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Ricci could not believe the reports coming in. Each minor planet in the Juventas quadrant had been guarded by private warships. These were amateurs. They were not supposed to be anywhere near the level of a trained military. Certainly they were not supposed to be close to the Star League Navy’s level of expertise.

And yet . . . Two Hawks were lost at Palisades. The two pirate ships there somehow coordinated perfectly to bring both ships down. They could not take the Eagles and left shortly after, but the loss of two Hawks was a devastating blow to the Navy.

One Eagle was severely damaged at Aegea before the pirates watching that system withdrew. At least no ships were completely lost there.

But, worst of all, three warships were lost entirely at Thalia. One Hawk-class and . . . two Eagles? How was that even possible?

Alison Volkov, Captain of the Resolute, interrupted the Admiral’s ruminations by running a finger through the doorbell holo on the door outside Ricci’s quarters.

“Enter.”

Volkov walked in and nodded at her. The two women shared many things in common and got along very well with one another, despite their differences in rank.

Volkov looked to Ricci as a mentor, and Ricci, 15 years older, took the role willingly. They approached something similar to a mother-daughter relationship, although not quite. More like older, experienced Admiral and younger Captain relationship, Ricci thought. Although . . . looser on the formalities than usual.

“I have the latest report on Thalia, sent in by StarCen along with supplemental material relayed by Captain Thrakkar,” Volkov said.

She made a motion with her hand and a holosheet appeared in the air in front of her. She twisted it around so the Admiral could see it.

“Give me the skinny version,” Ricci said.

“Basically, the pirates used the hull of a Mammoth-class ship to decimate our Eagles, Admiral.”

Ricci’s head sank slowly into her hands. The day just kept getting worse. Pirates did this? Privateers? They did not even have a formal navy at Lute. Just a bunch of thieves in stolen warships.

“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “Give me the full version.”

“Well, do you remember when the Aquamarine got captured a while back?”

“Yes. It was kind of a big deal. They disabled her Wu Drive. That was what led to all our ships getting shielded engine compartments. Also, we can do that too now. Provided, of course, the other ship is unshielded, which none of them are anymore. Word spreads fast, especially in wartime.”

“Right. Well, for some reason the pirates never off sold the Aquamarine. Instead, they stripped her and kept the hull. She’s a giant empty shell of a ship.”

“Now with a working Wu Drive, evidently.”

“Right. Or at least a tandem drive. Because they towed it with them all the way to Thalia.”

“Don’t tell me. When our people weren’t looking, they teleported this giant ship right into the Eagles.”

Volkov nodded. She said, “The funny thing is, they did it to Thrakkar earlier. The exact same thing, only they were waiting for him a few jumps out from Petra Roe. He was leading the guard detail for a bank drone when they popped into place. The drone was in the middle and trapped, while his two tail ships got cut in half by the hull.”

“Did he not get a chance to attack then, either?”

“There were survivors, and the pirates left him with a Hobson’s choice.”

“Oh, good grief.”

Ricci paused to think for a moment.

Slowly, she said, “StarCen? What are the odds Captain Thrakkar met the same pirates, using the same technique twice in a row?”

StarCen’s high-pitched voice came down from the ceiling.

“It is not inconceivable, Admiral. Captain Thrakkar is above suspicion, and holds particular animus against these pirates for besting him twice in a row now.”

“Okay, okay. But let’s keep a careful eye on him.”

“Will do, Admiral Ricci.”

Ricci stared at Volkov with a look of consternation.

She said, “Who would ever have thought to use a Mammoth-class hull as a weapon?”

-+-

“Whose bright idea was it to use a disabled Mammoth as a weapon?”

“An even better question is, why didn’t our side think of doing that?”

Billings and Chu asked the questions to Thrall, who sat expressionless at the conference table in Epsilon. Only flaring nostrils betrayed his mounting irritation at the reports from the Third Fleet.

He said, “No one thought to use a Mammoth-class ship as a weapon because it is hideously expensive to create such a gigantic vessel and only use it to bash others.”

Billings shrugged, his hologram in the conference room on Epsilon perfectly mimicking the motion via the quantum matrix.

He said, “It’s a really good idea, though. I mean, with the size of that thing it instantly devastates the shields and the hulls of other ships. How many has it taken out so far?”

Dully, Thrall said, “Two Sparrows, two Eagles, one Hawk, and . . . a bank drone, evidently. We never found the bank drone.”

“And what’s the name of the pirate company that is using this splendid new weapon?” Chu asked, quietly.

Thrall’s nostrils flared again. He thought she knew the answer, but was quietly baiting him in the safest way possible.

He cursed her political skills.

They probably both knew it was the same company that absconded with his daughter, who was onboard the Aquamarine when it was captured. The same company whose Captain she married to spite him and prevent the Marshal Service from retrieving her despite the courts on Clarion having declared her incompetent.

The very same company that now destroyed three of his ships at Thalia with a stupid trick.

Never mind the trick actually worked, it was still deception. It rankled him, but he did not show it. The fact his trick with the Tilson amounted to the same thing never crossed his mind.

Thrall said, “No matter. And with solar torpedoes, the problem is moot. One torpedo will take out the Aquamarine the next time we see her. They were able to surprise us from a defensive position, but obviously that won’t work a second time.”

“Just like your surprise at Juventas won’t work again.”

That veiled jab came from Billings this time. He, in contrast, had considered the equivalency of the Tilson and the Aquamarine. Since the comparison was a good one, it was hardly disputable.

Thrall decided to affirm it instead.

He nodded and said, “Just so, Tetrarch Billings. Many offensive measures only work once in war.”

He flicked his wrist and brought up a shared holoscreen. Everyone looked at the icons of warships converging on a representation of the Juventas system.

“At this point, we will change our plans accordingly, and worry about mopping up the minor planets after our engagement at Juventas. That is beginning as we speak.”

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jaxonreed

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