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 Post subject: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-06 10:19pm
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Joined: 2012-04-09 11:06pm
Posts: 1039
Hello, all. This story is completed, but I will be posting it in snippets, so as not to overload you. I heard back from Baen today, and they (while enjoying the story and the writing) do not think it meets with their needs at the present time. The editor gave me some encouraging words, however, and he asked that I continue to offer my submissions in the future; he said that he would like to see some other things from me and that I have a 'great deal of potential' ahead of me.

So, rather than let the story just sit and gather dust, I will share it with all of you here. Some of you may have already read the first section a long time ago, but it has been very heavily editted and rewritten since then. Feel free to post any comments or critiques you may have about the work itself . . . believe me, I appreciate them all. And feel free to discuss the story itself. This work of fiction is my own creation, and it is based on my own imagination. It belongs to no established sci-fi universe or storyline; it is a unique work.

I do hope that you enjoy it.

I will also be posting a Technical Appendix in a seperate thread, which I will link to this post when it is up. Be warned, the TA is quite detailed and long, but also fleshes out the universe somewhat. EDIT: here is the link to the In Harm's Way Technical Appendix; it is so long and detailed that I am just going to link to the post on Spacebattles.com, instead of posting it here as well. Feel free to ask me any questions you want in this thread.

I have gone ahead and posted the Technical Appendix here as well, on these boards. Enjoy!

And now, on with the story.

MA


Last edited by masterarminas on 2012-09-08 08:20pm, edited 3 times in total.
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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-06 10:20pm
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In Harm’s Way

An Original Work of Fiction

By

Stephen T Bynum

Chapter One

“More wine, Sir?” the steward asked as he lifted the empty plate from the spotless white linen which covered the dining table.

“No more for me, Jean-Paul,” the officer answered as he leaned back in his chair. Lifting his glass, he swirled the amber liquid within twice, and then stopped as the third person in the spacious and elegantly accoutered compartment frowned at him. “And for you, my dear?”

“After seeing you abuse your own glass, Jason? I shudder to think of what my father and brothers would say, seeing you mistreat the fruit of the grape in such a cavalier fashion,” the elegantly coifed lady replied from the far end, with a theatrical shudder of her shoulders, one covered with fine white silk, the other bare.

“My Lady, you and your illustrious family were raised in an environment that demanded an appreciation of the subtleties embedded within each flavor and taste of the wine. I, on the other hand, am but a humble officer in his Imperial Majesty’s naval service. The best that I can tell the quality of a wine is by how quickly it can get one drunk.”

“You are an actual barbarian, Admiral Chandler. But I shall endeavor to forgive you for your faults, my husband,” she said with a smile.

“And for that my dear Julia, I am most profoundly grateful.” Jason turned back to his chief steward. “I do believe that we have finished for the evening, Jean-Paul. We will ring if we need anything else.”

The steward bowed first to the Admiral, and then to the admiral’s lady, and withdrew with the empty plates from Jason’s private dining compartment.

Julia raised one eyebrow. “Rather presumptuous of you; what if I wanted something rich and delightful for dessert?”

Jason stood and walked around the table to where Julia sat, and knelt beside her. “I believe that something can be arranged to your satisfaction, my love.” And then he kissed her.

*****************************************************

Later, as the two lay in his large bed in his equally large and magnificent sleeping cabin, Julia began to giggle.

He bent his head and kissed her again on her forehead. “Was it something I said, or perhaps did, that has you so amused, love?”

Curling her body tight against his chest and belly, she brought his hand to her mouth and kissed it. “No, Jase. I was just wondering, how many Very Important People have shared this bed with you?”

“Well, most of those types are distressingly male, my dear Julia. And none of them, regardless of their exalted Imperial ranks, are you.”

He lay there holding her and drew in a deep breath. “You know, if your father had not pulled strings it would have been four months before we could have shared a bed again; if my duties in Cyralis allowed me the chance to go planet-side, that is.”

“I do not use my connections often, Jase, but for this, yes, I had Father arrange it.”

“Hail Caesar,” he whispered into her brown hair, as she began to giggle again, and then lightly struck Jason’s bare chest with her open palm.

“It is not my fault that I am his only daughter, Jason Chandler. At least he did not have you arrested as a traitor when we told him we were getting married.”

“There is that.”

For several minutes neither said a word in the darkened room.

“Father actually likes you, you know. I was surprised by that.”

“Your father is the Emperor, Julia. And I serve him in all things, save where you are concerned.”

She sighed and rested her head on Jason’s chest, her long chestnut hair covering him like a silken blanket. “And that is why he likes you, Jase. For the longest time, he was so afraid that my only suitors would be those who wanted me simply because I was his daughter; who would not actually care for me, but instead use me for their own political gain. When I told him you had proposed, he was afraid of me getting hurt, or used. But once he actually met you, he gave me his blessings.”

“Funny; he told me that I would be crucified, hung, and drawn and quartered if I ever did anything to cause you any harm.”

She sniffed. “Of course, I am Caesar’s sole daughter, after all. I get only the best of everything in life.”

“In that case, my love,” he said as he began to nibble on her earlobe, “I shall just have to prove that I am indeed the best you will ev-. . . “

A sudden loud buzz interrupted Jason in mid-sentence, in mid-nibble. He sat up and leaned over his wife to hit the receive button on the intercom.

“Report.”

“Admiral, we have intercepted an emergency transmission from the destroyer Seydlitz in the Tammoran system,” Captain Nathan Serrano, his chief of staff, replied. “She reports having discovered a Confederation base in that system; however the defenses are too heavy for her to penetrate without assistance. Sir, the message is addressed to Sector HQ, but they won’t receive the transmission for another fourteen hours. Transit time from Jouett to Tammoran is approximately thirty-six hours from the time they receive the transmission—including all recovery intervals in real-space—sixty if they send along any assault ships or support craft. Jouett may not even have the heavy forces available in-system to send and dispatch immediately; our briefing indicated that although battle squadrons assigned to Mahan Sector rotate back to Jouett for maintenance and repair at the shipyards, only a pair of cruiser squadrons are permanently based in-system to protect the provincial capital. Realistically, Sir, it might be a week or three before they can scrounge up an ad-hoc assault group from the front and redeploy them to Tammoran.”

“Distance to Tammoran, Captain?”

“Seventeen point three eight light-years. If you decide to respond to their request, it will take forty-four minutes to change vector aligning the Task Group for trans-light insertion, with a flight time of seven hours and fifty-four minutes. We can shave two hours and thirty-eight minutes from our ETA if we leave the 501st to proceed independently to Cyralis.”

Jason frowned as he considered the idea, and then shook his head. “No. I know the transports will slow us down, but I do not want to leave them unprotected; this is a front-line sector, after all. Regardless of the fact that I am his son-in-law, Caesar Nicolas would have my hide if an entire Shock Legion was jumped by raiders when I went gallivanting about with their assigned escorts.”

Nathan Serrano said nothing, but Jason could see in his mind’s eye the corner of his mouth twitching. Nathan was not the only officer aboard His Imperial Majesty’s Ship Reprisal that found the Admiral transporting his wife as ‘essential diplomatic personnel’ amusing.

“I will be on the Flag Bridge in twenty minutes, Nathan. Assemble the staff, and ask Captain Danislov to attend; by screen will be fine if he has gone off duty. And contact General Tuturola; he may appreciate the time to prepare in the event we need his troops. In the meantime, issue orders for the entire Task Group to alter course for trans-light insertion, destination Tammoran.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” the chief of staff said and then the intercom died.

Julia was already sitting up and pulling on a robe as she turned on the lights in the sleeping cabin.

“You do not have to get up, love.”

“I would not be able to sleep, Jase,” she said, giving him a beaming smile. “Besides, how often do I get you see in action? Other than in that,” she giggled, pointing to the bed.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-06 10:21pm
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Chapter One (cont.)

“Admiral on the deck!” sang out one of the two armed petty officers flanking the hatchway as Jason and his wife entered the Flag Bridge, trailed by four of the Praetorians assigned to Julia by her father. Caesar Nicolas had insisted that it was routine security, but all of the involved parties knew the real reason: many in the Empire of Humanity continued to discriminate against women involved in politics, business, or the military. Anything but being a living, breathing incubator for future generations, actually. It was a legacy of humanities first encounter with an alien race. We won that one, Jason thought, though it took us almost fifty years and over five billion lives to do so. The victory had turned even more pyrrhic afterwards; in a final spasm of fury at their loss, the Ordan-Kraal had managed to dust Old Earth and her five extra-solar colonies with a biological agent. That agent had rendered sterile over ninety percent of all living women and girls. What was worse, it altered the DNA of the survivors, making it far more difficult for the few fertile women left to conceive. Needless to say, the human race had not appreciated the parting gift and within the space of only a few decades no Ordan-Kraal remained alive anywhere in the known universe. And it had not taken any fancy biological tinkering; no, old fashioned nuclear and kinetic bombardment worked just as well, at least in making an entire race of beings extinct.

That had been four hundred years ago, at the dawn of the 22nd Century. Mankind, with an emphasis on man, had not handled the situation well. Women, fertile women, at any rate, became a commodity too precious to risk, and within a generation the need to shelter females from danger had resulted in them losing nearly all of their rights, becoming little more than property. Until the DNA virus had been finally eradicated ninety-seven years ago, women had lacked citizenship, could not own property, could not vote; they could not serve except by bearing the next generation of humanity. Thanks to the vaccine, though, more and more women were regaining their full fertility. Since wide-spread introduction of the vaccine began, the population of the Empire had nearly tripled, and with the vast increase in numbers of men and women both, the Caesars had slowly, ever so slowly, begun to restore women’s rights. It was only in the past decade they had at last regained the right to serve in the military or the government and to earn their citizenship, and with it the opportunity to cast their ballot.

Many men, even with the human population growing by leaps and bounds, still refused to treat women as equals, however. The practice had become ingrained in the social customs of humanity, this branch, at least, and some elements of society had responded badly to the change. Rape, a crime once considered so heinous it warranted the death penalty, was rapidly on the rise. Many officials in the government turned a blind eye to harassment, to persecution, even to vile criminal acts. The entire social compact of the Empire was changing, and some people hated that change with a mortal vengeance, refusing to accept it. At least, they refused until someone forced them to do so. And in Julia’s case, it would be the Praetorians her father had assigned to her that would do that forcing. Even the most misogynist of men would behave themselves when those killers fixed their icy glare upon them.

Jason shook his head, as he waved for the staff to resume their duty stations, even as they were all rising to their feet at the petty officer’s booming announcement. “As you were,” he snapped, and then lowered his voice to a whisper as leaned over towards the young spacer. “There is really no need for that every single time I step foot on this deck, Mister Roberts.”

The man blushed and mumbled, “Aye, aye, Sir.”

Jason smiled wryly, and patted the man on the upper arm as he stepped past him into the compartment. “Just don’t let it happen again.”

Scores of high-resolution screens lined the walls of the Flag Bridge, each sub-divided into dozens of individual readouts showing everything from the fuel status of each of his ships to images of the surrounding space, while spaced around the rim of the chamber were dozens of work stations, each manned with either an officer or staff NCO hand-picked for the job of keeping Jason informed with the minutiae involved in the command of an Imperial Battle Squadron.

In the very center of the compartment, a massive holo-tank projected a slowly rotating image of the Cavanaugh system with a tiny blinking dot representing the fourteen vessels under his command looking lonely and lost in its vast reaches. Cavanaugh, with its red dwarf primary, was a desolate and isolated portion of the Empire of Humanity. There were no permanent settlements; just a handful of automated mining stations among the rings of debris that served the dying cinder instead of proper planets. Above the red dwarf in the holo-projection, a second projection replaced the mostly empty space of stellar north with an expanded view of his Task Group; the ten warships of his own 342nd Battle Squadron and the four assault transports assigned to ferry the 501st. Of course, even in the expanded view, each ship was only an icon, but he could read the icons easily enough after many long years of practice.

The secondary projection centered on four Leviathan class battleships—Renown, Reprisal, Leviathan, and Vanguard. Massing thirteen point eight million tons and measuring nearly twenty-nine hundred meters in overall length; heavily armored and shielded and carrying immense batteries of plasma cannons, torpedoes, mass drivers, and orbital bombardment tubes, these heavy ships were the physical representation of the will of Caesar, serving as his voice and his fist here in the outer provinces of the Empire. Among all branches of Humanity, only the new Victory class vessels were larger, with greater mass; and few alien races could field any ships their equal. The battle-line had been forged during the Ordan-Kraal Wars when a resurgent humanity found that none of their existing ships-of-war could survive against the planetary defenses of their foe’s core worlds. Hastily built and thrown into the conflict, the pioneering Warrior class had smashed their way through a hail of tungsten penetrators, beams of coherent light, plasma bolts, and fusion warheads to break the defense shields and shatter the homeworlds of the Crabs into silent and lifeless wastelands filled with radiation and ash. More battleships (each larger and more powerful than the last) were built after the victory—because Humanity vowed to never again to stand under the threat of extinction. The Dreadnoughts, the Prinz Eugens, the Kongos, and the Washingtons had all reigned in succession, until the HIMS Leviathan (the same Leviathan that served today in Jason's squadron) was commissioned eighty-nine years ago. The Leviathans (and the new Victory class introduced just four years past) carried on the tradition established above a burning Ordan, giving pause to all the enemies of mankind about what their own fate might one day entail.

Icons representing Centurion and Crusader, each a Gladiator class Cruiser, blinked in the tank as well; one ranging ahead of the four heavy ships, the second trailing behind the vulnerable transports. Faster and more maneuverable than his battle-line, the cruisers provided the crucial inner perimeter of his escorts. Massing just under 1.8 million tons in displacement and spanning nearly 1,200 meters in overall length, the cruisers were far more vulnerable than the dreadnoughts with only 38% the armor plating, weaker shields, and a correspondingly lighter battery of weaponry to boot. But despite that vulnerability against true capital ships, the cruisers could overpower any lesser vessel in existence and their heavy secondary and point-defense batteries provided vital support in protecting the battleline from hostile fighters and torpedoes. Combined with their greater maneuverability and thrust, plus the added sensor reach that their lighter armor plating allowed, the cruisers were vital for defense—just as the battlewagons were necessary for offense. The Fleet had begun life as a cruiser navy, with the half-million ton Boxer class that fought the Ordan-Kraal to a standstill. Even today, cruisers (and cruiser squadrons) outnumbered the battle-line by a factor of four, and the Gladiators were simply the last in a long line of tried, tested, and trusted cruisers. Many in the Fleet and the Senate wanted to replace the battle-line with the smaller, less capable, but also far less expensive ships. They argued that while the Gladiators were individually less powerful, the Fleet could afford to build more of them; allowing the Empire to provide a more complete defensive coverage of the systems that they claimed. And, after all they reasoned, most situations did not require the firepower of four ships of the line to resolve. Luckily, Jason thought, Caesar did not agree. Nor, in fact, did Jason himself. Not while the Empire and the Confederation were at war, or while predatory races like the Rakizinski or the Jokar stood poised upon the borders. Cruisers were excellent ships as escorts, or for long duration missions that required one to cruise through real-space on patrol. Enough of them acting in concert could even do considerable damage to battleships, in theory anyway. But they were simply too fragile to stand in battle against enemy capital warships, or fixed planetary defenses, for that matter, even the late-generation Gladiators.

Four Alexander class destroyers rounded out the 342nd; Belisarius, Gustav Adolphus, Scipio Africanus, and Wallenstein. The workhorses of the Fleet, the Alexanders were also the smallest warships in his squadron at just over 540 meters and 215,000 tons. Unlike the massive cruisers and battlewagons, the destroyers mounted none of the extremely large caliber plasma cannons that those ships used as their main weapons. Instead, the tin-cans made do with an array of light and mid-weight plasma cannons, plus an extensive battery of secondaries and point-defense guns, augmented by a formidable array of torpedo launchers. The Alexanders were capable of operating within a planetary atmosphere to deliver pin-point accurate fire against planetary fortifications and other ground targets. But it was their speed, agility, and—most of all—their sensor reach and resolution that made the Greyhounds of the Fleet (as they were so often fondly called) such vital units. Having thinner armor and lighter shielding than battleships or cruisers, the destroyers suffered less from those systems interference with sensors, giving them greater range and resolution than any other capital ship. Modern armor was a wonderful thing, but it also blocked virtually all radiated energy—even that employed in radars and other sensors. Computer compensation adjusted for that interference somewhat, but it still rendered the sensor arrays of heavier ships less effective than those of lighter ones. The fragile destroyers were very much Jason’s eyes and ears.

And if their plasma cannons were less than impressive, their speed and maneuverability gave the destroyers the best opportunity to use torpedoes of any of his ships of war. Massed banks of one-shot torpedo launchers, loaded with twenty-meter long missiles mounting 220-kiloton gravitic fusion warheads, were standard armament aboard all Imperial ships, but torpedoes were slow compared to plasma bolts and possessed an extremely short-range. Still, at point-blank range, a torpedo salvo could gut any ship, collapsing its shields and tearing through its armor—no matter how thick—with nuclear fire. The trick was to get into range to launch the weapons in the first place, and to do that it helped to have speed and agility on your side. As part of a coordinated squadron effort, it also presented an opponent with a quandary: exchange fire with the enemy cruisers and battleships (the long-term threat) or attempt to kill the destroyers before they closed enough to salvo a few hundred torps in your direction. Point defense could stop some, but not all, torpedoes launched, and even a handful of direct hits might well prove devastating.

All of these ships—from the smallest destroyers to the his own flagship Reprisal—also carried varying numbers of interceptors, strike fighters, and light bombers, eliminating the need for dedicated aerospace fighter carriers such as Humanity had used against the Ordan-Kraal. Together, the ten ships of his battle squadron could put four hundred and eighty fighters into space, giving his command yet another weapon to use against the enemies of the Empire. They carried Marines as well—a Fleet Marine Force of nearly four thousand battle-armored Marines to conduct boarding actions and lead surface assaults in the name of Caesar.

Cape Town, Moscow, Perth, and Sofia, the Dresden class assault troop transports, were troop carriers, measuring some 700-meters in length and capable of embarking thousands of Legionnaires, their armored vehicles, and supporting elements. The transports were among the largest ships capable of entering atmosphere and making planet-fall, but they lacked any credible offensive weaponry. Their sole armament consisted of a light array of secondary batteries and point-defense guns, with even weaker armor and shielding than the Alexanders. But the job of these ships was not to engage enemy vessels in fierce fire-fights; no, it was to land a full-strength Shock Legion in the face of enemy fire. Each of the Dresdens could lift a full combat brigade of the legion, plus a portion of the service and support brigade; four of these ships together were able to ferry an entire Legion of almost twenty-three thousand personnel (of which some nine thousand were combat troopers), fifteen hundred armored combat vehicles, three thousand support vehicles, forty-eight ground attack fighters, and more than three hundred and eighty thousand tons of general supplies, munitions, provisions, and spare parts.

Designed from the core out as dedicated assault ships, the Dresdens also carried nano-forges aboard that could construct nearly any component or weapon, provided the forges were supplied with the correct raw elements in the proper proportions. A Legion supported by four Dresden class ships could remain in combat indefinitely, as long as the ships had power and supplies for the forges, that is. These particular assault ships were carrying the 501st Shock Legion, Caesar’s Black Panzers. Bound for Cyralis to serve on the front, the 501st was a heavy formation, with tanks, artillery, and battle-armored infantry, along with their entire support and service brigade. An elite unit normally deployed on Terra, General Miles Tuturola had personally requested the assignment from his Imperial Majesty. After all, the boys were getting rusty, he had bluntly told Caesar, over the objections of other, higher-ranking, officers. Caesar had been amused, however, and had released the Black Panzers with orders to hone their edge. I really pity the people of Cyralis if peace has been declared by the time we arrive, Jason thought.

Jason finished considering all this as he took his seat at the head of the conference table to one side of the holo-tank. “Captain Serrano, what is our current status?”

“Admiral, we will complete our course change in thirteen minutes. Following that it will require another six to accelerate to the proper velocity for trans-light entry. All ships have reported in at Condition Two, and General Tuturola has alerted the 501st for possible ground assault.”

“Commander Hedges?” he turned to his astrogator. “Is there anything of special interest about Tammoran?”

The tall, sandy-haired officer pursed his lips before answering. “Yes, sir, Tammoran was included in our nav briefs. The single star is approaching the end of its life span. Right now, it is in full-blown Red Giant stage. Only the outermost planets remain intact, though debris fields range throughout the system. Radiation output is high, but our armor and shields should counteract virtually all of the detrimental effects. Commander Scott aboard the Seydlitz reports that the base is on Tammoran VII in the outer system—far enough out that the solar activity will not adversely affect our shields, and both his ship and her sister Charlemagne are bottling up the Confeds on the surface. I feel, however, Admiral, that I must advise against entering the Tammoran system.”

Jason leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. “Why is that, Henry?”

“Sir, there is a red flag on the system in the nav data banks from the last research team to visit the system. That star is going to explode any time now and we won’t have much of a warning if it does.”

“A supernova?” asked Captain Aleksey Danislov from one of the video screens to the side. The commanding officer of the Reprisal, Danislov was Jason’s Flag Captain, his senior ship commander.

“No sir; the star is not quite massive enough for that. However, it will go nova and if it does than no amount of armor or shielding will prevent the total destruction of our ships.”

Another officer, Commander Leslie Drake, the flag communications officer, spoke up. “How much warning will we have if it decides to blow?”

“None, if it has already popped before we arrive. If it hasn’t, then we should have forty or so minutes from the first tachyon flash to the arrival of the leading edge of the expansion shell at Tammoran VII. It will take us thirty-three minutes to accelerate to minimum safe velocities for trans-light insertion from orbit, Sir. That is not a lot of spare time.”

Jason frowned as he sat back and ran through the options. He shook his head, “Not a lot, no, but it is enough of a margin of error. Miles,” he continued as he turned to speak to the image of General Tuturola on one of the wall-mounted view screens, “I doubt we are going to want to unload your troops, but keep them updated just in case. Gentlemen, there is an enemy base in our territory. If we knew that star was going today or tomorrow, then I would say to hell with it, and let them burn. But we do not know. It could be next year; it could be a decade. And it is our job to travel in harm’s way.”

“Nathan,” he continued, “We know Charlemagne and Seydlitz are in system, so have astrogation plot our T-space exit half a light-year outside Tammoran’s Oort cloud. We will contact Commander Scott via phase-com when we reenter real-space and find out the status of the star. If it hasn’t exploded by the time we arrive at that point, then we will jump into the system itself; that should give us only fifteen-or-so minutes of uncertainty and if it pops in the intervening time, we will retain enough velocity to renter T-space without delay. Leslie, inform Sector HQ on Jouett that our arrival at Cyralis may be slightly delayed—and advise them that we will deal with Seydlitz’s discovery. Append Seydlitz’s original transmission to ours, just in case they never received it. Understood?”

“Aye, aye, Sir. Shall I request confirmation of our intentions from the governor?”

“No. Jouett won’t receive our message until we have already been in Tammoran local space for six hours, and I think that would be a little late to order the barn doors closed, don’t you Commander?”

Leslie Drake sheepishly smiled as the rest of Jason’s staff joined the Admiral in chuckling at the young man’s blushes over forgetting the time-lag involved in interstellar transmissions.

“Then the word is given, gentlemen. Next stop Tammoran; assume your stations for trans-light insertion,” he finished as he stood. For a moment he stood there, looking down on his wife; her face pale, drawn and ashen as she realized for the first time, perhaps truly and deeply understood for the first time, just what dangers her husband’s chosen life might bring. And then he made himself turn away and continue with his duties.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 10:23am
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Chapter One (cont.)

Forty light minutes from the Red Giant at the heart of the Tammoran system, a small rocky orb silently orbited the sullen swollen star as it had for the past seven billion years. Half the size of Mercury, the ball of rock (planet was far too grandiose a term for such a worthless piece of cosmic debris) featured no significant mineral deposits; it had no atmosphere; nothing really to attract the attention of anyone. Until the destroyer Seydlitz had stumbled across the hidden base the Confederation had constructed on its surface, that is. HIMS Seydlitz orbited the rock at a distance of five hundred thousand kilometers, far outside of weapons range from the surface. From that safe distance she—and her sister ship HIMS Charlemagne—kept watch on the base below, keeping the Confeds pinned up until the Fleet arrived to deal with the problem.

Commander Gaius Scott sat in his command chair upon the bridge of his destroyer as he waited for the arrival of Task Group Chandler. The Grierson Phased Tachyon Pulse Communications Array (Phase-Com, for short) transmission had surprised him when he received it almost four hours ago. With the distance between Tammoran and the Mahan Sector Headquarters on Jouett, he had not been expecting any reply (let alone help) for at least forty hours. He had certainly not expected his transmission to reach a battle squadron in transit at a real-space way point. If those ships had been under trans-light drive, his message would have missed them completely, for no one traveling faster than light speed could communicate with, or even detect, anyone or anything in real-space. Phase-Comm was the only known way—short of dispatching a courier ship, that is—to communicate across interstellar distances. But, although the signal propagated at twice the velocity of even the swiftest vessels, it was also subject to degradation as the tachyon pulse gradually expanded. At any distance over a hundred light-years, the signal was so degraded it was lost in the background noise of the universe. Even the seventy-nine light-years between Tammoran and Jouett weakened and distorted the signal, which was why Scott had transmitted it multiple times, and also sent messages to closer systems, asking them to relay the information to Jouett as well. The sheer distance also expanded the signal into a cone—a cone where anyone with a working Phase-Comm receiver could listen in. In response, every Fleet transmission was encrypted, leaving those unauthorized eavesdroppers with only static-filled electronic noise.

Task Group Chandler had been in exactly the right place, at the exactly right moment, to intercept the transmission. And they had been resting their faster-than-light drives in the local space of this reality, rather than racing through the dimension known as transit-space solely because that despite its incredible capabilities, faster-than-light travel still retained many, many flaws. The Patrick-Sogabe-Kaplov (PSK) drive had given Man the stars. Commercial vessels and transports without heavy radiation shielding could only manage to attain a velocity of 2.2 light-years per hour; military vessels with their better shielding (and some very few, very expensive civilian ships) could travel at velocities of up to 3.3 ly/hr. But if the miracle of the trans-light drive had opened the galaxy to exploration and colonization, it had also been subject to a number of limitations.

First among them, was the fact that there seemed to be a lower limit on how small the PSK drives could be built, limiting their use to ships with enough volume to cram them in. That lower limit had been reached on vessels slightly less than half the volume of his own Seydlitz, an Alexander class destroyer. Second, the drive consumed more and more power as the ship increased in mass, which, given the current state of power production, produced a very real and very hard limit on the upper size of the ship possible. The law of diminishing returns had proven that past a certain point, a larger vessel would be weaker than a smaller one, in terms of absolute armor and shield protection, firepower, and sub-light speed. The third limitation was in the nature of the drive itself. In order for the PSK drive to function at all, the ship mounting it had to attain a real-space velocity of no less than 42.075 kilometers per second on a direct vector to its destination. Once insertion speed was reached, the PSK Drive translated the ship and crew into what the Fleet termed t-space (or transit space). How it managed to do so had driven more than one physicist insane. Regardless, no matter how the thing worked, it worked, and to a Fleet officer that was all that mattered. But these limitations were relatively minor compared to the final flaw associated with the PSK Drive. For some reason known only to geniuses and God, it would overload if engaged for longer than 20 hours, 34 minutes, and 48 seconds.

An overloaded PSK Drive expelled the ship back into real-space and sent a surge through the drive controls and power runs, burning out both systems simultaneously and subsequently requiring thousands of man-hours of painstaking work to repair; if a ship carried enough spares, that is. It could even overload if consecutive uses of the drive exceeded the governing limit. But, for every three seconds spent in real-space, the drive seemed to recover two seconds that it could then spend in t-space. No one, not even the physicists, knew why, but it imposed a very real barrier on the use of the drive system. Imperial ships were hard-wired to prevent a single transit of more than 12 hours; even though every chief engineer knew how to disconnect the safeties. Standard Imperial policy was that for every second spent in transit, a ship had to spend at least two in real-space. It was a policy with which Commander Scott thoroughly agreed, even if it meant that he had to spend a full day cooling his heels in the deep black between transits. After all, there was no auto-club out here in the back of beyond to rescue ships and crews that had abused their drives to the point of failure.

It was because of that system quirk that the Task Group Chandler had been coasting along in real-space in the Cavanaugh system instead of racing faster than light to their original destination of Cyralis, and hence able to receive their transmission at all.

“Sir, we are picking up the fringes of a t-space emergence wave,” Ensign Rebecca Hastings called out from Tracking, interrupting his reverie. Scott looked down at the small repeater monitor mounted on the arm of his chair, and saw the wave gaining strength by the second.

“Thank you, Becky. Ian,” he said as he turned to face his executive officer, “send the ship to Action Stations. It should be Admiral Chandler, but let’s take no chances.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” Ian Sinclair replied. Turning back to his own console, he lifted a hand-held phone and pressed a button. The lights on the bridge shifted from normal to red battle lighting, and three whoops of a siren sounded throughout the ship. “All hands, this is the XO. Action Stations, Action Stations. Set Condition One throughout the ship, this is not a drill. I repeat, Set Condition throughout the ship, this is not a drill.”

“Talk to me Becky,” Commander Scott said to the young woman as the crew of his destroyer rushed to man their stations.

“Sir, the numbers are building nicely, we should see emergence from t-space in five, four, three, two, one; vessels have emerged into real-space, sir. Range 3.2 million kilometers, multiple emission sources, current power levels indicates a minimum of six in the cruiser-plus range. Sir, their shields are raised, and I am having difficulty in reading their exact configurations through the interference.”

Commander Scott could feel a drop of sweat trickling down his neck. If this wasn’t the Admiral, then he would have only a few choices available. Unfortunately, given the number of ship icons on the display, those choices mostly boiled down to running for his life. It should be the Imperial Task Group; after all only seventeen minutes had passed since he confirmed the star was still a star, and not an expanding cloud of gas and debris. But stranger things had been known to happen, and there was a Confederate base on the surface below. “Orin, send the challenge.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” his comm officer said. “Unknown vessels, this is His Imperial Majesty’s Ship Seydlitz, you have entered a restricted area. Identify yourselves immediately. I repeat, unknown vessels, this is the His Imperial Majesty’s Ship Seydlitz; you have entered a restricted area. Identify yourselves immediately.”

For several moments, Scott and the crewmen on his bridge waited in silence. Then from the speakers came a voice. “Seydlitz, this is the His Imperial Majesty’s Ship Reprisal. I do believe that we are expected.”

“Query their transponders and confirm the ID, Becky.”

The young officer concentrated on her board and then visibly relaxed. “Transponder ID confirmed, sir. Those are Imperial ships, and HIMS Reprisal is the one transmitting.”

Scott let out the breath he had not quite realized he was holding. “Put me on, please, Orin.”

“Hot mike, sir.”

Reprisal, this is Seydlitz. Welcome to Tammoran, Admiral Chandler.”

“Roger that, Seydlitz. We are initiating deceleration for a zero-zero intercept with you in thirty-six minutes from . . . mark. Admiral Chandler requests that you transmit all pertinent sensor data on the enemy installation and then wishes to speak with you at your convenience, Commander Scott.”

“Acknowledged, Reprisal. Is there any further traffic this station?”

“Affirmative, Seydlitz. From the 342nd in general and Reprisal specifically, we extend a hearty well done to the commander and crew of HIMS Seydlitz. Reprisal out.”

Seydlitz out,” Scott said as he swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. “Orin, get with CIC and transmit the data-package for Admiral Chandler. Ian, stand the ship down to Condition Two, and pass along that last transmission from Reprisal to the crew.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” the XO said.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 10:31am
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Chapter One (cont.)

“We were sweeping the Hayden system on a routine patrol, Admiral, when we detected a possible t-space emergence wave here in Tammoran. I logged the trace, but after examining the astrographic charts and consulting with Commander Chou aboard the Charlemagne decided that the contact did not originate from any Imperial vessels. On my own initiative, Sir, I ordered our patrol to immediately proceed to Tammoran to investigate. Upon dropping out of FTL, we registered faint emissions from the vicinity of Tammoran VII, but the radiation in-system prevented us from locking down the source before it vanished. It could have just been a sensor ghost, but I ordered Seydlitz and Charlemagne to conduct a high-speed recon pass of the planet. We approached on different vectors with every sensor system tuned in for any contact, but none of us were ready for what we found. The Confederation must have working on this facility for years, Sir, and they locked up their emissions tight once they detected our emergence from T-space,” Commander Scott continued as he shook his head. “Next thing I know we are picking up targeting systems attempting to lock us up from the surface, and the signature of heavy plasma cannons coming on-line. I ordered both Seydlitz and Charlemagne to take evasive action and pushed our sub-light drives to the wall—fortunately for us their timing was slightly off. The tracking & targeting arrays went active a good fifteen seconds before the plasma guns were hot and we managed to evade the first salvo completely; by all rights they should have had us then and there, but they didn’t even attempt to bracket us or seem to anticipate that we would be maneuvering hard and all their shots missed astern. By the time their second salvo arrived, both my ships had broken out of their range. We were lucky, Sir, I should have sent recon drones in first, but the contact was so tenuous it could have turned out to be nothing other than a sensor ghost.”

Jason Chandler nodded at the young officer on the view screen. “Go on, Commander.”

“Well, sir, after that first pass, we decelerated and assumed a geo-stationary orbit outside of their demonstrated range from where we could observe the base. I sent a dozen recon drones in; point defense picked off nine of them, but the three survivors got the data you see there. Sixteen twin-mount 32cm heavy plasma guns, eighty twin 4.5cm secondaries, and one hundred and twenty quad 20mm point-defense guns, all in individual hardpoints spread across ninety square kilometers surrounding the facility. Plus there are an additional sixteen twin 32s spaced evenly across the surface, covering all planetary approaches. The base itself is carved into a mountain, but they have a prepared landing field adjacent for shuttlecraft, freighters, and light warships. Two Confed ships, both fleet auxiliaries, not warships, are parked there, shutdown with zero emissions, and they have made no attempt to lift and run. If they follow standard Confed practices, they should have a fighter group as well, but if they do, they haven’t so much as tried a sortie against me.”

Scott swallowed. “Nothing Seydlitz carries is heavy enough to take out the base, Admiral, except my torps—but with only two destroyers and having to close through the fire of those 32s to reach effective range . . .” the young officers voice trailed off, but then he straightened and looked directly into the monitor. “Sir, the 32s could destroy Seydlitz or Charlemagne with just one or two hits and I couldn’t risk the ships or crews, not when I could stand off, observe, and call for the cavalry.”

Jason solemnly nodded at the image of the man before him, a man who clearly expected to be called a coward for not attempting to attack the base, regardless of the circumstances. Yet it was a man who had just shown that regardless of what others thought—of what his superiors thought—he was convinced that his decision was the right one, and it was one he would make again. “You did well, Commander Scott. Caesar does not expect his ship commanders to waste the lives of their men just to prove their heroism; he expects his officers to use their heads and spend the Empire’s resources wisely, which you did. And my report of this incident to Sector HQ will indicate that. Have you tried to establish communications?”

“Yes, sir, but they have not responded to my attempts.”

“Well, Commander,” Jason said with a grim smile, “they will damn well talk to me if they know what is good for them.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 10:38am
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Chapter One (cont.)

The sixteen ships under Jason’s ad-hoc command steadily closed the range on the enemy base. Leviathan, Renown, Reprisal, and Vanguard, the only ships with guns that outranged the base below, were in the lead, with the cruisers, destroyers (now including Charlemagne and Seydlitz), and transports trailing ten thousand kilometers behind. Strike bombers, strike fighters, and interceptors from all the vessels of his command, numbering more than five hundred strong, covered the capital ships as they steadily approached.

“Nathan, send the message one more time. If they refuse to reply,” again, he thought,” then we will continue to close until we reach 23,000 kilometers. Once we have achieved that range, the battle-line will maintain station and open fire unless I order otherwise.”

Jason pondered the irony of it; against an alien species, he would not have hesitated to simply bombard this facility from orbit, without either hesitation or remorse. But the Confederation wasn’t alien. No, they were human beings who had broken from the Empire two hundred and thirty years ago, in protest against the continuing debasement and devaluation of women. Since then, they and the Empire had been at war, an on-again, off-again war. Recently, the conflict had heated up yet again. Even the discovery of the vaccine had not been enough to stop the sporadic fighting between the two; and given human history perhaps nothing would save the collapse of either one government or the other. They should have learned by now, he thought to himself; each and every time they provoke a fight, they lose even more worlds. Still, he had been raised in a time when humanity could ill-afford large numbers of casualties. And because of that, he would hesitate before killing those humans below. But, if they do not surrender, then I will give the order; I will kill them all. That is my duty, to the Empire, to Caesar, to my oath.

“Aye, aye, sir,” the chief of staff replied. “Confederation facility, this is the His Imperial Majesty’s Starship Reprisal. We do not wish to cause excessive loss of life; respond please. Confederation facility, this is the His Imperial Majesty’s Starship Reprisal. You are out-matched. Do not throw your lives away by making us open fire. Respond please.”

As the range closed to 40,000 kilometers only silence came from the speakers. Nathan shook his head at Jason and picked up the phone once again, changing from general broadcast to intra-ship. “Weapons stand by. Load planetary bombardment targeting package Gamma-One and go weapons hot.”

Where the Confederation base fielded 32cm guns, Jason’s Leviathans each carried thirty-six 45cm guns, far more destructive and with a longer effective range, but slower firing. The 45s would enter range at 30,000 kilometers, but the 32s on the surface could not effectively reply at any range greater than 22,500 kilometers—leaving the base as good as defenseless against the 250-kiloton plasma bolts that could hammer it into oblivion. Even if the facility below was equipped with the heaviest shields, which was far from certain, the combined yield of a single salvo from the broadside of Jason’s four battleships exceeded sixteen megatons—and without an atmosphere to interdict the slugs of super-heated plasma from those powerful cannons, no mountain in creation could stop the guns from blasting through to the base below, regardless of how much armor the builders might have plastered on. It might take a while, but Imperial battleships had deep magazines and munitions to spare, and they could unleash an identical salvo of pure hell-on-earth as often as once every two minutes.

Nathan waited until an officer at the tactical station nodded, and then turned back to Jason. “Sir, the battle-line is weapons hot, with targeting package Gamma-One locked into bombardment protocols. No response from the . . . “

Suddenly, the speaker hissed and the static cleared. “Reprisal, this is the Confederation of Free Worlds Base Freedom. What are your terms?”

“Weapons hold!” snapped Jason. “Signal all ships, weapons hold! Patch me in to the base.”

“You are live, sir.”

Freedom, this is Reprisal. We demand your immediate and unconditional surrender. You will stand down all weapons and evacuate weapon crews from the hardpoints. We will then land marines to take you into custody and your ships as prizes of war.”

“That is asking a lot, Reprisal. Some of my officers feel that we should blow the base ourselves before going off to a POW camp for the rest of our lives.”

Freedom, there are prisoner exchanges on an annual basis. It is your decision, but that base will be destroyed. You know that, and you also know that my guns out-range yours. Blow the base yourself, or I will shatter it from orbit, but I would rather not have to kill every last one of you down there.”

Nathan leaned down, and Jason cut the mike. “Sir, you neglected to tell them not to purge their computers.”

“Nathan, they will purge them regardless of what we tell them to do. And if I insist on it as a term of surrender, then we will have to either kill them or watch them kill themselves. Just remember for when you get your own squadron, never give an order, or terms of surrender, that you know will neither be followed nor accepted.”

He turned the mike on again. “Freedom, you do not have a lot of time. What is it going to be?”

A slight hiss came through the speakers for almost a minute. “Very well, Reprisal. We are standing down the weapons now. As commanding officer of Freedom Base, I surrender this facility and its personnel to you.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 02:23pm
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Chapter One (cont.)

The Intruder-class assault shuttle gently lowered itself to the surface of the rocky planet known as Tammoran VII. Once upon a time, such a landing was a risky endeavor, but that had been before contra-gravity generators had been invented. Now, the massive craft used just the barest hint of thrust to brake, while the CG generators absorbed the force of the inertia that should have shattered the landing struts like straws. Three heavily armored hatches began to open, flooding the red-lit interior with a more stringent shade from the massive star filling the sky. In the vacuum of the troop bay, Centurion Saul Yarrow could not hear the dorsal turret whining as it turned to keep the base under the quad plasma guns mounted there; he could feel it through the vibration in the deck and deep inside his bones. Encased within his battle armor, Saul waited until the troop bay hatches had opened, and then leaped the six meters to the ground without waiting for the ramp to deploy.

His Marines followed his lead, and on an auxiliary channel Saul could hear the navy crew chief muttering, “Crazy-ass, damn jar-heads!”

Just like the navy, he thought, always so clean and presentable and polite, with those pristine white dress uniforms. Leave the dirty jobs to the Corps, and wash their hands afterwards. It wasn’t like they had mud and blood to clean off. Sure, the Book called for him to wait until the ramps had completely deployed before off-loading. But the Book wasn’t always right. And he would much rather be deployed on the surface of this rock in his armor than sit on his ass inside the massive target the assault shuttle presented if things went south. Besides, his armor was rated to withstand far more than dropping six meters under a mere twentieth of a standard gravity. Imperial battle armor was form-fitting, and worn much like ancient suits of armor had been. But where those were made from bronze and copper and sometimes iron or steel, his was comprised of Hawkins-Connors Alloy, the same substance that armored the ships of the Fleet; one hundred kilograms of it, as a matter of fact; one-half the entire weight of the suit. Without the bundles of myomer strands attached to the structure of the suit nestled between the armor layers (and over the padding of the ballistic fabric interior) and the servos that powered the limbs, he would not have been able to move. But when supplied with power from the four grav-fusion fuel cells in the armored pack on his back, the suit responded to his commands as though it was his own flesh and blood. A heads-up display on the interior of the armored visor showed him all of the tactical data he needed, and a short-range multi-channel phase-comm allowed him to communicate with his troopers and higher up.

Miniature CG generators were built into the suit as well. Not powerful enough to fully counter gravity, they provided what someone had designated as an inertial sump that would absorb kinetic energy from falls and collisions, at least as long as the power lasted. While wearing battle armor, he could jump from a bullet train travelling at half the speed of sound, and the generators would slow his velocity to a mere two meters per second in less time than it took to draw a quick breath. The inertial dampening field built into the generators would allow him to survive such rapid deceleration without harm. Designed for high-altitude deployments (parachuting without a parachute, was how the Corps termed it), the system was married to his armors sensors and automatically activated within a few hundred meters of the surface. Marines and army troopers had found many other uses for the system, including low-altitude rapid deployment from fast-moving troop carriers and shuttles. No, the six-meter jump wouldn’t even cause his fuel cell power gauge to twitch.

Sealed as it was against chemical, biological, or radiological attack, battle armor also made a handy environment suit for the surface of airless rocks such as Tammoran VII. But unlike naval hostile environment suits, his set of armor was armed. His left hand gripped the handle of the suits main weapon, the R-7 Reaper pulse cannon. Each time he triggered the five-barrel weapon, it would fire a 'pulse' of thirty 7mm tungsten slugs in one-tenth of a second. Accelerated to an incredible velocity, the slugs would rip through even the two centimeters of Hawkins battle steel covering his chest with ease. Absolute range was around 7 kilometers, but accurate fire was a Marine trooper specialty. Accurate fire, even for him, meant 1,000 meters or less. Plus the Reaper rapidly lost armor penetration capabilities at greater ranges. His right arm featured a pair of much lighter weapons encased within the armor covering his forearm, the short stubby barrels barely visible above and behind his wrist: a single-barreled sub-machine gun and a tactical flame projector. A high-intensity plasma cutting torch was also provided, giving him the ability to literally cut his way through even starship bulkheads if need be. And flexible armored gauntlets covered both hands, giving him the ability for fine manipulation of small or delicate items that would astound anyone not familiar with Imperial battle armor. But that ability to pick up an egg without cracking it did not detract from the power those gauntlets could exert if Saul wanted to. With just his gauntleted hands, he could squeeze harder than most hydraulic vise-grips, generating enough force to shatter bone and peel apart steel plating.

Perched over his right shoulder was the single shot launcher for the Thunderbolt anti-vehicle missile system. To use the heavy launcher, he just had to reach up and pull it down until it locked into place, which also armed the launcher. With a range of 5 kilometers, the Thunderbolt packed enough of a punch to devastate most light vehicles with a single hit. It also served as a fantastic anti-bunker weapon in a pinch, and could be switched to anti-fighter mode for a short-range SAM. Unfortunately, he had just the one missile for it. But each of his Marines carried one, providing his century with a truly incredible amount of firepower. Two of his command team substituted an AG-4 Ripper auto-grenade launcher for the Reaper he carried. More of an automatic direct-fire howitzer than a true grenade launcher, the Ripper fired a five-round burst of 60mm grenades with each pull of the trigger. Maximum range was much less (around 2,200 meters) and the rate of fire was pitifully slow compared to the Reaper, taking about half a second to ripple through the entire burst. But it served a purpose, for where the Reaper was a pin-point weapon, each of the Ripper grenades had a blast radius of nearly twenty meters—and the weapon was just as effective at maximum range as it was at point-blank. It forced enemy troops to keep their heads down, and the amount of sheer destructive force the weapon could level against structures was awe-inspiring. And that constant thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk of the grenades launching would often break the morale of the enemy long before his Marines were among them.

Seeing that his century had finished debarkation, he lifted his right arm high and thrust it forward. The Marines began low, long, loping bounces across the landscape so reminiscent of the surface of the moon, except for that hellish glare of light from the bloated sun that loomed over the horizon. They did not worry about reaching escape velocity, for the contra-gravity was programmed for this world’s micro-gravity, and exerted a continual downwards force towards the planets core. Not much of one, but enough when combined with the gravitational pull of the planet itself. Still, each bounce of his Marines covered meters as they raced across the landing field. Other Centuries were tasked with the ships on the field; his mission was the base itself.

On reaching the far side of the field, he could see the massive doors of a tremendous hanger standing open. According to the Admiral, the Confeds would pressurize the interior after the Century entered. He and his Marines would sweep the base, making certain that the weapons were disarmed and all small arms secured, then the navy shuttles would begin landing to load prisoners. Saul shook his head; he didn’t believe it; never before had a Confed base just given up the ghost so easily. Even as the hanger doors began to close, he watched the inner airlocks, his trigger finger resting easy on the firing button that would unleash Hell on Tammoran if they changed their minds about surrender after all.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 02:24pm
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Chapter One (cont.)

“Admiral, I’m so damn disgusted that I could spit,” Saul Yarrow said as he made his report an hour later. The dusky skinned Marine had taken off his helmet and visor, and rubbed an armored gauntlet over his thinning crown. “They do not have one single combat trooper present here on this base. It is a disgrace. Sir.”

On the main projection screen in the base command center, Jason tried hard to keep the smile from his face. Saul had served with him for several years now, and the no-nonsense, hard-working Centurion had little, if any, regard for anyone who acted in a non-professional manner. Especially for those that should know better.

“It would seem that we are early for the party, Admiral. This base is not scheduled for completion until next year, and all the Confeds present are a bunch of engineers and technicians and laborers. No wonder they missed potting Seydlitz when they fired, they were probably reading the damn manual while operating the guns!”

“Seven rifles, sixteen pistols, and two TASERS are all the small arms on the post, Sir. But,” and his face turned more serious, “they have dug out the space for an entire ConFed regimental combat team, complete with rec-rooms, mess-halls, medical facilities, and more. Hell, the two ships on the tarmac haven’t been unloaded yet; they are carrying nano-fabrication forges and components for a section that hasn’t been completed.”

Jason held up his hand. “Saul, so what you are saying is that we took an entire covert facility from the Confederation without casualties, theirs or ours, one from which they were going to run the war in our space, thereby preventing them from using it in the future, costing them untold millions, if not billions, of talents . . . and this is a bad thing?”

“Well, it’s . . . it's . . . just . . . goddamn it, Admiral! It just isn’t professional, Sir!”

Jason couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing, his flag staff shaking their heads as well. Finally, even Saul Yarrow on the planet below couldn’t help himself, and he gave out a chuckle.

“Well, it really isn’t, Sir.”

Wiping the tears from his eyes, Jason nodded. “You are right, Centurion, it is not. But I think that both the Governor-General and Caesar will be happy with it regardless. How many prisoners do you have for us to transport?”

“Just about thirteen hundred assigned to the base, plus another four hundred or so for that pair of trash haulers on the tarmac. Between our ships in the 342nd and the assault boats from the 501st, we should have more than enough room to secure them. The prize crews for those ships, I leave to you and the other navy types . . . Sir.”

“I believe we can handle that, Saul. I want you to stay in charge down there, and push the operation along. This system has my nerves on edge, Centurion; I do not want to remain here any longer than absolutely required. Get those people up-top and secured ASAP.”

“Aye, aye, Sir. Will you be sending down demolitions charges with the prisoner shuttles?”

“Would a dozen do, Centurion?”

“Works for me, Admiral. I’ll have my engineers set ‘em up so you can scuttle this whole damn base the moment we pull out.”

“Get it done fast, Saul. I want to break orbit in two hours,” Jason said as he reached forward and the feed from the flagship died.

Saul turned to the men of his command group. “You heard the man; we’ve got a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. Get to work.” As the officers and staff NCOs began to disperse, Saul grabbed one Marine by the shoulder. “Not you, Peters.”

“Sir,” the Marine said as he snapped to attention.

“Peters, I want you to go down and suck ever last byte of data from their recreational computers.”

“Sir?”

Saul sighed. “Corporal, they wiped their main data-banks, but I’m betting no one thought of the rec-systems. Get down there and burn the whole damn thing into a storage unit.”

“But, sir, most of it is just movies and music and games and such. Should we waste time on that when we have everything else that has to be done?”

“Well, that is what it should be, Marine; but what if these sneaky ConFed sons-of-bitches secretly hid important data in there. I know it’s a sacrifice, son, but we Marines will have to go through that data-bank file by file just to confirm there isn’t anything hidden. No sense making the navy computer geeks go through it all, they have enough on their platter with the prisoner interrogations and the data-base cores of those auxiliaries out on the tarmac. You get me?”

The Marine began to protest again, when the light bulb went off in his head. And then he began to smile, a smile that Saul returned with a toothy grin, and snapped to attention. “Aye, aye, sir,” he said as he saluted.

After Saul returned the salute and the young marine had departed, he leaned back against a desk that groaned with the weight of his armor and lit a cigar from the base commander’s own humidor with his flame projector. And even if they didn’t hide any data in the system, he thought, we could use some new porn. I’ve seen just about all the stuff we got on board, and word is these ConFeds make some pretty good ones.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 03:45pm
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Well this is highly interesting. A fascinating universe you've created. Well-written too, but I've come to expect that from you :D

I'll be following this one.



"I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams" - Hamlet

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 04:11pm
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A bit heavy on the technological exposition. I know that sort of thing can be harder to weave in naturally but there are some serious textwalls about gear in a few places there.



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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 04:35pm
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Chapter Two

Just another day in the Corps, thought Corporal Frasier Blenheim as he made one final sweep of the deserted Confed base. Ahead of him roamed Private Charles N’Buta, a Marine so new he still squeaked. Not that Charlie was a bad kid, Frasier mused, but he was just so damn eager. Still, he supposed he had been much the same when he first enlisted ten long years back. But a decade had proven more than enough of this shit for him. Twenty-three days and a wake-up were all that remained until he returned to civilian life. But he would not be a mere civie; he would return an Imperial Citizen with full voting privileges. That, plus the land-grant he had earned in twenty-seven separate engagements, and the separation bonus Caesar awarded for honorable completion of a term of service would prove enough to set him up in comfort for the rest of his life. At least he hoped that it would.

With the booming population, land-grants awarded on even the outer worlds were becoming worth real money. Frasier smiled as he remembered the shark from the realty office before they departed on this assignment. The man had offered to buy his land-grant; sight unseen, no less, for a quarter of a million talents. But he would wait, for some land-grants were worth far more than that. As a decorated veteran of ten years, he might well be awarded several thousand hectares of prime land, albeit most likely on a remote world. But his separation bonus and pension would let him live, even if he did not sell a single square meter. Of course, it depended on the climate of the grant, for Frasier detested the cold. If it were some snow-covered forest of pine, or an alpine valley besides a lake, or even just a high-latitude spread on grassy plains, then the property would be up for sale to the first interested party. On the other hand, if his grant included a nice sandy beach on a warm tropical sea, that would be a whole new ball game.

Hell, he might have enough to buy a wife, even. That sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen anymore, but who really enforced the new rules in the outer worlds? Some poor dumb plebian struggling to make ends meet would have too many daughters and not enough sons; and the opportunity to marry into the family of a Citizen? Some of these outer worlds were pretty liberal in their marriage laws; he might even be able to find a pair of twins for sell. Red-headed twins, tall and curvy, that was a sure ticket to happiness. A third pair of hands on a new homestead would not hurt either. But it was getting harder and harder to find women who would be content to stay home and obey their husbands and masters. Too much was changing, he thought as he shook his head.

“Corp, I’ve got something hinky up here,” Charlie called out from ahead, breaking Frasier out of his reverie.

Frasier sighed as he shook his head. This whole place had been swept twice and this was the final sweep before bugging out to the shuttles for the taxi-ride back aboard ship. What wonderful new prosaic discovery had his rookie made now? “What have you got, Charlie?”

The Marine turned to face him, and Frasier could just see the kid trying to shrug his shoulders inside the armor. The armor, of course, did not shrug. Twenty-three days, he thought, just another twenty-three days. “Corp, this section of the wall, well, my scanners show nothing.”

“Private, nothing is not what we are looking for. Any signs of life?”

“No, but . . .”

“Any power emissions?”

“No, Corp, but . . .”

“So your instrumentation is showing nothing unusual at all, right kid?”

“Corp, my system is working fine; I can see you all lit up like a tree at Christmas time. But when I scan this section of the wall, I got nothing.”

Frasier slowly counted to ten. “And?”

“Well, I could detect the rock behind the wall in the previous section, Corp. But here, I got nothing, like it doesn't exist,” the newly minted recruit said in a tone of voice that was utterly perplexed.

Frasier frowned and dialed in his own sensor array, focusing on the wall the private pointed his armored gauntlet at. The scanners detected the wall just fine: standard ferro-crete building material, power lines, air lines, water lines, and air ducts. But behind the corridor wall itself, it was showed a complete lack of . . . anything. No matter, no energy, not even vacuum . . . just nothing. Exactly like his rookie fresh from boot had said. And he had been so concentrated on his future instead of his job that he had completely missed it. At least he had not been the first one to miss the anomaly, since the two previous sweeps had not noted it on the log, but that was cold consolation. Frasier considered, for just a moment, not reporting it, but then he sighed and activated the phase-com.

“Central, Patrol Twelve. Private N’Buta has located what may, I say again, may be a scan-shielded compartment not on the compound schematics. Level three, section 27. Shall I ring the bell or wait for reinforcements?”

“Patrol Twelve, Yarrow here. Third platoon and HQ are now en route to your location. Hold fast until we arrive.”

“Aye, aye, Sir; Patrol Twelve awaiting your arrival. Twelve Out.”

As the circuit clicked off, Frasier closed his eyes; I will never live this down in the NCO club, he thought. “Good eyes, Charlie; you done good kid, you done good.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 04:49pm
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Chapter Two (cont.)

Saul examined the sensor data on the section of the corridor wall himself when he and his command team arrived two minutes later at the head of the thirty-six battle-armored troopers of Third platoon. Sure enough, the space behind the wall was non-existent. Either the laws of the universe had suddenly changed, or someone had not fine-tuned their scan shielding to match the mineral composition of the mountain surrounding this facility.

“Gunny, find out who swept this corridor earlier and remind me to rip a few strips right off of their fat lazy rumps. Corporal Blenheim, good job.”

“Sir, it was Private N’Buta who detected the anomaly, Sir. I missed it on my scan, Sir.”

“Short-time or not, Corporal, you are still a Marine. I will not have you written up and flogged for slackness, this time, but it best not ever happen again. Private N’Buta, excellent job, son,” Saul said as he clapped the Marine on the shoulder.

“Thank you, Sir. Sir, I would not have even known what to look for if the Corp; Corporal Blenheim, that is; had not drilled me on search protocol on the voyage out, Sir.”

Saul’s lips twitched inside his helmet. This kid is going to make a fine Marine, he thought. “Is that so, Private? Well then, Corporal Blenheim, thank you for doing your job, some of the time at least. Gunny, why don’t we stand back and let Parsons here play Ali Baba?”

Frasier grabbed Charlie’s arm and yanked the armor-clad trooper to one side, pressing him flat against the wall as the company HQ team moved back down the corridor. The four squads of Third also pressed as close to the wall as they could, leaving just Lance Corporal Parsons to affix the demolitions. After placing the final segment of the breaching charge in place, the Marine yelled “Fire in the Hole!” and bolted down the corridor. Five seconds later, the charges blew, smoke and debris filling the corridor as the lights flickered on and off. Frasier’s sensors saw the breach, wide enough and tall enough for two suits abreast, and then it saw the hidden corridor beyond.

Two of the Marines from Third rushed into the passage way, then another two, and two more. The fourth pair had just cleared the breach when the Imperial sensors of every trooper present suddenly detected Confederation battle armor rapidly moving ahead of them.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 04:51pm
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Chapter Two (cont.)

Jason splashed the cold water on his face from the sink in his private lavatory just outside the Flag Bridge. Ten minutes until the Marines finish the sweep, another thirty to recover the troops below, and then we can leave this dying system, he thought as he looked at himself in the mirror. Not a bad haul; two prize ships with full loads of cargo, plus some seventeen hundred prisoners. The Sector Governor should be rather pleased with us. He wiped the drops and wetness from his face, and then checked his uniform again. Presentable, good. Turning around, he opened the hatch and reentered the Flag Bridge.

“Nathan, get the staff to work on a least-time course for trans-light insertion, destination Cyralis. Marius,” he asked his tactical officer, “what is the latest ETA from Centurion Yarrow?”

“Another six minutes should do it, Sir. I will contact . . .”

“Admiral Chandler? Captain Danislov is asking to speak with you immediately, sir,” Commander Drake called out from his comm station.

Jason moved over to his command station and sat, putting his wireless headset on and making certain it was properly in place. He then snapped a switch on the arm of his chair, bringing to life a small screen beside his right knee bearing the image of Captain Danislov on Reprisal’s command deck.

“What is it, Aleksey?”

“Sir, our Marines have located a scan-shielded compartment on the base below; one not present on any surrendered schematics. They are preparing . . . “

A sudden yell from behind Danislov caused him to stop and turn away. For several seconds, Jason could hear nothing, and then Danislov was back, his face grim and somber.

“Sir, Centurion Yarrow reports contact with Confederation battle-armored infantry, number indeterminate. He is under fire and is engaging the enemy. Also, a Kitredge-class armed escort has just launched from a hidden hanger bay on the planetary surface. They are attempting to use the planet to shield themselves from our guns and are not responding to hails.”

“Vector the CAP to intercept and engage the Kitredge, Nathan. Aleksey, advance the battle-line by division on separate orbits until we have a clear field of fire on the enemy vessel. All ships are to engage with secondaries only, and aim for the main thruster plates. Nathan, make certain the fighters have those orders as well. Marius, order Marine reaction teams to the surface to support Yarrow; remaining Marines prepare to board and take that vessel once it is disabled. And someone contact the Master-at-Arms and have him escort the ConFed commander to my bridge; I have a few questions for him.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” a chorus of voices replied.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 04:58pm
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Chapter Two (cont.)

“Black Sheep, Black Sheep, this is Ramrod. Come to heading 251 mark 119 and go weapons hot. Target is Kitredge-class armed escort designated Bandit One. Intercept soonest. Command requests you target main thrusters only, repeat main thrusters only. Over.”

Lieutenant Commander William Wallace, known by the call-sign Highlander among his flight crews, spotted the flashing red strobe of the enemy vessel in his heads-up display. “Roger, Ramrod, moving to engage, Highlander out. Black Sheep, you heard the man, throttle up and follow me in, attack pattern Delta-Four.” Several clicks on the transmission channel confirmed that his squadron mates had heard the order and he banked his Havoc strike bomber onto the new heading and pressed his throttles to the stops. The quad gravity thrusters that took up forty-eight percent of his strike bombers mass responded instantly, hurling him forward at 12-g’s of acceleration. Even with the inertial limiters functioning correctly, Will still sank back into his acceleration couch as his body temporarily doubled in mass, his flight suit automatically squeezing tight around his calves and thighs to keep vital blood flow in his upper body. Behind him, the twenty-three other Havocs of the Black Sheep squadron completed their own turns and accelerated in his wake. The squadron spread out into six four-ship flights, each in their own diamond configuration, precisely arrayed in formation.

“Rambler, spin up the missiles and targeting systems. Petey, we are going toe-to-toe with a warship,” albeit a small one, he thought, “I want you jamming their tracking the whole way in, comprende?”

“Roger, Highlander,” Lieutenant Morris 'Ramber' Simpson replied from the cockpit behind him. The weapons/sensors systems officer maintained the missiles carried by the Havoc and also kept a watchful eye on the tracking systems. While Will flew the craft, Morris Simpson was his eyes and ears. A moment later, and a new bank of lights came to life on his console as Ensign Pavel 'Petey' Petrovich brought the Havocs powerful electronic warfare gear on-line. “Roger, Highlander,” the EW officer chimed in, from his cramped, isolated compartment below and behind the two other crewmen, deep in the bowels of the sharply swept delta-wing craft.

Will settled the strike bomber down on its new course, and then reached down and flipped two manual switches on his control panel. The first armed the eight mass driver cannons mounted in the leading edge of his wings. Basically out-sized Reaper pulse cannons, the Mark VII mass-drivers fired 20mm projectiles instead of the 7mm rounds the Marines and Army used. Almost useless beyond knife-fighting range, the Mark VIIs were standard on nearly every Imperial fighter or bomber in service for two reasons. First of all, while they might well be out-dated technology, they were capable of extremely high rates of fire. Together, all eight guns could fire almost five thousand rounds per second. And while they were short-ranged, they gave pilots a substantial ability to strafe enemy ships or ground targets, or to defend against other fighter craft. The second reason was their sheer hitting power. Each of the 20mm tungsten slugs were accelerated to tremendous velocities and the kinetic energy when they impacted a target could crack open armor as though it were nothing more than a ripe watermelon. Two more lights blinked on, showing that Petey had brought the twin tail guns—another pair of Mk VIIs—on-line as well.

The second switch powered up the four 35mm plasma guns mounted in the nose. Far lighter than any plasma guns mounted by warships, indeed among the very lightest ever constructed, they could reach farther and hit harder than the Mark VIIs. A direct hit from all four of the plasma guns could tear the wing from almost any fighter in service, or gut a tank. They could even crater capital armor, and would certainly play, well, havoc, against any surface fixtures, such as radar and communications arrays, secondary turrets, and the like. The only reason that the Mark XI plasma guns had not completely replaced the Mark VII mass drivers in service was their rather low rate of fire. Each gun could fire only one round every two seconds. The four mounted in the nose of his Havoc would alternate fire every half-second, ensuring a continuous stream of plasma bolts towards his target. But still, for a craft designed to engage at the velocities the Havocs could attain, a half-second delay between shots could mean a miss.

On his heads-up display, Will could see the ten missiles carried in their bays beneath the wings and fuselage of his lithe not-so-little craft come to life. Four were the massive Vanquisher anti-ship missiles, each with a range of 5,000 kilometers. Designed to penetrate capital ship point-defense and shielding, the Vanquishers included a 20 kiloton gravity-triggered fusion warhead. Pure stand-off weapons, they were, rather unfortunately, easily identified by tracking systems and targeted by hostile point-defense guns. One missile alone, or even two or three, would not penetrate the defenses of any warship, even one as light as an Escort. But the odds of probability almost assured that ninety-six such missiles launched simultaneously by the Black Sheep Havocs would result in two, three, or maybe even four of the missiles slipping through the point-defense fire, penetrating the shields, and striking home to envelop the target in the fires of nuclear annihilation.

The other six missiles were Scorpion anti-fighter missiles, designed for anti-fighter and anti-shuttle work. Their shorter-range (2,000 kilometers) and far lighter warheads (500 kilograms of conventional high explosives) meant that they could inflict little damage to capital ships. But against fighters, the Scorpions shone. Able to generate a higher thrust than any fighter in existence, they were very hard to spoof, and almost impossible to engage with point defense, a feature most fighters lacked anyway. In a pinch, they could be used against ground targets or capital ships, but their lack of shield penetration aids and the relatively low power of their warhead meant that few would hit, and of those that did only light damage would result.

Unfortunately for the Black Sheep, the instruction to target the enemy vessel’s main thrusters, in an attempt to disable the Escort, meant that they could not use their Vanquishers against the target. The big missiles were not accurate enough to ensure hits only on the engineering section of the ship—and the magnitude of their warheads would almost guarantee total devastation across the ship anyway. No, for this strike, the Black Sheep would have to do this the old fashioned way, with guns and precise missile strikes from the Scorpions. If they got lucky, if they survived, maybe one or two of Will’s fighters would disable the drive.

“Black Sheep, Black Sheep,” Will sang out as the range rapidly fell, “deploy decoys . . . now.”

The squadron leader felt his Havoc buck slightly as Petrovich ejected the two decoys from their internal bays in the rear of the strike bomber. Forty-eight new icons suddenly appeared on his HUD as their drives came on-line and the decoys began to sing their electronic songs. Each of big drones mimicked the signature of a Havoc, complete with all of the latest EW tricks built into his vessel. Tied directly into his bomber’s main computer, the decoys would match his thrust and vector exactly, multiplying the targets the enemy ship had to deal with by a factor of three. Will smiled as he imagined the consternation in the hostile ships CIC; the decoys were new equipment just added to the Havocs in their latest upgrade.

Will began to weave his fighter as he crossed into the 2,500 kilometer range of the main guns of the eighty-five thousand ton Kitredge as the decoys matched his velocity and vector changes precisely. Designed as dual-purpose weapons, the rapid-fire 10cm plasma guns began to spit bolts of plasma at the strike squadron. As each bolt reached its maximum range, the magnetic containment field failed, and explosions erupted around the fighters are they bored in towards the target. The lighter 4.5cm secondary guns were tracking the fighters as well, but they would not be able to fire until the range closed to 1,200 kilometers, and the quad-mounted 30mm mass drivers would not add their fury to the barrage until the range closed to just 100 kilometers. The Imperial bombers, on the other hand, could not open fire with their plasma guns until they reached 500 kilometers; or the mass drivers until a mere 75,000 meters.

“Steady, boys, steady; stay loose, if they can’t track you they can’t hit you,” Will chanted into his mike. Unless you are just unlucky enough to fly right into the path of a bolt, he thought.

“Highlander, we are locked on main thrusters,” Morris said, as Will’s display changed, carating the grav-thrust plates on the stern of the enemy ship. The squadron commander acknowledged his WSO with two clicks on the internal comm transmitter, even as he opened the squadron tactical frequency and began to broadcast. “Ripple-fire all Scorpions at the thrusters only, Black Sheep, say again, thrusters only. We will follow the birds in and finish the job with plasma and tungsten, people.”

More plasma bolts streaked past the armored canopy of his fighter as the range steadily fell. Visible to the naked eye, the bolts glowed with their white-hot heat as they streaked by at significant fraction of light speed. Keeping one eye on the range indicator on his HUD, Will jerked the craft through the sky with random vector and speed changes, as did the other pilots arrayed around him. As he closed to just over 2,000 kilometers, a shrill warbling sounded in his helmet. “Tone, I’ve got tone; Scorpions are locked on the target,” Morris called out from the rear-seat.

Will’s HUD lit green with the information that his entire squadron was now locked. As the fighters crossed the range threshold, he cried, “FIRE!” and triggered the birds. Beneath his Havoc six weapon bays opened, and one by one, the Scorpions were ejected and lit off their drives, accelerating towards the Kitredge at 50-g’s. Seconds later, the point-defense guns of the enemy vessel also opened fire as the missiles entered their range. They must have a green crew over there, Will thought. Scorpions possessed such a high thrust that it was nearly impossible to shoot them down, even with a warships point-defense. Almost in response to his thought, the rapid-fire guns switched their fire to his fighters, and two of them, along with a dozen decoys, exploded under direct hits.

One hundred forty-four Scorpions were launched at the target; none were killed by point-defense fire. Then they hit the shields. Modern shields could be penetrated by enough firepower, but light warheads such as those hitting the Confederation ship now were almost always unable to burst through—the Kitredge class armed escort they struck, on the other hand barely qualified as a capital warship, and its defenses were seriously lacking. One hundred twenty-seven of the missiles flared and died on the shields, but their sacrifice buckled the defenses and seventeen broke past. Nine impacted on the upper starboard thruster plate, while eight hit the lower, and the enemy vessel heaved as tons of explosive detonated, each detonation sending a self-forging penetrator deep into the hull. Against a warship heavier than an Escort, that would not have even dented the armored skin, but Escorts were too light-weight to carry much armor, and the little they did carry was not enough to stop the fifteen thousand degree stream of molten and gaseous metal as it burned its way into the ship.

At least one of the missiles hit something important, and a massive plume of air erupted in a fireball out of the hull, scattering debris and bodies as the ship bled air, heat, and life into the void. The two starboard engines died, and the target sharply veered towards the Black Sheep.

“Thrusters only, Black Sheep, thrusters only. One pass, then clear the area for the big boys,” Ramrod sent over the squadron tactical net. On his display, Will could see Reprisal and Renown clear the limb of the planet, almost in range of their secondary battery of 5cm plasma guns.

As his targeting reticule turned green, Will pulled the trigger on his stick. Bolts of incandescent plasma streaked away from his fighter, each shot hammering him back into his seat with the force of the recoil. Still accelerating, it took him only forty-three seconds to pass over the stern of the enemy ship. In that time, he fired eighty-seven plasma bolts into the vessel, a number easily matched by the other pilots of his squadron. The light bolts splattered against the shields, but collectively they delivered far too much energy for the already battered barrier to hold together. Twenty-three from him, four hundred and seventy-six in all, slammed into the bare, broken hull of the Kitredge, directly over where the missiles had torn a gap in the armor.

Even light plasma bolts packed tremendous energy into their magnetic containment fields. The explosions literally ate their way through the ruined starboard thrusters, into the port mains and out the hull opposite. The escort shuddered as its sub-light drives cut out and her fusion power plants went into emergency shutdown. Lights on the outer hull flickered and died, and her guns went silent as she began to drift helplessly without power. The hail of fire from the mass drivers shredded what was left of her stern quadrant as the squadron screamed past.

Will let out his breath, and checked his displays. Eighteen of his squadron-mates were still with him, but seven were flashing yellow-orange in his display; damaged by near-by plasma detonations or mass-driver projectiles, they needed to return to base to repair, refuel, and rearm. Transponders from three of his destroyed strike bombers were flashing on the display; the crews had managed to eject before their bombers disintegrated. The six men aboard the final two Havocs had not been quite so lucky.

“Ramrod, this is Highlander. Bandit One drifting without drives or power. Black Sheep is Winchester, RTB to Reprisal. Five birds down, seven damaged; have emergency crews and medical personnel on stand-by. Request immediately launch of Search and Rescue.”

“Highlander, Ramrod. Copy your traffic to Reprisal. SAR are launching now. Command says well done, Black Sheep, come on home. Ramrod out.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 11:18pm
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Chapter Two (cont.)

A storm of tungsten slugs filled the corridor as the six Imperial Marines that had managed to get inside exchanged fire with their Confederation counterparts. Well-trained, mostly veterans of other deadly skirmishes, five of the Marines found shelter behind the structural supports. The sixth, a new recruit fresh from basic training died as he stood his ground in the center of the corridor, firing at the ConFeds. Caught in the holocaust with nowhere to go, the two Marines in the breach also fell, their armor shattered in dozens of spots by the ConFed pulse cannons. A pair of ConFed troopers also went down, one to the essentially random fire from the five veterans; the second to the steady aimed fire of the recruit a heartbeat before his own death.

Both the ConFeds and the Imperials were now each sheltering behind solid cover, extending their arms out just far enough to send a hailstorm of fire towards the others. Saul could see it on his helmet display, clear enough. Stalemate, he thought to himself. I can break through this holding group, but who knows how many more of them there are out there. But doing so, he thought, would eat his men like paper thrown into a furnace. He sucked on his lower lip; well, Marine, it is time to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Never mind that it breaks a dozen close-quarters regulations and utterly throws away the Book. His lip twitched, not that the idiots who wrote the Book had ever been in the midst of a real fire-fight.

“Third Platoon, prepare to rush and clear the corridor,” he called out over the suits phase-comm array, “but wait for the big boom! FIRE IN THE HOLE!” he yelled as he leapt towards the breach. Charlie looked up, twisting his body away from the wall as the Centurion flew past him, and then he slammed down hard on the floor as Frasier shoved him down and covered him with his own body. Third Platoon (and Saul’s headquarters team) quite sensibly hunkered down; waiting for whatever crazy stunt their commander was attempting to unfold.

Saul threw his weight on his right hip, and bent his knee. Slamming his knee into the floor, the heavy suit of battle armor shattered tile and left a short trench trailing behind, but the act also brought him to a complete halt directly facing the breach. As he skidded across, with the whine of near misses whizzing past his head, but mostly above him (even veteran troopers had a tendency to shoot high, after all), he pulled down the Thunderbolt launcher with his right hand. Even before the click of the launcher told him the weapon was locked and armed, he was squeezing the firing trigger. As the Thunderbolt snapped into place, the solid-fuel motor ignited and streaked forward down the corridor, the flames and fumes striking the walls behind Saul and splashing away to both sides.

All of the troopers in the shielded corridor in front of Saul, Imperial and Confederation alike, cried “OH SHIT” at the same time, and immediately dropped to the floor.

Saul was already ahead of them, and as the missile reached the ‘T’ junction at the corridors end, he was face first on the ground, armored arms and hands covering his head. The 35 kilogram primary warhead detonated upon striking the far wall. Designed to gut armored vehicles, the main charge formed into a stream of plasma that ate through fifteen meters of reinforced ferro-crete and solid granite. The secondary effect of the Thunderbolt occurred a fraction of a second after the main charge detonated. Around the outer hull of the missile casing, just behind the primary, four more charges were positioned. Each of these four contained just 2.5 kilos of high explosives, but all of them were covered in pre-fragmented tungsten and ceramic plates; ten overlapping plates almost eight centimeters thick and nearly a full meter in length. The four secondary detonations showered the corridor with lethal fragments, razor sharp and with just enough kinetic energy to stand a chance at penetrating full-up battle armor.

The shock-wave from the concussion of the detonation threw everyone to the ground as it reverberated from the walls, floor, and ceiling. Dust and shattered tiles rained down on all of the troopers, even those on Saul’s side of the breach, and the remainder of the concealing wall shattered, peppering the Centurion with chunks of debris. As the blast rolled past him, pressing him down to the ground, Saul pushed himself up and charged into the corridor, firing short controlled bursts from his Reaper into the helpless Confederation troopers, stunned by the concussion and wounded by the shrapnel.

“On your feet, Marines, GET ON YOUR FEET! FORWARD!” he yelled as he sprinted towards the far junction. Third Platoon poured into the breach behind him as Frasier pulled Charlie up from the floor.

“Corp, did he just do what I think he did?”

Frasier Blenheim cycled his pulse cannon to clear any debris from the barrels and shoved the private forward towards the breach in the wall. “Private, if it is stupid and it works, then it ain’t stupid. Now follow that maniac, Marine.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 11:21pm
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Chapter Two (cont.)

Reprisal, Ramrod. Assault team is docking with Bandit One now.”

Leslie Drake turned around to face Jason. “Sir, the boarding team is ready to proceed, and we have confirmation that the Marines from Leviathan are down and en route to reinforce Centurion Yarrow. Vanguards troopers will ground in two minutes.”

“Thank you, Leslie,” Jason said as he peered at the holographic display. Currently, it showed a schematic of the base, along with icons representing each of the forty-six Imperial Marines in the field of view. Each suit of battle armor was equipped with an inertial mapper, and those devices reached out with the suits sensor arrays, transmitting back data on what they discovered. The mapper consolidated that data into a real-time three-dimensional map, and the phase-com system uploaded it to the flagship, through the breach in the scan- and comm-resistant walls.

Three of his Marines were dead, according to the display; another four were severely wounded. But, their armor also reported that drugs had been administered and the troopers stabilized. They could wait for the navy corpsmen accompanying the reinforcements. Saul had slowed his pace, letting the grunts take point as they sealed off side corridors with conventional demolition charges and moved towards the large open area the sensors had detected. Scores of red icons showed on the display in that chamber, each icon representing electronic emissions from a suit of battle armor; Confederation battle armor.

“I always knew he was a madman, Admiral,” Nathan said, “but this takes the cake. What was he thinking, firing a Thunderbolt inside an enclosed space?”

“I imagine that he wanted to save the lives of the Marines that would have died to take the corridor in a more conventional way, Nathan. And it worked, remember? If it is stupid and it works . . .”

“. . . then it ain’t stupid,” his chief of staff finished. “Got it, boss. What are you thinking, sir?”

Jason leaned on the edge of the holo-tank and bit his lip in thought. Then he highlighted a section of the compound below.

“This chamber here, where the ConFeds are holed up in; how much rock would you say is overhead?”

Nathan read the data from one of the console screens nearby, and compared it to the scans taken of the area by the battleships own sensor arrays. “Six hundred and, call it twenty meters.”

Jason nodded. “That looks about right. Reckon they laid on any heavy armor in that scan-shielded section?”

“No sir, that would go against their doctrine; besides it really, really hard to shield that much HCA against ship-based systems.”

The Admiral nodded again, and turned to look at his communication officer. “Commander Drake, ask Centurion Yarrow to set up a blocking and containment point at the next junction. He is to halt the advance,” as the Commander bent to pass along the order, Jason turned back to Nathan. “Captain Serrano, ask Captain Danislov if the main battery would like to show these people why a false flag of surrender is generally considered to be a bad idea.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” the junior officer replied with a grin.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 11:26pm
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Chapter Two (cont.)

The rear quadrant of the Kitredge was twisted, shattered metal, with clusters of flotsam and debris drifting all about. Four Intruders swarmed over the ship, ignoring the recovery deck and instead magnetically locking themselves against the outer hull. Teams of combat engineers floated across the small gap between the assault shuttle’s hatches and the derelict, their armor activating their own internal mag-locks as they made contact. Working quickly, the engineers began laying out a series of breaching charges, bonding heavy plates of HCA plating atop the explosives with molecular adhesives. In less than two minutes, the engineers had finished their work and moved away from the charges; as the NCO leading each detachment yelled “Fire in the hole!”

The explosions were directed inwards by the heavy armor plates atop of them, shattering the derelict vessels hull and sending a tsunami of debris inwards, before the atmosphere inside decided that it liked expanding into vacuum better. Shards of debris peppered the shuttles—and the Marines within—but their armor easily withstood the minor damage it caused; but the majority of the debris sailed out through the open hatches on the far side of the shuttles. More engineers surged forward, trailing a thin pressure curtain behind them. Moving as fast as possible against the hurricane force winds, they sealed the temporary pressure curtain to the hull surrounding the breach, and then the shuttles closed the far hatches and the outgoing flow of air slowly tapered off.

Centurion Danny Tibbs moved forward, passing through the fifteen-meter tunnel in a single bounce, and slammed down onto the deck as he crossed the plane of internal artificial gravity. “Go,” he ordered as the Marines of Bravo Century swarmed aboard in his wake. Three other Marine centuries were boarding the ship as well, in different locations, but his was the closest assault force to ship’s CIC and main bridge. Splitting into four platoons, the Marines rushed forward to secure magazines and other vital systems, even as Tibbs and his headquarters team followed in wake of the troopers pounding toward the derelicts brains.

The Confederation naval personnel were not lacking in courage . . . but, by and large, neither were they lacking in common sense. Outfitted with lightly armored pressure suits designed for working in vacuum, not for hand-to-hand combat, and armed merely with sidearms, or perhaps even sub-machineguns (if they were lucky), the ConFed spacers knew they had neither the firepower nor the defenses to hold off the marine assault. Perhaps if the Kitredge had been a larger ship it might have been different, but she was only an armed escort, and armed escorts did not carry a Marine complement. In less than seventeen minutes, the ship was taken, with but two exchanges of violence.

In the forward dorsal magazines serving the 4.5cm plasma guns, a squad of Marines from Third Platoon arrived in the nick of time to kill the ConFed officer attempting to detonate the plasma munitions and scuttle the ship. Not wanting to set off the ordnance himself, the squad leader turned off his contra-gravity generator and bull-rushed the ConFed. Two hundred and fifteen kilos of battle armor, containing another eighty-five or so of Marine, slammed into the desperate man at almost thirty-five kilometers per hour, and then proceeded to crash into the bulkhead beyond. The Marine suffered a concussion from the force of the impact; the remains of the Confederation officer had to be rinsed from the bulkheads of the magazine afterwards.

On the main bridge, a woman wearing rank tabs of a Confederation Commodore opened fire on Danny and his troopers with a pistol as they entered. She might as well have been shooting spitballs, as the rounds bounced off the armored plates and ricocheted across the bridge. Screaming at the top of her lungs, “No, you can’t; you can’t; NOT YOU; YOU CAN’T!” over and over and over again, she emptied her magazine, causing no casualties among the Imperial forces, but four among her own crew.

Danny Tibbs shook his head and walked across the deck as she reloaded, and reached out and grabbed her forearms, and then twisted his armored gauntlets. With a sickening crack, all four of the bones in her forearms snapped, and the women went limp from the sudden pain and shock. “Sorry about that ma’am, but the Admiral wants answers. And that means you get to survive until interrogation. Anyone else want to play?” he asked as he looked around the bridge.

Dozens of ratings and several officers quickly shook their heads in an empathic no. And Danny grinned. “Gunny, inform the Flag we have taken the ship and require transport for prisoners.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” replied Gunnery Sergeant Harper.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-07 11:33pm
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Chapter Two (cont.)

Colonel Marcus Warren was led onto the flag bridge of HIMS Reprisal by the Master-of-Arms of the ship, escorted by two armed naval ratings. Clearly visible in the center of the compartment was the holographic schematic of the base, including the section that his engineers had spent months shielding against detection. Joy, the Confederation officer thought to himself. How cocked-up can this operation get?

“Ah, Colonel Warren,” said Jason as he stood. “I would say it is a pleasure to see you again, Colonel, but I fear that it is not.”

“As you can see, we have discovered that you have not been entirely truthful with us. And because of that, Sir, men under my command have given their lives. But perhaps I am being ill-mannered, Colonel. Allow to introduce you to this gentleman, here.”

Jason laid his hand on the shoulder of another Imperial officer that Warren had not yet met. Dressed in the uniform of the Fleet, he looked much the same as any other of the officers in Imperial service. Than Warren saw the collar insignia, and he swayed slightly.

“Colonel Warren, this is Inquisitor Kim of Imperial Intelligence; he is currently attached to my staff for this squadron’s deployment. He will be taking you aside in a short time and asking you some very, well, pointed questions; questions that you, Sir, will answer, regardless of whether or not you wish to do so. But first, Colonel, tell me why does your facility have a scan-shielded section; a section that includes a hidden hanger, at least a company of Confederation troops, and a Kitredge class escort ship, all of which you neglected to inform me about?”

“I-I,” he swallowed deeply as he tried to collect himself. “Admiral, I was following instructions from my superiors in concealing them from you.”

“I see. And did your superiors also order you to falsely surrender your command, Colonel?”

“They did, they did. And it was all for nothing.”

“Not quite nothing, Colonel; my people have died because of it. And many of yours have now joined them. We have taken that ship along with an officer that out-ranks you; I trust that is the superior who instructed you to lie to me. She is being escorted across to my flagship even as we speak, where she will join you in interrogation upon arrival.”

Warren crumpled, but the two ratings held him upright by his arms.

“At the moment, I am about to deliver a message to your men down below, Colonel. Would you care to watch? Captain Serrano, ask Captain Danislov to execute his orders, if you would be so kind.”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

*****************************************************

HIMS Reprisal and HIMS Renown settled into orbit directly over the Confed base on Tammoran VII, and along the equator of each ship, eight immense twin turrets slowly swung their long and lethal barrels outwards. Duplicated on the opposite side of each battleship, with two more turrets positioned along the bow, these mighty 45cm guns were the reason that the battleships had been built. Sixteen individual cannons swiveled on their ball turrets and aligned themselves most precisely on a certain distant mountainside far below on the surface of Tammoran VII. Suddenly, the forward turret on Reprisal unleashed a pair of star-bright spheres that streaked for the surface and impacted far below less than a quarter second after being unleashed. On contact, the twin plasma bolts detonated, turning the dead rock molten in their fury, and carving out a wide crater that glowed red-hot with residual heat. Ten seconds after that first turret had spoken, Renown fired, and the crater grew larger and now glowed white-hot. And then the flagship fired its second turret, followed ten seconds later by her sister ship once again. Every ten seconds another turret fired and the crater grew deeper and deeper as molten rock was ejected from the caldera and the dead planet tried desperately to absorb and dissipate the massive energies with which it had been gifted. Eight pairs of turrets in turn fired until the crater was nearly two hundred and fifty meters deep and more than a kilometer wide.

*****************************************************

Watching the bombardment from the CIC, Jason turned to his prisoner, who struggled to maintain his footing from the recoil of the heavy plasma cannons, recoil sufficient to rock even this massive 13.8 million ton ship. “You may not be aware, Colonel, that it takes one hundred and twenty seconds to cool our main battery between shots.” The Admiral smiled at his guest. “Overheated plasma cannons are very tricky things to handle, Colonel, and we would all rather be safe than sorry. Normally, we would simply fire a combined salvo of all eight broadside turrets that bear, one salvo every two minutes, but for today I believe we will continue to proceed in sequential fire. Kind of gives it that suspenseful, yet ultimately certain ending we all expect, don’t you think?”

“Right now, we are letting the rock below us cool, so that our next volley will shatter it. And ten seconds after we fire Renown will respond to your false flag, and then our guns will speak again, and so on, so forth until we have eaten through that damned mountain and immolated every last one of your people still on the surface of that rock. In ninety seconds, the core of that crater will cool enough to solidify, and when that happens your people will die very shortly thereafter. That gives you almost a minute and a half to explain to me why I should not just finish my little excavation job and return your people’s constituent atoms to the universe from whence they came.”

Jason lifted his arm and pointed at a countdown ticker above one of the tactical consoles and he tapped his foot against the deck. “Time is a-wasting, Colonel,” he said in a sober voice. “Time is a-wasting.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-08 10:20am
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Chapter Two (cont.)

A full company of Confederation infantry, less the dozen or so dead or wounded, knelt on the floor of the corridor, their armored fingers interlaced together behind their helmets. The order to surrender had arrived just seconds before the next barrage had been scheduled, for which Saul and his Marines were profoundly grateful. The heavy impacts from the plasma bolts had shaken the entire complex, and Saul had not been completely certain they would have survived if the bolts had cut through.

In accordance with the surrender, the ConFeds had thrown down their weapons, but Saul had not been satisfied with that. Confederation battle armor was nearly identical to its Imperial counter-part, right down to the grav-fusion fuel cells worn on the back. So, once the Confeds were on their knees, with their fingers intertwined behind their heads, he had his troops yank the cells.

Oh, they had sufficient battery power for life support, but without the cells they could not move. Their two hundred plus kilogram armor had become their prison.

“Gunny, get some troopers to carry these shitheads back to the shuttles, and have the engineers lay out the demo charges. MARINES!” he bellowed. “We are leaving!”

“Ooh-rah!” dozens of voices responded.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-08 10:23am
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Chapter Two (cont.)

“This was to be a base to conduct operations in your space, Admiral. But those plans died a year ago, when we found out just how ready to go this star is. Work on the base ceased, but High Command sent us out a new commanding officer,” Warren was saying as he was suddenly interrupted.

“Commodore Amanda Palik?” softly asked Inquisitor Kim.

“Yes. The Commodore is from the Defense Advanced Research Projects and Analysis Agency. She is not a line officer, never has been. But she brought a dozen civilian scientists and researchers out here from our Core worlds. Some of them are actually Imperial citizens and subjects that she had somehow acquired and forced to work for her.”

“To what end, Colonel, was this project on which she was working focused?”

“Tammoran is going to blow real soon, as in this week maybe. We cannot forecast it precisely, but when it does . . . “

“What will happen when it does,” interjected Jason, earning a glare of reproach from his interrogation specialist.

Warren looked up, his eyes wide and leaking tears, as the skin near the attached wires quivered and jumped. “She is crazy, but I had no choice; orders are orders. I had no choice.”

“What was she crazy about, Colonel?” Kim asked as he dialed back the setting on the device. Warren visibly relaxed as his nerves quit broadcasting pain signals through his entire body, and Kim reached out to gently wipe the sweat away from his forehead. “What was the big secret?”

“She had a theory. A theory that when a star goes nova, its effects reach into t-space. The gravitational pulse of the star is so extreme at the instant it goes that it twists t-space back on itself, and can send a ship through time.”

“Through time, Colonel?” Jason asked, not even bothering to keep the astonishment from his voice. Kim’s eyes widened at the response as well.

“Through time. She has all sorts of equations and hypotheses and theories and, damn it, I may be a Ground Force officer, but even I know it is not possible. She believes it, though, and convinced High Command to send her out here. And for all my sins, I got to ride herd on her and her techno-geeks, like herding a bunch of damned cats.”

“And I suppose the nano-factories onboard the two captured ships are going to build her little time machine, Colonel?” Kim asked as he made himself chuckle as if in amusement. But his face showed no amusement, no emotion of any kind as his eyes swept across the various medical scanners and brain wave analyzers.

“No, no, no, you don’t understand,” Warren cried, shaking his head, closing his eyes and leaking tears, as his heart rate and respiration almost doubled. “She believes that a ship close enough to Tammoran, one that is in t-space when the star goes nova or for a very brief window afterwards will come out of translation in a different time. She was planning on taking all three ships through, with my troopers and engineers as her escort.”

“Why would even your High Command try something so fantastic?”

“We are losing this war. Oh, we don’t want to admit it, but you Imperials are three times as large, twice as powerful, and we will eventually lose. Every skirmish in the past two centuries has been won by the Empire, and each time we fight we lose valuable worlds and resources that we simply can’t replace. Commodore Palik’s equations seem to indicate that if her theory works, the ships will be sent back in time at least two centuries, maybe more. She intends to go back and change the past; to keep the Empire from ever forming in the first place. And the High Command was desperate enough they let her try.”

Jason and Kim looked at each other. It was impossible; physics simply did not work that way. Did it?

“I know it is crazy; hell, maybe I’m crazy for believing it. But I spent a year living with that loon and her researchers and they believe it. But if she isn’t crazy, if she is right,” Warren swallowed as he shook his head. “If she is right, you really should get the hell out of Tammoran now, before it pops.”

The exhausted man looked up at Jason, locking his gaze directly on Jason’s own. “Get your people out, get all of us out.” And then Warren collapsed into unconsciousness.

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-08 04:26pm
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Chapter Three

Jason grabbed the phone from the wall-mounted speaker and barked into it, “This is the Admiral. Get me Captain Serrano. Now.”

As he waited for Nathan to pick up, he watched Inquisitor Kim unhook Colonel Warren and inject him with a cocktail of pain-killers and sedatives. Kim’s assistants unstrapped the enemy officer and placed him carefully on a gurney and wheeled him out of the interrogation room, leaving Kim and Jason alone.

Kim shook his head. “He actually believes that it could work, as much as he may not wish to, Admiral. He is well and truly frightened by the prospect that Palik’s theory is indeed correct.”

“So am I, Inquisitor, so am I,” Jason answered.

“Flag Bridge, Captain Serrano,” spoke a voice from the phone.

“Nathan, how long will it take to complete recovery of all troops and prisoners from the planet?”

“Forty minutes, Admiral.”

“Order them to expedite and lay in a course plot on least time to t-space from orbit for all ships. If we begin departure now, can the shuttles catch us?”

“Not at best speed, Sir. We would have to hold acceleration down until they catch us and we recover them. Then we could take the formation to up to max.”

“How much time would that save?”

“One moment, Sir, we are running those numbers," Serrano answered and there was a brief pause. "Breaking orbit right now under twenty percent power and then increasing to flank after shuttle recovery saves eleven minutes on our time to t-space velocity.”

“Do it. And tell the Marines dirtside to get their asses back aboard ASAP, because we are not waiting around.”

Jason racked the phone and turned back to the intelligence officer. “As soon as she is able, Kim, grill Palik. In the meantime you . . .”

“In the meantime, I should begin with the research scientists,” Kim finished for Jason. “Admiral, I do not tell you how to run your ships; please show me the same courtesy, after all, we are both professionals at what we do.”

“Inform me immediately if you uncover any information, Inquisitor, I will be on the Flag Bridge.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-08 04:31pm
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Chapter Three (cont.)

“Shag your asses, Marines!” Saul bellowed in the main hanger bay of the facility, directed at the last members of his Century to come tearing up to the shuttle ramp. Four Intruders crouched in the pressurized bay; thrusters already spun up and ready to go once the last of the Marines were loaded. “Go, go, GO, GO!”

Gunnery Sergeant Jean Valjean counted each Marine as he passed by, the computer in his armor keeping an independent count. As the last trooper streaked up the ramp, he compared totals: 145 to 145. The dead and wounded had already been loaded, and the prisoners; well screw the prisoners if they had missed a few. “That’s all of them, Centurion,” he snapped as he headed up the ramp.

Saul turned and followed him as the navy crew chief began retracting the ramp and closing the hatch. “Make a hole, Marines!” he snarled as he headed for the cockpit at the forward end of the shuttle. Armor clad Marines squeezed back against each other as they cleared a path for the Centurion to the cockpit hatch. Reaching it, he stuck his head in. “We’re loaded, Warrant, lift us off now.”

“No can do, Centurion, we have to let the bay depressurize . . . “

“To hell with that, Warrant; the Admiral said ASAP. Wilkins!” he boomed into his helmet microphone.

“Sir,” the heavy weapons specialist answered.

“Are you manning the turret?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Blow that miserable hanger door out of our way, Marine!”

“Aye, aye, Sir!”

The flight officer, and the co-pilot, and the flight engineer turned to look at Saul with widening eyes. “You can’t just . . .,” the pilot began to say.

The whine of the rotating turret interrupted him, and then the quad plasma guns fired in sequence. The explosion ripped apart the doors, and a hurricane force gale of air erupted into the vacuum The shuttle rocked violently on its landing legs and a hideous screech echoed throughout the interior as it was dragged twenty meters across the hanger floor, the pads on the bottom of the legs ripping furrows in the ferro-crete surface.

“Consider us depressurized for flight, Warrant. Now lift this puppy off.”

Perhaps it was coincidence, but Saul’s right arm SMG was pointing in the general direction of the command pilot as he said this. The crew of the assault shuttle quietly turned back to their stations, and the shuttle lifted up and roared out past the shattered doors, the other three following along in the vessel's wake.

As the shuttles accelerated towards rendezvous with their mother ships, Saul watched as the flight engineers console depicted the steadily increasing range from the Confederation facility. As the last shuttle passed the five kilometer mark, Saul yelled, “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” and transmitted the detonation command to the dozen demolition charges his Marines had rigged.

Twelve 20-kiloton detonations devoured the base behind them, but the shuttles were too far down-range to suffer more than a minor scorching of their paint. “Bet the Admiral forget we laid the charges, gentlemen, but hey; waste not, want not, I always say.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-08 04:34pm
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Chapter Three (cont.)

“Nuclear detonations! Multiple detonations on the planetary surface!” sang out Marius Valentine from the Flag tactical plot.

Jason smiled crookedly as the remainder of his staff began trying to determine who was shooting at whom. “Centurion Yarrow strikes again,” he said softly.

Nathan Serrano nodded, “The demo charges?”

“I forgot to tell him not to bother. Oh well, I always did enjoy fireworks. Use this as an unscheduled drill for the tactical team, Nathan; I will deal with Saul when he gets back on board.”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

“Sir,” said Commander Hedges from astrogation.

“What is it, Henry,” Jason asked, his stomach suddenly knotting.

“We have just received a massive tachyon flash from the Red Giant. It has begun to collapse, Sir.”

“Time to insertion?” Jason snapped.

“Twenty-three minutes at programmed vector and thrust; that includes the increase to flank after recovering the shuttles.”

“How long do we have before the shock-wave arrives?”

“Thirty-nine minutes, Admiral. It would seem we began departure in the nick of time.”

God, let her be wrong, Jason thought to himself. Let her be wrong. “Nathan, sound General Quarters across the squadron, and put me on the speaker; all-hands, all-ships.”

“You’re hot, Admiral,” Nathan said after adjusting a few controls.

Picking up the phone, Jason closed his eyes. “This is Admiral Chandler. We are preparing for t-space insertion on a course to Cyralis. Unfortunately, the Red Giant has also picked this moment to erupt. We will enter t-space well before the shock wave can reach us, and our shielding and armor can handle any increased radiation output before it arrives. Unfortunately, recent studies by the Confederation personnel at the base on Tammoran VII indicate that this event may have some effect on ships in t-space near Tammoran. I cannot tell you what those effects might be. I will only ask that you trust your officers and carry out their commands. To the officers of the Fleet and the Legion, remain calm and do your jobs. This is Confederation research after all; it may well prove to be nothing. However, I want all ships to stand by at action stations with damage control teams ready. Soldiers and sailors of the Empire! Hail Caesar!”

“Hail Caesar!” rang out in answer from the men of the Flag Deck as Jason racked the phone.

Jason turned back to Nathan, whose face had gone pale. “Effects, Admiral? How can anything affect us in t-space?”

“Just pray that the mad ConFed woman is exactly that, Nathan. Pray.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-08 05:04pm
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Chapter Three (cont.)

The jump clock mounted on one bulkhead slowly counted down the minutes and seconds as Reprisal and her brood raced toward the magic velocity to enter t-space. Jason leaned on the edge of the holo-tank and watched the digital countdown flicker from one number to the next. Time itself seemed to stand still. Minutes were hours, and seconds were minutes, and beads of sweat began to pop out onto his forehead.

He stood straight, and adjusted his uniform jacket as he wiped his brow. His staff, the hand-picked staff he had personally chosen for this assignment, were doing their job and doing it well. No panicked voices sounded out from their stations, each of his men and women were performing their duties like the professionals they were. He looked back up at the clock: 2 minutes to go.

The armored hatch to the Flag Bridge opened, admitting his wife, her guards, and her entourage into the cavernous space, and he watched her cross the deck towards him. The admiral swallowed a sudden lump in his throat as he did. God in heaven, if anything went wrong, she would die here with him, or be stranded centuries in the past; all because of his selfish needs and desire to have her with him.

The Praetorians stopped well short, and her ladies-in-waiting stood back, but she walked up next to him, looking up with nervous eyes. Ignoring the need for protocol, he placed one arm around her, and pulled her tight against his chest, and she laid her head on his breast.

Time now raced, and only seconds were left until the Task Group engaged its PSK drives. Jason closed his eyes, and he held Julia tight against him.

*****************************************************

Eighteen ships—a dozen Imperial warships, four Imperial transports, and two Confederate auxiliaries—disappeared from the confines of our universe as the drives engaged. Flung into a different dimension of space-time, they hurtled faster-than-light away from Tammoran. Yet it was not enough of a head-start. For the Confederation Commodore had been right about the effects of the nova on that dimension humanity used to cheat Einstein and a series of shock-waves expanding throughout T-space as well as normal space struck the ships immediately upon faster-than-light insertion.

*****************************************************

Reprisal rocked hard to one side, with the lights flickering on and off. Alarms began to sound, and red emergency lights began to shine. Jason barely kept his footing as he held his wife tight against him, even as the ship lurched yet again, and then a massive bang caused the vessel to jump, and both he and his wife, along with her guards and staff, fell hard unto the cold deck.

“FTL off-line!” his flag engineer cried out from his station, amid dozens of other emergency reports. “We have emergence in normal space!”

Jason rose to a kneeling crouch, and touched Julia’s cheek. “You all right, love?”

She nodded her head, but her eyes were full of fear. Despite that fear, she forced herself to smile at her husband and replied with a steady voice. “Never been better, Jase. Best you see to your ships, Admiral.”

“Hail Caesar,” he whispered, which made her smile slightly, and she hit him lightly on his bicep. But then he stood, helping her up to her feet as well, and turned to face the central tank once more. “Status report!” he barked.

“FTL is off-line, Admiral, along with main sensors, primary and secondary shield generators, plasma turrets, and sub-light drives,” Nathan said from his console as he listened to the reports streaming into his ear-bug. “Comm reports all ships of the squadron and attached auxiliaries are in normal space, sporadic damage reports throughout. Mostly minor damage so far, but we are still waiting on full reports from Engineering; the majority of the system damage appears to have been caused by the breakers flipping. Internal gravity is functional, no hull breaches reported, tertiary shield generators are on-line and engaged, and life support is at 100%. Engineering is now reporting that they should have main power restored in ten minutes, the fusion plants went into auto-shutdown during the . . . event; sensors are coming back on-line . . . now. FTL and sub-light drive status . . . are waiting on a complete system diagnostic.”

Jason nodded. “Get me the engineering reports ASAP on the status of the drives, Nathan. Confirm with all vessels their status and instruct them to stand by for further orders, maintain formation with station-keeping thrusters. Navigation,” he said, stepping over towards Commander Hedges, “where are we?”

The flag astrogator stared as his board display in disbelief, his jaw hanging open and his eyes wide. He did not answer.

“Henry,” Jason continued softly and gently. “Henry.”

Finally, the astrogator turned to look at the Admiral and he shook his head, gathering his senses back together. “My apologies, Sir.”

“Where are we, Henry?”

“According to this, Sir, we are in Tammoran; exactly where we entered t-space, on the same vector and same velocity. But these readings can’t be right. There are no signs of the nova, none. Sir, the spectrographic analysis of the star is also off . . . I am detecting far more hydrogen than Tammoran had . . . has . . ..” his voice trailed off. "And her surface temperatures are lower as well. I cannot explain this! It's like the star just got younger!"

“I see,” he said, woodenly. “Thank you, Henry.”

He hung his head, and then he lifted it again, his face fixed and stony with determination. No, I will not let myself be driven down in despair by an event beyond my control, whether this be our time or some distant time in the past. I will not be defeated and made despondent by a quirk of fate, nor let myself or my people be destroyed in the process, he thought. He nodded to himself, and he collected himself, and then he marched across the bridge to Nathan.

The chief of staff looked up at his approach. “Admiral, Engineering reports the PSK Drives can be restored to full function but it will take at least an hour to conduct repairs. Apparently, there was a massive surge through the system that overloaded our electrical systems and tripped breakers throughout the entire ship; all ships are reporting the same. Minor damage to the systems themselves; Engineering projects that we can make repairs out of our stores within three hours.”

“Excellent, Captain Serrano; get me a channel, all-hands, all-ships, if you would, please.”

Nathan nodded, and keyed in a few commands on the console, and then handed Jason a phone.

“All personnel, this is the Admiral,” Jason began as he looked at the men and women, his men and women, his wife as well, on the Flag Bridge turning to look at him and listen to his words. “We have suffered an event unlike any other in the history of our race. We have been thrown out of t-space due to the gravitic interference of a star going nova; an event that has never before been considered as a possibility, save by one lone researcher in the Confederation. She believed that such an event would form a bridge through time itself into our past." Jason paused and allowed that to sink in. "As we discover more of the event, you will be informed. Now. What do we know?"

“As of this moment, we are in real-space in the Tammoran System. As you are aware, when we entered t-space, that star was in the process of erupting in a nova. Now, it is not. I do not know when we are, but we still are. All of us are here, now, whenever now is. We will discover exactly how far back we have gone, and when we do, when I do, you will be told. Until then, you are Imperial officers and spacers and marines of the Fleet; you are tankers and troopers and warrants of the Legion; you are the Empire; I expect every man among us to conduct himself accordingly. We will overcome, as Mankind has always overcome. Carry out your orders, and remain ready for action. Chandler out.”

As he disconnected from the live broadcast, he could see the shocked expressions on the faces of his crew, his friends, his wife. “Nathan,” he whispered.

“Yes, Admiral?” his chief of staff, his friend, replied.

“As soon as all ships report PSK Drives have been restored, set course for Earth at our best speed. We are going home.”

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 Post subject: Re: In Harm's Way PostPosted: 2012-09-08 10:48pm
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Chapter Four

Jason tapped his fingers on the conference table of the Flag conference room aboard Reprisal as he frowned at the holographic display simulating windows that wrapped around the table. Not actual windows, certainly not this deep within the armored core of his flagship, but projections that appeared so real it felt as if he was looking through a pane of armored glass. The yellow sun of Alpha Centauri shone like a golden marble, circled by her sixteen planets and two sister stars, but the system had been found to be empty. The fourth planet below, in his time the oldest extra-solar colony of Mankind, virgin and pristine; filled with primordial forests and crystal blue waters and clean air without a trace of industrial pollutants. And life in abundance . . . just no intelligent life, no Terran life. No colonies, no settlements, not the first trace of Humanities explorations. He had made the decision to stop here weeks ago, hoping beyond hope to find that some outpost of man, of the Empire (or even of pre-Imperial Earth), had been established. Those hopes had been dashed upon arrival, but Nathan’s briefing gave at least some comfort. At least they had not been sent back to the Stone Age.

“. . . admittedly, the transmissions are more than four years out of date, and we only have fragments, but it dovetails with the astronomical data. Gentlemen, madame,” Nathan said with a smile and a slight bow towards Julia, “we are in the year 2021—and have travelled almost half a millennium into our own past.”

“The question thus becomes what next?” Jason asked as Nathan sat, turning to look at his assembled officers and staff each in turn. To his right sat Julia, to the left Nathan. Aleksey Danislov and Miles Tuturola were present, along with Commodores Liam Kennedy, Ethan Howell, and Liu Teng-Hui (the commanders of his two battleship divisions and his cruiser division, respectively), Captains Gianfranco Veltroni and Antonio Vargas (his destroyer division commander and the commander of the 501st Transport Flotilla), Brigadier Erwin Godwin (deputy commander of the 501st Shock Legion), and Inquisitor Kim So-yeon.

“The Empire is not even a glimmer of reality at this particular junction in time,” he continued, “Earth has yet to become united. They are fragmented, fighting each other; and they have not yet begun to fully experience the Age of Terror—the worst is still to come in that regard. The planet is nearly destitute, their financial systems are on the verge of complete collapse; even their strongest and most stable governments bicker internally among themselves, and in just a few years the Iranian-Israeli War and the Pan-African Conflict will generate new heights of terror attacks that will cause even greater widespread destruction and chaos, and lead to the near total depopulation of the Middle Eastern states. These people are also living amid an ecological disaster of near cataclysmic proportions, with leaks of chemical pollutants and radioactive materials that would garner the responsible parties a sentence to a slow and painful death in our own time.”

“These are still the same venial, self-serving governments that Marcus Collins will declare incompetent to govern seventy-two years from now, slighlty less corrupt perhaps, but every bit as short-sighted and interested only in securing their own power. The great surge of technological innovation and development leading to clean fusion generators and PSK drives wouldn’t occur for another two decades—even if we had not changed the course of history by just being here. None of the existing nations can provide this Task Group with immediate help in actually defending the system—and several of the major powers, if not all of them, will harbor resentment towards us for putting an end to their squabbles if we intervene. All of them will lust after our technology and weapons and then attempt to force us to labor under their unworkable systems of governance." Jason paused and he looked at each of his senior officers in turn. " Options?” he then asked.

“Admiral,” Veltroni answered, “we have time before the Ordan-Kraal discover the Sol System; we have sixty-four years until the first culling wave arrives. Our duty, in my own opinion, is clear; we must somehow prevent their attack on Old Earth.”

“We may not have those precious six decades, Captain,” interjected Kim. “Our emergence at Tammoran in this time-line created a massive t-space signature, one that the Ordan-Kraal, could not have failed to notice. We have already made contact with scouts from the Hraniss and Melarr, who were extremely relieved that we stayed outside of their territorial claims. But both powers quite clearly detected our emergence from the temporal displacement, even this far from Tammoran; which is why they came looking for us . . . to determine whether or not we posed a threat to their peoples and governments. Our very presence has already altered the course of history. Who knows when, in the now which we now live, the Ordan-Kraal will discover the location of Earth? And despite our superior technology, we have a relatively primitive planet and just twelve warships—six of them mere destroyers—that will be matched against seventeen fortified and industrialized systems along with an active Fleet of more than four hundred vessels.”

Liu Teng-Hui shook his head. “It is not quite that bleak, Inquisitor—the Ordan-Kraal did not build their first battleships under after we showed them it could be done. Those four hundred ships are cruisers, destroyers, and lighter ships—and all of them are smaller and less powerful than our ships on a class-for-class basis. Even their fixed planetary defenses pose little threat provided that our battle-line keeps the range open. We could hit the Crabs now, while they are not expecting a conflict—and without ever contacting Earth.”

Kennedy frowned in turn, “And they are armed with plasma cannons and nuclear tipped torpedoes, Teng-Hui, just like our own ships, in addition to having thousands of fighters and bombers on their central worlds. They could simply swarm us with sheer numbers if they were willing to take the casualties. And do not forget, we have no means of resupply—our onboard munitions and fuel stocks are all that we have, until we build the plants that refine fuel and manufacture arms. And find a work force to operate them as well. Hell, man, we don’t even have a Fleet tender or a yard-ship with us, so once our supply of spare parts is used up, we cannot even keep our ships running or repair any serious damage that they might—will, rather—suffer if we just charge in and attempt a pre-emptive strike.”

“We could settle New Earth here in Alpha Cent,” mused Godwin. “Build up our own industrial base and keep on an eye on when and if the Crabs discover the location of Earth. We, or our descendents, can then intervene decisively on the side of humanity. After all, not only do we have the Legion’s nano-forges at our disposal, but the pair we captured aboard the Confed ships at Tammoran. And the common citizens of Earth will see us as saviors in the face of an imminent threat.”

Danislov shook his head. “Captain Serrano and I have been assembling the numbers for that option, Brigadier. Shall I give them the bad news, Nathan, or you would prefer to?”

Serrano snorted. “Including the Legion, all Confederation prisioners, Lady Julia’s staff and her Praetorians, and the varied diplomatic and governmental personal that were hitching a ride to Cyralis, we have a grand total of 75,631 personnel aboard the ships of this Task Group. 2,873 of which are female. That is less than three point eight percent of our total population, gentlemen. Unless many of our people are willing to take a vow of celibacy or select a homosexual life style, isolating ourselves will cause incredible tension in any society that we create. Over the next century, we would have to use the few women we have as baby-machines, while carving out a virgin world, locating resources, and dealing with all of the dangers inherent in any colonization effort. The nano-forges are limited in what they can construct, even many of our vital drive components are simply too massive for them to handle. They certainly cannot produce new ships or shipyards, and we do not have any naval engineers to design them, or the personnel to man them even if they could. If we isolate ourselves, then by the time the Ordan-Kraal do arrive we might well have back-slid to the point where we could lose the capability for interstellar transit. Further, this is an Imperial Battle Squadron, gentlemen, not a Colonization Fleet. We lack many of the supplies and equipment a proper colony needs, like seeds and domesticated animals in hibernation sleep. How many of our people actually know how to farm? Weave clothing? Mine rare minerals? We are simply too few in numbers and far too specialized in the wrong areas to make a successful go at colonizing Centauri without outside assistance. And we certainly could not maintain our fighting trim even if we attempted to do so.”

“Agreed,” grumbled Miles Tuturola. “We must make contact with the Earth of this time and boot-strap them into being able to contribute to their own defense; at the same time, however,” and he paused slightly, meeting Jason’s eyes with a steady gaze, “we will also have to prevent our personnel from simply being absorbed by their population.”

“Even if we are assimilated into their current system of governments and find ourselves serving under their banner and not the Imperial Standard,” Kennedy added, “we can still allow Humanity to gain the knowledge, technology, ships, and weapons it has to have to defend itself—and isn’t that what our oath is really about? Defending humanity?”

Jaw dropping, Vargas whipped his head around and glared at the senior officer, despite the gap between their ranks. “Mercenaries, Commodore? Are you seriously suggesting that we abandon our oath to the Empire to serve these, these . . . primitives as sell-swords? And the rest of you,” he spat at the assembled men, “would you have us disband to spread our knowledge among the masses, serving under some native indig who doesn’t know the difference between a PSK drive coil and a gravity accelerator? Who thinks that some petro-chemical fueled tracked vehicle is the ultimate ground weapon? I would not have believed these words would be even thought by loyal officers of the Empire, much less spoken aloud. I say no, gentlemen. We have more firepower aboard the ships of this squadron than all of the militaries of that entire planet combined. And we have the Black Panzers and our own Marines to boot. I say we force the whole bloody lot of them into the Empire. After all, we’ve done it in the past with conquered ConFed worlds, so why not go whole hog and do what we do best? Conquer the primitive bastards on this Earth, build up our strength, and then go out to hammer the Crabs back into the primordial ooze they crawled out of.”

What Empire, Antonio?” snorted Liu. “The Empire does not yet exist, we do not have a Caesar nor do we have an Imperial Senate. My God, man, Marcus Collins will not even be born for another twenty-four years!”

“Then we create the Senate and establish the Empire,” the junior officer bluntly answered, “and as for our lack of a Caesar? Well, Admiral Chandler is married to Caesar’s daughter, and she is here with us now. Her future son will become Caesar in time.” And here Vargas paused slightly, looking down at his hands before lifting his head high once more. Before saying the words that no loyal officer of the Empire should ever even think, much less say. “You might not be of the House of Collins by blood, Admiral, but you are joined with them by marriage. Take the laurels in your hand, Sir. Crown yourself as Caesar; assume the throne and we will follow you to Hell and back.”

The table exploded as the assembled officers began speaking and arguing at once, voices rising and Jason could feel the temperature of the exchange beginning to soar.

“ENOUGH!” he yelled. “Remember who and what we are, gentlemen, and conduct yourselves accordingly. Captain Vargas, I will not usurp the laurels of Caesar. Not now, not ever. But we are still Imperial officers, subjects, and citizens, gentlemen. We shall restore both the Empire and the Senate, just not in the manner that you have suggested, Antonio. We do have a monarch, after all; an Empress, one which we shall all serve.”

Vargas’s eyes grew wide. “You cannot be serious! The men won’t stand for a woman upon the Throne!”

Jason stood and placed his clenched fists on the table. “You will make them accept it, gentlemen. The Imperial Laws of Succession are quite clear, and with the reforms of Caesar Nicolas, the law allows for women to ascend to power. We thought we had a century to prepare for this day, that my wife's brother would succeed his father, and not until his eldest daughter assumed the throne would we have to accept the new laws . . . but we were wrong. If we, here today, refuse to follow the lawful decrees of both the Imperial Senate and Caesar himself then the Empire is dead. I for one do not intend to allow the Empire to die; not this day, nor any day that I continue to draw breath. Caesar Julia is our Lord and Master now, gentlemen. We have sworn an oath, and that oath leads us to her. If I take the laurels in defiance of the law, then how long will it be before someone else decides they are more fit than I to rule? Civil war lies down that road, along with anarchy and the utter annihilation of the human race by our foes. If we want the Empire to survive, then Julia Marie Shannon Collins Chandler, daughter of Caesar Nicolas Mark Gaius Collins and the direct descendent in the unbroken lineage of Marcus Collins must be hailed. Accept that and support that and make your people understand that. For if you refuse, then gentlemen,” Jason paused as he matched the gazes of the ten men and one woman seated at his table, “if you refuse, you are committing treason against the Throne of Man.”

The briefing room became quiet, so quiet that Jason imagined he could hear the beating of the hearts of his men. Several looked away as he glared at them, others met his gaze evenly; some few even smiled. “What will be your decision, gentlemen? Make your choice.”

A second passed, and then two, and then three. And then Ethan Howell, who had remained silent throughout the meeting, eldest son of an Imperial Senator of rigidly conservative stock, a Senator that had on many occasions debated against the reforms of Caesar Nicolas in the Senate, stood and turned to face Julia. “I will die before I commit treason against the Empire. And so shall any who seek to commit treason in my presence. As the Admiral says, there is only a single choice that will permit us to retain our honor, my brothers, however much some among us may not care to make that difficult choice. But we are the Imperial Fleet, and we are the Imperial Legions—the merely difficult is what we accomplish day after day in our sworn service to all of Humanity.” The Commodore came to attention facing Julia, his arm snapping across his chest and outward in salute to Her Imperial Majesty.

“HAIL CAESAR!” he barked. Quickly each of the others rose to their feet and repeated the salutation. Last among them, Jason himself stood and joined the rest in proclaiming the ascension of his wife to the Throne of Humanity. “HAIL CAESAR!”

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