Strike Battleship Marines Chapter Ten

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

Annora Doverly knocked on the door of the executive inboard cabin. It was rare for the captain to summon individuals to his office. Everyone on board Argent knew by now her captain was far more comfortable with the idea of ad hoc conversations wherever he happened to find the people he needed at the moment. Whatever this was, it was about as formal as it ever got.

“Come.”

Jason was seated at his desk, surrounded by paperwork. His cabin was somewhat better decorated than the average officer’s, since he had made a habit of gathering trophies and souvenirs from his many travels as a pilot and flight officer. Several dark wooden shelves of memorabilia were arrayed behind him. He was wearing his blue and gray fatigues, which only added to Annora’s unanswered questions. Jason Hunter almost never wore true combat gear aboard ship. He preferred his officer’s duty uniform or some combination of academy sports organization t-shirt and workout gear. Silvered eagles adorned both collars and cover. He looked older and much more business-like than normal. Annora decided this was likely not an invitation to banter.

“Annora Doverly reporting as ordered.”

“Thank you, doctor. Be seated.”

The expression on Annora’s face was one of an officer expecting the other shoe to drop. Once she was comfortable, Jason set down his paperwork.

“I just got some good advice from a hero of mine, so I’m going to cut through the formalities. I’m replacing you as executive officer, effective immediately. I’m also appointing Zack Commander Space Wing and bumping his number two to DSCOM flight leader.”

It was like being hit in the chest with an artillery shell. Annora tried her best to conceal her emotions. Her first instinct was to interpret Jason’s statements as a reprimand, but she knew better. At least she thought she did. She didn’t reply right away.

“I could say it was the admiral’s call, and I’d be right, but he didn’t make it an order. So it’s my call.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Skywatch Command has been anxious about us since we crewed Argent. We’ve all been doing double duty. We’ve also been short-staffed since Jupiter Five, and now that we’ve got a chance to prepare, Powers wants this operation’s capital platform at full combat capability.”

“Komanov wasn’t kidding when she said we were getting our pick of the store. Fleet finally decided a fighting doctor wasn’t regulation?”

“I’m not busting you, Annora. Having an SAR command officer on my ship is a privilege not many captains get. It will earn us both a lot fewer raised eyebrows around the fleet if you’re my Chief Medical Officer and you can train us both a qualified science staff. We’re going to need them if we ever get in range of the Raleo system.”

Annora had to admit the sudden change was startling but it did promise to take a fairly heavy burden off her shoulders. “Who is taking second chair?”

“Jayce nominated Sabrina Mallory. I agreed.”

“She’s junior to both Moo and myself.”

“She’s not a marine ground forces commander, nor is she a six-time decorated doctor and SAR officer. She’s got advanced weapons training and she comes highly recommended.”

“Jason, I respect your sister more than you know, but you can’t train command officers in combat like this. Fury is a fine ship, but she’s not a battleship. Commander Mallory has no space wing experience and no amphibious assault experience. Hell, she was just promoted from lieutenant a couple of weeks ago! She’s got a year of school to finish before she takes command of a capital vessel. There’s a hundred problems with this, any 99 of which could sink any chance we have before we get out of sight.”

“She has two days. I’m relying on you to hit the high notes and leave the book study for a time when we’re not up against the wall.”

“Am I out of the command rotation?”

“Yili is in line after her promotion. Zony doesn’t want command yet, especially after being pushed into the role at Bayone. She’s not confident in her abilities, and I’m already forcing the issue with too many others. I want my SAR wing at full strength, and that means both the Tranquility and Nightwing crews and the entire Angel inventory need a leader. Without being too blunt, you’re not going to have time to run the whole ship. What you are going to do for me is bring one hell of a lot of juice to Argent’s emergency crews.”

“Do I keep my rank?”

“Annora, you’re not being busted. I want someone with your experience in charge of Sickbay and my science section. In six months you’re going to be eligible for promotion to captain, and I can’t think of a bigger step for you than to have your choice of medical assignments. We knew we were short staffed when we took command of this battlewagon. You did your duty far beyond any call, and you took the slings and arrows when certain fleet officers took advantage of your conflicting responsibilities. You’re one of the best officers I’ve ever known, and you are by every measure the best combat pilot on this ship. You are the only officer in Skywatch history to assume command of an abandoned battleship under enemy fire. I will appear before any promotion committee in the future to enter my formal recommendation. You know that.”

“I guess they can’t call me Doctor Blood any more,” Annora sighed. “I can’t say I’m not disappointed, but I want what’s best for the ship, Jason.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

Annora finally decided to ask about the winces she had noticed on Jason’s face from time to time. “You’re upset we couldn’t go after Moo on our own.”

“I don’t like asking for help after bringing on 4800 reinforcements. I don’t like being told Second Marines isn’t up to the job. So yeah, I’m a little uptight.”

“We can’t invade Bayone yet. Half our strength hasn’t even unpacked.”

“But we can find a disabled ship. At least that’s what my loadout says we can do. It bothers me when I’ve got 35 decks of trained personnel and the mission always calls for the three guys who don’t have their shoes on yet. It occurs to me this ship is still bleary-eyed and dragging, so it’s time for me to do some old-fashioned ass kicking before we go back to Bayone. We’re going to finish what we started.”

Doverly took that last remark as an implication Hunter wasn’t going to lightly tolerate another lost crew member situation without an operational Search and Rescue wing.

“What are my orders?”

“Same as before. Hughes autopsy. Find me something I can use against Atwell. As my Medical Chief I’m ordering you to utilize whatever force is necessary to protect our evidence. I’ve already notified Commander DeMay I want him and his crew to grant you and your team full access to Dunkerque’s records computers and sensor banks as necessary. Per my orders you are also as of now the ranking strike fleet medical officer.”

“Understood.”

“Admiral Powers has graciously provided us a set of choice transfers from Skywatch Medical Command. They’re due in our last arrival, so let’s get a list sorted and transmitted before the next watch rotation. I want both Tranquility vessels fully staffed, I want the Nightwing ready for action and I want Deck Sixteen to be the pride of the fleet when it comes to combat hospital facilities. There is nobody else in Skywatch who can do this, doctor. I need you and your team squared away in 24 hours, because there are nearly 900 marines in this formation about to go to war.”

“We’ll be ready, sir.”

“Very well. Send in Commander Mallory.”

Annora opened the cabin door and nodded. She slipped past the younger officer, who looked about as confused as the doctor had been a few moments earlier. Sabrina came to attention as Annora closed the door.

“Sabrina Mallory reporting as ordered, captain.”

“Very well. Be seated.”

Mallory stepped around the designated hot seat and sat rigidly with her cover in her lap.

Hunter grinned. “Sit at ease, commander. Now you’re making me nervous.”

Sabrina tried to relax, but she wasn’t entirely successful.

“By order of Skywatch Command as of zero nine hundred hours Vicksburg time you are ordered to the post of executive officer of the battleship Argent with the rank of acting commander. Congratulations.”

“Aye, captain.” Mallory felt as if she had just been hit with a hundred volt shock.

“You have my permission to speak freely.”

Sabrina held her breath. She was sure her face had changed color at least twice in the ten seconds since she had been given the news. “I was just promoted, sir. I’m not sure I– I mean perhaps there is someone else–”

“There’s nobody else. I need a full-time executive. Commander Hunter has recommended you for your own command on at least three occasions. You’ve been at the top of Fury’s promotion list for two months. It’s time.”

“But my post was aboard a cruiser, sir.”

“And now you are in command of a battleship crew.”

“Aye sir.”

“We’re going to war in two days.”

A ball of ice landed in Sabrina’s abdomen and spread throughout her legs and arms.

“There’s a pair of silver leaves in this for you if we win. I will notify the crew. We’ll set aside time for a honeymoon later. Do you have any questions?”

She considered asking but decided against it. “Not at this time, sir.”

“Very well. You’re with me. I have the first of three technical briefings today on Flight Two.” Hunter attached his commlink and snapped his utility belt before checking his sidearm. “We’ll need to get you properly outfitted and armed. Let’s go.”

Sabrina desperately tried to avoid looking like she was running along behind Hunter as he made his way to the lifts. More than once she heard crew members and officers alike shout “attention on deck!” Dozens and dozens of personnel froze and stood at attention as he passed them in passageways, cabins and compartments. The ship seemed unusually crowded, which wasn’t surprising, since Argent’s head count had increased by a factor of six since the last Bayone engagement.

Finally they reached the lifts. Hunter spent the interval fiddling with his commlink. Sabrina felt like there was a ten-thousand-watt spotlight following her around. She knew Argent’s command structure. She had been a junior officer only a few weeks ago. How could she possibly command this behemoth? She was aboard a flying city!

The magneto-lift descended twenty-two levels before arriving on the Flight Two loadlane. There were hundreds of people working the deck. Two yellowjacket fighters were suspended by magnetic arms in the center of the ship’s central launch facility. One group of technicians was re-arming them while another was cycling their fuel components. Behind the angry-looking Jacks loomed one of the heavy gunships of Tarantula Hawk Green. Its wings were raised in a belligerent pose. A maintenance crew was hurrying in and out of her side entry hatch with electronic analysis equipment. At the far end of the flight bay were nine more Wildcat fighters parked next to several racks of Bullfrog compression torpedoes.

“Duncan!” Hunter shouted over the din. “What’s Command One’s status?”

Sabrina was busy trying to take it all in when she heard a near-deafening honk. Bright white headlights surrounded her in a stark glow. She found herself in the way of a full-sized truck. After running a few more steps, the fuel transport lumbered past her and pulled up under the wing of one of the Jacks. Finally she caught up with the captain again.

“Six more hours, sir!” Duncan Buckmaster was wiping grease off his hands with a small rag. In his work gear he looked like a cross between your favorite bartender and a linebacker with a beard.

Sabrina could not get over the sheer size of it all. At the extreme far end of the deck was an immense open bay. Beyond it was the blackness of space. Thirty stories overhead, white LED light bars were arranged in a grid across the ceiling and its six enormous service lifters. Flight Two was the largest of Argent’s three launch facilities, covering an area of more than 12 football fields. The forward section of the deck housed three oversized railtunnels, each capable of launching corvettes, gunships or Mackinac drop-ships for armor and ground vehicles. They were the heavy variations on the smaller fighter-only launchers on the ship’s lateral flight decks.

Beneath the commander’s feet was the rest of the Flight Two facility, housing roughly one-third of Argent’s fighters, ten corvettes, all 26 gunships and half of her 68 Paladin mechs, along with their weapons, fuel, spare parts and machining facilities. Unlike the pure warship design of a vessel like Fury, Argent was a hybrid, capable of fighting well in both ground and space engagements. And now that she was fully equipped, the new battleship could launch and direct nearly 200 spacecraft and deploy as many as 900 marine mechanized infantry.

“Duncan, I’d like to introduce you to our new executive officer. Sabrina, this is Duncan Buckmaster, Chief of the Battleship.”

“Welcome to Argent, ma’am,” Buckmaster nodded. It went without saying he wasn’t going to offer her the opportunity to cover her own hands in grease. “Honor to serve with you.”

“Nice to meet you in person, COB,” Sabrina replied. She had only seen that many service stripes on a uniform in person once before in her career: Her father’s. If she were being honest with herself, she would have admitted Buckmaster reminded her of him a little.

“The Gatos are still banging their cups about those new missiles, sir. Now the arming mechanisms are turning themselves off unexpectedly.”

“Item sixty-three hundred on my list of eight thousand things to do, Master Chief. As soon as I get the commander up to speed we’ll be a little less frantic around here. When you get a chance, can you chase down Lieutenant Roscoe and have him report to my deck two cabin at 1300?”

“Aye,” Buckmaster replied.

“Is my technical briefing still in there?” Hunter asked as he headed for the launch tunnel.

“Hell no,” Buckmaster replied. “Someone might steal it!”

Hunter rolled his eyes and made a dismissive gesture at the grinning crew chief. Sabrina realized she had been left behind again and ran to catch up.

Jacks Full of Aces Preview Chapter Three

The following is a free preview chapter from the upcoming fifth book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Jacks Full of Aces

This preview contains spoilers for Strike Battleship Marines and Fleet Commander Recon.

“Hearts wasn’t kidding when she said we were in for a treat on the lab deck. Look at this place!”

Zony’s astonishment existed on several levels. For one thing, she was only one deck below the main signals facilities. Everything she was seeing had been built quite literally right under her nose. Secondly, Annora had only been posted to Chief Medical Officer for a few weeks, and it seemed she had gotten her house in order, so to speak, just as fast as Sabrina Mallory acquired her ratings for force command. While Doctor Doverly wasn’t officially a Chief Sciences Officer, all of Argent’s science personnel and facilities were technically under her command, along with the enormous warship’s entire life support system.

Zony and Captain Hunter looked through the corridor-length bay window into the ship’s main spectrometry lab. The facility was easily three times the size of the executive conference, with enough precision equipment to outfit two observatories and an aircraft manufacturing plant. Spectrometry was the major deck fifteen facility on the starboard side of the ship, while stellar cartography occupied the port side main platform. The doctor had scheduled a demonstration for the senior staff, and it looked like she had the juice to make it a blockbuster.

Unlike smaller vessels, Skywatch capital ships had fully capable scientific research facilities alongside far better than average medical units. Destroyers and lighter vessels were all designed for maneuverability, and reducing tonnage had exponential benefits for ships operating in high-energy drive fields. The results were predictable. Several classes of warship ended up being designed around their weapons, with any extra capacity being discarded in favor of better acceleration, better energy envelopes and more rapid evasive turns. The most prominent example of this philosophy was none other than the refitted DSS Rhode Island, a ship included in a battle formation for subspace warfare and built around the best weapons for that role. Battleship-class vessels, on the other hand, were always bound to have excess capacity due to their much heavier engines and the manpower needed to operate them safely. Crew numbers added significantly to a ship’s bulk due to the realities of life support. Despite shipwrights’ best efforts, most of those increases produced excess capacity due to the realities of geometry.

When it came time to decide what to use the extra displacement and tonnage for, factions developed rapidly, as was the case with every ship design. The doctors and scientists who successfully persuaded their superiors that a full suite of exploratory scientific instrumentation could be pressed into service to give ships like Argent a military advantage ultimately prevailed. It wasn’t long before nearly all the ships of the line had laboratory and experimental facilities of one kind or another. Argent’s science deck and hospital deck were as spacious and as well equipped as any other ship in the fleet. Only Argent had Commander Doverly, however.

The doctor hadn’t had the time to investigate the Dunkerque before the X-Ray Tango engagement, but now she had finally gathered all the research in one place, and she wasn’t going to let her chance escape.

Unnatural light glared through the reinforced and radiation-proof observation bays along the corridor leading to Argent’s chemistry and genetics labs. The bluish color made the entire deck look as if it were experiencing electrical discharges not unlike a small lightning storm. Zony and Hunter peered around the corner and found that the glow was being caused by a video recording of the phenomenon Doctor Doverly had encountered aboard DSS Saratoga.

The hatch opened with an antiseptic hiss. Annora stepped into the corridor looking particularly pleased with herself. She was wearing her regulation white lab coat and MEDCOM badge opposite her silver commander’s rank insignia on the lapel. Hunter had to admit that despite the doctor’s talent at commanding the crew, she looked far more at home here in her three-deck scientific and medical empire.

“I knew we walked away from Saratoga too quickly,” Annora announced. “Come on in. Moo and Yili are already here.” The captain and Zony followed the doctor into the fourth spacious lab area they had seen so far and took a seat at the makeshift combination lab counter and meeting table.

“What the hell were they doing out there on the Sarn Frontier unescorted?” Moo replied. “We searched the logs and Northern Banner orders for hours and didn’t find anything except the disaster buoy, and even that didn’t have a word from the captain.”

“We know who was responsible,” Yili added. “The only thing I can think of is they were conducting some kind of experiment. But of all the places–”

“Exactly. If you’re going to pop off some weird alien contraption, why would you start at the edge of hostile space in a missile cruiser designed to operate in a battle group?” Moo replied.

In the video, the recording showed Annora aiming her modified ATMAS handheld squarely at what at least appeared to be the source of the disturbance. Hovering a few inches over one of the non-reactive metal tables in Saratoga’s main lab was an impossibly bright strobing light source. It looked as if it were not quite solid, and occasionally emitted a thin spidery bolt of electrical energy. It wasn’t moving, but it was obviously highly energetic.

“Whatever it was, it was ionizing everything in the room, including the metal,” Doverly reported.

“Was it hot?” Hunter asked.

“Negative. No temperature increase. But it was emitting high-energy ultraviolet radiation. Saratoga’s lab is shielded, of course. We were able to contain the phenomenon with an isolation screen.”

“Has it been here all this time? Ever since the rescue?” Zony asked.

“It’s a distinct possibility. This has to be the phenomenon we all experienced when Moo and the captain were on the Magellan mission. This is what caused the disturbances and the gateways we all used to communicate. Watch this.”

In the video, the camera pulled back and then was pointed around a corner. The next corridor was lit by a single fixture. The metal bulkheads were painted clean white with several warning symbols along one side indicating access to a safety airlock. The picture froze.

“Recognize that?” Annora asked.

Zony and the others looked quizzical.

“This is the same deck I saw when the scanner energy reflected back on us at Magellan,” Moo said. “Same notices. Same color and geometry. It must have created some kind of transit gateway between our paladin’s position and Saratoga’s hull.”

“What were those freighters carrying at Magellan?” Zony asked.

The colonel pulled up the library computer interface on his handheld. The device created a scrambled ultrawideband communications field that activated the security interface to Argent’s cephalon matrix. Within moments, the colonel had access to all the records of the Magellan ambush mission.

“We never got a clear reading on everything inside those freighters, but take a look at this.” Annora watched as the marine officer brought up the paladin’s scanner data and displayed it on one of the auxiliary screens. “Here. We had just activated a millisecond SRS burst. That would have given us a ping at best. Mass and position. But the instant the short range scanners activated, it caused the phenomenon.”

“You had the same experience aboard Dunkerque,” Annora mused. Zony’s eyebrows raised in recognition.

“That’s right,” Hunter said. “Zony’s short range scanner improvisation. She used the scanners to match the communications frequency harmonics being generated by my commlink.”

“Good thing we set those things up to broadcast the owner’s position and status,” Annora added. “With the help of the fleet’s most sound-sensitive signals officer, we could track Jason’s location across dimensions.”

Moo was cycling through Argent’s records of Zony’s experiment aboard Dunkerque. “Here. This is the timecode where the SRS emissions matched the automatic beacon’s communications frequency.”

“And with enough power, the captain stepped through the doorway from one dimension to another.” Zony’s voice was full of wonder. “That explains it. When the energy produced by our SRS systems is transmitted at the right harmonic frequency and it encounters this scattering field energy or whatever it is, the phenomenon creates a physical tunnel through space-time.”

“Where time passes 100 to one.” Moo added.

“Or one to 100,” Annora replied. “These frequencies are simple waveforms, not particles. They can be inverted, just like a sound canceling device. In fact, if this phenomenon got into the open air, the lower harmonics could probably create some painful results.”

“That would explain that powerful noise storm on Dunkerque. It even amplified our voices,” Hunter said.

“And this is the nexus for Saratoga’s connection to it all,” Annora said, starting the video again. One the screen, the strange light source strobed and pulsed. “What if–”

“I know exactly what you’re about to say, doctor,” Moo interrupted.

“Oh?” Annora put a hand on a hip in mock annoyance.

“Dunkerque winked out because whoever was aboard that ship didn’t know the phenomenon was affecting them until it was too late,” Moo said. “That’s why she was abandoned and those whatever they were ended up invading the decks and altering the internal life support. But once we got control of it again, Yili provided us with enough power to bring her back into normal space. I think Saratoga was subject to the same thing, and further, I think that’s how she got out into the middle of the Sarn Frontier all by herself. She flew right through that tunnel you just described. It was an experiment, just like Dunkerque.”

“And then whoever was conducting the experiment couldn’t get back because whatever they encountered–” Zony began.

“Either drove them insane or sent them somewhere else?” Hunter finished.

Annora continued examining her handheld. “What if a ship went one way and the crew went another?”

“Or even better, what if someone in control of this technology wanted to transport a crew somewhere else like they did with Argent’s?” Moo added.

The doctor shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that sophisticated, colonel. I think they try to transport the ships, and when they screw it up, it has some kind of strange effect on the crew. It either warps their minds or they don’t go where the ship goes and we end up with empty vessels.”

“You mean they tried to transport Argent somewhere else, wedged the controls and ended up sending our crew down to Bayone’s surface instead?” Hunter asked.

“Or, maybe they tried to transport Argent to the surface and missed,” Annora mused. “Whatever this thing was, it maintained a steady power level, and I had a solid lock on its electromagnetic harmonics. These phenomena must be some kind of energy sink, or perhaps a communications beacon like the repeaters on our jump gates.”

“The free-floating equivalent of our less advanced stationary alternative,” Zony concluded.

“At any rate, captain. I think we’ve found the answer to the vanishing starships.”

“Outstanding, doctor. Now the question is can you re-create that phenomenon and do it safely?” Hunter asked.

“I’ll do you one better. With all the data we got from Saratoga, and the surplus handhelds we’ve accumulated, I think we can block the scattering field and put Atwell’s forces out of business.”

Jacks Full of Aces is set to be released soon. If you’d like announcements on new book releases, be sure to sign up for the mailing list!

Skywatch Warship Hull BBV 740


Jacks Full of Aces by Shane Lochlann Black

Design

Defender Starship Argent is a Citadel-class strike battleship. She is the third ship of her class, following DSS Citadel and DSS Bushido. Argent was constructed at the War Memorial Star Yard under the authority of Core Two’s Skywatch Operations Base.

She is a hybrid design, incorporating a modified main battery of eight heavy anti-proton guns and four kinetic-reactive capital missile launchers combined with two class B and one class A flight decks. Argent carries a standard medium-engagement-radius star wing of 90 fighters, 24 gunships, 12 corvettes, four super-heavy transports and 70 surface mechs organized into one bomber wing, three mechanized marine infantry squadrons and one marine orbital combat engineering squadron. Argent’s ground forces also include one super-heavy armor company, one mobile security company and one electronic warfare platoon. Among her other armaments are 64 Oerlikon multi-role point defense energy cannon and 12 short-range kinetic rocket launchers.

Dimension

Hull BBV-740 displaces 5.07 million tons and is 2480 feet long and 1710 feet at the beam from flight bay to flight bay. She is 72 stories tall from her ventral armor plates to the top of the Skywatch tower. Her main hull is 543 feet tall from bay mounts to deck one. Her class B external flight bays are 18 stories tall and cover more than 21 acres each. Her class A internal flight bay is more than twice that size, covering more than fifty acres and rising 21 stories from the primary deck.

Argent is equipped with eight magnetically-activated rail-tunnel spacecraft launchers. The six along her flanks are capable of launching strike fighters including Wildcat and 2G Yellowjacket designs plus the new 3G Superjacks. The two on either side of her internal bay are much larger, designed to launch transports, corvettes and gunships. The interior volume of Argent’s primary hull and flight decks is sufficient to contain 32 Ford-class wet navy aircraft carriers.

Officers and Crew

A strike battleship’s crew is organized into six major commands, each with a senior officer reporting to the vessel’s executive officer. Her total complement at full load is approximately 4300 personnel.

The commanding officer of a strike battleship must hold the rank of captain, commodore or rear admiral, and must be both a line officer and a flight officer. The executive officer holds the rank of commander or captain. Although the XO is not strictly required to have flight status, they must at minimum be eligible for a line command.

All senior officers aboard report to the executive officer, who in turn reports to the captain. Executive officers are informally addressed as “Force Commander” (FORCECOM) aboard capital ships with star wings or marine brigades, as they are often tasked with deploying and managing away forces like strike fighters, surface formations and other spacecraft. Aboard “pure” capital platforms like battleships, heavy battleships and dreadnoughts, the XO is informally nicknamed “Gunnery Commander” (GUNCOM).

Skywatch line vessels maintain a post for the ranking enlisted officer, who must hold the rank of Chief Petty Officer or higher, regardless of ship class. This officer is addressed as “Chief of the Boat” (COB) and is the ranking enlisted officer aboard the vessel. Skywatch chiefs are considered senior officers for purposes of command and precedence. On destroyer and frigate-class vessels, they often serve as engineers and section chiefs as well.

Capital ships are required by law to appoint an enlisted crew member with the rank of Senior or Master Chief Petty Officer to the post of “Chief of the Deck” (COD) aboard carriers or “Chief of the Battleship” (COB) aboard battleships. Capital ship chiefs may not hold active senior ratings for other commands aboard a capital ship. Because those vessels have officers posted to lead each command, chiefs serve as close advisors to the captain and advocates for the ship’s enlisted personnel instead.

Argent’s star wing is generally under the command of a senior lieutenant or higher with the title Commander Star Wing (SCOM), assisted by a Deputy Commander Star Wing (DSCOM). They must both be flight officers and squadron leaders responsible for strike fighter, gunship, bomber, corvette and spacelift operations.

Argent’s Marine Ground Forces Commander (MCOM) usually holds the rank of major or higher and is responsible for her mechanized infantry, armor, orbital combat engineering and electronic warfare companies. The ranking marine officer is assisted by an enlisted Master-At-Arms (ARMSCOM) with the rank of tech sergeant or higher who is generally in charge of security aboard the battleship.

Argent’s medical and science personnel are led by a Chief Medical (MEDCOM) or Chief Sciences Officer (SCICOM) with the rank of lieutenant commander or higher. Medical officers are tasked with the operation and maintenance of life support and airlock systems. As capital ships, strike battleships often have best-in-fleet medical facilities and peerless scientific loadouts complete with laboratory facilities, synthesis equipment, medical transport capacity and specialized space, surface and subspace scientific exploration capabilities.

Engineering is supervised by a Chief Engineer (ENCOM) with the rank of senior lieutenant or higher. The engineering section is responsible for the proper operation of the vessel’s engines, reactors, powered armor, battle screens, fusion matrix, electrical systems, cephalon core, computer systems, maneuvering thrusters, drive field generators, flight mode sequencers, batteries, energy transfer systems, main and auxiliary control and damage control personnel. Engineering often coordinates with other commands aboard a strike battleship for purposes of providing technical assistance and personnel for repair and maintenance of other shipboard electronics, spacecraft and equipment.

The battleship signals section is supervised by a Chief Signals Officer (SATCOM) with the rank of senior lieutenant or higher. A signals officer is responsible for the operation of all communications, electronic warfare, subspace warfare, alert, tactical, scanner, sensor, sight-sound synthesis, navigational and cryptographic systems. If a vessel has an intelligence section, their officers and crew members will most often coordinate their operations with the signals section.

Argent’s weapons section is supervised by a Chief Weapons Officer (WEPCOM) with the rank of senior lieutenant or higher. The weapons officer or “WEPS” is responsible for the operation of the main battery, point-defense, battle computer, missile and kinetics systems aboard the vessel. Aboard smaller vessels, weapons are often manned in series, with crews transferring from energy to missile systems between salvoes. Cruiser-class and heavier vessels are always manned with sufficient numbers to operate both types of weapons at the same time.

The commanding officer of the battleship Argent is Captain Jason Hunter, former flight leader of Yellowjacket Nine, also known as the infamous Bandit Jacks. He is a winner of the Skyshield Legion and the youngest confirmed ace strike fighter pilot in Skywatch history, which earned him the nickname “Ace.”

Argent’s Executive Officer is Acting Commander Sabrina Mallory, former operations officer aboard the advanced strike cruiser Fury.

The marine ground forces officer is Lieutenant Colonel Lucas Moody, who is Captain Hunter’s former academy rival and also the former fifth slotted pilot in Hunter’s squadron, callsign “Clubs.”

Commander Annora Doverly, M.D. is the former executive officer aboard Argent. She was assigned as the battleship’s Chief Medical Officer prior to the Monarch Squadron engagement over Bayone Three. Doctor Doverly was Captain Hunter’s wing during her time with the Bandit Jacks, and is also the only officer to have completed the Skywatch’s brutal Search and Rescue (SAR) training. Her callsign is “Hearts.”

Lieutenant Commander Yili Curtiss is Argent’s Chief Engineer. As a certified Orbital Combat Engineer, Yili is in charge of Argent’s Copernicus wing and demolitions teams, which coordinate with the marine OCE mech squadron in combat. Her callsign is “Spades.”

Acting Lieutenant Commander Zony Tixia is Argent’s Chief Signals Officer. She is arguably the best combat pilot among the Bandit Jacks, having earned nicknames like “Red Duchess” “Diamond Jack” and “Rabbit with a Gun” during her time as one of the most feared strike fighter pilots in space. Zony’s callsign is “Diamonds.”

DSS Argent is home to numerous “embarked” units, each with its own command structure and mission aboard the battleship. Among her embarked units are:

  • Wildcat Squadron One-Six “Fighting 16th” DSS Song of Heaven
  • Yellowjacket Squadron 994 “The Red Bucanneers”
  • Wildcat 85th “Los Gatos”
  • Wildcat 22nd “Archangels”
  • Yellowjacket One “Tigersharks”
  • Gunship Squadron Tarantula-Hawk Black
  • Heavy Gunship Squadron Tarantula-Hawk Green
  • Nemesis Electronic Warfare Squadron 880 “Ghost Hunters”
  • 17th Copernicus Orbital Combat Engineering Squadron
  • Fifth Tranquility Search and Rescue (SAR) Squadron
  • Heavy Paladin 99th Marine Amphibious Company “Rolling Thunder”
  • Heavy Paladin 12th Marine Mechanized
  • Paladin Seventh Strategic Air Group/Bomber Wing
  • Paladin 40th Marine Airborne
  • Razorback Sixth Superheavy Armor Company “Death by Bacon”

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.”

“Latitude?”

“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.