The vast shipyards of Kuat orbited the planet as a continuous ring of stations, docking ports, construction slips, and countless support satellites. The pilot of the small orbital ferry deftly maneuvered through the carefully coordinated spacelanes to arrive at its destination. Todrin Doule mused that, not more than a few months ago, he was in that same position: obediently shuttling ranked officials to their destinations. Instead, he was a mere passenger—no, he was one of those ranked officials now, on his way to his first command.

“Here we are.” Admiral Harmod leaned close and pointed out the viewport. Outside, the labyrinth of stations and platforms opened up to a brightly lit orbital drydock. “That one right there is yours.”

It was only half again as large as the pureball pitch he used to play on back home, small and slight and lightly armed, but it looked fast. It had the same distinctive wedge shape of anything Doule had seen come out of Kuat, but with two thick nacelles reaching port and starboard; a bristling array of communications equipment extended from each. It was the Inun, the “lynchpin of the squad,” and it was all his.

“It runs on minimal crew,” Harmod explained, “which makes room for a full platoon of army troopers, a lance of scout troopers, and naval security staff. Her bay’s got a pair of ATPTs in it as well as the lance’s bikes…”

Doule’s imagination reeled with the military potential he suddenly commanded. “We’ll be conducting ground combat, then?”

Harmod’s uncomfortably close mannerisms shifted as his features became more guarded. “Our squad is… versatile. We need to be ready for any mission. There may even be contingencies where the Inun is sent ahead to reconnoiter and establish a foothold before the rest of the squad arrives.”

Versatile indeed. Doule didn’t relish what his imagination now offered: alone on a planet with only a handful of troops and awaiting firepower from overhead. Doule had entered the Fleet Academy for a reason: he was no ground-pounder; still, the thrill and freedom of leaping ahead of the others with a small but swift task force had a certain appeal. Doule found himself looking forward to polishing his crew into a skilled and dutiful group of veterans.

Given the size of the Inun, the tour of the interior was brief. It had a standard design for lesser Imperial craft: tight corridors, tighter bunks, and no space wasted. There were only a few exceptions to this economy of living space: commanding officers and meriting visitors were afforded some degree of luxury in private suites, the engineering room boasted two floors of technical stations and a maintenance platform overhead, and the crew enjoyed a rather sizable mess hall for the proportions of the ship.

There was another large space, which Harmod informed him was called the “Nexus room,” a large almost spherical space located at the center of the communications trunk. Within that space was a semicircle of a platform, at either end a door and stairs curving up to a higher platform. The wall by the lower platform was lined with long, narrow windows, offering a vista Doule sneered at silently. Typical Imperial architecture: always a fitting backdrop for the melodramatic.

What really captured Doule’s attention about the Nexus room was in its center and not its walls. Mounted on a column of power conduits and technology—which Doule failed to recognize—was a large metal sphere. “What’s this, Admiral?”

The Admiral was distant and guarded again. “Need to know, I’m afraid.”

“You mean I’m not allowed to know about equipment installed in my own ship?”

“For now, at least. All I can tell you now is it has to do with the communications array. Once the squad has gone through its shakedown, I’m sure you will have been fully briefed about the Nexus.”

“You’re ‘sure’? I don’t understand what you mean, sir.”

Harmod clapped him on the back and smiled. “You aren’t the only one who feels like a puppet captain, Doule…”