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Thirty minutes later I crossed the glass umbilical corridor that would take me from Defiant to High Station Candle proper. I had a great deal of trepidation about the staff meeting I was about to attend: an "all hands," which meant all Lightship captains plus Admiral Wesley. No doubt something was up, something big.

A small group of techs was setting up the longwave connection to the Historians' ansible network when I entered the conference room. This would allow the Lightship captains to link up and converse with their fleet commodore and Admiral Wesley in real time. It wasn't a technology I understood, provided by the Historians of Earth, of course, but I knew how to use it, and being able to communicate across many light-years instantaneously gave us a great advantage.

I was the only captain in attendance in the conference room, as both Maclintock's ship, Starbound, and mine, Defiant, were docked here at Candle in our home system of Quantar. The other captains were spread out far and wide across Union Space, a bubble about forty-eight light-years across, centered around Sol, which the Union Navy had declared they would defend as home space. There were only about sixty G-type spectral stars, humanity's preferred type for colonization, within that bubble. Of those systems, only a few had been colonized in the early days of Imperial growth, since many had no planets with the right climate conditions and atmosphere. We knew of nineteen historical colonies and a handful of industrial bases within that bubble, and our Union, at the moment, represented only five.

I looked at the massive star display on the far wall. Beyond Union Space, the stars identified as yellow dots, the G-type stars of the Imperium were identified as red. That red bubble extended out from about fifty light-years to a hundred light-years from Sol. While it seemed the Empire and Union areas of space were nearly identical in size, the fact was that there were some 448 potential stars with habitable worlds within that Imperial red bubble, nearly eight times as many as in Union Space. The stellar topography greatly favored our enemies in terms of potential numbers of colonized worlds. That was an advantage they could use to crush the Union if we didn't get stronger and more numerous, and soon. The Historians told us that there were some 350 known colonies in the old empire at its peak, before the war, and as we now knew, fewer than twenty of those were on our side of the line. Whether the old empire had ever colonized beyond that hundred-light-year bubble was an unknown.

I turned away from the star display and back to the conference monitors, which were slowly flickering to life. We were now at eight operational Lightships in the fleet, if you counted Vanguard, Pendax's ship, which was near enough to ready. I feared that wouldn't be enough ships, despite my confidence in both our Lightships and their captains.

Valiant, commanded by Wynn Scott of Earth, was conducting the long-delayed First Contact mission at Jenarus, which I had previously visited when I was third-in-command aboard Starbound. Resolution, commanded by Devin Tannace, Maclintock's former number two, was on-station in her home system of Levant. Avenger was captained by Mehzut Ozil, a man I had met briefly on Carinthia during the recovery operations there. Fearless, commanded by Dietar Von Zimmerman, son of Carinthia's Air Marshal Von Zimmerman, was stationed in her home system. Neither Fearless nor Avenger had ventured very far from Carinthia since the attack.

Impulse II, captained by my former lover Dobrina Kierkopf, was at High Station 3 in the Carinthian system, prepping for a survey mission to a system called Skondar for possible First Contact. Skondar had been a robust mining colony in the old Imperial days. It was unknown if the colony was still inhabited, but it was known that she had been a treasure trove of metals such as lithium and magnesium, not to mention less exotic but nonetheless valuable gold and silver repositories.

There would be one addition to our virtual table; Captain Lucius Zander, my first commanding officer aboard the original ill-fated Impulse, was joining us today as the future captain of the Lightship Vanguard from the Union's newest member world, Pendax. Vanguard would be joining the fleet in another month or so as our eighth commissioned Lightship.

As the techs finished up their work, I took my seat at the conference table next to Maclintock. We faced a broad, curved plasma in the office's conference work area, just a part of the massive facility the commodore had at his disposal. One by one, the six Lightship captains' faces appeared on the big screen hanging above us. When the last connection was made—that of Grand Admiral Jonathon Wesley in his office on High Station Quantar—the techs departed the room, leaving Maclintock and me alone with our virtual group.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Wesley started, "I hope all is well where you are." There were nods and general acknowledgments all around. "Good," he continued. "Let's get on with it, then. First order of business is new deployments, of which I have three.

Captain Ozil, I'm uploading an order packet to you that outlines your new mission, which is a first survey of the Ceta system."

"Thank you, Admiral. We're anxious to get back out," said Ozil, an odd-looking man with short dark hair and big bulging eyes.

"I'm sure you are. This one will be standard stealth-running survey protocols: observe and catalog, but do not engage or participate in any activity that might arouse interest in Avenger. And at any sign of Imperial forces in the system, you are to bug out and return to station immediately, no exceptions."

"What are our rules of engagement?" asked Ozil. Wesley looked up sharply from his desk display, staring right into the camera.

"There are none, Captain. You are to bug out, period," he said. The fact was that the Lightship fleet had had no interactions with the old empire since the battles at Levant and Pendax almost a year ago. Wesley apparently wanted to keep it that way.

"Understood, sir," replied Ozil. I could see he was disappointed, but Wesley's orders were probably prudent. The Union was looking for as many allies as we could find, but if a system was already under Imperial influence, our orders were to leave that system alone, regardless of proximity to Union space.
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