Chapter 1

I headed along the corridor of the Sovran a medium sized Confederacy scout ship walking slowly deep in thought about my upcoming mission. My calf length brown combat boots making little noise on the plastic surface of the floor. I stopped and straightened the high collar of my skintight charcoal grey Confederacy jumpsuit euphemistically known as 'skinnies'. The supple shiny leather like material accentuating my modest curves. Standing at 177 centimetres and more muscular than slim and brown eyed on what was considered prettier than average face with my brunette locks trimmed to the regulation length just shy of my shoulders. I could have been prettier I had inherited my mother's beauty but with my father's squared off chin I could never pull that off. Although I often thought that I always looked good in uniform. I had joined the military at eighteen, fifteen years ago in a childish attempt to claw myself out from under my father's desired career path. He had wanted me to become a consular as he had been. The Confederacy's top mediator although that hadn't saved him during the Orsini Incursion. The last two and a half years had been sheer hell for a woman of action stuck behind a desk as the principal of the Rosewood Military Academy on Aurelis Prime. I was itching to get back into combat so when Com Ops (Combined Operations to those in the know) asked me to head this mission I jumped at the chance.

"Just a routine training mission between the GF and Naval Marines." General Pitney of Com Ops told me over the Comms Net. Anything was better than the inactivity of a desk job.

The Comms Net or Communications Network is a series of relays that sent real time messages at faster than Light speeds. I'm not a tech so I'm not sure how it actually works. I supposed the reason for this joint training exercise was to get closer co-operation between us and the Marines. Navy Marines trained to pin point accuracy while us, the Confederacy Ground Forces they nicknamed 'Ground Pounders' did all the heavy work. We had the heavy weapons, and armoured vehicles. Often sent in to shore up a position or to assault of enemy fortifications when naval bombardment was prohibited. Thinking about that reminded of the assault on Hyren Shai a heavily fortified Pirate base. The place where I earned my first Confederacy Star the highest award for valour the Confederacy could bestow. Even now with my eyes closed I could still see the battle in my mind. Things like that could break you or could make you. The shriek of the shells as they tore into our troops and the screams of the dying still made me cold inside. My thoughts drifted thinking of my own courage as I picked up a wounded comrade throwing him over my shoulder as the bullets whined around me. Working on adrenaline as I ran the four klicks to the evac shuttle not evening knowing I had been wounded myself. They called me a hero and pinned a medal on me. I spent the next month in hospital recovering from my wounds. With the sounds of battle fading I returned to reality and shook myself. "Getting soft in your old age aren't you?" I wasn't prone to talking to myself but sometimes in the lone hours of the night it helped me clarify my thoughts.

Continuing along the corridor I heard the sound of voices coming from an intersection ahead.

"So what have you heard?" The first voice said sounding distinctly feminine.

To my ears a T'Arnian the species that first contacted earth allowing the exodus from the planet and establishment of our early colonies. Shorter than average humans, most T'Arni hardly reached 168 centimetres with the females smaller than the males. Slim with triangular faces that is broader at the brow and narrow of the chin their ears were pointed at the top reminding me of old stories of elves from fiction. Their civilisation was ancient discovering space travel while humans huddled in caves. They were the first aliens we encountered and soon after that we discovered that we weren't alone in the universe. There were other species the T'Arni being one among many.

The second voice spoke. "You were asking about Major Locke? She was a hero at Hyren Shai and Anoxi." I heard the sibilant hiss in the voice, an Ezaran. Most humans called them cat people but from what I had learned they were closer to dogs than cats. Ezaran engineers could be found on nearly all Confederacy ships. Their lithe form and small stature made them ideal for slipping into crawl spaces to repair and maintain a ship's systems.

I slipped closer to the intersection any noise I made hidden by the thrum of the ship's engines vibrating through the hull.

"So what have you found?" The first voice sounded insistent. "They don't send a war hero on a routine mission like this. Something's going on?"

"What did you want me to find?" The second voice asked sounding exasperated. "Hacking the Comms Net is a capital offence and near impossible to do. I'm not trying to hack the system just to satisfy your curiosity. Hold your excitement we'll have enough of that when the real action starts."

I heard enough best to put an end to the speculation before things got out of hand.

Stepping into the intersection I confronted the two crew members standing there I had been right on both accounts. The first voice a T'Arni ensign her grey skinnies clung to her body like an oily second skin. Her male companion as I had surmised was an Ezaran with his nose broad and short fuzzy hair and his pelt like skin. His skinnies hung looser and as I had suspected his shoulder patch showed the insignia of the engineering department. Both stiffened to attention on seeing me.

"Major Locke!" The T'Arni said snapping a salute her cheeks colouring.

"At ease." I replied, clearly my reputation had proceeded me. Yes that is me, Major Sandra Amelia Locke the only recipient of two Confederacy Stars. The second earned on Anoxi during the Orsini Incursion. The first could be called courage the second I earned for revenge although I'm not proud of that. Anoxi still haunted my nightmares and contributed to six months of heavy drinking. I sobered up quickly once I realised how bad it had got. My father died on Anoxi trying to broker a peace between the Orsini Commonwealth and the Confederacy along with fifteen thousand innocent citizens when the Orsini clans attacked. As part of the response my company was one of several sent to Anoxi. We got into a firefight my company was pinned down and under fire from a MRECV (Mounted Rocket Enhanced Combat Vehicle). Revenge for the death of my father burning in my veins I flanked the vehicle taking several hits from the infantry accompanying it. I climbed up on the turret and to my shame rapped on the hatch. It wasn't my fault that the crew opened it long enough for me to throw a grenade in and leap to the ground and out of the way. I was hailed a hero but I certainly didn't feel like one.

"Major Locke." The T'Arni repeated. "Can you tell us what is going on scuttlebutt says this no ordinary mission?"

I smiled a slow lazy smile the Ezaran swallowed loudly intimidated by my presence. The smile was for how quickly the aliens had adopted human words and mannerisms. It was the human eye for detail that had created the CSN (Confederated Systems Navy) and the CSGF (Confederated Systems Ground Forces). Organising them from a disparate collection of forces barely holding their own against the likes of pirates and the Commonwealth, into an effective fighting force able to take on anything sent its way. "I can say here and now this is a training mission. Any speculation further is out of line, am I clear?" I said my voice taking a hard edge I do have a reputation to up hold.

"Yes ma'am." The T'Arni snapped a salute.

But the Ezaran spoke his voice barely above a whisper. "So it's not true that you are here to spy on the imperial navy."

I gave a silent sigh one of these days somebody wasn't going to question me about my heritage and take me at face value. It's true I was born on Earth the capital world of the Terran Empire and my birth was registered there making me a citizen of the Empire. I've often speculated why my father had done this but it is now too late to ask him. My parents had moved to the Confederacy soon after I was born. From the little I learned there was bad blood between my father and the rest of his family. He had spoken very little about them and my mother even less. I guess there were too many bad memories. I have sworn my service to the Confederacy and that's where my loyalties lie and I make damn sure everyone knows that. The less said of the Terran Empire the better. The Empire formed in the middle in the last century when Earth had twenty-nine colonies. Unlike the Confederacy which is a loose conglomeration of systems each independent but with a common congress and military. These same worlds supplying representatives to the congress and troops. The Empire then as now are very human centric and ruled its colonies with an iron fist so much so that eleven of the thirteen colonies on the edge of the Empire ceded and applied to join Confederacy. Joining was easy the colonists quickly assimilated themselves into the Confederacy helping to reorganise the fleet in time to stop the Empire from retaking those worlds. For the last thirty years a peace existed between the Empire and the Confederacy. "What did I say about idle speculation where there should be none?"

The Ezaran swallowed harder looking uncomfortable. "Yes ma'am, sorry ma'am won't happen again."

"Make sure it doesn't." I replied. "If I do hear anything like this again I know who to look for." A buzzing behind my ear interrupted anything further I was going to say. In one of my weaker moments I had splashed out and bought an implant. A communicator cum computer implanted under my skin just behind my right ear. It seemed a lot better than wearing an ear communicator covering my ear and blocking hearing or the wrist comms units most civilians wore. I pressed my fingers behind my ear switching on the communicator. "Major Locke." The fingers of my other hand pressing the microphone hidden in my rank insignia on the lapels of my high collar against my throat. I pressed the little gold Maple leaf hard against my throat the metal stud making contact with my skin.

"Sandra." The computer voice purred into my ear. I frowned I'd have to get a tech to look at it the unit had defaulted to the female voice again when I had it programmed to a male voice. A good idea at the time but it could be dammed inconvenient at others. The last thing you wanted when you were getting intimate was it buzzing in your ear, you couldn't turn it off or ignore it.

"What is it computer." I demanded.

"Oh Sandra." It was starting to get a personality trait I definitely was going to get a tech look at it. "It's Lottie to you, haven't we agreed this Sandra."

"Yes Lottie." My teeth ground, my next stop was certainly would be the tech shop.

"The captain wants you on the bridge as soon as we drop out of Hyperspace."

"Any idea why?"

"Sorry I'm not programmed to speculate."

"I'll be there." I sighed and removed my fingers from behind my ear and from my throat. All warships could make the jump to Hyperspace. Ships could travel at FTL speeds journeys often taking months and years to travel between systems but with

Hyperspace travel the times could be cut to days or weeks. Hyperspace engines took up a lot of space. Almost a third of a ship was taken up by the engines space commercial freighters and liners could ill afford to lose. For these there were the giant Hyperspace gates, huge structures that opened jump points into Hyperspace sending ships to their pre-programmed destinations normally other gates. Warships required different criteria a ship leaving Hyperspace was vulnerable. Sensors and shields didn't work and in the few minutes until these systems were restored ships were open to attack. The gates were fixed points easy for an enemy fleet to wait and shoot at anything exiting the gate. Space was a big place and no one race had enough ships to cover the area where a ship might exit although there were programmes to predict where a ship might exit but these were never a hundred percent accurate. The only other hazard was debris from space and one of the reasons when a ship dropped out of Hyperspace it was always on the edge of a system. I turned my attention back to the two crew members. The computer had set me on edge I was about to vent my spleen putting the fear of God into these two when the lights flickered. The ship was leaving Hyperspace the flicker of lights was the transfer of power from the Hyperspace engine to the FTL drives. Suddenly without warning the ship bucked and the lights went out only reflexes and training stopped me from smashing my face into the floor. Low level lights flickered on as the emergency lighting powered up, for some reason we still had gravity, which meant the engines were still functioning. I glanced to the two crew the T'Arnian had not fared well I could see blood streaming down her face. The Ezaran was helping her up the other alien's quick reflexes had saved him from a similar fate.

"Get her to sick bay I'll need to find out the situation." I watched as the Ezaran helped his injured crew mate down the corridor. Placing my fingers to my head and neck I called the bridge. "Major Locke to bridge what's the situation there?" There was no response. I spoke again but at the last minute changed what I was supposed to say. "Lottie I need a status report?"

"Linking into the ship's system Sandra." Lottie replied. "Sandra?"


"This ship has sustained critical damage to the bridge."


"There are no survivors. It appears that you are the senior most officer on board this ship."


"The captain and all senior officers where on the bridge when it was destroyed."

There was a shudder it felt as if we were under attack. "Cause of damage?"

"It appears we are being attacked."

"Who, why?"

"That information isn't available."

"Status of ship's systems."

"Engines are online. The Hyperdrive is recharging. Weapon systems are available. Shields are holding." Lottie paused almost as if it was alive and not some computer programme. "I suggest you make your way to the secondary bridge and assess the situation from there."

Quickly I reviewed the layout of this ship from my orientation briefing when I had come aboard. The ship a scout class vessel was a series of blunt nosed wedges the top most held the bridge. I further visualised my position within the ship. The secondary bridge was on the deck above within easy reach provided the elevator still functioned.

Removing my fingers I hurried down the corridor following the trail of blood drips from T'Arnian. The door to the elevator was a short distance from where I had talked to the two crew members. I was in luck the elevator still functioned. My fingers punched in the code to open the door. The door slicked open making hardly any sound. I took a deep breath and crossed my fingers, punching the button for the next level. There was a moment's hesitation before the elevator moved. The door slicked open and I stepped into another corridor.

"Sandra the secondary bridge is down this corridor and to the left."

For a moment I stood shocked. The implant wasn't supposed to do that on its own. I needed to press the button behind my ear to activate it. The last thing I wanted a malfunctioning implant of top of all that was going on. Trying to ignore my dismal thoughts I hurried in the direction indicated.

The secondary bridge was in an uproar as I entered. Quickly I surveyed the situation. Lottie was correct I was the senior officer here albeit from a different branch of the service. Not one of those assembled here held a rank above ensign. They were all arguing, shouting at each other, fear and panic clearly etched into their faces. Someone must have seen me there.

"Officer on deck!" A voice cried out sounding relieved.

As one every face turned to me some showing relief while others showing consternation. I was in my element here.

"Sit Rep ensign" My fingers pointing to an ensign one of the T'Arni looking calmer than his fellows.

"Ensign Devseen ma'am." He straightened and saluted. "Main bridge destroyed. Secondary bridge functioning within acceptable parameters."


"Functional and ready."

"Status of engines?"

"Hyperdrive is recharging. FTL drives are off line. Manoeuvre drives operating."

"So we have some engines and weapons?"

"Yes ma'am." Ensign Devseen sounded more authoritative.

"What's the status of the enemy vessel?"

Devseen nodded to another ensign a female human standing close to the sensor console. The secondary bridge was a duplicate of the main bridge but in a more compact form. A view screen was were the main window should have been. In front of it was the helm flanked by the comms console and the weapons console. A few steps behind it was the environment and sensor consoles. Towards the back were the engine consoles, one for the Hyperdrive the other for the FTL and manoeuvre drives.

"On screen." I said with a nod to Devseen.

The view screen flickered for a moment then steadied revealing the enemy ship. I saw a flash as it fired its main guns then felt the shake as railgun shells hit our shields.

"Shields are holding." The ensign at the sensor console announced.

"Can you get a close up of the enemy ship?" I asked.

"Yes ma'am." The ensign replied her fingers tapping on the console.

The screen jerked forward bringing the enemy ship into sharper contrast. I took a deep breath noting I wasn't the only one to do that. Starkly displayed on the enemy ship's hull were the moon and eight-pointed star of the Terran Empire.

"Ma'am! That's an Empire ship." The ensign blurted out then flushed to silence.

"Shit!" I muttered under my breath. What the hell was the Empire doing here? Why were they firing on us? The crew was waiting on my command. The trouble was I wasn't experienced in ship to ship combat and I doubted any of the crew here had any first hand combat experience. We had to get out of here but as soon as we powered up the Hyperdrive we would lose shields and be vulnerable to attack. We were in no condition to slog it out with the Empire ship our only chance was to escape and I desperately needed a plan to cover our retreat.

"Ensign, do we have a navigator?" I asked Devseen.

"Ma'am?" Devseen glanced across to the helm.

"Ma'am." A figure stepped forward. Short and squat its skin looking leathery were it protruded from its skinnies with bone-like ridges above its large dark eyes, a Fandaren.

"Trainee Navigator Daslann." The Fandaren saluted smartly.

I should have known the lizard people were the navigators on this ship. The Fandaren people were the foremost mathematicians in the Confederacy it was their skill with numbers and spatial awareness that made them prized as navigators. "I need a jump calculated."

"You do know as soon as we try to jump the Terrans will destroy us!" Devseen protested.

A flick of my hand silenced him. "Best weapons officer?"

"That will be me." Devseen replied a sullen look upon his face.

"What is the status of the missiles?" I said as the ship shook again if we were going to do this we needed to do this fast the shields were holding but only just.

"We aren't within missile range?"

"We don't need to be. A few close missile strikes will keep them occupied long enough to jump."

"Where to?" The Fandaren asked his fingers on the helm console his lidless eyes regarding me.

"Short jump. We just need to get ourselves out of range we can do a full jump once we assess our damage."

"Yes ma'am course plotted in."

I blinked no human could calculate that fast nor could most computers. "Load missiles maximum spread, high yield. Detonate at end of run."

"Yes ma'am missiles loading." Devseen replied sounding professional.

"Helm jump as the missiles detonate."

"Yes Ma'am."

"Ma'am missiles loaded and ready to fire."

"Good, ensign fire on my mark."

I watched the view screen carefully. There was a pause between one volley and another from the Empire ship. "Fire!" I yelled.

The ship trembled as we launched the missile salvo. Like watching in slow motion I saw the streaks of fire as the missiles homed onto their target. The lights dimmed as power was transferred to the Hyperdrive. There was a shiver as the jump point opened and we slipped through. The greyness of Hyperspace opened up to meet us and we slipped from normal space into Hyperspace. A ragged cheer erupted from the bridge crew my gamble had paid off. Minutes later the lights dimmed again as we emerged back into normal space.

"Helm location?"

"Five light years from our former position."

"Closest Confederacy Naval base?"

The Fandaren tapped the console. "Aurelis Prime ma'am."

It looked like I was heading back to the academy sooner than I thought. "Plot a course."

"Course laid in ready to jump as soon as the drive's recharged."

Again I was surprised by the speed of the Fandaren's thought process. We didn't have any Fandarens in the GF their genetic and physical make up excluded them from most activities and training the GF engaged in. "I'll need a full damage and casualty report before we jump. And someone find Sergeant Adams if he still lives." Adams was the commander of the GF squad someone I could trust to give me a full tactical situation. "Comms, lock onto the nearest FTL relay and inform Aurelis Station of our status."

"Ma'am negative on that can't raise Aurelis Station or our other bases." A female T'Arni ensign replied.

That had me worried we should have been able to pick up some sort of comms traffic. "See what you can do." I had a thought. "Did the attack knock out the comms system?"

"A possibility ma'am? The FTL comms suite runs underneath the main bridge."

"Make that a priority."

"Yes ma'am."

"Devseen you have the bridge. Call me if anything comes up I'll be making my own assessments"

I stepped through the door and leaned against the wall my body shaking. "Damn it." I muttered. I wasn't used to this the walls of the ship seemed to be closing in on me. Trembling I found my way to my quarters.

The room was as I left it seeming like that was years go. I glanced at the clock on the cabinet beside my bunk. With space a premium on the ship my quarters were small, with enough room to house my bunk with storage space above it, a small built in bedside cabinet and a locker to hold things too bulky for overhead storage. I sat on the bed to steady myself I shouldn't have cracked up like that. My last psych assessment was ok or they wouldn't have allowed me on this mission. The bleep of the door alarm broke me out on my deep depression. I stood up smoothed down the front of my skinnies and answered the door. My smile brightened on seeing Sergeant Adams.

"Ma'am?" He said with a nod as I invited him in. "You asked to see me?"

I sat on the bed while Adams stood to attention. I noted that Adams had dressed in his green and grey patterned combat armour his grey hair cropped short and he had a blunt angular face. The heavy shoulder pauldrons made his broad chest broader. I ran my eyes down his armour taking delight in his professional demeanour. His armour was well cared for from the chest and thigh plates to his heavily armoured leggings and gauntlets.

"First platoon?" I asked seeing the flying dagger on his left shoulder pauldron. I hadn't got to know Adams and his squad that well having only met them briefly when I came aboard I had spent most of my time in my cabin reading up tactical reports and planning training scenarios.

"Yes ma'am. 1st platoon 1st division."

"43rd myself."

"Yes ma'am I've seen the reports." He looked at me squarely. "You know what this is about?"

"What have you been told?" I asked.

"We were attacked and that's about as much as I know."

Slowly and without the doubts that had assailed me earlier I spoke detailing what I had learned.

"So we're at war with the Terran Empire?"

"This I don't know. It could be a rogue captain then again it could be the start of a war?"

"What are my orders ma'am?"

"Link up with your counterpart on the Marine squad and be prepared. Until the comms system is fixed we don't know what the situation is? We need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

"Master Sergeant Haveenar was on the bridge when it was destroyed. Corporal Karla Hanks heads the Marine squad."

"Take charge of the Marines make Hanks your 2iC. If anyone objects invoke general order 452."

"Senior most commander will take charge when no acceptable officer is available."

"Good you know the regs Adams."

"Yes ma'am anything else?"

"Until we know exactly what's going on we play this by the book."

"Yes ma'am."

"Dismissed Adams."

Once Adams had departed I felt positive enough to take control of my personal state. I pressed my finger to my ear then removed it the computer system in my skull should only remain active as long as my finger pressed it down. "Lottie I need a full report on the status of the ship."

"Significant damage to bridge no survivors, damage to comms system repairs underway. Minor casualties on all other decks. Hyperdrive has recharged although FTL drive is still offline repairs are on going. Anything else Sandra?"

A chill ran through my body the implant was malfunctioning. "Are you damaged?" I asked it slowly.

"Running diagnostics. Diagnostics complete I am functioning within acceptable parameters."

"Who are you?" Was my next question.

"Sandra what is the nature of your enquiry?"

"What is your designation?"

"I am a Cyberworks model 935 computer, comms implant."

"Model 935?" It wasn't the model I had purchased and had installed. "I bought a 227." Spending six weeks walking around with a chunk of your hair cut out and stitches wasn't something I did for fun.

"You are my purchaser Sandra."

"I bought a 227!" I protested the cost of a 935 would be well out of my price bracket.

"That is correct. You bought me I was upgraded."

"Who purchased the upgrades?"

"Veronica Locke."

That shocked me more than knowing I had a seemly self-aware implant in my head. My mother and I had grown distant in the years since my father's death she had taken his death hard and it had aged her. We were hardly on speaking terms. "My mother purchased the upgrades?"

"That is correct Sandra."

"She know that you are self-aware?"

"That assumption is incorrect Sandra I am only a programme."

I guessed that was as much as she was going to say on the matter. "Just say out of my head until I call you." I wasn't about to do that again until I had a tech look at it.

"I am yours to command." Lottie replied.

I was sure the words had a sarcastic edge to them. "See that you do."

"One other thing Sandra."

I braced myself for the worst.

"Human brains are a series of electrical impulses as are computers so we are not that different are we?"

I shook my head I needed to concentrate on the now, any speculation would have to be done after we reached safety.

With the start of my head pounding I opened my locker and removed my combat armour. The good thing about skinnies was that you could slip your armour on without removing it. The downside of skinnies was that the suits were figure hugging often revealing what you had on underneath or even if you had anything underneath. Some especially the T'Arni wore only skinnies and nothing else. It felt good slipping into my plain green combat armour surprised that even after all this time out of it that it still fitted. The armour consisted of greaves with flexible integrated boots. A cuirass and pauldrons connected arm vambraces and gauntlets all interlocking with flexible joints. Tiny servos in the armour compensated for its weight. As I fitted the last gauntlet I felt fully in charge of my life. Gone were the doubts that filled my mind. Major Sandra Locke War Hero was back. I placed an earpiece in and tested my throat mike. There was a screen with a sliding panel that protected it from damage on my left wrist I touched the symbols on the screen watching the diagnostic lights change from red to green. I slid the panel over the screen I was ready. With one last glance around my quarters I picked up my helmet and headed out. I spent the next few hours trying to assess how badly damaged the ship was. The bridge had taken the full force of the attack and nothing could be salvaged from it. Nor could we fix the comms relay with the equipment we had on board. I suggested we use the comms unit from the shuttle but was informed that the shuttle comms relied on the comms relay an oversight in my opinion. Feeling drained I headed back to the secondary bridge glad that I hadn't heard another word from my implant about the only pleasant occurrence in a rather disastrous day.

The door to the second bridge slid open. Ensign Devseen and the other bridge crew saluted me as I entered.

"Captain on bridge!" Devseen snapped.

"At ease."

"Yes ma'am." The crew responded.

"Ensign?" I addressed the comms officer.

"Ensign Jinas ma'am. We have limited comms out going only, it's the best we could rig up with what we have."

"It will have to do."

"Devseen ready to Jump?"

"Just awaiting your command."


The lights flickered and we entered Hyperspace. It was a tense time for us all as we travelled through an unrelenting greyness. Hour dragged after hour only the unrelenting greyness our constant companion. Three days we travelled like this. I could feel the tension in the air and could see shock and tiredness etched on the faces of the bridge crew. After an eternity the lights flickered and we exited straight into hell.