I’m going to start this book in a way I’ve never started a book before. If you’re not sitting down, please sit down now. I’ll wait.
Here we go.
Vice Admiral Borthias McWebsbert was just leaving the hospital in the Forge dome when his communicator (the Martians don’t call them comms) pinged on his hip. Drawing the device from its holster on his belt, he came to a stop in the street.
Some of his troopers were passing by, and they nodded to him, so he waved back as the communicator’s channel opened.
“Sir, we have a communication from a ship claiming to be part of the Mercury Squadron. It’s claiming the Defcoms just hit Mercury in force.”
Bort froze in place as he heard that, and then something made him turn and look back at the hospital. Shauna Cass was standing in the window of one of the rooms, staring at him. It was apparently a creepy moment.
He turned away again, frowning, “You validate that ship’s identity, Hawk?”
“We’re doing that, sir. But it would explain why the bastards haven’t gotten here yet.”
“Yes it would,” Bort grunted.
Again he paused, and then he sighed, “Alright, I’m coming up. Get confirmation. And get the ships ready for departure. We may have to go to Mercury.”
The call ended, and Bort McWebsbert let out a second sigh, then looked up at the red sky of the Forge dome.
There’d always been a chance that we’d out-fox him when he took the Forge. He’d been sure to warn the Grand Admiral Staff of that possibility when he’d suggested the operation, and they’d been only too happy to tell him that he’d be cashiered and probably shot if it did.
So it sounded like the bastards would finally get him. They had wanted an excuse to evict him from their ranks for a long, long time, and now that Ben Conflans was dead, he didn’t have any friends left to protect him.
The jumped-up Admiral from the humble mining family would finally be put in his place.
But not before he did his job. He’d have to take the Tharsises out and see if he could do something about our occupation of Mercury. He had the best crews and the best ships in the Imperium – ships and crews he genuinely believed were a match for the best in Defense Command.
That might be enough to make a difference… or in the end, he and his best might just get swept away by Lord John Fiora and his elite Navy.
There was only one way to find out.
Bort headed for Olympus Mons.
“They went to Mercury after all? All those people, sir…”
Bort held up a hand to stop his Post Captain’s verbal musing. Art O’Thomson skippered Olympus Mons, and had been with Bort McWebsbert for many years. He was one of the few fleet officers who Bort was certain he could trust, and as such had been given command of the flagship.
Now, the Post Captain wore a scowl. He didn’t share Bort’s certainty that a lot of the propaganda about Defense Command was inaccurate.
“What about the women, sir?” Art asked somberly, ignoring the raised hand. “The civilian women, I mean. You know what they say… they put their own women in uniforms. God only knows what they’ll do when they capture ours.”
Bort winced and shook his head, “Don’t worry about that, Art.”
Despite all their years together, O’Thomson still didn’t understand how his Admiral could be so tolerant of the Defcoms. He trusted Bort implicitly, but this was one of those subjects they’d just never seen eye-to-eye on.
“Sir… not thinking about it isn’t going to change what happens to those women.”
Frowning, Bort sat back in his chair. They were in his cabin, by the way, reviewing the message that had come in from the Mercury Squadron ship.
“Art, thinking about it isn’t going to change what happens to them either. Right now we just have to think about the job. Agreed?”
O’Thomson fell silent, then nodded, “True enough, sir. About the job.”
He didn’t stop thinking about the women, though – Bort could see that clearly enough in the man’s eyes. O’Thomson had a wife and four daughters back on Asteroid Kappa, and every time anyone suggested that Defense Command might attack the Asteroid colonies, the Post Captain virtually frothed at the mouth.
Bort didn’t have family. There was Casey, back on Asteroid Epsilon, but the only relationship he had with her was such a clichéd ‘we never both seem to be in the right place at the right time to be with each other’ scenario that he refused to speak of it to most people. He missed her like hell, though.
But anyway, he could understand why Art O’Thomson would be sensitive to the many publicly-issued vids that indicated Defense Command would gladly rape every woman they captured, and that they’d torture men taken in combat.
A hedonistic culture of excess, that’s what the Earth Empire was. Mixed-gender crews fornicating on duty, murdering indiscriminately, and leaving the economically less fortunate to fend for themselves.
Man, we really are bastards.
And Art didn’t want us… ahem, sorry, changing perspective when I shouldn’t be… Art didn’t want Defense Command to inflict its horror on any women who lived under the relative safety of the Red Banner.
Even if the Banner did tend to stifle (suffocate) their freedoms. A small price to pay for safety from the many monstrous people of this solar system – namely us.
Bort rubbed his jaw while some of this was pondered. Unlike a proper, upper-class Admiral, McWebsbert hadn’t shaven in a couple of days, and he’d probably go a couple more before he bothered.
“So are we ready to sail, Art?” he finally pressed his Post Captain out of musing, and O’Thomson glanced up again.
“Sorry sir. Yes. I spoke to Post Captain Wallazevedo and Post Captain Fredhopanov twenty minutes ago, and they’re warming the engines. All our escorts have been put on ten-minute sailing notice.”
Nodding, Bort leaned forward in his seat, “Alright. When the Mercury survivors make their next scheduled communications stop, send them the rendezvous point. We’ll sail in two hours.”
“Yes sir,” Art O’Thomson came to his feet, saluted (with his palm down, in Martian style), and left Bort’s cabin.
Bort sat in silence after his skipper left, and then turned back to his desk. He knew damned well that, if Defense Command had gone for Mercury, they were going to be ready for him to charge in after them.
The Bonaventures would be hunting him. Defense Command ships might even be trailing the survivors from Mercury to their rendezvous, so they could locate him. But he’d need the additional ships from Mercury if he was going to have a hope of matching a concentrated Defense Command squadron… so he’d link up with the Mercury ships, and shortly thereafter he’d probably be in a gunfight.
Who would it be? He gripped his forehead as he wondered about that. Martian intel was not terribly good to him, but he’d always been a watcher of our news feeds – one of the few Martians allowed to do so, because it helped him ‘know his enemy’.
It’d probably be John Fiora. He’d commanded the Bonaventures to great effect during the failed February 2232 attacks on Earth. But Fiora wouldn’t be alone. Probably Wes Pellew on the escort – an officer whose efforts in the free belt had stymied many of Bort’s less capable colleagues.
And Bort knew that, if he was really unlucky, there’d be two other officers with John. The two who had been able to beat Ben Conflans in that ridiculous mission out to Sinope.
If it was Fiora, Pellew, McMaster and Barron, Bort would have a problem winning the gunfight.
But he still had to try. That was his duty.
He might not survive it… but at least then he’d never have to see the smug bastards on the Grand Admiral Staff again. Might almost be worth it…
Sighing at the prospect, Bort tried to switch off his thoughts.
Two hours later, his squadron sailed, and left the Forge behind.