An enemy on the run to neutral space
An elite squadron beyond the reach of any backup
A secret deal that could doom the whole sector…
When United Planets Alliance Captain Henry Wong and Ambassador Sylvia Todorovich attempted to bring peace to the Ra Sector, they turned to the Drifters for neutral ground. Instead, the nomadic spacers betrayed the summit and attempted to kill everyone there.
With peace forged despite the Drifters’ betrayal, Henry and Sylvia take an elite squadron in pursuit of the Drifter Convoy. Their enemies have friends at every turn, neutral worlds who will give them shelter—and if the UPA breaches that neutrality, everything Henry and Sylvia have worked for could crash down in flames.
If the UPA is to keep the peace in the stars of a fallen empire, their diplomats must be untouchable, their honor unblemished. But as Henry’s superiors prepare for all-out war, his ships fly ever closer to a deadly trap laid by an enemy that knows them all too well…
Ten years of peacetime military service. Seventeen long years of bloody interstellar conflict. Three years of the chaotic mess that was “peacekeeping” after the fall of a galactic empire.
After all of that, Commodore Henry Wong of the United Planets had been reasonably sure he’d seen just about everything the galaxy could show him. That, of course, meant it was time for the universe to show him how wrong he was.
“Please tell me we have the cycle of that thing locked in,” the tall Chinese-American officer asked his staff as he watched a pulsar rotate on the main screen. Paladin’s builders had chosen to keep holograms off the main working spaces of the warship as a stability concern.
“We will have more than enough warning to adjust our course if it starts swinging toward us,” Georgina Eowyn told him with a soft chuckle. The sturdily built blonde officer ran his Operations department, which made her the senior person on Henry’s abbreviated staff.
“And what happens if the beam actually hits one of the destroyers?” Henry asked.
He knew the answer. His three ships were the first Cataphract-class destroyers the United Planets Alliance had ever commissioned, and the unique technology providing their propulsion augmented their defensive gravity shields.
“If we screw up badly enough that the electromagnetic radiation beam of a pulsar is pointed at one of our ships, that ship will be vaporized instantly,” Eowyn confirmed. “But that seems unlikely. We are following a trail, after all.”
Henry nodded his acknowledgement and returned his focus to the main screen. Over five hundred starships had made their transit through this system at some time in the past, which suggested it was reasonably safe for him to bring three ships through.
Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Seven was badly understrength, with only three of the new Cataphracts instead of the six ships Henry should have, but older ships couldn’t keep up.
“Anything on the scanners showing where the Convoy was?” he asked.
“Not yet, but we’re only just getting the Very Large Array up,” Eowyn told him. “Less than ten percent of the drones are in position.”
The Very Large Array was a standard tool for expanding their sensor view. Three destroyers could only see so much, but by deploying another dozen or so drones per ship, they could create a massive virtual telescope that would dramatically augment their vision.
Once it was all set up, Henry Wong and his people would be able to track where the Blue Stripe Green Stripe Orange Stripe Drifter Convoy had gone—and hopefully get one step closer to bringing to justice the people who’d betrayed a peace conference.
Paladin, Cataphract and Maharatha were something new in the galaxy, so far as Henry knew. The United Planets Alliance had developed gravity shields before they’d ever met the Kenmiri Empire that had dominated their arm of the Milky Way, but even their ships had been propelled by the age-old solution of firing high-energy particles out one end.
Gravitic technology allowed the UPA, the Kenmiri, and the various races that had rebelled against the Kenmiri to accelerate at rates that should have liquefied their crews, but the fundamental Newtonian nature of propulsion had been fixed.
Until now. Now Henry’s three ships slipped through the outer void of the pulsar system designated Ra-206 without so much as a flare of exhaust. Carefully controlled and manipulated gravity wells allowed the destroyers to “fall” toward their destination at up to three kilometers per second squared.
The gravitational maneuvering system rendered Henry’s command the most maneuverable warships in space, which gave him some confidence as he watched the pulsar rotate again, its unimaginably powerful beams of radiation slicing through space like immense blades.
“We’ve got the trail on scanners,” Eowyn reported. “It took us longer than I’d like, but the background radiation here is wonky.”
“Is that a technical term, Commander?” Henry asked drily.
“Very much so, Commodore,” she confirmed. “Trail is on screen.”
He nodded and turned to the tactical display. The Drifter Convoy they were chasing consisted of hundreds of starships carrying millions of people, a nomadic interstellar nation with a powerful self-defense fleet and mobile industrial nodes.
It was hard to conceal the passing of a flotilla of that scale, but his prey had done a good job. It was taking longer to chase them down than he’d hoped, and he was running up against hard deadlines from the laws of physics.
The particulate trail of a fusion drive was only detectable for so long, after all.
But it hadn’t dissipated yet. A red line, marked with the three letters BGO, crossed the tactical display.
“I assume we don’t know where they skipped out yet,” he said. Part of the problem with following BGO was that it was impossible to estimate where someone would come out of a skip line. They knew which star system a skip line directed toward, but that still left a zone roughly a light-day long and a light-hour across in which their target could have emerged.
“Not yet,” Eowyn confirmed. “We’ll need to follow the trail for a bit.”
“As expected.” Henry studied the display for a moment more, then tapped a sequence of commands on the arm of his seat. His other staff officer, Commander Chan Rong, was supposed to handle his coms.
They were off-duty at the moment, however, and the tiny flag bridge squeezed into a spare corner of the small warship didn’t have much space for excess personnel. Henry’s entire staff was only eleven people—he was perfectly capable of handling his own in-squadron coms.
“Captains,” he addressed the three officers his commands connected him to. “I presume you all have been updated on what we’re seeing of the Convoy’s trail?”
“Yes, ser,” his Lieutenant Colonels chorused. All three of them were too young, in the considered opinion of Henry’s five decades, but that was life.
He knew Okafor Ihejirika, Paladin’s CO, of old. The big Black African officer had served as Tactical officer on Henry’s last command, the battlecruiser Raven.
Captain Aoife Palmer—Captain was a title instead of a rank in the UPSF, given to the commander of a starship along with the white collar on each of the three officers’ uniform turtleneck—was a native of Sandoval in the Procyon System. A tall and sparsely built redheaded woman, she seemed competent enough so far.
Captain Nina Teunissen was a native of the Eridani colonies founded by the Russian Novaya Imperiya. Squat and dark-haired with hawk-like features, she commanded Maharatha with a strict regimen Henry wasn’t sure he agreed with—but it seemed to work for her crew.
He’d only been in command of DesRon Twenty-Seven for a month. Even his destroyer captains were unknowns to him still. There was a lot of work before them to get the ships up to where he wanted them, even without the brand-new ships and brand-new engines.
“We’ll set our course to follow the Convoy’s with an offset of sixty thousand kilometers to preserve the trail,” Henry ordered. “We’re scanning for the end of the line, people. You know the drill.”
They’d been in deep space following BGO for two weeks now. They knew where the Convoy had been when the deal had been negotiated for them to provide support for the peace negotiations with the Kozun.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise that the Convoy had made a run for it after their betrayal of those negotiations had been revealed. Henry’s command couldn’t actually fight the Convoy—three of their Guardian capital ships had been enough to wreck his battlecruiser, after all—but once he found them, there were other forces in play to deal with the Drifters.
“One thing to note, ser,” Palmer said. “I’m comparing our position to the maps that the Kozun gave us. They didn’t include this pulsar as a skip point, but if we’re where I think we are, we’re almost in Eerdish space.”
“I know,” Henry agreed. The Kozun Hierarchy had been allies once, members of the great Vesheron rebel alliance that had overthrown the Kenmiri Empire. Then they’d been enemies, warlords trying to force other worlds into compliance with starvation and violence.
Now the Drifters’ betrayal made the Kozun allies again—and the Kozun were at war with an alliance of the Eerdish and the Enteni homeworlds.
“What do we do if they fled into Eerdish space?” Palmer asked.
“We break off the pursuit,” Henry told her bluntly. “The Eerdish and the Enteni are potential allies, even if they’re fighting the Kozun right now. In the long term, we’re more likely to get along with them than with the Hierarchy.
“They didn’t start conquering other planets, after all.”
The Kenmiri had structured their empire in complex systems of specialized worlds that limited the possibility of resistance, but the racial homeworlds had been allowed to continue in semi-autonomy.
When the Kenmiri had withdrawn, those worlds with their more-balanced economies had emerged as central powers among the specialized worlds that could either feed themselves or produce modern technology.
The Kozun had conquered another homeworld and several of the clusters of farming and industrial worlds before they’d overstretched. They’d fought the UPA over one of those clusters, and then they’d sued for peace.
“So, we lose the trail if they went into neutral space?” Ihejirika asked.
“Exactly,” Henry confirmed. “My orders are clear: we will not risk conflict with the Kozun’s enemies. Ambassador Todorovich, at my last communication, was attempting to convince the Kozun to accept our mediation in that conflict, but so long as we are allies with the Kozun, we are to avoid Eerdish or Enteni space.”
“They may have anticipated that, ser,” Palmer suggested.
“I suspect the Drifters have,” Henry admitted. “In which case the next step of our pursuit becomes political.”
In which case it became his girlfriend’s problem—because almost five years after his divorce from his husband, Henry Wong was no longer single. And his girlfriend was Ambassador Sylvia Todorovich, the woman responsible for ending the war between the La-Tar Cluster and the Kozun Hierarchy.