Bloodwing Sneak Preview Chapter

Manassas System Conveyance Station
Planet Five Orbital Track
Stable Asteroid Lunar Six One

Alert klaxons screamed in scarlet-tinged corridors. Crew members with official duties ran this way and that, but there was nowhere to hide. The Manassas Conveyance Station orbited a fairly stationary asteroid near the Gitairn Frontier designated as Lunar Six One. The closest Skywatch facility was in-system more than two billion miles away.

“Inform those ships this is a civilian facility!”

“They’re jamming all the frequencies, administrator, I–!”

Jarlen Colvert stood before the utilitarian SRS display in MCD ComSat and stared wordlessly at the impossibly dense mass of inbound contacts. None of them registered cleanly. All his relatively simple scanner bank could do was make its best guess as to what it was seeing. It was designed to perform rudimentary spacelane traffic control for freighters and supply ships. It was by no means military-grade equipment. The result was a red cloud of tracking data that seeped forward, reaching for the tiny orbital facility with menacing fingers. The automated systems dutifully switched to the perimeter visual pickups when the inbounds broke 100,000 miles.

An icy certainty filled the communications center. Even the technician seated at the transmission console rose and slipped the headphones off her ears at the sight filling the screen. They were approaching at impossible speeds. Hundreds of fighters with at least a dozen cruiser-class vessels behind them.

“What do we do?! What do we DO?!” Jarlen could hear the young woman’s ragged screaming voice, but his own breathing was paralyzed. The cold inevitability of the sight before him was more than his merely human mind could process.

The screen went white. A violent implosion filled the facility with superheated disruptor reactions. There was a brief instant of shrieking and boiling flesh. The central section of the conveyance station tumbled out of orbit, trailing hard radiation, atmosphere and bodies.

At least three squadrons of Sarn Bloodwing fighters overflew the destruction, veering in several directions as new targets presented themselves. Two minutes later the largest remaining intact section came spiraling out of space and impacted the Lunar Sixty One asteroid surface at a relative velocity of 18,000 miles per hour. The resulting explosion barely registered against the apocalypse in the sky. Pieces of the station re-achieved escape velocity and scattered into space. Others skipped and bounced for miles.

As far as the rest of the sector was concerned, the brutal surprise attack took place without a sound. Humanity’s enemies had planned far in advance. The Imperial battle formation fielded no fewer than two cruisers equipped specifically for electronic warfare. With the power levels behind the counter-transmission waves being directed at the Alliance facility, there was no way to broadcast anything beyond a range of a few miles. Even the disaster buoys launched from the station were torn out of space the moment they broke free of their launch boosters.

Fighters set upon cargo shuttles like a starving pack of wild dogs. Anti-ship missiles impacted the lumbering boxy spacecraft, setting off violent explosions that filled space with strobing afterimages. Wave after wave of disruptor fire tore through station modules like tracer fire through layers of paper napkins. The local comnet was jammed with overlapping barked orders, screams and crackling static. Finally the main antenna vanished as four simultaneous concussion explosions engulfed it. The comm traffic suddenly cut off, like a windpipe being closed for good.

The first scale in command of the task force grinned wickedly as his enormous fighter formations savaged the defenseless station. Secondaries popped off in drifting hull structures as missile impacts flashed and burned along the remaining sections of the orbital depot. A police pinnace ran for the far side of the two-thousand-mile-wide asteroid. The four fighters pursuing it didn’t have to fire a shot. The security pilot swerved too close to the asteroid’s surface. Gravimetric feedback began to overload his drive field. He tried to make a break for open space, but it was far too late for such a small ship. Lightning briefly arced between surface and ship until it vanished in a white flash.

The outpost’s ground facilities were better defended than the orbiting station. They had rudimentary radiation and magnetic shielding due to their more advanced power systems. They survived the first bombardment. They almost survived the second. White-hot lances of disruptor energy rained down across the surface like the wrath of Zeus. Chunks of superheated rock tumbled into space trailing white and blue plasma. A storm of static electric energy formed over the target as the Sarn weapons ionized everything in a radius of a thousand miles. Then a series of nuclear detonations pounded the outpost. Tectonic ruptures formed in all directions.

The other Imperial cruisers joined in. Over the course of some twenty minutes of unrelenting space to surface bombardment the ground emplacement was burned into a six-hundred-foot-deep magma-filled crater along with one hundred forty-seven civilian personnel, a frigate-class starship hull, two fusion reactors and a disaster buoy launcher.

There were eleven human witnesses to the horror that followed. A spherical shape loomed in space over the remains of the ground station. There was no strategic purpose for its presence. There was no enemy for it to engage. It was being utilized to send humanity a message. The Kraken world burner activated its primary weapon. It ignited space again and again. Fusion explosions shattered half-mile-deep slabs of solid iron under the asteroid’s surface, turning them into clouds of radioactive fire. Thirteen minutes later there was nothing left of Lunar Six One except a trail of wreckage and unremarkable ores.

As the raider formation set course for its next objective, the first scale ordered his ships to jettison thousands of tons of uranium and thorium waste over the attack site. A plasma burst from one of his ship’s weapons ignited the cloud of specially-prepared energetic particles, creating a field of radioactive fire. It was a navigational hazard that would take weeks to extinguish and decontaminate. What was left behind would be unrecognizable as the work of an intelligent species. It was the space equivalent of salting the Earth and contaminating the water supply with dead bodies and disease.

The last distress buoy was pulverized by a Sarn fighter seventy thousand miles from the burning cloud.

It would be more than a month before the true nature of what had happened to the Lunar Six One facility was determined.

Destroy All Starships Book Two is coming soon! Watch for a release date!

 

Starships at War Star Map

Sometimes it helps to know where the action is taking place in addition to when. Believe it or not, I’ve been keeping track of physical locations using a hyperlinked text map in Emacs. (Yes, General Cornelius Hunter is partially based on me. I admit it.)

It might sound strange, but it is possible to navigate from one star system to the next by simply clicking on each hyperlink. The text of each story still recounts the events that take place at each location, but with a “big picture” map, it becomes a lot easier to see the strategic situation.

When this map is updated for Destroy All Starships, I’ll be adding strategic overlays for the Core Alliance, the Sarn Star Empire and the mystery faction based somewhere beyond Proxima. I think it will help readers follow the overall conflict much more easily and I also think it will make the story more entertaining.

If you want to keep up with the Second Praetorian War, subscribe to my mailing list. The link is in the menu above. This is only the beginning!

Fleet Commander Recon Chapter Twenty-Six

The following is a free chapter from the fourth book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Fleet Commander Recon

“Negative, ops. As badly as I’d like to know what’s going on in Prairie Grove, we need to get back to the–”

“Sir, you need to see this.”

Captain Flynn stood as if encountering the treasures of Caribbean myth for the first time. The rest of the bridge crew of the Constellation was as silent as an abandoned church. There on the tactical display was a gigantic empty area of space where the ship’s navigational computers said Bayone Three was supposed to be, but wasn’t.

“Navigator, can you confirm our position, please?”

“It’s not an error, sir. There’s no planet in Bayone Three’s orbit, and I can’t get a fix on Revenge. She is out of her patrol course, and the SRS board is picking up residuals from both impact and weapons fire in the vicinity.”

Flynn contemplated the readings for a moment. Its possible Revenge was fired on, but it would mean the attackers would have had to come from either Blackburn or Rho Theta, positions which were inside Core space. How would enemy vessels attack from inside Skywatch territory?

Nevertheless, the combination of the readings and the missing planet were conclusive, whatever the mysteries behind the reality. Flynn’s first duty was to the safety of his own command.

“Tactical, take us to alert condition two, stand by battle stations missile. Screens to maximum. Passives only. All electronic warfare systems to full spectrum operation. Reactor crews engage radiation protocols. Pilot, bring us to new course three four five mark sixteen, all ahead one-half.”

“Aye, captain. Coming to new course three four five.”

“SRS and tactical. I’m putting you on the task of finding Revenge. Find out where the battle started and where it ended. If we can locate Pat’s ship, we may be able to lend assistance.”

Both junior officers acknowledged Flynn’s order. The still damaged missile cruiser re-entered the Bayone system like a housecat exploring a new house. All her systems were on a hair-trigger, ready to deploy a wide variety of highly destructive weaponry at the slightest provocation.

“Signals, open Skywatch priority hailing frequencies. Scramble keyed and wideband only.”

“Aye, sir. You’re on.”

The wideband transmitter made it possible for a warship to transmit without necessarily giving away her position.

“Revenge, this is Constellation on Skywatch priority frequencies. Please come in.”

The bridge crew listened as the range indicator sounded quietly from the forward observation station.

“Revenge, this is Constellation. Captain Raymond Flynn on priority frequency. Respond.”

The captain looked over at his signals officer, who shook his head. Flynn thumped the arm of his conn chair and turned back to the viewscreen.

“Tactical, let’s get some eyes and ears out there. Spin up a Type III LECWAR drone. Minimum profile. Launch to a holding range at one million miles. At T-plus 180, launch an offset relay and lock a guidance perimeter at 400,000 miles, polarity negative.”

“Aye, captain. Jets request in 30 seconds.”

“Weps, I want two Hemlocks at station keeping one click off the guidance perimeter at 40 degree offsets, one at mark 100 the other at negative mark 100. Scramble activation and configure dead man triggers. Set pulse repeaters at 300 second intervals.”

“Acknowledged. Weapons deployed.”

“Alright navigator, I want a slow pass of the system. You see anything bigger than a running shoe out there, and I want to know about it, affirmative?”

“Yes sir.”

One of the most powerful features of missile ships was the fact their weapons were extraordinarily “intelligent” and capable of operating on their own to a certain degree. Like the guided and “heat-seeking” weapons of ancient atmospheric aircraft, the missiles launched and controlled by the Tombaugh-class destroyers and their more advanced variants were highly formidable on their own.

Raymond Flynn’s training had been in deep space guidance systems prior to his enrollment at Skywatch Academy, so it stood to reason he would end up involved in missile technology on some level. It also turned out he was more than a little capable of thinking strategically, which qualified him for command-track assignments and eventually gave him command of a ship packed to the bulkheads with the equivalent of a long-range missile supermarket.

His orders on entering the system were bog-standard preparatory steps for a missile destroyer. The reason they were so effective was because the ship, the two drones and the two missiles he had just launched all carried fully capable electronic warfare and targeting systems. If any of the units “saw” anything unusual, it would be transmitted to the rest of the perimeter units instantly. Then the enemy would face a Hobson’s choice. They could go after Constellation, which would invariably lead to engagement by one or the other of the Hemlock anti-matter warheads, or they could try and engage the perimeter units, which would give Flynn’s warship an opportunity for a first shot at an advantageous range.

The foundation of the whole system was the offset relay. It was capable of creating a spherical zone inside which datalink and radio transmissions could be flashed from one point to another at speeds exceeding the speed of light. The technology was a miniaturized version of the same principles used by the jump gate network: namely the permanent wormholes that allowed physical objects to transcend normal spacetime and “fold” their physical location from one point to the next. For the object itself, “time” passed inside the wormhole, but did not pass in normal space, meaning that for all intents and purposes, as long as a transmission started or ended at the offset relay, it was received instantly at any point inside the three-dimensional perimeter by any unit with a synchronized connection. So far, Skywatch hadn’t yet been able to create an extemporaneous version capable of providing spontaneous FTL communications from one arbitrary point to another, but for the time being, setting up a semi-permanent electronic frontier in deep space was effective enough. Instantaneous communications between starships gave Skywatch captains a mind-boggling tactical advantage.

“Forward arc complete. No contacts to a range of two million miles, sir.”

“Very well, navigator. Tactical, let’s re-calibrate at Y plus one click. Pilot, ahead one-half. Steady as she goes.”

Flynn’s formation moved forward gradually, with the relay, probe and both Hemlock missiles flying in sync with their mothership. The Constellation kept her emissions to a minimum, using her passive scanners and sensors to “listen” to whatever was out there in the cold, empty expanse.

The navigational hazard alarm sounded. The relatively quiet sound caused everyone on the bridge to tense.

“Quietly, tactical.”

“Aye.”

Flynn’s tactical officer redirected the warship’s electronic systems, focusing on a point in space not far from where Bayone Three should have been, but wasn’t.

“Unidentified contact. Bearing zero five mark three five. Oblique course. Fusion emissions. Battle computer designates Atlantis Seven One.”

The captain looked back over his shoulder from the conn. The tactical officer met his gaze.

“Hostile.”

Flynn rolled his eyes and whispered a curse. As formidable as his weaponry was, Constellation was only one ship. If the enemy vessel was escorted or part of a picket squadron, engaging it could lead to problems. At range, a Tombaugh missile destroyer was very tough to handle, as she was easily capable of overwhelming individual ship point defense with all kinds of complicated targeting problems. As that range closed, however, the strategic options became exponentially less inviting. Constellation’s energy weapons were minimal at best. She was designed to operate in a battle group with a vessel like DSS Ajax or DSS Jefferson to provide screening, remote targeting and close-range firepower. On her own, if she ended up in a running firefight, the absolute top priority was to maintain range so she could use the widest possible variety of weapons at optimum effectiveness.

“Range.”

“Three point seven million miles.”

That made things a little better. Even the fastest warship would need time to close range from almost four clicks out. During that time, it would be required to maintain a drive field, push power to battle screens and reserve enough to operate maximum envelope electronic warfare systems and point defense. For most non-capital ships that was a lot to ask. Inevitably, one or more of those priorities would have to be sacrificed in favor of the other three. It was Flynn’s job to figure out which one and pick the weapons from his arsenal that took maximum advantage.

“Any sign of Revenge or Exeter?”

A pause. “Negative.”

Flynn swore again. Engaging a single enemy warship was a risk. Banking on it being unescorted was a potentially disastrous risk. If a second ship popped up somewhere, it could cause all kinds of hard-to-navigate problems for a single destroyer. Captain Flynn wasn’t completely without options, however.

“Tactical, spin me up another LECWAR drone. Configure it to broadcast false emissions for a frigate class warship. Launch to a position point one click off the starboard perimeter. Activate on station.”

“Affirmative. Jets request in 30 seconds.”

The captain waited and watched his enemy. Atlantis 71 appeared to be navigating some kind of survey course, as if looking for either a disabled ship or following some kind of emissions pattern only it could see. The vessel was still on an oblique course and opening range on Constellation’s position, which only made things better for Flynn’s strategy. The further away the enemy contact maneuvered, the more options the captain had.

“Probe away.”

“Now we see if our opposite number takes the bait,” Flynn muttered. “Look sharp, pilot. We may need to run like hell in a few seconds.”

“Standing by, sir.” Constellation’s pilot was harnessed to his shock couch and had his controls set to react quickly to any potential emergency. The destroyer’s engines were set for standby, but had maximum power reserves available. One of the unsung advantages of missile technology was the fact few of the Tombaugh-class weapons required reactor energy. Destroyers could operate with a full flight envelope while firing their most powerful weapons. That gave them two of the three sides of the warship iron triangle. The part they were missing was defense. This was the reason ships like Flynn’s needed range. Their only viable defense was to run if they had to.

The “frigate” winked to life on the bridge tactical display. Flynn’s first watch crew waited as it wandered along right at the edge of the unidentified ship’s estimated tactical envelope. It wouldn’t be long before they detected it. Then it would be a question of how good Flynn’s tactical officer really was. The more convincing the drone looked, the more likely it would pull Atlantis 71 out of position and give Constellation her shot.

The tactical officer pulsed the dead man switches on both Hemlocks again. Their clocks reset. The deadly missiles floated in space, waiting for their orders.

“Emissions delta now four percent over amplitude. Possible aspect change in target position.”

“Look sharp, ensign.”

Everyone waited. The frigate continued to drift. It was now more than a million miles from its launch point and was about to break two million miles range to the hostile contact. Flynn felt a pang of regret and frustration. Normally Lieutenant Cooper would be running the show for a maneuver like this. He knew it would be so much easier if she were here. Talent and experience made all the difference in a life or death situation where seconds were the difference.

“Hostile target Atlantis 71 altering course. On intercept track for LECWAR contact beta.”

“Hooked them. Now we land them. Weps, give me three flights of RAM 600 warheads. Set Alpha to track on emissions. Beta to track on signature and Gamma to track on acquisition. You are cleared to arm.”

“Aye, captain. Transferring combat control to autolaunch racks. Weapons at your command.”

“Helm, give me a broad pass. Two zero five mark three ten, all ahead flank three.”

“Affirmative. Helm answering two zero five–”

The sound of the destroyer’s engines coming fully to life filled the bridge. The deck rolled to port as Flynn’s ship went to maximum safe acceleration.

“Weapons fire! Weapons fire!”

The tactical avatar for Atlantis 71 shifted from yellow to red. The proximity alarms went off at both the navigational and tactical stations.

“Signals, sound battle stations missile. Tactical bring us up nice and quiet. Passives only until further instructed.”

The destroyer’s bridge lights shifted red. The alert klaxon sounded, galvanizing the vessel’s decks and crews to maximum readiness. Constellation’s rotary mounts deployed above and below the wing launchers amidships. The ventral racks spun rapidly until they were fully loaded with sleek white-tipped rockets.

The LECWAR drone went into evasive spirals, trying to avoid the angry beams of explosive plasma energy spearing space around it. The hostile contact bore in, employing a fairly reckless approach. Constellation’s tactical officer did his best to make the tiny drone behave like a Skywatch frigate-class warship, despite the fact it was a tiny fraction of such a vessel’s mass. It was important to maintain the illusion as long as possible. If Atlantis 71 was focused on the drone, it wouldn’t be as well prepared for what Constellation was about to unleash.

“Arm Hemlock one.”

“Affirmative.”

Encrypted commands flashed through the defensive perimeter. The enormous anti-matter missile came to life and pivoted in space, preparing itself to carry out its lethal mission.

“Range to target now 2.8 million miles and increasing. Optimum firing envelope T plus two. The board is green.”

“Alpha wave armed.”

Flynn hesitated. Once he gave the order, Atlantis 71 would have to be destroyed or his ship would be lost. This was a fight to the death. “Fire all weapons.”

Constellation’s ventral racks went into full speed deployment. Every 0.8 seconds, another sprint missile screamed into space from each of six launchers. Within moments, more than 75 warheads were hurtling out of the destroyer’s defensive perimeter at more than 18,000 miles per second closure.

“Start the clock, tactical. Give me the count by tens.”

Captain Flynn watched the track carefully. Missile combat was all about timing. The goal was to overwhelm the enemy’s defenses while making them shoot at the least dangerous incoming birds. In this engagement, the most dangerous were the two Hemlock monsters waiting patiently for their orders. Anti-matter impacts were rarely survived, regardless of the class of the target vessel.

“Take the LECWAR dark.”

A moment later, the “frigate” Atlantis 71 was so doggedly pursuing vanished into the darkness like a candle flame going out. There was a brief moment of hesitation on the part of the enemy vessel Captain Flynn was quite accustomed to. It took most ship captains about ten seconds to realize what was happening, which was why Flynn had timed his first attack wave to hit his enemy’s active electronics perimeter at exactly that moment.

“Twenty seconds to impact.”

“Fire Hemlock One. Arm Hemlock Two.”

“Beta wave armed.”

“Fire all weapons.”

Another wave of 75 RAM 600 missiles blasted free of their mounts 18 at a time and streaked into the distance, trailing blue energy blooms.

The enemy warship’s point defense came to life like a nest of virulently poisonous snakes. Kinetics exploded to its starboard side, filling two hundred cubic miles of space with fast moving debris. The guidance systems aboard each of Constellation’s alpha wave RAM 600s did their best to avoid the spinning metal flechettes, but without drive fields or onboard defenses, their speed was both their weakness and their strength. They could close range quickly, but they could not avoid obstacles very well. Impacting something the size of a nickel coin at such speeds often created energy releases equivalent to a half-kiloton explosion. Spherical energy blasts rippled through the oncoming wedge of missiles. The discharges caused Constellation’s tactical display to freeze and then stagger as the Flynn’s passives tried to fight their way through the interference to get some idea of what was happening.

While Atlantis 71 was busy with the first formation of RAM 600s, it wasn’t watching its high port approach. Had someone been paying attention, they would have seen the dark distant form of the fourth Horseman charging over the electronic horizon at a full run. Hemlock One broke 200,000 miles and accelerated, bearing down on its hapless target like a cheetah sprinting towards an unaware gazelle. The enemy vessel’s point defense reacted with sudden violence, but with the wrong weapons and way too late. Kinetics screamed into the approach track of the gigantic warhead, but made no provision for the fact the Hemlock SRAT 108 wasn’t a sprint missile, and operated with a full drive field. The missile’s navigational screens vaporized Atlantis 71’s projectiles with contemptuous ease. It broke 180 miles just before its proximity fuse activated. A blinding white-hot explosion lit up space for six million miles in all directions.

“Impact. Hemlock One.”

Twelve seconds later, the bridge deck heaved as the electromagnetic shockwave from the warhead explosion slammed into Constellation’s starboard screens.

“Stand by, weps. Tactical, get me a damage assessment from our Type III. Helm, easy turn starboard X plus ten. Slow to two-thirds.”

“Aye, sir. Coming about.”

“Maintain oblique course, helm. Report on re-acquisition of Atlantis 71. Stand by Hemlock Two.”

The advantage to the big anti-matter bombs was their effectiveness. Even against full battle screens, a proximate gigaton-magnitude explosion was devastating both in terms of damage and its effect on electronic warfare systems. Like the electromagnetic pulse effects of old-style fission warheads, the disruption effect of an anti-matter explosion was considerable. Skywatch ships were equipped to compensate, to a point, but it remained to be seen if their enemies were.

What Flynn was counting on was his notoriously good timing. He knew exactly how long it normally took to re-acquire a target after a proximity explosion, and the clock was ticking on his beta wave of track-on-signature birds, which were at that moment rocketing into their terminal approach.

“Contact! Atlantis 71 bearing nine seven mark negative five. On evasive course! They are powering their primary weapons!”

Right on time. The moment Constellation was able to broadcast its enemy’s position to the offset relay, beta wave was ten seconds out.

“Auxiliary overload power to starboard battle screens! All ahead flank three!”

“Weapons fire!”

The destroyer surged forward moments before enemy fire control obtained a partial waveform lock. Long range plasma lance weapons erupted angrily against the destroyer’s starboard leading edge. Energy discharge tore and flashed through space. Then Constellation was away.

“Damage report!”

“Battle screens holding! Drive field stabilizing!”

The tactical officer spoke up. “Enemy vessel emissions indicate a destroyer-class warship in the 300,000-ton range.”

“Acknowledged. Engage evasive pattern. Wing-heavy. Stand by gamma wave.”

By now Atlantis 71 was back on its feet and ready to throw hard punches. Unfortunately, the moment its targeting horizon cleared, all it revealed was another angry swarm of highly destructive beta wave warheads seconds from impact. Once again, the vessel’s kinetic point defenses exploded to life, but by now their ammunition reserves were low. Only half were effective. Sixteen of Flynn’s birds reached their target. Lightning-like discharges strobed around the vessel’s strained battle screens as warhead after warhead slammed into its port-side drive field. The ship staggered in space, but somehow righted its course before veering towards the last known position of the Constellation.

“Damage assessment. Quickly.”

“Enemy screens down to no more than 28%, captain.”

“Maintain course and speed, pilot. Signals, open a hailing frequency. Engage automatic translation protocols.”

“Aye, captain. You’re on.”

“Attention unidentified vessel. This is Captain Raymond Flynn aboard the Skywatch Destroyer Constellation. We have you under our weapons. You are ordered to withdraw from Gitairn space or we will re-engage.”

The bridge crew waited patiently. If there were any kind of intelligent response, the auto-translator would pick it up and make some effort to synthesize a voice to represent it.

“Anything?” Flynn asked, looking back towards his signals officer.

“Negative. No response.”

“Go active. Get me a hard waveform lock on hostile target Atlantis 71.”

The rest of Flynn’s officers recognized the tactic. When employed by a missile destroyer, it was basically the equivalent of a room full of people pointing guns at the target. If Atlantis 71 was as bad off as Flynn suspected, the provocation just might be enough to get them to acknowledge the hail.

The missile lock tone jangled. The sound was rather unsettling, even for the ship aiming the weapons. A click away, Hemlock Two waited patiently, its own targeting systems updating Atlantis 71’s position moment by moment.

A new tone sounded at the signals station.

“Captain, we are being hailed.”

Flynn turned to look, eyebrow raised. His signals officer may as well have announced the crew had just been invited to a square dance. “On screen, ensign.”

A triangular image appeared on the Constellation’s bridge screen. It consisted of three disc-shaped icons surrounding some kind of heraldic device Flynn had to admit was unfamiliar to him. The image was quickly replaced an interior view of a spacecraft control compartment of some kind. In the background, an intense deep red light filled the lower half of the chamber. The creature occupying the middle of the viewscreen could only be described as an odd cross between a mantis-like insect and a fragile-looking avian species. Its numerous eyes were a pale gold color. It operated the controls with two agile-looking combination pincer-and-claw limbs. The pleasant voice of the Constellation’s auto-translation mechanism added understandable words over the sound of the creature’s cricket-like combinations of chirps and buzzes.

“I am Third Seeker Gohn of the Yersian Moon Faction. I propose a truce.”

“Lieutenant Commander Raymond Flynn. Skywatch Destroyer Constellation. Third Seeker, you launched an unprovoked attack on one of our ships.”

“A trick, commanderrrrr. Gohn finds subterfuge distasteful.”

“Indeed. Then perhaps you’ll explain why your ship is in Gitairn space at the scene of an apparent battle where two of my ships are missing.”

“I have no informationnnn on your missing ships, commanderrr.”

“Then you didn’t take a shot at them the way you just took a shot at us?”

“You have me at a disadvantage, commanderrrr.”

No kidding, Flynn thought. He gestured to his signals officer to cut the channel.

“Opinion, pilot.”

“He’s trying to buy time. Might have gotten a message off to another ship nearby.”

“Exactly what I was thinking, lieutenant,” Flynn replied. “Re-open channel.”

The audio pickup re-activated.

“What are your intentions, Third Seeker? I have orders to engage hostile vessels in Gitairn space. But we will agree to a temporary cease-fire if you power-down your weapons and retreat from this system.”

“The Yersian Faction agrees, commander. We will leave you to your space.”

“Perhaps in the future we can meet under less stressful terms, Third Seeker.”

The alien commander closed the channel without replying.

“Yersian Faction?” Flynn’s tactical officer asked.

“Find out what that is, ensign. Tactical and SRS, I want to know everything you can tell me about that alien ship and I want it before they are out of range. Signals, notify all decks to stand down battle stations and hold at alert condition two. Pilot, set course for the Bayone orbital track. For now keep us at least point two clicks out of the planet’s path, but keep me in close SRS range. I want to know what happened to Pat’s ship and our amphibious forces.”

Get Fleet Commander Recon today!

Inversion Factor Zero Part Six

“Engineering reports SRS banks now at 96% functionality.”

“Very well. I want multiple passes on the most recent heat signatures we have readings for. Anything that tops 90% confidence I want to know about it.”

Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Islington was in no mood for nonsense. The surprise attack on Minstrel and Sai Kee almost cost two starship crews their lives. What happened to their attackers in the meantime was a deepening mystery. Neither Islington nor Hunter were known for their tolerance of guessing games. They were answers people, just like Jayce’s brother.

The crew of DSS Minstrel was accustomed to their captain’s single-minded pursuit of facts by now. It was one of the things that made the relatively light starship so dangerous. Minstrel even had a reputation among non-human commanders, and now that she was operating as the escort equivalent of a Delaware class ghost killer, nobody wanted to tangle with her absent an overwhelming tonnage advantage or a well-marked escape route.

On their approach to the Raleo system, the two starships were targeted by enemy weapons of some kind. It remained unclear why the Sarn were working so hard to keep Skywatch ships away from the Raleo system, but one thing was clear: The man known as the Denominator was responsible for the unusual events on the planet’s surface, and now he was in possession of an alien artifact. Nobody could even guess at its capabilities. While Commander Hunter and the Sai Kee investigated, it was up to Islington and Minstrel to guard the door.

“Let’s go over it again,” Islington said, turning back to the tactical display on Minstrel’s bridge. “What clear readings can you give me on the anomaly over Raleo II?”

Pilot Finn McCampbell brought up the combat tracking display. “We had three unidents in a high-speed parabolic approach to Raleo at one five one. It was pretty clear they were going to use the planet’s magnetic field to try and throw off our electronic warfare systems. We had a three by six lock on the trailing vessel’s fusion signature at one five four. Then everything went haywire.”

“Describe haywire. Was it the magnetic field?”

“Negative, ma’am. All three ships registered at exponentially higher mass for a few seconds, then they reached estimated velocities of four and five times the speed of light before we lost contact.”

“Drive fields?”

“All three vessels had functioning drive fields until 0.7 seconds before loss of contact. Contact Kilo X-Ray two dropped her drive field for some reason.”

“Is there any chance they entered Raleo II’s atmosphere?”

“If they did, we didn’t get any of the standard readings. There would have been heat signatures, radiation, particle collisions on their velocity fields, magnetic disruptions. There would have been a ton of noise.” McCampbell wasn’t in any better a mood than his captain. None of what they were seeing made any sense.

Islington got up and moved to the helm. She contemplated the tactical display. Recorded on the screen were the final readings from the three-ship formation Minstrel had been tracking before it disappeared. “They just winked out. Like someone turned off a switch.”

“That’s one way to describe it,” Finn replied. I suppose they might have engaged cloaks, but that doesn’t explain the sudden acceleration or the mass readings.”

“Hunter didn’t get anything either,” Rebecca said absently. “She wasn’t tracking the formation before it vanished, and since Sai Kee is on the other side of the planet they only got a glimpse.” The commander tapped her nails on the helm console. It was clear she was not in a very good mood. “What is it about this planet?”

“We knew we were in for a freak show, ma’am. This might just be the first act.”

“New contact!”

“I hope you’re wrong, pilot,” Islington said. “Report EWS status.”

“Our cloak is operational in all flight modes. Minstrel is at station keeping. All scanners are set for passive readings only per your orders. Unidentified contact designate Everest One Eight bearing zero seven zero mark ten. Range 200 megaclicks. Slow velocity. High gravimetrics. Possible cruiser-class vessel or heavier.”

“If they’re Sarn, I hope Raleo eats them too,” Islington muttered. “Finn, veer us off. Get me the hell away from that planet. Cal, narrow beam flash alert to Sai Kee. Transmit the position and LRS profile of unident Everest One Eight. Notify Commander Hunter Minstrel is heading for open space.”

“Affirmative, commander. Coding your message.”

“Open a channel to Black Nine.”

“You’re on, ma’am.”

“Black Nine, this is Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Islington aboard the Minstrel. Match voice print and identify.”

“Affirmative, Minstrel. Voice print matches.” The autonomous gunship’s AI was gradually taking on a more and more pleasant personality. “I presume you are aware of the Sarn Acheron-class war cruiser bearing zero seven two?”

Islington swiveled to face her signals officer. “Yes, we are, Black Nine. How do you know it is an Acheron cruiser?”

“I have compared its gravimetric signature to all 1458 Sarn vessel configurations in the Skywatch database. If it is still using the outdated fusion reactor design common to Sarn vessels at the outset of the First Praetorian War, the ship has a fatal flaw at high acceleration in certain flight modes. It is also unable to mask its engine emissions when switching from low to high power utilization in its weapons matrix.”

The scene on Minstrel’s bridge was very much like a family at Thanksgiving dinner hearing wolves howling in the front yard. Nobody spoke. They just stared at each other as if they were all experiencing the last six minutes of a “Twilight Zone” episode together.

“Affirmative, Black Nine.”

“Shall I engage the enemy?”

“Negative, Black Nine. I’d like you to go passive and shadow Minstrel’s position. I’d like you to engage your electronic warfare systems and put maximum power into jamming enemy weapons targeting sensors.”

“A fine strategy, commander. You are making use of a standard positioning pattern for cloaked starships.”

“That is correct, Black Nine. Can you carry out my instructions?”

“Yes, commander. May I make a suggestion?”

“Go ahead.”

“It would be prudent if I were to maneuver with an anti-neutron drive field envelope. This will make it possible for me to mask my engine signature if I am forced to make high energy course adjustments.”

“By all means, Black Nine. Report any unusual contacts or readings to my signals officer. Minstrel out.”

Escort frigate and gunship settled into formation and turned to intercept the inbound contact.


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Inversion Factor Zero Part Five

With DSS Minstrel in open space on quiet patrol, Hunter put Sai Kee into a more advantageous orbit. Her frigate was no longer as well concealed as it had been, but the new orbital altitude and position relative to the obelisk gave her instruments a much better vantage point for their analysis.

Hunter wasn’t satisfied with her ship’s scientific facilities. This kind of investigation required a true science team with the latest gear. Granted, she had a couple of the fleet’s most promising officers on her team, but they were hamstrung by their rustic laboratory. Commander Tixia had managed to upgrade their communications systems, but the right kind of lab gear was either present or absent. It couldn’t be improvised, unfortunately.

Zony saw and heard the hail before anyone else. She presumed this was the moment Sai Kee would be contacted with the Denominator’s terms. After all, he had somehow managed to start utilizing the technology on the ground. Only Heaven knew what he would be able to accomplish with it. Commander Hunter’s mission to stop him got more urgent each time the hail notification went off. Then the signals officer noticed something strange. The hail had a Skywatch identifier.

“Commander we’re being hailed by Lieutenant Leach.”

Hunter swiveled in her command chair and hesitated with a confused expression before replying “That’s interesting. Lieutenant Leach is on deck four checking planetside gear for his landing party.”

Zony just stared back. Of all the things in the world Hunter knew her brother’s communications officer would never get wrong, it was a hailing frequency identifier. “Put it on screen.”

The image of Devin Leach appeared. In the background was a shadowy chamber that looked like the set for a Charles Dickens theatrical production.

“Ready to deliver my report, ma’am. We’ve found a girl here armed with a Sarn disruptor. We haven’t caught him yet, but I’d say we’re on the trail of our man.”

“Acknowledged, landing party. Stand by.” Hunter changed the status of the lieutenant’s channel from her command console and activated the ship’s 1MC. “Lieutenant Leach report to the bridge on the double.” The commander swiveled again and stared at Zony with a special brand of the trademark Hunter “what the hell is going on?” look. Somewhere below, the battleship Argent’s weapons officer was ostensibly hurrying to deck one. It only took him 40 seconds. Devin Leach appeared in the egress hatch for the bridge. Hunter calmly reactivated the hailing frequency. She stared at Leach as his own face appeared on the Sai Kee bridge viewscreen.

“Lieutenant, I’d like you to continue your search for any technology that is out of place. Report to me directly in 30 minutes, affirmative?”

“Yes ma’am,” the viewscreen Leach said. His counterpart on the bridge stood with his face draining of its color.

“Very well, Sai Kee out.” Hunter closed the channel and allowed the silence to reign for a few moments.

“Why do I have two lieutenants named Leach, when before I only had one?”

“I never expected to be literally talking to myself, ma’am.”

Hunter turned to Zony. “Commander?”

“The transmission we received was from the future. Or at least one possible future for us.”

“So now we have to evaluate what we see and hear based on what timeline it originated from? What if I don’t send the landing party now?”

“It will alter our history, I think.” Zony replied. “Yili’s the real expert on temporal theory, ma’am. I just run the radio.” Zony smiled sweetly. Jayce almost grinned, but somehow managed to keep a straight face. She turned back to Leach. “Carry on, lieutenant.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“Zony, we’re going to need some kind of a briefing and some kind of procedure to make sure we don’t inadvertently violate some kind of four-dimensional physics here.”

“Aye, ma’am. Commander Curtiss and I will do our best.”

“Very well. Get me a status update on surface conditions and let’s get our boots down there as soon as possible. Just out of curiosity, commander, where is ‘there?’ as you see it?”

Zony switched the main display to a graphical representation of the starship Sai Kee occupying several different oval-shaped colored regions. The ship was at the center. One end of each of the six ovals all intersected around the center point. One of the regions was marked “present day and location” while the others were marked “alternate time and location” and numbered one through five.

“If we presume what is happening to this region of space is the result of a temporal inversion, then this is one of the theoretically possible models. Our ship is positioned at a certain physical location. So is our drive field. Since we’ve never actually been in real space since we arrived, it is reasonable to assume our physical location could correspond with the same locations in multiple timelines and in multiple physical representations of our own universe.”

“How does that get me two lieutenants?”

“Once he left the ship, he may have entered one of the alternate timelines. For him, time may have moved forward at a different speed. In fact, time may be moving at many different speeds for us relative to any alternate universes we might inhabit at the moment. No pun intended.”

“Is there any way to track all this with any kind of specificity, or are we just guessing?” Hunter asked.

“It’s all theoretical until one or more of us inhabits one of the alternate timelines. Once we’ve ‘landed’ so to speak, then we might be able to determine ‘when’ we are as well as ‘where.'”

“Alright I want everyone on board briefed on all this, and you’re in charge, Zony. Minstrel too. You and Commander Curtiss will keep everyone up to date on all the variables. I want special care taken to make sure we don’t inadvertently alter history or do something that might have ramifications elsewhere. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Very well let’s get to it. Your first meeting will be with the lieutenant and his landing party. Since we know what we’re looking for now, I want them max attentive to the potential presence of alien technology on the ground. What is your best guess as to where they are headed?”

“Ombersley, England. Somewhere in the late 19th century.”


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Inversion Factor Zero Part Four

“Well which is it, impossible or improbable?” Hunter sounded very much like her brother when confronted with not-quite-specific-enough answers.

“Scientifically speaking, highly improbable,” Commander Curtiss replied. “In a room full of non-scientists, impossible.”

“Go over it again.”

Zony rewound the SRS visual pickup telemetry to the beginning of the feed. “The target entered the Raleo II obelisk at time code zero eight one five.”

“Got it.” Hunter had her arms folded. “That’s the Denominator.”

“He exited at time code seven nine six.” Zony scrubbed the visual record back nineteen seconds. Sure enough, the same individual exited the structure, this time carrying the object Zony had identified as “the artifact.”

The look on the commander’s face told the engineer and her fellow officers this wasn’t going to be one of those light-hearted briefings. “He exited the structure before entering it?”

“The technical term for what happened here is a temporal inversion. For us, time ostensibly moved forward at its normal rate. But for him time moved backwards. We perceived events taking place in the wrong order, while he experienced them in the correct order.”

“But we still don’t have a fix on him. This guy is running around with Atwell’s stolen technology. I want him neutralized, and now.”

“I had to go back and pull this series of readings because everything after time code eight four six indicates no life forms on the surface and no evidence they were ever there,” Zony said. “There are no heat signatures. No carbon dioxide to indicate respiration. No trace particles. No DNA.”

“Maybe he was wearing an exo-suit?” Yili offered.

“Perhaps, but only if he found a way to make it invisible. If not, he was apparently on the surface for at least six minutes without life support. Given the surface temperature, the extraordinarily low air pressure and the radiation from the Raleo primary, if he is human, he wouldn’t have lasted six minutes without the right gear.”

“Where the hell is Doctor Doverly when we need her?” Yili muttered.

“Alright, let’s stipulate for the moment you are correct,” Hunter said, her face and eyes filled with that peculiar combination of annoyance and short-tempered-ness unique to starship captains. “Where is he now?”

“Since he is traveling in spacetime instead of just space, he could be somewhere in our past.”

“How do we locate him, then?”

“We don’t have to,” Yili said. “If this is really a temporal inversion, then it is radiating outwards from its source on the planet surface.”

“That would explain all the weird readings we’ve been getting from this place,” Buckmaster said.

“Meaning we have to go down there,” Hunter said. “I need to send landing parties to the surface of Raleo II: A planet now responsible for the outright disappearance of at least three starships, and the place where Colonel Atwell, our current fugitive and Admiral Hughes all went mad.”

“Well, at least one of us is on the comeback trail.” Vice Admiral Hughes stood in the doorway to the Sai Kee briefing room.

Hunter should have looked surprised, but she wasn’t. “My apologies, sir. I meant no offense.”

“Think nothing of it, commander. I am giving no orders on this mission. I’m just here in an advisory role.”

“Admiral, you experienced the Ithis presence in a way none of us have. Do you have anything to add regarding this planet and its effect on our instruments?” Zony asked.

“All I can say for sure is that every time we experienced the ‘shifts’ caused by our use of their mechanisms, it was possible for us to be in two or more locations at once. I suspect your theory about temporal inversions is accurate, because if they made it possible to disrupt spacetime, and to travel temporally from one ‘location’ to the next, then it would be possible for one or more of us to be in two different physical locations at once in the same space.”

“Good point,” the master chief added. “Fits in nicely with their teleportation device.”

“Instead of being in two places at the same time–” Zony started.

“You’re in two places at different times,” the master chief replied.

“Is it possible we’re already somewhere else and don’t know it?” Yili asked.

The commander activated her commlink. “Hunter to bridge.”

“Bridge, Roscoe.”

“Report our current position.”

“Sai Kee is in a geo-synch orbit over target coordinates. Altitude 260 miles.”

“Report all contacts.”

“My only contact is Unicorn Seven, bearing one one four stationary at two million miles.”

“Acknowledged. Hunter out.”

“Minstrel?” Buckmaster asked.

“Guarding the front door along with our cybernetic attack dog,” Hunter replied. “Apparently, we’re here and not there.”

“What about the surface?” Yili asked.

“We can tie in to the ship’s surface scanners here,” Zony said. She configured the universal and switched the Sai Kee’s feed to the wall monitor. The display showed a dark structure of some kind on an amber-colored field.

“What the hell is that?” Hunter asked.

“It’s not Raleo II,” Buckmaster said. “Looks like Nebraska in the fall.” Even the admiral took a few steps forward to get a better look.

“What did you do?” Yili asked.

“I just reconfigured the surface scanners to filter for ti-particles. Our normal SRS sweeps filter them out.”

“And you left them in?”

Zony nodded. “This is what the planet looks like if we scan for unusual effects on time, which can only be produced by an energy source that generates ti-particles.”

“But that’s not Raleo II,” Hunter said. “That’s a wooden structure, and that kind of flora can’t grow this close to a B-type star.”

“That’s correct, commander. This isn’t Raleo II. This is Earth.”



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

Reading Order for Jason Hunter Military Science Fiction

There are enough books in the Jason Hunter universe now that I thought it would be useful for readers if I explained how to arrange the stories in order.

Prior to the events of the Starships at War series, Jason Hunter was promoted to the rank of captain, which was unusual for several reasons, not the least of which is his age. Before being posted to a command billet, Hunter was the flight leader of a Yellowjacket squadron called “The Bandit Jacks.” His squadron mates are now his senior officers. Starships at War is a series of six novels that begins soon after he is assigned to his first mission as captain of the Argent.

The second series is Starship Expeditionary Fleet which is a series of four novellas (plus a bonus book)  that chronicles the events leading up to the Second Praetorian War.

The third series is Destroy All Starships which is currently in progress and recounts the story of the interstellar war between the Alliance, the Proximan Kingdom, the Sarn Star Empire, the Yersian Unity and the Kraken Decarchy. Destroy All Starships is being published concurrently with The Praetorian Chronicles. The respective series each take place in parallel timelines. The Praetorian Chronicles is a free series I’m publishing in the Library-Tron.

Here are all the current Jason Hunter military science fiction adventures in the order of their fictional chronology.


Strike Battleship Argent is now free for subscribers.


Strike Battleship Engineers is available at getabook.today


Strike Battleship Marines is available at getabook.today


Fleet Commander Recon is available at Amazon.com

Jacks Full of Aces is coming soon!

Silver Eagles is coming soon!


Battle Force is available at Amazon.com


For the Honor of the Captain is available at Amazon.com


The Guns of the Argent is available at Amazon.com


Operation Wolfsbane is available at Amazon.com


Alert Force is free for subscribers.


The Praetorian Imperative is available at getabook.today


Inversion Factor Zero takes place in a parallel timeline to the events of The Praetorian Imperative and the other books in the Destroy All Starships series. Inversion Factor Zero is free and available in the Library-Tron

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 were picked up by the starship Sai Kee, after the attack, the ship’s refitted SRS banks got the best look. At least that was the theory. Commander Hunter had look-down probes in the atmosphere over the planet, and had even ordered her ship to employ energy-intensive multi-spectrum scans at a time when the relatively small vessel could least afford the energy expenditure. 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 a break, 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.”