Captain Strand looked over his shoulder as Commodore Severs walked out of the elevator pod and onto the bridge.
Somebody shouted out, “Commodore on deck!”
Everyone stood to attention.
“As you were, as you were,” Severs said. The tall man smiled at Strand, white teeth shining bright in his dark face as he came over to where the Captain stood.
Together they turned and watched a side holoscreen showing the view of Gotha Mu from one of the Republic ships parked in orbit. Both men stood with their hands behind their backs, watching the planet slowly rotate.
“Hard to believe a war started over that lifeless chunk of rock,” Strand said.
Severs smiled again. Strand was still in his 30s, he thought. Not for long, though. He’d hit 40 in a few months.
“A trillion credits at least, Captain Strand,” Severs said. “That’s what PLAIR estimates is available in the ore on that lifeless rock, if it were all recovered. Feasible mining will yield less, but still . . . for that much gold, yes, people are willing to kill.”
Strand nodded and stole a glance at his pilot and XO, both in front of the main holoscreen.
“The hardest part is waiting,” the young Captain said. “Waiting for the League to show up.”
“About that,” Severs said, his smile broadening into a wide grin. “I just received word from Diego. Our spies on Juventas were finally able to sneak a report out. It seems Admiral Cooper gave up half the ships in the Sixth Fleet recently, including most of his Marines and Eagle-class destroyers.”
Strand lifted his eyebrows. He looked around the bridge again, and everyone stood completely silent, even though no one looked at them. This conversation would no doubt spread throughout the ship.
“Do we know where they went?” Strand said.
“PLAIR has made an educated guess. The Fifth Fleet is in transit, too. She thinks they’re joining up and coming here, over 90 ships in all, carrying a Marine host of disproportionate size. Large enough to subdue a well-populated planet. And take over the mining of a smaller one.”
“Hm. An overwhelming force. Standard tactic.”
Severs nodded. “Yep. All rushing here to line up against our little squadron.”
He sighed and said, “I suppose we should make our final preparations for their arrival. PLAIR?”
“Evacuate all humans from Gotha Mu immediately. All robots and other mechanized equipment should take cover, preferably underground where possible.”
The bridge remained quiet once Severs gave the order, all conversation stalled. Strand said nothing, staring back down at Gotha Mu where miners and bots even now were seeking shelter or porting off-planet.
Finally he looked back up at the Commodore with a grim expression. Not an expression of regret, or remorse. But one foretelling the destruction to come.
He said, “A lot of League sailors and Marines are about to die.”
Andre Kwan, Admiral of the Fifth Fleet, leaned back in his chair and pushed the plate away.
He preferred dining in his private quarters, and had no desire to visit the bridge or anywhere else in his flagship very often. Instead, he preferred remaining in his suite and eating meals prepared by his indent, Meena.
These thoughts ran through Captain Justin Nichols’s mind as he hurried to catch up, downing the last few bites of his own dish.
At least, Nichols, thought, Meena was a decent chef. She had grilled the steak to perfection.
As if summoned mentally, Meena appeared to clear the plates away. Nichols could not help but watch as she stooped to gather everything up. Kwan had her dressed in a simple white satin teddy. It left her legs and arms bare, and clung tight to the rest. That was all she wore, other than the gunmetal grey biocollar around her neck.
Barefoot, Meena padded back to the kitchen area, carrying their dirty dishes.
Kwan noticed Nichols’s eyes following her and smiled.
“Rank hath its privileges, if that’s what you’re thinking, Captain.”
Nichols smiled politely. He thought, the Admiral has a way of cutting to the chase, doesn’t he?
Out loud he said, “It’s certainly true that I could not get away with bringing along someone, either a wife or indent.”
Kwan said, “Technically, I’m not supposed to either. But did you know, no one has ever had the guts to tell me no?”
Now that is a revelation, Nichols thought.
“So,” Kwan continued, pushing his chair back and crossing his legs. “I think it goes without saying that we’ll use our Eagle-class destroyers against the squadron at Seychar. I’ve asked StarCen to port us in formation accordingly. We’ll stop a few AU’s out and give her a chance to organize the fleet and properly prepare our mindset before going in.”
Nichols nodded. They were very close now, just a few hours away. In fact, they were scheduled to attack first thing in the “morning,” at 06:00 Epsilon Standard Time. That last stop would be at 05:00, giving them plenty of time to prepare and coordinate before jumping the last bit.
It was going to be a long day for everybody, Nichols thought. But at the end of the day, he had no doubt that the Seychar system would be firmly in the League’s column. Finally.
Personally, Nichols felt Gotha Mu should have been the focus of the Navy from the beginning. But so many other battles had proven distracting, both to the Tetrarchs and, he privately suspected, to StarCen herself.
Now, at last, they were returning to claim the prize they had been forced to leave behind at the start of this war. The source, in fact, of all the conflict.
Well, one good thing about it, Nichols thought. I’m in the lead on this one.
Kwan said, “Once their guard detail is out of the way, we’ll prepare formations for the Diego Fleet. That’s when the real battle begins.”
“That’ll be good,” Nichols said. “We’ve rarely had an opportunity for wide-scale engagement.”
“Yes. Unfortunately, that’s been to their advantage.”
Nichols quirked an eyebrow. The Admiral seemed particularly frank tonight.
Kwan nodded at the Captain’s expression and continued. “For all their inferiority, the Republic has managed to fight exceptionally well. We began this conflict with a numerical superiority in ships. They have bled us with repeated hit and run engagements.”
“Indeed. But, they are cowards who live to fight another day. The survival rate of their ships is phenomenal, all things considered.”
“They’ve got mostly Hawks. We still have a numerical advantage with Eagles.”
“Yes. But Hawks are perhaps the most utilitarian class. They are easier and less expensive to manufacture than Eagles, and can be just as devastating in combat especially when fighting together. It is little wonder the Republic has cranked out as many as they can from their factories.”
Meena returned, carrying a tray with coffee cups and a carafe. She set it down on the table between the men and poured the Admiral a cup, then the Captain.
Nichols said, “Thank you.”
Meena smiled shyly at him. She’s beautiful, Nichols thought. I wonder how much Kwan paid for her contract?
When Meena returned to the kitchen Nichols said, “You seem awfully respectful of them, Admiral.”
Kwan nodded and took a thoughtful sip. He said, “Always respect your enemy, Captain. Never underestimate them. I would not be surprised if we see the latest those Diego factories have to offer waiting for us.”
Nichols raised an eyebrow again. This was proving to be an evening full of discoveries and frank discussion.
“Oh really? I haven’t seen any reports.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. Our spies on Diego have had trouble getting comprehensive details out. But, there has been some intelligence on a new class of warship the Republicans have been developing.”
“A new class? That doesn’t sound good.”
Kwan chuckled. He said, “Bear in mind my comments about the Republic’s inclinations toward utility. They crank out Hawks because they’re easier to produce than Eagles. To manufacture something bigger and better than an Eagle would require a longer production timeline, and that is not in the Republic’s nature.”
“Well,” Nichols pointed out, “they do produce Eagles. And some new ones have been manufactured since the start of the war.”
Kwan waved aside the comment with his coffee cup.
He said, “Their primary goal is efficiency. They are a republic, after all. Governed by elected leaders. Focused on capitalism. And capitalism demands efficiency. No, if they have a surprise in store for us, the new class will be utilitarian above all else. If I had to guess, it probably has some shortcuts built into the manufacturing process. A new ship designed to be quickly assembled. Perhaps several of them to try and present a numerical advantage.”
“In that case, they’d have more than a squadron waiting for us.”
“Maybe. Even so, our 92 ships should be able to handle it. But I think the real surprise will be that the Diego Fleet is likely going to be larger than we are expecting. Mind you, what they bring against us might well be cheap and quickly assembled, but I bet they’ll bring in superior numbers. They’re likely to give us a good fight for the money with the Diego Fleet. That’s my prediction for what lies ahead.”
Nichols nodded, thinking about it. He took another sip of coffee. Andre Kwan was a Fleet Admiral, he thought. Someone who sat in on meetings with Tetrarch Thrall himself. So, he was probably right.
Half an hour later, Nichols left the Admiral’s quarters and walked down the corridor to his own spacious cabin. He fell asleep and dreamed about Meena, or at least an indent he could call his own and bring along on long voyages.