Turning the Tide
The Terran Commonwealth has proved a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut in its war against the smaller Castle Federation and her allies, but an almost accidental victory by Captain Kyle Roberts of the carrier Avalon has opened a chink in its armor.
Desperate to change the course of a war they are rapidly losing; the Federation assembles a new forward fleet with orders to retake the systems that have fallen to the enemy.
Outnumbered but on the offensive at last, Kyle Roberts must take a hastily assembled battle group back to the worlds the Alliance failed to defend. There he will live or die by the skills of his soldiers and the honor of his enemies.
12:11 February 20, 2736 Earth Standard Meridian Date/Time
DSC-078 Avalon, Bridge
Captain Kyle Roberts, commanding officer of the deep space carrier Avalon, watched his bridge with calm anticipation. His newly promoted executive officer didn’t know him as well as some of the other officers did, but the Captain could tell that James Anderson knew something was up with his massive redheaded Captain.
Anderson was reacting exactly as a good XO should when his Captain was up to something, Kyle noted, slowly and unobtrusively going around the bridge to check in on the crew at each station. The big supercarrier was currently in orbit around the recently liberated world of Alizon, and the bridge’s Bravo shift could easily be taking the current calm for granted.
The Fleet Commander was less unobtrusive than he likely thought he was, but that was a lesson that Kyle would provide gently once the current exercise was over. War upended many of the conventions of peace, and many of the officers in Alliance Battle Group Seventeen were new to their ranks or, like Fleet Commander Anderson, arguably too junior for the roles they held.
“Sir!” a young—far too young—voice suddenly shouted in the bridge. “We have Alcubierre emergences—multiple ships!”
“How many contacts?” Anderson snapped, visibly dropping into his old tactical officer role before restraining himself and allowing his replacement, Lieutenant Commander Jessica Xue, to continue her report.
“We are refining and confirming with the system net,” the black-haired woman told her seniors. “I have eight contacts, all in the twelve-million-ton range. We’ll resolve volume as they get closer.”
“Older ships,” the XO murmured aloud.
“Any radio IFF or Q-Com arrival alerts?” Kyle asked Xue directly. Friendly ships would normally send an alert ahead via the quantum entanglement communicators available on any starship.
“Negative, sir,” she replied crisply. A moment later, the flashing questionable contacts on the tactical plot turned to bright red. “Flag has designated them as potential hostiles, Bogies One through Eight.”
“Any orders from the Admiral?” he asked, turning to the communication officer on duty.
“Vice Commodore Stanford is running the CSP with two squadrons of Falcons, sir,” Anderson pointed out. “Shall I have him set up for a scouting intercept and take the ship to battle stations?”
Kyle smiled. Avalon’s Commander, Air Group should have known better, but it would work. “They’re still several hours from anything but extreme missile range, Commander,” he said quietly. “Send the CAG out for a high-speed scouting pass. You can bring the ship to Condition Two, but I think battle stations aren’t needed yet.”
The absolutely filthy look Commander James Anderson gave his Captain in response to that order told Kyle his XO had finally worked it out. Like a good soldier, though, the pale Commander, as redheaded as his Captain, shook his head to clear his thoughts and dropped into his neural link to give the orders.
12:20 February 20, 2736 ESMDT
SFG-001 Actual—Falcon-C type command starfighter
Vice Commodore Michael Stanford, Commander, Air Group of the space carrier Avalon and commanding officer of Starfighter Group Zero Zero One, knew exactly what sneaky-rat game was being played.
Since that sneaky rat wore admiral’s stars, however, the CAG had smiled, saluted, and promptly rewritten the schedule to put himself in charge of the sixteen starfighters and forty-seven other people in the two squadrons making up today’s Carrier Space Patrol. Just in case.
“All right people, we have eight unknowns coming in a slow trajectory, and the Old Man wants us to make a sweep and see who they are,” he told them. “We’re going to play it nice and careful, and that makes that sweep at half a million klicks and as high a delta-v as we can turn between here and there. We are not—I repeat, not—going to try and take on eight starships with sixteen starfighters. You get me, ladies and gentlemen?”
A series of acknowledgements came back and the Vice Commodore smiled grimly. He might have his suspicions about this whole affair, but either way, his people were going to put on a good show and come back alive.
“One point six light-minutes and counting, people,” he told them. “Go.”
Any sense of acceleration would have suggested imminent failure of the six-thousand-ton starfighter’s mass manipulators, but Michael Stanford was linked into his Falcon’s computers via his own neural inputs. In a very real sense, the pilot was the little ship.
And he accelerated toward the potential enemy at five hundred times the gravity of humanity’s ancient home.
Forty-five minutes later, Michael’s squadrons were pushing six and a half percent of lightspeed relative to their targets and watching as the starships spread out into an anti-fighter formation. The formation was a bog-standard one, used by every force that had encountered starfighters repeatedly, that cleared everyone’s lines of fire.
No clue there as to the strangers’ identity. Sensor reports from his fighters were filtering back in, combining to give him a somewhat more detailed image of the ships. All eight were roughly the same mass and cubage, the roughly twelve million tons and thirty million cubic meters of the capital ships of a decade and more ago.
“Everyone go full active with sensors at our closest approach,” he ordered. “Radar, lidar, light them up and give me targeting solutions we can feed the Battle Group missiles.”
His starfighters carried blocks of quantum-entangled particles linked back to a switchboard facility in the Castle system. Since Avalon carried almost identical blocks, any message they sent via the quantum-entanglement communicators would reach her in fractions of a second, the longest delay being the length of the fiber-optic cables back home. Data Stanford fed Battle Group Seventeen could be used for immediate missile launches.
Normally, this kind of scouting was the job of automated probes, which was part of why the CAG figured his people had to have smelt the rat by now.
“Pulsing sensors…now,” his engineer reported. The starfighter shivered slightly as it unleashed enough energy to strip paint at close range, and Russell waited patiently for the beams to hit their targets and rebound.
His fighters were four seconds past their closest approach as the data came in and the computers began to crunch it. The Vice Commodore ran over it with a practiced eye. Two battleships, two carriers, four cruisers…no fighters launched except a defensive patrol—yet.
Then his computer pinged happily and dropped class identifiers onto every ship on the display. The carriers were both Ursine-class and the battleships were Hammer-class. Both of which were fifteen-year-old Castle Federation designs.
The cruisers were a mix, one Last Stand–class battlecruiser—another Federation ship—accompanied two Fearless-class Star Kingdom of Phoenix ships and a single Rameses-class Coraline Imperium strike cruiser.
Every last one of the eight warships was a starship of a member state of the Alliance of Free Stars, and as Michael watched, IFF and Q-Com arrival codes suddenly began transmitting. His computer happily changed all of the icons to green in front of his mental “eyes” and tagged each ship in turn with its name and hull number.
With a grunt, the Vice Commodore opened a direct link to Captain Roberts.
“They’re friendlies, Captain,” he said in a gracefully calm voice. “Looks like the Horus and a few friends from home.”
“That’s good to hear,” Roberts replied, his voice far too level for the stunt he’d just pulled on his crew and fighters. “It’s always nice to have friends this close to the front.”
“You realize we fooled absolutely no one, right?”
13:10 February 20, 2736 ESMDT
DSC-078 Avalon, Bridge
Kyle grinned as he received Vice Commodore Stanford’s…eloquent description of the other man’s opinion of the trick Admiral Alstairs and her Captains had agreed to pull. He took a moment to check that it was a direct, private link—there was a lot he’d put up with from the older hands and his senior officers in private—and then let the Commodore vent. In four languages.
He hadn’t even known Stanford spoke French.
“You should have at least told me, sir,” Anderson said quietly from next to his command chair. “As the exec, I should be aware of exercises like this.”
Kyle raised an eyebrow at the younger man and gestured him closer. Activating the privacy screen around his chair, he rotated to meet Anderson’s eyes.
“James, you were included on the memo Admiral Alstairs sent out,” he pointed out calmly. “All of the captains and XOs were. I know we get a lot of email, even sitting in orbit like this, and even with neural implants, it takes time to go through it all. But”—he raised a finger— “it’s your job to be on top of things. You should be bringing plans like that to my attention, not the other way around.”
Anderson looked embarrassed.
“With Solace gone, I’ve been playing catch-up since I took over,” he admitted. “My mail has not been near the top of my priorities.”
“I understand that,” Kyle told him. “And I should have realized you were that under water and backstopped you without you asking. Honestly, I’m glad we saw this now, not when a Commonwealth battle group came out of Alcubierre.”
A light flashed on his console, informing him that the Admiral was sending out an all-ships message.
“We’ll resume this,” he promised Anderson. “We both clearly still have some work to do!”
He dropped the privacy shield and looked over at the com officer.
“Put the Admiral in the ‘tank, Lieutenant Carter,” he ordered.
Rear Admiral Miriam Alstairs’ image appeared in the middle of the bridge’s main holographic display tank. Every officer in the room was linked into the computers via neural implants, but the Castle Federation Space Navy had long ago realized that a visual display was the best way to be sure everyone saw it.
“Ladies, gentlemen, as I’m sure you’re now aware,” she noted with a wicked grin that looked…incongruous… on the slim and graying older woman, “our reinforcements have arrived. I am inviting all captains, executive officers, and CAGs to report aboard Camerone for a working dinner this evening.
“I have our orders from Alliance High Command,” Alstairs told them, “and I want all of your impressions of them—new captains and old alike. Nineteen hundred hours ESMDT, people. Undress uniforms—like I said, this is a working dinner.”
The image faded, and Kyle glanced over at his XO.
“Arrange a shuttle, James,” he ordered. “It seems we and Stanford are invited to the Admiral’s party.”
19:00 February 20, 2736 ESMDT
BC-129 Camerone, Deck Two Officers’ Lounge
Captain Mira Solace, commander of the battlecruiser Camerone, was distracted to the Void and back again. She’d had several days’ notice of the Rear Admiral’s intent to host all of her newly expanded force’s senior officers, but it was also the first time she’d held complete responsibility for such an event.
Everything needed to go off perfectly. So far, it seemed to be going well. The two Imperial Lord Captains—Hendrick Anders from Gravitas and the newly arrived Ingolf Benn from Rameses—had been first to arrive. Their XOs and CAGs had found the buffet, but Anders and Benn formed a perfectly matched glowering pair of blond giants in one corner.
Anders had mellowed since the early days of Battle Group Seventeen. That seemed to have brought him down, roughly, to the new Captain’s level of discontent with a Federation officer being in charge of the force.
As she scanned the room, six officers, all women, four in the dark-blue tailed jackets of the Royal Phoenix Navy and two in the dark burgundy jackets of the Royal Phoenix Space Force, entered. The senior officers of Indomitable and Courageous—fully half of the Royal Navy’s reserve ships—looked uniformly young. Like the Federation, it seemed that the Star Kingdom of Phoenix had dug deep into its junior ranks to find worthwhile officers for its re-commissioned reserve.
Admiral Alstairs was waiting for the Phoenix officers, cheerfully greeting each of them in turn as Mira matched their faces to the records in her implant, and then glanced past them to where her XO was guiding in a group of Federation officers from the new ships.
When the flag captain turned her attention back to the Admiral, the older woman was gone. Mira had a spasm of panic, glancing around for her boss, when a gentle hand fell on her shoulder.
“Breathe, Captain,” Miriam Alstairs told her softly. “You’ve done a good job, and your people have the matter in hand. Nothing is going to fall apart if you have a glass of wine and appetizer while the guests arrive. It is, after all, my party, not yours.”
“Yes, sir,” Mira said automatically, and Alstairs chuckled at her.
“Mira, Avalon’s officers have just arrived,” the Admiral pointed out. “I am no fan, I must remind you, of impropriety—and I think it would be most improper if you didn’t sneak your boyfriend into a side corridor for a solid kiss.”
Mira flushed, turning to meet the Admiral’s gaze—and realizing that Alstairs was wearing what was getting to be a very familiar wicked grin. She hadn’t thought the Admiral was even aware of her relationship with Kyle.
“I’m neither that old nor that blind, Captain,” Alstairs told her with a wink. “Shoo. Enjoy my party. Believe me that I’ll have work for you later,” she finished, suddenly entirely serious again. “This many senior brains in one room definitely has value to me.”