Titus and Olatanthus going at it.

Titus and Olatanthus going at it.

Sneak Preview: The Fifth Circle Vol.  II

“There’s too much going on to have an argument, Titus, and I’ll thank you for small favors but I’m not ecstatic either. I don’t trust you. Don’t give me a reason to not like you as well.”

“I asked, you said no. We’ll make do with the Beats Working and its tender. Neither are what they seem, so don’t feel too bad for us. I’m just glad you got my ass out of a sling. Kinda makes up for Earthrise.”

“And just what is that supposed to mean, Dragonmaster?”

“Don’t get all huffy with me, Fleet Admiral. You ordered me and my kids transported to Hylozoist because we were able to stay off the earlier (D)LOU. Now, I don’t know if it was because Prakkaa getting nervous, or he dosed Het a little too strongly so she didn’t wake up before entering quant, or you got a lucky read on the manifest, but you sure as hell didn’t want me anywhere near the Axxaans. And you know that I know you know why.”

“Titus! Do we have to go through this now?

“Yes, we do. I came within a hairsbreadth of oblivion and still wonder if we did right by the Axxaans. Fixture Levy notwithstanding.”

 She gestured impatience. “At the time of the first Axxaan war, I was vice admiral commanding Fifth Fleet and Sakkon was within our operating theater. One follows orders, even if one has moral qualms. That’s what soldiers do.” As coolly as she rolled out the facts, I could see the subject was nonetheless touching nerves. Good. “The Axxaans gave us no reason to exercise restraint.”

“But the incursions and reprisals continue in your theatre and eventually you become fleet admiral, but the die has long been cast. Whether or not you agree with the strategy, you invoke it relentlessly because there’s no way out and it follows you, dogs you, even as dragonmaster. To repudiate it now would be a little more than a stain, I think.”

“You presume much.” A light sheen of sweat had formed on what of her brow I could see beneath her bangs. “And if I recall, your behavior at Earthrise doesn’t put you in a favorable position to argue.”

“I’m not casting stones, Fleet Admiral. I just want the truth. If there’s anything that stands at the foundation of the Fifth Circle, it is to seek the truth. The past is past. I can do nothing to reclaim or change it. But what does the future hold? Ask yourself. Truth or more lies?”

At the brink of reply, Olatanthus’s lips resolved to a straight line. Intimidation or a mental vapor lock? Who could tell?

“I meant what I said, Fleet Admiral. Thanks for getting Yandeenaa off my neck.”

“About that,” she replied slowly and started to pace. “The colonel said he had orders to shoot you on sight. Who told him that?”

“Ah. That would be Nonynn. He’s playing patty-cake with the Fixture Levy as well, although a completely different flavor. Why do you think Yandeenaa’s so pissed off? He’s First Circle and his dragonmaster has his nuts in a vise. He wants to do the right thing, I think, but he also wants to remain in command. That’s why I had to get you off-planet. Really, if that’s all I’m able to do at this dance, I’ll go home happy.”

“Your arrival was certainly unorthodox.” Her pacing continued in silence for some time, silence except for creaking boot leather. “But you’re not going home. And no, don’t protest your damn innocence, Titus. I would do the same.

“Fleet officers aren’t supposed to make deals, but I imagine dragonmasters to be exempt. If it suits you, come up to the flag mess with me, and if I like what else you have to say about the Fixture Levy, I’ll see what I can do. I can’t help you with Nonynn on the ground, but space is my demesne. If your optics are even half-right, we’re going to be fighting very hard in very short order.”

 “Their ships are pretty bad ass so it’s more like we’ll be fighting for our lives.”

“You may be right, with TF-9 inactive.”

“Task Force 9? What is—”

“Part of Second Fleet and comprised of ships, if you can call them that, with the highest capability profile in the Domains, regardless of registry. Even the pulsed bio-synths. Far higher. Never designed to be utilized on short notice, a command directive to promote plausible deniability that may end up exacting a price no one could have foreseen.”

Plausible deniability again. Unsettled, I yet managed a neutral shrug. This was net new territory, even for old Titus, but I’d be good and god damned if I came across as a boot.

“You now know more than all but a dozen top fleet officers.” She grimaced, continued on. “Crews are redacted just prior to and immediately after operations to keep it that way, and that takes time. The Torturer-class dreadnaughts are too powerful, too exotic, and if widely deployed, they’d sure as hell terrify the Domains. Not good for the peacekeeping business, which explains why TF-9 has seen only two engagements since its assets were commissioned and those ops remain need-to-know because we were strategically backed into a corner. I’m reluctant about revealing this to say the least, Dragonmaster, but based on your optics, I cannot overstate how much we’ll need all EA weaponry we can bring to bear. For both reasons, as of this moment until cessation of hostilities, your ship has been impressed as a privateer of the fleet on my personal authority and you will report directly to the fleet flag. You’re part of the fight after all, gods turn away, but everything’s forfeit with extreme prejudice if word of TF-9 gets beyond these walls. Trust me.”

“I’ll do what I can with Beats Working, but trust is poorly lit and it’s easy to get lost in its shadows. However, I do take your threat seriously. You’ll pardon me if I don’t salute.”

Olatanthus put a hand to her neck, gazed narrowly at me and saw that I wasn’t joking. I returned the stare. “The fleet admiral’s table is set and Yandeenaa’s chief steward has found you some gloves. It may be our last meal for a while. And Titus,” she got between me and the slider, “I know you. Don’t try and do this all yourself. We fight as a unit and we win as a unit. You understand this. Respect it is all I ask.”