Shades of Honor(5)

By: Sandy Williams

He’d heard these same arguments after the tragedy of Gaeles Minor. The Coalition had wanted to tour him around then. Instead, he’d kept away from the cameras, first while he healed on Ephron, and then on Caruth where he trained anomalies out of public view.

On Caruth, where he’d met Ash.

Damn, he missed her. He half wished she’d run into the room to evac the prime, but Rykus had made Bayis plant evidence that he’d left the planet. It would take Ash a while to determine his departure itinerary was false.

He focused on the prime. “I’m a soldier. I strategize. I fight. I kill the enemy.”

“You were in a noncombat role on the Obsidian.”

“I was prepping for an operation.”

“You were boosting troop morale.”

“It was a mission that had a high level of risk.”

“Your next mission also has a high level of risk, and morale throughout the Coalition is extremely low due to the Sariceans’ attack at Ephron.”

She was maneuvering him. He knew it, saw the trap placed just below the dangling bait, but he couldn’t let it go. “What mission?”

She had the decency not to look self-satisfied. “We’re at war with the Sariceans and an unknown contingent of telepaths. We need to know if there’s any connection between our enemies.”

“You think the telepaths are Saricean?” Rykus asked.

“Perhaps it’s a side effect of the radiation poisoning.” Tersa delivered the statement deadpan. Her body language didn’t say she believed her words, just that it was a theory. The Saris System’s sun began poisoning the populations of three of its four planets well over a century ago. It sickened the old and the young, shortened their lifespans, and caused their skin—particularly the sensitive, sun-beaten skin of their faces—to form an iridescent sheen. But to believe that the cancer could also cause a mental mutation like telepathy? Rykus wasn’t buying it.

“Admiral Bayis,” Tersa said. “Bring Commander Rykus up to date on our plans.”

Bayis’s jaw clenched. It was a subtle, almost invisible movement, but from him, it was telling. “You’ve heard of our new class of sentient ships?”

“I have.”

“The first ship is complete. She was commissioned into service last week and is here to finish outfitting for her first mission. She’s fast and she’s lethal, and her intelligence-gathering capabilities are unsurpassed.” His eyes lost some of their chill. “The Kaelais will expand the sphere-of-war by .05 percent with a ninety-six percent accuracy. That gives us a five-second edge over our enemies.”

Rykus kept his expression steady, but that edge was impressive. Over the centuries, the practical distance battles in space were fought across had grown. An intelligent captain coupled with a good sentient-class ship could overcome the time delay caused by that distance. Advances in technology and mathematics shortened the time by seconds too, but for a new ship to cut the delay by a full five seconds, allowing the Coalition to note enemy maneuvers sooner, was truly significant.

Rykus’s gaze slid to the minister prime. “And that edge will help on this operation of yours?”

“It won’t be needed,” she said, “but it’s reassuring to the admiral and a few other individuals involved in the plan.”

“Prime Tersa has arranged for a meeting with the Sariceans,” Bayis said. “On their terms and in their territory.”

“That’s… interesting.” It was unexpected. The Sariceans didn’t allow many individuals from outside their system to visit their planets. They had the most advanced protective grid in the Known Universe. Nothing, not people or data or drones, entered or exited their space without them knowing. Getting a key to pass that grid without raising an alarm was rare but possible. Intelligence had obtained a key for Ash’s previous team. It allowed them into Saricean space and to Chalos II, where they’d raided a database and obtained schematics to a Saricean shipyard. The mission had gone perfectly.

Until it hadn’t. The bastard who had slithered his way into Ash’s life had intercepted her team on the return home. He’d killed everyone but Ash. She hadn’t survived unscathed though. Jevan Valt had left her in a telepathic straightjacket, then planted evidence that she’d committed treason and murder.

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