Duchess Josephina Barrow
Josephina stood on the flag bridge of the Ides of March, the pride and joy of House Barrow’s growing fleet. This was the battlecruiser’s maiden voyage, and if successful, an important turning point in the legacy of her house.
<I made it happen.> The Duchess didn’t smile though. <But it could have been better.>
Josephina was not in command. She was not a spacer. She was a spy, so she left the naval engagement to the professionals. When Lord Admiral Kenton devised the battle plan for Operation Grand Sweep, she understood the larger aspects of the plan. She knew it was necessary for the Royal Navy to engage the more dangerous targets, while larger Houses, like the Jaeger’s, could handle riskier operations. With only a handful of ships to her House’s name, Josephina’s wants were secondary to the needs of the mission. Still, her influence with the Queen helped. House Barrow had been slated to attack some backwater nowhere. Now at least it had a proper target.
“We will reach the system proper in two hours,” the ship’s captain stated before Josephina could even ask the question.
This time the Duchess did smile and nod at the grizzled old man. The captain had decades in the royal navy before retiring and coming back to his ancestral home in Rose Bay. Once there, Josephina snatched him up to command the House’s flagship. Patriotic and feudal duty, along with a generous salary, swayed the man’s decision; and made Josephina confident she’d made a good choice.
The crew of Ides of March was young. The average officer was forty, and spacers twenty. Since House fleets tended to be staffed primarily with personnel exiting the Royal Fleet after completing their tour of duty, the current arrangement was something new.
That didn’t mean Josephina didn’t know why it was happening. <This is the first collective war for the Kingdom since its inception.> The young and the old alike wanted to get in on the action. The new technology, coupled with the Queen’s proclamation, and the system-wide buildup meant there was plenty of room for the commoners to make their mark on history. It was hard to resist that pull, which was why a High Nobility Duchess was sitting on the flag bridge of a battlecruiser instead of her office back in Windsor City.
What she’d intellectually known about space travel, and what she’d expected were the same, but that didn’t make the two hours any less boring. The force of House Barrow warships had exited the interdimensional space used for portaling well outside the system limit of the Commonwealth system of Harper’s Junction. She expected to find a blocking force in place, since their scouts had been seen looking over the system’s viability, but as the force proceeded farther in-system it found little opposition.
The captain proceeded cautiously nonetheless. He didn’t want to walk into a trap, especially when the only opposition seemed to be a trio of obsolete destroyers that hadn’t even noticed the invading force yet. It was only when the communication’s section lit up with an incoming message that Commonwealth forces seemed to notice the danger bearing down on them.
“QE for you, Your Grace.” The signalman working the station bowed as he approached with a piece of polyplast.
“Thank you.” Josephina took it and read the short message. Then she read it three more times to make sure there wasn’t any subtext she was missing. Her experience in espionage kept her features neutral, but inside her mind was churning a kilometer a minute.
The message was brief and to the point. Her agents in the Commonwealth capitol had discovered the alien audit was completed. The Commonwealth’s standing in the Hegemony had been established, and a delegation was heading to a conference that began in less than a week.
Josephina did the math to figure out when everything occurred. The message had to travel through regular communication channels out of Commonwealth space because a QE burst on the planet would have drawn a lot of attention. As the technology spread with the influx of alien technology that was coming their way, that limitation would be eliminated. Still, it had taken several weeks for the information to get back to Windsor, and then seconds to be transmitted to Ides of March.
<We’re living in a changing galaxy.> She felt excited at the prospect, especially because she planned for her kingdom to have a paramount place in that new galactic order.
The second part of the message was just as important as the first. Since the primary focus of the Royal Navy and House Fleets was to disrupt commerce and delay the audit, that objective was now obsolete. The message delegated responsibility for decision making to the individual force commanders. In this case, that meant Josephina.
From an intelligence gathering standpoint it was going to confuse the crap out of the Commonwealth. Not every system they were attacking was going to be caught with their pants down, so when weaker Houses decided to spare their naval assets and pull out before attacking, the Commonwealth was going to be second guessing themselves as to motives. Josephina didn’t envy her Commonwealth counterpart on trying to decipher what the Kingdom was up to.
Josephina, by her epigenetic makeup, was a competitor, and she would very much like to meet Admiral Sonya Berg at some point. She had respect for the woman, but also saw her counterpart’s limitations. Intelligence at the head of a large bureaucratic machine was difficult. Josephina’s own department was leaner, meaner, and able to maneuver in ways the Admiral’s couldn’t. The Commonwealth might be the cat, and the Kingdom the mouse, but the cat was fat and lazy due to centuries of complacency. In addition, people tended to forget how vicious a mouse could be when backed into a corner.
Josephina put the thought aside as her force continued into Harper’s Junction. The three opposing destroyers were accelerating to meet them in a foolish attempt to intimidate, bluff, or perhaps encourage House Barrow’s forces to commit before an ambush was sprung. The spy master could continue to second guess herself, but she shrugged it off and left it to the ship’s captain. Ides of March, along with the cruisers HMS Grassy Knoll and Mullaghmore would do the fighting. The battlecruiser was built with the new alien technology while the two cruisers were refitted with it. The four destroyers that accompanied them had not been upgraded, but they were more than a match for a Commonwealth ship of the same class. The Commonwealth built for quantity while the Kingdom focused on quality. Quantity might be a quality all its own, but in this situation it didn’t matter.
It was a sizeable chunk of House Barrow’s naval strength, but it was worth it. Josephina would have rather had the prestige of going after a more industrial and populated world, but she’d been overruled. After some thought, she saw the potential advantages of the current mission.
First, Harper’s Junction was a dead end to the casual observer, although more up-to-date mapping had one barely-explored route heading into the Kingdom’s expanding sphere of influence. That gave it potential. Second, the Commonwealth garrison was understrength, and its nearest backup was nearly a hundred light years away. The system didn’t have a launcher, because it wasn’t a transportation hub, so it was sixteen light years to the nearest launcher. Even if a QE burst went out for assistance, and a quick reaction force was on the way right now it would take eight hours to get to the nearby launcher and another sixteen to enter the system. Meanwhile, a full day was more than enough time for Josephina’s forces to sweep aside the opposing destroyers and land the three thousand five hundred lancers she’d brought with her. They would easily be able to overwhelm the local garrison and take control of the three major cities on the planet. In reality they had two or three days to get the job done before the enemy reinforcements arrived.
Unlike most targets of Operation Grand Sweep, Harper’s Junction was one the Crown wanted to hold on to. As the conquerors, the planet would be House Barrow’s to administer. So, even though Josephina was getting a planet a little out in the middle of nowhere, she was still one of the few trying to grab and hold territory for her kingdom, which was why she had enough firepower to repel a smaller counterattack until a sizable contingent from the Royal Fleet arrived. When it did, they would be able to solidify their hold on the system, and pacify the local population. Then the real work would begin.
“Your Grace?” The captain was looking to her for orders. As was the rest of the crew.
She read absolute confidence on their young faces. Overconfidence could be dangerous. The Kingdom had only been able to get this far because the Commonwealth underestimated them while they built up their strength. Now, Grand Sweep was going to show the galaxy what the Kingdom was capable of, so she could forgive the younglings’ youthful naivety for the time being. They’d be spilling blood for the first time in the next few hours, and that tended to be a solid reality check.
“Proceed as planned, Captain. Give me this system.”
The old man’s smile made him look positively intimidating. “Of course, Your Grace.” The statement was followed by a slew of orders and the blare of the battlestation’s claxon.
Josephina ignored it all and took her seat. Her harness automatically snaked around her to secure her in place. She’d done her job. Now all she needed to do was sit back and watch the show.
<I wonder how the rest of the operation is going.>
Able Spacer Jimmy Tavares had a five-year plan. He’d join the Queensland Navy and serve his system. As far as military service went, there wasn’t a safer spot in the galaxy. Queensland and the greater Oceanic Alliance were on good terms with just about everyone. Even the Blockies left them alone. Not only that, but Queensland’s moderate navy wasn’t alone. A large chunk of a full Commonwealth Fleet was anchored in the system, so no one would seriously want to stick their nose into a potential hornet’s nest.
Jimmy wanted to get all the training he could out of the Navy, and their Commonwealth counterparts, while saving a bit of cash for his future. Carla was way too good for him, he already knew that, and he had no idea why she was staying with him. Through the months-long cruises out in space, missed holidays and special occasions, Carla had stayed by his side. He’d used three month’s pay to buy a ring, which he kept in the pocket of his khaki uniform pants at all times. He wasn’t about to let it out of his sights, especially since he was so close to asking her to marry him.
That’s what he was thinking about when he woke up, now he was just hoping he’d live through the next five minutes. The CIC of OAS Echidna was filled with smoke and fire and the fire-suppression systems weren’t engaging. Echidna was one of Queensland’s many destroyers, but a look at the flickering holo-tank would show it was one of the few left in the fight.
<And it isn’t even the main fight,> the errant thought crossed Jimmy’s mind as he ran diagnostics on the helm and fought to regain control. Echidna had taken a brutal pounding in the last broadside and had started to spin uncontrollably on its axis. The spin had caused them to drift out of the formation of Commonwealth and Queensland cruisers and destroyers that were making a run at the enemy fleet’s flank. Their mission was to try for deadly down-the-throat shots on the enemy capitol ships, force the enemy to reposition, and then run like hell if they were engaged by the slower more powerful ships. They’d been met by a force of enemy destroyers a quarter their size, and was still kicking their ass.
“Anything, Tavaras?” The side of the XO’s face was so puffy she couldn’t open her eye, and blood was slowly dripping down her own uniform.
Jimmy only had eyes for his future fiancé, but he had to admit the XO was a looker. That was before it looked like she went five rounds with a heavyweight boxer.
“I’ve got fluctuations, Ma’am, but steering is still out. Something is cut somewhere and the transfer didn’t complete.” Jimmy wasn’t getting much from the diagnostics passed a certain point, which experience told him was a severed line.
“Get damage control on it.” The XO’s voice was full of frustration, and he didn’t blame her.
The bridge had been taken out in the last broadside along with the skipper and the more experienced crewmembers. Control was automatically shifted to the CIC, and systems were supposed to automatically transfer, but too much had been broken between Point A and Point B.
Jimmy sent the request to the overwhelmed damage control teams, and despite being top priority he was given and estimated time of completion of ten minutes. That was far too long, and they were still waiting for the crew to even get to the issue when the next broadside hit.
Echidna was far enough away from the main body that she wasn’t explicitly targeted. You didn’t waste missiles on something that wasn’t firing back. Unfortunately, she’d also drifted far enough out of formation that the combined point defense didn’t offer full coverage. A missile meant for a cruiser was diverted by EW measures and locked onto the next thing it saw: Echidna.
Jimmy Tavares’ last thought was him slipping the ring onto Carla’s finger before the destroyer’s rector lost containment and the remainder of the crew was swallowed by fire and fury.
Gracie Mills would never forget the day it happened. She was sitting in homeroom, minding her own business, when Chip Givens stole her coloring PAD. Her mom had told her that Chip did it because he liked her and didn’t know how to express it, but Gracie didn’t believe that. Chip was just a butthead.
He was several centimeters taller than Gracie, and while the teacher was distracted, he held the book high over his head and taunted her. He called her small, even though she was of average height, but to Chip everyone was small. She told him to give it back, he told her to make him, and finally Gracie was so fed up she screamed.
Even though she knew it was impossible, the CRACK that echoed through the city was not caused by her screaming at Chip Given to give back her coloring PAD. The siren that followed was something that had been drilled into every resident of the domed city since they were old enough to listen. Because of that, the class was calm and orderly as they walked to their cubbies and retrieved their breathing apparatuses.
The device stuck to the top of their heads before unfurling into a skin-tight, fiber helmet with a translucent face plate and corresponding oxygen link. The teacher calmly handed out the oxygen canisters that held enough air for twelve hours. Then, she huddled the class together and sat patiently until they were given instructions. A dome breach on Sacs Prime was a worst-case scenario, but there were contingencies in place.
Those contingencies went out the window when guns started going off. The calm six year olds quickly dissolved into panic, and the teacher struggled to regain control. Announcements went out of the intercom system, but Gracie never heard them. All she heard was the BOOMs of explosions getting closer and closer. They all seemed to blend together until it was suddenly quiet.
Then the metal men came. They were so tall they had to crouch in the hallway. Gracie liked the red color of their metal. It wasn’t too bright like fire trucks. The metal men didn’t say much, but they escorted the whole school out of the building and into waiting hover-trucks. There were lots of other metal men looking around, and there was lots of smoke filling the dome. Gracie looked up and could see the holes that were letting the toxic atmosphere in. Her dad worked for the ecological department that maintained the habitat the employees of Sacs Fifth Avenue Corporation lived in. She guessed he wouldn’t be home for dinner.
The hover-trucks drove them to the spaceport on the edge of town and put them all in the cargo bay of a big ship. Gracie had never been in a ship so big, and it was all full of people. She found mommy and daddy once the ship took off and that helped, but the look on her parents’ faces wasn’t reassuring. She was old enough to tell when they were worried, and they both looked very worried when they looked at the metal men.