Deep Space, 2568 CE. For the first time in his century-long career, Fleet-Captain Arjen of Clan D'gameh disapproved of a mission he had been given. That his orders came straight from the Supreme made no difference to his feelings, nor did the First Speaker's assurance that the Circle of Lords deemed it vital to the survival of the Traiti race.
It wasn't the goal of the mission that disturbed him, as much as the means. In the war between the Traiti and the Terran Empire, two things were, if not exactly sacred, proprieties that both sides respected. One was hospital ships, and the other was the return of bodies to their kin. By extension, ships delivering wounded or picking up dead were also immune, a principle that neither side had violated … yet.
Arjen and his reinforced fleet were about to violate that unwritten taboo. The Fleet-Captain looked around his flagship's control central, conscious that nobody else aboard the Hermnaen knew of the planned deceit. He traced the honor-scars on his upper body through the cloth of his shirt, wishing he were elsewhere and free of the orders that seemed so dishonorable then he told himself sternly to get on with it.
His mission was to deliver one of the Terran Empire's elite, one of the green-uniformed Rangers, safely to the Supreme and First Speaker on Homeworld. Although that sounded simple enough, it would take both firepower and trickery. Arjen's fleet, now with sixty ships instead of forty, had firepower enough to overwhelm even a Sovereign-class Terran battle cruiser, the type of ship a Ranger normally used. Fifty-nine of the Traiti warcraft were in positions that englobed a point in space a quarter-million n'liu from a blue-and-white oxygen planet—over forty diameters out, nearly in the orbit of the planet's moon.
The Hermnaen was still at the center of the twenty-n'liu-diameter sphere of ships, its Ship-Captain and crew waiting for Arjen's orders. Still reluctant to begin the trickery that was part of this operation, Arjen spoke anyway. "Release signal transmitter."
"Aye, Fleet-Captain." Battle discipline was strict, if fair; not even an action as apparently senseless as releasing a beacon in the center of a combat-ready fleet was questioned.
Then the Hermnaen took its own position in the sphere and Arjen ordered the beacon activated. The moment the distinctive paired triple-pings, used only for body-return containers, sounded on the ship's receivers, Arjen found himself the focus of fourteen pairs of eyes, from the ship's operators in their U of consoles facing him and the Master-Pilot and Ship-Captain Exvani, whose consoles flanked Arjen's at the opening of the U—but not even those senior officers spoke their questions aloud.
It wasn't necessary; Arjen knew they shared the shock and dismay he'd felt when he was given this mission, and he was sure similar feelings were spread throughout the Fleet. He sighed and displayed resignation by extending the claws on one hand. "Give me Fleet Communications."
"Aye, Fleet-Captain." The Communications operator's attention returned to his console, and within minutes Arjen was in communication with all his Ship-Captains.
Without preamble and without expression, Arjen briefed them on the mission and detailed his plans for its execution. "The Intelligence Service reports intercepting communications involving a Ranger named Esteban Tarlac, which indicate that he is in this sector. Given what we know of Rangers, he will have his own ship respond, and given the skill of those who pilot Rangers' vessels, it will out-transition from hyperspace within ten n'liu of the beacon."
"Ten n'liu!" a newly-assigned Ship-Captain exclaimed.
"They are quite competent," Arjen said drily, "and they will take time to be accurate. I think that estimate, if anything, is conservative. You have seen little action against the Terrans?"
"None, Fleet-Captain." The officer sounded reluctant to admit that, but went on. "My ship and I are normally on colony patrol. This will be our first battle."
Arjen hid his brief amusement at the young Ship-Captain's obvious anticipation; he had felt that way himself, early in the war. "Not if things go well. In this engagement, it is most desirable that Ranger Tarlac come willingly—or as willingly as possible under the circumstances. To simplify the decision for him, we are insuring that his ship will out-transition in the center of a battle-ready fleet. All ships will therefore go onto secondary alert status immediately, and will maintain that status until the Terrans appear. It will probably be two or three tenth-days before that happens. When they do, you will go to primary alert status without waiting for my orders. I want all weapons ready to fire, but no one is to do so without my express orders. Are there any questions?"