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!
“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.”