Monday, May 4, 2015

Sneak Peak - Chapter One of Into the Darkness

Into the Darkness is the first book of the Crimson Worlds Refugees series.  It is available now for presale, and is scheduled for release June 23.  There is a good chance the release date will be moved up, possibly to the first week of June.
Chapter One

Excerpt from Admiral Compton’s Final Communique to Augustus Garret:

You have seen the scanning reports, as I have.  You know there is no other option.  I know you, perhaps better than anyone else, and I understand how this will affect you.  It is a crushing burden, and yet that doesn’t matter.  You have no choice, my old friend, and you know it as well as I.  It is not just victory that hangs in the balance, not even the survival of the fleet.  Nothing less than the continued existence of the human race rests upon your actions in the next few hours.  If you allow this enemy force to get through the warp gate and into the X1 system, we will never stop them.  They will destroy every planet in Occupied Space.  When they are finished, there will be nothing but the unburied dead to mark that men had ever lived, silent graveyards where once prosperous worlds had been.

You have been more than a friend to me, Augustus…more than a brother.  We have laughed, supported each other, gone to war together.  I had no idea, when I left home for the Naval Academy all those years ago, that I would find a friend like you.  We had quite a run together, Admiral Garret.  It’s been my great honor and pleasure to be at your side…to watch your back, as you have watched mine. 

Though I know it is pointless, I will say this anyway.  Do not blame yourself.  You do not have a choice in this.  Do your duty, as you always have, and then step boldly into the future.  I am asking you to do this, to save mankind.  Mourn the lost, as we always have, but think of me—and all those who serve with me—no differently than the thousands who have died in our many battles.  Drink a toast to me and remember friendship fondly, shed a tear if you must…but do not spend the rest of your life tormenting yourself.  It is my final request of you.

Go now.  You will have to move ahead without me, my comrade, bear the burdens alone that we would have shared.  I’m sorry I won’t be there to help you face the next battle.  Because we both know there will be another.  There always is.  And I know you will be ready, that you will stand again in the breach and do what you must.  As you have done all your life.

There is one last thing I ask of you, Augustus.  Look after Elizabeth for me.  Try to ease her pain.  I was going to ask you to tell her I love her, that I always have, but that would be selfish of me.  I am gone to her, and I know I shall never see her again.  I would have her forget me, move forward…to have a happy life, and not to wallow in misery over what can never be.  It is my solace to imagine that happiness without me waits in her future.

You are the best, most honorable man I’ve ever known, Augustus Garret.  Goodbye, my friend.

AS Midway
Deep in System X2
The Fleet:  242 ships, 48,371 crew

“You are clear to land in Bay B, Admiral Hurley.”  There was a strange sound to the launch bay coordinator’s voice, not fear exactly, but something cold, almost dead. 

“Acknowledged,” Hurley replied.  She knew, of course, what was happening.  She’d seen the enemy ships on her own scanners, hundreds of them, more than the entire massed fleets of humanity could hope to defeat.  She also knew what would happen next, what had to happen.  Admiral Garret would detonate the massive bomb General Cain and Dr. Hofstader had found—and if the CEL scientist was as brilliant as everyone said, the warp gate leading back to X1, to human space, would be disrupted for several centuries, an impassible obstacle instead of an open pathway.

It was an ideal way to end the war, cutting off the massive First Imperium forces from human space without a fight.  But there was one problem.  Midway—and the rest of Compton’s fleet, half of humanity’s combined naval strength—was on the opposite side of the system, light hours from the Sigma 4 gate.  There was no way they could get back, not before the First Imperium forces were able to transit.  And Hurley knew that was something Admiral Garret simply could not allow.  No matter what the cost.

She understood the tone in the coordinator’s voice.  Word had to be spreading through the fleet.  They were facing almost certain death, and everyone had to accept that in their own way.  She was confident the Alliance spacers, at least, would stay at their posts and go down fighting.  She knew damned well she would.  Her fighters had been savaged in the combat, but they weren’t done yet, not by a long shot.  And as soon as they could refuel and rearm, she intended to lead them back into the fray.

“Bring us in, Commander.”  Hurley glanced over at her pilot.  Commander Wilder had been under instructions from Admiral Garret to keep Hurley away from the worst of the fighting.  Greta Hurley had no peers in the field of fighter-bomber tactics, and Garret knew she tended to put herself in the forefront of her squadrons.  He’d been determined to keep his aggressive fighter commander from getting herself killed, and knowing how stubborn Hurley was, he’d figured a secret pact with her pilot seemed the likeliest way to achieve success.  Wilder had made a noble effort, but in the end Hurley—and events—had prevailed, and Wilder had joined his charge in taking their fighter right into the maw of an enemy battleship—and delivering the killing blow to the behemoth.

“Yes, Admiral,” the pilot replied.  “Forty-five seconds to landing.”

Hurley leaned back in her seat and took a deep breath.  She had about 240 fighters left, less than half of what she had led into battle just the day before.  But it was still a potent force.  They might not have any real hope of survival, but she silently vowed that her people would sell their lives dearly to the enemy.

She looked through the forward cockpit, to the hulking form of Midway beyond.  Compton’s flagship was one of the greatest machines of war ever constructed by man, two kilometers of sleek hull, bristling with weapons.  Until the First Imperium invasion, mankind had considered itself strong and technologically advanced.  But now they were fighting an enemy thousands of years ahead of them.  Courage and innovation had bridged that gap, at least in the battles on the Line, allowing the outmatched humans to not only stem the enemy tide, but to drive the First Imperium fleets back.  But those victories had only stirred the enemy to bring forth its full strength, and now humanity was faced with the real power of their enemy.  Against the massive array now approaching, even a battlewagon like Midway seemed weak and small.

The ship moved steadily toward a large opening in Midway’s hull.  Hurley could see tiny shapes moving around the bay, technicians clad in environmental suits and small tractors moving parts and supplies toward the fighters sitting in their cradles.  A landing bay during a battle was a busy place.  It took a lot of support to keep her birds in space fighting.

She felt the deceleration as the fighter slowed gradually.  Landings could sometimes be a rough affair but not with a pilot like Commander Wilder at the controls.  Hurley had been a great pilot herself, and a feared Ace who had racked up a still unmatched number of kills in the days before her advancing rank took her out of the direct fighting.  But she had to admit to herself, Wilder was even better than she had been.  He worked the controls of the fighter like they were extensions of his own body.  And now he dropped the craft onto the metal floor of the bay so softly, she could barely tell they had landed.

“Your ship is the last one, Admiral,” the coordinator’s voice said.  “We’re closing the bay doors, so if you wait a minute, we’ll have the deck pressurized.”

“Understood, Commander.”  She reached around and unhooked her harness, turning toward Wilder as she did.  “That was a hell of a landing, Commander.”  She paused for an instant then added, “In fact, the entire battle was an example of magnificent piloting.”  Hurley lived and breathed fighter-bomber tactics, and her praise was highly sought after among her pilots and crews.

“Thank you, Admiral.”  She could hear the satisfaction in his voice at her words, but also a dark undercurrent.  He had clearly come to the same grim conclusion she had.  They were dead men and women, all of them.  It was just a question of time—and how much damage they could inflict before they were wiped out.

She walked across the cramped cabin of the fighter bomber, heading toward the hatch as the other three crew members unhooked themselves and followed.  She knelt down and waited.

“Landing bay pressurized,” came the announcement a few seconds later.  Hurley punched at the keys next to the small door, and the hatch slid open.  She put her leg down, and her foot found the small ladder almost immediately.  She climbed down to the deck and turned around, her eyes looking for the crew chief.

“Chief,” she said as she spotted him, “I want these birds turned around in record time…and I do mean fucking record time, you understand me?”  Hurley had a fearsome reputation among the maintenance crews.  Most of them felt she asked for the impossible, yet they somehow managed to do what she commanded anyway.  And it was hard to argue with a fighting admiral with Hurley’s chops—especially when she’d just come back with barely half the birds that she’d launched with a few hours before.

“The crews are ready, Admiral.”  Sam McGraw was old-school navy all the way, a chief petty officer who drove his staff relentlessly and who could stand up to any officer, even to a superior as terrifying as Greta Hurley.  “They’re already at work on the birds that landed ahead of you.”  He was waving his arm as he spoke, gesturing to a work party to get started on the admiral’s ship.  It was mildly inappropriate.  Technically, he should have been at attention while addressing the admiral.  But Hurley didn’t give a shit about foolishness like that.  No one had ever turned her fighters around like McGraw, and she wasn’t about to give him shit for pushing his crews—or worrying about his job instead of kissing her three-star ass.

“Very well, Chief.  I’ll leave you to it.”  She saw a sudden difference in McGraw’s expression, shock, tension.  Then the non-com snapped to attention.  She knew the veteran petty officer well enough to understand the only person on Midway who could generate that reaction from him.

“Well done out there, Greta.”

She turned abruptly and snapped to attention herself.  “Thank you, Admiral Compton.”  Greta Hurley was a force of nature, but Admiral Terrance Compton was like a god striding among mortals.  Compton had nearly fifty years of service, having fought in both the Second and Third Frontier Wars.  He’d been a hero of the rebellions, steadfastly refusing orders to bombard civilian targets, and somehow maintaining control of the fleet through the entire crisis.  His victories were too numerous to be counted.  He was the other half of the legend of Augustus Garret, the only naval officer who could match his lifelong friend’s prowess.

“I take it you understand the current situation, Admiral?”  Compton’s voice was serious, but it lacked the grim resignation she’d heard in everyone else’s.

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

“Well, I’ve got a plan, Greta, and I need your help to pull it off.”

“Of course, sir.  Whatever you need, my people will see it done.”  She felt the power of Compton’s legend, of his extraordinary charisma.  She didn’t expect to live more than a few more hours, but there was adrenalin flowing, excitement about fighting again for this man.  She could face death in battle, as long as she didn’t have to look into Compton’s eyes knowing she had failed him.  Thoughts of doom and imminent death faded away, replaced by a surge of determination. 

“Our position isn’t hopeless, Greta, no matter what everyone in the fleet seems to think.  And this isn’t a suicide mission for your people either, so you remember that.  It’s dangerous as hell, but I expect most of you to be back.  In fact, I demand it.”  Compton’s voice was firm, resolute.

“Yes, sir.”  She had a pretty good idea of the tactical situation, and she didn’t see a way out.  But she found some part of herself believing him, even as the rational side of her mind clung to its hopelessness.

She looked at the man standing in front of her.  He was rock solid, not the slightest doubt or weakness apparent.  Whatever Terrence Compton, the man, believed, the undefeated fleet admiral was firmly in control right now.  She had a significant reputation herself, but now she drew strength from the man standing in front of her, feeding off his iron will.

Perhaps it’s part of the legend, she thought.  The man is simply incapable of giving up.



*               *               *



“Admiral, we’re picking up massive energy readings from the X1 warp gate.  Really off the charts…I can’t even get a steady reading.”  Max Harmon was Compton’s tactical officer.  Indeed, he’d also served Garret in the same capacity when Compton had been wounded, and he had the singular distinction of being declared the best tactical officer in the fleet by both of mankind’s legendary naval commanders.

Compton looked over at Harmon, but he didn’t reply.  There was no reason.  They both knew what had happened.  Garret had detonated the device.  If Dr. Hofstader’s calculations were correct—and Compton had no doubt they were—the X1 warp gate was now scrambled by a massive amount of captive energy that would slowly leak out.  It would be centuries before a ship could transit to Sigma 4—and the human domains beyond.  And if it didn’t work, every human being will be dead in two years, he thought.

“Alright, Max,” he said, changing the subject.  There was nothing to be gained by dwelling on the fact that they were now officially cut off from home.  “Transmit navigational instructions to the fleet.”  Compton sat in the command chair on Midway’s flag bridge, as he had throughout the war.  “We’re going to take it hard on the way in, but that can’t be helped.  Ships are authorized to defend themselves the best they can and engage any enemy within range, but nothing is more important than following the nav plan exactly.  We’re not going to be able to help any ship that falls out of the formation.  This is timed to the second as it is.”

“Yes, sir.” 

Compton sat back and listened to Harmon relaying his orders.  He appeared confident, almost unconcerned, but it was 100% bullshit.  He was nervous as hell, heartbroken at being cut off from human space, scared about what would happen in the next few hours.  But he was Fleet Admiral Terrance Compton, and his people needed the legend now, not the man.  If they were going to survive, he needed their absolute best, and he wouldn’t get that from despondent spacers resigned to death.  He needed for them to have hope, to believe they had a chance.  Because he had come up with a way to give them that chance.

“All vessels confirm receipt of nav data, sir.”

“Very well,” Compton replied.  He stared at the tactical display.  “Get me Captain Kato.”

Harmon leaned over his station for a few seconds.  Then he turned back toward Compton.  “On your line, sir.”

“Are your people ready, Captain?”  There was a noticeable delay.  Kato was on Akagi, about a light second from Midway.

“Yes, Admiral.  We are ready.”  There was deep resignation in Kato’s voice, and Compton felt his stomach clench.  Kato was a talented commander and an honorable man.  Just the kind who’d sacrifice himself if he thought he was saving the fleet.

“Aki, this is not a suicide mission.  You are to engage the enemy until the designated moment…and then your people are to board the shuttles and abandon ship.  And let me be absolutely clear…you personally are included in my definition of ‘your people.’  Is that clear?”  Kato’s ship was badly damaged, and she had no chance to keep up with the fleet.  Compton had ordered Akagi—and the other fifteen vessels too shot up to maintain full thrust—to form a line to the flank of the main force.  They were to hold off the enemy as long as possible.  But Compton had been clear.  The ships were on their last mission, but the skeleton crews remaining onboard were not.  He had ordered them to flee, and link up with the rest of the fleet.  The plans were clear, but Compton was still afraid of unauthorized heroics.  It was easier for his spacers to throw their lives away when they believed they were as good as dead anyway.  But he was still determined to get his people out of this alive.

“Understood, sir.”

“Remember that, Aki.  Don’t you dare get yourself killed.  I need all the good people I can get now.  Just do your best, and then bug out before it’s too late.

“Yes, Admiral.”

Compton flipped off the com.  He hoped he’d gotten through to the officer.  Aki Kato was one of the best officers in the fleet—and more importantly, he wasn’t one of Compton’s own.  The fleet was an international force, and he knew if he managed to get them out of this he would have to deal with rivalries and old resentments.  And he was doing nothing to help prevent that by having his own people in virtually every major command slot.

He wasn’t making decisions based on national preferences, at least not consciously.  But he couldn’t help but trust his own people more than he did those from the other powers.  Besides, the navy he and Garret had built was vastly superior to any of the others, and the officers who had developed under their tutelage and leadership were head and shoulders above their rivals.  Compton had Alliance officers in key positions because they were the most skilled and reliable.  But he knew it created bad feeling as well.  A capable PRC officer he could trust was a precious commodity, one he could ill afford to lose.

He flipped on the com unit again, calling up Greta Hurley’s fighter.  She and her crews were waiting in the landing bays of a dozen ships, armed and ready to go.

“You all set, Greta?” he asked softly.

“Yes, Admiral.  The strike force is ready to launch.”  Her voice was cold, hard.  Compton wasn’t sure he’d convinced her they had a chance, but he was certain she would do whatever was necessary to carry out his instructions.

“Very well.  You may launch when ready.  And Greta, remember…this is not a suicide mission.”  He was getting tired of reminding everyone of that fact.  “I expect you to be at the designated rendezvous point spot on time.  Understood?”

“Yes, Admiral.  Understood.”

“Fortune go with you, Admiral Hurley.”

“And with you, sir.”

She cut the line, and a few seconds later, Compton felt Midway shake softly—the first of the fighters launching.  He looked down at his display, watching the small blue dots assemble in formation.  If everything went according to plan, those ships would launch their attack and then link up with the fleet.  They’d have to match vector and velocity perfectly, and the slightest inaccuracy would prove fatal.  But they’d have a chance, at least.  And that was all Compton could give them now.

He stood up abruptly.  “Max, it’s time.  Give the fleet order.  All personnel to the tanks now.  Maneuvers begin in twelve minutes.”

And if everything goes perfectly, we just might make it out of this system.



*               *               *



“All weapons ready.”  Kato was in Akagi’s command chair.  His ship was wounded, mortally so considering the situation.  Even if Compton’s wild plan was successful, the PRC flagship was far too damaged to escape.  But she still had fight left in her, and Captain Aki Kato was about to demonstrate that fact to the ships of the First Imperium.

“All weapons stations report ready, Captain.”  Yoshi Tanaka sat at the tactical station on the otherwise nearly empty bridge.  Akagi normally had twelve officers and two guards in her control center, but Kato had cut his crew to the bone, evacuating all but the most essential personnel.  That left Tanaka and the communications officer the only others there.

His face was twisted into an angry scowl as he stared at the display, watching the enemy move closer.  Kato was a veteran of the Third Frontier War, and he’d fought hard in that conflict.  He’d lost good friends too.  But that war had paled next to the savagery of this one, and nothing matched the intensity of his hatred for the First Imperium.  The soulless robots were brutal and relentless in a way no human enemy could be.  And the sacrifices this war had demanded made the devastating losses of the Third Frontier War seem light by comparison.

It only made it worse that he knew his enemies did not feel fear.  They didn’t even hate their human enemies, at least not in the way mankind understood the emotion.  Their attempts at genocide were logical from their perspective, and not driven by rage or prejudice.  They were merely following orders in the truest sense.  But Kato hated them—he hated them with all the passions his human emotions could generate.  He wanted to kill them, to see them in pain, to watch them overcome with fear as he ignored their pleas for mercy.  And the fact that he knew his enemy would never feel the pain or fear he wanted to inflict only drove Kato’s anger.  He didn’t know if he believed any of his people would survive, but he was damned sure they were going to dish out some damage.

“All ships are to fire when ready,” he said, his voice dripping with venom.  He stared across the almost silent bridge as the comm officer relayed his order to the thin line of vessels under his command.  Sixteen damaged ships was a poor force to stand against the massive array of First Imperium power now approaching, but no one expected his forlorn hope to stop the enemy or even damage them significantly.  All they had to do was buy a little time, and if they could manage it, even a few minutes, they could increase the escape margin for their comrades—and for themselves if they were able to evacuate in time.

His eyes were fixed on the tactical display.  The first enemy line, about fifty ships strong, was almost within missile range.  Many of the vessels were damaged from the earlier fighting, and some, Kato hoped, were low on ordnance.  Behind the initial wave there were others, over a thousand ships in all, including twenty of the massive new design that was already being called the Colossus.  The whole fleet had twenty times the firepower needed to destroy every one of Compton’s ships, but Kato wasn’t worried about the massive waves of strength relentlessly approaching.  His target was the first line, and in that fight, he knew his people could inflict a toll before they bugged out.

“All missile launchers…fire.  One volley, continuous launches.”  He spoke softly, firmly, never taking his eyes off his display.  Akagi shook as she flushed the missiles from her external racks.  Normally, it took at least fifteen minutes to clear the superstructure from the hull to allow internal launchers to fire.  But Kato had already given his orders, and a few seconds after the missiles launched, the racks that had held them in place were jettisoned immediately, without the careful effort to direct the huge chunks of metal away from the ships.  It was a dangerous procedure, and Akagi shook several times as discarded hunks of hyper-steel slammed into her hull.  But Kato knew time was his most precious resource, and a concentrated missile volley had the best chance of overwhelming the enemy’s defenses and scoring some kills.

“Racks cleared, Captain.”  Tanaka was staring at his screens as he reported.  “We have some hull breeches, lost atmosphere in several sectors, but nothing vital.  And no casualties reported.”

Kato sighed softly.  That’s one advantage of having 80% of the crew gone…fewer people around to get sucked out into space when their compartment is ripped open.  Dropping the racks so quickly had been a big risk, but it was looking like a gamble that had paid off.  At least for Akagi.

“Admiral, Orleans reports extensive damage from disengaging external racks.  She is streaming air and fluids, sir.”

“Captain Amies is to evacuate immediately.”  The stricken ship was no longer capable of contributing seriously to the fight.  And that meant Kato couldn’t justify risking even its skeleton crew.

He stared straight ahead, watching the cloud of missiles on his display accelerating toward the enemy.  “Let’s close to laser range, Commander.  The task force is to accelerate at 5g.”

Time to finish this.



*               *               *



“All squadrons, this is the highest precision operation we have ever attempted.”  Hurley’s voice was like ice.  She didn’t have Compton’s confidence that any of her people would make it through, but that didn’t matter.  Live or die, she would do it following the admiral’s orders.  And Compton had been clear.  Besides, if they were fated to die, it meant something to her that they die well, hurting the enemy and helping give their comrades a chance to escape.

“We will be commencing our assault in one minute.  You will each make a single attack run at your assigned enemy vessel, and then you will execute the exact navigation plan locked into your onboard computers.  You will not delay, not for any reason.  I don’t care if you think one more run with lasers will take out a Leviathan…you will follow my orders to the letter.  Admiral Compton’s orders.”

Her eyes were on the chronometer.  It read forty seconds, thirty-nine, thirty-eight…

“There is no room for hesitation, no margin for error.  We have to reach the rendezvous point on time, and align our velocity and vectors with our specific landing platforms.  Then we will have to land rapidly, again with no room for delay or mistakes.”

Twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two…

“I expect not only the best from all of you…I expect perfection.  And so does Admiral Compton.  It’s time to do this, people, and do it right.  And then we get the hell out of here so we can fight another day.  Good luck to all of you.”

She cut the line and looked over at Wilder.  The pilot was also staring at the chronometer, waiting for it to count down to zero.  “Alright, John.  You ready for this?”

The pilot nodded slowly.  “Yes, Admiral.  I’m ready.”

Hurley turned toward the rest of the crew.  “Boys?”

The others nodded.  “Yes, sir,” they said almost simultaneously—and unconvincingly.

Hurley took a deep breath as she watched the display work its way through the single digits…to zero.

She leaned back as Wilder hit the thrust and the pressure of nine gees slammed into her.  She could hardly move, but she managed to glance down at her screen.  The entire formation, 243 small blue dots, moved ahead in perfect order.  She felt a rush of pride.  Her force included craft from most of the superpowers, crews with different training doctrines and capabilities.  There were former enemies fighting together, men and women who had struggled against each other in the great battles of the Third Frontier War.  But she had forged them into a single cohesive unit, and she’d done it in just two years.  And she was damned proud of every one of them.

Many of her people were already dead.  Indeed, almost two-thirds of her strength was gone in the battles of the last few days.  More would die soon, she knew, but the fighter wings had done their part and more.  They had given all they had to give to defeat mankind’s enemy.

“Captain Kato’s ships have fired their missiles, Admiral.”  Kip Janz was the fighter’s main gunner, but now he was manning the small scanning station.  He was struggling to hold his head up over the scope, to push back against the massive forces bearing down on them all.  “It looks like they somehow launched everything in one continuous volley.”  Janz’ tone was thick with confusion, but Hurley understood immediately.

He blew off his racks.  Hopefully, he didn’t sustain too much damage.

“We’ll be at Point Zeta in thirty seconds, Admiral.”  Wilder’s voice was as strained as everyone else’s.  No one, not even the hardest veteran, could take nine gees without it affecting everything they did.  “Cutting thrust in three…two…one…”

Hurley felt the crushing pressure disappear, replaced by the weightlessness of free fall.  She looked down at her display, watching the icons align as thirty squadrons cut thrust simultaneously, maintaining almost perfect order.  Then her eyes glanced toward the top of the screen, where a line of large red ovals marked the enemy vessels.

Her birds were already entering firing range, but not a shot came from any of her fighters.  Every one of them was loaded with double-shotted plasma torpedoes, and the plan was simple—fly through everything the enemy could throw at them and close to point blank range before firing.  She knew they wouldn’t all make it through, but the enemy ships in the first line had been badly shot up, and with any luck, the defensive fire would be light.  The First Imperium didn’t have any fighters, and their defensive tactics had been thrown together to meet the threat.  Her birds were coming in fast, and that would minimize the time they spend in the hot zone.  But they were also heading directly for their targets, and at almost 0.04c, they weren’t going to be able to maneuver or alter their vectors quickly.  In space combat, high velocity reduced the variability of a target’s future location.

“We’ve got enemy missiles on the screen, Admiral.”  Janz’ turned toward Hurley.  “It looks like a heavy volley, but not as bad as it could be.”

Hurley could tell from Janz’ tone the enemy response was weaker than he’d expected.  “Man your guns, Lieutenant.  It’s time to take out some missiles.”

“Yes, Admiral,” he replied sharply.

Hurley could heat a loud hum as the fighter’s anti-missile lasers powered up.  The tiny ship had four of the small point defense weapons.  They had an effective range of about 5,000 kilometers, almost nothing relative to the vast distances in space combat.  But the missiles approaching weren’t the enemy’s big antimatter fueled, multi-gigaton ship killers either.  They were barely firecrackers by comparison—20 to 50 megatons.  They had to get close to take out one of her birds.  A detonation within 500 meters would destroy a fighter outright.  One a kilometer away would probably give her entire crew a lethal dose of radiation.  But any farther out, and the damage, if any, would be light.

She sat quietly and watched her tiny ship’s crew go about their tasks.  She didn’t need to interfere.  They were the best.  She’d trained them, she’d led them.  Now she would let them do their jobs.

“Missiles entering interception range in four minutes.”

Hurley nodded, but she didn’t reply.  She just sat and waited.  And wondered how the rest of the fleet was doing.  Compton’s plan had seemed crazy to her at first, but the more she thought about it, the more she came to believe he just might pull it off.  It didn’t pay to bet against Terrance Compton.

Getting through the warp gate didn’t mean getting away, but it was a step in the direction.  Once the fleet transited, Compton intended to drop a spread of mines just on the other side and blast toward one of the system’s exit gates.  The enemy fleet would follow, but its sheer size would slow its transit—and the minefield would disorder them further.  With any luck, Compton would gain on the enemy, increasing the gap between the two forces.  And they would need every kilometer of it.

Compton had scouting data on X4, and the location of several potential exit gates.  But whatever system lay beyond was a total mystery—and each successive transit would be a gamble.  Would they manage to find an exit gate in each before the enemy caught them?  Or would one of the systems prove to be a dead end, with no escape?

“Missiles entering range in one minute.”

Hurley had great confidence in her people, but she knew this was a difficult mission.  She tried not to think of it as a suicide run, as much because she knew that’s what Compton wanted, and not because she particularly expected to survive.  Her birds were moving at a high velocity, and that made the job easier for the enemy missiles.  Her ships couldn’t quickly alter their vectors, which meant the incoming warheads had a small area to target.

“Commencing interception.”

Hurley heard the high pitched whine of the lasers firing, one shot after the other in rapid succession.  She’d always hated this part of an assault, pushing through the enemy’s long-ranged interdiction, powerless, waiting to see if her ship would get picked off by a well-placed—or lucky—shot.  Her weapons were deadly, but they were shorter ranged, especially if she wanted to do serious damage.  And she damned sure wanted that.  So there was no choice but to take what the enemy threw at her people, and hope for the best.

Survival wasn’t pure chance, of course, and a gunner’s skill was crucial in increasing the odds of a fighter closing to its own firing range.  And Kip Janz was one of the best.

She glanced down at the screen, monitoring the status of the incoming volley.  Janz and the ship’s AI had taken out seven enemy missiles.  That didn’t mean all of those would have closed to deadly range, but still, she was glad they were vaporized.  Anything that got within the 5,000 kilometer window had to be considered a serious threat.

She saw the warning lights go on—a detonation about two klicks away.  Close, but not close enough to cause major damage.  Still, there was a good chance she and her people would need a course of anti-rad treatments when they got back.  If they got back.

The enemy missiles were mostly gone from the screen.  They were nearly through—and that much closer to releasing their own deadly attack.  But Hurley’s eyes were fixed on a dozen flashing icons.  Twelve of her fighters hadn’t been as fortunate, their gunners not as skilled as Janz, and now they were bits of plasma and debris.  She found it hard to look at a scanner displaying that kind of data, at the impersonal symbols that represented real ships, real crews.  A dozen flashing circles meant sixty of her people were dead, their ships destroyed before they even had the chance to fire.  It was cold, impersonal.  She wondered how the Marines and other ground troops fared, so often seeing their comrades killed right in front of them.  Is it easier that way?  Or more difficult?

“We’re through the missile barrage, Admiral,” Janz said firmly.  “Beginning final approach.”

Hurley looked over at Wilder.  “The ship is yours, Commander.”  Wilder and Janz had stepped aside during the last attack run, allowing their admiral to take the shot—a dead on hit that had finished off the ailing Leviathan.  She’d appreciated the gesture, and she’d enjoyed the hell out of killing the First Imperium ship, but she didn’t intend to make a habit out of it.  She’d accepted the stars Garret had given her, and she was resolved to behave accordingly and not act like some gung-ho pilot.  Most of the time, at least.

Technically, Hurley didn’t have a job on her ship, at least not one involved in its operation.  Her fighter’s purpose was to carry her wherever she had to be to command the strike force.  Much to the frustration of Admiral Garret’s plans, it had proven impossible to keep her back from the fight, so now it was not only a moving headquarters—it was another ship in the line, one more attacker determined to plant a double plasma torpedo into the guts of a First Imperium vessel. 

“Prepare for high-gee maneuvers,” Wilder said.

Hurley sat quietly, looking at the display.  She knew just where Wilder was going.  The closest ship was a Gargoyle, but half a dozen fighters had already made runs at it, and three had scored solid hits.  The ship was still there, but there wasn’t much left of it, and there was no fire at all coming from it.  But tucked in just behind was the target that had caught Wilder’s eye.  A Leviathan, also badly damaged, but still firing at the fighters buzzing past it like flies on a carcass.

“Heavy incoming fire,” Janz said, staring at the scope as he did.  The main First Imperium defensive weapon was similar to the Alliance’s shotguns.  Both systems were essentially large railguns, firing clouds of metallic projectiles into the paths of incoming fighters.  The First Imperium version had been designed purely as an anti-missile platform, but it performed well enough against fighters to make the hair on Hurley’s neck stand up.

The fighter pitched hard as Wilder hit the thrust.  Hurley felt the force slam into her, an impact like five times her own weight.  She focused on breathing deeply as the force increased…6g…7g…8g.  She held herself straight in her chair, angling her head slightly so she could see her screen.  Her movement was slow, steady, disciplined.  At 8g, she knew she could pull a muscle just moving wrong.

She could see the enemy vessel getting closer—and bigger—on the display.  Another fighter streaked across, putting its payload right into the huge enemy vessel.  The scanners were assessing damage, feeding a continuous report on the status of the enemy ship.  There were a dozen great rents in the side of the vessel, and liquids and gasses were spewing out into space.  On a human-crewed ship, men and women would be dying in those compartments, blown into space or frozen and suffocated in place.  But she knew it was impossible to disable a First Imperium ship by killing its crew.  The robots onboard were impervious to cold, to lack of oxygen.  No, to kill a First Imperium vessel, you had to tear the thing apart, bit by bit.

Suddenly, the thrust was gone, and weightlessness replaced the crushing pressure.  She took a deep breath, grateful for the ease of it.  She glanced over at Wilder and then back to her screen.  The range was counting down rapidly.  They were moving at 5,000 kilometers per second, and the enemy was less than 50,000 klicks away.  They were ten seconds out and on a collision course.  She opened her mouth, but she didn’t say anything.  Wilder knew what he was doing.

Eight seconds.  The pilot was totally focused, his head staring straight at the display, hands tight on the controls.  Six seconds.  The ship bucked slightly, as Wilder released the plasma torpedo.

Hurley stared straight ahead, watching the distance slip away.  We’re going to hit that ship…

Then 9g of pressure slammed into her like a sledgehammer, and Wilder hit the thrust barely four seconds from impact.  A few seconds of thrust couldn’t do much to alter the course of a fighter travelling at over 3% of lightspeed.  But it didn’t have to do much, just enough to swing the fighter around the enemy ship.  And it did just that.  Hurley looked down in disbelief at the scanners.  The fighter had passed within 300 meters of the Leviathan before it continued on, putting 5,000 klicks a second between it and its stricken target.

Wilder’s torpedoes had found their mark.  It was a shot generally consider impossible, a degree of accuracy almost unimaginable considering the velocities and distances involved.  But Wilder had dumped his doubleshotted payload right through one of the great rips in the Leviathan’s hull.  The great ship shuddered hard as the heavy weapon unleashed its power on its unarmored insides.

Hurley saw the data coming in, and she knew what was happening.  The torpedo was gutting the inside of the ship, destroying everything in its path.  But she knew one type of damage would prove to be its doom, and a few seconds later she was proven correct.  The massive vessel disappeared in an explosion of unimaginable fury, as it lost containment on its antimatter stores and unleashed the fury of matter annihilation.

“Nice shot, John,” Hurley said simply.  Then she added, “Think you can cut it a little closer next time?”

“I’ll try, Admiral,” he said, an amused grin on his face.

Hurley looked down at her screen.  The strike force had completed its attack.  They’d hit the enemy line right on the heels of Kato’s missiles, and they’d taken out half a dozen ships, including two Leviathans.  And her people had only lost another twenty fighters.  Normally she wouldn’t draw comfort from another hundred of her people dead, but even at her most wildly optimistic, she had imagined several times that number.

The attack had been a massive success—and Kato’s task force was just a few minutes out of laser range.  With any luck, his ships would wipe out the enemy line before his people had to abandon their crippled vessels.

She smiled grimly, feeling a wave of satisfaction.  Compton wanted us to delay them.  Well, I’d say wiping out their first line will cause a delay.  The rest of the fleet is over an hour behind.

Hurley just nodded and returned the smile.  “OK, according to Admiral Compton’s navigation, we should be close to the right course and speed to link up with the fleet.”  A hint of skepticism slipped into her tone.  She’d never even heard of fighters landing on ships moving at this kind of velocity.  She understood the physics, and as long as everything was perfectly aligned, it shouldn’t be much different from a normal landing.  Still, it was going to take a hell of a piloting job to pull it off, and she didn’t kid herself that all her people were going to make it.  And the ones who didn’t would die.  It was that simple.