Installment 1 – Dark Horizons
The only sound in the room were the steady echoes of her own foot falls as she made her way down the circling track, her mind anywhere but in the room. The repeating scenery had long since lost her attention and except for the steady tempo of sole on steel, there was little to focus on. Of course, Commodore Jessica Hall had always used running as a means of escape so the monotony suited her just fine.
Rounding the corner, she finished another lap in a count she had long since lost track of. She could feel the beads of sweat pouring down her neck and brow now and her heart rate started to pick up. You're getting old Jess she thought to herself, taking a long hard breath that left the cold air of the room stinging at her lungs. The fresh, new pain grabbed her attention and she winced as she felt the knots in her legs. For a moment she wrestled with pushing on or calling it quits but the hiss of an opening hatch at the far end of her private gym and the footfalls of a newcomer brought her brisk run to a slow walk and she glanced sidelong over her shoulder, running a tired hand through a messy ponytail of dirty blonde hair.
"Sorry to interrupt Ma'am, but you said to come find you when the orders came in." Said the voice of the cruiser Furious' captain. The familiar sound brought Jessica's blue-green eyes to the source and she offered up a tired smile as the man closed the distance between them.
Captain Joseph Hale was Jessica's long time friend and likely the closest thing to family she had. The two had gone through the academy together and even served on the same cruiser as ensigns. They would have even shared the same rank had it not been for Joseph's untimely run in and subsequent marriage to the daughter of a very high ranking Admiral who had never quite approved of the dark haired man now a dozen paces from Jessica. Of course that career tragedy had never bothered Joseph and given the godson Jessica had gotten out of the deal, she wasn't going to complain either. Tugging on his space-blue tunic – a telling habit Jessica had always picked at him for – Joseph un-tucked a holopad from under his armpit and offered it to Jessica.
"That I did. I'll let it slide this time Joe but only this time." Jessica replied with a half grin, tapping at the holo-screen as she considered the words scrolling across the semi-transparent background.
As Jessica's flagship, Furious sat at the heart of a squadron of two other cruisers and four destroyers. The impressive little squadron wasn't the biggest collection of guns in the galaxy, but it was an impressive set of naval firepower all the same. In fact, with how thinly stretched the Alliance Fleet had become over the course of the last few decades, Jessica's force was one of the most powerful flotilla's this side of the Jupiter corridor. Reading the orders though, that would soon change.
"Jesus Joe, the entire third fleet? I mean I know things are getting bad in the Narrows, but do we really need a full battle force patrolling only a twentieth of our border?" Jessica asked rhetorically as she wiped some sweat from her brow, unceremoniously depositing it on her shorts as she gestured for her towel at the center of the room, Captain Hale abiding with the request and handing it to her.
Running the fabric quickly over her face, Jessica tossed the towel over her shoulder and started towards the door as she considered the rest of the text.
"Apparently FleetCom thinks so. I mean we had the bombing of the Mars last month over Genoa and then the standoff between Admiral Tolori's task force and the Elstran cruiser they caught 'accidentally' patrolling in our space. To be honest the fact that it's only third fleet worries me. Even with all that fire power here, the graden worlds are relatively unfortified – at least when you compare them to the core worlds." Joseph observed with a sigh, his words carrying them through the doors and into the hall beyond.
Furious was the fourth ship of the line in the Intersystem Alliance's new Renown-Class fleet cruiser. In fact she had only been commissioned a year ago, but had already seen heavy work under Joseph and Jessica's command. Along with her twin sisters - the Repulse and the Renown herself – Furious had helped suppress the Antori Pirates on the far side of the verge, she'd made diplomatic visits to the Bravian Commonwealth, and even performed a covert raid against a smugglers' base deep in Alliance territory. Jessica's Task Force 37 had quickly developed a reputation for getting the job done, and that was likely why their current orders placed them at the tip of third fleet's Vanguard under command of Rear Admiral Harriet Spencer.
"Well either way, it would seem we are headed to Elysium with Admiral Spencer." Jessica remarked before glancing sidelong at her flag captain. "She was your skipper on the Solaria wasn't she? What's she like"
"Harriet Spencer is an interesting woman." Joseph said carefully as he considered his words, remaining silent for a moment as the pair continued their hike back to Jessica's flag quarters.
"Well jeeze Joseph, that explains everything." Jessica remarked sarcastically after Joseph seemed to get lost in the silence. Her words seemed to jolt him and he shook his head and glanced sidelong at his commodore with a sigh.
"Its hard to explain Jess. She's…intense." Joseph said finally, his eyes wandered around the hallway as if he was searching for something before he continued. "Her commitment to the Alliance is unquestionable. She would give her life for it, but that isn't the scary part. When it comes to the Alliance, she has no morality. I'm not saying she's immoral, but she would do whatever was necessary to protect it, even if it meant putting her own ethics aside to get the job done. There were times on Solaria where I wasn't sure what we were doing was…right…"
Jessica felt her brow furrow in thought as she absorbed Joseph's words, turning her gaze back down the relatively empty hallway. Joseph – bless him for it – was always a very kind person when judging someone. More often than not Jessica found her own opinions of someone were measurably more negative than what Joseph's own appraisals. For him to be as nervous, at least in his own way, of Admiral Spencer was a good indication that she was an even harder soul than Joseph was making her out to be. The thought made a chill run down Jessica's spine but she shrugged off the thought quickly and quirked a smile, deflecting the comment to think on it later.
"Well I won't lead you down any moral rabbit holes unless we are in a bar, so you're safe for now." Jessica replied as she patted Joseph on the shoulder. Her lighter tone brought a half grin to Joseph's face, but his thoughts were clearly still lingering on Spencer. What did she make you do old friend, and why did you never tell me about it? That was something she was going to have to ask him down the road. For now, there were orders to execute.
Stepping up to a large battle-plate door, Jessica pressed her thumb wall mounted scanner which quickly studied her thumbprint and her DNA before pulling the doors into their slots with a pneumatic hiss to reveal the expansive flag officer quarters beyond. Stepping across the threshold, Jessica felt her feet transition from the aluminum decking outside to the hardwood flooring of the main room and she took a moment – as she always did – to admire her accommodations.
When building the Renown-class, the bureau of ships – or BuShips – had apparently decided to spare no expense in the realm of the habitability of their long range cruisers, and no where was that more evident than the flag officers quarters. The sweeping room was easily the size of a tennis court. At the far side, a series of colossal windows framed a stunning view of the purple and blue gas giant that Furious was drifting around before fading into the rich oak floor appointed with soft rugs from Jessica's homeworld of Ineria. Large couches, a wall of bookshelves and a colossal desk gave the entire space an extravagant feel and in the distance, the open hatch to her bedroom hinted at the continued luxury in her sleeping spaces. It had taken her a while to get use to the palatial amount of room the quarters offered, especially when moving up from the tighter lodgings offered her when she commanded the 98th corvette squadron. Now, however, the stateroom felt like home and she quickly moved over to the kitchenette, pouring a large glass of water that she quickly guzzled down.
"Want something Joe?" She asked as she raised an empty glass as she refilled her own, but the other officer simply shook his head.
"I was actually finishing up chow when the orders were handed to me, I'm fine for now." He said as he plopped down in a corner of one of the large couches at the center of the room. It was his token spot, and had the materials allowed it, his butt would have likely formed an imprint there long ago.
"Suit yourself. Lets get business out of the way so I can get a shower. Aislin, display the plots downloaded with the orders and also display the task force's current disposition." Jessica requested of Furious' ever listening artificial intelligence.
"Will do ma'am." A voice replied over the hidden speakers and in a flash of blue, a series of floating holographic projections came to life in the center of the room just above a coffee table situated between the couches, one of which Joseph was occupying.
"Aislin, mind scaling it next time so Nimeria's moons aren't passing through my head?" Joseph asked nonchalantly as a planetoid the size of a plum vanished into his skull before reappearing out the other side. The sight conjured a laugh from Jessica as she rounded the kitchenette and made her way to the other couch, plopping down to take in the scenery.
"Of course Captain. It's just you always talk about me giving you a headache, I figured me causing a planetoid to slam into the side of your skull and then come out the other would at least give you a reason for it." Aislin replied in her ever-sarcastic tone, her glowing avatar appearing on the coffee table in miniature form, her hands on her hips as she gestured at the moon.
"The fact that you thought that through to such detail is all the excuse I need Aislin." Joseph replied in a grave tone but he offered up a grin all the same and the AI gave a short bow before vanishing as quickly as she had appeared.
Glancing up at the holographic display, Jessica remained silent as her flag captain and the ships AI had their little exchange, sipping at her cup of water as she studied the Elysium system – their ultimate destination and where they would meet up with Admiral Spencer's Task Force 31.
Elysium was one the Alliance's most far-flung colonies and easily the most isolated of the graden worlds. Centered in an interstellar peninsula of Alliance space, Elstran territory was only a light year in either direction. In fact, a long time ago Elysium had been a member of the Elstran Republic until a violent civil war tore the star nation apart and the distant world separated itself and requested membership in the Alliance. It was a small wonder given the current tensions that so much of the third fleet was being committed to the relatively unimportant world.
"Elysium is going to be a tough nut to hold onto for any extended period of time." Jessica remarked after silence had lingered in the room for a few minutes, both she and Joseph studying the plots now.
"FleetCom included that observation in their orders. The nearest naval anchorage is Calypso which is a good four days hard travel. Even with the three auxiliaries coming with Admiral Spencer, supplies are going to run thin quickly with any sort of sustained siege. To be honest, I think we are mostly a show of force. A subtle reminder to the Elstrans that the Alliance has a continued commitment to Elysium."
"Twelve battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers is a hell of a subtle reminder Joe." Jessica remarked with a grunt as she leaned back in the couch a bit more and considered the other star system displayed – Nuevo Sierra – which her task force was currently patrolling. "Regardless, its going to take a few hours till we can reassemble the Task Force and start making our way to the Avalon Corridor. I'd like a drone prepped and sent ahead of us to let Avalon station know we will be refitting there. We'll take the week we have worked into our schedule to do some last minute maintenance that we need as well as top off our weapons stores. Is the Higashi still having trouble with her number two containment core?" Jessica asked as she tapped a set of floating holographic controls, bringing up miniature representations of the seven ships in her squadron.
Tapping on one of the Metropolis-class destroyers, the vessels miniature grew to the size of the coffee table, replacing the two star systems. The transparent representation of its hull allowed for examination of her internal components, and a spherical structure in her engine housing glowed amber to indicate trouble.
"She is." Joseph responded as he leaned forward to examine the ship. "Captain Cartwright says that they are doing fine with number one and number three cores, but he would like to get number two back to full status before the ship sees anymore action. I tend to agree with him."
"Is it something that we can do in the week we are at Avalon or do we need to put in a requisition and have the parts brought with the auxiliaries to Elysium?" Jessica asked as she tapped the amber sphere to bring information on the core, scanning through the list of reports on the troublesome component.
"It depends. I would rather have it done at Avalon and the Higashi report on station a bit after us than try to do a major core repair in open space. I'm sure the aux's would say they could handle it, but as much trouble as this thing has caused us, better get it done right than do a field patch." Joseph said plainly and Jessica nodded with a sigh.
"As much as I would like to report on station full strength, lets go with that. Send the message to Avalon with a priority request. Lets see if we can get it done in a week, and if not then Captain Cartwright will just have to hurry his ass along so he doesn't miss all the fun."
"Aye Ma'am." Joseph replied in agreement.
"Well then. Lets start there. Also, pass the orders on to the task force and have all ships rendezvous in our staging area near the gravity terminus. We'll make the jump to Avalon in two days. Give everyone time for the crews to enjoy their last bits of shore leave. They'll have their work cut out for them next week and we'll need them well rested. After that, well…Elysium is waiting." Jessica remarked as she brought the star system back up on the display and stared absently at the small, seemingly unimportant world floating around a distant star.
The conference room was silent and all attention was on the demure form at the head of the table. There, vibrant blue eyes stared intently at the glowing image at the center of the table and dark brown hair was tucked neatly in a tight bun. For a woman so beautiful – and Harriet Spencer was beautiful – there was a striking amount of respect and a touch of fear that filled the room as it emanated from the gathered conglomeration - the commanding and executive officers of Spencer's twelve battleship strong Task Force 31. In terms of firepower, the twelve men and women gathered wielded one of the largest collections in the galaxy and it was Admiral Spencer who wielded them with a firm grip. When she said move, they moved and they did so without a question. Today was such a day.
"As I said, this information hasn't gone far down the chain of command yet. It was hand delivered to Admiral Chamberlain by the ONI attaché on Southampton Station and he forwarded it personally to me by way of his own courier. In fact, I personally think it should have stayed between he and myself, but his orders directed me to pass it on to my immediate subordinates. I cannot express the importance of this information remaining secret." Even to her own ears, Spencer was aware of just how icy her smooth soprano voice sounded and she approved of the gravity it lent her words. There was an old saying from earth – loose lips sink ships and Task Force 31 was about to wade deep into the preverbal sea.
"As of this moment, seventy percent of the Genoan Royal Navy and eighty percent of the Elstran Navy have been mobilized and are in various states of work ups." Spencer continued, her blue eyes scanning the room as a rush of inhales echoed through the space as the meaning of her words sunk in. "Our assets in both star nations have strong indications that this is a prelude to major offensive action against the Alliance in an attempt to regain territory lost by Elstra and Genoa in their civil wars fifty years ago. Legality may be on our side but it would seem that no matter what the foreign courts say, this is headed towards a direct military conflict."
"As of zero eight hundred this morning, High Command has raised alertness levels around the fleet under a guise of a fleet wide readiness drill, and Third Fleets movements are being reported as the start of a Alliance wide fleet tour. The hope is that our presence near their borders will give pause to the Genoans and Elstrans. I on the other hands, have my doubts." Spencer said with finality that signaled the end of her exposition and for a moment longer, the hushed silence continued around the table before Spencer's Flag Captain, Marisa Holloway, spoke up from her position near Spencer.
"Am I correct to assume Admiral that your intent is to expand our role in Elysium beyond just standard bearers?" The green eyed and fire-haired Captain had worked with Spencer for over three years – the entire duration of Spencer's command – and while the young woman was decidedly more personable than her stern commanding officer, Spencer had grown to like her which had made her selection as Flag Captain an easy decision when the young woman had returned to Task Force 31 a year ago to take command of the battleship Orion.
"Well, perhaps not our battleships Captain, but I intend to use Commodore Hall's task force to full effect." Spencer replied as she tapped the controls glowing on the black reflective surface of the conference table. Instantly an image of Elysium, the surrounding stars, and the border between the Alliance and Elstra appeared; and Spencer used a flick of the hand to highlight a handful of stars on the Elstran side of the border.
"Commodore Hall's force consists of three of our new Renown-class cruisers and four of the new Metropolis-class destroyers; and while these ships are no ONI cutters in terms of stealth capabilities, they have already proven their worth as covert operation platforms in a number of raids on pirate and smuggler operations in and outside of the Alliance. More importantly, the Dagger-class corvettes they carry are far more capable than the Longbow-classes that they saddled us with, Orion excluded." Spencer observed as she glanced sidelong at Captain Holloway who gave a victorious grin. It was no small measure of the Captain's abilities that Orion was the only of the new Jupiter-class battleships to have been awarded a quartet of the new Dagger-class corvettes and the snag was a part of pride for Spencer's flag captain whose ego Spencer was happy to stroke as long as it had the right effect.
"That being said, Captain Morrison is a native of Elysium and a former officer in the Elstran navy. He is the most familiar with the region and knows how to defend that star system." Spencer orated as she gestured in the direction of the tall, ebon skinned Captain at the far end of the table who gave a curt, respectful nod. "Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen. I fully expect this force to come under fire. What we do in the time we have between now and whenever the shooting starts will decide greatly the fate of our forces over the course of this coming war. No matter how you evaluate it, this has the potential to be a costly affair for the Alliance." Spencer let her words sink in as she scanned the table slowly. Each officer met her gaze with a firmness and confidence she had come to expect and she nodded softly in affirmation of their resolve.
"As such, my intent is to bloody any force that steps into Elysium such that the Elstran's think again before continuing war. Captain Morrison, given your history in Elysium as well as your familiarity with its self defense force, the Centauri will remain in low orbit to help coordinate between the task force and the ground defense forces." Spencer directed and Morrison nodded once more without protest.
"Captain Marlow, you and the rest of squadron two will take position at an area of opportunity on the fringes of the system. You will be our advanced guard. From what we learned during the last war game, your quarter is quite good at using your axial rifles to punch holes in passing fleets and as long as you keep your impellers warm and maintain a high speed orbit, you should be able to move into position to meet up with the rest of the force should a major engagement shape up." The round faced Marlow gave the map of Elysium a curious stare before nodding at Spencer and offering up a cordial "Aye ma'am."
"Orion and the rest of her squadron will take position in the inner most asteroid belt. From there we will be able to deploy torpedoes at range and – if timed properly with Captain Marlow's strike – will hit the enemy when they are in disarray. Captain Torin's understrength squadron will be on station in the outer asteroid belt to serve as a sensor relay, com relay, as well as a rally point for the forces. Now mind you all of this is a preliminary plan to put us in a strong position as soon as we get into the system. I want you all to review the system profile on your own time and when we meet again, we will iron out a more solid strategy." Spencer added, though in all honesty she didn't expect much to change.
"I know this was a rather short meeting for me to call you all away from your ships, but the purpose was more to place the information up front, establish a baseline strategy for when we arrive, as well as give all of you these." Spencer gestured at the pair of data chips in front of each officer. "These hold the latest Intel we have on Genoa and Elstra. It is far more detailed than my little summary I gave you here today. You are to take these back with you, review them, and then destroy them. We will reconvene in forty-eight hours – once we arrive in Avalon – at which time I would like your input on the current situation as well as those strategic suggestions I already mentioned. Leave your questions till then, I'm sure many of them will be answered in those folios. For now, make any preparations you need to. We will jump the Euripides Corridor in twenty-four standard hours. Dismissed." Spencer said as she rose just as Captain Holloway rocketed to her feet, crimson locks dancing like fire.
"Attention on deck!" She shouted and the captains and commanders around the table came to their feet.
"As you were. Captain Holloway, if you will." Spencer said softly and the red-haired captain nodded silently to her executive officer – Commander Horatio Iwatake – who somehow understood exactly what his captain wanted in that single gesture. Soon the room was behind them and Spencer and Holloway moved silently together for a moment, the towering redhead shadowing her dark haired, fair skinned commanding officer.
"Given that you looked at the folios before the meeting, what's your take on all of this captain?" Spencer said coolly, and Holloway's eyes shot to the Admiral as she swallowed a lump in her throat. Spencer quirked a soft smile without looking at the Captain and shook her head. "Don't worry, I was expecting you to ignore protocol. That's why I let them pass across your desk. Curiosity is going to lead you down a hole filled with vipers one-day captain. I would recommend caution in the future, but in this case I am glad to have your input."
Spencer turned sidelong and raised an eyebrow to signal interest and to diffuse the sudden tension that had formed between her and Holloway who exhaled deeply and nodded. For a moment, the captain considered the floor in front of her then shrugged.
"You covered it pretty well Admiral. We're heading into a shit-storm and we don't have much in the way of an umbrella. Elysium is the most likely place for the Elstrans to strike first. It is the most obvious plot of real-estate that the Elstran's still have legitimate claims over, and I know its been a thorn in the Elstran government's side since they came into power. Not to mention it is the perfect starting point for an offensive deeper into the graden worlds. Admiral Chamberlain is putting us out there like a break wall against the storm, I just don't know if we are going to be big enough to hold back the flood." Holloway's words flowed with a sobriety not common with the aggressive and outspoken woman she was, and Spencer considered her a moment longer.
"It will be a challenge no doubt." Spencer observed with a hungry smile that would have sent small children running, but she quickly tucked her emotions away and her arms behind her back as she continued her walk down the cavernous main corridor that ran down the heart of the Orion.
"Elysium is going to be a tough nut to crack with us there no matter how the Elstran's swing it. As a planet, Elysium is fairly mundane – your standard garden world – but the system itself is full of nasty surprises. The trio of gas giants and the dense asteroid belts are going to wreak havoc on anyone's gravity sensors, and Elysium itself is surrounded by those nasty little rocks. The way you have everyone set up puts us in a good initial posture to take in anything thrown at us…" Holloway commented, her words trailing off causing an eyebrow to quirk once more on Spencer's face.
"But?" Spencer queried as the pair walked on.
"Well, personally I think its going to come down to a knife fight no matter how well we set up our pieces. Elysium just doesn't have a big enough gravity limit to give our torpedoes the engagement time we need to properly use them, and the added range our missiles afford us will evaporate quickly if the Elstrans come roaring into the system with their heart set on Elysium itself. Of course, we'll bloody them badly and we have plenty of tricks up our sleeves to thin their numbers down nicely." Holloway added with a growing grin at the end, her caution replaced by the more familiar confidence Spencer had grown accustom to, but Spencer narrowed her eyes in thought, staring ahead at nothing in particular.
"Make no mistake Captain. I don't intend to just thin the numbers. We will kill anything that steps into that system that isn't flying an Alliance Flag, and should those bastards choose to start a war, we will follow them to the hearth and home and ensure they never raise a hand against the Alliance again. I do not stand for bullies captain, and I will see them put in their place – be it within their own borders or hell itself."
The summers on Coventry were always glorious, especially after a steady, soft rain. It was days like these when Jonathan Chamberlain found himself walking along the shores of the lake nestled at the heart of his estate. In the distance, the granite peaks of the Mastif range were still crowned in snow and the pale red light of red giant at the heart of the system gave the entire day a warm glow.
Overhead a pair of Firehawks floated in a lazy mating dance. Their intricate coloring – a mix of reds, yellows, and violets – rippled, changing colors with the changing wind currents. Over the water the male made his move, closing with the female in a brilliant show of light before the creatures burst into what looked like flame. The elegant mix of color streaked from the sky towards the water and glowed with building intensity till it hurt for Jonathan to look at them. Then suddenly, with a splash, the creatures vanished beneath the water. For a moment the entire world was still around them and even the wind seemed to stop until the pair burst from the water and roared into the sky glowing a brilliant mix of aqua and azure. They would vanish somewhere amidst the Redwoods – named so for their brilliant crimson leaves and bearing no relation to old earth's red woods – and soon a new generation would repeat the same dance over House Chamberlain.
"I always love seeing that." Said a voice from behind Joanathan and he turned to see his wife Alyssa standing there. Her amber hair was caught in the same wind that had carried off the Firehawks and Joanathan sighed heavily – she was a sight for weary eyes and one he didn't see often enough.
"It's a wonderful reminder that life carries on." Jonathan said as he moved beside her and placed a hand on the small of her back, the two taking in the vista across the lake.
"I wish you didn't have to go." She said after a long, pregnant silence. "I know its silly to say. You've been in the Navy for the entire forty years of our marriage, but it never gets any easier. Seeing you go and knowing you may not come home." Her voice was soft. A mix of fear and sadness as she rested her head gently on his shoulder.
Against every order he had been given and those he had given to his subordinates, Jonathan had explained the night before just where he would soon be headed off to and the seriousness of the situation he and his fleet would soon be faced. He had left out the details of course, but it was enough to relay to his wife that this was the most dangerous the universe had been in the course of his career and their marriage; and despite the fear and anger he had seen in her eyes, she had been completely understanding. She was always so perfect in that regards - willing to let him go and waiting for him to come home. He had no idea how he had earned her, yet here he was; and he leaned in softly, kissing her forehead.
"Its not silly. It never gets any easier for me either, but it would seem there will always be wars to be fought. Some on the battlefield and some in government chambers. You have your arena and I have mine, madam senator." Jonathan retorted and to his delight a soft chuckle came from his side.
"I would much prefer if you changed arenas Admiral." She countered and he offered up his own smile as they stood there.
Another pregnant silence overtook them and Jonathan raised a clenched fist to waist level. Opening it, he revealed a simple band of silver – the wedding band Alyssa had put on his finger the night they eloped against his father's wishes. He still wore a wedding band on his finger everywhere he wnet, but whenever he left her he gave her the original ring. "For when I come home." He said simply. The same words he had used the first time and every time since when he left on a long deployment.
"Damn it don't make me cry." Alyssa said as she took the ring in her hand and gripped it tightly to her. "You don't need my makeup ruining that pretty uniform of yours." She said as she stepped back to straighten up Jonathan's dress whites, her diminutive frame shadowed by his towering six four figure. She looked up at him with watery eyes and he leaned in once more, kissing her softly. The kiss lingered and when it broke, she gripped his uniform as if to hold onto him. "You better come back Johnny or they'll be hell to pay." She replied stubbornly amidst the impending tears and Jonathan laughed softly, wiping one from her cheek as they started.
"I'll be home before you know it, and this entire mess will behind us. Perhaps I'll become a gardener and we can sell flowers at a stand in town like your father did." He replied with a bright smile and she gave his chest a playful punch.
"Don't joke about that. I'll sell the house and defer your titles before you ever get home, and I'll be waiting in a shack on the outskirts of Coven." She replied with a sad smile on her face again, the sound of a sonic boom overhead forcing her to regain composure. "Promise me Johnny." She repeated though before breaking her hold on him.
"I promise Ali." He replied as he raised the hand gripping his and kissed it softly before placing another kiss on her lips. A content but still sad sigh escaped her this time and after they broke it, she grasped his hand and they began the hike up to the flight pad near the main house just as a dropship settled onto the deck, its grey hulk roaring like some distant monster.
The short walk deposited Jonathan and Alyssa just off the flight pad and Alyssa took a moment to straighten his dress uniform once more. Behind them, Captain Enrico Fierra – Jonathan's Chief of Staff – stepped from the dropship and waited on his Admiral as he said his goodbyes.
"I'll see you soon." Alyssa said with a soft poke to Jonathan's chest and he offered up a smile.
"And I you." He replied. "Tell the children I love them and miss them already." Jonathan added and Alyssa nodded. He could see water in her eyes and he knew it was all she could muster not to cry again. He gripped her hand tightly then let go, stepping away and turning but keeping his eyes on hers a moment longer before his gaze turned to Captain Fierra who came to attention and offered up a perfect salute. The softness was gone and Jonathan returned it with a firmness one would expect from his rank.
"Good Morning Admiral." The olive skinned man said as he came alongside Jonathan, the pair walking up the ramp into the roaring ship, the door closing behind them just as the craft lifted off with little delay.
"Captain. I take it we are all set to depart?" Jonathan asked, moving down the rows of empty seats to a sound dampened cabin near the front of the craft, which he felt was already accelerating high into the sky, leaving Alyssa and his home behind.
"The Solaria cleared moorings fifteen minutes ago and should be on station in ten. The rest of the fleet is moving into position already. Terminus control has cleared the Titan corridor for us and Sierra station will make preparation to do the same when we are in range. It should be smooth sailing onto Avalon and from there the fleet has their orders. We should be position in the next seventy-two hours. We're ready." Fierra said with a confidence that Jonathan wished he could share, but which he outwardly mirrored with a nod and a small grin.
"Very good Captain. Glad to see someone got some work done this weekend. I on the other hand seemed to have gotten lost at home." Jonathan said as the door they had just come through hissed shut behind them, silencing the deafening rumble of the transports engines.
"You needed it Admiral, if I may say so. It's been nearly a month since you made it planet side and its not all that often we are at our homeport. I'm sure the Duchess was happy to see you. Besides, I can hold down the fort for a weekend." Fierra replied as he and Jonathan took seats, Jonathan by one of the windows and Fierra a seat away.
"No rest for the weary, eh EJ?" Jonathan remarked absently as his eyes turned to the view outside the window just in time to see the pale blue sky of Coventry fade into the black of space. Jonathan took one last longing look at his homeworld. He could still see the pale outline of the Mastif ranges crowned in snow and he thought his eyes could make out the great Chamberlain lake he had been walking along minutes before, but soon the details were lost to him and he turned his attention to the blackness ahead of them.
"Rest Admiral? Who needs it." Fierra replied after a pause as he settled fully into his seat, crossing his arms over his chest and closing his eyes. Had the Captain not known his Admiral, he might have taken this moment to start pouring through reports that had piled up in Jonathan's short absence, but Fierra had been on Jonathan's staff for a year now and he knew that this was the Admiral's favorite part.
They started as small specks in the distance. Pale red gems that resembled the first glimpses of the Firehawks that Jonathan had watched earlier that morning; but as the dropship closed on the cluster of lights they slowly began to take shape. Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships, and the mammoth hulks of Third Fleet's core of twenty dreadnoughts all gathered on an outbound course. The biggest collection of firepower the galaxy had seen in a century.
In the cockpit, Jonathan could hear the pilots communicating with the fleet's flight coordinator just as a pair of sleek Lancer fighters took up station on either side of the ship. The crafts' thrusters fired, causing the fighters to weave and bob until they were in a perfect position to guide the dropship through the massive collection of warships. Jonathan was scanning their markings intently, trying to make out their squadron and pilot insignia, until the black backdrop of space was suddenly replaced with the bright glow and then grey hulk of one of the fleet's cruisers – one of the older but ever fearsome Tokyo-class ships.
Near the prow, Jonathan made out the ship's name – the lagging Solaria. The colossal warship seemed to breath with life. Her drop bays – protected by shielding but otherwise transparent – were ateming with work as crew – visible at this close a distance – moved cargo from the flight deck to the cargo bays beyond, and Jonathan watched with interest as one of the cruiser's Longbow corvettes slid through the shielded opening of the large corvette bay before it rocketed ahead into a patrol pattern ahead of its mothership. At her prow, Jonathan could see the crew still reeling in anchoring cables the ship had cast prior to departing and a few of the colossal torpedo hatches were still coming shut. Yet despite all the frenzy of activity someone on the bridge noticed the passing dropship and the cruiser's running lights shut off for a moment then burst to life in the bright, nearly blinding light of a formal ship salute just as the dropship rocketed past her and further into the heart of the fleet.
That's when he saw her. Just as they slid past the hulk of a second cruiser an even larger wall of battle plate came into view. Like a graceful sword against the black sky, the fast dreadnought Olympia floated amidst the sea of warships, maintaining a tight, disciplined formation with the other dreadnoughts of her squadron. He had seen her dozens of times before but her sight never failed to impress him, and he let his eyes trail over every inch of her five and half kilometer long hulk.
When he had been a Captain, Jonathan's largest command had been a battleship; and he had always wondered what it was like to serve as the Captain of a dreadnought. A battleship had always been a flurry of activity. Dropships coming and going, corvettes arriving and departing on patrol. Frigates and destroyers coming alongside to replenish their stores. A dreadnought like Olympia had all of that plus the frenzy of a fleet flagship. Jonathan could see, even from this distance, drones being launched to send messages away to the far reaches of known space, and inside her bridge and communication center was likely a sea of crew busily preparing, relaying and coordinating the transfer of messages among the dozens upon dozens of ships that reported to her. She was a moving metropolis in space, the brain of a fleet normally spread across a huge swath of the galaxy, and her Captain was the master of that floating fortress. Jonathan wondered at times what it would have been like to sit at the center of that chair. Instead, he would have to settle with commanding a fleet of those moving cities.
Soon the view of the ship was gone as the dropship settled into her landing pattern, running parallel with the warship. As the craft descended into Olympia's belly, Jonathan took another long hard look at the rest of the fleet spread out around him. Third Fleet. His fleet. The same fleet that – if the clouds on the horizon proved true – was headed to war.