Snippet: Or what hit me yesterday

Yesterday I transitioned from one writing project to another. Those days are never easy. I worry if I’m getting the voice of the new project right. I worry if I’ve done everything I can to make sure the old project is as perfect as I can make it before publication. But there comes the time when you just have to let go. I did — I hope. And here’s a quick snippet, very rough, of what came out of it.

This might be the opening for the next Honor and Duty novel. I say might because you never know what the end result will be after edits. This is the very first draft. I haven’t read it over, so there will be mistakes. However, the story is in my head, a bit different from what I first imagined and I can’t wait to get back to work on it.

***

Lt. Colonel Ashlyn Shaw braced to attention. Her pulse pounded. Being on a battlefield would have been preferable to standing before the President. She was a Marine, born and bred. Politics was something she had little love for and even less use for. Not that she had any choice. One simply did not tell the President you weren’t interested in meeting with him. That was especially true when the Commandant of the Fuerconese Marine Corps, not to mention the Secretary of Defense, were among those also included in the President’s invitation. Even so, she couldn’t keep the suspicion from her expression when President Derek Harper turned to her. That suspicion grew when she saw the humor dancing in his dark eyes.

Damn it, why hadn’t she found some reason to avoid this meeting?

“As for you, Ash, you’ve done everything we asked of you and more,” Harper said. “Despite the way the previous Administration turned its back on you and your people, you put duty ahead of vengeance. You have lived up to everything a Marine, much less a Devil Dog, should be.”

Ashlyn struggled not to groan when the President grinned liked a kid about to spring a surprise – or play a practical joke. A trickle of sweat rolled down her spine. This was worse than waiting to engage the enemy. At least then she knew she could shoot back. Unfortunately, the Code of Military Justice did not view a practical joking Chief Executive as an enemy combatant and, after having spent already spent time in the Tarsus penal colony, Ash had no intention of doing anything that might send her back.

Besides, she knew the future might present her the opportunity to return the favor. She could wait. One thing her time at the penal colony had done was teach her patience.

“You even proved that a Marine is more than capable of commanding a ship larger than an attack shuttle in battle,” Harper continued. “I hope you realize there are some in FleetCom considering changing things to allow permanent assignment of Marines as ship XOs and COs. I do believe there’s been some discussion of using you as the test subject.”

Panic arced through Ash like lightning and she felt the color drain from her face. She had started to shake her head before she caught herself. Jaw clenched to keep from saying anything, she stared at a point over the President’s head and did her best to ignore the chuckles she heard coming from the others in the room. They might find it funny but she most definitely did not. Hell, she would resign her commission before accepting that assignment.

“Don’t worry. Not only have I told them I wouldn’t allow them to take you away from the Devil Dogs but General Okafor said she would turn the Devil Dogs lose on anyone who tried to take you from them.” Understanding and, much to Ashlyn’s surprise, approval filled the President’s expression.

“As much as I wanted to promote you to full bird colonel, General Okafor convinced me that you aren’t ready to accept another promotion. All that means is you are at the top of the promotions list for the next round of reviews So I’ll have to settle with pinning another medal on you and in telling you that you have the thanks of everyone in the System for your actions onboard the Nagato.

“Now,” he continued seriously. “For the moment, the Devil Dogs will be assigned to the Home System. This is a temporary assignment until your LAC elements are back up to full strength and your people have had a chance to heal up from their injuries. Once they have, you have one assignment. Take the battle to the enemy and don’t stop until the war is won and won decisively. Destroy the Callusians, Ashlyn, and then we will deal with the Midlothians.”

“Aye, Sir.” She crisply saluted, her expression serious but her eyes gleaming with the hunt. That was much more to her liking than the alternatives of being kept in-system for the duration or, worse, being stuck on a ship as an XO or CO.

“Now, in less than an hour, I will be addressing Congress. I will inform them of the evidence against Midlothian and asking them vote to negate all treaties we have with them. I will then close all transit routes to Midlothian traffic unless the vessel has been boarded and inspected by our people. Secretary Klingsbury will issue a full briefing packet come morning.”

Harper paused, looking each of his guests in the eye. As he did, Ash wondered if he had foreseen this moment when he had agreed to run for the presidency almost two years ago. Her research since being pardoned had shown the foundation of his platform was the pledge to defeat the Callusians. Had he suspected it would turn into a war with Midlothian?

“I want each of you to be with me as I address Congress. Let the members of both Houses, as well as the public, see we mean business,” he continued and they each nodded in understanding and agreement. “We had best be on our way.”

With that, he led them out of the library. As they crossed the anteroom, Ash glanced at the others in their party. Each looked worried. For a moment, she chewed her lower lip, thinking hard. If she spoke her mind, it could mean the end of her career. But she couldn’t, in good conscience, remain silent. Not when there was so much at stake.

“Mr. President.”

He stopped and turned to face her. As he did, so did the others. She swallowed hard, praying she wasn’t about to make a very bad misstep.

“Sir, politics isn’t my strong suit. General Okafor can vouch for that.” She nodded to the Commandant who grinned slightly. How many conversations had they had over the years about how Ash needed to pay more attention to politics and learn to play the game? “And I have to admit that nothing would make me happier than to expose the treachery of the Midlothians. Right now, I’d like nothing more than to take my Devil Dogs straight to the Midlothian homeworld and exact a little punishment for the way they’ve betrayed us. But, respectfully, Sir,  is this the best way to proceed?”

She paused and, when the President simply nodded for her to continue, drew a deep breath. “I guess what I’m asking is do you want to tip our hand to the Midlothians before we know how deep the treachery really goes? I might not be in Fleet Intel, but I did serve under Rico Santiago for a while earlier in my career. So I know it is going to take weeks, if not months, to go through all the data we managed to salvage from the ships we captured.”

“True, but we have Hughes,” the President said, referring to the captured Midlothian “advisor”.

“We do, but that’s not enough, at least not in my opinion, to risk tipping our hand.”

For a moment, Harper said nothing. Instead, he glanced at the others and, much to Ash’s relief, they each nodded. Frustration flashed across the President’s expression. Then it was gone and he motioned for them to return to the library. Once the doors closed behind them, he turned to Ash. “Continue.” Then, as she once more braced to attention, he shook his head. “Damn it, Ashlyn, at ease. In fact, all of you, sit down and quit looking like you’re afraid I’m going to call in the firing squad. I want to hear what the good Colonel has to say and then your takes on it. I won’t guarantee I’ll go along with it it but I will listen.”

Wishing one of the others would say something, anything, but knowing they would wait until she finished, Ashlyn complied. She would have preferred remaining standing but at least this gave her a few moments to gather her thoughts.

“Mr. President, Hughes has been cooperative, up to a point. At least that’s how it was on the journey back here. He admitted he had been an officer in the Midlothian Navy. But he has not admitted to having been with the Callusians as an official advisor from the government. In fact, he has done his best not to tie anyone in the government to him being onboard the Anubis.”

“She’s right about that, sir,” Secretary of State Marshall Grant commented from where he sat across from Ash. “He has admitted to working with the Callusians but has not given us any real ties back to the Midlothian government.”

“But? I assume there is a but in there,” Harper said.

“What he doesn’t know is that Admiral Tremayne’s intel people, with help from the Devil Dog’s intel officer, discovered there had been other so-called advisors sent to the Callusians. In fact, Hughes was one of three or four sent to the Anubis. Unlike Hughes, the others – at least those we know of – were killed. The records show various explanations, such as died in battle, but reading between the lines, they were killed by the Callusians. If I’m right about that, it won’t take much to get at least one of the Callusian POWs to admit the Midlothians were there officially.

“Until then, and until the Intel folks have a chance to go over the data we managed to secure, do we want to tip our hands?” She licked her lips, wishing she had never opened her mouth. This was the most she had said to the President since meeting him shortly after her release from Tarsus. “I guess what I’m suggesting is that we keep that information to ourselves and give the Midlothians more rope to hang themselves with.

“I have to admit that I also wonder if what we have so far is enough to convince our other allies that Midlothian has turned against us. If you wait until we have finished going over the data we recovered and give Santiago’s people time to questions the POWs, it might give you all the proof you need to convince our allies that Midlothian has been actively supporting the Callusians.”

For a moment, Harper said nothing. He did not need to, not when his expression spoke volumes. He might consider what she had to say but Ash knew he didn’t like it. Well, if she were to be honest, neither did she. She had seen and heard enough in the aftermath of the battle to have no doubts that the Midlothians were working with the Callusians. That made them Fuercon’s enemy and the very thought of not going after them rankled. But it would be a tactical mistake to show their hand so soon. They needed enough evidence to convince the rest of their allies. Fuercon simply could not fight a war on two fronts, especially if the Midlothians managed to convince any of the allied systems to turn on Fuercon.

“Helen?” Harper turned his attention to General Helen Okafor, Commandant of the Fuerconese Marine Corps.

“I agree with her, sir.”

Ashlyn gave her a slight nod of appreciation. The fact Okafor backed her meant a great deal, not the least of which was because it meant she hadn’t lost her mind. Still, it would have been nice if one of the others had brought up any reservations they felt. Junior officers were supposed to be seen and not heard and, at least in this group, Ash was the junior officer.

“As do I,” Admiral Miranda Tremayne said. “I’ve had more of a chance to speak with not only my intel chief but with Rico Santiago. We have threads that lead back to Midlothian but nothing that links solidly with the government.”

“But those threads are there and you can’t deny the fact there were Midlothian Naval officers assigned to the Anubis.”

Harper pinned each of them with a look that spoke volumes. He was beyond angry, not that Ashlyn blamed him. They had been damned lucky Second Fleet had been in the right place at the right time to intercept the invading Callusian task force. But even that could be a feint within a feint and Ash wondered if the Midlothians were playing an even more complex game than they were giving them credit for. Was it possible they were playing both sides of the conflict? If so, what was their endgame?

“We do, sir, but we have nothing showing they were given that assignment by either the Midlothian Naval Command or by the government itself,” Secretary of Defense Linden Klingsury said.

Frowning, Harper pushed to his feet and paced the length of the library. Silence filled the room. With each minute that passed, Ashlyn’s concern grew. Whatever happened over the next few minutes, whatever decisions were made, millions of lives were held in the balance. How many would die before the treachery could be exposed and the war ended?

“All right.” Harper turned to face them, his expression grim. “I won’t lie and say I like waiting but you’ve made your case, Ash. I could go public with what we know but it would put the Midlothians on their guard and give them reason to go to our allies and try to cause trouble for us there. Not that I have any doubt they aren’t already doing just that.” He ran a hand through his hair before returning to his chair. A moment later, he leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I’m not cancelling my address to Congress.” He held up a hand to prevent any of them from interrupting. “Don’t worry. I’ll play it all very close to my vest. I’ll brief them on how close we came to disaster and how it was only the quick actions of Admiral Tremayne and Second Fleet, not to mention Colonel Shaw and her Devil Dogs, that kept the home system safe. There will be no mention of our Midlothian prisoner. However, as soon as I have the intel needed to prove the Midlothians have betrayed us, all bets are off. I will take the information to Congress and demand, among other things, the revocation of all treaties with Midlothian as well as a declaration of war.

“But that means each of you have important roles to play between now and then. Marshall, you need to reach out to our other allies and make sure Midlothian has not caused problems where they are concerned. If they are willing to throw their lot in with the Callusians, there is no telling what else they are doing to cause Fuercon harm.”

“I have already started, sir,” the Secretary of State said.

Harper nodded and turned his attention to Klingsbury. “You probably are going to have the hardest job right now, Linden. You need to make sure our battle plans keep in mind the possibility of betrayal. We have Midlothian personnel on a number of our ships. We can’t remove them without raising concerns. So it may be necessary to find reasons to rotate those ships away from the front lines and into support positions. I’ll leave that to you to decide.”

“Understood.”

“Helen, Miranda, keep the home system safe. I don’t care how you do it, but don’t let those bastards hit us again.” Once more, Harper’s anger broke through his calm. “Ash, this changes nothing where you and the Devil Dogs are concerned, at least not yet.”

“Understood, sir, and the Devil Dogs are ready to do whatever you need us to.”

“I know you are.” He smiled grimly and stood. “Let’s go do this.”

With that, he left the room. As she followed, bringing up the rear, Ashlyn blew out a breath. The day had barely begun and things had already gotten interesting. What she wouldn’t give for a simple battle, one where she knew who the enemy was and could take the fight to them. Playing politics was not, and never would be, something she enjoyed.

***

Vengeance from Ashes is the first book in the Honor and Duty series.

First, they took away her command. Then they took away her freedom. But they couldn’t take away her duty and honor. Now they want her back.

Captain Ashlyn Shaw has survived two years in a brutal military prison. Now those who betrayed her are offering the chance for freedom. All she has to do is trust them not to betray her and her people again. If she can do that, and if she can survive the war that looms on the horizon, she can reclaim her life and get the vengeance she’s dreamed of for so long.

But only if she can forget the betrayal and do her duty.

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