Hello readers,

I’m putting the final touches on my next release, Blood on the Stars book 10 Nightfall, and thought I’d share the first 3 chapters with you as a sneak peek before the book goes live in a couple days.

So, without further pointless prattle, here is chapters one to three of Nightfall.

Chapter One

Planet Calpharon

Sigma Nordlin System

Year of Renewal 263 (318 AC)

The screaming was almost deafening, the shouts of the fleeing—the dying—filling the air, assaulting her ears like a relentless tide.  The streets were flooded with the terrified throngs, howling in vain for deliverance from the unimaginable nightmare that had descended on them…at least where the shattered roadways hadn’t begun to buckle under the impacts of the orbital bombardment and buried them beneath incalculable tons of rubble.

Children were wailing in their high-pitched tones, clinging desperately to the hands of parents, siblings…anyone they could find…until they, too, succumbed to the massive bolts of energy striking the ground or the avalanche of steel and concrete as the buildings of the city came down.  All around, rising into the darkening sky, were great, billowing fireballs of nuclear obliteration.  And, below the great rising clouds of doom, all conceived and built by mankind vanished, reduced to molten slag and gray dust, with barely a hint remaining that an intelligent and sentient race had dwelt there.

The world was dying, and its people with it.

A small boy ran across this vision of hell, his face covered with tears and half-dried blood, his hand clutching the tattered remains of a cherished stuffed animal of some sort, no more left of it than an arm and the scorched remnants of half a tattered body.  She thrust her arms out to him, seeking to draw him away from the fury, to pull him closer, keep him safe, but he was too far, beyond her reach.  And, then he was gone.

There were blasts of energy firing up into the sky as well those coming down, and volleys of rockets and missiles ascending as well, but their intensity and numbers were rapidly diminishing, the dying power of a world’s defenses, once mighty, and now mostly blasted into wreckage and radioactive slag.

It was a scene of despair unimaginable, of a darkness so profound, her eyes filled with water, and tears streamed down her face.  There was nothing to feel but a sense of doom, no emotion save utter and complete despair

Then, something else, a sudden change.  The images were gone in an instant, replaced by near darkness, illuminated only by the vaguest hints of dawn sunlight trickling through the window.  And something else, too.  Peace.  Near silence.  The explosions, the screaming…all gone.  All that remained was the solitude of her private chamber.

Akella turned abruptly over to her side, reaching out, frantically at first, to the small comm unit, thinking for an instant to call for help…help for the child she’d seen.  But, she stopped before she commed her guards or servants.  It was just a dream, she realized.  A dream of hell.

The same nightmare had plagued her for weeks, now.

She blinked, once, and then again, trying to clear her head.  Yes, it had been a dream.  She was alone, in her bed in the villa, nude save for the light gauzy cover she always wore at night, the thin and soft material now pasted to her skin with sweat.  She pulled herself up, raising her head and shoulders above the pillow, and she reached again to the small table, more slowly this time, grabbing for the pitcher of water she always had placed there.

The dreams weren’t new, but they were definitely getting worse, horrible visions of the death of the empire, of the billions who’d been exterminated when that great polity had collapsed in on itself in an orgy of bloodletting.  When its great ships of war and godlike technologies were turned on its own people like the wrath of an enraged deity whose thirst for blood defied quenching.

She took hold of the elaborate crystal decanter—she’d have been as happy with a simple container, but her position as the Hegemony’s Number One had surprised her in no aspect so much as the virtual requirement it carried for her to dispense with simple tastes and become far more wasteful and decadent than her desires craved.  The marriage of authority and luxury, the notion that those who wielded power should also indulge their every whim, often with almost shameful disregard for waste, was a disturbing attitude that survived from imperial days, and she saw it manifesting itself ever more deeply in Hegemony culture.

She didn’t like it, not one bit, and she saw it as one of the seeds of decline, of a path that led the empire to destruction.  Now, she feared, such impulses pushed her own people not toward the enlightened dominance—and protection—of mankind that they sought, but only to a replay of the subject of her recurring dreams, the firestorm of warfare and bloodletting known in the Hegemony as The Great Death.

An overwrought title, drama masquerading as history, she might have called it…if the deadly series of conflicts and disasters hadn’t rated it in every particular.  Humanity had come close to extinguishing itself entirely almost four centuries before, and leaving the galaxy—all of it known to human exploration, at least—a somber and silent graveyard, filled with the slowly decaying structures and machines of an intelligent race—the only known intelligent race—that was no more.

She drank the water, gulped it, more accurately, and she took a few deep breaths, focusing on herself, compelling relaxation, and feeling the rapidity of her heartbeats gradually slowing.  Then, she stood up, pulling herself out from the light cover and walking toward the great windows overlooking the ocean.  Sleep was impossible now.  She knew that from experience.  It was close to time to rise anyway, and there was little point remaining in bed.

She looked out at the crashing waves below the low cliff behind her villa.  The sea was her vice, and the one luxury she’d gladly accrued to herself.  Past Number Ones had resided in the city, near the centers of power over which they ruled.  But, Akella preferred the calm of her villa, typically silent save for the sound of the waves beneath the bluffs.  She spent most of her time there, residing in her apartment in the capital only when affairs of state compelled her presence.

Which had become far too often since the Rimdwellers were discovered.  Her people were at war, a crusade to undertake their sacred duty.  Hegemony forces had fought many times to bring the wild and untamed survivors of humanity’s attempted suicide under its protection, but the conflict far out on the Rim was orders of magnitude vaster and deadlier.

She stared out as night continued its daily retreat, driven back by hazy shafts of fresh morning light.  Her nightmares once again pushed aside, she plunged deep into thought.  Chronos’s report weighed heavily on her mind, as it had since she’d first read it.  She had to make a decision, and she’d put it off for too many days already.  It wouldn’t wait any longer.  She would have to send back her response, and she would have to do it before the day dawning outside her window had ended.

But, she still hadn’t decided what her answer would be.

The commander of the Grand Fleet, and her colleague on the Supreme Council, Chronos had been clear and concise, and he’d pulled no punches in his analysis.  Refreshingly, neither had he made excuses for himself nor tried to overstate the gains he had achieved…or diminish those that yet eluded his grasp.

The fleet had seen success, certainly, by every conventional benchmark of war imaginable.  Chronos’s ships were only two transits from the Confederation capital, and, despite losses that exceeded projections, and a substantial and unexpected delay while the commander refit his damaged ships and modified more escorts to the new anti-small craft configurations, there seemed no doubt the Confederation forces would soon be defeated and their capital occupied.  It would come later than she had hoped, later than Chronos had expected as well, she knew…but it would come.  If she let it.

But, what then?

Would the enemy collapse when its primary system was taken, as most of her advisors had expected?  Would the Rimdwellers’ sue for peace, and their leaders accept their places within an expanded Hegemony?

When she’d issued the orders that sent Chronos and most of the Hegemony’s military might far out to the Rim, she’d believed as earnestly of any of her colleagues, that the answer to that question was yes.  Now, doubts began to form.  She saw strength in the Rimdwellers she hadn’t expected, a power of will that her people hadn’t seen in any other pockets of human habitation they’d yet encountered.  The Confederation forces were outnumbered, outgunned, overmatched in every way…and yet they continued to fight.

The Hegemony had absorbed many worlds, even nascent interstellar nations that had begun to grow tentatively from the ashes of the Great Death—including one from which many of her own bloodlines had originated—but in almost every case, faced with the overwhelming might and technology of the Hegemony, those planets and polities had quickly yielded.  Wars—save only for the one against the Others—had been quick, relatively low-cost endeavors, and even the delays normal logistics might have imposed had been largely eliminated by the great Support Fleet.  So it had seemed to be in the Confederation, too, as Chronos’s forces pushed ever forward, across distances no Hegemony fleet had been compelled fight over before.  Yet, now, even with the vast supporting forces, he’d been forced to slow his advance, to prep more ships to face the enemy small craft—fighters, they call them, she reminded herself—and to repair damage the fleet had suffered in amounts that had exceeded all expectations.

All of that meant delays, and yet more delays.  Akella had hoped to receive word that the Confederation had surrendered by now.  Instead, she had the fleet commander’s vague assurance he would finish the campaign as quickly as possible after the pause…along with a request for authorization to do just what he had already done on his own.  Push back the timetable.

Chronos wants to cover his ass…he wants me to tell him to go forward, not to cancel the operation and fall back…

She’d always liked Number Eight, and she considered him a capable commander.  Indeed, he was one of the top ten genetic specimens in the whole of the human race…yet, he’d always been a bit cautious in how he conducted things, and he’d never failed to make sure his own interests were protected.

Does he resent me?  Akella knew Chronos had desired to mate with her, and she wondered for a brief instance if some kind of wounded pride had intervened in the fleet commander’s actions, even subconsciously.

No, she decided almost immediately.  Not Chronos.  He would never do less than his best, no matter what factors pulled at him.

And, he does not hate me.  Wounded pride or no, he will follow my orders to the best of his ability, even as he will rush to my bed if ever I agree to his desired pairing.

There was only one true concern that cut at her, and it wasn’t the ultimate outcome of the war on the Rim.  Whatever fight the Confederation, and the other Rimdwellers, might put up, they would be conquered.  The true worry in her mind was one she wasn’t even sure was real, the return of a deadly enemy she herself had never faced, that few alive had, the nightmare from the outer reaches of explored space known in the annals only as the Others.

It was to face this threat that the Grand Fleet had been built…and, now that great force was hundreds of lightyears away, fighting an entirely different—and previously unknown—enemy.

And, by all accounts, suffering significant losses in the process.

Akella stared out at the growing light, at the waves reflecting the morning sun, and she pushed back against her thoughts.  There had been no sign of the Others, almost within living memory, and she reminded herself that Chronos’s delays were not long in the scheme of such a massive conquest. Would another year really matter?  Wasn’t the addition of billions of new humans, of bloodlines almost uncountable, of DNA branches that had been spared the grievous damage of radiation and bacteriological warfare, worth the extra time, and the small risk the continuation of the campaign carried?

It was, of course, worth it.  She knew that, in every way she could logically analyze the situation.  And, yet she had to fight the unease in the back of her mind.

And, the nightmares weren’t helping.

She turned and walked back to the bed, sitting down and activating the comm unit.  “Basha, I will have a communique ready in ten minutes.  Order orbital command to have a Tachyon ready to depart immediately.

The Tachyon courier ships were the fastest things in space.  Antimatter-powered, they could accelerate at over 200g.  The lack of a human crew—the vessels were entirely AI-controlled—eliminated a lot of impediments to extremely fast travel.  The Grand Fleet was many months away, at least in terms of large unit maneuver, but the Tachyon would make the journey in a bit over three weeks, just as one had brought her Chrono’s report had done.

She knew what her orders would be, deep inside, at least, though she still had to force out the words once she activated the comm.

“Commander Chronos…you are authorized to continue your campaign, as much in accordance with the established plan as possible.  In all matters, you are to use your judgment and remember our sacred duty to steward all humanity, even in the face of their foolish resistance.  I support you fully in all things, and I wish you a speedy victory and a triumphant return.  Akella, Number One, speaking for the Hegemony.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Prime Base

Orbiting Megara, Olyus III

Year 318 AC

 

“I still can’t believe he’s gone.”  Tyler Barron sat in the plush chair, staring at the once steaming, but now stone-cold coffee he’d barely touched.  The executive officer’s club on Prime Base was luxurious to say the least—the top navy brass that inhabited the environs of the capital had shown little sign of controlling wasteful expenditures any better than the politicians down on the surface.

The row of tables and deeply upholstered chairs lined up in a single row along a clear hyper-polycarbonate wall that offered a stunning view of the blue disk of Megara down below the high planetary orbit of the great Prime Base.  No flag officer was denied a magnificent view, nor tasked to endure the head of a fellow admiral blocking any sightlines.

“I can’t either.  I keep expecting him to walk through the door.”  Gary Holsten’s tone matched the grimness of Barron’s at least while discussing Van Striker.  Holsten wasn’t supposed to be in the club, not officially, at least, but in the aftermath of the civil disruptions that had almost brought eh Confederation government down, the chief spy went just about anywhere he wanted to go, even more than he had before.

Admiral Striker had been one of the great heroes of the Confederation, and he’d been shot down in the street just days after Holsten’s people had rescued him from captivity.  He had been the last victim of Ricard Lille, the greatest assassin ever to have served Sector Nine and the Union.

Barron seethed with rage, with searing hatred for the Union.  He’d been opposed to the peace treaty that had stopped the navy from pushing forward several years before, from recovering the systems lost in the first Union War, and from making sure the despotic regime never again threatened the Confederation.  Now, such a short time later, and in the midst of another, even more desperate threat, the Union proved yet again it could not be trusted.  Even before it could rebuild its shattered fleets to the point where they could again pose a credible threat, their machinations and plots still struck hard, and caused irreparable harm.

He didn’t discuss his thoughts, though.  There was no point with Holsten, not again.  The reinstated head of Confederation Intelligence agreed with him in every particular.  Barron would have known that, even if Holsten hadn’t made it painfully clear more than once.  But, as much pain as he still felt for the death of his mentor and friend, Tyler Barron knew his own sorrow was irrelevant.  He had a job to do, one that would be even more difficult without Striker.

“Are you satisfied with the defenses?”  Holsten changed the subject, just as Barron had been planning to do.

“No.” It was a simple answer, and an honest one.  Barron had worked tirelessly to bring the Olyus system to a state of preparedness for what would almost certainly be the greatest battle in Confederation history.  “The asteroids are almost ready.  It took just about every tug in the system to move them into place.  They’re not as built up as I’d like—and I wish we had more of them—but they’ll be tough.  I doubt even a couple railgun hits will take one out of action.”

Barron had directed the fortification of a dozen asteroids from the Olyus belt, and had every reactor and weapon system he could lay hands on installed on the huge chunks of rock.  There was no design elegance, no sophistication to the design, but the makeshift forts would be rugged, and they would pack a punch.

They were also expendable, something that had troubled him as he’d signed the personnel transfers sending crews to take their posts there.  The bases were manned by volunteers, and that made it a little easier, but he couldn’t help but feel as though he was signing death warrants.  He’d been grateful when Admiral Nguyen arrived, and took that particular duty from him.

Holsten paused for a moment.  “Are you sure about Nguyen, Tyler?”  It was almost as though Holsten somehow knew he’d been thinking about Nguyen.  “He is a hero, without question, but he has been retired for a long time.  I could push your assignment through the Senate, put you in the top command.”

Barron looked back at Holsten and shook his head.   He knew his friend could very likely do just what he claimed he could.  Barron probably didn’t even need Holsten to secure the top command.  The Senate was scared to death of him since he’d come close to opening fire on Megara, almost as much as they were of the Hegemony.  Between their fear of provoking him, and their recognition that they needed the navy united and ready to face the coming threat—to save their own skins, if nothing else—they would likely refuse him nothing.

That was one of the reasons he couldn’t command the fleet.  Barron had his scores to settle, and his frustration and anger toward the often corrupt and foolish actions of the Senate, but he was sure of one thing.  He didn’t want to be remembered in history as the dictator who destroyed Confederation democracy, however poorly that representative government functioned.  Stepping aside, accepting his role in the chain of command, would send a signal.  He was a loyal Confederation officer, and not a would-be strongman.

“It has to be Nguyen, Gary.  You know that as well as I do.  Clint Winters has done an incredible job, but he’s junior to me, if barely.  I commanded one faction of the fleet that came close—very close—to fighting it out with another, and I almost ended up attacking Megara myself.  Nguyen will be above any resentments that still exist out there.  He is the one officer the entire navy can follow, a man with the unquestioned record and stature to lead us into this fight.”

Holsten nodded, but very slightly.  Barron knew the intelligence chief would have preferred to force him right into the top command, but the truth was, he knew he just wasn’t ready.  In his heart, he was still a ship’s captain, and for all that his dedication to duty pushed him forward, drove him to assume the responsibilities that had been thrust on him, he still imagined sitting on Dauntless’s bridge—his Dauntless, still, though she was years gone now—issuing orders to his crew.  He was almost overwhelmed commanding the massive fleets he’d come to lead, but stepping fully into Van Striker’s shoes, accepting the final, crushing responsibility for defending the Confederation and its billions…it wasn’t time.  Not yet.

If it will ever be…

“You are your grandfather’s heir, Tyler, in every way.”  Barron always hated comparisons to his famous relation, mostly because they were usually platitudes with varying, and usually minimal, degrees of sincerity behind them.  But, he knew Holsten meant was he said, and he appreciated his friend’s confidence.

But, he still wasn’t ready.

“Dustin Nguyen served with my grandfather.  He fought in the campaigns I studied at the Academy.  He’s the man we need now.”  Striker is the man we need, he thought, sighing softly as a fresh wave of grief hit him.

“Well, he should be here in two days.”  Nguyen had been roused from a comfortable retirement on his homeworld of Ghavion and recalled to Megara to take up the top naval command, a summons he had, by all accounts somewhat reluctantly, accepted.

Barron sat quietly for a few minutes.  Finally, Holsten broke the silence.  “I assume you’re taking a shuttle down to Troyus City later today?”  The spymaster managed a slight smile.  They’d been talking about grim topics all morning, and Barron figured even the grizzled head of Confederation Intelligence needed a few minutes of a cheerier topic.

He nodded before he answered, and despite the gloom that had dominated him while he worked to prepare a defense he believed was doomed to defeat, he returned the smile.  “Yes…she’s getting out of the hospital early tomorrow…and, I’d like to be there.”  There was the slightest hint of guilt, as though Barron didn’t believe he should take even a brief time away from his duties for what could only be considered a personal matter.

Though orders and duty and decrees from the Senate would all be insufficient to keep him away from that afternoon’s rendezvous.

“Make sure you’re on that shuttle.  They can spare you for a day.” A pause.  “She’ll never admit it, but she’ll need you, Tyler.”

Barron looked across the table, still, showing no reaction at all.  But, inside he realized Holsten was right.  However tough Andi’s exterior, however determined—and pigheadedly stubborn—she could be, she wasn’t a pillar of stone, she was a human being.  She’d been through hell, and she’d come out the other side.  And, whatever duty demanded of Tyler Barron, it would stand aside for a short time.

He was going to be there when Andi Lafarge was discharged from the hospital, and it would take nothing short of Hegemony battleships streaming through the transit point to stop him.

 

*   *   *

 

“The numbers just don’t add up.  I thought if we increased the flow rate…but that just brings up another batch of problems.”

Carson Witter was silent as his colleague spoke.  Lucinda York was a gifted scientist and a brilliant woman, but sometimes she had trouble breaking free from the academic orthodoxy that so weighed down his colleagues.  The technology they were studying was well beyond anything possessed by the Confederation.  Much of it seemed to be direct application of imperial science…and there was just no way to analyze that within the constraints of Confederation academia.

Especially when they had to accomplish something useful, and do it damned quickly.

Witter had let his mind go in his work, reaching beyond what he knew, to what he could imagine was possible.  It took a different approach to look at something and ask, “This shouldn’t work, but it does.  How is that possible?”

How could it be possible?

“Lucinda, this is beyond our basis of knowledge.  We have to break free, to consider things that might not seem feasible to us.  You’ve done the calculations, and you know the energy flows that must have run through these things.  It works.  We know that, whatever we learned, whatever we’ve seen in our own work.”  His voice turned somber.  “We’ve got the dead spacers and shattered hulls to prove it.  If it works for them, it can work for us, too.”

York looked as though she was going to respond, but she didn’t for a considerable time.  Finally, she said, “I don’t know where to go next, Carson.  We’ve tried everything I can know.”

“Then it’s time to move on to what we don’t know.”  A pause.  “The navy needs this stuff.  You know that.  The Confederation’s future hangs in the balance.”

“I know.”  There was sadness in her voice.  Witter knew York had a brother in the navy.  He was still alive, which was no small achievement after the battles that had already taken place, but Witter knew, as virtually everyone in the system did, that the Hegemony was coming to Megara.  There would be a battle around the capital, throughout the entire Olyus system, and by all accounts, it would be the largest, deadliest, bloodiest conflict the Confederation had ever seen.

And, it will be a defeat…unless we can get some of this stuff into Tyler Barron’s hands…

Witter headed up the greatest collection of scientific minds the Confederation had ever known.  The usual staff of the Institute, already at the pinnacle of the scientific community, had been supplemented by every leading physicist, engineer, and weapons designer who’d been able to reach the Olyus system.  They even had Anya Fritz, the fleet’s most renowned engineering officer, and probably the single person with the most field experience dealing with Hegemony technology.

And, for all that brainpower, all we’ve got is a dozen half-finished projects.

Witter pushed back against the despair hovering around him, and he redoubled his commitment.  We will do this.  We will get the fleet the tools it needs to win this war.

To save us all.

 

*   *   *

 

“Harder.  You have to drive them harder.  All of them.  Even the veterans.”  Jake Stockton stood in the small conference room, looking out at his four colleagues, the best pilots in the Confederation.  The best pilots in all of human space, as far as he was concerned, and perhaps, the greatest that had ever existed.  “Especially the veterans.”

“I understand, Jake, but there is only so much they can take.  If we drive them to exhaustion, to the verge of nervous breakdowns…what shape will they be in when the enemy gets here?”  Dirk Timmon’s voice was calm, even tentative.  Timmons had once been Stockton’s rival, and he remembered arguments between them, times he’d outright despised the cocky pilot.  But, Stockton had matured since then, and so had Timmons.  They’d long been friends now, and they treated each other with a private respect each reserved solely for the other.  Stockton knew they were the two best pilots in the service, and any doubts he’d had that Timmons had retained his ability through the loss of his legs and years behind a desk had been washed away.  The veteran ace was as good as he’d ever been.  Better, perhaps.

Stockton paused.  He’d worked himself up into a tirade after watching the most recent maneuvers.  By any measure, the wings had conducted themselves brilliantly…but Stockton knew it wasn’t enough.  Not against the Hegemony.

“You’re right, Dirk.  Or, in any other situation, you’d be right.  But, this is no ordinary enemy.  They’re way beyond us in tech.  This battlefleet of theirs isn’t only massive, it has an enormous support fleet.  Cargo ships, mobile shipyards, factory vessels.  They used it to reconfigure hundreds of escorts for antifighter ops…and they took down almost a thousand of our fighters in the battle at Ulion.”  Stockton cringed slightly as he spoke of the losses his people had suffered in the fight a few months earlier.  “We managed to hurt them enough to buy some time, but they’ll be here soon enough.  And, we’ve got to be ready.  That means new tactics…and getting damned proficient with those munition pack cluster bombs.”

Stockton hesitated.  He knew he was riding hard on the four people in all of Confederation space who were likely as aware as he was of what the fighter wings would face in the next battle.  But, he’d seen too much death already, too many old veterans—friends—killed, and young pilots brimming with potential, shot down by the hundreds.  Thousands.

He was thankful the enemy didn’t have fighters.  If they’d possessed their own squadrons, he suspected the war would already be over.  But, the blood of his pilots had staved off final defeat, at least so far.

There was one other thing the enemy didn’t have, besides just squadrons.  They didn’t have his four horsemen.  Dirk Timmons, Olya Federov, Johannes Trent, and Alicia Covington.  Four of the greatest pilots the Confederation had ever produced.

Four cold-blooded killers in the cockpit, striking at the enemy like the very shadow of death.

He was grateful for them all.  Because his people, his massed fighter wings, veterans and fresh recruits alike, were the only thing buying time.  The only thing giving the Confederation any hope at all.

And, the cost was becoming more than he could bear.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

UFS Illustre

Pollux System

Union-Confederation Border

Union Year 222 (318 AC)

 

Andrei Denisov sat in his office, silent, staring at the large screen on his desk, but seeing nothing save for his own thoughts.

Dark thoughts.

His orders were clear.  To stay where he was, to wait for word from the diplomatic team.  But, his fleet had been on station for more than three months, and there hadn’t been any word at all from the ambassador, and Montmirail had sent only a command to remain on station until further notice.

Denisov was struggling to fight against the morose feelings that threatened to take over his thoughts.  He’d achieved the command of his dreams, a position he’d never dared to believe was in reach.  He commanded the entire navy, a fact that guaranteed him either a retirement awash in luxury and riches…or one resulting from a pair of shots to the head.  Service in the upper ranks of the Union armed forces carried many dangers, and the enemy was only one of them.

He was thrilled with the job.  He loved the fleet, and he was dedicated to its personnel and proud of the professionalism they displayed, despite the corruption and disorder that riddled every layer of Union society.  But, the current mission troubled him, as it had from the moment the orders had left Gaston Villieneuve’s mouth.

Denisov didn’t object to a rematch with the Confederation, or at least part of him didn’t, the martial side of his personality, the officer who craved glory, and revenge from the humiliations of the last war.  But, he knew what the cost would be, the thousands, perhaps millions, who would die.  Worse, the fleet wasn’t ready.  The Union wasn’t ready.  It would take years to get the navy back to the strength it had boasted before the losses of the war.  Any move against the Confederation before then was premature and dangerous, regardless of the new struggle that seemed to have come upon the Union’s rival.

He understood Villieneuve’s desire to capitalize on the fact that the Confederation was at war, apparently with a powerful and advanced civilization from beyond the Badlands.  It made sense, tactically, strategically, in every way possible.

Save one.

Denisov didn’t trust this enemy or its motives.  He knew almost nothing about them, and worse perhaps, he was pretty sure Villieneuve didn’t know much more.  He’d dreaded receiving an order to advance into Confederation space, to begin another war so soon after the last, based almost entirely on reliance on an unknown and untested ally.  Now, that fear had receded slightly, as the official comm lines remained silent.

His worries had shifted to the ambassador, why nothing had been heard in almost three months.  His crews were getting edgy.  They could see the fleet massed, and they had to wonder why.  He suspected even the lowest grade spacers knew they weren’t a match for the Confeds.  Not yet.

By all accounts, this new enemy is pushing the Confederation forces back, which means they are strong.  Villieneuve sees them as an ally, but what if…

He let the thought stop.  There was nothing to be done.  He couldn’t leave the system without violating his orders, and as edgy as he was about what might happen, he wasn’t ready to end up in some cubicle in a Sector Nine black site somewhere.

Peoples’ Protectorate, he reminded himself, reeling once again at the dishonesty and hypocrisy in the new name of the Union’s feared secret police agency.

“Admiral, we’re picking up energy readings at the Outremer transit point.”  The tactical officer’s voice crackled slightly through the comm speaker.  Like everything of Union manufacture, it was inferior to its Confederation equivalent, a device that worked, but not quite perfectly.

Denisov’s head snapped around toward the screen on the far wall of his office.  His first thought was, a courier ship.  Perhaps he was receiving word from the ambassador.

Finally.

But, something was wrong.  The energy levels were too high.  Far too high for a single ship, or, as he continued to watch, he realized, even for a small flotilla.

Could the Confeds have discovered that Villieneuve was planning to attack?  Had they managed to put together a force to strike first?  For an instant he feared that, but it didn’t feel right.  That wasn’t the Confederation’s way, a fact that had often hurt them strategically.

The Confeds don’t have enough free forces now anyway, not if half the intel we’re getting is accurate.

But, then, what?

He felt his stomach tighten, a cold feeling taking hold, as another possibility came to mind.

 

*   *   *

 

“Our forward units have begun the jump into the Sigma-6 system, Commander.”  The Kriegeri stood before Raketh’s elevated chair, looking up at the Master as he made his report.  “The completion of movement into the target system is projected in one hour, four minutes.”

Raketh just nodded.  Then, he waved his hand, dismissing the officer.  But, before the Kriegeri had reached the door he called him back.  “Kiloron…”

“Yes, Commander?”  The officer turned back and bowed his head, a repeat of the respectful salute he’d given when he’d first entered Raketh’s sanctum.

“All ships are to transit at maximum velocity and accelerate at full power as soon as their systems have recovered from the jump.”

“Yes, Commander.  As you command.”  The officer waited again, leaving only when Raketh repeated the dismissal gesture.

The Master watched the Kriegeri leave and the doors slide shut behind him, though he was barely seeing any of it.  He was deep in thought, reviewing every aspect of the battle he was about to fight.  Ideally, he’d assemble his fleet into formation after all the vessels had jumped, but he had no scouting data, no idea where the Union ships were positioned in the target system.

He’d normally have sent scouts through to gain that information, but he didn’t want to give the enemy—and the Union was about to become as much an enemy as the Confederation—any warning.  The star maps seized from the Confederation data systems told him he was moving across the border, and that the systems on both sides were demilitarized by treaty.  That meant the Union forces would be without fixed fortifications.  He intended to close as quickly as possible and crush their entire fleet, before they had a chance to figure out what was happening.  All the data he’d been able to access from Confederation records suggested the Union forces were somewhat inferior.  Slower, not as maneuverable, their crews less experienced.

Though, they also have the small attack craft…

Everything he’d read suggested the Union squadrons were demonstrably less efficient than the Confederation wings, but Raketh wasn’t sure whether that was accurate, or simply the Confeds trashing their enemy.

And, regardless of the truth of the matter, he suspected even less capable squadrons would prove to be a problem for his own units.

He was determined to hit the Union forces, and hit them hard.  If the information from the interrogated ambassador and his staff proved to be true, Raketh had secured an incredible stroke of luck, an astonishing accommodation by the Union in massing their forces together in one location, where they could be destroyed in a single attack.  One quick victory could eliminate months of costly system-hopping, and it would open the way for a relatively easy conquest.

And it would erase forever any hint of disgrace for his initial retreat from Dannith.  Raketh had not been disciplined or demoted for that incident, nor had he been judged to have acted wrongly.  None of his superiors had even criticized him for the withdrawal he’d ordered, but he knew there was hushed talk, suggestions that fear and not tactical analysis had, at least in part, directed his decision.  He was determined to shove those words down the throats of those who uttered them, to return home in triumph and glory, as befitted one with his status among the Top One Hundred specimens of the human race.

 

*   *   *

 

That’s no ambassador’s retinue…

Denisov had already come to that conclusion, looking at the first energy spikes, but now, there was no doubt.  A dozen ships were through already, and from the looks of the readings coming in, there were more behind those.

A lot more.

“All ships report reactors at full power, Admiral.”

“Very well, Commander.”  Denisov’s glance shot over to the tactical station as he spoke.  Guy Lambert had come along with his promotion to fleet command, and the officer had proven himself almost indispensable as an aide.  Denisov had been a bit suspicious at first.  He didn’t have a doubt his fleet was riddled with political officers, there to watch him and report back to Villieneuve.  Service to the Union was a complex calling, and one of the first things a successful officer came to understand was this.  You were always being watched.

Lambert wasn’t a Sector Nine plant, though.  Denisov was almost sure of that.  He’d always considered himself a good judge of people, and at some point, he just went with his instincts.  Besides, a few weeks before, he and Lambert had talked long into the night and, after enough wine had flowed, the topic of likely political officers on Illustre came to the forefront.  It was dangerous talk—and Denisov didn’t entirely discount the possibility that it was the kind of topic a particularly clever agent might raise, fishing for suspicious responses—but Lambert had shown the same mostly-hidden resentment the majority of the professional officer corps tended to feel about being spied on while they were risking their lives in battle.

Lambert was legit, or at least, Denisov was willing to bet on it.

Even if the stakes of that bet were his commission and posting.  Or even his life.  In the end, everything came down to educated guesses on probability.

“All ships are to engage engines, 5g thrust directly toward the Valciennes transit point.”

“Yes, sir.”  He could hear the hitch in Lambert’s voice.  Uncertainty.  Even fear.

Denisov knew that command might raise some suspicion, especially to any officer planted on his ship to spy on him.  His orders were clear.  He was to remain in the Pollux system, and, if for some reason he was compelled to leave it, he was to return to Montmirail.  Valciennes led away from the Union capital though, along the border toward another route into the Confederation.  He wasn’t sure why he was drawn there.  The Confederation was his enemy, had always been his enemy.  Their fleet had defeated and humiliated his beloved navy.  His hesitation to start a war before the navy was ready didn’t mean he didn’t crave a rematch someday.  But, he had a feeling, somewhere deep in his gut, and it pushed him away from Montmirail.  It was instinct only, but it was strong…and his intuition had rarely led him astray.

“Fleet order.  Arm all main guns.  All fighter squadrons are to scramble and prepare to launch.”  He’d configured his wings half as interceptors and half as torpedo bombers.  He’d heard rumors that the new force battling the Confeds didn’t have any fighters of their own…but he didn’t even know what he was facing, and he wasn’t about to gamble on unconfirmed intelligence and leave his ships open to a devasting bomber attack.

You don’t even know these ships are from the Confederation’s new enemy, not for sure.

The words echoed in his mind, but the thought proved unpersuasive, and the answer bouncing back in the depths of his consciousness was simple and to the point.

Yes, you do.