Book: Run the Gauntlet



Run the Gauntlet




Run the Gauntlet


Echoes of War Book Six

Daniel Gibbs



Contents


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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

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Acknowledgments



Run the Gauntlet by Daniel Gibbs

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Gibbs

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

Cover by Jeff Brown Graphics—www.jeffbrowngraphics.com

Additional Illustrations by Joel Steudler—www.joelsteudler.com

Editing by Beth at BZhercules.com

3D Art by Benoit Leonard

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

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


Run the Gauntlet


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FREE BOOK: Read the story of Levi Cohen and his heroic fight at the first battle of Canaan in Echoes of War: Stand Firm.


FREE BOOK: Join Captain James Henry as he tries to survive in the independent worlds after being cashiered out of the Coalition Defense Force. Can a broken man rebuild his life? Find out in A Simple Mission.


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Echoes of War

Book 1 - Fight the Good Fight

Book 2 - Strong and Courageous

Book 3 - So Fight I

Book 4 - Gates of Hell

Book 5 - Keep the Faith

Book 6 - Run the Gauntlet

Book 7 - Finish the Fight

Breach of Faith

(With Gary T. Stevens)

Book 1 - Breach of Peace

Book 2 - Breach of Faith

Book 3 - Breach of Duty

Book 4 - Breach of Trust


1


CSV Lion of Judah

Canaan Orbit

November 8th, 2462

Colonel David Cohen, commander of the Lion of Judah and member of the Coalition Defense Force, had excused himself early from the wardroom, his spirit flagging after the election results. The entire ship seemed subdued, the natural smiles and bustle in the passageways gone, replaced with a somber attitude. I get it. Fuentes could render all the blood, sweat, and tears meaningless if we don’t finish the job. As he cleared the hatch to his quarters, he stripped off the uniform sweater he wore, along with his pants. A few minutes later, he was resting on the couch, catching up on messages.

He ran over the events of the last few weeks in his mind. The Lion’s near non-stop battle rhythm, the victory over Feldt, and now the election of Edwardo Fuentes. The Peace Union—how in the name of God did they win? As he pondered it from his perch on the couch, the nastiness of the past year washed over him. Political divisions that were usually discussed with vigor, but respect had all but degenerated into open warfare between the two sides. Terms like “traitor,” “defeatist,” and “criminal” were thrown about by all. Even President Spencer wasn’t immune. On top of it all, the specter of General Erhart and Exodus Station was never far from his mind.

The vidlink application on the tablet started blinking, indicating a waiting call. He tapped it and saw the request was from his mother. Where’d she get comm credits from? Realizing it had been a few weeks since they last spoke, he hit the onscreen button to accept.

Sarah’s smiling face filled the screen. “David, can you hear me, son?”

“I see and hear you, Mother,” he replied with a grin. “How are you doing?”

“Wonderful. I paid for some credits to call you because I couldn’t wait to see you. You wouldn’t believe what they charge for them these days!”

Oh yeah, I would. “Did something happen?” He couldn’t remember a single time someone outside of the CDF had called him. David’s mind immediately went to worry.

“I wanted to see my son. With the election, I know the war will be over soon. You won’t have to run around the galaxy saving us from the League anymore.” She grinned from ear to ear.

The look on her face was one of earnest belief, David realized as he stared at her. While he knew her heart was in the right place, and she was ready not to have her son’s life be at risk daily, the truth of the matter to him was still galling. “Mom…”

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me. This is a good thing, David.”

“No, it’s not.”

“David,” she replied, her tone high-pitched, as if she didn’t know what to make of his reaction. “I thought you hated fighting. You’ve told me so many times you long for the day you can go back to rabbinical school.”

He locked his eyes on to the camera on his tablet and set his jaw. “Mother, I don’t want to fight with you, tonight of all nights. Yes, I want the war to be over. I want it to be over when we win. I recognize having fought it for over twenty years of my life that the League of Sol and the ideology it represents is pure, unadulterated evil. They can’t be reasoned with, we can’t make them our friends, and we can’t live with them!” His voice rose to a thunder. “They’ve killed so many of my friends, they killed my father, and as God is my witness, I’ll see them off, no matter what it takes!”

“Now my son is reduced to swearing a vow to God to kill his creations?”

David closed his eyes upon seeing tears fall down his mother’s cheeks. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m—”

“You’re what? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this.”

He felt shame for making his mother cry. “If we let the League go now, they’ll come back. I know they’ll come back. It’s what they do. Then everyone’s death is in vain. Dad, Sheila… it’s not right. Their deaths ought to mean something. It can’t all be for nothing.” I hope she can understand.

Sarah sobbed as tears flowed down her cheeks. “Do you know how much I live in fear of a knock on the door, every single day, with two men standing there to tell me my only son is dead? Just like they told me Levi was dead. Every day, David!” Her words were almost a wail. “Last week, they visited a family down the block from my house. Do you know how relieved I was when I realized they weren’t coming to me? Then the shame hit me that I could in any way be glad it was someone else’s child that died. So yes, I voted for the Peace Union. If it costs me my son, at least you’ll still be alive.”

Again, he closed his eyes, feeling heavy with sadness and pain. “I’m sorry, Mother. I know you worry about me, but some things are worth my life. They’re worth a lot of lives. If you told me today that I had to lay down my life so that you and the rest of the people back home I defend could live… then I’d pay the price.”

“Your father would be so proud of you.”

Those words broke loose a torrent of pent-up emotion inside of him. It was a subject he rarely touched mentally because of the heartache around it. At any event that typically included another’s parents, his father wasn’t there. A constant reminder of the cost of war, and the pain his family had suffered. David, too, began to cry. “I miss him. I miss all of them.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry. It’s been a rough twenty-four hours. Forgive me?”

“Of course.” She smiled and dabbed at her eyes to wipe away the tears.

“I guess I could always get a job hauling freight. Pirates wouldn’t mess with me.”

“And there you go, trying to tell jokes to make everything better.”

“Yeah.”

“Levi did that too,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “It was one of the reasons I married him.”

David said nothing. He couldn’t come up with anything that wouldn’t cause more pain or be a lie.

“What about the girl you’re dating? What’s her name again? Angela?”

“She’s a woman, Mother. Not a girl. We’re both going on forty.”

Sarah cracked a smile of her own. “All the better for you to get a move on and get me some grandchildren. Maybe now with the war ending…”

“Maybe.” What right do I have to bring a baby into this galaxy? The last thing it needs is me, with all my problems, as a father. The whiplash of emotions he felt bothered him.

“Are you coming home soon?”

“The Lion is heading back in the morning. We’ll be at Canaan’s main space dock for at least a day or two.”

“I’ll fix dinner for both of you if you want to bring her by.”

And that would be Mom’s not so subtle way of telling me she wants an introduction. “We’ll see. I’d better get to bed, Mom. Another long day in store tomorrow.”

“I love you, David,” she said as she touched her hand to the camera of her tablet. “Be safe, and may God walk with you.”

“You too, Mom. Shalom.”

“Shalom.”

Her picture disappeared, leaving David alone in the quiet of his cabin as his mind echoed with bitter recriminations for actions he took, others he didn’t, and a general sense that regardless of the outcome of peace talks with the League, the lives of all those who’d perished so far would be in vain once their enemy rebuilt its forces and attacked again. Above all, the loss of Sheila Thompson, his long-time friend since bootcamp and former XO of the Lion of Judah, was first in his mind.

Am I wrong? Is my desire to defeat the League something that’s driven me in the wrong way? Did it get my best friend killed? He tossed and turned for hours, trying to find rest. His mind raced with the possibilities of what lay beyond, and how life would change, and he couldn’t turn it off—much less sleep.

Run the Gauntlet

The next morning, his alarm clock, an old style, digital readout device with large red digits for military time, blared at 0430, Coalition Mean Time. David reached over and turned it off, already fully awake. He sat Indian style with his legs intercrossed on his bunk. Two hours of pondering what everything means, and I’m even more depressed than I was. Outward emotions were something the commanding officer of the Coalition Defense Force’s largest warship couldn’t afford. So he did what he did every morning and got out of bed, threw on a pair of athletic shorts, then made his way down to the officer’s gym, pausing only to recite the Shema Yisrael—the morning prayer of Judaism. Since the ship was so large—one point three kilometers long with ten thousand crew, space aviators, and Marines—there was a special gym for senior ranks, and it was mostly deserted when he walked in at 0440 hours.

Mostly. Major Elizabeth Merriweather was present and appeared to be in the middle of a kickboxing workout. She came to attention as he walked in.

“Customs and courtesies don’t apply in the gym, or mess, for that matter, Major,” David replied with a trace of a smile. “Nevertheless, I appreciate it. As you were.”

Merriweather relaxed and glanced back at the punching bag she’d been working over. “I was taking out some frustration.”

“Oh?”

“Long night. With the election and all.”

David walked over to a weight machine and set it to eighty kilograms, sat down, and started pumping his legs on it. “Yeah, I think that goes for all of us. I didn’t get much sleep either.”

“I ended up having a fight with Major Hanson about the election.”

“Really? I wouldn’t have thought he was a Peace Union supporter.” While the words left his mouth, he saw her expression morph from a neutral at best, to a frown. Great, I just stepped in it.

She turned quickly and punched the bag again. “I shouldn’t have brought it up, sir.”

“There’s a reason I don’t discuss politics,” David said as he let the machine go slack and stood. “Allow me to apologize. I meant no disrespect.”

“What’s so difficult to believe about a CDF officer not wanting to continue the war now that the League’s pushed back?” Merriweather replied, her tone one of sadness mixed with pique.

I should walk away. Despite the common sense going through his mind, David decided to walk over to her instead. “Well, I assumed that having been out here on the sharp tip of the spear, you’d have seen the horrific things the League does. It’s an evil worth eradicating.”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Granted. We’re discussing this as two friends—nothing more.”

She turned her head back toward him. “I’ve lost too many friends as we started to invade the League. We’ve lost hundreds of ships, entire Marine divisions… we got ours. I don’t see the point, and I’m tired of the killing.”

“Okay, but Fuentes?” David couldn’t help but smile as he spoke.

“He’s a means to an end, Colonel. I can’t stand his talk about everyone needing free stuff, but he’s the only candidate willing to say it’s time to stop the war and take a deal with the League. They’ve been trying to negotiate for the last six months now.”

“I believe it’s a tactic they’re using to divide us.” David crossed his arms in front of his chest while he pondered her words. Maybe I’m the one out of touch. He quickly shoved the thought down. No, I’m right. The League must be defeated. Spencer’s been right from day one: the only acceptable solution is unconditional surrender.

“We’ve done a great job of that ourselves. I can’t have a conversation with any of my friends in uniform who don’t support the Peace Union without being called a traitor or worse. Have you been paying attention, sir? There are practically riots in the streets between supporters of President Spencer, and now President-Elect Fuentes. I don’t think I recognize the society I signed up to defend.”

“I never got the impression it was as bad as the holonews channels made it out to be.”

“No, it’s worse on the ground. Trust me, I’ve been at one of those marches and see the vitriol hurled my way.”

David cleared his throat. “There’s plenty of examples of those in the Peace Union and especially the more hardcore Fuentes supporters pulling stupid stunts too. Publicly shaming people who disagree with them, trying to get them fired, posting lists of citizens who contributed to the other side, and encouraging harassment. I’ve stayed away from it because we have a war to fight, and I don’t want to be sidetracked by politics. Truth be told, I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted to you saying this if it weren’t for my mother announcing she’d voted for him last night.”

“Were you mad at her too?” Merriweather asked with a small smile.

“No,” David began as he shook his head. “Shocked. But I understood. She doesn’t want me killed in combat. Maybe I didn’t do a good job of explaining to her why I’m out here, because I don’t want to see my children fighting this war. I’d rather finish it now.”

“I hope I haven’t caused you to lose confidence in me.”

He stood abruptly, a fierce expression on his face. “Let’s be very clear here. Differences in politics and beliefs are the cornerstone of the Terran Coalition. We’re all different, we all have ideas on how to fix things and make them better. Outside of the extremes on either side of the policy divide, I believe everyone in our nation wants the same thing. A prosperous nation we’re all proud to live in and call our own… one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” David extended his hand out toward her. “I’m glad to have you serving on my ship, Major. And I respect your beliefs, even—no, especially, when I disagree.”

Merriweather took the hand and gripped it firmly. “Thank you, sir. It means a lot to me to hear that.”

“Well, what do you say we pump some iron and keep in shape?” David asked with a grin.

“Done,” she replied enthusiastically.

Throughout the rest of his forty-five-minute workout, David pondered the conversation they had, along with the discussion with his mother. He could find no answers as to how the Terran Coalition was seemingly coming apart at the seams out of nowhere but resolved to do what he could to salve the wound, one conversation at a time.

Run the Gauntlet

SHAEF Headquarters

Lawrence City – Canaan

November 10th, 2462

Deep within the bowels of Coalition Defense Force HQ, the inner workings of the Canaan Alliance occupied several floors and tens of thousands of square meters of office space. In one such office, newly promoted Lieutenant General Benson Pipes toiled away at tasks others might view as trivial, but he, as a logistical officer now for fifteen years, knew would decide the war. At least he had until two nights before. An older man with fading hair and a face weathered from many years of active duty service, he was growing old. A knock on his door caused him to glance up from the report he’d been reading. “Enter!”

The door creaked open, and General Andrew MacIntosh strode through. “Benson, how are you doing? Don’t get up.” MacIntosh led the Victory Project, whose star achievement—the CSV Lion of Judah—gobbled up most of the press and attention, but there was much more to it than one large ship. “You look about as bad as I feel,” he remarked as he sat in one of the chairs.

“Of all the outcomes from the election, I never thought I’d live to see the day a man who calls himself a socialist and promotes peace with the League would win,” Pipes said with a downcast face. “It’s beyond explanation.”

“No, it’s not,” MacIntosh replied in his usual gruff tone. “We’ve been at war for thirty years. The civilians want a break, and they’re tired of family members coming home in a pine box.”

Pipes pursed his lips together. “My son came home in a coffin. It doesn’t make me a defeatist, or a coward.” My wife will never forgive me for it either. She thought I should’ve kept him off the front line.

“Privately, I completely agree with you, Benson. I detest Fuentes, the Peace Union, and everything they stand for. However—”

“We took an oath to follow the lawful orders of those appointed over us, and the President of the Terran Coalition is the commander-in-chief. I just recited the oath again last month when my promotion came through. I have it memorized.”

MacIntosh stared straight ahead then shook his head. “Me too, old friend. It’s ingrained in who we are. Now, what’d you ask me down here for?”

“I have some good news.” Pipes lifted an electronic tablet marked “Top Secret—Special Compartmentalized Information” and held it out toward the other man. “Have a look.”

Silence reigned in the office as MacIntosh dutifully unlocked the device with his fingerprint and an iris scan, then navigated using his finger.

Pipes stared at him as he did, knowing the report should make him happy. It contained the shakedown cruise and final checkout statements for all six anti-matter powered heavy cruisers that would form the backbone of the new CDF “Anti-Matter Force.” This was the end goal of the Victory Project; a mass-produced reactor, small enough for even a destroyer. They weren’t quite there, but the cruisers would do.

“Impressive,” MacIntosh said as he glanced up from the tablet and stared at Pipes. “My read of this is that everything went smoothly and you overcame all issues.”

“A shame they won’t get used now.”

A broad grin spread across MacIntosh’s face. “We’ve got two months until Fuentes gets into office. They’ll be used.”

“I wonder at times if Erhart had the right idea.” General Ulysses Erhart had been a well-respected CDF officer who went rogue and tried to steal a secret fleet of ships, intent on destroying League civilian population centers. “Not the bit about raining weapons of mass destruction down the core League worlds in the Orion spur, but about hitting the League hard. Now we’re not going to get the chance.”

MacIntosh scowled. “That man was a disgrace to the uniform. Need I remind you the Exodus Fleet is there in case of total League victory? It was our ace in the hole for the continuity of our civilization.”

“And the entire business with him helped Fuentes get elected,” Pipes said. He stood up suddenly and began to pace around the office. It was big enough to allow him to do so without being comical. “I’m considering resigning once he takes office.”

“Why?”

“Because as a uniformed officer, I can’t get involved in politics. Once I’m no longer in the service, I can. Someone ought to speak the truth.”

“There’s many people doing that, Benson. I need you here, and I’ll need you more than ever once he’s sitting in the White House. Especially with his vice president that promotes every anti-CDF conspiracy in the universe on her social media accounts.”

Pipes stopped suddenly and turned around. “Andrew, the League will rebuild the ships we’ve destroyed within twenty-four months. The only saving grace we’ve had is they’ve yet to deploy their home defense fleet. If we take our foot off their throats, when they come back to finish us off, we won’t be able to stop them.”

“I know.”

The quietness of how MacIntosh said the words bothered Pipes. It was as if the fight had gone out of his friend. “We should do something.”

“Do you have any ideas?”

“Erhart’s plan. It could work, but as I said, not in the way he thought. What if we hit the League’s ability to produce more combat vessels? Specifically, its shipyards. They provided the base of the enemy's military-industrial complex, and without those yards, they’ll be sidelined for decades. You can’t build new space elevators and orbital complexes in a year.”

“You’re not the first person to propose that, Benson. The risks are far too great.”

Pipes narrowed his eyes and stared down; his eyes bored into MacIntosh’s face. “Sir, with respect, we didn’t have a reason to take the risk. Now we do, and we’ve got the ships to execute it. Between our new cruisers and the advances in drone technology for small craft, the risk would be acceptable.”

MacIntosh held the look then let out a chuckle. “That’s why you called me down here, isn’t it? You’ve got a plan.”

“Professionals deal with logistics, sir. I’m a professional.”

“To say President Spencer is depressed is putting it mildly,” MacIntosh said as he stood up from the chair. “He needs a distraction. I’ll get you fifteen minutes with him. Come prepared, and don’t be surprised if everyone else in the room, shoots whatever you’ve come up with full of holes.”

It was Pipes’ turn to smile, a broad one that spread across his face. “I’ll be ready. Oh, I meant to ask, how’s David doing?” Especially after losing his son, David had become very important to Pipes. He’d never let on, except professionally, how much his success had meant.

“Good. He performed well on his last mission, but I think the entire CDF is a bit demoralized today. It’ll pass. Good day, Benson.”

Pipes stared at the door after MacIntosh had left before he sat down behind his desk once more. It crossed his mind he’d have to do an interactive holopresentation since the joint chiefs would likely be involved. He knew in his heart it was a long shot. Something must be done. I can’t live with myself if I allow the sacrifices of so many to be in vain.




2


League Navy Headquarters

Switzerland, Earth

November 10th, 2462

Even a couple of days after the election, Admiral Pierre Seville’s spirits were the highest they’d been in years, perhaps since right before his ill-fated mission to frame the Terran Coalition and bombard Canaan from orbit. Victory is within our grasp, and the Terrans don’t even realize it. He rounded the corner toward his office, receiving and exchanging salutes with several junior officers. The tall Frenchman, with his two bionic eyes, walked on.

As was his usual routine, Seville had arrived before his secretary and most of his staff. He strode into the ornately decorated office to find Director Dmitry Borisov waiting for him. A shorter man, he tended to blend into the background, as any good spy ought to.

“Admiral,” Borisov said as a greeting while he stood. “I didn’t get a chance to come down to see you yesterday. External Security kept me tied up with meetings.”

Seville pursed his lips together. The two of them had a love/hate relationship born out of convenience, forced upon them by internal League politics. His mouth curled up into a smirk. “Of course, Director. Please, can I get you anything? Tea, perhaps?”

“Ah, I’d love some vodka, but 0630 hours is too early, even for me. No, sit. I want to compare notes.”

It wasn’t lost on Seville that, while friendly, Borisov took every opportunity to remind him of who was in charge, down to telling him what to do in his own office. He kept up the charade and sat behind the ornate desk, itself a several-hundred-year-old antique. “I must confess, I lacked confidence in your plans to get a socialist elected to the presidency of the Terran Coalition.”

“I didn’t so much get a socialist elected as I helped steer the conversation of their so-called democracy. Once you understand that these capitalist dogs are driven by a short term, twenty-four-hour news cycle, it’s quite easy to manipulate them. We tricked them into voting for a man whose political beliefs are in the same strata as our own. The sad thing is, he’s probably too stupid to even realize it, much less his followers.”

Seville fought the urge to roll his eyes. “I see. Well, now that we have a favorable government on the other side, I trust the politicians will achieve decent terms for a peace treaty. At least, that’s what the few friends I have left are telling me.”

“Still being blamed for our defeats in the Orion Arm?” Borisov asked, his eyes staring through Seville as if he could see straight into his soul.

“Unfortunately, yes. I’ve tried to get the Public and Social Safety Committee to see reason and release our home fleet. But…”

Borisov snorted then laughed. “Those doddering old men cling to the past. They fear losing Earth, so our massive fleet sits there, doing nothing. In ways, they’re as backward as the Terran Coalition.”

“I do have my fears about the next few months. The Terrans system of government keeps the current president in power. He may try something.”

“Like what?” Borisov waved his hand in the air. “They can’t invade our core worlds, and with our agitprop going day and night, any major strokes against us will be labeled as being against the will of the people. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy watching them implode.” He smiled wolfishly. “I told you a year ago, Pierre, let me do what I’m good at. In five years, you will sit at the head of a three-thousand-ship fleet, crushing the last vestiges of resistance to the League. For now, we sit tight.”

Overconfident bastard; I hope he’s right. “Any movement on adjusting the committee members?” Seville asked, changing subjects mid-stream.

“Some. The peace treaty, when it happens, will help with this.”

Seville held up a finger. “Remember, we must get control of Unity Station to ensure success.”

“Patience, my dear Admiral.”

“That is easy for you to say. I’ve spent my life fighting these religious extremists and the toxic beliefs they spew. Freedom.” Seville made a sound akin to someone beginning to vomit. “I detest it. I will not leave this existence until I exterminate them and their ideology from the face of the universe.”

Borisov stood and flashed a smile at him. “Both of us will live to enjoy that day, Admiral. Until then, keep your head down. There are still many difficult days between now and then—mostly due to political machinations within our government. As always, I’ll protect you as best I can. You will still encounter some landmines.”

“Of course.” I’ve been defeating do-nothing politicians since you were in diapers, Borisov. “Good day, director.”

“You as well.” Borisov turned on his heel and left a brooding Seville at his desk, staring at the day’s work.

Run the Gauntlet

Coalition Defense Force - HQ

Lawrence City – Canaan

November 11th, 2462

Three days had passed since the election. Three days and three sleepless nights. It was the defining moment of Justin Spencer’s life, much to his chagrin. Part of him wanted to fade away into obscurity, say nothing on the matter and refuse all interviews between now and the inauguration of Edwardo Fuentes. I’m a better and bigger man than that. And so, here he was, in a richly appointed conference room inside of CDF HQ, listening to his weekly briefing on the status of the war. This one was for the Terran Coalition only. There was another briefing that contained the Saurians. We do love our meetings. Meetings about meetings, at times.

“As you can see, sir, we’re in a holding pattern along the front, mein President,” the deep, German-accented voice of General Wilhelm Becker said through the hololink to his flagship in the Orion spur. “We have multiple avenues on which we can continue to pursue contact with the League, but further planetary invasions are at least three weeks away from possible initiation.”

“Mister President, I’d strongly recommend we focus on degrading the League’s ability to project power toward our side of the Milky Way. Controlling ground does us little at this point,” another general, with numerous campaign ribbons and a chest full of medals, complained from across the room.

General Andrew MacIntosh cleared his throat. “The more ground we hold, the better the odds of getting a good treaty out of the League.”

“Any treaty made with the League isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on,” Spencer said darkly. “Our experiences with them should have proven that once and for all.”

The men and women in uniform said nothing; it would be improper for them to do so. The Uniform Code of Military Justice made it clear that officers and enlisted personnel of the Coalition Defense Force were not to engage in political campaigning. Still, there were slight nods of the head out of several.

“We have two months, Mister President,” Secretary of Defense Dunlevy said. He had served with Spencer during his entire term. He adjusted the tie on his civilian business suit. “What do you want us to do?”

That’s the question, isn’t it? What are my orders as the commander-in-chief? I’ve got the same choice with this war as I do for myself. I can sit back and ride it out—or I can do what I know is right. Spencer set his jaw and gazed around the room. “General Okafor,” he began, directly addressing the new chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. “I want your people’s best ideas on how to inflict maximum damage in the next sixty days. The gloves are off. Any target, aside from civilians, are valid. Do I make myself clear?”

Simon Okafor—a burly man with a deep dark-skinned complexion and the country flag of the African Union on his shoulder, spoke next. “Crystal clear, sir. We’ll have you a range of options by Monday?”

“No,” Spencer replied. “Tomorrow.”

A cloud passed over Okafor’s face before he responded, “Yes, sir.”

“If anyone else has ideas, toss them in. No egos here.” There was silence in the room after Spencer’s comment. “Okay. Are we done?”

“Yes, mein President. We have nothing else for you at this time,” Becker replied through the hololink.

“In that case, Godspeed and you’re all dismissed.”

There was a mad dash to the door as the dozens of CDF officers and civilians from the department of defense vacated the conference room. The protocol was for Spencer to remain behind with his security detail before exiting along a pre-cleared path. Today, Dunleavy, Okafor, and MacIntosh remained behind. The three of them traded glances before Okafor spoke. “Mister President,” he began, a rich lilt in his accented English. “Could we speak privately and frankly, sir?”

Spencer held up his hands and smiled. “Permission to speak freely, granted.”

“Sir, I’m concerned any poorly planned operations will carry significant risk. Risk that will carry forward to the next administration and beyond. The Coalition Defense Force isn’t able to absorb extreme losses and rebuild quickly.”

Dunleavy leaned forward. “I think what General Okafor is saying, sir, is don’t be rash.”

Spencer steeled his gaze toward the SecDef and when he spoke, his voice was soft. “Rash… if the electorate hadn’t been rash by electing a man who wants to throw away—” He trailed off. “I’m sorry. My emotions are getting the better of me. Please accept my apologies, gentlemen.”

“To hell with Fuentes,” MacIntosh said gruffly, drawing sharp glances from Okafor and Dunleavy. “Oh, don’t even act surprised. We’re all thinking it, I’m just old enough not to care anymore—enough about him. My logistics chief, Lieutenant General Pipes, had a suggestion. In a nutshell, attack the League’s shipyard capabilities.”

“Out of the question,” Okafor interjected. “They’re in orbit of the enemy’s core worlds. The most heavily guarded locations in the entire League of Sol.”

MacIntosh crossed his arms in front of his chest and rumbled on. “He’s got a plan. Pipes has been with me long enough that I know it’s worth hearing out.”

It would sure set the League’s war machine back a decade or two. Spencer allowed a small smile to spread across his face. “He’s got until tomorrow afternoon to brief me.”

“Mister President—”

“General Okafor,” Spencer began. “You’ll have an opportunity to object. Hitting the League’s ability to make new ships would reduce their ability to project power into our space, would it not?”

“Well, yes, sir.”

“Then I want to hear the plan. Get with my chief of staff and have something good ready. Dismissed.”

Run the Gauntlet

With most of the humans downcast and unpleasant to be around, Aibek decided to consume his midday meal in his cabin. It was expansive and not much smaller than David’s, though he—like most Saurians—was a minimalist. Lunch consisted of barely seared steak, with a side of potatoes. Between bites of food, he barely chewed—his stomach didn’t require it, so most Saurians didn’t—he pondered the events of the last few days. I hope the humans do not waver from fighting the good fight. They have shown much honor to me, but perhaps not all of them are the same.

His tablet beeped, interrupting the meal. He reached over and flipped it around. The screen showed an incoming vidlink from Chief Minister Obi Sherazi, the leader of the Saurian government. Aibek quickly tapped on the control to accept it.

“Greetings, warrior,” Obi said as his face appeared, scales shining. “I hope I am not disturbing you.”

“I am honored to speak to you, Chief Minister.” Aibek quickly swallowed the food in his mouth.

Obi stared through the camera. “What do you make of the recent events in the Terran Coalition?”

Our leader is not one to mince words, as the humans put it. “Some humans lack the understanding others do of the enemy. It is regrettable.”

“What is regrettable is this comes after tens of thousands of Saurians have spilled blood for their cause.” The anger in Obi’s words was palpable.

“The humans I serve with understand the cost and respect our sacrifices, Chief Minister. If I may ask, sir, why have you contacted me?”

Obi broke into a broad, toothy grin. “I want to understand what is going on, from the perspective of one of our own. Not from the humans.”

Ah. Of course, he would want the Saurian view. Aibek adjusted himself, suddenly uncomfortable and aware that his next utterances could change the perspective of how the Chief Minister viewed the war. “Leader,” he began, using an old Saurian word instead of the newer “Minister” title. “Humans have traits which we consider dishonorable. Some of them fear death, others fear to fight. Still other humans believe peace should come at any cost, even slavery. I cannot tell you why they elected this man, Fuentes. I can tell you the humans I serve with are every bit as honorable as the strongest Saurian warrior. They would lay down their lives for mine, which is as much as any being can ask from another.”

“Then you believe we should stay with them?”

“Unequivocally, yes.”

Obi raised a scale up over one eye. “Do you know what they plan to do?”

“No. Though there are whispers—what they call RUMINT—that President Spencer will take his final days in office to hammer the League as hard as possible.”

“I see.”

Aibek watched his leader’s face, its expression inscrutable, hoping to see any sign of what he’d do. “If I may, I believe we should support them in whatever they do.”

“There’s a motion coming to the floor of the assembly this afternoon to find a separate peace with the League of Sol on good terms,” Obi stated, his tone full of disgust. “It doesn’t help that the League’s ambassador has already made known she’ll ask for nothing but the withdrawal of our forces from the Orion arm of the galaxy.”

For a moment, Aibek considered keeping his peace. After all, he had a life to live after the war, and if the humans wouldn’t continue to fight, there was no place for him here. But I owe Colonel Cohen. He is a good man, and I should stand up for him and the rest of his race. “Leader, I must urge we stay in our alliance and support the Terrans to the fullest. Whatever they plan to do, the League is an evil we must oppose. The Prophet would will it, should he still walk the universe in the flesh with us.”

“Be thankful I agree with you, Talgat Aibek. There are Saurians who would challenge you to ritual combat for such words.”

It was Aibek’s turn to display his teeth in a broad smile. “I will gladly accept the challenge of any such person so they might see the error of their ways at the end of my blade.”

“It may yet come to that, Void-Captain.”

The use of his Royal Saurian Navy rank and its meaning wasn’t lost on Aibek. The Chief Minister wants to remind me of my duty to my race first. “I understand, sir. There will be a meeting tomorrow with the leaders of the CDF and the civilian government. I should have more information then.”

“See I get it, and above all, offer your support to President Spencer.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Walk with the Prophet, Talgat Aibek.”

The screen blinked out, leaving Aibek with his now cold food. He narrowed his eyes and took a bite. Its temperature mattered little, as long as the meal sustained him. Politics. I hate politics. Between chews, he pondered how best to help his friends.


3


Presidential Residence – Truman Briefing Theater

Lawrence City – Canaan

November 12th, 2462

David swiped his hand over a scanner to confirm his biological identity after first scanning his access badge. The turnstile turned green, and he walked through. He’d gotten the summons earlier in the day to proceed, along with Colonel Talgat Aibek, his XO, Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Amir, the Lion of Judah’s wing commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Calvin Demood, the Marine commander aboard the mighty vessel, to the Presidential Residence. All four men had what was called Churchill White clearance, which allowed direct access to the President of the Terran Coalition.

Amir popped out of the control gate next. “I’m surprised they didn’t swab us down and do full-body scans,” he commented dryly.

“Yeah, security is a bit heightened,” David said in agreement. “I wonder what this is all about? I expected us to be sent back to the front immediately to help consolidate our gains in the Orion spiral… not get smothered in meetings and paperwork.”

Calvin caught the tail end of the comment, for he laughed loudly as he strode up after clearing the checkpoint. “Leave it to the CDF to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with mountains of paperwork.”

“I wish we had some idea of why we were summoned,” Aibek rumbled as he too confirmed his identity. “I prefer to be on the front, fighting the League.”

“That makes four of us,” David said. He struggled to push his misgivings aside, unsure of where the Terran Coalition was going or what the future held. One day at a time. If the war is over, maybe I can finally enroll in rabbinical school. The thought was promising, but at the same time, seemed like a cheat to him. They hadn’t won. The League wasn’t destroyed. Those on the front lines knew someday they’d come back to finish the Terran Coalition off. At least, that’s what I believe.

Little was said as the four officers strode through the residence, following a holographic guideline that pointed them to the appropriate room. The entire building was designed to look like a replica of the American White House from back on Earth, as were many things within their society. The settlers on Canaan had pulled the things they considered the best out of the past and rebuilt them. As a result, everything looked old but regal.

The briefing theater wasn’t the typical conference room David was used to on the Lion or in CDF installations. There was a small raised stage at the front with a holoprojector and several rows of comfortable-looking seats. President Spencer was already present, as were several high-ranking generals and civilians. He recognized MacIntosh, Dunleavy, and Okafor.

Spencer seemed to take notice the moment David and the others from the Lion walked in. He stood and quickly made his way over. “Colonel Cohen! Good to see you again.”

David stiffened and came to attention. “Likewise, sir.”

“As you were,” he replied with a grin. “Thank you all for coming. We’ll explain what’s going on in a few minutes. Until then, have a seat wherever you like.”

As David moved to find an open chair, he whispered to Spencer as he passed by. “For whatever it’s worth, sir, Fuentes shouldn’t have won.”

The only response he received was a small smile.

More officers, mostly people David didn’t know, filed into the room, along with smartly dressed civilians. One of the last CDF members to arrive threw him for a loop, for in walked General Pipes. What’s he doing here? This is getting weirder and weirder. He’s never outside of the logistics wing. Even with his promotion, this is mighty odd.

Once Pipes made his way to the front of the room, those near the stage took their seats.

Spencer stood in the center and gazed out into the small sea of faces. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining me today, here in the people’s house. The events of this week weren’t what I expected, but until January 20th, 2463, I remain the President of the Terran Coalition. I say that not out of pique, but because I believe with all my heart we must collectively do everything in our power to defeat the League. The next government will most likely conclude a peace deal… therefore, we need to weaken our enemy as much as humanly possible without risking defeat or needless loss of life. I’ve asked you here today to hear a plan for striking at the heart of the League. General Pipes, take it away.”

While the words of the President were agreeable to David, he was still perplexed by his mentor not only being present at but delivering a combat briefing. Though I admire the President’s desire to fight on. Maybe we can get back to the front. Forcing his mind to stop churning, he focused on the scene in front of him.

“Thank you, Mister President. I’ll get right into it. I’m Lieutenant General Benson Pipes. Some of you know me, most don’t. I cut my teeth in this war commanding a frigate,” he began, and his eyes settled on David for a moment as the word “frigate” came out of his mouth. “Eventually, I ended up in logistics. It's said professionals deal with logistics, while amateurs discuss tactics.” A broad smile broke out across his face. “Please don’t take that as an insult. The truth is, the League’s ability to make ships is what keeps it in this war. We all know they have a monumental ability to outproduce us, with legions of conscripts barely able to fight. What I propose is the destruction of this ability.”

Okay, he’s got my attention. David leaned forward in his seat.

Pipes pressed a button on his tablet, and the stage darkened; a holoprojector snapped on, showing a 3D representation of the Orion arm of the galaxy—the League’s home turf and home of Earth. Three dots began to blink. “Ladies and gentlemen, the blinking lights you see are the main shipyards of our enemy. I’m going to brief you on a plan to destroy two of them before January 20, 2463, and tilt the balance of power in our favor for at least the next two decades.”

There were audible gasps in the room as shock spread throughout.

“With respect, General Pipes,” the rich voice of Okafor cut in. “One of those installations is at Earth. We couldn’t possibly hope to attack it. The other two are in heavily defended systems. Unless you have developed something akin to magic, it is an impossibility to attack these targets.”

The older general turned and stared directly at Okafor. Even from the back of the room, the harshness of the look was unmistakable. “Sir, Earth isn’t on the target list for that precise reason. As for the rest, I have a plan. Now, as I was saying…” He paused for a moment and changed the display. The projector switched to a tactical map of one of the League’s core worlds, Teegarden, only twelve light-years from Earth. “We have scans of both target systems from long-range recon patrols run by our stealth raiders. They show numerous defenses consisting of orbital stations filled with space superiority fighters, patrol ships, and weapons emplacements on the installations themselves. However, the League doesn’t expect an attack here. We have the element of surprise.”

David could almost feel the questions bubbling up from those around him. Even he had serious doubts. That’s great for the first attack; but it’s a trick that’ll only work once.

Pipes held a hand up, as if he could hear the unspoken thoughts permeating the room. “Yes, I know. Once we engage, the jig’s up. They’ll send their home defense fleets after our battlegroup. We’ll have to be in two places at once and attack both installations we mean to destroy, simultaneously.”

“Look here, old chap, I’d love to rub out the entire bloody League,” a voice interjected from the front row. David recognized it as Colonel Robert Sinclair, of the CSV Oxford. “But it’s what, a six-month journey from here to Earth for our fleet? I’m here for the intelligence side of the house, and this sounds like bullocks to me.”

Sinclair’s blunt assessment, delivered toward a man David had the utmost respect for, offended him. I’ve modeled most of my command style after what I observed from Major Pipes, all those years ago. If he says it’ll work, it’ll work.

“Not for ships with an anti-matter reactor and upgraded Lawrence drives. Those vessels can make the journey in three weeks.”

“There’s only one of those—it can’t be in two places at once!” Sinclair replied.

“Correction, Colonel—there’s seven. The first six heavy cruisers bearing anti-matter reactors are fully operational.”

David’s eyes opened fully, and his jaw nearly dropped open. Oh, snap. They’re finally ready.

“Each one is more powerful than an upgraded Alexander class battleship. There’s a lot of specific tactical details here, but the broad strokes are this… we send a battlegroup consisting of the CSV Lion of Judah and our new Constantine class heavy cruisers.” Pipes smiled and stared directly at where David assumed Sinclair was seated when he mentioned the wily spymaster’s ship. “The Lion will carry a stealth raider in its hangar space. It’ll be deployed once they reach the target area of operations and conduct recon of both systems. Then, using commando teams and Marine assets, the raider will capture a League destroyer. It’ll be used as a trojan horse to destroy one of the shipyards from within. The rest of the ships will stage a frontal assault on the second shipyard, then all assets will exfil and head back to Freedom station.”

Quiet murmurs broke into the open and became loud discussions as Pipes finished his statement. Amir leaned over and whispered into David’s ear, “It’s a most aggressive plan.”

Aibek must have heard him, because he turned and bared his teeth. “Fit for a Saurian admiral.”

Okafor sprang out of his seat and approached the stage. “Mister President, you can’t seriously consider this course of action. The risk is enormous. The seven ships proposed for this strike are the best offensive and defensive weapons we possess. To squander them… is the height of stupidity!”

Generals rarely use harsh language in public. He’s torqued.

“I have faith we can execute this plan, General,” Spencer replied as he, too, stood and made his way toward the stage and Pipes.

“Faith doesn’t win battles; ships and soldiers do.”

Spencer stared him down. “Really? Because from my perspective, we’ve won many a time when our ships and soldiers were at a disadvantage. I always chalked that up to our faith.”

A whispered aside from Calvin was a momentary distraction. “I think we need some popcorn.”

It was all David could do not to bust out laughing, but he forced himself to keep a neutral facial expression.

“It is too risky. That is my professional opinion, sir. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I urge you not to implement this course of action.”

Aibek suddenly stood and cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

All eyes turned to him, including Spencer’s. “Yes, Colonel Aibek?”

“I speak as a Saurian, not as a member of the CDF. The Saurian Royal Navy recently commissioned a new battleship with upgraded Lawrence drives supplied by our human allies. While it lacks an anti-matter reactor, we paired the drives with enhanced fusion reactors. It is the fastest ship in our fleet, and we would be honored to send it with you on this assault.”

“Can you commit the Saurian government, Colonel?”

“Chief Minister Obe expressed to me yesterday that we must do anything possible to fight the League. I will twist his arm, as you humans say.”

“One ship doesn’t make a difference,” Okafor interjected. “We need to entrench our current positions and prepare for a long period of cold war with the Leaguers, Mister President, not send our best ships on a foolhardy engagement, which will result in their destruction!”

The rhetoric in the room became louder and more pointed. Other generals entered the fray; some opposed, others in favor. It quickly became uncomfortable for the junior officers, and David was surprised Dunleavy didn’t order them to calm down. Maybe he agrees with the naysayers. It was too much, watching fellow officers shout at one another. Something came over him and he stood. “Enough!”

All eyes turned to David, immediately quieted by his outburst.

“The enemy isn’t in here. The enemy is in the Orion spur. Unlike most of you, I served under General Pipes. He values the lives of those he commands. If he has a plan, it's good. I’d stake my life on it, and I’d rather do something than sit back and let the politicians throw away the gains we’ve paid for in blood.”

Silence again reigned in the room. Okafor turned toward him and set his jaw. “I appreciate your passion, Colonel Cohen. You would do well to remember, however, the politicians set policy. We carry out their orders, regardless of our personal opinions.”

“Correct, General,” Spencer interjected with a small smile on his face. “The operation is approved. I was going to ask you if you’d be willing to volunteer, Colonel… but apparently, I don’t need to.”

“No, sir.”

Okafor turned back to Spencer. “If you are insistent on moving forward, sir, we’ll need to appoint a flag commander and create a new battlegroup structure. That will take some amount of time.”

“Colonel Cohen has successfully commanded a large fleet before. I believe he’s more than capable of handling this assignment.”

David watched the interplay between the two men work out. I suddenly feel as if I’m a political pawn here. Okafor wants someone he trusts in charge, so he can pull the plug if anything goes wrong. Spencer knows I’ll find a way to make it work.

“This is a billet for a Brigadier General, sir.”

“Then promote Cohen to O-7.”

A conversation like this shouldn’t be happening in the open.

“He’s not had enough time in grade, sir.”

Spencer took a few steps and invaded Okafor’s personal space. “I don’t care. Have it done by 1300 hours. Are we clear?”

There was a certain tension in the room as the interaction between the two men played out.

Okafor assumed a rigid posture before he replied. “Crystal, sir.”

“Thank you, General. One note to everyone here—you’ll notice the CBI director is present.”

A white-haired man that David recognized from previous interactions stood and turned around. He was Gideon Yoram—head of the Coalition Bureau of Investigation. “I would like to advise you everything said in this room is classified at the highest possible level. Should anyone,” he began as his eyes swept the room, seemingly making eye contact with every person, “or their associates leak the details of the conversation, or our plans to attack the League, I will find you. Treason will be the charge. That is all.”



Another hush swept the room, leaving David with an uneasy feeling. It doesn’t feel like it should. We’re supposed to be united, not threatening each other over leaks. He understood why, though. Throughout the recent presidential campaign season, there had been numerous instances of classified information magically showing up in the press to support various politicians. Both sides appeared to be guilty of it.

“Very well. Dismissed,” Spencer announced, and immediately, those assembled started walking out. He was one of the first to leave, whisked away by the ever-present close protection officers.

David stood and waited. He decided he wanted to talk to General Pipes, as they hadn’t been in the same room in years. “Hey, you guys go ahead without me. I need to have a private conversation,” he said toward Calvin, Aibek, and Amir.

“You got it, sir,” Calvin replied for the group.

It took a few minutes, but the two of them were finally left alone in the theater. David climbed onto the stage, where Pipes was packing up a small briefcase. “Sir,” he began. “It’s good to see you again, in the flesh.”

Pipes turned and smiled. “Jason! It’s been too long. I’m so proud of what you’ve accomplished these last couple of years.”

A look of confusion passed over David’s face as he processed the name—it was General Pipes’ son, who’d passed away many years before.

“I’m sorry, David. I…” The older man’s voice trailed off.

In that moment, David knew what he’d always suspected—the check-ins from time to time, the mentoring, the advice—was more than just the professional guidance of a superior officer or a friend. They were the genuine concern of a man who saw something of his child in another. It was enough to nearly cause an emotional outburst right there. It took all of his concentration not to cry. “It’s okay, sir. I understand. I’ve missed you too. This war…. It doesn’t leave us much time for vacations or trips off-planet to see friends.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“So, how’d you get here? Last time we talked, you were working logistics for General MacIntosh.”

A grin broke out across Pipes’ face. “It started with a thought, that General Erhart wasn’t entirely wrong about putting the hurt on the League on their home turf. Oh, his methods were horrific, and what he did was beyond disgusting. But that was the genesis of the idea.”

David frowned intently and closed his eyes. Erhart was a stain on the entire CDF. “I was there, sir. The Lion was one of the ships Coalition Intelligence brought in to stop him. He disgraced his uniform and everything we hold dear.”

“The less said about him, the better, then?”

“I only hope he’s being worked to death in Lambert’s Lament,” David replied, his voice cold. What’s happening to me? I used to show compassion.

“How’s the ship?”

“The Lion of Judah? Amazing. It’s an incredible honor to command her. The crew has seen us through some tricky situations in the last couple of years. Your guidance has too.”

“What do you mean, son?” Pipes asked, a puzzled look on his face.

“Every time I get into a difficult situation, I think back to your mentorship. In almost all situations, the thought ‘what would Benson Pipes do’ runs through my head. You’ve helped me in more ways than you’ll ever know, sir.” David struggled to keep the tears at bay. And you were more of a father to me than you knew.

“I didn’t do anything special, son. You’re intelligent, driven, and naturally gifted for command. You would’ve figured everything out on your own.”

David smiled. “Perhaps, but I lacked wisdom. Wisdom comes only with experience, or by guidance from someone who went before. You helped me not to make those mistakes—mistakes that would’ve cost a lot of good people their lives.”

Pipes reached out and squeezed David’s shoulder. “Knowing you need training would seem to me to be the mark of wisdom, son. I’m glad I was able to help.”

“Do you have time for dinner, sir? I’d love to catch up more than just a few minutes here in this room before I go on this mission behind enemy lines.” David left off the more obvious thought—it might be the only chance they got.

“I’d love to. We need to celebrate your star too. Not every day you get promoted to general. Got any recommendations?”

“As long as it’s kosher, I don’t care,” David replied with a laugh. Funny, I always thought pinning on a star would be one of the highlights of my life. It’s like it didn’t even register until he said something. As they walked away, he continued to ponder that line of thought.

Run the Gauntlet

Major Nathan Mancini glanced around the cramped control room onboard the CSV Tucson, a Growler class stealth raider. They’d been in space on deep space interdiction patrol for ninety days. Another successful mission. Mancini was looking forward to quality downtime planetside while Blue crew—stealth raiders maintained two separate teams called “Gold” and “Blue” so they could be active nearly one hundred percent of the time—headed back to the front the following week. Most importantly, none of his crew had perished during their time in space. This time. He pulled his uniform sweater down, its black wool showing signs of needing to be replaced through excessive fuzzballs. His shoulder contained a country patch for the United States and a religious flag for the Roman Catholic church—one-half yellow, one-half white, with the Holy See’s coat of arms on the white side.

“Conn, Navigation. Exiting wormhole in three, two, one, transition complete,” the navigator announced from her station, directly fore of his chair.

“Conn, sensor control. Scope is clear,” the voice of his lead sensor technician called through the intercom between the control room and the sensor compartment.

“No time to get complacent, ladies and gentlemen,” Mancini remarked with a grin. “Navigation, plot a final jump into Canaan orbit.”

“Skipper, getting flash traffic for you, sir. COMRAIDFOR, marked urgent and classified,” a rough, deep voice belonging to Master Chief Abraham Cosentino, the Chief of the Boat—also known as COB—on the Tucson.

“COB, pipe it to my office. XO, you have the conn. Continue navigation evolution. I want to be jumping into Canaan’s skies before the end of the hour.”

“Aye aye, sir. This is the XO, I have the conn,” Captain Patrick Godat announced from his spot in the XO’s chair, directly to port of the CO’s chair. He was on the tall side for raider crew; his uniform had the flag of New Israel, without a religious emblem.

Mancini stood and squeezed between his seat and the one directly to its side, manned by an enlisted soldier monitoring an auxiliary engineering console. The room itself was roughly rectangular-shaped, ringed by consoles and computer screens, with numerous switches and dials. The CDF didn’t believe in fancy touchscreen displays—instead, they used old-style controls for reliability and ease of training. Everything was marked. He exited into the passageway beyond; it was small enough that two people passing in the opposite direction had to square themselves sideways. A short walk later, and he was in the cubbyhole of an office that consisted of a fold-out desk, a chair built into the wall, and a station for his tablet.

It only took a minute to engage the encrypted communication. General Douglas Byrnes, commander, raider force—known as COMRAIDFOR—appeared on the screen. “Go for encryption scheme blue, Major.” The man’s blonde hair was cut to regulation standard, while his blue eyes appeared downcast.

“Encryption scheme blue selected, General.”

“I hope you’re sitting down.”

“Only just so, sir. You know how cramped these Growler boats are.”

Byrnes grinned and shifted in the vidlink’s field of view, bringing his left shoulder into focus. The flag of the Irish Republic sat in the country position, while the same Roman Catholic emblem as Mancini’s was directly below it. “You know what sucks about getting promoted? I can’t go out on patrol and hunt for Leaguers anymore. Ah, it’s a young man’s game, I’m afraid. I’ve been reviewing your logs. Excellent job this time out. I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you.”

He’s keeping us out. Mancini frowned. “Sir?”

“Good news is, you get to help put the hurt on the League. The bad news is, no break for Blue crew.”

Mancini found himself unable to wipe the frown away. “I see, sir. May I ask why?”

“Well, aside from it’s an order and that’s enough of an explanation, you’re the closest boat to Canaan, with no crew losses, no battle damage, and you’re my best CO. Gold crew for the Tucson is untested, at best. Ever met the commander of the Lion of Judah?”

“No, sir, just a raider driver. I don’t get to rub elbows with royalty.”

Byrnes roared with laughter. “I hear he’s okay. But you’ll get to find out for yourself. The Tucson will be meeting up with her, and you’ll be transiting out to Freedom Station, docked in one of her fighter hangars.”

What?” Mancini asked, his voice incredulous as his jaw dropped open.

“It’ll fit. They measured repeatedly. You’ll be briefed en route, in person. It’s the highest-level need-to-know. I don’t even know what you’ll be doing, to be blunt.”

“I don’t suppose we can let our families know we’ll be late?”

“Super generic. No mention of destination; in fact, I don’t want you to tell your crew where you’re going until the Tucson is docked and the Lion is underway. Clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Take care of yourself out there, Mancini. Godspeed.”

“Godspeed to you too, sir.”

The vidlink screen shut off, leaving him staring at an interface to the tablet. He set it down and leaned back in the incredibly uncomfortable seat. My crew deserves a break. That’s the entire point of the Blue/Gold system. Setting those thoughts aside, he stood and mentally prepared himself for the unenviable task of telling a hundred and eighteen soldiers who’d not seen their families, even on a comms line, for three months, that’d it be longer still.


4

David glanced around a nondescript street in the middle of Lawrence City, the capital of Canaan. He’d just parked his helicar, locked it with a touch of his fingerprint, and started walking the now-familiar steps to Angie’s apartment. A style called a loft, it was all the rage amongst urbanites at the moment. After being on top of so many people in a starship for months on end, I’d prefer to go live in the countryside. He smiled to himself. They’d had a pre-arranged dinner, but it had special significance to him now, as tomorrow, the Lion would be shipping out for Freedom Station. He walked up the steps and rang the bell for her unit.

A moment later, the door swung open, and there stood Angie in a black and white polka-dotted dress, looking as if she was ready to go out for a night on the town. A huge grin was plastered across her face. “Hello, stranger.”

Oh, wow. She looks amazing. His jaw dropped open a bit, and his cheeks turned red. “I didn’t realize we were going out. I would’ve worn something a bit more, well, nice.” He had on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

“Get in here.”

Face still red as an old-time fire engine, David strode into the house. He leaned down to kiss her on the cheek.

“Still can’t give me a real kiss, eh?”

“You know I’m Orthodox.”

“Oh? I didn’t realize,” Angie replied with a well-practiced eye roll. “I ordered our dinner from an Orthodox restaurant, so you wouldn’t break kosher.”

He wrapped his arms around her and gave a hug. “Thank you. I know my customs might seem odd at times.”

“I still don’t understand why you can’t tear toilet paper on Saturday.”

David laughed. “How are you doing?” he asked as they walked together toward the kitchen area through her living room, which was decorated in a modernist style with no knick-knacks and few pictures.

“It’s been a long campaign. I’m glad it’s over. Looking forward to a different assignment and an end to the war.”

The table was set with a white cloth, silverware, and a lit candle. It struck David as incredibly romantic, as almost out of a holomovie. He felt horribly underdressed and more than a bit sheepish. Taking a seat with the place setting that had a larger glass of water, he flashed her a smile. “It looks amazing. Thank you.”

She sat too and gazed across the table at him. “I’ll let you pray,” she began as she reached out with her right hand.

David took the offered hand in his and closed his eyes. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, through Whose word everything comes into being.” He glanced up and opened his eyes. “Steak, potatoes, and what appears to be wheat bread. My favorite.”

“Hey, I remember what you tell me,” Angie said, still grinning from ear to ear. “I’ve really missed you these last months, David.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

“What are we going to do with all this time?” She took a bite of food as she spoke. “Will you get a shore rotation?”

He grinned. “I take it you’ve been studying up on CDF terminology?”

“Yeah. That’s okay, right?”

“It’s cute.”

Inside, David dreaded telling her he was going out yet again. I wonder if this is how my dad felt when he had to tell Mom there was another deployment. They made small talk throughout the dinner, while he continued to avoid the subject.

“Do you think you could take some time off next week?”

He closed his eyes.

“Hon, what’s wrong?”

“I won’t be here next week.” The words fell out of his mouth like a hammer.

At first, her jaw dropped open, then she bit her lip, and her voice sounded like she was about to cry. “Why? Everyone’s saying the fleet is on stand down.”

“The Lion of Judah has a mission. I can’t discuss the specifics as it’s highly classified.”

“How long?”

David sighed and glanced away from her. “A couple of months.”

Months?

“At least two.”

“Why? You’ve been in the Orion spur for the last six months. You’re due downtime. The entire crew is!”

“I volunteered, Angie.” He spoke quietly, and the silence that followed was deafening.

She stared at him, mouth agape. “Why, David?”

“Because it’s a mission I can help with. They need me and the Lion. It came with a promotion… I got my first star.”

Angie folded her hands in front of her. “I hope it keeps you warm at night,” she replied, voice dripping acid.

Well, there goes the evening. He sat back in his chair, unsure what to say. “I’m sorry. I clearly hit a nerve.”

“Hit a nerve? I’ve been waiting for so long for us, David. Now you tell me you're going off to fight again, and you got a promotion, so it’s all better?” she practically shouted. “I remember when you told me how much you hated war. That you wanted to be a rabbi and teach people how to be better, rather than kill them. Why is it, then, that you sign up for missions and keep moving on with your career?”

Anger started to take over within David. She doesn’t understand. He stood and bent over the table. “I don’t relish what I’m doing, Angie, but evil must be opposed. That’s my job—and I’m good at it. The League can’t be trusted, ever.”

“So it’s up to you to police the universe?”

“Not alone, but I have a part to play.”

She started to cry, softly at first, then louder, as tears poured down her face. “When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow.”

“When were you going to tell me?” she asked, her voice a plaintive wail.

“I was trying to find the right time. I… I’m sorry.” David’s head dropped, and shame swept over him. “Maybe I should go. I’m not helping anything here.”

“Oh, so the going gets tough, and you bail out? You don’t do that out there.”

“What do you want from me, Angie?” he asked quietly. “You knew what I was, and what my job was when we started this.”

“The war’s over, David. The Liberals lost and the Peace Union won. Why can’t you accept it and let go of having to destroy the League!”

The impact of her words was akin to a mental sledgehammer hitting David in the head. He found himself searching within. The war isn’t over. The League will be back. I know this is true. “No… it’s not. The League is evil. Pure evil. It can’t be reasoned with. We’ve come this far. We have a duty to press on and finish the job!”

She sat mute, staring at him.

“Too many people—tens of millions of soldiers and civilians—have paid the ultimate price over the last thirty years, Angie. I’ve put the best parts of my life into this war; my best friend died because some piece of crap Leaguer lied about a peace deal.” David’s voice steadily rose in volume. The pain and agony poured out of him. “If we stop now, it’ll all be for nothing. They’ll have died in vain.”

“I don’t believe that’s true.”

“Did you vote for Fuentes too?” David spat, his tone one of accusation.

She leaned back in her chair, arms crossed in front of her, staring at him. “No, I didn’t. What if I had? You’d leave me? Is that where we’re at as a society now? We can’t stand someone if they possibly disagree?”

It was David’s turn to sit mute, pondering the conversation, his actions, and words.

“You know what, maybe you’re right. I think I want to be alone.”

He stood and realized as he did that part of him wanted to get out of there as fast as he could. Back to my ship, back to the front. Where the only thing that matters is defeating the League. “I’m sorry.”

“Do you love me?” Angie asked suddenly, her eyes still dripping tears.

“Yes.”

“More than this war?”

“I don’t love the war. I want to finish it, once and for all.”

As her arms dropped from their pouting stance, she stood and embraced him. “Promise?”

“I promise.” He wrapped his arms around her tightly.

“Don’t go. At least, not yet. I know you won’t stay the night, but please come sit with me.”

He forced a smile to his face and took her hand in his. “Okay, but no politics, no religion, and no discussion of the war. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Run the Gauntlet

The next morning, David got up in an unfamiliar location—his apartment on Canaan. Rarely used, it was bare-bones with little character to it, limited furniture and functionality. Its interior resembled a senior officer’s quarters on a ship more than anything. He exercised by jogging around the exterior of the apartment building a few times, then showered and shaved, readying himself for the day. The night’s date with Angie wasn’t far from his mind. He replayed their conversations over and over. Even though they parted on better terms, he remained troubled.

While he put on his khaki duty uniform and ensured his badges, pins, and rank insignia were in place, his communication device buzzed. David picked it up and glanced at the screen. A message from General MacIntosh was front and center, ordering him to the General’s office on Canaan’s central military space station before departure. Time to clear my mind of personal matters and get back in the fight.

Interesting. I wonder what needs to be said in person, as opposed to a commlink. Before departing, he locked up everything and turned on the biometrically-driven security system. It took two hours, but he finally made it to the station and strode into a now-familiar—after three years of visits—reception area, still staffed by Major Melanie Roberts.

“Good morning, Major,” David announced.

Roberts glanced up from her tablet with a smile on her face. “Colonel Cohen, it’s been a while. How are you?”

He shrugged. “Still alive, all my pieces and parts work, and I only have to get up once a night to pee.”

She laughed loudly. “I take it you’re happy with that outcome?”

David forced a grin. “Quite.”

“General MacIntosh asked me to send you in as soon as you arrived, so go ahead.”

With a slight inclination of his head, David turned and walked through the double doors into the inner sanctum of the man in charge of most of the Terran Coalition’s major new ship and weapons programs. It was as he last remembered it; an expansive area with a small table, a desk, multiple chairs, and the imposing figure of General MacIntosh. He brought himself to attention directly in front of the desk. “Colonel David Cohen reports as ordered, sir.”

“It's General now, Cohen,” MacIntosh replied with a smirk.

Despite the turmoil within his soul, he smiled. “I never got the insignia, sir.”

“Ah. It just so happens I have a set of stars here for you,” MacIntosh began as he stood up. A few steps later, he removed the insignia from David’s shoulder—the golden bird of a Colonel—and replaced it with the silver star of a Brigadier General. “It looks good on you, son.”

“Thank you, sir. It’s never been about the rank.”

“I know. Have a seat, General.”

David dropped into the chair nearest MacIntosh’s desk. He took in the rest of the room; still spartan as always. There was a noticeable new addition: a model of the Lion of Judah. “I suspect you didn’t ask me here to pin on the star, sir.”

“Perceptive as always, son. No, you’re here so I can take your measure and deliver as stern a warning as I can.”

Inwardly, David groaned. He stared at the older man and waited for him to continue.

“I’m concerned that some within the CDF aren’t respecting the results of the election as we should. There’s also the problem of snap reactions putting significant assets at risk for little gain.”

It was difficult for David to keep a neutral expression. “I don’t believe taking out seventy percent of the League’s ship-making ability is little gain, sir.”

“Is that why you volunteered? Or is it because you’re mad and lashing out?”

David closed his eyes, thoughts roiling within. I’m not a two-year-old… but I want them to pay. He opened them and stared at MacIntosh. “I won’t lie to you, sir. I’m dismayed by the election result. I also recognize that weakening the League strategically is the best out of a bunch of bad choices. I’ll do my best to accomplish the mission.”

“And if it goes south?”

It took him a second to realize what MacIntosh was asking was if he’d pull back in the face of certain destruction. “I remember sitting in this chair three years ago telling you my duties extended to my crew and not to waste their lives in meaningless gestures. It’s still my goal to bring every one of them home, sir. I’ll never forget it.”

MacIntosh stood up and nodded thoughtfully. “I needed to hear you say it out loud.” He turned toward David and stared at him. “Care to tell me what’s wrong with you?”

“Sir?”

“Your eyes are bloodshot, as if you’ve been crying. You’ve acted like a black cloud has been following you around for months. I’m not oblivious.”

Ugh. I don’t want to discuss my personal life with my commanding officer. “Beyond the Erhart business, I had a rough night, sir,” he said in a non-committal tone.

“Still dating the reporter?”

He’s like a dog with a bone. “Yes, sir.”

“Fight about deploying again so soon?”

“I understand her point of view, sir. Like others in my life, she wants me off the firing line. I think it's difficult for civilians to understand what we do, at times.”

“Perhaps. Don’t go out there with a chip on your shoulder, David. The success or failure of this mission will balance on the head of a pin the entire time. I think you’re the best field commander we have, but if your head’s not in the game, you’ll doom the entire thing.”

Yeah, no pressure. “I understand, sir.”

“If at any time you are attacked by significantly superior League forces, and the viability of your fleet is at risk, you are to disengage and make for Freedom Station at best possible speed. Is that clear?”

“One could argue that’s the case the moment we enter any fortified system.”

MacIntosh smiled thinly. “You’re smart enough to know what I mean. If it looks like you will be overwhelmed, get out. We can’t afford to lose the Lion or the new anti-matter cruisers. Period.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll receive an updated briefing at Freedom Station, along with final replenishment. I hope you're able to pull this off. We need it, and it’ll put the League back on its heels, maybe give Fuentes the opening he needs to get a good deal. Regardless, I expect every ship you go out with to come back. That’ll be all, General Cohen.”

David stood and brought himself to attention one last time. “I understand, sir.”

“Good. Godspeed, you’re dismissed.”

As he turned and walked out of the office and back toward the departure bay to take a VIP shuttle to the Lion of Judah, David was absent-minded and lost in his thoughts. It kept going through his brain: What if MacIntosh spoke a ring of truth when he questioned my motives? The constant fight within, to keep hate for the enemy from overwhelming his humanity, was never far from the surface. I need to visit the shul. Praying before God is the only thing I can think of to calm myself before having to put on my command face and make this work.

Run the Gauntlet

CDF Orbital Drydock

Churchill

November 13th, 2462

Another lovely day fixing ships and pushing paper. Such was Kenneth Lowe’s mentality as he ran his hand through the scanner. A moment later, the door to his office slid open. He walked through it to find the small room the same as he’d left it the day before. Several electronic tablets littering the desk, which had an array of knickknacks on it, including a plaque that proclaimed, “And in whatsoever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord, and not unto men—Colossians 3:23.”

He slid into the chair behind his desk and started to turn on his primary tablet when the door flew open, and in came Joshua Carter, his deputy, and Harold Billings, one of his most trusted employees, who he affectionally called “Master Chief.”

“Hey, boss,” Billings said. “How are you doing this morning?”

“Alive and kicking. What’s going on, gents? You both look awfully perky.”

Carter and Billings exchanged a glance. “Uh, haven’t you seen your email, sir?”

Kenneth stared at them, a quizzical expression on his face. “No, I just got here. I keep my handcomm on silent during the trip up. Makes for a better morning.”

“Half the team’s been reassigned to the Lion of Judah. Flash traffic from General Cohen,” Carter said. “A cargo transport is on the way to pick us up.”

“General Cohen?” Kenneth blinked. “I didn’t realize he’d been promoted. Got any idea what the scope is?”

“It’s classified at the highest level. No details, just a list of tools we’ll need.”

Kenneth sat back in his chair. “Okay. We’ll have to clear this with upstairs.” He reached over to his tablet, fumbled around with it, and placed a vidlink call to Margaret Lee, the owner of SSI. A few seconds later, her face appeared on the screen.

“Your ears must be burning, Kenneth. I was just about to try and find you. We just received an urgent national security override. You’re shipping out to the Lion of Judah.”

“We just got word here, directly from the CDF. Can you give us any insights as to what’s going on, or how long we’ll be on deployment?”

“I have no information except an urgent, sole-source contract was awarded, and everything about it is classified. Your guess is as good as mine. Are you ready to go?”

“Uh, sure.” What? Kenneth’s eyes practically bugged out of his skull and he felt like his head spun.

Lee smiled. “Then do what you do best, Mister Lowe. Good day.” The screen went blank.

“I’m coming,” Billings interjected before the other men could speak.

Kenneth glanced up at him. “Sure, Master Chief.”

“Now that that’s settled,” Billings replied, “I reviewed the list of who they want. Most of our electronics engineers, fabricators, and anyone with drone experience.”

“Interesting.”

Joshua glanced from Kenneth to Billings. “What about me?”

“I need you to hold down the fort here, Joshua,” Kenneth said with a grimace. “I know, you’d rather come and join in on the fun.” But you’ve got young children, and I don’t.

“Honestly, I was looking forward to not doing this anymore.”

Carter’s admission caught Kenneth by surprise. His eyebrows darted upward. “Well, at least for now, we’re still on the clock. So, Master Chief… gather everyone up, get the list of tools they specified, and one of everything else you can think of, and get ready to load a transport. I’ll shut down here and join you shortly.”

“You got it, boss,” Billings replied as he stood and headed for the door.

That left Kenneth and Carter alone. After the click of the door shutting echoed through the office, Kenneth stared at the older man. “Ready to run things here while I’m gone?”

Carter nodded. “Absolutely.”

The earlier comment wouldn’t stop nagging at Kenneth’s mind. “So you want to rotate back toward home?”

“Don’t you get tired of it, out here? It’s a two-hour commute each way. I’m missing out on my boys’ lives because I’m gone fourteen hours a day.”

Kenneth frowned. “I guess I never thought of it like that. I live on the station to save money since it’s free.”

“Shouldn’t you be thinking about settling down, having a family? I live for mine,” Carter replied.

“Yeah, I kind of suck at the whole relationship thing, Joshua. You know that.”

Carter flashed a smile. “You don’t have to. Smart guy, not too bad-looking. Maybe a bit fat.”

Both men laughed. “Hey, I’ve lost weight since I started the exercise program up here. A TCMC Master Gunnery Sergeant runs it, and boy, let me tell you, he’s brutal.” Kenneth smiled, but his heart wasn’t in the banter. “You sure you’re okay back here?”

“Yeah. I’m good, boss. I’ll hold it down while you’re running around saving the galaxy.”

Kenneth rolled his eyes. “Saving the galaxy? Right. I can’t get through a combat evolution without peeing my pants. Oh well, let's get back at it.”

“Sure thing,” Carter said as he stood and walked out.

Left alone to his thoughts, Kenneth started packing up his tablet and a few other vital tools from his office. He felt almost giddy about going back to the Lion of Judah. Not that I don’t make a difference here, but I know I do there.


5

One of the defining features of Lawrence City was its central park. Part memorial to the exodus from Earth, part promise to future generations, it prominently stood out in the middle of the urban metropolis. It was here David found himself later in the day after his discussion with MacIntosh. Searching for something deep within his soul, he decided to walk among the monuments and try to remember what they were fighting for amid the noise generated post-election.

A short walk from the entrance to the park was a central display that commemorated the landing on Canaan and the sacrifices of those left behind. The symbols of the majority religions of the Terran Coalition rose tall and proud: a Cross, a Star of David, and a Crescent and Star, the emblems for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. At the base of them, a plaque stood. Though he knew it by heart, David stood and read it for what was probably the hundredth time. “As long as humans live in this universe, we pledge that never again will we take up arms against one another.”

Hundreds of people moved through the displays, groups of children with their teachers, adults of all ages, while the background murmur of voices raged. David felt a hand touch his back and whirled around as his combat reflexes took over.

“I’m sorry!” a young woman who looked no more than twenty-five years old said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. You are Colonel David Cohen, right?” Her long blonde hair blew in the wind.

Being recognized in the street had become a common occurrence for him, especially after the recruiting videos the Lion’s bridge crew had done a few months prior. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you, for all you do for us.”

Civilians thanking him for his service was also a common occurrence, and while almost all adults served in the CDF, a substantial majority of them never saw combat, as it took as many as thirty thousand logistical and support troops to support a combat division of twelve thousand. “I’m just doing my job, ma’am.”

“But you choose to do it, Colonel. That means something to me.”

David flashed a smile. “I appreciate it.” Inside, he wanted her to go away.

“What brings you here this morning?”

He groaned inwardly. Can’t people take social cues anymore? Short, curt answers mean to move along. “A walk in the park before heading back to my ship.”

“You sort of looked like you were searching for something.”

“Oh?”

“The way you were staring at the inscription. I thought you might be looking for inspiration.”

“I’m afraid you have at a disadvantage, Miss…?”

“Leah. Leah Schultz,” she said and stuck out her hand.

After staring at it for a moment, David shook it. “Sometimes, I come here to remind myself what we’re fighting for, and why it’s important.”

“Did you find it?”

He glanced at the three symbols once more. “Yeah, I think I did.”

“Then it was worth it,” she replied with a smile of her own.

“I’d better be getting going. Got to get back to my ship.”

“Godspeed, Colonel,” Leah replied as she smiled and turned away.

“Godspeed,” David called after her, feeling oddly refreshed from the conversation. It left him with a sense that there were plenty of people out there who understood the stakes, and that realization gave him strength in his soul. He started to hum a tune as he walked toward the nearest mass transit station.

Run the Gauntlet

CSV Tucson

Canaan Orbit – Outside the Lawrence Limit

November 14th, 2462

“Nav, reverify range to Sierra One,” Mancini said, staring straight ahead at the helm controls, which had been renamed “pilot controls” a few years back, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. The control room was a beehive of activity as they closed in on the Lion of Judah—designated as Sierra One.

“Conn, navigation. Range to Sierra One is eight kilometers. Effective speed one hundred meters per second, relative.”

“Pilot,” Mancini began. That word is always so foreign on a ship. “Reduce forward speed to seventy-five meters per second.”

“Conn, pilot. Slow forward speed to seventy-five meters per second, aye aye, sir,” the enlisted rating who controlled the helm console replied.

Mancini observed the approach to the Lion on a monitor directly above his CO’s chair. The capital ship they were docking with was a mammoth compared to his tiny vessel. I bet a hundred Growler class boats could fit in that thing. To his knowledge, no one had attempted to park a vessel such as the Tucson inside of a capital ship, but at least a fleet carrier had massive force fields that would’ve easily allowed it. “Nav, reverify range to Sierra One.”

“Conn, navigation. Range now two kilometers.”

“Conn, communications,” his comms officer interjected. “Lion of Judah requests we adjust course one degree to port.”

“Pilot, adjust heading one degree to port.”

“Conn, pilot. Adjust heading one degree to port, aye aye, sir.”

The range continued to close, slowly but steadily. The hangar doors were open on the approach flight deck marked with a large “B,” which the Tucson headed toward. “Pilot, reduce forward speed to ten meters per second,” Mancini ordered as they closed with three hundred meters of the barrier between open space and the interior of the vessel.

After the acknowledgment registered, the ship slowed markedly. A minute later, they were still a hundred meters away. The seconds ticked by, as did the space between them. The moment the Tucson entered the hangar, their landing spot—marked by large strobe lights—was apparent.

“Pilot, slow to two meters per second forward thrust. Center us over the marked area.”

“Conn, pilot, slow forward speed to two meters per second, aye aye, sir.”

A short time later, they sat down with a thud on the hangar deck. The breath Mancini had been holding for what now seemed like an eternity during the approach let out with a deep sigh. “Okay. Good job, everyone. Maybe we’ll get a campaign ribbon for parking inside another ship. COB, secure our fusion reactor and switch to battery power. Get with whoever’s in charge and get an umbilical for power and atmosphere.”

“Aye aye, skipper,” Cosentino replied.

“XO, you have the conn. I’m going to meet the welcoming committee as requested.”

“Aye aye, sir. This is the XO, I have the conn,” Godat said as he stood and switched seats.

Run the Gauntlet

David stood directly outside of the starboard hatch of the stealth raider, along with Master Chief Tinetariro, Aibek, and Kenneth Lowe, who’d come on board earlier in the day, with three hundred other civilian contractors. A small red carpet led away from the Tucson, as he’d ordered all the stops to be taken out to welcome Major Mancini onboard. If I think this is a bit nuts, I’m sure he does too. The hatch swung open, and a smallish man, several centimeters shorter than Tinetariro, strode out. He wore a different uniform than the crew of the Lion—a blue jumpsuit with a black cloth belt fastened with a gold buckle. Rank insignia, country flags, were all the same, with one exception. Instead of the surface warfare officer pin, there was the distinctive gold nebula. It indicated a member of the raider corps.

Immediately at David’s nod, the Master Chief played the pipes.

“Major Nathan Mancini requesting permission to come aboard, General.” He came to attention and brought his hand up to his brow in a sharp salute.

David immediately returned it. “Granted, Major. Welcome aboard the Lion of Judah.”

“Never seen a Growler inside of a capital ship before, General,” Mancini said, relaxing into a parade rest position. “I’ll admit I wasn’t sure we’d fit.”

“We had a rating go out in a spacesuit and measure end to end, twice. Well, two of them. At Master Chief Tinetariro’s insistence.”

Snickers quickly broke out among those gathered around.

Mancini’s mouth curled up into a grin. “Well played, General.”

At least he’s got a sense of humor. David gestured to the tall Saurian. “Allow me to introduce my executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Aibek, Master Chief Tinetariro, and Kenneth Lowe.” He couldn’t help but notice as the Major’s eyes moved from person to person, resting on the tall defense contractor.

“I wasn’t aware we had civilians on this cruise. CIS?”

“Uh, no, Major. Strathclyde Shipboard Integrators. I’m leading the defense contractors,” Kenneth commented. “Pleasure to meet you. My team will be making some modifications to your boat so we can pull this off.”

“No one touches my boat without my permission, Mister Lowe,” Mancini said, his tone harsh.

“Allow me to assure you, Kenneth and his people are some of the good guys when it comes to our civilian friends, Major,” David interjected. “I don’t allow slackers on my ship, and they’ve proven themselves repeatedly. Please accept my personal guarantee on their behalf.” I can’t blame him for questioning.

“Of course, sir.”

David cleared his throat. “Well, with some of the pleasantries are out of the way, shall we? Mission briefing in the main conference room in ten minutes and I don’t like being late.”

They all nodded respectfully and fell in.

Some idle small talk was made during the walk through the hangar, to the nearest gravlift to deck one, but David paid it no attention. The ship’s company had a charged energy about them that was palpable in the air. They’re on edge because we’re off our pattern. I owe the crew an explanation, which will have to come later today. The door slid open to deck one, revealing the same narrow corridor he’d been down thousands of times now. Unlike most days, armed Marine sentries stood guard not only at the end of the passageway that led to the bridge, but also to the conference room. He snapped off a salute, which was crisply returned, and walked into the meeting space beyond.

“General on deck!” Tinetariro bellowed from behind him.

All those assembled sprang to their feet.

David glanced around the room to see First Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg, the Lion’s tactical action officer, First Lieutenant Shelly Hammond, the navigator, Major Arthur Hanson, the chief engineer. Doctor Tural, Mayweather, Amir, and Calvin were already present as well. “As you were and take your seats.”

They relaxed and sat back down, while Mancini, Aibek, Tinetariro, and Kenneth all found chairs of their own.

“I think that’s everyone,” Tinetariro commented.

“Almost everyone,” Aibek said with a bit of snark.

One more figure came in through the door—Doctor Benjamin Hayworth. The civilian scientist and brilliant mind behind the anti-matter reactor that powered the Lion, he served as an engineering consultant and had stuck around for several years. “I heard that, Colonel. There’s more to life than meetings about meetings, like real science,” he commented, his tone acerbic.

David cranked his head around and flashed a smile. “Thank you for joining us, doctor.” I learned a long time ago not to feed this particular troll. After Hayworth finished making a show out of shuffling to his seat, he continued. “I first want to apologize to those of you on the senior staff I’ve been keeping in the dark the last couple of days. Our new assignment is not only extremely sensitive, but it’s also classified at the highest level. A special code word—Justified Strike—has been established for the duration of the mission, and all of you will have access.”

Eyebrows shot up across almost everyone in the room. Officers exchanged glances with each other, and everyone focused on David.

“We were going to go home, perform a short refit, and then redeploy out to the Orion arm. With the recent—changes—President Spencer has authorized an attack on the League’s shipyard infrastructure.”

“Those are in orbit of Earth,” Ruth said as her jaw dropped open, seeming to rebound off the table. “I’m all for blowing Leaguers out of space, but Earth, really?” She finished her statement with a smirk.

David narrowed his eyes. “Excepting the one at Earth. The League has three main shipyard facilities. We’re going to launch a surprise attack on the other two.” I can sense the doubt in them. “I’m not going to lie to you, to say what we’re about to do is risky, is the understatement of the twenty-fifth century.” He made eye contact with several of them. “But we’ve been through a lot together, and I know I can count on everyone in this room to get the job done.”

“Sir, if I may?” Hammond interjected.

He nodded.

“From a navigation perspective, it would take a new fleet of ships months to get to the right locations to stage an assault on the League’s primary shipbuilding hubs. Am I right in assuming we have to get this done before the inauguration of President-elect Fuentes?”

“Most ships. Not anti-matter powered ships. They can cover the same distances as the Lion can. Our new Constantine class anti-matter cruisers are ready to fight. Shakedown cruises and space trials are complete. They’ll be joining us at Freedom Station.”

“How about that… the engineering nerds cooked up a few hundred new cruisers right under the League’s nose,” Calvin said with a big grin on his face. “Not bad.”

“There’s six of them,” David stated.

It was as if lightning had struck the table. Everyone in the room turned and stared at David, mouths agape. Ruth was the first to speak. “We’re going to attack the most fortified systems in the League with seven ships?”

David met her eyes with his. “And the element of surprise.”

“Which goes out the window after the first strike.”

“That’s why Major Mancini is here. He commands the CSV Tucson.”

“Nice trick, docking it in our hangar bay. You must have a crackerjack navigator,” Ruth said with a chuckle.

“Raiders aren’t flown by our navigator. An enlisted rating called a pilot does. I kid you not,” Mancini replied.

Amir leaned forward in his seat. “Pilots, flying a ship?”

Mancini turned toward the sound of Amir’s voice. “It’s not a ship. It’s a boat. All raiders are referred to as boats.”

David cleared his throat. “The Tucson will utilize its superior stealth to recon the League systems we’re planning to strike. We’ll develop a detailed tactical plan based on that information. As to the point about losing the element of surprise—each target will be struck simultaneously. One by the Lion of Judah and our escorts, the other by a captured League destroyer. The Tucson will bag one, capture it without causing much damage, and then we’ll load it up with Marines and tier-one operators. They’ll destroy the assigned shipyard by overloading its fusion reactors.”

“Not to question your plan too much, General, but my boat isn’t designed to hold large boarding parties. We can accommodate a special ops team, but not much more,” Mancini replied. “Forget bunk space; there’s not enough food or life support generation onboard.”

“Which is one of the reasons why I’m here, Major,” Kenneth Lowe, the lanky defense contractor, interjected. “We’ll be installing expanded oxygen generators and outfitting your shuttle bay with specially modified assault landers. I think we can get three of them in there. They’ll be outfitted with docking collars that can mate with a League airlock port.”

Mancini narrowed his eyes. “I don’t like civilians on my boat, as I said before.” His tone was icy and direct.

“I’ll vouch one hundred and fifty percent for Mister Lowe,” David said. “He’s always served the Lion well.”

“You found the one decent defense contractor in the galaxy. Congratulations, General.”

I can’t quite tell if he’s trying to mock me. I suppose I’ll learn this guy’s humor in time. After all, I don’t need to be friends with him—as long as he follows my orders and his boat performs, we’ll be fine. David flashed a thin smile. “Something like that.”

“Okay, problem one out of the way. Growlers aren’t built for up-close combat. While we carry a load of Hunter missiles, they’re designed to blow apart smaller ships, not capture them. You guys got a fancy piece of tech for that too?”

“Kenneth?” David prompted.

“Specially modified Hunter missiles designed to generate large scale EMP bursts, and a capture League weapon. We captured it from a drug dealer at Gilead. Quite effective at disabling small ships.”

“Wait, you guys want to put League crap on my boat?” Mancini asked with a twinkle in his eye. “What’s next, we’re going to start belting out the words to the League’s national anthem?”

Everyone snickered, with Ruth even snorting a bit through her laughter.

“I had to live through that accursed piece of music being played by a TCMC band on this ship once,” David said as he thought back to Seville’s short time on the Lion, when they thought there might be a peace. “Never again. No, that’s the short of it. There’s a lot of operational details to work out, but we’ve got a few weeks to do so. Get your crew settled in, Major—the Master Chief has billeting information for everyone onboard. Refit starts bright and early tomorrow AM.”

“The other thing, sir?”

David glanced at Kenneth. Ah, yes, that’s right. I almost forgot. “You’re going to like this one, Colonel Amir.” He grinned at the fighter pilot.

“Oh?” Amir asked.

A big grin broke out on Kenneth’s face. “Have you heard of the automated drone interface system, Colonel?”

Amir raised an eyebrow. “I have not.”

“It’s an integrated drone control platform for Phantom space superiority fighters. Each pod comes with three drones and a shackled artificial intelligence to control them. They can be configured for offensive, or defense, in any combination.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of these devices. Just coming out of R&D, and not expected to deploy in large numbers for another year,” Amir replied.

“I’ve got two hundred upgrade packages. One for every fighter and bomber on the Lion, and a few spares. The eggheads say it’ll double the lethality of each fighter.”

“By Allah, that is wonderful news. Especially when we’ll likely face hordes of League fighters.”

Time to get to work. “Anything else, folks?”

No one had any further inputs.

David glanced around the room and nodded. “Very well. Dismissed.”

There was an orderly rush for the exit as the senior officers got up to leave. Mancini stayed in his chair and made eye contact with David.

Yeah, I’d want to talk too. Once the last person had left the conference room, David flashed a smile. “Well, Major. I apologize for the firehose briefing. We’re on a tight timeline.”

Mancini’s expression was neutral, with no trace of a smile or mirth of any sort. “General, permission to speak freely?”

“Granted.”

“Sir, I need to know my ship isn’t being thrown into a situation it can’t win. I’ve no problem with dying for the cause, before you go thinking I’m a coward. But I’m not throwing away the lives of my crew. I hope you can respect that.”

“Major Mancini, thank you for being direct. I appreciate that quality in an officer. I’ll be equally direct with you. I will never ask you to throw your life away, and especially not the lives of your crew. I try to bring everyone home with me, and the battles I fight without loss of life on our side are the ones I’m most proud of. This isn’t a suicide mission.” As David spoke the words, he wasn’t quite sure if he believed them wholeheartedly or if he was still trying to convince himself. “It’s risky, but the reward justifies the risk. I know you were supposed to get some downtime. I’m sorry you and your crew can’t spend time with your families, but I promise you, knocking out the League’s ability to build ships will ensure we can all spend more time with our loved ones.”

“Thank you, General. Will you allow my officers and me to have input into this plan of yours?”

“Of course. No egos here. One team, one goal, one fight. Anything else, Major?”

“No, sir.”

David stood. “Open invitation for you and your senior staff to dine with my staff in the wardroom tonight.”

Mancini smiled, the expression filling his face. “We’d be happy to. Thank you, sir.”

“Godspeed, Major.”

Run the Gauntlet

Whenever he was troubled, David found solace in his faith. At least, he tried to. Such were his thoughts as he opened the hatch to the shul onboard the Lion of Judah. A chapel set aside for use by the Jewish crewmembers and officers, it was a simple space, decorated to look like the inside of a synagogue back on New Israel or Canaan itself. As he strode in, he took his tallit gadol—a prayer shawl with black stripes on it—out of a small cloth bag his mother had made for him. It was among his most prized possessions.

The room was empty, and David took a seat in one of the pews. He closed his eyes and began to pray in Hebrew, rocking back and forth as he did.

After several minutes, someone sat beside him and spoke after he’d finished. “Ah, David. You remembered to pray. This is good.” The voice of Rabbi Kravitz carried in the small space, as full of mirth as always. He fit the role of an old rabbi well. Short and stout, he’d been assigned to the Lion since its maiden mission.

“Even if it's in my chair on the bridge, I always make time for God, Rabbi.”

“You seem troubled.”

David glanced at Kravitz briefly. “Probably because I am. I think a better question is, aren’t you?”

“Never,” Kravitz replied with a broad smile. “I place my trust in God alone.”

I envy him. I wish I could trust only in God. A phrase his mother used to say—“you can’t pray the house clean”—came to mind. “Here we are, going off to fight again, and for the first time, I’m not sure if the people we’re defending even care.”

“Because of the election?”

“Yes,” David said with gritted teeth. “I still can’t believe it.”

“Does not the Torah state that God raises up leaders, sets kings above us, and removes them based on His will?”

“Yes—”

“Then who are we to question it?” Kravitz stared intently at David as he spoke.

“I,” David began, then paused. “You’re right.” He is. I have to set this aside and get on mission. “I guess I don’t or can’t see the point of Fuentes taking power.”

“Because God wills it. His plan will become clear to us someday. For now, it’s His universe, and we get to live in it.”

“My faith is weaker than yours, I think, Rabbi.”

“It shouldn’t be. You’ve told me God sent you a vision. You should have more faith than anyone I know.”

Kravitz's comment caught David off guard. “That seems so long ago.” He stared off into space. “There’s a part of me, Rabbi, that wants to go home. To be done with this life. The rest of me wants to finish it. I know in my heart we’re headed toward disaster. I feel like a voice crying out, ignored and forgotten.”

The rabbi put his arm around him and gave a squeeze. “We all have those feelings at some time or another, David. You will come through it, by the grace and help of Hashem.”

David forced a smile to his face. “I know.” But do I? He thought back to days past when he was sure of God’s impact on his life. Why does it feel like I’m suddenly all alone?

“Now let's finish up those prayers, so you can get back to running the ship.”

As he recited further in Hebrew, David’s heart was still troubled, and he felt as lost as ever.

Run the Gauntlet

Master Chief Gordan MacDonald reached down and yanked the handle to open the hatch marked “Engine Room,” while the sounds of gunfire echoed around him. Sharp reports from CDF issue battle rifles rang out, answered by the whine of League of Sol energy weapons. “Pulse, over!” he shouted, above the din. He swung the heavy door open.

Right on cue, Senior Chief Dennis Harrell, Alpha team’s second in command, tossed a pulse grenade through the hatch. It went off with a loud bang and bright flash of light that would blind anyone not wearing protective eye gear. That wasn’t a problem for the power-armored commandos, who rushed through the opening and shot anything moving with extreme precision.

After Harrell and several members of Beta team charged through, MacDonald followed. He swept forward at a jog, rifle at the ready. A black-clad man in a League uniform jumped out, energy pistol up. With lightning-fast reflexes, he brought his weapon around and pulled the trigger. A three-round burst impacted the man’s center mass, causing him to collapse backward. Half a dozen steps later, the lights turned up, and an alarm klaxon sounded.

“Cease exercise! Cease exercise!” the voice of Major Rajneesh Singh called out. “Alpha and Beta teams, front and center.”

The “stunned” people wearing League outfits stood up and shuffled off as the commandos came together in a neat line, led by MacDonald.

Singh walked in through an open side door, which led to the hangar deck of the Lion. “Two seconds better, gentlemen. Not good enough.”

Alpha team’s resident hacker, and a capable trigger puller in his own right, Petty Officer 1st Class Esmail Rostami, spoke up. “Major, we’ve done the same exercise over thirty times today. This was our best time yet.”

Singh’s gaze locked on to Rostami like a heat-seeking missile. “Was that whining I heard, frogman?”

“Sir, no, sir. Merely suggesting that doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is the definition of insanity, sir.” Rostami stared directly ahead, his posture ramrod straight.

“He might have a point, sir,” MacDonald interjected. “We set this kill house up to practice assaulting a destroyer, but I think we’re overlooking something.”

Singh shifted down the line. “Do tell, Master Chief.”

“Well, sir, there’s one way in, and one way out of the Leaguer’s engine space. Perhaps we’re being a bit one-dimensional in our thinking. What if we were to make another door? With some explosives.” MacDonald held his breath after he finished. Tensions were high, and everyone was stressed.

There was a slow nod from Singh. The large, ornate knife on his belt bobbed as he did. It was a traditional Sikh knife—a Kirpan—that matched the religious patch on his shoulder. “An excellent idea, Master Chief. We’ll try it after lunch.”

“Excellent, sir.”

“Walk with me, MacDonald.”

“Aye aye, sir. Everyone, break and get some grub. See you back here in thirty mikes.” This ought to be interesting.

As everyone else filed out, including various enlisted personnel from the Lion of Judah who were playing the part of the opposing force, Singh and MacDonald were left alone. The two men took the opposite route toward a different set of messes, led by Singh. “I have some concerns about the team’s performance, Master Chief.”

“I figured you did, sir.”

Singh had been MacDonald’s commanding officer for several years now, under the overall Space Special Warfare Command. The two men had grown close. “Perhaps this is a mission too far.”

“Space walkers don’t believe in the concept of an unwinnable mission.”

Enlisted personnel walked by the two men, in some cases flattening against the interior wall of the passageway to make way. One didn’t mess with a bona-fide tier-one operator.

“Your reactions are sluggish, Master Chief. If that had been for real, your entire team would have been dead, thanks to a self-destruct charge.”

“I thought our contractor friends were going to use some fancy EMP gun to zap the Leaguers.”

Singh stopped in his tracks and turned to face MacDonald. “Master Chief, we never rely on anything but ourselves. I need you to get your men properly motivated. Are we clear?”

“It’s killing morale that we can’t even vidlink with our families, sir,” MacDonald replied, and stood his ground. I miss my wife. I haven’t seen her face in weeks because we used up our credits thinking I’d be home. “And you’d never know it from their performance, because that’s what we do. Lighten up a little bit, sir. Let them take the night off, kick back some beers, and attack it tomorrow.”

There was a long, pregnant pause while the two of them stared at one another in the middle of the walkway. “Okay, we’ll try it your way. Tell them they’ve got the rest of the day off, and we’ll start up again at 0700 tomorrow.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

MacDonald watched as Singh walked away, almost marching. He briefly closed his eyes, tiredness starting to catch up with him—age too. Kicking down doors and shooting Leaguers was a young man’s game, but one he’d better get back into since he had no other marketable skills. He grinned to himself as he turned around and walked toward the nearest Goat Locker—also known as the Chief’s Mess. Ah, who am I kidding? Blasting Leaguers is fun, no matter how old I get.

Run the Gauntlet

CSV Lion of Judah

Deep Space

November 21st, 2462

David glanced around the bridge, to see all stations manned and ready, including backup enlisted personnel. He’d been on watch for the better part of two hours, waiting for the Lawrence drive to finish its cool-down and maintenance checks. It had been a grueling series of back-to-back jumps for the Navigation officers, while everyone else busied themselves with their assigned tasks. Meanwhile, there was a never-ending amount of paperwork for David and Aibek to complete. The only constant of military life.

“Conn, navigation. Lawrence drive is now showing green across the board, sir,” Hammond reported.

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” David glanced at Aibek out of the corner of his eye. “Well, I’m ready to put in to dock and see something besides the insides of this ship. How about you, XO?”

“Agreed, sir.”

“Navigation, confirm final coordinates.”

“Conn, navigation. Coordinates for jump confirmed, sir.”

“Navigation, activate Lawrence drive.”

Hammond’s shoulders tensed up. “Aye aye, sir.”

The massive engines on the Lion started to hum, and the vibration went through the deck. David could feel it through his combat boots. Over the past couple of years, the various oddities of the ship had become second nature to him. He could tell, just by how the deck plates felt, what was going on. Through the transparent alloy windows, a swirling mass of colors coalesced in space, directly ahead of them, turning into the maw of their artificial tunnel through the stars.

Hammond’s voice carried across the bridge. “Conn, navigation. Wormhole is stable, sir.”

“Navigation, ahead one-third sub-light.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The mighty vessel moved forward, and the distance to the wormhole closed steady. Then they were inside of it. In a blur, the walls of the tunnel were visible for five seconds, and as quickly as they entered, the Lion was back in normal space.

David counted off five seconds mentally, the usual amount of time it took for sensors to return to operation.

Like clockwork, Ruth interjected, “Conn, TAO. Sensors online, no hostile contacts. Populating the board with Sierra contacts, including Freedom Station. We’re right on schedule.”

“Conn, communications. General Ambrose sends his compliments and requests we move in for docking.” The voice belonged to Lieutenant Robert Taylor, the first watch comms officer.

“Communications, reply with my compliments to the general, and get a docking port assignment from them.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The rote task of figuring out where they’d park completed, David turned his attention back to the majestic view of what was now called Freedom Station. It cost us so much to take this thing, but it was worth it. Because of the sacrifice of those who perished here, we now have the ability to strike the League. It seemed like yesterday that he’d led the fleet to victory, and the Marines had stormed the station, turning it on their enemies during the battle.

“Conn, TAO. Sir, I’m getting an interesting reading off the IFF.”

“Care to define ‘interesting,’ Lieutenant Goldberg?” David asked, a wry grin on his face.

“Sorry, sir. I think it would be best to look at this in the holotank.”

“By all means.” David stood and stared at the expansive tactical holotank in the middle of the bridge. It came alive with the image of a large, clearly Terran Coalition warship. It appeared to be modeled after existing heavy cruiser designs but was different in the engine configuration. There were more exhaust nozzles, additional magnetic-cannon turrets, and neutron beam emitter emplacements on the vessel.

“IFF shows as it a Constantine Class, Advanced Heavy Cruiser. CSV Justinian.”

“Most impressive,” Aibek commented. He, too, had stood and was staring.

“Those are our new, anti-matter powered cruisers. Each one is capable of going toe to toe with an improved Alexander class battleship. There should be five more,” David said as he turned back to the CO’s chair and sat. “Those are our escorts.”

“Conn, TAO. Confirmed, sir. CSV Constantine, CSV Basil, CSV Heraclius, CSV Theodosius, and CSV Marcus Aurelius,” Ruth interjected.

Aibek narrowed his eyes. “Those names are unfamiliar to me. What do they signify, General Cohen?”

“Christian emperors of an ancient human civilization called Rome. Except for Marcus Aurelius,” David replied. It took a few minutes of thought for the reasoning to come to him. “He might be in there because he urged the senate of Rome not to persecute Christians after ascribing a miracle to prayers of Christians in his army.”

“I recall you quoting this man before,” Aibek said, his words formed with a slight hiss.

“He was known as a philosopher, even before his death. As he put it, the best revenge is to be unlike those who you fight.” Yes, that’s the point, isn’t it? To not hate your enemy, but to defeat them without becoming what you fight.

Aibek glanced at David, his eye scales blinking. “I find human pre-occupation with words spoken by long-since-dead humans to be interesting.”

“Don’t Saurians have quote books, XO?” Ruth piped up from her chair.

“We do not.”

Ruth cranked her head around and flashed a grin at him. “That’s a shame. I’d love to read some Saurian wisdom.”

“Saurians live our wisdom through honor.”

“Well, we’re all different. But in many ways, the same,” David replied. The words of Aurelius flew through his mind. “Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.”

Ruth chuckled. “Sounds like something from the back of a greeting card, sir.”

“On a Saurian ship, you would be executed for such disrespect, Lieutenant,” Aibek said in a tone that David could now tell, after years of serving together, was a joke.

“Now, now, XO. No reason to go to extremes.”

There was a smattering of general laughter across the bridge as everyone heard the interaction.

“I’m not a Saurian, but I’ll PT anyone that doesn’t focus on their console,” the harsh voice of Master Chief Tinetariro interjected.

David’s mouth curled up into a grin. “You heard the Master Chief, people. Navigation, intercept course on Sierra One.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Conn, TAO. We have a new hole opening. It’s a big one.”

David glanced past Ruth, out the transparent alloy “window” into the deep of space. Freedom Station was readily visible, and he could make out the bright colors of the maw of an incoming wormhole. Leaguers aren’t going to jump something in randomly at this point, but I do wonder what it is.

“Sir, classified as Saurian. Battleship size,” Ruth continued, turning around in her chair. “It's over a kilometer long.”

Aibek raised a scale over his eye. “Ah, this must be our new flagship. The RNV Resit Kartal.”

The mention of Admiral Kartal brought back even more memories from the battle to David’s mind. The disastrous opening that cost the admiral his life, along with over ten thousand CDF and RSN soldiers. He closed his eyes for a moment. As he did, it was almost as if he could see their faces in the blackness. I must tell myself it was worth it. By defeating the League, it will be worth it. “TAO, give us a look.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The holotank behind the CO’s and XO’s chairs hummed to life once more. It displayed the enormous battleship, which, unlike the Lion of Judah, was purpose-built to mount guns. A lot of guns. A quick mental count by David got to thirty-five visible magnetic cannon turrets, mounting three barrels each. “Wow. Saurians don’t do anything small, do they, XO?”

“Never,” Aibek said in a perfect deadpan, before laughing. “I was not sure if the Chief Minister would be able to get it here in time, but I am glad to see he delivered, as you humans would say.”

David continued to be amused, even after several years, by his XO’s attempts to use human phrases. I wonder if humans serving on Saurian ships do the same thing. It’d be interesting to see them in action. “Alright, enough show and tell for one day.” He sat back in his seat and stared forward. “Navigation, take us in.”


6


CSV Lion of Judah

Freedom Station Berth 3A

November 23rd, 2462

For the two days the Lion had been docked at Freedom Station, Aibek had done nothing but process equipment, supplies, and personnel moving on and off the ship. Each hour seemed like an exercise in pure boredom, especially for a Saurian warrior. Now the day was done. The evening meal had been consumed, and he’d retired to his quarters. He leafed through his copy of the Holy Teachings, akin to a human Bible or Torah. I should ensure I spend more of my day practicing my faith. There are times my ability to show what I believe, rather than tell it, is lacking. Cohen’s example has proven this.

As he continued to read a passage from the Great Prophet, instructing on the proper method for destroying evil, his tablet started beeping. He reached out and grabbed it, expecting to find another urgent request. Probably for more toilet paper. The vidlink application flashed, and when unlocked, showed the incoming call from none other than Chief Minister Obe. He quickly accepted the request and held the tablet so the camera would pick up his form.

“Chief Minister, you honor me. How may I be of service?”

The picture on the tablet faded in and out a few times. “Greetings, Talgat Aibek, in the name of the Great Prophet. I trust you are well?”

“I am. Another day will soon be done, and tomorrow is another chance to strike fear in the hearts of our enemies and the evil one.”

Obe grinned, his teeth showing in the Saurian style. “Have you had a chance to tour the RNV Resit Kartal?”

“I have not,” Aibek said as his face went to a neutral expression. “I had great respect for the Admiral and his sacrifice. It does him great honor to have our latest ship be his namesake.”

“That was my thought too. I hoped you had already met her commanding officer, Fleet Captain Bihter S’stro. But no matter. Tell me, are you willing to take on a mission of great importance to the Saurian Empire?”

“I live but to serve my people, Chief Minister.”

“Then you will take command of the Resit Kartal. S’stro will serve as your executive officer, and you will lead the ship in glory and battle alongside our human allies.”

Aibek blinked, something he’d learned from the humans he’d served side by side with for years, as it wasn’t a natural Saurian reaction. Their eyes didn’t water. “I am honored, Chief Minister. But surely Fleet Captain S’stro is a better choice. She has been the commander of the ship since it was put into space.”

“It may surprise you to hear this, but support for the war is not what it once was,” Obe replied. “There are factions that believe we should step away now and let the new human president flounder on his own. I may yet agree to these demands, but honor demands we remain steadfast allies as long as President Spencer is their leader. He has repeatedly shown, through his own honor and dedication, to the point he rivals even the most steadfast Saurian. To abandon him now would humiliate our entire empire.”

A sentiment I agree with most wholeheartedly. “There is also the matter of the League. While they claim to want peace, a serpent is most dangerous when cornered. We must pursue them to wherever they slither, and crush them under our feet, as commanded by the Great Prophet.”

Obe’s expression shifted back toward what Aibek remembered most—a half frown, marked by seriousness. “S’stro has repeatedly expressed a desire to let the humans deal with their mess. I believe she would sabotage this mission through poor command or lack of obedience of General Cohen’s orders.”

The mere whiff of such behavior from a fellow Saurian outraged Aibek to his core. For him, adherence to their shared beliefs in showing glory to God through honorable combat was sacrosanct. “Is this why you wish me to replace her?”

“Partially. You also have a deep bond with General Cohen. You know how he fights, and I believe you would be better suited to help him win this battle. It is an extreme risk, but the reward would be worth it.”

Aibek mulled it over in his mind. To leave David’s side now seems wrong. But to add the firepower of the Resit Kartal to the fleet and ensure it does as instructed… that would be a powerful addition to what the humans call force lethality. “I will obey, Chief Minister. But I must be the one to tell General Cohen. It would be improper to come from anyone but me.”

“I agree. Alert me as soon as you have spoken to him. Walk with the Prophet, warrior.”

After the vidlink image of Obe disappeared from his tablet, Aibek was left to ponder the conversation in his quarters. Torn between his duty to the war effort and his oath to David, he found rest to be complicated.

Run the Gauntlet

An intercom tone awakened David from the middle of a dream he briefly remembered as fighting for his life against a horde of League soldiers with bloodshot eyes, screaming for brains. Great, zombie Leaguers. Here’s to hoping that dream doesn’t come true. He blinked a few times in an attempt to focus his eyes. The clock read 0130. Again, the intercom chimed.

“This is Cohen,” he mumbled.

“Sir, I apologize for disturbing your rest,” Aibek’s voice said from the speaker. “Your presence is required on the bridge.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” David replied. The intercom turned off with an audible click as he stood up and started throwing on his duty uniform. He was barely awake as he checked his rank insignia and name tag before taking off at a jog to the nearest gravlift. Ten minutes later, he exited the lift onto deck one. The two Marine sentries stood watch as always. He exchanged salutes with them as he entered the bridge and pulled on his cover—still a Lion of Judah emblemed ballcap.

“General on the bridge!” a senior petty officer standing watch announced, and immediately, those not manning stations came to attention and saluted.

“As you were,” David replied, crisply returning those salutes as well. “This is General Cohen. I have the conn.”

“General Cohen has the conn,” Aibek said, the turn of phrase now deeply ingrained after years of serving with the CDF.

David sat in the CO’s chair and glanced at his XO. “Okay, it’s 0145, and I’m grumpy. What’s so important?”

“The CSV Ark Royal jumped in twenty minutes ago, sir.”

What? The flagship of the first fleet? “Okay. You got my attention.”

Aibek’s mouth opened wide in a toothy Saurian grin. “I thought it might, sir. Her commanding officer wants to speak to you.”

“Communications, please reply with my compliments to the Ark Royal and signal we’re ready to talk,” David ordered with a glance toward the comms station.

“Aye aye, sir,” Lieutenant Bell, who had the third watch, answered.

It took a few moments for the monitor above David’s head to snap on, with a video image of a middle-aged woman wearing a CDF uniform. Like him, she too had one star on her shoulder—a brigadier general. “Greetings,” she began, tone taut and businesslike. “General Cohen, I presume?”

“Guilty as charged, General?”

“Tabitha Hale, commanding officer, CSV Ark Royal. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, sir,” she said quickly with an accent best described as American. Her dark brown eyes held a certain amount of tiredness in them.

“Ah, the joy of being so well known,” David said, sleep deprivation making his tongue engage before his brain.

“Not quite like that, sir. The Lion of Judah saved the ship I was on a few months ago. The Shadow Wolf.”

Then it clicked for David. She was that General Hale. What’s she doing out here, commanding a fleet carrier, for that matter? “I see,” he said with a trace of a smile. “Glad we were there.”

“I understand you’re planning to head out tomorrow morning at 0700?”

“Correct.”

“I have orders from General MacIntosh and President Spencer to delay that a day. Can we meet first thing so I can explain the situation?”

And this couldn’t have waited until the morning? “Absolutely, General Hale. My communications officer will schedule a time with you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going back to bed.”

A frown passed over Hale’s face before quickly disappearing. “Of course, sir.”

“Good night, General.” The screen flicked off, and David sighed. “Okay, XO. You have the conn.”

“Sir, do you have a moment? I realize it is late, but I was going to speak to you about an urgent matter in the morning. It would be better to discuss it now.”

David stared at Aibek. Annoyance crept up inside of him, but he pushed it down. “Of course, XO. Day cabin?” I need some sleep. I’m cranky.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Lieutenant Kelsey,” David began, addressing the TAO on duty. “You have the conn. Don’t scratch the paint,” he finished with a grin.

Kelsey glanced back and stood. “Aye aye, sir. This is Lieutenant Kelsey. I have the conn.” She smoothed her uniform and had the appearance of nervousness written all over her face. “No paint scratching planned, sir.”

“Good,” David replied in a dry tone before he gestured toward the hatch to the corridor. Thirty seconds later, he and Aibek were taking their respective seats in his small day cabin, just a few steps away from the bridge. It had his desk and a small bunk for emergencies or forward deployments—times as the CO, he couldn’t be more than a few seconds away. “Okay. What’s so important it can’t wait until morning?”

Aibek’s gaze shifted from side to side, and there was a pregnant pause before he spoke. “I was contacted by Chief Minister Obe this evening, before I came on watch.” He stared down at the desk. “He had a request for me, one I cannot easily set aside.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this. David glanced over his friend. If he were a human, he’d be sweating. “Talgat, we’ve been shipmates for years and friends too. Whatever’s going on here, tell me.”

“He requests that I take command of the RNV Resit Kartal.”

Whatever David thought might be troubling his XO, this wasn’t it. “That’s great!” he exclaimed. “About time you get command of something. You’ve earned it.”

“I feel shame for leaving your side at this dire hour.”

“That ship’s coming with the fleet, right?”

“Yes. The Chief Minister felt I would be better suited to ensure our flagship participated boldly in the battles to come. Her current CO is of a different opinion about the war.”

David snickered. “Saurians play politics too, eh?”

“I find it most distasteful. Truly, you are not angry at me for leaving you?”

“Not at all. Yeah, you’ve got some big shoes to fill, figuratively as well as literally. But I’m proud of you,” David replied, allowing a smile to show through on his face.

“I am glad for this. It is only a temporary assignment. As I said, vital to ensure we behave as honorable warriors.” Aibek’s tone was stilted, as if he was still ashamed.

There was silence in the room for a few seconds, as David thought about how to make his friend feel better. He stood and walked around his desk. “Let’s drop the ranks for a minute. Listen, you’re one of the most honorable beings I know.” He made eye contact with Aibek. “It’s an honor to have you on this crew, and to serve with you. There’s no dishonor in taking a job to help this offensive succeed. Okay?” I will miss you sitting next to me. More than you know.

The Saurian stood and extended his arm. “Thank you.”

David took his forearm and gripped it in the Saurian manner. “You’re welcome. Now, I’m going back to bed.” He broke into a broad grin. “You have a watch to sit, or else young Lieutenant Kelsey will scuff the paint and I’ll be even grumpier in the morning.”

Run the Gauntlet

Merriweather tried to time her visits to the officers’ mess to not coincide with the morning rush between 0600 and 0700. If for no other reason than I feel like an imposter here. I’ve worked for civilians for most of my career. Most of the others, she pondered, had spent a career on the front line. She ordered a plate of wheat pancakes with a side of a Saurian meat—its name was unpronounceable. During the wait for a steward to bring it to her table, she drank from a large cup of CDF coffee. Lost in the scene visible outside of the transparent alloy window she sat in front of, the voice of Arthur Hanson surprised her.

“Major Merriweather?”

She jumped in her seat, startled by his sudden appearance.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted out. “I’ll leave you be.”

Merriweather’s face turned blood red. “No, please. I was thinking. What can I do for you?”

“Could we talk?”

In the two weeks since they’d left Canaan, she realized there hadn’t been a single word shared outside of the engine spaces. “Of course. Please, tons of chairs.” She gestured to the three open seats at the table.

Hanson slid into one of them with a spill-proof container of coffee emblazoned with the Lion of Judah’s logo and motto—Semper Atticus. “Thanks. Uh. Well, er. I want to apologize for what I said before we got going on this new adventure. I didn’t say what I meant. Well, that’s to say, my delivery model sucked.”

She couldn’t help but grin at his stammering and obvious discomfort, which was endearing to her. “Arthur, it’s fine. That was a lifetime ago, okay? For what it’s worth, I’m sorry too. My reaction was out of line, and—” She sighed. “Something’s been wrong this entire campaign. Everyone has been aggressive and overly charged up.”

“Yeah. I can’t stand it. I’ve never seen people screaming at one another over politics or threatening fistfights. So, we’re still friends?”

“Yes,” Merriweather replied and smiled. “Enough about politics. How have you been?”

“Busy. Really busy. Colonel,” he began, before correcting himself. “No, General Cohen—still getting used to that—has us working around the clock with the contractors.”

“Doctor Hayworth has busied himself with double-checking the anti-matter performance metrics on the new advanced heavy cruisers. I haven’t seen much of him outside of the lab in days.” Merriweather once again glanced out the alloy window and stared at Freedom. “Has it been difficult for you, coming back here? I mean, we’ve passed through. But somehow it's different, sitting here staring at the place that cost us so much.”

“Yeah. A couple of good engineers got killed here. I still remember them.”

“That’s important, you know? We can’t forget.”

Hanson took a deep breath. “No. So, you have given any thought to what you’re doing after the war?”

She shrugged. “I’m a CDF lifer at this point. At least another eight years to make my twenty. I guess I could retire then and go into contracting. Maybe something else, though.”

“Like what? If you could be anything, what would it be?”

“Promise you won’t laugh at me?”

“You realize that’s a dead giveaway it's going to be funny, right?” Hanson replied as a huge grin broke out across his face.

“A teacher,” she replied and rolled her eyes.

“Hey, nothing funny about training young minds.”

“Really? You don’t think that’s a waste?”

Hanson sat back in his chair as his mouth dropped open and his eyes went wide. “How could you ever think that? Teachers shape and mold children for eight hours a day. I think you’d be good at it.”

“Thanks.” At least that was better than how my father took it when I told him.

One of the mess stewards appeared at the table, bearing heaping plates of food. He quickly set them down and scurried off. Before another word could be said, Kenneth Lowe walked up. “Hey, mind if I join you guys?”

“Sure,” Merriweather replied. “The more, the merrier.”

Kenneth sat his plate consisting of fruit and a biscuit down, along with a mug of coffee. “Oh, a name pun. I like it.”

All three of them laughed before Hanson spoke. “Who wants to pray?”

An awkward silence broke out before Kenneth interjected himself. “I’ll do it.” They all held hands after he reached his out. “Dear Lord, we thank you for this food and ask You to bless it to us. Bless our hands, our minds, and our efforts this day. Help us to do good and act in Your will. In Jesus' name, we pray, amen.”

“Amen,” Merriweather cheerfully replied.

Hanson took a bite of eggs. “Amen to that. General give you mess hall privileges again?” he asked, staring at Kenneth.

“Yup. Only ship I get to eat in the officer’s mess on,” Kenneth said as he stuffed a piece of fruit into his mouth.

“I heard you were out at Churchill, working on the mothball fleet,” Hanson said.

“That was my assignment for the last six months, at least until getting called back to the Lion. I like it here a lot more than a giant space station, that’s for sure.”

Merriweather glanced at him. “Why?”

“I think all of us on the team feel like we’re a part of something larger than ourselves here. I like the feeling, personally.” Kenneth smiled between bites.

“You could experience it full time and rejoin the military,” Hanson deadpanned. “Then you wouldn’t be a slimy contractor.”

“Arthur,” she snapped, her tone one of playful reproach. “Mind your manners. Or did you forget them in OCS?”

Hanson’s face turned bright red as he continued to eat. “Hey, almost all of us take shots at contractors. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“It’s okay,” Kenneth interjected before she could speak. “The Major is right. Marines are the worst for the ribbing. You guys are fine. Say, where’s the doc? I was hoping to run into him. I wanted to pick his brain on some ideas for expanding the AI support for these new drones we’re installing on the fighters.”

Merriweather snorted. “Locked away in his lab. Good luck getting him out.”

“Oh well, a shame.”

Silence fell over the table as the three of them shoveled food in and drank coffee. Hanson finished up first and pushed his plate back. “Well, I’d better get back to engineering. Another fun day of field upgrades in front of me.” He stood. “Good day, Major, Kenneth.”

“Seeya around!” Kenneth called as he walked off.

There was more silence until Merriweather spoke again. “For what it’s worth, I value the contributions your team makes. All of you have always been a big help to Doctor Hayworth and me.”

Kenneth inclined his head. “Thank you. We’re just trying to do our jobs.” He polished off the last piece of fruit on his plate. “Time for me to head out too. Good seeing you, Major Merriweather.”

“I do have a first name,” she said dryly.

“In that case, good day, Elizabeth.”

She grinned as he stood. “You too, Kenneth.” He’s kind of cute once you get past the always on work mode. It took a few minutes to finish up her food before she too steeled herself for another day.


7

Sleep hadn’t come easily once David returned to his quarters. After a few more hours of tossing and turning, he got up and went through the usual morning rituals, starting with reciting the Shema as soon as he awoke. An hour later after exercise, a shower, and break, he was sitting back in his day cabin, awaiting the arrival of General Hale. She was punctual—arriving at 0730 on the dot. He took stock of her as she walked in. There were wisps of gray hair on her head, and frown lines that spoke to the stress of service. Her face held a confident yet severe expression.

“Brigadier General Tabitha Hale reports as ordered, sir.”

David cracked a grin in return. “I’m not used to flag officers reporting to me, General Hale. Though we appear to have the same rank.”

A small smile spread across her face. “I suppose so, sir. However, I was specifically instructed that for the duration of this mission, I’m under your command.”

“Come again?” David replied, almost doing a double-take.

“This is extremely sensitive, but the Ark Royal was secretly refitted with an anti-matter reactor over the last few months.”

David’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head. Wow, that’s huge. The pride of the fleet, able to traverse the distance between the arms at the same speed as us? Okay, Spencer’s pulling out all the stops. “You’ve got my attention, but please, have a seat first.”

Hale sat in the chair closest to his desk and stared straight ahead. Her posture was ramrod straight. “Thank you,” she began. “It surprised me too. The CDF swore the crew to secrecy and had a random lie detector exam scheduled on a weekly basis. Treason charges if it leaked. Everyone got the message and played ball. The end result is one highly upgraded fleet carrier. She’s as fast as the Lion, with equal shielding, if not better.”

“But still a carrier.” With all the positives and negatives that entails. He chose his words carefully, not wishing to offend her so soon in their professional relationship. “The Ark Royal isn’t designed for a slugging match. It has to sit back and let its fighters do the heavy lifting.”

“I’m fine with directness, General. We’re not here to get up front and trade blows with the League. We’re here as a force multiplier. We embarked fifty percent more fighters and bombers than normal, along with their crews, before we left Canaan. There’s over four hundred and fifty combat spacecraft on my ship right now. They’ve all got those fancy drone upgrades too.”

This changes things. It also opens up my playbook. Gears turned inside David’s head as he quickly ran through the additional firepower he’d been given. He sat back slowly in his chair. “Yeah, that’ll put a dent in more than a few Leaguers.”

Hale grinned fiercely. “I’m more than ready to do it too.”

“I’ve got an obvious question—”

Before he could finish, she interrupted. “What I am doing in command of a fleet carrier when I was slated to go to personnel? Yeah. I’ve thought the same thing. I have solid capital ship experience, but I think there’s something more to it. Because of the upgrade program, my ship and I have been off the radar. We were, shall we say, sequestered. I wasn’t available for interviews.”

David scrunched his eyebrows together and closed his eyes. “I still don’t like thinking back to those dark days. CDF firing on CDF, killing our own. It’s not what I signed up for.”

“Me either, General Cohen. I’d personally rather the war be over, and we enjoy the fruits of peace. But if the President would rather keep this going until he’s out of office, well, then I’ll gladly take out my frustrations on the League.”

He held his tongue. Great. Another Peace Union supporter.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Hale said, her voice quiet.

David smiled thinly. “Which is?”

“Something along the lines of you don’t care for the Peace Union.”

Tread carefully, David. “Politics isn’t something I like to get into on the job.”

“Let there be no mistake. I’m here to carry out my orders and inflict maximum damage on our targets.”

“Then why support an end to the war?” he blurted out.

“Because the war is corrupting the Terran Coalition. Because war profiteers like Kalling Engineering make billions of credits while our friends get killed. We won, the League lost. End of story.”

“Until they come back,” David replied forcefully. “The League cannot be trusted. As long as they can project power, they’ll keep coming back. Over and over, until one of us wipes the other out, or we mutually implode.” His voice rose as he continued to speak. “For the record, I detest the likes of Kalling, and all the other contractors I’ve encountered that print credits for themselves while my men and women die. But that’s not most. It's not even most contractors, for that matter. We’re stronger than a few jerks with big bank accounts.” As good as that sounded, I wish I had more faith in the sentiment.

Hale made eye contact with him and held it. “General, if we take out seventy percent of the League’s shipyard capability, would that weaken their ability to project power, in your estimation?”

“Of course it would.”

“Well, that’s my goal here, as is yours. I believe if we succeed, the League will have to accept peace on our terms.”

David let out a heavy sigh. “I’ve made it a point never to have political discussions with my officers and crew. Would you believe, in the last three weeks, I’ve engaged in more of them than in my entire career?” He chuckled. “I see your point, and I agree. Strip them of the ability to produce massive amounts of ships, and the League has to stand down. What’s sad to me is I suspect my children will have to fight them again.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. But at least they’ll have a father to grow up with.”

Her words, while clearly meant as a positive, stung deep, dredging up memories of his father. Always of the last night as he flew off in the helicar, never to return. He forced his face to a neutral expression. “In the end, our opinions don’t matter. We carry out lawful orders, to the best of our ability. I trust I have your full cooperation, General?”

“Completely, sir.”

David inclined his head. “Thank you. Would you care to join us during the voyage? I want to host a dinner for the captains of the fleet. Help us to get to know each other and gel as a fighting unit.”

“I’d be honored.”

“Very well. I’ll have Lieutenant Taylor send the invitation. Dismissed, General Hale.” He paused for a moment, then stood and extended his hand. “A pleasure to serve with you.”

Hale reached forward and shook the outstretched hand. “Likewise, General. Good day.”

Watching as she strode out, David was left with much to ponder. More fighters and bombers are a great asset. But why assign a CO who’s openly supportive of the Peace Union? It’s almost like the joint chiefs want a leash kept on this operation. He smirked to himself. This is why I hate politics.

Run the Gauntlet

Later that morning, David found himself, along with Master Chief Tinetariro, walking toward an airlock on the port side of the ship. He’d gotten an alert that Aibek had approved its docking, and the flight plan indicated the shuttle was Saurian. It didn’t take too much to put two and two together.

“Why do you think the XO’s trying to sneak out without us knowing?” Tinetariro asked, her richly accented English betraying her Nigerian heritage.

“You know him, not much for pomp and circumstance. Did you get enough to form an honor guard?”

“Of course, sir. Ship’s security personnel and a few Marines I found wandering around. That’ll teach them to sully my decks.”

David laughed softly. He always enjoyed her company; even though she’d been fighting the war for over thirty years, Tinetariro’s outlook of optimism never wavered. She combined exacting standards with tough love, turning raw men and women into well-oiled machines. They spoke little more until reaching the airlock, and not a moment too soon. He only had a few seconds to review those assembled before Aibek’s large form came into view around the bend of the passageway.

“Attention on deck!” Tinetariro barked.

The honor guard melted into two lines, faced each other, and came to rigid attention.

Aibek, meanwhile, came to a stop directly in front of them and faced David. “I did not mean to cause any inconvenience, General.”

Retorts passed through David’s mind, but instead of uttering one, he hugged his XO before taking a step back. “It’s no inconvenience. I didn’t want you to leave without saying goodbye.” The thought this might be the last time they saw each other alive was suddenly front and center mentally.

“I will endeavor to provide the best support to you and the fleet as I can,” Aibek replied, his words carrying a slight hiss.

“You’ll blow those Leaguers out of space left and right,” Tinetariro commented, her face lit up with a grin. “But I want a promise that you won’t take undue risks. Finding an executive officer I can work with, much less an alien one, takes work. I’m not doing it again before I retire.”

Both Aibek and David laughed. “I promise to do my best, but only the Great Prophet knows the outcome of our path,” the big Saurian replied.

David fought to keep emotion from showing on his face. Despite his efforts, a sheen formed in his eyes. “Take care out there, old friend.”

“Permission to disembark, General?”

“Permission granted. Godspeed.”

The honor guard, in keeping with tradition, raised their hands in salute, as did David and Tinetariro, though the Master Chief saluted with her left hand. Her right hand came up, holding her bosun’s pipe to her lips. She blew through it, one long, low note, followed by a high note, then another low.

Aibek raised his hand to his brow and held the salute as he passed through the honor guard, dropping it only as he entered the airlock. Then he was gone.

The rest of them lowered their hands. “Company, dismissed!” Tinetariro barked, her tone harsh and direct. They melted away, leaving only David and her behind. “He’ll be fine, sir.”

“Is that promise, or a hope, Master Chief?” David replied, the emotion catching up with him.

“Both, sir.”

David forced himself to smile. “We’d best be getting back to the bridge.”

Run the Gauntlet

CSV Lion of Judah

Freedom Station – Beyond Lawrence Limit

November 25th, 2462

After another twenty-four hours spent taking on supplies and munitions, they were finally ready to go. David had spent the better part of the morning reviewing the final manifests and questioning his department heads, including Kenneth Lowe, about spare parts. Satisfied everything was set, he stared out of the transparent alloy windows on the bridge, with an occasional glance to the empty chair next to him, where Aibek would typically sit. It had taken him months to stop expecting to see Sheila’s face, and now with no one there, it felt off, as if something was wrong. It’s all in my head. He’ll be fine, and back in three weeks.

“Conn, navigation,” Hammond began, glancing back from her station to his front and right. “Lawrence drive jump coordinates inputted, fleet shows readiness to proceed.”

It was about now that he’d look over, and Aibek would nod. Without him there, David felt empty. He forced the thoughts down. Focus. Now we’re on the clock. Only the mission matters. He smoothed out his black uniform sweater and took a deep breath. “Communications, patch me into 1MC, and fleet-wide transmission to all ships.”

“Aye aye, sir. You’re live,” Taylor announced.

“Attention all hands, this is General David Cohen. We’re about to embark on yet another mission. As our small fleet makes its final preparations, and we ready to begin the series of jumps that will take us further into the League of Sol than any Terran Coalition military force has ever been since the Exodus, I know many of us are uneasy.” He glanced around the bridge to see everyone staring at him intently. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t uneasy too. We’ll be far from home, without the support of the fleet, and with no reinforcements to be had. Our mission is simple—destroy two of the League’s most valuable assets: its military shipyards at Gliese 832C and Teegarden.”

It was the first time the objective was relayed to the ship’s company in general. Narrowed eyes, open mouths, and stares met him.

“Many of you served with me when we captured Freedom Station two years ago. We had five hundred ships, and even then, it cost us dearly. Now we have ten. We also have the element of surprise, and we must succeed. Make no mistake about it, ladies and gentlemen. If we knock out these two installations, the League will be in a position of weakness during the peace negotiations to come,” David continued. He’d rehearsed that line many times mentally, wording it specifically to avoid the mention of politics. “So, in the end, here we stand. The next few weeks will not be easy. They will be demanding, hectic, and stressful beyond belief as we avoid detection and strike at the heart of our foe. Together, working as one, and with God’s help, we will prevail. Man departure stations and stand by for Lawrence jump. Godspeed, Cohen out.”

The atmosphere on the bridge was tense but upbeat. The crew went back to their duties, while the consoles and the computers powering them hummed. A full thirty seconds later, Ruth turned around in her chair. “Sir, I think I speak for everyone here when I say it’s going to be a pleasure blowing those shipyards out of space. The League has no idea what it's in for.”

Her words opened a floodgate of emotion. There were whoops and hollers from the enlisted personnel lining the walls. Even Hammond let out a cheer, as reserved as she usually was.

David cracked a grin. “We’ll get our chance, Lieutenant. Resume your post.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she replied and flashed a smile before turning around.

“Conn, engineering,” Hanson’s voice emanated from the speaker on David’s chair.

“Cohen here. Go ahead.”

“Reactor is nominal, all systems green. Ready for jump on your command, sir.”

With a final glance at the status screen, David returned his gaze to the vastness of space. “Navigation, execute Lawrence jump. Communications, order the fleet to engage.”

Run the Gauntlet

RNV Resit Kartal

Deep Space

November 25th, 2462

During the cooldown period from the first series of jumps, Aibek studied a readiness screen. He used his finger to tab through various engineering reports and reviewed each primary station—tactical, navigation, engineering—mentally rating each officer’s performance. A soft hissing voice distracted him.

“Void Captain, why are you performing my job?” The voice belonged to Fleet Captain Bihter S’stro, his executive officer, the Saurian whom he’d replaced.

He glanced at her. “Habit, I suppose.” She wasn’t wrong, but he’d been in the role for so long, it was second nature. “For the duration of this mission, refer to me by my current rank, Lieutenant Colonel. Human ranks allow for shortening it to simply ‘Colonel.’”

“This is a vessel of the Royal Saurian Navy. Why sully it with trappings of the chimps?”

Aibek turned and bared his teeth at her, anger boiling over. His voice took on even more of a hissing tone. “You will not use racist language on the bridge of my ship. Do you understand me?”

“Do they not descend from primates? It is not racist. It is truth.”

“Say that word in my presence again, and I will have you relieved and confined to quarters,” he hissed back.

While quiet, the exchange had grown loud enough to attract glances from the other officers and crew around them.

“You have spent too much time among the humans, Void—Colonel Aibek.”

“Perhaps I have. I learned much from them. And for the record, most humans in the Terran Coalition believe they were created by God and did not evolve from primates.”

S’stro snorted. “They deny basic scientific facts to feel better about themselves.”

“Sauria first?” Aibek asked.

“I agree with their ideals if that is what you are suggesting, Colonel.”

“The Saurian Empire cannot prosper by looking inward. Only by standing with our allies and cultivating friendships can we regain our place in the galaxy.”

S’stro was silent. She turned away from him and busied herself with a tactical readout on the XO’s console screen.

I have to deal with this. Now. “Did I dismiss you, Fleet Captain S’stro?”

She turned, and her eyes flickered toward his. “You did not, Colonel.”

“You will treat me with the proper respect afforded my rank and posting. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.” S’stro ground the words out like they were rocks in her throat.

Aibek cleared his throat. “Prepare the ship for our next jump and notify me when all is in readiness.”

S’stro paused, just long enough to be noticed. “Yes, sir.”

The atmosphere on the bridge was thick with tension after the end of their exchange. Thick enough I could cut it with a blade. Aibek remembered back to David once telling them all that the enemy was outside, not inside. I must find a way to instill that mentality here, on the bridge of my ship. It was then that it hit him head-on for the first time. This is my first command. He bared his teeth and smiled, realizing as he did that the gesture unnerved the crewmembers who saw him.


8


CSV Lion of Judah

Deep Space

December 6th, 2462

It had been a long few weeks, installing and testing drone upgrade packages on the fighters and bombers of the Lion of Judah’s wing. Amir knew from reading readiness reports that the flight deck crews on the Ark Royal were performing the same tasks. Kenneth had come to him earlier in the day and indicated all small craft in the Lion’s inventory were fully upgraded and ready to fight. After completing paperwork, he’d decided to check out the improvements for himself. When he got down to the hangar, a group of contractors was huddled around his SF-106 Phantom, painted with the tail emblem of the Grim Reaper squadron: a stylized figure in black, holding a scythe.

“I thought you were done, Mister Lowe?” Amir called as he approached.

Kenneth turned around, and his face turned red. “Uh, yes, sir. Final QA checks, sir.”

“Is my fighter ready for vacuum?”

“Yes, sir.”

A smile crept across Amir’s face. “Would you care to join us in a hands-on test?” He had his flight suit on for a reason.

“What’d you have in mind, sir?”

“You’re too tall to fit in a fighter, but with a bit of a squeeze, I think you’d fit in the rear compartment of a heavy bomber.”

Kenneth’s face lit up like a Christmas tree with a thousand lights on it. “I’d love to, sir.”

Amir lifted his handcomm to his lips. “Colonel Amir to Major Hume. Come in, please.” Richard Hume was his XO, and second in command for the Lion’s wing.

A moment later, the device crackled. “Major Hume here. What can I do for you, sir?”

“Report to the flight deck. You and I are taking our upgraded birds out to test the drone systems. One of our contractor friends will be flying with you to monitor the system.”

“Understood, sir,” Hume replied, his posh British accent loud and clear.

“Hume’s squadron is parked across the hangar,” Amir began. “Deck space twelve.”

“We’ll head over there now, sir. You’re good to go.”

“Inshallah,” Amir replied and watched the lanky defense contractor and his team walk away. Turning back to his fighter, he climbed into the cockpit and started the pre-flight checklist. On a bad day, it took thirty minutes to get from cold start into space. On a good day, ten to fifteen. Amir didn’t accept bad days out of his pilots, nor himself. Twelve minutes later, all checks were complete, and his craft was ready to launch.

“I’m a few seconds behind you, my good chap,” Hume cut in across the commlink. “But we’re ready to go. Nice show, sticking the contractor with me.”

“Hey, I can hear you two,” Kenneth interjected.

Amir snickered. “Major, I promised our friend a real-life test of his hardware. Let’s put it through its paces, shall we?”

“You’re on, sir. Scenario?”

“Active interception of an inbound bomber squadron.”

Hume’s rich voice filled his in helmet commlink. “Right. Cheerio, then, and do try to keep up.”

A few more minutes passed as hangar crews moved Amir’s fighter into the launch tube. More than anything, he wanted to be in space. Grounded for weeks inside the Lion made him feel cooped up. Like a caged tiger. The familiar crunch of the catapult locking down on the fuselage of his craft reminded him that freedom was a few seconds away.

“Colonel Amir, this is the boss.” The voice of the Lion’s Air Boss cut into his thoughts. “You’re clear to launch.”

“Acknowledged.” Amir toggled his engines to maximum and triggered the launch sequence. The sides of the tube streaked by for a moment, and then—stars. The view in front of him was majestic. Six large heavy cruisers in a protective formation around the Lion of Judah, along with a battleship of Saurian design—the RNV Resit Kartal. Unlike the human warships, with their boxy designs, the alien vessel held sweeping lines and reminded him of a boat’s bow, cutting across the water. “Reaper One to Red Dawg One, come in.”

“I read you five by five,” Hume replied. “Moving to safe distance for simulated attack run.”

Amir maneuvered between the small fleet, expertly guiding his craft. He glanced down at a new display and set of buttons—the drone controls. With the flick of a switch, the system armed itself. He configured one drone for defense, and two for offense, noting with satisfaction as they separated from his fighter, they kept pace and perfect formation. “I’m ready to engage, Red Dawg One.”

“Acknowledged. May the best pilot win,” Hume replied, his tone happy.

Their flight computers inputted another two squadrons each of fighters and bombers. Amir’s tactical plot quickly populated, with his AI-generated wingmen forming up. He quickly calculated the proper position to intercept—the entire point of the exercise being to interdict the enemy bombers before they took out friendly capital ships—and pulled his throttle to maximum. G-forces pressed him into his seat as he quickly accelerated to what would be equal to 15-Gs, without inertial damping technology.

“Ah, the old come-straight-at-me strategy?” Hume said through the commlink.

“Something like that.” Amir tightened his grip on the flight yoke as the distance grew closer. As soon as he entered maximum missile range, he obtained a positive lock on a bomber at the edge of Hume’s formation. The lock-on tone sounded, and he triggered a LIDAR guided missile. The simulated weapon raced toward its target, while the rest of the AI-controlled wingmen followed suit.

Blue icons filled his HUD as his entire flight launched. Then red images popped into place, along with enemy lock-on alerts as Hume’s bombers loosed their LIDAR guided weapons. The two flights of missiles crossed each other in space, and the advanced AI system records hits and misses. The drones performed exceptionally well, shooting down multiple inbound threats. When both salvos had pressed home, there were no hits on either side.

“These drones work pretty good,” Kenneth said across the commlink.

Amir snorted. “Don’t praise your own work.”

“Hey, I just installed them. Much smarter people came up with them.”

“Something we can agree on,” Hume interjected to laughter from all.

“Let’s see how they perform in a dogfight,” Amir said as he looped his Phantom around, increasing thrust and heading straight for the center of the bomber formation. The two offensive drones maintained position with him and matched him, movement for movement. Sliding in behind one of the lumbering bombers, he pulled the trigger to fire his craft’s miniature neutron cannons. Blue shots of energy stabbed out, hitting the simulated enemy. The drones joined in, and within moments, the icon representing the bomber disappeared—a hard kill.

“Impressive shooting, Colonel,” Hume said through the commlink. “How about we go one on one?”

“Of course, Major,” Amir replied, grinning from ear to ear in his helmet. He loved to dogfight, vastly preferring that method of engagement over beyond visual range—BVR—combat. Tracking Hume’s bomber was easy—as it was the only other small craft in space. Ignoring the AI enemies present in his HUD, he effortlessly tracked his quarry and ended up on the bomber’s aft.

Unlike the AIs, Hume was a human pilot and knew his business both from the perspective of a fighter and bomber flier. He utilized the advantages of his craft, slowing the speed of the engagement down and engaging Amir in a series of interlocking scissors maneuvers. They traded positions and fire for a total of four turns before Hume did something unexpected: he put all three drones into attack mode and sent them at the pursuing Phantom.

Amir was temporarily surprised by the action. He triggered his drones to defensive mode as a countermeasure but was a few seconds too late. Multiple simulated mini-neutron emitter hits stabbed at the shields of his fighter before he twisted the flight stick around to turn quickly in space. He decoupled the thruster controls to allow his craft full movement, and even though it maintained forward speed, it now pointed backward, relative to his thrust direction. Simulated outgoing fire took out two of the enemy drones. “Impressive tactics,” he commented into his commlink.

“I’m glad you approve, sir,” Hume replied.

The master lock-on alarm sounded in Amir’s cockpit, causing him to scan the local sensor net to quickly find Hume’s bomber, which had settled into his “six o’clock” position—directly aft. One, two, three, then four heat-seeking missiles launched from it, headed straight for his Phantom. Amir twisted his flight stick again and deployed simulated flares that spoofed two of the incoming warheads. Two got through—the flight computer flashed, indicating his craft was a causality. As it slowly throttled down, the lumbering bomber came up alongside. “You tricked me.”

Hume laughed through the commlink. “Misdirection, sir. You always preach it.”

“My lunch misdirected itself into my helmet’s faceplate with those wild turns,” Kenneth interjected.

Both pilots laughed loudly before Amir spoke. “Ah, you haven’t spent enough time turning and burning, Mister Lowe. We’ll take you back out, any time you’d like.”

“Thanks,” was the weak reply.

“Major, head back to the Lion. I think we’ve got enough data to crunch.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Amir overrode the shutdown of his craft and accelerated gently back toward the vessel they lived on. Excellent new weapon systems. May Allah guide my hands to use them wisely and for His glory.

Run the Gauntlet

CSV Lion of Judah

Near Gliese 832

December 12th, 2462

“I’m going to venture a guess this is the closest anyone in the Coalition Defense Force has been to Earth in a really long time,” Hammond said from the navigation station.

David stared forward out of the transparent alloy windows at the front of the bridge. Despite the closeness to Earth, they weren’t running at battle stations. The lights remained white and bright. “Navigation, confirm distance to Gliese 832.”

“Three light-years, sir. We’re in the middle of nowhere, and unless the League now has the power of God, it’d be impossible for them to see us.”

“Leaguers with the power of God? I don’t think so. Satan, on the other hand?” Master Chief Tinetariro mused. “That I could see.”

There was a smattering of snickers from the officers and enlisted crewmembers within earshot that heard her.

“Conn, TAO. Sensors continue to show all clear, except Sierra contacts.”

Our ragtag fleet of nine ships. Well, ten, counting the one on the hangar deck. “Only sixteen light-years from Earth. I wonder what it’s like, the cradle from which we came,” David said, not addressing anyone in particular. “Maybe we’ll find out someday. Time to get this show on the road.” He punched a button on his chair’s arm. “Cohen to Boss.” His call was to the Lion’s “Air Boss,” the officer in charge of the flight deck.

“This is the Boss. Go ahead, sir.”

“Stand by to launch CSV Tucson.”

“Aye aye, sir. Ready to have that hunk of metal off my deck.”

David grinned. “Cohen out.” He glanced toward Hammond. “Thrusters to station keeping. Communications, signal Major Mancini he’s go for launch.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor called out from across the bridge.

For a few minutes, nothing happened. While David’s view afforded him a good look downward toward the flight deck and recovery ramps, it was at more of a forty-five-degree angle. Then the bow of the stealth raider started to emerge from the hangar. It was another ten minutes before it was entirely past the space doors and engaged its thrusters, moving clear of the massive warship.

“Conn, communications. I’ve got Major Mancini for you, sir, tight beam transmission.”

“On my viewer, Lieutenant,” David replied, directing his gaze upward toward his personal viewing screen.

A few moments later, Mancini’s face appeared on it. “General Cohen, we’re free to navigate and ready to begin our mission. We’ll move to EMCON condition alpha as soon as this transmission ends.”

“Agreed, Major. Be careful. You’re going into the mouth of the beast. We’ve been over the briefings; you know what needs to be done. Get the intel, bring it home, and above all, don’t get caught.”

“Understood, sir,” Mancini replied, his jaw set.

He appears ready to get on with it. Good man. “Good luck, and Godspeed. We’ll see you in twenty-four hours.”

“Godspeed, General.”

Mancini’s face disappeared from the viewer, and David rested his head back on his seat. “Master Chief, set EMCON condition alpha throughout the ship. Communications, signal the fleet to engage the same on a tight beam transmission before securing your console for any outgoing signals.”

They both replied in the affirmative in short order.

David was left to his thoughts, staring out the alloy window again. I do wish Aibek was still here. His counsel was wise, but more than that, it’s like half of me isn’t here. The same way I felt when Sheila wasn’t here, but at least I’ll see him again soon. Doubt, always present, rose to the surface. Unless you get him killed like you got her killed, trying to take out a few more Leaguers. He shoved the bitter thought down with a prayer and focused his thoughts on something positive.


9


CSV Tucson

Gliese 832 System – Inner Belt

December 13th, 2462

Cramped. That was the operative description of the stealth raider. Even more so after an additional month in space, with yet another month to go before heading home. Mancini stared ahead, taking in the status readout from the ship’s integrated monitoring system. They’d just exited a wormhole jump, about twenty hours out from Gliese’s outermost planet.

“Conn, navigation. Reduced power jump completed, drive systems secure.”

“COB,” Mancini began. “Rig for ultra-quiet.”

“Rig for ultra-quiet, aye-aye, sir,” Cosentino replied. “Secure all non-essential machinery.”

A purple strobe light—the silent indicator for the crew to move to ultra-quiet—started flashing. Over the next few minutes, numerous computer screens were shut down, stations deactivated, and a few personnel left the control room. Standard procedure was to shut down everything they could to avoid detection. Even the soldiers on board were confined to their bunks in various parts of the boat.

“TAO, populate the board with known contacts once the sensor room confirms.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Mancini sat back in his chair and glanced at his XO. “Twenty-three hours at ultra-quiet is gonna suck.”

Godat laughed, the sound coming from his belly. “Quite right about that, skipper.”

And so it went. That was the thing about stealth raider duty. Long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror—usually associated with the enemy discovering the boat’s position. The watch periods came and went, with Mancini timing it so he was wide awake and ready to go on the final leg of their journey. They’d come in on a parabolic approach, taking care to avoid League sensor stations and patrol ships.

“Conn, sensor room,” Mancini called into his chair mounted intercom microphone.

“Sensor room here, skipper,” the voice of Petty Officer VanDyke replied. He was the top passive sensor technician on the boat.

“Any additional contacts?”

“None except what’s on the board, sir.”

“Keep me apprised. Conn out.”

Mancini took a sip of coffee out of his mug and studied the tactical plot above his chair. “XO, what do you make of those defense stations? There’s three of them, but they don’t appear to be in even alignment.”

“I see it. Looks like more than enough room for us to slip in.”

“It could also be a trap.”

Cosentino snickered behind them. “Probably a bunch of lazy-ass Leaguers who couldn’t get their committee on whatever to agree to moving the stations to the right distance to be effective.”

Muted laughter swept the control room, and even in the senior officers joined in. “Valid point, COB,” Mancini said as he smirked and shook his head. “Okay, people, look alive. Pilot, make thrust for thirty percent of top speed and disengage inertial dampers.”

“Make thrust for thirty percent of top speed, aye aye, sir,” the pilot answered.

Mancini felt himself press back tightly into the CO’s chair as the ship moved forward steadily, its speed increasing. Without the inertial damping system, there was nothing to slow them down when the drive cut off. Faster and faster the raider went. All the while, he made mental calculations on when to cut the engines. The trick was to get enough speed to get in and out quickly, while not so much they found themselves detected by the League sensor nets. After fifteen minutes, it was time. “Pilot, zero thrust, station keeping only.”

“Zero thrust, station keeping only, aye aye, sir.”

Every command regarding speed and direction of the boat was repeated back. It had been a staple of the raider service since its inception. No errors. Ever. “Conn, sensor room.”

“Sensor room, conn, go ahead, sir,” VanDyke replied through the speaker.

“Target all passive arrays port toward Master One; we’ll be making our pass in about thirty minutes,” Mancini said, one eye still on the tactical display.

“Aye aye, sir.”

The Tucson swept onward, past oblivious League stations and stray transports transiting in and out of Gliese. A countdown clock in the control room reminded everyone of how long they had to go until maximum approach to the shipyard. Twenty minutes, then fifteen, ten, and finally five.

Godat grumbled under his breath. “I don’t know about you, skipper, but I’m starting to sweat this. We haven’t so much as seen a standard League customs craft out here.”

“Don’t jinx us, XO,” Mancini replied, cracking a grin despite the stress. “Navigation, confirm egress course and display on my monitor.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A moment later, a map of the system showing their relative position with an overlay of the Tucson’s projected course appeared on the screen above him. So far, so good. Mancini studied it, but the truth of the matter was no further action would be required until they got beyond the known League sensor envelope and were able to jump out.

“Conn, sensor room,” VanDyke’s voice cut in from the speaker on his chair.

“Sensor room, go ahead.”

“Passive deep span of Master One complete, sir. Shifting focus to the rest of the system and orbital defenses.”

“Understood. Any change in enemy contacts, relative bearing, and speed?”

“Negative, sir.”

Mancini knew already there hadn’t been. My plot hasn’t changed, and VanDyke would’ve alerted the control room immediately. Still, he gained some comfort from the rote repetition of CDF process and procedure. Now all they had to do was maintain ultra-quiet for another twenty-three hours and exit the system—piece of cake.

Run the Gauntlet

League of Sol Orbital Defense Base - Alpha

Near Gliese 832

December 14th, 2462

Spit-shined boots clacked down the passageway of one of three orbital stations over Gliese 832, belonging to Admiral Alec Hartford. Wearing a pressed gray and black uniform, he was in the middle of conducting a weekly tour of each base. After being benched for two years for his failures against the Terran Coalition, he’d recently been put in charge of an Orion spur patrol fleet. So far away from the pinnacle of my career. But still a chance to rise again. He rounded a corner to see a maintenance crew examining a defective light in the overhead. At his approach, they stiffened and came to attention.

“Admiral on deck!” one of the sailors announced.

Hartford approached and ticked off a few seconds. “As you were.” His accent was decidedly British, a product of his upbringing in the colony world of New Anglia.

The four young men relaxed into parade rest.

“What are you working on here?” Hartford asked, staring at the one wearing the stripes of a petty officer.

“Admiral, sir, we’re working on a repair request for a malfunctioning light.”

“I can see that,” Hartford replied with a thin smile. “But why are four of you here at the same time? It would appear to me, one works while the other three do nothing. Tell me, is this how a member of society should act?”

Glances were exchanged between the sailors. Fear appeared in their eyes, while two of them began to shake. “No, Admiral,” one of the men said.

“Then see to it you work efficiently, and do not waste the time society has given us.”

“Yes, sir, Admiral!”

Hartford again smiled thinly then stalked off. He’d taken to touring the systems assigned to the naval defense sector and was appalled at the lack of discipline among those stationed there. Such behavior wouldn’t be accepted in Sagittarius. I’d have personally spaced anyone who acted like this. Still, a command was a command, and it felt good to be back. He reached the end of the passageway and stepped into an elevator, headed for the control room of the station. Its controls were ancient, buttons worn out from use with the numbers rubbed off from so many presses.

The doors slid open to reveal a short corridor with a sentry at the end of it. The central hub of the station was at the very top of its spire, an older design that, in a way, was a weakness. It would allow an enemy who zeroed in on it to destroy the command structure of the base with a lucky shot. The security officer at the end raised his arm to his chest in the classic salute of the League.

The sentry unlocked the control room door, and Hartford walked in.

Those present immediately stood and brought themselves to attention, all slapping a closed fist to their chests.

“As you were,” Hartford said as he took in the room. Unkept uniforms, sloppy haircuts, and general mess around the various stations told him all he needed to know: Gliese’s defenders suffered from an extreme lack of discipline. He strolled around, silent. Tension built, as there had been no warning of his visit, and he’d taken pains to ensure his shuttle was not marked as carrying a flag officer. Finally, he turned toward the woman who occupied the commander’s chair. “The status of this station is disgusting. It does not reflect the standards of society, nor does it reflect mine.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she replied.

“Sorry?” he asked, his voice dripping acid. “Sorry will not get you anything in combat, commander. Where is your political commissar?”

“She was reassigned last month, Admiral. A replacement hasn’t been named.”

Interesting. “And so, you shirk your duties?”

“No, Admiral. We’re understaffed.”

“Do not dare to give me excuses,” Hartford replied, his tone angry. “I expect drills to be run for the next week, ensuring this base is ready to fight at a moment’s notice.”

“Half our weapons are offline due to lack of spare parts, sir.”

Fire showed in his eyes as he whirled around and stared her down. “I’ll address that with the quartermaster for this defense district. You will have the systems that function working at an optimum level. Anyone who doesn’t pull their weight will be treated as an individualist.” He counted off three seconds and watched the expressions of terror spread across their faces. “Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir, Admiral!” The bridge shook from the sound of their voices, as all replied with a roar.

Perhaps this command isn’t so bad after all. Cleaning up a mess like this will get me another star. Maybe that’s why I got it in the first place. “I will return in a week. See that I am not disappointed again,” Hartford finished, and without another word, turned and left.


10

After four weeks of around-the-clock training in the specially constructed mockup of a League Cobra class destroyer, MacDonald felt like he could run the operation in his sleep. Half the time, I’m sleepwalking too. They’d already run the simulation three times so far today, reviewing every variable and looking for even one more second to shave off the plan. He lifted his battle rifle and checked the stun rounds it contained one last time. Instead of his normal position rushing the engine space, he’d rotated Alpha team to the bridge breach squad.

“Ready?” Harrell called out over the commlink.

“Hoorah!” Rostami echoed.

MacDonald brought his arm up and pumped twice down the corridor—which the limited AI in his suit recognized as the signal for “move” and transmitted the order to the entire team. Led by him, they charged forward, quick-walking through the passageway, weapons at the ready.

A group of opposing force personnel, which were lying in ambush, opened up. Simulated bullets caught Harrell in the center mass of his suit, freezing it. He collapsed in a heap even as he continued to fire on full auto. The result was a neutralized enemy team. “I hate these stupid stun rounds. In real combat, I’d keep going from a few puny Leaguer rifle hits.”

“Yeah, but this is how we keep it interesting,” MacDonald commented. “Cover our six, just in case.”

“Right, boss.”

The rest of them pressed forward, the element of four shooters reduced to three. While the destroyer was small, a lot of time was spent checking corners and otherwise trying to prevent another ambuscade as much as possible. Twice more, actors playing the enemy jumped out of seemingly empty compartments, only to be cut down in seconds.

“I get the distinct feeling the Lion’s security detail is tired of losing to us,” Rostami commented through his link. “They’re using some inventive tactics.”

“All the better,” MacDonald replied in his gruff voice. “Leaguers won’t be as challenging.”

At last they reached their objective: the security doors to the bridge of the vessel. Unlike Terran Coalition capital ships, they didn’t have extensive security precautions on League ships, and the bridge was a relatively easy target. The team, by now, had their roles down to muscle memory. Rostami charged forward and attached a line of detcord around the opening, while everyone else stood back to the safe distance of five meters.

“Fire in the hole!” Rostami roared. A moment later, the explosive detonated with a flash of white light and flame. Shredded pieces of alloy composite rained throughout the passageway.

“Go, go, go!” MacDonald yelled into his commlink, and he surged through the gap the explosion made, taking point. His battle rifle at the ready, he felled a defender that popped up from cover, then quickly pivoted toward another enemy who was firing on full auto. A moment later, it was over, and the bridge crew was all either stunned or had their hands up in surrender.

The end of the simulated bridge began to crank open, revealing the hangar bay of the Lion of Judah beyond. Captain Singh and members of his command element stood patiently as it fully rolled back.

“Two seconds off your best, Master Chief,” Singh commented, though he wore a smile. “Still, good job.”

MacDonald came to attention. “Captain on deck!”

“As you were, gentlemen. Master Chief, got a moment?”

“Of course, sir. Everyone, take five,” MacDonald barked.

Rostami and the rest of the commandos, as well as the opposing force actors, headed out the back, leaving the men alone.

“How’s it look? Don’t sugarcoat this for me, Master Chief.”

“Sir, we’re running roughly fifty/fifty on these simulated run-throughs.”

“That’s what I thought. I’d ideally like to see you up to ninety percent success,” Singh replied as he glanced around the room laid out to be the bridge. It wasn’t a perfect replication; there were boxes of supplies labeled as consoles, but it did the job.

“We’ll keep practicing, sir, but I fear fifty/fifty may be the best we’re going to get.”

Singh pursed his lips together. “I hate those kinds of odds.”

“You know, sir, I’ve been in a lot of ops with similar odds, and we seem to come out on top. Maybe God’s got his thumb on the scale for us.” That’s what I tell myself anyway. Maybe it’s blind luck.

“I, too, share that feeling,” Singh replied. “I pray to Ik Onkar for our cause daily.”

MacDonald’s eyes glanced at the patches on the Captain’s shoulder. One was for the nation-state of Pakistan, the other the symbol for Sikhism. He hadn’t known much about it until meeting his commander. “Maybe our Leaguer friends have some bad karma coming their way.”

“We live in hope, Master Chief.”

There was silence in the room as both men glanced around, then back at each other. MacDonald spoke. “Captain, I get the impression there’s something you want to say to me.”

Singh paused and bit down on his lip. “You know I’m a man of few words and much action, Master Chief. I am concerned, shall we say, about this operation.”

“Why, beyond the obvious?”

“Bluntly, because of the obvious. You’re going to engage a League destroyer with a stealth raider, hope to hell it’s able to disable the enemy, then board and capture. All the while, if the Leaguers figure out what the goal is, the standing orders they have from their political officers are to self-destruct rather than allow us to take them intact. A better question is, aren’t you concerned?”

The stream of words from Singh was a shock to MacDonald. The Captain doesn’t sound like himself. He’s usually gung-ho to get in there and raise Cain. “I’m a tier-one operator, Captain, with all the baggage that entails. Someone in my chain of command tells me to shoot some Leaguers, capture a target, or destroy it, and I respond. It’s in my blood. Frankly, I love my job,” he said with a sardonic grin. “I don’t feel remorse for the bad guys I put down, and I long for the day we finally defeat these assholes. Since our politicians are being replaced by a feckless lot, I’ll settle for a longshot op to make it easier down the road when the war starts again.”

“I don’t want to see you and your team throw your lives away.”

The softness in Singh’s voice made MacDonald pause. “I appreciate that, Captain. Trust me when I say if it cost me my life and the lives of my team to see this mission a success, it’s a price we’re all willing to pay.” He held up his hand. “That said, I won’t engage in reckless actions, or take extreme risks. The safety of my men is one of my deepest concerns. But we must accomplish this mission.”

Singh slapped MacDonald on the shoulder and gave him a half hug. “Go with God, Master Chief.”

Run the Gauntlet

The solar system known as Teegarden—named back in the 21st century—was a mere twelve light-years from Earth itself. The idea that a ship of the Coalition Defense Force was quietly moving through space so close to their long-abandoned home planet sent chills down Mancini’s spine. He suspected it unnerved the rest of the crew if they bothered to consider it as well. They’d jumped in well “above” the solar plane, much like they had at Gliese 667 C. Teegarden was a small red dwarf, though, not the tri-star system of Gliese. As a result, it was far more compact and harder to hide in, with ships jumping in and out with regularity.

“Another milk run,” Godat remarked.

Mancini glanced at him with one eye. “Don’t even go there.” He stared at the tactical plot with the ring of red icons around the Leaguer shipyard that was home to over a third of their shipbuilding capability.

“Conn, TAO. We’ve IDed another space elevator from Teegarden’s third planet. It’s directly connected to the shipyard.”

“That makes three,” Cosentino said from behind the CO’s and XO’s chairs.

“Maybe they do everything in threes,” Mancini said with a chortle. “Any sign of detection, TAO?”

“No, sir.”

Of course there isn’t. They would’ve already alerted me. When he felt everyone was nervous, Mancini broke out the small talk. Asking things he already knew the answer to, with the thought of letting everyone hear it to calm down the control room crew. So they continued, seconds turning into minutes, which turned into hours. He was close to going for a sandwich and leaving Godat in command, when Oleson’s voice rang out.

“Conn, TAO. Sir, I’ve got something on passive. Sensor room is evaluating, but it’s an intermittent contact.”

Mancini’s ears perked up. He punched a button on his chair. “Sensor room, conn. Estimation of intermittent contact?”

“Conn, sensor room,” VanDyke replied immediately. “Unknown class, but it’s small. If it’s a ship, no more than twenty meters wide. It could also be a sensor—”

“Conn, TAO!” Oleson cut in. “Contact designated Master Seventy-Three. Still unknown classification, but it’s putting out an active sensor sweep.”

It only took a moment for Mancini to put two and two together. The mystery contact was a League listening satellite. Probably stealthed. “COB, SCRAM the reactor!”

“Aye aye, sir. Reactor SCRAM in progress,” Cosentino replied.

All hint of vibration through the deck disappeared within ten seconds, the result of their power generation source shutting down. Mancini let out a breath. They were already rigged for ultra-quiet, but there were still a few things he could do to limit their exposure. “Deactivate all external systems.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Conn, sensor room.” The speaker on the CO’s chair crackled with VanDyke’s voice. “Positive identified. League sensor picket. Two more on screen. It looks like an electronic fence to me, sir.”

“TAO,” Mancini began. “Superimpose our projected course with the sensor pickets approximated. We can assume they’ll have them in a ring around the shipyard.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Oleson said.

A moment later, the viewer above Mancini’s head came to life, and he stared at the plot. The dotted line of the Tucson’s path was visible, as were the red dots indicating the League satellite network. Two rings, one inside the other with overlapping coverage—and they were heading right for one of the enemy contacts in the second ring.

“Shit,” Godat uttered under his breath.

“That about sums it up,” Mancini said with a slight smirk. “If we try to maneuver, we’ll be spotted for sure.”

“We could try a series of split-second burn from the thrusters, skipper,” Cosentino interjected from his perch behind them.

“Not a bad idea, COB. We’re still too close, though.” Wait a minute. “COB, is our shuttle bay fully pressurized?”

“Aye, sir. No reason for it not to be.”

“You’ve got an idea,” Godat said with a raised eyebrow. “Don’t you?”

It was Mancini’s turn to grin. “Maybe.” He turned toward the tactical and helm stations. “Navigation, if we vent out the shuttle bay, would it be enough to alter our course far enough to avoid the enemy contact?”

“I’ll run the calculations, sir,” the navigator replied.

Nail-biting tension permeated every cell of Mancini’s being. Each tick of the clock brought a slight change to their position, and the Tucson moved ever closer to discovery. He ran through scenarios to escape but realized none of them were good. If they showed up on a League sensor scan, they were probably dead.

“Conn, navigation. Got it, sir. We’ll need to vent twice, but I think it’ll work.”

Mancini exhaled through his mouth. Too close. Way too close. “COB, on the navigator’s mark, vent it.”

“Aye aye, skipper,” Cosentino replied.

Thirty more seconds counted off before the navigator spoke up. “Conn, navigation, mark, sir!”

“Emergency blow, shuttle bay,” Cosentino said as he stroked the ops console he sat at. The effect was immediate: the release of atmosphere pushed the vessel to port, away from the first satellite.

“Conn, sensor room,” the voice of VanDyke interrupted from the speaker on Mancini’s chair. “The closest sensor sat just went active. It's searching for us, sir… must’ve picked up a ghost echo.”

Cosentino didn’t need an order—he shut down the vent on his own before reporting. “Secured, skipper.”

With a quick glance, Mancini confirmed his fear. They hadn’t corrected their course entirely, and the Tucson would pass within spitting distance of the nearest League satellite. “COB, secure the boat. Turn off the batteries, shut down life support, and black us out.”

“We’ll be blind, sir,” Gadot whispered. “If they see us, we’ll have no way to react. Or get away.”

“I know, XO. CDF engineers have been telling me for years how great their stealth coating is. I hope it's good enough.”

“There’s still time to burn out,” Gadot insisted.

“And blow the entire operation?” My XO’s got a point. We could cut bait and run, but no. This boat has come too far, and I won’t be the one that loses our chance to nail the Leaguers before it gets off the ground.

Gadot pursed his lips together but said nothing further. His jaw was tight, and sweat dripped off his forehead.

One by one, screens shut down, the overhead lights blinked off, air handlers ceased operation, and the control room was suddenly quiet. So much so that Mancini thought he could hear his heart pounding in his chest and taste fear in the air. Red emergency lights came on, bathing them in an eerie glow.

“All systems shutdown, skipper. We’re dead in space,” Cosentino announced.

“Conn, navigation. Best guess, forty-five seconds to clear the first ring and resume ship functions.”

“Thank you,” Mancini replied. He sat in silence, counting down the seconds mentally, expecting the crash of League weapons at any moment. God, help us. Please. Hands grasped together, the time ticked by. After fifty, he glanced up. “COB, power us up. Emergency batteries, control room consoles, and passive sensors only.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

It took a few moments for the vessel to, in effect, reboot. The overhead lights came back with their steady blue light—the ship remained at general quarters, condition one. Then, one by one, the screens brightened.

“Conn, sensor room,” VanDyke’s voice crackled through the speaker on the CO’s chair.

“Go ahead, Chief.”

“Sir, we’ve cleared the first satellite. Second picket line dead ahead, we’re still out of position. No change in League ship tracks.”

Thank you, Jesus. As Mancini let out a sigh, it seemed as if the entire staff present did too. “Navigation, plot out the next shuttle bay depressurization release.”

“Aye aye, sir.” A moment passed. “We need a ten-second full atmosphere release, sir. In about twenty seconds.”

“COB, stand ready.”

“Ready enough I’m starting to get frosty, skipper.” Cosentino’s voice had a trace of mirth in it.

Time again seemed to crawl—from Mancini’s perspective, each agonizing tick of the second dial on his mission clock was an eternity. Finally, ten more seconds passed. “COB, vent the bay!”

Much like before, the Tucson skewed to one side as the small vessel’s shuttle bay explosively decompressed into space. Once more, time slowed to an almost imperceptible slog—each tick of the clock bringing the genuine threat of destruction if the Leaguers had any inkling of the ship being in the system.

“Conn, Navigation, we’re clear.”

“Shuttle bay secured, sir.” The G-force pressing against them ceased immediately.

One of the beautiful things about a well-broken-in crew is in a stressful situation, everything works like clockwork because the gears inside their minds fit together. Mancini let out another breath through his mouth. “Navigation, confirm trajectory on my viewer.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A moment later, the new plot appeared above his head. Now it showed them moving on from the remaining sensor satellites and on a direct course toward the shipyard for a deep passive scan. An enlisted crewman at the front of the control room made the sign of the cross. Yeah, no doubt about it, they should’ve had us. A frown creased Mancini’s face. “Okay. Maybe we’ll get out of this alive.”

Godat cast a glance at him. “I’m counting on it, sir. I saw my life pass in front of my eyes a few minutes ago and I realized I haven’t dated nearly enough women.”

The XO’s quip took a second or two to register, but when it did, and more importantly, when Mancini snickered at it, a wave of muted laughter quickly spread. Just the release they needed. For the next two hours, the Tucson coasted in, its forward speed maintained. They passed the League facility at a range of roughly fifty-thousand kilometers, close enough for detailed scans of a low enough power they wouldn’t tip off the enemy.

It wasn’t until they were on the other side and close to the Lawrence limit that the CO’s speaker crackled to life. “Conn, sensor room.”

“Sensor room, conn. Go ahead, Chief.”

“Skipper, I think you better get down here. You’re going to want to see this yourself.”

Run the Gauntlet

The last few days had been non-stop waiting for David. The worst kind of days. Waiting allowed for him to get lost in his mind, and even the mind-numbing tasks like good old CDF paperwork weren’t occupying him. Out here for months, there wasn’t a steady stream of personnel changes, Colonel’s Masts, and supply reports to take his mind off the task at hand. He’d thought about recording a vidlink to Angie, but it wouldn’t get back to her until the ship did anyway. So what’s the point? Such was the attitude he brought with him to the bridge of the Lion. It was hidden beneath the mask of command always present on his face. But the ever-present battle within raged as he pondered the cost of his actions and how far he was sliding toward absolute hatred of the League.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, wormhole opening, five thousand kilometers off the port bow,” Ruth called out, interrupting his thoughts.

It’s either the Tucson, or

“Conn, TAO, confirmed CDF signature. CSV Tucson!” Ruth’s voice betrayed the stress they all felt. Even a regular action like a friendly ship jumping in provoked an emotional response as of late.

David exhaled through his mouth. “Thank God. Communications, please send Major Mancini my compliments and patch in the air boss. I want them inside our hangar within thirty minutes.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied. “Sir, I’ve got an incoming vidlink from Major Mancini.”

“Put him on my personal viewer.”

David glanced upward as it came on, and the cramped interior of the stealth raiders' control room popped onto the screen.

Mancini filled most of the center of the image. “Sorry if we gave you a scare there, General.” He wore a grin.

It took David a moment to process there was an upside-down broom displayed in such a manner that it was readily visible behind the CO’s and XO’s chairs. “Clean sweep? Getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we, Major?”

“All mission objectives accomplished, with no compromise of our position. That’s the textbook definition of a fully successful mission justifying the broom, sir.”

David’s mouth curled up into a grin. Heh. I like this guy; he pushes back for the sake of his crew, even to a flag officer—my kind of commander. “Fair enough. I want to get you guys inside as soon as possible.”

“Agreed, sir. I know it’s approaching the end of the first watch, but I’d like to brief your senior staff as soon as possible. We’ve got some troubling information out of the sensor sweeps.”

Of course, it couldn’t be smooth sailing. David frowned, unable to keep the emotion off his face. “I’ll assemble my team. See you in an hour, Major?”

“That should be more than enough time, sir.”

“Very well. Oh, and Major? Good job. Color me quite impressed,” David said as he flashed a grin.

“Thank you, sir. Leaguers never knew we were there. That’s the silent service for you.”


11

Less than an hour later, David and the Lion’s command staff were taking their seats in the expansive conference room directly off the bridge on deck one. He’d also requested the presence of General Hale and Aibek, and both had transited from their respective ships. Ruth, Hammond, Calvin, Captain Singh, Hanson, Doctor Tural, and Amir sat down the left side of the table, while Kenneth, Doctor Hayworth, Merriweather, Taylor, and Master Chief Tinetariro were on the right.

David glanced at the digital clock on the wall, then took the time to make eye contact with each individual. “We’ll get started in a moment, when Major Mancini and the rest of our guests get here.”

“Want me to send out the Marines to find them, sir?” Calvin asked, his tone jovial.

“I’m quite sure that won’t be needed, Colonel,” David replied, a smile creeping over his face. Leave it to a Marine to find something funny going on.

The hatch opened up behind David, causing him to turn and face it.

Hale and Aibek walked in together, with Mancini right behind. All three came to attention.

David stood, and as he did, everyone else in the room did as well. I’m still getting used to the formalities. “As you were. Please, take your seats.” As they moved to sit, he reached an arm out toward Aibek. “I’m missing you on the bridge, Colonel.”

Aibek displayed a toothy grin as he took David’s arm in his, the traditional Saurian style of greeting. “I miss it too.”

Once everyone had found open chairs, Mancini leaned forward with anticipation.

“Okay, ladies and gentlemen. The Tucson has spent the last few days reconnoitering our targets. We’ve all been waiting with bated breath, so don’t keep us in suspense any longer, Major. What’d you find?” David asked.

All eyes focused on Mancini. He seemed to take it in stride, with a cool and calm attitude. “That’s a bit of a loaded question, General. May I make use of your holoprojector?”

“Go for it.”

Mancini produced a small data storage device from his uniform pants pocket and slid it into a hookup on the table for such implements. A moment later, a starmap appeared in the room, and he started manipulating it, first to the Gliese system.

“We’ll start with Gliese 667 C. While it’s a trinary system, the habitable planet orbits the third star. The Tucson executed a ballistic orbital insert, from the solar plane perspective anyway,” Mancini began. A series of dots of different colors started blinking. “The structures represented by the orange dots are standard League orbital defense platforms. They encircle the shipyard complex. Plasma-based anti-ship weaponry, backed by missile cells. Nothing special.”

That’s good, at least. David adjusted himself in his seat. I’ve yet to see a League defense platform that can withstand our primary armaments.

“The red ones are something else. Our sensor suite got a great look at them on the way in, and they appear to be fighter bases.” Mancini tapped a control, and the image zoomed in to show a boxy structure with large doors on two sides. “Notice the space doors? We think those are hangar bays.”

“What kind of volume do those stations have, Major?” Amir asked as he frowned.

“Enough to comfortably hold two thousand small craft each, Colonel.”

Oh, snap. “Are you certain?” David asked. His eyes bored into Mancini.

“It’s our sensor department’s best guess, sir. I’d stake my career on what Petty Officer VanDyke comes up with, though. He’s never steered me wrong, and he can pick out different wave patterns on Rand class cruisers.”

David leaned back in his chair, briefly glancing at the overhead. “Do both star systems have these features, Major?”

“Yes, sir. I should note that Gliese’s defenders never came close to finding us. The Leaguers in Teegarden are a much more energic bunch,” Mancini said, his lips curling up in a grin as he finished the sentence. “I thought for a minute they might get lucky.”

“Do we have any information on what weapon systems are mounted, shield strength, or tactical details?” Aibek asked with a slight hiss to his voice.

“Limited,” Mancini replied. “I can tell you conclusively that those stations are old. Fifty plus years, minimum. But they look, at least from a passive scan, like they’re well taken care of.”

David cleared his throat. “We must assume they’re mounting the latest League tech, and that any fighters or bombers based off those fighter stations are the best models they have to offer.” The room fell silent, a thick air of tension coating the air. Nervous glances were cast around him and frowns of worry interchanged with anxious lip biting or fidgeting. Fear permeated the room, sparing none—save for two individuals. His lip twitched. I doubt anything could scare Calvin and Singh, though. “Before we proceed, is there anything in your scans to suggest those stations are different from the defense platforms we’ve already engaged, especially in terms of shielding, Major?”

“I doubt it, sir. They’re ancient and match up to the specifications of installations around invaded League systems.”

“In that case,” David began, with a glance toward Hale. “We know the Lion’s primary particle beam weaponry cuts through their shields like a hot knife through butter. I like our odds.”

Amir leaned forward and made eye contact. “I believe you’re missing something, sir.”

“Enlighten me, Colonel.”

“Best case scenario, it takes forty-five minutes for the League to get its fighters in space. Worse, if they’re on their A-game, it’s only fifteen.” Amir’s eyes were downcast. “Even with reinforcements from the Ark Royal, I don’t see how we can stand against six thousand enemy craft. They’ll overwhelm us with sheer numbers.”

“This operation may no longer be viable, General,” Hale interjected.

Like lasers, everyone turned toward her, and the unspoken challenge to David.

“I have not come most of the way to Earth to leave without an honorable fight,” Aibek said as he showed his teeth. “Perhaps you have a different option?”

Time for some out-of-the-box thinking. David stared at the projected orbits of the various planets and defense stations. If only we could get closer to them on the initial jump, but that’s impossible. A lightbulb went off in his mind, and he turned to Hayworth. “Doctor, have you tested jumping an anti-matter powered warship in closer than the Lawrence limit?”

“No, why would I?” Hayworth replied with a broad smirk. “I don’t have a death wish, and I don’t believe in your magical afterlife. This is the only life I’ve got and I like it.”

“Humor me, doctor. My understanding of the science is limited—”

“Of course, it’s limited. You’re a soldier.”

David glared at him. “I’m not in the mood.” His tone was harsh and direct. “For the last time, would it work?”

“Probably, General, sir.” Acid was almost dripping out of Hayworth’s mouth by now. “I’d have to run some tests. But, hypothetically, the power generation would offset some of the negative effects and allow us to jump closer in. There’d still be a significant risk of exotic particle release.”

“Okay,” David began as he turned his attention back to the military officers in the room. “We split the fleet into three elements. The Lion, plus two heavy cruisers, attack the shipyard, while two action groups of two heavy cruisers each take out the nearest fighter stations; then get back in formation and assist with mop-up. After which, we get out while the getting’s good.”

“Bold, sir,” Aibek said, respect evident in his tone. “What of my command?”

“You’ll have to jump in at the normal Lawrence limit and transit under max sub-light.”

The big Saurian looked perturbed not to be a part of the initial battle. He’ll get his chance. We’re all going to get our turn at the Leaguers before this is said and done. “I’ll draw up more formalized plans and distribute them to all ship commanders.”

“If I may, sir, what of the Ark Royal?” Hale began. “She’s not built for straight-up pummeling of enemy battleships. I have serious misgivings about jumping her into battle, alongside the Lion of Judah, especially if there were unforeseen issues with the Lawrence drive transit.”

David stared at her for a moment before responding. This kind of talk belongs in private, not in an open staff meeting. The last thing everyone needed to see was two flag officers bickering and second-guessing each other. “The first thought that popped into my mind was moving your fighters and bombers onto the Lion and having the Ark Royal stay behind.”

“Leaving us defenseless?”

The first words that came to David’s mind were less than gracious and not something he’d ever say in an open forum. He bit them off in his throat before continuing. “Do you have a point, General Hale?”

“With respect, sir, perhaps this is a bridge too far. We’re pushing the envelope of the possible, and you’re veering toward outsized risks with the most precious resources in the CDF—our anti-matter powered warships.”

He seethed under the surface. “I’ll take your position under advisement.” David’s face turned blood red as he spoke. “Until then, have your CAG coordinate with Colonel Amir and determine if we can fit the entirety of your wing into the Lion’s hangar deck.” Before she could open her mouth to respond, he continued. “Moving on to the ground portion of our attack. Colonel Demood, Captain Singh, how go our preparations and training?”

“Both companies of recon Marines are ready to roll, sir,” Calvin replied. “Absolutely, positively ready to smoke any Leaguers we run into.”

David couldn’t help but smile. “Glad to hear it, Colonel. Captain Singh, what about the tier-one teams? They’ll be leading the charge.”

“Yes, sir. We’ve been training extensively in a mock-up of a League destroyer down in the hangar. At this point, I believe it’s a sixty/forty proposition to capture the ship intact, without its crew triggering a self-destruct,” the Sikh commando replied. “It’s going to come down to how dedicated the Leaguers are. My teams are drilled as best as we can possibly be.”

“It’s too great of a risk.”

“Enough,” David said as he turned toward Hale.

“Sir—”

Enough.”

Uncomfortable silence broke out in the room. Officers cast sidelong glances at one another, and the atmosphere became extremely tense.

Calvin leaned forward and made eye contact with David. “Sir, our personnel know the risk and will do their best. I have no doubt we’ll capture the destroyer and stand ready to execute the rest of this plan.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” David replied. “Make it clear to your Marines, as well as the commando teams, that this is a volunteer assignment.”

“Yes, sir.” Calvin sat back as if he was finished, then set his jaw. “Actually, sir, I’ll be leading this one personally. I won’t ask someone to do what I’m not willing to do myself. You mind if I join the op, Captain?” he asked, staring at Singh.

Singh turned. “Try and keep up.”

Polite chuckles swept the room, but the tension was still there.

“Kenneth, you’re the last one on my list. Status of the upgrades?”

The defense contractor swallowed. “All fighters and bombers are now equipped with the drone tech, sir. We’ve finished the improvements to the Tucson as well. She can handle an extra four hundred personnel.”

“Yeah, I’d like to see you try finding a place to sleep on my boat with four hundred Marines on it,” Mancini interjected. “To say it’ll be cramped is akin to asking if the Pope is Catholic.”

“Marines are tough. We’ll manage. You squids better watch out.”

Mancini didn’t respond, except to grin from ear to ear.

“Alright, then. We’ve got our action items. I’ll distribute my final attack plan by this evening. Godspeed to you all. Everyone except for General Hale is dismissed.”

There was the usual rush to the exits, and within thirty seconds, the conference room was cleared, except for the two flag officers. Hale glared at him from her seat. “General Cohen—”

David cut her off in mid-sentence. “Let’s get something straight here. If you ever question me or this mission in front of my officers and crew again, I’ll have you relieved of command and put your XO in charge. Do I make myself clear?” As he spoke, blood flowed into his cheeks and they grew hot.

“With respect, sir,” Hale began, folding her arms in front of her chest, “I have a duty to speak up if I feel your battle plan puts my ship and crew at risk.”

“Which you may do in private at any point in time. Once I give an order, you will follow it.”

“My orders allow me to withdraw at any point in time, General Cohen. That’s directly from General Okafor.”

David’s head nearly exploded. So now I’ve got to deal with political backstabbing too? “I wasn’t aware that Okafor existed outside of the chain of command.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“President Spencer is the commander-in-chief of the CDF. His orders are clear. Take out the shipyards by any means necessary.” The rush of emotion through David was nearly overwhelming. Anger burned white-hot, and for a moment, all he wanted to do was put his fist through the wall. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

“Do you plan to engage in a suicide mission, General Cohen?” Hale asked. She, too, had a blood-red face, and her eyes flashed anger as they bored into him.

“No. I never have, and I pray I never will.”

“Really? Because some believe your first big combat situation with the Yitzchak Rabin was an attempt to get into the history books alongside your father.”

There was silence as David balled his right hand into a fist several times. He stared at her. How dare you. “I answered those charges at a hearing. They were wrong then, they’re wrong now. I did what I had to do, to save the lives of tens of thousands of Terran Coalition civilians. I’d do it again, if I had it to do over. What I won’t do is make a knowing run at death with no plan to succeed. If you don’t have the guts to fight the League, Hale, tell me now and get the heck off my ship.” He could hear his heart pounding like a freight train in his ears.

“I’ve been fighting the League just as long as you have. I’ve seen my friends die, I’ve seen my fair share of victories and defeats. I believe in this mission, but I won’t execute it without an eye to the cost. If you want the Ark Royal to participate, you’ll have to acknowledge that.”

“Once I complete the battle plan, review it and get back to me,” he replied. He still saw red, and it was a challenge to focus.

“Very well, sir.”

“Dismissed,” David spat.

She stood quickly and left, leaving him in the room, alone.

David stared at the ceiling, then down at his hands, to see he’d nearly drawn blood from gripping them into fists so tightly. What is wrong with me? While he pondered, one thing was clear. Having the Rabin shoved in his face still brought out an emotional response. He didn’t want the rest of the bridge to see him in the state he was in, so he sat for what seemed like an eternity until the throbbing in his head stopped and calm returned.

Run the Gauntlet

Deep within the Lion of Judah, Benjamin Hayworth toiled silently in his lab. It was his respite. The one place on the ship that was his, his alone, and entirely his domain. He also hated being disturbed in it. Glancing up from his direct link to the vessel’s massive central computer, he cursed under his breath at the door chime. “What!”

The chime sounded again.

“Come!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.

The hatch swung open, and Elizabeth Merriweather strode in. “Doctor?”

Hayworth closed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Eliza. I’m not in the mood for company.”

She made her way further into the room and walked around to his console. “Working on the Lawrence limit problem?”

“Yes,” he replied, his voice like ice. “As I said, I’d rather be alone.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it blisteringly obvious? I tire of the military always expecting me to save the day for them. Add into it that I’m one of the only atheists on this ship, and yet Colonel Cohen constantly turns to me. Maybe he should try God more often and leave me alone.” The words poured out of Hayworth, along with spittle.

“Are you quite done?”

He stared at her for a moment. “As a matter of fact, no, I’m just getting started.”

Merriweather put her hand on his arm. “Why are you so angry?”

“I just told you, Eliza!”

“No, the real reason.”

Her insistent gaze was like nothing else he’d experienced. I can tune out everyone else. Except her. “This is my life’s work. I have no control of it, no say. If these blithering idiots get the ship blown up, I die with it, and no one will ever know how much I’ve sacrificed!”

“I do,” she replied quietly and paused for a moment. “Isn’t it enough to know you’ve completely changed the face of the human race?”

“Does it still matter, if no one knows? Anti-matter power generation technology is still classified at the highest levels.”

She put her hand on his arm. “If it ever came to that, I’d make sure everyone knew.”

Hayworth pursed his lips together. “Thank you.”

“By the way, Cohen’s a general now.”

“Well, good for him,” Hayworth replied, his tone acerbic. He couldn’t keep from smirking, though.

“How’s it coming?”

“The additional output of the anti-matter reactor, if routed into the Lawrence drive, will allow us to jump closer to a planetary object. The closer we go, the more power it’ll take. There’s a non-zero chance of an exotic particle release.” While he spoke, he crossed his arms in front of him.

“How much of a chance?”

Hayworth looked away. “Enough of one that I’m considering not telling the good General it’ll work.” It felt good to get the thought off his chest. He glanced at her and made eye contact.

“Forget all this for a moment. What do you want out of life?”

“What’s that got to do with anything, Eliza?”

“Doctor, answer me. What do you want out of life?”

“To be remembered among the greatest scientists that ever lived. Galileo, Hawking, Einstein. I want my name to be an adjective, describing the smartest humans in the galaxy.”

Merriweather’s face contorted into an absurd grin while she tried not to laugh and failed. After composing herself, she spoke. “Do you realize that the enlisted engineers in the engineering spaces mock each other by measuring how much like someone else is to you?”

“If you're trying to make me feel better, Eliza,” he said quietly, “you’re doing an awful job.”

“Doctor, you are among the most difficult, bullheaded, and annoying people I’ve met. At the same time, you’re the most brilliant and caring man I know. Oh, it's buried, but I know it’s in there. We need you right now. I need you.”

Oh, how can I resist her? She knows how to wrap me around her finger. He looked away. “Fine. I’ll tell him.”

“And figure out how to mitigate the risk?”

“As much as I can, dear.”

Merriweather leaned in and gave him a hug. “You know you’re like a second father to me, right?”

“And you’re the daughter I never had. I suppose that’s why I put up with you,” Hayworth said, trying to inject some pique into his voice and failing terribly. “Answer me this, though. I know you voted for Fuentes. Why encourage me to help finish this mission? I would think you’d be against it.”

She frowned. “I recognize that taking out their shipyards will give us a strategic advantage. I also obey lawful orders. General Cohen is my commanding officer, so I do what he tells me to.”

“The joy of being a civilian,” Hayworth replied, his voice light. “I get to pick and choose.”

“Let yourself think that,” Merriweather said archly. “You’re under contract with the military. All the funding you’ve been given comes with a price.”

“Don’t remind me,” Hayworth replied. Sometimes I wish I’d never taken their grant too.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, dear. I should be wrapped up here in another two or three hours.”

“I’ll see you later, then.” Merriweather leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. A moment later, she was gone.

Hayworth checked his console to find the simulation he’d run finished, and with a grunt, started typing away on the next one.

Run the Gauntlet

After a few hours on watch, David retired to his day cabin to write up a formal battle plan. He’d set aside his emotions to focus solely on the task at hand. His tactical plan ended up being simplistic, as such things went. Dividing the fleet will either be a masterstroke or enable our defeat. He thought back through human military history to commanders who took similar risks. The ones who succeeded were hailed as geniuses. Those who failed were relegated to the dustbin of time. I don’t care what history says about me, as long as we win. His thoughts were interrupted by the ding of the hatch buzzer.

“Come in,” he called out.

The hatch swung open to reveal Ruth. She strode in, wearing a smile. “Do you have a minute, sir?”

David smiled. “Always. Have a seat.”

She shut the hatch behind her, then sat down in the chair closest to the deck. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“What’s on your mind, Ruth?” He used her first name to indicate it was a discussion between friends.

“You, sir.”

His face clouded over, and he scrunched his eyes together. “I don’t follow.”

“Something’s wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you get so angry as you were this morning.”

Great, I’m letting it seep out into view of my crew. I’ve got to get control of myself. “General Hale’s behavior was improper,” David replied, and found himself having to fight hard not to let an edge creep into his voice.

“I don’t dispute that, but you’ve always led by example and shown a better way. I don’t know what’s wrong with the Terran Coalition right now, but I believe we’re better served by trying to work with one another. You’ve always encouraged that in me. Even when I had other ideas.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. She’s right. I know something’s wrong. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s as if everything around us is encouraging anger and divisiveness. It was as if all the cracks in the Terran Coalition were finally coming apart all at once around him. The Peace Union vs. the Liberals, the Erhart affair; all of it was tearing them apart. Maybe I’m paying the price for not dealing with it within myself. “I apologize. You’re absolutely right—it’s my job to lead by example, and I didn’t.”

“For what it’s worth, we’re with you all the way, sir. No matter what it takes or what it costs. The Lion of Judah will triumph over the League.”

“Thank you, Ruth.” David bit down on his lip. “I guess I’ve been allowing my emotions to interfere with my thought process since the election. I still can’t get over an avowed socialist winning. And while I’m being honest, not having Colonel Aibek next to me is more challenging than I expected.”

“How so, sir?”

“I need someone to bounce my ideas off and get honest feedback. Sometimes they’re gold, and sometimes I’m in loony tunes land,” he said as he grinned. “That’s the curse of being unorthodox in combat tactics.” If I could only clone him. David tilted his head to the side, and then it hit him. “Wait a minute. Why I didn’t think of this sooner? I’ll make you the acting XO for the duration of this mission!”

Ruth’s face clouded over and her eyes opened wide. “I…” Her voice trailed off. “I don’t think I’m what you need, sir.”

“Why not?” David asked, his right eyebrow raised. “You served as the acting XO with Major Hanson in command. From what I read of his after-action report, you performed admirably.”

“Still, sir, every shot will count in what we’re about to do.”

“The Lion will be shooting at space stations. A first-year cadet could handle it. Lieutenant Kelsey is doing quite nicely in her duties, is she not?”

“It's entirely possible we’ll end up in a running space battle with an enemy fleet, sir.”

David leaned back in the chair, pondering her reasoning. “If so, I’ll have you take tactical. Part of leadership is the management of personnel. It’s a good lesson to learn, starting now.”

“Sir?”

“We’ve discussed this before. You’re not staying on assignment to the Lion forever. You’ve got a bright and promising career in front of you. We’ll talk about it after we get through with our current assignment. Deal?”

“Yes, sir.” Ruth smiled, but something was lacking in it. Her eyes appeared downcast.

“Thank you for coming to see me.”

Ruth stood and came to attention. “Anytime, sir. Godspeed.”

“Godspeed, Lieutenant. Dismissed.” I suppose I’d better figure out how to fill in the hole I dug with Hale. As she walked out, David returned to the tablet on his desk and went back to his battle plan.


12

With a long stride, David crossed the threshold into the Lion’s hangar bay, filled with more personnel than usual—mostly Marines and commandos—making their way toward the Tucson. It was his destination as well. Calvin and Mancini stood beside the small, squat stealth raider, overseeing the movement of people and supplies.

“General on deck!” Godat shouted.

“As you were,” David replied quickly. He strode up to Calvin and tapped him on the shoulder. “Ready to kick some Leaguers in the teeth, Colonel?”

Calvin flashed a grin. “Always, sir. What brings you down here?”

David suppressed a sigh. “Oh, I wanted to wish the troops well.” The truth was, he found his conscience bothering him. The operation was risky. Too risky. All it’ll take is one die-hard Leaguer pushing the button and all these people will die. Desperate times, desperate measures. Part of him wanted to ask for volunteers, as if somehow that would cleanse the guilt on his soul.

“Spacewalkers don’t need well-wishes,” MacDonald yelled. “We only require targets.”

“Ah, yes, you don’t ask how many, only where they are.”

MacDonald grunted. “Damn straight, sir.”

“The same was said for another group of elite troops. The Spartans.”

“Colonel, does he pull this history crap up on a regular basis?” MacDonald asked with a grin plastered across his face. “I never paid attention in class.”

“Yeah, but I’ve learned enough to pass as cultured officer, now,” Calvin said, his voice completely deadpan.

“Colonel, Master Chief, please assemble your men.” David didn’t feel like banter, not with the weight on his shoulders.

It took a few moments for the Marines and commandos to gather in neat rows—Calvin wouldn’t accept anything less, nor would MacDonald. Once they were at parade rest, all faced David and came to attention.

“As you were,” David began with a glance at Calvin. “You are about to undertake one of the most daring raids ever attempted against the League of Sol. Should we carry the day, our forces will be less than twenty light-years from Earth, in a position to destroy the League’s infrastructure to wage war against the Terran Coalition… our home.” His eyes swept the crowd, full of nervous young men and women, along with grizzled veterans who’d served as long or longer than him. “I have said on many occasions that commanding the Lion of Judah and those who serve with me is the highest honor I’ve had in this life. As I stand here today, that remains the absolute truth. See to your duty, secure the enemy vessel, and I promise you, we will prevail over the League.”

A shout of “Hoorah!” went up from them, seeming to shake the deck itself.

“If you ain’t spacewalking, you ain’t shit!” one of the commandos yelled.

As another cheer sounded, David forced a smile to his lips. “Godspeed, Marines! Dismissed.”

The entire group turned as one, then marched off toward the stealth raiders' cargo bay hatch, which was open for loading the various additional supplies and equipment. Mancini appeared next to Calvin, having come out the main hatch to the ship.

“General, we’re about ready, sir.”

“Outstanding, Mancini,” David replied. “Everything shipshape?”

“As I’ve said a few times, it's going to be a heck of a squeeze, and no one will be getting decent rack time… but we’ll manage. Just make sure you’re waiting for us when we’re done.” The last bit was said with a smile.

“The Leaguers aren’t good enough to find us in the void with EMCON alpha in force,” David replied confidently. Maybe they are… but I must project success rather than worry. “Good luck, Major.”

“Say a prayer for us, sir.”

David clasped his hands together. “I will, though I only pray for our safe return to our families.”

Mancini raised an eyebrow. “Not for victory?”

“No. I remain convinced God detests what humans do to one another. I won’t ask Him to help me kill people.”

“I see. Well, I have no such compunction, General. Evil is evil, and God destroys evil.”

After a moment, David’s eyes took in the Catholic flag on Mancini’s uniform, directly under the Terran Coalition flag. I’m not getting into a theological argument. “I suppose we can agree to disagree.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Carry on, Major. Godspeed.”

“Godspeed to you too, sir.” Mancini turned on his heel and headed back into the Tucson.

With a final jaunty salute, Calvin too disappeared, following behind the rest of the Marines. With them and the commandos out of the hangar, it suddenly felt quieter. More open and slower. I suppose that’s the effect the rather frenetic Master Chief and his men have on a place. I hope this works. They’ve always pulled it off before, but something is gnawing at me. David turned and walked away, back to his duties.

Run the Gauntlet

Later in the day, David retired to his day cabin and office—a few steps from the bridge. He quickly finished up his paperwork and found himself contemplating how close they were to Earth—and his actions. The realization his anger clouded what he usually would consider to be sound judgment bothered him to his core. He’d visited the shul and prayed, asking God to forgive him. Now he needed to make amends.

David had never been one to use his rank and position as a baton to hammer those he led into line. I believe if you lead well, those under your command will obey you cheerfully. There was a glaring hole in his leadership recently, and that was his treatment of General Hale. As much as he tried to deny it to himself, he realized the truth of the matter was because of her political beliefs, so he viewed her as somehow being less. That’s not fair, and I know better. He decided to do something about it, and for starters, to be the bigger man. A few clicks later, and he sent a request for a vidlink.

Hale’s unsmiling face appeared on David’s tablet. “Good morning, General.” Her tone was tight and direct.

“Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“No, sir. I was actually about to ring you. What can I do for you?”

Well, I can’t blame her for being upset with me. I did dress her down pretty firmly. “I wanted to discuss the tactical plan. I also wanted to apologize for my behavior. I briefly allowed my emotions to get the better of me. You have a right to see to the safety of your ship and its crew.”

“While I thank you for that, sir,” Hale began, “I need to apologize to you as well. My comments to you about the Rabin were over the line, uncalled for, and I deeply regret them. I’ve come to know you well enough directly, and through reputation, that I know you care about the people under your command. Please forgive me.”

“Something tells me we could all do with a little more forgiveness and less condemnation if the last six months have taught us anything.”

Hale smiled sadly. “Quite, sir. I’ve reviewed your battle plan at length. I didn’t realize you planned to have the Ark Royal sit back at a safe distance. I can see no holes in what you’ve dialed up.”

“While I appreciate that, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The big question mark, of course, is how long it'll take the Leaguers to get their home defense fleet moving. We have no intelligence to speak of,” David said with a shrug. “This is still a fifty-fifty mission. At best.” He paused for a moment. “Colonel Amir tells me the Lion’s hangar bays can accommodate your entire small craft complement, though just barely.”

“My people tell me the same thing,” Hale replied. “I’m ready to transfer them at your command, sir. All I ask is you bring them home. As many as possible.”

David pursed his lips together. “I give you my word. I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you, sir.”

While her words were conciliatory, Hale’s general tone was one of discomfort. She crossed her arms in front of her. “I should be getting back to my duties, sir.”

“Of course, General. Thank you again, and I look forward to celebrating the League’s defeat in the near future,” David replied, and forced a smile to his lips.

“Godspeed and good luck.”

“Godspeed.” David tapped the button on his tablet to terminate the vidlink and sat back in his chair. Well, that takes care of our internal problems—on to the external ones.


13

It had taken two days of mapping League of Sol patrol routes for them to get the right target. Mancini had started to worry, but in the end, the superior sensors and technology of the Growler class raiders came through once again. They’d waited for the single Cobra class destroyer to pass through twice and plotted how long it’d taken for it to complete its circuit. Assured it would be out of short-range communications range, and they’d have enough time to execute the plan, the boat now lay in wait.

“ETA to projected reemergence, XO?” Mancini asked from his chair.

“Two minutes less than what it just was, sir,” Godat replied. At the withering look he received in return, he continued. “Five minutes.”

“Navigation, confirm our location.”

“Twenty thousand kilometers from enemy ingress point, skipper,” the navigator replied and turned toward him. Her blonde hair got in her face for a moment before she pushed it to the side. “Thrusters are standing by to line us up on target.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Mancini replied. We only get one shot at this. He briefly reflected on the sentiment. There was something about being inside a small ship, with no transparent alloy sections, limited shielding, and stealth as a defense that had a ring of desperation to it. To heck with that—we’re the hunters. He’d requested posting to the raider corps directly out of officer training and made it, to his surprise. Twelve years later, he had his own boat.

The seconds passed as if time itself had slowed to a crawl. Mancini took a moment to pray quietly, his voice a mere whisper. “Almighty and eternal God, protect the soldiers on this boat as they discharge their duties. Protect us with the shield of Your strength and keep us safe from all evil and harm. May Your power help us achieve victory over our foes and their evil. I ask this through Christ our Lord, who is powerful over all things. Amen.”

“Conn, TAO! Aspect change, inbound wormhole,” Lieutenant Scott Oleson, the tactical action officer announced. His voice was jumpy and nervous. “League signature confirmed.”

Right on time. Mancini leaned forward in his chair. “Type of ships?”

The speaker on the CO’s chair crackled. “Conn, sensor room. ID confirmed, one Cobra class destroyer.”

“Conn, TAO, contact designated Master One.”

Mancini had been over the battle plan in his head, over and over. He knew it by heart. Now to execute. “TAO, firing point procedures, Master One. Make tubes one and two ready in all respects. Set warheads for EMP overload, five meters from impact. Open outer doors.”

There was a momentary pause. “Tubes one and two ready in all respects, sir. Outer doors open, firing solution set.”

“Steady now. TAO, put the tactical plot on my viewer, please.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The plot of local space, thirty thousand kilometers around the Tucson sprang onto Mancini’s monitor. He stared at it with laser-like concentration. Closer and closer, the League destroyer approached, unaware of what was waiting. Fifteen thousand kilometers, then ten thousand, and onward it came.

“Are we waiting for them to get into pissing range, skipper?” Godat asked with a snicker. “Much closer and our safeties will prevent a Hunter missile launch.”

“We only get one shot, XO. I don’t want them getting away.” Once the Cobra was at twenty-five hundred kilometers, Mancini went to work. “TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes one and two.”

On a more massive ship, two missile launches were nothing. On a Growler class boat—it rocked their world. Coffee mugs sloshed, tablets fell off the stations of half the personnel in the control room, and the blue lights providing battle stations illumination flickered. “Conn, TAO. Units from tubes one and two running hot, straight and normal.”

The League destroyer finally realized the mortal peril it was in. It accelerated and altered course at the last second as the two missiles closed in on homing trajectories. Concentrated red specks of point defense fire streaked into the void as the ship tried in vain to shoot the Hunters down. Bracketing the unlucky vessel, both warheads exploded violently, bathing local space for a moment with the brightness of two miniature suns.

“Conn, TAO. Confirmed detonations on target, sir.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, EMP gun, Master One.”

“Firing solution set, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, EMP gun.”

A beam of purple energy shot out of the Tucson’s bow. It impacted the League destroyer and dissipated throughout the ship. Its engines ceased their thrust, and it started to drift.

“Conn, sensor room,” VanDyke’s voice cracked through a speaker on the CO’s chair. “Reactor SCRAM detected on Master One. She’s dead in space.”

Mancini shared a glance with Gadot. “So far, so good. Time to get the Marines rolling.” He punched a button on his chair. “Mancini to Demood.”

“Demood here,” Calvin’s deep voice answered. “Heard some shooting—you guys ready for us do the real work and capture some Leaguers?”

Gadot snickered. “Don’t get too cocky over there. You’ve still got to get home.”

“Something like that, Colonel. Are you ready to disembark?” Mancini asked.

“Affirmative.”

“Then Marine shuttles one, two, and three are cleared to undock. Good hunting and Godspeed.”

“Godspeed to you too, Major. We’ll let you know once the destroyer is secure. Demood out.”

Gadot turned his head toward Mancini. “I hope this is as simple as they made it out to be, skipper.”

“You and me both.” Because it never is, especially in combat. Mancini affixed his gaze to the tactical plot and waited for the next part of their mission to commence.

Run the Gauntlet

“Okay, you heard the man; time to go,” Calvin called out as he slid into the jump seat in the cockpit of the Marine assault shuttle he’d picked for himself. Aside from the destination as “One,” it was the same as the other two craft. Three full platoons of Recon Marines were tucked away in the cargo hold. Sixty warriors ready to kick some Leaguer ass. About time.

The pilot, a young male warrant officer, glanced at him. “Yes, sir. We’ve got the green light from control. Space doors should be opening momentarily.”

Just as he’d predicted, the hangar bay doors opened a few moments later, slowly traversing the track they were on. It wasn’t as impressive as the hangar on the Lion of Judah, but a rough old Marine like Calvin wasn’t about to admit he found anything in the CDF as impressive as a group of ready-to-fight ground pounders.

Once clearance came in from the Tucson, the flight of three shuttles roared into the blackness of the void. Drifting haphazardly against it was the disabled League destroyer. It sat at an angle, slowly spinning counter-clockwise. Their shuttle zoomed away from the others and worked into position to attach the specialized docking collar the contractors had fitted to the shuttles. It took several tries, thanks to the spinning motion of the enemy vessel, before they achieved a hard seal.

“Contact!” the pilot called out. “Locking us down.”

“Are we good?” Calvin asked.

“Yes, sir. You’re clear to ingress.”

Calvin disengaged the harness in his jump seat and stood. “Once we’re in, dust off and beat it back to the barn. If that League ship comes back to life, I don’t want you guys getting caught with your pants down.”

“Are you sure, sir?”

He gave a withering stare. “I don’t give orders I’m not sure of, Warrant.”

The young man turned bright red. “Of course, sir.”

“I appreciate the care,” Calvin replied and slapped him on the shoulder as he walked by. “Godspeed.”

“Godspeed to you too, sir.”

Without further comment, Calvin walked through the hatch into the cargo area. Marines stood shoulder to shoulder, packed in like sardines in their bulky power armor. The shuttle had been modified with a hatch in the deck that led down into the docking collar—which was now firmly attached to the Cobra they intended to capture.

“Colonel on deck!” Master Gunnery Sergeant Reuben Menahem, Calvin’s senior enlisted Marine, bellowed as soon as he saw him. A tall, burly man, he’d been assigned to the Lion of Judah’s MEU—Marine Expeditionary Unit—for the entire time it’d been in space.

“As you were, Marines,” Calvin replied. “We ready?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” the assembled company thundered in reply.

That brought a broad grin to Calvin’s face. “Outstanding, Marines. Okay, we’ve drilled this a thousand times. Our objective is the engineering space. Nothing matters except stopping their attempts to self-destruct the ship, which they undoubtedly will after realizing what we’re doing. Now move out!”

An enlisted Marine next to the hatch leaned down and lifted it, then shone his battle rifle down the dark hole. The private next to him jumped feet first into the docking collar, along with two others. A short time later, he called out, “We’ve got access! No resistance!”

“Move out!” Menahem thundered through the commlink linking the three platoons. Like a well-oiled machine, they jumped two by two into the enemy ship. In less than ninety seconds, it was down to him and Calvin. “After you, sir?”

Calvin snorted and swung himself over the lip of the hatch, thudding after ten feet onto the deck of the enemy vessel. Marines were spreading out down the passageway in either direction. “Okay, Master Guns,” he said as Menahem appeared next to him. “We’re on the clock. Platoons, follow the directions in your HUDs!”

“Sir, yes, sir!” those closest to him replied, while green lights indicating understanding and acceptance of orders lit up in his helmet mounted HUD from all three platoon leaders – a trio of Marine Second Lieutenants.

Ensuring his battle rifle was in a safe position, Calvin moved forward until he was at the front. As he did, a voice came over his commlink.

“This is Master Chief MacDonald. We’re in, top side, aft section. Passing objective point Charlie.”

“I read you loud and clear, Master Chief. Commence attack,” he replied after cueing up the right channel. “Portside boarding team is one hundred meters from objective.”

A few meters in front of him, the sound of boots hitting metal deck plating echoed in the passageway, and a group of at least ten Leaguer security personnel appeared from around a corner. They had their weapons up and immediately opened fire. Calvin, along with the rest of the Marines, returned it gamely, and the battle commenced.

Run the Gauntlet

Bullets flew so close to MacDonald’s helmet, he could feel the pressure waves as they went by. Alpha team had breached the aft of the enemy ship, one deck up from the engineering spaces, which were their objectives. Bravo team was with them, while the other two special operations squads were supporting the two Marine elements. With another eleven spacewalkers around him, it was tempting to feel invincible.

Harrell sent fully automatic bursts of armor-piercing rounds down the passageway they were pinned down in, felling several Leaguers. A Beta team commando added several forty-millimeter grenades to the mix, which dropped behind the row of enemies firing on them. The resulting explosion silenced all organized opposition, and the teams surged forward.

“Watch your corners,” MacDonald called into his commlink.

A few more League security troops ducked out of a side corridor, firing pulse rifles as they ran. The ineffective weapons did little but scorch the power armor suits the commandos wore.

MacDonald raised his rifle and put a burst of battle rifle bullets into the nearest Leaguer, while Mata did the same. In less than ten seconds, the latest wave of enemies lay dead on the deck. “Rostami, sitrep. Which way?”

“Uh, these schematics are wrong, Master Chief. Give me a second.” Tablet in hand, the team’s resident electronics expert tapped away. “Okay, I think we turn left here, and there’ll be an access tube about twenty meters down.”

“You think?” Harrell deadpanned. “Haven’t we told you before, no guesses, only facts?”

There was a grunt in response. “It's my best guess, Senior Chief.”

“Well, the kid’s right more than he’s wrong,” MacDonald said. “So you get point. Move out, Rostami.” Might as well let him sweat a little.

The team advanced as one, with Rostami in the lead. The sound-deadening tech built into their power-armored suits rendered them quiet as church mice—quite a feat for a seventy-five-pound layer of alloy and electronics. The sounds of battle echoed through their commlinks, while HUDs showed the advance of the recon Marine element on the other side of the ship. Everyone on the assault force moved with purpose. Fifteen meters later, Rostami held up his hand and made a fist. They stopped behind him.

“Tubes a little closer than I thought. It’ll dump us behind their main engineering spaces.”

He was interrupted by another voice on the commlink. “This is Colonel Demood to friendly units. We’re encountering fierce resistance—get your asses in gear!” Battle rifle fire echoed in the background.

“You heard the man. Down the tube!” MacDonald barked.

Harrell was the first one to jump down feet first. Mata, Rostami, Harrell, and Bravo team went next, while MacDonald took up the rear.

The drop took several seconds. He built up speed, but not as much as he would’ve in without the armor on, thanks to the friction caused by alloy on alloy contact. MacDonald found himself unceremoniously dropped on the deck plates after crashing out of the tube. A Leaguer dropped beside him, quite dead. As he stood up, it registered that they’d fallen into a group of League Marines, who were fighting for their lives just as hard as the commandos. He tried to bring up his rifle, but an enemy to his left brought an armored gauntlet on the weapon, knocking it away.

The Leaguer raised his rifle, but before he could squeeze the trigger, a deafening shot rang out at close quarters, and blood exploded from the armored helmet. A moment later, the armored trooper fell. Harrell stood behind, his sidearm still smoking. “Sorry, Master Chief. Took me a second to kill the other guy.”

With a smirk inside his helmet, MacDonald retrieved his battle rifle and surveyed the carnage. Several commandos from Bravo team were still pushing a group of Leaguers down the passageway in almost hand-to-hand combat, while Alpha team kicked weapons away from the fallen bodies before them. “Rostami! Are we at the right spot?”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“Good. Get explosives set on the bulkheads, now.”

The team worked quickly, seconds ticking away. High explosive directed charges were placed in a rough rectangle, about the size of a human, during a section where the schematics they had said no important machinery—or reactors—lay.

“Ready, Master Chief,” Rostami said, his tone one of anticipation.

“Clear the blast zone,” MacDonald barked. As soon as the team had backed away, he continued. “Fire in the hole!”

A colossal explosion ripped through the corridor. Flames and smoke blew through the passageway and out of the new opening now evident in the corridor wall. Without the advanced power-armor the team wore, they’d be injured or worse. But thanks to good old-fashioned Terran Coalition technology, they were one hundred percent combat effective—and charged through the portal like the hand of God.

MacDonald was the third in, behind Harrell and Mata. Enemy forces were everywhere. While there were few remaining members of the vessel’s security contingent, the engineers themselves had taken up weapons and fought like men and women possessed. A Leaguer holding a large plasma welder was shot down less than a meter from Mata. He appeared to be intent on cutting through their power armor with the tool.

Bursts of purple xaser energy flew through the air, impacting on equipment all around them, while the commandos returned fire with pinpoint accuracy. Over the course of thirty seconds, it was mostly over. Dozens of bodies littered the ground, and the scent of iron—from the gallons of blood spilled—was so strong, MacDonald swore he could smell it through his suit’s filtration system.

The team cleared the periphery of the space before turning to the center and their objective—the fusion reactor that powered the League destroyer. A few defenders remained, holed up behind a hastily erected barricade of an overturned tool container.

“If you come any closer, I’ll blow the reactor!” a voice shouted in accented English.

Oh great. Some Leaguer idiot wants to be a hero. “And kill yourself along with us?” MacDonald yelled back, his voice carrying thanks to the amplifier in his helmet.

“For the glory of the state!”

MacDonald raised his hand, pointed at Mata, and motioned to the right, then at Harrell and pointed to the left. “I’ve got a better idea. How about you throw down your weapon, and we’ll make sure you get three hots and a cot. Better than life here. What’cha say?” Gotta keep him talking.

“Why are you capitalist dogs here? Why have you come to our homes?” The man’s tone was almost to hysterics.

“Buddy, we’re just following orders. My CO told me to capture this ship. That’s what I’m going to do.”

A head belonging to a League engineer peeked over the container. “I don’t believe you. Commissar always say that capitalist religious dogs from Terran Coalition lie.”

A quick glance to either side told MacDonald that Mata and Harrel weren’t in position yet. He let his battle rifle drop into the one-point sling he carried it on and held his hands out. “Look, I don’t want to shoot an untrained conscript any more than you want to blow yourself up. Come on out of there with the rest of your fellows, and we’ll call it a day.”

For a moment, it seemed as if the group might see reason. And then there was a loud shout as one of the other engineers started grappling with the man who appeared to be about to give up.

“Go, go, go! Waste em! Shoot!” MacDonald thundered as he whipped up his rifle and fired on full auto through the tool container.

Mata and Harrell added to the maelstrom of bullets with crossfire from both sides.

When the reports of their battle rifles faded, MacDonald stepped forward and peered behind the makeshift barricade. He saw three bodies, all shredded from gunfire. A damn shame. What caught his eye more was a loose strand of cable leading to the reactor housing.

Rostami appeared and knelt next to the Leaguer who’d done the talking. “He was trying to vent the primary coolant loop. Almost did it too,” he said after a few seconds of examining the bodies and the gear around them. “Give me ten minutes, and I’ll get it cleaned up.”

“You’ve got five,” MacDonald barked. “Now clear out this section, and we’ll help Demood and his boys finish mopping up the ship.”


14

David stared at the tablet computer on his desk, propped up in its stand. He had retired to his day office after a few hours in the CO’s chair, waiting on word from the Tucson. The walls seemed to be closing in on him after more time spent doing busy work. Ugh. I detest waiting. The case he’d been reading detailed an enlisted soldier breaking into the officer's mess after hours and stealing a bottle of alcohol, which was then used in a drinking game.

He shook his head, suppressing a smile at the man’s gumption before typing out his sentence: two days bread and water diet, three hundred additional hours of cleaning duty. As he went to review the next file, the intercom went off.

Taylor’s voice filled the room. “Sir, I’ve got a tightbeam transmission from the Tucson. They report mission success and will be transiting back to our location momentarily. Major Mancini respectfully requests we do not shoot down the captured destroyer.”

For the first time in many days, David felt relief course through him. Anger, while still present within him, had an outlet. Finally, success. He stood. “Acknowledged, Lieutenant. I’m on my way.”

After walking the few short steps from the day cabin to the bridge of the Lion of Judah. David exchanged salutes with the TCMC sentries posted at its imposing hatch and pulled his cover on as he strode into the enormous bridge, coupled with a combat information center.

“General on deck!” a senior enlisted soldier called out.

“As you were,” David quickly answered before the bridge was disrupted too much. He came to a stop beside the CO’s chair, occupied by Ruth. “This is the commanding officer. I have the conn.”

Ruth glanced up. “General Cohen has the conn, aye, sir.” She then stood.

A moment later, the transfer was complete, and David found himself calling up the tactical sensor scan data—which showed them completely alone, aside from the small fleet of CDF vessels and the Saurian battleship.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, inbound wormholes,” Kelsey announced crisply. “One CDF signature, one League signature.”

David let out a breath as he stared at the plot.

“Conn, TAO. CSV Tucson confirmed and designated as Sierra One. League destroyer confirmed, designated Master One.” Kelsey followed procedure to the letter—any League contact was assumed hostile until proven otherwise.

“Conn, communications. Inbound transmission from the Tucson, sir.”

“Put it on my viewer, Lieutenant.”

A few moments later, the smiling face of Mancini appeared directly above David’s head. “General, greetings. I present you with our bounty. One League of Sol Cobra class destroyer, captured intact. She’ll need some work, but nothing we haven’t planned for. Your Marines and tier-one operators performed superbly.”

“Glad to hear it, Major. The air boss will guide your ship into our hangar. Briefing in one hour.”

“Aye aye, sir. Mancini out.”

“Cohen out.” The screen blinked off, leaving the bridge momentarily quiet. “Communications, let the hangar bay know to start phase two. We’ll need to shuttle all POWs off and the repair crews on.” David settled back in his seat. Now the hard part starts.

Run the Gauntlet

Several hours later, David adjusted himself in his seat at the head of the conference table. He and the Lion’s entire command staff, along with General Hale and Major Mancini, were grouped around it for what would be their final briefing before the assault on the League shipyards began.

“Master-at-arms reports all Leaguers locked up in the brig,” Calvin announced. “I’ve got Marines in power armor stationed throughout the holding area, and in the surrounding passageways.”

“Very good, Colonel,” David replied. “Any viable intel out of them?”

“Some. We went easy on ‘em for the most part. The tier-one boys had a chat too. Got some information about Leaguer security forces and the readiness of our targets. Safe to say, no one is expecting us.”

Hale snorted. “That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.”

“Few things worth doing in life are easy, General,” David interjected, his tone curt. “This mission, especially. Are our fighter groups integrated?” He glanced between Hale and Amir as he spoke.

“As much as they can be, sir,” Amir replied. “General Hale’s CAG has been instrumental in ensuring we all get along.” The pilot cracked a grin. “You know how fighter jocks can be.”

“Don’t I,” David began, a twinkle in his eye for a moment. “Okay. Moving on… Major Hanson. Have you integrated Doctor Hayworth’s new algorithms for Lawrence drive jumps?”

Hanson cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. I can’t test it outside of a simulation, though.”

“I’ll have to trust the good doctor doesn’t want us all to die in a massive explosion.”

Everyone stared at David, seemingly unsure of the intent of his words.

“A joke, people.” Yeah, we’re all keyed up. David moved to Mancini and Kenneth, who sat next to one another. “Status of the Tucson, and our prize?”

“On the outside, no one will be able to tell our League destroyer got popped,” Mancini replied. “Your contractor buddies did an okay job.”

Kenneth grimaced. “Okay? Just okay?”

“Passable.”

David laughed, hoping it would spread to the others. “So it’s ready?”

“Yes, sir,” Kenneth replied, his tone confident. “I’ll stake my life on it.”

“That’s good, because a lot of Marines and fellow soldiers will be staking theirs on getting in safely… and out.” David’s tone became pensive. “I suspect this will be the toughest assignment of our respective careers, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Semper Fi, do or die.” Calvin’s loud voice and cocky tone carried through the room. “If it was easy, you wouldn’t need the Marines.”

“What I mean to say,” David began, “is that I wouldn’t think of such an extreme and risky mission without the best team in the Terran Coalition. As I look around this table, there’s no group of people I’d rather put my life on the line with.” He glanced down at his hands for a moment, folded as they were. “I wish you all Godspeed, and that we may see each other again.”

“Living up to our motto, sir,” Ruth said with a grin.

It seemed most of them didn’t want to consider the finality of the briefing. The sure and certain knowledge there would be losses and causalities. Probably better that way. Semper Atticus. Always at the front, as the Lion’s official motto went. David quickly glanced around the room once more. “Anything else, ladies and gentlemen?” He counted off a full three seconds mentally. “Very well, dismissed.” As the group stood up as one, he positioned himself at the door and shook the hand of each person as they left.

Kenneth Lowe, the lone civilian in the room, was the last one out. “You have the appearance of a troubled man, sir,” he commented as he shook David’s hand.

“We’re months at normal speed from any friendly reinforcement, going into the teeth of the League’s home systems. Anyone that isn’t troubled has something wrong with them.”

“I’ve learned the last few years never to underestimate the Lion of Judah.”

David pursed his lips together before breaking into a smile. “No, never underestimate the power of free men and women fighting to defend their homes and what they believe in. Carry on, Mister Lowe.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kenneth replied as he exited the conference room.


15

Sleep had not come to David the night before. On the eve of what was arguably the most crucial battle of his life, there was no one to talk to. Those he’d typically have confided in or talked to were ten thousand light-years away and incommunicado, thanks to EMCON. Instead, he’d prayed, read his Torah, and eventually fell into a restless sleep for a few hours. Once he awoke, he was still uneasy. Fear filled his soul from a source he couldn’t pinpoint. I don’t have time for anything but cold hard logic and execution today. Such were his thoughts as he completed his morning routine and made his way to the bridge, exchanging salutes with the sentries at the entrance hatch.

“General on the bridge!” Master Chief Tinetariro announced.

Anyone not strapped into their console came to attention and saluted, while those seated sat up just a tiny bit straighter.

David finished pulling on his cover as he walked through the hatch and smiled. “As you were, ladies and gentlemen.” He offered a nod toward Tinetariro and strode to the CO’s chair. “This is General Cohen. I have the conn.” His eyes glanced around the bridge to see the first watch personnel had already arrived and taken their stations.

“General Cohen has the conn, aye,” Ruth answered per rote procedure with a grin in his direction.

“Anything to report, XO?” David asked as he settled into his seat.

“Mr. Lowe wanted it passed on that his team was done with the League destroyer. The Marines and our commando units are on board and ready to launch, as is the Tucson.”

Not a bad way to start the morning. I had some concern Kenneth would struggle to repair crappy League tech. He nodded to her, his jaw set. David turned his head toward Taylor. “Communications, patch me through to Major Mancini.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A moment later, Mancini appeared on the monitor above David’s head. He was wearing a black and gray League uniform, which David found somewhat unsettling. “Good morning, General.”

“Likewise, Major. I understand our trojan horse is ready to roll.”

Mancini broke into a grin. “Ready as we’ll ever be, sir. This ship’s packed to the gills with four hundred and fifty of your best Marines and commandos. Leaguers won’t know what hit them.”

“To confirm, one more time, you’ll transmit the codeword ‘Goliath’ once you’re safely docked and ready to infiltrate the station.”

“Yes, sir,” Mancini replied as he shifted in his seat.

Anxiety and concern clawed at David’s heart. God, please don’t let me send this man and his crew, some of whom are my friends, out to die needlessly. Let it be worth it. “Is Colonel Demood available?”

“That he is. Colonel!”

Calvin stepped into the picture and flashed a big grin. He, too, wore a utilitarian League uniform. “You sure we have to wear these stupid Leaguer getups, sir? I hate this thing. It makes me look fat.”

The bridges of both ships broke out into sustained laughter. David found himself glad he hadn’t been taking a drink of coffee from the mug in his chair. It would’ve sprayed out. “Take care out there.”

“Don’t worry about us, sir; we’ve got plenty of Leaguers to deal with to keep us busy,” Calvin replied.

“Any final orders, sir?” Mancini asked.

“None. We’ve been over this a million times mentally. Execute the plan, react to the changes that contact with the enemy force us to make. Win.”

“Aye aye, sir. See you at the rendezvous point and Godspeed.”

“Godspeed, Major. Cohen out.” He sat back in the comfortable chair and glanced around the bridge. There was a certain tension among the personnel present, but not in a bad way. They were ready. Perhaps I should give all of us a few words. “Communications, patch 1MC into a fleet-wide transmission, tight band only.”

“Aye aye, sir. You’re live.”

David pulled his uniform sweater down and straightened his posture. “Attention all hands, this is General Cohen. A few minutes from now, our efforts to destroy the majority of the League’s shipbuilding infrastructure will begin. It’s been a long journey into the heart of our enemy. We’re far from home and our loved ones, cut off from all forms of communication. I take solace in knowing that this fleet comprises the bravest and the best fighting men and women in the Coalition Defense Force and the Terran Coalition Marine Corps. We’ve trained, we’ve drilled. We’ve practiced until it’s engrained into the muscles of our hands and feet.” He paused a breath, and a glance around the room told him everyone was staring in rapt attention. “All that’s left is to complete the plan. It won’t be easy, but I have every confidence that our fleet will execute at the highest level, and we will carry the day. Now we wait until our captured destroyer signals it’s safely docked. Then we’re going to rain fire and brimstone down on the League. So trust in God and in our fellow soldiers. Today, we will not be stopped!”

Thunderous applause broke out from the enlisted ratings on the bridge along with cheers.

“As you were! Maintain proper bridge protocol,” Tinetariro bellowed.

Immediately, the tumult ceased, leaving them in silence. David bowed his head and began to pray softly in Hebrew. “Lord of the Universe, help me today to discharge my duties, to remember and keep Your commandments, and if it is Your will, allow those who serve under my command to return home safely to their families. In Your name, I pray, amen.”

Ruth spoke softly, also in Hebrew. “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. Lord, help us to defeat the League today. Help us to bring peace to Your people Israel, and all the nations of the Terran Coalition. In Your name we pray, amen.”

The two of them exchanged glances. “We’re going to need all the help we can get,” David said with a smile.

“If we don’t have God’s help, nothing else matters.”

The moment behind him, David turned his focus to the mission clock. Downward it ticked each second. Three hours to go.

Run the Gauntlet

Ninety minutes later, Mancini glanced around the bridge on their captured League destroyer. He’d taken to calling it the CSV Stewart, if only mentally. There was something distasteful, even disgusting, about the Leaguer vessel. I can’t place my mind on exactly what, but I feel like I need a shower. Much like everything else in the League of Sol, the ship was utilitarian in the extreme. There was no accounting for crew comfort in any design decision, and places where advanced robotics could’ve helped the human crew avoid risk, the designers apparently didn’t take notice or care.

Everything was a drab gray color, with black and red being accent colors. The emblem of the League, the clenched fist with a gear around it, was visible in practically every room. It's almost like a reminder that big brother is always watching. Mancini rested his gaze on the communications terminal. “Comms, signal the Tucson we’re moving out. If they don’t hear from the Lion of Judah or us in twenty-four hours, head back to Terran Coalition space at best speed.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“I hate these uniforms,” Calvin grumbled from the seat next to him. The Marine had insisted on spending his time onboard on the bridge to observe what was going on. “I need a bath.”

Mancini turned his head and laughed. “I just thought that myself, Colonel.”

“Great minds think alike.” The older Marine paused. “I noticed we don’t seem to have too many squids on this boat. What’s the deal? My guys can’t repair it if we get shot up.”

“Even with the enhancements to life support the contractors made… we still need every bit of oxygen and CO2 scrubber capability to ensure the troops are in top shape.” The specter of Marines degraded by CO2 poisoning was one not lost on Mancini. He’d seen the effects of elevated gas levels before in his years of service. They were akin to being drunk.

“Fair point. So don’t get it damaged, then.”

“Oh, I plan to blow it apart myself when we’re done with this op.”

“Once the spooks get the computer cores, of course.”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay, Colonel. Sit back and enjoy the ride.” Mancini turned toward the navigator, who manned the League-configured helm station. “Navigation, confirm Lawrence drive jump coordinates.”

“Conn, navigation. Confirmed, sir.”

“Navigation, execute Lawrence jump.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A few moments later, the lights flickered for a brief moment as the small destroyer started the buildup of energy that would soon result in the formation of a stable artificial wormhole between two points in space. As the maw of the construct—a massive kaleidoscope of color—formed, the ship accelerated and flew through.

“Conn, TAO. Sensors coming online, sir,” Oleson reported. “No contacts within one hundred thousand kilometers. We’re about a million kilometers from the shipyard and inside the normal shipping channel.”

“So far, so good,” Mancini uttered. Within, his heart pounded in his chest. “Navigation, ahead fifty percent thrust, ease us toward the station. Communications, transmit a request for docking permission per the format our POWs indicated.”

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

The increase in forward speed barely registered with inertial damping fields fully functional. Mancini put his head back and waited.

“Conn, communications. They acknowledged our message, and we’re in the cue.”

Mancini let out a deep breath. “Okay. Sixty minutes to show time, people. Stay alert. Our position could be compromised at any moment.” A part of him was speaking, just to hear his voice. A career spent serving on and now commanding stealth raiders helped build the character of steel required to sit in an enemy star system and be cool as a cucumber. A bead of sweat fell from his forehead. Who am I kidding? I’m terrified we’re going to be discovered too soon. In the end, even if they died, long as they accomplished the mission, it’d be worth the cost.

Time, as slow as it appeared to be for those on the captured destroyer, marched on. Second after second, minute after minute, the speck in the distance that was the Leaguer’s shipyard facility got larger. At ten thousand kilometers, it got real. Mancini glanced up from the plot and pulled his uniform tunic down, smoothing it out. “TAO, trigger charge number one on our hull.”

“Aye aye, skipper.”

A moment later, the ship rocked violently. A remote-controlled explosive device went off, blowing out the starboard lateral thruster fuel line. Jets of flame shone into the void of space. All in all, it was a convincing ruse.

“Conn, communications, I’ve got an audio/visual transmission from the station.”

“Put it on, audio only.” The moment the comms officer nodded his head, Mancini continued. “This is Lieutenant Commander Decker, declaring an emergency. We’ve lost our starboard thruster control and need immediate docking instructions.”

A voice crackled through the speaker in his chair in heavily accented Russian. “Say again?”

“I’ve got a zero-G fire here. It's out of control, and we need firefighting and engineering assistance immediately. Please, clear us for an open bay. I fear loss of the vessel and its socialized crew.” Maybe some Leaguer buzz words will help. Mancini couldn’t help but smirk.

“Understood. Proceed to the nearest starboard docking bay, seven alpha. We are opening the doors.”

Mancini made a cutting gesture across his throat, and the comm officer nodded.

“Please, tell me it’s not that easy to hoodwink a station full of League military officers,” Calvin deadpanned.

“Well, in their defense… what’s a more likely truth? Our ship is what it says it is, or we’re here to invade and destroy them, express delivery from the Terran Coalition?”

Calvin chuckled. “Fair point. I suppose I’d better get out of your hair and back down to my Marines.”

“Godspeed, Colonel.”

“Godspeed to you too, Major. Stay safe up here.”

With that, Calvin disappeared out of the aft hatch toward the small cargo bay. For reasons Mancini couldn’t readily explain, once the Marine was gone, it was as if a bit of the crew’s bravado went with him. The range continued to close with the station, and over the next couple of minutes they lined up to the opening space doors.

“Conn, communications. Sir, I’m not sure we’ll be able to transmit once we’re inside the shipyard. I’ve scanned the hull, and it’s made out of extremely dense material, coupled with a damping field for emissions control.”

That revelation got Mancini’s attention. He found himself wishing he’d brought Godat along to help reason through these sorts of problems. But most of the crew was back on the Tucson. “Prepare burst transmission with our codeword, comms.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Improvisation. A useful skill, but one I’d rather not use less than two dozen light-years from Earth. The distance to the station decreased with every passing moment, until they were moving at just five meters per second and were directly outside of the station’s hull. Engineering tugs had gathered and appeared to Mancini to be taking up position to douse their zero-G fire. Excellent. They bought it, hook, line, and sinker.

“Conn, TAO. We’re passing into the station’s force field now, sir,” Oleson interjected.

“Communications, transmit the message, now.”

Time again seemed to slow, and a good fifteen seconds passed. “Sent, sir.”

“Did it get through?”

“I’m not sure, sir.”

Oleson turned around in his seat and cracked a grin. “We’ll know soon enough, sir.”

“Amen. Signal Demood, he’s got a green light as soon as they lock the docking clamps on,” Mancini replied. “Then we pray.”

Run the Gauntlet

“Conn, communications,” Taylor said. “One-word transmission from Major Mancini. Message reads: Goliath.”

David’s head snapped around. He’d been deep in thought as the mission clock continued its march onward. “Does it authenticate, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir.”

With a final glance at Ruth, he punched the button on the CO’s chair for 1MC. “Attention all hands, this is General Cohen. General quarters, general quarters! Set condition one throughout the ship. All hands, man your battle stations. I say again, man your battle stations. This is not a drill.” The alarm klaxon blared, an ear-splitting sound loud enough to wake the dead, while at the same time, the lights on the bridge dimmed and turned blue.

“Conn, TAO. Condition one set throughout the ship, sir,” Second Lieutenant Victoria Kelsey, the Lion’s second watch tactical officer, reported from her console.

It all came together in David’s mind as he took in the information displayed on his console and readiness indications from across the fleet of ships. “Navigation, reconfirm Lawrence drive coordinates.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond said. A moment later, she continued. “Coordinates confirmed, sir. All ships in formation report ready.”

The six Constantine class anti-matter cruisers will jump in formation, while Aibek takes up the rear. David still didn’t like leaving his friend behind, unprotected by the rest of the ships. He forced those thoughts out of his mind and punched the intercom button for engineering. “Engineering, status of power shunt to Lawrence drives?”

“Ready on your command, sir,” Hanson’s voice crackled through the commlink.

“Engage the shunt.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Receiving maximum power from the anti-matter reactor, sir,” Hammond called out.

David leaned forward. “Navigation, activate Lawrence drive.” Come on, Lion. One more small miracle.

Almost immediately, the deck plates began to hum. Typically, the stress on the hull didn’t rise above what would be considered minor by a military engineer. As power built up in the artificial wormhole generator, the hum turned into a whine. Outside of the ship, visible through the transparent alloy “windows” on the bridge, the bright maw of a tunnel through space itself opened. Seven others joined it. A kaleidoscope of colors filled the blackness of space, with breathtaking beauty.

“Navigation, take us in.”

The massive warship started to move as its engines came to life. It picked up speed as the forward thrust continued and plowed into the visual display. A second later, the Lion emerged on the other side. Unlike most other jumps, the level of turbulence was high. Anything not secured into a console flew. The few enlisted ratings that weren’t seated found themselves knocked on the floor. Sparks exploded from an overloaded console, aft of the CO’s and XO’s chairs.

“TAO, report.”

“Sensors coming online, sir.”

Data flowed into David’s tactical viewer, along with an astrological map of their current location—Teegarden solar system, well within the Lawrence limit of the planet the shipyard orbited.

“Conn, TAO. Sensors online, no hostile warship contacts, populating the board with enemy orbital assets. All friendly vessels transited successfully and are designated Sierra One through Seven.”

We did it. Holy crap, we did it. For a moment, David allowed himself pride at the execution of the crew to get them as far as they’d come. Before he could get out his next set of orders, the intercom went off.

“Conn, engineering. This is Hanson. We’ve got a situation down here.”

Ruth and David both turned toward the speaker in unison.

“Damage report, Major?” Ruth barked.

“The jump in generated exotic particles that overloaded our Lawrence drive, and the anti-matter reactor. We’re going to have to run off the secondary fusion reactors until I can,” Hanson cut off mid-word, with a crash heard in the background, followed by a string of curses. “We’re working the problem, sir, got to go. Hanson out.”

David’s face went white as a sheet as he realized the implication. They couldn’t jump out, nor could they fight effectively. My God, I’ve led us into a disaster. For a moment, panic threatened to take over his mind. Then the tried and true training kicked in, coupled with decades of military experience. “XO, monitor the situation in engineering, and redirect additional damage control teams to the reactor room.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth replied.

“Navigation, hold position, station-keeping thrusters only.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond called back.

With a glance at the tactical plot, David forced himself to stay calm and focused. Work the problem at hand. We’ll be fine once the reactor is back online, and we’ll engage our target. For now, I must trust in the rest of the fleet to carry the day. The screen above him showed the Constantine class heavy cruisers bearing down on their respective targets: the League’s fighter garrisons.


16

Alarms sounded throughout the Lion’s main engineering space with its four-deck-tall anti-matter reactor. Hanson, Merriweather, and Hayworth were huddled around a console for matter/anti-matter fuel injection control. A sudden release of vapor from one of the primary coolant lines triggered a new alarm, coupled with flashing yellow warning strobe lights.

“I’m reading high energy gamma-ray release,” Hanson shouted. “Break out the radiation suits now!”

Even Hayworth appeared worried as he narrowed his eyes to stare at the screen. “We’ve got to reestablish control over containment or we could lose the ship. These damn exotic particles destroyed the wrong systems at the wrong time. We’re on tertiary backups, and they’re not functioning properly.”

Merriweather said nothing, staring at screen after screen of piping status. “Guys, look at this. There’s a leak in the primary coolant tube under the reactor. The fluid isn’t reaching the condenser chamber.”

“There’s no way to get at that with the reactor online, and we can’t shut it down from here,” Hanson replied. “We’re going to have to eject it.”

“Don’t be a blithering idiot, Major,” Hayworth practically shouted. “If we do that, we’ll be stuck here for the League to run down.”

“Got a better idea, doc? Because right now, we’re looking at losing the ship. We need to tell the General to start evacuating personnel, now.”

Hayworth stood, pulling himself up to his full height. “Get me a portable structural integrity force-field generator.”

“Why?” Merriweather asked in bewilderment.

“Because I can program its forcefield to wrap around the coolant tube and give us enough time to repair the damage and save the ship,” he replied quietly.

“I’m coming with you, doc,” Hanson interjected as he turned around and opened a locker containing emergency radiation suits. They were stripped down power armor suits lined with lead; extremely heavy, they were a tried and true defense. He quickly tugged the trousers up, then pulled the top half of the suit down. “Merriweather, help the doctor into his.” Without waiting for a reply, he took off toward a nearby storage locker and keyed in his command code. It popped open, and it was only a few seconds for him to find his quarry: the portable force-field generator.

“This suit’s only going to slow me down,” Hayworth groused as Merriweather put the helmet on his head.

Hanson forced a smile. “Yeah, well, neither one of us is Superman. Come on, doctor. We’re on the clock.” Breathe. In and out. You can do this. We’ll be fine.

The two men climbed down two stories via an alloy ladder to the base of the reactor. Once there, Hayworth entered his access code into the security hatch that led to the interior of the coolant system.

“Major, what are you doing?”

Hanson turned to see Second Lieutenant Doris Hunter standing there above them, hands on her hips.

“You can’t go in the core, even with a suit on. They taught me that in OCS.”

“We’re not going into the core, Hunter. Just the coolant tubes. Would you come down and spot us? I’m particularly worried about the doctor getting too high of a gamma-ray dose.”

“Yes, sir, Major!”

Her carefree approach had always impressed Hanson. I guess when you lose three limbs in an explosion, saving the ship in the process, life takes on a different meaning. “Door, doc. Now.”

A few moments later, the massive lead-lined door to the inner reactor housing swung open. Hayworth struggled with its weight but seemed to take some pleasure in moving it. “I suppose I could do to work out more.”

Hunter slid down the ladder and jumped off. “Be careful in there, guys.” She bit down on her lower lip.

With a nod, Hanson then rushed in, followed closely by Hayworth. The hatch closed behind them, a security measure to prevent radiation exposure. Once it was secure, the inner door cycled and opened. To the right was another set of hatches that led to the energized core. To enter there was certain death. And now for what’s behind door number two.

“Here. If we set it here, I can project the field under the reactor, into the tubes,” Hayworth said, pointing to a spot on the alloy deck.

The heat was nearly unbearable. Due to the ambient temperature of the room itself coupled with the weight of the radiation suits, Hanson’s faceplate fogged over. Condensation dripped down the interior of the helmet, and it was difficult to see. He struggled to move the heavy case holding the generator where it needed to go but succeeded. Chest heaving from labored breathing, he stepped back. “Work your magic, doc. We’ve got to get out of here.”

Hayworth knelt and opened the carrying case for the force-field generator and started keying in commands. “Just a minute, my boy.”

The room started to spin, and Hanson reached out to steady himself, holding on to a supporting strut. Something’s wrong. He pulled the digital Geiger counter attached to the suit up to his faceplate and tried to read it through the fog. The readout displayed “30260.” He dropped it in shock. “Doc, we got to go now! This compartment’s flooded with over thirty thousand rads of radiation!”

“No,” Hayworth said, the word slurring in his mouth. “Just.. one… more…”

Shit, this is bad. Hanson reached down and grabbed Hayworth by the arms, and dragged him toward the hatch leading back to the main engineering space. At first, the older man tried to resist but quickly gave up. By the time he’d gotten the door open and both of them into the decontamination area, it was everything he had left to open the outer hatch and collapse on the deck.

“Major! Major Hanson! Can you hear me?” Hunter yelled as she knelt next to him.

“Don’t touch me or the doc. Both of us took a nasty dose. Get radiological control down here and the reactor robot.” Hanson’s breathing was labored and heavy. His vision blurred, and it felt like a freight train was roaring through his head.

“Sir, we don’t have time for the robot; we’re on the verge of losing containment.”

Hanson briefly closed his eyes, trying to gather up the energy to drag himself back to the hatch. “Okay,” he began, panting. “I’ll go back in. The field generator still needs to be calibrated to cover the leak.” Through the fogged up helmet, he saw Hunter take off with purpose toward the open hatch. “No, Lieutenant! That’s an order. You don’t have a suit! Wait for the robot!” He tried to shout the words but could only rasp them out.

The hatch closed, and he heard the inner door cycle. Hanson tried to pull himself forward but found himself drifting in and out of consciousness. The only thing he was successful in doing was pulling an alarm, which caused another mind-scrambling alarm klaxon to sound. Some amount of time passed—it couldn’t have been long—and the lead-lined hatch swung open, slowly.

Hunter emerged, her face and hands covered in red marks. She fell to the deck and rolled on her back. “Field is engaged, sir. Mission accomplished.” Her breathing was labored, and after a moment, she turned to her side and vomited.

The last thing Hanson saw was a group of soldiers in radiation suits climbing down the ladder, all carrying portable stretchers and equipment to isolate them. Their voices were blurry, as if far away, and he couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Merriweather was there too, her voice distinctive, even through the heavy radiation protection suit she wore. She knelt next to Hanson. “We’re getting all three of you to the medbay. Don’t worry, Major. Stay with us.”

The darkness took him.

Run the Gauntlet

In the operations center onboard the LNS—League of Sol Naval Shipyard—Trotsky, Captain Anatoly Konstantinov sat at his post, a raised platform in the center of the room. He wore a pair of boxers and a striped T-shirt. There wasn’t enough time for him to change when the emergency alert came in of Terran Coalition ships jumping out of wormholes well within the range of what they ought to be able to do. Damn Terrans. They always seem to have another technological marvel to attack us with. He’d served for twenty years in the Sagittarius arm, fighting against the CDF. The Trotsky was a reward of sorts. A mostly ceremonial post, but one he took seriously. Large red lights flashed. The alert klaxon had shut off after five minutes. Anyone who hadn’t heard it was either too drunk to wake up or dead.

“Tactical, display the enemy ships course overlays,” Konstantinov ordered.

“Aye, Captain.”

The holotank to his right lit up with a projected image of local space, red icons representing the CDF ships. They’d jumped in three separate areas. A bold commander to split what appears to be an already small force. “Analysis of ship classes?”

“The six identical ships don’t register in our database, Captain. They appear to be heavy cruisers in size. We’re reading anti-matter on board all of them.”

Konstantinov’s eyebrows shot up. I thought they only had one anti-matter-based warship—the Lion of Judah. Of course, it’s here too. He still couldn’t make heads or tails of how close they’d jumped to planetary bodies. That’s not supposed to be possible. “Signal our garrisons to launch all fighters, immediately.”

“Fifteen minutes, if we’re lucky,” his executive officer interjected, his Russian thick with a French accent. “Thirty if the crews were napping.”

“Captain, I’m reading a significant energy buildup out of all six enemy vessels,” the tactical officer called out.

“Show me.”

The holotank zoomed in to the closest fighter base and the two ships approaching it. Particle beams erupted from both vessels and struck the station. Its shields held for several seconds before they failed, and the thick blue lances of energy speared the garrison along its length. Magnetic cannon and neutron beam emitter fire added to the maelstrom, and a few seconds later, a series of explosions broke out across the surface before the entire station exploded in a blinding flash of white light.

“In the name of Lenin,” Konstantinov breathed, his jaw wide open and eyes wide. How can we hope to stand against them? He forced himself to remain calm in the face of the overwhelming power of their adversary.

“Sir, they’ve destroyed all three. How did they know? How could they possibly know where to attack us?” Panic sounded in the tactical officer’s voice.

She has reason to panic. The political commissar will of course assume a traitor. “Steady yourself,” Konstantinov barked. “Get me Admiral Hartford immediately.”

“Aye, Captain.”

The wait seemed like the most prolonged period of time Konstantinov had to endure in his life.

Hartford appeared on the screen, his uniform pressed. In the background, his office was visible. He raised an eyebrow and narrowed his eyes. “Captain, why aren’t you in a proper uniform?”

“I apologize, Admiral, but we’re under attack by the Terran Coalition. There’s a force of eight ships here. All capital class vessels, led by the CSV Lion of Judah.”

“In Teegarden?” he asked as his eyes seemed to bulge out of his head.

“Yes, Admiral. They jumped in closer than the FTL limit and destroyed our fighter bases in orbit. They’re on approach for Trotsky. We need reinforcements, sir.”

“Can you launch any of the ships in your repair docks?”

“I’ve already got the crews attempting just that, sir. But, sir, these ships, they’re all powered by anti-matter reactors. They have weapons that cut through our stations like they didn’t exist. Bring the fleet, sir.”

Hartford set his jaw. “I’m coming, Captain Konstantinov. Hold the line until we arrive, whatever it takes. Do not allow them to capture your station or land Marines on Teegarden III. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carry on, Captain. To the glory of the League!” Hartford made a fist and touched it to his chest.

Konstantinov returned the League salute before the screen went dark, and silence reigned in the operations center. He turned to his executive officer. “Roust all available crews. I want every ship we can undock in space within thirty minutes.”

“Aye, Captain!”

Staring at the plot, Konstantinov watched as the six dots belonging to the CDF’s heavy cruisers burned for higher orbits on an intercept course with the Trotsky. Another ship, showing as a Saurian battleship, had jumped in system further out, and was making what he assumed was flank speed for the rest of the enemy fleet. Why is their flagship sitting there, unmoving? If only we had a fleet to give battle and find out. “Tactical, get all of our weapons online. Charge the plasma energy capacitors and ensure point defense is in standby mode.” As the crew scurried about carrying out his orders, he maintained the calmness of a Zen master, his hands carefully folded in his lap. I suppose I should go change. It wouldn’t do to get killed by the CDF in my underwear.

Run the Gauntlet

“Lieutenant, get me someone in engineering,” David barked from the CO’s chair. Beads of sweat coated his forehead as their situation became more dire.

“One moment, sir,” Taylor replied.

They were running with shields up but had no power for weapons unless the engines were secured. With the anti-matter reactor down, the Lion was effectively fighting with one arm tied behind its back. The destruction of the fighter garrisons had temporarily tilted the battle in their favor, but disaster still loomed.

Taylor’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “I’ve got Major Merriweather, sir.”

David punched a button on his chair. “What’s going on down there, and why isn’t Hanson answering?” he asked, his tone direct.

“I’m sorry, sir. We had an exotic particle release that damaged the anti-matter containment system. We’ve got our tertiary backups online, and the reactor is powering up. I’ll be able to give you full power in a few minutes.”

“Thank you, Major,” David replied, breathing a sigh of relief. “Now where’s my chief engineer?”

There was a pregnant pause on the line. “He was exposed to extremely high levels of gamma rays, along with Doctor Hayworth and many other engineering personnel. They’re all in the medical bay receiving treatment. I’ve got decontamination teams working, but I’ll have to ask you to keep engineering sealed until we’ve cleaned up the mess.”

David was silent for a moment, shocked at her words. First Sheila, now more friends. No, Doctor Tural will see to it they recover. Doubts roared to the surface as he considered if his actions were rash, pushing the technology beyond its limits. He shoved the dark thoughts that welled within him down, deep into his soul. “Thank you, Major. Carry on as acting engineer until Hanson and the others can return to their posts.”

“Aye aye, sir. Merriweather out.”

The next few minutes passed uneventfully, but time seemingly crawled for David. He stared at the tactical plot on his viewer, going over and over his strategy. The massive shipyard, while an impressive feature on the battlefield, wasn’t as heavily-armed as say, Unity Station. He was more worried about it launching the ships held within.

“Sir,” Ruth said, interrupting his thoughts. “I’m showing main power restored. The energy weapons capacitor is charging.”

Thank you, Lord. “TAO, double-load all magnetic cannons with EMP and armor-piercing shells.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

“Navigation, intercept course on Master Six.”

With a final glance to the plot, David confirmed his target: the nearest defense station orbiting the League shipyard. A familiar feel—the humming of the engines, pushing the mighty warship through the vacuum of space. He smiled as calm returned with the capabilities of the vessel restored. “Communications, signal the air boss. Launch all fighters.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor called back.

David sat back in his chair, watching as the range to the enemy closed steadily. We’re coming for you, Seville. Without these yards, you won’t be able to replace the ships we destroy. Today, we end the League.

Run the Gauntlet

Below decks in one of the starboard launch tubes onboard the Lion of Judah, Major Richard Hume sat patiently in his bomber. He’d switched from a Phantom heavy superior fighter to a bomber squadron at Colonel Amir’s request, given how vital maintaining proper cohesion of the jumbled small craft wings would be in the coming battle. They had personnel from two different carriers, plus the Lion. In short, it was a mess. Every craft that could fly was on ready five and had been for the last hour.

A deep, accented voice cut in from the commlink in his helmet. “Colonel Amir, to all squadrons. Launch in order as the boss calls. We are green to engage. Fighters will form on me, while bombers form on Major Hume.”

Finally. I was starting to get claustrophobic in this confined space. “Venit Horas, stand by for launch,” Hume said, the commlink set to his squadron. He’d adopted the Latin name a few weeks earlier. It meant “The hour has come.”

His pilots signaled their understanding, and the waiting resumed.

“Major Hume, this is the boss. You are cleared to launch, along with your squadron.”

“Confirmed, ma’am,” Hume replied. He switched the commlink channel. “Venit Horas, launch, launch, launch!”

With the press of a button, the electromagnetic sled under his bomber came to life and flung the craft down the launch tube. Twenty meters in, he fired his engines for additional thrust. The trip only took a few seconds, but Hume made use of them nonetheless. “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,” he began. “Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the League. May God rebuke them, I humbly pray. Come to our aid, God our Father, fight this day our battle for us, together with the holy angels, as You have promised. Carry our prayers to the throne of God, that the mercy of the Lord may quickly come and defeat the serpent of old, Satan and his servants in the League of Sol. Amen.”

Open space beckoned before him, and Hume looped his bomber around to observe as a continuous stream of small craft exited the Lion. Hand tightened on the control stick, he prepared for battle.


17

Calvin checked the firing control on the unfamiliar League energy rifle one more time. Crap League tech. I’d rather have a knife and nothing else than use this shit. The black and gray uniform he wore felt offensive, and he hated every moment of it. It was a viable tactic to fool the guards, though. I can take one for the team. He stood, along with sixty other Marines and the commando teams from the Lion, in the passageway leading to the aft cargo ramp on the captured destroyer they’d flown in on. The plan was to disembark in teams of four without raising suspicion.

“Demood, this is Mancini,” a now familiar voice crackled into the commlink earpiece he was wearing.

“Go ahead, Major.”

“I’m lowering the ramp. External cameras show a lot of activity in the loading bay we’re in, but not much in the way of armed security. Remember, your objective is to secure the control room for this bay and lock it down.”

“I wasn’t sleeping during the briefing, Major. TCMC’s got this; you fleet boys just sit back and have our ride ready.”

There was a chuckle on the other end of the line. “Whatever, Colonel. We’ll be here to collect your Marine rear ends when the going gets tough.”

Calvin turned serious. “Take care of yourself, Major. Godspeed.”

“Godspeed, Demood.”

He marveled for a moment. A year or two ago, that was just something I said. Now it’s something I mean. Calvin dropped the League rifle into its one-point sling, as they’d observed the Leaguers do, and glanced down the passageway. “Okay, Marines, let’s do this. Remember, blend in, do not arouse suspicion, and spread out. Your objectives are marked in your HUDs. Go loud only as an absolute last resort. Are we clear?”

“Hoorah!” the dozens behind him called back in a muted tone.

“Team one, with me,” Calvin replied. He turned and marched off the ship, down a short portable stairwell into the hangar bay. It was massive. The space made the Lion’s hangar appear downright microscopic. Lots of hostiles in this joint. Hundreds of Leaguers in jumpsuits and uniforms swarmed the deck. As he got down to the deck, he observed as much as he could to see if they were carrying weapons. None were in evidence.

“Comrade!” a voice behind him called.

Calvin turned to see a man in a black and gray jumpsuit holding a tablet. “Yes?”

“Back so soon?”

“Engine trouble,” he replied, his voice cocky. “You know how it is.”

“Da, unreliable.” The man shifted on his feet.

“I’ve got to go turn in our log, Captain’s orders. See you around, Comrade.” Calvin touched his hand to his chest in the salute of the League. Ugh, I’d rather chop my hand off. As the man wandered off, seemingly without purpose, Calvin gave a knowing nod to the three other Marines standing in the gangway. They set off toward the front of the hangar. A small control room was set into the bulkhead, directly next to the doors leading to the interior of the station. He rapped on the hatch.

“Yes?” a voice from within asked.

“The Captain ordered me to turn in a supplies request.”

“Go to the quartermaster, fool.”

Not sure if he was on video or not, Calvin affixed a harsh frown to his face and tried again. “Look, pal, the Captain told me to come here. I’m not interested in losing my rations for the day.”

“Lost rations? What ship are you serving on, comrade?” The voice laughed. “I can’t remember the last time someone was even punished on this station. You should put in for a transfer.”

“Can you help a comrade out or not?” Calvin did his best to inject some levity into his voice.

“Oh, why not.”

There was a harsh buzzing sound, and the hatch unlocked. He grasped the handle and pulled it open, then walked in. Calvin glanced around the small room, which could be described as a booth from its small size and suppressed the urge to PT the sorry excuse for a solider in front of him. The place was a pigsty with discarded food wrappers on the floor and a multitude of items strewn about.

“Do you have the file for me, comrade?”

Calvin flashed a smile, stepped forward, and held out a League-issue tablet. As the man stared and reached for it, Calvin grabbed his hand and, in a moment, flipped him around. His arm slid around the unlucky Leaguer’s throat before he could make a sound and tightened.

His victim wildly waved his arms and tried to punch him in the face, to no avail.

With a quick flick of both hands, Calvin broke his neck in one motion, and the lifeless body fell to the floor. “Demood to Alpha team. I’ve got control of the hangar’s control center.” He breathed heavily, in and out. “Are you guys ready? I need your electronics expert.”

“One nerd, coming right up,” MacDonald’s voice replied. “Chief Rostami will be there shortly with a couple of my guys to post security.”

“Understood. Demood out.”

What would’ve given him great joy only a year ago now turned his stomach: the sight of a dead Leaguer, spit trickling out of his mouth by the force of gravity. Calvin reached down and closed the man’s eyes as a small pang of remorse reverberated inside him. A special patterned knock at the door turned his attention away from the body, and he turned the handle to find a trio of commandos outside.

They pushed past Calvin wordlessly and quickly hid the corpse under a desk while draping trash and paperwork around to complete the camouflage.

“Give me some space to work here, gents,” Rostami said as he plugged in a small ruggedized tablet into the League console’s dataport.

“How long is this nerd crap gonna take?” Calvin asked, his tone one of a light razzing.

Rostami glanced up. “The fewer interruptions, the less time I’ll need.”

Calvin shook his head and muttered “smartasses” under his breath. He walked past the three of them and stuck his head out of the door. The hangar was alive with activity, as active loading and unloading of ships continued unabated.

“I’m in!” Rostami called out, his voice filled with glee. “I have control of this entire deck’s security layout, door controls, and communications.”

“All teams, this is Demood. Move out in groups of eight. I say again, move out in groups of eight. Head to points alpha, beta, and delta as planned. Secure the hangar. Use stun rounds on non-weapon carrying hostiles.” Calvin glanced back at Rostami. “It’d be easier to vent this joint into space… but ROE doesn’t allow for it.”

“Yeah, Colonel. It’s all good. We can go loud at your discretion, in the hangar bay.”

“Thanks, Chief.” Calvin cued his commlink and stuck his head back out of the door to see fifty commandos and Marines already in the hangar. “Execute, execute, execute.”

At that signal, all hell broke loose.

The Terran Coalition troops drew battle rifles and energy weapons from their concealed positions under the League uniforms they wore. They aimed and fired on any actual enemy present that moved. For at least fifteen seconds, the Leaguers were frozen—almost as if they were automatons run by a computer, and had no set of instructions for what to do in this situation. Eventually, they recovered—and tried to resist. Few of them were armed with anything more than improvised melee weapons and offered little effective opposition.

Calvin took in the battle with a sense of pride at how the Force Recon Marines and tier-one operators performed. Only a few Leaguers made it anywhere near the exit, and he shot them down with stun rounds as they came into his line of sight. Two minutes later, it was all over. Stunned enemies lay throughout the hangar. “Listen up, Marines! Use ziptie cuffs on all these losers and pile them up around that big shuttle over there. Then form up on me!”

Run the Gauntlet

“Conn, TAO. Fifteen seconds to maximum weapons range, sir,” Kelsey called out.

David stared straight ahead, taking in the imposing sight of the League space installations through the transparent alloy “windows” at the front of the Lion of Judah’s bridge. Onward they’d rushed, going from tiny specks to massive superstructures of alloy, a testament to man’s ability to fabricate structures in the realm of God. He glanced at Ruth. “I’m thinking optimum range for our forward particle beams, followed by an alpha strike of the mag-cannons and neutron beams.”

“Agreed, sir. What of our missile armament, though?”

“We’ll hold it in reserve. I want to preserve as many of our Hunter missiles as possible.”

Ruth nodded and busied herself on the small computer readout built into the XO’s chair.

“Navigation, slow to one-third. TAO, firing point procedures, forward particle beams, magnetic cannons, and neutron beam emitters, Master Six,” David said as he leaned forward in his seat, anticipation building.

“Firing solutions set, sir,” Kelsey replied, her voice tight.

David glanced up at his viewer and the tactical plot it displayed. A ring around the icon representing the Lion showed maximum range, and another, smaller circle displayed the optimum range of their heavy anti-ship weaponry. As the League station entered that ring, he returned his gaze to the front of the bridge. “Match bearings, shoot, all weapons.”

The lights on the bridge dimmed momentarily, and massive lances of white energy shot out from the bow of the Lion of Judah. All four hit directly in the center of the orbital League station, its shield sphere blazing red. It took all of six seconds for its defensive screens to fail, and the beams to pierce the outer ring of the structure. Explosions dotted the surface around the impact points. Kelsey added magnetic cannon rounds and neutron beam strikes, laying waste to its surface.

“TAO, status of Master Six?”

“Master Six is still combat capable, sir.” As if to underscore her point, the bridge shook from sustained plasma cannon fire from the League station.

David noted with satisfaction that the impacts they were taking seemed to be from non-upgraded plasma weapons, unlike what they’d recently faced on some League battleships and heavy cruisers. “TAO, reload all magnetic cannons, high explosive, and armor-piercing shells.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Ruth leaned over toward him. “Our scans show we took out most of the point defense on their dorsal arc. I recommend a Hunter missile strike there, say ten units.”

That’s a lot of Hunters. “Are you sure, T—” He stopped himself mid-word, so used to her role. “XO?”

“Yes, sir. That station’s got incredibly thick armor. We need to knock it out and move on to the next one. Our escorts will neutralize the third as they close in on our position, but we’re in the driver’s seat for the first two.”

“Agreed, XO,” David replied. He flashed a grin. I need to get her promoted and on to another assignment. Her talents are being wasted. Those thoughts pushed to the background, he focused on the battle at hand. “TAO, firing point procedures, target Master Six, magnetic cannons, neutron beams, and forward VRLS. Make tubes one through ten ready in all respects and open outer doors.”

“Aye aye, sir. Firing solutions set, outer doors opened.”

“Match bearing, shoot, all weapons,” David commanded.

The Lion rumbled as the ten missiles roared out of their launch tubes and into space. Nothing like a full volley attack of all two hundred and forty missiles at once, but it was still enough to be noticed. Without instruction, Kelsey executed a time-on-target attack. The magnetic cannon shells, neutron beams, and Hunter missiles all impacted the same general area of the dorsal hull on the station’s inner ring at the same time. Toward the end of the bombardment, something within the enemy structure started a string of secondary explosions—usually caused by a reactor going critical or a missile armament magazine—they grew in size until half of the outer ring blew off.

“Conn, TAO. Master Six is no longer combat capable, sir!”

I’ll give her license to be excited at her first confirmed League station kill. “Acknowledged, TAO. Good shooting.” David turned toward Ruth. “One down, two to go.”

“We could order our fighters and bombers to assist with the second installation, sir?” Ruth mused.

David shook his head. “No, I want to hold them in reserve as a battering ram for the main shipyard. We’re going to need every ounce of firepower we can get, and I don’t even want to think about the logistics of trying to rearm the additional craft in anything like a reasonable amount of time for another sortie.”

“Good point, sir. I forgot about the logistics involved.”

“Professionals deal with logistics, while amateurs debate tactics. Old military maxim, Lieutenant. Internalize it.” He smiled briefly then spoke again. “Navigation, intercept course, Master Eight.” The next closest station. “All ahead, flank. Communications, signal Colonel Amir to maintain formation with us, and to maintain weapons safe status.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond called back.

Run the Gauntlet

It only took the enemy thirty minutes to destroy the three remaining orbital defense stations around Teegarden III. Konstantinov agonized over every one of them, unable to do anything from the shipyard he commanded. Any minute now, they’ll come for us.

“Enemy flagship, CSV Lion of Judah is moving on an intercept course to us,” the tactical officer on the Trotsky called out.

Konstantinov glanced up. “Show me the tactical view for two hundred thousand kilometers around the station. Top down, with Z axis notations.”

The holographic tank morphed and showed them in the center, in orbit around Teegarden III. Four clusters of warships approached, one consisting of the Lion of Judah, while the other three were made up of two of their heavy cruiser class ships. “My estimate is fifteen minutes to engagement range. Do you concur, tactical?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Status of plasma weaponry?”

“All emplacements are armed and awaiting your orders, sir.”

“What of the ships in our repair bays?” Konstantinov asked. “It’s been over thirty minutes.”

“Multiple Rand class heavy cruisers are ready to launch, sir,” the XO answered. “As are six Cobra class destroyers.” The man hesitated at the end.

“What is it?”

“Sir, those ships wiped out our garrisons with ease. I don’t believe the few ships we have will be successful or even slow down the enemy.”

A valid point. “Let’s get the cruisers out, then, and have them stay within our shield grid. They can offer fire support.”

“Aye, Captain.”

The minutes passed slowly as Konstantinov stared at the tactical plot in the holotank. The Terran Coalition vessels steadily closed the range and adjusted their path so they fell into formation with the Lion of Judah. He pondered their tactics during this time. It would make sense they’d want to mass their firepower. If only we still had our own fighters to mix it up with the Terrans. “Why aren’t the Moskva and Varyag in space yet?” he barked.

“I’m sorry, Captain; their commanders continue to make excuses.”

“Get me a direct line,” Konstantinov replied.

A moment later, a woman in a League uniform appeared in the holotank. “Yes, Captain Konstantinov?”

“The Moskva must launch, now. If you wait much more, we’ll be risking the station with open doors during a combat situation.”

“My ship is not ready for active combat, Captain,” she replied, a French accent to her words. “I am attempting to remedy this.”

Konstantinov’s mouth curled up in disgust. “Enough. Undock from my station, or I will send a political commissar to arrest you for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Do not test me, Commander!”

His threat had the desired effect. Her jaw dropped open, and fear entered her eyes. “Yes, at once, comrade Captain.” The image cut off.

Moskva now maneuvering toward port side space doors, Captain,” the XO commented with a smirk on his face, as if to say “well done.”

“Captain, I’m showing an energy build-up from the Lion of Judah,” a sensor officer called out a few minutes later from the right side of the operations center. “Same pattern as the other ships before they fired on the fighter garrisons. The tactical computer confirms it’s a concentrated particle beam.”

It took a moment for Konstantinov to put it together. “What’s the status of the Moskva?”

“She’s entering space, sir, thirty more seconds.”

“No! Order her back inside, now!”

“Sir?” the XO asked, his mouth wide open.

“Do it!” Konstantinov shouted as the Lion opened fire. Four wide white beams of pure energy poured out of its bow. Crossing the void of space at the speed of light, they impacted on the immense shields of the shipyard at precisely the point they were weakest—the open hangar bay where the Moskva was almost clear of the space doors. Two of the beams punched through the length of the Rand class heavy cruiser, spearing it from end to end. It exploded a moment later, sending a wave of molten debris through the hangar it had previously inhabited.

“Sir, we’ve got zero-G fires spreading inside of repair bay two and the port side hangar,” the XO reported.

“Vent the repair bay into space.”

Silence overcame the operations center before the XO spoke. “Aye, Captain.”

There’s a thousand people in there. Lenin help me. “Give them a thirty-second count to find shelter or don EVA suits. Tactical, reconfigure our shield emitters to overlap coverage of the arcs presented to the Terrans.”

The tactical officer turned around in his seat. “But, sir, that carries the risk of catastrophic overload if they successfully overwhelm the local generators.”

Konstantinov smiled thinly. “Lieutenant, they won’t be able to pierce our shields with the few ships they have. Now do it. And communications, ensure Admiral Hartford knows our current situation.”

Run the Gauntlet

Simultaneously on the bridge of the Lion of Judah, David’s face was bathed in blue light as he stared at the tactical plot. They were still closing the distance to Master One—the League shipyard. He watched with satisfaction as the enemy cruiser they’d targeted disappeared from his monitor, and a bright orange explosion faded from view out of the transparent alloy “windows” in front of him. “Nice shooting, TAO.” He grinned toward Kelsey.

“Thank you, sir,” she replied.

“Communications, order all ships abreast to synchronize their firing patterns with us. TAO, firing point procedures, magnetic cannons, and neutron beam emitters, Master One.”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons,” David ordered.

The Lion rumbled again as her massive magnetic cannons spat helicar-sized shells and neutron beams crisscrossed the void. The range was still high for a normal engagement, but their target was an immobile space station—every shot connected, impacting against its shields. Red flares of energy were visible, wrapping the enemy installation in a sheath of color that was almost beautiful.

Something’s wrong. We should’ve seen at least some hull damage. David leaned forward in his seat. “TAO, did our escorts strike the target with us?”

“Yes, sir. I’m showing one hundred percent success rate across the fleet,” Kelsey replied, and glanced back at him.

“TAO, scan the target with our forward array. I specifically want you to look for shield reinforcement.”

“Yes, sir.”

A few moments passed. Ruth touched David’s arm and pointed to her monitor.

“Conn, TAO. It looks to me like they pulled energy from other shield arcs and reinforced the one we’re firing on.”

The XO’s screen showed the same thing. The other side of the station had almost no defensive screen energy, but the arc they faced was reinforced to ten times its standard protection rating. “And if we send part of the fleet around, one, they’ll take enemy fire, two, the station will reconfigure its shields and we still won’t be able to break through.”

Silence descended over the bridge.

“Sir, what are your orders?” Ruth asked quietly.

“I’m still thinking, XO,” David replied as he stared at the plot. “TAO, if we fire everything we’ve got, including our particle beams, will we break through based on your scans?”

Kelsey turned back toward the CO’s/XO’s chairs. “I’m not sure, sir.”

“We still have our bombers in play.”

David immediately started running each scenario through his mind before incoming plasma charges from the Leaguers diverted his attention. A volley of concentrated red bolts slammed into the Lion’s shields, along with the rest of the heavy cruisers in formation with them. He noted that the main shipyard seemed to have outdated plasma cannons as well. Makes sense, if they only have so many, defensive installations in the heart of their inner space would be the last to receive them. Still, the ship rumbled from the impact. “Good point, XO,” David said as he stroked his chin. “Okay. Here’s the plan. We’re going to continue to close distance and line up our entire weapons suite along with every ship in the fleet, while the fast movers engage at the same time.”

Ruth’s voice was quiet but insistent. “What if that’s not enough, sir?”

“Then we pull back and figure something else out,” David whispered back.

Run the Gauntlet

“Major, orders from General Cohen. All bombers are to move ahead and engage with the fleet. Target Master One.” Amir’s voice echoed through Hume’s helmet commlink.

“Understood, Colonel. Venit Hora and sister squadrons are moving to attack.”

Hume pushed his flight stick to the right, and his craft, large as it was, responded instantly. The bombers carried a dozen modified Starbolt missiles, which excelled at capital ship interdiction. They weren’t quite as powerful as the models found on CDF capital ships, but nevertheless, they did the job. “This is Hume to all heavy strike craft. Form on my squadron. We’re taking a run at the League shipyard.”

Green acknowledgment lights lit up to all fifteen bomber squadrons under his command. Through the tactical HUD in his helmet, he noted with satisfaction how the craft all flew together as if they’d done this a thousand times before. Nothing beats CDF training. The flying wedge pawed the vacuum for ten minutes before they started to enter target-acquisition range.

“Hume to all bombers, obtain positive lock. Maintain weapons safe status until I give the order to fire.” Surprisingly little resistance. Perhaps taking out their fighter garrisons took the fight out of the Leaguers for once. With that happy thought in his mind, they continued.


18

Red lights flashed in the operations center of the Trotsky, a byproduct of their battle alert status. Konstantinov stared at the holotank, watching the mass of enemy ships, backed by hundreds of fighters and bombers, approaching at flank speed.

“They’re not being cautious at all,” his XO observed.

Konstantinov grimaced. “No. I must assume we face Colonel David Cohen on the Lion of Judah. Our most recent intelligence suggests he was promoted. Perhaps he commands the entire fleet over there.”

“Enemy small craft have obtained weapons lock, Captain!” the tactical officer called out.

“Activate electronic counter-measures.” Like it’ll do any good. Terran Coalition technology is far better than ours. Staring at the plot, Konstantinov allowed himself a small grin. But what the Terrans don’t know about our defenses might be their undoing. While much of the station’s weaponry was outdated, its shield had been upgraded significantly during a refit less than five years ago. League military planners believed the biggest threat to static assets were from CDF carrier battlegroups, not capital ships. Perhaps they got it right for once.

“Sixty seconds to known missile range, Captain.”

Time ticked down as the wave of enemy vessels got closer and closer. At thirty seconds, Konstantinov sprang into action. “Tactical, open the point defense cannon outer doors, activate automated tracking system.” Now we’ll see how good this upgrade really is.

More seconds ticked away. “Captain, point defense cannon doors are open, automated tracking system active.”

Konstantinov laid his head back on the chair. “Weapons free.”

Run the Gauntlet

“Stand by for maximum range Starbolt launch,” Hume said into his commlink, his rich British accent evident. He stared at his HUD as the range steadily decreased. The shipyard itself now enveloped his forward view. Its size was breathtaking and would have been a thing of wonder. If it wasn’t an enemy factory of death, creating ship after ship to attack our home. His finger hovered over the trigger on his flight stick. I’m ready to send this League monstrosity back to hell, where it belongs.

Out of nowhere, blasts of orange fire began to dot space directly in front of his bomber. As Hume’s brain processed what was happening, over five seconds, the explosions became a sheet of fire. “Break off! Break off!” he yelled into his commlink. “This is Hume to all squadrons! Break off!” He gripped his flight stick so hard, he thought it would break. While all CDF strike craft had protective shielding, it was weak at best, compared to what would be found on even a frigate. He rode the explosions as his fore and aft shields plummeted, and dozens of friendly icons in his squadron status display went from green to red.

Performing a series of evasive maneuvers that consisted of sharply pulling his flight stick back and forth in rapid succession, Hume ended up profoundly disoriented. The electromagnetic interference from the enemy’s weapons caused a complete failure of his bomber’s communications and fleet link system. He flew on with nothing to guide him but the seat of his pants. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” he began as the sea of fire continued before him.

Run the Gauntlet

David stood, watching the scene unfold on the main holotank on the Lion of Judah’s bridge. His jaw was open, his eyes wide as he stared in horror. “Communications, warn them off!”

Taylor glanced up. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t get through!” His voice betrayed his frustration. “Major Hume got out an order to disengage, but nothing’s getting through that field.”

“Analysis, TAO?” David barked as he turned away from the holotank.

“Anti-fighter armaments, sir, exploding shells filled with sub-munitions,” Kelsey replied. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Ruth glanced at David and shook her head. “It makes sense. They’d expect the biggest threat from us to be carrier-based fighters and bombers, not capital ships.”

Green dot after green dot disappeared from the plot. Each one represented a squadron of bombers. God help them. The cost in pilots was horrendous. David estimated they’d lost sixty percent of the entire force in less than two minutes. The rest veered off and gained range from the station. He returned to the CO’s chair and sat in it. “TAO, how would those shells affect our shields?”

“The warheads are shrapnel-based, sir. Against capital ships, they’d have limited use.”

The Lion shook, causing the bridge crew to rattle a bit in their harnesses, while David and Ruth pitched from side to side. “So much for limited use,” David grumbled.

“Conn, TAO. Negative, sir. That’s plasma-based weaponry. Master One has focused all its weapons on us.”

And we’re sitting ducks. David shifted in his seat and glanced at the tactical plot. “Navigation, ahead two-thirds.” But how do I defeat them? He wasn’t sure what to do. The safest course of action would be to retreat, and he knew it. To hell with that. I’m not leaving without that shipyard destroyed. “TAO, firing point procedures, particle beams, magnetic cannons, and neutron beams, Master One.”

“Sir, we’ve already established their shields are too strong. What are you doing?” Ruth whispered, her voice questioning and insistent.

David leaned over and spoke softly. “Do you have a better idea?”

“Retreat, sir.”

As David started to ponder what else could be done, Kelsey interjected again. “Conn, TAO. Forward shields are down to less than twenty percent.”

We have not come this far to stop now. “Navigation, hard to port, rotate the ship, and display our starboard shield to the enemy.” The vessel rocked again, forcing David to grab on to the hand rests of the CO’s chair.

“Forward shields failed, sir!” Kelsey’s voice was an octave higher than usual.

Through the transparent alloy “windows” in the front of the bridge, David watched as glob after glob of spherical superheated plasma impacted against the armor and hull of the Lion of Judah. While the ship was turning, it took forever due to its mass. “Navigation, emergency power on the turn! Everything you’ve got,” he yelled.

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied, her voice tight.

“General, we must pull back,” Ruth interjected quietly.

David turned to see a scowl on her face and her eyes wide. “Not yet.” As his mind raced to think of a way out of their predicament, another series of impacts jostled the bridge crew yet again. Pulling back is the only way to save the ship. The sheer mental agony of the thought troubled him, yet he knew it was true.

Run the Gauntlet

Richard Hume blinked a few times. I shouldn’t be alive. His brain kept telling him the same thing, but here he was, flying inside of the shield sphere of the Leaguer shipyard. “Flying” wasn’t quite the right word. His engines were reduced to thrusters only, and he was coasting at a low rate of speed. A quick check of the onboard damage control and diagnostic system told him he’d taken damage to the micro-fusion reactor that powered his bomber, and most of his flight systems were toast. Communications, however, wasn’t one of them.

“Hume to Amir,” he said into his commlink.

“By Allah, it is good to hear your voice, old friend,” Amir’s rich baritone replied. “Where are you?”

“That’s the pickle of it, Colonel.” Hume smirked inside of his flight helmet, even though no one could see him. “I’m in the belly of the whale. I can’t tell you how I survived, but I rode the blast wave. I assume the fleet opened a hole briefly in the enemy's shields, and here I am. More importantly, how many of my pilots got out?”

There was a pregnant pause on the line. “Not enough. We need to figure out how to get you out of there quickly. I fear the fleet will have to retreat. The League presses us sorely, and the Lion of Judah is taking damage.”

The master alarm sounded, which diverted Hume’s attention. It took him a few moments to locate the source: a radiation leak from the reactor. The screen flashed red repeatedly, indicating radiation high enough to cause harm to human life. “I’ve got another problem. I’m going to start glowing in the dark before too long.”

“Is there a hole in the enemy's shield, still?” Amir asked.

“Wait one.” Hume engaged the short-range high-resolution scanning system his craft possessed, which quickly returned its findings. “No dice. I’m locked in.” He started to work through the possible resolutions, trying to find a way out. Then it dawned on him as he stared at the sensor readouts. I can take out the shield generator from within. “Colonel, I’ve got an idea. I can attack the overloaded shield generator and cause a cascade reaction.”

“What about the blast wave? How does Demood put it… no John Wayne crap,” Amir’s voice replied.

“I’m pretty sure our resident Marine commander uses stronger language than that,” Hume replied with a chuckle. “I should be able to outrun it, if my damage control unit can restore thrusters.”

“You’ve got a radiation leak!”

“I know, sir. But we’re out of options. Please relay my intentions to the fleet.”

“Insha’Allah.”

A few button presses later, Hume activated the thrusters on his craft and started to steer toward the nearest shield node. To his surprise, it was one of the ones severely overcharged. Now just a few more minutes, old girl, and we can get out of here. Another master alarm shattered the calm. His HUD displayed more bad news—further reactor damage, and the launch mechanism for his Starbolt missiles was coming up as inoperable.

“I’m afraid I have another problem,” Hume said into the commlink. “The reactor’s worse than I thought. Radiation levels are now high enough to be lethal within thirty minutes.” He bit his lip. “And I can’t launch the anti-ship missiles.”

“We’ll find a way to get you out, my friend. Stay calm and hold fast,” Amir’s baritone implored.

Hume stared out of the cockpit window at the station that lay beyond. So close, yet so far. I’m not getting out of this alive. The thought of death was something he’d lived with. It was something every fighter pilot faced daily. But he’d never truly believed he’d have to face it straight on. I can still make a difference, one more time. “Hassan,” he began. “I’m going to take out the shield generator. Tell the fleet to stand ready.” The Catholic prohibition against suicide as a mortal sin was suddenly front and center in his mind. If I’m dead anyway, I don’t think it matters.

There was another pause on the commlink. Hume supposed Amir was parsing through his statement. “I cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself.”

“It’s not your choice. I will willingly lay down my life so that others may live, and we may yet carry the day. That’s my choice. It was an honor to serve with you, Colonel.”

“And likewise you,” Amir replied softly. “May Allah grant you peace and comfort in the afterlife.”

“Thank you. Godspeed, Hassan.”

“Godspeed, Richard.”

With the flick of a switch, Hume disabled his communication system, then rotated the flight stick so he was on a direct intercept course with the nearest shield generator. He overrode the safeties on all six missiles his craft still carried and armed them hot in the weapons bay. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.

As he taxed the thrusters as much as he dared without causing a reactor overload, League point defense systems started to wake up to the threat his bomber posed. Red tracers shot by the cockpit at an alarming rate. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

He rocked the flight stick back and forth to confuse the enemy as much as possible during the terminal approach. Interlaced with the prayer he recited were memories of his wife and children. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Onward his vessel pushed, until the shield generator node was the only thing he could make out. “Yaaaah!” Hume screamed as the last couple of seconds played out. His final thought was a mental image of his youngest daughter riding on his shoulders.

The bomber made contact with the outer hull of the station and exploded a moment later. A second after that, a colossal explosion occurred with the warheads went off. Electrical energy shot out from the node, radiating in all directions. In the final second before he ceased to exist in the physical plane of existence, Richard Hume knew he’d succeeded.


19

The Lion of Judah’s bridge was still bathed in a dim blue light, while the officers and enlisted personnel seemed tense. Probably because they can sense Ruth’s and my disagreement. David’s mouth was starting to form the words to order a general retreat, when he was interrupted.

“Conn, TAO!” Kelsey shouted. “Sir, I’m reading an explosion inside of Master One’s shield sphere. Master One’s shields have collapsed!”

A rousing cheer went up from the enlisted ratings to the back of the bridge.

“As you were! Maintain proper bridge protocol, or I’ll have you all removed!” Master Chief Tinetariro barked.

“Navigation, bring us about. Intercept course, Master One, all ahead flank.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied.

“TAO, firing point procedures, particle beams, magnetic cannons, and neutron emitters, Master One.” David leaned forward in his seat. “Communications, relay to the fleet to turn and engage.”

Ruth glanced at David. “Our forward shields aren’t recharged.”

“I realize that, but we need to make hay while the sun shines. They’ll get those shields back online, and before they do, we’ve got to hit hard.”

She nodded in reply but was silent.

“TAO, target shield generator nodes, and weapons emplacements with the magnetic cannons and neutron beams.”

“Aye aye, sir. Firing solutions set, sir. Be advised it’s another three minutes to recharge our forward particle beams.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” David replied. He glanced up at his tactical plot and noted with satisfaction they were lined up, as were the six Constantine class heavy cruisers. “TAO, match bearings, shoot, all active weapons.”

The Lion shuddered as its main complement of magnetic cannons thundered in the void. There was little to see visually as they fired. Rail guns used electromagnetic energy to propel their projectiles, so there was no telltale flash as an old-time explosive projectile would have. The neutron emitters, on the other hand, lashed out with clearly visible blue beams. Even at the range they were at, David saw small orange explosions blossoming off the League station. A split second later, when the magnetic cannon rounds hit home at ten percent lightspeed, larger explosions broke out.

“TAO, double load magnetic cannons with armor-piercing shells.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David glanced at Ruth. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t retreat?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied with a smirk. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“Is that an Amish thing?”

Ruth snorted. “No, sir.”

Run the Gauntlet

Simultaneously on the Trotsky, the aftereffects of the latest salvo of incoming fire from the Terrans were felt. A power conduit overloaded, shorting out half the consoles on the right side of the operations center, which led to a small fire. Damage control teams rushed into action, spraying down the affected electronics with fire-retardant foam and dousing the flames quickly.

“Captain, I’m unable to put our shields back together. They’ve taken out too many generators,” the tactical officer called out in alarm.

“What percentage of our hull can you cover?”

“The side of the stations not being engaged has full coverage, sir. The rest? I can reestablish the field over fifty to sixty percent of the surface area.”

Konstantinov sat back in his chair, quickly running through his options. “Activate our thrusters and rotate us one hundred and eighty degrees.”

The executive officer glanced at him. “Captain, we haven’t tested those systems in—”

“Yes, I know. Execute my orders, or we’ll keep getting pounded on our exposed hull. There’s only so much punishment it can take. Prepare a communique for Admiral Hartford. Tell him to hurry, or there won’t be a station left for him to defend.” Officers and enlisted personnel stared at one another, eyes wide, jaws open at his words. This is what we get for our overconfidence. Limited defenses and a soft underbelly. Lenin help us all.

Run the Gauntlet

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change! Inbound wormholes, League of Sol signature,” Kelsey called out.

David’s head snapped down from the tactical plot, where he’d been staring at his opponent’s latest counter. A decent commander, that Leaguer. He’s matching us effectively. Typically, CDF officers not only had superior technology but excellent training and skills as well. It made the appearance of a tactically smart enemy all the more jarring. “How many, TAO?”

“Two Rand class cruisers, ten Cobra class destroyers, and eight Lancer class frigates, sir.”

Not a significant force, but still enough to make an impact with most of our ships experiencing some level of damage. “Communications, get me Colonel Aibek.”

Run the Gauntlet

Unlike Terran Coalition ships, which bathed their bridges and control centers in calming blue light, the bridge of a Saurian warship was lit in red. The color performed the same function as it did for the humans: it helped focus their eyes on the computer screens and displays. Aibek sat in the raised war commander—the equivalent to the human commanding officer title—chair. They’d raced toward the ongoing battle and were about to enter primary weapons range. Now he stared at the new threat—the blob of red dots on his plot, indicating more enemies.

“Colonel Aibek, I have General Cohen for you on audio/visual communication,” the comms officer, a tall Saurian with green eyes and a bright plume of orange scales on her head, announced.

“Put him on my screen.”

A moment later, David’s face appeared. “Colonel, how’s it going over there?”

“We are moments away from lending our firepower to the fight, sir.”

David grinned. “I noticed. I’ve got a new mission for you. Engage and destroy the group of League ships that just jumped in.”

Aibek’s words had a slight hiss to them. “Aye aye, sir. We will annihilate them and return to help you finish off the enemy.”

“Godspeed, Colonel.”

“Walk with the Prophet, sir.”

The communication system blinked off, and S’stro hissed in his ear, “Now the humans send us off to fight an inferior enemy while they claim the glory of destroying the shipyard. Typical.”

It took every ounce of self-control Aibek possessed not to backhand her right there and demand a duel. “General Cohen’s tactical reasoning is sound as always. The rest of his ships are weakened. We are at full strength,” he hissed back, showing his teeth as he did. “Navigator, plot intercept course on the lead League vessel. Increase speed to maximum.”

S’stro glowered at him but said nothing.

The enemy vessels had appeared at the Lawrence limit, and from there were burning at maximum safe sub-light speeds, as was the Resit Kartal. Between them, the closing velocity was nearly seven million kilometers per hour. Were it not for the inertial damping fields, the maneuvers to come would kill everyone on the ship.

Aibek studied the plot carefully. The Resit Kartal’s weapon systems were impressive and designed for destroying enemy capital ships. He wanted to engage them at the best attack profile, and take minimal shield damage. “Navigator, adjust course thirty degrees to port. Present our starboard side toward the League vessels.”

The human navigator, who wore a CDF uniform and was part of the exchange program between the two militaries, glanced back at him. “Aye aye, sir.”

“Tactical, plot firing solutions for Master One and Two, magnetic cannons and neutron beams.”

“Understood, Void Captain,” the Saurian who manned tactical replied.

Aibek cleared his throat loudly.

“My apologies, Colonel. I remain unfamiliar with human ranks.”

Minutes passed as Aibek kept his eyes glued to the tactical plot. I remember David commenting about the wait for battle, how he hated it. I understand how he feels. As the range decreased, the sense of anticipation on the bridge increased. It was like a tinge of excitement in the air, especially among the other Saurians. When they were five minutes from weapons release, he bent his head forward and spoke in his native tongue, the words a mixture of hisses that sounded nothing like any human language. “Dear Lord, the divine warrior, and protector of all things, bless our blades this day. Allow us to wield them for justice in Your name and deliver the enemy into our hands. Protect the allies who fight alongside us and bring all who fall in battle into Your loving embrace. In the name of Your Prophet, we pray.”

“Colonel, we will achieve maximum range in thirty seconds.”

Aibek narrowed his eyes. “Kill track Master One with guns.”

The massive magnetic cannons mounted three per turret on the Saurian battleship adjusted their aim before throwing their projectiles at ten percent of light-speed toward the unlucky Leaguers. Twenty-five shells in all, and at least a third didn’t connect. The rest did. Explosions blossomed on the shields of the Rand before they collapsed, and high explosive warheads rammed into its hull. A final orange plume erupted from the stricken vessel and its bow blew off.

“Master One neutralized, sir. Forward magnetic cannons reloaded.”

“Kill track Master Two with guns.”

While the Resit Kartal maintained its barrage of fire against the League ships, they responded in kind. Concentrated plasma cannon fire impacted their shields, backed by salvos of anti-ship missiles. The older technology did comparatively little damage to the battleship’s protective screens. The other Rand was not so lucky. Its shields were obliterated by the barrage of magnetic cannon shells, and one of the shots hit something vital internally—missile magazine or fuel bunkerage—because it exploded from the inside out into one-meter-long chunks.

“Colonel, the enemy runs before us,” the tactical officer said in a mocking tone. “The destroyers and frigates have turned, burning away at maximum acceleration.”

There was no hesitation in Aibek’s voice. “Navigation, intercept course. Run them down. Tactical, load forward magnetic cannons with two high explosive shells per barrel.”

“Yes, sir. Double load complete and awaiting your orders.”

“Kill remaining tracks with guns and beams.”

While the Rands had the shields and armor to stand up to a full volley of the Resit Kartal’s weapons before succumbing, the Cobras and Lancers did not. Expertly placed high explosive shells hammered own the shields of most of the remaining enemy warships. They were followed up by judicious neutron beam strikes. Blue beams of energy raced out at the speed of light, spearing the unlucky vessels from stem to stern. One after another, they split in two, exploded into clouds of debris, or had large chunks of their hull blown off, leaving them derelict in space. It was a complete and total rout.

“All enemy tracks neutralized, Colonel,” the tactical officer reported. His tone was one of pride.

“Navigator,” Aibek began. “Bring us about and head back toward our fleet. Communications officer, transmit a picture of a broom to General Cohen.”

“What stupidity is this?” S’stro hissed in his ear.

Aibek turned and glowered at her. “It is a human custom. The broom signifies a clean sweep where all enemy vessels are swept out of space—like we just did.” His voice had a hissing quality to it as well, even though he spoke in English.

“You have spent too much time among the humans. You think like them, not like one of our kind.”

“We are all the same kind,” Aibek replied as he continued to hiss. “Enough of this.”

She sat back in her seat and did not speak further.

I should challenge her to blood combat for this continued insubordination and blatant racism. Aibek realized with a start that one of the reasons why he hadn’t as of yet was his exposure to how humans, especially David, dealt with conflict. So, to be intellectually honest, as Cohen puts it, I have to admit my time with the Coalition Defense Force has changed me. He raised one of the scales over his eye as they raced back toward the Lion of Judah and her consorts. Most interesting, indeed.


20

Simultaneously, Amir and the mass of friendly space superiority fighters, along with the remaining bombers, raced toward the Trotsky. The integrated CDF tactical network showed a patchwork of shields around the station, resembling a quilt with missing pieces. Our missiles will be wasted against those shields, but if we can get inside of the sphere, they’d have a real impact. He used the neural interface to create a series of waypoints for the squadron leaders to follow. His hope was they’d avoid the massed capital ship weapons being thrown against the shipyard and get them inside the defensive screens where they could cause havoc.

“Colonel, those coordinates are very close to the enemy's point defense emplacements,” one of his squadron commanders said over the commlink. The tone of his voice was one of worry.

Amir scowled within his helmet. “Yes, but the fleet has neutralized most of the enemy’s flak cannons. We can thread the needle, as they say.”

“Understood, sir.”

The void whipped by, and Trotsky’s mass filled the cockpit of Amir’s Phantom. It had to take decades to build, and only a few hours for us to destroy it. Long blue beams shot by his craft. They were particle and neutron beams from the Lion of Judah and the rest of the friendly fleet. He watched as the weapons struck home against the shields and hull of the station. There were small explosions off the superstructure, and in a few cases, secondary explosions as something vital was hit.

“Stay tight, Reapers,” Amir called into his commlink. “ECM systems to max, weapons free. Engage enemy point defense as they range.”

The lock tone sounded in the cockpit, and Amir squeezed the trigger to loose one of the LIDAR guided missiles carried within the fighter’s munitions bay. It dropped out, and the engine triggered, sending the weapon off at ever increasing speed. “Reaper One, Fox Three.”

The rest of the craft in his squadron launched their own advanced LIDAR homing missiles, and many added miniature neutron cannons to the mix. Bolts of blue and red energy sizzled past one another in the blackness of space, causing small impacts across the armored hull of the shipyard. Most of the missiles struck their targets, as Terran Coalition fire control systems were far superior to those of the League. One of the final target acquisition tricks was a sensor that homed in on the radiation signature of enemy ECM. It all added up to an eighty to ninety percent hit rate.

“Nice shooting, ladies and gentlemen,” Amir said into the commlink as he whipped his fighter around incoming blasts of plasma fire. “Break and attack shield node at bearing zero-seven-zero, range twenty-five kilometers.” He rolled his craft and lined it up with the indicated target. Space around them continued to pulse with brightly colored weapons fire, all the while the capital ships poured on their armaments. Losses were relatively light, and he counted less than thirty fighter or bomber losses by his wing so far. At least since the horrendous attempted first strike. That had cost over a hundred and fifty pilots. The death of Hume wasn’t far from the top of his thoughts.

Again, the missile tone sounded in his cockpit, and Amir squeezed the trigger. “Reaper One, Fox Three!” A few moments later, the rest of his squadron had launched eleven more LIDAR guided missiles, and he settled into a direct vector pointing toward the shield generator. “Reaper One, guns, guns, guns!” A fusillade of blue bolts erupted from the Phantom and raced toward the offending piece of alloy, jutting up from the surface of the League station. Under the combined bombardment of thirty-six space superiority fighters, it exploded into a cloud of debris.

The explosion started small, then blossomed out. Chunks of the station erupted outward, while his fighters’ internal alarm went off. “Pull up, terrain! Pull up, terrain!” the insistent computerized voice called out. Amir yanked his flight stick back, and the fighter shot up. Orange flames followed him, and the rest of the flight, while the craft shook violently. It took a few seconds, but eventually, the shaking ceased, and he looped back to see a molten area of hull where the shield node had once been. Thank Allah we were not killed. He picked another target and went back to work.

Run the Gauntlet

On the bridge of the Lion of Judah, David stood next to the holotank and its projector, staring at a 3D rendering of the Trotsky. The six Constantine class heavy cruisers were depicted too, as was the Lion itself. He studied the remaining shield quadrants and armor status. I think we’ve got them.

“We could fire on their reactor core with our particle beams, sir. It’d be strong enough to pierce the reactor chamber with their armor and shields gone.”

“Yeah, that’d do it,” David replied. “I’ll give them the option to surrender.”

Ruth stared at him, her eyes narrowed, and jaw set in a stern expression. “Why, sir?” She closed her eyes and answered the question before he could. “Because it’s who we are.”

“Exactly, XO,” he said softly. “Communications, get me a vidlink connection to whoever’s in charge over there. Tell them we’d like to discuss surrender terms.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied.

David walked back to the CO’s chair and sat. He pulled his uniform sweater down and set himself. Time to finish this.

Run the Gauntlet

“Captain, incoming transmission from the Terrans,” the Trotsky’s communications officer announced amid the heavily damaged operations center. Medical teams swarmed over fallen men and women, while crewmen performed necessary damage control. “They wish to discuss terms of our surrender.”

Konstantinov stared mutely, pondering how it had gone so wrong. He’d thought they were home-free when the first group of League reinforcements had arrived, but the Saurian battleship wiped them out like they were nothing more than toys. Now he had to face the finality of the situation. I could fight to the bitter end. He closed his eyes and could see the faces of those who served under him. I owe it to them not to throw their lives away in meaningless gestures. Mind made up, he set his jaw. “Put him on the monitor, Lieutenant.”

“But, sir, we…”

“Do it, Lieutenant,” Konstantinov said, his tone soft, even if the words themselves were not.

A few moments passed before the unsmiling face of a human male filled the viewer. He wore a standard-issue CDF uniform along with a black spacer’s sweater. The man had short brown hair and piercing eyes. It was the face of the enemy. “This is General David Cohen, commanding officer of the CSV Lion of Judah. To whom am I speaking?”

He sucked in a breath as if to gather his courage. I was right. “Captain Anatoly Konstantinov, commanding the Trotsky. I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, General. I’m not used to Terran Coalition ships attacking this station.”

David smiled thinly. “We weren’t used to League ships attacking Canaan until the League’s sneak attack either. Turnabout seems like fair play in this situation.”

“Perhaps from your perspective,” he replied cautiously. “I must inform you the home defense fleet is en route, General. While your ships are impressive, not even they can stand against hundreds of ours.”

“They won’t get here in time to save you,” David said as the smile disappeared from his face. “Your shields have failed, your armor is melted and destroyed. I can fire on your main reactor core at any time with our energy weapons and cause a chain reaction that will destroy your station. I want to give you the opportunity to remove your personnel.”

Konstantinov narrowed his eyes and stared directly into the viewer. I don’t sense a bluff. The tactical status readouts he’d studied prior to the vidlink lined up with David’s assessment of their situation. If I can get most of the crew off, I can stage a last stand. Maybe then, they won’t kill my family for this failure. The thought was one he held on to with all his might. “I appreciate… this gesture, General. It will take some time to evacuate a structure such as the Trotsky, of course.”

“You have fifteen minutes, Captain. Ensure all weapons cease fire, and we will do the same. After that time is up, we will destroy your station.”

“I understand, General.”

“Cohen, out.”

The viewer went blank, and Konstantinov realized every set of eyes in the operations center was focused squarely on him. He blinked. “We have no choice, comrades. Tactical, cease outgoing fire on the Terran ships.”

“But, Captain—”

“I did not say I was going to stop fighting. But we will take advantage of the lull the Terrans are giving us,” he replied as he held up his hand. “Now I want you to direct all power into the plasma charging relays. Get them up to full power, then overcharge them.”

“Aye, sir.”

“XO, gather up the command personnel and evacuate operations. Ensure our lower decks crew and especially the civilians get to safety.”

“Captain,” his XO started to interject.

“There will be no discussion. Carry out my orders.” Konstantinov sat back in his chair and watched how the faces of those in the room changed over the course of several seconds. First, shock, then anger, and finally, acceptance. Yes, I know how they feel. To lose to the capitalist dogs of the Terran Coalition offends me to the core.

It was at that moment the station’s political officer, Lee Huang, made his appearance. A thin, gaunt man of middle age, he was of Asian descent, and his accent reflected it. “Do you mean to surrender this shipyard without a fight?”

Konstantinov whirled around in his chair at the sound of the new voice and reflexively stood. His eyes flashed anger. “How dare you insult those under my command by suggesting we have not already fought. The battle is over. They won.”

“I could have you shot for cowardice,” Haung said as he fingered the pistol holstered on his belt.

“No one here would obey that order. Perhaps you could put your energy to use helping fellow members of the party escape to fight another day.”

“I will not permit you to abandon this station!”

“Let’s understand something, shall we? The station is lost,” Konstantinov began, and paced toward Haung, towering over him. “I choose to save my crew. Before you accuse me of cowardice, perhaps you’d like to hear the rest of my plan?” He paused for a moment.

The political officer nodded once, curtly.

“I will stay behind, and once there is confirmation the final escape pod has launched, I’ll concentrate all our firepower on a single enemy cruiser and attempt to destroy it. The Terrans will in turn fire on us, and I will die in the explosion.”

The XO spoke. “Sir, there’s no need—”

“Yes there is. If nothing else, it will safeguard my family and everyone else here. Now get to the escape pods and ensure the crew evacuates as ordered.” Konstantinov turned back to his chair and punched a button for the station-wide intercom. “Now hear this. Now hear this. Officers, crew, and comrades of the Trotsky. The shipyard is no longer defendable, and the capitalist pigs of the Terran Coalition mean to destroy us.” He inserted the invective in the hopes it would placate Haung. “Proceed immediately to the nearest escape pod or shuttle and abandon ship. I repeat… Abandon ship.” He turned back to the gaggle of people standing in apparent indecision. “That means everyone in ops too.”

Huang spoke up. “Captain, I will remain with you to ensure the success of your final attack.” His mouth was a thin line. “And I too have similar concerns when it comes to our loss today.”

“Very well. You may stay.” And keep the hell out of my way.

The XO slapped his fist to his chest. “I will carry out your orders, Captain. Lenin himself will smile on your sacrifice.” The rest of the crew followed suit before they all turned as one and left in an orderly way through the aft hatch.

Konstantinov slowly sat in the commander’s chair and glanced around the operations center. This was to be one last command before I retired. Ah, the cruel irony of life. Time marched on.


21

Master Chief Gordan MacDonald rounded another corner, his battle rifle at the ready. Since they’d boarded the Kalinin, the assault teams had secured the hangar deck and set up checkpoints at every gravlift. A League security team came into view as he did, and he reflexively squeezed the trigger of his weapon, putting a third-round-burst into the center mass of the closest enemy. Ahmad and Harrell added their fire to the mix, and a few seconds later, the Leaguers were dead on the deck. The attached sound suppressors reduced the reports of their guns to near silence. Kucuk, the Saurian member of the team, and Mata took up the rear.

“Is it just me, or are we running into more of these guys?” Harrell grunted into his commlink.

“Maybe. Could be a rotating guard shift or something,” MacDonald replied. He was amazed they hadn’t triggered an alarm as of yet. Sometimes the Leaguers have shit for brains. “Only two decks from their main computer core.”

Through his helmet’s faceplate, Rostami grinned. “You make it sound so easy, Master Chief.”

“You’re always bragging about how hot your computer skills are. Time to earn it, Rostami.”

“It’s not magic, though,” the younger man complained.

While they made small talk and bantered through the commlink, the team stalked forward, covering their angles and corners. They moved through the passageway of the station like animals searching for prey. Coming up to another gravlift, the commandos halted when MacDonald held up his hand in a closed fist.

Rostami examined the controls for the lift and pulled out his portable hacking tablet. “Give me a minute, Master Chief.”

MacDonald grunted. “Post security, and watch for any unwelcome party crashers.”

“Right, boss,” Harrell replied.

A few minutes passed as Rostami fiddled with the controls and used various gizmos on the device. The doors finally slid open. “That’ll be fifty credits per head,” he announced, a broad grin on his face visible through the helmet’s faceplate.

“Better idea: I won’t insult you for the next thirty seconds,” MacDonald said as he made his way into the lift. “Hey, the inside’s got a hand scanner too.” Leaguers, always paranoid.

The rest of the team crowded into the gravlift, with Ahmad, Mata, and Harrell pointing their battle rifles out the open doors, while Rostami kept working. Out of nowhere, a loud klaxon sounded an ear-piercing wail.

“Damnit, Rostami, what’d you do now?” Harrell grumbled.

“Wasn’t me, Senior Chief,” the younger man replied as he pressed buttons rapidly on the tablet. “The station just entered security lockdown.”

“Perhaps the Marines were discovered,” Ahmad interjected with his richly accented English.

“Or word of the fleet’s attack got back here. No matter, we press on.” As MacDonald finished speaking, the lift started to move. It dropped at least twenty meters before crashing to a halt. The impact sent all six commandos flying upward, and then they slammed into the floor. “What the hell, Rostami? Forget the Leaguers; you’ll get us killed before we even get to real combat!”

“Uhhh, sorry, Master Chief.” He picked himself up off the floor and fiddled with the controls once more. “I hit an electronic tripwire.”

“No, really?” MacDonald replied in an exaggerated voice. “I would’ve never guessed.”

The others laughed uproariously, and as they did, the lift started going up—the right direction. It smoothly came to a stop, and the doors slid open. A group of eight League security troops was directly outside, and everyone froze. Time seemed to slow for a second before Harrell raised his silenced battle rifle and uttered a guttural roar. He fired on full automatic, bullets spraying the unlucky Leaguers. Armor-piercing rounds flew through the air, slamming into and through the humans before them. The other commandos joined in, and before the enemy could get a shot off, they were all cut down.

MacDonald burst out of the lift, just as another patrol came around the left portion of the corridor. These Leaguers already had their weapons up and opened fire immediately. He dropped to one knee, exposed in the passageway, and lined up one of the men in his sights. With a quick squeeze of his finger, three rounds exploded from his rifle and felled the enemy officer. A single shot rang out—which he immediately recognized as Mata’s suppressed sniper rifle—and a second man dropped, the round going neatly through his forehead.

The third League trooper held down the trigger on his pulse rifle and sprayed the team with energy weapon fire. He might as well coughed on them. Leaguer pulse rifles were notoriously ineffective against CDF power armor, and even less effective against the advanced power armor worn by the commandos.

A burst from Harrell put the final enemy down. “Tangos down!” he yelled into his commlink.

“We’re right next to you, Senior Chief,” Rostami snarked, drawing a withering look from Alpha team’s number two.

“Now, anyone know where we’re going?” MacDonald asked, his tone gruff and direct.

“Main computer core is supposedly three bulkheads down, with an entrance on the port side. Then again, who knows, since half this crap won’t translate from Cyrillic.”

MacDonald checked the number of rounds remaining in his battle rifle. “Thanks, Rostami. Now let's move.”

Like a human wave, the commandos advanced through the passageway. Three at the front, three at the back, continually checking corners and the recesses of the structure. For thirty meters, all was well, and no enemies encountered. Then a patrol of four League security officers turned the corner and walked right into their line of sight.

As the point man, Harrell’s battle rifle was up and at the ready. He shot the first man in his sights through the head and moved with lethal efficiency. Before they could fell the entire group, one man turned and ran.

“After ‘em!” MacDonald bellowed into his commlink, charging forward and around the corner. He was greeted by dozens of Leaguers, including power-armored Marines. For the first time since the operation began, Alpha team was at a disadvantage. Bullets sprayed the bulkheads around him, showering the passageway in sparks, while a few pinged off his armor.

Harrell and Mata rounded the corner a second later, both snapping their rifles up and gamely returning fire. “Shit, it's the entire League army!” Harrell announced through the open commlink.

“Pull back! Pull back now!” MacDonald thundered as rounds continued to find his armor. He walked backward slowly, not willing to retreat before the other two found cover. Inside of his helmet, the HUD flashed red as the integrity of the armor plating started to fail. A moment later, the three of them got behind a bulkhead in the four-way intersection.

Mata tossed a fragmentation grenade toward the Leaguers, which exploded with a loud bang. It brought a momentary respite from enemy fire. “Okay. It looks like someone with a brain over there is locking down important sections of the station.”

“Leaguers with brains… miracles never cease,” MacDonald said with a snort. “I counted fifteen Goliath suits, and a few dozen of their security troops. Those guys aren’t a worry, but heavy suits are.”

“We could get some heavy weapons down here,” Harrell interjected. “A gauss rifle, maybe? Something to neutralize the power armor.”

“Not enough time. Every minute means more of these assholes mobilize, and the less likely we’ll be to break through.”

“I am carrying a single anti-armor rocket,” Kucuk said over the commlink. He was a few meters away, behind the vanguard of the team. “Perhaps if we used it to create confusion and destroy several heathen enemies at the same time, while we pressed them in a… how do humans say it, a pincer action?”

MacDonald and Harrell exchanged glanced through their helmet faceplates. “Yeah, I’ve got nothing better. Ballsy as hell, though.”

“That’s what we get for hiring a Saurian,” Rostami cracked through his commlink.

“I do not recall asking your opinion. Should you wish to challenge me,” Kucuk hissed before continuing. ”We may address it after this battle.”

Snickers filled the commlink between the commandos. “Okay, let’s stay on the ball, boys,” MacDonald interjected. “Chief, get the rocket up here. Harrell, Mata, Rostami—circle around two passageway junctions back and work your way up. Quietly.”

“You got it, boss,” Harrell quickly replied. “On me, spacewalkers.”

MacDonald leaned out a hair and sprayed full auto fire from his battle rifle down the corridor. A few Leaguers dropped from the fusillade, while the rest kept to the sides, seeking cover. “Go, go, go!”

Run the Gauntlet

A few hundred lightyears away, the bridge of the Lion of Judah remained especially tense. We’ve never watched while the League abandoned one of its primary space-borne assets, with us ready to destroy it. David sat on the edge of his seat, glancing between tactical displays, looking for the slightest hint of treachery. Pod after pod launched from the station, along with shuttles and small cargo ships.

Ruth leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Coming up on fifteen minutes, sir.”

“TAO, what’s your best guess on percentage of lifepods launched from Master One?”

“Seventy to eighty percent, sir,” Kelsey replied without glancing back. “I’ve tried to scan for lifesigns, but there’s so much background radiation from the battle, it’s no use.”

David grunted. “We’ll give them a few more minutes.”

“Sir?”

“They’re still actively launching pods, and the station is no threat to us.”

Ruth remained silent, but her expression was neutral and cold. Her lips pressed together in a tight line.

Another four minutes passed before the escape vehicles stopped their exodus from the stricken shipyard. As they roared away from it as fast as their ion engines would go, David cleared his throat. “TAO, firing point procedures, forward particle beams, Master One. Target their main reactor cores.”

“Aye aye, sir. Firing solutions set.”

Before David could give the order to shoot, hundreds of plasma cannon bursts erupted from the station all at once in a coordinated attack. It only took him a few moments to determine the enemy was putting everything it had on one target: the CSV Marcus Aurelius. The most damaged of the six heavy cruisers, its shields were below the red line and critical on all quadrants. “TAO, extend shield sphere to encompass Sierra Six, now!”

The whine of the strained generators filled the bridge and the Lion as a whole as plasma ball after plasma ball slammed into them at high speed. Once he saw the strategy was working, David resumed his previous train of thought. “TAO, match bearings, shoot, particle beams.”

Four blindingly white beams shot out of the bow of the Lion of Judah, instantly impacting the Trotsky and her weakened hull. Boiling explosions of molten alloy blasted out from the station. For ten seconds, the beams pressed on before they penetrated out the other side. From the tactical display and the view out of the transparent alloy windows at the front of the bridge, David watched as progressively larger explosions broke out across the surface of the shipyard, before it finally blew apart in a pyrotechnic display that was momentarily blinding.

Whoops and hollers rang out across the bridge, as officers standing in the CIC area, and enlisted ratings high-fived one another and cheered.

After ten seconds, Master Chief Tinetariro bellowed, “As you were! Maintain proper bridge protocol, or I’ll have anyone who doesn’t removed.”

As calm settled in, David glanced around with a knowing expression. Not bad. Not bad at all. “Navigation, plot the fastest route to the Lawrence limit and avoid contact with remaining enemy defense platforms.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied.

“Conn, communications,” Taylor began. “We received a final transmission from Master One. Text only.”

“What was it, Lieutenant?”

“Message reads ‘Well played, General.’”

David sat back in his seat and scrunched up his eyebrows, deep in thought. He realized the League commander stayed behind to fire the last salvo. Even as he struggled with the notion that the enemy deserved what he got, David was conflicted. Perhaps he was worthy of respect after all.

Ruth harrumphed. “Good riddance to another Leaguer.”

Her tone bothered him. “I think we have to acknowledge anyone who chooses to die under their guns, XO,” he said softly. “Maybe even respect them.”

“He’s a Leaguer, sir.”

“And you’ve encountered decent Leaguers before, haven’t you?”

She begrudgingly nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“There you go. Maybe this was another one. He saved his crew and went down firing. I’m not saying he’s a saint or a hero, but if the end came for me, I hope I’d do the same.”

There was no response from Ruth as she considered his words, and David glanced at the tactical plot. Two and a half hours until we can jump out, based on our current course. God help us. The intercom buzzer on his chair went off. He reached over and pressed the button to activate it.

“Conn, engineering,” Merriweather’s surprisingly cheerful voice said from the speaker.

“Go ahead, Major.”

“I thought you should know our port and aft shield generators overtaxed themselves when the sphere was extended. I’m unsure of their ability to perform under battle conditions until we can perform repairs.”

Oh, snap. “How long would the repairs take, Major?”

“Several hours, sir.”

David closed his eyes. There’s no way I can allow them to take half our deflectors off-line while we’re exfiling enemy space. I’ll have to play the odds. “Understood. Keep them online and monitor for further issues.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The intercom went dead, and Ruth glanced over. “Damage report from the fleet sir. The Marcus Aurelius has significant hull damage, as do two other cruisers. All ships except the Resit Kartal report reduced combat effectiveness.”

“Thank you, XO. Communications, signal Colonel Aibek to take point in our formation, with my compliments on a job well done.” David glanced once more at the plot. Two hours, twenty-six minutes to go.

Run the Gauntlet

Amir gently rocked his SF-106 Phantom from side to side, testing the onboard repair unit’s claim that his craft was fully operational once more. He’d taken enough fire during their run on the station that, at one point, forward shields failed, and a bolt of plasma hit the right side of his fighter. It seemed to check out fine. Thank Allah for a small miracle. A computer did what it promised. There were numerous gaps in the squadron readout. It was a sobering reminder to him of the cost of war. Most pronounced in the bomber squadrons, the absence of Major Hume’s transponder weighed on him. They’d become friends over the last year, since he’d stepped up during the disaster of the first battle for Freedom Station.

Now I should use this lull to rearm my craft, just in case the League decides to contest our withdrawal. “This is Colonel Amir to all bomber squadron commanders. Signal the air boss and prepare to land as she instructs. Reload all anti-ship munitions and prepare for immediate relaunch.”

Green lights of acknowledgment lit up in his helmet-projected HUD. It took fifteen minutes for the depleted bomber force to get inside of the Lion’s hangar, during which Amir cycled through his squadron's status. They had expended a lot of ordnance—especially the active homing LIDAR guided missiles designed to destroy enemy point defense. I’d better have them rearm too. “This is Colonel Amir to all remaining squadrons commanders in space. If you have less than fifty percent consumable munitions, signal the air boss and land as she instructs. Reload all munitions and relaunch immediately for combat space patrol activities.”

Again, green lights lit up across his HUD. There were only seven squadrons that didn’t land on the Lion, including the Grim Reapers. While Amir’s stores were down to thirty percent, he wasn’t about to get out of the fight while the men and women under his command were in harm's way. On and on they flew. This portion of a flight was the boring part to him, and probably every other fighter jock in the galaxy. With nothing to do but count the minutes, a part of his brain drifted to thoughts of home, and life after the war. To spend time with his wife and children. Especially my daughter—I won’t have to worry about her dying anymore.

Tactical icons indicating unidentified inbound wormholes lit up his screen. Out here, the only thing jumping in are more League forces. It was less than thirty seconds, more than fifty icons designating a contact as an enemy warship appeared. The one he was most concerned with was classified as a Napoleon class fleet carrier. It carried over four hundred combat spacecraft and could easily go toe to toe with the small Canaan Alliance fleet. Allah protect us. He gripped his flight stick with purpose and prepared for orders once more.


22

On the bridge of the Resit Kartal, the emergence of the League battlegroup caused Aibek’s heart rate to quicken and a feral grin to appear on his face. Finally, a real opponent. He also realized it would likely fall to them to engage the enemy and draw blood, while his wounded brothers and sisters in arms held back and avoided taking more damage.

“Communications,” Aibek rumbled. “Request an audio/video link with General Cohen at once.”

“Aye, sir!”

Ten seconds passed, and David’s familiar face appeared on the screen above Aibek’s head. “You must’ve read my mind, old friend,” David began. “How do you like your odds engaging those Leaguers head on, while Amir mixes it up with their fighters?”

“I never pay attention to the odds as humans do.” Aibek displayed his teeth as he grinned in the distinctive Saurian way. “We will engage them and cause the cowards to run from us in terror!”

“The Constantine and Justinian are the least damaged. They’ll go with you, while the rest cover our port and aft. Our shield generators are acting up, and I don’t want to risk a head-on engagement if I can help it. Bloody their nose, Colonel, then use your superior acceleration to get out. Are we clear?”

“I will not hunt for glory. But I will smash the Leaguers!”

David grinned fiercely. “Of this, I have no doubt. Godspeed.”

“Walk with the Prophet, sir.”

The screen blinked off, leaving the bridge in silence. Aibek stared at the tactical plot and quickly concocted a mental plan. “Navigation, plot an intercept course on Master One,” he called out.

“That is the enemy flagship,” S’stro grumbled. “You mean to charge it blindly, with only two ships as support?”

Once again in their short serving together, he bit off the desire to backhand S’stro and demand a blood duel. “Carriers lack anti-ship weaponry, and we already know their escorts are inferior.”

“You are forgetting the two battleships,” she hissed back.

Aibek ignored her and concentrated on the tactical plot. “Navigation, increase speed to flank. Tactical, obtain firing solutions on the nearest escorts. Prepare to clear the path.”

The League ships formed into a sphere. It was their standard battle formation, and one that offered the best in line fire support for protecting a large warship in the center—in this case, the carrier and two battleships that flew alongside it. Hundreds of fighters and bombers streamed out of the carrier, forming up into squadrons. They accelerated out at maximum velocity toward the Saurian and Terran ships.

“Vampire, vampire, vampire!” the tactical officer called out. “One hundred plus inbound anti-ship missiles.”

“Place point defense in automated mode and link our systems with the Constantine’s and Justinian’s tactical network,” Aibek barked. As he stared at the tactical view, a mass of red icons that indicated the location of the missiles closed rapidly with his three ships. “Navigation, come to course zero-nine-zero.” This would have the effect of putting the most PD weapons on target possible. “Communications, signal Colonel Amir. We need immediate fighter support!”

“Not so fast for glory now, are you, Colonel?” S’stro hissed quietly.

“Do something worthwhile or get off my bridge,” Aibek snapped. He forced his concentration back to the tactical plot.

Missile after missile attempted to home in during their terminal acquisition runs, only to be shot out of the void by concentrated close-in weapons system fire from the energy and ballistics-based point defense units that were the Resit Kartal’s last line of defense before their shields. They weren’t, however, good enough to defeat the entire barrage. A few got there, here and there, slamming into the shields of the mighty battleship. As Aibek watched, their portside shield power rating dropped like a stone from nearly one hundred percent to forty… but it held.

“Sir, enemy fast movers accelerating away from us, on a direct intercept course for CSV Lion of Judah.”

For a split second, Aibek considered turning away from the League battlegroup and pursuing the fighters, but they were faster than the Resit Kartal, and he had his orders. Onward. “Tactical, status of firing solutions?”

“Set, sir. Entering engagement range in thirty seconds.”

Run the Gauntlet

Simultaneously on the Lion of Judah, David gripped the hand rests on the CO’s chair as he stared at the holotank. The tactics of the League commander were easy to see. They undoubtedly saw the shield instability on the vessel’s port and aft quarters, and every one of his bombers was heading straight for it. After doing some quick mental math, it didn’t appear Amir had enough squadrons in space to provide an adequate defense. I guess we get to see how ballsy these PD weapons of ours really are.

“Conn, TAO. Enemy fast movers on high-speed approach to our port side,” Kelsey announced.

“TAO, engage point defense autonomous selection mode and set it to weapons free.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Communications, request all escorts concentrate their point defense fire on the bombers—and signal the air boss to get everything we can back in space, as soon as possible.”

Taylor didn’t even look up from his console. “Aye aye, sir.”

Onward the bombers came, shooting through space. On the tactical plot, David watched as icons representing LIDAR guided missiles separated from nearly all the friendly fighters and headed toward the enemy. A couple of dozen red icons disappeared, but the rest pressed on. New red images then appeared—inbound anti-ship missiles. Hundreds of them. “TAO, reinforce port shields with emergency power reserves.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

First one, then five, then twenty red icons vanished from the plot, followed by dozens more as the point defense systems did their job. But enough of the enemy weapons got through. The impacts registered first as slight jolts, then as the shields weakened, the jolts turned into all-out shocks that shook the bridge.

Come on, come on. David stared at his screen and felt relief as the end of the barrage was in sight. He thought about ordering a change in heading, but there was no point. The missiles were just too fast. The port shield dropped below five percent then flatlined.

“Conn, TAO. Port shield has failed, sir,” Kelsey announced with a tinge of worry in her voice.

The bridge rocked with a direct hit on the hull, then another, and another. The last of the red dots vanished, and David breathed a sigh of relief. “XO, damage report.”

“Our armor took most of it,” Ruth replied. “I’m getting a report of a fire in the main hangar, sir.”

“Confirmed,” Master Chief Tinetariro interjected as the bridge shook. “We’re getting secondary fires and explosions coming from the main hangar, sir.”

Fear and dread suddenly gripped David’s heart in a vise. Not again. He almost ordered Ruth down to the hangar but found himself unable to. “Evacuate the flight deck, route all damage control parties from decks twelve through twenty to the hangar.” Somehow, he was able to project a calm, decisive voice in the midst of his inner turmoil. “Give flight operations personnel a five-minute countdown for venting the area into space.”

“Sir, with respect, we don’t have five minutes,” Tinetariro replied before Ruth could speak. “Temperatures are rising steadily in the hangar, and automatic fire suppression is not controlling the hazard’s spread. We’ve got to vent now to save the ship.”

While the Master Chief’s words were harsh, and her tone direct, David knew she was right. Typically, over a thousand people worked the flight line, especially during a rearming and refueling evolution. God, forgive me. Please. He glanced back at her. “Thirty-second count. Order the damage control teams to seal the hangar and vent it as soon as practical.”

Ruth’s mouth dropped open, and her eyes were wide. “Enemy bombers reforming for another pass, sir.”

David leaned forward. “Communications, task Colonel Amir to intercept.” As he stared at the plot, he wasn’t sure if it would be enough—and the feeling of powerlessness was overwhelming.

Run the Gauntlet

Deep within the bowels of the Lion of Judah, Kenneth Lowe found himself assigned to a damage control team. While he’d never deployed on a ship, he, like all members of the CDF, had been drilled in boot camp on how to perform vessel-saving activities such as fire-fighting and plugging microfractures in the hull. And so he found himself in an ill-fitting fire-resistant suit, dragging a hose to deploy CO2 toward the nearest hatch to the hangar bay.

“Move like your lives depend on it!” a crusty senior chief barked. “I’ve seen cadets with more strength than your sorry lot!”

Always a mixture of insults and orders from the senior enlisted guys. Kenneth smirked to himself despite the situation as he redoubled his efforts. They all did—and the pace picked up. The group rounded a corner, and the hatch was in sight, obstructed by a wave of humanity flowing through the passageway. Dozens of crewmembers, most with soot-stained faces, many with visible injuries and extremities covered in blood, surged forward.

“Make a hole! Make a hole!” the same chief yelled as he pushed forward. “Corpsmen to deck seventeen, subsection D,” he called into commlink on his wrist.

There was a break in the line of wounded, which the team used to close the distance to the hatch. Flames were visible throughout the hangar, and the ship rumbled from an explosion within. Kenneth felt the pressure wave flow through the corridor. This is bad.

The chief touched the commlink to his ear, then turned to the team. “Change of plans, seal the hatch.”

“But, Chief, there’s numerous people still in the hangar,” Kenneth said, his face ashen. A group of six crewmembers charged forward through the fire, even as the team grouped around the entryway.

“The fire is out of control, so we’ve been ordered to lock it down for venting,” the chief yelled as the team helped the six to safety. “Now stop acting like a stupid civilian and dog that hatch shut.”

Kenneth was the closest, and he assumed his height made it seem to an outside observer as if he was the strongest. Regardless of the reason, he put his hands around the heavy alloy hatch and started to shove it closed. Mentally, he knew it was the right call—an out-of-control zero-G fire could destroy the ship in minutes—but only God knew how many people were still trapped. As it slid closed, he started to turn the backup wheel to seal it manually, as the automatic system was out.

A face appeared at the portal that allowed them a view into the hangar. It belonged to a young woman who was covered in blood. She immediately started pounding on the hatch. While there was little sound, it wasn’t hard to read her lips as she screamed, “Help me!”

“Keep it closed!” the chief called out, as if sensing Kenneth’s inner struggle.

“But she’s right there, Chief!” A moment later, the rush of atmosphere being sucked from the deck was so loud, Kenneth heard it even through the hatch. In the blink of an eye, the woman disappeared, sucked backward. He stared and watched as the thick smoke cleared, along with any hint of flames. Left behind was a melted landscape of destroyed fighters and bombers. Stunned, he turned away and barely got his faceplate off in time. Vomit sprayed onto the deck as his stomach churned and he repeatedly heaved until there was nothing left.

The chief put his hand on Kenneth’s shoulder. “It was the only way to save the ship, son.”

Kenneth knew the older man was right, but it did nothing to alleviate the horror of watching someone die a few inches away from him and not be able to do a thing about it. God help us all.

Run the Gauntlet

On the bridge of the Resit Kartal, Aibek sat in his now familiar perch—the war commander’s chair. It remained the loneliest seat he’d ever sat in. Unlike the Lion of Judah, where even in command, he felt a part of the team, here he was the outsider. Marked by my time with humans. Perhaps now I am something less than Saurian, at least in the eyes of my fellow warriors. It was a thought that disturbed him to his core.

The voice of his tactical officer interrupted his thought process. “Sir, the Lion of Judah is turning away from the battle. I’m showing an explosion in her flight deck.”

While Aibek had noted the loss of shields during the small craft attack, he’d assumed the dreadnought would shrug off the Leaguer’s fire. Clearly not the case. It only took him a moment to call up a detailed sensor scan and realize the mortal danger David and the rest of his fellow warriors were in. “Navigator, plot intercept course with the League fleet. Ensure the vector is one that will allow us to direct maximum point defense fire on the next wave of enemy small craft as we pass.”

“Acknowledged, Colonel,” the human navigator called out.

S’stro shifted in her seat and hissed, “You plan a direct assault on the enemy?”

Aibek cocked his head to one side. “Do you have a better idea?”

“Retreat and preserve our ship.”

For what had to be the fiftieth time in the last two hours, he fought down a primal urge to challenge her to blood combat. Instead, he forced himself to remain focused on the task at hand. “We will not bring dishonor to ourselves or the Saurian Royal Navy. Tactical, double load forward magnetic cannons with EMP and high explosive rounds.”

Commands were volleyed back and forth across the bridge over the next few minutes as the battleship gathered speed and its crew focused on the tasks assigned to them.

Aibek stared at the tactical plot with near-religious fervor. He waited for the optimum firing range for their numerous point defense systems, hoping to catch the League formations by surprise as they reformed for another attack. The moment the range hit, he roared a command. “Kill small craft tracks with point defense and flak cannons!”

Moments later, projectiles stabbed out from the Resit Kartal, shredding dozens of fighters and bombers. Explosions erupted through the void of space as warheads cooked off as the enemy vessels went through their death-throes. A few dozen erased, the rest pressed on toward the Lion. The Resit Kartal, on the other hand, moved confidently toward its ultimate target—the Napoleon class fleet carrier at the heart of the League formation.

“Enemy escorts in range, Colonel,” the tactical officer announced. “Cobra class destroyers and Lancer class frigates.”

“Obtain firing solutions on League escort ships,” Aibek said with a broad, toothy grin.

“Firing solution locked, sir.”

“Kill enemy escort tracks with guns and beams.”

Aibek’s words echoed across the bridge, and the Resit Kartal’s weapons spoke into the deep. Their magnetic cannons flung projectiles the weight of helicars at the shields of the Leaguer warships, battering them down in two or three hits. Followed up by high energy neutron beam pulses, the unlucky enemies were gutted from stem to stern. A few exploded outright, while others drifted in space, crippled and unable to further maneuver or engage.

“Adjust heading twenty degrees to starboard,” Aibek ordered. “Acquire Master Four as the primary target, all weapons. Set firing solutions.”

S’stro hissed in his ear, “Our deflectors cannot take a direct assault. What are you doing?”

“Multiple weapons, simultaneous impact,” he replied as if that would be all that was required to divine his intentions. “Tactical, lock all magnetic cannon turrets on the ventral side of the vessel in eighty-five-degree elevation. Set missile volley firing solution so it will hit Master Four fifteen seconds after launch, and display the range required on my screen. ”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Again the bridge fell silent as Aibek’s orders were implemented, leaving him to his thoughts as he stared at the tactical plot. An emotion he wasn’t used to, doubt, tugged at him. This action is reckless, one side of his mind said. The other felt anything less was dishonorable. The two League Alexander class battleships maneuvered to intercept the Resit Kartal, leaving their close escort positions and accelerating. This was the opening he was hoping for, daring the enemy to exploit what looked like a sure attack vector. Got him, as the humans say. He touched the control to highlight one of the League battleships as the primary target for the two friendly heavy cruisers to his port quarter. That should make some noise.

“Magnetic cannons locked in place, sir!”

Aibek leaned forward in his seat, anticipation taking over. “Double load all magnetic cannons with EMP followed by armor-piercing shells.”

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

It seemed to Aibek as if the flow of the combat was finally coming into focus. The bridge team had gelled, and they were moving as one unit, with one goal—the hunt. Well, except S’stro. He was unable to suppress the smirk that came to his face along with the thought. “Tactical, stand by for multiple rounds, simultaneous impact attack on Master One. Ensure the magnetic cannon shells, neutron beam emitters, and missiles impact within three seconds of each other, on Master One’s starboard dorsal hangar bay.”

The tactical officer cranked his head around. “Sir, with respect, that is a very tight window.”

“It is. See you do not miss it.” Aibek’s voice was like ice. He expected nothing less than perfection, because they had one shot—and only one shot—to get it right. When fighting an enemy with one round, a wise warrior waits for the right time.

The League ships meanwhile, pummeled the Resit Kartal with their plasma cannons and missile armaments. Superheated balls of red plasma filled the black void between the respective vessels, causing bright yellow flares against the Saurian ship’s shield generators. Reinforced heavily by the miniaturized fusion reactors provided by the Terrans, they could take a lot of punishment. Eventually, though, their precious defensive power would exhaust itself against the onslaught of enemy fire.

“Forward shields at forty-eight percent, Colonel!”

The navigator must be reading my mind. Aibek said nothing. Instead, he stared at his tactical plot, watching as every second, the range ticked closer and closer. Finally, they were in position. He grinned. “Kill track Master One with guns, beams, and missiles.” Simultaneously, he triggered a directed fire order to the Justinian and Constantine.

The Coalition vessels, along with the Resit Kartal, roared as one. First missiles, then magnetic cannons, finally directed energy weapons that moved at the speed of light. The colossal display was something else to behold as explosions lit up across the face of the League vessels shields like the surface of a star. The sustained barrage of deflector draining EMP shells, coupled with dozens of missile warheads battered down the shields of the Napoleon class fleet carrier. And then, the armor piecing magnetic-cannon rounds went to work, burrowing deep into the enemy ship before exploding. The volley was topped off by the concentrated energy of neutron beams, spearing the carrier’s starboard hangar. Secondary explosions blossomed across its surface, and finally, a massive fireball rocketed out of the side of the vessel, along with superstructure and bits of its hull.

Aibek grinned fiercely as scanners confirmed thirty percent of the carrier wasn’t there anymore. They’re adrift too. Scratch one enemy flattop. “Retarget all weapons to enemy battleships,” he barked, even as the ship shook from repeated plasma cannon impacts. “Coordinate our assault with the Justinian.”

While the carrier didn’t have much in the way of offensive weaponry, the battleships, on the other hand, did. They pummeled the Resit Kartal with a singular focus, spewing plasma fire and missiles at a prodigious rate. Combined with a sustained barrage from the remaining escorts, it was enough to hammer down the remaining deflector strength and allow impacts on the forward hull.

The bridge rocked, and both Saurian and humans alike were thrown about in their harnesses. “Navigator, turn us to starboard, maximum thrust. Present the port shield to the enemy. Tactical, reload all magnetic-cannons and divert shield power to the neutron beams,” Aibek ordered. His eyes narrowed as he stared at the plot. The unusual feeling of doubt returned momentarily.

And then, the Justinian and Constantine started their assault. EMP rounds, missiles, and concentrated beams of neutron energy ripped into the side of the nearest Alexander class battleship, battering its shields and outer hull. The coup-de-grace was both cruisers firing the particle beam weapon mounted along their ventral axis. One beam caught the League ship in the engine spaces, the other toward the bow of the vessel. They cut through it like a hot knife through butter. The white-hot concentration of energy came out the other side as secondary explosions broke out across the surface of the once mighty battleship. A few moments later, it exploded violently into two-foot-sized chunks.

Unlike what he remembered from the Lion of Judah, there was no spontaneous outpouring of emotion at the victory. Aibek and his fellow Saurians were focused solely on the remaining enemy. “Tactical, status of reloading?”

“Almost done, sir. Port auto-loaders out of action. The gunnery teams are manually loading three turrets now.”

Aibek stared at the plot, his mind working to devise the best engagement strategy for the remaining battleship, especially considering they couldn’t show their forward shield arc to enemy weapons without taking further hull damage. The tactical officer cut into his thought process.

“Sir, Master Four is turning away. They’re trying to retreat behind the remaining Rand class cruisers.”

Now was the moment of decision. Aibek could charge after them, guns blazing, and probably destroy another battlewagon, or he could fall back to the Lion and the rest of the fleet. There was no contest in his mind between the options. “Navigator, plot a course back to the Lion of Judah. Instruct the Justinian and Constantine to form up on our port and starboard shields.”

S’stro hissed from her chair, “Why not take the glory? The chimps are ours for the taking.”

Aibek turned and glared at her. “Because the greater good is to protect the fleet and ensure all warriors here return from the battle.”

“Oh, the humans have softened you so. It is sad to see, Talgat Aibek.”

When he was again about to slap her and draw blood with his claws, Aibek forced the raw emotion down. To his surprise, she grinned at him.

“Regardless of my distaste for this assignment, I must commend the tactics you employed just now. They were… inspired.”

“I suppose I should be honored,” Aibek replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“You should feel honored I haven’t killed you by now and taken back my rightful post.”

He ignored her words and focused instead on the plot. While they were steadily opening the range up while trading weapons fire with the remaining League vessels, the Lion of Judah was surrounded by a mass of red icons—enemy bombers and fighters. Aibek prayed they would get there in time.

Run the Gauntlet

There were no cheers of elation on the bridge of the Lion of Judah; only resolute soldiers working together to survive. David reflected for a moment as Aibek and the Saurian battleship moved toward them in space at its best speed. He’d said a prayer in Hebrew, asking God to save his friend if it was His will. Now the Lion had other problems to worry about.

Kelsey glanced back at the CO’s chair. “Conn, TAO. Enemy fast movers are making another pass on our port shield.”

It only took a quick glance at the tactical plot to see Amir’s outnumbered fighters couldn’t stop the Leaguers in time. David despaired over what to do when their options were so limited. We still aren’t far enough away to jump out. Aibek and the two other ships won’t get here in time to help.

“I’ve got an idea, sir,” Ruth suddenly interjected.

“By all means, share.”

“We used Starbolt missiles as proximity-fused mine sweepers once before… how about we do the same thing here?”

That’s brilliant. David stood suddenly and strode quickly to the holotank. He manipulated the controls to show a narrow view of the port side of the ship and the mass of League icons. “If Colonel Amir could box them in, we can saturate this area,” he said as he drew a box in the tank with his finger. “What do you think?”

Ruth nodded. “Just like old times.”

David flashed a warrior’s grin and returned to his seat. “TAO, make forward VRLS tubes forty through sixty ready in all respects and open outer doors.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

“Communications, get me Colonel Amir, ASAP.”

A moment later, a voice crackled from the speaker on the CO’s chair. “This is Amir, go ahead, sir.”

“Colonel, I’m transmitting you coordinates… I want you to herd the League bombers between those two points. They’re flying on a level plane, so it should be easier than it sounds.”

“Sir, we won’t be able to interdict them or take out any of their anti-ship missiles.”

“Understood, Colonel. We’ve got a surprise in store. Execute now, and stay out of the area between those points, understood?”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Cohen out,” he said as he punched a button on the chair to end the commlink connection. “TAO, set XYZ coordinates to blanket the area indicated on the holotank for tubes forty through sixty.”

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes forty through sixty.”

The Lion shuddered as twenty Starbolts thundered out of their launch tubes. David stared at the tactical plot, his hand balled up into a fist, clenched tightly as the icons representing the missiles separated and started their runs. At the same time, another mass of red images rushed forward toward the Lion of Judah—they were the enemy bombers and what was left of the League fighters. Amir and the remainder of his airwing nipped at the heels of the formation, keeping it tightly packed. Then the friendly warheads started to go off, one after another. At first, the enemy didn’t realize the damage and flew blindly on. Even when they did, it was too late. The kill box was rocked by massive fusion explosions that wiped the League bombers from the universe, not even leaving debris behind. When it was all said and done, they’d wiped out ninety percent of the inbound force. The rest streaked away, headed toward the planet.

David let out a breath. “Communications, order the fleet to form up in a sphere formation.” He glanced at Ruth. “Not bad for your time sitting in that chair with me, Lieutenant.”

She grinned. “Thank you, sir.”

“Sir,” Master Chief Tinetariro interrupted. “Damage reports coming in from all decks. Hangar fire has been extinguished, and the fire relight watch is set.”

Her words ended all happy thoughts of victory in David’s mind. Thrust back into the harsh reality of the fight for their lives they were embroiled in, he glanced back toward her. “Master Chief, any word on how many casualties there were from the hangar?”

“Over five hundred missing, sir. At least one hundred pilots.”

David closed his eyes for a split second. “Deploy all possible search and rescue teams.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“ETA on reopening the flight deck?”

Tinetariro’s face turned ashen. “I don’t know, sir. Engineering teams are assessing it, but there’s a lot of melted debris. It’s going to take time.”

“Get the contractors down there, and all off-duty personnel. Anyone not doing their job needs to be tasked to getting our flight deck back online.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she replied crisply.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, remaining League contacts. They’re jumping out, sir.”

Not that the few escorts remaining could’ve made much of a dent on the concentrated firepower we have here. “Navigation, resume course toward the Lawrence limit, best possible speed.” As he surveyed the damage to the fleet and reflected on the cost so far, David felt something in the pit of his stomach. A feeling he’d pushed them all too far. He shoved it down with the realization that if they survived the next two hours, he’d have much to answer for.


23

MacDonald watched his HUD intently while the sounds of battle echoed around him. Every minute or so, an unlucky—or more likely, stupid—Leaguer would leave cover and try to engage them. Each one paid with their lives. Then his flanking unit was in position. They’d divided up into two elements of three. “Execute, execute, execute.”

The Saurian on their team, Kucuk, charged forward with an anti-armor rocket cradled in his arms. He raised it to his shoulder and stroked the trigger. The projectile’s solid-rocket-fuel motor ignited and sprayed flames out of its end. It roared ahead, and in just a couple of seconds impacted in the middle of a mass of League Marines in power armor. The resulting explosion and ball of fire sent a blast wave down the corridor in both directions.

Leaguers fell over like pins on a bowling lane from the power of the explosion, dazed but crucially out of the fight for a few seconds. In those moments, the team exploited the opening for all it was worth.

Rostami, Harrell, and Mata charged forward, single shots and bursts ringing out from their battle rifles, while MacDonald, Kucuk, and Ahmad moved up, catching the enemy in a sustained crossfire. Quickly dispatching their foes with burst rounds, they chewed up the cannon fodder security officers and focused on the real threat: the League Marines.

When MacDonald’s battle rifle clicked dry, he dropped it into its one-point sling and drew his sidearm. He’d loaded the trusty weapon with armor-piercing rounds before the battle, and it paid off. With pinpoint accuracy, he fired again and again, shooting Leaguers through the weak point of their armored suits—the faceplates.

No quarter was asked, and none given by the combatants. Men and women fought for their lives, and the Terrans came out on top. Superior equipment and training mostly, but there was something about the fierceness of the warrior spirit within the commandos that brought an X factor to the fight. As Harrell dispatched the last enemy, a quiet descended over the passageway. It was the kind of quiet that was eerie, as moments before, there had been nothing but the crashes and thunder of combat.

His breathing labored, MacDonald glanced around to take in the fallen bodies that littered the floor. “Blow the door,” he said quietly.

Harrell stepped up and affixed strips of thermite-based explosives around the hatch. They’d burn through it quickly without risking the structural integrity of the station. “Fire in the hole,” he yelled after stepping back to a safe distance. The material ignited as he triggered the detonator and blasted a roughly man-sized opening in the hatch, which fell inward with a loud thud.

Battle rifle reloaded, up and at the ready, MacDonald charged through. The sight that greeted him was a cavernous computer core stretching several decks in height. Banks of processing units displayed green and red lights, while the room itself was brutally cold—only five degrees Celsius, according to his suit’s sensors. What wasn’t present was other humans. The team moved in behind him, fanning out. “Senior Chief, post security on that hatch. I want claymores on either side of it and then set up a kill zone. Rostami! Get your nerd butt over to this console and kindly blow this piece of shit Leaguer station to hell, please.”

“On it, Master Chief!” Rostami called out cheerfully through his suit integrated commlink.

The commandos moved as one, skillfully setting anti-personnel mines in the passageway and taking up firing positions behind maximum cover, all the while Rostami plied his trade, pounding away at the exposed master terminal connected to the computer core. Out of the corner of his eye, MacDonald saw him slide a device into a data-chip connection. He recognized it as an ICE pick—the ultimate Terran Coalition hacking technology that easily defeated most League computer security suites. “We don’t have all day,” he grumbled.

“Here goes nothing,” Rostami muttered, more to himself than the rest of the team. With a flourish, he depressed a final button on the keyboard.

Nothing happened, at first. Then an ear-piercing alarm klaxon sounded, and a count started up. “Self-destruct in fifteen minutes. Proceed to the nearest evacuation zone,” a disembodied computer voice intoned through the station’s intercom. Almost on cue, loud explosions echoed in the corridor beyond the hatch as a League security team tripped the claymores.

“Uh oh,” Rostami said as he pointed to the terminal. “Uh, Master Chief, I pulled up the station’s internal sensors. We’ve got a problem… it looks like they sent every security guy and League Marine left on the base down here. Hundreds of em.”

While tier-one operators, of which the Spacewalkers were at the top of, were typically seen as supermen by civilians and even regular CDF troops, MacDonald knew they were capable of being overwhelmed just like any other soldier. At the mention of hundreds of hostiles, his mind leaped into overdrive. We need to hit hard, hit fast, and get out of here before they bottle us up. “I’m not interested in being pinned down in here for fifteen minutes and dying when the station goes up. Harrell, set a charge on that terminal, then we’re outta here. We’ll rush the gravlift, and get back to friendly territory before our Leaguer friends show up.”

“On it, Master Chief!” Harrell called out as he pulled an explosive block from a recess on his power armor and slapped it against the computer interface station.

Around MacDonald, the commandos formed up and reloaded their battle rifles and sidearms, preparing for sustained combat. He glanced right, then left. “Ready, ladies?”

“Let’s get this party started,” Mata rumbled in his slight Spanish accent. “I’m ready to get off the ride.”

“Okay. I’ll take point. Ahmad, you’ve got our rear. Everyone else, fall in. Short bursts, make every shot count.”

“Hoorah!” Rostami yelled through his commlink, drawing smirks from several others.

“That kid is a walking, talking recruiting poster,” Harrell commented on a private commlink back to MacDonald.

MacDonald didn’t respond, instead snapping his battle rifle up into position and leaning out of the hatch. Finding no enemies, he strode quickly through the melted hole that was still warm. The team formed up behind him, as they all stepped over bodies, broken weapons, and the wreckage of battle. An unlucky Leaguer rounded the bend in the passageway—the station was a concave torus and laid out in a circular manner—and he stroked the trigger of his battle rifle without thinking. The man dropped in his tracks, dark red stains spreading across the dark gray League uniform.

Just like that, the battle was joined. MacDonald kept moving forward, while he and the rest of the team poured enemy into the oncoming enemy troops. Leaguers dropped like flies, mostly security types with little actual combat training or experience.

“Twenty meters to the gravlift,” Harrell noted between bursts of gunfire. “There’s a lot of these clowns.”

“No shit,” MacDonald replied.

“Contact rear!” Mata yelled into his commlink.

MacDonald twisted his head around to see three power-armored League Marines charging them from behind. Mata and Kucuk put sustained bursts into their center mass, felling two of the Goliath suits. That left one, which had a large weapon he wasn’t familiar with, raised. It spoke with a thundering roar, a split second before Mata fired his battle rifle into the last Marine’s helmet. Adrenaline coursed through MacDonald’s veins, subsiding ever so slightly as the behemoth collapsed to the ground. He’d turned back toward the direction of their escape when a weak voice caught his attention.

“Uuuuh,” Harrell moaned. “Master Chief… I’m hit.”

The sound of pain in Harrell’s voice twisted inside MacDonald like a knife. He whirled around to see one of his worst fears: one of his men, collapsed on the deck, blood trickling from a break in the incredibly tough power armor they wore. Wounds that would incapacitate an average human were nothing to the commandos, as they trained to be the top one-thousandth of a percent in physical prowess. A quick check on his HUD confirmed the suspicion. Harrell had a mortal wound. Work the problem. Shit, we’re exposed out here. “Mata! Get over here, get him back on his feet, now.”

“On it, Master Chief!”

With a quick touch of a button, MacDonald cued his commlink to the private commanders’ line—directly to Calvin. “Colonel, this is Alpha team.” As he spoke, more Leaguers approached from the front and behind. The rest of the commandos gamely exchanged fire with them. “We’re pinned down and I have a casualty. We need immediate assistance and medical support.” One of the enemies got too close for comfort, and he raised his battle rifle to shoot him, only to find it was empty. With a fluid motion, he let the weapon drop into its one-point sling and drew his sidearm. A squeeze of the trigger later, and there was one less Leaguer alive.

“Read you loud and clear, Master Chief,” Calvin’s voice boomed through the commlink. “We’ve got our hands full up here, but I’m sending a couple of squads and medics to assist. Hang on, help’s on the way.”

“MacDonald out.” He knelt next to Harrell and glanced at Mata. “How’s he doing?”

Mata shook his head. “That was a gauss sniper rifle. The projectile pierced the front armor and went through his left lung. It clipped two veins, and he’s bleeding internally. I’ve administered coagulants… but there’s little more I can do. We need to get him back to a surgical facility.”

“Yeah, I bought the farm. Got it,” Harrell said, his tone taciturn as ever. “Leave me behind. I’ll hold off the fools behind us long enough for the rest of the team to punch through to the gravlift.”

MacDonald shook his head, causing his helmet to move back and forth. “I’m not leaving you.”

“The rest of the team comes first. Now get out of here.”

He’s right. I know he is… but I’m not leaving a brother behind. “You’re gonna have to do better than that.” MacDonald cracked a grin inside his helmet. “I’ll stay with you until the relief force gets here.”

Rostami spoke up, between three-round bursts fired down the passageway. “I’m not going anywhere, Master Chief. We all go or none of us go.”

“It would be dishonorable to leave an honored warrior behind,” Kucuk rumbled.

Run the Gauntlet

“Colonel, this is Mayborn.” A voice interrupted Calvin’s commlink, breaking his train of thought as he oversaw the retreat back into the captured League ship they came from.

“Go ahead, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, we’re pinned down by company-strength Leaguers. I can’t get through them to the commandos.” While the man’s voice was calm, the sounds of battle—gunshots and explosions—echoed through the open communication line.

Calvin bit down on his lip. I’m not leaving MacDonald. That man’s saved my life more times than I can count. “What kind of opposition are you facing?”

“A few Goliath suits, mostly station security… but there’s a lot of them, sir—hundreds of tangos.”

Shit. The tough Marine pondered the situation for a few seconds. Station security doesn’t have good armor. I can work with that. “Hold your position at all costs, Lieutenant. I’m on the way with reinforcements.”

“But, sir, we’re running out of time.”

“Leave no man behind,” Calvin ground out. “Hold the line.” He cut off the commlink before Mayborn could respond. Using the advanced features of his command and control HUD, he called up a list of all Marine platoons in the hangar area. Quickly highlighting three heavy weapons squads, he designated a waypoint for all of them directly outside of the nearest gravlift.

“Colonel, we’ve got to wrap it up,” the voice of Master Gunnery Sergeant Ruben Mannheim called out. He was Calvin’s senior enlisted Marine. “I’ve got demolitions teams setting up our little surprise… and that’s all she wrote.”

“Thanks, Master Guns.” Calvin started out the hatch with one last glance at the cavernous hangar bay. “I’m going to try and get the rest of our Marines and the commandos out of the predicament they’re in, six decks up.”

“Need some backup, sir?”

“Negative. Get our people back onboard and dust off without me if we run out of time.”

“Godspeed, Colonel.”

“You too, Master Guns.” It took Calvin less than fifteen seconds to cross the distance between the hangar bay entrance and the gravlift, where he found twelve other Marines waiting for him. Each carried either a fully automated grenade launcher with an underslung belt of forty-millimeter shells, a squad automatic weapon, or a minigun. “You boys ready? We need to punch through to our people and get out of here before this place goes up.”

“Ready to cap some Leaguers, Colonel,” a young corporal replied as he hefted his grenade launcher.

The rest either hollered or shouted “Hoorah!” in reply.

“Let’s do this,” Calvin said as he stepped into the lift. The rest followed him in, their power armor creating quite the squeeze. “We’re gonna hit hard and fast. Punch through these assholes, get our people, and go home. Who’s with me?”

“We’re with you, sir!” The shout seemed to shake the lift itself.

The gravlift dinged as it reached the desired floor, and its doors swished open. Without warning, bullets pinged off their armor and the passageway around them. Friendly Marines were pinned down behind whatever cover they’d been able to find, while a seemingly unending mass of enemy troops sprayed death in their direction. A round found the faceplate of the Marine next to Calvin, puncturing it and killing him instantly. The young man—no more than twenty-two—dropped in his tracks.

“Cover! Cover! Push forward!” Calvin screamed at the top of his lungs as he jerked his battle rifle up and returned fire. Several of the grenade-launcher-toting Marines did the same, and the rest of the team was able to get to the sides of the passageway without further loss. “Lieutenant Mayborn, this is Demood. Where the hell are you?” he called into his commlink.

“LT’s dead sir,” another voice replied. “These Leaguer bastards have us bottled up. Too much fire to get down the corridor and to our people. It’d be suicide to try a frontal assault.”

For a split second, Calvin almost ordered an all-out attack anyway, thinking that volleys of grenades would break up the enemy, even if they did take causalities. Gotta be another way. I’ve already lost too many Marines today. He called up the schematics for the deck they were on and viewed the area around them. Hmmm. There appeared to be large rooms all around them, crisscrossed with passageways. “Anyone know what’s behind these walls?” he asked on an open commlink.

“Yeah, Colonel. Computer and storage for the supercomputer that runs the station,” Rostami cut in from the commlink. “Row after row of ‘em.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Calvin replied, a glint in his eye. “Who’s got explosives down here?”

A Marine hunched behind a container turned around between volleys from her battle rifle. “I do, sir. C-15 and detstrips.”

“With me, Private.”

The two of them strode about five meters down the corridor and stopped. Calvin scanned the wall, then marked a few spots on his HUD and shared it through the tactical link. “Detstrips here, here, and here,” he said as he pointed to several spots. “Should be enough to burn through.”

“Yes, sir!” the private replied enthusiastically. She went to work, unrolling the putty-like material onto the alloy surface. Once a rough rectangle was laid out, they both moved down the passageway to a safe distance. “Fire in the hole, sir!”

An enormous explosion roared, filling the area of smoke and a brief flash of fire. Debris rained down, filling the corridor with fine ash. It took a few seconds for the air to clear enough to see again. Calvin charged through the newly blown opening and into a room filled with computer equipment, just as Rostami had said. “Heavy weapons teams, on me. Private! Get your butt in here and set another string of detcord.” He used the HUD to mark a waypoint for her.

“Sir, yes, sir!” she shouted.

Calvin stood to the side as the young woman did her work, and the eleven Marines remaining from the heavy weapons elements climbed into the room. One of the newcomers held out a minigun—a huge, rotating barrel machine gun capable of throwing thousands of rounds downrange per minute—toward him. “Sir, thought you might be able to make use of this.”

He reached out and grabbed the weapon by its handle, and in a single fluid motion, locked it into place on his power armor. “Thanks, Corporal,” Calvin replied. His fierce warriors’ grins showed through his faceplate. “Let’s get some payback on these damn Leaguers. No finesse here… as soon as the detcord does its work, we charge through on full auto. Anything that moves gets shot. Questions?”

There were none.

A moment later, the young woman’s voice echoed across his commlink. “Everything’s set, sir.”

“Stand by,” Calvin called out and took control of the explosives through his suit taclink. “Fire in the hole!” He triggered the detonator remotely, and yet another explosion rang out. Fine alloy debris showered over them, along with smoke and flame. “Go, go, go!” he screamed as he ran forward. The minigun barrels whirled and reached critical mass. He squeezed the firing stud as he bounded through the hole in the wall, right in the middle of a formation of Leaguers. Bullets sprayed out of the weapon, cutting down a dozen men before the next Marine emerged. On and on they came, grenade launchers and squad automatic weapons firing as they did.

The enemy force knew it had the upper hand—moments before they’d had the entire corridor locked down and had the Terrans caught in a pincer movement. Now they were being decimated on two fronts. It wasn’t so much that they broke—they died. The Terran Coalition Marines pushed forward, bodies dropped in their wake, and there wasn’t a single thing the Leaguers could do about it. The pitiful few remaining dropped their weapons and raised their hands.

“Cease fire, cease fire!” Calvin shouted as the enemies surrendered. “Secure those weapons; we need corpsmen over here. Move up to the commandos!” Without another glance, he jogged forward down the passageway. Around a bend in the torus structure of the station, half of Alpha team faced toward him, the other in the opposite direction where they traded fire with another group of Leaguers.

MacDonald immediately pointed his weapon in a safe position. “Sorry, Colonel, thought you were a hostile.”

“We’ve cleared a path to the gravlift. How’s your man?” Calvin’s eyes darted to the fallen form on the deck. Blood stained the metal around the damaged power armor.

“Harrell lost a lot of blood,” MacDonald replied, his tone somber. “Touch and go if we can get him to a surgical ward in time. I’m on a private channel, so please keep it quiet. We’re family, you understand.”

“We all are, Master Chief.”

At that moment, a team of corpsmen—easily identifiable by the red crosses on their power armor—rounded the corner, carrying an anti-grav stretcher. They rushed to Harrell’s side, and one plugged a small diagnostic tool into his cracked and burnt power armor. “Hey, Senior Chief, can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” Harrell said weakly.

“Okay, we’re going to cut this armor off so I can see the wound. I’m giving you something for the pain now.” The man went to work with a small, high-powered laser saw. It quickly burned through the damaged piece of armor, revealing the wound within. Blood pumped out of it with regularity. “We’ve got a damaged artery here. Get the trauma kit. We’ll have to find it before we move him. Two pints of O-negative, now!”

As the medics worked, Calvin moved up and the rest of Alpha team pivoted to face the opposite direction—where the Leaguers would come from, if they attacked again.

“How much time we got left, Colonel?”

“Seven or eight minutes, I think.”

“You think?” MacDonald asked. “Seriously?”

“I was more focused on capping the bad guys than the clock, Master Chief.”

“Thanks for coming back for us.” MacDonald put an armored gauntlet on Calvin’s shoulder. “I’ll owe the Terran Coalition’s misguided children one.”

Calvin snickered and slapped him on the back. “Damn straight you will, and don’t even think about forgetting it.”

“Colonel!” the medic called out. “He’s stable for now, but we’ve got to move.”

“You heard the man,” Calvin bellowed. “Double time, Marines!” There was surprisingly little contact with the League security force on the way back to the captured destroyer they’d rode in on. Maybe the Leaguers finally woke up to us blowing their precious shipyard apart. With two minutes to spare, he was the last one to run up the ramp leading to their ship. “Bridge, this is Demood. Launch now! We’re clear!”

“Understood, Colonel. We’re dusting off.” Mancini’s voice carried over the commlink. “Please join me on the bridge.”

“On my way.” Calvin paused for a moment, watching as the medics hauled Harrell off on the stretcher. God, please take care of my wounded brother and all of our wounded brothers and sisters. The prayer complete, he turned on his heel and reached the bridge within thirty seconds, thanks to the small size of the destroyer and the mechanical assist of his power armor.

“I thought we were going to have to leave without you, Colonel,” Mancini called out as a greeting as Calvin cleared the hatch. “As much as it would’ve pained me.”

“You and me both,” Calvin replied as he popped off his helmet. “How’s it looking?” He took a seat in an extra chair with a console display. “I can’t stand being on these League tubs.”

“Conn, navigation. Clearing the docking bay, sir.”

“Navigation, ahead emergency flank. Best course to Lawrence limit,” Mancini said, then glanced at Calvin. “Might get bumpy. They’re trying to launch a few cruisers over there.”

“Leaguers, always showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Calvin replied. He brought up his arm with a flourish and tapped at the integrated digital display on his forearm. “We left a surprise for our friends.” G-force pressed him back into the contoured seat as the destroyer picked up speed. It grew ever stronger as the acceleration increased. “Direct the viewscreen to view out the aft cameras.”

A few moments later, the large screen in the front of the destroyer’s bridge flashed on with an image of the shipyard. Its hangar bay doors were open, and several vessels of different classes were visible, headed towards the opening.

Calvin held up his arm and pressed down on the small screen. “I don’t recall inviting those assholes to our party.” A second later, a colossal explosion erupted from the hangar bay. In moments, it consumed a cruiser, caused pieces of the bay itself to launch into open space, and the shockwave threw smaller ships around like ragdolls. While the crew stared at the result, time continued to tick down—and then the entire shipyard went up like a roman candle. The screen turned white before the picture failed, and the deck pitched up from the shockwave, slamming into their ship.

“Scratch one Leaguer space station!” a young woman yelled from her console. Cheers and applause broke out spontaneously.

“Now comes the hard part, Colonel,” Mancini began from his perch in the CO’s chair. “Getting out of this system and back to the fleet, alive.”

Those words did much to darken Calvin’s mood, at least until he replayed the sight of the shipyard going up in his mind.


24

While the lights on the bridge of the LX Ho Chi Minh were dimmed and red in tone, Alec Hartford’s anger matched the color. First, local commissars had violated his express orders and sent two battlegroups piecemeal at the Terran Coalition interlopers. If that wasn’t bad enough, they tried to force him to commit ships without concentrating them into a workable fleet first. There are times when I wonder how the League of Sol and Society succeeds in spite of the low-quality political officers assigned to our Navy. He was a devotee to the ideals of the League, a true believer in every sense. I must understand some day how Admiral Seville keeps such a lapdog around as his commissar.

“Admiral, the last group of cruisers you were waiting for has jumped in,” his tactical officer called out.

Hartford allowed himself a thin smile. “Order them into formation and signal the fleet to prepare for wormhole jump to Trotsky. Let us avenge our brothers and sisters!” The last part he added to build a final fire in those around him.

“All ships report ready, Admiral,” the communications officer called out.

“Engage wormhole drive.” The words fell out of Hartford’s mouth like a hammer.

The Ho Chi Minh and her consorts powered their FTL drives. Dozens of artificial wormholes popped up in front of them, like a forest of many-colored vortexes. There was little comment on the wonder of these tunnels through the fabric of the universe as the League vessels shot through at maximum speed. A few seconds later, they appeared on the other side. After the typical five-second sensor blackout period, everything came back on.

“Admiral, we’ve got the Terrans. They’re approximately a million kilometers away, and their course takes them on a direct line to the FTL limit. I’m reading the same formation of the Lion of Judah, six unidentified heavy cruisers, and a Saurian battleship,” the tactical officer said.

“Display it on the central holotank, Lieutenant.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A moment later, the tank came alive with a map of local space, showing Teegarden and its planets. A cluster of red dots indicated the CDF fleet, and just as had been reported, they were moving away. Something is wrong. Even those big ships go faster than that. “Scan the enemy ships, Tactical. Are they damaged?” The thought ran through his head that David Cohen was a dangerous opponent who might have a trap up his sleeve.

“All the enemy vessels are damaged to some degree, Admiral. Especially the Lion of Judah.”

Hartford steepled his fingers together and smiled. This couldn’t have possibly turned out better. Even with the loss of our yards, the destruction of that infernal ship will crush the Terrans. I’ll redeem myself and bring favor to my mentor. “Maximum acceleration, all ships. We’ll run them down like the dogs they are.”

Run the Gauntlet

On the bridge of the Lion of Judah, David stared at his tactical viewer in disbelief. Somebody finally woke up over there and got smart. He’d been counting on the League standing down long enough for them to escape after wiping the floor of the last battlegroup. Taking the mass of enemy vessels in, his brain struggled to work the problem.

“Conn, TAO. Contacts confirmed, four Alexander class battleships, designated Master One through Four. Numerous Rand class cruisers, Cobra class destroyers, and Lancer class frigates, sir,” Kelsey said, her voice higher in pitch than usual.

Ruth leaned closer and whispered, “Sir, they’re not close enough to catch us before we get to the Lawrence limit.”

“I know that, Lieutenant. But the last estimate was two to three hours to get our flight deck back online.”

“We could jump out without the remaining squadrons.”

David’s head snapped around, and his eyes bored into Ruth. “I am not leaving those people behind, Lieutenant.”

“There’s less than a hundred of them, sir,” Ruth replied and closed her eyes as she said it. “I hate the thought of leaving a friend, especially Colonel Amir, to the tender mercies of the League… but we can’t sacrifice the battlegroup for them. If you asked Colonel Amir, he’d tell you to jump as soon as we’re able.” She opened her eyes, matching his gaze, and stared straight at him.

David set his jaw. The worst of it is I know she’s right. “TAO, time to enemy intercept?”

“Give or take eighty minutes, sir.”

“We’ve got that much time to come up with a better option, XO. Start cranking. Nothing is too far out there.” He forced confidence into his voice. It would help them all to hear it. “We’re not leaving our people, and if we can, we’ll tweak the Leaguers’ nose one more time before we make good on our escape. Now get to it.”

Run the Gauntlet

One hundred lightyears away, Godat forced himself to stay focused. They ran at complete EMCON, with no transmissions going out, and had no indication of success or failure from either shipyard strike. Each tick of the mission clock seemed as if it took an eternity. He let out a sigh and glanced around the control room. The crew, from his fellow officers on down to the most junior rating, seemed to share the anxiety he felt.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change to port, three hundred kilometers. Inbound wormhole,” Oleson interjected. Fear radiated from his voice.

“Navigation, stand by emergency jump.” God, please let it be the skipper and the Marines.

“Conn, TAO. IFF confirmed, it's our captured destroyer. Contact designated Sierra One.”

Thank you. “Communications, get me Major Mancini.”

“Aye aye, sir,” the comms officer replied.

A few moments later, an image of the League destroyer’s bridge appeared on the viewer. Calvin’s armor appeared singed with scorch marks covering most of its torso piece. His helmet was off, and a superficial laceration caked with dried blood was visible on his forehead. “Good to see you again, Captain,” he said, chipper as ever. “Mission accomplished. Scratch one League shipyard, and a whole mess of Leaguers.”

Godat pursed his lips together, and they curled into a grin. “Not bad, Colonel. Causalities?”

The last word sobered the hardened Marine’s expression. “Yeah. Eighty-two KIA. Sixty-nine seriously wounded. The rest of us… let’s just say that most of us took a round or two somewhere. We ready to go home?”

“There’s been no communication from the Lion of Judah or any other ships in the battlegroup. Is Major Mancini there?”

At the mention of his name, Mancini stuck his head into the picture. “Sorry, XO. Trying to make sense of this League tech for our jump back. By my mission clock, the Lion should’ve jumped out by now and be back to the rendezvous point.”

“Same thought I had, sir,” Godat began. “I was pondering what to do when you arrived. Do you need additional medical support?”

“I don’t think so. We already had the combat surgical team setup over here.”

“I see, sir.” Godat shifted in his seat. “Should we start the process to dock the ships?”

Mancini narrowed his eyes. “Yes, but… let’s keep the Marines on the captured destroyer. We’re going to go back and stick our nose into Teegarden, see what’s up.”

Godat did a double-take and stared, mouth agape, at Mancini, as did the COB.

“Are you sure, sir?”

“Very, XO. I want to be sure something’s wrong before we start trying to limp back to Terran Coalition space.”

“Are you serious, sir?” Godat asked. “We can’t affect that battle. Involving ourselves will get everyone on this ship killed.”

“I realize that, XO. But, we also need to know what the hell is going on. If the Leaguers took out Cohen’s battlegroup, we still need to escape. I’ve got not only our crew to worry about, but four hundred Marines and commandos.”

The line of reasoning made sense to Godat, and he relaxed slightly, back into his chair. “I hope you know what you’re doing, sir.”

Mancini flashed a wicked grin. “I haven’t gotten us blown up yet, have I?”

Abraham Cosentino—the COB—leaned down so his face would be picked up by the camera. “The way I see it, you’ve got to be a special kind of nuts to sign up for raider duty, but, sir, this takes the cake.”

Run the Gauntlet

It had been forty minutes since the new League fleet had jumped in, give or take. Not much had changed. David stared at the tactical plot like a man possessed. The Leaguer in command knows his or her business. Tight formation, overlapping fire-support coverage. No play for us that doesn’t end in our force being overwhelmed.

Ruth turned her head, blue light from the overhead lights casting a shadow across her face. “Come up with any bright ideas yet, sir?”

It was about time to make a choice. “The most obvious solution is to call the Audacious back and have the fighters land on her.”

“But?”

“But they’d have to execute a double jump. It’s risky, and I’ve gambled enough today,” David replied, his jaw set. “If this goes south, the Terran Coalition will need the only anti-matter reactor equipped fleet carrier we have.”

“Sir,” Ruth said, her voice a whisper. “It’s already gone south.”

“I know.” David closed his eyes for a moment, his brain continuing to churn.

“Conn, TAO. Sir, we just got a neutrino spike, about fifty thousand kilometers off the starboard bow.”

“Contact, Lieutenant?”

“That’s the thing sir. Nothing is showing up on our scanners.”

David was briefly annoyed that she’d informed him of a non-event, until it hit him suddenly: It’s the Tucson! At least, it could be. “Communications,” he began, then caught himself. “Belay that.”

Ruth’s eyebrows shot up. “Sir?”

“If that spike is what I think it is, we don’t want to draw attention to it, XO.”

She pursed her lips together. “I think I missed something.”

“Neutrino emissions signal what?”

Her expression changed. “Oh. Yes. Lawrence drive wormhole opening. You think it’s our stealth raider?”

“I hope to God it is, and more importantly, that he’s in a position to do some damage.” David tried not to focus on the hope he now had that a new player was on the battlefield and instead on the things he could affect. “Master Chief, ETA to the hangar being able to accept small craft?”

“At least two hours, sir.”

Or maybe not. “TAO, range to League interception?”

“Forty-five minutes, best speed, sir.”

His eyes glanced up at the tactical plot and the League ships gaining on them ever so slowly. Mentally, David prayed. God of the universe, hear my prayer. If it is Your will, please help us to safely recover our pilots, and escape our enemies this day. Amen. The countdown continued.

Run the Gauntlet

Simultaneously, on the bridge of the Ho Chi Minh, Hartford stared at the holotank in the center of his bridge. They should’ve jumped five minutes ago. But the Terrans hadn’t. No, they continued steadily on course, limping away from the approaching battlegroup as fast as their most damaged vessel would allow.

“I don’t understand it, sir,” his tactical officer said, out of the blue. “They’re beyond the jump limit. Why are they still here?”

Hartford stood and paced. “Zoom the plot in.” A moment later, the display complied. A tight resolution 3D projection of the Lion of Judah and her consorts filled the tank. Clustered around it were numerous small craft. CDF space superiority fighters. The bane of our existence. Then it hit him. “Tactical, scan the enemy’s forward section. What is the status of their flight deck?”

“Damaged, sir. Our sensors can’t penetrate their shielding and armor, but there’s evidence of extensive fire damage around the hangar openings.”

With a fierce warrior’s grin that he allowed on his face for a fraction of second, Hartford channeled an emotion he hadn’t had in years: elation. They’re trying to save their pilots. The individuality of the Terrans was always their downfall in the League’s eyes, and this time was no different. Instead of getting away after spoiling our well, they let sentimentality get in the way of victory. Finally, we’ll get our revenge on the Lion of Judah. He thought briefly of how his mentor, Admiral Seville, had clashed repeatedly with the accursed ship and its commanding officer, David Cohen. Perhaps I will finally redeem myself in his eyes. He turned back to his chair. “We’ve got them.”

The tactical officer glanced back. “Sir?”

“The Terrans,” he began. “The individualists that they are, they put each person above the whole. They’re trying to save a few insignificant specks, rather than the body,” Hartford continued, his tone cold. “Let all of us take heed; this is why the League will prevail.” He sat and stared forward. “Prepare our targeting scanners. I want to fire on those vessels the moment we’re inside of maximum range.”


25

“Conn, navigation. Wormhole emergence complete,” the Tucson’s navigator reported to a nervous control room.

Mancini’s heart raced within his chest. Of all the crazy stunts he’d tried in his career, jumping blindly into what was most likely an active combat zone, practically on Earth’s doorstep, took the cake. He punched a button on his chair. “Sensor room, I need the plot populated immediately.”

“Conn, sensor room. I’m working on it, skipper.”

Red dots started popping onto the tactical plot on the review above Mancini’s head. A lot of red dots. His heart began skipping beats. “COB, rig for ultra-quiet, now.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Cosentino replied. “Rig for ultra-quiet. Secure all external noise sources. Reduce life support to minimum level,” he barked at a nearby enlisted crewwoman, who manned an environment substation. “Shut down heat generators and use the excess heat from the reactor to maintain livable conditions.”

A few blue dots appeared on the tactical plot. Both Mancini and Godat exhaled loudly at the same time, then shared a glance. “At least somebody’s still there, skipper,” his XO stated. “Better outcome than I was expecting.”

“Yeah.”

Over the next couple of minutes, the sensor picture cleared up as it took a while to detect all the ships present via passive means. Sometimes, it was an arduous process, but today, since everything in the system was firing on nearly max thrust, it was a walk in the park for the sensor room team.

“This is weird,” Godat commented as the last blue dot blinked into place, showing the Lion of Judah and its battle group of six heavy cruisers and the Saurian battleship. “They can jump out. Why not hightail it out of here? The shipyard’s gone.”

Mancini shook his head. “I’ve no idea. Maybe one of the ships has lost Lawrence drive capability? They’re moving a lot slower than they should, and there’s clear battle damage. Who knows what’s going on over there. TAO, load the plot up into the central board.” He stood and walked to the holotank in the middle of the control room. They were not quite in the middle of the two fleets, but closer to the League formation than the friendlies. “Hmmm.”

Gadot joined him. “Navigator got pretty lucky dropping us in there. Any closer, and the Leaguers would have seen our wormhole, stealthy as it is.” Growler class raiders had specialized Lawrence drives that were designed explicitly to limited sensor signatures. They only worked due to the small size of the vessels.

“Or she’s that good.”

“Touché, sir.”

As he stared at the plot, Mancini pondered their situation. They could try to catch up with the retreating CDF fleet, but that would give away their stealth, or they could sit tight and watch things unfold. Or we could do something else. “Navigation, superimpose our projected course on the board, along with the projected courses of both fleets.”

Blue dotted lines appeared from the Tucson and the friendly fleet, while red lines jutted out from the League force. On the course they were currently on, they’d run into the League ships when they were still about twenty-five thousand kilometers from the CDF vessels.

Outside of their weapons range. A gleam crept into Mancini’s eyes as he stared at the holotank. He tapped at a couple of buttons and zoomed in on the League formation. Readouts showed shield and engine status, confirming what he suspected: the enemy ships were moving at maximum thrust, with their deflectors down. All power was redirected toward speed.

“Skipper, I know that look. You’re not seriously thinking of engaging, are you?”

“Well,” Mancini began, then paused. He bit down on his lip. “Okay, this is a little nuts, but walk the dog with me. We’re already on an intercept course. We only need to adjust our heading by a hair. A couple of thruster bursts will do it. They’ll never see us—"

“And their shields are down,” Godat finished. He leaned closer. “Sir, if we’re off by a millimeter, everyone on the boat dies. You realize that, right? Worse, they die for nothing because we won’t even get a shot off.”

“It’s a risk, XO. My gut says the fleet needs help to get out of here, and we’re in a position to deliver it.”

“Your boat, skipper.”

Mancini glanced at him quickly. “And don’t forget it.” He smirked slightly. “Okay. Let’s do this.” He made his way back the CO’s chair and dropped into it. “General quarters, general quarters. All hands to battle stations. Set material condition one throughout the boat.” A bell rang twice, loud enough to be heard but not carry. Growler class boats didn’t have the same ear-piercing klaxon a regular ship of the line did. Everything was built for stealth. The lights in the overhead dimmed and turned blue.

About fifteen seconds ticked away. “Conn, TAO. Condition one is set throughout the boat, sir,” Oleson intoned. “Missile room reporting anti-ship battle stations manned and ready.”

“Navigation, plot a course that puts us right smack in the middle of that League fleet. I want point-blank range on the Alexander class battleship at its core.”

“Sir, could you define point-blank?” the navigation officer asked as she turned her head toward him.

“Within one thousand meters.”

Her eyebrows shot up, and her eyes widened. “One thousand meters, sir?”

“I’m not usually the one that repeats orders around here, Lieutenant. One thousand meters.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Tension mounted in the control room as the crew went about their orders, preparing for battle. Mancini adjusted himself in the CO’s seat and bit his lip at the same time. They’re jittery. I can’t blame them. He closed his eyes for a moment and suppressed a seed of doubt that Gadot’s words had planted. “TAO, reset all safeties on our Hunter missiles to zero meters.”

“Uh, skipper,” Gadot started, as his red face betrayed concern. “With no range safeties, they could explode on launch or pick us up as a target.”

“For what I’m thinking, it’s the only way to guarantee detonation.”

Gadot was silent.

Probably thinks I’ve gone insane. “TAO, trickle charge the energy weapon capacitor. Ensure it doesn’t gain more than two percent per thirty seconds.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Oleson replied.

“Conn, navigation. I’ve got our course plotted, sir, and checked it twice.”

Mancini allowed himself a grin. “Length of thruster burn?”

“Less than twenty seconds, sir. It shouldn’t show up on their sensors unless they know what they’re looking for.”

“Feed it to the pilot.” Mancini glanced toward the COB. God, I hope to hell this works.

Run the Gauntlet

Iskra Smirnov stared at her sensor console on the Ho Chi Minh. It had been her posting for the past few months, following a promotion to chief sensor technician. While the tactical officer handled enemy contacts, it was the sensor team's job to ensure the background clutter never made it to the officer’s console. Something’s off here. We have a sensor shadow off our starboard bow, rushing toward the ship. Yet the computer classified it as a spatial anomaly. Who am I to question the computer?

Still, as the shadow approached, her suspicions were aroused. A frown on her face, she turned to the officer nearest her. “Comrade, I believe there is a Terran Coalition stealth vessel approaching our position.”

The man glanced at her. “I do not see that on my console, Technician.”

She detested how the officers always belittled the enlisted sailors' titles. Especially the French officers. “It's moving in a straight line, quickly.”

“The computer system says it is a spatial anomaly, graviton wave. Harmless.” His response was practically sneered back at her.

“But, comrade, the odds of it heading straight for us—”

“Are irrelevant. The state commissioned the greatest computer system known to humankind to track enemy contacts. If it says what you see on your screen is a graviton wave, that is exactly what it is. The state is never wrong. To think otherwise is… individualistic.”

Smirnov could feel the word “individualistic” hanging over her like a threat. A warning to stop now before she said anything else. She let her eyes fall and focused on her console. “I apologize, comrade. In my zeal to fight the Terrans, I overreacted.”

“Of course. Carry on with vigilance, Technician.”

That’s not a graviton wave. It’s a CDF stealth raider. Smirnov knew it to the core of her being. Well, maybe that smirk will get wiped off his face in a few minutes. It was a thought that brought her pleasure.

Run the Gauntlet

The blue dot representing the Tucson inched closer to the cluster of red icons. Mancini found his thoughts wandering as they flew on through the void. It feels so disconnected in this control room. Like we’re playing a hologame. He pondered briefly if that was why CDF capital ships had transparent alloy “windows” on their bridges, so reality could be observed through sight instead of purely relying on computer readouts.

“Conn, TAO. Ten thousand kilometers to Master One.”

Gadot sucked in a breath from his chair next to CO. “All damage control teams report ready. All bulkheads secured.”

Mancini turned his head and pursed his lips together. “Boat’s ready, crew’s ready?”

“Aye, skipper.”

The mass of red dots came nearer with every tick of the clock. The Tucson’s stealth coating rendered it almost invisible, at least until they started shooting. The exhaust profile of Hunter’s roaring out of the launch tubes would backlight the tiny vessel, revealing their presence to any League ship in range that cared. Minute after minute counted down.

“Conn, TAO. Five thousand kilometers to Master One.”

“TAO, any change in enemy profiles?” He knew Oleson would’ve called it out, but saying something seemed better to Mancini than the gnawing silence.

“Negative, sir. On track, no sign they’ve detected us.”

The crew had performed several deep space patrols previously, gelling as a fighting unit. There was nothing new about a sneak attack on an enemy ship, though Mancini couldn’t remember the last time a Growler had gone up against a fleet of capital class vessels by itself. Still, worry was written on the faces of most in the control room. The range continued to decrease. Four thousand, three thousand, two thousand, a thousand, then five hundred kilometers. The tension built with every centimeter. By the time they got to one hundred kilometers, beads of sweat were present on the foreheads of practically everyone present.

“TAO, firing point procedures. Tubes one through eight, Master One.”

A moment later, Oleson replied, “Firing solutions set, sir.”

That’s the first target. “Excellent. Firing point procedures, tubes nine through twelve, Master Six.” The closest Rand class heavy cruiser made a great secondary target with only four missiles.

“Firing solutions set, sir.”

Fifty kilometers. “TAO, status of energy weapon capacitor?”

“Fully charged, skipper.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, EMP weapon, Master One.”

“Firing solution set, sir.”

Godat leaned in. “Why not use it on another battleship, sir? Knock out as many as we can?”

“Because,” Mancini began as a grin crept onto his face, “cutting off the ability of the Leaguers to get orders from their fleet admiral is far more important.”

“Touché, sir.”

“Remember, we cause as much trouble as possible and jump out.”

“Yeah. Got it, sir.”

He doesn’t look convinced. I suppose I can’t blame him for it. I’m not either. A quick glance at the tactical plot confirmed their range at twenty kilometers from Master One—the League Alexander class battleship. God, this better work. “TAO, make tubes one through twelve ready in all respects and open the outer doors.”

Oleson didn’t miss a beat. “Outer doors open, all tubes ready, sir.” His voice sounded like it was about to crack.

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes one through eight and raise our shields,” Mancini ordered, his voice sharp and direct. “Pilot, all ahead flank, ninety-degree up bubble! Set reactor output to one hundred and twenty percent of maximum.”

A moment after the order was given, the G-forces kicked in. The powerful fusion engine activated, channeling plasma as exhaust, along with all of their conventional ion engines. Within seconds, they were at 2Gs, then 2.5Gs, before the inertial dampers caught up. The Tucson pitched upward relative to the League fleet and accelerated.

“Conn, TAO. All Hunter missiles running hot, straight, and normal. Best range, eight hundred meters to target!”

Mancini leaned forward, halfway out of his seat. Come on, come on, come on!

A moment later, all eight warheads detonated on the massive battleship. Large thermonuclear explosions blossomed, registering on the tactical plot as flashes. They decimated the armor and superstructure of the ship, blowing molten chunks into the void of space.

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes nine through twelve and the EMP weapon.” By now, Mancini was back in his chair firmly as his heart raced. It pounded so hard, he thought the organ might explode from his chest.

“Conn, TAO. All Hunters running hot, straight, and normal. Impact in eight seconds.”

The unlucky Rand class heavy cruiser still didn’t have its shields up when the four warheads impacted on the surface of its hull. Unlike the heavily reinforced battleship, which could take a significant pounding, the Rand’s armor gave way under the pressure. Concussive shockwaves raced through the ship, and it blew apart violently as secondary explosions wracked the vessel from bow to stern. As this occurred, the beam from the EMP weapon connected with the Leaguer battleship. Blue energy crackled across it. A moment later, it was utterly dark and dead in space.

“Conn, TAO. Master Two destroyed!”

“COB, emergency reload, all missile tubes,” Mancini barked. Growler class boats carried twenty-four Hunters. He intended to cause as much mayhem as possible before jumping out.

It was then the return fire from the mass of enemy ships found them.

Run the Gauntlet

A minute before on the bridge of the Ho Chi Minh, Admiral Alec Hartford stared directly ahead, his hands steepled together. He was deep in thought about how to best approach running down the fleeing Terran and Saurian vessels. The most likely scenario is we range on their escorting cruisers first and pick them off one at a time. He’d also called for additional reinforcements from the Home Fleet. Two more battlegroups were on the way, targeting their jump coordinates to box the enemy in.

“Admiral,” the tactical officer began. “We’re picking up an anomaly on the starboard side of the fleet.”

“What kind of anomaly?”

One of the enlisted personnel halfway across the cavernous bridge that doubled as fleet command shrieked, “Missiles inbound! Hunter missiles inbound!”

Hartford briefly filed away in his mind to have the panicking man flogged after the battle, but forced his attention to the task at hand. “Raise shields. Signal the fleet to reduce speed, activate all defensive systems—” He never got the chance to finish the sentence. The deck suddenly pitched up, and anyone not strapped into their seats with harnesses went flying. Some a short distance; others careened across the room and broke bones on the consoles they slammed into. Blood freely flowed down Hartford’s nose, and he groggily raised his head, aware he’d headbutted the floor.

“Admiral, one Terran Coalition Growler class stealth raider on sensors,” the tactical officer called out.

“Return… fire,” Hartford ground out, finding it difficult to speak. “Order… the,” he took a deep breath, “fleet to fire.” Immense concentration was required to get out the simplest words.

“Aye, sir.”

A single puny Terran ship isn’t enough to—

His tactical officer interrupted. “Enemy vessel is firing again, more missiles and a beam weapon.” As he spoke, sparks showered from every piece of electronics on the bridge. Some exploded, and spot fires broke out. “It’s an EMP, sir!” The lights blinked and went out, leaving the area bathed in orange light.

Hartford’s eyes closed briefly, and he tried to stay conscious. “Damage… control,” he slurred the words, as if he was drunk. Unable to continue, his head drooped, and everything went black.

Run the Gauntlet

“Shields at thirty percent capacity, skipper,” Godat yelled above the din of battle. “We can’t take much more of this.”

The Tucson was accelerating every second, speeding away from the League fleet, and more importantly, the massed concentration of plasma cannon fire they sprayed toward her. Space was thick with superheated red balls crisscrossing it. One positive side-effect of their high-speed transit through the blob of enemy vessels was in their rushed attempts to destroy the Tucson, half the Leaguer’s shots ended up hitting their own ships.

“Skipper, aft section two, deck three, is showing signs of hull fracture,” Cosentino interjected.

Mancini let out a breath. “Seal it off, COB. TAO, reload status?”

“Ten seconds, sir,” Oleson said, his face and eyes locked on to his station.

Five… four… three… two… one.

“Conn, TAO, Hunter missile reloads complete.”

Another burst of plasma cannon fire impacted on their shields, causing the control room crew to rock in their harnesses. Mancini glanced up at his plot and picked the four closest escorts—all Cobra class destroyers. “TAO, firing point procedures, tubes one through twelve. Three missiles per contact, Master Seventeen, Master Twenty-two, Master Eight, and Master Thirty-one.”

“Aye aye, sir, firing solutions set.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all tubes.”

The tiny—at least compared to the ships around it—vessel shuddered as the salvo of Hunters launched from all tubes at once. “Conn, TAO. All units running hot, straight, and normal. Targets acquired and homing,” Oleson yelled.

“Navigation, hard right on heading zero-nine-zero, forty-five degree down bubble. Execute emergency Lawrence jump on pre-set coordinates,” Mancini thundered as he gripped both sides of the CO’s chair so hard, his knuckles turned white.

“Aye aye, sir, activating Lawrence drive,” the navigator replied.

“COB, release the last countermeasure drone.”

“Aye aye, skipper!” Cosentino yelled as the whine of the engines rendered most discussion impossible in the control room. There was a noticeable decrease in thuds a few seconds later, thanks to the drone’s handiwork.

The lights dimmed while the forward acceleration of the ship slowed. This allowed the League ships still tracking them to substantially increase their accuracy, at least momentarily. A bright, multi-colored wormhole sprang open in front of the Tucson, cracking open the fabric of space. As the ship flew through, multiple plasma balls impacted against its weakened shields, which failed. Several then hit the thin outer hull of the vessel.

Mancini almost pitched forward out of his seat as they bucked wildly. “Damage report, XO.”

“Decks two and three, aft section venting into space. We’re sealing it off now, skipper. Crewmen are trapped down there.” Godat’s words carried a somber tone.

“Conn, navigation. Transit complete, sir. We’re five thousand kilometers from the Lion of Judah. Lawrence drive is offline.”

“Engines down to thrusters only,” Cosentino said. “Three confirmed KIA, sir. Lost to the void. Heavy damage to all sections aft of the control room, decks two, three, and five.”

“Acknowledged, COB. Redirect all damage control parties to those sections and the engine room. Prioritize sub-light maneuvering and sealing the hull breaches. Communications, get me General Cohen,” Mancini ordered. He leaned forward in his chair. God, please let it be worth the cost.

Run the Gauntlet

David stared at the tactical plot in dumbfounded amazement. Hartford’s flagship, the Ho Chi Minh, still coasted forward but lacked any additional thrust. Several other League ships had been destroyed, and the rest of the enemy fleet no longer accelerated toward them. A few minutes ago, they had us dead to rights, and I was moments away from leaving behind a lot of good men and women. Now… we got lucky. No, we didn’t. Major Mancini probably sacrificed his life and ship to save us. The somber realization forced down any feeling of relief or pleasure that had bubbled up at the sight of suddenly bloodied Leaguers.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, Lawrence drive emergence off the port bow. CDF signal confirmed sir,” Kelsey paused for a moment. “It’s the Tucson, sir.”

David let out the breath he was holding, and a small smile creased his face. Yeah, there is a God. He turned toward Ruth. “That was cutting it a bit close.”

She grinned in return. “Quite, sir.”

“Conn, communications. Major Mancini would like to talk, sir.”

“Put him on.”

A few moments later, David’s viewer came to life with an image of the control room of the Tucson. Battle damage was apparent, with sections of the overhead hanging loose and damaged consoles visible. Mancini’s face was front and center, and despite it all, he was smiling. “General Cohen, glad to see you, sir.”

“Likewise, Major. Good show,” David began. “I and everyone else in the fleet is in your debt.”

“Just doing our jobs, sir. You looked like you could use some help.”

David pursed his lips together and nodded. “What’s the status of your boat?”

“Heavily damaged. We won’t be able to jump out under our own power. We left the Marines and commandos back on the League destroyer we captured. The fleet will need to go back for them.”

“Understood. Maintain formation as best as you can, and we’ll figure this out. The Lion of Judah is still a couple of hours away from being able to recover anything inside our hangar.”

“Roger that, General. Tucson out.”

The viewer went black, leaving David with a few precious moments to think. We still need to give the Leaguers something to think about. “TAO, status of enemy fleet?”

“They’re on an intercept course, but maintaining a constant rate of speed, sir. We’re gaining on them. Even at max burn, they’re an hour away from us now.”

He reached up and stroked his chin, then stood and went to the holotank in the middle of the bridge. A few button presses later, and the area of engagement displayed. “TAO, can we hit the Leaguers with our Hunter and Starbolts missiles from this range, taking into account the enemy's straight-line flight speed toward us?”

“One moment, sir.” Kelsey tapped furiously on a tablet she’d laid on top of her console before turning back toward him. “Yes, sir. Just barely.”

David narrowed his eyes, and his lips curled up in a fierce warrior’s grin. “TAO, firing point procedures, tubes one hundred twenty-one through two hundred and forty. Target the enemy fleet at your discretion.”

A few moments passed. “Firing solutions set, sir.”

“Make tubes one hundred twenty-one through two hundred and forty, ready in all respects. Open outer doors.”

“Tubes ready in all respects, outer doors open, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, tubes one hundred twenty-one through two hundred and forty.”

The entire contents of the Lion’s aft VRLS thundered into the blackness of space. In series they launched, one after the other over the course of thirty seconds. On the bridge, there was a minor rattle on the deck. David stared at the tactical plot as the mass of icons raced backward from the fleet, heading straight for the enemy. That’ll give them something to think about, besides us.


26

The bridge remained bathed in blue light, the Lion of Judah at battle stations. David stared at his viewer and the tactical plot on it, running numbers mentally. Satisfied with the results, he turned to Ruth. “My math says they’re now an hour and fifteen minutes away, and losing ground. That’s enough time to get the Ark Royal in, land our fighters and the Tucson, then get the heck out of here.”

“Agreed, sir. They need at least thirty minutes to complete the Lawrence drive cool down, just in case we have to execute a back-to-back jump.” Ruth appeared far more relaxed now. Her face was no longer scrunched up, and something akin to a smile graced it.

“Communications, get me a vidlink with General Hale.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied.

While there was still a level of tension to the room—they were after all, closer to Earth than any member of the CDF who wasn’t a POW had been hundreds of years—it was nothing like the feeling of defeat that had permeated the space a few minutes prior.

The viewer above David’s head came to life with an image of Hale. She was not smiling. “General Cohen, we were starting to get worried over here.”

“That makes two of us. The situation is well in hand now. I need the Ark Royal to jump to our location and recover our small craft. The Lion’s hangar bay is out of commission.”

“Are you under fire, sir?”

Of course, she’s worried about jumping into a firefight and losing her ship. I can’t blame her. “No, General Hale,” David replied, his voice taking on a hard edge. “There’s a League fleet here, but there’s more than enough time for you to get in, get our pilots, and get out. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, so get moving. I want you here in five minutes.”

There was a pregnant pause in the feed. “Understood, General. We’ll start plotting the jump now. Hale out.”

Over the next few minutes, the bridge was reasonably quiet. David retreated into his mind, beginning to analyze the situation and what went wrong. He found himself torn between thinking they’d secured a tremendous strategic victory, and the idea they’d gone a jump too far. Kelsey interrupted his mental reverie.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, wormhole opening. CDF signature. CSV Ark Royal now on scope at twenty-five hundred kilometers, sir.”

Now we get the heck out of here. “Communications, signal Colonel Amir to begin landing all remaining squadrons on the Ark Royal. Same message to Major Mancini. Give them a fifteen-minute deadline and coordinate a jump to the location of the destroyer with our Marines on it.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David sat back in his chair and stared at the tactical plot. Already, the icons representing the fighters and bombers they had in space swept toward the carrier. He knew in his heart they were home free, and all that was left was the countdown.

Run the Gauntlet

A couple of hours later, the fleet was well underway back to the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way. Recovery of all friendly craft had occurred without incident. David strode into the conference room directly aft of the bridge on the Lion of Judah to find the senior bridge officers already present, along with Hale, Mancini, and Aibek.

As he walked in, everyone rose to their feet, while Master Chief Tinetariro barked, “General on deck!”

“As you were,” David quickly replied. “Please be seated.” Once the rest of them had retaken their chairs, he dropped into the one at the head of the table. “This mission was hard,” he began without preamble. “One of our hardest fought victories to date.”

“Nice to see those Leaguer bastards running again,” Calvin interjected with a massive grin on his face. “We should’ve done this a long time ago.”

“It was a closer thing than I’d care to admit.” David didn’t share the same happy thoughts some of those present were communicating through body language and tone. “Still, a miss is as good as a mile, I suppose. Master Chief, damage report?”

“The hangar deck is repressurized, sir. We’ve also recovered most of the missing.”

“How many?”

“At last count, two hundred and eight, sir. KIA. Three hundred-plus injured, most critically.”

The mention of the causality totals quickly dampened the smiles in the room. Amir glanced up as he’d been staring at the table. “Most of the combined wings of the Lion and Ark Royal were KIA, or critically wounded.”

I know he’s blaming himself. “Colonel, it wasn’t your fault. You made a call—the right one, I might add—to rearm your forces to face the next wave. They got lucky and hit us with our pants down.”

“Perhaps, sir, but—”

“No buts. If there’s any blame for our losses, it’s mine alone,” David said in a forceful tone. “Master Chief, continue, please.”

“Reactor repairs are proceeding, and our Lawrence drive is functioning near optimal levels. All in all, the ship is in good shape for the journey home.”

Merriweather leaned forward. “We need to be careful not to push the drive too much. I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t say getting into another battle before we get back to Canaan for a refit is not advisable.”

“I doubt the League will have much success searching for us in deep space between the arms. There’s nothing out there,” David replied, and crossed his arms in front of him as he did. “The ship’s morgue isn’t equipped for the number of causalities we’ve incurred. Cargo bay four is fairly empty, yes?”

“Less than ten percent occupied, sir,” Tinetariro said.

“Good. Clear it out, and we’ll house our dead there. We’ll take them back to Canaan for proper burials.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David cleared his throat. “I’d like to thank you all for an outstanding performance in this dire hour. The fleet performed admirably,” he began, his eyes resting on Talgat as he spoke. “And we achieved a great victory. Let us not lose sight of its cost. Anything else?”

Kenneth Lowe stuck his head forward from the right side of the table. “Uh, sir, some of our ships are banged up pretty badly. Would you have any objection to my teams working on them as we travel back? Just in case we’re jumped or something.”

“None at all, Mr. Lowe. Saved rounds?” No one else spoke. “Very well. Dismissed.”

Everyone sprang up from their seats, and in an orderly manner, walked through the hatch. Hale stayed behind and made eye contact with David. Once the last person was out—Kenneth—she spoke. “General, may I have a moment with you in private?”

David nodded, then reached over and closed the hatch. “What’s on your mind?”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Granted.”

She stared at him, her jaw set. “I owe you an apology, sir. I shouldn’t have questioned your tactics, especially in the way I did. To be honest with you, I didn’t think our objective could be accomplished, but you proved me wrong.” She paused for a moment and pursed her lips together. “I hope you’ll overlook it.”

“There’s nothing to overlook.” David closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and stared back at her. “The truth is, I pushed my crew and this fleet too far. I got a lot of good men and women killed. We probably should’ve settled for taking out one League installation and called it a day.”

“With respect, sir. You didn’t kill those people. The League did. We all know the score when we sign up. I don’t believe for a second you don’t weigh those costs in every order you give. I see it in your eyes, and I’ve been in this business long enough to spot the officers who want glory above all else. You’re not one of them.”

“Maybe not, but I do want to punish and destroy the League of Sol,” David said quietly. “All those pilots, gone.”

“Half of them were from my ship, General. They made the ultimate sacrifice for the right reason.”

“Then why am I left with an uneasy feeling that, but for the actions of a few brave men and women, this battle would’ve been an unmitigated disaster that lost the Terran Coalition some of its best ships, and possibly given the League anti-matter reactor technology?”

“I don’t know how about you, but every battle I’ve been in would’ve been an unmitigated disaster… except for the actions of a few brave men and women. That’s what armed conflict always comes down to. We’re fighting for what’s right. I believe this victory will secure peace for our nation and let us start to bind up our wounds. Maybe even heal our society.”

David bit off the response that came to mind, about how the League would never leave them alone, and nodded instead. “Well, thank you for those words, Hale. It’s been an honor serving with you.”

“You too, sir. Godspeed.”

As she walked out the hatch, David called out, “Godspeed to you too.” Then she was gone, leaving him to his innermost thoughts. Feelings of despair and doubt that he’d been without for so long came roaring back. He sank deeper and deeper into the mire of it as he second-guessed every action he’d taken the last two weeks. I have to keep going a little while longer, and this war will be over. It’ll be someone else’s problem. Not mine. Taking solace in that realization, he pushed himself back to his day cabin to begin the task of writing letters to the families of those who died.


27

It was well into the third watch, and past the time he’d typically turn in, but David found himself restless and unable to find sleep in his bunk. He wandered through the ship, inspecting repairs and exchanging small talk with the damage control teams still on duty. Eventually, he found himself outside of the medical bay. He realized what was bothering him—the injuries to Hanson and Hayworth. They’d served together for years, and while the nerdy engineer had been a friend for a while, and even Hayworth, as crusty as he appeared on the outside, he was someone David would put his life on the line for.

The hatch swung inward, and out walked Doctor Tural, nearly colliding with David in the passageway. “General! I apologize, sir. I didn’t realize you were coming down.”

“I didn’t know I was either, doctor,” David replied, his voice quiet. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Would you like me to prescribe something?”

David shook his head. “No, but you could put my mind at ease by giving me an update on our casualties.” The last time the Master Chief updated me, over a hundred crewmembers were still missing from the hangar and presumed lost.

“We’ve lost several more who were exposed to full vacuum. No one else has been found alive in areas of the ship we lost pressurization in,” he said. As if sensing David’s unspoken question, he continued. “Major Hanson and Doctor Hayworth remain in critical condition from acute radiation poisoning. While I believe they will recover, Lieutenant Hunter most certainly will not. Her dose was six times what is considered survivable.”

“Doris Hunter?” he asked, his eyes narrowed.

“She rushed into the core without a radiation suit. While I am but a humble doctor, I understand from Hanson that she saved the ship.”

The quiet, unassuming way in which Tural said the words somehow stung. So many heroes that go home in a simple pine coffin. “Could I see them?”

Tural nodded. “Of course. Follow me.”

David walked behind the older physician through the triage-focused area of the medical ward. Walking wounded lined the walls in various states of treatment. A row of nurses worked down the line, wrapping cuts and abrasions in high tech bandages infused with healing gels. He couldn’t recall seeing so many people in the “doc shack” before.

“Many of the crew with injuries worked through them until the ship was out of danger. It’s caused us to get backed up in treatment,” Tural explained.

I don’t deserve to lead these people. David pursed his lips together as they crossed into the private rooms, each containing multiple people. Doubt yet again roared to the surface as the doctor stopped in front of a door that was open, and he could see Hanson and Hayworth within.

Hanson rolled over on his side, and his eyes lit up. “Sir, come on in. Still awake. They just got me back from another radiation purge.”

“I’ll come find you when we’re done, doctor,” David said. “I’m sure you have rounds to attend to.”

“Inshallah, General,” Tural replied before he turned and walked away with purpose.

David was left alone with Hanson and awkwardly glanced around the small room with two integrated beds, outfitted with the latest in medical technology. “Still glowing in the dark?”

“Heh, no, sir. Gamma rays don’t… oh, yeah. Got it.” He managed a weak smile. There were dark bags under both of the engineer’s eyes, and his skin was unusually pale.

“I wanted to thank you for your efforts. You and Doctor Hayworth, both.”

“Thanking me and not God?” the gravelly voice of Hayworth rumbled from across the room. “I’m not dead yet, before you ask,” he rasped.

“Glad to hear it,” David replied. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re both heroes.”

Hanson coughed loudly, sounding like he was hacking up a lung. After he recovered, he spoke. “What about Lieutenant Hunter, sir? Is she okay?”

“She’s resting comfortably, Major.” David couldn’t bear to tell him the truth, not the way hope shone in his eyes when he asked the question.

“Good, good. I’m hoping I can walk tomorrow and get down there to see her, and the rest of my people. A lot of the ratings took a dose. That gamma-ray stuff, it’s nasty.”

It was all David could do to maintain his composure as both of them made light of the situation. I caused this. It was my fault. If I hadn’t forced the use of an unproven workaround, they wouldn’t be in these beds, half dead.

“Doc Tural said we smoked the Leaguers,” Hanson said.

“Yes, we did,” David replied and forced a smile onto his face. “I’d better let you two get some rest. You’ll be pretty weak for a few days from what I understand.”

Hanson frowned and bit his lip. “Sir, would you go by and see Lieutenant Hunter for me? Just tell her I’m sorry I didn’t get the force field in place. I’ll take it easy on her the next few months.”

“Sure thing, Hanson. See you guys later.” David stood quickly and turned his face away so that neither would see the emotion building. He quickly strode out of the room and walked to his left. A few paces down the hallway, he realized the name on the room was “2LT Doris Hunter.” He paused and glanced inside. The sight that greeted him was hard to stomach. She was in the bed, her body, as far as he could tell, covered in bandages. While he could make out her face, it was covered in red blisters, some of which were draining. There were tubes leading from the bed into her torso, and they allowed a clear liquid to drip out into a medical waste container on the deck.

You caused this.

David almost turned and kept on walking, he was so overcome with shame. I owe her more than that. Instead, he started to walk into the room, when a passing nurse stopped him.

“Sir, you can’t go in there without protection.”

He glanced at her. “I don’t follow.”

“The patient is heavily irradiated. You’ll be contaminated if you enter without a rad suit.”

“Where are those stored at?” David asked, his tone somewhat icy.

“At the end of the passageway, sir,” the young woman replied, and pushed a stray wisp of blonde hair out of her face. “You’re not thinking of—”

“I’m going in there,” David said, his jaw set. “She sacrificed herself to save this ship. The least I can do is thank her for it.” He turned on his heel and strode to the location she’d indicated. Sure enough, there was a closet marked “Projective Equipment.” He entered his command code, and it popped open. Inside, there were radiation suits and full-body suits he supposed were for biohazards, containing independent air supplies. Pulling out a suit, he put it on over his uniform, right there in the hallway. Nurses, doctors, and enlisted personnel glanced at him out of the corner of their eyes, but he paid them no heed. Once he was fully enclosed, he walked back to Hunter’s room and entered, shutting the door behind him.

“Nurse, I still can’t feel my toes,” Hunter said quietly as the door clicked shut.

David smiled through the helmet’s clear faceplate. “Sorry, not a nurse. It’s David Cohen.”

“General,” she replied brightly. “How are you, sir?”

He locked his eyes on to hers. “I’m fine. More importantly, how do you feel?”

“Like I’m sitting on a bed of pins and needles. They tell me that’s normal for radiation poisoning this severe.”

“What did Doctor Tural tell you about your prognosis?” David asked as he kept his expression tightly neutral.

“No one’s really told me anything, sir. I’m smart enough to know when a bunch of doctors engage in hushed whispers outside your room, it’s not good. I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

For a moment, David considered lying to her. It would be easier to let someone else tell her the truth. But the tortured feeling within him that screamed—You did this to her!—wouldn’t go away. The least I can do is tell her. “Yes.” The word fell out of his mouth like a sledgehammer.

A single tear rolled down her cheek. “Thank you for being the one to tell me, sir. What about the Major, and Doctor Hayworth?”

“They’re going to be okay.”

She smiled ruefully. “Good. I saw Hanson trying to go back in, but I knew he wouldn’t survive. He was in such bad shape, he’d never have finished the repair. He’s been such a good friend. I learned so much from him the last few months.”

Her relief at the status of the others took David by surprise. His eyebrows shot up. “I would think you’d be more concerned about your condition.”

Hunter shrugged then winced in pain. “General—”

David held up his hand. “No ranks.”

“Yes, sir.” Her voice trailed off, and she smiled. “Sorry. I was going to say I knew the score when I pushed the hatch open. No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

David recognized the verse from John. Shelia had said it often. “A dear friend of mine used to say the same thing.”

“Used to?”

“She died in the second battle of Canaan. Shelia Thompson.” Tears started falling from David’s eyes, dropping onto the clear face shield of the helmet. “Hunter, I must ask you to forgive me.”

“Sir? For what?” Her eyebrows narrowed, and a quizzical look appeared on her face.

“I pushed the ship too hard. I forced Hayworth to create untested technology, because I decided we had to win, no matter what. It’s my fault you’re lying here. I am… so sorry.” He pursed his lips together. I don’t know what else to say. Condemnation for his actions sprang up within him.

Hunter reached out with her bandaged hand and rested it on top of his. “I don’t blame you for what happened, sir. I decided of my own accord to go in. End of story. Enough about it. Do you know how long I have?”

“A couple of days, probably.”

“Any chance I could say goodbye to my family before I go?”

David fought to keep from crying even more at what she’d asked. It was the way she’d said it, voice serene and accepting, that was so hard for him. “I can’t promise you because we’re so far out from Canaan and the comms relays, but I’ll do my best. I give you my word.” Somehow, some way, we’ll get her in range. His mind seized on it as a way to atone for his sins.

“Don’t risk anything on my account,” she replied. “I’m a small cog in a huge wheel. The victory we won here is worth it. Maybe it’ll keep our politicians from giving away the farm.”

“Is there anything you want?” David asked.

“I’d love some ice cream.”

He laughed. “Okay. I’ll go get some. What flavor?”

“Chocolate peanut butter, with extra peanut butter on top.”

David stood. “Give me half an hour. I’ll retrieve some from the officer’s mess.” He forced a smile to his lips then turned toward the door.

Her voice called out weakly from the bed. “Sir.”

Out of the corner of his eye, David saw her hand moving. He rotated his head in time to see her bring her hand up to her brow, even as it shook and was swollen from the bandage. He turned and brought his feet together, and snapped off a salute so sharp, it would’ve made his old drill instructor proud. Not another word was said as he left the room. As he went through decontamination and removed the suit, a single thought wouldn’t leave his mind: I’m not worthy to command these people.

Run the Gauntlet

After delivering the promised ice cream, David made his way to engineering. Even during the third watch, it was crawling with additional personnel. Sparks flew from tools as damaged systems were in the process of repair, spare parts swapped out to replace damaged ones. He’d expected to find Major Merriweather and wasn’t disappointed. Her visibly tired form stood behind one of the main reactor power distribution consoles. “Major,” he called out as he walked up behind her. “Do you have a moment?”

Merriweather whirled around, startled. “Of course, sir. I wasn’t expecting you down here.”

“I tried for some rack time, but it didn’t take. So I ended up visiting sickbay instead.”

“Any word?” Her lips pursed together in a frown.

“Major Hanson and Doctor Hayworth will be fine. Lieutenant Hunter’s not going to make it.”

“Damn.” Merriweather pushed her hair out of the way and grimaced. “I was hoping against hope she’d pull through.”

“I need to ask your opinion on something.”

“Of course, sir.”

David sucked in a breath. “I’d like to be within range of Canaan for vidlink communication within three days.”

“Why, sir?” she asked, eyes wide. “Even with our enhanced power generation capabilities, it takes exponential power the further the distance. We’d need back-to-back jumps practically.”

“I suppose I’m being sentimental, but Hunter asked me if she could say goodbye to her family… one last time.” David shut his eyes for a moment. “I’d like to ensure she can, if it's within our ability to do so.”

“Give me until the seven a.m. briefing to run some numbers, sir. Keep in mind if we go that fast, the drive will need an overhaul when we get back to dock.”

“I figured as much, Major. The entire ship’s going to need an overhaul after this. What’s one more item?” He forced a smile to his face, if nothing else, to mask the pain.

“Yes, sir.”

“That’ll be all. Carry on, Major.”

She appeared as if there was an argument forthcoming, but turned away instead. David stared down into the mass of engineers, scurrying about like ants below. A well-oiled machine. You should be proud of yourself, Hanson. He walked out, his soul heavy with guilt.


28

A few days later, David stared at the tablet interface as he sat behind the desk in his day cabin. His finger hovered over the button to connect the vidlink. It was set to dial Caroline Hunter—Doris Hunter’s mother. He’d made many next-of-kin notifications over his career. Each was deeply personal, emotional, and downright painful to everyone involved. This was unique, however. He’d never before told someone’s loved ones they were dying before they passed.

As he pressed his finger to the on-screen interface, David felt shame and grief. Shame that he’d given the order in the first place to put the ship and his crew in extreme danger. Grief and guilt, because someone he respected and knew would go far lay dying in the medical bay because of his actions.

Several moments later, the screen came to life with an image of a middle-aged Caucasian woman with brown hair, colored by streaks of gray. “Hello, this is Caroline.” Her tone was quiet and reserved.

“Mrs. Hunter, I’m General David Cohen, CDF. Do you have a moment to speak with me?” He could almost see the wheels turning in her head.

“What can I…” Her voice trailed off, and she put her hand over her mouth. “Is Doris dead?”

The bluntness of the question punched David in his gut. His face scrunched up. “No ma’am, but it doesn’t look good.” That’s a crock, and you know it. “I wanted to make sure she had a chance to talk to you.” His voice trailed off before he forced a finish to the line. “Before the end.”

Caroline sucked in a breath, and tears welled up in her eyes. “Oh my God. My baby.” She started sobbing uncontrollably.

I wish I could console her somehow. Another side of David’s brain lashed him. You’re why her daughter is dying.

Before David could speak, another figure entered the camera’s field of view—a middle-aged male. “Who is this?” His voice betrayed his anger.

“General David Cohen, sir.” He forced military formality into his voice to avoid a show of emotion.

“Doris is dying, Jonah,” Caroline said before either of them could say more.

“I am so sorry,” David began. “She was exposed to a lethal dose of radiation during our last battle after rushing into a contaminated area to save the ship.” It sounds so sterile when I put it like that. Like a checkbox on a form.

“Why are you telling us like this?” Jonah practically shouted. “This is cruel… barbaric.”

David closed his eyes for a moment. “I wanted to give you both the chance to speak with her. We have a communication station set up in the room she’s in, but Doctor Tural and I felt it was best you both knew the situation ahead of time.”

While Jonah moved as if he was about to explode, his face reddening further by the second, his wife put her hands on his. “I understand, General. Please, we would love to talk to her.”

“Of course, I’ll transfer you both now. Your family is in my prayers, and I am so very sorry for your loss. Lieutenant Hunter was an outstanding officer, and it was a privilege to have her serve on this ship.”

“Will her death be worth it?” Jonah interjected before his wife could reply. “Will it, General?”

“I pray to God it was, sir. I pray to God all the loss of life we’ve endured, from our families to our friends, was worth the price. I hope we’re collectively worth the sacrifices made by all.” David’s face was somber, and it was all he could do not to break down himself. “I’ll transfer you down to the medical bay now.”

Before they could say anything, he pressed the button to move the receiving destination, and the screen went blank. David sat back in the chair while a battle raged in his mind. Part of him knew, knew that fighting the League was a cause worth dying for. Another part said it was all a sham, that the Terran Coalition was no better than anything else in the universe. Usually, after pasting the League, I’m, if not happy, at least relieved. Not today.

Run the Gauntlet

White House – Lawrence City

Canaan

January 3rd, 2463

Andrew MacIntosh steeled himself for a conversation with the commander-in-chief of the Terran Coalition, President Justin Spencer. He walked through the door to the Oval Office, flanked by the elite bodyguards of the Terran Coalition’s Protective Service. One remained with the President at all times. Today was no different. The door closed behind him as MacIntosh surveyed the room. It was empty except for Spencer and the bodyguard.

“Andrew! Thanks for coming over here on such short notice. Please, have a seat.” Spencer still had his trademark warm smile and gestured toward a pair of couches in the center of the room.

As MacIntosh made his way to the sofa and sat down, he couldn’t help but grin. “An order is an order, sir.”

“I wanted to make you aware of something before it becomes front-page news, so to speak.”

“Sir?”

“The League has made a formal complaint against us for the shipyard attack.”

MacIntosh’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. “A complaint?”

“They’re calling it a war crime, General. Alleging that we destroyed unarmed civilian-manned shipyards.”

“That’s rich.” MacIntosh snorted and let out a derisive laugh. “Did I mention I’m the pope?”

“I’ve been informed through a back-channel that GNN will be running with the story. They supposedly have video evidence.”

“What, an AI-generated deepfake? Come on, sir, that’s insane. I’ve got the Lion of Judah’s logs. General Cohen allowed fifteen minutes for evacuation of the Trotsky, and her commander took him up on it.”

Spencer steepled his hands together. “The Peace Union is running with the story too. According to our ambassador on site, the Organization of Non-Aligned Worlds will pass a joint resolution against ‘CDF barbary’.”

“I don’t know what to say, sir, that doesn’t involve copious amounts of profanity.”

“Don’t think I wasn’t tempted,” Spencer replied darkly. “I still have seventeen days in office. We’re going to use that time as much as we can to push back on this load of bull, and ensure as much as we can, a just peace for the Terran Coalition.”

“Of course, sir. What can I do to help?”

“Go through the Lion’s logs with a fine-tooth comb, along with your staff. Build an airtight case that we committed no crimes,” Spencer replied as he stared at MacIntosh intently. “Keep your people on a tight leash. I don’t want any discussion in the media. No leaks.”

“Understood, sir.”

“I’ve called for a meeting with SecDef, and some civilian advisors here in a few minutes. I’d like you to stay for it and offer advice. We’re going to try to get in front of this before GNN, and the Peace Union sets the message.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll do what I can, but my forte is blowing up League ships. Not dealing with politicians and reporters.”

Spencer cracked a grin. “Well, for what it’s worth, I wish I was out there with you, and not where I am.”

The door opened, and a woman stuck her head in. “Mister President, they’re ready.”

“Show them in,” Spencer replied. “Okay. Here goes nothing.”

A moment later, a stream of people walked into the room, led by Secretary of Defense Dunleavy. Spencer’s chief of staff was also present, with a group of other civilians. It took them all a few minutes to find seats as greetings were exchanged, along with handshakes.

“Mister President,” Dunleavy began as he was barely into his seat. “What can we do for you, sir?”

“In short, we need to change the narrative, ladies and gentlemen,” Spencer replied as he made eye-contact with Dunleavy and the rest of them. “I’ve instructed General MacIntosh to lead the effort to validate the Lion’s logs and prove our side of the story. There’s two parts to this fight, though. One is direct evidence, and the other is based on emotion. We need to remind the people of the Terran Coalition who their heroes are… the men and women of the Coalition Defense Force.”

“With respect, sir,” one of the civilians said. “How do you plan to do that? The media’s going to demonize everyone involved.”

How indeed. Spencer had run it through his head for days. Even now, he wasn’t sure. But I need to try something. Anything. “I have an idea.” All eyes turned to him. “We’ll hold a large rally at the same time the fleet returns, and disembark them through the Lawrence City space terminal.”

Silence reigned for several seconds before MacIntosh spoke. “With respect, sir, I’m not sure about using the military as stage dressing. It seems to be, at the least, close to the line.”

“I could agree with you, General, if the election hadn’t come and gone. At this point, the only thing we’re doing is trying to boost civilian morale, and again, alter the course of the conversation being had about the shipyard assault. By God, it was a good thing!”

“We could hang up some banners, distribute signs to the crowd with messages like ‘Mission Accomplished,’” the chief of staff interjected.

MacIntosh groaned. “The fleet took significant causalities. I’d wager most of them don’t want to celebrate. They want to grieve the losses of friends, and in some cases, family.”

“Perhaps the banners are a bit much, but I like the idea of getting everyone to come together. We need to make sure it’s as diverse a crowd as possible, to counteract the division and strife we’ve seen the last year.” Spencer said the words but didn’t quite believe them. I’m not sure why we’re at each other’s throats. He used to think that humans, especially humans in the Terran Coalition, had evolved past petty hatreds. The events of the last few months proved otherwise to him, and the realization stung.

“Mister President, you’re the commander-in-chief. I think it’s a bad idea, but if you order me to do so, I’ll make the necessary arrangements,” Dunleavy stated.

Spencer set his jaw. “Then we’ll move forward. Remember—as many people, from as many walks of life as we can muster.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carry on,” Spencer replied. As they filed out, he didn’t see one of the civilians in the back surreptitiously tapping away at his commlink. Nor did he close the meeting with the typical prayer. These things wouldn’t register with him for some time to come.


29

Standing watch as the fallen warriors were removed from the ship was a solemn ritual that had special significance for David. The first time he did it, thirty-five percent of his crew had died in battle the previous day. Years later, it still stung as much as it did the first time. They were his soldiers—men and women who served under his command. My job was to bring them home safe to their families. Today, he was joined by Calvin, Mancini, Kenneth Lowe, and General Hale. Each of them lost people under their command. Similar evolutions would be occurring on the Constantine class heavy cruisers, and the RNV Resit Kartal.

Although there was no band onboard, there was a single bagpiper, and an enormous honor guard made up of Marines from the Lion’s TCMC contingent. Everyone present wore immaculate dress uniforms with spit-shined shoes. David stood at the head of the cargo bay and the top of the ramp that descended onto the Canaan’s central military space station. As each casket went by on an anti-grav sled, draped with the flag of the Terran Coalition and escorted by members of the honor guard, he saluted smartly.

On and on, the caskets went by while the bagpiper played the stirring notes to “Amazing Grace” in the background. It was a seemingly never-ending procession of the dead. First off the ship were the active-duty soldiers assigned to the Lion of Judah. When it was time for the Marines to be carried off, Calvin appeared beside David, saluting each one.

Out of the corner of his eye, David saw tears fall down the tough Marine’s face. As much as that man tries to make it seem like nothing fazes him, I’ve known him long enough to realize it’s all an act. He feels as much or more than I do. His heart ached more as each casket passed. They were the ones we couldn’t save. As the procession continued, he reached out and squeezed Calvin’s shoulder between coffins. “It wasn’t your fault, Colonel. Your team did an incredible job.”

“Yes, they did, sir. But I’d do anything to be one of those men there, then have to tell another family their child isn’t coming home,” Calvin replied, his voice breaking with emotion.

Those words broke loose a torrent of built-up feeling inside of David. Tears slid down his face. Eventually, the pilots were carried off. Their honor guard was made up of the surviving members of the Lion’s and the Ark Royal’s embarked fighter wings.

Hale walked to his left side and saluted each coffin as it was removed from the ship.

The last few caskets to be removed held the remains of civilians, all members of the contractor team. For this purpose, David had allowed Kenneth Lowe to be present. Kenneth stood at rigid attention as they were carried off, while the military personnel continued to salute. As the last one slid down the ramp, the bagpiper ended his mournful tune.

“I pray to God that’s the last time I ever do this in my life,” Hale said quietly. “You probably disagree with me, General, but I’m glad this war is finally over.”

David found himself too emotional and broken to engage. “All I hope is that these people didn’t die in vain. I pray none of the millions who have given their lives in the last thirty years did.”

“Amen,” Calvin interjected. He’d dried his tears and was back to his typical cocky Marine exterior. “Now what’s this about a welcome home celebration in Lawrence City? I’m usually happy to see my wife.”

Hale chuckled politely. “I think I’m going to skip that one. I’m in no mood to celebrate anything.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have a choice. General MacIntosh conveyed to me that it was the President’s direct request I attend,” David began. “After that, I’m supposed to meet with him at the White House.”

“Maybe he’s going to ask you to go into politics,” Kenneth said from behind them.

David turned and shook his head. “Uh, no. Never. Not in a million years. If my services are no longer required in the CDF, I think it’s time for me to become a rabbi.”

“Permission to disembark, sir?” Hale asked.

“Granted, General.”

Hale brought to her hand to her brow crisply before she turned on her heel and marched off.

David was left quietly in his thoughts, staring at the retreating line of caskets slowly making their way into the space station.

Run the Gauntlet

It was something of a whiplash for David to immediately go from rendering honors to the dead and overseeing their removal from the Lion of Judah, to disembarking along with many of the senior officers and thousands of enlisted personnel. He was silent the entire trip down from Canaan’s main military space station to the Lawrence City space terminal. Lost in his thoughts, he pondered the cost and the losses of the previous month. Around him, everyone wore service “A” uniforms, which were similar in form and function to a business suit, except the most junior of enlisted personnel. They wore a traditional sailor suit in navy blue, commonly known as a “crackerjack,” along with a white brimless hat as a cover.

A single glance confirmed all his ribbons and pins were in the right place. David stared as the mammoth terminal building, with its acres of shuttle bays, came into focus. As the transport craft came to a stop, Calvin came up beside him.

“Good to go, sir?”

“Yeah,” David replied, his voice quiet.

“Still thinking about those caskets?”

David nodded wordlessly.

“Well, sir, we gave a lot better than we got,” Calvin said.

“I suppose we did, Colonel. Still, over a thousand dead on my ship? I have to wonder if I made the wrong call somewhere.”

Calvin got in front of David and stared at him intently. “Let’s get something straight, sir. You made the right calls all the way through. Those Leaguer bastards got what was coming for them, and maybe we did enough to keep the idiots from the Peace Union from throwing everything we’ve bled for away.”

A smile appeared at the tough Marine’s gusto, and David slapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Cal.”

“Anytime, sir. Now, ready to meet our adoring fans?”

David couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Don’t you have your wife for that?”

“Well, yeah, but come on… Marine Corps uniforms always get the ladies looking at you.”

Several others in earshot heard him and laughed, including Ruth, who similarly rolled her eyes. “I’ll remember not to tell your wife about that,” she called out.

The ramp in the back opened and slid down. They were parked next to a few dozen other shuttles, all of which were filled with CDF personnel. A stream of humanity, along with a few Saurians, exited the various craft and made their way toward the nearest passenger concourse. As David cleared the arrival passageway and strode into the terminal, there was a thunderous shout from the people assembled to greet them. Banners held high proclaimed “Welcome Home!” and “Mission Accomplished!” while the crowd cheered.

It was something else. David found himself shocked as the elation continued. But it was as if there was a chill in the room. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, much as they did right before a battle. A glance around the room only confirmed that, indeed, everyone was having a great time. Families reunited with their loved ones with hugs and kisses, while children jumped into their parents’ waiting arms.

“Not bad. We should get Spencer to do this more often,” Calvin commented from David’s right side. “An old Marine could get used to it.”

“Can you imagine what it would be like if we finally won?” David mused, his voice fairly quiet compared to the tumult around them. “The celebration would go on for weeks.”

They continued to make their way through the terminal, and after a good fifteen minutes, ended up in the massive primary concourse. It was where all travelers to Lawrence City exited the facility. As far as the eye could see, people waved banners and cheered wildly. David finally started to relax and allowed some of the happiness around him to seep into his soul, as sad as he was at the losses the Lion suffered.

It was about then that all hell broke loose.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a new group of people started chanting, “What do we want? CDF disbanded!” as they waved homemade signs with the emblem of the Peace Union. Groups of protesters erupted from the crowd, screaming at the service members scattered about the area and their families.

“Babykillers!” a shrieking woman shouted as she threw a flask of red liquid in the face of someone—David couldn’t make out who—in uniform twenty feet away.

“What in the hell is going on here?” Calvin grumbled as the scene unfolded.

David stood stunned, even mesmerized, in shock. Have we lost the hearts and minds of our own people?

The confrontation continued to devolve as hundreds of additional protesters surged toward the throng of soldiers. Screaming matches were breaking out everywhere, as the people who’d been there to welcome the crew home got in the face of those who attacked them.

It's only a matter of time before this turns into a brawl. David turned to find Calvin, but he’d already moved off—to help a group of Marines beset by a dozen men and women with Peace Union flags.

“It’s him! It’s Cohen! The butcher!” a man to David’s left shouted.

In the span of thirty seconds, the protesters moved through the crowd and got in David’s face as they screamed and taunted him.

“Babykiller!”

“Butcher!”

“Traitor!”

The cries ran together, almost overwhelming in their sheer volume and screeching manner.

David froze up, trying to process what was going on. How could they believe the League? He knew there were faked videos from the League state news agency—the Information News Agency of the League of Sol—but who in their right mind would accept them?

Security officers from the spaceport finally responded, decked out in riot control gear. They started spraying protesters with pepper spray and used energy weapons to stun those completely out of hand. Men and women alike were wrestled to the ground as handcuffs were applied. The agitators began a new chant. “Death to the pigs! Down with the CDF!”

Out of the corner of David’s eyes, he saw a man approach Calvin and spit on his uniform. Uh oh.

Calvin took a step forward and grabbed the man by his shirt and lifted him into the air. “How dare you spit on this uniform! You sorry son of a bitch, this uniform and the Marines who wear it are the only thing standing between you and slavery to the League!”

The man spit in Calvin’s face while shouting, “Murderer! All you care about is keeping the war going so you can kill people!”

David took a step forward, knowing what would happen next. He didn’t make it in time.

With a small movement of his hands, Calvin dropped the man to his knees and immediately punched him in the face. Blood sprayed out of the unlucky protester's mouth as he was hit again and again. Calvin screamed obscenities as he continued his assault.

“Colonel, enough!” David barked, wrapping his arms around Calvin’s midsection and jerking him backward.

“Screw that guy! Nobody spits on this uniform or the memory of my Marines!”

David kept the pressure up and pinned Calvin’s arms to his side. It took a few seconds, but eventually, the thrashing stopped. “Can I let go now?”

“Yes,” Calvin ground out.

“Okay.” David let go and glanced at the man, now fallen on the ground. Blood poured out of his nose and down his purple-colored shirt.

“Police! I need help!” the man, who appeared to be around thirty years of age and spoke with a British accent. “This maniac’s trying to kill me!”

Two riot control officers appeared, even as the chaos around them spread. “And what’s going on here, mates?” a female officer asked in a slight Australian accent, her tone perfectly reasonable—almost comical considering the goings-on around them.

“This,” Calvin began, nearly biting off his tongue to avoid more foul language, “individual spit on my uniform and cursed me.”

“Yeah, and he beat me to a pulp! I want him charged!”

The female officer, who appeared to be in charge between the two, glanced between Calvin and the man before she smirked. “It looks to me like you slipped and fell, mate. Get him out of here, Gerald. Orders are to arrest them all for disorderly conduct.”

As they trundled the bloodied protester off, he continued to scream and fight with riot police, as did the mass of humanity around them.

“He had it coming,” Calvin stated.

David stared at him, shocked more than anything that, for a moment, he agreed with the assessment. As more police and security officers poured into the terminal, order was restored. It took a while to clear out all the rabble-rousers and the die-hard radicals who appeared to enjoy fighting, but eventually, they were removed. As he made his way out of the terminal—flanked by Calvin and a small army of protectors, David couldn’t help but ponder what had happened to the Terran Coalition. Are we even worth fighting for anymore?

Run the Gauntlet

Following the fiasco at the Lawrence City space terminal, David didn’t expect to make his appointment with President Spencer. He’d assumed everything was canceled as rioting had spread out into the surrounding areas, with pitched street fights between Peace Union supporters, and it seemed, everyone else. No such luck. The helicar he was in glided into the inspection bay directly outside of the White House gate, cleared by an automated scanner before coming to a stop in the vehicle park. He got out and passed through more checkpoints that included wand scanners and a patdown. Yeah, they’re taking things pretty seriously, he pondered, as every crevice of his uniform was searched.

A few minutes later, David found himself whisked into the residential side of the White House—the so-called East Wing—away from prying eyes as well as the hustle and bustle of the government in action. The guard who escorted him opened the door to reveal a small study, with President Spencer and his ever-present protector inside.

“Please, come in, General,” Spencer said, his voice subdued more than David had ever heard.

David stepped inside, and the door closed behind him. He came to attention. “General David Cohen reports as ordered, sir.”

“At ease. Have a seat.” Spencer gestured toward a comfortable chair on the other side of the room. Once David had sat, he continued. “I want to apologize to you, and those under your command. I had no idea the Peace Union would be there.”

“Why were we paraded around like that, sir?” David’s voice had an edge to it. It was something he’d been pondering the entire helicar ride.

“Soon after your success in taking down the shipyards, the League deployed a propaganda line that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by reckless CDF actions. They accused us of a war crime.”

“Are you seriously telling me those protesters today believed that line of crap, sir?”

“Yes.”

David closed his eyes for a moment and shook his head. “You know from my report to General MacIntosh the sequence of events. I’m sure a few dockworkers were killed in the attack. I also know we gave every opportunity to escape the stations before they were destroyed. That part of it, my conscience is clear on.”

“Is there something it’s not clear on?”

“The Lion of Judah and the fleet lost over a thousand men and women dead, sir. On my watch. I fear I pushed the fleet too hard. I shouldn’t have been as reckless as I was. It took Major Mancini’s eleventh-hour heroics to allow me enough time to save the pilots stuck in space.”

Spencer stared at him intently. “From where I sit, all of you did one heck of a job, General.”

“Thank you, sir.” He, in turn, made eye contact with Spencer. “I sense there’s a but in there.”

“Yes, there is.” Spencer snorted. “I’ve been informed that President-Elect Fuentes is being pressured by his vice president to open a criminal investigation into our shipyard raid, with an eye towards prosecution of war crimes. According to the information I received, the prosecutors will be heavily biased against you and the rest of the officers in the fleet.”

Revulsion hit David like a tidal wave. Never in a million years did I think I’d be attacked by my own. The concept of fighting the League was something he was at peace with. Fighting his own people was a foreign concept. Is it, though? I fought Erhart. He and the traitors who supported him wore the same uniform I do. The idea that the Coalition Defense Force was honorable, a group of people dedicated to doing what was right with the help of God, was something that had always given him strength. To even for a moment consider the possibility that they might not be what they claimed to be—cut David to the core.

“As to why I set up the space terminal rally… I was trying to bring up morale and change the narrative.”

David’s eyes narrowed. “You used the military as a prop?” Sudden anger sprang up inside of him.

Spencer grimaced. “I suppose I deserved that. I never think of the CDF as a prop, General,” he replied stiffly. “But I did think some good PR was needed. I underestimated our opponents, and for that, I’m sorry. I’d never knowingly put anyone through the wringer like that.”

“What now, sir? You’re out of office in two days.”

“I know. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. I’m going to pardon everyone in advance. I’d like you to confirm a list of all personnel involved and in the fleet. From the highest-ranking officers to the lowest enlisted, and all civilians.”

“Sir,” David began. Then he blinked. If he pardons everyone, then we’ll go down in history as being guilty. “The people who made these accusations will see it as an admission of guilt.”

“What other choice do we have, son? Let you be thrown to the wolves, along with tens of thousands of other fine young men and women, so Fuentes and his ilk can get their pound of flesh? I don’t think so. Not on my watch.”

“With respect, sir, while I welcome the action for those who served under me, I cannot accept a pardon.” The words fell out of David’s mouth without even thinking them through.

“Are you serious?” Spencer’s eyes opened wide. “They’ll crucify you.”

David shrugged. “Better men than Fuentes and the Peace Union have tried. I’m still here. If they do, I want the right to demand a court-martial and defend myself in open court.”

Spencer let out a loud laugh. “Oh, General Cohen. MacIntosh was right about you. A brass set, and morals to match. Careful you don’t choke on that morality one of these days, though. Fine, we’ll do it your way. Just understand, I won’t be able to help you when I’m no longer in charge.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Well, then. I suppose there’s nothing else. Dismissed, General.”

David sprang up and braced to attention. “Good night, Mister President.” He turned and walked out of the room, to find the previous escort standing outside. What now? It was a question he had no answer to.


30


League Navy Headquarters

Switzerland, Earth

January 18th, 2463

Pierre Seville was a happy man. In fact, one could say it was among the best days of his life. The triumphant smile he wore—coming from a man who rarely moved his facial muscles—had alternately unnerved and spread across his entire staff since he’d arrived at his office a few hours earlier. The never-ending loop of the Terrans fighting each other on what should be the moment of their crowning achievement was a thing of beauty.

The intercom on his desk buzzed. “Admiral, I have Colonel Strappi for you, sir.”

“Oh, send my good friend in!”

The door to his inner sanctum swung open, its rich mahogany a relic of Earth’s past. The shorter than average figure of his political officer strode in. He came to attention in front of the desk and slammed his hand into his chest. “To the glory of the League!”

Seville returned the salute with a bemused smirk. “Oh, do sit, Colonel. How have you been?”

“Conducting my duties as best as I can with External Security looking over my shoulder, Admiral.” Strappi slid into the nearest chair.

“Have you seen the news out of the Terran Coalition this morning?”

It was Strappi’s turn to grin. “It would appear the machinations of our resident spymasters paid off.”

“Oh, it gets better. The doddering old men of our government have finally woken up to how much of a threat the Terran Coalition is. They’re finally talking about using the home defense fleet.”

“By Lenin, that is… very positive, Admiral.” Strappi leaned forward. “All four thousand ships?”

“More than half.”

Strappi’s eyes went wide. “When?”

“We shall see. The Terrans want a peace treaty, which we’ll be happy to oblige them with. The question then is how long we wait to lull them into a false sense of security. Who knows? With the supposed guilt of their “war crimes,” perhaps we can extract even better terms from them.” Seville laughed. “I never thought the great League of Sol would be reduced to using trickery to beat a group of unsocialized religious nuts, but if that’s what it takes, then fine by me.”

“Do you anticipate retaking command of the fleet, Admiral?”

“I’ll accept nothing less. I will be there to see to it the Terran Coalition is wiped off the face of the galaxy… and the Lion of Judah is rendered a monument to anyone who would dare oppose the face of human progress.”

“Still, the loss of our shipyard facilities…” Strappi’s voice trailed off, and a frown appeared on his face. “It will have implications.”

“Of course it will,” Seville snapped. “But we will rebuild. If the Terrans hadn’t elected the government they did, it would be far worse for us. Defeat might even be probable.” His face took on a wolf-like grin. “But they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

“It is interesting, how things work together.”

“Random chance.” Seville shrugged his shoulders. “If we keep trying long enough, we’ll eventually prevail.”

“Perhaps, Admiral. I do wonder at times if perhaps the universe bends toward socialism and justice for humanity.”

“Nonsense. There is nothing more than what we can see, Colonel. Now, I must attend to the morning paperwork.”

Strappi rose. “Admiral, do not allow yourself to fall into a false sense of security. External Security still wants to remove you. I fear plots are in motion even as we speak.”

The statement took Seville by surprise. Not because of its truth, or lack thereof, but because of the spark of loyalty. From a political officer, no less. Maybe we’re all getting soft, allowing this sentimentality to influence our decisions and actions. “I appreciate your concern.” His face softened. “Take care of yourself, old friend. Don’t allow them to find out about our relationship. It could be viewed as against our societal duties.”

“Of course, Admiral.” Strappi touched his closed right fist to his chest. “For the League!”

Run the Gauntlet

Ruth slipped through the door to the “Ready Room” bar. It was an old stand-by of the Lion of Judah’s crew and many other warships based at Canaan. She briefly recalled gathering there to celebrate Sheila’s passing. Tonight, though, there was only one person she wanted to see—Robert Taylor. Not in uniform for once in her life, she had a feminine—especially for her—blouse on, coupled with a knee-length skirt. Her long brown hair was out of its usual bun, and it cascaded down her shoulders. She saw him almost immediately, sitting at a table off by himself.

Taylor glanced up, saw her at the same time, and waved.

It only took twenty steps to reach him, and they embraced. “Hey,” she said quietly.

“Hey yourself.”

With a slight giggle, Ruth sat down at the high-top table. “Can you believe today?”

“Not really. I’m still shell shocked.”

“You and me both. I thought we’d be welcomed back as heroes.”

Taylor snorted. “Since when do you want a hero’s welcome?”

“Okay, fair point. Still. Being spit on isn’t at the top of my list,” Ruth replied darkly. “I’m surprised Demood didn’t kill that guy. I could see it in his eyes, the rage. It scared me.”

“You and me both. Worse, I wanted to break the arm of the one that got into my face.” Taylor stared out at the rest of the bar, filled with CDF and TCMC personnel. “Am I missing something? Inside our…cocoon, I guess you could say, there’s near-universal support for the war. When did we lose the hearts and minds of the people we swore to protect?”

Ruth grimaced and narrowed her eyes. “I think they’re all traitors.” She leaned forward and put her hands over his, on top of the table. “Forget about it for now. Let’s talk about us.”

“I, uh… I’ve been thinking about what to do next.”

“Yes?”

Taylor’s face turned beet red. “Well, maybe it’s time to get out of the CDF. My stint is coming up for expiration, so I can leave in three months.”

“And do what?” Ruth grinned broadly.

“I could work for a civilian contractor. Maybe we could settle down on Canaan or one of the worlds with a large industrial or military presence like Churchill.”

Ruth burst out laughing. “You want to become a slimy contractor? What, been talking to Lowe too much?” At Taylor’s hesitation, she realized he was serious, and her words had hurt. “I’m sorry…”

“No, you’re right. Me working for SSI or any of those guys probably wouldn’t work out.”

“Robert, I get it. You want to advance our relationship. I’m not quite there, okay? That’s not because of you; it's just that I’m still a work in progress.”

Taylor squeezed her hands. “We’re not getting any younger, you know? I could get a good job and be able to provide for you, and our kids.”

“Kids? We’re not even engaged. Slow your roll there, comms geek,” Ruth replied, but with a genuine smile. “On second thought, you’re quite endearing. Already picked out a house for us?”

“As a matter of fact…”

Ruth giggled and shook her head. “Oh, Robert Taylor. What am I going to do with you?”

“I was hoping you’d make an honest man out of me.”

“Pretty sure that’s the other way around.”

Taylor laughed. “Yeah. I’m old school, so it is. Look, we’ve got a real chance to move on now. The entire Terran Coalition does. Let’s take it. We’ve done our part, and by God, we deserve a break.”

The logic in his words made sense to her, but the emotional response that welled up in her said it wasn’t over, and there were still battles yet to be won against the League. “One day at a time, okay?”

“Deal.”

As the waitress made her way over to take their order, Ruth pondered the future. Her thoughts drifted to David, and she hoped he was okay. At least he’s with Angie tonight. I hope.

Run the Gauntlet

A few light-years away, Kenneth Lowe sat wearily in an automated helicar, stuck in a traffic jam on Churchill. He had a small apartment provided by SSI on the moon, but typically stayed on the orbital station for a few weeks at a time. It’s not like I’ve got a life planetside. He stared out the window, taking in the green, though alien beauty of the British colonized moon. One of the earliest non-American settlements, Churchill was unique in the Terran Coalition in that it required no terraforming. Humans were able to exist with little help from science.

His commlink started to beep, drawing Kenneth out of his mind and back into the physical world. With a downward glance, he realized it was from Korra. I wonder what she wants… probably mad I got her involved with this mess. After rummaging around in his satchel, he pulled out his tablet and engaged the vidlink.

“Hey, Kenneth, I wasn’t sure I’d get you,” she said. Her face appeared red, while her eyes were bloodshot and puffy.

“Good timing, as always. I left the transport about twenty minutes ago. Heading back to my place to get some sleep.”

“Are you okay? I’ve been worried about you for weeks, ever since the news started in on this war crimes crap.”

Kenneth pursed his lips together in an angry expression. “There were no war crimes. General Cohen wouldn’t know how to commit one, even if he tried. I get so tired of those talking heads that have no idea what it's like out there. They’re full of shit.” The last few words were delivered at a much higher volume.

“You don’t have to convince me.”

Her comment elicited a chuckle from Kenneth. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve been crying.”

She shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe I have. A lot of my friends are Peace Union. I don’t have many of them left after standing up for you and the rest of the people sent on the shipyard mission. How’d my—former—best friend put it? Ah, yes, I’ve been ‘canceled.’”

“What’s that mean?” Kenneth asked, his eyebrows raised.

“If you disagree with someone, you refuse to listen to them and block all communication, while encouraging everyone else you know to do the same.”

“That’s among the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.”

Korra grinned. “I figured you’d say that.”

“What are you up to?”

“Oh, not much. I finished up my work a few hours ago and went home.” She paused for a moment. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Probably not. SSI has put me on leave for a few months. Lee told me she doesn’t want me to be a distraction to the company,” Kenneth replied. His voice took on a mocking tone. “Apparently, she’s afraid the government will blacklist them due to my involvement with the shipyard strike.”

“I’m sorry. I know you live for that job.”

Kenneth closed his eyes and blinked. “Maybe not anymore.”

“What, the great Kenneth Lowe, no longer in love with his work?”

“I’m not sure I’m cut out for this anymore. I keep seeing things I can’t get out of my head.” He bit down on his lip and stared at her. “I saw a woman sucked into space as she pleaded with me to save her. I couldn’t… there was nothing I could do except watch.” His voice broke and a tear slid down his face. “I’m sorry. I’m still a mess.”

Her facial expression softened, and her fingers touched the screen. “I’m sorry, Ken. I really am. I can’t imagine.”

“It’s war. Do you know what bothers me? That’s what I’m starting to think. There’s no reason to feel because we’re all going to die anyway.”

There was silence for several seconds as both of them stared at each other. It was Korra who finally spoke. “Whatever else has passed between us, I know you’re a good man. Always trying to make things better in your own way. It’s a blessing and a curse. Try to remember that, okay?”

Kenneth nodded in reply but remained silent. If she only knew how false that statement was.

“Hey, why don’t we meet somewhere and have dinner? It's early still.”

“I don’t think I’d be good company for a date right now.”

Korra rolled her eyes. “Who said anything about a date? I count you as a friend, and you need to be with people right now. So I’ll text you an address, and you redirect your helicar. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“See you in thirty minutes.”

The screen blinked out, leaving Kenneth alone in the quiet vehicle, its anti-gravs humming ever so softly. Maybe some time with her will do me some good. Or it could just remind me of what I’ve lost. At the end of the day, who says on their death bed “I wish I’d worked more.” He tried to push the thoughts out of his head and focus on spending some time with a person he cared about instead.

Run the Gauntlet

Dozens of kilometers away from the happy crowd at the Ready Room Bar, David sat alone in his apartment. It was quiet and dark. He had the lights off and stared out a window into the distance, the skyscrapers of the city visible in the night sky. The buzz of his doorbell interrupted the silence.

“Visitor confirmed, Angela Dinman,” the disembodied computer voice of his virtual assistant intoned.

“Unlock the door and admit her,” he said softly.

A few seconds later, the light to the living room came on as Angie strode in. Her face was ashen, eyes narrowed together, and a frown on her lips. “David?” she asked tentatively. “Are you okay? I’ve been trying to reach you for hours.”

David glanced up. “I had my commlink off.”

“Why?”

“It should be glaringly obvious I want to be alone.”

“Are you asking me to leave?”

In truth, he wanted anything but. Part of him longed to feel her embrace and caress her softly while trying not to think of the pain he felt inside. Another part was angry, and the desire to smash his fist into the wall was difficult to suppress. Vocalizing any of it was difficult. “Er… no. Of course not.” He paused for a moment. “I’m not good company right now.”

Angie sat down next to him. “What’s wrong?”

“Really?”

“I don’t know if you won’t tell me.”

“A thousand dead on my ship, half the Terran Coalition thinks I’m a monster that murdered tens of thousands of League civilians, my crew gets attacked by Peace Union protesters… and you’re going to ask me what’s wrong?” David’s voice grew in volume. By the time he finished speaking, it was a snarl.

After several moments of silence, Angie spoke. “Should I leave?”

Now look what you’ve done. David frowned, and took her hand. “I’m sorry. I’m not myself.”

She stared at him, eyes wide. “I’ve never seen you like this before.”

“Because they’ve never run my crew and me through the mud, saying we’re a bunch of killers before!” The words flew out of his mouth like a torrent of dark, angry water. “I’ve put my entire life into the defense of my country. I gave the Terran Coalition my best years because I believed it was the right thing to do.” That’s not true, and you know it, his mind thundered in return. You’re angry because you let hatred for the League blind you, and that got people killed who didn’t need to die.

“It's not true, though.”

The way she said it, the slight hesitation in Angie’s voice, caused David to stare at her. “You think I fired on civilians?”

Angie looked away, and took a breath. “Sometimes in the fog of war, mistakes can be made.”

Blinding rage erupted within David. His face turned blood red, and his eyes grew wide as saucers. “I have never killed a civilian on purpose. An entire station of them? I gave the League commander fifteen minutes to get his people off, and even when he exceeded that limit, we held our fire until escape pods and shuttles stopped launching.” His voice took on an ugly, angry tone.

“David…” Her voice trailed off. “Please, I love you. I just want to help. Talk to me, maybe if you let some of this out—"

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Please, try.”

“I…” David’s voice petered out. Try telling her the truth, something inside said. “I ordered a risky strategy to jump our ships in closer than the Lawrence limit. I ordered Hayworth to do it, over his objections.” His eyes locked straight ahead. “It was nearly a disaster. The Lion had a release of exotic particles. If not for the heroic efforts of the engineering personnel, the ship would’ve been lost.”

“David, that’s not your fault. You did what you always do and made a judgment call.”

He stared at her. “Then I pressed on, instead of doing the smart thing and pulling out. I lost hundreds of pilots, hundreds of personnel on the Lion herself, plus the other vessels. I let my emotions get the better of me and it cost a thousand people their lives.” As he spoke, the anger left his voice, and he started to cry. “Now I’m welcomed home as a hero, and at the same time, a butcher that massacred League civilians in a war crime? Meanwhile, the war’s over, and it was all for nothing. The League gets to survive, when we could destroy them. Twenty years from now, they’ll come back and try to kill us all again. I can’t help but ask, is it somehow my fault?”

Angie leaned forward and embraced him. “I’m sorry.” Her arms wrapped tightly around him with a gentle squeeze. “It’ll be okay.”

David’s answer was a series of gut-wrenching sobs. His mouth was unable to form the words he wanted to speak, while his mind condemned him for his actions. Finally, he spoke. “I almost got us all killed. You might want to know, Fuentes wants to hold a criminal investigation. Spencer pardoned everyone except me. I wouldn’t accept it. I know I didn’t break the laws of war, but damnit, Angie, I ought to be punished for what I did do.”

She pulled back and stared into his eyes. “I know one thing about you, David Cohen. You love your crew and that ship. Almost more than you love me.” Her smile was a bitter one. “I wasn’t there, but I bet everyone there would back your actions. Wouldn’t they?”

“It doesn’t matter what they say. What counts is what I know inside.”

“Then be a better man. Make amends. The war’s over, right?”

“Probably,” David replied, staring into her eyes.

“Then retire, we’ll go somewhere, start over, and you can do whatever you want. Become a rabbi, if that’s still your dream. We can do us.”

He forced a smile to his lips. “It's hard to see a future like that.”

“Try.” She gave him a gentle kiss.

“Okay.” He embraced her again and tried to be in the moment. Dark thoughts, however, would not leave his mind. No matter how hard he attempted to banish them, guilt and pain roared up from his soul. And so, he cried into her shoulder, wondering what the next day would bring and where God had gone, as David felt completely and utterly alone.

THE END

Echoes of War: Book 7 – Finish the Fight: After David finds himself stripped of command, he’s called on one last time to defend the Terran Coalition. Read the epic conclusion to Echoes of War, now!

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Breach of Faith: Book 1 - Breach of Peace:

Love Echoes of War? Try Daniel Gibbs’ new series: Breach of Peace. Captain James Henry and the independent vessel Shadow Wolf try to make a living in the void of space - and stay alive.

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Also Available from Daniel Gibbs

Echoes of War

Book 1 - Fight the Good Fight

Book 2 - Strong and Courageous

Book 3 - So Fight I

Book 4 - Gates of Hell

Book 5 - Keep the Faith

Book 6 - Run the Gauntlet

Book 7 - Finish the Fight

Breach of Faith

(With Gary T. Stevens)

Book 1 - Breach of Peace

Book 2 - Breach of Faith

Book 3 - Breach of Duty

Book 4 - Breach of Trust


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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