Captain Alexandra “Alex” McLaughlin is not a woman to be underestimated. Under her petite exterior is a spine of solid steel and a disposition to laugh in the face of impending death. A former member of the Terran Navy’s elite force, the Dead Jokers, electronic-warfare pilots with a mortality rate to match that of old Japan’s Kamikazes, Alex is a born survivor. But sometimes survival can be a curse.
Humanity is locked in a war of survival with the Xan-Sskarn, an alien race that refuses to acknowledge the rights of “weaker” creatures to live. It is a war that will not end with a peace treaty, but only the complete subjugation of one species to the other. And right now, the alien side is winning.
However, the enemy on the outside is not the only one to be faced. As the battles take on an eerily familiar pattern of no-win scenarios, Alex realized the horrifying truth; humanity has a traitor, and it’s somebody close. As each battle brings more death, Alex’s ghosts grow and so does her desire for vengeance. There is only one way for this to end, and Alex is just the human to take it there—to Ragnarok.
July 20, 2197
“BRACE FOR IMPACT!”
The light cruiser rocked violently as missiles tore a wound in her flank; the debris, air, and water vapor were lost in the steady stream already hemorrhaging from the ship.
The mauled and wounded light cruiser Gna, named for the handmaiden of Frigga who was the messenger of the Norse gods, valiantly tried to live up to her name, racing toward the hyperlimit and escape. Escape to not only save herself and her crew, but to warn the rest of humanity of the horrors and dangers she was desperately trying to outdistance.
“Damage report!” Commander Alexandra McLaughlin, captain of the Gna, shouted into the smoke-filled command deck.
“Hull breach, port-side aft,” a voice yelled back to her. “And we have—” the voice cut off in mid-sentence as the Gna heaved again.
Alex tore her eyes from the panels on her command chair to look at the speaker, Lieutenant Commander Hatty, her XO. She watched as he stared helplessly back at her, his mouth working silently and his uniform jacket glistening in the dim red emergency lighting, blood flowing from around the jagged piece of metal embedded in his throat. Alex forced herself to turn away.
“A quartet of Xan-Sskarn fighters. And it looks like they’re lining up for another attack run,” Lieutenant Commander Greg Higgins called back to her. His soot-streaked face watched her until she nodded her acknowledgment. Then the man quickly returned his attention to his console. The battle net was nothing but a memory now, the static hissing from her headset a constant reminder of the young ensign still strapped into his chair, hands blackened, burned, and melted into his console by the same electrical surge that had stopped his heart.
“Yes!” Greg shouted. “Splash one Sally fighter and . . . Shit!” Alex watched as he spun around to face her. “Incoming missiles!”
Gripping the arms of her command chair, Alex braced for the impact. There was no need for her to call out a warning. Greg’s shout had alerted anyone who could worry about such things anymore, and she could no longer warn the rest of her crew. Once more, a swarm of missiles ripped apart the Gna’s armor.
“God damn it, Guns, clear those fucking fighters from my sky!” Alex shouted. “NOW!”
“I’m trying, Skipper, but we just lost primary point defense. What’s left of the net is in auxiliary local control, and with the main sensors down, the Sally’s ECM is washing out the target locks at anything beyond one hundred kilometers.” Responsibility for the sensors had become Greg’s when a wet, meaty-sounding impact had come from the location of the sensor station directly behind her. The agonized gurgling had been mercifully short and had ended over an hour ago.
Greg was doing his best. Alex knew that, but he was doing his job, his assistant’s, and running what was left of the Gna’s sensors. Unfortunately, she could not spare anyone to take some of the burden off him. Turning to get an update from the navigation officer, Alex twitched in shock as her headset suddenly burst back into life. The Gna’s damage-control teams were still alive and performing miracles.
“—defense envelope depth.” The static and interference was bad, but Alex could still make out what the voice was saying. “I say again, this is Lieutenant Bandit of Valkyrie Flight 225. We’re coming in off your starboard bow, requesting verification of your point-defense envelope depth.”
“Bandit, this is the Gna.” Alex didn’t waste any time expressing the relief she felt. “Depth is one hundred kilometers. I say again, one hundred kilometers. We’ve got three bogies that need your attention.”
“Roger that, Gna. That’s what we’re here for. Be aware, you have another seven bogies closing from astern, but don’t worry, we’ve got them.” Bandit’s voice was light and cheerful despite the fact that he had to know that he and his fellow pilots would never leave the system. Even if the Gna could reduce her speed enough to allow those Valkyries to land, her landing deck and hanger bays were no longer operational. “Bobbie, Psycho, close up on me—we’re going in. Godspeed, Gna.”
“Good hunting, Bandit.” Alex cut the connection.
“Sweet Jesus,” Greg hissed over the now-restored command net. The battle net was still inoperable, leaving the command deck cut off from the rest of the ship. “There are only three of them. And where the hell did Valkyries come from, anyway? We’re too far out for them to have made it here on their own.”
“I don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is they’re here, and they’re buying us some breathing room.”
The flashing light of an incoming communication drew her attention to one of her panels.
“This is the Gna,” Alex said, opening the channel. “Go ahead.”
“Oh, thank God,” a hysterical-sounding voice came back to her. “This is the Hervor. We need help! The captain’s dead, and we lost our broadsides, and people are dead all over the ship, and—”
“Calm down. This is no time to panic,” she snapped into her mike.
“Yeah, right,” Greg’s voice muttered in her earpiece. Alex couldn’t bring herself to comment on that.
“Now, let’s start over. Who is this?”
“Lieutenant Maloy, ma’am.”
“Okay. Now, Lieutenant, who is in command over there?”
“I think I am, ma’am. The captain’s dead, and I can’t get hold of anyone else.” The panic was beginning to rise in his voice again.
“That’s fine, Lieutenant,” Alex soothed, trying to head off another round of hysterics. “Are you in contact with any other ships at this time?”
“Ah, yes, ma’am. The Sunna.”
“Good. Do you know who is in command over there?”
“I spoke with an Ensign Effant, but I don’t know if she was in charge or not.” Maloy’s voice was becoming more level as he seemed to be getting hold of himself.
“Okay. Here’s what we are going to do. First, I want you to slave the Hervor’s sensors to the Gna. Then I want you to contact the Sunna, find out who is in command, and get them on the line with us,” Alex ordered, giving out simple commands that would help to calm the lieutenant even more. Muting her connection with Maloy, she turned to Higgins.
“As soon as you get the feed from the Hervor I want you to get their positions relative to ours. Lieutenant Donahue.” Addressing the Gna’s navigation officer, Alex continued. “When you have that information, plot us an intercept course. Let’s get those ships in close.”
Both officers voiced their assent, and while they were turning to their tasks, Alex reestablished her connection to Lieutenant Maloy.
“Okay, Lieutenant, what have you got for me?”
“Ma’am, I have Ensign Effant on the line with us. She is the ranking command officer of the Sunna.”
“Very well. Status report, Ensign.”
“Ninety percent casualties, two laser mounts and one torpedo tube operational on the starboard broadside, one missile tube and one torpedo tube operational on the port. We have exactly seventeen missiles left for our remaining launcher.” The ensign’s voice was a wooden monotone, a clear sign she was in shock, but at least she seemed to be tracking well enough to provide what Alex hoped was accurate information. “Point defense is off-line, and there are multiple hull breaches throughout the ship.”
“Thank you, Ensign. Lieutenant?”
As the lieutenant began his report, Alex watched the nav plot update with their new course to rendezvous with the two frigates. She was relieved to see that the Hervor and the Sunna were already close enough to support one another, though as damaged as both ships were, there was not much each could do for itself, let alone its mate.
“Status change,” Greg’s voice called out across the command deck just as the navigational plot updated to include another ship. “New contact. Looks to be a Xan-Sskarn destroyer. I’m not reading any plumes or energy fluctuations, and she’s headed our way.”
The destroyer that Greg just picked up was undamaged and fresh, ready for a fight. Which in turn meant that the two heavily damaged frigates would be easy meat for her guns. The thought that the Gna was just as heavily damaged and in no shape to tangle with a fully operational and battle-ready destroyer never entered Alex’s mind.
“Helm, bring us about. New heading, zero nine one mark three one eight, best possible speed,” Alex ordered without hesitation. “Lieutenant Maloy, the Hervor and the Sunna will head for the hyperlimit. We’ll slow them down long enough for you to clear their engagement envelope before you begin your turnover.”
“But ma’am,” Maloy began.
“You have your orders, Lieutenant. Carry them out.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, Captain, and good luck.”
“You, too, Captain. Gna out.”
“Course laid in, ma’am,” Donahue informed her.
“Very good, Lieutenant,” Alex stated formally. “Execute.”
* * *
The shrilling alarm of an incoming communication filled the darkened cabin. Captain Alexandra McLaughlin, commanding officer of the heavy cruiser Fenris, rolled over in bed, groaning.
It’s been almost two years since Ross 128. Why the hell would I be dreaming of it now? I put those ghosts to rest a long time ago.
Her hand slapped blindly for the accept button. Silencing the alarm, she flopped back onto the bed.
“Sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but long-range sensors have picked up a translation at the hyperlimit,” the caller said.
Of course a ship translated in at the hyperlimit. That would be why it’s called the hyperlimit. Keeping her sarcastic reply to herself, Alex also refrained from giving the caller a basic outline on why the hyperlimit was just that as her mind drifted back to a lecture she had attended years ago.
“Jumping a ship across or into a planetary system’s gravitational forces is a recipe for disaster,” the wizened old man in a suit two sizes too big for him lectured. “The multitude of gravitational fields and their varying strengths play merry hell with ships in fold space. If a person is crazy enough, or just plain stupid enough, and if that person is very, very lucky, they will only end up off course. If not, well, some people looked forward to becoming one with the universe.”
Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes for a moment, Alex divested herself of the memory, forcing her sleep-addled mind back to the task at hand.
“Understood. I’ll be up there in fifteen minutes.” She was just about to close the channel when she thought, What the hell—misery loves company. “Wake the XO and have him report to the command deck as well.”
“McLaughlin out.” As the channel went dead, Alex sat up in bed, and reaching out with one hand, turned up the lights in her cabin while running the other hand through her tangled mass of red hair. The dream still lingering in the back of her mind, Alex’s thoughts turned to the ghosts of her past. She could not shake the feeling that they had been trying to tell her something or, worse, do something to her. Alex shivered at that thought. Standing up and shaking her head to clear the last vestiges of sleep and dreams from her mind, she headed toward the shower.
Stripping off her nightclothes, Alex stepped into the shower stall and turned on the water. Besides, she thought, leaning back into the spray, what harm can ghosts do?
* * *
Commander Greg Higgins, Executive Officer of the heavy cruiser Fenris, stood next to the captain’s chair on the command deck, sipping a cup of coffee while holding a second cup in his free hand. The soft hiss of the lift hatch opening announced the arrival of the captain.
“Captain on deck,” Greg said in a bright, cheery voice, with a beaming smile directed at his captain.
“As you were,” Alex ground out, staring daggers at her XO.
“Good morning, Captain. How are you this fine morning?” he asked, handing over the second cup of coffee after she settled into her command chair. While Greg had never been a fan of early mornings, over the years he had come to realize that if there was one thing in the universe that Alexandra McLaughlin hated, it was early mornings. And he took every opportunity he could get to tweak her about it. In return, she would do the very same thing next time they had to leave the ship. His hatred of flying was on par with her attitude toward mornings. Smiling at her as she took a sip of coffee, he could have sworn he heard her mutter something about “evil” and “unnatural.”
“Okay, XO, what have you got for me?”
“Well, we’ve got a pair of destroyers that jumped in about three hours ago, so any communications or messages should clear translational distortions in another ten minutes or so.”
Greg knew that despite her distaste for mornings, it only took her a moment or two to wake up; the rest was really just for show, her trying to maintain her reputation.
Alex let her eyes wander over the command deck as she drank her coffee. The glossy black consoles with their multicolored lights and the constant murmur of voices and humming of equipment were soothing after her violent nightmare. She felt safe and satisfied watching the dozen-plus men and women sitting and standing around her, quietly going about their various duties.
Several minutes passed before a voice came from behind them.
They both continued to drink their coffee while the comm officer on duty copied the incoming message traffic and sorted out the priority messages from the routine.
Looking at the pad the ensign handed him, Greg smiled.
“Well, anything that was worth getting up this early for?” Alex asked, finishing off her coffee and holding out her hand for the pad.
“I’d say so, ma’am. Looks like we’re done with our patrol of Lacaille 9352. We have orders to join Admiral Stevens’ fleet at Groombridge 34,” he said, handing the pad over.
“Groombridge 34. That’s the front lines.”
“Yes, ma’am, it sure is.”
Greg watched as Alex leaned back into her chair, scrolling through the rest of the message traffic, and he didn’t miss her quiet response.
“Good. It’s about time we got back into the fight.”