Good morning! Once again it’s Saturday and that means time for another snippet. Sometimes, the snippet will be from works-in-progress. Sometimes, it will be from books available for pre-order. Or, like today, the snippet may come from a book already published. Today’s offering is from from Honor from Ashes, the third book in the Honor & Duty Series.
“Please have a seat, Colonel. The others will join you shortly.”
Before she could reply, the young lieutenant stepped back and the door slid shut. For a moment, Lt. Colonel Ashlyn Shaw stared at the door, her concern growing. It went beyond this unscheduled – and so far unexplained – summons to meet with General Helen Okafor, Commandant of the Fuerconese Marine Corps. It even went beyond the very bad memories she had of this particular conference room. Something was wrong, very wrong. She could feel it all the way down to her bones. She simply didn’t know what it might be.
A frown tugged at the corners of her mouth as she looked around. Memories washed over her. Two and a half years ago, she had stood in this very same conference room, still unaware that her life was about to be turned into a living Hell. That day, the JAG officer in charge of prosecuting her and the surviving members of her squad had offered her a deal. If she pled guilty to all charges, he would recommend a sentence of twenty-five years – without parole – and would make sure her people served only ten years He assured her it was much better than she would get if she were found guilty of the charges that had been leveled against her. She had refused. How could she plead guilty, how could she ask her people to plead guilty, when they had done nothing wrong? Foolishly, she had believed her beloved Corps would not turn its back on her and her squad mates.
That decision had cost all of them two years in the military penal colony on Tarsus. Two long years when she believed the Corps, her family and her homeworld had turned their backs on her. She knew better now but the hurt and the distrust sometimes returned. She had no doubt it would continue until those responsible for framing her and her squad, not to mention being responsible for the deaths of their squadmates, were tried and found guilty.
But she had to put that behind her.
She had put it behind her.
Breathing deeply, she turned and made her way to the table in the center of the room. The only other person present watched her, his expression betraying a mixture of concern and curiosity. Seeing it, she guessed he had more idea why they had been sent for than did she. Unfortunately, that did nothing to reassure her. Experience had taught her bad things came all too often from such meetings.
“Stand easy, Ash,” Admiral Richard Collins said before she could brace to attention. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you, sir.” She sat opposite him and smiled in appreciation as he poured her a mug of coffee the carafe someone had left.
“By any chance do you know what this is all about?”
“That’s a negative, sir. I was hoping you could tell me.”
She heard the uncertainty in her voice and silently cursed it. No, she cursed the reason for it. The nightmares that had plagued her might be coming with less frequency but they still lurked just beneath the surface of her self-control. They mingled with the ever-present doubt that the last few months had been nothing but a ruse and she would soon find herself back on Tarsus, once again a military prisoner. Intellectually, she knew that to be false but it was hard to put the betrayals of the past behind her.
“I guess we have to wait and see then.”
Ashlyn nodded again and produced her datapad. She might have to wait to find out why she’d been sent for but that didn’t mean she couldn’t work. There were always reports to review or to write and assignments to be made. Even though the Devil Dogs had been groundside for almost a month, it was her job to keep them at combat readiness. Fuercon was at war and that meant they could be shipped out any time or, worse, the capital could once again come under attack.
The door once again slid open. Instantly, Ashlyn and Collins slid their chairs away from the table and stood. As they braced to attention, two others entered. They remained silent as they move to the table. Then, as the door closed and a low hum filled the room, signaling full security block had been put in place, Linden Klingsbury, Secretary of Defense, motioned for everyone to be seated.
“Thank you both for coming.” His deep voice might not betray his feelings but his eyes did. Ashlyn saw the worry and something else, anger maybe, reflected in them. “I apologize for not only the early hour but also for the lack of notice in getting you here. I assure you, it was necessary. The last thing General Okafor and I want is for certain parties to start asking questions we aren’t ready to answer.”
He broke off as a soft tone signaled someone at the door. A moment after the admiral lowered the security screen, the door slid open. The lieutenant who had shown Ash in earlier stepped inside, followed by an ensign carrying a tray with coffee and several covered dishes on it. They quickly served coffee to the newcomers and then topped off Ash’s and Collins’ mugs. After making sure nothing else was needed, they left the room. Klingsbury reactivated the security screen even as he motioned for everyone to help themselves.
“Admiral, Colonel, what you are about to see and hear cannot leave this room. The only reason you are being read in right now is because this information came to us through your actions as well as the actions of your people. Your last mission gave us a treasure trove of information we are still examining. To be honest, even that isn’t reason enough to read you in. However, both of you have started asking questions that show you have started putting two and two together. These questions, while valid, are best left unasked for the moment. It is my hope you will understand before you leave here.”
Concern once again growing, Ashlyn reached for her mug. As she did, she thought back to that last mission. They had been lucky, probably luckier than they had any right to expect. For whatever reason, the enemy had moved out of the Cassius System, leaving only a minimal defensive presence. Whether they had been overconfident or there had been another motive, she didn’t know and, frankly, she didn’t care. That decision had meant First Fleet and the Devil Dogs had been able to liberate the system and rescue the POWs with minimal losses.
None of which explained what the admiral meant.
“Before we get started, I need you to confirm, on record, that none of what you are about to see or hear will leave this room without permission from either myself or General Okafor,” Klingsbury continued.
For a moment, neither Collins nor Ashlyn spoke. “A point of clarification, sir,” Collins said. “Does this apply to our XOs?”
Ash frowned. She did not like keeping her XO in the dark, no matter what the information might be. That was especially true if the information could help the Devil Dogs do their duty. “General, begging your pardon, but that could put our people at a serious disadvantage.”
“Ash, I understand your concerns,” General Helen Okafor said. “All we are asking is you don’t jump to conclusions until you have seen what we have to show you. If, after you have, you still want to discuss reading in your XOs, we will consider it.”
Knowing she could ask for nothing more, Ash nodded. “Then, with that proviso, I agree.”
“As do I,” Collins said.
“Thank you, both of you.” Klingsbury punched a code into the console in front of him and the holo display over the table came to life. The Fuerconese flag filled the display. “Admiral Collins, Colonel Shaw, the two of you, along with the men and women under your commands, have served Fuercon and its allies well. This information will help bring an end to the war, hopefully sooner rather than later. But it is not something we can move on just yet. Not without further confirmation of what it appears to represent. However, I believe that once you see this, you will understand its importance and the need for secrecy until we are ready to act.
“Help yourselves to food and then we’ll get started. There is a lot for you to see and, unless I miss my guess, there will be even more to discuss,” Okafor said.
Ash cast a quick glance at Collins who shrugged. Like it or not, she would just have to wait to find out why she’d been summoned to this off-the-books meeting with the Commandant of the Fuerconese Marine Corps and Secretary of Defense.
* * *
“Sir, we just entered the outer limits of system detection range,” Tactical reported. His dark eyes burned with anticipation as he glanced at his commanding officer before quickly returning his attention to his board.
“No challenge yet, Commander,” Comms answered.
“Order the squadron to maintain formation. Start squawking our ID. Don’t give them any reason to doubt who we are – yet.”
At the rear of the bridge, he sat a bit straighter in his command chair. A smile played at the corners of his mouth and his pale eyes mirrored the almost feral delight of his tactical officer as they neared their target. He watched as his senior bridge crew checked their readings, occasionally comming CIC to confirm a reading. With each moment that passed, they were closer to their goal. His expression reflected his determination to successfully complete their mission or die trying.
Seconds turned into minutes before Comms motioned for quiet. “Incoming message, Commander. We are being challenged.”
“Sensor readings?” He stood and moved closer to the holo display of the Cassian System.
“They’ve hit us with passive scans. Wouldn’t have picked them up if we hadn’t been looking for them, sir.” The dark-haired man kept his head down and his fingers flew across his board as he swiped from one display to another. “No indication that they suspect anything yet. Defense platforms still neutral.”
“Sir, they just commed that if we don’t respond, they will bring defenses to bear on us,” Comms reported.
“Put on your best Fuerconese accent, Comms, and tell them we are having an issue with our short range comms. Then squawk the ID again. Let’s see how far they let us come before they realize the trap has been sprung.”
“Aye, Commander.” He glanced over his shoulder, his expression thoughtful. “Sir, you might want to step back so you don’t show on my pickup.”
He nodded and moved back to the command chair. As he did, he quickly scanned the bridge, as if making sure nothing that would betray them. Then, when Comms once again signaled for silence, only the normal sounds of a merchant ship making an approach to a friendly port could be heard.
“Approach Control, this is the merchant ship Dreki, registered out of Halstrom’s Landing. I repeat, the merchant ship Dreki, carrying a Halstrom’s Landing registration. We were ambushed by privateers in the Radke System and have experienced extensive drive damage. Short range comms have been compromised. Request permission to dock and make repairs.”
“Dreki, this is System Approach Control. We are unable to confirm ship’s status. Resend full registration and crewing as well as damage control reports. I say again, verify ship’s registration, crewing and current status.”
Frustration flashed across the commander’s face and was gone. As he nodded to Comms to do as instructed, the fingers of his right hand entered a series of commands into the console at his right knee.
“CIC reports defense platforms powering up, Commander.”
“Tight beam to the squadron. Prepare to break formation and begin the assault.”
“No.” At the sound of the soft voice, all heads turned to the far end of the bridge.
“No?” The commander’s tone, as well as his expression, betrayed his anger at being countermanded.
“No.” A tall, thin man stepped forward. Unlike the others, he did not wear the dark blue uniform of the Callusian Navy. His black trousers and white uniform tunic stood in stark contrast to the others. His expression, however, was just as hard as the man currently trying to stare him down. “Commander Dorescu, I would recommend you continue following the battle plan. If you break formation now, you give the enemy time to respond as well as to send word to their allies that they are under attack.”
“I will not allow them to bring their defense platforms online.”
“I am not saying you should. However, it will take time for them to power up their defenses. That is one reason why our respective commanding officers chose this system as a target. They have become complacent and do not maintain the same level of security as others who are allied with them. But that doesn’t mean we can be rash in how we approach them.” He waited until Dorescu gave a curt nod. “Comms, respond that you are doing your best to comply but the damage to our systems slows our response time. Add that you have sent for your captain and are working on getting visual comms back up. Tactical, plot firing sequences on those platforms. Let’s see if we can keep them from committing to action before we are in place.”
“Do it!” Dorescu snapped. “If this blows up in our faces, you will be the first out of the airlock, Advisor.”
“It won’t,” He glanced at the holo display, his expression thoughtful. “Comms, signal the squadron to break formation in two minutes. I repeat, break formation in two minutes. Tactical, initiate firing plan ten seconds before formation break.”
Both looked to their commander for confirmation. Without a word, Dorescu nodded once.
“Give us a countdown on screen,” the advisor ordered.
“System Approach Control is issuing their last warning, sir. They don’t sound quite as sure of themselves as they did,” Comms reported at the sixty-second mark.
“They will be a great deal less secure shortly,” Dorescu grinned. “Their defense platforms?”
“Scanners show they are continuing to power up. Estimate we have two minutes before they are online.”
“Sir, CIC reports LACs have scrambled and are an intercept course.”
“Prepare to initiate Attack Plan Deimos.”
“Attack Plan Deimos, aye, sir.”
“Commander, order the squadron to break formation. Launch your LACs and take out the orbital defense platforms. Once that is done, focus on planetary defenses.”
That look of frustration crossed Dorescu’s face again. Then he nodded curtly. “Do it!”
“Very good, commander.” The man smiled, approval and something else reflected in his eyes as he stepped forward to assume his place next to the command chair. “Your people have done well. I am confident our respective governments will reward you and your crew accordingly.”
* * *
“What the hell?”
Ashlyn blinked as the lights once again came up. Then, realizing she had spoken aloud, she pressed her lips together so she would say nothing else. At least her exclamation had been almost immediately echoed by Collins. A quick glance told her all she needed to know he was as surprised – and stunned – by what they had seen as was she. That should have reassured her but it didn’t. Neither did her hope that it had all been part of an elaborate prank. Unfortunately, she knew neither General Okafor nor Secretary Klingsbury would joke about this.
That left one very big question unanswered. How had they managed to lay their hands on the video?
That was the first question she wanted answered. She had no doubt what they had just seen was a real time recording of the enemy’s bridge during the attack on Cassius Prime. While it was the first question needing an answer, it was not the only question. Not by a long shot.
It was not, however, her question to ask. Not unless and until no one else did. So, instead of speaking up, she activated the virtual keyboard in front of her and entered a series of commands. Almost instantly, the small holo display built in for the convenience of the person sitting there came to life. A moment later, the video they had just watched started streaming. She had to be sure.
A few moments later, she stopped the feed. As she studied the image, she fought the urge to curse once again. Instead, she drew a deep breath and wondered if this was why she and Collins had been sent for.
If so, what did it mean?
“Well?” Klingsbury asked. He leaned back in his chair at the head of the table, his expression calm, his eyes alert.
“Has the vid been verified?” Collins asked in return.
“And how did we get it?” The question was out before Ash could stop it.
“To answer your question, Richard, yes, the video has been verified. Rico Santiago and his people have been working on it and other intel non-stop for the last month. They assured us this particular vid is an accurate record of what went on onboard the Anubis just prior to and during the attack on Cassius Prime. They found nothing to indicate the feed had been altered in any manner.”
Ash studied the Secretary of Defense, her expression thoughtful. One month, he’d said. Approximately the length of time First Fleet and the Devil Dogs had been back in the home system after their last assignment. It could be a coincidence but she doubted it. So what did it mean?
“As for how we obtained the feed, we have you and your people to thank for it,” Okafor took up. “It was among the data you recovered on your last mission. From what we’ve been able to tell so far, the Anubis downloaded the ship’s logs as well as other data before leaving the system with most of the other ships that had been stationed there. Apparently, the Callusians hadn’t expected us to make an attempt to liberate the system.”
Ashlyn nodded, her mind racing as she thought back to when she first received orders for the Devil dogs to retake the Cassius System. Now that she thought about it, she had been surprised the operation had been Fuerconese only. At the time, she had decided it was because Fuercon and its allies were still ramping up to full mobilization with the resumption of hostilities with the Callusians. She also remembered from the last war how some of their allies felt it more important to protect their home systems than it was to take the battle to the enemy. Now she wondered if there had been more to it than that.
“General, I assume you and the other senior officers have been over this frame by frame.” It wasn’t a question even if she tried to frame it as such.
Ashe typed in a command and, a moment later, the image she had stopped the feed on appeared on the main holo screen.
“I also assume I’m not dreaming or imaging this.” She pointed to the image. As she did, she found herself almost hoping they did tell her she had imagined it. That would be much easier to deal with than the alternative.
“Unfortunately, Ash, it is very real.” Okafor sounded as worried as she felt. Before Ash could say anything else, Okafor looked at Klingsbury who gave an almost imperceptible nod. “For the moment, let’s leave rank and all that behind us. Linden and I want to hear your honest opinions about what you’ve just seen and how you think we should respond. That includes you, Richard.”
“It’s simple really,” Collins said and there could be no mistaking his anger. “We rally our forces, deal with the Callusians once and for all and then we deal with this betrayal.” He jabbed a finger in the direction of the frozen image.
“I wish it were that simple,” Klingsbury said.
“If I may?” Ash waited for the others to nod before continuing. “Assuming there is no subterfuge with regard to the uniform he is wearing, it is clear this advisor is a member of the Midlothian Naval Defense Force.”
Another nod from both Klingsbury and Okafor.
“From my security briefings, Midlothian has maintained its allied status with Fuercon but has not committed much in the way of material, ordinance or manpower to the war effort as of yet.”
“All true but not unexpected. It didn’t do all that much in the last war, Ash. Its key importance then was in keeping the trade routes open in that sector of space and making sure our ships were free from attack.”
Now Collins nodded, his expression thoughtful. “Do we have an ID on this advisor?”
“A tentative one,” Okafor said. “Santiago didn’t want to search too deeply and risk tipping our hand to the Midlothians in case our suspicions are correct.”
Suspicions? Ash almost snorted. She had no suspicions. She knew the Midlothians were involved. But how deeply and to what extent still had to be determined.
“Based on what Rico and his people found, we are reasonably certain the man in the vid is one Commander Bernard Hughes. He was one of their few squadron commanders in the last war who actually engaged the enemy when he had the chance. Afterwards, he fell off the screen and it was assumed he had left the Navy. Obviously, we were wrong,” Okafor said.
“It seems safe to assume at least part of the Midlothian Navy is involved.” Ash thought for a moment. “I will leave it to Rico and his people to figure out how deep the betrayal runs. I will say this. I think we now know why the Callusians suddenly changed tactics after so long and how they have managed to get their hands on newer ships and weapons.”
One question answered and a hell of a lot more suddenly there to take its place.
“I understand why you would prefer us to not ask the questions we’ve been asking, at least not outside of these walls.” Collins’ voice turned hard and Ash waited, wondering how the others would answer.
“Yes, but not for the reasons you might think.” Klingsbury held up a hand before either Collins or Ash could say anything. “Richard, Ashlyn, we aren’t asking you to ignore this. Nor are we asking for any sort of cover up. Far from it, in fact.”
Before anything more could be said, Okafor motioned for silence. She listened closely to something coming in over her comm link. Then she glanced at Klingsbury. The look that passed between them was enough to warn Ash that another bombshell of some sort was about to drop.
A moment later, the door slid open. As it did, Okafor came to her feet. “Atten-shun!” she barked.
“Stand easy, everyone,” President Derek Harper said as he stepped inside. The door slid shut behind him. “Please, sit.”
Habit, born from her years as a Marine as well as growing up with Marine parents, kicked in. Ashlyn sat with her spine ramrod straight, her booted feet flat on the floor. One simply did not slouch in the presence of the President, especially not when he had been instrumental in clearing her and her people of the false charges leveled against them.
“I take it they reacted as we expected?” Harper took his place at the table and shook his head when Okafor lifted the coffee carafe in question.
“Yes, sir,” Klingsbury replied. “Admiral Collins had just asked why they were being read into this.”
“Then my timing is perfect.” He nodded to them, his expression serious. “As I’m sure Linden and Helen assured you, we aren’t asking you to forget your suspicions or to quit asking questions. Quite the contrary, in fact. The two of you, along with a few others, have been saying from the beginning – hell, let’s be honest. You raised questions during the last war and were ignored. I’m not foolish enough to make the same mistakes my predecessor did. You’ve asked if there wasn’t more to what’s been going on than we knew or suspected. The recording you just saw, as well as other material you will be read in on, confirms that there is.
“What I am requesting, as your president, is that you review the materials and then give us your honest opinions of what our next course of action should be. We will meet tomorrow to discuss your recommendations. I’d prefer today, to be honest, but I can’t and won’t ask you to alter your schedules in any way that might alert anyone that we are on to our so-called allies. That means, I’m afraid, no deviation from your schedules once you leave here.”
“We understand, sir,” Collins said and Ash nodded in agreement.
“The only others who have been read into this so far are Lt. Colonel Santiago and his team, Brigadier General Shaw and Admiral Tremayne. You may confer with them if need be. We will meet again in the morning to discuss your impressions and recommendations.”
“I would request permission to brief our XOs about this, Mr. President,” Collins said.
“Not yet, Admiral. We need to make sure we are on the same page before we read anyone else into this,” Harper replied.
“For the moment, both First Fleet and the Devil Dogs will remain in the home system. It is being put out to our allies that some of your ships are in for repairs and refitting, Richard. Ashlyn, your excuse is simpler and has the expediency of being the truth. You and your Devil Dogs are here until the trials of Sorkowski, O’Brien and the others are concluded. The reality is that I want our best Marines in-system in case the enemy decides to try to attack here.”
“As you wish, sir.” She agreed the Devil Dogs were the best to defend the planet’s surface in case of attack but she did not look forward to the upcoming trials.
Harper glanced at his wrist unit and grimaced slightly. “It’s time to wrap this up before your staffs – and mine – start asking where we are. Richard, Ashlyn, we wouldn’t know what we’re potentially facing if it weren’t for what you and your people did that last mission. Thank you.”
With that, he stood and, before they could brace to attention, he was gone. As the door slid shut, Ash blew out a breath. Then she once again turned her attention to the others.
“Everything we have so far is on these.” Okafor handed Ash a data chip while Klingsbury gave one to Collins. “These are classified, needless to say.”
“Aye, ma’am.” Ash’s fingers closed over the data chip. She thought for a moment and then reached inside her collar with her unencumbered hand. A moment later she pulled her dog tags over her head. Okafor watched as she carefully slid the data chip into a small notch in one of the tags, embedding it there until she released it. As she slid the dog tags back on, Okafor nodded in approval.
“Dismissed, Colonel. I know you have morning PT scheduled with Alpha Company. Let’s not have them wondering why you aren’t there.” The general’s grin told Ash all she needed to know Okafor approved of her doing PT with her Marines.
“Ma’am, Admiral.” She braced to attention, executed a perfect about face and left the room.
She had a lot to think about and somehow she had to get through the day without letting on to those who knew her best that there might be anything wrong.
Honor from Ashes is available from all major e-book retailers. A print version of the book is also available. The latest entry in the series, Victory from Ashes, is now available for pre-order and will be released September 7, 2021.