EXCERPT FROM STRANGER STARS
COPYRIGHT © CAMERON COOPER 2021
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Temar Mountain Offensive. General Andela’s Flagship, CMS Glory, One Light Year out from Beauramis III, Terran Union.
Y32 – Two Years after Formation of Carinad Federation.
I watched Brigadier General Jai Van Veen cross his arms and tilt his head as he stared at the tank display in the center of the bridge. The tank holo was a perfect sphere with a diameter of three meters. Inside the ball of blue light was arrayed a representation of the command fleet that hovered all around the Glory.
I waited for Jai’s opinion on the array of the fleet. We were in a rare moment of pause, when I could afford to take a breath and not do three other things at the same time.
Jai reached out and swiped sideways with his hand near the edge of the ball. It obligingly turned, showing the far side of the arrayed fleet.
“You know you could just spin on one heel and look out the windows, right?” I said. It was an old argument.
“I like the simplicity of a facsimile,” Jai replied absently. His typical response.
Instead, I looked out the windows. I never got tired of looking through them. The windows on the Glory’s bridge were floor to ceiling, which was four meters overhead, and wrapped from the starboard, around the near-semi-circular nose of the ship, to the port side. They were vastly different from the old Lythion’s narrow apertures.
Only, today, there wasn’t a lot to see through them. The blue sun to our starboard was a tiny disk on the black starfield. The fleet was spread out across a thousand kilometers. The farthest ship, Dalton’s Dominant, the fortified destroyer which had delivered Juliyana’s ground troops onto Beauramis, was too far away to even twinkle in the sun’s light.
“Looks good,” Jai Van Veen declared.
“We should have brought more,” I replied.
“There were no more to be spared.”
“Which reminds me.” I turned and looked toward the command chair, up on the higher deck at the back of the bridge. Slate stood at the station beside the chair. “Slate, we need an updated production schedule from the shipyards.”
“Which shipyards, General?” Slate asked, his hand already moving over the dash.
“All of them, of course.” Jai rolled his eyes.
Slate had the sense to not slump even though I’d just handed him several hours worth of work. At last count, thirty-seven Federation polities had retooled part or all of their facilities to build military vessels, or components of military vessels, to match the blueprints and standards available to anyone who cared to help with the war effort. There were never enough ships, even though the Marine Force bought every completed and certified ship.
There were never enough guns or railguns, cannons, small arms, armor, suits, ammunition, bolt boxes, hand-scanners and…well, it was a long list of what we were constantly short of, despite most of the Carinad worlds supplying us.
In times of war, resources got used up, destroyed, or became inoperable through constant use and lack of maintenance. That included ships and people, alas. We had just passed the second anniversary of the start of the war with the Terran Union…we were right on schedule for supply issues to become a real problem.
I turned toward the weapons wing. “Commander Chowdhury, what is the status on that grenade launcher you were developing?”
Calpurnia grimaced. “About where it was last time, General. Maybe after this offensive…”
I nodded, easily reading what she had not said. We’d all been too busy fighting the Terrans to spend time on development and research. Calpurnia was the director and coordinator of the weapons pit on the bridge, and I couldn’t spare her for the development work she was also responsible for. But that was also a fact of war. “Pick one of your officers with the skills to take over the work and assign the project to them,” I told Calpurnia.
“Yes, sir,” she said, without a hint of resentment. We’d all had to delegate the more interesting aspect of our portfolios, these days, and had become accustomed to giving up pet projects.
As Calpurnia replied, something exploded over by the analysis wing on the port side of the bridge. Steam vented in a loud snarling hiss, and someone cried out.
We all turned to check.
Yoan—Major Saillins—stood with his arms crossed just beyond the edge of the steam venting from the wall. “I told you to keep the wrench on it until it was sealed.” He was speaking to the three noncoms sweating and working at the guts of the wall, which was stuffed with a spaghetti snarl of leads, wires, tubes and more. One of them was on his rear, shaking his hand.
Yoan looked at me. “Sorry, General. We’ll be done in five minutes.”
That was what he had said ten minutes ago. “Major Rosalie needs her scanners sooner rather than later,” I pointed out. Gratia Rosalie, who looked far better in the dark blue Marine uniform than I had suspected she might, with her very long figure, was sitting with her hips propped upon the engineering dashboards at the back of the bridge, a patient expression on her face while Yoan’s crew worked on her dashboard and the bank of scanner displays she monitored at all times—when they were working.
The dashboard she leaned upon was Lyssa’s. Lyssa stood behind it, looking amused. She was the captain in charge of engines and ship’s performance, and three of her team stood at the tall screens behind her. As we were hung in space, far beyond any gravity wells, Lyssa and her team had little to do right now but watch Yoan direct the other bridge engineering team.
“Major Rosalie will have her scanners in five,” Yoan told me. His voice was not quite harsh. “General,” he added.
It wasn’t just supplies and resources we were running short of, these days. It was Yoan’s responsibility to keep the Glory running and able to defend itself, while also directing engineering operations across the Marine Force and on all current theaters of war. He was feeling the stress, the same as everyone.
I glared back at him.
“Sorry, sir,” Yoan said.
I nodded. “Have Lyssa call for more people, if you need it. They won’t be in the way for a while.”
Access to the bridge was tightly controlled by the Personnel AI. I’d arranged it that way not just for security reasons, but also because people standing in the wrong place cluttered up the bridge. In the middle of a battle, tripping over unexpected feet or cannoning into someone could delay an order or action by a crucial few seconds.
Anyone who wasn’t certified bridge personnel couldn’t enter. They weren’t just forbidden from entering but were physically repelled by forcefields at the entrance to the bridge. The forcefields were controlled by the AI, who could only be overridden by me, Jai or another full Brigadier General. The only other Brigadier General on the Glory right now was Fiori and she always stayed on the medical level. Hell, she lived in the medical level.
Lieutenant Ragno, standing at the Defensive Weapons station, called out. “I have ion paths tracing into local space, General!” Her voice was projected next to my ear by the active acoustics systems, so I didn’t have to strain to hear her.
“How many?” I replied.
She stared at her dashboard, her face stiff and emotionless, then looked up at me. “Too many to count.”
“Jai,” I snapped.
Jai turned the ball once more, so that it was oriented to show the Glory and the fleet surrounding us from our current perspective. “Throw the traces up here, Lieutenant,” he told Ragno.
“Marlow, status on the ground troops,” I called, and headed back to the chair and the dashboards. Slate reached over the chair as I approached it, and tapped on my dashboard, switching it from navigational reporting to tactical.
Anderson Marlow—Colonel Marlow—was listening on a dedicated, armored communications stream, which was tightly focused between him and Juliyana, who was leading the ground assault on Temar Mountain.
Marlow’s analysis team, working with Eliot Byrne’s intelligence unit, had determined that Temar Mountain was the location of a massive Terran military base and supply depot, while a shipyard hung in space directly over the mountain.
The shipyard was my target, which was why I had brought with me the bulk of the command fleet. But I wouldn’t attack the shipyards until Juliyana’s troops had reached their target and begun their offensive. As Juliyana’s people had to slog twenty kilometers in armored suits, from the drop zone to the mountain, we lingered here, a few wormhole-seconds away from Beaumaris and well out of range of the longest and most sensitive Terran scanners known to us.
The Terrans couldn’t possibly know we were here. The operation had been planned and executed with the tightest security because the Terrans had got so good at anticipating us.
I looked at Marlow as I settled in the chair.
He shook his head. “All green,” he said shortly.
Juliyana was reporting no problems—and green meant she wasn’t yet engaged. Blue was for when they had attacked and were committed to the offensive. I could halt her where she was right now, if I felt it was necessary.
But I hadn’t spent two months working on this just to pull her out because I was suddenly feeling antsy.
I drummed the flat arm of my chair, with its multiple coffee mug rings. “Warn her we have ion paths coming at us, but tell her to move on at best speed,” I told Marlow.
He nodded and spoke quietly, relaying my directions.
“Warn the fleet,” I added, to Slate. Slate was my communications specialist as well as my personal aide. It was a role that he was naturally suited for. He had once been a translator android for the Terrans. Now he had a human body, and was dedicated, body and spirit, to the Carinad Federation.
“Already done,” Slate told me.
“General!” Jai pointed at the blue ball in the center of the bridge.
I rose to my feet again, staring at the tank. The display had scaled up, reducing the fleet to a smallish blue dot inside the sphere. My heart skipped a beat and my stomach clenched as I watched dozens of yellow dotted lines trace the ion paths of the Terran ships coming at us. There was a possibility they would move straight through this section of space and not even notice us, but I wasn’t betting my fleet on that.
At least we could detect the ion spore the Terran motherships created. Not so long ago, we couldn’t.
The war against the Terran Union had divided itself into two phases, so far. The first phase had me and the Marine Force on the back foot. We responded to Terran attacks, defended vulnerable cities and scrambled every time someone raised the alarm. There was nothing else we could do but play the defensive game. No one knew where the Terrans would strike next, except that it would be somewhere on the edge of Carinad space facing the Terran territories.
But the Terrans were building bigger and better ships all the time, increasing the range of their Gibson-Maass Spacial Compression Drive. Soon, more than just the border worlds were exposed to Terran raids.
The constant scramble-and-defend mode changed when Lyth Andela’s science teams, working with Calpurnia’s weapons people, had developed a way to trace the ion path that preceded and trailed a Terran ship traversing compressed space.
Compressing space was the Terran version of our crescent ships, which folded space and used wormholes to reach the other side of that fold. Terrans compressed space in front of their ships, with their Maass Drives, and let it expand back to normal behind the ship. It let the ship move at super-FTL speeds.
We couldn’t see the ships when they were using their drives, but we could see where they had come from and where they were heading, and we could see that path from far away, if the scanner was big enough.
Lyth had built a satellite-sized scanner in the ruins of Blinni city station. Blinni had been one of our first casualties. Its former mayor, Arati Georgeson, died in the final defense of the city and when he woke in his new, cloned body, several weeks later, he did two things. The first was to give the remains of the city to Lyth to build his scanner, and encourage the survivors of Blinni to provide the labor Lyth needed to build the scanner. The second thing Georgeson had done was sign up as a Marine. He was on Dalton’s ship, now, and was a captain, tapped for swift promotion.
The scanners we had on the Marine ships were far smaller than Blinni’s—they had to be, if they were to fit on the ship at all and leave room for humans. That meant we couldn’t see a Terran ship approaching inside compressed space until they were very nearly upon us.
The scanner Lyth built on Blinni, though, could reach Terran space and detect ion paths heading our way, then extrapolate a destination. That changed the war. Now we could anticipate where and when the Terrans would attack and be there in time to not just defend, but to pounce upon them the moment they emerged.
We could attack them, for once.
The ion path scanners had been developed only eight months ago. This offensive upon Temar Mountain was our first major operation bringing the war to the Terrans.
We couldn’t afford to fail, this time. The Temar Mountain base was huge, one of the Terran’s biggest military command centers. Shutting it down would seriously crimp the Terran war effort. It would also be a morale booster for the Federation. The Carinad people were as bruised as my Marines and could use the lift.
“Gone to Blue!” Colonel Marlow called.
Shit. Juliyana was committed. The attack on the base beneath Temar Mountain was launched. That changed things.
I moved closer to the ball, where the yellow dots were streaking toward us. “Dalton!” I called.
“General?” Dalton’s voice issued from a dozen different speakers around the bridge, which had the effect of centralizing his voice, as if it was coming from the tank.
“Peel off and drop carriers over Beauramis, ready to land and pick up the troops. Go fast.”
“Going,” Dalton replied.
I looked at Jai. “Battle plan, Brigadier?”
Jai nodded, staring at the ball and the yellow lines. “Command Fleet captains, listen up. We engage with sequence three-seven-five, then roll into four-two-two. I’ll call after that. Acknowledge.”
Low-volume affirmations sounded, on top of each other, creating an elongated note of agreement.
Jai glanced at Slate.
“All acknowledged, sir,” Slate told him, staring at his dashboard.
I lifted my chin. “Gloria, sequence three-seven-five, go!”
“Yes, General,” the ship’s primary AI acknowledged.
Beneath my feet, the floor vibrated as the massive reaction engines fired up. Stars shifted their positions to the right as the Glory turned to meet the Terrans.
“Battle stations!” Jai yelled.
Everyone who wasn’t already at their station scurried back to it. Yoan’s engineering crew scrambled to pick up their equipment and tools and put the fascia board back on the wall, while Major Rosalie shoved them aside with her hip, trying to reach her scanner tables.
I moved back to the command chair, my heart thudding heavily, distracting me. How could the Terrans be here?
How did they know we were here?
The tank chimed. The dotted yellow lines turned to solid red lines, each with a little dot at the front end. A mothership.
“How many motherships?” I asked. Someone had to have counted the lines by now.
“Thirty-six, sir!” came the call. Ragno, I think.
We were picking up speed, preparing to attack. The team in the pit were working swiftly, preparing weapons, shields, and defense measures. Calpurnia stood behind them, her feet spread, providing soft directions, asking for statuses. The Glory was never part of the frontline offensive, but we’d had to fight our way out of trouble many times. Bringing the ship to attack status was simple common sense.
I left Calpurnia alone. She knew how to do her job.
Most of the ships in the fleet were heading to a location that, once the fleet was assembled, would form a loose spherical cap around the emerged motherships, keeping them contained. Another, smaller wall, composed of the balance of the ships, would herd the Terran motherships into the net.
But no plan survives contact with the enemy, which was why Jai had only called out two sequences.
The starfield beyond the windows shifted as our speed increased. But apart from stars sliding across the windows, there was still nothing else to see. The motherships were too far away to pick out with the naked eye. I abandoned the windows and turned to the tank. The red heads at the tip of the lines were slowing. They’d seen us.
“Watch for aperture glow!” Jai shouted.
We couldn’t see the ships from here, but we could see and detect on the scanners the super-heated maws of their fireball launchers as they fired.
Sergeant Cooney, in the weapons pit, would by now have the ship’s shields up and at full draw. I glanced to the left, where Captain Seong Ogawa stood with Major Rosalie. Seong stared at the table display next to Rosalie’s heads-up charts, his eyes narrowed. His primary role was to interpret the data the scanners provided and give me coherent information I could use to make decisions, but at times like this, he could supplement the weapons pit’s warning systems.
“Fireballs!” he called.
I glanced at the window. Pinpricks of light, far away, announcing the launch of the fire-encased balls which could pass right through every level and bulkhead of a ship, exposing its interior to vacuum from two sides. The balls looked quaint, but were deadly.
I pulled my gaze back to the tank. After a first volley, the Terrans always split and separated the targets they presented, while attacking us from as many angles as possible. That was why we used a net to try to scoop them back into a condensed area where we could deal with them.
And they were separating and running, today. Jai studied the red dots as they parted. “Sequence four-two-two, now!” he called.
The Glory’s rail guns and cannon launchers all spoke at the same time, making the ship shudder. The rail guns traced green lines across black space, crossing and mingling with over a hundred others, seeking out their targets.
A mothership lit up with a quickly-extinguished explosion.
So did one of ours.
The sides of the Marine net surged forward. We were attempting to pull the net in around the Terran ships.
The next few minutes were busy and noisy. Busy, because we all had our assigned tasks, depending upon what the current sequence was. We listened to Jai call the numbers and responded accordingly.
It was noisy because we talked over the top of each other. Everyone on the bridge but me gave status updates or drew attention to anomalies. If a status changed for the worse, I gave directions. I told individual crew what to do with new data.
None of us shouted. The acoustics system made that unnecessary. Jai was the only exception. He raised the volume of his calls to draw our attention to the swift river of new battle sequences to set up and execute. Not just the Glory heard Jai. Every officer captaining every ship in the fleet—which included colonels and commanders—was connected to the Glory and could hear Jai’s calls. Slate made sure of that.
We took fire more than once, but the shields repelled nearly everything. We were jolted and rocked, and my dashboard reported breeches on several decks, but molecular barriers were holding, and fire crews were in attendance.
I made myself focus, so I didn’t hear the rattle of voices around me. “Marlow, ground troop status?” I looked directly at him where he stood by the analysis wing, with Rosalie and Seong beside him.
He met my gaze. “Red, General.”
They were taking fire. The status didn’t tell me how much fire they were taking, though.
My belly tightened. The troops had expected to be fired upon. You can’t sneak fifty armed men into a base. But the Terrans engaging us here in nowhere-space told me Juliyana had walked into a similarly-rigged situation. It wasn’t a few sentries and the odd uniformed personnel they were facing.
I nodded in response to Marlow’s update. “Tell them to pull out. All troops, disengage and retreat at double-time. Dalton, are you hearing this?”
“Got it,” Dalton replied. “All carriers directed to land as close as possible. Extraction underway.”
A thought occurred to me. “Are you taking fire yourself?”
“Yes.” His voice was calm. “Fighters are out.”
Two dozen one-man fighters and a lone destroyer. Granted, the Dominant was heavily armed. My throat tightened, anyway. “Jai, I want three destroyers to jump to the Dominant, reinforce its position and guard the personnel carriers while the ground troops are extracted.”
Jai nodded, even though he had his back to me as he studied the tank in front of him.
“We stay engaged until Dalton is out of there,” I added to Jai. Then I made myself forget about that part of the operation.
“General!” Slate cried. Loudly.
I spun on the wide seat of the chair to look at him.
He shook his head. “I don’t know how, but the Terrans have spliced into our data stream. They’re…calling us.”
The bridge fell silent.
I got to my feet and faced Slate properly. “Calling the Glory?”
Slate swallowed. “You, General. They are requesting to speak to you.”
I held still for two heartbeats, sorting out implications, threats, the risk factor. But there were too many factors thrown up by this development that would require thought and research. That was for later.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Jai, keep the pressure on them.”
“Yep.” His voice was soft.
“Slate, allow the connection.” I pointed at the metal decking in front of the command chair. It was the only clear space on the bridge that wasn’t a traffic path and I would be damned if I let the functioning of the bridge be compromised. “Dark surroundings,” I added.
Like many other technologies, person-to-person connections had developed enormously since the war had begun. War had a way of accelerating not just promotions, but improvements to just about anything that impacted on the war effort. Communications was part of that.
The dark surrounds was for whoever was about to appear on that patch of metal. I didn’t want them to see anything of the bridge but me. But we would all be able to see them just fine.
My heart pounded in unpleasant anticipation as the nanobot pool beneath the deck siphoned up through the vent and formed itself into a human-shaped lump, which swiftly took on details.
I knew the face, when it formed, but barely recognized it. Kore Odile had greatly changed in the last two years. The man was two meters tall and he had lost any trace of youth that had once showed in his clear jaw and eyes and smooth flesh. Now he looked far older than he really was. His temples showed grey.
If I had passed him as a stranger in a street, I would have barely noticed him, except for one thing. He looked…ordinary. Brown hair, tanned face. He was not overweight or underweight. He did not have an excess of muscles. He was not wearing a Terran uniform, either. He was the Secretary of the Terran Assembly, not a general, but the real flow of power in the Terran Union meant that the distinction made no difference. He controlled the Muradar navy, and he was a slippery, ruthless leader.
The one exception to his unremarkable appearance was a red scar which ran across his right cheek and over the eye socket. It looked as though he had been lucky to not lose the eye—or perhaps he had and this was a fake I was looking at. Terran organ replacement was far behind what we could do. The scar was dramatic, and to me looked to be the single facet of his appearance that hinted at his personality.
Odile spread his feet and crossed his arms. He did not look directly at me, but at a screen that must have been right in front of him and at head-height. The Terrans knew of our use of nanobots, but they had not adopted the technology themselves. We were still figuring out why that was so, for it would tell us a lot about them.
His jaw rippled as he looked at his screen. It meant his gaze was a touch off kilter, but I didn’t interpret that as reticence, the way I might have when avatars were first introduced across the Federation.
“What do you want, Kore Odile?” I demanded. “I’m a bit busy.”
“I know. I’m watching it through my window as we speak,” Odile replied. He spoke Carinad Common as if he was born to it.
Cold fingers walked up my spine. He was here, right in the thick of the battle.
I sat on my chair and casually rested my hand on the flat arm, then tapped out a message to Jai. Find Odile’s ship! I let my fingers keep tapping as if I was impatient. “If you’re trying to delay me or distract me, you’re wasting your time.”
“I wanted to look at you,” Odile replied. “In all the time we have been opposing each other, I’ve never seen you for myself. Photographs never convey all the information, I find.”
“Still waiting,” I said shortly. “Ten seconds.” I raised my other hand and let it hover over the controls that were clearly visible on the arm of the chair. None of them would disconnect the call, but Slate was near-prescient when it came to anticipating my intentions.
Odile’s jaw rippled once more. His scowl, distorted by the rigid scar tissue running up the side of his face, was ferocious. “I wanted to tell you in person that your attempt to destroy my base on Beauramis has failed. Did you think we would let you just walk in the door and take out your weapons? You have made a mistake, General Andela. You have underestimated us, and it will be your undoing.”
“Noted. Is that it?” I lifted my hand over the arm once more.
I watched the muscles in his face jump and squeeze. He didn’t like my attitude. Oh dear, what a shame. His voice was a snarl as he spoke. “You killed my sister.”
He was talking about his cousin, not his sister, but perhaps they counted family relationships differently in their Union. As he went on about my lack of understanding of the forms of warfare, that I had not given Modesta an opportunity to surrender before blowing her ship and the mothership it sat in into very small pieces, a screen formed in the air behind Kore Odile.
A block of text appeared, aligned to one edge so I wouldn’t miss a word.
TO HACK OUR
“Slate!” I cried.
Odile froze in mid-word, his mouth open. The color ran out of him, then the silvered nanobots splashed onto the floor in a large puddle that quickly drained back into the well beneath the floor.
“Jai! Give them everything you’ve got!” I added, my voice even louder. “They’ll come at us hard, now!”
Jai rapped out sequence numbers. The Glory lurched as Gloria jumped to follow the tailored directions built into the sequences.