A helpless ally calls for aid
A ruthless enemy strikes without mercy
The fate of empires turns on even the smallest actions
When a minor trade partner sends the Castle Federation a desperate call for aid, they have few resources to spare from their all-consuming war against the Terran Commonwealth. Unwilling to be seen failing their allies but able to spare only a tiny force, Castle sends a hero to command the task group: Captain Kyle Roberts, the Stellar Fox.
Beyond the Rimward frontier of the Federation and its allies, little is as it seems. The pirates are being armed by an outside force, and the politics of these worlds is made deadlier by their poverty. When the Coraline Imperium—the Federation’s oft-difficult ally—sends forces as well, it risks a conflict that could undermine the Alliance protecting them both.
There are deeper games afoot as local schemes play the great powers against each other. Captain Roberts is caught in the chaos as fire and blood explode across the region. There is only one certainty: these Rimward Stars must not fall.
14:00 September 10, 2736 Earth Standard Meridian Date/Time
The cruiser was doomed.
The Antioch Space Navy’s only battlecruiser was more modern than Commodore James Tecumseh of the Terran Commonwealth Navy had expected, but it didn’t appear that either the ship’s capability nor her crew’s clear competence was going to change anything.
The convoy she was supposed to protect was in no better shape. Tecumseh’s own Poseidon and Chariot had opened the dance with a salvo of capital ship missiles that had wiped away the ASN’s old starfighters in a beautiful and terrible choreographed dance of antimatter explosions.
Now the two TCN ships hung back out of sensor range of their enemies, watching as the pirates they’d armed and enabled swooped in at the older cruiser. Twelve ships, each barely a tenth of the battlecruiser size, burned toward her at two hundred and fifty gravities—and missiles led the way.
Those were modern missiles, too. Commonwealth-built Stormwind capital ship missiles, delivered into the pirates’ hands by one Commodore James Tecumseh.
James stood on Poseidon’s flag deck and tried not to feel a black stain sink across his soul. He was four hundred light-years from home, on the far side of the Rimward Marches his commander was charged to annex for the Commonwealth, attacking civilian shipping as a distraction.
“Lieutenant Amoto,” he summoned his communications officer. “Inform Colonel Barbados that he is to deploy his assault shuttles to board any ship that appears to be escaping Coati’s raiders.”
“Yes, Commodore,” the young man, a dark-skinned native of Earth’s Japanese islands, replied. He paused. “What about Crusader?”
James shook his head, the black braid hanging down the back of his neck swinging heavily.
“Coati’s ships are unconventional, but with our missiles and those Federation fighters they’ve somehow acquired, Crusader has no chance,” the Amerindian Commodore told the junior officer. “Pass the orders.”
He turned his attention back to the main holotank, using his neural implant to layer in more detail than the tank could display. “Commodore Coati” had twelve ships, a strange hybrid of sublight gunship and Alcubierre-drive warship that needed at least four of them to merge together and go FTL.
The missiles kept the cruiser occupied, her defensive lasers and positron lances lashing out into space as she tried to thread the fine line between trying to protect her charges and protecting herself, but with twelve different ships, all faster than she was, it was only a matter of time.
The only saving grace James could see was that his orders strongly opposed revealing his task group to any ship with an active q-com—so he didn’t need to participate in the murder of a crew defending their citizens himself.
The dozen pirate ships spread wide as they closed with Crusader, starfighters filling the gaps as they formed a wall of ships that covered any escape route for both the cruiser and her freighter charges. The raiders didn’t carry many missiles launchers, however, and the cruiser managed to shoot down every missile they threw at her as they closed.
The raiders and Crusader carried much the same class of positron lance…and the raiders were smaller and had more modern electromagnetic deflectors to shunt aside the beams of charged antimatter. They had almost a hundred-thousand-kilometer range advantage.
James mentally saluted Crusader’s crew as they managed to survive the first salvo of beams, half-megaton-a-second lances cutting through space to miss the old ship as she danced in the fire. The cruiser lashed out with her own beams—and not at the raider ships.
The pirate starfighters had “known” they were out of range of Crusader’s anti-fighter beams and had only been following cursory evasion patterns. They were not out of range of the battlecruiser’s main lances, however, and the ASN crew had dialed the fighters in perfectly.
Thirty-six pirate starfighters died in a perfectly timed set of fireballs…but Crusader didn’t get a second shot. Three quarters of the heavy beams from the raiders slammed home after a moment of adjustments, streams of antimatter converting the battlecruiser’s armor and hull into pure energy.
Nothing humanity had ever built could withstand a positron lance for long, let alone multiple capital-ship-grade positron lances. Crusader gutted the pirate’s fighter strength before she died, but she died nonetheless…and it wasn’t starfighters Coati would be using to capture the freighters.
There were four of those ships, the convoy representing easily ten percent of Antioch’s gross system product. Three of Coati’s raider ships went after each of them, but James and his people were running the vectors, and it seemed that Crusader’s sacrifice had served a purpose after all.
James felt as much as heard a new presence on his neural net as Poseidon’s commander reached out to him. Commodore Daryush Sherazi was James’s subordinate by virtue of seniority and Marshal Walkingstick’s orders, but he’d caused less trouble than James had expected for all that.
“Daryush,” he mentally greeted the presence in the net.
“Commodore Tecumseh,” the junior man replied. “Target Four is going to evade Coati’s people. Should we move to intercept?”
James studied the display.
“Colonel Barbados has four shuttles in position,” he noted calmly. “They’ll intercept without problems.”
He felt Sherazi shake his head.
“I suspect they’ll be happier to be boarded by Barbados than Coati,” Poseidon’s CO said softly. “The only intercept we can pull on any of them is with missiles, and by God, sir, I’m tempted.”
“I don’t like Coati either, Daryush,” James pointed out, “but there’s no reason to think he’s going to be worse than our people. And either way, Barbados will have at least a platoon on each of those ships.”
That platoon wouldn’t be recognizably Terran Marines, but they would at least be more professional than Coati’s pirates.
“I’ve cleaned up after too many pirates for this to sit comfortably,” Sherazi admitted.
“Belay that, Commodore,” James said firmly. “Even between us, that needs to stay in our own heads, clear? The crews dislike this op enough without us undermining their morale.”
“Yes, sir,” the other man said crisply. “Still got a bad feeling about this.”
“Me too,” James admitted. “But we have our orders.”
James watched in silence as the convoy tried to run for Antakya, Antioch’s inhabited planet. There were enough starfighters, missile platforms and gunships in orbit of Antakya that Coati’s raiders wouldn’t risk approaching too close, though the Terran task group could have smashed their way in with ease.
If any of the freighters made it to Antakya, they’d be safe. None of them were going to.
The same attachments and grappling gear that allowed Coati’s raiders to latch onto each other to generate an Alcubierre-Stetson drive field worked perfectly for latching onto and boarding their natural prey. With a hundred-and-fifty-gravity advantage in acceleration, matching velocities was straightforward and the raiders latched onto the fleeing freighters three at a time.
The other freighter would have made it; her vector and the raiders’ were sufficiently far apart that she should have been able to loop into Antakya orbit before the raiders could do more than launch a missile at her—except that Colonel Barbados’s shuttles had been quietly moving out to block any escape. An even dozen of those shuttles intercepted the last freighter, slamming into her hull with bone-crushing force to disgorge their payloads of armored Marines.
Other shuttles joined the raiders, a carefully allocated balance putting at least sixty power-armored soldiers in the middle of each boarding action, and James Tecumseh waited to see how the consequences of Coati’s victory played out.
The boarding actions had been underway for less than a minute when Barbados commed him.
“Target Four is secure,” the Colonel told him, his voice tense. “We demanded their surrender in exchange for their lives, and they were most cooperative.”
“The others?” James asked.
“We arrived after Coati’s people,” the Marine said shortly. “There is active fighting on all three ships, though my people haven’t engaged yet. Everyone we’ve run into has surrendered.”
That wasn’t a good sign. There were q-coms—quantum entanglement communicators linked back to switchboards in Commonwealth space—aboard the Marine assault shuttles, though the Marines had to communicate with the shuttles themselves via radio. The pirates had no such luxuries, which meant that Barbados almost certainly had a better idea of what was going on than Coati did.
If everyone the Marines, notably more professional if hopefully not overtly soldiers, ran into surrendered…then Coati’s people weren’t even asking for surrenders.
“Move your people in deeper and take prisoners as you can,” James ordered. “This could go very wrong very fast.”
“I’m afraid it’s already going wrong,” his Marine CO replied. “How far do we go, sir?”
He winced as he processed Barbados’s question.
“You don’t have enough people aboard those ships to start a fight with our allies,” he told the other man gently. “Do what you can…but your people’s safety has to be the priority.”
The channel was silent for a long time.
“That was an order, Colonel,” he finally added.
“Yes, Commodore,” Barbados said flatly. “I understand.”