yili added.

Hughes got up and stood at the display. Sai Kee’s conference had a smaller screen than Argent or Fury but it was perfectly capable of displaying the Gitairn region, complete with the asteroid field, the positions of Uniform and X-Ray Tango and Scorpion One Three.

“Flypaper,” Hughes said quietly.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” Buckmaster said.

“If I wanted to keep a task force occupied for an indeterminate number of days, how would I go about it?” the admiral asked rhetorically.

“Keep throwing targets at them,” Hunter replied.

“What does this map look like to you, commander?”

“Atwell had the ability to teleport matter from one place to the next. He phase-shifted Argent’s whole crew into some kind of matter warp,” Zony said. “We used his devices to get to the asteroid in the first place.”

“And that, Miss Tixia, is what I mean when I say it was like time shattered.” Hughes made his way back to his seat. He had a bit of extra energy, which Jayce interpreted as his zeroing in on a plausible theory. “Bart James is a powerful man. He also has an incisive mind when it comes to evaluating threats. That’s why I couldn’t understand his vociferous objections to the buildup. He saw the intelligence. We had the LRS passes over Rho Theta and the telemetry from Repeater Five. We had all the history from Prairie Grove. Our enemies lost a manufacturing empire when we forced them to capitulate at Cloud Mark. We knew that would anger all the wrong governments. We persisted and some still believe we have the advantage.”

“Cloud Mark was the cease fire that ended First Praetorian, wasn’t it?” Yili asked.

Buckmaster nodded. “One of the most one-sided ends to hostilities in living memory. Kind of like a bankrupt business. Three people enter with their wallets. Two wallets leave with their owners and the third guy gets hosed.”

“The third guy in this case being the Sarn Star Empire,” Hunter said.

Hughes nodded. “We won. That didn’t mean we had to choke them after the beating. The same officers that are now so confident in our advantage were the ones that helped engineer it. They didn’t listen to reason then and they aren’t listening now. They became what most of Skywatch calls the ‘anti-alarmists.’ They managed to drive career line officers out of the fleet by the dozens. They broke up trained crews. They lobbied to cut funding from long-standing defense initiatives so the money and the power that went with it could be diverted elsewhere.”

“Let’s take this to its logical conclusion, admiral,” Hunter said. “The anti-alarmists send you and a single strike cruiser to Gitairn for the purposes of deterring our enemies from any aggressive action along the Reach. Your ship is waylaid. My brother is sent after you. They try to take Argent out, so he calls in reinforcements and then they try to take me and my task force out.”

“That was the sequence of events if I recall them correctly,” Hughes replied.

“Doesn’t that strengthen the case for the alarmists?” Hunter asked. “A ship sent to protect Gitairn gets attacked?”

“But the admiral is one of the alarmists,” Buckmaster replied. “It helps the anti-alarmists if he’s not available to champion their cause.”

“This kind of stuff makes me dizzy,” Zony said.

“If Dunkerque never comes home, they can make up any story they want,” Yili added. “The admiral went crazy and fired on friendly ships. Dunkerque collided with an asteroid. Captain Hunter–”

Buckmaster sat up. Jayce snapped her fingers. “That’s it!” She scrambled out of her chair and moved quickly to the map. “It all came down to Scorpion One-Three.” She slid the controls horizontally and advanced the chronometer in the display until Kingsblade and Argent were on station and engaged with the second Sentinel planetary defense battery. “Silverback Seven Five Five was detected out of position by Kingsblade. It was a set up. Whoever engineered this engagement expected that ship to become the target. They may as well have had an LED on her hull flashing ‘shoot me!'”

“They probably planned for Kingsblade to open up first,” Yili said. “And she did, but Annora was in command and she fired to disable. Not destroy.”

“Then Dunkerque is destroyed by one or the other Sentinel,” Hunter continued, “and the anti-alarmists get everything they want. Hughes is out of the way–”

“And Captain Hunter is broken. They could even charge him with manslaughter,” Buckmaster concluded. “The rising star becomes a fallen man. A perfect anti-poster-boy to justify remaking the fleet in their own image.”

“By surrendering the whole Gitairn Reach? What does that accomplish?” Zony asked.

“It keeps Skywatch away from Raleo,” Hunter replied. “Where one Colonel Zachariah Atwell was hard at work trying to turn his dangerous discovery into his very own interstellar empire.”

Inversion Factor Zero Part One

The sky looked ominous. As ironic as that was, Lieutenant Devin Leach was in no mood for puns. Every puddle he trudged through threatened to soak through his boots. Of all the people in the detail, it was Leach who knew better than most the dangers of wet socks. Not only were they a morale drain, in this kind of climate they were more likely than not to set off a wide variety of annoying medical hazards. Normally, the lieutenant and his team would be wearing gear appropriate for the climate. But this situation was about as far from normal as any officer could imagine. Even in the best of circumstances, they were going to have to keep every piece of current technology they had hidden and replace their normal routine with something more contemporary.

According to their maps, the village was only a quarter mile away. It seemed strange they could see no cattle or people in any direction, even on the road. One would think that someone would at least be hauling wares to or from the settlement, or simply getting water, but there wasn’t a soul to be found. A breeze caught the tall grass and caused the posts of the nearby fence to creak.

“Contacts?”

“Negative, sir.”

The lieutenant’s second was a promising young Able Crewman First Class on his first surface mission. High-ranking fleet enlisted were in short supply given the sudden need for specialists of all stripes, so it fell to the up-and-coming crew members to take up the slack. The lieutenant’s four-person squad was as green as a spring pond, but like all officers Leach was a believer in the old adage of combat experience: “Nothing grows until it’s buried in fertilizer.”

Leach wasn’t a big fan of leading men in a line up an unfamiliar road. Fleet or not, all Skywatch officers were trained for surface warfare. All officer candidates were regaled at one point or another by stories of the redcoats marching into combat in formation, dozens abreast. It was surely a proper and disciplined and an altogether British way of waging war, but the English, and as it turned out the Japanese, French, Germans, Chinese and Spanish as well were disabused of its effectiveness by the passage of time and the inexorable march of military technology.

None could fail to recognize the excellence of her Majesty’s navies, and their dominance of a world’s seas for nearly three centuries. Her armies, on the other hand, at least in the lieutenant’s opinion, didn’t have quite the same reputation. Leach, still more centuries removed from musket and formation, performed the same calculus as the officers of the ancient crown when evaluating risks. He didn’t like leading men in a line up a road with wide open fields of fire in every direction in a potentially dangerous place. Granted, ACFC Tooley was a capable SRS tech. His equipment was in fine working order, and he had been advised personally by the Chief Signals Officer of a battleship. It still didn’t change the lieutenant’s attitude.

Somewhere a few hundred miles overhead, the starship Sai Kee was on station, coordinating heavily disguised landing parties at various points across central England. The lieutenant was quite sure Skywatch Command was going to be very interested to hear Commander Jayce Hunter’s explanation for her ship’s current position, to say nothing of the fact Sai Kee technically wasn’t even her ship. Up to now the admiralty hadn’t demonstrated much of a grasp of what the Perseus crews had been up against. It was pretty unlikely they were going to understand why the commander had ordered her frigate to pursue one man into humanity’s ancient past. Admiral Powers would get it. The others would probably be a little slow.

What both the lieutenant and the commander did know was that if Sai Kee failed in her current mission, the early days of the Second Praetorian War were likely to be rather unfavorable, and that was the optimistic analysis. In fact, if Hunter didn’t catch the maniac she had now chased across five hundred years of history, whatever remained of the human race would be unlikely to survive at all. If they did, the next thousand years were going to make the Dark Ages look like a Saturday Evening Post cover.

“Feels like we’ve walked into a history book, sir,” Tooley offered.

Leach sighed. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it. I hope we can find what we’re looking for and get out of here quick.”

“What are we looking for, sir?”

“Like Commander Tixia says, we’ll know it when we see it. I just hope these people don’t mistake us for shamans or something and burn us at the stake.”

“Are they that superstitious, sir?” Tooley didn’t sound like he wanted to hear the answer.

“If there’s any sanity in the parish, it will be domiciled at Saint Andrew’s. At least that’s what the library computer thinks. Three quarters of a click bearing two zero six.”

“I’ve got intermittent life signs, sir, but nothing I can lock in,” Tooley said. He looked frustrated, as if his tools weren’t quite showing the readings he expected.

“Lieutenant?” One of the squad riflemen indicated a sign along the edge of the road. It read “Ombersley – Population 308.” Although they were called “riflemen” by regulation, on this mission, the heaviest weapon they had was a TK-12. Concussion rifles were tougher to hide, and the last thing Leach needed was a disruptor wave taking out half of someone’s barn.

The sound of a crow’s call floated over the road.

“Well, at least the birds are home,” Leach said. “Remember your cover names and make sure all your rank insignia is hidden or removed. Weapons at 20% power. Watch your targets. Everyone here is a civilian.”

“Except one,” Tooley added.

“Except one.” Leach led the squad towards the nearest of the shadowy structures standing against the late day light.



Destroy All Starships is the companion series to Inversion Factor Zero!
Available now!

Starships at War

If you’ve been following my newsletter, you know that I’ve started a new series. It is a four-part prequel to my next military science-fiction novel series called Starship Expeditionary Fleet. The fourth and concluding volume Operation Nightfall is now available for pre-order and will be released just before Christmas.

I’ve received some messages asking about Starships at War, which is my first series. Starships at War is a six-novel series. Book Five, Jacks Full of Aces is still a work in progress. The reason I am starting a new series now is because there are certain events and plot lines in the first set of books that form the basis for events in the new series. I’m writing them simultaneously so I can weave these two storylines together and make the current prequel collection a complete introduction to the new storyline.

The next series will also be six novels. It’s a fairly ambitious story, which is one of the reasons I’m synchronizing the two as I go. I will release the first book in the new novel series in January followed by either Jacks Full of Aces or book two in the new series (whichever gets written first).

I’ve been averaging about 3000 to 4000 words a day pretty reliably for the last month or so, and I’m working towards higher daily counts and a more regular release schedule.

There have also been some questions about continuity. Starships at War takes place before Starship Expeditionary Fleet which in turn takes place before the new series. The books are in chronological order from Strike Battleship Argent through the prequel novellas and through the new series in book order.

This month and next month will be pretty much nothing but book releases and pre-order announcements. I think you’ll enjoy all the new aliens and ship types. I also think you’ll enjoy the adventures in the Atlantis Sector. Black out.

According to America’s Employers and their Robots, I Have No Marketable Skills

A friend of mine came to me with a problem last night. He was up against a deadline to send out a newsletter, and he only had one day to make it happen. The problem was, the addresses he planned to send the newsletter to were contained in more than 1700 individual e-mails. Extracting them one by one would take hours, and he just didn’t have the time. Surely there had to be a technical solution? After all, take a look around. Everyone has a computer in their pocket.

The thing is, the word “computer” has different meanings depending on your life experience. For example, when I heard the e-mails were contained in Microsoft Outlook, I groaned. Why? Because my decades of experience in these matters hath shewn that when it comes to doing something other than cutting off Netscape’s air supply, Microsoft isn’t really all that motivated. Meanwhile, their software is famous for fighting its users on the beaches and in the hills to prevent them from getting at their own data. That is if it isn’t already busy destroying that data.

Fortunately, the e-mails had been first collected by Gmail, which wouldn’t normally be much better, except that Google was practically forced not long ago to give users access to their own information so it can be exported elsewhere. This meant it was possible to download all 1700+ e-mails. So we ended up with a 7MB file crammed with raw e-mail data.

Remember my point about the word “computer” having different meanings depending on your experience? Well, I’m an old tankard-wielding grognard when it comes to computing. I do all my best work on Linux, which is a PC-compatible operating system largely inspiried by the UNIX system of the 1970s. UNIX was invented at a time when we used computers more for computing and less for posting our status on social media and browsing the web with an obsolete kludge of an application called a “browser” that for reasons passing understanding needs more than 1GB of RAM to operate correctly.

Now my friend wasn’t completely without options. He had a Visual Basic program that purported to do what he needed, but it wasn’t working properly due to errors in its variable declarations. This normally wouldn’t be a problem since I have voluminous experience with Visual Basic, except Visual Basic is a Microsoft product, and Microsoft software will not cooperate. It never has, it never will. In fact, it will fight to prevent you from getting your work done. Even if I had a way to load, debug and recompile a Visual Basic program in 2019 (oh dear), there’s no guarantee it would work. The term for this is “technical risk.” When you only have a few hours, you can’t rely on software that might work. You need software that will work.

So Linux it was.

I took a look at the e-mails. Each line with the address we needed to extract had the common label “E-mail address:” next to it. So I did the extraction job with one command. I used grep to copy all the lines from the big text file with that label in them. That gave me a file with all the addresses preceded by “E-mail address:” Then I opened the file in Emacs and replaced all the labels with a blank space. Now I had a file with a list of all the addresses. My friend needed them comma-delimited, which means all the addresses should be separated by commas instead of on their own line. So I used sed to remove the newlines and replace them with commas. The entire process took six minutes.

People often want to know “what’s the big deal about Linux? What can I do with Linux I can’t do with Windows?” Funny you should ask.

Why was it so simple on Linux and simultaneously close to impossible on Windows? It’s the same computer. It’s the same hardware. If the processor can do the work on one, it should be able to do the work on the other, right? Well, not so fast. Microsoft is in the business of making sure every PC has a copy of Windows glued to it and making sure every business on Earth is locked into Microsoft Office. They are not at all interested in solving problems with computers, so they don’t provide their users with the tools they need to get jobs like the last-minute newsletter done. Oh sure, you could try to do it with various Office applications, but it would be about the same experience as repairing a truck engine with your teeth. The first commercial versions of Windows were available more than 30 years ago. The system still doesn’t have even a mediocre text editor. The difference between Emacs and Microsoft’s Notepad are analogous to the difference between a bengal tiger and the bacteria under your refrigerator.

I will concede in advance that I have had my moments with Visual Basic and VBA. Visual Basic is one of the rare bright spots in the constellation of Microsoft products, along with DirectX and Windows 95. However, those few successes do not make up for the unholy siege of trying to get useful work done with their other products, or using the browser-that-shall-not-be-named.

But the newsletter project itself really isn’t the point. What I did yesterday afternoon wasn’t remarkable in any way when it comes to computing. Running the output of grep through a couple of pipes to remove newlines and comma-delimit a list of e-mail addresses is pretty basic stuff if you have the experience and you’ve been trained to look at problems in the Linux way. We’ve been doing things the Linux way for more than 25 years now. If you have an Android phone, so have you.

What I ultimately accomplished yesterday was to save a man a few hours of tedious error-prone hard work and deliver something important on a deadline. I used powerful tools to automate a task. I was able to do this because I’ve put a lot of years into learning how to use those powerful tools. My friend knows this, which is why my phone rang yesterday. When you need an engine, you call an engineer.

But according to America’s employers and their robots, I have no marketable skills.

Automating things has been the theme of my career, both as a contract programmer and in my own businesses. I wrote software that takes a plain text book manuscript and a cover image and compiles them into a validated EPUB3 electronic book that can be published on nearly any retail bookstore. Hand-coding an EPUB3 would take days, even for someone familiar with the process. You really have no idea how many apostrophes there are in a science fiction novel until you have to replace them all with HTML entities. Excel certainly isn’t going to help you. Being able to convert a manuscript to a book in a few seconds is one of the key reasons I’m able to publish so quickly and have a successful career as an author. Turns out readers appreciate a book that isn’t riddled with errors.

When I worked for a major firmware manufacturer, my team authored in-house software that automatically wrote makefiles for commercial BIOS images to install in retail PCs and laptops. The BIOS, or Basic Input-Output System used to be the first software that ran when you turn on a PC. The makefile was the list of instructions for an application called a “compiler” to build each BIOS image so it could be installed. Makefiles for such software could easily run to hundreds of lines. If there is a single mistake or typo, an hour-long build might fail. Multiply that by the hundreds and hundreds of test builds we were required to do for companies like Honeywell, Toshiba and Compaq, and a mistake could easily cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions if a faulty BIOS found its way into a production PC. Once we were done automating it, however, the errors were gone. The software we wrote perpetually saved the company millions of dollars a month.

But, according to America’s employers and their robots, I have no marketable skills.

I wrote an optical document processing system for a financial services company using, ironically enough, Visual Basic. Our task was to create a printer driver for each of the unique forms a car dealer might use to sell or lease a vehicle. The printer had to write name, address, mileage, etc. in various boxes on each form, and the printer driver’s job was to tell it where to move the print head so the information was actually inside the pre-printed box. When I arrived at this company, they were hand-coding the printer drivers with a ruler, a pencil and a calculator. When I left, they could scan a document, arrange the data fields visually on the screen using each unique form as a backdrop, and have my system automatically write the driver. Productivity went up more than 2000%. It took me three weeks to develop that system.

But according to America’s employers and their robots, I have no marketable skills.

My first job out of college was as a portfolio analyst at a boutique brokerage firm in Orange County, California. Our department’s job was to analyze a potential client’s investments and generate a snapshot based on the current prices of their holdings. When I arrived at this company, one of my colleagues was seated in front of Microsoft Excel with a calculator, adding up stock shares and prices. When I left, the VBA code I wrote in Microsoft Excel would automatically dial into a bulletin board service, download the prices and assign them to the appropriate holdings. This time, productivity went up 6000%. We took a backlog of 40 portfolios and knocked them out in an afternoon. The fees our brokerage earned with that system were staggering, to say the least, considering the impressive lists of assets our clients brought us. They easily took in an additional seven figures a year with my system. Probably more. Took me about a month to write and test the code. Plus the cost of a Compuserve subscription.

But according to America’s employers and their robots, I have no marketable skills.

Let’s be fair, and go back to the newsletter project. I saved a man a couple hours of work. Big deal. We saved the cost of three large pizzas. Fair enough.

What if I save 1000 people a couple hours of work? That’s a lot of pizza. How about 50000 people? What if I wrote software that saved 50000 moderately well-paid office workers four hours of work a month? Say each of those workers makes $20 an hour. That’s four million dollars a month. Can I do it? Well, I’ve been automating things my entire career, right up to yesterday afternoon. Along the way, my employers and clients have saved millions upon uncounted millions avoiding errors and even more millions selling investments with the documents and electronic components my software wrote for them. In the words of Montgomery Scott, “would that be worth something to ye?”

Apparently not, because according to America’s employers and their robots, I have no marketable skills.

Trolls Traps and Treachery Chapter One

The following is a free chapter from book two in the Kings and Conquests series Trolls Traps and Treachery

“What exactly is “plan B?'”

N-Gate Five’s Chief Information Officer had found himself in several more than unsettling situations since his boss had become interested in the idea of obtaining a controlling share of Fairly Unusual Games. Martin LeBlanc was no slouch when it came to understanding the vagaries and basic value proposition of modern technology. He and Len Griffin had built N-Gate into one of the industry’s most formidable marketing machines, complete with a portfolio of more than 2000 semiconductor-related patents.

One thing LeBlanc had to admit, however, was that microelectronics were a lot easier to understand than gaming culture, and it seemed his company’s most recent big project was far more dependent on bros and message boards than it was on leading the way in chip design.

Griffin leaned back in his rather expensive chair and stared at nothing in particular. He had made a habit of calling impromptu meetings with senior executives of late, and while many of his biggest accomplishments had taken place in similar conferences, the most recent brand of meeting had been more like a wide-ranging discussion of abstract ideas than business plans.

“Jay had to start his character over. He chose most of the same options and he’s back to level two, but at this point he’s probably hopelessly behind the rest of the player base. Lori is still level 14 and Mike just made it to level 15, but everything they’ve done so far has been in a bubble of our own making. They don’t have enough open-game experience to accomplish much yet. Fortunately, my little team of toadies isn’t the only pot I have simmering.”

“I didn’t expect it would be,” LeBlanc sighed. “Is all this work really worth it?”

“Martin, if we win this video game contest, or whatever you want to call it, we own a controlling share of a company projecting 11-figures next year. I’d say that’s worth the minimal amounts I’m spending to get there.”

“That would be great, if we had some idea how to win. This thing seems like it’s all over the place. Players are cheating, stuff is being sold in the game and out, and the media is treating it all like it’s some kind of worldwide music festival.”

“It is. These things are home to millions of people. It’s where they socialize, and based on what we’ve seen, a lot of them are more than happy to just sit in town and make leather bags, horse saddles and potions all day while they chat with their friends. Only four percent of the player base has exceeded level six, and that’s why I think my back-up plan is so important.”

“What plan?”

“I hired a second team of gamers with my own money. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want the first team to think they had the option to slack off. I still don’t want them to know. My star player on “Team B’ is level 19 and is about to unlock a whole new set of abilities.”

“How much is this going to cost us?”

“I set aside five million dollars, but until it pays off, it won’t have any effect on N-Gate’s business. I only want reimbursement if we manage to get hold of those shares.”

“What makes you think this guy can succeed where Jay didn’t? What’s your plan for dealing with Wyland and his super-avatar?”

“There’s a lot more going on here than just the contest. I think Wyland planned this out more meticulously than we first believed.” Griffin stood and walked to his in-office wet bar to pour a drink. “Fairly Unusual built three foundational technologies alongside Kings and Conquests. The first is the game’s engine itself, which they developed in almost total secrecy without alerting anyone to their budget, features or anything else. Totally blindsided the entire industry.”

“An awfully big risk,” LeBlanc replied.

Len sipped his Macallan Scotch. “It was a stroke of utter marketing genius. You know I pride myself on pulling the fast one in the marketplace, but the idea of promoting something by keeping it a secret? The sheer magnitude of the announcement forced everyone in the media to cover it breathlessly. That drowned out all the other voices. By the time the complainers and the competition got to the microphone, it was too late. Wyland had four weeks of positive press and enough income to survive the launch window. This guy is going down in history as the only executive crazy enough to use a bankruptcy filing as a PR stunt. That’s just deranged in so many ways. The business equivalent of playing dead, no pun intended. Wyland pulled it off like an 80s magician.”

“How do the other technologies fit in to the marketing plan?”

“Somehow they also developed an augmented reality mobile app that allows players with registered accounts to not only pursue game objectives, quests, crafting and other kinds of entertainment in the real world, it also allows players to identify each other if they choose, meaning Fairly Unusual has taken their own social gaming network out into the real world. That alone is enough to make the company worth buying, but then they went and did something I don’t think even I can wrap my head around.”

“The 3D printers.”

“Exactly. Somewhere along the way, Wyland got it in his head he could turn his own players into a manufacturing division. So he designated certain treasures as “real-world-lootable’ and had them designed not only as three-dimensional graphics, but also as three-dimensional objects complete with ornaments, polished textures and a patented materials science that is years ahead of anything else. Even the experimental firms can’t do what Fairly Unusual can do today. Right now in every living room in America, fifth graders can manufacture their own in-game merchandise.”

Griffin set the drink on his desk, opened a drawer and produced a gleaming translucent crystal sphere set in an upturned bronzed dragon’s claw that formed its base. The dragon scales were made of delicately polished semi-circular layered ebony and the pointed nails were made of solid, flawless poured bronze. The entire affair was set on a circular base of Italian black marble and lettered with sterling silver inlay. He set it on the desk and sipped his drink again while LeBlanc stared.

“This is the Omniscient Dragon’s Eye,” Griffin announced. “It’s a level 14 treasure for any class that advances far enough in the scrying skill tree. Most of the players who get this end up as warlocks. See the way it’s made?” The N-Gate CEO turned the object over and showed LeBlanc the three dimensional reinforced micro-honeycomb lattice used to construct the materials themselves. “See that fine pattern? This process is only possible with Fairly Unusual’s 3D printers. It’s the completely new additive manufacturing process they patented. They didn’t announce this. They didn’t publicize it. Nobody saw it coming. Further, if you look at this material under a powerful enough microscope, you’ll find the honeycombs themselves are all inscribed with tiny logos and patent numbers tied to a unique data key, which is the second process they patented. These things can’t even be knocked off!”

“It’s a physical object, Len. We could get a LASER scanner and convert it to a virtual mesh, then map the materials and reproduce it within millimeters of its original size and shape.”

“Sure, we could get the size and shape and the materials, but ours would be instantly recognizable as the knock-off. We can’t replicate the material or the pattern and we can’t duplicate the data key that corresponds to the patent number and logo. What these guys did is practically magical, Martin. They take a common material out of the real world like Italian marble and they arranged it into a form that makes that common material absolutely unique. I wonder if you realize what this means? This object,” Len held the Dragon’s Eye up for emphasis, “cannot ever be duplicated by any science: Past, present or future. It’s alchemy. Rocks into gold.”

“Where did you get this?”

“It came out of that printer,” Griffin replied, nodding at the Kings and Conquests “treasure station” sitting along the opposite wall near the bookcase. It was a humble-looking device that distantly resembled a cross between a blender and a small refrigerator. “Took an hour to make. Do you know what this is worth? I posted a picture of it on Blibber a couple hours after Mike looted it.”

The classy gold-embossed Kings and Conquests logo was a nice touch, Martin thought. “If it’s unique, I’d say you got some offers considering the hype level right now. Anyone else try to print one of these?”

“Far as we know, this is it. I expect it’s possible to print a second one, but they have to come out of KNC Treasure Stations. Someone offered me $40,000 for this. We could probably make a living just sweeping the game world for these “real-world-lootable’ treasures and selling them at auction. Hell, we could open up a museum for these things and charge admission!”

Martin’s eyebrows rose, surprised at his boss’ sudden energy. N-Gate management hadn’t been this interested in a competitor in ten years. “This really has you wound up, doesn’t it?”

“Martin, the medical device market alone is worth billions. That printer over there can already make rudimentary transistors. It can make electrical circuits. The patent Fairly Unusual obtained on this micro-lattice makes this object nearly indestructible. We took one of the bases off an action figure we printed from the KNC gift shop the other day and gave it to some guys in our fabrication shop. They put it in a hydraulic press and subjected it to six tons of pressure. It didn’t even chip.”

“Why? What makes these things so strong? Did Wyland invent some new alloy or something?”

“Pound for pound, the honeycomb is one of the strongest structures in nature. When constructed to the tolerances that machine over there is capable of, these objects become incredibly resilient. The lattice inside here is 300 micrometers from center to center. This thing could probably stop a bullet.”

“So it has military applications as well.”

“Right now one of the most powerful micro-industrial technologies known to man is being used to make cartoon action figures. I want this. I want to own it all. Our research and development guys could take one of those machines and build the future with it. I’m going to make sure N-Gate is leading the way.”

Martin picked up the Omniscient Dragon’s Eye and examined it, taking care to study the sparkling golden KNC logo, patent and game information hewn into the plaque set in its base. Even the lettering had the same superfine lattice texture. As he turned the object around, a glimpse of lavender light flashed from inside the clear crystal-like globe. He turned it back and saw it again. By positioning it just so, a hologram appeared inside the orb. It was yet another representation of the winged sword-and-shield Kings and Conquests emblem.

“Is it true they’re capable of working with precious metals? We know that’s already possible with current-generation 3D printers.”

“True, but what Treasure Stations do is the next step. The current generation creates a mold which is used to shape the metal. It’s crude but it works. These things superheat gold, silver and about ten other kinds of metals in nearly any combination and then apply it with a high precision jet almost exactly the same as their layer applicator. Their first demonstration of the technology was writing the preamble to the Constitution in 18 karat gold on a piece of black wood. In cursive. They’re planning to donate it to the Smithsonian.”

“Where did they get the funding for all this?”

“That’s a very good question, Mr. LeBlanc.” Len swiveled his chair to look out the window.

“Imagine the merchandising they can do with this. Imagine renting this tech out to the nearest comic book company,” Martin mused, still marveling at the one-of-a-kind treasure in his hands. “Or the nearest aerospace manufacturer.”

“There have been two industrial revolutions, Martin,” Len said as he took in the view overlooking downtown Santa Monica and swirled the ice in his drink. “The first replaced the human hand with the machine and replaced manpower and horsepower with steam power. The second is the one we grew up with. The iron triangle of middle-class economic progress: Mass media, mass marketing and mass production. The engine that built 20th century America. But the fundamental weakness of the second revolution was the fact the first can of soup cost investors ten million dollars and the second can cost them ten cents. It worked, but it was its own barrier to entry. It locked too many people out of the crown jewel of capitalism: ownership. It’s like the blockbuster film business. No room for fun or experimentation because guessing wrong puts the studio out of business.”

Martin wandered over to the Treasure Station and fiddled with the controls.

“But that thing right there on that table is the third industrial revolution. No factory. No need for rail lines and big dirty machinery to get products on shelves. In fact, no need for shelves at all any more, since the advent of e-commerce has created infinite shelf space. Mass production has been replaced by custom production. Right after mass media was replaced by the search engine.”

“And now all that’s left is mass marketing.”

“You know what the funny thing is, Martin? Mass marketing was almost the first to go.” Len looked up from his long gaze at the nearby bay and smiled wearily. “Remember shareware? That was the marketing mechanism that was supposed to turn zero-cost duplication and zero-cost distribution into an advantage, and it almost worked. First company that was successful with it made a million bucks a day.”

“Zero cost marketing,” Martin mused again. “The El Dorado of capitalism.”

“Word of mouth is free and the only advertising worth paying for. Or so I’ve heard,” Len chuckled. “Ultimately, it all comes down to product quality, and I have a feeling when the Treasure Station is through destroying mass production, it’s going to turn around and put a stake through the heart of mass marketing too.”

Encounter at Demon Skull Chapter Five

The following is a free chapter from book two in the Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors series Encounter at Demon Skull

The Warrior of the River’s breathing was too fast for her to remain as quiet as she wanted. Night had fallen and she had chosen an excellent hiding place, but she was certain that the stale, sour air would soon make her wheeze or cough and give away her position.

She could hear something approaching from the direction of the outer ruins. Between her and whomever or whatever it was loomed a massive sandstone pillar: One of the huge bulwarks that formed the outer ring of the broken arena structure.

Up to now, surprise had been her ally, and she was once again prepared to utilize it. Alanna glanced up to judge height and angle, then she shifted her weight. Across the ground she could see four long shadows cast by the flickering torchlight moving towards her position.

Now or never.

“He took this path,” the Huntress said, pointing along the ground where the Chronicler’s Lantern cast it’s colorful light. “The dirt and rocks are burnt, but these are the tracks of one man.”

“What were those tracks in the inner ring?” Ranko asked, referring to the center-most region of the half-mile-wide pillar-encircled centerpiece of the Gorian Ruins.

Shannon just kept walking. Ranko took a breath to repeat herself, then her words became a troubled look. The Huntress still couldn’t hear. She reminded herself they needed to find Talitha as soon as they could.

“There’s lots of little cracks in the ground,” Cici said. “Everywhere those big monster feet were, the ground is all broken and smashed together.”

“Whatever it was, it must have been–” The Warrior of the Storms saw the faintest quicksilver flash overhead. Something had flown over them. She turned quickly and took up a defensive stance, holding Thundercaller across her body. Then a delighted expression replaced her frown.

“Boss!”

Shannon and Cici turned and saw the Warrior of the River standing in a graceful pose only a few yards away from them, the smooth surface of the Quarterseeker fighting staff gleaming from behind her right arm. Silhouetted by the orange light of the torches, Alanna looked taller, even dire.

“Hi Alanna!” Cici exclaimed joyfully. She started forward, but Shannon held her back. Alanna’s threatening posture was matched only by the powerful glare in her purple eyes.

Ranko cautiously put a hand on Cici’s shoulder. It was a silent signal the Ajan Warriors had developed for situations just like this. The Warrior of Stone understood and willed her Lantern’s light to brighten until they could see their friend clearly. Kishi watched the familiar older girl expectantly, his ears standing straight up.

As the light crept far enough to illuminate them, the Huntress noticed smudges of dirt, scorches and burns along the arms and legs of Alanna’s raiments. Her torn sash and the huge purple bruise on the left side of her face were further signs: Alanna MacLeese had been in at least one, and possibly several vicious fights.

Ranko wondered if Alanna had fought all alone. She wondered how scared her friend must have been. Then she felt a chill. Alanna neither approached them nor even seemed to recognize them.

The Crimson Champion was confident in her own combat abilities and in the sheer power of her weapon and heavy armor, but deep in her heart she knew the Winterdancer was a very dangerous and unpredictable opponent, even outnumbered four to one.

“You okay there, boss?” Ranko asked tentatively while very gently adjusting her own stance for maximum protection against what she knew were Alanna’s favored opening attacks. She realized too late that Alanna would recognize the escalation, and she muttered self-criticism through gritted teeth. It was a rookie mistake. Reina would not have approved.

The Warrior of the River responded in kind. She spun her Staff in a quick flourish and caught it behind her right shoulder, moving her right foot back and centering her weight. Ranko recognized the battle stance instantly. The Winterdancer’s words were colder than the ice she commanded.

“You will not deceive me again.”

Her Captain Chapter Two

The following is a free chapter from book 12 in my First Kiss Romances series Her Captain

It was the first time Jericho Steel had been in a civilian grocery store for the purpose of buying food to put in his own refrigerator in almost twelve years. The place was unfathomably huge compared to most base facilities, and positively cavernous compared to a ship’s mess.

He wandered for a good fifteen minutes, trying to orient himself to the idea that any building could devote hundreds of square feet to bread. Children ran around the displays. Mothers sorted coupons and noodled on their phones. The occasional father would drift by, only marginally supervising his kids and intent on finding the 78th item from the list of 78 items given to him by his wife so he could go back to whatever he was doing when she suddenly announced the immediate need for an expedition to the store.

It was all very parochial and normal. It was the kind of environment he was going to need to get used to again. His orders had come through, and he had a year off before his next assignment.

The politics of Navy promotions never ceased to amaze him. For all intents and purposes, he was stuck at his current rank. Despite his exemplary performance and the many missions he had accomplished nobody but a handful of other officials would ever know about, the idea of promoting a man his age to a flag rank was out of the question.

Congress had a say. The president had a say. Ninety other flag officers had a say. But there was a statutory limit on the number of admirals allowed in the Navy, and there were men with many more years in who were simply ahead of him in line, even if the most dangerous thing they had ever faced was a committee briefing. That was the long and the short of it. Jericho Steel didn’t relish the idea of a desk job anyway. Men like him with duties like his didn’t wear stars on their shoulders.

Instead they wore “U.S. Navy” T-shirts and showed off their physiques while performing routine tasks, which was what the captain was doing when his grocery cart ran into hers. Well, he was also trying to find the mustard. The yellow kind, not that weird expensive gold stuff that inevitably had some kind of spice in it that turned a hot dog into a sudden need for a fire extinguisher. One of his Super Bowl party guests once suggested ketchup, but the look Jericho gave him silenced any further such heretical talk.

It was her. The girl from the party. Things were a little calmer now. She was far and away more attractive than he remembered. Her eyes gave her face a delicate sadness that practically demanded comforting. He couldn’t be sure, but he suspected she hadn’t smiled in some time. Nevertheless, she had a softness and a glow about her that stirred something in Jericho he hadn’t felt in a very long time.

“I’m so sorry,” she gushed, moving around the cart and attending to damage that wasn’t there. The apology was a bit much, even for someone trying to emphasize it.

“It’s fine. Really.” He spoke as reassuringly as he could. She wore a white sweater, teal capri pants and rather expensive-looking flats. She put a hand to her face and her breathing got shallow and frantic. When Jericho put his hand on her arm she flinched. It was then he noticed the half-healed bruise on her wrist. He decided on the spot to keep his mouth shut. Things were obviously bad enough. The best course of action was to change subjects.

“It’s my first trip and I’m not all that experienced with the rules of the road yet. Just moved in on Colorado Street.”

For the first time, he saw hope in her expression. “We have a place on Colorado. Sixteen Twenty-One.”

The idea of a young woman giving anyone her address in a public setting like this was enough to raise every antenna the captain had. It was a distress signal as real as any battlefield transmission he had ever heard. She might as well have drawn a flare gun and opened fire at the ceiling with it.

“We’re neighbors then.” He smiled. “I’m in Sixteen Seventeen. Watching the place for a friend between assignments. He bought his new wife a really expensive honeymoon and I don’t think we’re going to see them for a while.”

She looked at him with a hint of astonishment mixed with confusion. It was as if she weren’t entirely sure how to react to what Jericho would have agreed was pretty lame smalltalk. After enough time had passed that the possibility of an uncomfortable pause became likely, she replied.

“Cassie Morgan.”

“Nice to meet you again. My apologies I didn’t get a better chance to introduce myself at the party. You were at Max’s party weren’t you?”

She nodded shyly. “He invited everyone in the neighborhood. We almost missed it. I wanted to go to the wedding but I–” Apparently she decided against going further into whatever subject she was about to bring up.

Jericho noticed she meticulously avoided saying “we.” He decided to avoid the subject as well.

“Maybe you can help me,” he said. “Apparently, the world has invented sixty-eight kinds of mustard since my last trip to a grocery store. And you’ve got yellow mustard in your basket. Can you tell me where you got it so I don’t ruin my next sandwich like I did the last one?”

The raised-eyebrow expression combined with his jaunty grin actually drew the faintest hint of a smile from her. “It’s over there,” she said softly as she gestured. Jericho couldn’t be sure, but it seemed it was the first step in drawing her out of her hiding place.

“You’re a wonder, Cassie Morgan. If I get lost looking for the baby potatoes, can I call you?”

She pushed her cart away and let her hair fall to cover her face before she hurried off. Nevertheless, the Captain was fairly sure he had seen the real smile she was trying to hide.

Strike Battleship Marines Chapter Ten

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Strike Battleship Marines

Annora Doverly knocked on the door of the executive inboard cabin. It was rare for the captain to summon individuals to his office. Everyone on board Argent knew by now her captain was far more comfortable with the idea of ad hoc conversations wherever he happened to find the people he needed at the moment. Whatever this was, it was about as formal as it ever got.

“Come.”

Jason was seated at his desk, surrounded by paperwork. His cabin was somewhat better decorated than the average officer’s, since he had made a habit of gathering trophies and souvenirs from his many travels as a pilot and flight officer. Several dark wooden shelves of memorabilia were arrayed behind him. He was wearing his blue and gray fatigues, which only added to Annora’s unanswered questions. Jason Hunter almost never wore true combat gear aboard ship. He preferred his officer’s duty uniform or some combination of academy sports organization t-shirt and workout gear. Silvered eagles adorned both collars and cover. He looked older and much more business-like than normal. Annora decided this was likely not an invitation to banter.

“Annora Doverly reporting as ordered.”

“Thank you, doctor. Be seated.”

The expression on Annora’s face was one of an officer expecting the other shoe to drop. Once she was comfortable, Jason set down his paperwork.

“I just got some good advice from a hero of mine, so I’m going to cut through the formalities. I’m replacing you as executive officer, effective immediately. I’m also appointing Zack Commander Space Wing and bumping his number two to DSCOM flight leader.”

It was like being hit in the chest with an artillery shell. Annora tried her best to conceal her emotions. Her first instinct was to interpret Jason’s statements as a reprimand, but she knew better. At least she thought she did. She didn’t reply right away.

“I could say it was the admiral’s call, and I’d be right, but he didn’t make it an order. So it’s my call.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Skywatch Command has been anxious about us since we crewed Argent. We’ve all been doing double duty. We’ve also been short-staffed since Jupiter Five, and now that we’ve got a chance to prepare, Powers wants this operation’s capital platform at full combat capability.”

“Komanov wasn’t kidding when she said we were getting our pick of the store. Fleet finally decided a fighting doctor wasn’t regulation?”

“I’m not busting you, Annora. Having an SAR command officer on my ship is a privilege not many captains get. It will earn us both a lot fewer raised eyebrows around the fleet if you’re my Chief Medical Officer and you can train us both a qualified science staff. We’re going to need them if we ever get in range of the Raleo system.”

Annora had to admit the sudden change was startling but it did promise to take a fairly heavy burden off her shoulders. “Who is taking second chair?”

“Jayce nominated Sabrina Mallory. I agreed.”

“She’s junior to both Moo and myself.”

“She’s not a marine ground forces commander, nor is she a six-time decorated doctor and SAR officer. She’s got advanced weapons training and she comes highly recommended.”

“Jason, I respect your sister more than you know, but you can’t train command officers in combat like this. Fury is a fine ship, but she’s not a battleship. Commander Mallory has no space wing experience and no amphibious assault experience. Hell, she was just promoted from lieutenant a couple of weeks ago! She’s got a year of school to finish before she takes command of a capital vessel. There’s a hundred problems with this, any 99 of which could sink any chance we have before we get out of sight.”

“She has two days. I’m relying on you to hit the high notes and leave the book study for a time when we’re not up against the wall.”

“Am I out of the command rotation?”

“Yili is in line after her promotion. Zony doesn’t want command yet, especially after being pushed into the role at Bayone. She’s not confident in her abilities, and I’m already forcing the issue with too many others. I want my SAR wing at full strength, and that means both the Tranquility and Nightwing crews and the entire Angel inventory need a leader. Without being too blunt, you’re not going to have time to run the whole ship. What you are going to do for me is bring one hell of a lot of juice to Argent’s emergency crews.”

“Do I keep my rank?”

“Annora, you’re not being busted. I want someone with your experience in charge of Sickbay and my science section. In six months you’re going to be eligible for promotion to captain, and I can’t think of a bigger step for you than to have your choice of medical assignments. We knew we were short staffed when we took command of this battlewagon. You did your duty far beyond any call, and you took the slings and arrows when certain fleet officers took advantage of your conflicting responsibilities. You’re one of the best officers I’ve ever known, and you are by every measure the best combat pilot on this ship. You are the only officer in Skywatch history to assume command of an abandoned battleship under enemy fire. I will appear before any promotion committee in the future to enter my formal recommendation. You know that.”

“I guess they can’t call me Doctor Blood any more,” Annora sighed. “I can’t say I’m not disappointed, but I want what’s best for the ship, Jason.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

Annora finally decided to ask about the winces she had noticed on Jason’s face from time to time. “You’re upset we couldn’t go after Moo on our own.”

“I don’t like asking for help after bringing on 4800 reinforcements. I don’t like being told Second Marines isn’t up to the job. So yeah, I’m a little uptight.”

“We can’t invade Bayone yet. Half our strength hasn’t even unpacked.”

“But we can find a disabled ship. At least that’s what my loadout says we can do. It bothers me when I’ve got 35 decks of trained personnel and the mission always calls for the three guys who don’t have their shoes on yet. It occurs to me this ship is still bleary-eyed and dragging, so it’s time for me to do some old-fashioned ass kicking before we go back to Bayone. We’re going to finish what we started.”

Doverly took that last remark as an implication Hunter wasn’t going to lightly tolerate another lost crew member situation without an operational Search and Rescue wing.

“What are my orders?”

“Same as before. Hughes autopsy. Find me something I can use against Atwell. As my Medical Chief I’m ordering you to utilize whatever force is necessary to protect our evidence. I’ve already notified Commander DeMay I want him and his crew to grant you and your team full access to Dunkerque’s records computers and sensor banks as necessary. Per my orders you are also as of now the ranking strike fleet medical officer.”

“Understood.”

“Admiral Powers has graciously provided us a set of choice transfers from Skywatch Medical Command. They’re due in our last arrival, so let’s get a list sorted and transmitted before the next watch rotation. I want both Tranquility vessels fully staffed, I want the Nightwing ready for action and I want Deck Sixteen to be the pride of the fleet when it comes to combat hospital facilities. There is nobody else in Skywatch who can do this, doctor. I need you and your team squared away in 24 hours, because there are nearly 900 marines in this formation about to go to war.”

“We’ll be ready, sir.”

“Very well. Send in Commander Mallory.”

Annora opened the cabin door and nodded. She slipped past the younger officer, who looked about as confused as the doctor had been a few moments earlier. Sabrina came to attention as Annora closed the door.

“Sabrina Mallory reporting as ordered, captain.”

“Very well. Be seated.”

Mallory stepped around the designated hot seat and sat rigidly with her cover in her lap.

Hunter grinned. “Sit at ease, commander. Now you’re making me nervous.”

Sabrina tried to relax, but she wasn’t entirely successful.

“By order of Skywatch Command as of zero nine hundred hours Vicksburg time you are ordered to the post of executive officer of the battleship Argent with the rank of acting commander. Congratulations.”

“Aye, captain.” Mallory felt as if she had just been hit with a hundred volt shock.

“You have my permission to speak freely.”

Sabrina held her breath. She was sure her face had changed color at least twice in the ten seconds since she had been given the news. “I was just promoted, sir. I’m not sure I– I mean perhaps there is someone else–”

“There’s nobody else. I need a full-time executive. Commander Hunter has recommended you for your own command on at least three occasions. You’ve been at the top of Fury’s promotion list for two months. It’s time.”

“But my post was aboard a cruiser, sir.”

“And now you are in command of a battleship crew.”

“Aye sir.”

“We’re going to war in two days.”

A ball of ice landed in Sabrina’s abdomen and spread throughout her legs and arms.

“There’s a pair of silver leaves in this for you if we win. I will notify the crew. We’ll set aside time for a honeymoon later. Do you have any questions?”

She considered asking but decided against it. “Not at this time, sir.”

“Very well. You’re with me. I have the first of three technical briefings today on Flight Two.” Hunter attached his commlink and snapped his utility belt before checking his sidearm. “We’ll need to get you properly outfitted and armed. Let’s go.”

Sabrina desperately tried to avoid looking like she was running along behind Hunter as he made his way to the lifts. More than once she heard crew members and officers alike shout “attention on deck!” Dozens and dozens of personnel froze and stood at attention as he passed them in passageways, cabins and compartments. The ship seemed unusually crowded, which wasn’t surprising, since Argent’s head count had increased by a factor of six since the last Bayone engagement.

Finally they reached the lifts. Hunter spent the interval fiddling with his commlink. Sabrina felt like there was a ten-thousand-watt spotlight following her around. She knew Argent’s command structure. She had been a junior officer only a few weeks ago. How could she possibly command this behemoth? She was aboard a flying city!

The magneto-lift descended twenty-two levels before arriving on the Flight Two loadlane. There were hundreds of people working the deck. Two yellowjacket fighters were suspended by magnetic arms in the center of the ship’s central launch facility. One group of technicians was re-arming them while another was cycling their fuel components. Behind the angry-looking Jacks loomed one of the heavy gunships of Tarantula Hawk Green. Its wings were raised in a belligerent pose. A maintenance crew was hurrying in and out of her side entry hatch with electronic analysis equipment. At the far end of the flight bay were nine more Wildcat fighters parked next to several racks of Bullfrog compression torpedoes.

“Duncan!” Hunter shouted over the din. “What’s Command One’s status?”

Sabrina was busy trying to take it all in when she heard a near-deafening honk. Bright white headlights surrounded her in a stark glow. She found herself in the way of a full-sized truck. After running a few more steps, the fuel transport lumbered past her and pulled up under the wing of one of the Jacks. Finally she caught up with the captain again.

“Six more hours, sir!” Duncan Buckmaster was wiping grease off his hands with a small rag. In his work gear he looked like a cross between your favorite bartender and a linebacker with a beard.

Sabrina could not get over the sheer size of it all. At the extreme far end of the deck was an immense open bay. Beyond it was the blackness of space. Thirty stories overhead, white LED light bars were arranged in a grid across the ceiling and its six enormous service lifters. Flight Two was the largest of Argent’s three launch facilities, covering an area of more than 12 football fields. The forward section of the deck housed three oversized railtunnels, each capable of launching corvettes, gunships or Mackinac drop-ships for armor and ground vehicles. They were the heavy variations on the smaller fighter-only launchers on the ship’s lateral flight decks.

Beneath the commander’s feet was the rest of the Flight Two facility, housing roughly one-third of Argent’s fighters, ten corvettes, all 26 gunships and half of her 68 Paladin mechs, along with their weapons, fuel, spare parts and machining facilities. Unlike the pure warship design of a vessel like Fury, Argent was a hybrid, capable of fighting well in both ground and space engagements. And now that she was fully equipped, the new battleship could launch and direct nearly 200 spacecraft and deploy as many as 900 marine mechanized infantry.

“Duncan, I’d like to introduce you to our new executive officer. Sabrina, this is Duncan Buckmaster, Chief of the Battleship.”

“Welcome to Argent, ma’am,” Buckmaster nodded. It went without saying he wasn’t going to offer her the opportunity to cover her own hands in grease. “Honor to serve with you.”

“Nice to meet you in person, COB,” Sabrina replied. She had only seen that many service stripes on a uniform in person once before in her career: Her father’s. If she were being honest with herself, she would have admitted Buckmaster reminded her of him a little.

“The Gatos are still banging their cups about those new missiles, sir. Now the arming mechanisms are turning themselves off unexpectedly.”

“Item sixty-three hundred on my list of eight thousand things to do, Master Chief. As soon as I get the commander up to speed we’ll be a little less frantic around here. When you get a chance, can you chase down Lieutenant Roscoe and have him report to my deck two cabin at 1300?”

“Aye,” Buckmaster replied.

“Is my technical briefing still in there?” Hunter asked as he headed for the launch tunnel.

“Hell no,” Buckmaster replied. “Someone might steal it!”

Hunter rolled his eyes and made a dismissive gesture at the grinning crew chief. Sabrina realized she had been left behind again and ran to catch up.