Strike Battleship Engineers Chapter Fifty Eight

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

Captain Darragh Walsh silently regarded the main viewer on the bridge of DSS Rhode Island. Two watches had been dismissed by now, and his XO was becoming more and more concerned. She stood near him, pretending to be looking at the same thing he was.

“Sir, with all due respect, you need rest. If we go into hard action, the fatigue–”

“Give me that D-rad reading again, signals,” Walsh interrupted.

A pause. “Zero Zero Six. No detectable delta from baseline since the last synch, sir.”

Nessa saw her captain curse under his breath. “What is it?”

“He’s modulating his engine emissions. I thought we were going to catch him at the edge of the atmosphere and at least get a course track,” Walsh growled. “But every bloody time he shifts his emissions and disappears before our navicomp can get a waveform. Keep driving him, helm. Get us in closer.”

Lieutenant Boyle moved to the tactical station and had the duty officer pull up the orbital track. “How accurate is our position map?”

“There’s five thousand miles of play along every vector,” Walsh replied without moving. “I could flush him out of there, but it will take all our birds.”

“What are our chances with energy only?”

“Too risky. Energy targeting is a toss-up as long as his cloak is operational. The Mantids, on the other hand–”

“D-rad spike. Zero One Four. Right on schedule.”

“You keep playing me, you bastard,” Walsh muttered. “One way or another, you’re going to make a mistake, and I’m going to be there when you do. Helm, steer four degrees starboard. Maintain your velocity.”

“Aye, captain. Helm answering. Course now four one mark one. Clock cycling two zero zero. Back to our original track.”

The malevolent shape of Walsh’s destroyer banked quietly and then resumed her course along the extreme outer edge of Bayone Seven’s magnetic field. The dark side of the planet’s atmosphere was peaceful, which only made things more difficult for the Rhode Island. As long as the chemical composition of the atmosphere was predictable, a cloaked ship could remain practically invisible indefinitely. The alternative was the “stock market” of tactical officers. They needed conditions to change in much the same way stockbrokers needed prices to change. Up or down didn’t matter. All that mattered was what they could buy or sell while conditions were in flux. It was when the readings changed that the slight difference between the new and old would reveal clues as to the position of a cloaked ship. If Rhode Island caught a solid waveform, her enemy would be reduced to background radiation and a debris field so fast they wouldn’t have time to realize they were dead.

“Steady as she goes, helm.”

Walsh stood resolute. Aside from his words, it was hard to tell if he was even breathing. Boyle cycled and re-cycled the tactical map, applying every overlay she could think of. Nothing brought up more than the edge of the planet and the same spectrographic analysis pattern for the atmosphere. Now she was cursing under her breath.

“Tactical. Identify readings at planet’s edge. Analysis, quickly,” Walsh ordered.

Boyle relinquished the controls and the tactical officer focused the ship’s short-range sensors on the darker patch at the edge of the planet’s terminator. “Low pressure zone in the atmosphere, sir. Could be a high-altitude storm of some kind.”


“Forty-one degrees north approx–”

“Helm! Hard-a-larboard! All ahead emergency flank speed!”

The Rhode Island’s pilot narrowly avoided an embarrassing accident at the sudden shout from her captain. She shoved the controls and rammed the throttle forward. The destroyer dove back to port and exploded towards the planet surface.

“Missile warning! Threat board! Vampire! Vampire!”

“Countermeasures! Now!” Walsh grabbed an overhead handhold to steady himself as the deck pitched under his feet. Lieutenant Boyle was thrown against a bank of sensor readouts. She grabbed the shock harness on the second sensor officer’s crash couch to keep from slamming to the deck.

High-speed breakaway transmitters rocketed into space as Rhode Island rolled away. A deadly anti-matter torpedo screamed through the deflection zone only a few hundred yards from where Walsh’s ship had been a moment before. The warhead impacted one of the countermeasures and detonated at a range of 65 miles. The shock knocked out every light on the bridge. For several chilling moments, the only illumination was the glowing red threat indicators. The captain’s voice shouted in the darkness.

“Tactical! Bring us up fast!”

When she could see again, Boyle noticed Walsh was still forward of the pilot’s station, watching the display like a hungry vulture.

“Forward launchers two and three! Target the trailing edge of the storm at zero six!”

“Affirmative! Warhead ready indicators missiles two! three–!”

“Fire blind! Push him, tactical! Push him!”

The lethal warship banked back to starboard and accelerated towards her fading target. A pair of agile Mantid-class birds screamed from Rhode Island’s forward launchers and tore through the orbital track like demons with rocket engines. A moment later concussion warheads detonated, causing devastating spherical explosions each of which tore a million tons of gas and debris out of Bayone Seven’s exosphere and then vaporized it in a twelve-million-degree hypernova. Waves of feedback plasma energy shook the angry Skywatch ship like an avalanche.

“Weapons detonation! Range zero point two!”

“Readings! Quickly!”

“D-rad indicator zero one five! No change!”

Boyle was back at tactical. Watching. Reading. Looking for anything that she could use to suss out even a hint of the enemy ship’s course. But it was like looking at a calm ocean from the beach. There just wasn’t anything there for the Rhode Island’s sensitive tracking instruments to get hold of. She moved quickly back to her captain’s side.

“We didn’t even get a firing position.”

“He’s got a scorch mark in the seat of his pants now, lieutenant,” Walsh said with a sinister tone in his voice. “He takes another shot at us and I’m going to give him a set of bite marks to go with it. Helm, resume orbital track. Back to our original course. Ahead one-half. Reload forward launchers two and three and arm warheads for short-range engagement.”

Rhode Island maneuvered back to her pursuit course and went back to watching and waiting with a full spread of concussion missiles armed.

A chill crawled up Lieutenant Boyle’s neck. No matter how high the rank of the person asking, she knew she would never be able to explain how the captain knew. The ship’s automatic threat avoidance systems never activated. Not one instrument on the ship had registered a thing until the enemy missile was right on top of them.

Captain Walsh folded his hands behind his back, then took a deep breath and exhaled, eyes fixed on the forward viewer.

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.

Strike Battleship Argent Chapter Three

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

The newest crop of hotshot officers readily agreed there was something almost magical about the way modern warships were constructed. Jason Hunter had fallen deeply in love with the third-generation ships of the line the first time he had seen the design, and the Argent was most assuredly the “prettiest girl at the prom” when it came to the Captain’s Corps and their bragging rights.

Hunter was a self-admitted romantic. He often opined there was no more glorious creature in all creation than a “maiden resplendent in all her finery.” This was usually interpreted by colleagues and rivals alike as a fanciful metaphor for the unblemished Citadel-class hull Seven-Four-Zero.

Command One approached the enormous weapons platform from her port quarter. He tapped the transponder indicator with a gloved finger in the academy-approved manner to make absolutely sure his shuttle was transmitting multi-frequency encrypted “friendly” signals on all of Argent’s pickups. He knew what his baby was capable of if she detected an unauthorized scanner contact inside her command zone, and he knew well the only thing worse than being vaporized by your own ship’s point defense was knowing that your ship had opened fire on eighteen cases of 30-year-old scotch.

Green and white running lights glimmered. A ship of the line was a vessel engineer’s expression of sheer power. The shape was meant to convey an intimidating potential for destruction. Her formidable engines, mighty main batteries and lithe energy weapon emplacements were breathtaking even for someone not acquainted with the design genius. The soaring main hull gave the enormous vessel a majestic profile. Her sweeping triple flight decks were as innovative as they were formidable. Hunter’s ship could launch and recover squadron after lethal squadron of smaller ships ranging from deep space fighters to surface mechs.

Argent was brand-new. There were some inboard spaces where crew recruits swore they could still smell new paint. Some of the officers had to admit they had never seen so much expensive hardware in such pristine condition all in the same place before. Hunter had made a point of “walking the decks” and visiting every compartment, berth and space within hours of receiving orders to take command. He knew a 23-year-old Skipper already had his share of challenges to overcome. Breaking tradition would be nothing more than tempting luck, and all Captains, young or old, knew one thing about Skywatch duty: Luck was at least as important as everything else put together.

Hunter had his enemies. At least three flag officers directly opposed his rapid promotions, but when faced with the realities in his jacket, that gleaming Skyshield Legion decoration on his uniform, and his short, fiery billet as Flight Leader of “Yellowjacket Nine,” where he became the first Ace fighter pilot under the age of 20 in fleet history, even the most shrill objections were inevitably quieted.

What he had was the respect of the men and women he had fought with. There were some things even Skywatch Academy couldn’t teach, and there were some collars where a Captain’s insignia belonged, age be damned. There were also some ships that needed a crew up to the task of following a Captain like Jason Hunter into battle. The officers that recommended his promotions had high expectations, and Hunter knew that no matter how accomplished his crew became, he needed even better officers.

Re-assembling those officers was the Captain’s current mission.

After expertly landing Command One on starboard flight deck three, Hunter powered down and disengaged his shuttle’s controls. The atmosphere normalized and the environmental computers balanced pressure between the shuttle interior and the crowded, magnetically sealed seven-acre flight deck before the airlock indicators switched to green. Hunter’s commlink went live and the familiar voice of the ranking crew chief sounded from the omnidirectional crystal speaker in the Captain’s uniform collar.

“What have ya got, Skipper?”

“I’ve got the hard stuff, Chief,” Hunter punched the hatch interlock and opened the shuttle’s side door. Duncan Buckmaster was always a welcome sight. He was at least twice Hunter’s age, with the service stripes to prove it. Within an hour of learning the Captain had requested his assignment to one of the most prestigious commands in the entire line, he had become Hunter’s staunchest ally. The speed with which he shaped up the Argent’s flight crews was the stuff of legend. He was three weeks from mandatory promotion to Master Crew Chief: The highest non-commissioned Skywatch rank.

“Good to have a non-trainee command officer back aboard, sir,” Duncan said as he activated the shuttle’s disembark ladder. “Everyone’s been nervous as a new bride’s first Thanksgiving around here with the junior division in charge, and I’m starting to feel like a dad left home with all the kids.”

“Chief, I can only promise you this: When I finally round up my truant officers, you just might long for the days of the junior division. I’ve got some of the fleet’s biggest delinquents waiting for us on Jupiter Five, and we’re going to blow the roof off of Scary’s.” Hunter slapped Buckmaster’s shoulder. “Why don’t you take the hop down with us? We’ll set you up with a steak and a stein and tell some story!”

“I appreciate that, sir, but you told me before we left Oil Can City you wanted Paladins, T-Hawks and Wildcats ready for action in two weeks. Well, today is day ten. I’ll take that steak if you’ll take two out of three.”

“Point conceded, Chief. Let’s call it a rain check.” Hunter turned and pointed as he made his way to the magneto-lifts. “I owe you one. If I don’t deliver in a week, you have an open invitation to the Captain’s table for dinner!”

“Much obliged, sir. Where do you want all this hooch?”

“Just put it somewhere customs can’t find it in case we get waylaid!”

Hunter synchronized his personal chronometer with shipboard time and jogged to the flight level lifts. This was one party he couldn’t be late for.

Strike Battleship Argent Chapter Two

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

“Neek, what’s the good word?” Hunter removed his coat and stored it in the inboard bay before donning the upper half of his flight suit.

“Welcome aboard, Captain. Status of Command One is nominal,” the pleasant electronic female voice responded over the shipwide intercom. The Argent command computer’s name was “Dominique” but Hunter preferred fewer syllables, so it was quickly shortened to “Neek.”

“What’s the weather forecast on this dark and starry day?”

“The Jupiter primary is relatively quiet. No unusual readings to a distance of point one.”

“Very good. Engage communications autosystems and begin flight checks.” Hunter closed the door to Command One’s aft storage. The boxes of scotch, rum and various brews were stacked eight-high.

“Affirmative. Autosystems engaged.”

The Captain switched his commlink. “Hunter to Argent.”

A brief pause. Hunter pulled on his flight suit pants and began working with the pressure seals on his boots.

“Argent. Ensign Walls here.”

“Walls! Who’s my Officer of the Watch today?”

“Err– uhh–I am, sir.” The young officer’s voice was tremulous. It was pretty clear he hadn’t been in command of the watch for long, and it was also pretty clear he wasn’t used to addressing the Skipper in person.

“Are you taking good care of my ship, Ensign?”

“Yes sir!”

“Outstanding. Plot a course to Jupiter Five and give me a best speed ETA.”

Soft voices could be heard in the background, just loud enough to trigger the pickups in Ensign Walls’ high-gain microphone.

“Sir, uhh– sir, the ETA to Jupiter Five is nine hours best speed.”

“Very well, Argent. Plot your course and bring the ship about. Command One will rendezvous at the Autonav Beacon. Hunter out.”

After bounding into the pilot’s seat, Hunter expertly activated the magnetic locks on his flight harness, sealed the ship’s environmental controls and cleared the moorings. Neek was busy negotiating a departure vector which the computer knew from experience the Captain would ignore. The main idea was simply to let Spacelane Traffic Control know when Command One was going to rocket into the approach and blast its way free of the launch corridor.

“STC, this is Command One, requesting jets and standing by.” The turbine-like whine of the shuttle’s mains filled the ship with the thrum of fusion-energized power. Hunter skillfully tapped out the remaining configuration commands and flexed his gloved hands as the vessel’s maneuvering controls unlocked and rotated into position on either side of his flight couch. HUD readouts glowed on the inner surface of the viewport and Hunter’s tac-suit stabilized pressure and life support with a cheerful bell-like sound.

Hunter activated the “dock lock” release, breaking the last physical connection between the shuttle and Jupiter Station.

“Command One, this is Spacelane Traffic Control. Navigate departure lane One-Four. Autonav is disengaged. Have a nice flight.”

“We are free and clear to navigate, Captain,” Dominique calmly announced.

“Affirmative, STC,” Hunter replied. The sleek white shuttle pivoted weightlessly. Its pilot punched the maneuvering thrusters and blasted free of the shipline. Captain Hunter nudged the lateral flight controls. The vessel banked to starboard. He throttled the engines up to one-quarter power. His ship silently accelerated as the large control bank numbers indicating relative velocity spun higher.

The tiny ship slid into the station’s electronic launch corridor just ahead of an immense commercial freighter. Captain Hunter pinged their navigational comm frequency with a friendly greeting before pulling away into open space.

Strike Battleship Argent Chapter One

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

“Alright, Hunter, let’s have it.”

Deep space pilots called the Jupiter Skyway Approach Port “Max Boomtown.” The value of the cargo passing through the facility on any given day could easily rival the total output of one or more colonies along the Reach. The man in charge of it all was a no-nonsense merchant marine inspector by the name of Jeremiah Foobing.

“Honestly, Inspector, I can’t believe you, of all people, could think I would violate fleet contraband policy.” Jason Hunter was standing with his hands folded behind his back and wearing his most un-threatening expression along with his flawlessly pressed and shined Skywatch officer’s uniform.

Around the inspector’s office hummed the vital operations of Merchant Customs Authority. Max Boomtown was one of the largest civilian freight inspection stations in the Core Sector, often processing more than 100 ships a day ranging in size from personal interplanetary cruisers to billion-ton star trains.

“Sure you don’t want to come to the party?” Hunter asked, trying to distract the overworked customs officer.

Inspector Foobing sat at his desk, fiddling with fiddly scraps of paper. He believed computers were 100% of the reason his numbers failed to add up correctly, so he kept all his records in writing. His prodigious weight scarcely fit between his sagging desk and the wall. The office looked like an 18th century British librarian’s closet, with tiny wooden drawers, brass cabinet fittings and enough accounting books to sink a small rowboat. Out the window behind him, Hunter could see the line of ships docked for inspection. His shuttle was the closest and the smallest by a factor of at least six.

“Hunter every time you come through here, we go through the same dance. You and I both know you’re carrying illegal booze. I call you on it. You deny it. Then I have to decide if I want to send a squad of officers out to climb through your ship deck by deck looking for it. The next time I’m just going to shoot you. It’s less paperwork. Get that juiced-up hot rod off my docks.” Foobing shoved a customs clearance into Hunter’s hands and waddled towards the door, wheezing impatiently.

“It’s going to be a bash, Inspector. Sure you won’t–”

“Get out, Hunter!” Foobing shouted across the bustling customs office.

“Just one drink?” he called back.

“OUT!” The voice echoed.

Moments later, Hunter spied his favorite Boomtown official. She went by the name Tisalee, and she had been persuaded on multiple occasions to let the Captain skate by when the Inspector wasn’t looking. He snuck up on her desk and appeared from behind her overhead cabinets.

“Hi,” Hunter grinned. “Miss me?”

“You get out of here!” Tisalee whispered urgently. “The last time you and that–that creature almost got me fired!” The Captain was leaning over the half-height wall to look down on her desk. He picked up her tablet and flipped through the pages nonchalantly.

“I see you’re still reading those naughty books with the shirtless pirate captains on the covers,” Hunter teased as he raised an eyebrow. “Ooh, the pirate has a tomato…” Tisalee ripped the tablet out of his hands and put it in a drawer.

“Do I have to call security?”

“Oh, don’t be like that,” the Captain replied, reclining his chin on his arms and over-doing the smoldering look. “I was going to invite you to our party. Annora got her SAR ticket. We’re flying in to Scary’s for a drink and dinner and maybe a little something extra. That sounds like something you would have jumped at before you turned into Tisalee the worker bee.”

She actually hesitated, looking into the Captain’s dancing eyes and gazing at his sandy boyish hair for a moment and remembering how many times he was the only reason she smiled. Then she remembered the time she had to be bailed out of jail half-dressed and her expression darkened again. “I have plans.”

“Oh well, I tried. Say hi to your mom for me.” Hunter sauntered off. “Hey Mike! How’s the new sled?” Tisalee watched as the Captain greeted at least five more people before walking out into the softlock.

She quickly suppressed her second thoughts and went back to her rows and columns of numbers.