Action Stations is a prequel novel by William R. Forstchen based on the Wing Commander series of games. It tells the story of the beginnings of the Terran-Kilrathi war, 20 years before the first game.
It is 8 years after the ending of the War. Col. Wilhelm Schwarzmont of the Department of Military History of the Confederation Fleet Academy is compiling a report on the controversial Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn. Tolwyn was a brilliant military genious who saved Earth against a Kilrathi offensive, but then followed dishonorfoul political actions. Schwarzmont reports that he had briefly served under Tolwyn and witnessed the fanatical devotion of his subordinates.
Schwarzmont is compiling the events surrounding Tolwyn's first military operation back near the start of the War, more than 40 years ago. He is currently writing a study concerning the beginnig of the War, to which this novel will be a companion piece. This is owing to the declassification of Kilrathi documents which shed light on their part of the war (although their infamous "lost war orders" where Tolwyn played a part in remain a mystery) although he expects that all records of boths side's archives won't be fully declasified before at least a generation.
He then goes on to list and thank his sources, Humans and Kilrathi alike, such as Admiral Vance Richards, Tolwyn's nephew, Kevin, pilot Haga Kaligara and others.
He closes his foreword mentioning that as Historian of the Fleet, he met and interviewed Tolywn during his court martial, and even visited his cell right after his suicide.
It is 2634, 5 years after the first contact between Humans and Kilrathi. As requested by a CIC Admiral, Rear Admiral Joshua Speedwell of the Confederation Fleet Intelligence is compiling an update report about the political and military situation within the Kilrathi Empire; along with evaluations of all known Kilrathi ships, bases and industry. His division's sources was remote sensing, interrogation of smugglers, and some holo images from a covert op team.
The Humans first learned of the Kilrathi from the Varni aliens, who sought refuge after a disastrous war with them. Even now, not much is known about them. The frontier skirmishes against the Kilrathi antiquated vessels doesn't allow the Confederation determine their current capability.
The intelligence is in the dark, the frontiers are expanding rapidly, the Fleet resources are inadequate and there is a worry that border worlds, where law's grasp is not firm, may be contacted by Kilrathi agents.
Based on what Speedwell knows about the predtory Kilrathi, their existence is revolving around conquest and determination of superiority; peace is considered an avoidable stagnancy and believes there will be War.
To make matters more complicated, Humans know of a galactic almighty force from the center of the galaxy which is moving towards their area; the Kilrathi are probably aware of it and they probably wish to subjugate the Confederation and make it a buffer zone before turning against this new threat.
The Empire is technologically inferior to the Confederation, but the Kilrathi culture has a term for the surprise assault against an unsuspecting prey. Speedwell believes that the Kilrathi attack will be of that nature.
It is the Imperial Palace of Kilrah. The Kilrathi Emperor is behind a translucent courtain and has just announced his decision of War against the Confederation to the presence of 8 clan leaders. Vakka did not sound the growl of approvement. He knew that if other Barons asked for a blood challenge, they would win titles and planets from him, if he died.
Vakka bows and, to indicate ceremoniously his submission, he places his dagger made from a nagga tooth, pointing towards the dais and screen. Vakka's clan first met humans when they captured a planet with Terran colonists. He was impressed and afraid of the humans, and believed that they'd rather become allies rather than conquered.
He encounters opposition from Gilkarg, the only son of the Emperor and Crown Prince. As his father defeated the Varni, and his ancestors did against the Wu or the Eyoka and so on, Gilkarg is eager to take his turn to gain honor and vehemently has been urging war. His eldest son, Prince Ratha, accuses Vakka for fear, but has not the right to challenge him as he has already placed the dagger upon the floor. The younger Prince, Thrakhath, amends that Vakka should have been killed.
Vakka then attempts to explain his position: the Empire is extending too fast, they subjugate and kill the conquered populations and replace them with their own relatives. Their forces are scarce and the borders are thin. The Confederation must be attacked, but not yet; there are other borders and other dangers, including the power approaching from the galactic core.
His concerns are countered by Ratha and Gilkarg, who give the reason why they must attack the Confederation now; the war will make them stronger and after they defeat the humans, they will gave their technology.
Vakka replies that the Humans have a deep web of alliances and colonies. The Confederation is a solid mass whereas the Empire is a hollow shell; therefore they are more useful than allies, should the challenge from the core arrives, than underlings.
Gilkarg repeats that it is a reason why they must attack now; that solid mass of the Confederation will be weakened, if not smashed, by one fierce blow. Gilkarg confirms their war of surprise tactic; first feign confusion and then strike decisively.
Vakka is defeated and meets no support, not even from those leaders whose realms lie towards the core. The immediate promise of war and glory is more attractive than years of preparations for a possible threat. He collects his knife and along with the other lords, he lifts it. They all roar in confirmation. The hunt begins.
It is right after the graduation ceremony in the Confederation Service Academy, Houston. The reception room is full of Academy persnnel, ensign and their parents, politicians and lobbyists; there are also journalists as it is believed that the Academy will close soon. Admiral Spencer "Skip" Banbridge has given a speech, and is congratulated by his old colleague, comrade and friend for 30 years, Commander Winston Turner, who is a Professor at the Academy.
They give hostile looks to Senator Jamison More, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who is being interviewed. More is one of those who believe that there are more significant problems and traditions that must be held than the navy. There hasn't been a war in over a century and the Kilrathi are a minor threat. Banbridge takes it as a bait and insist that they should go and counter his criticisms.
The two officers then see a young Ensign approaching the Senator. He brings up personal motive for the cutting "wasteful" military programs and blockage of a new starfighter to replace the existing aging fighters, and reminds the Senator that his homeworld is very close to Kilrathi space. The Senator was hustled off by his aides instead of replying to the accusations. The two officers comment that the Senator will have his revenge from the boy sometime in the future.
The two friends retreat to Turner's office and serve themselves a drink. Banbridge examines his friend's office. They remind themselves of the old years, like a photograph from their fated mission with the Marine Commando Six: Turner had led 30 soldiers against a terrorist stronghold. They did save the planet and were decorated, but Turner could not bear in his conscience the loss of his men, so he opted to be reassigned from Special Ops and retreat to the Academy as a military history professor and writer. During that mission Skip suffered a near-fatal wound. Skip mentions that before coming here he met Ulandi, to whom both owe their lives since that mission, on McAuliffe. There is also a photograph from the Battle of Midway, where one of Turner's ancestors have fought, serving on Torpedo Eight.
Skip then comes to the point. He needs Turner for "a little exploratory work". Turner has written several historical papers and, after some history parallels, he believes the condition is critical. Skip tells him that the border world complain about the Kilrathi so the government will declare war to silence them. Confederation Intelligence Services say only what politicians want to hear and Fleet Intel is already rusty. Skip needs fresh ideas from his friend. He is also convinced that the Confederation has a leak, so he has to go outside the loop. After passing him a memory cube with Speedwell's report, Turner reluctantly agrees.
Skip has thought to assign Vance Richards and Robert Singh for Turner. However Turner was worried about the uncertain future of Geoff Tolwyn, the young Ensign who dared to attack the Senator, and wants him for his admin assistant.
Confederation Base McAuliffe, date 2634.120. Lieutenant Vance Richards climbs out of an old Hurricane and is saluted by newcomer Tolwyn. Richards recognises him as the one who confronted Senator More. He hit all the major vid services. Tolwyn was summoned to CICCONFEDFLT Admiral Banbridge's office and suffered one of his legendary loud reprimands and banished to McAuliffe.
The two men head across the tarmac to the flight desk where Tolwyn's orders are waiting. Tolwyn is impressed by the vast array of old craft, but soon learns that the place is actually a junkyard: although Admiral Nagomo and Senators report that the ships are A-1 status, the 3/4 of them serve as spare parts for the rest. On their way, Richards informs Tolwyn the recent developments: Seventh Fleet tries to conserve on fuel and materiel; the six carriers of the fleet can't afford being committed to the Facin Sector and wait docked; as a result Task Force 23 went to confront the Kilrathi with a very poor configuration. Richards sounds bitter with some political commentators who claim that humans are misunderstanding the Kilrathi, who just need a little counseling. Their actions are limited to just nudge them without being too provocative.
They reach the flight operations office, with 2 marine guards at the entryway. Vance turns in his flight report and takes the envelope from the Confederation Fleet Personnel Office. Tolwyn feels disturbed by a marine topkick observing them, until stiffened slightily in front of the superior Ensign.
Vance looks at the paper and leads Geoff out for a drink at the base officer's club. For the first time Tolwyn is made to realise that the gap between cadets and officers is no more. As an Ensign he can address the Lieutenant by his name. Richards shows the orders to Tolwyn which simply say that they should wait there until approached with further orders. They are then joined by Turner, who reveals that they are assigned to him. Geoff has been wondering where he might end up and feels a relief. Vance is not so happy as he will be grounded. Vance inquires about Turner's retirmenet to which Turner replies that this will be his last mission is not over yet.
Asked by Turner, Vance reports that the pilots in his squadron are top notch, even those from the outer world flight schools. Same for the nonflight personnel. Readiness however is not adequate: a Kilrathi attack would be their doom. Geoff makes parallel with the Varni incident, 40 years ago. He brings up a rumour about them taking a settlement, out of which they could deduce a lot about Confederation technology. Vance goes on telling his worries about the lack of carriers (only 9 in the whole Fleet). Only 2 new carriers have been built while Soryu is used just as spare parts.
Admitting that he had read some classified Varni reports, he entions that Varni fighters were almost able to destroy a Kilrathi heavy cruiser. He believes that carrier-launched fighters are more effective than fights between capital ships. Geoff also mentions the simulation of Panama system war games, concerning an experimental weapon that could penetrate phase shielding, but Turner dismisses it as theoretical, insisting that battlewagons are the spine of a space battle.
Then Turner comes to the point: He asks if they can fly the antiquated Wasp craft. He then asks them if they are willing to participate to a top secret operation for the next months. He is very strict concerning leaking information ouside. The young officers agree, and leave the lounge.
The smuggler ship Phantom, piloted by Kevin Milady travels in the Hallin system. Copilot Hans Kruger detects the arrival of two, then three ships entering through the jump point, Kilrathi Targu class frigates.
Igor, the topside gunner and navigator chews and spits tobacco. Merilyn Langer, the ship's chief engineer and tail gunner squats down the access passage, without knowing that Hans is checking her looks out.
Four Kilrathi ships (fighters?) close up to the Phantom, the two frigates are accelerating. Pilot Kevin Milady performs an abrupt maneuver: cutting off the scoop fields, he slams the stick forward, turning the Phantom over on its x-axis (the inertia-dampeners inadequate against the 10g load, stressing the ship) and facing it towards the jump point. He slaps in full throttle and rapidly slows down. The fighters close in while the frigates seal off their escape in the other direction.
Igor starts shooting photon blasts with the topside guns. Four points of light appear in front of Hans and lace into the starboard wing. Phantom's shielding dissipates the energy. Kevin orders to lock on with the laser, Hans sees 4 blips across the H.U.D. and a weaving target circle as Igor keeps firing on the adversary who hit them.
Suddenly the four fighters pop into view in front of view and peel off: 2 turn to starboard, 2 almost scratch the Phantom. Langer from the tail gunner's position opens fire as Milady curses while pressing the throttles up to the firewall. Kruger still can see nothing; the plot board shows the frigates closing, less than 2000 clicks astern. Then they lose their momentum. Igor then shoots one down and celebrates.
Milady once more flips the ship over, didges it away from their original trajectory, and lines it up again on the jump point. This fools the 2 frigates, still shoting lasers, mass driver rounds and plasma energy bolts where Phantom would have been earlier. However some of the shots hit the ship, and shielding drops; mass driver bolts slam through the starboard. Hans instinctively grabs his helmet knowing that some sparks and slug might hit him. Langer sees a Kilrathi Vak fighter coming up front and shoots it. The crippled fighter shoots past them. Hans sees the lock on and shoots the laser, destroying their second target.
The ship suffer one more hit from a fighter, which Igor tries to track cursing. Marilyn shouts that the frigates are coming about, quite quickly for their size, obviously the result of some upgrade. Langer is ordered to drops a nuke mine which the ship illegally carries, and a dummy one, being an empty casing with radioactive material inside. The light frigate close in as the 2 fighters attacked from either side shooting mass driver rounds. Soon the frigate is hit by the mine, tumbling out of control, while the other one is turning aside, to avoid the fake one.
Then three seekers emerged from the second frigate aiming for the Phantom. Langer attempts to shoot them, while Hans blows the chaff as Milady still weaves the ship toward the jump point. He activates the jump engine draining the power, forcing Hans to shut down the shields, making them vulnerable to any hit. 2 seekers plow straight through the chaff; Langer fires mass driver rounds against them while Igor still fights against the fighters; as they approach to the jump point, the frigate guarding it starts firing.
Suddenly Hans is relieved of panic. He feels the time extending and starts seeing everything clearly. He realises that the fighters aren't effective, being afraid of the frigate's fire they are approaching. The frigate's volley tears off a part from the portside wing, and Milady dodges off the next. Seeing that the fighters aren't dangerous, Hans turns the hydrogen scoops off, making the ship impossible to maneuver, but also cutting drag gaining speed.
The first seeker is detonated by Marilyn's shots as it leaps forward, the second maneuvered around the debris of the first, but the third went straight into it. 10 seconds to go and the Phantom is already past the light frigate which just starts turning to fire broadside. The jump engine begins to engage. However the last seeker leaps forward; Marilyn manages to hit it but it detonates too close; the explosion and the missile fragments tear the unshielded aft durasteel of the ship and envelop the stern.
Marilyn's fragments are whooshed out along with the air. A jagged hunk of durasteel imbedded in his seat, decapitates Kevin. Igor up in the top turret, is alive but trapped by the debris, his lower limbs broken and bleeding; he has no helmet and his flight suit is frayed. Hans quickly fumbles to put his gloves with pressurized cuffs securing his wrists and sealing his suit shut.
The jump engines kick in. Igor chokes and hovers above Hans. Everything freezes for an instant before he sees star fields again, through to the other side.
Igor slams down on the deck and, in the vacuum, claws against Hans, until he clutches at his throat and crumples to his knees. Hans feels a perverse satisfaction seeing his former tormentor suffering. His final move was smiling and giving Hans a thumbs up for his successful escape to the DMZ and drops dead.
Fuel is absolute zero and Hans opens the hydrogen scoops. He believes that they entered jump right οn the moment of the fateful explosion; the Kilrathi would believe that the Phantom has been engulfed by it.
His hyperawareness is drifting away and Hans ponders about this experience of vivid life and clarity of thoughts. He will pursue intense moments to experience it again. He has changed for ever. He looks at Kevin's remains, whom he secretly admired and feared. Not even he had this sense of control.
He then thinks about repairing the ship by filling punctures with plasti-seal and even seal the hole with an inflatable collar. The control systems are working. He considers delivering the ship as a salvage; by the rules of admiralty courts, half would be his. That will make a larger profit than the 1/15 he claimed for smuggling Kilrathi durasteel.