GAMES OF COMMAND
By Linnea Sinclair
Coming from Bantam-Spectra, February 2007
Pre Order on Amazon HERE
Captain’s Office: United COALITION HUNTERSHIP, Regalia
“You might want to sit down.” Admiral Cayla “Ace” Edmonds’ countenance on the Regalia’s commscreen was serious. But Sass—Captain Tasha Sebastian—had known the admiral since Ace was a captain with the U-Cee Fleet, and Sass was a fast-talking rim-runner with questionable associations and excellent reflexes. That was sixteen years ago—long enough to recognize a slight twinkle of mirth in the older woman’s dark eyes.
So it wasn’t something galaxy-shaking serious. With a half shrug, Sass sat behind her desk and played along. “The Triad rescinded the peace agreement?”
Alarm flared briefly in Ace’s eyes. Then the admiral clasped a hand over her heart, obscuring the United Coalition insignia on her khaki uniform. “Don’t do that to an old woman. Not after what we’ve just been through.”
Grueling was a good word to describe that. There were times Sass wondered how she and Ace survived four months of negotiations with the United Coalition’s one-time enemy—negotiations that were taxing to diplomats and senior military personnel on both sides. But peace and cooperation were things the technologically superior Triad said they wanted, even more than the rich U-Cee resources they’d chased for years. The U-Cees agreed: the Illithians were a growing threat neither of them could handle, and an alliance with the Triad was preferable to the annexation the Rebashee suffered more than sixty years before.
“So what’s the gossip?” Sass asked.
“Not gossip. Fact. I’ve put my official signature to it.”
“Then we are talking about the Triad? Or the new Alliance?”
“The Alliance. And I’m pleased to report you’ve been demoted.” Ace grinned broadly. “Commander,” she added, stressing the title.
A spike of fear flashed through Sass’s gut, but quickly subsided. Hell, Ace was probably more responsible for the existence of Tasha Sebastian than Sass was. And that was a secret both would take to their graves. So this wasn’t a demotion due to the lies that created a U-Cee officer named Tasha Sebastian out of a rim-runner named Sass. This was something else. Another one of Admiral Edmonds’ secret missions?
“So I’m demoted. What else am I?”
Ace paused for a half a breath, then: “The new first officer on the Vaxxar.”
Sass jerked upright in her office chair. “I’m what?” Her voice, much to her consternation, squeaked.
“New first officer, reporting directly to the Tin Soldier himself. If you behave, in six months—maybe less—you’ll have your rank of captain back.”
“You’re transferring me to the Vax?”
“Admiral Kel-Paten specifically requested your transfer as part of the Alliance Personnel Integration Program. You know he’s still acting-captain on board? I gather it was a non-negotiable issue. What I did negotiate is fifteen of your officers to be transferred within two weeks of your arrival.”
Sass leaned back in her chair and clamped her lips shut before her mouth could continue its fish-out-of-water imitation. The Vaxxar was more than just Kel-Paten’s flagship. It was arguably one the best hunterships on either side of the Zone. Her wildest dreams during the war included its capture, so she could explore its technical perfection. But she figured the chance of that happening ranked right up there with her personally solving the mystery of McClellan’s Void—that mythical location that down-on-their-luck spacers loved to use to cadge a free drink.
Now she was actually going to be on board the Vax. But her thrill of anticipation wavered as the impetus for this windfall registered. Admiral Kel-Paten—the Triad’s bio-cybernetic admiral—had requested her transfer. Requesting her head on a platter would make more sense. Had he guessed that the mercenary, Lady Sass, wasn’t really dead? Ace would never take that risk. Yet, last she heard, the APIP hadn’t reached the final stages. Why did Kel-Paten want her on board, and ahead of schedule? What game was her former nemesis playing?
“My choice of officers. He agreed to that?” she asked warily.
“I’ve already logged in Doc Fynn, Cisco Garrick and Perrin Rembert.”
“And Tank. I’m sure Kel-Paten has a dozen regulations prohibiting pets on board, but Tank goes or I don’t.” She didn’t anticipate a problem with the others. Eden Fynn, the Regalia’s chief medical officer and Sass’s closest friend, was a top notch Healer. Garrick was one of the sharpest chiefs of security she ever worked with and Remy was a science officer so thorough that she felt even Triad’s bio-cybe admiral would be hard pressed to find fault with him.
But Tank was her furzel. Fidget, really, as he was not yet full grown. A ten-pound bundle of black and white fur with an unstoppable curiosity, an insatiable appetite, and a heart full of unconditional love.
Kel-Paten approved a furzel on board? Warning bells blared through Sass’s mind. “This is not a good idea, Ace.”
The admiral’s grin widened.
“We’ll end up killing each other,” Sass continued, “if he doesn’t dump me out in McClellan’s Void first. Gods’ blessed rumps, he eats, lives and breathes regulations. Plus, if he ever finds out I’m—”
“It’s been seven years since Lethant. He won’t.” On the commscreen, Ace waved one hand dismissively. “Look at the positives. You, my dear, will have one of the Triad’s best hunterships at your fingertips. There are things that ship can do that our best intelligence agents could never confirm. All the pretty talk of this new Alliance aside, I never thought we’d get even a U-Cee ensign on board the Vaxxar. Then I get this.” Ace held up a thin datadisk. “Your transfer, scheduled for three weeks from today. Kel-Paten obviously has no idea who you are, what you can do, or he’d never let you on board.”
Actually, he did know what she could do, though it was almost twelve years ago, just before the war…
Twenty-four year old Lieutenant Sebastian sits at helm on the Sarna Bogue under command of Captain Rostikov. Both captain and ship are years past their prime, relegated now to patrolling the Far Reaches and hauling supplies to places no decent U-Cee crew wants to go. But for Sass, it’s the best chance she’s had. Reinvented with the help of a crafty U-Cee captain named Edmonds almost four years prior, and legitimized by the United Coalition Intelligence Division, she’s working her first shipboard posting as Lt. Tasha Sebastian. She covers for Rostikov when he’s too drunk to make it to the bridge; tweaks illegal patches into the faltering drive systems; learns to play a mean game of Starfield Doubles from the leathery-faced Tsariian chief engineer.
Then the Vaxxar shows up on short-range scan—the long-range gave its last gasp only an hour before—and all hell breaks loose. Sleek, fast and deadly, the Imperial huntership is universally feared. But despite its superior tech and its subjugation of the Rebashee’s Danvaral sector, the Keltish Triad is running out of resources. And with both sides battling for possession of the Staceyan asteroid belt, U-Cee supply freighters are a favorite Triadian snack.
The Bogue is apparently on the menu, but Captain Rostikov is deep in a bourbon fog and snoring. The two techies are green ensigns fresh out of the academy. One wets his pants when the red alert siren blares and comps ID just who is on the Bogue’s tail.
She catches the look in the chief’s yellowed eyes—a mix of hopelessness and anger.
“We can’t outrun the Vaxxar, Tasha.”
“I know that, Chief.”
“Can’t fight ‘em, neither. Starboard lasers are locked up. I can get ya’ maybe half-power on the port ones, but it’s just pissin’ in the wind against that one.”
The remaining techie shivers at the comm panel. He dutifully sent out the SOS and dutifully reported back an ETA of one hour for the rescue team from Garchan-3. “But we’re being hailed by the...,” he gulps, “...Vaxxar.” He says the Triadian huntership’s name in a hushed voice. Maybe hoping if no one hears him, it’ll go away.
She gives the techie the order to open the com and—for what will be the first of many times to come—hears the voice of Captain Kel-Paten. The Kel-Paten. But only his voice. Visual’s out. In order for short-range scan to function at all, it has to be.
“Sarna Bogue, this is Captain Kel-Paten of the Vaxxar. Cut your drives immediately or you will be fired upon. Prepare to be boarded.”
With a nod to the chief, she seats herself in the command sling, takes a deep breath and activates the com mike: “Vaxxar, this is the Sarna Bogue. Fuck you and the equinnard you rode in on. Sebastian out.” She slaps the mike off and turns to the chief, ignoring his wide-eyed expression. “We’ve got work to do.”
She knows from personal experience what Kel-Paten needs: maximum haul, minimal time. You board a U-Cee supply freighter, it’s all there at your bio-cybernetically enhanced fingertips. Logs. Manifests. Locations and entry codes. Scan the data, locate the desired cargo, compute location coordinates and transbeam the stuff out. Simple. Easy. Efficient. Quick.
Lady Sass’s raids always were.
So she tweaks everything—the comp codes, the nav codes, the security locks. Hell, most of the stuff malfunctions as a matter of course. All she really does is let the Bogue be herself.
We can’t outrun you, but we can slow you down.
She comes back to the bridge just moments before the Bogue’s jolted by unfriendly laser fire. Her drives are dead. Garchan-3 rescue sends word they’re thirty minutes out.
She lets her acknowledgment of Garchan-3’s ETA go through the unsecured com. Just in case the Vaxxar’s high tech descramblers weren’t listening the first time.
Transbeams slice through the hull setting intruder alarms wailing. She leans back in the sling, crosses her legs and watches a wide shimmer of light coalesce in front of her. Four Triadian crew—no. Three crew and one ‘cybernetically enhanced captain—aloof in demeanor yet oddly handsome, disconcertingly so. She expected someone—something—less human in that black uniform and trademark black gloves. And definitely not as male.
She stares into a pair of ice-blue eyes, notes his slight frown of confusion. He scans the bridge quickly and she knows what he sees: two young pimple-faced boys shaking in their seats; one grizzled, balding old Tsariian with rheumy eyes and stooped shoulders; and one pint-sized female whose short cropped blonde hair is partly covered by a ratty-looking red cap bearing the logo of a Kesh Valirr nighthouse.
He steps towards her, his gaze briefly on the single bar above her name patch. It’s the only part of her attire that’s remotely regulation. When he speaks, there’s clearly a warning tone in his voice: “Lieutenant Sebastian.”
She doesn’t need to see the three diamond-studded stars affixed to the gold lightning insignia. She acknowledges him without a hint of emotion: “Captain Kel-Paten.”
Twenty nine minutes. Twenty eight…
With six minutes to spare, the tall dark-haired bio-cybe captain turns away from the Bogue’s data station, the only evidence of his frustration in the clenching and unclenching of one gloved hand. As his officers stand rigidly beside him, he wastes an entire minute with his gaze locked on her.
“Sebastian,” he says, but nothing more. Just a pause. An intense, heavy pause.
“Kel-Paten,” she replies, and then—knowing she courts his wrath by doing so—let’s her mouth curve into the barest of smiles.
When the boys and girls from Garchan-3 arrive, the Vaxxar has gone away, empty-handed…but the image of Kel-Paten’s heated gaze stays with her for many years to come...
I’m the new first on the Vax. Oh, bloody damn hell. Sass watched the triple ovoid rings of Triad Imperial Station 12 grow larger on the transport’s small screens and felt the hand of destiny tighten around her throat. A black gloved hand…
In spite of her fascination with the ship, she didn’t see this whole thing as quite the coup that Edmonds did. More likely, this was Kel-Paten’s expertly crafted revenge for not only the Sarna Bogue but all the other run-ins she’d had with him since: more than fifty intercepts in the Far Reaches, another twenty off the Staceyan Belt. And in the Zone…she’d lost count.
If you behave, in six months, maybe less, you’ll have your rank of captain back, Ace said in that fateful conversation three weeks ago. Didn’t the woman realize Kel-Paten’s definition of behave was vastly different from Sass’s?
Case in point: her arrival on IS-12 via transport shuttle not via the Regalia. The last thing she wanted was the pomp and circumstance of an official send-off with herself and her crew in their starched tan U-Cee dress uniforms. Starched uniforms played hell with a hangover.
Sass only half listened as IS-12’s traffic control acknowledged the transport’s approach. Yuri—Captain Yuri Ettoran, an old friend from her days working the rafts around Kesh Valirr—answered with the standard verbiage. Red docking lights flashed to life around the black maw of Shuttle Bay 27.
Sass had never been to IS-12 but she’d listened to the gossip from itinerant freighter crew who held no political allegiances but went where the money was.
All spit and polish—pure function. Don’t find no potted ferns prettyin’ up the corridors there.
So she was prepared for that.
But not for him.
Admirals—especially Triadian admirals, even if they were acting-captains—didn’t serve as official greeters to arriving crew, even if the arriving crew was the new first. That’s what the Gods made lieutenants for.
But his presence was just another pre-emptive move in whatever game he was now playing with her and the U-Cees. A familiar ice-blue gaze sized her up as she stopped in the rampway’s airlock. She knew what he saw: the Vaxxar’s newest officer in civvies, half empty wine bottle stuffed haphazardly into the knapsack, and a furzel kennel on an anti-grav pallet riding close to her left hip.
Footsteps thudded behind her. She glanced over her shoulder as the transport pilot sauntered down the ramp. Oblivious to the Tin Soldier’s presence, Yuri affectionately slapped her on the rump for luck. “Give ‘em hell, babe.” He tugged at the brim of her ratty red cap—newer but with the same nighthouse logo—then, whistling, headed down the corridor.
The Tin Soldier’s gaze never wavered. His only response was one word, a warning tone in his voice: “Sebastian.”
She stepped off the ramp. The three diamond-studded stars had recently been topped by two more; five stars in all riding the slash of gold lightning on his impeccable black uniform. She presented him with her cockiest stare, waited the requisite pause then let her mouth curve into the barest of smiles: “Kel-Paten.”
Let the games begin.
Copyright 2006 Linnea Sinclair