Commander Bob Hatchet is a good man fighting a dirty war.
The most terrible conflict in human history—the Lightspeed War—threatens to engulf a thousand worlds in apocalyptic fire. On the eve of this monstrous conflagration, Hatchet—first officer of the Leonine Navy's most powerful battleship—must somehow save a fleet beset by corruption, sabotage—and murder.
Hatchet must guide his ship down into the shrieking, hurtling winds of a gas giant. After a long interstellar journey, the Leonine fleet is desperate for the deuterium needed to fuel its engines—and the giant world on the outskirts of an enemy system is the only place it can get it. Unfortunately, the enemy knows it, too.
And they're waiting.
If Bob Hatchet is very careful and very lucky, he might discover the identity of the saboteur sewing terror and death throughout his fleet. But first he must survive A Fleet Action Spread Across an Endless Blue Sky.
"Political intrigue—check! Insightful characters—check! Real-world weapons and tactics—check! Buy this book. You won't be disappointed."– Jason Schmetzer, BattleTech Author, Amazon Review of Winter Dragon, as by Henry Martin
The numbers were always there in the upper right-hand corner of his field of vision, always there and always counting down, faintly glowing numbers the lurid scarlet of spilled blood. The numbers weren't really there. The delicate web of semiconductors woven into the folds of his brain painted those numbers over reality, electrical microcurrents stimulating specific neurons, making the decaying clock seem as genuine as the deck beneath his boots.
Those numbers had once marked years and months and days.
Now they were down to hours. The most terrible war in humanity's long and bloody history was now only hours away.
Twenty-three hours, 52 minutes, and 47 seconds, to be precise. He watched the War Clock count down. Forty-six. Forty-five. Forty-four. Seconds drained away like the last faint heartbeats of a dying man.
Commander Robert Hatchet would have given almost anything to stop that terrible count, but that would've required a power far beyond his meager rank.
Hell, that was a lie. The truth was rank didn't have anything to do with it. The truth was it was much too late for anyone to stop the war. Six human navies had already launched dozens of fleets, scores of fleets. Some of these armadas had embarked on interstellar journeys of three years, or five, or even ten, all of them carefully synchronized to arrive at their target systems at the precise moment the War Clock ticked down to zero.
Except the War Clock was also a lie. It didn't really mark the beginning of the war. The war had truly begun here and there with the launching of all those disparate fleets at disparate times.
The War Clock merely told when the shooting would begin.
Hatchet had mused endlessly on this subject as Task Force 23.3 made its own journey from Des Moines to Novovesna. After two years of thinking and worrying he thought he had puzzled out everything there was to know about clocks and countdowns.
He was wrong.
What he didn't know was that his own personal time was also dwindling away, but at a rate considerably faster than the War Clock's steady beat. In only minutes the universe would decide if Robert Hatchet would live.
And as fate would have it, he would spend what might be the last few minutes of his life trapped in conversation with the one person in all the fleet he least wanted to talk to.
Hatchet—who was the executive officer of the battleship Al Zubrah Al Asad—was just finishing up one of his inspections when it happened. For the past month he'd been pushing himself, racking up twenty-hour days inspecting every space from bow to stern, checking maintenance records, training qualifications, material condition, and generally making himself a pain in the ass. Hatchet guessed there wasn't an officer or sailor aboard Asad who didn't hate his fucking guts. That was fine. If his efforts saved the life of even one of those officers or sailors, then it was well worth it.
He couldn't shield his people from the coming war.
But he could make sure they were ready.
Which was why he happened to be coming out of Starboard After Steering just in time to see a short, beautiful woman with merry, dancing blue eyes and shoulder-length hair the color of honey.
It was Director Lydia Harper.
Of House Zosma-Harper.
What was she doing here? Starboard After Steering was remote, seldom used, and dirty. And what was she wearing?
His eyes did a slow, involuntary tour from the deck plates on up: five-centimeter black heels, fitted black slacks, and a wine-colored silk blouse over spectacular breasts. Her dress was wholly inappropriate for the engineering spaces.
Hell, it wasn't appropriate for anywhere aboard a naval vessel.
His gaze finally reached her beautiful, vapid face and she flashed him a brilliant smile and—God help him!—a cute little finger-wave.
Damn it! He was caught. He looked around for some escape. The pway was a long stretch of nothing. It offered a deck of polished green vinyl tiles, snow white bulkheads, and the haze gray spacetight hatch that led into Number One Main Engine Room. Nothing he could use to bolster a claim of pressing business.
At 44 subjective years, Bob Hatchet was young to be an XO. He was on the tall side of average, slim but muscular with a rugged, handsome face. His dark brown hair was cut spacer short. He wore the standard dark-blue ship coveralls with no ornament save for the silver oak leaves on his collar points. He was a quiet man, never using four words when three would do. He was the kind of man who was often initially overlooked.
Those who failed to notice him usually ended up regretting it.
But as capable as he was, he had no skills that would allow him to put off a member of House Harper.
With an irritated sigh, he turned and shut the spacetight hatch behind him. It was heavy plate steel, the coaming fitted with a black rubber gasket that would maintain an airtight seal across an atmosphere of differential pressure. The haze gray hatch shut with a loud clunk that sounded terribly final.
"Oh, could you leave that open?" said Lydia Harper in a high, winsome voice. "It's ever so hot."
Hatchet blinked. Did she really just say: It's ever so hot?
She pinched the front of her blouse and shook it as if she was trying to generate a cooling breeze.
Hatchet resolutely did not watch her doing it.
"Ma'am, since we're only a day out from the target system, the Admiral has ordered the fleet to Condition III for wartime steaming. I'm afraid that means Modified Zebra is set throughout the ship."
Lydia Harper stared at him as if he were speaking Urdu.
So he tried again. "We keep all the spacetight hatches secured so if one part of the hull is breached, the rest of the ship is protected from explosive decompression."
"But couldn't we just open this one hatch"—she held her thumb and index finger a few millimeters apart—"a teensy bit?"
Hatchet realized his left hand was clenched into a fist. He slowly opened it. Then he forced himself to speak calmly but firmly. "I am sorry, ma'am, but all spacetight hatches must be fully secured, every one."
She looked at the door with a sad frown.
The unsettling thing about Lydia Harper was that no one knew quite who she was.
Yes, she was a member of the family that ruled a thousand worlds orbiting two hundred suns. But she wasn't an admiral. Nor did she work for the Department of the Navy. Or the government.
So was she a young scion of House Harper sent out to the fleet to get some much-needed seasoning? Or was she a dilettante playing at war until something else caught her fancy? Or maybe—Hatchet's least favorite option—she was a family screwup tucked away in the corner of the war where she could do the least damage. Certainly nothing about her indicated any seriousness of purpose.
She had just showed up the night before the fleet got underway, not even accompanied by the flag-rank naval aide her orders allowed her, demanding the largest stateroom aboard Asad for herself—and the second largest for her eighteen-piece matching set of hand-tooled Italian leather luggage.
But she was a Harper. Captain Carson had confirmed that much, at least. She'd come aboard with orders signed by the Secretary of the Navy himself. So they were stuck with her.
Most of the fleet's officers gave her a wide berth when they could—and were exceptionally circumspect when they couldn't. She might be nothing more than a family screwup, hell, probably was nothing more than a family screwup.
But with the Harpers you just never knew.
She glanced back at him and she suddenly looked startled. "Wait! I know you. You're—" Her face went blank and there was a long moment of uncomfortable silence. She shook her head. "No, don't tell me." Her pretty rosebud lips tightened and her smooth brow furrowed into an expression of fierce concentration. Then her eyes widened and her mouth came open in a wide grin. It was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud.
"Hutchins," she said triumphantly. "Bill Hutchins."
"Hatchet," he said gently. "Bob Hatchet."
"Right," she said brightly as if she hadn't said something completely different a moment ago. "You are the captain."
"No, ma'am. I'm the executive officer." He touched the silver oak leaf on his collar point. "I'm a commander, not a captain."
"So you're a commander," she said slowly, "but you're not in command."
She narrowed her eyes in a shrewd you can't fool me expression. "Now, wait a minute. I was just aboard the frigate Stiletto two days ago. And her captain had the same silver flower on his collar that you do."
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "A frigate is a commander-command. A battleship is a captain-command."
Those narrowed eyes never left his face. "But his crew called him 'captain.' I heard them."
Hatchet drew in a deep breath and held it, feeling his heart pound. There really was no way out of this discussion. "Yes, ma'am," he said again. "Aboard ship, the ship's commanding officer is traditionally addressed as 'Captain,' regardless of his or her actual rank. And a ship's XO is always addressed as 'Commander.'"
They stood in that empty passageway for a long, long moment, staring at each other.
Finally, her mouth tightened into an angry line. "You're making that up," she said.
Hatchet opened his mouth to try again. He never got the chance.
Because, right then, a terrible roar emerged from the starboard engine room. It was dampened by the intervening bulkhead, but it was still loud enough for Hatchet to recognize the ugly cutting-torch sound of it.
A sudden chill wriggled down his spine. He knew what that sound was.
He'd heard it once before.
It was followed by the muffled whump of an explosion.
Lydia Harper heard it, too. Her head turned and she took a couple steps toward the engine room's spacetight hatch. "Hey, what was tha—?"
Hatchet hit her like a linebacker, punching her to the deck, his body covering hers.
Just as a massive concussion tore the heavy steel hatch from its frame and threw it across the passageway. Hatchet heard it hit the opposite bulkhead with a solid clang, rebound, and then smash into the deck.
It missed their sprawled bodies by centimeters.
Blast-furnace heat boiled out of the now open hatch—along with a billowing, acrid black smoke. Hatchet heard the fierce roar of a terrible fire.
He did not hear the GQ alarm.
Which meant the engine room watch was incapacitated.
He accessed his neural implant and voxed the officer of the deck. Bridge, he said. Nothing. He tried again. OOD. All he got over the vox channel was static. The radiation pouring out of the engine room must've been disrupting his implant.
Hatchet would have to do this the hard way.
He scrambled to his feet and bent over, grabbing one of Lydia Harper's bare arms. Somehow he pulled her to her feet. He wrapped his right arm around her waist, half-carrying, half-dragging her down the corridor. Closest egress was the hatch to after steering behind them. But it would take him thirty or forty seconds to maneuver Harper to after steering.
And a main space fire could kill a ship in thirty or forty seconds.
It didn't take him long to make up his mind. There was a 2MC squawk box just a few steps past the engine room hatch.
So instead of retreating to safety, he pushed farther into hell.
Heat blasted out of the wrecked engine room hatch.
He felt the slithery, shimmering fabric of Lydia Harper's blouse under his hand and bit back a curse. This shit she was wearing was worse than nothing. No way would it shield her from the heat and hard gamma pouring out of the machinery space. And the garment might actually melt onto her torso.
He was holding her up with his right arm and the mangled hatch was on the right. Rather than dragging her unprotected body through that brutal river of heat, he turned and crossed the doorway backwards, doing his best to shield her body with his.
For those few steps it was like being dipped in molten steel.
But then he was past. He could hear her coughing, trying to hack up the bitter soot of burning plastics. The space was filling up with a choking black smoke that cut visibility down to a couple meters. Then one. Then zero. He felt along the bulkhead until he came to a sheet metal box. He ripped its cover off. He pulled out a rubber mask and pressed it to Harper's face, not bothering to adjust the straps for an airtight seal, just closing off most of the smoke and giving her a source of oxygen.
Then he lunged at the bulkhead, feeling around for the small, gray 2MC box. After what seemed like minutes—but was probably only seconds—he found the box and punched the stainless steel button all the way on the left.
"Bridge," he shouted over the roar of the fire, "this is the XO. Sound General Quarters. Fire in Number One Engine Room. Maneuvering is down. Vent #1 MER to space from DC Central."
Then he bent and found an oxygen mask for himself.
The GQ alarm ripped through the pway, its loud, panicked gong gong gong gong gong competing with the roar of the fire. Then the alarm cut out and the boatswain's mate of the watch's firm voice came over the 1MC. "General Quarters, General Quarters," she said. "Fire in Number One Engine Room. Venting atmosphere to space in all machinery spaces starboard of centerline between Frames One Seven Two and One Niner Six."
Hatchet bent down beside Lydia Harper and adjusted the straps on the back of her mask to give her a good seal.
"What about the crew in the engine room?" she asked weakly, her voice muffled by the mask.
He felt horror wrench his throat closed. Who'd had the watch? Fireman Sheila Hanks and...EN2 Li. What was Li's first name? Jesus, he couldn't remember. That was a shitty thing. He couldn't remember Li's first name. Suddenly he felt very tired.
"They're already dead," he said tightly.
Then the shrill whistle of fleeing air cut through the space like a knife, smoke swirling as vacuum cleared it from the pway.
He got her to her feet and they lurched aft toward the safety of Starboard After Steering. By the time they reached the hatch, the passage was ice cold and no sound carried through the vacuum, not the keen of escaping air, not the roar of fire.
Not even the sound of their footsteps against the deck tile.