The war between Evagardian Empire and the Commonwealth is at its peak.
The Evagardians have developed a weapon that could change everything, but they can't use it until it's been fully tested. Targeting unsuspecting pirates in a newly annexed system, far from the worst of the fightingsean is supposed to be a safe way to determine if the weapon is ready for live combat.
Everything about the mission is unconventional; the crew of twelve has been pulled from every corner of the Imperial Service, but it should still be an easy tour. After all, a few pirates can't possibly threaten Evagard's elite, especially when they're armed with the most powerful technology in the Imperium.
But it's an unproven system aboard an experimental ship, and there are worse things than pirates waiting in the Demenis System. Far from the front lines, the crew of the Lydia Bennett is about to start a war of their own, and they're a long way from home.
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Bjorn was not on time. It wasn't his fault, but the Service had never been interested in excuses.
It took all of his self-control not to run. Running around an Evagardian station in service dress was almost as bad as lateness.
There was a lieutenant in the corridor ahead, arguing with the security forces. It sounded like the problem was the outrageous jeweled combs in her hair, which was arranged in such a way that Service regulations weren't even an afterthought. She was wearing her whites as well; perhaps she was part of the ceremony.
Bjorn wasn't interested, but he could still hear her shrill voice as he skidded around the corner, nearly tackling a major in whites.
"Easy," the man rumbled, glancing down at him. "They can't start without us." He kept walking, and Bjorn fell in with him.
The major was tall, dark-skinned, and covered in medals-but his name wasn't displayed on his uniform. Those were their orders: formal dress with decorations, but no nameplates.
This had to be a member of the crew, and he'd recognized Bjorn as such.
The major put out his hand without breaking stride. "Walter Lucas."
"Oen Bjorn." They shook.
A sentry in gray fatigues saluted as they approached the dry dock. Bjorn and Lucas returned it.
"Is this our door?" the major asked him quietly.
The sentry nodded, and they went through.
The bay was large enough to house a modest cruiser, but it was filled only with people at the moment. The walls were lined with stands, and the deck was covered in chairs, all of them occupied. There had to be ten thousand attendees, an impressive number of whom appeared to be civilians.
The dock's force shield showed the imperial crest, slightly transparent so that the stars were visible behind it.
A lot of eyes were on Bjorn and Lucas. The entrance they'd used spared them the agony of passing all the spectators, but it would still be a long walk. This was a discreet assumption-of-command ceremony? This was the fleet's way of downplaying this launch? Bjorn felt his eye twitch. "First time on the big stage, LT?" the major asked.
"Where'd you get that?" Major Lucas eyed Bjorn's chest. "New Sochi?"
Bjorn glanced down at his lone medal, a little silver man pinned to his whites. It was a modest award for valor during time of war.
"I wasn't at New Sochi," Bjorn replied.
Major Lucas looked curious, but he just gestured Bjorn forward.
The stage was so far away that the people up there were like white specks in the distance.
There was a steady murmur, but that was all, and the relative quiet was making Bjorn uneasy. A crowd like this should've been much noisier.
Twelve chairs waited in a line to the right of the stage.
Four of them were still empty, so Bjorn and the major weren't the only ones running late. They hurried over and took their seats.
He kept his hands in his lap and didn't look at his holo. They'd made it. Barely.
There were still two empty chairs. Bjorn told himself that everyone in the bay was staring at them as a group, not at him specifically. And he believed it. Mostly.
A colonel approached the podium onstage. The lights dimmed, and the massive crest on the force shield began to glow.
"Welcome," the colonel said, the medals on her chest gleaming. "Don't let the intimate venue or all the last-minute schedule changes fool you. We're still here to launch the greatest warship in history. In case you were worried."
Bjorn wasn't paying much attention as the colonel went through the ceremonial motions, the self-deprecating jokes, the obligatory propaganda lines, and the pauses to let people clap and cheer.
Bjorn had always been grateful that his short, doomed career had generally kept him clear of these functions.
Until now. The colonel was wrapping up, though she was only the opening act.
"Please welcome Admiral Hassan," she said, stepping back.
The bay erupted into applause as a stocky man joined her, waving to the crowd. He cleared his throat, then looked over his shoulder at the force shield.
The seal vanished, and the shield became completely transparent, revealing a sleek white ship outside. Bjorn could see the exposed aether drive, and the two port launch docks. He'd never seen this ship in person before, but he knew every detail of it from bow to stern.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Lydia Bennet," Admiral Hassan said grandly.
There was more applause, louder this time. People were standing up. Major Lucas was clapping, so Bjorn did too. It was deafening.
"Mind you, she's not really out there," the admiral went on, examining his fingernails. "She's actually in phase dock on the other side of the station, so if you want to see her push off, you'll have to hustle over there when we're done here." That got a few laughs, and also a few groans. "I'm not going to give you a history lesson," he went on, "but you should appreciate what this ship represents. It's been a hundred years since we've used manned small craft in open warfare. Drones were cheaper. Safer. But AI has its limitations. We can't call it innovation, but the technology has gone through the future and come out the other side. We're back where we began. Manned fighters."
More applause. Hassan turned and pointed at the ship.
"One ship. Four fighters. We've always had the ability to take the technology to the extreme. It was the pilots that couldn't keep up. And AI-well, AI has its own vulnerabilities. Here we have the best of both worlds. The Everwing fighter isn't a ship; it's a system. These fighters are impressive on their own, but they themselves aren't the new technology. What's new is the interface between fighter and pilot. Anyone can build a fast ship. Not just anyone can fly one. So I give you Doctor Margaret Jimenez, the mind behind the Everwing program."
A woman in a subdued pantsuit shook hands with Hassan, and took his place at the podium.
"At this point machines have, for all intents and purposes, no limits. Likewise, the limits of the human mind aren't even close to being fully mapped." Doctor Jimenez shrugged. "And yet we can't take advantage of both without slowing down one to suit the other. My job was to make it possible for a human to pilot a vessel at extreme speeds with extreme control and Evagardian precision. I was threatened at gunpoint not to get technical today, so I won't. I just didn't want you all thinking that any of this was easy."
The crowd laughed. Bjorn cringed.
"But we're not done. This is only the prototype, but it's been cleared for combat by the Empress' Garden. We didn't cheat. Not just anyone can pilot an Everwing. Right now in the entire Imperial Service, there are only forty candidates certified with combat status. Of those forty, here are . . . ten. It's supposed to be twelve, for the record."
The doctor was looking down at Bjorn, and the people beside him. Those last two chairs were still empty.
"Ah. There's eleven," the doctor added, smiling.
The lieutenant with the jeweled combs in her hair came jogging up the aisle, bright red. She dropped into the seat beside Bjorn, who politely ignored her.
She still had her combs; she must have won her argument. Bjorn was happy for her.
Doctor Jimenez went on. "I want to talk about this remarkable crew. These pilots did not begin their careers as pilots. They were pulled from all corners of the Service for specialized Evagardian training. Accelerated training, actually. They didn't choose to have the aptitudes needed for the Everwing program, but they have them. They're all volunteers, I should add. None of the men and women approached for this project has turned down the opportunity. Not one." Bjorn was afraid she would halt there and wait for people to clap, but she kept talking. "This is experimental weaponry. It terrifies me, and I helped develop it. These men and women haven't just shown extraordinary fortitude and competence by becoming qualified Everwing pilots and maintainers in so little time; they've also shown enormous courage in agreeing to do it in the first place."
The applause was now loud enough to hurt Bjorn's ears.
The crowd was getting into the spirit of things, but the girl beside Bjorn was not. The lieutenant's expression was probably intended to be placid, but it was really just stony, and she was still bright red. It seemed Bjorn wasn't the only one who didn't want to be there.
"When operating at these extreme speeds, even the slightest delay in response time, even the time it takes for a beam signal to pilot the craft remotely, is too much. The pilot has to be connected to the fighter directly. So in a sense, we're going all the way back to how things were done on Earth before the Grand Duchess united it.
"The Lydia has a small, versatile crew, unlike any other ship in the armada. Everything about the Lydia is unconventional. It would take me all day to explain it in full. Of the suitable candidates, these men and women were handpicked as the very best to take on this mission. The Everwing system doesn't make these people good pilots; these people make the Everwing system so powerful. Without them, it's nothing. This is my life's work, and I hope you'll take my word for it when I tell you there's no going back now. We're going to turn five-space warfare on its head. Thank you."
Thunderous applause. Bjorn joined in.
On the stage Admiral Hassan got to his feet, and so did a small woman with dark eyes and hair. Bjorn watched her stand at attention in the center of the stage while Hassan took a black rope from a young officer.
"Obviously a remarkable ship needs a remarkable crew, and a remarkable crew needs a remarkable commander. This is Captain Kelly Mao of the Third Fleet. The fact that she's the one who's been selected for this role should tell you everything you need to know."
That was a peculiar thing to say. The small woman wore no medals, which meant she didn't have any. That didn't seem right. And she looked relatively young.
"Ready," Hassan ordered, and Captain Mao put out her right arm. He tied the rope around her shoulder and stepped back. "Attention," he said, and her arm snapped down. "Captain Mao is now Commander Mao. And incidentally the first Everwing commander in history."
He braced himself for the applause, which was appropriately brutal. It was subtle, but Bjorn saw it. Commander Mao flicked Admiral Hassan a slightly dangerous look.
Hassan cleared his throat, and the applause died down.
"The Lydia Bennet exists for the same reason everything else in the Imperial Service does-to bring glory to the Empress and to destroy her enemies. It's a task to which this ship, this crew, and this commander are uniquely suited. As Doctor Jimenez pointed out, every facet of this expedition is unorthodox, so I'm going to end this ceremony in an unconventional way. Because you have to cross the whole station to see the actual launch, you're all informally dismissed as the anthem plays to go do that. And don't look at me like that. I'm an admiral-I do what I want." He waved vaguely.
Bjorn gaped. It took a moment for people to realize Hassan wasn't kidding.
The Evagardian anthem began to play, and Bjorn leapt to his feet and saluted with the rest of the crew.
Though they'd been dismissed, everyone stayed and sang. People began to file out only as the last notes played.
Bjorn and the ten other crew members were still saluting.
Unable to hide her annoyance completely, Commander Mao made her way down from the stage and approached the crew.
"Guys, act natural." She glanced at the people still leaving the bay. "No height, no tapping. Fall in by twos on me. We're not double-timing it, but we also kind of are. Let's go."
With that she turned on her heel and marched off across the bay. Bjorn scrambled to slip in beside Major Lucas and get in step with the others.
People were still applauding; that was adding insult to injury.
Bjorn had not come here expecting to march. There was nothing worse than marching in whites.
He stared at the back of the woman in front of him. Her hair, in a perfect regulation cut, was snowy white. She had to be at least eighty.
The sentries stepped aside and the doors hissed open. As soon as she was in the corridor, Commander Mao whirled on them, beckoning furiously.
"I don't even have words for this," she snarled, checking the time on her holo. "They want us to launch right here, right now. We have ten minutes, and we're taking the long way, because it would be undignified if the DVs saw us running. Whoever picked this dock needs to go play in an airlock. I hope you're all good on your cardio."
Then she was off down the corridor at a dead sprint.
Bjorn's eyes widened.
"Are you serious? Is she serious?" the girl with the combs asked, staring after her, but the others were already running to follow. Major Lucas was laughing uproariously, and he wasn't the only one.
Bjorn was not laughing.
They ran. Down corridors, down stairs. At one point they had to slide down a ladder because it was faster than a lift. Commander Mao's route took them down a lodging corridor, through a fitness center, and across the station's main lobby.
"Cloud the viewers," Mao snapped into her holo as they approached the docks. She wanted to deny the onlookers the sight of the crew sprinting headlong across the bay.
They burst into the open, and Mao only poured on more speed.
The Lydia Bennet stood ready, a passenger ramp lowered. Techs were streaming out of the ship, several of them carrying maintenance robots and bags of tools.
The commander was ahead of Bjorn and the others, and she shot up the ramp like lightning.
"Did you sign me off?" she called to the tech officer in the hatchway.
"Are you coming with us?"
"What? Oh." The tech officer hurried down the ramp and off the ship.
Commander Mao paused in the hatchway and waved frantically. "I swear to the Empress, if anyone asks for permission I'll strangle them. Let's go."
Ten seconds later they were all in the airlock, gasping for breath. Bjorn had never seen twelve more bedraggled imperials. They were sweaty, their whites were a mess, and he was pretty sure a couple of his crewmates had lost medals and ribbons along the way.
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