Space 2315, Chapter 19

Sofie Taske swiped her CAC through the card reader for her dorm room’s door. She was barely a few steps inside when her roommate looked up and behind from her spot at her desk. Layla bolted from the chair and caught Sofie in an embrace that was as tight as it was fierce, “Oh my God, I was so worried.”

Sofie returned the embrace, if not quite as enthusiastically, “About me?”

“No, about Legolas,” the other girl answered sarcastically, bringing up their favorite character from the “Lord of the Rings”, namely the one portrayed by Orlando Bloom from the 21st Century adaptation. “Of course I meant you!” Layla stepped back, putting her hands on Sofie’s shoulders and holding her at arm’s length. “I knew you were out there somewhere when the terrorist attack happened. I prayed you were alright. Where’s Kasumi?”

“I’m fine, as you can see. As for Kasi…,” she breathed, “she’s at the NROTC headquarters trying to coordinate where their people are.” Thinking back to the tunnel brought a wide grin to Sofie’s face, “You should’ve seen her Layla. Kasi took control at the café and led us through the tunnel network to the administration building. When some girl tried to give Kasi lip she gave the other girl a taste of that Space Force officer-in-training attitude. I didn’t think the little woman had it in her.”

“That ‘little woman’ as you just said is going to be commanding a warship before we know it. I would’ve paid to see that!” Layla laughed before she embraced Sofie once more, “I’m just glad you’re alright.” She broke the embrace. “So… um, what now?”

“I have no idea,” Sofie answered with a shake of her head as she moved to sit on her bed. “What remains of the Government resides in three people in Quebec City, believe it or not. If you’ve been watching the newscasts the Army has the acting president secured there.”

Layla rolled her eyes, “I meant for us.”

“Oh, um…,” Sofie said sheepishly. “I don’t rightly know. Every building in the city is likely in lockdown. We’re stuck until the emergency services can clear out the biohazard.”

“So…,” Layla trailed off.

“So, I’ve got papers to write and other homework to do,” Sofie answered, picking up a datapad from the desk below her.

“How can you be acting so blasé about all this?” Layla asked, putting her hands on her hips.

Sofie shrugged. “They’ll probably cancel classes for the next few days until this mess gets sorted, but that doesn’t mean that we can just sit back and blow off our studies. Do you really think your professors will let something like a global terrorist attack interfere with their class schedules?”

“Yes!” Layla nearly shouted.

Sofie shrugged again. “You might be right, but I’m not going to take that chance.” She sighed. “Life, at least for some of us, will go on. And that means assignments,” she finished with a chuckle as she keyed the datapad to life. “Oh God…”

“What?”

“Classical British Literature,” Sofie said slowly, putting her head in her hands.

“You have my sympathies,” Layla said with a sudden grin.

“Yeah, thanks. Maybe I will want to set this aside for a bit.” She turned to her computer terminal and opened up her email, there in her email was a message from her father. The subject of it was “ARE YOU ALIVE!?!?” in capital letters, it was also marked important so as to get rushed as fast as possible over the Galactic Internet.

She pressed the reply button and typed…

Yes, I’m fine father. This whole place is in chaos. Sorry about not getting back to you sooner but they had us in lockdown and it’s just now that I was able to get back to my room and get access to the Galactic Internet. Don’t worry, I’m fine; nothing happened to me.

Love you, Sofie

She marked the important flag and sent it off, with any luck the email would be in her father’s Inbox in a matter of minutes. A few seconds later another email came back from her father saying that he was so very much relieved that she was still alive and that no harm had come to her.

“Well, shit,” Richard Smith sighed as he fell back onto his bunk, undoing the Velcro straps along the front of his SFWU top.

Rachel McFarland remained standing, looking down at him. “It’s been nothing but nonstop drills for the last two weeks. We’ve only had time to eat and sleep before we’re right back to drills, let alone see each other. If I didn’t know any better I’d guess that Vice Admiral Payne is trying to kill us all.”

“Don’t I know it!” Richard replied. “He’s trying to blow the rust off our fleet before he takes us wherever the hell we’re going. And Commodore Adler doesn’t want our Third Battleship Division to look bad in front of everyone else.”

The division was made up of three of the new Yamato Class Battleships as well as one of the older Dragon Class ships. Richard all but drooled on his tactical console in auxiliary control, knowing exactly what kind of hell he could unleash from the ship’s broadside weapons. He liked having more missile tubes and the extra magazine capacity that the ship had, as well as the new mark ten capital missiles. The HFS Izumi and her sisters had a lot more throw weight than any battleship class that came before her. While he begrudged having fewer energy mounts, the ones he could play with were big and mean, especially those positron cannons.

The officer next to him on his normal watch schedule, a Lieutenant Commander Kerstin Herbertsson, a tall, blond Swedish woman who was as beautiful as she was good at her job oversaw the EW systems in aux con; and she was very good at her job. He had to be careful not to stare at Herbertsson, diligently reminding himself that Rachel was his lover.

Besides that, the regs would really frown on him trying anything with the blond. Hell, the regs frowned on him being with Rachel, but since they were the same rank and she technically wasn’t in his chain of command (her being Cyber Security, which was technically Engineering, and him being Tactical) they were in a grey area. Whether Captain Scott would see it that way was a matter of no small debate between Rachel and him.

Along with the new weapons BuWeps had finally come out with the new mark seven decoys and other EW platforms. The battleship’s jammers were the latest to come off the lines, as were the penetration aids on Richard’s missiles and he had the latest counter-missiles too. If Rachel and her people could keep an ACF virus from shutting down their ship anything the Izumi hit would know it’d been nudged. That combined with her armor meant that the battleship could stand up to anything short of a juggernaut.

Taken altogether the Yamatos should give the ACF a nasty surprise the next time his battleship tangled with them; that is if they hadn’t built their own with the same technology. Both sides having the nearly the same technology was one of the biggest problems with this war, seeing as how the Allied Colonies broke away from the Human Federation only a standard year ago. For all he knew the ACF already had everything he did.

The only way Richard would’ve been happier would’ve been for him to be on a battlecruiser instead, that and being married to Rachel. Yes, they were smaller and less armed and armored, but they were faster and tended to be used for independent detachments whereas battleships stayed in at least flotilla sized elements. That and they were too slow to try and chase anything smaller than it. He wanted to get out there and use the toys the Fleet had given him, and he’d have better luck with that aboard a battlecruiser.

“Yeah,” Rachel replied. She was already taking her uniform blouse off and was working on her belt too. Richard took the hint and started on his own as well. They hadn’t had a moment like this with each other since the terrorist attack on Earth two weeks ago. Moments like this were meant to be used, as they were just that, moments. Rachel kept talking as she undressed. “We don’t want to look like…,” she paused as she lifted her black tee shirt off, “the Fifth Battleship Division did yesterday. Talk about poor ship handling and gunnery!”

“Yep!” Richard answered as he started to yank his boots off and then his pants and drawers. “I still can’t believe how Commodore Metharom’s Second Battleship Division suckered them like that.”

“Um… Rachel?” he asked and she hummed a question at him, “Don’t you find it kind of odd that we’re still talking about work like this?”

Her hand paused very briefly, “Nah, not really.”

Admiral Nancy Moore was once again on her flag bridge as the First Fleet hurtled through hyperspace toward the Newton Star System. Soon that system would get the rudest awakening in its settled history.

“Two minutes until jump exit,” Lieutenant Arthur Dently announced from his watch station at astrogation.

Moore lightly drummed her fingers against the armrest of her command chair, waiting for the inevitable nausea that always came with entering and exiting hyperspace. As the fleet exited hyperspace, while the crews were still disoriented by the hyperspace exit, the fleet’s navigational systems automatically kicked in, bringing the ships “up” and to port in a pre-planned maneuver.

It was fortunate that the fleet’s maneuvering systems had the pre-planned move programmed in for right in front of the jump point a stealthed minefield awaited any ship that passed through it. Mines big enough to damage even a super juggernaut would’ve shattered anything smaller than a battlecruiser and would’ve left her fleet as easy meat for any defenders. The fleet’s sensors were howling alerts as they identified the mines and the capital ships that laid them at the jump point.

“Sensors have identified six super juggernauts, two assault carriers, twelve battleships, twenty battlecruisers, thirty-two heavy cruisers, forty light cruisers, and fifty-four destroyers just beyond the minefield ma’am,” Lieutenant Commander Sadie McNally reported.

“They were waiting for us,” Avery Brooks’ image growled out from the comlink on her armrest.

Without any conscious thought Moore put the helmet of her vacsuit on and sealed it. “Then by all means, let’s go get them captain.”

Already her fleet was clearing the top of the minefield and beginning their dive “down” upon the awaiting Human Federation warships barely four million kilometers away; well within the fleet’s powered missile engagement envelope. The Human Federation must’ve figured out that the Newton System was the next logical target and stationed ships at the jump points accordingly. Too bad it wasn’t going to be enough.

There wasn’t any time to send the viral package, so she thumbed the comm controls on her command chair, dropping her suit’s comlink into the fleet net. “To all ships of the First Fleet, engage targets of opportunity. The capital ships will target their bigger ships. I want the escorts to stay clear of their big guns and hammer their escorts. Launch as many missiles as you can to soften the targets before reaching energy range. All ships, fire at will! I repeat, fire at will!”

Already she could feel the Eisenhower shudder as her missile launchers fired. She briefly looked at the repeater plot from the bridge and saw that Brooks had instructed his tactical watch-standers to target the super juggernaut in the center of the Human Federation formation. That ship most likely had the flotilla’s commander on it and taking it out quickly would sow confusion.

The Human Federation warships responded with commendable speed. However, while they were waiting for enemy ships to arrive, they weren’t exactly ready right that minute. No ship captain would keep their crews at general quarters all day, waiting on an enemy that may or may not arrive. Even so their crews were probably already in vacsuits and at Alert Status Two before the general quarters alarm sounded. Counter-missiles leapt from their ships, jammers activated, and decoys deployed from the sides of the HF ships.

Moore’s missiles reached their outer defensive zone and bored right in past counter-missiles that were hastily targeted. Hundreds of her fleet’s missiles were destroyed but thousands followed into the middle defensive zone. Their penaids and jammers sang to the HF counter-missiles like mythical sirens, drawing them off-target to strike EW missiles instead of the kill birds. Even so, hundreds of attack missiles disappeared.

The volley got through to the inner defensive zone and HF point defense lasers swiveled and spat coherent light at anything in their sights. Hundreds of missiles disappeared but there were still thousands coming. First Fleet’s missiles slammed into enemy hulls, pounding them viciously with the fury of nuclear explosions. Surely some of her missiles killed each other in fratricidal acts as explosions erupted, their targeting systems suddenly blinded by the furious amounts of electromagnetic radiation hurled out by the atomic blasts, or some missiles just getting caught in the fireballs.

The HF ships staggered through that titanic blast front, attack missiles of their own already launching. There were far fewer ships in their flotilla than in the First Fleet and now that her missiles had savaged their formation there were even fewer; of those that survived they had fewer launchers to use due to damage. The missiles they did manage to fire were easily hacked out of space by the combined defenses of the First Fleet.

Moore watched as the HF’s center super juggernaut, it being the target of five of her own super juggernauts, simply vanished as her fusion cores went. Two other HF super juggernauts broke in half while the remaining three shrugged off the massive blows with their armor. The two enemy assault carriers were battered into air bleeding hulks, their systems failing while escape pods and small craft leapt from them.

Six of the enemy battleships had vanished as her super juggernauts and juggernauts targeted them. Four others were blasted into something vaguely resembling warships as escape pods leapt from them too. The last two battleships somehow escaped the worst of the damage as escorts interposed themselves. As Moore looked on, she saw a HF heavy cruiser position itself between one of those battleships and the tidal wave of missiles. The heavy cruiser was blown into three large chunks that were chewed into smaller bits by other missiles.

The battlecruisers fared even worse, their lighter armor unable to stand up to the heavier missiles launched by Moore’s super juggernauts and assault carriers. Ten of them had simply vanished, another six were pounded into scrap and the remaining four had broken into variable sized hulks. The devastation wrought upon the HF’s escorts was almost total.

Moore watched the Eisenhower’s three spinal mount grasers and five lasers she had as forward chase armaments go into rapid fire as the ship targeted one of the remaining HF super juggernauts; and she wasn’t alone in pouring fire into the enemy ship.

The massive beams disemboweled the HF warship. Heavy armor shattered, structural members failed, power nodes, sensor arrays, weapons–everything in the path of the savage beams from no less than four super juggernauts went up in massive explosions. Superconductors on the HF’s weapons blew apart with secondary explosions, their released energy arcing across compartments. The ACF’s energy weapons continued through internal armored bulkheads, through other weapons systems, through missile magazines, crew quarters, mess halls, damage control stations, life support, and the fighter bays before those combined beams spent their energy.

Through it all the enemy ship managed to survive as her people died, blotted from the universe as if an angry god had come down from on high to smash the life from them. Uncontrolled power surges and more secondary explosions lashed out from the center of that hurricane of destruction. Suddenly most of the ship vanished in an eye-hurting burst of heat and light as three of her four fusion plants went as more beams fired into her, swallowing over three-quarters of the ship in the hearts of triplet stars.

Moore let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding as the tactical crews updated the situation. All the HF ships were gone or blasted into scrap within the span of… she checked her chrono from when the first missiles fired until now and saw that only a few minutes had passed. Her fleet raced on past the point where the HF ships were, accelerating at 0.3 light speed, continuing deeper into the system.

Her fleet hadn’t quite escaped unscathed. Icons blinked red or yellow on ships that were either damaged or destroyed. Twenty of her destroyers, twelve light cruisers and ten heavy cruisers blazed an angry red with the words, “SIGNAL LOST” superimposed over them. Six of her battlecruisers were shot up but were still able to hold their courses, as were two damaged battleships and one assault carrier. The rest of her capital ships all showed splotches of yellow damage alerts on them, none of it serious. The fleet’s auxiliaries would be able to repair the damage within a few days.

Moore took her eyes from that display to that of the main tactical repeater plot which showed the rest of the Newton System. Orbiting about eight and a half light minutes from the system’s primary was Newton III, a rather nice Terran class planet. Much closer to the star, at four and a half and six light minutes respectively were Newton Prime and Newton II. Both were barren worlds, both too close to their parent star, blasted by the fury of the star’s radiation. Neither inner planet was settled except for mining crawlers chewing their way across the night side surfaces. The fleet’s sensors, able to detect minute bits of data across whole star systems were almost able to read the serial numbers of the crawlers on the first world, despite it being over 20 light minutes away.

Further out from the star, orbiting the fourth position was a massive asteroid belt rich in metal resources. Those same resources were the reason the Newton System had become a massive fleet yard and base. Close by the asteroid belt was a gas giant much larger than Jupiter in Sol System, though still too small to become a star itself. That was probably the reason for the asteroid belt as the gas planet’s massive gravity had likely torn some planet apart as the star system was forming. Almost a dozen moons or planetoids orbited the gas giant at distant orbits until it was almost a solar system of its own.

Further out from that, at fourteen light minutes from its parent star, was Newton VI, a frigid planet dotted by cities covered by life support domes. A few open-air ski resorts were on the surface too, likely for those crazy individuals that enjoyed extreme sports and weather.

On the opposite side of the solar system from Newton VI were the system’s three jumpgates and the guard force of heavy cruisers and smaller ships around it. The fleet’s sensors were still showing those guarding ships at rest relative to the gates, but surely, they’d already sent destroyers through each one to warn other commands that Admiral Moore was in Newton. The system’s sensor net was already giving them a close to real time image of her fleet using subspace comms whereas her fleet had to make do with regular sensors limited by light speed. And since those jumpgates were eighteen light hours distant from her fleet it would take that long for her to see the HF’s response.

Orbiting Newton III was the planet’s massive shipyards and the reason her fleet was here. The whole facility was a riot of building slips, dry docks, foundries, hydrogen storage warehouses, workers’ quarters, and all the other things that made it a living, breathing industrial structure. Also orbiting the planet at different orbits were the orbital forts and defense platforms as well as other mobile defense forces.

The main mobile force which the fleet’s systems designated Bogey Two consisted of no less than twenty-four super juggernauts, twelve juggernauts, thirty battleships, fifty battlecruisers, and enough escorts to cover them all sat in orbit near Newton III. Against her sixty super juggernauts and other capital ships Bogey Two was outnumbered but they could still hurt her badly. Newton III was over ten light minutes distant from her fleet, which still put it too close to those jumpgates if the HF was already sending reinforcements.

The fleet’s sensors were hurriedly tagging defensive emplacements and sensor platforms all over the system. Besides the orbital forts and defense platforms there were missile satellites in orbit the third planet and its two moons, missile bases on those moons and in the asteroid belt and on the moons of the gas giant. Each of those missile bases sported missiles larger than any put aboard an orbital fort or super juggernaut. Massive ground-based railguns and laser cannons that dwarfed even her super juggernauts’ weapons sat near the ground-based missile emplacements. The system wasn’t as heavily fortified as the Sol System, no star system was, but this one came damn close.

She dropped her comlink back into the fleet net, “Tenth, Twelfth and Thirteenth Destroyer Squadrons, and Sixth and Seventh Light Cruiser Squadrons, detach for Search and Rescue. I want all our peoples’ life pods and small craft picked up. Pick up any Human Federation ones too; I won’t leave them floating helplessly out there, enemy or not. I won’t leave fellow humans to freeze in the darkness of space.”

She turned the comm off from the fleet net and regarded her tactical repeater plot. “A target rich environment if you ask me,” she muttered unknowingly over the comm to her staff.

Commander Edward Oppenheimer looked back at her with a wide grin. “Yes ma’am. I’ve got my crews working out targeting solutions for the defensive structures as well as the orbital structures around Newton III and VI and the gas giant. It’s a good thing we have a lot of kinetic bombardment rounds.” He glanced down at his display before tapping a few buttons. Moore’s tactical repeater plot glowed, showing her the targeting data that Oppenheimer’s people worked out. She gave it a quick glace before hitting the “Accept” button. The order went out and as her ships received them, they started pumping out the kinetic rounds, themselves accelerating to appreciable fractions of the speed of light.

Those rounds would take a long time to reach their targets, but they would get there long before the fleet could. Moore spared the briefest concern about the railguns mounted around the system. Granted her fleet could move the tiniest bit to avoid being hit by anything those guns fired but she didn’t want to have to worry about those things. She flagged them and other guns for the second round of bombardment.

Keying a command, she called out to the authorities in the star system. “Human Federation citizens, this is Admiral Moore of the ACF. We’ve smashed the defenders at the jump point. We’re not here to make war upon civilians but we’re not hesitating to strike at legitimate military and industrial targets. Toward that end, we’ve fired kinetic bombardment rounds aimed at any military and industrial installations located throughout your star system; both on and off world. You can already see the tracks of those rounds. I strongly suggest that you evacuate those facilities immediately to avoid any civilian loss of life. First Fleet Actual out.”

“Ma’am,” Brooks asked across a private comm channel. “What’s your intention now?”

“I’ll call the fleet commanders for a conference soon. I’m loathe to tangle with the defenders near Newton III.”

She watched her flag captain’s slightly disapproving frown, but he quickly nodded in understanding. “I agree ma’am. They’ve probably already called for reinforcements and they’ll be here before long. Even if we smash Bogey Two any new warships coming from elsewhere, and there’ll likely be a hell of lot of them, will be able to overtake and kill us.”

“A point I’ll make to our fleet commanders,” she answered as she stood up from her command chair. “Captain, I suggest you put your crew at Alert Status Two for the time being; let them get some food and rest. Nothing is going to happen for over half a day anyway. Join me in the conference room please.”

She passed similar orders to the other ships to stand down their crews from general quarters for the time being before heading down to the conference room. Captain Brooks entered about a minute later and took his seat to her right. Erana Trueblade, her Zaltaen chief of staff, was already seated to her left.

Nancy still felt more than a little put off by the fact that the Zaltaens had their people on human ships. She briefly wondered how Trueblade felt about this latest battle. There was a very likely chance that her fleet had killed Zaltaens on those Human Federation warships. The thought that Zaltaens were fighting other Zaltaens, even indirectly, should’ve been enough for the Zaltaen government to get their people out of humanity’s militaries entirely. Not for the first time did she wonder why their queen hadn’t ordered her people off human ships after the outbreak of hostilities.

Since they had a few minutes until the fleet commanders appeared, she turned to Erana. “Why are you still here?”

“I’m sorry ma’am?” the Zaltaen asked, her eyebrows shooting up in a very humanlike fashion. It was amazing how similar their two races were in their mannerisms as well as how they looked; everything except the Zaltaen’s pointed elf-like ears, skin and hair colors.

“Why hasn’t your government recalled the lot of you? Or issued orders to pull you from our military or have you in noncombat roles only? There’s the potential that we’re killing your kind in our war.”

Erana looked down at the table, fully conscious of both her admiral’s and Brooks’ eyes on her. “I’m not sure yet ma’am. I thought the outbreak of the civil war would’ve done that by now.”

“It’s probably caught up in some bureaucratic morass in their Fleet Command,” Brooks answered for her, crossing his arms across his chest. “With everything we know about Zaltaens it wouldn’t surprise me if your government moves as slowly as our governments do.”

“You got that right,” Erana chuckled to show she didn’t take offense. He was right after all. “The War Department can move painfully slow. But this would be from the Foreign Office and they can be worse. Trust me.”

“Just one more way that our two peoples aren’t all that different,” Moore said with a sympathetic and understanding smile. “Maybe they’ll get it sorted before more of your people are unintentionally killed by us.”

“I’ll be writing a report on this battle for my superiors,” Erana explained. “I’ll once again add that I think it unwise that we’re on your warships. I’ll include the sensor data as well. I’m sure with all that my superiors will be able to tell if any of my people were killed on those HF ships.”

“Shouldn’t that sensor data be highly classified?” Brooks asked, puzzled that Erana had the authority to release classified information such as that.

“It’s not something they won’t see eventually,” Erana said. Then she added, “Trust me sir, none of that data will land in Human Federation hands. This kind of information is highly compartmentalized within our intelligence network and every one of us is vetted before we have access. There won’t be a Snowden Incident like in the early 2000s with this information; you can be assured of that.”

By then the virtual images of the fleet commanders were appearing at first one-at-a-time and then in groups until the room appeared to be large enough to accommodate all of them. Nancy rapped her knuckles on the table to get everyone’s attention before speaking. “First, I’d like to congratulate everyone on a splendid job at the jump point.”

She waited for them to nod in agreement and congratulate each other before continuing. “Considering that the Human Federation was lying in wait for us that was good work for all of us.”

“Ma’am,” Captain Dorenburg of the super juggernaut ACS Kublai Khan spoke up. “How much more could the Human Federation really have? The ACF seized a little less than half the Fleet in our initial insurrection and we’ve been steadily mopping the floor with what’s left.”

Moore shrugged her shoulders. “That’s true, but they can rebuild quicker than we can. Their shipyards are already producing new ships and their recruitment and training pool is much larger than ours.”

“The Human Federation knows that eventually we’ll go for the Core Worlds,” she continued. “They’ll most likely hold the rest of their super juggernauts in reserve to secure those star systems. It’s likely they’ll leave the Inner Colonies and Middle Colonies to be guarded by battleships. It’s not a position of strength, but rather of desperation on their part. They must hold Sol, Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, and New Sicily. People will scream bloody murder but that’ll actually work toward our advantage.”

“Meaning what ma’am?” a young lieutenant commander, a captain of a destroyer, asked from far down the table. All heads turned toward him, and he flushed in embarrassment, most likely wishing that he hadn’t spoken after all. Normally light cruiser and destroyer captains didn’t speak at fleet meetings like this, certainly not to ask a question like that.

“If I may?” Captain Brooks asked. Nancy nodded to him. Avery stood from his chair and focused his attention on the destroyer captain. The room’s software brought the image of the younger officer closer to the admiral and her flag captain, as if the young lieutenant-commander were seated next to them. Brooks had the good grace not to sound condescending when he explained. “If the Human Federation pulls all of their big ships back to the Core Worlds, leaving the Inner and Middle Colonies covered by nothing larger than battleships and fixed orbital defenses, then it’ll show those worlds that they’re willing to sacrifice them in favor of the Core. Any big enough taskforce could roll over battleships and those worlds know it.”

“Admittedly those worlds’ governments would understand the need to guard the Core, as those are humanity’s most densely populated and prosperous star systems. But selling that to a nervous population who’s already seen us score victory after victory would be very difficult. It’d shake their confidence in their Fleet and the Earth government. As if they need any more reasons to have little confidence in the government seeing as how the government consists of just three people right now.” He allowed himself to smile. “Which would work very well in our favor. I don’t think we’ll see a new wave of defections, but we’ll see a significant segment of the HF public that won’t trust what little is left of their government.” He sat back down, looking to Nancy who nodded in agreement.

“Speaking of Sol, they especially have to hold Earth and Mars,” Captain Packard of the battleship ACS Indomitable said. A low growl went around the virtual presences of everyone in the room. “Nothing else there really matters besides Jupiter. But I just don’t see how we’re going to take them. We can blast the Pluto Station to dust and wipe out the infrastructure around the gas giants and it’d still mean nothing to them. All told none of those, except for Jupiter and her moons, have the economic and strategic value of Earth and Mars.”

“A frontal assault on Sol would be suicide. Anybody who thinks otherwise is a goddamned fool,” Rear Admiral Edward Cazel off the super juggernaut ACS Suleiman the Great intoned gravely. He was one of the super juggernaut squadron commanders that Moore poached from the Third Fleet to build up her own forces. Several of her officers protested his words but others nodded in agreement. “Trying to go in the front door of the Sol System would be tantamount to sticking your hand in a meat grinder and turning the crank,” he finished.

Moore calmly waved everyone to silence and was about to speak up when a thought struck her. She stifled what she was going to say as the officers looked at her. She waved them to silence again as she thought. She projected the star display above the conference room table, reaching into it to maximize her view of the Sol System. She stared at it and the massive defenses in the system for a few minutes, knowing the assembled officers were waiting on her. A few spoke quietly to each other while she studied the display for a minute or two.

“A frontal assault…,” she murmured, stroking her chin with one hand. “No, that won’t work, it never would. We’d need three times as many ships as we do to pull that off…,” she lapsed into silence again as she looked at the display of humanity’s home system. There was something she was missing, but what? She’d given plenty of thought to attacking Sol over the past few weeks but the answer always eluded her.

Captain Xanti Jasso of the battlecruiser ACS Implacable spoke up as he looked at the display, his Basque accent soft, but noticeable. “If going in the front door near Pluto is suicide and going in the back door by the jumpgates is equally suicidal, why are we even about thinking that? Why not go through a window so-to-speak?”

Unbeknownst to the admiral, Erana gave her a thoughtful look as the Zaltaen woman heard the thoughts running through the admiral’s mind. She pushed a little harder with her telepathic abilities, going past surface thoughts and emotions to sense the admiral’s logic paths clicking into place as if they were tumblers in an old-fashioned lock. It wasn’t a deep scan–even a non-telepath would detect that–but it was enough for Erana to tell that Nancy was about to arrive at the conclusion she needed. All Erana needed to do was subtly follow the admiral’s thoughts with little more than a passive scan to see it happen.

Moore was quiet for a few more seconds, completely unaware of her alien chief of staff’s telepathic probe, an idea already forming in her head in response to Jasso’s question. “We always assume a threat from beyond a solar system coming out of the Kuiper Belt along the plane of the ecliptic. That’s how the defenses are set up in any star system. But what if…?” She drew in a sharp intake of breath and she almost wanted to smack herself. She’d commanded part of the Sol Defense Fleet before so of course she should’ve seen it a lot sooner. “I’m an idiot!” She declared, resisting the temptation to smack her forehead.

“What?” her fellow officers asked in surprise.

“My God! Why haven’t I seen it before?!” she gestured at the star display. She reached into the holographic display to grab the area around Earth and Luna and stretched out her hands to zoom in to show the plane of the ecliptic and all the defenses and planets lying along it. “We’re all thinking that we have to go in along the plane of the ecliptic! Conventional wisdom tells us that every time when thinking about entering a star system. We always focus on that approach because it’s the one ingrained in us since the Academy. ‘It’s done this way. Why? Because it is.’ But what if we don’t do that!?” She grinned fiercely. “What if we don’t play the game by the conventional rules and we come at them from a direction they don’t expect? It’s right there!”

“What do you mean ma’am?” Brooks asked her.

“This,” she said savagely as she pointed to the regions of space ‘above’ and ‘below’ the Sol System. “We take our fleet, plus some heavy reinforcements and come in from either ‘above’ or ‘below’ Earth and Luna. We perform a ‘drop’ per say into the system on a course using a parabolic curve and enter a polar orbit. Then all we’ll have to deal with is the Earth Orbital Fleet, the Lunar Fleet, maybe the Mars Fleet, and the orbital defenses; not the entirety of the Sol Defense Fleet and all the fixed defenses between us and the outer system. As for the orbital forts around Earth and Luna, we can smash those with kinetic rounds long before we enter their weapons’ engagement envelopes. Since we’ll be coming in from above or below, we’ll only have the gravity wells of Earth and Luna influencing our hyperdrives. Granted, it’ll play merry hell with our hyperdrives, but it can be done.”

Her fellow officers gaped at her, all except Jasso and a few others. They watched as she drew an arrow from above the Sol System, curving downward toward Earth’s northern hemisphere; the hemisphere which still contained over 80% of the planet’s nearly sixteen billion inhabitants. They kept staring at her for a few seconds before savage smiles broke out on their faces. Before she knew what was happening the officers stood up, faced her and saluted as one.

“This can end the war!” Rear Admiral Cazel said triumphantly after he dropped the salute.

That almost became a chant before a battlecruiser captain–it would be a battlecruiser captain she’d think later on–started another one, “Victory! Victory!” Before long everyone was chanting that, pumping their fists into the air.

Moore let that wash over her for a few seconds before she waved everyone back to their seats. It took longer than it should’ve but in that heady moment she wasn’t about to try to dampen their spirits. When the last commanding officer settled back into his or her seat she cleared her throat. “As much as I appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm it’s a little early to be popping the champagne to toast victory. But…,” she added for their benefit as their grins faltered. “It’s possible.”

Settling back into her chair she cleared the star display and brought the Newton System back up. “We’ve smashed the defenders here at the jump point. Everything of military or industrial value in orbit or on the surface of every world is about to be smashed. We’ve done what we’ve needed to do here. Wrecking the shipyards alone will set this system’s economy back at least a few decades.”

“You’re not suggesting pulling out ma’am?” the captain of the heavy cruiser ACS Pikemaul asked incredulously.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying captain,” she said to her. “The Human Federation has a force in-system that I don’t want to tangle with, especially when one considers we’ll need every warship we can get to make the attack on Earth succeed. That and surely the Human Federation is rushing every available warship here in response to our attack. We won’t even see them until after they’ve been here for over eleven hours. I won’t have us get chewed up here. We’ll depart and reassemble back in ACF space. I’m sure your crews would appreciate some time at home before we head for the Sol System.”

She watched her officers nod at the thought of shore leave. They needed some after being away for months, hiding out in deserted star systems between attacks. “I’ll need to talk to our Fleet Command to present an ops plan for the run on Earth and Luna. In the meantime, First Fleet can put in for refit and resupply and be reinforced while we’re at Altair. And if I know sailors, your crews are going to tear up Broad Street in the capital city the first few nights they’re back.”

She watched her officers snicker at the thought of what a bunch of Sailors and Marines would do at one of the capital’s largest entertainment districts. Broad Street was likened to the old Hotel Street in Honolulu and to Gangnam or Itaewon in Seoul, South Korea. Arcades, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants lined that street with more than a few discreet brothels and strip clubs off on some side streets. That was just about everything a Sailor or Marine with more credits in their pockets than they knew what to do with needed.

She was a junior officer once and she wasn’t going to try and crack down on any of that. If anything, she knew it wasn’t wise to issue an order you knew wouldn’t be obeyed. She’d just hope that the local police were ready for them.

“Well then,” she said with a grin, “let’s get this fleet turned around and get the hell out of here.”

The fleet exited hyperspace at Sirius-Four and as soon as the local sensor net detected them a Siriusian admiral welcomed them via subspace comm. Admiral Moore invited the other admiral and her staff to dine with her and her senior officers aboard the Eisenhower but the Siriusian admiral politely declined the invite. The other admiral transmitted their nation’s IFF transponder codes that would let the ACF fleet use the Siriusian gate network without leaving her flotilla’s assigned station in the inner solar system near the fourth planet.

The fleet was only a few days’ trip from the jumpgate and in the meantime Moore’s ships used that time in normal space to effect repairs to their outer hulls. Nobody wanted to go out onto the skin of a ship while in hyperspace and for good reason. Who knew what could happen to someone if they lost contact with the skin of the ship while in that strange dimension or even what that realm would do to anyone exposed out there. Nobody knew and nobody was inclined to find out the hard way. The only repairs they did were ones performed by remotes, but those robots couldn’t do the fine, delicate work that needed a person on the hull to do.

Admiral Moore approached the hospital room housing, temporarily at least, an officer she wanted to commend for her actions. The main Fleet hospital was once the Human Federation’s, as were all the old armed forces’ facilities on the planet Altair. Since the ACF broke with the HF the government had worked around the clock to expand the facility. What was once only a twenty-story structure now rose to a new height of thirty and with plans to expand it even more. It was the premier healthcare facility not only for the ACF Fleet, but also for all the Armed Forces of the Allied Colonies.

She buzzed the door and a green light appeared on the door panel on the wall. The admiral walked in, suddenly blinking at the amount of sunlight streaming in through the transparent aluminum windows.

Lying up in a seated position on the room’s sole bed was a beautiful gray eyed Fleet officer with dirty blonde hair whose working uniform jacket hanging on a coat rack now bore the eagles of a full captain. The admiral would’ve bet anything that Valerie Sykes didn’t expect a promotion after her ship was shot out from under her, but these were extraordinary circumstances.

“Admiral Moore,” the woman said from the bed, her voice strong with the alertness of full consciousness despite any painkillers they’d given her. “Forgive me if I don’t stand and offer a salute.”

“It’s okay Captain Sykes,” the admiral said as she took the chair to the left of the bed and settled a briefcase on the floor next to her. “This is a just a routine health and welfare visit.”

“With all due respect ma’am, somehow, I don’t think a full admiral visiting a mere captain is ‘routine,’” Sykes said. Her accent was a blend of Irish Gaelic and old Southern United States, which did some interesting things to how she pronounced her English. “Let alone the one the newsies are calling the ‘Heroine of the Revolution.’”

Moore chuckled almost mirthlessly. “You got that right Captain Sykes. Although I could do without the handle the newsies have strung on me.”

Valerie sighed softly. “The rank is going to take some getting used to.”

Moore chuckled again. “As will the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star that came with the promotion.”

Valerie gasped. “They’re… they’re giving me the Bronze Star too?”

Moore shrugged her shoulders easily as she leaned back in the chair. “It was either the Silver Star or the Bronze Star and a promotion. Fleet Command couldn’t justify giving you the Silver Star and the promotion, so they settled on the lower award. A few admirals, including myself, wanted to give you both for what you did out there, but we were outnumbered; though we tried to make a case for the Defense Superior Service Medal. Admiral Hermansson at BuPers and I managed to make your brevet promotion permanent.”

The admiral was referring to the Battle of Ares near the border with Human Federation space. Then Commander Sykes was aboard the ACS Naginata, a Polearm Class Battlecruiser stationed in the Merpon System with elements of the Fifth Fleet. Her battlecruiser squadron was ordered with another squadron and escorts to raid the Ares System on the other side of the ACF/HF border. The two squadrons and their escorts exited hyperspace and ran headlong into the teeth of four Human Federation battlecruiser squadrons. Ironically, those HF ships were going to perform a much heavier raid of the Merpon System when the ACF ships translated back into normal space.

The two sides’ ships were stunned by the sudden appearance of enemy targets but the HF commander recovered quickly. At only 1.5 million kilometers away from the jump point they were well within missile range of the ACF ships. The HF commander ordered his missile tubes to rapid fire, and with a two-to-one advantage in battlecruisers and a nearly three-to-one advantage in escorts his throw weight was much higher. That and his crews weren’t fighting off the momentary disorientation and nausea from coming out of hyper.

Even the immediate order to come about on an escape vector wasn’t enough to save the ACF battlecruisers. The ships still had to turn in space and kill their forward momentum using their engines. Even at 0.05 light that still took a lot of time.

Sykes’s captain was killed mere minutes into the battle when a battlecruiser’s heavy graser stabbed deep into the hull to strike the bridge. Over ninety percent of the bridge crew died instantly and the rest were to die momentarily later from enemy fire. Sykes was in the after section of her ship in auxiliary control and as soon as everyone on the bridge died, she inherited command.

She fought her ship well, even as weapons were blown away and her crew died around her. The Naginata and her sister ship, the Sovnya, managed to drive off the immediate pursuit of the HF battlecruiser pouring fire into the Naginata’s flank before moving to assist a fellow battlecruiser harassing an HF heavy cruiser. For Sykes’s efforts, another HF battlecruiser shifted its fire to the Naginata’s relatively undamaged portside. Broadside to broadside the ships pounded each other at the nearly point-blank energy range of five hundred thousand kilometers.

“Keep us on course for the jump point. Continue firing! As soon as we can, jump immediately!” she commanded to her crew before Auxcon took a glancing blow from a laser, the beam slicing right through the forward section of the hull. Flying debris whined through the secondary bridge, razor sharp fragments ripping through her crew. Undoing her shock frame and vaulting forward, using her vacsuit’s limited thrusters Sykes started rendering what aid she could to the wounded. It was pitifully little compared to some of the wounds incurred, but at least the vacsuits of the wounded acted as tourniquets when needed. Everything else was handled by the Individual Emergency Medical Kit (IEMK) on a crewmen’s suit. Together with one or two other crewmembers she managed to patch up three of the most badly wounded.

The ship heaved again with the force of a massive external explosion. She was thrown to the deck and skidded across it. Bending her legs at the knees she slammed into the bulkhead feet first, her only saving grace being her bent legs; although that did little for the pain arcing up both legs. Her coxswain’s shock frame broke from the impact and the master chief slumped forward, either dead or passed out. Sykes got up and staggered over to the man, reaching to get him out of there when the ship heaved again.

Only her suit’s automated systems managed to keep her from an uncontrolled flight across the bridge as the artificial gravity died. Thankfully the ship’s inertial compensator was still operational though, so at least the crew wasn’t turned into so much jam by the ship’s acceleration. The thrusters on her suit, already drained of most of their fuel, only managed to slow her crash into another bulkhead. Blinding pain arced into her brain as her right arm crunched violently against her body and the bulkhead. Bones snapped like twigs and for a few moments after that, she felt nothing.

When she came to, she didn’t know how much time had passed. She saw a chief petty officer from Tactical over her. She reached up with her left hand to touch the side of the other woman’s helmet. The other woman keyed her suit’s comm and Sykes gave her final order before the medics hauled her away. “Get this ship home! Whatever it takes! And give those bastards a bloody nose for their efforts too!”

Shortly after the medics got her off the secondary bridge the battered ship limped into hyperspace along with her badly mauled consorts. Sykes spent the whole journey through hyperspace laid up in a makeshift infirmary in the wardroom with a table doubling as a bed. The medics told her that she had several broken ribs, a shattered shoulder socket and she was going to lose her right arm. Hours after getting back to Merpon her crew informed her that the HF warships hadn’t pursued them through hyperspace and that her badly mauled squadron, a slightly over-strength division now after losing two of its eight battlecruisers outright, was safely back in ACF space.

Admiral Moore reached down and picked up the suitcase. She laid it in her lap before undoing the clasps on the front. She withdrew the deep navy-blue beret that the ACF Space Navy had adopted for ship captains and laid it on the bed where the captain could reach it with her left hand. “It might be jumping the gun a little bit, but as soon as you’re up and about and your physical therapy is done, BuPers wants to put a command deck under your feet once BuMed certifies you for active duty. They’re giving you your own battlecruiser. And I want you in the First Fleet as well.”

Valerie’s jaw dropped and she struggled to speak for a few moments as she moved the beret to her lap. My own battlecruiser?! She struggled to think of a response to that, she could only stare at Admiral Moore in disbelief.

Battlecruisers were the pride of the Fleet, the best an officer could aspire to. People didn’t go into the command branch to captain destroyers or cruisers, or even battleships or super juggernauts for that matter; they went with the dream of commanding battlecruisers. Command of those lethal sharks of the space lanes was only given to those officers that BuPers thought of as the most dedicated, the most predatory, the most independently minded, and above all, the most capable officers. Battlecruiser captains were the ones most likely to be considered for flag rank given enough time. That was as true in the ACF as it had been under the Human Federation. That she was going to be given a battlecruiser spoke volumes about how much BuPers and Admiral Moore thought of her.

She started to speak, stopped, started again, stopped again, all before she finally managed to ask. “Your… your fleet ma’am?”

“Yes. I need officers who aren’t afraid to get the job done. But I need them to be smart enough to know when to get the hell out of a situation without needlessly endangering their command. You’re one of those.” She spoke through Sykes’s sudden moment of incredulity. “Like I said, when you’re up and about First Fleet will be waiting for you. I can’t give you the details of our next campaign right now, but you can be assured that it’ll be worth your recovery time. We’ll be having a full briefing in a week, but I suppose you’re going to miss it.”

Moore’s eyes flicked to where Sykes’s right arm was resting under the sheets; the right arm that the younger woman hadn’t moved the whole time the admiral had been in the room. “How’s the arm?”

Valerie reached over with her left hand and drew down the sheet to show her new metallic arm. “The ‘automail’ is the other thing that’s going to take some getting used to. When the medics said I was going to lose my arm I didn’t want to believe them,” she said, her voice trembling a bit. “They showed me the damage and I just about passed out again. They said the whole thing was smashed–with shards of bone jabbing into the muscles–and it’d be easier to take it off. That’s not counting the broken ribs and shattered shoulder, although the doctors were able to knit the ribs back together with nanomachines.

“Now I’ve got this,” she gestured with her left hand at the metal prosthesis that had replaced most of her shoulder joint and whole arm. Her left hand moved the sheets down enough to show her new arm’s fully articulated, very human looking hand despite it being made of metals and carbon fiber. She willed it to ball into a fist just like she would her old flesh and blood one.

The younger woman winced in pain as she relaxed the hand once more. “The physical therapy and learning to use the new arm has been taxing to say the least. The doctors are amazed that I’ve come as far as I have, but they’re afraid I’m pushing myself too much. They say that once the nerves calm down from being directly connected the fire in my shoulder should ease and I should have full range of motion a week after that. Then it’s just a matter of strengthening the area around where they attached it.

“At least it’s the same shape, size and weight as my old arm so that’s a relief. All-in-all, they’re projecting a month for full rehab, even with nanomachines helping to repair the shoulder. After all that I should have about two or three times the strength of my old arm.”

“It’ll take at least two or three months for First Fleet to be ready to go again,” Moore said as she stood to leave. “We’re going to have to pull in reinforcements from all over ACF space; I have a feeling I’ll be robbing Peter to pay Paul to get the ships I need. A lot of my ships need time in the yards to get them back to combat readiness. That and my crews deserve some leave and the most critically injured need time in proper hospitals.”

“You have that much time to recover captain. When you’re finally out of here, put in for some personal leave, and when you get back, I’ll have someone brief you on the upcoming operation. Don’t push yourself any harder than you must. You have time. But I want you back aboard a ship and ready to kick some Feddy ass before this fleet leaves Altair.”

“Yes ma’am!” Sykes replied with enthusiasm.

Continue to Chapter 20…