IMEPRIAL SECURITY BULLETIN 71984-X5Y: Encryption Level Aldan 1/Top Secret
Immediate Action Required:
Previous reports of the death of former Imperial Admiral Philip Guthrie in Baris sector appear to be in error per new information from one of our operatives in deep cover in the Alliance. Guthrie's capture and/or termination now top priority for all Baris and Calth sector operatives. The Farosians must not be allowed access to Guthrie. The so-called rebel "Alliance" must not be allowed to benefit from this traitor's expertise or financial resources. All restrictions on civilian casualties lifted as per Command Prime. Failure is not an option. This bulletin self-destructs in thirty seconds.
Alliance Admiral Philip Guthrie leaned his forearms on the back of the black padded chair and—heart sinking—studied the silvery image slowly revolving through the holovid suspended above the ready room's table. He hoped—prayed—he was wrong, but he knew he wasn't. It took all his training not to let emotions of any kind show on his face.
But, damn, the ship was an ugly, ungainly 850-ton beast, with her billiard-ball bridge and dual bulging cylindrical drive nacelles aft—as bad as he remembered when he'd served aboard her twenty years ago under the command of Captain Cory Bennton. Bennton had been the Alric Stockwell's only saving grace. The Stockwell was the last of the Imperial Fleet's Stryker-class heavy cruisers, finally decommissioned—if memory served him—about six years past, though Bennton had moved on to better ships long before that.
And now that ungainly 850-ton beast of a ship was to be Philip's.
"What do you think?" Jodey Bralford, the Krista Nowicki's stocky dark-haired captain, leaned back in his chair at the head of the long table and, chin slightly raised, looked expectantly at Philip. Acquiring the Stockwell was the first—some could say desperate—shot at building a workable fleet. But one lone Maven-class 500-ton cruiser, four P-class patrol ships, two fifty-ton Ratch fighters, and two well-armed luxury yachts did not a defense make for the newly formed Alliance of Independent Republics.
But the Stockwell?
Bad luck is better than no luck at all, sounded in Philip's mind. He bit back a snort of self-derision. Beggars—rebels, in this case—can't be choosers, he reminded that sarcastic part of himself that, lately, he had trouble keeping in check. And had ever since the Imperial Fleet was gutted by one megalomaniac fanatic named Darius Tage, the former first barrister to the ineffectual Emperor Prewitt III. Now, with Prew's mental and emotional collapse, Tage was the self-proclaimed god of all he could get his greedy fingers on.
And executioner of all those who stood in his way—including some of Philip's best captains. He pushed that anger and heartache away and concentrated on the problem—and solution—slowly spinning in front of him in the column of pale-blue light.
"How in hell did you find her?" That question could be interpreted in any number of ways. Jodey was a good friend and Philip hated to sound less than appreciative, but, damn. The Stockwell?
"I'd like to impress you with my incisive detective work and infallible contacts, but the truth is we raided her about ten months ago out at the C-D. She was heading out-system from Port January."
The Calth-Dafir border had been an issue for the Imperial Fleet for over a decade, ever since supporters of Sheldon Blaine—Tage's rival for the position as god of the Empire—declared Tos Faros in Dafir as their base of operations. And ten months ago, Jodey and Philip were still part of the Imperial Fleet. Then, Blaine and his Farosian followers were their only serious problem.
"I knew immediately what she was," Jodey continued, pointing to the ship's image between them. "It made no sense for a Stryker-class cruiser to be operating under a passenger-transport registration. Cargo, sure. But not passenger. Obviously, her docs were bogus. She was running arms for the Farosians. They'd acquired her through a series of illegal trades after her original decommission, so we seized her. She was sold about four months later to a Umoran citrus exporter who, with all the problems in Grover's City, was willing to let her go last week for a good price."
"You paid money for her?" The words were out before Philip could stop them. He quickly raised his hand, halting whatever was about to come out of Jodey's mouth in protestation. "Sorry. I didn't mean it quite like it sounded." Like hell I didn't. "It's just that other than what we've been able to raise from donations"—much of which had come from his investments—"the Alliance isn't exactly awash in spare funds at the moment." At least, not until he could access the rest of his accounts. He was a Guthrie, and he'd be damned if the likes of Tage was going to keep him from retrieving what was rightfully his by hard work and inheritance.
Of course, retrieving the balance of those funds might give Tage a hint that former Imperial Fleet Admiral Philip Guthrie was alive and kicking. And active in trying to take down the old Empire.
But moving assets untraceably was a minor problem, according to a man named Gabriel Sullivan, who had not only faked his own death rather successfully a few years ago but who was also an accomplished mercenary, renowned pirate, heir to his own exorbitant fortune—and a powerful telepathic-energy-wielding half human, half demon. Who was currently married to Captain Chaz Bergren, Philip's ex-wife. There was a lot to be said for family.
"A good price," Jodey repeated. He tugged up the sleeves of his gray uniform shirt before reaching for the mug of coffee in front of him. "All the Alliance had to do was to pay three months' back dockage fees to the Kirro dockmaster, clearing the export company of the debt. We still have a good chunk left over."
Philip did a quick tally. Thousands, then, not millions. And low thousands at that. That was an incredibly good deal. "That's it?" he asked, not without suspicion, as Jodey sipped his coffee.
Jodey put the mug back on the table and shrugged. "We also had to agree to keep her name."
"What does a fruit shipper care about Alric Stockwell?" Stockwell had been some minor senator from some equally minor district. Philip didn't even remember what sector. Baris? Aldan?
"Nothing. She's not the Stockwell. She's Hope's Folly."
What in hell's fat ass kind of name was that? "You're asking me to lead the Alliance battle group with a flagship called Hope's Folly? Bralford, tell me you're not serious."
Jodey leaned his forearms against the table's dull-gray top, his dark brows lowering, his demeanor suddenly somber. "Four months ago, twenty-three innocent people died in Grover's City when Tage released a cargo hold full of jukors at the spaceport. Three children were among the dead. And
I know you know all this."
Philip could still see the gruesome images on the news vids. It was the incident that had thrown Prew over the edge, collapsing what little control the emperor had left. It put Tage in charge of the Empire. That had all but gotten Philip killed in an ambush by Tage's private squad of Imperial Security assassins at Raft Thirty at the A-B. He'd risked his life to warn the rest of his captains and his officers. In the case of Cory Bennton, his former CO and longtime friend, and Captain Gemma Junot, he'd been too late.
"A mother and two small children were killed in the first wave. Then, hours later, another mother and her child who'd been in hiding came out, thinking things were safe. The little girl was four, five years old, I think. She was Pavyer's—the grove owner's—only child. Her name was Hope."
Philip shut his eyes briefly, his heart clenching even though he had no children of his own. But he had three brothers and roomfuls of nieces and nephews, as holiday dinners at his parents' lavish estate proved. Being ripped to shreds by a jukor's powerful jaws was not a death anyone wanted for their child.
"But folly?" he asked. "That means mistake, foolishness."
"Folly was the name of the little girl's pet. Pavyer and his wife wanted the name to be Hope and Folly, but the girl insisted on Hope's Folly. He doesn't know why and he can't ask her now."
Philip wiped one hand down his face. At forty-five and career military, he should be inured to death. But he wasn't—especially when the life taken was that of a child.
"Okay." He straightened and rolled his shoulders, catching his trademark movement only after he completed it. "Hope's Folly. Where is she?"
"Shipyards off Seth," Jodey said, naming Umoran's moon. "Basic refit is all we can do right now, given the current situation."
Which was the Empire at war with itself and Tage putting blockades on the major jumpgates in Aldan and Baris in an effort to starve the rebel movement growing beyond those points. A movement under the direction of former Dafir-One senator Mason Falkner, now provisional consul of the Alliance of Independent Republics. Tage had the Imperial Fleet—including Philip's former Galaxy-class flagship, the Morgan Loviti—edging into Calth. Which was why the Alliance's new admiral needed more than one lone cruiser.
And he got the Stockwell. Hope's Folly. The Loviti could probably take her out with half her weaponry off-line. Speaking of which . . .
"Does she have any defenses at all?" The negatives of the situation unfolded in Philip's mind. A former Fleet cruiser turned fruit hauler sitting at Seth's, likely stripped down when decommissioned. And sitting at a commercial yard, not a military one.
"Unfortunately, just the usual allowable package for any commercial vessel. No ion cannons, no torpedoes. She has laser banks, of course, and, oddly, two extremely powerful tow fields. Commercial uses, I guess, but she was decommissioned at Ferrin's before the exporter bought her, and some of her may still be there," Jodey added as Philip nodded. "First bit of good news, if you could call it that."
He could. Ferrin's, on the ass end of Baris, was a combination civilian starport and military repair facility, with strong ties to the Umoran colonies. When the empire split, Ferrin's dockmaster and inhabitants, including the captain and crew of the P-40 based there, wasted no time in allying with Consul Falkner's leadership and his Independent Admirals' Council.
Ferrin's would also have spare parts for a Stryker and, since the decommission had been in their yards, the original command data source codes for the ship. Add in data Philip had brought back from his stay on Sullivan's Boru Karn—old trader routes and long-forgotten jumpgates, already programmed in on the Nowicki—and the Alliance would have one more ship that could circumvent many of the Imperial blockades.
"You'll need to get her to Ferrin's to finish the refit," Jodey said, echoing Philip's thoughts—not unusual, considering the years they'd served together. "With luck, they'll have what you need either in original stock or from military surplus."
Luck would be nice. It was something they hadn't had in abundance lately.
Nor time. It would be at least six shipdays' travel from Seth to Ferrin's, if the C-6 jumpgate was still operational. Ten days or longer if he had to go a more circuitous route or use one of the older jumpgates the Karn's data supplied. In essentially a civilian ship, with laser banks—and his wits—as his only defense.
Jodey seemed to hear his unspoken thoughts. "You know I'm not happy with your taking on this mission, Philip. You're the highest-ranking former Fleet officer we have on our side. If something happens to you, we'll be hard-pressed to replace you. And I'd miss the hell out of our billiards games. But you said to find you a ship. We have."
Philip pushed away from the chair, then hesitated, wincing, as his right leg lodged a formal protest. His shattered leg and hip were a memento of his recent battle out in the Five-Oh-One, not only against Tage's flunky Hayden Burke—now an Alliance prisoner—but against an enemy from within: a Stolorth Kyi-Ragkiril. A half demon, like Sullivan. But not of the human variety. And not, like Sullivan, a friend.
He glanced down quickly, grabbed the hated silver metal cane, and walked with far less than his usual grace to the ready room's large viewport. The big, wide darkness beyond looked peaceful, benign.
It was anything but. And now that the Stol Dynasty and Sheldon Blaine's Farosians were each making preliminary moves to grab parts of the Empire as their own, it would only get worse.
"Tell me about my crew," he said as he absently studied the starfield.
He heard Jodey's sigh of exasperation. "Basic command staff, you have. We're still working on the crew. There are some serious security concerns."
He expected that answer. Though in many minds the Alliance was formed the day Tage disbanded the old Admirals' Council—which had governed with the emperor for centuries—in reality the Alliance of Independent Republics was officially born less than two months ago, when Falkner took formal oath in the new capital city of Nascent on Dafir-One. Dissenters from Fleet and the various planetary ground services were still coming out of the proverbial woodwork.
So were spies, opportunists, con artists, and thrill seekers.
Culling those problems took time and personnel, and Philip knew they had neither right now.
"I have five officers cleared to go with you," Jodey said. "From your Loviti, there's Lieutenant Welford."
No surprise, that. Constantine "Tin Man" Welford, about ten years Philip's junior, was a top helmsman and computer-systems wizard who hadn't hesitated to follow his admiral over to the rebel's camp. Next to Jodey, Con Welford was probably his most trusted officer. He was long overdue for a promotion—something Philip intended to rectify when the Alliance Fleet became a working reality.
"From my ship," Jodey continued, "you're getting Commander Dina Adney and Lieutenant Burnaby Mather. Mather's COMTAC."
Philip had meet Adney and Mather but didn't know either as well as he knew Welford. But a good COMTAC—communications and tactical officer—was always appreciated. And Mather's friendly, always-wanting-to-help attitude had impressed Philip over the past few weeks.
Jodey hesitated. "And Drew Sparkington said he's willing to come out of retirement if you want him."
That name got Philip's attention. "Sparks?"
"Chaz got in touch with him. You know how fond he is of her."
And Jodey still wondered if Philip was more than fond of Captain Chasidah Bergren. Philip could tell by the man's hesitation in mentioning her and the way he wouldn't directly meet Philip's gaze.
Philip and Chaz had been shipmates and friends for over ten years, married for eight, and divorced for three. He'd admired her, loved her, toyed with disliking her—but never quite could—and now . . . Now he could honestly say they were close friends, probably closer than before they married. For some reason, most people had a hard time accepting the fact that he could feel that way.
Especially Jodey, who'd been through the worst of it with him: the end of the marriage, the few blessedly rare drunken stupors Philip had indulged in, and the hard emotional armor he'd donned through Chaz's orchestrated arrest and trial—one of the first salvos in Tage's plan to discredit Fleet and the Admirals' Council, almost a year ago.
Excerpted from Hope's Folly by Linnea Sinclair. Copyright © 2009 by Linnea Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.