Admiral Kol sat behind his desk aboard his flagship, Gibraltor. It was a third generation ship--designed from the keel up as a true combat vessal, and not some slapped together affair the original designs were, and that Kol himself had faught with.
Though not designed to carry a fleet's flag, Captain Diego had done quite well in helping Kol adjust to the new setting. The command team Admiral Eltsina had hand-picked for Kol's staff was also top-notch. The admiral was finding that he leaned on them perhaps a bit too much for his liking, but he was several years out of practice.
And the gods seemed to be punishing him with an abhorrent amount of paperwork. Being pulled from retirement back to commanding, for all intent's and purpose, a full fleet created a veritable mountain of it. In particular, he was spending quite a lot of time with Commodore Kelner, his logistics officer.
Which was understandable, as it seemed to evacuation of Naeve had landed squarely on his shoulders.
Kol still wasn't sure how he should feel about it. On one hand, the civilian casualties--he felt a stab of pain in his chest he quickly pushed aside--had already been catastrphic, and Kol could see the reasoning beside at least getting the elderly and children off the planet. Still, it felt too much like running away to him.
Though that was probably the plan anyway.
He didn't agree with First Admiral Solon's strategy. The supreme commander of the combined might of the TEC was not reinforcing the Naeve system as quickly as he should. In fact, in the few months that Kol had taken command, only a few light squadrons had trickled in. The news they brought indicated that they were concentrating more on shoring up the defenses around Quaker, Wolf-128, and Roma. Well, around Quaker and Roma, at any rate.
The admiral had not heard very much about Wolf-128 other than the fleet-wide notification that the Exiles had deployed light carriers. Given that the accompanying technical estimate had come from long-range scout readings and a duo of damaged light frigates, Kol wasn't sure how much he should trust their accuracy.
What he did know was that the Exiles had deployed their new toy at the Lazion nexus.
The Exiles had always kept a rather tight lid on Naeve. At least a dozen capital ships were reported around the Nexus. So dangerous had the raids become that Kol was forced to attach his own battlecruisers to the merchant convoys carrying refugees to their protection. According to his scouts, though, multiple capital-range phase outs had been detected, but the strikecraft attacks had not subsided. In fact, in this month alone, there was a fifteen percent increase.
Kol took another sip from his glass of bourbon as he lamented the foolishness of it all.
The Exiles were pulling capital ships back. Yes, they were still raiding, and heavily, but considering their initial lunge into the Eastern Reaches had enough ships to steamroll over the Home Fleet, they shouldn't be suffering too badly for offensive resources. Yet they were husbanding their forces.
Admiral Obauld, commanding officer of the Roma task force, sent Kol a reply that it was the opinion of he and his staff that the Exiles were simply over-stretched. Between their conquests, ship losses, and the general run-down of a single offensive campaign for the better part of two years, it was being assumed that the ships required extensive maintenance and upgrades, even as they waited for reinforcements.
Even if that were true, and Kol wasn't quite convinced that it was, all it meant was that they had a small window of opportunity, whether to build defenses or even launch a counter-attack. Left to their own devices, the Exiles would push out again--this time with a combined fleet instead of three individual axis of attack. Hell, the Wolf-128 raid had opened the door. That route would require more time skirting the outter edges of the Core Worlds, but an attacker would eventually end in a position where they could claw in deep.
Alexander's thoughts were interrupted as the communication screen chimed on his desk. With a few practiced movements, he pushed aside his paperwork and queued the screen. Somewhat surprisingly, the message was identified as Commander Brenton, Gibraltor's executive officer. Kol seemed to recall that the dark haired native of Naeve had the watch.
Adrenaline quickly brought Kol to full awareness. Normally, he would be contacted by his flag captain or perhaps one of his staff. The fact that the on-duty executive officer would directly contact him indicated that one of the few exceptions had occured. The one Kol feared first and foremost was the most dire--an Exile fleet.
"I apologize for disturbing you, Admiral," said Commander Brenton, "but we've received word from one of the pickets. Three Sova-class carriers have arrived with escorts." He paused for a moment, as if to gather his thoughts. "According to their transmissions, the carrier group is carrying dispatches. And...sir, they're being delivered by a courier in the CDIA."
Shit, thought Kol as he immediately ordered the commander to wake his staff.
When the Aluxsi Dynasty fell in the military coup, the Trade Order's infrastructure had been in shambles. Four years of constant war and forced to feed what fledgling navy they could into the Vasari meatgrinder had taken its toll. Coordination was practically non-existant, civil unrest was at an all-time high, and expansion and reunification of lost worlds had all but ceased.
The intelligence community had suffered the worst. Before the war, it was splintered into half a dozen agencies, each with somewhat murky and, usually, overlapping responsibilities. Many times, governors, magistrates, and even the Hereditary President and his staff would receive outdated reports. Worse were the cases of conflicting reports, which were not uncommon. Investigations later would reveal a startling number of Vasari infiltration into the intelligence networks.
One of the first policies President Cortana enacted was the dissolution and reformation of the various intelligence agencies into oversized umbrella organization. The newly cristened Civilian Defense Intelligence Agency has quickly found its niche as the new regime's secret police, and within the first six months, half a dozen revolting worlds had been quelled as various leaders had been turned into bloody smears by convenient--and impractical--'accidents'.
Although the TEC Naval Intelligence Bureau was still a part of the TEC's military command structure, the CDIA was completely a civilian organization, which included a surprisingly large compliment of military-equipped shock troops. Perhaps the most damning fact was the fact that CDIA operatives were not bound by the Articles of War and, by and large, mostly immune from civilian laws, as well.
It was only a matter of time, Kol realized. For the most part, the CDIA had been focusing on the Core Worlds, who weren't entirely enthusiastic about their Western Front descended President. Even nearly a decade after the coup, many of the older members of the Core Chamber would like to see Cortana hang. The Western Front was consumed by war, the Eastern Reaches did not particularly care the name of the master their send their materials and men to, and the Northern Kingdoms, well, perhaps it was best to say the CDIA had primarily focused on the Core Worlds and the Northern Kingdoms.
Still, the loss of thirty plus clusters, most of Fifth Fleet, billions of citizens, and the revelation of a new--perhaps old, as well--enemy demanded the attention of everyone. The speed and accuracy in which the Exiles had compromised the Eastern Reaches insinuated a cascade failure in the intelligence security provisions, both military as well as the CDIA, which maintained officers on any Trade Order affiliated planet.
A chime interrupted Alexander's musing. He cleared his thoughts before pressing the comm button inconveniently located beneath a stack of forms.
"Admiral Kol," the voice from his desk said. The aging admiral recognized the voice as Private Lemmings, one of the two sentires posted outside his officer. "Captain Demmerest is here for your appointment, sir."
Kol took one long, relaxing breath, applied his best poker face, and acknowledged the marine. "Thank you, Private. Send him in."
"That sonofabitch!" screamed Kol as he took hold of the closest piece of furniture--in this case, a chair--and reduced it to splinters against the wall of his quarters.
The CDIA operative had been smug, arrogant, and disrespectful. If he had been within the TEC, Kol would have had him brigged, but he was not, and Kol could not. Kol had known what to expect, and the weasely little man was not what had infuriated Kol so much.
No, it was the orders that the snide little man had carried. Physical copies. Bearing the seal of the President of the Trade Order as well as the endorsements of Admiral Khersia and a dozen other high ranking military officials, as if to eliminate any doubt that the decision was fully supported.
Angrily punching several commands into his console, he raised the current bridge watch officer. "Get me the Magistrate. Now."
War Mistress Altima hurried to the communion room. Though the rushing seemed out of place as it was being done with one of the three top-ranked Advent officers in the entire Unity, Altima felt it was necessary. There was a slight tension in the background aura of the fleet, though it was diminished by the lack of a properly psychic population. The fact that Coalesced Ajana had quickly departed her Progenitor after a Seeker had returned unscheduled had only enhanced Altima's discomfort.
The intraship capsule stopped, and Altima quickly stepped out of it. The deck was practically crawling with Ajana's security detail. Given the alacrity in which the Coalesced had appeared on her vessal, the war mistress was unable to assign a missionary squad to Ajana. Still, Altima felt somewhat uneasy at having the heavily armed retinue aboard her flagship.
Though Altima had been in the presence of Ajana's attendants several times before, unlike those shield maidens, the Coalesced's security was clad in unpowered armor. The black, form-fitting bodysuit contrasted with the gleaming, almost white, armor on the more immobile parts of the body. Each of the guardians had ritual markings adorning their armor, and each wore a smooth helmet that closed around the entire face, as was the tradition of missionaries and those trained in their equipment.
Like the missionaries, each of the bodyguards were armed with first-line equipment and their weapons included a ceremonial blade carried by Ajana's attendants. Altima's primary Mistress-At-Arms had studied under a Coalesced's attendant. Given the proficiency with which the war mistress had been tossed around, Altima had little doubt that even the lowliest of Ajana's caretakers could take an unarmed person apart with relative ease.
The Coalesced had been expecting the war mistress, of course. The warriors bowed respectfully as Altima passed them, allowing her to pass without a word of objection. Such open trust would be the anti-thesis to any other security in known space, but such was the gift of the Unity--the subconscious link between each and every member of the Advent society. Without having even met her, the guardians felt a kinship to the war mistress, and would have welcomed her to their homes as a sister.
She entered Ajana's chamber and when the portal sealed behind her, the two women were alone together. The Coalesced sat upon her knees atop a generously plump pillow in the middle of the somewhat bare room. The ambient lighting eminating from seams where floor and cieling met wall created unnatural shadows as Altima sat cross-legged before the woman. The scent of moistness and healthy earth filled the chambar due to the real, live plants living atop an enclosing arch behind and around Ajana's flanks.
This was the first time Altima had seen the Coalesced without her robes. The nude woman sat unmoving as the war mistress studied her. Ajana's body had taken grafts in much the same way Altima, and every other psintegrate aboard every Advent space-faring vessal, had. Unlike her own implants, the Coalesced had many, many more than anyone, including the Anima, than Altima had ever seen. The biological circuitry glowed beneath Ajana's skin across her entire body, stopping only at external plugs where only the Coalesced knew what they could be used for. The war mistress had the same soft blue glow travelling from her right temple down to the same arm and hand, but Ajana's glowed and pulsed brighter, and there were far than what even the Advent considered normal--or safe.
"Do not be concerned, War Mistress," spoke the Coalesced, her eyes still closed. "I am as well as ever."
"Of course, Coalesced," Altima replied with a bow. "I apologize if my thoughts were inappropriate."
Altima heard only a chuckle as she raised up from her bow. Ajana had opened her eyes and a genuine smile had graced her features. The war mistress felt a surge of pride at having made one of the most important figures in her--and every Advent--life smile in such a way.
"I should be the one apologizing to you. My sudden arrival could not have been very convenient." The Coalesced gave a little shrug. "Still, it was important, and I shall not waste much more of your time while the terrans continue to stubbornly resist the Unity."
Ajana shifted slightly and placed a small moly-chip in Altima's hand. The war mistress graciously accepted the gift and inserted it into her palm.
"Those are the latest intelligence reports from Naeve," the Coalesced continued as Altima accessed the data and gasped. Most of it was the normal see-sawing action of intelligence, counter-intelligence, and raids that had occured. The last of the reports, though...!
"That is correct, War Mistress. According to our scouts, ninety percent of the enemy tonnage has left the system."
"...and that's all of the reports from the seeker vessal, Glyph of Renewal," said Altima. "We shall have the honor of Captain Alysa's company for a little longer. We're going back to Naeve."
The war mistress felt the surges as she gazed out to her gathered command team. Third Fleet had been furthered pillaged, and most of Altima's active duty ships were the equivalent of a single Sword that the other fleets were using. As such, Altima could hold a physical conference with every one of her Mistresses and their force captains. She looked at each and everyone of them now and felt their emotions. Most were shocked, others were tinged with doubt and uncertainty. Others, Altima felt, were glazed with satisfaction and contained anger at the opportunity to strike back at the traitors. Many friends and loved ones were lost at the First Battle of Naeve.
Altima manipulated the holographic tank to bring up Third Fleet's force disposition. "As I'm sure you know, we only have a core of twenty-four capital ships, half of which are battlecruisers. In light of this, Coalesced Ajana and War Mistress Reka have reassigned a squadron of Progenitors and four of the new Aeria vessal squadrons. Unfortunately, we only have a few weeks to integrate them into our organization, but we'll have access to the picket force currently in Naeve as well." She paused, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Questions?"
Fleet Admiral Alexander Kol had seen better days. He felt empty as space as he stared out the view of the observation center. The entire wall was clear and allowed an unobstructed view into space. For what it was worth.
The Jubei system was a vast, empty cosmic junkyard. The binary stars that were the system's center had played havoc with the planets as they formed. There was nothing but asteroids for three light hours from either of the suns, and only gas giants and lifeless rocks beyond that.
Alexander's hand tightened over the bottle he held. He shouldn't have left. There were too many people left in Naeve, and they'd never be able to make it out before an Exile force managed to take the system. Without fleet support, Anubis could be bypassed and what was left of the orbital defenses would be easy prey for the massed strikes employed by fighters and bombers.
And for what? Admiral Obauld was shoring up the defenses around Roma. His strategy was to abandon the Eastern Reaches, turn Roma into a fortress, and trap any Exile invasion between First Fleet and whatever system they decided to invade. Unable to gain any foothold in the Core, the invaders could be wittled down under the TEC's superior numbers and shorter supply lines, as well as the interior position.
And all they had to sacrifice were the billions of people in the Eastern Reaches and thirty-something systems worth of Trade Order territory.
And here Kol was. The Osiris Cluster--the middle of nowhere and deep in enemy territory. He was surprised as any to realize that Osiris had managed to repel the Exile battlecruiser division sent to pacify them, but he knew it wouldn't last forever. Eventually, the Exiles would sweep Osiris up, and as soon as they realized Kol was here with Fifth Fleet, they would attack en masse.
He had heard all the reasons to go. If he didn't, he'd be court martialed for treason and spaced. They'd simply get someone else to do it, probably Eltsina. Gerard had made a good case of Kol going.
Kol also knew it was important. He had known there were various classified research stations, but he had assumed they were all in the Core. He couldn't blame the President for shitting his pants at the idea of the Exiles capturing the Advanced Tactical Phasic Research and Development Station hidden away in the Jubei system in Osiris.
"Admiral," came a voice from the speaker system. "You're needed on the bridge."
"Sir," said Commodore Hestan, Kol's chief of staff said once the admiral entered the room. "Come take a look at this."
Alexander looked at the monitor and blinked a few moments. The R&D station was six and a half light hours from Jubei-A. Kol had limited travel to sub-phasic, and Gibraltor had been in system for nearly a week as it traversed the void towards the distant planet designated Jubei IV that served as the gravitational anchor for the station.
The battlecruiser was close enough to get some long range scans of the station. The results were...surprising.
"How many stations are we picking up?"
"We're detected four Terra-class space docks and the emissions from Jubei IV are consistant with a level three hostile environment colony," said the commodore. "The center station, well, sir, it doesn't match anything in our records."
"And these?" Kol gestured to a cluster of smaller energy signitures.
"We believe they're ships, Admiral. We're too far out for identification, but their displacement puts the smaller ones at cruiser size." Hestan cleared his throat. "The other, we're frankly not sure on, Admiral. It's too small to be a station, but our readings give it twice the tonnage of a Marza-class dreadnought.
"Well, what if we--" Alexander started but was promptly interrupted by the battlestations klaxon. He immediately turned to his sensor tech. "Report!"
The tech scrambled at his station, punching keys like a maniac as he spoke. "I don't know, Admiral! Space was empty a moment ago, now we're being hit by a dozen targetting systems."
"This is the captain," spoke the intra-ship intercom. "We're being targetted by several dozen floating missiles. All hands, brace for impact."
Cursing, Kol scrambled into his shock frame. If the shields didn't hold, no one had had time to slip into a suit, and depressurization would kill anyone unfortunate enough to be caught behind the blast doors.
Kol checked his monitor. The missiles were based on TEC sprint missiles. They were too dumb to be fooled by ECM and could not be intercepted by point defense but carried relatively light warheads. These were larger but somewhat slower as they were not launched from a ship, but apparently were floating aimlessly in space. They were also accelerating longer and faster than they should. The incoming missiles were larger than normal standard missiles, so given their speed, they shouldn't have a larger warhead than normal heavy cruiser launched missiles. Still, the point defense crews were going to get them all.
Every last one of the hostile missiles exploded forty thousand kilometers from Gibraltor's shields.
"Admiral," said Kol's communication officer. "We're receiving a transmission from...an empty pocket in space," he said somewhat unsurely.
"Patch it through."
"...Captain Diego, of the Akkan-C class battlecruiser Gibraltor. You are surrounded. State your business or you will lower your shields and surrender your vessal. Failure to cooperate will result in the destruction of your ship."
Kol allowed the captain to respond as he turned to his chief of staff. "Where's the transmission coming from?"
Hestan was too busy consulting the sensor screen to face Alexander. "We're reading a small drone. It looks to be only a few tons, and heavily stealthed. Hell, we can barely see it and we're tracking its transmissions!"
"Admiral," came Captain Diego's voice. "We've received a reply. I think you should hear this." And the flag bridge was filled with the message from their ship's destination.
"Greetings, Admiral. I apologize for the unfriendly welcome. We have been expecting you, but we are operating under extreme conditions. I look forward to speaking with you personally without the communication lag. I am Doctor Jane Weir. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Project Novalith."
End of Book 2