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The Starlight Fortress

Chapter one

Author: FionaR Total hits: 4834 User hits: 29 Date: 03-13-2014

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A group of ships were flying in outer space, a place where sound made no sense and speed was difficult to judge. Inside the bridge of a destroyer escort, Sterling Presley was sitting in front of a computer. Despite the military-cut brown hair, he resembled nothing of a stereotypical soldier. His slim figure could be a little stronger. The brown eyes were too calm and solitary to hold patriotism. His skin wasn’t rough enough to match the cruelty of war. If he weren’t wearing a uniform, he would have looked like a junior college professor.

Weird … He confirmed his suspicion and closed the image on the computer. The recent Battle of the Stony Band was con-sidered a victory, their first victory since the war spread to this system eight years ago, but something about that battle wasn’t right.

He picked up a phone from the table and said a few words. A moment later an officer appeared at the door. “Sir?”

“Get ready for unloading at Turning Point Station.” Sterling left his desk and stopped in front of a window. Nothing existed outside, except lights from distant stars. The small planet RA-5 was not distinguishable yet from its background.

“Unloading?” The officer hesitated. “Sir, I thought we were heading to the fortress.”

“We are, but …” Sterling wasn’t sure how to explain it. To him, logic and reasoning were most meaningful when one stud-ied a case de facto; at the front, everything should yield to intui-tions. Or, things that appeared like intuitions but were outcomes of one’s subconscious logic and reasoning.

“Just do what I said.”

* * *

The station wasn’t big enough to hold everything they had on board. After unloading the critical stuff for the newly con-structed Starlight Fortress, they carried the rest of the supplies and resumed their trip to the fortress. It was past lunchtime. Sterling left the bridge and entered a dimly lit cafeteria. A few soldiers sat at a table. They had apparently finished the food a while ago.

“It’s got to be Silverman!” he heard one of them saying. “Hands down! They say he was interviewed twice.”

“I don’t like that guy. I’d rather they choose Rafael Tait.”

“Nobody asked for your opinion. And Tait wasn’t nominat-ed, mind you. Academy matters!”

Sterling smiled and grabbed his sandwich. Lately everyone was talking about the candidates for the queen’s military assistant. The common practice now was to have the monarch take charge of military issues. Yes, their newly ascended queen, that teenage looking girl! Two nominees from each of the three Sunpherean fleets, he heard. Too bad that Rafael didn’t get a chance.

He was about to finish his lunch when someone rushed in and brought him a message. It was from the fortress, informing his flotilla that a group of enemies was identified ahead, about thirteen light seconds away. How the enemy got there without being spotted by their monitoring devices at Pathway Traw-tle—said Rear Admiral Silverman in the message—was unclear. Anyway, since it would take some time for the fortress to send over reinforcements, Silverman suggested that they either turn around or hold on for a while before encountering the enemy.

Thirteen light seconds, about twenty minutes … Sterling pondered on his options as he left for the Combat Information Center. He didn’t want to retreat. He had to know how the enemy appeared out of the blue, right inside their system, only seventy light seconds away from the nearest planet with human residents. Sweat emerged on his back as he envisioned all the possibilities. But if he simply stopped marching, the enemy would know it, and they’d vanish long before the reinforcements came.

He entered the Combat Information Center and walked over to a screen that displayed the current arrangement of his flotilla: three transports surrounded by twelve destroyer escorts. He raised a hand and pressed the SIM button alongside the screen. As his fingers glided over the screen, the symbols that represented his ships were repositioned. According to the new arrangement, his flagship and four other escorts would form a front group, and the transports would be left behind with the remaining escorts.

He ignored the inquiring gazes from his officer and had the flotilla re-form accordingly. The crew of the transports was in-structed to switch on AUTOPILOT before abandoning their ships. Soon the twelve hostile ships also appeared on the same plot, slightly away from the flotilla’s course, but none of them moved as Sterling’s front group passed by.

“Hmm,” someone said softly. “They should’ve known they’re exposed.”

“Any idea of their types?” Sterling asked.

“Likely the Dorados, sir.”

Sterling nodded. The Dorado class destroyers were the fast-est warships owned by their enemy, Thyphol. They were a lot faster than his escorts, but not for sustained battles. This was meant to be a hit-and-run.

Just then, the enemy ships began filing toward the trans-ports. Most of them were blocked by the seven escorts sur-rounding the transports, but a few breached in successfully. Af-ter watching for a while, Sterling pointed at a symbol on the screen, a mildly damaged Dorado. “Forget the others. I want this one. Use only the SP-Ls.” The damage-limited missiles.

Within minutes, the three transports were all turned into fireballs—the fire didn’t last long due to the lack of oxygen. Then the enemy began to run away at an incredible speed, with the target Dorado following behind. “Now!” said Sterling. His group departed toward the fleeing enemy and arrived just in time to intercept the target. After two failed attempts, the third missile made a hit, but the target managed to get away from their blockade. They chased and fired. The distance was still growing. Now the rest of the enemy was nowhere in sight. Fortunately they made another hit and this time, the target slowed down considerably. It looked like they should be able to catch it alive …

“Sir, we identified a group of ships ahead. Several dozens.”

Sterling frowned. “Are they from the fortress?”

“They must be. They are engaged with the enemy.”

“I need to speak to Admiral Silverman. Quick!” Sterling moved over to a blank screen. Everything was so slow! He tapped his fingers on a table. His ships, time, electronics … Be patient, he told himself. As they approached the new battlefield he saw some of the enemy ships being destroyed …

Finally the screen flashed on and showed the image of a square-faced officer—white, with pointed cheekbones. “Com-mander Presley?”

“Sir!” before Sterling said anything, someone behind him called out. “Target’s annihilated!”

Sterling turned aside to check the situation map. The Dorado they had been chasing was no longer there.

“Commander Presley?” Silverman slightly raised his voice. “You want to talk to me?”

Sterling made a soft sigh and looked up at Silverman’s image. “Thank you for the help, sir.”

“You are very welcome.”

* * *

Two days later Sterling came back to the Caparise, the supercarrier that regularly orbited their home planet RA-3. Upon entering the carrier, he was told that Admiral Oakley, combatant commander of the Sunpherean Second Fleet, was waiting for him in a meeting room.

“Nice job, Commander Presley.” Oakley gestured Sterling to sit across the table from him. He was a tall guy with thick lips, steady gaze, and tight black skin that always radiated energy. People who worked for him swore they never saw him exercising. Thus it remained a mystery how he kept his fitness as a sixty-year old.

“I do have a few questions, though,” the admiral said, but took his time to study Sterling before he finally asked, “When you stopped at Turning Point Station, how did you know the enemy would show up later?”

Did he come here just to ask questions? Sterling doubted. That shouldn’t be the job of a four-star officer.

“I didn’t know it, sir,” he said. “I just felt strange about our recent battle. More than a hundred ships passed through the Trawtle within fifteen minutes, then they slowed down and lin-gered around, as if waiting for something to happen. It wasn’t our enemy’s style. They could’ve reached the Stony Band long before they met our allies.”

Oakley squinted at him. “What did they want?”

“I don’t know. The whole thing felt like a cover-up.”

“So you think the ambush was related to the battle …” Oakley mused for a moment. “All right, my next question. Before you encountered the enemy, why did you split up with the transports? ”

“Our enemy’s target was the equipment, sir. They had to let go of my flagship even if they knew we might attack them from behind. They couldn’t take a chance.”

“Our desires make us vulnerable.” Oakley nodded. He grabbed a folder from the table and thumbed through it absent-mindedly. Sterling could tell the admiral was trying to decide on something.

“Great. It seems Her Majesty was right.” Oakley put down the folder. “You’ve been appointed as Her Majesty’s military assistant, Commander Presley.”

There was no way Sterling could have prepared for this. He stared at Oakley for a few seconds. “Sir, I didn’t know I was nominated.”

“We didn’t nominate you.” A sour smile occurred on Oak-ley’s face. “Her Majesty did.”

“But how …” How did she even know about him? Sterling suppressed the urge to scratch his head. He graduated from the Academy only four years ago.

Oakley seemed to know what he was thinking. “Well, Her Majesty said she was impressed by your talk at your graduation commencement. She said, unlike other distinguished cadets, you sounded more rational.” He took out a photo from his folder and showed it to Sterling. Yes, that was he, a slim young man standing rigidly behind a microphone. His brown hair was shinier than it normally was, because one of his roommates had insisted in lending him some hair gel. The lack of sleep on the previous night had left faint redness in his eyes. He always dreaded public speaking, and he thought he had made a fool of himself that day.

“Anyway, that was what she told me!” Oakley glanced at his watch. “Go pack your stuff, Commander Presley. We’re leaving in ten minutes.”
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