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"Admiral," came another voice, this one from the other Carinthian captain, Dietar Von Zimmerman. "Fearless has been passed over twice now for missions away from home. Can I ask why?" His Carinthian accent was lighter than most, and I hadn't found communicating with him a problem at all, as his Standard English was very good.

Wesley nodded to Commodore Maclintock, who had operational command over deployed Union forces, for an answer to the inquiry.

"The facts are, Captain Von Zimmerman, that I would like to send you out and get your feet wet. Unfortunately, Carinthian Navy Command has insisted that at least one Lightship remain in-system at all times until Bismarck is commissioned next year. As of this time, that ship has been designated as Fearless," replied Maclintock.

What he was really saying was that Von Zimmerman's father, the Air Marshal of Carinthia, was keeping his boy close to home. It didn't sit well. Von Zimmerman got a sour look on his face, then said, "So, Ozil and Dobrina get to have all the fun again, and Fearless and I get to go back and forth between High Stations, never leaving our home star."

Maclintock shrugged. "Captain Kierkopf does have battle experience with the Empire, Dietar, and the Carinthian Navy Command is requesting that you stay in-system. There's really nothing I can do about that, except in an emergency. And I think we should all be thankful there have been no recent emergencies. Using any quiet time we have in this conflict is to our ultimate advantage, Captain."

"Aye, sir," Von Zimmerman said with more than a trace of resignation in his voice. "Next up: Captain Tannace of Resolution," said Wesley, comfortable with overseeing if not running the meeting.

"Aye, sir," replied Tannace. He was an agreeable man in his mid-forties, a bit old for a Lightship command, but he had been Maclintock's loyal number two for many years. His appearance was always spit-polish clean, and I was told that's the way he ran his ship. He was a by-the-book commander, and every fleet needed its cache of those to balance out the more risk-friendly types, like me.

"Afraid it's the milk run to Carinthia again, Devin," said Maclintock. "There's another shipment of food goods from the bazaar at Artemis. Even live goats, I've heard—part of the rebuilding efforts. It's not glamorous, but if you manage to pick up some Carinthian schnapps on the way back through and drop them off here at Candle, well, I'm sure you'll get a good evaluation on your next rating."

Tannace laughed and responded with an "Aye, sir." Then we were on to the next issue at hand. Wesley cut in and asked for a report on the Jenarus negotiations by Valiant's Captain Scott.

"The Jenaurians are real shits to negotiate with, sir," said Scott frankly. He was a tall, sinewy, Earth-born African man, darker than any I had ever met. We had our share of aboriginal descendants from the Australian continent on Quantar, but none like him. When he spoke, it was with authority and experience. "They want massive concessions from the standard Concord Agreement, and I'm not of a mind to give in to them. The biggest hurdle is establishing a representative democracy. They have an authoritarian bent to their planetary government, and there are three or four other nation-states that also want a seat at the table, so negotiations may take a while. Still, whenever I tell them we'll come back at another time when they're in better moods, they rush to give in on things. It will take time, Admiral, but I expect they will eventually come to an agreement with us."

"Good news, Wynn. Please keep me informed of your progress, and remember that the Union Council has the Jenarus system at the top of their list for expansion," said Wesley.

"Will do, Admiral," said Scott.

Wesley nodded, giving the floor back to Maclintock, who turned his attention to Zander's report on Vanguard's progress. Zander's transformation over the last eighteen months, since the attack on his shuttle at Levant, was nothing short of miraculous. He now had two eyes again, his skin was a smooth pink, and he even had wisps of white hair hanging down to his shoulders, Bohemian style. It was a far cry from the charred face I had pulled into Impulse's Downship that day at Levant.

Vanguard was officially one month from being commissioned, but Zander already had her crewed up and ready to go. In a pinch, I suspected she could be ready for a fight in days. In fact, I figured Zander could launch her in twenty-four hours if he wanted.

"My intent is to take her out next week on a traverse run to Minara. It's forty-two light-years, so that should be a good test of the traverse drive system," said Zander in his gravel-rough voice.

"Sounds good, Lucius. No contact with the locals, if you please, but you might find your way clear to leave your IFF signal beacon on for a while. The tech survey team said the Minarans seem to have a high level of technology and may have even detected our probes. So don't be afraid to let them know you're there and friendly," said Maclintock.

"Aye, Commodore," replied Zander.

"Captain Kierkopf," said Maclintock. "All ready for the Skondar mission?"

"Ready as we'll ever be," said Dobrina. "Skondar is close to the borderline with empire space. Based on our Historian's longwave probe reports, I have my doubts that we'll find any kind of functioning colony or camp there. But we'll investigate it thoroughly. We've added another thirty marines to our complement and dropped our Downship in favor of the two reinforced marine gunships the Earthers offered. If anybody is alive down there and wants a fight, they'll get one."


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

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