Chapter Five

Eric Florn hadn’t had a steak this good in a long time, certainly not back on Earth; there was only so much room for cows on a planet of thirteen and a half billion people. Furthermore, the interior of Ad Astra Lounge was much quieter than anywhere on Earth he’d been either. All around him in sound-proofed booths, some clear and others with their dividers fogged for privacy, sat the insiders and lobbyists that gave Destiny at least the illusion of democratic progress. He counted a few faces he knew at the bar as well, either drinking to newly brokered deals or to the failures of pet legislation. He hated it at times, and had run against a lot of it vocally, but it’s what got things done in an ad hoc government that oversaw six billion lives on the edges of human space.

It also made him even more suspicious of the man seated across from him, who’d hardly eaten a thing. Samel Jennar had taken a short road from Belt veteran all the way to Chief Counselor, and the word was already being passed around that he might run in three years as Derak’s chosen replacement. With things going as they were after that carrier attack, the man might actually win.

“Fleet Command says we should be about evenly matched with the Leaguers at Ceres,” Jennar said. “Which actually puts them at a disadvantage, according to our simulations.”

“The same ones we’ve been using since before I came in?” Florn asked.

“Better. We have a lot more data on their fleet capabilities after the Bishop incident, plus a little extra from the last two weeks.”

“I’d think going up against superior numbers would be inadvisable, especially since they know we’re coming. That’s two strikes right there.”

“Our intelligence gives us a pretty clear picture of what we’re going up against. The Mars Defense Fleet hasn’t seen any serious upgrades for around thirty years, since most of the newer hardware gets deployed out to the Inner Belt. Even then, they may have the manpower back on Earth but we have our own advantages.”

They did, and the briefings he’d read were at least clear on that.

“Much easier to fight down the gravity well than up it,” he replied.

“Exactly. And we’ve got something for free that they’re still trying to buy with bullets: unity.”

“Suppose so.” So this is the part where Jennar gets preachy, Eric thought. He figured it would be coming, only he hadn’t known when. He cut off another little bite of steak and stuck it in his mouth, relishing the taste of real beef after so many years of that lab-grown stuff they tried to pass for the real thing back home.

“It’s true. We never had a civil war out here, no nuclear bottleneck, no brain drain to the Exterior Colonies. We picked up decades of the Interior’s lost souls and forged them into something much more resilient. As much as we have our own disagreements, we all agree on one thing: it’s better to have a hell of our own design than a heaven of someone else’s. They used to call that pioneer spirit, and it’s something you know better than most, Eric.” He did know it more than most, just like he knew that Jennar’s talk of unity flew in the face of what the Florns had run into as freshly arrived asylum seekers eighteen years prior. But anything to bring people together in wartime was sure to be used, even if it only painted over scars that went unhealed.

Perhaps especially so.

“I thought me leaving had more to do with death threats than wanting to explore the Exterior,” Eric said.

“You know what I mean. All of us came here looking for a better life, a more perfect union, something Earth and its twenty-second century ways of operating couldn’t provide anymore. Whatever you want to call it, it’s what ultimately brings us together, even when we have our disagreements.” Eric wanted to laugh: this had to have been some of the highest-grade bullshit he’d ever heard. Instead, he just swallowed his mouthful of tender steak and reached for his water glass.

“Sounds like you’ve already got that stump speech written.”

“I’m serious. And after Ceres, we won’t need to prove ourselves any longer. Those fractured colonies all over the Belt and Interior? They’ll see that we can do more than just talk about a better future for them; we can back it up, too. Once Ceres and Pallas swing our way, League ships will start pulling back all over the system, leaving us to fill the void.”

“And how far do we intend to chase the Leaguers? All the way back to Earth?” The silence was a tangible thing as his words settled on Jennar, and as rhetorical as the question sounded, it wasn’t at all.

“All we in the CDC intend is to demonstrate that an attack on our citizens won’t go unpunished, even on our frontier. There should hardly be a frontier in the first place, if Belt colonies were really given a voice of their own without the threat of League intervention in internal politics.”

But that had always been the problem: any intervention at all was anathema to some of those groups. The People’s Vanguard wasn’t the only one by any means, nor were they the only ones armed with the latest League weaponry. If the reports he’d seen were to be believed, they weren’t the only one to be armed with new Alliance toys either.

He was sure Sam didn’t want to hear that, though, and didn’t have time to argue even if he did. Best to cut to the chase now instead of follow the Chief Counselor’s circuitous jingoism to some illogical conclusion.

“I’ve heard all this before, Sam. I heard it back on Earth and I’ve sure as hell heard it in the Council chambers. Why try and sell me on it now?”

“Because there’s no telling where things might go from here. I don’t want you to think that we’re entering this without an exit strategy; far from it. We in the CDC Directorate and the Fleet have plans in place for any number of contingencies. What we can’t tell, and what no general ever could tell, is when this will all come to an end, even if we were to enter a military action with a perfect plan. Battles may be lost, resources may come up short, deployments may change. It’s nothing new, but that doesn’t mean we know it all.” Weasel words and excuses, he thought, ready to dismiss it all, until his brain caught on one possibility. He’d have to press harder.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I need you on the right side going forward. Not on the Fleet’s side, or on mine, or anyone else’s. What we need is voices who know what war is like; not just how it’s planned but what it does. To people, to societies, to the nation at large. To our families. We need someone with skin in the game.”

“Skin in the game,” Eric repeated. He certainly had that, with a war hero son and an enlistee daughter, but what else did he have that Sam could’ve wanted? “You know, I’m not opposed to war in general. A nation that doesn’t defend itself is hardly a nation at all. It’s empire that I don’t have any time for.”

“I know that, and that’s not what I want you to say. The important thing here is that the people understand that they have a voice in the government, in how we take the war going forward. That we’re not just looking for more colonies or resources or whatever they may assume, but that we’re in this solely to defend our rights and our citizens. If along the way other colonies see this as potentially beneficial to their interests and petition for Alliance membership, then we’d naturally accept that.”

“Naturally.”

“I don’t think I’ve made myself clear. There’s a wrong side to this just as surely as there’s a right one, and I can’t stress enough the need to make the correct choice. Whatever it takes, Counselor. Whatever it takes.”

“You’ve made your point.”

“Then I can count on you?” Jennar let the question hang in the air, though it was more than a question: it was a threat. Eric could see that clearly enough. Deployments may change, he’d said. Even considering the man’s pull with Fleet Command and with Derak, it seemed unlikely that Sam Jennar would be able to reposition an entire task unit to keep one counselor in line. Still, he could certainly threaten it. Seeing the carrot only reinforced the existence of the stick, one that someone with that amount of influence could wield almost without question.

Eric had to put down the urge to punch the Chief Counselor right in the mouth just as soon as it came up. What Jennar was asking was an affront to everything Eric Florn had run on, and ultimately what he’d run away from back in Brazil. Petty tyrants always popped up on the frontier, and as much as he’d wanted to believe differently during the long wait for refugee status approval, it wasn’t a thought he’d been able to entirely push away.

All he could think about then was that he was tired. Tired of running from death squads, pushers, hostile cops, and all the other small-timers who tried to fill the voids where the League peace-keeping patrols couldn’t go. So he ran as far away as he could, all the way to the edges of human space, and still couldn’t force himself out of the spotlight. It was as if he simply found himself running for office, putting himself back into the same bureaucratic grinder he’d fought in the non-governmental sector. If he’d known back then how easy it would be to push him over, would he have done it all again, or stayed back home with Crista and Carriuss? Maybe he’d be dead too, but at least they’d have been together.

But that was the past, and nothing he could do or dream about would ever change things back to the way they were, much the way he so much wished them to be. There was only one thing to do now, and that was to hold onto the one thing he knew he had; the one who he’d always hoped would never go away but was too much his and Crista’s own daughter to stay under wing for long.

He would do it. Whatever it took, evidently, whether that turned out to be speaking engagements or signing off on the new defense budget, it would have to come in exchange for whatever freedom he could buy Valeca. She may never know and if she ever found out, she may hate him for it, but he didn’t care. Rather, he couldn’t allow himself to care. Not when Jennar had him in his grip this tightly, knowing exactly where to hit him. But he couldn’t say yes now. Even the illusion of second thoughts could buy him some more time to set things right, or at least give Jennar the idea that he was doing this of his own free will. Eric had to face the fact that he could be just as weak as any other man, and Chief Counselor Samel Jennar knew how to get him there.

“I’ll have to take it under consideration,” Eric said.

“And I’ll be expecting your answer. In the meantime, I have a date with Rian.”

“Budget?”

“You know it. See you back at the office, Eric.”

“Have a good one, Sam.” Jennar rose from his seat and pushed open the clear door at the side of their table. With that, he was gone as quickly as Eric’s appetite.

Selling out had once seemed to him such a momentous step, something for weak men that built up over years to a gradual acceptance and then vigorous recommendation of the status quo. In his own case, it all came down to twenty minutes and a bit of leverage in the right spot. And as much as he hated the thought, he could always tell himself he was doing the right thing, even when he wasn’t. The only other thing apart from Valeca stood out in his mind right now: eventually, he’d have to tell Geoff Marquis himself. Jessa, on the other hand, would never have to know.

 

***

 

The klaxon wouldn’t end until Captain Jaen shut it off. That’s what she’d said before leaving Valeca and nine of the other trainees—Training Flight 4, 14th Training Squadron—in a depressurizing airlock with moments to set up their emergency oxygen, and there was every reason in the universe to trust the captain’s word. The apparatus Valeca now wore wasn’t too dissimilar from what she’d trained on before, the last word standing out in her mind as if it was lit up. Before. Before she’d enlisted, when she was still a civilian, before she was drilling with the Fleet to be a Wasp pilot to go take on the League Peace-keeping Fleet in combat.

In the time between affixing her oxygen mask and waiting for the captain to repressurize the chamber and tell them that half or more would’ve been dead if it hadn’t been for her, Valeca wondered how long she’d need to be in the Fleet before all this started to feel more normal than her old life. Weeks? Months? Maybe the newness never went away, or only lingered like an itch when everything else about her had already accepted the reality of her new routine.

Most of the other trainees had already gotten their masks on as well, but only after they’d screwed up the connection points and vented half their oxygen supply into the room. Into the vacuum that would’ve killed them if this hadn’t been a simulation. One still fumbled with his tank, but the captain’s instructions had been clear: worry about your own first. Only after you could locate an emergency breather and assemble it with your eyes closed, half drowsy from hypoxia, could you be trusted to help someone else. Better one die because another saved himself than two die by stepping all over each other on accident, she’d said. It was a different kind of pragmatism than what Valeca was used to; that much was certain.

She couldn’t remember the other trainee’s name. It wasn’t Herrick, who’d gotten his mask on after only twenty seconds of fumbling. Wallis? Tiren? There were too many names to put with all forty faces yet. Valeca would worry about the ones who mattered for now, who were—aside from Olivia—already listed in her chain of command. After a few more hours of whispering it to herself in the head, the shower, and occasionally in the mess hall line, she finally had it down, backward and forward. Had she felt brave enough, she might even dare Jaen to test her on it, but the thought weighed on her still that if the captain knew Valeca had beaten her in one thing, the MTI would find something new and unusual to torment Trainee Florn with for the next few weeks.

By now, the air pressure had dropped to the point that the airlock was silent, with all ready but the single trainee off in the corner feebly attempting to finish assembly on his breather. Only red lights cycled around on the walls for a few more seconds, until they finally shut off and sound returned gradually with the influx of breathable air. Valeca couldn’t stop herself from opening her mouth a few times to pop her ears as Captain Jaen entered, looking just as displeased as usual. Those who could snapped to attention, while Valeca spotted Olivia next to her falling back over from the effort of standing too fast. As much as she wanted to help her back up, that wasn’t the point of the exercise.

“One, two, three, four, maybe five,” Jaen shouted, pointing out people around the interior of the airlock with a straight-out hand, starting with the one in the back whose name Valeca still couldn’t remember and ending with Jason Herrick. “That’s how many of you would’ve been dead if this had been a real decompression instead of a drill. And this was one you knew was coming. Unacceptable! If I just called you out, enjoy cleaning the latrines for the next week. As for the rest of you, you passed this time.”

Most of them were too out of breath to cheer, so a few trainees pumped their fists. Jaen noticed it and acted fast.

“Don’t start slapping each other’s asses just yet, trainees! You will assemble for chow and proceed immediately afterward to PT. Dismissed!”

Valeca had to work to suppress a sour look on her face. PT was a joke, and would be until the end of her training. If they really wanted to weed out the ones who couldn’t hack it, they should just put them all in the onboard simulators and run them through combat exercises. What would it matter to Commander la Ganah if she couldn’t do fifteen pull-ups yet? She’d get there, if not necessarily on Captain Jaen’s time.

Olivia had pulled off her mask by now and put her hand on Valeca’s shoulder.

“Found something you can teach me for a change,” she said, panting. Valeca peeled her own oxygen mask off and started disassembling it for transport with practiced efficiency.

“It’s all just muscle memory. You’ll get it.”

“Yeah, but it’s that one time you don’t that gets you.” That was true enough. She’d heard of plenty of ships getting holed by unexpected debris, usually either in the busiest lanes or the least-surveyed; anything in between had already been trawled or marked. Even a fingernail-sized chunk of meteoric iron or broken antenna could put itself straight through a warship’s reactive armor with the right velocity. Enemy action was a completely different beast, in the motives if not in the end results. At least then you had an idea that someone was shooting at you and what they might be shooting at you with. The irony didn’t make her feel much better.

“Let’s get going,” Valeca said. She could finish packing away the oxygen tubes as they walked. Olivia fell in beside her as they cut their way through the other trainees and made their way to the barracks.

A voice called to them from back inside the airlock.

“Where’d you learn to do that, Florn?” It was Herrick, sounding about as out-of-breath as Olivia. “Destiny brats don’t need fingers like that.” He came up to join them, then put his hand out to catch himself on the bulkhead.

“I didn’t see you beating me,” she fired back. Four days with this guy was enough to tell her that going blow-for-blow was the only way to keep him from thinking he could push you around. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen at work, and she wasn’t going to take it here.

He fell in behind Valeca and Olivia on the way back to the barracks.

“Been out of practice for a bit. So what do you think they’ve got for us at the chow hall today? Nice steak, maybe some real potatoes from Earth?”

“Not since they started shooting at us,” Olivia replied. “It’s probably the same old lab-grown crap we’ve had the last four days.”

Crap? No need to denigrate such a fine dining establishment like that! Why, I’m sure it’s the finest lab-grown, protein-based meat substitute the Fleet has to offer.”

“You’re a growing boy, Herrick,” Valeca said. “Maybe they’ll give you seconds this time.”

“I’ll see what I can do in the five minutes Jaen gives us to choke it down before PT.”

“And that’s the problem,” Olivia interjected. “Five minutes to eat, then straight into push-ups and sprints. I’m surprised we’re not just throwing up all over the deck.”

They came to the stairs that would take them up to the mess hall and went up, Valeca and Olivia in front and Herrick trailing just behind. Sometimes she wondered why he hadn’t found someone else to bother, but couldn’t quite put her finger on why she hadn’t yet told him to do so. He was attractive, sure, but plenty of the other men she’d seen onboard were. And even when she told herself that his mouth would get him in trouble sooner rather than later, she couldn’t help but remember Aeje, who was just as likely to be written off by someone who didn’t know him well enough to see the sarcasm as a redeeming quality. Much like Aeje, Herrick may have been an asshole, but at least he was their asshole, if not now, then soon enough.

That must be it, then, Valeca thought as she settled into the chow line behind some familiar faces from Training Flight 3. Was this what her taste in men had come down to? Certainly not romantically, but socially, it was true enough.

They didn’t have to wait long for their tray of what looked like tofu curry and golden rice. In the right light, it could’ve looked appetizing, even like something she would’ve bought on a particularly long haul before she’d enlisted. This wasn’t the right light after all, but it would have to do. The three of them took an open bench near Flight 3 and started in on the food one scalding mouthful at a time. It burned all the way down but it’d only taken her once to learn that blowing on it expended valuable seconds she could be using instead on chewing.

Herrick, on the other hand, attempted to multitask.

“Heard we’re starting sims in a week or so,” he said, sending a grain of rice flying out of his mouth. He picked it up off the table and ate it again.

“About time,” Olivia replied. “Then Valeca can show us how it’s done.” Valeca laughed, but it sounded more like she was choking. She swallowed the first mouthful and primed the second on her spoon.

“Right. I’m sure it’s nothing like what I used to do.” Herrick shot her a cheeky smile.

“BS. You’re just being modest.” The thought came to her that her brother had told her enough to know that it was different, but that would’ve brought up too much that she had neither the time nor desire to talk about now. Or ever, really. She ignored it.

But for the rest of the little time they had left before PT, that possibility was all she could think about. It was part proving herself to Jaen, part to her own expectations. Carriuss was there too, just as he always would be, both disembodied ear to vent into and bar she just couldn’t quite clear.

Anywhere he’d gone, she had to go too. Anyone he hung out with, she had to meet. It was a well-worn path that she perhaps should’ve gotten off in childhood, what with him being even then a shadow over her own ambitions. Her brother, all the way on Earth, so brave for looking after their mother while she and dad came to Jupiter to build a new life for the four of them. All that time away had planted the image of him so firmly in her head as so much stronger, so much wiser, that he must be someone to emulate.

Now here she was, following him down the very road he’d told her not to take, from his first letter to his last leave before he never came back. Was it the family curse, to go straight into exactly the same danger all reason told you to avoid? She didn’t know, but what she did know was that it didn’t matter how many times she had to burn her tongue or how many pull-ups the admiral wanted; all that mattered was that one way or another, Valeca Florn succeeded.

 

***

 

The high-impact plastic door to Nicola’s cell slid open with the hiss of compressed air, admitting Commander Bennett and a marine. Not the first thing he wanted to see with a splitting headache and other pains that were probably angry bruises by now, but it was all he got. He sat up in bed and took his hand away from shielding his eyes to salute and immediately regretted it.

“Wait outside, Private.”

“Sir,” the marine replied and closed the door behind the commander. She took in Nicola, puke and bruises and all, in just one glance.

“Sir,” he said. Bennett looked grave.

“This isn’t your first drunken disorderly. I even wish it was your second.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” He straightened himself and attempted to stand, then felt the nausea hit him and sat right back down. The commander would have to forgive him again.

“I should hope so. We’ve been called in to support Admiral Moleschenkova at Ceres. Present course puts us at three days out.”

“Ceres?” he said, assuming that he’d only thought it instead of saying it out loud. Bennett didn’t appear pleased, but then again, she rarely did.

“The exies have a fleet inbound. Must’ve missed the news while you were sleeping off your little misadventure in the enlisted barracks.”

Bridger, he remembered. That’s who’d gotten him into this mess. It was Ensign Bridger who’d been running his mouth, which meant it was his pal Private Errin who’d done all this to him. The man was an idiot but he could hit hard enough, and that’s what had counted in the end.

“I need you back on flight status as soon as possible, Lieutenant,” the commander continued. “A court martial will have to wait until the return trip to Mars, assuming you and Bridger can’t find a way to stop acting like children around each other. If not, then I may have to make special accommodations. Am I clear?”

The light wasn’t so bright now, bringing out the details of the commander’s face. Her stern features and bearing alone were enough to disprove the rumors that she’d gotten this command as a birthday present from daddy; those were just two things that couldn’t be bought. Dark brown hair fell to her shoulders under her service cap, and she might’ve been pretty had she not been threatening him with imminent discipline under the Uniform Code of Justice.

Nicola couldn’t figure out why that even mattered, especially now, so he pushed the thought away for another time. Maybe after this had all blown over, if he ever ran into her in a bar after their deployment, he could afford to worry about that. For now, though, he only had to obey. Whether he did so joyfully or not was his own problem.

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

“Good. Now let’s never have this conversation again.” She turned away after shooting him with one more glare and called for the marine guards to open the cell door. Nicola was left alone again.

It hadn’t always been like this. For a while, maybe, two or three months now, but not always. At least since his transfer to the Terranova. The Mars Fleet was only one step away from the Belt, and Nicola had every intention of staying out of that deathtrap. It was enough to make a man drink, apparently even to assault a fellow officer, but it was coming no matter what. The exies, colonials, whatever you wanted to call them, had done that on their own. No one knew who’d blown up that freighter out past Ceres and Nicola couldn’t be bothered either way; all he knew was that he wanted out of this place.

The only question now was whether or not he’d have to wind up in the brig again to do it or if FACET would retreat and open up the way for him. His thin pillow was calling to him again but he was too wound up to sleep now, after what the commander had told him. There was too much out there for him that brought him firmly into the present, where war came knocking harder than anything in his life had ever knocked on him in a long time. But if he had a choice, and it looked like the commander was fully willing to give him one, then he’d rather go out in the cockpit of his Peregrine than waiting patiently in the brig to get vented into space by an errant railgun slug.

And if Lieutenant Nicola Perigord wanted to avoid that, three months of skating and threats of demotion would have to end. He would have to sober up, and fast.

Chapter Four

Twenty bunk beds lined the walls of the Zeal Unfettered’s trainee barracks. Valeca walked in with the other thirty-nine trainees carrying the same Fleet-issued duffel bag filled with the same Fleet-issued uniform. Other than the more ordered surroundings and much larger ship, it wasn’t too far removed from the kind of sleeping arrangements she’d seen on longer flights for colony construction. While most contracts her company had taken were well within an hour or two from Destiny, the occasional job took them out to even farther LaGrange Points. These could take anywhere from twelve to seventy-two hours each trip, requiring a much larger transport equipped with sleeping quarters to carry all the pilots and Arks necessary to justify such an expense. However, what these trips had in compensation, they lacked in discipline, and Valeca suspected her new surroundings wouldn’t be so lacking. She was right.

As soon as she’d set her things down on the lower bunk, the door at the fore end of the room slid open. A woman in full dress uniform walked in swiftly, taking in everyone in a single glance.

“Attention!” she called out. Barely missing the bottom of the top bunk in front of her, Valeca snapped to attention just like in the introductory briefing she and the other trainees had been shown upon boarding the ship. Her eyes now fixed on the other woman as she paced around the room. Valeca guessed she was not yet thirty, attractive but built like a coiled spring. She’d have to watch herself around this one. She shouted to the trainees again, drawing a few flinches from some of them.

“I am Captain Jaen, your strike group commander and Military Training Instructor. As of this moment, I own every single one of your asses until the day you leave this ship. Whether you do so whole in a Wasp or in pieces in a little black baggie is up to you.” Jaen had reached the aft end of the room by now and turned back towards the fore end. Fierce eyes darted from one trainee to another, letting her words sink into each individually as she addressed them all as a group.

“I am not your friend. I am not your mother. Until those of you who survive this training finally see combat, I will be your enemy. I am everything; I am your world, and my word is law. You are nothing. I will break you down until you are even less than nothing and then shape what is left into something worthy of the title ‘pilot’. Is that understood?” When her gaze met Valeca’s, it was a beam of light examining her at the molecular level for any excuse to send her packing. Somehow, Valeca found enough air in her lungs to shout back a reply.

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” they said in unison.

“What was that, trainees?” replied Jaen even louder. The response matched Jaen’s ferocity; now that they’d gotten a glimpse of the woman, they all knew what she wanted back from them.

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”

“Very good! Very-” The last word caught in her throat and was replaced with rising anger; in the row of trainees across from Valeca, someone had snickered. Jaen’s pace quickened as she searched for the culprit, looking to all of them as if she’d kill whoever it was where they stood.

“Now what in the hell was that?” She shouted even more strongly than before, darting from one trainee to another. “Who thinks this is funny? Was it you, you cringing little shit?” The trainee shouted back in the negative. “How about you, dickless? Was it you?” Negative again.

“Ma’am, it was me, ma’am!” A man who looked barely older than Valeca called from across the room. As the captain approached him, it was apparent that he was taller than her and perhaps a little bulkier; it wouldn’t help him now.

“Oh, it was you, was it?” she yelled up into his face as he looked straight ahead. “Who is the trainee to laugh at his Military Training Instructor?!”

“Ma’am, the trainee’s name is Jason Herrick, ma’am!”

“Is the trainee some sort of badass?”

“Ma’am?”

“I asked if the trainee is a badass. Well, are you? Because anything less than that would not feel it appropriate to laugh at their training instructor!”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”

“Prove it, trainee! Prove it or I swear I will beat your ass so hard, you’ll need to shit in zero-g so your cheeks don’t bump the seat!”

“Ma’am, the trainee does not know how to prove to the training instructor that he is a badass!”

“Try this, then!” With that, a solid uppercut caught Herrick right in the chest. He found himself on his knees gasping for breath as Jaen continued to stare him down.

“Not so confident now, are you, trainee? Right! Anyone else feel like training in the Colonial Fleet would be improved by a laugh track?” She turned to face the other trainees, who made no movements or attempts to respond with anything but “Ma’am, no ma’am!” “Get on your feet, trainee, and do not laugh until I have permitted you to laugh! Is that understood?”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” came Herrick’s winded reply.

“I couldn’t hear you, trainee!”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” he said again, stronger this time.

“Very good. Now if there are no further interruptions, I will now proceed to teach you pukes everything you need to know in order to survive this training and eventually serve in my beloved Ark corps. It will be hard, but you will survive if you do as I say at all times. Is that understood?”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” they all shouted back. They had already learned the most important lesson day one had for them here: how to answer their MTI.

“Good!” Jaen said. “Now look to the opposite side of your bunk.” Valeca did; the trainee across from her was a brunette, a little taller than she was. At first glance, she didn’t look like she belonged here but then again, Valeca didn’t suppose she did either.

“The trainee standing there is your wingman,” Jaen continued. “You will eat together, you will train together, you will report to your squad leaders together, and if you’re lucky, you may serve together in combat one day. Between you and your wingman, there shall be neither of the two F’s. Is that understood?”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”

“Now I’ll see you all in ten minutes in the ready room for your first briefing. Flight suits or nothing.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” As soon as the captain had left the room, Valeca rushed to finish pulling on her flight suit. It was another part of their briefing earlier: only flight suits in the ready room. The other three uniforms currently folded and labeled in the trunk at the foot of her bed—Class A/B, Garrison, and Combat—would be explained later. For now, she only had to worry about her Physical Training Uniform and the flight suit. She was wearing the former now: dark blue shorts that reached halfway to her knees and an undershirt in a lighter shade branded FCF. Jaen was right: there was no mistaking who owned her now.

Before Valeca could reach out a hand to pull her flight suit out of a narrow locker behind her, the trainee across from her shot out her own.

“Hi,” she said. “Olivia Young.” The other woman’s grip was surprisingly firm; maybe Valeca was wrong about her wingman not fitting in here.

“Valeca. Nice to meet you.” With that, both of them grabbed their flight suits and started pulling them on. A thick pair of knee socks came first, then a flame-retardant jumper that pretended to be form-fitting but really flattered no one.

“Sheesh, after all that, I’m not sure I can cut it here!” Olivia said chuckling.

“Yeah, the captain’s something, isn’t she?” replied Valeca as she stepped into the flight suit itself and set to work on the zippers and seals that ran across her chest. She pulled the hood of her jumper over her head, then slipped through the rubber gasket in the neck. Once all this was done and her hands had slipped through similar gaskets at the suit’s wrists, she pulled on her boots and slapped the pressure seals down into their fully locked position.

Looking around the barracks, she noticed that only two of other trainees had managed to get their suits on yet. It made her think that maybe she had a chance here after all, of not just passing but excelling. It was a moment later that Olivia locked her own boots and was ready to leave for the ready room.

“Come on,” she said to Valeca. “let’s get down there before she tosses us out an airlock or something.”

“Right,” Valeca replied. A few pairs of eyes turned to face them as their heavy magnetic boots clattered off towards the door and out into the corridor.

Five minutes or so went by silently before the trainees had assembled themselves in the pilot’s ready room for the first time. Looking around and seeing their fellow soldiers in uniform, even in the unadorned grays of Colonial Fleet trainees, combined with the room itself in their minds to give the impression that it was all finally real; that they really were soldiers now. It gave Valeca a sense of comfort and belonging that she couldn’t really understand, yet at the same time it wasn’t unwelcome either.

Jaen stood at a lectern in the center of the little amphitheater, flanked on both sides by FACET and Fleet banners. Valeca noticed that their ship bore the insignia of the Home Defense 2nd Fleet. That also made her feel more comfortable. Though enlisting had been her choice all along, she was just fine with keeping the enemy where they were at over two astronomical units away. The trainees surrounding her were all seated; the captain addressed them.

“I see none of you managed to get lost on the way here. That’s a good sign, but you’ll need to be able to do more than find your way through hallways to succeed in basic training, especially with me. Now how many of you are familiar with piloting Arkitect frames? I want hands up!” Valeca’s hand shot up. She looked around the room and noticed four other hands, though none that she knew.

“Only five of you! Good; that means I’ll only have to reteach a few of you instead of the whole squadron. Last group they brought up to me was half full of trainees who thought they didn’t have anything to learn from me. You all should’ve seen the look on their faces when I sent them packing. I still think about it when I have trouble sleeping and it puts a nice big smile on my face. You know why? What’s your name, trainee?”

Another girl about Valeca’s age called out when Jaen’s hand pointed at her.

“The trainee’s name is Kaminsky, ma’am!”

“Do you know why it pleases me to send home Ark pilots, Cadet Kaminsky?”

“Ma’am, no ma’am!”

“I’ll tell you why. Because without exception, every single one of them gets here and seems to think that they already know how to survive in combat just because they know how to weld or turn around without puking all over the inside of their helmet. And invariably, they do everything absolutely wrong. And guess whose ass is on the line in training when some cocky hotshot comes in here and does everything wrong? You now, Cadet. What’s your name?” Jaen’s fierce gaze had now fallen on Valeca.

“The trainee’s name is Florn, ma’am!” she said with surprising conviction.

“Answer the question, Florn.”

“Ma’am, incorrect procedures in training would endanger the trainee’s chances of passing the course, ma’am!”

“You only get half-points, Florn. Anyone else care to guess?” The room was silent. “No? That’s too bad, because the answer is all of you. That’s right, one half-assed trainee puts all of you in danger. You know why that is? Because training becomes habit, and habit becomes practice, and practice becomes character, and character becomes you. If your training is wrong, then you by extension are wrong as well, and there is no way in hell that I will permit you to leave this training course with a pair of wings on your flight suit if your training is in any way, shape or form ‘wrong’. Are we clear?” The answer was unanimous and hearty.

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”

“Good. Now let’s move on to the briefing proper. First off, let me introduce you to your new home for the next six weeks, assuming you make it that long. You are now aboard the FCS Zeal Unfettered, the newest ship in the entire fleet, and might I say the best any of you could ever hope to serve on. Over the next few hours, you’ll be inspected by both the Commanding and Executive Officers, Commander La Ganah and Captain Oleka respectively. You’ll also get a tour of the flight deck and Flight Control facilities, which will be the most important places to you aboard this ship after your barracks and the mess hall. Following that, you will return here for a chance to ask me any questions you might have, no matter how stupid they are, and I guarantee you that they will be stupid. Everything in the Fleet is based on regulations which are very clearly spelled out. The sooner you learn and become these regulations, the fewer questions you have, and the fewer questions you have, the less stupid you will sound. Understood?”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” they called out once more.

“I’ll never get tired of hearing that. Now that your first briefing is complete, you’re to report to the mess for lunch and be back here in one hour, prepared for our grand tour. Garrisons this time. Cadets, dismissed!”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”

 

***

 

Lunch hadn’t been anything special, which was to be expected for an outfit that had so many mouths to feed. Digestion was always something Valeca tried to do in silence; it was only natural that Arina Jaen would have other ideas.

“Attention!” the captain yelled as she rounded the corner and walked into the barracks. None of them were slow this time. “I need five cadets to report to laundry duty!” Valeca fired a look over at Olivia and nodded as her arm shot up.

“Ma’am, Cadets Florn and Young, reporting for duty!” Jaen no more than glanced at them before moving on to find the rest of her victims.

“Three more!” she yelled, pacing down the row of bunks. When no one spoke up, she started in on naming names. “Cadets Kaminsky, Len and Forres, report with Florn and Young. Dismissed!” Valeca knew enough to hustle off down the corridor as quickly as she could manage, but only after grabbing the little cheat sheet she’d been given to help memorize the Fleet’s chain of command. Olivia would have to share.

From what she heard of Jaen’s voice receding as they left the barracks, it wasn’t going to be pretty in there. Olivia approached as the training instructor fell out of hearing.

“What’s the deal?” she asked. “You think I wanna wash someone else’s skidmarked underwear?”

“Something my brother told me once: always volunteer for laundry duty in training, since it gives you time to memorize. I’m gonna need all the time I can get.” Her left hand held up the little laminated sheet of paper agreed grabbed from her trunk.

“You know,” Olivia said, grinning, “I think I’ll keep you around. Just tell me what else brother said.”

“Mostly, he told me not to enlist. Looks like we’re both SOL on that one.”

Sure enough, laundry duty wasn’t so bad as long as you ignored all the suspicious hairs and just got on with it. Everything was already organized by wings and only in readily distinguishable colors, so the only real problem was the monotony. Just the thought that Valeca was a pilot stuck sorting someone else’s sweaty shirts when she could’ve been flying was a bit galling, but she wouldn’t think about that now.

She’d just be lucky to have a chance to fly, and only after she put up with Jaen and her training routine. Whatever the captain had to throw at her would be nothing next to the thrill of strapping herself into a cockpit again, this time at the helm of military hardware. It was enough to make her smile noticeably and for Olivia to remark.

“Find something good in there?” she asked, looking similarly bored.

“Nope,” Valeca replied, “just thinking about what it’ll be like to fly again.”

Again? I guess you did raise your hand in that briefing. What’d you do before?”

“Colony construction. Just basic Arks for some heavy lifting, nothing fancy like this. A Wasp would make what I flew look like a kid’s toy.”

“I’ll bet.” Olivia was tossing the last bunch of her load into a washing machine when Valeca rose to look at the duty roster. The tablet was built into the wall and gave an hour-by-hour breakdown of which wings had use of the laundry facilities; she noticed that the next batch wouldn’t be due for another ten minutes. While maybe it wasn’t safe to assume that Jaen wouldn’t expect them back until that time, not much about the woman was safe, perhaps beyond the expectation that she could be hostile at any moment and with no conceivable provocation.

Peeking over at the other three cadets, Valeca noticed that they were still working on their laundry and the clock was ticking. It wouldn’t be right to distract them now.

“Let’s get started,” she said. Olivia took a seat across the aisle from her, not looking stressed at all. “You wanna look off mine?”

“No, thanks.” Valeca arched an eyebrow in surprise. “What? You weren’t the only one who got some advice before she reported.” There was that grin she’d seen Olivia flash a couple times now, walking the line between confident and annoying. Valeca really didn’t want to be seeing signs of the latter already, not when they were only to be together for the next eight weeks at least.

She read over the card out loud a couple times before trying again without it, but she could only make it a few pay grades up before having to cheat. Olivia was falling to suppress a snort.

“High school all over again,” Valeca said, irritated as she turned the little paper over in her hands a few times, as if that would be more helpful. “If I have to recite that one more time, I’ll punch right through the bulkhead and float home.”

“It’s not that hard,” Olivia replied. “Just keep doing it until it sticks.” Valeca sighed at that but knew her wingman was right; Jaen wanted her cadets to know their homework backwards and forwards, to be repeated by request at any time. Any of them who couldn’t do it would, in the Captain’s words, do so many push-ups that they’d push their way through the hull and out into space.

“Let’s give it another shot, Valeca. You go first.”

“Cadet Valeca Florn. Cadet Ella Kaminsky, Fourth Training Flight. Captain Arina Jaen, Fourteenth Training Squadron. Lieutenant Colonel Oris Dannet, Commander of Air Group. Colonel… Shit.” Olivia snorted with laughter.

“Colonel Shit? Really?” At that, Valeca laughed too. “Colonel Tylen Fletcher, Second Group. Wanna finish it off?”

“Sure,” she replied. “Brigadier General Alexandra Brand, FCS Arcturus, Second Wing.  FCS Bellerophon. General Janis Lewin, FCS Bellerophon, First Space Force. Erana Lennix, Commander of the Navy. Franklin Macalacad, Secretary of the Space Force. Patrick Hearst, Chairman of the Armed Forces.” They said the last one together: “Otha Derak, President of the Free Alliance.”

“Good!” Olivia said.

“It’s one thing saying it now, though. Just wait ‘til Jaen gets you in the mess hall with a spoon in your mouth or in the bathroom.”

“Or makes you do it backwards. Now if you’re fine on that, then let’s do the next one.”

“And I thought the chain of command was hard… Says here we’re supposed to have the whole Space Force rank structure memorized too, all the way from airman up to General of the Space Force.”

“I’d rather memorize all that than be latrine queen,” Olivia said.

“Fair enough. Let’s get started, then. Airman, Airman First Class, Senior Airman…”


***

 

Valeca only needed a few minutes for what she’d intended to do since this afternoon’s briefings. Thankfully, it was only a short walk to Captain Jaen’s quarters. She took a deep breath and knocked on the door firmly.

“Yes?” came the captain’s voice from a small holo-screen on the side of the doorway.

“Ma’am, Cadet Florn!” she said. The door slid open and revealed the captain sitting at a desk in her PTUs. Lights out for trainees would be in the next twenty minutes but officers, especially those as busy as Jaen was with all these new recruits, couldn’t afford to limit themselves to the standard ship schedule. She looked up from the various holo-projections on her desk to address Valeca.

“What is it, Cadet Florn?” Valeca still wasn’t certain on saluting protocols yet so she snapped a quick one just to be sure.

“Ma’am, permission to speak to you in private!”

“No need to yell, Cadet; permission granted. Now step inside and take a seat if this is gonna be long.” She dropped her hand and shook her head slightly.

“It won’t be long, ma’am. I just wanted to thank you for earlier.”

“For what?” the captain replied, furrowing her brow in surprise. “I don’t recall treating you any differently than I did the other trainees.”

“Exactly, ma’am. Thank you. For… Not making a big deal out of who my father is.” Valeca’s gaze shifted downward towards nothing in particular. “Or my brother.”

“Understand this about me, Florn,” Jaen said, as Valeca’s eyes returned to make contact with hers. “It’s not my way to give anyone special treatment based on their last names. That goes both ways: I won’t give you undeserved punishments, and I sure as hell won’t give you undue praise. The only thing you can possibly do to get special treatment from me is to give me a glimpse of your potential and then not follow through on it. I’ve heard about your brother; everyone in the colonies has too, but you won’t see that affecting my judgement when it comes to your piloting skills. What I do care about is what Colonel Rice put on your application and what you’ll show me in the simulator. And if I ever catch you slacking on that, rest assured that I will never spend a day off your ass until you leave this ship. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Valeca could feel her cheeks flushing a little from embarrassment. She hoped the captain didn’t notice but assumed she had regardless; she’d learned already that nothing got past Arina Jaen.

“Good. And don’t thank me yet. This is only the first day. If you think I’m a hardass now, just wait until I have to put you in an actual cockpit, much less a combat situation. Let’s hope you make it that far.”

“I hope so too, ma’am.”

“Do more than hope, Florn; make it happen. Now do you have anything else to say?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then you’re dismissed. Goodnight, Cadet Florn.” Valeca gave another stiff salute.

“Goodnight, ma’am.” The door closed behind her as she stepped back into the corridor, making her way back to the barracks.

She’d imagined that conversation going quite differently. Should she feel lucky that Jaen didn’t plan on holding her to Carriuss’ standard? It was a safe bet that that was the last thing she really wanted in this sort of environment, where perfection was the captain’s minimum requirement. Her brother hadn’t talked much about piloting or even the Fleet in general, only telling her over and over that no one who wasn’t in would have the slightest chance of understanding the pressure he was under. Now that she’d had a taste, she could admit to herself that he was right about some preconceptions and wrong about others.

On one hand, her first day had been pretty brutal; so much to memorize, all the different uniforms to get straight, so many people to remember and associate with just to get through training. On the other hand, it wasn’t as different as she’d thought it would be from her past experiences. At least the bunks and the food were just about equally bland for both Fleet trainees and civilian contractors. One less thing to feel homesick about.

By the time she got back to the barracks, everyone else was ready for bed. Olivia had taken the top bunk and was already laying down with the tablet they’d been given earlier in the day. Fleet regulations dictated everything they did, from mess order to how many centimeters wide the piping on an approved Class A coat had to be. It was good to see her wingman was already working on committing them to memory little by little, because Valeca knew she’d need all the help she could get.

“Where’d you go?” Olivia asked without looking up from her studies.

“Just came from the Captain’s quarters,” Valeca said, pulling off her boots and socks; the familiar smell was something else to remind her of eight-hour work days in civilian life.

“Oh yeah?”

“Nothing important,” she replied, trying to dissuade Olivia’s audible curiosity. “I just had a question, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.”

“I’m not worried,” Olivia chuckled. “As long as you’re not getting flunked out or anything.”

“No, nothing like that.” Flipping up the single blanket on her bunk, Valeca slid inside and pulled the foam pillow up under her head.

“Well, good. After all, we just barely met. I wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of getting to know another brand new wingman.”

“You still might, depending on what Jaen throws at us tomorrow.”

“We’ll see.” A series of three beeps echoed through the room: countdown to lights out. When the lights overhead flicked off, the tablets still on around the room saved their owners’ places and shut off as well. There were no late nights aboard ship for the trainees, something those who passed training would come to regard with jealousy eventually. For now, it would just be a minor annoyance.

“Looks like it’s goodnight, then,” Olivia said as she slipped the tablet into a little slot in her headboard.

“Goodnight,” Valeca replied. It was hard for her to believe that twelve hours ago, she’d been stuffing socks into a duffel bag back in her family’s apartment in Destiny, and now she was aboard a warship bound for who knows where with a crew supplemented by almost a hundred more former civilians like her. Maybe they’d even had the same routine earlier that day: placing the only possessions important to them anymore into a single bag; saying goodbye to family and friends; throwing themselves head-first into something they didn’t entirely understand but knew enough about to think they wanted it, something that could likely kill them if things heated up in the Belt. It was overwhelming, but perhaps that was the point. By yelling all the bad habits out of them in the beginning, what good habits were left could be reinforced. Or something like that, Valeca thought.

Maybe tomorrow would tell her if she was right.

Prologue

After nearly two weeks in transit from the Prosperity colony along Jupiter’s solar orbit, Interplanetary Resources Incorporated Flight PRO-2715 was now one hundred thousand kilometers outward on final approach to Ceres Station. Its two-hour deceleration burn was completed with plenty of fuel to spare, bringing the freighter cruising into position to enter the dwarf planet’s main commercial shipping lane. Thousands of ships passed through this corridor every week—including two or three dozen other Alexander-class cargo freighters like this one—carrying anything from resources like helium-3 gas and refined ore to immigrants, tourists and business travelers alike.

To an observer and even to most of the passengers, there was no sign that the ship was anything out of the ordinary. Any observer who thought that, however, would be very mistaken: while the cargo was a standard shipment of iron-nickel ore mined from Jupiter’s Trojan asteroid node, this flight’s unique nature had more to do with a few of its passengers than its shipment.

Seated in an impromptu first-class cabin were three people. The first was a steely, older woman in a well-pressed pantsuit, her graying hair pulled into a bun. A younger man sat across the room from her at a desk covered in glowing holo projections. He stared intently at a displayed document which floated about a foot in front of his face, then turned to the older woman.

“That was Ceres docking control, ma’am,” he said. “They said we’re about half an hour out, given all the freighter traffic. Too bad we can’t cut in line, huh?”

“Not much we can do about that, Reese,” she replied. “Remember, this isn’t exactly an official visit.”

“I know. It just makes me wonder what Director Langston has to hide. We’ve been on good enough terms with his people for the last couple years… I want to know what could’ve changed.”

“A lot changes when a League carrier comes knocking on your front door. Speaking of which, what’s the word on that carrier, Marick? Is it still docked?”

Leslie Marick, a woman who appeared older than Reese but still years away from the first woman’s gray hair, spoke up from a seat across the room.

“Not sure, ma’am,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything from our plants on the Station since this morning. You think we should hold off, maybe give it some more time before we pull in?”

“We can’t afford to wait,” replied the older woman. “Not if our intel from Mars is correct.”

With that, a black-suited man wearing an earpiece peeked down at her through the staircase from the cockpit above.

“Ambassador Andersen,” he said, “the captain has something he’d like you to see.”

“Now what could this be?” she said, her voice betraying mild frustration. She unbuckled her lap restraint and ascended the staircase into the cockpit as the door shut again behind them.

The cockpit’s interior was filled with bright red light from various indicators and readouts, in order to give the two men inside a view out the front windows without blinding them in the darkness that surrounded them. Even though docking and Hohmann transfer navigation processes were entirely automated, especially in a craft this massive, pilots still tended to trust their eyes over electronic displays whenever possible. The rough sphere of Ceres lay off in the distance, framed by a slim crescent of harsh, reflected sunlight.

“What’ve you got for me, Captain?” asked Andersen. The captain was a rough-looking man, like an old sailor. These kinds of jobs had always attracted the same kind of men, even though the venue for them had changed significantly.

“It’s a ship we’ve been tracking since we entered the Outer Belt Region an hour ago,” he said. “Looks like a little civvie model but when we picked it up, it was out pretty far out there for someone just going on a joyride.”

“You think it’s following us?” Andersen’s face barely registered concern. Memories of the Endurance Fourteen incident came back for a moment, reminding her that she’d been in these sorts of situations before. That one had been messier, what with the civilian casualties during the hostage rescue. However, this mission was different.

“It’s possible but not likely. We’ve been off Fleet comm channels the whole way, plus our tags are registered with Interplanetary Resources Incorporated.” The gruff captain turned to his copilot, a younger man who looked no less experienced. “What’s its distance now… Four, five hundred klicks?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied, “but if it comes any closer and isn’t just some rich guy out for a quick flight, we might be in for trouble.”

Andersen paused for a moment, looking to the information readouts. They didn’t tell her much of anything she could understand, though it didn’t stop her from trying.

“Just keep me posted, Captain,” she said, turning to retreat back to the cabin.

“Yes, Madam ambassador.” Before she could reach the door, however, the copilot spoke up again.

“Look at this, Captain,” he said. “It’s picking up speed: four thousand kilometers. Thirty-nine hundred.”

In surprise, Andersen turned again to face the readout interface. In between the captain and copilot was a holo projection in the shape of a sphere, with their ship’s position in the very center. Around it floated smaller projections, each labeled with unique call sign identification tags. Other than the civilian ship the captain had been tracking, the next closest ship markers were registering at almost ten thousand kilometers inward to Ceres Station. These markers hardly moved, since the freighter had matched their entry speed for the final approach. Meanwhile, the civilian ship was coming in steadily faster towards the freighter.

“It’s really moving…” Andersen remarked.

“Thirty-seven hundred,” the copilot said. “They aren’t slowing down… What do you advise?”

“Are they on an impact trajectory?” the captain asked.

“Negative. If they keep going straight ahead, it looks like they’ll just miss us. Crazy bastards. It’s your call, Captain. Ditch him or stay on course?”

“I say we stay on course but get ready to put out a call on the station emergency frequency just in case. We can’t afford to look suspicious, or else we’re all done for.”

“Aye aye,” replied the copilot nervously. “Target is still approaching: thirty-five hundred kilometers. Damn, it’s quick! Thirty-four…” A harsh beeping noise pierced the tense attitude in the cockpit, followed by the rapid flashing of an indicator light on the sensor readout array. “Hold on. Shit! We’re under missile lock!”

“From that little civvie ship?” the captain asked incredulously.

“Take evasive action,” said Andersen. “Get us out of here!” Her left hand gripped the Captain’s chair back like a vice.

“I’m trying,” the captain replied, “but he’s coming in too hot! These tubs can’t steer worth a damn anyways.”

Meanwhile, the copilot was busy with the wireless.

“Mayday, mayday!” he called out as panic started to creep into his voice. “This is PRO Twenty-seven Fifteen, we are under missile lock by an unknown vessel! I repeat, we are under missile lock by an unknown vessel, bearing two hundred fifty-seven degrees above and behind our position, please respond! Mayday!”

All of Ambassador Helena Andersen’s training could not have prepared her for the end: only her multiple brushes with death in the line of duty had done that. Regardless, her calm acceptance of the situation surprised even herself.

“So this is it, then,” she said to no one in particular.

She watched as a pair of new indicators blinked to life on the holographic distance display. When the missiles impacted a moment later, the explosions came so quickly that no one on board had time to hear them reverberate through the hull before the ship was ripped apart, littering the Belt’s largest commercial shipping corridor with bodies and debris.

Chapter Three

“You sure changed your mind quick, didn’t you?”

It had been only a few days since their last visit to Liberty Square, and now they were back again. Just as Valeca’s mind had indeed changed, so had the feeling between her and Aeje. She could sense that he was confused, irritated, maybe even feeling betrayed, yet he tried hard to hide it all behind his typically humorous demeanor. Though she hated to admit it, he had a right to feel that way. After all, just a few days ago, he’d been struggling with himself to explain that Valeca was one of the people he didn’t want to lose, and now she’d gone and enlisted in the Fleet. As much as she’d tried to explain to him what Colonel Rice had said about openings all over the colonies, not even she was confident enough in her ability to stay out of the front lines to try and convince Aeje of the same. Maybe all that beer sitting next to them in a little cooler he’d brought wasn’t so much for the two of them as it was for him.

“You should’ve heard what I wanted to sign up for first, though. I said I’d make a great construction worker or something, but no… Colonel Rice took one look at me and said ‘You know what? Let’s put this one in the Fleet. She looks like a big enough hardass to teach the UEL a lesson or two.’”

“Oh really?” Aeje chuckled. “I thought maybe they just wanted to see if you’d be able to make it out of Basic with your big head still attached to your neck.” He saw Valeca getting ready to punch him in the arm and exaggerated protecting himself with his hands. “I kid, I kid! I think you’ll do great, Val. Just remember not to give your MTI too much shit or there won’t even be enough left of you to send home in a box.”

“Ha ha, very funny… Who knows, Aeje. Maybe they’ll even take a liking to your lily-white behind, if this thing lasts long enough for Derak to get that desperate. How would you like that?”

“Eh, could be fun.” He laid back on the grass with his hands behind his head, staring up into the reflected light above him as dreams of glory began to race around his head. “You know, they were saying on the news this morning that this war probably won’t even get started and if it does, chances are it’ll be over before I can even get a flight suit on. The rest of our ships are still a few days out from Ceres. What if they get there and the Earth fleet’s nowhere to be found? Everyone gets a little vacation in the Belt, plus all the booze they can drink, then they all get to head home again and march around like war heroes. Sounds like my kind of war.”

“You know, that does a certain appeal to it. Fly around a little, get drunk, come home. You know, if I hadn’t already enlisted, maybe I’d even sign up for something like that.” Propping himself on an elbow, he turned to look at her.

“Just do me one favor, Val: don’t let me get all sappy when you board the transport on your way to Basic. You wouldn’t want to see me cry anyways. My eyes get all puffy and a little thing of snot starts to come out right here…”

“Don’t worry,” she said, laughing. “If it looks like you’re about to cry, I’ll just give you something to cry about. How’s that?”

“Sounds good,” he replied. “And hey… If I ever do find myself up there, do another favor.”

“And what’s that?”

“Leave me some leftovers, okay? Don’t go winning the war all on your own.”

“Guess I’ll have to do my best to not do my best, then.”

“That’s the spirit! Now how about you pass me a beer? All this thinking about war’s getting me too excited.”

“Sure thing. Man, I’m gonna miss this.”

“Not for long, hopefully.”

“I’ll drink to that,” she said. Aeje grabbed the can and cracked it open, then turned back to lie down on the grass.

Taking a cue from her friend, Valeca leaned back to look at the “sky” above them, which today was filled with puffy, white clouds at the center of the colony cylinder and terminated in a large window on the other side. All those years ago when she’d first arrived here in FACET, she’d laid like this constantly, gazing at the opposite wall of the colony as if she were floating in the air and looking down at the ground beneath her.

Only someone born and raised in an O’Neill cylinder like Destiny could ever really adjust fully to the crazy perspective and direction changes forces on the mind by living inside of one. Perhaps to someone born in the colonies, she had thought, the Earth itself would be just as taxing on the brain to understand how the sky above could really be infinite, with no reassurance of solid walls and plasma shields protecting you from everything that lay beyond it. To imagine a plane so large that it actually curved away from you on all sides while appearing flat must be confusing, if not terrifying. It had taken Valeca a few years to get used to the sight of the colony’s interior, to the point where it was no longer strange to her by the time she was a teenager.

Now, however, she felt as if recent events were pushing on her a new sense of wonder in her home. Space lay all around her, kept out by almost a quarter-kilometer of metal and anti-radiation shielding, yet here she was in a little bubble of life, laying on the grass and talking to her best friend with no fear of what lay outside. The thought came into her mind that perhaps she now felt this way because deep inside her, she feared she would never get to do this again.

If there was anything more for the two of them to say, they didn’t find it before they’d already finished their drinks and the colony’s myriad stars had come out once again.

 

***

 

Onboard the EFS Terranova in its orbit above Mars, it was far too early for Commander Amira Bennett to report for bridge duty. Since Fleet Standard Time dictated that the incoming caller knew this as well, it must’ve been urgent to call directly to the CO’s quarters and not hail the CIC first. Beeping from the terminal near her bed roused the commander quickly from an unsuspecting sleep, and she instinctively reached for her jacket to receive the video message. Checking the caller’s credentials onscreen, she confirmed her suspicions: it was Admiral Moleschenkova, commander of the Mars Defense Fleet. Whatever this was about, it was big.

“Accept call,” Amira said as she reached the last button of her jacket and pulled her cap over unkempt hair. She knew the admiral had high dress standards but considering the nature of the call, she hoped there would be some slack given this time. Moleschenkova’s face appeared on-screen, only more tense than usual.

“Good morning, ma’am. What can I do for you?”

“We have a situation at Ceres,” the admiral replied. “I assume you’ve heard the news.”

“No, ma’am, I’m afraid I haven’t been informed of this yet. What happened?”

“A civilian transport coming in from Progress colony in the Jovian Trojans was destroyed; around two hundred people were killed.” Last time something like this had happened, Amira had been only a lieutenant. She wasn’t involved in the investigation but from what she heard of its findings, the reports of terrorist activity turned out to be rumors. A faulty reactor had breached its containment field and taken the ship with it. Tragic, but it was no time for overreaction.

“I assume we’re going out on another peace-keeping patrol, then?” she replied.

“Ordinarily no, but this one gets worse. President Derak’s been on the news all day, calling it an attack on their sovereignty, whatever the hell that means.” She swallowed at the news, her hands gripping the blanket next to her a little tighter.

“So what’s the plan, Admiral?”

“You’re to rendezvous with Task Force Omega in three hours at coordinates to be disclosed. Once you arrive at your first waypoint, you’ll then report to Commander Sengupta on the cruiser Guardian and await further orders before proceeding to Ceres.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Amira was about to throw up a salute when a look of concern came over her face. She tried to hide it but the admiral must’ve seen it.

“What is it, Commander?” she inquired.

“Actually, ma’am, I wonder… Do you think FACET will even send a fleet all? What if this is just another bluff?”

“I wish I could tell you. Just have your ship ready by the time I give the signal. Dismissed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Shit, she thought. Shit, shit, shit. Amira reached around in the dark with her feet until she found her shoes by the side of her bed. The moment it took her to tie up the laces gave her time to mull over the news. FACET ships most likely en route to Ceres, civilians dead, and at least one League battle group moving to intervene. Things had never been this tense with the rebels in her lifetime, maybe not even since her father had had his own command rather than an office back in Genesis. But there was no point trying to ask herself what he would do in this situation; it was her ship, her crew, her responsibility if things went wrong. Shit.

The CIC was just around the corner from her quarters. A pair of marines saluted as she approached the doors, which slid open to admit her.

“Commander on deck!” one of the guards shouted. Officers shuffled all over the CIC to salute as well.

“As you were,” Amira said. “How’s my ship?” Major Stephen Chandler dropped his salute and stepped away from the holo projector console at the center of the room. Only three hours into his eight-hour watch, he didn’t look haggard yet, but Amira knew he would by the time this was all sorted out. If, she thought, correcting herself.

“A little early, aren’t you, Commander?” he replied.

“We’ve got new orders,” Amira said. “The admiral just informed me that we’re to meet up with the Guardian and make our way to Ceres. There’s been an attack on a FACET civilian ship and they may have sent a fleet out to respond.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“I want this ship ready to depart in two hours. Our orders will come in three.”

“Alright, everyone,” Chandler said, “you heard the commander! Get on the horn with your sections!”

“I’ll make the general announcement, Major.” Her mouth was dry when she picked up the handset for the ship-wide intercom.

 

***

 

Valeca would be leaving home in just a few minutes and it still hadn’t sunk in yet. Her bag were almost all packed. According to the forms Colonel Rice had given her at the recruiting office, she wouldn’t be allowed to take much anyways, so she stuffed what little she could in an old duffel bag she’d found: a pair of socks, a little tablet filled with family photos, a few t-shirts. All she hoped for was that they’d let her keep it all. Without a single tie remaining to home, who would she be anymore but just another name on a roster?

The soft knocking of her stepmother’s hand sounded on the bedroom door behind her. She stuffed the tablet down under her shirts even though she knew she shouldn’t feel embarrassed.

“Can I come in?” she asked.

“Sure,” Valeca answered. It’d been hard in the last few days to talk to her parents about anything, especially about her sudden decision to enlist. Even if they didn’t understand why, at least they knew she understood. Small comforts like that one were all Valeca had anymore.

“I know it’s hard for you, sweetie, but both of us know you’re going to do well in training. You’ve always been a smart girl, you know.” Valeca was still too uncomfortable to respond to her mother’s words, just to her presence.

“I’m not sure what to take,” she said. “Most everything I’d need’ll just be given to me at training.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Jessa put an arm around Valeca, who even shocked herself that she almost recoiled at the touch. “Whatever you need there, we’ll send it to you. The same goes if you bring something you don’t need; just send it back and your father and I will pay for shipping.”  She still couldn’t find it within herself to try and keep a conversation with her mother. It was as if there was not too little to say but too much in such a short amount of time. How could she tell her all about the way it had made her feel to know that she could follow after her brother? Or how much it terrified her that she might actually do it? How many hours would she need to explain to her father that despite the fact that he could’ve arranged a cushy civil service position for her or even an exemption from the newly initiated draft, she still chose to put herself in harm’s way?

“I’m just… Not scared, really. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain…” She found herself in a firm hug. It surprised her more than anything, yet it felt oddly comforting.

“Your brother felt the same way when he left, honey.”

“Yeah, and look where that got him,” she said as her fingers, still buried in shirts, started stroking the edge of the tablet gently. Another one stood on her nightstand, projecting pictures of herself as a child. Her heart felt like it was being crushed as the next picture to appear on its screen was one of her and Carriuss.

She remembered this picture: she was twelve years old then, making him eighteen. Her whole family had gone to a museum that displayed reconstructions of old spaceships. Valeca had just started taking an interest in aerospace engineering at the time and had begged her father to let her go. Finally, they’d all had a day when her father wasn’t busy with Council business and Carriuss wasn’t off at school. To this day, she looked back on that as an almost singular happy day in between so many horrible ones.

It had been before her brother had enlisted in the Fleet as a pilot, just as she herself had done a few days ago without fully comprehending why. Before he’d been pulled into operations in the Belt which he couldn’t talk about without security clearance. Before he’d been declared killed in action against a separatist group whose members couldn’t even stop fighting long enough to decide what to call themselves. And now here she was, preparing to jump into the same situation that had taken him, when he was still a burned-out and bitter young refugee who’d fought so hard and failed to fit in with his new upper-class colonial life. Instead, the disconnect had eaten at him continually until he couldn’t stand it anymore; until he believed that his only place was in the peace-keeping fleet, complete with all its discipline and supposed love of justice.

It felt like ages that Valeca took in that picture and all the memories that flowed through her mind with it, but it had really been gone in an instant, replaced with another: Carriuss’ graduation with honors from the Fleet Academy. She hated that her mother would be here when tears threatened to overwhelm her now. For her part, Jessa Florn must’ve had enough intuition about her stepdaughter’s mindset to know where her thoughts were taking her.

“Now don’t go thinking about that,” she said, her voice reaching barely above a whisper. “He’s still right here with us… That reminds me, I’ve got something else you might want to take along.” Her stepmother left the room briefly and returned holding a thin chain with a little piece of metal dangling from it. It was dull gray and smoothed into a hexagon with a sort of rubber guard around the edges.

“What is it?” Valeca asked.

“It’s a little something your brother sent me when he was in training. He said it was a chunk of armor plating from an Arkitect. I think you should take it with you.”

“I’d be embarrassed, mom. What if someone saw it and asked about it?”

“Just wear it under your shirt, honey. I know you don’t want to, but it would mean a lot to me. And to your brother.”

Reluctantly, Valeca took the necklace from her stepmother and looked it over. The material appeared to be similar to the kind of carbon synthetics used in the Arkitect she piloted at work, only something about it looked finer and sturdier than what she was accustomed to seeing. Some kind of stealth material, perhaps? She didn’t know enough about the engineering side of things to know why she suspected that; maybe just because she knew it was military. Either way, her brother had sent it and that meant enough. The metal was cool against her skin as she slipped the chain over her neck and tucked the little medallion at its end into her shirt.

“Thank you,” Jessa said with a smile.

“You’re welcome.” Valeca could hardly get the words to come out as memories of her brother started to come back, sinking into her heart from that small token her stepmother had just given her.

“Now don’t be scared. Just remember who you’re fighting for: all of us, and so many other colonists who aren’t nearly as lucky as we are to be living here. They’re all people just like you and me who only want to govern themselves like we do. Remember that and you’ll do fine.”

The pair embraced tightly for a moment, both trying their best to fight back tears which threatened to undo all Valeca’s attempts at being stoic about leaving.

“Do you have everything?” her stepmother whispered into Valeca’s ear.

“I guess so. Like you said, you’ll send anything I don’t need.”

“Then I guess it’s time to go. I’ll take your things out-” Valeca held up a hand and shook her head.

“No, mom. I’ve got it.” She couldn’t help but feel that she had to look strong now even though she wasn’t, and even though she knew she didn’t have to impress anyone here. That would come later, once she’d started her training.

The two of them entered the living room, Valeca with a duffel bag on her shoulder and Jessa following behind to shut the door.

“All ready to go?” said her father. He was already standing near the door.

“Looks like it,” Valeca replied.

“Okay, then. Your ride’s waiting on the block roof, since there are so many other recruits to pick up from here. Something like thirty or forty, I think they said.” Their apartment was a fairly large unit near the top of one of Destiny’s many mass housing blocks. Not only could each one house upwards of thirty thousand people at a time, but the roof was large enough to accommodate all kinds of civilian traffic, including the various smaller troop carriers used by the Colonial Fleet. “Would you like to just say goodbye here, or should we follow up to the landing pad?”

“Here’s fine with me,” she said. “Doesn’t make much difference.”

“Alright. Well in that case, take care, honey.” He reached over and embraced her. It was unusual for them to hug at all, but these were unusual circumstances.

“Kick some Leaguer ass for me, will you?” he whispered with a grin.

“I’ll try my best, dad.”

“You’ll do better than try. See you again, and don’t forget to write.”

“I won’t.” Grabbing her duffel bag in one hand and placing it over her shoulder, she reached out the other towards the touchpad on the door. It opened onto the hallway, where an elevator waited at the opposite end.

“Hopefully the UEL doesn’t go too easy on us, otherwise this wouldn’t be fun at all.”

“Bye, sweetie!” Jessa called to her. “See you again soon!”

“Take care,” her father added.

With a final wave, Valeca was gone. The lift at the end of the hallway would take her up to the housing block’s roof. A fleet officer was waiting up there with the other volunteers from her housing block; she didn’t know how many but guessed there were plenty more like her who’d joined up in the wake of the attack. Eleven floors flew by before she’d had time to think. Two metal doors pulled back to reveal a crowd of people on the roof and what was a rare sight anywhere, but especially here in Destiny: a massive cruiser floated in the zero-G region along the colony’s lengthwise axis, itself dwarfed by the structure around it.

Valeca knew this ship. The Gerard de Jen-class was the Fleet’s new heavy cruiser, of which only a handful had been produced so far. If reports from the Belt were to be believed, one of them had been sent out to Ceres with the frigate that got destroyed. It made sense that this would be the case, since it would’ve been impossible for even two or three escort ships to take on a League carrier with any success. Everything she’d read about this ship class had left her increasingly impressed; now the real thing hung in the air above her, its 385-meter length looking from her perspective almost as small as the one in her room looked from her bed.

Further bringing home the sheer size of the battleship were the personnel carriers zipping between some of the surrounding housing blocks and the cruiser above. She’d never owned a model of a Lancet troop transport but she knew enough: room for around fifty people inside and plenty of equipment. It was her first time riding on real Fleet hardware; that decommissioned Ark carrier didn’t count.

Her pondering ended abruptly when she heard someone call her name.

“Alright, everyone, last call for Valeca Florn! Is Valeca Florn here?” The speaker was a tough-looking woman who couldn’t have been much older than Valeca was. It hadn’t occurred to her until now that she’d been late.

“Yes, ma’am!” she blurted out. Her bag had never left her shoulder so she was already prepared to board her ride. She began to push her way up from the back of the crowd.

“Good thing you’re here,” the officer said, “or you’d be spending the next few months in prison for desertion instead of the best ship in the whole fleet. Now get in there!” The Lancet’s interior was dark and cramped, with only a few seats left at the back. A soldier took her bag and tossed in behind a cargo net full of other memories from home. Buckling her safety harness in front of her, she took one last look out the cargo ramp at the nicest home she’d known, even since coming to Destiny. In spite of her attempts at optimism, she feared it would be a long time before she ever saw it again.

Some of the trainees were trying their best to make small talk around her but she wasn’t in the mood. She found herself thinking of Aeje again, how he’d tried so hard to put on a brave face when she left. A little indignation had crept into her mind then, wondering where he got off feeling the need to be braver than she was. It’s not like he was going to war. But that feeling had shocked her more than anything; he knew less than she did about what the next two years or more of her life would entail, and she reasoned that’s exactly what had scared him. His closest friend could end up over half a solar system away, where anything from enemy weapons to orbiting debris to radiation sickness made life itself cheaper than the hardware that protected it.

The possibility scared her too, but not enough to make her turn away. There was still no guarantee that she’d be deployed to the Belt and even if she was, the chances of running into League forces in an area that massive was probably slim to none. Besides, it wasn’t the League she was afraid of: it was herself. Failure out there would most likely mean death for people she didn’t even know yet. At worst, it could mean a Leaguer invasion of the Outer Colonies. Then everyone she’d ever known would be in danger. She wouldn’t let that happen as long as she was alive.

Valeca chuckled to herself at that thought. What could one pilot do in the face of so much destruction, especially now when actual fighting wasn’t even assured yet? She looked around briefly to see if anyone was staring at her, wondering what she was doing laughing at a time like this, but no one looked back. Then the inside of the Lancet’s hold darkened and she noticed that the officer from outside had taken her seat at the end of the row opposite her.

“Alright, trainees,” she yelled over growing engine noise, “prepare for lift-off! Anyone not buckled up in five seconds will have to get hosed off the cargo ramp.” Valeca knew the Lancet was built for rapid troop insertion but the kind of acceleration necessary for missions like that was something you really had to experience to believe. Construction Arks were one thing—built for easy maneuverability in zero-G but rarely needing to build up too much speed—but a transport with around fifty people, all their gear, and another twenty meters of length on an Ark was another. The Fleet had always gotten the best toys, and now she was on her way to one of the newest of these. There were no windows in the Lancet’s hold but that didn’t matter: the image of that cruiser floating above her in the center of the colony cylinder, its huge bulk dwarfed by the curved walls of her old home, stuck in her mind like a thorn.

That ship would be her home now, for better or worse. Valeca knew she’d have to give “better” her best shot if she planned to survive this, whatever it was.

Chapter Two

Four days and a series of course correction burns later, the FCS Gerard de Jen and its little battle group had now settled into a high orbit around Ceres. Admiral Suryawijaya had noted the rising stress among his crew, from the handful of men and women in the CIC to the over five hundred throughout the rest of the vessel. They knew the situation could get tense, even violent, in only a moment if only one person wasn’t on top of things.

Diplomatic relations with the United Earth League had been fairly contentious for as long as he could remember—it was still not Earth’s intention to give up the extremely lucrative trade with the Jovian colonies, not to mention commercial traffic in the Belt—but both fleets had respected the current stalemate for decades. Still, Suryawijaya knew his duty. FACET citizens had been killed out here, in contended but still League-administered space, and it was the responsibility of he and the men and women under his command to protect their citizens. He was not about to let a foreign bureaucrat, much less an enemy officer, decide what was in the best interest of his people.

Suryawijaya and Shan stood and watched with rapt attention as the main holo-projector and other displays showed Ceres looming in shadow up ahead, a mere crescent of reflected sunlight still visible on its left-hand hemisphere. Outward from the asteroid colony was the League carrier, about thirty thousand klicks from the wreckage of PRO-2715. Its bulk was impressive, but not overly intimidating for someone who understood its tactical limitations as well as Suryawijaya did.

Though the Fleet had never engaged League ships for as long as he’d been alive, the breadth of its intelligence capabilities would likely surprise even the Earth government’s planners in Genesis. Knowing that the latest intel stated that Bulwark-class carriers like the one before him were outdated and too difficult to maneuver to pose much of a threat to swifter vessels like the two Dodge-class frigates on his flanks made him feel confident enough, should any hostilities break out. As long as the commander on the other end wasn’t a complete idiot, Suryawijaya wouldn’t have to worry about it regardless.

Onscreen, a cluster of much smaller ships could be seen floating among the wreckage, some stationary while a few others made their way to and from the carrier.

“See here, Admiral?” said Miss Maren at Communications. “League search and rescue ships.”

“They have no right,” Suryawijaya replied with only a tinge of anger apparent in his voice, but there was much more of his characteristic temper under the surface. “Those are our citizens, not some science project for them to poke at. Captain Shan?”

“Sir?” the younger man responded.

“Put the Ark wing on alert; I want Squad One in their cockpits ASAP. Miss Maren, put me in contact with the League carrier.”

“Yes, sir,” they both said in succession. While Shan reached for another handset nearby, Maren could be seen working with her console to find a common frequency over which she could communicate with the enemy vessel. Though such contact with League Fleet ships was rare, it wasn’t without precedent and as such, both militaries enforced a small spectrum of audiovisual frequencies which the other side would always be listening to just in case.

“Come in, unidentified UEL vessel, this is the FACET Colonial Ship Gerard De Jen. I repeat, come in, unidentified UEL vessel, over.” There was only a short pause before a voice responded from nearly fifty thousand klicks away.

“This is the commander of the Earth Fleet Ship Bulwark. I’m going to have to ask you to leave immediately, Gerard De Jen. This is an official League investigation and as such, it’s out of your jurisdiction.” Suryawijaya wasn’t surprised by the other man’s flippancy, but he resented it regardless.

“Put him through on my handset, Miss Maren.” He moved over to his command seat and grabbed the handset out its holder on the armrest. “Bulwark, this is Admiral Haram Suryawijaya of the FACET Colonial Fleet. Kindly advise as to why your men have priority in this investigation when everyone killed in the attack was one of ours.”

“That’s what we’re trying to determine here, Admiral. Now do us all a favor and withdraw immediately.”

There had been plenty of rumors going around in the last week about who could’ve pulled off an attack like this one. Even some members of the Council had been quoted saying they heavily suspected League involvement, though always with the disclaimer that they weren’t at liberty to divulge their sources. Without FACET personnel in the area, it was anybody’s guess as to how much of the evidence from the blast remained intact and how much of it would ever be disclosed by the League once their “investigation” was complete. Suryawijaya hadn’t come all this way to be sent back home, and especially not when there was the possibility of outgunning this League ship should things escalate.

“We have just as much an interest in this as you do. Either we combine forces to move the investigation along more efficiently, or you give us equal access to all your findings so we can report back to the families affected without having to wait on a signature from some Earth bureaucrat.”

“I’m afraid I can’t allow that, Admiral. Our findings will be classified until the investigation is complete, and that goes for League personnel as well. I can’t justify sharing classified information with a foreign military; surely, you can understand that.”

“What I don’t understand,” Suryawijaya said tersely, “is how you could have the balls to act like you don’t already know who did this.”

“What are you suggesting? That my men would attack a civilian ship?”

“It seems to be a logical conclusion. Name any Belter group who’d dare to do the same in League-protected space.”

“This is your last warning, Admiral: withdraw at once or I give the order to fire.”

“We don’t want a fight, and I’m fairly certain you don’t either. Just don’t interfere with our personnel and you won’t get one.” Suryawijaya turned to Shan next after muting the receiver on his handset. “Give the order, Captain: Lieutenant Wahila and her squad are to proceed to within two klicks of the debris field and wait for further instructions.” He could see the nervousness on his XO’s face. It was clear now that things were getting worse and even though Admiral Suryawijaya had told the truth in saying he didn’t want a fight, something about all this felt inexorable.

“Are you sure, Admiral? What if the Earth vessel fires on them?”

“Give the order, Captain.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied reluctantly. Going back to his handset, he put the pilots’ ready room on the line. “Lieutenant Wahila, this is the XO. You and your squad are to proceed to within two klicks of the freighter debris field. Should you encounter UEL search and rescue ships, do not engage. I repeat, do not engage.” A single bead of sweat ran down the captain’s left side, causing him to shiver involuntarily as he put the handset up again.

 

***

 

Lieutenant Cam Wahila had been waiting for this order ever since the Gerard de Jen’s task force had left Ganymede. Despite a prior full tour in the Trojan Asteroid Node, she hadn’t seen more action than routine patrols. Now was her chance to prove herself, possibly even in combat with UEL Peregrine fighters. It was something she and many other Ark pilots not-so-secretly looked forward to, even while their Fleet’s commanders sought ways to avoid it. She’d always suspected that an Ark would be more than a match for the small, lightly armed space superiority fighters in use by the League for almost thirty years, and the thought that she might finally get to test her hypothesis pleased her.

“Copy that, XO,” she said over her own handset in the pilots’ ready room. Placing it back in its wall-mounted holder, she turned to her four squadmates who stood around in their flight suits. “You hear that? ‘Do not engage’, he said. I guarantee you it’s not one of us who shoots first, just you watch. Alright, let’s move out!” The group made their way down the corridor to the launch deck, a massive space that housed repair and arming facilities for all fifteen of the Gerard de Jen’s combat-model Arkitects, also known by their present Fleet designation as the Wasp.

As ordered, five of them stood ready on massive elevators which led to the ship’s linear catapults. Each was a humanoid robot around fifteen meters tall, painted in standard dark purple and black, which made for effective camouflage in space while also being distinctive in contrast to the League’s customary blue-and-white. Though based around the flight systems of predecessors to the League’s own fighters, the Ark’s frame and compliment of RCS thrusters gave it not only much more maneuverability than a Peregrine, but also much more armaments: a railgun assault rifle which fired bursts of 100 mm slugs at six times the speed of sound, several arrays of autocannons, and two batteries of anti-vehicle micro-missiles for anything the other two weapons systems can’t take out.

After years of combat against separatist groups and smugglers in the Belt and Exterior Colonies, the Colonial Fleet’s combat variant Arkitects had undergone more testing than many of the battleships that carried them.

Lieutenant Wahila’s squad disengaged the magnetic soles on their boots and jumped off the flight deck in zero-gravity, landing with practiced precision on a gantry at the mech’s chest level. They each swung into the open cockpit of one of the robots, then began start-up procedures. It was a fairly simplified process due to full computer network integration with the Gerard de Jen’s Flight Control, and often the most complicated part was just adjusting the chest restraints on the pilot seat. Too tight and your pressurised flight suit wouldn’t be able to compensate adequately for the g-forces involved in even simple maneuvers; too loose and a hard retro-burn would leave you with welts on your shoulders for two weeks, if not a pair of broken clavicles.

As she reached down to buckle her chest restraints, the cockpit’s panoramic display came alive with readouts and an image of the flight deck.

“Flight, this is One Leader standing by for launch,” she said over her helmet’s intercom.

“Copy that, One Leader,” came the reply from the Flight Control Officer. “Engaging elevator.”

A metallic groaning sound resonated through the cockpit as the elevator descended into the launch tubes below the flight deck. Once it had descended fully, five large conveyor belts began pulling the Wasps into their respective launch tubes. Each was illuminated by a row of lights which terminated in darkness and opened onto space beyond. A moment later, Wahila and her squadmates were secured inside the launch tubes with a set of massive hatches secured behind them.

“Stand by for linear catapult,” said the voice from Flight Control. “Good hunting.”

With the steady push and pull of magnetic acceleration, the squad’s mechs launched out from the heavy cruiser and towards the debris field at high speed before engaging their thrusters, taking them even faster towards their target.

“Squad One, form up on me!” called Wahila over her team intercom. Moving at over six hundred per hour, the four other Wasps in Squad One fell in behind Lieutenant Wahila in a modified phalanx: squad leader taking point, with escorts to the above, below, right and left rear. It was the most basic space combat formation for covering as many angles as possible on approach. There was no need to show off all the Fleet’s tricks in the first encounter; only one.

***

On the bridge of the Earth Fleet Ship Bulwark, Admiral Nicolas Hunter was incredulous. His carrier’s sensor arrays had picked up the FACET battle group the day before, but that wasn’t in and of itself out of the ordinary. As CO of the United Earth League’s Asteroid Belt Fleet, his standing orders had always been to not engage at all costs; so far, he and the men and women under his command had enjoyed a reciprocal relationship in that regard. And yet here were three colonial ships with more combat vessels on approach, and a commander who had apparently thrown custom aside in favor of pointless bravado.

“Arkitects?” he asked rhetorically. “What’s he think he’s doing, sending out construction equipment?” The admiral turned to his Executive Officer, Major Lennart, a blond in her thirties who’d always struck him as more the Marine sergeant type than a Fleet officer. “Put the point-defense gunners on stand-by and bring the alert fighters in closer to the wreckage.” He took up the handset on his console again and addressed the colonial admiral opposite him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Tell your Arkitects to withdraw or I will give the order to fire!” There was no response from the enemy battle group.

Crackling with interference, a voice came over the intercom from one of the Bulwark‘s search and rescue craft out in the debris.

Bulwark, this is Foxtrot Eight. We have five enemy contacts inbound at high speed. Please advise, over.”  Another crewman aboard the search and rescue ship could be heard cursing in the background over the intercom. Admiral Hunter picked up another handset from the Communication Officer’s station.

“Foxtrot Eight, this is Bulwark CIC. Maintain present course and do not engage hostiles. Repeat, maintain present course and do not engage hostiles, over.”

You just had to do it, didn’t you? he thought.

 

***

 

Gerard de Jen, One Leader: Squad One now in position, awaiting instructions, over,” Lieutenant Wahila called over her intercom.

“Copy that, One Leader,” came the reply from the Flight Officer. “Maintain position and do not engage, over.” Another face appeared on the lieutenant’s panoramic display: Ensign Ceram, who was currently taking up her rear left.

“What do you say we have some fun, Lieutenant?” He’d always been an impatient one.

“Like what, Ensign?” she asked.

“Let’s buzz those search and rescue ships a little. Nothing too close, just to wake ’em up.”

“We have our orders.” She could see the anxious look on his face, like a dog straining to be set loose.

It was a tempting proposition. For as long as she’d been alive, the Colonial Fleet had been collectively itching for a fight with the Leaguers. Now might be their chance to finally see some action and not entirely without provocation, either.

“Just keep your finger off that trigger,” Wahila replied. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t want to give the League ships a scare too. Her feet depressed the Wasp’s acceleration pedals and like that, she was off in a thrill of g-forces. As her seat back receded slightly to accommodate the pressure, she could see that the rest of her squad was picking up speed as well but struggling to keep pace with her modified command unit. She brought the pedals back a bit to fall into position at the point of their formation. After an initial burn, her squad was fast approaching the group of search and rescue craft stationed near the freighter debris. They would be nearing five kilometers out soon, and then it would be time for the trick.

“Prepare split on my mark,” Wahila announced over the squad frequency. “Three, two, one, mark!” With that, all five Arks peeled off in different directions at high speed, their forward momentum carrying them forward as maneuvering thrusters pushed them hard perpendicular to their initial approach vector. Once forward velocity was overcome by perpendicular thrust, the Arks would set off on a large curve back towards their target. It was a basic formation for overwhelming and surrounding a much slower enemy, in this case the small and unwieldy League ships.

The first pass was close. It took an experienced eye to tell when another ship’s pilot was getting skittish, and Wahila could see the tell-tale signs of it in more than a few of the small craft now below and behind her: little jets of RCS gases pushed them away from their position and closer to the debris. She could tell she wasn’t exactly dealing with idiots here. It was a smart move to bring themselves into the debris field, where it would be just as dangerous to the Arks as it was to them, forcing the Colonial pilots to find another intimidation tactic that didn’t involve high speed maneuvers through floating chunks of metal and ore. The only problem with this plan was that Wahila and her squadmates hadn’t come all this way to take no for answer.

“Prepare for second pass and split on my mark,” she called to the other four Arks. By now, they were already in line for another coordinated attack run. “Three, two, one, mark!” They broke off again just like before, only a muted thud over Wahila’s earpiece told her that something had gone wrong this time.

“Dammit!” Ceram exclaimed.

“Ceram! What happened?”

“I just clipped it! I didn’t mean to, I swear!” As her Ark pulled around into its turn high above the search and rescue ships, she could see combusting gases streaming away from one of them as it spiraled helplessly through the debris. Panic crept up on her as the realization sunk in that her plan had backfired.

“You’ve done it now, you stupid bastard!” she shouted, but she knew it was her own pride that had led them to this.

It would now be a fight for all their lives.

 

***

 

The explosion of Foxtrot Eight’s right rear engine could be seen clearly on the Bulwark’s displays.

“Foxtrot Eight, do you read me?” said the Communications Officer. “Come in, Foxtrot Eight, it looks like you’re venting gas, over.” The voice on the other end sounded strained and was slightly garbled by interference.

Bulwark, we’ve been hit! It must’ve been that enemy Ark!”

“Foxtrot Eight, did the enemy vessel fire on you?”

“Can’t tell for sure, but we’ve been hit pretty bad.” Admiral Hunter had had enough. He stepped away from the communications console and took up his customary position near the CIC’s central holo-projector. It was a large platform in the middle of the room,  featuring a large spherical projection surrounded above by monitors and tactical readouts. In the center of the projection was a tiny image of the Bulwark, encased in a sphere representing the ship’s sensor range, large enough in diameter to include both Ceres at the ship’s rear and the FACET battle group to the fore. Around the image of the carrier was a smaller red sphere and a series of lines, representing lines of effective fire from all the ship’s various weapons batteries. Surely, the colonial commanders realized what they were going up against in challenging an Arbiter-class carrier, not to mention its impressive compliment of Peregrine fighters. Or perhaps this Admiral Suryawijaya really did have that much faith in his ships’ capabilities. Either way, Admiral Hunter intended to finish this before it escalated further.

“This is getting out of hand, Major,” he said to Lennart. “Pull back the search and rescue craft and prepare to fire a warning shot on the lead FACET ship.” Over the CIC’s intercom, the voices of the Bulwark’s alert fighter pilots could be heard as well, observing the incident from their defensive perimeter a few klicks away from the debris field.

“What the hell was that?” shouted one.

“It was Foxtrot Eight!” came the reply from another. “They fired on ‘em!”

“Stay calm, boys,” said a more experienced voice: it was Captain Marcus, commander of the carrier’s air group. “We don’t know-”

The first pilot’s words were lost as his mic overloaded and cut out. Captain Marcus could be heard shouting, trying to interject, but his voice was swallowed up too in the rattle of railgun fire as it reverberated through the first pilot’s airframe. A heat indicator on the CIC’s main holo-projector signalled an explosion; in its wake, one of the enemy FOF tags disappeared.

Hunter’s hands both tightened into fists where they rested on the edges of the holo-projector. As a few gasps arose from the other officers around the deck, Captain Marcus’ voice could be heard over the radio.

“You’ve killed us all!” he yelled desperately. “You’ve killed us all!” The CIC speakers automatically reduced their output volume to compensate for the bursts of railgun fire that came across all the ship’s Peregrine frequencies.

“Battle stations,” snapped Hunter. “Launch all Peregrine wings and get me the first available firing solution on those main cannons.”

***

Wahila’s voice was frantic on the radio.

Gerard De Jen, hostiles have opened fire! We just lost Ceram!”

Miss Maren turned to a display at her left which monitored all ID tags in range of the heavy cruiser’s sensor arrays. It was as she’d feared: the tag for Ceram’s Wasp was greyed out, marking it as unresponsive. Could he possibly have just collided with debris? Among a slew of horrible options, at least it hopefully wouldn’t provoke a war.

“Are you sure, Lieutenant?” she called back to Wahila. “Are you absolutely sure the Earth pilots fired?”

“Affirmative! I saw it all!”

This is it, Maren thought as she turned to face her commanding officer.

“You heard her, Admiral. What do you advise?” His temper was at the surface now, but not out of control. If anything, from what Maren had observed before on their last tour together, the adrenaline made him even more focused; it made a hard man into a harder one, quicker on his feet when tough calls needed to be made. Good thing too, because this was the toughest call a FACET officer had faced in decades. Sharp eyes narrowed as he surveyed the interior of the CIC. Everyone was in position; the time for action was now.

“Give the order for weapons free. I want all our pilots in the air, and have all point-defense batteries prepare to fire on enemy fighters. And get the Warrine and Ricol on the horn: they’re to take up flanking positions on the enemy carrier.” He reached for his handset and switched it to broadcast his message throughout the whole ship. “This is the admiral. All hands to battlestations. I repeat, all hands to battlestations. Prepare for incoming fire.”

 

***

 

“Good work, people,” said the voice over the intercom. “Let’s bring it in.”

“Roger that,” Valeca replied. She let out a big breath and sat back as much as her pilot seat’s chest restraints would allow. It had been another day of construction out at Longevity colony cylinders. The massive structure still looked like a half-clothed skeleton as it gleamed dully in the light of the distant Sun; almost as bright on its surface was the reflected light from Jupiter on the opposite side of the cylinder.

Using an array of joysticks and pedals, Valeca steered her Arkitect toward the transport ship that would take her and the other workers back to Destiny. It was a refurbished Fleet surplus carrier from back when the Alliance had first begun using mechs for space combat. Accordingly, the transport was much smaller than anything the Fleet used now, but it met the needs of a ten-person construction detail just fine.

The docking procedure was entirely automated: too much could go wrong with a human pilot trying to guide a seventeen-meter-high machine into a nineteen-meter-high receiving bay. Valeca sat back as the computer onboard her Arkitect went through its RCS maneuvers in conjunction with its companion computer on the transport ship. A dull thud told her that the magnetic clamps on the mech’s back were now sealed. Shortly thereafter, a set of thick doors closed in front of her and secured the machine into the docking bay.

“Florn, confirm docking, over,” came the voice on the intercom again.

“Roger that, Florn, docking confirmed, over,” she replied; another day done.

Valeca unbuckled her seat restraints and powered down the Arkitect for travel back to Destiny. As the panoramic displays inside the cockpit faded and turned off, the mech’s main hatch popped open. She scanned the cockpit one more time before pulling herself out of the seat, into the weightless docking bay and over her mech’s head towards a door that led back into the transport’s interior. Once there, she’d finally be able to take off her helmet again and get some much-needed rest on the hour-long flight back to her home colony.

The airlock was a simple affair with two hatches and a pressurizing vent for breathable air. All she had to do was open the first hatch, secure it, then wait for the ship’s computer to verify hard seal and begin pumping in air. When that was completed, the second door would be unlocked and free to open. Valeca tried to do this as quickly as she could, though the pressurization still took about twenty seconds and door seal confirmation added another ten.

Soon, it was over and she was back inside the transport again. Already she could hear the chatter from the few other pilots who’d already docked again with their transport, who were now gathered in the rec room. It wasn’t much—just a few holo-screens, a row of vending machines, and some scattered tables and chairs—but it was all they had to keep themselves occupied on the flights to and from the job site, especially on the occasional long hauls out to L2 and beyond.

As usual, the holo-screens were all showing the latest news from Ceres. The last anyone had heard, the League had initiated an investigation of the attack; meanwhile, FACET’s own fleet had ships inbound to conduct their own. Many people had feared the worst in the last four days, while a vocal but growing minority took the possibility of conflict with the UEL as a way to assert their rights of self-government against Earth encroachment. It all made Valeca sick.

As she was taking off her helmet and flight suit, she could hear shouting from the rec room, urging the other pilots to quiet down; it must be another announcement. She made it into the room just as she was pulling off her boots.

“…live to President Derak in Destiny,” said a female news anchor as Valeca stumbled in to see the others gathered around the holo-screens in silence. For the second time this week, the President stood before the nation with terrible news.

“Citizens of the Free Alliance, it pains me to have to address you like this at this time. As you know, the Colonial Fleet dispatched several ships to the Cererean Belt sector shortly after the attack on PRO-2175. I have just been informed that this task force has come under attack from an Earth military vessel, resulting in the destruction of the frigate Warrine, along with several of our Arkitects. While the Fleet is still in the process of determining the number of casualties suffered, there is no question in any mind that this attack was clearly initiated by the United Earth League in order to prevent our own investigation of PRO-2175’s wreckage. Such an act cannot and should not be tolerated by a sovereign state. That is why I urge the Council to approve unanimously a declaration of war against the United Earth League and all her allies. Make no mistake: this kind of unprovoked attack on our forces may be called an attack on all of us colonists, whether in the Exterior Territories or the Interior, and the sooner the UEL understands that we are not only autonomous entities but also human beings like themselves, the sooner we will experience peace in this system. For such colonies whose citizens would prefer to abstain from fighting, they may do so, provided they cut off all correspondence with UEL agents, either military or civil, and do not offer resistance to our own forces. All those who fail to do so will be regarded as enemy sympathizers and will be dealt with accordingly. This is not an easy decision, but I make it as your president and hope for your continued support in the defense of our freedoms. Thank you and goodnight.”

As soon the speech ended, the rec room was engulfed once more in loud conversations.

“I always figured the UEL’d get us in this sort of bullshit!”

“The CDC’s been talking about this for years and now it finally happens!”

“Yeah, and who says the CDC wasn’t pushing for it? You know they’ve been looking for an excu-”

“You think this was some sort of inside job? Are you kidding me?”

“The League’s already been pushing too hard on the Belt and now they try it on us.”

“Of course they’d come after us next!”

“Damn cowards, that’s what they are.”

It all made Valeca want to scream. Throwing her boots aside, she walked as quickly as she could to the bathroom; thankfully, it was empty when she got there. Her hands were shaking as she grabbed hold of the sink and stared at her reflection in the mirror. The face that looked back was her own, but there was something different about it. The appearance was the same, yet behind it was a feeling she hadn’t encountered in her whole life. A different emotion that urged her on to something she’d never had any will to do, and in fact had denied not four days ago. It was as if the Valeca Florn she thought she’d known had suddenly fallen away to be replaced by one new and unanticipated, yet she somehow recognized it as herself. This new Valeca was determined, yet nervous; enraged, yet controlled. She didn’t know exactly how things would work out for her in the future, only that she had made up her mind.

She also knew exactly where to go first thing when she got off this transport.

 

***

 

The familiar office near Liberty Plaza was surprisingly empty when she walked in. This time, Colonel Rice was seated behind his desk, looking over holo-projected images of enlistees and their respective applications. He sat up straight upon seeing Valeca enter, then rose to shake her hand.

“Good to see you again,” the colonel said. “Valeca, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied firmly.

“Here to tell me again how you want nothing to do with me?”

“No, sir; I’m here to enlist.” The man’s eyebrows cocked up a bit at her response.

“Well, what changed your mind? Here; take a seat.” The colonel shuffled back to his own chair while Valeca took the one in front of the desk.

“I want to feel like I’m doing my part in all this, no matter what happens out there. If it’s alright with you, sir, I’d like to request placement in a construction division.”

“And what makes you think you’d be best suited for that? Why not Flight School?”

“I’ve piloted Arkitects in colony construction for the last four years now. I can get you all the references you need, if it’ll help my application.”

“Relax,” the colonel said with a smile. “It’s not like I’d send you off to dig ditches in the Belt or something. You think I’d put someone like you in the Infantry?” Valeca’s relief was only tempered by her confusion. He couldn’t be referring to her father. What would his being a member of the Executive Council have to do with her piloting skills? Unless he meant Carriuss…

“Someone like me, sir?” she asked, puzzled.

“Well, you’re Carriuss Florn’s sister, aren’t you?” Her eyes widened with shock.

“You know… Knew him?”

“We served on the Madova together after he graduated from Flight School. He was a good pilot; I guess I assumed you’d have that in common.” As much as she hated to admit it, Valeca knew she was good, though she tried to be modest about it. Not the best, perhaps, but good. There would be no hiding that from the colonel when he got access to her work history. But how much could she really apply from working with a colony construction Ark to piloting a highly specialized model like a Wasp, especially in combat? Besides, the ideal job in her mind would be one far away from any potential fighting, but still useful to the overall war effort.

“Well, sir, if I don’t have to worry about going into the Infantry, then I’d like to go with my first request.”

“Don’t you think construction is a little… Well… Beneath you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you could do so much more good as a combat pilot than as a grease monkey in some shipyard. The Fleet can never have too many pilots, especially ones with your skills. Besides, taking the easy way out just doesn’t seem to be the Florn way; it certainly wasn’t for your brother.”

“How likely is it that I’d end up on the front lines if things get worse with the League?”

“There are openings all over the colonies, including quite a few in the Home Defense Fleet. All I can do is send in your application and make my recommendations, but it’s up to Fleet Command to decide where you end up. There are even positions open for test pilot programs, though I can’t guarantee that you’ll qualify. Only you can do that for yourself, once you start training.” She’d seen schematics before—at least what details weren’t classified—but had never been able to try a simulator, much less the real thing. And as much as she wanted avoid combat if she could, the thought of taking a Wasp out thrilled her more than anything else she could imagine. “But one thing I can guarantee is that you won’t regret it. No matter what happens, no matter where you end up, you’ll know that you’re making a difference.”

“I’ll do it.”

“That’s what I thought,” the colonel said.

Chapter One

For as long as Valeca could remember, her family had never eaten dinner without the holo-screen on; at least, not since her father had been elected to the Executive Council seven years ago. Eric Florn hadn’t really planned on the political career track back then, but he tried his best to follow the will of the people and the people just kept willing him back into office. Consequently, he spent every evening he could with the holo-screen on, displaying the latest news from in and around the Jovian colonies in a shallow holographic projection.

With the exception of those who sat on the Colonial Defense Committee, for many in FACET both the true nature and extent of the growing hostilities with the United Earth League regarding governance of the over four billion residents of the Asteroid Belt was largely unknown. Even the fastest civilian ships needed at least two weeks to reach the nearest of the many colonies in the region, and transportation across those distances was still largely reserved for the wealthiest in both the Interior and Exterior colonies. Even members of the Executive Council received only that information the CDC decided was useful for policymakers in Destiny Colony.

A muted fanfare emanated from the holo-screen’s array of speakers spread around the Florn family’s well-furnished apartment. The right half of the screen was dominated by the large, holographic image of a nightly news anchor, while the left side was alive with moving images of ships, followed by a horrible explosion. Eric Florn froze, his fork halfway to his mouth.

“Son of a bitch,” he said, “would you look at that.” Valeca and her stepmother Jessa stopped what they were doing as well and craned their necks to get a better view of the holo-screen.

“What is it?” asked Jessa.

“Looks like some sort of terrorist attack,” replied Eric. “My money says UEL.”

“Would they really do that?” asked Valeca.

“Just look at it, honey,” Eric said to his daughter without turning away from the events unfolding onscreen. “The Belters wouldn’t try to pull anything like this. It says the ship got hit less than a hundred thousand clicks from the Station: that’s right in the middle of the shipping lane. Nah, Belters wouldn’t want to bring that kind of trouble down on themselves from us or Earth. It had to be UEL.”

The three of them could only watch in shocked silence as the reports came in: two hundred thirty-seven people dead; all flights in the Cererean Belt Sector put on hold indefinitely; and rampant speculation as to who the guilty party could’ve been.

Valeca tried to swallow a lump which had just formed in her throat; she knew then that this moment was one which she’d never forget where she was when it had happened. The carefully constructed world in which she’d spent so much of her life—a new home in the Jovian colonies, a new mother, years of engineering courses, a steady job with a colony construction firm here in Jupiter-Ganymede L1—was all threatening to slip away from her forever. All she could know for sure was that her plans were just as much a casualty of this attack as were the passengers of PRO-2715.

As the steady drone of the news anchor’s voice mixed with an assault of videos and images concluded for the time being, an announcement broke her out of her pondering.

“And here via satellite from Destiny is President Derak with a statement regarding today’s attack,” said a voice onscreen. With that, the picture on the giant holo-screen changed to center on a handsome man in his early forties: Otha Derak, President of the Free Alliance of Colonies and Exterior Territories, known as FACET. He’d been in office now for a little over two years, elected in a wave of popular optimism that sought to push out the political old guard and their policies of passive isolationism. The fire of their initial independence movement had faded decades ago, many said, and what the nation required now was strong leadership to confront the League’s ever-expanding sphere of influence. Valeca feared most of all that now, the people would get what they’d asked for.

There was no fanfare to introduce the President of the Alliance, as he was already standing behind a podium draped in a large colonial flag when the cameras switched over to him. Behind him were rows of flagpoles, all bearing larger versions of the same flag. His moment of silence before speaking and the expression on his face conveyed many things: pain, resolve, defiance. He did everything he could to look the part of the leader standing before his people at the brink of war.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “citizens of FACET or otherwise. Not one hour ago, a commercial freighter carrying over two hundred colonial citizens was destroyed near Ceres and lost with all hands. Though we’re still in the process of verifying the complete passenger manifest, we mourn for all those lost in this horrible tragedy. One thing I can assure you is that this blatant attack on our sovereignty will not be tolerated in the least. Though much is uncertain and no one group has yet claimed responsibility for what we believe to be an attack, I assure you that the BCI and the Colonial Fleet are doing all they can to find the ones behind this and bring them to justice. By virtue of my authority as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, I’ve called to the Fleet to investigate the incident further. I feel, as do you, pangs of loss on behalf of all those who lost loved ones today. People of the colonies, no matter where you are, you have my word as president that your grievances are my top priority, and that justice will be done. Thank you, and goodnight.”

In the wake of the announcement, no one said a word. What could they have even added to what they’d just been told? A million thoughts raced through Valeca’s head, none of which she could turn into anything that made sense. Was her father right? Would the League really do something like this? If not them, then who? What did they want? In the end, the only question that solidified in her mind was “why”.

Faces on their wall-sized holo-screen talked on and on about the same questions, but Valeca felt like they all had just about as many answers as she had. A feeling of disorientation and disgust threatened to totally overwhelm her when the screen pinged with an incoming call alert. In the upper left-hand corner, another face appeared: it was that of Councillor Geoff Marquis.

Valeca’s father took a moment to collect himself before addressing the screen.

“Accept call,” he said gravely. The other councillor’s face now expanded to take up the whole screen, projecting out from it in a shallow hologram.

“Eric,” the man said. “We’ll need you ba-” His gaze shifted to Valeca and her stepmother before returning to her father.

“They’re fine,” Eric replied to the other man’s unspoken question. “Whatever it is, they can hear it too.” Marquis hesitated for a moment before continuing.

“Derak just called for an emergency session of the Council. We’ll need you right away.”

“Right,” Eric said. He looked to his wife and then Valeca, then got up from his chair. “I hope next time we can meet under better circumstances,” he said to Marquis.

“I hope so too,” the man replied before his face faded from the screen, to be replaced by the group of commentators from before.

“I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but don’t worry, ” Eric said as he went for his bag and jacket. “I’m sure we’ll get all this sorted out.” With that, he was out the door.

Again, the apartment was silent for a moment. Valeca tried picking at her dinner but it no longer looked appetizing even though she’d been hungry after a long day of construction on the new Longevity colony cylinder. More than anything, she wanted to be alone.

“I’m going to my room,” she said to her stepmother. Jessa didn’t respond, but was too busy watching as amateur videos replayed the explosion over and over. Valeca got up from the table not even feeling like clearing her place and walked over to her room. It was fairly small for an apartment like this in the affluent sector of their housing block, but it was comfortable and it was hers. Along the walls were holo-projected images of various ships she’d always admired: an old shuttle from the American space program; an Eriksen-class colony ship from the very beginnings of human expansion beyond Earth; even one of the new Gerard de Jen-class heavy cruisers, just activated last year. Here was one of the only places she could feel herself again, not unlike the long days she put in as an Arkitect pilot at Longevity. She reveled in being given a task which she alone would be able to complete, then getting it done; the less she had to rely on anyone else, the better.

She’d just shut the door when one of the holo-projectors started pinging: incoming call.

“Dammit,” she muttered. “Not now…” She looked over and a familiar face on her wall: it was her oldest friend, Aeje Miyaka. “Accept call,” she said halfheartedly. His face now took up the entire screen.

“You see the news?” he said looking concerned.

“Yeah,” Valeca replied. “My dad just got called in for a meeting… Must be serious.”

Shit… I don’t like this, man. Who do you think it could be? You think Belters would do something like that?”

“Beats me,” she lied. “I don’t know why anyone would.” They were both silent for a moment as neither could figure out how to convey what today’s events had made them feel. Was it grief for the ones who’d been murdered in such a cowardly fashion? Anger for the fact that political ideologies could push someone so far as to do something this horrible? Valeca couldn’t be sure and from what she knew of Aeje, she imagined he couldn’t be either. Perhaps no one was.

“I don’t know what to say,” Aeje finally interjected. “I just feel like I need to see you. Now.” Valeca wasn’t sure what to say either, but maybe her closest friend would be able to help her figure it out.

“Okay,” she said, betraying her reluctance. “Where?”

“How about Liberty Plaza? We can take the train.”

“Sounds fine to me. I’ll meet you at the station in a little bit.”

“See you there,” he said before his face disappeared from her wall. She still wasn’t sure why she’d agreed to this when talking to other people was currently the farthest thing from her mind, but she couldn’t bring herself to get mad at Aeje. He was a different person than she was, not given so much to introspection and working alone as she was. Maybe that’s why she liked him so much; he was the extrovert she wished she could be on her worst days, though she hated to admit it.

When Valeca left her bedroom, Jessa Florn was too busy crying to notice her stepdaughter leaving the apartment.

 

***

 

Destiny’s city proper was only a few minutes away from their housing block by mag-lev train. It was a quiet ride, for the most part; all the other passengers were too attentive to the screens both on the interior of the train and in their hands, watching as more news came in from Ceres. The only other noise came from little children who couldn’t understand what everyone else was so distraught about. Already, there were accusations flying from pundits in FACET and the Interior Colonies about who was responsible for the attack. Some blamed various Belter separatist groups, like the People’s Vanguard or Settlers’ Collectivist Union, while others asserted that neither of those organizations were known to target civilian transports, only military vessels. Others still pulled no punches and condemned the UEL outright. It seemed to Valeca that the lack of information was itself causing too much to be passed around as “intelligence” when it was still far too early to tell either way.

Her own suspicions kept drifting back to the Belters, if only because of her brother. It had been three years now since his first tour in the Belt had been his last. “So young,” they had said at the time; “so much promise,” all after saying they were “so sorry”. On that day, Valeca Florn had sealed her heart. Only Aeje had been able to work his way back into the darkness she’d constructed for herself.

The mag-lev train eased to a stop in front of Liberty Plaza, a large open square in the middle of Destiny city proper built as a memorial to the early martyrs and others who’d since given their lives for the protection of colonial rights to self-determination. Perhaps if Carriuss Florn hadn’t elected to join the Special Forces, his name might be on one of these monuments. Looking around the plaza, Valeca noticed that there were already groups of people forming on the grounds. She and Aeje glanced at them and decided they wanted no part in it.

They went and sat down on a bench across the plaza from the demonstrators. Above them, the Sun was beginning to “set”, inducing the transition to artificial night in the massive colony cylinder of Destiny. Even after hundreds of years in space, humanity still fell into the same patterns of circadian rhythm that had regulated its ancestors on the savannahs of distant Africa. The only differences now were the forced twenty-eight hour day and the fact that rather than rotating around the Sun, the colony’s three lengthwise windows which let in reflected sunlight gradually darkened until the light which permeated them roughly approximated a clear night under a full moon on Earth. Full night was still another half an hour or so away, but Aeje and Valeca could already tell that the interior light was dimming.

“I just don’t know what to think anymore,” Aeje said. “I keep trying and trying but nothing that comes to me makes any sense.”

“Me too,” Valeca replied. It was all she could think of to say.

“I mean, how long’s it been since things quieted down with the League? Ten, twenty years maybe? Why would they go and screw it up now?” The desperation in his voice was becoming increasingly obvious.

“Who says it was the League?”

“I dunno… It just makes more sense, I guess. You heard what they said on the news.”

“But no one has any answers yet. We just have to try and be prepared for whatever happens next, that’s all.”

“Yeah… Whatever that is. It’s just that I can’t help feeling like everything’s about to fall apart. You know what I mean? Like everything just got so fragile all of a sudden.” Once again, Valeca simply couldn’t find the words; it was never something she’d believed herself to be any good at. Aeje certainly wasn’t much better himself, but Valeca figured it wasn’t for lack of trying. “Look,” he said, “maybe I’m just full of shit but this whole thing is just making me look at things with a new perspective.”

“What’re you saying?”

“I just feel like there are… Certain things in my life that I don’t want to lose but now I’m afraid that I might. Certain people too.” Aeje, you idiot, Valeca thought as the slightest grin appeared on her face.

“And who are these people?” Valeca asked. “The ones you’re afraid to lose?”

Shit, man, don’t listen to me,” he replied, waving his hand as if to beat away the answer he knew his friend was looking for. “I’m just a little confused about all this, that’s all…”

“Forget about it, then.”

“Then what?” he asked. Valeca leaned back on the bench, putting her hands behind her head.

“Let’s watch the stars come out.”

They sat in silence for a long time; the colony cylinder’s giant window above them had gone almost entirely opaque and the myriad lights of the other two inhabited sections on either side of it now glittered above them like stars. The silence finally gave Valeca some time to think.

Looking up at those artificial stars above her, she tried forcing herself to remember when she was a child still living on Earth, when she would’ve seen real stars stretched out over her head like an inverted bowl that stretched on forever, but she couldn’t seem to find the memories. It’d been over seventeen years now since she and her father had immigrated to Jupiter on a work visa, then applied for citizenship. At the time, she’d been three years old and it was understandable that she had no real memories of Earth. She barely had any memories of her mother either, except for one which, even though it was incomplete, clung to her mind as her own hand had done to her mother’s once.

It was only later she found out that he could only take one of his two children with him to the Jovian colonies. It would be better, they’d decided, for Valeca to leave and for Carriuss to stay behind. After all, Carriuss was older and would be less of a burden on his mother as he got older. On the other hand, Valeca would have better opportunities in FACET than she had here on Earth. The little family had told themselves that this was their plan and that it was a good one, and so they prepared to say goodbye.

Despite the fuzziness and uncertainty that plagued other scenes from her childhood, Valeca remembered this one the strongest: her little hand reaching up to grab onto a few of her mother’s fingers, before she was hoisted up and held in a warm embrace for what had seemed like a long time, but was likely only a brief moment. Her last glimpse of her mother came as she toddled off behind her father towards the gate at the spaceport, where a large shuttle waited to take them to Earth orbit and eventually to Jupiter. If all went according to plan, Crista and Carriuss would be on a similar shuttle in only two or three more years.

In truth, it would be ten years, and Valeca’s mother wouldn’t make it to Jupiter after all. One day after school two years later, her father told her one day after school that Mommy wouldn’t be coming to see them anymore. Valeca had a harder time remembering much about her mother than she did coping with the grief. Many times since then, she wondered if she should feel guilty for not being able to mourn as her father had done, but maybe she simply couldn’t blame herself for it. Even if all she had was a single memory of Crista Florn, it would have to suffice.

And then there was Aeje. What was she supposed to do with him? She’d been friends with him since they’d first started school together and he was the only person she felt comfortable enough around to tell about how she really felt about things. It was obvious that he liked her; he may be an idiot sometimes, like he was being now, but she sure wasn’t one. She’d wondered before why she couldn’t just bring herself to tell him that she knew about his feelings and get it over with, maybe even start something with him. He was a good guy, though a bit of a slacker, and his irrepressibly talkative nature got on her nerves sometimes, especially when she wanted to be alone, but she could never get mad at him. Maybe that was all the reason she needed to just suck up her insecurities and doubts and make their friendship into something more.

Maybe. Either way, that would have to come later; too much was on her mind right now to decide what she’d do with Aeje Miyaka.

After a long time, he spoke again. It was like he knew she’d been thinking about him.

“I’m starving,” he said. “Let’s go grab some dinner.” You’re still an idiot after all, Valeca thought, but I still can’t help but like you.

“Okay, let’s go. What’d you have in mind?”

“Not sure. I’ll know when we get there.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever met any food you were willing to turn down,” she said with a smile.

“Nope, and I probably never will.”

The pair got up and made their way across the plaza, taking care to avoid the still-increasing group of people on the opposite end. Valeca didn’t know why it was exactly that they were demonstrating, just that she didn’t want to get mixed up in it. Thankfully, it was only a short walk from where they’d been sitting to all the restaurants and shops on McNarry Street.

“Hey, wanna go to this new place I heard about down the street?” asked Aeje. “I heard they had pretty good noodles.”

“Sure,” Valeca replied. They took a raised walkway over the traffic on the road and came out across from Liberty Plaza. Arriving on the other side, they turned right and paused, noticing a group of people congregating outside a storefront.

“What do you think’s going on over there?” she asked.

“Beats me. Let’s just keep going.” Valeca nodded and the two of them continued walking. As they got closer, they could hear excited voices, some arguing and others apparently just chatting as they surrounded the front door. Inside the little semi-circle of people, there stood a tall, well-built man in a Colonial Fleet dress uniform. It was clear now that this was a Fleet recruiting station and that the ones arguing were there for him.

“If we’d just pulled our troops out of the Belt, you think something like this would’ve happened?” asked one young man derisively. “We’ve been pressing them too hard for years and now we’re reaping what we sowed.”

“What a load of bullshit,” yelled another man opposite him. “Why’d they go after a civilian ship then?”

“Look, I’m going to have to ask you all to disperse,” the Fleet officer in the center said sternly. “You’re causing a disturbance.” A girl who looked about Valeca’s age started shouting from the left of the first man who’d spoken up.

“You can’t do that! This is public property.” The officer looked her straight in the eye with a practiced glare.

“If you wanna get technical about it, the lease for this office includes the sidewalk out front, meaning I can have you all evicted if I feel the property’s being threatened. That goes for guests on the property too,” he said, nodding to the other group to his left.

Another one shouted from the protesters’ side.

“I guess it makes sense you’d call the cops to protect a bunch of baby-killers, since you are one yourself.”

“Listen up, you little shit,” said one of the men on the other side. Valeca and Aeje were closer now and could see that the larger group on the right was lined up outside the door of the Fleet recruiting office. “The only reason you’re able to say that is because there are soldiers out there busting their asses to protect your freedom to do so. You can either respect that or move somewhere else. How about the Belt if you think it’s so great?”

“Yeah, you’d probably fit right in with the SCU,” yelled another one. “Bunch of terrorists, that’s what they are.”

Aeje and Valeca looked nervously to each other.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. “We can just cross the street and go around.”

“Sounds good.” But before they could get away, one of the protesters had already spotted them.

“You here to join up and kill some Belters too?” she shouted to them. “I hear it’s loads of fun.” Valeca could feel anger building up inside her; what made these people think she and Aeje wanted anything to do with them? It was Aeje who spoke up first.

“Hey man, we don’t want any trouble. We’re just out for some food.”

“Well, isn’t that nice,” replied the girl. “How’d you like to lose your appetite, though? Did you know that the Fleet is responsible for more civilian deaths in the Belt than the SCU and PV combined? Or that-”

It took a lot to make Valeca lose her patience, but she lost it this time.

“You think the Fleet’s a joke out there in the Belt? Do you? That everyone who joins up is just a killer?” Valeca got much closer to the girl than she wanted to but her adrenaline pushed her on. “My brother died out there so you could have the freedom to stand around and bitch, just like you’re doing right now. Are you gonna tell me it was all for nothing?” A few of the protesters backed away as they saw the look on Valeca’s face; it’d been a long time since she’d fought someone, but she’d never fought anyone who didn’t deserve it. She was ready to add another one to the list.

Before the girl and the others with her could reply, the Fleet officer had come between them.

“Get outta here!” he yelled. “You’ve caused enough trouble as it is.” Slowly, they dispersed and yelled profanities back at him and the others waiting in line to enlist, but none of them tried anymore to make eye contact with Valeca. Once the protesters were far enough down the street to not cause any more problems, the officer turned to her.

“That was quite a display,” he said as he extended a hand. “I’m Colonel Rice.”

“Valeca,” she said, taking the hand offered to her and shaking it firmly, though not as firmly as the colonel shook hers.

“Nice to meet you. Now are you here to talk to me just like everyone else here?”

“Actually, sir, we’re just passing by.”

“It would’ve been nice if those other assholes hadn’t tried to get us involved in anything,” Aeje interjected, “but what can you do?”

“Well, if you ever have any questions about the Fleet, you know where to find me.” Valeca’s eyes narrowed slightly as she rejoined Aeje on the edge of the sidewalk.

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t want anything to do with it. Especially after what happened to my brother.”

“Fair enough,” the colonel said, nodding. “Sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” Valeca said perfunctorily. After so many condolences over the last three years, it was the best she could do anymore. “Goodbye.” She turned away quickly, leaving Aeje to catch up with her. The two of them set a brisk pace away from the recruiting station, as Valeca tried to escape the pain it had wrenched back from its hiding place far inside her mind.

 

***

 

The capital of the United Earth League lay sprawled at the base of one of Earth’s two space elevators, a massive stalk of carbon nanomaterials which stretched over thirty-five thousand kilometers in length from the calm waters of the southeastern Indian Ocean to its counterweight station high above geostationary orbit. Constructed far away from the devastation typical in many parts of post-Reconstruction War Earth, the floating city of Genesis was a technological and conceptual masterpiece. Tens of thousands of government functionaries, trade representatives, and engineers lived a self-sufficient existence on the man-made island, which acted as an officially impartial meeting place for dignitaries from Earth and its various colonies.

Rising high above the rest of the city was the capitol complex, a graceful structure of glass and carbon-based substances similar to those used in the construction of the city’s central space elevator. Within were hundreds of offices centered around the League’s main assembly chamber, and near the building’s peak was that of the President himself, Haakim Ayonagi.

At the moment, he was visibly harried as he met with members of the League Space Fleet’s peace-keeping force and other officials, both in person and via holo-projector. He sat at the head of a large, oval conference table, flanked by advisors, Earth-based military personnel and the hazy, holographic forms of two admirals: Laura Moleschenkova—a hard-bitten Belt veteran whose stern face and graying hair reflected all her vast experience—and Jason Strathmore—the young and tenacious commander of the Earth Defense Fleet. For the latter two, the time delay between transmission and reception of messages from Earth to the Moon and geostationary orbit respectively was minimal but easier to deal with than waiting for either of them to arrive in the city proper via space elevator.

“Look, Admiral,” the president said, addressed Moleschenkova’s hologram, “all I need to know is what the hell FACET was doing with a diplomatic mission on a civilian transport, and whether or not our men are even at fault. You’re sure that none of our fleet personnel were in the vicinity when the ship was destroyed?” The conference room was silent for about thirty seconds as the message streamed out to the Admiral’s ship in orbit around the Moon and was heard on the other end before its reply could make its way back to Genesis on Earth. Finally, the Admiral replied.

“Yes, Mister President, I went over the Bulwark’s shore leave logs with Admiral Hunter myself. All his men were listed as being either aboard ship or in the duty-free section of Ceres Station. Nothing out of the ordinary, really.” There was another shorter delay before Admiral Strathmore also spoke over the holo-screen.

“And have we ruled out Belt-based separatist groups?” he asked “How about FACET dissidents? If it wasn’t us, then it had to be someone. Maybe even FACET themselves.”

“Also something to consider,” replied the president, “though I really doubt that FACET would go after their own civilians like that.”

“I’m not sure, Mister President. You heard that one counselor from Ganymede the other day… What was his name? Jennar, I think. Well, he’s saying the same thing about us, that he can’t believe the UEL would be targeting non-combatants. Of course, he’s trying to make us look like right bastards for it, but I agree with him: I can’t believe any of our men would’ve done that either.”

Ayonagi took a moment to think before responding.

“Either way, it looks like Derak and the Council are serious. We should expect them to hit Ceres again, this time with an actual fleet. What’s your intel like out there, Admiral Moleschenkova? What’re we dealing with?”

Once again, the assembled advisors and Fleet personnel waited as the proceedings of their meeting were beamed off towards the Moon at the speed of light, before being followed by the Admiral’s own reply in her light Eastern European accent.

“My information’s sketchy at best, Mister President, but it looks like the most we’d have to deal with if they do move for Ceres is some refitted bulk carriers older than I am.”

“If we’re really going to be fighting a war here, Admiral,” replied the President, “we can’t win it on ‘sketchy’. Get your men on it. I want a full report in front of me tomorrow night, which would still give us some time before their ships are expected to arrive at Ceres, assuming they do at all.

“Yes, sir,” she responded with a small nod.

Ayonagi’s gaze shifted around the table to the faces of all the men and women assembled there. Though strategy meetings like this had been more frequent a few years ago, things had begun to settle down as the peace-keeping fleets had now been operating in the Belt again. Still, this was the closest the League had ever come to open conflict with FACET patrols. If matters weren’t handled delicately in the next few days, the situation could rapidly boil over into open war, especially if Derak’s charges about a dead ambassador were proven to be correct. The President spoke again.

“Good. Now unless we have any other business, I say we keep putting together as much intel as possible. Admiral Strathmore will coordinate our secondary defensive line at Mars and Admiral Moleschenkova will organize the rendezvous party headed for Ceres. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir,” came an immediate reply from those in the conference room. The two admirals in space followed shortly after.

“Good work, people. I hope just as everyone else does that this is just more saber-rattling from Derak and the Council, but we really won’t know for a few more days at least.”

A handful of smaller conversations broke out all around the room once the two admirals’ holo-projectors had gone dark, leaving the President and his advisors to themselves again.

“Someone get Mangasaryan on the line,” Ayonagi said. “If Derak’s serious about sending in a battle group, we’ll need all the help we can get watching Ceres’ rear.”

“I hope not,” replied one of his aides. “Not after all this time.”

“Me too,” the President said. “Me too.”

 

***

 

The FACET heavy cruiser Gerard de Jen sat with its two escort frigates in a high parking orbit above Ganymede, as it had for the last few days. It was in the middle of executive officer Captain Oren Shan’s watch that a priority message came in from Destiny Fleet Command, to which the CIC crew responded with a flurry of communications across all sectors of the ship. Noting the shrill beeping noise emanating from the command console, Shan reached for the nearest headset to get the Admiral Suryawijaya on the line.

“Admiral,” he said. “It looks like we’ve just received our departure orders.”

“Good,” the admiral replied. “Forward them to my ready room.”

“Well, I think you should come and look at the message yourself.”

“What’s the hold-up, Captain?”

“I don’t have permission to decrypt it, sir. Something tells me this isn’t just another Trojan survey mission.”

“I’ll be right there,” the admiral said curtly. It would be a few more minutes before the admiral arrived in the Command Information Center from his ready room. In the meantime, Shan would have to try and maintain order among a bridge crew who had largely not yet seen combat, but increasingly feared that it was inevitable given the cryptic nature of the transmission they’d just received. What else would require more permissions than those held by a cruiser’s executive officer? Typically, only combat orders necessitated a commanding officer’s verification or similar key before they could be opened. The Gerard de Jen certainly hadn’t expected to receive any such orders, but neither had they expected anything like the attack near Ceres to occur either. It was like everyone in FACET was holding their collective breath, waiting for the push that came before the plunge.

“Any more messages from Fleet Command, Miss Maren?” Shan asked a younger woman seated not far away from him at a console that showed communications readouts for their entire three-ship battle group.

“Nothing yet, Captain. I’ll check with the Ricol and Warrine CICs to verify reception of the original message.”

“Good,” he replied. “Keep me posted.” There wasn’t much else for Shan to do than just make sure that the other members of the crew were ready, assuming their orders required them to leave immediately, so he did the only thing he could: wait for the admiral. Sure enough, the door across from him slid open and Admiral Suryawijaya walked in, his overshirt half-buttoned.

“Admiral on deck!” Shan announced with a quick salute.

“At ease,” the man replied hastily. “Alright, Captain, what’ve we got?” Admiral Haram Suryawijaya was a short man with an almost equally short temper. Had he lived a thousand years earlier, he would’ve fit in easily with the medieval Indian warrior class from which he was descended: pragmatism, loyalty to rank, and discipline were the only characteristics that mattered to him, and the only ones he made known about himself to his crew. After seven years in command, it was all they expected from him.

“Like I said, Admiral, the message needs your decryption key. I have Miss Maren talking to the Ricol and Warrine to make sure we’ve all received the same thing.” Shan turned to her again. “Any word, Lieutenant?”

“Aye aye, sir. Both confirm reception but are waiting on your orders, Admiral.”

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” he said. Taking the main console for a moment, he entered his key and moved in close to a retinal scanner.

“Command authorization code accepted,” came a voice from the console. Immediately afterward, the holo-projector was taken over by a series of images. Directly in the center was a small map giving the relative locations of Jupiter and Ceres, connected by a curved, dotted line indicating interplanetary orbital trajectory for Hohmann transfer. Suryawijaya could hear Shan swallow hard next to him as he read through their orders.

“We’ve just received orders from Fleet Command to proceed with our battle group to Ceres at all available speed. Mister Kaylan, get Propulsion on the line and prepare to move out.” The navigations officer shouted out a “yes, sir” from across the CIC. “Miss Maren, coordinate with Commander Jerr and Commander Lucas; I want us underway within the hour.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. All across the room, officers representing various sectors of the ship were starting up conversations with their respective crews. Though the provisions and ammunition inventories had already been checked three times and approved by the Executive Officer, this was as serious a situation as the Gerard de Jen had encountered since being placed on combat-ready status. As such, there could be no mistakes or omissions from the cargo manifest should things turn ugly in the Belt. After all, they’d be proceeding into what was still considered League territory, though no problems had ever been encountered there before with UEL fleet vessels. Up until recently, it had been supposed that Ceres was so heavily trafficked by both civilian vessels and those of both nations’ fleets that no one would try and start trouble there. However, it was now apparent that this could very well change in just a matter of days.

“What’s the plan if that League carrier is still in the vicinity?” Shan asked Suryawijaya.

“There’s no ‘if’,” the admiral replied. “It’s there, alright. We’ll just have to wait and see what the situation’s like. All I can say is that we will not be the first ones to start shooting should we arrive at that.”

“You really think we might, Admiral?”

“It’s hard to say. The League’s been looking for an excuse long enough; let’s hope they haven’t finally found it.” Despite his experience, Shan couldn’t help but be worried about these new developments. While surveys in the Trojan asteroids frequently put FACET ships in danger from separatist organizations and smugglers, only the largest of those groups had enough firepower to put a heavy cruiser like the Gerard de Jen at risk. This time, they’d be going up against a UEL carrier, almost one and a half times larger and much more well-armed than their cruiser. Even with two escort ships on their side and none on the other, it would still be a close fight with many casualties on both sides. The admiral was right, of course: all they could do was hope that whoever the CO of that carrier was had enough sense not to make the first move.