As he fumed over the injustice, he vaguely listened to the status reports. He already knew most of this. Epsilon Prime was pasted and the task force took the closest jump point out of the system. The former capital of the Epsilon Sector would have to be quarantined for centuries, just to ensure the Kilrathi virus never escaped. He was briefed on the Life-Eater Virus, and knew it spread and killed fast. What was not clear, was what happened after the virus ran its course. Intel had some evidence that it went dormant, and had a half-life of five hundred years. The virus killed fast enough that there was little worry of a ship reaching any jump point before the crew died. After that, it would keep on drifting, shooting out of the system at around three PSL.
He visited Epsilon Prime before, earlier in his career, during the Enigma Sector Campaign. From their little quarter of Epsilon Sector, Confed struck at Kilrathi supply lines. Nothing as successful as what those escort carriers did a couple of years ago, but look what that lead to. Powers fought an urge to shake his head at the memory. Peace with the Kilrathi? It was laughable. The only way their could have been peace was over the Emperor’s, as well as the entire Kilrah Pride’s, dead bodies. Eliminating the top of their system would bring it all down. Intel discovered that from the various defectors over the years. The two Cats on his own ship agreed entirely. With the Kilrah Pride gone, the other big Prides would go at each other and forget all about humanity.
Instead– well, he did not have to relive that episode in his life. It was not the first time a politician made a mistake, but it was almost the last. Now he, and every other captain in the Terran Confederation Navy, were stuck with the consequences. It was another reason for the teleconference. This was a meeting between the Commodore and his captains. Here, with frequencies scrambled and offices secure, they can talk candid about the war. Which is to say, they can openly admit just how screwed humanity was in 2669. It was something a captain could never admit to his crew, despite the fact his crew knew the truth of war. Nonetheless, hearing such defeatist talk from their captain did the crew no good.
When the Commodore finished his own brief, and asked for questions, Powers was the first to speak up. “Of all the jump points we could have retreated to, why Granita? We’re effectively behind the Cats’ lines with no support.” Again, when it was just the captains, he could call their withdrawal from Epsilon exactly what it was.
What he said about lack of support was utterly true. If the Kilrathi struck in force, they would all be dead. Powers already ordered patrols flown out to ten light-seconds distance by his Epees. Hopefully, they would detect any cloaked fighters headed their way. Just why the Kilrathi would station such valuable fighter here, was beyond him. The chief technician even told him that extended patrols would just waste fuel, and he would be sorry if they ever needed it. Powers could only shrug to that. Better sorry than dead. Coupled with that, all passive sensors were set to full sensitivity. If even a simply hand radio were used in the system, Abby would pick it up.
As long as the fighters all came back, he would be happy. He was already down to eight pilots. He considered transferring a shuttle pilot to the fighter compliment, but the wing commander shot that idea down. None of the shuttle pilots were qualified on the Epee. Powers still ordered all his shuttle pilots to spend time on the simulators, getting themselves familiar with the point-defense fighter. When the Cats came, he wanted all of those fighters out in space. Confed should really supply its ships with backup pilots. If any other pilot decided to end his life, Absolution would be even deeper in dire straits.
Powers almost wanted to pray for no more suicides. Zollern just reported on a fifth one an hour before the Captain’s Meeting. This time somebody in the technical staff, thankfully. Technicians he had plenty. He was not sure about the situation on the other ships, save the Monrovia. Captain Sydney spoke of her first self-inflicted death a couple of days ago.
Speaking of Sydney, she spoke up after Powers. “Captain Powers raises a valid point. From here, it is a long way back to our lines.”
Captain Sydney was alright in Powers’s book. She was another vet of raiding in this sector. He met her before, while both were still junior officers. Since then, her face has put on many bags beneath her eyes, and her pulled back blonde hair was already streaked with gray. Powers knew he did not look much better. Nothing like the responsibility of command to double a person’s age.
Harris, his own face far more aged than any of his captains, answered. “Task Force two-twelve, like all others, has standing orders to track down any Intel on the Life-Eater. The Cats jumped in from this system.”
Powers frowned. Was this supposed to make him feel better? They have been in-system for well over a week, and the Kilrathi had not pursued them. That only made him worry more. “Commodore, are we expecting that Kilrathi fleet to jump back in anytime soon?”
Harris shook his head. “No Captain. I suspect the Cats will move on to another system, most likely Locanda.”
“You sound fairly confident, Commodore,” Sydney mirrored Powers’s own thoughts.
Harris shrugged. “Why waste time on a few ships trapped behind enemy lines. It’s not as if they couldn’t turn around at any time and destroy us. Besides, if I were their admiral, I’d be cutting through every Terran world I could.”
That was even less comforting. Powers ran through his mind everything he knew about Locanda. Was it the third or fourth planet that was populated? So much fighting occurred in that system, it seems like a waste of biological weapons to attack its planet. A type of area denial perhaps? Nothing left there to deny humanity anyway. Looks like that fleet will be Eisen’s problem. Powers knew Eisen only professionally. He was a steady captain, and at least his task force was built around a carrier– even if the Victory was almost as old as Abby.
“We’ll have to trust that the Victory’s task force can neutralize the threat to Locanda IV,” Harris continued, reminding Powers of the planet’s number. “We have more pressing matters to attend to,” he paused for a second while a map of the system appeared on a second viewer, this one built into Powers’s, and presumably the other captain’s, desk.
It was a standard star chart, nothing impressive about it. In the middle it showed Granita, a reddening star that recently– in astronomical terms– left its main sequence. Orbiting it were five planets, and a lot of debris. The system had jump points connecting with five other systems. A flashing red line appeared on the map, connecting the jump point to Epsilon with one to the K’ta Mek System, which was deeper inside the Empire. On that line, another flash of red, this one the icon of an enemy target.
“Intel has reported that the Mandarins are operating out of this system, and the only known base lies upon this trade lane. It’s likely the Kilrathi stopped off their to refuel; it would be far quicker than scooping fuel from a gas giant.” Which was exactly what the task force was currently doing– heading to Granita V to scoop up some hydrogen before carrying on with whatever mission Harris had planned. “The base is lightly defended, and relies upon camouflage for protection. Don’t ask me how Intel knows this, but they do. We’re going to hit this base, snatch up their computer cores and mine it for any information about Life-Eater.”
It seemed logical to Powers. Those traitors on that rock were biologically human, though their hearts were clearly tied to the Cats. They might have some sort of protection from the Life-Eater virus, especially if the Cats found them useful. If Mandarins do anything, it was make themselves useful to their furry overlords.
“What if the Cats are still lurking around this base?” asked the captain of the destroyer Kaitan.
Powers glared at his image on the map. What’s wrong, Montier? Can’t handle it? Powers and the Paris-born Montier, were bitter rivals, dating back to their years as junior officers. As with many rivalries among men, it started over a woman. At the time, both Powers and Montier were stationed on Fort Arnold, orbiting high above Earth. The object of both their affections was staffer in the Defense Department, working at Confed HQ in Damascus. A long story short, she chose Montier, and to this day, Powers can not think about them together without the acids in his gut boiling.
He long since quit carrying about her. Why should he? She was years dead, as were other staffers down on Earth, personnel on Fort Arnold, and even the city of Damascus were all long gone. Looking back, he would not have changed anything. Back in 2660, he was young and ambitious. Now, nine years later, he was married six years, had two children, and a nice house in Gatestown. Or what was left of it. As best as he knew, Montier only had the navy.
Despite candor, Harris was not impressed by this timidness. Destroyer captains were suppose to have a little more moxie than that. “Simple, Captain Montier. We destroy them. The Kaitan and Monrovia will join Gemini in keeping any enemy assets off the Absolution.” From the grimace on his face, Powers could tell Montier did not relish the fact of covering him. The disrespect between the two was fully mutual. However, since he only had the navy, he would carry out his duty to the end, no matter how distasteful.
Harris turned his face back to Powers. “Captain Powers, are your grunts up to it?”
Powers smiled. “Fear not, Commodore. Lieutenant Colonel Zollern will make sure the Marines do their job,” Even if he had personally to drag them off the shuttles and into the Mandarin base. Despite declaring he was nothing but a glorified sheriff, Powers had no doubt that Zollern might even lead the raid. If for no other reason than to escape the suicide reports.
“Excellent! That’s the sort of attitude we need right now, if we stand any chance of surviving the year.” All Captains duly noted that Harris said survive, and not win. None were of the delusion that an outright victory was possible. “Now, I’m going to have my staff beam over the plans for this operation. After I get your input, I’ll finalize it and we’ll brief division heads. If all goes well, we’ll be on our way back to our own lines within a week.”
Powers did not need to add the obvious, that if all did not go well, they would be too dead to worry about it.