A heroic Captain denied command
A battered but relentless enemy
A covert operation to strike at the heart of an unstoppable foe!
Captain Kyle Roberts has commanded the carrier Avalon through the most vicious battles of the war against the Terran Commonwealth—but with Avalon in for repair, his political enemies deny him a new ship.
Unwilling to accept a desk, he takes command of a covert operation using a captured Commonwealth warship to strike at the very heart of their enemy, drawing away the reinforcements that could destroy the Alliance’s recent gains.
But the spies who planned the operation have secrets they haven’t shared. Their allies have their own agendas—and the Commonwealth has surprises of its own!
10:00 April 25, 2736 Earth Standard Meridian Date/Time
Orbital Dry Dock Merlin Four
Captain Kyle Roberts of the Castle Federation Space Navy paused in the transfer tube to take one last look at Avalon. He’d commanded the big carrier for four months and ten days and was now handing her back into the hands of the same yards he’d received her from.
Despite her immense bulk, battle damage was clearly visible on her outer hull. They’d covered the most egregious of holes before making the two-week flight home from the front, but given the amount of damage the supercarrier had taken, many smaller ones were still visible. It would be months before the ship could fight again, but she’d done her builders proud in managing to come home at all.
The other man sharing the transit tube with the immense red-haired Captain coughed slightly.
“I hate to rush you, sir, but we are the last ones off and the yard wants to commence the atmosphere purge immediately,” Fleet Commander James Anderson, no longer his executive officer as of twenty minutes earlier, told him. The slim man shared his former Captain’s height and dark red hair but lacked the senior officer’s sheer bulk.
“They completed the life-form scan?” Kyle asked softly. Last he’d checked, there were three cats officially assigned to the carrier and they wouldn’t necessarily follow orders to leave.
“They have,” Anderson confirmed. “Thermals and internal scanners show nothing aboard; they could probably skip the purge.”
Part of the purpose of removing the entire atmosphere from the warship was to deal with the inevitable rats and cockroaches and other vermin that inevitably ended up aboard any human spaceship. It was part of any ship’s annual maintenance—the maintenance Kyle’s ship was eight months early for.
Hopefully concealing his misgivings from Anderson, Kyle nodded and continued down the tube. His neural implant was still linked into Avalon’s command net, and the ship calmly informed him as it continued shutting down system after system.
Reaching the end of the tube, Kyle sent one final series of commands to his ship to finish shutting down everything, and then handed over control to Merlin Four’s central systems. The sudden silence in his head gave him pause: the ceremonies had been almost half an hour earlier, but now was when he truly ceased to be Avalon’s Captain.
“Where are you being sent?” he asked his former XO as they stepped into the station itself, both officers trading salutes with the Marines guarding the access. With Avalon estimated to be in repairs for as long as she’d been in service, a Federation at war couldn’t afford to let her crew sit around waiting for her to deploy again.
“Alexander, as her senior tactical officer,” Anderson replied. “She’s one of the new Conqueror-class battlecruisers—I’m pretty sure everyone thinks I need more seasoning before giving me my third circle!”
Kyle nodded silently. He’d recommended that Anderson pick up the third gold circle of a Senior Fleet Commander and be given the executive officer slot on an older, smaller ship. While experience as a department head on the Castle Federation’s newest battlecruisers wouldn’t hurt the junior man, the lack of promotion was telling as to the weight Kyle’s recommendations were getting.
“Yourself?” his former XO asked. “Which ship are they giving you?”
The big Captain smiled mirthlessly.
“You’ll recall that I got the battle group ripped to pieces,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if I’m getting a new command. My only orders are to meet Admiral Kane in an office in the transient officers’ section of the station. Where I go from there?” He shrugged. Vice Admiral Mohammed Kane was the head of the Castle Federation’s Joint Department of Personnel, and Kyle was a little surprised to be meeting with the man in person. “I will go where the Federation sends me.”
“Anyone else wouldn’t have done nearly as well,” Anderson said confidently. “They’ll have a command deck waiting for you, boss. They’d be mad not to.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, James,” Kyle told him. “But we both know the Navy isn’t always the most…logical of institutions.”
Stopping at the bank of elevators that would carry each of them to their destinations, Anderson drew himself up to attention and saluted crisply.
“You’ll see, sir,” he said, still voicing a confidence Kyle didn’t share. “Good luck.”
“Alexander’s tactical department doesn’t know how lucky they are,” Kyle replied. “Good luck, Commander Anderson.”
Kyle’s elevator stopped at the level for transient officers’ quarters aboard Merlin Four—a space where officers between ships could lay their heads and use the offices to do their admin work. Before he could leave the plain metal box to head to his appointment, however, a strange man barged into the elevator and tapped a trio of commands into the console.
“That was my stop,” Kyle objected, stepping forward to lean over the man. The stranger was a bald older man with a gauzy white goatee and faint liver spots, significantly shorter and skinnier than the immense Navy Captain.
“It was,” he agreed with Kyle calmly. “Of course, there were also three well-paid young men waiting to kill you in what I’m sure would have been very convincingly a mugging gone wrong. So, would you rather be late for your appointment with Admiral Kane, Captain Roberts, or never make it?”
“I…find that difficult to believe,” Kyle said slowly. He didn’t, sadly. One of the officers assigned to Avalon when she’d left Castle had also tried to kill him. He was also aware he had enemies, even if he hadn’t expected them to try and kill them here.
“I’ll deliver you to Admiral Kane intact, Captain; don’t you worry,” the stranger told him. The commands he’d punched into the elevator appeared to be moving the vehicle—a pod with far more travel options than the simple title of elevator suggested—to a stop Kyle hadn’t known existed. “But I also need a few minutes of your time for a brief I can’t give you on the record.”
“On the record? Who are you?” Kyle demanded.
“You can call me Mister Glass,” Glass replied. “I’m with Federation Intelligence, Covert Ops Division. Aside from anything else, we owe you more of an explanation than Kane will be able to give you.”
“An explanation for what?” the Captain asked, feeling more than a little lost in the conversation.
Glass sighed and gestured out the door as the elevator stopped again.
“This access isn’t available to anyone with normal routing privileges,” he said, avoiding the question. “We’re closer to the Admiral’s office and you were early. Give me ten minutes of your time, Captain Roberts. I won’t say you won’t regret it—I can’t promise that—but it will be informative.”
Kyle looked at the man for a long moment, instructing his neural implant to try to confirm anything about the stranger. Linked into the station’s systems, his implant should be able to identify any member of the Federation armed forces, though a Covert Ops officer would likely not show up.
Instead of a name, a rank, or indeed any actual information, his implant brought up only an authentication code showing that it did recognize Glass, along with a note that Navy officers should provide the man with any requested assistance.
If the man was telling the truth, he might have just saved Kyle’s life—and if nothing else, the evidence Kyle had was that Glass was exactly what he said he was.
“Lead on, Mister Glass,” he instructed with a sigh.
Glass led the way to one of the offices in a row full of them. Nothing distinguished this office from the other twelve in the corridor other than that it opened to a silent command from the intelligence agent’s neural implant and let them in.
With over ten years in the Castle Federation’s military, Kyle was thoroughly familiar with the standard layout of the office: one semi-comfortable swivel chair behind the plain metal desk and two uncomfortable folding chairs in front of it. One wall was a screen, easily linked to a neural implant or a tablet. The other was some form of decoration; on Merlin Four, all of them had the formal seal of the Castle Federation stenciled onto the wall, a stylized castle inside a circle of fourteen stars.
“Take a seat, Captain,” Glass told him as he grabbed the swivel chair and rolled it out so the desk wasn’t between them. “I contacted Admiral Kane on our way over, he’ll meet us here in twenty minutes.”
Surprised that the head of the Navy’s personnel would adjust his plans at anyone’s request, Kyle looked at the other man askance as he took a seat. Glass might be presenting himself as “just” a Covert Ops agent, but there was definitely more going on.
“I’ll start with the simple,” the spy continued. “As I suspect you’ve worked out, you’re not getting a ship. What you may not have realized is that you’re not getting Avalon back when she’s repaired, either. You have been unofficially beached.”
Kyle swallowed hard. He’d screwed up in the Huī Xing system—faced with a prison camp containing over a hundred thousand Alliance prisoners of war, he’d changed the plan and attacked the system rather than simply acting as a distraction. He’d freed the POWs, but Avalon, scheduled for six months of repairs, was the most intact unit of the four-ship battle group he’d taken in.
“I didn’t expect the fallout from Huī Xing to be that bad,” he said quietly.
“It isn’t,” Glass replied. “That’s the explanation I’m going to give you that Kane can’t: he has to tell you we think you’d be more valuable in a testing or educational role. I can tell you that’s bullshit.
“The Joint Chiefs are frankly impressed with what you did, and you handed us one hell of a diplomatic coup when it comes to dealing with the rest of the Alliance. You’re nowhere near ready for your first star, but in a rational universe, you’d be taking command of Alexander or Paradiso and heading back out to the front.”
Paradiso was a Sanctuary-class supercarrier, Avalon’s slightly newer sister that Kyle recalled as being due to commission in just a few weeks. Despite Huī Xing, the older man seemed to think that Kyle still belonged in command of one of the Federation’s best ships. If the Joint Chiefs agreed with him, then why…
“The problem, Captain Roberts, is that despite his best efforts, Senator Joseph Randall hasn’t found any way to get his son out of prison, and he blames you,” Glass said bluntly. “Castle’s Senator, for all his many and grotesque flaws, is also proving to be one of the best wartime industrial leaders the Federation has ever seen. He knows how to talk to our industrial people and where the bodies are buried—some of the quiet estimates I’ve seen are that Randall’s involvement alone has boosted our war materiel production by at least ten percent.”
And Kyle Roberts had all but personally put said son, James Randall, behind bars for rape, theft, and treason.
Theoretically, the Castle Federation’s thirteen-person Senate was a co-equal executive. In practice, the Senator for Castle was just a bit more equal than others. Combined with the kind of impact on the war effort that Glass was talking about, Randall could get away with a lot.
“The fact that he outright demanded you be beached is going to bite him in the ass,” the spy noted, “but for the moment, bluntly, the Joint Chiefs have chosen the best wartime leader we’ve ever had over one Navy Captain, however competent.
“I presume, though I have no evidence, as there are some very skilled middlemen involved, that Randall hired the gentlemen who planned on prematurely ending your career,” he continued. “You have earned the undying hatred of the most powerful man in the Castle Federation—arguably the second most powerful man in the Alliance.”
No elected official, after all, could ever compare to the direct power wielded by the Imperator of Castle’s largest ally, the Coraline Imperium.
“So I’m…what, just done?” Kyle asked. Glass was very calm as he laid out the destruction of Kyle’s career because he’d seen a criminal arrested and punished.
“No,” the spy disagreed. “Kane has several offers he intends to lay before you—the situation is enough of a mess that you get your choice of assignment…so long as it isn’t a starship command.”
“I was a starfighter pilot,” Kyle said slowly. “I sacrificed even my ability to do that to the service.” A near miss had left him with a radiation-induced cased of neural scarification induced implant degradation, NSIID. He’d gone from the top point two percent of the human race in his ability to interface with computers through his neural implant to “above average.”
“I took a transfer so I could keep fighting,” he continued, getting angrier as he spoke. He could yell at Glass since the man hadn’t given him a rank. He couldn’t yell at Vice Admiral Kane. “I’ve fought well—damn well, even if Huī Xing was Pyrrhic at best. This is what the Navy gives me in exchange? Beached without trial, without appeal?”
“It’s a stinking heap of bullshit and I won’t tell you otherwise,” Glass said flatly. “But while I don’t like it any better than you do, it’s hard to argue with the Joint Chief’s logic. Randall’s contributions could easily give us an extra carrier by December. You’re good, Kyle, but I’m not sure you’re an extra-carrier-in-the-line-of-battle good.”
“So, other than giving me a chance to get angry before I talk to the Admiral, was there a reason for this conversation?” Kyle demanded.
“Yes. Kane will have his options for you, but as I said, none of them are starship commands,” the spy said. “I have another option.”
“And it’s a starship command?” Kyle asked carefully, trying not to let his anger lead him into an instant yes.
“I can’t say more, not yet,” Glass told him, “but yes. It’s a critical mission, one that could turn the tide of the war. It’s black, it’s covert, I need the best damn warship commander I can find and I don’t answer to the Joint Chiefs.”
Kyle thought about it for a moment. It was true there was probably value he could provide at a desk job, but he was a combat officer.
“I’m in,” he said flatly.
“Listen to Kane’s offers before you make up your mind,” Glass told him. “But he knows I’m making this one as well. If you’re still sure once you’ve spoken to him, tell him you’re taking my offer.”
An admittance chime buzzed.
“And that’s my cue to leave, and the good Admiral’s turn to pitch,” the spy said calmly. “Hear him out, Captain, but I’ll be honest: I expect to be seeing you shortly.”