The war they'd all feared
The star cluster's super-powers tried to make peace last. Truly, they did. But everyone knew war between Ascendant Horizon and the Coalition of Giants was inevitable.
Saddled with an alliance that seems to struggle with the basics of space warfare, Captain Thatcher must fall back on his tactical prowess - along with the steadfastness of the crews under his command - just to keep his people alive.
But an enemy lurks around every corner, and there is dissension even in Thatcher's fleet. What's more, he knows there are only two ways this war can end.
In victory, or in total defeat.
Release date: February 28, 2022
Publisher: Mirth Publishing
Print pages: 270
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Spacers: Fleet Action
Aboard the Ontario
Virtuoso System, Fulmin Region
Earth Year 2292
Candle flicked a piece of lint from his uniform’s sleeve as Commander Snyder prattled on from his seat behind the narrow metal desk.
“…and some of my officers have raised concerns about the asymmetric way instant comms have been integrated.”
Some of your officers, eh? Candle had to suppress a wry smile, at that. Almost every complaint he’d heard from captains recently had been couched in similar words. The complaints never originated from the captains themselves, but from “some of their officers.”
“The ‘asymmetric way,’ Commander Snyder?”
“Come now, Billy. You can call me Dick.”
“Sure. Dick. Can you explain what your…officers mean by ‘asymmetric?’”
“Well, it’s exactly that. The fleet commander has direct access to each ship, but the current comms system makes it difficult for us to bring our concerns directly to his attention. In a timely fashion, I mean.”
Two more words stood out from Snyder’s little speech, to Billy: “fleet commander.” Not Captain Thatcher, but “the fleet commander.” No doubt he’s hesitant to insult Tad. But he almost does him more grievous insult by refusing to name him. “Your officer does understand that Captain Thatcher needs to worry about the entire fleet, does he not? Or is it a she?”
Snyder shifted uncomfortably, and Candle regretted the note of sarcasm he’d let creep into his voice. Tad did want him to make these people think he was on their side, after all.
“If every captain was able to contact him directly,” Candle continued, “on a whim, it would impact his ability to manage the fleet as a whole. That goes for outside of battle, but goes doubly for when we’re engaged. It’s why we have Ops officers like Lieutenant Guerrero, to decide which concerns truly need Captain Thatcher’s attention.”
“Yes. Of course. I’ll…explain that to my officer.”
“Was there anything else?”
“No, Commander. Billy. Thank you.”
Candle held Snyder’s gaze for a moment longer, his regret transmuting into remorse. I messed this up. Let my irritation show, and now Snyder’s all clammed up. He sighed. “Please let me know if anything else comes up.”
They both rose to their feet, and Candle snapped off a salute, which the commander returned. With that, Candle let himself out of Snyder’s office.
I’m not cut out for this type of work. As much as he respected Tad and wanted to help, he didn’t enjoy acting as the captain’s one-man intelligence agency. Then again, he couldn’t exactly pretend not to have a certain facility for it, could he? He had spied for Simon Moll and Hans Mittelman simultaneously, and hadn’t been caught until his confession.
It was the fact that his spying for Moll was widely talked about throughout the fleet that made it believable he would betray Tad again.
I should be used to multi-layered deceptions like this, by now. Still, he did sometimes struggle to keep it all straight. Everyone thought Tad was sending him from ship to ship to gauge the mood of the fleet…which was partly true. The few conspirators he came across—the ones willing to collude with the likes of Pearson and Duncombe—believed he was using this new assignment to stoke resentment against Tad.
But in reality, he was reporting everything he learned about the conspirators’ progress directly back to the man.
“Lieutenant Commander,” a feminine voice said.
He turned to find Lacey Mabbitt standing in the passage behind him. Snyder’s XO. How she’d gotten there without him hearing her, Candle didn’t know, though he supposed she didn’t weigh very much at five-foot-nothing. It wouldn’t take much effort for her to silence her footfalls.
“Lieutenant Mabbitt. Is there something I can do for you?”
“I’d like to speak with you for a moment. In my office? It’s just this way.” Mabbitt tilted her head backward, toward a branching corridor.
He followed her to her office, which was little more than a broom closet with a square desk, reminding him of grade school. Most starships lacked the space to stretch out, but on these smaller ships—the frigates and corvettes—Candle often felt somewhat suffocated. He couldn’t imagine working in such a cramped space.
She meets with crewmembers in here? Aren’t any of them claustrophobic? He much preferred his own office. He missed it, these days.
“Take a seat,” she said, gesturing at the armless wooden chair across from hers.
“Thank you,” he replied, though he didn’t actually feel all that grateful.
Mabbitt sighed, staring at the small desktop. By reputation, he knew her as a serious woman, but she seemed especially hard-pressed, today.
“Is something bothering you, Lieutenant?” he asked
“It’s the captain. Commander Snyder. I worry about his…loyalty. To the fleet.” Mabbitt swallowed audibly, a pained expression contorting her features.
“Really,” Candle said flatly.
She nodded. “He never has anything positive to say about Captain Thatcher. And Commander Pearson is a frequent visitor aboard the Ontario.”
Candle nodded. That was, in fact, a major reason Tad had sent him here. To find out if Pearson truly was stupid enough to pay frequent visits to a co-conspirator in plain sight. His interview with Snyder had been inconclusive, in that regard—aside from the regurgitated complaints from unnamed “officers,” a phenomenon Candle had been encountering more and more aboard Phoenix vessels.
“That’s a fairly serious charge, Lieutenant Mabbitt. Everyone in the fleet feels unsettled, since we learned Simon Moll is still alive. It’s natural to voice concerns after something like that…especially considering the losses we took in Trebuchet System.”
“Trebuchet was a victory, sir.” An edge had entered Mabbitt’s voice, as if this was conversational territory she’d been treading a lot, lately. “We took out every single one of Sunder’s orbital nanofabbers. Not to mention the Tiamat herself.”
“Yet Simon Moll remains to rebuild it all. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors that he already has other nanofab facilities nearing completion, all throughout CoG space. As long as he lives, the CoG war machine is alive and well.”
“I know that. But it doesn’t change the fact we struck them a devastating blow.”
“I agree with you.” Candle studied Mabbitt’s face for a moment, then decided to push her. “But I’m afraid you haven’t given me much to go on, pertaining to Commander Snyder’s loyalty. So far, what you’ve told me amounts to little more than gossip. And frankly, it raises concerns for me about your fitness, that you would level a charge like that about your commanding officer with so little evidence.”
Mabbitt clenched her teeth, jaw muscles standing out. Her gaze returned to the table. “I…accessed his private comm logs.”
“I had a hunch, sir. My gut told me something was wrong. And over the years, I’ve learned never to ignore my gut.”
With a pregnant sigh, Mabbitt removed her comm from her waist holster, tapped on it a few times, and slid the device across the uneven metal desktop toward Candle.
He scrolled through the conversation it displayed. It was Snyder, discussing with Pearson when a “change of guard” might be brought about—and when fleet sentiment might reach a point of dissatisfaction that it would become viable.
His eyes rose to meet Mabbitt’s once more. “I’ll ask you to keep this to yourself, Lieutenant.”
“Sir…you will relay this to Captain Thatcher?” Doubt filled her eyes. Probably, she held beliefs about his loyalty to Thatcher similar to those of the conspirators. “I can’t contact the Jersey directly to tell him. Snyder would know, and suspect something. I’m relying on you to tell the Captain.”
“And I’m relying on you to trust me.” He held her gaze, willing her to see his heart.
After several long seconds, she nodded. “Okay, sir. I will.”
“I have a question for you. Can you name someone working in the Ontario’s Engineering department whose loyalty to Captain Thatcher can be assured?”
“I’m…yes, I can think of a few. Why do you ask?”
“I’d like to speak to—”
His comm buzzed with its shrill priority sequence, and he removed it from its holster.
Closing his eyes, he replaced the device. “It looks like I’ll have plenty of time to chat with that engineer, since I’ll surely be stuck on the Ontario for a while longer. You’d better get me one who’s off-duty, though. We’re being attacked by another harrying fleet.”
A moment later, a klaxon sounded throughout the corvette, signaling battle stations.
Aboard the New Jersey
Virtuoso System, Fulmin Region
Earth Year 2292
As Thatcher watched the swarm of enemy missiles cross Virtuoso System, as represented in the large holotank at the front of the CIC, his head swam for a moment, and he wondered whether he might be too tired right now to command the fleet.
His eyes wandered to where Tim Ortega sat at the Tactical station. With Candle stuck on the Ontario until this engagement was over—Thatcher didn’t permit any shuttles to fly between ships during battles, unless they had his express permission—Ortega was Thatcher’s only option for taking the conn.
Who did he trust more to see the fleet through the oncoming Hellfire barrage? Himself, fatigued as he was, or a relatively more rested Ortega?
He’s not that better rested. Pretty much the entire crew was exhausted, and the same went for every other ship in the fleet. Sailing through CoG space, harried constantly by crack forces like the one harassing them now…it didn’t do much for regular sleep.
He decided to stay where he was. In the command seat.
The attacking ships, which Lucy Guerrero had already identified as Sunder damage dealers, had entered Virtuoso through the jump zone out of Monitor System. Barring a full-scale attack, which he didn’t think Moll was ready for yet after Thatcher’s strike on Candor System, this was probably the worst thing that could have happened to them as they traversed Virtuoso.
Still, Thatcher had accounted for this possibility—keeping the fleet as far away from the ingress out of Monitor System, while still following a course that would take them out of Virtuoso on a reasonable schedule.
As such, even though the enemy battle group had already been setting up their Hellfire barrage by the time Thatcher’s ships detected them, there was time to set up a proper defense.
He still hadn’t gotten fully accustomed to his own tactics being used against him, as they had been by CoG forces for weeks now. And he doubted he ever would get fully accustomed to it.
For a moment, he longingly eyed the jump gate his fleet sailed for. We’re so close to leaving this blasted region. So of course Moll would take one last parting swipe at him.
He double-tapped his armrest comm panel and addressed the CIC of every ship in his fleet simultaneously.
“Each ship will remain on the present fleet course for the Virtuoso-Cognoscente jump gate. Mike, November, and Oscar Squadrons, form a chevron formation on the fleet’s sunward side, with the Minotaur at the tip of the chevron.” That should keep Duncombe happy. For at least five minutes. Some captains might have complained about being given the most dangerous formation position time and time again, but Duncombe seemed to consider it an insult if he didn’t put her destroyer there. Which he had to give her credit for.
“Alpha and Bravo Squadrons, interpolate your ships throughout the destroyers’ formation.” Both Alpha and Bravo consisted entirely of cruisers, and the Jersey was one of them. Having those positioned closest to the oncoming missiles would allow them to counter with Hellborns of their own.
“Juliet and X-Ray, you’re next. I want you to stand ready to bolster any ship’s shield that looks in danger of falling. All other ships will fly in Column formation, with the Chevron between you and the missiles. If any Hellborns make it through, shoot them down with Hellborns of your own. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you to refrain from using your railguns, to avoid friendly fire. Echo and India, you will form up on the fleet’s spaceward flank.” There would be little need for eWar squadrons during the coming defense.
And now we wait. Thatcher had long believed that one of the most vital parts of being a good starship captain involved concealing from your crew how much the long periods of nothingness ate at you.
Though they were hurtling along at thousands of kilometers a second, the incoming missiles seemed to creep across the holoscreen, even when the display was zoomed in to show only the ever-shrinking space that held both the fleet and the barrage meant for it.
But at last, after an interminable period of dreadful anticipation, the enemy’s missile cloud arrived.
Aboard the New Jersey
Virtuoso System, Fulmin Region
Earth Year 2292
On Thatcher’s order, the allied fleet launched an answering missile barrage of its own, with timing that many captains Thatcher knew would have called dangerously delayed.
But he knew what he was doing. The longer the enemy missiles flew, the more fuel they expended, and the less they had left over to spend on evading Thatcher’s defensive fire. Each Hellborn’s onboard AI was smart enough to make intelligent decisions that balanced the need to conserve fuel with the need to survive until they made contact with its target’s hull. But even the most sophisticated AI couldn’t escape the limitations physics imposed on everything that flew through space, craft, or ordnance alike.
That was the beauty of the Hellfire barrage, of course. The starships firing the missiles did much of the accelerating for them. Yes, missiles fired earlier in a barrage’s setup had to expend more fuel in order to keep up with their fellows. But Thatcher had no idea which missiles had plenty of fuel and which had barely any left at all. He would have had his Ops officers tag which were which, but the CoG attack forces had learned to send an eWar ship or two on these attack runs, to scramble their targets’ sensors while new missiles were being fired. It was a clever tactic, and it meant Thatcher’s captains had to treat each missile as an equal threat.
The two missile clouds met—the first wave of the allied fleet’s defensive fire slamming into the front of the Hellfire barrage. Short-lived flashes filled the holotank, like fireworks in miniature. But the work had only just begun.
A second defensive wave connected with the incoming ordnance, and then a third. The brief explosions, each not much longer than an eyeblink, multiplied, happening closer and closer together.
Thatcher’s console told him that fifty-nine percent of the barrage had been destroyed by the time his ships had to abandon using Hellborns defensively and switch to laser point defense. Fifty-nine percent wasn’t bad…but it was significantly more than had gotten through during the last two such attacks.
That made him frown. Yes, this barrage had included a lot more missiles, but he would have expected his captains to have become better at this, by now. They were doing well, but still weren’t operating at the level of efficiency he would have liked.
Truncated beams shot out from destroyer and cruiser alike. In answer, the enemy missiles danced aside, each onboard AI struggling to shrug off the probing beams.
Nevertheless, several more Hellborns exploded well short of their targets. Each one represented a small victory—and with each one, Thatcher’s breath came just a little easier.
These were state-of-the-art Hellborns, of course, with laser warheads, and as they drew within range their tips opened up to spray their targets’ shields with laserfire. A veritable hailstorm of light lit up the space just off of his fleet’s Chevron formation, and shields began to shimmer, then vibrate.
Hellfire barrages were no joke. Thatcher had designed them that way. The allied fleet struggled to shrug this one off, with gunner crews desperately targeting down the closest missiles, and automated point defense railgun turrets working overtime, the dash-like streaks of light that was their ordnance spraying out into the eternal night.
“Sir, the Barb’s shields are getting dangerously low,” Guerrero reported from the Ops console.
Thatcher narrowed his eyes. The Barb’s captain, Commander Duarte Moreno, was one of those firmly in the camp of those conspiring against Thatcher. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t fight to protect Moreno, his ship, and his crew with any less fervor.
“Have the Lightfoot devote its entire capacitor load to keeping that shield up, Guerrero.” Thatcher couldn’t afford to take his attention away from his fleet’s defensive efforts for the moments it would take to send the order himself, but his Ops officer could do it just as well.
The Barb’s shield danced on the edge of collapse, its instability proclaiming itself in the way it wavered wildly.
Another laser-warhead Hellborn came into range, adding its fire, and for a moment Thatcher was sure Moreno’s shield would collapse.
But it didn’t, miraculously. It held, and then—with the help of Lightfoot’s maser support—it gradually stabilized.
In the end, the Barb was the only ship that came close to being in danger from the Hellborn attack. No other shield dropped below forty percent, and when the last missile was destroyed, every Phoenix, Anvil, and Verity Guild warship still sailed.
Thatcher found himself nodding in grim satisfaction at his own holoscreen, which showed the CoG ships already slinking out of the system via the jump gate into Monitor.
We shrugged off every Hellfire barrage they threw at us. They took my tactic and tried to use it against us. But we proved equal to that challenge. Didn’t we, Simon?
They would leave Virtuoso System in a matter of hours, to sail through Cognoscente, and then out of the Fulmin Region entirely—back into Ascendant Horizon space.
Your efforts to harry and impede us amounted to nothing more than an annoyance. Nevertheless…we will repay them tenfold.
Pebblebrooke, Demeter Agricultural Colony
Comfort’s End System, Quisle Region
Earth Year 2292
Mittelman finished typing, then took a moment to read over what he’d just written:
My decision to throw in my lot with Mikhail Volkov’s Red Sky makes more sense with every passing day, since each day brings hundreds of new recruits pouring in from all over the Dawn Cluster.
Even so, I’m still getting people asking me how I could possibly have known that this would be the result…and where, exactly, I found the balls to pass up a cushy job with Penta Syndicate to throw in with a group of ragtag starship captains who seemed doomed.
What everyone asking me these questions fails to realize is that I could have landed in any of the existing Cluster superpowers. I had my pick. Even Simon Moll would probably have taken me, if I’d managed to convince him my offer was in earnest, which I believe I could have.
But I didn’t want to be Coalition of Giants’ spymaster—not even if I used the position to take them down from the inside. No, I wanted instead to belong to the alliance that takes Moll down. A much more direct approach than is customary for an intelligence officer, I’ll admit…but a much more satisfying role for me to play.
So what were my options? Ascendant Horizon? Certainly not. Li Jun and his ilk are far too money-obsessed. They’re an industry-first alliance, and that’s why they’ll ultimately lose their current war with CoG.
Degenerate Empire? I’m not above working with pirates, but they’re far too volatile. At best, I would merely fit into their existing power structure, which is liable to fall apart at the slightest upset. Just look at their latest upheaval, with Tobias Vega dead and Ben Baumann now taking the reins. Damocles’ Sword looms just as large for him as it did for Vega. Why cozy up to him when another enterprising pirate could just as easily unseat him, leaving me without allies?
That left Penta Syndicate and Red Sky.
At the time of writing, a lot of people would probably laugh at me including Red Sky in a list of the Cluster’s superpowers. But by the time anyone reads this, it will be amply clear just how correct I am to do so.
Just look at what they’ve already accomplished! They’ve survived for years while persecuted and harried throughout the Cluster by thousands of hostiles. They are hated by nearly every existing Cluster power (and no, I don’t believe Volkov is exaggerating when he claims that—just look at how the Dawn Cluster has treated the Russians). And even Penta Syndicate couldn’t defeat them with a force several times larger.
Why didn’t I take the Penta job, you ask? Just look at them. They had all the power in the world, but lacked the will to bring their enemies to heel. Whereas Red Sky had little power left at all, but enough drive to take on the universe all by themselves.
Red Sky doesn’t follow the normal rules of Cluster PMCs. They’ve suffered crushing defeat after crushing defeat. They’ve lost all their territory, twice—once to Simon Moll and most recently to Penta. And yet they’ve still come back with disciplined and effective counterattacks against their foes. They’ve been in non-stop combat for two years, now. And they’re only just getting started.
Red Sky is unstoppable. I plan to harness that unstoppable energy and use it to fuel a superpower the likes of which the Cluster has never seen.
And so, my decision to join up with them should be glaringly obvious—and perhaps it will be by the time you read this, dear reader, whoever you are.
I intend to be at the fore of the alliance that conquers the Cluster. If I’d chosen Penta, or any other alliance, then eventually I would have had to defeat Volkov and Red Sky.
Red Sky has made it clear that they simply don’t do defeat. It’s not that I don’t consider myself a miracle worker, mind you. Consider the economic and military miracles currently unfolding in Quisle Region, miracles that simply wouldn’t have come about without my direct intervention.
It’s just that I don’t envision defeating Red Sky, and I don’t envision anyone else defeating them, either.
It’s like I said—they don’t do defeat.
So it’s much wiser to ally with them.
Mittelman stood from his writing desk, which he’d had positioned in the very center of his living quarters’ front room. Natural light filtered down from the skylight directly above the broad, mahogany desk, and he basked in it for a moment, stretching as he enjoyed the warmth from the Comfort’s End System sun.
He also received guests in this room, and the desk’s prominence had drawn a few quizzical glances, though no direct questions. For the most part, Volkov, his captains, and his executives all accepted Mittelman’s quirks without comment.
But they clearly all took note of the desk, and its unusual position. Mittelman liked that. It underscored that his work was central to his life—and it subtly implied that his work had also become central to Red Sky’s existence.
Which it had.
He went into the kitchenette, started the coffee maker, then returned to the desk to pull out a heavy drawer, which housed his personal instant comm unit’s controls. It took just a couple of commands to connect him with the CIC of the Shtriga.
“Good day, Mr. Mittelman.” The voice belonged to Senior Lieutenant Alexei Ivanov, Volkov’s Ops officer and old friend. The two of them had an interesting relationship, one marked mostly by stiff formality, though their affection for each other shone through for anyone paying attention. “What is it I can do for you?”
“Be a good man and get me Mikhail, Alexei.”
“Absolutely. The captain will be with you momentarily.”
And indeed he was. Volkov rarely kept him waiting, these days—no one in Red Sky did, anymore. They’d come a long way since Mittelman had been a prisoner in a cramped jail cell aboard the Helio Base the Russians had dubbed the Meatgrinder, after using it to repel attacks that would have wiped any other force of the same size clean off the map.
“Mittens.” Volkov still used the nickname he’d christened Mittelman with, though no one else dared use it. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Mittelman knew the nickname was Volkov’s way of reminding him that the Russian was the manly space warrior, commanding every battle from the front lines and repeatedly wrenching victory from the jaws of defeat, while Mittelman hid in the shadows and manipulated events from there. He didn’t care either way, not overly. It was true, after all, and besides, even the nickname had taken on a note of affection whenever Volkov used it, these days. A recognition, Mittelman knew, of the value he brought to the alliance. Even if the use of the name itself represented a small rebellion against the reality that Mittelman was effectively Red Sky’s savior.
“Mikhail. I was wondering about our progress with constructing our new fleet. Are we keeping up with the influx of new recruits?”
Even though Mittelman couldn’t see the Russian, he could almost hear him giving one of his trademark shrugs. “The trained recruits, yes. For now. But the numbers increase every day, and our compressed training programs will soon give us new crewmembers at an accelerated rate.” A pause came over the line. “Are you certain we haven’t compressed our programs too much?”
Mittelman rolled his eyes, tired of reassuring the Russian on this particular topic. “I’m certain. Look, there’s no way we’ll ever train them to the level of CoG crew, for example. You can’t replace long years of experience in battle, and our crews will be outmatched in that domain. But we’ll make up for it in numbers, and in sheer rage. The people flocking to join our alliance are doing so because they’ve been tread on again and again by the powers that be. They want to throw themselves into the jaws of our enemies, en masse, until they choke. Those that survive that process will come out the other end with invaluable experience. And the fact that we’ll continue winning will draw even more people to our cause.”
“It seems a somewhat…callous way of waging wars.”
“Callous, sure. But countries have done it this way for millennia. The difference with us is, we’re honest about it. We’ve offered these people the chance to get revenge on their oppressors, for the first time in their lives. Who are we to tell them whether they’re ready to take that opportunity or not?”
“So, be more specific, please, Mikhail. What’s the status of our fleets?”
“By the end of the month, we’ll have four battle groups’ worth of nanofabbed ships. Logistics, eWar, cruisers, frigates, corvettes—even a destroyer apiece.”
“You know that’s music to my ears, don’t you?” And it was. Whereas CoG had satisfied itself with pumping out disposable micro-corvettes to bolster its already mature fleets, Red Sky had needed to build its fleet from the ground up. And they were doing it, using the wealth of resources available in Devil’s Arm. In the first weeks, they’d focused only on building more nanofabbers. They were still building new ones, but most of the existing nanofabbers were now producing the ships they would need to launch their next offensive.
“Our fleet is coming together,” Volkov confirmed.
“We’re going to need it. Soon. I want to take those four battle groups and strike into Penta Syndicate territory. We beat them back, drove them out of Devil’s Arm, but that isn’t enough. We need to crush them completely, so that they can never bother us again.”
“You think we’re ready to do that?”
“Not to crush them, no. But we can keep them on their back heel. They think their retreat is over, that they can rest now, and lick their wounds. But they’ve only just begun to flee before our wrath.”
“I do like the sound of that.”
“Then let’s make it happen,” Mittelman said through his grin. “What about our agricultural efforts?”
“We’re making good strides there, too. I’ve assigned our best engineers to realize your vision for mobile farms. And for factory ships, capable of breaking down asteroids and manufacturing parts for our ships on the fly. We now believe it might soon be possible to build ships while on the move, too. All of this would introduce some unique vulnerabilities to our fleets, but it would also make them autonomous, if need be.”
“I fear we’re going to need that. Sooner than you might think.”
“I hope you’re wrong, Mittens. But either way…we will be prepared.”
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