Authors: Endi Webb
Tags: #Star Wars, #B.V. Larsen, #John Scalzi, #Military Science Fiction, #Christopher Nuttall, #Galactic Empire Republic, #Space Opera, #David Weber, #Star Trek, #Space Marine, #Ryk Brown
“Sure thing, dad.” He paused at the door. “Look, dad. I’m sorry. I … I—” he struggled for words. “I wasn’t trying to insult you. I wouldn’t be coming around if I didn’t love you, ya know?”
The old man just stared at the viewscreen. He mumbled something under his breath before responding. “Fine. Yeah, love you too, Jakey, love you too. Say hi to your Captain for me. Sounds like a real winner.”
Jake forced himself to shut the door softly rather than slam it. Winner. What the hell would his father know about winning?
* * *
Admiral Trajan strode through the door to the bridge, surprising Captain Titus and the rest of the bridge crew, who snapped to attention. The Admiral, to the Captain’s knowledge, had never even set foot on the bridge yet, and he wasn’t sure he welcomed the sudden change of pace. As long as the Admiral didn’t appropriate his bridge like he had the ready-room.
“As you were. Status, Captain?” His black eye gleamed in the dim ambient bridge lighting, which cast eerie shadows over the man’s gaping eye-hole. Striding over to tactical to have a look for himself, he continued, pushing a pair of old-fashioned reading spectacles onto his nose, “How long until we make the jump to Epsilon Eridani?”
“Gravitic capacitor banks are at seventy-five percent, sir.”
“And the fighter bays?”
The Admiral smiled, looking up from the terminal. “Good. Who is your communications officer?”
Captain Titus waved his arm to the starboard side of the bridge, indicating a stout little man with a bristly, stylish moustache. “Ensign Evans, sir.”
Striding over to the terrified-looking Evans, the Admiral spoke in an elevated voice for the whole bridge crew to hear. “The information you are all about to not listen to is classified as top-secret and compartmentalized, level twelve. I’m sure you’re all aware of the consequences of breaching level twelve compartmentalization.”
Titus wasn’t exactly sure that his bridge crew in fact remembered. Breach of classification at that level meant instant detainment, followed by a swift execution if the secret tribunal found the offender guilty of the crime.
“Ensign. At ease,” the Admiral said, apparently noticing the man’s wide eyes. “I need you to alter the
’s transponder code. You’ll find you’ve been granted the appropriate system clearance to do so. Change it to mxzvd dash eleven dash one-forty-nine dash fifty-two forty-one,” he said, saying the numbers slowly to allow the Ensign to write the numbers down on his terminal’s virtual notepad.
“When you open a comm-link to any receiver in the Epsilon Eridani system, you are to refer to our ship as the
. Is that understood?”
A look of confusion spread over the Ensign’s face. “Yes, sir.
Interesting. Titus walked over to the Admiral and the seated Ensign Evans. “Shall we alter the nameplate on the hull of the ship, sir? An astute observer with a camera might be able to read it.”
The Admiral nodded. “Good thinking, Captain. Can it be done before the capacitor banks finish charging?”
“The crew will be done within the hour, sir,” he said, turning to his XO and motioning to the door.
The Admiral smiled, which, when combined with the ghastly chasm on his face, would have reminded Titus of a jack-o-lantern if it weren’t for the spectacles perched on his nose. “Such a pleasure to serve among the best and brightest,” he said.
Obviously, he sensed the fear of the bridge crew and sought to gain a modicum of trust. Unless he actually had no ulterior motive and the praise was intended as praise only. Titus was never sure about the intentions of the Admiral, knowing only that everything the man said or did or thought was strategic in nature. If it could serve him or his purposes, the Admiral focused on it. When something was useless to him he ignored it.
“Also, Captain. When we are in the Epsilon Eridani system, there will be a communications blackout. No ship-to-ship or ship-to-surface communications without my authorization. And,” he added, putting his hand on the Ensign’s shoulder, who looked as if he were being seized by a falcon, “The communications officer and I will be the only ones that will communicate directly with anyone in the system for the entirety of our stay.” He turned to the Ensign again. “And you, Ensign, only on my direct orders. Understood?”
“Understood,” said Ensign Evans and Captain Titus in unison, Titus glancing at Evans in exasperation—in his nervous state, the young officer had forgotten the Corsican military decorum of letting one’s superiors acknowledge commands given them by senior officers present.
“Admiral,” began Captain Titus. “Am I to understand we will be impersonating the
in order to obtain the goods we are after?”
“In a sense, Captain. Yes, we will be impersonating them, as any fool can tell. What do you think I’ve been doing in your ready-room for the past month, listening to heavy metal the entire time? I’ve been perfecting the voice and mannerisms of our dear friend, Admiral Pritchard. The folks at Epsilon Eridani need to be absolutely convinced it is the Rebels who are stealing from them. Or at least, sow enough doubt in their minds that the rumors will spread far and wide.”
So, they were to be common thieves, then. “We are stealing the goods, Admiral? Last time I checked, Epsilon Eridani was in favor of the empire’s presence. Officially, at least.”
Trajan sounded exasperated as he answered. “It is not the empire that will be stealing goods, Captain, it will be the Terran rebels. Pritchard disappeared during the battle for Earth three years ago, and the force of his memory—his genius—is the only thing holding the underground Resistance movement together. It’s as if they think he is going to swoop down out of the heavens and save them at the last minute with some hair-brained tactic.”
“So, you believe Pritchard is still out there, sir?”
“Yes. Absolutely yes. A man like Pritchard does not simply roll over and give up.”
“But what of the report from the Capella system that suggested his unfortunate end at the hands of the November family?” Titus had seen all the intelligence reports from a year ago. The rebel Admiral’s presence in the Capella system could not be absolutely confirmed, but the empire’s contacts there swore the
had been severely damaged and the Admiral killed in a skirmish when a deal with the November family went sour.
The Admiral nodded. “I saw the reports. But Captain,” he said, dropping his head to peer at Titus above his spectacles. “Never assume your enemy is dead when you can’t see the body. And whether he is dead or not doesn’t matter. We need to destroy his mythos. If the Resistance on Earth thinks someone is going to come in and save them, then we need to disabuse them of that notion by destroying their savior.”
The Admiral began pacing towards the center of the room—towards the raised tactical command console where Titus and his XO directed the battle operations of the cruiser. “It is not just a tactical victory we seek over the Resistance, Captain, remember that. We are here to deal such a crushing blow, both physically and psychologically, that the rebellion will
never rise again
,” he said, tapping the console to emphasize each of his last three words.
Titus cleared his throat. “But sir, I was under the assumption that we did just that. Three years ago. We leveled the Resistance headquarters in Dallas. They haven’t recovered since then—if intelligence is to be believed, they are not even at a tenth of the manpower they were before.”
“The victory three years ago was absolute, yes. But we paid for it. The uproar in the senate was so pronounced that a no-confidence vote was even threatened against the emperor. Did you hear that, Captain?
A no confidence vote against the emperor.
I see your expression—a silly notion, I agree, how can a senate impeach an emperor? But there you go. It rattled Emperor Maximillian. It showed him that his senate, and by extension the most loyal worlds of the empire, were not going to rubber stamp his every decision. For the emperor to have any power, there must be an assumption by the masses of complete unanimity in the highest level of government. Otherwise he governs by force alone. But why govern by force when you can let the lazier side of human nature govern for you?”
He paused, seemingly waiting for an answer to what Titus had assumed was a rhetorical question. “With a unified senate,” the Admiral continued as he paced, “the people assume the best about both the senate and the emperor, for how, after all, can every single one of them be wrong? And if they see the government unified, then the naysayers, the warmongers, and those who wish a change in government will see their path as hopelessly uphill. Thus maintaining the stability of government. And with the senate realizing that the people will not rise up to change the status quo, that reinforces their incentive to appear to be with the program, because no one likes to be seen as the lone voice in the wilderness.”
Trajan glanced around the room, as if to watch for dissent. Some fool who disagreed with him. Seeing the gazes of the bridge crew all locked on him and some officers occasionally nodding, he seemed satisfied and went on.
“So Emperor Maximillian came to me. He took me aside one night, late, after he had addressed the senate and promised the Truth and Reconciliation process on Earth, and he invited me to his private estate, and that is where he gave me the assignment I’ve been working on for the past three years, Captain,” he said, spinning on his heel to stare with his solitary eye back at Titus.
“So in all the orders you are about to receive over the coming weeks, and this goes for all of you,” he glanced around the room, looking into the eyes of the enraptured bridge crew, who had only even seen the Admiral briefly in hallways and inspections, “keep in mind that though the orders may not make immediate sense, know that I have been meticulously planning them for a great deal of time.”
He walked up to the navigator and looked him up and down, resting a hand on the wide-eyed man’s elbow as he finished up his speech. “And I chose the
for a reason. And that reason is that in order to achieve the unachievable, in order to work the miracle that the emperor set before me, I needed the best. The very best. I begged him for the
,” he waved towards his legs, “I was on my knees, begging him for the best battleship in the empire, because I knew that with any less, I was on a fool’s errand.”
Removing the hand from the star-struck Ensign’s elbow, he walked back to Captain Titus. “And that, Captain, is why we are here. I trust you and the crew will carry out my orders with exactness and excellence. If you do, you will all be richly rewarded.” He fell silent, still looking at Titus with his steely-set eye, leaving unsaid the consequences of failure.
Titus nodded, and studied the console next to him. “Gravitic banks will finish charging soon, sir.”
“Excellent, Captain. Sound the order to shift to the Epsilon Eridani system when all the preparations are complete.” And with that, the Admiral strode off the bridge deck, and disappeared down the hallway near the rear science station.
And that, thought Captain Titus, is how the big boys motivate the grunts. Even if he knew the truth about why the
was really chosen—it was the exact same battleship model as the
. That and nothing more.
* * *
Jacob Mercer could hardly contain his excitement, in spite of his injuries. He peered out the viewport of the freighter, leaning across Ben Jemez to do so, and studied the forming tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico. Even though he basically had worked in space for years now, it was a sight that never got old.
“Get a good look,” said Ben, squishing back into his chair to give his friend ample room to gawk. “We’re not going to see it for awhile.”
“Yeah, I know.” Jake ran his hand through his dark brown locks of shaggy hair and frowned. “But hey, I’m sure some of the other planets will be fun to look at too. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we can find you a hot chick at some port of call in some backwater world where no stories will ever get back to your Aunt,” he said, referring to the only living relative Ben had left after Dallas. His friend doted on the woman, and she repaid him with love and motorcycles—the old bird had inherited a vast fortune that she enjoyed spending on her nephew, often to excess.
“Somehow I doubt that.” Ben ran his hand through his own neatly parted hair and yawned—Jake had kept him up the night before with a trip to the pub on the Miracle Strip Parkway, in one last vain attempt to accidentally run into tattooed space-jock girl. “You know, Captain Watson is notorious for strict adherence to rules, in spite of him being a big-shot Resistance commander and all. You do realize he’s going to make you get a haircut?”
“Hey, it’s got me this far. You’re just jealous that you could never pull this off.” He jabbed Jemez in the ribs once as he sat back in his seat, and stroked his hair again, slowly, for his friend to see.
“Would you two shut up? The deck officer is trying to get all of our attention!” Megan Po hissed, turning around to face them from the row ahead, holding a finger up to her lips, a furrowed ridge of frustration forming on her forehead.
“Yes, ma’am,” they both said.
Jake and Ben both looked up at the lieutenant now standing before the fifty-odd officers. Jake recognized the man from the secret Resistance meetings he had been attending since D-day.
“We can talk freely here—all present are certified, card-carrying Resistance fighters and we’ve swept the ship for listening devices. As you know, the nine Freedom-class heavy cruisers in construction at Geneseo shipyards—“
“Liberty Station, you mean,” said an older officer in the front row. “We’re all family here, and we’ll call it what it is.”
The deck officer smiled. “Of course. As I said, the nine ships in construction at Liberty Station are nearly complete—some more than others. What you don’t know is that the Resistance High Council has arranged, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to have all nine ships almost fully staffed by former Resistance members, as a show of good faith towards Earth by the empire. But not all. So the High Command has ordered that I ask you all, as you’re deployed to your posts, to get to know everyone around you. Find out who is who, and what their political leanings are. Even though the balance of the crews will be staffed by regular old imperials, there’s a good chance many of them will be from worlds with some amount of resentment toward the empire, and are possible sympathizers.”