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Rear Admiral
Henry Gallant

Chapter 1
Far Away

Captain Henry Gallant was still far away, but he could already make out the bright blue marble of Earth floating in the black velvet ocean of space.

His day was flat and dreary. Since entering the solar system, he had been unable to sleep. Instead, he found himself wandering around the bridge like a marble rattling in a jar. His mind had seemingly abandoned his body to meander on its own, leaving his empty shell to limp through his routine. He hoped tomorrow would bring something better.

I’ll be home soon, he thought.

A welcoming image of Alaina flashed into his mind, but it was instantly shattered by the memory of their last bitter argument. The quarrel had occurred the day he was deployed to the Ross star system and had haunted him throughout the mission.  Now that incident loomed like a glaring threat to his homecoming.

As he stared at the main viewscreen of the Constellation, he listened to the bridge crew’s chatter.

“The sensor sweep is clear, sir,” reported an operator.

Gallant was tempted to put a finger to his lips and hiss, “shh,” so he could resume his brooding silence. But that would be unfair to his crew. They were as exhausted and drained from the long demanding deployment as he was. They deserved better.

He plopped down into his command chair and said, “Coffee.”

The auto-server delivered a steaming cup to the armrest portal. After a few gulps, the coffee woke him from his zombie state. He checked the condition of his ship on a viewscreen.

The Constellation was among the largest machines ever built by human beings. She was the queen of the task force, and her crew appreciated her sheer size and strength. She carried them through space with breathtaking majesty, possessing power and might and stealth that established her as the quintessential pride of human ingenuity. They knew every centimeter of her from the forward viewport to the aft exhaust port. Her dull grey titanium hull didn’t glitter or sparkle, but every craggy plate on her exterior was tingling with lethal purpose. She could fly conventionally at a blistering three-tenths the speed of light between planets. And between stars, she warped at faster than the speed of light. Even now, returning from the Ross star system with her depleted starfighters, battle damage, and exhausted crew, she could face any enemy by spitting out starfighters, missiles, lasers, and plasma death.

After a moment, he switched the readout to scan the other ships in the task force. Without taking special notice, he considered the material state of one ship after another. Several were in a sorrowful dysfunctional condition, begging for a dockyard’s attention. He congratulated himself for having prepared a detailed refit schedule for when they reached the Moon’s shipyards. He hoped it would speed along the repair process.

Earth’s moon would offer the beleaguered Task Force 34, the rest and restoration it deserved after its grueling operation. The Moon was the main hub of the United Planets’ fleet activities. The Luna bases were the most elaborate of all the space facilities in the Solar System. They performed ship overhauls and refits, as well as hundreds of new constructions. Luna’s main military base was named Armstrong Luna and was the home port of the 1st Fleet, fondly called the Home Fleet.

Captain Julie Ann McCall caught Gallant’s eye as she rushed from the Combat Information Center onto the bridge. There was a troubled look on her face.

Is she anxious to get home too?

Was there someone special waiting for her? Or would she, once more, disappear into the recesses of the Solar Intelligence Agency?

After all these years, she’s still a mystery to me.

McCall approached him and leaned close to his face.

In a hushed throaty voice, she whispered, “Captain, we’ve received an action message. You must read it immediately.”

Her tight self-control usually obscured her emotions, but now something extraordinary appeared in her translucent blue eyes—fear!

He placed his thumb over his command console ID recognition pad. A few swipes over the screen, and he saw the latest action message icon flashing red. He tapped the symbol, and it opened.

 

TOP SECRET: ULTRA - WAR WARNING

Date-time stamp: 06.11.2176.12:00

Authentication code: Alpha-Gamma 1916

 

To: All Solar System Commands

From: Solar Intelligence Agency

Subject: War Warning

Diplomatic peace negotiations with the Titans have broken down.

Repeat:

Diplomatic peace negotiations with the Titans have broken down.

What this portends is unknown, but all commands are to be

on the highest alert in anticipation of the resumption of hostilities.

 

Russell Rissa

Director SIA

TOP SECRET: ULTRA - WAR WARNING

 

He reread the terse communication.

As if emerging from a cocoon, Gallant brushed off his preoccupation over his forthcoming liberty. He considered the possibilities. Last month, he sent the sample Halo detection devices to Earth. He hoped that the SIA had analyzed the technology and distributed it to the fleet, though knowing government bureaucracy, he guessed that effort would need his prodding before the technology came into widespread use. Still, there should be time before it becomes urgent. The SIA had predicted that the Titans would need at least two years to rebuild their forces before they could become a threat again.

 

Could he rely on that?

Even though he was getting closer to Earth with every passing second, the light from the inner planets was several days old. Something could have already transpired. There was one immutable lesson in war: never underestimate your opponent.

A shiver ran down his spine.

This is bad. Very bad!

Gone was the malaise that had haunted him earlier. Now, he emerged as a disciplined military strategist, intent on facing a major new challenge.

Looking expectantly, he examined McCall’s face for an assessment.

Shaking her head, she hesitated. “The picture is incomplete. I have little to offer.”

Gallant needed her to be completely open and honest with him, but he was unsure how to win that kind of support.

He rubbed his chin and spoke softly, “I’d like to tell you a story about a relationship I’ve had with a trusted colleague. And I’d like you to pretend that you were that colleague.”

McCall furrowed her brow, but a curious gleam grew in her eyes.

 He said, “I’ve known this colleague long enough to know her character even though she has been secretive about her personal life and loyalties.”

McCall inhaled and visibly relaxed as she exhaled. Her eyes focused their sharp acumen on Gallant.

“She is bright enough to be helpful and wise enough not to be demanding,” continued Gallant. “She has offered insights into critical issues and made informed suggestions that have influenced me. She is astute and might know me better than I know myself because of the tests she has conducted. When I’ve strayed into the sensitive topic of genetic engineering, she has soothed my bumpy relationship with politicians.”

He hesitated. Then added, “Yet, she has responsibilities and professional constraints on her candidness. She might be reluctant to speak openly on sensitive issues, particularly to me.”

McCall’s face was a blank mask, revealing no trace of her inner response to his enticing words.

He said, “If you can relate to this, I want you to consider that we are at a perilous moment. It is essential that you speak frankly to me about any insights you might have about this situation.”

 

She swallowed and took a step closer to Gallant. Their faces were mere centimeters apart.

“Very well,” she said. “The Chameleon are a spent force. After the loss of their last Great Ship, they are defenseless. They agreed to an unconditional surrender. They might even beg for our help from the Titans. Their moral system is like ours and should not be a concern in any forthcoming action.

 

However, the Titans have an amoral empathy with other species.”

He gave an encouraging nod.

She added, “Despite the defeat of Admiral Zzey’s fleet in Ross, the Titans remain a considerable threat. They opened peace negotiations ostensibly to seek a treaty with a neutral zone between our two empires. But we can’t trust them. They are too aggressive and self-interested to keep any peace for long. One option they might try is to eliminate the Chameleon while they have the opportunity.

 

 Another is to rebuild their fleet for a future strike against us. However, the most alarming possibility would be an immediate attack against us with everything they currently have. They might even leave their home world exposed. But that would only make sense if they could achieve an immediate and overwhelming strategic victory.”

Gallant grimaced as he absorbed her analysis.

She concluded, “This dramatic rejection of diplomacy can only mean that they are ready to reignite the war—with a vengeance. They will strike us with swift and ruthless abandon.”

Gallant turned his gaze toward the bright blue marble—still far away.

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