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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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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.”

The Praetorian Imperative

I have for some time considered writing a series involving a wide-scale fleet action, and I’m pleased to report I got a start on it this week. Naturally this will not proscribe continued work on Starships at War. I have at least two more books on deck for that series.

First Praetorian is the historical conflict Skywatch faced in the early era of the Core Alliance. It was my universe’s “Jutland in space.” In this new series, called Destroy All Starships, the defeated Praetor’s shattered belligerents gave way to several smaller collectives of like-minded citizens, one of which is the Victorian Confederacy, situated in three small star systems just beyond the Magellan Frontier. The story in this series will recount the first “aftershock” of the Praetorian war.

The adversaries in the new books will be an aggressively unified front consisting of two already-introduced races, the Sarn Star Empire and the Yersian Unity, along with two new races, the Kraken Decarchy and an as-yet unnamed faction which will be found with Ithis weapons and technology at a crucial point. All of the enemy races will be armed with unique weapons, both ship-mounted and individual, and will have tactics to match.

Our heroes will be joined by the Proximan Kingdom, a feline race with a strong affinity for the code of chivalry and certain medieval sensibilities updated to reflect their advanced exploration and scientific capabilities. All Proximan soldiers are trained with the sword, and I think you will all approve of the direction I’m taking that most ancient of weapons. I’ll give you a hint: their swords don’t glow.

Many characters from Starships at War will return, and will find themselves fighting alongside some new allies, including several new starships, more than a few new ship types, some new technology and weapons, and a fair number of unexpected encounters in deep space. There will be a lot of exploration and discovery in these books, which will make the story just a bit more like “where no man has gone before” while packing in more of the non-stop action you have all come to expect. I’m told action and dialogue are my strong suits, so that’s where I plan to invest most of my focus.

The artificially intelligent gunships I introduced in Fleet Commander Recon have evolved considerably and will be paired with properly trained crews to perform some highly entertaining feats of legerdemain. We’re also going to do some large-scale surface engagements, so the Skywatch Marines will get some time in the spotlight too.

The Praetorian Imperative will be going on pre-order shortly. If you are on my mailing list, you’ll get advance notice and a discounted price. I’ll throw a couple sneak peek chapters up in the Library-Tron too.

I’m planning at minimum a trilogy, so expect an announcement on book two relatively quickly afterwards.