Advance

Exodus: Book One

By Gun Brooke


Chapter One

“You just have to accept it, Admiral. You’re a hero in the eyes of our people.” President Tylio smiled broadly and raised her pewter mug in a toast.

Admiral Dael Caydoc barely stopped an annoyed huff from escaping. She didn’t consider herself a hero. “This is my job, Your Excellence. Heroics are for others.”

“But you and your crew are risking your life to save ours,” the president’s spouse, a sparse man with a long white beard, said. “Without your advance team, the rest of us would go into space completely blind.”

“I appreciate your gratitude, but this is what I’ve worked toward during the entire latter half of my career.” Dael gripped her own mug containing the strong traditional ale so popular among the Oconodian people. She hated it and had managed to fake drinking it her entire adult life.

“Oh, look, Admiral!” President Tylio turned toward the panoramic window. Outside, enormous fireworks lit up the sky above the presidential palace. A multitude of colors erupted, and the whistling sounds combined with muted thunder made it into an impressive spectacle.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?” The president smiled wistfully. “I have to say I’m envious of you, Admiral.”

“Envious, sir?”

“You’re going on this amazing, life-altering mission, and the rest of us…will just have to wait.” President Tylio sighed. “At least we’ll have your interspace messages to look forward to.”

“We’ll do our best to keep the messages coming regularly. The buoys constructed by our best engineers will provide us with the best possible chances of communication. Their main purpose is to guide the population to a safe, habitable planet.”

“Of course. Still, we’re going to eagerly wait for your messages. The entire planet will.” The president’s spouse looked ill at ease. “With the exception of them.”

Frowning, Dael clasped her hands behind her back. “By ‘them’ I take it you mean the ones displaying symptoms of the dormant mutation?”

“Yes.” The president’s spouse sneered. “I know I’m supposed to aim for political correctness, but I loathe those creatures. They’re nothing but trouble.”

“Nor can they choose to be anything but who and what they are.” Dael spoke curtly. “I’m sure, given the choice, most of the changers would want to belong to our society the way they used to.”

The president’s spouse glowered at her. “Don’t tell me you defend the horrific crimes they commit—”

“I never defend criminal activities, sir.” Dael returned his gaze calmly. “Most cases that have gone before the courts have been proved to lack malice or intent.”

“You are correct, Admiral.” The president put her hand on her spouse’s arm. “Especially when the gene becomes active in young children.”

“Yes.” Knowing that they wouldn’t solve this issue then and there and that it wasn’t her place to bring it up, Dael bowed politely. “My shuttle leaves in fifteen minutes. You’ve been most hospitable these two days, Your Excellence.”

“We will keep you in our prayers and look forward to messages of your success. Go in peace and splendor, Admiral.”

“Peace and splendor, Excellences.” Dael bowed and sighed secretly in relief as she made her way to the presidential launchpad at the north end of the palace. She couldn’t wait to get back to the Espies Major. The launch from the space dock in high orbit was scheduled to begin in ten hours. She glanced at her timepiece. With a little luck, she’d get six hours of sleep.

Dael stepped aboard the shuttle, and the security guard scanned her palm print for confirmation.

“Welcome aboard, Admiral Caydoc.” He saluted smartly, his right hand in a straight line at the level of his chin.

She quickly read his nametag. “Ensign Pemmer. Are you part of the advance team on Espies Major?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you bringing someone along for the ride?”

“Yes, sir. My parents and my younger brother, sir.”

“Good. I look forward to meeting them when things settle down.” Dael smiled, knowing full well what this kind of attention from the highest-ranking officer meant for a junior officer’s self-esteem. Especially as they were about to deploy on an unprecedented mission.

“Thank you, sir.” Pemmer saluted again, and she returned his acknowledgement before she stepped inside the shuttle.

Dael’s seat was just behind the main pilot’s. She would be the only passenger, as they were taking off from the presidential-palace grounds, but the last of several of these shuttles were leaving from all over Oconodos.

She closed her eyes briefly, admitting that the last several months of preparations, not to mention years of anticipation, had made her weary. Once they were on their way and settled into a routine, hopefully she’d be able to, if not relax exactly, then at least feel more at ease in the knowledge that the members of her crew were as finely tuned as she wanted them to be.

Dael glanced over at Ensign Pemmer, amazed at how young he looked. He had been selected at the academy after extensive tests, and after his initial acceptance, the young man had received rigorous training. For Pemmer to serve on the admiral’s vessel indicated he was the best of the best. 

Unlike Pemmer, Dael was bringing only one family member along. She had been forced to use some of her best persuasion techniques, as her grandmother was as stubborn as she was. Only when Dael appealed to her nania’s sense of duty had Helden Caydoc, former fleet admiral, agreed to join her on the mission to save the Oconodians. Nania had been retired for more than fifteen years, but she was still as sharp and acerbic as she’d ever been. Dael knew she was her grandmother’s only real weakness, though anyone would have to pry this out of the older woman, as she rarely offered praise of any kind. Nania had been installed in her quarters for two days, no doubt driving the young professionals in charge of her daily health care to the brink of losing their minds.

The change in the sounds from the atmospheric propulsion indicated they had left the mesosphere. The space dock, connected to the vast space station where the fleet of five Advance ships was moored, was now in sight. Dael leaned forward, again amazed at how she already felt she was on her way home, when she really was about to embark on a dangerous journey into unknown space.

“Docking procedure commencing,” the computerized voice announced via the speaker system. “Adjust your harness.”

Dael closed her eyes in relief as the clonking sound from the airlocks indicated they had arrived. Finally she could get to work and make sure the people of her home planet had a chance to survive. This had been her sole purpose ever since she became tied to the project years ago, after her promotion to admiral. She was well aware that her appointment as the commanding officer for the Advance project was a political gamble. Most career military officers were from old military families, and hers was one of the most prominent but also rather controversial. When she’d accepted the assignment, she found out who her enemies and her friends were among her peers. The civilian government seemed to trust implicitly her ability to find the way to their new home.

“Welcome back, sir,” another ensign said smartly, and saluted as the airlock door opened. Her black hair and pale complexion clearly indicated that she originated from the ice-covered territory in the far north. Her blue-green uniform was impeccable, which was hardly surprising, but the color didn’t fit everyone as well as it did this soldier.

“Permission to come aboard, Ensign Ioanto.” The ensign’s insignia identified the young woman as part of the security detail. “Got your spouse and daughter all settled in?”

“Yes, sir.” Ensign Ioanto lit up. “I’m sure Mochail has his hands full keeping her in our quarters until we reach deep-space velocity.”

“How old is she? Five?”

“Kaisa is a very precocious four. She fancies that she’s the commanding officer at our house.”

“Sounds like a promising future.” Dael smiled. She was only half joking. Children like Ioanto’s daughter held their future. If they were going to make it on a new planet, the children’s welfare meant everything. Dael admitted to herself she was wary of bringing civilians along on a deep-space mission like this, but they simply had no other way to do it. They had no idea how long it would take to find a suitable planet, and for the crew to sign on and give it their all, they needed their loved ones.

Dael thought of Nania. She would make sure her senior staff was present and accounted for and then go to Nania’s quarters and make sure she was all right. Nodding at Ioanto, Dael headed toward the one place where she felt most at home.

The bridge.

#

“Make way, make way!” Spinner hurried along the Espies Major’s main corridor, which resembled a hollow spine through the ship. She’d run into some issues when overseeing the landing of one of the assault craft, and now she was late. She’d only met the admiral in a very formal setting and knew that this wasn’t how to make a good impression. Chewing on her lower lip, she did what she usually did, jogged right toward people until they moved. Some at the last minute, but they always moved. The fact that she was CAG, Commander of the Air Group, helped send people scurrying.

The bridge was located in the safest place on Espies Major, deep in its belly. The bulkheads created a cage around it, keeping potential enemies from weakening the last defense. Spinner hurried through the automatic double doors.

“How wonderful of you to join us, Commander Seclan.” The acerbic tone of Admiral Caydoc greeted her. “If this tardiness is indicative of your performance during the upcoming years, we might just have to get used to delaying missions to suit your needs.”

“I apologize, sir.” She refrained from spitting out resentful words, but really, did this woman have to be so scornful in front of the whole damn senior staff?

Caydoc scanned her slowly, but Spinner knew that at least her uniform was impeccable. The missing button was one reason she was late. Sewing wasn’t her thing. She glanced down at the hot-glued button, wondering if she’d managed to permanently glue herself into her jacket.

“Take the helm, Commander.” Caydoc motioned toward the station before a set of ten vast screens. “Commence launch preparations. Everyone looking to us for salvation is ready with fireworks to send us off. Let’s not disappoint them.”

Passing the admiral, Spinner furtively took in the vision of the woman who had the ultimate power over the five vessels setting out to save the Oconodians. You had to get closer to Dael Caydoc to realize how striking she looked. She kept her ash-blond hair of indeterminate length in a tight, low bun, its volume suggesting it was quite long. Stark gray eyes under straight dark eyebrows followed Spinner as she took her station. Caydoc was still on her feet, though protocol stated that all bridge crew were to strap in securely during launch procedures. Of course, Caydoc had to be tough and hover over everyone. Spinner blinked and focused on the console before her rather than on the annoying woman whose gaze seemed to pierce her back.

Spinner flipped switches and punched in commands, something she could easily do while playing a game of spin jack—the card game partly to blame for her call sign—with the other hand. This wasn’t her main assignment, thank the noble Creator, or she would have never agreed to go on this mission. The boss had no doubt thought it prudent for the CAG to take the Espies Major out of space dock before she resumed her duties heading up the air group of the lead vessel’s attack-and-defend pilots.

“All stations, report in.” Caydoc’s voice whipped the order over the speaker system. Different voices reported back in a given pattern. Last was Spinner, who gave her “Helm is ready, sir” in her best authoritative manner.

Tommus, Hegal, Rondos, Mugdon. Report back on flight status. Acknowledge.” Caydoc hailed the other four vessels, and their captains confirmed they were ready to launch.

“Good. Maintain a fleet-wide communication channel.” Caydoc was still on her feet. She surprised Spinner by approaching her from behind as she addressed the Advance fleet. “This is Admiral Dael Caydoc of the lead vessel Espies Major. The time has finally come for us to embark on the mission for which we’ve prepared for so long. Our mission is as easy to understand as it will be challenging to carry out. We are going into deep space, never to return, and our assignment is to find a new homeworld for our people. With us we have our closest family members and friends, and all the expertise we require to carry out our mission.

“One thing needs to be said, once and for all. Failure is not an option. We are going to deploy communication buoys that we will use as a means of communicating with Oconodos. This is a one-way communication system and the only way our people will know where to find us when it’s time for them to commence Operation Exodus. A lot rests on us, as it’s up to us to deliver hope to the people suffering on our home planet.”

Caydoc had spoken in a clear, distinct voice until now. It softened barely as she continued. “We have no way of estimating how long it will take us to relay the news they’re waiting for so desperately. It could be years, but we all know, the longer it takes, the worse the repercussions on Oconodos and its inhabitants will be.”

Spinner felt Caydoc stand right behind her chair. “Time to go. Captains, order your helmsmen to follow the Espies Major’s CAG, thirty secs apart. Commander Seclan, take us out. Course 5-8-8-19.”

Spinner swallowed past the unexpected lump in her throat. She thought of her brother and his family, especially the young twins, and her stomach constricted painfully before she had the only-too-familiar bout of anxiety under control. She hurriedly punched in the last command and the Espies Major hummed to life and disengaged from its moorings. Maneuvering the brand-new ship from the arms of the space dock, Spinner set the course and then motioned toward the bridge senior helmsman. He quickly took his station.

“In a hurry to leave us?” Caydoc murmured. “You’ll miss the fireworks.”

“I need to inspect the air group, sir. Permission to leave the bridge.”

“Permission granted.” Caydoc lifted a corner of her mouth. “Oconodians with telescopes will appreciate a demonstration, Commander.”

Bristling, Spinner only nodded curtly. Doing flybys next to the Espies Major was a waste of resources. “Very well. Will twenty assault craft do, sir?”

Her eyes now dark, narrow slits, Caydoc spoke briskly. “Quite.”

“Consider it done, sir.” She hurried away from the bridge, not to mention the stifling presence of the admiral.

#

Dael looked after the tall, lanky commander, who clearly couldn’t stand to spend a single moment in her presence. For her to hand over the controls to the bridge helmsman so quickly, and without waiting for Dael’s order, was not exactly insubordination, but it did not show respect for the command structure either. Dael knew her adherence to protocol exasperated some people. They just didn’t get it. If you stuck to detail when it came to protocol and regulation, you might just get away with bending the major rules once in a while when it really mattered.

Someone like Commander Aniwyn “Spinner” Seclan, whose actions bordered on recklessness and who had a swagger to her entire personality, bent all the rules all the time, thinking very little of it. It was a miracle in itself that Spinner had reached the rank of commander. No doubt her superior talent for flying and her numerous medals for bravery had something to do with it.

The woman was not Caydoc’s personal first choice for the Espies Major’s CAG, but she’d had to concede the fact that it was more important to have someone with Spinner’s flexible skill set than someone with a perfect track record on all levels. She was just going to have to talk herself into not throttling Spinner on a daily basis.


Chapter Two

“Nania, please. The common area is not a means of surveillance.” Dael glanced in the full-length mirror in her grandmother’s bedroom. She adjusted her uniform, making sure the light-blue jacket and the black trousers were impeccable before turning to the older woman sitting on the foot of the bed, her thin arms folded over her chest. Of course, her nania had to start their very first morning aboard the Espies Major by causing trouble. “It’s a place where the civilians and passengers can socialize and spend time.”

“Am I to understand that jigsaw puzzles or basket weaving aren’t mandatory?” Helden Caydoc regarded her granddaughter with disdain. “Nobody has yet to tell me what to do with my time. Honestly, Dael, you should know better.”

“I just wanted you to be aware of—”

“I can still read.” Her nania sneered and pointed at the computer console. “If I want to engage in any of the 335 different leisure-time activities available on the Espies Major, I know where to acquire information.”

“You’re being difficult. Why?” Tapping her boot-clad toes, Dael didn’t let Nania off the hook. “Do you regret coming with me?” She lowered her voice. “The point of no return will be here in two hours.”

“And are you trying to get rid of me?” Nania’s harsh words didn’t match her softening voice.

“Never.”

“Well, then. You can’t persuade me to return to Oconodos, not even if you set that sickly sweet woman on me again.”

Smiling now, Dael shook her head and wrapped a strong arm around the petite, physically fragile woman by her side. “That sickly sweet woman cares for you and comes highly recommended. As do your other three caregivers.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’d do to get rid of her: give her the best recommendation and pass her on to some other unsuspecting fool.”

Dael chuckled as she let go of Nania and put her hat on. “You realize you just called yourself an unsuspecting fool?”

“I did no such thing.” Nania huffed and placed fisted hands on her hips. “Damn it, I did.”

“We’re having lunch at 1200 hours in the officers’ mess, then?”

“All right. A person has to eat.” Nania rose unsteadily on her toes and kissed Dael’s cheek. “Smooth sailing, Admiral.”

“Behave, Nania.” Dael left her nania’s quarters, chased out by Nania’s sarcastic snort.

Stopping just outside the bridge, she was pleased to see her senior staff all present—

except Spinner. Double-checking the time, Dael frowned. Was that woman ever on time?

“Admiral’s on the bridge,” a male ensign called out smartly as Dael entered.

“Report.” Dael stood at the center, as was her habit, letting her gaze land upon each present crewmember.

“The escort ships will turn back toward Oconodos in one hour, sir. All stations are functioning efficiently, as are the other four Advance vessels,” Commander Tresh Weniell said as he vacated the center command chair.

“Good. The support assault craft?”

“The last ten will be pulled back into our hangar bays when we’re twenty minutes from magnetar drive.”

“That’s cutting it close. Who gave this order?”

“Commander Seclan, sir.” Commander Weniell looked like he wanted to apologize for the CAG. “I voiced the same concern, but she was adamant. The assault-craft pilots are under her command.”

“And she’s under mine.” Not hesitating, Dael pressed the sensor of the comm line attached to her left lapel. “Caydoc to Spinner.” It frustrated her that the computer system was programmed to recognize call signs rather than formal names. Then again, it did save time.

A few moments later she heard Spinner’s voice through static. “Spinner to Caydoc. What can I do for you, sir?”

“You can get the assault teams back to their mother ship thirty minutes before we go to magnetar drive.”

“Do you not trust your CAG to make sure all the birds are in the nest in time?” Spinner asked with an obvious smirk in her voice.

Furious now, as her officer was skirting the edge of insubordination, Dael schooled her voice to not convey her annoyance. “I prefer to err on the side of caution, Commander. Thirty minutes. That’s an order. Caydoc out.” She closed the link, not waiting for Spinner to sign off. The nerve of the woman! No wonder she hadn’t been her first choice as CAG. Dael could call to mind ten more suitable candidates for the job. A small inner voice reminded her of Spinner’s track record when it came to flying and showing courage beyond the call of duty. Having read up on Spinner’s past, she wasn’t surprised that the woman had risen through the ranks to become one of youngest commanders in the fleet. Remembering that one section of Spinner’s record had been sealed, only accessible by the head of the Security Service director, the agency in charge of the president’s safety, she drummed her fingers against her belt. Spinner was an enigma, that much was obvious, but she had time enough while on this deep-space mission to figure her out.

“Admiral. You have a transmission from Oconodos.”

“I’ll take it in my office. Thank you.” Dael strode into the area to the left of the bridge, which was sparse and held only a desk and four visitors’ chairs. She didn’t care for its barren appearance, but she would have plenty of opportunity to turn it into the type of room she preferred to work in. She sat at her desk and opened the screen that was folded into the desk surface. It automatically scanned her face and irises and then logged on to the ship’s computer. Dael tapped the symbol for Oconodos, and Fleet Admiral Vayand’s stern face came into view.

“Admiral.” He greeted her curtly. “This will be our last live conversation within the foreseeable future. I know everyone has wished you a successful journey so often you were ready to throw them out the airlock, but I felt it prudent to touch base and make sure nothing has been overlooked.”

Seeing right through the older man’s gruff demeanor, Dael relaxed and smiled. “Thank you, sir. We have run so many tests and checked everything enough for the bridge crew to wish they could hurl me through an airlock.”

Vayand’s furrowed face split in a broad grin. “Good to know, Dael. Don’t hesitate to use Fleet Admiral Caydoc’s expertise. She may be old and frail physically, but that woman is sharper than all the current admirals put together.”

“No doubt about that, sir. Don’t worry. I won’t have to ask. Nania will offer her opinion whether I want it or not.”

Chuckling, Vayand shook his head. “She used to scare me to death when I was a mere commander. Hell, she still does.”

“I hear you, sir. She’ll be my secret weapon.”

“Excellent.” Vayand became serious, his eyes somber. “You will do a splendid job, Admiral. I know this for a fact. If anyone can pull this assignment off, it’s you. Stay on course, and don’t allow doubt to color your judgment. You have what it takes to do this, which is why the vote to send you was unanimous.”

Dael stared at Vayand and had to force her jaw not to drop and make her look totally unprofessional. Unanimous? “I—I didn’t know that, sir.” Normally not a humble person, Dael now had to swallow hard to get rid of the constriction in her throat. “Thank you for telling me.”

“You deserve to know. We all have moments of doubt when our confidence wanes. You have good people with you. The finest. How could we not send anyone but the best to lead them?”

Dael didn’t know how to answer without sounding repetitive. “We’ll do our best. We’ll find a new home.”

Vayand hummed, his brusque demeanor back. “We will send our next transmission according to the schedule. Be safe, Admiral Caydoc, and be successful. Vayand out.” The Oconodos crest twirled into view as his image faded and disappeared.

Dael stood and gazed at the view screen on the wall, which showed the constellations awaiting exploration. She pressed a sensor, and the view of Oconodos, so innocently blue and green and streaked with white where clouds hid the surface, made her draw a trembling breath. She had longed for this day, for the mission to finally commence, but seeing Oconodos like this, diminishing in size with each passing minute, she realized with a jolt that she would never set foot on her homeworld again. Never return to the vast meadowland where she grew up or enjoy the house she had designed to fit her lifestyle perfectly. She wouldn’t return to the mountain lodge and enjoy the winter snow covering the slopes leading down from Mount Conos. Now she was leading a fleet of ships, and only one thing was certain at this point: none of them would ever go home.

Sighing, Dael switched the viewfinder to face forward. She blinked, trying to fathom what she saw. “For the love of the Creator, what’s she doing?” Whipping around, she stalked onto the bridge. “Commander, pull up the primary forward viewfinder on the main screen. Then explain to me what Commander Seclan is up to and why the hell someone hasn’t informed me.” She watched Commander Weniell comply and also how the two junior ensigns assisting the ops officer paled.

The view screen flickered momentarily and then they could all see. Glancing around, Dael took a certain delight in how they all gaped at the scene unfolding on the starboard side of Espies Major’s stern.

“She’s crazy,” someone whispered behind Dael, sounding shocked and awed.

Pressing her lapel sensor, Dael spoke with the velvety tone that those who had ever worked for her feared more than anything. “Espies Major to Spinner. What the hell are you doing?”

“Can’t—can’t talk right now. I’m busy, Admiral.”

Pushing her shoulders back, Dael could hardly believe she’d heard her subordinate correctly. “Spinner—”

Sir, you wanted the birds in the nest before we go to magnetar drive. You might have to settle for one bird less, but let me do my job. Spinner out.”

“Spinner has disconnected her comm link, Admiral,” one of the startled ensigns said, his voice unsteady.

“I could tell, Ensign.” Moving with sure steps, Dael took the command chair. “I guess we just have to enjoy the show. Be prepared to scramble two rescue birds.”

“Yes, sir.” Clearly astonished, the ensign turned his eyes toward the screen.

Dael couldn’t blame him for being mesmerized. In all her years in the Oconodian Fleet, she had never seen anyone attempt anything like this.

Continued in chapter 3 ....


Do you like what you've read so far? "Advance - Exodus: Book One" will be available for preorder about sixty days before publication date, which is December 2014. Just in time for Christmas or Hanukkah! :-)
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