A sneak peek inside "Empire United"


Finally, the Taran Empire Saga is complete! This fourth and final novel in the story arc picks up shortly after Empire Defied as Jason and team are trying to root out the last of the Coalition.


It's been emotional for me to write this book knowing it's the last in this arc, but I'm really pleased with how it came together in the end and think it's some of my best work. I love these characters like close family and friends, and they'll always be with me whether or not I'm actively writing their stories.


The book will be released on August 30th. Please enjoy this preview of Chapter 1. Beta readers have said it's a fantastic conclusion to the story arc, and hope you agree!


 

CHAPTER 1



Jason never expected to find himself on a Tararian Guard ship, but he had to admit that their stealth tech was unlike anything in the TSS fleet. “It’s kinda fun being able to sneak around like this,” he said to Kira.


She smiled at him from across the small vessel’s flight deck, where the two of them were observing the operation along with several members of Jason’s Coalition task force team. “Pays to have friends with cool toys.”


The TSS didn’t have stealth ships of its own, as the perceived presence of the organization was almost as powerful as having a visible Agent; therefore, all TSS ships were a symbol, meant to be seen. By contrast, the Guard had dedicated special operations teams whose primary functions were to gather information without anyone knowing they were there. Kira had previously been attached to one of those units, and her former commander still captained one of the preeminent vessels, the Raven.


The ship had enabled Jason’s team to covertly approach several of Monsari Power Solutions’ facilities to gather information about their operations and assess how best to seize the assets. While the other sites they’d visited thus far had matched the specs stated in MPS’ public records, this latest facility had exhibited several irregularities, observable even from a distance.


Located on an out-of-the-way asteroid, it was the kind of place no one would stumble across unless they had reason to be there. It would seem, for that reason, MPS hadn’t gone to much effort to conceal the fact that they were up to more than the expected business operations.


Robotic soldiers standing three meters tall, complete with shoulder-mounted guns, paced in front of the door. At least a dozen additional guards of the flesh and blood variety were positioned in lookouts above and around the entrance. The transport ships at the dock were equally guarded, with an armed escort accompanying a series of crates being transferred to one of the waiting vessels.


Jason reviewed the scan data displayed as a holographic overlay on the front viewscreen, which supported his visual assessment. “We have a problem, don’t we?”


Gina, one of his fellow TSS Agents on his task force, scowled at the scene. “That certainly doesn’t look like a typical parts supply warehouse.”


“Funny, I was thinking the same thing.” Despite the levity in his tone, Jason was concerned about what it all might mean.


On paper, this MPS warehouse should hold standard repair equipment to maintain systems connected to power cores. While valuable and worthy of security, this operation had the appearance of a military installation. He could have justified it as MPS simply being cautious, but there were other facilities with the same specs on paper which hadn’t had a fraction of this kind of security, indicating that something was different here—a clandestine aspect of the operation that they were intent to keep secret.


“Sir, we’re picking up some strange readings in the GP scan,” Anya said, looking over the shoulder of the Raven’s helm officer. As the team’s tech specialist, she’d been tasked with verifying the ground-penetrating scan data gathered during the recon mission.


The scans could only paint a partial picture of what was going on inside the facility, but it was the best information they had at their disposal without sending in a team to look around. The imaging results were indeed unexpected.


“Ateron?” Jason stared at the scan data with interest. “What are they doing with high concentrations of ateron out here?”


“Technically, it’s an alloy of sorts,” Anya chimed in. “Which is strange, since ateron has no known alloys—but this definitely isn’t pure.”


“Has there been any sign of something like this before?” Jason asked.


“Yes, in the Gatekeeper tech,” Gina said, crossing her arms. “But why does the Coalition have it?”


The element was not only rare but also extraordinarily expensive. The Lynaedans had control of the largest known deposits, but they were known for closely regulating the material they supplied to others. Even the TSS had difficulty getting enough to service the ships equipped with bioelectronic interfaces; ateron was necessary for those systems, and the limited supply meant the TSS had never been able to construct as many ships with those features as they would have liked. The fact that the Coalition had somehow gained access to the material was both annoying and confounding.


“Can we get any estimates of quantity based on this scan data?” Jason asked.


“We’ll have to get closer,” Kira said. “Even then, I don’t know. There’s some weird interference.”


“Is it reasonable to get closer?”


She evaluated the information on the screen. “I can’t guarantee they won’t be able to spot us, but I will say we’ve gotten closer under more difficult circumstances without detection.”


“Good enough for me,” Jason said. “Let’s see if we can find out more.”


Kira gave a nod of agreement to the pilot, who then directed the ship closer to the asteroid.


Jason watched the information display, waiting for the scan data to update.


“All right, it looks like there’s a significant deposit of the ateron alloy underground in this area here,” Anya said, pointing at the relevant area on the screen.


To Jason’s eye, it appeared to be a large storehouse. The material was showing up as a singular blob rather than individual items, but the general shape of it gave him the impression it was in stacked crates. The format didn’t matter, though; the point was that MPS had ateron, and they should have no reason to possess it.


“What about voydite?” he asked. Now that material was central to all power cores. Granted, this wasn’t a core manufacturing facility, but there should be at least trace amounts from repair components.


Anya’s expression remained neutral, but Jason picked up the concern in her eyes. “None, beyond the power cores running the facility.”


This whole thing is definitely a front. Coalition? There were so many unknowns. They already had enough evidence to justify a legal search of the facility; however, this wasn’t the time to go in.


“Okay, let’s head back to—” Jason cut off as several red warnings flashed across the screen.


Anya swore under her breath. “They’re sending out directional pulses to check for objects in the area. The stealth tech won’t hide us from that.”


“Jump us out of here,” Jason instructed.


“Can’t from this range without making our presence obvious.”


“I’ll try to avoid the pulses,” the helm officer said.


Jason nodded. “Do it.”


The ship backed away from the asteroid with irregular movements as the helm officer tried to avoid the detection range of the random pulses. It was impossible to know what had tipped the facility off to the fact that they were being watched, but they were clearly equipped with security monitoring systems well beyond most civilian operations.


A projected course appeared on the front display, indicating a path that would take them to a jump point far enough away to avoid detection. It was much further than Jason would like.


He stayed quiet, watching their progress. If they see us, they’ll know for certain they’re under investigation and that the military is involved. While the Coalition no doubt had suspicions already, confirmation would change the situation. The TSS needed to act fast before Monsari had the chance to make a countermove.


A new red warning flashed, accompanied by an audible chirp.


“That was a direct ping. They spotted us,” the helm officer confirmed, managing to maintain a smooth, professional tone despite the rising tension.


Shite, so much for stealth. If their presence was known, there was no sense trying to tiptoe away. “That’s our cue to exit. Get us out of here,” Jason instructed.


He caught Kira’s gaze, and he saw the concern in her eyes. Getting caught was bad any way he looked at it. If Monsari wasn’t on high alert before, they would be now.


How are they going to retaliate? It was a matter of when, not if.


The ship slipped into subspace, casting a shifting blue-green glow to the flight deck as the view outside changed to the ethereal ribbons of colored light.


“Where to next?” the helm officer asked.


“Scrub the rest,” Jason said. “No sense drawing further suspicion by going anywhere else right now.”


“Back to Overlook Station, then?” Kira asked.


He nodded. “I’ll check in with Headquarters, and we’ll decide how to proceed.”


There had been half a dozen other facilities on Jason’s investigation list, but those would have to wait. Considering the trouble someone had gone to arming the asteroid, any other sites hiding similar secrets would no doubt be on the lookout for spies. They’d need to take another tactic to gather the remaining information.


What are they hiding? It was a mystery he intended to solve.



— — —



Even after six years, Ryan Dainetris didn’t feel like he belonged on the Taran High Council. Everyone else was a career politician—eager to hear themselves talk and flaunt their own importance. As much as Ryan loved his grandfather-in-law, Cris wasn’t above the displays, either.


Consequently, Ryan found himself sitting quietly through most of the meetings, speaking only when asked a direct question about his opinion. This gave him time to study the others on the holoconference, learning their ticks and tells. He hadn’t had many opportunities to put those observations to use, but the mental library grew every day they met.


This meeting was no different, stretching on longer than necessary while the heads of Baellas and Makaris argued over a proposed change to the tariff structure for goods sold on space stations versus planetside. Since the modification would create an incentive for space-based sales—and since Dainetris Galactic Enterprises was in the spaceship business—that seemed like a good thing. Baellas and Makaris were already making more impassioned arguments than Ryan would have, so he was content to sit back and let them do the talking.


“It’s time to adjust for those changes in population centers,” Eduard Baellas was saying. “If no one has anything else to add, I propose we put it to a vote.”


“No objection,” Kaiden Vaenetri said.


Cris Sietinen looked around the room. “All right. Those in favor of adopting the new—”


Across the holoconference table, Celine Monsari looked down—apparently reading a message on her handheld, based on her position. Whatever information had come across it, Ryan’s observations of her tells pointed to it being bad news.


“I’m sorry, I must attend to an urgent matter,” she said.


“We’re almost finished with business for the day,” Cris protested.


“It can’t wait.” She dropped off the holoconference, leaving an empty seat in her place.


“Apparently, we’ll vote on the tariffs next session,” Cris said, not bothering to hide his annoyance.


The representatives of Baellas and Makaris both audibly sighed, and the rest of the councilmembers shook their heads.


“That concludes our business for today,” Kaiden said. “Meeting adjourned.”


As the High Dynasty representatives began dropping off the call, Ryan addressed his grandfather-in-law.


“Cris, do you have a few minutes to go over something?” Ryan asked. It wasn’t unusual for them to speak after the council meetings, so there wasn’t any reason for the others to be suspicious.


“Sure.”


Ryan transferred their avatars into a private virtual conference space. “That was an abrupt end to the vote.”


“Celine is self-absorbed and doesn’t care about issues that don’t directly impact her or MPS,” Cris replied.


“I think she’d just gotten bad news.”


“What makes you say that?”


Didn’t he notice? Ryan hadn’t thought his observation skills were anything special, but perhaps the other people in the meeting just had their attention elsewhere. “Celine’s expression. She’s normally so guarded, but I was watching her, and I could have sworn I saw a hint of fear.”


The older man didn’t reply at first. “Hmm.”


“Do you know something?”


“I believe the TSS and Guard were doing that joint op today to check out several MPS facilities.”


The TSS hadn’t given out any details, but Jason had tipped them off that the investigation was happening. Except, it was supposed to be covert.


“Monsari shouldn’t know anything about that,” Ryan said.


“Which means either there’s a leak, or the investigation wasn’t as stealthy as planned.”


Ryan’s heart dropped. “What does that mean for us?”


“That we should be ready for anything.”



— — —



Jason used the ride to Overlook Station to get his thoughts in order. They had decided on the location as common ground between the Guard and TSS; docking the Raven at Headquarters would invite questions they didn’t want to answer.


Unfortunately, that might become unavoidable since the ship had been spotted near the asteroid. The only benefit was that MPS would only know it was a Guard ship. That made it all the more important to distance the TSS’ involvement.


Jason and his team transferred to a TSS transport ship and quickly departed the station. By the time they made it back to Headquarters, Jason had completed his field report and was ready to debrief with his father.


He made his way into the base and headed straight for the High Commander’s office. Wil beckoned him in when he arrived.


“Well, that went to shite,” Jason began, taking his usual seat.


“What happened?”


Jason gave his prepared account of the event, highlighting the relevant details. He brought up a holographic map of the facility locations and used it to guide the discussion.


“So, two-thirds of the sites shouldn’t pose much of a problem,” he concluded, then adjusted the map to show the questionable locations in red, in contrast to the blue denoting the others. “These, however—the visual assessment and scan data don’t match up with their documented specifications. I don’t know what they’re hiding, but my guess is those sites are a key aspect of those secrets.”


“Then they’re the priority in the seizure.”


Jason nodded. Since Monsari was linked with the Coalition, they had effectively been funding terrorists and were open to prosecution. However, their breadth of influence meant that a formal move against Monsari could backfire if it wasn’t handled well. “We need to make a clean sweep. Simultaneous across all of Monsari’s and MPS’ assets, as well as those of their strategic subsidiaries. We need to cripple them in one blow—no chance to run or regroup.”


“Agreed.” Wil leaned back, studying the map. “Every time we learn something new, there’s another wrinkle.”


“I never imagined the conspiracy would run this deep.”


“Neither did I.”


“I wish I knew what they were planning.” Jason sank deeper into his seat. “I’m clearly missing something. We’ve been at this for well over a year, and the enemy keeps getting away. That’s a failure any way you look at it.”


His father shrugged. “I don’t think I’d have made any more headway if it was my full-time assignment.”


“You’d already ended a centuries-long war by the time you were my age.”


“That’s not a fair comparison.”


“Isn’t it? You gave me the same CR designation as you. I know there’s an expectation about my performance, whether you admit it or not.”


Wil looked down at that assertion. He didn’t reply at first. “You’ve faced more than many Agents, Jason, but you’ve never really been tested the way I was. I’d already lived a lifetime by twenty-five, and I wouldn’t wish that concentrated education on my enemy, let alone my son. Do you have areas for improvement? Yes. And I offer guidance whenever I think it will be beneficial. Even without that intervention, I see you learning and growing every day. In the end, that’s what’s important. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a situation that will fundamentally change the way you see the universe, and from that moment on you’ll know you can face anything else life throws at you. But that’s a journey of discovery you need to experience for yourself.”


Jason listened in silence, recognizing the truth in his father’s words. “I won’t let you down.”


“I have every confidence that you’ll come out of this experience a strong and capable leader.”


“Thank you.”


“That said, you’re not alone,” his father assured him. “I’m here if you ever need a sounding board or just need to vent.”


“I know, and I appreciate it. I think there’s going to be a lot of that coming up. We need to make a decisive move against Monsari—soon.”


Wil nodded. “Definitely.”


“Going in there will be messy no matter what approach we take.”


“Nothing about this situation is ideal. A mess is to be expected.”


“But we need to go about it in a way that won’t collapse the Empire.”


“That is the key.”


Jason crossed his arms. “Any ideas about how to do that?”


“That’s what we’re going to figure out.”


- - -


Thank you for reading this preview! You'll be able to buy the entire book on August 30th on Amazon or read it in Kindle Unlimited.


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