Bloodwing Sneak Preview Chapter

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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.

Pre-Order Destroy All Starships Book Two!
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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!

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

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.”

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.