The Attribute of the Strong

The Battle for the Solar System : Book Three

- Three chapter excerpt -

This is an excerpt from THE ATTRIBUTE OF THE STRONG, by Stephen J Sweeney. The complete novel is available as an eBook for Amazon Kindle, Apple iBookstore, Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony eBookstore, Kobo Books and Diesel Books.

ISBN-10 : 0955856167

ISBN-13 : 9780955856167

£1.99 / $3.99 USD / €1.99


In Times Gone By

An excerpt from A GIFT FROM THE GODS by Kelly Taylor

24th December 2624

By the year 2721, the Pandoran army had ravaged a good two-thirds of the known galaxy and had continued their advance towards Confederation space. This was a major tipping point in the war, as the outcome of the infamous Black Widow operation became the game changer. So much had hinged on its success; so much faith had been put in its accomplishing its goals that when it appeared as though the Pandoran army had been crushed, there were few to advocate caution. We were all too happy and confident that we had won already.

After the failure to halt the Pandoran war machine, panic set in and both the Helios Confederation and the surviving Independent worlds immediately began mandatory conscription. Unfortunately, this only made matters worse, as infighting and desertions became rife. Racial attacks within allied units became near uncontrollable in places, and more than a few engagements against the Pandoran forces were lost as a consequence of being underprepared and caught off-guard. We became so caught up in our own internal struggles that we failed to face up to the external forces acting against us. The Pandorans had no such problems – they continued to act almost as a singular entity, with only one direction and one goal in mind, as had been laid out by the Senate.

Of the desertions, the bulk were made up of surviving members of the Independent worlds. They saw no sense in continuing to battle a seemingly unstoppable enemy or in aiding foreign worlds in their own futile struggles. Backstabbing and treachery were as big an enemy as the black-clad Pandoran soldiers themselves. Some worlds clearly had no loyalty to one another – often those that had never joined the IWC or UNF, although loyalty was still lacking even in some of those that had.

Those who fled took their chances in the uncharted stars. What became of most, I cannot say – many ships were never recovered. There is a possibility that some may have survived to settle on habitable planets, or had commandeered vessels large and efficient enough to be self-sustaining for many years. This, however, is doubtful, as the emergence of jump technology had led to a decline in the need for such craft. The generation ships, those colossal vessels that had once been used to seed the human race amongst the stars, had long since been retired, existing now only as museums, as historical and cultural artefacts. Of the few ships of the evacuees that were found, many of the occupants had perished while under the control of SA hibernators. It is thought that some ships escaped with full military-grade stasis modules aboard, but, again, this was never confirmed.

Three categories of people emerged in the latter part of the war: those who fought, willing or not; those who ran away; and those who went towards the enemy, not to battle them, but with a different goal altogether.

They chose to surrender.

Throwing themselves upon the mercy of the Senate, they asked for their lives in return for their services and loyalty to the Mitikas Empire, promising to help them to complete the Mission. Mostly, these renegades were those who had been forced to abandon their own worlds, after seeing them ravaged by the Pandoran army's nuclear and orbital strikes. Witnessing a world once known and loved annihilated in a firestorm might drive any man to the brink.

Locating a Pandoran convoy or detachment, the defectors would travel towards it, their shields down, their weapon systems offline, broadcasting their message of surrender. Some even went as far as to don the dress of long lost Imperial Houses – Tollaha, Annex, and Hersa, to name a few – adorning their vessels with the Houses' banners, flags and standards, as well as symbols of the Mitikas Empire. Their messages promised their eternal support to the Senate, until the day they died.

All appeals were rejected – the Pandoran forces would board the craft and dispatch the crew mercilessly, without a single word or pause for consideration, before assimilating the vessel into their ranks. Often, the ships would be deemed permanently lost, only for them to then show up in combat only a few weeks later, outwardly similar, but with the original occupants dead and gone. We lost some good vessels that way, including two entire frigates – TPA Homestead and TPA Farrier – from the former Republic of Stunea. The crews fled simultaneously, during the preparations for the defence of the inner belt of the non-aligned systems, only a few hundred light years from the Confederation-Independent border. When the invading Pandoran fleet showed up, we found ourselves facing off against Homestead and Farrier, only a few days after they had stood shoulder to shoulder with us, holding the line.

Yet the manifest pointlessness of surrender did not seem to influence the desperate. Similar acts of yielding were even attempted face to face on battlefields; but however high or clearly the white flags were held, no one was ever accepted into the Pandoran ranks. With twenty billion soldiers already backing their cause, there was little need for new recruits.

* * *

By the beginning of 2722, Fleet Admiral Jason Zackaria had successfully mobilized close to half of the Pandoran soldiers stationed in Imperial space, making judicious use of all the craft that had been liberated from the many Independent worlds, as well as the vessels acquired in combat and those that had been surrendered to them. It became increasingly rare for any craft to be destroyed, if it could instead be used as a transportation system for the army. I saw first-hand evidence of the extremes the Pandorans would go through to accommodate the troopers into the transports – once landed, the doors would jaw open to reveal thousands of soldiers, multi-coloured attire now outnumbering black suits, men and women packed in so tight that there was room for little else. The nanomachines inhabiting their bodies would have kept the men and women in those transports as still as statues, locked in position for hours on end, with no need to move until the time for deployment came. After this, the transports would jump back to Imperial space and pack in more passengers, repeating the process over and over, ferrying the Pandoran army across space, closer to the Confederacy, closer to Sol, closer to Earth.

After the failure of Black Widow, CSN Fleet Admiral Amanda Jenkins, along with the newly-appointed Admiral Elliott Parks, divided the navy down the middle, delegating one half to the defence of the Helios Confederation and the other half to an aggressive assault on the Pandoran forces. The offensive arm was driven by two primary objectives: the first, to find a way to bring about a decisive end to the Pandoran army's advances and prevent an increasingly likely victory; the second, to once again attempt to apprehend Zackaria. Both were near-impossible goals to achieve, but we had to at least try. There were no alternatives.

Parks divided the White Knights into two parts, taking Dodds, Enrique and Chaz with him as he went on the offensive, and leaving Estelle and me under the command of Commodores Aiden Meyers and Sima Mandeep. His reasoning behind the split was two fold. First, with five team members, he preferred to take three ATAFs on the offensive, rather than just two. Second, Parks was sensitive to social politics. He knew Enrique and I had finally cemented our relationship after the incident on Mythos, and with Dodds and Estelle's past to consider, Parks didn't wish to risk any of our relationships negatively influencing one another. And while he permitted us as much contact with one another as we wanted (or, at least, as much as we each had time for), he wanted us to stay apart. This was hard on me in the first few months, and I regularly entertained thoughts of abandoning my defensive position and heading off to join Enrique on the frontline. If we were going to die, then we should do it together. Estelle dissuaded me as did Enrique. He knew that I would want to be by his side, but urged me to stay where I was and continue to perform the duty required of me, for the sake of us all.

If it had been hard on the five of us, then I can only imagine what it had been like for Parks himself. A perpetual bachelor for all the years I'd known him, he had married Sima Mandeep in a low-key ceremony only one day before leading the frontline forces into Independent space and making runs against pre-determined enemy targets. Only a handful had been in attendance at the wedding. He didn't want a fuss made, and Mandeep, despite belonging to a large family, seemed happy with the arrangements. Parks refused to allow Mandeep to accompany him for the same reasons he presented to us. Chaz made no real comment, other than to say that Parks' actions and strategic decisions didn't surprise him in the least. He would know, too – he had barely seen Vanessa at all over the past ten years. Their relationship survived, though. Their love for one another was that strong.

* * *

By late 2724, it became clear that the war was going very badly for the allies. More than ninety-five percent of the known galaxy had been lost, and the surviving forces and peoples had retreated to the inner systems of Helios. With such huge numbers arriving, safety and refuge was only offered to those who were willing to stand and fight the approaching Pandoran army. Few refused.

In September of that year, Parks turned his attention to focusing exclusively on the hunt for Zackaria a last ditch attempt to end the war before the human race was lost forever. Ordering the remainder of the frontline allied forces to return to the inner Confederate systems, he took a small fleet, led by CSN Griffin, deep into Imperial territory. It was a dangerous and extremely risky move – the core Mitikas systems were thought to be filled with hundreds upon thousands of starships, all commanded by members of the Pandoran army who had yet to depart. Parks thought the danger was worth it. If Zackaria could somehow be found even negotiated with it might be possible to hash out some compromise.

And though Parks never openly admitted it, it was clear that he and Jenkins were even prepared to secede, should that be Zackaria's final demanded. It was the third time a real effort had been made to locate and apprehend the admiral, but after several months of searching, he was nowhere to be found.

As October and November came and went, the Pandoran army continued to close in on Sol, sacking Temper, Indigo, Rex and Gabriel with the same unrelenting power they had turned against the rest of the galaxy, bulldozing through whatever stood in their way.

By December, they were approaching Alpha Centauri, the closest inhabited system to Sol and where the CSN were preparing to make their penultimate stand.

All hope, it seemed, was lost.

But, as the old saying goes: it is always darkest before the dawn; in the final forty-eight hours of the war a discovery was made that heralded a chance of victory. It was a small one, but a clear one, if only it could be exploited. Therein lay our greatest challenge, as so many of us had sunk into hopelessness, accepting that we had lost the war already; so much so that not even this tiny glimmer could revive us.

And what good is hope, when you have long since stopped believing in it?


Seven Years Later —

Upon blasted, broken and ash-covered ground, Dodds trudged. The earth was hard as stone, cracked like glass. Things crunched beneath his feet – the charcoaled remains of flora and fauna that had been incinerated in the firestorms that had swept the land. All around him was black, grey and desolate, as though the fires had burnt away the very colour of the world. Only the sky above was different, billowing red clouds tumbling towards the horizon, like a turbulent sea.

A trail appeared before him, beckoning him onward. He followed. He knew this road. He had walked it before, many, many times as a younger man, growing up in the south of Ireland. He recognised the lie of the land as he went, the hints of fields, once framed by stone walls and wooden fences, the road winding its way between them. Wheat, various vegetable plantations and orchards had stood here once. Now, there was nothing but charred ruins.

He continued onward past them, following the road on its seemingly endless route towards the horizon, until he came to a path that intersected it. It led off to the right, becoming a well-worn track. Dodds halted there, his eyes coming to rest not far along the path, on a person lying face down in the dirt. The body was wearing a CSN flight suit. Dodds approached, rolling the body over and seeing the name tag on the front. ‘Dean’. The face, however, was not that of the pilot who had run away from the CSN all those years ago, but that of Enrique Todd.

Enrique,” Dodds shook the body, trying to rouse the man. But Enrique lay still, his eyes closed. His body was mutilated by multiple stab wounds perforating every limb, leaving wicked red slashes all over the near skin-tight suit. Dodds then became aware of a building that had suddenly appeared beside him, almost out of thin air. It was a large white farmhouse, with a small set of steps leading up to the porch. Just above the front door, a window stood half-open. He sensed someone peering out at him from up there, though he couldn't see anyone. That had been his bedroom window, once, he realised, and it was through it he had first spotted Patrick Dean.

He became aware of several more figures close by, they, too, having seemingly materialized from nowhere. Two women lay at the foot of the porch steps, both in their mid-thirties, one with mousey-brown hair, the other with silky black. Kelly and Estelle. The body of a tall, muscular black man lay not far from them. Chaz. Like Enrique, all three wore CSN flight suits, the name tags reading ‘Dean’, with the words ‘Yellow Dogs’ and the emblem of a golden retriever just below it. And like that of Enrique, their bodies were covered in wounds.

Dodds stared for a moment before he sighted a boot resting on Chaz's body. It belonged to a man who sat hunched over on the top step of the porch, one who carried with him the air of a hunter, one once proud, but now long weary of this particular game, glad that it was finally over. Though surrounded by his prizes, the man did not smile. Troublesome opponents these had proven, ones that had stretched him to breaking point. He was clothed in an Imperial naval uniform, decorated to the nines. The man's face was old and wrinkled, his eyes a dull grey. Old, yet distinguished.

Jason Zackaria held a dagger in one hand, as he observed Dodds with a look that suggested he had been waiting at the porch for a long time. He said nothing for a while, continuing to hold Dodds with that fixed look, toying with the dagger in his hand. The weapon was quite ornate in appearance – more like something that belonged on a wall, than something meant to kill.

I know you,” Zackaria said eventually, rising to his feet, adjusting the dagger in his grip to hold it more purposefully. “You're the last one, Simon Dodds.”

Dodds said nothing, his eyes flicking from the bodies, to Zackaria, to the dagger. The blade and handle were untarnished and bright, as though they had been vigorously cleaned, so that they might be unspoilt for this one final act. Zackaria continued forward, eyes locked on his target, stepping over the bodies and making an unhurried advance towards Dodds.

You're the final one,” Zackaria said. “The last one I must kill to complete the Mission.”

Dodds started to back away, moving up the dirt track, but his feet caught and he toppled over. He landed on something soft - another body, this time naked. It was one of many strewn as far as the eye could see, replacing the once ash-covered ground with a multitude of colours from varied skin tones. Some fresh corpses, some decaying.

Dodds pulled himself to his feet as Zackaria twirled the dagger. “You don't have to do this,” he said, finally finding his voice. “Can't you see you've won already?”

Not yet,” Zackaria said, shaking his head slowly. He sprang forward, taking hold of Dodds and placing the knife by his throat. “But I have now.”

The grip was immense; Zackaria's arms like steel. Dodds could do no more than grasp weakly at them. “Please ... don't,” he started.

I gave the others to my men,” Zackaria said, his grip tightening further. He turned Dodds to face the farmhouse and the bodies of his former team-mates. “But they left you for me, so that I alone might have the pleasure of killing you.”

Dodds struggled against the man, trying to extricate himself and pull away from the knife blade already digging into his throat. It proved futile, Zackaria's grip unbreakable. “Please—” Dodds tried again.

And now,” Zackaria smiled as he spoke, “the Mission is complete.”

Dodds felt the remorseless slash of the dagger, the tearing open of his throat and the hot flow of blood as it began to rush down his neck from the gaping wound. He felt Zackaria's grip ease. Dodds' knees became weak as he clasped his hands to his throat, attempting to stem the flow of blood.

But it was all for nought; Dodds' world turned to black as his life ebbed away.

* * *

Dodds woke covered in sweat, and was immediately consumed by an inescapable feeling of utter dread and foreboding. He opened his eyes. No, they were already open. Had he somehow gone blind? His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he found himself in his quarters on Griffin. As with most of the rest of the ship, there were no windows in the quarters, only a smattering of night lights to alleviate the absolute gloom that would otherwise fill the small room.

Dodds lay in the bottom of one of two bunk beds occupying the somewhat cramped interior. Chaz and Enrique normally slept in the other bunk bed, but neither of the two men were anywhere to be seen – the bunks they normally occupied were empty. Dodds wondered if he was still dreaming, about to wander endlessly the corridors of a deserted and desolate ship until he finally, truly woke. Or until someone found him. He shook that thought away quickly.

Lights,” he croaked, but the darkness remained, the computer system apparently unable to understand his words. He tried again to issue the command, but the sound that came was unrecognisable even to him. His throat was parched, he could tell as much simply by swallowing. He reached for the bottle of water he kept near his bunk, seeking a cure. He fumbled his grip and the bottle spun away from him, tipping over onto the floor. The cap burst off and the bottle began leaking out much of its remaining contents. Dodds lunged for it, but managed to save it only as the last few dregs were glugging out. He drank what was left – not even a mouthful, and quite warm at that – then let it drop back down onto the floor. He mustn't have replaced the cap properly after the last time. He recalled waking in the night, after only an hour of sleep, far too hot and needing a drink. Too eager to get his head back down, that was the problem.

Why? he wondered. To return to those dreams, dreams in which he found his friends and family dead? Zackaria and the Pandorans haunted his sleep, as did Anthony Hawke. Zackaria and the soldiers would stalk him, like bringers of death. Hawke would hound him, grinning and gloating, emphasising his faults and failures, and speaking of a better time when Dodds was dead and gone. His mother and father, Elliott Parks and others who had touched his life, crept in from time to time, though it did little to lift his spirits. He could never remember what any of them had said, only a feeling of disappointment. The few times he did find Estelle, Kelly, Chaz or Enrique in his dreams, they never spoke or acted supportively, and only brought him lower. No, there was no longer any solace to be found in sleep. Sleep for him was a broken, cheerless affair, as it had been for the last three years. Waking refreshed and with a settled mind was something that had long since been lost to him.

Of all those who populated his sleeping hours, two were noticeably absent – Poppy Castro and Stefan Pitt. Dodds didn't know what had happened to their immediate families, but given the state of the galaxy he guessed that they had all been reunited in death. He hoped they had found peace together.

Lucky them.

He sank back onto the bed and looked about the quarters. How long had he spent within these same four walls? Three years at least. Yet not as long as the time they had been fighting the campaign against the Pandoran forces. That had lasted seven years now. He was tired of it, so very tired of all of it. But it was clear it would end soon, and he had little doubts about the final outcome.

He looked down at the puddle of water creeping across the floor. He tried not to think of the galactic map he had seen not so long ago of a red pool, representing the Pandoran army, spreading out from Mitikas and overwhelming everything in its path. It had painted a grim picture indeed, and that image had been accurate before Black Widow. Afterwards, the galactic map had been magnitudes worse, and had finally convinced him that the war was well and truly lost.

He wondered what the time was, and looked about for his Kyllini. He spotted it on the floor, surrounded by water. He whisked it to safety and dried it off on his sheets, hoping that any water that had managed to work its way inside wouldn't cause any damage to the delicate circuitry. After giving it a few shakes to remove any excess liquid that might still be clinging to it, he placed a finger tip on the screen, authenticating himself and bringing the Kyllini out of its sleep mode. The screen lit up, displaying the date and time according to Griffin's own clock. 0644. It was later than he normally woke these days.

The Kyllini PDA was normally the first thing he reached for when he woke, checking both the time and looking expectantly for the little message indicator, notifying him of a communication from Estelle. There was none today. He had written back to her yesterday, late in the afternoon, just before they had commenced jump. Normally she wrote every day. Perhaps today she hadn't found the time.

He studied the Kyllini for a moment, remembering the day the five Knights had each bought one, the day that Parks had decided to divide the team and take the three men deep into enemy territory. Kelly and Enrique had suggested it, wanting to keep in contact with one another as much as possible, and without having to wait for the messaging rooms to become available. They predicted that there would be big queues and long waits to make use of those facilities. They hadn't been wrong. The five had located a telecoms stockist on Watership Orbital, in the Angel system, who had been offering all his stock at knock-down prices – to get rid of it, make a profit and run while he still could. The PDAs were just what the five had been looking for.

Each device was palm-sized, fitting snugly into their hands. They were capable of many multimedia functions, though most importantly creating and receiving messages. Each was equipped with a camera, allowing video to be recorded and transmitted from the device. It was perfect, and after some discussions with the tech teams aboard Griffin and Leviathan, they had been able to hook them into the ships' comms systems and make use of the broadcast channels. They had all kept in touch this way for the past three years, sending each other everything from short text messages, to recordings of themselves, to footage they had filmed of victories. They hadn't sent many of those.

Dodds looked through his inbox to the last message he had received from Estelle, resting at the top of the screen.

You've probably already heard, but I wanted you to know that we're falling back to the defence of Alpha Centauri. I'm over my food poisoning, so am once again back on the field. I hope you are keeping well. I will see you soon.”

Short and to the point, like a lot of her messages of late. She mostly sent him text messages now, hardly ever recording video. He looked back over the past messages.

Are you awake?” she had written one night.

Yeah,” he had replied, though it had actually been the soft vibration of the device under his pillow as it had received the message that had roused him. “What's up?”

I was just thinking about you.”

Is everything okay?”

Yes, just couldn't sleep. Kelly and I have been working with the thunder tethers again today, helping to tow some damaged ships. I miss you,” she had added, as he had started to reply.

I miss you, too. I want this to end.”

It will end soon.”

When they win?” He remembered letting out a mirthless chuckle as he'd typed that.

When *we* win, Simon.”

Do you really think we will?”

A long pause between messages. He had almost decided to set the Kyllini aside and put his head back down.

We have to believe we will, Simon,” she had written. “We will if we believe strongly enough.”


A few more messages had followed, Dodds rereading his suggestions of counting sheep or trying to replay the memory of her favourite film in her head, scene for scene, in order to drift off. He suggested she try reading a book. She didn't fancy that. He scrolled down to the end of the thread.

I'll see you soon. Sleep well.”


He found himself reading her messages a lot these days, more so than the ones that he had received from his parents. They always recorded him full video messages, though they came only about once a fortnight, at most. A little over once a month was far more common.

No new ones from them today, either.

No longer asleep, and with no concerns of waking the others, he took the PDA off silent. He should get up and find out what was going on. There were big plans for today, and he should be sure he wasn't missing out on essential updates. Why hadn't either of the others woken him? He opened his locker and pulled out two towels from inside, one for the floor and the other for himself, as he headed for the showers. Just as he wondered where Chaz and Enrique had gotten to, his Kyllini jingled. It was a message from Enrique.

We're having breakfast. Come and join us when you're ready.”

* * *

Hey,” Dodds said, as he sat down next to Enrique and Chaz.

Morning,” Enrique said, chewing a mouthful of toast.

What's going on? How come you didn't wake me?”

Couldn't sleep,” Chaz said, sipping at his coffee. “Both of us have been awake since about four, so we hit the treadmills and then went down to the firing range, to get in what practice they'd allow us.”

Dodds glanced around the messdeck. It wasn't as full as it normally was, probably only about one third of the tables were occupied. “Are we in jump?” he asked. “Did they kick off the op early or something?”

No,” Enrique shook his head. “We're just very low on supplies.”


Enrique nodded. “They took inventory last night and figure that we have only about a week's worth of food left.”

How come they only found out last night?”

Captain Liu made the decision,” Chaz said, blowing the top of his coffee a little, to cool it down. “Parks has known for a while that we've been out here a lot longer than he originally intended, and was aware that a lot more was destroyed during the encounter at Hyanik than we first thought. He didn't want to turn us around and lose time, though. So, Liu has decided to enforce rationing for the time being.”

Ah, hell, Dodds thought. They hadn't had large portions to begin with and meals had become noticeably ever smaller. He subconsciously felt at his belly, certain that he had shed a few pounds in the past few weeks. “What happens if we run out?”

Guess we'll have to head back to wherever we can, restock and come back out,” Enrique shrugged, using half of his last piece of toast to mop up the small plate of food that had constituted his breakfast.

Wouldn't have much choice, I suppose,” Dodds said.

Parks probably wouldn't want to do that,” Chaz said. “He'd force us on with stale bread and water if he could.”

He's certain we'll find Zackaria out here?” Dodds asked.

Well,” Enrique said, “at this stage, it's not like we've got anything to lose by trying.”

True enough, Dodds thought. He glanced to the serving staff, seeing them not dishing up very much. “I'm going to get some food.”

I think they're only serving hot drinks, toast and scrambled eggs,” Enrique called after him.

Dodds returned with just that, plus a little more. He wasn't all that keen on scrambled egg, but if this was all they were going to get then he should take everything that was on offer.

Still had beans?” Enrique said.

Got the last of them,” Dodds answered. “Is this all they had when you arrived?”

They had bacon and sausage,” Enrique said. “But what little they had they'd served up by the time we got here. Missed the last of the bacon by only a couple of places in the queue. Have you heard from Estelle?” he added.

No,” Dodds said, starting on the toast as he let his tea stew. “The last message she sent me was about Alpha Centauri. Have you heard anything from Kelly?”

Just a short note last night, but nothing since.” Enrique nodded in the direction of a man further down the table. “I'll check again when Suzuki has finished recording a message for his two girls.”

Dodds glanced to the man who was sitting on his own and making use of Enrique's Kyllini, singing what sounded like a lullaby. Suzuki was a member of the mobile infantry, brought along to aid in ground deployments and boarding operations, and one of a handful that had been transferred to Griffin in case something more was to happen to the Goon Sunrise. Like most of the rest of them, he hadn't seen too much action since coming aboard. Perhaps the next twenty-four hours would change that.

Have you heard from anyone, Chaz?” Dodds asked the big man, who merely shook his head. Dodds wondered if Parks was still holding back his messages. He doubted it; neither Parks or the CSN could stand to gain anything from keeping Chaz away from his family any more. Silence descended, with only a clatter of knives and forks, and some mumbles of conversation drifting across from the other occupants of the messdeck. It was anything but upbeat. Not even the staff were saying very much. No laughter, either. That was telling.

Dodds lazily chewed on his toast, unable to hold back the sigh that escaped him.

Tired?” Chaz said.


A shower will set you right,” Enrique said.

That's not what I meant,” Dodds said, setting the toast back down. “I'm tired of all of this. I know I keep bringing it up,” he added, seeing both Enrique and Chaz turn to focus on other things, “but all we've been doing is fighting and losing, fighting and losing, fighting and losing. Ever since Black Widow, we've been pushed back further and further, and I just want this to end.”

I know, mate,” Enrique said. “We all do.”

War achieves nothing,” Dodds said. “I know that might sound ironic given I enlisted by choice, but there's a difference between standing in defence of what you believe in and committing genocide on such a tremendous scale. It's a trite saying that men should solve their problems with words, rather than violence, so I never really appreciated its truth until recently. Nothing has ever been gained through war, except suffering and yet more violence – something those bastards in the Senate didn't seem to understand. The bloody emperor did, though. At least he knew that peace was only achievable through freedom.” He sat quietly for a time, looking down at his plate. “I'm sorry, guys,” he finished. “I know it's not as if the Pandorans have given us a choice not to fight. I just ... I just needed to get that out.”

It's okay, Simon,” Chaz said, his voice soft. “Today has us all rattled.”

Dodds nodded and focused on the remains of his breakfast, intent on getting the food down. Perhaps having it in his belly would cheer and calm him.

You know,” Enrique said, picking up his tea and nodding to Dodds' right, “out of everyone I've met in the last few years, it's kinda funny that he should be one of the ones to survive this long.”

Dodds looked in the direction Enrique indicated, seeing a man sitting opposite a woman, picking at his breakfast. Ah, yes. PJ Burgess, one of the pilots the Knights had been stationed at Mendelah with. Despite the drinking that had been going on that night, Dodds remembered it quite clearly. PJ had been wittering on about what seemed like nothing more than conspiracy stories and tabloid scaremongering nonsense, only for it to all turn out to be true. PJ and his wingmates had later been assigned to Leviathan for Operation Menelaus. Ian Barclay had been the first of that group to be killed in action, putting his life on the line for the defence of Griffin. Casper Heywood and Seth McLeod had gone later, Heywood apparently was shot by deserters and McLeod was taken down during Black Widow. Dodds wasn't sure what had happened to Katherine Strickland, their wing commander. He hadn't seen her in years. Now, it looked like PJ was the only member of the Steel Bulls left. A shame no one had paid more attention to him.

Sometimes it's good to be paranoid,” Dodds said, taking up another forkful of scrambled eggs. He then saw PJ's companion slam down her knife and fork before getting up, turning her back on him and walking away without looking back. PJ's eyes sank to his plate, letting his own cutlery slip from his hands. They had plainly been bickering, perhaps blaming one another for past failures. PJ turned in Dodds' direction and gave only a sombre nod of acknowledgement. The sequence pretty much summed up the mood of the rest of the messdeck, as far as Dodds was concerned. Tensions were high and everyone was starting to blame each other.

Ah, good,” a voice came, “I'm glad I found you all here.”

Dodds saw Omar Wyatt, the ship's head of security, take a seat alongside the three. He looked as tired as always, as though he had barely slept in weeks. Most likely, he hadn't.

Everything okay?” Dodds said.

That largely depends on your definition of ‘okay’,” Wyatt said, indicating towards his few slices of toast. “How's a man supposed to get through the day starting only with this? No, I came looking for you to let you know that, as per the captain's instructions, we'll shortly be commencing jump to Kethlan.”

So, here it was. They were finally heading to the Seat of the Emperor. Dodds felt his chest tighten, accompanied by a sudden urge to leave the table and find a spot in which to hide. He looked at Enrique and Chaz. Both appeared a little unsettled by Wyatt's confirmation, even though they had known this was the plan all along. Dodds steeled himself, and tried to think positively about the move. “And there's something important you want us to do when we get there?” he asked.

Actually, before,” Wyatt said. “Captain Liu wants you three to sit ahead of Griffin during jump, so that you can be ready to engage hostile forces the moment we arrive.” There was a trace of apology in Wyatt's eyes, matched only by the tone of his voice, as though he had no choice but to send the three men out as the first to be slaughtered.

That's a bit short notice,” Enrique said.

The decision was left with Liu,” Wyatt said, spooning more sugar into his coffee. “After Hyanik, Parks didn't sleep for nearly three days and Tunstall ordered him to remain in his quarters for a full day to rest – without any disturbances. I think Liu was hoping that Parks might be fit to make the decision before our scheduled departure, but the good doctor bumped the rest period up to two days, and has forbidden him from making any sort of executive decision until he's taken a good look at him and can clear him for duty.”

Is Parks okay?” Dodds said.

He just overstretched himself,” Wyatt said.

I guess the reception at Krasst was sort of unexpected,” Dodds said, to nods of agreement from Chaz and Enrique.

Apparently, the transmission received from the Sapper kept most of who saw it up that night. It was like a badly run abattoir on that ship's bridge, from what I've heard,” Wyatt continued, finishing his first piece of toast. “God only knows how the captain was able to maintain command with his eyes and half his face missing. Well, of course I do know how – it's those damned machines. They'll keep you going no matter what. He was one of the better off ones, too.”

Glad I missed the show,” Enrique commented. “I wouldn't be getting much sleep after that.”

I've not slept for more than four hours a day for the past three years, regardless of what I've seen,” Wyatt commented, starting on his next slice of toast. “You get used to it.” There then came a soft jingle from around his ear. The security chief choked down the toast he had been chewing and tapped the small device affixed to his ear. “Wyatt.” A pause to listen. “How serious?” Another pause. Wyatt swore.

What's wrong?” Dodds asked.

Another bloody fight,” Wyatt said. “As if we haven't got enough problems battling the enemy, without turning on each other over the most petty things.” He looked down at what remained of his breakfast, before gulping down what coffee he could and standing to leave. “The flight deck has been briefed ahead of your arrival. You'll be briefed yourselves when you get down there. We can't jump until you're in position. Don't be too long.”


Hey, look, it was only a bit of bacon ...”

It was mine! I got here early for that!”

It's been sitting on your plate for ages and I didn't think you were going to eat it.”

Dodds saw a man grabbing another man by the throat. The attacker was furious, the other quite surprised by the reaction. From what Dodds could tell, one had decided to help himself to the other's breakfast. Not a good idea in most circumstances, worse still under these. There were onlookers poised to defend either side.

Wyatt let out an audible sigh. “Never just rains, does it?” he said.

They watched him head over and ask the two men to let go of one another, but the first punch was thrown. Wyatt was heard to request backup, before he thrust himself between them, doing what he could to separate them until assistance arrived. The intervention seemed only to make things worse; two more joined in the struggle. There was a crash as people tumbled onto the table, knocking the food – the cause of the fight – onto the floor. Additional security came running into the messdeck only moments later.

Dodds finished what was on his plate. “Our cue to go?” he said, watching Wyatt's backup tackling those who weren't prepared to withdraw from the fight. “Ready?” he asked.

Ready,” Enrique and Chaz said.

* * *

Dodds watched Chaz scale the ladder to his ATAF, as he himself waited to be called forward to his own to prep for takeoff. He cast an eye over the body of the black-armoured craft. Over the years it had finally gained those dings and scratches common to many of the navy's starfighters, permanent mementoes of active service. The scratches here, though, were still few and far between – most likely caused by being shifted around flight decks and undergoing maintenance, rather than having been earned on the field. He had never once seen his shield strength dip into single digits, not at Alba, not at Temper, and not even during Black Widow.

A miracle they had lived beyond that day.

Dodds,” the OOD called to him as Chaz was taxied forward to the catapult, signalling Dodds to make for the ATAF that had been brought up from the hangar. He did so, ascending the ladder and starting to affix his helmet.

As he worked through the pre-launch safety checks and brought the system online, Dodds thought of what might have been. Though the ATAF remained as powerful as ever – one of the few remaining effective armaments in the CSN's now-limited arsenal – its true purpose had been left unfulfilled. With the TSBs destroyed, the fighters had been left unable to carry out their original purpose of journeying into Imperial territory and detonating the bombs in the cores of those five select stars. Griffin had been holding position in Atlante for the past day or so now. The star here, the only subgiant of the five that had been selected, had been one of the targets for Operation Sudarberg. Had Sudarberg been accomplished, would he have found himself here anyway? Would Atlante have been his star to destroy?

How different would things have been then? Well, he'd be dead for a start. There would be no coming back from that one. The stars were said to go nova within minutes of the bomb detonating, their core instantly collapsed and their energy parcelled up and flung all around Imperial space, like a cluster bomb. Not all of it would be captured, though, the rest dispersing into the immediate space around, cooking the very system it had been home to and anything that happened to be there at the time. Including the ATAF and its pilot. No amount of shielding could withstand the energy that would have been released in those moments, and no amount of speed could help him to escape the range of the blast. Even if the ATAFs had possessed jump capability, he had been told that the conduit would be unable to save him. It would've become unstable the moment it was engulfed by the supernova, collapsing in on him, and either crushing him down to the size of a pinhead or ripping him apart by the very molecules that embodied him.

Would it have been worth it? He recalled Parks' warning back at Mythos, all those years ago – that an all out war against the Pandoran forces would be totally unwinnable. By the looks of things, he'd been completely right. Dodds could hardly believe it. There had been attempts to rebuild the TSBs, but the Great Panic and the continued invasion of the Independent systems had made the task unachievable. There had been too much infighting, lack of cooperation between splintering nations, and finally a total refusal to allow the Confederation a monopoly on building the bombs. Hand all the power to Helios? Absolutely not. That was why the Independents had constructed the bombs themselves, while the CSN developed the ATAFs, so as to maintain the balance of power. What would be the long-term implications of giving the Confederation both? they had argued. Yes, the Enemy might well be defeated and the war might be won, but would the Confederacy then become an enemy of an altogether different sort?

It always came down to the ever present, inescapable problem – politics. No matter how much you hated it, it was always there. The Pandorans had never suffered such problems. They worked like ants, as one cohesive unit, always with one clear goal and purpose in mind. Annihilation.

Commander Dodds, this is Tower,” a voice popped in his ear. “Your fighter shows a successful start-up and your comms should be operating normally. Please echo.”

Dodds realised that he had been idling on the pre-launch safety screens, lost in his own thoughts. He looked to Chaz's ATAF, but saw it had already departed, heading out to join Enrique just ahead of Griffin. He glanced over the results of the start-up sequence on his screen, seeing only the familiar green check marks next to each of the system tests. “System online and start-up successful,” he communicated back. “No reported issues.”

Acknowledged. Will taxi you into position.”

Dodds took a grip on the stick as he was moved to the catapult and given the clearance to launch. Perhaps in Kethlan they would finally find that glimmer of hope they were all searching for. He thought over what he would say to Zackaria should he meet the man there. One word stuck out more than the others. Please.


Finding the Needle —


Parks stirred at the voice, but didn't yet feel willing to move. He opened his eyes just enough to focus on the small clock that rested by his bedside. Four blue digital figures shone back at him. 0723, they read. He had slept straight through, deeply too, the mental and physical demands of the past few days having clearly caught up with him. Thirteen hours. He'd never slept that long in his life, and even now he didn't feel as though he'd had enough. His eyes closed again.

Captain,” the voice came again. “Admiral Parks,” it added, using his full title.

A female voice. Could it be? “... ima?” Parks murmured. He pulled himself up and looked towards the figure that he could just make out in the dark of his room. It certainly looked like Sima, if a little taller than he expected. Perhaps it was just the gloom and the angle that made her appear so. But what was she doing here? Shouldn't she be commanding Amarok, overseeing the defence of Confederation space? She was holding something in her hand that was giving off a soft illumination. It looked like an electronic tablet. “Sima?” he asked more clearly. “Is that you?”

No, sir,” the voice said, now far more recognisable. “It's Karen Weathers, sir.”

Yes, of course it was. Sima wouldn't abandon her post to come out here, just to see him. They both knew their duties better than that. He shook the sleep from his system and made an effort to sit up. “Lights,” he said. The light level in the room rose, though perhaps a little too fast for his liking, causing him to squint as his eyes adjusted. Still, at least the lights and voice activation were working. That was a good sign.

What's our situation, Karen?” he asked.

We're holding position in Atlante,” Weathers started.

Still? It's been two days—” Parks started, frustrated that they were stalling in their search for the ever-elusive Zackaria.

Weathers picked up on the irritation in his voice, and hurried on. “Captain Liu has been making preparations for our jump to Kethlan. He has decided to run with your suggestion of heading out with the White Knights in the lead. The ATAFs are already in position ahead of Griffin, waiting to escort us through the point.”

Any contact with the enemy?” Parks asked, rubbing his eyes.

No, sir. It's all been quiet.”

That made Parks uneasy. Since entering Imperial space, he had expected much more resistance than they had encountered so far. Were they being led into yet another trap? Would they arrive at Kethlan only to meet a force that they were simply under-equipped to deal with? After all, they were but four vessels: Griffin; the two frigates, Colonel K and Agent 57; and one lander, the Goon Sunrise. And he wasn't sure that Agent 57 would be much use, not with the damage it had sustained during that last encounter.

Would you like me to suggest that Liu suspend the jump preparations, sir?” Weathers asked, seeming to read his mind.

No,” Parks said. “We haven't come this far to dally any longer. How many fighters do we have available?”

About two hundred and forty-nine,” Weathers said, after checking on the tablet that she held. “Maybe two or three more, if repairs have been completed. I'll send a request to the hangar to update us with the most recent numbers,” she added, tapping away at the tablet.

Hmm,” Parks scratched at the beard that now covered his face. He liked to shave every couple of days, but he hadn't done so for over two weeks now. It was time for it to go; he'd become quite conscious of it lately and it was starting to become itchy. “Are the White Knights still acting as our lone escort into Kethlan?”

Yes, sir,” Weathers nodded.

I think that we could do with a few extra fighters out there, to back them up. Have the standby pilots launch as well. That'll bring us up to seven. Three ATAFs, three TAFs and one Rook, right?”

Yes, sir,” Weathers nodded again. “I'll suggest it to Liu.”

Suggest it. He kept forgetting that he was only able to act within an advisory role, until Tunstall gave him the all-clear. “How long have I been here now?” he asked.

Just over forty-two hours, sir.”

Good God, that was quite enough. Right now what he needed was a shower and shave, and he'd be ready to return to duty. He felt his stomach rumble. Food would also be a good idea. He'd deal with that shortly. “How are the crew?” he asked.

The crew are okay, sir, although we've had a few more scuffles in the past twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, security have had to confine some of the more violent offenders to the brig.”

Parks sighed. They couldn't keep losing crew like this. “Anyone of significance injured or locked up?”

No, sir.”

Good, let's try to keep it that way. What's the status of the fleet?”

All still with us,” Weathers said, “although the Goon Sunrise has seen a few more scuffles of its own. Agent 57 has managed to improve its weaponry and shielding and is fully committed to any offensive action that might need to be taken. The fleet is as ready for jump as it can be.”

Very well,” Parks said, satisfied that they were ready to go. “Commence the jump once the additional fighter support is in position. I'll be taking breakfast here and will return to the bridge after that ...” He trailed off as he saw the communications officer's expression, knowing what was going through her mind.

With all due respect, Admiral—” Weathers began.

Yes, yes,” Parks waved her down. “Doctor Tunstall has said that he wants to assess my health ‘before he'll let me return to duty’,” Parks completed for her. “I've been in here for pretty much two days now, undisturbed, so that should be good enough for him. Send him up here immediately, and make sure they bring a pot of strong coffee with breakfast.” He had a feeling he was going to need it today.

Weathers acknowledged him and was proceeding. “Oh, one thing you should know, sir,” she said, pausing. “We took inventory last night and, with the rampant fires within food storage having destroyed so much, Liu has put temporary rationing in place until he could get your opinion. He figured that since potentially we could be out here for another few weeks, it was either rationing or jump back to Confederation space.”

Okay, I'll deal with it while we're in jump.”

... which means that breakfast will consist largely of toast and scrambled eggs.”

Nothing else? Not even bacon?”

Weathers tapped away at her tablet. “Omar Wyatt has just reported dealing with an incident in the messdeck over that,” she added. “So, yes, just toast and eggs.”

On second thought, maybe he'd have to check the food situation sooner. “Thank you, Karen. I'll meet you on the bridge soon.”

Weathers was again leaving, before a second pause. “Sir, if I may ...”

From the tone, this heralded a personal discussion, not something professional. He gestured for her to continue.

If we are still planning to put down on Kethlan and search Capitis Duname for Admiral Zackaria, could I please request that you hold Christopher back from the drop team? He's all I have left, all I've ever really had. I know that's a lot to ask and we need every capable hand we can spare, but I'm not sure how I'd feel if he were killed down there.”

Her eyes were pleading, clearly hoping that Parks would tell her that he would deny her son permission to head to the Imperial capital city, probably the most dangerous place in the entire galaxy right now. Unfortunately, he could make no such promises. “I understand, Karen,” he said, “but I can't refuse his participation on personal grounds. We've all lost a lot of those close to us, some even seeing their whole families die before their very eyes while they were charged with protecting them. It's difficult for me to start making exceptions at this stage. He's a remarkable soldier and marksman for his age, too, so his skills will without doubt be wanted down there.”

Okay, sir. I understand.” She collected herself before she spoke, though she still appeared crestfallen.

But what I can do is ensure that, should he be selected for the drop, he is teamed with the very best,” Parks added. “Which he probably would be, anyway.”

That brought a small smile to Weathers' face, despite her not being as reassured as she had hoped to be. “Thank you, sir.” She tapped away at her tablet. “Tunstall should be with you in the next fifteen minutes.”

Excellent, Parks thought to himself as she departed, enough time for that shower and a shave. The beard took longer to remove than he had anticipated, and once he was done he found the person staring back at him from the mirror a little unrecognisable – almost as if it wasn't really him. He had only had the beard for two weeks, yet it felt like years. Had those grey strands, some now in the wash basin, been growing a while or only made an appearance in the past few days?

He glimpsed a figure clothed in the naval blues of the CSN, standing behind him in the mirror. A fleeting glance it had been, yet it still caused him to spin around to see who was standing there. No one. He knew in the back of his mind whom he expected – Storm or Hawke. Both men were dead, but their ghosts seemed to accompany him wherever he went. He would sometimes sense a weight at the end of his bed as he tried to sleep, as though someone were sitting there, always to find nothing. That would be the guilt.

Breakfast arrived as he finished up, though Tunstall was clearly running late. Parks sat himself down at his desk, powering up the console there and opening up his personal messages. A new one from Sima. He read it as he ate his toast and eggs. Though her message spoke only of the dispiriting state of the allies' attempt to hold the ever-shrinking line against the Pandoran army, he still found comfort in her words. She concluded the message, as always, with a whimsical thought about the house they would share together after the end of the war. She had now decided she wanted a place with five bedrooms, so that they could have space for guests, as well as for when their adopted boy and girl grew too old to share. There would also be space for some yet to be chosen hobby that either she or Parks might take up. The thought made him smile. He would reply later that he wanted a place closer to a park, rather than a beach, so he could walk the dog.

Breakfast finished, he dressed, then continued to wait for the doctor. An incident must've been holding him up. Had one of the scuffles been a little more serious than first thought? He looked over the messages from the past few days, checking to see if there were any outstanding items that demanded his attention. He heard the jump countdown commence, before Griffin started for Kethlan. Liu had clearly chosen to give the go-ahead without him, most likely prompted to do so by Weathers. Nothing in the message inbox demanded Parks' immediate attention.

He scanned the older messages, scrolling back to a year ago and seeing the series of communications from David Turner. They had been regular messages, one a day, on some occasions, two. The content varied wildly in length, but always had one thing in common, a simple instruction.


Bishop to b5” was noted under this one. He looked through some other messages, to the instructions attached to those –



Algebraic chess notation. Parks scrolled back through a few more messages, finally coming to the start of the thread.

Keep your mind sharp, Elliott,” part of it read. “You were able to track down Zackaria once; you can do it again. But if you're going to find him, you'll need to train yourself for the task. I therefore propose a game of chess.

Parks had always hated chess. The pieces, the thought process, the need for intricate deliberation that went into every single move. It had always proved extremely frustrating. He had always felt stupid whilst playing the game, even more so when the inevitable defeat came. But Turner had already set it up, taking command of the black pieces and sending over his first move. Parks hadn't argued, willing to at least humour the former fleet admiral. Parks' opening move hadn't been anything special – he'd simply moved a pawn up the board by two spaces.

Chess is not just about careful planning and thinking ahead,” Turner had said during his next move. “It's about getting into your opponent's head, understanding them and anticipating their next move, sometimes even before they do. Remember to take your time. It often helps to go slower, when you want to go faster.

Parks understood that now. He had heeded the advice, taking the time to play the game, studying the board and trying to plan at least two moves ahead. He soon found himself applying the same logic to the Pandoran army's manoeuvres. Or, more specifically, Zackaria's. The Pandoran fleet's moves were all too simple to guess. They would go from inhabited star system to inhabited star system, only rarely modifying the numbers that would make the hit, well aware that they vastly outnumbered and outgunned those they fought. No, Zackaria was what he needed to focus on, the one whom he still needed to find, if only he knew how.

It was then he had hit upon a hunch. Or rather, he admitted, it had blindsided him one morning. There was no reason to presume that Zackaria would be leading the frontline forces at all times. He would certainly be in overall charge, but he had other duties, too, dictated by his loyalty to the Senate and his faithfulness to the Empire. Parks figured that Zackaria would need to be doing two things – showing himself to the people, to inspire and empower them with his presence, and, with the war so close to its end, meeting with the Senior Magistrate and discovering what his plans were for the homeworld of the traitors. For Earth. After all, Parks mused, when one defeats a king in battle you tended to take and occupy his castle, not reduce it to rubble. The Pandorans had actually followed this after taking Kethlan, the Royal Palace being a prize worth preserving. They might, of course, choose to reduce Earth to ash but he was gambling that they would decide to occupy it.

It was a sketchy set of tenuous ideas, and perhaps over optimistic in many places. But somehow it felt right. And so he had requested a careful monitoring of the main Pandoran fleet, for anything unusual that might give a clue to Zackaria's movements. The traffic had been tremendous, battleships, frigates, landers, carriers, the scores and scores of starfighters ... The magnitude of the task seemed to have almost defeated them before they had begun, a true needle and haystack undertaking.

But again Parks had driven himself to think as though he were the man. Should the admiral be returning to Kethlan or Krasst, he doubted he would be removing any of the capital ships from the field, to act as his personal ferry. This was a man who had happily stridden around battlefields on Mythos, Lancer and Oden without fear for his own personal safety. Something smaller was what they should be looking for, perhaps nondescript.

Parks had found it.

A single shuttle had been identified departing the main Pandoran fleet, jumping away. It had returned some days later. Where it had gone was unknown, but to Parks that wasn't important. When the same shuttle had been seen performing the same journey on a handful of other occasions, he was certain that it was what they had been searching for. At one point, Parks had thought his task fruitless, impossible. Now he felt that there was a chance of success. A small chance, yes, but it had at least presented itself. Now all they had to do was find a way to head the man off. Chess, he had assured himself, would help him to refine those ideas.

The messages from Turner stopped abruptly one day, and it wasn't until ten days later that he'd been given the reason. Turner had passed away peacefully one night in his sleep, aged seventy-three, his daughter Abigail had informed Parks. She had thanked Parks for being his friend over the years and keeping in contact with him, even after his forced retirement. Parks had written back to say that he was sorry for the family's loss and to pass on his condolences. He'd not heard any more from that point on, the chess game left unfinished.

Turner might've had him, too. Check in four moves, mate swiftly thereafter, Parks reckoned, if he hadn't done something about it. He had a possible solution, one that involved a feint and sacrificing both his bishops. That was if Turner hadn't constructed a double feint. Parks wouldn't have put it past him. The man could be cunning. He would miss him.

But at least you left me with good advice, David, Parks thought.

His quarters' door lock jingled, drawing him back to reality. “Enter,” he called. The door slid to. A short man, carrying a black case with him was standing on the opposite side. “Ah, Doctor, excellent,” Parks said, as Griffin's physician crossed the threshold.

Admiral,” Tunstall said, with a small nod.

Let's get this over with, shall we?” Parks said, rolling up his sleeve. “I have a ship to get back to running.”

* * *

Parks felt like a man returning to the exclusive club from which he'd been previously barred, as he stepped back onto the bridge. Many of the crew rose from their seats and presented smart salutes, though Parks was certain that some had been half-expecting him to be striding down the aisle overtly mad, perhaps with two bread sticks wedged up his nose, or literally barking. As he reached the front of the bridge, Liu looked around and extracted himself from the captain's chair, acknowledging Parks' return.

Admiral,” he said, saluting.

Parks returned it. “Permission to return to duty, Captain?” he said.

Granted,” the helmsman said, smiling. “Welcome back, Captain.”

Thank you for all your work during my absence, Ali,” Parks said. “Return to your posts,” he added to the bridge crew, who were still eyeing him closely. “What's the latest?” he asked, looking back to Liu.

We're currently in jump, heading towards the Kethlan system, with our destination as the planet Kethlan itself,” Liu said, gesturing towards the frontal viewport, where the cross-dimensional transit was quite visible. Everything was as expected; the familiar blue clouds of the jump space tunnel were present, the conduit itself stretching off seemingly into infinity.

Parks could just about make out seven craft in front of Griffin – the Knights, along with the four other starfighters he had requested, leading the way.

Any issues I should be aware of?” Parks asked.

Nothing in the past half-hour,” Liu said.

What's our ETA?”

Approximately another eighteen minutes.”

Hell, he'd cut that a little fine. A good thing there weren't any urgent issues that needed addressing. Tunstall had given him the all-clear quite quickly after he'd arrived, confirming, as Parks had always suspected, that he was fatigued and that the doctor simply wanted him to rest for a while. It had done him good, he admitted.

Good man,” he said to Liu, “Thank you once again. Please return to the helm. How far out from Kethlan are we positioned to emerge?” he added, once Liu had returned to his regular post.

About 100,000 kilometres out, as originally planned, sir,” Liu said. “We're staying well away from planetary dispatch points.”

Good. The last thing we want to do is drop out of jump right next to their ODPs.” And everything else that's probably waiting for us there, he added to himself. “Who is leading the escort wing?”

Commander Koonan, sir,” Liu said. “I figured that since he is the only person who has ever been in Imperial space before, he may prove a somewhat better decision maker than Dodds or Todd.”

There wasn't exactly much in it, as far as Parks was concerned, but he understood where Liu was coming from. Out of the three, Koonan seemed most level-headed. Todd was exhibiting a sense of ambivalence, sometimes seeming neither here nor there. He no longer appeared to care whether the allies won or lost, and was just mechanically doing what he could with the time and resources that were available to him. Dodds was clearly in a cycle of depression. Had he not been an ATAF pilot, Parks might well have suspended him from the flight roster.

Are our escorts and the fleet aware of our exit strategy?” Parks asked.

Yes, sir. Should our arrival into Kethlan result in us encountering an overwhelming enemy presence, then we will prepare to execute a jump out of the system.”

And all are aware that we'll need to hold them off for at least ten minutes to allow the engines to wind down to a point where they're safely usable again?”

Everyone has acknowledged the dangers posed by multiple successive jumps. But having said that, in the face of an overwhelming enemy force are you sure you wouldn't want us to run an emergency jump, anyway?”

Parks couldn't help but chuckle, “I don't know about anyone else, but I'd rather avoid another unnecessary stop over in Phylent, Mr Liu.”

* * *

Those eighteen minutes passed quickly for Parks, who spent the time getting back up to speed with the bridge's crew. When the time came to drop out of jump, he returned to the captain's seat to await the result of his decision to head to Kethlan. He didn't hope that if he were wrong he would live to regret it.

Approaching the Kethlan system,” Liu called to the bridge. “Disengaging from jump in ten seconds.”

There was tension in the man's voice, a tension that seemed to radiate from all those present. Indeed, it felt to Parks as though all the members of Griffin's crew were holding their breath. He felt his grip tighten on the arm rests as the information was relayed to the fleet, and a short time later Liu disengaged the engines. The blue clouds of jump space slipped away, Kethlan and the surrounding stars rushing forward to meet them ...

... and the scene that greeted Parks almost caused him to swallow his tongue.

Scattered all around them, stretching all the way towards the huge marble-like orb that was Kethlan, were innumerable ships, of multiple configurations. Hundreds of thousands wouldn't have been an exaggeration. Likely many, many more.

In only a few seconds, Parks counted dozens of frigates, landers, corvettes, rocket boats, fighters, bombers, at least five dreadnoughts right there in front of them, as well as what looked like a half-constructed carrier. He didn't have time to check properly, his eyes were too busy darting over everything else. He heard one of the escort pilots swear over the open channel, then saw the seven fighters ahead of them instantly break formation to take evasive actions, moving into what looked like attack patterns.

Well, it was nice knowing you guys,” Enrique Todd's voice came.

Parks swallowed. “Mr Liu, I thought you said we were set to exit jump 100,000 kilometres out from Kethlan?” he said, looking towards the planet. Judging from the size of the planet in the frontal viewport, it looked as though they had. But all those ships! There surely could not be so many that they stretched out for that distance?

We have, sir,” Liu said. “Unless these readings are wrong, we are still 104,000 kilometres from Kethlan.”

Griffin, this is Koonan,” the man's voice came over the bridge's comms. “We are preparing to break and engage enemy targets. Please advise on withdrawal strategy.”

Parks reacted immediately, ordering the fleet to take evasive action and move themselves into the open, away from the huge cluster of ships that seemed to pack every available inch of space around them. “Give me a threat assessment,” he called, once Griffin was headed for open space where it could stand and fight.

Nothing yet, sir,” he heard. “Enemy forces appear to be holding position.”

Griffin, enemy forces have not yet responded to our arrival,” Koonan said. “Please advise.”

Parks studied the scene beyond the frontal viewport, seeing the multitude of vessels continuing to hang exactly where they had been when the allied fleet had first entered the system. Even though they had arrived barely a minute earlier, experience had taught Parks to expect an instant response from the Pandoran army, a rush of incoming ships to intercept and take down their adversaries, within a matter of seconds. What was taking so long?

He moved to Liu's console, walking gingerly, almost afraid that his very footsteps might be the detonator charge that brought the scores of enemy vessels surging toward them, and looked over the radar display on the man's console. As expected, it was littered with red markers and vessel labels. Strangely, however, they all appeared to be remaining static, only shifting on the screen as a result of Griffin's own manoeuvres, not budging even a fraction of an inch of their own accord.

Your display is accurate, Captain?” Parks found himself needing to ask.

Yes, sir,” Liu said. “I could run a diagnostic if you want?”

No,” Parks said, then called to the bridge to confirm whether the other radar technicians were seeing the same thing. They were.

Dodds, Enrique, hold position,” Koonan's voice came as the two ATAFs raced off towards a stationary set of mixed class starfighters, not far from them. “The rest of you, fall back to my position. Do not fire, unless fired upon. Griffin, please respond. Should we engage targets?”

Hold your position,” Parks started.

Captain,” Weathers looked up from her console, before Parks could continue. “I'm receiving communications requests from the fleet captains.”

Bring them up,” Parks said. Several holographic projections sprang into existence, the imagery feeding in from the bridges of the other vessels of the fleet. The expressions on the faces of the captains seemed to be a match for Parks' own.

Admiral,” the captain of Agent 57 began, “what ... what's going on?”

Your guess is as good as mine, Parks thought. He saw that Agent 57 was weaving its way through the never-ending cluster of enemy capital ships that dotted the immediate area, moving completely unchallenged between them. Guns remained silent on both sides.

Do they think we're one of them?” Agent 57's captain asked.

No,” Parks said, “they would've responded to the presence of the ATAFs.” He looked again to the scene beyond the frontal viewport and the radar systems, both of which still showed the opposing vessels doing nothing but holding position. Were they damaged? No, they didn't even appear to be drifting. The captains of Colonel K and the Goon Sunrise had started to converse with one another, suggesting that it might be best to exit the system as quickly as possible, while they still had the chance.

Give me a status report on the nearest vessels to us,” Parks requested.

Shields are down, weapons systems down, life support active, engines down ... although they appear to have fired recently,” came the report.

To stop them from drifting off, Parks reasoned. Likely, that was due to an automated system, designed to keep the vessels in place and prevent collisions with one another as they waited for ... for whatever it was they were here for. “Widen the scan,” he said.

Same for all others,” the report came back.

Parks was baffled. What the hell was going on?

We're receiving similar readings,” the captains of the fleet reported. “There is no activity from any craft close by.”

Now Parks was completely stumped. For a time he struggled with a decision as to how to handle this quite unexpected situation. Eventually, he ordered the fighter escort to stand down and the fleet to seek out the least densely populated area of the system. As before, they did so unchallenged, their hosts seemingly oblivious to their arrival.

Should I prepare jump engines, Captain?” Liu asked.

No,” Parks shook his head. “Get some cameras on those ships,” he said, tired of squinting out the frontal viewport. “Maybe they'll help us to figure out what's going on over there.” Why hadn't they reacted? What was going on? Was it a trap? Memories of Dragon surfaced, and he found himself hesitant to give any other orders. Maybe the best idea truly would be to turn around and get the hell out of there. “Karen, are you intercepting any communications between vessels?”

No, sir,” Weathers came back to him.

Have any vessels activated weapon systems or any other components since our arrival?”

Not as far as I can tell.”

Curious. “Tracking systems? Is anything scanning us?”

I'm detecting a handful of tracking systems at maximum scan range,” Liu eventually confirmed.

Here was the trap. “Where?” Parks asked.

From the ODPs circling Kethlan.”

The confusion returned. “Are they attempting locks?”

No, sir,” Liu said. “We're well out of their firing range.”

Why are you just sitting there?” Parks asked out loud. “Why aren't you attacking us?” He became aware that everyone was looking to him to explain what they were seeing. But, frankly, he was all out of answers. If this truly was a trap, designed to lure them into a false sense of security before attacking, then the enemy had already passed up several chances. Perhaps they were planning to spring their attack once the fleet moved closer to the planet? No. Again, that made no sense. If they were going to destroy the fleet, then why wait for them to spend several hours negotiating the minefield of warships that lay in wait? Were they planning to capture them at a more opportune moment? He was beginning to doubt that. They outnumbered the four allied craft by many hundreds to one. Why wait?

He clutched at some straws, wondering if the CSN vessels were somehow invisible to visual and electronic detection, due to some unexplainable phenomenon that had taken place during their exit from jump. The straws broke as he remembered Liu confirming their detection by Kethlan's orbital defence platforms. He racked his brain some more. Nothing. He looked about the bridge and then to the holographic displays of puzzled faces. “I'm open to suggestions,” he admitted.

Admiral.” It was Dodds. “I'm not sure whether this means anything, but as we were coming back I gave some of the fighters a flyby and took a look at the pilots.”

You noticed something unusual?”

You could say that – they were all just sitting there, not moving at all. They didn't even look at me, no matter how close I came.”

Not at all?”

No, sir. I got in as close to the bridge of one of the landers as I could and it appears that it's the same story in there, too.”

And you have an opinion of why you think that might be?” Parks wanted to know.

Dodds was silent for a moment, as if reluctant to provide an answer. “Well,” he said, “to tell you the truth, sir, I think it's because they're all dead.”