I promised I’d post the second chapter of Cauldron of Fire today as a last sneak peak, and I am a man of my word! The book will be out Tuesday (hint…there’s a good chance you’ll find it live Monday night if you’re anxious enough to go looking.

So, without further pointless prattle, here is chapter two of Cauldron of Fire.

 

Chapter Two

 

Communique from Tyler Barron to Admiral Striker

As I sit here and record this dispatch, we are preparing for another raid.  Dauntless and Repulse will join a force of Gray Alliance ships attacking a Red Alliance supply convoy, while Illustrious and Constitution remain with the Sentinel-2 defense fleet.  I dislike splitting my forces, but I know the loss of the Cilian system and its fortress would mean the destruction of Imperator Vennius’s cause.  Our ships are the heaviest and strongest, and I feel it is important to have a presence both on the defensive and also accompanying the attacks against the enemy logistics.

The previous missions were successful, though not without cost.  Dauntless took moderate damage in the last raid, as did Repulse, though in both cases, Commander Fritz was able to direct the damage control teams in herculean repair efforts.  Despite the hard duty my fleet has endured, all four of my battleships remain fully-operational.  Though I have documented this more times than I dare to count, I must again note that Commander Fritz deserves an enormous share of the credit for what we have achieved.  I have seen few officers so dedicated, so capable, so tireless, in the implementation of their duties.

I am less sanguine about the overall prospects of the war.  We continue to inflict greater losses than we take, almost without exception, but with the enemy still controlling over two-thirds of the Alliance fleet, even a moderately favorable loss ratio becomes negative.

I continue to be amazed at the combat power of the new battleships, and I can say without reservation that, had you not sent them, the Gray Alliance cause would have been lost already.  I can only imagine how much they were missed on the Union front, and I deeply regret what I must now report.  I have analyzed our operations to date, and I have come to an inescapable conclusion.  Unless additional forces are sent here—soon—I believe Imperator Vennius will be defeated, despite the best efforts of the forces under my command.  If this is allowed to happen, the Alliance will fall under the effective control of the Union.

I have no plan or stratagem to offer, no tactics I believe can lead to victory with only the current ships deployed to the theater.  We are relegated to operations against supplies and lightning raids on isolated enemy forces, but we are running out of time.  We are cut off from effective communications with any areas outside those we control.  The Red Alliance high command undoubtedly uses every passing week to consolidate its forces and prepare for the final battle.

I do not know when that will come, and I can promise you most assuredly that, when it does, we will fight—Imperator Vennius’s Grays and my own Confederation forces both—with all the strength we possess.  But I must also report to you that I see no outcome of such a conflict but utter defeat.  Calavius is a pompous and arrogant man, but he is not a complete fool.  He has been burned several times by premature attacks on Sentinel-2, and the long delay we have seen since the last attempt only confirms my notion that he has resolved to amass an invincible force, and only when that is ready, to return and seek to finish the war in one bloody stroke.

As I noted previously, I can only imagine how desperately the soon-to be-launched battleships are needed on the main front, and I understand completely if you must turn down this request for further aid.  But if Vennius falls, I believe a Union-controlled Alliance will not hesitate to invade.  Such a war against an external enemy will only aid Calavius in solidifying his hold on the Imperator’s seat, and, of course, it is the end result his Union paymasters have sought all along.

You know as well as I do how thinly our forces are spread in the target sectors.  The Alliance forces will slice through our barely defended Rim frontier, on to the populated worlds beyond.  Even to the Iron Belt and the Core Worlds.  The Confederation’s very existence will face a dire threat.

You have my oath, Admiral, that the forces under my command will fight to the end, and that we will do everything possible to degrade enemy forces that might be used against the Confederation.  You also have my assessment, given not only to a superior officer, but to one I have come to consider a friend: what we do here, unassisted, will not be enough.  We will fall, and I fear, not long after, you will be struggling to defend Megara and the other worlds of the Core.

 

 

Bridge

CFS Dauntless

Athenae System

Year 311 AC

 

“Full power to primaries.  Bring us around hard, Commander.  Aim right for that big bastard up front.”  Barron leaned forward in his chair—Atara Travis’s chair now, by rights.  He wore the insignia of a Confederation commodore, and his authority extended well beyond the hull of his beloved Dauntless, but he was having trouble with the transition.  He’d wondered more than once if he’d been wrong not to transfer his flag, to move to Repulse or one of the other new ships, and leave Dauntless to his longtime exec and friend.

God knows she deserves it.  She should have had her own ship a year ago.  More, even.

Travis had chosen instead to stay with him, passing up offered promotions, as had virtually all of Dauntless’s crew.  He appreciated the loyalty, so much so that the thought of leaving ranged somewhere from the far side of difficult to damned near impossible.  He knew he’d have to go eventually, but for six months now the thought in his mind had been the same.  Not today.

“Primaries are ready, Commodore.  Entering range in thirty seconds.”  Travis’s voice was unchanged, the same firm, immediate type of response she always gave.  If the very concept of competence had a sound, it would have been that of his first officer’s cool tone.

Travis hadn’t displayed the slightest sign of resentment that Barron had not moved to one of the larger, more powerful ships and opened the way for her to command Dauntless.  In fact, he’d thought he’d detected a hint of relief from her once or twice, as if she was as content to keep things the way they had been as he was.

“Very well, Commander.  Authorize the gunnery to fire at will as we come into range.”

“Yes, sir.”

The target wasn’t a battleship.  Not even an escort.  It didn’t have a beam on it hot enough to make a pot of coffee.  But if Vennius’s intel was correct—and for all that the Gray Imperator was outnumbered by his opponent, he retained enough contacts and influence to produce a steady stream of mostly-reliable intelligence—the freighter, and the other two lined up just next to it, were packed to capacity with advanced quantum computer components destined for Palatia.  For the ships of Calavius’s fleet.

Barron didn’t like chasing down convoys like some kind of privateer.  His people were combat veterans, perhaps the best the Confederation had, and blasting cargo ships to scrap seemed beneath their pay grade.  But warriors did what duty demanded, and right now the best way the overmatched Gray forces could fight their enemy was by picking at their supplies, keeping them off balance.

“Admiral, we just got a communique from Repulse.  Captain Eaton advises that they are heavily engaged.”

“Very well, Commander.  Advise her we are about to engage the enemy freighters.”  Even as he finished his sentence, the bridge lights dimmed for an instant, and the familiar hum sounded throughout the ship.  Dauntless’s primaries lanced out, one of the two beams slamming into the target.  The other missed, but one hit out of two was solid shooting at such long range—and it was more than enough to take out a cargo ship.  The freighter was large, two-thirds Dauntless’s length, but she hadn’t been built to withstand battleship-killing particle accelerator beams.  Barron watched on the display as the dot flickered for a few seconds, and then disappeared entirely.

His eyes darted down to the small screen on his own workstation, where his AI was reconstructing the demolition of the enemy vessel.  The beam had struck directly amidships, and an instant later, a massive series of internal explosions had erupted, splitting the stricken vessel into two nearly equal-sized sections.

“Recharge primaries.”  Barron’s words were as robotic-sounding as they were unnecessary.  Travis had already sent her own equally superfluous command to Dauntless’s veteran gunners, who had begun to reset their weapons without being told to do so.  “Lock onto target number two.”

“Already locked, Commodore.”  Travis had only slipped up once, perhaps the fifth or six time she’d addressed Barron, and even then, the word “captain” had only partially escaped her lips before she’d pulled it back.  “Entering range, and ready to fire as soon as charging is complete.”

“Very well.”  When you finally do transfer off Dauntless, you couldn’t be leaving her in better hands…But not today.

His eyes darted up to the main display.  It had been an instinctive move, a cursory glance at the incoming data from the other fight, the one where Repulse and a flotilla of Vennius’s ships were taking on the escorting force intended to protect the freighters. But now his eyes froze, locked on a small column of numbers scrolling down the side.

Fighter data.  Specifically, loss figures.  Vennius and Eaton’s squadrons were suffering far higher casualties than expected, even in the worst-case scenario.  The enemy force had been larger than anticipated, and Eaton’s massive new battleship was crewed with raw squadrons.  But still, that didn’t explain what was happening.

What’s going on over there?

He looked up as the lights dimmed again, the heavy guns momentarily soaking up every available watt produced by Dauntless’s reactors.  Another hit.  The second freighter was mortally wounded.  This one endured a more tortured ending, as small explosions rippled through it, blasting out parts of the vessel and tearing huge gaping rents in its hull.  The ship was still there, more or less, but energy readings were dropping rapidly toward zero.  The freighter was dying, but Barron wasn’t going to assume anything.  Undamaged cargo could be reclaimed from a dead hulk, after all.  “Recharge weapons, and target the third ship.  Then bring us around to finish off number two.”

“Yes, Commodore.”

Barron’s eyes moved back to the screen, to the troubling loss figures.  “And then set a course back to the main fleet, maximum speed.”

“Yes, sir.”

Barron paused, trying to figure out what was causing the heavy fighter casualties.  Then he decided it didn’t matter.  What mattered was how he responded.

“And scramble all fighters.  Prepare to launch on my command.”

*                    *                    *

Kyle Jamison stared at the small screen on his ship’s control panel.  The long-range display was full of icons and symbols, each representing a warship or a squadron of fighters.  The battle had begun as a hit and run assault against a supply convoy.  But the escort force here had been far more powerful than expected, and things had escalated to a full-fledged pitched battle.

Did the Reds get tipped off?  Or are they just being more careful with their convoys after we picked off half a dozen?

Jamison nodded, grinning cynically as he thought about how quickly the two sides in the Alliance civil war had assumed distinct identities.  The Grays were named, informally at least, for the colors of their uniforms and the flags they had quickly designed to match.  They fought for Imperator Tarkus Vennius, and they stood in opposition to their more numerous adversaries, the similarly anointed Reds.  Jamison wasn’t sure of the source of the enemy faction’s color, though he’d heard it was drawn from the scarlet standards of the rival Imperator’s house.  Which seemed as likely an explanation as any.

The fighting had been fierce, far more intense than expected.  The plan had been for the main force to draw off the escorting battleships from the freighters, allowing Dauntless to come around from the cover of the system’s second sun and take out the cargo vessels.  Everything went according to plan, save for one thing.  There were more Red ships than there were supposed to be.  And, perhaps worse, their fighters were tearing into the Gray squadrons with a ferocity he hadn’t seen…at least outside of his own veteran wings.

He reached down and toggled the comm unit.  “Raptor, we’ve got Red fighters cutting up a Gray bomber force.  The Blues are closest.  We may be too late, but see what you can do.”

“On it, Thunder.”  Jake “Raptor” Stockton was Dauntless’s ace pilot…hell, he was the whole fleet’s top fighter jock, the role model of the thousands of new recruits being rushed through flight school to take their places in the line of battle.

Jamison watched on his screen as Blue squadron, his most elite, reacted almost immediately to its famous leader’s commands.  “Raptor” Stockton was wasting no time, and Dauntless’s strike force commander was gratified to see his friend back to form.  Stockton had suffered horrific wounds when his fighter crash-landed in the bay, and even after he’d recovered physically, the psychological scars had nearly destroyed him.

The two men were nothing alike, not really.  Jamison was cool, calculating, almost entirely lacking the bravado so common in the fighter corps, while Stockton had long been almost a stereotype of the wild fighter pilot—fearless, reckless, oblivious to all but victory over an opponent.  But they had been friends for many years, as close as brothers, and Jamison was thankful not only that his best pilot was back up to form, but that he had his friend back as well.

Jamison’s eyes flicked back to his display.  Dauntless had launched its squadrons just as the big ship had started back toward the main fight, but now the old battleship was moving into the combat zone.  It would engage the enemy in just a few moments.  He glanced at the readouts coming in, the damage to Repulse and the Gray battleships fighting alongside her.  He didn’t know what was making the enemy fighters so effective, but he had no intention of letting those squadrons anywhere near his mother ship.  Stockton’s people were already on the way, blasting full on their thrusters.  Jamison had been planning to hold the other four squadrons in reserve, watching and deploying them as opportunity presented itself.  But he had a feeling in his gut, one he didn’t like.  More on instinct than the analysis he so favored, he decided not to wait.

“Red, Yellow, Green, Eagle leaders…form up your wings.  We’re going in on Blue squadron’s heels.”

He barely heard the expected acknowledgements.  Stockton’s singular brilliance didn’t take away from the fact that all Jamison’s squadrons were commanded by crack veterans.  He knew he didn’t have to tell them anything twice.

He reached down and grabbed the fighter’s controls, pulling back and blasting with maximum thrust, even as he saw half his birds already doing the same.

They were doing what they had done so many times.  Bringing the fight to the enemy.