Book: So Fight I



So Fight I




So Fight I


Echoes of War Book 3


Daniel Gibbs



Contents


CSV Lion of Judah Blueprints

Free Echoes of War Book

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

Acknowledgments



So Fight I by Daniel Gibbs

Copyright © 2019 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]


So Fight I


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So Fight I


1


November 18th, 2460

CSV Oxford

Deep Space – Inside League of Sol Border

Colonel Robert Sinclair, the commander of the Oxford’s intelligence analysis unit, put his hands on the railing that lined the second level of what they called “the pit.” Newly promoted after the Oxford was instrumental in helping to defeat the League plans to subvert Monrovia, he stared at the mass of humanity in the space below him.

Row after row of intelligence analysts sat side by side at computer consoles. Hung from the wall was a huge banner that bore the motto of Coalition Defense Force Intelligence: “In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor.” They were at silent running, with extremely tight emissions control engaged as the ship was stationed well behind enemy lines. Stealth was their only defense.

First Lieutenant Alon Tamir picked that moment to glance up from his station. He waved, attracting Sinclair’s attention.

Sinclair acknowledged the officer with a nod, then made his way down to the floor and over to the young man’s terminal. Tamir too had been recently promoted on Sinclair’s specific recommendation. The lieutenant doesn’t need to know that part, though. If I keep him on his toes and keep pushing him… someday he’ll be one heck of an intelligence officer.

“Just wanted to chat, or did you have something for me, Lieutenant?” Sinclair asked in his clipped, high-brow British accent.

“Well, sir, you know my pet project?” Tamir said, his voice bright and cheerful.

“Tracking down the location of the holy grail of intelligence… the League’s interarm logistical facility that we’re not even sure exists?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m quite familiar with that pet project, Lieutenant, from you talking about it ad infinitum.”

“I think I found something,” Tamir replied, pulling up an overlay of sensor logs. “I’ve been tracking the retreat of League ships from our last two months of engagements.”

“Looks like a jumbled mess to me, butter bars.”

Tamir grimaced. “With respect, sir, I’m no longer a butter bar.”

“You are until I say you’re not, Lieutenant,” Sinclair replied, a devilish grin painting his face. “Continue.”

“Well, it’s difficult to pinpoint the destination of a wormhole. Inexact science at best, but on some of these, we have excellent data, because CDF ships pursued them before the hole closed. There’s some outliers here, but when I filtered out the noise, this is what I got.”

A white box appeared around a large area in space, but substantially smaller than previous guesses Sinclair had seen for the whereabouts of the League facility. “There’s still a lot of space to cover there, Lieutenant.”

“I know, sir. I also believe League ships won’t just jump directly back to it. They’d have to have a protocol to throw us off.”

“Makes sense,” Sinclair said. “But this isn’t actionable. Let’s say I think you're onto something… what do you need to make progress?”

“Data, sir. A lot more data. Once I get the area narrowed down, then we need to run what amounts to a massive stealth drone sweep of the area and try to find the needle in the haystack.”

Sinclair stroked his chin. “What you’re saying is that we need more League ships to retreat.”

“Yes, sir,” Tamir answered, grinning. “That’s something they’re doing quite well lately.”

“Is that your expert opinion, or another guess?” Sinclair joked, drawing chuckles from around them.

“The last score I saw said we’ve scratched six League battlewagons in the last thirty days, along with over a hundred escorts. A couple of fleet carriers too. After the League plot on Monrovia was exposed, we’ve had what, ten neutral worlds sign on to the Canaan Alliance?”

“I saw that on Canaan News Network. Got any other amazing insights from the day’s headlines?” Sinclair cracked.

“Only that the League is going to run out of ships in our arm of the galaxy if they keep losing them at this rate.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, my young analyst. The League has vast numbers of ships. We’re not even sure how many they have, but we know we’ve never faced more than ten percent of their fleet at any given point. With our recent success, they will pour reinforcements in. That’s why we have a limited window to take down the existing League forces here, consolidate our positions, and then figure out how to bloody attack them for a change.”

“That’s the key, isn’t it, sir? How to beat an enemy so much larger than us?”

“The will to fight and to win is the key,” Sinclair insisted. “Our esprit de corps is so far better than the League’s, so much, so it’s not even a comparison,” he said, pausing a moment to switch gears. “I need to walk the floor. In the meanwhile, I’ll authorize you to pull in an additional analyst to assist with your little project,” he finished. “Don’t disappoint me, Lieutenant. Don’t forget your main objective is to find us another League battlegroup to destroy.”

“Yes, sir!”

So Fight I

December 9th, 2460

CSV Lion of Judah

Patrol Route Gamma-7 Terran Coalition/League of Sol Border

Prior to the first day of Hanukkah, Colonel David Cohen, commanding officer of the Lion of Judah, had asked Rabbi Kravitz to help him plan a celebration in the wardroom to honor it. Ramadan had already passed, and Christmas would occur in just over two weeks. David had joined Hassan Amir, the commander of the Lion’s space fighter wing in celebrating the first night of Ramadan, and he would also participate in the Christmas festivities, but Hanukkah was special to him. Some of the best memories of my childhood were from Hanukkah and my father’s gifts… if only he could be here now.

“Come in! Come in!” David called, standing just inside the door, greeting each person as they walked in.

First Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg, the Lion’s Tactical Action Officer, or TAO for short, came through the door, carrying a large bag. “Sorry I’m late, sir. Took some doing to get the gelt made,” she said as an apology.

Angela Dinman, the embedded reporter, known as Angie to the crew, was already in the room. “What’s a gelt?” she asked, her eyebrows raised.

“Money. That’s what it means in Yiddish,” Ruth replied, a smile on her face. “In ancient times during Hanukkah, Jews would give money to the poor and children in our communities. Well, we’d do that anyway, but especially at Hanukkah. The tradition has morphed into giving out pieces of chocolate that look like coins. We’ll need these at several points in the celebration tonight.” As she spoke, Ruth started putting out the little chocolate coins at each place setting.

The next arrival was Rabbi Evez Kravitz; he was also a Lieutenant Colonel in the CDF and the Jewish chaplain for the ship. He carried a giant, ornate menorah. It consisted of a large candlestick with nine slots; four on either side of a single rod that stood taller than the rest.

“Let me help you, Rabbi,” David said as he grasped one side of the menorah, guiding the older man to a table that David had prepared to set it on.

“Thank you, Colonel,” Kravitz replied.

“Hey, is there free food in here?” Lieutenant Colonel Calvin Demood’s distinctive voice boomed into the wardroom as the senior Marine strode in; he was the commander of the Terran Coalition Marine Corps unit onboard the Lion.

Everyone already in the room laughed. “Anything for a free meal, eh, Colonel?” David commented dryly.

“Nothing tastes better than free food, sir,” Calvin deadpanned to chuckles from those assembled.

After the laughter had subsided, David shook his head with a grin on his face. “You’ll need to run some laps after this meal. Some of the food is fried, much of the rest is high fat. A very filling meal.”

“Fried? Why?” Angie again asked, her curiosity apparently piqued.

“It’s a tradition around Hanukkah… the basis for the celebration is a day’s worth of oil lasted for eight. It was when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and drove out the Greek invaders several thousand years ago on Earth. So we cook everything in oil to celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting,” Ruth said with a smile as she handed Kravitz several of the chocolate gelt coins. “For you, Rabbi!”

“Thank you, Ruth,” Kravitz replied, a broad, jovial grin framing his face.

“Greetings, humans,” another voice shouted into the wardroom. It belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Talgat Aibek, the Saurian exchange officer that was the executive officer of the Lion of Judah. After a couple of months, he was well accepted and respected by the crew and officers of the ship. “Take me to your leader! I bring fresh meat to fry up.”

David laughed. “Aibek, I told you last time… the joke is dead. Stick a fork in it.”

“Better not be a mouse, Colonel, sir,” Ruth said in a sarcastic tone as she laughed.

“No, I save the mice for myself,” Aibek said, his scales shifting colors as he joined in with a snicker.

“Who else is coming?” David asked.

“Lieutenant Hammond and Doctor Tural both told me they wouldn’t miss it,” Ruth replied.

“So there will be more gentiles than Jews here, in other words?”

“An opportunity to convert them, Colonel Cohen?” Aibek said.

“For the last time, we’re not the guys who seek converts. That’s the Christians and Muslims,” David complained in a faux annoyed tone. This particular line of banter was a staple with Aibek.

“Then how does your religion expand? I’m confused,” Angie said.

“We’re fruitful and multiply, especially if we’re Ultra-Orthodox,” Ruth answered between giggles.

“Ahem, can we stay away from religious discussions and get back to the celebration? I’ve got a rule on religious debates in the wardroom for a reason,” David said.

“Who said anything about a debate?” Aibek asked innocently. “I haven’t tried to convert you all yet, even.”

“Oh Lord, help us all,” Lieutenant Robert Taylor, the communications officer, said as he stepped through the hatch. “I brought the dreidels,” he said, dropping a sack near the table. “Thirty of them. Real wood. Any idea how much that weighs?”

“Hey, comms geek, quit complaining about lifting some toys and come work out in the gym like your dad used to,” Calvin called out.

“I think a point goes to the Marine on that one,” David said as the entire group laughed.

Next through the hatch was Lieutenant Shelly Hammond, the Lion’s senior navigator. A bookish woman in her early thirties, Hammond had distinguished herself in her short time on the ship. “Hey everyone,” she said as she walked in. “Sorry I’m late.”

“No one’s ever late at a Jewish festival,” David joked. “Thank you for coming!”

Hammond grinned as she said, “Glad to be here, sir.”

Ruth began to walk around the room, dropping piles of the chocolate coins onto every place setting. Hammond stared at her, puzzled. “What’s that for?”

“We use it to play with the dreidels.”

“What do we do with them?” Hammond asked.

“I’ll explain once everyone is here so I won't bore you all with multiple repetitions,” Ruth replied as she continued to set the gelt out.

Salam alaikum!” Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Amir called out, an Arabic saying for “peace be upon you,” as he walked into the wardroom; he was the commander of the Lion’s embarked space superiority fighter and bomber wing. A friend of David’s for many years, it had been a highlight of the past several months to serve together again.

Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” David answered, the traditional Arabic reply, which meant “and unto you peace.”

Doctor Izmet Tural strode through the hatch, right behind Amir. He was the Lion’s chief medical officer; while David had just begun to get to know him, the older physician’s command of medical knowledge and bedside manner was impressive. “Shalom!” he shouted, a broad grin on his face.

“Shalom!” David and Ruth called out at the same time.

“Thank you for coming, Doctor,” David said as he finished setting up the menorah candles and returned to his seat at the table they were gathered around.

“I figured I should be on hand, just in case there was a grease-induced heart attack,” Tural said. “There was a time when many humans ate fried foods regularly.”

“Some still do,” Calvin cracked to laughter from the room. “Hamburgers, bacon, and fried okra! Mmmmm!”

“Is there something wrong with this food?” Aibek asked.

“There are optimum things for humans to eat. Fried food isn’t on that list,” Tural explained. “Many of us love to eat, though. Thankfully, our technology has enabled us to deal with most ailments, usually through medication. To think cancer was once a death sentence… now a few pills and the patient is never bothered again. Most of the time, we catch it through markers, which daily health scans catch.”

“I suspect our level of technology would be considered miraculous to those from several hundred years ago,” David said as he tossed a piece of chocolate gelt up and down in his hand.

“That’s because higher technology is considered magic to lower level species, and excellent proof there is no supernatural force at work in the universe,” a loud voice called out from beyond the open hatch. It belonged to Doctor Benjamin Hayworth, the scientist behind the anti-matter reactor that set the Lion of Judah apart from the rest of the fleet. It was this reactor which supplied nearly unlimited amounts of power and allowed the Lion to field advancements that ships powered with fusion reactors couldn’t begin to support.

“No religious debates in the wardroom,” David said as he forced himself not to roll his eyes.

Hayworth stepped into the room while being poked in the ribs by Major Elizabeth Merriweather’s elbow. She was the CDF program manager for Doctor Hayworth’s science team.

“Fancy seeing you here, Doctor,” Amir said politely, but with a definite edge to his voice.

“I enjoy spending time with my friends and colleagues, no matter what childish superstitions they may hang on to, Colonel Amir,” Hayworth said as Merriweather elbowed him yet again. “But, no need to discuss that tonight. I’m just looking forward to some fried chicken!”

Shaking off mild annoyance, David reflected on his evolving relationship with Hayworth. Yeah, the guy presents as a jerk, but I’ve discovered over the last few months, under that prickly personality of his, there’s a good guy in there. One who is willing to do his part to help win the war against the League and stand up against injustice.

“Hey, everyone,” Major Arthur Hanson, the ship’s chief engineer and certified reactor nerd said as he crossed under the hatch. Hanson, along with Ruth, had served with David for six months before their postings on the Lion of Judah.

“Nerds of a feather flock together,” Calvin said, seemingly always eager to poke fun at the technical members of the crew.

“Quit ragging on the nerds, Colonel!” Taylor called out from his perch in the back of the room. “One of the things I know for a fact is the comms geeks, as you put it, have saved your rear end more than once in your career.”

“Is that a fact?” Calvin asked, clearly amused.

“Yes, it is,” Taylor said in a smug tone.

“Yeah, whatever. Just remember who saves your ass from the League when they board the ship. How many more nerds did you invite to this shindig, Colonel? I mean, what’s next, the contractors show up?”

“Hey, you're talking about me, Colonel,” Kenneth Lowe, the program manager and leader of the three-hundred-strong contingent of defense contractors assigned to the ship; they implemented upgrades and assisted the engineering crew since there had been no time for the normal six- to nine-month workout cruise. “As long as you’re talking about me, it's all good.” David had taken a liking to the lanky contractor; he was over two meters tall and nearly hit every bulkhead on the ship.

“Keep thinking that while we make fun of you behind your back,” Calvin said as he smirked. “Hey, could you go get me a cable stretcher?”

“Really? You’ll have to try harder than that to get me off on a snipe hunt, Colonel.”

“I got taken in by that one when I was right out of boot camp,” David said to shocked stares from everyone in the room.

“Surely you’re kidding, sir?” Amir asked.

“Nope,” David said, shaking his head sadly. “I wandered around the ship I was posted to for two hours looking for that thing. I eventually ended up on the bridge, asking the CO for it.” There were chuckles and laughter from everyone in the room; David could still remember how red his face turned when Major Pipes told him that there was no such device. “I got my revenge on the guy that put me up to it, though. I sold him on looking for a CGA display adaptor for one of the monitors that had shorted out.”

“A what?” Hanson asked.

“Some five-hundred-year-old monitor technology that no one knows about except for some teacher I had in high school that berated us for not answering a question about it right in a technology history class,” David said, smirking. “I never forgot it, thanks to his outburst.”

“Maybe we should try to get someone to go get us a bucket of shuttle wash,” Kenneth mused, to more laughter.

“I can’t believe people fall for that one,” Ruth said.

“Best response I ever got to that was a private bringing me a bucket of cleaning solution that we use on the fighters’ stealth coatings. I was mildly impressed,” Hasan interjected. “Still told him that wasn’t right and sent him off to the next pilot, who supposedly had some.”

“We could always get the contractors off the ship and get qualified military engineers,” Calvin said, returning to his previous line of jest.

Kenneth leaned forward in his seat, a smug smile on his face. “Qualified military engineers… I didn’t realize the Marines had engineers.”

“Marines don’t have engineers because engineers build targets. Marines blow up targets,” Ruth said, laughing as she did.

“I don’t see you guys hating on Marines when you need your butts saved,” Calvin groused good-naturedly.

Kravitz coughed loudly. “Ahem. Perhaps we’re getting off track, yes? We’re all here to enjoy fellowship and the lighting of the menorah.”

“Exactly, Rabbi,” David said, steering the conversation toward a friendlier path. “I think it's about time for us to get started.”

“Yes, it is,” Kravitz agreed. “Everyone, please take your seats as we prepare to honor the miracle of oil after the temple was liberated and cleansed through the ritual of Hanukah,” he continued as he walked around and lit the middle candle of the menorah, which sat above the rest. “This is called the shamash candle; it is the keeper candle, and if another should go out, we use this one to relight it.”

David watched, thinking back to his childhood. Dad lighting the menorah was so much fun. He’d tell the story of the Maccabees and try to impress Mom with his knowledge. It never worked either. He smiled, the memory fading in his mind.

“Now I will pray the traditional prayer of blessing for the menorah, and you may all join in as you can,” Kravitz said before launching into the Hebrew prayers; David spoke Hebrew fluently and knew them by heart himself. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukah light. Bless are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time. Bless are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

David reflected on the words of the prayer, pondering the meaning they had today. Today, we need the same miracle to sustain us in this fight and ensure the light of our people will not perish from the face of the galaxy. I wonder how the soldiers all those years ago, who kept winning against a more numerous foe, felt. The pattern keeps repeating itself.

Kravitz, who still held the shamash candle, used it to light the further candle to the left, before returning it to its place in the center of the menorah. He stepped back and turned around, smiling from ear to ear. “And now, it is time for us to enjoy the light of the menorah, the light of our friends and extended family, and their company this evening. Ruth, get us started!”

Ruth stood up from her place at the table and began to pass out dreidels to everyone present.

David took his with a nod of thanks while grinning from ear to ear. This was how life should be enjoyed—in the company of our friends and comrades.




2

Ruth stepped out of the wardroom around midnight to head back to her quarters. She was mildly startled to find Angie right behind her. “Ms. Dinman, heading back to your quarters?”

“Angie, please. Ms. Dinman is my mother,” Angie replied, trying to break the ice.

“I tend to be formal around the press.”

“I’m not always the press, as you put it.”

“You’re not always taking notes on us to put in your reports?” Ruth asked in a skeptical tone.

Angie shook her head. “No.”

Ruth continued to walk down the passageway, Angie side by side with her. “I apologize. I’m not the biggest fan of your network. I shouldn’t translate that dislike onto you without cause.”

“You’re not the only one, trust me. I don’t think anyone on this ship I’ve met likes my network, or me, for that matter.”

“Kind of makes you wonder how GNN stays in business if it’s so disliked.”

“That’s an over-generalization, Ruth. There’s plenty of people who watch us religiously. We’re normally tied for second, sometimes third overall.”

“I don’t know anyone that watches your holobroadcast without screaming at the talking heads,” Ruth said with a chuckle.

“Look, I get it. The military doesn’t like us holding their feet to the fire.”

Ruth stopped, and her eyes drilled into Angie. “I don’t mind having our feet held to the fire. Someone has to watch the watchers. What I do mind is seeing one of your pundits try to destroy the reputation of one of the finest commanders in the fleet.”

Angie stopped walking and turned back to Ruth. “I take it you mean Colonel Cohen?”

“Yes.”

“Fifty thousand people work for GNN. I’m not the one who did the interview you’re referring to. I’m just trying to do my job and tell the truth.”

Ruth wore a frown; her emotions were bubbling to the surface. “How about telling the truth about the League?”

Angie crossed her arms in front of her. “Lieutenant, I do tell the truth about the League. Angie Dinman, the person, hates the League of Sol and everything they stand for. Angie Dinman, the reporter, tells exactly what happens, without cheerleading, without embellishment. You know, I want to find a friend here—someone who doesn’t look at me and see some jerk reporter. I live with you people. I want you to win. Maybe someone on this damn ship will meet me halfway.” Angie turned on her heel and began to walk away quickly.

“Wait!” Ruth called out, suddenly red in the face and feeling ashamed of her behavior.

Angie took a few more steps before stopping and turning around. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry, Angie.” Ruth began to walk closer. “I shouldn’t have acted like that.” She looked down the passageway, past Angie. “‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.’”

“I don’t follow.”

“Something I read this week from the Bible.”

“The Bible? I didn’t think Jews read the Christian holy book.”

“They don’t, usually. It’s a long story. You know what? I could use a friend too. What do you say?” Ruth stuck out her hand.

Angie shook Ruth’s hand. “Works for me.”

The two of them resumed walking down the passageway, side by side. “I apologize for biting your head off. I’m pretty stressed out lately.”

“Why?”

“Our battle rhythm is very fast-paced right now. The Lion is on a two-week stand down to perform an engineering review of our anti-matter reactor and get some new pilots. Before that, we were in combat daily. That kind of pace wears on everyone.”

“We’ve suffered a lot of causalities in the last two months,” Angie commented.

“I try to read the list of names when it comes over, every day,” Ruth replied, momentarily shutting her eyes.

“It’s a lot of names.”

“Someone should read them. Someone should remember. I remember them every time I destroy another League ship. I remember my parents, my friends. Never again.” A tear slid down Ruth’s face as she spoke. “Okay, let’s change topics because I’d like to be happy for just a few minutes.”

Angie offered her a small smile. “It’s been tough to find something to think of, to reflect on, besides this war.”

“It’s been my life for far too long.”

“Got any plans for what you will do when you get out?”

“Can’t say that I do,” Ruth replied. “This is all I’ve known for most of my life. Even if I did get out, what would I do? Expert level qualifications at killing Leaguers isn’t exactly going to put my resume at the top of the pile.”

“On the bright side, there’s a free education once you get out. That’s how I put myself through college for a journalism degree.”

“Yeah… I can’t think about it, Angie. I only have the here and now. Beyond next week, I can’t see it. What about you?”

“Oh, you know… build out my career, get married, have some kids. What normal people do, right?”

“Normal is a setting on a washing machine,” Ruth said with a smirk on her face. “It’s one I don’t have.”

“What do you do for fun, then?”

“What’s fun, exactly?”

“Girl stuff?”

Ruth stopped and looked at Angie. “Girl stuff? I’m a military officer. I don’t have time for getting my nails done, my hair colored, or wine and cheese tastings. If that’s what you want in a friend, you’ll have to look elsewhere.”

Angie furrowed her brow with a frown. “Anyone ever tell you that you're incredibly intense?”

“Yeah. It’s why I don’t have many friends,” Ruth said as she sighed. “Again, I’m sorry. It's not your fault, and I’ll try to do better on not biting your head off.” I do need a friend or two. The way I’m going through life is no way to live. On top of that, it’d be nice to be friends with someone who isn’t in the military and has perhaps a different perspective on life.

“I get told I have resting grumpy face a lot.”

Ruth laughed. “Yeah, me too.”

The two of them resumed walking down the passageway, laughter echoing through it. Ruth considered for a moment that perhaps she had found a new friend; for a brief moment, the idea made her happy.

So Fight I

After helping clean up the mess and leftovers from the festivities, David found himself back in his quarters, sitting on his couch. Since the Lion of Judah was off station and undergoing repairs and refitting, he was able to sleep in the large stateroom, really a suite, rather than the cramped day cabin on deck one that doubled as a sleeping space and office. I’ve been saving up my commlink credits. Let’s see if Mom is still awake. I’m sure she will be. After a few rings, Sarah Cohen’s smiling face appeared on the screen.

“Happy Hanukkah, David! Oh, it’s so nice to hear your voice and see you!” Sarah exclaimed.

“Happy Hanukkah to you too, Mom. I’m sorry it’s been a month since we talked. I’ve been saving my credits, though, so we could talk today. I wasn’t sure if you could pick up or not.”

“Well, technically, the light of the menorah is still burning, so I shouldn’t… but I couldn’t go without talking to my baby.”

David grimaced a bit. “Mom, I’m not a baby.” I wish she’d quit referring to me like that… I’m almost forty!

“You will always be my baby boy,” Sarah insisted. “My only son.”

“How are you doing?” David replied, determined to change the subject.

“Oh, I’m holding up well. You’re still all over the news, you know. All my friends do is talk about it. David did this, David did that.”

“I suppose that’s to be expected when I’m commanding the largest warship in the Terran Coalition,” he said with a grin. “It’s quite the posting.”

“I still worry for you, more than you know.”

“Mom, I know. But you know what? I’m probably on the safest post I could be, aside from assigned to station duty.”

“Did you have a good Hanukkah?”

“I did,” David answered. “Many of the Jewish officers joined me, along with the rabbi and some gentiles who wanted to celebrate with us. We had a good time.”

“Are any of those Jewish officers cute girls, by any chance?”

Ugh, Mom. Stop trying to get me married off to a nice Jewish girl and pump out kids. “Well, as a matter of fact, some of them are women. However, as I’m sure you know… I’m the commanding officer of the ship. I can’t fraternize with anyone under me.”

“You need to get married.”

“Why, because I’m getting old?”

“No, because I want to hold a grandchild before I die,” Sarah replied, her voice breaking a little at the end.

“Mom…you’re not even seventy. You’ve got half your life in front of you.”

“Only Adonai knows how many days either of us has left, son. I take nothing for granted.”

“In my line of work, Mom, I can’t focus on it. What will happen, will happen. I’ve got to do the best I can in the meanwhile,” David replied, annoyance creeping into his voice.

“Just find a nice girl and start dating her.”

“Mom… we’ve been over this. I’m not getting married until I’m out of the service.”

“Why?”

David fought down anger; he’d had the same conversation with his mother only God knew how many times. “Because it’s not fair for me to leave a wife and children behind if I die on the battlefield.” He instantly regretted the directness of his words.

Sarah began to cry; the usual outcome of this particular conversation. “I can’t lose you…”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” David said, closing his eyes and hanging his head. “Look, I’m not going anywhere. I’m too stubborn for the League to kill.”

“Promise?” Sarah asked between sobs.

“I promise,” David answered, wanting more than anything just to run away from the conversation.

“You know I’m proud of you, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” David said. “You know I’m proud of you too?”

“For what?” Sarah asked, surprise in her voice.

“For carrying on after Dad died. For molding me into the man I am, and instilling your values into me. Without your guidance and teaching, who knows where I would’ve ended up? It's not easy being an Orthodox Jew. It’s even harder to be a single mother and an Orthodox Jew.”

Sarah started to cry again, but now she was smiling. “Hearing you say that means so much to me.”

A few tears rolled down David’s face. “I’ve been working on trying to share my emotions.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What’s next for you?”

“You know I can’t say, Mom. Loose lips sink ships and all that.”

“Your father used to say that.”

“Where do you think I got it from?” David replied, grinning.

“Are you going to be home any time soon?”

“I don’t know, Mom,” David said as he shrugged his shoulders. “But if I am and can get planetside, I promise I’ll come to see you. Nothing beats your home cooking.”

“Oh, so you only come to eat?” Sarah asked in a faux annoyed tone.

“Well, no. But it's hard to find kosher cooking around here. I’m stuck eating kosher meals-ready-to-eat most of the time.”

“How the military got that drivel declared kosher, I’ll never know. It’s an affront to God.”

David laughed. “I have a confession. I look forward to the pre-packaged religious meals running out. Then I can get some real food without breaking the law.”

“Don’t tell that to the rabbi!” Sarah said, laughing hard as she spoke.

“I’m almost out of credits, Mom.”

“Thank you for calling me.”

“Every time I’m able. I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too, son. Come home safe.”

“I’ll do my best. Shalom!” David said as the commlink disconnected from lack of remaining credits. Setting the tablet aside, he sat back and put his feet up. There’s a part of me that misses her badly, and there’s a part of me that’s sick of being told I need to get married and produce kids. I suppose family is just messy. The truth is, I wouldn’t mind having a family. I just can’t put them through what we went through. That fate isn’t fair to those left to pick up the pieces. Though I wonder if I use that as a way to hide. If my father had thought like that, I would have never been born. He fell asleep on the couch, still pondering that line of logic.


3

Justin Spencer, the President of the Terran Coalition and commander-in-chief of the military, sat on a small couch in his office, referred to as the Oval Office in common vernacular. It was modeled after an American design dating back to their White House. We Americans do tend to take over everything. Sometimes for good, sometimes for evil, but it’s just what we do. The Chief Minister of the Saurian Empire, Obi Sherazi, sat directly across from him; less than three months ago, he’d shocked the known galaxy by joining with the Terran Coalition to reform the Canaan Alliance and declare war on the League of Sol. Saurians were a race of reptilian humanoids who shared the local galactic arm with the humans of the Terran Coalition. The only other people in the room were a single bodyguard from each nation; aside from private time with his family, this was as close to alone as Spencer ever got.

“There is honor in victory,” Sherazi said, breaking into Spencer’s thoughts.

“There can be honor in defeat as well.”

“For a Saurian, defeat means death,” Sherazi replied, the scales on his head flexing.

“For us, there are times when being defeated in a noble fight is still honorable. I think we humans tend to romanticize an unwinnable fight and the people who fought in it.”

“Maybe that explains the fascination with the Alamo I witnessed on the ship I traveled here on; the CSV Sam Houston.”

“She’s named after the first president of the Republic of Texas,” Spencer replied, grinning. “And yes, Texans take the Alamo very seriously. Even though no one has seen Texas for four hundred years! There’s an entire planet of Texans within the American republic.”

“Colorful people. There are so many different types of humans. Different skin colors, different shapes, sizes, abilities,” Sherazi observed.

“Saurians also have many different types, don’t you?”

“Have you ever seen a short Saurian?” Sherazi replied, laughing. “In a bygone era, we simply killed any offspring that didn’t measure up to our ideals. This went on for so long that we bred out many genes. It took a long time for our values to evolve. It took the Prophet to start the process, but we even managed to mess that up. Our leaders killed him, tried to bury his teachings, and it was many generations and hundreds of years before the truth spread.”

“Humans are no different in this arena, Obi. Our history is one of violence, war, genocide, and man’s inhumanity to man. Still, throughout our history, there were always a few who tried to do what was right. They, inspired I believe by God, bent the curve toward freedom, justice, and what we now consider to be morality.”

“It wasn’t so long ago that Saurians believed enslavement was a just punishment,” Sherazi replied.

“Not so long for us either. Heck, there’s a neutral planet beyond our border, made up of humans who believe another group of humans with different skin tones is inferior to them. No race has a monopoly on stupidity.”

“Most of you do not think in that manner, though. I have personally spoken to many of our exchange officers, and I have been consistently impressed by how they were welcomed with open arms into your ranks. Even though we are aliens with a different values system.”

“I’m grateful to hear it,” Spencer replied. “At the risk of sounding like a greeting card, we owe the success of the last two and a half months to the Saurian Empire’s involvement in this war.”

Sherazi waved his hand. “No. We joined , late in the game as you humans say. We should have been there twenty-seven years ago. Perhaps if we had, the League would not have attacked. Perhaps maybe things would have been different. If we had shown power in the face of aggression and stood up for what was right and just, the fight would have been far easier. The Terran Coalition has instead fought on for dozens of years, alone… rather than surrender and accept slavery to the League. As a Saurian who believes in the ideals of honor, allow me to say that never before or since in our history do I believe a people as noble as the Terran Coalition has existed, outside of the Saurian Empire, of course.”

“A human would say that sounded almost Churchillian in tone.”

Sherazi grinned. “A Saurian researcher once wrote a book on the best human leaders and what Saurians could learn from them. Half the book was on Winston Churchill.”

Spencer laughed. “That’s great. Saurians writing leadership books on old Winston. Somewhere, he’s spinning in his grave.” He turned serious as he glanced back at Sherazi and made eye contact. “As much success as we’ve had, the TCMC,” he continued, using the acronym for the Terran Coalition Marine Corps, “is running out of manpower.”

“You need more Saurian ground troops?”

“If we’re to have any hope of recapturing League-held worlds, yes.”

“That is a far harder stream to ford than committing our Imperial Navy assets. There’s something about putting Saurian boots on the ground to help capture human worlds that has incredible internal resistance.”

“I understand. There is a difference between the risk to ships and the optics of tens of thousands of ground troops. Could you help us garrison our border worlds? A lot of TCMC resources are tied down with that task now. If we could free them up…”

“There’s more than one way to catch your dinner. I like the idea, Justin. I will make the proposal to our assembly. Give me a week to press scales and get back to you?”

“Of course,” Spencer replied. “Politics is politics, regardless of our race, eh?”

“Some things never change,” Sherazi said dryly.

“I have something I need to brief you on.”

Sherazi raised a scale over his right eye. “Oh?”

“CDF Intelligence has been working on something for a very long time. I’m sure you’ve read reports speculating about the existence of a League space station between the two galactic arms?”

“Yes. It’s been rumored to be out there for years and years. Our intelligence service believes it’s a figment of your collective imaginations.”

“It’s not.”

“Do you have proof?”

Spencer just smiled widely. “We found it last night.”

Sherazi leaned forward in his seat. “Does Admiral Kartal know yet?”

“No. No one outside of my SecDef, the intelligence officers who found it, their chain of command, and now us, know. We intend to either destroy or capture it. I wanted to brief you privately before informing SHAEF,” Spencer said, using the phonetic pronunciation of the acronym for Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force.

“Make no mistake; the Saurian Empire is with you until we capture Earth itself. I’ll ensure that my people are on board.”

“Thank you, Obi.”

So Fight I

“Major Hanson!” Doctor Benjamin Hayworth shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice bellowing across the cavernous engineering space deep within the Lion of Judah. Also called the engine room, that term had stuck for centuries. Over time, steam turbines were replaced with magnetohydrodynamic generators that transformed thermal energy produced by fusion, and now anti-matter reactors, into power consumable by the ship’s energy grid.

“Yes, Doctor?” Major Arthur Hanson, the Lion’s chief engineer, called back.

“Did you forget our appointment to discuss the reactor designs?”

“No, Doctor. I’m trying to tweak the new parts the contractors put in. Give me a minute,” Hanson yelled from behind one of the massive pieces of machinery. Not like I have anything else to do besides answer Hayworth’s every beck and call, Hanson thought to himself as he closed the panel he was working on and climbed down the ladder back to the familiar deck plating.

Wiping grime off his hands onto the standard issue CDF coveralls that the engineering crew wore, Hanson strode over to Hayworth and crossed his arms in front of him. “Ready, doc?”

“For the last time… don’t call me doc!” Hayworth thundered in return.

Hanson suppressed a smirk, knowing how easy it was to get a rise out of Hayworth. I probably shouldn’t do that, but the man is a complete jerk. Another side of his brain added, Yeah, maybe he’s a jerk because he’s always picked on. “Sorry, Doctor. I’m ready if you are.”

“Good. Follow me,” Hayworth replied, turning on his heel and walking off.

Hanson followed him outside of the engine room proper and to the nearest conference space, the aptly named “Conference Room Snipe,” as denoted by a sign next to the door. It was a reference to the engineering crew’s nickname: the snipes.

Hanson plopped down in one of the chairs, and Hayworth did the same. “Have you reviewed the designs I sent you, Major?”

“Yes. The miniaturization factor isn’t high enough for anything smaller than a heavy cruiser as of yet. Still, installing anti-matter reactors into our fleet carriers and heavy cruisers will be a serious upgrade in both survivability, and in the case of our cruisers, double or triple the firepower.”

“What we need is a new design of ships, not refits of old ones,” Hayworth complained. “Why can’t the military get its mind around the fact that this is bleeding-edge technology, not a refinement of tired old fusion reactors.”

“Doctor, they’re doing the best they can—"

“Oh yes, such a babe in the woods you are. No, they’re not. They’re either stupid, inept, or worse; perhaps they’re corrupt and unwilling to embrace the new technology because they profit off the old.”

“I’m not here to debate it with you, Doctor. I do have some suggestions for improving the miniaturization factor, however.”

“Which are?”

“By integrating the backup coolant loop into the main reactor housing, I believe we can achieve another eight to ten percent size reduction,” Hanson said as he passed his tablet over to Hayworth.

The older man reviewed the schematic for several minutes in silence before looking up. “These ideas have merit. Much more work is required to determine if it's safe to do what you propose, but if so… good job.”

Hanson’s jaw nearly hit the deck after the words “good job” fell out of Hayworth’s mouth. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“Do you have any other suggestions?”

“I’ll send you a file, but most are minor. You’ve taken the technology very far in a short period,” Hanson replied. Working with Hayworth, even with the attitude, is a fantastic opportunity. I’ve learned more in the last three months than I thought I knew about reactor design.

“Good. I have another pet project that the CDF would like me to work on. An enhanced energy weapons capacitor, designed to support the power inputs of an anti-matter reactor, and new model neutron beam emitters that can support double the charge. Elizabeth and I have discussed it, and if you’d like, we have room on the team for you during your off hours.”

That was unexpected. “Uh, sure. I’d love to, Doctor. What role would I take on the team?”

“Research assistant.”

And back down to reality. “You realize I used to lead teams on the Ajax fusion reactor program,” Hanson said, his voice trailing off.

“Of course I realize that,” Hayworth replied, cracking a smile. “You don’t think I’d assign you as a research assistant, do you now, my boy? I was thinking lead investigator for the new materials program around the capacitor. We’ve got some promising candidates of synthetic metals that withstand incredible amounts of heat. I want you to get to the bottom of which one we should use.”

Overreacted, much? “No problem, Doctor,” Hanson said, recovering quickly. “I’d love to help.”

“Well, then, let’s get back at it. I have a remote lecture this afternoon, and I will not be held up,” Hayworth said as he stood. “I’ll get back to you on a time for our kickoff discussion.” Hayworth tossed Hanson’s tablet back across the conference table.

“Thanks, Doctor,” Hanson said to a wave from Hayworth as he exited the room. Fresh challenges await… and more working with the doctor. What could go wrong?

So Fight I

Kenneth Lowe, the resident leader of the civilian defense contractors on the Lion of Judah, an employee of SSI—Stridesclyeth Shipboard Integrators, Limited—stumbled into the officers’ mess after finishing his shower and morning routine. I hate space showers. Less than two minutes of water, you don’t even feel clean afterward. Especially after I force myself through thirty minutes on the treadmill. The contractor team leads, Kenneth, and his direct reports were allowed special privileges to enter and eat at the officers’ mess, one of the perks David had given them after the second Battle of Canaan. This particular morning, he got a mug of piping hot coffee, along with a bagel and low-fat cream cheese.

Taking a seat at a four-person table that was empty and with his back to the room, Kenneth gazed out at the blackness of space. After pausing to pray over his food silently, he took a sip of the coffee and began to perk up.

“Mind if I join you?” the voice of David called out from behind him.

Kenneth quickly set the coffee mug down and stood up. “Of course, sir.”

“Would you stow the ‘sir’ stuff? It's not even 0600, and you're still not in the military.”

“Yes, si… uh.”

David shook his head with a grin and sat down in the chair across from Kenneth. “Sit down.”

Kenneth sat back down and felt somewhat silly. The truth is, I don’t quite fit in here. I’ll never truly be one of them, even if they act like I am. “Having a good morning?”

“Up at 0430… exercised… crappy two-minute space shower, and here we are.”

“About the same as me,” Kenneth observed with a bit of smirk. “On the plus side, they have to salute you.”

“That’s not all it’s cracked up to be, trust me,” David replied before waving at someone behind them. “Lieutenant, over here.”

A moment later, Ruth appeared at the table. She seemed shocked to see Kenneth sitting there. “Good morning, sir.”

“Please, join us.”

“Of course, sir,” Ruth answered.

“I insist. I do have an ulterior motive… I wanted to ask you both how the reactor upgrades are affecting weapons and shields.”

Ruth sat down next to David, on the other side of the table.

“Well, sir,” Kenneth began. “We got the parts in to improve the fuel flow regulators per the new specifications. The implementation team finished that up last week.”

Ruth took a sip of coffee before speaking. “Since then, the engineering crew confirmed we have a six-percent increase in available power.”

“Slightly less than projections… but more than we had two weeks ago. I’ll take it,” David said.

“What’s amazing is the six percent in increased output matches the entire fusion reactor output of an Ajax class destroyer, which was the highest of its size,” Kenneth said as he munched on a bite of bagel.

“Now what?” David asked.

“We’ll continue to upgrade the software around the automated fuel systems. Major Hanson can explain more fully, but my understanding is that there’s several more percent of optimization to be had by improving the machine learning algorithm and exposing it to sustained combat,” Ruth answered.

“Very good.”

Ruth hurriedly drank a quarter of her coffee mug, then jumped up. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to get an early start on the bridge.”

“Of course,” David replied. “See you up there in a bit.”

“Yes, sir,” Ruth said before she turned on her heel and walked off.

Kenneth frowned a bit while taking another bite of bagel.

David glanced at him. “That was a bit odd. Lieutenant Goldberg is usually a bit of a chatterbox in the morning.”

“It might be me, sir.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, I asked her out a few days ago.”

David’s eyes shot so far open, they looked like they could pop out of their sockets. “You what?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“This is a warship, you know. Not a cruise boat,” David commented dryly. “I’m taking it that she said no.”

“Yeah. It was just weird. I don’t think I offended her; we’ve just been awkward ever since.”

“I don’t need you being cross-eyed with the TAO. Do me a favor and give her some space for it to become less…awkward?”

“Yes, sir.”

“While we’re on the subject of awkward… Sabrina Blackman sent me a message yesterday.”

As if possessed, Kenneth’s face twisted into a scowl before he could force it back to a neutral expression. “Oh?”

“You’ve got to work on that poker face, Kenneth,” David said with a laugh. “Oh, it was an interesting message. She wanted to remove you.”

“I see.”

“Don’t worry… I hate government civilians even more than I hate most contractors,” David said, punctuating the last word with a snort. “I especially detest civilians that claim to know what they’re doing, make a ton of noise, and don’t know the first thing about the subject they claim to be experts at.”

“Well, sir, my mother used to teach me that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. So I’ll smile and nod.”

David frowned. “I’m surprised you haven’t come to me about this. I discovered she'd forced some changes to the reporting structure of your team. Daily reports by everyone, four different monthly reports. I’ve never quite seen anything like it. That kind of administrative burden has to be affecting your ability to get things done.”

“Many government overseers like that kind of detail in the paperwork, sir. We didn’t want to pester you.”

“Is there anything else to this?” David asked.



Ugh, I don’t want to open this can of worms up with the colonel. “Honestly, I got crosswise with Ms. Blackman soon after she was assigned.”

“Details?”

“She asked an engineer to redo a manual using a template that’s not CDF standard. When the engineer objected, she told me to fire him.”

David broke into a wide smirk. “And after working with you for a few months, I’m going to go out a limb here and say you told her to pound sand.”

“I was polite about it.”

“I’ll deal with her,” David said with finality. “Why haven’t you been recruited by the government yet anyway?”

“They tried. I said no enough that it doesn’t come up anymore.”

“Why not? There’s a pension at the end of service.”

“Because I won’t have any job I where I can’t remove people who don’t do theirs. Especially when we’re doing things that matter as much as keeping ships in operation for the war effort,” Kenneth said.

“Did I mention lately I find your perspective to be refreshing?”

“No, sir… er, no.”

David smiled. “Well, keep it up. Anything you need from me?”

“We’re good. Special Projects has a list of things for us to do a few miles long,” Kenneth replied. “At this rate, the list will only be halfway done in three years.”

“I pray in three years we won’t be fighting this war.”

“Me too.”

David stood up. “I’d better be getting to the bridge myself. See you around, Kenneth.”

Kenneth jumped up. “Thank you again.” As David walked off, he was left standing in the mess. Time for me to get back to work.


4


December 29th, 2460

CDF Military Complex

Canaan

Admiral Resit Kartal, Supreme Allied Commander, Space Force for the Canaan Alliance, walked into an ornate conference room within the vast military complex on Canaan. Dozens of stories tall, extending deep into the ground, and so heavily reinforced that sustained orbital bombardment couldn’t destroy it without the use of strategic weapons, it was the crown jewel of CDF military administration. I prefer spartan quarters in the fleet to this overly soft palace. Warriors must stay focused on the battle. The comforts of home dilute that focus and cost lives. He had called a briefing with his senior staff, and leaders of the joint fleet. Operating strictly on a need-to-know basis, he and his most senior strategic advisor, and a specific CDF Intelligence officer who was present with them, had prepared to change the course of the war.

As soon as his Saurian form appeared in the doorway, everyone in the room—military and civilian—leaped to their feet. Those in uniform braced to attention.

He ticked off two seconds before speaking. “At ease. You may be seated.” Kartal took his place at the head of the table.

Kartal’s head scales flushed a deep purple as he began his address. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. Today, we have much to discuss. A breakthrough has been achieved in our struggle with the League of Sol. CDF Intelligence has discovered the location of the space station that the League uses to project power across our arm of the Milky Way.”

Kartal was used to everyone paying attention to what he had to say; the stars on his shoulder guaranteed it. Everyone leaned forward, all the more interested in what he just said. “We have spent the last week ensuring the intelligence is correct. We double-, triple-checked the location and sowed stealth observation drones throughout the area. You, as the commanders of the space carrier battlegroups that make up our allied space force, now have a new set of orders. Every possible ship will stage at Canaan in a week.”

A human general who commanded the Ark Royal’s SCVBG—Space Carrier Battlegroup—spoke. “Admiral, we’re in active combat across several fronts. Shouldn’t we be more cautious, consolidate our strength… finish driving the League off our planets, and then strike back?”

“General Goodson, please tell me, what strategic value do marooned planets with no ability to project power have?”

The man’s face contorted. “There are citizens of the Terran Coalition on them, living under the thumb of League occupation. That outweighs every other consideration.”

“Does it? Would they like to momentarily be out from under the thumb of the League, or forever? I have briefed this until I am white in the face. If we do not decisively strike back against the League and force it to fight on our terms, there will be no victory. No! Our strategy will be to leave a token presence to keep the attention of League listening posts, and bleed every available combat ship off the front. I want a minimum of five hundred ships assembled for this battle, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Admiral, if I may, what’s your tactical plan for taking this League strongpoint?” Goodson asked.

“Deceptively simple, General. Kill Leaguers. Kill the Leaguer reinforcements. Capture the station. Keep killing Leaguers!”

It wasn’t lost on Kartal that several of the humans exchanged worried glances with one another. The Saurians, though, nodded their approval. Strong is our desire for combat. “The entire plan is available for viewing inside of the special compartmentalized communication suite on your flagships, or within this facility. I expect everyone to read it front to back, understand it completely, and be ready to execute by 0900 on Friday. That’ll give you a little under two days.”

“That’s not a lot of time, sir,” a brigadier general said from in the back, giving voice to what Kartal suspected many of them thought.

“No, it's not. There wasn’t a lot of time when the Royal Saurian Navy joined this war. We answered the call. There is rarely little time in war. This is actionable intelligence, backed by real-time surveillance. For my service, that’s the gold standard. I assume it is for the CDF as well?”

“Yes, sir,” the general replied, his tone appropriately chastened.

“Any other questions?” Kartal counted off five seconds mentally. “Good. Dismissed.”

So Fight I

David walked through a door marked as “Briefing Gallery C” in Canaan’s main military complex. This place is huge. Repurposed as the Supreme Allied Headquarters for the joint CDF and Royal Saurian Navy Expeditionary Force, it was so big, it was like its own city. Together with Aibek, he made his way to the assigned seat in the theater. There were rows and rows of seats; over a thousand in total. The entire room was jam-packed with ship commanders and their executive officers, as well as generals and other high-ranking officers from both militaries.

“All the shining brass blinds me, Colonel,” Aibek commented in sotto voce, taking his seat beside David.

David couldn’t help but snicker. “That’s your go-to line about flag officers.”

“It is consistently funny.”

“Point taken.”

Waiting patiently for the briefing to begin, David’s mind ran wild with possibilities. What could be so important as to drag what looks like half the ships in the fleet back to Canaan? They’d successfully pushed the League out of Terran Coalition space and recovered many of the occupied worlds, including the deep space mining operations that would fuel the shipyards of both the Coalition and the Saurians for decades to come. Whatever it is, it's big.

Suddenly, the room quieted down dramatically; from his seat two rows back from the front, David could see why. Admiral Resit Kartal walked onto the stage, dressed in a combat utility uniform. He’d been consistently impressed by the admiral. While some would let commanding a fleet of over eight hundred ships go to their respective heads, Kartal didn’t. It was always about the mission, and he was humble to a fault. Standing nearly six feet seven inches tall, he was massive even for a Saurian. The top of his head had a unique blue scale; David had never seen another Saurian with the same color scale combination before.

“Members of the Coalition Defense Force and Saurian Royal Navy, thank you for joining me today. I hope to explain over the next hour our plan to deliver a crippling blow to the League’s military efforts in the Sagittarian arm of our galaxy,” Kartal said as he opened his remarks. “Lights, please.”

The lights in the briefing theater dimmed, and a central holoprojector came to life. Classification markings indicated the briefing was rated as Top Secret, Special Compartmentalized Information with a caveat that marked it as viewable by all properly cleared members of the Canaan Alliance.

“What you are about to see is the culmination of six months of strategic planning and execution by the Allied Expeditionary Force staff,” Kartal continued. “I’d like to start by thanking the crew of the CSV Oxford, and specifically Colonel Robert Sinclair, who first found the location of our target.” Kartal paused for a moment as the holoprojector switched projections to show a system close to the edge of the Sagittarian arm. “It has been a mystery for some time to us as to how the League can seemingly throw endless amounts of war material at its enemies, while it lacks advanced logistical infrastructure in our region of space. Running in stealth mode, far ahead of our advance, the Oxford’s communications intercept team discovered the holy grail. We have found the League’s main logistical supply hub for its war efforts against our two nations.”

The holoprojector’s image switched yet again to show a sprawling space installation that, when viewed against the League ships present, had a truly massive scale. David marveled at how many years it must have taken to build such a structure.

“The Oxford has been monitoring this installation for the last two weeks, as we wrapped up clearing the League out from our space. With all known League battlegroups on our side of the frontier neutralized or forced to retreat, we are now in a position to strike a decisive blow in this war. Colonel Sinclair will now join us to explain what he’s learned about this installation and present our battle plan. Colonel?”

Robert Sinclair walked out onto the stage to stand next to Kartal before the two men shook hands. “Thank you, Admiral.”

Kartal handed Sinclair the small handheld clicker that controlled the holoprojector.

Sinclair quickly moved the presentation forward, showing a tactical map of the area around the League space station. “As you all can see here, the League installation is a sprawling collection of modules. We think it was built over many years, perhaps even decades. From what we can tell, there are numerous weapons emplacements, meters of armor protecting key areas, and large numbers of small tactical craft based within it. This thing is like an old-school castle or strongpoint. Getting in will be hard. Capturing it will be even harder.”

At the mention of the word “capture,” there was a wave of murmurs throughout the audience. Sinclair held up a hand. “Ladies and gentlemen, I did say ‘capture.’ We’ll need this installation for when we turn the tide and invade the Orion arm, taking this fight to Earth. What better way to do that than to use the League’s handiwork against them?”

David found himself nodding his head up and down, along with many others in the room. Turning the League’s base against them to use in invading Earth… that’s ironic and quite amusing.

“Taking it is not going to be easy, however. And every day, it gets harder. The League is sending reinforcements from its core worlds to reinforce their invasion fleet. Our best estimate is that we neutralized seven out of eleven battlegroups deployed against us, and most importantly, we eliminated three out of four fleet carriers they had in the fight.”

Sinclair pressed the clicker’s button again, and the holoprojector display switched to highlighting static defenses around the League station. “As you can see here, we’ll be flying into a hornet’s nest. We believe there are roughly three hundred static weapons emplacements on this base. There’re also nearly four hundred starships in orbit, along with at least a thousand fighters and bombers. In short, this is the most heavily fortified military installation the CDF or RSN has ever planned to attack.”

The room was utterly silent as Sinclair continued to speak. “Our battle plan is simple. We will stage five hundred and twenty-three starships in three separate rally points around this installation, at maximum Lawrence drive range for the largest vessels in the fleet. We’ve made a calculated risk to jump the carriers in with everything else, so we can quickly launch all available combat spacecraft they hold. All told, we will put nearly two thousand fast movers in play, along with every capital ship we can spare. Both the CDF and RSN will only hold back enough ships to defend our core worlds. We are, in effect, ladies and gentlemen, all in. This must work. Period. Failure is not an option.”

Sinclair paused for a moment, then turned back to Admiral Kartal. “Admiral, the floor is yours, sir.”

The massive Saurian admiral stepped forward, his eyes scanning the room. “You all are here because you command the ships that will follow my flagship into battle. Together, we will be victorious over the League of Sol. This is not the final battle, nor is it the end of this long and bloody war. But it will be the day that we banish the League from our galactic arm, and someday, it will be recognized as the beginning of the end for the League of Sol.”

Kartal paused for a moment. David wondered if the briefing was finished or if the admiral had more to say. “When we finally reach Earth and eradicate the League of Sol from this galaxy, I promise you all that the Leaguer’s version of French will only be spoken in hell.”

At those words, the room erupted into cheers and wild applause. Mixed emotions washed over David. The League is evil, and we need to defeat it. But are we cheering for the deaths of millions? If we’re not careful, we’ll end up just like them.

Kartal held up his large, scaled hand. “Do not celebrate prematurely, ladies and gentlemen. This battle will be hard. It will be bloody, and it will be long. We move out three days from now. I expect to see all ships ready to go. Good luck, and Godspeed to you all.”

As Kartal walked off the stage, the lights returned to average brightness and the mass of officers began to stand and head for the exits. David and Aibek stayed together, moving with the sea of humans and Saurians. Soon after they left the theater, General MacIntosh approached.

“Colonels,” MacIntosh said as a greeting.

David tensed. “General.”

“General,” Aibek said right after David.

“Colonel Aibek, would you give Colonel Cohen and me a few minutes alone?”

“Of course, sir. I’ll see you back on the Lion, Colonel.”

David cracked a smile. “Go get Admiral Kartal’s autograph.”

All three men laughed as Aibek walked away. David looked at MacIntosh. “What can I do for you, sir?”

MacIntosh gestured down a corridor that led further into the facility. “Walk with me.”

Over the last two months, David and MacIntosh had repaired the falling out they had after the events on Monrovia; he’d taken great care to nurture their relationship and ensure he carried out his orders to the best of his ability. He fell in beside MacIntosh, and they strode forward.

MacIntosh was the first to speak. “Colonel, how are you doing?”

“I’m holding up, sir.”

“Three months of nearly constant combat has to take a toll.”

“It does, sir. Two hundred fifty-eight is the number that sticks in my mind.”

“The Lion’s KIA total since you took command?”

“Yes, sir. It’s important to remember them.”

MacIntosh nodded. “Yes, it is, Colonel. But it’s also important to remember why they’re gone, and what we’re fighting for.”

“It doesn’t change that those people are never going home.”

“What do you think about the plan?” MacIntosh said.

“At a high level, it makes sense. I’d need to review the actual operational details to offer an informed opinion, though.”

“We’ll all have that opportunity, Colonel. I’ve reviewed the operational plan at length, and I think it’s our best chance of success. Admiral Seville is a capable and intelligent opponent, who even as he’s lost many engagements over the last few months, has managed to extract a heavy price from both our nations,” MacIntosh said.

David recalled some RUMINT—military slang for rumor intelligence—which was floating around the fleet. “I’ve heard the Saurians aren’t happy with the losses they’ve sustained.”

“CDF Intelligence believes that the League has focused on destroying Saurian ships specifically to drive a wedge between our two peoples. Good news for us is that President Spencer and Chief Minister Sherazi appear to have a bond between them that’s as good as steel. There’s no daylight in their desire to destroy the League.”

“But if hundreds of thousands of Saurians lose their lives, they could easily falter.”

“Yes, they could. Our job is to make sure it doesn’t happen, and we defeat the League and Seville, once and for all, at this logistical base they’ve established,” MacIntosh stated firmly.

“We’ll give it everything we have, sir.”

“I know you will. General Pipes sends his regards.”

David’s face brightened at the mention of his old mentor, General Benson Pipes. “I haven’t been able to call him lately, not enough vidlink credits left since we’re so far out. It’s hard enough to get a call through to my mother once a month.”

“Anything you’d like me to pass back?”

“Just that I’m doing well, and I hope he is too.”

“He’s made a fine addition to my joint staff. The man is a logistical wizard.”

David laughed. “What’s that old saw… professionals deal with logistics?”

“And amateurs debate tactics,” MacIntosh finished. “Good luck out there, David. I wish I were going out with you, but I’m stuck in the rear.”

“Without the work you’re doing, sir, we wouldn’t be where we are. The new technology your team turns out will eventually win the war.”

MacIntosh smiled and stuck out his hand. David took it and shook it firmly. “Godspeed, General.”

“Godspeed, son.”


5

Three days later, after all of the ships in the massive Coalition Defense Force and Royal Saurian Navy task force had been provisioned, completed final engineering checks, and taken on all replacement crewmembers, David found himself standing the first watch on the bridge of the Lion of Judah. The cavernous CIC and bridge area was full of even more crewmembers than usual. There was a pulse of excitement and an edge to everyone’s demeanor. Today, they were going to begin to put an exclamation point on the campaign of the last three months. God willing, from here on out, the League’s grip on power will start to falter and fade. The cover he was wearing, a ballcap with the logo of the Lion of Judah on it, felt scratchy. He preferred the standard duty cover, but the crew had fallen in love with the ballcaps. They were the number-one selling CDF memorabilia item, and those who’d earned the right to wear them on duty took immense pride in the simple hats. Perhaps it’s because of what they symbolize to billions of citizens throughout the Terran Coalition: Hope.

“Conn, Communications,” Taylor’s voice carried across the ship. “Receiving final instructions for departure. We’re cleared to undock, sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Navigation, clear all moorings, disengage our umbilicals and switch to internal oxygen reserves.”

“All moorings and umbilicals disengaged, sir,” Hammond promptly responded.

“Navigation, all ahead, dead slow,” David commanded, following the rote procedure to launch the ship that he had now executed many times.

“All ahead, dead slow, aye, sir.”

David watched the forward view as the ship slowly began to move, the shipyard pylons starting to move out of the frame of the transparent alloy “windows” on the bridge. Accelerating, the Lion exited the shipyard entirely and began to make the turn toward its parking orbit.

“Communications, engage the tactical network protocol with the RSN Elcin.”

“Aye, sir, tactical network engaged,” Taylor replied crisply.

“TAO, link all Sierra contacts from the tactical network into our CIC viewer.”

“Aye aye, sir, Sierra contacts imputed,” Ruth chimed in.

David stood from the CO’s chair and glanced back to the massive holoprojector that showed local contacts around the Lion. There were now hundreds of contacts displayed around his ship, so many that he couldn’t tell them apart, or see the supplemental information as to what the ships were.

“That’s the most ships with friendly IFFs I’ve ever seen in my life, in one place,” David commented to the room at large. Turning around, he saw Aibek standing and staring at the holoprojector in awe as well.

“An inspiring sight, sir,” Aibek replied.

Looking around the room, David observed most of the bridge crew staring at the holoprojector as well, wearing smiles and whispering to those next to them at their stations. He broke into a grin. “This is the largest fleet ever assembled by the Coalition Defense Force and any of its allies. Take a good look, people. This is the fleet that’s going to kick the League out of our arm of the galaxy.”

Ruth turned around from her station, a departure from the CDF’s standard bridge protocol, but then again, David wasn’t precisely following it at the moment himself. “I wish I could see Admiral Seville pee his pants when we drop out of Lawrence drive right on his front door.”

Waves of laughter swept through the bridge as enlisted crewmembers and officers alike played the mental image Ruth had created through their minds. David laughed out loud. “Maybe we can get Colonel Sinclair and his boys to get us a drone into his quarters.”

“I like that idea. Maybe we could make a propaganda video out of it,” Taylor interjected.

“I am not sure who wants to see Admiral Seville suffer a small indignity like you describe. I would rather we make a video of him seeing the error of his ways before his death sentence is carried out,” Aibek said as he tried to copy a human eye roll but not entirely being able to due to how the Saurians’ eye sockets worked.

“You know, XO, I’m delighted you’re on our side sometimes.”

Before Aibek could respond, Taylor interrupted with actual business. “Conn, Communications. I’ve got a priority order from Admiral Kartal’s flag staff. We’ve been instructed to proceed to rally point bravo.”

David immediately cut off the horseplay and started walking back toward the CO’s chair. “You heard the man. Everyone, take your stations. Navigation, plot a course to rally point bravo and charge the Lawrence drive.”

“Aye aye, sir, course laid in,” Hammond immediately responded.

David took his seat, as did Aibek. Glancing around the bridge once more, David took satisfaction at seeing the entire bridge crew strapped in and ready to go. “Navigation, engage the Lawrence drive.”

“Aye, sir, engaging Lawrence drive.”

There was a noticeable dimming of the bridge’s running lights as the Lawrence drive generator spun up, which was due to the extreme range being inputted into the navigation computer. Suddenly, a multicolored wormhole sprang into existence directly in front of the Lion of Judah. The mighty starship engaged its sub-light engines and charged into the maw of bright colors, followed by several dozen smaller ships that were piggy-backing on the extended range of the Lion’s Lawrence drive.

A few moments later, the artificial wormhole collapsed, leaving little trace it ever existed, except now there were dozens of ships fewer in orbit above Canaan.

So Fight I

Standing in the shooting range onboard the Lion, Taylor pressed his thumb up against the biometric lock on the small arms locker. It made a beeping noise then flashed green with the words “Access Granted” flashing on the screen. Taylor selected a standard issue projectile sidearm, the MS-18. Optimized for conflict onboard a space ship, the rounds it fired were explicitly designed to destroy soft tissue but not punch through the hull. Given the many layers of armor on the ship, it would be unlikely that one could breach the outer hull, but weapons designers hadn’t left it to chance.

Alone aside from one other soldier in the range, Taylor put on protective gear that included goggles and ear covers. He then made his way to an open lane and pulled up a computer-generated target of a bullseye. Practicing the safe handling instructions that were drilled into him since boot camp, he loaded the weapon, turned off the safety, took aim, and squeezed the trigger until the magazine was empty.

Staring down the lane with satisfaction, Taylor saw that he’d hit the inner rings of the bullseye in all fifteen shots he took. A voice shouting behind him caused him to whirl around, startled.

“It’s harder when the targets are shooting back at you, Lieutenant.” The voice belonged to Calvin.

Looking around the range and confirming no one else was in the room, Taylor removed his ear cover. “I gather that, Colonel. But I’m a comms geek, as you like to point out. Computer algorithms rarely shoot at me.”

Calvin chuckled. “No, they don’t. Have you tried one of the more realistic simulators?”

“I have. I tend to freeze up in those. The life-like realism of shooting people is disturbing.”

“You just haven’t done it enough. Once you kill enough Leaguers… it just doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Colonel, may I ask you a personal question?”

“Stow that ‘Colonel’ crap, Robert. We’re just two friends hanging out, chucking some rounds down range.” Calvin paused for a moment. “What’s your question?”

“Why do you hate them so much?”

“What do you mean?”

Taylor gestured to the lane Calvin had occupied, which displayed a target of a League soldier with nice tidy holes in its head and chest. “Every time I see you down here, you’re shooting pictures of League soldiers. You never miss the target. Whenever I hear you talk about the League, you say something like ‘the only good Leaguer is a dead Leaguer.’ I remember you telling Colonel Cohen we should blast surrendered League ships rather than waste time boarding them and taking prisoners.”

Calvin pursed his lips together and a hard look washed over his face. “I’ve been fighting the League since I was eighteen years old, Robert. You’re damn right I hate them. I hate every last one of them. I’d kill them all if I had half the chance. I don’t feel bad about killing them, and I don’t feel bad about not feeling bad about killing them.”

“They’re not all bad.”

“Really? You ever gone toe to toe with League ground pounders?”

“Well, no—”

Calvin cut in before he could continue. “I have, God knows how many times that I’ve lost count. One of my first deployments, we were staging an invasion of a border planet that had exchanged hands several times but was first settled by the Terran Coalition. Good, hardy people that just wanted a place to call their own. The League took it over, killed thousands in purges, and tried to force their way of life on those folks. But we don’t leave our own behind, so the fleet took the skies, and the Marines landed. I’ll never forget what I saw at the age of nineteen.”

As Calvin spoke, his mind flashed back to that day, so many years ago but so fresh, it was like it was yesterday. His second combat insertion, he’d been a wet-behind-the-ears private, the words of his drill instructors still ringing in his ears. He and his squad were hunkered down in a drop pod, hurtling through the atmosphere.

So Fight I

“Hoooooorah! Semper Fi, do or die!” the staff sergeant in charge of the squad shouted.

“Hoooooorah!” Calvin shouted back, along with the rest of the Marines.

“Now here’s the plan, Marines,” the staff sergeant continued. “We’re dropping into the capital of this fine planet; it’s a place called Brunswick. Our objective is to capture the center of the city and take out the League’s headquarters. Our secondary objective is to kill every Leaguer asshole we see. You get me, Marines?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” Calvin again screamed at the top of his lungs, along with the rest of the men, their roar filling the drop pod.

The next few moments were a blur as the drop pod streaked through the atmosphere before firing retro rockets to land in a manner that was not exactly graceful, but slow enough that the Marines inside weren’t harmed. As soon as the pod touched down, the doors flung open, and the harnesses that held the men in automatically released.

Calvin immediately took in his surroundings through the lens of the heads-up display, or HUD, in his helmet. There were numerous League security troops holding positions around a large building that he assumed had been the headquarters of the Terran Coalition’s government outpost on the planet. Now festooned with the flag of the League of Sol, he felt bile rise in his throat. The shout of his staff sergeant interrupted his thoughts. “Move out! Get out there! Squad A, I want fire on those Leaguer bastards right now!”

As Calvin charged out of the drop pod with his Marine brothers, he felt the staff sergeant’s armored suit hand slap his shoulder. “Do not freeze up, Private! Remember your training! Get out there!”

Incoming rounds slapped the ground around Calvin, sending him scurrying for cover behind a low wall where a couple of other Marines had taken refuge. It took him a few seconds to realize there had been a pitched battle occurring before the CDF Marines had arrived. People in civilian clothes were perched around the square, firing on the League forces. He supposed they were resistance fighters, but regardless of who they were, more friendly troops were always a welcome sight.

Steadying himself, Calvin used his HUD to mark several Leaguers before popping up from cover with the other two Marines beside him and firing short bursts from his battle rifle. The reward for his efforts was three hits on League troopers, which momentarily caused the fire pouring in on their location to slacken.

“Grenades! Up and over, Marines! Drive them back!” the voice of his staff sergeant thundered through the headset he wore under his helmet.

Moving as one, Calvin and the rest of his squad mates pulled fragmentation grenades from their belts, removed the pins, and tossed them toward the closest enemy. Three seconds later, a dozen explosions went off. There was an immediate cessation to the incoming fire from the Leaguers.

The rest of the squad, Calvin at their heels, jumped up and charged the League positions around the square. In a matter of seconds, the stunned Leaguers had been cut down, with only a couple managing to retreat into the building without being shot.

A wild cheer went up from the civilians at the sight of the running enemy. One of them climbed down from a balcony, into the square, and made his way to the Marines.

“Thank God you made it!” the man said with a worn and weary smile on his lips, cradling a civilian hunting rifle in his hands.

Calvin saw his staff sergeant step forward and remove his helmet. “Staff Sergeant Morris Harrison, 52nd CDF Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 2nd Regiment at your service.”

“Henry Lee…shop keeper and leader of our cell. Some spook from CDF Intel alerted the resistance network that the invasion was to happen today. We answered the call.”

“My orders are to storm this building and capture it. That’s what my squad and I are going to do. Would you be willing to guard our rear?”

Lee nodded. “Gladly. Are you sure you don’t need us to assist in taking the building? We’re all willing to put our lives on the line for freedom from the League. Don’t worry about us.”

Harrison shook his head. “While I thank you for the offer, Mr. Lee, I need to be able to storm that building without worrying about my six. So you make sure the Leaguers don’t catch my boys and me with our pants down, and we’ll raise the Terran Coalition flag. Clear?”

“Yes, sir. We’ll watch your backs.”

Harrison laughed. “Don’t call me ‘sir.’ I work for a living.”

Henry laughed as well, in spite of the terror around him. “I’ll try to remember that.” He turned and ran back toward the rest of his fighters, while Harrison put his helmet back on.

“Got more guts than brains, these civilians. We’ll keep them out of harm's way as much as we can. On me, squad!” Calvin heard Harrison say through his headset.

The squad of Marines rushed toward Harrison, who approached the door to the government building they were to capture. “Blow the door!” he ordered.

One of the Marines trotted over with a door breach kit. He pulled it out of the tube it came in, and then rolled the material out over the door. One side was sticky, and it easily adhered to the door. This Marine had done this particular task enough times to be quite proficient at it. Inside of fifteen seconds, the charge was ready. At a nod from Harrison, the door blew backward, creating a tidy entry point for the squad.

Another Marine tossed in a flashbang—a type of grenade that stunned those in the room with light and a concussive wave—and a split second after it exploded, they charged in. Calvin was one of the last to step through the now empty doorway, into the maelstrom of weapons fire. His battle rifle was up and at the ready as he charged in. Seeing a Leaguer spring up from cover, his training took over and he fired a tight three-round burst, causing the unlucky League soldier to fall backward, mortally wounded.

It was all over in less than sixty seconds. I almost feel bad for these guys, trying to fight power-armored Marines with submachine guns. Once the din of combat had died down, there was an eerie quiet that swept through the room. Harrison’s voice once again snapped Calvin out of his thoughts. “Lance Corporal Karimi, take Private Demood and search the lower rooms on this level. The rest of us will continue to clear this building of Leaguers.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” Calvin heard Karimi’s voice through his headset. “Demood, with me.”

Calvin took position behind Karimi, covering him as he poked his head into the hallway in front of them. “Looks clear. Stay frosty,” Karimi commented, no-nonsense. The walls had various League of Sol propaganda posters plastered to them, showing smiling League soldiers handing out food and encouraging citizens of the Terran Coalition to “See the light and reject superstition.” The only thing these guys are handing out is misery. Why can’t they leave us alone?

After trying a door handle and finding it locked, Karimi pointed at the door. “Care to kick this down, Demood?”

Calvin nodded his agreement, reared up, and kicked the door near its handle with the entire weight of his power-armored suit. The door crumpled in like a flimsy piece of paper, shattering on impact. He charged into the room and was entirely unprepared for the sight that met him.

A young girl of no more than sixteen years of age was handcuffed to an interrogation table. Her hair was matted, face streaked with blood, and she had the thousand-yard stare of a ten-year combat veteran. Calvin guessed she’d been tortured, or worse. So intent on her injuries, he almost missed the other occupant of the room, a man who wore the black uniform of the League of Sol. He appeared to be in his thirties, with a thin face and a complexion that reminded Calvin of the propaganda posters he’d just seen..

“Don’t shoot! I surrender!” the man shouted in accented English, raising his hands with the palms out, clearly showing he wasn’t holding a weapon.

Karimi covered the Leaguer with his battle rifle, while Calvin removed his helmet and knelt next to the girl. “Hey, it's okay. We’ve got you now.”

She immediately shrank back from him, whimpering.

Calvin’s face became a mask of fury. He turned to the Leaguer. “What the hell were you torturing a teenage girl for?”

“She was a member of the resistance. We needed information from her,” the man stated, his tone matter-of-fact.

Calvin turned back to the girl. “I’m a Marine… TCMC.. We’re here to get rid of the League and free your planet.” Feels good to be the guy in the red cape.

She raised her head to him, her lip quivered, and her eyes screamed her fear wordlessly. “He hurt me.”

Calvin sprang up, rage rising from every part of his being. He turned to face the Leaguer. “What did you do to this woman? You sick bastard. What the hell is wrong with you people!”

The Leaguer stood there for a moment, and then to Calvin’s amazement, he smiled. “I do whatever is needed to obtain the information required. This one has strong religious beliefs. I used them to extract the information we needed. It's quite simple, we do whatever is required, without the silly rules you Terrans impose on yourselves from some fairy in the sky that doesn’t exist.”

Karimi was still covering the Leaguer with his battle rifle, taking in the events. “Demood, zip-tie his hands together. We’ll ship him out to the POW camp, and make sure the JAGs know about his crimes. Hopefully, they can make war crime charges stick.”

Mentally, Calvin stewed. POWs can’t be charged with most crimes committed while under arms. It’d take a miracle for this piece of human trash to get any punishment or for this girl to get justice.

The Leaguer laughed. “Wonderful. I get three meals a day while you keep fighting my countrymen… until we win anyway. I love how the Terran Coalition works.”

Something snapped inside of Calvin. Years later, he still remembered the moment as it occurred in almost slow motion. He drew his sidearm, chambered a round as he raised it, and aimed at the man’s head. “Tell you what, Leaguer. You say there’s no God? How about you find out.”

As soon as those words had left Calvin’s lips, he squeezed the trigger, sending a single round directly between the man’s eyes. His lifeless body crumpled over, and he fell backward. The girl had been watching it all; she didn’t scream, she didn’t flinch. She merely stared, then looked back down at the table.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Karimi screamed at the top of his lungs, taking a step forward and staring at Calvin with a wild look. “What the hell did you do that for, Private?”

Calvin slowly lowered his sidearm and returned it to the holster. “I took out the trash, Corporal.”

There was a pregnant pause as Karimi looked between Calvin and the dead Leaguer. “Okay, Demood. He drew a hidden weapon, you shot him. End of story. We clear on that?”

“Yes, Corporal.”

So Fight I

Taylor stared at Calvin with his jaw open. “You shot an unarmed POW?”

“Yes, I did. At times I’ve regretted it, at times I’ve wished I could’ve killed him five times over. You fleet guys… you don’t see what they do on the ground. It's different. So yes, I hate the League. I hate what they stand for.”

“Cal… we’re not supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner. The rules exist for a reason.”

“Maybe when this war is over, I can get myself straightened out. I’m sure I’ve got something wrong with my head. The worst thing is, I don’t feel anything. I don’t have remorse. I don’t feel bad for them. When I’ve killed fifty Leaguers in a day, I sleep like a baby.”

Taylor stared at Calvin as he spoke, his eyes opened wide. “Have you talked to a counselor?”

“Yeah. One told me once I have a personality disorder caused by trauma. Whatever that means. I’ve gotten good enough at faking it to pass my evaluations without raising too many questions.”

“That’s a little bit scary…”

“Don’t worry. I’m only interested in killing Leaguers,” Calvin replied with a smirk on his face.

Taylor turned back toward the weapon locker. “I guess I’d better get cleaned up and ready for dinner.”

“Sure thing. See you later in the wardroom.” Calvin said, wondering if he’d shared too much. Non-marines were hard to relate to at times.

Watching Taylor secure his sidearm back in the weapons locker and leave, Calvin reflected on how much he hated the League of Sol. But the truth is, I don’t hate them for what they do, I hate them for what they made me become.


6

Admiral Pierre Seville gazed out over the joint operations command floor on the League’s forward operating base in the Sagittarian arm. Its official name was the League Logistical Space Depot Unity, named for the League’s desire to reunite humanity, or so the Ministry of Information said. The installation was known to its crew, though, as Unity Station, which was far less cumbersome in Seville’s opinion. Dozens of officers and enlisted personnel manned the communications and intelligence installations around the room, updating sensor readouts and plugging in the latest estimations of CDF and RSN forces. What was clear to him was the infernal Terrans were about to launch a significant attack. Strappi strode up behind Seville, interrupting him. “Admiral, I have a report you may wish to see.”

Seville whirled around, startled by the morale officer’s stealthy approach. “Colonel Strappi… just the man I was looking for.”

Strappi looked back at Seville with a look of puzzlement on his face. “Sir?”

“It looks like our morale is falling again.”

“It’s hard to be in good spirits when we’ve lost most major engagements we’ve had over the last three months, Admiral.”

“What have I told you about needing a better outlook yourself, Colonel?”

Strappi looked appropriately chastened after that barb hit home. “I apologize, Admiral. I’m just apprehensive.”

“Now what’s this report you mentioned?”

“We’ve received a communique from a friendly freighter captain who observed a massive Coalition Defense Force and Royal Saurian Navy fleet departing Canaan. While there was a wide exclusion zone, this freighter happens to have some… upgrades to its sensor suite.” Strappi smiled thinly. “It would appear that they’re making a major move.”

“They've found us, at long last.”

“That was my thought, as well as the intelligence analysts’, sir.”

“What’s the status of our next set of reinforcements?” Seville asked.

“We should have another two space action groups, each consisting of a one Alexander class battleship, four Rand class heavy cruisers, and an assortment of escorts on station within the next week.”

“Good. That will bring us up to around six hundred capital ships. Coupled with the defenses of this station, I feel confident we can break the enemy’s advance and then start pushing back.”

Strappi nodded his agreement. “Of course, Admiral. You also have a request from the Social and Public Safety Committee to deliver your monthly report via hyper-com video link next week.”

Seville’s eyebrows shot up before he could fully control them. That’s a high enough bandwidth cost for it to cause disruptions to our network back to Earth. What could be so important? “Are you quite certain of the request?”

“Yes. A note was included that specifically addressed the cost. There has been some turmoil on the committee, and they’d like to speak with you in real time.”

“The last thing we need out here, my dear Colonel, is for the League to attempt to run this war by a committee from twenty thousand light-years away.”

“I’m sure they’ll not try to do so, Admiral. After all, they must have continued confidence in your leadership, judging by the number of ships sent as reinforcements.”

Seville cracked a smile looking at Strappi. The man is so transparent, at licking my boots. “A true observation. Make sure that our crews are ready to meet the imminent threat. I want all fleet captains to order random drills and instruct the senior officers to review our battle plans.”

“Yes, sir!” Strappi replied, bringing his fist to his chest in the salute of the League. “Any further orders, sir?”

“No. That will be all, Colonel. Dismissed.”

Strappi stalked out of the observation area, leaving Seville alone with his thoughts. So the Terrans have finally gotten brave enough to come for our most robust military installation aside from Earth itself. At least I’ll get another shot at Colonel Cohen and the Lion of Judah. We almost had her a few times… this time, she doesn’t escape. I’m tired of chasing that man across the galaxy. This ends with the Terran Coalition being ground into dust. When they get a taste of our latest advancement, they’ll find that their so-called God has abandoned them.


7

After arriving at rally point bravo, David had received an eyes-only message from Admiral Kartal requesting his presence, along with his executive officer for dinner onboard the flagship of the fleet, RNV Elcin. Dutifully complying, he donned his black service dress uniform and instructed Aibek to join him. Stepping off of the shuttle from the Lion of Judah onto the hangar deck of the Elcin, he was surprised to find an honor guard.

“Commander, CSV Lion of Judah arriving,” a Saurian crewman intoned in perfect English.

“Thank you,” David said, standing at the base of the shuttle ramp, along with Aibek, who had walked down behind him.

“Please follow me to the reception, Colonel,” the crewman said, gesturing toward the exit from the hangar, some ways off in the distance.

“Of course,” David replied and fell in behind the young Saurian.

As they wound through the twisting passageways of the mammoth battleship, David engaged in some small talk with Aibek. “Remind you of home much, XO?”

“Yes, it does,” Aibek replied. “The smell, specifically.”

“I don’t smell anything different.”

“You wouldn’t… Saurians have a highly tuned sense of smell compared to humans. Our ships are more pleasant than yours. Some of us have to take medication to be able to avoid vomiting on your vessels.”

“Seriously?” David asked. That’s crazy… I can’t smell anything different about the two ships.

“Yes. I have a strong stomach, though. Not to worry.”

“Are you pulling my leg?”

“Never, Colonel,” Aibek said with a toothy grin.

The crewman that was leading them stopped, then turned to his right and opened a hatch. “The wardroom is here, sirs.”

“Thank you again,” David replied, offering a smile as he stepped through the hatch and into the Saurian version of a wardroom. Surprised somewhat that it looked suspiciously similar to a similar space on the CDF ships, he took in the various displays. Just like the Lion of Judah, and other vessels he had served on previously, there was a large plaque for the ship adorned with the awards it had won over its time in the Saurian fleet.

“Come in, come in, gentlemen,” Kartal roared, a glass of some kind of drink in his hand.

Upon seeing Kartal, David immediately brought himself to attention, as did Aibek. “Colonel David Cohen, reporting as ordered, sir!”

“As you were, Colonel. Tonight, we are simply gathering as brothers and sisters united by war. Please, get a drink and sit. My stewards will begin to serve our dinner shortly.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” David replied, relaxing his stance and posture. I don’t care what the admiral says, it's hard to be relaxed in an environment like this where I feel like he’s watching every interaction we have. He walked over to the bar and flashed a smile to the steward behind it. “What’s being served this evening?”

“Red and white wine, sir, along with a premium Saurian ale, straight from our home planet,” the Saurian standing behind the bar replied.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had Saurian ale before. I don’t suppose it’s kosher?”

The Saurian laughed. “We do have a bottle labeled kosher, sir. Would you like a glass?”

“Why not…” David replied. I wonder if this stuff is really kosher or if they’re just saying it is?

“Make that two,” Aibek interjected.

“I didn’t realize you drank, XO,” David said in surprise.

“I don’t really like human alcohol. Especially that stuff the CDF serves. You’ll see,” Aibek replied with a broad, toothy smile.

The steward passed over two large mugs of frothy Saurian ale, which David and Aibek gripped carefully. David nodded his thanks and took a sip; the harsh flavor of the drink burned his tongue immediately. He made a face involuntarily as he swallowed the ale, avoiding the near disaster of spewing out of his mouth due to the sour taste.

“Not your cup of tea, Colonel?” Aibek said.

David managed a weak smile. “It's, uh, different.”

Aibek laughed uproariously and gestured to David, speaking to the nearby Saurian officers. “A true warrior this one! He managed to swallow some ale!”

The rest of the Saurians, including Kartal, laughed and a few even applauded. “I see our allies have pranked you,” another CDF officer wearing a full bird insignia said to David. “Colonel Jorge Vela,” he continued in English with a slight Spanish accent.

“It would appear so,” David remarked while extending his hand. “Colonel David Cohen.”

“The illustrious commander of the Lion of Judah, in the flesh.”

“I wouldn’t know about all that, Colonel. Just another ship driver. What about you?”

“Staff officer to Admiral Kartal. I push extraordinary amounts of paperwork.”

“Never ends, does it?” David replied. “I can never get ahead of my administrivia. If I get close, more shows up from a pocket universe dedicated to generating more forms.”

Jorge snickered and took a sip of his mug of ale, which he swallowed with ease. “Such a true statement.”

“I take it you’ve got some experience with this stuff?”

“It’s an acquired taste, not unlike exceptionally high proof human alcohol.”

“Fellow warriors,” Kartal said, his voice carrying above the rest and demanding attention. “Please, join me at my table to give thanks and enjoy the night together before we join the battle tomorrow morning.”

Small talk melted away as those in the room heeded the admiral’s request. David realized that each place setting had a little paper card with the name of an officer on it; he touched Aibek’s arm and pointed without being too obvious.

Nodding his understanding, Aibek followed David around the table to find their seats.

To David’s surprise, they were put right next to Admiral Kartal near the head of the table. Waiting politely and observing that no Saurians spoke, David too was silent as everyone found their seat. Once that was done, Kartal clapped his hands together, and the stewards began to bring out a first course: salad for the humans and a hash with what looked like raw meat for the Saurians.

“Please join me in blessing our food,” Kartal said before leaning his head back and closing the scales over his eyes. The Saurians followed, while David bent his head forward and closed his eyes. “Prophet, protector, keeper of all life and creator of the universe, hear our prayers. We ask You to bless this, the food we have gathered and hunted in Your name, through the abilities You bestowed upon us. Bless the warriors that join with me tonight, bless the just cause for which we fight, and grant us victory against evil on the battlefield tomorrow. In Your name, we pray, amen.”

“Amen,” David said, as did many others.

“Now eat!” Kartal said, a broad smile on his face and his voice happy and full of life, before taking a large bite of the meat hash. “Colonel Cohen, thank you for coming this evening. I had hoped to meet you sooner, but there’s never been any time.”

“No, Admiral. Time is something we seem to have precious little of these days,” David replied between mouthfuls of salad.

“Tell me, seeing this fleet… what emotions does it evoke in you, the son of the man who once saved the Terran Coalition?”

“Pride. Immense pride in the ability of our soldiers and allies, coupled with dedication to our cause. Also, humility at the price paid to enable us to field this fleet.”

“Some Saurians question the wisdom of allying with a race who, a short time ago, was our sworn enemy.”

Is he testing me? “I suppose some humans might as well, Admiral. As a student of history, I’d tell you that humanity is replete with examples of prior enemies becoming the best of friends. In fact, there’s a rather famous Indian expression I’m fond of… the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

“Do you view us simply as the enemy of your enemy, Colonel?” Kartal asked, one scale raised over his right eye.

Oh good grief, now I’ve stepped in it. “Not at all. The few Saurians I’ve had the honor to serve with are friends in every aspect of the word,” David replied.

“Good recovery, Colonel,” Jorge said from across the table.

David felt his face warm.

“I see that General MacIntosh has been working on your diplomacy, Colonel,” Kartal said while smiling in the toothy Saurian way.

“He tries, sir. So do I,” David said, grinning himself. “I’m still quite direct.”

“So am I. I rather enjoy it.”

“Colonel Cohen, do you believe our two races can be long-term allies?” one of the Saurian flag officers asked.

“We’ve been allies for some time now. I believe we will continue to be allies and eventually usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.”

“Having served among the Terrans before and now, I believe they are every bit as honorable as we are,” Aibek interjected. “At times, more so. I have seen incredible displays of courage, sacrifice, and dedication to duty. Humans as well as Saurians seem to have been made by the Creator.”

“Careful where you say that, warrior. The wrong priest might challenge you to blood combat,” the flag officer replied.

“Not on this ship,” Kartal said. “Here, that is the prevailing belief. Still, I find the way humans do things to be so… different. You all seem to have different beliefs.”

“Don’t Saurians?” David asked.

Aibek shook his head. “No, almost all of us share the same religion. Some do not believe in anything, but our primary belief system has been the same for several thousand years after our great Prophet visited Sauria and corrected us.”

“Humans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, and beliefs, Admiral. It’s part of our strength.”

“I’ve come to see that in the last few months. Diversity of thought through different experiences. It can be a formidable tool in battle.”

As they finished up the salads and meat hash, the stewards came back out and quickly removed the used plates. Much like a CDF ship, everything was done with clockwork precision. David mused inwardly that the Saurians had to want to show off that they were just as good at pomp and circumstance as their human allies. As the main course was set down, a similar meal for both species, though David’s piece of what he assumed was red meat was far more well done than the Saurians; Kartal’s looked like it had been seared on a grill and served.

“This is a delicacy from our world. A species that we’ve enjoyed for millennia as a delicious meal,” Kartal explained.

David cut off a small bite-size piece and began to chew; surprisingly tasteful, it reminded him of lamb. “Tastes like chicken.”

“Chicken?” Kartal asked.

“A human source of protein, from their bird family of animals,” Aibek interjected. “This meat tastes nothing like chicken, sir,” he said with mock reproach.

David grinned. “It's just what you say when you eat something new.”

“I would like to return to our previous conversation,” Kartal said. “As I said, I continue to be fascinated by all the different religions and philosophies that exist in human culture.”

David fought down a grimace; the last thing he wanted to do the night before a battle was discuss politics and religion with the fleet commander. There are some topics one doesn’t touch. “Well, there are few things two humans agree on fully, Admiral.”

“You are Jewish, yes?”

“Yes, Admiral. Orthodox, at that.”

“Doesn’t the word Cohen trace back to the priests of Israel?”

He’s done his homework. “Yes, sir, it does. Confirmed via DNA sequencing too. Though unfortunately, our tribes’ genealogies are so muddled, no one knows which tribe they belong to anymore.”

“You don’t believe the Messiah, what we would call the Prophet, has come to you?”

David shook his head. “No, sir. Jews believe that we await the coming of the Messiah.”

“But Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”

“Yes, sir,” David replied.

“Aren’t those two in direct contradiction?”

“Well, yes.”

“I am failing to understand how you can fundamentally disagree so much yet still be so intermeshed with one another,” Kartal commented.

“Admiral, in the past, different religious organizations on Earth fought with each other. Muslims and Jews fought for thousands of years. Christians at one point fought with Muslims through great crusades. Muslims fought with Hindus for thousands of years. Radicals from every sect caused pain and death.”

Kartal stared in rapt attention. “But not anymore?”

“No. I’m not aware of any religious violence occurring in the last two hundred years within the Terran Coalition, or even any credible reports of religious bigotry. I’m sure that somewhere in our borders, someone exists that doesn’t like someone else’s beliefs, but if they shared that thought process, no one would give them the time of day.”

“What happened?”

“Back on Earth, we were all forced to band together when the World Society—the precursor to the League of Sol—began to economically, and later militarily, take over the world. Jew fought side by side with Muslim, Muslim fought side by side with Christian. In short order, we were forced to confront the truth about each other, that we weren’t that different. What were at first allies of necessity turned into friends, then eventually brothers and sisters with an unbreakable bond.”

“In a way, then, this League of Sol caused something positive to happen,” Kartal observed.

“I’d never thought of it like that, but I suppose you’re right.”

“And now there is room for any belief in the Terran Coalition?”

“Including none at all.”

“Those must be a minority…”

“A tiny minority. Three percent of the population in the last polling I saw on the subject. That’s something else humans love to do… conduct polls and collect statistics.”

Kartal snorted. “I have noticed.”

David realized as he took another bite that no one else was speaking; the entire table was watching the conversation between him and the admiral. “I suppose it's one of our failings. That and endless amounts of paperwork.”

“Humans have no monopoly on paperwork, Colonel. The Royal Navy has plenty. Always some… what do you call them, bean counters, yes? An entire army of those exist back on Sauria wanting more forms.”

David chuckled politely, as did the other officers at the table.

“I have enjoyed this discussion, Colonel. I feel as if I know you better now. Tomorrow will be a great day.”

“Any defeat of the League is a great day,” David said, fire shining in his eyes. “I long for the day when we defeat them for good.”

“That, I can drink to. Ladies and gentlemen, charge your glasses!” Kartal said, picking up his ale glass and taking a swig. Everyone else, including David, did as well. The rest of the dinner focused on more banal discussions, but the interaction with Kartal stayed at the forefront of David’s mind, even after he was back in his bunk and done for the evening.

So Fight I

So many ships out there. It’s honestly a majestic sight. I pray they’re still here after we finish the battle tomorrow. Standing at the “window,” which was a highly dense transparent alloy, David’s eyes raked across the scene of dozens of starships as far as the eye could see. Carriers, battleships, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates from both the CDF and the RSN. All ready to fight in the most significant spaceborne engagement since the battle of Canaan, which took place nearly twenty-eight years ago. The officers’ mess he was in was open all day and night, and there were more than a few fellow servicemembers who couldn’t sleep, also taking in the sight. Failing to relax after dinner with the admiral, David had gone to the shul first and spent an hour praying. His soul still troubled, he’d ended up in the mess.

“I guess you couldn’t sleep either.”

David looked back to see the smiling face of Angie Dinman, the embedded reporter for GNN, holding a mug. He shook his head. “No, I couldn’t. I decided to come down and have a look one more time at the fleet.”

“Mind if join you?”

“On the record, or off?” David asked.

Angie rolled her eyes at him. “Aren’t we past that?”

David laughed. “Who knows with you reporters? The master chief swears the entire lot of you can’t be trusted.” He gestured to the chair next to the one he was sitting in.

Angie smirked. “The master chief will never be satisfied with any reporter.” She took the seat indicated by David and glanced out the window. “Well, if nothing else, we’ve got a lot of firepower for tomorrow.”

David took his chair back. “Firepower is only half the battle. Being in the right place, the right time, with the right firepower… now that’s the name of the game.”

“Do you think we’re going to win?” Angie said, looking over at David and trying to make eye contact with him.

“I think we’ve taken every possible precaution, have a great plan, and enough ships to execute the plan. The rest is in the hands of God.”

“Right, so are we going to win or not?”

David offered her a small smile. “I don’t know. But I’ll give everything I have, as will the rest of the people on this ship to assure we do. Can we talk about something besides the battle? I’m trying to get that out of my mind.”

“How come?”

“So I can sleep and be in a rested state of mind for tomorrow.”

Angie grinned. “I should’ve realized that.”

“It’s okay,” David replied before continuing with a different thought. “I hear that you’ve been going to both the shul and Christian services with Lieutenant Goldberg.”

It was Angie’s turn to be surprised. “Do you have a security detail on me or something?”

David shook his head. “Despite the Lion’s seemingly massive size, it’s a tiny ship. Scuttlebutt gets around.”

“I see that. Well, yes. I have been going with her,” Angie said, taking in David’s quizzical look. “I wasn’t able to set aside what you said to me a few months ago.”

I had that much of an impact with one comment about Pascal’s Wager? “I see. We haven’t discussed it since...”

“I’ve been able to ignore every other argument I’ve heard about God. I’m not entirely sure why, but that one got my attention. I decided to explore different avenues of faith. I’ve been to several Christian services, Jewish services with Ruth, and a couple of Islamic services with Colonel Amir.”

“Well, you’re hitting all the major Terran Coalition religions. Might want to toss in a visit to a Buddhist temple while you’re at it.”

“Are you insulting me, Colonel?”

David blinked. “I didn’t intend to… though being exposed to Colonel Aibek’s humor, I suppose it’s possible I’m a bit more sarcastic than I used to be.”

“Oh,” Angie said as her shoulders sagged and she wore a frown. “It’s just really personal to me. I don’t know what I believe… if I believe in anything. I don’t want to be made fun of.”

Crap. I didn’t mean to insult her. That’s the last thing she needs. “I apologize, Angie. It wasn’t my intent.”

“I forgive you,” she replied with a smile.

“How Christian of you.”

Angie rolled her eyes. “Seriously?”

David laughed. “Couldn’t resist.”

“I guess I’d better try to go get some sleep. It’s only three hours to five AM CMT. There’s a broadcast embargo, but I’m recording reports constantly that can be edited into a cohesive story once it’s over.”

David nodded his understanding. “Sleep well. I trust that tomorrow God will go with us, and I know the crew will be at its absolute A-game.”

“God helps those who help themselves?”

“Or as the Arabs say, trust in God, but tie your camel to a tree,” David replied with a smile.

“Take care, David. I’ll see you at some point in the next few days.”

Watching Angie go, David realized with a start that he had some level of attraction to her. Great, David. First, you’re in love with your XO, now you’re interested in an agnostic reporter. Get it together, man. Focus. Shaking his head, he took his water glass back to the collection area for used dishes and headed back to his cabin to hopefully get some sleep.


8

The following morning, David rolled out of his bunk at 0430 CMT when his alarm went off. He’d finally fallen asleep around 0300 CMT, and all told got about three hours of sleep during the night. It’ll have to be enough to keep me going today. Forcing himself through his morning ritual, he exercised for half an hour, then showered, shaved, and put on the uniform of the day. By 0700 CMT, he was on the bridge, sipping a cup of coffee and looking over the ship’s readiness report.

0800 was the designated H-Hour, when the combined assault would begin. Between 0700 and 730, the entire first shift bridge crew rotated in, relieving the third shift. Admiral Kartal had planned the operation at the start of the first shift to ensure the best personnel, and more importantly, make sure they were rested and ready for a sustained engagement. David continued to be impressed by the Saurian admiral; he had proven over and over to be a wily commander, with out-of-the-box tactics and unorthodox strategies. Today, though, they were flying into the teeth of the best the League had to offer. David hoped that the admiral was up to the task, for everyone’s sake.

When Aibek walked onto the bridge, he was the last one of the first shift crew to arrive, at precisely seven thirty-two AM. As he took his seat in the XO’s chair, David glanced at him.

“You’re going to be late to your own funeral, aren’t you, XO?”

Aibek laughed. “I certainly hope so. Dying isn’t high on my bucket list, as you humans say.”

David snickered in spite of himself. “In twenty-eight minutes, we do this.”

“It is difficult to believe that the last five cycles have gone by so quickly, leading us to this battle.”

“Well, we’ve drilled it, we’re ready. All that’s left now is the waiting,” David commented. “That’s the part I hate.”

Aibek didn’t respond, and the rest of the crew was busy checking, rechecking, triple-checking their consoles and the ship’s function.

“I think it’s time to go to condition one,” David said as the clock ticked to seven thirty-five AM.

“Agreed, sir.”

David punched the button for 1MC on his chair. “General Quarters! General Quarters! This is the commanding officer. Man your battle stations! I say again, man your battle stations! Set material condition one throughout the ship! This is not a drill! I say again, this is not a drill!”

The lights on the bridge automated faded to a dark blue hue, bathing the bridge and CIC in a soft glow. “Conn, TAO! Material condition one is set throughout the ship,” Ruth announced.

“Acknowledged, TAO.”

After going to condition one, the minutes crept by for David, and he found himself silently praying in Hebrew. Lord, protector of us all, please spare my crew if it is Your will and allow them to return home to their loved ones.

At 0750 CMT, Taylor’s voice invaded David’s mental reverie. “Conn, communications. Incoming fleet-wide transmission from Admiral Kartal.”

“Link it into 1MC, Lieutenant.”

There were a couple of seconds of scratchy static, and then the admiral’s voice came through loud and clear. “Officers, enlisted soldiers of the Royal Saurian Navy and Coalition Defense Force, this is Admiral Kartal. Over the last five Saurian cycles, which humans would refer to as eighteen months, we have fought together against the League of Sol. It has been a time of sacrifice, a time of courage, and a time of triumph. Our forces have defeated in detail all League combat units active in our arm of the galaxy. Human and Saurian working together, we have accomplished much. Today, we will storm the League’s defenses. We will wreck its fleet, and we will seize the launching point for our eventual invasion of the League’s core worlds. With God and the great Prophet at our side, we will not fail. See yourself to your duties. Give all that you have with honor. Today, the League will try to slither away, but our heel will stomp its head. The assault begins in five minutes. Admiral Kartal out.”

David nodded his approval, looking at Aibek. “I find the admiral’s speeches to be as effective as his tactics.”

Aibek laughed in return. “As long as you mean that positively, I will not have to challenge you to blood combat, Colonel.”

David rolled his eyes in return, ignoring Aibek’s comment. “Navigation, please confirm one more time that the proper coordinates are programmed into our Lawrence drive.”

“Conn, Navigation, coordinates rechecked, sir. We’re ready on your command,” Hammond replied.

“TAO, status of magnetic cannons and shield systems?”

“Shields energized sir, magnetic cannons loaded with high explosive rounds per your orders,” Ruth responded.

“Very well,” David said, eyeing the clock as the seconds ticked down.

Considering what they were about to go into, David decided that his crew needed to hear from him one more time before the battle commenced. He hit the button for 1MC once more and spoke into the mic. “Attention, all hands, this is the commanding officer. We all know what’s at stake. We all know our duty. I expect you all to carry it out today. If you’re anything like me, there wasn’t much sleep last night. There were a lot of prayers. There was a letter home to our families, just in case. Now is the time for action. Godspeed to you all.”

After David cut off the mic, Aibek commented in a quiet voice, “Thank you, sir. I think we all needed to hear from you. I would be lying if I said I was not apprehensive. This is, how do humans say it? For the marbles?”

David smiled. “For all the marbles.”

Aibek smiled, saying nothing and staring straight ahead.

“Navigation, stand by to activate the Lawrence drive on my mark.”

“Acknowledged, sir.” Hammond immediately responded.

Watching the clock tick forward the final ten seconds, David felt the knots in his stomach contort out of control. It’s always like this before the battle, but in a few seconds, I’ll be back in the thick of it and in the zone. The moment the clock struck 0800 CMT, David spoke. “Navigation, activate the Lawrence drive.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Hammond tapped the control to execute the Lawrence drive activation, and the massive artificial wormhole generators in the bowels of the ship sprang to life.

From the CO’s chair, David could see dozens of wormholes forming and the rest of the vessels in the fleet lining up to fly through them. Then the sub-light engines of the Lion kicked in, and he felt the G forces pressing him back into his chair, attenuated as they were by the ship’s inertial dampener fields. The mouth of the wormhole rushed up toward the exterior view, as the Lion breached the event horizon, while behind it, the wormhole collapsed in an array of different colors that spanned the range of the rainbow.

A few seconds later, they emerged in normal space, eight hundred lightyears from their starting point. There was a four-second delay as the sensors recalibrated and snapped back on. This was the most critical part of any combat deployment sequence, and it always inspired a few seconds of held breath on the bridge. As those seconds elapsed, David whispered a prayer in Hebrew for his crew, asking God to spare their lives in the coming battle.

“Conn, TAO. Sensors online... numerous contacts, sir. No hostiles within one thousand kilometers! Feeding contacts into the allied tactical network!”

“TAO, raise shields, arm point defense in automatic mode and charge the weapons capacitor.”

“Aye aye, sir, shields up, point defense armed and ready, weapons capacitor charging,” Ruth replied. “Conn, TAO. We’ve got a hostile battlegroup of eighteen ships closing with us.”

“TAO, put the battle space view up on the holoprojector,” David ordered before standing from his chair and glancing back toward the holotank. Aibek stood with him and raked his eyes over the sensor readings.

“It would appear that they have picket forces around the perimeter of the station’s defense grid, sir,” Aibek commented after studying the plot.

“I concur, but I’m a bit surprised at the balls of eighteen ships going up against us.”

“Conn, Communications. Flash traffic and targeting package from the Elcin,” Taylor interjected.

“Acknowledged, Lieutenant,” David turned back toward Ruth. “TAO, input the targeting package.”

“Aye aye, sir. The first target is Master Seventy-Eight, Rand class cruiser,” Ruth quickly replied.

“TAO, firing point procedures, magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Seventy-Eight!”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, all weapons!” David commanded.

David felt the magnetic cannon rounds explode from their turrets as the Lion shuddered just a hair when firing its primary weapons. Racing toward their target at five percent of light speed, the massive projectiles crossed the distance between the two ships in a couple of seconds, impacting against the League ship’s shields. Coupled with fire from the Lion’s neutron beam emplacements, the League cruiser’s shields quickly failed, and multiple beams speared the vessel from bow to stern. A moment later, it exploded into a cloud of debris.

“Conn, TAO. Master Seventy-Eight destroyed,” Ruth reported. “Sixteen out of eighteen ships engaged have been destroyed, sir.”

David nodded without speaking. Not bad shooting for sixty seconds out of wormhole drive.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, Master Ninety, Master Ninety-seven, they’re moving away from us at maximum sub-light speed, sir.”

“I think I would run too, after seeing my friends get smashed like that,” Aibek said dryly.

David couldn’t help but snicker. “Good point, XO.”

So Fight I

Simultaneously on the bridge of the RSN Elcin, Admiral Kartal paced back and forth, viewing the battle through his CIC’s holoprojector that, much like the Lion’s, showed him an overall picture of the battlespace. The voice of his fleet captain cut through his thoughts. “Admiral, the two remaining League ships are falling back at maximum speed.”

“Is the fleet in position for the assault?” Kartal asked.

“Yes, sir. All ships successfully transited and are in position.”

“Order the fleet to move forward to the launching point for our fighters and Marine assault shuttles.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

Most of the crew on the Elcin was Saurian, with a few human officers that were part of the joint exchange program run between the two allies. Kartal had found the humans to be capable combatants. He admired their tenacity and drive. After five cycles, they’d truly integrated themselves into his crew.

“Sir, tactical is showing numerous League fighters launching from the hangars of the space installation.”

“How many fighters?” Kartal asked.

“At least five hundred, sir.”

“That’s roughly a quarter of their strength,” Kartal mused out loud.

“Based on our intelligence estimates, that is correct, sir,” the flag captain replied.

“ETA to our forward launching point, Captain?”

“Eight minutes at present speed, sir.”

“Signal the fleet to stand ready to deploy fighters and assault craft,” Kartal commanded.

“Aye aye, sir!”

“There’s only one good kind of Leaguer, Captain.”

“Sir?”

“The one’s that’ve been dead for six cycles.”

Saurians across the bridge snickered in reply.

So Fight I

In the cockpit of his SF-106 Phantom space superiority fighter, Amir worked through his final pre-flight checks; his entire wing was on ready five status, standing by to launch into space as soon as the word was given. Amir was watching the battle play out on his HUD, noting with satisfaction that the initial portion of the engagement had been a resounding allied success. But that was only a small part of the League’s fleet. He could make out nearly four hundred other League capital ships waiting for them around the massive logistical station they intended to seize.

“All ready over there, Colonel?” Major Rebecca Tulleny, his executive officer, asked on their private commlink channel.

“Ready to turn and burn,” Amir replied.

“Same here. I’ve got butterflies in my stomach.”

Amir laughed. “Winning today will be a result worthy of great praise to Allah.”

“Don’t count our chickens before they hatch, sir.”

“Of course not. We must still win.”

David’s voice invaded the command channel, cutting off further discussion. “Colonel Amir. Launch all fighters. I say again, launch all fighters!”

“I think that’s our cue, Amir,” Tulleny said archly in her posh British accent.

Amir thumbed his communication channel over to flight ops. “Air boss, this is Colonel Amir. Request permission to launch my wing!”

“You are cleared to launch, Colonel. Good luck, good hunting, and Godspeed!” was the immediate reply from the “air boss,” the officer in charge of the flight deck at all times.

Amir switched back to the squadron commander’s frequency. “This is CAG Amir, all squadrons, launch in order, Reapers will launch first! Inshallah!” He invoked an Arab phrase that meant “If God wills it.”

A moment later, Amir’s fighter was the very first craft out of the launching tubes, quickly followed by the rest of his squadron. Over the next few minutes, the entire sixteen-squadron wing of the Lion of Judah launched into space. As the icons for his friendly units began to populate his HUD, Amir found himself impressed by the professionalism of his pilots as they quickly worked themselves into formation. The last eighteen months of constant drills, simulator practice, and sustained combat had left him with an ironclad group of veterans who knew their business.

Tulleny’s voice again came out of the commlink channel. “Colonel, you see that mass of bogies? Looks like five hundred or so fighters.”

Amir used the mental uplink to zoom up the HUD. “Those aren’t bogies, Major. That’s a lot of bandits heading straight for us.”

“Acknowledged, sir.”

Amir cued his communication system for the fighter command channel, where all the CAGs would receive instructions from Admiral Kartal’s flag staff. “This is CAG Amir, Lion of Judah. Requesting permission to engage inbound bandits and requesting weapons-free status.”

“Attention fighter wings from the Lion of Judah, Saratoga, and Ark Royal, you are cleared to engage hostile inbound craft. Weapons-free status is authorized,” said a voice that Amir immediately recognized as Colonel Coskun Terzi, the overall small craft commander for Admiral Kartal’s staff.

“Acknowledged, Colonel Terzi,” Amir replied before switching his communications channel back to his wing. “Here’s our orders, ladies and gentlemen. Bomber squadrons will hang back until called upon, while two squadrons of fighters, the Black Lions and the Fighting Scimitars will stay with the bombers and provide cover should any enemy interceptors or fighters break through. All other fighter squadrons, on me.”

There was a smattering of responses that included “Yes, sir!” and “Aye aye, sir!” from his squadron commanders. Amir pointed his fighter toward the enemy flight that was heading toward them and noted that another five hundred interceptors had launched from the League’s space installation. This is going to get hairy. The rest of his squadron seamlessly formed up around him, while the rest of his fighter force, sans the craft detailed to close support, fell into formation. All told, he had ten squadrons of Phantoms hurtling toward the League formation. Coupled with the reinforcements from the two other carriers, they would have superior numbers when they engaged the League flight. Given the better technology of the CDF, they’d have a significant advantage.

After a couple more minutes of closing at maximum thrust, Amir’s flight was about to engagement range. “All squadrons, stand by for maximum range,” he said into his mic, channel set for the squadron commanders’ commlink. Watching the rapidly approaching and tightly clustered group of League fighters, he waited until the LIDAR target acquisition unit began to pick up the nearest target. In an engagement this large, the CDF’s tactical network would automatically pick out targets and ensure that friendly combatants weren’t wasting dozens of missiles on the same target. The moment his missile lock tone sounded, he pressed the missile launch trigger built into the top of his flight stick. “Reaper One, Fox Three!” he shouted into the communications system.

Hundreds of missiles volleyed out from the CDF formation, hurtling across the deep blackness of space toward their foes. The League fighters began to launch their missiles, and suddenly, the battlespace around Amir’s squadrons was filled with hundreds of incoming hostile warheads. “Squadron commanders, break formation, engage maximum ECM and evade!” Amir shouted into his mic. Taking his own advice, he broke hard to the right, pitching his fighter up forty-five degrees. Three missiles had locked on to him, and he tried to time the deployment of super-hot plasma flares correctly.

Two of the missiles took the bait, exploding harmlessly behind Amir’s fighter. The third dogged him, turning through several high-G jinks before losing lock and blowing up when it ran out of fuel. Momentarily distracted from the overall fight, Amir quickly checked over his HUD and saw the battle had disintegrated what fighter pilots referred to as a furball, which was a tight turning tail chase to see who could land the finishing blow.

Amir picked out his next target, a nearby League fighter that was trying to destroy one of his wingmen. It took him a couple of seconds to line up the shot for his miniature neutron cannons, but as soon as he had it lined up, he held down the trigger on his flight stick, sending beams of energy stabbing out at the League craft. “Reaper One, guns guns guns!” Amir called into the mic.

The League fighter attempted to evade but was too sluggish, blowing apart after several repeated hits. Amir quickly lined up his next target, electing to use a heat-seeking missile as his prey was too far away for neutron cannon fire.

“Reaper One, Fox Three!”

A few seconds later, yet another League fighter exploded, marking Amir’s third kill of the engagement. He noticed that his squadron mates, and the entire wing, were all having extradentary success.

“League fighters still blow up real good,” a voice he didn’t recognize said over the comm channel.

They’d only lost five fighters so far from the Lion. The League picked the right day to run out of qualified pilots.

So Fight I

While Amir and the Canaan Alliance’s best fighter pilots were mixing it up with the League, Calvin was sitting the back of his assault shuttle with his headquarters squad of Marines. One of the slogans of the TCMC was “every Marine a rifleman.” It was one of the first truisms he learned about the Marines. Everyone fought, and this battle was no different. He was in the first wave of assault shuttles, which would conduct an explosive breach of the League space station and secure a beachhead. Then they’d capture main areas, including what was believed to be the primary engineering spaces, weapons control, and the station’s CIC.

Calvin’s executive officer, Major Raul Cabello, was on a different shuttle as a safety precaution, just in case one of them was lost to enemy fire. Looking to his left, he spoke to his senior enlisted Marine, Master Gunnery Sergeant Reuben Menahem, who hailed from New Israel. A conservative Jew, Menahem didn’t follow all of the instructions of Jewish practice like Colonel Cohen did, but Calvin knew he was devout. Well, at least I’ve never seen him eat bacon. “How you doing over there, master guns?” Calvin said, invoking the Marine corps nickname for the rank of master gunnery sergeant.

“Just fine, Colonel. I’ve got six hundred rounds of 7mm caseless ammunition positively ready to cause a bad day for any Leaguers we encounter. And a Terran Coalition flag to plant on the command deck of this piece of shit League space base,” Menahem said as he grinned.

Calvin laughed out loud. Menahem was a tough, older Marine with nearly thirty years in the TCMC. He felt the man was cut from the same cloth as he was, just like many older Marines he counted as friends. Fighting the League was all they’d known, and they knew it well. “I’ve got the beer once that flag goes up, master guns.”

“How’s our ferry service doing?” Menahem asked.

“Pretty good. The flyboys are blowing League fighters out of the sky left and right. We’re right on schedule. Got to say, I’m impressed with this Saurian admiral.”

“I wasn’t sold on a Saurian leading us. My grandfather fought the Saurians in that war we had with them seventy-five years ago. He told me stories about how hard they fought, and how mercilessly they treated prisoners. They felt you had no honor if you surrendered, so they treated captured Marines like dirt.”

“I think once we beat them, they changed their ways,” Calvin responded. “At least, that’s what the books I read in school said.”

Menahem laughed. “Yeah, and how much money did we pay out to rebuild Sauria? That place is an industrial wasteland from hundreds of years at a war footing. I guess the best thing that can happen to you in this galaxy is for the CDF to kick your butt and occupy your planet. We’ll rebuild it better than new and give you tons of cash to boot.”

“We won the peace, though. They never again challenged us, and now they’re our allies. To hear their leader talk, they’re on a divine mission from God to help us.”

“There is that,” Menahem agreed. “I won’t lie to you, Colonel, I get a little apprehensive when people start talking about fighting wars in the name of God. I’m not sure about you, but I think the God I worship doesn’t particularly want us to go around killing other humans, or aliens, for that matter.”

“I wouldn’t know. God doesn’t seem to talk to me,” Calvin said with a bit of an edge.

“I thought you were a Christian. Don’t you believe you have a two-way dialogue with God?”

“I don’t know what I am, master guns. I believe, sure. Hell, I go to church once a month. But my job is to go out into this universe God created and kill as many of one specific type of his creations as I can. I guess you could say I’m lapsed.”

“At least you get to eat pork.”

Calvin laughed again. “The other white meat.” Turning serious once more as his HUD received an alert, he spoke louder so that the entire shuttle’s cargo hold could hear him. “Look alive, ladies! We hit the deck in fifteen minutes!”


9

As the CDF and RSN forces closed in, Admiral Seville’s stare was glued to the tactical sensor projection in the command-in-control center of Unity Station. The actual commanding officer of the station was sitting at the XO’s chair, while Colonel Strappi hovered nearby, trying to make himself appear useful.

“Tactical, please highlight the location of the enemy carriers.”

“Aye aye, sir,” the tactical officer quickly replied.

The eight CDF heavy carriers and two fleet carriers in the enemy fleet began to blink. “A shame. They’ve stopped moving forward.”

“The Lion of Judah continues to move in toward us, sir,” Strappi added in his nasal voice.

“Yes, I see that, Colonel,” Seville responded curtly.

“Everything in its place.”

Seville turned and glared at Strappi. “Colonel, our best-laid plan is in place. A grands maux, grands remedes.”

“I don’t follow, sir.”

The station commander, Fleet Captain Astrid Monet, laughed. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, Colonel Strappi.”

Only in my fleet is the overarching political commissar mocked to his face. That would get most executed. Seville smiled darkly at his thoughts as his eyes returned to the tactical display. “I believe it is time. Do you concur, Captain Monet?”

“Yes, Admiral. They’re in the kill zone.”

Seville leaned forward, anticipation building. Months of planning, sacrifice, and loss finally pay off. I almost pity these fools. They think they can defeat the League of Sol. Glancing toward the tactical officer with a sinister smile, he spoke again. “Tactical, activate the minefield.”

So Fight I

Concurrently, on the Lion of Judah’s bridge, David was mentally processing the battle so far. They’d performed far better to date than his best projections, and the CDF fighter squadrons were making short work of their League counterparts. Perhaps God is really with us today. He was waiting for the next set of instructions to come from Admiral Kartal, who, according to the plan, would order the heaviest capital ships forward, while formations of Ajax class destroyers provided overlapping standoff missile capabilities, along with the formidable missile cruisers the CDF possessed. The entire fleet would be further enhanced by the point defense capabilities of the Meade class frigates. The admiral planned to practice network-centric warfare, meaning his command ship would take over the guidance of missiles and other integrated weapons, controlling them remotely and ensuring they hit weak spots of the League defenses.

“Conn, TAO! I’m reading numerous EM signatures, sir. They just appeared out of nowhere!”

David looked up from his console in alarm. “Explain that, TAO. Any idea what they are?”

“I’m running an active—” Ruth never finished her sentence.

Suddenly and without warning, there was a series of massive thermonuclear explosions that seemed to go off everywhere around the ship. The Lion bucked so hard that David was thrown out of his chair and found himself face down on the deck plating. Most of the bridge crew were strapped into their consoles, but the unlucky few who weren’t were tossed around like rag dolls—including Aibek, who slammed headfirst into the overhead.

Ruth struggled to hang on to her console, bouncing wildly in her seat. “Conn, TAO! Numerous detonations sir! I think they’re mines! Shields on the verge of collapse!”

David struggled to pull himself up and found that blood was gushing out of his nose. Ignoring it, he reached for the intercom built into his command chair, punching the code for engineering. “Major Hansen, divert everything we’ve got to shields! Our lives depend on it!”

Ruth cranked her head around. “Too late, sir. Shields have collapsed!”

David’s observe, orient, decide, and act, or OODA loop, was entirely compromised. Struggling with what to do next, he realized that they were still moving forward; if this was some new mine, there would likely be more mines around them.

“Navigation, all stop! Maximum reverse thrust!” David shouted over the din of alarms and screams.

Another mine exploded, knocking David away from the CO’s chair and slamming him into a console. He looked up to see the overhead of the bridge collapsing on top of several petty officers that operated auxiliary fire control consoles. As he struggled to get to his feet, another blast wave hit the Lion, again rocking the mighty ship. A pipe ruptured and fell on top of the navigation station with live steam shooting out of the end. Hammond screamed at the top of her lungs as the steam burned her side.

“Help me!” Hammond cried as Ruth struggled out of her harness and to assist her.

David rushed over, blood still pouring out of his nose, and tried to release the harness she was trapped in, but involuntarily yanked his hand back, as it was too hot to grab. Quickly ripping off his uniform sweater, he wrapped it around the release and pulled. Hammond fell onto the deck, whimpering and writhing in pain.

Breathing heavily, David looked up at Ruth. “TAO, retake your station! I want to know why point defense isn’t targeting those damn mines. Now!”

“Aye aye, sir!” Ruth answered, pulling herself back into the chair and frantically trying to review sensor scans of the area.

Smoke had begun to fill the bridge as a small fire broke out where the decking had collapsed. “Master Chief!” David shouted. “Master Chief, are you okay?”

Rebecca Tinetariro staggered to her feet. “Still here, sir,” she said shakily.

“Get me damage control parties and corpsmen up here on the double,” David ordered, beginning to reassert control of the situation. “And somebody turn off that damn alarm!”

David looked around for Aibek and saw him collapsed near the holoprojector. Closing the distance quickly, he knelt next to his XO and felt for a pulse. While it was steady, the big Saurian was clearly out cold. There was a bleeding knot on his head, and David assumed he had hit his head. Turning back to his station, he sat down and quickly reconfigured his display for navigation. In a pinch, he could control any system on the ship from his screen, but in practice rarely had a reason to do so. As he thanked God for good old-fashioned CDF redundancy, the navigation display popped up and confirmed that the ship was able to maneuver, but was stopped as his last order had directed.

“TAO, give me some good news,” David said toward Ruth.

“I’m sorry, sir, these mines have some sort of stealth coating on them. I’ve never seen anything like it. Automated point defense can’t track them, at least not without recalibration. The fleet has stopped moving, sir.”

“What about our fast movers?”

A look of terror washed over Ruth’s face as she realized the implication of that question. The mines would be deadly to small craft. She checked over her sensor display and turned back to David, her face ashen. “Sir, we’ve taken fifty percent losses among our fighters and bombers.”

“Focus, Lieutenant. One problem at a time. The mines,” David said in as gentle a voice as he could muster.

“Yes, sir.”

David heard a commotion behind him and turned to look. Damage control crewmembers in full firefighting gear rushed into the bridge, followed by a large medical team.

“We’ve got wounded up here. The XO is unconscious, and the navigator has steam burns on her side,” Tinetariro said to the first corpsmen in the hatch.

Trying to block out the flurry of activity, David focused on the displays on his console. “Communications, any word from the Elcin or Admiral Kartal?”

“No, sir. I’m not getting much of anything, there’s so much residual radiation from those explosions. It’s going to take a few more minutes before we get comms back,” Taylor answered.

“Understood. Keep working on it, Lieutenant.”

“Conn, TAO! Aspect change! League fleet is moving sir. Engine light-off across all of their ships.”

David stared straight ahead. “TAO, ETA to weapons range of those ships?”

“Fifteen minutes, sir, give or take.”

The medical team strapped Hammond into a portable stretcher; all the while, she continued to moan in pain. As they began to carry her off the bridge, David sprang up and walked over to grab her hand, motioning for the corpsmen to hold up. Looking down at her, he forced a smile. “Lieutenant, you go get patched up, and I’ll see you back up here soon, okay?”

“Yes, sir. I won’t be out of action long,” Hammond replied, grimacing from the pain.

“See that she’s taken good care of,” David said, addressing the team leader.

“Aye aye, sir!” the lead corpsman replied as they carried her off the bridge.

David sat back down as the damage control team put out the fire in the back rack of consoles, and medical personnel began to assess the injured. Forcing his mind back onto the battle, he reexamined the tactical data and realized that several capital ships had been destroyed. It appeared the carriers were outside of the range of the mines, but the heavy cruisers and their escorts weren’t so lucky. The fleet was battered and beaten. He prayed that Hanson and the engineers were successful getting the shields back online, because without them, the Lion wasn’t going anywhere.

So Fight I

While David and the bridge crew were trying to keep the ship in one piece, Hanson and his engineering team were trying to get the primary systems of the Lion, specifically its shields, back online and functional. Doctor Hayworth and Major Merriweather were also in the engine room, assisting with repairs, as were a number of the defense contractors. All in all, it made for a very hectic work environment.

“Doc, I’m showing a buildup of pressure in our main coolant tubes for the anti-matter reactor. Can you take a look?” Hanson shouted above the din of conversation and machinery.

“Don’t call me doc!” Hayworth replied, ever the curmudgeon. Shuffling over and adjusting his glasses to better look at the readout Hanson was observing, he paused for a moment before speaking. “I think the problem is in the primary magnetic stabilization chamber. Let me try to realign the system. It sure would be nice if you military types stopped getting this thing shot to hell and back every other week.”

Hanson smirked. He’d come to enjoy the banter with Doctor Hayworth, and he’d learned much from the man about the anti-matter reactor technology. “Sure, doc, we’ll get right on that.”

Hayworth turned and affixed a glowering look. “It’ll hold for now… but a more permanent fix is required. We need to shut down the reactor and fully repair the damage.”

“That’ll have to come after this battle, Doctor.” Hanson looked up to the main control console, where a group of engineers was camped out. “Samuels!” he shouted, speaking to a senior shield control technician. “You’ve got power now, crank up the shield generators. The colonel needs those back online ASAP.”

Samuels gave him the thumbs-up signal a few seconds later. “Recharging, sir!”

Hanson cracked a smile and brought up his comm, punching in the bridge channel number. “Hansen to bridge.”

A moment later, the comm crackled, and David’s voice issued out of it. “Please tell me you’ve got some good news, Major.”

“That I do, sir. Shields are recharging now. We can’t take too much of a beating down here… Doc tells me that the reactor is jury-rigged six ways from Sunday.”

There was a pregnant pause on the line. “Understood, Major. Good work. Cohen out.”

So Fight I

Amir blinked repeatedly. He was still alive, but he couldn’t remember what had happened after the initial blasts. Maybe I blacked out. That consideration was something of a surprise. Feeling his way around the cockpit, he realized that he was having trouble seeing. Everything around him was dark. It took him a moment to realize it was his fighter and not his eyes that had the problem. The flight helmet had worked as designed, filtering out the nuclear pulses and preserving his eyesight.

Fumbling around in the dark, Amir triggered the backup lights and tried to ascertain his position, but his cockpit was spinning, leaving him with no situational awareness. Going through the emergency restart checklist, he triggered each step as they were ingrained into muscle memory from years of practice. His reward was the primary subsystems snapping back on.

“Thank Allah,” he said out loud. First bringing the thrusters back online, he was able to stop the spinning and stabilize his craft.

His second task was to reestablish communications. Toggling the communications channel selector, he tuned it to the squadron commanders channel. “This is CAG Amir. Can anyone hear me?” he said into his mic. There was no response. Not quite on the verge of panic, but very concerned, Amir switched the selector to the CDF guard frequency, which would theoretically allow him to communicate with any friendly craft in range. “This is Colonel Hassan Amir. Can anyone hear me?”

“Colonel, this is Major Foster of the CSV Saratoga. How copy, over?”

“Solid copy, Major. What’s the status of your flight?” Amir replied. Thank Allah I’m not alone.

“We’re looking at twenty percent combat losses. Most voice comms are out thanks to all the residual radiation. Damn Leaguers have a stealthy minefield up. We walked right into it.”

Another voice cut into the conversation. “This is Reaper six. Colonel Amir, is that you?”

“Thank Allah you are alive… Yes, this is Colonel Amir,” Amir replied.

“There are a few other Reapers out here on my wing, sir. Comms units are fried, but they’re following me in close formation. We’re crisscrossing space where the mines already detonated. I’m not sure how we can get back to the Lion. I also show numerous inbound League ships and fighters on short-range scanners.”

“Keep the faith. Anyone who can hear this, stay in a constant loop. We must wait for our capital ships to figure out how to deal with this new threat. Trying to fly out of our current locations will be suicide,” Amir said, his tone forceful.

“Uh, sir, you’re not wrong…but we’re going to be just as dead when the Leaguers show up in ten minutes,” a voice Amir didn’t recognize replied.

He’s right… Allah help us. I pray Colonel Cohen has another trick up his sleeve, or we’ll all perish. Amir looped his fighter around and absent-mindedly fiddled with his sensors to try in vain to pick up the mines.

So Fight I

Back on the Lion’s bridge, Ruth announced a report from her console. “Conn, TAO. Shields fully charged. All generators report nominal.”

David breathed a sigh of relief. “TAO, raise the shields.”

“Aye aye, sir, shields raised.”

The medical team had removed Aibek and the rest of the wounded from the bridge. Damage control teams shut off the live steam, secured the pipe, and restored power to the navigation console. All they were waiting for now was the backup navigator to get to the bridge. David found himself worrying about the condition of the wounded and had to push it out of his mind. The only thing that mattered now was how to solve the next problem.

“Conn, Communications. We’ve got flash traffic from Admiral Kartal’s flagship. It's intact, and the admiral is alive. They want to know if anyone has figured out how to track the mines.”

Thank God he survived. Maybe there’s hope for us yet. “TAO?” David asked.

Ruth turned around in her chair. “No joy on tracking them, sir. I think there’s a way to, but we don’t have enough time now to recalibrate our entire sensor array. I’ve got an idea, though… it’s a bit nutty.”

David grinned. “Nuts is my middle name. What’cha got?”

“Well, these mines are small; we’re sure of it because they’re barely registering on the EM scanners, and we can’t see them on LIDAR. Even with stealth coatings, they’ve got to be small. That means they logically lack heavy armor. We could use our Starbolt missiles as mine-clearing devices.”

“You want to use five hundred megaton fusion warheads as minesweepers? How?” David asked her incredulously.

“Yes, sir. We can send them to specific XYZ coordinates in manual mode and detonate remotely when they reach them. The blast wave ought to be enough to trigger the mines in range to explode. We can effectively carve a path out of the field.”

“Lieutenant, that’s just crazy enough to work.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Start programming the warheads. Communications, get a message to the admiral’s flagship with our plan of action.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Taylor responded crisply.

While he waited for a return message to come in from the admiral’s flagship, David studied the tactical plot. As interference from the blasts faded, IFFs came back on. He was relieved to see Amir’s IFF snap back on, along with many of the Lion’s fighters. The losses they’d suffered were horrific, however. We’ve lost at least half of our small craft and fifteen percent of our capital ships. This is an absolute blood bath.

A voice to David’s right side jolted him out of his thoughts. “Sir, Lieutenant Marks, backup navigator reporting for duty, sir.”

David’s gaze shifted over to the young woman, Second Lieutenant Rachel Marks. She was the third shift navigator and had been on the Lion for only a month. He sorely wished Hammond was flying the ship, but Marks would have to be up to the challenge.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Take your station, please.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Rachel replied before sitting down at the navigation station and strapping herself in.

God, please help us. Give Admiral Kartal wisdom to make the right calls before all is lost.


10

On the bridge of the RSN Elcin, Admiral Resit Kartal sat in the chair usually occupied by his flag captain. He was one of the first causalities of the mines, which wrecked the Elcin’s bridge and heavily damaged her wormhole drive. The Lion’s crew had given them what seemed like a decent chance at getting out of the trap with the majority of the force intact.

A text message appeared on Kartal’s viewer. “Two hours to restore FTL, Admiral. All possibilities exhausted.” It was from the Elcin’s chief engineer.

We will not be joining in the retreat after all. Today, I will die with honor before God and the Prophet. Kartal steeled himself and glanced at his communications officer. “Get me fleet-wide transmission.”

The Saurian communications officer cleared his throat. “You are live, Admiral.”

“Captains of the fleet…we have little time. The Lion of Judah has discovered what appears to be a counter to the League’s new weapon. I’ve vectored our missile cruisers into position to begin blasting a path out of the minefield. Our only choice is to withdraw. This battle is lost, but the war is not. The Elcin will remain behind and buy the rest of the fleet time to get away. I am placing Colonel David Cohen in overall command of the fleet. Follow his words as if they were my own. In the coming days, ensure that the galaxy never forgets the brave souls who perished here, and let them never forget that we did not die in vain. Godspeed, and good luck. Admiral Kartal out.”

“The feed is cut, sir,” the communications officer reported.

Kartal pressed a button on the CO’s chair, patching himself into the entire ship. “This is Admiral Kartal. All warriors, abandon ship. There is no reason to sacrifice yourselves today. Serve the Empire and the Alliance well in whatever capacity you can. May the Prophet guide you.”

He ticked off several seconds, but the bridge crew didn’t budge. “That order applies to everyone on this ship. I alone will stay behind to fight the League. Save yourselves.”

There was a pointed silence on the bridge for several seconds before the tactical officer turned around in her chair. “Admiral, we stand with you. Honor demands it. We will not abandon you.”

Kartal fought down the emotions washing over his mind. His duty extended to his crew and to see them return home. There was no honor lost in remaining alive rather than to die in a lost cause. “Very well. Resume your action stations. Let us destroy as many League ships as possible. Turn toward the enemy and use our forward missile launchers to create a travel lane, tactical.”

“Aye aye, sir!” the tactical officer responded, turning back toward her station.

“Communications, get me a private link with Colonel Cohen.”

So Fight I

David was stunned beyond words at Kartal’s fleet-wide message. To lose the admiral and now have the burden of commanding the most significant offensive fleet ever assembled by the Canaan Alliance fall to him found doubts roaring to the surface of his mind. He closed his eyes for a moment to regain control of his thoughts and focus on the next task: safely retreating with as many ships as possible to fight another day.

“Conn, communications! I have Admiral Kartal on direct vidlink for you, sir.”

David gulped. “Put it to my viewer, Lieutenant.”

A few seconds later, the bulky Saurian admiral appeared above David on his viewer. “Greetings, Colonel. Sorry to spring that on you without warning,” he said as he displayed a toothy grin.

“Admiral… I’m at a loss for words. Please consider moving your flag to another ship. The Lion can send SAR birds at your command.”

“No, Colonel. I am not going to ask another warrior to die in my place. This was my failure. I will take responsibility for it by doing my part to preserve the fleet. It is important you refuse to allow the politicians and the political brass to use this failure to derail our offensive.”

“Sir, I’m not sure what I can do.”

“You’ll know what to do once you analyze what went wrong here. Create a new plan; Seville showed his cards. Take another crack at this station, and you will defeat him. I know you can handle this assignment. Your name was mentioned recently as a candidate for brigadier general. You can salvage this mess. Search within yourself, call upon God. Find your footing and rally the fleet.”

“Yes, sir…I’ll do my best,” David managed to stammer.

“I am sure you will, Colonel. Don’t forget that Seville’s Achilles heel is his overconfidence. There is a weakness in this nasty new weapon of his. Find it. Make the fleet work together, make Saurian and Human work together. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve with you, and this entire fleet. Walk with God, Colonel.”

“Yes, sir,” David replied simply. I’m so sick of our people honorably dying to serve the cause. Before Kartal could say something else, David stood, still in view of the camera that serviced the video link. He brought himself to attention and raised his hand to his brow, smartly saluting the admiral. “Sir, it’s been an honor to serve with you as well. May we meet again someday.”

Through the link, David could see Kartal stand. He brought his substantial Saurian hand up and saluted in the human style; Saurians generally saluted with the palm out, but this was a sign of respect. “Thank you, Colonel. Good luck and Godspeed. Kartal out.”

David sat down as the vidlink blinked off. The bridge was silent, and he could feel the apprehension that swept through the officers and enlisted crewmembers alike. “Navigation, bring the ship about. Plot a course out of here that mirrors the path the fleet is taking through the hole swept by our missile cruisers.”

“Aye aye, sir, plotting course,” Rachel said, her tone unsure.

“TAO, firing point procedures, all Starbolt missiles. Make them ready in all respects, and open outer missile doors. Stand by for XYZ firing coordinates.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth said.

“Communications, get me Colonel Amir.”

“One moment, sir,” Taylor responded. “I’ve got him now, sir, on your personal viewer.”

Amir’s helmeted face popped onto David’s viewer. “Thank Allah, Colonel. It’s good to see you.”

“Same here, Colonel Amir. How bad is it?”

“The Lion’s wing took forty-five percent losses, sir. Bad doesn’t begin to describe it. ‘Devastating’ might be a better word. I can’t find my XO. I think she’s dead.”

David shook his head. “I’m sorry, Amir. I know she’s been with you for years.”

“The League will pay for this!” Amir suddenly snapped, his voice full of anger.

“Yes, they will. But now I need you to put that aside and get everyone back safe. Since you don’t have five hundred megaton proximity fusion warheads, you need to find a different way to get back home safely.”

“I saw the traffic, sir. I’ve got an idea. I’m going to form us up and have everyone that’s left fill space in front of them with sustained neutron beam fire. We’ll, in effect, plow the field.”

David nodded his approval. “I like it, Colonel. Get as many back safely as you can. Don’t mix it up with the incoming League ships. They’re moving through that field like its nothing, so those mines likely have an IFF detector. Engaging the League formations would be suicide.”

“Understood and acknowledged, Colonel Cohen. Amir out.”

Amir’s image blinked out on his monitor, and David returned his gaze to the tactical plot. The allied fleet was making good on forming up behind the missile cruisers, and he saw, much to his relief, that Ruth’s ad hoc mine-sweeping trick was working.

Aibek’s deep voice startled David, as he was intently studying the plot. “Colonel, permission to retake my station?”

David glanced up, a wide grin breaking out on his face as relief washed over him. Seeing the Saurian back on his feet so quickly after being knocked out was a fortuitous turn of events. “Nice timing, XO. Take your seat.”

Aibek nodded and walked over to the XO’s chair, gingerly sitting down. “What’d I miss, sir?”

“The League has an interesting new weapon… Stealth mines. We can’t see them until they activate, and our automated point defense isn’t flagging them as a threat. They knew exactly where and how to hit us. Colonel, did Doctor Tural clear you for duty?” David realized as he was talking that Aibek had a nasty wound on his head, and it was wrapped in a compression dressing. The latest in medical technology, it was infused with healing agents which would significantly speed his recovery, but still, he knew the Saurian had to be in a lot of pain.

Aibek smiled. “I released myself, how did he put it, ah yes, against medical advice.”

David raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re combat ready, XO?”

“My place is by your side, sir.”

“Alright. I need a through damage report. Put all the department's reports together and let’s figure out how badly we’ve been hit while we make good on our escape.”

“Escape?” Aibek said the word as if it disgusted him.

“Yes, escape. We’ll be back—I promise you we’ll be back. Admiral Kartal is going to buy us some time.”

“Before he makes his escape too?” Aibek asked.

“His ship’s Lawrence drive is out. He’s not leaving the battlefield.”

“I see.” Aibek paused and grimaced. “The admiral has much honor.”

David shook his head. “I wish there was another way.”

“Who is in charge of the fleet, then?”

“The admiral asked me to lead the fleet temporarily.”

Aibek’s eyes opened even wider. “Colonel, that is a great honor. To be appointed by the admiral himself. Many a Saurian would fight in blood combat for the opportunity.”

“It’s one I wish I didn’t have,” David said ruefully.

“We all do what we must.”

“Indeed. Damage report, XO. Five minutes ago,” David said as a way to redirect Aibek back to his task; talking about leading the fleet was just not something he was interested in right now.


11

In marked contrast to the chaos, loss, and devastation wrought across the CDF and RSN fleets, the mood within Unity Station’s control room was one of near jubilation. And why shouldn’t it be? These men and women have been at the losing end at most engagements in the last three months, Seville considered as he glanced around the room, seeing the smiles on the faces of his staff.

“A moment of triumph, Admiral,” Strappi announced to the room, causing Seville to roll his eyes. He has boot-licking down to an absolute science.

“The true triumph is when we finish them off for good, Colonel. Don’t allow your eye to waver from the prize. That goes for all of us,” Seville intoned, raising his voice in the last sentence so that all around him could hear.

“Admiral, our analysis confirms the enemy forces are not going to run out of missiles before they escape the minefield,” the tactical officer called out from his station.

Seville stood up from his chair, which overlooked the rest of the stations in the control room, turning his gaze to a massive holoprojector showing the battle in real time. “Zoom the battle space out, Lieutenant.”

Masses of ships displayed as little icons, with the borders of the minefield marked. Seville pointed at the edge of the field. “This is where we need to jump our reinforcements in. I want you to send our three Alexander class battleship groups beyond the field. Order them to cut the CDF and their allies off, then grind them down,” he said with considerable force to his voice.

“Aye aye, sir!” the tactical officer called out.

“Let’s see how Admiral Kartal handles being surrounded,” Seville commented to the room at large; those present were smart enough not to answer him.

So Fight I

Twenty thousand kilometers away, Kartal paced up and down the bridge of his flagship. Only a small skeleton crew remained with him; he’d made the rest leave, even though they tried to insist on staying. The range between his ship and the oncoming League ships continued to close, but the League was in for a surprise, for the Elcin was the strongest, most heavily armored, and newest battleship in the Saurian fleet. Her sixteen purpose-built magnetic cannon turrets were designed for one thing—and one thing only—complete domination of space around her.

“Enemy contacts entering main armament firing range in thirty seconds, Admiral,” the tactical officer announced.

“Make every salvo count,” Kartal intoned. “Target the largest enemy vessels first.”

“Magnetic-cannons locked on, sir.”

“Kill enemy tracks with guns, tactical!”

“Aye aye, sir!”

The Saurian tactical officer pressed down on the firing button for the salvo of projectiles; all forty-eight of them erupting from the Elcin’s turrets simultaneously and racing toward the League fleet at ten-percent light speed. Striking four Rand class cruisers with twelve rounds each, the dense impactors of the Saurian shells hammered down the shields of the League ships and plunged into the superstructure before exploding. The result was four enemy ships turned into small debris fields.

“Admiral, enemy ships are slowing down and moving to envelop us!”

“Target the inbound escorts, tactical. Stand by neutron beam emitters,” Kartal commanded, looking up at the holoprojected tactical picture in the “tank” of his bridge. “Kill enemy tracks with beams!”

“Aye aye, sir,” the tactical officer responded, lining up repeated strikes with the Elcin’s neutron emitters. Sizzling points of green energy lanced out from the battleship, impacting shields and armor plating on numerous League destroyers and frigates. Many exploded as the poorly designed and built escorts were raked from fore to aft with the hull-piercing beams; lucky hits to missile magazines resulted in hard kills. Others were left as drifting hulks, unable to maneuver or fight. The League vessels weren’t defenseless, however. Their weapons ranged on the Elcin and began to pummel her with concentrated plasma cannon fire. At the same time, hundreds of missiles tracked the massive battleship.

Kartal watched the mass of icons representing the enemy fleet swarm his ship and circle around it while stopping their forward momentum. I only need to buy the fleet another five minutes. That is what they need to get out of this trap. “Tactical, shield status?”

“Receiving impacts across all shield quadrants, Admiral. The enemy presses us sorely.”

“Point defense status?”

“Ninety-two percent effective, sir.”

“Continue to cycle through League targets, take out as many of the escorts as you can. We’ll thin the herd for the rest of the fleet,” Kartal said, his voice full of confidence, while resigned to the fact that he wasn’t getting out of this battle alive.

“Admiral, enemy battleships coming into range. They’re on an intercept course with us,” his tactical officer announced.

“Navigation, evasive maneuvers, line us up for a broadside on the nearest battleship,” Kartal commanded.

“Aye aye, Admiral!”

“Tactical, double load our magnetic cannons, EMP loads followed by armor-piercing deep penetrators.”

The Elcin accelerated and began to turn in space to present the maximum number of magnetic cannon turrets toward the closest League Alexander class battleship. A fifteen-year-old design, the League battlewagons were more akin to a Royal Navy heavy cruiser but were still dangerous combatants.

“Steady on course three-one-five, Admiral. Optimum firing position achieved!” The navigator called out from her station.

“Tactical, status of magnetic cannon reload?”

“All guns report ready to fire, Admiral.”

“Kill enemy battleship track with guns!”

“Aye aye, sir!”

The massive turrets on the Elcin again spoke as one; projectiles the size of a small bus raced away from the battleship, slamming into the shields of the targeted League ship. The EMP rounds did their job, disrupting the inferior League shields and allowing the AP rounds through. They punched through armored plating like it was tissue, burying deep into the innards of the vessel. A moment later, they exploded inside the ship, causing portions of the superstructure to erupt outward, fire blooming out of the vessel before quickly extinguishing due to the vacuum of space and lack of oxygen. One of the shells came to rest near the engineering spaces and fractured the ship’s fusion reactor housing. Once it went critical, the entire ship went up in an explosion that looked like a small star forming.

“Very good, Lieutenant,” Kartal said with pride. We’ll fight to the last breath. A series of explosions within the Elcin took his attention from the League ships to his own. Pulling up a status display, he realized half of the port point defense emplacements had been disabled. The League ships were now volleying missiles into that quadrant. While the shields were soaking up the impacts, their energy levels were dropping at an alarming rate.

“Navigation, hard to port!” Kartal shouted. “Tactical, target our neutron beam emitters on the closest escorts… kill enemy tracks with beams.”

“Aye aye, Admiral.”

Again, the Elcin performed the deadly dance with her League pursuers, shredding the lightly shielded and armored frigates and destroyers, while the League capital ships pelted her with a large volume of plasma cannon fire. More and more League ships entered firing range and turned the space between them and the Elcin into a red-tinted light show of plasma balls and missiles. Kartal knew that their run was almost over. All shield quadrants were under twenty percent total power, and point defense effectiveness continued to fall as the Leaguers got lucky hits on close-in weapon system mounts.

“Admiral, we’re about to have shield failure on the aft and port sides,” the tactical officer said, confirming Kartal’s observation.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Everyone on the bridge, you may depart.”

“We’re not leaving, Admiral,” the tactical replied, looking back from his station, his scales flashing different colors.

“I plan to ram the nearest League battleship.”

The tactical officer and navigator exchanged looks. “We stand with you, sir,” the female Saurian at navigation announced.

“I am honored.”

“Let us begin. Navigation, intercept course on the nearest League Alexander class battleship. Flank speed, if you please.”

The Elcin’s engines roared to life, burning white hot as plasma ejected from them at ninety-eight percent of the speed of light. Kartal stared at the tactical plot as his ship moved directly toward a battleship a few thousand kilometers away. At some point, the bridge crew of the League ship realized what they were doing and tried to turn aside, but the Elcin had too much speed going for her to succeed.

Kartal glanced around the bridge and decided some final words were in order. “Warriors, thank you for joining me in my final fight. We have discharged our duties with honor. May we all see each other and our families again in the hall of warriors on the other side of the veil.”

“To the honor of the Prophet!” the navigator exclaimed.

“To the honor of the Prophet,” Kartal echoed. He gripped the sides of his chair as they rushed on toward the League battlewagon; he wasn’t afraid to die, but being confronted with imminent death made him consider parts of his life and decisions made. At that moment, he longed for the loving embrace of his mate, the brood mother of his offspring, and to tell them all one last time that he loved them with all his heart.

The crew left on the bridge were suddenly pitched up, several breaking the restraints that held them in place as the bow of the Elcin impacted with the League battleship. The G force was incredible as the two ships collided; the armored prow of the Saurian flagship drove through the Leaguer vessel like a hot knife through butter. Moments later, the stern of the League ship exploded from its reactor going supercritical, engulfing the Elcin in the destruction. Fire raced through the ship, and its fusion reactor housing cracked as it super-heated from plasma release. In the final seconds, Kartal saw the tactical plot blink out, and the bridge vanished into white light. He died knowing the mission had been accomplished; the League fleet was delayed long enough for the Terrans and the rest of his Saurian brothers to escape.


12

A massive thermonuclear explosion to the left of Calvin’s shuttle momentarily blinded him and the pilot until their light filters kicked in a split second later. While the extremely loose formations they were flying in limited losses should one shuttle or fighter set off one of the mines, they also made each craft very much alone, and unable to get help quickly.

“That was close, Colonel,” the warrant officer flying the shuttle said, stress breaking through her mask of professionalism.

“Too damn close,” Calvin muttered back; he was staring at the digital readout, which displayed the status of the various shuttles carrying his Marines. “This is MEU 17 actual, calling Major Cabello, come in, over.”

Nothing but silence replied to Calvin’s plea; the same request he’d made repeatedly for the last fifteen minutes. “Sir, if he’s out there, his comms are down,” the pilot offered.

Calvin glanced up, shaking his head. “You’re right. I’ve, well, we’ve known each other for a long time. Raul’s a good man.”

“Of course, sir,” the younger pilot replied, focused on flying the ship.

“How’re we looking for getting out of this shit-show and back to the Lion?”

“We’re more or less flying down the egress lanes that the fleet’s blown in this minefield with most of its warheads. Most of the fighters have landed, and our shuttles are next.”

Calvin nodded, numb to the goings-on around him. “My readouts show nearly a third of our shuttles destroyed. I’m praying that some of them can’t check in due to damage.” Even as he said it, he knew the thought was unlikely to be a reality; Coalition technology was pretty good at telling you when something was destroyed. That was the entire point of the blue force situational awareness program.

For the rest of the flight, Calvin sat and watched as shuttle after shuttle landed on the Lion; the fact that she was moving at flank speed made it all the harder, but high-risk maneuvers were something they’d trained for repeatedly. I’ve got to make someone pay for this, Calvin reflected. I can’t let my Marines die for nothing. Cohen better have something up his sleeve, because allowing the League to get away with it isn’t going to fly.

So Fight I

While the bridge of the Lion was still a mass of slightly controlled chaos, David had managed to wrap his head back around the battlespace. The Lion’s fighter squadrons and Marine transports were successfully taken back aboard, while the rest of the carriers had been able to recover their small craft. All in all, the fleet was making good on its escape, but in so doing, they had depleted most of their missiles. The Lion’s forward and aft vertical launch systems were empty and in the process of being reloaded, but they were almost out of the minefield, and, he hoped, home free.

“TAO, ETA to crossing the minefield’s outer boundary?” David asked.

“Less than forty-five seconds, sir.”

David glanced at Aibek. “How are you holding up, XO?”

Aibek winced. His head appeared to still be bothering him, but David was glad he had come back to the bridge. “I’ll be fine, sir. Nothing a good night’s rest can’t fix. Or perhaps, the sweet smell of victory.”

David smiled ever so slightly. “Glad to see your sense of humor is intact.”

The idle chitchat of the two men was interrupted by Ruth’s voice in a tone that was near panic. “Conn, TAO! New contacts, bearing 343, positive azimuth 30, range fifty thousand kilometers! Three primary contacts designated Master Six-oh-one, Six-oh-two, Six-oh-three. Three Alexander class battleships. Numerous escorts include Rand class cruisers, Cobra class destroyers, and Lancer-class frigates!”

David’s mind leaped into overdrive; Seville’s trying to mousetrap us. The ships in front will hold us in place, while the fleet coming up our aft will run us down. Classic hammer and anvil. Not if I’ve got anything to do with it.

“TAO, display the new contacts on the holoviewer and zoom in to that portion of the battlefield.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Ruth answered.

David spun his chair around, viewing the battlefield through the holographic viewer; it showed him the relative position of the new League ships. The three Alexanders were coming toward the fleet in a line abreast formation, with their escorts bunched out ahead of them. Taking a moment to process the League’s tactics, David quickly devised an engagement plan. “How’s this sound, XO? We go straight down their throats. Every ship we’ve got… overwhelm them before they can pin the damaged ships down.”

Aibek stared at the display himself. “That is an aggressive strategy, sir. One worthy of a Saurian. Keep in mind we have limited support from our fighters and bombers.”

“We’ll get no support from them, XO.”

Aibek raised a scale over his right eye. “We could get some of them back into space to help…”

“No, that’s suicide for the pilots. The squadrons are shattered, the comms network is in tatters, and most of those fast movers only have half a tank of fuel, and whatever energy left in their neutron cannons. I won’t ask men and women to go out and die needlessly. The capital ships will punch our way through.”

“Of course, sir. I didn’t mean to suggest…” Aibek began.

“I know you didn’t, XO. I’m sorry, I’m even more direct than normal right now.”

“Ah, your inner Saurian is coming out.”

David laughed, needing just a little bit of release amidst the pain and chaos around him. He turned his chair back around, toward the front of the bridge. “Navigation, plot an intercept course on the battleship in the middle of the formation, Master Six-oh-two! Stand by to engage on my mark.”

The reserve navigator, Second Lieutenant Rachel Marks, quickly responded, “Aye aye, sir. Intercept course set.”

“Communications, signal the fleet to form up around us, with the least damaged ships in the lead. Order all ships to engage the escorts; the Lion will deal with the League battleships.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied.

“TAO, firing point procedures, forward magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Six-oh-two.”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

David glanced at Aibek. “We’ll conduct an alpha strike on the center battleship with our particle beams. Then we’ll engage the other two ships. That ought to keep them guessing.”

Aibek nodded, but David could tell from how he was shifting the scales around his eyes and the top of his head that he was quite uneasy with the plan.

“Conn, communications. The fleet has acknowledged your orders,” Taylor interjected.

“Navigation, all ahead full.”

“Aye aye, sir, all ahead full.”

David felt the massive engines of the Lion engage, pressing him back in his chair through the effects of the inertial damping systems. “TAO, ETA to weapons range?”

“We’ll be within their weapons range in sixty seconds, sir,” Ruth answered; as she was speaking, the information on her console began to change. “Conn, TAO! Aspect change, Master Six-oh-one, Master Six-oh-two, Master Six-oh-three. All three contacts and their escorts are moving toward us on an intercept course, range, forty-thousand kilometers. Enemy vessels are now moving at flank speed, ETA twenty seconds to weapons range.”

“Conn, communications. Incoming message from Admiral Seville for you, sir.”

“Put it on my viewer, Lieutenant,” David said, wearing an amused smirk on his face. “Can’t think of a better way to pass the time.”

The face of Admiral Seville appeared on David’s monitor. “Ah, Colonel Cohen. We meet again.”

“Hasn’t been long enough, Admiral,” David replied, his voice a hard edge.

“I take it you’re in command after the gallant defeat of the noble Admiral Kartal?”

“Kartal’s smallest claw has more honor in it than your entire ship,” David ground out. “What do you want, Seville?”

“Ah… what do I want? Such an expansive question, Colonel Cohen. What I want… I want to be back on Earth, enjoying my life and the fruits of the League’s labor. I want to see the end of this conflict and humanity reunited.”

In spite of himself, David couldn’t help but smirk. “Sounds like you’re ready for retirement, Admiral. We could help you fill out the paperwork if you’d like?”

“Such a generous offer! I see that wit of yours hasn’t dulled with time. Ah, but we didn’t come here to trade banter, did we? I’d like to offer you the opportunity to surrender before your fleet is crushed between my forces. There’s no need for such an extreme loss of life.”

David leaned forward in his chair, his face twitching with anger. How does this man live with himself? He’s got the gall to make it sound like he wants to avoid loss of life? “I appreciate the offer, Admiral. But I’d rather destroy the ships you’ve placed in front of us, come back later, and finish the job.”

“Taking pleasure in killing doesn’t become a religious man, Colonel Cohen.”

“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. What you have done to others will be visited on you. That’s straight from the Torah, Admiral. Now I think we’re about ready to engage your forces, unless you’d rather warn them off?”

“I think not, Colonel. See you in the gulag,” Seville replied, his face curled up in a smirk.

The vidlink feed blinked off.

“Conn, TAO! Entering maximum weapons range of enemy contacts.”

David grimly looked forward. “TAO, match bearings, shoot, all weapons, Master Six-oh-two.”

Weapons fire lashed out from the Lion of Judah, slamming into the shields of the first League battleship in its sights. All around the Lion, her consorts filled space with bright neutron cannon beams, magnetic-cannon rounds, and what few missiles they had left. League escort craft exploded left and right; the Lancer class frigates and Cobra class destroyers were especially hard hit. But the League wasn’t defenseless, the weapons suites of the scores of enemy ships they faced gave as good as they got. David winced every time a CDF or RSN icon blinked out, another crew lost, another family that would never see their loved ones again.

“Conn, TAO! Repeated impacts on Master Six-oh-two’s forward shields. They’ve weakened substantially sir.”

David glanced up at this plot before he spoke toward Rachel. “Navigation, line us up perfectly with Master Six-oh-two.”

“Aye aye, sir, adjusting our heading.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, forward magnetic cannons, neutron beam emitters, and the forward particle beams, Master Six-oh-two.”

“Firing solution set, sir.”

“Navigation, TAO, confirm bearings matched for forward particle beam strike.”

Rachel glanced back at David. “Bearing matched, sir. We’re on target.”

David nodded, annoyed that she broke bridge protocol and took her eyes off the navigation station. “TAO, shoot, magnetic cannons and neutron beams.”

Another round of weapons fire exploded from the Lion, impacting the shields of the League battleship; David waited until those weapons had connected before ordering the next strike. “TAO, shoot, forward particle beams.”

Ruth pressed another button on her console, and the massive particle beams housed under the Lion’s flight decks opened up. The enormous draw of energy caused the lights on the ship to dim momentarily as power roared from them into the deep of space. The vessel was lined up nearly dead on with the Alexander class battleship, and all four beams struck its weakened forward shields. After a moment, those defensive screens failed, and the energy punched through the League vessel’s hull, turning it molten and eviscerating the ship. A few seconds later, secondary explosions began to bloom all over the battleship’s hull, followed by a massive explosion, which turned the once mighty vessel into a debris field.

Watching the tactical plot, at that moment, David had no remorse and no compassion. He just moved on to the next task. The enlisted members of the bridge crew, after so much loss, were ready for a victory. Shouts began to ring out, and Rachel joined in the cheering. David didn’t hear the master chief pipe up, so he did it for her. “As you were!” he bellowed. “Focus on the task at hand; there’s still two more battleships out there and a whole lot more Leaguers!”

Chastened, the personnel that had been cheering immediately fell silent and returned to their duties. Ruth then interrupted David’s thoughts. “Conn, TAO! Aspect change, Master Six-oh-one, and Six-oh-three. Enemy vessels are slowing down, sir.”

David looked back up at the tactical plot; it showed the two battleships on a course that would lead to one off his starboard quarter, the other off his port quarter. It was time to finish this fight before the trailing League ships caught up and made everything go sideways.

“TAO, firing point procedures, port side magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Six-oh-one! Firing point procedures, starboard side magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Six-oh-three!” David commanded in a calm and clear voice.

“Firing solutions set, sir,” Ruth responded automatically. After nine months of working together, they were an utterly synchronous team.

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons.”

Now the Lion split her fire between the two League warships; although easily a match for one of the battleships, two at the same time was a different matter. The League ships, in slowing down, allowed themselves more time to focus fire on the Lion’s forward shield arc. Magnetic cannon and neutron beam fire crisscrossed space, while the League’s signature plasma-based weaponry thundered back in return. Hit after hit was landed by all three ships, their size and range making missed shots almost impossible.

“Conn, TAO! Forward shield collapse imminent, sir! Moderate damage to both vessels’ shielding,” Ruth reported as the exchange of fire continued.

“Navigation, flank speed. Take us into the debris field left by Master Six-oh-two. Everything we’ve got. TAO, what’s the status of our vertical launch array reloads?”

“Aye aye, sir! Answering flank speed,” Rachel called out, and even as she said it, David could feel the Lion move forward with just a little more purpose.

Ruth checked the status of the missile cells, then glanced back at David while shaking her head. “Sir, forward VRLS is fifteen minutes from positive reload. Aft VRLS is at seventy-five percent capacity.”

David’s mind raced. Only one launch array at seventy-five percent was still ninety missiles, but how many were Hunters? “TAO, how many Hunter missiles are loaded into the aft launch array?”

“Forty Hunters and fifty Starbolts, sir. Reloading teams are about to start work on the last cell—”

“Order them to cease reloading activities and make the aft VRLS ready for combat,” David interjected; forty Hunter missiles were enough for what he had in mind.

“Aye aye, sir.”

More rumblings shook the bridge; the League ships were connecting with plasma weaponry and had the Lion dialed in. David took the precious time to glance at the tactical plot of the entire battlespace; the Ajax class destroyers and the motley group of Saurian and CDF heavy cruisers were cutting through the League’s inferior ships, but the League was still drawing blood. As he watched, several friendly icons blinked out, indicating a destroyed vessel. While he reviewed the battlefield, there was a noticeable decrease in hits being taken to the Lion. Switching back to the localized view, he saw the Lion had entered the debris field from the destroyed battleship. That should buy us a few seconds for what I’ve got planned.

“TAO, firing point procedures, port side magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Six-oh-one. Firing point procedures, starboard side magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Six-oh-three. Load EMP rounds into all magnetic cannons.”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, aft VRLS; twenty Hunters and twenty-five Starbolts, Master Six-oh-one! Firing point procedures, aft VRLS, twenty Hunters and twenty-five Starbolts, Master Six-oh-three! Make tubes one hundred twenty through two hundred ten ready in all respects and open outer doors.”

Aibek looked at David. “Take down their shields then use the Hunter missiles to strike killing blows?”

David cracked a smile. “Exactly, XO. We just have to stay alive long enough to do it.”

“Firing solutions set for missile armament, sir!” Ruth cut in.

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, all magnetic cannons, and neutron beams.”

Ruth pressed the corresponding buttons to fire the magnetic cannons, watching the shells race away from the Lion. Most of the shells struck home, exploding when they hit the energy barrier that protected the League warships. As soon as she detected fluctuations in the battleships shield energy, she followed up with full power neutron beam blasts.

“Conn, TAO! Master Six-oh-three shields have failed! Master Six-oh-one shielding is reduced to thirty-five percent effectiveness.”

“TAO, shoot, Hunters and Starbolts, Master Six-oh-three.”

Forty-five missiles erupted out of the aft missile array, one after the other every half a second.

“Conn, TAO! All missiles running hot, straight and normal. Impact in ten seconds on Master Six-oh-three.”

David stared at his tactical plot, which showed the missiles tracking into the icon for the League battleship. Point defense on the League ship knocked many of the Starbolt missiles down, but he’d expected that. Hunter‘s had an advanced artificial intelligence, and were far harder to evade, spoof, or destroy. Every last one of them hit the same quadrant of the enemy vessel, causing massive explosions that pierced the armor plating of the ship and damaged the inner hull.

“Conn, TAO! Master Six-oh-three is slowing forward momentum and has ceased coordinated firing. Some weapons appear to be under local control, but she’s essentially disabled.”

Well, they’ve got guts. I’ll give them that… to keep firing weapons blindly while controlled only by the gun’s crew spoke to a level of commitment David rarely saw from the League. He opened his mouth to give the next order, but Ruth spoke first.

“Conn, TAO! Port shields close to collapse, sir,” Underscoring her point, the ship rocked under repeatedly plasma hits from the remaining League battleship. “Port shield failed!” Ruth followed up.

“Navigation, right full, thirty-five degrees up bubble, present our ventral shield to the enemy.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Rachel almost shouted back as she manipulated the controls to move the ship.

David felt the ship begin to adjust to its new heading, while the artificial gravity generators onboard made it appear as if the vessel had sharply tilted upwards for a split second before they compensated for the effect. Enemy fire continued to rake into the hull of the Lion, each hit registering as a shudder. Then the tremors were gone; the ventral shield was now taking the enemy fire. He looked at his plot as the Lion began to execute its turn, bringing the forward weaponry of the ship to bear on the final battleship that stood between them and escape.

“Conn, TAO! Aspect change, Master Six-oh-one! She’s coming about and maneuvering to attack our forward shield!” Ruth announced.

David looked back at the tactical plot one more time before locking his eyes on Rachel. “Navigation, come to course zero-six-zero, direct bearing on Master Six-oh-one!”

“Aye aye, sir, course adjusting!” Rachel answered, her voice a little more crisp and sure of itself.

“TAO, status of the forward particle beams?”

“Still recharging, sir—at least five more minutes,” Ruth replied.

We don’t have another five minutes. “We’ll have to make do with the rest of our weapons complement then,” David said aloud, with a sidelong glance at Aibek; the big Saurian was in his chair, but it seemed clear he was still suffering the adverse effects of his previous injury. “TAO, firing point procedures, forward magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Six-oh-one.”

A moment later, Ruth responded, “Firing solutions set, sir.”

“TAO, reconfirm firing solutions for Master Six-oh-one, Starbolt and Hunter missiles.”

“Firing solutions set, all weapons, sir.”

David leaned forward in his seat, staring down the enemy ship looming in front of them. “TAO, match bearings, shoot, all weapons, Master Six-oh-one.”

Ruth launched the magnetic-cannon rounds first as she almost always did; they slammed into the weakened shields of the Alexander class battleship, while a few moments later, neutron beams from the Lion broke through the almost depleted screens and into her hull. As this was occurring, she launched the remaining missiles in the aft missile array; another forty-five multi-megaton warheads headed out from the Lion. “Conn, TAO! All missiles running hot, straight, and normal, sir.”

David’s eyes were glued to the tactical plot, showing the mass of missiles rushing toward the final League battleship. Much like before, the League’s point defense was reasonably effective at knocking down the less advanced Starbolt missiles, but because they split their fire between the two types of warheads, the Hunters got through almost entirely unscathed. Pelting the hull of the League ship with nuclear fire, large chunks of the enemy ship turned molten and exploded. Finally, the onslaught of warheads hit something explosive—possibly a primary missile magazine or reactor—and the vessel exploded, turning into a field of debris in less than ten seconds.

“Conn, TAO! Master Six-oh-one destroyed, sir!” Ruth shouted at the top of her lungs.

“Very good, TAO!” Aibek shouted, his bloodlust apparently stirred.

Relief broke through David’s exterior, and for just a moment, a smile creased his face. “Nice shooting, Goldberg!” he said, breaking bridge protocol and letting out the anger for just a moment. Three League battlewagons weren’t enough to even the score, but it was a great start. “TAO, status of our escorts?” he asked, the mask of command once again taking control.

“Sir, all escorting ships have cleared the minefield boundaries and are in a safe position to engage Lawrence drives.”

“Communications, signal the fleet to withdraw to rally point bravo.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor called out in quick response.

“Navigation, plot a Lawrence drive jump to rally point bravo and stand by to engage on my mark.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David leaned back in his seat for just a moment. How bad it was depended on how many ships made it out, but given the losses already sustained, the butcher's bill was almost impossible to pay. They couldn’t replace the kind of carnage that had been inflicted today; that was the Achilles heel of the Terran Coalition.

“Conn, communications, the fleet is reporting jump readiness and ships are beginning to jump out,” Taylor interjected.

“Conn, TAO, confirmed, multiple Lawrence drive light-offs confirmed.”

David watched the tactical plot as over the next several minutes, hundreds of CDF and RSN ships jumped out until, finally, they were the last ship bearing the Canaan Alliance flag in the battlespace. He looked toward Rachel. “TAO, power down our weapons and drain the energy weapons capacitor. Navigation, commence Lawrence drive jump.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth responded, transferring the weapon systems power to navigation for the jump.

“Aye aye, sir, jumping now!” Rachel replied, initiating the sequence to open an artificial wormhole.

David felt the ship begin to shudder as the mammoth Lawrence drive opened a hole between two points in the universe; there was a display of dizzying colors in front of the Lion as the artificial wormhole became visible to the naked eye. Moving forward under sub-light engine power, the vessel entered in one side, and moments later popped out the other, a hundred lightyears away.

“Conn, Navigation. Lawrence drive jump complete, sir,” Rachel announced.

David stared straight ahead, waiting for the LIDAR sensor arrays to snap on, and for sensor readings to come back.

“Conn, TAO. No hostile contacts, sir.”

David sighed inwardly in relief. “TAO, status of the fleet? How many did we lose?”

While Ruth was processing his request, Aibek stood. “Colonel, while we did take losses, we also inflicted many more. By my count, we destroyed over two hundred and fifty League ships.”

At the mention of the sheer number of League ships destroyed, David allowed himself to smile. “That’s pretty good shooting, XO.” And then the smile faded. “But it came at a high price.”

“Conn, TAO. I’m showing we took another five percent losses in the fight with the League blocking force.”

That information was enough to completely sober any thought David had of calling the battle a victory. “Thank you, TAO.” He glanced forward, past her and into space. “Signal the fleet to prepare damage control reports and send them to the XO. I want all senior officers to report to the wardroom in three hours for status updates and to plan a way forward. Until then, man your posts.”

There was a chorus of “aye aye, sirs,” and then David, despite being surrounded by dozens of people on the busy bridge, was very much alone in his thoughts. Dear God, how do we go forward? How can we hope to win?


13

“Such a victory, Admiral!” Strappi trilled in his sing-song voice. The effect of it was like fingernails being raked across a chalkboard in Seville’s mind. Sitting in the officers’ lounge on Unity Station, he shared the room with Strappi and the commanding officer of the station, Fleet Captain Astrid Monet. In his hand, he held a fine French wine, a Pinot Noir from the south of France.

“The victory is not complete, Colonel,” Seville replied in a sour tone. “The Lion of Judah is not destroyed, and we failed to destroy their carriers. Those are how the Terran Coalition projects its power. To defeat them, we must take down the carriers!”

“Still, the first time our sailors have seen the backs of the so-called Canaan Alliance in several months, Admiral,” Astrid said, her French accent coming through.

“We should run them down, Admiral,” Strappi said, half drunk.

“Are you an absolute idiot, Colonel? No, wait, don’t answer that. I already know you are,” Seville retorted. “Our strength is the minefield. It’s a static weapon. If we start trying to hunt for the Terrans and their disgusting reptilian allies, they will destroy our divided forces in detail. No! The only sound strategy is to keep our forces concentrated so that they can annihilate the enemy when they return… because they will return. It’s the only move they have.”

“I do not believe it would be wise to say such a thing to Chairman Pallis…” Strappi began.

“It would not be wise for you to contradict me again, Colonel!” Seville snapped.

“Do we know when additional reinforcements will be coming, Admiral?” Astrid said, apparently seeking to defuse the tension that was so thick in the room, it could be cut with a knife.

“I’ve been assured that more battlegroups will be here within the day. Upgraded battleships and at least one fleet carrier.”

“Our minelayers have begun refilling the field,” Astrid commented. “I expect it to be back to full strength within twenty-four hours.”

“Good,” Seville replied. “We still lost too many ships,” he groused. But we’ll win the day. I will get my revenge on Colonel Cohen and his merry band of heroes. When I’m done with their fleet, the League will roll all the way to Canaan.

Astrid glanced at Seville. “Search and rescue units have completed their first survey of the destroyed ships. We recovered most of the bodies.”

“Unity Station has a crematorium, does it not?” Seville asked.

“Yes, Admiral.”

“Then take care of them there. Make sure that the ashes are properly stored so we can send them back to their respective families,” Seville said, still wearing a dour expression. The truth is, most of those families will never see the remains. Or even get the courtesy of a visit from a naval officer. It’s something I should change, once I take over the League.

So Fight I

A couple of hours later, David strode into the Lion’s wardroom. Beyond the usual command staff that was present including Aibek, Ruth, Hanson, Amir, Tinetariro, Taylor, and Calvin, there was also Kenneth Lowe, the leader of the defense contractors, along with a senior nurse from the medical staff. Doctor Tural had sent a note to David saying that there were too many severe injuries for him to leave the medical bay.

As those assembled rose to come to attention, David took notice of the grave expressions and unsmiling faces that greeted him. I’m going to have to get them back on track; if bad attitudes set in, we’re lost. “As you were,” he said, watching them all sit slowly as if fatigued.

David sat down at the head of the table, making eye contact with a few of those seated. “I’m not going to try to sugar coat this,” David began. “Today has been hell. No, it’s been worse than hell. We got our butts handed to us out there.”

“With respect, sir, getting our butts handed to us would have been a loss rate of ten percent. I lost one thousand, sixty-three Marines,” Calvin interjected. “That’s a third of my effective combat force.”

David made eye contact with Calvin. “Leaving us with two-thirds to try again.”

“Try again? Sir, if we don’t perform major repairs, our anti-matter reactor will stop working, and we’ll be dead the next time,” Hanson said, beads of sweat visible on his face, along with grease stains.

“Anyone else want to add in something negative?” David replied, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“Morale is… poor, but the senior chiefs and I will rectify the situation, sir,” Tinetariro interjected.

“Glad to hear it, Master Chief, but we need to start with ourselves.”

“That’s easy enough for you to say, Colonel. You didn’t lose a third of your bridge crew,” Calvin snapped back.

“Stow that crap, Colonel Demood,” David said with a hard edge to his voice. “No one’s got time for a pity party right now.”

The forcefulness of his tone got everyone’s attention. They sat just a little bit straighter and looked even more on edge. “Yes, sir,” Calvin ground out.

“Listen, people. Admiral Kartal tasked me to find a way to defeat the League. That starts right here, right now. I want all of you to get a big mug of coffee, go back to your stations after this meeting, and tell me what went wrong, and more importantly, how we’re going to defeat the League’s new toy,” David remarked, glancing around the room. Still unhappy with the responses of his crew, he added in a loud and direct tone, “Are we clear?”

“Crystal, sir!” Tinetariro said, her voice sharp. The rest of them nodded.

“Very well. Damage report, XO?”

Aibek leaned forward. “We still have several areas experiencing hard vacuum, sir, and there are microfractures across our armored hull plating. We will need a full overhaul once this is over. I will leave specific system details to Major Hanson, but I believe we can be combat-ready in forty-eight human hours.”

David’s eyes shifted to Hanson. “Major?”

Hanson cleared his throat. “XO’s right, sir. We took a beating, but if you give us and the contractors forty-eight hours, we’ll be as good as we can be outside of an actual two- to three-week overhaul.”

“What about right now?” David asked.

“Right now, half our neutron beam emitters are disabled, the port side ventral mag-cannon turrets are fused in place, our engines are thrusting at sixty percent of optimal output, and the reactor’s cooling loop is crisscrossed like a Christmas tree.”

David sighed. I guess I have to accept this will take a couple of days. “Alright. Keep me posted. Colonel Amir… what’s the flight wing’s status?”

Amir’s eyes stayed focused on the table. “Fifty percent losses of our space superiority fighter squadrons. Thirty percent losses on our bomber squadrons. An unknown number of pilots captured.”

“Colonel, I need you to work a plan to get those squadrons ready to fight again with the same timeline as our ship repairs. Forty-eight hours, no more.”

Amir lifted his head and stared at David with a glassy-eyed look. “Sir, half of my squadron commanders are gone. My XO is gone. We’re no longer an effective fighting force.”

David nearly bit off a piece of his tongue to avoid going off on Amir. “Colonel… we have to go on. We all have to go on. Knit those squadrons back together. I know you can do it.”

Watching as Amir nodded his acceptance, David moved on to Calvin. “Colonel Demood… realizing you lost thirty percent of your force, what are the specifics of what was lost?”

“I guess we were lucky compared to everyone else,” Calvin said, apparently aiming for his Marine macho tone but missing the mark. “Since we were assaulting a space station, we didn’t have heavy vehicles or equipment, besides some squad-serviced weapons. Most of my losses were trigger pullers. The good news, if there is any, is that our entire commando and special operations contingent survived.”

“Thank you, Colonel.” He next turned his attention to the senior nurse. “Nurse Attar, what can you tell us about the Lion’s causalities?”

“Not counting pilot and Marine KIA, sir, we had, as of when I left the medical bay, two hundred eighty-nine confirmed dead, over four hundred wounded, and sixty-three missing,” Attar said quietly.

More people than we lost in the last three months. No, not we… I. It’s on me. The specter of doubt and fear threatened to flood into David’s mind. Suppressing it, he forced himself to stay on task. “Lieutenant Hammond’s condition?”

“She’s stable, sir. Right now, the doctors are overwhelmed with trauma cases, so we’ll perform a skin graft and rejuvenation treatment on her later this evening. Based on a review of her chart, I believe she’ll be well enough for active duty by late tomorrow.”

David nodded. While the backup navigator, Second Lieutenant Marks, was good at her job, he wanted the best officer he had driving the ship when they took the fight back to the League, and that was Hammond. “Thank you, Nurse Attar. Major Hanson, can you expound on our reactor issues?”

“Yes, sir. Our primary magnetic containment loop was severely damaged by one of the mine blasts. Doctor Hayworth was able to stabilize the system, but like the XO said, sir, it's crisscrossed like a Christmas tree. We need to shut down the reactor and perform a radiation purge. At that point, we get into the containment chamber to recalibrate the system.”

“A bit over my head, but that’s what I’ve got Hanson and Hayworth for. How long is it going to take?”

“At least eighteen hours, sir, and that’s with significant contractor resources assigned.”

Kenneth leaned forward and asked, “Sirs, if I may?”

“Of course, Kenneth,” David replied.

“I believe it makes sense to split my teams up between ships that need repairs, sir.”

Hanson’s face clouded over. “That will cause repairs on the Lion to take longer.”

“With respect, sir, yes it will, but it will greatly increase the ability of the other ships to get damaged systems back online,” Kenneth replied, glancing between David and Hanson. “Reading over the reports from those ships, several of our capital ships have serious damage to primary systems. I believe prioritizing them will help us quickly restore the combat effectiveness of the fleet.”

Before Hanson could jump back in, and seeing the two men were both stressed, David interjected, “Gentlemen, I think we’ll save this topic for the meeting starting directly after this one.” At the puzzled looks of the others in the room, he explained further. “The Saurians are sending a couple of ship COs over, and I’ve asked a few of our own high-ranking COs to come to the Lion for discussions on the fleet. Don’t worry, we’re not rolling out the red carpet. Everyone understands all hands are on deck for repairs.”

David turned to look at Tinetariro. “Master Chief, as you mentioned earlier, I noticed morale has been poor the last few hours. What steps are you taking to fix it?”

“Morale is not good, sir,” Tinetariro commented in her posh English accent. “We were all expecting to go in there and put a stake through the heart of the League. As it was, we barely got out with our lives. There’s a lot of concern about this new weapon they have. That’s one thing we’ve always had on our side… better technology. A few words from you would go a long way, sir.”

David closed his eyes momentarily. He knew that Tinetariro was right, but they had to stay on point and find a way to win. “Understood, Master Chief. I’ll address the crew later today. We cannot allow poor morale to set in. I’m with General MacIntosh on that subject…poor morale will cause defeat. Period, full stop.”

Looking around the room at the drawn faces, David decided what was best was for as many of them as possible to throw themselves into solving the problem of how to detect and destroy the League’s new mines. “Any saved rounds?”

“Sir, I’ve got something to add,” Taylor said in a voice that carried across the table. At David’s nod, he continued. “The Lion isn’t currently set up to be the ship’s flagship, sir. We need to reconfigure our tactical network to be the endpoint for the fleet, and you’ll need a flag staff, sir.”

David raised an eyebrow. “A flag staff?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve served before as the flag communications officer on a carrier, and if we’re going to try to manage four hundred plus ships, you have to have officers assigned to manage that fleet, sir.”

“Well, if you’ve served in that role before, Lieutenant, I think you just got a new assignment,” David replied with a smile. “For the duration of this engagement, consider yourself in charge of the flag staff.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

David nodded while looking up at the wall-mounted chronometer that showed him it was two minutes until the next group arrived. “Very well. Everyone except Colonel Aibek, Major Hansen, and Mister Lowe are dismissed.”

David stood, as did the everyone else in the room. Taylor was the first to the hatch that led to the passageway to the bridge on deck one. He opened it up, and the command staff filed out of the conference room, with Ruth closing it behind her.

“What now, sir?” Aibek questioned.

“The COs of the CSV Cicero and CSV Saratoga, RSN Ts’tam, and RSN S’shpos, will be arriving momentarily. The two Saurian COs command the largest ships in the Saurian contingent. The Saratoga is our most combat-ready carrier… eighty percent of her combat spacecraft and pilots survived. As for Colonel Ronald Meier, who commands the Cicero, I haven’t seen him in over a year, and he’s the most senior colonel by grade in the fleet. My thought is if we can forge a good working relationship with these four, it’ll be far easier to get through the next few days.” Unspoken was David’s thought that not only did they need a good working relationship with the four commanding officers, but he had to earn their respect. Which is why I invited Colonel Meier. I already know he respects my abilities.

“I see, sir.”

Further conversation was cut off by the hatch swinging open yet again. Immediately, a young private stuck her head in the door. “Sirs, the VIP party is here.”

David motioned her inside. “Bring them in, Private.”

Two burly, tall Saurian males followed the far shorter woman, at least by comparison, into the conference room. Directly following them was Colonel Meier and another human male in a CDF uniform. David pulled himself up to his full height, and while not coming to attention, put his hands at his side. “Welcome aboard the Lion, gentlemen.”

All of the newcomers braced to attention, led by Meier. Grateful for the show of respect, David smiled. “At ease, gentlemen.” Stepping forward and around the table, he extended his hand to Meier, who was closest. “Colonel, it’s terrific to see you again, and the first time in the flesh.”

Meier took David’s hand and shook it warmly. “It’s been a while since I presented evidence at your hearing. You’ve been busy since then.”

While he was speaking, David’s eyes glanced at Meier’s uniform with the CDF flag patch on his left arm, the American flag under it. His uniform lacked a religious emblem.

The rest of those present laughed as well, as David joined in. “Yes, we have, Colonel. Ye, we have.” He moved down to the next man, a tall, dark-skinned human who also wore the insignia of a colonel. He was nearly as tall as the two Saurian COs and had an impressive array of ribbons on his uniform.

David extended his hand, and the man shook it warmly, but with impressive strength.

“Colonel Cohen, allow me to introduce myself; Colonel Alexander Parks, commanding officer of the CSV Saratoga.”

As Colonel Parks spoke, David took note that he as well carried the American flag on his left arm. Under that, he had the flag of Christianity as well; an emblem of a mostly white background with a blue square that contained a red cross. That makes sense. The Saratoga is an American carrier which the CDF reflagged when the war broke out so many years ago. “Pleasure to meet you, Colonel.”

“Likewise, Colonel. Quite a beautiful ship you have here. Colonel Meier has apprised me of your previous exploits aboard the Yitzchak Rabin on our way up. I must say I never read the full story. Good for you, beating Bastard Barton,” Alexander said, invoking the unofficial name for General Barton throughout the fleet. He’d been forcibly retired after the second battle of Canaan.

David broke into a grin. “Much appreciated, Colonel Parks.”

Moving on to the two Saurians, David extended out his hand to the first Saurian, who stood easily a foot taller than his six-foot-two-inch stature. “Welcome aboard the Lion of Judah.”

The Saurian considered David’s hand for a moment before extending his hand and shaking. “Thank you, Colonel. I greet you in the name of the Saurian Royal Navy, and our divine Prophet. Allow me to formally introduce myself, as you humans would say. I am Void Captain As’slan Thess, commanding the RSN Ts’tam.” Thess gestured to the other Saurian. “This is Void Captain S’stro ke’Ristesh, the commander of the RSN S’shpos. I speak for both of us when I say I hope that you are worthy of the trust Admiral Kartal, God rest his soul, placed in you. What is your plan to defeat the enemy?”

Well, it didn’t take long for them to cut to the chase, David mused in thought. He flashed a quick smile at the Saurians and the human officers. “Please have a seat, and we’ll discuss my thoughts. Private, you’re dismissed,” he said toward the young enlisted soldier who had been tasked to deliver the VIPs to the conference room.

She quickly came to attention. “Aye aye, sir!” The young woman turned on her heel and exited out the hatch, closing it behind her.

David gestured to the seats at the table and waited for all those in the room to sit before he sat. “Gentlemen, we’ve got a lot to do here, and not a lot of time to do it in. The first thing we have to set ourselves to is getting our ships and the fleet back into fighting shape.”

Alexander cleared his throat. “With respect, Colonel. My ship is in fighting shape.”

David turned and glanced at him. “That’s good to hear, Colonel Parks. We’ll need to get any spare engineering crew you have assigned elsewhere.”

Alexander’s face twisted, his brow furrowing. “And where should I send them? For how long?”

David smiled and turned to Kenneth. “Mr. Lowe, your job is to determine which ships are fully operational and then assist the command staff of those vessels with sending any spare engineering personnel to other ships that aren’t so fortunate.”

Kenneth’s jaw dropped. “Uh, yes, sir.”

“You want a civilian telling COs and XOs where to move personnel, Colonel?” Alexander asked, his face reddening as he spoke.

“That’s right, Colonel Parks. Mr. Lowe is a full-time program manager. He oversees the continuous improvement projects for the Lion’s integrated systems. I can think of no one in this fleet more qualified to handle issues of cost, schedule, and performance than him. Unless you have another candidate in mind?”

Ronald took the opportunity to interject and try to smooth things over. “I like the idea of sticking a defense contractor on the ship repair problem. Speaking of which, if you have contractors onboard, do you have any government civilians?”

David couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “I don’t allow government bureaucrats on board if I can help it. We had someone from SUPFLEET for a while, but I ran him off. The scariest phrase in the English language is ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

There were chuckles from all the humans, while the Saurians looked on impassively. Thess spoke in a dry tone. “I don’t understand why humans constantly make fun of their government. If you don’t like how your system of governance works, why not change it?”

David rubbed his chin. “That’s not a bad question, Void Captain. Someone back on Earth once said democracy was the absolute worst form of government ever invented… except for all the others. So I guess we’re just stuck with an imperfect system that mostly works. But back to our problem. Each rally point has a fully functional ship repair tender loaded with spare parts, correct, Major Hanson?”

Hanson nodded and glanced between David and Parks. “Yes, sir. As soon as we have an idea of the fleet-wide needs, we can come up with a list of what we’ve got, what we need, and prioritize from there.”

Kenneth leaned forward. “Sirs, if I may…” he began hesitantly before receiving a nod from David. “I’d like to create a triage list, and if possible, repair the least damaged ships first.”

David raised an eyebrow. “Explain that, Kenneth.”

“Well, sir, the objective is to get as many ships back into the fight as quickly as possible, correct?”

David nodded, wordlessly encouraging the contractor to continue.

“Fixing the least damaged ships and then pooling our engineering resources to tackle the ships left with major damage makes the most sense to me.”

David looked to the rest of those assembled. “Any objections?”

Thess spoke. “I have no objection, Colonel, but what of our ships? We have taken significant damage as well.”

Hanson frowned as he made eye contact with the Saurian. “We haven’t made much progress with interchangeable parts or procedures between Coalition Defense Force and Saurian Royal Navy vessels, sir.”

“Void Captain Thess, would you allow CDF engineers to assist in whatever way they can?” David asked.

“Of course. We would also like to discuss a memorial for the dead.”

By focusing on the logistical tasks and his duties, David had been able to avoid most internal soul-searching about the losses they’d suffered. So far, at least. “Of course, Void Captain. I’d propose we have a joint memorial service that includes your faith and ours. I’m sure you know there are several major religions active in the Terran Coalition. Is that agreeable?”

Thess inclined his head. “Of course. The Prophet taught us to bury our dead within a single day. We lack bodies to bury of our lost warriors, but I would still like to have the memorial within the next day.”

“That’s agreeable to us. Any objections or comments?” David asked of the room at large.

“I’d like to request we include a chaplain from the secular humanists, Colonel,” Ronald interjected.

“Of course. Now, before my senior officers and I brief the leaders of both our nations and the Supreme Allied Command, Space Force, I want to discuss what happens next. After we repair our ships and bury our dead, we’re taking another crack at Admiral Seville and his butchers.”

Ronald raised an eyebrow. “Have you figured out how to beat those mines, Colonel?”

“Not yet. I’ve got the brightest minds on this ship working on it, and I want every tactical officer in this fleet working that problem with every spare moment they have. Are we clear on that, gentlemen?”

“Yes sir,” Ronald replied crisply, while the others nodded their understanding.

“As long as we can defeat the mines, we still have the means to crush Admiral Seville and the League’s forces on site. CDF Intelligence believes they receive weekly reinforcements, so it’s vital we launch our next attack within the next forty-eight hours. After that, they’ll get another wave of new ships. We neutralized several battlegroups on our way out and took out at least one hundred and eighty ships. We’ll have a significant advantage in a rematch.”

“I would remind you, Colonel, the fleet’s small craft complements took incredible losses. Fifty percent nearly across the board. My carrier is the only one with something approaching a full load of fighters,” Alexander said with an edge to his voice. “It may be prudent to wait for replacement squadrons, at a minimum.”

“I’ll take that under advisement, Colonel. However, I don’t believe we have the time to wait. If we’re taking this station, it’s got to happen now. We’re not leaving here without the Terran Coalition flag flying proudly. Now I’ve got the leaders of our two nations in five minutes. We’ll synch up later today via vidlink. Any saved rounds?”

“None, Colonel,” Alexander responded curtly.

The Saurians shook their heads and began to stand, while Ronald leaned forward and looked down toward David. “Colonel, the opening move might have been a complete cluster, but I want you to know we have faith in your abilities. Can you conjure up one more miracle?”

“I’m not in the miracle business, Colonel,” David said with a small smile breaking onto his face. “Those are a bit above my pay grade. I’ll be praying to the one that makes them happen later. His name is a strong tower, and we’ll take refuge in it.”

“I hope for all our sakes, there’s one more piece of magic left in your bag. I’ll get my tactical officer on the mine problem.”

David stood from his chair, as did everyone else in attendance. “Thank you all for coming. I felt meeting in person was needed in this dire hour. Return to your ships, and I’ll be in touch with the fleet as soon as we’ve briefed the joint chiefs and our respective leaders.”

Watching his guests depart, David’s soul was hanging in the balance between dread and confidence. With the combined brainpower of this fleet, we’ll find a way through the mines… God willing.


14

Three thousand lightyears away, in one of the richly appointed conference rooms inside of Canaan’s main government complex, Justin Spencer walked through the doorway with Chief Minister Obe Sherazi. Spencer had been in office for seven years. He was in his second term, and it was the last he’d be able to serve, as prescribed by the term limits laid out within their constitution. As the two leaders strode into the room, all of those assembled, both civilian and military, stood in respect.

“Please take your seats,” Spencer said in a quiet tone. He took the chair at the head of the table while Obe sat directly at his right hand. Looking across the conference table, he saw General Andrew MacIntosh, Secretary of Defense Colton Dunleavy, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Fernandez. There were also members of the Saurian Royal Navy present, assigned to the Supreme Allied Command. “Ladies and gentlemen… I only have one question. What the heck happened out there?”

Nervous glances coursed throughout the room. Dunleavy leaned forward and looked down at Spencer. “Mr. President, we got caught with our pants down. There was a systemic failure of intelligence. I take full responsibility, sir.”

Spencer cut Dunleavy off in mid-sentence. “Colton, I’m not looking for a scalp. You know me better than that. What I want to know is how bad was it, and how do we recover?”

Dunleavy sucked in a breath. Spencer could see beads of sweat on his forehead. “Sir, we lost nearly twenty percent of our fleet, fifty percent of our small craft, and thirty percent of the Marines. Admiral Kartal’s flagship was destroyed, and he was lost. Mercifully, most of his crew were rescued.” As Dunleavy spoke, there were gasps and stares of disbelief. They had heard it was bad, but none suspected it was this bad. “Colonel David Cohen was placed in command of the fleet by the admiral before he charged the League fleet with his ship and inflicted significant causalities. It’s not all bad, though.”

Spencer snorted. “I’m all for being positive, but you’re going to have to explain that one to me.”

“The fleet had to punch through a strong League force to exfil the battle space. They performed exceptionally well, and the Lion of Judah took down several Alexander class battleships. The remaining ships were able to withdraw in good order, and according to flash traffic we’ve received, are performing repairs at this time. We’ll have Colonel Cohen up on the vidlink here in a few minutes. We had to configure our long-range communication net to kick out all other traffic so we could have a direct call with him due to the extreme range.”

Spencer nodded. “Thank you, Colton.” He turned to the right and looked apologetically at Obe. “Chief Minister, this is not how I expected our after-action briefing to go today.”

Obe shook his head. “Nor I. I mourn for those lost, but more importantly, I share your desire to understand what went wrong. Losing the admiral is a blow to our cause.”

A major in the back of the room punched at the control for the audio-visual equipment. “Sirs, I’ve got Colonel Cohen online now for you.”

“Put him up, Major,” Spencer commanded.

A moment later, the vidlink snapped on, the unsmiling face of David Cohen filling the screen. From Spencer’s perspective, it appeared that the colonel and his staff were in a conference room onboard the Lion. In addition to David, there were several others present, including a civilian that Spencer didn’t recognize. “Colonel, can you hear and see us?”

Through the link, David cracked a smile. “Yes, sir, we can see you. I’ve got a few people here with me, including my XO, Colonel Aibek, chief engineer Major Arthur Hanson, and Kenneth Lowe, who runs our contractor engineering support team.”

“Thank you for joining us, Colonel. We’ve received your reports, but I want to understand from you what exactly happened.”

“Sir, the League has a new type of mine. It's stealthy, undetectable in its inactive state, and we waltzed right into the middle of it. It’s a small miracle that our carriers didn’t get caught. Still, we took a lot of losses. However, I believe we still have an opportunity to win.”

Spencer’s eyebrows shot up. “Explain it to me, Colonel.”

“Simple, sir. If we can figure out a way to defeat the mines, we can catch Seville off guard. We’re still calculating how many League ships we took out, but my tactical officer believes we accounted for at least two hundred and fifty enemy ships destroyed or neutralized. That would give us a numerical advantage, not to mention the advantage of having the Leaguers relying on a new weapon that fails at exactly the right time. We could induce panic.”

Spencer glanced between MacIntosh and Dunleavy. “Do you have a new engagement plan?”

“No, sir. We’re working on the mine problem now, in addition to getting our ships repaired. Many of them, including the Lion, suffered serious damage.”

MacIntosh spoke up. “Colonel, what’s the plan for getting the fleet ready to fight? How long will it take?”

David nodded in the direction of Kenneth, who answered, “Sir, we’re making repairs now. Between the military engineers and my personnel, we’ll have everything that can be repaired done in forty-eight hours. It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

“Why the focus on time?” Obe asked.

Dunleavy answered instead. “Because Colonel Cohen has seen the same intelligence reports we have. Seville will assuredly get more reinforcements in the next four days, which will reduce our advantage and make this fight far costlier. If we plan to strike again, we must do it before the next wave of ships arrive.”

“Exactly, Secretary Dunleavy. We’re on the clock,” David interjected.

“Colonel Cohen, you mentioned you don’t have a plan to reengage the League forces. When will you have a plan ready for us to review?” General Okafor, one of the senior general’s on the joint chiefs of staff, asked.

“General Okafor, my operational plan will be dictated by whatever means we devise to defeat the League mines. As of now, we don’t have a solution to that problem. Every tactical officer, technician, science officer, and engineering contractor we can spare in this fleet is reviewing the data we recorded during the engagement for a solution.”

“If there’s no plan, I must question the wisdom of keeping our fleet so close to major League force concentrations, Mr. President.”

“It would take days to get back to the nearest major shipyards, General Oakfor. Colonel Cohen is right; if we’re taking another bite at the apple, we do it now. If we take the time to have the fleet fall back and effect full repairs, we might never again get this opportunity,” Spencer replied. God, I hope I’m right. If I make the wrong choice here, the Terran Coalition will be screwed beyond all belief. We’d lose the war in one fell swoop.

“Exactly, sir,” David piped up. “The plan is simple; defeat the mines. Simple, but not an easy task. I propose we go to EMCON alpha and contact you all at a predetermined time tomorrow for an updated briefing on the situation.” EMCON referred to emissions control. Setting the fleet to EMCON alpha would disable all communications or electronic transmissions that could give away its location.

“Chief Minister, what are your thoughts?” Spencer asked Obe.

Obe was silent for a moment before raising his head. “Today has been a dark day. But I concur with Colonel Cohen’s assessment. To turn tail and slither away from the League now… no. We cannot. Regardless of the cost, we must press on and destroy the League installation and her fleet.”

“If we take another shot at Unity Station, and we’re wrong about whatever we come up with to defeat the mines, we might lose the entirety of the Terran Coalition and the Saurian Empire’s ships. As a professional military officer for nearly forty years, I can’t in any way endorse this course of action,” Okafor interjected with a raised voice.

“As you were, General,” Fernandez said with a firm voice of command. “Mr. President, what are your orders?”

I’m not sure why anyone would want this job. Because I had no idea how hard it was going to be. “Chief Minister, if you agree, I want the fleet to stay where it’s at, formulate a plan to defeat the League minefield, and check in with us tomorrow at 1600 hours. Do you concur?”

Obe nodded. “Absolutely.”

“Then that’s what we’re doing, General Fernandez.”

“Yes, sir. In that case, we’ll need to brevet Colonel Cohen to brigadier general for the duration of this mission. We don’t have a flag officer on site, and if Admiral Kartal felt he was the right man to lead the fleet, I have no objection.”

“I’m happy to approve, General,” Spencer replied.

“Very well sir. Colonel Cohen, consider yourself breveted to the rank of brigadier general until the fleet returns to Canaan. Formal orders will be transmitted to all ships in the fleet. Before we sign off, is there anything we can do for you?”

“Sirs,” Kenneth began. “I have a request, if I may.”

“Mr. Lowe, was it?” Spencer asked.

“Uh, yes, Mr. President.”

“Go ahead.”

“Well, sirs, I believe we have several mobile raider tenders within Lawrence drive range. I’d like to request they be tasked to jump in and help support the fleet. They’re the closest thing we have to a mobile shipyard.”

Spencer glanced quizzically at Fernandez. “Is that accurate?”

He, in turn, looked behind his chair to the row of colonels and majors sitting in the second-tier chairs. “Major Andrews, do you know what he’s talking about?”

“Yes, sir. He’s right; they’re parked in deep space. If we move them, we’ll disrupt logistical interdiction missions.”

“If they’ll help the fleet in its repairs, that is the paramount objective above all else. General, task them to support our fleet,” Spencer said.

“Aye aye, sir.”

“I think there’s only one thing left before we sign off. Ladies and gentlemen, would you join me in prayer?” Spencer said as he glanced around the room.

Spencer was a devout Christian, and he found himself on his knees daily, begging for God’s intercession on behalf of the entire Canaan Alliance. After he held his hands out, Obe and Dunleavy both took his hand in theirs, while they reached out their hands in turn. After a few seconds, the entire table was holding hands together. He bowed his head. “Lord, please hear our prayer. Today didn’t go the way we thought it would. I can’t know your plan or your will, but I beg you to guide us toward it. Please help us in our battle against the League of Sol. We can do all things through You, who strengthens us. Bless the men and women who go into battle, shield them and help them to defeat this foe. In Jesus name, we pray, amen.” God help us all.

There was a chorus of amens throughout the room and from those on the vidlink. “Godspeed, gentlemen. We’ll see you again tomorrow at 1600 CMT.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. President, and Godspeed to you too,” David replied.

The vidlink cut out, leaving the room very still. “Thank you for coming, everyone. I’m sure we all have jobs to do, so I’ll let you all get back to it,” Spencer said, standing from his chair. The rest of those assembled stood with him and began to walk toward the exits. Spencer looked toward Dunleavy. “What do you think our chances are, Colton?”

“If General Cohen and his team can figure out a way to defeat the mines, I think they’re even. If not, there’s not a snowball's chance in hell of cracking that nut. This is a game-changer, Mr. President. God help us all if they can make them in high enough quantities to seed the space around our main planets. We’d lose the war in a matter of weeks,” Dunleavy replied.

“Then General Cohen had better succeed,” Spencer stated with some level of false bravado. “Carry on, gentlemen.”


15

“Master Chief, where’s that network specialist?” Kenneth Lowe yelled out of an engineering tube on the CSV Juno, an Ajax class destroyer. He’d taken the last team out himself to help with repairs. It was everyone on deck for the push to repair the fleet.

“She’s on the way, sir,” Harold Billings called from outside the tube.

“I can’t remember how to recouple these relays back together.”

“Ah, for the days we did real work.”

“May they never be departed.”

Kenneth heard another voice, a female one outside of the tube. “Yolanda Cooper, network specialist. Did someone call a nerd?”

“I did indeed,” Kenneth shouted. “Remind me what the pattern for an RJ-813 connection on the tactical network is?”

“Orange, orange-white, green, blue, purple, purple-white, green-white, blue-white, brown, brown-white. Make sure that brown is properly seated… it's always the hardest to get in there.”

Kenneth quickly stripped the cable, slotted into the jack in the proper order, and used a crimping tool to lock it down. A moment later, he snapped the connector into the jack and was rewarded with a blinking green light. “Okay, we’ve got a good connection down here,” he called back.

“Look at that, a manager who can turn a wrench,” Billings yelled.

Kenneth began to scoot back down the tube; his extreme height of over two meters made it challenging to navigate anything on a ship, especially tight engineering spaces. Emerging from it to find Billings and Yolanda standing there waiting for him, he smiled and pulled himself upright once more.

“Thanks, guys. What’s next on our punch list?”

“That’ll be up on the bridge, sir; ensuring that all tactical network nodes are synched up and able to control the weapons,” Billings said.

“Sounds like we could use a network engineer on that one too. Care to follow along, Miss Cooper?”

“Of course, sir. I’m just happy being on a different ship. Getting to the bridge is a bonus,” Yolanda replied, beaming from ear to ear.

As she walked off toward the nearest gravlift, Kenneth glanced at Billings. “Excited, much?”

“Takes all kinds, sir.”

“That it does, Master Chief.” One problem down… three hundred more to go.

So Fight I

Walking into the shul on the Lion, David pulled his cover on; he didn’t have his yarmulke with him nor was there enough time to collect it from his cabin. However, he had to cover his head in the presence of God. There were more than a few of the ship’s assorted Jewish crewmembers present; as it was past the end of the day for most, and while everyone was pulling double shifts, it made sense that many would come to search God after the terrible events of the day. Rabbi Kravitz was speaking with a small group of crewmembers, behind which David waited patiently. After finishing, the old rabbi turned toward him.

“Colonel Cohen!” Kravitz exclaimed, then did a double take. “General?”

David shook his head in sadness. “Just a brevet rank. I’ve been ordered to take command of the fleet, in the absence of Admiral Kartal.”

“I see. It would make sense to promote you to avoid any squabbles. How’re you holding up?”

“Truthfully, Rabbi? I’m still shell-shocked,” David began, lowering his voice so that those around couldn’t hear him. “It will take some time to process this disaster. I wonder why God would allow this to happen to us.”

“If you ever figure that out, let me know, would you?” Kravitz replied with his trademark wry grin, but he was unable to keep up the brave front. “Truth be told, I thought for sure that today our prayers would be answered and we would smash the League once and for all, all the way back to Earth.”

“Same here, Rabbi. But it’s our job to soldier on, mine especially. I need your help…” David said.

“A funeral for the dead?”

“Yes, but given how many have died, I would like to represent all of our major faiths, including the secular humanists.”

“Of course, General. Any particular order to the service?”

David shook his head sadly. “No, just try to highlight some of the best among of us, those taken too soon. It’s the least we can do for them.”

Kravitz stared at him in a way that felt like he was looking into his soul. “You can’t take the blame of this onto yourself, David. Do the best you can, search for God, and keep the faith.”

“I’ll try, Rabbi, I’ll try.”

Kravitz nodded his understanding. “If I may, there are many more to minister to.”

“Of course, thank you, Rabbi,” David responded, stepping back and allowing Kravitz to move on. He tried to force himself to keep going, one foot in front of the other. David knew if he stopped to start thinking about the events of the day, he’d overthink it and have an emotional response. Of all the things I can afford today, emotions aren’t one of them. He turned and walked out of the shul.

So Fight I

Doctor Benjamin Hayworth leaned over the computer console he was working at and pressed a button to engage another simulation. He’d been at it for six hours already, with no positive results. The cheerful voice of Major Elizabeth Merriweather filtered through the noise in the room. “Doctor, how’s it going?”

Hayworth turned around in his chair to face her, wearing a total scowl. “It’s not going bloody well, Eliza. I haven’t yet been able to determine how to get our sensors to identify the mines before they go active. I wish I had a sample or two to experiment with.”

“I don’t see us getting a couple of deactivated League mines, Doctor,” Merriweather said with a bright smile. “How are you holding up?”

“Oh, about as well as I could on a ship full of theists that are beset by wondering why God didn’t help them win,” Hayworth replied, rolling his eyes at the same time. I do get tired of all the constant God this, God that. Isn’t one of the maxims of Christianity that God helps those who help themselves? Bah, children.

“You don’t have to keep up the constant wisecracks, you know.”

Hayworth grimaced slightly as he replied; he thought of Merriweather as the daughter he never had. “I’m sorry, my dear. I’m not at my best right now.”

Merriweather sat down on a chair at a vacant terminal. “One of my friends died in the outer hull…” she said, a tear forming in her eyes. “I saw her a couple of days ago.” Sadness broke through her cheerful exterior, and she started to cry.

Hayworth stood up and made his way across the room, wrapping his arms around her. “I’m sorry, dear. I’m very sorry. It’s just this damned war.”

“I thought we were going to end it finally, you know?”

“I did too. The damn Leaguers inventing something better than us… I didn’t see that coming.”

Merriweather used her uniform sleeve to wipe her tears. “Where are you stuck?”

Hayworth gestured to his console. “The problem is that in reviewing our sensor logs, without the mines active, there’s nothing to target, and we have limited information about where the minefield is. The stealth plating is fiendishly clever; it doesn’t allow our targeting scanners to lock on. The scanning systems we use to do real science can see them, but those sensors aren’t integrated into our fire control systems. I spoke to one of the contractors about linking them and was told that’s impossible without an overhaul and extensive testing.”

“I wonder if there’s a way to jam the mines… to prevent them from being put into active mode?” Merriweather asked.

“You’re thinking a broad-spectrum jamming field?”

“Yes… the Marines use those on planetside ops to protect against enemy-guided munitions. No different here.”

Hayworth shook his head. “Not a bad idea, but the power output required for it would be incredible.”

“Well, we’re on the only ship in the fleet with a working anti-matter reactor…”

“I’ll run some simulations,” Hayworth replied with a chuckle.

“The funeral service for those lost is going to begin soon. Why don’t you set this aside and join me?” Merriweather asked him.

“It’s not my cup of tea, dear. I respect your views, but I have no place there.”

“General Cohen has invited a secular humanist to speak… so that’s not a valid excuse, Doctor.”

A bit refreshing of him. “Well, if it’s important to you—"

“Yes, it is,” she said pointedly.

“Then I’ll be there. Run along and let me get these simulations going.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

“Of course, dear,” Hayworth replied with a genuine smile on his face.


16

At the hour appointed for the interfaith funeral service to recognize the souls lost in the battle over the League space station, David and the rest of the senior officers of the Lion of Judah were seated on a stage that had been erected inside of the central hangar bay onboard the ship. The space superiority fighters, bombers, and Marine transports had been moved to secondary hangars and storage areas so they could accommodate as many as possible. He’d insisted that shuttles bring representatives from every ship in the fleet in hopes the service could minister to everyone. The Saurians sent a delegation but had opted to have their own religious service. David was gratified they’d attended in a show of unity.

To David’s right sat several ministers, including Rabbi Kravitz; to his left was Aibek and Ruth. Behind them were other officers including Calvin, Amir, and Doctor Tural. At David’s nod, Kravitz stood. He was to speak first; it was CDF tradition that the chaplain of the commanding officer’s faith was always the first to pray or speak at a religious function.

Kravitz walked swiftly to the podium; while wearing his dress uniform, he also wore a tallit gadol, or prayer shawl, along with his yarmulke. David marveled at how the old rabbi always managed to look the part, even in the most dire hour.

“I’d like to start today by thanking everyone who made the trip to the Lion of Judah to honor those who fell in battle. As a Jew, I believe death is the end of one journey and the beginning of another. That’s little consolation to those left here, especially in a time such as this,” Kravitz began. “Today, I’ll speak in English, as this is our common language, and so our non-Jewish brothers and sisters may hear and be ministered to. Let us pray,” he continued.

Nearly everyone in the vast space bowed their heads, and Kravitz pressed on. “Eternal Father, strong to save, may it be Your will, God, our God and the God of our fathers that You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace.”

David recognized the prayer immediately as the traditional Jewish travelers’ prayer.

“Save us from every enemy and ambush, from snares and from the League, from the punishments that rage and come into Your universe to attack Your faithful. May You confer blessing upon the work of our hands and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes. Blessed are You, our God, who hears our prayers.”

David raised his head along with the rest of those on the platform. Trying to focus on the rabbi’s words, he found doubt attacking his soul.

“I’d like to speak to you today about the twenty-third Psalm. It’s well known throughout most of the religions of our nation and contains many important promises from God to us. I believe those promises count for every human being and sentient alien in this galaxy. You see, David wrote this psalm during a particularly bad season of life. He was hunted, persecuted, and if he’d been captured, he would’ve been killed out of hand. But he was doing what God asked of him, and because of that, God comforted and blessed him. We see this in the text that says the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. If we are willing to go where God leads, He will care for us, guide us, as a shepherd does for the flock he is entrusted in.”

While Kravitz took a breath, David glanced around the room at the solemn faces with dark circles under their eyes. I doubt anyone here hasn’t broken down in tears.

“The next passage is equally important. He causes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. As I minister to the men and women of this fleet, I think we could all do with some shore leave on a planet with green pastures and still waters,” Kravitz continued, smiling. “God realizes that our soul requires nourishment as well as our bodies. In this, David recognized that God was constantly walking with him. he continued by saying that even as he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he will fear no evil, because God is with him, His rod and His staff, they comfort us. All of us have walked through the shadow of death in the last two days. Most of us have walked through it for years —some most of their lives. Death isn’t an abstract thought or something to be thought of once we reach old age. It is a constant risk of our occupation, and a fear that never leaves our sides.”

David recalled in his childhood how his father would read the Torah to him. He used to tell me that because I was named David, someday I would grow up to be strong and mighty in the eyes of God. I wonder what he thinks of me now?

“David goes on to say that God sets a table before us, in the presence of our enemies, He anoints us with oil and our cup overflows. He finishes his psalm by asking that only goodness and kindness pursue him throughout his life and that he be allowed to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. What can we learn from this today? Jewish tradition states that David wrote this after being miraculously saved by God. I believe the text illustrates his faith in God and serves as a roadmap for the rest of us. Regardless of the horror of the days we lived before this day, God delivered us and allowed us to see today. I believe the fact of our survival means anything is possible, and I charge all of you, regardless of our beliefs, to not give up, do not fear this enemy we fight… but to press on. I will now say a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, again in English, so that everyone may follow. Yes, I know my Orthodox brethren, it’s not how we normally do it. Today is not a normal day. This prayer is known as the Kel Maleh Rachamim. The literal translation from Hebrew is God, full of compassion,” Kravitz finished with a smile, before bowing his head.

As the sermon went on, David found himself checking out more and more. Why does God allow this? So many dead, maimed, and lost… why? Still, he was a Jew, and bowed his head for the traditional prayer, whispering along in Hebrew.

“God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the Divine Presence’s wings, with the range of the holy, pure, and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the souls of those who perished in our battle against the League of Sol, for a charity was given to the memory of their souls. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect them forever, from behind the hiding of His wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is their heritage, and they shall rest peacefully upon His lying place. Let us say amen.”

“Amen,” David said along with virtually everyone else in the hangar; it was a sound that shook the deck plates.

“Thank you all, and may God have mercy on us. General?” Kravitz said, stepping back and turning toward David.

David stood and approached the podium, exchanging a heartfelt hug with Kravitz as he did. In place of his now normal Lion of Judah ballcap, he wore a small black yarmulke that was pinned to his hair. I can’t show my feelings here. I must soldier on and show them confidence. Grasping the podium with both hands, he leaned forward to speak loudly into the microphone. “Thank you, Rabbi, for those words and a time-honored prayer for the dead. Today wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to win the victory without significant loss of life, with a clear-cut triumph of Terran Coalition and Saurian Imperial technology and fighting spirit over the massed manpower of the League of Sol. But it didn’t happen,” he said, his gaze sweeping the thousands of men and women seated on the deck. “And here we lie. We honor our dead, we remember their sacrifice, and then we must move on. We must fight another day and finish this battle with a victory. Serving alongside all of you is an honor. I want everyone to know that. Admiral Kartal considered leading this fleet the greatest honor of his life, and he died so that we might live. Wherever you are now, Admiral, Godspeed.”

David clenched his lips together, fighting to control his emotions. “We will begin with the Islamic funeral rite. Please welcome the Lion’s imam, Major Mahmoud Karim.”

Once David had walked away from the podium, a symbolic coffin—a simple pine box—was brought to the front of the room by several soldiers in dress uniforms. They were wearing traditional Islamic head coverings, known as taqiyahs. As they performed their duty, another man walked to the front of the room and took the podium. He, too, wore a CDF uniform, with the flag of the Arab Republic in the country position. “I greet you all in the name of the prophet Muhammad, and by the grace of Allah. I am Major Mahmoud Karim, the Imam assigned to minister to the faithful on the Lion of Judah. I want to thank General Cohen for his words of encouragement in what is a fateful hour. Our non-Muslim brothers and sisters, please feel free to join in as you wish, or to watch in silence as we perform the customary prayers for the dead.”

Mahmoud stepped down from the podium and turned to face the portable qiblah; it indicated the direction of Mecca so that the Muslims in the room could pray as the Quran instructed. He led them in a recitation of the traditional prayers, beginning with the Al-Fatiha. Afterward, he spoke in English for the benefit of all who had gathered, reciting the prayer of Muhammad for the dead.

“O God, if those who have died were doers of good, then increase their good deeds. If they were wrongdoers, then overlook their bad deeds. O God, forgive them and give them the steadiness to say the right things. O God, give those who have perished a good home in the afterlife, protect them from the torment of the grave, and save them from the fires of Hell,” Mahmoud prayed before reciting a final verse in Arabic. “Assalaamu ‘alakum warahmatuallah,” he said before smiling and repeating the phrase in English. “Peace and blessings of God be unto you.”

Mahmoud waited as the Muslims continued to sit on the deck but turned back to face him on the podium. “Brothers and sisters, thank you for coming to see our hallowed dead off into eternity. I echo the sentiments of Rabbi Kravitz in that I believe God weeps for those who were lost… I also believe Allah smiles on those of us who remain. In Islam, a funeral is a simple affair. We all know death will visit us, and we long for the ever-after. There is something that I believe must be said, however. I would say this to anyone in this hangar, regardless of if you are Muslim, a believer in any religion, or nothing but science and reason. In the end, this is all we have left,” he said while gesturing toward the pine box. “Wealth, fame, and things all mean nothing because someday we will all perish. Once we die, we will be judged by God. He will weigh our lives, and everything that we have done will be put in the balance. If there is only one thing you leave here with today, let it be that what we do matters. How we treat each other, how we conduct ourselves, how we are truthful or dishonest, how we are kind or mean, how we obey the Commandments, which most of our religions agree upon, or flagrantly break them personal gain. Consider your motivations and your actions… If there’s the remotest possibility they are wrong, think on this. For we will all be judged, brothers and sisters. I don’t wish to be found wanting when that occurs. Thank you, and may Allah protect us, guide us, and help us to win victory over the infidels of the League of Sol!”

Leave it to the imam to put life into perspective. The pine box is a nice touch… what will happen when God finally judges me? David’s gaze swept the hangar and saw the vast majority of expressions were ones of contemplation.

Mahmoud walked away from the podium and took his place behind it on the stage, where the rest of the speakers sat. Next was a short, balding man who had old-style glasses that looked like antiques to David. He, too, wore a CDF uniform; he had no patch in the position for religion, and his country was denoted as the United States of America. He took the podium and looked out at the crowd before beginning to speak. “Soldiers of the CDF, warriors of the Royal Saurian Navy, and last but never least, Marines of the Terran Coalition Marine Corps, allow me to introduce myself as Chaplain Linden Fairchild. I’m a secular humanist, which I’m sure today is the first time most of you have seen one of my kind,” Linden said to polite chuckles.

“On days like today, even I wonder why there doesn’t seem to be a balance to the universe, a force that administers some form of justice. We’ve been united for centuries… our branch of humanity, striving to uphold a set of ideals. The brave men and women who died in this latest battle gave their lives to secure and safeguard those ideals. I don’t have prayers for you, I don’t have answers for you. What I ask you to do is to remember your friends and their sacrifices. If we never forget them, they never die. Imam Karin had some wise words for us. Do remember to be kind, to treat every day as if it was our last, to be the light we wish to see in the universe. We do this, not because we believe in a higher power that demands it of us, but because it’s just the right thing to do. Please join me in a moment of silence to honor those who were lost.”

David sat stoically. The hangar was so quiet that breathing was akin to shouting.

After a minute or so, Linden spoke once more. “Thank you all,” he said quietly and returned to his seat.

A woman then stood up; her CDF uniform bore the Christian flag in its religion location, directly under the flag of the Greater British Empire. She walked to the podium and adjusted its microphone up, as she was taller than Linden by several inches.

“Thank you, Chaplain Fairchild, Imam Karin, and Rabbi Kravitz. My name is Grace Estrada. I too am a chaplain in the Coalition Defense Force. I minister primarily to the Christian flock on this ship, and I feel the incredible sadness we all do today. It’s a pain deep within our souls. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room that hasn’t lost a friend in the last forty-eight hours,” Grace began.

“I’ve had so many come to me in the last day and ask why. Why does God let this happen? Why does God allow evil to exist… why does God allow the League of Sol to exist? There are many answers to those questions. Ideas based in theology, the Bible, and in what various priests, pastors, and ministers have written throughout history… all the way back to the Apostle Paul himself. I could sit here for hours today and talk about that, but it won’t bring back our friends.”

Grace paused for a moment. “Today, we have to continue. That is my mission in all of this, to minister to everyone. I believe to the depths of my soul that God loves all of us, that He gave up His only Son to save every human and every sentient form of life in this galaxy. The truth is, every being has free will to do whatever they desire. Some follow the path laid out for them; some do not. Some are acutely evil and delight in the harm and hurt of others. Some believe they can compel, by force of arms, everyone else to follow their beliefs. Ultimately, we can turn hurt and loss into something better. We can grow from it, we can embrace the idea we will see our friends and loved ones again someday after everything is said and done in this life.”

As she spoke, David found himself showing no outward emotion, but internally grappling with his innermost thoughts. Why is it that we continue to suffer loss after loss? Why is it that God, who says He is there for us, doesn’t appear to be around? Where is justice? Why did someone like Sheila have to die, why did all these people die just a couple of days ago?

“To go back to something I said when I started a few minutes ago, so many have asked me why evil is allowed to exist; why would God inflict it upon his creation? I’ve grappled with the question. I’ve come to this answer. Without evil, there can’t be good. Since we all choose our actions, if there were no evil, there would be no choices. Humans, Saurians, Matrinids; we would all be mindless automatons doing the will of a divine puppet master. I’m convinced God doesn’t want that. So, in his infinite wisdom, evil is allowed to exist for a time. After this life, however, our tears will be dried, and God will comfort us. The Bible tells us that those who are afflicted will be comforted and that someday we will know death, mourning, crying, and pain no more. I look forward to that day, but until it comes, we must strive to soldier on in our duties and our faith. Let us pray.”

David bowed his head respectfully as Grace led a prayer in the name of Jesus; at its conclusion, he uttered, “Amen.”

Then it was time for him to stand once more; he walked to the podium as Grace stepped away, thanking her with a handshake. Once there, he spoke into the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the colors.”

Somberly, an honor guard marched into the hangar bay, on cue. Holding the flags of the Terran Coalition, the Saurian Empire, the Coalition Defense Force, Terran Coalition Marine Corps, and the Saurian Royal Navy out on poles, they moved with slow, deliberate precision to the middle of the space. The flags were kept standing high, while a group of five soldiers, some CDF, some Saurian, took a step forward and to the right.

“Present, arms!” the sergeant in charge shouted.

The five raised polished antique rifles to their shoulders and aimed them in the air.

“Fire!”

A volley rang out; blanks that only produced sound and smoke. After two more volleys were unleashed, the sergeant spoke again. “Port, arms!”

As the honor guard snapped their gleaming rifles back to their shoulders, a bugler began to play the notes to “Taps.” As its sad notes reverberated throughout the hangar, each one made David’s heart heavier. Finally, the last note died away, and two bagpipers in full kilts and Scottish regalia began to play “Amazing Grace.”

As the music to the old hymn swept through the hangar, almost everyone present was affected. Men, women, enlisted soldiers and officers, fleet soldiers and the Marines, human and Saurian, cried, hugged, and otherwise just for a few minutes let the pain flow out. Tears flowed down David’s face as he considered that at least some of the people who had died did so because of his orders. How could I feel so happy about escaping from Seville’s trap, that I bested the man and his evil army, when it cost so many lives? What am I becoming? Fighting down more emotions which would’ve left him sobbing on the podium in front of those that he led, he forced himself to remain in control. If only to be a strong example to the rest of them.

The next and final song was the CDF hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” A staple of the armed forces for eight hundred years, it too had a solemn meaning. One voice, then many, then all assembled began to sing.

“Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm has bound the stars, who bidst the mighty void of space, its own appointed limits keep; Oh hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril in the void between the stars. O God of love and power! Our shield in danger’s hour, from tempest and storm, fire and foe. Protect us wherever we go; then evermore shall we sing to Thee, glad hymns of praise from stars and the void.”

Once the haunting melody to the hymn died away, David spoke once more. “Thank you all for attending today as we show honor to those who paid the ultimate price. In the days ahead, we must strive to ensure that they did not die in vain. We will face more death, more destruction. We will also find a way to defeat the League once more. You are dismissed.”

It took some time for the hangar bay to empty; David, for the most part, stood mutely, flanked by Aibek and Ruth. The others had blended into the crowd, while the chaplains did the same.

“Are you okay, sir?” Ruth asked.

“I’ll be okay, Lieutenant,” David replied, all the while his mind and feelings raged within. Why did this have to happen? It's like Sheila’s death all over again. Why couldn’t I make it better? “I suppose we’d better get back to our duties,” he said after a long pause. “God knows there’s a lot that needs to be done.”

“The Saurians are organizing what humans might refer to as a wake for our fallen warriors,” Aibek said. “I would like to attend.”

“Of course,” David said. “Take whatever time you need.”

“Thank you, sir,” Aibek replied. “Good day, Lieutenant Goldberg,” he said toward Ruth before walking off, leaving David and Ruth on the podium as the space continued to clear.

“I think I need some time alone,” David announced. Need to get away, clear my head, try to force myself onward, he thought.

“Are you sure, sir? Sometimes being alone can be bad at times like these,” Ruth countered.

“I think so, but thanks,” David answered, thankful that someone did care about his wellbeing. “Godspeed,” he said as he walked away, wading through the sea of people and out of the hangar.

So Fight I

Several hours later, David found himself in an even worse place mentally. It was hard enough during the service, around thousands of other people where he had to show strength and display the confidence expected of someone in command. Now, in his quarters at 2300 hours, his real emotions surged to the surface. The specter of doubt and incompetence roared into his mind like a demon. I caused this. I let it all happen by not seeing through the League tricks sooner, one side of his mind said. Stop whining! It wasn’t your fault. They fooled everyone in the fleet, the other side of his brain replied.

Lost in depression, despondency, and general despair, he decided to make his way to the shul, in hopes that bearing his soul before the Lord would offer some comfort. At the late hour, there were very few crewmembers in the passageways of the Lion of Judah as he walked through them. Cold comfort that at least he didn’t have to face the people he felt he’d let down somehow. Walking into the synagogue, he removed his tallit gadol out of the simple cloth carrying bag his mother had given him at his bar mitzvah. One of his most prized possessions, he wore it every time he entered the shul.

There was no one present at this late hour, not even Rabbi Kravitz. David was thankful for the quiet, as he merely hoped to worship and commune with God in peace. Sitting down in the front row, he clasped his hands together and began to rock, as all Orthodox Jews did as they prayed. “Oh Lord, God of the universe, Creator of all things, hear my prayer, I beg You,” David began, speaking in Hebrew.

“Your world promises us that You will never leave us, nor forsake us. You promised our ancestors, back to our father, Abraham…You would have a covenant with us. Where are You?” David began to cry as he prayed.

“I have watched as tens of thousands… no, hundreds of thousands have died, fighting in Your name. We stand up every day and resist evil. Where have You gone? Why have You abandoned us?” David looked down, tears streaming down his face as he considered what he was saying. His heart was troubled, and he didn’t know what to do or how to go on.

“Your word tells us that if Your people, who are called by Your name, will humble themselves and pray, and seek Your face, and turn from our wicked ways, then You will hear us from heaven, and will forgive our sins and heal our land. Where are you, Adonai? We call on Your name continuously. Those who worship You, not just Your chosen people but gentiles who call on Your name, and our Arab brothers.”

David stopped for a moment, his mind and soul lost. “Where is the still small voice? Why have You abandoned us!” David shouted at the top of his lungs.

Sobbing, David buried his head in his hand. Am I a fool? Is Hayworth right? Is there is no God, is all of this just a figment of our imaginations? As soon as those thoughts ran through David’s head, he shoved them down. “Though I walk through the midst of death, You preserve my life. You stretch out Your hand against our foes; with Your right hand, You save me.” David recited from the Psalms. “He who lives in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Lord. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him will I trust.”

David closed his eyes and sat back on the pew. What do I do? How do I go on? I so wish Sheila was here. She could help me get through this. The condemnation he felt roared back to the surface. She’s not here because you had to play the hero. You got her killed. You’re a failure. You’ve always been a failure. Now you’re going to get everyone killed and allow the League to win. “No!” David shouted. Was this the adversary that Sheila warned him of? Jews and Christians had far different views of Satan, but he’d done much research after what Sheila said to him in the vision. “Only a fool says there is no God. Adonai, help me. Give me strength, give me wisdom. If it is Your will, use me to do good and deliver victory.”

Still crying, David began to dry his tears and attempted to compose himself. It would only be so long before someone else would come into the shul and see him like this, and it wouldn’t do for the commanding officer to be seen sobbing like a baby. After saying his final prayer, David stood, slowly walking out of the shul, removing his prayer shawl as he did and returning it to the small cloth bag.

David walked through the empty passageways, finding himself in front of the gravlift. The doors slid open, revealing a single occupant, an enlisted soldier with the bars of a private first class. The young man, who couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, snapped to attention. “Sir!”

David walked onto the lift and managed to smile. “At ease, Private.”

After the young man relaxed to parade rest, there were a few seconds of awkward silence. “Uh, permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Granted, Private,” David replied automatically.

“Sir, I wanted you to know I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have all this responsibility on your shoulders. All I have to do is work on a damage control team and handle moving some boxes.”

As the young private spoke, David looked over his uniform and realized he was assigned to the quartermaster’s department, and his name was Jason Waters. “There are times it seems like I’m completely alone, Private,” David said, not entirely sure why he was engaging in the conversation.

“Sir, if I may, a good man is never alone. No matter how much it feels like we are, God is always beside us.”

As the lift stopped and the doors slid open, David smiled. “Thank you, Private Waters. Carry on.”

The private brought himself to attention once more. “Aye aye, sir!” he said before walking out of the gravlift.

It was his stop as well, but he was going in the opposite direction. After getting ten steps down the passageway, David stopped. He decided to go back and thank the private for his words. Random as they were, he’d felt them touch his emotions. Turning on his heel and walking back down the way he had come from, he passed through the bulkhead into the next section, but it was empty.

Greatly puzzled, David walked halfway down to the next section, but saw no place for the young man to have gone. Shaking his head and wondering if his mind was playing tricks on him, he headed off back to his cabin.


17

Amir found himself wandering around the hangar deck of the Lion, going through the motions of inspecting fighters, but in reality, he was trying to pass the time and ignore the despair gnawing at his soul. Staring up at a bomber that was being worked on by a gaggle of technicians, Amir heard a voice next to him.

“Major Richard Hume, reports as ordered, sir.”

Amir turned to look and saw the man standing behind him. Major Hume had transferred aboard the ship several weeks prior. He was currently serving as a squadron commander, but Amir remembered from his service jacket that he had served as an interim wing commander onboard an escort carrier.

As-Salaam-Alaikum, Major.”

“Unto you peace as well, Colonel Amir,” Hume said as a smile graced his lips. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I need a temporary executive officer for the wing,” Amir said, his voice low, and unable to make eye contact.

“I see, sir. I’m not sure I have the experience you're looking for.”

“You served for three months as the wing commander of a Thane class escort carrier, did you not?” Amir asked.

“Yes, sir, I did. As I’m sure you know, sir, the Boxer had forty fighters on it. The Lion is something else entirely…”

Amir shook his head. “It’s not ideal. But General Cohen wants to fight the League once more. I have to put together my wing as best as I can. You’re the only candidate for the job that has even temporary wing command experience.”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” Hume answered as he shuffled his feet.

“Good. I will send you my thoughts on reforming the remaining pilots and fighters into compressed squadrons. Review them and send your comments back to me as soon as possible.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

“Dismissed,” Amir said as he looked over the man once more. He was tall for a pilot, coming in at nearly two meters. Two more centimeters and he’d be too tall for most space superiority fighters. In glancing over his ribbons, Amir saw he’d seen his fair share of combat across half a dozen sectors. Under the flag of Terran Coalition on his shoulder was a flag he’d never seen before. Its primary color was red but had two white stripes that cut across it, making four red squares separated by white lines. The effect was distinctive.

Hume nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ll be available to review the assignments as soon as you have them.” He turned on his heel and walked off across the hangar bay, leaving Amir to ponder how he was going to put it all back together again.

So Fight I

After a restless night, David got up at his usual time, 0430 CMT, and stumbled through his morning ritual. Still smarting from the massive loss of life, David was fighting inside of himself to avoid succumbing to the grave and dark pit of depression and despair. After morning prayers, he walked to the officers’ mess and ordered himself a couple of eggs cooked over easy with toast and hash browns. Coupled with a cup of piping hot CDF coffee, he hoped it would be enough to sustain him through the rest of the morning.

David took a seat by one of the large, transparent metal “windows,” looking out into the deep before bowing his head and saying a quiet prayer of thanks in Hebrew. Opening up the top of one of the eggs, he soaked the yolk into his toast before taking a large bite. Savoring the fresh egg, he followed up with a sip of coffee, already feeling refreshed. A voice behind him startled him out of his thoughts. “General? Do you have a moment?”

Turning his head, he instantly recognized the voice as Angie’s. “I suppose,” he said in a cautious tone.

“Thank you,” she replied in a bright tone of voice, taking a seat at the two-person table while cradling her mug of coffee. “I’ve been trying to send out a report on the battle yesterday, but your communications officer won’t allow me.”

David raised an eyebrow. “You expect to get out an uncensored report on the events of the last two days?”

“Why wouldn’t I? That was the deal with the military, no censorship,” Angie said as her face turned bright red.

“I don’t think any of us thought of the situation we’re now in.”

“So you only want the good news reported? The people have a right to know what’s going on out here!”

“Calm down,” David said. Taking in the nasty look she gave him in return, he continued, “Angie, I cannot allow news of this disaster to get out until we have a solution. Not to mention, the ship’s on EMCON alpha. Nothing is going in or out until that’s lifted. Period. No ifs, ands, its, or buts about it.”

“Once the EMCON is lifted, will I be allowed to report?” Angie replied through gritted teeth.

“Yes. Once I see what you’re planning to report and approve it.”

“Unacceptable.”

“I don’t care if you find it acceptable or not,” David snapped back, his patience gone.

“I thought we had an understanding with each other,” Angie said in return, her voice losing power.

David’s expression softened; he shook his head. “We do. I’m sorry. The last two days have been troubling. This is new territory. I can’t allow this defeat to get back to the general population without at least some hope for victory.” Without waiting for her response, he continued. “Why? Because it’ll destroy our morale… and morale across the entire Terran Coalition. We’ve been riding a high for months, taking the fight to the League and winning everywhere. A disaster like this? It could break our will to fight. I’ve got to look at the bigger picture. Winning this war is what matters.”

Angie nodded her head. “I understand what you’re saying, though I don’t agree. I believe we’re all smart enough to pull together in the face of adversity, and I don’t think morale is as fragile as you say it is. Need I remind you that freedom of speech and the press is enshrined in the Constitution?”

Maybe the real problem is me, that I’m fragile… but I can’t admit that. “Perhaps. But it’s my boat, so it’s my call. As for freedom of the press, we both know the War Powers Act gives the military broad discretion over reporting from the battlefield.” At her nasty expression, he tried to paper over his last comment. “I promise you when the time is right, you’ll get the scoop.”

“Thank you,” Angie replied, her voice tight. “I’ll let you get back to your breakfast.”

David nodded as she stood. “Have a good day,” he said, and her only acknowledgment was a slight incline of her head as she walked off. Well, if I had any thoughts about asking her out, better put those in cold storage. He smirked to himself before he resumed eating his breakfast.

So Fight I

After his impromptu meeting with Angie over breakfast, David walked back to deck one toward his day cabin, which doubled as an office. The amount of paperwork required to keep a ship the size of the Lion going was genuinely monumental, and while Aibek did a lot of it as the XO, there was still more than enough for him to attend to. If he fell behind even a day or two, it was nearly impossible to catch up. As he worked his way through a series of personnel forms, he heard a knock at the hatch.

“Come in!” David shouted, loud enough to be heard through the hatch.

The hatch swung open, and in poked the head of Rabbi Kravitz, wearing his standard Orthodox garb and yarmulke. “Am I disturbing you, General?”

David shook his head. “Come on in, Rabbi. I could use a few minutes’ break from paperwork.”

Laughing, the older man made his way onto of the chairs in front of David’s desk and plopped himself down. “Amazing that no matter how far we go technologically speaking, there’s always some administrative form to fill out.”

David nodded his agreement. “I know. We can’t seem to get rid of it, no matter how hard we try. Every few years, the CDF tries a paperwork reduction drive, which seems only to increase the number of administrative documents we have to complete.”

After a polite chuckle, Kravitz pursed his lips together. “Are you okay, David?”

The question caught David by surprise. Had the rabbi heard him last night? “I’m fine, Rabbi. Just been a… bad couple of days.”

“You didn’t sound fine last night.”

David’s eyes went wide. “You heard me?”

Kravitz nodded his head. “Yes, I did. I was in the back of the shul doing my own paperwork…notes for the message this sabbath. I didn’t want to intrude on a deeply personal moment, but I did want to visit you this morning. I worry about you.”

“Thank you, Rabbi.” Oh no… I didn’t want anyone to hear that display. “I was just at a low point.”

“Sometimes I think we all wonder. Why all this happens. Why God doesn’t wave his hand and strike the League from the universe,” Kravitz mused out loud.

“I ask that question many times. Especially after such large losses of life,” David replied.

“And what answers do you arrive at?”

David spread his hands out in front of him on the desk. “I don’t know sometimes. I can’t logically accept the idea there isn’t a higher power. I don’t believe everything in this universe is simply pure random chance and we’re the cosmic equivalent of winning the multi-planet lottery. But there’s a big difference between creating something and actively taking care of it.”

“So you think God would go to all this trouble, make this massive universe, and then step back?”

David shrugged. “I ask myself that question at times. Ultimately, I retreat to my faith and soldier on. But I won’t deny that it gets harder and harder to keep going.”

“So what now, then?”

David shook his head. “Now we try to figure out a way to defeat this new technology the League has. Then we put together an operational plan to engage them, take that station, and run Seville and his butchers back to Earth. If that’s even possible…” David’s voice trailed off.

“You sound as if you’re uncertain of victory,” Kravitz responded.

“I am. I’ve never seen a battle go sideways so quickly before. We were grinding down the League force, everything was going according to plan, and then out of nowhere…we lose twenty percent of our fleet.”

“It is a commandment not to panic—” Kravitz began.

“Or retreat in battle, nor to fear the enemy. Mitzvot six hundred and ten,” David finished with a small smile on his face. “You forget, Rabbi, I wanted your job.”

A broad smile creased Kravitz’s face. “Then you must remember the first Mitzvot…to know there is a God.”

“And to know that He is one, to love Him, and to fear Him,” David added, reciting the third, four, and fifth Mitzvot; the Mitzvot were the six hundred and thirteen commandments all Orthodox Jews followed.

“Oh, so you do remember your studies. I thought you might have forgotten them for a moment,” the rabbi answered, a jovial smile creasing his lips.

“It’s not that I don’t remember, Rabbi, it’s that sometimes… sometimes my faith fails me.”

Kravitz nodded. “I believe we all question at some point in our lives here what’s going on. I have… but I see the beauty of the universe and in it the imprint of God’s hand. I see the miracle of life all around me, and while there may be darkness, I believe there is far more light than dark.”

“Most days, that’s where I’m at too, Rabbi. But on the day we lost nearly fifteen thousand men and women, well, on that day, I guess I question myself a little bit more.”

“Could you have done anything differently? Anything to alter the course of the battle that you didn’t do?”

David’s brow furrowed; he’d considered the same question repeatedly. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. We had no idea what we were walking into.”

“Then don’t focus on the past except to learn from it. You have a meeting in a few minutes to determine how to defeat this League weapon, don’t you?”

David cracked a smile. “Yes, I do, Rabbi. Though I’m curious how you know that…”

“God works in mysterious ways,” Kravitz said with a laugh. “Of course, having access to your calendar is also quite useful.”

David laughed out loud; the old rabbi always seemed to make things better. “Thank you for the pep talk.”

“Anytime, General. Mazel tov,” Kravitz replied as he stood up from the chair, using the Hebrew words for “good luck.”

B’ezrat HaShem,” David responded, invoking a phrase that meant “with God’s help.”

“I’ll see you later, General,” Kravitz said as he walked out of the office.

David looked down at his tablet and finished off a couple more forms before it was time for him to chair the meeting that would hopefully have a solution to the League’s weapon. Glad as he was for the rabbi’s time, his soul continued to be troubled. Today, though, that would have to wait. He had a duty, and today that duty was to find a way to defeat the League. Forcing one foot in front of the other, he stood up and walked out of his day cabin, headed into the unknown.


18

The main conference room on deck one of the Lion of Judah was more packed than David could ever recall. All chairs were occupied, with all of the senior officers in attendance. Overflow seating had been placed along the walls of both sides of the room, and they were filled with faces he didn’t usually see, including Doctor Hayworth, several contractors besides Kenneth, and support personnel. He noted that Captain Rajneesh Singh, the commander of the Lion’s special operations teams, was present. They’d worked together in the past, but as Captain Singh reported directly to Calvin, he typically didn’t interact with them on an operational basis.

Detached from Space Special Warfare Command, there were four commando teams assigned to the Lion, for a total of twenty-four tier one operators.

The command staff was operating on limited sleep, as was almost everyone else on the ship. David could see dark circles under the eyes of all those in attendance, and he knew from his interactions they were all on edge and stressed out. Everyone stood and came to attention as he entered the room, except for Doctor Hayworth. “As you were!”

As everyone returned to their seats, David took his regular chair at the head of the table. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for joining me. Everything else on our agenda today is secondary to the first topic of discussion. Can we successfully engage the League’s mines?”

Ruth and Hanson exchanged an uncomfortable glance, but Ruth spoke first. “Sir, at this point, we’ve been unable to determine how to target the stealth mines with our point defense systems either in automated or manual mode. The problem is they are only visible to our sensors when activated, and when they’re activated, it's already too late.”

A frown creased David’s face. “I see. What about other countermeasures?”

Hayworth took the opportunity to interject, “Actually, Lieutenant Goldberg, that’s not correct. Your targeting sensors can’t detect the mines before they go active. Our scientific scanners, on the other hand, can.”

Ruth looked over at Hayworth. “Doctor, that doesn’t do us any good because those two systems aren’t integrated. I’ve already talked to Mr. Lowe about the possibility of linking the scientific sensor suite into our fire control systems, and we don’t believe it’s possible.”

All eyes turned to Kenneth as David followed up, “Is that correct, Mr. Lowe?”

Kenneth nodded. “Yes, sir, I’m afraid we just don’t have the time, manpower, or proper expertise for that kind of a radical redesign of the Lion’s systems.”

David looked around the room. “I refuse to accept that this problem doesn’t have a solution.”

Calvin leaned forward on his chair. “Well, sir, leave it to a Marine to find the solution for you. Might not be the one you were thinking of… but we’ll find one,” he said in his normal cocky tone.

“I’m all ears, Colonel,” David replied.

“Working with the sensor logs the fleet compiled, some of the electronics specialists determined the mines have a control system. There’s a central point that controls when they turn active.”

“And?”

“We’ve identified that point as one of the pylons on this League station. They have a large network of antennae and comms gear. We’re not sure what the space is, but our scans show it’s some kind of control room,” Calvin stated proudly. “Bottom line is Captain Singh and I believe that our commandos can affect a surgical strike.”

David exchanged a glance with Aibek, who was nodding his approval. “Very bold, Colonel Demood. And how do we deliver those men to the target without the League seeing them coming?” David asked.

“We can use a stealth raider to get close, coat the sleds and spacesuits of the commandos in the same material. I already talked to our resident civilian contractor, and he says we can do it.”

Well, that’s quite inventive…got to hand it to Calvin. “Sounds doable. Thoughts, people?”

Ruth interrupted, “Colonel, it’s a great idea except for one thing. We’ve got no idea what the detection abilities of those mines are. If one goes off, the entire commando unit’s dead. Even if they aren’t killed instantly, the radiation will kill everyone in a couple of hours.”

“You got a better idea, fleet?” Calvin shot back.

Ruth’s face turned red, but before she could verbally shoot back, David cleared his throat loudly. “Enough. The enemy is outside. Not in here. Colonel, your plan has merit. But it’s high risk. Before I approve it, the risk will need to be mitigated.”

“The powered combat armor the commandos wear has its own integrated command and control system,” Hayworth stated. “Clearly what’s needed is to interface a sensor capable of detecting the mines into them, so the team can avoid setting off any mines.”

“We can’t even interface those sensors into our ship, Doctor. How the heck are we going to interface them into one of the suits?” Calvin replied, the tenor of his voice indicating annoyance.

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve got one of the smartest minds in the Terran Coalition in the room. It’s either that or you could all go pray.”

David openly rolled his eyes and fought down the impulse to order Hayworth out of the room at that moment. “Doctor, I don’t care how smart you think you are. Do you have a solution to our problem? If you do, speak up. Otherwise, stow it or get out.”

For a second, David thought Hayworth was going to storm out, but he saw Merriweather put her hand on his knee and shake her head.

Hayworth cleared his throat. “We need to interface an advanced artificial intelligence into the suit and use it to build the interface.”

“Artificial intelligence is banned by the Terran Coalition except in the most limited of applications, Doctor. You know it would take years to get this approved,” Hanson said.

Glancing between the two of them, David found despair building in his soul again. He forced it back down and made eye contact with Hayworth as he spoke. “I’m guessing the good doctor has a solution or he wouldn’t have brought it up, Major.” Smiling thinly at Hayworth, he continued, “Please tell me I’m right.”

“You are, General Cohen.” Hayworth offered a condescending smile in return. “We already have the AI on the ship. Our Hunter missiles.” Pausing for effect, Hayworth waited until all eyes were on him. “The solution is simple. We unlock the AI on a Hunter missile, reconfigure it for our needs, copy it twenty-three times, and run simulations to make sure everything works. Then Captain Singh’s team can do what it does best… kill Leaguers.”

“And you can do all of that, Doctor?” David asked.

“Some of it. We’ll need a gold level authorization code to unlock the AI, which I believe you have now as a consequence of your shiny new rank. We’ll also need a software developer with a background in AI. I can work with that individual to link the scientific sensors into the AI.”

“And just where are we going to get a software developer from out here? The nerd mart?” Calvin asked caustically.

“Actually,” Kenneth said, and David looked at him sharply as he spoke. “I’ve got several senior grade developers onboard… and one specializes in AI. She’s been installing the upgrades to the Hunter missiles.”

“I guess I ought to read those weekly status reports more carefully,” Hanson said with a light lilt to his voice.

Almost instantly, the mood in the room began to change. Those assembled sat up straighter, smiles broke out on their faces, and for the first time in forty-eight hours, David thought they had the beginnings of a plan.

“Why can’t we just adapt the Hunter AI to work on the Lion? It would be less risky for the commando team,” Ruth interjected.

“We’re not marrying up an AI to the Lion’s computer core,” David replied. “Not only is that a crime that carries a twenty-year prison sentence, the last time we had an AI almost get loose in the wild, it was a disaster. Everyone knows that.”

“We could shackle it, sir.”

“No. The risk is too great. We’ll proceed with integrating with the suit computers. They’re not powerful enough to allow the AI room to grow or evolve.”

“There are times that the will of Allah comes into focus,” Amir said from his seat toward the end of the table. “This is a fortuitous turn of events.”

“Allah had nothing to do with it,” Hayworth snapped. “I already had all this information before I walked in here. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have suggested a plan I knew wouldn’t work.”

Before the two of them could get into a debate, which had happened too many times to count, David cleared his throat loudly. “Doctor Hayworth, take point on the project. I want hourly updates, and you have a deadline of eighteen hours to produce a working prototype. Are we clear?”

“Yes, General,” Hayworth replied, leaving off the snark.

“Very well. Dismissed. Captain Singh, please stay behind for a moment. I want a private word with you.”

The rest of those in the conference room dutifully filed out, leaving David and Singh alone. An imposing figure, Rajneesh Singh stood just a tad under two meters and had a colorful addition to the usual CDF duty uniform; a curved sword that hung from his belt. “What can I do for you, General?” Singh asked.

“Captain, this is an extremely high-risk assignment. I’m unwilling to order you to do it,” David replied earnestly.

“Let me allay your concern, General. I volunteered, as I’m certain my entire team will volunteer if given the opportunity.”

“You realize it could be a one-way trip with unproven technology?”

“Yes, sir. If there’s a chance to strike a blow on the League, a blow so mighty as to dislodge them from this fortress where they’ve rained destruction on us for nearly thirty years, then it's worth my life, and those of my team to strike that blow. What will happen is the will of Ik Onkar.”

David raised an eyebrow. “Ik Onkar?”

Singh smiled. “Our word for God.”

“I see. I thought that you were—”

“Muslim?” Singh continued to smile. “We still get that a lot. I’m a Sikh.”

David grinned sheepishly. “Well, I have nothing to do for myself but look silly, Captain Singh.”

Singh laughed and extended his hand. “Call me Raj. My full first name is Rajneesh, but it always gets shortened, and I’ve grown to like it.”

David took the outstretched head and shook it warmly. “David.”

“You might be interested to know that my last name, Singh, translates to ‘Lion.’ I found it quite ironic when I was posted to the Lion of Judah.”

“Perhaps God does work in mysterious ways,” David replied, still wearing the same sheepish grin. He felt terrible for disrespecting the man’s beliefs, even though it was unintended.

“One of the tenets of my faith is we do not believe there to be one absolute truth. So it’s entirely possible from my perspective.” Singh paused for a moment. “General, you must not hesitate to strike the hardest blow we can against the League. I’ve seen what it looks like after they’ve taken over a planet and forced its people into reeducation, as they call it. What remains are mere shells of what was formerly a robust population and people. No matter what it takes, we must win here.”

“We’ll do our best… and the League will do its worst,” David said, shaking his head. “Someday, we won’t have to get up every morning and plan how we’re going to kill people. Someday.”

“And on that day, I will celebrate, as will everyone in the Terran Coalition. But it’s not today. Today we must fight, we must fight with everything we have in us, with every ounce of courage and bravery. For if we do not win today, I fear there won’t be many more tomorrows.”

“I don’t disagree. Plan the best op you can, Captain. Godspeed.”

“Godspeed to you as well, General,” Singh said as he braced to attention before walking out of the conference room.

David sat there for a few minutes, reflecting on the battle that lay before them. All of it rested on the ability of Doctor Hayworth to make his technological solution work. He quietly prayed that the doctor would be up to the challenge.

So Fight I

Standing in his quarters, Admiral Seville squeezed the glass of brandy he was holding such that his hand hurt. Damn the Social and Public Safety Committee, damn them all! I delivered a victory, and now after all the blood that’s been spilled, they want to give it away to those damn fanatics. Downing the rest of the brown drink, he flung the glass across the room. It bounced off a wall, undamaged thanks to being a nearly unbreakable polymer. The doorbell to his quarters went off, and he angrily shouted, “Who is it?”

“Colonel Strappi, sir.”

“Come in.”

The door slid open, and Strappi strode in with purpose. “It’s time, Admiral.”

Seville shook his head angrily. “I should not have to beg the Social and Public Safety Committee to listen to me on this matter. I have successfully led this war! We just wiped out a fifth of the Canaan Alliance’s fleet.”

“Admiral, while I, of course, completely agree with you, you must realize the committee wants to see more losses inflicted on our foe. They want to erase the specter of defeat that has haunted us so closely these last months.”

“If they wanted to win, they’d send me the reinforcements I’ve asked for,” Seville replied.

“I cannot speculate except to say the committee believes those forces are needed elsewhere.”

“Yes, it’s our great affliction. Our territory is so vast, our massive fleet is needed in twenty places at once to secure it,” Seville spat, pausing for just a moment to collect his thoughts. “Is it time, Colonel?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then bring up the video link.”

In the few seconds it took Strappi to engage the real-time communications link back to Earth, Seville marveled at the incredible amount of resources that were going into this holocall. They were so far away from Earth that, on both ends, almost the entire power output of two large fusion reactors had to be used to power the link. After a moment, the holoprojector engaged, and they were suddenly in the meeting room of the State Security Committee. Seville bowed his head respectfully, as did Strappi.

“Mister Chairman, it is, as always, an honor to speak with you and the rest of your esteemed colleagues,” Seville said, with every fiber of his being seething inside.

“Admiral, thank you for taking time for this meeting from your assuredly full schedule as you seek to track down and eliminate the Terran Coalition’s military, once and for all,” Pallis said.

“Anything I can to help further the cause of our League is in no way a burden, Chairman Pallis,” Seville replied.

“Well then, Admiral, since time is at a premium, especially with the cost associated with this link, let’s get down to the matter at hand. What is your plan to finish off the Terran Coalition and Saurian Empire’s combined fleet? We understand from your reports it still exists, despite significant losses.”

“Chairman, right now, we occupy a position of strength. While weakened, the enemy fleet is still a formidable opponent.”

Several of the members of the committee looked at each other; one wearing the uniform of the League Navy spoke up. “Admiral, you have them at your mercy. Do you have a firm location on the Terran and Saurian fleets?”

“No, sir, I don’t. I’ve been holding my ships in closely, rather than send them out to search. I believe our foe intends to attack us again, and I want all of my strength in one place so that we might grind them into dust.”

Pallis shook his head. “Admiral, the committee does not believe this is the wisest course of action.”

Seville interrupted the chairman before he could begin to speak again. “Chairman, while I understand the desire and the very need to destroy our hated enemy, we must realize that for the last three months, they’ve won battle after battle. Now we have a weapon they can’t match. Prudence dictates we allow them to come to us yet again, and then we can strike the final blow. I’m certain of this strategy, more certain than I’ve been of any yet devised.”

“I’ve heard this before. You said it before we tried to bomb Canaan from orbit four months ago. We all know it turned into an unmitigated disaster that brought the Saurians into the war on the side of the Terran Coalition,” the same admiral fumed.

“We’ve succeeded today, Admiral. Let us not dwell on the events of the past. We must focus on destroying the Terran Coalition and her allies. Chairman, please give us a few more days. The Terrans aren’t going anywhere. They haven’t even broken radio silence for one of their news broadcasts. They’re hurting, but they’re planning something. I feel it in my bones. Dividing our forces now is exactly what they want us to do,” Seville said.

“Admiral Seville, you’ve earned my indulgence and by extension the indulgence of this committee. Don’t squander it. When we speak again, I want a concrete plan of action to destroy the remaining Terran Coalition forces,” Pallis replied.

“Yes, sir, I understand.”

“Very well, Admiral. We’ll speak again soon.”

As soon as Pallis finished speaking, the feed cut out, returning Seville’s quarters to its usual drab interior.

“Idiots!” Seville screamed at the top of his lungs. “They can’t run a war from thousands of lightyears away by committee!”

“Admiral,” Strappi said, trying to soothe the man. “Please, we must remain calm. The Social and Public Safety Committee is the embodiment of the will of the people, and the knowledge of the state. It can’t be wrong.”

“Oh, you’re a worthless fool,” Seville raged in return. “You believe that? If you do, try breathing in space without a spacesuit!”

“You can’t say such things, Admiral! Even if they are true,” Strappi replied, glancing around the room as if they were being monitored in some fashion.

“We have fought for nearly thirty years to liberate the Terrans. We’ve spilled the blood of so many sailors, it’s a mere statistic now that’s too large to conceive of,” Seville said, beginning to calm down. “I will not allow our success now to be thrown into jeopardy because some old men back on Earth want a quick win!”

“You need a convincing plan, Admiral,” Strappi said quietly.

“The plan is to wait for the Terrans to attack again,” Seville insisted. “They’re feeling us out now, they’ll come back, and we’ll crush them.”

“That’s not good enough for the Social and Public Safety Committee. You have to dress it up.”

Seville rolled his eyes. “I don’t have time for this crap.”

“I’ll handle it for you, Admiral.”

“Thank you, Colonel Strappi.”

“Of course, sir. Should I leave you?”

“Yes. I need some time alone to consider how we can draw out the Terrans and inflict a final, crushing blow.”

“Yes, sir,” Strappi said, standing and walking out of the room. Seville watched the hatch close and went back to his brooding thoughts. Once the minefield is fully reseeded, any attack they make will be futile. We need to tempt them into attacking us once more.


19

Three hundred lightyears away from the Lion and the rest of the joint fleet, the CSV Oxford and her merry band of intelligence analysts, led by Colonel Robert Sinclair, continued with their essential work. Striding onto the central operations center floor, with a mug of tea fitted with a spill-proof cover, Sinclair surveyed the team hard at work. He glanced up at the motto of the CDF Intelligence service, “In God we trust, all others we monitor,” which hung proudly from a banner in the ceiling of the cavernous room. Recent reports indicated that the fleet had taken a severe beating at Unity Station, but actual details were scant. First Lieutenant Alon Tamir motioned him over to his workstation with a wave.

“Colonel, do you have a minute, sir?” Tamir asked.

Sinclair slid into an empty chair next to Tamir’s station. “What do you have for me, Lieutenant?”

“We’ve been picking up a ton of League chatter coming into and out of Unity Station, sir. Making heads or tails of it has been difficult with that new encryption protocol they’ve been using.”

Sinclair nodded. The League sure had picked the wrong time to start getting some basic technologies right. “Tell me something I don’t already know,” he remarked in his perfectly British-accented voice.

“The energy associated with some of these transmissions is off the charts. There were at least two communications with Earth that contained real-time video links,” Tamir said, pride imbuing his voice.

Sinclair’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you sure?”

Tamir nodded, tapping some keys on his station and pulling up a chart. “See here, sir? As I said, the power output is off the chart. The only thing it could be is direct video link back to Earth or an equidistant point in space. Earth is the most likely target, especially combined with the vector the signal was going out toward.”

“Conclusions, then?”

“I believe that Admiral Seville was having a direct conversation with someone very high up in the League. Most likely the Social and Public Safety Committee.”

“No decryption of the conversation yet?”

“No, sir, and we won’t have it for several days. I do, though, have decryptions of some loose discussions between League ship captains in the fleet assigned to Unity Station. They constantly make reference to Seville wanting to keep them tied to the station. A group of them wants to hunt for us. This is a guess, which fits the facts, but is still only a guess… I think the Social and Public Safety Committee wants Seville to send out the dogs. Seville rightly believes he’s strongest at Unity Station and is daring us to take another shot at him.”

Sinclair found himself nodding again; Tamir’s conclusions, while taking several steps beyond what they had evidence for, were logical. More than that, over the time they’d served together, Tamir had rarely been wrong. He’d grown to trust him and the at times unique insights he saw in masses of raw intelligence data. “How many more ships has Seville gotten?”

Tamir shook his head. “He hasn’t made up for the ones we destroyed, but he’s received at least a hundred and fifty as reinforcements. Even without the mines, I don’t see how the forces we have are going to be able to win with anything like acceptable losses.”

“We need to get this information to Colonel Cohen. Can you patch us in from here?”

“Yes, sir,” Tamir answered; every station in the operations center had comms capabilities. He tapped a few keys, and they waited. “I’m not getting a response from the Lion, sir.”

“Most likely because they’re at EMCON,” Sinclair said, answering the unspoken question. “And they’re not going to break it, no matter what our message is. What rally point did they transit to?”

“Bravo, sir. The entire fleet is at rally point bravo.”

“Then that’s where we’re going. Keep working on the decryption, Lieutenant. I’ll be on the bridge getting this tub’s location changed.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Tamir replied crisply.

So Fight I

The most senior officers on the Lion, including Aibek, Amir, Calvin, and David, had assembled for a video link back to Canaan. Colonel Ronald Meier and Lieutenant Robert Taylor, in his capacity as David’s flag staff, were also in attendance. The purpose was to brief General MacIntosh on their progress.

David apprehensively looked across the room. While the team had a good plan, he was determined to request reinforcements and try to obtain replacement fighters, bombers, and Marines. “Lieutenant,” he began, addressing Taylor. “For this meeting only, we’ll drop our EMCON status. Punch up General MacIntosh, please.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied crisply, pulling up what amounted to a galaxy-wide version of an old-school video conference, and engaging the link.

After a moment, General MacIntosh’s face appeared; it looked from the background to David like the general was in his office.

“Greetings, gentlemen,” MacIntosh began without preamble.

“Good morning, sir,” David replied. “We’ve got an update for you on our progress.”

“Very good. Time is a commodity we don’t have a lot of, so let’s get started.”

“Yes, sir. Our team has been working around the clock on this problem. Bottom line up front is we believe the solution is to use our commando unit to storm the League space station and disable the mines at their place of control.”

MacIntosh stared intently at them through the screen. “Sounds extremely high risk, General. Walk me through it.”

“The plan, sir, is they will breach the control room for the mines, which we have pinpointed with a high degree of accuracy, and use a high energy communication burst to contact us… then the fleet will begin its assault.”

“How many combat-effective ships do you have, General?” MacIntosh asked.

“Over ninety percent of them, sir. We continue to suffer from shortages of pilots, small craft, and Marines. I’m hopeful you can divert some to us to plus up our ranks.”

MacIntosh shook his head. “President Spencer and Chief Minister Obe have been convinced by the heads of their various militaries that we can’t afford to send reinforcements. This happens with what you’ve got or not at all. I’ll transmit our latest and greatest intelligence reports, but one fact concerns me. Seville’s gotten nearly two hundred more ships since the battle. Can you take that kind of force on, even without the mines in play?”

David’s face became ashen as he ran the numbers in his mind. “Sir, the rate of loss would be unacceptable. We’d be on almost equal terms again. Can we go to President Spencer together and argue for the home defense fleet to be sent?”

“Absolutely not, General Cohen,” MacIntosh replied with a tone of finality.

“Sir—”

“It's not happening. The home defense fleet is the only thing standing between an invasion of Canaan and the League if you fail. Politically, it’d be suicide for the president. The press would have a field day. It's out of the question, General,” MacIntosh said in a heated tone.

David furrowed his brow and nodded in return. “I understand, sir. What about fighter pilots and Marines? We don’t have enough to storm Unity Station, especially on the Marine side.”

“At the rate of reinforcement that Seville is getting, there’s not enough time for us to get more pilots, small craft, and Marines to you. What you’ve got is all you’ll get, General. Look, I know it’s a lot of pressure. If we can’t win now, there’s nothing wrong with telling me that. We’ll pull back and try again later. They can’t move the damn station on us.”

There won’t be a later. At the rate Seville gets new ships, he’ll overwhelm us within a year. “No, sir, we’ll figure it out.”

“I must caution you again, General. We’re running out of time.”

“Yes, sir. We have a scheduled briefing in six hours to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our two leaders. We’ll be ready.”

“See you are. I’ll warn you right now, there’s a faction in the Joint Chiefs that want to call this off, pull the fleet back, and lick our wounds. I agree with you, the time to strike is right now, and it’ll never be better. Whatever you put together, make sure it can survive having a lot of people trying to poke holes in it. Most of it all, make sure it’ll work to the best of your abilities, General.”

“Aye aye, sir,” David replied crisply.

“Godspeed, General, MacIntosh out.”

A moment later, MacIntosh’s face disappeared from the viewer, and they were all left in silence. Aibek spoke first. “General, perhaps I could convince Saurian high command to send additional resources...”

“No. MacIntosh is right. If we can’t win with what we’ve got, we’d endanger our entire civilization by pulling out our last defensive forces. What sucks about this is it’s a simple math problem. Our resources are finite, his aren’t, and there’s a curve going here that I don’t like. Before too long, he’ll be unstoppable if left to gather strength.” David glanced at the clock on the wall and shook his head. “We’d better get back to it, gentlemen. Colonel Meier, thank you for coming over. Please brief the fleet on our progress, and I’d appreciate it if you could stick around. I’d like you in on our planning meeting later today.”

Calvin cleared his throat. “General, if I may… we need to get additional trigger pullers or we’re not storming Unity.”

“Any thoughts on where we’d get them from?”

“Well, sir, I’d like to ask for volunteers. Lots of ship’s security personnel in the fleet, and there’s more than a few former Marines who’ve transferred to the fleet.”

David nodded his approval. “I like that idea. You may proceed.”

“Thank you, sir,” Calvin replied.

“Any saved rounds, gents?” David asked the room at large; there were no takers. “Alright then, dismissed.” As he stood, so did the rest of those assembled. Walking out of the conference room, he found Calvin right behind him and walking with purpose.

“Mind if I accompany you to the bridge, General?”

“Not in the least,” David replied, though his eyebrow was raised. Calvin typically didn’t go to the bridge unless asked.

“I’d like to use the 1MC to request volunteers.”

“Ah, of course. That would be the best way to reach everyone at the same time.”

Walking together to the nearest gravlift, David tried to engage in a conversation. “How are you holding up?”

“I’ll be fine, sir,” Calvin replied as the doors for the lift slid open.

“Deck one,” David said after they entered the lift and stood back from the doors. “That’s not an answer, Cal.”

Calvin sighed. “I don’t like talking about it. But if you must know, that was the single greatest loss of life under my command I’ve ever endured.”

“I know how it feels,” David began, looking over at him. “It doesn’t get easier.”

“But it gets numb, you know? The daily loss of a life here, a life there. We learn to get over it. It stops affecting us.”

I envy that…it never stopped affecting me. “We have to soldier on,” David replied. “We’re close, Cal. I know we are. This time, we’re taking the station.”

“A lot of Marines are going to die storming that place,” Calvin said with a tinge of regret in his voice.

“A lot of us are going to die, period. But far more will die if we don’t succeed. Right?”

“Damn right, General,” Calvin retorted, and just for a moment, the cocky Marine was back. “We’ll make as many of them die for their country as possible before we start dying for ours.”

David slapped Calvin on the back. “Exactly.” The lift came to a halt, and the doors slid open.

As they walked quickly down the passageway toward the bridge, the two Marines who guarded the door came to attention and saluted; both David and Calvin returned their salutes upon pulling on their covers.

David gestured to the communications station. “Proceed, Colonel.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

David addressed the relief communications officer. “Lieutenant, please patch Colonel Demood into 1MC.”

“Aye aye, sir!” was the prompt reply from the young woman.

Calvin took up position behind the communications station and spoke into the provided microphone. “Attention, all hands, this is Colonel Demood, Terran Coalition Marine Corps. As you may know, the Marines took a lot of casualties in the first attack on Unity Station. As we prepare to assault it again, General Cohen and I have realized our Marine contingent lacks the numbers to have a realistic chance of success. So I come to the men and women of the Lion of Judah, and I challenge anyone who has the courage to put their life on the line to report to cargo bay two at sixteen hundred hours shipboard time today. Regardless of your occupation, rank, or even if you’re a civilian, as long as you’re willing to stand and fight and can operate a standard battle rifle, you won’t be turned away. Do not think this will be easy. Many of us who assault this installation won’t come home, but it’s essential to the success of our mission for us to capture the station. Carry on, Demood out.”

After he finished speaking, Calvin stepped back from the communications station and turned to face David. “Thank you, sir. I hope we’ll have enough volunteers.”

David nodded. “Something tells me, Colonel, there’s no shortage of people on this ship that want a piece of the League, and out of all of the ships in our fleet, we’re uniquely overstaffed, so we can contribute additional personnel.”

“Permission to depart the bridge, sir?”

“Granted, Colonel,” David responded.

Calvin braced to attention before turning on his heel and departing.

David turned toward at the CO’s chair and saw Aibek held the conn. “XO, this is CO. I have the conn,” he invoked formally, walking over to his chair.

“Aye, sir, Colonel Cohen has the conn.” Aibek stood and moved one chair over.

David grinned as he sat down. “Anything to report, XO?”

“We’re doing excellent on the repairs. Ninety-two percent of our ships are now as combat capable as the engineering teams, and contractors feel they can be without drydock time.”

We’re getting there. It’s not perfect, and it won’t be easy, but we’re getting there. Settling back into his seat, he girded himself for the next two hours of watch standing before the next major meeting they had to discuss how to deal with the League’s reinforcements.


20

Three hours later, David was still standing watch on the bridge, watching the various damage reports come in and checking damaged ships off his list as the contractors and engineering staff completed all repairs that they could accomplish in space. Bringing in the Raider tenders had been an inspired idea after all. While it might hurt their ability to take out League resupply freighters, the ships had spare parts and engineering teams that were vital to their efforts. Even better, the tenders had the ability to manufacture parts and entire fighters. This allowed for the repair of large amounts of fighters and bombers that would have otherwise been unusable. So many small craft were now operational, they couldn’t find enough pilots to man them all.

Good problems to have, especially right now. This crazy plan might come together if we could figure out how to overcome Seville’s fleet or get it to move away from the station.

David’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Ruth’s voice. “Conn, TAO!” she shouted. “Wormhole forming, thirty thousand kilometers off the starboard bow!”

Immediately on task, David instinctively sat up straighter in his chair. “TAO, set condition one throughout the ship!”

Per the normal combat evolution, the lights on the bridge immediately dimmed to a dark blue hue, while Ruth continued to report. “Conn, TAO! Condition one set throughout the ship! Sir, wormhole signature confirmed as CDF. New contact, designated as Sierra One… CSV Oxford, sir!”

Aibek exchanged a double-take with David. “What in blazes is the Oxford doing here, sir? She’s a deep space spy ship,” Aibek said.

David smirked. “What in the blazes? Your attempts at sounding more human…”

“Are lacking?”

“Well, unless you’re trying to sound like someone from a holomovie of the late twenty-second century.”

Aibek grinned in the toothy Saurian way. “I’ll try harder.”

David laughed. “I suppose we should find out why they’re here. Communications, signal the Oxford on a tight beam transmission. No leakage.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Taylor replied, and a few moments passed. “Sir, I have Colonel Sinclair for you.”

The monitor above David’s head snapped to life with an image of Sinclair standing in the operations center onboard the Oxford. “General, eh, Cohen? Good to see you again.”

“I wish it was under better circumstances, Colonel Sinclair. What can I do for you? We’re surprised to see you off station.”

“You haven’t been responding to communications attempts. When we contacted CDF command, they informed us you’d gone into EMCON status. So I decided to come to you. We have vital information you need to hear. Permission to come aboard with one of my analysts?”

David glanced at Aibek, taking in his puzzled expression, before turning back to Sinclair’s image on the monitor. “Granted. I’ll get my senior staff together, and we’ll meet in the briefing room as soon as you dock.”

“Excellent, Colonel. We’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”

The screen blinked off, leaving the bridge in silence. David looked to Aibek. “XO, you’re with me. We’ll meet our guests in the deck one conference room.”

“Yes, sir, this should be interesting if for no other reason than to be in the same room as one of your famed intelligence officers,” Aibek replied with a goofy grin.

“Lieutenant Goldberg, you have the conn,” David announced as he stood up from the CO’s chair.

Ruth jumped up from her station and turned to face David. “Aye aye, sir, I have the conn.”

David walked out of the bridge, followed closely by Aibek; he pulled off his cover as he exited the bridge and held it in his hand as they walked the few dozen feet to the conference room just off the passageway from the bridge.

They sat in silence, David lost in his thoughts and again going over the previous battle. His introspection ended when the large frame of a CDF officer walked through the hatch.

The man brought himself to attention. “Colonel Robert Sinclair reports as ordered, sir.”

David quickly stood, as did Aibek. Another young officer walked in behind Sinclair, and he also came to attention. “At ease, gentlemen,” David called out as he walked around the table and extended his hand to Sinclair. “It's nice to finally meet you in the flesh, Colonel Sinclair.”

Sinclair took David’s outstretched hand and gave it a warm shake. “You as well, General. I must say, this ship is… very impressive. I didn’t realize how big it was until it took me ten minutes to walk from the airlock to the gravlift. Allow me to introduce First Lieutenant Alon Tamir.” He gestured toward a younger man who’d walked through the hatch behind him.

“Pleasure to meet you as well, Lieutenant,” David responded, extending his hand to Tamir, who shook it while looking somewhat out of place and shy.

“Please, have a seat. Do either of you need anything in the way of refreshments?”

“No, sir. We had lunch just an hour ago,” Sinclair answered, his eagerness to get going showing on his face.

David and Aibek sat down at the same time as the two intelligence officers, sliding their chairs back up to the table. Staring intently at Sinclair, David began to speak. “Okay, you’ve got our attention, Colonel. What’s going on?”

Sinclair turned his head toward Tamir. “Lieutenant, your find. You get to brief it.”

Tamir visibly gulped, his face turning a touch red.

Watching him, David suppressed a smile. Oh, all those years ago when I was a First Lieutenant. A lifetime ago, he mused to himself.

Tamir stood and faced the rest of the officers. “Sirs, to begin, we deployed stealth drones throughout the battlespace before the engagement between the Alliance fleet and the League. While our drones didn’t detect the mines, they did a fine job of finding enemy ships. In short, Admiral Seville has received nearly two hundred additional ships in reinforcements in the last twenty-four hours. He has over seven hundred vessels at his disposal currently, and we expect to see more arriving within the next three days.”

“I believe the proper human expression is ‘oh shit,’” Aibek interjected, causing laughter to break out in the conference room; even Tamir broke into a smile despite his nervousness.

“That’s the understatement of the century, XO,” David responded with a grin. “Lieutenant, please continue.”

“This next bit is an educated guess, sirs,” Tamir said. “We can break any League code, but some are a lot harder than others for our quantum computers to brute-force the decryption. Typically, the League will use lower levels of encryption on ship-to-ship comms traffic, and save the best they have on what we would call gold-level communications.”

“In other words, the important stuff between senior commanders?”

“Exactly, General,” Tamir replied, beginning to loosen up some. “We caught several that had an immense level of power attached to them. Enough to transmit back to Earth for real-time communications.”

Aibek raised a scale over his eye. “You think they were communicating with League senior command?”

“Actually, sir, I think they were talking with the Social and Public Safety Committee. We intercepted chatter amongst the larger ships in the League fleet talking about wanting to find us and kick our butts. There were references to Admiral Seville not wanting to risk it, and those captains were upset. They got a taste of victory, and now they’d like to finish us off.”

“So put this all together for us, Lieutenant. What’s the full picture?” David asked.

“I believe that Seville is being pressured by the Social and Public Safety Committee to send out his fleet to find us, and then finish off our forces. I’m sure that they need some good news to report; we’ve gotten a lot of information out of the League over the last few months indicating that their news sources are having a hard time covering up the number of ships they’ve lost, and the tens of thousands of causalities suffered. Seville knows his best position is to wait for us to try again, so he wants to sit tight and conserve his strength.”

“That’s a compelling assessment, Lieutenant. Thank you,” David said as he turned his attention back to Sinclair. “Colonel, do you agree with Lieutenant Tamir’s thesis?”

“Tamir, close your ears because I don’t want you to get a big head,” Sinclair said with a slight smirk. “The lieutenant here is one of the best analysts I’ve got. If he gives me his best guess, I’d put money on it all the way to the bank.”

“So Seville thinks we’re coming back, and his government is run by imbeciles who have no idea how to fight a war. I think it’s a good thing for us, if we could somehow force his hand in moving the fleet.”

Tamir cleared his throat. “I’ve got an idea for dealing with that too, sir.”

“Lay it on me, Lieutenant,” David said with a relaxed smile.

“Well, sir, we know the League puts a lot of stock in what the Terran Coalition media has to say about the war and our readiness posture. All media except for Canaan News Network. You have an embedded reporter on board from GNN if I remember correctly? We could plant disinformation with your embed and, in turn, cause the Social and Public Safety Committee to force the issue with Seville.”

“An interesting idea, Lieutenant. Do we consider it might be dishonorable to manipulate the truth, though?” Aibek interjected.

David shook his head. “When dealing with the League? I don’t see it as lying, I see it as deceiving the enemy.”

“I must protest, General Cohen. Lying brings you closer to evil, and lying is wrong by its very definition,” Aibek said, his jaw set.

David closed his eyes for a moment. “XO, I hear you. One of the Ten Commandments is you shall not bear false witness. I get it. But what else would you have us do? I think Lieutenant Tamir is onto something here. It’s simple and brilliant. Deceive the Leaguers and get them to divide their forces. Then we go in and take that station. We do that… the fourteen thousand plus people who died two days ago don’t die in vain. If the price for that is one Jew committing a sin, I’ll beg God for forgiveness and hope it evens out.”

David could tell from the furrowed brow and narrowed eyes on Aibek’s face that he wanted to continue to debate the subject as he began to speak again. “It’s your decision, sir.”

“The ruse will have to be perfect, General,” Sinclair said, changing the subject. “You can’t have her deliver a report like normal. That’ll look and smell fake. We have to go all out; she has to do it under duress and act like she’s breaking the rules. I’d say go so far as to fire blanks and have her tackled by security personnel. Do everything short of shooting her on camera.”

“That’s pretty dark, Colonel,” David responded.

“I’m an intelligence officer, sir. I’m paid to be dark and do the things no one else wants to know about or be responsible for. You could say I’m a sin eater. I do the things that need to be done, and my hands are the ones that get dirty so the rest of you can stay clean.”

David sat back in the chair, considering his options. If this goes wrong, it’s going to be bad. We’ll be walking a very fine line in terms of breaking the law that states CDF personnel cannot knowingly lie to the press. Who am I kidding? We’ll be breaking the law. No, I’ll be breaking the law. It's my command, and the buck stops with me. God help us if we don’t, I don’t see a way to get Seville to divide up his fleet. This might not even work, but I’ve got to try. I owe it those who died for all of this to not have been in vain. “Okay, Colonel Sinclair. You work up a script, I’ll talk to our resident reporter and see if she’s willing to go along.”

“I would recommend giving her no choice,” Sinclair responded, his voice hard as nails.

“It must be a voluntary action, period. I’ll sign up for lying to the League, but I won’t force her to do it against her will. On the pragmatic side of things, even if I did, it would show, and all of this would be for nothing.”

Sinclair nodded. “I understand, sir, even if I disagree.”

“Okay, gentlemen, let’s get to it,” David announced as he stood up. The rest of them sprang to their feet a split second after he did. “Dismissed.” Aibek thinks I’m going too far. Sinclair, not far enough. Who’s right? If I stop to think about it, I don’t think I’d like the answer.


21

Ruth decided to take a break from working on the tactical plans for dealing with Unity Station and made her way to the officers’ mess closest to the bridge. There were so many officers on the ship, it had six different messes assigned to them, while the traditional wardroom was reserved for only the senior staff of the vessel. Hmm, they have cheeseburgers today. It’s still kind of weird to break kashrut. I feel odd about it, she pondered before deciding to order a hamburger without the cheese. After waiting patiently in line, she got her meal and proceeded to a dispensing station to get a beverage; in her case, regular water. A voice from behind startled her from her thoughts.

“Hey, Ruth, how are you doing?” Taylor asked.

She turned around to see the communications officer behind her, a cheeseburger in hand. “I’m okay but famished. An army marches on its stomach, right?” she asked rhetorically while flashing a smile. “Want to join me?”

“Sure.”

The two of them made their way to a small table and took their respective seats. It wasn’t lost on Ruth that Taylor was a gentleman; the little things he did like always waiting until ladies were seated before he sat were noticed.

“An hour off shift, then back on for another ten. We’ll sleep when we’re dead, I guess,” Taylor deadpanned.

“It seems like it some days. But we’re making progress.”

“Yeah, I’ve been helping to gather information from the various captains in the fleet. General Cohen’s closing in on a strategy. I’ve worked with him long enough to be able to feel it when he’s about to find what he’s looking for.”

Ruth laughed. “I’ve only got an extra six months on you for working with him. I do know what you mean, though. He’s like a laser sometimes in his focus on a problem. One of the best things about his style, actually,” she said as she looked Taylor over. His face was wearing a frown, and something about his demeanor was off. “Is something wrong, Robert?”

“No.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Yes.”

“Which is it?”

“I sometimes struggle with my job.”

“How? You’re good at it, at least from my perspective.”

“Not at being good at it, but that I have it. My family was mostly Marines. I always wanted to do computers, so I ended up riding a console. There are times when I wish I were out there, on the sharp tip of the spear.”

Ruth glanced at Taylor’s right hand, where he wore his wedding ring. “Does it have something to do with your wife?”

“Yeah. She was a Marine. I wasn’t there for her.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t help if you were,” Ruth replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I was there when my parents died. A League patrol burst into our house and killed my father as he reached for a gun. Then my mother,” Ruth said as she set her face and determined not to cry at the memory.

“I had no idea…I’m sorry,” Taylor mumbled.

“No, it’s okay. I paid them back, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. When those soldiers turned away, I snatched up a gun and shot them in the back. I kept shooting until I ran out of bullets, and then I ran as fast as my legs would carry me.”

Taylor’s brow furrowed. “Then what?”

“I joined a resistance cell and fought the League until the fleet and the Marines liberated our planet. I had nothing left. No family, no friends. I forged my dead father’s signature on my enlistment papers, easy to do because all planetary records were gone, and joined the CDF when I was sixteen. I’ve been blowing Leaguers out of space ever since,” Ruth said in a darkly amused tone.

Taylor laughed softly. “You’re a little warped, you know that, right?”

Ruth smiled. “More than a little.”

“I’ve been thinking about volunteering for the boarding party.”

Ruth’s eyelids opened wide and her mouth dropped open. “Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I think it’s time that I stood up and put myself on the firing line,” Taylor responded in a sure voice.

“What will that accomplish?”

“I hope it will help me to live in my own skin a bit better. Perhaps I can be of some use. I’m a fairly skilled hacker, or as Colonel Demood puts it, comms geek.”

Ruth snickered. “He’s got a snappy put down for everyone, doesn’t he?”

Taylor nodded as he smiled. “Yes, he does. Besides, I shot expert in basic.”

“We’re a good twelve years from basic.”

“Speak for yourself. I’m only eleven years removed from the tender attention of my drill instructor.”

Ruth laughed again. “Just make sure if you volunteer, you do it for the right reasons, okay?”

“I’ll try,” Taylor said, picking up his burger. “Want to see if they’re any good?”

“We should bless the food first.”

“Why don’t you do it? That’s something else that isn’t quite right these days.”

“What do you mean?” Ruth asked, her voice betraying concern.

“I don’t know what I believe anymore. Do you still want to be friends?” he asked with a touch of a smile.

Ruth rolled her eyes. “Really? I think we’ve all been there. God knows I have. I still go to church and shul. I guess you could say I’m confused.”

It was Taylor’s turn to laugh. “Well, if that’s settled…”

Ruth smirked and bowed her head before blessing the food. As they ate, she couldn’t set aside her concern for Taylor. After they had finished their meal and he went back toward his duty, she found herself standing at the observation portion of the mess, looking out into space. God, please watch over Robert. He’s a good man, and he’s about to throw himself into harm’s way. Help them all. After a few minutes of quiet contemplation, her comm went off; it was time for her to go back to work. Turning around, walking quickly and with purpose out of the mess, she hoped she wasn’t about to lose another friend.

So Fight I

The medical bay on the Lion was still crammed full of the injured. As the Lion was the de facto flagship of the Coalition Defense Force, it got the latest and greatest technology; medical technology was included in those upgrades. The most severe trauma cases were transferred to the Lion in hopes the gravely injured would survive with the higher quality of care available. Walking into the lobby, David sought out Doctor Tural, who was making his rounds; he’d decided to spend a few minutes visiting the doctor and his patients before committing them to the next round of combat.

“Doctor! Do you have a moment?” David asked as soon as Tural stepped away from one of the treatment beds.

The much older man nodded. He wore a tired, sagging expression. “Of course, Col… General Cohen.” Tural gestured to a quiet corner of the room, to which both men walked.

“Doctor, I’m sorry to disturb you. I wanted to see for myself.”

Tural looked up at David. “There are many here who might not make it, but we’re doing our best. All but twenty-three of the most severe cases have been discharged. A lot of soldiers are on light duty, but they’ll be fine.”

David found visiting the wounded difficult. To see men and women maimed following his orders was just hard to accept. I have a duty to see them, to try to comfort them in some small way, because regardless of anything else, I ordered them to fight. “I’ve brought some medals with me… Purple Hearts.”

“I see. Those are well earned in this ward, sir.”

“Will you escort me to the patients? I want to speak with each individually,” David asked.

“Who is first on your list?”

“Private Third Class Doris Hunter,” David replied somberly.

“Follow me, General,” Tural said, pointing to a bed across the room.

David took in the sight of the young woman; she was sitting up in bed, a smile on her face, which greatly surprised him, as both of her legs had been amputated after they were mangled from an explosion in the engineering spaces. Seeing David approach, she stiffened her posture in the bed.

“At ease, Private,” David said with a forced smile.

“I apologize for not standing, sir.”

David pursed his lips, fighting down emotion. “Apology not required, Private Hunter. I’ve got something for you.” He forced a smile as he opened the small case that held the medal. Turning it around to show her, he continued, “Private Third Class Doris Hunter, I hereby present you with the Purple Heart for the wounds you received in combat at Unity Station. Please accept this medal on behalf of a grateful republic.”

Stepping back, David came to attention and smartly brought his hand to his brow, snapping off a crisp salute. Retreating into the process and decorum of military tradition was always his out.

Doris stiffened again and brought her arm up, which was when David saw her hand was gone as well. It was all he could do not to break down in tears; the sight of a young woman, no more than twenty years of age, already missing three limbs, deeply affected him.

“Thank you, sir.”

David inclined his head and began to turn away, a tear already forming in his eye when her voice stopped him.

“Sir, it's okay.”

Forcing himself to turn back around, the tear falling down his face, David answered her, “How so, Private?”

“I’ll be back on my feet in a week with prosthetics, and Doctor Bhatt’s already told me I'd be able to receive grafted limbs, flash-cloned for me in a year. I’ll be back in the fight and useful inside of four weeks, sir. My only regret is that I won’t be there for you when we go after Seville again.”

David stood there, stunned. How can she be so upbeat, after losing three-quarters of her limbs… what do I have to complain about? Pull it together, David. “You focus on getting better, Private. I’ll focus on Admiral Seville,” he said, summoning a smile.

“I will, sir. I’ll be better soon,” she continued. “This cause is worth fighting for, no matter what the cost is.”

“Yes, it is, Private. Thank you for reminding me of that fact.”

Tural interrupted them. “And Private Hunter needs to get ready for her physical therapy session today. If you’d follow me, General?”

“Of course, Doctor. Private, an honor to meet you. Carry on.”

“Godspeed, sir,” Doris said as a goodbye.

“Godspeed, Private.”

As Tural led him away, David whispered, “What’s her prognosis, Doctor?”

“Excellent, sir. It’ll take some time, but she’ll be fine. Just think, there was a time when we couldn’t do anything except fit a prosthetic and hope the person would learn to adjust.”

“I suppose that’s a good point, Doctor. Medical science has salved some of our wounds. But not all.”

“No,” Tural admitted. “Some patients are too far gone when they get here. I think that’s the hardest part about trauma surgery. I have to make the call as to who can be saved, and who we should allow to pass on so others get help.”

David glanced over Tural as they walked. “I don’t think I’d want that responsibility, Doctor.”

“How is it different from commanding the ship in battle? Different sides of the same coin.”

“I don’t want to be deciding exactly who lives and who dies. That’s God’s job, not mine.”

Tural laughed. “Allah, who works through my hands, decides who lives and dies. I am only his instrument, and I try to do as much good as I can.”

David nodded. “I think that applies to most of us, Doctor.”

“Shall we go to the next patient? He’s on a ventilator, but his girlfriend serves on one of the ships in the fleet. She’s been spending a lot of time at his bedside, and I think it would mean a lot to her.”

“Lead the way.”

So Fight I

Calvin’s office was deep in the bowels of the ship—Marine country—and like the other senior officers onboard the Lion, he had his own space. Ostensibly to support the administrative component of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the office space was a concession by CDF ship designers. Alone in the office, he sat back in his chair, the lights dimmed, lost in thought. The door chime rang, which he ignored. It buzzed again and again. Finally, he barked, “Come in! You better have a damn good reason for disturbing me too!”

The hatch swung open, and in walked David. “The general wants to talk to you… that good enough?”

“I guess,” Calvin replied.

“Come on, not even a trademark Demood wisecrack? I set it up for you,” David said while shaking his head. “Mind if I sit down?”

“Yeah… I mean, no. Have a seat, sir.”

“What’s eating you, Cal?”

“You got to ask?”

“Pretty sure it’s the same thing eating me.”

“I’m tired of my Marines dying. I’m really tired of it. We couldn’t even get to the damn fight before a third of ‘em got wiped off the face of the universe. I’ve been doing this for decades. I’m sick of it. Do you know my wife wants to have kids? I keep putting her off,” Calvin said before his voice trailed off.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want them to grow up and join the Marines just like their daddy and then I get to bury them too!”

David was silent for a moment, a rueful look on his face. “Cal, I get it.”

“The hell you do, sir.”

“Why do you think I’m not married?” David asked, not waiting for an answer before he continued. “Because I don’t want to put someone through what my mom and I went through after my dad was killed.”

“There’s something different about engaging the enemy on the ground, directly in front you. There’s also something different about seeing those around you die in your arms, their lifeblood spilling onto you and while there’s nothing you can do to save them.”

“I’m not here to debate whose job sucks more, Cal.”

“Then why are you here, sir?” Calvin grated out.

“Because I can tell when a friend is hurting, and I want to help.”

You can’t do a damn thing for me. “That’s nice, I guess. Can you bring my Marines back?”

“No, I can’t. But I can do everything in my power to make sure we win the next engagement, and part of that is making sure my MEU commander is in the game.”

“I’ll do my job, sir,” Calvin said as anger rose in him. Who the hell does this little pissant think he’s talking to? I was killing Leaguers when he was still in grade school.

“I know you’ll do your job, Cal,” David replied, leaning forward. “I’m here to help my friend.”

“Thanks.”

There was a pregnant pause in the conversation before Calvin decided to pick it back up. “I read over the op we’re running with the reporter. Pretty ballsy.”

“Yeah, if she’ll agree to it.”

“If she doesn’t, put a gun to her head.”

“Please tell me you’re joking, Cal.”

“Halfway,” Calvin replied with a smirk. “She seems to like you. Going to convince her?”

“I’m going to do my best. If she won’t, we’ll figure something else out, but I think she will.”

“You promise me we’re going to put the hurt on Seville and his butchers, David,” Calvin said, staring at David intently. “No matter what it takes, we destroy his fleet, capture the station, kill the admiral, and drink some of that Saurian ale crap over his body.”

“We’re going to do it without giving in to dark impulses.”

“He gets in my sights, I’m putting him down like a rabid dog.”

David sat mute for several seconds, apparently not sure what to say. “Don’t get lost in the hate, Cal. Remember, what makes us the good guys is we’re not like them.”

“Yeah, that sounds good and all… but right now, I want to erase as many Leaguers as I can and hope to hell it makes me feel better.”

David stood up. “I’m going to go talk to Angie. Get your team together and prepare. I want to see you up in the CIC before we launch the attack to review strategy.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Godspeed, Cal,” David said as he turned around and walked out of the room, leaving Calvin to continue to stew in the dark recesses of his mind.


22

Angie was working on a report for GNN. While cut off from the rest of the galaxy, she was doing the editing and cutting of the footage herself to pass the time. She nearly jumped out of her skin when the bell rang on her hatch. Not expecting any company, she settled herself and called out, “Come in!”

The hatch swung out, and David strode through it. He was frowning, something outside of his regular style. “Hello, Angie.”

“Hello, General,” Angie replied. “What brings you down to my little cubby hole?”

“I was wondering if we could chat for a minute.”

“It’s your ship, so I’m kind of obligated to, aren’t I?” Angie said, with some level of condescension in her voice.

“Have I ever treated you like that?”

“Not directly. Though I suspect beneath your velvet glove lies an iron fist.”

David frowned and glanced to the side. “I’ve tried to create a professional relationship with you built on respect.”

“You don’t come down here unless you want something, General. What is it?”

“To start with, I’ve got some good news. We’re lifting EMCON, so you can make a report back to Canaan.”

“There’s a but coming here. I can feel it a kilometer away,” Angie replied.

David again averted his eyes. “Yes. We need you to deliver a particular message in your broadcast.”

“Which is?”

“That the fleet is battered, many of our capital ships are damaged beyond repair, and intensive efforts are underway to save the disabled ships and their crews.”

“That’s a lie,” Angie blurted out.

“It’s not a lie. It’s deceiving the enemy.”

I can’t believe it, after all this time, he wants to use me like this? “That’s crap and you know it, General,” Angie said as her eyes flashed anger.

“I wouldn’t ask if we had any other options.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to explain it to me?”

David shook his head. “You know it's classified.”

“If you want my help, you’re going to explain it to me.”

“I could compel you to assist me, under the War Powers Act,” David replied, but his tone indicated his heart wasn’t in the statement.

“I won’t dignify that with a response,” Angie said, her jaw set as she folded her arms in front of her.

“I’m sorry,” David began, gesturing to one of the chairs in the small office. “May I sit?” At her nod of acceptance, he sat down and faced her, making eye contact. “We believe there’s a faction within the League’s government that wants to send out its fleet to look for us. If they do, it gives us a window of opportunity to attack Unity Station. It’s a narrow one, and we’d have to act very quickly. This is the only play we have; Seville has gotten too many reinforcements for our existing fleet to win without losses so high we’d be unable to keep fighting.”

Angie leaned forward. “A pyrrhic victory?”

“Exactly. You’ve been hanging around us for too long… picking up the lingo.”

Angie snorted. “You’re not off the hook, General. You still haven’t explained what you think my report can do.”

“We’re guessing, but the intel guys think the League’s Social and Public Safety Committee wants a quick win. Seville, whatever else he is, knows his strategy. He wants us to come to him. If we release a news report, especially from a source that is decidedly straight down the middle without pro-CDF ties… it’ll be taken as valid by the League’s intelligence analysts. It could be the final straw in them sending out the hounds, as it were.”

“You’re telling me that going against everything I believe in, lying to the viewers, and breaking the code I live by, is the only way we’re going to win?”

David looked away for a moment, but Angie was gratified that he returned his gaze to her and again made eye contact. “Boiled down, that’s exactly what I’m saying. While we’re on the subject, I’m breaking the law and going against what I believe too.”

“Way to put a girl on the spot, General.”

“I don’t ask this lightly. We lost nearly fifteen thousand people two days ago.”

“Fourteen thousand, eight hundred sixty-two, to be exact.”

“Too many. We can’t leave here without their sacrifice counting for something.”

“But what about the moral cost? What if the lie comes out?”

“I can’t think about tomorrow. I’m focused on today. If it comes out down the road, so be it. We’ll clean up the mess then.”

Angie shook her head. “David, I’ve been on this beat for long enough to know the Mister Goody Two Shoes routine of yours isn’t just an act. Why are you doing this?”

David glanced down at his feet. “Because I have to. The League must be defeated. Whatever it takes.”

“And if I say no? Would you force me to at the point of a gun?”

Fire shone in David’s eyes. “That’s a line I won’t cross. If you say no, we’ll figure out something else. Or more likely, we’ll have to pack it up and head for home. At the rate Seville is gaining new ships, he’ll be able to overwhelm us in six months. This is a one and done opportunity.”

“So if I don’t go along, I’ll single-handedly cost us the war?”

“No. You’ll cost us a chance for a major victory and set the war back. Even if you agree, we still have to win. That’s far from a foregone conclusion.”

“Do you realize the choice you're forcing me to make? I either stay true what I know I should do and cause unimaginable consequences, or I sacrifice my beliefs and ideals.”

“Angie, I don’t envy your position. All I can say is I know what I’m asking. I ask nothing of you I haven’t already had to do myself.”

“And if it goes south? Who takes the blame, your officers?”

“Of course not. I would. I already entered objections from my senior staff into the ship’s log. They’re covered if we fail. I’ll do the same for you.”

“If I agree, what exactly do you want me to do?”

“We’ve got a plan to make the broadcast look as if it’s under duress. Marines armed with battle rifles and stun rounds will interrupt your report and make it look good for the camera.”

“Pure propaganda, in other words.”

“Yes.”

To his credit, he’s being honest with me. At least I think he is. “I’ll do it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I can’t live with myself if all the people who died fighting yesterday did so in vain. Especially if I can help. Someday, though, David, this is going to come back to haunt us.”

“I’ve run up a large bill with God. I fear the day He calls it in.”

Angie closed her eyes. “When do you need me?”

“Now.”

“Then let’s go before I change my mind,” Angie said with a false sense of bravado. Conflicted inside, she knew to help the military pull off what would be the most significant victory of the war was something she had to do. At the same time, turning her back on the truth was incredibly difficult. I’ve made a career out of being an honest broker and holding influential people to account. That goes out the window with this move. Isn’t lying against the Ten Commandments? Why am I even asking myself that… wow, I’ve changed.

David stood and held the hatch open. “Ladies first.”

“I can handle opening the door, General,” Angie replied, still not willing to let go of the earlier comments.

“Never said you couldn’t. My mother raised a gentleman and holding a door open is a mark of respect.”

Angie walked out of the room without another word, trying to focus her mind on the task at hand and her wildly conflicted emotions, not the least of which was the level of respect and admiration she had for David. In the months she’d been on the ship, she had grown to like how he did things. How he treated his crew and those around him was refreshing. Conflating it with his behavior just now was a difficult task.

So Fight I

After confirming via the communications logs that David was in his day cabin, Taylor made his way up to deck one and knocked on the already open hatch.

David glanced up from his desk and waved him in. “Come on in, Lieutenant.”

Taylor came to attention before David’s desk. “Sir, permission to speak freely?”

“Of course. Have a seat.”

Taylor sat down and stared straight ahead, almost past David. His heart was pounding in his chest. “Sir, I’d like to request permission to join Colonel Demood’s assault force.”

David raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “I’m not inclined to grant your request, Lieutenant. You’re a vital part of my bridge team, going above and beyond the call of duty you signed up for and have executed to the highest ability the position of my flag staff leader. I plan to note in your official record that you performed in the most exemplary of manner these last few days.”

Taylor swallowed hard. “Sir, with respect, the hard work here is done. My relief from the second or third shift can handle the comms duties during the battle.”

“How about this, son… tell me why you want to go.”

Hearing David address him as “son” almost brought a smile to his lips. He was only ten years older. “Sir, I’m a communications guy… I’ve avoided combat my entire career. My wife was a Marine. She died in combat, on an op.”

“So you think by volunteering you can somehow make up for that?”

“Not make up for it, sir, but maybe… even the scales. I’ve always taken the safe road. I need to stand up, I need to be counted. I shot expert in basic. I know how to fight; ask Colonel Demood. He and I spar regularly, and I give as good as I get.”

“The fact remains, you’re the single best communication, computer, and encryption asset I have on this vessel. Sending you into harm's way, from the perspective of what is best for the ship and the fleet, would be foolhardy at best.”

“Well, sir, I’d be an even better asset supporting the Marines directly, helping them hack the systems of Unity Station. Maybe I could even gain access to its weapons arrays or shielding. Help swing the battle toward us from within that station.”

Taylor could see David was considering his proposal by the way his brow had furrowed and the look of contemplation he wore. “That’s somewhat compelling, Lieutenant. There’s something I have to say to you, and this is more of a personal matter. Have you ever taken a life?”

Taylor shook his head. “No, sir.”

“You will on this mission. I don’t care where you are or what you’re doing. At some point on this mission, you’ll kill another human being. That’s something that sticks with you for the rest of your life. There’s no putting it behind you. You make peace with it, but it stays with you. Are you prepared?”

Kind of like not being there for your loved ones sticks with you your entire life. “Yes, sir, I am.”

“Very well. I’ll approve your request. Once the fleet is positioned, I’ll excuse you to join Colonel Demood’s assault. Be careful out there… this one won’t be easy.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll do my best,” Taylor said.

“Carry on, Lieutenant. Godspeed.”

Taylor stood and brought himself to attention. “Thank you, sir. Godspeed to you too, sir.” He then performed an about-face and exited David’s office. Walking back to the bridge to begin his shift, he was not at peace.


23

Justin Spencer had just sat down to eat dinner with his wife and children in what was called the private residence portion of the president’s house. The house was divided into three wings: one held the machinery of the executive branch; the dozens of advisors and staffers that ran the behind-the-scenes actions. Another was for public viewing and had daily tours open to the masses. It had always been a staple of the Terran Coalition that the seat of government was to be transparent and easily accessible to all citizens. The last was the private residence, a place where the president and his family could find solace without the pressing rigor of politics and running the government.

His steward stuck his head in the door to the family’s dining room. “Mr. President, I’m sorry, sir, but you're needed in the Oval.”

“Emergency?” Spencer asked, pained that he couldn’t share some time with his family.

“Yes, sir. They need you right away.”

Spencer stood with a look of apology toward his family. “I’m sorry. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“It’s okay, dear. I’ll have a plate saved for you,” his wife said.

With a knowing nod, he walked out of the dining room and made his way to the Oval Office, security detail in tow. Pausing outside the door to retrieve a suit jacket from a coat rack directly adjacent to it, he put the coat on before entering. Spencer was well known for not allowing anyone to enter who wasn’t dressed in business attire. The least we can do is honor those who came before by treating it with respect in all things, including how we dress.

As he walked through the door, his assembled staff, which included the secretary of defense, and General MacIntosh, stood in respect.

“Please be seated, ladies and gentlemen. What’s going on?” Spencer asked.

His chief of staff spoke up. “Sir, I think it would be better to see this in real time.” The man fumbled with a remote, and a holoprojector came to life, presenting an image that Spencer quickly realized was onboard of a CDF military vessel.

“This is Angela Dinman, reporting live for GNN onboard the CSV Lion of Judah. We’re broadcasting without the permission of the CDF. For the last several days, the military has prevented us from presenting a true account of what happened during the battle at Unity Station. The League has developed a new weapon, which the best minds in the CDF have no answer for. This weapon is a stealth mine that in military terminology allows for area denial. The joint CDF and Saurian Navy fleet took twenty percent losses in the first engagement. Over half of our fighters and bombers were wiped out. Most of the remaining ships sustained heavy damage, and we’re hiding out for fear of the League discovering our location. We believe the people of the Terran Coalition have a right to know what’s going on out here.”

As she spoke, there were muffled shouts in the background.

“It appears we’ve been found. I knew we wouldn’t get long. To whoever is watching this, make sure the truth comes out and hold the CDF to account. That’s what we try to do here.”

An explosion somewhere in the background caused sparks and debris to rain into the picture, followed by shouting and weapons fire. The feed abruptly cut out after an energy weapons discharge hit Angie in the chest.

“What in the name of God was that?” MacIntosh blurted out. “Since when does GNN put out fake news?”

Spencer went weak at the knees at the thought of what the broadcast could do to the morale of the civilian population. “I don’t know, Andrew. I’m at a loss for words.”

Secretary Dunleavy spoke up. “Sir, I think this was on purpose.”

The entire room turned to stare at him. “I don’t follow,” Spencer replied.

“We know from intelligence received previously today there’s evidence the League’s leaders want to split up the fleet at Unity Station and go looking for our forces. What better way to draw them out than a news report, from a supposedly unbiased source that says we’re on the ropes and defenseless?”

MacIntosh nodded. “It tracks, Mr. Secretary. I know General Cohen through and through. There’s no way some reporter would be able to pull this off under the nose of his security staff, and Colonel Demood’s Marines. It still presents a problem to the civilians, though. We can’t deny it. If we do, we tip off the League.”

“We also can’t confirm it,” Spencer commented. “I’m not lying to the citizens of our nation, and besides, it’s against a dozen Terran Coalition statutes for a public servant to knowingly lie to the press or attempt to spread false information.”

“Which is why General Cohen wouldn’t ask you for permission, sir,” MacIntosh interjected. “He knows you can’t approve it.”

“Which means he’s breaking the law, then,” Spencer said, not liking any of the options on the table. “But I’ll concede in light of the circumstances his actions may be justified.”

“We give General Cohen a long leash, specifically because his methods are unorthodox, Mr. President. I’ve learned to not bet against him.”

“How can we be sure that this is his plan?” Spencer asked the room.

“We’ll find out for sure when we have our next communication window with the Lion of Judah. They’re to present a final plan to attack Unity Station,” Dunleavy replied.

“What if this was just a rogue reporter, trying to harm the war effort? Or worse… a League plant?” Spencer’s chief of staff asked.

“We vetted Ms. Dinman through the same procedure we do for individuals with high-level security clearance. She’s no League agent,” MacIntosh said.

“You mean, we don’t have evidence she is. I’ve been in this game long enough to know that we’re never sure someone’s a spy until they do something.”

“Occam’s razor. It’s far more likely General Cohen has a trick up his sleeve than wild ideas about spies,” Dunleavy interjected.

“Fine. What about the fallout from this? Mr. President, we have to get in front of it, right now,” Spencer’s chief of staff said insistently.

“Would I be correct in assuming that there’s already the normal press corps gaggle in the briefing room?” Spencer asked.

“Yes, sir. The entire pool is present, shouting questions at the deputy press secretary.”

“Alright. I’ll go down there myself and talk to them. Without lying.”

“You’ll be walking a very fine line, Mr. President,” Dunleavy said, his brow furrowed.

“I know, but it’s the only thing we can do. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re all welcome to join me.”

Spencer gestured toward the door and walked out, the gaggle of advisors, military officers, and his security detail in tow.

MacIntosh made his way up to Spencer’s side and whispered sotto voce as they walked, “Mr. President, I’d be happy to give the briefing for you. If there’s any blowback, I could take the blame.”

Spencer glanced at MacIntosh with a raised eyebrow. “Since when did I ever give you the impression that I was someone who passed the buck?”

“Never, sir.”

“I’m not starting now,” Spencer responded as they quickly walked through the corridors, passing offices and causing staff members to step to the sides to allow the group through.

“I’m just an old military officer, sir. You’re our leader. I’m less important.”

“You sell yourself short, Andrew. You’re the architect of our current success. Besides, I’ve got a plan. Let’s see how it works before we go into full damage control mode.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”

The two men rounded the corner that led into the briefing room, filled with holocameras and projectors, the assembled reporters taking note that the president had arrived. They jumped to their feet, screaming questions.

Spencer took the podium and held up his hands. “Please, I have a statement,” he began, waiting for the tumult to die down. “A few minutes ago, a recording was released to the public. I can confirm our initial assault on the League space station was a failure. Many brave soldiers of the Coalition Defense Force and the Royal Saurian Navy lost their lives. The League has deployed a new weapon against us, a type of stealth mine our sensors can’t see. Even with that new weapon, our fleet was able to escape the trap and inflict significant causalities on the enemy.”

Spencer scanned the room, seeing looks of concern, worry, and fear. “The strength of our nation has never been our technology or the training our soldiers receive or the number of ships we have. Our true power is that we stand together, united. United, regardless of our beliefs, political affiliations, faith, or lack thereof. Today I ask every citizen in the Terran Coalition to pray for the safety of our service members in harm’s way, that they may speedily repair the ships which are damaged and rejoin the fight. Due to this being an ongoing military operation, I can’t comment further. All I can say is we will fight on, no matter what the cost or how hard the road. I know the citizens watching me right now are scared and worried. I doubt there’s anyone in this building who doesn’t share that fear. But we also believe our nation is blessed, because of our trust and dedication to Almighty God. Those were our founding principles, and so they will remain, regardless of any attempts to force us to accept the rule of the League. Thank you all, and may God continue to protect, guide, and bless the Terran Coalition!”

Spencer abruptly turned and walked away from the podium, all while the gathered reporters shouted questions at the top of their lungs. MacIntosh fell in beside him as before, as they rounded the corner away from the briefing room.

“Nice job, sir,” MacIntosh said with a smile.

“Say that once we’re sure it worked,” Spencer replied. Dear God, please let it work. If General Cohen has a plan he’s working, let what I did help him. Deliver us from this scourge. It was going to be a long night.

So Fight I

The last few hours had been a challenge for Admiral Pierre Seville. He paced around his gigantic stateroom; no more than a gilded cage. “What’s taking them so long?” Seville fumed.

Colonel Strappi perched on a chair in the corner of what amounted to the living room. “I’m sure it’s taking time to bring the Social and Public Safety Committee together, Admiral.”

Seville realized in his own bizarre and unique way, Strappi was trying to be there for him through this maddening exercise. “They probably had to dispatch a medical team to resuscitate a member or two from whatever brothel they were in.”

Strappi’s mouth curled up in an involuntary smile before he forced it down. “Admiral, I believe they’re ready for us,” he said, pointing to the light blinking on the holographic conference system. At Seville’s nod, he engaged the device, and a virtual presentation of the committee’s meeting chamber superimposed itself on the room.

Seville glanced around, taking note of those in attendance. A few aren’t in their usual seats. I wonder what that portends?

“Admiral, we’ve examined your plan,” Chairman Pallis said.

That was quick, Seville thought. “Thank you, Chairman. I am glad you see the wisdom of my strategy.”

“No, Admiral,” Pallis replied. “After deliberation, we’ve determined your tactical plans are timid.”

Seville almost went berserk, right then and there. Forcing himself not to lose control over his tongue, he stared directly at Pallis. “Chairman, I don’t understand…”

Pallis interrupted him. “You propose keeping all of the ships we have sent you as a defensive force at Unity Station. They’re not your personal bodyguard, Admiral.”

“Of course not, sir. It’s simply prudent to concentrate our forces for the next attack.”

“An attack we don’t believe will occur. The Terran Coalition’s rather efficient news organizations have published a report that the fleet is broken and unable to launch any further offensives.”

“I saw the report, Chairman Pallis. Believe me, when I say to you it's not credible. We’ve been over the sensor logs. Most of the ships that escaped are more than combat capable.”

“It was from an organization that has never failed to bring harsh facts to light. They’re unimpeachable as a source.”

“Nevertheless, I tell you, our information proves otherwise.”

“Admiral, you’re beginning to trouble me. Other members of the Social and Public Safety Committee and I are openly wondering why you will not be aggressive after inflicting a harsh blow on the Terrans. Have you lost the taste for combat?”

Seville kept his mouth in a tight line, knowing that he was risking execution if he said what he wanted to say. The League is run by idiots who have no business interfering with the Navy and its prosecution of the war. If they’d listened to me twenty-eight years ago, none of this would be happening. We would have destroyed the Terran Coalition in one fell swoop. But no… these idiots always show up and screw up my plans, then take credit for the successes I manage to cobble together!

“Chairman, I will never lose my taste for defeating the Terran Coalition and its allies, paving the way to reunite humanity under the banner of the League. Still, I counsel caution. We have no idea what the Terrans are planning. They’re a dangerous adversary.”

“I want seventy-five percent of your fleet out looking for the enemy within the hour,” Pallis stated, his voice brooking a no-nonsense attitude.

“The maximum we can afford to send is a third of the fleet, sir,” Seville replied, his objective now to stem the tide of the damage.

“Fine, fifty percent. Within the hour, Admiral, or I’ll have Colonel Strappi issue the orders. To persist further would invite questions as to your individualism.”

“I’ll see to it myself, Chairman,” Seville said as he touched his fist to his chest. Yes, it’s individualism to want to save our sailors and space station, idiots.

“Good, Admiral. Destroy the enemy and chase them back to Canaan!”

The holoprojector blinked off without giving Seville a chance to reply. Unlike the rage he had felt the last time they’d engaged in this charade, now he was just drained and beaten. He sat down on the couch and looked up at the ceiling. “These damn old sniveling men will lose it all for us, Strappi.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Order the fleet out, of course. What else can we do?”

“What if you're right?”

“Then we do the best we can. This mindless belief that the embodiment of the state knows all lost us the first Battle of Canaan,” Seville replied. “Without it, we wouldn’t even be here.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to examine a different solution?”

“If you’re suggesting I ignore my orders… I wouldn’t have expected that to come so directly from you, Colonel.”

“Only a fool cannot see the wisdom of your position, Admiral.”

The colonel is full of surprises today. “I appreciate your loyalty, Strappi. But not today. Today, we do as we’re told. You heard them… to suggest I am tainted by individualism is among the worst things which can be said. Pallis isn’t playing. Ultimately, we may yet turn this to our advantage. Make sure we send our oldest and weakest ships out. If we can hold the Canaan Alliance fleet here when it attacks, the rest of our forces can hit them from the rear.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Carry on, Colonel. I’ll see you in the control room.”

Strappi stood and brought himself to unusually proper attention, slamming his fist into his chest. “Yes, Admiral!”


24

David was about to call it a watch and head down to the wardroom for a very late lunch. He’d spent the time since the staging Angie’s “special report” on the bridge, if for no other reason than to avoid her. He felt guilty for hanging her out to dry in that manner, and it was likely that there’d be hell to pay for her later, at least professionally. Now, though, there was a war to fight. The atmosphere in the bridge was taut and the bridge crew, all the way from him on down the enlisted technicians, were wound up.

For what seemed like the fiftieth time in the last five minutes, David checked his wristcomm; the minute hadn’t changed yet. “Conn, communications!” Taylor called out, interrupting his thoughts. “I’ve got incoming flash traffic from CSV Oxford, sir. It’s Colonel Sinclair.”

“Put him on my viewer, Lieutenant,” David replied, his brain snapping back to fully alert.

A few moments later, Sinclair appeared on the monitor above the CO’s chair. “General, can you hear me?”

“Yes, I can, Colonel. Go ahead.”

“I’ve got some good news for you. Looks like the League took the bait. The number of ships around Unity Station has dropped by half. We’ve been monitoring their Lawrence drive jump-outs for the last thirty minutes. Also, they’re jumping some long distances. Those holes took a lot of energy to open.”

“So they won’t be able to jump back in short order,” Aibek interjected from his seat next to David.

“Exactly,” David finished.

“My thoughts exactly, General. It would appear our gambit paid off,” Sinclair said.

“You’ve got stealth drones on target still?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, apprise me of any changes in the League fleet status. We’re going to get rolling over here.”

“Understood, General. Godspeed and good luck.”

“Back at you, Colonel Sinclair. See you on the other side,” David replied with a smile before the viewer cut back to a black screen.

“XO, what’s the readiness of Captain Singh and his commandos?”

“My understanding is that the contractors have completed all modifications, and the commandos are performing final checkout of the new equipment now, sir,” Aibek said.

“Let’s get down there, then. I want them on the raider as soon as possible, standing by for deployment.”

“Does that exceed our orders, sir?”

David shrugged. “Maybe it does… but I don’t care. This is a high-risk op, and we have a very narrow window of opportunity. Lieutenant Goldberg, you have the conn.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth replied as she stood from her station at the same time as David and Aibek. “This is Lieutenant Goldberg, I have the conn.”

So Fight I

Adjusting the large helmet associated with his space suit, Singh looked to his right to see his alpha team leader, Master Chief Petty Officer Gordan MacDonald, performing the same systematic review. They’d been preparing for the last hour by putting on their combat space suits, checking then double-checking all interlocks, connections, and seals. Singh had served with MacDonald for the last six years at Space Special Warfare Command in various roles. His squad of six tier-one operators was one of four teams assigned to the Lion. The entire force of twenty-four operators was committed to this single assignment. It was the first time in Singh’s memory they’d sent so many special warfare operators at the same target.

Doctor Hayworth had spent the entire time with them, confirming his work with the AI and sensor reprogramming. His assistant, Major Elizabeth Merriweather, had joined them as well. Singh was particularly impressed with her ability to modify a science sensor designed to measure nebula interference into a detector for the stealth mines.

“I think we’re good, Captain,” Hayworth said as he reviewed a readout from a diagnostic tablet he’d plugged into the utility port on the space suit. “It would appear based on all simulations, the interface works and your entire team will be able to avoid triggering the mines.”

“Appears?” Singh asked sharply.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got a supply of League mines to test it out on, Captain. There’s something left to the unknown here. I have confidence the scientific team got it right.”

“So you want them to accept on faith that your contraption works?” Merriweather asked in a sugary sweet voice.

Hayworth was utterly silent for a moment. “I think I’m going to, how does the military put it? Decline to engage.”

Singh laughed before reaching out and slapping Hayworth on the back. The older doctor jumped back a bit. “Doctor, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy to jump out of a perfectly functional spaceship in a combat EVA suit, knowing you're flying through a minefield, and be looking forward to the thrill.” Turning to the other commandos, he asked them, “Am I right?”

A shout went up from the entire group, punctuated by MacDonald. “If you ain’t spacewalking, you ain’t shit!”

At that moment, David walked into the room, followed closely by Calvin, with Kenneth Lowe taking up the rear. The three men strode across the vast area that housed the special warfare operators and their equipment; it was equipped with airlocks and launch points for the sleds the commandos used to ferry to their targets in space. David addressed the team as he walked closer. “I recognize that shout anywhere.”

“Attention on deck!” Singh barked, his team coming to attention smartly.

“As you were,” David said quickly. “How are preparations going?”

Hayworth spoke first. “All modifications to the suits are complete, General. I’m confident in their ability to get the team to its destination.”

“Captain, do you concur?” David asked of Singh.

“Yes, sir. All simulations look good to us, as we were saying before you arrived. We’re a bit nuts, but we also like to come back,” the tall Sikh commando replied.

MacDonald interjected, “If for no other reason than to toast our accomplishment.”

Calvin and David both laughed, but it was Calvin who spoke. “Captain, I wish I was going with you on this part of the op. Been a long time since I donned a combat EVA suit.”

“You’ll be joining us soon enough, Colonel. The moment we get those mines down—”

“The fleet will be there to put the hurt on Admiral Seville,” David finished.

Calvin glanced back at Kenneth. “Not bad for once, Kenny.”

Kenneth rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Cally.”

“Do I have to get you two down to the gym for some friendly sparring? You could settle this like civilized people, with a good fist fight,” David said in a tone that suggested he was only half joking and with an exaggerated sigh.

After the laughter from everyone died down, Singh noticed that David was looking at him intently. “Captain, permission to address your team?”

“Of course, sir,” Singh answered crisply.

David turned to the commandos. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to embark on a mission that is both uniquely important and extremely perilous. I know you all understand the risk and potential rewards. If the mines come down, I believe we’ll carry the day. Ultimately, I can’t in good conscience order you to accept this mission, using untested technology we’re using for the first time on a wing and a prayer. Anyone willing to undertake the mission, please take one step for…” Before David could get the word “forward” out of his mouth, the entire team had taken one resounding step forward at the same time. David broke into a smile and finished the word, “..ward. Very well. Op approved, Captain Singh. Good luck, good hunting, and Godspeed.”

“Godspeed, General. Permission to disembark?” Singh asked as he glanced over his team, seeing all members ready to go.

“Granted, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir,” Singh replied before turning back to his team. “Okay, folks, complete the final checkouts of your gear, then get it all off and stowed onto the anti-grav equipment sleds for transport to our ride. We’ll see you in a few hours, General.”

So Fight I

David took his seat at the head of the conference table, flanked by the senior crew from the Lion; Calvin, Hanson, Ruth, Amir, Aibek, Taylor, Merriweather, and Doctor Hayworth were all presented and accounted for. They’d filed in over the last few minutes, ready for the final presentation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the CDF and the overall Canaan Alliance leadership. Steady now, just imagine them all naked, and you’ll get through it. At the mental image, he smirked a bit.

“Lieutenant Taylor, please connect us to the briefing,” David ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Taylor responded crisply. He fiddled with the controls on the conference table, and a moment later, the video image from Canaan popped onto the large screen.

Staring at those assembled on the other end of the connection, David put on his best confident smile. “Greetings from the Lion of Judah, Mr. President, Chief Minister, Secretary Dunleavy, and all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

“Thank you, General Cohen,” President Spencer began. “You’ve got a lot of concerned folks in this room. We saw the holonews broadcast from the Lion. I think I speak for all of us when I ask, what’s going on?”

That didn’t take long… the president is nothing if not direct and to the point. “Sir, we staged that news report with the full cooperation of GNN’s reporter, to trigger a response from the League. We received intelligence from the CSV Oxford which led us to believe Admiral Seville’s civilian leadership was leaning toward sending out his fleet to find us,” David explained, smiling thinly. “We gave them a push to do just that. The push has succeeded, I might add. The Oxford’s stealth drones have already detected half the League fleet moving out of the system.”

“I presume this will allow an assault with better odds of success?” Spencer asked.

“Yes, sir. We’ve got an operational plan to disable the minefield. Doctor Hayworth was instrumental in developing a solution that will allow our commandos to infiltrate the League space station without triggering the mines.”

“Why can’t you adapt the solution to our ships?” MacIntosh interjected.

“Because we took a Hunter missile’s AI and adapted it with real-time scientific sensor data into the commandos’ assault suits. I don’t think anyone would propose integrating AI with our warships.”

Spencer’s jaw momentarily dropped. “How’d you alter an AI on the fly, General?”

“Well, sir, the brevet rank did come with a set of gold-level access codes.”

MacIntosh nodded. “Unorthodox, General. I like it.”

“We have the commando team standing by for final deployment orders on a raider. Once the order is given, it’ll take them roughly three hours to transit to the space station. They will ingress the facility, turn off the mines, and our combined fleet will jump in and assault the League installation and its defending fleet.”

“Do you have enough forces to accomplish the objective, General?” Secretary Dunleavy asked.

“Yes, sir. My team has been over the tactical plan repeatedly, and we believe there’s enough ships, fighters, and Marines to pull this off. We replenished the Marine ranks with ship’s security personnel and volunteers.”

“I’m inclined to approve the attack, General Cohen. Chief Minister, what say you?”

Obe leaned forward in his chair. “If the commanders on the ground believe we can carry the day, then I too am inclined to agree.”

“What’s your projection of causalities, General?” Spencer queried.

“Five to ten percent of capital ships, twenty-five to thirty percent for small craft and our Marines,” David replied in a grim tone.

Spencer looked at Dunleavy. “That’s a lot of good men and women. Weighed against taking Unity, and ending the League’s ability to project power in our galactic arm… I have to say it’s worth it.”

“I agree, sir,” Dunleavy replied as the rest of the generals at the table nodded their heads in silent agreement.

“General, you have a go,” Spencer announced. “If at all possible, bring Admiral Seville back to Canaan for trial.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll get to it, sir. I’ll contact General MacIntosh when the Terran Coalition flag is proudly flying from Unity’s control room.”

“You do that, General,” Spencer replied with a slight grin. “Any closing thoughts, ladies and gentlemen?” he asked of those in the room with him. Seeing no takers, he continued, “Good hunting, and Godspeed, General Cohen. You and the entire fleet are in our prayers.”

“Thank you, sir. Lion of Judah out.”

The screen blinked off, and David let out a sigh. “Okay, the easy part’s done. Now we have to go beat the League.”

“After convincing all that brass to let us attack, defeating the League will be easy,” Calvin said with a snort.

Laughter swept the room, as even David joined in. “I’ll hold you to that, Colonel.” His eyes swept the room. “Okay, people, you’ve got your orders. Let’s move out.” Everyone sprang up at his command; he did as well. “Demood, Amir, please join me and the XO on the bridge. I’ll want a final review of the plan before we engage.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Amir replied in his normal accented tone.

“Roger that, sir,” Calvin muttered while heading for the exit.

David waited until the room had cleared to walk out himself. Focusing on his mind on the upcoming task, he resolved to talk to Calvin after this was all over as his earlier pep talk apparently hadn’t worked. There was something wrong with his friend, and he wanted to help.


25

After David had returned to the bridge, Calvin and Amir joined him and Aibek about fifteen minutes later. Standing around the big holoprojector in the middle of the CIC area, the four men stood side by side, staring at a visual presentation of the League station and its defending fleet.

“With half of the Seville’s fleet gone, the strategy is simple,” David said, zooming in on the station itself. “Our fleet will jump in once we get the word from the commandos that the minefield is down. The Lion of Judah will confirm it’s down…then we’ll launch everything we’ve got—fighters and Marines—and move forward. Nothing fancy about this, we punch straight down their throats.”

“What about reserves, sir?” Aibek asked.

“We don’t have enough ships for reserves, XO.”

“So we’re all in?” Amir said, his nose quirked.

“That we are. Final status of our flight wings?”

“We’ve got every pilot in the fleet on deck. A number of former pilots who transferred at some point in their careers to the fleet volunteered as well,” Amir said. “We’ve got more bombers than fighters, which will be an interesting dynamic. It’ll make an easier time of clearing enemy capital ships, but will make neutralizing their fast movers and achieving space superiority that much harder.”

“On top of that, we’ll need to avoid the point defense fields of Unity Station,” David said. “It’s going to be a tough nut to crack.”

“The Marine shuttles are all sporting the best ECM we’ve got, sir,” Calvin said in a glowering tone of voice. “But we’ll need cover from the fleet.”

“Of course. I’m not entirely sure when or how we’ll launch the assault on the station. The League fleet may sortie out to attack us, in which case we’d grind it down before moving forward. They may sit back and wait for us. That’s what I would do, personally. There will be events in the battlespace which drive my tactics; of that I am certain.”

“Going to be a lot of dead Marines out of this,” Calvin said.

Choosing to ignore the pessimism, David addressed a different question with his MEU commander. “Do we have enough troops?”

“Between my remaining Marines and the volunteers, yes. We have more than enough volunteers, actually… over two thousand of them.”

“Told you the people here are ready to fight,” Amir interjected.

“Yeah. Let’s hope it’s enough,” Calvin groused.

“It’s got to be enough,” David said. “Our hopes and dreams ride with us into battle today. I wanted to see you all personally one last time before we go into combat, to thank you for your efforts and wish you Godspeed.”

David reached out his hand and shook warmly with Amir; he would have hugged him, but bridge decorum prevailed.

Inshallah, General,” Amir said.

Calvin also took David’s hand and shook it. “Good luck, General. Let’s put the hurt on these bastards.”

“Amen,” Aibek said, surprising all three of them.

“Okay, gentlemen. Get down to your respective commands and let’s get ready to roll,” David replied with finality.

So Fight I

Kenneth Lowe sat at his desk, deep in the bowels of the Lion of Judah. Joined by his two top leads, he’d reviewed outstanding support requests and ship repairs for the last thirty minutes. He’d been deep in thought before the two men arrived. Feeling like he wasn’t contributing to the war effort had taken its toll on him over the previous months. Colonel Demood’s call to arms had awakened something within him, and he’d been unable to set it aside.

“Everything that can be fixed is fixed,” Harold Billings stated in an exasperated tone, sitting in one of the two chairs in front of Kenneth’s desk.

“Everything? Including fighters?” Kenneth asked.

“Everything, boss.”

Kenneth glanced at Joshua Carter, his right-hand man. “What about on your side?”

“Anything we could do, we did. I’ve ensured our teams are posted around the Lion, but aside from that, we’re waiting for something to break.”

“You mean something to be blown apart during combat?” Kenneth said with a grin. “This waiting… I hate it. I want to be of use and contribute something to the battle.”

“The calm before the storm, I suspect,” Carter said, with an air of having been there before. “In some ways, it’s incredible to be a part of this. To say that we were here, at a moment of history where everything changed. I hope it’s something for the better.”

“I’ve been thinking,” Kenneth began, drawing interruption from Billings.

“See, thinking, that’s what we don’t get paid to do, boss.”

All three men laughed before Kenneth continued. “If they don’t pay us to think, I shudder to think what they do pay us for. No, seriously… since Colonel Demood sent out the call for volunteers, I’ve been thinking.”

“You’re not volunteering for combat duty, sir. You were a comms guy; did you even see combat?” Carter asked.

“No, I didn’t. I served my entire stint on shore duty. I’ve been far closer to combat as a contractor than I ever was as an enlisted soldier.”

“Then what in the name of God has come over you?”

“Gentlemen,” Kenneth began before stopping, shaking his head, and speaking up again. “I’ve done all I can do to help the cause. When the shooting starts, there’s no need for another program manager. I’m removed enough from the real work… I can’t be of too much use there either. But on the boarding party, I could at the very least provide some covering fire. I could move boxes. I might be able to help.”

“Do you even know how to use a gun?” Billings asked with a snort.

“Hey, I’ve got eleven guns at my house, thank you very much.”

“I didn’t ask how many guns you owned. I asked if you knew how to use it.”

Kenneth rolled his eyes. “Yes, Master Chief, I know how to fire all of them, and one is the civilian version of our standard battle rifle, so I meet the requirements that Colonel Demood put out.”

“I’m coming with you, then,” Carter announced, setting his jaw.

“No, you’re not.”

“And why not? I know how to use a gun too.”

“Because you have three children at home and your wife would kill me if you got hurt. I don’t have that waiting for me like you do. Besides, if it all goes to heck here, our guys will need someone to look after them,”

“Boss, you’re not just going off half-cocked to do this…” Billings began.

“I’m not going off half-cocked. I’ve thought this through for the last hour. Gents… I need to stand up and be counted. My decision is made. I just wanted you to hear it from me before I head down to get kitted up.”

“You think Colonel Demood will even let you on the transport? You two razz each other constantly,” Billings interjected.

“He’ll take anyone that can use a gun. Besides, it’s all in good fun.”

“You’re not going alone,” Billings said.

“Excuse me, Master Chief?”

“You got wax in your ears, boss? I said you’re not going alone. If you’re set on it, I’m coming with you. Unlike you, I saw combat. Somebody’s got to watch your six.”

For just a moment, Kenneth almost told the older man to stand down but found himself unable to. He wondered how many other civilians and typical non-combatants on the Lion were going through the same thing as him right now. I’ve had it so good here. This ship has accepted us, all of us. The men and women of the CDF and the Terran Coalition Marine Corps get paid next to nothing, go into harm’s way at a moment’s notice, and never complain. The least I can do is stand with them when we could help tip the balance. “Okay. I can’t tell you both no without being a hypocrite.”

Billings stood. “No, you can’t. Do you remember anything from basic combat training, boss?”

“Shoot the other guy before he shoots you?” Kenneth deadpanned.

“Okay. I’ll try to give you some pointers on the way to the cargo bay the volunteers are mustering in.”

Kenneth laughed as he stood up from his desk, extending his arm to Carter. He was gratified that the older man took it and shook warmly. “Watch after everyone, Joshua. I’ll be back,” he said, before turning toward Billings. “Well, let’s go, Master Chief. I don’t want to keep our esteemed Marine colonel waiting.”

Kenneth stepped out from behind his desk, walking to the hatch and swinging it open; as he did that, Carter leaned into Billings and whispered in his ear, “Bring him home safe and sound.”

Sharing a knowing nod with Carter, Billings stood as well before following Kenneth out of the hatch and toward the cargo bay.

Making their way from the little cubby hole of an office to deck five, they walked side by side down the central passageway of the Lion, heading straight for the cargo bays where Calvin had instructed volunteers to muster. They weren’t the only ones with the same idea; hundreds of other men and women, most in uniform, some not, and more than a few that Kenneth recognized from his team, stood in line. It took some time for the line to snake its way through the double hatch of the cargo bay. A cavernous room, it usually held food, spare parts, equipment, and all manner of supplies. Today, most of the gear in it had been pushed to the sides or moved, with large tables erected throughout the bay, stacked with basic infantry kits. Those kits consisted of battle rifles, magazines, battle armor, grenades, and survival gear.

As the two men walked up to a gunnery sergeant that was processing volunteers, Calvin jogged up. “Well, well, well. You here to sell us some overpriced rifle cleaning kits, Kenny?”

Kenneth rolled his eyes in frustration. “Colonel, aren’t we over the all-contractors-are-slimy stuff yet?”

“Yeah, maybe. You at least answer the commlink when we need something. More than can be said for most contractors. You still get paid triple pay for being in harm’s way.”

“Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” Kenneth said quickly. “I’ve never done anything unethical, and I deliver what I say I will, when I say I will.”

“Yeah, whatever helps you sleep well at night with those fat stacks of credits you and your friends make. Look, what’re you here for?”

“We’re here to join the boarding team,” Kenneth replied, while Billings just folded his arms in front of his chest.

“And do what, shoot red tape at them?” Calvin replied, snickering along with several other Marines who were in earshot of the conversation.

“I was thinking battle rifle rounds instead, but if you’d like to get me some requirements to build a red tape gun, we can put one together in a few days,” Kenneth said in an exaggerated, condescending tone.

“I’d be shocked if you’d ever held a battle rifle, or any weapon for that matter, Kenny.”

Kenneth reached over and used his long arms to pick up a battle rifle. He racked the action, checked it for a round inside the chamber as he’d been taught long ago, then scooped up a magazine and rammed it into the weapon with a click. “I shot expert, Colonel. I own the civilian version of this rifle and still practice with it.”

“Okay, Mister Weekend Warrior,” Calvin began. “When was the last time someone shot at you?”

“Never.”

“Never?” Calvin said, drawing out the word in a mocking tone. “You’ve never been shot at it? Then stop wasting my time and go back to doing whatever it is you do on this ship.”

“Damnit, Colonel,” Kenneth snapped. “I get it. You don’t respect me. Fine, I’ve tried to earn your respect, but maybe that’s just impossible. I’m here because I want to help, and right now, the only way I can help is by picking up a rifle and a sidearm. Everything that can be fixed, is fixed. Once the battle starts, I haven’t done hands-on technical work in so long, I’m useless there too. This is how I can contribute, how I can stand up and answer the call. So you’ve got a choice. Either let us get kits and join the team or tell us to screw off and be down two volunteers. Your choice, Colonel, sir.”

Calvin was silent for several seconds. “Okay, Kenny,” he finally replied. “You want to volunteer, be my guest. Follow orders and try not to wet your pants.”

“Yes, sir,” Kenneth replied with a faux smile. Calvin turned on his heel and walked off, leaving Billings and him with the gunny.

“One of these days, he’ll see we’re not just idiots who fix computers,” Kenneth said toward Billings.

“Yeah, keep dreaming, sir,” Billings said with a smirk as he picked up a set of battle armor and began to strap it on. “But hey, who cares. We might even stay alive to tell the tale.”

Maybe, just maybe. Regardless, we’re doing something worth doing. But why am I so afraid?


26

Waiting has always sucked, David pondered as he sat on the bridge. Whatever is going to happen, I’d rather get on with it. But waiting was what he was doing since he ordered the commandos to execute the attack on Unity Station. The anxiety felt among the crew was palpable as they too awaited word of the attack’s success or failure. Along the way, short microburst communication transmissions had come back, indicating the team’s progress as it got closer to the objective. Boredom isn’t something I do well. I hate not being able to affect the battle. I’d do anything to be out there with those men, at least sharing in the risk. Asking someone to do something I can’t do has just never sat right with me. Glancing at the large LED clock that showed CMT in the back of the bridge, he stretched his neck. Everyone else on this bridge is as restless as I am, he mused. I’d better do something to reassure them.

David stood up from the CO’s chair, his eyes roaming over the bridge. The crew was on edge; that much he could tell just by looking at the drawn faces and downward stares. And how could they not? I’m asking them to go into the mouth of hell itself where we were defeated less than three days ago. He walked over to the communications station and opened a small metal box; there, for ceremonial purposes more than anything, it held an antique microphone attached to a cable. It was the hardline for the 1MC; the master communication circuit that broadcast to every space on the ship. It was never used, but for some reason, he felt the time was right to revert to use it as a symbol.

“Lieutenant Taylor, please patch in the 1MC hardline to a fleet-wide broadcast.”

Taylor looked up and nodded. “Aye aye, sir. You're patched in.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” David replied as he pulled the small mic out of its cradle and held it up to his lips. “Now hear this, now hear this. This is General Cohen, commanding the joint CDF and Saurian Royal Navy fleet. Three days ago, we suffered a tragedy the likes of which has not been seen since the Battle of Canaan, nearly thirty years in the past. Looking around me, I see the toll that was taken, not only on those that perished but also on those who survived. We were so sure our efforts would lead to the destruction of the League, so convinced of the righteousness of our cause. Those convictions weren’t wrong. I know many of you spent the last few days wondering why, asking hard questions of ourselves, of what we believe in. If you’re anything like me, you also concluded our cause is just, and we must fight on, no matter the cost. So today we stand here, united as ever, ready to deliver another blow to the League, and the butchers that control it.”

David’s eyes swept the bridge; everyone had their gaze focused on him. “It has been the greatest honor of my life to lead the crew of the Lion of Judah. Commanding this fleet in battle is a humbling task that I’ve prayed night and day for the last three days over, for wisdom and skill. I come to you now, to say that we’ve found a way to defeat the League’s minefield. As I speak, a group of commandos from Space Special Warfare Command are en route to Unity Station. God willing, they’ll be successful within the hour. These brave men and women have put their lives on the line to ensure the technology the League has deployed will not be available to them in the battle to come. At that point, the odds will be even. But nothing can replace the fighting spirit of free men and women who take up arms to defend their homes, their families, and their way of life.”

David paused for a moment, catching his breath. “We fight, not to conquer, not to enslave, nor to control, but to defend the ideals we cherish, and the things we hold dear. The League of Sol is the worst manifestation of one of the most horrible ideologies ever created. The idea the state can tell you what you can do, who or what to believe in, and define every parameter of your life, is why we escaped from Earth to begin with. Very soon, we’ll jump back into battle. Every soldier, pilot, and Marine in this fleet, regardless of their race, gender, creed, religion, or lack thereof, will be called upon to do their best. And we will. All of us. Because we believe in the ideals of the Terran Coalition, in a society that respects all beliefs, regardless of what they are, in a society where anyone can come from any background and achieve whatever they want. This is the society we have built, this is the society we’ll fight for, and this is the society that, if it comes to it, we will make the ultimate sacrifice to defend. I give you my word that I will do everything in my power in this battle to make sure as few of us make that sacrifice as possible. However, whatever it takes, including sacrificing myself, I will do. The League must be stopped! It must be stopped here. We must take this station and turn it into a launch pad to destroy the League of Sol, once and for all!

“In the time we have left before we go into battle once more, I ask you to pray for our fleet. I’ve never asked God to give us victory, nor will I today. I only ask Him to spare as many of your lives as possible. But today, I fervently hope that when we go into battle, we do it on God’s side. Prepare for the onslaught to come. Give everything you have today like there’s no tomorrow. Godspeed to you all. General Cohen out.”

David sat the small microphone back down in its box and closed the cover. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” he remarked to Taylor and received a polite nod in return. As he turned to walk back to his station, he heard a loud voice call out.

“Attention on deck!” Tinetariro barked.

David watched as the entire bridge crew stood up from their stations, faced him, and saluted. He brought his hand up to his brow before snapping it down in the practiced motion that over the years had become second nature.

“Ready to receive orders, General,” Tinetariro continued.

Smiling, David reached back down grabbed the 1MC mic once again. “Attention, all hands, this is the commanding officer. Man your battle stations. I say again, man your battle stations! This is not a drill. TAO, set condition one throughout the ship!”

Before he’d finished speaking, the lighting on the bridge changed to the blue hue displayed during battle stations, designed to allow the screens the crew focused on to be easier to read.

Ruth looked back from her station. “Sir, condition one is set throughout the ship.”

“Very well, TAO,” David said before continuing into the microphone. “Soldiers, pilots, Marines, civilians of the Lion of Judah… we all know what we have to do in the next few hours. Good luck and Godspeed, Cohen out.”

Setting the microphone back in its container and shutting the door, David again glanced around the room, taking care to look behind him and make eye contact with those standing; a small gesture but one he learned long ago to make sure everyone knew he acknowledged them. “Resume your stations, ladies and gentlemen.” He paused for a moment and allowed a snarky comment to come out. “Let’s go remind Admiral Seville he’s still wanted, dead or alive,” he said, forcing himself into the persona of the happy warrior.

The sentiment seemed to infect the rest of the bridge team almost immediately as they retook their stations. David glanced at the master chief, who stood in the back of the bridge. She inclined her head, and he smiled again, walking forward to take his seat next to Aibek. “And now, we wait.”

“I am certain of Captain Singh’s success, General,” Aibek replied.

I wish I were more certain of it, and I want to be certain of our success. But this is our best course of action… regardless of what happens, we’ll do our best. He locked his eyes forward and waited for a transmission that would decide what happened next.

So Fight I

Zooming through space at speeds approaching a thousand kilometers an hour, Singh marveled at the beauty of space. The calm before the storm of combat. The majesty of the universe, in such display. Looking out at the sea of stars, seeing how insignificant we are compared to the cosmos. Unity Station was directly ahead of them, though it was too far out to see with the naked eye. The Raider they came in on had to drop them roughly five thousand kilometers away from the station, and it’d taken a couple of hours to get this far.

“Captain, it’s about time to start our deceleration, sir,” the voice of Master Chief Petty Officer Gordan MacDonald stated through the open comms channel the team shared.

“Agreed, Master Chief. Team, commence deceleration on my mark.”

Singh pulled up the navigation computer interface for his suit and clicked off the next waypoint. Giving a moment for the rest of the other twenty-three commandos to do the same, he continued, “Execute deceleration!”

Immediately and in smooth formation, the entire group of commandos rotated their space suits and fired the ion thrusters that began to slow them down. It took another hour to slow to what amounted to average speeds, all the while as they passed through the minefield, the computer system in their suits safely avoided the League’s new weapon.

“That’s one big space station,” one of the commandos commented.

“Target-rich environment,” MacDonald replied. “We’ll just have to remember to leave a few for the Terran Coalition’s misguided children.” Smatters of laughter erupted over the channel, as frogmen loved to insult the Marines. “What’s the plan, one more time, Captain?”

“Ingress the station, disable the alarm systems, vent the atmosphere of the mine’s control room, storm the control room. Deactivate the mines, signal the Lion, and watch the fleet come in and blow these guys apart.”

“Who’s cooking the popcorn for the fireworks show?” one of the younger and newer commandos interjected.

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, Petty Officer,” Singh said as he watched his heads-up display, which showed the location they needed to be at on Unity. “Follow me in, team.” Expertly maneuvering his suit and its thruster pack, he closed the gap quickly, crossing the last few kilometers without incident. Their objective was an airlock, twenty-five meters from the control room. The entire team came to rest around said airlock, securing themselves with magnetic boots.

“Rostami, you’re up,” MacDonald called through the comms system; Petty Officer 1st Class Esmail Rostami was the team’s resident expert on information warfare. It was his job to get them into the station undetected.

“Aye aye, Master Chief!” Rostami said, quickly locating the data access point at the airlock that was designed to be used by League repair parties for troubleshooting problems. He plugged in his tablet and went to work. After a few minutes, the doors to the airlock opened, right on cue. “Captain, I’ve disabled the local alarms for this airlock, and we should be able to cycle in, six at a time.”

“Good work, Rostami,” Singh said. “Alpha team, you're first. We’ll proceed in by team until all of us are accounted for. Master Chief, you’re with the first group. If we get separated, securing the objective comes first. Period.”

“Understood, Captain,” MacDonald replied.

It took a couple of minutes for each airlock cycle to complete, and Singh found himself praying silently they’d all make it inside safely. When the third team made it in, he took his place with the last group. The outer door closed, and air slowly filled the room. It took sixty seconds to fully pressurize the airlock, at which point the lights turned a bright green, and the inner door slid open, revealing the rest of the team.

“Gentlemen, I believe we’re all present and accounted for,” Singh said with a smile visible through the faceplate of his helmet. “Now we’re on the clock—Alpha, Beta team, with me. Charlie and Delta, take flanking positions and cover ingress points where we can expect enemy resistance. Silenced weapons only. Stealth is paramount for this portion of our mission.”

All the team leaders acknowledged his orders, and the commandos moved out. Singh and MacDonald took point for Alpha team, carefully leapfrogging ahead of each other to scout out the next junction in the maze of passageways on the League space installation. He counted them as very lucky that no security patrols were encountered; though it stood to reason the League felt safe here and had lax protocols. Coming up to the final junction, Singh held up his hand, making a fist motion to stop. “Master Chief, use the microdrone to see what’s around the bend,” he ordered.

“Aye aye, sir!” MacDonald immediately responded, pulling a tiny drone out of its casing. No larger than a fly, it was linked directly into the HUD in his space-armored suit. Controlling it via a simple neural interface, MacDonald willed the drone to fly around the corner. As it did see, both Singh and MacDonald could see through the return video feed that two League soldiers stood guard outside of the control room. Thankfully, neither were wearing power armor.

“How’d you want to do this, Captain?” MacDonald asked.

“I was thinking we use our silenced sidearms and shoot both of them in the head, using the drone’s feed for precise targeting. What about you?”

“Exactly what was going through my mind too, sir.”

“Excellent,” Singh replied. He drew his sidearm and attached a long suppressor to the end of the barrel. Once set, he glanced at MacDonald, who had done the same. “Execute.” He stepped forward at the same time as MacDonald and sighted down on the enemy soldier to his right, while MacDonald took the one on the left. Using the real-time information feed transmitted from the drone, he adjusted his aim by a couple of millimeters, and they fired at the same time. Both Leaguers dropped to the floor, killed instantly. The sound their bodies made hitting the deck was louder than the report of the two pistol shots.

“Tango down,” MacDonald commented, stepping forward with his sidearm still trained on his target. He expertly felt for a pulse from both men, before turning back toward Singh. “We’re clear.”

“Rostami,” Singh said into his suit’s communicator. “Get up here and get us into their network.”

A few moments later, Rostami came jogging around the junction in the passageway, his small tablet at the ready. Kneeling next to a data port, he plugged directly into the station’s network. “I’m in, sir. Give me a few minutes.”

Singh stood behind Rostami as he hammered away at the tablet, first obtaining access to the network by circumventing its firewalls, then using a set of captured League of Sol officer level credentials to log in to the primary operations system.

Rostami glanced backward. “Captain, I’m in. Good news and bad news. Good news is I’ve got full access. The bad news is this compartment doesn’t have direct atmospheric ventilation capability, nor is it close enough to the hull for us to use limpet mines to blow it out.”

Singh cursed under his breath. “Does it have a fire fighting system?”

Rostami nodded. “Yes, sir, it does. It’s a halon-based system... I see. Yes, I can trigger a false fire alarm and flood the control room with halon gas. We’ll need to lock this specific area out from communications traffic, though, or they’ll figure out what we’re up to when the call for help goes out.”

Singh pulled out a jamming device from his suit. “How about this? Reconfigure it to jam known League comms frequencies, instead of the frequencies they use to set off explosives.”

Rostami took the device and plugged another cable from it, into his tablet. “That’ll do, sir. Give me a few minutes.”

Singh watched his man work the tablet, his mind racing as to the time it was taking. The very soft report of two shots jolted him. A transmission to his commlink came through before he could ask what happened. “Captain, League security patrol neutralized. No alarms.”

“Hurry it up, Rostami,” Singh hissed.

With a final theatrical flourish, Rostami punched the last button on his tablet. “Atmosphere in the control room, neutralized. Communications jammed.”

The men suddenly heard pounding on the door and screaming from within the control room. Over the next couple of minutes, it subsided… then ceased altogether.

“Alpha and Beta teams, stack on me,” Singh commanded. The two commando teams lined up, weapons at the ready, with the point man of each team aiming their weapon at the doors of the control center. “Rostami, open it up.”

“Aye aye, sir!” the electronics expert replied, punching a button. The doors slid open quickly, revealing the control room within. There were bodies everywhere, and the commandos rushed in. A few unlucky survivors stirred; one had even made it to the weapons locker and withdrawn a sidearm. The commandos efficiently dispatched them with silenced shots, mostly to the head.

“Clear!” MacDonald shouted from one side of the room, while another commando tasked with the opposite side also shouted, “Clear!”

Rostami sat down at a central control console and went to work.

Singh glanced around the room. “Master Chief! Set up defensive positions on both exits and place some remote-controlled claymores in the surrounding passageways,” he shouted. While the explosives powering them and the projectiles expended had become more technologically advanced, old-fashioned claymore mines were still employed by the CDF. They remained highly effective anti-personnel weapons.

“Aye aye, sir!” MacDonald responded crisply. “Bravo team, take up defensive positions on the port exit. Alpha team, you take starboard.”

As the commandos filed out, Rostami fist-pumped the air in celebration. “I’m in, Captain. We’ve got operational control of the mines.”

For the first time since they launched on the mission, Singh relaxed ever so slightly; while there was still a tremendous battle to be fought, this piece was the most critical and hardest to execute successfully. They’d succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, coming this far without being discovered or losing anyone to enemy fire.

“PO,” Singh began, addressing Rostami by the abbreviation of his rank. “Signal the Lion of Judah on the high energy communication system, burst transmission. Inform them we’ve secured the minefield and they’re cleared to jump in.”

“Yes, sir!” Rostami replied with evident pride in his voice.

His pride is well deserved. The young man had been on the team for eight months and had just gotten out of his probationary period. He was, in the parlance of Space Special Warfare Command, a full-fledged tier-one operator. He’d come very far in the last eight months, and Singh hoped with continued experience, he would, in time, be an elite within the very elite. Now they just had to survive the next few hours and get off Unity Station alive.


27

David stared at the mission clock as it ticked ever onward. Several hours in, they’d yet to hear from the commandos. Anticipation was thick in the atmosphere of the bridge.

Taylor’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Conn, Communications. I’ve got flash traffic from Captain Singh, sir. The minefield has been disabled!”

Shouts rang out across the bridge of the Lion of Judah, and even David was swept up in the excitement. After giving the bridge crew a moment to savor the success, he nodded to the master chief.

“As you were! Maintain proper bridge protocol!” Tinetariro barked.

The effect was immediate as quiet broke out almost as quickly as if a thunderclap had been heard.

David cleared his throat. “Okay, people, back on point. This is only the first step of many today. Communications, signal the fleet to prepare to jump back to Unity Station using the pre-arranged coordinates distributed earlier this morning.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Taylor replied crisply. “Conn, Communications. All command ships are reporting confirmation of your orders. The fleet awaits the final order to engage.”

David glanced forward to Hammond. “Navigation, confirm Lawrence drive coordinates.”

“Conn, Navigation. Coordinates confirmed and locked in, sir.”

“TAO, confirm high explosive rounds loaded into all magnetic cannons.”

“Conn, TAO. High explosive rounds loaded into all magnetic cannons, energy weapons capacitor is fully discharged,” Ruth replied.

David looked to Aibek. “Anything else, XO?”

Aibek shook his head. “I think we are ready, General. At least, this Saurian is.”

David cracked a smile. “Here we go. Communications, signal the fleet to jump as soon as we transit.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor said.

“Navigation, engage Lawrence drive.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Hammond answered, engaging the massive Lawrence drive generators housed deep within the armored keel of the Lion. The lights on the bridge dimmed, and a vortex of swirling colors opened up in front of the mighty vessel. Once the artificial wormhole had stabilized, she engaged the sub-light engines, and the Lion picked up speed, entering the anomaly. A split second later, they emerged on the other side.

During the transit, David bowed his head and whispered a prayer in Hebrew, asking God to watch over the fleet and spare the lives of their soldiers, Marines and pilots if was His will. The first few seconds after a Lawrence drive jump were always spent on edge for him; blind and without sensors, they were sitting ducks for enemy ships. The stealthy drones from the Oxford had helped immensely in determining where they would jump in, but something was still left to chance.

“Conn, TAO. LIDAR online… numerous friendly contacts appearing all around us, sir. Unity Station is thirty thousand kilometers away, and we’re five thousand kilometers from the outer edge of the minefield. Unity Station now designated as Master One.”

“Status of enemy ships, TAO?” David asked.

“One moment, sir,” Ruth said as she waited for a full count to come in. “Sir, I’m showing three hundred and fifty-four enemy vessels, led by two Napoleon class carriers and six Alexander class battleships. Many escorts and small craft are present.”

“It would appear the Oxford’s observations were correct, Colonel,” Aibek commented.

“Yes, it would, XO. Let’s hope our luck continues to hold. We still need a few things to go our way.”

“Conn, Communications. I’ve got an incoming transmission from Unity Station. It’s Admiral Seville, sir.”

“Maybe he wants to gloat,” Aibek said with a smirk.

“Communications, put Admiral Seville on my viewer.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A moment later, David’s personal viewer snapped on, showing the drab interior of Unity Station’s central control room, with Admiral Seville taking up most of the visible space. “Ah, we meet again, Colonel Cohen… oh, wait no, General Cohen! Congratulations on your promotion! Stepping over the body, as it were, of your former admiral?”

David’s face contorted; Seville was able to get under his skin in ways few men could. “Temporary rank, for this mission only, Admiral.”

“And what mission might that be, General?”

“Taking out your fleet and your space station,” David said with a hint of a smile.

“Have you forgotten our minefield? Your fleet doesn’t have enough missiles to clear it all out, though I’ll admit it was an inspired response to our new weapon.”

“Well, no, actually… as a matter of fact, we didn’t forget about your minefield.” David smiled widely. “However, I think you might find it’s no longer effective.”

David clicked off the communications channel from his chair as Aibek laughed. “I’d like him to sweat a little for once.”

“What’s the phrase you humans use about chickens and counting them?”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Ruth intoned.

“Yes, that one,” Aibek said.

“Let’s find out for sure, XO. Navigation, intercept course, Master One.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond immediately replied.

“Communications, signal the fleet to hold position,” David commanded while glancing toward Hammond. “Navigation, ETA to the minefield outer edge?”

“Forty-five seconds sir.”

“Conn, Communications. Receiving a transmission from Captain Singh.”

“On my viewer, Lieutenant!” David barked.

The viewer came alive, showing Singh with his helmet off. “Good to see you, General.”

“Likewise, Captain. What’s your status?”

“We’ve got the minefield in inactive mode, and our electronics expert has given us a couple of options. We can either try to flip the IFF receiver on Unity Station and configure the field to attack League ships or we can remotely destroy it.”

David and Aibek exchanged glances. “If we could use their own weapon against them…” he began before Singh interrupted him.

“Sir, that option will take some time. Destroying the field can be done as of now.”

“Navigation! Emergency stop, all back full,” David ordered.

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond said as the ship bucked and the crew was thrown forward in their seats.

“It’s only a matter of time until Seville figures out what we’ve done,” David began. “Destroying the field now evens the playing field between our forces. Blow the field, Captain. Then find a good defensive location until the Marines arrive.”

“Understood, sir. We’ll detonate the field momentarily. Singh out.”

Aibek glanced at David. “I could see trying to flip the IFF, General.”

David shook his head. “Look at it like this, XO. We blow the field, the mines are off the table for either side. That’s a win for us because they distort the battlespace in favor of the League. If Captain Singh were able to change that IFF code, it would be a major win, yes. But if he failed and were overrun, then it’d be an absolute disaster.”

“Sometimes there is a place for daring, sir.”

“Yes, there is,” David admitted. “But not on this one. When I’m playing for all the marbles, I’ve got to be conservative.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Conn, Navigation. We’ve reached minimum safe distance, sir.”

“Navigation, all stop,” David ordered.

“All stop, aye.”

“Conn, TAO! Aspect change fore!”

David felt the ship begin to shake as Ruth was speaking.

“Thousands of mine detonations, sir! As far as our sensors can tell, that was every mine in the field!”

“Nice work, Captain Singh,” David said to no one in particular. “Well, fortune favors the bold. Navigation, take us in. Communications, signal the fleet to advance.”

The various stations responded affirmatively as David watched the tactical plot; however, there was another side effect of the mines all going off at the same time. It appeared their sensors were having a hard time penetrating the cloud of charged particles and ionization.

“TAO, you seeing the sensor distortions?” David asked.

“Yes, sir, I am. My assessment is our approach will be covered, but it’ll be hard for us to see them at the same time.”

“Which favors us yet again, General,” Aibek interjected. “Especially our Marine transports.”

“Yes, it does. Good news all the way around,” David commented, agreeing with his XO. He turned toward Taylor. “Lieutenant, I believe you have a shuttle to catch.”

“Thank you, sir. My relief is here and standing by,” Taylor replied.

David stood from his chair and made his way over to the communications station. “Lieutenant, I’d like to shake the hand of a brave man,” he said while extending his hand toward Taylor.

Taylor took the offered hand and shook warmly. “Thank you, sir.”

“Lieutenant, you’ve got nothing to prove. I hope you know that. I consider it an honor to serve with you, and I’m thankful you were posted to my ship.”

Taylor pursed his lips together. “That means a lot coming from you, sir. Sometimes we have to prove something to ourselves, though.”

“Just come back in one piece, Lieutenant. There’s a lot of League transmissions left to crack once we start pushing toward Earth.”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” Taylor said while David took note of the beads of sweat apparent on his forehead.

“Good luck, and Godspeed.”

Taylor offered a final nod in David’s direction before turning and walking out of the bridge with purpose.

David watched him go, then strode back to his chair and sat down with a sigh. “I hope I don’t regret letting him do this, XO.”

“Lieutenant Taylor is a warrior. All warriors must sometimes answer the call.”

“I just want him to come back in one piece.”

“The Prophet’s will be done,” Aibek said with finality.

So Fight I

Simultaneously onboard Unity Station, Admiral Pierre Seville was sitting in stunned shock, observing the aftermath of his secret weapon being destroyed. Damn these religious fanatics! He fumed mentally but kept the sentiment bottled up inside; it wouldn’t do for his underlings to see him out of control.

“Captain Monet!” Seville shouted. “How did they do that?”

Monet’s face turned ashen. “Admiral, we can’t raise the technicians in charge of the mines on internal communication systems. Station security is responding.”

Seville stood, immediately on guard. “Captain, scan for communications jammers on the lower decks.”

“Sir, it is highly unlikely—” Astrid began.

“Don’t tell me what’s unlikely, just do it.”

Astrid nodded to the crewman whose station she stood over. After a moment, the results came up on the screen. “Admiral… we appear to have an enemy force on board.”

“Forget your internal security forces. They’ll be going up against the Terran Coalition’s finest space-based commandos and will be nothing more than cannon fodder. Get power-armored Marines suited up and in there as fast as you can. Save the security forces for the invasion of this station that is undoubtedly to come.”

“Admiral, you’re overreacting,” Astrid stated, her voice low and betraying her worry at the escalating situation.

“Overreacting? Overreacting would be to have you shot for your incompetence on the spot, Captain. Our sensors are blind. If I were the Terran commander, I’d use this opportunity to get as close as possible, deploy my Marines, and then turn aside to engage the fleet. We may be fighting against religious fanatics and people who can’t see reason and logic, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good at their business. Never underestimate this enemy!” Seville thundered.

“Aye aye, sir,” Astrid replied as she pulled herself up to her full height. “What are your orders, Admiral?”

“Signal my flagship to return. I intend to take command of her and engage the enemy fleet in ship-to-ship combat. While you’re at it, tell the rest of our fleet to return at once. We can still catch them in a pincer movement and crush the Terran Coalition once and for all. The Saurians along with them too.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Astrid parroted back to him and moved off.

Strappi walked up to Seville and quietly spoke into his ear. “Admiral, I fear our fleet may take too long getting here. Most ships are still in the cool-off period following a jump.”

“I share your fear, Colonel. But we must act with the tools remaining at our disposal. Be sure you join me when the Annihilator returns,” Seville whispered back.

“Of course, sir.” Strappi touched a closed fist to his chest in the salute of the League.

So Fight I

A few minutes later, Singh got the first indication the League was alerted to their presence when he got a communication call from Charlie team.

“Alpha leader, this is Charlie leader. Goliaths just engaged us. We’re holding position.”

Singh scanned his eyes around the control room. “It would appear they’ve finally figured out they have some uninvited guests onboard, gentlemen. Prepare for close quarters combat.”

“Alpha leader, this is Charlie leader. We’ve got a company-sized force engaging us. Request permission to fall back to the control room and activate our claymores.”

Singh quickly answered, “Permission granted, Charlie leader. Double time back to the control room. Delta leader, head on a swivel. I expect them to hit us from both sides.”

A moment later, Singh heard the loud report of the claymores going off, and the room shuddered, just a tad. He knew they could hold off the League troops for a time, but without a planned egress point, they had to wait for reinforcements. Until then, they’d have to hold the line.

“Master Chief,” Singh said toward MacDonald. “Prep all teams for defense. We can soak up a lot of fire in here if we plan our lanes of fire right.”

“Aye aye, sir!” MacDonald yelled back at him, already assisting another commando in moving a console they’d laser cut out of its mounting platform.

Singh switched communication frequencies to the CDF fleet channel and cued up a high energy burst. “This is Captain Singh to General Cohen on the Lion of Judah. We’ve been discovered. Our teams will hold until the Marines arrive. Singh out.”


28

David stared at the tactical plot in the big holographic projection array on the bridge of the Lion of Judah, bathed in blue light. There just wasn’t enough data to tell him what was going on outside of the ship. CDF combat doctrine focused around having superior information, superior training, and excellent management of the battlespace. The only thing going for them right now was their training. Weapons fire was being exchanged at extremely long range, but he doubted either side was hitting much of anything except by blind luck. He’d ordered all missiles prepped for combat, but specifically disallowed their launch from all ships in the fleet. At least until local space conditions improved and the sensor packages were able to track their targets once again.

“TAO, any improvement in sensor resolution?” David asked.

“Marginal, sir, we still can’t determine where the enemy is with a close enough margin to get an affirmative firing solution.”

David grinned. “That means they can’t shoot at us either, TAO. Distance to Master One?”

“Best guess, less than ten thousand kilometers, sir.”

“Communications, get me Colonel Demood.”

“Aye aye, sir. Patching him in for you, sir,” the backup communications officer replied.

A moment later, David heard Calvin’s voice coming out of the speaker on his chair. “General, what can I do for you?”

“You ready to light up some Leaguers, Colonel?” David asked.

“Anytime, anywhere, always ready, always there, General,” Calvin said, his cocky Marine attitude shining through brightly.

“We’re ten thousand klicks off the enemy station, and neither side’s sensors can penetrate the background radiation effects from setting off a few thousand mines. We’re not getting a better chance to send you in. We received a burst communication from Captain Singh not too long ago… things are heating up over there, and his boys need your help. Your mission remains the same: storm Unity Station, capture it for the Terran Coalition. And if you find Seville, bring him back, dead or alive.”

“Understood, General. I’ll send some Marines to bail out our commandos, and we’ll press the attack.”

“Good hunting, Colonel, and Godspeed. Cohen out.”

“Same to you, General. Demood out.”

David leaned back in his chair, looking out of the transparent metal windows that were directly ahead of the tactical and navigation stations.

“You want to be out there with them, don’t you?” Aibek asked in a quiet voice that didn’t carry, far from his usual jovial tone.

“Yeah, I do, XO. I know my place is on the bridge, overseeing the battle as a whole. But I’d like to be on the sharp tip of the spear for this one. There’s a part of me that would like to personally even the score with Seville,” David replied in an equally quiet and somber tone.

“Aren’t you always telling us not to let it get personal, and not to give in to hating the League?”

David grinned sheepishly. “Yes, I do. It’s good advice… and I think we all struggle to take and use it. Dehumanizing our enemy is the first step to hating them. I’ve always tried to avoid taking the first step down that dark road.”

“Time to launch our fighters, I believe, sir.”

David glanced at Aibek and nodded. “I concur. Communications, patch me in to Colonel Amir.”

So Fight I

Major Richard Hume sat in the cockpit of his SF-106 Phantom, having just completed the pre-flight checklist. The entire air group was on alert five, and they’d run through their pre-flight checklists every thirty minutes to ensure all craft were ready for launch. He glanced over the readiness report in his HUD for the squadron of fighters he inherited when he accepted the role of temporary XO for the Lion’s flight wing. Nicknamed the Black Cats, they had a respectable kill-to-loss ratio but suffered the death of both the squadron commander and her XO. Plugging pilots from other squadrons into the holes left, he felt they were as in good a fighting shape as they could hope for.

Amir’s voice cut into his communications feed. “Major Hume, can you read me?”

“Affirmative, Colonel Amir.”

“Are you ready?” Amir asked.

“Yes, sir. Black Cats are ready to purr,” Hume said with a slight laugh; squadron names could be so odd. “The wing is in better shape than anyone honestly had the right to expect, Colonel.”

“I agree. I hope to see you again when we’re done here today.”

“That makes two of us, Colonel.”

“I meant to ask you, Major, I’ve never seen a flag like the one on your shoulder. What state is it from?”

“It's not from a nation-state. It’s the flag of the Knights Hospitaller, which is a Catholic military order. We trace our lineage to the seventh century AD on Earth.”

“Our ancestors once fought each other, then,” Amir observed.

“I don’t know, sir. It’s not a hereditary order, but I suppose it’s possible. A pity it took having to flee Earth for us to figure out we’re not each other’s enemy, though.”

“I can’t imagine a world in which people of faith fight each other.”

“Thankfully, we don’t have to, Colonel. We do, though, get to fight for our right to have faith in the first place.”

There was a pause in the conversation as Amir clicked off the communications channel. He returned a few moments later. “Major, General Cohen has given the order to launch. We’ll go in the pre-planned order. Black Knights first, followed by the Black Cats. Insula Allah, and good hunting!” Amir said in his rich baritone voice with just a trace of Arabian accent to his English.

“Understood, sir. Good hunting and Godspeed!”

Hume clicked the communications channel over to his squadron. “Attention, all pilots, the order has been given. Stand by to launch! Sensor conditions are still horrible, so we’ll be flying by the seat of our pants. Stay close to each other, watch out for our fellows, and we’ll come home together. Hume out.”

In a few minutes, Hume would be hurtling through space at incredible speeds, doing his best to stay alive, and also to kill every enemy pilot on the battlefield he could find and engage. In the time between being ordered to launch and being able to, he took the time to put his mind and soul at ease.

“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,” Hume began to pray. “Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray. Lend me, Lord, Your powerful aid in every difficulty and above all do not forsake me in my last struggle with the powers of evil manifested in the League of Sol. Amen.”

As Hume finished the prayer and looked back at his HUD, the launch light turned green, and a second later, his fighter was zipping down the tube pulling 15-Gs. As he was thrust into space, the proximity alarm sounded, causing him more than a moment’s concern, which faded when he realized the sensors were so confused, they couldn’t tell where anything was. Craning his neck around to maintain situational awareness, a general vector order was given from Amir’s fighter, and the Black Cats zoomed off in the direction indicated. They quickly closed the range with Unity Station; it was such a mammoth-sized installation, they didn’t need a computer system to make it out against the black of space.

Steadily closing the distance, Hume watched as the wings from the Lion of Judah, and all remaining carriers, fanned out across space. Some escorted the Marine transports and shuttles, others flew close support to the bomber squadrons. Still others, including his squadron, searched for enemy fighters to engage.

Streaks of red plasma balls shooting by his cockpit were the first indication League fighters had found them; looking up and into the direction enemy fire was coming from, Hume could make out a group of League interceptors. Pulling up on his flight stick, he adjusted his fighter so it was pointing at the enemy, before triggering his communication system. “Cats, break relative up, the enemy is less than five hundred kilometers away. Weapons free!”

Following the plasma balls back to their source, Hume pulled the trigger on his miniature neutron cannons, sending beams of blue energy searing toward the enemy craft. At the range they were at, there was almost no way to aim, given the lack of accurate sensor data. A League fighter exploded, and Hume couldn’t be entirely sure if it were his shots or one of the others in his squadron… but a kill was a kill.

“Not sure who got that one, but good shooting, lads. Full volley fire! Right down their throats!” Hume roared into the communications system.

With two wingmen in close formation next to him, Hume pushed up the throttle to maximum burn, feeling the G forces push him back into his seat. For just a moment, his targeting computer cleared, and he had a split-second lock on a League fighter flying right at him. Muscle memory took over, and he pulled the firing trigger back. He was rewarded with a quickly destroyed League interceptor exploding into a bright orange fireball.

“Cat one, kill one League interceptor!” Hume called into the squadron communication channel. Looping his fighter around, he scanned space visually for another target, while realizing that one of his fighters had been destroyed by enemy fire, its icon blinking red, indicating a total loss of vehicle. I can’t believe that at some point in the distant past, fighter pilots fought like this. I feel entirely blind out here without our technology. He glanced around, straining to see the enemy.

“Cat one, this is Cat eleven, I’ve got a flight of three League interceptors coming across our formation. They’re angling for your six!”

Warned, Hume pulled back hard on his flight stick while hitting the accelerator to the maximum thrust position. Pulling 17-Gs, he rocketed around in space, inverting his position and flying back toward the League interceptors. He pulled the firing trigger and prayed that his weapons fire would find its target. While he didn’t hit any bandits, one of his wingmen, who looped around slower, took advantage of the disoriented League pilots and knocked all three out, one after the other. Checking over his squadron status display, he noted another icon was blinking red.

“Cat leader, this is Cat eleven. I think that’s all of em. Scratch one League squadron!”

Twelve to two; not a bad rate of exchange. What is a good kill ratio, when two more people were snuffed out by an all-consuming war? “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen,” Hume whispered as he rolled his fighter and pointed it back toward Unity Station, searching for more League craft to engage.


29

Singh ducked behind the doors of the control room they were holed up in; incoming energy weapons fire smacked the frame of the door and the air around him. Ejecting an empty magazine from his battle rifle, he reloaded with a magazine of armor piercing ammunition. He glanced across the doorway at MacDonald. “Ready, Master Chief?”

“Frogmen are always ready, Captain,” MacDonald replied, invoking the old term for sea-based commando teams.

“Shoot them down!” Singh ordered. He leaned back and fired his battle rifle in full auto mode. At the range they were at, he couldn’t miss; the rounds punched through the Goliath suits like they didn’t exist. A dozen League Marines collapsed under the weight of their combined onslaught. Peering down the passageway, he could see dozens more right behind them.

“Rostami!” Singh shouted. “How’re you coming with gaining access to the stations’ security system?”

“I’m not, sir. They’ve cut all links between this room and the central computing core!” the electronics expert shouted back above the din of battle.

“Then get the automatic grenade launcher and get over here!”

A stray energy blast caught one of the commandos in the helmet as he perched behind a console and fired on the enemy. The commando next for him called for a medic, but Singh had been in more than enough firefights to know there was no hope for that kind of wound.

Rostami picked up the forty-millimeter grenade launcher and dragged the ammo bag for it with him, over to Singh’s position. “I’m thinking we use beehive rounds at this range, sir.” Beehives was a nickname for what amounted to grenades filled with hundreds of armor-piercing flechettes. The flechettes were coated in a sturdy artificial material, which made them highly effective as an armor-piercing weapon.

“Agreed, PO. Let’s wait for the next wave, then light the Leaguer bastards up.”

They didn’t have to wait long; within seconds, another wave of League Marines in their gleaming battle armor rounded the corner. It was almost like shooting ducks in a barrel as Rostami stepped forward, and the whump-whump-whump of the grenade launcher sounded. The flechettes shredded the incoming Leaguers, decimating their ranks and causing the rest to scurry for cover as fast as they could. Finishing out the six-round rotating cylinder of death, Rostami picked off most of the survivors with well-placed grenades.

Taking advantage of the lull in the battle, MacDonald made his way to Singh. “Captain, how long you think they’re going to keep throwing bodies at us?”

“My thoughts exactly, Master Chief. Even the worst Leaguer commander is smarter than to send his troops piecemeal into the buzzsaw of the best we have to offer… something else is going on here.”

As Singh finished his thought, there was a loud explosion that rocked the room, from the opposite side end of it. The lights suddenly went out, which wasn’t a problem as the heads up displays in their helmets immediately engaged night vision. After that, though, everything went nuts. Another explosion erupted from directly above them, and Singh heard someone—he couldn’t tell who thanks to the concussive blasts—shout, “Stun grenades!” He triggered the light filter in his helmet just in time; multiple stun grenades went off, temporarily blinding many of the commandos.

League Marines fast-roped down from the ceiling; the explosion opened up a hole they jumped down from, while more Leaguers rushed both entry doors. Momentarily stunned, he rolled to his right side as bullets found his power-armor suit. Picking up a squad automatic weapon from a soldier who’d dropped it, he stood and unleashed the machine gun on full automatic, sweeping the enemy troops with armor-piercing rounds.

MacDonald added to the mix with his battle rifle, using precise three-round bursts to fell each Leaguer he sighted down on. Between the two of them, the fusillade caused enough pause amongst their attackers for the remaining commandos to reset their helmets and rejoin the fight. It only took forty-five seconds to regain control, but dozens of combatants were killed on both sides.

The eerie silence after combat is deafening. What had just happened would have broken the unit cohesion of literally any other combat unit. But Space Special Warfare Command operators weren’t any other combat unit. Singh and MacDonald made eye contact, then scanned the room as those who remained alive took stock of the situation. There were several injured, but thankfully, they still had a medic.

MacDonald walked over after completing a quick assessment of the wounded and motioned to Singh. “Captain… we’ve got eight KIA and three wounded but able to fight. I believe this position is compromised beyond our ability to hold it.”

Singh nodded. “I completely agree, Master Chief. We’re going to break out. The question is which way do we go,” he said and sighed. “Get two three-man teams. See which side has the most resistance. That’s our way out.”

MacDonald raised an eyebrow. “The most resistance, sir?”

“Whoever is in charge on the other side is pretty good for a Leaguer. They’ll try to bait us into another trap. I’m not falling for the same trick twice.”

“Aye aye, sir. And the rest?”

“Hold this area until we get the recon back. I want to be out of here in five minutes. While you’re handling that, I’ll be on the horn. We need some help from our own Marines.”

So Fight I

Sitting up in the cockpit with the warrant officer flying his assault shuttle, Calvin had a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, at least as much of it as they could with half the sensors not working. Technology not working right was something that soldiers and especially Marines confronted daily, but for once, it was a positive thing. Fewer of my Marines are dying because of it, whereas we usually die because some idiot nerd didn’t test a piece of equipment properly, pure freaking irony right there.

“Colonel, I’m getting a distress call I think you’ll want to hear,” the pilot said, glancing at him briefly.

“Put it on, Warrant.”

A few moments later, the voice of Captain Singh could be heard from the speakers in the pilot. “…again, we are under heavy attack! To any friendly ground forces in the area, we require immediate assistance! This is Captain Rajneesh Singh, to any friendlies!”

Calvin quickly keyed his in-helmet microphone into the same communications frequency that Singh was transmitting on. “Captain Singh, this is Colonel Demood. Do I hear correctly that you could use some help from your very own Terran Coalition Marine Corps?”

“Colonel… your voice is a welcome one! We’ve taken significant casualties but broke out of the enemy’s encirclement. That’s the good news. The bad news is there are at least a hundred Goliaths chasing us.”

“Warrant, this tub has rockets loaded, right?” Calvin asked.

“Yes, sir, it does. Full complement.”

“Singh, how close are you guys to the external hull of the station?”

“We’re one passageway back from it, Colonel. I already thought about evaccing through an airlock, but we don’t have enough time,” Singh replied.

“Different idea. I want you to lead the enemy to the corridor closest to the hull, engage your magnetic boots in overdrive, and I’m going to take care of your Goliath problem for you, with some on-point rocket fire.”

There was a pregnant pause before Singh spoke again. “We knew this op was high risk to begin with, Colonel. Make sure that old Marine Corps equipment of yours hits its target, and not us,” Singh replied with a short laugh.

“You got it, Singh,” Calvin said with forced joviality. “Warrant, vector us into the communications signal being transmitted by Captain Singh. We’ll use it to home our rockets in.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

So Fight I

Incoming rounds slapped the thin walls of the passageway they were running down, mere inches away from Singh’s head. Not bothering to look back, he pointed his battle rifle behind him and emptied the magazine. Turning the corner, he came to a stop. The rest of his team had already taken up position and were firing on the pursuing Leaguers.

Using the advanced sensors in his suit, Singh counted over a Goliath suits chasing them. MacDonald and the surviving commandos kept up a constant stream of fire aimed at the Leaguers, but the enemy remaining were the ones who knew how to fight. They were making themselves small targets, taking advantage of cover whenever possible, and firing in short bursts. Half his team was dead; the worst loss total for any deployed Terran Coalition tier one operator team that Singh could remember. But defeating the League today will make it all worth it.

“Demood, if you’re ready with the John Wayne shit, now would be a perfect time! We’ve got company-strength hostiles pinned down in the passageway closest to the hull, as requested,” Singh practically shouted into his helmet mic on the open communication link with Calvin’s shuttle.

“Understood. Engage your magnetic boots,” came Calvin’s reply, garbled through the din of battle.

“Engage magnetic boots, maximum hold!” Singh shouted at his team through the internal comms network of their suits. As his team’s indicators flashed green for understood and acknowledged in his helmet’s HUD, he shouted, “We’re set. Do it, Colonel!”

A few moments later, there was a terrific series of explosions, and the hull of the space station peeled back, exposing the corridor ahead to the vacuum. Leaguers disappeared into the void by the dozens, some killed by the concussive force of the rockets, some unprepared for the quick change in pressure and unable to grab hold of something before they were violently sucked out of the station. Only a few of them were able to engage their magnetic boots; those that did so were dazed and confused.

“Finish them off, frogmen!” Singh shouted as he led the charge, firing his battle rifle in short bursts. The rest of the team advanced after him, and within a few seconds, they’d cleared most of the area. A Leaguer at the far end of the passageway had his rifle up and was attempting to return fire. Singh raised his rifle and engaged the integrated combat optics system, sighting in on the unlucky man’s head. “Alpha Mike Foxtrot,” he uttered as he pulled the trigger. The Leaguer collapsed a moment later, quite dead. He dimmed the reflective shield of his helmet, which exposed his blood-smeared face. “What a rush.”

“With respect, sir, you’re nuts,” MacDonald said.

“Got to be to do this job.”

“Never said I wasn’t.”

Singh laughed. “Let’s go find the Terran Coalition’s misguided children and lend a hand.”


30

Official TCMC battle doctrine indicated that the highest-level commanding officer should be present on the battlefield as soon as humanly possible; a principle to which Calvin adhered to like it was gospel. I’ve got no interest in hanging in the back, when I can be shooting Leaguers. He stepped off the end of the shuttle. His command element was with him, and there were hundreds of Marines present, in the middle of setting up a forward base of operations. They had set up shop in one of the massive shuttle bays onboard Unity Station and had cleared out the former occupants and the League’s hardware, in some cases shoving the League shuttles out of the bay and into space. There were at least a dozen Marine transports already present, and more were landing every few minutes.

“Colonel on deck!” a master gunnery sergeant yelled out.

“Carry on!”

His temporary second in command, Captain Michi Kurosawa, jogged up to meet him. “Colonel, hope you had a good ride in. We’ve got a perimeter set up and are steadily expanding outward from it,” Kurosawa said, in perfect English. The red circle on a white background for his country flag indicated the captain was from the Empire of New Japan, a planet with a small population of two hundred million, in comparison to other former nations from Earth. The Japanese had relatively few citizens evacuated from Earth during the exodus, Calvin recalled from his schooling.

“Good work, Captain. We need to focus on the areas of the station that are critical to its operation rather than just claiming ground.”

“Yes, sir, if you’ll follow me, sir, the command operations center is this way.”

Calvin followed Kurosawa over to a cluster of holoprojectors, and a large electronic table, which had a 3D rendering of the station projected from it. There were other Marines in the area, configuring sensor displays and various computer systems. “Glad to see we got the comm geeks in here.”

Taylor turned around from a display he was configuring. “That’s Lieutenant Comm Geek, sir.”

Calvin laughed out loud, strode over to Taylor, and slapped him on the back. “Glad you made it.”

“A bit of a rough ride.”

“Makes a man out of you, Lieutenant,” Calvin said with a genuine smile. The smile faded as Kenneth Lowe and Harold Billings rounded the corner, carrying boxes marked as part of the computer equipment suite. “And what are you ladies doing here? Got lost on the way to the showers?”

Kenneth openly rolled his eyes at Calvin. “Already had one this morning, Colonel,” he replied in a cheerful tone. “Thought I’d help get the operations center up before getting assigned to a unit.”

“Going to set up our toilets next?”

“No, sir. I was going to see about sending out some of your crack troops to get me some cable stretchers to help put this gear together, though.”

Calvin paused, then laughed, turning to Reuben Menahem, his senior enlisted aide. “Well, I’ll be damned. These boys know what a snipe hunt is. Why don’t you go find us some hydraulic blinker fluid for the shuttle’s engines while you’re at it, Kenny boy?”

“We could get you a bucket of shuttle wash instead?” Kenneth replied, taking the ribbing in stride.

“Tell you what, Lieutenant,” Calvin said, speaking directly to Taylor. “We’ll get the comm geeks platoon going here. Have our techy contractor friends fall in with you and try not to get killed.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor answered crisply.

“Do we have tactical data from the command and control network integrated into this display yet?” Calvin asked.

Kenneth punched a few buttons into a computer console he’d just attached, and a multitude of blue and red dots appeared. “There you go, sir. That’s as close to a true common operating picture as we’ll get under these circumstances.”

“I guess we keep you guys around for a reason,” Calvin said while nodding. “Nice job.” He stepped closer and examined the model of the station. He pointed at the reactor core in the center of the station. “Primary reactor?”

“That’s my assessment, sir,” Taylor responded.

“Primary and secondary control rooms?”

Manipulating the control panel for the display, Taylor caused several rooms to blink. “The central control room for the station is at the very top of the tower. There’re eight different secondary control rooms, and engineering has its own set of backup controls. If I may, sir, what are you thinking?”

“Well, the fleet could use some help out there. I figure us Marines could bail them out by taking control of this monstrosity and using its weapons against the League ships out there.”

“That’d be some irony,” Kenneth interjected.

Calvin turned and gave him a glowering look.

“It won’t be easy, sir,” Taylor said. “Even if we take over all of those points, gaining access to the system will be difficult. But minimally, we’d be able to stop the station from firing on friendly forces simply by there being no one to man the consoles and fire the weapons. I’d expect us to find the League systems have extensive biometric defenses, just like ours.”

“If it were easy, they wouldn’t send the Marines, Lieutenant. I want a plan together in the next fifteen minutes on how we can make this happen. Clear?” Those standing around quickly acknowledged Calvin with a round of crisp “Aye aye, sirs” and quickly got back to work. Sitting down at an empty terminal, he began a review of which shuttles had made it and which hadn’t. The vast majority of their forces had safely arrived, but the League had managed to knock down six shuttles… another hundred and twenty Marines dead.

A sudden interruption in the form of Captain Rajneesh Singh’s voice jolted Calvin out of his thoughts. “Captain Singh reports as ordered, Colonel!” He held his hand to his brow in a textbook perfect salute.

Calvin stood up quickly, glancing at the commando and what was left of his team; twelve men, their battle armor pock-marked and burned in various places, but their heads held high. It was clear they were still full of fight. He brought his hand up to his brow and returned Singh’s salute. “Good show out there, Captain. We’ve got you to thank for this opportunity.”

Singh smiled broadly. “Did the Terran Coalition’s misguided children just offer up some praise to a non-Marine unit?”

“Don’t push your luck, Captain.”

Singh laughed before his expression turned somber. “We’re at half strength, sir. I recommend splitting us into two elements and sending them on critical missions.”

“Agreed, Singh. Divide your men up into two teams, and I’ll put them where the enemy is strongest. One team’s coming with me, though.”

“What’d you have in mind, sir?”

“How about smashing the League’s control room and capturing that piece of shit Seville?”

Singh, and every commando with him seemed to come alive at the mention of capturing Seville. “Dead or alive?”

“Who cares. As long as we can get a positive ID on the body.”

Singh grunted. “Understood, sir. I’ll sort out the teams, and we’ll stock up. There’s a long fight in front of us.”

“Carry on, Captain.”

Singh acknowledged his command with a nod, turned on his heel, and walked off with the rest of the commandos, leaving Calvin back in his thoughts, staring at the projection of the League station. “Lieutenant Taylor, any chance you can work some comms geek magic and hack the League control system, locking them out if we take one of those access points?”

“No, sir. They’ll have redundant backups. The only way to shut down this station is to take over all its control rooms. Even then, it might not be enough. For instance, they might have a fourth or fifth level control system in the reactor core or local weapons control. To own this place, we’ll need the access codes from the commanding officer.”

“Captain Kurosawa,” Calvin began, and Kurosawa looked in his direction attentively. “I want our forces to advance along three main fronts,” he continued, pointing at main passageways that ran from port to starboard, and fore to aft in the space station. “If we can secure these five checkpoints,” he said, again pointing at several key junctions that would afford them easy access to control points. “We’ll be able to simultaneously assault most of their control centers at the same time. Agreed?”

“Yes, Colonel,” Kurosawa answered.

“Good. I want three assault elements, two reserve elements. Oh, and take the comm geeks with you. Once we’ve taken control of everything but the station’s main bridge, we’ll meet up and storm it. Questions?”

“No, sir,” Taylor replied, crisp and sure. “We’ll get it done.”

“I don’t doubt it, Lieutenant. Move out!”


31

Concurrently on the bridge of Lion of Judah, they were in the middle of heavy combat against the League fleet. David noted with satisfaction the League escorts had taken significant losses, especially among their remaining Cobra class destroyers.

“Conn, TAO. Master Fifty-six destroyed,” Ruth announced from her station while the tactical plot updated to show one less League ship.

David planned to slowly degrade the escorts surrounding the League’s carriers and battleships while avoiding unnecessary losses. So far, it’s working. “TAO, firing point procedures, forward magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master Sixty-eight,” he commanded, picking the next closest destroyer to target.

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, all weapons, Master Sixty-eight.”

David’s eyes were glued to the tactical plot as the Lion’s weapons package thundered in the deep of space. The Cobra class destroyer was hit by six of the nine magnetic cannon rounds fired at her and nearly disabled before the neutron beams connected. One speared the ship from stem to stern, causing explosions throughout the ship.

“Conn, TAO! Master Sixty-eight neutralized sir.”

“Sir, we’ve eliminated twenty-five percent of the League’s escorts,” Aibek pointed out. “Don’t you think we should move in for the kill?”

“Not yet, XO,” David said, still staring at the tactical plot. “Seville’s got something else up his sleeve. His flagship isn’t deployed. I don’t intend to get caught between whatever he’s cooking and the station. We’ll sit back, pick these guys off, and let the good admiral come to us. Then we’ll make our moves.”

“I do not want us to be too conservative now, when victory is at stake.”

“Noted, XO,” David replied as he cracked a smile. “I promise, by the end of the day, you won’t have any complaints in that department.”

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, new contacts. Behemoth class League Dreadnought, designated Master Three hundred fifty-five, escorted by eight Rand class cruisers and numerous Cobra class destroyers sir!”

“And right on cue, there’s our good admiral’s flagship. Unless I miss my mark, he’ll take personal command of her,” David stated. “Communications, signal the fleet. Order them to move forward in tandem with our battlegroup, but specifically, caution to maintain the rough semi-circle we’re in. I don’t want any surprises.”

“Aye, sir,” the second watch communications officer, Second Lieutenant Jefferson Bell, replied.

“Navigation, ahead one third.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master One-oh-eight, Master Two Hundred Fifteen, and Master One Ninety-three, magnetic cannons, and neutron beams,” David ordered, targeting the next line of League escorts, which protected their battleships and carriers.

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons.”

The giant magnetic cannons on the Lion of Judah spoke as one, sending massive projectiles flying across space at ten percent of the speed of light. Slamming into the comparatively weak shields of the League frigates, the high explosive rounds hammered them down, leaving the trio of frigates defenseless for the directed energy weapons fire that followed. Two of the frigates outright exploded, the third was reduced to a cripple, drifting in space and venting atmosphere.

“Conn, TAO. Targets neutralized, sir.”

David opened his mouth to give the next engagement order, but Ruth cut in before he could.

“Conn, TAO! Aspect change! Sub-light engine light off. League fleet is moving at flank speed, directly at our battle line!”

“They mean to cut the engagement range and overwhelm us,” Aibek said, glancing at the plot himself.

“Thankfully, we didn’t have to expend our missiles on the way in to clear out the mines, XO. Communications, signal the missile cruisers and the Saurian battleships to link all active missiles in their tubes to our tactical network.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Jefferson replied.

“TAO, prioritize all incoming targets, and link them to the battlespace awareness system. Target our own forward and aft VRLS against that list as well.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Sir, the fleet reports all missiles are ready to fire, and we have a confirmed network link,” Jefferson interjected.

“TAO, firing point procedures, prioritized target list, all available missiles, make tubes one through two hundred and forty ready in all respects and open the outer doors.”

“Firing solutions confirmed, sir. Tubes one through two hundred and forty ready in all respects.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all missiles,” David said, his voice rising in pitch.

Ruth pressed down on the button that would not only fire the two hundred and forty missiles that the Lion of Judah had ready to shoot, but another eight hundred missiles from across the cruisers and battleships that possessed VRLS launchers in the fleet. It took all of her concentration to ensure the launches were successfully vectored toward the right targets; and this was with most of the real work being done by the computers and the battle management system contained within their CIC.

“Conn, TAO. All missiles running hot, straight, and normal, sir.”

David stared at the tactical plot on the monitor above his screen, while the ship shook as it took repeated hits from League plasma cannon fire. Masses of icons, overwhelming the screen, popped into existence as the launch occurred. For several seconds, there was information overload as the tactical system tried to process all of the incoming data. Then groups of missiles broke off and began tracking separate enemy vessels. David watched with grim satisfaction as the icons belonging to League ships began to blink out, one after another. It took five minutes for the volley to press home completely, but in that time, numerous League vessels were destroyed.

Departing from bridge protocol, Ruth turned to look back at David with a fierce warrior’s stare. “Sir, seventy-two League ships destroyed.”

David allowed himself to nod, trying not to take pleasure in the sight of all those League ships, reduced to constituent atoms. “That’ll even up the score a bit, Lieutenant. Outstanding shooting.”

Ruth’s face turned to a grin. “Yes, sir.”

“Now let’s finish the job,” David said to the bridge at large.

So Fight I

Meanwhile, Amir was matching a League fighter move for move as he tried to line up a missile shot. Sensor conditions had improved to the point that LIDAR guided munitions now functioned, but they still went wide and didn’t hit the target more than he’d normally expect. At last, the missile tone sounded, and his SF-106 Phantom gained positive lock. “Knight One, Fox Three!”

The missile leapt away from Amir’s fighter, quickly reaching its homing speed of ten thousand kilometers an hour. He kept turning with the League fighter, so if the enemy craft survived his assault, he’d be lined up for another shot. As it turned out, he wouldn’t need to take it. The missile connected and blew the League fighter apart in a bright orange fireball that existed only for a moment as the oxygen reserves on the doomed craft burned.

“Splash one! Splash one bandit!” Amir called into the comm, his battle spirit coming alive. He’d been greatly affected by the loss of so many pilots, many of them friends, in the battle three days prior. Delivering payback wouldn’t bring those fine men and women back from the dead, but it would help settle the debt he felt the League owed.

“This is CSV Roger Hamilton to all friendly fast movers!” A voice Amir didn’t recognize broke into his comms net with an emergency transmission; his flight computer verified it as coming from the CSV Roger Hamilton, a Meade class frigate. “We’re tracking an inbound flight of fifty plus bandits. I say again, fifty plus bandits. It looks like they are attempting to knock a hole in our point-defense picket protecting the heavy cruisers and battleships. Request immediate assistance from any friendlies in range!”

Amir immediately cued his comms channel to reply. “Roger Hamilton, this is Lion of Judah CAG, Hassan Amir. My squadron and I are on our way to assist you, requesting a live tactical network link.”

A moment later, the link was established. “Done, Colonel Amir. Any assistance you can provide will be much appreciated.”

“I will try to drive them into the kill zone of your automated point defenses,” Amir replied. “Allu Ackbar!” As he was speaking, Amir rolled his fighter and rotated its facing toward a flight vector that would take him on an intercept course to the League craft. “Black Knights, this is Knight One. Form up on my wing and stand by for maximum thrust.”

Amir waited as the rest of his squadron formed up into three “finger-four” formations, which allowed for maximum fire support from wingmen to the flight leaders. “Push it up, Knights!” he roared into the comms, then simultaneously pushed his throttle up to one hundred percent and kicked in the afterburners. Designed to provide a short-term boost to speed, the afterburners used fuel at a prodigious rate. The range closed rapidly, and his onboard sensors began to sort out what they were up against: a formation of forty-eight heavy bombers escorted by only six fighters. Steep odds, especially considering League heavy bombers had tail gunners; those odds were, however, significantly increased by the direct support of the Roger Hamilton. The other frigates in her group had been destroyed, so the enemy CAG clearly felt they could overwhelm the frigate then directly attack the capital ships which lay beyond it.

“Stand by for maximum range, target the enemy fighters escorting those bombers,” Amir called out, lining up his shot. The advanced integrated network between the squadron would allow them to effectively target the escorting fighters without wasting missiles. The missile tone sounded, and Amir reflexively pressed the button on his flight stick to fire a LIDAR guided missile. “Knight One, Fox Three.”

Missiles roared away from the CDF fighters; twelve in all, the pilots calling out their launches. Amir cut his afterburners to save fuel, and the rest of the squadron followed suit. The League fighters got off their shots and the space between the opposing forces was crisscrossed with chaff and countermeasures. Most of the League missiles missed, but one exploded close to Knight Seven, damaging the craft but not knocking it out of the fight. In exchange, four Leaguers were destroyed.

Amir reversed thrust, slowing his craft down as he came in for a close pass of the bombers; switching to his miniature neutron cannons, he called out, “Guns, guns, guns!” on the active commlink, repeatedly firing into one of the bombers. Rewarded with an explosion that destroyed the League craft, he peeled off to the right. “Knights, weapons free, target the bombers. Watch out for the tail guns and good hunting.”

Weaving in and out of the enemy formation through a series of high-speed passes, Amir hoped to keep the tail gunners guessing while he raked them with neutron cannon fire. Rewarded with one destroyed bomber and another with significant damage, it became quickly apparent that despite the success his squadron was having, it wouldn’t be enough. “Roger Hamilton, this is Colonel Amir. What’s the status of your missile tubes?” he said into the comms channel that was open with the tactical action officer on the frigate.

“We’ve got a full load of Starbolt missiles in our tubes, Colonel. What’d you have in mind?”

“I’m going to feed you a series of XYZ coordinates that I want you to target those missiles on. We will drive them into what I hope will be a large kill zone and leave enough so my squadron can finish them off,” Amir replied.

“Pretty ballsy, Colonel. Good luck,” the Roger Hamilton’s TAO replied.

Amir pulled back his integrated sensor and common operating picture display and mentally marked several locations for missile detonations with the neural link. Once accomplished, he fed the information back to the frigate and created waypoints for the other two flight leaders to stick to. “Black Knights… follow my instructions to the letter. Drive the enemy before us into the path of the missiles!”

Amir’s fellow pilots acknowledged his orders while he and his two wingmen pivoted back around for another pass. Just outside of the effective range for the tail gunners on the League bombers, he lined up another missile attack with heat-seeking warheads, pushing the missile launch button and sending two missiles toward the closest bomber. “Knight One, Fox Two.”

Roger Hamilton, launch the Starbolts!” Amir commanded, rolling his fighter away from sustained fire from the League craft. On his HUD, he could see the icons representing the missiles’ leap away from the frigate and accelerate toward the coordinates he had provided. With his squadron hemming them in, the League bombers flew straight into the kill zone as the missile warheads exploded. Multi-megaton nuclear explosions wiped most of them off the face of the universe, but a lucky few managed to avoid being destroyed.

Tracking the movements of one of the surviving bombers, Amir heard the missile warning sound go off as a League fighter rolled in behind him, avoiding his wingmen and firing multiple heat-seeking missiles. He pulled back hard on his flight stick and triggered the flare launcher on his fighter, sending dozens of plasma balls into space to confuse the enemy. The first missile went for the decoys and exploded, doing nothing more than shaking his fighter. The second, however, tracked far closer than he would have liked for comfort; he made a series of tight turns to attempt to throw off its guidance system. The missile exploded during one of those turns, sending shrapnel into his right wing. The master alarm in his fighter sounded, and in glancing to his side, it was clear he had lost part of the wing. While not a concern for aerodynamics since he was in space, nonetheless, at the speed he was going, not having a stable airframe was a severe problem.

“This is Knight One declaring an emergency,” Amir said into his communications link calmly. The decades of experience and training kicked in; there was no time for panic. He quickly scanned the tactical network for the closest carrier he could land at and adjusted his heading toward it. A few seconds later, however, the fire alarm sounded on his primary engine. He pulled the fire handle and attempted to get the situation under control to no avail. A readout on his HUD showing the status of his fighter began to show his fuel supply increasing in temperature. While ejecting into the middle of a battlefield wasn’t his first choice, it at least held a chance for survival.

Lion of Judah, this is Colonel Amir. I’m being forced to eject from my fighter,” he said into the communications link. “I’ll trigger my rescue beacon as soon as I’m clear.” Not waiting for a reply, he reached down and pulled up on the ejection lever, which immediately triggered a series of explosive bolts that blew the canopy off his fighter; next, the rocket motor in the bottom of his seat kicked in and blew him away from the doomed craft. He saw it explode ten seconds later and thanked Allah repeatedly for his survival. After a moment, he switched on his emergency locator beacon and toggled on his in-suit communications link. “Knight One to any friendlies. Can you hear me?”

“This is Knight Two. We’ve got you, Colonel, flying overwatch until a Jolly Green makes its way over.”

“Negative Knight Two, return to the battle.”

Amir could hear the hesitation in his wingman’s voice. “Sir, are you sure?”

“Yes, Lieutenant. The battle is in doubt, and the League sorely presses our forces. Do your best, and if I am to survive this, I will. Insha’Allah,” Amir replied, determined not to undermine the cause to benefit himself.

“Yes, sir, Black Knights breaking off. Good luck and Godspeed.”


32

Taylor made a fist with his right hand and held it up above his head, the signal for all behind him to stop. Kenneth was at least eight rows back, but thanks to his height, saw it better than most. Pausing with the rest, he gripped the battle rifle he carried tight enough that if it had been made from a polymer, it would have broken in two. They were standing in a nondescript passageway on Unity Station; slowly making their way to one of the auxiliary control rooms that Calvin had ordered taken.

“You okay, boss?” Harold Billings asked.

“Yeah, Master Chief. I’m okay.”

“Remember what I told you. Short, controlled bursts. Don’t pray and spray.”

“Got it,” Kenneth replied as he forced a grin onto his face.

Taylor turned around and waded back into the motley group of civilians and soldiers, almost all of whom were communications technicians. “Everyone good back here?” he asked the group at large.

Many replies of “Yes, sir!” and “Hoorah!” rang out; they were, as a group, quite pumped in Kenneth’s eyes.

“Okay. There’s a large contingent of League troops guarding the entrance, so we’re going to toss in pulse grenades, then rush them. A direct attack on their location; there’s no other way in or out, and no other options. Are we clear?” Taylor stated.

“Aye aye, sir!” Kenneth answered along with everyone else.

“Take your positions and be ready,” Taylor said before turning around and walking back up to the front of the formation.

There was another pause, and Kenneth stood there, waiting. Dread filled him, and he clutched the rifle even harder. Finally, he heard the telltale report of pulse grenades exploding, followed quickly by Taylor screaming, “Go, go, go!”

Everyone surged forward, Kenneth and Billings right alongside. Almost a human wave, the mass of soldiers and civilians rounded the corner to find dozens of League troops facing them. At first, those at the front had an easy time of it; the Leaguers were still stunned and were shot down at close range. That only lasted for a few seconds as the enemy security officers and Marines quickly regained their senses and returned fire.

Those in the first line began to drop, wounded or worse, and they spread out as best as they could, taking cover behind bulkheads and firing through the hatch doors. Kenneth found himself out in the open, frozen as a Leaguer advanced on him. Willing his hands to work, he brought up his rifle and squeezed the trigger, only to be rewarded with the click of the hammer; a dry fire. He tried to work the action, but his hands betrayed him; shaking with fear, he was unable to chamber a round. Time seemed to stop as the Leaguer raised his rifle, only to be cut down by a trio of well-placed shots from behind Kenneth. He whirled around to see Billings standing there, the barrel of his rifle smoking.

Kenneth was still frozen as Billings grabbed him by his shirt and dragged him to the deck. “Boss, you okay?” When Kenneth didn’t respond, he shook him gently. “Snap out of it, boss.”

“Yeah…yeah,” Kenneth finally said, looking down at his rifle and chambering a round. “I don’t know what happened there.”

“It’s okay, just focus. We shoot those guys,” Billings said, pointing down the passageway. “Before they shoot us.”

“Right, Master Chief.” Kenneth got out weakly with a forced smile.

Another wave of what appeared to be League Marines pushed forward; this time, Kenneth raised his rifle, aiming it from the prone position he was in and squeezing the trigger. Between all the other soldiers that were also firing on the oncoming troops, he couldn’t tell if his shots hit the target or not. It continued for what seemed like an eternity. He reloaded his rifle several times while prone before they finally secured the area. It was only when he stood that he realized his pants were soaking wet in the front.

“Nothing to be ashamed of, boss,” Billings said, glancing down.

Kenneth was aghast. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Anyone who says they haven’t known fear in combat is a liar, or simply insane,” Billings replied. “You did well.”

Taylor spoke into his commlink. “Colonel, we’ve secured the target. Moving up to assist you with taking the central control area.”

Weak at the knees, Kenneth held his rifle in both hands and followed Taylor as they moved off. Why did I volunteer for this again?

So Fight I

As the Marines were fighting their way through Unity Station, the battle continued to rage in space. David sat in the CO’s chair on the Lion of Judah, his eyes continually surveying the tactical plot. After the attack run the League fleet made, which was thwarted by massed missile fire from the CDF and Saurian ships, the Leaguers had pulled back behind the defensive emplacements of their space station. Glancing over at Aibek, he decided he wanted some advice. “XO, what are you thinking? My thoughts are if we keep sitting here, the rest of Seville’s fleet will come back, and we’ll have considerably more ships to fight. On the other hand…”

Aibek finished his thought for him. “If we attack now, that station will inflect far too many casualties on our fleet, and we have to take care to preserve its combat effectiveness.”

David nodded. “There’s also the fact that I’m not willing to just toss lives away, especially not while Colonel Demood seems to have the situation in hand.”

“Conn, TAO! Colonel Amir appears to have ejected from his fighter, sir,” Ruth interjected into the conversation.

David immediately turned toward Ruth in dismay. “Say again, Lieutenant?”

“Confirmed, sir. I’m reading his emergency locator beacon in active mode.”

“Do we have any search and rescue assets in the area?” David asked.

“Negative, sir. SAR has been focusing on the areas of the battlespace with fewer hostiles.”

“Task the nearest Jolly Green,” David began, referencing the nickname of the SAR birds, Jolly Green Giants. They were large and painted green to differentiate themselves from other combat spacecraft. The name had been applied to many search and rescue craft over the centuries. “Task a four-fighter escort for them as well.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Ruth responded crisply.

“Communications, get me Major Hume.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

David heard Hume’s voice come through on the speaker built into his chair. “Major Hume here, sir. What can I do for you?”

“What’s the overall status of the wing, Major?” David asked tersely.

“We’ve taken a beating, sir, but we’ve had good results so far with our engagements with League assets. The wing command structure is intact and fully functional after Colonel Amir’s ejection.”

David’s face betrayed his deep concern, but Hume couldn’t see it from the voice-only link. “Major, what do you feel our odds of success would be with a frontal assault on Unity Station?”

There was a pregnant pause on the line. “Sir, I wouldn’t recommend it. We’ve got the League bombers bottled up for now, but I wouldn’t want to get too close in range of Unity’s point-defense emplacements. To say they’re numerous is an understatement.”

“Understood, Major. For now, keep engaging the enemy. I’ve had a SAR bird, and fighter escort tasked to retrieve Colonel Amir. Watch after them, please.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

“Cohen out,” David said as he clicked off the communications link.

Far from any support or advice from General MacIntosh, and without Admiral Kartal to lead them, David stared at the tactical plot, trying to decide what to do next. Dear God, help me make the right choice, he prayed silently. I’m terrified of throwing these soldiers’ lives away.

“We must decide on a course of action, General,” Aibek reminded him gently. The Saurian had become adept at when to offer advice and how to do it, in a way the humans he served with could relate to.

So Fight I

Admiral Seville settled back into his chair on the raised platform that oversaw the command deck of the LSS Annihilator, his flagship and the most capable starship the League had in this arm of the galaxy. The Terrans had been hammering them for the past two hours. The losses were mounting and now totaled over one hundred and fifty starships; the cost in resources and lives was enormous. But the League had the resources and lives to throw into the meat grinder of attrition. The Terran Coalition did not, and this weakness would eventually do them in.

“Admiral, we have flash traffic in from the fleet that was searching for the Terrans. They can safely open artificial wormholes again and are requesting orders,” the communications officer for the ship reported.

“Show me the location of the Lion of Judah,” Seville said, addressing his tactical officer.

“Aye aye, sir!” the man quickly replied, and a 3D view of the battle appeared in the holographic projector that was present on the bridge. Seville studied it for a moment, until he was interrupted by Colonel Strappi.

“It would appear that the Lion of Judah has few escorting warships around it, Admiral.”

Seville smiled thinly; Strappi had a knack for stating the obvious. “Yes, I noticed that too, Colonel. What do you think we should do?”

“Oh, I would defer to your vastly better judgment, Admiral. My role is solely to see to our morale.”

Why do I keep this idiot around? Seville fumed mentally. Oh yes, because he doesn’t question my orders like the last political officer… and he can be of use as comic relief at times. “I think we’ll jump in seventy-five percent of our forces here,” Seville began, gesturing to a point behind the CDF and RSN fleets. “The rest, including three Alexander class battleships, will jump in here.” He pointed to a location next to the Lion of Judah. “We’ll send our best captains, and this time, we’ll have her.”

Strappi nodded approvingly. “A wise strategy, Admiral.”

You would have said that if I had suggested sending a company of Marines out to dance on their heads. “Let us begin.”


33

“Conn, TAO. Numerous new contacts, sir!” Ruth called out in alarm as her board lit up with hundreds of new League ships.

David stood up from his chair. “Transfer them to the plot, Lieutenant.” He stared at the holoprojector as the little red icons flashed into existence.

“Sir, I’m reading a Napoleon class fleet carrier, and five Alexander class battleships, along with two hundred plus escorts. They’ve jumped in directly behind our forces, sir.”

David forced his face to remain neutral. I can’t show any weakness or panic. If I do, it’ll infect the entire crew. “And we can’t open up Lawrence drive jump points of our own because we’re too close to the microgravity well of the station.” Damnit, Seville mousetrapped us. I was afraid of that… but at least we didn’t commit to engagement within range of the station’s defenses.

“Conn, TAO! New contacts dead ahead, sir. Three Alexander class battleships, thirty or more escorts!”

David’s mind began to race. He fought mentally to keep his OODA loop intact. “TAO, prioritize the three battleships ahead of us. Which one is closest?”

“Master Four Hundred Seventy-three, sir.”

“Firing point procedures, forward magnetic cannons, neutron beams, and the particle beam emitters, target Master Four Hundred Seventy-three.”

“Firing solutions set, sir. Twenty seconds from firing range at current speed.”

David glanced toward Hammond. “Navigation, intercept course on Master Four Hundred Seventy-three. I want us lined up perfectly.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she replied in a crisp, sure tone.

As the seconds ticked down to active weapons range, David glanced at the tactical plot. There were precious few escorts around the Lion, and only a few with any real heavy weapons capabilities; namely two Themistocles class heavy cruisers, led by the CSV Cicero. Watching the maximum range overlay, the moment the first battleship was in range, he spoke. “TAO, match bearings, shoot, all weapons.”

The Lion’s magnetic cannon turrets fired as one, sending twelve projectiles straight into the League vessel’s shields, impacting on their surface. Bright flares of energy erupted as the powerful energy screens blocked the shots, at the expense of much of their stopping power. Further strikes from the Lion’s neutron beams weakened them further before her primary energy weapons, the four forward particle beams, came alive. Massive spears of white-hot energy lashed out and drilled through the shields and hull of the unfortunate ship, cutting through what remained of its protective screens and slicing through the superstructure. The area around where the beams hit turned molten, while explosions rocked the vessel.

“Conn, TAO. Master Four Hundred Seventy-three has sustained heavy damage and is no longer combat capable,” Ruth called back as incoming plasma cannon rounds from the League battleships began to impact the Lion’s shields.

David glanced up at the tactical status monitor above his chair and noted that the shields were dropping faster than he would have expected them to, by a lot. “TAO, analysis of the enemy’s weapons fire, please.”

“Sir, those impacts have seventy-fire percent more energy than normal League battleships’ plasma cannon armament.”

Underscoring her point, David watched as the forward shield, which was already below fifty percent of its maximum protection rating, dropped liked a stone. “Navigation, hard port thrusters, emergency flank speed. Present our starboard shield to Master Four Hundred Seventy-four and Master Four Hundred Seventy-five!”

“Aye aye, sir!”

David could immediately feel the massive engines on the Lion exert additional force as the turn began to execute.

“Communications, signal the Cicero, request Colonel Meier engage Master Four Hundred Seventy-five.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Bell responded, his voice taut.

“Conn, TAO! Forward shields below ten percent effective power. Shield failure imminent!”

Not bothering to acknowledge Ruth, David addressed Hammond. “Navigation, everything you’ve got. Strip power from all systems to execute the turn!”

“Aye aye, sir!” Hammond replied, her knuckles white as she quickly worked to channel as much power into the Lion’s sub-light engines as possible without overloading them. The ship was massive, and it took time to move even in the weightless environment of space. The League ship’s weapons recharged, and another barrage of plasma cannon fire slammed into the forward shield, causing it to collapse.

David felt the enemy weapons begin to hit home against the forward hull and superstructure for several seconds before the starboard shield began to absorb the shots. “Damage report, XO.”

“Moderate hull and armor damage to the starboard front quarter. Damage control teams on site, sir,” Aibek said after quickly consulting his readout.

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master Four Hundred Seventy-five, all starboard magnetic cannons, and neutron beams.”

“Firing solutions set, sir,” Ruth said, her eyes never leaving her console.

“TAO, confirm firing solutions with the Cicero and Pericles. Concentrate all fire on the same shield arc.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth said as she tried to quickly line up a shot between the three ships in the tactical network. “Confirmed, sir.”

“TAO, shoot, all weapons!” David practically shouted.

Magnetic cannon rounds raced out from the Lion and her two heavy cruiser consorts, slamming into the shields of the League battleship. Coupled with neutron beam fire from all three ships, the force shields of the enemy ship were battered down, and multiple hits scored against the hull. However, without the immense firepower of the Lion’s particle beams, they were unable to disable the battleship in one volley.

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master Four Hundred Seventy-five, all starboard magnetic cannons, and neutron beams. Load armor-piercing shells into the magnetic cannons.”

“Aye aye, sir! Firing solutions set, coordinating with Cicero and Pericles,” Ruth responded, her voice tight and stressed.

David glanced up at the tactical plot, wondering why they weren’t absorbing more enemy fire, as the League ships had ample time to recharge their plasma cannons.

Ruth’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Conn, TAO. Aspect change, Masters Four Hundred Seventy-four and Four Hundred Seventy-five. They’re targeting the Pericles and Cicero.”

David’s eyes went straight back to the tactical plot, which showed the shields of both heavy cruisers dropping quickly; the Pericles’ forward shields failed, and the readout showed both League battleships bracketing it with sustained fire. Helpless, David watched as a lucky hit ignited a magazine or fuel bunkerage, and the Pericles exploded.

“Conn, TAO! CSV Pericles destroyed, sir! Cicero is showing significant damage, and I’m detecting life pod launches!” Ruth’s voice teetered on panic, watching the only two heavy capital ships in range get worked over by what appeared to be newly upgraded League vessels.

“Did anyone make it off the Pericles?” David asked, fearing he already knew the answer.

“Not that I can read, sir.”

“Navigation, bring us about, hard left, put the Lion in between the enemy vessels and the Cicero,” David commanded. “TAO, status of our forward and aft VRLS?”

“We only have one missile cell reloaded in the aft VRLS, sir; 40 Starbolts. Forward VRLS is still being reloaded.”

“That’ll have to do. TAO, firing point procedures, Master Four Hundred Seventy-five, all Starbolt missiles in the aft VRLS. Make available tubes ready in all respects. Open outer missile doors.”

“Firing solutions set, sir, tubes one hundred sixty through two hundred ready in all respects.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons.”

Dozens of Starbolt missiles roared out of the Lion of Judah’s aft missile cell, while her magnetic cannons and neutron beams spoke as one, hammering the League battleship once again. Her shots, while on target, didn’t cause knockout damage; the League ship was still in the fight. Almost as soon as the Lion passed in front of the Cicero, both League battleships opened up again with the full force of their weapons. David could feel the hits all the way up on the bridge, as dozens of plasma cannon blasts impacted first on the barely recharged forward shields, which quickly failed, then on the armor and superstructure of the ship.

The ship buckled and shook the crew in their harnesses while the lights dimmed. Fuses in consoles overloaded and shorted out before a particularly violent hit was directly followed by a loss of electrical power to the bridge. David brought the communicator on his wrist up to his lips. “Engineering, this is the bridge. Report! We’ve lost power on the bridge!”

“General, this is Hanson. The anti-matter containment cooling system failed. We’ve had to SCRAM the reactor and are switching over to the backup fusion reactors. Wait one, sir.”

A couple of seconds later, the consoles on the bridge snapped back online, and the tactical plot was restored to the monitor above David’s chair. The first thing David noticed was that both League battleships were still there, and intact. “TAO, scan Master Four Hundred Seventy-five…is it still combat capable?”

Ruth moved to comply but noticed something first. “Conn, TAO! Aspect change, Cicero. She’s lighting off her engines, sir… I’m showing flank speed thrust. She’s on an intercept course with Master Four Hundred Seventy-four!”

The undamaged battleship? What’s Meier trying to do? David turned his head to the backup communications officer, Lieutenant Bell. “Communications, get me the Cicero on my viewer.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Bell replied crisply.

While David waited for the link with Colonel Meier, he returned his attention to Hanson. “Mr. Hanson, we’ve got lights. I need shields and weapons back online,” he said through the wrist communicator.

“Sir, I can give you shields and engines, or weapons and engines, but not all three.”

Damnit. Shields are more important right now, or the ship will take even more damage, and God only knows how much more of a pounding she can take. “Shields and engines, Major. Get that anti-matter reactor back online. We’re sitting ducks without weapons.”

“Aye aye, sir, we’re on it, sir!” Hanson answered, his voice somehow cheery despite the pandemonium around him.

David switched off the channel and sat back in his chair, pondering the situation. There weren’t many friendly ships around, and most were involved in their own battles; it was up to Hanson to get weapons back online so they could continue to prosecute the enemy.

A moment later, David heard Colonel Meier’s voice through the speaker on his chair; the viewer was blank. “I apologize, General, video communications are down. Not much working on this tub except my engines, life support, and basic communications. What can I do for you?”

“Colonel, if that’s all you’ve got working, why are you flying toward a highly lethal enemy battleship?”

“My crew’s off the ship, except for a couple of bridge officers who stayed behind to help. We’re going to even up the odds, sir.”

“Colonel, I’m ordering you to abandon ship. We’ll handle it,” David commanded, unwilling to allow Meier to sacrifice himself.

“With respect, sir, that’s an order I’m going to have to decline. The Lion’s taken significant damage. Your forward superstructure is a wreck, and one of your landing bays is too damaged to take in fighters. As I said, we’ll even up the odds.”

David said nothing, staring straight ahead.

Meier continued, “The last year or so, I haven’t believed there was anything else to this life, or anything beyond death, after seeing all the destruction around us on a daily basis. Right about now, I pray I’m wrong.”

“That makes two of us, Colonel,” David said, watching the icon for the Cicero rapidly close in on the icon for the League battleship. “Godspeed, Colonel. See you again someday, I hope.”

“Godspeed, General Cohen. Make it count,” Meier said before static overtook his message, as, at the same time, the icon for the Cicero merged into that of the undamaged League ship.

David flipped the tactical plot to show in real time, the Cicero impacting into the Alexander class battleship amidships and enormous explosions breaking out. It seemed only to take seconds for both ships to violently explode into debris the size of two-foot chunks.

David stared forward, his mind lost at the destruction of another ship, and the loss of another friend.

Aibek’s insistent tone interrupted his thoughts. “General, your orders, sir?”

“TAO, status of Master Four Hundred Seventy-five?” David said after a long pause.

“Master Four Hundred Seventy-five is still minimally combat capable, sir,” Ruth replied, her voice betraying emotion. “Aspect change, Master Four Hundred Seventy-five! Contact is powering her Lawrence drive!”

Thanking God the enemy was bugging out, David watched as the last League battleship jumped out. They’d have to wait until the anti-matter reactor was restored to reenter combat, and he prayed Hanson would accomplish the task in record time. Being unable to affect the fight was something he couldn’t abide.


34

Following the capture of the station’s auxiliary control rooms, Taylor had led the rest of the civilian contractors and volunteers who were with him toward the rendezvous point for the final assault on Unity’s control center.

Kenneth stayed near the back, shamed more than anything by his poor performance in the previous combat. I can’t believe how hard I froze up.

As if reading his mind, Billings spoke quietly to him. “You weren’t trained for this, sir. You can’t think anything less of yourself.”

Kenneth glanced at him. “Master Chief, I feel like I let the LT down.”

“You realize how many firefights I was in before I could engage the enemy, cool as glass? Let me tell you… a lot.”

“Trying to make me feel better?”

“Is it working?”

“Not really,” Kenneth confessed.

As the lot of them stepped over fallen soldiers, one of the bodies began to moan. Kenneth immediately took note and rushed over to where the noise was coming from. Pulling the corpse of a League soldier to the side, he discovered a TCMC Marine clinging to life. “I’ve got a live one over here! Corpsman!”

There was shouting and commotion as Taylor made his way back to Kenneth; Billings hovered over them while the nearest corpsman dropped his medkit next to the fallen Marine and began diagnostics.

“Hang in there, son,” Kenneth said. “We’ll get you patched up.”

“Just…” the wounded soldier said in a whimper. “Don’t want to die like this. Want to see my mom one last time.”

“What’s your name, soldier?” Kenneth asked him.

“Jerrod Connolly,” he said between gasps for air.

The corpsman stood up and walked over to Taylor; Kenneth overheard the conversation. “Lieutenant, nothing I can do for this man. If we had a surgical suite right here, it’d be fifty-fifty to save his life. We don’t have six soldiers to litter him back to the FOB. Best I can do is give him some painkillers to relieve his suffering at the end.”

Kenneth whipped his head around to see Taylor’s face scrunched up and his eyes narrowed. “I don’t want to leave him here to die,” he said. “That wouldn’t be right.”

“I can stay with him if you’d like,” the corpsman replied.

“I’ll carry him back to the FOB,” Kenneth interjected.

“You’ll what?” Taylor asked. “He’s got to weigh ninety kilos. I don’t care how many weights you lift. It’s a kilometer back.”

Kenneth stood, and his voice took on firmness and strength that seemed to come from some other point within him. “We’re not leaving him to die, and I’m not going to sit here and watch him die without trying to save him. That’s the absolute least I can do.”

“If you move him by fireman’s carry, you’ll kill him. He’d need a litter,” the corpsman said. “We’re coming down to the wire. There’s not enough troops to go around.”

“What’s his odds of living if I drag him back to the FOB?” Kenneth asked, using the acronym for Forward Operating Base.

“Ten percent, max.”

“His odds of living if he stays here are zero. I’ll take it,” Kenneth said.

“Hold on. I can’t send a security team with you,” Taylor said, growing exasperated. “We don’t have the men for that either.”

“We cleared out the area behind us. I’ll take the risk.”

“Boss, I’ll go with you,” Billings said from behind Kenneth’s back.

“No. Lieutenant Taylor needs you, and every available trigger puller. I’ll be fine.”

“But, boss…”

“No, Master Chief. That’s a direct order. I’ll be okay.”

“Okay,” Billings said, conceding the point.

“Any objections, LT?” Kenneth asked.

“No. I’d do it myself, but… I need to lead these men.”

“You do your job. I’ll do mine,” Kenneth replied before turning around and kneeling next to the fallen Marine. “Corporal…if you can understand me, my name’s Kenneth Lowe. I’m going to try to drag you back to the FOB for treatment. Stay with me, okay?”

“Yeah… okay.”

“Let’s go,” Kenneth said, unable to say anything more and trying to suppress the emotions building inside of him. He thought of his mother, and if he’d ever see her again. Pushing the thought down, he picked up the man’s legs and began to drag him down the passageway they’d come down, while the rest of the soldiers marched on toward the fight.

For the better part of twenty minutes, he labored half bent over, pulling the Marine along; a faint trail of blood smeared the deck plating behind them. At some point, Jerrod blacked out, and Kenneth quickly overexerted himself; regardless of how his muscles screamed in pain, he pressed on.

The sound of a rifle action clicking as a round chambered was the first indication Kenneth had he wasn’t alone. Not a practiced combatant, he’d focused on his objective of saving the young soldier. He hadn’t bothered to check the area or perform recon.

“Turn around, slowly, Terran!” a voice called out from behind him.

Kenneth let the soldier’s legs drop to the floor and slowly turned around. “No weapons in my hands, League.” He saw a League security officer wearing black combat armor standing ten meters down the passageway.

“No sudden moves or I’ll kill you where you stand.”

“I’m just trying to get a wounded man to safety,” Kenneth retorted. “How’d you ever get back in here? TCMC cleared this corridor thirty minutes ago.”

“They didn’t get all of us,” the Leaguer said defiantly. “You’ll never defeat the League.”

“Is that propaganda or do you believe it?” Kenneth asked with a thin smile. Inwardly, he was about to pee his pants again; no play to pull a weapon that didn’t result in his death came to mind.

The Leaguer shifted his grip ever so slightly on the rifle. “Stop talking, Terran. You’re my prisoner. I will take you to a holding area.”

“No,” Kenneth said, surprising himself in the forcefulness of the answer.

“Do it, or I’ll kill you, Terran!”

What the hell has gotten into me? “No, you won’t. I’m going to turn around and pick up the man I was carrying. Then I’m going to keep walking toward our FOB.”

“I’ll kill you!”

He’s just a boy, and it takes a twisted person to shoot an unarmed man in the back, Kenneth hoped as he slowly turned around, and picked up Jerrod’s legs. “Tell them I got the drop on you, son. Hell, don’t mention me to begin with.”

“Why is this man worth your life?”

He sounds puzzled. “Because he’s someone’s son, friend, father, and husband. Because every life is worth dying for. That’s what the League doesn’t get, and it’s why you’ll never win.” Kenneth grunted as he dragged Jerrod across the deck.

“You’re not worth wasting a bullet on! You can’t even fight, carrying that corpse,” the Leaguer replied as he lowered the rifle.

“He’s not a corpse yet. Not if I’ve got anything to do with it.”

“If I see you again, I’ll kill you.”

“Well, I guess I’ll try not to see you again because I don’t want to have to kill you,” Kenneth said between labored breaths, dragging Jerrod forward.

The last Kenneth saw of the League soldier, he was standing in the middle of the passageway, his rifle in its sling. It took another fifteen minutes of slow progress before he ran into a trio of Marines guarding an approach to the shuttle bay that friendly forces were staging out of.

“Halt!” a Marine in power armor shouted. “Who goes there?”

“Kenneth Lowe, civilian contractor.” He turned around slowly and showed his hands. “I’ve got a wounded man here. He needs medical attention, ASAP!”

“I’ve got corpsmen on the way,” the Marine said. “Where’s the rest of your litter party?”

“Just me. The rest had to press on.”

A group of corpsmen raced out down the corridor with a stretcher. They quickly put Jerrod onto it and hustled to move him while performing basic triage. “Breathing shallow, pulse faint but steady. Multiple projectile penetrations. Who brought him in?” one of them said.

“I did, Corporal,” Kenneth said.

“Any idea what he was shot with?”

“No. We found him after a firefight. Is he going to be okay?”

“Who knows?” the corpsmen that appeared to be in charge answered. “That’s up to God and the surgeon at this point. But I know this… he wouldn’t have survived much longer out there, so if he survives, he owes you a beer.”

Despite all the terror around him and the fear in his heart, Kenneth laughed out loud at the wisecrack from the corpsman. “Thanks, Corporal.”

“Yeah, whatever,” the man replied as they marched off carrying the stretcher. Kenneth wiped his brow, which was soaked with sweat, and looked down the passageway he had just come down, unslinging his battle rifle and mentally preparing to walk down it once more.

“Where the hell are you, Kenny?” the voice of Calvin asked through his helmet’s commlink.

“Uh, I’m back at the FOB, Colonel. About to head back toward the front.”

“Who gave you authorization to leave your team?”

“I was carrying a wounded man back, sir. He was going to die without medical attention.”

“You yellow-bellied coward!” Calvin shouted, causing pain in Kenneth’s eardrum. “Get your ass back to the fight, or I’ll see you court-martialed myself.”

“Sir…”

“Shut up and move!”

At that moment, the events of the last hour caught up with Kenneth. He sank to his knees, his entire body shaking uncontrollably. What if Demood is right? What if I am a coward? What if I’m running away from the fight and trying to make myself feel better? he considered, dark thoughts cascading through his mind like driving rain.

Alone, vulnerable, he remembered back to his own experiences in boot camp and in particular, one drill instructor who was relentless, even when Kenneth had expended everything he had. “Don’t you dare think about quitting!” he would say. “You don’t quit! Whenever you quit at anything, you build on a muscle within your mind that allows you to quit. Never do it! Once you do, you’ll quit at everything, whenever the going gets tough.”

That drill instructor’s attitude and determination had helped him get through boot camp and shaped his character for the rest of his life up until now. I can’t quit. I can’t leave my friends, no matter what Demood says, Kenneth thought as he forced himself to his feet and took off at a jog down the passageway, back toward the fight.


35

The scene outside of the control room for Unity Station was one of slightly controlled chaos. TCMC forces had pushed up to form a pincer around the single point of entry to their objective, while what was left of the station’s security contingent and the League Marines staged a last stubborn stand. Bullets whizzed around Calvin as he stood behind the first line of Marines. Damn, that was close, he thought as his HUD warned him of a round traveling within an inch of his helmet.

“Where’s that heavy gauss machine gun, Master Guns?” Calvin shouted into his commlink, directed toward his senior enlisted Marine, Reuben Menahem.

“One damn minute, Colonel!”

“Well, hurry it up. We’re getting creamed up here!” Calvin shouted back as another Marine in front of him collapsed, the victim of repeated League shots to his center mass. “Corpsman!”

“Press them, Marines! Keep firing!” Calvin yelled, bringing up his battle rifle and sighting down on the nearest Leaguer he could see with the advanced optics. Squeezing the trigger, he was rewarded with the enemy pitching backward, the man’s rifle falling away. Once on the deck, he didn’t move.

“Colonel, perhaps we should think about pulling back to dress our lines and bring up additional heavy weapons?” Menahem asked through the commlink.

“You want to retreat, Master Guns?” Calvin replied, surprised that it was even suggested.

“If you want to call it that, sir.”

“Retreat? Hell, Master Guns, we just got here!”

“Yes, sir!”

While Calvin waited for Menahem and the heavy weapons to arrive, he and the rest of the Marines engaged the enemy. League troops fell like bowling pins while more of his troops than he’d care to admit were wounded or killed by hostile fire. As both forces thinned out, rough barricades were erected, at times out of bodies of the fallen, behind which both sides hunkered down and attempted to suppress one other. It was a blood bath for all involved; no quarter was asked nor given.

Finally, Menahem and the two other Marines that carried the heavy gauss machine gun rounded the corner; to Calvin’s relief, it was already loaded and they were pushing it into the field of fire.

“Marines, flatten!” Calvin shouted into his commlink, directed at both sides of his assault force. Instantly, the TCMC force pressed down onto the deck, leaving a clear firing lane.

Menahem held down the firing studs on the massive gun, holding on as it sent giant slugs down the corridor. A cousin of the ship-mounted magnetic cannon, it fired far faster and used electromagnetism to propel projectiles down its barrel. The resulting carnage was like a hot knife going through butter; Leaguers were cut down right and left as the barrage continued.

There’s a point at which every man and woman can’t take any more hell. Calvin momentarily pitied the League force as they tried in vain to return fire, only to be slaughtered all the more the instant someone raised their head above whatever makeshift cover they had access to. With no more targets, Menahem let go of the firing studs, and the passageway was suddenly quiet.

“Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” a panicked voice from the League side yelled. “Please, allow us to surrender.”

“Any tricks, we’ll kill you all,” Calvin replied, a hard edge to his voice. “Any at all. Are we clear?”

“We’re clear, Terran.”

“Toss all your weapons out in the open, then put your hands over your heads and walk out, single file.”

All at once, dozens of League rifles and sidearms were flung away; they landed all over the corridor. They’ve lost the will to fight. The first Leaguer stood up with his hands behind his head and walked toward their lines. Calvin immediately knew they’d won. It took a while for all of the prisoners to be herded toward the rear, where a security detail kept watch on them. Finally, he stood before the reinforced doors to the control room. “This cost us way too damn much.”

“Yeah, but it's ours, and we’re not leaving,” Menahem replied, stepping up next to him. “You got some friends that just arrived,” he continued, pointing to a group of people in combat armor, led by Lieutenant Taylor.

“Late to the party, Lieutenant?” Calvin needled.

“Better late than never, sir,” Taylor cheerfully replied.

“How’d you guys do?”

“Lost some friends. Leaguers lost more,” Taylor said, his face set in a hard look. “We ready to blow this door, kill these assholes, and go home?”

Calvin smirked and laughed. “You hear that, Master Guns? This soft fleet officer has some fight in him. I like it. Damn straight, skippy. I want this door rigged to blow five minutes ago.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Menahem answered, and directed the breach team forward. They placed explosive charges around the edges of the sealed door, linking them together with a remote detonator, which was handed to Menahem, who in turn passed it to Calvin. “Thinking you’d like the honors, sir.”

“Clear the area!” Calvin shouted as everyone took cover a safe distance away. “Fire in the hole!”

A monstrous explosion shook Calvin’s power armor, and the blast wave knocked over anyone who was standing nearby and not accustomed to such combat. As the smoke cleared, he could see where the door once stood, there was now a gaping hole. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the plan. We’ll volley pulse grenades into that room, charge through, and fire at will on anything that resists. Any questions?”

“Which one’s Will?” someone shouted.

“Anyone wearing a League uniform, smartass!”

“Hoorah!” various Marines shouted out.

“Pulse grenades, over,” Calvin screamed at the top of his lungs; Marines tossed half a dozen of the personnel suppression devices through the opening while enemy fire poured out, smacking the walls with ricochets. The second the pulse grenades went off, they charged into the control room. Calvin was the sixth man in, and Taylor was close behind. Stunned League security personnel tried to get their weapons up and were cut down by precise fire from the Terrans.

Calvin personally dispatched two League officers that drew sidearms on him, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Taylor shoot another one in the chest when he tried to pull a knife. It took a few minutes, but in short order, any armed personnel were killed or wounded, and everyone else surrendered. As more Terran Coalition troops poured into the control center, he allowed himself to relax for a moment; victory was achieved.

So Fight I

Amir absent-mindedly checked his oxygen readout for what had to be the five hundredth time; it still showed above fifty-percent reserves and hadn’t changed since he’d verified it last, about thirty seconds ago. This waiting is worse than death. Almost serene, he had a view few others would ever get of an epic battle between large opposing fleets; even with the limited optic range of his HUD, he’d been watching allied and League ships go at it for the last two hours. As the battle had moved away from his location, it had become safe enough for the fleet to send in search and rescue craft, escorted by limited amounts of fighters. Still linked into the CDF’s tactical network, he’d followed the performance of his squadrons and was pleased they’d, for the most part, achieved superiority in local space except for around Unity itself.

“This is SAR bird nineteen to Colonel Amir, come in,” a new voice said from within his helmet.

“SAR nineteen, this is Colonel Amir.”

“We’ve got a clear signal from you, and all pilots we can get to in this area have been picked up, per your orders, sir. Any objection to going home?”

“None at all,” Amir said. Insisting they get the rest of the pilots first was the hardest order I’ve ever given. Out here, alone and exposed to the vacuum of space is the single most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.

“We’ll be there in ten minutes, Colonel. Hang tight.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere,” Amir deadpanned in return.

The first indication that something was wrong was the flare of an engine from an icon marked on his HUD as a disabled League fighter. It zoomed off, Amir unable to track its movements against the blackness of space.

“This is SAR nineteen declaring an emergency! We’ve got a hostile heading straight for us. Request any friendly fighters to engage!” Allah protect them. “Colonel, we may have to double back for you,” the voice continued.

“Take whatever action you deem as necessary.”

“SAR nineteen, this is Black Cat One. I read you loud and clear. ETA in three minutes at max burn. Come to heading 067, and you’ll be aiming right at me.”

Amir instantly recognized the voice of Major Richard Hume, his XO. “Major, do not deviate from mission to assist. Capture of the station remains the utmost priority.”

“Colonel, I’m coming alone. Would you quit being so stubborn? I’m trying to save your life.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Amir said. “I don’t want the death of another friend on my conscience.”

“I didn’t realize we were friends, yet,” Hume replied cheerfully. “Hang in there. After the day we’ve had, one League fighter isn’t getting between you and rescue if I have anything to do with it.”

“Thank you.” Amir floated and waited, his mind drifting to his wife and children; wondering if he would ever see them again, he prayed to Allah for deliverance. About the time he finished his prayer, there was a small, bright explosion.

“Major, are you okay?” Amir asked on the commlink, fearing the worst.

“I’m fine, sir. Splash one bandit! SAR nineteen, I’ll fly cover as you recover the Colonel,” Hume answered after a pause that caused Amir’s heart to skip a few beats.

Realizing that today was not the day he was to die left Amir unsettled as he looked out into space; the pleadings of his wife to retire and return to her and their children were at the forefront of his thoughts. Perhaps it’s time to hang up my wings, he pondered as the Jolly Green swooped into view.

So Fight I

The Marines and what was left of Captain Singh’s commandos lined the League prisoners up, hands on top of their heads, with super dense polymer flex-cuffs on each one’s wrist to ensure they were immobilized. Calvin stepped forward, looking down at the rough-looking lot, and cleared his throat. “Who’s the ranking officer here?”

A middle-aged woman with striking features and olive skin spoke up. “Fleet Captain Astrid Monet, League Navy. Serial Number 3613695AF3.”

Calvin strode over to her and nodded to the Marine guard behind her, who roughly lifted her to her feet. “Captain Monet,” he began with mock politeness, “I am Colonel Calvin Demood, Terran Coalition Marine Corps, at your service.”

Astrid looked at Calvin, her eyes flashing hatred. “Then get off my station with your fanatical horde.”

Calvin laughed. “No can do. You see, we’re kicking your rear ends all the way back to Earth. This is just a waypoint. Where’s Admiral Seville?”

“Fleet Captain Astrid Monet, League Navy. Serial Number 3613695AF3.”

“Think you’re going to get away with that?” Calvin asked her in a haughty tone.

“I know all about your Terran Coalition rules. You can’t force me to answer you,” Astrid replied smugly.

“Is that a fact?”

“It’s well known the Terran Coalition doesn’t like to get its hands dirty.”

Calvin smoothly pulled out the sidearm that rested on his leg, racking the action as he raised the weapon, and put it up against Astrid’s temple. “Care to tell me again I won’t get my hands dirty, Captain?”

Astrid laughed in his face. “You’re bluffing.”

“Give me the security codes to this station.”

“No.”

“Do it, or I’ll blow your brains out, right here, right now.”

“If you do, it will accomplish nothing. You won’t have the code.”

“I’m sure one of your officers will give it up after seeing your brains sloshing around on the floor,” Calvin replied, his voice hard and his eyes narrow.

“I’m the only one left alive in this room with the entire access code, Colonel. The League takes security precautions very seriously… you killed my executive officer and our morale officer during the assault on this control center,” Astrid fired back, showing absolutely no fear at the gun pressed against her head.

Calvin jerked up the gun as Astrid smirked. The fleet is in trouble. It doesn’t do any good if I can’t turn this station’s weapons against the enemy ships out there. All the sacrifice of my Marines will be for nothing. Screw that and screw these Leaguers. Looking at the line of League officers, he picked out the one with the next highest rank, a lieutenant commander. “Well, Captain, if your life is of no value, perhaps your officers are.” Setting the gun to the forehead of the man, who started to shake, he glanced back to Astrid. “Give me the code, or he dies.”

“You’re still bluffing, Colonel,” came Astrid’s tight-lipped response.

Without hesitation, Calvin lowered the pistol, aimed at the Leaguer’s right knee, and pulled the trigger. The report of the weapon firing was like a thunderclap in the confines of the control room. A split second later, he fired into the left knee. The man collapsed, screaming in agony. He turned to stare at Astrid, whose face had turned ashen, her mouth agape. “That look like a bluff to you, Captain?”

“You’re a butcher,” Astrid stammered.

“Don’t you dare lecture me about who’s a butcher, you sorry sack of shit! You Leaguers have been killing us for nearly thirty years. You invade our planets, massacre men, women, and children. You’ve killed thousands of the men and women under my command. Screw you, and screw your precious League!” Calvin put the pistol the forehead of the man as he writhed on the deck. “Code, now!”

“Never!” Astrid shouted. “I don’t care what you do, I’ll never give up the code and let you destroy our fleet. That’s bigger than any of us. Do your worst, Coalition!”

Calvin’s finger rested on the trigger, hesitating. Something deep within him wouldn’t let him squeeze, as much as he wanted to. He adjusted his aim to the right and fired a round an inch from the Leaguer’s head that pinged off the deck plate. “Next shot goes in his brain, Captain Monet. You got the balls to watch me kill him, then your entire crew? You’ll be the last one here, and I’ll kill you too.”

A tear ran down Astrid’s cheek. “We serve the League. I will not give you the code. Kill us all. It doesn’t matter.”

Menahem forced his way over to Calvin and whispered loudly in his ear, “Colonel, what the hell are you doing? You can’t torture prisoners of war or threaten to kill them!”

Calvin stared at Menahem with a look of pure hatred. “I’ll do anything I damn well please with these scum, Master Guns. Stand aside.”

“I can’t allow this, sir. Aside from the fact it’s against the law, it’s wrong, sir! We’re better than this.”

“Perhaps you’re right, Master Guns,” Calvin said after a moment. “Where're the environmental controls for the life support on this tub?” The only way to get through to them is to threaten to kill them all.

Taylor pointed to a group of consoles and displays. “Here, sir.”

“Excellent, Lieutenant. Isolate the decks the League controls and vent the atmosphere in them into space.”

“No!” Astrid shouted. “There are twenty thousand people on this station, some of them are civilians!”

“Should have thought of that, Captain,” Calvin replied as he walked to the console that Taylor was standing over. “Lieutenant, let’s purge this station.”

Taylor didn’t move. “Sir, we can’t kill twenty thousand people without at least offering them surrender as an option.”

“You’ll do what I tell you to do, Lieutenant,” Calvin snarled.

“With respect, sir, no, I won’t,” Taylor answered, pulling himself up just a little bit taller. “You’re giving illegal orders. Under the UCMJ, I have no obligation to comply.”

Calvin pushed Taylor to the side and sat down at the console. “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” He began to tinker with the controls, determining how to expose each deck to the vacuum of space. “Last chance, Captain. Order your people to surrender, give me the access code, and you all get to go home someday.”

Astrid didn’t reply; she merely stared at him, her face a mask of blinding rage.

Menahem had walked up behind Calvin and began to speak. “Colonel, you can’t do this, sir. I won’t allow you.”

“You won’t allow me?” Calvin stood up and violently shoved Menahem away. “I’m the one giving orders here, Master Guns. If you can’t obey them, surrender your weapon and go stand with the enemy!”

“Sir!” Taylor shouted. “Please, sir, there’s a better way. Let me and some of the technical guys get set up. We’ll hack the control system. Just give us some time to do it the right way.” His right hand rested on his sidearm.

Calvin glanced from the hand to Taylor’s face. “If you're thinking about drawing on me, Lieutenant, I’d make sure to do it when my back’s turned. I can outfight you any day, and I’ll kill you just the same.”

“As the highest ranking officer in this room, I’m relieving you of command, sir. Stand down.”

“I don’t think so, Taylor.”

“He’s right, sir. This has gone far enough,” Menahem interjected.

Why can’t they see it’s the only way? “You want me to stop? Shoot me.” Calvin punched the final control to start the atmosphere vent.

Astrid watched in horror as the large bank of flat panel screens began to show security device transmissions from the deck below them. Anyone who wasn’t in combat armor began to fall over, clutching at their throats and grabbing at whatever was near them from lack of oxygen. “Stop! I’ll unlock the system, stop!”

Calvin locked eyes with her as he reversed the sequence. “Get her up. Any tricks, and we’ll start over, Captain.”

The figures on the monitors stopped clutching their throats and slowly returned to normal. There was extreme tension in the control room as Marines glanced at each other, unsure of what they’d just witnessed.

With a posture and pose that betrayed her resignation, Astrid inserted a security card, entered her access code, scanned her palm, and unlocked the primary systems. As soon as she had completed the sequence, the young Marine pulled her back from the input station. “It’s done, Colonel. Congratulations on being as ruthless as your propaganda claims we are.”

“Get the League trash out of my sight, Master Guns,” Calvin said in Menahem’s direction. “Lieutenant Taylor, get on comms and let General Cohen know we’ve taken the station and have control of its weapons systems. Then have Captain Monet here order her comrades to surrender.”

Menahem cleared his throat. “Colonel Demood, I will follow your orders. I must inform you I’ll be forced to report what happened here to the Judge Advocate General for investigation under the UCMJ.”

Taylor was silent; he took his station and seemed to focus solely on the work.

Calvin couldn’t find the words to reply to Menahem. As his actions caught up with him, the first crack of doubt appeared in his mind. Did I go too far? Am I truly capable of doing anything in pursuit of victory? Was it worth it?


36

Simultaneously, on the bridge of the Lion of Judah, David gripped the sides of his chair with such force, his knuckles hurt. The anti-matter reactor had just come back online; while running on backup fusion power, the mighty warship was a shell of its average combat effectiveness. Since sending Seville’s strike force running, they’d stayed in the rear, waiting for temporary repairs to be completed. The League ships that jumped in behind them had been nibbling at their heels, but the combined CDF/RSN fleet kept the range open and slowly closed in on Unity Station.

This tactic is only going to work for so long. At some point, I have to turn around and engage the League fleet or pick up our Marines and get the hell out of here. “TAO, distance between enemy battleships and our rearguard?”

“Roughly fifteen thousand kilometers, sir,” Ruth said.

“Conn, communications!” The still unfamiliar voice of Second Lieutenant Jefferson Bell, the backup communications officer, interjected, “I’ve got Colonel Demood for you, sir.”

“Put him through to my viewer, Lieutenant.”

A moment later, Calvin’s face was displayed above him. “General Cohen, good to see you, sir.”

“Same here, Colonel. What’s the word?” David replied. He could see consoles and many friendlies behind the tough Marine, but wasn’t sure where he was broadcasting from.

“Coming to you live from Unity Station’s control room, sir. I have full control of the station’s weapons systems and shields. We’re mopping up the last resistance, and the flag has been raised.”

David’s eyes opened as wide as they possibly could; of all the things he had been hoping for, this wasn’t one he had even allowed himself to conceive of. “Outstanding work, Colonel! What’s the status of those weapon systems?”

“Fully charged, no munitions expended. We’ve got full run of them.”

“We could lure the League fleet into range,” Aibek mused.

“Yeah, but it’s got to look good. Seville is no slouch.”

“Colonel, we’re going to execute a flank run at the station. What I want you to do is open fire on us as we range; be very careful not to take down friendly ships but make sure you make it look legit.”

“You got it, General. Anything else?”

“Once we’ve drawn the League in, we’ll about-face, open up with everything we’ve got, and you join in.”

Calvin grinned fiercely. “One destroyed League fleet, coming right up, sir.”

“Godspeed, Colonel.”

“You too,” Calvin replied before the connection cut off.

“You heard the man,” David said to the bridge at large. “Communications, signal the fleet to move in, flank speed.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Jefferson said.

“Navigation, intercept course, Master One.”

“Aye aye, sir, intercept course set.”

“Navigation, engage flank speed!”

The Lion shuddered as it accelerated; David could almost hear the engines straining at maximum power. As he watched the plot intently, there were orders and replies over the next few minutes as the fleet sped up and closed in on the massive League space station. To his relief, the League ships took the bait; they too matched flank speed and closed in on the depleted CDF/RSN formations. This is going to be close.

“Conn, TAO! Entering weapons range of Master One.”

“Acknowledged, TAO. Firing point procedures. Target Master One with neutron beams and forward magnetic cannons.”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons.”

A massive salvo thundered out from the Lion, her magnetic cannons and neutron emitters speaking as one, the shots impacting on the League stations shields. Other ships in the fleet also opened fire, but only a few used missile inventories; holding on to those munitions would be key to turning the tables on their pursuers. David continued to watch as the range closed with the pursuing League ships.

“Perhaps we should slow down, let them catch up to us?” Aibek said.

“That might look a bit suspect, XO.”

“If we don’t slow down, we’ll ram the station.”

“Fair. Navigation, slow us to ahead two-thirds. Communications, signal the fleet to match our speed.”

As the fleet slowed down, the League of Sol ships behind them entered into weapons range. Long-range plasma cannon fire began to pelt the vessels to the rear of the allied formation while the vessels that had aft-facing weaponry returned it gamely. Few ships were lost on either side. Meanwhile, the range closed to within one thousand kilometers of Unity Station. Now…now we’ve got them.

“Navigation, maximum reserve thrust, hard-a-starboard! Bring us about and present our forward arc to the enemy.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Hammond answered.

“Communications, signal the fleet to match our maneuvers.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Jefferson called back.

“TAO, engage tactical network, task the fleet to engage targets closest to them!”

“Yes, sir, tactical network engaged, transmitting weapons-free orders to all fleet echelon leaders.”

David sat back in his chair, staring one more time at the tactical plot. The League outer band of escorts were firmly in range, while the capital ships beyond were more cautious and had slowed. “TAO, firing point procedures, target Master Two-hundred-seventy and Two-hundred-seventy-five with neutron emitters and magnetic cannons.”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons.”

A volley of fire raced out from the Lion of Judah, targeting an unfortunate pair of Rand class cruisers. Already weakened from previous exchanges with the allied fleet, high explosive magnetic cannon rounds hammered down their shields, and neutron beams wrecked the ships from bow to stern. They were left as drifting wrecks, spurting fire into the zero-G vacuum of space. Ships throughout the fleet fired on the incoming League forces, exacting a heavy price from the enemy. Not to be outdone, the League ships opened fire with their weapon suites. Inbound missiles and plasma cannon shots filled the void and destroyed more friendly vessels; each side took a beating.

“Conn, TAO. CSV Roger Hamilton destroyed, sir,” Ruth called out, wincing as another escort vessel was erased from her plot.

“Steady, Lieutenant.”

“Conn, TAO! Aspect change, League battleships. They’re closing in, sir!”

“Estimated time to them ranging Unity’s weapons arrays?” David asked.

“Thirty seconds at range of approach, sir.”

David nodded. “Very good. Communications, signal Colonel Demood that in forty seconds, he is authorized for weapons free. His lead targets are the five Alexander class battleships approaching our battle line and the escorts directly protecting them. After that, take out anything left in range.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Jefferson said.

David stood up and walked behind Ruth’s console, staring down at her specialized tactical readout showing both battle lines. “TAO, show me the location of the Annihilator,” David commanded.

Ruth glanced at David quickly before tapping at her console; the display zoomed out to show a group of contacts set back from the main League force. “Here, sir. She’s sitting in the rear.”

“I would expect nothing less from the coward,” David said caustically. “I want the tactical network configured so we clear a path to the Annihilator. Seville isn’t getting out of here without paying the bill.”

“It would be quite nice to see the admiral in the stockade,” Aibek stated.

“What’s President Spencer always saying? Wanted, dead or alive? He needs to pay for the thousands who’ve died today,” David replied, his voice cold, without turning around. “TAO, firing-point procedures. Master Two-fifteen, Master Two-eighteen, and Master Two-oh-nine, forward magnetic cannons and neutron emitters.”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“TAO, line up alpha strikes from all fleet warships, synchronize firing sequences.”

“Aye aye, sir. Tactical network is active, fleet is reporting readiness,” Ruth said. David could see from looking over her shoulder almost all the icons representing starships in the CDF/RSN fleet were showing green, meaning they were ready to fire all primary weapons. He mentally counted down to five seconds before the League ships would be in optimum weapons range of the station.

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, all weapons, all ships.”

As David watched, Ruth pressed down on a single button, which alerted the fleet to fire and triggered the Lion’s weapons launch sequence at the same time. He felt the ship shudder under his feet as the massive magnetic cannons spoke as one, flinging small helicar-sized projectiles at the enemy fleet. League icons began to blink out as the fleet’s weapons found them.

David returned to his CO’s chair and sat down, pulling up his tactical plot. Then, all hell broke loose as Unity Station opened up with its dozens of weapons pods, thousands of missiles and plasma cannon turrets. Masses of League escorts—destroyers, frigates, and point defense corvettes—simply ceased to exist, exploding as they were ripped apart by the sheer intensity of the firepower directed at them.

Dear God, thank you for not letting us have to take on that station head-on, David pondered as the onslaught continued. Between the heavy cruisers of the fleet and the anti-capital ship weaponry on the station, three Alexander class battleships were destroyed, but most importantly in David’s mind, a large gap was created in the League’s battle line. He’d saved a full load of missiles and the Lion’s particle beams for when they were needed most.

“TAO, what’s the designation for the LSS Annihilator?” David asked, unable to zoom in far enough on his display to see its numerical code.

“Master Two, sir.”

“Navigation, intercept course, Master Two.”

“Aye, sir, intercept course set,” Hammond replied.

“Are you sure about this, sir? We have precious few escorting ships left. Neither side has much in the way of fighter craft left, so that evens it out, but still…our damaged ship versus the pride of the League fleet, which hasn’t so much as taken a single hit in this engagement?” Aibek asked, his voice quiet.

“It’s a risk, XO,” David allowed. “It’ll also end this battle in one fell swoop. Don’t forget, Seville’s still got ships out there that ran out to look for us. If they come back before we’ve consolidated our position, this will go the other way so fast, it’ll make your head spin.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Navigation, flank speed. TAO, firing point procedures, all weapons, Master Two.”

So Fight I

“Admiral, the Lion of Judah is heading directly for us,” the tactical officer on the Annihilator intoned, his voice almost in a panic.

Seville’s first reaction was that he should draw his sidearm and shoot the man in the head for his cowardice. But he’s right. The damn CDF has out-maneuvered us. How in the hell did they manage to capture the station from right under our nose? Seville forced his brain back to the problem at hand; the Lion was coming.

“Admiral, what should we do? Should we advance?” Strappi said quietly in his chair to Seville’s left.

Ignoring him, Seville instead turned toward the communications officer. “What is the last ETA of our reinforcements, Lieutenant?”

“Fifty-five minutes, sir,” was the female officer's reply.

In other words, too long. In fifty-five minutes, there won’t be a fleet left to reinforce. “Navigator, begin to plot a retreat vector for our fleet.”

“But, Admiral, we can’t just leave… they took the biggest space installation humans have ever constructed!” Strappi trilled.

As Seville was formulating the words to rebuke Strappi, the deck of the bridge shook under his feet, and he pitched forward, impacting the plating. “Report!” he shouted.

Lion of Judah has fired her primary weapons at us, sir! Forward shields have collapsed, and we’ve taken damage to our hull,” the tactical officer answered.

“Spin up the wormhole drive and order the fleet to retreat.”

“But, Admiral, we can’t just run away,” Strappi responded, his voice quivering with fear.

“Would you rather be captured by the Terrans, Colonel? How would that be for morale?” Seville said, his voice dripping sarcasm, even with all the pandemonium around them.

“Of course, sir,” Strappi replied, suddenly seeming to realize his place.

“Jump as soon as we’re ready,” Seville commanded, staring straight ahead. Damn that man. The second time he’s bested me. If only those fools on the Social and Public Safety Committee would have listened to me, we’d be wiping up the last remnants of their fleet!

So Fight I

Simultaneously, on the bridge of the Lion of Judah, David leaned forward in his chair; they continued to close the distance with Seville’s flagship, and he could sense the League fleet was close to collapse. “Conn, TAO! Aspect change, Master Two! She’s powering up her Lawrence drives! Correction, all remaining enemy contacts are powering up Lawrence drives!”

“TAO, firing point procedures, aft VRLS, target Master Two. Make tubes one hundred twenty-one through two hundred forty ready in all respects, open outer missile doors.”

“Firing solutions confirmed, sir, requested tubes ready in all respects, outer doors are open.”

“TAO, Status of magnetic cannon reload?”

“Twenty seconds, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all missiles.”

The ship shuddered as a hundred and twenty missiles roared out of the aft VRLS, heading straight toward the Annihilator. As they did, David saw League icons blinking out off the target plot; the signature associated with them indicated they were jumping out. Growling under his breath, he watched as the target disappeared. “TAO, redirect those missiles to the closest League vessels that haven’t completed spin up.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

More League ships exploded from the onslaught of the Lion’s missiles, and the rest of the fleet’s combined weapons complements, all while any vessels that could jumped out.

“Conn, Communications! Receiving a request for terms of surrender from the remaining League vessels!”

All the emotion, all the heartbreak, all the loss, came to a head right then and there as everyone on the bridge knew they had won—not the easy victory they’d assumed when the fleet left Canaan four days prior—but a resounding victory that came at great cost. From the most junior rating, all the way up to David himself, the bridge crew let out a guttural roar; clapping, shouts, jeers at the League, and praise for the fleet rang out.

David stood up, pumped his right fist in the air, and shouted, “Yeaaaaaaah!” He turned to Aibek and grabbed his left forearm with his right hand in the traditional Saurian style. “Nicely done, XO! Nicely done,” he said with a fierce grin. The pain is still there, the loss is still there, but the sacrifice was worth it. We earned this.

Ruth and Hammond exchanged high fives with each other while cheering; glancing to his left, David saw that even Jefferson was embracing a junior communications technician as the bridge rocked with joy.

Allowing the celebration to continue for a few seconds, David noticed Tinetariro looking at him with a raised eyebrow. He answered her unspoken question with a nod, indicating for her to get everyone back under control.

“As you were!” Tinetariro shouted. “Man your posts and prepare to receive POWs!”

“Aye aye, ma’am!” a junior crewman in the back of the bridge yelled out.

“Do I look like an officer to you, young man!” Tinetariro shouted, turning back toward him. “I work for a living! Get strapped into your seat, now!”

“Communications, signal the League ships to lower their shields, stop their engines, and prepare to be boarded. Round up any ship’s security personnel and Marines we’ve got left in the fleet.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Jefferson responded.

David turned and punched the button on his chair that engaged the 1MC. “Attention, all hands, this is your commanding officer. The League fleet has been defeated. Admiral Seville is on the run, all the way back to Earth. I couldn’t ask for a finer crew and a better performance in this dire hour. Godspeed, and keep it up.” David thought for just a moment he could hear the sound of thousands of soldiers cheering through the deck plating all around him and broke into an even bigger grin.


37

The following day, David was once again in the CO’s chair on the bridge of the Lion of Judah. The sight of Seville running away was a sight for sore eyes, but by no means was it the end of the war. That sobering fact left him unsettled after the sweet feeling of victory faded the night before. The fleet’s win was celebrated throughout the fleet and the Terran Coalition. Holonews footage of bells ringing throughout churches and houses of worship, coupled with massive celebrations breaking out in the streets on dozens of planets led every broadcast.

For the jump back into Canaan proper, David had something special in mind to honor those lost. “Navigation, status of Lawrence drive?”

“Lawrence drive coordinates laid in, sir.”

“Ship’s status, XO?”

“All departments are ready for the return to Canaan, sir,” Aibek answered. The wound on his head had healed nicely.

“Very well. Navigation, execute Lawrence drive jump.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond said.

The lights dimmed on the bridge, and David felt the artificial wormhole generator straining to engage. After a few months on the ship and dozens of jumps, he could tell down to the second what stage of the cycle was occurring based on the vibrations felt through the deck plates. A few seconds later, the mighty warship entered its tunnel through the universe and popped out, only a few million kilometers from Canaan.

The customary several seconds of recharge and clearing of the sensor network occurred before Ruth populated the tactical plot with all friendly contacts. “Conn, TAO. Sensors online, no hostile contacts present.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” David replied; he glanced back toward Tinetariro. “Master Chief, did you remember your pipe?”

“Aye aye, sir,” Tinetariro replied in her deep British accent.

“Navigation, plot a course that puts the CSV Victory off our starboard quarter.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond acknowledged.

“Communications, tie our 1MC into a fleet-wide transmission.”

“Aye aye, sir, you’re on live for fleet-wide and 1MC,” Taylor replied. He’d retaken his station for the first watch, though David felt he was quite subdued.

David spoke into the mic on his chair. “Attention on the ship, attention in the fleet. This is General David Cohen. I requested our course specifically take us around the CSV Victory, in part to honor the sacrifice made nearly twenty-eight years ago. Twenty-nine thousand, seven hundred and fourteen brave men and women made the ultimate sacrifice during the first battle of Canaan. They held the line, fought off the darkness, and gave everyone in the Terran Coalition hope we could achieve victory. I doubt any of those serving back then would think that today we’d still be at war. But we are. Today we return from another battle, victorious but having suffered severe losses. Tens of thousands soldiers again paid the ultimate price. As we pass by with the Victory to starboard and render honors, remember the sacrifice of all those so long ago, and remember the sacrifice of our fellows over the last four days. Never forget the price paid for our freedom, and never forget the heroes among us. Godspeed to you all, Cohen out.”

David glanced at Taylor. “Communications, switch me back to 1MC only, please.”

“You’re up, sir.”

“Attention, all hands, this is your commanding officer. Master Chief, if you please.”

Tinetariro stepped forward and put the bosun’s pipe to her lips, trilling out a warbling call.

“Attention, all hangars, open outer doors and man the sides. I say again, open outer doors and man the sides.” David cut the mic off and glanced toward Ruth. “TAO, load ceremonial blanks, all starboard side magnetic cannons.”

“Aye aye, sir, loading ceremonial blanks, all starboard-side magnetic cannons,” Ruth replied.

“TAO, lock starboard-side magnetic cannons into broadside position.”

“Aye aye, sir, blanks loaded, starboard-side magnetic cannons locked into broadside position.”

“Hangar bays report open, all sides manned, sir,” Taylor said.

“Outstanding, Lieutenant. TAO, display exterior holocamera image of CSV Victory on the central projector.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth answered; a moment later, a holographic image of the old battleship, scarred from battle almost three decades ago and weathered by the passage of time, filled the large holographic projection tank on the bridge. An outsized flag of the Terran Coalition was attached to the destroyed bridge of the ship, held unfurled by a yardarm.

David stood. “Attention to colors!” All personnel on the ship who weren’t strapped into their consoles faced the flag and came to attention, him included. His hand came up to his brow, and he saluted with purpose. “As you were.”

“Conn, TAO. Passing CSV Victory in fifteen seconds on current course and speed, sir.”

“TAO, shoot, starboard magnetic cannons.”

A single volley of the ceremonial blanks was fired; they did nothing except produce puffs of smoke out of the barrels of the long railguns. Typically, the magnetic cannons didn’t produce any smoke as electromagnets launched the shells within them.

“Navigation, ETA to our berth?” David asked. The Lion took up the same docking space as a fleet carrier and there were only a couple of those available at any given time.

“Fifteen minutes, sir. We’re cleared for priority docking per the automated station dockmaster,” Hammond said.

“Very well,” David said, cueing the 1MC once more. “Attention, all hands, secure outer hangar doors. Man docking stations and prepare for spacedock.”

Aibek glanced at him. “Sir, I do not understand what you just did. Why did we open the outer docking bay doors and fire blanks into space?”

“It's our manner of rendering honors to the Victory. She was our flagship during the first battle of Canaan. The general who commanded our forces was killed on her bridge when it was wrecked by League fire. She lived just long enough to see the enemy vanquished. The ship was already obsolete—it fought in the Saurian/Terran Coalition war—and was due to be scrapped anyway. Civilian leaders decided to leave it in space as a memorial to the soldiers who died, for all eternity.”

“I understand. We have similar monuments,” Aibek said after thinking it over. “Human sentimentality runs very deep.”

“That it does,” David allowed, smiling. “It's one of our best features, I think. If we forget history, we’ll repeat it. If we remember, perhaps there’s hope for us yet.”

So Fight I

After rendering honors to the Victory, they’d docked successfully and offloaded the caskets that held the remains of those who died on the Lion. Emotionally drained, David returned to his quarters afterward and took his meal alone. Forcing himself to sleep, he woke up the next morning surprisingly refreshed; after working his way through his usual ritual, he got a hot mug of coffee from the officers’ mess and made his way to his day cabin. Determined to clear away as many easy administrative tasks as possible, before the paperwork and after-action report portion of his day began, he answered several requests with a simple “approved” or “denied.” The next item that popped up was from MGySgt Reuben Menahem, a name David didn’t readily recognize. When he tapped on the email, it filled his screen.

General Cohen,

Please review the attached after-action report. It is a true and accurate account of what happened in the control room of Unity Station. I decided to give this to you in the hopes that you could get through to Colonel Demood rather than the Judge Advocate General. I leave the matter in your hands.

– Master Gunnery Sergeant Reuben Menahem, Terran Coalition Marine Corps

Quickly skimming the attached document, David’s jaw dropped even as he was walking. What the heck got into Cal? Threatening to kill twenty thousand Leaguers, including thousands of civilians? As soon as he walked in the hatch to his office, he set the mug of coffee down and brought his wristcomm to his lips. “General Cohen to Colonel Demood.”

A moment later, Calvin’s voice came through loud and clear. “Demood here, sir.”

“Report to my office immediately.”

“Yes, sir, on my way,” Calvin replied, his voice cocky as usual.

David sat down heavily in his chair, pushing the tablet in front of him, its screen still showing the after-action report. There has to be some kind of rational explanation of this behavior. Cal would never follow through on a threat to kill twenty-thousand people. He’s a better man than that. He leaned back in his chair, eyes locking on to the ceiling. Over the decades, he’d seen incredible amounts of carnage both to the bodies and the minds of those he served with. The trauma, pain, and stress were like a ticking time bomb, which no one knew when it would finally catch up with them.

There was a loud knock on the hatch, to which David replied, “Come!”

The hatch swung open, revealing Calvin’s substantial form. He strode into the office, closing the hatch behind him and came to attention before David’s desk. “Colonel Calvin Demood reports as ordered, sir!”

“Have a seat, Colonel,” David said, his tone all business.

As Calvin sat down, he stared at David. “What can I do for you, sir?”

David slid the tablet across the desk. “You can start by explaining this to me.”

Calvin picked the tablet up and spent a few seconds reading it before tossing it down on the desk with obvious contempt. “I don’t understand the question, sir.”

“Is it true?”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Are you seriously telling me you first put a gun to the head of a POW and threatened to kill her, before shooting a Leaguer in both kneecaps?”

“Yes, sir, I did,” Calvin replied, his lips tight.

David’s face betrayed his shock and his mouth dropped open. “After that, you threatened to kill twenty thousand enemy combatants as well as over five thousand civilians, taking steps to make good on the threat?”

“Guilty as charged, sir.”

David’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. “What the hell, Calvin? We don’t do that.” The curse word flew out of his mouth, shocking him mentally. He saw red.

“Really? How many times has your ship blown a League ship out of space without so much as an escape pod being launched? You sure you want to start comparing kill counts, General?”

David sat back, unimpressed with his attitude. “That’s not the same, and you know it…” he replied forcefully before Calvin interrupted him.

“No, it’s not. It’s not the same as sighting down on another person, pulling the trigger, and seeing their head explode. You and the rest of the fleet fly boys get to sit back, press buttons, and kill tens of thousands of people. Try getting your hands dirty, sir, before you criticize me or my methods.”

David became very quiet for a moment, rage building within him. “Colonel, my first combat was against a League boarding party. I know exactly what it feels like to pull that trigger and see another human fall over like a bowling pin and have to live with myself afterward. I still see their faces in my nightmares. Don’t you dare tell me I don’t have the right to criticize you or your methods. Are you admitting to war crimes? You’re better than that. We’re all better than that. We’re the damn good guys. I put this uniform on to fight evil every day. I’ll be damned if I’ll allow you to dishonor it.”

Calvin’s face twisted into a snarl. “Would you have preferred I sat back and did nothing? We could have cleared the base one room at a time… How many of my Marines would’ve died, and how many more ships would’ve been destroyed?”

“If we adopt the tactics of the League, we become the League. I’d rather die right here, right now, than become the very thing I hate!” David shouted.

“Cheap words after the real soldiers won the fight for you, General, sir,” Calvin spat.

“What the hell happened to you, Colonel?”

“I got tired of watching my men get slaughtered. I got tired of the endless parades and funerals for the dead. I had a chance to affect the outcome of the battle and win it. So I did. Court-martial me, remove me from service; hell, shoot me if that’ll make you feel better, General, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The League is scum. They’re evil. They’ve murdered millions. Killing them is like taking out the trash. They have no innocents, no civilians. As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them is a target for me to kill.”

“That’s a load of bull. They’re forced to fight, they live in a state of near martial law. If anyone in the League dares to speak out against the government, they’re disappeared into the night, along with that person’s entire family. What you just said dishonors everything we stand for. To hear that come from someone wearing the uniform and symbols I hold so dear…makes me sick!” David thundered.

Calvin stood up, angrily throwing the chair back. “Screw you. The only reason you’re in charge is because your daddy had more balls than you’ll ever have and flew his ship into the side of Seville’s flagship. Go back to playing with buttons, General. Leave the real work to me and my men.”

As Calvin began to turn his back, the rage building in David unleashed. “I did not give you permission to depart this office, Colonel Demood. Turn your ass around and heave to. You will show proper respect to a superior officer!”

Calvin stopped and turned around after a moment. “Yes, sir,” he replied, exaggerating the words in a mocking tone.

“Now it’s my turn, Colonel. Your behavior is a disgrace to the Terran Coalition Marine Corps. It is a disgrace to the memories of the Marines who died under your command. It is a disgrace to the nearly fifteen thousand men and women who paid the ultimate price in the last seventy-two hours for our victory. The ends do not justify the means! That is the philosophy of the League, not of us! No matter what it takes, we do it the right way. You took an oath, Colonel. We all did. An oath to obey lawful orders, to abide by the uniform code of military justice. We took an oath to ourselves… To our country. And to God. I might be able to forgive you putting a gun to the soldier’s head. Threatening to kill civilians, shoving the man aside who tried to keep you from going over the line, and starting the process to kill twenty thousand people? That’s the actions of a monster, not of someone who wears this uniform!” David shouted at the top of his lungs.

“What are your orders, sir?” Calvin replied, rage painted over his face.

“That’s up to you, Colonel Demood. You have two options. Number one, I can refer this report to the Judge Advocate General’s office. At a minimum, you’ll be drummed out of the service in disgrace. Number two, you will immediately and with all haste proceed to the medical bay, request assignment of a psychotherapist, and get the help you need. The only reason that option is open to you is I believe that deep inside, you’re an honorable and decent man.”

Calvin’s face twisted all the more. “You want me to see a damn shrink?”

“I want the man I know and respect to get the help he needs before he’s gone and some evil creature incapable of defining right from wrong takes his place.”

“Anything else, sir?” Calvin forced out through gritted teeth.

“Report back to me when you’ve made your decision, Colonel. Dismissed!”

Without another word, Calvin spun on his heel, walked to the hatch, threw it open, and stormed out, slamming the hatch as loudly as he could behind him.

David was left staring at the closed door, his face red, pulse pounding. God, please help Calvin. He’s lost, and he needs to find his way back. I can’t force him to get help, but please guide him to the path.

So Fight I

What does that sorry sack of shit know about what I do? Calvin mentally raged to himself as he stormed through the corridor leading to the gravlift on deck one. He roughly shoved a junior enlisted soldier out of the way, then cued the lift to take him to deck seventeen: Marine country. I’ve defended the Terran Coalition for over twenty years. I’ve watched my Marines die around me, I’ve buried too many friends to count. My Marines and I won the battle for these fleet pansies. Now they’ve got the balls to tell me my methods were terrible? Screw ‘em all!

Somewhere deep inside, another voice entered Calvin’s mind. But what if he’s right? What if what I did was wrong? What if I’ve become a mirror of the very enemy I swore to defeat?

Pushing the voice down, Calvin strode out of the lift and fast walked toward the Marine officer’s gym. Reaching the hatch, he waited for it to automatically open and went in. Set on reaching the closest punching bag, he walked up to it and punched the bag so hard, his fist went through the leather.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, drawing stares from the other Marines in the room.

Calvin threw another series of punches into the bag before kicking it roundhouse style. The kick knocked it off its mount and sent the bag flying onto the floor, its ballast spilling out.

“Sir, are you okay?” one of the junior officers nearest to Calvin asked.

“Do I look okay to you?” Calvin shouted back. “I am sick and tired of some puke from the CDF telling me what I should and shouldn’t do in the face of the League of Sol!”

Taking out his frustration on the next punching bag in line, he drove his fist into it repeatedly, drawing back bloodied knuckles. He picked up a dumbbell and tossed it like a ragdoll across the gym. “Screw them!” he shouted before uttering a string of oaths. “I hate them all! I hate the League! Kill every stinking one of them! Kill their women! Kill their children! When that’s done, shoot their damn dogs and level every planet!”

By now, every Marine in the gym had stopped and was staring, many with open mouths at Calvin’s behavior.

“Sir, perhaps you should sit down,” the same young officer said, his eyes wide open in shock.

“I don’t want to freaking sit down, Lieutenant! I want to go bust something’s skull in!”

You can’t go on like this, Calvin, the voice said within. Turning your back on what you know to be just and true has only made you like the enemy you profess to hate.

“No!” Calvin shouted before he picked up the rack of dumbbells and tossed it across the gym. Seeing no other way to expel his rage, he stormed back out of the gym and down the passageway.

Wandering around the ship for what seemed like hours, Calvin shoved people out of the way, muttered his way through several gravlifts, and had no real destination in mind. The blinding red rage just wouldn’t retreat like it usually did when the battle was over. At some point, he put his hands to his face and hung his head. What the hell is wrong with me?

You’ve ignored right and wrong for too long, the voice within him said. It’s not too late to get help.

Looking up, Calvin saw he was standing outside of the expansive medical bay. I don’t need a damn shrink.

Then what do you need? Booze? Drugs? More killing?

In that instant, Calvin suddenly realized he was melting down. Filled with shame, he nearly fell into the hatch and stumbled through it into the medbay. Shocked medical personnel stared at him and his disheveled appearance. Doctor Tural rushed out of his office and walked up.

“Colonel… General Cohen told me you’d be coming. Please, come with me.”

The memory of killing the League interrogator so many years ago flashed through his mind, followed by the images of shooting the kneecaps of the prisoner aboard Unity station. Over and over, his mind forced Calvin to accept what he had done. Shocked, disgusted with himself, he shook his head and reached for the sidearm he kept on his right leg. Pulling it out in a practiced, fluid motion, he put it under his chin. “Not sure I’ve got any business staying here, Doctor.”

Now you’re going to take the coward’s way out? the voice asked.

“Colonel,” Tural began. “There’s no need for that. No matter what you’ve done, no matter what happened, it is not for us to end our life. Put your sidearm down,” the older man said in a quiet yet soothing tone.

Do not fear, I am with you. David and the rest of them will help you, Calvin heard the voice say.

“No one is with me. I’m alone. I’ve always been alone. Just my Marines and I,” Calvin said, not quite as loud, still holding the gun under his chin.

Nurses and medical technicians backed away from the scene, taking cover behind triage beds and desks. Tural stayed a beacon of calm, his voice clear and steady. “Colonel Demood, please. Put down your sidearm.” He advanced, slowly making his way closer.

God has plans for you, plans that will help you, the voice said.

Tural reached Calvin and put his right hand over the sidearm and took Calvin’s hands in his. “Let me have it.” There was no resistance as the gun slowly fell while tears streamed down his face. Tural carefully kept it from falling to the floor before clearing the chamber of the live round within it. He then dropped the magazine out.

Calvin quietly stood there sobbing.

“It’ll be okay, Colonel,” Tural said, stepping forward and embracing the tough Marine. “We’ll get you help. I promise you, by Allah.”


38

After a restless sleep lasting less than six hours, David found himself going through his morning ritual on autopilot. Second nature, it was merely what he did every single morning. Every once in a while, he’d change something up; the order in which he did things before his shower, for instance, after once reading a scientific paper suggesting it helped the brain stay effective as one aged by changing up routines. Today, though, he was trying to make it through the day. The wildly varying emotions continued to rock him. They’d won and won big. At the same time, the cost had been incredibly high. Picking up a plate with scrambled eggs on it, toast, and a big mug of coffee, he walked through the officers’ mess nearest the bridge, looking for an empty table. Seeing Ruth sitting by herself, he trotted over.

“Lieutenant, may I join you?”

Ruth glanced up from her tablet and nearly spilled the mug of hot coffee she held. “Of course, sir!”

David smiled and sat his tray down before dropping into the empty seat. “You know, we’re not on the bridge.”

“I’m still not quite used to your more relaxed way of doing things, sir,” Ruth replied.

“Well, we’ve been working together for going on a year now. While I insist on formality on the bridge, and especially in combat, outside of that, there’s got to be some downtime.”

“Is that an order, sir?” Ruth asked brightly.

David shook his head while smirking. “Well played.”

Ruth laughed in return. “How are you holding up?”

“One day at a time,” David said before bowing his head and praying over the food.

After David had finished, Ruth continued the conversation. “I know… I found myself thinking this morning that the victory was great, but the cost. I question the cost.”

“Same here, but I remain convinced our cause is just. I also pray my children, should I ever have any, won’t have to fight this war because we’ll have won it for them.”

“Sounds nice in theory, but we have to live through it first,” Ruth responded.

“What about you? How are you holding up?”

“I’m okay, I guess. I read the list of causalities this morning, trying to see if I knew anyone. The few I did, I wrote a short note to their families. It seems after a while, it becomes numb.”

David nodded his understanding. “We have to be careful not to become numb to the horror of war, though. Otherwise, we’ll start either liking it or we’ll become twisted by it.”

“Like Colonel Demood?”

David raises his eyebrows sharply. “Come again?”

“It’s all over the ship, sir… he was stomping through the ship cussing your name yesterday, then he visited the doc shack and hasn’t been heard from since.”

David winced in spite of himself. “I’d rather not talk about it, if it’s all the same. It wouldn’t be right to.”

“I figured as much, sir. I hope he’s going to be okay. Demood is a good Marine.”

“Now that I can agree with,” David replied, glancing out into space. “Soon, we will rotate back to Canaan on liberty, get some much-needed repairs and downtime for the crew.”

David’s wrist communicator went off in between bites of food, indicating a text message.

“Another opportunity for us to save the galaxy?”

“No,” David commented, rolling his eyes. “Our resident reporter wants to use the comms room for a private conversation back to Canaan.”

“And you’re going to let her?”

“I don’t see a reason not to. I’d wager that her bosses want to talk about that stunt we all pulled.”

Ruth laughed. “You’ve got a soft spot for her. If anyone else on this ship asked you for that kind of favor out of turn, especially a civilian, you’d tell them to pound sand.”

David suddenly felt quite self-conscious. Ruth, after all, did have a point. “Perhaps. But I feel like we owe her something. Besides, aren’t you two friends?”

Ruth shrugged. “We are, but I still distrust reporters. Admittedly, she’s one of the better ones. Got any plans for our shore leave back on Canaan?”

“I’m going to track down some of the families of those killed in this battle, the ones who live on Canaan at least, and pay my respects.”

Ruth’s face morphed into a frown. “You know, sir, it’s not your fault.”

“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” David said. Of course it’s my fault. I ordered them to their deaths. “The least I can do is tell their families they didn’t die in vain.”

“I think most of them know it, sir. After all, we’re all in, as they say, on this war. No one escapes the draft unless you have a genius IQ level or you’re unable to serve for mental or physical reasons. And even if you don’t serve in the CDF, they find something for you to do.”

David smirked a bit. “Yes, the government is very good at enforcing that particular rule. I don’t doubt you’re right, and most of those families understand what’s at stake. I think most of our citizens understand that if we don’t win, there’s no tomorrow. If we surrender today, there’s another holocaust. If the League surrendered, we’d all go home.” David paused for a moment as his expression turned somber. “But I know having someone come and tell you that your loved one made a difference, after the extended family goes home and the honor guard is gone… I know it means something because it meant something to my mother and me.”

“I can see that, sir. I just never got to experience it.”

“Be the change you want to see in the galaxy,” David replied with a smile. “Now what’s on your agenda for today?”

“I’ll be working with Doctor Hayworth, Major Merriweather, and the contractors on devising a way to link our scientific sensor arrays into the point defense system, and from there create a new fire control algorithm that allows for automated targeting and destruction of those confounded League stealth mines.”

“Sounds like a good use of our time, though, from what Hayworth was saying, it will take a while.”

“Having to work with Doctor Hayworth for any length of time is a wonderful motivator to finish the task quickly, sir,” Ruth deadpanned with a somber expression.

David couldn’t help but laugh loudly, which in turn affected Ruth and caused her to break out in laughter as well. “Game, set, match, Lieutenant,” he said as he stood, gripping his finished plate. “I’ll see you on the bridge later.”

“Yes, sir! Enjoy the paperwork, sir,” Ruth called after him with a grin on her face.

So Fight I

David strode into the communications room on the Lion and the young enlisted personnel sprang to attention. He smiled in spite of himself, remembering many years ago when he was the wet-behind-the-ears private that would do the same when a senior officer walked in. “As you were,” he intoned. The youngsters relaxed from attention and went back to their work.

“Which communication booth is Ms. Dinman using?” David asked.

“Uh, the third one, sir,” a private said, looking terrified. This was not a space the CO visited regularly.

“Thank you, Private Abun,” David replied again with a smile before he turned and walked into the larger communications area that housed several dozen comms booths, which allowed for private, one-on-one vidlinks. Opening the door to the booth clearly marked with a large “3,” David stuck his head inside. “Hello, Angie.”

Angie looked up at him startled. “Hi.” She furrowed her brow. “How did you know I was here?”

David smirked. “Well, as the commanding officer, all requests from civilians to use our communications system go through me… especially ones that go back to Canaan and are paid by an executive with GNN. I deduced you were being called on the carpet for what we did, and well, here I am.”

Angie shook her head. “You mean what I did.”

“I put you up to it.”

“David… I put out fake news,” Angie replied, her voice tight.

“It wasn’t fake news, it was disinformation.”

“Like that makes it better? Actually, that’s worse. I intentionally helped the military put out propaganda.”

“May I come in?” David asked.

“I suppose,” Angie replied, her voice still tight and curt.

David walked in and sat down next to her. “You helped us gain one of the largest victories ever achieved over the League.”

“At what cost? GNN prides itself on telling the truth and not being a front for the CDF’s public relations office.”

“Which is precisely why your report was taken as fact by the League. I remind you, it’s not a lie to deceive the enemy.”

Angie’s face turned to a frown. “If you’re trying to make me feel better, you’re doing a horrible job.”

David sighed. “Angie, look… I came here to help. I’ll take the heat for what happened. I asked you to do it, and I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

“I appreciate that. But I made the decision.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have told you what we were up to…” David mused out loud.

“Seriously? Lie to me too?”

“It would have at least protected you.”

“I’m a big girl, and I can take care of myself,” Angie shot back.

David laughed. “So you keep reminding me.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m just a pretty civilian you need to protect.”

“You’ve quite disabused me of that notion over the last few months,” David retorted.

Angie softened her facial expression, and a small smile appeared. “I’m sorry. It’s just hard to fit in here.”

“I think you’ve done fine.”

“Thanks. You sure you want to do this with me?”

David nodded. “Very. I don’t allow anyone to take the heat for me.”

Angie rolled her eyes at David. “Try not to get me fired. I actually like this job.”

“No promises.”

Angie chuckled as she pressed the final button on the communications panel to fire off the request for video transmission to her boss, the news director for GNN, Harold Washington. A testament to Terran Coalition ingenuity and technology, a few seconds later, his face appeared on the screen in front of them. David could see the man’s cheeks twitch when he realized David was in the room as well.

“General Cohen, Angie. Good to see you both, though I wasn’t aware that you were joining us, General.”

I tire of people that like to beat up on others but run away when confronted by someone of similar authority. “Mr. Washington, I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting before this. I asked Ms. Dinman to allow me to join in at the last second.”

“I see, General. I’ll cut right to the chase, then. I’m not sure about the sequence of events, but GNN believes the military used us to deliver propaganda. We’re not happy about it, nor are we amused.”

Angie cut in, “Harold, they asked us to… to decoy out the League fleet, which was guarding Unity Station.”

“I understand why the request was made. What I don’t understand is why you went along with it, especially without consulting your superiors.”

David cleared his throat. “Mr. Washington, the Lion of Judah, at that time, was under a complete comms blackout. EMCON Alpha. Ms. Dinman was unable to contact you, at my order. Let me be very clear, I ordered her to send the news report. Was it incorrect? To an extent. We did have numerous ships that were battle damaged.”

“You had us put a report on air saying most of your force wasn’t combat ready, right before launching an attack. That’s the very definition of propaganda, General,” Washington shot back, his face turning red as his anger showed.

“God forbid you did something to help us win the war,” David remarked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Our job isn’t to win the war, it’s to report on the war, and other aspects that are newsworthy in the universe, General.”

“Oh, of course. It just so happens that any time the CDF takes a beating, that’s front-page news. We win? You push it to the back of the line. I’m not here to debate your news practices, Mr. Washington. I’m here to tell you that your reporter did her job, and while she may have delivered a report with inaccuracies in it, from the CDF’s point of view, her report was one of the key reasons we won. Surely this carries some weight with your organization?”

Angie looked at David, her face showing a frown. “Hello…I’m still here, guys. I did what I did. Harold, if you need to punish me for it, so be it. Just get it over with.”

David whipped his head around, staring at her, his eyebrow raised. Harold was the first to speak. “I’m not entirely unsympathetic to what happened here. Why don’t you take a three-month leave of absence, and then we can discuss a new position?”

Before Angie could respond, David interjected, “Not no, but heck no. If you force her out over this, I’ll go around and give interviews on every holonews channel that’ll have me and drag you through the mud personally for demeaning a true hero of the Terran Coalition.”

For the first time, Washington sputtered. “Excuse me, General… you can’t do that. It’s against the law for a military officer to engage in political activity.”

David smiled thinly. “Oh, there won’t be anything political about it. You news people love a good story… I’ll get one started and give it a good push. Your choice.”

David felt Angie’s eyes boring into him and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Her face was red, and her eyes were flashing anger.

“No leave of absence, but it's off the table for her to continue covering your ship. If nothing else, your full-throated defense of her gives me serious questions about her impartiality going forward.”

“Done,” Angie said loudly.

David turned to stare at her.

“Harold’s right. I’ve grown attached to this ship and the people who serve on her. I’ve become part of the story. It’s the worst thing a reporter can do.”

David nodded, in spite of his feelings, turning back toward the screen. “She gets her pick of assignments. Are we clear on that, Mr. Washington?”

“I believe you military types like to hear ‘crystal’ back, is that right?”

David smiled broadly. “Yes, we do.”

“She’ll get her choice of good assignments. You have my word.”

“Good. I think we’re done here,” David said, eager to get the man off the comms.

“Yes, we are. Good day, General, Angie.”

“Good day, Harold. Godspeed.”

As the display blinked off, David stared at Angie openly. “Since when do you say ‘Godspeed’?”

“I don’t know... I just picked it up. Hanging out around you theists all the time,” Angie commented, pausing a moment before continuing. “What the heck was that? I told you I could handle myself.”

“I’ve no doubt you can. But I take care of those under my command.”

“I’m not under your command.”

“You were when you made that report.”

“Ugh. You know, so many things were so clear to me before I was assigned to this ship.”

“And now?” David asked.

“I’m much less sure about them after experiencing what life is like out here, for three months.”

“It’s easy to be an idealist in a vacuum. It's far harder to be one when the rubber meets the road, and it’s a matter of life and death.”

“How do you manage not to compromise your beliefs? I mean, in that battle, you could’ve resorted to many tactics that would’ve won it, at a lower cost to us.”

“You mean like nuking the base with enough warheads to reduce it to atoms?”

“For one.”

David shook his head. “If we adopt the tactics of the League, we become the League. It's easy to cut corners, defend your actions as the end justifying the means, and to say it’s just war. It’s hard to do what’s right. It’s even harder to do what’s right when you know the cost will be higher. But if we don’t… we’ll become exactly what we say we’re fighting against.”

“I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”

“I look forward to the day none of us have to anymore. I hope to live to see the day when we beat our swords into plowshares, and our children no longer know war.”

“Do you think we’ll ever get there?”

David shook his head. “I don’t know. But I have to have hope we will. Otherwise, getting up every day and continuing to kill my fellow humans… I don’t think I could handle it.” David smiled. “Enough about that. Where are you going to go?”

“I think I’m going to try to get a spot covering the upcoming election.”

“Politics?” David said the word like it had a bad taste.

“Why not? You don’t think I can handle politicians?”

“I’d rather fight the League than deal with politicians,” David deadpanned.

“You seem to like President Spencer well enough.”

“He’s not a politician, though. At least, I don’t view him as a used helicar salesman.”

Angie laughed. “I’ve never met him.”

“I have a couple of times. Decent man… he wore the uniform for ten years. He knows what sacrifice means, and he saw combat. A lot of it. When he asks me to put my life on the line, and my crew’s life on the line, I believe he knows what he’s asking.”

“Does that mean you don’t think someone who hasn’t served should be in politics?”

David shrugged. “Not many people that haven’t served at this point, but no. I don’t think you should be able to be the commander-in-chief of the Terran Coalition without at least having put on the uniform, gone through boot camp, and spent some time serving something greater than yourself.”

Angie nodded thoughtfully. “I’m not sure I agree, but I do see your point.”

“Politics it is, then. Any idea where you will be posted?”

“Probably Canaan. That’s the seat of the government, after all.”

David grinned. “I suppose I’ll run into you from time to time, then.”

Angie cocked her head to one side. “Are you trying to suggest something, General?”

Oh, snap. I let that go a little too far. “Uh, well, no, just that we could catch up on events from time to time.” His face turned blood red.

Angie raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think you’re telling me everything. Especially considering how red your face is now.”

Might as well go for it… “Well… maybe you’d like to have dinner sometime?” David replied with a lame smile.

“See…wasn’t too hard now, was it?”

David smirked. “I suppose not.”

“Only took you two months.”

David’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. “You knew?”

“You’re kind of easy to read… at least when you’re not in combat.”

David chuckled. “I guess so. Well, it would have been highly improper for me to ask you out while you were serving on my ship…”

“I respect you for drawing that line,” Angie replied as she stood. “Give me a yell after you finish up all your after-action reports. I like steaks.”

David laughed. “It’s not quite that simple.”

“What do you mean it’s not quite that simple?”

“I’m an Orthodox Jew.”

“So?” Angie asked.

“On the ship, I am excused from some of the dietary rules simply because we’re at war, I have no other choice of what to eat, and I must have food to live. Planetside, there’s plenty of places to obtain kosher food. I cannot eat anywhere that doesn’t follow Jewish dietary rules.”

“What about halal?”

David shook his head. “Halal and kosher aren’t the same. Similar, yes, but not the same. I’m afraid we’ll be limited to kosher restaurants.”

“Wow, that takes some commitment.”

“Not even the half of it… there are six hundred and thirteen Mitzvot,” David explained. Seeing her puzzled look, he explained further. “Mitzvot means commandments. There’s a lot of them.”

“Okay, fine. You pick a place and I’ll give kosher a try.”

David grinned. “Deal,” he said as he stood up.

Walking out of the small booth first, Angie followed behind.

“Good day, General Cohen,” Angie said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Good day, Ms. Dinman,” David replied, watching her turn and walk off. Oh my, what have I gotten myself into now? He walked out of the communications area and headed back up to the bridge, a bright smile creasing his face.


39

A few days later, the Lion was drydocked in one of the orbital shipyards over Canaan, her superstructure crawling with workers, fixing hull breaches, scorch marks, and damage evident throughout the ship. The somber ritual of removing the dead had been accomplished, and life had returned to normal for the crew. David found himself walking through the labyrinth of offices on the central CDF space station, heading to General MacIntosh’s office. His mind wandered as he wandered down endless passageways and rooms filled with cubicles. The emotional toll from the war kept threatening to catch up to him yet again, as it had after Sheila died. While the crisis of faith he’d experienced between the two recent battles had retreated, his soul remained troubled. Pausing for a moment before entering the office cluster marked “General Andrew MacIntosh, Program Executive Office, CDF Space Fleet Innovation,” he collected his thoughts and forced his face into a neutral expression.

Stepping through the open hatch, MacIntosh’s longtime aide, Major Roberts, smiled at him. “Greetings, Colonel. The general is waiting for you,” she said as she gestured to the inner door. David thought it odd that two men in suits, who were security forces of some sort judging by the bulges under their outfits and the earpieces they wore, were standing in the waiting area.

“Thank you, Major. Good to see you again,” David replied with a grin of his own as he passed through the small room and the doors to MacIntosh’s office opened automatically. He walked into the office and froze as he took in the sight of President Spencer as well as General MacIntosh. He brought himself to attention immediately while crisply saying, “General David Cohen reports as ordered, sir.”

“At ease, General,” Spencer said as the doors slid shut. There was only one other person in the room, one of the president’s bodyguards.

David relaxed to a parade rest stance. “I apologize, sir. I didn’t realize you would be here, or I would have worn a different uniform,” he said with a wry smile. He wore a khaki uniform with a navy blue space sweater. If I’d known the president was going to be here, I would’ve worn my class As, at least.

“We both wanted to congratulate you in private, David,” MacIntosh began as he snapped open a small cloth-covered case to reveal a medal within. “In recognition of your bravery, heroism, and leadership during both battles for Unity Station, you’re being awarded the Coalition Defense Force Cross, with the V device for extraordinary valor.”

Spencer reached out his hand toward MacIntosh. “Allow me, General.”

David stood silently while the president attached the medal to his uniform in the proper position, then braced to attention once more. “Thank you, sir. I must say, sir, those who deserve the credit for our victory are the crew of the Lion of Judah, and the crews of all the ships who fought, and especially our Marines. Without the capture of Unity Station by the Marine and Space Special Warfare Operators, we wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.”

“Modest to a fault, General,” Spencer replied with a smile. “Have a seat, son. Andrew and I want to have a few words with you and get your thoughts on the war before the planners get ahold of the next phase.”

David waited for the two other men to sit first. He then joined them and placed his hands in his lap. “I’ll help any way I can, sirs.”

“First things first. Have you given any thought to your position after this battle?” Spencer asked.

“Well, sir, I assumed I’d stay in command of the Lion of Judah.”

“We were considering making your brevet rank permanent, if you desire. It’d come with a different posting, though, most likely to the war planning committee,” MacIntosh explained.

David shook his head. “If I have any input on the matter, sir, I’d prefer to remain with the Lion. I believe my contribution to the war is best made from the front. Rank doesn’t matter to me.”

“I was hoping you’d say that, General,” MacIntosh commented dryly. “You still need some seasoning at O-6 before we move you up.”

“Of course, sir,” David replied with a twinge of color creeping into his cheeks.

“That settles it, then. As of 1100 hours today, your brevet will expire,” Spencer interjected. “Now, tell us what happened out there.”

“Overconfidence perhaps? I think we were all pretty certain we were going to fly in there and put the hurt on the League. The appearance of the mines was a massive shock, but in the end, and at great cost, we won the day. I put that on the dedication, training, and motivation of our troops.”

“Did the Saurians show any signs of giving up?” Spencer questioned.

“Not at all, sir. If anything, after the death of Admiral Kartal, they were even more energetic. I saw absolutely no evidence of the Royal Saurian Navy doing anything but prosecuting the war to the fullest possible extent.”

“We were concerned that with the loss of the admiral, on top of so many ships at once, they might be reevaluating the alliance. There’s been some calls in their version of the press for backing out, along with protests against ‘helping the chimps’,” MacIntosh said.

“They do realize we’re not chimpanzees, right?” David asked with a chuckle.

“It’s been their go-to slur for us for a couple of hundred years. There’ll always be some segment, no matter how small, of their population that looks at us as the ones who wrecked the perfect Saurian empire,” Spencer said. “There’s another matter we need to discuss, David. I understand there was an incident involving Colonel Demood?”

David glanced uncomfortably at MacIntosh, then back to Spencer. He assumed the report he’d sent to General MacIntosh had been shared with the president. “Um, well, sir. I received a message from one of the Marines under his command, and I discussed the matter with Colonel Demood. He’ll be receiving treatment for acute PTSD.”

“I realize your desire to protect Colonel Demood, David. However, I need to know right now what he did, and how bad it was.”

David cleared his throat. Dang it, I can’t lie to the President of the Terran Coalition, and I can’t toss Calvin under the bus either. “Sir, I believe Colonel Demood lost control of himself and acted outside of CDF regulations in obtaining the access codes for Unity Station.”

“You mean he threatened to kill twenty thousand people, including civilians?” MacIntosh asked directly.

“Yes, sir. But if I may…” David began before MacIntosh cut him off in mid-word.

“You may not. I realize you respect Demood, and I realize both of you have saved each other’s lives more than a few times. That is no excuse for what I read in your report. Not to mention, I don’t believe it’s entirely the full picture.”

“It’s all there, sir. I questioned multiple officers regarding the events in the control room. Colonel Demood shot a League officer in the kneecaps, in addition to the station inhabitants he threatened to kill.”

“No one tried to stop him?” Spencer asked in dismay.

“They did, sir. Lieutenant Taylor begged him to stop and attempted to relieve him of command. His senior enlisted Marine tried to intervene as well.”

MacIntosh’s face clouded over. “I am profoundly disappointed to hear this.”

“Sir… I’ve wrestled with it. I know what he did was wrong. I also know without the weapons of that station, we wouldn’t have won. At least, it would have cost far more and broken our fleet. I don’t have an answer for you. I know what my conscience says, and I believe I’d never stoop to those lows. Something’s very wrong with Demood, though. He needs help, not the inside of a prison cell. He knows what he did was wrong… let’s not forget he put a gun to his head and had to be talked down.”

“There’s a reason why we say that war is hell,” Spencer said as he glanced between the two of them. “It warps and twists us, no matter how good or moral we try to be. God help us all, but this can’t see the light of day.”

“Mr. President—” MacIntosh began.

“Andrew, I already know what you’re going to say. And you’re right. We should prosecute Demood to the fullest extent of the law. What if we did? I suspect we’d lose most of our support in the neutral planets. The Saurians might walk, not because they disapprove, but because they’d find us weak. No, this is a secret we have to keep.”

“What if the people in that control room talk?” MacIntosh asked. “Play it out to the bitter end. It’d be worse than coming clean now.”

“A chance we’ll have to take.”

David looked at the floor. “I’m sorry, sirs. I should’ve realized something was wrong. I mean, I knew he was troubled. I thought it was just depression from losing all those Marines.”

“That’s what you get for assuming, General,” MacIntosh said tightly. “Let this be a lesson to you. Demood is on light duty for six months. No combat, no interaction with enemy personnel. Do not cross me on this.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll evaluate him during that period,” Spencer interjected. “He’ll never return to duty unless a panel of shrinks clear him for combat. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t like it, Mr. President,” MacIntosh stated in his gravelly tone. “We have to hold ourselves to the highest level of account. If we’re going to lay claim to the idea that we’re a nation of laws, driven by right and wrong, and define that with the moral codes of our religions, then we’d damn well better live up to it.”

“Noted, Andrew. We’ll see how Demood does in treatment. David, if he’s cleared and ever so much as steps out of line, you will pay the price.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now that that’s settled,” Spencer said, changing the subject, “we have a new ship class coming down the pipeline. General MacIntosh and his team have been taking the real-life information you’ve collected from the anti-matter reactor on the Lion, and they’ve created a smaller anti-matter reactor that is just as capable.”

David glanced toward MacIntosh as the older general waited patiently for the president to explain. That was almost too easy. I fear MacIntosh has lost respect for me. I wonder if I’m losing respect for myself… going over the line, making excuses for others.

“We’re going to put them in our new heavy cruisers,” MacIntosh explained. “They’ll be faster off the assembly lines, and we can get more of them in the field. We hope to have twelve of them commissioned and performing shakedown cruises within the next six months. That’s important to you because we’re going to create a battlegroup that’s made up of exclusively anti-matter powered starships. You will be the sharp tip of the spear invading the League’s core systems.”

A much-needed offensive and defensive firepower augmentation. At the same time, no rest for the Lion’s crew. We’ll see the worst of it, all the way to Earth. “It’s exciting news, sir. I know I speak for the entire crew of the Lion of Judah when I say we’d be honored to lead the way.”

“The next six months will give us time to make good on our recent losses, as well as deploy our latest generation of upgrades to the Ajax class destroyers. We’re up to block five now, and according to the test results I’ve seen, each one is twice as capable as a block one or two boat. We’ve also been allowing the Saurians to make some of our ships on contract… that’ll be a nasty surprise to our friends in the League.”

“The technology race is as important as ever. It very well may be the margin for success, or failure. But that’s up to Andrew and his program executive office,” Spencer said while flashing a smile at MacIntosh. “Your mission for the next few months, once you’ve completed your refit, that is, will be to fly the flag among our recently liberated systems and the neutral worlds. Our hope is that the purging of the League for our arm of the galaxy will allow us to cajole many of those planets into joining us, or at the very least, joining the Canaan Alliance.”

Oh great, we get to babysit diplomats now. Our best place is on the front, not in the rear. “Of course, sir, wherever we can best serve.”

“Don’t worry, David,” Spencer commented, apparently sensing his unease. “We’re not going to stick you on PR duty. We just have to see to our frontier, and the best ship for the task is our symbol of victory; the Lion of Judah. It’ll give you an opportunity to do something besides combat for a while and allow your crew some time to recuperate.”

“Sir, are there any projections yet for how long the invasion of the League will take, causalities, etc.?” David asked.

“Depends on who you ask. Some planners believe the outlying League planets will welcome us as liberators. Others believe we’ll face a scorched earth fight the entire way, having to clear out every last League soldier on each planet we invade. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Defeating the League once and for all is the only option we have, short of a peace treaty that imposes harsh restrictions on their ability to project power.”

David nodded as Spencer spoke. “It could take years, perhaps decades.”

“It’s a sobering thought. I believe the League’s planets will start melting away once we’re knocking on the door,” MacIntosh said.

“I hope you’re right, Andrew. But in the eighteen months I have left in office, I’m going to do everything I can to leave this fight set up properly for the next president,” Spencer commented as he turned back toward David. “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, General Cohen. Your insight is greatly valued, and in the coming months, you’ll be called on to help us craft a strategy to defeat the League, even as you remain as the Lion’s commanding officer.”

“I’ll do everything I can to help defeat the League sir,” David said with finality.

“Enjoy your last few hours of being a general,” MacIntosh commented wryly. “We’ll see about giving it back one of these days.”

David smiled politely; he wished his father could’ve seen him wearing the star. “Yes, sir!”

“Very well, Mister Cohen, you are dismissed,” MacIntosh replied.

David stood and braced to attention before turning on his heel and walking out of the office. Yeah, Dad would have loved to see this day. Maybe he can see it from wherever he’s at now. I can live in hope of that. He walked out down the maze of passageways toward the shuttle berths. The coming months would present a new challenge, but one he was ready to face.


40

After departing the station, David had a 1000 CMT meeting with Hanson already scheduled in his day cabin, which he ended up having to jog through the ship to make. Getting to his desk with only a couple of minutes to spare, he sat with a sigh. Realizing he was very thirsty, he popped open the mini-frig he kept underneath one side of the desk, pulled out a bottle of chilled water, and downed it in one gulp.

A couple of minutes later, Hanson walked through the open hatch. “Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, Major. Have a seat,” David replied, watching Hanson as he first closed the hatch to the office, then dropped into the seat nearest his desk. “Thank you for joining me. I wanted to discuss your after-action report, and some items related to our refit.”

“Of course, sir. What would you like to start with?”

“After-action report. I read in your notes that we had repeated problems with coolant failures and overloads of the capacitors for primary weapons and shields.”

“Yes, sir. In our first engagement, after shields were lost, one of the mine explosions caused catastrophic damage to our primary cooling and anti-matter containment system. If it wasn’t for the heroic actions of several crewmembers, the ship could have been lost, or left combat ineffective at best,” Hanson stated.

“You singled out Private Doris Hunter for heroism.”

“Yes… she stayed at her post and manually shunted coolant into the reaction chamber. Even after everyone else cleared out with the alarms showing an explosion warning… it cost her both legs and her right hand.”

“I gave her a Purple Heart a before the second battle at Unity,” David replied, thinking back to the young private who had encouraged him to keep going and not feel sorry for her.

“I’d like to submit her for the Medal of Honor.”

“Of course. It’ll take some time to process.”

“Roughly two years. In the meanwhile, could you give her something else?”

“You name it.”

“Silver Star now?”

“I think I can make that happen before I’m magically no longer a general in an hour,” David replied with a smile.

“Field promotion to corporal?”

“Done.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Now, about our refit,” David began. “What’s the overall status of the ship?”

“Pretty severe damage to our fore superstructure, to the point we can’t recover fighters from the A ramp. B ramp sustained minor damage, but it’ll take a couple of weeks to clear out the mess and repair everything. Armor plating took a real beating too.”

“The League threw everything it had at us, and then some,” David observed. “Six weeks is realistic, in your opinion?”

“Yes, sir,” Hanson replied, loosening up just a smidgen. “I always pad it, just a bit.”

David couldn’t help but smirk in return. “Yeah, I figured engineers always padded the damage estimates a bit to look good. How’d the reactor upgrade we got work during this engagement?”

“Well, we’re still in one piece,” Hanson deadpanned. “All in all, the ship’s systems are working well. I do have concerns around the safety systems of the anti-matter reactor, though.”

“Oh?”

“Based on the behavior experienced, I believe we need to install a fourth-tier redundant safety control system around the cooling and matter/anti-matter mixer.”

“Did you talk to Doctor Hayworth about it?”

“Yes, sir… he’s not in agreement.”

“If you think it’s the right call, do it anyway,” David responded. “I trust your judgment, Major.”

“Thank you, sir,” Hanson said. “Our next package of upgrades is ambitious. Mine dispensers in the aft of the ship, upgraded VRLS with a faster reloading mechanism and…” He paused for effect. “…Saurian tech for our magnetic cannons.”

David’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”

“Their double-loading system. We’ll be able to fire EMP rounds in combination with either high-explosive or armor-piercing shells.”

“They gave us that?” David asked, incredulous.

“I understand we’ve given them some of our advanced reactor technology in return.”

“I’m sure they want our anti-matter reactor,” David mused. “Can’t see us parting with it any time soon.”

“Maybe not, but our latest generation fusion reactors are far better than theirs. Even that technology would be a significant upgrade for them.”

David nodded his understanding. “Always a technology race.”

Hanson bit his lip. “There is something of a perverse downside with this ship’s technology.”

“How so?” David asked, curious as to the answer.

“Well… the Lion has been in constant combat for the last three months. We’ve lost less than five percent of our crew KIA, less than ten percent WIA. While that’s still many, many people, it's nowhere as near the loss of late on other capital ships.”

“Completely accurate statement, Major. One I tend to be relieved by.”

“I’ve noticed lately that each loss seems much worse because I’ve become used to seeing the same faces on this ship.”

That’s an interesting take on it, David thought. “Because there’s fewer losses?”

“Yes… the ones we have are more impactful. They’re not lost in the crowd, so to speak.”

“I’d be more worried if we were numb to seeing our friends and shipmates die,” David replied.

“I found it easier not to make attachments.”

“Wrong way of thinking about it, Hanson. If you go through life without friends, you lose out on great relationships. Despite the pain of losing them, it’s better to care. Trust me on this.”

“I’m sure you’re right, sir. I just don’t like it.”

“I don’t either. War is hell. I’m reminded of it daily, yet when we achieve a victory and destroy the enemy, I get this weird mix of overwhelming joy, mixed with pride, coupled with sadness and knowing that I shouldn’t be cheering the deaths of thousands of other people. Yet I do it anyway. I am certain that God, looking down on us, frowns when we take delight in the death of our enemy because as screwed up as the League is, they’re still his creations.”

“Maybe it’ll be over soon?” Hanson asked.

“Maybe. Do me a favor… have Private Hunter at the morning flag ceremony, day after next.”

“Yes, sir,” Hanson replied, looking somewhat bewildered. “May I ask why, sir?”

“You’ll see. Try to make it yourself too.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Anything else, Major?”

“No, sir. I’ll leave you to it,” Hanson replied as he stood up from the chair.

“Major,” David said, causing Hanson to stop his pivot away from the desk. “You did a fine job in this last series of engagements. Without your efforts, and those of your engineering team, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Thank you, sir. Got a great team,” Hanson said with a smile.

“So do I. That’s my secret.”

Hanson laughed. “Safe with me, sir.”

“Very well. Dismissed, Major.”

So Fight I

Kenneth had kept himself as busy as possible since the fleet had arrived back at Canaan, and aside from having to fill out an after-action report, he’d as much as possible tried not to think about the events of Unity Station. Unsure what his behavior meant, and still stung by Calvin’s words, he’d decided to just put it behind him and move on. He was finishing up a typical day, with a flurry of email and final reports, when the door chime sounded on his little office deep within the bowels of the Lion.

“Come in!” Kenneth yelled.

The hatch opened, and in walked David.

Kenneth stood abruptly. “Welcome, sir.”

David smiled. “Please, please, no need to stand on my account.”

“General, we always stand for flag officers,” Kenneth quickly responded.

David pointed at his rank insignia, which was back to its regular golden bird, the insignia for a colonel. “I don’t see any stars here. Please, take a seat.”

Once Kenneth sat down, David joined him and slid into one of the chairs in front of the desk. “I don’t get down here very often, Kenneth, but I wanted to thank you for your actions over the last week. Your entire team has performed incredibly. Without their help, I don’t think we’d have been successful. I’ll see to it that the proper recognition is given to all of them.”

Kenneth inclined his head; making sure that his people were taken care of was one of the basic tenets of his job. They were more than merely employees; they were his family. “Thank you, sir. A lot of heroic acts. Sometimes I think perhaps we have too many heroes. Certainly too many posthumous ones.”

David pulled a small case out of his pocket, set it down on Kenneth’s desk, and turned it around as he opened it. Inside was a CDF Superior Civilian Service Award; Kenneth recognized it immediately.

“Which one of my team earned that, sir?” Kenneth asked.

David shook his head. “This one is for you… for saving Corporal Lewis.”

Kenneth’s face turned ashen. “Sir, I don’t deserve that medal.”

“You may not think you do, but the award is specifically for acts of extraordinary heroism. I can’t think of a better definition than carrying a gravely wounded soldier who wasn’t expected to survive back to safety in a combat zone. Your actions were directly responsible for Corporal Lewis’s survival. Without you, he’d be dead, and I’d be writing one more letter to a family who lost their son.”

“No, sir, I mean… well, it was said at the time my actions were those of a coward.”

David’s eyebrows shot up. “Who said that?”

“Colonel Demood, sir.”

David sighed. “Kenneth, Colonel Demood is dealing with some issues right now. Don’t take what he said to heart.”

Kenneth shook his head, looking down at the floor. “The truth is, sir, I think he may be right. I’m not even sure why I thought it would be a good idea to suit up and try to play soldier. I’ve never fired a shot in anger in my life before last week. I froze up repeatedly; hell, I couldn’t unjam my gun until the first firefight stopped.”

David, much to Kenneth’s surprise, laughed out loud. “My first combat, I forgot to chamber a round. Nearly got killed before I could even shoot at the enemy. We all make those mistakes. Doesn’t make you a coward.”

“I’m afraid I may have seized on saving Corporal Lewis simply so I wouldn’t have to fight,” Kenneth said, looking up. “I don’t know for sure. It was all a jumble, and I think I was doing it for the right reasons, but I’m not sure.”

David looked at Kenneth intently. “It’s a maxim of Judaism that if you save one life, you save the entire universe. Only you and God know what’s in your heart, but I’m pretty sure you did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said, pausing for a moment. “Here’s something else to consider. Fear is one of our biggest motivators. We’ve all got fear. Period. Some of us are far better at controlling it than others. But the same fear that makes you quake in your boots at the sight of a League fleet is the same fear that can drive you to do things you never thought possible. It’s all in how you control it, and how you manage it. You saved someone’s son. That’s a good day.”

“I won’t lie… I felt fear like I’ve never felt it before, looking at those League soldiers with rifles trying to shoot us. I suppose its illogical, considering that at any point in time, this ship could be destroyed in combat, but it’s not the same.”

“No, it’s not. As someone who has seen combat from many different lenses, I can tell you with certainty there’s nothing quite like facing down another person who wants to kill you and is trying with everything they have to accomplish the goal.”

“Sir,” Kenneth began, losing his train of thought for a moment. “How do you do this, day in, day out? Having to make those decisions even for a few hours was overwhelming.”

“Honestly? You learn to compartmentalize your feelings. It doesn’t always work, but most of the time, it does. The danger is you push them aside too long, and then they overwhelm you. Or something worse happens, you grow numb to it all, and the horror we see no longer affects us.”

Kenneth folded his hands in front of him, not entirely sure what to say next. “I can’t imagine.”

David thankfully changed the subject. “Have you heard what we’re doing next?”

Kenneth shook his head. “Yes, sir. Six-week refit schedule to repair all battle damage, followed by another upgrade program. I got the performance work statement package from Major Hanson a couple of hours ago. We’re all over it, sir.”

“Excellent,” David replied. “The home defense fleet and our reserves are on station at Unity now to discourage any League ideas about retaking the station. Once we complete our refit and the rest of what’s being called now the ‘Great White Fleet’ is prepared… the assault on the League of Sol begins. It will take some time to put that fleet together, so in the meanwhile, the Lion will be cleaning up issues in local space and flying the flag.”

“When we finally get on the road to Earth, it’s the beginning of the end for the League,” Kenneth commented.

“Perhaps. But the League has thousands of ships, tens of millions of soldiers. It won’t be easy.”

“Nothing worth doing is ever easy. We’ll give you everything we’ve got, sir.”

David smiled and patted the case one more time as he stood. “You earned this medal, Kenneth. Display it with pride, put it away, do whatever you wish with it. But know saving a life is worth it, even when one life doesn’t seem significant sometimes in the grand scheme of things. It’s at those points we must remember every life counts. You did, and I thank you.”

Kenneth stood up and extended his arm. David grasped it, and they shook warmly. “I’ll do my best to make peace with it, sir.”

“You do that, Mr. Lowe. Carry on.”

Kenneth watched as David left, then looked down at the small case and lifted it in his hands. I know it was a small act but saving that young man’s life was the only thing I could do. To hear someone know they’re about to die and cry out to just be held by their mother one last time… I don’t think I could do it day in and day out. Thank God it’s not my job… my job is to make the best tools I can and give them to the men and women who make a difference.

Kenneth opened one of the drawers in his desk and took out a lockbox that had a biometric lock; scanning his fingerprint, the lockbox opened. Inside was a collection of similar small cases and challenge coins from his years of service. He snapped the case Colonel Cohen had given him shut and added it to the contents. After he had closed and reengaged the lock, he placed the box back in his desk, and smiling to himself, walked out of his office.


41

After the Lion of Judah had returned to Canaan, the “deck” crew had been given liberty, while those assigned to engineering were helping throughout all phases of the upgrade, as were the senior officers. The Marines had all disembarked and were enjoying a few weeks of well-earned leave, as was Calvin. He’d spent some time with his wife, but mindful of the promise he made both to David and Doctor Tural, a visit with the CDF counselor David had recommended was made.

Calvin felt very apprehensive as he stood in front of the professional office building; an emotion he wasn’t used to as a combat Marine who charged into danger like it was nothing more than a day at the office. The feeling in the pit of his stomach grew as he walked in and found the suite he was supposed to visit, a nameplate next to the door reading “Dr. Amy Ellison, Counselor.”

He pressed the buzzer, and the door slid open while Amy called out, “Come in, Colonel!”

Taking in the room, Calvin immediately noticed the typical couch, situated in front of a desk. There were also a few comfortable-looking chairs and a small table. A small box of tissues made his nose turn up. She must get a lot of wimps that cry in here.

Amy stood and walked from behind the desk to greet him. “Thank you for coming, Colonel. I’m Doctor Ellison.”

Calvin extended his arm. “Lieutenant Colonel Calvin Demood, Terran Coalition Marine Corps.”

Amy took the outstretched arm and shook it, her grip nothing like his. “May I call you Calvin?” At his nod, she continued, “Please, have a seat and make yourself comfortable.”

Calvin sat ramrod straight in the chair. “I’ve done a lot of these before, but… never with an eye to get something out of it.”

“You mean you’ve never been honest?”

“Direct and to the point. I like that, Doctor,” Calvin said as a smile formed on his face. “Truth is, I never thought much of shrinks. I’ve just compartmentalized my experiences and tried to move on.”

“How’s that working for you?” Amy asked.

“I’m assuming you’ve seen the report?”

“Yes, it was shared with me after you agreed to become a patient.”

“I’m very conflicted about it, Doctor.”

“Call me Amy, please. This isn’t a formal setting, and I want you to be as comfortable as possible.”

“Part of me feels shame that I threatened and might have carried out killing twenty thousand people. The other side of me feels like it was just another day, and they all had on the League’s uniform, so who cares.”

“I think rather than examine what’s just happened, we should go far into the past, Calvin. Let me start with this: you’ve been a Marine for twenty-two and a half years, correct?”

Calvin nodded. “Twenty-two years, seven months, eight days… not like I’m counting or anything.”

Amy laughed. “I understand you enlisted, attended basic training, and were immediately posted to a combat unit?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What was your first time in combat like?”

“It was pandemonium. I was wet behind the ears, we were assaulting a League force and, in all honesty, I was happy I didn’t freeze up and get killed. Too many Marines died that day.”

“Did you take a life?” Amy asked.

“I don’t know, Doctor. I know I shot at a lot of Leaguers… but who knows. Most of the time in a pitched battle like that, you don’t know exactly who you killed,” Calvin responded soberly.

“I fail to believe you don’t recall the first time you killed another human being, Calvin. If you can’t be honest with me…”

“The first time I remember looking into someone’s eyes and killing them was a different engagement, Doctor. I came upon a League interrogator in a room they used to question suspected members of the resistance,” Calvin said, shutting his eyes for a moment. “I can still remember walking into the room, seeing a young girl handcuffed to the table, and I just knew the sorry piece of human trash had done something horrible to her. He didn’t even the balls to resist us, just threw down his weapon and put his hands in the air.”

Amy sat at the edge of her seat and stared at Calvin with a piercing expression. “What happened then?”,

“I’ve told myself for twenty-two years he goaded me, boasted of his accomplishments and took pride in what he’d done. That made what I did seem okay,” Calvin replied, glancing up at her. “To answer your question, Doctor, I drew my sidearm, told him he’d get to see if there was a God, and blew his brains out on the floor.”

“But there’s something else there, right?”

Calvin closed his eyes, and was silent, wrestling with the memory buried deep inside. A single tear rolled down his cheek as he opened them again and looked at her directly in the eyes. “The truth is, he wasn’t boasting; he was cowering on the floor and begging for his life. I shot an unarmed man.”

Amy pursed her lips together. “I can’t imagine what you’ve had to live with since then, Calvin. I’m not here to judge you, I’m not here to condemn you. I think you’ve done a good job of that yourself. Do you believe what you did was wrong?”

Calvin nodded his head a couple of times. “I can’t escape it, Doctor. I’ve tried to make myself believe I take out the trash. That killing those monsters is no different than putting down a rabid animal. I think somewhere along the way, I turned into the monster I wanted to wipe off the face of the galaxy. The realization of it is why I almost killed myself in the medical bay on the Lion.”

“It doesn’t make you a bad person, Calvin. Nor are you alone. I can’t tell you how many soldiers have sat in that chair and told me about how they can’t go on, and say they have nothing to live for. I’ve treated many who had similar experiences. If you work with me, I believe we’ll be able to make you better. It’s not a short road, nor is it an easy road. But even just admitting what you just did… it’s a huge step.”

“Having Colonel Cohen tell me to my face I’m as bad as a Leaguer will kind of get your attention, Doctor,” Calvin said with a rueful smile. “In that moment, the rage I felt... I wanted to kill him for saying it. Then I realized he was right, and it was more than I could take.” He paused in mid-sentence. “Once this all hits my service record, I’ll be forced to retire, or worse.”

“Well, I’m no longer in the CDF, Calvin,” Amy began. “I plan to keep paper records of our visits together, and if you get to the point where I’m satisfied with your progress, I’ll destroy them.”

Calvin stared at her as if she’d grown a second head. “Come again?”

“When Colonel Cohen contacted me about helping you, those were his terms. He cares very deeply about you, and he knows what you’re going through. One of these days, ask him about his first combat.”

“I didn’t realize he had set this up, so to speak,” Calvin replied, his tone of voice betraying his shock.

“It was after you went to talk to Doctor Tural.”

“I see,” Calvin replied, not entirely sold on the idea. “I’m pretty sure what I did was against the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”

“Colonel Cohen said something about when we’re at war, the law is silent,” Amy said.

“Ah yes, him and his love for history. That’s an old Latin phrase. Inter arma enim silent leges. In times of war, the law falls silent,” Calvin said, remembering David’s commentary on the matter.

“How are you feeling, Calvin?”

“I’ve been better. I feel ashamed. I should’ve never let this get as far as it did,” Calvin responded, shaking his head.

“I see in your service record you’re a non-denominational Christian,” Amy began in her bright and cheery tone of voice, while gesturing toward a pillow on her couch that announced “Prayer is the answer!” “Would you be interested in praying with me to end our session today?”

“I don’t think God, if he’s even up there, wants to hear from me,” Calvin said sadly.

“I think it’s at times such as these, when we’re at our lowest, He wants to hear from us most of all.”

Calvin looked deep into her eyes. “I don’t have it in me right now, Doctor. Maybe you have enough for both of us?”

Amy walked over to Calvin, sat down next to him on the couch, and took his hand in hers. “Lord, we ask You today to help heal this wounded soldier. Calvin has endured so much; he has done unspeakable things in the service of his country and in the course of this war which has consumed our land. Heal him, help him to see the light, and find his way home. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”

“Amen,” Calvin uttered as she finished. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“I want you back here next week. You pick the day and time.”

“Same day, same time works for me. I’m on leave for a few weeks while they repair our ride,” Calvin replied with just a little bit of his normal cocky Marine tone.

“Good. I’ll see you then.”

“Thank you, Doc,” Calvin began to say before stopping himself. “Amy.”

Amy stood and smiled broadly at him. “Thank you for coming to see me and taking the first, difficult step.”

“Like any good Marine, I’ll stay the course.”

“I’ll hold you to it.”

Taking his leave, Calvin walked out of the office and back out of the nondescript office building, into the sunshine of a perfect day on Canaan. Feeling a small amount of the load he carried lifted, he walked back to his helicar. Maybe there’s still hope for me yet, he thought to himself. I need to come clean to Jessica about this and let her know I’m trying to get some help. I’m sure she knows something has been wrong, but maybe I can put her mind at ease. Considering that course of action, he climbed into the helicar and punched up the autopilot for home.

So Fight I

Striding into the enormous cargo bay on the Lion of Judah, David felt very small. He always did, either on the flight decks or the cargo bays on the ship as they were just so huge. Forty-foot clearance between the deck plates and the overhead, with cranes and equipment for moving gear everywhere made a human look tiny by comparison. At ten minutes before 0800 CMT, even with most of the crew at liberty on Canaan, there were still several hundred soldiers lined up for morning colors. He tugged on his cover as he crossed over the threshold, as the area was considered “outside.”

“Attention! Colonel on deck!” Tinetariro barked as soon as she saw him enter.

The master chief must have binocular implants or something. David wore an amused smile on his face. “As you were!” he called out in reply; the soldiers relaxed back into uneven lines.

“Thank you for doing this one in person this morning, Master Chief,” David said once he got to the front of the space where Tinetariro stood.

“Wouldn’t miss one of my soldiers getting an award for all the ale in Sauria, sir,” Tinetariro answered. “Private Hunter is in the first row, as requested.”

“Outstanding,” David said. “I wish the band was still around. Even though it’s been a few months, it was nice while it lasted.”

“Maybe we’ll get it back, along with some bunting for all these port calls the scuttlebutt says we’ll be engaging in, sir,” Tinetariro quipped in her rich, British-accented English.

“Do you have a tap on the commlink, Master Chief?” David asked, thoroughly amused.

“No, sir, but I’m sure one of the chiefs could rig that up if you’d like,” Tinetariro responded with a dazzling smile.

There’s still something about the way she smiles that would terrify me to my bones if I served under her.

Just before 0800, Tinetariro stood to attention and trilled her bosun’s pipe. “Attention!” she shouted, and her voice reverberated across the bay. All present came to smart attention in neat rows. As the anthem of the Terran Coalition began to play, two soldiers quickly tugged the flag up the portable pole that was set up every morning for the ceremony.

David, along with everyone else, brought their hands up to their brows and saluted the colors as the anthem played; as its final bars echoed, they all snapped their hands down.

Tinetariro stepped forward once more to speak. “Colonel Cohen requests the ship’s company remain for the presentation of an award to Private Doris Hunter. Private Hunter, step forward.”

Doris stepped out of her formation, her prosthetic legs slowing her considerably. David could tell, having seen many such injuries over the years, that she hadn’t adapted yet to the linkage between her mind and the robotic limbs. The technology was one of the few areas that Terran Coalition science had advanced to create coupling between man and machine. All respectfully stood as she made her way to where David and Tinetariro stood.

“Private Hunter, we’d typically do this with your family present, but I understand they’re on a frontier world. I hope you don’t mind our little ceremony today,” David said with a smile.

“No, sir,” Doris replied, beaming from ear to ear.

A soldier behind David handed him a small case, along with a leather-bound certificate folder. David snapped the small case open, revealing a small silver medal in the shape of a star. “Private Hunter, for your actions during the first engagement of the battle of Unity Station, I hereby award you the Coalition Defense Force Silver Star for valor and courage.”

David took a step forward and handed Doris the case, which she took and held. “Thank you, sir.”

“I will now read the citation,” David began, opening the folder and reading from the official document. “For heroic conduct during the battle of Unity station. When numerous shipboard engineering systems failed, Private Hunter manned her post despite extreme danger to herself. She ensured the reactor system onboard the CSV Lion of Judah did not fail during combat. Her gallant efforts not only saved the lives of many crewmembers in the engineering spaces directly around her, but the entire ship. Private Hunter’s exceptional professionalism under duress, personal initiative during a crisis and steadfast devotion to her duty reflect great credit upon herself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Coalition Defense Force.”

After a pause for applause from those standing behind her, David continued, “Bravo Zulu, Private Hunter!” He reached his hand forward and shook hers warmly. “One more thing, Private,” he said while reaching into his right pocket and pulling out the stripes of a corporal. “You are hereby granted a battlefield promotion to Corporal. Please raise your right hand.”

Doris dutifully raised her right hand and recited the oath of allegiance. “I, Doris Hunter, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the Terran Coalition against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and that I will obey the orders of the President of the Terran Coalition and of the officers appointed over me. So help me God.”

“Congratulations, Corporal,” David said, a broad smile on his face.

“Company, dismissed!” Tinetariro announced; the cargo bay full of people started to melt away as they broke ranks and went back to their duties.

Doris stuck around and approached David as he went to leave. “Colonel, if I may, sir?”

“Of course, Corporal. What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to thank you, sir. I was doing my job. I don’t deserve all this.”

“That’s not what I heard from Major Hanson,” David replied. “He believes your actions saved the reactor from overload.”

“That was my job, sir,” Doris said, still grinning from ear to ear.

“The last few days, heroic actions have been prevalent. We wanted to make sure you got the recognition you deserved,” David said. “Give any thought to what’s next? You’ll be eligible for medical discharge once your cloned limbs are integrated and fully functional.”

Doris’ face twisted into a grimace. “I’m not getting out, sir. I plan to reenlist for another term. Maybe aim for senior NCO or warrant officer.”

“What about officer? Good engineers are in short supply.”

“No degree, sir.”

“Lieutenant Goldberg doesn’t have one,” David said. “She’s an LDO.”

“LDO, sir?”

“Limited duty officer. She can’t command a capital ship, but aside from that, there are no restrictions on her ability to contribute. Look into it. Or take advantage of those night classes.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll look into it. Thank you for the advice.”

“Any time, Corporal. Godspeed,” David replied before walking away back to his duties. Which for the rest of the day consist of mountains of paperwork. Lovely.


42

Admiral Seville adjusted the collar of his dress uniform, which was stiff and felt like it was close to choking him. Pausing to check his vast array of medals before walking out of the bathroom a few steps away from the chairman’s office on Earth, he was finally home. Ah yes, home, he reflected. I feel much more alive out among the stars. Here, I’m constantly reminded of the stuffy old men that run the League and their failures. His meeting today was billed as a “briefing,” Seville thought bitterly as he pushed the door open to the ornate hallway, his dress shoes clicking on the marble floor. In reality, I’ll be called to account. Why did I fail yet again, they’ll ask. Idiots… if they’d just sent me the ships I’d requested, when I’d asked for them, we’d be toasting our victory over the Terran Coalition and drawing up plans for the reeducation of Canaan’s population.

The mahogany doors to his left swung open, and Seville walked through them into a small conference room where the most powerful men and women in the League of Sol sat assembled. Led by Chairman Pallis, they made up the Social and Public Safety Committee, which was charged with the expansion and leadership of the League. Colonel Strappi had already taken a seat, wisely choosing to sit in the chairs that lined the wall. Seville took his place at the conference table, enjoying the feel of the luxurious leather. Such comforts are welcome. A pity most citizens will never even see a nice chair, much less have one. People are such sheep. If they’d ever wake up and realize what we’ve done to them for the last four hundred years, they’d riot across the galaxy and put all our heads out on pikes. But they won’t because they’re sheep.

As the doors to Pallis’ office opened up, Seville quickly stood, along with the rest of the people in the room. The military officers all brought themselves smartly to attention. It wasn’t lost on him that Pallis allowed it to go on for several seconds.

“Take your seats, comrades,” Pallis finally said.

Seville sat back down, looking at the committee with what he hoped came across as a contrite facial expression.

“Admiral, thank you for taking the long journey to Earth so that we could talk to you in the flesh. I feel that sometimes the measure of a person is lost in digital transmission,” Pallis commented.

“I serve at the pleasure of the League, Mr. Chairman,” Seville responded neutrally.

“Yes… yes, you do. Let me start by being direct, Admiral. What happened out there? Where are our ships? Our crews? Our soldiers? Our station?”

“We were defeated, Chairman,” Seville began, his facial features tight with rage. “My fleet did not receive the reinforcements requested in the timeframe required. The Canaan Alliance has ships and fighters that are technologically superior to ours…”

“We gave you the best weapons our scientists have created in decades, Admiral. You had the drop on them, and you showed hesitation in the face of the enemy!” Pallis thundered, interrupting Seville in mid-sentence.

“Mr. Chairman, I must interject on behalf of Admiral Seville,” Strappi piped up from the back row. “I was present and observed his conduct. He’s never showed hesitation in the face of the enemy, and I might suggest that our mutual decision to send part of his fleet to chase down the Terran and Saurian ships may have given them the opening they needed to attack us.”

Seville whirled around, more startled than anything else at the sudden display of spine from his political officer.

Pallis too appeared shocked, with his mouth dropping open. “Is that so, Colonel Strappi?” he asked.

“Yes, comrade. I’ve never seen more tactical acumen from anyone in our fleet than from Admiral Seville. His dedication to the cause is laudable, and an inspiration to the entire League Navy.”

Several of the committee members exchanged glances. Hah, they’d never expect a political officer to defend the Navy so directly. Not that I did either.

“What are your recommendations then, Colonel Strappi? As our representative of the political commissars…”

A voice that Seville didn’t recognize spoke up from the far end of the table. It belonged to a man with striking features that included a scar across his face and a pronounced accent to his speech. “I must agree with Colonel Strappi, and Admiral Seville as well,” he began. “Allow me to introduce myself, comrades. Director Dmitry Borisov.”

Recognizing the name immediately, Seville was shocked the director of the League’s External Security Service was in the same room as the Social and Public Safety Committee. Known as a spymaster and one who lived in the shadows, there was little public linking of the two.

“What is needed now is a new paradigm for pressing our campaign against the Terran Coalition. For far too long, we’ve fought the Terrans’ war. It has bled us dry while playing our weaknesses against their strengths. If it wasn’t for the heroic efforts of our navy, and specifically of Admiral Seville, we would’ve suffered far worse losses.”

Alarm bells sounded inside of Seville’s head like the depressurization alarm on a starship. What’s he setting up, and why am I involved in it? “You’re most kind, Director. I live but to serve our great League,” Seville commented in his best attempt at a humble tone.

“For nearly thirty years,” Borisov continued, “we’ve used hard power in our war to defeat the Terran Coalition. Hard power accomplishes many goals, but sometimes we need to employ soft power as well. The Terran Coalition is a united group of people with many different goals, beliefs, and ideas. If we were to exploit those differences, drive wedges between them… we could destroy them from within.”

“And how do you propose we do that, Director Borisov? We’ve tried spreading the word of our socialism throughout Terran Coalition space, but they don’t seem to be overly interested until we’re able to get them into reeducation centers,” Pallis asked.

“Use their media against them. We already do so to a smaller extent, but there’s far more we can do. If you’ll authorize it, we can work alongside Admiral Seville as he employs hard power to defeat their soon-to-be deployed invasion fleets.”

Aha! There’s the hook. He wants to take over the war effort. Cunning fellow that’ll have to be managed carefully. Seville smiled thinly. “I believe working to weaken the Terrans from the inside has merit, Director Borisov. However, I must caution our last attempt to work together ended in disaster when the sleeper we tried to introduce to the peace conference failed.”

Borisov smiled in return, a look Seville suspected struck terror in the hearts of most underlings. “So it did, Admiral. I’m sure there’s enough blame to go around,” he said while staring directly at Strappi. “We must not dwell on the past in these matters. The Terran Coalition must be destroyed, and we need the resources, population, and technology they possess to continue to advance the cause of humanity across the stars. In two generations’ time, we’ll be ready to begin a campaign to conquer the local alien races. From there, who knows where the sands of time will take us.”

“I see merit in a new approach, Admiral,” Pallis said, glancing about the room. “Do you concur?”

“Of course, Mr. Chairman,” Seville intoned, the only response he could make without encouraging them to execute him, or worse, be labeled as an individualist.

“Then I want both of you to work together for the betterment of our struggle against the Terrans. I expect all parties involved to mimic the ways of our democratic socialist republic, without regard to personal ambition,” Pallis commented while making eye contact with both Seville and Borisov.

“I serve at the pleasure of the committee, Mr. Chairman,” Seville replied, striking his closed fist to his chest, the preferred League salute.

“I’d never have it any other way, Mr. Chairman. The External Security Service’s only goal is the safety of our citizens,” Borisov said with the same thin smile he’d previously used on Seville.

“Good. You may carry on with your duties,” Pallis said with finality.

So Fight I

“What do we have for dinner entrees today, chief?” Ruth asked the steward behind the serving line in the forward officers’ mess. She liked this particular mess because it was close to the bridge and easy to get to before and after standing watch.

“Well, Lieutenant, just about anything you want I can have made, but Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes is the plate of the night for dinner,” he replied.

“Is it real steak? Or some of that stuff made out of vegetables passed off as meat?”

The steward’s face took on a wounded look. “Ma’am, I wouldn’t feed those to my dog, much less officers in the CDF.”

“Point taken,” Ruth replied while laughing. “I’ll take that, with some bread and a salad.”

“Coming right up, Lieutenant. Take a number, and we’ll bring it out…as usual.”

Before Ruth could get out a response, the doors to the mess hall slid open and a group of enlisted soldiers pushing a cart full of beer and what looked like alcohol bottles busted into the room. She immediately recognized one of them as Master Chief Petty Officer Gordan MacDonald, the squad leader for Alpha team.

“Hey, cake eaters, we’re here for the good stuff! Bring out your booze!” MacDonald shouted, while other commandos yelled their agreement.

Ruth stared in amazement as the cart was pushed into the center of the room and the commandos took over a table. She looked back at the steward. “On second thought, I think I’ll take my food to go, chief.”

“Sure thing, Lieutenant,” he said, ducking behind the counter.

While Ruth was waiting for her food, Taylor walked in and approached the food line. “What in the heck is going on?” he asked her, his brow furrowed in a shocked expression.

“It would appear our mess has been commandeered by the space special warfare unit.”

“Hey, I heard someone say space special warfare!” shouted one of the commandos, a voice Ruth didn’t recognize. “If you ain’t spacewalking, you ain’t shit!”

“Hoorah!” another commando yelled while the rest downed shots.

Unable to conceal a smile, Ruth grinned as they carried on. “Well, they did take fifty percent losses,” she said quietly to Taylor. “Maybe this is how they cope?”

“No idea. I’m a comms geek, not a ground pounder… for a reason.”

“I wonder if this has anything to do with Colonel Cohen being off the ship tonight,” Ruth mused.

“No, pretty sure he’s got a date,” Taylor replied.

“Colonel Cohen… on a date? Check your RUMINT source. No way.”

Taylor shook his head and grinned at the same time. “Absolutely one hundred percent accurate. I overheard the air boss give the instruction for his shuttle to drop him off on Canaan at 1700.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Yeah, but I also connected him in to the receptionist for a restaurant on Canaan.”

“Okay, he could be taking his mother out,” Ruth replied, utterly convinced David wasn’t capable of dating anyone currently.

“The shuttle went to the pad nearest to Angela Dinman’s apartment complex.”

“You’re spying on the colonel?” Ruth asked, her jaw dropping open.

“Nah, an intel analyst pulled that out.”

Ruth just rolled her eyes. “Wait a minute… the colonel is going out with an agnostic reporter?”

“Yup,” Taylor said.

The steward passed a container with Ruth’s food across the counter. “Here you go, Lieutenant.”

“Getting yours to go?” Taylor asked.

“Yeah, not interested in the drinking fest,” Ruth said as the commandos pounded another round of shots, yelling in glee at the same time.

“I guess I’ll do the same. Hey, want to join me in the atrium to eat? I never like to eat alone in my quarters. Seems depressing, somehow.”

Ruth couldn’t believe her ears. What is this, the dating ship now? “Are you asking me out on a date, Lieutenant Taylor?” she said, a bit harsher than she intended.

“Um, no…” Taylor said, clearly flustered. “I thought two friends could break bread together. Sorry.”

Ruth immediately felt ashamed of her behavior as he turned to go. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I’d be happy to eat with you. I’ll find us a spot on the atrium, and you get some grub. Deal?”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“Okay, I’ll get something and be right up.”

“See you in a few, Robert,” Ruth said with a smile as she walked out of the mess. Meanwhile, one of the commandos was throwing darts into a portable board they’d set up on another table, and were cheering on one of their members as he chugged a shot before each throw. Boys will be boys. She couldn’t help but to roll her eyes.


43

“For some reason, I expected this to be… different,” Angie said as she walked through the door that David held open for her, taking in the sight of the restaurant they had entered with white linen tablecloths, waitstaff in tuxedo shirts and bowties, and magnificent architecture.

David smirked and walked up to the host stand, which had a small sign on it that said, “Canaan Prime Steakhouse.” “Reservations for two, under Cohen,” David said to the hostess.

“Right this way, Colonel Cohen.”

David grimaced, not wanting to be recognized so readily in public. Forcing it down, he instead focused on Angie, and realized that while she was pretty, she had gone all out on dressing up. “You look beautiful this evening,” he commented to her with a grin.

“Third time you’ve said so,” Angie replied with a grin on her own. “If I’d known this was all it took, I would’ve been getting exclusives out of you for months.”

David rolled his eyes and sat down at the table the hostess had led them to after Angie had taken her seat first. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said to the hostess.

“My pleasure. Please enjoy your dinner.”

After she had left, David picked up from Angie’s earlier comment. “What did you expect to be different?”

“Well, when you think of a kosher restaurant… I mean, what comes to mind for me is a small hole in the wall serving cucumbers and coleslaw with big sandwiches,” Angie replied.

David laughed. “Kosher food is just as high end as any other type of food. It’s all in the way you prep it. That, and don’t try to order a cheeseburger.”

“You think I’d order a cheeseburger at a place that sells high-end steaks?”

David smirked. “Well no, but…”

“Gotcha,” Angie replied with an evil little grin. “You’re so easy to trip up with that Boy Scout routine of yours. I thought it was fake for the longest time.”

David’s eyebrow shot up, involuntarily. “You thought I was fake?”

“I’ve found most people are self-serving. I still haven’t found any evidence you are.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I thought you were just another airhead reporter looking to smear the CDF when you showed up.”

Angie snickered. “I guess we each found out the other wasn’t quite what we thought.”

“So true,” David replied. “I was told the bone-in ribeye here is amazing.”

“I might try it. I haven’t had a delicious steak in a while.”

“Steak isn’t served often on military ships. Most of the time on the Rabin, I was happy to get a hot meal.”

“That was the destroyer you commanded, right?”

David nodded at her. “Yes, for all of about seven months. I loved that ship.”

“But now you’ve got a much bigger ship,” Angie commented.

“Yes, but there’s something about the first ship. Walking through the airlock and hearing the computer announce, ‘Commanding Officer, Yitzchak Rabin arriving.’” David smiled. “I know my dad would’ve been proud to see me there.”

“You still miss him?”

“Every day.”

“My mom and dad live on one of the frontier planets. They rough it… eschew as much technology as possible. Heck, my father hunts the meat they eat most of the time,” Angie said.

“Sounds like an interesting upbringing,” David replied before being cut off by the waiter.

“Greetings! Thank you for joining us this evening. What can I start you two off with?”

“I’d like a glass of water, please,” Angie said.

“Same for me,” David finished.

“I’ll be right back with two waters, and some of our famous pickled cucumbers and coleslaw.”

Angie couldn’t help but smirk as the waiter left. “I guess all kosher restaurants serve cucumbers and coleslaw?”

“Pretty much,” David deadpanned. “So back to this frontier planet. No running water or power?”

Angie’s eye’s narrowed. “We had power and water, and a GALnet connection,” GALnet stood for Galaxy Net, a network that ran between all of the planets in the Terran Coalition. “It was just different. They didn’t have normal jobs like you, and I do today. My dad built houses, and my mother cleaned them. I loved my childhood, though.”

“Mine wasn’t quite like that. We lived in the heart of the Terran Coalition, on Canaan. After my dad died, Mom wouldn’t move back to New Israel. She stayed in the same house. Still there, in fact.”

“So a normal childhood, then?”

“Except for Dad never coming back from what was supposed to be his last mission,” David replied.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

“No, it’s okay. I made peace with it a long time ago. My father did what he needed to do. Funny thing is, I always thought I needed to be a rabbi. Then I ended up being a pretty good soldier.”

“What happens after you’re done with the military?” Angie questioned.

“Well, I hope it’s in time to settle down, have children, and figure out how to use a plow,” David said with a broad smile.

Angie smirked. “Somehow, you as a farmer doesn’t quite work.”

“It’s a metaphor,” David answered, a bit flustered.

“You see life beyond all this, someday?”

David nodded. “Yes, don’t you? I couldn’t go on day in and day out with nothing to look forward to but more combat. Combat is a necessity of our situation, but not something I live for.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“What about you, what do you want in the future?”

“Oh, a decent guy, a few kids, some satisfaction out of my career. Win the lottery,” Angie deadpanned in reply.

David laughed. “That’s quite an impressive list of wants there. We can see about getting Doctor Hayworth to help you win the lottery… on a more serious note, I’ve come to believe satisfaction in our life, which extends to our career, comes out of what we’re focused on. Not saying I have the right focuses, mind you, but I think there’s more to life than whatever career we’re in.”

“Then why are you alone, if you don’t mind me asking?”

David was quiet for a moment. “Because I didn’t want to put another person through what my mother and I had to endure when Dad was killed.”

Angie looked down, then made eye contact with him. “I’m so sorry, David. I didn’t… wow, I’m making this a great date.”

David reached across the table and took her hand in his. “Nothing to be sorry for. It’s something I’ve lived with for many years, and well, in the last few months, I’ve come to realize I’ve been looking at it through the wrong lens. That’s why I fumbled through asking you out.” To David’s relief, she didn’t shrink away from his hand, instead grasping it in hers.

“I’m glad you did.”

“Does that mean I get a second date?”

“You still have plenty of time left to screw this one up, Colonel, sir,” Angie replied with a wry grin. “Don’t get ahead of yourself on the first one.”

Grinning back at Angie, David found himself thoroughly enjoying her company outside of the confines of the Lion of Judah and the war. Over the next couple of hours, they ate and spoke of many topics, exploring life and their mutual interests. All too quickly, the dinner was over and they were walking down the narrow street the restaurant was located on, headed toward Angie’s parked helicar.

“I must say, not quite what I’d expected all around, David,” Angie said to him as they rounded a corner.

“In a good way, I hope?”

“Very good.”

“How long will you be on Canaan?” David asked, hopeful she’d say “a while.”

“Well, my transfer to the political beat came through, so at least the next two years. There is the presidential election winding up after all.”

“The Lion will be here for another six weeks undergoing refits,” David mused.

“You need to get better about being direct with women,” Angie replied while rolling her eyes but grinning at the same time.

“I’m not exactly experienced in that department,” David said, feeling his cheeks begin to grow warm.

“The answer is yes, and next week would be fine.”

David chuckled. “Well, in that case, I’ll vidcall you and set something up.”

“You do that, Mr. Cohen, and don’t leave me hanging,” she said as she opened the door to her helicar by scanning her palm print on the door. “Take care of yourself.”

“Oh, I just have to oversee a refit. You’ll be doing more dangerous work than me for the foreseeable future,” David replied with a grin as he held the car door open for her. He watched as she climbed in.

“Goodnight,” Angie replied as she settled into the helicar.

“Take care,” David answered, not sure what else to say. Well, that’s not entirely true. What I want to do is lean in and kiss her, but it’s only the first date, and I’d better wait. Hah, she’s right. I have no idea what to do in a relationship. That’d be because I’ve never had one. The door to the helicar closed automatically, and it lifted off without barely a sound. He stood there for a few minutes and then walked back to his helicar, a big grin on his face. That was the most enjoyment outside of my job in I can’t remember when, and I didn’t screw it up! There may be hope for me yet.


44

This ground, so hallowed, is at the same time so peaceful. David walked through the sea of white marble crosses, Stars of David, crescents and stars, among other symbols and tombstones. A simple ritual, he carried with him a single red rose to place on Sheila’s grave. He’d been enough times the location of her plot was forever imprinted on his mind. Every time he set foot on Canaan, David tried to visit her; a small gesture but one that carried significant meaning to him.

David came to a halt in front of the tombstone that had been placed on her grave; a simple white cross, it read “Major Sheila Thompson, Coalition Defense Forces Killed in Action 27 July 2560.” Below that was a verse from the Bible. “No one can have greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends—John 15:13.”

He smiled ruefully as he read the inscription; David was happy her parents had chosen it. It summed Sheila up to a T. He laid the rose on top of the tombstone and sat down in front of it. “Well, old friend,” he began, addressing the tombstone. “It’s been too long since I got the chance to visit you. I know you already know what’s been going on down here, but I find some comfort in just coming by and catching up with you.

“We managed to defeat Seville, yet again. But he got away… I’m tired of him getting away. I want him to pay. Your words reverberate in my mind when the hatred I feel for that man roars to the surface, but it’s so hard to push it back down. I don’t understand why God lets him live. I pray every morning that God will deliver us from this scourge.” A tear rolled down David’s cheek. “Oh, I miss you. I miss you every single day. This would be so much easier if you were sitting in the XO’s chair, offering your advice between those wickedly funny barbs.

“Calvin’s gone off the rails too. I worry about him. I covered as best as I could to General MacIntosh, but if he can’t get his head back on straight, I won’t be able to save him. The truth is, I wonder if my head’s on straight. Are any of us mentally well? Thirty years of this war… how any of us have our humanity left is beyond me.” He paused, searching for a different subject. “I finally asked Angie out.” David smiled a bit as he related that information. “And you’ll be happy to know, I didn’t mess up the first date too badly. I don’t know if it’ll work out, but when I think about her, I feel a little less lost. I think you’d like her, if you ever met her. She’s strong, determined, and intelligent. In ways, she reminds me of you. I can sense she’s wrestling inside of her soul with what to believe, and in a way, so am I. I’m no longer sure that God cares about us. Oh, my heart says he does, but my mind isn’t convinced. Why does all this keep happening? I don’t understand.”

David shook his head. “But don’t worry, I’m not giving up. I’ll fight the League to my last breath. The memory of our last conversation sustains me, though I often hope you’ll visit again.” He reached out and touched the tombstone with his hand. “I hope I get to see you again someday, and I pray all of this wasn’t in vain. I keep up the cheery image to everyone else, but with you, I can tell the truth. I’m troubled. I’m terrified we’re going to cut so many corners and break so many moral laws, we’ll end up as bad as the League.

“Colonel Sinclair said something to me last week that really made me think. He said he was a sin-eater when questioned about working outside of the law to accomplish our objectives. I’d never heard the term before, and I looked it up. It's defined as a person that can take on the sins of others. I wonder… is that we become as we kill more and more of our fellow humans? Where does it leave us? I wish I had the answer… but I don’t.”

David sighed and stood slowly. “I’d do just about anything for one more day with you, Sheila. But I want you to know that I’m marching on. One foot in front of the other. I’ll see you soon, one way or another.” He smiled, pursing his lips together. Slowly walking away from the grave, he wiped away the tears. It is worth it. I have to carry on, for the sake of everyone, and if for no other reason than to ensure that Sheila’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain.

So Fight I

Dmitry Borisov, director of the League’s External Security Service, walked down a corridor in the League Imperial Navy compound on Earth, specifically in Geneva, which was part of what had been called Switzerland hundreds of years ago. No Naval officer or enlisted sailor had any idea who he was. He was sure of this because none of them got out of his way. If they knew who I was, they’d know I could have them disappeared at the wave of my hand, along with their entire families and everyone they’ve ever known. He craved the power being the director of their intelligence arm brought him; holding the lives of hundreds of billions of people in his hand was the ultimate thrill.

Without bothering to knock or announce his presence, he entered Admiral Seville’s office, walking wordlessly by his administrative assistant and throwing open the door to his inner sanctum.

Seville glanced up from his desk, his eyes flashing. “Director,” he said as he stood.

“Admiral,” Borisov replied.

“I’ve been expecting you to drop by,” Seville said icily.

“Oh?”

“You’re here to tell me how to run the war, aren’t you?”

Borisov closed the door behind him quietly and walked over to a chair that was in front of the ornate wooden desk and sat down without asking. “You think in such small terms, Admiral.”

“I’d warn you to watch your tongue, but I suspect you don’t care what I think or say.”

“Quite frankly, no, I don’t. You think only of destroying the Terrans and someday taking over the League,” Borisov said, watching Seville’s poker face barely move. “I think about taking over the entire galaxy and displacing our… alien friends.”

“You’re reaching, Director. I serve the Social and Public Safety Committee.”

“The Social and Public Safety Committee is led by a group of old fools,” Borisov replied dismissively. “I’ve nothing but contempt for them. I’ve also little regard for you, except you do seem to have a tactical and strategic mind. Your failing is you’re caught up on defeating these pissant little capitalists we’ve been trying to occupy for so long.”

“The Terran Coalition is the biggest enemy we have,” Seville began before Borisov cut him off.

This idiot can’t see the big picture. Perhaps I can enlighten him. “Admiral, the Terran Coalition, even with their allies, cannot hope to invade our space.”

“If their ideas spread to our outer planets, we could face rebellions. Which would cause us to crumble from within. The League works when everyone has a place, and everyone is in their place.”

“The Terrans are decadent. They try to say everyone can achieve greatness. They call it the human dream, this fantasy that no matter where you’re born, you can get whatever you want out of life if you work for it. Admiral, if you want to win, you’ll work with me.”

“The intelligence community has little to offer,” Seville replied. “The Navy pays for our socialism in blood while the spymasters skulk about in the darkness.”

“You’re fighting a foe that’s a hot air balloon. Knock a hole in the balloon, and it falls to the ground. We must fight them from within. If we pool our resources and abilities, we can use my intelligence network to cause the Terran Coalition to implode from the inside.”

“I find this difficult to believe, Director.”

Borisov smiled thinly. “Everything is interconnected. These primitive religions they have. They weren’t always so friendly and accepting of one another. Old tensions still exist; all we must do is exploit them. Turn them against each other.”

“And you know how to do that?”

“I do.”

“Then what do you need me for?”

“I am but a master of the shadows, as you put it, Admiral. You, on the other hand, have larger ambitions. Let us show the Social and Public Safety Committee the error of its ways, and someday you will attain the position of leadership that you so covet,” Borisov said.

“How would you propose we work together?”

Aha. There we go, the pragmatic side of Seville that wants to rule the League. Eminently exploitable. “For now, encourage our respective staffs to share information, and allow me to develop a finely tuned fifth column campaign inside of the Terran Coalition.”

“You’ll treat me and my officers with the proper respect we are owed, Director,” Seville stated.

Because small men like this must feel like others worship them. “Of course, Admiral.”

“Then I suggest we try to work together,” Seville replied cautiously.

“I think it would best for us, and the League,” Borisov said as he stood. “I’ll have my adjutant reach out to yours and began the process of us… cooperating.”

“Good. We should also meet in person from time to time.”

“I would hope so. I do love an in-person discussion, as opposed to the cold and distant communication afforded by our technological devices. Good day, Admiral.”

So Fight I

After transiting back up to the Lion, as he fully intended to remain onboard during the refit and make sure the repairs were up to his exacting specifications, David found his way to the shul for evening prayers. Donning his yarmulke and tallit gadol, he entered and sat in one of the back pews. There was no one else present; he assumed most of the observant Jews were planet-side, visiting loved ones back on Canaan. Rocking back and forth quietly, he was about to begin reciting the evening prayer when he heard a throat clearing.

“Good evening, Colonel,” Kravitz said, taking a seat next to David in the pew. He too had his prayer shawl and yarmulke on, as would be expected of an Orthodox rabbi.

“Rabbi,” David replied. “Good to see you, as always.”

“How are you doing?”

David shrugged. “It’s been something of a blur, the last few days. The incredible pain of our loss, then the triumph of victory. Throughout it all, the human cost of the battle won’t leave my mind. I can’t shake the questions that plagued me about where God is, and why He lets this carnage continue.”

The old rabbi put his arm around David’s shoulders. “You must trust in Adonai, David. He alone can see us through the trials that will come before the dawn. We all have free will; evil has a free will too. Remember this. God can’t change the rules of the game now.”

“Well, He ought to,” David replied. “I remember being tortured by a League interrogator. Nothing that man could have said or done would have shaken my faith. But now? Seeing Calvin implode, watching all those men and women die under my command… my faith is low.”

“We don’t go through life alone,” Kravitz observed. “God remains with us.”

David glanced over at Kravitz and smiled. “Yeah. That reminds me, I need to thank Private Waters for giving me that word.”

“I’m sure as the commander of this ship, you’ll be able to do so,” Kravitz remarked dryly.

“We live in hope,” David said, equally dryly. “I want someday for it all to end, Rabbi. I want to one day wake up and not have to think of the most efficient ways of killing my fellow humans. That’s what victory looks like for me. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the League won’t simply leave us alone.”

“Jews have been asking the same question for a very long time, haven’t we?”

David nodded sadly, thinking through the history of the holocaust back on Earth, to the League, and every struggle for rights and equal treatment throughout the ages. “I suppose we have. Which makes the Terran Coalition worth the cost to defend her,” David said, a fire returning to his eyes. “In this place, in this nation, all of us are free. Maybe it’s worth the blood and tears.”

“I think it is,” Kravitz said. “God never said our way would be easy, nor the land flowing with milk and honey would be simple. Personally, I enjoy a challenge,” the old rabbi said, grinning. “Shall we pray?”

David nodded, and the two men bowed their heads.

So Fight I

The next morning, as he walked briskly through the passageways of the Lion, David knew he was about to be late for a meeting with the master chief; for some reason, despite vastly outranking her, the thought of doing so made him shiver. He strode through the open hatch to his office, precisely three minutes after the top of the hour, to find Tinetariro waiting for him, standing in front of his desk. As he entered, she brought herself to attention.

“At ease, Master Chief,” David began, closing the distance quickly to his desk and sliding behind it. “I apologize; the engineering walk-through took a few extra minutes.”

Tinetariro smiled. “Of course, sir. I wasn’t here long.”

“Please, have a seat,” David said, gesturing to the open chair directly in front of his desk.

“I’ve prepared a list of replacement crewmembers and their associated MOSes, sir,” Tinetariro began with, referring to military occupational specialties; ensuring that they had the right mix of soldiers to accomplish the mission. “You’ll find it in your email box with digital sign-offs.”

David nodded. “Thank you, Master Chief. Please send me an updated list of all casualties as well.”

“It’s the next message from me, sir. I included some personal information on each, as you’ve requested in the past.”

“I appreciate it. Writing those letters is the least I can do to honor their sacrifices.”

“We lost a lot of good people in the last week,” Tinetariro commented.

“That we did, and losses on the Lion were exceptionally light compared to other ships, especially the ships that were destroyed. We got lucky and rescued a few half-dead soldiers from the destroyed hulks, but a few of those ships had one hundred percent crew loss rates.”

“I can’t think of a worse way to go. Sitting inside of a half-destroyed starship, waiting to die as the air slowly suffocates you to death,” Tinetariro said while shaking her head.

“I’m with you there. I’d rather it be quick,” David replied. “When the day finally comes,” he continued, staring at Tinetariro for a moment before changing the subject. “On to something a little brighter. How’s the crew’s overall morale?”

“All things considered, exceptional,” Tinetariro answered in her posh British-accented English. “It was touch and go for a couple of days, but taking the station and sending Admiral Seville on his way back to Earth buoyed everyone’s spirits. I think we all recognize the road ahead is going to be difficult… but it’s better to be fighting the League on its turf for once, rather than constantly defending our homes.”

“I can’t fault that line of thinking one bit, Master Chief. Heck, it mirrors my own.”

“If I may, sir, I understand you turned down a promotion to brigadier general,” Tinetariro began before David started to laugh.

“Master Chief, I swear, the RUMINT on this ship is exceptional. Yes, I did. I’ve got no interest in flying a desk… besides, serving with the crew of the Lion of Judah is where I need to be. It’s my home, and all of you are like family. There’s no stepping out on that. I’ll be here until we’re done, or they won’t let me command her anymore.”

Tinetariro broke into a genuine grin. “You have no idea how good it is to hear that, sir. I’d hate to have to break in another senior officer. You’re a stubborn lot.”

David snickered. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Master Chief.”

“Anything else, sir?”

“No, I think we’re good for today…oh, there is one item I wanted to ask you about. Could you send Private Jason Waters down here later this afternoon? I’d like to talk to him about a personal matter.”

Tinetariro’s face clouded over with a grimace. “I’m sorry, sir, but Private Waters was killed in action.”

David’s eyes fell as he frowned. “I see. Do you know how? I wanted to thank him for something he told me.”

“I’m not sure, sir. The truth is, I’m not sure when he was killed. The doctor’s notes are incomplete, and we’re not sure if he died in the first battle or the second. I apologize greatly. I know that’s outside of normal procedures.”

David’s eyes snapped up, and a puzzled look swept over his face. “I spoke to him between the battles, the night of the funeral services.”

“Are you sure? That would let us verify that he participated in the second battle as well.”

“I… I’m pretty sure,” David replied. Am I losing it?

“If you don’t mind me asking, sir, what did he discuss with you?”

“He reminded me a good man isn’t alone, even when everything seems lost,” David said, a rueful smile gracing his lips. “I was at rock bottom. It was something I needed to hear, and I wanted to thank him.”

“Well, we’ll all get our chance to say those things we wanted to say but couldn’t one of these days,” Tinetariro responded, immediately causing David to think of the afterlife, or heaven, as both Christians and Jews thought of it.

“I hope so, Master Chief. Got a lot of things that were left unsaid to a lot of people I’d like the chance to get in one last goodbye with.”

“Me too, sir. Way too many,” Tinetariro replied, her face awash in emotion.

“But we soldier on, remember the fallen, and give the League all it can handle, and then some.”

“Quite right, sir.”

“Very well, Master Chief. I know you’ve got plenty to do; carry on.”

Tinetariro sprang to her feet and brought herself to attention smartly. “Aye aye, sir!” she intoned before turning on her heel and marching out of his office. David was left staring at the open hatch, pondering what happened to Private Waters. Maybe I’m losing it, he considered. Did I ever have it to begin with? Who’s to say exactly what happened in the last few months. Snorting to himself, he pulled up his tablet and began to go through the paperwork of the day.


45

Later that day during the mid-afternoon watch, David walked into the wardroom to find it empty except for Aibek, who was in the middle of eating a hamburger. Cracking a smile, he noted the burger was almost raw; seared on both sides and red in the middle. “I’m not sure you’re complying with CDF food safety regulations, Colonel Aibek.”

Aibek laughed. “We eat most of our meat raw. It’s easier to digest for us.”

David slid into a seat across from him after pouring a cup of piping hot CDF coffee. “There was a rumor going around that Saurians considered live rodents to be a delicacy when you first came on board.”

“Yes, I remember. I helped spread it around and kept a live mouse in my quarters to gross people out,” Aibek replied with a large, toothy grin. “It is so easy to mess with humans.”

David chuckled as he took a sip of his coffee. “I think we’re fascinated by things different from us. Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by them, but on balance, I believe we’re pretty open to new cultures and customs.”

“I’ve certainly found this ship to be accepting of me. I am grateful for it.”

“And I am grateful for the advice and support you’ve given. It’s an honor to serve with you,” David replied with sincerity.

“I still regret that I came to join your crew in the manner in which I did. I sense I would have greatly respected Major Thompson,” Aibek answered, his voice quiet and somber.

“I won’t lie, I still miss her,” David said, his voice suddenly solemn at the thought of his old friend. “But everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but I hold on to it. There has to be a plan… I pray someday it makes sense.”

“Until then, we have to continue. Love one another, lay down our lives for our fellow soldiers and the civilians we protect. You humans sum up one of our core beliefs quite nicely with the phrase ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’.”

David offered a small smile. “Agreed, XO.”

“I was about to turn on the holoprojector when you came in. President Spencer is due to deliver an address to the Alliance.”

David reached over and hit the “on” button for the holoprojector; it snapped on, preset to the Canaan News Network. It appeared that the speech was about to begin, as the usual talking heads were replaced by a live feed from the Oval Office.

“Good timing,” Aibek commented wryly.

The projector shifted to show the entirety of the Oval Office, with Spencer sitting behind a simple yet regal wooden desk. David recognized it as something brought from Earth, hundreds of years prior. Called the Resolute Desk, it had enormous historical significance.

“Citizens of the Terran Coalition, our allies, and freedom-loving people of all species across this galaxy, I come to you tonight with good news,” Spencer began. “Our fleet has returned from Unity Station, intact and victorious. The flag of the Canaan Alliance flies over the instrument of the League’s invasion of our galactic arm. This victory, while mighty, is not without substantial loss and sacrifice. Nineteen thousand, eight hundred and twenty-nine brave men and women made the ultimate sacrifice to secure our victory.

“This war has continued for nearly thirty years. When it started, I doubt anyone in the Terran Coalition thought we would still be fighting this far in. But our freedoms are worth fighting for, and now two generations of citizens have decided that it is preferable to die on our feet than live on our knees. Today, we took a major step forward in the defeat of the League. There will be many more battles to fight, we will suffer many thousands of causalities, and too many of our soldiers will perish so our way of life will not vanish from this galaxy. But make no mistake. This is the price we’ve paid for thirty years and will gladly pay for another thirty years if it’s what is required for us to live in freedom and peace.”

Spencer stared directly into the holoprojector camera that was present in his office. “To Chairman Pallis and the rest of the League’s Social and Public Safety Committee, I have the following statement. We’re ready to discuss your surrender at any time. We will push all the way to Earth and liberate it from your oppression. The League started this war to destroy our way of life; you thought we would collapse in the face of a massive and determined enemy. You were mistaken. Your actions only served to strengthen the bonds of the people who make up our nation. People who love freedom, regardless of how they choose to use it. We love our freedom and our way of life so much… we will do anything that is required to safeguard it. We will fight for it, we will bleed for it, we will sacrifice for it, we will pay any cost and defeat any foe to save our way of life. The League of Sol sowed the wind when it cowardly attacked Canaan twenty-eight years ago and now, Chairman Pallis, you will reap the whirlwind.

“To the citizens of the League of Sol, know we stand with you in your own quest for justice and freedom. The Terran Coalition comes not as a conqueror, but as a liberator. There is no better friend, and no worse enemy, than the Canaan Alliance, as those who have tried to take away our way of life have found throughout the ages. While Earth may be a paradise, albeit a paradise with a secret police force that hauls anyone suspected of remotely thinking the wrong thing in the dead of night, it is built off the backs of people on a hundred different planets, all forced to work for next to nothing to provide for the League. Enforced by the point of a bayonet, the League’s ideology would collapse in a moment, if but a different political party was allowed to run in the sham elections they hold every ten years.

“Today we mark a milestone in our struggle; the beginning of the end of the League of Sol. To our own citizens, who have sacrificed far more than any group of people ever have, for longer than any have, throughout our recorded history, I say this; stay the course. Practically everyone in our great civilization has served in some manner to support our war efforts. Nearly ninety-five percent of all citizens born after the war began who have reached the age of majority have served in our armed forces. All have given something of themselves. Too many have paid the ultimate price. These sacrifices haven’t been made in vain. There stands with us hope that victory will finally be achieved. I believe we stand on the right side of this fight, that we stand with our Creator, and the evil of the League will be vanquished into the dustbin of history. In the eighteen months I have left as your president, I pledge to every citizen of the Terran Coalition I will do everything remotely within my power to win this war, with a minimum of losses. Let there be no mistake, however, the causalities we will see as we commence the invasion of the League will be high. They may well be higher than any we have sustained so far. But again, this is the price we’re willing to pay as a society to ensure our way of life.”

Spencer paused for a moment before he continued. “In closing, I ask every citizen of the Terran Coalition to pray for the safety of our soldiers in harm’s way, far away. I ask you all to keep up the fight and keep hope on the home front. Together, we can accomplish anything we put our minds to. The Terran Coalition’s best days are not behind us; they lie before us as we help to bring in a new era of peace and prosperity after the defeat of the League. May God bless you all, and may God continue to bless the Terran Coalition!”

The projection of the oval office faded away, and the talking heads for Canaan News came into view. Aibek reached up and turned off the projector before they began speaking. “Your leader is inspiring enough to be an honorary Saurian.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment…I think,” David replied with a bit of a smirk.

“It is. President Spencer’s ability to stir the blood and the soul to combat is impressive. I look forward to the day when he is able to toast the defeat of our enemy.”

David’s face took on a thoughtful appearance, and his eyes drifted toward the floor. “I look forward to the day when we beat our swords into plowshares, and this war is finally over.”

“And the nations of the world will know war no more?”

David nodded. “Quite.”

“I have read many of the human holy books by now. The Bible, Torah, Quran, and others.”

“I worry the longer this war goes on, the more likely we are to be fundamentally changed by it,” David said.

“For the worse?”

David nodded. “Yes, absolutely for the worse. The ease at which we lie, deceive, and do anything it takes to win troubles me.”

“That business with the reporter?”

David looked Aibek directly in the eyes. “You were right; we should have found a way to win that didn’t involve lying. On top of it, add in Colonel Demood’s antics on the station… what scares me the most is just for a moment, I was ready to excuse what he did as a cost of doing business until I read he threatened to kill all those civilians. Shooting a Leaguer in the kneecaps after surrender barely fazed me.”

“But you didn’t… that is what counts, right?” Aibek countered.

“Perhaps. We have to constantly guard our hearts and ensure this hatred of all things League doesn’t take root and corrupt us. The battle rages not only externally, but within,” David replied in an earnest tone. “From my perspective, I think the battle within is the most important one of all.”

“Well said, Colonel,” Aibek responded, his face a mask of thoughtfulness.

“I worry… what if my actions with Angie gave Demood the green light in his mind to cross the line? What if I led him astray? It’s vital that I stay within not only the letter but the spirit of the law. Keep me on the straight and narrow, XO. Help me to avoid another bad call. That’s something Sheila always did.”

Aibek smiled, his teeth showing in a way that made some humans shiver. “Gladly. As I would expect you to correct me if I found myself on a path to dishonor.”

“There is a maxim in Judism.. whoever kills a soul, its as if he destroyed the entire universe. Likewise, if you save someone, it is as if you saved everyone,” David said, glancing down. “These questions… about right and wrong, they worry me.”

“On Sauria, it is generally accepted that as long as the battle is honorable, killing is acceptable to achieve victory.”

“I get that, XO. I respect it… but I’m not a Saurian. I’m a Jew, and I try to go through life, following a set of standards and laws. The laws I believe God wants me to obey…wants all of us to obey.”

Aibek’s face turned thoughtful. “You do a good job of it.”

“I’m not so sure of that anymore.”

Aibek reached out and put his scaled hand on David’s shoulder. “There is no dishonor in checking your motives and ensuring you remain noble in spirit and deed.”

“The last few days I’ve had to take stock of how far I’m willing to go. I don’t like what I saw. I could see a path where I end up at the same place at Demood, simply because I kept pushing the rules one more notch. We’re inherently fallible beings. That’s why the rules exist in the first place.”

“No one is good, in other words?”

“Exactly,” David said. “It's imperative we remember it.”

“As I said, I will do my best to keep you grounded, as I believe humans put it. But… we have achieved a great victory. I cannot help but believe God, in some way, smiled on us. Do we make different decisions as we go forward? Yes. But now is not the time to second guess this great victory. I believe you made the best decisions you could, even when at times I did not agree. I get to have that luxury; sometimes when as you say, it is for all the marbles, the person at the top has to make uncomfortable compromises. Regardless of this, I believe we will win with honor, and I am glad I can make a difference serving at your side.”

David smiled, allowing the large Saurian’s positive outlook to infect him. Who knows what’s next? Perhaps only God. He was resolute they could handle whatever came up, because the team that made up the officers and crew of the Lion of Judah was greater than the sum of its parts. Tomorrow will be another day, and I will face that day as I have every other day. He recalled the words of a psalm. “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

THE END

Echoes of War: Book 4 – Gates of Hell: Colonel David Cohen takes on a deadly new challenge - finding a League spy before it’s too late.

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Acknowledgments

Dave – thank you for all the guidance and mentorship as I continue to write the Echoes of War series.

There are many people (too many to name) that have offered encouragement, support, and help on this novel—you know who you are. Thanks.

As I have with my previous works, I continue to thank God for giving me the ability to write and bring this story to life. I hope everyone enjoys reading it, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.


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