Book: Breach of Duty



Breach of Duty




Breach of Duty


Breach of Faith Book Three


Daniel Gibbs Gary T. Stevens



Contents


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Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Epilogue

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Acknowledgements



Breach of Duty by Daniel Gibbs and Gary T. Stevens

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Gibbs

Visit Daniel Gibb’s website at www.danielgibbsauthor.net

Cover by Jeff Brown Graphics—www.jeffbrowngraphics.com

Additional Illustrations by Joel Steudler—www.joelsteudler.com

Editing by Beth at BZhercules.com

3D Art by Benoit Leonard

This book is a work of fiction, the characters, incidents and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. For permissions please contact [email protected]


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Echoes of War

Book 1 - Fight the Good Fight

Book 2 - Strong and Courageous

Book 3 - So Fight I

Book 4 - Gates of Hell

Book 5 - Keep the Faith

Book 6 - Run the Gauntlet

Breach of Faith

(With Gary T. Stevens)

Book 1 - Breach of Peace

Book 2 - Breach of Faith

Book 3 - Breach of Duty

Book 4 - Breach of Trust


Breach of Duty


Prologue


Coalition Defense Force HQ

Lawrence City, Canaan, Terran Coalition

10 June 2462

The conference room was one of many in the Coalition Defense Force's Administration Complex. An assembled party of personnel waited quietly for the formal change of command ceremony and a look at their new commanding officer. The formality was new to very few of them, given the flow of personnel in and out of Administration, but they treated it with habitual respect regardless. Perhaps more than usual, in fact, as their new CO was a decorated field officer.

Colonel Tabitha Hale, formerly the captain of the cruiser CSV Saladin, walked up to stand before them. She was a woman of slender build approaching middle-age, a few streaks of gray already showing in her hair, the rest the color of fine red wine. Her dark brown eyes remained fixed on General Andrew MacIntosh, the line commander she'd most recently been assigned—provisionally—to, who waited with patience alongside General Malik al-Rashad of the Procurement Department.

To the assembled, she was the epitome of the CDF officer with how she carried herself. Medals and commendations were on the breast of her olive-colored uniform jacket. They spoke of past triumphs in the war against the League of Sol's invasion forces. Eyes fixed particularly on the violet and green ribbon that represented the new Freedom Station Victory Citation—awarded to those officers who contributed to the victory at the League's Unity Station. Their new CO wasn't just an experienced field officer, she was a bona fide war hero.

Once she was standing before him, Hale brought her hand to her brow in a firm salute.

MacIntosh returned it and, without even glancing toward his digital tablet, began the formal statement to the other assembled officers and personnel. "It's my pleasure to bring Colonel Hale to this command. She's done an excellent job in the fleet. In the battle for Unity Station, the Saladin stayed in the fight, even after sustaining grievous damage, and helped bring us the victory that might finally see this war come to an end. I'd say she's earned a rest, but we all have, and we all know there's no rest to be found in Procurement." There was applause and chuckles at that. "Without further delay, your new commanding officer. Everyone, Colonel Tabitha Hale."

The civilians in the room clapped while the CDF personnel gave a respectful salute to Hale as she stepped forward, exuding confident authority in her movements. "At ease," she said, saluting them in reply. Her accent was a plain, easy one, the kind associated with the American-descended colonists of the planet dubbed New Ohio. "It's an honor to be here today. Our job's an important one. We keep our fighting men and women in shape by acquiring only the best equipment for them. That means we have to be vigilant to make sure they continue to get the best and ensure we're not wasting the resources of the Coalition on anything less." Hale noted the military personnel nodding in agreement. The civilians applauded again. "Over the next few days, I'll meet with all of our supervising officers and contractors to get a feel for what's on the table right now. Consider my office open for anyone who has a suggestion or a point to make. I'll take it under consideration. If you're right, I'll make sure everyone knows. If you're wrong, it won't go outside my office." She hoped her words encouraged people to bring their concerns and ideas to her, and that was important to her command style. "Well, everyone, I've got nothing more to say, and we have a war to win. You're dismissed."

Her subordinates fell out. General al-Rashad offered his hand. "Great speech," he said, his English spoken with the accent of a New Arabian.

"Indeed. Simple and to the point." MacIntosh shook her hand next. "I've already submitted your name to the Promotion Board. You'll get your first star this month or the next, I promise."

Hale nodded with respect. "Thank you, General. It'll be an honor."

The two generals left her behind at that point. She departed as well. The interior halls of Administration were alabaster-colored. The carpet was elegant emerald green with ocean blue along the walls. Images adorned the walls, prominent officers from the history of the CDF, usually, or moments of historical importance.

Hale had enough taste to enjoy the art, but she also had other concerns. Those led her to her new office. Her secretary, Yeoman Chaim Lewinsky, nodded to her and said, "Congratulations, Colonel; it's official." His uniform marked him an NCO in the administrative branch of the CDF, with a Star of David patch on the left shoulder to show his religious affiliation. Years ago, Hale had worn the cross of the Lutheran church but had since ceased, not from any lack of faith, but personal convictions about the patches and their necessity.

"Only provisional until I get my star," she replied. "But thanks." She moved on past Lewinsky and into her office. She'd already brought some things in. Images of family and comrades, some lost to the war, all reminders of what was at stake. Another picture showed the medals she'd won, including her recent acquisition of a Star of Valor for the battle to take Unity Station. The award brought mixed feelings from her.

She recognized the need for such honors, and how they inspired the service as a whole, and she was duly proud of winning it—proud of the courage she'd summoned to lead her damaged ship back into the fight to help win a pivotal battle. At the same time, she considered how many of her crew never came home from that battle.

Her mind flashed back to the funeral after the battle. The wail of bagpipes and the sad bugle tones that accompanied the slain as they were committed to the void of space. The melancholy took hold of her, with words quoted from a pre-Exodus General from the 19th Century coming to mind. "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won." I didn't even win the battle. Colonel Cohen won that battle for us.

Hale sat at her desk and activated the computer system built into it. A holo-display came up. She moved her hands to the keyboard and typed in her military ID and personalized access code. Now that her position was official, the code worked, giving her expanded access to the procurement database and system. From her terminal, she could access information on the hundreds of contracts that kept the CDF supplied with everything from advanced Hunter missiles to rolls of toilet paper.

But neither of those interested her. What did was the database itself, and the reports her new clearance gave her legal access to. After glancing at her closed door, she started typing in what she wanted to find. With the enhanced speed from the latest in quantum-level computing software, her query worked through the exabytes of data in the Coalition Defense Force systems until it found what she was looking for. The document presented itself on her screen.

Investigative Report on Incident involving CSV Laffey.

"There you are," she murmured. Memories of the Laffey came to her, and should anyone be watching, her expression would speak of determination and an old, bitter frustration. "The first step to the truth."

Breach of Duty

In the heart of the Coalition Defense Force Administration Complex, General Ulysses Erhart was busy with his work. As the ten-year-long head of special projects, he was responsible for the bureaucratic side of many new technological initiatives to help push the Coalition to victory. He appreciated, sincerely, that it let him keep fighting after his time in field command was over.

His office was more spartan than Hale's smaller one. He had the requisite flags and furnishings, but there were few pictures. The only prominent ones were on his desk. For Erhart, it was a painful thing to see them every day, but it reminded him of the need for his work and why, even as he grew older and more tired, he had to stay the course.

A tone came from his desk. "General, Mister Faulkner is here," said his aide, Colonel Ari Ze'evi.

Erhart sighed. "Let him in, Colonel."

The door opened. The man who entered was Oliver Faulkner, President and CEO of Kalling Engineering. They were a large defense contractor for the Coalition, responsible for the development and construction of several military engine systems, including the fusion drives that gave the newest classes of CDF destroyers significant acceleration advantages over their League counterparts.

Faulkner was their favored public face, a fact Erhart recognized as reasonable, given his influence. He was still gaining weight as he approached the end of his sixth decade, with blue eyes and light brown hair, graying at the temples. Those blue eyes were not in a pleasant state either, showing great agitation. Erhart refused to let himself sigh again as he felt like doing. Faulkner was, despite his success, something of a worrywart. "Oliver, what can I do for you?"

"You can explain why they let that damn woman get a high post in Procurement!"

Erhart shrugged. He'd expected this. "She's a war hero. That's usually reason enough."

Faulkner nodded. "Dammit, Erhart, she's a threat to us both. She's never let the Laffey go. We're so close now..."

"Which is exactly why you shouldn't panic," Erhart said, aiming for a soothing tone. "Hale's going to have a lot of work to do. She won't have time to find anything that might hurt us. Not before we've already finished."

"Are you sure?" Faulkner demanded. "We've been working on this for ten years, Erhart, ten years. And some of my colleagues are already getting squirrely about it with all our battlefield victories now. Things aren't as scary as they were eight years ago. With things this tough, we can't take risks, and I won't have it all messed up because that… that bitch can't let the Laffey go."

Erhart blanched at Faulkner's language. For all his attempts at appearing the sophisticated businessman, he could be blunt and crude when driven to agitation—which was far too often. "Everything's fine. We're almost done. It'll only become undone if we draw too much suspicion." He dropped the broad hint, hoping Faulkner would take it.

"We should have dealt with the entire Laffey crew years ago. Taken them all out."

"We did deal with it, or rather, I did at your behest," Erhart reminded him. "Colonel Henry took the blame and cleared you. Going after his officers would have ruined that."

"But now they're going to ruin us!"

"Not if you keep your head!" Erhart hissed, his patience strained. "And stop trying to drop in on me!" He leveled a sharp look at his "partner." "I have the Laffey situation well in hand."

"What about Ostrovsky? He keeps snooping."

The reference to the head of CDF Intelligence did nothing to faze Erhart. "He's in the dark. I've worked hard to keep it that way. That won't work if you start dropping in on my office regularly." That last sentence was said with all the ice of an Oort cloud. "So get out of here and go back to making your preparations, Oliver. I've got everything on this side under control."

Faulkner didn't appear convinced. Nevertheless, he relented, giving a final heated look to his partner before leaving.

Erhart sighed and rubbed at his forehead. One or two meetings with Faulkner a month wouldn't raise any alarms—Kalling did plenty of research business—but repeated visits would. At least we're almost done. The plan's taken a long time to work out, but soon it'll be over. He glanced at the picture on his desk. The pain in him throbbed.

Faulkner's paranoia aside, it wouldn't hurt to keep tabs on Hale. She might cause trouble. Erhart had watched her career long enough to know she'd never accepted the outcome of the Laffey Incident. Not like the others. He brought up their information. Tabitha Hale, former XO. Colonel Anthony Xu, former TAO. Major Joachim Mueller, former helmsman. And Major Janine Renner, former comm officer. He kept tabs on them all to make sure there were no problems. There aren't any, yet. And it'll be a moot point soon.

Maybe he should have destroyed all of them back then, yes, but it didn't make sense to deprive the CDF of so many good officers. Not to mention, it would've forced the trial Faulkner himself had been so desperate to avoid. Their fates had been such useful leverage against the one sacrifice he did have to make, the one that protected Kalling from the results of Faulkner's own greed and stupidity.

He brought up the last profile. A man of dark skin, from the communities of New Virginia descended from the Exodus Fleet's African-American contingent. Sad to see such a promising officer fall so low, he said of the man who had once been CO of the Laffey when it had its fateful accident. The former Colonel James Henry was now, according to Erhart's intelligence, running a ship in Neutral Space. A brave CDF officer reduced to a mercenary smuggler for hire.

It would be wise to keep tabs on him, just in case, no matter where he was in the lawless reaches of the neutral worlds.


1


ISV Shadow Wolf

Cyclades, Independent System, Neutral Space

12 July 2462

Some jobs were too good to be true.

At least a dozen armed bounty hunters, male and female, human and Tal'mayan and Saurian, were now in the hangar. Rows of crates of Cycladian grapefruit, apples, and pears provided them cover as well as the Shadow Wolf crew, with the obvious downside that the containers were getting shot up in the process.

Captain James Henry was at the corner of the forward port hold, using this space as cover from enemy fire. His trusty CP-2520 pistol was on his belt as a backup weapon to the pulse rifle that he held in his hands. His grandfather's old gun from the late Saurian Wars came up and his eye settled into the raised scope, giving his shots killing precision when he had a moment to fire. His eye locked on to one of the bounty hunters as she came out of cover, evidently looking to shoot at his comrades, and he squeezed the trigger. A pulse of white-blue energy slammed into her neck, a fatal blow.

Beside him, his First Mate Tia Nguyen's gray eyes focused down the sight of her stolen Rigault Heavy Industries plasma pistol, a high-end model with a now-worn wood-finished stock and glowing plasma chamber. She took a shot that winged another of the attackers but failed to penetrate the armor. Frustration showed on her face, her olive yellow-toned skin already slicked with sweat.

Piper got off a better shot with her weapon. The blast struck one of the bounty hunters in the hand and caused him to drop his gun. She breathed something under her breath that wasn't English, most likely one of the Cherokee or Tohono O'odham words she'd learned. While Tia's Hestian predecessors originally hailed from the nations of Southeast Asia, Piper's coppery-bronze color reflected the Native American ancestry of the settlers of her homeworld Sanctuary.

Another bounty hunter came into Henry's sights and he pulled the trigger. This shot missed, blasting a hole into a crate full of Cycladian grapefruit. There goes more of our shipment, he considered ruefully. At this rate, we won't have a cargo.

But he kept firing when feasible. Regardless of the damage, their efforts were to the benefit of their shipmates. He brought the scope of his rifle up to get a good view of them all.

Felix Rothbard, fellow ex-CDF officer and Henry's lifelong friend, was behind a ruined pile of fruit crates. He held his old CDF-issue pistol tightly in his hands as he waited for a clear shot. When it came, he squeezed off a shot that clipped another of the attackers, forcing the Tal'mayan male to retreat to his cover.

Sharing his cover was Miriam Gaon, former Coalition Intelligence Service, now a spacer by choice. She held a charged particle pistol of her own, a sleek silver model built by artificers on Trinidad Station. Like Henry's CP-2520 its charge chamber was a cylinder in shape, giving it a profile similar to a revolver firearm. She raised the gun and shot at a bounty hunter trying to slip past them. "They've got numbers," she said, her voice audible over the commlink despite the weapons fire. "We can't stay here."

"I'd love to get back to the ship, but that's not going to be easy given the circumstances," Felix said, ducking back into cover just in time to avoid another shot. "Vidia! Brigitte! What's your status?"

Brigitte Tam'si stood out among the crew with her purple-dyed mohawk, the fuzz on the rest of her head colored green, contrasting a skin tone similar to Henry's. A plasma pistol was in her grip and already low on remaining shots. She fired one that did more damage to the crate beside her foe than the attacker. It was a necessary shot, given the predicament of another crew member.

Vidia Andrews was hard-pressed from two sides, as a result of his misfortune to be the closest to the entrance when the attackers came in. Even worse, he was pinned down and separated from the others. His xaser pistol flashed to life, searing a crate of their cargo but not quite managing a direct hit on the bounty hunter there. Another took the time to pop out of cover and squeeze a shot at him. Vidia barely got back behind the crate of fruit that was his only defense, but with the enemies approaching on both sides, he only had moments left.

Henry took all this in with a sweep of the hangar from his rifle scope. He let Tia and Piper continue to shoot from their current vantage point in the hold whenever enemy fire let them. Henry lined up a shot that nearly claimed another of the bounty hunters, but they moved at the last moment, meaning he accomplished nothing except damaging more of their cargo and, even worse, alerting said foe to the threat and sending the bounty hunter back to cover.

"This isn't going well," Tia said. "We need to get out of here."

"We need the rest of the cargo if we're not going to go broke," Henry reminded her.

"What good will it do us to get killed?" she shot back. "That son of a bitch Martinez is going to stiff us anyway."

Henry couldn't deny he figured the broker, one Tomas Martinez, was a crook, but clients were clients. Especially these days. "If we show up empty-handed, word'll spread that we're not reliable," he warned. "Things are bad enough with the League wanting our heads and scaring people off." He waited another moment before leaning around the corner to aim. Through his scope, he saw one of the bounty hunters advancing on Vidia. He rested the crosshairs on the back of the bounty hunter and squeezed the trigger. The pulse blast caught his target in the nape of the neck. It was an instant kill.

An energy blast sizzled across his vision a moment later. The return shot had nearly struck him, barely missing on its way to scoring the interior of the hold. Henry pulled back. "I think they've got a sniper," he said. "Where's Yanik?"

"He already went out th' other hold," said Cera over the link, her New Connaught lilt strong without making her incomprehensible. "Captain, ye sure ye don't want th' turrets in th' fight?"

He was, in fact, increasingly unsure of that. "Just be on standby for them if we need them," Henry warned.

"Aye."

There was a yelp nearby a moment later. Piper fell back into cover, a prominent burn — probably from plasma — on her left arm. "Definitely a sniper."

"We'll have to hope Yanik takes care of him," Henry replied. "Because right now, I'm not sure we can even get the others out of here, much less the cargo."

Breach of Duty

The cargo was not on Vidia's mind. The New Antillan man was thinking of his own mortality and the old trouble of facing God with the blood of another being fresh on his hands. His Bahá'í upbringing, and the strong faith he felt, made the taking of life something he regretted. God preserve me from the day I have taken too much blood on my soul, he prayed as another shot struck at his cover. Forgive me, but I must protect my comrades and fulfill God's work in this world.

Vidia held the xaser out, fired blindly around the corner, and waited for return fire. It came, and with it, a growing smell of burnt fruit beside him. His cover was failing.

"Vidia, to your right, on my mark!" he heard Felix shout. Even as he did, Vidia heard a tone from his commlink. He looked down to see a message from Felix. "LEFT." He smiled at that. Felix was clever. When Felix roared, "Mark," Vidia turned to his left. Technically, it put him a little further away from the others. But as he ran to the next set of crates, his pistol up and firing, he could see why. The bounty hunters had fallen for Felix's verbal command and directed themselves to intercept him coming from the opposite direction, leaving them vulnerable to Vidia himself. More fire came down on Felix, pinning him and Miri, but that freed Brigitte to help, and her position gave her good shots. Two of their foes went down and a third took a shot to the hip that made them stop and slip back into cover. With his heart pumping, Vidia charged for a crate stack that would give him cover.

He almost made it.

There was a sharp sound in the air and hot pain stabbed through his left calf. His left leg seized up accordingly, and he tumbled forward, hitting the floor just at the edge of the crates. He strove to banish the pain from his mind and crawled forward, taking cover. Another pain speared his right ankle just before he could get it into cover.

"Someone find that damn sniper!" Felix shouted.

Vidia hoped he would. Otherwise, he wasn't sure they'd be getting back to the ship at this rate.

Breach of Duty

The sniper in question was on the roof of the hangar. She was a Saurian, one of those few who wasn't raised in the faith of the Prophet as she still had a tail. She was not the best sniper in the galaxy, but she didn't need to be. Her comrades would finish the job, and they would get paid.

Those considerations were not hers, but were rather the thoughts of the being who was seconds away from striking.

The female Saurian dropped away from her perch at the last second, just in time to prevent Yanik S'srish from getting her in a fatal headlock. The big Saurian Second Mate of the Shadow Wolf took his failure in stride, as her sudden movement allowed him to get his tail around her sniper rifle. She was so concerned with avoiding his taloned hands that she failed to grip the gun strongly enough to keep him from pulling it from her grasp. His tail pulled back and released, throwing the rifle off the roof. He snarled at her and hissed inarticulately.

As he'd hoped, she accepted the challenge.

He'd anticipated her to lunge, to bring her claws to bear on him. Instead, she twisted, and her tail shot forward, wrapping around his right ankle. She yanked with enough force to bring Yanik off his feet. Only then did she jump, her talons gleaming in the pale yellow light of Cyclades' star. They came down for Yanik's neck. His own hand shot up and grabbed her wrist, saving his flesh from being ripped while his claws cut into her own scaled flesh. She hissed in pain and frustration and tried to use superior leverage on him, bringing her other hand up to swipe. Rather than repeat the maneuver he'd used to stop her first strike, Yanik's tail came up and caught her by the wrist. He lacked the strength in the tail to throw her off, but it did keep his right hand free to go for his belt. She might have stopped him, but in her haste to press the advantage, her tail went for his throat. If she could not rip his throat out, she would crush it. Yanik felt the pressure and knew she could do so.

But she wouldn't get the chance. His right hand came back up, in it a wicked curved blade of thirty centimeters' length known to most Saurians as a s'skp'sh. The blade went through the material of her tactical vest with little difficulty. Her flesh yielded to it as well, spilling blood that soaked his hand. She shrieked at the pain it brought her, and her grip on his throat weakened. Yanik could breathe again, a relief, while at the same time he felt the same need to rip her throat out just as she had tried with him, a predator instinct that was difficult to resist when it came on full force.

With years of practice, Yanik resisted it. Instead of a wild attack to try and rip his foe, he got back to his feet. The sniper was getting back up too. Rage shined in her ruby-red eyes and she roared at him, a call of challenge and promise of vengeance for the wound he'd inflicted. He hissed a response. He wasn't sure she knew his dialect of Saurian, but it was immaterial. She knew what he meant, even if she didn't understand his words.

Which was why she charged into him. Together they hit the skylight of the hangar. The clear synthglass was never meant to take the sheer force of two fully-grown Saurians slamming into it at that speed, causing both to crash to the ground below. Yanik avoided getting the worst of it— although the shards did leave him with a number of stinging cuts—by turning in mid-air so that she didn't land on him. They landed side by side instead.

Right in the middle of the firefight.

Breach of Duty

Throughout the fight, the specialists still aboard the Shadow Wolf made ready for the escape they knew they'd have to make. Cera was at the helm, able to launch the moment she got word. Dr. Oskar Kiderlein awaited the injuries in his infirmary under the stern command of Henry to not expose himself to fire "this time."

In the Engineering compartment toward the stern, Pieter Hartzog and his Engineer's Mate, twenty-year-old Samina Khan, were finishing their final preparations.

Samina finished her last task with a speed she once never considered herself capable of. "Helium-3 lines secure," she confirmed, affirming for Pieter that their reactor core would receive the helium-3 fuel necessary for the fusion reaction that gave life to their ship.

"Excellent," he said. His Afrikaans accent was one Samina was well-used to listening to, allowing her to understand him even when the others sometimes didn't. "We're ready for the Captain's word to launch."

"Shouldn't we be helping them?" Samina asked.

"I'm no good with a gun," Pieter said. "As liable to shoot my own foot off. And I know you're no better. Captain wants us in here, so here we stay."

Samina nodded. Like Pieter, she waited, using her commlink to listen for a sign the others were okay.

Instead, all she heard was how badly things were going. Vidia was hurt. So was Piper. Yanik fell through the roof. And these bounty hunters kept coming. Surely there was something she could do! Maybe she had orders not to, but they'd finished preparing for launch. They could do something now!

But what if you make it worse? Samina asked herself. What if you hurt them?

The consideration nearly stopped her. Nearly. But youth and eagerness won out over caution. Samina ran from Engineering. Pieter, busy with a screen, said nothing.

From Engineering, she went through the halls to the ship's port side, then the middle section of the ship's main upper deck. She found the refitted backup airlock that now acted as the entrance to the mid-port quad pulse gun turret. A tap of her hand to the controls opened the portal, allowing her entry. A crash couch with a harness, helmet, and attached air supply was directly in front of her, combined with the two-stick controls for the pulse guns. She jumped into the seat and, with the aid of the training given by Felix, brought the pulse guns to life.

"Check. Who's in th' turret?" Cera's voice crackled over the intercom.

"I'm going to help," Samina insisted. She could already see the ongoing fight. The others were caught behind cover, and at least ten enemies remained, including a Saurian that continued to wrestle with Yanik.



"The Captain doesn't want th' guns in th' fight, Samina. Stand down!"

"But…"

"I know ye want t' help, girl, but ye can't just go blazin' like that! Especially with th' quads! Those things'll blow th' hangar t' bits if they hit th' walls!"

Samina's hands pulled away obediently. She wanted to help, not make things worse, and Cera was right about—

That was when she saw the crates Brigitte was using for cover fall apart, no longer capable of resisting the incoming fire. She was dashing for cover. Samina prayed she'd make it—but she didn't. A shot took Brigitte in the hip. She toppled over, falling on the open hangar floor. Horrified, Samina's eyes tracked over to where their attackers were advancing toward Brigitte.

Full of fear for the lively, rebellious Brigitte, Samina's hands wrapped around the controls for the turret again. She brought the gun over so the crosshairs focused on the advancing bounty hunters, and her finger pressed on the trigger.

Breach of Duty

The thunder of the pulse guns roared through the hangar. Sapphire bolts slammed into the largest of the approaching bounty hunters. Bolts meant to break the deflectors and hull of combat starfighters were instantly fatal to a being shot directly with them, armor or no. The being in question didn't collapse only because there wasn't enough of him left to do so. The only thing left was a pile of scorched ash and debris.

The firing of the quads only continued for a few more moments, destroying utterly one of the stacks of fruit crates and hitting the two bounty hunters who'd been using it for cover. They suffered the same fate as the first hit.

Henry was quick to get on the commlink. "Cease fire!" he demanded. "Who the hell is on that turret?!"

There was no reply for several seconds. When it finally came, it was from Cera. "Samina. She's not shootin' now, sir."

Henry let out a long, frustrated sigh. More of their cargo was ruined now, which was frustrating, but he was worried about Samina too. She'd been kept from this kind of violence successfully before. He didn't want to think about how this would affect her.

Nor did he have time to. The sudden loss of three of their number to the use of the Shadow Wolf's guns had a morale effect on the bounty hunters. He had to seize it if he was going to get his people out of here. "Cera, engage the auto-turrets," he ordered. "If they don't run, fire."

"Aye."

Faint mechanical whirring came from the ship as the three port side auto-turrets started tracking. Their barrels rotated downward and toward the bow visibly. There was a cry from the bounty hunters to retreat, but it stopped. Whoever's in charge isn't down here.

As he'd instructed, Cera responded to their refusal to retreat by opening fire. A rapid series of thundercracks echoed through the hangar as slivers of metal were magnetically accelerated to high speed. They were meant for damaging or destroying enemy missiles. What they did to the bounty hunters—and, more unfortunately, to some of the fruit crates—was something Henry would rather have not seen. Three of them managed to get out of the hangar before the auto-turrets engaged them. A fourth nearly did before being mowed down from behind.

"Get everything aboard! Move!" Henry insisted, dashing down the gangway. Felix went to help Vidia and Miri went to Brigitte. Henry grabbed one of the anti-grav pallet jacks and personally fixed it to an intact stack of fruit crates, which he brought aboard. Tia called for Oskar to tend to the wounded. Felix and Miri joined Henry once they had their wounded comrades safely in the hold.

The bounty hunters never came back, thankfully, so within five minutes, they had the last of their cargo aboard. Miri, Tia, and Henry went to the bridge while everyone else took appropriate positions for launch. The moment Henry stepped onto the bridge, he called out, "Get us out of here."

Cera obeyed. A remote command opened up the hangar roof. The synthglass ceiling retracted to each side, giving enough clearance for the Shadow Wolf to rise through the gap.

"Cyclades traffic control just yanked our launch clearance," Tia warned. "They want us to power down."

Henry nodded. He considered, for a second, obeying the order. Just for a second. But the risk to his crew was too great. He didn't trust the Cycladian authorities, given what happened. Someone was giving the bounty hunters cover for their operations, after all. He ended up saying nothing, a silence Tia extended to the traffic control authorities.

Cera triggered the ship's main drives and orientated the ship toward the sky. The inertial compensators kept them from feeling the G-forces as they exceeded the necessary 9.0km/s escape velocity for the planet.

A couple of minutes passed and they were in the void again. But there was no time to relax. "We've got a ship burning towards us," Miri said. "Make that multiple vessels. Looks like gunships and a remilitarized frigate."

"Either the colony's defensive squadron or…" Tia noted. "…they're hailing."

Henry didn't much care to speak to them, but didn't object to the call being put through. "This is the Workers' Vanguard, flagship of the Sagittarian Peoples' Liberation Front! You will surrender immediately for trial as enemies of the Sagittarian People and their revolutionary allies, the League of Sol!"

"What a bunch o' loons," Cera guffawed. "Ready on fusion drives, Captain."

Henry considered giving a response, but Tia beat him to it. She spoke into the ship's comm system with scorn dripping from every syllable. "I'm Tia Nguyen of the Hestian Workers' Party, and you're nothing but a bunch of pirate posers. You've never done a thing to liberate oppressed people. Come near us, and I look forward to blasting you to atoms." She cut the line and noticed their looks. "What? It's true. They're a joke. They barely qualify as a front for the League."

Henry chuckled and nodded to her. "I'll take your word for it, Tia. Cera, are we ready?"

"We are, sir."

He studied the holotank. The "pirate posers" were moving to intercept them. They would, in fact, succeed, at least at their current respective velocities. Henry wasn't convinced of their tactical acumen, given they had to know of the Shadow Wolf's armament, and that moving to head the ship off was exposing them to fire from the Wolf's best weapons.

But it was a moot point because Henry had no intention of letting them intercept. "Cera, engage the fusion drives."

In the rear two holds of the Wolf, machines began pumping deuterium and helium-3 into a reactor vessel. Energy provided by the rest of the ship triggered the two compounds to start fusing. The plasma byproduct surged into the propulsion systems.

The result was an even larger, hotter drive plume than the standard drives of the ship managed, with such an increase in thrust that the ship's inertial compensators were overwhelmed and couldn't keep up. The crew of the Shadow Wolf was pressed into their seats by over 2Gs of force as their ship rocketed away from Cyclades.

They endured a minute under this pressure, then another. Finally, Henry called out for Cera to reduce the thrust, bringing it down to a manageable level of 1.1 Gs. "Keep at this for ten minutes and then cut the drive," he ordered her, judging the distances on the holotank. With the speed they'd attained through that extra acceleration, they'd be sure to get to the jump limit of the Cyclades system before their pursuers could intercept.

"Will do," Cera said.

Henry removed his safety harness. Between the adrenaline rush of the firefight in the hangar and the feeling of his bones being smushed to jelly by the gravities they'd endured, he was worn out. But he had crew to check on. "I'm going back to see to things," he said to Tia. "Bridge is yours until I come back."

She nodded. "Yes, sir."


2

Oskar's infirmary had three beds. All were now occupied by the wounded. Oskar looked over Vidia's wounds, who lay quietly on the nearest bed. Yanik filled one, although he was sitting up and applying bandages to his own wounds. Brigitte lay in the last bed, a medicated patch already over her injured hip being tended to by Piper, who had a similar one on her injured left arm.

Henry looked at his wounded crew with a stern expression on his face, one just slightly hinting at the frustration he felt within.

"They'll all live," Oskar said to Henry, his English spoken with a German accent. "Piper's injury is the least serious. As soon as I treat these, I'll get to her." Oskar glanced toward Yanik. "Yanik's injuries are from the fall and shattered synthglass. Even with his physiology, he should take it easy for a couple of days."

"And the others?"

"Damaged epidermis and muscle for Brigitte here. She'll need a week or so of only light duties. Vidia will require two."

Henry nodded. As always, the crew was stretched thin, and the loss of two would make things even thinner, but they'd manage. "Anything else?"

"Our medical supplies are running low again," Oskar said, gesturing to his cabinets. Henry saw that, nodded, and forced down a grimace. "I'm well aware money is going to be an issue over time. But we have been getting into many fights lately."

"I know. However, even with the war going the way it is, the League still hasn't rescinded the bounty they put out on us." In spite of their recent defeats, the League maintained some influence in the reaches of Neutral Space, aided by local governments that leaned their way politically. "If only we could get these desperate bounty hunters and nut-head political radicals off our back."

Could be worse, Henry mused. If they were winning, we'd really be in trouble.

The ship intercom signaled. Henry answered it for Oskar. "Yes?"

"Samina's still in that turret," Tia said. "Someone should check on her."

"On my way."

Breach of Duty

Henry opened up the turret in question and stepped into it. Samina was sitting by herself in the crash seat, tears flowing from her reddened brown eyes. He breathed in to stop himself from sighing and knelt beside the chair. "You all right?"

She shook her head wordlessly.

"Want to talk?" He'd seen this before a couple of times. "I…" He stopped himself while considering what he was going to say to her. He settled on reassuring her. "I'm not upset you defied orders. I can see why you did. You probably saved Brigitte."

"I… I killed them," she answered in a low, strained voice. "I… I just p-pushed t-the trig-trigger and… and h-he…"

"I know," he said. "I've been there before."

"I-I'm go-going to ja-jahannam," Samina stammered. She added breathlessly, fresh tears streaming down her cheeks, "God says not to kill and I killed and I'm not going to Paradise to be with my family again, I'll be sent to jahannam…"

He shook his head. "The law is not to murder, Samina. You didn't murder. You protected your comrades from people who wanted to kill us."

"How do you know?" she asked in a strained voice. "How do you know?"

"Because God is just. That's something just about every religion agrees on, right? God knows you were trying to save a friend and didn't have murder in your heart, so he knows you're not a murderer."

He could see he scored a point with her. He could also see the uncertainty that cropped up. "But you don't believe in God yourself, though."

"That's…" He sighed and shook his head. He wished Vidia was here instead of the infirmary. As the unofficial chaplain of the Shadow Wolf, he'd know what to say to her.

But he's not here; you are. Say what she needs to hear.

"I don't think God particularly concerns himself with humanity anymore, true. But I figure when He sees a soul as kind and honest as yours, He'll know you deserve to be with your family again. He'll know you're not a murderer."

She swallowed and nodded, accepting his point. It was some balm to the pain visible on her. She'd taken a life, a sapient, thinking being's life, and he saw that it had inflicted a grave moral injury. She gave him a forlorn look and asked sheepishly, "May I?"

He didn't need to ask what she meant. After a moment's consideration, Henry nodded and chuckled. "Sure, this time," he said, reassuring her with a small smile.

Samina leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him in a hug. Henry enclosed his arms over her shoulders to return it, giving the hurt young woman the emotional support she, at this moment, desperately needed.

Breach of Duty

Henry waited until they'd made two jumps before calling everyone to the galley, leaving Miri and Felix to man the bridge and listen. Brigitte needed Piper's help to walk, and Vidia was brought in with the one wheelchair Oskar kept on board. Henry looked across the group and could see the strain on their faces. Another job, another firefight.

"So I'm beginning to think our change to the Omega Nebula region isn't working as planned," Tia said wryly. "We've had what, three big shootouts in the last month? And four near-fights."

"It's damn ludicrous," Felix said over the intercom. "The League's just had its ass handed to it again, and these nitwits still act like they're winning the war."

"Some of them are just bounty hunter and merc groups with more firepower than sense," Henry said. "And I'm betting a few are desperate for any payday they can find."

"I imagine League External Security is still at work in Neutral Space," Miri said. "The battlefield defeats will only be encouraging them to try harder. Even if it's a waste of resources."

"An' what about th' loons that tried t' shoot us down?" Cera looked at Tia. "Ye heard o' them, right?"

Tia rolled her eyes. "They're a joke. A bunch of pirates who spout radical socialism without any clue of what it entails beyond giving them an excuse to attack merchant shipping. The League supplies them when it can, mostly because they attack Coalition shipping wherever they find it. If the Coalition ever decides to start sending ships into Neutral Space, they'll be history, and good riddance. They're an embarrassment to legitimate liberation movements." She looked Henry's way. "What I'm more worried about is what this fighting is doing to our bottom line."

"It's not been good for it," he conceded. "Knowing we've got a target on our back isn't making finding contracts any easier. Oskar's already brought up the issue of medical supplies." Noting the gathering worry, he was quick to add, "We're still not badly off, but we're going to have to be careful."

"How much do you think Martinez will dock the contract?" asked Piper.

"Well, we recovered nine-tenths of the cargo, so we should get nine-tenths of the total," Tia said.

"I'll double-check the contract, but I'm pretty sure that's how it'll go." He didn't say that he hoped that was how it'd go, since there was no point in demoralizing everyone further. With the crew's morale in mind, he added, "Speaking of the rest, any fruit that survived their crates being damaged won't be fresh when we get back to Darien, so go ahead and enjoy."

The others cheered. Cycladian fruit was pricey and hard to find.

After cheering, Pieter spoke up. "I don't want to kill the good mood, but we need to be careful about our use of the fusion drive. We were never meant to use it so often. I'm worried we're straining the ship's frame too far. We're going to need to survey her structure soon."

It was a good point and yet another issue to deal with. The kind of survey Pieter was talking about would take days, days in which the ship couldn't fly. "I'll see what I can do about that," Henry said. "For now, everyone, see to your watches or hit your racks. We're on our way to Darien to get paid."

Breach of Duty

Henry was in his office waiting when Felix entered, relieved from his bridge watch by Yanik. He held up the bottle of New Virginia-made bourbon whiskey that they used to commemorate events together. Henry brought out two tumblers and watched Felix pour the dark amber fluid in. "So the word's official," he said. "The League's out. Their fleet's retreated back to the Orion Spur."

"I heard they've still got some holdings left," said Henry.

"Oh, they're dug in on a few of their colony worlds, but they're cut off and isolated. CDF's leaving them to wither, reports say, they're focusing on liberating conquered worlds." Felix finished pouring his glass and held it up, Henry doing the same. "To victory."

He nodded. "And to the League finally leaving us the hell alone," he added, at which point he clinked his tumbler against Felix's. They took their drink together. The whiskey burned its way through their throats and both, even with their long experience with it, were careful to limit their intake.

Once they were done, the tumblers went back to the desk, where Felix poured them some more. "Y'know, I was talking to some friends of mine back home," he said. "They told me something interesting."

"Yeah?" Henry asked.

"Remember that XO you had on the Laffey?" Felix noticed the quiet look on Henry's face. "Tabitha Hale, right? Word is, she was in that big push on the League's Unity Station. Her ship took a beating, but she led them through it to the win. So now she's got her name on the promotion list. She'll be getting her first star in a month or two."

Henry nodded. The very name of the Laffey stuck in his head. It was an old wound that never properly healed. He could still remember the old ship, a pre-war destroyer testing new technology.

And he could remember the catastrophic result of that testing. The devastation suffered aboard his ship. The deaths it caused.

That alone was bad enough. What happened afterward ruined his life. His arrest, the investigation, and trial, the guilty plea coerced out of him. Even now he could remember that horrible final day on Halsey Station, when the disgusted Colonel Serrano—who genuinely believed the evidence against him—oversaw his drumming out. When the decorations he'd won through years of hard work were ripped from his uniform, his cover smacked off his head, his ceremonial sword broken in two over Serrano's knee.

If not for that, I'd be a one-star General by now, Henry thought. He'd have a squadron command perhaps, or backing up the commander of a carrier battle group. He'd be respected back home.

Instead, he was a disgrace. A cashiered officer, thrown out in dishonor, and if not for Uncle Charlie…I haven't heard from Charlie in a while; I need to check up on him.

The look on his face was such that Felix asked delicately, "Jim? Is everything okay?" When Henry only nodded, he went on. "You've never told me what happened. What really happened. You know you can trust me, right?"

Henry's reaction was an immediate shake of the head. "I can't talk about it," he said. It hurt him to see Felix's face. He didn't want his friend to think he didn't trust him, but he had a good reason, for one thing. Walking away from that with his freedom involved strict terms of silence, conditions he couldn't risk breaking. Not without harming others.

Besides that, though, it hurt too damn much. It reminded him of the night he'd felt his soul ice over and just about die. When his faith in everything, in himself and the CDF and even God Almighty, broke. It reminded him of the shame of surrender to deceit and treachery.

Felix saw he was hurting. "I've never understood why you won't talk about it."

"Because I don't want to, dammit," Henry insisted.

"Maybe, but… Jim, I know it bothers you. I saw that look on your face back on Monrovia, when the Cohen kid brought it up. You made the CDF part of your life for so long. I know it hurts like hell that they see you as a disgrace." With his expression, it was clear Felix was pleading for Henry to let him in, to talk about it.

Henry shook his head again. "I can't talk about it," he repeated, a finality in his voice that warned Felix away. He took another drink of the whiskey, a much larger one this time.

Felix took the hint and said nothing more.


3

The Jordan Delta Park was a collection of foot and bike paths that ran through the forested islands of the Jordan River's delta, each connected to others by bridges. To the east, the Meier Sea glistened in the sunlight, and to the west, north, and south, the buildings of Lawrence City reminded anyone present that they were in a tiny clearing of green in a forest of stone and steel. It was this collection of views, and the running waters of the Jordan itself, that made the park such an appealing place for residents of the city to visit.

Such considerations were not why Colonel Hale traveled the width of the city to get to the park. Indeed, while the vistas were lovely, she was barely paying attention to them. She was too busy looking for someone.

That someone was standing on one of the bridges spanning the channels of the delta. Ten centimeters taller than Hale, Colonel Anthony Xu was Canaan-born, from the city of Port Graham on the northern end of the Meier Sea. His skin was lightly tanned with an East Asian skin tone with his face on the thin side. His dark brown hair was cut to CDF regulations.

Of course, neither was immediately noticeable as active CDF officers, as both were in civilian suits, with coats to deal with some of the chill of the winter season. Even an astute observer noticing military-trained posture might conclude they were retired officers, at best.

Hale spoke up first. "Congratulations on the promotion. You've almost caught up to me."

Xu nodded. His light blue eyes met hers, showing recognition of her praise. He'd only been a First Lieutenant sixteen years ago when he was Tactical Action Officer on the Laffey. Hale was thankful the incident didn't impact his career. "I'm supposed to get a fleet cruiser after my tour," he said. "They're saying it'll be the Justinian."

She recognized the name. The six new Constantine-class fleet cruisers were prides of the fleet. They were nearly battlewagons in their own right, in fact, utilizing antimatter reactors developed by the Victory Project. "I hope you get it," she said before grinning. "Maybe I'll fly my flag from your ship when they give me another fleet command."

He chuckled. "We'll see." He glanced around. "So, I'm guessing you wanted a conversation that nobody would come across."

She nodded. "I do. I could use some help, actually."

"Oh? With what?"

"Well, you've been in Personnel for a bit. Now that I'm in Procurement, I've got access to data that can help me with my investigation. You also have access I might be able to use. Personnel records and such."

Like a light, his friendliness evaporated as a frown crossed his features. "You know better," he said. "We don't talk about the incident. It was made perfectly clear by the JAG investigators."

"Erhart pushed for that. He's in Kalling's pocket."

"It doesn't matter," he insisted. "If you care at all about us and our families, you'll stop."

"And what about Captain Soto and her family, huh?" she countered. Just invoking the name reminded her of the thin, intelligent Nueva Plataean woman, Maria Soto, who served as the Laffey's Chief Engineering Officer. "Or Dr. Larkin and his team? Our other shipmates? They all deserve justice, Tony." She paused for a moment as her face turned blood red. "What about Colonel Henry? We owe him too. He sacrificed his honor and career to save us, and you're just going to throw that away. I can clear his name." Her tone grew more passionate and determined. "I can prove Erhart's dirty!"

"No, you can't, and you never will, because Erhart has too many friends." With great agitation, he balled his hands into fists, although he didn't make any movements as if to strike at her. "For God's sake, Tabby, you don't know what that man's involved with. The pull he has."

"I have an idea."

"No, you don't, because if you did, you'd know there are far bigger things at stake than the Laffey."

She blinked at that. "What do you mean?" she asked.

He looked like he was about to speak, but instead, he shook his head. "It was nice seeing you, but don't call me for something like this again," he said. Without another word, he turned and stalked away.

She thought of things to say that might stop him, persuade him, but she couldn't think of any. She knew he had reason to be worried. Erhart was popular in the fleet for his victories in the first decade of the war and his continued support for the CDF. He'd given a rhetorical crushing to many a Peace Union politician over the years during rancorous debates in committee. So she let him go and started walking in another direction. He's scared. I guess he has a right to be. But I'm not giving up. I'm not letting Erhart get away with this any longer.

Breach of Duty

In a small room in the heart of CDF Command, a CDF officer watched on a flat vidscreen as Xu and then Hale walked away. With a tap of a button, the feed, the result of a tap into the municipal feed for the Delta Park's safety scanners, went away from the screen. The figure brought up a commlink and started typing a message.

HALE INVESTIGATING AS SUSPECTED. XU TURNED DOWN, BUT SUSPECT HE IS ONTO SOMETHING ELSE. PLEASE ADVISE.

Breach of Duty

Traffic in Lawrence City filled both the avenues on the ground, first paved centuries ago, and the matching lanes in the sky that were regulated by traffic control computers and laws to prevent the even more deadly prospect of mid-air collisions—since what goes up will come down, and typically on top of something, or more regrettably, someone. It took Hale awhile to make her way back to Command. Given she made it clear she had errands to see to settling into housing, it was not a surprise that she'd be gone for part of the day, and no one commented upon her return. She was going to make it up by working late. That what she was working on wasn't precisely what was intended, well, that was her secret.

The long ride back helped her process her frustration, at least. She'd hoped Xu would back her, at least. But he was content to let things go on.

What did he mean by that? About bigger things being at stake? she wondered.

Lewinsky was still on duty when she arrived. He saluted, and she returned it. As she went for her door, he called out, "Colonel, you received a message while you were out. I relayed it to your personal system."

That piqued her interest. "Who sent it?"

"General Ostrovsky, ma'am."

She pursed her lips. The head of CDF Intelligence usually didn't bother with Procurement. He had subordinates to handle Intelligence's requisition requests. Openly messaging her meant it was something important. "Thanks, Yeoman," she said. "I'll see what it is."

"Of course, Colonel."

She entered her office and shut the door. Her arrival brought her desk display online and it showed her the waiting message from Ostrovsky. She read it.

And then, for about a minute, she stared at it, digesting what she was seeing.

When she recovered herself, Hale's fingers went to her system controls. With a few commands entered, she started to delve into the database to confirm what she'd just read.

Breach of Duty

Deep in the central structure of Command, CDF Intelligence kept its main offices. From here, its commanding officer, General Levi Ostrovsky, could command his army of analysts, specialists, administrators, and agents on their side of the long war with the League. From his office and a nearby Situation Room, Ostrovsky could look into any number of operations across Sagittarius.

Right now, he wasn't. The balding man, an Ashkenazi Jew from New Israel, was at his desk. His CDF uniform proudly bore the Star of David patch that practicing Jews were permitted to wear. His eyes were a light brown in color. His remaining hair had a little brown left in it, having mostly gone gray. He had a strong jaw and a penetrating look.

That penetrating look was now focused squarely on Major Janine Renner, a former fleet communications officer now in her seventh year as a communications specialist in CDF Intelligence. She was a stocky woman, on the short side, with a light brown coloration and sandy blond hair. She matched his look with her sky blue eyes and said nothing, revealed nothing. She was familiar with Ostrovsky's steely gaze.

He reduced the intensity of it, possibly recognizing he was making her uncomfortable. "How are those comm intercepts going?" he asked amiably.

"The new listening post in Croydon System is working as expected," she said. "Our officers report the local government's been quite helpful."

"Given we liberated them from the League, I would hope so. Anything actionable?"

"Nothing yet, sir. With their position in Sagittarius having collapsed, League personnel in Neutral Space are basically being ordered to cut thrust and await developments."

"Very well." He nodded his approval.

"Is that all, General? Am I dismissed?"

"I wished to share something with you first," he said. "I have heard there are potential new developments in the Kalling Engineering investigation."

She nodded slowly "I see. Anything I should know?"

"Not yet. I just wanted to let you know ahead of time should anyone in the office interview you about your role in the incident." He noted her discomfort. As a young Lieutenant, she had been comms officer on the Laffey when it was used to test Kalling's then-new fusion drive system. Ostrovsky could see the incident still left its mark on her.

She recovered well, though. "I understand. Thank you, General, for the forewarning."

"You're welcome, and you're dismissed," he said.


4


Beltrán

Cyclades, Independent System, Neutral Space

16 July 2462

Upon the Shadow Wolf's return to their home base on the planet of Darien, Henry's crew went to work. Felix and Miri did a perimeter sweep and ensured there was no sign of trouble. Once their all-clear was given, the uninjured members of the crew got to work moving the fruit off.

They'd gotten about half the load when Tomas Martinez arrived. He had a stocky build, though he wasn't fat, with wide shoulders and a thick jaw. His dark hair was cut close and well-kept. His light brown eyes had a look to them that showed little in the way of kindness. He was, in fact, a cutthroat businessman who was just honest enough that he could be trusted to honor his contracts, if only because breaking them would undermine his business as a goods and commodities broker.



Henry knew he was in trouble the moment those eyes narrowed at the sight of a damaged crate. "What's this, Captain?" he asked, his Darienero Spanish accent prominent in his words. "Why am I getting damaged goods?"

"We were jumped at Cyclades. Bounty hunters, and probably with people inside the Cycladian port authority."

"How much did you lose?" Martinez asked bluntly. "I've got customers, you know. Suppliers paying top money for this stuff."

"We saved nine-tenths of the shipment," Henry replied. He already knew his word wouldn't be enough.

And indeed it wasn't. Martinez carefully inspected every stack of crates for the next hour while the unloading finished. Everyone gave him distance to avoid provoking the man further. Henry watched him, trying not to sigh.

Finally, Martinez finished his last inspection. "Yeah, ninety percent. Good." He brought out his commlink and started tapping at the controls. "Here's your payment."

Henry heard his chime. He took it out and looked. Darien pinedas were easy for him to convert mentally into Interstellar Bank credits.

The total made him frown. "This isn't even three-quarters of what the contract promised."

"The contract promised my entire shipment, not part of it," Martinez retorted.

Henry glared at him. "We saved ninety percent of it!"

"And I promised my customers all of it." Martinez met his glare with one of his own. "Now I'm going to disappoint some of them. They have orders to fill, and they'll go to my competitors instead. You've cost me business, Captain Henry, so I'm docking your pay, just as I'd dock the pay of any other clumsy employee who cost me a customer."

Henry's anger was kindled by the insult. "Clumsy, my ass. I didn't spill wine on some businessman; my people and I got shot at."

"Then maybe you shouldn't have provoked the League into putting a price on your head!" Martinez roared back. "I don't think there's a world in Sagittarius that doesn't know the League of Sol would pay millions to ensure the deaths of Jim Henry and the crew of the Shadow Wolf. Everybody knows who you are and that the League has a big bullseye on your back, Captain. There's barely a company out there that will insure your shipments. You need people like me willing to overlook that and hire you. More than I need an independent spacer who pissed off the galaxy's largest power." The broker's expression turned smug as he knew he'd hit home with that remark. "So you either accept that payment or I go find another spacer to do my shipping, and you can see if anyone's willing to buy your fruit. I can guarantee you, nobody on Darien will be buying."

Martinez's threat didn't do anything to reduce Henry's anger, but ultimately, he knew Martinez was right. He forced the angry expression from his face and hit the key on his commlink to accept the payment. It flowed right into his ship's operating account.

His acceptance was noted by Martinez, who nodded. "A pleasure doing business with you, Captain. I'm going to bring my people in to receive my cargo."

"You do that," Henry said. He watched Martinez walk away before he stormed back onto the ship.

Breach of Duty

With his temper still smoldering, Henry returned to his office. The first thing he did was bring up his financial data. Knowing he'd need it, he retrieved a bottle of bourbon from Bluegrass, another of the American-settled worlds of the Terran Coalition, and poured himself a tumbler-full of the stuff. The corn used in the liquor was different from that of the New Virginia stuff, giving the bourbon a sweeter taste.

There was a knock at the door. "Come in," he called out before glancing up.

Oskar entered, wearing his slightly-tattered medical coat over a polo shirt of blue and a light gray pair of slacks. "Captain."

"Doctor." Henry set his tablet down. "Coming about those medical supplies?"

"I've already placed the order," Oskar said, handing over another digital tablet. The holographic display showed the cost. It was higher than usual. "The Coalition's tightened its restrictions on exporting medical goods. Or so I'm told."

"I'm not surprised. With all of those worlds liberated, there's a lot of people in need of care." Henry noted the ashamed look on Oskar's face. He'd once served in a League resocialization camp. The entire crew knew it still gave him nightmares. "Well, we got our pay docked by over a quarter, but I can still cover this. See to the deliveries and ensure Yanik, Miri, and Felix are there to check things out."

"Of course." Oskar nodded. "It would be nice, I suppose, to not have to worry about a League agent poisoning our medical supplies."

"What's done is done," Henry grumbled.

"We did the right thing over Miss Gaon and the Lusitania situation. Never doubt that."

"I don't. I'm just tired of dealing with the League being such poor losers."

"They're utterly intolerant of anyone who gives them the slightest resistance," Oskar said in a tired tone.

"So you've said before." Henry took another drink of his bourbon.

Oskar noted it and pursed his lips for a moment before saying, with delicacy, "I have a growing concern with your own health, Captain."

Henry gave him a bewildered look. "Oh? You thought I was doing well with my last physical."

"True. But it's not your physical health that concerns me." Oskar shook his head. "Your mental state does."

Henry's face gained an edge at that. Before he could protest, Oskar continued speaking. "For instance, your drinking. You have always enjoyed your liquor, Captain, but usually not quite this much. Increasing consumption of alcohol can be a symptom of mental distress."

The words hung in the air and stung Henry. They stung because they were true. Ever since Lusitania and Monrovia, the League's efforts against them were escalating. It was getting harder to find work. The costs of the fighting ate away at their profit margins. On top of all that was the haunting reality they had to always be lucky while the people after them only needed to get lucky once. Henry feared what would happen when luck finally struck for the other side.

Henry wanted to be angry at Oskar for questioning him, but he forced himself not to reply as he felt. Oskar was doing his job. He was a good, kind, compassionate man, a rare product of that kind from the soulless totalitarianism of the League of Sol. He was looking out for Henry's health.

Henry's pride met this sentiment halfway. Instead of angry comments, he reacted by putting the stopper back on his bottle of bourbon and returning it to his desk.

Oskar nodded and sighed. He would push no further.

A tone filled the room. They glanced toward their respective commlinks. Henry's was the one that went off. He noticed the notification that a text message had arrived via the GalNet system, the tremendous interconnected network of interstellar communications which linked planets across Sagittarius, inside and outside of the Terran Coalition. He opened the message and noted it was sent from Tylerville, his hometown, on the world of New Virginia. His eyes went to the body of the text.

He couldn't keep the pain from showing in his expression as a fist gripped his heart and threatened to squeeze it into silence. He found himself leaning against the desk with his left hand supporting his head.

The change in his expression and body language wasn't lost on Oskar. "What is it, Captain?" he asked delicately.

Henry's eyes didn't leave the screen. They were already filling with tears. He forced himself to speak what he was reading. "My Uncle Charlie's dying," he rasped, every word full of emotional agony.

Breach of Duty

With the cargo unloaded and the ship not yet due to depart, everyone was taking the time for a meal in the galley. Samina's treats and food from Trinidad Station were long gone, so she was treating herself to a precooked tikka masala dish from their stores. She was looking forward to a tour of Beltrán coming tomorrow with Miri.

But she wasn't smiling. No one was. Word was spreading about Captain Henry's uncle. She'd heard the others mention him sometimes, that Charles Henry — "Uncle Charlie" — was half-owner of the ship, although he left the entire operation to Henry. But she'd never met the man before.

After swallowing, she looked to Pieter, who was nibbling away at a roast beef sandwich. Tia, Vidia, and Piper were all at adjoining tables, so they heard as well when she asked, "What is the Captain's uncle like? Uncle Charlie, I mean."

They all looked toward her. "How much do you know about him?" asked Piper.

"I know he's co-owner of the ship," Samina replied. "And that the Captain's close to him."

"That's one way of putting it," Pieter said. "Uncle Charlie means a lot to the Captain. He was the one who showed the Captain the ship originally and helped him repair it. They bought it together, in fact."

"It probably saved Jim's life," Tia added. "His life was in ruins. He'd just been cashiered from the CDF."

Samina couldn't help but think of her poor Uncle Ali, the only surviving member of her family. He'd gotten her parents and her off their homeworld Jinnah before the League finished securing the orbiting spaces. For a few years, they lived on his ship, working as members of the crew, before a pirate ambush hit them one jump from Trinidad Station. By the time they managed to jump away, Ali and Samina were the only survivors, Ali was crippled, and the ship was such a wreck, they had to live on the station.

"He's a very sweet, warm man," Piper said. "He cooked a meal for the whole crew every time we visited."

"I remember when Charlie let the whole crew visit the Henry cabin up in the mountains," Vidia said. "We had ta double up for the rooms, but it was worth it."

"The man could cook, and he was a damn good hand on a ship too," Pieter said. A wistful look came to his face. "He's the one who advised the Captain to promote me to Ship's Engineer."

"I still remember the man's handshake…"

As Tia explained her first meeting, Samina continued eating and listened quietly. It was clear this man meant a lot to everyone, and his loss would hurt. Particularly for Captain Henry.

Conversation quieted when Henry entered the galley. His expression was neutral, with no sign of the pain everyone knew he had to be feeling. Samina, ignoring the rest of her dish, stood from the table and walked up to him. Without giving him a chance to say anything, she threw her arms around him in a hug. "If I were losing Uncle Ali, I'd want one," she explained. "I'll pray for your uncle."

Henry said nothing. She wondered if he might scold her for the hug, but he didn't. His hand patted her on the shoulder while the others watched. When he started to move, she pulled free and watched him go for the refrigerator. He pulled a sandwich from it and left the galley without another word.

She watched him go before returning to her seat. Pieter reached over and patted her on the shoulder. "Good," he said. She replied with a nod before returning quietly to her meal.

Breach of Duty

Another member of the crew who never met Charles Henry approached Henry's office. For Miri, "Uncle Charlie" was simply the subject of remarks and stories, but she imagined he was like her Uncle Yossi and Aunt Rivka: warm, kind, and willing to treat their nieces and nephews like the children they were never blessed to have. With that in mind, she knocked on the door. He called out that she could enter and she did so.

Inside, Henry was examining his tablet screen. "Just doing some finances," he said. "What can I do for you, Miss Gaon?"

"I imagine you're looking to see if we can afford to go to New Virginia?"

He leveled a look at her. "The way it's looking, I'm not sure," he admitted. It was clear the thought was painful to him. "The fact is, I can't in good conscience take the ship to New Virginia unless I know we've got work there, or a shipment nearby at least. And there aren't any. Importing to the Coalition is a business locked down by the big transport companies, and with the wartime regs, they're the only ones who can afford it."

"What of jobs when we get there?"

"Same issue, plus the fact that I might as well have a sign on me saying 'coward' or 'possible traitor,' given how I was dismissed from the CDF."

Miri nodded in understanding. Dismissal from military service was, to an officer, the same thing as a dishonorable discharge for enlisted personnel. It was a near-literal Mark of Cain, especially now with nearly thirty years of war having increased the prestige of the CDF to record heights—and correspondingly made those rejected by it seem even lower. "So you don't expect any business."

"There won't be any," he predicted confidently. "Tylerville's not exactly a major economic hub either. It's a small county seat. The economy's been stagnant since the war started."

"Your family managed to eke out a living there anyway?"

"Everyone needs someone with an education," he replied. "My family's got it. We've lived in Tylerville since New Virginia was settled."

She nodded. Her own family were descended from first-generation settlers of New Israel.

While it was clear that Henry had already convinced himself he couldn't justify the trip, Miri could tell he desperately wanted to make it. "I don't think the crew will mind going anyway," Miri said gently. "They'll understand. From what I've heard, many of them would like a chance to say goodbye as well."

"I can imagine it, but I can't risk bankrupting us. The trip there and back, and buying fuel under Coalition prices and rationing…" He sighed. "I want to go, and I know you can tell I do. Even if he doesn't wake up before the end, I want to be there. I need to be there. But… I have a responsibility to you and the others. Uncle Charlie would understand. He'd support me."

"I'm sure he would, but it doesn't change the pain you're inflicting on yourself by not being there. For the sake of your own peace, Captain, you need to say goodbye."

He heard the wobble in her voice. "Speaking from experience?"

Miri sighed and nodded. "My parents died while I was on Lowery, before the occupation began," she admitted. "I… I couldn't be there for any of it, or it would have broken my cover. I couldn't even sit shiva until after my extraction and return home, and that was years after they died." The old pain came back to her. The years of suffering under League rule, in the camps and then maintaining her cover as a broken and converted adherent to the superiority of Society, had helped her keep the pain suppressed. But it hadn't erased it, and it was all the worse when she was finally done with that horrible job.

"Right." He pursed his lips together.

"That's why I think you should be there," she urged. "You're hurting enough already."

"You don't think I want to go?" he asked pointedly. She could see the frustration on his features. "He's… my God, Uncle Charlie's a second father to me. I want to go there so much, but the damned League's kill order has gotten in the way. We can't afford it, Miri, and that's the truth! Not if we're going to be sure we keep this ship flying."

The pain in his voice as he spoke was palpable to her. The tension between his emotional needs and his sense of responsibility to the rest of them was tearing Henry apart.

"Captain, I request an indefinite leave," she said.

He leveled a look at her. "What?"

"I need an indefinite leave," she said. "During which time I'm going to hire you, as a customer, to transport me to the city of Tylerville on New Virginia and return me here to Beltrán after my business is over. And we need to leave as soon as possible, as my business is very urgent. A matter of life and death, actually."

His look became a surprised stare. "You're… what are you…"

Miri pulled her commlink out and used it to access one of her private accounts. She showed the figure in the account to Henry. His eyebrows rose. "I told you before that I could retire on what I had, if I wanted to. I accumulated years of pay while I was undercover. Pay I couldn't spend," she said. "I also inherited some money from my parents, and some more from my grand-aunt. I wasn't spending much when I was a spacer either. Even after what I gave to charity, I kept enough funds on hand for contingencies."

Henry's eyes moved from Miri's face to the screen and then back to her face. Surprise gave way to brief disbelief, and from there became outright gratitude. He drew in a breath. "Alright then, Miss Gaon. You're on leave for the duration of your trip to New Virginia, and while passenger transport's not our usual job, I'll make an exception since you're crew."

"Thank you, Captain," she said, noting the tears of thanks filling Henry's eyes. You saved my life; now let me save your heart.

Henry put down his tablet and brought out his commlink. He tied it into the ship intercom and started speaking. "Everyone, we've had a change of plans," he said. "We're heading to New Virginia, ASAP. My apologies for disrupting leave plans, but our client, Miss Gaon, is insisting on leaving now."

As Miri expected, none of the crew would protest the cancellation of their leaves.


5

The Strategic Command and Control Room—SCCR for short—was a large, two-floored chamber in the heart of CDF Command. A staff of over a hundred communications specialists, intelligence analysts, and logistics officers manned the facility at all hours of the day, collating reports from the fleets and armies of the Terran Coalition and various intelligence assets. A series of holotanks allowed for them to view real-time positioning data from a host of sources to show the locations of Coalition and League forces in various sectors. In the center of the room, one massive holotank allowed for real-time visual communication via the CDF's air-gapped communications network, one every bit as sophisticated as GalNet.

The SCCR was, in short, the brain of the CDF's war effort. All decisions of import were made here, and it was a central part to the life of General MacIntosh whenever he was on Canaan.

He sat now in the conference room adjacent to the SCCR. The room was set up to allow for the commanding general on duty to quickly confer with their colleagues. In this case, the general on duty was Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste de Merville, a gray-haired, dark-skinned man from New Antilla's Franco-Caribbean minority. The stylized crucifix patch for Catholics was visible on his uniform and, in accord with uniform regulations, his rosary was around his neck.

Other senior generals were in attendance, including Levi Ostrovsky, and Ulysses Erhart, as well as Chief of Staff General Okafor's senior aide, Colonel Abu al-Malik. All listened quietly as a colonel in the SCCR staff, her name tag reading Contreras, provided the daily briefing on the front. "The League garrisons on St. Andrews have been eliminated," the Nueva Platean Colonel said, her voice laced with a Spanish accent. "General Sampson's declared the planet secure, and with it we've swept the League from the entire sector."

"That leaves the advance on Jinnah," MacIntosh noted. "What's our progress there?"

"Second Fleet's due to arrive in two days," de Merville noted. "They've got ten Marine divisions with them, while the Audacious and Zulfiqar cover their operations with their battle groups. We think it'll be enough."

"It should be more than enough," said Ostrovsky. "Our intelligence indicates the League transferred half of the Jinnah occupational garrison off-world two weeks ago to shore up their defenses at Hofburg. Jinnah's fall should be swift. And it won't be the last." He leaned forward at the table. "Our latest intercepts confirm the League is in full retreat. They're calling it a 'strategic realignment,' but the movement orders are only consistent with a complete retreat of their remaining fleet assets from our space."

"And their colonies in Sagittarius?"

"Isolated and failing, since the fall of Unity Station," Ostrovsky said. He smiled thinly. "After all of this time, we've nearly done it. The League's leaving Sagittarius."

"For now," Erhart said. "Don't get your hopes up that they'll stay out. They'll regroup and come back. Especially if Fuentes and his defeatists win the election and stop our counter-invasion."

MacIntosh leveled a look at him. "Whatever we think of their policies, General, our job isn't to judge them."

"Twenty-eight years of bleeding and dying gives us the right to be worried it'll be thrown away," Erhart replied.

The other generals in the room glanced about. Some assuredly felt as Erhart did. Others thought the Peace Union had points to it and were opposed to continuing the war beyond Sagittarius.

MacIntosh recognized the tension in the room and sought to diffuse it. "We've done our jobs too well," he opined. There were some chuckles from that, although, notably, none from Erhart. "Before, the Peace Union always had to wrestle with the perception of abandoning Coalition citizens and worlds to the League's oppression. Now that the League's being forced off of our worlds, peace will seem more like victory."

"You are owed the most thanks for that, General," de Merville said. "The Victory Project has lived up to its name."

"Thank you, General," MacIntosh said warmly. "Ultimately, we follow orders. We should stick with our strategy, finish the League off in Sagittarius, and wait to see how the politics turn out. The CDF getting involved in politics actively would make things worse for the Coalition, not better."

There were nods of agreement to his words. But MacIntosh noticed Erhart wasn't one of them.

Breach of Duty

CDF's Office of Personnel held its own wing of the Command complex. Given the stupendous needs of the CDF in terms of personnel, with thousands of ships, hundreds of planet-side stations, and dozens of space stations and shipyards requiring manning, not to mention the need to man the boards of promotion and review boards for those personnel, it was a wonder they didn't take up more space than they did.

One of the offices in this area was the place of work for Colonel Anthony Xu, Secretary to the Assistant Director of Personnel Reviews and a member of the Colonelcy Promotion Board. His two positions involved a lot of paperwork, whether it was processing the personnel reviews his boss was responsible for or going over promotion recommendations for officers being considered for the rank of Lt. Colonel or full Colonel. Thankfully, there was some overlap and, more so, the Colonelcy Board only met twice a month; otherwise, he'd have even less personal time for his family.

In his office, Xu kept pictures of his family: his wife Lily and their two children, Carla and Samuel. He also kept a spare uniform and some of the commendations from his career. On his desk was a mug labeled "swear cup," into which he put a one-credit coin every time he used an inappropriate word his children shouldn't hear. The contents of the cup were destined for various Catholic charities and organizations Xu provided to. The next in the rotation would be the Little Sisters of Divine Recompense.

There was a time when Xu was not as religious as he was now. He'd been raised Catholic, but he'd ignored undergoing Confirmation and went into the CDF without the patch to identify believers. Aside from a general belief that there was a God and that God represented good, Xu didn't bother himself with theology.

Then the Laffey happened. In one horrible moment, Xu's career was endangered. CBI agents questioned family and friends—including the family of his future wife—about his politics. Rumors he was a saboteur and defeatist came to him and he dreaded that he'd be unfairly blamed for the disaster in some way.

The only end to the nightmare came when Lt. Colonel Henry signed the plea deal assuming sole responsibility. Xu remembered the sight in Halsey Station's Flusser Square, standing and watching as Colonel Henry was subjected to the humiliation of the drumming out ceremony. He remembered the sharp snap of the sword being broken over that colonel's knee, the sight of the pile of ribbons ripped from Henry's uniform, his discarded officer's cover. The thought of "That could have been me" still chilled him to this day.

The entire incident, and a few close calls after he'd returned to field duty, awakened the dormant spiritual side of Xu's personality. Given how near he came to destruction, both physical and personal, Xu found solace in the religion of his parents and his new in-laws. He finally Confirmed, just weeks before his marriage, and added the golden crucifix patch to his uniform. He started attending Mass regularly, gave regular confessions, and made due penance as required.

God was good to us. He gave us the kids. And now that the war's being won, maybe I'll get to stay at home more. Or find a job in the civilian sector. He didn't mind taking on new duties and looked forward to his tour of command on the Justinian, but once he was back home and the war was over, taking a civilian job had a strong appeal.

These musings came naturally while dealing with the tedium of dry personnel reviews coming in from across the Terran Coalition. He finished reading one for a 20-year-old Marine whose unit faced heavy action on Croydon—the recommendation was for promotion to Corporal and the award of a commendation for service—when a call came through the system. Xu accepted the call.

Hale appeared and Xu, not interested in her crusade, wondered if he was being punished for a vestigial sin he'd forgotten. "Colonel?" he asked formally.

She was upset about something. An urgent look and frown was on her face. "Colonel Xu, I've come across something in the records and I need you to check Personnel's records pertaining to this. There are some assignments that don't match up."

"Tabitha, stop," he said, his voice descending to a hiss. "You're going to get us both in trouble, and for nothing."

She shook her head. "It's not about the Laffey, I swear to God." The urgency in her voice didn't go away. "This is something else. You were right about things, Anthony. More right than I imagined."

Now I wish I hadn't said anything. Xu hoped that he'd distract and discourage her by mentioning Erhart's activities. He'd been wrong.

His first impulse was to tell her to go away. That if she wanted to make an inquiry, make it through official channels to CDF Personnel and keep him out of it. He had a family, dammit. Why was she doing this?

Because she's a good person, he realized. And you've seen the evidence. You've seen the personnel transfers he's signed. You know Erhart's up to something. Xu's eyes went from a photo of his family to the crucifix he kept on his desk. You have a higher duty. Or you're not worthy of your second chance.

Sensing his indecision, Hale added, "You were right, Anthony. God help us all, you're right. Erhart's up to something, something big. We know what he did to the Laffey. Who else is he going to hurt?" When he didn't react, she continued. "For God's sake, Anthony, help me here! We can stop him, I know we can stop him. But I need help!"

He sighed. His eyes went back toward the image of his family. As they passed by the swear cup, a thought crossed his mind. Donations to the Church won't make up for this. I have to do something. I have to. "I don't know, but you're right. Send me what you need to and I'll check the files when I can."

Hale nodded and started tapping away at her system. File information came over to Xu's computer. "Here. I'll keep in touch." Without a further word, she cut the line.

With an eye on the clock, Xu returned to work, balancing his duty with Hale's files. Over time, the files took up more and more of his time, all the way past the usual end of the workday.

Breach of Duty

After the meeting at SCCR, Erhart returned to his office and his daily work. Time passed before a call he was expecting came in. "Have you seen the latest poll numbers?" Faulkner asked.

"I have," he answered tiredly.

"We don't have much time left. If Fuentes takes over, he'll be briefed, and it could upset our plan if he wants changes. We need to act soon."

"Don't worry about Fuentes," Erhart insisted. "By the time of the election, we'll be done. He'll be irrelevant." A frown came to him. "But you've got to keep your cool, Oliver. Be careful about what you're saying and what you're doing. Don't give us away."

"I won't," Faulkner assured him.

I wish I could trust you. Erhart fought to keep any sign of that thought from showing on his face. I don't have a choice. We're too far along. "Then I'll talk to you later," he said instead.

The call ended. He breathed in and considered how often Faulkner tried his patience over their years of association. Faulkner saw him as a bought man, and someone obligated to listen to his griping. He thought the defense contractor was a greedy, selfish fool who wanted everything and acted like a spoiled brat when the world didn't go his way. If he weren't so useful to me right now, I'd end him.

Erhart forced the thought away at the message icon that popped on his screen. He checked it. It was from a source of his, one of many, and a source he rarely heard from. The message said plainly, "James Henry has logged berth for Shadow Wolf at Tylerville Spaceport. Please advise."

Well. That was interesting. Henry was back at his homeworld. It'd been something like four years since his last return visit. He stayed in the neutral systems, much to Erhart's satisfaction. What was he doing back?

It's probably nothing, he assured himself. He's pissed the League off over that Lusitania op he ruined. He's probably trying to lie low and wait for the League to give up on hunting him. Or maybe something family-related. He's not given a lick of trouble over these last sixteen years; there's no reason to worry.

And yet, the timing. It was something Erhart couldn't ignore. Hale and Xu were here at Command, in positions that might lead them to his plan. Now Henry was coming back to Coalition space. If somehow he'd been contacted by them, if he were aware something was up and seeking exoneration… then it made sense to come back to Coalition territory. Maybe he figured his role at Lusitania would protect him.

Or maybe CIS called him back and he was involved with them now. CIS was the one agency Erhart had no contacts in. He couldn't guess what they knew of his operation.

It was best to be prepared. Erhart typed a message to his contact. "Prepare arrangements. Will advise if necessary."


6


ISV Shadow Wolf

Approaching New Virginia, New Virginia System, Terran Coalition

22 July 2462

The planet of New Virginia was once the furthest settlement of the Coalition's "second wave" colonizations from Canaan, augmented by the arrival of more ships fleeing the consolidation of what became the League of Sol back on Earth. From orbit, the continent of Jefferson was a brilliant collection of green-forested mountains with white snowy caps, wide fields of green and golden prairies, with gray clumps of towns and cities.

While Cera, Yanik, and Henry manned the bridge, Samina, Brigitte, and Oskar were present to get their first look at Henry's homeworld. "It reminds me of Jinnah," Samina said, recalling seeing her homeworld when her family escaped it. "Just with less smoke."

Henry could hear the old pain in her voice, that of a child losing her home. "I'm sure your world's going to get liberated soon."

She nodded. "But I've got nothing there now."

"We are receiving a signal from the Tylerville Spaceport," Yanik said.

Henry nodded, knowing what was expected. He spoke aloud. "Tylerville Control, this is the Shadow Wolf, requesting landing clearance."

The voice that crackled back belonged to an old man. "Well, if it ain't the prodigal son," the man drawled.

"Good to hear you again, Mister Holstrom," Henry said politely. "I thought you'd retired."

"Call me Jeff. Everybody does," came the response. "And retirement didn't agree with me, so I came back. Anyway, I figure you've come home to see your Uncle Charlie, eh? Best damn repair tech I ever knew. Just don't tell him that. Give him my best."

"I plan on it, Jeff," Henry said. He allowed the nostalgia to show on his face. "He'd be happy to know you were still keeping watch over things."

"I'd hope so! Sometimes I'm the only thing keeping these folks from crashing into the mountains!" There was a chuckle on the other end. "Good to have you home, Jim Henry. Your landing course is ready. Commence in two minutes."

Seeing the look of some of the others, he said, "That was old Jeff Holstrom. He's worked traffic control here since before I was born. He's what my mother calls a 'character'."

"I think I know the type," said Oskar. "It is refreshing to see one live so long." Immediately, his look turned sour with a frown.

Henry was kind enough to turn away before frowning himself. Between old Jeff Holstrom and Oskar's remark, it was impossible to not think about Charlie. I knew he didn't have long left. I guess I hoped he'd be around a bit longer. His eyes gradually focused on the display as small gray splotch of Tylerville became more prominent.

Home again.

Breach of Duty

The Shadow Wolf settled into its rented hangar with ease. Aboard, the crew prepared to disembark with two exceptions.

"We can remain here and watch the ship," Oskar offered to the others, Brigitte standing beside him. "As much as I'd like to see this world for myself, it's probably for the best we remain aboard."

Tia nodded in agreement, as did Henry, who regretted the necessity. The Terran Coalition had some legal mechanisms for ex-Leaguers like Oskar to be allowed to visit or live on Coalition worlds, but it required time and an investigative process by the Coalition's CBI— Coalition Bureau of Investigation—that the crew never applied for in the case of the two ex-Leaguers. The last thing they wanted or needed was someone arresting them as spies. I should've talked to al-Lahim about it. We were going to come back eventually.

Everyone else left the ship via the middle starboard hold's gangway. A Coalition-model aircar, at least twenty years old, was already in the hangar. A woman with graying hair wearing a black blouse and long skirt was waiting beside it. Mary Henry stepped up and embraced her son. "It's good to see you again, son," she said. "I've been praying for you."

"Good to see you too, Mom," he answered. He looked back at the others. "I think you know everyone except our new Engineer's Mate, Samina Khan, and Miriam Gaon, Astrogator's Mate." With an open hand, he indicated Samina where she was standing between Pieter and Piper.

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Khan, Ms. Gaon," Mary said politely. Miri replied with a polite nod while Samina smiled back and blushed at the attention. "Is this your whole crew?"

"We've got a couple who are remaining aboard ship," Henry said. "It's better that way."

"Oh, I see." Mary nodded in understanding. "Well, everyone's invited to dinner. We've got family from across the planet coming. Tylinda tells me Shawn will even be here."

Tia tried to remember Henry's other relations. "Shawn?" she asked.

"My cousin, my Aunt Tylinda's youngest," Henry answered. "He's a major in the CDF."

"They've got him on some station a couple jumps away," Mary explained. She turned her attention to Yanik. "I've done a little work on that passak, like you asked. I'm hoping you'll enjoy it."

Yanik nodded his head respectfully. "It is rare to find a human so capable of preparing our food dishes, Mrs. Henry. I look forward to it."

"Captain, you and Felix go on. We'll get taxis." Tia knew that the aircar would only take a couple of them.

Henry answered her with a nod. Felix stepped up with him and accepted a hug from Henry's mother. "It's good to have you home, young man," she said to Felix. "It's been too long."

"Yes, it has, ma'am."

"As for the rest of you, the bus service should be by soon," Mary said. "I sent the request in as soon as you landed."

"Tylerville has a bus service now?" asked Henry, his voice betraying his surprise at the idea.

"It's fully automated too."

"I bet that didn't go over too well," Felix remarked. "People in Tylerville prefer things that bring jobs."

"It's funded by a grant from the government in Richmond." She was referring to New Virginia's planetary government. "It was either automated buses or no buses, so people accepted it. It still made a few jobs in the end."

"And helped with others, I figure." Henry made that remark before settling into the air car's front passenger seat. Felix sat in the rear, and Mary climbed into the front seat. The engine came to life with an electronic whir. The vehicle lifted about half a meter off the ground, turned, and accelerated. They watched it depart the hangar.

"She's very nice," Samina observed.

"She is," Tia replied.

All eyes turned toward the approaching hum of another aircar. This was quickly revealed to be a predominantly blue airbus with the letters "TMTA" in white on the side. They approached the door and it slid open. A computerized voice stated, "Welcome to the Tylerville Mass Transit Authority system. Please board the vehicle in a single line and take care to not impede fellow passengers."

They obeyed, finding seats around the bus. A few were large enough even for Yanik. Once everyone was seated, the bus pulled out of the hangar. "Destination: Tylerville Hospital. Estimated time of arrival: ten minutes twenty-five seconds."

"I like this," said Samina. The others voiced agreement.

Breach of Duty

The Tylerville Hospital was average as far as hospitals in the Terran Coalition went. The walls were white and the floors tiled with a surface that reflected the overhead lights. Numbered signs for each room. A nurse's station for every section. Lab-coated doctors and blue-clad orderlies worked alongside nurses in burgundy-colored nurses' uniforms. The nurses had a belt in which they carried the various medical sensors necessary for their work.

The Coalition's medical technology was the envy of the known galaxy and, due to the combination of public and private interest in its use, even the smaller medical establishments like Tylerville Hospital had access to some of the best care in the Coalition. Virtually every condition could be treated here.

But treatment was not the same thing as a cure.

Henry entered room number 416 behind his mother. The flatscreen vid display was silent. The whole room was quiet save for the gentle trilling of the medical equipment. In the bed, a lone occupant remained unmoving.

Just seeing Charles Henry in this condition was painful for Henry. His uncle had always been the biggest man in the room, metaphorically speaking, a presence of strength and fortitude. Now he was emaciated, small, as if the life were leaking from him. There was no shine or luster to his bald head and few of his hairs remained. He was sleeping peacefully, at least, and showed no signs of being in pain.

"When does he wake up?" Henry asked. His voice was reserved, low, as if he were afraid he would wake up his uncle by speaking too loudly.

"He's rarely awake," Mary says. "The doctors can't guarantee he'll ever wake up again."

Henry nodded, not hiding the pain he felt at hearing that. Coming all this way wasn't enough to guarantee he'd get to speak to Uncle Charlie again. That he'd get to say goodbye.

To deflect his thoughts from this pain, Henry looked to his mother and asked, "Where's Dad?"

"Thomas is at work," she said. "Once his shift's over, he'll be here."

He nodded. "It'd take a lot to keep Dad from his shift." He thought of his father's years of working at the plant, where high-grade wiring was made for use with heavy equipment. "He's still chief supervisor?"

She nodded. "He'll retire from that job; he keeps refusing management."

"While Uncle Charlie let the Spaceport Authority promote him, then kept working with the maintenance teams anyway." A sad smile crossed Henry's face. "Our family seems to love hard work."

Mary laughed. "That's what your father and uncle have always said." As she spoke, she took up a point beside the bed, allowing Henry the recliner seat from which he could kneel forward and take his sleeping uncle's hand. His only reply was a nod as all of his thoughts went to his dying uncle and how much Charlie meant to him.

Breach of Duty

Across the street from the hospital was a parking lot to service both the hospital and a couple of adjacent buildings, primarily medical offices. The lot was half-full at this time of day, leaving plenty of spots open.

One such spot had a sedan aircar of a dark blue color. It didn't stand out to people moving by. In this case, it was certainly a feature for the car's occupants, who would rather go unnoticed if at all possible.

They were patient. They had to be. Their job demanded patience. They had to sit for hours on end with nothing but portable food and coffee to sustain them, their attention focused on their subject. Sometimes it was to see where they went, what they did. Sometimes, as it was now, it was only to keep eyes on them.

With the benefit of specialized eyeglasses, they could zoom in where their eyes were focused, like binoculars of old. This allowed them to see into the room on the fourth floor of the hospital where, even now, their subject was barely visible, leaning forward toward the occupant of the bed.

"Surveillance team, confirm subject is present?"

One of the two brought up an isolated commlink, one that only worked on specific channels. "Confirm, Control. Subject is in sight. We can move in on your orders."

The reply was immediate. "Order is not given. Continue surveillance."


7

Graham Creek Park was one of the smaller local parks of Lawrence City, primarily funded and used by the neighborhoods of St. Jude's, al-Hambra, and Tikvah. The titular creek was no deeper than five meters and never wider than fifty meters. To either side, the parkland was full of trees and bushes, with both paved and unpaved trails, including a trail for devoted cyclists. A few bridges spanned the creek to allow access to either bank.

On one of those bridges, Hale walked up to Xu. He was staring off down the creek as if she weren't there. "It's a beautiful world," he said.

"It is." Hale stepped up beside him. "It's no wonder our ancestors named it for the Promised Land. Although that might have been the desperate need for a garden planet."

"Desperation is when faith can be the strongest." Xu set his hands on the railing. "We might have lost everything over the Laffey. God gave us a second chance."

"I heard you were wearing the patch now," Hale noted. "Back on the Laffey, you didn't seem so observant."

"I wasn't. I wasn't even Confirmed."

"Ah. And now you are."

"You're Lutheran, right?" Xu asked. When she nodded, he continued, "I never saw you with the patch. Why don't you have one?"

"I did when I was a new recruit," Hale said. "But as an officer, I came to see my faith as a private thing. If you ask me, the patch thing might bite us one day. It could be something to divide us."

"I don't think so. I think it reminds us all that we're united by our tolerance as much as our faith. We all have roads to Heaven."

"Roads that are mutually contradictory in some cases," she reminded him. "Maybe right now, against an enemy like the League, it's a proud profession, but in the future, it might announce we have differences someone can use against us."

"That's cynical of you," Xu said. "I'd think you have more faith than that."

"Faith isn't the same thing as naivety." Hale leaned against the bridge. "And we both know the CDF isn't perfect. Branch rivalries already exist. Just look at the one between administration versus field forces."

"That's why we get rotated in and out of each."

"Not always. Barton made his career sticking in Administration, and a bunch of officers like him. For that matter, Colonel Henry was field for virtually his entire career. If someone's good at one thing, the service sometimes sticks them to it instead of the rotation." Hale shook her head once. "That's my point, anyway, and my choice."

"Fair enough."

"You have a family now?"

Xu nodded. "My wife's name is Lily."

"In the service?"

"Former auxiliary support. Medical issues."

"Ah." Hale was familiar with that. Certain congenital conditions, or crippling injuries from childhood, led to drafting into the support and administrative services exclusively. "Any children?"

"Two." A gentle smile warm with paternal pride showed on Xu's face. "Carla and Samuel. I couldn't ask for better kids. We call them Carly and Sam."

"I'm happy for you."

"Thanks." The smile faded. "God's been good to me. It's why I decided to meet you here and give you this." Xu turned to her and handed Hale a dark clamshell container. Hale opened it and found the data chip inside. It was a standard transfer chip, meant for storing sensitive data and using it with secure systems isolated from the link network.

Hale reached into her pocket and pulled out a digital reader. Seeing Xu's worried expression, she said, "It's an isolated reader. Completely secure. There's no hardware for wireless linking."

"Right."

Hale finished inserting it and used the reader's touchscreen and holographic interface to go through the data chip's contents. Lists of personnel files appeared. She noted how many were marked as locked. The locked files had the marker "EF" as the code for their current assignment. "EF? That's an assignment code?"

"Not a common one either," Xu replied.

Hale turned off the reader. She'd seen enough for now. "Thanks again." She returned the chip to the case and pocketed it. "I'm thankful you've decided to help."

"Just following my conscience."

She heard the quiver in his voice. "I know you'd rather keep quiet; you've got a family. I'll keep your name out of it, I promise."

"Thank you," he replied, content with the promise. "And God help you."

Hale sighed. "Given what Erhart's capable of, God help us all."

Breach of Duty

Hale exited Graham Creek Park from its northern entrance, where the creek flowed into the Jordan. Along the south bank here, a long promenade followed the river marked by outdoor cafes, food vendors, and monuments to the Exodus. A parking area allowed for close helicar access.

That wasn't why Hale parked here. Aside from Xu, she had one other appointment.

She arrived at Cafe Roussillon at a brisk pace. The scent of Franco-Spanish cuisine was appetizing and she was reminded it was time for her lunch.

Her table was occupied, which did nothing to stop her. Hale not only recognized Major Renner, her old Laffey crewmate, but the branch insignia: CDF Intelligence. "Renner? You wanted to meet?"

Renner nodded. She had a cup of espresso on the table. Hale thought she looked a little uncomfortable. "Congratulations on your promotion, General Hale."

"The Promotions Board hasn't given the final stamp of approval; nothing's definite until then," Hale pointed out. "So what are you doing in Intelligence?"

"Communications," Renner said. "Passed advanced comms school with flying colors after the Laffey. CDF Intel liked what I could do and snatched me up. I've been working out of HQ ever since, tracking and breaking into League communications."

"Good for you," Hale said. "I'm glad you're doing so well. Funny how there's three of us Laffey survivors at Command now."

"I was here first." Renner laughed. Her expression softened. "Hasn't always been easy. The war's been tough on everyone. And staying behind the lines for so long doesn't do any favors to someone's reputation."

Hale nodded. It was a staple of military services, especially those in war, that the men and women in the field fighting tended to belittle the contributions of those "behind the lines." The Coalition rotated people in and out of administrative and field commands to combat this very thing.

But CDF Intelligence ran its own house. If they decided they needed you, they had you, for however long as they wanted.

"I don't care for that kind of division," Hale said. "We're all CDF, and we all serve in our own way. If intercepting comms and reading them is your thing, Intel's right to keep you where you are."

"Thanks. It means a lot to hear that coming from a decorated fleet officer." Renner sipped at her espresso. Despite her words, a frown formed on her face.

"So, why did you want to see me?" Hale asked. "Something Procurement can help with?"

"No. It's…" Renner shook her head. "Listen, I don't know what's going on, but I've heard water cooler talk at Intel. Your name keeps coming up."

Hale nodded. "And?"

"I think you're being investigated," Renner said, her voice growing urgent.

Hale said nothing at first. Her mind was already considering the messages she'd received from Ostrovsky, Renner's boss, and what they contained. That her name might be dropped in the halls of CDF Intelligence was not surprising. But she couldn't completely ignore the voice of doubt, wondering if she were being double-crossed in some way. Battlefield success had made Erhart many friends in the CDF officer corps, just as many as he had in the defense industries. That had to extend to CDF Intelligence. Is Ostrovsky setting me up? Hale wondered.

After a moment's consideration, she dismissed the thought. It didn't feel right. Ostrovsky's information didn't feel like the kind of thing he'd send to plant a trap. And it was too obvious he had reservations toward Erhart's influence.

But that doesn't mean Erhart doesn't have people in Intelligence. People that might hide things from their boss.

Trying to resist the temptation to be paranoid, Hale said, "Thank you for the head's up, Major. And good luck to you. Hopefully, this whole war will be over with soon enough."

"It would be nice," Renner said. "Though it's going to take a lot of adjustment to get used to peace."

Hale nodded and laughed. She'd been in her teens herself when the League's bolt from the dark struck at Canaan. "I'll have to remember how things went," she said, standing up. As much as she wished for lunch here, it was best if she got back to work. "See you around and Godspeed."

"Godspeed," Renner answered.

Breach of Duty

After the meeting, Xu took the other way out of Graham Creek Park, returning to the residential parking lot to the south of the park. His helicar brought him back to Command. He returned to Personnel content that he'd done what he was supposed to. It was all in Hale's hands now.

And yet, his conscience still nagged. Have I done enough? Maybe the personnel files themselves can be accessed. I can find out what kind of people are being assigned to "EF." That thought stayed with him on his way back to the office. Once he was safely inside, he quietly pondered whether he could risk taking another step. A glance toward the crucifix on his desk decided the matter.

With careful keystrokes, Xu entered the CDF's massive personnel database. As a starting point, he'd reload the data he found before. He accessed the work history file to do so.

The system was quick with its response. File not found.

Xu frowned at that. He continued on through his history search. The response kept coming back the same, which he saw with increasing incredulity. Where did these files go?

His next step had to be cautious. Xu called up technical support. A warrant officer appeared on his monitor, a young turbaned man with a Sikh patch. "I'm having issues finding files," Xu said. "I accessed work yesterday, but it's missing now. I'm getting a 'file not found' error."

"Ah, yes. Sorry, Colonel. There was a glitch in the software today, a failure in the communications protocols. We had to do a full system reset. The issue likely corrupted your history data. You'll have to bring the files back up directly."

The technical officer waited patiently as Xu tried just that. The system's response was to insist there was no such file. Since he had to be cautious about saying too much, Xu asked, "Are you sure no data was lost?"

"Positive," the man insisted. "If the file existed in the Personnel database, it'll be there."

Xu nodded. "Thank you, Warrant."

"You're welcome, sir." With that, the call ended.

Xu tried a few more times to recall the files. Nothing came back. With every attempt, he felt his stomach twist more tightly. Someone deleted those personnel records. Someone with a lot of authority. Someone like Erhart. He felt the sweat bead on his forehead as the panic came over him. Does he know we're onto him?

Xu forced the panic away. It would accomplish nothing. He whispered a prayer to Saint Sebastian for courage and forced himself back to work.


8

One of the two large dining rooms attached to the Tylerville Hospital Cafeteria hummed with activity. The members of the Shadow Wolf crew were joined not just by Henry's parents but by a host of his other relatives. Present were aunts, uncles, and cousins of varying degree, ranging in age from his grand-uncle Clarence to the four-month-old granddaughter of a cousin. A contingent of mechanics and other personnel from the Spaceport were in attendance as well, as was Reverend Gill and his family. Altogether, over forty people were around, not counting the Shadow Wolf crew themselves.

Many of them brought food with them, such that the cafeteria's services were not required. A variety of dishes spread over the tables. Several varieties of casseroles, two or three types of beans, and trays full of baked or grilled meat abounded, as did New Virginian comfort food fare like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, hash browns, and coleslaw. The only exception proved to be Mary Henry's efforts, with the passak dish she promised Yanik at the end of one table.

As it would turn out, Henry wasn't the only crew member of the Shadow Wolf to have family present. Felix was near the front door when his brother Julian entered, wearing a polo shirt and trousers and altogether looking non-clerical. He let out a laugh and approached his brother, calling out "Jules!" as he did so. Upon hearing his childhood name, the younger man turned and opened his arms to accept his brother's hug. "Good to see you."

"I'm glad to see you," Jules said. "God's been answering my prayers for your safety."

Felix nodded in acceptance of his brother's remark. While his religious devotion had waned over the last several years, much as Henry's had, Jules' faith remained unwavering. "We could use the help," Felix admitted. "The League's out for our blood."

"God's been good to us on that front too. And not just from the war."

Felix leveled a look at his brother. "What are you doing back here anyway? I thought you had another year there."

"I do. But Faith Outreach accepted my request for a leave of absence. After hearing about Uncle Charlie's condition…"

Felix nodded. While they had no relation by marriage or blood to the Henrys, their father was a friend of Charlie and his siblings. They'd grown up with Charles Henry as "Uncle Charlie." "I know what you mean," he said. The two walked over and found a couple of seats at a far table. "Everything okay back on Lusitania?"

To that, Jules smiled. "It's doing well. The Lusitanians haven't declared war or anything, but they've made it clear that they're no longer morally neutral."

"I heard Prime Minister Ascaro even expelled the League's embassy when they refused to apologize for their attempted attack."

Jules nodded. "They kept insisting the Coalition framed them."

"Ha! Sounds about right for them."

"Since then, Ascaro's been working to convince the other worlds in Neutral Space to work together to counter the League. A lot of worlds signed up. She even offered sanctuary to refugees from Monrovia during that crisis."

Felix nodded. "Yeah. Monrovia was… bad."

"You saw the news about it?"

"More than that, we were there. Briefly. We got hired to bring supplies to the resistance." Felix smiled wryly. "Blew up a couple League ships on the way in. They hated us already, after all; no point in not helping out."

Their attention was drawn to the door, where their parents entered. John Rothbard bore the strongest resemblance to his sons, although his hair as now completely white from time and thinned out enough to give him a wide bald spot. Liver spots showed on his face and head. The same were on Rosaline Rothbard, her thinning white hair arranged into curls.

Felix swallowed at seeing his parents. He hadn't seen them in years, for good reason. He looked gingerly toward Jules, who nodded to him as encouragement. Felix sighed and stood as his parents approached. "Mom, Dad."

"Oh, Felix, it's so good to see you," Rosaline said, her voice as aged as her appearance. She extended her arms to take him into a hug. "How have you been?"

Felix accepted the hug. "Getting along. It's been rough lately."

John's face twitched. Felix could see the disapproval burning in his eyes. It caused his own expression to turn blank from restraining his emotions. "Still working with the Henry boy?" he asked.

"Yeah."

The reply wasn't a word so much as a grunt. "It's a damn shame you didn't stick with the CDF, Felix. You'd have made General for sure."

"John!" Rosaline's expression soured into an offended frown, betraying disapproval.

"I'm just telling it like it is, Rosie." A defensive tone crept into the elder Rothbard's voice. "The CDF takes care of people If Felix hadn't walked out on it, he'd be better off than he is now."

"I didn't walk out," Felix said. "I had to leave the way I did. It wasn't entirely by my choice either."

That didn't mollify John. "It was your choice to stay on the side of Jim Henry."

"He's my friend."

"He's a disgrace," spat John with enough vehemence that Jules blanched. Rosaline looked away as if embarrassed. "Getting his own people killed and then trying to blame it on General Erhart of all people, the shame of it all. I served with Erhart. That man's the only reason we didn't end up in League camps. And your 'friend' tried to drag the General down with him. Why, I bet he's on the side of those Peace Union traitors who want to end the war."

Felix could barely restrain his anger. "He's not. Jim's a better man than you give him credit for, and I'll be damned if I sit here and listen to you insult him."

He wanted to go further. He wanted to insult his father for buying into Erhart's personality cult in the CDF, to point out all of the other commanders who helped hold the League back, but he restrained himself. It would just make a scene. Instead, he nodded once to his mother and stalked off, ignoring his father's scowl at his turned back.

Breach of Duty

Henry watched Felix walk away with a pang of regret. He knew the Rothbard household could be tumultuous and didn't want to be the cause of fighting between Felix and his father. But old John Rothbard's never been an easy man to be around.

And yet John had been a friend of Uncle Charlie for all these decades. That wouldn't have happened if there hadn't been something good about the man, right?

Henry's thoughts were drifting back to his grief over Uncle Charlie's condition when he was approached by one of his relatives, his Aunt Tylinda. She was accompanied by her son Shawn, still in uniform.

Shawn was a large man, at least twenty centimeters taller than Henry was, with his dark hair cut to military regulation length. His CDF rank insignia was that of a major. The emblem of the Unified Methodist Church, a cross beside a flame with an anvil over the lower mid-section of the cross, was present on his shoulder.

Henry noticed a smoldering look on his younger relative's face before focusing on his aunt. He embraced her. "Hey, Auntie. How've you been?"

"Oh, getting along. Not getting any younger, you know," she said. She was over fifteen years older than Henry, the younger sister of Charles and Thomas Henry. "But the good Lord's given me a lot of blessings."

He nodded. "Keeping you pretty as always is one of them, Auntie."

She laughed. "You've always been quick to flatter, Jim. You're just like your father and uncle."

"I try." He turned his attention to Shawn. Seventeen years separated them in terms of age. He had trouble thinking of him as anything but his baby cousin. But he'd grown up, and he'd done quite well in the CDF to be a major at his age. "Shawn." He offered his hand. "Congratulations on making Major by thirty."

The smoldering look in Shawn's eyes didn't go away. He considered Henry's hand for a moment. A scowl formed on his face. Then, without a word, he turned around and walked away.

"Shawn!" Tylinda's voice echoed with disapproval.

"It's okay, Auntie." There was pain, old pain, in Henry's voice as he spoke. "I expected something like this." Even as he said those words, he noticed more and more of the room was looking toward them. Talk of how Shawn had shunned him was spreading through hushed whispers.

His appetite evaporated. He left the cafeteria.

Breach of Duty

Like many of the others, Tia was watching the interaction between Henry and his relative. Everyone watched the younger man snub Henry without a word. She saw the shame on Henry's face as he retreated from the room. It made her furious.

But it wasn't her voice that challenged the man. Samina was the one who stepped up, fury on her face, and shouted, "How could you be so rude? He's your family!"

Shawn Henry gave her a condescending look. "He's a disgrace." His reply, made a deep baritone, seemed to ooze barely-restrained disgust. "He's a humiliation to our whole family."

This only served to stoke Samina's anger more. "No he's not! He's a good and decent man. He's loyal and brave!"

"He's a coward who got his crew killed, then tried to avoid his responsibility," Shawn retorted. "The way I hear it, he tried to drag General Erhart down with him, and the service let him off lightly to stop a scandal."

There was a mumble of agreement from one corner of the room. Tia turned to see an old man standing beside Jules Rothbard. The resemblance made it clear they were related. Felix's father.

"That's a load of horse crap," Felix declared, stepping up beside Samina. "If you ask me, Erhart is probably the one responsible, but people like you screwed Jim over to protect him."

"Says another disgrace to the service. How you two can show your faces around here." Shawn shook his head. "We'd all be better off if you'd died in battle with the League. At least then you'd be heroes."

Felix's face went pale with rage, and Tia thought Samina might stomp on Shawn's foot. She noticed the scowl on Cera and the very loud snort from Yanik. Knowing how badly Henry would take it if a fight broke out, Tia stepped up to get them to stand down.

Mary Henry beat her to it. "Now you just sit down and be quiet, Shawn Henry," she ordered, her tone scalding. "Jim and Felix have as much a right as anyone to be here for Charlie. He'd want them here."

Tia noticed the look that briefly came over Shawn's eyes. He was hurt by what Mary said. "I still don't get that," he said. "Why Uncle Charlie would do anything for a coward like—"

"You son of a—!"

Tia dashed forward and kept Felix from swinging away. Shawn saw the movement anyway and brought his fists up. "You want to take this outside?" he bellowed. "I'll take any of you on!"

"I accept," Yanik hissed as he stepped forward.

"Now all of you sit down," roared Thomas Henry, standing beside his wife. "We're here to honor my brother. All of us. He deserves more respect than this!"

Tylinda took Shawn by his arm. "You sit down now, Shawn; no more making a scene! Charlie deserves better."

Shawn allowed his mother to pull him away. He broke eye contact first.

"Go on, sit down. For Jim," Tia urged Samina. She nodded, still trembling with anger. Color returned to Felix's cheeks, and he walked away without Tia needing to ask.

She noted Yanik quietly returning to his meal now that the argument was over. She felt gratitude at that. Shawn Henry looked like a strong man, and he had military training, but Yanik still had a few kilos on him, easy, and the experience of fighting hand-to-hand against plenty of foes. The last thing they needed was for Yanik to maim Jim's cousin in an honor duel.

With the threat of a fight over, Tia found her anger at Shawn starting to return. Her face reflected that anger, which brought it, and her, to the notice of Henry's parents. "You'll have to forgive him," Thomas said. "Shawn's not had it easy."

"I don't have to do anything of the sort," Tia replied. "Jim deserves better too."

That got her nods of agreement. "Shawn grew up admiring Jim," Mary said. "Jim was his hero. He wanted to go into the fleet and serve right beside him in fighting the League."

"No sign of that now."

"No." Thomas shook his head. "He was off at boot when Jim… when the Laffey thing happened. After Jim was court-martialed and dismissed, well, it broke Shawn's heart. Then he had to put up with being Jim's cousin. People judging him based on the rumors of what happened to Jim. God's been good to the boy to see him rise as he has despite it."

"So he resents Jim for all he went through?" Tia shook her head. "It's not fair to Jim either, you know."

"We know too well," Thomas said. His voice warmed up. "I want you to know, Miss Nguyen, that we thank God every night He sent people like you to work with Jim. You've all been a great crew for him."

Tia accepted the compliment with a nod. Her mind wandered back to when she first met Henry in Darien, fifteen years and a lifetime ago. Her body ached with the memory of the wounds she still held from the failed revolution on Hestia and her heart similarly hurt from remembering her emotional pain. So many of her comrades were dead or condemned to the humiliation of the victorious megacorps that oppressed her homeworld, and she'd been reduced to an exile with nowhere to go. "We need Jim just as much. He… he did a lot for me." With that in mind, Tia looked to the stack of empty plates. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to get Jim some food."

"Of course," Mary said, gratitude in her voice.

Tia quietly assembled a collection of food on a plate, took up a wrapped paper towel with utensils inside, and left the cafeteria. An elevator ride and short walk brought her to Charlie Henry's room. He was still asleep while Henry sat at his side. She saw fury and shame in his eyes, provoked by his cousin's cruel remarks. "Jim." She spoke softly to get his attention and held up the plate. "You need to eat sometime."

"My appetite's gone," Henry murmured. Despite this protest, he accepted the plate, setting it on the stand beside Charlie's bed. "I can't be surprised," he said. "I'm sure Shawn had his fair share of trouble for being my cousin."

"The CDF is wrong about you, and we all know that." Tia took up a second chair closer to the foot of the bed. "Your cousin's asking for trouble if he keeps it up."

"Don't hurt him," Henry said. "I was his hero, and I fell. That always hurts."

"If he cares for you, he'd hear you out. He wouldn't jump to conclusions…"

"That's just the thing, Tia." Henry folded his hands together. "He's right about me. About that. I'm a coward. A disgrace."

"I don't believe that."

"Doesn't matter." With his voice trembling with self-loathing, Henry continued. "I surrendered. I didn't fight for what's right. I cut my losses and gave up. That's… it's contrary to everything a CDF officer should be. We're supposed to fight for what's right no matter who's against us. I didn't."

Tia shook her head at that. "I don't know what happened, Jim, but none of that changes the facts. You're a victim of powerful, corrupt people. You were destroyed to protect them. That's not your fault, and it never was. You had little in the way of choice."

"I could have fought."

"And they would've sent you to prison for life," Tia pointed out. "Then where would the rest of us be? Where would I be? Yanik? Oskar and Brigitte? You've made all our lives better, Jim. Because you're a good man. Whatever happened back then… it doesn't change that fact."

Despite her words, or perhaps because of them, Henry started to weep silently. Tia recognized the pain showing through the forlorn look on his face. "I'm sorry. That all of this is happening to you now. Losing Uncle Charlie must be tearing you up, and now your cousin's sticking in the knife."

"Maybe I should just call it quits," he said quietly. "For the rest of you."

"What do you mean?"

"Coalition space is safe," he said, tears dripping down his cheeks. "Safer than Neutral Space. You could take the ship and get transport jobs without having bounty hunters hunting you at every port."

"But not with you…?"

He shook his head. "They take one look at my record, and no Coalition business will hire us. Even the underworld outfits would be reluctant."

She wondered about that. To her, it was incomprehensible to despise someone like Jim Henry so completely. But she'd heard it in his cousin's voice. Even some of the others present, though they didn't outwardly agree, it seemed like they were reluctant to criticize Shawn's remarks. As if maybe they agreed a little or didn't think they had the right to protest his behavior.

It was the uniform, she guessed. The people here nearly worshipped those who were in the CDF. They acted as if they were noble exemplars of everything good and right, an attitude toward military personnel that Tia and some of the others found strange. So if someone in the uniform didn't like someone, everyone else would follow suit. Maybe they'd assume the person deserved such ostracization, or they didn't want to be seen in contradiction to the CDF.

Whatever the issue was, Tia knew one thing. She wasn't about to take away the one thing Henry had left in the world. "I can't accept that," she said. "You've gotten us through so much. You'll get us through this."

He didn't respond. He looked back to his uncle and continued to suffer silently.

Breach of Duty

For Felix, reining in his temper toward his father and Shawn Henry required him to leave the cafeteria and take a walk. It was bad enough that they were throwing insults at Jim. That they were also bringing up the end of his CDF service, well, he didn't like to think about it.

His walk through the interior of the hospital eventually brought him to the front entrance. He was surprised, somewhat, to see Miri sitting on a bench reading from her commlink. Deciding a conversation would be useful to divert his temper, Felix walked over and asked, "Anything interesting?"

"Oh, nothing," she said. After a moment, she lowered the link and looked up at him. "The truth is, I'm out here doing a perimeter check."

Felix smiled and nodded. "I thought of doing the same. I guess we're getting too used to trouble."

"Among other things. Training for this didn't help." She nodded to him. "You can sit if you want."

Felix did so. "Get anything to eat?"

"Not yet." She started tapping at her commlink. "I will, when I'm done."

"Don't wait too long; it's going fast." Felix drew in a breath to further recover his temper. He didn't want anyone to see how sorely he'd been pushed.

A tone drew his attention. His commlink had a message. He brought it up and checked it. He kept himself from glancing toward Miri when he noted it was from her. Instead, he opened it.

Dark aircar sedan across the street. Occupied, two subjects, hasn't moved since I came out here. Surveillance team?

Felix didn't respond openly to the message. He waited ten seconds and slowly raised his head, as if to look at a pair of dark-winged starlings that just flew overhead to perch on a tree in the hospital's lot. This let him briefly run his eyes over the parking lot on the other side of the road. There was a dark blue aircar there with two figures faintly visible inside. He searched his memory and hid the frown at what he recalled; he was pretty sure he'd seen the vehicle there earlier on his last walk. He returned his attention to his commlink and started typing. I see them. Think they were here the last time I came out here.

Miri gave no reaction. Her reply appeared seconds later. They were here when we arrived. Definitely a surveillance team. Probably CBI.

Likely, he typed in reply. Could be here for something else.

Miri chuckled at reading that. Felix had to do the same at her reply. With our luck? It was a good point. Jim is likely a person of interest to CBI.

"Maybe so, but I doubt that would warrant a team," he mumbled aloud. "We should keep an eye on them."

"Agreed."


9

Colonel Hale didn't own a home in Lawrence City. Currently, she was renting a house in the community of Pinewood, upriver from CDF Command and close enough that her commute wasn't difficult. It was not a large house, being about eighty square meters in area without counting the vehicle garage. But it was a cozy home.

She was asleep in a bed she found fairly comfortable when a sharp tone stirred her from sleep. She didn't wake up gracefully, but she did so, and her hand scooped up the commlink to check the message. It was a plain message with just a few words.

And at the end was the name "Ostrovsky."

Hale let out a sigh. She'd hoped for a decent rest tomorrow. Now she was going to need her good suit.

Breach of Duty

For Erhart, the day began as it usually did. Morning exercise to stay healthy, showering, breakfast, all to help him prepare for the day. It fit the very meaning of "routine."

At the end of it, all Erhart was in his bedroom getting a fresh uniform from the closet. He was in the middle of pulling it on when his commlink went off. He knew it couldn't be his adjutant or other staff. They knew better than to interrupt his morning. That ensured he checked the message, since it was likely an important one.

Hale's getting close.

For a moment, Erhart did nothing. Then he let out a small sigh and tapped out a quick, thankful response. Afterward, he connected to his adjutant while his irritation simmered within him. Things had progressed to a crucial stage. They were close, so close, to finishing everything after ten long years of planning. Colonel Hale could yet ruin it.

The damned thing was, Erhart admired the woman. She'd proven a brave leader in the field, and she had what it took to rise to higher command. She was, generally, on his side.

But the Laffey, that made sure she wasn't. It made her a threat. One he couldn't tolerate anymore.

It was time to act.

Breach of Duty

One of the benefits to working her new position was that Hale had some flexibility in her work hours. She exercised this, excusing herself from work a couple of hours early with the stated intent to finish her paperwork from home once she finished errands. Given she was known to still be settling into Lawrence City, this was accepted without comment.

She was on an errand, in fact, but not the one they presumed.

After a quick change of clothes into civilian wear, Hale flew her helicar into the heart of Lawrence City. The Harling-Cross was her destination, a thirty-story tall luxury hotel at the intersection of Harling and Cross. It adjoined the Landing Plaza Park and was within easy walking distance of the Coalition Capitol Complex, the Coalition Technology and Industrial Exchange, the Museum of Natural History, and a few other key sites in the city.

That alone didn't explain the busy activity there, or the need for Hale to park two blocks away in a public lot, given the hotel lot was packed. The walk gave her a chance to think about everything going on and the sense of real danger it filled her with. She would be making powerful enemies by coming here.

Ironic because, depending on who you asked, she was walking into a den of enemies.

She had little trouble entering the main lobby, but security intercepted her when she approaching the Harling-Cross Convention Center that was built into the hotel. She submitted to the scans without complaint and allowed them to check her ID. "You're clear," one of the guards said. "But please don't cause any trouble."

"I'm not here to." Not to you, anyway.

The guard nodded and returned her ID to her. Hale put it back in her suit pocket and walked on into the convention center. The banner above was all the necessary explanation for why someone might be concerned about Hale causing trouble.

Peace Union Committee Convention.

The Peace Union. Three words that were usually heard with a snarl by CDF personnel and politicians committed to the war. A group of parties that, for varying reasons, believed the war should be brought to a close and often accused the CDF of unnecessarily prolonging it. The classical comeback was to accuse them of being defeatists willing to abandon millions of Coalition citizens to homelessness or tyranny. It was not so easy a comeback now, though, with the League's control of Coalition worlds collapsing.

Eyes turned toward Hale. Although she was in civilian dress, she couldn't help but walk as she always did, and many were sure she was a CDF officer from that. Hale ignored the curious and uncertain looks. She carefully scanned the crowds of conversing attendees until she found the person she was looking for. She approached and called out, "Excuse me, Congresswoman Snow?"

A few sets of eyes turned toward her. One set, sky blue in appearance, gave immediate recognition. Celinda Snow motioned to the group around her and said, "It's another matter. I'll talk later."

As they walked away, she turned her attention to Hale. Snow was native to Canaan and the representative of the Anglo-American city and region of Harper's Bay on the Roosevelt Peninsula. She had the tanned brown complexion common to areas of Canaan, representing the centuries of people from different national groups and ethnicities intermarrying. Like Hale, she carried herself with the authority of a CDF officer, for once she had been a major in the CDF Judge Advocate General's office. "You need to see me?"

"Privately. It's important."

Snow nodded. "This way."

The two threaded their way through the clumps of speakers and the tables into another area of the convention center. Snow used a key card to open a door into a conference room. A holo-display platform was already set up between two tables for whatever the meeting was going to be about. Snow went over to a seat and Hale pulled a chair up to sit across from her. "So what's wrong, Tabby?"

"Something… I'm not sure, Linda," Hale said, reverting to casual nicknames now that they were alone. She brought out her secured digital reader and handed it over. "Now that I'm in the Procurement Office, I did some checking on Erhart. I've found something."

"Erhart. That no good, authoritarian son of a bitch." Snow's voice snarled his name, and as far as Hale knew, she had good reason. The career of then-Major Snow crashed and burned when she tried to investigate the Laffey too deeply.

"There's something going on. I'm finding Procurement and Personnel assignment orders hidden in the bureaucracy," Hale explained while Snow read the relevant files.

"'EF'?"

"Yes. I'm not sure what it is. But Erhart is behind them. He's signed off on the orders. And look who's been getting the procurement contracts for a lot of this stuff."

Snow looked and frowned. "Kalling Engineering. Faulkner." She frowned deeply. "This is about more than the Laffey, then."

"Sounds like it. After all these years, Erhart must still be working for Faulkner."

"I've done everything I can to investigate those two," Snow said. "Before and after I was elected. But the CDF is tight-lipped, especially when your party's signed up for the Peace Union."

Hale nodded in understanding. "I'm betting the administration isn't helping."

"Spencer's an honest man, but he's a loyal man too, and that doesn't always do him, or us, right," Snow said. "Wartime secrecy's still in play." The last sounded bitter coming from Snow.

"Did you ever get in contact with Colonel Henry after the case?" Hale asked. "To let him know what happened? That you didn't abandon him?"

"He never returned my calls." Snow shook her head. "Honestly, I don't blame him for being bitter. The man's life was ruined so Erhart could protect his precious defense contractor." Snow's eyes came up from the reader. "You still haven't found a way to get the Laffey logs, right?"

"Give it a little more time," Hale asked. "I've got a friend working on it."

"I want them. I want to present them in the Defense Committee and expose Erhart for what he is. I want justice for all the people that died and for Colonel Henry."

"And yourself," Hale added.

Snow nodded. Neither needed to mention that the CBI investigation Erhart put into play to block her from defending Henry ruined Snow's JAG career. "But this may be about more than justice for the Laffey. Just look at this stuff. How far back does this go?"

"About ten years, I think."

"So he's been up to this ever since he got his current office." Snow finished going over the data. "I… honestly, Tabby, this might be too big for me alone. I might need to show this to my colleagues in the Senate. If I didn't know any better, I'd say he was building a fleet."

"I do wonder…"

The door flew open. A young man entered, pale and panicked. Hale recognized him, barely, as Snow's aide. "Congresswoman, something's wrong."

"What is it, John?" The familiarity made it clear the two worked together. "What's wrong?" Snow stood, as did Hale.

"We've got military police and CBI agents in the convention center," he said. "They're demanding to see you and threatening to arrest anyone who gets in their way."

Hale swallowed. "Oh God, he's onto us," she gasped.

Snow nodded grimly. "Tabby, you've got the best track on this. Get to the bottom of what's going on. John, help her back to the lobby of the hotel through the backways. Quietly!"

John nodded. He looked pleadingly to Hale who, in turn, gave a sad look to Snow. Snow said nothing before departing the room. With her heart pounding and mind racing, Hale followed John through another door.

Breach of Duty

Snow stepped back into the convention hall with the air of a queen being marched to a guillotine. She forced her fear for the future out of her thoughts and commanded her gut to stop twisting. She ignored the eyes turning her way from all of the attendees, those that weren't staring daggers at the jacketed CBI man and woman and the armed, uniformed CDF military police with them. She walked up to the group and said, "I'm Congresswoman Celinda Snow. What seems to be the problem?"

The CBI agents flashed their badges. "Inspector Lewis Kalb and Tanya Goodheart," the man said. "Congresswoman Celinda Snow, you're under arrest."

A hush came over the crowd. "What are the charges?" she demanded.

"Espionage, sabotage of the CDF vessel Laffey, and treason," answered Kalb.

"That's ridiculous!" a voice called out from the crowd, joined by more angry declarations and shouts. "This is political persecution!"

The CDF MPs pulled their guns as the crowd grew increasingly ugly. Snow saw how nervous they looked. If things continued on, they might open fire. She couldn't allow that.

"These charges are a sham, but to prevent any trouble, I'll surrender to your custody," Snow said. She looked to the others. "Don't worry about me, folks. Win the election. That's what matters!"

As she spoke, Kalb's partner stepped around her and pulled her wrists together to cuff them. "Get a move on, traitor," the woman hissed into Snow's right ear.

She did so, hoping and praying Hale got away. Whatever was going on, she might be their only hope to take Erhart down.

Breach of Duty

John's access badge worked throughout the hotel due to his status. With it, he escorted Hale quietly, but quickly, through the service areas and to the far side of the hotel. She found herself in the hotel's main lobby for guests as opposed to convention attendees.

John's commlink went off. He looked at it and his face paled yet further. "They just arrested the Congresswoman," he whispered. "For sabotage and treason!"

"Sabotage?" Hale felt confusion. "What sabotage?"

"Something about a ship called the Laffey. It doesn't make sense."

It does to me. Hale tried to fight the growing surge of panic she felt. If she didn't do this right, she'd end up under arrest as well. This is Erhart. Just what is he up to?

It was about then that she noted CBI agents at the door. They were looking in the direction of the far side of the hotel, where the convention center was, so they hadn't seen her yet. Hale cast her gaze around and noticed the retail store that was attached to the lobby. It would be overpriced, but she hoped it had what she needed. "Do you have any cash?" she asked.

"What?"

"Physical cash, not electronic," she said.

"Oh, uh." He fished into his pockets and pulled out about ten credits worth of coins.

"I'll pay you back when I can." Hale took the coins. "Get back to the convention center. I'll get out on my own."

John nodded and left.

Hale, meanwhile, had other concerns. The bit about the Laffey made her realize Erhart was probably after her too. Maybe even Anthony. And if CBI was already on this case, they'd be looking for transactions on her bank accounts and the use of her helicar. She needed to find an alternative.

But first, she had to get out of the hotel before CBI found her. With that in mind, she entered the retail store.

It reminded her of corner pharmacy stores back in Giddings. Bigger than a convenience store but smaller than a proper retail or grocery store, with a selection to match. She went straight for the cosmetics department and found what she was looking for. A quick swing by the eye area found her next necessary item. Soon she was checking out, paying an exorbitant price for her purchases, and paying them with the provided cash. She had very little of it left when she was done.

I always wondered what it'd be like to be a blonde, she mused idly — it helped with the fear and nervousness — as she walked to the ladies' bathroom with her newly-acquired hair dye and sunglasses.


10

In the few days since their arrival at Tylerville, the Shadow Wolf crew remained at the hospital, using the waiting room to sleep. Henry did not; he remained at his uncle's side, sleeping in the chair, while his parents and other family members took turns in joining him to see if anything developed. They were trapped in the dilemma of any worried relative, the tension of no news joined by the relief at no bad news.

Yanik was back at the ship now, as there wasn't any seating comfortable for a Saurian to sleep in, and he needed to get some rest. The others remained in the waiting room when they weren't out walking, checking on Henry, or getting food. The cheap digital tablets the hospital made available allowed for them to read the variety of online periodicals, magazines, and news services that existed on the GalNet. This allowed them all some distractions while waiting to see what happened.

This didn't go unnoticed by Mary and the others. Eventually, she spoke up, directing her attention to them as she did. "Is everyone okay waiting here like this?"

"Waiting is nothin' new t' us, Miss Henry," Cera replied softly. "It's part o' the job."

Pieter nodded. "We want to be here for the Captain. He hurts enough as it is."

Mary sighed as she smoothed her dress. "Lord knows it's true. My poor boy lost so much."

For a moment, nobody said anything else. It was Samina who asked, "His uncle meant a lot to Captain Henry when he was growing up, didn't he?"

Mary broke into a small smile. "He did. Tom and I, we had work to do. That's how things are in Tylerville. If you've got a job, you work it as best you can. So we weren't always around for Jim. Charlie had his own work at the spaceport, but it didn't stop him from raising Jim too. He was a second father to Jim, and Jim the closest thing he had to a son." As Mary spoke, her voice shook. "Oh, good Lord, my poor boy. It's going to break his heart to lose Charlie."

"I know how that is." Piper spoke up from her seat, head bowed. Beside her, Brigitte was also paying attention to the conversation. "My grandfather on my mother's side meant the world to me. He's the one who got me interested in the stars in the first place."

Samina nodded. "It's how I'd feel if Uncle Ali died."

"Had an aunt I loved. Aunt Kallista." Brigitte's voice was quiet, almost a hiss, from the weight of the grief in it. "She was there whenever she could be while I was growing up. Then the State sent half my family to one of the new colonies in Sagittarius. She didn't get picked, and they refused to let her go. I never saw her again."

"We've all suffered loss. We all know what the Captain's going through." Miri stood up from her chair, apparently refreshed.

"I just want you all to know how much Tom and I appreciate you," Mary said to the assembled. A few tears were shining in her eyes, starting to flow toward her weathered, wrinkled cheeks. "Jim's been so heartbroken these last sixteen years. God bless you all for being there for him."

Pieter nodded. "It's our pleasure, ma'am. The Captain's been there for us plenty of times. So we're here for him."

Breach of Duty

Charlie Henry's private room was quiet save the quiet trilling of the heart monitor. Henry leaned in toward his uncle, sadness written on his face. Nearby, Vidia stood, just inside the entranceway to the room. He watched Henry with a serene quiet. When he spoke, it was with compassionate warmth. "He means a lot to ya."

Henry pursed his lips together. He set a hand on Charlie's. "Uncle Charlie's been there for me whenever I needed someone." With all the tears he'd shed, there were no more for the moment. "Now I… I don't know. It doesn't feel fair to lose him…" He sucked in a pained breath. "Really, I want a chance to say goodbye."

"That's all we can ask for sometimes. I'll be prayin' that God gives ya the chance." Vidia put his hands together. "I always wondered about the family ya came from, Jim. I only wish I could've met them all under better circumstances."

"Yeah. It's not the meeting I had in mind for anyone."

For a short time, silence returned, save the rhythmic beeping that meant Charlie Henry's heart was still beating and his brain still working. Vidia waited for the right moment to speak again. "How are ya feelin', Jim? I know it hurts, but ya have ta talk about it at some point. It'll do good for ya."

Henry considered Vidia for a moment. "I think about all the time I've lost," Henry began. "Lost with Charlie. With my folks. I think about how my life's forced me to do what I do. The unfairness of it all. And now… now it's cost me more time with Uncle Charlie. And I owe everything to Charlie. He… honestly, Vidia, he saved my life."

"So I heard." Vidia walked up to stand beside Jim and put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "From everythin' I've heard, Jim, your Uncle Charlie was a good and righteous man. God'll be givin' him a place in the world ta come, believe that. Ya'll see him again in God's presence."

Henry lifted his head. Vidia met his look without flinching, and with the intensity of the glare and the rock-solid expression on his face, it was the kind of look that could cause many to flinch. "People say that all the time. They even act like dying can be a good thing. A show that God cares, is 'calling them home'." His voice trembled with restrained anger as he continued to speak. "Well, if you ask me, if God cared so damn much, he wouldn't take us away from loved ones before our time. He'd give us a chance to spend time together, to be there for each other!"

Vidia took a moment to figure what he would say next. He was not the kind to push when it would be unwelcome, but he was also not one to be passive when his beliefs were challenged. "You will have eternity together with God," Vidia said. "That's what matters."

Henry's expression darkened considerably.

With his point made, Vidia returned to silent watching while Henry settled back into the chair.

Breach of Duty

Outside of the hospital, Tylerville's weather was pleasant. This was to Miri's pleasure while she sat, maintaining her watch of the sedan across the street under the cover of reading the tablet she held in her hands. In truth, the tablet was tied to a small camera she'd acquired from a local shop, the kind that usually catered to paranoid spouses, parents, or private investigators. She'd slipped said camera onto a pole on the other side of the street, just out of sight of the car's occupants, allowing her to monitor them even as they monitored the hospital. It was the kind of thing she'd been trained for so many years ago and was, on the whole, a more pleasant activity than the others she'd had to perform.

Felix came through the door with a half-eaten donut in his hand. He finished chewing and swallowed before asking, "Weather's good?"

"It is," she answered. "Everything's nice and quiet."

Felix sat down beside her. "Good." He brought out his tablet and tied it into the camera. "If you want to take a break, I've got time."

"I will." Miri smiled gently. "I enjoy weather like this."

"Ah, yes. It's spring here in Tylerville." Felix noted that with a small smile. "Always a nice time of year, not too hot or too cold."

"Just right." Miri folded her hands together. "It astounds me how many worlds the Lord made for His people. All of these planets that have biospheres and atmospheres that are compatible with human life. Others that the Matrinid can settle, even if we can't."

"It's something. I hear that some coreward expeditions scouting for resources even found a species that breathes methane."

"Whatever they breathe, they're our cousins. Fellow children, and HaShem has made new worlds for us all."

"Take a chance to visit the local synagogue?" Felix asked.

"I will, when things here are right," Miri said. "I've not been to temple in a long while."

"Too much time pretending to be other people to stay ahead of the League, I'm sure," Felix said. "Well, I figure it's understood, if you get my drift."

He spoke as if he didn't entirely believe it. Miri didn't blame him. In the world they lived in, faith could be hard. Not just faith in the divine, in the idea of a greater good that suffused all, but belief in one's moral place.

Felix frowned suddenly. "Uh, oh."

Miri wondered why until she saw the screen. The doors of the sedan were open. Two figures in dark suit jackets emerged, a man and a woman. They moved forward toward the hospital.

"CBI," Felix guessed. "That's how they move." He received a nod of agreement.

The two remained otherwise occupied while waiting for the agents to cross the road. Miri stood as they approached the front door and followed them in. The lobby had the usual look she or anyone else would expect for the establishment, long sofas for visitors with showpiece plants to join them.

The agents didn't seem to notice any of this. Nor did they speak to the receptionist. She stood and, before she could even speak, one held out a badge, and she quietly returned to her seat. She said nothing to Miri either, but, given she knew Miri was here with the Henry family, that was no surprise.

Miri followed the two until they boarded an elevator. She slipped through the door before it could close. They'd already pressed the button for the fourth floor. She glanced toward them and gave a pleasant smile, as if they were two strangers she'd just run into. The only return look she got was a suspicious glare from the man. Immediately, she pressed the button for the second floor and adopted a relaxed posture.

After about twelve seconds, the elevator car came to the second floor and stopped. She stepped out without a word. The floor here had different color carpeting but a similar layout to the other floors she'd seen, one major difference being the cutesy animals along one far wall that was always customary for a pediatric unit.

Miri drew her commlink out and called Henry's. Seconds passed, very critical ones, with no answer. Miri sighed and scolded herself. Henry was probably so wrapped up in his uncle's condition that he wasn't listening for his commlink or had it on silent.

She went to the next contact. There was an answer this time. "Tia, we've got trouble," Miri said immediately. "Get to Captain Henry now."

Breach of Duty

Vidia was sitting beside Henry, both looking up at Tia, given the violence with which she pushed the door open. "Jim, we've got suits coming up to this floor. Felix and Miri think they're CBI, and they've been outside since we arrived."

Confusion briefly showed on Henry's face, then he turned pale. He set his head into his hands with disbelief and, Tia thought, more than a little fear.

"They're after you, aren't they?" she asked.

He nodded. "You should go. Now," he said.

"We both should. We can take the stairs and be out of the hospital before they get back to the first floor."

"It's too late." Henry shook his head. It's Erhart, it has to be. He thinks I said something. "They'll never let us leave the planet or the Coalition. You should take the others and go." He motioned to Vidia. "Both of you, out, now."

"Jim, we're not going to—"

"Get out!" Henry shouted.

Tia pursed her lips. He watched understanding dawn on her face. She was still plainly reluctant to leave, as was Vidia.

But they did. That was what mattered.

Henry turned to Charlie. He reached to the bed and took Charlie's left hand in his hands. "Uncle Charlie, please," he pleaded in a low, pained voice. "Please wake up. Let me say goodbye. They're coming for me. Just let me say goodbye. I want to say goodbye. It's the least I can do."

Moments passed and there was no movement from Charlie.

The door opened again. A man and a woman entered. While they weren't wearing a uniform, technically, Henry could tell they were CBI. This was confirmed when they held up their badges, revealing the seal of the Coalition Bureau of Investigation and their photo IDs. "James Henry?" the woman asked.

Henry nodded. "That's me."

"I'm Inspector Claudia Lippincott and this is Inspector Louis McReady, CBI," she said, satisfying the legal requirement of agents to identify themselves both verbally and with identification. "You're under arrest for espionage, sabotage of the CDF vessel Laffey, and treason."


11

The CDF Command Public Situation Room was in the low-security areas, a large chamber where news reports from across Sagittarius were playing constantly. Some analysts came here specifically to observe media reports; others simply chose to take breaks here because it was an open public area with tables where a meal could be taken. Colleagues used the central location of the PSR to meet up after work.

Normally, General Erhart didn't bother attending, as he had people to provide him reports on media happenings, but today was a special situation. He entered the room silently and took a seat at a corner, without a table, to watch as GNN showed the report on the arrest of Celinda Snow. According to the reporter, a spontaneous Peace Union protest was forming outside of the Coalition Attorney-General's office to demand Congresswoman Snow's "immediate release". "...has not responded to Senator Fuentes' charge that the arrest was politically-motivated," the male anchor remarked. "Spokeswoman Reyes insisted that the Attorney-General's Office was sticking with its press release on the Laffey allegations."

"Well, you've stirred up the hornet's nest."

Erhart glanced to the side. He felt unpleasant surprise at the presence of Daniel Barton. He and Barton, as well as Andrew MacIntosh, were of the same class from the Fleet Service Academy on New Halsey Station, although Barton's career had taken him in a distinctly different direction. "Daniel," he said. "Surprised to see you here, given your retirement. How's life in the civilian world going?"

Barton smiled in return. It was not a pleasant smile, with a curl to the side of the lip bringing it just short of a sneer to give it a sardonic edge. "I'm adjusting," he said. "In some ways, the work hasn't changed. Just who I answer to and what I wear to work." He gestured to his silver business jacket and white dress shirt he was wearing. A blue tie was there as well and his slacks were the same silver coloring as the jacket. "Sometimes I miss the uniform compared to the things I have to wear to business meetings."

"Well, someone has to ride herd on defense contractors," Erhart said. "You were always concerned with that."

"And you never were." Barton's remark was amiable, but Erhart heard the edge in it. "Your office still does a lot of business with Kalling."

"They've come through for us when it's needed. Their latest model of the fusion drive is even better than the last."

"Just as long as there are no more Laffeys."

"You were there for that. Those were special circumstances."

"So there were," Barton said. "Now I hear you're arresting all the senior officers still breathing. Along with Congresswoman Snow, who was originally defending Colonel Henry back then."

"Some evidence has come to light. Henry's been in Neutral Space, no telling what contacts he made out there." Erhart grinned. "Nothing else I can share with you and your Peace Union friends, Dan."

Barton gave him a stern look. "I'm not here on behalf of anyone but myself, Uly. I see what's going on, and you're playing with fire. These arrests are going to make things worse with the election."

"Are they? Or will they help people realize just what kind of people are in the Peace Union? People will realize what'll happen if the defeatists end up in charge."

Barton chuckled at him. "You never let up, do you, Uly? The fact that we're winning the war changes everything. Why do you think so many moderate parties are signing up for the Peace Union now? It's not about making peace to rebuild, simply keeping what we've won and stopping this mad gamble of Spencer's to invade the Orion Spur."

"As if the League will stop," scoffed Erhart. "Come on, Dan, we both know better. They'll come back. Maybe in five years or maybe ten. The only way this war ends for good is if we take Andrew's new battlewagons, park them over Earth, and bomb the League's capital to rubble."

"And how much blood will it take to get us that far?" Barton asked in a heated tone. "How many lives will be lost? How many more of our people have to lose their kids? Or is that the point? We all have to feel your pain."

Erhart turned his head and leveled a glare at Barton. He spoke with a bitter, angry hiss. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare, you damned coward."

Before Barton could respond, a tan-skinned woman with a major's rank insignia walked up and saluted. "General Erhart, you have a call."

Erhart stood and returned the salute. "Thank you, Major Benson. I'll be right there." As she walked away, he glanced back to Barton. "I'm afraid this conversation is over, Dan. Do yourself a favor and stick to sucking up to Fuentes and his pacifists. You're not so welcome around here anymore."

Barton returned the cold glare with one of his own. "I'll remember that when Fuentes is President, Ulysses. I look forward to seeing you finally get retired."

Erhart turned away contemptuously and left Barton behind. As he walked to his office, he burned with frustration.

Few had been happier than he had when Barton was forcibly retired for his behavior during the League false peace incident. He'd known for years Barton was a defeatist coward promoted by his connections, more interested in lording it over staff officers at Command than risking his life in battle. That some fool hired him back into a position of authority in the war effort was simply more proof that Erhart's plans were necessary if the Coalition was to survive.

Upon sitting at his desk, Erhart briefly forgot the call. His eyes fixated on the two pictures on his desk, side by side. One, over thirty years old, showed young Cadet-Candidate Karl Ulysses Erhart's commencement photo for the day he started at the New Halsey Fleet Officer Academy. The picture beside it came three years later, showing Karl with Erhart himself, a newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant of the CDF standing beside Erhart shortly after he got his second star. The two Erharts, father and son, bore the appropriate resemblance to one another. They indeed looked every inch the respectable, honorable CDF officers.

The memories came back. Tau Baker. Leaving his son's ship the CSV Beatty behind, with so many others, while he took his fleet back to Tsukara Station to stop the main League attack. The great victory. The desperate jump back, as soon as it could be done. His son's ship missing with many others. Taken by the League.

Was Karl alive? The question had tortured his heart and soul for twenty-five years now. There was no way to know. Karl could've died during the fight at Tau Baker, before he even jumped out. Or after he left. Or he could've been taken prisoner, condemned to the earthly hell of a League "socialization" camp. Had he died in one of those squalid places? Or was he still there? Even worse, had they broken him? Turned his proud, God-fearing son into another of their drones?

Erhart didn't know, couldn't know, what happened to his boy, and it had torn him to pieces inside.

Tears ran down Erhart's cheeks. The warm trace they left pulled him from his thoughts. He forced himself to take a breath and push the question away. As much as it hurt, he still had his duties. His oath. The Coalition had to be preserved and the League destroyed. It was the only way he had to honor his son's memory.

His system chimed. The call was still waiting. Erhart wiped the tears from his eyes, composed himself, and answered.

The image of Oliver Faulkner appeared. "Have you been watching the news?"

"I've noticed," Erhart said.

"This is how you're handling it?" Faulkner asked petulantly. "By stirring up all of this controversy? The Peace Union's already threatening to renew an investigation into the Laffey! Even some of the government parties are starting to—"

At that point, Erhart had enough. "Would you stop panicking?!" He glared at the screen, his shout shocking Faulkner into silence. "I've got everything under control, Faulkner. All you have to do is deliver on your end! That means no more panicked calls to my office! And no press conferences, no press statements, nothing about this! Treat this like it's beneath your notice."

"But investigations—"

"I've got CBI licking their chops at this. They're so eager to show up the CDF that they're gunning for Henry and the others. It'll be weeks before they finish processing everything and realize they've been had. By that time, we'll be free and clear!"

Faulkner bit into his lip nervously, cowed by the force of Erhart's words. When he nodded, it was a weak little one. "Okay, alright, I understand," he replied meekly. "But at least tell me you've got all the officers. If congressional investigators—"

"Every single one of them is getting locked up under wartime security regs, Oliver, including Henry himself," Erhart promised. "The CBI and CDF Security will never let congressional investigators interview them. I know Spencer will back that. By the time this is settled, it won't be our problem anymore. Got it?"

Faulkner nodded. "I do."

"Good. Let's get back to our departure preparations. We're at the final stage here. Let's not mess it up." With that, Erhart cut the line and took a breath. Soon it won't matter. None of it. We'll be done.

Breach of Duty

In another section of the complex, four suited CBI agents walked through the double doors leading to CDF Intelligence's main offices, escorted by a pair of MPs. The lead agent, a dark-skinned man, held up his credentials to a crowd of intelligence officers and analysts. "I'm Senior Inspector Guillame Gbado," he said, his French-sounding accent toned with Fon, the primary language of the African Union planet Agaja. "We're here to arrest Major Janine Renner. The charges are—"

"We are aware of the charges, Inspector."

Gbado and his agents directed their attention to the speaker, General Ostrovsky himself. Ostrovsky crossed the distance to face them directly. "She is not present."

"We were led to believe she is assigned here," Gbado replied. "Where else can she be?"

"Elsewhere, on assignment by me."

Gbado nodded. "Protecting your own, then? Afraid that we'll make you look like fools who couldn't detect a traitor in their midst?"

Ostrovsky frowned. "Nothing of the sort. We're well aware of the nature of these charges and who has caused them. Your entire agency is being played, but you're so eager to prove yourselves after the Monterrey—"

"The Monterrey was your people, not ours!"

"And yet, CBI is responsible for internal security, and it was CBI that failed to provide the CDF with the information that might have detected them sooner."

"There is a warrant for Major Renner's arrest. We insist—"

"If you catch her, she deserves to be arrested," Ostrovsky said. "As I said, she's not here, and as this is CDF Intelligence, I need not remind you that there is classified material within these walls that you are most certainly not cleared to lay eyes on. To put it bluntly, you are not allowed in here, Inspector. Corporal!" With that, he drew the attention of the senior MP escorting the CBI agents. "Escort these men to the appropriate areas for visiting personnel. Now."

"Yes, General," the young woman answered.

"I am going to report this obstruction to the Attorney-General's office," Gbado said, his voice fuming with anger.

"Go right ahead, Inspector."

The woman called into her commlink for more MPs, which proved sufficient for Gbado and his agents to turn and depart. Once the doors were closed, Ostrovsky returned to his office. He brought his desktop system out of suspension, keyed one of his encrypted channels, and started typing.

As he dispatched his message, Ostrovsky wrestled with his frustration at the developing situation. This is too bold a move by Erhart. Whatever he's done to win the CBI's attention, it won't hold forever. He's burned his bridge to them. Why?

Breach of Duty

Many kilometers away from where Senior Inspector Gbado tried to arrest her, Janine Renner was watching another arrest through a pair of binoculars. She remained quiet in her helicar as the CBI agents in her sights hauled a handcuffed, stunned Anthony Xu out of his apartment. Behind him, his wife and children were standing at the door, distraught. Renner could see the tears flowing down the faces of his frightened children and the frustration on the face of his wife, Lily Xu.

Renner drew in a breath. So it's come to this. Damn you, Erhart. The entire situation made her feel helpless. It was all going wrong so quickly. She wished it would just go away and let her get things back to normal.

Nothing's been normal since the Laffey, she thought bitterly.

A tone came from her commlink. It was, thankfully, a CDF-Intelligence-issued machine, a secure model that used encrypted communications that CBI couldn't read or even track without General Ostrovsky's cooperation, and that wouldn't be forthcoming. She checked the message and frowned. And it just gets worse, doesn't it?

But there was nothing to be done for it. She'd signed up for this. The shoe had dropped and there was no getting out of it.

She started dialing.

Breach of Duty

The CBI agents herding Xu into their helicar would have been incensed if they'd known they'd missed Major Renner.

They'd be even angrier had they known Hale was nearby too.

Hale had a new helicar, checked out from the CDF pool on the sly with the aid of a sergeant who owed her a favor. Her hair was now a honey-blond color and she had tinted glasses over her eyes. Together, she hoped they would either fool facial recognition or at least delay it.

But she had little else going for her. CBI was everywhere, especially in Lawrence City, and she was now a fugitive. Action and drama holovids aside, fugitives from CBI didn't stay running long when CBI really wanted to catch them. The best she could hope for was to get to the countryside where she might lay low for a while. But with her bank accounts untouchable and her home unavailable, she wouldn't last long.

How could it have gone wrong? How had Erhart even known she was so close? Just another day or two, and she'd have the Laffey logs, and then she could prove his complicity. Now this was happening. She didn't know if she could still win. And she didn't know if she could ever face Xu again, given she might've just helped to destroy his life too. I'm sorry, Anthony. For you and your family.

The ring of a commlink jostled Hale out of her misery. It was not her personal link but one she kept for emergencies, meant for a situation like this. She answered it, knowing it could only be one person. "He's onto us," she said immediately. "I don't know how he knows, but he does, and he brought the CBI in. They've got Snow and Xu already."

"They also arrested Captain Henry on New Virginia," answered Renner. "I don't know what Erhart told the CBI, but they're not being patient about this."

"Then we've got to be careful."

"Agreed. But we also need to coordinate. We should meet somewhere quiet and controlled, where we can't be spotted."

"I may know a place," Hale said. "Let me get the address."


12

The Coalition Bureau of Investigation's duties demanded the agency maintain hundreds of small field offices across the Coalition. In particular, the war led to even more of these offices so the CBI could provide greater coverage over the smaller cities where defense-related activities were still being performed. As Tylerville did have a couple of factories that manufactured items of interest to the defense industry, it had its own office.

It wasn't a large one. Henry had never seen it before, as it was in the southeast area of town, an area he had little reason to visit. It took up a quarter of an old commercial strip mall. From the first look he had of the place, it seemed it would fit into just one of the six holds of the Shadow Wolf with a little room to spare.

Inspectors Lippincott and McReady brought Henry into the office through the back entrance. He expected a cell or an interview room, but instead, they avoided all the rooms in the back and brought him up to the front area. Four desks were arranged to face each other in pairs, allowing everyone sitting to look to the front door. They deposited Henry at a side table and used a second pair of handcuffs to secure him to the table leg. At that point, they went over to a couple of the desks and started typing on their tablets.

In his position, there was nothing Henry could do but consider his grief and frustration. He'd come back to say goodbye to Charlie, who'd done so much for him. But now it seemed his past was coming back to haunt him, and it would deny him the chance for the goodbye he wished to give.

It sounded silly, in a way. He'd given Charlie a heartfelt goodbye every time they saw each other. He'd never let anything get in the way of showing affection for the man who'd given him his life back and had always been there for him growing up. They hadn't fought or argued the last time they spoke. He had nothing to take back. Nothing to prove.

And yet, he still felt the need to be there. To say goodbye and to hear Charlie's voice one last time. As if it would in some way reduce the terrible pain he felt at the prospect of a world without Uncle Charlie in it. A pain that made him feel like his heart would still when he dwelled on it.

Now it looked like he'd be denied that chance. Worse, he was truly in danger of ending his life at Lambert's Lament.

With that thought, his mind focused on his predicament. Henry considered the circumstances and felt puzzlement. He looked to Lippincott and asked, "Why didn't CDF military police arrest me?"

The woman looked up from her desk. "Excuse me?"

"Why did CBI pick me up and not CDF military police? I'm assuming the suspension of my sentence was lifted?"

"CBI's taking point on this investigation," she answered. "Although we'll be turning you over to CDF custody tomorrow, if that's what you really want. They'll arrange your trial."

"I already had a court-martial," Henry insisted.

McReady spoke up, contempt dripping from his voice. "New charges. You heard that part, right? Whatever coverup the CDF pulled to let you off the hook last time, we won't be doing the same thing. You're going to face a trial for treason. Now shut it."

New charges? That doesn't make sense. The thought startled him into bewilderment. What are they talking about? What kind of game is being played here? Through the confusion, Henry was beset with worry. Mom and Dad. I have to talk to them. Aloud, he said, "Then I want to talk to my folks and let them know what's going on."

"They'll find out from the news," McReady said.

Lippincott sighed and spoke up. "Louis, stop with the tough guy act. It's not intimidating or charming." After scolding her partner, she looked to Henry again. "You're being held under the wartime provisions of the Military and Defense Secrets Act of 2292, Mister Henry. In short, you're believed to have possible classified knowledge or the means to arrange your own liberation and are thus a high-level security risk. You will not be allowed to speak to anyone aside from classified personnel and your legal counsel, which the JAG office will provide in due time."

Henry frowned and shook his head. "This is a violation of my civil rights," he asserted.

Lippincott shook her head. "Maybe so, but it's the law. Your lawyer can argue that to the court when you get your day before the judge."

Bitter memories of the last JAG attorney he'd dealt with surfaced. Assuming I get a day in court, and I get a lawyer who isn't along for the railroading. "I may want a civilian attorney," he said.

"You won't be getting one, not with this case," McReady asserted testily. He might've said more if his partner hadn't given him a firm look.

Just what is going on here? he wondered, while real fear started to creep into his soul at the prospects of his future.

Breach of Duty

Upon their return to the Shadow Wolf, the crew gathered in the galley, where a forewarned Oskar and Brigitte were waiting for them. Everyone took seats in a smoldering, uncertain silence.

Tia took the lead in speaking. "So, they took the Captain. Arrested him right from his uncle's deathbed."

"It's not right." Samina was imagining the same thing happening to her, if it had been Uncle Ali's deathbed. The cruelty and heartlessness of it all made her angry.

"Well, we're not going to just let this happen, are we?" Brigitte's words were sharply spoken, her words as sharp as the expression on her face. "Captain Henry's helped every one of us at one time or another. We're not going to just let them do this."

Her words were met by silence for a few seconds before Yanik ended it. "Our options are limited. They are treating Captain Henry like a traitor, as strange as it sounds."

"Utterly ridiculous if you ask me," Pieter grumbled.

Yanik raised up a scale over his eye. "Indeed. But that is what they have done. Getting the Captain back will involve using force. If go we down that path, we will become enemies of the Terran Coalition as well."

"So we'll have the Coalition chasing us as well as the League. Wonderful." Piper shook her head. "We'll have to run for the Jewel Box for sure."

"Maybe th' League will call off th' dogs if we're wanted by th' Coalition?" Cera made the suggestion with levity in her voice. It won her only a couple of glares and she sighed. "Well, what are we goin' t' do? We're not leavin' th' Captain!"

"No, we're not. Or at least I'm not." Tia's gentle declaration wasn't loud or angry, but it had fire in it. "Anyone who doesn't want to take the risk can walk out now. Odds are we won't be able to come back for you. So I'll get you a bus pass to the capital city, and you can visit the ISU center there to get another berth somewhere. Anyone?" When there was no reply, she waited a few seconds before saying, "Last chance. You stay, you're in 'til the bitter end."

"Not needed. We're with you," Felix said.

"Right." She gave Felix a nod. "So whatever's going on involves what happened before. I heard them mention the Laffey when they were arresting him. Does anyone know what that was about, other than the fusion drive explosion?"

"Not anyone, I think, except how much it seemed to hurt him," Piper said.

"Even I don't know for sure," Felix said. "He doesn't share. I think that maybe he was ordered not to share, and it stuck."

"You're ex-CDF; certainly something's known about it," Tia said. "His cousin seemed to think there was more to it. A cover up or something."

Felix shrugged. "No telling, given the secrecy involved. What I do know is that the Laffey was an old destroyer fitted with a fusion drive, and Jim was assigned to command her for the test runs. There was some kind of prolonged operational test, and the drive failed in some way that killed the test crew and several members of the Laffey's normal crew. Jim was court-martialed for it and ended up pleading guilty. Rumor is he tried to accuse General Erhart of duplicity, but that's just RUMINT as far as I know. If he did, all it did was guarantee that people think he was trying to drag Erhart down with him, so they hated him even more." An idea clearly came to Felix, given the way his brow lifted. "I can ask around. I've still got some buddies in the CDF."

"I have friends in CIS who may know more," Miri said. "I'll make some calls."

"And the rest of us will get everything ready." Tia nodded to the others. "That means full stores and full fuel tanks, everyone, so let's get to work!"

As a group, they left the galley.

Breach of Duty

While Yanik and the others worked back at the ship, Tia rented a truck for herself, Pieter, and Piper to go into Tylerville and buy necessary supplies. They took the time to go by the hospital, where Tia entered while Pieter and Piper stayed with their supplies.

She went up to the fourth floor and found Thomas and Mary Henry at Charlie's side. The Henrys looked a decade older now. The strain of Henry's arrest and Charlie's condition seemed as if it was almost too much to bear. "Hi," she said quietly. "I wanted to check up on you. To see if anything's come up."

"Nothing." Thomas shook his head. "The CBI won't let us talk to him. They say things about Coalition security. Like our boy's some spy they've got to keep under wraps!"

"People with power always use that as a justification," she scoffed, recalling how Hestian authorities used to treat anyone they accused of revolutionary activity regardless of the truth of it. "Do you have any idea what's going on? Jim never talked about the Laffey much. I know it had a fusion drive, there was an accident, he was blamed and forced to plead guilty, and that's it."

"That's all we know," Mary answered. "Jim never ever talked about it."

"He couldn't. That's the only thing that makes sense." Thomas shook his head. "The CDF… something happened on that ship, and my son took the fall."

"That's what I figured."

"Oh Lord, be with my poor boy." Mary sobbed. "They'll never let him go. My poor Jim deserves so much better."

Horror showed Thomas' face. "They'll send him somewhere like Lambert's Lament for sure. He's going to spend the rest of his life there, like some terrible criminal." He shook his head. "The only thing my boy's guilty of is trusting the CDF."

It was hard for Tia to see the Henrys like this. It was even harder to imagine her parents having the same feelings. They'd lost her to the cause and her exile. Given how hard—and dangerous—it was to send them messages, how much grief they felt about her, Tia could not know.

She forced that thought from her mind to focus on the pair of grieving parents in front of her. She wanted to tell the Henrys she'd handle it, to assure them they'd see Jim again. But she couldn't. They would use it against them. I can't be responsible for sending Jim's parents to jail.

But given the pain they were in, Tia felt she had to give them something, anything to ease the pain. After a short pause, she said, "We're going to help Jim any way we can. I promise you that."

As she intended, a flicker of hope showed in their faces. It's all I can give you for now. We're getting him back. He's going to be free.


13

Hale's safehouse was not even a house. Her finances, and her uncertainty as if she'd need it, had led her to renting a small apartment in Lawrence City's Carpentersville suburb. It was barely furnished, with a CDF-issue field cot for the bed, a living space she maintained knowing she might provoke Erhart in some way.

Now she watched GNN and wondered how much of a fool she'd been to poke the metaphorical bear.

A news anchor spoke. "...arrests in the matter of the CSV Laffey continue to stir controversy across the Coalition. GNN sources have confirmed that CBI agents have also arrested the former commander of the Laffey, James Henry, in his hometown of Tylerville on New Virginia. Statements from the family indicate that Henry, who became an independent trader after his dishonorable dismissal from the CDF, was visiting home due to the hospitalization of a family member. This raises the arrest total to four, as Colonel Anthony Xu and Major Joachim Mueller have also been confirmed to be under arrest by authorities. Colonel Tabitha Hale, former XO of the Laffey during the incident, remains at large, as does Major Janine Renner." The anchor showed their images. "CBI officials and CDF Command are urging the two officers to turn themselves in.

"Meanwhile, another protest has been announced by Senator Fuentes to demand the release of the Laffey officers and Congresswoman Snow. A spokeswoman for the Peace Union Planning Committee provided a statement to the media in which she, quote, 'confesses to contempt for this blatant political machination by senior CDF officials loyal to the Administration. The arrest of Congresswoman Snow on spurious charges is a blow aimed at the civil liberties of every Coalition citizen. We urge President Spencer to intercede to protect the democratic process'…"

Hale shut the channel off. The GNN anchor was, to her, milking the moment, and she had no patience for it. Not with what she was facing.

What am I going to do? Even if she got the Laffey Incident logs that she could present as evidence, or any other materials about Erhart's activities, they needed to be given to the right people. CBI wouldn't. They'd sit on the evidence because they'd consider her a suspect source. Who knows what they'd do with it?

Her dilemma was worse for her sense of guilt. She'd pushed this, and now the others were suffering for what she'd done. Indeed, now that this was happening, her arrogance galled her. Ulysses Erhart was perhaps the Coalition's most beloved war leader, the victor of Tsukara Station and al-Mubarak, liberator of the Carlton Cluster. She was, at best, one of many heroes in the battle for Unity Station, and not even the main one. Who was she to think she could beat a man with that much influence and respect?

Pride goeth before a fall. For her, it was an admonishment, but the thought also contained some hope. Erhart had plenty of pride himself. With luck and hopefully God choosing her side, Hale might yet find a way to bring him down.

This was why she stood from the basic plastic chair and started getting her things. It was almost time to meet Renner. Maybe they could yet figure out a way out of this.

Breach of Duty

There was an old saying that General Andrew MacIntosh had reason to keep in mind: the reward for work done well was more work.

It was why, after his role in seeing the Victory Project through to completion and outstanding success, his star in the CDF was ascendant. He was playing a greater role in the war effort now, which meant repeated conferences with both civil and military authorities as well as doing his part in civic relations. For a man of his age, the time demands were grueling, but he would bear the burden to see them through to victory.

After seeing to confession for the week — which helped as he was on a first-name basis with Father Samuel, the Catholic chaplain for CDF Command — MacIntosh returned to the inner halls of Command. In the Strategic Planning Center, he was happy to see the assault on Jinnah was proceeding as scheduled and that the League's forces on Tangshan were considered suppressed.

He hoped they'd surrendered instead of forcing the CDF to annihilate them. Sometimes the League's vicious attitude toward its troops, with the laying of blame on entire units and their families for unavoidable battlefield defeats, drove those in similar hopeless situations to extreme lengths. They've had power for too long. They see people as things. Numbers on a page, and with enough numbers, you're supposed to win. If only they knew the suffering they caused their own people. Or, rather, if only they cared.

MacIntosh looked over at a table showing fleet preparation lists. Erhart was present looking over the table, seeming to note ship locations and current missions. He noticed MacIntosh's attention and waved him over. MacIntosh approached and said, with the utmost respect, "General."

"General." Erhart nodded at him. "More good news from the front." A sardonic grin appeared on his face. "A shame it benefits our internal enemies as much as it hurts those outside."

MacIntosh shook his head. "I'm no fan of Fuentes, but thinking of him as an enemy isn't going to work."

"He is one, whatever his protests." Erhart brought up a starmap. The League's red had almost disappeared from Sagittarius, as had the pink for League-friendly neutral systems. Coalition blue, Saurian teal, and the green for friendly neutral systems dominated the starmap of Sagittarius now. "We haven't seen this much green since the war started, General, and that's because the neutral worlds know that if they get out of line anymore, we've got the stick to use on them."

"I'm not sure I want the CDF to think of itself as a stick. We're supposed to be a shield."

"The thing about shields is they only work when the other guy throws the attacks at it. And they can grow weak with time."

"Do you think this thing with Snow will make anything better? For God's sake, Uly, the Laffey was sixteen years ago. Why are you dragging all of this up now?"

"I've received actionable intelligence on the matter, and the CBI acted on it," Erhart replied. "It's looking like Snow and Henry pulled one over on us. Henry going out to independent space was part of something larger."

"I've heard he helped deal with the false flag attack the League tried at Lusitania. Why would he do that if he were a League agent?"

"You know as well as I that the right and left hands don't always coordinate," Erhart said. "If his orders were to keep his cover and Hartford's actions made it impossible for him to walk away and keep that cover, I can see the League sacrificing that op." He shrugged. "Or maybe he's not working with the League but a domestic group. Either way, it had to be acted on. To preserve Coalition security." Their eyes met and MacIntosh did nothing to hide the skepticism he felt. "Trust me, Scotch. When this is all over, the honor of the service will be intact. Everything'll be fine."

A bemused grin came to MacIntosh's face. Despite everything, he cherished the memories of his youth and the nickname he'd earned in it. "It's been a long time since New Halsey," he remarked wistfully, letting some of his old Scots brogue slip into his accent.

"We're the lucky ones; we got old enough to get nostalgic," Erhart said, a hint of sadness in his voice. MacIntosh had the feeling he was about to speak again, when Erhart's commlink went off. Someone was messaging him. He checked it and nodded, presumably to his lieutenant's news. "Well, I'd better get back," he said. "The war should be won soon, at least this phase of it."

"I'll see to that," MacIntosh promised.

The two men separated. MacIntosh looked away from Erhart and toward the large holotank showing the strategic map and the fleets and armies in operation. This was why he didn't have a chance to see the message that blipped across Erhart's commlink screen.

PREPARATIONS COMPLETE. HALE WILL BE IN CUSTODY SOON.

Breach of Duty

It was wariness that led Hale to make a few discreet passes over the meeting site in the half-hour before the meet. She didn't linger long on each pass, doing her best to look like someone looking for an optimal parking space. What she saw was enough to assure her that there was no clear sign of CBI. Although that was not the same as complete assurance, as half of the people there could be plainclothes CBI and she wouldn't know.

On her last pass, she saw Renner. Her old comrade was at an outdoor table in the food court, waiting patiently while partaking of a drink.

Hale took in a breath to try to calm her shaking nerves. There's nothing more I can do. I can't do this alone, and I need help. She can give it. Having not quite succeeded in calming herself, Hale nevertheless finally picked a parking space, as if to say she'd given up on something better. She gathered her things and glanced around to see if there were signs of surveillance. There were none that she saw.

For obvious reasons, this didn't settle her fear. Again, CBI did this for a living, and she didn't. There could be a dozen eyes ready to spot her, even through her glasses and blond-dyed hair. For a moment, she remained still in the driver's seat as she worked up the courage to get out. You don't have a choice in this. You have to just go and have faith it'll all work out.

She let go of the breath she was holding, pushed away the fear, and reached for the helicar door controls.

Her commlink went off.

The timing did nothing for her anxiety, although part of her was happy for the excuse to put off getting out of the vehicle a moment longer. She reached for the commlink and activated the screen. A message was waiting for her. She opened and read it.

Then she read it again, just to be sure—to be certain of what she was reading and the implications of it.

She swallowed and forced herself to be calm. Without rushing too much, she restarted the helicar and pulled it out of its space. At first, she didn't raise it into the air, keeping it on ground level as she drove into an adjacent park. She took a couple of curves through it as if she were on a pleasure drive, heading toward the center.

When she was far enough away from the meeting place, she said, "Lower driver's side window halfway." The systems in the car obeyed and lowered the window. She came up to a curve through the park. As soon as the window reached the halfway point, she hurled the commlink with all her strength. It smacked into a tree trunk and fell to the ground.

Whether or not she'd broken it didn't matter. What did matter was that she get away from this place as quickly as possible.

Breach of Duty

For the tenth time in five minutes, Janine Renner checked her commlink. Hale was five minutes late and there was still no message. She groaned in frustration and looked around, trying to see if Hale was somewhere watching. But there was no sign of her.

With her frustration and nervousness growing into impatience, Renner activated her commlink and used the touchscreen to send a message to Hale. You're late. Where are you?!

Another minute passed. Two. Renner drank the last of her soda, detesting the watered-down sickly sweetness of it. It didn't help that her stomach was sick from the tension of waiting for a meeting that might never happen, and everything she had riding on it. What are you up to, Hale? Why haven't you shown up?

When another five minutes was up, Renner couldn't stand waiting a moment longer. She stood from the table and started stomping away.

There were a lot of shoes and boots hitting the ground. Figures rose from tables or stepped out from behind kiosks, all in civilian dress and all carrying pistols. "CBI! Freeze!" a voice shouted as Renner found herself staring down a pair of pistols. She stopped walking and raised her hands at the very real threat.

With at least half a dozen CBI agents surrounding her, pistols raised, another pair walked up in the blue uniform jackets of CBI field personnel. The lead man was African, and the woman beside him looked Arabic. She added a plain hijab of the same color to her ensemble. The man raised identification toward her and spoke. "I'm Senior Inspector Guillame Gbado, and this is Senior Inspector Sana Amir. Major Janine Renner, you're under arrest."


14

Once Tia and the others returned, everyone saw to loading the materials they'd bought. It was mostly food and medical supplies with a few parts needed for some of the ship's many systems. Yanik and Samina oversaw the process of refueling the ship, given they had little idea when they might get another chance at refueling.

Meanwhile, Felix and Miri did as they promised. They made calls.

Now everyone was back in the galley, waiting to hear what the two would have to report. After getting a nod from Felix, Miri started. "CIS has little jurisdiction for investigations inside Coalition space; counter-intel is CBI's job." She folded her hands together. "But CIS still gets briefed on some things, and they reach out to other agencies for information when needed. They also get asked to advise the other agencies on internal matters. Unofficially, of course." Miri waited a moment to consider her words and take a small drink of water. "The Laffey Incident got on the CIS's radar a while ago. Since CIS was working to try and turn Jim into an asset, they did their own digging. What they found out, well, it explains a lot when you read between the lines."

With a hint of impatience, Pieter asked, "And that would be?"

"The Laffey was testing the first generation of Coalition fusion drives, and Captain Henry was CO of the ship for the tests due to his experience in being a command-level officer on destroyers," Miri answered. "Something went wrong, the drive nozzles failed, and plasma vented into the ship. It killed several crewmembers, including the chief engineer, as well as the civilian team from the engine's developer, Kalling Engineering. It would've killed more if the chief engineer hadn't personally closed the fuel lines before the plasma got to her."

"Most of us know the part about the drive explosion," Tia noted.

Miri nodded at her. "To move on, Colonel Henry was arrested the next day on various charges for the incident. He protested the charges with his initial JAG attorney, insisting he was ordered to keep the fusion drive to full despite his concerns and those of his chief engineer. But the logs claim he was ordered to reduce their output and refused. Ultimately, he recanted, accepted the blame, and was dismissed dishonorably at the reduced rank of Major."

"So the Captain was framed. They said he did it on his own when he was ordered to do it?" Piper asked, frowning as she did.

"Not if you ask the CDF," Miri answered. "The CDF has the logs and the testimony of General Erhart's officers claiming otherwise. In fact, they saw the Captain's defense as a cowardly, unconscionable attempt to divert blame."

"A lot of people did, I can tell you." Felix had his arms crossed. "The common argument was that he was trying to take Erhart down with him. Sticking with Jim cost me a lot."

"Who is this General Erhart?" asked Oskar.

"Ye don't know?" Cera gave him a look. "I'm from New Connaught an' even we know of th' man. I'd think th' League would be burnin' him in effigy all th' time."

Oskar shook his head. "We never dwelled on your leaders. Propaganda, at least inside of the League, focuses on the Coalition's social systems, the capitalist economy, and continued religious faith, all things considered anti-social. The individual doesn't matter."

"General Ulysses Erhart, Hero of the Carlton Campaign, et cetera et cetera," Felix grumbled. "One of our big war heroes. He's from the class of officers who were Colonels or one-star Generals when the first League attack on Canaan hit. Rose through the ranks in the first years of the war, ended up winning some big victories, so the CDF kept piling on the honors and promotions. He left field command eventually and took charge of one special project or another. Most of the non-anti-matter related projects now, in fact."

Vidia nodded in acknowledgment before adding his input. "He's also loved an' respected by the common folk. Lots of people see him as a good man."

"Because they don't know the man." Felix's voice didn't hide the scoffing tone in it. "Erhart only cares about winning. He abandoned a bunch of his ships at Tau Baker when he won at Tsukara Station. Word is his son was on one of them. And that's not all. There's scuttlebutt that he's cozy with Oliver Faulkner, the CEO and President of Kalling Engineering from before the Laffey. Despite the fact that his engine blew up like it did, he kept his job after the Incident. Having Henry to blame probably saved it, in fact, since he claimed the failure wasn't Kalling's fault or his own, even though it was pretty clear they screwed up."

Miri spoke up next. "Faulkner needs allies like Erhart. The Coalition Congress and numerous organizations have investigated Kalling for defense contractor fraud to no effect. The evidence isn't there without CDF documentation. And through Erhart, the CDF routinely refuses to declassify documents from the incident, not even to congressional committees."

"Wait, that doesn't sound right," Pieter said. "I thought the Coalition had the military under civilian authority? That the military had to obey Congress?"

Felix fielded the question. "Yes, but a committee or subcommittee isn't the same as the whole Congress. If something goes to Congress proper, it means you've got a crisis between them and the CDF. Who's going to support taking it that far during a war for survival?"

The answer was obvious. Yanik provided it anyway. "None." The Saurian's tail flicked in the air. "Our people are alike in that way. When the call to war sounds, those who fight gain authority, regardless of other laws."

"Don't misunderstand; if Congress really, really pushed, and especially if the President was sympathetic, the CDF would probably give in," Miri added. "CDF leadership accepts the principle of civilian control."

"Which means things might change with the Peace Union if they win. Which brings me to my findings." Felix frowned, thinking of all the trouble Erhart brought to his life and Henry's. "There's rumors that people at Command are taking another look at both the Laffey Incident and Erhart's being best chums with Faulkner. Tabitha Hale, the XO on the Laffey, is a full bird Colonel about to get her first star, and she's got a plum posting at Procurement now. Word is she's opening an internal investigation on him. And now CBI's going to arrest her, just as they have Jim, his first JAG lawyer, and all of the Laffey senior officers still around."

"Ah…" Tia nodded. "Well, now it all makes sense. Your corrupt general and his corrupt war-profiteering buddy prompted your security people to arrest everyone to cover it all up. They don't want the truth getting out."

Felix shot her a droll look. "Socialist labels aside, it's what it looks like, yeah," he remarked bitterly. "The CBI's been stung lately. The investigation into the renegade stealth raider crew that went League showed they screwed up in investigating things reported to them about some of the officers, and the CDF's been using it to avoid criticism for missing them too. All this bullcrap about Jim and his officers being traitors and saboteurs that the CDF covered up will let the CBI get payback, so Erhart's probably playing them easily."

"That's what concerns me." Miri shook her head before taking another drink to wet her throat. Upon swallowing, she continued speaking. "I think everyone knows Captain Henry's not a traitor or a saboteur. Whatever this evidence is, it's likely forged. Agreed?" Everyone nodded. "So given their forensic skills, it won't stand up to CBI scrutiny. No matter how badly they want it to be true, their inspectors will have to accept the judgment of their forensic experts or risk humiliation in court. This means Erhart's decided to destroy his credibility with the CBI and undermine his position in the CDF. That makes me wonder why… especially why now."

"Me too." With that, Felix caused everyone to nod again.

"I think Erhart's up to something more than a cover-up. One that requires him to have more time without an investigation dogging his activities."

"Honestly, whatever he's up to, we have one goal," Tia said. "Find the Captain and rescue him. Anything else can wait until we need to take our next step."

"Then we should plan on how to rescue the Captain," Yanik said. "And finish our preparations."

"Let's get started on that," Tia agreed.

Breach of Duty

A night spent on a cot in a lit room didn't allow for the best sleeping experience, but Henry was used to sleeping whenever he could, and he managed to get a solid seven hours in. It was a relief from the crushing boredom of being handcuffed to a desk with no relief from inactivity. The CBI inspectors were behaving like he might escape at the slightest opportunity, as if he was some master operative from a holovid. It was almost comical to imagine.

The boredom of the day was relieved when Lippincott approached him. She uncuffed him from the desk while McReady stood further away, a hand on his sidearm to draw it if necessary. "You've got a private call," she said. "From the CDF. It's probably to arrange your legal representation. This way."

Henry already figured their destination: the one interview room squeezed into the small office's internal space. Lippincott handcuffed him to the table and brought over a vidscreen. It was an old LCD model, not even holographic. She left it in front of him, nodded, and stepped out.

Henry didn't have to do anything. After about twenty seconds, the screen activated to show an office and an occupant. He stared in surprise before managing to say, with just a hint of anger, "Erhart."

General Erhart nodded. "Colonel Henry. You seem to be in good health. Healthy living out in Neutral Space, I take it?"

"Don't play games with me, Erhart!" Henry shouted, not particularly happy to see the man who destroyed his life. Especially not with Erhart using the rank he'd been stripped of from the General's machinations. "What is this!?" He pulled up his cuffs. "I honored my end of the deal. I've kept my mouth shut!"

Erhart said nothing until Henry was done. "Certainly possible," he conceded. "But I'm at a stage where I need certainty, not possibility. You've returned at an awkward time after years of avoiding Coalition space."

"My uncle is dying," Henry said bitterly, the wound in his heart aching again as he considered the world without Uncle Charlie. "He's the man who gave me my life back after you took everything I had. I owed it to him."

There seemed to be actual sympathy on Erhart's face. But it disappeared swiftly. "Be that as it may, and you certainly have my condolences on that fact, I can't afford the risks of you having another agenda, Colonel. Things are too sensitive right now. The sad fact is, you never should've returned to the Coalition, and now I have to take preventative steps."

"Why?" Henry demanded. "If you're going to condemn me to a hole, at least tell me that!"

Erhart shook his head. "Can't. But don't you worry, Colonel. I'm sure you and your officers will be free to go a lot faster than you think, and by then, it won't matter to me anymore. Consider that before you do anything reckless." With that parting shot, Erhart ended the call.

He did so before Henry could demand what he meant. But after a few more moments, that was moot. The meaning was clear. Not only had he caused Henry's arrest, he'd gone after Henry's command officers from the Laffey. Hale, Renner, Xu, and Mueller were all going to be arrested too. Possibly Snow as well.

Henry had little time to consider this as the door opened again. Lippincott and McReady entered. "The CDF's got a transport for you waiting at the spaceport," McReady said. "It looks like you're not our problem anymore, Henry."

Breach of Duty

Once Tia was assured of their preparations, she moved on to the next item for the Shadow Wolf crew to consider. "So we're ready to leave New Virginia, and we've got the supplies to get back to Darien. Now we need to figure out how we're going to get the Captain back."

"Attacking the police office would be foolish, and we risk the arrival of reinforcements if we try to take him here," said Yanik. "We may need to intercept whatever ship is transporting him and board them."

Piper shook her head. "No, I don't think that works." When she had the others' attention, she explained, "They'll probably put him on a military transport. Even if there's no troops aboard, it'll have a crew of a few dozen people at minimum. They'll outnumber us three to one or more. They'd probably hold us off until they got reinforcements."

Felix chimed in next. "Even boarding will be hard. The kind of shields those things carry will shrug off everything short of our neutron cannon, and if we use that, we could kill Jim."

"Your reasoning is solid," Yanik conceded, "but that does not eliminate our difficulties in taking him here."

"True." A smile crossed Tia's face. "But I've done these kinds of things before, back in the day. We're going to have to be patient and careful, but if we time it right… I think we can walk away from it. But it's got to be done the right way too."

"What do ya have in mind?"

Tia turned to Vidia. "For starters, you've got our best record on the quads, so you'll be manning one. And, Cera, we'll need you to be at your best too."

"Like ye need t' ask, ma'am."

"Then here's how we're going to do this…"

Breach of Duty

The CBI car pulled into the Tylerville Spaceport's secure entrance and approached one of the hangars, coming to a stop just outside of it. Lippincott and McReady got out and pulled Henry out with them.

At the door to the hangar, a squad of CDF military police were waiting. Three were NCOs and the fourth a lieutenant. Henry noted the little scowl on the lieutenant's face as they approached. "So, this is the infamous Jim Henry," he said. Henry noted his nametag read "Paulson." "A lot of people are wondering just what the CDF covered up when they let you walk away instead of sending you to Lambert's Lament for your crimes. I guess we're finally going to find out."

It was an attitude Henry was familiar with. He didn't give the man the pleasure of a response.

Lippincott provided a digital tablet. "Transfer orders are here. Go ahead and sign." Lieutenant Paulson took it and looked it over. "Standard prisoner transfer."

"There's not a lot standard about this one," Paulson replied.

"You've got that damned right."

The moment he heard those words, Henry's gut wrenched. Along with the others, he turned toward the corner of the hangar building. Tia, Yanik, and Felix were walking toward them with confidence. Tia had Henry's family rifle, Felix his old CDF pistol, and Yanik was sporting the Saurian plasma assault gun that made him such a terror whenever they dealt with gunfights. All the weapons were up and ready to be used.

The MPs and CBI inspectors pulled their sidearms and directed them at the newcomers. Henry could see they were rather nervous now. The Saurian weapon left a mark on the Coalition back during the Saurian Wars, with plenty of tales and legends about "handheld Saurian cannons" that could devastate an entire squad, and newer models were being seen in action against the League now.

But they held their ground.

"Who the hell are you?" demanded McReady.

"I'm his First Mate," Tia replied, "and I'm not letting you take him off to rot in prison."

Paulson wasn't fazed. "You'll be joining him. Lower your weapons and surrender, or we will open fire."

"If I were you, son, I'd worry about the Saurian with the big automatic fire plasma cannon," Felix advised.

"This isn't helping!" Henry protested, horrified at what the others were doing.

"You're under arrest; on the ground now!" Lippincott, looking like a veteran cop, took a step back but leveled her gun patiently at Yanik.

"I don't know what brainbug you spacers picked up in the boonie worlds, but I count six of us and three of you," Paulson said. "We can take down that Saurian before he gets us too. You're going to need more guns than that!"

The low roar in the air started just as Paulson finished speaking. Within seconds, it grew, and a shadow moved overhead. Even Paulson averted his eyes enough to notice the large form of the Shadow Wolf as it came to a landing right beside the hangar, barely fitting into the available space with its port side facing them. The quad turrets on that side swiveled to face the group, as did the three auto-turrets. It struck Henry as unnecessary when he noticed the port-side plasma cannon mounted on the ship's shoulder also turn on its barbette mount and angle down enough to face them.

A satisfied smirk crossed Tia's face. "How about those guns?"

"You are outgunned," Yanik added. "It would be wise to give up."

Paulson snarled in anger, and Henry watched McReady's face turn red.

"Come over here, Captain," Tia said. "We're getting you out of here." She nodded to Felix, who lowered his gun and stepped forward to get Henry. The motion might have triggered shooting, but the MPs and CBI personnel weren't fools. The Shadow Wolf's guns were on them. They'd be killed if a firefight broke out and every one of them knew it.

"Okay, you've got us dead to rights," Lippincott admitted. When Felix extended his hand, she didn't resist, handing him the key to free Henry. "But you didn't think this through, ma'am. We're going to have you, your ship, and every member of your crew on wanted posters across the Coalition. The Saurians'll be just as happy to arrest you too, and half of Neutral Space is moving toward us. We'll have bounty hunters ready to bring you in for the reward and you'll find keeping your ship flying impossible. Frankly, it'll just be a matter of time before we catch you."

"That's the thing about space, ma'am. There's a lot of it, and many places that won't give the Coalition the time of day." With that said, Felix finished freeing Henry, who didn't resist as he was brought to join the others. He looked back and smiled. "Besides, I figure your people will end up fighting all the bounty hunters the League's sending to kill us."

"You won't even escape the system!" Paulson shouted. "Our ship can overrun yours before you get halfway to the limit!"

"We'll see about that," Tia answered. "Our ship's not exactly standard. Now, everyone drop your guns and get into the hangar. Now."

Given the firepower directed toward them, neither group resisted. Their sidearms dropped to the tarmac. One of Paulson's MPs went in, followed by the others. Lippincott and Paulson went in last.

Even as they went in, the quartet started moving toward the Shadow Wolf. Henry followed them back toward his ship with a heart swelling with emotion. He felt furious that they were risking their futures like this. The League already wanted their heads; now the Coalition would be hunting them as well.

And yet, he wanted to break into tears at how it felt to know they would go that far for him. That they were risking everything to save him. They made him proud, and he felt unworthy at the same time.

More than that, they made him determined to live up to their loyalty.

Under the cover of their ship's guns, the group didn't feel the need for a cautious retreat. They kept a solid, brisk pace, not quite hurried but not slow. Ahead, the midships port hold's ramp lowered, and the airlock doors cycled open, allowing them a path inside. Their pace quickened as they got onto the ramp. Swiftly, they walked up the incline and into the airlock. Behind them, the ramp lifted from the tarmac and the outer airlock door cycled closed. The inner airlock door did the same after they stepped on through into the hold itself.

"I don't know whether to yell at you all or buy everyone a drink," Henry admitted once the inner airlock door closed.

"Well, let's see if you get the chance," Tia said. "We still have to get out of here after all."

Henry nodded. "Yeah. Let's get to the bridge and see about that."


15

Henry returned to his ship's bridge to find Miri in his command seat. Piper and Cera were already at their usual stations. Ahead of them, the atmosphere of New Virginia was already thinning to the empty starless void of space.

"We're makin' orbit," Cera said aloud.

"Get us burning for the limit." Henry took his seat from Miri and strapped in. Miri didn't need to be told to find a seat. She could already guess what they might end up doing.

By the time everyone was in place, Piper had noted the contact on her systems. "I've got a ship coming around the planet. Recognition systems are calling it CDF. Looks like a transport ship. Systems identifying it as San Jacinto-class."

"Saw 'em before we launched, so I put t' planet between us."

"Good thinking." Henry turned his attention to the holotank beside his seat. It showed their course out to the jump limit and the contact coming around the planet below and now behind them. The distances looked to be shrinking. He could see, even without doing the math, that the transport would intercept before they got to the limit.

It was still just a transport, of course, and the Shadow Wolf's neutron cannon would make short work of it if they were pushed. But Henry didn't want to kill innocent CDF soldiers over Erhart, not if he could avoid it. "Cera, on my mark, activate the fusion drive at seventy percent."

"Aye, take her out easy," she said. "Preparin' th' drive sequence now."

"Only seventy percent?" Tia questioned.

"The transport'll only have plasma drives. Good ones, better thrust than our GXR-4500s, but nothing that can compete with a fusion drive. Seventy percent thrust's more than enough to keep them out of range."

As he spoke, Cera completed her work. The Shadow Wolf's acceleration spiked as the fusion drive's output replaced that of the weaker plasma drives. Even at only seventy percent power, the inertial compensators couldn't quite keep up, subjecting them to a thoroughly uncomfortable 1.9Gs.

But it would keep them from the far more uncomfortable consequences of the CDF vessel making its intercept.

Breach of Duty

The CSV Milliken's Bend rounded New Virginia with plasma drives to full. On the bridge, the ship's CO, Major Albert Coglin, watched the Shadow Wolf burning away from his homeworld with far greater speed than he'd anticipated at this stage of their flight. "That's a lot of acceleration for a Holden-Nagata design," he said aloud with a glance between his XO and the navigator. "Lieutenant, can we match it?"

After a moment, the young Arab woman shook her head. "No, sir," she said. "They're going at least twice our best acceleration rate."

Coglin wished he had a destroyer at hand. Or even a corvette. A military-grade plasma drive could at least match what they were doing. But not his ship. They were going to make the limit easily and jump out without interference. There was nothing he could do about that. He returned to his chair and said, "Then let's not waste fuel. Call Paulson back up and resume orbit. Comms, get me CDF Command."

"Aye, sir!" came twice from his subordinates. Both orders were implemented immediately. But Coglin could hear the frustration in their voices. They might be a transport, but they were still a CDF ship and having some independent neutral world spacers get away from them like this was nigh-unbelievable.

For their morale and his own, Coglin decided to speak. "Don't take it personally, everyone. You did your jobs. And those spacers can run all they like." He shook his head and smiled. "Because now the entire CDF will be after them."

Breach of Duty

The moment they hit the limit, Cera jumped the Shadow Wolf out. Piper's choice for their destination system was a nearby K-class star without any Coalition settlements. Cera put them on a leisurely course toward one of the two gas giants of the outer system, providing them a potential hiding spot in the off-chance someone jumped into the system.

At that point, Henry called everyone into the galley save Cera and Yanik, who took the bridge to listen in via intercom. He looked at his people with pride in them and shame in himself. "So, little sitrep for everyone," he said.

"Not just a little one. Let's not mince words on this. We're fugitives." Tia crossed her arms. "From both of the galaxy's great powers."

"And we're still a dozen jumps away from the nearest non-Coalition system," added Piper.

Felix nodded at that. "The moment we show up on a Coalition system's traffic control board, they'll be sending cutters and CDF ships after us. And soon even civvie ships will be looking out for us. They'll report us by QET the moment our profile matches the alert. So we've got to stick to the uninhabited systems off of all the usual routes."

Everyone agreed with somber looks. Staying off the beaten path meant the risk that if their ship's drives went down, they were stuck forever. Or, if they were lucky, until a CDF vessel on internal patrol jumped in and spotted them. Which meant arrest and imprisonment for everyone.

This was why Henry felt shame. They'd damaged all of their futures over him, something he never wanted them to do. But he didn't, if only because it would be insulting to his crew to do so.

"So far, it's been your show," he said, glancing between them and specifically toward Tia. "And we need to plan our next move. Anyone have a suggestion?"

"Well, we could run back to Trinidad Station," Samara said. "Then find somewhere else to go."

Miri shook her head at that. "Not advisable. A lot of worlds in that area are becoming friendly to the Coalition now that the war's turned decisively against the League. Given how fragile their current recognition is, they might pick protecting that over us."

"We should stay away from all of our old haunts anyway," Tia suggested. "The League and the Coalition being after us will kill most chances we have of getting work as it is. If we're going to run, I'd suggest making for the Jewel Box and hoping we can find some work with the Crucians or Laconians."

Henry considered that. The worlds out in Crucis and the Laconian Reaches were insular and not very welcoming to outsiders, even other human beings. Scuttlebutt among traders was their local economies were still thin on the ground. Not a lot of spacers, but not a lot of spacer work either.

Felix shook his head. "Running won't fix this. We have to get Erhart."

Tia leveled a sarcastic look at him. "And just how are we going to do that? Half the CDF loves the guy. What are you suggesting we can do about it?"

"For starters, we find out what's going on," Felix countered, returning the look with a glare. "This isn't just about the Laffey. You heard the reports. Erhart's panicking. He's gone after all of Jim's old Laffey officers, even his JAG attorney, because he's trying to distract people. Something about Jim coming back to the Coalition spooked him. Why not all the other times we came back?"

"It's most likely from his old XO," Tia suggested. "Now that she's in a position to investigate him, Erhart's trying to destroy her."

"It's more than that," Miri said, clearly siding with Felix. "Whatever he's done to swing the CBI onto his side, their forensics people will eventually find inconsistencies in false evidence. He's burning a critical bridge. That implies he doesn't need it anymore, and that any backlash will be irrelevant by the time it comes." She kept her eyes on the others as much as Henry. "Erhart has a wider plan, and it's made him vulnerable. He's counting on the Captain being caught with the others to give everyone another target. I say we shine a light on what Erhart's doing. We can learn what's going on and maybe find a way to use this against him."

Felix nodded at her. "I'm guessing we both still have contacts we can reach out to, maybe find out what Erhart could be doing."

"I was thinking the same thing," she replied.

"Leaves the trouble of making contact without alerting the CDF," Henry observed. "Problem is the comm gear we have can be tracked on the receiving end if we try to connect through the GalNet." He gave everyone a careful look. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. This can be dangerous. Whatever problems we face trying to get out of Coalition space and wherever we can keep flying, this'll be worse. Does anyone want to say something against it?"

A few glances were shared. He thought he could see a little doubt about whether they could pull it off. But not a voice was raised against the idea of going after Erhart.

"Alright, then." Henry clapped his hands together. "We're doing this. Since we're all in agreement, that means we need to find a way for Miri and Felix to connect with their contacts. A way that will let us avoid getting picked up by CBI."

Piper gave the first suggestion. "Maybe we could if we can get to Galt."

"That's almost two weeks from here. By that time, Erhart'll be done with whatever he's planning, I'd guess," Felix said. "Perhaps if we find a station out here somewhere…"

"Actually," Miri said with a grin, "I know just the place we need to go."


16

It took hours of careful work at the table in her safehouse for Hale to finish her project. Taking a commlink fresh out of the packaging and modifying it to only access a specific network was not something she found easy or, indeed, had ever intended to do. But this was why she'd learned anyway. With everything going wrong and the CBI likely only a step or two behind her, she needed every advantage.

To protect her safehouse from being immediately identified, she left it and walked several blocks away to a nearby residential park. It was dark now, and everything was lit up from overhead lights. This made the shadows even deeper, Hale found, turning the pathways between trees or even spots in the fields into pitch-black maws that looked like they might swallow her up. Instinctive fear gripped her and had to be pushed aside.

Once she was in what she felt to be a safe position, Hale activated the commlink. The system protested its inability to connect to the planetary net or the GalNet itself. She ignored it and let it continue powering up. Once it finished booting up, she used the network searching feature, selecting the bandwidth for the network she needed. The commlink soon showed she was connected. She tapped in a number and waited for an answer. The moment it came, she sighed with some relief. "I got the log results. It's—" She shook her head. "I can't believe it. All this time, we were all wrong about it. And now I don't know who to trust."

"I can imagine," the voice on the other end said. "But you're holding up well for someone not trained in tradecraft."

"I never thought I'd be working a commlink like that," she admitted, looking around at the dark park. Along the far part of the trail, she saw a couple walking along, probably returning home from a dinner, or a couple of CBI inspectors moving in on her. She started walking back toward the park exit, trying not to let her heart pound too fiercely.

"The important part now is to get you off-world."

"Yeah, and how?" Hale couldn't stop herself from scoffing at the idea. "The CBI's made the case too public. Even with my disguise, they'll catch me at any spaceport I try to use. Even private ones! Even if I get a ship somehow and get into space, the CDF will be looking for anything that looks like I might be aboard. And since all the evidence is here on Canaan—"

"Yes, but Captain Henry and his crew aren't."

Hale blinked. "What are you saying?"

"Henry's crew rescued him at Tylerville Spaceport and fled the New Virginia System. They're at large. That's going to make Erhart nervous, and it gives you options."

"Right." Hale wasn't sure how well that would work, just yet, but she felt happy to know Henry had escaped imprisonment too. At least for now. All he had was a cargo ship, and it wouldn't last long against the CDF.

Another thought came to her. Could she trust these people? They'd always presented themselves as allies against Erhart, but maybe Erhart made a deal with them. She could be giving herself up by going along with these people, whatever they suggested.

"Colonel, you've come this far. The only way out of this is forward, and with Erhart discredited. We can get you off-world, and we can cover your flight from the system whatever the CDF wants."

It all sounded too good to be true. But what good was stopping? She had to keep up her progress and find something to bring down Erhart.

"Alright," she finally said. "Tell me what to do."

Breach of Duty

There was quiet in the office of General Erhart. With a few final taps, he secured his desk computer, ensuring it would not be used again unless he returned. He gave the room a long, lingering look as if to make sure nothing was out of place. Indeed, as if a Master Sergeant was about to come in and subject the office to close inspection.

His eyes passed over the pictures of his son. He was going to leave them, as he always did. He had copies elsewhere.

He approached the door and opened it to find MacIntosh waiting quietly beside his secretary. "I came to see you off," he said nonchalantly. "I'm due to leave shortly myself."

"Off to check on the Tikvah?" Erhart asked.

MacIntosh nodded and grinned. "Of course. I'll be waiting for your arrival."

Erhart returned the nod and grinned himself. He was due on a tour of special project sites, including a visit to the New Israeli Shipyards to check in on the completion of the Tikvah's refits. The old pre-war battleship was due to join the Lion of Judah in the fleet by the end of the year, giving the Coalition Defense Force a second big battlewagon powered by the latest antimatter reactors. "We'll want every edge we can get when we get to the Orion Spur," he said.

"If we do. If Fuentes wins, you know he's going to cancel that operation. Probably cancel the Victory Project too, come to think of it."

"That's why he can't be allowed to win," Erhart said. "The CDF needs to take a more direct role in the election. Make it clear how dangerous Fuentes is."

"Dragging the CDF into politics won't solve anything, Ulysses."

"Done right, I think it would solve everything." Erhart made a show of sighing. "But I'm just an old soldier, what do I know?"

"Same as me, old friend."

Erhart went to continue, but MacIntosh interjected, "I thought you should hear this from me," he began. "I got word from the Milliken's Bend. Major Henry, or Captain Henry, I suppose, has escaped CDF custody."

Erhart blinked, as if uncertain of what he'd just heard. "Oh?" he finally managed. "How did he accomplish that?"

"The reports we received of bootlegged fusion drives being built in Neutral Space weren't tall tales," MacIntosh replied. "His ship has one."

"Ah. Resourceful, I suppose." Erhart shrugged. "Not that it'll do him any good in the long run. He's just made things worse for himself and his crew. Now it's clear he doesn't appreciate the mercy we showed him sixteen years ago."

"I'm not sure I agree. He's helped the Coalition out several times, I'm told. Also, he did us a lot of good by thwarting the League at Lusitania. Saved the Little Sisters on Monrovia too."

"Opportunism isn't the same thing, Andrew, and you know it." Erhart made a show of checking his timepiece. He was aware of MacIntosh's closeness to the Mother Superior of the Little Sisters of Divine Recompense, a Catholic order of combat-trained nuns that specialized in non-lethal conflict resolution. He could appreciate their courage, though he found their methods weak and MacIntosh's appreciation for them foolish. He lowered his wrist. "I'd better get going. A schedule to keep and all that. I have things that need looking into first."

"Of course."

They went their separate ways. Erhart arrived at his helicar. He set the automatic driving system in anticipation, an anticipation that proved accurate before the helicar could even leave the lot. His commlink came active and connected to the helicar's systems.

A frustrated, red-faced Faulkner appeared. "Henry got away!"

"So I've heard. I'm not sure why you're so worked up about it, though."

"Not sure why…" Faulkner inarticulately spluttered for a moment. "If he testifies to Fuentes' people, it could mean ruin! We've got to go now, before he can make contact with them!"

"He's not going to," Erhart said. "Henry's going to be running back to Neutral Space with his crew. He knows sticking around will get him caught by the CDF, so he won't be giving us any trouble."

"You can't know that! The man might want revenge, for all you know!" Faulkner smacked a hand on whatever desk or table he was seated at. "Dammit, Erhart, if I go down, I'm not going alone! Do you understand? If this gets ruined for me, I'll bring you and all the others down too."

"Spare me the threats, Oliver. I've heard them before, and they're still not very impressive," Erhart remarked, sounding more bored than anything. Inside, he felt a sort of bemusement at Faulkner's ridiculous threat. The man truly didn't understand him, even after all these years. It was amazing arrogance, all things told. "You should be getting ready. We're not far from the rendezvous and I don't want to be kept waiting."

Sulking at having his threat ignored like a petulant child, Faulkner looked away from the screen. "I'll be there, don't worry. I've been waiting years for this to come. Especially since the Peace Union's made victory meaningless for me…"

"Right. I'll see you there."

The call ended, and Erhart was left to take in the sight of Lawrence City. He held a strange feeling for this place. It was the heart of the Coalition, yes, and the blood of many great men and women was spilled protecting it from the League. But it was also full of politicians. Scheming, deal-making politicos, seeking votes for offices they weren't qualified to hold. He often wished he could clear them out. This would have to be a consolation outcome. At least he wouldn't have to deal with them anymore.

But he did have to deal with Henry. As mercenary as he was now, Henry might work up the nerve to rescue Snow and the others. That meant they needed to get to a secure place ASAP.

"System, connect me to CDF Security," Erhart said. When it confirmed he was connected, he identified himself. "Inform the appropriate commands that for security purposes, the accused in the case of the Laffey need to be taken to secure holding until Captain Henry can be subdued or eliminated as a threat."

"Sending message," the machine informed him.

Breach of Duty

For Hale, the helicar ride out to the countryside surrounding Lawrence City was stressful. She expected CBI vehicles to intercept her the entire way and kept a wary eye out for them.

It was the middle of the night locally when she arrived at her destination. It was a small private spaceport in the Karten District Area, about ten kilometers from the regional town of the same name. It didn't even have a proper terminal, just a collection of hangars, a runway for aircraft, and two landing pads for large space vessels.

She pulled up to the side entrance as previously instructed. The guard on duty took a look at her and motioned her in without checking her ID; he obviously knew what to look for. She drove the helicar into the port. It was a short trip to the lane straddling the four hangars. She found Hangar C quickly and took a parking spot beside it. She got out, pulled her newly-bought personal bag out with what clothes and supplies she could afford with her remaining cash, then walked up to the hangar door.

Before she could knock, the door swung open. A brown-eyed man with tanned skin and dark beard appeared. Hale thought he looked Arabic, which was confirmed a moment later. "Please, come in," he said, his English toned with an Arabian accent. She walked in and he closed the door behind them. "You weren't followed."

At first, she thought it was a question. But as she pondered the tone he used, she realized it was a statement. "You know this how?"

"Because we're watching," he replied, extending a hand. "Major Abdul Rahman al-Lahim, Coalition Intelligence Service."

"Colonel Tabitha Hale, Coalition Defense Force," she replied, accepting the hand. Sarcastically, she added, "Also spy, saboteur, and traitor."

Al-Lahim shook his head. "You try to soften the barb by mocking it, but I can see how it pains you."

"I have comrades, friends, whose opinions I value. Their respect. If they think I'm a traitor—"

"—then perhaps they are not the friends you believed them to be. Please, this way."

Al-Lahim led her to the heart of the hangar. The ship present was an interstellar yacht, a Rollings Y-220. It wasn't the largest, certainly, and Hale guessed it was more function than form. A company craft meant to move mid- and upper-level personnel around for business without spending too much money.

"We've put some improvements in, but the Starlight Guide is just a standard Y-220 on paper," al-Lahim explained. "We chartered her through a shell corporation CIS operates for covers. She'll get you where you need to go."

"And that is?"

Al-Lahim handed her a digital reader. "The navigational data is encoded on here. Plug it into the yacht's navigational computer, and it'll calculate a jump course for you. It should take you a few days to get out that far."

"The ship's stocked, then?"

He nodded once. "Yes, we keep it ready for such contingencies, and I had fresh supplies brought aboard. I hope you like mutton. I still have some Lusitanian stuff that is quite good."

Hale gave him a small smile at that. "I'll try it." They resumed walking to where the yacht's side airlock door was open. A stairway gantry led up to the hatch proper. She went up the stairs and set her bag down just inside the inner airlock before turning back to al-Lahim. "So where am I going?"

"Somewhere special," he said. "You'll find friends there, or they'll find you."

A thought came to her. "You mean Colonel Henry, don't you?" When he nodded, she drew in a breath and felt very guilty. He ruined his life to save us, and now I've ruined it all again.

Seeing her expression, but not knowing what she was thinking, al-Lahim said, "I got to know him on Lusitania. He did a few jobs for me out there. He's a bit of a mercenary now, and life's not been kind to him… but deep down, he's still one of us, Colonel Hale. You'll be in good hands when you meet him again, Inshallah."

"Right. Well, I'd better get going."

He pulled the gantry away while Hale closed the outer airlock hatch.

After closing the inner door as well, she reached down, picked up her bag, and carried it with her into the main compartment. She dropped it off near the entrance to the cabin area and went to the piloting controls. She set the digital reader into a slot on the console so its data could be read by the systems. As the navigational computer processed the data provided, Hale began departure proceedings.


17


ISV Shadow Wolf

System NW-3-11, Terran Coalition

27 July 2462

Given the number of inhabited planets in the galaxy, it could be easy to forget that they didn't make up even one percent of the actual solar systems in existence. For each star with a planet that could be effectively terraformed, or was already a survivable garden planet, there were hundreds of solar systems without such worlds. Some of them still had some habitation, in domed colonies or habitats built into asteroids and planetoids, even outright space stations. This was usually from the presence of valuable resources.

But when a system had no such resources readily available, it was usually left empty. At most, for such systems along major interstellar routes, a GalNet-linked sensor buoy would be present should a vessel be in distress and need help. But other than that, they were utterly devoid of anything made by another species.

NW-3-11 was one such empty solar system. Its designation came from being within three jumps of New Washington, one of the major founding worlds of the Terran Coalition. The system was mostly gas giants with a few planetoid bodies in a close solar orbit of a supergiant star. Because of the lack of perceived value and not being along any of the jump routes between systems, there wasn't even a sensor buoy.

On the bridge, Piper made a frustrated noise. "Wherever we're going, it's too close to that supergiant. The emissions are messing with most of the bands our sensor gear can see."

"That's the point," Miri replied as her hands held still the piloting control. While she lacked Cera's piloting flair, Miri was a steady hand. She kept the Shadow Wolf on course despite the ever-increasing gravitational influence from NW-3-11.

On the display surface of the bridge's fore interior wall, the image of a planetoid grew larger. It was at least twenty-five kilometers in length, a brown-gray chunk of basic elements that remained from whatever planet or moon the supergiant had broken up as it expanded to its current size. Dull crimson light reflected from the surface from the star's proximity.

Miri seemed to be checking her distance. Finally, she turned her head back. "Tia, you'll probably have to increase power to the transmitter, but I need you to send a basic ID burst to the planetoid. Use the narrow beam."

Tia nodded. She tapped at the communication console for her station. "Sending basic burst." After several seconds, she noted an incoming reply. "We've received a request for a code."

"Put me on audio." After Tia nodded, Miri called out, "Lamed Samekh Yod 'Ayin Zayn Kha Ghayn Kaf Charlie Tango Sierra Golf Phi Kappa Epsilon Alpha."

Within two seconds, the side of the planetoid facing the supergiant shifted. A door slid open to reveal an opening to the interior.

Piper's eyes widened. "Whoa. It's like out of some holovid."

To that, Henry grinned in amusement.

Tia snorted a small laugh. "Spy stuff, I'm guessing. I'm more impressed that she could remember that gibberish…"

"Alphabetic code, actually," Miri said. "Specifically made up of four letters each from the Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin alphabets, with the last spoken in phonetic code."

"And yet you still remembered it, which is my point."

Miri smiled wistfully while she worked the controls to keep them on course for the opening. "Well, what did you expect? I was a spy. Memorization is one of the things they teach us, right along with the lying and treachery." She spoke the last in a resigned tone, a reminder that Miri had a past she regretted. Over the next few minutes, Miri guided the Shadow Wolf into the open portal. Inside was an empty chamber with another irising door ahead. Piper noted a change on the ship's external sensors. "It's a big airlock," she said. "The chamber is pressurizing."

A minute of quiet passed before the portal ahead opened. They flew on. On the other end was a hangar bay with a dozen docking bays, some big enough for entire destroyers and at least one sized for a light carrier or cruiser. "It's a depot," Henry said.

"More than that." Miri guided them to a landing at one of the smaller bays. "Tia, go ahead and send a basic docking request."

Moments later, docking clamps secured the Shadow Wolf into place and universal umbilicals extended, providing the ship with atmosphere and power so that the systems didn't need to keep running.

"There's no need to leave someone aboard," Miri said toward Henry.

His first instinct was to disagree, but the more he thought about it, the sillier it seemed. Who was going to find them here? He'd never heard of something like this in his CDF days. "Okay, we'll have everyone disembark, for now anyway."

While the others removed themselves from their seats, Henry sent the call for everyone to meet in the holds. By the time he and the others arrived there, the Shadow Wolf crew was gathered. Miri opened the airlock up and activated the ramp. By the time everything was open, the ramp was on a solid gantry cradling the ship. "This way, everyone," she said.

They followed her. The air had a particular scent to it. "A little stale," Pieter said. "But not like a failing life support system. It's just old. How long has this place been here?"

"A couple of decades. Although the reactivation was just eight years ago." Miri's answer came with the arrival of a door leading out of the docking bay. She keyed in a code and the door slid open.

The inside was a central chamber, a receiving area with crates and boxes spread out on pallets covering two floors. Pathways between the cargo areas allowed them to progress. Some of the others noted the markings on the boxes. "MREs in long-term cryopods," Felix said.

"Looks like parts over here," Pieter said.

"Some big ones." Samina gazed at a pallet with a large piece of equipment on it. "That looks like a plasma manifold housing."

"Missiles. Magcannon rounds." Yanik walked down another path before linking up with them. "Infantry weapons."

Henry was starting to get an idea of what this place was, but he said nothing. Miri brought them through the cargo area and to another door. This led to open hallways. Colored lines were on the floor. "The lines tell you what lies down that direction. Red is for the armory. Blue marks the path to the infirmary. Green is for the aeroponics. Teal is living quarters, yellow is kitchen and meal galleys, violet is recreation."

"Okay, just what is this place?" Tia asked, still awed and a little impatient. "This is like some super-rich capitalist villain's asteroid bunker in a bad thriller holovid."

Miri giggled quietly. "I suppose that thought crosses everyone's mind when they first see these places."

"Wait, places?" Cera was the first to react to the use of the plural. "As in ye have more than one o' these lairs?!"

"I don't. The Coalition Intelligence Service and CDF Intelligence have, however, established several," Miri noted with amusement. "This is known as a Masada Base, or Masada Redoubt, one of many built by the Masada Project."

Vidia looked back to her from the door he had just opened: inside was a pair of bunk beds and a private workstation. "That name, it sounds familiar."

Miri nodded. "Masada was the fortress in Israel where my people made their final stand against the Romans nearly twenty-five hundred years ago. Instead of surrendering, they killed themselves."

"Not exactly an inspiring name, then," Tia noted.

"For us, it was about defiance and resisting oppression until the bitter end. Something I would think you would approve of, Tia." When Tia didn't answer, Miri continued. "It's an old project dating back to the first Saurian War, when the Coalition's leaders feared that the Saurians couldn't be stopped."

"Interesting." Yanik's tongue flicked the air. "My people have repudiated the crimes of the Old Empire, but we still see the conflict as a result of the Imperial Court's fears of Human encroachment in Sagittarius. Your people seemed to be spreading everywhere. It appears both sides were driven by the same fears."

"Think there was a difference or two there, big guy," Felix remarked. "But it does sound right. The first war lines up with some of the last big waves of colonists fleeing the League."

Miri continued on. "To put it simply, the idea was to create redoubts in uninhabited systems that could supply guerrilla campaigns against occupation forces holding key Coalition systems. The bases would be stocked with material to allow for months of operations between resupply runs from unoccupied space. It was hoped it would help slow enemy offensives long enough for the fleet to recover and counter-attack."

"Even this place must've taken a lot of time and effort," Piper said. "If you've got a lot of them, it must've taken a fortune. How did the military hide it from your Congress for so long?"

"It was classified at the time of inception, but a number of legislators knew. After the immediate threat passed, later governments scaled down the funding to the point that at some times the redoubts have been almost totally abandoned. But since many were already built, there was no point in dropping the project entirely. The money was already paid. So CIS and CDF Intelligence took responsibility in maintaining them. Every so often, they sent missions to check on the status of the bases and the status of their supply caches." Miri brought them to a control chamber. A large table was in the middle of the room, with a holographic projection system that was dormant for the moment. Flatscreens for two-dimensional images were also present, as were various seats. One by one, they sat in the chairs. "With the League invasion, we brought these bases back up to full readiness. Before I left the service, I spent several months with a CIS inspection team checking on some of the redoubts. Including this one. It's how I knew the code."

"Don't codes change over time?"

"When access is easier, yes," Miri answered, smiling at Piper. "But as you yourself noted, finding this place is incredibly difficult, thanks to the emissions of the supergiant. Given the surveillance we quietly maintain on these places, code rotation isn't deemed necessary. And in case of emergency, it could… complicate things."

"What's the power source?" Samina asked. "I mean, without a regular crew, who runs the fusion cores?"

"Nobody. The fusion cores remain inactive. The station is powered by solar energy collectors on the surface of the planetoid." Miri tapped a couple of keys at the central table. A holographic likeness of the planetoid popped up. Along the side facing the star were a multitude of such collectors. "They're tied to battery storage. When the batteries have fallen to a certain charge level, the collectors open and gather the necessary energy. Once the batteries are topped off, the collectors retract. Without a Lawrence drive to draw energy, this arrangement is rather effective. The fusion cores are only for full activation of the base."

Pieter and Samina looked over the system, their eyes wide. Tia asked, "So what's the point of coming here? You've got a plan?"

"We should have an idea, given time for Felix and me to work our contacts," Miri answered. She noted the distant look on Henry's face and gave him a sympathetic look, one he didn't immediately acknowledge. "Until then, we can use this as a base of operations, to spare our supplies aboard the Shadow Wolf."

"Sounds good to me," Brigitte said with some enthusiasm. "Anything we should stay away from?"

"I'd recommend remaining in the crew support area, for now," Miri said. "Find a room, bunk down, grab food from the kitchens, play in the rec area if you want. As soon as we have something, we'll call everyone together." She glanced at Henry again. "With your leave, Captain?"

Given his life so far, Henry wasn't in the mood to gawk at the super-secret redoubt beyond some amazement that it existed and survived as it had. To her question, he gave an assenting nod. That provided the signal for everyone to depart the room.

Breach of Duty

While his crew had varying amounts of curiosity about the Masada Base, Henry found he had none. Instead of looking around at the other areas, he found a room with a bunk and a work desk. His frame dropped into the chair. Being alone for the first time since his rescue gave Henry time for thoughts he'd kept quiet to come back into focus. Once again, his life was being upended, broken, by General Erhart. Now it wasn't just his life but that of his crew, both his senior officers on the Laffey and his crew on the Shadow Wolf.

He hadn't thought of them in a long time, his comrades from the Laffey. Mueller, Xu, Renner, and Hale. It was the only time they'd served together, but they were as solid a team as any CDF officer could ask for. He wasn't surprised by their continued success in their careers. Now that success is for nothing. They're on their way to Lambert's Lament because I came home. It was a bitter conclusion he couldn't avoid. After everything sacrificed for them, they would still end up suffering.

The door slid open. Felix poked his head in and grinned. "Well, there you are." He stepped in. "Kinda cozy for a last hope bunker, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Henry wasn't in the mood to make light of their situation. "I'm guessing there's comm equipment?"

"QET-based with encryption you wouldn't believe and programming to hop between QET transceivers. Anyone trying to figure out where we are is going to find themselves wondering why we're already in Neutral Space or the middle of Saurian territory."

"Good."

Henry hadn't bothered hiding his gloomy disposition. His voice helped give it away. With a sigh, Felix went over and sat on one of the bunk beds. "So what's eating you?"

"I'm worried. About my folks," Henry answered. "CBI's going to be on the warpath about me getting away from them. Are they going to take my parents in on some trumped-up charge?"

"They still have to obey the law," Felix said. "They can't just arrest anyone they want or people on New Virginia will give them hell."

"They'll claim they're investigating treason; that's always a good excuse."

"And one that'll make the people of Tylerville split their sides with laughter before they storm the CBI office." Felix shook his head. "Jim, you don't need to worry about that."

"Yeah, you're probably right," Henry said in the voice of a man resigned to go on worrying anyway. "We've got other problems anyway."

"You mean the entire CDF hunting for us."

"Something like that."

"Yeah." Felix crossed his arms. "Jim, stop hiding what happened back then. Whatever deal you made back then, I'm pretty sure Erhart's breaking it. Maybe you should let us in on what's going on? What happened on the Laffey?"

Henry grimaced at the name. "Sixteen years is an awful damn long time to keep a secret. But I had to, you know. Otherwise, he was going to have me tried as a saboteur and traitor. Me and the other officers. Even Captain Soto would've been posthumously disgraced."

Felix nodded in understanding. "I get that. But I think it's time, Jim. Erhart's taken that choice. Maybe it's time to let it all come out." Their eyes met. "Starting with the rest of us. It's our asses on the line besides yours now, and I've got no desire to spend the rest of my days in Lambert's Lament."

Henry's mind wandered back to Uncle Charlie. Charlie hadn't been told either. He'd known the character of it. He'd known Jim's honor as an officer, his life, was destroyed by a powerful foe—but had never pried. Today, things were different. As Felix pointed out, the old deal was gone. Whatever Erhart was up to, he felt vulnerable. If he was vulnerable, maybe Henry and the others could finally bring him down. He nodded grimly at Felix. "Alright. Let everyone know that when they're done, I want to see them back in that meeting room."

"I'm on it, Jim."

Breach of Duty

Henry waited until everyone was back together in the base command center before he spoke. "Once again, I'd like to thank all of you for coming to my aid. You've put yourselves on the line when you didn't have to." He drew in a breath, steadying himself for what he was going to say next. "That means you, above all people, have earned the right to know what's going on here."

Some of the others nodded. A few said nothing. He could see they were curious but trying not to be assertive about it.

"First, I'd like to apologize. I've kept this secret from everyone, even when the rest of you have been forthcoming about your own," he said, humility in his voice. "I did so because, whatever your best intentions, I couldn't take any risk of any bit of the story getting out. My old officers on the Laffey would've paid the price."

It was Vidia who spoke first. "Ya had ta do right by yer old crew, Jim. I think I speak for everyone here when I say we understand."

One by one, the others nodded in agreement. Henry was left to continue.

"Over sixteen years ago, I was given my first assignment as a CO," Henry began. "Erhart personally handed me the orders to take command of the Laffey and test the new fusion drive. Since I had experience with destroyers, they wanted me putting the new engine through combat trials. When my engineer told me she thought they were cutting corners and the drive would fail, I brought it up, and they shot me down. Assured me it'd be fine."

"But it wasn't," Pieter interjected.

He nodded, bitter thoughts filling his mind. "The drive failed. My engineer died saving the ship. We lost several crewmen and the testing team." Henry's mind flashed back to that awful day at the Phi Philomena range. "I was trying to be careful. I held back on using the full power of the new drives. But Erhart insisted. He gave a direct order to go to a hundred percent. It was my mistake that day. I should've said no. But he was Ulysses Erhart, the hero of the Coalition, and I was just a newly-minted Lieutenant Colonel. So I did it. I ordered the drive to full. And people died."

The others could probably see the anguish the old memories gave Henry. But they couldn't hear the memories rippling in his mind, the desperation of his crew as plasma flooded section after section, vaporizing anyone in its path. They couldn't hear Soto's desperation to manually cut the fuel to the drives and end the threat, a defiant bravery that cost the engineer her life.

After a few moments, Henry forced himself to continue. "Erhart pinned it on me. He made it look like I'd recklessly kept the drive on full when ordered to hold back. His officers and staff backed him, as did the logs. They faked them. They lied to the CDF, to the people of the Coalition, to protect themselves, to protect Oliver Faulkner and Kalling Engineering from their cost-cutting." Henry felt the old stirring of frustrated anger at the entire mess. The unfairness of it all. "I convinced my first JAG defender Major Snow that I was being set up, so Erhart had her kicked off the case. Ruined her career from what I heard. Instead, I got told to plead guilty or be called a traitor and saboteur, along with all of the other senior officers and Major Snow. Soto would be disgraced too. Her family would lose the pension they'd received."

He noted the smoldering stares across the room.

"It was the worst night of my life," he confessed. "The night I… well, I stopped believing in what I stood for. I surrendered to him. To Erhart. I gave him and his corrupt friends at Kalling what they wanted. I signed the plea papers and plead guilty at the court-martial. They kicked me out of the CDF with a bulk payment on a major's pension. Per the terms of the deal, I couldn't talk about it with anyone. I couldn't share evidence or even talk to my old officers. Not without getting the sabotage charges dragged up on all of us." Henry put his hands together. "I went home with nothing to look forward to in life, so Uncle Charlie helped me buy the Shadow Wolf. You know the rest."

"Aye, we do," Cera said as she nodded.

When Yanik began to speak, there was a new rumble in his voice, one the others had never heard in his speech before. "Erhart's reputation is known among my people. It is undeserved. For any commander to behave in such a way toward a subordinate who served faithfully is the highest dishonor I can imagine. Erhart is a disgraceful being and must be punished for his offense against you, Captain, and against those slain on the Laffey. The Coalition must cleanse his dishonor or be degraded by it."

"It was about what I figured it'd be," said Tia. "You got screwed over by some war-profiteering capitalist to protect his bottom line."

Felix sighed and rested his face in the palm of his hand, but said nothing. Tia flashed him a bemused look.

More nods and remarks came. Henry felt the weight start to lift from his soul. It felt good to share, even briefly, what he'd gone through, and to finally know that someone else knew the truth. Someone who didn't have a vested interest in suppressing it.

But there was another weight he felt. An obligation, and one that he had to ask fairly about.

"Whatever's spooked Erhart, he's followed through on his threat, as if I spilled the secret," he said to the crew. "I know I didn't do anything. From what he said, he was already on a hair trigger; my coming to Tylerville just caused him to pull it."

"It's probably your old XO, Hale," Felix said. "Her investigation must have found something he didn't want dug up."

"I heard she was part of the Unity Station op, so I'm not surprised," Henry said. "Tabitha always did strike me as a willful officer. The problem is, Erhart's not bluffing. I figure he's going to send them all to Lambert's Lament."

That drew frowns. Lambert's Lament was one of the most notorious prisons in all of Sagittarius. Divided between a super-max security civilian penitentiary and a hard labor military stockade operated by the CDF, it was the most secure prison in the Coalition, where prisoners lived and worked in low G conditions, even micro-G, extracting valuable minerals from the three-hundred-kilometer-wide planetoid in the Tyrrhenia system's main asteroid belt. The worst of the worst went there. Saboteurs and traitors would count.

"I thought you didn't get sent to such prisons until after they convicted you?" Piper asked, confused.

"Normally, no, but the CDF can send people to the stockade for security reasons," Felix answered. "They can't force them to work until they're convicted, but what matters is that they're securely under lock and key."

"We've done jailbreaks a few times," Cera said. "Remember when that sheriff arrested Piper an' Brigitte on Meridian?"

"A local jail's got nothing on Lambert's Lament." Felix shook his head. "They've got a garrison of MPs at the stockade, including power-armored guards. Plus the automated turrets on an isolated AI-run network guard surface approaches to the perimeter of the facility and any auxiliary hatches. And that's just if you get in range of the place, and we wouldn't. The CDF has fixed system defense platforms along all the approach vectors to protect both Lambert's Lament and Tyrrhenia from League raids. And there's usually a defensive squadron of destroyers and frigates in-system, sometimes even a light carrier or a cruiser. Frankly, we'd get blown to scrap before we reached weapons range of the facility."

"So if we're going to rescue the Captain's old crew, we have to hit the transport they're coming in on," Tia said. "Before it jumps into Tyrrhenia."

That got everyone thinking, including Henry. Hitting a military transport was no small matter. Again, Felix was the one to give the first answer. "We'll need to know which system they're coming in from and their course."

"Will they all be aboard one ship?" asked Samina.

"Likely," Miri said. "Standard procedure. It's easier to control one approaching ship, so the prison authorities usually require prisoners being shipped to Lambert's Lament be collected and then brought in a group aboard a single vessel. They'll do the same thing with the others. The last I heard, Mueller had a ship, so they probably have to link up with whoever's bringing him deeper into Coalition space. I can check the traffic records from here."

"If we can find that, I'd say the job's become 'tricky but doable'," Felix said. "So I'll help you out."

"Alright, and everyone else get some rest," Tia said, sparing Henry the need to. "I have a feeling we'll be needing our energy."


18

After being taken into custody by CBI, Snow found herself swiftly remanded to CDF custody and promptly pulled off-world. This left her in a state of equal parts fear and fury.

She'd been whisked away from Lawrence City, from friends and family and colleagues, under charges engineered to trigger deep and powerful feelings with the people of the Coalition. Charges that could see her incarcerated for the rest of her life and produce a political scandal that would rattle the entire Coalition. It could break the Peace Union's momentum. Even worse, it could radicalize more of the Union to the point that some might turn to violence.

She was no fool. Erhart was behind this, and he was playing with the very fabric of the Coalition. She'd clashed with him enough times to know his contempt for civilian authority and his single-minded devotion to fighting the war. Now he was going to put the institutions of the Coalition itself under pressure to fulfill whatever agenda he was pursuing.

Fury built up slowly, but as it did, it pushed away the fear and its voice, the one that said, "Say nothing, or you'll make this worse."

It reached equilibrium as she was herded across a transfer tube connecting two CDF transports in an uninhabited system. They'd ordered her into orange prisoner garb and her hands and ankles were shackled and connected by a chain, as if she were a violent offender who might lash out at any moment. She arrived at the other end, where a CDF Captain took custody of her. She noted his name tag read "Walters." As he signed the digital paperwork, she spoke up. "I'm a civilian and a member of the Coalition Congress. Under the law, I'm entitled to communication with legal counsel at the very least."

Her former jailors said nothing, but her new jailor gave her a cold look. "We're under wartime protocol here, Congresswoman. You're under charges of treason as part of a wider organization. We can't risk you getting a message out to possible conspirators. Until I'm ordered otherwise, you're staying off the Net."

Snow laughed bitterly. "What do you think I am, some holovid spy character? I want to call my counsel and the people I work with. I have a right."

At first, he ignored her, seeming to be more concerned with seeing off the team from the other transport. Once the door slid closed, he turned on her, the cold now showing its own fury. "As far as I'm concerned, ma'am, the people you work with are probably traitors too, so you'll have no contact with them. Not under my watch."

"You seriously believe this nonsense?" she demanded.

"Yes, ma'am, I do believe it, and it's not nonsense. I've lost family in this war and so has everyone under my command. People like you want to throw their sacrifices away by letting the enemy have time to recover. Anyone who signs up with the Peace Union's ready to become a traitor."

There was a rawness in the man's tone. For all the cold, forced professionalism of it, Snow thought she heard pain in it too. She adjusted. "We're talking about peace, Captain Walters. A victorious peace so our people can come home. An end to all the killing."

"There won't be any victory until the League's ground to nothing," Walters spat. "Anyone who says otherwise is either an idiot or a traitor trying to help the League. And with you, I'm betting the latter." He drew up to her with a death glare. "I'm not going to put up with your horsecrap defeatist politicking. You either shut your fat mouth or I'm throwing you into solitary for the rest of the way. You can spend the trip in a dark hole waiting to begin the rest of your life, breaking big rocks into smaller ones in micro-G!"

Snow was briefly tempted to try him on that. He wouldn't have that kind of say over prisoners. But that would be useless, in the end. So she pursed her lips and said nothing more.

Walters brought her to a cell in the heart of the ship. Several restraint seats were prepared, and two were already occupied. After a moment's consideration, Snow realized she recognized them as officers from the Laffey, Anthony Xu and Janine Renner. They were clad in the same prisoner jumpsuit she had on and their wrists and ankles were cuffed to their chairs, preventing them from standing.

Walters ordered Snow into one of the vacant chairs, where the chains binding her were locked into place to do the same to her. "Meal times are three times daily. You get five piss breaks a day, and that's five more than you deserve," he declared loudly. "Other than that, you're staying in this chair until we get to Lambert's Lament." With that, he stomped out.

Snow took a minute to look over her fellow prisoners. Both looked defeated, especially Xu. And she didn't dare give them any hope since the cell was likely being monitored and anything they said or did recorded. Ultimately, she decided the best she could do was to try and give them a little support. "This won't be long. Whatever games Spencer or one of his subordinates is playing, they'll have to let us go. The people, including the voters, won't allow this to stand, not when it's so clearly politically motivated."

The others barely acknowledged her.

Snow sat back in her confinement. With her fury partly spent, the fear started to come back. Inwardly, she breathed softly and started praying. God in Heaven, please help me here. Please help Tabby and keep her safe. She's got to stay safe!

Breach of Duty

The Starlight Guide continued her quiet trip out to the Canaan system's limit. Aboard her, Hale tried not to enjoy the yacht. After a lifetime of travel aboard military ships and the occasional liner, the Y-220 was luxury personified with the space it offered as well as the amenities like the full shower and tub.

She didn't have time to enjoy those luxuries yet, though, even if she wanted to. She was still at the pilot's station watching the sensors like a hawk, keeping her mind occupied on the trajectories of ships in the area.

Her comm system chimed. She looked over and tapped at the key to establish a link, her stomach twisting with dread as she did.

"Starlight Guide, this is CSV Heermann. You are ordered to cut acceleration and prepare for inspection."

Her stomach stopped twisting only because it dropped into her feet. Swallowing, she retrieved the codes provided to her in al-Lahim's data reader and transmitted them as a response. Let's see if this works.

"Starlight Guide, CSV Heermann. I say again, cut acceleration and prepare for inspection. Failure to comply will result in the crippling of your vessel."

Dammit. Whoever was over there didn't care about the codes. If they inspected the ship, they'd find her, no questions asked. Her only choice was to jump, which carried its own risks this far inside the limit. A military ship had the systems to survive a jump like that, but the yacht wouldn't. She could burn out the drive or misjump, or both.

But if she didn't, she'd be caught.

She started tapping at her navigation board, preparing the ship to make a desperation jump. It would be her only hope.

Her comm system gave off another tone. Anticipating another surrender demand, she didn't pay attention, but a voice came through anyway. Immediately, she knew it was different. "Heermann, this is CSV Compton Mackenzie. Starlight Guide is involved in a special operation. Please withdraw."

Hale didn't dare hope that this would work. She found the Mackenzie on her sensors, also burning in her general direction, but moving to intercept the Heermann. She figured there was a conversation between the two ships on the matter that she wasn't invited to. All she could do was hope this worked.

That seemed to be the thing for her lately. Hope everything worked out. At the front, at Unity Station, investigating Erhart, everything. She was, as her pastor might put it, constantly putting the Lord to the test. But not foolishly. Never.

The tense minutes felt like hours. It was only by checking her system clock that Hale realized only two minutes had passed since the Mackenzie hailed the Heermann. A few seconds later, she noticed the Heermann's course change. It was thrusting away from her now. She let out a sigh of relief.

Still, she kept a watchful eye on the sensors for her remaining voyage to the Canaan system Lawrence limit. As she crossed over into the jump zone, she noted a message coming in from the Mackenzie. It was text only.

May Allah stand between you and harm—Abdul Rahman al-Lahim

"Amen," she murmured quietly while triggering her astrogation systems. The data from al-Lahim's tablet flowed into the system, providing it the information for the first jump. The indicators went from red to yellow to green as the jump drive cycled to full readiness. Hale triggered the drive and brought the Starlight Guide through the resulting hole in the fabric of space-time.

One jump down, several more to go.

Breach of Duty

A few dozen light years away the Wallenberg-class cruiser CSV Solzhenitsyn remained at the limit of a transit system on her course through Coalition space. The Coalition cruiser was one of the first cruisers to come off the line after the war started, as heavy a line warship as the Coalition built these past few decades. Only the old pre-war dreadnought-starships and the big fleet carriers were larger products of the Terran Coalition's shipyards.

As her class was built to be flag vessels, the Solzhenitsyn had a flag cabin aboard for an admiral, the best of the private quartering available, with adjacent quarters for the flag staff. For Erhart, the Solzhenitsyn's admiral's cabin was more of a home than the one he maintained in Lawrence City. Smaller, certainly, and it lacked the softness of civilian housing, but it was his personal space, and it reminded him of his duties and responsibilities to the CDF as well as the Terran Coalition.

For the moment, he was at his desk sorting through the digitally-provided paperwork that went with his position. While of little relevance to what was about to proceed, it was important he kept up appearances by timely filings to the CDF bureaucracy. He worked with his customary diligence on the various orders and reports, signing off on them for transmission back to CDF Command.

He was interrupted in this process by a message through his system. He'd not left any orders to be left alone, so he answered it, expecting a minor issue to deal with.

The face that appeared on his monitor was that of Colonel Ze'evi. "General, I've received a report I think you should hear."

That won Ze'evi a nod, even as Erhart continued to digitally sign forms. "Go ahead."

"There's a good chance Colonel Hale managed to flee Canaan and avoid arrest."

Erhart stopped mid-signature. He ignored the irritation and worry of the thought. First, assess things, he reminded himself. "What are the details?"

"According to reports, a yacht left a private spaceport in Karten District late last night. The Heermann prepared to intercept and inspect her, but before they could get in range, they were warned off by another CDF vessel, the Compton Mackenzie. They claimed the yacht was part of an active CDF Intelligence operation. Their command codes checked out."

Erhart set the digital stencil down and folded his hands under his chin. The timing was suspect and worrisome. Hale getting away with CDF Intelligence assistance threatened everything. He didn't have anyone in Ostrovsky's offices who could steer things, and the General wasn't someone in his circle. What does Ostrovsky know? I've worked so hard to keep him away from my operations. I've been so careful… why is he risking a scandal by protecting Hale?

The reason was obvious. He knew something. Perhaps what Hale knew, perhaps more. They might even be working together.

"I'll add, sir, that I personally checked the yacht's ID in the Coalition database. She's registered to some corporation out of New Washington. Starlight Transport Services."

"Dammit," Erhart grumbled.

"Sir?"

"Starlight Transport Services is a shell corporation, Colonel, operated by CIS." That meant that both Ostrovsky and the Coalition Intelligence Service might be onto him. They were cooperating on protecting Hale.

As much as Erhart hated to rush careful plans, he was running out of options. Henry was loose somewhere and, as much as Erhart expected him to flee, there was always the chance that Henry's loyalty to his officers would win out. Now Hale was loose too.

Plans never survive contact with the enemy, he reminded himself. Adapt.

"Send a message ahead to General Farley, inform him to accelerate all preparations. We may need to begin the plan sooner than scheduled."

"Yes, General. Anything else?"

"Arrange a channel for me to the Aghlieri, secured. I need to speak to Major Lamar. And find me a destroyer squadron in the vicinity of New Virginia and Tyrrhenia. I may need to speak to them as well."

"Right away, sir."

Ze'evi disappeared from the screen, leaving Erhart to consider everything. It was galling to think that after coming this far, everything could become threatened so easily. I can't let Faulkner know. He'll panic, he considered. Better to deal with this quietly and keep some contingencies. It'll all be over soon enough anyway.


19

After a meal and some time having his injuries from the Cyclades checked over, Vidia felt ready to follow-up on some thoughts he'd been having. He returned to the Masada planetoid's living area and searched the living quarters section. As he expected. Henry took the room nearest the command center where Felix and Miri were still hard at work. He found his captain sitting in a chair looking quietly at nothing, lost in thought. Or, Vidia believed, lost in old pain. To announce himself and get Henry's attention, Vidia knocked on the door. "Heya, Jim," he called out.

Henry looked up at him. His was the face of a man haunted by grief and past shame. "Ah, Vidia. Go ahead and take a seat, if you need to talk."

"Thank ya. Don't know if I need ta talk so much as I have somethin' ta talk about."

Henry nodded and an expectant look appeared. "As a crew member or as our unofficial chaplain?"

Vidia smiled at the last. "More of the latter, I think. If ya don't mind, of course."

At first, he thought Henry might refuse, given the brief look that crossed his face. But the look vanished and Henry gestured toward one of the chairs in the room. "Well, go ahead, I've got time."

Vidia took the seat and collected his thoughts. A lot of things made sense now, but he wished to be delicate with what he said. He felt a chance here to finally make progress with Henry. "I've been on the ship for over six years now. In all that time, I wondered what could happen ta ya that would leave the spiritual wound I could see ya carrying around. I had a feelin' it wasn't just about ya lost ship. An' now I see that I was right."

Henry said nothing. Nor did he ask Vidia to stop.

Sympathy came to Vidia's voice as he continued speaking. "Acceptin' that general's offer. Givin' up the fight. Ya lost faith that night."

Recollected shame showed on Henry's face. Vidia could see the pain in his eyes. "Being a CDF officer, it requires faith, really. Faith that you can stand against the night, the sheer numbers of the League, any superior force, and still prevail."

"Faith that God is with ya."

"Right." Henry swallowed. "But that night, I… I asked God, pleaded with Him, to give me a sign of what to do. Nothing happened. All I had was the certainty of defeat, coupled with what it would mean for me and the other officers I was responsible for. So I broke the faith, Vidia. I surrendered."

The pain in Henry's voice didn't surprise Vidia. It came from the wound in his captain's spirit left by that choice. The feeling of being abandoned. After a moment's consideration and a small prayer for wisdom, thought more than said, Vidia decided to probe that feeling. "Sometimes, God speaks through silence. The silence itself is the answer."

"I've heard that too." Some bitterness came into Henry's voice. "But silence is a poor answer. It's useless. You can never tell what it's really supposed to mean."

"God leaves it for us to figure it out. We have ta be agents in our own fate. Otherwise, we are children forever."

"I've heard that one, a lot," Henry said. "But there's a difference between God not getting involved for the little things and God letting lives get destroyed. We're supposed to make this world a better place, but do you know what the problem with that is?"

"What?" Vidia asked, truly curious and hoping to finally be making progress with Henry's spiritual needs.

"The Bible puts it like this. 'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.'" Henry folded his hands together. "A lot of people who do very bad things think what they're doing is going to make things better. Erhart certainly thought it was for the better to let Faulkner get away with cutting corners. The League is full of people who think that their way will really make the galaxy a better place."

"And they are misguided," Vidia said.

"Then why doesn't God do something about it?" Henry asked, and not just rhetorically. There was real frustration in his voice. "If He spoke to the misguided, He could set them straight. Put them on the path to making things better. It wouldn't be making us children; it'd be keeping us from stumbling around in the dark. But He doesn't. Well, I can tell you why."

Vidia knew Henry well enough to see where this was going. "Because he's not watching, you believe."

"Exactly." Henry nodded. "He got tired of seeing us constantly stumbling around, constantly using His name to justify our petty hatreds and prejudices, so He turned away in disgust." With a small voice, Henry added, "If He's even out there at all."

Vidia gave him a solemn look. "Becomin' an atheist, then, Jim?"

"Agnostic, I suppose," Henry admitted, after which he sighed. "Truth is I don't know if it's how I really feel or if it's what I think I feel."

"I can see that. An' it's clear ta me that ya took a deep wound ta the spirit that night, Jim. A wound ya haven't healed." Vidia shook his head. "But I believe ya can still heal. Ya can still forgive."

"Forgive who?"

"Yaself, Jim," Vidia said. "Ya feel shame at what happened an' the choices ya made. That shame is stuck in yar spirit. Keeps the wound open. Ya have ta let the shame go."

Henry pursed his lips. "I've moved on," he said. "Started a new life."

"But the wound, it still bleeds. Ya never healed, ya just covered the wound an' kept goin'." Vidia tapped at his heart. "It's why ya can't feel God anymore. The pain's in the way."

A skeptical look came to Henry's face. "Is that part of your faith? That God's inside your heart?"

"My soul, yours, everyone's. God's a part of every one of us. Bahá'í, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh. Even the agnostics an' the atheists have God, even if they don't pay attention ta His presence. Even if they deny Him. That's what I feel an' believe, yes. Some from the teachings an' some, well, from the depths of my soul." While speaking, Vidia felt those words coming from within him, believing with all his heart that those words were divinely guided. "Ya talk about God turnin' from humanity, but that's because of how ya feel about yourself, Jim. Ya feel unworthy from what ya did, so ya feel that applies ta everythin' an' everyone. But it doesn't. Not even ta ya."

Vidia thought he could see something in Henry's eyes. He hoped it was a reconsideration. Maybe a realization that whatever he felt, he needed to heal from what happened that night. To truly heal by forgiving himself.

A tone interrupted that thought. Felix's voice spoke over the station loudspeaker. "Jim, everyone, I've got something. Meet us in the command room ASAP."

And like that, their conversation was over. Without a further word, Henry stood and went for the door, nodding toward Vidia as he did. Vidia drew in a sigh. He felt like he'd been truly close to a breakthrough with Henry. Or maybe I'm kiddin' myself. A man can get used ta that kind of pain. Live his whole life with it. God, help him please. He's a good man an' deserves it.

It was with that thought in mind that Vidia followed, ignoring the pain of his own very physical wound as he did.

Breach of Duty

Felix waited with patience for everyone to arrive before he started talking. "So I've got some friends who have friends willing to answer questions," he said, "and they're watching this situation pretty closely. Erhart's not made himself any friends beyond those he still had. The arrests are becoming a political embarrassment for the government back on Canaan."

"And yet nobody's stopping him," Piper said.

Miri spoke up. "A lot of people are trying to keep their heads down. Some people fear that the social fabric of the Coalition is unraveling. GalNet sites are full of reports about either side of the political divide that are more provocative than informative. To be honest…" Miri shook her head. "Some of it looks like League agitprop."

"But only some?"

"Yes. Either way, the situation as we approach the election is getting worse."

Noticing the others were getting a little lost, Felix acted quickly. "Anyway, the relevant point is that this is making the powers that be at the CDF cautious. Some of them are afraid the Peace Union will actually make an effort to rescue the prisoners."

"Which we are," Tia noted wryly.

Felix gave her a quick sardonic look and bit back a remark about how much she'd fit into the Peace Union, which was no compliment to him. "They're consolidating everyone, as we expected, and the final prisoner's coming aboard in the Wainwright system."

"Why Wainwright?" Piper's expression betrayed her curiosity. "That's to Coreward of here."

"Major Mueller was commanding a ship on the Coalition's Coreward frontier," Felix explained. The others knew what he meant immediately. Even with the war, the Coalition was steadily expanding to Coreward, gaining access to new systems with more resources. It was a quiet frontier that only ever saw some pirate activity, so the Coalition maintained a relatively light fleet presence.

Henry's eyes examined the map. Felix could tell his old friend was weighing options in his mind. "Wainwright's a fleet refueling station. There'll be fixed defenses in-system, too much for the Wolf to handle."

"Yeah. I figured the same." Felix tapped a key to signify a second system and drew a line of three segments between the points. "And it's three jumps minimum from Wainwright to Tyrrhenia for a military transport."

"So they'll be passing through two systems along that route. We could hit them then," Tia suggested.

"Only if we know their course." Piper gave an expectant look at Felix. "Do we?"

He shook his head. "The ship's astrogation officer will plan that alone." Felix couldn't keep the approval from his voice. It was proper procedure, especially with concern of interception.

"There must be a dozen systems per jump they could use." Piper shook her head. She needn't say what they all knew: this would likely be a waste of time if they didn't know where the transport was.

"Thankfully, we have what we need," said Miri. She tapped at a screen and brought up an inventory. "Among the supply cache kept here are several QET-equipped sensor buoys for monitoring solar systems. We can seed them in the possible targets and wait at a central location."

"We're going to be pushing the Lawrence drive hard to make that many jumps," Pieter said with certainty on the matter. He frowned at the prospect. "Would be nice if we knew the most likely systems."

"We'll bring along whatever repair supplies will help you keep the drive functional," Henry promised. "But this is our best shot. Tia, what do you think?"

"Not much else we can do," she replied. "So let's try and make it work. We'll get what supplies we need from the outposts and head out. Anything else?"

There was nothing. Everyone got to work.

Breach of Duty

While the others did their part of the tasks assigned, Miri took the time to check communications for any further messages. She was cycling through QT channels when Felix entered the room. He took up a station and worked on it quietly, prompting her to look away.

After a few seconds, he spoke up. "So how'd you end up part of the Masada Project anyway? The inspection team, I mean?"

The question brought Miri back to old, painful memories, full of loss and uncertainty. She let out a sigh. "After Lowery, they asked me to become a trainer. Which I did, for a time. But I wasn't matching expectations. I… had trouble with the work, you might say. I taught them what I could of League systems, how League personnel behaved, how their society works, but I couldn't quite articulate what it meant, what it really meant, to do this work."

She looked in time to see Felix nod, presumably in understanding. "You felt like you were setting them up to go through the same thing you did."

"Exactly," Miri said. "I spent the prime years of my life in CIS. I went through hell during the Lowery occupation. And now I was being asked to prepare other young officers to do the same thing." She shook her head once. "The senior trainers noticed I was struggling. I wasn't teaching the things they thought the recruits needed to learn. Soon my superiors were asking me if I'd prefer another assignment. I suppose my quick acceptance was their first tipoff that I wasn't going to be the model agent they'd envisioned at my extraction."

"They had this grand idea that you'd happily impart everything you knew to the next generation of deep-cover operatives, I'm guessing."

"Yes." Miri didn't turn toward him, focusing instead on her work as she continued. "Deputy Director Sanchez offered me my place on the Masada Projection inspection team, so I'd have time to consider things. Like my future." She smiled wistfully. "I suppose it was hoped I'd get tired of the drudge work. Cataloging inventories, moving crates around, equipment inspections. People don't join up with CIS for that. But I found I liked it. I liked—" Her voice trailed off for a moment as she considered her wording. "—I liked the smallness of it all. I found I enjoyed being in space. Living and working on ships. I even started learning from our Astrogator."

"And that's when you decided to become a spacer?"

"Yes." Miri tapped at her console for little purpose, as there were no new messages. It was just something to do. "I decided I liked it. So when the tour was over, I told Sanchez I was done. I wanted to leave CIS."

"That wasn't easy, I'm betting," Felix said. "Intel operations don't like people leaving when they know so much."

"Oh, true. Sanchez forced me into counseling first. Psychiatric evaluations. But the psychiatrists all concurred that I wasn't viable anymore. I'd never function as an agent again after Lowery, and they didn't think I'd work as a trainer either, given my record at the job." Miri stopped moving her fingers and leaned back in her chair. "The idea was floated about me being in a desk job, but I made it clear I wanted out. I needed out. In the end, they did let me go, with a whole bunch of conditions on the release of service. A reduced pension for early retirement, regular contact, maintaining cover identity, staying away from journalists or political groups. But other than that, I'd be free to do what I wanted." She let the memories of that last day come back. Sanchez's stiff, unhappy handshake, the rather more personable goodbyes with others at CIS's headquarters, and her departure as a civilian. After nearly twenty years of service, since her late teens, she'd been free. "I found a posting on a civilian liner two days later and I've not been back to Canaan since."

"Good."

"Oh?" She turned. "I saw how things were for you back home. Before you start, I know the arguments already, about how I deprived CIS of my experience when it needed me."

"We're fighting for freedom," Felix insisted, "and that means the freedom to follow our hearts."

There was something in his tone that seemed pained. As if he wished he had the same choice. Miri recalled that he'd been cashiered from the CDF as well. His choice to serve, taken away.

She didn't want to grind on that wound, so instead of continuing the matter, she changed the subject. "I never thought I'd ever have to use one of these redoubts," she admitted. "I'm grateful that it's not for what the redoubt was designed for."

"Yeah. I get that." Their eyes met and Miri knew immediately Felix was aware of what she meant. The redoubts' primary purpose was to support local resistance should a sector fall, but the entire network had another, darker use.

They were the final hope, due to be the last free places in Sagittarius if the League won the war, places from which the shattered remains of the Terran Coalition could keep the fight going in the hope of overturning League conquest.

A squawk came over the base speakers. "We've loaded everything we need," said Henry's voice. "Alright, everyone, get back to the ship. We've got work to do."

Without another word, they shut down their stations and departed the room.


20

General MacIntosh was waiting for his staff to make final preparations for his departure to New Israel. Until then, he was reviewing the sobering matter of the ongoing decline of unity in the Coalition from the comfort of the Situation Room. He nibbled away at a roast beef sandwich while the holo-screens displayed 2D and 3D images of passionate crowds waving placards in varying languages and on different worlds. The main screen showed GNN and a major Peace Union protest on New Antilla before segueing into footage directly from the streets of Lawrence City.

The protests alone weren't what made MacIntosh worried. Protests were, to him, a perfectly natural way for people to raise a point in public that they thought needed to be made. What worried and concerned him deeply was the sheer rancor in it. Some of the Peace Union posters were now denouncing Spencer as a tyrant and the CDF as thugs; those from the hawkish United for Victory group were denouncing the Peace Union as traitors and openly calling for the imprisonment and even executions of the Laffey officers. A few also demanded the same for Fuentes and other senior Peace Union politicians.

"It's disgusting."

MacIntosh turned his head. Barton was sitting nearby, looking up at the screen with a half-finished lunch in front of him. His old classmate and rival shook his head before facing MacIntosh. "You've let Uly go too far, Scotch."

The use of his old nickname didn't get any reaction from MacIntosh. The remark was one he wouldn't ignore, though. "I did no such thing, Dan," he said. "Uly's always done his own thing."

"And you've done nothing to hold him in check."

"He's won too much independence for anyone to do that."

Barton responded to MacIntosh's statement with a bemused sigh. "I suppose you're right about that. He always had Kalling in his corner, and some of the other contractors, and the devotion of our subordinates."

"The man might've saved us from an early defeat at the hands of the League," MacIntosh pointed out. "Tsukara Station had to be held."

"Sure. But he's used past success as a shield for too damned long, and you know it, Scotch."

MacIntosh sighed. He had lingering problems with Barton. Barton was an administrator par excellence, but he was a political appointee who won his promotions through political influence, not merit. He'd never commanded in the field and his military instincts were terrible. Add in his conduct over the false League peace mission, not to mention his behavior toward Colonel Cohen, left MacIntosh with no inclination to be sorry of Barton's forced retirement.

But on this, he couldn't argue. Barton was right about Erhart. Their mutual classmate and old friend was a loose cannon, especially now. The pressures of three decades of war placed the Coalition's society under a tremendous amount of stress, and now Erhart was threatening to set it on fire.

Finally, he nodded in agreement. "I wish it were otherwise, Dan."

"For what it's worth, so do I." A wistful look came over Barton's face. He didn't need to speak the fact that both men knew: war and age had taken many of the men and women they'd come up the ranks with. To lose another old comrade, even to his own actions, was painful. Whatever their differences, it was a feeling he could tell he shared with Barton.

Their conversation halted at the approach of one of MacIntosh's staff. "The shuttle's waiting, General," he said.

"Be careful out there, Scotch," Barton said.

"Thanks, Dan," MacIntosh replied, standing as he did. Without another word, he departed the room with his subordinate.

Breach of Duty

Snow, Xu, and Renner looked up as the door opened again. Snow felt the fleeting hope that maybe it was an officer coming to release them, to apologize for this unconscionable treatment by the CDF.

Instead, Walters and his MPs escorted in another man in a prisoner jumpsuit. Snow recognized Joachim Mueller and let out a sigh. He still seemed lost, suspicious, and his brown eyes fumed with anger.

Nothing was said until after Mueller was secured to his chair. "What have you done?" Mueller asked them, voice trembling with fury. "One of you had to have done something to cause this!" When he received no reply, he raged on. "My own first officer arrested me. Without more than a thought!"

"Good for them," Walters said, looking particularly satisfied. "That's what traitors and saboteurs deserve."

"That's a damned lie!" Xu shouted. "We've served the Coalition loyally for years! We're not—!"

"Shut your damn mouth," Walters demanded, his voice trembling with fury. "Do you think any of us gives the slightest damn about your excuses and your protests? We've lost good people for years because of traitors like you undermining the war effort, trying to slip the dagger in our back while we're wrestling with the League! If I had my way, I'd space every single one of you God-forsaken traitors! As it is, we've got just three jumps left before you're at Lambert's Lament and out of my hair!"

Mueller's face paled at hearing that, resulting in some satisfaction showing on Walters' face before he stepped out of the cell.

Breach of Duty

A few dozen meters away from the cell, near the bridge of the CSV Dante Aghlieri, the ship's CO was at his seat. Major Sheldon Lamar had a pale complexion that could turn red when his blood was up, as his XO Captain Timothy Blyne had seen on a few occasions. Blyne himself had a dark complexion and spoke his English with a slight Antillean accent. "I'm worried about Walters, sir," he said. "He's taking too much of a personal interest in our prisoners."

"The man lost friends and relatives to the traitors from the Monterrey, Captain," Lamar remarked coldly. "I don't blame him for wanting to take that out on other traitors. But I'm not giving him a blank check. If his conduct worsens, let me know."

Their conversation might have continued if not for the tone over the system. Lamar reached for the controls on his office desk. "Lamar here."

"Communication for you, Major. It's General Erhart."

Lamar's eyes widened a little. He said nothing more until the storied hero of the Coalition's wizened face appeared on the screen of his desktop system. "General, sir, what can I do for you?"

"I'm calling to give you a warning, Major," Erhart said. "We've received word of a possible attempt to liberate your prisoners. I want you to maintain a combat alert until you get to Lambert's Lament."

"Thank you for the warning, General." Lamar's voice exuded respect and confidence. "My crew and I will be ready for anything."

Breach of Duty

The star system was designated NB-3-238, and like so many systems in the cosmos, it was an empty one. A brown dwarf star lit a dead system of old asteroids and a couple of rocky planets, none of which had anything remotely interesting in terms of raw minerals.

The system's emptiness, and being off any of the usual traveling routes between systems, was why the Solzhenitsyn jumped in and remained. Two hours into its wait, a wormhole heralded the arrival of another ship.

The vessel was not a warship, or any other kind of CDF ship. The sleek lines were meant to please owners and turn the ship into a work of art to be displayed, as the vessel in question was a luxury yacht; one for the fabulously wealthy to travel between star systems in style and substance with the aid of a crew of dozens. It was twice the size of a destroyer and cost four times more, even with the lack of military hardware. Bright sapphire and emerald color made the gunmetal gray of the Solzhenitsyn look dull. Alongside one side of the ship, a name was emblazoned in gold: Seacrest Starchaser.

From the viewport beside the transfer tube on the Solzhenitsyn, Erhart saw the name and rolled his eyes discreetly. It was the kind of silly name someone like Faulkner would give to a starship. As a man who'd served on so many in his life, Erhart could admire some of the aesthetics of the yacht, but in his eyes, it was a fragile, foolish thing, a harmless colorful fish thinking itself secure beside his deadly shark as if it existed on something more than the shark's whim.

Once their respective helmsmen lined up, the two ships' docking tubes extended to make contact. The universal collars linked together and formed a solid tube to allow someone to walk from vessel to the other. The panel beside Erhart flashed yellow, showing the tube was filling with breathable air. Once the sensors determined the cycle was finished, it turned green and the airlock hatch opened.

Erhart walked down the tube. The gray interior turned pearl white at the connection point. Beyond another airlock, he entered a scene straight out of a holovid. A large chamber greeted him, and it looked like the suite of a luxury five-star resort. Cushioned seats of velvet abounded, cream-white in color, while ocean-patterned carpets absorbed the sound of his steps. A distant splash turned his attention to an interior pool, where young people who Erhart felt should've been in CDF uniform were instead jumping into the water, dressed like they were at an oceanside resort.

He approached a green felt table to find Faulkner seated around several middle-aged passengers. A woman in a liveried uniform with a card dealer's cap was cutting the deck and shuffling them with the kind of skill one expected from a professional dealer at a Kelly's Bay casino. "Ah, General!" Faulkner stood and motioned to an empty chair. "We're just having a friendly game. Want to be dealt in? I'll cover your pool!"

"We all will," called out a man in luxurious sheik robes with a red and white-checkered headdress, marking him as one of the elites of New Arabia. He lifted a glass with a caramel-colored liquid in it. "To General Erhart, the conquering hero!"

"To Erhart!" the others called out.

Erhart forced a diplomatic grin to his face. Now that he looked them over, he thought he recognized a few. Gertrude Fischer of Neu Brandenburg, for instance, was herself a wealthy businesswoman, owning controlling shares in several great companies. Farouk bin Zayeed al-Dhaman owned the Dhaman Forging Company, responsible for crafting specialized alloys used in space vessel hulls and armor. Benjamin Bissel was the Chief Operating Officer of Kalling Engineering and Carl Murchison, the Chief Financial Officer.

"Oliver, can we talk privately for a moment?"

"Sure." Faulkner walked around the table to Erhart. "Play the hand without me, folks. And don't let Gerty bluff you all again."

The thin-faced Mrs. Fischer laughed and smiled at her peers in a friendly warning.

Faulkner followed Erhart to a far corner. Once they were away, Erhart dropped his grin. "What is this, Oliver?" he demanded.

"We're moving up the timetable, right?" Faulkner shrugged. "Given the way things are going, nobody wanted to sit around waiting for some Peace Union radical to get violent. They packed up and came aboard Seacrest."

"This isn't a pleasure cruise, Oliver!"

"Not for long, but let them have their fun." Now Faulkner's tone turned defensive. "They're cutting loose. For years, we haven't been allowed to enjoy ourselves, not without some journo waiting to catch holos of us to sell for proof of how the wealthy 'aren't doing their part.' It's time for a little celebration."

"We can celebrate when we're done. This is a lot more than we agreed on, Oliver. I didn't get a chance to vet these people."

"You don't need to." Now Faulkner's tone, with its audible whine, was getting really defensive. "They're trustworthy. They all know, and they're all eager to see this done. Better than to wait for Fuentes to start choking our businesses and taxing our hard-earned money away. Hell, most of them have helped bankroll this in one way or another." He paused for a moment. "They're trustworthy," he repeated, his voice more insistent.

Erhart wasn't mollified, not wholly, but he could see he couldn't push Faulkner any further. "They'd better be, Oliver. That's all I can say."

Faulkner shook his head and patted him on the back. "Come on, General, live a little. After all of these years, you'll finally be putting this war behind you. None of it will matter anymore."

The idea stung Erhart in a way that made it almost impossible to hide the sentiment he truly felt at it. "The war'll be past us all, finally," he said.

"Right. So why don't you come over here, sit down, and let me introduce you to the others. We'll all be working together now, after all."

Erhart was in little mood to hobnob with such people. But the moment required it. I'll remain until we're ready to jump. I can't afford a breach with Faulkner now. He might go back and talk. "Sure," he said. "A little icebreaker game won't help."

"Sounds good to me. Let me lead you over here."


21

System TYR-2-119 was a system slightly off the beaten path. The old remains of a helium-3 refining station continued to drift in a stable far orbit of the big teal-colored gas giant of the outer solar system while the A3V star burned its white glare in the distance, more a pinpoint of light this far out.

Near the station, the Shadow Wolf was in a holding position. To an observer from the helium refinery—should there have been one—the sight of the rugged cargo ship would have changed with interest. Of the three box shapes protruding from the lower hull, the forward-most one opened up along the side. A single cylindrical item tumbled away with a burst of gas from a thruster at one end. More such thrusters fired until the item was itself in a similar orbit of the gas giant, at which point it folded outward, revealing antennae and other electronic devices.

Should such an observer have been capable of witnessing the links of quantum entanglement that crisscrossed the galaxy, they would notice one such link form between the new orbiting object and the ship in question.

About fifteen seconds after this link formed, the ship's drives lit up, and it accelerated away. A wormhole rippled to life ahead of the vessel, which it entered a moment later, leaving the dormant station and its new neighbor in solitude once more.

Breach of Duty

On the other end of the wormhole was TYR-2-005, the star system that Piper Lopez selected to be the central point from which the Shadow Wolf would wait to receive word of her prey.

Towards the rear of the ship, Henry walked into the Engineering spaces. He found Pieter alone working the watch while Samina and Brigitte rested. The engineer was monitoring the jump drive's main systems panel, looking over what Henry figured was a systems diagnostic. "How's the jump drive looking, Pieter?" Henry asked, drawing his attention.

Pieter turned to face him. "All fine," he said. "That base had all we needed to keep our jump drive going for a while. I'm just going to change one of the particle feeds out to keep her running smoothly."

"Given we might have to jump rapidly, that's good to hear." Henry walked past the jump drive's upper access, built into the floor, and toward the reactor housing for the ship's central fusion cores. Everything looked fine, maybe a little on the grimy side, but that was to be expected from a vessel run as the Shadow Wolf. "Anything I should be worried about?"

"Yes, Captain, there is." Pieter gestured downwards and toward the bow. "The fusion drive's not meant for excessive use. She's holding together, but you'd better be careful with her."

"So you said. Maybe give the parts a quick inspection?"

"It's not just the drive, Captain; it's the ship herself. Her structure's not going to hold up under repeated fusion drive stress." Pieter shook his head. "I'm getting worried we're starting to do too much damage to her."

"Keep an eye out then, and I'll try to minimize use of the drive. But I can't promise anything."

"I know that, sir." Pieter sighed at his acknowledgment of their situation. "We'll do as we must, like always."

"Just another part of the life, really." With that, Henry excused himself from Engineering and left Pieter to his work.

Breach of Duty

While the lower deck of the Shadow Wolf was primarily for connecting the six holds, there were also a couple of workrooms meant for the ship's loading equipment and other machinery. While one compartment was kept for this purpose, the crew used the other one for a storage room for the engineering team and their armory to keep their weapons working.

Samina entered the room with her tool belt off and in her hand. She immediately saw she wasn't alone, however, as Yanik was present examining his combat hardsuit while his assault gun remained to the side, opened for fine-tuning.

She watched his tongue flick the air. His face rose. "Ah, Samina, hello," he said, his alien voice a slight hiss.

"Hello, Yanik," she replied, moving over to the side of the room where the tools were kept. She set the belt in its place before looking back to him. His arms were bare from the jumpsuit he was wearing, showing scaled skin with a vibrant blue tone and rippled with muscle. A visible scar marked one arm, a wound suffered on the League's Pluto Base almost two years ago. She remembered hearing from the others how Yanik exposed himself to fire repeatedly to assist in the taking of that base. He'd since done the same in other, lesser firefights Samina was around to see.

Her mind flashed back to Cyclades, to training the quad guns on that mercenary and pulling the trigger. And just like that, a life was gone.

"Something troubles you?"

Yanik's question brought her attention back to him. She swallowed. "Are you ever afraid?" she asked, finally, hoping he wouldn't mind. "I mean, when the shooting starts, when they're trying to kill you. Do you get afraid?"

Yanik's yellow eyes lost their focus as if he were looking inward to himself, to judge his feelings. After several seconds, he answered, "Yes. It should not be a surprise either. Any thinking being is afraid. The Divine made us to fear death so we would cherish our lives and make them meaningful."

"The divine. You mean Allah, God." When Yanik nodded in reply, Samina felt her curiosity grow. "What kind of religion do your people follow?"

"Like humans, we have several different faiths. I am a Krassash. We are few compared to our largest religion, but we believe in the Divine, or what you call God," Yanik explained. "We believe in the Divine order of creation as well, and in the Divine Principles that are a part of Creation."

"And those are?"

"In the English tongue of humanity, the closest words would be Faith, Loyalty, Duty, Respect, and Honor," Yanik answered. "But there are higher meanings for those words in relation to the Divine."

"I think I understand," Samina said. "Words with the same rough meanings don't always have the same real meanings behind them."

"Yes. In the language of my nation, we have a word. It is 'krassha.' In the English tongue you and the others speak, it can mean all five of the principles. But that is because none of those words convey the meaning as we know it. It is the obligation of a being to their benefactor, whether that benefactor is God or another being. As the embodiment of all the Divine Principles, krassha is the most sacred charge among those of my faith, for both the individual and the community."

Samina could understand that. She also noticed a particularly distant look in the alien's yellow eyes. "Is something wrong?"

The look faded. "A painful memory. I was one of the few Krassash to defend our obligation to the Coalition." Seeing Samina's confusion, he said, "At the time the League attacked your people, there were those on Sauria who saw opportunity. Instead of honoring those who rebuilt our homeworld, they wished to threaten and extort the Coalition out of planets lost in the wars. For a time, they held a strong position in the government, winning elections based on other promises. They refused to provide any aid toward the Coalition, again despite our obligation." Yanik's hissing speech was becoming more serpentine, Samina felt, and she recognized it as deep anger seeping into his voice. "Krassha was not being upheld. I could not stomach it. When my time came to report to the Army, I left Sauria instead, as did some of my friends."

"Isn't that a bad thing?" Samina asked. She remembered her parents once warning her about a cousin's dishonor for fleeing Jinnah rather than report to CDF duty. "He has dishonored our entire family," her father Samir had raged.

"In most times, it is. It is a coward's act. But as a Krassash, my duty to God to uphold krassha demanded I refuse to support a government who was defying divine will. For this, I am an exile, and to return to Sauria would mean punishment and even death." Again that distant look showed in his eyes. "But the Divine Principles must be upheld, whatever pain it brings me. The obligation to God always comes first."

Samina nodded once. "Islam is submission to Allah," she said quietly.

"A succinct way of putting it, yes."

"The imam back in the Quetta District often instructed us to be respectful of others who believed in one God, even if they did not follow Islam," Samina explained. "He said that God provides different peoples their own paths to follow His Will."

"That is a teaching of the Krassash as well," Yanik said. "'The roads to God are many, and all travelers are equal to the Divine.'" He turned his head and faced her directly. Samina did not match the stare, having lowered her head in thought. "Something troubles you, young one?"

"I don't know." Samina shrugged. "Some of this makes me think about how much of a Muslim I am."

"What are these feelings on your faith and the faith of your parents, Samina?"

For several moments, Samina was quiet. She tried to think of the best way to explain how she felt about faith, her faith, and others. "I wonder sometimes. I… I don't always think about God. About what it means to believe in God, or to be a Muslim. I don't wear a hijab, usually, and sometimes I miss prayers. I think about what bacon tastes like, and it smells so good, I sometimes want to eat it, even if it's haram." A shudder came to her. "Then I killed that man on Cyclades, and I wonder if I'm a good person at all. Or if I'm going to rejoin my family in Paradise when I die."

She looked up as a scaled hand brushed her shoulder. The talons of the hand would ordinarily have made her feel a moment of panic, an instinctive feeling, given that Yanik could theoretically slice her throat open if he wished. But fear never came. The touch itself seemed to embody understanding.

"Do not fear for your soul, Samina," he began. "What you speak of is something all believers go through. It is the nature of things. Few beings can go from day to day with intense faith blazing in their hearts. Many of us have mortal concerns that get in the way. God understands and accepts it as our nature. What we are judged upon is our adherence to the Divine Principles as we understand them. Upholding krassha is what brings us closer to God."

Samina, thinking back, couldn't remember hearing Yanik speak so much as he had over this conversation. He was usually more taciturn, saying only what must be said. In turn, she found herself with a thought she couldn't keep to herself. "Yanik, sir, I think you might be the most spiritual person I've met."

"A compliment that I may not be worthy of. Vidia's faith is also deserving of such a title."

"He's very spiritual too," Samina agreed, and again felt some guilt over how her spirituality was mired in her very material interests and concerns. "Have you and he helped the Captain? He seems so—" She struggled for a word to describe what she knew of Jim Henry's feelings. "—hurt. I mean, he seems to believe in God, but then sometimes he doesn't, and even when he does, he has this idea that God doesn't care about us anymore."

Yanik's tongue flickered. "The Captain's link to the Divine has weakened from the betrayal he endured. He would not be the first good being to suffer such, nor will he be the last. But that is for God to judge. Every relationship with Him is unique, as every being is unique. Again, there are many roads to God. It is not appropriate for us to compare one to another."

Samina nodded slowly. Every relationship with God is unique, she repeated to herself, knowing that what Yanik was saying about Henry applied just as much to her.

Breach of Duty

The office of the Shadow Wolf was a quiet place for Henry to collect his thoughts as they prepared for their dangerous actions. He'd intended to glance over his material on CDF transport ships, but after a quick check on those, he found himself drawn to all the family photos stored on his digital reader. The images went back through his life with the family members he'd grown up with, plus the friends like Felix.

Uncle Charlie was in many of them.

He kept staring at one in particular. He'd just made Major and was home on leave. In the picture was Charlie and his parents and Aunt Tylinda, even Shawn, a year from finishing school. It was the last time they were together as a family.

The last time they would ever be together now.

Henry's worry for Charlie wouldn't go away. He couldn't stand the thought of losing his uncle, not after all Charlie had done for him through his life. And now, he couldn't even be there to say goodbye.

He needed to. He had to tell Charlie goodbye. Not just in saying the words, but in knowing Charlie heard them. His rushed words before his arrest weren't enough. He needed more. He wouldn't be able to rest otherwise.

A surge of anger filled his thoughts. Your crew is preparing to risk their lives in your fight, Jim. Stop moping and get to work!

It was a hard thing to know how much trouble he'd gotten his crew into. Lusitania was one thing. The League came after them. Seeing that through to the end was the only sure way to survive in the long-term. Monrovia was principle, payback, and profit rolled into one. Profit they very much needed, given the jobs they were losing.

But this? Gunning for the CDF itself? This wasn't their fight, not at all, but they were going for it. Just for his sake. I'm supposed to risk everything for them, not the other way around.

The rub was that he owed it to his officers from the Laffey to help them if he could, for that same reason. They were, or at least had been, his people. He couldn't leave them to rot on Lambert's Lament. There was no telling when, if at all, the Coalition would get its head out of its ass and realize the tricks Erhart was pulling on them.

So here we are, Jim, and you're risking one crew's lives to save the others. How could things get so twisted up?

The ship's intercom let off a tone. Miri's voice came over the system. "Captain Henry, one of our buoys just picked up a ship."

"Which system?" he called out.

"TYR-2-045," she replied. "It looks like a military transport ship. The IFF squawk names it the Dante Aghlieri. That's the ship Felix's contacts identified."

Here we go. Henry stood up and drew in a breath. "Prep our jump and get us as close as you can. I'm on my way."


22

For the commander of the Dante Aghlieri, the trip to Lambert's Lament was proving an excellent chance to test the crew's mettle by keeping them in a prolonged combat standby. Seated in Major Lamar's office, Captain Blyne listened to his CO speak on the matter. "It's always best to give the recruits some time with veterans," Lamar said. "It also gives the men and women who've faced battle a chance to get away from the war for a while."

Blyne nodded. He'd seen his share of combat too. "This is my second tour on a transport in the core," he said. "The first time was when I was fresh from the academy. Old Major Ibn Hasud showed me the ropes and helped with my first qualification."

"Comms work, right?"

"Yeah. Then I ended up at astrogation after I got my first combat ship posting."

Lamar chuckled. "The old-timers do love to make junior officers branch out, don't they?" He settled back into his seat. "The way I hear it, Erhart got that started. Always pushed for flexibility."

Blyne smiled and said nothing further. Lamar was one of many field officers who thought the world of General Erhart. Blyne respected the General himself, but he didn't have quite the same hero worship for him. And given the things happening now… he was unsure what was going on.

"Something up, Captain?" Lamar asked.

"Just wondering, I suppose." Blyne settled his hands in his lap. "Given the reports from a lot of the core worlds, I'm wondering if we'll be on our way back to Lambert's Lament soon to pick the prisoners back up for release."

Lamar laughed heartily. "Never happening. Spencer will put his foot down. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if we're making another trip soon enough with Fuentes and his people in our cells." He let out a snicker. "Now that would make my day. We can finally put all of those defeatist traitors in their place."

Blyne shifted in his chair but said nothing. His disapproval was visible, but he didn't say anything to cause friction with his CO.

Lamar stared at him. "I get that a lot of people would feel uncomfortable with that kind of talk, Blyne, and I fully respect you want to maintain the integrity of the CDF from politics. I'd love to go back to that. But Fuentes is making sure we can't. He's trying to steal this victory from us, a victory an entire generation of our people have fought and died to secure. We deserve that victory, and mark my words, we'll see it through."

Blyne pursed his lips for a moment before venturing a question. "So all of the moderate parties that are talking about backing Fuentes, you think they're all wrong about ending the war now that we're driven the League from Sagittarius?"

Lamar frowned. "Why, yes, Captain, I do believe they're wrong, and I admit I'm upset with how so many people are falling for the defeatists' tricks. They should have more faith." His voice brimmed with disgust. "That's the problem with the Peace Union, you know. They've got no faith in God or the Coalition. They're not willing to do the hard things we've had to in order to hold the line. They're not—"

The intercom let off a tone. A voice came over the speaker, a young woman with a Slavic accent. "Captain, Lieutenant Lisiewicz here. A ship just jumped in-system."

Lamar sat up straight.

Blyne frowned. "Flight schedules said this was supposed to be an open route, no other ships."

"Sir, they're only fifty thousand kilometers out, and they appear to be on an intercept course. What are your instructions?"

Lamar left his seat a second before Blyne did the same. "Set condition one throughout the ship, Lieutenant. I'm on my way." He rounded the table. "Looks like General Erhart's concerns were valid," he said. "Our traitors' friends are coming for them."

Breach of Duty

The Dante Aghlieri's form grew on the bridge viewer in front of Henry and the others. The Coalition ship was painted in a light gray with the designation ATP-379 visible on the side of its blocky bow section. With the magnification set as it was, Henry and the others could see the transport was mounting similar armament. Auto-turret emplacements and anti-fighter quad turrets were visible, as were four mag-cannon mounts on the upper and lower parts of the middle hull.

"Those look like light mag-cannons," Tia said. "Our plasma cannons have a heavier punch."

"But more limited arcs," Henry replied. "And I'm betting their shields are up to that kind of punch." He frowned while considering all of the future possibilities. "The neutron cannon's our ace in the hole, but— "

Noticing he was trailing off, Piper asked, "But what?"

"It'll probably go right through their deflector and their ship," Henry answered. "It'll kill people, and I'd rather not. I certainly don't want to kill the people we're here to rescue."

"Well, if you've got a better alternative, let's hear it, Jim." The sublight engines on the transport glowed brighter on the viewscreen. "Because I'm sure they see us, and they're maneuvering away."

"Cera, close the range; plasma drives only for now. That's an older transport, we've got more thrust."

"Aye, sir."

Their acceleration before the jump gave the Shadow Wolf more than enough delta-v to keep the other ship in weapons range for a little while. Henry prepared to give the order to fire with a heavy sigh. You know they won't listen to you. His face settled into a stern expression. They think they've got bona fide traitors aboard that you're here to rescue.

But yet, Henry couldn't give the order. Inside, his stomach was twisting at the idea of killing CDF personnel. It surprised him how sick the thought made him, as if the CDF hadn't let Erhart destroy him, hadn't humiliated him, wasn't even now trying to hunt him down.

Henry knew he should owe no loyalty to them, not after all that. Not with what Erhart had done to him. But the vestiges of the old life remained inside him, and on this subject, he couldn't ignore them. Despite himself, he spoke, "Open a channel to that ship, Tia."

The expression on Tia's face, with her lips set into a frown and a skeptical light to her eyes, made it clear she expected nothing to come of it. Still, she did as ordered. "Hailing now."

Moments passed before a holo-screen popped up beside Henry's chair. He didn't recognize the man on the screen, simply his rank insignia as a major. "This is Captain Jim Henry of the Shadow Wolf," Henry said, keeping his voice firm. "I'd like to ask you to stand down and turn over the innocent prisoners you're keeping for General Erhart."

"Major Sheldon Lamar, CO of the Dante Aghlieri." Major Lamar's face shifted into a pleased, smug expression. "How nice of you to turn yourself in before we get to Tyrrhenia, Major Henry." His voice oozed confidence.

Henry recognized the cockiness of a fast climber. It's not quite staring into a mirror, is it? With that consideration, he decided not to rise to the bait of the taunt. "Major Lamar, I've got you outgunned, and I don't want to hurt your crew. But you've got innocent people aboard caught up in Erhart's scheming, and I'm here to get them out."

The cocky expression turned angry. "Still trying to slander the General after all of these years, coward? You don't think we can see what's going on? You've gone over to the enemy, and I wish the CDF threw you and your traitor crew in a hole back then. I'm telling you, I'll kill these traitors before I let you have them." Lamar made a cutting gesture at his throat, and the holo-screen blipped out of existence.

Henry swallowed. "He'll do it too." The zeal in Lamar's eyes sealed it. He was a CDF officer on a mission for God and country. Killing traitors to the cause to prevent their rescue was well within his capability. "Cera, evasive maneuvers."

"They're firing!" Piper confirmed.

The viewer showed the bright bursts of light as the coils of the mag-cannons released their charges, accelerating shells toward the Shadow Wolf. Cera twisted the ship onto another heading, evading the four incoming projectiles a second before they could hit.

That was all there was to it. Henry glanced at Piper. "Return fire."

The Shadow Wolf's plasma cannons, already out and tracking, opened up on the Coalition vessel. Streams of purple energy crossed the distance and met a solid blue field around the Dante. "Minimal deflector disruption," Piper confirmed.

The Shadow Wolf shuddered slightly. She'd taken a partial hit from the mag-cannons of the enemy ship. "Deflectors holding," Tia said.

The Dante burned ahead, trying to keep distance until she could safely jump away, and the Shadow Wolf kept on her trail. Cera put the ship's standard drives to their maximum output to get the necessary delta-v to get close.

The Dante responded with a volley of missiles from their one cell on the ship. Since the vessel was just a transport, it couldn't carry the Hunter missiles that were the terror of any foe of the CDF, but these missiles still had an impressive range and homing capability. The Shadow Wolf's auto-turrets engaged with a moderate success rate, taking out over half of the salvo. Two missiles made impacts on the deflectors of the Shadow Wolf. "Deflectors still holding." Tia let out a small chuckle. "I was expecting a bigger punch. What are those things armed with?"

"Anti-fighter missiles and defenses, mostly," Henry said. "Standard CDF procedure for a military transport." The ship shook again. This time, it felt like a direct hit. "Cera?"

"I'm just warmin' up," she pledged.

Henry watched with satisfaction as Cera proved just how true that remark was. The Shadow Wolf lived up to her name under her control, deftly evading the best fire the Dante could manage as she closed the range with their prey.

The range closed, both ships maneuvering sharply while their lighter weapons fired with no effect. The missiles from the Dante continued to fire away and in turn were swatted down by the blazing auto-turrets on the Wolf; the few that impacted did little to no damage. The Dante's auto-turrets attempted to aid against the Wolf, but as with the other weapons, they weren't designed to fight deflectors of so much power.

The two vessels, hunter and prey, fired away at one another, but neither had a clear advantage—yet.

Breach of Duty

Captain Blyne observed the maneuvers of the attacking ship with grudging respect. Captain Henry's vessel was capable despite its civilian design. "Looks like Tal'mayan plasma cannons," he said aloud while the Dante shuddered slightly from the same. "Karnon-charged. Good punch for their size." He studied Lamar's flustered expression and ventured some advice. "We've been taking it easy on the jump drive for a reason, Major. We could jump out."

Lamar shook his head. "Advice received, XO, but in this case, rejected. The way I see it, Henry's just made the CDF's job easier. We take his ship here, we get him and whatever enemy operatives he's got working for him on that thing."

"Our weapons aren't getting through their deflectors."

"We just need to hold them until reinforcements jump in," Lamar said. Without waiting for further comment from Blyne, he added, "Keep the drive on standby, though. Jumping out is our backup."

"Aye aye, sir," Blyne replied.

Lamar turned his attention to Lisiewicz, the lieutenant at the helm. "Navigation, let's show these League-lovers what the CDF can do. Commence offensive maneuvers. TAO, firing point procedures on Master One. Civilian deflectors'll give way before ours do."

As he expected, he was answered with a pair of diligent "Aye aye, sirs." He smiled with approval at his junior officers.

Breach of Duty

With the Dante's engines at combat power, the transport became a deadlier opponent. She had the maneuverability to keep up with the Shadow Wolf when pushing herself, and the Dante used that to full effect. Henry watched her twists and turns and noted their purpose. Aside from evading the Wolf's plasma cannons, the Dante was trying to present her sides to the Wolf so all four of her mag-cannon mounts could fire as one in a broadside. It was the one possibility the Dante had at overcoming the Shadow Wolf's shields in a reasonable amount of time.

It was starting to affect them. The navigation officer of the Dante was CDF-trained and it showed. Cera had a capable adversary who took advantage of her aggressive maneuvering, shifting the Dante's orientation and heading to get the enemy TAO the shots he needed. The Shadow Wolf's shuddering increased as more mag-cannon shells connected with their shields.

"Sassenach," cursed Cera. "Good pilot over there."

"You could've been CDF yourself," Henry reminded her. "You can do this."

The ship shuddered lightly again. Now Cera was varying up her maneuvers, trying to stay close and force the mag-cannon mounts to track more while the plasma cannons fired when able.

"They should be able to break away," Tia said with a thoughtful frown on her face. "They're not. They must be waiting for something."

"Reinforcements." Henry scowled. He'd imagined they were on a timer, of course. But given how far they were from the front, the prospect of friendly ships coming quickly enough that the Dante's skipper could rely on them hadn't seemed likely.

They'd have to adjust, and that meant taking an action he would have preferred not to do.

A plan was already crystallizing in Henry's mind as his finger pressed down on the ship's intercom key. "Pieter, I'm sorry, but we're going to need the fusion drive briefly."

"As long as you know what you're risking, Captain," the engineer replied. Henry thought he sounded a little sullen.

"I do. And I need one other thing—" He began to explain, his stomach twisting as he did.

Breach of Duty

The dance between the Dante and the Shadow Wolf continued to the increasing frustration of Major Lamar. When another good shot was lost, Lamar finally let loose with his temper. "Lisiewicz, I refuse to believe that rundown scow has a better pilot than a vessel of the CDF. I demand better from you, Lieutenant!"

Blyne visibly blanched with disapproval at Lamar's behavior. Lisiewicz didn't have the luxury of reacting with anything but a "Yes sir, sorry sir," and Blyne watched her body tense as she redoubled her efforts.

Not that it did her much good as the Shadow Wolf's engines shifted in intensity. The four ports along her aft surged with power and her delta-v went straight up and beyond the Dante's capabilities.

"What in God's name?" Blyne stared in shock.

"A fusion drive? On that thing? I heard the report, but—" Lamar shook his head. Now he wasn't so sure how this would go down. With that much extra thrust, the Shadow Wolf could out-maneuver him, focus fire on a point, and batter down his deflectors.

"Should we jump, sir?" Blyne asked.

Lamar considered it. The more he did, the more he bristled. Given the history, this was like Henry spitting in the face of the whole CDF. Flaunting the same technology he tried to deny them through sabotage? To hell with him! "Negative, XO. Navigation, keep Master One in arc. TAO, firing point procedures on our port missile cell, coordinate firing pattern with the mag-cannons. I want them caught!"

Tense minutes passed as the Shadow Wolf executed repeated attack runs, darting in and out like her namesake animal slashing at the legs of a larger beast. The Dante's deflectors were slowly succumbing to the battering. Lamar waited patiently. "Navigation, change heading to zero-one-four mark positive zero-seven-eight, now!" he called out. "Rotate thirty degrees port!"

The maneuver was executed without question. Lamar felt a surge of pleasure as it gave all four of his mag-cannons an open shot on the enemy ship as it finished an attack run. Even as the purple of the plasma cannons flared against the Dante's straining deflectors, the mag-cannons got into position. They fired, sending shells at a high velocity into the rear of the enemy ship. The deflectors caught the shot, but he could imagine they strained in the process.

But more happened. The four engines on the back of the ship went dark. Several running lights failed as well. Lamar watched with pleasure as the Shadow Wolf began a turn on maneuvering thrusters only. "Any sign of a graviton field?" he asked.

"No, sir," replied the TAO, Lieutenant Jackson. "They're not decelerating."

"Looks like deflector feedback took out their drives," Blyne said.

Elation filled Lamar. He knew a ship like that couldn't handle sustained abuse from combat, and he'd been proven right. Now he had his shot. "Navigation, bring us in, and TAO, I want all weapons on their side. Bring those deflectors down!" He turned to Blyne. "XO, get the boarding teams ready. Get Walters and his people in place to storm that ship the moment we've got them crippled."

"Aye aye, sir." Blyne went into action.

Lamar watched with satisfaction as the Dante came about and presented her side. With all four of his mag-cannons on a target that couldn't conduct combat maneuvers, the deflectors they were facing wouldn't last long at all. He'd have Henry in chains and the praise of General Erhart. I'll be a Colonel in a few years. Lieutenant Colonel by the end of the year! But even better, it'd deal a blow to the damn League and the traitors they had working for them. A reminder the Coalition couldn't be stopped.

"Firing," Jackson said. On the screen, the mag-cannons started firing at the Shadow Wolf, which suddenly whipped around, her maneuvering engines at full power, to present her bow to the Dante. Lamar was confused for the moment at seeing Henry turn his ship like that, wondering where he got the power for it, while his eyes settled on the lupine head that was the Shadow Wolf's bridge module.

Then he noticed the movement below, as the hump down the ship's belly between her six holds seemed to open up at the front, presenting a large open circle.

Not a circle, he realized. A cannon barrel.

Even as Lamar forced the word "Evasive!" into his throat, blue-white light erupted from the barrel on the Shadow Wolf's belly. The light grew in size and intensity until it filled the screen, which crackled and went out.

The Dante seemed to have been seized by God Himself. Lamar was rocked against his seat harness while the deck jolted. Power on the bridge died out for a moment before emergency lighting came on. "Damage report!" he screamed.

"Direct hit on the engineering section," Blyne called out.

"The deflectors—!"

"Couldn't stop it, sir," Jackson said. "They hit us with a neutron cannon, sir."

Lamar felt his throat go dry. A damned neutron cannon? How the hell did Henry power a weapon like that on his scow? It took a moment for the realization to hit him: the fusion drive he had aboard would do it, providing both the raw power and the neutron byproduct to form the beam.

With power out, Lamar flipped the intercom key. "Engineering, we've lost power up here. What's our status?"

Seconds passed. No response came.

"Engineering, do you copy?" There was still no response.

"Sir." Blyne paled. "Sir, internal sensors show a direct hit on the main engineering spaces. All reactors not responding. No life signs either."

Lamar felt like his heart would stop. Rage warred with grief at the loss of his engineering chief, Lieutenant al-Assad, and the engineering crew of his ship. Over a dozen of his people must've died when the beam hit. "Casualties?" he croaked.

"Still being accounted for, sir," Blyne said, his voice heavy. Both knew that many of the dead wouldn't be found, as the neutron cannon would have left nothing. "We're getting a few transponders from outside the ship. At least six crewmembers are in space, sir. Two transponders confirm no vac suit."

Lamar clenched his fists. Hot tears came to his face. Violent spacing was one of the worst ways to die.

"Sir." The warrant officer at comms spoke up, his voice accented with Brazilian Portuguese. "Hail from the enemy ship."

Lamar grit his teeth together. "Put them on."

The dead image on the bridge changed to show Henry's face again. His expression was stone cold, as if all he had no emotions at all. "Dante, you're crippled and helpless. Hand over the prisoners. There's no need for this fight to continue." A little emotion seeped into Henry's voice as he added, "Nobody else needs to die."

The grief in Lamar's heart turned to fury. "Murderer," he spat. "Traitor! You'd murder your own, for what, Henry? How much is the League paying you?" Before a response could come, he drew in a breath and turned to Blyne. "Alert all hands, prepare for boarding!"

Blyne nodded.

Lamar wasn't finished with Henry, though. With rage filling every word with venom, he spoke again. "I can't stop you from leaving, traitor, but I won't let you get your friends out of my cells. I'll fight to the death first, and I'll see them dead before you get to them!"


23

Tia and Piper both stared intently at Henry, who in turn was staring at the enraged visage of Major Lamar. He fought to keep his expression neutral. He couldn't let Lamar see the pain he felt or the man might use it to draw this out.

Henry wanted very much to give that suffering release. He was heartsick at having just killed so many good people. He was angry Lamar, or really Erhart, had pushed the situation this far.

Am I being jealous? The thought crossed his mind. Lamar was being the proper CDF officer, defiant to the last against superior odds. Just as Henry himself had once been, before the night he gave up.

Thinking of that night made him remember what Erhart told him. Henry passed it on, hoping it might work. "Sometimes, Major, you can't win the battle. All you can do is cut your losses and live to fight another day."

Lamar snarled at him on the screen. "Like hell I'll let you win."

"This isn't about your pride," Henry snapped. "You have an obligation to your crew, Major, and it includes not getting them killed to protect one man's agenda."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Lamar accused. "It'll make your employers happy to know they can intimidate us into freeing their agents. Well, I'll never surrender them. I won't be a party to letting treason prosper!"

"Dammit, man, those aren't traitors!" Henry's face turned blood red as he spoke. "Erhart's got his own agenda, Major, and you're playing into it. You're betraying everything your uniform stands for!"

"Says the traitor." Lamar motioned to someone offscreen and disappeared.

"Well, that went well," Piper said. "He's kinda nuts, isn't he?"

"Half the CDF seems to be," Tia muttered. "He knows we can make scrap out of his ship, right?"

"He knows and doesn't care." Henry said with his head lowered and hands covering his face. "God's on his side."

"Really, I'd think the hole we just blew through his ship would indicate otherwise."

Henry ignored Tia's remark. He also tried to ignore the sick twisting in his gut, but he wasn't so successful there. He'd just killed over a dozen CDF crew, and it made him feel like he'd puke his own heart onto the deck. Sixteen years after the service humiliated him, and yet he still felt guilty over all of this.

And guiltier still for what he knew he had to do.

Tia filled the silence. "We can't stay here forever. Either we call this off or we board."

The intercom keyed on. "Hey, Jim," Felix's voice said over it, speaking from the turret he was manning. "I figure you're still thinking this over, but I should point out that a ship like that's probably got another fifty crew, easy. If they're ready for us, I don't think we can pull off a boarding action. Even with our borrowed hardware and Yanik's heirloom, we won't be fighting through all of them."

"Thanks, Felix, I've got it handled," Henry replied into the intercom before cutting it. He felt heartsick at realizing what the best next step was. "Cera, re-align the bow," he said softly. "Put the cannon onto the bridge of the Dante."

Cera nodded. She did so and, without saying anything, made the sign of the Cross.

"It's like being asked to commit murder," Piper confessed. After all, she was being asked to pull the trigger, and not on an enemy threatening their lives but a beaten foe.

"I know, and if you want, I'll hit the firing key," Henry said even as the ship lined up for the shot. One blast and the bridge of the Dante would be gone. On a vessel that small, it wouldn't leave much of a command structure, and might encourage the surviving crew to surrender rather than die needlessly.

Piper swallowed. "I…" She looked at the pain on Henry's face and paled with shame. He could see she knew he'd do it for her, take the blood onto his hands, and that he'd want to rip his heart out even more.

Henry removed his harness and stood. Piper did nothing as he leaned over her to reach for the firing key that would trigger the neutron cannon.

"Message incoming," Tia said, moments before he could fire. "Audio only."

Henry pulled his hand back. "Put them on."

She did so. "Dante, you're live."

"Fine," Lamar's now familiar voice hissed. "Take your traitor friends and leave my crew alone. It doesn't matter anyway. We're winning the war, Henry, and you're on the wrong side. We'll get you all in the end."

"You'll be doing us a favor when you win the war, Lamar, whether you believe me or not," Henry replied. "We're pulling up alongside. Send them over the ship-to-ship tube once we're latched on."

"Acknowledged."

"Channel's cut," Tia said. She frowned. "That was too easy. I think they might rush us."

"They'd be stupid t' try," Cera said. "We can cut th' tube on our end, let 'em eat vacuum. Then th' Captain'll just neutron beam their whole ship."

Henry returned to his seat and keyed the intercom. "Felix, Yanik, get to the starboard lock and prepare for a ship-to-ship transfer. Have everything hot and ready. I have a feeling they might try something."

"Roger that," Felix replied.

Breach of Duty

When the combat alarms screamed, Snow and the others could only wait in confusion and fear for the outcome of the situation. The League's trying to raid this deep in Coalition space? It sounded ludicrous, but the League was desperate enough to try, Snow imagined.

Her fear spiked when the entire ship rattled viciously under their feet. As the power went out, sending them into darkness, Mueller and Xu exchanged worried looks. "The ship just took a direct hit," Mueller said. "A bad one."

"What in God's name is going on out there?" Xu shouted.

"Keep your voices down!" was the reply from the guards.

Time seemed to stretch on from there. Emergency lighting was quick to come back on, and the air didn't go stale, reassuring them that the life support systems were still functioning. Renner's face went white as well, while Xu and Mueller were the most concerned. Xu looked to her and asked, "You didn't serve in the fleet, did you, Snow?"

"I was given college deferment and admitted to law school," Snow said. "They put me straight into JAG."

"Which is why you're not as scared as you should be," Renner said. "This is bad, real bad, Congresswoman. The ship's been hulled."

"Who could be firing at them?" Mueller wondered.

"Shut up in there!" Walters' voice screamed from outside.

Snow was tempted to defy him, but there was little point save spite, and she was better off not going that route. With the others, she waited quietly to see what developed.

Conversation came from outside. Walters was on comms, and his voice raised in protest until he finally finished with an "Aye aye, sir." A few moments later, the door slid open and Walters entered with three guards. Snow and the others watched with concern that became surprise as their shackles were released from their chairs. "Get up," Walters barked.

"Where are you taking us?" Renner asked.

Walters refused to answer. He grabbed Snow by the arm and forced her to her feet. "Start moving!"

Snow felt a rising fear that Erhart was about to have them disposed of, but she was helpless to act on that. Walters roughly pushed her to the door, forcing her through. "To your right!"

She followed that direction. The lights in the corridor were not the same. Other than that, there didn't seem to be any sign of danger or damage to the ship. What's going on? she wondered, her heart pounding in increasing terror at the thought that the CDF might actually be plotting their murders. No, the CDF wouldn't. Even Erhart couldn't twist them that far…

The others stepped up to be behind her. She heard Mueller's accented voice whisper, "Someone's blown a hole through the engineering section. The ship's crippled."

"How can you tell?" she asked.

"The way the power went out, for one," he answered. "Also, the way the ship shook, the creak in the hull. Anyone who's ever served on a ship that's been hulled knows the signs."

Snow nodded. Now I don't regret staying in JAG so much.

"Who could've done that?" Xu asked, his voice slightly louder.

Walters shouted, "Quiet!"

Snow swallowed. A new nightmare scenario dawned before her. The Peace Union was gaining increasing support from the admission of moderate parties to its ranks, but there was still the old radical wing under Senator Rhodes. If things were escalating severely, could they have taken the step of turning to violence? Was this part of such a campaign? If it were true, it would jeopardize not just the entire Union, but the Coalition itself. There were worlds that would respond to the outright suppression of the Union by withdrawing from the Coalition.

These thoughts stuck in Snow's mind as they came up to an airlock. To her surprise, her shackles and those of the others were unlocked, freeing them. Again, a part of her wondered if they were about to be murdered, either in defiance of an attacker or as part of some big ruse by Erhart. The worry only went away when the airlock door cycled open and revealed a ship-to-ship tube.

"Forward," Walters ordered.

The guard near Snow started muttering, "I say we retract the tube and let them suck vac—"

"Can it, Private!" Walters bellowed.

Are we being transferred? No, then they'd have left us in shackles. Snow walked into the tube. About thirty meters ahead was the other ship. Three figures were standing in the other airlock. A woman of pale tan complexion stood beside a man with light skin. A hulking blue Saurian stood behind them, weapon readied. "Come on," the woman said, her English spoken with a Hebrew accent. "You'll be safe."

Like I've got a choice, Snow pondered. She led the other three into the tube.

Breach of Duty

The cold anger in Walters' heart started burning as he watched the traitors walk across the tube to freedom. Private Smith's remark was one he'd love to enact, but the systems weren't designed to work that way. They'd never complete a retraction before the traitors got to safety in the other ship's tube.

The entire thing sickened him. Major Lamar's cowardice humiliated the CDF as a whole, and it would only make things worse. Terrorists like these people, like those on the Monterrey, would feel emboldened by this. They'd strike again. More people would die. Just like his fiancée had died due to the traitors on the Monterrey. I can't let this happen. God help me, I can't!

Slowly, his hand started to move. It slid down to his belt and the holster for his charge pistol there. He unclipped the holster and gripped the handle of the gun. As he pulled it, his finger found the trigger. It was a reassuring feeling.

I'll be court-martialed, but that's fine. Orders like this are wrong. I'll tell them that.

Without a word, and to the surprise of his fellow soldiers, Walters brought the gun up and opened fire.

Breach of Duty

Across the tube, Yanik's height allowed him to see past the approaching prisoners. Whatever curiosity he felt at meeting Captain Henry's old crew, his concern was on the very high probability of betrayal of some sort coming their way.

Had he been human, he might've missed the faint clicking noise in the distance. But he didn't. More than that, he could smell the anger growing in the air. When Yanik saw the gun come up, he acted. "Get down!" he shouted.

Breach of Duty

Snow heard the order. A moment later, the clanging of bodies hitting the floor of the tube happened. Her legs went in the motion of doing so, in part from the force of the arms pushing her.

There was a sound, a solid drumbeat in the air, and bright hot pain filled Snow's upper back. She cried out at the feeling, as if a small sun had slammed into her like a fastball thrown by a star pitcher. The material of her jumpsuit burned away at the impact, allowing the attack to char and blacken her flesh, increasing the agony she experienced even before she hit the floor.

I've been shot. The realization made her heart seem to freeze even as the pain filled the right side of her back, working forward into her chest. Every breath hurt like the worst case of pneumonia she could imagine.

And then the gunfire sounded over her head in a roar, and a deep, primal fear filled her, one that told her "I'm about to die."

Breach of Duty

Walters' first shot slammed home, striking Snow in the back. He squeezed the trigger again in the hopes of another hit, but this time, the shot missed, slamming into the external airlock opposite.

With the four figures in the tube prone, Walters could now make out what he saw opposite of the Dante airlock, and the sight made him realize just what a mistake he'd made.

Before he could move out of the way, the massive auto-fire assault cannon in the arms of the Saurian opened up. Yellow bolts shot through the tube and crashed into Walters as his men watched, stunned into silence. He cried out in shock and pain at the repeated shots that struck his torso. His armor held some of it, but only some, and the remaining energy imparted to his chest was more than enough to incinerate the organs within his ribs.

Walters felt his heart stop in his chest as he hit the deck. He commanded his body to move, but it didn't. As the light around him begin to dim, he realized he was dying. He was, in fact, seconds from the end.

Lord, take my soul, and grant my comrades victory over our wicked enemies, he thought as the end came. He made no effort to protest his end or resist it; he'd fought the good fight, and now he would be rewarded.

Breach of Duty

Yanik didn't stop firing upon the fall of the attacker. He kept the barrage from his cannon up, preventing the security personnel on the other end from entering the tube, while his comrades went forward—toward the prone figures. Felix arrived at the injured woman first and helped her up, bringing her to the edge of the tube to maintain Yanik's line of fire. It made for a very nerve-wracking experience for all involved, as mere centimeters sometimes separated the liberated prisoners from Yanik's fusillade of plasma.

He moved forward, granting them clearance to go around him. The weapon grew hot in his hands. He started staggering his fire to avoid overheating the gun as he approached the end of the tube.

With the roar of fire lessened, Yanik heard the hissing noise ahead. "They're opening the air-tight seals," he said. "Get in!"

As he spoke, Miri was already guiding the uninjured. Tense seconds passed as Felix brought the injured woman through a second after the third captive passed. "We're clear!" he called out, his pistol coming up.

Now the hissing was growing louder, becoming more of a roar, joined by the faint mechanical whir as the Dante's tube began disengaging from the Shadow Wolf's. They had only seconds before explosive decompression would begin, one that would risk the entire ship.

The hiss became a howl, and Miri's fist slammed on the controls for the airlock. The far end slammed closed in an instant, ceasing the howl. Yanik ceased his fire at the moment before the tube sealed. "Retracting intership docking collar now," she said.

While they got everyone going toward the airlock, Felix got on the link. "We've got them, go, go, go!"

Yanik heard the faint impacts as auto-turret fire started to chip at the Shadow Wolf's hull. This stopped abruptly as the deflectors went back up. Everyone felt the effects as the Shadow Wolf's inertial compensators struggled to keep up with fusion drive-empowered acceleration away from the Dante Aghlieri. It wasn't full power, but it was enough to make walking out of the airlock difficult for the rescued Laffey officers.

Oskar was waiting with Vidia. He took immediate charge of Snow. "Help me get her to the infirmary," he said, and Vidia joined Felix in helping the wounded woman along.

The other three looked at them in confusion. "Who in the hell are you people?" Xu blurted out. He seemed to internally wince after speaking, as if he regretted some of his word choices.

"I am Yanik S'srish, Second Mate of the Shadow Wolf," the tall Saurian answered. "Captain Henry will see you when we are clear."

Surprise showed on their features. "As in James Henry? Colonel, er, Major Henry?" Mueller asked.

"Yes," Miri said. "This is his ship." Yanik noted she was applying a soft voice, the kind humans tended to use to reassure one another. "You're among friends here, and we'll keep you as safe as we can while we try to clear everyone's names. If you'll follow me, we'll get you into something more appealing than prisoner uniforms."

Whatever their feelings, they were clearly up for that.

Breach of Duty

The sight of the Shadow Wolf burning away quickly from the Dante made Major Lamar seethe. While Walters had acted without orders, he'd hoped those actions would give him an opportunity to cripple the Wolf. The main mag-cannons had been within seconds of firing when Henry's damned ship raised its deflectors again, and it'd all been for nothing.

Still, at least we made it look good.

Lamar turned to his personal viewer, where General Erhart's image remained quiet, almost contemplative. "My apologies, General. Captain Walters acted without orders. He lost someone because of the Monterrey."

Erhart nodded. "I'm aware of how that pain can drive a man," the General said. "Captain Walters was being unkind to you, Major. It's a good sign that you can overlook that."

"He was a brave and good man, sir, a credit to his uniform."

"As many are."

Lamar shook his head. "General, I could've stalled for more time," he began. "Time for the squadron you sent to respond. We'd have caught them here."

"No, you would've died, Major," Erhart answered. "Henry's a hard man. Life's made him that way. He would have killed you with his next shot, Major, and prepared to storm your ship. You've saved the lives of your crew."

"And let those traitors get away!" protested Lamar.

Erhart responded to that with a confident smile. "Not for long, Major, that I assure you. I have things well in hand. A repair vessel will be along shortly to get you back to base. Until then, await further instructions. Erhart out." The screen shut down.

Lamar settled back into his seat. Blyne was gone, seeing to damage control, but they couldn't do much until the repair tender arrived.

It still rankled him to know the Dante lost to that civilian scow of Henry's, but Lamar reassured himself with Erhart's promise. You'll get yours, Henry. You and your traitors will be marching onto Lambert's Lament soon enough. I'll have justice for my slain crew, so help me God.


24

Given the situation, Henry thought it best to remain on the bridge until they jumped out. Once they were secure in the next system on their route back to Masada NW-3-11, Henry asked Tia to relieve him and headed toward the stern. His stomach still twisted at what he'd just done. The lives he'd taken. Whatever his justifications, he knew they wouldn't matter to the families of the slain on the Dante.

He entered the infirmary and found one bed taken up. Major Snow, or rather Congresswoman Snow, was being treated for the shot to her back while Xu, Mueller, and Renner were in other beds or chairs. They all looked toward him save for Oskar, still intent on Snow's wound. Their eyes locked on to his as if they were trying to compare what he was now to when they'd last seen him.

Henry felt his mouth go a little dry. He'd never intended to see any of these people again.

Oskar may have sensed his unease, as the doctor spoke up to break the silence. "Aside from the Congresswoman's wound, they are in good health, Captain."

"Thanks, Oskar." Henry sighed. He couldn't stay silent forever, so he worked up the courage to speak. "Everyone, I'm glad you're okay. Despite everything that's happened."

"It's madness," Mueller insisted. "Who could think any of us a League spy?!"

Henry shook his head. "That was General Erhart. He always threatened me with bringing the rest of you down if I talked."

"What do you mean?" asked Mueller.

"It's why I pled guilty," Henry said. "It was either that or watch the rest of you being court-martialed as saboteurs and traitors. Erhart was going to have it look like we deliberately caused the fault on the Laffey." Henry lowered his eyes. "They'd have even slandered Soto for it."

"Mother of God… that's ridiculous," Mueller protested. "Soto died to save the ship!"

"Wouldn't have stopped Erhart." Henry went over to one of the remaining plastic chairs. He moved it around so he could face the four of them and sat down. "I owe you all an apology. I returned home to see my uncle—he's dying—and I guess it set Erhart off. Made him put this into motion."

"It's not you, Colonel… I mean, Captain." Xu raised his head, a frown on his face. "Anyone wants to blame someone, blame Hale. And me, a little."

Mueller looked to Xu. "What do you mean, Anthony?"

"Hale's been after Erhart for years now," Xu said. "She couldn't do much when she was just at field officer rank, but now that she's on track for her first star, she stepped it up. She even got the connections to obtain access to the classified logs from the Laffey Incident." Xu met Henry's eyes. "Hale figured she could prove you were innocent."

Henry listened and swallowed. An old wound ached in his heart. With it came the memories of humiliation and shame from his drumming out. From his surrender to Erhart.

"If it's anyone's fault, it's hers," Xu continued. "And mine, since I showed her some things."

"It's Erhart's fault, and it always has been," Snow protested. She couldn't move without interfering with Oskar's work, so she couldn't turn her head to face Xu, but she could direct her eyes toward Henry. "I know it's been a while, Colonel, and I'm sorry I couldn't do more. I've been working with Hale for years now, trying to expose Erhart for what he is. He's doing this because she's onto him."

"In what way?" Henry asked.

Xu had an uncomfortable look, but Snow didn't see it. She continued on. "Tab—I mean, Colonel Hale—found evidence in Procurement records that Erhart's been diverting a lot of contracts toward Kalling Engineering. All to some project labeled 'EF'."

"'EF'?" Henry couldn't imagine what it meant. He noticed the wince on Xu's face and asked, "You know anything about this, Colonel?"

Xu sighed and nodded. "I found personnel records, transfers that Erhart's arranged. All to EF."

Henry heard the anger brimming in Xu's voice. "Everything okay, Xu?"

"No, sir, it's not," Xu said. He fixed an angry look on Snow. "Because of her and Hale, I've been taken from my family. My career's a ruin now. My children are going to grow up being told their father's a traitor."

"Maybe not, Colonel." Renner looked up. "Colonel Hale must've gotten away somehow. She wasn't with us at all. If we can find her, or her evidence, all we have to do is get it to one of the other generals, MacIntosh or Ostrovsky, maybe even Barton. They can clear our names."

Mueller laughed bitterly. "Barton? He's just a civilian now, and a Peace Union advocate. The rest of the CDF'll never listen."

Xu nodded. "And MacIntosh is one of the survivors of Erhart's academy class. The two are friends. He won't turn on Erhart just because of some orders and transfers."

"It's still our best shot," Snow insisted, grimacing as Oskar continued to work on her wound silently. "I have contacts who can get the word out in the media. Spencer will have to launch an investigation, even if the CDF and CBI don't want it."

Renner nodded. "I worked in CDF Intel. Ostrovsky will want to use this as well."

They all stared at Henry. He grinned weakly as he considered the possibilities. Erhart's got too many fans for this to work so well… but maybe, just maybe, Spencer might hedge his bets. He set his hands in his lap and nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

"Of course, we'll need somewhere to transmit from," Renner said. "A hardline GalNet connection or something."

"Oh, I think we can handle that," Henry assured her. Let's hope this works. I don't want to spend the rest of my life dodging both the League and the Terran Coalition.

Breach of Duty

With a change in the ship's watch, Felix had the time to get a meal from the galley. They at least had a decent selection between the spacer food and the MREs picked up from the Masada redoubt. He opted for a container of beef vegetable stew, pulling it from the pantry and tearing off the heating strip cover at the bottom. This exposed the strip to air, triggering a chemical reaction that made the stew steaming hot within a couple of minutes. Felix wafted away said steam for a few seconds after opening the cap until he figured it was at the right temperature to eat. It still scalded his tongue a little, but the taste was fresh and he enjoyed it.

A shadow moved nearby, and he looked up. Major Renner sat down opposite from him, a similar container of chicken noodle soup already heating up. She was in a spare jumpsuit with the Shadow Wolf's name printed on it. "Beats MREs," Renner said as she removed the cap, letting the steam rise from the soup in the container. "Although it's been a while since I wasn't planetside."

"Spacer food's an acquired taste," Felix said. "So are MREs, God help us all." He cracked a small grin. "So you were one of Jim's officers on Laffey."

She nodded. "I was… I was an awful lot younger too."

"We all were."

At that point, Felix returned to his meal, expecting Renner to enjoy hers. But after she'd taken a couple spoonfuls of soup, she raised her head again. "Felix Rothbard, right? Formerly a Colonel in the CDF?"

"Lieutenant Colonel," Felix corrected. He gave her a careful look.

It was if the wheels in Renner's head turned visibly. "You're Colonel Henry's old friend."

"From childhood."

"Yeah." Renner nodded. "I can't imagine how hard it was for you, then. I mean, with all of the horrible things that came up about Colonel Henry, I'm sure you caught flack for it. I guess it contributed to how your time ended."

Felix took in a breath to restrain himself. This was not a subject he wanted to discuss, at all. "What do you know of it, kid?"

"I've been in CDF Intelligence for years, communications," Renner said. "So I noted it when your name came up and was connected to Henry's. Back in '58, when you were part of that op on Kalahari, or even the thing in '51 on Starfall." Felix scowled, but she continued. "You did your job. They had it out for you, though, because you were one of Henry's friends, and you'd never stopped defending him."

"That's none of your business."

"I know it's not," Renner agreed. "I only bring it up because I wanted you to know you're not the only one. I mean, even in Intelligence, I've had people oppose my promotions because of the Laffey. I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm guessing you're not."

Felix picked up his unfinished food container and stood. "No, I'm not. I've had to fight for a lot of things in this world, kid."

He noticed a flutter of irritation on her expression and didn't care. It was unkind to refer to a woman approaching forty as a "kid," but Felix felt she deserved it for dredging up his past like that.

Before she could speak, Felix turned away. "If you need help, find Miss Nguyen. It's not my job." He gave the parting message to be flippant, even as his mind wandered to the things Renner brought up, something he didn't want to think about.

Breach of Duty

Henry was at his desk when Miri appeared at the door, Xu behind her. Like the others, Xu had traded in his prisoner's jumpsuit for a spacer's jumpsuit, although this one didn't have the ship's name stenciled on it yet. He stood at crisp attention, as if Henry was still his CO. "You wanted to see me, sir?" Xu asked.

Henry gave him a bemused look. "I don't need to tell you 'at ease,' Xu. I'm a civilian now."

Xu relaxed. "Habit, I suppose," he said. "I always thought what happened to you was wrong."

"Thanks." He gestured to the two other seats, prompting Miri and Xu to sit. "Ms. Gaon here is former CIS," he said. "She still has contacts in the service. She'd like to know more about what Erhart's up to with this 'EF' stuff."

Xu shook his head. "I've said all I really can. Erhart's been siphoning some of our best junior officers into the program for the last decade, and a bunch of enlisted personnel. They never come out of it. Pay still goes out regular, commendations and promotions, but a lot of them are done by link only. Wartime secrecy regs for personnel on special assignment."

Henry noticed the curious look on Miri's face. "What do you think?" he asked her.

"I'm not sure," she said. "Wartime secrecy implies special long-term operations. He could have them operating in deep space at listening posts for all I know. We'll need to see what Colonel Hale found in her department."

Henry noted the frown that appeared on Xu's face at the mention of his old XO's name. "I can't tell you more," Xu said. "In fact, a lot of what I did find was erased just a couple days before I was arrested."

"Before or after you gave Hale the data?"

"After."

Miri frowned. She glanced from Xu to Henry. "Are you sure she's after Erhart? If she's the only one who wasn't taken, it might be because she's working for him. Covering his tracks and laying the foundation for these charges against everyone else."

Henry considered it. He held his memories of then-Major Tabitha Hale in his mind, everything from the dark, wine-colored red hair to the way she carried herself. She'd struck him as the kind of XO destined to become a CO herself, as actually happened. And she'd risked herself just like the others in corroborating his testimony about the Laffey. "No," he finally said. "I don't think I buy that."

"I've spoken to her over the years," Xu said. "Her only agenda is her obsession with taking down Erhart."

The bitterness in Xu's voice couldn't be missed. "You wanted her to quit?" Henry asked.

The bitter look turned a little shamed. "I'm sorry, Col—no, Captain Henry," Xu said. "I know she wanted to clear you, and you deserve it. But it always felt like she didn't care if she ruined all of our lives. She was obsessed with taking down Erhart." His voice cracked with fear. "And it might cost me my family, sir. I've got a wife, kids, and I might never see them again."

Henry nodded. "I'm sorry, Xu," he replied, meaning it. He knew precisely what Xu was thinking, what he was worried about, as he'd lived through it. He'd done so as a bachelor. Getting declared a traitor as a married father? That would've been unthinkable. "We'll settle this, if we can."

"I know you'll try, sir," Xu said, nodding. "I always thought you were an honest man. I've… I've prayed for your soul for years."

"Thank you for that, and your confidence," Henry said. He narrowed his eyes and glanced at Miri. She didn't have to say anything; he could tell she was thinking the same thing he was.

Whatever bitter, angry thoughts Henry had for General Ulysses Erhart, he wasn't just a corrupt general making money on kickbacks in the defense industry. There was something more to this, and finding out what it was would be vital to stopping Erhart.

Breach of Duty

The Starlight Guide made its final jump, and Hale looked over the destination system: NW-3-11. It looked like one of many empty star systems she'd seen, with many of its planets consumed by the expansion of the star into a supergiant. But al-Lahim's reader made it clear this system, specifically a planetoid near the sun itself, was her destination.

The days of travel had been lonely. That loneliness continued as Hale continued on the inward burn to the planetoid. She had no GalNet access, no comms to family. Only the books, holovids, and other materials kept in the library computer. Under normal circumstances, she would've happily stuck to the romantic comedies and military dramas available, but Hale's thoughts were still on the whole "charlie foxtrot" that Erhart and the hounds of CBI had reduced her life to. A week ago, I was waiting for my first star. Now I'm a wanted traitor. I guess God does have a wicked sense of humor.

As soon as she was close to the planetoid, the system sent off a narrow-beam comm call. To her surprise, it was answered, and the system shifted to display a sixteen-character code on her side screen. It was in four of the major alphabets of the Coalition. Her Arabic was atrocious and her Hebrew non-existent, but the pronunciation guide that came up helped her to speak them all.

Then she watched, stunned, as the side of the planetoid opened up, irising open to reveal an interior big enough for at least a destroyer, if not a cruiser.

Flying in was even more of a surprise. The interior of the base could indeed maintain a squadron of ships. She settled the yacht at one of the smaller docks. She departed the ship with al-Lahim's reader in tow, just in case she needed it.

She did.

The interior wasn't just some dinky base. It was part fleet depot, listening post, and bunker. With al-Lahim's material to guide her, Hale made her way to the command center of the base. And she could tell she wasn't the first person here. The doors sounded smooth, as if recently opened, and she could see the empty spaces in the cargo compartment where things were removed. Someone had been through, moving material out.

Once in the command center, she decided to figure out who. With al-Lahim's codes, she entered the system and called up the surveillance footage. Just a few days ago, a Holden-Nagata ship — Mark VII, she thought — arrived. She watched a crew of spacers disembark from the vessel.

Including James Henry.

She kept watching, listening as he explained matters to his crew. Learning about what was done to him by Erhart, it redoubled her determination to bring the corrupt general down. His people are loyal to him. More so than I imagined an independent spacer crew could ever be. Al-Lahim is right: he's still a good man on the inside, even if he's turned into a mercenary to survive.

Then she overheard what they planned, and her face paled.


25

With her watch over, Tia went about her off-duty day. A quick bite to eat in the galley settled her appetite. Since she didn't feel tired enough to sleep, she decided on some quiet reading in the rec room.

Only two people were present when she arrived. Miri was in a corner seat looking over a digital reader. By the time Tia got over to the bookshelf, she could see Felix was the one in the central chair, his eyes on the viewer. She slipped one of her books off the shelf and glanced at the viewer. Seeing it was a news broadcast, her brow furrowed. "Aren't we supposed to be off GalNet?"

"We are," he said. "This is a QE broadcast."

Tia nodded. Quantum entanglement communication was different from the GalNet system, especially on open broadcast. Anyone with the right settings could listen to or watch a broadcast without being trackable.

By the time she took a seat, the sound of shouting brought her attention to the viewer. It was a news report from New Virginia, from Tylerville itself. A reporter was interviewing people, asking about Henry and the others. Many were surprised at the idea Henry could be a traitor, but few seemed ready to defend him either, and all of them avowed their support for the CDF.

Tia felt disgust at what seemed to be the mindless devotion that people in the Coalition had for the CDF. In her experience, militaries were tools of the powerful to oppress the powerless. The Coalition Defense Force was not encouraging her to think of them as an exception.

A faintly familiar voice came from the speaker. Tia looked in time to see Jules Rothbard, of all people, being questioned by the reporters. "...all mistaken," he was saying. "My brother and Jim Henry are good men in a bad situation. I'm praying God sees them out of it."

His image was replaced by a reporter briefly before another face of a similar appearance came up. It took Tia a few moments to recognize it was Felix's father John.

After fielding what Tia could only guess was a similar question from the reporter, John Rothbard's face curled into a frown. "It's a disgrace that you people are letting the service get slandered like this. Jim Henry's a coward, and I'm more ready to believe he's a traitor than some frameup by the CDF!"

"What about your other son, sir? The one they say is on the rogue crew?"

John shook his head. "I wish he'd have never met the Henry boy. He let Jim Henry get into his head and ruin a fine CDF career, got himself dismissed over all of that."

"If your son's listening, what advice would you give as his father?"

"Shoot Henry along with his Leaguer scum friends, and if he survives, throw himself on the mercy of the CDF. Maybe it'll be enough…"

Felix's finger jabbed the remote and shut the channel down. He leaned forward in the seat with fists clenched in frustration. "Stupid old man," he grumbled. "You don't know anything."

Tia thought about speaking but held back. With her feelings and their agreement to quietly detest each other's opinions on economics, she knew it wouldn't accomplish anything. She cast a glance toward Miri, who was also looking at Felix with concern. She didn't say anything either before Felix went out the door.

"Is it just me or is Felix acting a little off?" Tia asked.

Miri returned the glance. "You've served with him longer."

"Yeah, but we don't get along very well." Tia glanced back at her book before putting it down. "So we don't interact often, and I don't know him that well. Honestly, I'm not sure anyone on the ship knows him very well except for Jim."

There was a contemplative look on Miri's face by the time Tia finished with her answer. "He's been aboard for a few years now?"

"He joined us in late '58," Tia answered. "Just a few months after Oskar and Brigitte came aboard."

Miri nodded. "Thanks, I was just curious."

"He still hasn't said yes about being Third Mate," Tia added. "You still have a shot at it, and my support."

Miri gave her a bemused look. After nearly two years she never expected to actually see that position come through, nor did she particularly care at the moment. "Thank you, but that's not why I'm asking."

"I figured not, but I wanted you to know." Tia shook her head. "Jim's always had a bit of a blind spot about Felix. I try not to let it get in the way of work, but there are times it frustrates me."

"I'd imagine so." Miri set the reader down on the nearby table and stood. "Rec room is yours. I've got a watch to stand."

"We'll be jumping to your secret base soon," Tia noted. "At least we can be safe there."

"As safe as we can ever get, anyway." With that said, Miri left the rec room, leaving Tia to her book and her thoughts.

Breach of Duty

While she was due on the bridge shortly, Miri decided to head somewhere else first. She entered the living hall of the ship and knocked at a closed hatch with the electronic display showing the name "F. Rothbard" beside it. The door opened on a verbal command from within.

Inside, Felix was seated on his bed, a bottle of what looked like New Virginia bourbon whiskey on the nightstand and a half-finished shot glass in his left hand. He glanced at her and smiled thinly. "Just soothing my nerves," he began. "Everything all right, Miri?"

"Given our situation?" She chuckled softly and took the empty chair in the room, bringing it up to be at the foot of the bed before sitting in it. "It's stressful for everyone. But you're taking it worse. Did your father's remarks truly hurt that much?"

"They shouldn't," Felix mumbled. "My old man's a piece of work. I think the only reason he didn't belt Jules and me as kids was that Uncle Charlie would've found out and belted him."

"I didn't know."

"Dad's life didn't turn out the way he wanted. He thought he could've risen further in the CDF, but even with the war, he didn't. So he saw us as his way to make up for it." A quiet, bitter look came to Felix. "I was already at Halsey when his war service was over and they retired him. Which is CDF speak for 'you can't cut it,' so it really pissed him off due to it being wartime. Next thing I know, he's taking a significant interest in my career. Always bugging me about my performance evals and promotions."

"You were his stand-in."

Felix nodded. "Yeah. I let him do it too. Kept the heat off Jules when he refused to do more than his draft term so he could go to divinity school. Thought he could do more as a preacher, and he was right, but Dad… Dad only barely accepted the choice."

The matter appeared to be a sensitive one for Felix, yet Miri felt something was off. Given everything going on, old family problems alone didn't strike her as the most likely cause of Felix's behavior. Her training kicked in. Something about the way he spoke, the look on his face, told her Felix was holding back. She considered her next words carefully. "He wasn't happy when you were thrown out of the CDF, I imagine?"

Felix's face turned red as he turned to her and glared.

Miri met the glare quietly, not yielding but not pressing either. Her response was clear. She knew there was more to this, had an idea of the problem, and she wouldn't be scared off that understanding. But neither would she press for him to explain.

Felix's glare turned to a sardonic grin. "Yeah, I'm wound up, and it's not just dear old Dad mouthing off to reporters. This situation made me go into my past when I didn't want to."

"You mean your contacts in the CDF."

He pursed his lips together. "Not everyone agreed with my cashiering. So when I ask them important questions, they try to answer me if they can. Of course, that means things get talked about. Old stuff I don't want brought up." His eyes met hers again, this time in sympathy. "I'm sure you understand what I mean."

"I do," Miri said, thinking of Lowery. Of Christopher Tobay and Annette Zens, and their terrible deaths on the gallows, and all the other people she betrayed to fulfill her mission of infiltration by submission to the League. The old memories were painful to touch and yet they were always there, waiting for her to be burnt by them anew.

Which, she suspected, was precisely why Felix brought them up.

She checked her watch. "I'd better get to the bridge. I hope you rest, Felix, and be careful with that." She pointed to the bottle.

"I'll be fine," Felix replied. "I always manage."

The conversation was over, so Miri said nothing else as she departed.

Breach of Duty

Once her drives were ready, Shadow Wolf made her final jump back to NW-3-11. She emerged from the wormhole with Miri in the command seat and Piper at the helm. Vidia sat at Piper's usual station, observing the Wolf's sensors.

While Piper put the ship on course back to the Masada redoubt, Henry walked in. Miri stood and moved over to Tia's vacant place, allowing him his seat. "How does it look?" he asked.

"System's as empty as before," Piper noted. "I'm burning us back in."

A few moments passed before Vidia spoke up. "I'm pickin' up an exhaust trace on the sensors."

Henry didn't like the sound of that. "What can you tell me?"

"Looks like one ship, small size. A yacht or personal transport. Or a bigger ship with an exhaust reservoir, I suppose. Their course takes them ta the redoubt."

Henry glanced at Miri. "Any idea who it could be?"

"The knowledge of these outposts is light. And if our contacts are…" She stopped speaking as her attention was drawn by a light and electronic tone from Tia's station. "We've got an incoming message from the redoubt."

"ID?"

"It claims to be from Hale. It's a report from CDF Intelligence Analysis."

"Let me see it." Henry waited for Miri to relay it to his chair's viewer. The viewer popped up, a screen of pure light with text showing on it. It was an official finding for a secret analysis of logs.

Logs from the Solzhenitsyn—and the Laffey.

As Henry looked over the findings, he felt his gut clench. Realization at the betrayal he'd suffered that day became horror at what it meant. "Get us to the redoubt, now," he ordered as he rose from his chair. "Miri, with me!" He drew his charge pistol and rushed for the door.

Miri, somewhat stunned, pulled her sidearm and followed.

Henry checked the galley, weapon drawn, frightening Xu in the process. Tia stared at him with shock when he did the same thing to the rec room. But Henry paid them no heed. He stopped at the infirmary and found Mueller with Snow while Oskar was resting on another bed. They stared at him with shock, but he ignored them, moving astern and scared beyond belief of what he knew, deep down, was happening.

He arrived at the door to Engineering and found it stuck. He tapped at the key to open it, and it didn't. Miri came up, Tia and Mueller and Xu trailing behind, while Henry pulled the panel open and hit the emergency release on the door. The emergency system forced the doors open with a magnetic pull, allowing them entry into Engineering. Miri brought her pistol up as Henry already had his, entering behind him.

They found Samina first. Blood trickled at the back of her head where she was sprawled out, unconscious. Pieter was nearby, an eye going black and similarly motionless against his panel. Sparks crackled and sizzled from the open heart of the ship's Lawrence drive in the middle of the chamber. Henry went to the edge of the opening and pointed his gun down. Anger vibrated in his voice as he spoke. "The logs weren't faked. You were working for Erhart all along."

The answer from inside the drive came immediately. "Yes," replied Janine Renner, her hands coming up from the torn wiring and broken pieces of the jump drive. She raised them in surrender. "I was."

Xu and Mueller stared at her in shock. "What have you done, Renner?" Xu shouted in disbelief. Nearby, Tia was bent over Samina while Miri went to check on Pieter.

"What I was ordered to," Renner replied woodenly.

Yanik appeared at the door next.

"Get them to the infirmary!" Henry shouted. "And get her to a hold!"

"It's too late, sir," Renner said, and it sounded genuine. "I'm sorry."

There was a crackle on the intercom. "Jim, ya'd better get back up here!" Vidia called out. Henry's gut wrenched in fear. "CDF vessels just jumped inta the system. They're on an intercept course!"


26

Henry left the others, and Yanik, Miri, and Brigitte, to finish cleaning up in Engineering. He and Tia rushed back to the bridge and arrived just after Cera. Piper was at her station now, and Vidia was in the rear. "Get to Yanik and see what you can do," Henry ordered him as he sat down.

Vidia nodded and left.

"Looks like two destroyers and two frigates," Piper said. "Range is at two-hundred thousand kilometers and decreasing. I'm picking up power to their forward weapons."

"Sir, I can make th' jump zone before they intercept," Cera said.

"No, it wouldn't matter," Henry replied. "We've been sabotaged."

Piper stared at him in shock. "What?"

"Renner. She's been working for Erhart all along." Henry couldn't keep the pain from his voice at the betrayal of it all. No wonder the CDF didn't believe me. Erhart made sure his side looked on the up and up. Nobody figured Renner lied about what he was ordering.

"We can't fight these odds," Tia reminded him. "And we can't jump. What do we do?"

"Miri says the redoubt has a lockdown feature. We trigger it and it'll stop accepting entry codes," Henry said. "Our only hope is to get inside first and hope we can get the evidence out to someone who believes us."

"We'll never make it t' th' planetoid, Captain," Cera said. "Not without…"

"Trigger the fusion drives. Get us some space."

Cera nodded. Within seconds, she'd triggered the system. The entire crew felt it as their ship's acceleration started overpowering the inertial compensator field.

As the rate of Gs started going past 2.5, Piper said, "They're going to full burn. We're not getting a lot of space opened up."

"We just have to get there fast enough to get inside and trigger the lockdown."

As the seconds passed and the Gs became painful, the distance opened slowly. Piper soon called out, "Missiles inbound! Lead destroyer has fired a missile volley, sir."

"Maybe we can hurt them with the neutron cannon," Tia said. "Those frigates'll go down." When Henry didn't respond, she added, "Jim, they're shooting at us."

The missiles, which could out-accelerate anything, given the lack of passengers, closed the distance on the Shadow Wolf. As they reached terminal range, the Shadow Wolf's auto-turrets opened fire, filling their approach vectors with projectiles. One by one, they blew up or were torn apart.

"A warning shot," Henry said, even as his lungs felt like they were trying to wrap against his spine. "All it was."

"The next won't be," Tia countered.

"Distance is back t' two hundred thousand," Cera said.

"Jim, we'll never make it back to the redoubt; it's too far!" Tia intoned, her voice pleading.

"We have to try!" Even as he said the words, Henry knew that wasn't the real reason. The sentiment inside of him was clear. I don't want to kill any more of these people. They're not responsible. They're soldiers doing their jobs.

"Distance is now two hundred and ten thousand," Cera reported.

"They're firing again!"

Another salvo of missiles came in, this one twice the size of the first. As they raced ahead to envelop the Shadow Wolf, Cera started to maneuver. She was striking the delicate balance of not surrendering all of their velocity toward their destination while keeping the missiles' approach vectors more complicated and buying more time for the auto-turrets to engage.

"Lead destroyer is sending us a message," Tia said. "'The next salvo will be a full strike. Surrender.'"

An answer formed in Henry's mind.

It never made it to his lips, though.

The entire ship shuddered slightly, and the G-forces went away. Cera's board showed red lights on one panel. "Sir, we've lost th' fusion drive! Manifold failure!"

Henry closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. "It's over," he sighed.

"We can still fight," Tia insisted.

"They'll blow us to bits," Henry pointed out. "And with full burn, they'll get to us long before we can make the redoubt."

Tia faced him with a stern look. "I've heard enough of Lambert's Lament. I'd rather die, Jim," she replied, her voice fierce.

"Can't we just show them the evidence we have?" asked Piper. "Maybe—"

"They'll never listen," Henry crossed his arms in front of him. "Even if they're not Erhart's people. We're suspected traitors and League agents; anything we have or say will be considered misdirection."

Another light showed on Tia's console. Given her likely state of mind, Henry wasn't surprised that she didn't bother screening the call. She hit the key to put it on the main viewer. The man who appeared had an olive complexion, with dark brown hair and light green eyes. His face was clean shaven to regulation, and the rank insignia was that of a major. Henry recognized the man's choice of a faith patch, the colorful Coptic Christian cross with Coptic lettering on the corners. "This is Major Ramzi Tawadros of the CSV Madison Washington to vessel Shadow Wolf. Please, don't make me destroy you. If you surrender, you'll be treated well and given a fair trial."

"I've not had the best experience with 'fair trials' in the CDF, Major," Henry remarked.

"I'm well aware of your case, but this isn't going to help anything, Major Henry," Tawadros answered. "Please, for the sake of your crew, surrender. You have one minute to answer." He tapped at something off-screen. All audio cut over the line.

Henry was impressed. He'd expected a gung-ho commander who would allow only a perfunctory chance to give up before blowing them into dust, given what happened to the Dante. Tawadros seemed genuinely interested in a peaceful surrender.

Tia shook her head at him with a frown that said it all. Cera matched her, saying, "I'd rather meet St. Peter an' do my time in Purgatory, Captain."

It was Piper who was not interested in a last stand. "He seems reasonable," she said. "Maybe when he sees the evidence—"

"It won't matter," Henry said. "It's not his decision to make. The CBI is eating out of Erhart's hand right now. We'll all end up in prison."

"I'll shoot to kill," Tia vowed. "I'm not going into anyone's cell."

"Bollocks t' that!" Cera agreed.

As the seconds ticked away, Henry's face fell. They were caught dead to rights. There was nothing he could do about it. He couldn't save the others from the consequences of their rescue on New Virginia. Maybe Samina and Vidia, but they'll throw Oskar and Brig away just for being League. They're not official defectors.

He clung to a small hope that maybe the CBI would look at the evidence. Perhaps Miri's contacts would come through. Maybe they could walk away. Maybe we don't have to die.

The audio came back on. Tawadros appraised Henry carefully. "What's your choice, Major? No more waiting."

Henry bit into his lip. It was his nightmare all over again. He could fight to the bitter end, taking his crew down with him, or he could surrender. Give up to the superior power. After all, he wasn't CDF anymore. He was a civilian captain, a contractor. This was business. You didn't fight to the bitter end in business. You stopped throwing good money after bad and took the hit. But you'll go into a hole, and they might never let you out.

"TAO, firing point procedures, magnetic cannons and neutron beams, Shadow Wolf," Tawadros said. His voice didn't waver. "Shoot on my mark."

It was a pressure tactic, and Henry felt it keenly. All of these lives in his hands. Did he dare get them all killed out of… what? Stubbornness? Refusal to accept defeat? Again, the words Erhart broke him with, the words he'd used on Lamar, came to mind. Sometimes you just admitted defeat and did what you could.

Tia shook her head. Her gray eyes blazed like storm clouds. She wouldn't surrender. She'd fight, unless he subdued her. And he knew that'd be as harsh a betrayal of her as Renner's had been of him.

A female voice with a Spanish-Granadian accent spoke over the line. "Firing solution set, sir."

"Shoot in ten seconds." Again the pressure tactic. Tawadros was almost pleading for him to surrender now, given the tone of his voice. "Nine, eight, seven—"

Henry felt the thought again. Surrender; it's the only hope for your crew.

"Hold your fire!"

Henry thought that was his voice for a moment, just a moment, before he heard the footfall on the deck. Before his mind recognized the accent, the tone.

Felix stepped up beside him. Much to Henry's surprise, Felix was in a khaki CDF uniform. "To whom am I speaking?" he asked.

Tawadros blinked. Apparent confusion showed on his face. "Colonel?"

"I asked for your name. Please answer, Major," Felix said sternly.

Everyone else was staring. Tia's jaw hung open. Henry realized after a moment his was too, and he forced it shut. His eyes found the rank insignia on Felix's uniform. It was, indeed, the golden bird of a colonel.

"Major Ramzi Tawadros. Of the Madison Washington." Tawadros's voice found some steel again. "Whoever you are, I'm under orders to—"

"I have an idea what your orders are, Major," Felix said, his voice firm but not condescending or arrogant. "However, they're interfering in an official intelligence operation, so I've got new ones for you. I answer directly to General Levi Ostrovsky, CDF Intelligence, and as of this moment, so do you. My authorization code is Bravo Sierra Tango Tango X-Ray three three nine eight. You go put that into your system, Major, and call me back."

For a moment, Henry wondered just what Tawadros would do. As bluffs went, this was bold but pointless. Nevertheless, Tawadros did mute the line again.

The assembled watched in silence. Cera turned in her chair and smiled at Felix. "Clever idea, Felix, but a bit late. They've got us dead t' rights."

Henry watched the weak smile form in response on Felix's face. It didn't make his feelings any better. He felt a sense of bizarre detachment to the entire situation, as if the entire galaxy was meaningless save the look in his old friend's eyes. A terrible feeling came to him, a sense that he wanted it just to be a desperate stratagem, even if that put them right back into their hopeless situation.

Felix, for his part, said and did nothing more. He stood beside Henry as if the ship was his, hands at his back like a CO dealing patiently with a slow subordinate.

Henry heard the feed kick back in and turned his attention to the main screen again. Tawadros was looking at them as if the galaxy had gone mad.

Then he spoke, and Henry felt the same way.

"Colonel Rothbard, your code authenticates," said Tawadros. The Coptic man spoke as if a lump was in his throat. He couldn't believe what he was saying. "We're standing down and awaiting further orders."

Felix drew in a very short sigh and nodded. "For now, Major, you're under CDF Intelligence command and are part of a highly classified operation. Because of the nature of this op, you will observe strict comms silence until otherwise ordered. Remain on system patrol while we check up on the status of a classified facility in this system. You'll receive further orders as the situation dictates."

Henry saw the uncertainty flicker in Tawadros' eyes. Here he had a ship that attacked and disabled a CDF transport, and suddenly, he was told it was part of a sanctioned operation? Nobody would like that.

It was apparent Felix noticed as well. "Major, none of us are happy about what happened to the Dante. But we're dealing with a conspiracy inside of the service and possibly extending to other agencies. The prisoners aboard Dante are instrumental in uncovering it. One day, I'll stand before God and be judged for it, but until then, we all have duties to see to."

Tawadros nodded. He still didn't like it, but he accepted Felix's argument. "Understood, Colonel. Madison Washington out." He made a cutting gesture in the air with his fingers and disappeared from the main viewer.

All attention on the bridge, including Henry's, was now on Felix. He looked to each of their faces and back to that of Vidia, now at the bridge exit. Henry saw his Adam's apple bob a little from swallowing. "I'll explain later," he said. "Right now, we should get back to the redoubt. Colonel Hale should be there by now, and we've got other business to worry about."

Henry didn't respond. He couldn't pull his eyes from Felix. He searched his friend's expression, desperately looking for—what was he looking for? What else could this be but what it was? But it couldn't be that. It couldn't. Because if it was…

"Captain." Tia focused her eyes on him, and her voice was firm, forcing his attention. "Are we going back to the planetoid?"

Right now, Henry wasn't sure what he was doing, or what was going on, but this was something he could grasp and process. Whatever else, the planetoid was now a safe spot, a base. Somewhere they could see to repairs and their wounded. He nodded. "Cera, take us in, best thrust. Have Miri ready to send the code when we're in range."

"Aye, sir," Cera said, tearing her eyes from Felix and back to her board.

Henry stood. "On plasma drives, we're still a few hours out. Tia, you've got the bridge. Let me know if anything's going on." He turned to Felix and his expression went cold. He felt like a knife was jabbing him in the chest. "Felix, my office. Now."


27

Time seemed to stretch into infinity in Henry's office, yet neither he nor Felix spoke. Henry couldn't as he struggled to process what he'd just seen. He saw the look of old pain and shame on Felix's face and knew he hadn't just been imagining things.

Ultimately, Henry was the first to find his voice, speaking in a gentle tone that belied the emotions roiling inside of him. "You said you were cashiered. After you made a bad call." He shook his head. "What have you been doing? Tell me the truth."

The grin that slowly formed on Felix's face wasn't a happy one. "Oh, there was truth in it, Jim," he said. "That's the best kind of lie to tell, when you mix truth in. They teach that, y'know." Henry's cross expression prompted him to sigh. "I wasn't lying about your dismissal ruining my career."

"Oh?"

"I was too loud. Made it clear to everyone on the Epaminondas, and elsewhere, that I thought it was all crap." Felix's little grin remained, and it gained more of an edge. "Things got worse after you were out. The CDF grapevine did its work. Rumors grew you might've sabotaged the project intentionally, and were let off easy to protect General Erhart. Otherwise, you were going to drag him down with you."

"I assume that didn't do you any favors."

"It didn't," Felix confirmed. "Cost me comrades, to tell the truth. I refused to recognize 'what you were,' so it made me suspect." There was anger and frustration in his voice. "I started getting turned down for promotion. Colonel Ushiba would put my name up for consideration, and I'd get turned down, over and over again. Everyone knew I thought you were innocent, and that I'd say so. In '48, Ushiba got promoted and Colonel Kess got the promotion to CO. Told me the next day to pack my things, he was transferring me. Didn't want me 'disrupting the command staff's chemistry,' as he put it."

Henry took in a breath. So far, Felix's story was panning out to what he figured it'd be. "You were so proud when you got the assignment. Where'd they put you?"

"Shore duty. Layton Shipyards out Coreward, running trials on the new destroyers coming off the line. The ones with Kalling's new drives." Felix shook his head. "I kept angling for command, but it never came. By '50, I was ready to call it quits. I'd served my time in the war, and the CDF didn't want me anymore."

"But you didn't."

"No." Felix shook his head. "Had a spot of luck, one might say. I was reassigned to ship security on the Themistocles. Service made it clear it'd probably be my last posting. We ended up getting called to a neutral world, Starfall, to pick up a CDF Intel team that got in over its head."

Henry nodded. He'd been to Starfall himself a few times. It was a hodgepodge of small city-states and warlords in the open areas. The planet was named because the solar system's thick asteroid belt crossed its orbit, causing frequent meteor showers while complicating the approaches. "They let you in on an intel op despite everything?"

"Border patrols were out of position dealing with a pirate raid. Mine was the only ship close enough to extract the team, and I was in charge of the Marine detachment as well as the ship's MPs and security personnel." Felix's grin took on another edge. "Lucky me."

"Oh?"

"I won't bore you with the details. Suffice to say the planet was in the belt when we arrived, so the cruiser couldn't go in. We had to fly shuttles in to get our people out, and I led the teams personally. The intel team was trapped by a local warlord's army. He'd been armed by the League, and our people found out. The hard way. Cost me half of my landing team, but I made the right calls, took fire to inspire everyone, and we got our people out with the relevant evidence." Felix spoke with the air of a man who could remember the dead Marines and crew he was talking about. Henry figured he could even remember the names.

"Sounds like the kind of thing that gets you a medal."

"Ha! It cost me my post," Felix said. "Colonel Samuels dressed me down in front of the crew, accused me of trying to play a hero to get my career going. A week later, he shipped me to Canaan for re-assignment with a smile on his damn face." His look turned nasty. "I had my letter of resignation ready when I showed up at Command. Planned on handing it in to Personnel the moment I walked in. Then I found myself escorted into the Intelligence wing, straight to General Ostrovsky's office."

"Levi Ostrovsky?"

"That's the one," Felix confirmed. "He was the new head of field ops at the time, just transferred from internal security. He said he'd read the reports from Starfall, watched the armor cams, and liked what he saw. Said I had all the makings of a good field officer for CDF Intel, and he was ready to submit my name to the Colonelcy Board."

"Did he see the resignation letter?"

"No," Felix replied. "I kept it in my pocket and tore it up when I left." He shook his head. "Truth is, Jim, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life at the time. I didn't know for sure where you were, and civilian life didn't have any appeal. I knew my father would rant and rave if I left the service, and he'd pressure Jules to drop his divinity college courses and re-up. No, Ostrovsky threw me a lifeline and I grabbed it."

"And he got the board to pass you?"

"With ease," Felix said. "It surprised me too. I refused to change my mind on you, and Ostrovsky liked it. He was already suspicious of Erhart. He liked having someone around who felt the same way."

For all that Felix made it sound like a positive change, Henry could tell it wasn't. His grin, unhappy as it was, completely faded, and a haunted look came to his eyes. "So CDF Intel field ops?"

Felix nodded stiffly. "I can understand why some people believed such terrible things about you. There are those who turn while in uniform. Some of them are sociopaths the recruiters didn't catch. Some just… they lose something inside of them, Jim, and they stop caring about right and wrong. Field ops put me into contact with these people, inside and outside of the Coalition."

Felix stopped as if he didn't want to continue. Henry wasn't sure he wanted him to either, not with the things he was feeling inside about this whole thing. Everything felt twisted now.

The silence soon came to an end. "I did things… bad things, Jim. Things that gave me doubts about everything. Myself, God, everyone. But I made it work, told myself it had to be done, and as I kept going, it became easier."

Felix drew in a breath, sounding like he was covering a sigh, but Henry saw the discomfort on his face and knew what was coming up next. Still, Henry said nothing. Indeed, he couldn't trust himself to say anything right now.

"Eventually, I was asked to start working in Neutral Space. Build up our contacts against the League. Then you started coming to the attention of Ostrovsky, back in '56, I guess."

Henry put two and two together. "After Vitorino started sending me on regular runs to League space."

"Yeah. Then the whole thing on Kalahari happened. The truth was, I was barely involved in that." Felix snorted a laugh. "But it caused a fuss, and Ostrovsky saw an opportunity."

"Your dismissal?"

"Yeah. It was never official, but it was reported to establish my cover," Felix said. "And to set me up with you. A way for me to get around without getting too much notice."

There it was. Henry felt a twist in his heart at hearing it. At hearing the lie laid bare. His friend hadn't come to him looking for a job, a chance to work together. He'd come as an intelligence officer on a mission. "So I'm guessing you spent your time aboard working those contacts for Ostrovsky?" Henry couldn't keep his bitter feelings out of those words. "I was a ride for you?"

Felix's face fell at hearing Henry speak. "No," he said, his voice becoming hoarse. "Not just that. Yeah, I did sometimes slip off to do things for Ostrovsky, but you were never just a ride, Jim."

"Then what was I?" Seeing the look on Felix's face turn quiet, Henry put two and two together. "I was an asset to be recruited, right? That's what it was? Ostrovsky wanted me working for CDF Intel."

"That was his long-range plan. Mine was…" Felix shook his head. "Well, we both agreed on that, Jim. We both wanted you back. Back in the service, I mean, even if it was unofficial. But I didn't just want you as an asset." Felix swallowed. "You've always been a good man, Jim. You were great as a CDF officer. Erhart did the service wrong by targeting you. So I wanted to bring you home and get you back where you belong. And I wanted to be with my friend again."

Hearing it all laid out didn't help the sick feeling inside Henry. The emotions within him were reaching a terrible crescendo. He wanted to feel sorry for his friend. At the same time, a terrible pain filled him at the confirmation of Felix's deception. It felt like a betrayal of trust. Felix's protestation of wanting Henry back in the CDF seemed foolish, even self-serving, given the situation.

I'm not being fair. Henry was letting the fresh wound of Renner's betrayal get mixed up with these feelings and issues with Felix. The two were completely different things, yet he couldn't quite pull them apart.

Finally, a question formed that he could let himself ask. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"

Felix pursed his lips together. "A fair question." He swallowed again. "I just couldn't figure out how to, Jim. I always knew at some point I might have to, but I've spent three and a half years trying to come up with a way, and I never have. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry you had to find out this way."

"So your so-called contacts was you calling Ostrovsky?"

Felix nodded. "Yeah, busted on that one, Jim. His people have been keeping me in the loop since Erhart started the arrests. That he's gone this far means whatever he's been working towards, it's going to happen soon. And whatever it is, it can't be good."

"It won't be," Henry agreed. He stood up. "We'll talk more later. Right now, I want to see how Pieter and Samina are doing."

"I'll get back to the bridge in case more of Erhart's dupes show up," Felix said. "My codes will make them back down."

"You do that." With those final words, Henry left his office.

Breach of Duty

There was a solemn quiet in the infirmary of the Shadow Wolf. All three of Oskar's beds were taken up since Pieter and Samina had joined Snow as his patients. He was gently applying a medical solution to the bruised portion of Pieter's head. "Does that feel better?"

Pieter seemed to consider it. "Yes," he answered. "It doesn't hurt so much."

"That's good. It looks like you got away from a more severe injury, Pieter."

The door slid open. Henry entered and glanced at Oskar. His expression briefly flickered with something like relief at seeing Pieter sitting up and conscious. But Oskar could see the look in his eyes was intense while he struggled to keep a neutral expression on his face. From this, he feared the Captain's emotions were volatile; no surprise, given everything that was happening.

"How are they?" Henry asked.

"Pieter here seems to have gotten off light," Oskar replied. "The head injury was superficial. Barely sufficient to knock him unconscious. Give him a day and I'll check to make sure there are no signs of greater damage."

Henry nodded. His eyes went toward Samina where she was lying on a bed, her head wrapped up. Oskar saw the rage form in Henry's eyes. "Samina?"

Oskar sighed and turned back to the unconscious girl. "Likely a concussion," he said. "She was struck at a dangerous angle by a blunt object. A little more force would have broken through the skull and made the damage worse." He saw the growing anger on Henry's face and didn't like it. The situation was already too stressful for the Captain, in his view. "I can treat her more extensively in the redoubt infirmary, but either way, she'll need rest."

Henry's lips pressed together, and he nodded. "Keep me informed," he said. Without another word, he walked out. Oskar swallowed at seeing Henry's hands balled into fists.

Pieter let out a breath. "He looks like he's ready to murder someone," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen him so angry."

"You may be right, my friend," Oskar said quietly. "The stress of this entire situation has deeply affected him. I suspect it won't get better any time soon."

Breach of Duty

The deck plates of the Shadow Wolf's lower deck did nothing to hide the sound of Henry's boots as he followed one of the intra-hold corridors toward the port side. He smacked his hand on a button for the middle hold along the port of the ship. The door didn't open, but after several seconds, a voice came through. "Identify yourself," said Yanik.

"It's me, Yanik," Henry began. "Let me in."

After a few moments, the door slid open. Henry entered the hold. It was mostly empty save for a couple of stacks of equipment they'd picked up from the redoubt. At one of the benches along the side of the hold Vidia was seated, looking toward Renner on an adjacent bench. Cabling from their stores was wrapped tightly around her wrists and ankles. She glanced toward him and her eyes fell. She couldn't make eye contact.

Henry didn't know what he was going to do as he took his first steps toward her. With every step, he felt his anger at their impossible situation grow. The sense of betrayal he felt within burned hotter every moment he saw Renner, while in his mind, Felix's deception pressed that feeling ever more strongly. He'd been lied to for years. Lied to by someone he sacrificed dignity to save. Lied to by a friend near and dear to his heart.

It wasn't just the lies and deception. This situation filled Henry with fear and frustration. The entire Coalition wanted him buried in Lambert's Lament now, just as the League wanted him dead. He'd come to honor his Uncle Charlie by saying goodbye. Instead, he'd been ripped from Charlie's deathbed by Erhart's machinations. To clear his name and uphold his obligations, he'd been compelled to fire on a CDF ship. To kill CDF crewmen and officers. People he once called brothers and sisters in arms, and now their blood was on his hands. He may not have wanted it done that way, but he'd given the orders. He'd authorized the shot. Those deaths were on him.

All of this together was too much. Henry couldn't contain the fury he felt at it all, and now he finally had someone worthy of it in front of him. He finished his final step up to Renner and brought his right arm up in a strong right hook. As his fist smashed into her cheek and nose, cartilage broke from the force of the blow. Pain shot up his hand while a spray of blood and a yelp resulted in the second before Renner fell backward and hit the floor.

She barely had a chance to stare up at him with wild eyes before Henry's left foot struck her in the belly. A wheeze came from her throat as the blow drove the air out of her chest.

And yet Henry's fury wasn't satiated. He leaned down to throw another punch. But a taloned hand rushed in and gripped his wrist with enough force to stop his blow in its tracks. "No, Captain," Yanik said, his voice an urgent hiss. "This is fury speaking. Rage. You have more honor than this. It is unworthy of you to strike an unarmed prisoner."

Henry wanted very much to throw the Saurian off of him and get back to punching Renner. Vidia was on his other arm a moment later, holding it back, complicating any attempt to do so. Stuck between the two men, unable to land another blow, Henry's rage burned alone for a time. His glare sufficed to communicate his feelings and Renner faced them with a blank, lost expression.

Once Henry was quiet for long enough, Vidia moved away and reached down to get to Renner. He pulled her back to her feet and onto the bench. Henry's blow showed on her face. He'd split her lip, creating a thin blood trickle there, and thick crimson fluid flowed freely from her broken nose.

Yet his anger wasn't spent. His voice was loud with it when he spoke, demanding, "Why'd you do it?"

Renner gave him that same blank stare, as if to ask what he meant.

"The Laffey was your fault," he continued. "You relayed the wrong orders to make me think Erhart ordered the drives to full! You tricked me and caused the disaster to happen! You cost Soto and your other shipmates their lives! I know he wanted it that way for some reason, so you owe me a damn answer! And you owe me more for sabotaging my ship and hurting my crew! Why, if you'd killed any of 'em, I'd be spacing your ass right now!"

Renner slowly nodded. The blood from her nose was now following the contour of her lip. "Yes, I do owe you," she said in the tone of a person utterly defeated, her voice distorted by the broken nose. She swallowed. "I have a younger brother, Samuel. He's, well, he's… different. Not simple, but mentally he's a little dull, and very sensitive about it. He's easily bullied and not very sociable. All he ever really wants to do is draw pictures."

Given the look Henry knew was on his face, it was no wonder that Renner faltered for a moment. She continued. "Ever since the war started, I was terrified he'd be drafted one day. You know what it's like in the military. How enlisted people behave. He couldn't be a soldier. He'd never make it through training. I only felt better when the local board examined him and declared him unfit for duty. He didn't make the mental requirements."

Henry thought he could see where this was going. It gave him the patience to wait for the point to come.

Renner swallowed as if remembering a nightmare. "Then, about sixteen years ago, the rules changed. The CDF needed warm bodies and relaxed the standards. So they reexamined him. I thought for sure he still wouldn't meet those standards. I'd been accepted into Officer Candidate School early, and I'd just earned my commission. I came home on leave to learn Sam was being drafted. He could barely meet the mental requirements, but they didn't care. He was a warm body to plug in somewhere. I begged and pleaded with the local draft board to reexamine him, but they refused. They even had me written up for it. I was presenting a bad example, they said. They didn't care when I showed them his first letters about how he was being treated. The drill sergeants kept breaking him down into tears and punishing him. He begged me to get him out and I was doing everything I could. It just wasn't enough."

"Draft boards don't care, usually," Vidia remarked. "They have their quotas an' they're gonna make 'em."

"They just saw it as Sam needed to toughen up. If necessary, they'd just make him go through more of it until he did." Old anger appeared in her eyes. "I know the war's been bad, and we needed everyone who could serve, but Sam wasn't fit. He never was."

"I'm guessing Erhart stepped in right about here?" Henry said.

She nodded. "After my leave, I was assigned to his testing command. He saw the written reprimand on my record and 'made inquiries.' Told me to do my job and leave my brother to him." A bitter look came over her face. "At first, I was ecstatic. I mean, General Erhart, trying to make sure my brother was okay, to take care of my concerns like that? I couldn't believe I'd made such a good impression, but I was desperate and didn't think about it."

"I doubt you're the first," Henry said. His voice was down to a simmer as his anger slowly receded.

Renner licked her lip involuntarily, spreading blood around. "A week after I talked to Erhart, I got a letter from Sam. He'd been given a special dispensation from boot. They'd found a place for him in the auxiliaries, doing graphic design. All he'd have to do was draw what he was told to draw, and he'd be left alone." Her voice cracked. "I thought my prayers had been answered."

"Erhart pulled strings, and I'm betting he told you he could pull them the other way," Henry remarked.

"I found that out after he put me on the Laffey," Renner said. She pursed her lips. "He laid it out for me. If he gave a certain order, I was to say the exact opposite. And if something happened, I'd take the blame without saying a word. I didn't understand why, but he said it was because certain things had to be done to win the war, and he couldn't let the Peace Union or the defense contractors tear him down before he'd accomplished them. At first, I… I protested. I said I couldn't set people up to die and cover up for him. He told me right then and there that if I didn't, Sam was going into the Marines. That he'd see to it personally."

Henry balled his fists. Betrayal still burned inside of him, but now it was warring with sympathy. Erhart had played her just as he played everyone else. "So you went along with it."

"I had to protect Sam," Renner said. "I had to protect my little brother. So I did what I was told. And during the Laffey testing, Erhart used the reversal wording, so I told you he ordered full burn."

"Why did he blame the Captain, then?" Yanik asked. "If you were to take the blame."

"I wasn't told why," Renner said. "My instructions were to insist on the orders being given for full burn. I thought for sure I'd be blamed. That the logs from the two ships would be compared and I'd be the one accused of sabotage. But it never happened. They went after Henry and not me."

Henry swallowed and flexed his hands. "I'd protested," he said. "I went to Barton, Faulkner, and everyone with Captain Soto's concerns, pushing for them to be acknowledged. I could prove that Faulkner knew of the flaw well before the test and pushed the test anyway. But if I'm the bad guy, if I'm the saboteur, everything I say becomes suspect. Faulkner could continue to claim he had no reasonable expectation of the flaw. He wouldn't have any fault. Just me." Henry's expression went blank from growing rage. "Erhart destroyed my career to protect Faulkner and himself."

Renner nodded. "Since then, I've been his agent," she said.

"Even when your brother left the CDF?"

She shook her head. "Sam kept getting picked for wartime retention. He didn't see combat, so he wasn't able to file for release from stop loss. He didn't mind either because he liked drawing for a living. He didn't know they were holding him over my head like that." Renner sighed. "So I had to keep doing what Erhart wanted. He encouraged me to continue my communications training. And since I got so good at it, I was noticed by CDF Intelligence. The moment he knew they were looking to transfer me in, Erhart ordered me to accept."

"So he could have a spy inside of CDF Intelligence," Vidia observed.

Renner nodded. "Since I worked comms at HQ, I had access to a lot of material. Whenever Intel came close to something Erhart didn't want them to know, I'd tip him off and he'd outmaneuver them in a way to keep my cover intact." She shrugged. "Now we're all here in this hold."

"What's going on, then?" Henry asked. "Why did Erhart order everyone arrested?"

"I honestly don't know," Renner insisted. "The only thing he told me was to stay in touch with Hale. He was going to have us both picked up. But she never showed to our rendezvous, and CBI got me alone. Then Erhart called me and told me to be ready in case you rescued us. He had someone on the Dante plant a micro-QET tracker on me so his ships could follow you if I were rescued. I was to sabotage you so you could get caught. "

"And you could have killed my Engineer's Mate," Henry said, bitterness reentering his voice. "You almost did."

"I know, and I'm sorry, but I can't hurt my brother." She shook her head before directing her tear-filled eyes at Henry. "God forgive me, but I've given everything for Sam. My honor, my self-respect. My future. And you know this has to be big, Captain Henry. Erhart's burning bridges now. Whatever he's planning, it's going to happen soon."

"You should testify," Yanik said. "Atone for your dishonor by speaking the truth to your people. Reveal Erhart's duplicity."

She shook her head. "I can't risk my brother's life and happiness. I can't. He shouldn't suffer for this."

"Neither should my crew," Henry retorted.

There was no answer to his words. Renner bit her lip and lowered her head. She appeared to be done talking.

Henry was too. He'd heard enough. "Good job," he said to Yanik and Vidia. "There are confinement cells on the redoubt. We'll put her in one until this mess is sorted out."

"Yes, Captain," Yanik said. "We will remain with her until then."


28

From a lonely place in the planetoid's command center, Hale watched with fear, despair, and then surprise as the Madison Washington and her force bore down on the Shadow Wolf. Once they fired on her, then suddenly backed off and assumed a system patrol course, her mind ran wild. The systems of the redoubt noted active communication between the ships, but it was a direct communication and she couldn't overhear it. Is Colonel Henry working for CDF Intel or CIS? Or does he have someone aboard who is? How did he talk them down?

She was about to find out.

Hale was waiting, in uniform, as the Shadow Wolf eased into a dock not far from where she'd left the Starlight Guide. She noticed the ship appeared undamaged on the outside, so at least those inside were likely okay.

The starboard airlock opened up. The first person out was a woman of tanned complexion in a spacer's jumpsuit. She noted Hale's presence and nodded. "A moment, Colonel," she said, her accent distinctly Hebrew.

A stretcher emerged. On it was a young woman, young enough that Hale figured she was no older than twenty-one, unconscious with her head tightly bandaged. A middle-aged man guided it through the door and around Hale, who paled a little at the sight of someone so young being so badly hurt.

She flashed back to the Saladin after the fight for the League's Unity Station and a sickbay full of kids of similar age, some with sheets over them, killed in a battle she pushed them through.

By the time she forced herself from the reverie, Henry was stepping out. Behind him came Xu, Mueller, and Snow, the latter in a medical gown with a wound-care patch visible near her left shoulder blade. Relief filled Hale at the sight of her old comrades, tinged with instinctive anger at seeing Snow's injury.

As for Henry himself, he seemed worn, the creases in his brow rendered deep by stress and a weathered look to his face. While it'd only been sixteen years since the day she'd last seen him, he seemed at least twenty years older.

And it was easy for her to know why. After all, she remembered the day vividly, the way he stared ahead into space as Colonel Serrano ripped the epaulets from his uniform, tore off his rank insignia, his medals, and ribbons. She recalled the way the older officer had contemptuously knocked Henry's cover from his head and then broke Henry's officer sword on his knee, filling Flusser Square with the clatter of the broken blade and hilt hitting the ground. His harsh words as he read out the sentence of dismissal from the CDF, bidding Henry to leave and never return.

It was a terrible memory. The injustice of it had burned then. It still did. The CDF had destroyed an outstanding officer, a good man, at the word of a corrupt officer living on his past successes.

It was in gleeful defiance toward Serrano's declarations that day that Hale brought her hand up in a salute to her former CO. "Colonel Henry, sir," she said. "An honor to see you again."

Immediately, she regretted it. She'd wanted to honor him, but from the way his brow creases deepened and his eyes tightened, she knew she'd hurt him. It disappeared quickly, perhaps in reference to her reaction to it, and a small smile formed on Henry's face. His right hand came up, not in a return salute, but rather to extend toward her. She recognized the gesture and released her hand from its salute so she could accept the handshake. "It's just Captain Henry now, Colonel Hale," Henry said politely. His voice had a new weight to it, but it was still firm.

Hale's cheeks burned with an embarrassed blush. "Sorry, Captain. It's just… I always felt your dismissal was an injustice to you and everyone on the Laffey. I've wanted to salute you since that day."

"I understand, Colonel."

Hale glanced back to where the girl on the stretcher was just now disappearing through the doorway leading into the redoubt. "Hiring young?"

"Normally not that young, but we had strained circumstances," he answered. "Hard to work with kids that age. I'm sure you know why."

"I do." The simple answer was all that was necessary. She had her own memories of slain teenagers, killed in only a first or second battle since entering the service. The lucky ones who died immediately, and those who had to feel death's grip closing on them as they cried for their mothers.

To keep tears from her eyes, Hale pushed those memories away and turned her attention to the others. "Congresswoman, Colonel, Major. Good to see you all."

"Colonel." Snow nodded. "I was hoping you'd get away."

"I had help. It was a close run thing." Hale shook her head. "If I hadn't gotten the confirmed logs from CDF Intel when I did, I would've been caught in a trap." She turned her eyes back to Henry. "You saw them, right? I sent them to you the moment you jumped into the system."

Henry didn't have to answer. The door opened again. A man in a CDF khaki service uniform stepped out and stood to the side, allowing Renner to pass, hands still tied behind her back. Yanik emerged behind her with his assault gun lifted. Renner's eyes moved over Hale and the others before dipping to the floor again. Yanik nudged her and she started walking along. Hale thought she saw a quiver go through Renner as she went past under the withering glare of her former Laffey comrades.

That's what you get. The days since she'd seen the logs and realized how close she was to capture hadn't dulled her anger at Renner.

"She assaulted my engineers," Henry said. "Might've killed Samina if she'd hit her a little harder. All so she could disable our jump drive so we couldn't escape while she led them to us. We already found the micro-QET planted on her and disabled it."

Hale's expression darkened. "Then Erhart knows where we are. What if he sends reinforcements?"

"Not likely," the man in uniform said.

Hale noticed the wince on Henry's face that her old CO quickly forced away. He glanced back at the man. "That's Felix Rothbard," he explained. "An old friend of mine I invited aboard, and apparently a Colonel in CDF Intel."

The "apparently" made clear what Henry was saying. The way the officer looked away clinched the explanation for Hale's sake. She lowered her eyes and pushed down the awkwardness she felt rising over the situation.

Henry decided not to go into it. "Despite everything, it's good to see you, Colonel Hale."

"And likewise you, Captain."

"You've still got all that evidence, right?" asked Snow.

Hale nodded. "Copies, at least. But we should probably head elsewhere to talk. It sounds like we've all got a lot to catch up on."

Breach of Duty

Pieter's head still hurt from the injury when he made it back to Engineering. The sight of his jump drive pulled open and her guts torn out made him want to take an autospanner to the saboteur's skull more than his own injury did. Brigitte and Piper were inside of it, going over the damaged parts with a mound of intact cabling and wiring nearby. Brigitte looked up at Pieter with fury still in her eyes. "Pieter," she said. "Good to see you're vertical, at least."

"No thanks to that…" Pieter let his sentence trail off so he wouldn't use words he knew better than to use. "How's it look?"

"Well, she didn't know what she was doing," Piper said. "Not that I know any better."

"The sabotage is crude stuff. She just yanked and cut things." Brigitte threw a bundle of cut wires onto the deck and reached for an intact set. "Two minutes of pulling what she could, and we'll spend two hours putting in new wiring. We should make her do it."

"That would be fair," Pieter agreed. "Not that I'd trust her with my systems. If you ladies have that, I'll get to the stern holds and start fixing up the fusion drive. I have a bad feeling we'll be needing it."

"The way things are going? I wouldn't bet a penny against you," Piper said as she cleared more of the ripped wiring.

Brigitte wasn't quite finished yet, speaking with cold fury. "The bitch deserves to get her skull cracked like she did to poor Samina. That's the least of what she deserves for all this. The least."

"She'll be okay, Brig. Don't worry." Piper set her hand on Brigitte's shoulder, as if she could quell the anger. "Samina will be fine."

"She'd better be. I'm all for spacing Renner if Samina… you know." Brigitte's eyes filled with furious tears at the thought crossing her mind.

"You'll get no argument from me," Pieter replied. "As my Uncle Maarten put it, you reap what you sow. You hurt someone, you get hurt. Kill someone…" He stopped at that point. The truth was the Shadow Wolf crew had just participated in a fight that killed a bunch of people. It wasn't like fighting off bounty hunters like they'd been doing. They'd been decent spacers, fighting for their country, and the Shadow Wolf killed them all the same.

"Killing's a bad idea," Piper said, more toward Brigitte than Pieter. "Doesn't make us better."

"Yeah," Brigitte grumbled. "It doesn't."

Breach of Duty

The command center of the redoubt hadn't seen so many occupants since it was first commissioned. Or so Henry thought as he stood at the central display table. To his left, Hale, Xu, and Mueller were standing. To the right were Tia, Felix, and Miri. Across from him, Snow was standing with Cera and Vidia.

Hale was still talking. "Al-Lahim got me off Canaan, and CDF Intel drove off the destroyer coming out to intercept me. I got here before you returned and started waiting."

"It almost sounds like ye've got a guardian angel, Colonel," Cera observed.

"That angel's name is probably Levi Ostrovsky," Hale replied.

Mueller asked, "So you're secretly assigned to CDF Intel?"

"No. Not like that." Hale shook her head. "Ostrovsky approached me during my last time in administration, before I was CO of the Saladin. He told me he knew what I was trying to do and offered to help if I needed it. At the time, I was getting ready to go back to the fleet, so I didn't think much of it. But after Unity Station and my reassignment, well, I figured I'd get in touch."

"Why would the head of CDF Intel ask someone from a different department to join something this delicate?" Tia asked.

"Ostrovsky's flexible," Felix said. "He's more interested in results than the niceties of protocol."

"Much like Erhart," Henry mused.

"MacIntosh can be the same way." Hale smiled gently. "It's the way that whole group of officers is. The war did it to them, I think."

"It wouldn't be just that." Miri nodded to a monitor showing the cells, where Yanik was on guard duty watching the compartment they'd put Renner in. Renner was sitting on the cot, sobbing quietly. "Even if he didn't know who, I'm betting Ostrovsky knew he had a mole working for Erhart. Going outside of his command structure gave him an asset that a mole wouldn't find out so easily. Even if Erhart and Renner eventually caught on, it was worth the try."

"That's how the old man thinks," Felix agreed.

"Well, he must have been compromised anyway." Hale looked at Xu with some discomfort. "Because the timing is pretty clear. Erhart started these arrests for a reason. He must have realized I had contact with Ostrovsky, and we were getting close."

"It's not just you, Colonel." Henry shook his head. With trouble, he forced his attention to the current situation, trying not to think of Uncle Charlie. "I helped. I came back to see my uncle and it spooked him. He thought I was breaking our old deal, so he sent in the CBI. I'd almost think this was just about the Laffey, but this EF thing sounds like it could be big."

"It is." Hale pressed several keys on the central table and brought up an extensive collection of documents on the main holo-screen. Everyone turned to look at them. "He's been working on this project for ten years. I'm still going through all the procurement orders he made. I think this is why he acted, not the Laffey."

Vidia spoke up. "So the question is, what is 'EF'?"

"God knows I'd like to know," Snow said. Henry was sure her injury was still bothering her, but she remained standing and intent on the discussion. "I was first elected in '54, and I've been a member of the House Defense Committee from my first session. I've never seen anything about this 'EF,' even in closed sessions."

"Pretty impressive committee assignment for a rookie congresswoman," Felix observed.

"A rookie congresswoman who served in CDF JAG and was a known critic of the defense industry." Snow flashed him a grin before nodding to Henry. "I didn't get dismissal like you, Captain Henry, but Erhart killed my career too. All to protect Kalling. So I've been after the SOB since, with Tabitha's help."

"When I was in a position to provide it," Hale said, grinning.

Miri looked away from the screens. "Now that I think about it, I remember a couple of my superiors mentioning a project called EF while I was on the Masada Program. Nothing definite, though, just a related program solely under CDF control."

"I could call HQ and ask," Felix offered. As he spoke, a light appeared on a nearby station. Miri went over to check it. "Ostrovsky needs an update anyway, and with Renner in a cell, our comms should be secure."

"That won't be necessary," Miri said. She looked over from the station. Her widened eyes betrayed her surprise. "A Coalition cruiser, the Uriel, just jumped in-system. General Ostrovsky's aboard, and he wants to see us."

Breach of Duty

The size of the redoubt's docking area was such that the Uriel fit into one of the two largest docks. Henry and the others were assembled at the airlock, looking over the big ship. Well over seven hundred meters long, the Uriel was an Archangel-class fleet cruiser built after the initial League attack on Canaan. She'd had a few refits since, letting her keep up with the newer and better Coalition cruisers, although her mag-cannons were visibly smaller than the ones found on newer cruiser models and the spinal neutron cannon mount was closer in size to the Shadow Wolf's weapon, not those found on her successors in the battle fleet.

The airlock opened, and a squad of Marines came out in full suits of power armor. They stood to the sides as an honor guard.

Once they were in position, Ostrovsky appeared inside the airlock, wearing a khaki service uniform like Felix's. Henry pursed his lips at the sight of Felix clicking his heels and coming to attention, his right hand coming up in a salute. Hale, Xu, and Mueller did the same. Henry felt a brief urge to salute himself, the remnants of years of drilling and instinct. He realized that this was the first time he'd had a face-to-face meeting with a CDF flag officer since his court-martial.

Ostrovsky stepped up and nodded to them once. Then his hand came up in a salute. "At ease, all of you. Colonel Hale, Colonel Rothbard, you have my thanks for a job well done." Ostrovsky turned his attention to Henry. For a moment, he seemed to be preparing to offer his hand before he pulled it back. "Captain Henry."

"General Ostrovsky." Henry was polite. It was the best he could manage at the man who turned his best friend into a spy on his crew. He could see in Ostrovsky's face that the old Israeli knew precisely why Henry would be no friendlier.

Ostrovsky walked over to Miri and nodded. "Miss Gaon, my thanks for your sacrifices for the Coalition. Your actions on Lowery kept the war from turning against us, and I know it cost you a good deal in the process. Your part in the recent Lusitania business has not gone unnoticed."

"Thank you for the compliment, General. I'm aware of what an honor it is, given your reputation," Miri replied. She kept a neutral expression.

Ostrovsky's attention went to Tia and the others. "Miss Nguyen, Mister Andrews." They didn't react to the use of their names, although it was rather obvious how Ostrovsky knew. He offered a hand to Tia. "Miss Nguyen, I admire your people for the stand they took on the streets of Thyssenbourg. Whatever our differences in political and economic philosophy, the Hestian Workers' Party showed great courage and skill in fighting such odds for so long. While I can't be sorry that you're not working with the League anymore, I sympathize with the betrayal you must feel at how they used you."

Tia frowned, and her eyes narrowed. Her expression was bitter. Henry already imagined her suspicion that she was being treated to insincere flattery, not to mention the opening of old wounds. She took in a breath and, clearly taking control of her emotions, accepted the offered hand with hers. "Then thank you, General. I didn't imagine we had many supporters in the Coalition."

"Not many," Ostrosvky admitted. "But I'm kibbutzim, ma'am, and rest assured, we don't purchase anything originating from the members of the Hestian Business Council."

Tia nodded in acceptance.

Vidia accepted a handshake as well. "I've served with Bahá'í before," Ostrovsky said. "Good to see another."

"Thank ya, General," Vidia replied politely. "A pleasure ta meet a fellow worshipper of God. But I'm wonderin' why ya came all th' way out here."

All eyes were on Ostrovsky at Vidia's remark. Ostrovsky grinned and nodded. "I know it's not standard. I never expected to set foot in a Masada Redoubt, and I hoped I'd never have to. Guess I'm one for two, given the reason we're here." He looked back toward the others. "Captain, I'd like to see you and Colonels Rothbard and Hale in private. We have a lot to discuss about this 'EF' business."

Tia's expression darkened. She glanced at Henry, and her eyes said everything. Henry nodded once at her, as he wasn't in the mood to deal with secrecy either. "General, anything you tell me, you can tell my crew. They can keep a secret." He glanced toward Felix. "As Colonel Rothbard can testify."

Felix winced. A part of Henry felt guilty for saying what he had, but the bitter part of him didn't care.

"If you're talking about a certain CIS asset on Lusitania who left under an assumed name because her people believe her dead, Captain, I already knew," Ostrovsky said.

"If I may, General?" Now Hale spoke up. "Colonel Xu and Major Mueller have had their lives uprooted by this matter, and they're good and honest men. They deserve better."

"And I'm a member of the House Committee on Defense," Snow added. "I'm already sworn in on classified material."

"Not this classified, Congresswoman," Ostrovsky replied. He glanced from face to face, judging the looks he was getting.

Felix stepped forward and looked to Henry. "With all due respect, General, you can trust them. And since they're already aware of Coalition secrets, and we might need their help to deal with Erhart, there's no harm in reading them in on whatever this is."

A facial expression passed between the two men. At first, Henry thought Ostrovsky might rebuke Felix or cordially refuse to acknowledge his remarks. The balding man appeared frustrated. After several seconds, he spoke. "Point taken and accepted, Colonel Rothbard." Ostrovsky turned to face everyone. "What I'm about to tell you is one of the oldest and most deeply-kept secrets of the Terran Coalition, dating back to the 23rd Century. I hope you appreciate the gravity of this fact."

One by one, the assembled nodded.

Satisfied, barely, Ostrovsky continued. "The 'EF Project' is nothing less than a new Exodus Fleet, built and maintained over the last three hundred years. And if our information is right, General Erhart and Oliver Faulkner are hijacking it."


29


CSV Solzhenitsyn

Exodus Station System, Terran Coalition

2 August 2462

The A6VI class star was one of the cooler stars in existence, a small bluish-white star with a modest solar system of rocky planets. On the charts across Sagittarius, the system was one of many that were listed as virtually useless to modern space-faring civilization. It lacked sufficient quantities of the valuable elements like deuterium or helium-3 or the various minerals that went into spaceship alloys.

Only a few knew that this survey report was utterly false.

Space in the system was torn open by the formation of wormholes. The cruiser Solzhenitsyn emerged from one. Other Coalition vessels, destroyers, and frigates all appeared from others, forming a squadron like those that were, so many light-years away, driving the League of Sol from Sagittarius. But their presence here was for a different reason.

With the Solzhenitsyn came a trio of bright, colorful yachts, the Seacrest Starchaser in the lead. These ships moved ahead to join other similar vessels, six in all, that came with the other military ships.

From his place on the Solzhenitsyn bridge, General Erhart watched this assembly. Now I have my own little school of colorful, harmless little fish, he thought to himself. The metaphor felt particularly apt, given not just his existing ships, but the quartet of destroyer-sized warships now moving toward his vessels.

Beside him, Colonel John Lukas was seated in his command chair, cover on. His TAO, a New Israeli woman named Major Sara Bromsky, spoke. "The vessels are approaching with weapons on standby." She turned toward Lukas and Erhart. Her wheat-colored blond hair was cut short and dark brown eyes locked on to her CO. Among her uniform markings was the patch of a Star of David, marking her as a particularly observant Jew. "Shall I raise deflectors?"

"Unnecessary, Major," Erhart said. He held up a digital reader. "Comms, transmit this code, now." He relayed the code to the Solzhenitsyn's comm officer.

It was clear some of the bridge crew was nervous. The nature of this work meant Erhart couldn't always crew his personal flagship entirely with read-in officers, only those he or his immediate subordinates considered trustworthy. The New Antillan man, a warrant officer, quickly complied with Erhart's command. "We are receiving a return signal," he said, his accent smoothed out from years of CDF service. "They acknowledge the code. Reply message is 'Welcome back, General'."

"Back where?" Bromsky murmured aloud.

"Stow that talk, Major," Lukas snapped.

Erhart was tempted to tell Lukas to ease up, but he didn't want to undermine the discipline on his flag cruiser. Especially not with things coming to fruition.

The reason for Bromsky's remark wasn't the ships coming to challenge them but the shape beyond them.

High over the fourth planet in the system, just inside of the system's jump limit, a massive space station and attached shipyard continued a geosynchronous orbit, one maintained by the space elevator line connecting the central cylinder to the planet below. A steady stream of pods came up one side and down the other of the space elevator, representing the station's continued mining operations on the lifeless planet.

The azure-tinted cylinder was ten kilometers long and had a width of fifteen hundred meters. Every kilometer, four arms connected the cylinder to a ring that reached out three kilometers from the surface of the cylinder, and from each ring, large docks were assembled. Inside were a multitude of vessels, some as long as four kilometers, dull gray in coloring. Satellites were spread out in concentric circles around the station, showing up on the busy traffic monitoring holotank on the Solzhenitsyn's bridge.

Erhart's personal link went off. He suppressed a sigh and lifted it to his ear. "Yes, Oliver?"

"It's magnificent," Faulkner gasped over the line. "Nothing you told me does it justice."

"It's the product of nearly three hundred years of careful efforts, Oliver," Erhart said, walking through the door to his flag office.

"So many ships. It's bigger than the original Exodus Fleet."

"It is."

"How will so many make the journey together? You have it planned out, right?"

Erhart allowed himself a grin. "Oh, every detail, Oliver," he said, assurance in his voice.

"Can you share them with me? Just… one more time?"

The wavering in Faulkner's voice wasn't surprising. He knew they'd passed the point of no return, and he was nervous. Erhart made sure to tone his reply correctly, to make it soothing. "Flight crews will be in and out of cryo the whole way, performing preventative maintenance as necessary. I'll share the fleet command duties with General Farley as we swap through cryo as well."

"It's not going to take long, is it?"

"Oh, ten years if we're careful. We've got to go the long way around, Oliver, to avoid the dangers in the Galactic Core." Erhart went to his desk and brought up a general map of the galaxy. His eyes traced their location and followed the Sagittarius-Carina arm as it wrapped around the spiral shape of the Milky Way. "And we'll have to be careful moving along. The Crucians and Laconians probably won't give us any trouble, but there could be alien species and empires beyond them we've never met. So it'll be important for us to move carefully and scout. And keeping people in cryo vastly reduces our logistical problems. That way, we can wake them up when we get to where we're going and only as we have room and food for them."

"The other side of the galaxy." Faulkner sounded almost breathless. "I wonder what it'll be like?"

"Hopefully, we'll find a lot of garden planets without major species occupying them," Erhart said, continuing an explanation he'd given before. "The important thing is that we'll be in the galactic shadow relative to both Canaan and Earth. It'll be a long time before they realize where we've gone."

"We'll have more than enough time to build our new society," Faulkner said. "The others and I will each have our own worlds to govern, our way. Our companies will be able to grow and thrive and profit without interference."

"I'll advise you whenever it's necessary," Erhart promised.

"You'll have a seat at our table, General! You've made all of this possible. It still shocks me that you got so many volunteer settlers."

"It wasn't as hard as you think," said Erhart. "All of those refugees who lost their worlds to League invasion. Compared to living as refugees, being test subjects for long-term cryopreservation studies was a relief. Why, some of them even signed papers saying not to wake them up until their worlds were liberated." Erhart chuckled. "I suppose I'm in violation of contract by not doing so."

"Oh, they'll have new worlds anyway. And they'll get used to it. It's not like they'll have a choice, is it?"

"Not at all."

Faulkner laughed on the other end. His nervousness was soothed. Erhart imagined he was looking forward to their new, second Exodus, and to being the founder of a new nation. "I'd like to go over and see everything. See one of the ships."

"Sure. We'll link up and take my pinnace over," Erhart suggested.

"Excellent. See you shortly!" The link made a long beep, indicating the line cut off.

Erhart glanced at the galactic map again. The undertaking he was describing… it was always intended as a desperation move, none too different from their ancestors when they fled Earth at the end of the 21st Century. He was, in truth, underselling the dangers to Faulkner, had always done so, since otherwise, Faulkner would've balked. Of course he thinks it's safe, so he's virtually made it his fleet in his mind.

Still, it was the kind of journey that would etch a man's name in history. It was the foundation myth for a mighty nation, a worthy one. One that wasn't created or led by a man like Oliver Faulkner.

There were other things on Erhart's mind too. Questions, given a lack of word from Major Tawadros. He should've made the intercept by now. He considered the possibility that Henry had discovered Renner's duplicity and ejected her tracker—or Renner herself—from his ship. Probably immaterial, but I'll have to check up on that.

With that in mind, Erhart stepped out of the flag office and back to the bridge. "Colonel, I need my pinnace readied. I'm going over to the Exodus Yard."

"Of course, sir," replied Lukas. "XO, make the arrangements."

Said XO, Lt. Colonel Benjamin Freeman, nodded. He got onto the ship intercom to alert the hangar deck to prep the "general's pinnace", an over-sized shuttle that could double as a lander.

That left the other matter on Erhart's mind. "Colonel, any word yet from the Madison Washington or her squadron?"

Lukas shook his head. "None, sir."

Again, Erhart considered the matter of Renner getting caught. But that alone wouldn't mean a lack of contact. "He missed his check-in?"

"And didn't answer our inquiries."

Could Henry have talked him into something? Tawadros is brave, but he's not one of mine. Henry might've found something to persuade him, especially if he's linked up with Hale.

Another thought came to mind. Erhart pulled his link back out and checked his comm queue. His people in Fleet Command had only standard reports, so nobody was doing anything special with the battlegroups or other fleets.

But then an item crossed his eye, from one of his people responsible for Fleet Traffic. Ostrovsky has boarded Uriel. Unscheduled departure from Canaan. Uriel transponder switched to classified operation mode. Cannot track.

I'm not taking any risks on this. Looks like it's time to put the operation in motion. "Colonel, be prepared for special orders," Erhart said, lowering his link to return it to his belt. "We're accelerating the timetable."

"Acknowledged, General."

Erhart departed the bridge after a final glance.

After all, it wasn't like he was coming back to it.


30

There was quiet at the dock. Ostrovsky's words had to be processed by everyone present. Henry considered the idea for several seconds. A second Exodus Fleet. The Terran Coalition having one, as if history could, would, repeat itself.

It made sense rationally. Emotionally? It defied everything that the people in the Coalition felt about their ancestors' achievements. Canaan and the nearby garden worlds were the incarnation of Providence, the Promised Land set aside by God Himself for their people fleeing from Earth. It was a feeling familiar to just about every nationality and religion in the Coalition. The idea of just packing up and leaving again? Of abandoning that which God made for them?

"Are you saying the government planned to cut and run?" Xu asked Ostrovsky, his voice disbelieving. "We've been fighting this war for so long, was it just to buy time?"

"Follow me," Ostrovsky said. "We should discuss this elsewhere."

He led them into the redoubt. Henry wasn't surprised he knew precisely where to go. Even if he'd never been to one before, he'd have access to the layout plans. Ostrovsky even seemed to notice missing materials here and there, the rations and gear that Henry's crew had "borrowed" on their first visit. But he said nothing of it.

They arrived in the command center. One screen still showed where Renner was confined to a cell. Ostrovsky noted it and sighed. "I always suspected Erhart put someone in my office," he sighed. "But I didn't think it'd be Renner."

"You were never suspicious of her?" Henry asked.

"Were you, Captain Henry?"

Henry shook his head. "No. I never imagined this was how it went down."

"Nor did I. But with the evidence now in hand, it seems rather obvious. Her brother really should have been released from CDF service years ago, but it's easy to miss things like that given how often Personnel files stop-loss holds on discharges and retirements." Ostrovsky went over to the central table and stood beside Hale. "Every mole has a price, and it's usually how they're caught. But we never imagined a mole like Renner, acting for her sibling." A deep frown formed on his face. "Erhart plays with the lives of our people as if they're chess pieces on a game board."

The observation brought Henry back to those quarters he'd been confined in on the Clemenceau, when Erhart came to see him. It seemed he'd never forget a detail of that evening. "It's how he thinks. Victory at all cost."

"I'm still stuck on the Exodus Fleet existing," said Hale. "You didn't tell me what 'EF' stood for."

"You weren't read-in, and I didn't realize what the stakes were yet," Ostrovsky replied. "It's a tightly-kept secret, the highest classification level." He said those words with weight, and his eyes went from face to face across the room. "It's a secret I want kept, and one we'll go to great lengths to protect."

"Ah." Tia crossed her arms. "In short, if we blab, you'll send someone to shoot us in the head."

Ostrovsky raised an eyebrow and looked at her. "Actually, it was my way of impressing upon you how much I'm trusting you."

"Which is a nicer way of stating the same thing I said," Tia noted.

Henry sighed and stared at her, pleading silently with his eyes for her to relent. She acknowledged him with a nod and relaxed her posture.

Ostrovsky continued. "The Exodus Fleet was first conceived of back in the mid-22nd Century. In those days, refugee ships and colony vessels were still coming in from the Orion Spur, letting us know of the League's growing power. We'd picked up the signals from the Saurians' exploration missions, so we knew a powerful and aggressive alien empire was not too far away. With these threats hinting at the future trouble for our people, the decision was made to begin constructing the Exodus Fleet in secret. We found a star system with sufficient local mineral reserves to commence the project and arranged to have it officially surveyed as having no value. For centuries now, we've kept a shipyard and outfitting station there. The ships have been slowly built over that time using local resources." Ostrovsky took a seat near the table. "There must be a couple hundred of them now, all engineered for light crews and extended flight."

"Two hundred ships?" Henry swallowed. He was starting to get an idea of what was going on. "How big?"

"Varying size. Some of them are built to be escorts, although all have cryopods and extensive supply storage." Ostrovsky met Henry's stare. "By our records, we have at least twenty population-mover ships, several times the volume of our largest ships. They have the capacity to hold millions of cryopods and massive amounts of material. Enough to allow a rapid colonization effort."

"Three centuries of work to build all of that?"

He nodded at Felix. "Sometimes the resources were thin, especially when the powers that be diverted men to other projects or failed to keep the drone operations fully maintained. There were points where we barely made any new additions to the fleet."

"The war with the League, I can't imagine that helped," Henry said. "All of the resources being diverted to the war effort."

Ostrovsky shook his head. "The war hasn't led to a diversion of resources from the fleet. If anything, we've been putting a little more into it."

It made sense. And Henry quickly realized he was the only one in the conversation. The others were still grasping the scope of the stated Exodus Fleet.

"So Erhart and his capitalist friends want to steal the fleet," Tia said. "What is this, some plan to run off and form their own colony?"

"I can see Faulkner wanting it," Ostrovsky observed.

"Faulkner's probably terrified that Fuentes will win," Henry said. "Think about it. The Peace Union's been pushing hard for more investigations into Kalling and other defense contractors. Even the moderate pro-war parties will want to make sure about stopping any possible war profiteering. Faulkner probably figures a Peace Union-controlled Congress will quickly investigate Kalling into the ground."

"He's got good reason to be afraid," Snow said, her tone vicious. "Even with what we know, Kalling will be up for massive fines if his buddies on the committees ever lose their majorities."

Henry nodded before continuing. "Fuentes and Rhodes both want government-funded rebuilding of liberated worlds and social programs. That costs money, and that means higher taxes and stricter regulations on how companies trade. Since he's facing the loss of his company, possible jail time, and the reduction of his fortune, running off to settle a new colony probably sounds appealing."

"I'm sure it does. But there's something else." Hale spoke with worry in her voice. "That might be what Faulkner wants, but it's not what Erhart's doing."


31

The name Santa Maria filled the liquid crystal viewer surface of the pinnace bearing Oliver Faulkner and General Erhart to the Exodus Fleet. Faulkner marveled at the size of the massive population-moving colony ship. As the oversized shuttle finished its maneuver, the name of the vessel disappeared from the viewer, replaced by more hull and eventually the open hangar deck.

He felt impatient to see the work done. The future outline of Faulknerburg was already in his mind, the kind of buildings and plazas he'd raise. "It's going to be grand," he said as the pinnace burned sideways into the hangar.

"Oh?" asked Erhart.

"Our new republic will be a nation for achievers. A republic of merit, not bureaucracy," Faulkner continued. "I've already begun discussing our new constitution with the others. We've agreed on strict limits on the size and scope of our government and what it can do. People will be rewarded for their efforts. For their business acumen. As it should be."

The pinnace finished landing. Both men removed their harnesses and stood. Erhart gave Faulkner a curious look. "Business acumen? That doesn't sound too hospitable to people like me, Oliver."

Faulkner thought his tone was flippant and amused, but he didn't want his ally to worry. He's too important to this. I have to keep his loyalty. "I meant more than just the business of commerce and industry, General. Yours is the business of the military, the business of war. Your acumen in that is legendary."

Seemingly mollified, Erhart chortled and said, "This way."

They disembarked the shuttle. The hangar looked like any other CDF-designed hangar Faulkner had seen. Utilitarian, functional, but no sense of aesthetics. But that was to be expected of the military. It was an efficiency he admired, even if he preferred the comforts of civilian craft. A quartet of armed Marines met them at the door departing the hangar, saluting the two men. Two of the Marines followed them through into the bare gray corridors of the Santa Maria.

Faulkner looked to Erhart again. "I'd love for you to be Vice President, General. I intend for the VP to have real duties keeping the legislature in line. It'll keep my more soft-hearted colleagues from allowing the compromise of our founding principles."

Erhart grinned at him. "I'm deeply honored, Oliver, that you'd trust me in that respect. It'll be an important job. But I must decline. You need me in charge of our military more than anything. You'll need a strong hand to keep morale up and maintain discipline in the post-landing stages of our mission."

The response was well-put and prompted Faulkner to stop and turn toward Erhart. "I'm fortunate to have a man such as yourself as my ally in this, General. You've stayed at my side without wavering. I'm grateful."

"Thank you, Oliver," Erhart replied.

With nothing more to say, Faulkner allowed Erhart to lead them on. As they walked, his curiosity built. He could imagine how the inside of this ship might look from the schematics Erhart provided. Rows and rows of easily-deployed prefab structures and stored supplies joined by the trays of cryopods, all made to be easily deployed from the ship when they found a suitable planet. The material of his future and the nation he'd build. He felt a surge of eager impatience as they finally came to a lateral corridor, allowing them to approach the ship interior. The smile on his face widened in anticipation at the sight of the hatch and the plate "Interior Entry." One of Erhart's Marines stepped up and opened the hatch for them. Faulkner bounded through ahead of him, eager to see his imagination brought true.

At first, it was darkness. A deep pitch black, the only sounds being the footfalls behind him and the gentle humming of the ship's ventilation system sustaining the internal atmosphere.

Then the lights began to come on. Row after row of them brought illumination to the room, starting with the platform they were standing on. Faulkner watched with glee as the light swept through the darkness, banishing it, revealing the sight he'd put so much work into creating.

Faulkner's eyes passed over the interior trays and racks and their contents. Slowly, confusion came to him. It didn't look like it was supposed to.

There were no stacked trays of cryopods. No huge containers of preserved supplies. No prefab structure pieces. The fully-occupied racks contained only one shape.

And given his company's work, even Faulkner could recognize the long cylinders, one end mounted with metal fins and the other tipped with red cones, for what they were.

Faulkner turned to Erhart, whose Marines now stood at his side. "What's this, General?" he asked, unable to keep his bewildered confusion out of his voice. "Where are our colonists? Where is the equipment for the colony, all of the food? This… this isn't—"

"Sorry to let you down, Oliver," Erhart said, interrupting him. Faulkner narrowed his eyes at his partner. "But I have my own plans."

"What… what plans are you talking about?" Realization worked its way through his confusion. With it came a bitter feeling, the familiar sense of disappointment. "What about… what are you talking about?" Fury filled his voice as the disappointment turned to anger. Anger at being deceived by the man he'd done so much for. "What the hell is this, Erhart!"

"Now, now, Oliver, let's not get petulant," Erhart said. "Honestly, your petulance has always been an annoyance."

"Where are my colonists!"

"They don't exist. None of it exists."

"But… the colonization supplies, the materials I gave you." Faulkner felt heat come to his face as it turned red. His mind went to the literal billions he'd spent over the last ten years, all for this plan to escape the defeat of the Coalition, to start over again with the Exodus Fleet. The plan Erhart had brought to him. "You told me—!"

"I told you what you needed to hear. And yes, those were very useful supplies. I made quite a lot of money from them on the markets on Galt, enough to fund my operation to completion," Erhart explained. "I can't thank you enough for making my plan feasible. I'll make sure your noble sacrifice is remembered."

"My noble…" Faulkner's heart skipped a beat as Erhart's hand went to his hip. His eyes widened as Erhart drew his charge pistol and raised it. "No, Erhart, for the love of God, no!"

The only reply was the distinct sound of the sidearm firing.

There were flashes of blue light. Hot pain shot through Faulkner's belly and chest. He cried out in agony and collapsed against the railing, his eyes fixed on Faulkner and the stone-quiet Marines. The two armed CDF personnel might have been statues for all they seemed to move.

Faulkner felt mortal terror grip his lungs, preventing him from breathing. "Please," he rasped as the General approached, his gun still raised. "Don't do this, Erhart, please…"

"Sorry, Oliver, but this is how things go in war. We all have to make sacrifices." Erhart's other hand brought up his link. "Erhart to Solzhenitsyn."

"Solzhenitsyn here, General," Lukas replied.

"Open fire on designated targets."

"Aye, sir."

He's killing the others. Faulkner realized it wasn't terror holding his breath in but having his lungs shot. "You can't," he wheezed, struggling to get enough air to speak. Tears filled his eyes. "I don't… don't want to die…"

Erhart's voice was as calm as always. Calm and cold. Oh so very cold. Why hadn't he realized how cold it was before? "Nobody does." The barrel of the gun came back up.

"No," Faulkner pleaded.

He heard the pistol go off again. There was a flash of bluish-white light. He felt a quick, hot pain on his forehead. And then, the darkness returned to consume him.

Breach of Duty

The moment General Erhart gave the order, Colonel Lukas turned to Bromsky. "TAO, designate Sierra One through Eleven as hostile, share designations with the rest of our ships. Firing point procedures on Master One through Eleven, neutron beams."

Several sets of eyes on the bridge turned toward Lukas. Bromsky's was one of those pairs. She gave him a disbelieving look.

Lukas frowned in response. "TAO, I say again, designate the yachts as Master One through Eleven and make ready to attack them."

Bromsky stared at him as if he were speaking in gibberish. "Sir, can you repeat that order?"

Lukas saw immediately what this was and had no patience for it. "Dammit, Major, you heard me! Designate the yachts as targets and shoot!" His right hand slipped down to the holster at his hip, and he pulled the weapon free.

Bromsky swallowed. For a moment, she looked utterly lost before her lips pursed and her body went rigid. "No, sir," she said in a stern tone.

"Are you refusing my orders, Major?" Lukas gritted his teeth together.

"I'm refusing this order, sir," Bromsky said. "I won't murder helpless civilians. It would be a sin against HaShem and a disgrace to the service."

"The General told you we might have to take special measures to win, Major," Lukas reminded her, his voice as cold as hers was determined.

"He didn't say anything about this. I'm ready to take the fight to the League, if that's the course, but this… this would be a violation of my faith and my oath as a CDF officer, Colonel, and I will not obey," Bromsky insisted.

Lukas didn't need to look at them to know that others among his crew were wavering. They were as ready to die as any other member of the CDF, but they didn't all have the edge that General Erhart honed in his top officers. He needed to act now, and do so decisively, to keep the loyalty and obedience of his crew.

In a single motion, Lukas brought his charge pistol up, turning his chair as he did so. Both of his hands clasped the gun and he took quick, precise aim on Bromsky. She barely had the time to register the gun in his hand was pointing at her before he pulled the trigger.

The bridge reverberated with the sound of the particle blast. The bolt of light struck Bromsky just above the hairline, a little higher than Lukas had planned. It still had the desired effect, of course, and her body collapsed bonelessly to the deck. Her eyes, wide with surprise, stared vacantly at him.

"XO, Marines, we are under extraordinary discipline for the moment," he said aloud. "If any officer or crewman interferes in the execution of the General's orders, treat them as saboteurs and shoot them down." By now, the sharp scent of scorched flesh was spreading. Lukas ignored it as he stepped over to the tactical action station. He leaned over it and started manipulating the target designation systems. One by one, he labeled the yachts as targets and relayed that information to the other ships.

Seeing that none were shooting, Lukas scowled. Cowards. Not willing to make the hard choices to win this war. That's always what's held us back. No more. He brought the neutron beam emitters online and aimed them at Faulkner's gaudy Seacrest Starchaser. The General knows what he's doing.

With that thought, Lukas pressed the firing button.

Breach of Duty

The white-blue flare of the Solzhenitsyn's neutron cannons played over the holo-view on Erhart's link. He watched as the beams carved the Seacrest Starchaser into pieces, his shark finally turning on the colorful fish. Atmosphere blew out violently from the shattered yacht, joined by bodies and debris.

Other ships in the squadrons opened fire on the yachts now. Neutron cannon fire joined that of the lighter, anti-fighter pulse turrets, with even the latter blasting holes into the unarmored ships. One managed to maneuver free for a moment, in a maneuver that marked to Erhart the presence of a CDF veteran at her helm, but the others were not so lucky. Their colorful, sleek forms were torn to shreds under his quiet, unwavering gaze.

There was a crackle over the audio, and a baritone male voice started screaming over the line. "This is the Calliopean Star, we surrender! Please, you're killing us! We sur—" The voice abruptly cut off. Erhart watched as the last yacht was quartered by neutron cannon fire coming in at multiple angles.

"Solzhenitsyn here. Scans show no survivors, General."

"You were a little slow to commence firing, Colonel," Erhart said. "Difficulties with your orders?"

"A failure in discipline, sir. I had to remove my TAO. The rest of my crew is obeying—"

"You bloody murdered her!" a male voice screamed over the line.

Erhart's eyes narrowed as he could hear the sound of a brief scuffle, as if someone was being forcibly removed by the bridge's Marines. "We'll talk later, Colonel Lukas," he said sternly. "Maintain system patrol near the Exodus Yard for now, and remain on standby for combat. Erhart out."

"Aye aye, sir," came Lukas' unhappy response.

Once the channel was cut, Erhart drew in a breath. Whatever else his plan entailed, he'd truly crossed a line with this. A line he could never walk back across. Like Caesar, I have cast my dice and crossed the Rubicon. But it's necessary. He felt his fist clench. It's necessary.

Yes, he'd just murdered a few hundred Coalition civilians, the very same people he'd sworn an oath to protect. But was it any different from all the times they had to abandon their worlds to the League, knowing how many of their citizens would suffer and die in the socialization camps?

The fact was, winning the war required hard choices. It required sacrifice. That was the lesson he'd learned at Tau Baker, and it remained with him. Since he couldn't let the yachts report back, it was too risky to bring them, and stranding them in a lifeless star system without access to interstellar comms or jump drives would condemn them to a slow death…

It was better this way, Erhart reminded himself. A quick death. Merciful compared to anything else that would've happened to them. More merciful than a League socialization camp.

That thought brought back an image that still haunted him. The idea of Karl in one of those camps, and his hope that Karl died on his ship, quickly and cleanly, to spare him that fate.

"Iacta alea est," Erhart muttered before he started walking back to his pinnace. He still had work to do before they launched the Exodus Fleet for its new purpose: winning the war.


32

Hale's words won her the attention of everyone assembled, every set of eyes curious, even demanding, concerning what she knew. She used the controls to access the data she'd loaded into the redoubt's library computer, using the screen to display multiple pages worth of requisition orders and supply tables. The others glanced from the display to her and back, some able to read what they were seeing and some not.

Henry spoke up first. "So Faulkner thinks they're stealing the Exodus Fleet to settle their own worlds, but you figure Erhart's up to his own thing?"

"That's what all his procurement activity indicates," Hale said. "For ten years, he's been quietly issuing contracts to Kalling for refit gear tied to 'EF.' The thing is, not all of the refit gear makes sense for a colony fleet. It's things like targeting sensors and armament. And what gear you'd expect for use in colonization disappears. It's not assigned to anything; it's just gone." She tapped a key and displayed more paperwork. Not only requisition orders but contracts. "Over the years, he's quietly bought up a lot of heavy munitions. Missile armament, heavy warheads, heavy mag-cannons, and extra rounds. He's redirected a lot of equipment that was due for distribution to system defense fleets and militia too. He's even been buying munitions from producers in Neutral Space."

"With the war-time regulations?" Snow asked.

"Special Projects gets exemptions," Ostrovsky noted. "As does CDF Intelligence."

"In his case, he listed the weapons as being for testing purposes. But he never filed results for any tests, nor any other indication he used the munitions. And the budgets don't add up, unless he's getting money from unofficial sources." Hale highlighted a document. "When you look at it all together—"

Henry noted it was a collation of all of the arms Erhart had ordered over the course of a decade. He blinked. "He's got enough weapons to outfit an entire fleet."

"Ten years is a long time to skim from our war industries and buy foreign weapons," Hale said. "He must be arming the Exodus Fleet. And given what Anthony's shown me from Personnel's files—"

"—he's got enough personnel to man it," Xu finished for her. "I found entries for people transferred to the project who've never been reassigned from it. He keeps them on it."

"A lot of veterans, and some of the best of the academy graduating classes over the last several years," Hale confirmed, bringing up another set of documents.

"That is way more than he needs for shipyard work," Felix observed. "If he's relying entirely on the production of drone-manned mines in this hidden system, there's no way he can use that many people as workers. He wouldn't be re-assigning these people to work in mines."

"Why not?" Tia asked.

"Because he could just as easily have hired war refugees, for one," Ostrovsky said. "They don't always end up on worlds that can accommodate them in the local economy. Turning CDF personnel into miners would be a morale nightmare. Even using them for shipyard work is going to be touchy."

Throughout the discussion, Henry remained quiet. The evidence was right there, and the more he thought about it, the more it sickened him. He kept flashing back to that day on the Clemenceau, a painful memory he'd love to forget. He recalled Erhart's justifications for what happened on the Laffey and why Henry's career would be sacrificed to protect Kalling Engineering. He'll do anything he thinks is necessary to win the war. Anything. He's been up to this for so long… how will we be able to stop him?

"You don't think he's bringing the fleet into the war, do you?" Mueller asked Hale and Ostrovsky.

"It seems like it, but it wouldn't make sense," Ostrovsky said. "The escort ships are built for combat, but the largest ships wouldn't be capable of taking fire in a fleet battle. Even the escorts aren't as capable as their regular fleet counterparts, given the design requirements. They'd be of limited use in a general fleet engagement or a siege of a planet."

"Well, why else would he want the Fleet now? Maybe he'd figured we might need them to fight a few years ago, but we're winning now." Hale shook her head. "Or he thinks we'll need the extra hulls to make our invasion of the Orion Spur feasible?"

The mention of the Orion Spur made Henry start laughing. As everyone glanced at him, he shook his head and stopped. "Oh, I think that's where he's going," he began. "But not for the cross-arm offensive. I think he's going straight for Earth."

The others stared at him with confused looks. "Earth? Why?" Mueller asked.

"Because these ships won't do well as a battle fleet," Henry answered. "Too much volume wasted for non-military functions, not enough armor plate or advanced deflectors. I could go on. But if you used them as bombardment ships?"

A particular pensive look came to the others. Ostrovsky swore quietly in Hebrew.

"Think about it," Henry continued. "If they've got military-grade Lawrence drives, they could jump into range of an unprepared planet—like, say, Earth, Mars, and the other League core worlds we've never touched—and let loose a missile barrage before the local defenses have time to respond. If he's armed those missiles with high-yield nukes, he can wipe out a planet's major population centers in just a couple minutes."

Ostrovsky nodded and grew pale as he did. "Lord have mercy," he muttered. "He's always talked about it. Hitting Earth and laying waste to everything in a surprise attack."

"Now he's going to use the Exodus Fleet to attack Earth," Henry said, confident in his judgment of Erhart. "And probably every other core world of the League he can manage."

"But the fleet's not going to be able to resist a proper combat fleet," said Xu. "He'll eventually get destroyed by numbers and firepower."

"He knows and doesn't care," Henry said. "Sacrifice is a part of war to him. He'll sacrifice every person in his fleet if he thinks he's going to win the war. Maybe even himself."

"Then this isn't just an operation," Ostrovsky said. "It's a death ride."

Henry nodded. "He's going to rip the heart of the League out and take as many of them with him as he can."


33

The first response to the idea came from Xu. "That's insane," he said. Henry could hear the disbelief in his voice. "He's doing all of this just as some grandiose suicide run? The man's supposed to be a strategic genius."

"His reputation in that regard has been slightly exaggerated," Ostrovsky said, with a trace of bemusement in his voice. "MacIntosh is the strategist of that class. Erhart's a tactician, and Barton has always been the logistician. They complement each other rather well, or rather, they did until Barton became a defeatist over the decades."

"He's bloody-minded enough to do something like this." Snow frowned, deep creases spreading across her face.

"All the evidence certainly points in this direction," Hale added.

"But… we're talking about mass murder," Xu said. "It's one thing to launch a strategic strike on military targets, but you make it sound like he's just going to carpet nuke Earth and Mars!"

"That's the way it looks, Xu, like it or not," Felix said, sighing. "Never thought I'd see the day one of our own wanted to go this far."

Miri finished her examination of the papers and looked over. "These munitions aren't precision weapons. They're not the kind you use on shipyards and other such targets. They're meant for general bombardment against theater-scale deflectors. If you pitted them against a planet that hasn't raised any such defenses, the result would be mass casualties."

The CDF officers in the room looked over the data. No one could find fault with Miri's findings.

"So I guess that leaves the question," Mueller said quietly. "What should we do? Can we even stop him?"

"We have to," Henry said. "If he succeeds, it'll condemn the Coalition forever. The League, hell, everyone will spin it as the Coalition engaging in mass murder."

"It's not a sanctioned op, though, so how can they blame us?" Mueller asked.

"It doesn't matter if he's a rogue general, not if it gives some people what they want to hear," Henry pointed out. "A lot of people will see it as the Coalition just disavowing him to save its own reputation."

"Which is still not perfect in Neutral Space, for certain," Tia added. Henry noticed the grimace on her face. Whatever else she felt, Tia wouldn't want to see mass death any more than the others.

"Erhart's going to destroy more than the League." Henry leaned against the table. "I mean, sure, it might lead to a victory in the short run. Maybe the League even collapses, or what's left of their military surrenders. But in the long run, it'll turn the Coalition into a pariah state and probably rip it apart."

To that, Snow nodded emphatically. "There are worlds, especially in the Coreward sectors, where the Peace Union's strong enough some of them talk about withdrawing. These people don't trust the CDF as highly as people from more settled worlds do. They'll figure Erhart was acting under secret orders. He's got the necessary reputation for people to believe it." Snow shook her head. "Christ, if Erhart does this, they'll try to remove their planets from the Coalition. We could end up with a civil war."

Horror was visible on Xu's face. "It'll tear the CDF apart too," he said. "We're supposed to be better than the League."

Tia spoke up, and despite the situation, there was an edge of snark in her voice. "And, of course, there'll be the billions of people that Erhart kills," she pointed out. "That'll be pretty bad too."

Henry briefly winced as the present CDF officers, even Snow, all glanced toward her with some degree of irritation. "I think that went without saying, Miss Nguyen," Ostrovsky interjected diplomatically.

"They'll be having company in time, that's the thing," Henry said to her, keeping a moderate tone. "The League could collapse, or maybe not, but the Coalition will go down too. Think of how many wars that might open up. All of the governments that might take advantage of the Coalition falling apart."

Tia nodded. "The megacorps in Neutral Space will egg it all on to increase their influence."

"I think the point has been made," Vidia said. "Erhart's got ta be stopped."

"I've begun efforts to put together a fleet," said Ostrovsky. "But it's not easy. Most of our battlegroups are currently deployed in the mopping-up operations against the League's remaining holdouts in Sagittarius. And I'm sure Erhart's got loyalists in those commands who will warn him if I call those ships in, even assuming I could. Given the combat-capable ships already part of the Exodus Fleet and the squadrons he's got attached to the Solzhenitsyn, I don't know if I'll have enough ships to force him to stand down. At best, I'll have a slight numerical edge on his current squadrons."

Felix gave Ostrovsky a worried glance. "General, with how committed Erhart is, you have to consider the possibility he'll open fire on you regardless. He's still one of the fleet's best tacticians."

"Yet, we must keep him from stealing the Exodus Fleet," Ostrovsky insisted. "Billions of lives and the future of the Coalition are riding on this." He turned his eyes to Henry, who met his gaze. "We could use every ship we have available."

Tia's eyes widened, and an incredulous expression formed on her face. Vidia turned thoughtful. Henry noticed the uncertain look now on Miri's face. He wasn't surprised at these reactions, any more than he was surprised by Ostrovsky's request.

And yet, the idea still drew a laugh, one that made Felix look pained and Ostrovsky's brow furrow.

"We barely survived the last war we got sucked into," Henry said, forcing the humor from his voice. "We've got some big surprises that work against pirates and bounty hunters, but you're talking about a fight with frontline military ships. We don't have the hardware for real combat."

Ostrovsky ran his hand across his chin. "I know. But if my ships give you an opening, your people could be able to get aboard the Exodus Station with some of my Marines and activate the lockdown or fleet auto-destruct code." With the way he spoke, it was clear he'd already planned this, and the glance that would melt alloy that Tia shot toward Felix made it clear she, at least, knew who to blame.

"I know your ship has a good fusion drive, and the Exodus Station's defenses are primarily point-defense satellites. You can take them out while we occupy the fleet. I'll give you the codes to board the station."

"Codes that Erhart's likely changed," Miri pointed out.

"He can't," Ostrovsky replied. "These are hard-coded into the station's systems. Even trying to change that would've alerted CDF Command on Canaan via QET." Again, Ostrovsky's hard eyes met Henry's. "I know we've failed you, Captain. You have all the reason in the world to be angry with the CDF. But there are billions of lives at stake. The future of our galaxy. Erhart must be stopped, and we need your help."

Henry pursed his lips. Ostrovsky's plea pulled at him. Maybe some of it was what was left of the CDF officer he'd been. The other part, however, wasn't so noble. He could imagine the joy of confronting Erhart, of thwarting the plans he'd laid for so long. The chance to destroy Erhart's hard work, just as Erhart had ruined his life years ago.

More than that. A chance to punish the son of a bitch for taking him away from Uncle Charlie's deathbed. Uncle Charlie. He'd been trying not to think about it, but this only brought back that feeling of loss. Charlie was dying, could already be dead in fact, and he couldn't even be there to make Charlie heard him say goodbye. It wasn't right. And it made him want to throw it all in Erhart's face all the more.

A thought crossed his mind. What would Charlie want him to do? The answer came quickly. Charlie would want me to watch out for my people. Get the job done, maybe, but always watch out for them.

With that in mind, he glanced at the others. Miri was still quiet and a little uncertain. Tia had that intensity in her eyes that made the gray look like storm clouds. Vidia was now serene in that way he always was when he decided he believed what God's will was.

The others were waiting to hear his answer. Henry unclenched his jaw and spoke. "I have to talk it over with my crew," he began. "I'm not dragging them into a fight that's not theirs."

Ostrovsky nodded. "That's fair. We'll be waiting to hear your decision."

"I'll call everyone to the medical bay," Miri said.

Henry nodded. "I'll meet you there." He walked out of the command center with Tia and Vidia while Miri's call went out over the redoubt's open intercom.

Breach of Duty

Everyone watched Henry leave with his people. Hale shook her head at what she'd seen so far. It might've been sixteen years since she served with him, but she remembered James Henry as a good CDF officer, a promising commander with fortitude and integrity, someone ready to stand and fight the good fight for home, faith, and freedom.

But now, the old Jim wasn't there. Worse, she still wasn't sure what had replaced him.

Just after Miri left to join the others, a hand touched Hale's arm. She realized Snow had noticed the expression on her face. "He lost everything, Colonel," she began. "The honorable CDF officer you remember was publicly humiliated and shamed. Erhart took that from him. In a way, he killed him." Old anger burned in Snow's eyes. "I know what it feels like."

Hale swallowed. Her mind went back to the day she watched Henry drummed out. He'd been quiet, stoic, as if it didn't matter, or so she'd thought at the time. But the more she thought about it, the more she put herself back on that day, the more she realized how wrong that impression had been. She hadn't seen a man quietly accepting his fate with dignity. She'd seen a broken man who'd given up. He lost everything to save us. And I had the nerve to salute at him as if nothing happened. Now I'm judging him like that? God forgive me for being so arrogant.

"I can't imagine what it's like," she admitted as she turned to face Snow. "I was lucky back then."

"You were, and in the end, it's been a good thing." Snow seemed to know how Hale was feeling about the situation now, so it was no surprise that she was trying to be conciliatory. "Truth is, I was lucky too. I managed to salvage something after Erhart wrecked my JAG career. Henry had to leave the Coalition to rebuild his life."

They might have spoken more, but Ostrovsky spoke up first. "Colonel Rothbard. Do you think Henry's crew will sign on?"

Felix let out a sigh. "Honestly, sir, I can't be sure. They're not soldiers. Their loyalty is to each other. If they decide to scram, they'll scram. And you can't make them fight."

"Maybe you should join their deliberations. You've been with them for years."

The pain in Felix's face was acute. "Doesn't matter," he said. His voice lost some of its strength. Hale felt sympathy for the man, at the pain he was in. "They know who I am now, what I was there for. If I go in there, they'll see me as a spy, not a fellow spacer. It's best if we leave them to it, sir."

Breach of Duty

The moment Henry stepped into the medical bay for the redoubt, an idle thought came to him. This place might spoil Oskar.

The redoubt's medical bay reminded him of the one he'd seen on the cruiser Remiel years ago as a Lieutenant in the CDF. The beds in the central ward alone numbered at a dozen, and there were two more sections visible through far doors, not counting the surgical theater. It's meant to hold hundreds of people. Maybe over a thousand, Henry reminded himself. No wonder it'd have medical facilities like this.

Oskar was, at that moment, tending to the bandaging on Samina's head. She was awake now, if still visibly affected by the head injury Renner had inflicted on her. Henry approached and gently asked, "What's her status?"

"Swelling. A mild concussion. I've treated it with the technology here, and she should be fine for duty tomorrow or the day after," Oskar said.

Henry felt relief at that. He glanced at Samina and a small smile came to his face. "Guess you'll be back to work soon, kid. No loafing around for you."

"It's okay, I want to." Samina stopped herself. Creases showed on her brow. "Oh, you're teasing me. Right."

"Yeah." Henry turned his attention to the others. Tia sat on a nearby bed across from Samina's while Pieter stood beside it. Brigitte and Piper were in the pathway between the two rows of beds and Yanik stood behind them. Vidia and Miri had seats on the same row of beds that Samina occupied while Cera was outright lying on one, her leg hanging lazily off the side.

To get a better view of them all together, Henry took several steps away from Oskar and Samina. He stopped near the end bed of the row, putting the door to the wards at his back. He turned and faced them all. Looking at them made him doubt what he was about to ask. This is my fight, not theirs.

"Might as well ask us, sir," Cera said. "That's what ye're here for, isn't it? Ye want t' help take down that sassenach general that ruined yer life."

Henry nodded. "It's more than just me. This whole thing, my arrest, it was just a cover to buy Erhart time. Over the years, he's exploited corruption in the Coalition to acquire a fleet, and he's armed it to the gills. Colonel Hale's figured out what kind of weapons he has, and only one thing makes sense. He's going to Earth to turn it into a radioactive cinder."

Everyone in the room exchanged stunned looks, save for those who'd heard the conversation and Oskar. Oskar's face paled, and that made Henry feel guilty. The doctor undoubtedly had family on Earth, if they hadn't all been thrown into camps over his desertion from the League.

Henry pressed on. "Ostrovsky's asked us to help him out. He can't call in the fleet without tipping off Erhart and giving him time to slip away. But don't feel this is something you have to agree to. The truth is, this isn't our war." Henry made sure to put as much sincerity into those words as possible. "This isn't like Lusitania, where it was all of our asses on the line. We're not up against Q-ships this time. Ostrovsky has a plan that would give us a shot at Erhart's main base without much interference, but we will still face military opposition." He let that sink in. They'd barely survived a fight with a League squadron, and they'd had over a dozen Coalition-made Hunter missiles at that fight. There weren't any in the redoubt, though, and Ostrovsky was unlikely to give them any, since his ships would be using them.

When none of them said anything, Henry continued speaking. "Now, I admit I want to go after Erhart, but that's personal. I won't drag you along. " He shook his head once at that point for emphasis. "If you don't want to fight, I'll tell them no." He could see uncertainty in their eyes. Fear. It was a healthy fear too, and he respected it. It was no different from the fear he felt at the idea of taking the Shadow Wolf into a fight with military vessels. They'll say no. They should say no. He tried to keep the frown from forming on his face. We shouldn't have to help clean up the CDF's messes. Maybe Yanik will want to go, given how much Erhart's behavior offended him, and I think Vidia's seeing it as a duty, but the others—this isn't their fight, and it shouldn't be.

The first to speak was Oskar. "I'm not impartial," he said, "since if what you say is true, my home city will burn." Oskar looked to the others as he spoke. "But my vote is to help stop this man." He nodded to Henry. "I'm with you."

"General Erhart has violated his duty to your people and our cause," Yanik said, arms crossed. His tongue flicked angrily in the air as he spoke. "He has manipulated and destroyed those he had an obligation toward. Divine will demands we aid in his defeat."

Nearby, Vidia nodded. "Well spoken, my friend. It's a holy cause ta stand an' stop murder like this. Ya have my support, Jim."

Brigitte spoke up next. "Sometimes I wouldn't mind someone blowing up the damn Committee and all of those bastards on Earth that controlled my life," she said, heat in her voice. "But I don't want innocent people to die too. You've done a lot for me, Captain Henry. You've shown me what it's like to be free, and what responsibility means. So I'm standing with you!"

Hearing that, Piper swallowed. The fear on her face wasn't going away. Henry watched Brigitte take her hand as if to reassure her. They exchanged looks, while Piper swallowed and nodded. "You've given me a chance to see so many of the stars," Piper said. "This man ruined your life. You deserve help in stopping him before he can destroy more people."

Henry nodded slowly. He had half the crew now. His eyes met Tia's. He'd seen her stormy look when Ostrovsky asked for their help, and he could recall her resistance to getting involved in the Lusitania situation. Would she be up for this now?

Tia noticed his look. "I don't like getting us into fights," she said. "I've lost too many comrades to violence." A fierce look came to her face. "But Erhart's hurt us. He's hurt you. He's undermined this crew. The bastard deserves to have his plans, his dreams, smashed." Tia spoke those words with someone who knew precisely what it was like to suffer them herself. "That he's planning mass murder, well, I say it makes it all the more important for us to stop him. So I say we've got a cause worth the risk."

"Aye t' that, First Mate!" Cera shouted, her voice fierce with pride. "An' we'll teach th' sassenach what it means t' cross th' crew of th' Shadow Wolf!"

"We'll teach that man a lesson he'll never forget!" Pieter agreed. "He'll regret ever hurting our Captain!"

Samina nodded. "He hurt Captain Henry. He took him from his uncle's side! And now he wants to kill people like this? We should help stop him, inshallah."

By now, the tears were forming in Henry's eyes. His heart warmed at the loyalty they were showing him, the trust that he'd get them out of this, and that they were willing to risk it all with him.

Because this wasn't like Lusitania, they could walk away without being a target. But they wouldn't be.

Miri spoke up last, but there was no doubt what she had to say. "Erhart will answer for what he's done, to you, Captain, to your old crew, and to everyone else he's hurt. I'll fight at your side."

Blinking back his tears, Henry nodded to them. "I'll go let Ostrovsky know." He moved forward to pass by them and leave the medical bay.

As he walked beside Miri, she asked, "Are you going to ask Felix for his vote?"

Henry stopped. He found he couldn't answer the question.

Tia provided one. "Colonel Rothbard is one of them. He's not with us," she snarled, such that Henry could easily imagine the scowl on her face. "He doesn't get a vote."

"I think you're wrong, Tia," Miri said. She kept her voice gentle so that it didn't sound challenging, as Henry imagined she was trained to do. "This may have been an assignment, but I have the feeling Felix wasn't just an agent of CDF Intel when he worked with us. He wanted to be a part of our crew."

Henry felt a sting at those words. He wanted them to be true, almost desperately so. He wanted to know his friend valued working with him and hadn't just used him, and their friendship, to fulfill his boss's agenda. But all the same, it didn't change the facts of what happened. "It doesn't matter now," Henry said in a low voice. "Felix is one of Ostrovsky's people, and we all know that. There's no going back."

And with that said, he walked away.

Breach of Duty

Only Felix was with Ostrovsky when Henry got back to the command center of the redoubt. As Henry entered, a female voice finished speaking in Hebrew, and the system cut the call. Ostrovsky turned to face Henry. "Your answer?"

"Yes," Henry said. "We're in this."

The relief was visible on Ostrovsky's face, but Henry could see he was still visibly worried. "I've been getting every ship I can. But aside from the Uriel, I only have destroyers and frigates, and many are too far away to join us realistically. If Erhart has the escort ships of the Exodus Fleet armed and ready, we'll be outnumbered."

Henry stroked his jaw and nodded thoughtfully. "And if we call for fleet help, someone might warn Erhart."

"That is my problem, yes. Unfortunately, it rules out carrier groups."

Henry stared at the General. It was an unfortunate predicament. Ostrovsky needed people he could be sure weren't involved in Erhart's plan. An idea came to him. "Can you bring up a listing of major Coalition fleet assets close enough to help?" he asked.

Ostrovsky nodded to him and looked to Felix. "Colonel."

Felix nodded and used a link to CDF fleet command to bring up the list on the main viewer. With so much of the fleet forward deployed, there weren't many assets visible. Henry searched the list, looking for a name he wasn't sure would be on it.

Then he saw the name and smiled. "General? I think I know just who to call."

When he told Ostrovsky who, it brought a smile to the General's face.


34

In the heart of the Exodus Station's command section, General Erhart stepped into the wardroom to a host of saluting figures, followed by Colonel Ze'evi. He went up to the man in major general's stars who was in charge, Pierce Farley. "General Farley, what's our status?"

"All ships are nearly ready for deployment, sir," Farley answered. "We're performing final fittings for the last ships now and loading of our last shipment of weapons. As it is, we have enough supplies for the planned operation even with the accelerated time table."

"Good. And the crews?"

"Just as ready, sir. Eager, I'd say. Some of these men and women have been waiting for years for this day."

"That they have." Erhart took a seat and faced the lines of one-star generals and colonels at the table. They would be in command of the biggest ships and divisions of the smaller escorts. Each was hand-picked by him from the best of the CDF's officer corps, people he knew had what it took to win this war. He could sense their eagerness and was proud of it.

"As you know, we'll be leaving in the next few days. The acceleration of our timetable is unfortunately necessary, given the current situation. General Ostrovsky is on the move with his flag cruiser, and I have reason to believe James Henry evaded capture. It's possible Ostrovsky intervened, which would mean he's likely brought Tawadros' squadron over to his side as well."

Colonel Lukas spoke up. "Sir, are you saying that Ostrovsky might intercept us?"

"Yes, Colonel, I am. If it comes to that, we'll do what we have to do in order to make this operation a success." Erhart focused his gaze on Lukas. "And it's with that in mind, Colonel, that I'm relieving you of your command."

Lukas stared at him in disbelief. "Sir?" His confusion was evident. "Why?"

"Your actions have undermined the morale of the Solzhenitsyn and could spread to the whole fleet if no action is taken," Erhart explained. "To be precise, Colonel, your execution of Major Bromsky was a severe tactical error."

Lukas swallowed. "In my defense, sir, I felt that Bromsky's refusal to follow orders undermined my authority and could have led to a mutiny. Alive, she was a potential focus for such mutineers. I had to act swiftly."

Erhart listened quietly to Lukas' self-justification. It was true that Lukas had acted as he'd trained him to act, immediately and decisively. "You did, but you also acted recklessly. We are not the League of Sol, Colonel. We do not shoot our comrades, even in such circumstances. You should have made sure Bromsky was the type of officer to follow your orders, all of them, before granting her the post. The responsibility for her death is doubly yours. So as of now, I'm assigning you to another vessel. Colonel Freeman will assume command of the Solzhenitsyn as a brevet colonel, and I'll have General Farley send trusted officers to serve as his XO and TAO. They'll send your things to you here."

Lukas bit into his lip in clear frustration, but there was no complaint. He knew better than to try.

A tone filled the room. "General, this is Yard Command. Sir, another group of yachts and civilian vessels just jumped in-system. Our ships are engaging."

"Acknowledged, give us a visual down here," Erhart answered as he quietly moved his hand to the controls for the room holotank. He accepted the incoming visual feed and turned it on. It showed a quartet of brightly-colored yachts and pleasure liners in a loose formation. Beams of white-hot neutron cannon fire carved through them like a knife through a holiday turkey.

A tap of a button brought up the audio. "This is the Starswallow's Lark to CDF ships. Please cease fire! We're unarmed, we surrender! For the love of God, we sur—" A beam sliced through the command deck of one of the ships, continuing through the ship's internals. The long, sleek form broke into pieces, spilling debris into the vacuum of space. Debris which included the visible forms of human bodies.

"Is this necessary, General?" Farley asked. "We could have detained them."

"They were dead the moment they arrived, Farley, and you know that," Erhart replied quietly. "I'm giving them a quick death instead of leaving them behind."

Two of the other officers visibly crossed themselves. Their hollow looks told Erhart they'd not prepared themselves for this. Not like he had. I'll make sure to keep them on the escorts. Don't want them getting all queasy when we begin the bombardments.

"Remember what we're doing this for," he said aloud. "Whether or not they win the Presidency, the Peace Union is going to undermine the war effort. Even if they didn't, it'd cost us even more millions of casualties to fight our way to Earth. This approach will save those lives. It'll bring down the League for good and ensure victory in this war. Our comrades will live because of our sacrifices. That's why we're here. I know we've all had to make tough choices to get here—hard choices. And maybe we have some harder ones coming. So keep your eyes on the goal: ending the war, whatever the cost."

One by one, there were nods from the assembled. "We're with you, sir," Farley said from beside him. "To Earth and victory."

"To Earth and victory," the others echoed.

"To Earth and victory," Erhart said, accepting their agreement.

Breach of Duty

While Erhart was speaking with his senior officers, those of lower rank were also speaking. Their meetings weren't as formal, and they weren't even in a central location. They gathered on every ship as their off-watch periods came—a corner in the officer's mess here or a quiet discussion in the rec room there.

The words were always different. The speakers weren't going from a script. Indeed, many of them didn't even know about the others. Each spoke their feelings in different ways according to who they were and what they believed in.

But whether they spoke of Christ, Allah, Yahweh or HaShem, God in general, or just their oaths to the Coalition and its ideals, the sentiment was inevitably the same.

"This isn't what we signed up for."

The results varied. No outright actions were decided upon. No plans laid. Just a general sense that something was wrong in the fleet.

Time would tell just where these sentiments would lead.


35

As promised, the work to bring the Shadow Wolf's systems back online was more time-consuming than it was complicated. After a rest cycle on the redoubt and a few hours' work, the ship was ready.

Now the Shadow Wolf was burning out to the jump zone, this time with significant company as the cruiser Uriel burned on to her port. Tawadros' ships were ahead at the military jump limit. A few other destroyers were present, including the Compton Mackenzie, ready to join with Uriel for the jump out.

All of this was visible from the bridge of the Shadow Wolf. Cera, Piper, and Tia were at their places. Xu was at the auxiliary station, busily setting up as a tactical action station for whatever was to come.

And apart from the others, Felix stood alone.

He didn't need to inquire of his former comrades. It was clear he wasn't wanted. His main purpose aboard was to join the special CDF Intelligence-trained Marine company sent over by Ostrovsky for the boarding op. Tia didn't seem to acknowledge his existence, period, and nobody else would look him in the eye. Even Henry seemed to prefer to not pay attention to him, focusing instead on keeping formation with the Uriel.

They were still too close to the system star to jump safely, but the same was not true of the CDF ships. Data showed on Henry's holotank, relayed by the Uriel, and Piper viewed the same. "They're signaling jump preparations," she said.

"Cera, keep us on the projected course," Henry said in response.

"Aye, sir."

There was nothing to do or say over the next few minutes as the other ships took up formation around them. The Uriel's powerful jump drives generated a wormhole, and the Shadow Wolf accelerated ahead, entering it ahead of the Uriel. The use of the other ship's wormhole held no surprises for them. A second and a half later, they were in another star system.

Since no one would speak to him, Felix departed. He couldn't stand the silence any longer and his heart hurt at what it portended. He made his way to the ship galley and sought out one of the meals.

After a fifteen-second delay, he had a piping hot cup of clam chowder before him. He pushed the spoon in.

But he couldn't pull it out. As much as his stomach reminded him he was hungry, he had no appetite. He was numb, really. This was the nightmare he'd had since coming aboard, and now that it came true, Felix felt like there was a hole in his very being.

There was a rustle of movement beside him and he glanced over to Vidia sitting beside him, a platter of New Antillean jerk-style beef pastries before him.

Vidia took a bite of one and finished it. "Ya should fill ya belly up, Felix. Ya'll need the energy."

"Not hungry."

Vidia narrowed his eyes and put his arm on Felix's shoulder with concern evident on his face. "Ya meant well, an' we know that. Just give the others time."

"I'm not so sure about that." Felix pushed the chowder away. "Jim's the best friend I ever had, and I spied on him. I worked to turn him into an asset like he was some neutral world smuggler." Fear drove him to bring up the idea he didn't want to hear or think of. "I think he's done with me, Vidia. He'll never trust me again. And maybe he shouldn't."

"He's ya friend, Felix. Since ya were both children. Almost brothers, it makes ya."

Felix laughed harshly. "Oh, we pretty much were. But I'm Ostrovsky's man. I've been CDF this whole time, Vidia, this whole damn time. I'm not even sure I'd leave now, even if Jim forgave me and invited me to stay." He shook his head. "I swore an oath, and I'd never forgive myself if I walked away from it." The thought crossed his mind and brought harsh laughter. "I swore to God, and I barely believe in Him anymore, isn't that funny? But I've got this oath, and I've let it destroy my relationship with my best friend."

"It isn't." Vidia was entirely ignoring his food now. "Ya have ta have faith. In Jim, in yaself. Have faith an' give him time. Findin' this out about ya, it came at a bad time with everything goin' on."

"You mean finding out about Renner betraying him from the start? Yeah, that timing sucked." Felix couldn't keep the bitterness out of his words. This entire situation seemed engineered to make the truth come to Henry in the worst possible way. "I suppose someone might say God's pissed at me. He's probably right to be with all I've done in His name." He swallowed, thinking of old missions. Disturbing things he'd had to do for the CDF, in the name of the war, the things that kept him awake sometimes.

"And now I see why ya have the same wounds as Jim." Vidia's voice remained measured. Sincere and sympathetic. It reminded Felix of Jules when he was in full "minister" gear, out to soothe souls.

Not sure my soul can ever be soothed.

"The work ya did for Ostrovsky, I'm sure ya had bad things happen."

"Sometimes I was the bad thing that happened," Felix noted wryly.

"I can believe it. A terrible world ya had ta live in those years."

"More than you know." Felix slipped the spoon into the chowder entirely, but still didn't pull it out. "I'm not the only one, really. You deal with bad people, you get hurt, you hurt them. It's not clean fighting like in the fleet or the Marines."

"I don't think any fight is 'clean'," Vidia observed. "There's always blood."

"Yeah, but at least you get to be a hero." Felix turned the spoon through the cooling chowder, still trying to find his appetite. "You face death eye to eye. You don't walk up behind some poor bastard and shoot him in the back of the head because he's on the wrong side."

Vidia nodded but said nothing.

"Truth is, after these last few years, I got used to this work," Felix said softly. "It got nerve-wracking a few times, and Tia's politics grate like hell, but at least it was… it was honest, kinda. Sure, sometimes honestly illegal, but Jim never claimed he had a moral high ground. That he was doing the right thing. He's out to keep his ship flying and his crew fed, and that was it." Felix sighed. "And now I'm back to the old game. Probably for good."

"Ya can't retire? Rejoin the crew?"

Felix gave Vidia a skeptical look. "As I said, I've got an oath—and I owe Ostrovsky a lot. On top of that, be honest, Vidia. I can't come back here, not as a member of the crew. Even if I'd quit CDF intel and they let me, you guys wouldn't trust me. Couldn't, after what I've done."

"I would."

"That's because you're a better man than most, Vidia." Felix put his hand on his cup of chowder and stood. "I'm going to try to finish this in my quarters, maybe catch some shuteye. I'll see you around." Without giving Vidia a chance to say more, he walked out.

Breach of Duty

The Shadow Wolf rec room was at capacity when Hale arrived. Xu and Mueller were in the wall-side seats while Tia and Pieter were leaning against one of the tables. Cera was in the main position in the center, one Hale figured was usually turned to the big holo-viewer on the wall. She noted the ship's doctor Oskar was in another corner reading from a digital reader.

"Ah, Colonel." Mueller grinned at her and indicated the last seat in the room, a loose plastic chair. Hale took it and pulled it up. They were all back in CDF uniform. "How's the Congresswoman?"

"Resting over on the Uriel," said Hale. She managed to keep the worry in her voice over Snow's wound. "The treatment at the redoubt helped a lot, but she still needs some healing, and a CDF cruiser's got better treatment facilities."

"I'm surprised she's coming with us," Pieter said. "I don't think I've seen a politician in combat before."

"Well, not a real one," Tia remarked. Hale found it curious but decided not to inquire, figuring it was one of those things one could live through in Neutral Space. Tia's eyes met Hale's. "So, if I recall the military terms right, you used to do my job back in the day."

"If you mean an Executive Officer is pretty much the same thing as a First Mate, then yeah," said Hale. Despite the Hestian woman's brusque behavior earlier, she found Tia interesting. "You weren't Henry's First Mate all this time, were you?"

"Nah. I took the position a few years ago, after Muammar retired," Tia said. "I've been on the crew almost from the start, though. Jim hired me when he registered the Wolf on Darien. Worked my way up from there."

"Best way to become an XO, I've found," Hale replied.

"Captain did th' same for me, hired me from a trawler, gave me a chance t' fly," Cera said. "I've got no plans t' be First Mate, though."

"You didn't fly for the CDF?" Mueller asked. "You sound like you're from Tyrone. I can't imagine the draft board letting you go."

"New Connaught, actually, an' I did nearly sign up. Mam an' Da talked me out of it."

"That's what parents are for," Hale mused, thinking of her own. Mom and Dad would've loved to talk me out of this career.

"So, just t' satisfy curiosity then, what was th' Captain like in his CDF days?" Cera asked, eying her counterpart from the Laffey.

Mueller responded in a few seconds. "Conscientious. Decisive. A great CO and a good man."

"He cared for his crew," Hale added. It was painful to think of old times, but she still managed. "He kept Captain Soto from ruining her career, even if that ultimately led to her dying."

Xu shook his head. "He couldn't have known, of course. He was trying to look out for her."

"If you ask me, he'd be a general himself by now," said Mueller. "Maybe overseeing the escort squadron of a carrier group, if he didn't have his own by now."

"Why did he end up commanding a ship in testing, then?" asked Tia. "If he was this up-and-coming star?"

"It was always meant to be a temporary thing. Usually, that sort of thing is done to keep an officer going until a proper command opens up," Hale explained. "It prevents them from getting idle. Henry was too much a field officer to spend a term in administrative commands."

"He tried to do the tests right." Xu shook his head. "Soto warned him about the drives, and he warned Kalling and General Erhart. If they'd just listened to him—"

Mueller shook his head sadly. "They used him instead. Erhart cost the CDF a good skipper."

The assembled Shadow Wolf crew seemed to agree. "I guess the CDF's loss was our gain," Pieter remarked. Beside him, Tia had a distant look in her eyes, as if imagining a galaxy where Jim Henry never met her and not liking it. Hale wondered what she saw in that other world.

"Speaking of such things…" Xu turned to face Hale, who met his eyes. She felt her guilt at messing with his life start to come back. "Colonel, you have my apologies."

"And you mine," she said, her voice warm. She didn't hide the guilty look she felt forming on her face "I never wanted this to happen. To have you hurt like this."

"I know. And I take back what I said before. If anything, I'm just as much to blame. Maybe if we'd worked together, we might've found the evidence against Erhart we needed a lot earlier than we did. Perhaps we could've stopped him before it got this far."

"You had your reasons," Hale's words made her think of the one figure not present with them. "We all did, I suppose," she sighed.

"Renner?" Mueller asked.

"Let's face it, she wasn't doing it for money or some misguided loyalty," Hale said. "She did it for family. A brother she was responsible for."

Xu swallowed and nodded. "Yeah. It's the Christian thing to forgive, of course."

"It is," Mueller agreed.

"That's your department," Tia remarked. Her voice became a little hollow. "Although it's something I've seen before."

"Oh?" Hale asked.

"The megacorps do the same to us on Hestia," Tia said. "They hold family members hostage to try and use them against us." As she spoke those words, Hale could hear the pain in them. She felt horror at realizing what this meant for Tia's past. Tia noticed the look and shook her head. "Nothing you can say about it, Hale, that I haven't heard already."

"Right," Hale said. "Renner still did us wrong, though. She'll end up paying for it. The important thing is that we make Erhart pay for it too."

Breach of Duty

After returning to his quarters, Felix forced himself to eat his now-cold chowder while bringing up GalNet feeds on his personal display. GNN and other broadcasting services showed no signs of new developments about the situation, only the increasing protests, and agitation by the Peace Union. Political pundits were now predicting that the Union might win a majority in the House and even take the Presidency.

The idea of Fuentes and Rhodes as President and Vice President made Felix grumble in dissatisfaction. Fuentes sounds like too much of an idealist and Rhodes is the same radical nut as always. Maybe Erhart has a point. He immediately regretted the thought. He destroyed my friend. He set all of this in motion. Now he's going to go out and commit mass murder in a blaze of so-called glory while setting the Coalition on fire in the process.

The door chime went off. Felix took only a moment to decide to answer it grudgingly. "Come in, Miri."

The door slid open. As expected, Miri stepped in. "I heard from Vidia that you weren't doing well." Her expression was sympathetic. "May I?"

"Not stopping you," he replied, his eyes remaining on the screen. He flipped to another network. "Watch changed?"

"Yes. Mueller insisted on taking the bridge, and Vidia is getting time at the helm." Miri took the extra seat in the room.

"I'm sure you made me pretty early on," Felix remarked. "I should thank you for not saying anything."

She shook her head. "I didn't know you were still an active agent. I only suspected you'd had prior involvement in intelligence work."

"Well, thank you anyway. I never mentioned my time in CDF Intel to Jim. Only the Kalahari op, since that was my cover." Felix spoke the words with little emotion or energy.

"It wasn't my place to say such things."

"I get that." Felix glanced her way. "Damned thing of it all is that I was trying to help him. Ostrovsky was a little uncertain about him. Nothing definite."

"Of course not." She nodded, understanding the situation. "A man disgraced by the CDF, possibly unfairly, could make for a useful agent for the other side. He was starting to work for Vitorino."

"Yeah. I was worried if I turned it down, he'd send someone else. Someone who might have bought the official story on the Laffey and would see everything Jim did in the most hostile light." Felix shook his head. "I had to be the one to keep Jim safe. But it doesn't matter, I suppose. I still hurt him. I can see that." Felix's eyes lowered. "And I don't know how to fix that."

"With time, it'll heal."

Like it did with you? Felix almost asked, but he stopped himself. There was no point in alienating Miri too.

Miri put her hands together on her right knee and laid her lower leg over her left knee. "It does explain why you kept turning him down to be the Third Mate of the ship. It might've helped your mission, given you a greater say in the running of the ship. But it'd make the betrayal greater, when he found out about your lies. You couldn't accept that happening."

It was all true, of course, and Felix didn't bother denying it. He didn't want to talk about it. He focused on the news report on the screen showing a massive protest in Roosevelt on New Washington. He turned the audio up to allow a male voice to be heard. "...nearly came to blows with counter-protestors as they continued to call for the release of Congresswoman Celinda Snow of Canaan and the investigation of General Erhart, accusing the government of engaging in political repression. Ralph Farmer, the Peace Union's candidate for the planet's seat on the Coalition Senate, called the arrests a gross abuse of power and insisted that President Spencer prove his support of the Terran Coalition Constitution. He asked, and I quote, 'Is this what we've been fighting for?' Coming up on our next segment, our political panel covers new polls that indicate the Peace Union is gaining strength in the electorate…"

Felix turned the audio down. "I suppose Fuentes should send Erhart a damned fruit basket. Erhart might just have tripped the election over to them. Can you imagine the Peace Union holding Congress and the Presidency?"

"Perhaps it's time for a change," Miri said quietly.

"That's not change; it's throwing the damn towel in," Felix growled.

"Maybe," Miri allowed, her eyes drifting around the room. "Honestly, Felix, I've never shared the CDF's disdain for the Peace Union."

"Oh? Even when you've seen what the League is like, up close and personal?" There was a hint of challenge in his voice.

"Yes. And for much the same reason." She lowered her right leg and now propped the left up on it. "Did you know the League has a Pacifist faction?"

"Probably busy keeping their heads down to avoid getting thrown in a camp," Felix said.

"To an extent, yes, but they do have some influence back in the Orion Spur. But my point is this: a desire for peace exists even there. If the Lord is willing, this war doesn't have to end—"

It wasn't that Felix started ignoring Miri. It was the text that came across the screen that sucked his attention away from her speaking. He'd habitually flipped to the Tylerville Times' GalNet site. Its new front page showed Henry's image, but it was the headline that drew his attention.

Miri noticed the diversion of his attention. "What is it?"

"Oh no," Felix breathed. He stood and, as Miri watched, went for the door. "Sorry, but I need to go see someone."

Breach of Duty

With a possible battle coming up, Henry was looking to rest while he could. He turned on his bed, his eyes closed in the pitch black of his quarters, and urged his mind to settle so he could sleep.

But it didn't. Couldn't. His heart wasn't in it. It hurt too much.

He should've known about Felix. That was what he felt. His best friend in the world was still working for CDF Intelligence, and he didn't realize it. He'd let Felix lie to his face, and he never even saw it. Just like I never realized what Renner was. I'm the biggest dope in this entire damn galaxy.

The door chime sounded. Henry ignored it, still focusing on trying to sleep. When it became a loud knock, he recognized it and let out a sigh. "Come in, Yanik," he shouted.

The door slid open, and the lights came on, forcing Henry to squint while his eyes adjusted. Yanik stepped in as Henry sat up on his bed. He thought something seemed off with the way the Saurian's eyes were focused, the way he carried himself. This was him being somber, truly somber. "Captain."

"What is it, Yanik?"

"I have something you should see. Now." He offered a digital reader from the rec room.

Henry took it, wondering what bad news came his way. Wondering, even as a voice inside him already knew it. Already felt it. His eyes settled on the screen, and they were drawn as if by magnets to three larger words among the text.

Charles Benjamin Henry.

And at the top of the reader was the word "Obituary."

He'd known this would happen. He'd known it since the CBI put the cuffs on and led him from the hospital. It shouldn't have hurt this much, not with that kind of foreknowledge.

But it did.

Charles Henry was dead.

Uncle Charlie is dead.

I wasn't there!

"He is mourned," Yanik said. "I know in the depth of my soul that he is with the Divine. He upheld krassha greater than many I have known." Yanik's tongue flicked in the air. "And I know what he meant to you, Captain, and the great injustice our enemies have done to you by removing you from his side."

It was well-spoken, as always from Yanik. Henry struggled to find the words to speak, the words Yanik deserved for taking this duty on himself. "Thanks," he managed, his voice very quiet. "Thank you a lot, Yanik." He held the reader out. Yanik took it.

Another might have stayed and spoken on. Oskar and Piper would've tried to comfort him. Samina would've offered a hug. Felix, damn his spying, would have provided Henry whiskey.

He was grateful to see that Yanik knew better, knew what Henry needed more than anything at this moment. The Saurian silently turned and left the room, returning it to darkness.

The pain was too much. Henry couldn't stop the sobs that formed. His eyes welled with tears as the sheer unfairness of it all drove furious grief through his raging heart. Erhart, Ostrovsky, Felix, Renner, the CDF, his cousin Shawn; he longed for any of them to take out his fury on.

But they weren't here. It was just him and the pain that threatened to choke him with the sobbing it brought.


36

Sleep came to Henry, eventually, and he dreamed of a happier galaxy where there was no war, no League, and Uncle Charlie was enjoying his retirement.

Then he woke up, remembered the galaxy that actually existed, and went to work preparing for what was to come.

He'd want me to do the right thing, Henry told himself as he finished his morning shave. To stop Erhart. The thought stuck in him. Or am I just claiming that so I feel better about this? Would he want me to risk this crew for that? When I know what I want is revenge?

Want it, he did. He wanted to pay Erhart back, in spades, for everything he'd done to ruin Henry's life. He wanted to see the general's life broken in the same way. To see him drummed out of the service, to have his rank and ribbons and medals ripped from his uniform, his cover swatted off, his ceremonial sword broken. He wanted Erhart to know the same pain he had, to see his entire life's work undone.

It wasn't a worthy motive. Not like the others. His crew had far better motives, and that included their loyalty to him. A commitment that demanded he do this for more than revenge.

He had reasons to fight beyond revenge. Seeking justice for Soto and the other slain Laffey crew sacrificed to Faulkner's greed and Erhart's ruthlessness. Stopping a mass murder, really a genocide, and preventing Erhart's actions from tearing the Coalition to pieces. Each of these motives was a worthy one. But the only one that he felt, the one that touched his core, was the desire to get payback.

It was wrong. He knew it was wrong.

He finished getting ready, including fitting the holster for the CP-2520 Colt onto his belt. He let the sidearm hang there as it always did. Usually, it spoke to the potential violence of the ports of call the Shadow Wolf visited and the need for defense. Today, it was there to shoot people.

Including, quite possibly, General Erhart.

He stepped into the galley and found it crowded. It seemed everyone was present, in various stages of finishing meals. All eyes turned toward him. He could see that they knew. They all knew.

Samina started to stand, and Henry could see what she planned. He held up a hand, and she stopped. "I know I have your condolences and I'm thankful," he said. "You don't have to say anything else. I knew he was dying. I knew it'd end this way." His words shook with pain. "We've got two hours before we jump. Ostrovky's going in first. They'll let Erhart know the game's up and get him to back down."

"Which won't happen," Hale said.

"Likely not," Henry agreed. "And when that happens, Ostrovsky's going to send us arrival coordinates over QET."

"What're we facing?" asked Piper.

"Point-defense satellites, and possibly the deflectors on the station. But we've got the firepower to take those, and we can break through the deflectors with a neutron cannon shot and slip through at full burn." Henry gestured to his old crew. "Xu's offered to act as our TAO, so he'll be working the cannons. That'll free Piper to do sensor watch. The others'll be on the quads so we can have more hands-on damage control for the approach. Once we get there, well, we'll see what the situation is. Any more questions?"

There were none. Nor did any of them seem to be having second guesses. Henry forced a grin to his face. "I can't thank you enough for the trust, the faith, you've shown in me. I'll do what I have to in keeping that faith. I'd like to say that you're the best crew I've ever had, CDF or independent."

Their response was cheers and applause. Henry, knowing what was coming, got a breakfast meal from the pantry and went at it. As he ate, the others finished and headed off to finish the final checks before they went into the fray.

When they were gone, the old Laffey officers approached. Henry finished his last bite of food and stood to meet them. He couldn't keep the grief from his face, but he again forced a smile at their approach. "One more time, then," he said. "And not like Phi Philomena."

"Not at all like Phi Philomena," Mueller said.

"I always wondered how things were going for you when I heard you went independent," said Hale. "I'm glad to see you wound up with people like this. They're a great crew."

"They are," he agreed.

"And if you ask me, it's proof you're a great CO," Hale added. "Whatever comes, it's an honor to serve with you again."

"Honor's mine," he assured them, taking the time to shake each of their hands.

Breach of Duty

It was a strange feeling to experience the tension of an approaching Zero Hour. Lusitania and Monrovia aside, it was an old feeling Henry didn't entirely miss. The "hurry up and wait" feeling when you knew things were going to get dangerous and you didn't or couldn't care, since you had a job to do.

Over the intercom, the others checked in. Pieter, Samina, and Brigitte were in Engineering. Yanik was with Miri and Felix in the holds with Ostrovsky's strike Marines, ready to board with them. Hale and Mueller were with Vidia and Oskar on the quad turrets.

Around him, Tia, Piper, and Cera were at their places. Toward the rear and side of the bridge, right beside the hatch for the bridge's port escape pod, Xu was at the auxiliary station, converted into a tactical action station to control the ship's unmanned weapons. He nodded to Henry. "Just like the old days," he said, content with how the station's configuration was set.

"I'm just glad I'm not doing the shooting this time," Piper remarked. "We should see about converting that station to weapons full-time."

"When we have the crew for it, I'll think about it."

Even as he spoke, Henry had to work to keep the confidence in his voice. Charlie's death left a great gaping wound in his heart, a void of loss that left him in emotional agony and still hadn't had any time to heal. Nor could he make the time for it, not with what was coming.

"We're getting a call from the Uriel," Tia said. "Putting it through."

The bridge's viewer, the layer of liquid crystal built into the interior wall at the front of the bridge, shifted to show General Ostrovsky and Congresswoman Snow. She looked healthier now, thanks to the redoubt's medical tech allowing Oskar to treat her gunshot wound more thoroughly. Henry was impressed with her bravery as well. Ostrovsky had offered to let her stay back on the redoubt under protection, but she insisted on coming to provide him with political authority. She hadn't been stripped of her Defense Committee position, after all, nor her seat in Congress. Henry doubted it'd work, but it was still brave. But then again, she wants to get back at Erhart too. Probably wants to be there to see it happen. Is it bravery or a desire for revenge?

"We're ready on this end, Captain," Ostrovsky said. "We'll signal to let you know the outcome."

"We'll be here," Henry assured them. "Good luck, and let's hope Erhart or his people will listen to reason."

"Hopefully, the Lord will touch his heart if we can't," Ostrovsky said. "Godspeed, Captain Henry."

For a moment, a stare formed on Ostrovsky's face, as if he truly expected Henry to reply with "Godspeed" in CDF tradition. But there wasn't even a thought of it in Henry's mind. He nodded and noted the small expression of disappointment that came over Ostrovsky's face before the line terminated.

In rapid succession, wormholes opened up ahead of them. The Uriel and her squadrons flew through them, leaving the Shadow Wolf behind.

And now we wait. Henry knew deep down they'd be getting the call to jump in.

Breach of Duty

Snow stared ahead in silence while the Uriel completed her jump into the Exodus Yard system. The fear and uncertainty and readiness she felt within herself made her wonder if this was what it was like for all of the field personnel in the CDF.

The various displays came back on once they were clear of the wormhole and its interference. "Secure from jump," said the officer at the helm.

Nearby, Colonel Isabella de la Hoya, the CO of the Uriel, answered, "TAO, sensor status?"

Major Bohinder Singh was a turbaned man with a kirpa on his belt and a thick black beard. Even with all of this to mark his religious devotion, he also wore the CDF patch for a devout Sikh on his uniform. "Conn, TAO. Sensors online, I'm showing the station and shipyard . Our systems are still counting the number of ships in the docks, but several CDF ships are free of the yard and now moving to intercept. IFF codes are for CSV Solzhenitsyn, CSV Gerald Bull, CSV Erskine Childers—wait."

"What is it, Major?"

"I'm detecting debris near our position, sir," Singh continued. "Three overlapping fields."

From the comm station, a tan-skinned man with a Catholic crucifix patch spoke up. His name tag read "Sandoval," and his rank insignia was for a full Lieutenant. "Conn, communications. We're picking up black box beacons from the debris field. Identification codes are for Coalition civilian pleasure craft. Large yachts and converted passenger liners."

De la Hoya's voice sounded strained as she asked, "Can you get us any data from them? On how they were lost?"

"Putting final comm transmissions on speakers."

The speakers crackled to life. "This is the Starswallow's Lark to CDF ships. Please cease fire! We're unarmed, we surrender! For the love of God, we sur—"

They listened as one voice after another begged for mercy and then went silent.

"Dear God Almighty," Snow gasped. "What has Erhart done?"

Around her, the officers and crew on the Uriel bridge were pale and silent. Disbelief showed on their faces, as if reality was now at odds with itself.

"Conn, communications. We're receiving a hail from the station, sir," Sandoval said. His voice shook as he broke the unreal silence.

Ostrovsky stared straight ahead, his lips pursed together in a grim expression. De la Hoya said, in evident grief, "Put them on, Lieutenant."

The main viewer on the bridge changed to show a command center. Erhart looked at them with a quiet, patient expression. "General Ostrovsky. You're a long way from Canaan."

"What in the Lord's name is this, Erhart?" Ostrovsky asked.

"The price of victory, General. My people and I will see to it the League never threatens us again."

"You murdered innocent civilians!"

Erhart didn't even blink. His entire face reminded Snow of a statue's if it could turn into flesh. "Casualties of war. To be frank, many of them were deserters planning to steal our Exodus Fleet. I won't lose any sleep over their quick and kind fates."

"Conn, TAO. Solzhenitsyn's shields are up," said Singh. "I'm showing her energy weapons capacitor fully charged, along with forward mag-cannons loaded and ready to shoot."

"Ostrovsky, your participation is unwelcome," said Erhart. "I'm asking you to leave. Go back to Canaan and prepare the CDF for the mopping up. Once I'm done blazing a path across the League, you'll want to follow up."

Ostrovsky shook his head. "I'm not leaving, Erhart, not until you stand your forces down and hand over control of the Exodus Fleet."

"That's not happening. This is the stroke we need, and I'm going to deliver it."

Snow couldn't contain her horror and anger anymore. "You bloody-minded bastard!" she snarled. "I knew you were capable of a lot, but this is mass murder you're talking about! This could break the Coalition in two!"

Erhart turned his head slightly, as if finally noticing her. "Congresswoman Snow. I'd recognize that defeatist voice anywhere."

It was an old insult, and Snow wasn't putting up with it. "Defeatist, hell! You and I both know what's really between us. You covered up the deaths of good people and framed an innocent man in the process!"

"As always, I did what had to be done. If the Coalition can't handle that, it's not my problem." A flicker of resignation showed on Erhart's face. "Ostrovsky, I don't have time for this. You should leave. If you make any further attempt to interfere in my operation, I'll have your ship fired upon until you withdraw."

The threat gained the attention of the entire Uriel bridge crew. Ostrovsky's jaw clenched. "Are you telling me you'd have your people fire on their own?"

"I've picked my officers and crew well. They know our victory in the war is at stake, and they won't be stopped."

"Dear Christ, are you mad?" Snow demanded. "The Laffey was one thing—"

"Mad? No. I see more clearly than any of you or the political buffoons back in Lawrence City you continue to follow." Erhart tapped a key in front of him. "This is General Erhart to CSV Madison Washington. Major Tawadros, as the senior field commander present, I'm ordering you to detach yourself from the intelligence squadron and form up with the Solzhenitsyn. My authority over your squadron is greater than General Ostrovsky's under standard fleet regulation."

Snow felt a knot in her stomach. She knew enough of those regs to see Erhart was technically correct. And if Tawadros went with it, they had no chance without reinforcements. He wouldn't, she assured herself, even as that little voice in her head, the voice of her fear, wondered, But what if he does?

Tawadros' voice came over the line. "I'm sorry, General, it's clear you're running a rogue operation. I will not detach myself over to your command."

For his part, Erhart only seemed a little disappointed, not angry. "Major, my orders are in line with winning this war. I urge you to reconsider. Also, consider what this means for your crew. If you remain with Ostrovsky's force, do you really expect your crew to fire on their brothers and sisters in arms?"

"I could ask the same of you, General. You're clearly willing to fire on our own people as it is. In the name of God, sir, stand down and stop this."

"While you only collude with the people who murdered CDF personnel on the Dante to recover their friends." Erhart's stony expression didn't change. "Major, General Ostrovsky, Congresswoman, I'm only going to say this one time. To win this war, I have paid every price demanded of me. I expect the same from every man and woman in this uniform. If you're not willing to live up to that, then stay out of my way or I'll push you aside. Erhart out."

Erhart's image disappeared, and the line cut.

"Sir, Solzhenitsyn and her attached ships are beginning to accelerate to combat power," Singh warned. "What are your orders?"

Ostrovsky let out a breath. "Lord help us, it's come to this."

De la Hoya looked his way. "General, I can fight this battle, but I need orders, and soon. As things stand, they have the advantage on us in getting to combat velocity first."

"Then you have your orders, Colonel. Commence combat maneuvers and engage the enemy." As the words left his mouth, Ostrovsky frowned as if they were distasteful or ugly in some way.

"Attention, all hands, this is the commanding officer. General quarters! General quarters! All hands to battle stations. Set condition one throughout the ship," de la Hoya began. "TAO, designate Solzhenitsyn and her escorts as hostile. Navigation, all ahead flank."

Singh nodded stiffly and went to work on his board. "Designating targets Master Ten through Eighteen…"

Even as Singh labored, de la Hoya gave Ostrovsky an intent look. "Should we open fire first?"

The glare he gave her in return was all the answer de la Hoya needed on that score. He nodded to Snow next. "Congresswoman, please find a seat and strap in. This will be dangerous."

Snow obeyed while around her the Uriel crew readied for the battle they'd never imagined in their worst nightmares.

Breach of Duty

In the Exodus Yard's command center, Erhart's people were preparing for battle as well. Erhart remained at the central command station, giving him a vantage point over their operations while a tactical holotank provided him a view of the battle. "Exodus Fleet awaiting engagement orders, sir," said Farley from his place nearby. "Station personnel are preparing to repel boarders, if necessary, and station defenses are coming online."

Erhart heard the very slight concern in Farley's voice. He looked toward his subordinate and said, "They're forcing us to this, Farley. I don't want them dead. If they break and run, there will be no pursuit. But this is the only way to win the war and you know that."

"Otherwise, the League will recover," Farley said as he set his jaw and nodded. "They'll eventually re-invade us. No matter how much we beat them back, they'll keep coming."

"Exactly." Erhart turned his attention back to the holotank. Ostrovsky's ships were assuming combat formation and beginning maneuvers, but they hadn't fired yet. He imagined Ostrovsky saw this as one last outstretched hand, offered to keep the unthinkable from happening.

A noble sentiment, General. That of a good man. But the war's shown what happens to the noble. There's no place for nobility in war—only necessity.

As those words went through Erhart's head, he decided enough time had passed. He'd humored Ostrovsky long enough, and he wouldn't have him underfoot. He used his finger to open the tactical commlink to his ships. "Erhart to all forces. You are clear to engage. Drive the enemy away from the Exodus Yard and Fleet. To Earth and victory!"

There was no reply, which was what Erhart wanted. In those last four words, he reminded his people what they were fighting and dying for, and that was enough.

His ships opened fire on Ostrovsky's vessels, resulting in an immediate reply. No weapons were spared. Missiles, neutron cannons, and mag-cannons blazed away between the two forces. On the holotank tactical display, this exchange of fire was sterile, far more than it'd be for the crews having deadly armaments trying to blast through deflectors and armor to tear open their ships.

After about fifteen seconds, he noted the Uriel and her ships turn away. He briefly hoped this was Ostrovsky deciding to get out, to not fight this fight after all, but he quickly dismissed that hope. The maneuver wasn't a combat breakaway; it was a tactical decision. He was increasing the range to force Erhart's ships to pursue.

So that's your battle plan, Ostrovsky? Have something up your sleeve? Without looking away, Erhart called out, "TAO, confirm defense station readiness and deflector status."

"Aye aye, sir. Confirming now."

Erhart triggered his tactical channel again. "Solzhenitsyn, you're allowed to pursue for now. The enemy wants you further away from the Station, and I want to know why."

"Aye aye, sir," Freeman replied.

A minute passed, then two. The range was such that neither side had yet to break through the deflectors of any of the others, they weren't getting enough hits to manage it. But once the range improved and the predictor models had fewer possibilities to sift through, that would change.

"Sir, do you think he has more forces?" Farley asked.

"I think he might have one more ship helping him," said Erhart. "And he won't give this up until he sees I've blocked that line of attack. Now—"

"Sir, wormhole forming, three hundred thousand kilometers."

"Give me a visual."

One of the monitors at the command station blinked to life. It showed an open wormhole through space. Through it flew a civilian vessel, an armed one. The IFF systems picked up the ship's identifier beacon after the wormhole's interference cleared: Shadow Wolf.

"Sir, it's a Holden-Nagata, Mark VII. But its acceleration profile and engine signature is completely off the chart for that kind of ship," said the station's TAO, Major Smythe. "I'm seeing weapons on its deep scan."

"That you are, Major." Erhart grinned at the sight, drawing a confused look from Farley. Only Farley could hear Erhart's voice as he murmured, "Good to know that under the cynical exterior of mercenary Captain Henry, Colonel Henry might still exist."

"Sir?"

"Just musing, Farley, just musing," Erhart said. Time to see just what Ostrovsky's trump amounts to. "Major, designate the Shadow Wolf as a target and erase it from space."


37

Once the signal to come in came from Ostrovsky, Henry took every precaution. The deflectors were raised and the fusion drive brought online, allowing them to pick up a respectable combat velocity before they made their jump.

The usual interference after a wormhole transition cleared to show the expansive space station and shipyard that was their target. The traffic monitoring holotank beside Henry showed the yard and such a multitude of amber contacts from the ships tethered to it that the color bathed the bridge.

And there, off in the corner, were Ostrovsky's ships and Erhart's. Ostrovsky had a slight numerical edge, with an extra frigate and destroyer, but it was not a decisive edge. Given the distance and his ships' direction, he'd pulled the enemy successfully from the station, giving Henry a run at it.

"Looks like their defense stations are coming online," said Piper. "But something's not right. The thermal plumes are way more than they should be for point-defense stations."

Henry's reaction was immediate. "Cera, evasive maneuvers, now!"

Cera twisted the Shadow Wolf and moved it to the side, changing the ship's position and slightly altering its course. A moment later, a beam of white-hot blue light speared the space they'd just flown from, barely missing them. She shifted the Shadow Wolf's course and attitude yet again. More beams lashed out at them, missing thankfully, with one grazing the deflectors.

"Those are neutron cannons," Xu noted. "The stations have been outfitted with neutron cannon weaponry!"

"Maintaining evasives!" Cera called out for Henry's benefit.

He was grateful for it. Beam after beam lashed out at them from the various stations, fired with accuracy only barely defeated by Cera's skills at the helm and the acceleration granted by the fusion drive at full power.

Even then, a couple more of the shots grazed their deflectors, rattling the ship. "Deflectors down to half," Tia said.

"Ms. McGinty, I can return fire with your ship's neutron cannon," Xu said. "But I need a clear shot."

"I'll see what I can do," Cera said.

The Shadow Wolf kept maneuvering. Henry could see what Cera was doing, however. Her movements were giving her a feel for the firing pattern of the enemy stations. The more she understood Erhart's TAO's method, the more shots she could provide to Xu.

"Comin' up, Colonel!" Cera called out. "Five seconds!"

At the five-second mark exactly, Cera snapped the Shadow Wolf about and presented its bow to one of the defense stations. Xu acted quickly and triggered the Shadow Wolf's neutron cannon. The beam of white-blue light stabbed across the void and went through the defense station like a scalpel. It wasn't a direct hit, but it didn't need to be, as the shot cleaved the station's cannon in two.

Of course, that was just one station, and there were over a dozen more to deal with.

Again Cera put the Shadow Wolf into a set of wild, tight maneuvers, defying the efforts of Erhart's people to hit their ship. Neutron beam after neutron beam sizzled through space after them and missed, some barely so.

Henry noted the firing pattern of the enemy stations. "Cera, they're trying to box you in," he said.

"Aye, an' they can try as long as they like, sir," she answered confidently.

She punctuated this boast by yet again lining up the Shadow Wolf for another shot.

Xu took it immediately. This time, the Wolf's neutron cannon was right on target. The beam bisected the entire station, which came apart a moment before the capacitors for the neutron cannon violently released their energy in an explosion that turned the whole wreck into a brief fireball.

"If we get closer, we might be able to evade their fire more easily," Xu said. "It would allow me to can bring the plasma cannons to bear on the stations."

"Some of the stations still have auto-turrets and pulse guns," Piper said. "All together, they have enough point-defense to blast us to pieces if we get close."

The ship shook again. "Deflectors are down to a quarter," Tia warned. "If we take a direct hit, it'll go right through us."

"Doin' what I can t' keep that from happenin'," Cera yelled. "But it'd help an awful bloody lot if they had somethin' else t' shoot at!"

"You're right about that," Henry said. As things were going, they were in trouble, and he kept a nervous eye on the damage indicator for any sign of internal structural problems. They couldn't stay under this amount of thrust forever. "This isn't working. Cera, pull us back so we can ease up on the fusion drive."

"Aye, Captain."

"Tia, we're hooked into the Uriel's tac comm channel?"

"I'm opening the link now," she answered, her face already a little paler than usual, given the G-forces they were under.

Henry pressed down on his chair's transmit key. "This is Shadow Wolf to Uriel Actual, we're going to need backup if we're to get through those defense stations. I say again, we're going to need backup."

Even as he spoke the request, Henry glanced toward the traffic-monitoring holotank again, to see how Ostrovsky was doing.

The image he saw wasn't exactly encouraging.

Breach of Duty

Henry's plea came over the speakers on the Uriel bridge just as the ship shook. " Direct neutron cannon hit on port-bow quarter, feedback damage to port-side deflector generators," the ship's XO noted to de la Hoya and Ostrovsky. "Port shields at sixty percent effectiveness."

De la Hoya acknowledged the news with stoic aplomb. Ostrovsky appreciated that in her, and it fit her record from when she was in frontline service.

A glance toward the tactical holotank said everything. Erhart had indeed given them what they wanted, moving his ships out, but now it was clear he'd only done so for his own reasons. The defense stations, far from being point-defense only, were engaging the Shadow Wolf with powerful neutron cannon armament. The volume of fire, and the fact that any direct hit would likely destroy or badly damage the civilian ship, kept them and the Marine boarding teams Ostrovsky had detached to them away from the Exodus Yard.

As for his ships? They kept a blocking position to keep Ostrovsky's ships away from the station and the Shadow Wolf. With their numbers so closely matched, and Erhart's people so skilled at their jobs, it was all de la Hoya could do to keep them in the fight.

While she continued directing the other ships in their force, Ostrovsky took a moment to answer Henry directly. "I'm afraid none of our ships can come to your aid, Captain. We're fully engaged and cut off."

"Without help, we'll never get into range of that station, General," Henry said.

Ostrovsky considered the help Henry had called in, but they didn't have a definite ETA on them. Double-jumps would be necessary for them to come in time, and those couldn't be scheduled with any accuracy.

"Colonel, I'm detecting activity from the Exodus Yard," said Major Singh. "It looks like two of the ships are coming online, and they're cruiser-mass. Designating as Masters Nineteen and Twenty."

Ostrovsky figured the cruisers' first target if they finished activating. "Captain, you're running out of time," he said. "You need to get to the station before those ships are active!"

Breach of Duty

Settled in the crash couch seat of the quad-mount on Shadow Wolf's starboard side, Mueller spent his time waiting for something to fire at and wondering if the G-forces pressing him into place would get any worse. I suppose COs should sometimes experience things like this; helps to remind them of how their crew lives, he pondered.

He felt the vibration before he heard it. As it became audible, he tried to place it. Was it from one of the ship's systems? He didn't know the layout of a Holden-Nagata, and the vessel was extensively modified as it was. Feeling the vibration run through his chair decided the matter. Whatever was wrong, it was in the turret itself, and he needed to get out.

His hands briefly fumbled with the unfamiliar harness strap before he managed to trigger the release. He yanked the face mask off next. Once he freed himself from the seat, he struggled to stand. The G-forces pressed against him, trying to force him toward the stern end of the turret, then back into his chair. Outside of the turret, neutron beams continued to streak here and there, showing how intense the incoming fire was.

There was a slight shudder through the ship that forced him back. He fell against the chair and toward the bow of the vessel. The vibration around him grew louder with every second. Saint George, help me! He struggled to force himself back up. He let out a groan of effort in the process of pushing himself back to his feet.

The ship changed direction again, but at least this time, the G-forces weren't quite against him. The hatch was toward the bow and side of the turret, just behind the chair, and while the ship's main thrust was pushing him back, the shift pushed him in the right direction. He half-stumbled toward the hatch. The vibration now filled his ears with a deafening roar.

"Mueller, evacuate the turret!" Henry cried over the intercom.

"Doing so!" he called back, his hands gripping the hatch. Another maneuver pulled him away from the hatch and nearly yanked his hands free of it, but he managed to keep one hand on the handle long enough for the G-forces to shift his way again. With both hands, he forced the sealing lock to disengage and freed the hatch door to open. He pulled it toward him and got just enough room to slip through.

The vibration was now a scream, and it was a scream he had only heard in training vids: the shriek of tearing metal. He knew now the danger Henry had yet to speak, and he was almost out of time. He had to get to safety; specifically, the internal compartment hatch ahead of him.

With a prayer on his lips and a desperate pounding in his heart, he forced himself forward, trying to run, or to at least jog, against the G-forces pressing against him. His muscles protested, straining as they were to keep him upright and move him forward. He felt like all the blood in his body was trying to force itself to his left side. But to stop was to die, and to die in a way all spacers dreaded, so he kept going. Closer, closer he ran.

As his hands gripped the wheel lock of the hatch, a new sound joined the screaming metal, a low whistle that was the dread of anyone who served in a space vessel. The ship was no longer airtight here. The atmosphere was flowing out into the vacuum of space. Explosive decompression was imminent.

He grimaced as he forced the wheel to turn. It took two full rotations to pull the locks free. The hatch came loose. His heart soared in triumph at that, and he stepped through.

The shrieking metal became a crescendo, and the whistle became a roar of its own. The turret he'd vacated was being ripped free from the hull. With a mere second or two to spare, he slammed the bulkhead hatch and twisted the wheel on the interior side of the door with all his remaining might. Even through the bulkhead, he could hear the fierce thunder of the atmosphere on the other side abruptly decompressing from the compartment.

Then, with a final twist, he locked the hatch in place. Moments passed, moments in which he wondered if the whistle was just in his head or if the bulkhead wasn't air-tight.

But the indicators beside the door didn't lie. The bulkhead was airtight. There was no air leaking out.

He let out a triumphant sigh and sagged to the floor as the G-forces pressed him against the wall. For the moment, with his heart still pounding and his body aching, Mueller sat there praying thanks to Heaven that he wasn't trapped in the lost turret or trying to breathe vacuum.

Henry's voice came over the intercom. "Mueller! Mueller, are you all right?"

After taking in a breath, he answered, "I'm alive, sir, I'm alive."

Breach of Duty

The reply relieved Henry, but there was no time to appreciate it. The entire ship seemed to shake and the status screen showed that the sensors built into the ship's structure indicated extreme stress to the frame. The loss of the forward starboard quad turret was only the worst part of a growing problem.

Another voice roared over the intercom. "Captain, we must reduce acceleration!" Pieter cried out from Engineering. "The ship can't take the strain of full burn on the fusion drive anymore. She's tearing herself apart!"

But we need that thrust! The thought shot through Henry in defiance of the genuine threat to their ship. In space combat, thrust was the margin of life and death for a ship like Shadow Wolf. Reducing thrust would make them an easier target for Erhart's tactical officer.

Still… If we maintain this thrust, we die. If we don't, we may die. That was the logic of the situation, and Henry couldn't ignore it.

"Cera, pull us back from the station," he ordered. "Now! Reduce thrust as soon as you can, bring us down to fifty percent."

"Aye, sir," she answered. Cera brought the ship around, gaining distance on the defense stations. With all of the speed the vessel had already built up, she was able to get them clear enough that, in five seconds, she started cutting the engines down. The vibration in the deck plating lowered and eventually ceased, as did the shaking. The ship's inertial compensators brought them back to a comfortable 1.08 Gs.

Henry's choice had preserved their lives, but it'd also made one thing clear: there was no way they could get to the station. The reduced thrust made it too easy for Erhart's people to land a direct hit, and even one would be fatal to them.

Piper added to his woes when she spoke up. "They've just launched two ships from the yards. They look like combat-capable cruisers."

We need a new plan, and we need it now. Henry's hand hovered over the transmit key when another voice broke in over their tac comm line.

Erhart's voice.

Breach of Duty

From his place on Exodus Station, Erhart watched the Shadow Wolf continue burning away. Now his comm officer had him tapped into their tac com link to the Solzhenitsyn. "It's good to see that you've still got the bravery of a CDF man, Colonel," Erhart said. "But sometimes bravery is just recklessness. Just what are you hoping to accomplish with your overloaded cargo hauler?"

"Well, stopping you from an act of mass murder was the idea," Henry replied. "You ruined my life, and now you're going to set the galaxy on fire."

"I don't think so, Colonel. Once Earth and Mars and their other central worlds are blasted to rubble, the League's centralized system will collapse. They'll be unable to fight the Coalition off. The war will finally end."

"It isn't that simple, and you know it. You're committing mass murder in the CDF's name, Erhart. You don't think that'll blow back on us?"

"The Coalition will survive it, or it's not worthy of the sacrifices made to save it," Erhart replied. "Colonel, I must admit, I'm not in the mood to justify myself to you."

"Because you can't."

Erhart didn't bother replying. He was beyond such concerns. Instead, he found himself remembering earlier times. "Remember what I told you on the Clemenceau, Colonel?"

"I'll never forget that night," Henry answered. "You saw to it."

"So you'll remember my advice to you then. Let me repeat it for your benefit now." Erhart folded his hands together. "There's no shame in withdrawing from a hopeless battle. My ships have Ostrovsky pinned down, and he won't be helping you. Leave and get your people to safety."

Now there was steel in the other man's voice. "You mean surrender to you again?"

"Call it what you want, Colonel. We both know you can't stop me, not with your ship tearing itself apart from those fusion drives you've had installed." Erhart waited for a reply. When none came, he directed a look to Farley. "General, have Sierra Ten pursue Master Sixteen. Destroy her if she doesn't withdraw." He made sure his voice carried over the comm line for Henry.

"Sierra Ten is acknowledging, General," said Farley. On Erhart's screens, the Turchin adjusted course toward Henry's ship. Their engines went to combat power.

With no reply over the line, Erhart spoke up again. "Colonel, please, you've made your attempt and you've failed. If you stay, you'll lose your crew. There's no point in you dying out of stubborn pride."

Again, there was no reply for several moments. Erhart checked and saw that the channel was still open. Henry could hear him.

"Sierra Ten is acquiring a missile lock," said Farley. "They're firing."

The holotank showed twin missiles. They weren't Hunters, given the limitations on Erhart's operation, but against a ship like the Shadow Wolf, they didn't need to be. If Henry didn't jump, his ship would likely take two heavy anti-ship missiles that could cripple a destroyer with direct hits.

"I'm not out of friends yet, Erhart," Henry said over the line.

Erhart chuckled at that. "Oh, come now, Colonel. Ostrovsky may have read you in, but he'd never let you bring your privateer friends anywhere near the Exodus Station. This is not a workable bluff."

"Who said I was bluffing?" Henry answered. "I've got other friends."

Erhart laughed again.

"Sir, we have a wormhole forming near Master Sixteen," Major Smythe announced. "It's a capital-scale vortex, sir!"

The idea stunned Erhart. He had people in every carrier group, every cruiser formation. They were under strict orders to send him word if their ships were diverted unexpectedly. What can it be? "On viewer."

The screen switched to a vision of the giant wormhole just as a ship emerged from it. As the size of its wormhole had indicated, the ship was a full-scale capital vessel, larger than any cruiser, equal in size to the Coalition's mightiest carriers and twice the size of the League's battleships.

Erhart recognized it immediately, and to the concern of his men, it was the first time any of them could remember him being shocked.

Smythe had fear in his voice as he called out the identification code he read.

"The new arrival, sir, it's… the CSV Lion of Judah."


38

The jump interference cleared from the Lion of Judah's sensors, revealing to Colonel David Cohen and his crew a sight that they'd never imagined: CDF ships exchanging hostile fire with one another.

Within a few seconds of said interference clearing, First Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg called out a report from her tactical action station. "Conn, TAO. Inbound heavy anti-ship missiles."

The ship was already running at general quarters. Blue light bathed David's face as he stared at his tactical plot. "TAO, activate automated point defense systems."

"Aye aye, sir."

David knew from experience that would include triggering a manual override of the system, which would flag the missiles as friendly weapons and not a threat. The forward point-defense mounts on the Lion fired into the path of the approaching weapons, laying a spread of rounds to bracket them and ensure hits. He left her to the task as he focused entirely on the tactical situation. Two different groups of CDF ships were engaged in hostilities about half a million kilometers away. The Lion's systems gave their IDs. The cruisers Uriel and Solzhenitsyn were tearing into one another as their squadrons did the same, the latter blocking the former from approaching the massive yard and space station nearby.

The display's icons for the missiles disappeared. "Conn, TAO. Enemy missiles neutralized," Ruth reported.

"TAO, what else is out there?"

"Aside from the shipyard and the conflicting squadrons, I'm getting a debris field about three hundred thousand kilometers to port, twenty degrees down-angle." Ruth glanced over the readings. "This can't be right."

It was David's XO, Lt. Colonel Talgat Aibek, that asked, "What do you mean, Major?" His voice had the slight inhuman timbre common to Saurians.

"The systems are identifying beacons from civilian ships. Starswallow's Lark, Calliopean Star, Seacrest Starchaser. They've been destroyed, and the damage to the debris, it's consistent with neutron cannon fire."

David's expression hardened. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Are you saying CDF ships destroyed those ships?"

"Yes, sir." She turned in her chair, eyes narrowed with a frown on her face. "Sir, I'm picking up human remains in the debris too. Those ships, they had people aboard."

David wanted to ask her to double-check. He wanted Ruth to be wrong. The Monterrey had been enough of a blow to the CDF's integrity, and now this was happening. But he'd seen the evidence Ostrovsky and Henry sent along. The clues to what Erhart could be planning. He knew suddenly in his heart it was true. Unable to keep the horror from his expression, he turned to Aibek. "God help us all." With the press of a button on his chair, he spoke into it. "Conn, Air boss. Launch all squadrons. I say again, launch all squadrons."

"Yes, Colonel," was the reply.

"Communications, put me on with the space station and defending fleet." David stared toward at command chair's viewer.

"Transmitting now, sir," First Lieutenant Robert Tyler, the Lion's communications officer, replied.

"This is Colonel David Cohen of the Lion of Judah. Exodus Station and attached forces, stand down immediately."

Moments passed before the image of General Erhart appeared on the viewer. "Colonel. You're a long way from your assignment. I'm not sure what exaggerations you've been told, but since you're here, I can use you for the operation."

"General, I'm asking you again to stand down."

"And I'm asking you, Colonel, to join me," Erhart answered. "With the Lion of Judah covering the fleet, we'll be able to make this op work far better than I ever imagined."

David almost choked at Erhart's sheer chutzpah. "Join you, General?"

"Yes. Help me end this war before it claims more innocent lives. Before it takes from us a new generation of men like your father."

David bristled at Erhart's invocation of his father. "How? By killing innocent civilians? Like the ones who've died here?"

"The costs of war are always high, Colonel. You've seen that. It's why we have to end it now." Erhart's expression was one of quiet determination. "Our people have already paid a high price for victory. I don't want us to pay it again. We have to destroy the League now, without letting them recover, even if it means taking unexpected measures. Otherwise, all of the costs will be for nothing."

For a split second, David considered his words. It might end the war, but at the cost of mass murder. An atrocity worse than any the League has carried out so far. Would we be worthy of a victory gained like that? The answer, to David, was no.

"How are you planning to win the war?" asked David. "I've seen the manifests and requisitions you signed, General. You're not loaded for eliminating strategic targets; you've outfitted those ships to take out cities. Planets full of people."

"The best way to do it. The only way. Earth's the center of the cancer gripping the galaxy, so we need to eliminate it." Erhart seemed to notice David wasn't happy with that answer. "The alternative is the League condemning us to endless war."

David shook his head. "We don't engage in mass murder, General. That will cost us our souls."

Erhart's face set into a disappointed look. "Of all the people I thought might recognize what I'm doing… even you lack the stomach to do the necessary thing." The flesh around his eyes tightened. "I'm not going to let this war continue another day longer than necessary, Colonel. I will do whatever I must to end the threat of the League forever." He motioned to someone off-screen and disappeared from the viewer.

"Conn, TAO. I'm picking up active target acquisition," Ruth said. "The defense stations are targeting us, as are both of the modified cruisers." She glanced down for a moment. "Uriel has linked us in. Approaching enemies now designed Master Nineteen and Twenty."

"Navigation, intercept course, Master Nineteen," David replied. Whatever he thought about the idea of shooting at fellow CDF officers—ones that weren't working for the League at that—he knew they had to be stopped, even if it required force. Erhart would betray everything the CDF stood for. Not on my watch. We will not become the enemy we fight.

Breach of Duty

On the Shadow Wolf bridge, Henry felt a surge of hope. Colonel Cohen's arrival with his battlewagon of a ship gave them the shot they needed to get aboard the station, if they did it right.

Beside him, Tia grinned. "You know, that's a damned impressive ship."

"I was hopin' t' see her at Monrovia," remarked Cera. "Glad I finally got th' chance."

"Have they linked into our tac comm yet?" asked Henry. "And is Erhart still hooked in?"

"Doesn't look like it," said Tia. "The Uriel just swapped to a new frequency."

"They'll find it eventually," Xu said. "Renner likely told Erhart all of Intel's comm protocols."

"Then we use ours," said Henry. "Still have that encryption we got from Trinidad Station's fleet, Tia?"

"That we do," she replied.

"Share it with the Uriel, and once Cohen's got it running, patch me through to the Lion." He knew "Mad Jack" Dulaney wouldn't be too happy if he knew the CDF had one of his fleet's encryptions, but Henry was sure he'd find another one.

Tia went to work. "Uriel's comm officer just got my code. The new channel's running that encryption now, the other ships are receiving."

Henry waited while Cera brought them into a position to be covered by the Lion of Judah's point-defense systems. Neutron cannon fire was now lashing out at the battleship, which tanked the hits on its powerful deflector screens. The ship's return fire focused on the approaching Exodus Fleet warships, and even with a two to one numerical advantage, Henry figured those cruisers were in for a terrible day.

"Captain Henry, Lion of Judah Actual here," David's voice said over the newly-secured line.

"Colonel, he's going to bring more of those ships online against us if we give him time," Henry said. "We need to get to the station and get Ostrovsky's Marines aboard. With you covering us, we might manage it."

There was a momentary lack of response, during which fighters streaked from the Lion of Judah's launch bay. "Confirmed. We'll cover you as we can. I'm sending Colonel Demood and his Marines to back you up as soon as we can get them through."

Henry stroked his chin. The Shadow Wolf, even hobbled as she was now, would have the acceleration and deflector strength to break through if the enemy defenses were engaged sufficiently. Marine assault craft wouldn't follow so easily. "We'll be waiting for them." He took his finger off the transmit key. "Cera, be ready for another fusion drive burn. We'll need the extra thrust on approach."

"I'll give her what need, sir, but do ye think th' ship can take it?"

"I hope she can. Only use as much thrust as you absolutely need. That might buy us some breathing room."

Cera turned back to face him for the moment. Her expression was fierce, determined. "In other words, sir, ye want me t' go as slow as I dare an' still avoid all incomin' fire."

"That's exactly what I want," he admitted.

"Ah. Just so long as we're understandin' each other." She turned back to her station. "I'll make th' bastards work for it."

Breach of Duty

On the Uriel, Ostrovsky felt a renewed hope that they might pull this off. From his seat, he quietly observed Colonel de la Hoya continue the engagement, with her forces directing as much firepower on the Solzhenitsyn as possible.

That tactic had been to keep them from getting a two-to-one disadvantage against the incoming Exodus cruiser. But with that ship detached to fight the Lion, the Uriel was slowly gaining a slight advantage.

"Conn, TAO, we're detecting additional targeting sensors painting us," said Singh. "Our foes are copying our tactic."

"Colonel, perhaps we should link up with the Lion?" Ostrovsky proposed.

"Would love to, sir, but that squadron's blocking our way, and they've got the interior position to help," she answered. "The best we can do right now is to keep them busy and let our comrades take their shot."

It was sound advice and Ostrovsky accepted it. It's all on them.

Breach of Duty

For all the fights the Shadow Wolf had seen, not even the Pluto Base battle quite matched the inspiring sight of the Lion of Judah fighting two CDF cruisers and winning. Her deflectors seemed to effortlessly absorb every shot from the cruisers. Her return fire was devastating, and Henry watched with awe as the bow neutron cannons on the Lion of Judah carved deep wounds on one of the cruisers despite their deflectors still being up. That thing must have the firepower of four cruisers or more. It's no wonder the Coalition's building those kinds of ships again.

"We're in position t' make our run, Captain," Cera said. "We just need the openin'."

"Stand by…"

He trusted that Cohen would see they were ready, and the trust was not misplaced. The Lion of Judah's next salvoes weren't aimed at Erhart's cruisers but the defense stations. Three more of them went up.

Cera kicked the fusion drive up to about half capacity, and the Shadow Wolf shot forward, clearing the Lion and rushing forward the defense stations. Some turned to track and fire on them, but with not as many as had bedeviled them before, Cera easily evaded that fire without sacrificing their gathering speed for their target.

"This is Colonel Hassan Amir to Shadow Wolf," an Arabic-accented voice spoke over the tac comm link. "My squadrons are coming to support you, but we risk heavy loss if we get too close to the point-defense stations. Will you eliminate them for us?"

Henry recognized the worth of the request. If the hole in the enemy defense network was widened further, the fighters could safely engage the neutron cannon stations, making things easier for their terminal run and letting the Lion focus on her opponents.

Of course, it would complicate Cera's job too.

That's why you pay her what you do. Not that she does it for pay. Aloud, Henry answered, "We'll do what we can. Xu, Cera, target those point-defense stations."

"Right away," Xu said.

"I'll give ye th' shots ye need, Colonel," Cera pledged.

Henry kept his eye on the busy holotank beside him, giving him as good a picture of the battle as he could without a standard tactical holotank. The Shadow Wolf came in at increasing speed, weaving around the incoming fire from the neutron cannons. Meanwhile, the fighters and bombers from the Lion of Judah followed them in, engaging the neutron cannon stations with their missile armament while Xu fired the Wolf neutron cannon whenever he had a hard lock.

The combination worked well. The missiles from Hassan's bomber craft were meant for large targets and devastated the stations. The deflectors on the point-defense station failed to resist the Shadow Wolf's neutron cannon fire and Xu's shots were on target, spearing station after station.

Of course, with the range shortened, the opposing point-defense emplacements started salvoing missiles at them. "Auto-turrets online," Piper assured everyone. "We'll get them."

"All gunners, focus on incoming missiles as best as you can," Henry said. Even as he spoke, he felt a small vibration building in the deck. That brought a frown to his face. The ship's structure doesn't have much left. We need to get inside that deflector screen.

On the screen, another of the point-defense stations exploded, just as a flight of missiles erupted from its missile launching surface. The Wolf auto-turrets spat metal into their paths, blasting apart several of the rockets.

And all the while, the vibration grew.

The XO's viewer flashed, and the Shadow Wolf shook harder than ever. "Neutron cannon hit," Tia said. "Partial strike on stern sections, looks like we lost one of the atmospheric stabilizers and a launching engine in that section. Fore and aft deflectors are out."

"We're too close to disengage now," Henry replied, his jaw set.

Indeed the stations were now upon them, the point-defense stations echeloned with the newer neutron-cannon ones to allow overlapping protective fire. While their neutron cannon no longer had a shot, their other weapons did.

The remaining quad guns tracked and fired on the stations, joined by the plasma cannon turrets. Blue pulses and purple beams joined together to strike at the point-defense stations. The beams did more damage, carving into the defense stations, mutilating sensitive internal electronics for the unmanned weapons.

The missiles weren't the only weapons on those stations. They had auto-turrets and pulse guns too, and they tracked and fired as the Shadow Wolf passed. Henry felt the impacts through the ship even with the vibration. "We're taking hull damage," Tia said.

Even as she spoke, the Shadow Wolf's weapons to either side finished off two more stations. A third died as they moved past and a fourth exploded after a direct hit by a missile from one of Hassan's fighters. As he'd hoped, their attack run had blown a hole through the stations that the small craft could use.

But they hadn't gotten through unscathed. The damage control screen showed several places where incoming fire had left a mark on them. The station deflectors were directly ahead. They had to break through without the benefit of their own.

"Engineering, when do we get deflectors back?" he asked.

"Not until this is over," replied Pieter. "That shot took out a projector. I'll have to replace it."

"Shadow Wolf, stand by," David voice carried over the commlink. "We'll open the door for you."

Henry didn't need to ask what David meant, and he didn't have a chance either. His holotank showed the mass of new contacts from the Lion of Judah: she'd just mass-fired her missile cells, and the missiles were coming their way at high thrust. One he recognized along with their evasive pattern: they had Hunter missiles incoming.

More than that, as Hassan's craft fired a joint volley as well, all aimed for the Exodus Station and its protective deflectors.

It was an impressive thing to see, and it became more impressive as the turreted mag-cannons on the Lion joined in, firing EMP shells at cee-fractional velocities. On account of their extremely high acceleration, the EMP rounds hit first, annihilating themselves on the Exodus Station deflectors and disrupting their cohesion with that annihilation.

As this effect occurred, the missiles streaked past the Shadow Wolf. They slammed into the station's deflectors, filling the Shadow Wolf's viewer with bursts of bright light that distorted the solid blue energy that came into view at those impacts.

"Their shields are weakened but still intact," Piper warned.

"Xu, full-power shot, now," Henry insisted.

"Capacitor is full, firing sir," Xu uttered as he pressed the button on the console.

The Shadow Wolf's neutron cannon fired a bright lance of white-blue light at the flickering shields of the station. The shot speared the deflectors amidst the repeated missile impacts.

And they fell away.

While they didn't die completely, at the point of the cannon shot, the deflectors surrounding the station ceased to be. There was no cohesion to the energies that kept them in place.

That meant there was nothing to resist the Shadow Wolf going through.

"Cera, get us through!" Henry shouted, knowing it couldn't last.

The fusion drives on the Shadow Wolf flared up as Cera pushed them as much as she dared. The entire ship vibrated and shook from the stresses. The vibration throughout the vessel became audible.

Ahead, the station deflectors began to form again, shrinking the hole they'd made.

"We're losing the other atmospheric stabilizer," Tia warned.

"Just a few more seconds," Henry murmured. C'mon, girl, hold together just a bit longer. Ahead of him, he heard Cera murmur a prayer to one of the saints—he didn't catch the name—all the while G-forces pressed them into their seats.

The faint sound of shrieking metal joined the vibrations. Henry's heart skipped at the thought that this was it, his ship was at her limit, and he was wrecking her by doing what he was doing.

The shrinking breach in the station deflector field filled the viewer for several seconds, never entirely slipping off-screen. To the last moment, Henry wondered if they'd make it or if the deflector would close on them.

Then, just like that, they were through.

Cera powered down the fusion drive immediately, only confirming she'd done so once the shrieking and vibrations ended.

Everyone took a moment to breathe, having unconsciously held their breath in the final seconds of their approach. Piper spoke first. "The station's deflectors are back up. We're in here alone."

Henry heart began its return to a normal rhythm. He felt light-headed from the relief that filled him, even if they had only started. "We'll try to take down the field once we're aboard."

"We'd better get into one of those hangars then," Tia began. "Because I'm betting Erhart's getting another of those cruisers online as quickly as he can, and we're in no shape for a fight."

"She's right about that. Piper, Cera, find us a landing point," Henry ordered. A grim anticipation came to him. "Let's go deal with Erhart."


39

With all of the velocity she built up on the charge through the deflectors, the Shadow Wolf had more than enough speed to quickly approach the station. They arrived at the core section where a set of closed hangar doors confronted them.

Henry nodded to Tia, who tapped at the controls. "Let's hope these codes work," she murmured. "Otherwise, we'll have to blow the doors open."

The thought of having to deal with a fight in no atmosphere was a daunting one, but it was what they'd do if necessary. The important thing was getting on the station quickly, and that meant not having to blast their way through. And I'm sure the CDF would like to get the station back intact, Henry thought.

"Code accepted, sir," Tia announced, even as the viewer showed the doors opening.

"Takin' us in." Cera gently fired the maneuvering thrusters. It wasn't her usual flawless flying, but given the lost section near the rear and other structural damage, Henry couldn't fault her. She still brought them in for a stable landing while Tia closed the doors again.

"Alright." Henry released his harness. "Piper, Cera, I'm leaving you in charge of the ship, and Pieter and Samina can get to work on repairs. I'm bringing everyone else."

Tia nodded and freed herself as well. Behind them, Xu disengaged his straps and stood. Piper glanced back at them. "Be careful, sir."

"I'll try," Henry said, his hand going toward his Danfield-Colt on his belt holster. "I'll meet everyone in the holds."

"We'll have a suit ready for you, sir," Tia said. She flashed a fierce grin. "I've always wondered what combat infantry suits would be like. We never got a chance to use any back on Hestia."

Henry met the grin with a determined stare of his own. "Now you'll get to find out," he replied.

Breach of Duty

The Shadow Wolf's landing played over the viewscreen at Erhart's command station. The hold door facing the camera opened, a ramp lowered, and from the hold came a platoon of combat-armored Marines. They would be Ostrovsky's best, Erhart knew, Marines trained in the rapid seizure of enemy stations, ships, and facilities to ensure the recovery of intelligence data. Most of Ostrovsky's teams are at the front, so he can't have many aboard that ship. Even with Henry's people backing him, I have the numbers.

Erhart's hand went to his intercom. "Colonel Tarling, this is Station Command. We have hostile boarders, I repeat, hostile boarding parties in Hangar D in Section Alpha. Repel them at all costs."

The answer came in a clipped English accent. "Sending my Marines in now, sir. We'll push them out."

Satisfied, Erhart returned his attention to the fight. The Turchin and the Falkenhayn were flagging against the Lion, but he watched two more cruisers finally detach from the station.

"Sir, Turenne and Murat are away," Farley reported. "Bernadotte and Shangri-La are reporting ten minutes to combat readiness."

"Still ten minutes?" Erhart frowned. "They should be ready within five."

"I'll order Colonels Lukas and al-Amin to get their crews working faster, sir."

Erhart nodded, his attention returning to the battle at hand. I've still got the upper hand, he told himself. Time is on my side.

Breach of Duty

The last hour of Celinda Snow's life had been the most educational she'd ever had.

That, at least, was the sentiment she felt as the Uriel shuddered once more under the fire of Erhart's ships. The harness for her seat kept her from being thrown out of it, but it did little to banish the discomfort of the shaking or the growing uncertainty of whether they'd get out of this. This is what actual battle is. It's no wonder so many of the field officers hate me.

Ostrovsky glanced her way. "Now you know why I went into Intel," he said in a low voice, such that only she could hear.

Snow stared at him. "What do you mean?"

His only response was a grin, while de la Hoya issued a movement order. Snow stole a glance at the holotank that showed the tactical picture. The enemy's light ships were moving in for an attack run and the Uriel's escorts were assuming picket positions.

Or so Snow thought. The ships in question suddenly shot forward, heading toward the Solzhenitsyn.

"Clever," Ostrovsky remarked. "That's why I asked Colonel de la Hoya to be my flag cruiser CO. She has a head for these kinds of tactics, and in this line of work, that always helps."

"I'll take your word for it," Snow murmured in reply.

They watched as the attack developed. Erhart's escorts were in the position of either falling back to protect his flag cruiser or continuing their attack. They chose the latter, doing nothing but exchanging fire with Ostrovsky's escorts as they passed one another. One of the enemy frigates fell out of formation. "Looks like our people inflicted engine damage," Ostrovsky said.

Snow barely moved her head. An eagerness filled her, a desire to see the attack run succeed, and it took a moment before the rest of her mind slammed down on that. God, I'm hoping to see the deaths of our people. What's wrong with me?

The momentary distraction meant she didn't catch the sudden intake of breath from Ostrovsky. When she noticed the look on his face, her attention turned to the holotank.

Erhart's escorts were no longer gunning for them. They'd come back around and, going by the display, were opening fire on Ostrovsky's ships from behind.

"Clever bastard," Ostrovsky grumbled in a low voice while, around her, Snow listened to de la Hoya and her officers try to adjust. The Uriel was ordered to close the distance as well, and the escorts to break off their attack run before the crossfire destroyed them.

It was too late for one of the ships. One icon, for a destroyer, disappeared from the tank. "Conn, TAO. Alvin York's gone," Major Singh said. "It appears to be a magazine detonation."

"Communications, order those ships clear!" de la Hoya demanded, her voice full of fury.

Snow felt the color drain from her face. Not just at the loss to their side, but the idea of it. A destroyer had something like two hundred, three hundred people aboard. And just like that, they were gone. Killed by an unlucky hit.

That can happen to us too, she thought. One lucky hit and I'm atoms. Icy fear gripped at her heart at the idea. It wasn't a terrible or painful death. It'd be instantaneous, almost. A flash of light, a burst of heat, maybe a shockwave moving through the ship's atmosphere, and she'd be dead.

This was what war amounted to, and all things considered, it gave her more reason than ever to see it ended.

But she had no power to do that. She was just a helpless spectator to the whole thing, and all she could do was hope that between Captain Henry, Colonel Cohen, and Colonel de la Hoya, she'd live through this.

Breach of Duty

Word did not spread easily on a ship in combat, but it did. Hushed remarks over links switched to private channels, exchanged words by damage control teams and corpsmen, it didn't take long for the news to spread.

Lieutenant Kamal Arslan of the Solzhenitsyn focused on his principal duty, overseeing the gun crew serving one of the Solzhenitsyn's heavy mag-cannon emplacements. The machines were mostly automated, but a manned team allowed for rapid handling of mechanical faults or repairs from battle damage.

Born on New Arabia in the Druze enclave of Chouf, Arslan was a man of Arab features, his eyes light brown in color, and his hair dark, and like many of his co-religionists, he wore the five-colored Druze star as a patch on his uniform.

God did indeed come to his mind when he noticed the target of his guns while doing standard observation of the targeting systems. He'd expected a League ship, since who else would be attacking them?

But it wasn't a League ship. It was a CDF destroyer, an older class by the look of it. His jaw dropped open as he watched the destroyer blown to pieces from a magazine hit.

Horror gripped him. My God, what is happening? He noted the ship's TAO was re-targeting the mag-cannons, and they now focused on a Briggs-class frigate. Another CDF ship. He heard the low whine of the magnetic accelerators as they propelled a shell toward it. To his relief, the shot missed.

"Sir?" The voice prompted him to turn. Sergeant Fayza bint Abdul al-Sharif stared at him with pale green-colored eyes. The Muslim woman, who was half a decade older than him, seemed to notice his paling face and asked, "Is something wrong?"

"We're firing on our own ships," slipped from his mouth before he could stop it.

Disbelief showed on Sergeant al-Sharif's face. She went over to the observation monitor and watched as another shell discharged, this time on an Archangel-class cruiser. She swore under her breath in Arabic. "Are they rogues? Maybe we're being attacked by rogues like the Monterrey?"

"That was an attack ship. Do you expect the crew of an entire cruiser to go Leaguer?"

"Maybe they're being misled by treacherous officers?" Even as she spoke the words, it was clear she was trying to justify what they were seeing.

"We already attacked civilian ships, Sergeant. Civilian Coalition ships. I know what Colonel Freeman claimed about them, so don't say it, but this feels wrong. Doesn't it to you?"

By now, the other personnel on the gun crew were staring at them. Their discussion was carrying.

"Our ship's in the middle of a fight, Lieutenant. Now's not the time for this," al-Sharif urged. "Take up your questions with Captain Polotsky after the battle."

It was good advice, the kind a service NCO usually gave to a less-experienced officer. Arslan pursed his lips together. "Back to work, everyone."

"Is it true, sir?" asked Corporal Kyle Danworth, a young Caucasian man from one of the Anglo-American-descended worlds. He wore the red cross-on-blue field of an American Evangelical as his religion patch. "Are we shooting at our own people?"

The other members of the crew looked Arslan's way. They wanted to know too.

"We're shooting at CDF-designed vessels," he answered carefully. "I can't tell you who is aboard. But I can tell you to return to your post. We're in a battle."

"With all due respect, sir, we didn't sign up to shoot at our folks," another of the half-dozen crew members said, a young woman of Danworth's complexion said. "I've heard Colonel Lukas was relieved for killing Major Bromsky." The other members of the gun crew nodded and murmured.

So I've heard too, but nobody is confirming it. "We have to trust our superiors," Arslan said, although he wasn't entirely convincing. "Back to your posts, now."

As if to make clear the reasons for his orders, the ship shook beneath their feet. A direct hit had just been registered on their deflectors, enough that it strained the generator moorings.

Grudgingly, the others went back to work. Arslan forced himself to move on to the next piece of equipment, not trusting himself to monitor the targeting systems again.

He repeated those words in his head. "Trust our superiors." He should trust General Erhart and Colonel Freeman and Captain Polotsky. He should believe that whatever they were doing would help the Coalition win the war.

But a little voice in his head added to that. Trust… but verify.

Arslan slipped his link out of his pocket. Lieutenant Myra Rickers, over in Engineering was a junior officer under Assistant Chief Engineer Komorov. Maybe she knew more about what was going on.

Breach of Duty

The Exodus Station layout was akin to some of the oldest space stations and habitats in the Terran Coalition. The hangar had exits on two out of three sides, all linking to adjoining corridors that met one another and provided paths into the interior of the station.

The commander of Ostrovsky's Marines, Lt. Colonel Abdullah bin Omar, was standing with the commanders of his platoons when Henry and his crew, along with the Laffey officers, emerged. With the exception of Yanik, who wore his combat hardsuit, they were in Coalition-issue powered combat armor borrowed from the Masada redoubt.

"Scouts have already secured all approaches to the hangar," Omar informed them. "But you should leave people to man your ship."

"I've got a few staying behind," Henry confirmed for him. "But you're going to need every gun available."

"I'd say you're right about that," Omar agreed. "My computer people have locked out control over this area, but once we progress further out, we'll face more trouble than just armed resistance. Atmosphere's going to get vented out, I imagine, and bulkhead doors will block our way. Not to mention fortified corridor junctions."

"We could fan out, keep them guessing," Felix suggested. "Make 'em wonder which way we'll take."

Omar shook his head. "We risk getting defeated in detail if we spread too far."

"And we risk getting held and outflanked if we don't."

"How about we hold a reserve and advance along both ends?" Tia asked. "We stick close enough to support each other, keep the reserve in case someone slips by, and fight our way to the station core."

Omar peered at her. "That could work. You served?"

"Not in an army," Tia said with truth. "At least not an army like yours."

"We should attack now, before the enemy has more time to prepare," Yanik rumbled.

Henry noted the looks that Omar's lieutenants shared. They didn't like the idea that they were about to treat other CDF personnel, other Marines, as enemies.

Omar noted the look. "For morale's sake, we'll give them a chance to let us pass."

"It would be nice if they did," Vidia said. "Bring all o' Erhart's people ta their senses."

"Doesn't mean it will." Henry nodded to Omar. "We'll split to join your platoons. Hale, Yanik, and I will go with you. Tia, Vidia, and Miri will go the other way. Felix, Xu, and Mueller will hang back here with our doc."

"I have no objections." Omar motioned to his people. "Move out!"

Henry hefted the family rifle in his arms and activated the targeting sight to slide up into position. He felt the old adrenaline rush start to kick in, the anticipation and fear for the fact he was going to be shot at very soon. He pushed it away as he followed Omar and his command group, Hale and Yanik trailing.

They didn't face resistance, not at first. Not until they'd progressed about a hundred meters toward core did they find a sealed bulkhead. A corporal moved to a nearby control panel and worked at it for several moments. "There's an override lock, sir, but—"

He never got the chance to finish. The bulkhead suddenly flew open, revealing a line of combat-armored Marines with weapons raised.

"Stand down!" Omar cried. "Stand—"

Henry was already in motion, slamming into Omar as the first shot struck him. They hit the floor together and were out of sight of the firing line. As the roar of gunfire filled the air, Henry looked back and noted Yanik and Hale were on the opposite end of the door with several Marines. Two more were splayed out on the floor, struck by bullets. One wasn't moving. The other, with blood pouring from a round that penetrated his hip armor, started screaming. "For God's sake, stop!"

Nobody fired at the prone man, but their suppressive fire kept up.

"Captain, we're taking fire," Tia said over their commlinks built into their borrowed armor. "They're holding the lateral bulkhead. We won't be able to get through easily."

"Same here, and Omar's hit." Henry reached down to check the man. An armor-piercing round had drilled its way into Omar's right side, likely nicking a rib. Another bloody hole was on his left bicep. But he was still conscious. "Do what you can."

"Don't we al— grenade!"

Henry heard the blast over the comms, but his eyes were already noting the same rolling their way.

Yanik acted before he could. He turned, and with a mighty swipe of his tail, he sent the grenades flying back toward their throwers. As his tail came back, there was a loud crack and a spurt of blood not far from the tip, a sign he'd been grazed by return fire. As usual, Yanik made no sound to show he was in pain.

There was a cry of surprise and the sounds of scrambling after an explosion shook the deck. Henry brought his rifle up and glanced around the corner. Marines were spread on the floor. Most were moving, regaining their senses and trying to get back up, but one remained on their belly, still.

Omar's Marines came up behind him. They started shouting for everyone to put their weapons down, but the opposing force was already recovered enough not to be caught easily. They scrambled into side corridors and out of the line of fire while a couple closer to the middle of the space turned and fired. One of Omar's Marines went down immediately while the others took cover as best as they could.

As for Henry, he already had one of the shooters in his sights. He felt a twist in his gut, the same that came to him when he'd been ordering the attack on the Dante, but he pulled the trigger anyway. His first shot went a little wide, but his second nailed the Marine in the shoulder. The armor didn't break. But his target staggered at the impact. A third shot caught him in the hip where the joint armor was relatively thin, allowing the pulse charge from the rifle to inflict some damage on the flesh and muscle there. The Marine toppled.

The other Marine wasn't so lucky. Omar's people were better shots than Henry's, and they now had four comrades down. They fired for effect, and as it turned out, their rounds were armor-piercing too. Their target went down in a hail of sparks and blood. "Scans show blocking force is dispersing," one of the Marines said. "Get the medics up here."

"Oskar, we can use you," Henry said into the link.

"I'm already on my way to Tia," Oskar answered. "Her group has injuries too. But the corpsmen are on their way to you, Captain."

Henry drew in a breath and tried to fight his worry. "Tia, what's your status?"

"None of ours are hurt, if you're worried. Three Marines dead or wounded to grenades and gunfire. We took out four of theirs before they fell back."

"We got three. Four losses here."

"This is not going well, Jim. We've got to do better."

"I know. Keep me informed." Henry cut the line and turned to Omar. "They can beat us by attrition."

"I know." An angry look was on the man's face. "Allah curse their blood, they didn't even give us warning. They're treating us like Leaguers! We'll have to do the same and pray for forgiveness later."

"Sir, Lieutenant Pierce here; we're pushing on," a voice said over the commlink. "Any new orders?"

"Yes, Lieutenant, to all squads. Until further notice, shoot to kill and shoot first. Our brothers-in-arms are treating us as the enemy, so we have no choice."

"Understood."

Henry turned away from Omar now that the corpsman was coming up from the hangar. He found Yanik and Hale standing over the remains of the Marine killed in the grenade blast. Her body had been turned over, and her face mask pulled off, revealing a woman with bronze skin tone, dead eyes staring at them all. The parts of her from the belly to the hips were not a pretty sight and Henry fought the urge to retch.

Yanik knelt and reached into the smashed armor, as if he noticed something. When his scaled hand came back, there was a slight snapping sound as the objects he held were pulled free. He opened the hand to reveal a now broken set of rosary beads, some already spilled off the cord now that it was broken, with a golden crucifix and a set of dog-tags.

"Looks like she jumped on the grenade," Hale said, her voice hollow. "Probably saved her whole squad, even if it makes our jobs harder."

"She is with the Divine now," Yanik said quietly.

"You think so?" Hale gave him a surprised look. "Even with her fighting for Erhart? Given what he wants to do, what he's doing?"

"She upheld krassha, her obligations, to the death. Even if it was in waste, God will recognize her duty was done," said Yanik. "The sin is her commander's, not hers. He will answer for this death as well."

Hale fell silent, exchanging a look with Henry that said she wasn't convinced. Henry returned it with a shake of his head. "Saurian religion can be complicated, especially the Krasshash beliefs," he answered. "We should keep—"

The sound of gunfire interrupted him. Ahead and to the sides, the Marine squads that went ahead were coming back, returning fire as they came. Henry raised his rifle forward and watched through the sight as one of their Marines went down to gunfire.

Beyond him was another contingent of Erhart's Marines. A relatively large one. And they were on the attack.

"Jim, they're walloping us over here," Tia said over the link. "I think those blocking detachments were just to delay us so they could get ready to hit us directly."

"Looks like it here too." As he spoke, Henry pulled the trigger on his rifle. It was a miss, unfortunately, and it got the attention of the Marines further ahead. He ducked back into the bulkhead they'd just cleared as return fire came his way.

"All squads, pull back," Omar's voice said, pain evident in it. "If the enemy wants to charge us, we'll make them pay for every centimeter."


40

A familiar bright flash filled the viewer on the Lion of Judah bridge. One of the Exodus Fleet cruisers broke in half after a mag-cannon shell from the Lion found its magazine.

It was a tactical success, but for David, there was only horror at the idea his ship had just slain dozens, maybe hundreds, of their comrades in arms. This entire battle was a mockery of everything the CDF represented.

Aibek made a low, hissing rumble in his throat. "It pains me to see so many of your people sacrificed from one general's treason. With vessels that are not built for sustained fleet combat."

David nodded, not up to replying on Aibek's first remark. He found the second safer. "The ships are compromise designs meant to cross the galaxy. They sacrifice combat capability for range."

"Conn, TAO. Two more contacts coming online from the yard," Ruth said. "One's another of these cruisers, designating Master Twenty-one, but the other ship is a lot bigger. Designating it as Master One."

David set the viewer to show him the contact in question. It looked like a cargo vessel more than anything, with massive ports along the sides. One of the population-movers. Why is Erhart launching it? "TAO, keep a close eye on Master One."

Their remaining foe took up the next couple of minutes. The fate of its sister ship didn't dissuade the Exodus cruiser from pressing an attack on the Lion. David recognized its maneuver patterns easily; in fact, it was using general tactics the CDF's cruiser crews had refined over the decades in fighting League battlewagons. And now I'm in the role of the League battleship.

It wasn't a pleasant association to consider.

The problem with these kinds of tactics, of course, was that they presumed League fighters as the threat, not CDF fighters. Hassan's squadrons took advantage of this with a series of attack runs coordinated by Tyler.

"Master One is clearing the station's deflectors," Ruth warned. "It looks like they're opening the holds up."

David checked the viewer. The ship was opening up as stated. From them, familiar long shapes were being formed up from inside.

"Navigation, hard to port, evasive maneuvers," he barked.

Missiles erupted from the open holds in a rippling salvo. They were built for acceleration, presumably to maximize a surprise attack on a planet after jumping, and here it meant there was little time for David's crew to respond.

But Hammond still managed. With expert skill, she shifted the battleship, changing its heading and relative orientation to the oncoming barrage. The Lion's point-defense systems went to work on the missiles as well, destroying many as they came in. Yet more, due to their acceleration and lack of maneuverability, missed the Lion, giving the PD systems plenty of time to hit before the missiles came back around.

But despite all of that, the missile salvo was of such a size and duration that they were never going to escape unscathed. Missile after missile slammed into the Lion's deflectors, taxing them significantly through the repeated initiations of their warheads. The deck shook under David's feet from the kinetic feedback from the deflector shields passing through their moorings into the ship's frame.

The salvo finally ended. "Shields down to forty percent effectiveness," Aibek began. "The starboard shield nearly failed. We have taken internal damage."

"XO, get damage control teams on that ASAP. TAO, status on Master One?"

Ruth glanced back. "Master One is heading away from us at max thrust."

"So she's either shot all she can, or reloading for another salvo will take them time." David directed a glance at Tyler. "Communications, Order Colonel Hassan to direct a squadron or two at that ship, engage to disable."

"Aye aye, sir."

David returned his attention to Ruth. "TAO, status on Master Twenty-one?"

"They're on course to join Master Ten, sir."

David checked the tactical holotank. The Uriel and Solzhenitsyn were closely matched. The cruiser in question would tilt the battle against Ostrovsky.

Ruth spoke up again. "Conn, TAO. I'm picking up more ships coming online from the yard. It appears three more of their cruisers are close to combat readiness."

"We have to end this. Erhart's going to overwhelm us if we don't take him down ASAP." David considered his options. He'd been hoping that Ostrovsky's Marines could make something happen on the station, but so far, nothing was changing.

He keyed the intercom. "Conn, Colonel Demood, you're good for launch. We'll clear a path for you."

There was no hesitation from the other end. "We're launching now."

"TAO, direct all firepower at that station. I want a hole for the Colonel's Marines by the time his shuttles get there."

"Aye aye, sir."

Breach of Duty

The assault from Erhart's Marines was steady and methodical. With the aid of numbers and knowledge of the station, they advanced forward, using cover fire to the fullest extent. There was no option but to fall back, returning fire as they went.

For Tia, this brought back terrible, bitter memories of the last days she'd spent on her homeworld, of the desperate fight with the megacorps' security troops and the government forces that supported them. A fight she had lost.

She leaned out from the side of the bulkhead junction and squeezed off another shot. The bolt caught one of Erhart's Marines in the shoulder. This had little effect as her target promptly turned his gun on her. Tia barely got back into cover before the bullets flew past her. Her ears rang from the gunfire. The tell-tale vibration through the deck told her that other enemies were advancing through their allies' fire, looking to take their position by storm.

A number of their supporting Marines opened fire on their counterparts, defying the suppressive fire. Vidia came out of his cover slightly to squeeze off a shot. Purple light flashed through the air and scourged the side of one of the attacking Marines. The concentrated X-rays from the pistol bored through armor and cooked flesh, bringing the Marine down for the moment. But Tia doubted the hit was critical. It was too low and too far from the center of the torso to hit anything vital, so the Marine would likely be getting up soon. But at least it was a small reprieve.

"Vidia, fall back to the next bulkhead," she ordered. "We'll cover for you."

"On my way."

At this stage, they're going to push us back to the ship. Tia brought her pistol back up and joined the others in giving suppressive fire for the retreat. I wonder if they have any weapons strong enough to hurt the Shadow Wolf?

Despite their efforts, the oncoming Marines' fire didn't relent. Tia heard a cry of pain from behind her and turned to see where Vidia was now falling to the deck with a bloody wound on the same leg wounded on Cyclades.

"I've got him!" Miri dashed up and brought Vidia back to his feet. They continued on.

Tia returned her attention to the firefight. The various Marines were falling back as well. Her turn came, and she dashed for the next bulkhead section back, heart pounding as she expected to get shot any moment.

That she didn't was thanks to Miri. Miri had one of the rifles taken from the redoubt and laid down a fusillade of bullets. She drew attention more than anything, but it ensured Tia got to relative safety.

Once she was back in cover, Tia activated her link. "Jim, there's too many. We're being pushed back toward the hangar. We could use that reserve."

"Omar's already committed them to this side; he's hoping to outflank Erhart's people."

"Going by the layout we've seen, he'll just get flanked himself when these guys get finished with us," Tia replied. Nearby, there was a cry of pain, and one of their allied Marines went down, wounded in the torso and hip.

"Hold out as long as you can." The order didn't come from Henry but Omar. She heard pain in his voice and realized he'd been injured. "If we don't regain the initiative, we'll never push through."

"Same thing if we're dead," Tia grumbled in reply. Over the gunfire, she could imagine she was back on the streets of Thyssenbourg on the worst day of her life.

One of the Marines nearby spoke up, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the gunfire. "I understand the worry, ma'am, but we'll hold. We don't have a choice."

I wish it were that simple. Tia grimly bit her lip and fired her pistol once more.

Breach of Duty

On the Shadow Wolf's bridge, Piper overheard the progress of the fight with apprehension turning into fear, specifically the fear that her comrades would be killed while she sat here doing nothing.

The look that Cera gave her told Piper she felt the same way. "A shame it isn't an open space. Th' quads would make short work of 'em."

"The only gun we have that could penetrate these walls is the neutron cannon," Piper answered.

"Aye."

Neither would be able to tell who first had the idea. The only thing they knew for sure was that, within seconds, both had it. Piper turned to her station and relayed gunnery control back to it. She checked the cannon. "The capacitor's still got some charge," she noted. "We could probably get two low-power shots off before we'd have to bring the fusion drive back up."

Cera asked the obvious question. "How do we make sure we don't hit our people?"

Piper was already thinking about that. Sensor readings would help with life sign concentrations, but that didn't tell them who was who, except in Yanik's case. They'd need more to get off a shot that wouldn't kill their people. So how do I tell the difference? It's not like I can call.

The idea snapped into place like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. She used a secondary screen to bring up another bandwidth on the ship's sensors, this one tied into the communications system. One by one, the system detected the links tied into the Shadow Wolf, marking the crew and the Marines they were communicating with.

She compared the two and looked back at Cera. "Fire up the maneuvering thrusters. I'll tell you when I have a shot."

"Aye, figured somethin' out, did ye?" Cera went to work. "Just tell me when t' stop."

Underneath them, the plating rumbled as Cera brought their engines to life.

Piper imagined the personnel outside were stunned to see the ship rise from the deck, but she was intent on the two sensor returns and the geometry of the shots they had to make. "Move us half a meter closer to the hangar door," she said. "And swing us to port by…" She did the calculation in her head. "…forty-two degrees."

"Aye."

The link came alive with Henry's voice. "Piper, Cera, report. What's going on? Why are you moving the ship?"

"We're giving you and Tia some fire support, Captain," Piper replied eagerly. "You might want to shield your eyes."

Breach of Duty

The warning told Henry everything he needed to know about what was about to happen. "Incoming fire support!" he shouted, choosing Marine terminology.

Marines on both sides that heard him were confused. That kind of warning was usually for surface actions, not boarding action. But the Marines on his side reacted according to their training and held themselves in cover while shielding their eyes.

Those on the other side of the battle weren't so lucky.

Bright light seemed to sear through Henry's eyelids, joined by a low vibration he could feel through the station's deck. It ended after a couple of seconds. He looked forward.

The junction ahead, and the heavy Marine force there, was gone. A hole three meters in diameter now existed through the station's structure, the exterior of it still glowing orange from the friction caused by the solid beam of neutrons punching through the station.

"Tia, take cover," Piper's voice said over their link. "We're turning to take our second shot now."

"You're insane, Piper," Tia replied. "Certifiable."

"If it works, does it matter?" was Cera's flippant retort.

There were some surviving Marines on the other end, those lucky few who had been outside of the beam's path. They were already trying to form a new position.

"Forward!" Henry shouted, rising from cover and firing away with his old rifle. Yanik joined him, as did a captain in charge of one of Omar's platoons.

Their attack was well-timed. The sudden shock of losing so many of their comrades, and from such an unexpected attack, hadn't yet faded from Erhart's forces. All but one went down to the resulting fire before they could return it effectively.

The survivor had enough. He threw down his rifle and raised his hands.

"Secure prisoners!" the Marine Captain called from beside Henry. As he did, they felt another vibration in the deck. Piper and Cera had taken their second shot.

After several seconds, Tia spoke over the link. "They got most of them. We've got a clear path now."

Henry nodded. "Same here. It looks like the shots didn't finish penetrating out of the structure either."

"We kept them to low power, so we didn't have to run the fusion drive again."

Henry grinned and shook his head. Piper was being clever there; the drive wasn't made to be run without producing thrust.

"It would appear we have our opening," Hale said. "Even with our losses, we can push ahead. Erhart won't want to risk getting his Marines wiped out by that neutron cannon."

"Only if he has nothing to gain from the risk," Henry pointed out. 'But you're right about that. It's time we push on."

"And hopefully, Colonel Cohen's people will be joining us soon," Hale added.

Breach of Duty

Over the years, Calvin Demood had experienced everything he imagined could happen to a CDF Marine. He'd been a part of desperate last stands and equally desperate charges. He'd boarded everything from crippled League battleships to space stations to a stolen luxury yacht. There seemed to be no other experience he could not relate to.

But now he was facing something foreign. Here he was, leading his Marines in a boarding action against their fellow Marines. Not as a war game either, but an honest-to-God fight where he was expected to shoot his brothers and sisters in the Corps, all because their outfits were suborned to Erhart. God help us all. He stared out the cockpit window as the pilot of the lead shuttle brought them around toward the Exodus Station.

The station loomed ahead, protected by its powerful deflector field, and what defense stations had survived the earlier assault by the Shadow Wolf and Colonel Hassan's fighters. That same assault had blasted a hole clear through the stations, giving a field for his shuttles to get through.

But Colonel Cohen was leaving nothing to chance. Free from enemies for the moment, the impressive batteries of the Lion of Judah came to bear on the Exodus Station's defenses. Mag-cannon fire blasted the remaining defense stations to shreds and the neutron cannons blazed away, draining the deflectors in preparation for the final push.

"Marine assault teams, this is Colonel Hassan." The New Arabian pilot's voice was a familiar one to Calvin after all this time. "We're beginning our run. Just keep burning in, and we'll have the hole ready for you, Inshallah."

"Godspeed, Colonel," Calvin replied.

Hassan's fighters had taken only a few losses in the fight, so they made an impressive sight in flying ahead of the shuttles. One by one, missiles streaked from their launch points. They burned ahead at inhuman accelerations to slam into the shields of the station.

Other, larger missiles flew past. The Lion was fully engaging now. The assault shuttles kept on course as the missiles slammed into the deflectors ahead, attempting to overwhelm them and provide the opening needed to get through.

At first, Calvin didn't know if they'd manage it, and a part of him had the selfish thought that if they failed, at least he wouldn't have to command his Marines to shoot at their brethren.

As the pilot called out "ten seconds," the field broke open.

The shuttles accelerated, and one by one, they made it through.

So much for that thought. Calvin used the holo-screen at his command station to check the location of the Shadow Wolf. He considered landing there and reinforcing them, but thought the better of it. The key was to get to Erhart as quickly as possible, and it meant forcing him to defend more than one point so he couldn't hold them up easily. And hope those Marines come to their senses as well.

"Warrant, I've identified our breaching point," he said aloud for the benefit of the warrant officer piloting the craft. "Bring us up."

"Aye aye, sir!"

Calvin quickly checked his suit's seals one final time before bringing his rifle up. "Alright, Marines," he called out. "We've got a dirty job ahead of us. I'm not happy with what's about to start, and I hope to God our comrades don't make us fight them. But we're here to stop a man who's making a mockery of everything we stand for. Remember that."

"Sir, yes, sir!" his command platoon roared through the commlink. It had the appropriate firmness, but it lacked the energy that his Marines gave him when the League was the target of their efforts.

And he couldn't blame them one bit.

A thunk filled the shuttle. "We're attached sir," the pilot announced. "Ready for breaching."

"Let's get to it, Marines!" Calvin yelled.

Breach of Duty

From his place in the Exodus Station command center, Erhart observed the unfolding conflict.

Beside him, General Farley was staring in disbelief at the damage indicators for the station. "Henry has maniacs working for him," he began. "Firing a neutron cannon inside a space station, what the hell were they thinking?"

"What any combatant is thinking in a fight, General," Erhart replied calmly. "How to kill the enemy and win."

"It sounds like you admire them, sir." The statement was almost an accusation. "They just killed two of our Marine platoons. Those shuttles from the Lion of Judah are burning through the hull as we speak."

"So they are." Erhart gave Farley an intent look. "Where are you going with this?"

"Sir, can we still win? Given how many Marines we have aboard versus what they can throw at us? They still have the Lion on their side. It's going to take a lot of effort to bring it down. The League's thrown everything they have at it before, and it's still here."

A good question. Erhart considered the matter. Indeed, his first inclination was to answer "Yes." The tactical situation was not unrecoverable, after all. He still had Ostrovsky's squadron checked, and more of the Exodus Fleet was going to come online in the coming minutes. He could, with time, overwhelm even the Lion of Judah. But now, he wondered about the other outcome. His opponents were proving adaptable and competent, and even the best tactician could lose to that if the right moves we made at the right time. He could not guarantee victory.

Of course, that was true of any fight. Of every battle he'd been in during his long life, from the pre-war skirmishes with pirates and other foes to the first battles with the League. He'd learned the lesson the hard way decades ago: victory must be earned. The side that won was usually the side that did the most to earn it. So far, he'd made sure it was him, each time.

After all, what had he to go back to? Life in a cell on Lambert's Lament? He'd planned this for so long, had made so much effort—he'd earned this victory. The chance to win the entire war. He'd earned it despite the weakness in his people, the refusal to do what was needed and to make the hard sacrifices that war demanded of everyone. How could he quit after coming this far, and doing all he'd done? The answer, of course, was that he couldn't. Not without making it all a waste. Erhart reached forward and tapped the command link. "Colonel Tarling?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Leave a blocking force of one platoon to hold off the boarders coming from Section Alpha, divert everything else to the incoming boarders from the Lion of Judah."

"Sir, they still have at least two platoons worth of Marines. The blocking force won't hold them for long."

"That's true, but they can hold them long enough for you to drive Colonel Demood's forces back to their shuttles. Then you can double back and stop Henry's people."

"How do you know they'll come right for you?"

"Because that's how they end this," Erhart remarked. "If I'm removed, they think they win. Henry won't be able to turn down the chance to storm right for me."

"I understand, sir. I'll get my people in place immediately."

"Good. Erhart out." He cut the line and noticed the pale look on Farley. "What's the matter?"

"Henry will want me dead as much as you," Farley pointed out. "I played my little role in his humiliation."

"You mean when you acted the part of the honest officer to the hilt and convinced Colonel Serrano of Henry's guilt?" Erhart chuckled. "Yes, I can see why you think that. But it won't matter, General. Tarling's people have the numbers and firepower to pin Demood's forces in. Once they're contained, we can deal with Henry. And we will."


41

The deck of the Uriel shook violently under those on its command deck. "Forward shields at critical level," Major Singh reported to Colonel de la Hoya.

She took the news better than Ostrovsky, Snow felt. He was frustrated with their situation while de la Hoya, whatever her feelings on their predicament, acted as the consummate combat veteran.

Snow glanced toward the holotank and tried to make sense of what it showed her. The Uriel and her force of ships were being aggressively pressed by Erhart's squadron, which had whittled away their initial slight numerical superiority so that it was now Ostrovsky's people who were outnumbered. The destruction of the Alvin York was the only outright loss so far, but another of their destroyers and two frigates were crippled while the enemy was only down a frigate.

There were few times in her life that Snow regretted never getting field service in her career. She found this moment now counted. She had nothing to offer to the combat raging. Don't they realize what they're doing? Could Erhart have convinced every one of them to follow him like this? While that went through her head, the mood on the bridge turned darker. The cruiser-sized ship from the station was entering combat range, and Major Singh already had confirmation that they'd locked on to the Uriel.

Snow finally broke her silence. "The Lion of Judah is out there. Why aren't they coming to help?"

"They can, but it would put them between our opponents, and any more of the Exodus Fleet Erhart gets into action," Ostrovsky replied, letting de la Hoya focus on the fight. "Colonel Cohen does us more benefit by remaining where he is, allowing him to intercept any other ships that come after us."

It made sense. Snow wasn't entirely mollified, however. "We can't win this, can we?" she asked. "They've got the advantage."

"They do, but the longer we hold, the more time our people have to get to Erhart."

"So we're the distraction?"

"Yes, Congresswoman, that is precisely what we are." Ostrovsky delivered the answer with a hint of bemusement.

"Ah." Snow sighed. I'm getting tired of being a distraction.

Breach of Duty

On the Solzhenitsyn, Lieutenant Arslan found he couldn't keep ignoring what he was seeing. The Uriel was clearly failing under the rapid attacks of the Solzhenitsyn's screening ships. And yet the guns weren't turning away.

Occasionally, his gun crew looked to him pointedly. And when they weren't, he thought he sometimes saw them murmuring quietly, just to stop if he or al-Sharif were noticed observing them. An unsettled feeling came over him at what this could mean.

Al-Sharif stepped up beside him. "You may need to call ship security," she whispered.

"Why?" he whispered back.

"I think some of the crew are considering mutiny."

Mutiny. On a CDF vessel. The idea sounded ludicrous to him. Of course, so did destroying CDF ships. "I'll call Captain Polotsky," Arslan said. At her nod, he went over to the hatch for the compartment and brought up his link.

Before he could make the call, he received one. He accepted it and faced the small image of Lieutenant Rickers, a fair-skinned Anglo-American woman. "What is it?" he asked. "What can you tell me?"

"It's true," she said as voice betrayed her shock. "Lukas murdered Bromsky. Lieutenant Eckelstein saw it himself. Then he opened fire on civilian ships. They begged for mercy, and it didn't stop him."

"Now we're firing on other CDF ships."

"It's wrong, Arslan. Completely wrong." Rickers' tone became conspiratorial. "We have to do something about it. Captain Komorov is ready to try. What about Polotsky?"

"I'm not sure."

"Just give us some time. We might be able to disable—"

Al-Sharif's hand went for his link. He felt her wrist close around his, but before she could wrench the link away, he turned and tried to free his arm. This brought them face to face. Al-Sharif's face was grim. "Lieutenant, I heard it. You're plotting a mutiny too," she accused.

Arslan shook his head. In truth, he'd not yet decided on such a step. The idea of being a mutineer was unthinkable. It violated everything he believed in. His superiors must have a good reason for what they were doing.

But they don't. Hearing Rickers, whom he trusted, relate the story of shooting an officer for not obeying an order? This was something their enemies did, something the League did. The CDF was better than that.

At least, they were supposed to be.

Al-Sharif pulled her sidearm, which did a lot to refocus his attention. "Sergeant, I never planned for anything like this, but now that I know they're doing something—maybe we should too."

"We should," she agreed. "We should warn Captain Polotsky and help stop it."

"Even with what they've done?"

Al-Sharif shook her head. "To win the war, we have to be united and strong. We can't just mutiny because our superiors haven't told us everything."

"Is it mutiny if we're putting down an illegal operation?" he asked pointedly. "Because it looks like General Erhart's gone rogue, and he's dragged us with him."

That brought fury to her face. "You have no right to question the General, not after all he's done to save the Coalition! We have to trust—"

Al-Sharif was so focused on him that she didn't see the blow coming. Gunner Hutchins caught her from behind with an autospanner and the impact dropped her instantly. Along with the others, she gave Arslan an intent look. "We can't let this go on, sir."

Even as she spoke, Corporal Dansworth checked on al-Sharif. "She's alive. Minor head wound, I think." He looked about for a moment before settling on removing the belt to her duty uniform and binding her hands with it. "Sorry, Sergeant."

"So what do we do now, sir?" asked Hutchins, now starting to recognize just how much trouble she was in if things went sour for them. "They're shooting at friendly ships, and they're still doing it."

Arslan pondered the situation. From the way Rickers sounded, they were almost ready to do something. He brought the link back up. "Rickers?"

After several seconds, her image re-appeared. "Everything okay?"

"Sergeant al-Sharif overheard us, she tried to hold me at gunpoint for mutiny. My gun crew stopped her."

"Sounds like your people know what needs to be done, then," she said. "We're ready to kill power to the tactical systems, but once Freeman and the bridge officers realize what's happened, they'll be after us and can engage the backups. We'll have to fight to take the bridge in order to stop them. Think you can secure the starboard armory?"

Arslan nodded. The armory was the next section down into the ship's interior. Under Condition One running status, that would ordinarily be impossible, but he had door clearance. "I'll get down there and open it up."

"See you then, Arslan. Godspeed."

"Godspeed." He put the link back in its place on his belt. "Dansworth, find a place to hide Sergeant al-Sharif until this is over. I'm leaving you here with a couple of the others for appearance's sake. Everyone else, with me." Arslan breathed a silent prayer this was the right thing, and to give them a similar feeling, he said, "We're putting a stop to this before they kill any more of our comrades."

Their reply was a series of grim nods and a couple of low cheers.

Breach of Duty

The Shadow Wolf's cannon shots made getting into the station's interior section relatively easy for Henry and the others. Too easy, as far as he was concerned. They arrived at the central circular corridor wrapping around the inner core of the station before facing their next firefight. Gunfire ripped through the air in both directions. Henry was responsible for some of it, but he didn't manage any successful shots.

Not that he needed any. A couple of the intel Marines let loose with the underslung grenade launchers on their rifles. The grenades did the work of clearing the position, wounding or killing the opposing Marines.

"This is Colonel Demood, MEU Commander from the Lion of Judah, to Intel boarding parties. We've come aboard two sections clockwise from you, but we're pinned down by heavy fire. It looks like Erhart's throwing everything he can spare to drive us off the station."

The reply didn't come from Omar but his second-in-command, Major Patrick Reese, who was just now coming up to their position. "Colonel Demood, we read you. We just took our entrance to the central core of the station. Give me a moment to confer with Captain Henry and Colonel Hale."

"We're assuming defensive positions now." The tone to Demood's voice made his desires on the matter clear.

"If Erhart's throwing the kitchen sink at Demood, we might be able to take his command center with a dedicated push," Hale suggested. "Once we have him, this is over."

Reese nodded. "While if we give him time, Erhart could fortify his position. The longer this takes, the more likely our ships get overwhelmed."

"How's Omar?" Henry asked, directing his gaze toward Reese.

"Alive, thank God," Reese answered. "Your doctor finally got him to stand down."

"Good to hear. So you're thinking we let Demood hold off Erhart's troops while we make a go at him?"

"Seems the best way to get this over with quickly. The Uriel's last update was pretty bad."

Henry wasn't surprised at that. Erhart was one of the Coalition's top tacticians. He was bringing the Exodus Fleet online ship by ship to fight back with. If they didn't get them to stand down soon, they'd be overwhelmed. Be honest with yourself, Jim. You want to get your hands on Erhart as soon as you can. You don't want him slipping away; you want to beat him and make sure he knows it. It was a selfish desire. But he felt like he'd earned it, given all that Erhart had done to him.

Just thinking of the man-made Henry furious. The self-assured way Erhart saw the world and himself. He wrote people off as "sacrifices" in his utterly callous way, as if they were just pawns to be discarded. Pieces on a board. We're just pieces on a board to him. I think he even sees himself in that light.

"Alright, Marines." Reese approached the others. "Lewis, you and your squad are staying here, defensive detachment. Hold this bulkhead open."

"Sir, yes, sir!" bellowed the NCO in question.

"The rest of us are heading on into the interior core. We think we've got a shot at—"

"No," Henry called out.

Reese turned and leveled a look at Henry that was part anger, part confusion. "Captain Henry, what are—"

"That's what Erhart's expecting; it's what he wants us to do," Henry said. "He knows we're coming for him to put an end to the fighting, and for now, time's still on his side. If we go for his command center, his defenses will be waiting and dug in to delay us. That way, he can drive Colonel Demood off the station."

"So what are you suggesting?" Hale asked.

"We go back up Colonel Demood, now. Catch his attackers from behind. Then we'll have the numbers we need to blow through any defenders Erhart has left."

"You're assuming he doesn't go after our rear with his remaining forces," Reese pointed out.

"Oh, he might." Henry grinned. "That's why we don't give him the chance."

Hale and Reese took several seconds to consider Henry's proposal. She spoke first. "It makes sense to me."

"Then we double-time it. I hope your people can keep up," Reese said to Henry. "Alright, Marines, fall in!"

Henry turned to the others. Tia, Miri, and Yanik were still available, with Felix standing nearby. Tia had a borrowed Coalition rifle resting on her left shoulder, her pistol now in the hip holster, while Miri's remained level with the ground, as did Felix's, showing their formal training in contrast to Tia's habits from her revolutionary days. Yanik's assault cannon was strapped to his shoulder, ready for use.

"Ready when you are," Tia said. "Are we all going?"

"Yeah. Let that squad hold the passage. I'll need all of you to help on this." Henry turned back to Reese, who was already moving his Marines forward. "Let's go give Colonel Demood some backup."

Breach of Duty

David watched as the last of the neutron cannon-armed defense stations died in a hail of mag-cannon fire. They were now free to press home an attack on the station if they needed to.

"TAO, status of Sierra Ten?"

"Their shields are close to failure and they've suffered engine damage," Ruth replied. "Another friendly frigate is out of the fight, heavy casualties and complete power loss." She checked her board. "Master Twenty-one is hammering them hard. They remain outside our effective range."

David's first instinct was to go to Ostrovsky's aid. He refrained for the moment. "And the Exodus Fleet?"

"We've got four more of those cruiser-sized ships coming online, and another four are showing signs of powering up."

That news put David on the horns of a dilemma. If he went to help the Uriel, they'd ultimately face even greater odds. But if he focused on trying to put down those ships before they could finish launching, the Uriel and her squadron would likely be lost, and he'd have their opponents coming after him as well. But it wasn't the tactical situation that swayed him. Ultimately, he wouldn't leave people behind like that. "Navigation, bring us about to join Sierra Ten," he ordered. "TAO, firing point procedures, Master Twenty-one. Everything except our particle beams, as soon as we enter max range." I'm not willing to use our big guns, just yet. They'd kill everyone on those ships and likely destroy them.

Hammond and Ruth answered him with a pair of affirmatives.

Breach of Duty

Arslan and his group arrived at the armory and found it was being watched by a pair of armed security crew. He'd expected as much and regretted what it meant.

"We could try to get them on our side," whispered Hutchins from behind him. "They can't like this any more than we do."

"They have no reason to believe us," he pointed out. "They're more likely to assume the worst." He found himself working up the nerve to pull his gun and shoot them, no matter how wrong it felt. I don't want to die just yet, he admitted to himself. I have so much more to do in this life. And yet, could he live with himself if he shot, if he killed, fellow CDF personnel? Especially if it wasn't in self-defense, but merely shooting them because it was easier?

He drew in a breath and stepped around the corner to approach the two security troopers. They were both Privates First Class from their rank markings. The thought of ordering them to stand aside came to him, but it wasn't that easy when dealing with security. His orders, short of an emergency, would come lower in priority to their standing orders regarding their station.

The privates saluted as he stepped up. He returned the salute and read their names. "Private Hunter, Private Sharansky, I need access to the armory."

"Sir, you're a gun crew officer. Why would you need access?"

There were several things he might have said. He could've claimed to be doing what al-Sharif had urged him to do and planned to resist the mutiny. He could try to bluff them on why he needed the weapons. All of those possibilities sounded hollow, though, and he defaulted to the one that came from his heart. "Because, privates, this ship is being used to murder CDF personnel, and we've already engaged in the massacre of Coalition civilians," he answered succinctly. "And I want to stop it."

A quiet glance passed between the two men. Arslan readied himself for them to draw their weapons on him.

Hunter nodded to Sharansky. He turned and activated the door.

Arslan let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

"Thank God someone's finally come to their senses," Hunter said while Sharansky stepped through the door. "We're with you, sir."

"What about your superiors?"

"I'm not sure about Captain Whitman, but Lieutenants Rubenstein and O'Reilly will be on our side," Hunter replied.

He nodded and turned back to the corridor he'd come from. With a hand motion, he brought Hutchins and the other crew forward.

They were just entering the armory when Rickers came up with a dozen crew members following her. "We got who we could, and we ran into Lieutenant Goldstein's gun crew on the way here," she explained to Arslan. "They're with us."

He gave her a nod in reply and gestured to the armory door. "Good. Let's arm up and stop this madness."

Breach of Duty

The gunfire that filled the corridor made movement by Calvin and his command squad impossible. The opposing Marines had an iron grip on the junction ahead. "We're Terran Coalition Marines, we're your brothers and sisters!" he cried out, his voice carrying over the thunder of the guns. "For God's sake, stop trying to kill us!"

Instead of a response from their adversaries, his commlink crackled in his helmet. "Colonel, no joy on that side route. They're holding the bulkhead strongly. We have to fall back."

"Same here, sir," another voice said. "We're holding as best we can, and they've taken some losses, but—grenade!" There was the sound of an explosion on the other end. "We'll have to pull back!"

"Hold as long as you can," Calvin urged. "Help's on the way."

Breach of Duty

The holotank in Exodus Station command showed the Lion of Judah's steady approach toward the Bernadotte. Erhart nodded in appreciation of the action. You'll not leave an ally to die, Colonel Cohen. And you accomplish the tactical goal of unifying your forces now that you've got boarding parties aboard the station. A smart call. "Status on our other ships?"

"Rasmussen, Wallenstein, Alaric, and Belisarius are all due to launch in a few minutes," answered Farley. "Al-Gharib, Sharon, Mackensen, and Beauregard are at Ready Ten."

"Even the Lion can't fight eight cruisers at once." Satisfied that the conflict in space was turning to his advantage, Erhart turned his attention to the status of the battle on the station.

The news was not what he expected.


42

Henry observed with his people while Reese and his Marines took the entrance into the Charlie Section of the station by storm, overwhelming the fire team left behind before they could get a warning off. He moved up behind them, going through the fireteam that Reese ordered to be their rearguard, although placed further within the section to avoid falling to the same tactic.

They also walked through the bodies. The need to get to Colonel Demood had precluded non-lethal measures. Every Marine on Erhart's side was dead. Henry could see the tension in Reese's people at the sight of their fallen comrades, comrades they were forced to kill. Erhart may not leave this station alive, Henry pondered, even if I don't shoot him myself.

He shook his head. That was for later. First, they had a fight to win.

The section had the same layout as the one they'd come through, save the lack of the tunnels carved into that other section by the Shadow Wolf's neutron cannon. They moved past the storage rooms and machine shops towards the sound of gunfire ahead. Their borrowed suits let Henry and his crew enjoy the same sensor packages of the Marines, showing the location of Erhart's units.

The units were, in fact, splitting up. Erhart had undoubtedly warned them of the approaching threat and they were moving to meet it. Still, it works for us. Demood's Marines can regroup more easily now.

They reached one of the central corridors leading down toward the end of the station and found their opponents. The gunfight started immediately, and it was as intense as Henry had seen in his life. The oncoming fire rendered movement into the corridor near-suicide, even for a power-armor-wearing Marine.

Tia came up beside him. "We can cut through the machine shops."

Reese gave a quick thumbs-up. "Sure, that's not a bad idea. But they'll probably have those watched. Might've mined them."

"We'll be careful," Henry promised before stepping away.

With his crew at his back, Henry went back down the lateral corridor and made a right into one of the outward passages. This was flanked by storage rooms with a door labeled as a machine shop entrance ahead. "Suit sensors aren't showing anything," Tia said.

"Of course, it doesn't mean nothing's there," Miri added.

Henry approached the door and keyed it to open. It did so without resistance. Inside were an assortment of lathes, coring drills, rollers, and other machinery for the creation of parts and tools. Again, life signs showed nothing.

Yanik sniffed the air. His tongue briefly flicked out, as if he could taste something. "There is no recent scent here," he said. "We should be safe."

Should. The word went through Henry's mind as he went on. Saurian senses could be sharp, Yanik's particularly, but they weren't infallible. So he was careful as they moved through, making sure to look for any telltale sign of mines or other traps, and aware that he might not find anything until it was too late. Too late to turn back. Just have to keep going. Ultimately, it took them two minutes to clear the room. Once they did and were assured the door was safe, they went through into the next corridor.

"Colonel Demood, what's your status?" asked Reese over the link.

"We're holding as best we can. Figured you're why they've had to back off."

"We are, but we'd better finish this before Erhart can counterattack."

"We're through the machine shop," Henry said into the link. "Given the layout we're seeing, we could hit their central group from the side. Heading there now."

"Godspeed, Captain."

Henry didn't answer him. He kept going down the outward corridor until he got to a lateral one. Their target was to their right. He nodded to the others and pulled a grenade from the combat armor's belt.

Given their sensors, the Marines had to know he was present by now, but they were already between two fires. A couple of them turned to open up on Henry and his people, but their grenades were already in flight when that happened. They hit the floor before the shots came their way. Henry heard a cry from Miri and turned to see a heavy round had grazed her leg, smashing the armor and a piece of her thigh out.

The grenades going off kept him from saying anything initially, until the booms cleared enough for him to say, "Stay down!"

Miri nodded, already getting her aid kit out.

Henry got up with the others and rushed ahead. He brought his rifle up and fired, with Tia's and Felix's weapons joining in. Running and gunning meant low accuracy, but the important thing at this point was the volume of fire. They provided most of it while Yanik's cannon thundered sporadically, given it was meant to be fired from a standing position, not moving.

They didn't hit many of the enemy. Had they gone in alone, the Marines they were fighting would've quickly rallied. But they weren't the only ones. Reese and Calvin were advancing as well, exploiting the grenade attack to hit the Marine position from three directions at once. The friendly Marines got to the position first, losing only a couple of their number to confused counter-fire before the defenders were overwhelmed.

Yanik sprinted ahead of Henry, leaving his cannon behind so he could pick up his foot speed. He was the first of them to reach the junction as a result, where he ripped the rifle from a Marine while his tail, damaged as it was, lashed out and threw off the aim of another.

As it turned out, both Marines had been preparing to shoot Calvin, who came stomping up a moment later to put the second Marine down with a vicious, power-armor-aided punch.

Henry watched the first foe, now without his rifle, pulling a combat knife. "Yanik, knife!"

Yanik got the warning a moment too late. The combat knife pierced his suit and ripped through flesh. He hissed a pained yowl and grabbed the knife arm, keeping it from slashing further through his body.

Calvin's armored fist struck out a moment later, slamming into the Marine's helmet. This disorientated him enough for Yanik to twist the vibroknife from the Marine's hand for his own use.

That use turned out to be a third Marine, coming up at Calvin's back. Even as blood gushed from his wound, Yanik rushed the attacking Marine, plunging the vibroknife through armor and flesh seconds before he could get his rifle up to shoot Calvin in the back. This bought Calvin the time to finish off his foe.

"Down!" Henry shouted at them. They dropped half a second before they could be gunned down by one of the remaining enemies. Henry's rifle came up and he shot the man in the side of the helmet. It was a shot he could be proud of, requiring skill to pull off. Or, at least, he would've been proud of it if he'd been shooting a pirate or slaver or a Leaguer. Thankfully, there was no one else for Henry to shoot. Only the fallen remained around them. His attention turned to Yanik. "How are you feeling?"

"The wound is difficult, but I will survive," Yanik rumbled, his voice hissing as he spoke.

From the other direction, Reese came up and saluted Calvin, who returned it. "Colonel Demood, I've got squads heading for your other units. We'll have the enemy cleared out shortly."

"Excellent news, Major." Calvin turned his head to Henry and Yanik. "Good idea, heading through the machine shops. Nice to see your people are fighters too."

"Thank you, Colonel. Do you have a corpsman?" Henry looked again to Yanik, who was treating the knife wound.

Calvin responded by turning his head away and bellowing, "Corpsman! We have a wounded man here!" With the medic summoned, Calvin turned back toward Yanik. "Always good to fight beside Saurians," he said. "Now I wish you'd remained on Monrovia. Which regiment were you in?"

"None," Yanik rumbled.

The answer brought confusion to Calvin's face, followed by reflexive disapproval. Henry decided to change the subject. "I have a wounded woman as well." He glanced at where Tia was helping Miri approach. "And we need to exploit this. The sooner we get to Erhart, the sooner this battle's over."

"Agreed. That's why—"

A voice crackled over the link. "Colonel, Major, the other Marines. Sir, they're surrendering."

"Say again, Lieutenant?" Reese asked.

"The entire platoon here just surrendered, sir. They're not shooting back."

Another voice cut in. "The commander at the section's D junction, she wants to speak to you."

"Put her on."

Moments later, a Hebrew-accented voice came over the line. "This is Captain Shula Savir to Colonel Demood."

Henry noticed pain show on Calvin's face. "Savir. I see you made Captain."

"I did, thanks to you," she answered. "Sir, Colonel Tarling's not answering. He was at the position you just took. Major Gotthard's dead. I'm in command of the unit, and I want this over with. Erhart didn't say word one to me about shooting fellow Marines."

"Do your other Marines feel the same way?" Reese asked. "Because they fought like we were Leaguers."

"I know, and I'm sorry. I tried to hold them back, but Tarling was in charge, and Gotthard was backing him. I couldn't talk anyone out of it. I guess—" Her voice trailed off. When she spoke again, it was with guilt and shame. "I guess I didn't want to end up like Major Bromsky and get shot for standing against Erhart's commanders."

Calvin sighed. "Nobody wants to die for nothing," he replied. "I know it's not easy going against the CO."

"It never is. Anyway, I'm surrendering. Erhart only has a platoon left to protect himself. If you go for him now, you should be able to get him before he has a chance to call in Marines or armed crew from the ships remaining in dock."

"Thanks for that, Captain."

"You're welcome, sir. Godspeed."

Calvin returned the remark. "On to Erhart, then," he said. "I want to make that man answer for this." He gestured to the dead Marines around them.

"He has a lot to answer for," Henry agreed. "This way."

Breach of Duty

In light combat armor and with battle rifles in their arms, Arslan and Rickers continued their advance through the Solzhenitsyn, the numbers of personnel with them growing as they came. Many were armed like Arslan and Rickers, signifying the other armories had been secured as well. Security personnel, Marines, even the ship's medical contingent fell in, and they even had to reject the offers of damage control teams to join them.

It amazed Arslan that nobody challenged them until they were virtually up to the bridge. There they were met by Captain Polotsky, Arslan's superior, and Captain Whitman, the head of security. The two men had a group of Marines stationed behind them, weapons down but ready. "Every single one of you is violating at least half a dozen regulations for a ship in combat," Whitman said. "Explain yourselves."

Arslan swallowed and stepped up. "We know what's going on, sirs. We know this ship is firing on other Coalition vessels. I watched my gun blow up a CDF destroyer myself."

"And you decided that meant you got to, what, march on the bridge to protest?" Polotsky asked, his tone harsh. "You've endangered yourself, your subordinates, and this entire crew, Lieutenant."

"Perhaps so, sir, but you've endangered far more if you let this stand."

"General Erhart tried to talk them down," Whitman said. "He ordered them to leave. Instead, they defied his orders and accepted to seize the station from him. To keep the General's plan intact, we have to fight them. Now, if you return to your posts, we'll forget this ever happened. But only if you go now."

Arslan and Rickers exchanged a look. Neither of them bought that. They wouldn't be allowed to get away with this. Not a man or woman behind them could expect that. "And if you don't, you'll shoot us?" Rickers asked. "Just like Colonel Lukas murdered Major Bromsky for not firing on a bunch of civilian yachts?"

"Colonel Lukas was removed from his post for that," Whitman answered. "Listen, we're not debating with you. Return to your posts, or we're taking you to the brig."

Arslan shook his head. "No. I won't, we won't. We refuse to be complicit in the killing of our comrades."

"Marines, take them into custody," Whitman ordered. "Shoot to kill if they resist."

The moment of decision had arrived. Arslan readied to raise his weapon as the Marines stepped up to flank the two officers. He met Polotsky's glare with one of his own. He, and those with him, would not be moved. It would likely mean injury, even death, if the Marines opened fire. But even then, Arslan would not fire first. He looked to the combat-armored soldiers, breaking his eye contact with Polotsky, and his expression became a pleading one. "Don't do this," he urged them. "Help us stop the killing of our own people."

In the light of the corridor, he could see the eyes of the Marines ahead of him through their faceplates. Their expressions betrayed nothing of their thoughts, but he hoped it was thought he saw in their eyes. Maybe even agreement.

The Marines continued their forward movement. Arslan swallowed and readied himself for the fight, knowing he was going to be the first one they grabbed or shot. He thought he could feel the uncertainty and frustration behind him as others prepared to fight the Marines, if it came to that.

The Marines stepped up beside him—and turned around. "Sergeant Terrence Miller," one of them said, as if in introduction. "We're with you, Lieutenant."

Relief flooded Arslan and nearly made him forget the situation wasn't resolved yet. Whitman's face went pale with rage, and Polotsky stared at them as if struck dumb. "Marines, I gave you a direct order!" Whitman shouted. "Take them into custody now."

Sergeant Miller shook his head. "I'm not following illegal orders and I'm not shooting my comrades," he declared.

Whitman snarled and drew his gun. "You fools, you're all weak fools! General Erhart's trying to win the war, and you're letting the cowards in the CDF stop him! The League's going to conquer us all if Erhart doesn't go through with this!"

"Whatever it is, Captain, if he's willing to murder our own, I don't want to be a part of it," Arslan said. "Please, move." Don't do this. Don't make us hurt you.

For several tense seconds, Whitman seemed stuck, as if he didn't know how to handle the situation before him. The calculation was obvious to Arslan: if Whitman fired, he'd be dead in seconds, but he'd probably shoot Arslan or one of the others before going down.

"Captain, enough of our people have died today," Arslan said. "Please, sir, don't—"

The gun went off.

He felt surprise. Wherever he was shot, there was no pain, no impact. How could it be like that?

A moment later, he recognized what his eyes were showing him. Whitman's gun was raised upwards, his arms in the grip of Captain Polotsky.

"Polotsky, what the hell are you doing?" Whitman demanded.

"Saving your life," Polotsky answered. "It's over, Whit. We can't hold the ship against them, and you know it."

"We need to give the General time! Time to—"

Miller crossed the distance swiftly. His fist delivered a punch to Whitman with an audible crack.

Arslan winced at the sound and what it meant. But he could only feel relief at the result. Whitman went down, knocked out cold, and his gun fell from his hand to the deck.

"Bridge is just ahead," Polotsky said to them. "I'll open the door for you."

"Thank you, sir."

"Don't thank me, Lieutenant." Arslan could see the anger in his superior's eyes. "You're ruining our only hope of winning the war. But I'm not going to let CDF personnel die needlessly. We'll be needed to hold the line when the time comes to evacuate civilians to the Exodus Fleet."

"I have faith it won't come to that, sir."

"That's because you're young, Arslan. Young and dumb. Fuentes and Rhodes will open your eyes real fast once they're elected. You'll see." With his final point made, Polotsky turned away. "Let's get this over with."

While Miller secured Whitman into restraints, Arslan led the others in following Polotsky.

Breach of Duty

Snow had become accustomed to the shudders and vibrations through the deck, but a jolt hit that felt like it was going to rip her out of her harness. She fought down the impulse to ask what it was.

"Direct missile hit on aft section, multiple decks exposed to vacuum," reported de la Hoya's XO, a Major Reynolds. "Engineering is implementing SCRAM procedures on Reactors two and six due to battle damage."

"We need those shields back up!" de la Hoya ordered.

"They're trying, sir, but we're taking too much fire."

I'm probably going to die. Unless Ostrovsky withdrew, and he couldn't do that without leaving Colonel Cohen to hold the bag and abandoning his people on the station. It sounds like we're almost out of this fight. There are worse things to die for than stopping mass murder, Snow reminded herself, trying to control the fear and frustration, the helplessness of her position. She thought back to all the times that the pastors and reverends in her life had argued to use faith to fight those things.

It was an interesting thing, faith. Over the years, she'd realized she'd lost quite a bit of it after the Laffey case. The CDF had let her down then. In the aftermath, cynicism spread to the rest of her life. Prayer's about all I can do now, it seems.

"Conn, TAO." Singh's voice went up an octave in surprise. "Master Ten—the Solzhenitsyn—she just stopped firing."

De la Hoya noted that on her holotank view. The cruiser was burning at a new trajectory, not toward them, but as if they were about to take up a supporting position against the hostile fleet.

"What's Erhart up to now?" Ostrovsky wondered aloud.

The comm officer spoke up. "A general hail from Master Ten."

"Put them on."

A few seconds passed, and a new face showed up on the viewer, that of an Arab man in his mid-twenties with the five-colored Druze star as a faith patch on his uniform. "This is Lieutenant Kamal Arslan of the Solzhenitsyn. My comrades and I have removed Colonel Freeman from command of this ship. We will not defend General Erhart's betrayal of our principles, and I call upon the crews of all other ships in this fleet to do the same. Fighting alongside Erhart is endangering our souls."

Snow breathed out something between a cry of happy surprise and a sigh of relief. There are sane people in that fleet after all! She felt like a prayer she'd never entirely made was nevertheless being answered.

"Don't cheer too quickly," Ostrovsky warned. "Erhart's ships will turn on them."

Snow watched as, a moment later, Ostrovsky's prediction was fulfilled. Two of the destroyers in Erhart's forces turned their guns on the Solzhenitsyn and opened fire.

At least, they started to. One, after taking a few shots, powered down its weapons. Their trajectory changed and they took up a supporting position alongside the wounded cruiser.

"Conn, communications. Master Thirteen just signaled." There was excitement in the Uriel comm officer's voice. "They're standing down and siding with the Solzhenitsyn."

The second destroyer loosed a few missiles before it too ceased fire. The ship then burned hard in another direction, rapidly shifting around in a chaotic pattern. "She's lost navigational control," de la Hoya observed.

The ship straightened out a moment later. "General hail from Master Twelve."

A female voice came over the line. "This is Captain Marian Lewis, XO of the Gerald Bull. I've seized command from Major Oostwouder. We are conforming movements with General Ostrovsky's command."

"Conn, TAO. It appears the other light ships are doing the same, sir," Major Singh reported. "They're breaking off attack runs. The entire squadron's gone over." There was gratification in the Sikh man's voice at his next request. "Permission to re-designate as friendlies?"

"Permission granted," de la Hoya replied, a small grin on her face.

"Aye aye, sir. Re-designating Master Ten through Fifteen and Eighteen as Sierra Twenty-three through Twenty-nine." Singh's action reflected on the holotank. Snow watched all of those remaining contacts switch to blue.

But the fight wasn't over. "Conn, TAO. Master Twenty-one continues to engage us."

"Navigation, take evasive action," de la Hoya began. "TAO, firing point procedures, Master Twenty-one. Engage where feasible, but right now, our goal is to stay alive."

Snow almost asked why she'd gone on the defensive like that, but a check of the holotank told her why.

Breach of Duty

As contact after contact turned blue on the tactical picture, David felt elation form inside. Thank you, Adonai, for steering their hearts. This sentiment turned to some disappointment when the Exodus fleet cruiser, Master Twenty-one on the screen, did not turn.

"Conn, TAO, Master Twenty-one launched another salvo of missiles and mag-cannon rounds," Ruth said. "The Uriel's deflectors are down. They can't take much more."

The disappointment grew, and with it came a moment of reflection as David recalled all of the times he'd been as stubborn. It was something that came naturally to the Coalition's services. A willingness to defy the odds, fueled by a belief one was in the right, and had Providence on their side. The idea came that this effectively cast him and his ship in the role of being the League battlewagon coming after the heroic Coalition cruiser. It was not a pleasant idea, and he forced the analogy from his mind. He stared at his tactical viewer, and the effective range of the Lion's weapons. "TAO, firing point procedures, Master Twenty-one, forward VRLS. Make tubs forty through sixty ready in all respects, and open the outer doors."

"Aye aye, sir," Ruth called back. "Firing solutions locked, tubes forty through sixty ready in all respects. Outer doors are open."

"Match bearings, shoot, tubes forty through sixty."

Seconds later, the deck rumbled as nearly two dozen anti-ship missiles roared out of the Lion of Judah's forward vertical launch array, headed straight for the Exodus Fleet cruiser. The hostile ship began evasive maneuvering to evade the weapons. Point-defense weapons fired into the missiles' paths.

The Hunter missiles' enhanced AI systems calculated ways around the incoming walls of alloy projectiles. They weaved through the trails of magnetically-propelled anti-missile rounds with precision beyond human capability. Even though the sheer quantity of point-defense fire would cause some hits, David was sure it wouldn't be enough—and it wasn't. One by one, the warheads that got through the point-defenses struck home. The cruiser's deflectors, already tried by the attacks from Ostrovsky's squadron, strained to absorb the strikes. The first few impacts, indeed, had minimal effect.

But only the first few.

Missile after missile went through the weakened deflectors, impacting against the cruiser's armored hull. Two of its mag-cannon turrets were blown to pieces by direct hits while other warheads slammed into the engine spaces and different sections of the cruiser.

When the strike was done, the enemy ship was still intact. But it was severely damaged. A few more well-placed shots and it would likely lose combat ability.

"Communications, put me on," he instructed Tyler. When the comm officer nodded, David spoke up. "This is Colonel Cohen to Exodus fleet ship. Stand down and we'll hold fire. I say again, stand down and we'll hold fire. There's no more need to fight."

An immediate reply came. "To Earth and victory!" a male voice shouted.

"Conn, TAO. Master Twenty-one still has weapons lock," Ruth warned.

David grimaced. ""TAO, firing point procedures, Master Twenty-one. Neutron beams. Aim for their weapons emplacements, only." He knew it was a tall order, but it was one that he felt morally obligated to make.

Ruth issued no complaint at it either. She took aim and fired, directing the neutron beam emitters as best she could for that means.

Given the range, most of her shots missed. The cruiser still had too much in the way of maneuvering power. Recovering deflector strength stopped a couple of glancing hits.

But where Ruth struck home, she struck home well. One neutron cannon beam cut into the engineering spaces, killing half of the cruiser's engines. Another took out its main mag-cannon armament. A third beam sliced through the missile cell on the vessel, causing a chain reaction that blew up the launcher and the missiles loaded within. The resulting explosion threw pieces of debris into the ship's adjoining sections.

Ruth glanced back at David. "Conn, TAO. Heavy damage inflicted on Master Twenty-one."

"Are they standing down?"

"No, sir. They're still maneuvering to engage."

David bit his lip. God help me. "Then—"

"General hail from the hostile cruiser, sir, identifying as the Bernadotte."

Hope filled David at Tyler's interruption. "Put them on."

After a moment, a voice came over the line. "This is Major Adam Tappan of the Bernadotte. I've seized command from Colonel Lukas and I'm ordering a stand-down. I repeat, we are standing down. Please cease fire."

David glanced toward Ruth. "TAO?"

"Master Twenty-one has powered down weapon systems and lowered deflectors," Ruth confirmed.

"Cease combat evolution on Master Twenty-one." David said the words with relief, even as his mind reminded him this wasn't over. There were more ships still on the station that might be ready to continue fighting. The tide is turning, please see that. For Heaven's sake, stop this!


43

There was silence in the Exodus Station command room. Erhart's focus was on Smythe, who was clearly uncomfortable with what he had to report. "Sierra Twenty-one has surrendered, sir," he said.

"Was taken by mutiny, you mean," Erhart said. As he spoke, he noticed the eyes of the officers around him. He didn't like what he saw. "Status on our other ships? We're supposed to have four launching now, right, General?"

"Wallenstein and Beauregard are free of the docks. We've lost contact with the Alaric and Rasmussen." Farley swallowed. "All of our ships on Ready Ten status are failing to confirm launch readiness has improved."

Colonel Ze'evi stood from his chair nearby. "General, we should consider heading to one of the other ships with every Marine we have left. Tarling's forces are down, and the enemy's on their way here. We could still escape, sir."

Erhart responded with a sullen, angry look. "That would entail abandoning the Exodus Fleet and my plans, Colonel. That's all that matters."

"With all due respect, sir, the plan's no longer viable," Farley answered. "The junior officers and enlisted crews are turning on us, that much is clear. You won't be able to take away enough ships to make the planned attack on Earth."

"All I need is one of those bombardment ships," Erhart snarled. He couldn't keep the emotion from his face. His people were failing him. Betraying him.

Farley grimaced. "Sir, we've lost. All we can accomplish in a fight is killing more of our people."

I've come so far. So close. I can't give up now. I must finish this! Erhart stood. The rage showed on his face, bound with determination and all the authority he could still wield. "Listen to me, all of you! We haven't lost yet! And every one of you knows what happens if we lose. The Peace Union wins the election, they make peace at any cost, and the League gets to recover. The war will go on until they grind us to nothing. We have to make this work! We have to fight back against the cowards who refuse to take the necessary measures. So I want every damn one of you with a rifle ready to hold the line until we get our bombardment ships away." He pulled his sidearm from his hip holster. "Or I'll shoot you down myself!"

Silence filled the room. Every man and woman turned toward him, from Farley to Smythe to the remaining Marines holding the main door.

"Understood, sir," Farley said. He stood. "We'll get to the armories."

Even as he spoke, Erhart's eyes scanned the room. As they moved over Smythe, he noticed Smythe's hand freeing his sidearm from the holster on his hip. Smythe's eyes met his, and he could see the raw focus in them, the sentiment of a crossed point of decision that wasn't going to be undone.

Unfortunately for Smythe, Erhart already had his pistol in hand. He brought it up and fired. Given the short distances of the command deck, aiming was easy. The shot caught Smythe in the chest, just below the neck. He went down.

"Order on the command deck! Marines, protect the General!" Ze'evi shouted, going for his weapon. Farley did as well.

Everyone did, in fact, and for a chaotic few seconds, nobody could be sure of who was on which side. Only as a majority of the guns turned on Erhart was it made clear that they were not going to be protecting him.

He fired again, this time catching the comm officer in the shoulder. Ze'evi's shot found another of the officers.

Farley didn't get a chance to fire. Three guns focused on him. One shot missed, barely, but two struck home on his chest and the side of his head. He fell where he stood, likely dead.

"This way, General!" Ze'evi shouted. With no choice, Erhart followed his voice toward the nearest exit from the deck. Two of the Marines had their rifles up and sprayed suppressive fire. One of Farley's killers went down while trying to move forward and give chase. The other officers, recognizing the danger, took cover.

They needn't have bothered. Just as Erhart passed the Marines still loyal to him, the other Marines in the room turned their rifles against them. He got through the door just as they opened fire, Ze'evi coming up behind him. "Run, General!" Ze'evi urged, turning with his pistol raised.

A moment later, several rounds ripped through Ze'evi. His blood sprayed the nearby wall, barely missing Erhart.

It was all wrong. Everything. His loyal officers were dead or out of touch. Everyone else was now a foe. He was a general without an army.

Victory was within my grasp. Now I'm nothing but a fugitive.

Without options, he headed for his office.

Breach of Duty

On the Lion of Judah bridge, David watched the two cruisers now clear of the yards. "TAO, scan those vessels. Are they hostile?"

"Their deflectors are up. But they're not in range yet." Ruth noticed something on her board. "Wait. Their shields just dropped and they're decelerating."

"Conn, communications. Getting a signal from the two ships, sir," Tyler said. "They're standing down."

"It looks like the ships coming online have stopped," Ruth added. She turned to David. "The deflectors on the station just went down too. I think it's over, sir."

David wasn't ready to celebrate yet. Not until he was sure. But he couldn't keep the hope filling him from going away. Is it over? Lord, please, let it be over.

"Signal from the station, sir. It's Colonel Demood."

"Put him on."

To David's elation, Calvin was at the same place Erhart had occupied before. His faceplate was retracted and his expression spoke of grim satisfaction. "We've done it, Colonel, General. Exodus Station's ours."

"Losses?" David asked.

"Too many, on both sides." Calvin's satisfaction faded. "Most of the crew and junior officers have turned on Erhart openly, and the rest are surrendering. At your word, we'll start shuttling Marines over to take control of any holdout ships."

"That won't be necessary, Colonel," Ostrovsky said over the link. "It looks like Erhart's people are surrendering en masse now. We're getting dozens of signals from the Exodus Fleet ships to that effect."

"Then it's over," David said. "What about Erhart?"

"He fled, but he's got nowhere to go. Our Marines have all the exits from the command section covered, and Captain Henry's actively hunting for him." Calvin smiled grimly. "We'll get our man soon enough."

"Very well. Keep me informed. Colonel Cohen, please commence post-combat procedures." Ostrovsky's face tightened into a somber expression. "We have lives to save."

"Aye aye, sir."

"We'll convene on the station at the first opportunity. Ostrovsky out."

The channel closed for the moment. Now David couldn't hold back the relief he felt, tinged by guilt and grief as it was. He felt sick in his heart at everything that had transpired.

"Lord, what could have caused this?" Ruth asked aloud. "It's one thing to fight the League, but this was straight out of a nightmare. Having to fight our own people like this."

"It was a nightmare, and it's over now," David said softly. I need to see Rabbi Kravitz as soon as I can. Maybe he can help me make sense of this.

"I hope they throw Erhart in a hole for this," Hammond said from the helm. Her voice was unnaturally harsh.

"He'll pay for it, that I'm sure of," David said, while in his heart, he prayed for justice to be done. Captain Henry, I hope you do the right thing. Vengeance is for God, not for men.

Breach of Duty

Henry stormed around the command deck with a singular purpose, moving so fast that Yanik and Tia had to struggle to keep up. "Do you even know where he is?" Tia asked.

"Colonel Demood is tying our suits into the station's sensors," Yanik said. "We should have readings shortly."

Henry nodded, but he didn't need those. The station's layout was familiar to him here, a standard Coalition command deck for a space station. The command offices were nearby.

In one passageway, they found a pair of battle-armored Marines standing at a door. Henry didn't raise his weapon, but he didn't stop going. The Marines immediately stepped to the sides. "The General's inside," one said. "He's sealed the door, and we don't have the kit to get through."

"Sometimes you don't need kits," Henry commented. "Yanik, some help?"

Immediately, he felt guilty, given Yanik's injuries. Or rather, a part of him did. The rest of him was too eager for the moment to come. After sixteen years, he'd finally have satisfaction.

Yanik didn't so much as make a sound of displeasure as he came up to the door. While a bulkhead door could resist him, this was a typical sliding door, and with a loud hiss of effort, Yanik was able to get his talons in and force it open.

Henry slipped under him and into the office, pistol raised and ready. He pointed it toward the desk and Erhart. His finger tensed on the trigger at the sight before him and, after a moment taken to aim, his trigger finger squeezed.

The resulting shot struck Erhart in the right forearm, just as the barrel of his pistol was about to reach his chin. He gasped in agony, and his hand opened, releasing the weapon onto the desk as he crumbled to his knees.

"Some privacy please, Yanik."

Yanik wordlessly closed the door at Henry's request, leaving Henry with Erhart.

Erhart's arm moved up to the desk surface. Henry dashed forward, switching the grip of his pistol as he did. He brought the pistol's butt down on Erhart's hand just as his fingers reached for the gun. A low crack came to the air from the impact, smashing two of the knuckles in Erhart's hand. He cried out in pain and slipped back.

Henry meticulously and deliberately pulled the gloves from his combat armor, baring his hands.

Sixteen years of shame. Sixteen years of guilt. Of being an outcast from the service he'd sworn his life to. That alone screamed in Henry's mind. But it didn't scream alone, as a host of new offenses and insults had been tallied against him by Erhart. The arrest from his uncle's deathbed was a raw wound in his heart, one that Uncle Charlie's death had ripped a hole through. Erhart's actions had also led to his need to fire on the Dante and kill innocent CDF spacers, not to mention the fight they'd just waged and the injuries his crew endured.

By the time he passed around the desk to face Erhart directly, Henry needed an outlet for the fury. And he found it. He brought his right fist back and landed a punch on Erhart so strong, it might've knocked the man out. He went flying back into the desk and rolled over to the floor.

That wasn't enough. It couldn't be. With a scowl on his face and rage in his heart, Henry took a step before planting a vicious kick to Erhart's ribs. The older man cried out as he was forced over onto his back. Henry reached down, grabbed him, and forced Erhart against the wall.

From there, the blows rained. Again and again, Henry's knuckles took the strain until they were bruised bloody. Pain filled his hands with each punch, but it only seemed to drive him further in the vicious beating he was delivering. Erhart's face was soon coated in blood, and his breath came in short, painful wheezes from the repeated blows to his torso and belly.

And yet Henry couldn't stop. He was lost in the ecstasy of catharsis for his years of suffering. Every blow, no matter how much it made his hands hurt, was a release that he'd yearned for. A chance to finally get real retribution for everything that was done to him.

If you beat him to death, it won't be enough.

That thought finally brought an end to the pummeling. He caught Erhart, keeping him from falling back to the floor. His eyes were swelling shut and his nose was smashed in. Before he could speak, he had to spit broken teeth from his mouth, leaving bloody spittle and chips of those broken teeth on the office's carpet. Through the forming bruises, his eyes managed to meet Henry's.

The hot rage was gone, but only the heat of it. A cold anger replaced it, fury that made Henry's face pale.

Erhart must have seen it. With his broken teeth cleared from his mouth, he started to speak, blood seeping from his lip and the corners of his mouth. "Did it satisfy you, Colonel?" he asked weakly. "Do you finally have your revenge for the Laffey?"

Erhart's words poked at the cold rage, but it refused to go hot again. He felt a vicious smile form on his face as his thoughts turned toward what that rage wanted. "No, Erhart. That's payback for taking me from my Uncle Charlie's deathbed. He died just a couple days ago, and I wasn't there because I was dealing with your bullshit. That's what earned you the asskicking!" Every word was said emphatically. "And as for the Laffey, well…"

He let that hang in the air for a moment before he brought his hands up to the stars on Erhart's lapel. His fingers wrapped around them and he viciously tugged until they ripped free, one by one. Once he was done with that, he ripped the service ribbons from the BDUs until they were in a pile on the floor.

As he worked, a deep satisfaction came to Henry. It was a hollow gesture, but it felt good to give Erhart the same treatment.

After the last ribbon fell away, he finished his sentence. "...consider that a little warm-up to what my payback for the Laffey is going to be. Namely, the chance to watch them drum your ass out."

He grabbed Erhart to pull him toward the door. Erhart, despite everything, resisted a little, and his response was to slam his knee into Erhart's belly. That brought a satisfying gasp of air from the beaten man, who toppled over. Henry looked down at him and pondered putting the boot in again.

"I had to do it," Erhart wheezed. "Don't you understand? I had to do all of it. To win the war."

No pity was allowed to show on Henry's face. "You murdered civilians. You caused Coalition ships to fight each other, Coalition Marines to shoot one another. You planned mass murder. And that's all you can say?"

"It has to be done. It's the only way we'll win."

"The Coalition's just about driven the League from Sagittarius."

"Ha!" Erhart spat the word. "They'll be back. You know they'll be back. They've been hunting you over Lusitania. What makes you think they won't be as obsessive about us?" His face curled into a disappointed snarl. "I could never get them to understand. For years, I told them this was the only way, to take out Earth, and they wouldn't do it. 'We don't have to go that far'. 'It's wrong.' They wouldn't listen. They just kept believing God would come down and give them victory!"

"It's part of what the Coalition is."

"But not us. Not you or I, eh?" A vicious look came to his face. "That night on the Clemenceau, after I left you the plea deal, how much did you pray that night, Colonel? How much did you beg God to show you the way? To help?"

It was like having a broken tooth pressed on. Henry roared, "You don't get to talk about that!"

Erhart continued anyway. "He didn't answer, did he? Almighty God left you to dangle! And you, you must've realized the same thing I did."

Henry grabbed him by his lapels and lifted him to his feet. "What are you babbling about, Erhart?"

"You know it too. Our great realization that God, the great Almighty, doesn't give a damn."

Henry's expression froze. He shouldn't be right, but you know he is. You feel the same way now. Damn him, he read me that well.

"I prayed too," Erhart said, his strained voice going soft. To Henry's surprise, tears formed in his eyes. "After Tsukara, my crews were celebrating, but all I was doing was praying to God, asking him, begging him, to give me my boy back. To let me find my son when we returned to Tau Baker. Even if he was dead, at least I'd know."

Henry tried to think of something to say but couldn't.

"Instead, there was nothing," Erhart continued. "They took the ships I had to leave behind, kept the crew as prisoners. For over twenty years, my son's been MIA. I've suffered not knowing his fate for twenty years, Colonel, and if that's taught me anything, it's that God's not there and He doesn't give a crap whether we win or lose!" Even with his voice hoarse from pain, Erhart continued. "All of those politicians and generals talking about God helping us? They're fooling themselves. If we're going to win, it has to be on our efforts. There's no divine plan or cosmic good coming to help us!"

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you're the only one who understands."

Erhart's reply sent a shiver down his spine. He knew precisely what Erhart meant. He felt the same way. And just like Erhart, he'd gone off and done things for survival, to keep his ship flying, things that were wrong. He'd bribed and threatened and smuggled his way across Neutral Space, always looking for a new job, a bigger payday, to keep his ship going. He'd turned a blind eye to evil because it was just the way of the galaxy. Who was he to challenge it? He'd even willingly agreed to make runs to the League and treated them like only another customer of his clients. Like they weren't the malicious invaders looking to crush every world they found under the weight of their system.

But that doesn't make me like you, you arrogant bastard. "You think that makes us the same," Henry said to him. "But we're not. I've never thought of committing mass murder to make my way. I never killed innocent civilians just because they were in my way. But you, you treat everyone like a game piece on a board, and you tell yourself it's okay to sacrifice them to win."

"War requires sacrifices," insisted Erhart.

"Maybe, but you took that too damn far. And this conversation is over."

Erhart said nothing more. Henry pulled him to the door and touched the panel on the inside. The door slid open, admitting Yanik, Tia, and Calvin.

Calvin gave Erhart a long, searching glance, as if to take in every bruise and wound. He turned his head and met Henry eye-to-eye. Neither man flinched. He saw the approval in Calvin's eyes coupled with something like relief. He was, presumably, quite fine with Erhart's appearance. Tia was clearly just as satisfied with it. Yanik was, as usual, unreadable.

"Sergeant!" Calvin's voice bellowed out of the office. An armored Marine stomped up with a team behind him. "Secure the prisoner for transport off-station. Have a corpsman see to his injuries."

"Yes, sir."

"Make sure he's breathing when he gets to the hangar; he's going straight to General Ostrovsky, and he's going to live to get there. Am I clear?" Calvin's concerns were obvious, and Henry didn't blame him. Otherwise, Erhart might not live to get to the Uriel.

"Crystal, sir," the sergeant answered. "We'll see to his injuries."

"Good. Godspeed, Sergeant."

"Thank you, sir." At his bellowed order, the sergeant's men dragged Erhart off.

"So that's it," Tia said. "It's over?"

Henry nodded, feeling very weary now that the rush of combat and anger was gone. "It's over here." He glanced Calvin's way. "I'm going to check up on my crew, Colonel. Call me if you need me."

"Of course, Captain," Calvin replied. "It's been an honor to serve with you in this fight, you and your crew."

"Thanks, Colonel, and the same to you."

With that final remark made, Henry led the others back toward the Shadow Wolf, looking very forward to a much-needed rest.


44

A sense of emotional fatigue dominated the meeting now taking place in the Exodus Station wardroom. General Ostrovsky was effectively chairing the meeting. Colonel Cohen was to his left and de la Hoya to his right. Major Tawadros had a seat as well, as did the commanders of the surviving ships in Ostrovsky's squadron. A colonel named Fischer and Major Tappan represented the officers and crew who turned on Erhart.

Henry was in attendance with Tia. Felix and the three ex-Laffey officers were seated near them, although Felix was on the other side of the table. Congresswoman Snow was on the opposite side of the table, observing more than participating.

"The casualties look to be about fifteen hundred killed in action," de la Hoya remarked for the benefit of the assembled. "A final count can be expected with the conclusion of S&R efforts and an accounting of personnel on the lost ships. The wounded are still being tallied but look to be at about twenty-five hundred."

One voice at the table muttered, "It could have been worse," but it was said weakly, and not a soul at the table seemed relieved by it. Henry could see the remnant tension and horror from them. Fischer and Tappan added to it with guilt, having been on Erhart's side when the shooting started. Over a thousand dead CDF personnel in an act of intentional fratricide was the sort of event that left its mark.

"General." Tawadros turned his head to Ostrovsky. "We should decide now how to handle this when we return to base. To be honest, sir, we can't let word of this battle spread."

Ostrovsky met his eyes with his own. "Agreed, Major. I want this order given to every soul in this system: say nothing. This entire incident is to be classified at the highest levels of the government. No word of this can get out. It would be a punishing blow to the morale of the military."

For his part, Henry exchanged a look with Tia. She kept a blank expression on her face, but her gray eyes indicated understanding, and she nodded slightly. He turned to Ostrovsky and spoke up. "My crew and I will keep it a secret too."

That won him skeptical faces with a few exceptions. Fischer was the one to give that skepticism a voice. "You'll guarantee that? Most of your crew aren't even Coalition citizens."

He glared at the man, and his voice dripped ice. "Maybe not, but they're good for their word. They'll keep their mouths shut."

Ostrovsky spoke next, presumably to pre-empt anyone else asking the question in a harsher fashion. "Even the Leaguers on your crew?"

"Especially them."

It was clear Fischer and some of the others weren't satisfied. "He's right about that," Felix said, speaking for the first time. He looked toward Tia, who intentionally ignored him. "Whatever my differences with some of them, they're good people in that regard. They won't hand the League a victory like that."

Ostrovsky nodded. "Since Colonel Rothbard's been working with them these past few years, I consider the matter settled." The severe tone in his voice made it clear that he would brook no further discussion on the matter.

"Of course, there's also Erhart," Henry noted. "He's got no reason to keep this shushed. He'll want people to discuss implementing his plan openly."

"General Erhart's court-martial will be held under war secrecy regulations, I imagine." Ostrovsky directed his eyes across the table to Snow. "Congresswoman Snow, would this be legally feasible?"

Snow's face shifted into a small, mirthless smile. "It might be seen as questionable, especially given Erhart's reputation, but it's defendable under those regulations. Not to mention I find it very fitting given his past actions. Whether or not he pleads guilty is another matter."

"He will, if only for a chance to justify himself in his plea statement," Henry guessed. As he spoke, he wondered if it might not also come from a feeling of being defeated. Years of Erhart's life had gone into this plan, all for nothing.

"I'll leave that for JAG to deal with." Ostrovsky stood. "I believe this settles everything for the time being. You're all dismissed."

Everyone stood and made their way to the exits from the room. "Go on ahead," Henry said to Tia. "I'll catch up."

She pursed her lips together, nodded once, and left.

He turned and waited for Ostrovsky to step up. The General looked him over intently before speaking. "Given the evidence my people found, with the aid of Colonel Hale and Congresswoman Snow, we can prove Erhart's responsibility for the Laffey Incident, Captain. It'll take a little time to process the paperwork, but when I'm done, you'll have your rank restored, and your record with the CDF cleared."

Once, hearing those words would've filled him with satisfaction. The clearing of his name, restoration of his reputation, and having the truth publicly acknowledged; it was something he could only dream of before. But now that it was here, he felt hollow. Maybe it was a case of too little, too late. Or it could be the damage was done. He could never undo the night on the Clemenceau. I can't change the past or the shame of my surrender.

It must have shown on his face, given the saddened expression on Ostrovsky's. "We could use you back in uniform, Colonel. Whether or not the war continues, we'll need good ship drivers to keep the fleet ready. Though I can already tell the answer is 'no'."

Henry inclined his head. "It is," he confirmed.

"I expected as much. I'll make sure your dismissal is upgraded to a retirement," Ostrovsky promised. "You'll get your full pension. I'm sure the bean counters will try to deduct what Erhart gave you sixteen years ago, but I'll see to it they don't. The CDF owes you more than that."

"Thank you, General," was all Henry could manage as a reply. "If you need me, I'll be on my ship."

He was answered with a nod before Ostrovsky turned and walked away.

I should be happy. I should be more grateful than this. But try as he might, he couldn't summon that feeling. It all tastes like ash. Henry stalked off, lost.

Breach of Duty

Even with the Exodus Station locked down, there was still room to explore. Samina's curiosity ultimately led to her finding an observation lounge looking out at several of the yard's docks. From there, she could see the ships that the Coalition had been slowly building over the past centuries. She took in the sight of one of the massive population movers. Awe swept through her at the scope of the ship and the work that went into making her. It represented a lot of careful planning to make something like that. But in its own way, it was depressing as well.

She noticed Pieter step up beside her. "Something wrong, Samina?" he asked.

"I'm just wondering." She leaned against the frame. Her head still throbbed a little from the aftereffects of the concussion. "Maybe one day we'll have to use that fleet. Maybe the League will win in the end, and it'll be our only hope."

"I wouldn't worry about it," he answered, his tone meant to be reassuring. "They're getting kicked out of Sagittarius, and every world knows what they're like now. If they're smart, they won't come back."

"They find enough people willing to chase us," Samina pointed out.

"That'll change soon enough." Pieter leaned against the frame as well, although his face was pointed towards her and not the window. "Besides, I need you to come back. One of the Coalition's shuttles found our lost turret, and we've got a lot of work to do in putting it back on."

That made her think about the more significant problem facing them. Pieter clearly was as well. He said, "We're going to have to do a complete structural survey before we head back into space. Or we might have other stuff fall off."

She sighed. "Don't I know it? It's going to take us hours." She pulled herself back into a standing posture. "We should get to work then. So we don't keep the others waiting."

"After you."

They headed out, already dreading the quantity of work facing them.

Breach of Duty

Before returning to the Shadow Wolf, Henry headed for one of the other hangar bays. There he found his former Laffey crewmates and Congresswoman Snow, as they were preparing to embark on a shuttle from the Uriel. "Heading back to Canaan?"

"For the moment," Hale answered. "Although those of us still in uniform are likely going to be re-assigned soon."

Xu nodded in agreement. "Classified or not, I don't think Command wants us on Canaan where we could slip up and say the wrong thing."

"So you'll have to say goodbye to your family," Henry noted.

"They knew I was leaving soon anyway. I was to command the Justinian when she launches in a few months," Xu replied. "I might as well join the shakedown team."

"Right. Anyway, I thought I'd see you all off, and I'd like to thank you all for your parts in bringing down Erhart. It feels good to have the cloud out from over our heads." The last was a white lie on Henry's part. No reason they can't feel satisfied, though.

Hale flashed a small smile. "It does. But you're not coming back, are you, sir?"

He shook his head. "I'm not a CDF officer anymore, Hale."

"You could be one," she pointed out. "You could be part of the good fight again."

"No, I can't." He shook his head. Seeing they didn't understand, he felt the old pain come up as he prepared himself to speak on it. "I, well, my name being clear isn't enough. It doesn't change what happened. It doesn't change the fact that I surrendered instead of fighting on, and fighting on, that's what it takes to be in the CDF in this war."

Uncomfortable expressions filled their faces. Snow stepped forward and shook her head. "You saved all of us by that, Captain Henry. Erhart would've had us all in Lambert's Lament to force you to break."

"That doesn't change what happened. To fight in this war, you have to have faith in victory, enough faith to hold strong and damn the consequences." He shook his head. "That night, I didn't have faith. I'd say I lost it, but maybe, well, maybe I never had it. Looking back, I never faced superior odds like that before. Who's to say I was ever fit to command in the CDF? So, no, I won't be coming back. I've got my ship and my crew, and that's what I've earned."

Visible pain came to Hale's face, and it was clear the others were affected by what he said. He noted the realization coming to them. The understanding that, exonerated or not, he didn't consider himself worthy of the uniform the three of them still wore. He'd been tried and was found wanting.

"Well, good luck then, Captain Henry," Mueller said. "I'll be praying for you and your crew."

"I'll be doing the same, as will my family," Xu promised.

"Good luck out there," Snow said. "If you get a cargo run to Lawrence City, I wouldn't mind having a coffee with you. I'll just browbeat my assistant into making room in my schedule." She grinned broadly.

Hale spoke last. "Good luck and Godspeed, Captain."

Henry took all of it in the spirit offered, forcing a thankful smile to his face. "Thank you all. Good luck out there, or in Congress." The smile turned mirthful. "I'm not sure which will be worse."

"Oh, they're the ones with the more dangerous job." Snow laughed. "I've learned that the hard way."

There was some laughter at that, which served to lighten their moods as they embarked on the shuttle, leaving Henry to return to his ship.


45

With everything else handled, Henry focused himself to observing the repairs of his ship. They hadn't moved it from the hangar deck they'd taken in the assault, which now had work crews milling about with their customary tools as they worked on his ship. Samina was running a hand-scanner over the side of the vessel while Pieter directed some of those work crews in moving the recovered quad-turret back into place over the wound on the ship's starboard side. Yet other work crews were putting the atmospheric stabilizers back on or building a new one in place.

It wasn't an extensive repair, and it couldn't be without a proper repair yard. But it would get the Shadow Wolf spaceworthy again.

His eyes passed across the bow, allowing him to see the approach of Colonel Cohen. After remaining fairly quiet during Ostrovsky's after-action meeting, it appeared there was a lot on the younger man's mind. He called out, "Colonel Cohen, what can I do for you?"

David came to a stop and put his hands together in front of him. "Nothing. I wanted to see you before I returned to my ship and extend my congratulations for getting your name cleared. I also…" His voice trailed off for a moment. "I need to apologize for how I spoke to you on Monrovia. I assumed a lot of things I shouldn't have."

"You wouldn't be the first." Henry extended his hand. "And apology accepted."

"Thank you."

One didn't need to have a psychiatrist's degree to see how shaken David was. Not with the expression on his face or the way his posture seemed more rigid than firm. "It's been a hard couple of days," Henry said.

David shook his head then pursed his lips together. "When I received the communication from you and General Ostrovsky, I hoped bringing the Lion of Judah in would make Erhart back down. I never imagined he'd give the orders to shoot at fellow members of the CDF. How could a man who was one of our best leaders fall that far?"

It was the kind of question likely echoing on every ship in the system. It wouldn't find an easy answer, even if they knew what Henry did. He thought back to what Erhart said in his office, or back on the Clemenceau, about his son being MIA. "Nobody'll know for sure," he finally replied. "But I think Erhart was broken twenty years ago. The day he lost his son, it changed everything for him. He had to make the loss mean something, count for something, and it led him into a bad place."

"That sounds right," David agreed. "But at the same time, we've all lost something in this war."

"That's war for you. Loss. It always boils down to loss and what it does to us. The damage it leaves. Everyone who talks about the war like it's a good thing, they've never gone through it."

"Are you saying the cost isn't worth it?"

He shook his head. "No. No, you've got to defend yourself, and everything that matters to you. There are bad people in the galaxy, not just the League, who would come and take it if you didn't fight for it. What I'm saying is that you can't lie about what it does to you. War has costs, and those costs can destroy people. Trying to pretend otherwise makes it worse."

As he spoke, he thought about the costs of this little war. The damage to his ship, the injuries to his crew, and the loss of his chance to give Uncle Charlie the goodbye he deserved.

"You're right about that."

The thoughtful look on David's face was one Henry knew from personal experience. "I can't tell you the costs will be worth it in the end," he said. "I'm still finding that out for myself. I just know that sometimes, you won't sleep unless you take a stand and make 'em pay." With that said, he extended his hand. When David took it, he continued, "Good luck out there, Colonel. Give the Leaguers hell."

"Not entirely appropriate, I suppose, but I'll do my best to beat them," David promised. He put a little emphasis in "best," and Henry knew what he meant. Not just fighting to win, but fighting a moral, honorable way, not how Erhart planned to do it. "Good luck to you, Captain Henry. Godspeed."

If David expected him to reply the same way, he was in for a disappointment. Henry's answer was a simple nod of acknowledgment before he turned away to enter his ship.

Breach of Duty

While work continued repairing the ship, Oskar was busy healing the wounds of the crew. Aided by the corpsmen and the medical technology available on Exodus Station, he had Vidia and Miri walking again. Now Yanik was his focus.

The big Saurian was always quiet, but he felt this silence was not the same as the usual type. There was a sort of vulnerability in it that he hadn't seen before. It was fitting, given the readings on the medical scanner.

"You've pushed yourself very far, Yanik," he said, an authoritative weight in his voice. "Too far, maybe."

"My injuries are treatable," Yanik said.

"They are. But you are still getting over your wounds on Cyclades, and you've endured others in the past several months." He brought up the results of the medical scans, showing Yanik's remnant injuries and the damage inflicted on his body. "Saurian physiology is quite robust, and you heal quickly even without medical help, but there are still limits. You're starting to press those limits."

"I see." Yanik's tongue briefly flickered in the air. "It is not unheard of. My grandfather's many war wounds caused him great trouble late in his life."

"As they would any species," Oskar replied. "You're not invulnerable, my friend. Please be more careful."

"I will try."

"That said." He took a seat across from Yanik. "You seem troubled."

Yanik's yellow eyes fixed on him for a moment. "The Terran Marine Colonel from the Lion of Judah asked me which regiment I served with. I had to answer faithfully that I didn't serve in a regiment. I could see the confusion in his eyes, and then his scorn."

"Scorn?"

"All Saurians serve in a regiment of the Emperor's armies, Doctor Kiderlein. The only exceptions are the disabled and deserters. He knew immediately I was one of the latter, and he judged me for it."

"That was unkind of him."

"It was instinctive. Colonel Demood is a warrior, and I respect that." Yanik drew in a breath. "The Divine saw fit to lead my people on the right path, in the end, and for that, I am grateful. But all this does is remind me that I will never be home again. Knowing this makes my soul ache."

"Ah, a pain I know all too well, my friend." He smiled gently, the pain showing as he thought of never getting to see Regensburg again or his hometown of Hemau in the Bavarian countryside. "Your faith and my ethics have taken us on a painful road."

If Yanik was going to give a reply, he never got a chance. The intercom crackled to life. "This is the Captain to all crew. Please report to the galley. We have something to discuss."

"Ah, I was wondering when he would call us together." Oskar slipped off the bed. "After you, friend."

Breach of Duty

Pieter waited with growing impatience as the crew filtered into the galley. The last to arrive were Piper and Brigitte, who found seats beside Yanik. Captain Henry and Tia were at the central table, looking directly toward him. "We're all here, Pieter," Henry said.

He nodded. "Yes, sir. I've got news for everyone, but it's not good."

Henry's eyes lowered for a moment. "I expected as much. Go on."

"Well, first, we do have a little good news in that we've got the ship fully spaceworthy again," Pieter began, hoping to soften the blow. "We can make for a repair yard to finish things up, but so long as we watch our thrust and how much we push her, the Shadow Wolf should be fine."

"And the bad news?"

Pieter noticed Samina's sad look and returned it. "We've completed our structural survey," Pieter began. "It shows that microfractures have already formed in the frame of the Shadow Wolf. These microfractures are undermining the structural stability of the ship and have decreased her frame's lifetime considerably."

"Well, how considerably?" Cera asked. "How much longer does th' ol' girl have?"

"Three years," Samina revealed.

It was like sticking a pin in a balloon. Whatever good mood their victory had brought them deflated immediately.

"We might get four out of it," Pieter said. "If we're lucky, five years. That's if we keep the fusion drive off. Whenever we fire it up and turn up the Gs, the microfractures will get worse and cut into our remaining lifetime. In short, we can't use the fusion drive anymore."

The brief silence ended with Tia speaking up. "Pieter, without that drive, we won't be able to avoid firefights," she pointed out. "We're going to get shot up by every pirate who takes a run at us."

"I know," he answered. "But I can't do anything about it. This ship was never designed to be under that much thrust, and we've pushed her as far as she can go. The more we burn, the faster she dies."

"What about repairs?" Vidia asked. "Let's repair the frame, fill in the fractures."

Samina spoke up first. "You'd have to take the ship apart, Vidia. You'd have to strip the Wolf down to her frame and rebuild the structural members. I remember Chief Khánh having to do that once. It took her team months of man-hours."

"The material costs would be high too." Pieter shook his head. "We'd be better off buying another ship in that case. It'll cost about the same in the end."

The engineer went silent. A bitter feeling went through him at the dark stares from his crew. He'd announced their time was limited. Their ship would eventually have to be grounded, for good, and the future was now completely uncertain. He hated it. He didn't blame them for those looks. The Shadow Wolf had been his home for years, and Captain Henry's faith in him saw Pieter through many crises of faith. He didn't want to lose her any more than they did. No matter how many times I've saved the ship, it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.

"Thanks for letting us know, Pieter, Samina." Henry stood. "We've known eventually the Wolf might not be able to take the drives. They've saved our bacon enough times that it was still worth it."

"Yeah, they have," Tia agreed. "We'll just have to deal with it."

"Alright, everyone, I think it's about time to head out," he said. "We'll finish the repairs at Tylerville."

Any haste on his part immediately made sense to Pieter. The sooner they got home, the sooner the Henrys could bury Uncle Charlie.

One by one, everyone left the galley.

Breach of Duty

With the ship ready to launch, one final delay held them back.

Henry walked down the mid-port hold ramp and up to Felix. His old friend was now in full CDF duty uniform, his Colonel's rank on the lapels, and the intel branch insignia in place. The patch they once both wore for the Unified Methodist Church was missing from the uniform, as he might expect to find.

"Hey, Jim," Felix said. His voice sounded melancholy. "So, heading out, I hear?"

"They're waiting for me back at Tylerville," he replied. "I'll have to thank Ostrovsky for clearing things with CBI. I don't need them arresting Tia and Yanik on landing."

"CBI's got egg all over their faces thanks to Erhart," Felix began. "The evidence he gave them to justify your arrests was proven bogus. They're all too happy to let bygones be bygones on the matter. Although I'd be careful about doing anything in their jurisdiction, Jim. They're not very happy with you right now."

"Cops usually aren't when you put a gun to them and make them give up prisoners," he observed. A mirthful smile came to his face. "Remember that sheriff on Meridian?"

Felix matched the smile. "The one who took Piper and Brig? Yeah, I remember the little tyrant bastard. We scared the living crap out of him too."

They shared a chuckle. But all too quickly, the moment passed. "I could probably get you permission to attend the drumming out," Felix said. "Erhart's already said he'll plead guilty. Surprises me, to tell the truth."

"We ruined his life's plan. He's got nothing left. No reason to fight."

"If you ask me, the just thing would be walking him out of an airlock." Felix shook his head. "But that'd be doing things the League way."

"Yeah." While a part of him would enjoy it, the more Henry thought about attending any drumming out of Erhart, the more he found the idea to be hollow. A brief satisfaction wouldn't undo the past. "We can't undo the past, even by drumming him out. Go ahead and send me a holo, if you can, but I've got to go bury Uncle Charlie."

"Yeah." Felix lowered his eyes. "Priorities, right."

"You coming?"

"I want to, God I want to. But I've got a debrief back at Command to go through. Erhart's left a big mess to clean up, and Ostrovsky wants all hands on deck."

The excuse was accepted with a nod. But Henry knew his old friend's real reason for staying away. "He'd understand, you know."

"Maybe. Or maybe he'd be disappointed as hell in me." Felix shook his head. "I don't want to put up with my old man trying to mend fences when he finds out I'm still in the service."

There was something in the way he said that, something that said what he really meant. That he wanted to be coming back aboard the Shadow Wolf himself. "You could retire. I still need a Third Mate," Henry offered, already knowing the answer.

"You're a good man, Jim, and far kinder than I deserve, but we both know I can't come back." Tears shined in Felix's eyes. "I lost my place when I revealed who I was. I'm the spy, and I'll always be the spy. I think you'll find Miri a fantastic Third Mate. She'll do you and the others well. Far better than I could've."

Henry tried and failed to keep the tears out of his eyes. As much as he still felt resentment, betrayal even, for what Felix was doing on his ship, he knew precisely what his friend was doing and saying. This was a goodbye, and with it the admission that they might never see each other again. He tried to say it. He tried to say the words "I forgive you." But he couldn't make them form. The wound felt too raw, too new, to force the words past the resentment.

The struggle had to have shown on his face. "Good luck out there, Jim." Felix offered his hand. "If you ever need help, I'll be there. I promise."

Henry brought up his hand to grip Felix's. They shook hands, but no more words were shared. Once the handshake was over, Felix turned on his heel and walked away.

Once more, he tried to form the words in his throat. For Felix's sake. But again, they didn't quite form. He spied on you. He used our friendship as a tool. Those thoughts burned too hotly to ignore, and with them the forgiveness would be hollow. All he could do was return to the Shadow Wolf. It was time to get out of this place and go home.

Breach of Duty

Exodus Station disappeared from the viewer of the Shadow Wolf. Cera finished an expert turn and directed them out toward the nearby jump limit. "Well, that was somethin'," she said. "What that spy general said didn't do th' fleet justice, if ye ask me."

"The fleet built to abandon the rest of us," Tia snorted. After a moment, she sighed. "Sorry. I'm being unfair. A lot of Coalition people died to stop that murdering bastard."

"That they did," Vidia agreed.

Tia sighed. "I half expected to hear Rothbard make a snide comment about socialism," she confessed. "I'm going to have to get used to not having the libertarian kook around."

Everyone went silent. Henry presumed it was for his sake.

Their course out took them past several of the Coalition ships in-system, most busy with their own repairs to make their jumps back to a suitable repair base. Only as they passed the second of the ships, one of those that had been on Erhart's side, did he notice that the vessels were firing off blanks from their mag-cannon emplacements.

Piper noticed too. "The Coalition ships are firing their guns, but I'm not picking up projectiles. What're they doing?"

"It's a gun salute," he replied. "They're saluting us as we fly by."

"An' that's a good thing?" Cera asked.

"It's a mark of respect." Henry turned his chair back. "Third Mate, as your first act in your new post, return the salute."

Seated at the auxiliary station, which still had weapons control, Miri didn't need him to finish the order. She dialed back the power on the plasma cannons and cut the karnon feed. The result was brief pulses of weak purple energy.

Ship by ship, the salutes were exchanged, culminating with the Lion of Judah herself. The massive Coalition battle-wagon, with her two fighter landing platforms prominent at the bow, dwarfed their ship. Nevertheless, her impressive mag-cannon mounts turned and blazed away. Miri returned the gesture, a smile on her face.

"We're past th' jump limit," Cera said about thirty seconds after they passed the Lion of Judah.

"Jump us out."

The Shadow Wolf's drives generated a wormhole ahead of them. Cera effortlessly guided them through.


46

Justin Spencer paused from the document he was reading—a memorandum on Neutral Space involvement in the war—when the chime on his tablet went off. One of the downsides to being the President of the Terran Coalition is having my day planned for me in fifteen-minute increments. He smiled and glanced at the notice. Ah, Congresswoman Celinda Snow. Like clockwork, the door opened, and in she walked.

"Thank you for seeing me, Mister President."

"The pleasure is mine, Congresswoman," Spencer replied formally as he stood. Quickly, he crossed the few steps to the twin couches in the center of the room and extended his arm to her. "Please, come in."

Snow paused to shake his hand, then sat on one of the couches.

He dropped into the other and made eye contact with her. "I asked you here today to apologize for your treatment at the hands of General Erhart, and the CBI. The entire situation is a stain on our nation. I had no idea what was happening."

The expression on her face remained cordial and diplomatic, but there was an edge to her voice. "With respect, sir, I find that hard to believe."

Spencer took the verbal slap in stride. If I were her, I'd feel the same way. "Congresswoman," he began and gritted his teeth. "I swear to you, as God as my witness, I didn't know he was behind it. Yes, a brief came across my desk that the CBI was investigating a member of the lower house for corruption and treason. It, well, given your history—"

"It was easy to believe a Peace Union supporter would take action against the government?" The edge was sharper this time.

"Yes." He pursed his lips together. "You know, when you say it out loud, it sounds a lot worse than it does in my mind."

Snow cracked something of a wry grin. "Yeah. I find it difficult at times to believe such a decorated member of the CDF would be capable of what Erhart did. But, that's what we get for mindlessly worshipping military leaders without question."

"The Terran Coalition is a nation of laws, not of men, for that specific reason," Spencer said, his jaw set. "As for worship, the only thing I worship is God and our constitution."

"You've accused members of the Peace Union of providing aid and comfort to the enemy."

He held up a hand. "Only the ones who deserve it. You can't deny Rhodes makes statements that defy logic—branding the CDF as war criminals? For crying out loud, the League attacked us out of the blue. We all know that."

For a moment it looked like she was going to roll her eyes, but she was too controlled to in this setting. "The Peace Union is not a hive mind, Mister President, we are a coalition. We don't always agree with each other, save on the need for the war to end." She met his eyes without flinching. "We're not going to settle this with a private debate, sir. I would remind you that most of the Peace Union's supporters aren't members of the Rhodes wing, though. Most of us are like me. I didn't sign up to call my former colleagues in uniform war criminals, or enablers. I signed up because after a generation of war, our people are exhausted, and our liberated worlds need time to rebuild and get their lives back in order. And that's all I'm going to say on the matter."

"Fairly put." Spencer leaned back on the couch. They didn't break eye contact, although their mutual gaze never reached the level of hostility. "We've all forgotten something fundamental. Even me."

"What's that, Mister President?" Snow asked, curiosity in her tone.

"That our political opponents, for the most part, want the same things we do. A prosperous Terran Coalition, under God, with freedom and justice for all." He again made eye contact with her. "Somewhere along the line, our opponents became the enemy. To be crushed and destroyed… and it's tearing the fabric of our society apart."

She nodded. "I couldn't agree more, sir." Her tone was warmer this time.

"If you ever get tired of Rhodes and Fuentes, I'd love to have you in the Liberal Party."

Snow broke into a broad grin. "Maybe one day."

"I had to take my shot. Though I assure you it was sincere."

"Your wrong about Fuentes. He's a good man," she stated quietly. "And for what it's worth, I used to think you were a good man, too, but right now you've lost some of my confidence. Too much has been done under your watch, Mister President." There was disappointment in her tone. "I do hope you're telling the truth though, because it'd go a long way toward restoring that confidence. Whatever happens in the election and over the next six months, the Terran Coalition needs good leadership to see it through."

"On that, we agree, Celinda." Spencer stood, his allotted time expended. "Thank you for your service to your country. Both in uniform, as a member of Congress, and in this Erhart caper." He pulled a small case out of his suit pocket and held it out toward her. "The Presidential Medal of Freedom."

Her hand hesitated before taking the case. She opened it up and stared at it intently. Her head slowly shook. "I don't deserve this, sir. Others are more deserving."

"So they are, and I'll be handing more out. But you deserve it as well. You spent your life working to right a wrong, and stop Erhart. It was an honorable crusade, and I commend you for it."

There was a moment of silence as she considered how to react. "Thank you, sir." Snow extended her free hand.

Spencer took it, and shook warmly once more. "Godspeed."

"Godspeed to you, too, sir."

He watched her leave, and the door close quietly behind her. Spencer could tell from her body language and words Snow didn't quite believe him. Truth is, I'm not sure I believe myself. There were warning signs about Erhart. Palling around with contractors, always helping his friends out. Andrew warned me about him. As he sat behind the desk and started on his next task, he hoped the gestures made toward her would resonate. Something had to change in the Terran Coalition. Or we'll destroy ourselves from within. The League won't even need to help.

Breach of Duty

Given the past couple of weeks, Tabitha Hale was delighted to experience the simpler pleasures of being back in Lawrence City as opposed to being in a cell on Lambert's Lament.

Among those pleasures was a comfortable chair in a nicely, if frugally, furnished living room, watching the holoprojector turned to Canaan News Network. The anchor, a tanned brunette in a smart business suit, spoke to the camera with a faint Hebrew accent. "The Coalition Defense Force has issued a preliminary report on the arrest of General Ulysses Erhart. Long known for his victories against the League, General Erhart is now accused of corruption involving several defense contractors, particularly Kalling Engineering. The once-powerful defense contractor is in shambles given the disappearance of the firm's board of directors, led by CEO Oliver Faulkner, and renewed investigations by the CBI and CDF are reported as finding indications of major fraud and other violations of Terran Coalition laws."

If only Erhart hadn't killed Faulkner. He deserved to face justice too. When Hale heard noise from the nearby bar, she called out, "I should see about running for office, Linda. This place is nice."

"I buy smart, not pricey," Snow replied, coming up to take a seat beside her. A bottle of what Hale assumed was celebratory wine was in one hand, two glasses in the others. She set them down on the coffee table in front of them. "How was the debriefing?"

"Exhaustive. General al-Rashad gave me a good verbal flaying for overstepping the bounds of my office while hunting Erhart but said he was thankful I made it through all right."

"Because, of course, regulations are more important than stopping barratry for the purpose of mass murder," Snow remarked sarcastically.

"You know how the service is. He was thankful to me for that part. Actually, if anything, I think he's upset I didn't invite him in."

Snow laughed. "I'll let him know what it's like to be arrested and held by people convinced you're a traitor. He'll thank you."

"What about your debrief?"

"It was interesting," she said. "I'm already read into a lot of classified secrets, despite my 'defeatist' reputation. The President even found time to talk to me about it. He expressed gratitude that we stopped Erhart and apologized for my arrest. And handed me that."

Hale followed Snow's gesture to a case on her coffee table. She reached over and picked it up. Her eyes widened at the contents. "The Presidential Medal of Freedom?"

"A peace gesture more than anything, I think," Snow said. "Decorating a member of the political opposition accused of treason may go some way toward healing the political rift before the election. It's basically a statement to Congress and the Coalition that I'm innocent of the charges."

"Still, you deserve it."

"Not as much as others. Colonel de la Hoya, Major Singh, Lieutenant Arslan." Snow shook her head. "Captain Henry."

"I'm sure he'll be handing a lot of these out once the investigation is over," Hale assured her. "At least he apologized."

Snow nodded while considering the bottle of wine in her hand. "I accepted the apology, even if still think he could've done more."

"Nothing in this world is perfect, including the Coalition."

"But we're damn better than the League, at least."

Snow turned her attention to pouring the wine while the report continued playing.

Hale noted that Henry's image, at least that from sixteen years ago, was now on the screen. "In related news, CDF officials have formally exonerated Lieutenant Colonel James Henry of Tylerville, New Virginia over the Laffey Incident from sixteen years ago. The testing incident aboard the destroyer Laffey was blamed on Colonel Henry, who was forced to accept dishonorable discharge from the military on a reduced rank over the matter. Now new evidence shows that Colonel Henry was made to look guilty by General Erhart on behalf of Kalling Engineering, who were truly responsible for the explosion that killed over two dozen personnel on the ship. According to General Matheson of the Judge Advocate General's Office, and I quote, 'Colonel Henry was the victim of a malicious superior officer and his corrupt contacts in the contracting industry. The entire service owes the Colonel a profound apology for his treatment at our hands during and after his trial. We hope that the restoration of his rank and pension will go toward correcting the grave injustice this office participated in."

Snow put the bottle down and snorted. "I wonder if he'll give me an apology too." When Hale gave her a curious glance, she added, "Matheson was the one who helped kick me out. He was all aboard the railroad."

"A lot of people were. Erhart had a lot of influence."

"Well, we finally got him. After all this time, he won't be ruining any more lives."

Hale felt the image come back, of the Marine from Erhart's side that jumped on a grenade. "He ruined plenty as it is," she said. "Making us shoot our comrades like that." When Snow offered one of the glasses, Hale shook her head. "Sorry, I don't feel like celebrating. This doesn't feel like a victory, Linda."

"I know. But they forced us too."

"Still…" Hale shook her head and Snow sighed, returning the glass to the coffee table. Realizing she was dampening Snow's mood, she decided to change the subject. "Anything else going on? The Peace Union was riled up by your arrest."

"For good reason. Fuentes is talking about putting me on the Cabinet." Snow grinned. "I'm not sure I'll go for it, though."

"Oh?"

"Being Attorney-General sounds nice, but right now, my stock in the House has gone up. The Speaker's agreed to give me a temporary committee to investigate defense contractor fraud. Kalling wasn't the only company defrauding the Coalition in the war. I'm going to enjoy nailing those bastards to the wall when I get the chance." She sipped at the wine but appeared as if she wasn't enjoying it. "I owe it to him, you know," she said softly.

"To who?"

"Colonel Henry. Captain Henry. These people ruined his life. Their corruption destroyed his career, and I owe him for not saving it back then. If I had, he'd still be one of ours."

Hale reached forward and took up the glass poured for her. "Well, I can drink to that, then."

Snow's look softened into a smile, and the two shared a toast on the matter.

Breach of Duty

For Anthony Xu, the debriefing was a final task to be endured patiently. When it was over, he paid the expense of a helicar taxi to take him back home.

Lily Xu met him outside the front door, their children standing beside her. He barely had time to get out of the helicar before they rushed toward him, squealing, "Daddy!"

"Carly! Sam!" He knelt to embrace his happy children, taking one in each arm for a tight hug. They started weeping onto his shoulders. While tears were filling his own eyes, he carefully stroked their heads and spoke softly. "It's okay. I'm home again. It's okay."

By the time he stood again, Lily walked up. He met her eyes first, then their lips met and they embraced for a long kiss that made their children laugh.

When the kiss ended, he stroked the tears from Lily's cheeks. "I thought, I mean, everything they were saying, it sounded so wrong—"

"It was wrong, all of it, and they know it now," he assured her. "In fact, I'm going to be a full Colonel soon. Even before I ship out on the Justinian."

"That's wonderful!"

"Wish it had happened in a happier way," he said. I only got it because my boss was in Erhart's clique, covering his tracks by deleting data. He's lucky they're letting him retire in lieu of a court-martial.

"I understand," his wife said. "But God's brought you back to us, and that's happiness enough for me."

And for me, he admitted to himself. I just hope His plan for Colonel Henry brings him happiness too.

Breach of Duty

After debriefing, Mueller headed to his new posting. It entailed taking a shuttle up to Canaan Station, where he quickly made his way to the repair yards for the destroyers.

Sitting in one of those docks was the Madison Washington, her hull damage already under repair. He started walking across the tube leading to the destroyer's port airlock. Halfway across, Major Tawadros walked up. "Good to see you, Major," Tawadros said, saluting. "Welcome to your new command."

Mueller returned the salute. "Not mine yet. When's the official change of command scheduled?"

The Coptic man lowered his hand. "Two days from now. Captain al-Aswat set the schedule. We should have our other replacements aboard by then."

"She's staying aboard as my XO, yes?"

"She is, although I'm recommending her to the Promotion Board."

"Well, until then, we'll make it work." Mueller grinned. "Anything I should know about her?"

"Dependable, brave, the crew respects her even with how stern she can be with them," replied Tawadros. "The only difficulty you'll likely have, sir, is that she got used to speaking Arabic with me. Unless you speak it as well?"

"I do not," Mueller confirmed. "And I'm sure she'll adjust, in due time."

"She will. Shall we?" Tawadros gestured to his former ship. "Even with the repair work, I can show you everything."

"Good. I'd like to get used to her. She's newer than the Pegahmagabow, my old ship."

"Well, she won't disappoint, then." Even as he spoke, it was clear Tawadros understood why Mueller's old ship was a bit of a sore spot to him.

He knew it wasn't fair to his old crew. They'd been given direct orders to arrest their own CO. But even with everything having turned out for the best, that act had forever soured his ability to work with the other officers on the Pegahmagabow. It was just one of those things.

So he'd start over with a new ship and a new crew. With time and God's good graces, he'd put this behind him.

I only hope God helps Colonel Henry do the same, he thought as they stepped through the airlock into the Washington. His spirit still needs to heal.

Breach of Duty

Janine Renner was alone in confined quarters on the Uriel when General Ostrovsky entered. She couldn't bring herself to look at the man she'd spied on for these last several years, not until he cleared his throat. She stood and saluted him, unable to keep the shame from her eyes.

He left her at attention for the moment. "Well, Major, you've done quite well," he said. "I never suspected you were the mole."

Renner didn't move. She didn't close her eyes, much as she wished.

Ostrovsky returned the salute. "At ease, Major."

Relieved from the demands of military protocol, she sank into the chair, head hung low. "Thank you, General."

"Don't thank me yet. You're at an important decision point in your career, Major, and you may be cursing my name before it's over."

"My career should be over," she replied. "I helped Erhart frame Colonel Henry. I worked as his spy in your office for years. I assaulted two civilians for him."

"Those were horrible things, but you didn't murder anyone, so that places you ahead of most of his people." Ostrovsky placed his hands at the small of his back. "We're rolling up Erhart's network, but I'm sure he has some people he kept hidden. People you may help lead us to."

She shook her head. "If I act against him, my brother gets punished. I can't."

"I thought you'd say that." Ostrovsky went over to the room's link. It was locked so she couldn't use it, but with a couple of keystrokes, he brought it online.

Her brother Sam appeared on the holo-screen. "Hi, Jan," he said. "Are you okay?"

She swallowed, glancing at Ostrovsky briefly before facing her brother. She fought to keep her worry from her face. I can't let Sam know I'm in trouble. He'll worry. "I'm, yeah, I'm okay. How are you? How's your drawing coming?"

"It's great! I just got told I'm going to be transferred to a civilian job! It's so great, I won't have to wear the uniform anymore or salute. I can just do the drawing they assign. I can't wait!"

Her words caught in her throat. She couldn't imagine what was going on, but she felt genuine happiness for her brother. "That's great, Sam, it's perfect. You'll be happier in the civilian world, and you'll love your job, I'm sure."

"Are you going to come visit soon?"

"Uh, when I can." She glanced toward Ostrovsky. He swept his fingers in the air in a cutting motion. "I've got to go now, okay? My boss wants to speak to me."

"Is it the General? I understand, I understand a lot. He's a nice man. I'll talk to you later, Jan!" Sam hit a key on his end, and his image disappeared.

Renner swallowed. She gradually brought her eyes over toward Ostrovsky. "Sir?"

"I pulled my own strings. Your brother's free and clear, Major. That's not going to change." Ostrovsky took a seat across from her. "What remains is your fate."

"I'll be court-martialed, I'm guessing."

"That's one way this goes down, yes. Court-martial, dishonorable dismissal, and a decade or two in Lambert's Lament." He leaned forward in his seat. "The alternative is that you cooperate with the investigation. You help us find all of Erhart's cabal."

She heard the words, but it wasn't what she was thinking. Sam is free. He can't be hurt anymore.

Of course, that was what Ostrovsky was likely aiming to do. He's putting me in his debt. He wants me emotionally primed to say yes. And I don't care. Sam's okay. That's all that matters.

"I'll do it," she said.

"I didn't tell you how it'd go for you."

"As long as Sam's fine, I'll do it."

Ostrovsky nodded. "I thought you might say that. Nevertheless, as consideration for your cooperation, you'll be permitted a resignation of your commission. Some communication equipment firms could use a person of your experience. Nothing classified, of course, but it'll give you steady pay. Help you look after your brother."

Tears filled her eyes. I don't deserve this. "I don't…"

"You don't deserve it," he said when she failed to finish her sentence. "I know. But justice without mercy, well, that's what Erhart's world is like. But I'm fine with leaving justice in the hands of the Lord, when duty permits. So for you, mercy."

"And for Erhart?"

He shook his head. "That ship burned away a long time ago."


47

The sun that had warmed New Virginia since primordial times continued casting its light upon the city of Tylerville. The residents enjoyed the warmth it brought as part of the mild climate they enjoyed.

Such warmth was also welcome to the mourners who assembled among the hills and trees of West Tylerville Cemetery. Sunlight glistened on the polished wood of the beautiful, dark-brown casket that lay over the grave it was soon to be lowered into. The tombstone was already in place, marked with the name of Charles Benjamin Henry.

Henry sat beside his parents and his Aunt Tylinda at the front row of the assembled. For the first time in years, he wasn't in his spacer jacket and trousers. Instead, he wore a "church suit," a black dress jacket and pants, the jacket over a white shirt with a long black tie. Tears of grief and loss flowed from his eyes just as they came from the rest of his family.

In front of them, beside the casket, Reverend Gill stood, dressed in a similar suit with the collar and vestments of his office. He gave the reading of John Chapter Fourteen with a strength that believed the venerable state of his age. "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me."

Henry felt a little stir inside him. In his heart, he didn't believe. Even now, with Erhart defeated and his name cleared, he didn't feel anything of the old faith coming back to him. Too much time had been spent, too much blood spilled, to bring about Erhart's downfall. He couldn't see it as part of a benevolent, divine plan.

Gill continued, reaching the sixth verse and giving it a particular energy. "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me."

What was it all for? Erhart lost his son, and that broke him, turned him into something terrible. Henry considered his own life since his dismissal. Uncle Charlie had saved him from the immediate threat of self-destruction, but afterward? To keep flying, to keep the jobs coming, he made compromises with what he thought was right. He had to bribe men to break their laws, even threaten them if necessary, and he'd shot a fair number of people. They'd wanted things that he had, sure, but who was to say they deserved to die? It wasn't his place to think something like that.

While his thoughts continued, so did the ceremony. Henry heard the whispers behind him. Miri was occasionally murmuring an "Amen" of agreement as Gill transitioned from verse-reading to speaking of the promise of eternal rest. The rest of the crew were in the line behind the family, indeed, directly behind him. Even Oskar and Brigitte were present, courtesy of Ostrovsky listing them as noted defectors for CBI's database.

"We miss Brother Charles very deeply," Gill said. "God knows that. It is His promise to us that alleviates the pain. His promise, through his Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, that a place awaits us all. Brother Charles is already there, celebrating with the saints, and the day will come when we will be with him. Let the promise ease your pain, my brothers and sisters. When you feel that pain's sting, remember it. Remember we will be reunited with Brother Charles in the presence of God."

"Inshallah," Samina breathed, so low that Henry barely heard her. The sniffling from her tears of sympathy made it clear the Reverend's words meant as much to her as it did Henry and his family.

Reverend Gill came to his conclusion soon enough, and the ceremony came to its final phase. As a chorus sang "Amazing Grace," the line of his relatives formed. Each took a handful of dirt from a waiting wheelbarrow full and approached the casket as it was lowered. Once it was at the bottom of the grave, Thomas Henry stepped up and dropped his handful of soil on his brother's casket. Tylinda followed with Mary up next.

Henry was next. His emotions swelled as he approached the open grave. Inside lay one of the noblest men he'd known in his life. The cherished uncle, a second father, who gave him renewed purpose when treachery stole everything he had. As his hand opened and let loose the dirt to cover his body's resting place, he murmured, "Goodbye, Uncle Charlie. I wish I could've been a better man." He turned and started to walk away.

As he took those steps, his eyes went to the line of family members and friends, all waiting to drop their dirt on the grave. His entire crew was gathered to join in, even those who'd never met Charlie themselves. He saw old Jeff Holstrom in the line, and most of the members of Charlie's team at the spaceport. The old couple who ran his favorite family diner in town. The manager of the Tylerville Spaceport. And the Rothbards, of course, with only Felix missing. All of them represented people his uncle's life had touched in some good way.

But could he say the same? Had he made that kind of impression on people? His crew, certainly, but beyond them and a few others, he was just another spacer captain. An independent captain, and like many of his kind, he skirted the lines of legality whenever he felt the need. When it was his time to go into the grave, would his line be that long? It wasn't just a selfish consideration of wanting to be mourned. He wanted to be worthy of Charlie, to live to his standard, and he felt pain at the thought he wasn't worthy. That everything Uncle Charlie had done for him would amount to nothing. He pushed those thoughts aside. I need to be there for the crew. I need to be strong for their sakes, after they've done so much for mine.

One by one, they joined him. "Next comes the reception, if I'm correct?" asked Oskar.

"Yeah."

"That's good. I'm getting hungry." Samina wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke. Her head was covered in a plain green hijab, a part of her wardrobe she rarely wore, meant for such formal occasions.

He chuckled lightly. "Well, my mother's cooking will hit the spot, then." He led them in the direction of the bus they'd rented from the transit authority. It would be a quick trip to the West Tylerville Methodist Church and its reception hall.

"So why didn't Felix make it out ta see this?" Vidia asked. "Uncle Charlie meant a lot ta him too."

"He had duties, he told me," Henry answered. "Probably the debris from Erhart's clique needing to be swept up."

"Ah. Well, he'll be in my prayers, then."

He nodded at that, and his mind idled to other thoughts. Before the funeral, he received a file over the link from Felix. It showed a somber, frowning General MacIntosh personally seeing to Erhart's drumming out. It didn't give him any satisfaction to see it, just a relief it was finally done. I wonder where Erhart is now?

Breach of Duty

The prisoner transfer was handled like any other, despite the notoriety and celebrity of the prisoner in question. A corporal named Witherspoon led the guards flanking the jumpsuit-clad convict. He was kept in chains for the trip, wrists and ankles bound together by cuffs and chains attached to his suit.

"So, the great General Erhart," Witherspoon said. "Or former General, as it were. I'm warning you now, don't expect any privileges here because of your old record. The fact you're here means you've betrayed your uniform, the service, and the entire Coalition. You're a disgrace, and you'll be treated like it. There will be no rendering of military honors, no salutes, no considerations outside of those described in the CDF Stockade Regulations. You are now Prisoner Erhart. Am I clear?"

"Clear," the old man mumbled.

They arrived at his cell. "Odds are this will be your last home, Prisoner Erhart." Witherspoon gestured, and he was compelled to enter. It was an unpleasant little space. A hard cot, a commode, a sink, a bare table, and a chair. Nothing else was present.

"Reveille is at zero hundred. Due to your knowledge of classified information, and in view of your age, you won't be assigned to eat or labor with the prison populace. We'll have someone bring you your meals at zero thirty, zero eight hundred, and sixteen hundred hours. Throughout the day, you'll be given dishes to clean, so don't worry about not doing your part here, Prisoner Erhart." As Witherspoon spoke, the guards removed his chains. "You are expected to keep your cell in barracks condition. Is that clear, Prisoner Erhart?"

Again, the response was a low, quiet one. "It is."

Witherspoon just about screamed, "I can't hear you! Speak up, Prisoner!"

"Yes, Corporal," he said, forcing volume into his voice.

Satisfied, they left his cell with a heavy clank. Erhart was left to his own thoughts on his fate. This was his final stop in life. All of his honors were gone. He'd truly lost everything. All I have left is death.

The door to the cell clanked open again. Footsteps signaled the approach of a single figure. He looked up to his visitor and smiled thinly. "So has Ostrovsky decided to put me out of my misery, Colonel?"

"In a manner of speaking," replied Felix. He stepped up to the table in the cell and dropped a sheath of papers there. "I admit that if it were up to me, I'd be here to put a pulse blast between your eyes. But the General, he's a good man. He has lines he won't allow us to cross." He tilted his head to the papers. "These are for you." With that said, he stomped out of the cell. It shut with another audible clank.

It took Erhart half an hour to work up the will to check the papers he was left with. They were transcripts from interviews. He checked the header and noted the interviewers were debriefing POWs recovered from the League camps on New Hope, the League's principal colony in Sagittarius. With his curiosity poked at and nothing else to do, he started reading. A sharp breath came from his lips at the first line.

Interviewer: Currently interviewing Sergeant Michael Salton, formerly of CSV Beatty. Sergeant, to start with, do you remember the engagement where you were taken prisoner?

Subject: It was twenty-two years ago. I think. Maybe twenty-one. We were in the Carlton Cluster. Some colony system, Tau Baker.

Those two words emblazoned themselves on Erhart's eyes. Tau Baker. And the Beatty

An old hope, long dormant in his soul, flared back to life. His eyes rushed down the page as if they could devour the words themselves.

Interviewer: And do you remember anyone else from your detachment?

Subject: We had a junior officer. Real good kid, his father was a general. Which general I… I don't remember. It's been so long, and they do so much to make us want to forget.

Interviewer: I understand. What else do you remember about this officer?

Subject: Well, the fighting went on, and we had a detonation in our section. Poor kid took shrapnel. Lost a leg and an arm, had one through here <Subject is pointing to his stomach>. We tried to help him until medics showed up. But the first corpsmen were Leaguers. They took one look at him and black-tagged him. By the time they took us off to confinement, he was gone.

Interviewer: Do you remember his name?

Subject: <seems to be reflecting> Chris. Wait, no, it was Charles? No, Karl. Karl was his name.

Interviewer: That's all you remember?

Subject: Yes, wait. No, I'm… Karl Erhart. Lieutenant Karl Erhart, that's right.

Tears dripped onto the paper, warping his view of the ink. A shallow, pained breath came from his chest while his eyes filled with the tears he'd kept to himself for over twenty years.

Not sure he could believe it, he kept going. He found another interview subject's transcript.

Interviewer: And who was your section officer?

Subject: Lieutenant Erhart. His name was Karl. Good head on his shoulders, I remember that. His dad commanded one of the fleets. Maybe the one we got rotated into for that battle.

Interviewer: What happened to him?

Subject: He was cut up by shrapnel from a blast. Leaguer corpsmen black-tagged him almost on the spot. Honestly, I can't even blame them. God help him, he was in bad shape.

He kept going, but the result was the same. His son's name, teased out of the memory of POWs who knew him, who'd just been liberated and were adapting to it. There were no major deviations in any of it.

The last page wasn't an interview. It was a finding for CDF personnel records. His son's name and serial number were listed, and with it, a new determination.

KIA. "Killed in Action."

Erhart couldn't hold it back any longer. He broke down into sobs. Part of it was grief. His son, his pride and joy, was dead. Had been dead this entire time. He'd never had a hope of seeing him again.

The other part was relief. Karl was dead, but he'd died in combat. He never suffered as a League prisoner. He hadn't been broken, twisted, and turned against his own people, or his father, as Erhart had long feared.

All of these years, and he finally had the answer his soul longed for. The vacuum in his soul that engineered everything he'd done these past twenty years, everything that led him to this cell… and it was finally filled. He knew his son's fate. He knew how Karl's life ended. The uncertainties were gone. His son was dead and he could mourn.

And mourn he did.


Epilogue

The reception at the family's church proceeded as any Henry could have expected. Grief was expressed, tears were shed, and now it was time for the sharing of precious memories. His crew participated in the same, particularly Tia, Yanik, Pieter, and Cera, all happy to share their memories of Charlie.

Henry found he couldn't. The wound was still too fresh. He lingered in a corner seat, a plastic cup of fruit soda in his hand, and remained silent as Shawn walked up. He was in dress uniform, his major's insignia proudly displayed for all to see along with all of his commendations and medals.

His face, however, told of something distinctly different from pride. "Jim."

"Shawn."

Shawn bit into his lip for a moment before finding his voice. "I owe you an apology, Jim. For treating you like crap. For actually feeling like you didn't deserve to be here with Uncle Charlie."

Henry nodded. "I understand you felt let down by what happened, Shawn. I know it hurt, hearing about me getting drummed out. I was your hero and all, and here I was getting kicked out in dishonor."

"Yeah. But you didn't deserve it. You were set up, and not one of us believed you. Even when we should've." Shawn offered his hand. His voice shook with shame. "I'm so sorry, cousin."

For Shawn's sake, if anything, he accepted his cousin's hand and shook.

"You're not coming back to the service, are you?"

To that, he shook his head. "No. It's been too long. The wound's still there. I couldn't serve as I did before." Seeing the crestfallen look on Shawn's face, he reached his hand up and patted him on the shoulder. "And from what I see, the CDF's well in hand with Major Henry in the service."

A small grin came to the younger man. "Thanks, cousin. I suppose I always dreamed about getting to fight beside you."

"I get it. Some dreams, well, they don't turn out that way. All you can do is keep going."

He spoke the words, apparently with enough conviction that Shawn felt good about them and was happy when he walked off. But that conviction was a facade. In truth, he was hollow. This entire affair had driven him through so many emotions that Henry now felt empty inside. He was bone-tired.

His parents came up next. He could see that they knew how he felt. They saw the pain in his eyes. "I know you wanted to be here," Thomas said. "But Charlie would never have blamed you. It was out of your hands, son, not your fault at all."

"I know, Dad." He tapped his forehead. "At least, I know it here. But I don't feel it here." He touched at his heart next. "Here, the only thing I know was that I should've been there for the end. And I wasn't. Uncle Charlie died without me here to say goodbye, without hearing me say goodbye. He died as everyone was saying I was a traitor."

"You're not, and everyone knows it," Mary insisted. "They know you're a good man. You won, son. You beat that evil man who ruined your life!"

"But I don't feel like I have won, or that I'm a good man," he answered. "And it's—" He stopped himself. He couldn't tell them about Exodus Station. About the fighting and bloodshed there, or even that the place existed. He couldn't confide about what it felt like to give in to his rage and nearly beat Erhart to death with his bare hands. Or how hollow it felt now he was here, and Uncle Charlie was still dead.

"My ship's starting to fall apart," he said, since he could share that. "Uncle Charlie put months of work into the Shadow Wolf. He helped me keep her flying for years. And now, it's like it was for nothing. Three years, four, she's going to be too battered to fly. She'll be off to a scrapper. And Felix—"

When his voice trailed off, Thomas asked, "What about him?"

"He wasn't with me because we were friends," Henry confided. "He was sent by CDF Intelligence to recruit me. I wasn't his friend, I was an asset. And he lied about it for years. And I want to forgive him for it because he's my friend, but I can't. It hurts too damn much. So how good of a man can I be if I feel that way?"

"You're hurt, son." Mary put a hand to his cheek. "You're grieving and you're in pain, and I know you feel betrayed. It's okay to feel like that when you're going through these things. God understands. He's there to heal you. All you have to do is let Him."

He wanted to believe that. He did. But he kept going back to that night. The night his prayers went unanswered, when he gave in to his fear and despair and reduced himself to shameful surrender. Even if the results of that night were undone, even with Erhart's duplicity known and the man in prison… he couldn't undo how that night had changed him. He broke that night, and even seeing Erhart shamed and degraded wasn't enough to change that. It just made him feel hollow.

"You're not alone, son," Thomas said, his tone gentle. "Remember that."

That caused him to nod. Because he wasn't. His eyes went across the room, taking in the sight of his crew. Tia and Yanik, Cera and Miri, Piper and Brigitte. Oskar, Pieter, Samina, Vidia. They were undermanned and their ship was falling apart, but they were still a crew, his crew, and he wouldn't trade them for anything.

"Yeah," he said. "You're right, Dad. If nothing else, I'm a spacer captain, and I've still got my crew."

"They're great people, Jim," Mary insisted.

"The best," he agreed.

As bad as he felt, the thoughts about his crew brought Henry to his feet. He raised his half-finished cup and let his voice boom throughout the reception hall. "Everyone!" He forced a cheerful look onto his face, even if he still didn't feel it. Once all eyes to turned to him, he continued. "A toast, everyone, to Uncle Charlie. He's looking at us now and I know he's happy to see us all together, and that's what matters!"

The sentiment was cheered. Everyone rushed to find a cup with something in it, or to fill a new one. As he waited, he made a promise with all his heart and soul. I'll keep the Wolf flying, Uncle. As long as she can. It might be all I can do, but I'll do it. For you, for us, and for them. Within fifteen seconds, everyone had a cup raised. Henry brought his up higher, above his eyes. "To Uncle Charlie!" he cried.

His heart swelled with warmth as the reply thundered through the hall.

"To Uncle Charlie!"

THE END

Breach of Faith: Book 4 - Breach of Trust:

As Henry circles the bottle, Tia is kidnapped by an old enemy. Can Jim pull himself out and save her in time? Will he ever find peace? Find out now in Book 4.

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Book 3 - So Fight I

Book 4 - Gates of Hell

Book 5 - Keep the Faith

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Breach of Faith

(With Gary T. Stevens)

Book 1 - Breach of Peace

Book 2 - Breach of Faith

Book 3 - Breach of Duty

Book 4 - Breach of Trust


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Acknowledgements

From Daniel Gibbs -

I want to thank first and foremost, Gary – for dealing with me the last year as we worked through four novels worth of ideas and characters in the Breach of Faith series.

As always, there’s a small cast of folks out there that have helped me along the way – especially David VanDyke and his constant support and encouragement. To everyone else – you know who you are; thank you.

Finally, to the men and women of the US Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army, thank you for your service. It remains the highest privilege of my life to support you.

From Gary T. Stevens -

My thanks go out to the editor, Beth, who caught some key errors and helped to clear up some issues with the prose, and the beta reader, who as usual gave a solid opinion on the work.

To Dan Gibbs, the thanks extend beyond the usual consideration for letting me play in his sandbox. This book required a greater deal of coordination between us due to the heavy use of the CDF and Coalition locales. He was gracious in correcting a number of errors in the original draft concerning CDF lexicon and combat terminology as well as a few other points. He also let me take the CDF in some dark directions to reflect the stakes of this work and gave me reasonable guidelines on what the characters should and should not be permitted to do. Perhaps the biggest thing was arranging the second meeting between the hero crews of our respective series by having the Lion of Judah show up. This further ties our series together and gives the feeling of it all being one coherent universe.

As usual, my deepest thanks to family and friends for supporting me in my work and appreciating it as they have.


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