March 15th, Earth Year 2290
The day the aliens returned.
The memories are still fresh.
Of colonies burning.
Of millions dying in agony.
50 years later, we’ve built up our strength.
Using a wormhole, we colonized both sides of the galaxy.
It was the worst mistake we could have made.
Our enemy has returned and the wormhole has collapsed.
Commander Thatcher finds himself on the wrong side of the divide.
Separated from his pregnant wife by countless light years.
He’s just been given command of a light armored cruiser.
His first command.
If he ever wants to see his wife again, he’ll need to do the impossible.
To defeat this enemy, he will need to reinvent space warfare.
So that’s just what he’s going to do.
Release date: August 19, 2019
Publisher: Mirth Publishing
Print pages: 240
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Aboard the New Jersey
Elsin System, Tempore Region
Earth Year 2290
“What do you have for me, Lucy?” Captain Alfred Vaughn asked, turning toward the operations officer seated to his left, a few feet below the raised captain’s chair. He could tell from the nervous way the lieutenant tapped at her console that she had something to report.
“The Squall just jumped in from Olent Region, sir,” Lucy Guerrero said. “I’ve already parsed her report, if you’re ready to hear it.”
Al nodded, concealing a grin at Lucy’s polished words. She might be jumpy, but he doubted there was a more competent operations officer in all of Frontier Security. Hell, he’d probably be jumpy too, in her position: the sole breadwinner for two toddlers and a stay-at-home husband living back on Oasis Colony. How that man could bear it while his wife risked life and limb in the Contested Regions, Al didn’t know, but he supposed it wasn’t his business.
“Squall says there’s a known pirate scow in the first Olent System, Captain. It’s orbiting a gas giant’s moon less than fifty thousand kilometers from the regional jump zone. It appears to be alone.”
Billy Candle twisted in the XO’s chair, a gleam in his eye. “Could be they have a hidden stash on that moon.”
“Indeed they could, Billy,” Al answered. Like all Frontier crews, the men and women serving aboard the New Jersey would get twenty percent of the value of all stolen goods they recovered, to be portioned out according to rank and seniority. Al was on his way to becoming a millionaire, and he’d earned more for his crew than any other ship in company history. That was why his people were so covetous of their positions aboard his command.
But it never paid to be reckless.
“Or,” he continued, “they might just be idling, waiting for other pirates to join up with them for a raid. We proceed with caution. Is that clear?”
“Clear, sir,” Billy said. But Al could still hear the hunger in his voice.
“Good. Nav, set a course for the Olent jump gate and send it to Helm. Maintain cruising speed.” No need to waste fuel by accelerating, he figured. “Tell the Squall to come with us—we may need her electronic warfare suite.”
“Aye,” both the Nav and Helm officers answered.
Strange rumors had been coming out of the far north, lately. Tales of pirates banding together, even some particularly outlandish stories of them trying to form their own corporations. Which was ridiculous. The UNC would send out their super ships at the first whiff of something like that, making piracy a business model that just wouldn’t scale in the Dawn Cluster. No matter how far from Earth the Cluster was located.
As much as everyone resented the United Nations and Colonies—their meddlesome ways; how they limited the number of non-UNC warships and withheld vital technologies, for ‘the good of all’—Al had to admit their presence did afford a certain level of stability. It wasn’t just the handful of hulking super-ships they kept in the Cluster, either. No, the biggest thing keeping everyone honest was the widespread knowledge that, at the first sign of misbehavior, the UNC could and would bring nearly limitless numbers of ships through the wormhole connecting the Dawn Cluster to Earth.
To the UNC, “misbehavior” was a broad term. They placed strict limits on how large any given corporate military was allowed to grow, for example. They also didn’t allow any fighting between the thousands of corps operating in the Dawn Cluster. Skirmishes still happened, of course, but the UNC usually found out, and stiff penalties came fast and hard.
Doesn’t matter much to me, Al thought. He had no interest in fighting other corporations, and though he resented the UNC as much as the next guy, he did like their standardized regulations for the redistribution of recovered stolen goods. Fifty percent to the original owner, thirty percent to the corp that bore the cost and risk of recovering the goods, and twenty percent to the captain and crew who put their lives on the line to do the recovering.
He jerked his arm up and coughed into the inside of his elbow before replacing it on his chair’s armrest. As he did, he noticed his XO studying him with a concerned look from the station just ahead of his.
“What?” Al said.
“You all right, Skipper?”
Al’s jaw tightened as he cast covert glances at his Ops and Tactical officers, to see whether they would react to Billy’s question. He lowered his voice to a growl. “Ask me that one more time and I’ll have you lashed to the New Jersey’s prow.”
“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant commander said.
Lowering his voice in the hopes the rest of the CIC crew wouldn’t hear, Al said, “It’s my ticker that’s the problem, not a cough, Billy. Besides, they cleared me for duty.”
“I know it.” The XO didn’t sound very convinced.
Al didn’t blame Billy for being doubtful. Serving under a captain who’d suffered a heart attack two short months ago probably didn’t inspire much confidence, especially considering how hastily Frontier Security’s medical personnel had put him back in action after sticking a pacemaker in him.
But the northern regions were becoming heated in recent months, and Al got the sense things could boil over any day now. Frontier needed all hands on deck. Besides, he was glad to be back in the captain’s chair. There was nowhere he’d rather be than sailing through hot-zone star systems, shooting down pirates and getting rich.
“Approaching the jump gate now, sir,” Billy said. “Engineering reports the inertial compensators passed their checks. Shields are lowered, and the Jersey’s ready to jump.”
Al nodded, then eyed his operations officer. “Lucy?”
“The gate appears fully functional, captain. Zero structural damage, and energy readings are all coming back green.”
“Okay,” he said, but still didn’t give the order to jump. Instead, he called up a zoomed-in visual of the jump gate on his holoscreen and studied it. Call it superstition, but he always liked to eyeball gates before using them. The chances of noticing a problem from visual inspection were small, but too many ships had been torn apart by faulty jump gates. So he liked to have a look for himself.
Being a gate that connected two regions—Tempore and Olent—this gate was larger than most. It consisted of three mammoth rings, each bigger than the last, all lit by a soft, solar-powered blue glow. Using a jump gate was like being fired from a gun. And he didn’t enjoy being the round fired.
“Go ahead, Helm. Take us through.”
“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Randall Kitt said.
The New Jersey coasted into the first ring and suddenly lurched forward with a force that never failed to startle Al. His heart skipped a beat, and he winced, resisting the urge to place a hand over his chest.
Even with the inertial compensators, the forward thrust shoved him back into the captain’s chair like a giant’s palm pressing against him. This can’t be good for a man with an unreliable ticker, he thought. But he’d never let his dislike of jumping deter him before, and he wouldn’t now.
His holoscreen still showed an exterior visual, and he watched as the universe coalesced into a tunnel of solid gray, the starlight washed out by the void and the ship’s speed.
After what seemed an eternity, but was actually less than a minute, the ship emerged into the destination system, having traversed the better part of a light year.
“There’s the pirate scow,” Lucy said as her threat board populated. “Orbiting a gas giant’s moon, just as the Squall said.”
Al’s eyes were on the 3D display inside the holographic tank at the front of the CIC. The display could be zoomed in to encompass just the two ships or zoomed out to show the entire star system. The fact the scow was still in the moon’s orbit suggested Billy’s theory might be right: they could be stowing booty there from a recent raid. If the pirates really did have the nerve to secret a stash on that moon’s surface, Al and his CIC crew might be on the verge of becoming ridiculously wealthy. I could be on my way to retirement. Give this old ticker of mine a rest.
On the other hand, this could be a trap. That didn’t scare him too much—he’d intentionally sprung plenty of pirate traps before, only to destroy the tub whose captain thought he’d gotten the upper hand. But caution usually paid off.
“Run full active scans of that moon and the space around it, Lucy,” he said.
The powerful scans would amount to lighting a beacon on a hilltop for any other ships in-system, but at this range, the pirate ship had almost certainly seen the Jersey anyway.
“Randy, reverse thrust until we’ve cut our speed in half. I don’t want to blunder into anything nasty.”
“Aye,” the Helm officer said in his soft-spoken way.
“Sir, can I recommend a more aggressive approach?” Billy spoke slightly faster than before. “It’s just one ship.”
“We’ll maintain our present speed, XO.” He could tell Billy would rather plunge headlong into battle, deal with the scow, and reap the rewards. The XO was always nudging Al to take on more risk, knowing it would lead to greater rewards. Always encouraging him to go just one system deeper, to engage one pirate ship more. Al was able to keep him in check, but he’d raised an eyebrow at the XO’s overeagerness more than once. What made the man so money-hungry? A gambling addiction, kept at bay only by these long patrols? Or something else? Debt, perhaps?
“The scans aren’t turning up anything, sir,” Lucy said. “As far as I can see, that space is clear, along with the rest of the system. I can only see that one ship.”
“Let’s get ’em,” Billy said. “This is gonna be the big one, Skipper. I can taste it.”
“All right,” Al said reluctantly. “Helm, bring us to seventy-five percent thrust and maintain acceleration until I say so. Billy, have the missile bay crew load an Ogre into the tube.”
“With pleasure.” Billy’s voice all but vibrated with excitement.
“Lucy,” Al said, and the operations officer glanced at him. “Has that thing put up a shield?”
“Good.” It wasn’t uncommon for pirates to mismanage their energy resources so badly they lacked enough to power their shields. Plenty of pirate scows didn’t even have shields. Either way, a single well-placed Ogre should be enough to turn this tub to slag. “XO, tell our forward gunners to get ready to engage, in case the target does manage to put up a force field.”
“Aye, Skipper,” Billy said, though a measure of uncertainty had crept into his voice.
Probably because I called him XO, and not Billy. But he’d done it for a reason: to remind Billy that, when it came to engaging an enemy, professionalism would always carry the day over bravado. Or greed.
He knew that, intellectually. But in practice, he knew he often succumbed to the same temptations Billy did.
Lucy shifted at her console. “Entering Ogre firing range.”
Then let’s not give them any more time than we need to. “Fire at will, Tactical.”
Lieutenant Tim Ortega nodded. “Firing Ogre.”
The ship rumbled as the heavy missile sprang from the New Jersey’s only missile tube, rocketing through space on a jet of vaporizing fuel. Ogres were notoriously difficult to evade. Once one had a lock, it would pursue its target relentlessly until striking home or running out of fuel. Typically, the former happened long before the latter could.
“Sir.” The tension in Lucy’s voice made Al look up sharply. “We…my God. We have a problem, sir.”
“What is it?” He ignored the tightening sensation in his chest.
“Multiple enemy contacts. Six of them, rising from the gas giant’s clouds.”
Al felt his eyes go wide. He hadn’t even considered that something might be hiding inside the gas giant itself—certainly not a force big enough to pose a meaningful threat. Pirates just didn’t have that kind of numbers. Except, there they were, clear as day in the holotank, and clearly operating together.
That shouldn’t be. They must know the UNC won’t let them organize like this for long.
For the moment, none of that mattered. What did matter was that they were hurtling toward an enemy that outnumbered them seven-to-one.
“Helm, reverse thrust, engines at one hundred percent.”
“Reversing thrust now, Captain.”
The maneuver tossed Al forward, his restraints biting into his chest. Then the inertial compensators kicked in, and he settled back into his seat.
But Lucy had more bad news for him. “Sir, the scow just activated a shield.”
Damn it. That would minimize the Ogre’s impact. Missiles weren’t very effective when it came to knocking down shields.
But Lucy wasn’t finished. “Captain, the…” Again, she seemed momentarily lost for words. “Our missile. It’s…turning around.”
“Turning around?” Al repeated in disbelief. Was Lucy making some sick joke?
“Toward us, sir. It’s headed straight toward us. So are the pirate ships—all seven of them are accelerating at top speed.”
“Aye, sir. Activating them now.”
The shimmering energy field came up just in time to catch the Ogre, its fiery impact skittering across the transparent shell before burning out in the void.
Lucy Guerrero spoke again, sounding tenser than ever. “Sir, I’m getting readings on a new contact, rising out of the gas giant beyond the pirate formation. It’s huge.”
“How huge?” Al asked. “UNC super-ship huge?”
Guerrero met his gaze. “I don’t think it’s of human make, sir.”
“Get me a visual.”
The ship that appeared on his holoscreen was indeed enormous, with two long projections like pincers that pointed straight at the New Jersey. A great ring graced the strange vessel’s rear, with fins jutting off it in four directions.
“We’re disengaging. Billy, have the missile crews load up another Ogre, and then another as soon as it’s fired. We’ll need them to cover our escape.”
“They’ve already loaded one. But sir, what if the Ogres turn around on us again? What if that vessel is the reason it’s happening?”
Al blinked. His chest felt tight, and he realized he was panicking. At least, something was fogging up his thoughts. He shook himself. “For now, we’re assuming that was a gross malfunction at the worst possible time. If that wasn’t the case, then I’m not sure how we’re getting out of this.”
“Understood, sir. Who should we target?”
“The same ship as before.” The fog was receding from his mind, and he saw something he’d been missing: his missiles wouldn’t get through to the target until he took down its shields. It was pointless to launch until he had a decent chance of hitting a hull. “Wait. Lucy, is the target within firing range of our primary laser?”
“It is, sir.”
“Okay. Tim, coordinate with Helm to target that ship with the primary, just long enough to take down its shield. But first, fire the Ogre.” That would minimize the target’s reaction time. He needed to start wiping threats from the battlespace.
“Firing Ogre,” Ortega said. The Jersey shuddered as he let the missile fly. “Now firing primary.”
The ship trembled again as her main capacitor came alive, powering the mighty beam that lanced through space to strike the target’s shield.
Lucy twisted toward him. “The target’s shield is down.”
“Good. Use the next Ogre on another target, Tim. I’ll let you determine the most viable one.”
Al took a breath, trying to ignore the questions hammering on the door of his brain. Was Lucy right about that behemoth belonging to aliens? The only intelligent species humanity had ever encountered were the Xanthic. But they’d only ever attacked Earth. What would they be doing in the Dawn Cluster—and how did they get here without anyone between here and the wormhole noticing them?
And, perhaps most horrifying of all: why were they working with human pirates?
Forget about that for now, he scolded himself. As long as we keep our heads, we’ll get out of here in one piece. No pirate force was going to take out the New Jersey. Not even one backed up by a Xanthic battleship.
“The pirates have entered laser range and are firing,” Lucy said. “Our shield is taking a beating, sir. Their main lasers are weak, but our force field won’t stand up to all seven of them for very long.”
Al felt himself tense as he watched his missiles sail across the intervening space, wishing that Veronica Rose, Frontier’s CEO, had seen fit to assign even a single logistics ship to fly with him.
I just need to start cutting down their numbers. If I can do that soon, we’ll be able to escape.
Then, Lucy’s body went rigid. “Sir. The Ogres are turning again. They’re headed back toward us.”
Al stared wordlessly at the holotank. Impossible. It shouldn’t be possible. But it was happening, and the alien craft clearly had something to do with it.
“Our shields just went down, sir.”
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