Apollyon’s Gambit

Today we announce the fourth book in the Loralynn Kennakris series!* Enjoy the sample chapter below! Want more sample chapters? How do you feel about mailing lists? Sound off in the comments!


“Go in harm’s way? Like Hell! I’m gonna put them in harm’s way!”

The war has flared up again, and Senior Lieutenant Loralynn Kennakris is thoroughly pissed off. On the walking-wounded list with a paralyzed arm and unable to fly, her superiors have decided to give her a meaningless promotion and send her off with a diplomatic mission to Iona. For years, tensions have been ramping up between the Nereidian League and its increasingly powerful former colony. It’s the diplomat’s job to defuse them before they explode. Kris’s job is to act as the mission’s ‘military advisor’—which really means looking decorative, fetching coffee, and keeping her mouth shut.

That is, until someone screwed up.

Caught on the wrong side of a military disaster that threatens the League’s whole war effort and forced into a role she never desired, Kris knows she didn’t start this fight. But she’s sure as hell gonna finish it . . . one way or another.
 


Part II, Chapter One:

Recon Flight Viper Fox, on patrol
Phase Plane Anvil, Mirandan Space

“How many bogies you got, Tanner?” Her voice was cool and smooth, but the med-monitors showed that her blood pressure was already ramping up.

“I got five—that’s five—at tango one forty, nine hundred kips closure.” His voice was thin and tinny over the burst link.

“You got that, Baz?”

“Roger that—got five, I say five. Bearing okay, closure okay.”

Her own T-Synth showed five too—five little red dots starting to spread out in attack formation in T-Synth’s holographic volume. It chewed on their energy profiles and declared them hostile, but she already knew that. “Baz, I make ‘em Halith heavy attack craft. You concur?”

“Oh, they’re Doms all right. Emissions signature looks like Talon-3s.”

“Okay, go to attack pattern delta. Suck it in Tanner, you’re too low.” Obediently, one of the three little blue triangles that indicated her and her wingmen snuggled closer to her port quarter. “Good. Now don’t break it up until I tell you.”

“You got it, Kris.”

The blood chemistry monitors started to light up yellow with stress compounds as her fighter eased down and left. The sphere of the T-Synth rotated as it began to carve maneuver envelopes and velocity vectors through the volume. “I have intercept in four hundred thirty seconds,” she said with a calmness that the med-monitors didn’t reflect.

“Roger that. Concur with intercept in four-thirty.”

“Okay, weapons free—clear and hot. Wait for it.”

As if on cue, her T-Synth lit up with a spatter colored lights and snow as Tanner’s voice burst over the link, “We got music here—I lost ‘em. Anybody got a read?” Rapidly she cycled through the TAC-displays as her own electronic warfare suite came on-line, but the red dots failed to reappear.

What the hell kind of ECM is this?

“I got ‘em!” Baz’s voice came on. “Got ‘em back with filter 7, convolve lima-3.”

“Link that over, Baz.”

“Roger. Linking now.” Her screen cleared, showing that the red dots had split, circling for an envelopment behind the cover of their jamming. Vectors hunted across her T-Synth as an adrenal rush echoed her smile.

You’re spread too wide, you jag bastards—your envelopment’s gonna turn up shit.

The thrum of her fighter’s drive plant increased as she punched the power up, swinging down towards the right-hand pair. “See that, Baz? Starboard group’s too wide. I make it an almost seventy-second engagement window before those three to port can close. What do you guys say?”

“I’m with you, boss.”

“You got it, ma’am!”

“Then heat it up!” Power reading soared as she took her drive to 110% and her blood chemistry danced as her adrenaline went with it. The blue icons swooped down and then her display snowed out again.

“Holy fuck!” Tanner blurted. “How’d they do that?”

“I’m going active,” she snapped. The med-monitors showed her heart rate edging towards 140. “Lock fire control to me.” Her deep radar came up sweeping; the little red dots reappeared, dancing in the haze. Their number fluctuated wildly.

“What the hell’s going on?” she murmured to herself, “This isn’t fighter jamming . . .” Something was covering for them—a new kind of ECM drone? There was a small volume between the diverging groups where the noise pattern didn’t look quite random enough. She magnified the spot, but her EW suite couldn’t find anything.

“Baz,” her voice was tight, “train over to tango one seven—you see anything there?”

“No—wait . . . can’t tell. You want me to swing out and take an aspect read, boss?”

“Negative! Stay put dammit—”

“Oh Shit!” Tanner cut her off. “I got launch transients here! Tango one seven and delta one five! Heavy metal coming this way!”

Two fans of bright orange lines radiated from what her sensors had just indicated was only empty space. Her heart rate spiked.

I’ve been suckered.

“Break! Break now!” Alarms squealed as her ship went maximum decel and her blood chem readings slammed into the red. The trio of blue triangles broke up and over in a classic missile avoidance maneuver while their EW suites howled. The orange fans began to disperse. Some of the missiles remaining ballistic as ECM confused their seeker arrays, decoys pulled off others and their chain guns engaged some more. The rest came through. View screens went mad with orange-white plasma flowers as the incoming warheads began to detonate. More alarms shrieked as shock waves rang her hull, then died abruptly as she cut them off.

“Hey!” Tanner yelped, “I think they’re shooting torps at us!”

“No shit, sweetie! Get the hell outta here!”

“But what about—”

“Three more!” Baz yelled, “I got three—no make that four—four more bandits coming in on delta one niner! Shit! Where’d those assholes come from?”

Goddammit! The word ricocheted around her skull as her blood chemistry went nuts. “Baz! Tanner! Clear out—disengage!”

“Boss, we can’t—”

“Go dammit! I’ll cover a zone five escape. Go go go!

Two blue triangles snapped up in pure out-of-plane maneuver as the four new red icons burned in from port. Her T-Synth lit up with lock warnings. The display fuzzed as her fighter skidded hard right and snapped back clear as the compensators caught up. Two targets, unable to react, broke right in front of her. The T-Synth spun as she swung in behind them and her ship frame groaned as she slammed the drives into emergency boost. Baz and Tanner continued straight up as the other four bandits broke after them.

“Hey!” Tanner yelled over the net, “Can somebody get rid of this asshole for me?”

“I got ‘im—I got ‘im!” Baz called. “Cut left! Left!”

“Shit! I’m locked! Take the shot—Nail ‘im!”

Her targets loomed large on her forward view screen, their ECM fighting her T-Synth for a firing solution. The weapons indicator cycled as she switched to plasma cannon while the link chattered, “Lock—I got lock! Firing!” Baz’s missiles streaked across her T-Synth, two thin purple lines. “Come on, come on—“ The purple lines stabbed a red dot, there was a flare across her view screen and then nothing. “Yes! Yes! Talon down!”

Her targets split, one breaking hard left. Attitude sensors spun as she stayed with him. Two decoys purled off, her fire control lost lock and went into seek mode.

No, goddammit! I’ve been suckered once already today.

She thumbed off auto-track and fired a burst. He jinked as her shots bracketed him. He spun and accelerated hard, hoping she’d get into a scissors with him.

No dice, you lil’ fucker—this ain’t playtime.

She spun over into a J-slide, dropping below him. His maneuver was going to bring him right across her nose, belly up—a pure deflection shot. She have only a split-second to engage but he couldn’t turn at that speed. The range closed rapidly and she kept her finger on the firing stud . . .

Now! She pressed the stud. Her neutron cannons fired, streams iridescent purple in the tracking lasers, stabbing into his lightly armored belly. His shields flared and died in a burst of ultraviolet and then his ablatives began to boil off. A second later, he exploded in a convulsing orange flower. Four different compounds peaked in her bloodstream as elation flooded her.

“Got ‘im! Two down!”

A lock warning shrieked as a tracking laser found her.

“Kris! You’ve picked one up—break hard right!”

Her T-Synth swung crazily as she broke right. Something hammered savagely on her aft quarter. Damage control indicators glared red as she lost a drive node, port side. Baz curled behind her, his cannon lit up and the bandit disappeared in a smear of light. Moments later, Tanner’s cannon caught the fourth bandit in a crossing pattern. He veered away, trailing a comet’s tail of molten slag and ionized gas.

Her second target closed in behind Tanner. “Tanner, bring it up—help me engage.” He arced up in her T-Synth’s volume, his pursuer following. Her missile lock tone chimed beautifully in her ears.

“Got him locked! Two hot!” Two missiles streaked away. The bandit broke back, spewing a hail of counter fire. One missile died. The other bore in. “That’s four!”

The two remaining bandits, one still bleeding air, broke off.

“Ooeee!” whooped Baz, “They’re outta here! Goin’ ballistic!”

Below and behind them, more orange lines vomited from empty space.

“Incoming!” she barked, “Mail in your six! Flight pattern BOLO on my mark—now, now, Mark!” The blue triangles began a complex weave, knotting their drive wakes together. The trajectory of the torps started to bend as their seekers went active. They were too sluggish to match their quarries’ maneuvers, but the size of their warheads meant they didn’t have to. Her chain guns detonated one dead ahead, plasma shunts took some of the blast, armor took the rest. More damage control lights came on, blinking yellow. A warhead spiraled in on Tanner’s port side.

“Tanner, watch your left! Your left!”

“Ah shit, it’s picked me up—“ The torp exploded. “I got a problem here—”

“Bail Tanner! Eject! Eject!”

“Oh hell—” then a flood of static and a crack as her fist hit the console.

“Baz?” Her voice was unnaturally calm as they climbed free of the inferno. “I’m going back down there.”

“Kris, there’s at least four more of ‘em down there, not to mention whatever’s launching these torps.”

“Get clear, Baz.” She pulled the nose of her fighter up and started to slip it around. “I’m down to 70% of max boost. Someone’s gotta stay behind to distract these assholes. Damage control says I’m elected—go home.”

“Kris, I—”

“Dammit Lieutenant, that’s an order!” Reluctantly the blue icon that was Baz veered off. “When you see Rafe, tell him I said goodbye. He still owes me dinner at Iscariot’s. Collect it for me, will ya?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Over the link, his voice was weak and full of static. There was a pop as she cut it off. Down below, four blood red dots awaited her, hanging back now to avoid being caught in their own salvos. Her weapons display cycled as she checked her remaining ordnance. Her breathing slowed and most of her med-readouts smoothed into the green. Below her, as if confused by this insane tactic, the red dots began to converge hesitantly.

That’s right, you motherfuckers—come to mama.

She switched her fire control to full-auto and began to tune her deep radar manually, focusing the snowy volume that was spawning the torp salvos. Slowly, an image built up on her T-Synth’s targeting window.

“Kris!” Baz’s voice suddenly hammered her ears over the tight beam link. “Break off, Kris! Those are tin cans down there! They’re stealth destroyers—”

*     *     *

Commander Kenneth Hatton, Director of Strike & Reconnaissance Operations for the CEF fleet carrier LSS Trafalgar, took his booted feet off his desk as he leaned forward to flip the after action report shut. The embedded holograms floating above sparkled out of existence as he leaned back again, tapping his middle finger on his chair arm.

“What am I going to do with you, Lieutenant?”

He looked across his desk at the tall woman on the other side, valiantly trying to stand at a species of attention. The black SRF uniform jacket draped loosely over the wide shoulders didn’t help the effect, but since her left arm was bound across the front of her stand-collared white tunic with gleaming surgical tractors, that could be excused. Mostly, it was the hair that annoyed him. Rather ineffectively clipped back, enough dark reddish-brown strands had escaped to soften the fine strong angles of the proud face and partially mask the thin line of the old scar high on one cheekbone. It would, he supposed, pass for regulation given the state of her arm, but he didn’t like it. It was distracting, especially in combination with her damnable hazel eyes, and Hatton despised distractions.

“You go through wingmen like some people go through socks.”

Senior Lieutenant Kennakris stiffened and her hazel eyes began to shift ominously to yellow. No one who knew Kris for any length of time failed to learn what that yellow-eyed look meant—and some of them lived to regret it. The full-lipped mouth, looking a bit out of place against the firm line of her jaw, unclamped. Stress made her alto voice piercing.

“I didn’t order Baz back in, sir. I had his withdrawal covered. He could have made it out.”

“Without you.” Hatton’s mouth crimped down on one side. “You gave him a hard choice, Kennakris. You might have known he’d come back.”

Looking down at her new fighter boss, her nostrils dilated with the force of her breathing. What the fuck else did Hatton want to hear that she hadn’t already reported at the debrief last week, while she was still laid up in sickbay? Why had he dragged her in here this AM? Just to make her live through losing Baz and Tanner one more time?

“I had to give him the best chance I could, sir. At seventy-percent max, there was no other way.”

“Well,” Hatton said grudgingly, correctly interpreted Kris’s look. “It would appear you were able to convince the Board of that, as they have officially agreed.”

“Thank you, sir. I did my best.”

No hint of a smile accompanied the remark, although he searched for one. Hatton resumed tapping his finger.

“Look, Lieutenant. My problem isn’t with your results—we’re all grateful for that. My problem is that I’m running out people to fly with you.” He reached out to pat the bronze box, as yet unmarked and unclaimed, that he perversely kept on his desk. “My ratio of live pilots to dead heroes is not enviable. Folks like to have their name mentioned in dispatches, not on one of these.” His fingers lingered a moment on the polished metal before letting go. “I might go so far as to suggest a change of tactics is in order here.”

“My squadrons have always had excellent tonnage records, sir.”

Hatton dragged his dark hands down his face, rubbing his cat-gold eyes, the genetic heritage of his home planet, Messier.

“That’s the point, Lieutenant. SRF squadrons aren’t supposed to amass tonnage records—most especially not recon units. And I don’t suppose I need to point out that your squadrons also lead the League in posthumous decorations. If you wanted to behave like a roving cruiser division, you joined the wrong service. Maybe you should’ve hit up the Grand Senate up for a letter of marque.”

“That’s not funny, sir.”

“No, I suppose not.” Hatton noticed the frozen calm of the pale strained face, the muted anguish in the almond-shaped eyes. He decided to change the subject. “Then there’s this little matter of the drones—”

“Those ships were stealthed, sir. After what they did to us, one of ‘em deserved to waddle home with a drone up its ass.”

“Lieutenant, those recon drones go for about five million each. We put them on recon craft as a reusable resource for surveillancenot as antiship weapons.”

“Worked real good, sir.” Now he did detect a hint of a smile—a smirk, actually. “Did the commodore catch ‘em, sir? I never heard.” Commodore Shariati, Vice Admiral Sabr’s spouse, had been in command of the forward-deployed squadron, there to handle anything Kris’s flight ran across.

“Of course. She blew them into a nice shiny cloud of ions, too. We’d rather she had brought one home. Sometimes I wonder if you two are related.”

“I’d claim her, sir.”

“No doubt. I often think she forgets she’s not a privateer anymore. I think she enjoys forgetting it.” Kris’s hint of a smile became a glimmer. “Anyway . . .” Hatton picked up his xel and began jotting notes on it with a stylus. “I still have this other problem of what to do with you. Any suggestions?” His tone was faintly sarcastic and Kris’s eyes became hooded.

She shook her head, stirring those loose strands of hair. “No, sir.”

“Well, I have one.” He pointed his stylus at her immobilized arm. “Are the medicos ready to let go of that yet?”

The broad shoulders shrugged unevenly. “Almost sir. The bone’s regrowing nicely. Dr. Einhorn says they can pull the matrix sometime next week. The nerves . . .“ Kris hesitated. “The nerves might take a little longer.”

“Yeah.” Hatton tapped his xel. “Says here you don’t regrow certain body parts so good.”

That uneven shrug again. “Touch and go, sir. A synthnet would be alright.”

“Uh huh.” Hatton had heard about synthetic nerve nets, and alright wasn’t what he’d heard—especially about the tuning process. He cleared his throat. “I’m not sure we’ve ever requalified a pilot with synthetic nerves, Lieutenant.”

Her pale skin went a shade paler. “It won’t be a problem, sir.”

“Uh huh.” He made another note. “Can you travel?”

“Yessir.”

“Good.” He furled the xel. “How familiar are you with the Ionian situation?”

“Has Iona declared war, sir?” she asked, some of the brightness back in her voice.

Hatton frowned. “Not as far as I know.”

“Then, only vaguely. Sir.”

“Good enough.” Hatton produced a flimsy from the recesses of his desk and held it out, looking at it ostentatiously at arm’s length. “I have a request here—it came in the last packet—to furnish a naval officer to accompany the Honorable Mr. Vilnus Loews to Iona. Diplomatic mission.”

He put down the sheet and slid it towards her. “What they hope to accomplish escapes me. A person of some seniority, but not too senior, is specified; discreet and able to maintain a low profile. Do you know anyone meeting those requirements, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir.” Her voice was now utterly flat.

“Nor do I. At least not at hand. But you’re going to be beached for at least a couple of months with that arm, so I thought I might suggest you.”

“I’m . . . I’m not sure that’s such a great idea, sir. Discretion and all . . .”

“You might consider it a learning experience, Lieutenant.” There was no hint of joviality in Hatton’s face.

“I could read a manual, sir.”

He chose not to dignify the suggestion with a response. “The position is billeted for a lieutenant commander, but Admiral Sabr agrees that this should present no particular problem in your case. He’s prepared to give you a brevet promotion. If all goes well, it might be referred to the Admiralty with a request to make it permanent. Obviously, nothing is guaranteed.”

Kris felt the walls closing in about her. “Of course not, sir.”

“Then you’ll accept?”

She let go a breath, held against the black inevitability of it all, and formed a question to stave off her reply a moment longer. “What is this discreet officer required to do, sir?”

Hatton reached out for the flimsy she had not touched and turned it to face him. “Appreciate the situation, it says here. And”—he squinted at the tiny letters“—convey that appreciation to the Right-Honorable Mr. Loews when and as he shall require, unquote. I’m sure the Right-Honorable will be happy to clarify that at any time you wish.”

“Yessir.” Kris had clarified it already: look decorative, keep your mouth shut, maybe fetch the Right-Honorable’s coffee. Ceremoniously opening doors would probably be involved too. “When is this all supposed to take place, sir?”

“Imminently. Loews and his party are coming out in Leander—due into Knydos in three days. They depart for Iona the day cycle after that. There’s a fast packet just arrived—cleared into orbit an hour ago. It goes back tomorrow at 0930 local. That should get you there in plenty of time.”

“Yessir.” Her reply was purely mechanical.

He saw the look in her eyes and smiled. He wanted it to look sympathetic but it didn’t come out that way—Hatton was a bad actor. “It’s not the end the world, Kennakris . Light duty, good food, a reasonable chance of promotion. Broaden your horizons. Anyway, you’ve earned a rest.”

“Yessir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good. I’m glad that’s settled. I’ll get with Captain RyKirt and draw papers this PM. And don’t worry. By the time you can fly again, I’m sure we’ll have something for you—Admiral Sabr takes care of his people.”

“Yessir.” Kris stepped back a pace from the desk. “Is that all, sir?”

He nodded. She saluted stiffly and turned to go.

“Oh, by the way.” The words caught her off-balance. Half-turned towards the door, she halted. “The Board also confirmed your four kills on this one—not counting the assist on that can.”

She turned back. “Three, sir.”

“Eh?”

“Three kills. One of those last two belongs to Baz.”

Hatton consulted a file in his desktop. “That’s not what your log says.”

“It was a hell of a mess, sir,” she replied, stone-faced. “Autotrack can get awfully confused with all that stuff flying around.”

“You’re absolutely sure it was his missile?”

“Yessir. I saw all the way in. Mine crossed up on a decoy.”

“Right.” Hatton managed to keep a straight face, even through the part about seeing—as if anyone could see anything during a deep-space dogfight. He reopened his xel to make another note, then frowned. “You were, of course, unaware that this kill makes Lieutenant Basmartin a triple ace.”

Her eyes didn’t so much as flicker as she deadpanned, “Does it, sir?”

He squinted at her through the pale wings of his eyebrows, not raising his head. “Indeed it does. Too bad he isn’t here to spend the bonus money.”

“His family is, sir.”

“His family—yes.” Ferhat Basmartin was from Phaedra. His family there included his wife, two kids, his parents, and gawd knows how many siblings.

“Well . . .” Hatton scratched his ear. “I see that the Board hears of this. I expect it’ll be enough to go around.”

“Yessir.” There was a faint, sad smile on her lips now and a more discerning man than Ken Hatton would have recognized that it was heavy with unshed tears. Unknowing, he put his xel down and nodded. “That’s all, Lieutenant. Carry on.”

Kris sketched another abrupt salute and exited, her boots hitting the deck plate hard as she strode down the passage towards sickbay.

*     *     *

Kris’s teeth almost met through her lower lip as the med-tech turned the neural blocks off. Hastily, he turned them back on and looked up from behind his console. “Bad?”

The feeling, like drops of molten metal running down the nerves of her left arm, started to fade. Kris could barely nod as pain tears made warm wet splotches on the tops of her breasts.

“Sorry,” the tech muttered, shamefaced.

“Uh huh.” She swallowed hard and spat to ease the queasiness in her stomach. “That’s a bad sign, isn’t it?”

He frowned as he replayed the traces. “It ain’t good.”

“Another write-off?”

He sighed. “Yeah—probably.”

“So what happens now?”

He shut down his equipment and stepped out from behind the console. “Well, nothing at the moment. We can’t do anything until the new axons atrophy.” He began removing the electrodes from her arm and torso with absurdly exaggerated gentleness.

“How long will that take?”

“A couple of weeks.” He pulled the last two tabs and began wrapping the wires around his hand.

“And then?” Silent seconds stretched tensely as he stowed his equipment without answering. “Synthetics?” she prompted.

“Well I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” he evaded. “There’s nothing in your rejection profile that says a different therapy—”

Her look nailed him to the bulkhead. “No bullshit, please.”

He spread his hands helplessly. “Look, you need to talk to Dr. Einhorn.” Her eyes continued to pin him. He squirmed. “There ain’t anything else I can tell you, Lieutenant.”

She slid her gaze aside, down to the useless appendage hanging from her shoulder like so much dead meat. She took her left wrist in her right hand and put it in her lap. The tech watched, his shoulders twitching uncomfortably. “Dr. Einhorn’s gonna be out of the surgery in half an hour. You really should—”

“No.” She reached for the uniform pieces piled on the end of the examination bunk. “Just help me get this shit back on, will ya?”


* For you who have been tracking, Absalom’s Hundred is Book 3.5.

8 comments on “Announcing: Apollyon’s Gambit

  1. David

    Extremely minor matter of a missing pronoun:

    “What the fuck else did Hatton want to hear that she hadn’t already reported at the debrief last week, while she was still laid up in sickbay? Why had he dragged [her] in here this AM?”

    1. Owen R. O'Neill

      Thanks for catching that. Fixed now. These chapters are Alpha+ grade (not yet beta) so they have only been through a cursory pass to keep them from being really embarrassing (we hope). They’ll get a complete scrub later. (We just found an editor we really like who will speed that process along nicely.) But feel free to make our life easier. ;-)

  2. David

    Did someone say, “mailing list”? *salivates in anticipation*

    1. Owen R. O'Neill

      Yep! Setting that up is my post-Tax Day project. : )

  3. Mike

    A mailing list is a great idea!

    1. Owen R. O'Neill

      Thanks for the input, Mike!

  4. Edward

    Joining a mailing list is just fine. BTW noticed an error, I think, unless Kris is has multiple squadrons under her, the conversation refers to it that way.

    1. Owen R. O'Neill

      Thanks for the feedback!

      I think I see what you are mentioning. If so, the reference is meant to be serial (in the that Kris has led more than one squadron at this point). But we need to check again to see if we contradict that elsewhere, and I think we used a confusing tense there as well.