Book: Empire's Birth



Empire's Birth

Empire’s Birth

Empire Rising Book 9


D. J. Holmes


https://www.facebook.com/Author.D.J.Holmes

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Comments welcome!





This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to any persons living or dead, business establishments, events or locales are entirely coincidental.

Copyright © D. J. Holmes 2020




Empire's Birth




Prologue

Varanni warship Autonomy, Dalan system, four hundred light years from Varanni Prime.

Commodore Mician Flew stepped onto the bridge of her heavy cruiser. Her eyes went straight to the holo-projection of the Dalan system. A squadron of unknown ships was slowly traversing the system. “What info do we have on them so far?” she asked the sensor officer who had woken her up.

“It is a transport convoy. It has to be. There are several contacts that seem to be warships, but overall, they are moving far too slowly to be a squadron of warships,” the officer replied.

“So, we finally have our target,” Flew said as she came to a decision. “Pass the word to our ships. Send everyone to battle stations. It is time we did what we came here to do.”

The response to her words was immediate. All around her the officers on watch sat up a little straighter. Eyes brightened and movements became more intentional. Flew wasn’t surprised. Her squadron had been hiding in the Dalan system for nearly a month. In that time, they had watched more than a thousand Karacknid warships pass them by. They were making their way to one of the staging worlds the Karacknids were setting up as they prepared to launch their invasion of Varanni space. Of course, Flew’s people knew the space around their territory far better than the Karacknids. The Karacknids’ staging systems had been identified as potential enemy bases months before any Karacknid ships entered them. In response, Flew’s squadron had been put together and sent to the Dalan system. Dalan’s single gas giant had the densest planetary ring structure yet discovered by Varanni explorers. It was the perfect place to hide. And now that the Karacknids have started sending lightly protected supply convoys to their staging bases, the perfect place to launch an attack from, Flew thought as she watched her prey. There had been no formal declaration of war. Nor any other form of communication from the Karacknids. Their actions said all that needed to be said. Massive fleets were amassing all along the borders of her people’s territory. That was not something the Varanni or their allies were going to just let happen.

“All ships have reported ready to proceed,” a COM officer reported.

“Set an intercept course and take us out of the ring,” Flew ordered as she looked to her navigation officer. She then settled in to watch her enemy. They would know they were in trouble soon enough. The gravimetric waves given off by her ships’ rapid acceleration gave away their position. The Karacknids reacted almost instantaneously.  Their formation split in two. Four fifths of the contacts increased their acceleration slightly and continued on the same heading towards the shift passage that led to one of their staging systems. The rest turned towards Flew’s squadron.

They are brave, Flew conceded. The enemy commander had to know the odds. He was outnumbered three to one. Yet there hadn’t been a moment’s hesitation. He was coming to give her battle in the hope that his freighters would escape. “They want a fight,” she said to her bridge crew. “Let’s oblige them. Our first salvo will target their screening ships, the second their capital ships.”

“Yes Commodore,” her tactical officer acknowledged.

Let’s hope we can fend off that dreadnought’s missiles until then, Flew thought. She had twelve heavy cruisers and twenty smaller ships in her squadron. The Karacknids had fourteen screening ships, two heavy cruisers and a dreadnought. Without the dreadnought, she would have been supremely confident of victory. With it, her ships were not going to survive the coming engagement unscathed.

“They’re firing,” an officer announced forty minutes later.

Flew nodded and she kept her face impassive. The enemy dreadnought had released one hundred and ten missiles. I wouldn’t want to face a fleet of them, she decided. Not that we’re going to have any choice.

“Firing,” her tactical officer announced just thirty seconds later. From the battle of Jaranna, Varanni tacticians knew the Karacknids had a small range advantage. Scientists and technicians were working to reverse that, but for now there was nothing that could be done. For a few moments Flew allowed herself to contemplate the significance of the occasion. The first shots in what was going to become the largest war in her species’ history had just been fired. It would be a war that would determine the future of tens of species and hundreds of star systems. If they lost, it would mean slavery for her people. It is a war we do not want to start. But one that we cannot lose, she thought as she stared at the massive enemy dreadnought. That was why she was out here in the middle of nowhere.

Patiently, she watched the two salvos of missiles pass one another and close with their targets. Before any point defenses opened up, both fleets fired a second time. Then they switched their focus to defending themselves. From Flew’s ships, waves of electricity were shot out by the arc emitters. Where the waves touched the Karacknid missiles they fried their seeker heads. Then point defense laser cannons began to throw thousands of laser beams at the missiles. The beams were quickly joined by small anti-missile missiles that sought to intercept their erratically maneuvering targets.

From the Karacknid ships, many similar weapons opened up on the Varanni missiles. Neither fleet was totally successful. Fourteen Varanni missiles got close enough to attack their targets. Though the missiles didn’t have anti-matter warheads like the Karacknids, nor stand-off bomb pumped grazer warheads like the Humans, they had something else; the most advanced miniaturized thermonuclear warheads known to exist. Eight missiles scored direct hits on six Karacknid screening ships. All six were destroyed outright. Another five scored proximity hits. When two bathed a Karacknid ship in nuclear energy at the same time, it detonated. The remaining three proximity hits caused less significant damage to their targets.

In return, just three Karacknid missiles made it through the barrage of Varanni defensive weapons fire.  Two targeted destroyers. One managed to avoid the missile aimed at it. The other took a direct hit amidships. The expanding ball of anti-matter released by the missile engulfed the warship completely, wiping it out of existence. The third missile hit a heavy cruiser. The detonation wasn’t enough to completely destroy the cruiser, yet the anti-matter erased the rear half of the ship. Its forward half spun away wildly, completely out of control.

“Now the dreadnought,” Flew said through gritted teeth. As much as she hated it, there was nothing she could do for the crew of the wrecked cruiser. If they weren’t dead already, they soon would be. The anti-matter missile had taken out the cruiser’s reactors. Without power, whatever inertial dampeners were still functioning would soon fail. No one would be able to survive such a spin without dampeners.

“Our second wave is about to enter their defensive fire,” Autonomy’s tactical officer called out.

Flew was already watching. The Karacknids had lost half of their screening ships and the outcome was predictable. Despite a vicious amount of fire, six missiles closed with the dreadnought. Four scored direct hits. Flew’s mouth fell open in amazement when the dreadnought didn’t explode. Yes, there were four gaping holes venting atmosphere and debris and both enemy heavy cruisers had been taken out. But the dreadnought was still very much in the fight. Even as she watched, it fired again releasing eighty missiles from its functioning missile ports. “Target everything at that ship!” she demanded.

Though a fresh wave of missiles erupted from her ships in response to her command, Flew had to watch another salvo of Karacknid missiles approach before the dreadnought could be engaged again. This time only one of her screening ships was destroyed, but two more suffered serious damage. After sending instructions for them to fall back to safety, she focused on her next salvo.

Unsurprisingly, all of the remaining Karacknid screening ships had surrounded the dreadnought. They put up a valiant fight, but it was not enough. Three screening ships suffered direct hits as a result of putting themselves right in front of the missiles’ real target. More than twenty other missiles reached the dreadnought. So many nuclear detonations erupted that Autonomy’s sensors couldn’t track them all. When her flagship was finally able to make sense of the enemy formation, the dreadnought was nowhere to be seen.

“Good shooting,” Flew said to her officers. “Now, let’s mop up the rest of their forces and move onto the freighters.” That was what they had come to hit after all. Killing a handful of enemy warships was not going to stall their planned invasion. Not when they had thousands more. But Varanni High Command hoped that taking out their supplies would buy the time that was desperately needed to design and build new ships and weapons systems.

It took just one additional salvo to finish off the few surviving Karacknid screening ships. Flew’s squadron easily fended off the missiles they fired in return. For an hour her ships chased after the enemy freighters. Though they were fast for freighters, they were not able to outrun her warships. With a coldness that she hadn’t thought she possessed, Flew watched as freighter after freighter was blown to pieces. None of them asked for quarter, neither was any offered. From the scans of the destroyed ships it was clear they were all filled with the munitions, supplies and soldiers the Karacknids would need to conquer her civilization. They will get no mercy from me, Flew thought as the last freighter was taken out by two missiles. The Karacknids had started the war, and, until they pulled their forces back, there would be no peace.

“Turn us onto heading four three seven point two,” she ordered when the slaughter was over. As her squadron reformed and settled onto its new course, Flew pictured the map of local space in her mind. Instead of turning her ships towards home, she was taking them towards the shift passage the Karacknids had used to enter the system. If they would let her, she intended to raid their rear supply lines all the way to Jaranna. Then she had orders to try and slip back to Varanni space via Human territory. Perhaps I’ll get to meet the famed Admiral Somerville, she mused. The Human leader was famous among Varanni naval officers. In part because of his actions at the battle of Jaranna, but also because he had singlehandedly fought in more naval actions than the combined officer core of the Varanni Navy. Though perhaps I can put an end to that, Flew thought as a feral grin spread across her face. She intended to destroy every Karacknid ship, freighter or orbital station she came across. In a few weeks she would likely be the most experienced Varanni naval officer in history.




Chapter 1

To this day, rebuilding the Empire’s homeworld is the greatest endeavor Humanity has ever attempted.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Chiltern Hill, England, 3 hours after the 2nd Battle for Earth, 1st September 2481 AD.

As he stepped off the shuttle, all James could do was stare. The scene in front of him was one from a disaster holo-drama, or a nightmare. Wherever it was from, it shouldn’t have been real. And yet it is, James thought as he forced himself to take it all in. The entire horizon was aflame. Despite it being midday, the air was so thick with smoke that no natural light got through. None was needed though, the fires that were burning all across the landscape lit up everything. The reflection of their flames on the thick billowing clouds of smoke gave the impression there were two firestorms raging. One below, and one in the clouds above.

Whilst next to no sunlight broke through the smoke, here and there other streaks of light announced themselves with rumbling booms. Instinctively, James ducked when one roar erupted directly overhead. Glancing up he caught the three second flash of a large chunk of spaceship burning up as it tore through Earth’s atmosphere. Lowering his eyes to the flames again, James tried in vain to identify something he recognized. From his vantage point he should have been able to see the many skyscrapers that dominated the city’s skyline. None were visible. Instead, the skyscrapers had been replaced by hundreds of plumes of smoke that rose up out of the flames. Nearer by, the outskirts of London that approached Chiltern Hill were largely intact. Every building had its windows blown out and some appeared to have collapsed, but the fires from the two nuclear detonations hadn’t reached them. Yet, James feared. He clenched his fists. Millions of his countrymen were dead, hundreds of thousands were suffering before his very eyes.

This will not be the end of us, James promised himself and all who had died in the scene before him. His rage was bubbling over, almost to the point where he knew he was going to lose control. It had only been one hour since his niece had rescued him from the remnants of Golden Hind. One hour since he had learnt how many missiles had got through Earth’s defenses. One hour in which to take in all the names of friends and comrades he had lost in the space battle that had raged overhead. He had thought he was beginning to get a handle on his grief. He had been wrong. Though he didn’t feel it, blood seeped around his fingers where they dug into the palm of his hands. A single tear ran down his cheek. His home city had been devastated. His nation shattered.

A sob from beside him tore James’ eyes away from the inferno that was London. He started when he saw Empress Christine Na standing beside him. Tears were running freely down her cheeks. Before he could say anything, she fell to her knees. He had completely forgotten. She had been on the shuttle with him. The destruction before him had emptied his mind of everything. His heart went out to her. London was as much her city as it was his. Though now Empress of China, she had once been a Princess of the British Star Kingdom. Now so many of those who she had called her people were gone. Including her family, James reminded himself. He had seen the two craters as the shuttle had descended. The Karacknids had targeted their nuclear missiles at Westminster and Buckingham Palace. Or more likely, at the underground bunker below them. Somehow, the Karacknids had found time to scan Earth for protected targets. Her family were likely sheltering there, and now they are all dead.

Reaching down, James softly pulled Christine to her feet. She fell into his embrace without any resistance. Gently, James turned his body so Christine was facing the shuttle. “Don’t look anymore Empress,” he said. “This is not something you need haunting your dreams.”

Christine didn’t reply except to sob even more. At a loss for words, James rubbed her back. Christine’s grip on him tightened in response. The distinctive sound of someone clearing their throat made James glance to his side. Emilie was there, she was watching him. It looked like she had shed a tear or two as well. But there was no sign of grief on her face now, there was only steely determination. Ever so slowly, she nodded in the direction of London. James grit his teeth and returned the nod.

Slowly, but forcefully, he prized Christine away from him. “We do not have the luxury of grief Empress. We have a job to do. You need to leave them in my hands. Your people need you now.” As he spoke he started to move Christine towards the shuttle’s ramp. She wasn’t even supposed to have disembarked. The shuttle was meant to be taking her to China. “When you get there, don’t let the destruction distract you,” he cautioned her. “You can’t let it. People’s lives are depending on you.”

Christine stopped and looked him in the eye, “I know,” she said as she mopped her cheeks. “But…” as she spoke, her eyes had darted over James’ shoulder.

James reached out and grabbed her chin. “I said don’t look,” he said gently as he turned her gaze back to him. He held her in place until she nodded. “Good, now get going. There isn’t a minute to spare. They need you!”

“Right…” Christine began to say.

James didn’t give her a chance to finish her thought, instead he turned her and bundled her up the shuttle’s ramp. When they got to the top he handed her over to a marine. “Get the Empress to China. Now.”

“Yes Admiral,” the marine said as he reached out to help Christine stand upright.

She shook away his hands and turned to James. There was a mixture of emotions written across her face, but James knew there wasn’t time to see what she might want to say. He had already jumped off the ramp and hit the external button to retract it. Pushing Christine out of his mind, he turned back to what was left of London. Not heeding his own advice, he paused to take the scene in once more. Then he looked over to his niece. At any other time he would have expected some smart-ass comment about manhandling an Empress. Today was not a day for such flippancy.

“Where do we begin?” she asked, her voice broke as her determination wavered.

James didn’t blame her, several naval staff had disembarked the shuttle with them, they had all the equipment to put together a portable COM station. Beyond that they were on their own. Everything else that Admiral Koroylov had was in space trying to rescue what they could from the stricken fleet and stop chunks of debris from raining down on Earth and finishing what the Karacknids started. For the next few hours, he and his small team were all the British Star Kingdom had. “Set up the equipment,” James ordered. “Then scan all local frequencies, we need to know who is out there and still operating.” The Karacknids’ strike had likely cut the head off the British government as well as wiped out its capital. He needed to restore order and coordinate the rescue and evacuation efforts immediately. Every second they delayed more people would die who didn’t have to. Pulling open his datapad, James scanned the orbital scans Koroylov was relaying to him. Alongside the two missiles that had hit London, one had hit Manchester and another Edinburgh. He needed to coordinate the evacuation of all three cities, the treatment of those who were injured, and get the fires under control. And that was just to begin with, within hours the survivors would begin to get thirsty and then hungry. They would also need shelter. We need to know how much radiation there is in the city, and how much in the atmosphere. And get the weather forecast. If James knew anything about his home nation’s weather, it was going to rain soon, and that could mean more radiation being released onto the survivors. We need shelters for everyone, he realized. Emilie’s question came back to him. “Where do we begin?”

*

UNS Shield, Earth Orbit.

“Get us as close as you can,” Lightfoot ordered his helmsman. “Point blank range!”

“Yes Admiral,” an unfamiliar officer replied.

Fighting back a sigh, Lightfoot forced himself to sit straighter in his command chair. He needed to show his officers he was on top of things. But the simple effort of putting authority into his commands was straining. How many have we dealt with now? he asked himself. The answer escaped him. A glance at the bridge’s chronometer told him he had only been on the warship for forty minutes. It felt like an age had passed. Koroylov had put him in charge of stopping debris from the battle from crashing into Earth’s surface. It was an impossible task. There were literally thousands of chunks of distorted metal in Earth’s orbit being sucked in by her gravity. And we’ve hardly made a dent on them yet, he said to himself as he summoned the strength to seek out his next target.

Though the crew around him were strange, the layout of Shield’s bridge and Captain’s command chair were identical to Blackfish’s. Which is a darn good thing, Lightfoot thought as he typed commands onto the datapad built into his chair and pulled up a secondary holo feed on the opposite arm rest. Blackfish was in high orbit. After receiving Koroylov’s orders, he had left her First Lieutenant and Chief Engineer with orders to save his ship. Though he had no idea if that was even possible. Then he had transferred to Shield. Unconsciously, on the secondary holo display his eyes sought out Blackfish’s distant shape. There’s no time to reminisce, he berated himself.  If Blackfish broke apart after all the damage she had sustained, then so be it. He had bigger problems to worry about.

“Engaging now,” Shield’s tactical officer called.

“All point defenses are to prioritize large chunks,” Lightfoot ordered. Seconds later, Shield’s laser and plasma cannons tore into the forward nose section of a Karacknid dreadnought. It was falling at an ever-increasing rate into Earth’s atmosphere. There was no way it would burn up before striking the surface, and it needed to be stopped. “Keep hitting it,” Lightfoot said after several salvos were released. The massive chunk of starship out massed Shield by a factor of three and it was tough, built with alloys no Human yet understood.

“Admiral, we’ve got a problem,” a sensor officer reported in a tone that made Lightfoot forget the Karacknid dreadnought.

“What is it?” he asked as he turned to her.

Kraken has two targets within her sector that are close to reaching Earth’s atmosphere. Both are big enough to survive re-entry.”

Lightfoot pulled up Kraken’s data. He saw right away that there were no ships close enough to come to help her. “How did this happen?” he protested. Then he saw it. One of the pieces of debris was a section of HMS Vulcan, the British shipyard, and the data suggested there were still survivors on board. Even as he watched, a rescue shuttle took off from the debris, clearly taking some of the stricken shipyard workers.

Kraken is requesting permission to engage debris gamma seven four,” the sensor officer informed him.

“Gamma seven four,” Lightfoot repeated as he brought up the debris’ trajectory. It was going to touch down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Not too far away from the Solomon Islands. He then checked the trajectory of the section of Vulcan. When it came up, he closed his eyes. Curse you all, he thought to the Karacknids. Vulcan’s damaged section would tear through Earth’s atmosphere and impact right in the middle of the American state of Minnesota. The explosion would be almost as bad as the eight nuclear missiles that had already ravaged the north American continent. “Curse you all to hell,” he said as he opened his eyes. “Order Kraken to engage gamma seven nine.”

“Pardon Admiral?” the officer requested.

Lightfoot had to bite back a rebuke. He didn’t want to have to give the order again. “I said, order Kraken to engage gamma seven nine. Immediately. They can target seven four with a missile.” The officer stared at him for several seconds. “Just do it,” he barked. “There’s no time to waste!”

Jumping at his tone, the officer spun around to her command console. Lightfoot watched unblinkingly as Kraken’s energy weapons tore into what was left of Vulcan. The sensor readout beside the image told him there were at least two hundred shipyard workers estimated to be alive in the debris. As each plasma bolt hit the shipyard, Lightfoot smashed his fist into his command chair. He was killing his own people. They made me do it, he thought as his mind was filled with images of Karacknid warships exploding.

A series of beeps from his command chair pulled his thoughts back to the mission Koroylov had given him. Many more pieces of debris required the attention of the twenty ships Koroylov had been able to place under his command. As he set about prioritizing their targets, he kept an eye on gamma seven four. Kraken had managed to hit it with one missile. The debris had been blown apart into many smaller fragments. Several were still large enough to survive re-entry. They crashed down into the Pacific Ocean, sending several small tsunamis racing out from their points of impact. Hundreds if not thousands more people would be killed. They must be made to pay, Lightfoot demanded as guilt and shame overwhelmed him. They must.

*

Nottingham, England, 3rd September 2481 AD.

As he walked, James struggled to keep his eyes open. If he had slept at all in the last two days, he hadn’t noticed. By his side, Emilie led him through the maze of tents. She had found him ten minutes ago with news that she had set one up for him. There were still a hundred things for him to do, and tens of thousands of people who needed help, but he could no longer function.

As they came to a crossroads, where two paths that wound through the massive refugee camp he had set up met, Emilie paused and pulled out her datapad. James wasn’t surprised, despite their best efforts, the refugee camp was a maze. Continuing on when Emilie started walking again, he kept his eye out for the different markers people had put up. One section had a large sign saying Harrow, another Croydon and another Barking. They were in the London area of the refugee camp. But no inner-city markings, James noticed. So far less than a few thousand people had been rescued from the inner city. If there were any more survivors, the fires that were still raging were preventing anyone from getting to them.

Though he didn’t want to, he calculated the numbers in his head again. Inner London had been home to about fifteen million people. Manchester another eight and Edinburgh six. It was likely there wouldn’t be more than a couple of hundred thousand survivors from all three inner cities combined. It was the same everywhere. He hadn’t had the time to check on the rest of Earth’s nations, but he knew more than eighty nukes had hit key cities.

“Hey, you,” a voice called from a small gathering of people. When James looked over it seemed they were all gathered around a bench with a number of meals sitting on it. “Yes you,” the voice said as a man pushed his way through the group. Everyone stopped reaching for food to watch. “You’re that Admiral Somerville. You’re in charge around here aren’t you?”

Wearily James brought himself to a halt and turned to the man. “Yes, I am. Have you been given all you need?”

The man looked over his shoulder before answering. “Yeah… I suppose. We have shelter and food. But we have lost everything. Our home has been burnt. And we have family in Westminster. We’ve been looking for them. Where are the survivors from there being looked after?”

Movement out of the corner of his eye caused James to glance around. More people had come out of their tents. There was a small crowd gathering. If he had the energy, he would have laughed, or cried. They were all dirty and disheveled, many were in nothing but rags. Though they were all watching him, there was no light in their eyes. “Well?” the man demanded. James didn’t have the energy to lie. “There are none. At least not yet. We haven’t been able to get any rescue workers through the fires yet. I’m sorry, but it is unlikely anyone has made it out of Westminster alive.”

“But why not?” the man demanded.

“It was a nuke you fool,” another shouted. “Of course no one survived.”

The first man rudely gestured to the second, but he didn’t say anything more, instead he lowered his eyes.

“He is right,” James said as he raised his voice. “London has been nuked. It is very hard to see how anyone would have survived within the blast radius. But we are doing our best to get rescue teams in there. We will have more news for you as soon as we can. In the meantime, we will try and meet your needs here. The entire world is in this together. We have to be patient and help each other.”

“But why has this happened?” an older woman asked. “Why us?” Several people voiced their agreement while many nodded.

“What did we do to them?” another shouted.

“We are free,” James replied as loudly as his body would allow. He paused and turned to look at everyone who was watching him. “We are free,” he repeated in a lower tone. “And they cannot stand that. They want us enslaved. They want to rule us. And they won’t stop until they do.”

Silence followed his words. Many of the people looked away when he settled his gaze on them. They are broken, James realized. Fear was written all over their faces. And rightly so. There was nothing stopping the Karacknids from coming back and finishing what they started.

“Well they have failed!” someone shouted into the silence.

James turned around to see a young woman in her late teens. She didn’t look away when his eyes met hers. Instead she raised her chin and her eyes shone with rage. “They killed my parents! But I am still here. They have failed to stop us.”

Despite her evident anger, it looked like the young woman was about to cry. James made to reach out to comfort her. Other voices distracted him. “They will never own us!” someone else shouted. “Not after this. We will never forget, and we will never bow to them!”



More voices shouted similar thoughts. Then cheers went up. Suddenly James found many faces meeting his gaze. The look on almost all of them was the same as the young girl’s. They are not beaten yet, James thought as his heart swelled. For the first time in days a sliver of hope ran through him. “No!” he found himself shouting in agreement despite his fatigue. “We are not beaten yet.” He wanted to add more, but someone cut him off.

“Promise us you will avenge our families,” the old woman said. “I know who you are Duke Somerville. Promise us you will avenge our families.”

James walked over and took the woman’s hands in his. He looked her in the eyes and nodded slowly. “I promise,” he answered. “I promise,” he repeated more loudly. All around him cheers went up. When James looked, even Emilie had a fist in the air as she cheered him. We are not beaten yet, he repeated to himself. He had no idea how he was going to get through the next few weeks and months, but, for the first time in two days, he believed that they would.




Chapter 2

To stand before our species as the first leader of the Human Empire must have been a daunting task. Only someone who had fought and bled in the 2nd Battle of Earth and exhausted themselves in the rescue efforts that followed could have been accepted into such a position.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

England, 17th September 2481 AD.

The next two weeks went by in a flash for James. He saw more dead bodies, fed more refugees and comforted more grieving families than he had during his entire time in the Royal Space Navy. Though he knew he would hate every second of it, he had taken trips to the ruins of Manchester and Edinburgh. The people needed to see him facing up to what had happened. Whilst the death toll was still an estimate, it had risen to twenty-one million British lives lost. After seeing the devastated cities, James had realized that Britain would never be the same again. Yes, there was talk of rebuilding. Some industrious individuals were already scanning through old holo recordings of the three cities to make perfect holo models of what had been lost. But the cities were not the buildings, James knew, they had been the people. And they were gone.

“It’s time,” Emilie said as she pulled back the flap into his tent and strode in.

Taking a deep breath, James dismissed his thoughts. He had no idea what Britain would now become, but whatever is going to happen, we need to decide it together. “Let’s go,” he said. Glancing back, a small wave of guilt washed over him. He was glad to be getting out of the refugee camp, even if it was just for a few hours. Though Emilie insisted it wasn’t true, he was convinced that he had failed thousands, if not tens of thousands of his own people. He was not an administrator, and though someone had been needed to bring order out of the chaos, he knew he had failed far too many times over the last two weeks. Failures that have cost lives. James was used to seeing people die as a result of his commands, but this was different. He knew someone else could have done a better job. If only I could find that someone. With so many dead, he didn’t know who to bring in to replace him. At least I will get a small break from the pressure, he thought as his eyes passed over a pile of papers and other stuff that was waiting his attention.

As he finished looking around, Emilie grabbed a datapad she had left on a fold out table and stepped up beside him. James nodded to her and led them out of the tent. A hundred meters away a shuttle was waiting to take them back to space. Standing off to one side was a face that had become very familiar to James.

Stephanie Hargreaves, the first term MP for Lincoln, was one of the few MP’s who had not been killed by the missile that had targeted Westminster. She had survived because she had not been in London, but back in her own constituency. Four other MP’s had also shown up over the last two weeks. James was very thankful she had been the first. He had immediately drafted her in as his second in command of the rescue operations. Whilst not experienced enough to take on the demands of organizing everything, she had proved herself more than up for the task of assisting him. Unlike some of the others who were already vying for position. All three thought they and not he should be in charge. If James had thought any one of them could have been trusted to put the nation’s needs above their own, he would have gladly handed over the reins. Sadly, he knew each of them and didn’t trust any of the three.

“You’re meeting with Koroylov?” Stephanie asked as James and Emilie approached.

James nodded. “Are you sure you don’t want to come?”

Stephanie shook her head. “No, you are the one they want. And you are the one our people need representing us. I’ll keep things running here. Just make sure you fight for our share of the supplies coming in from Mars. Many of our farmers are just starting to bring in their harvests, but it will take time to get everything in, processed and redistributed.”

“Plus supplies of fuel and equipment are seriously disrupted, I know,” James replied. “And if I forget, I’ve got Emilie here to keep me right.”

“Yes, you do. Make sure you make use of her,” Stephanie replied.

James nodded. Once again he had been impressed by his niece. She had stepped into her role as his assistant with ease, despite everything that was going on around them. She had a great head for numbers. Something he had always fallen down on. Given the vast quantities of refugees, supplies and all sorts of other things he had been dealing with over the last two weeks, her help had been invaluable.

“Don’t stay away too long,” Stephanie added as her tone grew more serious. “I don’t know how long I can hold Bernard off.”

James rolled his eyes. Bernard was the most senior surviving MP. He was from Stephanie’s party as well, and he had been trying to use his seniority to bully her. James had no problem telling Bernard where he could go. He had been one of the strongest supporters of the now deceased Prime Minister Matthews. Matthews, along with several other world leaders, had constantly pushed to reduce the military’s funding. James had no problem letting Bernard feel the harsh side of his tongue. “Just tell him he can talk to me when I get back,” James advised. “Don’t even waste your time with him. You have too much to do.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Stephanie replied. “But I’ll try.”

“Ok, well we’d better go. Keep our people safe while I’m gone,” James said as he nodded to Stephanie.

“I will,” Stephanie promised as she gave James a sloppy salute.

The gesture made James smile as he walked up the shuttle’s ramp.

After he settled in, the shuttle quickly lifted off. Though there was a viewport that would have allowed him to look down on the huge refugee city that had been set up, James kept his eyes on the sky. He had seen enough of Britain’s wounds to last a lifetime.

As soon as the shuttle broke through the atmosphere, his professional interest perked up. Compared to what he remembered, Earth’s orbitals looked bare, painfully bare.

“It’s all gone,” Emilie said as she too stared.

James agreed, though he didn’t reply. Yes, there were some stations here and there, but Humanity’s capital now looked almost like a frontier world. With the debris and wreckage from the battle destroyed or towed to safety, there wasn’t much to look at in low orbit. The only real activity was the stream of shuttles going to the surface, bringing supplies to the refugees.

“Look,” Emilie said as her hand pointed toward where their shuttle was heading. “It’s like a graveyard.”

“Indeed,” James agreed when his eyes followed her hand. What was left of Home Fleet was sitting in high orbit. If Koroylov had sorted out the ships into those that were battle ready and those that were damaged, it was impossible to tell. Almost every ship had a number of battle scars. Many had gaping holes that were still open to space. Here and there, there were actually half destroyed ships floating beside intact ones. He has salvaged everything he can, James realized. Anything that was even remotely likely to be repaired had been saved. That is how bad our situation is, we’re going to need them all and then some.

When the shuttle closed with Koroylov’s flagship, Earth, James wasn’t surprised to see it too had taken a beating. It looked like two anti-matter missiles had scored proximity hits. One had taken out the nose section of the battleship, and there was a hole amidships that looked like it had destroyed at least ten missile tubes. Many more lives to add to the butcher’s bill. As the shuttle rounded the large warship, more reassuring signs of life came into view. Two small tender ships were carrying out repairs and there were a half-dozen shuttles waiting to land in the ship’s shuttle bay.

To James’s delight, when he stepped off his shuttle and onto Earth’s deck, Rear Admiral Gupta was there to greet him. She stepped forward with a wide smile and held out her hand. James took it and returned her smile. “It’s good to see you,” he said. “Though, you look a little worse for wear.” It was true, fresh was not a description that could be used for either Gupta’s facial features or the state of her uniform. James had suggested to Koroylov that he take Gupta and make her his second in command. It looked like the Russian president had been putting her to work.

“Talk about the kettle calling the pot black,” Gupta replied as she raised her eyebrows. “Did you bother to look in a mirror before boarding your shuttle?”

“Touché,” James replied. If he looked like he felt, he imagined his appearance was probably worse than Gupta’s. “Still, it’s good to see you.”

“And you too,” Gupta replied. “How are things down there? I’ve seen some holo recordings.” James didn’t try to hide the wave of anguish that Gupta’s question elicited. “That bad?” Gupta asked as she placed a hand on his arm.

“Worse,” James replied. “Whatever you’ve seen, it’s worse. I think we have had to harden ourselves to it. It’s the only way to keep functioning. But it is bad.”

“Well then, I’ll not ask anything more. We can save it for the briefing,” Gupta said. She slapped James on the shoulder. “We need to look on the bright side. At least we have something to try and save. That’s more than any of us expected a fortnight ago.”

James doubted Gupta’s optimism would come so easily if she had swapped places with him for the last two weeks, but he said nothing. “How is Koroylov?” he asked instead.

“Tired, disheartened, but determined at the same time,” Gupta answered. “Like the rest of us I guess. We got the fleet into a semblance of order and it’s time to decide our next steps. Hence this meeting. Koroylov is hesitant to make any more decisions on his own.”

“Then he is a wise man,” James replied. “But I imagine he’ll soon be regretting his decision to call such a meeting all the same.”

“Yes, I’ve said as much to him. Decisions by committee have never been the Royal Space Navy way. And yet, if we’re going to pull some kind of order out of the chaos, we will have to learn to work together.”

“That may be harder than defeating the Karacknids,” James said in all seriousness. Despite the price Humanity had paid to drive out the invading Karacknid fleet, he genuinely feared it would cost his species even more to try and work together. Centuries of history suggested it was all but impossible. But that has to change, James said to himself as he squared his jaw. It had to change, or the devastation he had witnessed on Earth would be repeated on every Human colony.

Behind his back, Emilie and Gupta shared a glance. Emilie nodded, James had been in the same mood for a while.

“Here we are,” Gupta said as they approached Earth’s main briefing room. “Most are already here.”

James gestured for Gupta to go first, straightened his uniform, and then stepped into the room. Though he had prepared himself, grief washed over him as he was greeted by so many familiar faces. It wasn’t their presence that hurt, it was the absence of those who should have been there as well. Two of his closest friends, Rear Admiral Sato and Captain Romanov, had been lost fighting alongside Koroylov’s forces as they defended Earth. Governor Pennington and Admiral Harborough had been killed when the Havenite flagship had been destroyed. Then there were Lieutenants Miyamoto, Yue, and Dzedzyk. All three had been killed when Golden Hind had been blown in two. They and so many others were gone. They’d given their lives to defend Earth. To make this meeting a possibility, James said to himself in an effort to curtail his grief. None of them would want him feeling sorry for himself. Not when so much was on the line.

A different familiar face made him stop short before the seat Gupta was leading him to. Lord Stephen Bernard was already sitting at the oval table. He was the MP for Winchester and the one who had been seeking to usurp James’ authority over the rescue of British survivors. “What is he doing here?” James growled to himself. He hunched his shoulders and set off towards the MP. He had endured enough of the pompous ass’s interference already. He wasn’t going to put up with it now. With his attention solely focused on Bernard, James didn’t notice the obstacle that suddenly appeared in front of his right foot. Clipping it with his toes, he almost stumbled. To his horror, he realized he had just kicked a hover chair. “My apologi… James said before he froze. “Fairfax?” he blurted out. His mouth hung open.

“Who else do you think it is you dolt?” Fairfax responded as he maneuvered his hover chair so that it banged into James’ shin.

“But… They said your recovery would take weeks if not months?” James replied. “And they said you would be able to walk again.” The last time James had seen Fairfax he had been sitting in a puddle of his own blood on Golden Hind’s bridge. That was just before Empress Na’s engineers had taken him away. James had asked Emilie to get an update on the former British Prime Minister and she had assured him he would make a full recovery under the care of Earth’s chief doctor.

“Aye, that they did,” Fairfax agreed. “But I’m not going to waste the next two months lying on a medical bed waiting for them to regrow my nerve tissues. All hands are needed on deck, isn’t that one of your sayings?”

“But your legs, if they can heal them?”

Fairfax waved away James’ question. “If they can heal them now, they can heal them later. Now, stop your belly aching. You need me far more than I need my legs, so just let it go.”

“I… I think you are making the wrong choice,” James replied as he tried to imagine what life would be like not being able to walk.

“Oh? You do, do you?” Fairfax replied as he raised an eyebrow. “So tell me, what were you on your way to do?” Instead of waiting for an answer, Fairfax turned and nodded towards Bernard. “I imagine you two have already hit it off. I’m sure whatever you are about to say to him would have started this meeting off on exactly the right foot.”

“I…” James found himself at a loss for words.

“Exactly,” Fairfax replied. “Exactly,” he repeated with a nod. “You see why I am here? Now, take a seat and let’s try not to blow this whole meeting up before it begins. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. I know Bernard well enough. But to beat him, you have to play his game.”

“Right,” was all James could say in reply. “I don’t suppose I have any choice in the matter anyway.”

Fairfax smiled. “Now you’re starting to make sense.” He waved for James to take his seat first and maneuvered his holo- chair into the empty slot beside him.

“Thank you all for coming,” Koroylov said as soon as everyone was seated. “We represent what has survived of our military and political leadership. I’ve gathered you here, firstly, because we need to figure out just how bad our situation is and how we can help one another. And, secondly, because it is my conviction that we must coordinate and combine our strength. The Karacknids may have fallen back, but when they deem us to be a threat once again, they will return. That means we have a second chance. But it is one that is limited, and so one that we cannot squander. Today’s meeting, and those that follow, will determine the fate of our species. So, let us begin.”




Chapter 3

From a few simple meetings, the edifice that would become our Empire grew. Though humble in nature, their historical significance cannot be overlooked.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

“Perhaps introductions would be in order Mr. President?” Christine suggested when Koroylov asked where everyone wanted to begin. “I know some of you, but certainly not all.” When she glanced at James, she smiled at him. He nodded to show his agreement and acknowledge her smile. There were quite a few unfamiliar faces.

“Of course,” Koroylov replied. “My staff have spent so much time trying to locate you all that I forgot you don’t know each other. Very well, let’s go around the table. As you introduce yourself, you may give us a status update on your area of responsibility as well.”

James leaned forward as Koroylov nodded to a United Colonial States Senator. All the people in the room around him had been through the same experience he had over the last two weeks. He was keen to see how they had managed. Unsurprisingly, as the Senator spoke, and then another shared their story, and then another, James grew disheartened. Their stories were all the same. Millions dead. Millions more left homeless and without any means to support themselves. The entire supply chain of food and other products on Earth demolished.

When it was his turn, James listed off the statistics and explained how his efforts were proceeding. “The fires in Edinburgh are out, but they are still burning in London and Manchester. We have cut fire breaks in both cities and there is nothing more we can do but wait until they burn themselves out. We simply don’t have the manpower or hardware to tackle them. We need all the shuttles we have focused on bringing in food and other supplies. If we don’t get more food, some of those we rescued from the wreckage may begin to starve soon.”

“We may be able to help you,” Christine said. “Empress Christine Na,” she added when everyone looked at her as she hadn’t formally introduced herself yet. “Though I imagine you all know who I am… China suffered six nuclear strikes. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Wuhan were all hit. We’ve lost one hundred and twelve million citizens.” Unsurprisingly, Christine paused as she shared her number. She visibly swallowed and wiped a small bit of moisture from her eye. Then she reset her expression and continued. “Nevertheless, my people are pulling together. We’ve begun taking in our harvest early and we believe we will have extra we can provide Britain and others with. It won’t be much, but it may tide us over until more support comes from our outer colonies.”

As Christine explained everything she had done, James sat back in his chair and stared at her. Despite the loss the Chinese people had suffered, both they and Christine had responded with admirable efficiency. Many of the political and financial centers of mainland China were gone, yet the populace hadn’t fallen apart. Mentally, James nodded in respect for Christine. For years he had thought that her marriage to Emperor Na had left her playing the role of a political figurehead. He had already started to realize he was wrong. Now, he knew it. She had learned more than a thing or two over the last decade.

“All right,” Koroylov said when everyone had finished giving their reports on what was happening within their countries. “Let me invite Rear Admiral Gupta to update you all on the status of our fleet and then we must decide what steps to take next. Rear Admiral,” Koroylov said as he gestured towards Gupta.

“Thank you Mr. President,” Gupta said as she stood. “I have prepared a detailed overview that each of you can take with you after this meeting. For now I will just cover the highlights. Let me begin with Earth’s defenses. We lost sixty percent of our battlestations and just over fifty percent of our defensive satellites. Many of those that remain have suffered some kind of damage or malfunction from the prolonged engagement. At the moment it’s estimated that Earth’s defenses are operating at about thirty-five percent efficiency compared to before the Karacknid attack. Though that is bad, our fleet is in a far worse situation. Excluding the forces Vice Admiral Somerville brought to the battle, eighty-nine percent of all UN warships were involved in the battle. Forty-one percent of those survived, but, at present, only three hundred warships are battle worthy. If we add in the ships of the Outer Defense Fleet, of Haven and of the Vestarians, our total number of battle worthy ships rises to three hundred and eighty-six. If the Karacknids return with a fleet of a thousand or more ships, they would be able to walk right over us without suffering anything more than a scratch.” Gupta paused to let her words sink in before continuing.

“Going forward, our numbers are not unlikely to change drastically in the coming months. We have around five hundred ships that need various degrees of repairs. Several repair yards survived the Karacknid attack, but, for the most part, we will have to tow our damaged ships out of the Sol system to colonies with functioning shipyards. That in turn will disrupt any effort we might make to construct new ships. Around thirty percent of our entire industrial base was concentrated in Earth’s orbitals. Much of that has been destroyed. There will be knock-on effects in every one of our colonies.”

James had to stop himself from shaking his head as Gupta spoke. He had been rushed to Earth’s surface so quickly he hadn’t had time to fully survey what was left of the fleet. What he had seen in his shuttle ride to Earth had been bad, but what Gupta was saying was far worse. And he guessed that her definition of a battleworthy ship was far looser than it would have been a month ago.

“Now you all know where we are,” Koroylov commented. “Each of our nations are in dire straits. Mars is helping as much as it can, and aid from our other colonies will hopefully begin to arrive soon. But it will take us many weeks to begin to get on top of the disaster that has befallen us. Perhaps worse, our military is months away from being able to put up any kind of serious defense. The question before us now is, how do we proceed? You represent the closest thing to leaders your nations have. There is no chance we could organize elections in your home nations, at least not for months. The responsibility to find a way forward has fallen on us. So, where do we go from here?”

“I’m not so sure what you mean Mr. President,” Bernard said a little too sweetly. “I thought this gathering was to coordinate our differing responses so that we could help one another? It seems you are suggesting we attempt to do more?”

James wanted to groan. Already Bernard was making a nuisance of himself. When Koroylov shared a quick glance with Fairfax, James had to suppress a second one. If Koroylov and Fairfax were up to something, he knew it wasn’t going to be good. At least, though good it might be, it was going to cause him a headache. Over the last couple of years Koroylov and Fairfax had both pressured him with their political ideas of how Humanity should structure itself. A number of elements within the illegal organization he had set up with his fellow mutineers had wanted to adopt a more aggressive approach with the UN. Now that the UN is gone, and Earth’s political leaders, there never will be a better time for something new to emerge. It suddenly hit James why Fairfax was there. This was an opportunity the former British Prime Minister would not miss, not even if it cost him his legs.

“You’re right of course,” Koroylov said carefully. “I’m simply opening up the discussion. We need to work together to coordinate our rescue efforts. But we also need to coordinate our defenses and our rebuilding efforts. If we are all competing with one another, grabbing what resources we can, our efforts will be inefficient at best and damaging at worst. We need to avoid this; the question is how?”

For several seconds everyone looked around at each other in silence. James had an idea of what Fairfax and Koroylov wanted to suggest, but he was certainly not going to be the one to do so. His people needed him to get the aid and resources they needed to survive, not to play political games.

“What we need is some kind of Emergency Council,” Christine finally suggested. “One that has enough power to ensure that things get done in regard to defending and rebuilding Earth. Yet one that is temporary and can dissolve when it is no longer needed.”

James didn’t miss the small smile that escaped Fairfax’s lips, though it quickly disappeared. So Christine is not in on it, he surmised, but she is playing ball.

“What kind of powers are we talking about?” Senator Deborah Nicholls of the United Colonial States asked. “Emergency Councils have a very bad history. They are how dictatorships are formed.”

“I am well aware,” Christine replied. “But we need to form some kind of cooperative body, and we do not have the time or infrastructure to elect one. As to its powers, I’m open to suggestions.”

“The council would need to oversee military affairs,” Rear Admiral Nogamoro responded. None of the members of the Japanese Diet had survived. Nogamoro, as the senior living Japanese naval officer, had found himself in charge. “Local affairs at least. Possibly even further afield. If we’re going to organize Earth’s defenses, we need to have the authority to appoint a commander of Home Fleet and give said commander the authority to take charge of our military forces in other systems as well.”

“We will need a degree of control over the civilian affairs in each of our countries,” Christine added. “If this council is to coordinate our rescue and re-building efforts, we will have to have authority over each individual nation’s efforts. Otherwise the council would quickly prove to be irrelevant. I know, I know,” she quickly added as she turned to Nicholls. “Such an idea sits uncomfortably with me as well. I’m not talking about our nations surrendering our sovereignty, but the Council must have some influence.”

“This is sounding more and more like the UN Interplanetary Council,” Chancellor Hoffman of Germany complained. James had been surprised to learn that he had been declared Chancellor just a couple of days ago. Technically, as a member of the Bundestag he had been fifth in line for the Chancellorship. Yet, to date, no other country had replaced their lost leaders. Everyone was still reeling from the Karacknid attack. It seemed Hoffman had shown no such hesitation. “My predecessor was a fan of the Council, but the Council led us to this disaster. Our defeat at the hands of the Karacknids has demonstrated the folly of trying to determine military policy by committee. We should appoint one Admiral to command Home Fleet and give them the authority to coordinate our rescue efforts. That way we will not waste time squabbling over minor issues.”

“Who would you have assume this role?” Bernard asked as his voice rose. “President Koroylov’s position was meant to be temporary. Are you proposing we give the Russian president more authority? Need I remind you all that it was only seven years ago that he was trying to invade this system?”

Koroylov raised his hands. “Let me assure all of you that I desire no such position. I am responsible for my own people. If I can serve our species as a military commander, I will, but I have no desire to have any political control over your nations. That is not a position for me to hold. I understand how many of you view my nation. In part that is why I gathered you all here. I would very much like it if we could come to an agreement on someone to replace me at the helm of Home Fleet. The Russian Star Federation needs all my attention.”

“That is good to hear,” Bernard said as he nodded in approval. “But still, I do not like the idea of anyone holding such power.”

“I’m not an expert in military matters, but the council need only hold authority over the military in name,” Christine suggested. “Then the Admiral appointed by the council would carry the council’s authority but be able to act as they see best. That would be a healthy compromise, no? I am happy to entrust military matters to a competent Admiral, but I too would feel uneasy with one individual holding any political authority over China. That is, beyond me of course,” she added with a smile. “I am an Empress after all.”

“So, we form a council that will take authority for guiding Earth through our current problems and appoint an Admiral to lead Home Fleet and prepare our defenses,” Koroylov summarized. “I’m sure we could put something to this effect in writing. I for one would be in favor of such a move. I am happy to step down from a position in Home Fleet and serve on such a council on behalf of the Russian Star Federation.”

James couldn’t help but smile. Koroylov was as good at the politics as Fairfax. Even if some around the table didn’t like the idea of an Emergency Council, Koroylov had just reminded them that they probably liked the idea of him staying in command of Home Fleet even less.



“If we put it in writing, there’s one more stipulation we must include,” Bernard responded. “The Emergency Council’s responsibilities should also include overseeing the restoration of our nations’ democracies. That way, as our democratic processes are returned, the Emergency Council’s authority can be phased out.”

“Yes, yes,” Fairfax said enthusiastically. “I’m sure we could put something to that effect in whatever articles we come up with as well. Something like, the Emergency Council’s authority is recognized to only be a transitionary authority until democracy has been returned to Earth’s populace.”

James held his breath. Fairfax had just laid his cards on the table if anyone was paying close enough attention. He had said democracy, not national democracies. Knowing Fairfax’s mind as he did, there was a vast difference between the two. Glancing around the room, James tried to figure out if anyone had caught it.

“That seems acceptable to me,” Senator Nicholls responded. “I’ve already sent word to the Governors of all the American colonies to begin the process of electing new senators and representatives, where needed. We should have our Congress up and running again within six months. Until then, coordinating our efforts through this Emergency Council would be beneficial. Provided the wording as to the extent of its powers was satisfactory.”

“Germany has no problem with such a council standing in for the functions the UN carried out, provided the number of Councilors is small and therefore efficient,” Chancellor Hoffman added. “And provided its members actually know what they are doing, rather than just being proficient at politicking.”

“That is something I hope we all can agree on,” James couldn’t stop himself from saying. It brought more than a couple of smiles.

“Before I agree to anything,” Bernard said, his facial expression having not changed, “I’d like to know just who we imagine would be a part of this Council?” Though it seemed like he was addressing his question to Koroylov, Bernard was staring at Fairfax. Someone is on to him at least, James thought. The question was, how much did Bernard guess? James had a fair idea of Fairfax’s intentions, but even then, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure.

“Obviously, we’d want one representative from each of the major space faring nations,” Fairfax answered when Koroylov nodded to him. “That gives us eight council members. Then, seeing as the council will be responsible for military matters as well, perhaps another four naval officers? With just twelve members, the council should be an efficient body, able to make quick decisions.”

“With you standing in to represent the British Star Kingdom I presume?” Bernard asked as his eyes narrowed.

“Not at all,” Fairfax replied as he shook his head. He then patted his legs. “I have enough problems of my own. I’m happy to assist where needed, but I was assuming you would want the position?”

James raised a hand to cover his mouth due to the sudden change in Bernard’s expression. A moment of unguarded surprise had been quickly replaced by a look of suspicion. James wanted to chuckle as he imagined the thoughts running through Bernard’s mind. Of course he wanted the position, but he had to know there was going to be a cost. Fairfax wouldn’t be suggesting it if there wasn’t. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, a voice said in the back of James’s mind. It was Suzanna’s voice. The memory robbed James of his amusement. She had been as good a political operator as Fairfax. She would have been in her element here.

“If you don’t, I am aware that there are a handful of other surviving British MPs, I’m sure we could find one who would want to take on the responsibility?” Fairfax followed up when Bernard didn’t immediately answer.

“No,” Bernard said as he shook his head. “The others have their hands full. If this is the direction we are all agreed to go in, then I will do my part.”

“Well, I am in favor of the structure Fairfax has laid out,” Christine said. “I presume you are too Koroylov?” When the Russian President nodded, she continued. “Then we already have most of the major space faring powers on board. We are off to a good start.”

“The question I have,” Soult, the French interior minister asked, “is how do you go about forming this Council? Legally I mean. We have no functioning governments to endorse such a move.”

“That is actually the simplest part,” Christine answered in a light-hearted tone. “We simply decide it here. And then we announce it. And then we start acting as if we have the authority we claim to have. People will fall in line and do what we tell them to do. Each of us here has already been recognized by our people as leaders in this current difficulty. This Emergency Council would simply be us pooling our resources.”

“And what if some don’t listen to us?” What threats do we use, force?” Bernard asked.

“Not at all, if people will not listen to us, they are free to do as they please. But, if they will not work with us, then it will be to their detriment. If we play our roles well, then those who do listen to us will be much better off, that will be incentive enough.”

“So we just declare something and we can make it so?” Soult followed up.

“I know this is strange to many of us,” Fairfax responded. “We’re used to playing by a set of fixed rules. Perhaps the military officers around us are in more familiar territory. The reality though, is that we are in the midst of a war, and Earth has been devastated. We need to act decisively and do what is required rather than stay within the borders of what was once allowed. There are no governments to make this decision. We here need to make it.”

“Very well,” Soult said. “But I do want to re-emphasize Bernard’s condition. One of the key goals of this Emergency Council must be to see democracies re-established. If that is not the case, we will be taking a very dangerous step towards a dictatorship.”

“We all agree that that is not the route any of us intend, nor wish to pursue,” Fairfax said.

“All right, it seems we have come to the beginning of an agreement,” Koroylov said. “A minor miracle if I do say so myself. Let’s work out some of the finer details of this Emergency Council and see if we are still in agreement, shall we? The sooner we get this up and running, the sooner we can better coordinate our efforts and help our people.”

*

“That went rather well,” Fairfax said after Koroylov brought the meeting to a close and everyone began to get up and leave the briefing room.

“I know what you’re doing,” James whispered. “Though I still don’t see how you think you can accomplish it.”

“Don’t you worry about that Vice Admiral, leave it up to me,” Fairfax replied as he winked at James.

“Just who do you think will be stepping into the role you have in mind?”

Fairfax shrugged. “It’s not me if that’s what you’re concerned about, nor Koroylov. I’m sure someone suitable will come along.” When he stopped speaking, he stared unblinkingly at James. Then ever so slowly, he raised his eyebrows.

James shook his head vigorously. “Don’t even think about it!” he warned.

Unperturbed, Fairfax simply smiled. “You’ve probably been too busy, but I’ve been doing a little bit of genealogical research. With Christine having renounced all claims to the British Crown, there’s a certain Duke of Beaufort who just happens to be one of the closest living heirs to the monarchy. Of course, it will take a few weeks to figure out who is directly in line, but I rather suspect your name is going to come up more than once. And who better after all? You are a national hero. All the more since your warnings about the Karacknids have proven true.”

James shook his head even more forcefully. “You’re lying, I can’t be in the line of succession. Christine is a far, far removed cousin of mine.”

“Yes, yes she is,” Fairfax agreed, “I think you’re underestimating just how many of those related to the King were killed. A number served in the Navy, and most of the rest lived somewhere in London, many of the closest were gathered to the underground bunker in Buckingham Palace during the attack. If and when the British people look to re-establish the monarchy, they may come knocking on your door. In fact, for the sake of openness, I intend to see that they do.”

James rolled his eyes. After all his years of working with Fairfax, he knew there was no point arguing. Yet he wanted to. The very idea was absurd. “I am an Admiral. A warrior. Not a king.”

“And if this were twenty years ago, I would dismiss you out of hand. Yet what kind of king do you think Britain needs right now?” Fairfax countered. Before James could reply, Fairfax raised his gaze and looked over James’ shoulder. “I will leave you two alone. I’m sure we can chat more later.”

Reluctantly, James glanced over his shoulder. Christine was approaching. “Later,” he said as he turned back to Fairfax. “We have not finished with this.”

Fairfax laughed. “I suspect you’re going to have a few more problems on your hands before you get back to me,” he said as he gave a slight nod towards Christine. “Empress,” he said a little louder when Christine approached. He took her hand and kissed it. “It is a pleasure to see you in good health. China’s people have been blessed by your efforts. Though they mourn your husband’s loss, I’m sure they are delighted that you have been here to help.”

“We haven’t had time to mourn him properly, but when we do it will be a big occasion. The funeral of the first Chinese Emperor in half a millennium will be a significant event. When we have the time and energy for it, that is,” Christine replied.

“Well, I’m sure you are not here to speak to an old fart like me, I’ll leave you two alone,” Fairfax said as he moved off in his hover chair.

Christine shook her head as he went. “I have a fair idea of what he is up to, but even so, I don’t trust him an inch.”

“I wouldn’t if I were you, he will take a mile every time,” James replied. “I wanted to say, I am impressed with what you have been doing. Your people have put my own efforts to shame.”

“Nonsense,” Christine said as she reached out and touched his elbow. “We’re all doing the best we can. Many more would be dead if it wasn’t for you. But I know it has been hard. Every time I close my eyes I see that image of London burning. As bad as it is in China, seeing my childhood home burn was worse. You had to see that every day.”

“It’s been difficult for us all. But it seems this Emergency Council idea of yours and Fairfax’s will help us all.” James said, not wanting their conversation to turn into a pity party.

Christine smiled. “And that is, in part, what I wanted to speak to you about. This Council will need a chairperson. I intend to nominate you.”

“Me?” James blurted out in shock. First Fairfax was talking about the monarchy, now Christine about chairing the Emergency Council. What is going on? he asked himself.

“Yes you,” Christine said in a hushed voice. She grabbed his elbow once again and turned him towards one of the briefing room’s corners. “You don’t need to be so loud. And think about it, you are the perfect choice. You can be one of the military appointees to the Council and then you can become the chairman. The Council will need a strong hand in charge, one that is not politically motivated. If we appoint Bernard, or Koroylov, or even me, we will have the political pressure from our own countries influencing us. You can be a neutral party, one whose focus is solely on the Karacknids.”

James shook his head again. “I am an Admiral. My skills are needed in the field. If we are going to fight back against the Karacknids, I need to be on the front lines.”

“And on the front lines you will be,” Christine countered. “There’s no doubt about that. Everyone knows where we need you. But you understood Gupta’s analysis of our fleet better than I. How soon are we going to be launching serious offensive operations? How long before we are going to have multiple fleets needing competent Admirals? We have Gupta and Lightfoot and several others who can lead our forces. In the short term, I think you will better serve your people on this Emergency Council.”

“Don’t,” James said as he fixed Christine with a hard glare.

“Don’t what?” She asked sweetly.

“Don’t play me,” he replied. “I know my duty, you don’t need to use it to manipulate me.”

Christine looked away and sighed. “I wasn’t. Well, not really. I want you to be on the Council because I think we all need you. I know I do.” She looked back and held James’s gaze. “But as you can see, I am not above pulling on your heartstrings. You have a duty to all of Humanity and you know it. Perhaps more than I ever will. You have spent the last three years operating in the shadows because of that duty. It’s time for you to take the center stage and do what is needed.”

James let out a deep breath. As he did he forced his shoulders to relax, they had hunched up tighter and tighter as Christine had been talking to him. “I do not have the energy to argue,” he replied. “It has been a long day. I need to get back to Britain. What was the other thing you wish to speak about?”

Right away the look on Christine’s face changed. Her features softened and James detected a hint of color to her cheeks. “I know we’re both busy,” she said. “I was hoping that you might join me for a meal before we head back? I’m sure you haven’t been eating properly these last two weeks. I know I haven’t. A few moments of relaxation will re-energize us for everything that is awaiting us.”

James recalled the pressed rose Christine had given him the last time they had met before the Battle of Earth. Posing as a representative of the Chinese criminal underworld, she had tricked him into meeting with her. Before they parted she had given him back a rose he had once picked for her. She had looked just as emotional and vulnerable then as she did now. His mind couldn’t help going to Suzanna. He wasn’t going to betray her memory. Gently, he shook his head. “I’m tired. I wouldn’t be very good company. If you want to enjoy a good meal, it would be better without me. Perhaps another time.”

For the briefest of seconds, James saw Christine’s disappointment on her face, then the professional politician in her took it away. “Perhaps another time,” she agreed. She turned and quickly left.

“What was all that about?” Emilie asked as she approached.

James groaned, “Just two more problems to add to the list,” he complained. Somehow I’ve have got to stop Fairfax thinking about me as King, and Christine as Chairman of this Council. Shaking his head, he made his way out of the briefing room. As if he didn’t have enough problems already!




Chapter 4

Once assumed, responsibility is like an ever rising tide. It grows and grows bringing more and more weight onto the shoulders of those who hold it. When the right people begin this journey, it is for the benefit of all those around them. When the wrong people begin, the results can be devastating.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


19th September 2481 AD.

James had to grind his teeth together to stop himself from grumbling under his breath. The members of the Emergency Council were filing into one of Earth’s briefing rooms. Yesterday they had met for the first time and had unanimously voted to appoint him Chairman. Despite his protests, Christine’s logic had won out. No one wanted a political operator using the chairperson’s responsibilities for their own gain. The irony wasn’t lost on him. A month ago, he had been Earth’s most notorious outlaw. Now what was left of Earth’s political leadership thought they could trust him. Not trust, James said to himself as he watched the faces of his fellow councilors. They simply fear me the least. Or worse, they think they can manipulate me.

“All right,” he said when everyone had taken their seats. “I’ve received a number of items for today’s agenda. I’ve selected the three most pressing for us to focus upon.” Several expressions changed. Most had been politely waiting for him to start the meeting. More than one face now looked upset. That’s right, James thought. If you want to force me to be Chairman, I’m going to do it my way. He had received twenty items for the first meeting’s agenda. Half of them were all but irrelevant and the other half would likely turn the meeting into a debating chamber. The three items that he proposed to begin with had been submitted to him, though he had altered their contents somewhat overnight. Knowing he was going to have to chair the Emergency Council for the next several months had made it difficult to sleep, but at least he had used the time wisely.

The satisfaction he gained from watching several of the council members’ reaction to his words evaporated when his eyes passed over Christine. She had a small smile on her face and when their eyes met, she nodded. James quickly looked away. He wasn’t taking control to prove her right. He was doing what needed to be done. “Firstly,” he said as he dismissed Christine from his mind, “the most pressing matter is the coordination of our relief efforts and the request and transport of supplies from our colonies. With so many of our freighters destroyed in the battle with the Karacknids, our entire interstellar economy is going to take a hit. We need to prioritize getting relief to Earth. I am therefore proposing that we set up a subcommittee that will have two responsibilities. One, it will inventory what supplies each nation has and needs and begin to coordinate each of our national efforts to assist one another. Two, they will send out requests for specific aid and supplies to colonies that we know can meet our needs. The subcommittee will not have any authority in and of itself, they will simply make recommendations to us. I doubt any of us have time to get into the nitty-gritty details of the numbers, if we can appoint a subcommittee to do this and report back to us, then we can make final decisions on orders to give out in the days ahead. How does this sound?”

“That sounds like an eminently wise idea Vice Admiral,” Bernard said, immediately raising James’ suspicions. “There are many major and minor issues that we will no doubt have to confront together, forming subcommittees that can do some of the legwork and report back to us will take some of the administrative load of our shoulders. I would suggest though that with this subcommittee and any others we might form, that at least one member sit on each committee. Seeing as this is our first committee and you are the chairman, perhaps you would be best placed to take up such a role? You can show us how you intend these subcommittees to operate.”

James had to clamp his mouth shut as he glared at Bernard. He wanted to groan. The point of the subcommittee was to let him escape some of the minutia of governing. Bernard had trapped him perfectly. He could hardly refuse to sit on his own subcommittee. Even so, he opened his mouth to refuse. A sudden jolt made him stop. Glancing to his right, he saw Emilie’s foot had just kicked his chair. Turning his glare on her, he was surprised when she met his stare without flinching. Then her eyes pointed his gaze down to a note she had just written. There was just one word on it. Mentally, James shook his head. Emilie was picking up politicking faster than he. The name was one they had discussed together yesterday but quickly dismissed; they had seen no way that the Emergency Council would approve such a suggestion. Yet now, if Bernard was making such a demand, James could make his own in return. “Fine,” James said with an over exaggerated sigh. “I will be a part of the subcommittee,” he paused for effect. “But I do have one condition of my own. I would like to see McCarthy appointed to the committee as well.”

“That is preposterous,” Chancellor Hoffman balked as he lurched forward in his chair. “McCarthy is a smuggler and a thief. If we put him on the subcommittee, he’ll corrupt the entire process.” Hoffman eyed James warily. “Perhaps it was a mistake making you Chairman. You have spent too much time out on the fringes of society.”

“I believe I said as much myself yesterday,” James countered. “But I do not make this suggestion lightly. McCarthy knows more about how our interstellar economy works than any of us. And he has no ties to any of the large corporations. Even better, he has lost almost all of his ships in the battle for Earth. He and his crew voluntarily fought alongside us. Whatever his past actions, that alone is testament to his trustworthiness. I recall he once told me that he cares as much about the economy of our colonies as any national leader. After all, how can he make a profit if there is no interstellar trade to undercut? If we’re going to see our economies jumpstarted after everything we’ve lost, we’re going to need someone who understands our interstellar trade, and someone with the contacts to encourage some of those more on the fringe of our society to aid us. Our major corporations have taken massive hits to their freighter fleet. I’m willing to bet there are a handful of smuggling operations out there who have their shipping fleets completely intact. McCarthy will be able to negotiate with them.”

“You make a strong case Vice Admiral,” Christine responded. “But you’re proposing a bold move. Especially as this is our first act as a Council. McCarthy is a known criminal throughout Earth. This will not play well on the holo-news reports.”

“That means nothing to me,” James replied as he turned to Christine. “If I’m to be on this committee, then I insist McCarthy be a part of it as well.”

Christine stared at him for several seconds then nodded slowly. “If your presence on the subcommittee is conditional upon it, then I will support it.”

“As will I,” Koroylov added. Around the table most of the Councilors agreed until just Bernard and Hoffman hadn’t spoken.

“Well?” James prompted as he stared at Bernard.

“On one condition,” Bernard said. “I want it made very clear in the minutes of this meeting that you proposed the name. If this backfires, I don’t want there to be any doubt as to where the blame lies.”

“Find by me,” James said. In the back of his mind he could hear Suzanna’s voice of warning. He was letting Bernard dig him a grave. I don’t have time for such concerns, he said to himself.

“Very well,” Bernard said. “I am in agreement.”

“As am I,” Hoffmann added. “Given Bernard’s amendment.”

“Very good,” James replied. “Then we can vote by a show of hands.” Moments later, James banged the wooden gravel Fairfax had found for him. It signified the vote had passed. “Now, let’s determine who else we should add to this subcommittee and then we can issue orders for it to be formed later today. The sooner they can get to work the better.”

Thirty minutes later and James brought his gravel down after passing the vote on who would form the subcommittee alongside McCarthy and himself. “That was swiftly accomplished,” he couldn’t help himself from saying. He was impressed with how easily the group were working together, despite the reservations some had had with his suggestion of McCarthy. “Now, we can move on to the second item we need to discuss today. Our military situation.”

“Do you have a proposal to bring?” Admiral Allende asked.

“I have two,” James said to the Mexican Admiral who commanded Earth’s orbital defenses. Miraculously, his command battlestation had survived when so many others had been destroyed.

“First, I believe we need to appoint a new commander of Home Fleet,” James said as he nodded to Koroylov. “We have discussed this previously, and now would be the appropriate time. Koroylov has enough on his plate as the president of the Russian Star Federation. We will all be forever in his debt for how he defended Earth, but from what he’s already said to us, he would be happy if we appointed someone else to the position now that the Karacknid threat has diminished. We should decide this today, though I do not intend to make a specific suggestion.” In reality he did, but even he knew he couldn’t push on this topic.

“Before we decide on the appointment, I would suggest that whoever commands Home Fleet is given an honorary position on this Council. They would not have voting rights, but they should be allowed to attend our meetings and contribute with their opinions,” Allende suggested.

“That seems perfectly appropriate,” Senator Nicholls responded.

“Indeed,” James agreed. “Are there any who would protest such a decision?” When no one spoke James continued, “Then the question is, who do we appoint? What suggestions do you have?”

“Whoever it is,” Christine said, “it must be someone with real combat experience. Too many of our UN commanders have had little to no battle experience. In the end, Koroylov had to be appointed at the last minute to face the Karacknids because the Interplanetary Committee realized they had no one else. We cannot repeat such a mistake.”

“I heartily agree,” Chancellor Hoffman responded.

“In that case, our options are limited,” Senator Nicholls said. “May I suggest Rear Admiral Anderson. He is one of the most senior surviving American admirals who has seen combat. As a Captain he fought the Flex-aor at the battle of Connecticut, and he now commands fourth battlecruiser squadron in Home Fleet, or at least what is left of it.”

“Anderson is a good option,” Koroylov said as he rested his arms on the table they were all sat around. “However, I think our first choice is obvious. I have been able to watch her in action these last two weeks and I would give her my full support to replace me. Rear Admiral Gupta has a distinguished career, almost as distinguished as our own Chairman. She fought the Karacknids at Jaranna, and now here defending Earth as well. She spent the last three years preparing for their arrival. With the exception of Vice Admiral Somerville, no one else is better prepared to face them.”

“Gupta has my backing as well,” Christine said. “She is a fine commander.”

“But will the fleet follow a mutineer?” Bernard asked. “Let’s not forget that that is what she is. You’ve all seen the holo-news reports, Admiral Somerville’s appointment as Chairman of this Council has already caused quite a few waves. If we appoint Gupta as commander of Home Fleet, it will look like we are letting the mutineers take over everything.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Hoffman snapped as he waved a hand at Bernard. “They both were warning us when we would not listen. Eighty nuclear warheads would suggest they should be the ones in charge.”

James had to blink a couple of times to take in what he had just heard. Hoffman was from a German political party that had supported the UN’s arms restrictions. Has he had a change of heart? James mused. In his mind he slotted Hoffman into a new category. If the German Chancellor really was prepared for change, then the balance of the Emergency Council was slightly different than he had been expecting.

“Militarily it may be the best thing,” Bernard conceded. “I’m simply pointing out we need to weigh the political ramifications as well.”

James couldn’t help himself. He slapped his hand down firmly onto the desk. “And that has decided the issue for me,” he said as he held Bernard’s gaze. “We are here because too many of your kind heeded the political ramifications rather than the military ones. I know Gupta better than all of you. She would be a fine commander of Home Fleet. I propose we appoint her to take up the command.” After he finished speaking, James continued to hold Bernard’s stare, daring the British politician to say something more. When Bernard didn’t speak, he sat back slightly. “Does anyone else have an opinion on the matter that we should weigh up?” Though he hadn’t intended to be so forceful, now that Gupta’s name was in the mix, he intended to see her get the appointment.

“Rear Admiral Gupta’s reputation as an opponent of my nation and as a UN officer precedes her,” Minister Rajesh of India said. “Given her experience, I do not see how we could oppose such a suggestion.”

For another ten minutes James allowed the debate to go back and forth. It quickly became apparent that apart from her association with him as a mutineer, no one had anything against her appointment. And my proposing her hasn’t hurt her either thankfully, James thought after he calmed down. He hadn’t intended to bring the proposal himself, with Gupta being his closest friend, but Bernard had made him lose control. As a result, he breathed a sigh of relief when the proposal was passed and Gupta was appointed.

“Now, onto the next military matter. Yesterday I asked Koroylov to forward to all of you the reports we have received of Karacknid warships raiding our colonies. Their main fleet seems to have fallen back to lick its wounds, at least as far as Holstein. Hopefully further. They can’t have built up too much in the way of repair facilities there yet. But it appears that what ships they have left behind in the systems they conquered have orders to continue offensive operations. We also have another problem; the morale of our fleet has been torn to shreds. Everyone who survived the battle with the Karacknids feels responsible for what happened to Earth. Every day is a reminder of our failure. It will take us months to rebuild our fleets, but we need to rebuild morale right now. We need to put together a squadron to confront the ships the Karacknids have raiding our colonies and win some victories. For our fleet’s morale, and for the morale of all our people. We have taken a beating over the last several months. It’s time we started to fight back.”

“Fight back?” Christine balked. “With what? We have almost no ships and no resources. We are still reeling from what they have done to Earth. How can we divert resources that our refugees need elsewhere?”

“Because we are at war,” James replied. “That’s why we are here isn’t it?” he softened his tone when Christine’s face tightened. “I know you know it is. But we cannot forget this, even with everything that is happening on Earth. If we do not respond correctly; we will simply be opening the door to another attack.”

“The Admiral is right,” Koroylov said as he raised a hand towards Christine, stopping whatever reply she was forming. “We need to give the appearance that we are not defeated. Both to our enemies, and to ourselves. Still, I’m not sure what you have in mind? Our resources are spread impossibly thin already.”

“They are,” James agreed. “But we will have to spread them further still. I believe we need to dispatch a squadron to contest the raids the Karacknids are carrying out. With the right commander, we may be able to win some small victories and limit the damage the Karacknids are doing.”

“What about Earth’s defenses?” Senator Nicholls asked. “You would have to send our best ships to face the Karacknids or they would be obliterated. What does that leave us with here?”

“Very little,” James answered honestly. “But I have an idea for that too. Really, it’s an extension of Koroylov’s idea. We know where the Karacknids’ home systems are. It’s extremely unlikely that they would seek to attack us along any other vector than from the German colonies. All the orbital defenses we have in the British, Russian, Canadian and Indian colonies are useless to us where they are. We could have them all towed here. That would boost our defenses significantly.

“That would be a big ask,” Soult replied. “It’s one thing for us to take authority to manage our refugees, but sending orders requiring all orbital defenses be brought to Earth, I suspect more than a handful of colonies will not like that idea.”

“We just have to remind them what will happen if Earth is attacked again and falls,” Christine insisted. When James looked at her she gave him a slight nod. “It’s a good idea. I’m not sure about sending warships that we desperately need away, but this would offset their loss and then some.”

“There is another benefit,” Koroylov added. “One I do not particularly like mentioning, but it must be considered nonetheless. Even if these ships we send out are attacked and destroyed by the Karacknids, the very fact that we were willing to send ships against them should suggest that we are not yet a beaten force. The act of dispatching such a squadron may delay any follow up attack the Karacknids are planning.”

“So this force is essentially expendable?” Rajesh suggested.

Koroylov nodded. “Like I said, it’s not our first consideration, but it is a reality. In war, ships and men often have to be weighed against tactical and strategic advantages. Showing the Karacknids that we are still ready and willing to fight may buy us the time and space we need to replace the number of ships we might lose in this endeavor.”

“Yes,” James said. “Koroylov is right. Though that is not my goal. Losing whatever forces we send out to the German colonies would further hurt our fleet’s morale. If it comes to it, losing the ships may be to our advantage. But we will be planning to succeed, not fail.”

“Who do we send on this mission?” Soult asked.

“I suspect Admiral Somerville already has a name in mind,” Koroylov responded as he nodded towards James.

“I do,” James replied. “Admiral Lightfoot fought a spectacular delaying campaign against the Karacknid invasion fleet through the German colonies. And he did so with warships that have none of the technological upgrades that we now have available. If he is given command of what remains of the Outer Defense fleet and the Havenite and Vestarian forces, he would have a small but powerful squadron that would be much more of an even match for a Karacknid squadron than anything else we have.”

“We would be sending our best ships,” Rajesh said. “That does not sit easily with me.”

“Lightfoot is a very competent commander,” Rear Admiral Nogamoro said. “His retreat from the Karacknid invasion force demonstrates that he understands discretion. I’m confident that if he found himself in a situation where it was necessary, he would fall back to Earth to bolster our defenses. He is not a Lam.”

Nogamoro’s words brought several nods and then a moment of silence from the gathered leaders. James understood, he had only learnt of Lam’s defeat in the Holstein system after the Battle of Earth. More than once he had wondered what several hundred extra warships would have achieved in the Battle of Earth. At the very least, they may have prevented a few extra nuclear missiles striking the planet’s surface.

“So,” James said to break the silence. “What are our thoughts on this? We don’t have to make a final decision right now, but if we accept the proposal, our new commander of Home Fleet and our staff officers can draw a more concrete mission plan. Then we can examine its feasibility in the next couple of days.”

“That is acceptable to me,” Christine said. She was quickly followed by all the other members.

James nodded as the final one gave his assent. “Thank you,” he said genuinely. “I will liaise with Rear Admiral Gupta and we will put together a mission brief and force composition for our final approval.”

“So Vice Admiral, we have dealt with your first two issues, what is the last one you have for us to address today?” Bernard asked, his tone made it clear he was not enjoying having the topics he could discuss being dictated to him.

James shot him a pleasant smile. “This one may be of particular interest to you. Along with a subcommittee to aid us in our relief efforts, I believe we should appoint a subcommittee to assess how best we can restore democracy to Earth and prepare our differing nations for what lies ahead. The UN system has failed us, that is evident to all. Nevertheless, if we are to survive the coming war with the Karacknids, our species will need to learn to work together as one in a way that we have never done before. I believe we should appoint a subcommittee to explore how best this might be accomplished. I imagined you might want to be a part of this Bernard?”

The look on Bernard’s face made James glance at Koroylov and wink. For the first time in the last several days, it looked like he had caught the British MP by surprise. “Well?” James prompted.

“I… ah, yes of course. I see it as one of our most important duties. I presume I would head up the subcommittee?”

James smiled again. “Actually, I have someone else in mind to chair the committee. Like the interstellar trade subcommittee you suggested that I be a part of, I think our duties on this Council would mean we are not best suited to chair other subcommittees. Unless you insist on chairing the subcommittee and everyone here agrees to it, I had thought Fairfax would be a good chairperson. He knows the political systems of our various nation-states intimately and he has a vast experience of working within the UN. Plus, he has assured me he has no intention of seeking re-election to any kind of office. So he has no personal political ambitions to attempt to further. What do you think Bernard? I would be happy to make you chairperson if you are not intending to seek re-election?”

This time, James couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows as he stared directly at Bernard. He meant what he said, if Bernard would publicly renounce his political ambitions, he would happily let him chair the subcommittee. But, if not, there was no way he would let Bernard get such power.

Bernard glared at James. Then he glanced around at the other faces of the council. It was clear he was weighing up his response. James took a moment to take in the looks that were being sent Bernard’s way. More than one of them held a degree of suspicion. Mentally James nodded. That’s right, he thought to Bernard. You don’t have many friends here. At least not yet. He suspected that given time, Bernard would seek to exert influence over every council member he could. That was how politicians worked.

“All right,” Bernard said when he turned back to James. “I’ll sit on this subcommittee, but if Fairfax does not behave, I intend to make my concerns known.”

Despite his sense of victory, James kept his face impassive. “I’d have it no other way, I need you to keep an eye on him.” Just as I intend to use him to keep an eye on you, James thought. Hopefully neither of you will be bothering me. When he had come up with the idea, he had thought it ingenious. By forming a subcommittee he could push Fairfax and Bernard off into a corner and let them fight things out without dragging him into it. One less headache to worry about, he thought with approval as the other council members weighed in on the idea.




Chapter 5

In the first century of the Empire refugees were all but unknown. With so many worlds and so much opportunity, people were flooding to the new colonies. That changed with the outbreak of the First Antarian War. People in their millions fled the outer reaches back towards the core worlds. The subsequent wars and border skirmishes that have been a constant reality for us ever since ensures there are always refugees fleeing one sector of the Empire or another. Despite the Imperial Fleet’s best efforts, sadly we cannot be everywhere at once.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


An hour later James gathered his things after bringing the meeting to an end. Though he was done with everything he had to do on UNS Earth, he knew he was needed back in the refugee camp. Trying to juggle two jobs was already proving all but impossible. He had handed over more responsibility to Hargreaves, but the junior MP had already been feeling overwhelmed. With a sigh, he shuffled his datapad and files into one pile and handed them to Emilie. “What’s next on our list for today?”

“May I have a word?” another voice replied.

James looked up to see Christine approaching. He opened his mouth to protest. He didn’t want to have to rebuff her invitation for a meal together a second time, but he really didn’t have time. The look on her face stopped him short. It was the same look his mother had had when she had been about to scold him, and the same Suzanna had used on him more than once. “Okay, I guess,” he replied instead and nodded for Emilie to head out.

“How do you think today went?” Christine asked as she took a seat beside him. She glanced around to make sure the rest of the council members had left.

James knew what he wanted to say. As far as he could see, the meeting had been a great success. He had basically gotten everything he wanted. The thought hadn’t occurred to him yet, but as he considered Christine’s question, he supposed that maybe he was better at being the Chairman than he had anticipated. Of course, given that Christine was asking him that very question, he suspected he was about to learn otherwise. “It went relatively smoothly,” he decided to answer.

“Smoothly,” Christine repeated. “Is that how you would put it?”

James sighed. “I thought I just did. Why don’t you come to your point?”

“No, no, you’re right. It did go smoothly,” Christine said as she rolled her eyes. “Don’t you think that is a problem?”

James couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s not the first word I’d use to describe it.”

Christine brought a hand up and rubbed her temples. “Fairfax told me you don’t like this sort of thing. But I didn’t think you would be this naïve. You have plenty of experience with politics. Have you ever known so many divergent personalities to be so amenable?”

“These are difficult times,” James said as he opened his hands. “We all need to pull together in one direction. We who have survived the last month are not the same as those who came before us. At least, most of us are not,” James added as he thought of Bernard.

“And you still can’t see the problem?” Christine pushed. James shrugged. “Let me put it like this, is everyone pulling together in one direction, or in your direction?”

James stared at Christine for several seconds. He wasn’t stupid enough to miss what she was getting at. “You think I’m abusing my position, in the very first meeting we’ve had?”

“Well, let me see,” Christine replied as she began to raise her fingers. “One, you rejected almost all the items each of the council members suggested be on the agenda. Two, you only proposed items that you wanted, and three, you are seeing your close friends and confidants assigned to key positions, Gupta commanding Home Fleet, Lightfoot commanding this squadron heading into German colonial space, Fairfax to the democratic subcommittee and McCarthy to this economic subcommittee.

“Fear and guilt may be causing many of the council members to agree with you without too much thought now, but if you keep going like this, in a couple of months’ time, when everyone starts to really question what is going on, your chairmanship is going to look like a dictatorship. I doubt you’ll find many people on your side then.”

“A dictatorship!” James said as he shook his head. “That’s preposterous. I have no interest in such a thing.”

Christine held her hands up. “What difference do your interests make? That’s irrelevant. The public perception is what counts. If the councilors come to think you have been manipulating them to get your own way every time, and they start to put that out into the public, you will lose any authority and goodwill you have. The whole point of being Chairman is that you facilitate the discussions and decisions, not anticipate and determine them.”

“What are you saying?” James asked. “I should just stand down already? You put me in this position! Someone needs to do this job. And it needs to be done right.”

“Exactly,” Christine said as she pointed a finger at him. “It has to be done right. You need to find a way to make decisions and plans where every council member will feel like they have been involved in the process.”

“Didn’t we just do that?”

Christine laughed. “No, I wouldn’t say that we did. We made the right decisions yes, I’ll grant you that, but not in a way that everyone will feel satisfied about by this time tomorrow.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Figure out a way to get everyone involved. For a start, you can’t just go around dismissing agenda items.”

James shrugged. “There’s no way we’re going to go through twenty items every meeting.”

“So figure out some way to sift through them. Perhaps only accept items proposed by two councilors or make it three if you want. I don’t care. You just need to make sure there are checks and balances on your authority. For if you don’t do it, someone else will. And I don’t want to see them taking your place.”

Finally James understood Christine’s concern. It wasn’t hard to guess who she meant by them. Bernard. If Bernard saw an opportunity to replace him as chairperson, he would. And if I give him that opportunity, it will be my fault. “Fine,” he acquiesced. “I’ll give it some thought. Perhaps I can send you some ideas for you to look over?”

Christine smiled, one of the genuine smiles she reserved for her closest friends. James remembered it well. “Now you’re starting to talk sense Admiral. Send me what you come up with and I’ll send you some other ideas for you to consider as well.”

James rolled his eyes. “How is it that you aren’t going to be the one accused of trying to be a dictator?”

Christine’s smiled widened. “You seem to be forgetting, I am an Empress. That’s just one step below dictator anyway, everyone expects me to exert a little control over upstart Chairmen.”

James rolled his eyes again. Standing, Christine winked and reached over to pat him on the shoulder. “I’ll take my leave. You have much to think about.” Without waiting for a response, she nodded to him then turned and walked out of the briefing room.

As soon as she was gone, Emilie stepped in. “What was all that about?” she asked. “Did she invite you out on another date?”

James narrowed his eyes at Emilie. He then raised a hand like he was going to punch her shoulder. He had made the mistake of telling her about Christine’s offer. Since then his niece had been gently teasing him about the Chinese Empress. “Let’s just get back to the refugee camp, we have a lot to do,” he said.

*

UNS Earth, 23rd September 2481 AD.

“Admiral,” James said as he stood and saluted Gupta as she walked into the small briefing room he had been assigned on UNS Earth.

“Sit down,” Gupta said with a wave of her hand. “I’ll not have you saluting me. At least, not every time we meet. Once a day is good enough,” she added with a wink.

James saluted again, “Aye, Aye Admiral, once-a-day it is.” He smiled at Gupta and gestured her towards a seat. “The others should be here momentarily.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing them, I have hardly had a chance to speak to them in nearly a week,” Gupta said. “After serving under Koroylov and trying to put the fleet back together, I didn’t think life could have gotten any more hectic. I was wrong.” Then she paused and shot James a knowing look. “Have you spoken to Lightfoot since the battle?”

James shook his head. “No, though I haven’t been avoiding him. Our paths just haven’t crossed.”

“Perhaps Jil’lal and I should give you two a moment or two alone before we begin?” Gupta suggested.

“There’s no need,” James said as he shook his head. “We’ll be fine. Now, tell me, how are you settling in? It’s quite the promotion.”

Gupta chuckled and nodded to James as she spoke. “I could say the same about you. It seems like we’ve both gone up in the world. Though I know which position I’d prefer. I have already had my fill of administrative work. I don’t envy you in the slightest.”

“And yet we both know you are the better at it than I. Perhaps I should have put your name forward to be Chairwoman,” James suggested.

“Now that would be absurd. I’m hardly known outside of British circles. You are famous everywhere, or at least infamous. I know why they chose you. And… I have been hearing some other rumors lately. What’s this about you being heir to the British throne? That would certainly make you qualified.”

James couldn’t hold back an exasperated sigh. “Not this again. Who has been saying this to you? Fairfax I’d bet?”

“No actually, it was a British Captain who I imagine would prefer to remain nameless. I don’t know where he heard it from, but it seems to be scuttlebutt now. Is it true?”

“Who knows?” James shrugged. “It’s a mess down there. There could be ten other people closer in line than me and we just haven’t found or identified them yet. It’s not like anyone has been making it a priority.”

Gupta let out a whistle. “Maybe you haven’t, but someone has. And I’d happily place a few credits on that someone being Fairfax. If it is you, what are you going to do?”

James opened his mouth to let out a snarky reply, but he stopped short. He hadn’t actually spared a moment to seriously consider the possibility before. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “In one sense, I think the whole idea is irrelevant. We cannot continue on the trajectory our various nation-states have been on for the last hundred years. Not when we face such an overwhelming threat. We need our species to pull together, not continue to fragment. The British Star Kingdom doesn’t need a new King, they need to unite with everyone else.”

“And yet, as King, you’d be in a uniquely ideal position to bring that about,” Gupta countered. “There is that to consider.”

James waved her idea away. “Don’t, I don’t want to think about it. I have enough problems on my hands already. And don’t let Bernard or anyone else hear you talking like that. He’d have a fit.”

“I know when to keep my mouth shut,” Gupta replied. “But I am curious, you’ve clearly been thinking about it. If not a King, how is order to be re-established in the British Star Kingdom and on Earth. I know you have a subcommittee looking at this, but what is their goal, surely you can’t be thinking of a return of the UN system?”

“Never,” James growled. Then paused as he thought. “Beyond that, I don’t know. We’ve talked about this many times over the last several years. I’m sure Fairfax has shared his ideas with you more than once. I don’t see how his solution could be feasible, and yet I don’t see a better option either. We just have to see what Bernard, Fairfax and the others come up with.”

“That sounds like a recipe for disaster,” Gupta said. “Sometimes those who know what needs to be done should just do it.”

James laughed. “I’ve heard the exact opposite advice within the last few days. Militarily I agree with you, but when it comes to politics, I intend to stay out of it as much as possible. Bernard, Fairfax and the others can argue about it for as long as it takes them to find some common ground.”

“And if they don’t?” Gupta pressed.

“Then we will see,” James said as he shrugged again.

Both of them turned when the access hatch to the small briefing room slid open. Emilie poked her head in, “They’re here,” she said. “Shall I show them in?”

“By all means,” James replied, standing to greet his two other guests. “Rear Admiral Lightfoot,” he said as he shook his countryman’s hand. “And High Admiral Jil’lal,” he added as the Vestarian Admiral stepped into the room behind Lightfoot. “A pleasure to see you both. Please take a seat. My time is limited, as I imagine yours is, so we should get right down to business.”

“Before we begin, I feel I owe you an apology,” Lightfoot said before he sat. “If I had listened to you back at X-32. If I had pushed for the Interplanetary Committee to take your warnings seriously, none of this might have happened. We might have had the forces in place to drive the Karacknids back from the Holstein system.”

James held up a finger to silence Lightfoot. “Let me stop you there Admiral. We were both doing our duty as we thought best. You made the right decision in the end. If you hadn’t released me when we got to Earth, my ships might not have got here in time to help Koroylov defend the planet. We’ve both made mistakes in the past. It’s time to draw a line under them and move forward. You had my respect before all this began, after what you accomplished in the retreat from Holstein, you have earned it all over again. That’s why you are here. The Emergency Council met yesterday and approved a plan Gupta and I proposed to them. You’re being given command of Task Force One. It will consist of the ships from the Outer Defense Fleet and the Havenite fleet that are battle ready. You’re going to be tasked with heading to the German colonies and hunting down any Karacknid ships that are raiding our territory. You have shown a canny ability to outsmart our new enemies, you’re going to have to do so again and again if your mission is to be a success.”

“I understand,” Lightfoot said. “I presume I’m not to engage their main fleet if I encounter it? Not that I would have any inclination to do so.”

“Exactly,” Gupta answered. “As best as you can, you’re only to engage enemy squadrons you know you can defeat. It is our desire to show the Karacknids we are far from a spent force.”

“If we can discourage them from thinking a follow up attack would meet with an easy victory, we must,” James added.

Lightfoot nodded, the look on his face suggested he could read between the lines of what Gupta and James were saying. “Good,” James said in response to Lightfoot’s gesture.

“How many ships are we talking about?” Lightfoot asked.

“Twenty-seven,” Gupta answered. “Including two battlecruisers, four heavy, three bulk cruisers, an assault cruiser and various other light cruisers and destroyers.”

“We also have the three Python destroyers that survived the Battle of Earth,” James said. “They may be small, but they are deadly.”

“I’ve read the battle reports from your ships,” Lightfoot said. “It seems all of them proved deadly, the upgrades they have are significant. Twenty-seven is a small number, but if we can catch some Karacknid ships out of position, it would be enough to do some damage.”

“Exactly,” James agreed. “I intend to send you more reinforcements as they become available. We will bring as many defense platforms into the Sol system as we can from our colonies. As soon as our defenses are in a reasonable state, I intend to push the Emergency Council to resume offensive operations. We need to play our part in this war. Both to defend ourselves, and to help the Varanni Alliance. We have had no word from them since the attack, but I imagine if the Karacknids have attacked us, they will soon be launching their offensive against the Varanni as well.”

“If it hasn’t already begun,” Gupta commented.

“If I may,” Jil’lal said. “I’d like to volunteer my fleet as well. We have the same reactor and engine upgrades that Lightfoot’s squadron will have. We’ll be able to keep up with him and bolster his squadron’s effectiveness.”

James smiled, “That is why I invited you High Admiral. I know I cannot command you, but I hoped you would come to such a conclusion.”

“My people owe you a debt James, and we know what will happen if Earth is attacked again. We would be next on the Karacknids’ hit list. Sooner or later they would come for us. My fleet has bled for your species already, we are prepared to do so again.”

James bowed his head slightly to Jil’lal, “My people owe your species a great debt as well. Many more Karacknid missiles would have struck our homeworld if your ships had not fought alongside us. I wonder though, do you intend to lead your forces yourself? The mission will be a dangerous one and it may be that the Vestarian people need their High Admiral back at home overseeing your continued military build-up?”

Jil’lal give a very human like smile. “I appreciate the sentiment James, but Vestarian Commanders always lead from the front. If my fleet is to go, I will be going as well. Besides, I have fought with Lightfoot before, he is an excellent commander, I would appreciate the opportunity to learn from him once again.”

“If you are planning to go, we would like to make you Lightfoot’s second-in-command. We would give you an honorary commission in our fleet as Rear Admiral.”

“I would be honored,” Jil’lal replied.

“Then it is settled,” James said, “we will draft orders for both of you immediately. Your ships are to depart as soon as they are able.

*

“I have just shown Jil’lal to the hangar bay. Is there anything else uncle?” Emilie asked when she stepped back into James’s briefing room.

“Indeed,” James replied. “I’ve got something for you to read.” He tossed a datapad to his niece.

“What is it?” Emilie asked as she touched the datapad to view its contents. When it wouldn’t open, she realized the datapad needed her thumb print to unlock it.

“I’ll summarize it for now, you’re going to want to take it back to your quarters and go through it there. Though you won’t have much time, you need to get packing.”

Emilie’s eyes shot up. “Packing? You’re sending me away? What have I done?”

James chuckled at her look of concern. “It’s not a punishment. You’re being promoted Commander.” Gently, James slid two rank insignia across his desk towards Emilie.

Wonder filled Emilie’s face. “Commander… I don’t know what to say. Wait,” she said as her voice suddenly rose, “am I getting another ship?”

“You are,” James said with a nod. “Though it may not be the type of command you’re expecting.” Tapping the small holo projector on his desk, James brought up an image of the Gift. “Do you remember when we were last on Earth before the Karacknids attack? When Dustin brought us here on Janice?”

“Of course,” Emilie said.

“Well, it was all over the holo-news at the time, another wormhole had been discovered.”

“Yes,” Emilie said as she looked more closely at the image of the Gift. “There was a lot of speculation about whether the UN had sent a manned ship through or not.”

“Well, I found out that they haven’t yet,” James said. “Admiral Allende received a briefing on it months ago but had forgotten all about it. Several probes were sent through, but no manned mission had been dispatched. Plans were in the works, however, the Karacknid invasion of the Holstein system put them on hold.”

“You’re thinking of sending me on this mission?” Emilie said as her jaw tightened. “If I’m to get a new ship, I want to join the fleet. The Gift is on the opposite end of where the fighting is going to be. You can’t send me away.”

Reaching forward, James tapped the holo- display again. The image of the Gift was replaced by a star map that included Earth, Human territory and then further out, the suspected size of the Karacknid empire. It dwarfed human space by factor of around two hundred. “Here’s the Gift,” James said as a system began to flash red. “And here is where the probes appeared after traversing the new wormhole.” Another system began to blink red, it was more than two thousand light years from the Gift.

“You mean…” Emilie said.

“Yes, it comes out just eighty light years from the Karacknid Empire’s territory. At least, where we estimate it to be. The Karacknids could have already brought that area of space under their control, or they could be hundreds of light years from reaching that point. We need to know which of these it is. Either the Karacknids know about their end of the Gift, and it may give them a second avenue of invasion into our territory. One we need to fortify immediately. Or, they know nothing about it, and it will give us an opportunity to launch our own attack. This is no secondary mission, but one of the utmost importance.”

“And, if their borders haven’t extended to the system, there may be other alien species nearby, species that know and even fear the Karacknids. Heck, they may be at war with them as well,” Emilie suggested.

James nodded. “That is why I want you for this mission. You have served under me for nearly eight years. You know my mind. You may head out there and find nothing, but if you find something, you’ll be representing our entire species. That is why I’ve chosen you. I trust you.”

“I don’t know what to say Admiral,” Emilie replied slowly, she was still staring at the holo-map. “It is a lot of responsibility.” She looked at James. “What will people say? You giving such a command to your niece?”

James rolled his eyes. “Just another reason why I am giving it to you. You seem to have picked up Suzanna’s savvy for politics far better than I ever did. But in this case, you can relax. The fleet is desperate for experienced Captains. No one will raise an eyebrow at someone with your limited experience being given command of a medium cruiser. Especially one that will not be going to the front lines.”

“A... medium cruiser?” Emilie stuttered as she struggled to swallow the lump that had appeared in her throat.

“Oh yes, I almost forgot,” James said as he winked at Emilie. He flicked the image on the holo-projector again. “Meet Intrepid. Her designs are based on the standard UN Dauntless class medium cruiser. Though she’s been built from the keel up specifically as an exploration cruiser. Her weapons and defenses are the equivalent of a standard light cruiser. The extra space has been devoted to a more advanced sensor suite and increased fuel and cargo capacity. She is equipped with a series of autonomous shift space drones that can be launched and sent back through the gift. They’re state of the art. We are actually hoping to begin using them to communicate with all our colonies. Though you will get to bring some of the first ones out of the factory with you. Additionally, she’s equipped to carry two spitfire fighters. They must dock externally and they have no launch tubes, but they should come in very useful for carrying out covert system surveys. Intrepid is stealthy in her own right, but the Spitfires can go places even Intrepid might not be able to.”

“She is beautiful,” Emilie said, transfixed by the holo image.

James smiled. “She’s currently being completed at the Britannia shipyards. On your datapad you’ll find orders for you to proceed to Britannia and take command of her forthwith. You’ll then proceed to the Maximillian system. I’ll be dispatching a corvette there today with orders to prepare for your arrival. I’ve no intention of sending you into Karacknid space in a ship filled with old tech. Intrepid’s engines, reactors and defensive weapons will be stripped out and replaced by the latest designs Scott and Qui-le have come up with. Then you will head back to the Gift and begin your mission. It’s all in your data file but let me make it clear, nonetheless. If you find the Karacknids, you are not to engage them. Your mission is a reconnaissance mission, nothing more.”

“I understand uncle,” Emilie said with a nod. “I’ll sneak around, see what I can find and report back.”

“And keep yourself out of trouble,” James added.

“Right,” Emilie said as she stood. “Of course. I suppose I better get going. I need to read this, pack and do a hundred other things. I’ll have to hand over my responsibilities here to someone else. Do you have someone in mind? I should brief them and get them up to speed.”

“Aye, you will, though I suspect it won’t take long. Andréa Clement has just arrived in system with a relief convoy she put together. She’s already accepted the role as my Chief of Staff.” Emilie’s face whitened. “What is it?” James asked.

“Andréa?” Emilie repeated then shook her head vigorously. “No, there is no problem. She will be excellent. I was just thinking of what she will make of my efforts. She’ll probably be tearing her hair out just trying to make sense of my record keeping.”

James smiled. “Don’t forget she was the one who chose you for the Somerville Foundation scholarship, she saw something in you. I’m sure she won’t be too disappointed. You’ve come a long way since those days. She will help. Commander Scott has been released from Earth’s sickbay. I’ve asked her to help out as well. I intend to make her head of our efforts to redesign and rebuild the fleet, but we’re still only making baby steps in that direction, so she will have some free time. Between the both of them I’m sure they’ll be up to filling in your shoes.”

Emilie beamed at the news, too excited to respond to James’ joke. “I’m going to go find her right away. I’ve been dying to visit her, but I haven’t had the time.”

“I’m sure she understands,” James replied. “Here,” he said as he threw another datapad towards Emilie. “You’re going to need this as well. Intrepid only has a skeleton crew. You’ll need to pick your own. That’s a list of crewmen who do not currently have ships, you may gather as much of a crew as you can from them and bring them with you. Otherwise you’ll have to beg the system Admiral in Britannia for the people you need.”

“More work,” Emilie said as she slotted the datapad under the first.

“But good work,” James responded.

“Aye,” Emilie replied with a smile.

“Commander,” James called as Emilie turned away. “Good luck.”

“Thank you uncle, I won’t let you down,” Emilie responded. Then she spun and quickly headed out of the briefing room. James chuckled, he remembered feeling exactly the same about his first command. It was nice to bring someone such joy in the midst of all his other duties. I just hope I’m not sending her to her death.




Chapter 6

To this day the Karacknids are still considered one of our most fearsome enemies. Their attack on Earth has left a specter in our psyche. Now, nearly six hundred years later we still watch over their colonies with a rigor. For we all know the threat still remains. They were defeated yes, but our ancient enemies are far from de-clawed.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Marauder, Jaranna

Over Admiral Hurlang paced back and forth in front of the massive holo-display of the borders of the Karacknid empire. Four years ago the entire section of space that was being projected hadn't been a part of the Imperium. Thanks to his efforts, the Mindus had been conquered and its systems and those surrounding it incorporated into the Imperator’s territory. He had personally overseen one of the largest expansions his species had ever achieved. Despite that, what he was now looking at dwarfed those accomplishments. Extending out from what had been the Mindus territory, he had brought a large swath of empty systems formally under Karacknid control. The edges of the new territory were defined by eight frontier worlds which were heavily fortified and protected by large fleets. The frontier worlds carefully mapped out the border with the systems owned by the Varanni Alliance.

Already several skirmishes had broken out between both forces. They managed to get in the first blows, Hurlang begrudgingly admitted. The handful of enemy squadrons that had snuck past his frontier worlds and ambushed several supply convoys had been nothing more than a passing bellyache. Yet they had angered him. He was the one who had come to conquer them. Their audacity in attacking the Karacknid Imperium would come back to haunt them. But now the real fighting will begin, Hurlang thought. It is time, he decided. All his forces were in place. His diversionary attacks could begin as soon as he gave the order. In his mind he allowed his plan to play out again. Along the border worlds, four fleets would launch probing attacks. Each fleet numbered at least three thousand warships. In and of themselves, they were powerful enough to be a real threat. And their time will come, Hurlang knew. But just not yet. Now it is our time, he thought as he glanced at the secondary holo-display in his flagship’s briefing room. It showed the fleet still stationed in the Jaranna system. Four thousand of the best Karacknid warships were ready to depart. The final squadrons had arrived just two days ago. Hurlang intended to take them to the first fleet that was to launch a probing attack. After it had fallen back and the other probing attacks had been launched, he would combine the two forces and commence the real thrust into Alliance space. It will be a thrust from which they will not recover, Hurlang promised. I will not make Shurlang’s mistake.

He had sent the Under Admiral back to the capital to face the consequences of his failures a month ago. Though he had respected Shurlang, they had become competitors and rivals. Shurlang’s failure to conquer the Human homeworld had put an end to that. The Imperator might be lenient, but Hurlang doubted it. In any case, he is of no more concern to me.

“It is time,” he said to the subordinates he had gathered. “The orders for our forward fleets are to be dispatched today. Operation Counter Claw will begin. Prepare to move our fleet out of orbit. I wish to be underway within the hour.”

“Understood Over Admiral, I will see to it right away,” an aide responded.

“Send orders to Lower Admiral Kiskheck at Holstein,” Hurlang added. “He is to continue his raids against the unconquered Human colonies. I want every colony the Humans have fully surveyed. Somehow they managed to gather enough forces to force Shurlang to retreat. He may have devastated their homeworld, but we do not yet know their full strength. Kiskheck is to keep the pressure on the Humans and, if he can, finish what Shurlang started.” Emitting a low growl, Hurlang glanced at the area of the holo-map that included the Human territory. Human space lay almost directly between Jaranna and the line of border worlds that faced Varanni Alliance territory. Strategically, the Humans had the potential to be a thorn in his side. Curse you Shurlang, he thought, not for the first time. If he had the forces, or the time, he would have sent a follow-up attack to make sure the Humans were fully subdued. He had neither though, reports from the front suggested the Varanni Alliance civilizations were quickly increasing their fleet numbers. They had to be engaged now, while he still had the numerical advantage. But if they do become a threat, he said to himself, they will be crushed. If he had to, he would divert one of the reinforcement fleets he was expecting to Human territory to make sure they were no longer a concern.

*

Varanni warship Autonomy, Sol system, 30th September, 2481 AD.

“Something is not right,” Autonomy’s captain said moments after the Varanni heavy cruiser jumped out of shift space. “There are hardly any orbital stations around their homeworld.”

“Look at the intersystem traffic, it’s almost non-existent,” another officer added.

“They have been attacked,” Commodore Flew concluded. “The Karacknids did get this far.” It had been her fear from the moment her ships had entered the Holstein system and detected Karacknid warships in orbit around the planet. Since then, she had stealthily made her way through Human space towards their homeworld, hoping the Humans had somehow found a way to push back the Karacknid invasion. Now that hope was gone. As she closed her eyes, Flew remembered the conversation she had had with Admiral Ya’sia. Ya’sia had said she believed the Humans would become a critical ally in the war against the Karacknids. That hope has gone as well, Flew thought as she opened her eyes and surveyed the damage. The Varanni diplomatic envoy who had visited Earth had brought back a detailed scan of the Human’s home system. What her battlecruiser’s sensors were picking up suggested at least seventy percent of the planet’s orbital stations had been destroyed. And there were hardly any warships to be seen within the system.

“We’re detecting increased levels of radiation from the planet,” Autonomy’s sensor officer reported.

Flew’s heartbeat jumped. Radiation meant one thing. “Set course for Earth. They may need our help.” Not having been present at the battle of Jaranna, she hadn’t seen in person what nuclear detonations did on a planet’s surface, but she had seen the holo-recordings. This is not going to be pleasant, she thought.

“We’re detecting a squadron of fast moving ships,” another sensor officer suddenly called. “They’re approaching us. Initial acceleration profile suggests they could be Karacknid.”

“Show me,” Flew requested. On the projection in front of her a group of fifty-seven contacts appeared. They were moving swiftly towards her ships. Though as a more concrete estimate of their acceleration rates came in, she saw that they weren’t moving quite as fast as Karacknid ships. “Hail them,” Flew ordered. “Let’s see if they answer. Prepare firing solutions all the same.” She wasn’t going to take any chances.

“They’re responding,” a COM officer reported moments later. “The ships are Human and Vestarian. Their commander is requesting to speak with you.”

“Very well, I will speak with them,” Flew replied.

“Varanni fleet commander,” a Human said when his face appeared in front of her. “It is an honor to meet you,” he continued after pausing to bow. “I am Vice Admiral Lightfoot. Welcome to the Sol system. It is good to see friends appearing amongst us. What is your purpose here?”

“It is an honor to meet you too Vice Admiral, I am Commodore Flew. My squadron was tasked with raiding Karacknid supply convoys. I couldn’t return directly to Varanni Alliance space so my orders instructed me to return via your territory. After encountering a Karacknid fleet in your Holstein system, I proceeded here to determine what has happened. Your homeworld, it has been attacked?”

Though Flew had no direct experience with Humans, the answer was obvious from the look that came over the Human’s face. “It was,” he said through clenched teeth. “A Karacknid fleet of over two thousand warships launched a surprise attack. They defeated one fleet that was sent to delay them, then rapidly advanced on Earth. We managed to drive them away at great cost, however, they released a wave of missiles at our planet as they left. Eighty-four struck the surface. Hundreds of millions of our people have been killed.”

“You have my deepest condolences,” Flew responded as she made a gesture of sympathy with her arms. “The evil of our enemy knows no bounds. How are your rescue operations going? It is my intention to proceed to your homeworld and offer our aid.”

“I’m sure it will be gladly received,” Lightfoot said. “Operations have been going on for three weeks, but there is still much to do. I’m sure with your advanced technologies, you will be of great help.”

“We will be glad to offer it,” Flew replied. “We can offer our protection as well. At least for a short period. What condition is your fleet in? How much damage did the Karacknids do?”

“A great deal of damage I’m afraid,” Lightfoot explained. “Approximately eighty percent of our fleet was destroyed or severely damaged. Of the remainder that are battle worthy, the only ships that do not need to be refitted are those among my squadron. Your protection will be as gladly received as your assistance. Knowing Varanni warships are in orbit will put more than one mind at rest on Earth.”

“May I ask, where are your ships headed?” Flew said. “There are many Karacknid warships still in your territory. Your fleet is heavily outnumbered. Surely they would be best held back to aid your defenses?”

“My squadron is heading towards the colonies the Karacknid invasion fleet has occupied. We know they still have ships operating in the area. They have been raiding several of our colonies. I’ve been tasked with putting an end to that and doing as much damage as I can. Though I am under no illusions, it will be difficult. My people’s leadership feels we need to show the Karacknids they cannot return and simply walk over us.”

Flew understood. The Humans had just received a severe beating. Their pride was hurt as well as their fleet and economy. They need to fight back. And perhaps they are right, but they’re taking a grave risk. “All right,” she said, making a decision. “I will lend you some assistance as well. I’m going to detach one of my medium cruiser divisions along with its escorts. They will bolster your numbers and give you a better chance to prevent the Karacknids from doing any more damage. I will also transfer all the sensor data we collected as we snuck through the systems the Karacknids have occupied. We came here via the Holstein system, so we have seen most of the warships they have operating in this sector.”

“Are you sure?” Lightfoot asked as he sat forward in his chair. “Your ships would certainly enhance my squadron’s firepower.”

“I am sure,” Flew replied, “the Karacknids cannot be allowed to get away with what they have done. “Though I will be giving my command express instructions. They will follow your orders, but they will not take any undue risks.”

“I’m not sure it will be possible to avoid any undue risks,” Lightfoot replied more slowly. “But I will not say no to a division of Varanni warships joining my squadron. And your intelligence will no doubt prove priceless. I am greatly in your debt Commodore.”

“The ships we observed in your territories are only a tiny fraction of those that are being amassed against my species and the rest of the Varanni Alliance,” Flew responded. “This war will likely last many years. There will be no debts between us, I’m sure your species and mine will come to repay each other many times over. If we are to win, it will be our friendship that will see us through. The Varanni Alliance will need all the help we can get.”

“As long as there is a Human colony and fleet still alive, they will get it from us,” Lightfoot promised. “My species will not rest until what has happened to our homeworld has been avenged.”

“I understand your sentiments entirely,” she replied. “I just hope they do not drive you to take too many risks.”

Lightfoot smiled. “You have no need to fear on behalf of your ships Commodore, my anger is firmly under control. Yes, it is a tool I intend to wield against the Karacknids, but not blindly.”

“That is good to hear Vice Admiral, we can speak again momentarily. With your permission, I need to make the arrangements to divert some ships to your squadron. I imagine you are eager to be on your way.”

“Indeed I am,” Lightfoot replied with a nod. “It is been a pleasure speaking with you Commodore. Hopefully, we can get to know each other more when I return.”

“Indeed,” Flew replied.

*

2nd October 2481 AD (two days later).

“That was quite the mission Commodore, I am impressed. I imagine your exploits will see you quickly rising up the ranks within your fleet,” James said when Flew finished telling the story of the raid she had carried out against Karacknid shipping. Both of their staff officers were meeting in a separate room discussing how her ships and crews could help in dealing with the aftermath of the Karacknid attack on Earth. “There cannot be many Varanni fleet commanders with as much experience as you now have,”

“I believe I will be second only to Admiral Ya’sia in terms of battle experience,” Flew replied. “At least, that would be the case if nothing has changed when I return home.”

“Yes,” James agreed as his mind went to the same place Flew’s obviously was. “If the Karacknids felt confident enough to attack us here, their attempts to push into Varanni Alliance territory may have already begun. How do you think they will fare?”

“It all comes down to numbers,” she said as she swished her tail back and forth. “The reality is, we simply don’t know. If they have us outnumbered two to one in terms of ships, with our defenses and our artificial shift passages, we should be able to use our shorter interior lines to negate their numbers. Yet if their advantage is more like three or four to one, then we will be pushed back from our fortified worlds. If the Karacknids make it to our colonies, we will be in serious trouble. We do not have the numbers to defend everywhere at once.”

“It is a common problem,” James replied. “One the different nations of my species have faced a number of times over the last century. The defender is always at a disadvantage unless there is a bottleneck to be defended. Trying to defend three or four different colonies at the same time means the invader can almost always concentrate their forces and overwhelm an opponent. I have discussed this at length with Ya’sia and the Admirals of the Varanni High Command.”

“Yes, we know the importance of our fortified border worlds. All our efforts have gone into making sure the Karacknids cannot break through them.”

“And your western flank. What about it?” James asked.

“We have several small squadrons spread out towards the galactic west,” Flew answered. “If the Karacknids try to sneak a force around our fortified worlds, we should get plenty of warning about it. Right now, my concern is more about our eastern flank.”

“Understandable,” James replied. “I’ve already sent Commodore Becket to Varanni Prime to bring word of the Karacknid attack here. If they want to push a fleet through our territory to attack your rear, we are no longer in any position to stop them.”

“All the more reason why it is fortuitous that I am here. It may be a small contribution, but if my ships can help get your people back on their feet that little bit quicker, then it will aid all of us.”

A beep from James’ COM unit interrupted his response to Flew. “Yes Lieutenant, what is it?” he asked his COM officer.

“Unidentified ships have been detected entering the system,” she said quickly. “They are moving at a rapid velocity. Far higher than Varanni or Karacknid ships are supposed to be capable of.”

James shared a glance with Flew and then replied, “Where are they coming from Lieutenant?”

“The Alpha shift passage Vice Admiral.”

“Inform Admiral Gupta that I am coming to the bridge,” James said and clicked off the COM unit. “Care to join me Commodore? I suspect a Kulrean delegation has just entered the system. That, or an even more advanced alien race has decided to invade us as well.”

“The Kulreans? It would be an honor to meet them. My species holds them in high regard. Though I thought they rarely left their home system?”

“So did I,” James replied. “It seems they are starting a new tradition.” It had only been a couple of years since he had visited Varanni Prime with Hallock, one of the Kulrean Superintendents that led their government. That in and of itself had been a momentous occasion. If one of the Kulreans had now come to Earth it would be just as significant. I hope it is them, James thought as he led Flew through Earth’s corridors. It if wasn’t, it was unlikely to be good news.

When James stepped onto Earth’s bridge he immediately sensed something unusual was happening. A Kulrean delegation had visited Earth once before and everyone knew about their existence. Even so, every officer on the bridge was staring at the holo-display in silence. When James looked up at it, he froze. He blinked several times as he took in the data that was growing beside the image. That can’t be real, he thought. “Admiral?” he asked as he sought out Gupta.

She nodded at him. “The sensors are functioning normally. We are getting the same readings from every ship in orbit.”

James turned back to watch the three approaching spheres. Though they were travelling in a straight line towards Earth and were clearly constructed from some kind of advanced material, it seemed wrong to call them ships. They were perfect spheres with no sign of anything resembling engines, sensors or weapons. That wasn’t the most disturbing feature of the objects though, their size was. The data scrolling up beside the images indicated that each sphere has a radius of a kilometer. In his head, James calculated the volume of each object. They are colossal, he decided. What was left of the entire human fleet could fit inside one of the objects several times over.

“Do we know who they are?” he asked after he realized he had been staring for nearly thirty seconds.

“We can detect no engines, but the ships are giving off distinct gravimetric waves identical to the Kulrean diplomatic ship that visited Earth fourteen years ago,” Gupta answered. “I hope they are Kulrean. If not, we are in a lot of trouble.”

“Have you seen anything like this?” James asked Flew as he turned to her.

The Varanni shook her head. “There’s nothing like this in the Varanni databases.”

“You better get the fleet ready,” James said as he looked back at Gupta.

“I already have,” she replied in a neutral tone.

“Of course,” James said as he gave her an apologetic smile. It was hard not to take the lead. She was the commander of Home Fleet though. Stepping back behind her command chair, he folded his hands behind his back and prepared to wait. For twenty minutes he engaged Flew in small talk as he stayed out of Gupta’s way.

“They have entered two-way communication range,” Earth’s COM officer reported.

“Hail them,” Gupta ordered at once.

When a familiar face appeared James couldn’t help letting out a deep breath of relief. “Admiral Gupta,” Superintendent Hallock said with a formal wave of his arm. “It is good to see you. Though I am sorry it is under such circumstances. Please, accept my deepest condolences for the losses your people have suffered. I would like to request permission to enter orbit if I may.”

Gupta looked back at James before answering. He shrugged; the decision was hers. “We welcome you to our homeworld Superintendent. Before I send you an orbital holding pattern, may I ask, what is the purpose of your ships? They are far larger than anything we have ever seen before. I must admit, they make me nervous.”

“Ah… of course,” Hallock replied. “I’m sorry, I am just so used to them now. Yes, of course, I understand. They are our new Defender class guardships. We designed and built them as a result of the time I spent at Varanni Prime with Admiral Somerville. If the Karacknids ever attempt to attack Kulrea, they will find us ready to protect ourselves.”

“Thank you for the explanation Superintendent,” Gupta responded slowly. “Though I feel I still must ask, why have you brought them here?”

“A good question Admiral. Perhaps I have not been clear enough. I understand your concern. As soon as my people heard about the atrocious attack on your homeworld, we decided to send as much aid as we could. Our Defender ships are the largest ships we have ever built and it made sense to send our aid on them. Plus, if the Karacknids tried to give us any trouble, we would be able to convince them to think again.”

Gupta smiled, “In that case Superintendent, your ships are more than welcome. We could use all the help you are able to offer. Your sensors may have already detected a Varanni squadron in orbit. They have offered their help too. My people will be in both of your species’ debt. If you would allow me to welcome you aboard my ship, Admiral Somerville and Commodore Flew are already aboard, I’m sure they would be happy to greet you.”

“As long as the rest of my people can get to work right away,” Hallock responded. “My species have been pacifists for generations. Now we are willing to defend ourselves. We will not launch aggressive actions against anyone, not even the Karacknids. But that does not mean we do not hate what they have done. We wish to do everything we can to rectify their evils. To that end, we have brought a gift for your people. We have with us most of the resources needed to construct one of our tachyon FTL communicators. It will take some time, but we hope to build you one. We hope it will help prevent your world from suffering as it has ever again.”

Gupta stared at Hallock. James would have laughed at the look on her face, except he was pretty sure he shared it. A Kulrean FTL communicator was a big deal. A very big deal! They would be able to communicate with Varanni Prime and Kulrea in a matter of a day or so, not months! It would completely change the strategic situation of the war with the Karacknids.

Gently James cleared his throat to get Gupta’s attention. When she looked at him he raised his eyebrows and nodded towards Hallock. “Yes, right,” Gupta said quickly. “I will instruct my staff to liaise with your people right away,” she promised. “We can discuss how best to use your help when you meet with James and I.”

“Thank you Admiral, I will arrange a shuttle to come to your ship now,” Hallock said and then gave a slight bow before ending the COM channel.

As soon as he was gone, Gupta turned and shared a glance with James. James knew exactly what she was thinking. The Kulrean help was a godsend in and of itself. The fact that they had brought such powerful warships, even if they called them guardships, would greatly bolster Earth’s defenses. No matter what Hallock thought, if the Karacknids attacked Earth again and Hallock’s ships were in orbit, they wouldn’t just leave them alone. Hallock’s ships would be forced to defend themselves and Earth. Already James was thinking out what that would mean. When they became available, they would be able to send more ships to Lightfoot and expand his mission. From the look on Gupta’s face, he knew she was thinking the same thing. And then there was the FTL communicator, James had only begun to think through all the implications of having one of those.




Chapter 7

Today there are over three hundred flag rank officers who have real experience commanding squadrons in battle. It was not so during the formation of the Empire. Attrition against the Karacknids was so high among our flag officers in the Battle of Earth that those who survived have become legends of the fleet. Every one of them was called upon to attempt herculean tasks as we fought back against the Karacknids. Never since has so much responsibility fallen on the shoulders of so few Imperial Admirals. It is therefore not surprising that many of them did not survive the war.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising.

Springbuck, Beta system, 3rd October 2481 AD.

“No sign of any Karacknid ships,” Lieutenant Armitage, Lightfoot’s tactical officer reported.

Lightfoot didn’t allow himself to relax. “None that we can see,” he reminded his officer. “There were only a hundred odd that we could see in the Holstein system. It turned out there were more like a thousand. So keep your wits about you.” Though he had sent scouts in ahead of his fleet before jumping into the system, he did not intend to take any unnecessary risks.

“Of course Admiral,” Armitage replied as a serious look descended on his face. He hadn’t been at the battle of Holstein, but he had fought the Karacknids at Earth.

No one wants to fight them again, Lightfoot thought as he looked at his staff officers and Springbuck’s bridge officers. There wasn’t outright fear, but the air was thick with concern. That needs to change, he decided. And fast. He didn’t want to take a hesitant fleet into combat. Their anxiety would end up being a self-fulfilling prophesy. “Take us in, one quarter speed,” he ordered. “Captain Suarez, Springbuck will lead us in,” he added as he turned to his Flag Captain.

Given the recent history between Argentina and the British Star Kingdom, ordinarily Lightfoot would have been just a small bit suspicious of Suarez. But not in this case. Springbuck had been one of the battlecruisers of Admiral Gupta’s squadron in the Outer Defense Fleet. Suarez had fought the Karacknids in the battle of Jaranna and Gupta spoke highly of him. Lightfoot had no doubt that he had one of the most competent Captains in the fleet assisting him.

“Contact Captain Gar’am and request that he release his scouts as planned,” he ordered once the fleet was underway.

“Yes Admiral,” his COM officer replied.

“Then send a COM message to Beta colony, I want the latest intelligence they have on Karacknid ship movements.”

Moments after his officer acknowledged his second order, two Varanni scouts shot ahead of the fleet, their active sensors filling space with quantities of electromagnetic energy the Human and Vestarian ships in Lightfoot’s fleet couldn’t hope to match. If there are Karacknid ships hiding out there, they’ll have a much harder time hiding from Varanni sensors than ours, Lightfoot hoped. He didn’t want to be responsible for another disaster like the battle of Holstein.

An hour later a reply came in from the Beta colony. Lightfoot skimmed through it. He was already aware of the orbital bombardment the retreating Karacknid fleet had carried out on the colony. Every industrial and military instillation had been wiped out, along with more than ten thousand of the colony’s civilian population. When he got to the details of Karacknid ship movements, he slowed down. “They’ve seen nothing,” he commented after reading the brief paragraph.

“Which is exactly what the Karacknids would want us to think,” Suarez replied. “They could have slipped hundreds of ships through the Beta system towards Japanese and Chinese space. It looks like the Beta colony has barely a handful of functioning surface sensor arrays. Even we could sneak a fleet of ships past them.”

“Indeed,” Lightfoot agreed. “I’m glad we have the Varanni sensor data they collected on their way through German space. At least we’re not going in completely blind.” Commodore Flew’s forces had detected two hundred Karacknid warships in the Holstein system. It was possible they had all been sent to raid human colonies, but it was far more likely most of them had orders to garrison the colony and prevent any Human ships from attacking Jaranna. At least, that is what we are hoping, Lightfoot thought. His fleet was nowhere near strong enough to take on even half of the Karacknid ships at Holstein. “Dispatch Hammer and Gull as we have discussed. Then set course for the Ulm shift passage.”

Two corvettes broke away from the fleet. They headed towards the shift passages that led to Japanese and Chinese colonial space. If the Karacknids had sent ships in either direction, Lightfoot would have to attempt to deal with them. A problem for another time, he reminded himself. He knew there were still Karacknid ships operating in German colonial space. If he headed to Japanese or Chinese space, he could spend weeks searching for an enemy that might not be there. Moments after the two corvettes broke formation, the rest of the fleet altered course away from the Beta colony and towards the Ulm shift passage.

Unsurprisingly, Springbuck soon received a less than cordial COM message from the Governor of Beta colony. Though Lightfoot empathized with the Governor; her world had been attacked and many of her people killed. He didn’t have the time or resources to provide aid. Nor was it likely any would be arriving from Earth in the near future. All the aid Earth had access to was needed there. Rather than send her a video message in reply, he simply typed out a response. Beta colony was on its own for the foreseeable future. When the Governor replied with her own text message, listing the medical supplies she needed and the number of survivors likely to succumb to their injuries without help, Lightfoot ground his teeth together. The message brought back too many memories of what he had been forced to do after the Battle of Earth. Even now, weeks later, every night when he retired to his quarters and closed his eyes he saw the damaged section of HMS Vulcan being blown apart on his orders. Mentally, Lightfoot filed away the number of additional casualties the colony’s Governor expected. They were another list of names he intended to repay the Karacknids for.

“New contacts,” a sensor officer shouted, bringing Lightfoot out of his thoughts. “Three ships accelerating in from the Ulm shift passage. They’re Human.”

“Hail them,” Lightfoot demanded.

Moments later a thickly bearded, disheveled face appeared on Springbucks main holo- projector. “Boy am I glad to see you Admiral,” the man said with a heavy German accent. “I thought we were never getting out of there.”

“You have come from the German colonies, what information do you have on the Karacknids? Did you encounter any of their ships?” Lightfoot responded.

“We sure did,” the man replied, “my name is Jonah, I own these three freighters. We’ve been lying low since we heard about the invasion of Holstein. We were running out of supplies, so we decided to make a run for it. We spotted eight alien ships in the Gutenberg System, but thankfully they didn’t seem interested in us. They were too busy bombarding the colony. We just made out of the Ulm System in time, twelve alien ships were approaching the planet when we jumped out. They looked like they were up to no good as well.”

“There are Karacknid ships in the Ulm system right now?” Lightfoot demanded.

The German freighter Captain shrugged. “There were when we left. I expect Ulm will be getting the same treatment as some of the other colonies we visited. There was nothing my ships could do for them.”

Lightfoot shared a glance with Suarez then turned back to the German freighter Captain. “Take your ships to the Beta colony. See if you can help them in anyway. At the very least you can transport some of their wounded to Earth. You won’t know, but Earth has been attacked. Every freighter is worth its weight in gold at the moment. You will be well received there. There is massive demand for supplies and food.”

“Where are you going Admiral?” Jonah asked.

“Ulm, I intend to pay my respects to these invaders” Lightfoot answered then cut the COM channel. There wasn’t a moment to spare. “The fleet will go to maximum acceleration, get us to Ulm as fast as possible,” he ordered. The German colony was a day and half away in shift space. It was just possible they could get there in time to stop the Karacknids from completely destroying the colony’s infrastructure.

*

5th October 2481 AD.

Thirty-two hours later Springbuck and the rest of Lightfoot’s fleet jumped out of shift space. The ships of the Outer Defense Fleet with Mindus and Varanni tech upgrades could be pushed even harder than Lightfoot had suspected. As per his orders, all of his ships bar Gar’am’s Varanni warships accelerated at the rate they had been able to before their upgrades while Gar’am’s ships cruised into the system in stealth.

“They’re still here,” a sensor officer called out moments later. “I’m picking up twelve active contacts in orbit around Ulm.”

Lightfoot nodded. How confident are you feeling? he asked his opponent. As time progressed and the contacts didn’t move, Lightfoot got his answer. Karacknid warships had a significant acceleration advantage over an un-upgraded Human ship. They were still faster than his upgraded ships, but not by as much. Allowing the incoming Human ships to build up momentum was the Karacknid commander’s first mistake. And with any luck, it will be his last, Lightfoot hoped. Even a cursory glance at the sensor readings of the Ulm system told him the Karacknids had been busy. The gas mining station that had orbited Ulm’s only gas giant had been destroyed many weeks ago. Lightfoot had watched that first hand. Now pretty much every other piece of orbital real estate was gone. The Karacknids had left nothing intact.

“Heat bloom from the surface,” someone reported.

Lightfoot’s fists clenched as his eyes widened. “Not again,” he couldn’t help saying out loud.

“It’s not nuclear,” the same sensor officer replied. “The bloom is too small. An orbital strike probably.”

“And not the first I would imagine,” Suarez said. “They’ve probably been bombarding the surface from the moment they entered orbit.”

“Yes,” Lightfoot agreed as a wave of relief washed over him. Orbital bombardments were bad, they usually caused a lot of collateral damage, but at least he wasn’t going to have to deal with another planet that had been nuked.

“A number of shuttles are taking off from the surface,” a Lieutenant reported half an hour later. “We’re getting increased energy readings from the warships as well. Looks like they’re preparing to break orbit.”

Lightfoot shared a glance with Suarez. This was something new. The Karacknid ships in orbit were all warships, not troop transports. “Prisoners?” He asked.

Suarez shrugged. “Could be. They came here looking to conquer us. As much damage as they’ve done, they failed to accomplish that. Perhaps they are gathering intelligence.”

“And technological data,” Lightfoot surmised. “Their tactics in the Battle of Earth; the way they arrange their screening ships. They knew about our fighters and feared them. Perhaps they want to know how to build their own.”

“That is a worrying thought,” Suarez replied.

“And a problem for later,” Lightfoot said as he put his questions to the back of his mind. Once they had defeated the enemy squadron, he could look for answers. “Bring the fleet to full acceleration,” he ordered when he judged the time right.

His ships shot forward. The Varanni ships that had been cruising into the system in stealth also powered up their engines and accelerated even faster. They would quickly catch up with and join the rest of Lightfoot’s command. On Springbuck’s main holo- projector, intercept trajectories appeared. With their far higher starting momentum, Lightfoot’s ships would catch the fleeing Karacknid squadron a full forty-five minutes before they could jump to the safety of shift space. “We have them,” Lightfoot said in a cold voice. “Our payback begins here.”

Moments later, eleven of the twelve Karacknid ships cut their acceleration and turned. Lightfoot screwed up his face. The Karacknid fleet commanders might be evil monstrosities; but they knew what they were doing. They were sacrificing themselves to allow one Karacknid ship to escape. If he wanted to try and catch it, he’d have to accelerate hard right past the rest of the Karacknid squadron. That would allow them to close to energy range and rake his fleet. Though he knew he would win such an engagement, the cost would be far higher than any missile duel. “Plot a course change to keep the Karacknid squadron at extreme missile range. We’re going to hammer them until there’s nothing left,” he ordered. The single Karacknid ship would get away. Whoever was commanding the Karacknid forces in Holstein would soon know the Human fleet was operating in the German colonies. There’s nothing you can do about it, he told himself. It was the price he would have to pay for destroying the rest of the enemy squadron.

Now for a game of cat and mouse, Lightfoot said to himself when the Karacknid squadron reacted to his fleet’s course change by trying to close the range. For the next forty minutes he pitted his wits against the enemy squadron commander. As soon as his ships veered off to prevent the Karacknid squadron from being able to launch a missile salvo and then close to energy weapon range, the Karacknid squadron would copy his move and continue trying to close. “Hold course,” Lightfoot eventually ordered when he was satisfied with his fleet’s position. The Karacknids were closing with his ships, but the angle was shallow enough that he was confident none would get close enough to use their energy weapons.

With their impressive missile technology, the Karacknids squadron opened fire first. Though with nothing larger than a heavy cruiser amongst their ships, they only put out two hundred and sixty missiles. Even so, Lightfoot wished his ships were equipped with multistage missiles so he could immediately return fire. Yet there had been none available when his ships had left Earth. They had all been used in the battle with the Karacknids. When his squadron eventually responded, they launched six hundred and sixteen of their own missiles. Only one Karacknid missile got through Lightfoot’s point defenses. It only managed to score a proximity hit on a destroyer. Yet the missile had an antimatter warhead. As the antiparticles washed over the destroyer’s hull, they cancelled out its valstronium armor in the blink of an eye. Many of the particles ate into the destroyer’s innards. Though no secondary explosions occurred, what was left of the destroyer was but a shadow of its former self. Lifeless, it simply drifted into space.

“No more missiles are getting through,” Lightfoot ordered as he turned away from the destroyer. “No more!”

Though several officers responded, Lightfoot didn’t hear them. He had already fixed his attention on the Karacknid squadron. His missiles were hitting home. Sixty punched through the Karacknid point defense fire. Many scored direct hits. To Lightfoot’s amazement, six ships appeared out of the wall of nuclear detonations. “One more salvo,” he ordered. His ships had already fired a second and though the third might be overkill, he wanted to make sure he finished off his prey. The Karacknid ships were tough and even one making it to energy weapon range might be able to take one of his ships with it.

Before he got to see if his second salvo would finish the battle, another wave of two hundred and sixty Karacknid missiles attacked his fleet. Whether from luck, or better coordination between the various ships, all the Karacknid missiles were shot down. The Karacknid fleet did not fare so well. With nearly half their number already gone and the rest damaged, one hundred and seventy missiles got close enough to detonate. Lightfoot grunted in satisfaction. He’d wasted his third salvo, but he didn’t care. “Detach Hermes, have her close with Ulm and get a detailed report on the Karacknid attack. Make sure her Captain understands I want to know what the Karacknids on those shuttles were doing. Then Hermes is to return to Earth with a full report. I’m not sure what aid can be sent here, but the Emergency Council needs to know.”

“We’re not closing with the colony?” Suarez asked.

Lightfoot shook his head. “No, we set course for New Berlin. If the Karacknids have attacked Ulm, they may still have the forces in this sector raiding New Berlin as well. The frigate that got away will warn whatever enemy forces are operating nearby. We need to keep pushing forward if we’re going to catch any more of them by surprise.”




Chapter 8

Within the fleet there is now a constant debate over who our greatest commanders are. The yearly fleet exercises give us some insight into who is the best. But with no more than ten percent of the fleet’s officers participating each year, there is still plenty of room for debate. Cadets rarely appreciate the finer points of the arguments, but then you have not served under any of our best. One day you will, and then you will understand how much loyalty factors into the disputes. When an Admiral’s skill and wit saves you from defeat and death, they can do no wrong in your eyes. For myself, Admiral Sullivan is the best, but I readily admit my own bias.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


25th October 2481 AD (three weeks later).

Lightfoot paced back-and-forth across the length of Springbuck’s bridge. Occasionally he stole a glance at the holo-map of local space. Being out of his command chair wasn’t the wisest of actions. If his flagship came under sudden attack he’d be thrown around like a rag doll. Still, he needed some way to work out his frustrations and focus his mind. It had been three weeks since the brief engagement at Ulm. Since then, there had been no sight nor sound of the Karacknids. Surprisingly, when his fleet had called at the New Berlin system, the system’s orbital defenses had been intact and the planet unmolested. A small Karacknid force had taken out the asteroid mining stations in the outer system but the rest of its industry was untouched. The same couldn’t be said for the three other systems he had visited. In each case the Karacknids had destroyed every orbital structure they could. It seemed they were intent on crippling Humanity’s economy. At least, the economy they could easily attack without fear of taking losses. New Berlin’s orbital battlestations had kept them away for now. And they have no interest in a stand-up fight, Lightfoot complained to himself. Whatever the Karacknids had been doing, they had cut back their activities. At least in the systems his fleet was operating in. The brief victory in the Ulm system had been a small step in restoring his fleet’s confidence. More was needed though. They cannot be allowed to go on attacking our systems. Though his ships hadn’t detected any more Karacknid forces, Lightfoot doubted they had all fallen back to Holstein. It was much more likely they were using their superior speeds to circumvent his fleet and attack other German colonies.

“Right,” he said as he stopped his pacing and came to a decision. “We’ll set course for Constance and swing through the Leipzig and Eibsee systems and see what we find. Then we’ll circle back to New Berlin. The Karacknids aren’t hitting any of the main German colonies, we need to investigate some of the more outlying systems. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll have to try poking the bear.”

Captain Suarez nodded. “I’ll see your orders are transmitted to the rest of the fleet. I don’t particularly like the idea of poking the bear, but it is what we’ve been sent here to do.”

“Neither do I,” Lightfoot agreed. “We’re not going to rush into that option. I have no doubt Commodore Flew’s intel was correct. If the Karacknids have more than two hundred warships stationed in the Holstein system, we do not want to encourage them to become too aggressive.”

“Not yet at least,” Suarez responded.

Lightfoot raised his eyebrows as he turned back to the holo map. Suarez was right, there would come a time when they would want to entice the Karacknids into battle. He would need a fleet at least four times the size of the one he currently had, but if and when that situation arose, he would not hesitate to proceed directly to Holstein. Until that time, he was forced to try and hunt down smaller Karacknid forces. A near impossible task when they are all faster than you, he thought. Heading to Constance, Leipzig and Eibsee, he turned his fleet away from the Holstein system and onto a circular course back to New Berlin. It wasn’t exactly avoiding the main concentration of Karacknid forces, but he had no desire to get too close to them unless he had exhausted all other options. One way or another, he knew he needed to bring more Karacknid forces to battle. They couldn’t be allowed to operate unchecked.

*

3rd November 2481 AD (nine days later).

“Everything looks normal,” Springbuck’s sensor officer reported several minutes after the fleet jumped into the Leipzig system. “All orbital stations and outer mining operations look intact. There’s even some ships in orbit.”

Lightfoot shared a glance with Suarez. They were both surprised. Five days ago they had found the Constance system completely devoid of life. There had been no ground-based colony within the system, but there had been several large mining operations. One focused on the fourth moon of the system’s gas giant, the other in a mineral rich planetary ring. Every installation had been destroyed and if any escape pods had been launched, Lightfoot’s ships had found no trace of them. They had been expecting to find the same thing in the Leipzig system. For once, it looked like the Karacknids had not beaten them there. “Take us towards the colony,” he ordered. “And identify those ships.”

“I have an update Admiral,” sensor officer reported minutes later. “From the readings, it looks like most of them are civilian freighters or yachts. Though there are three UN warships in orbit. Two destroyers and a light cruiser.”

“Very well, hail them as soon as we get into two-way communication range,” Lightfoot responded. There was no doubt the leadership of the colony would want to speak with him, but he was more interested in what intelligence the warships might have.

Eighty-five minutes later the unfamiliar face of a naval captain appeared on Springbuck’s holo- display. “Captain, my name is Rear Admiral Lightfoot. I’m not sure how much you know of what has transpired outside of the German colonies. A Karacknid fleet has attacked Earth. We drove them back but at great cost,” Lightfoot explained. “My fleet is here to try and mop up some of the remaining Karacknid forces. What intelligence do you have on Karacknid ship movements?”

“You drove them back?” the Captain asked as his eyes widened. “Praise the heavens! We thought we were done for. A freighter brought word of the massive fleet that passed through the New Berlin system towards the Beta colony. We tried to break out to join the defense, but when we poked our head into the new Berlin System, there were still hundreds of Karacknid ships. We fell back here. Since then we’ve heard of a number of attacks. Constance was hit just two weeks ago. We thought we were next.”

“What is your name Captain?” Lightfoot asked.

“Of course, my apologies Admiral. I’m Captain Schmidt of the light cruiser Baden.”

“Pleased to meet you Captain,” Lightfoot replied with a slight nod. “Now tell me, have no ships entered the system at all? And what about Eibsee?”

“None have come this way… that we have seen at least,” Schmidt replied. “If they were in the outer system and kept their power levels down, I doubt we would detect them from here. We haven’t heard anything from Eibsee for eight days now, but the last we heard they hadn’t been hit either. Though they are just a small colony. There’s only forty thousand residents.”

“I don’t think that matters to the Karacknids,” Lightfoot explained. “They seem to be hitting every system we have that has limited defenses. I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before they come here. Though hopefully if they are following our movements, that may not be for a while now.”

“You think you’re being followed?” Schmidt asked.

Lightfoot looked over to Suarez. It was something they had discussed. Twice they had sent two of their Varanni frigates back to retrace the fleet’s course just in case. The Varanni ships hadn’t discovered anything, but Lightfoot was still suspicious. Everywhere they went just seemed too quiet even though they were constantly getting reports of further away systems still being attacked. “It’s a possibility,” Lightfoot answered. “Tell me, how is the Leipzig colony faring?”

“They’re scared,” Schmidt replied. “Martial law has been declared. Panic buying has eaten up most of their food stocks. Everyone expects a Karacknid fleet to arrive in system any day now and either bombard the planet or take everyone away as slaves. It’s basically pandemonium down there.”

“All right,” Lightfoot said with a sigh. “I guess I’ll have to contact the colony’s leadership. Their work is about to get a lot harder when news gets out about Earth. Send my Chief of Staff a full update on your ships. I’ll have my team send you a report on the Battle of Earth and some upgrades your engineers can start to work on.”

“I will get on it right away Admiral. If I may though, what happened at Earth?”

“Like I said, we drove the Karacknids away, but they managed to get some missiles through our orbital defenses. Eighty-four to be exact. The death toll was at four hundred and eighty million when we left. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you.”

Schmidt let out a series of swear words and then slumped back into his chair. “Berlin?” He asked as he fixed his eyes on Lightfoot.

Lightfoot shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. He had been hoping to let Schmidt read the report rather than have to tell him face-to-face. He had dealt with far too many grieving officers already. “Did you have family there?”

Schmidt nodded. “My parents, though they lived in the suburbs.”

“Then there is still hope,” Lightfoot responded. “Many millions of people have been evacuated from the cities that were hit. We have a list of survivors we can send you for your crews to check. Though the list is far from complete so it doesn’t necessarily mean anything if you cannot find your relatives on there.”

“Thank you Admiral, I will see to your requests and then have a look at the list. We feared Earth had been conquered. When your ships entered the system we began to hope we had been wrong. I’m not sure if your news is good or not.”

“I understand,” Lightfoot said. “Everyone on Earth feels the same. We don’t know whether we should be relieved that we won or horrified at the losses. In reality, both are true. Right now though, we need to figure out how we can continue to bring the fight to the Karacknids. I’ll speak with Leipzig’s leadership and then I’ll be back in touch.”

“Yes Sir,” Schmidt said as he straightened up and gave Lightfoot a salute.

Lightfoot returned the gesture and then cut the COM channel. He took a deep breath and nodded to his COM officer. Leipzig’s political leadership were already waiting to speak with him.

*

5th November 2481 AD (two days later).

“You shouldn’t be going with them,” Jil’lal repeated. “It’s not your place. It’s too risky.”

Lightfoot smiled. “I seem to remember Admiral Somerville saying the same thing to you about leading your forces on this mission. Did he not?”

“That’s different,” Jil’lal said as she waved two of her four arms in a dismissive manner. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a part of the mission, just that you don’t need to take on the greatest risk.”

Lightfoot sighed. It was not something he’d ordinarily do in such a meeting. Alongside Jil’lal, Captains Schmidt, Suarez and Gar’am were all on board Springbuck. After spending hours trying to appease the leading members of Leipzig’s Senate, he had spent a frustrating two days trying to decide what to do next with his forces while they took on supplies. The idea he had just shared with his fellow officers was the best he could come up with. Having to defend his plan was testing his patience.

“I concur,” Gar’am said as he swished his tail back and forth. The Varanni had to duck to fit into Springbuck’s briefing room. It was probably uncomfortable and humiliating for someone from a species who took their pride and honor so seriously. Reminding himself of the very fact, Lightfoot sat up straighter and resolved not to let his frustration show again. “The plan itself is worth trying. I know you have already had success with a similar strategy. I understand the need to take greater risks this time, the Karacknids will probably suspect a trap. Nevertheless, that does not mean that you need to be the one to take on this risk.”

“The decision is mine to make,” Lightfoot replied. “I will not command someone else to lead this mission. I understand the risk, that is why I intend to play the role of bait. Plus, Springbuck has the most powerful point defenses out of the Human ships in our fleet. It makes the most sense to send her. We cannot send either of your ships with the convoy. As soon as they detect a Vestarian or Varanni ship, they will know something is up.”

“He’s right,” Suarez said. “Taking Springbuck actually reduces the risk to the convoy. If Schmidt and his three ships are going to put themselves in harm’s way, then Springbuck will have no trouble doing the same.”

“Besides,” Lightfoot said as he changed his tone and tried to lighten the mood. “If something does happen to me, we have two very able commanders in our midst.” As he spoke he nodded to Jil’lal and Gar’am. “Either of you can take over.”

“If something does happen to you, what am I to tell Admiral Somerville?” Jil’lal asked, not changing her tone.

“You can tell him we were doing our duty,” Lightfoot responded. “Look,” he said and paused to let his point sink in. “We’ve been sent out here to engage the Karacknids. If they won’t let us come to them, then we need to lure them to us. Every day we are out here is a day more we leave Earth’s defenses weaker than they need to be. If we cannot achieve something then we may as well tuck our tails between our legs and return home.”

“A strange expression Admiral. I did not know your species had tails as well as legs,” Gar’am replied.

Lightfoot quickly bowed to the Varanni. “My apologies, I meant no disrespect. It is a common phrase my people use. It refers to an animal from our homeworld.”

Gar’am opened his mouth to show his razor-sharp teeth in what Lightfoot knew was a sign of amusement. “Relax Admiral. I am aware of the phrase. I’ve been studying your species’ language. It was a modest attempt at humor.”

Relief flooded through Lightfoot. “Ah, I see.”

“So do I Admiral. I understand our need for action,” the Varanni replied. “I just do not see your need to take up such a role. You could transfer your flag from Springbuck if it is so important to send her. Nevertheless, if you cannot be talked out of this, then I will not attempt to do so any further. There are a number of finer details in your plan that we should finalize instead.”

“I have already decided my role in this Captain. I will not be dissuaded,” as he spoke Lightfoot looked over to Jil’lal.

She nodded to show she was satisfied she had said her piece.

“There is one other thing,” Lightfoot added, now that he had their agreement. “You will have strict orders to bug out if we find ourselves up against a force we cannot handle. You are both right about one thing, this is a risky idea. I intend to minimize the risk to the rest of our ships as much as possible.” Though he didn’t know either of their species very well, Lightfoot could see the protests appearing. He held up his hands to cut them off. “If the plan backfires and we lose a handful of ships that is one thing. We cannot lose our entire fleet. I’m not arguing the point. So, let’s just go through the details shall we?”




Chapter 9

There is a constant battle going on within the fleet, one cadets rarely get an insight into, though when they do, they almost always fall on the side of innovation. Many in the fleet believe the future lies in a constantly advancing technological push. To defeat the Antarians or the Karacknids or whatever other threat lies out there, the fleet must be ever evolving. Others fear the fragility of novel technologies. The old ways, those that have been tried and refined in the fires of battle, they are the means we should use to ensure the Empire’s safety. When you are young, what is new always seems best. Yet with experience a more tempered approach usually develops. Cadets who wish to enter the command track must learn to walk a line between both extremes. What has proven itself must never be thrown away lightly, yet what is new may hold the key to victory. The history of the Imperial fleet teaches us both of these maximums are true.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


23rd November 2481 AD (eighteen days later).

Lightfoot tried and failed to fight back a yawn. He had been on Springbuck’s bridge for the last ten hours. Ever since the small convoy of warships and freighters borrowed from Leipzig had entered the Hessen system. Hessen lay directly between Holstein and Ulm. If his makeshift convoy was going to run into Karacknid raiders, it was going to be on their current route. Yet there hadn’t been even a whiff of enemy activity. At least, not current activity, Lightfoot reminded himself as he glanced at the holo-display of the Hessen colony. Its orbitals had been destroyed more than a month ago. The colony’s Chancellor had contacted him demanding that his convoy stop and deliver what supplies they could. Of course, he hadn’t been able to explain to the Chancellor that his freighters were empty. There was no way to know if the Karacknids had broken their COM encryptions. Instead, he had sent his apologies and kept his convoy heading through the system at the best speed his freighters could manage. If there were Karacknid ships watching, it was supposed to look like he was trying to get his ships out of the German colonies as quickly as possible. The reply from Hessen’s Councilor had not been pleasant, but Lightfoot was getting used to such messages. “I think I’ll retire to my quarters,” he said to Springbuck’s bridge officers as he stood. He had reached the limit of his endurance. His small convoy was still three and half hours away from the edge of the system and the shift passage to Brocken. He could catch a couple of hours sleep and be back for the jump out. “Contact me if there is anything out of the ordinary.”

“Don’t worry Admiral, I will,” Suarez assured him as he walked past his Flag Captain. Lightfoot patted Suarez’s shoulder and headed for the hatch that led out of the bridge and into his quarters. He’d only made it three steps when alarms blared from several stations. At once, he spun around.

“Multiple new contacts!” An officer called. “Five light minutes away. They are on an intercept trajectory.”

“Where are they coming from?” Suarez demanded. “How did they get so close?”

As Lightfoot threw himself into his command chair and strapped himself in, the main holo- projection of space around Springbuck zoomed in on a small asteroid field. “They’re coming from this group of asteroids,” Springbuck’s First Lieutenant reported. “They must have been lying in wait.”

“Confirmed, there are sixteen contacts. Five are medium cruiser size or above,” another officer announced.

Lightfoot didn’t need to do any calculations to know they were in trouble. The Karacknids had been watching them, and they had chosen their ambush site perfectly. “Signal Jil’lal immediately. Her ships are to engage.”

As soon as his command went out, the holo-projection changed. Three light minutes behind Lightfoot’s convoy, the rest of his ships suddenly appeared. Using their superior shift space speeds, they had entered the Hessen system ahead of his convoy. Then, in stealth, they had built up enough momentum to trail behind the convoy when it arrived. Lightfoot had thought a trailing distance of three light minutes had been a safe enough option. If Jil’lal’s ships had been too close to his convoy any stealth drones the Karacknids might have used to recon the convoy could have detected them as well. Three light minutes would normally have given Jil’lal’s ships plenty of time to close with the convoy. He had been wrong. The question is, are they going to blink? Lightfoot asked himself. The Karacknid ships had begun their acceleration from a point of relative rest in relation to his convoy. They could decelerate and turn away if they wanted to avoid action. But it would mean they couldn’t engage his convoy. Keeping his face impassive, Lightfoot waited and watched.

“Okay, listen up everyone,” he said when it was clear the Karacknids weren’t going to turn. “They’re going to get one missile salvo off against us before the rest of the fleet gets here. We’re going to have to face it alone. I want all our freighters evacuated immediately. Get their crews to our warships and slave the controls to the bridge. Then ready the point defenses.”

“Aye, Admiral,” several serious faces replied.

Lightfoot looked over to Suarez. “Jil’lal may have been right after all.”

“Even if they get us, Jil’lal will get them,” Suarez replied. “That will mean one less Karacknid squadron raiding our colonies.”

Lightfoot nodded. “A worthy trade. But let’s make them work for it nonetheless.”

“I’ll not say no to that Admiral,” Suarez said with a smile.

“The final evacuation shuttles are taking off now Admiral,” a bridge officer reported six minutes later.

“Do we have remote control of the freighters yet?” Lightfoot responded.

“Yes Admiral.”

“Start taking off the safety protocols on their reactors and engines. I want to be able to redline them as soon as I give the command,” Lightfoot explained.

“Understood,” the officer replied as she turned back to her console.

“What are you thinking?” Suarez asked.

“There will be far too many missiles for our point defenses. We need to encourage as many as possible to target the freighters,” Lightfoot replied.

Suarez’s eyes narrowed as he looked back at the holo-projector. “If it doesn’t work…”

Lightfoot shrugged. “If it doesn’t work, I don’t think we’ll be any worse off.”

“All right then,” Suarez said with a nod.

“Missile releases from the Karacknid squadron,” Springbuck’s sensor officer announced. “Two hundred and eighty incoming missiles.”

Lightfoot swallowed hard at the number. He knew it had been coming, but it was daunting, nevertheless. Alongside Springbuck he had Schmidt’s light cruiser and the two destroyers from Leipzig, plus four other frigates from his squadron. Half the number of Karacknid missiles they were facing would overwhelm their defenses.

“Let’s be about it,” Lightfoot said to his officers. There was no point dwelling on the enemy’s numbers. “Fire our own salvo as soon as we get into range.” Lightfoot doubted any of his missiles would reach their targets, but it would give the Karacknids something to think about on top of preparing to face Jil’lal’s ships. Moments later his convoy fired fifty-four missiles. As soon as they were gone, Lightfoot dismissed them from his thoughts. All that mattered was surviving the Karacknid salvo.

When the missiles came in, every point defense weapon in the convoy opened up on them. In the space of ninety seconds sixty-five were taken out. But it was nowhere near enough. It’s now or never, Lightfoot said to himself. The missiles were only seconds away from his ships. “All warships are to go into stealth and take evasive maneuvers!” Lightfoot shouted. “Send the overlord signal to the freighters.”

Springbuck and the rest of Lightfoot’s warships cut their engines, powered down their reactors and ceased their point defense fire. In contrast, the twelve freighters lit up the electromagnetic sensors of the Karacknid missiles as the massive amounts of energy being pumped out by their reactors and engines grabbed the attention of the seeker heads. Dozens more got confused when their original targets disappeared. Their targeting software quickly switched to the nearest new target. Many latched onto the freighters. Though not all. At such close ranges, the stealth technologies of Human warships were far from perfect.

Aware of this, Lightfoot was already gripping tightly onto his command chair. Even so, as something struck Springbuck he was thrown around violently. Both his hands lost their grip. His left was twisted back so violently that he heard a crack. His right, thrown by the same momentum, struck him on the chin. The g-forces from the missile impact and the physical thud from his own fist made Lightfoot’s eyes close for several seconds. When he managed to force them open again, he was surprised to see anything at all. The bridge was still intact. Though it was a mess. Some of the bridge officers were slumped over in their seats, unconscious. The rest looked badly shaken. Blood was seeping from several noses and ears. It seemed like alarms were blaring from every console on the bridge. We are alive, Lightfoot thought as he looked around him. A Karacknid missile had to have hit them. Yet its antimatter warhead hadn’t completely obliterated the ship. He opened his mouth to request a damage report but shut it again when he saw Suarez conscious and alert in his command chair. Springbuck was his responsibility. “What’s the status of the fleet?” he asked instead as he turned to Commander Houston, his Chief of Staff. As he waited for a response, he looked down at his left arm and tried to move it. A curse escaped his lips as pain shot up from his elbow towards his shoulder. Reaching over with his right, he clasped his left arm to his chest and held it in place. I’ll have to worry about it later.

“I’m still reviewing the sensor data,” Houston answered. “It doesn’t look like Schmidt’s cruiser made it, nor the two UN destroyers that were with her.” Lightfoot nodded, the three un-upgraded UN ships had the worst stealth capabilities of those under his command. “Three of our frigates haven’t reported in yet either,” his Chief of Staff added.

Almost all, Lightfoot thought. Only two ships remained of his small convoy escort. Yet that was more than he had been hoping for. “What’s our status?” Lightfoot asked Suarez.

Suarez shook his head. “It’s too early to tell. I think we suffered two proximity hits. The antimatter vaporized much of our forward nose section. Many stations are not reporting in.”

“Do we still have missile tubes operational?” Lightfoot followed up.

Suarez turned to his First Lieutenant. “Our starboard side, I think we have nine still functioning,” the Lieutenant replied.

“Get them reloaded,” Lightfoot ordered. “Contact the other survivors, coordinate with them. Even if we can only get off a handful of missiles, they will help Jil’lal.” Leaving everyone to deal with the aftermath of the Karacknid missile salvo, Lightfoot pulled up a sensor feed of the developing battle between Jil’lal’s forces and the Karacknid squadron on his command chair’s holo projector. Unsurprisingly, the Karacknids had begun to decelerate and turn as soon as they fired their first missile salvo. As soon as they could, they had fired a second, thankfully it was heading towards Jil’lal’s forces. For her part, Jil’lal had her ships charging straight after the Karacknids.

As the bridge officers focused on their own ship, Lightfoot watched the battle unfold. Jil’lal had the Varanni ships at the front of her formation. When the Karacknid missile salvo came into attack range, Varanni point defenses quickly shredded them. Then the Human and Vestarian weapons opened up as well. Two missiles got through. Miraculously, both ships that were targeted managed to evade the missiles at the last moment.

Seconds after Jil’lal’s ships reformed into formation, they returned fire. Then they fired again, and again. In total it took five salvos to completely finish off the Karacknid squadron. The missiles from Springbuck and the surviving frigate of the convoy added little to the battle, but they had at least forced the Karacknids to split their defensive fire. Though they were outnumbered, the Karacknids had given a good account of themselves. Jil’lal had lost seven warships including a Varanni frigate.

“It’s over,” Lightfoot announced to Springbuck’s bridge when the last Karacknid ship was blown apart by six missiles. “Jil’lal has finished them off. They are on their way back here.” As Lightfoot looked around the bridge, he saw two distinctive responses. His staff officers smiled and nodded in relief, while Springbuck’s officers barely registered his words. They were still focused on their ship.

“How bad is it?” Lightfoot asked Suarez as he turned to his Flag Captain. He wasn’t smiling either.

“It was two proximity hits,” Suarez confirmed. “The death toll is at one hundred and forty-seven so far. We’ve lost the entire nose section back to bulkhead eighteen. Our point defenses are down to about sixty percent and we’ve lost a third of our missile tubes. We can probably jury rig one or two new ones, but that’s the best we can do. I’m not even sure what kind of acceleration she can handle. A lot of her centerline struts have been burnt away by the antimatter.”

Lightfoot closed his eyes. Springbuck was lucky to have survived two proximity hits. From what Suarez had just said, she had only just managed it. Certainly, she was out of action. She needed months in a repair yard to be battle worthy again. “I’m sorry Captain,” Lightfoot said as he opened his eyes. “I’ll have to send you back to Earth. You can bring a report of our operations so far.”

“I understand Admiral. I’m sure my First Lieutenant could bring her back if you need me to stay with you?” Suarez asked

Though Lightfoot was sure the offer was genuine, he could see in Suarez face that the Argentinian Captain wanted to make sure his ship got home safely, and his people were looked after. “Thank you for the offer, I’m sure we’ll be fine without you. I won’t take you away from the ship. Not now when she needs you the most.”

“Houston, check Argyll’s status. If her damage is minimal inform Captain Rivers I’ll be transferring my flag over as soon as they rendezvous with us.”

“Aye Admiral,” Houston replied

“Now Captain,” Lightfoot said as he turned back to Suarez. “How can my staff help? We have at least an hour before Argyll gets here.”

*

Argyll, outer Hessen system, six hours later.

Lightfoot rolled his shoulders as he sat back in his command chair. Though it was a carbon copy of his command chair on Springbuck, it didn’t feel quite right. “Signal Springbuck and her consorts. Say, ‘safe journeys.’”

“Message sent Admiral,” an unfamiliar voice replied. “Springbuck has replied; ‘happy hunting.”

“Acknowledge the message,” Lightfoot said. “Take us into shift space Captain Rivers,” he added as he turned to his new Flag Captain. Rivers had been unknown to Lightfoot before leaving Earth. To date he had handled himself well and Lightfoot had no reason not to trust the American. Even so, he wished he still had Suarez with him.

“Aye Admiral,” Rivers replied.

Silently, Lightfoot watched his subordinates prepare the fleet to depart. Argyll’s officers weren’t used to having an Admiral on the bridge and also had to get used to his staff officers as well. They will learn quick enough, Lightfoot thought. They had to. A slight tremor ran through the ship as it jumped into shift space and Lightfoot winced. Springbuck’s doctor hadn’t had time to look at his elbow before Lightfoot had departed. There had been too many others with more serious injuries. Argyll’s doctor had reset his broken elbow and put his left arm in a sling. With the drugs the doctor had given him to boost his body’s healing rate, he had been told he would regain the use of his arm in three or four days. The doctor’s attention hadn’t stopped it being painful though.

When Argyll jumped out of shift space just five minutes later, Lightfoot winced again. At least that will be the last shift jump for a while, he thought. Springbuck and the rest of the damaged ships had orders to head from Hessen straight to Ulm and then Earth. If any Karacknid ships had remained hidden in the Hessen system, it would look like the rest of Lightfoot’s ships were doing the same. Even if they tried to follow Springbuck through shift space to the next system, it would take them several days to realize the majority of Lightfoot’s forces were not there. In that time he intended to shake off whatever Karacknid ships might be following him. To do so, instead of recharging the shift drives and jumping into shift space again, his fleet turned away from the shift passage and headed back towards the Hessen system. He intended to stay well outside the system’s mass shadow and circumnavigate the system. It would take several days but his ships would eventually reach the shift passage that led from Hessen towards the Holstein system. His mission was to chase down the Karacknid raiding squadrons, but they were all avoiding him. His trick with a fake convoy had worked, but he was certain it wouldn’t work again. Now there was nothing left to do but to head to the Karacknid’s main base of operations. One way or another he was going to bring more Karacknid ships to battle.




Chapter 10

The shift drive has gone through a number of development stages. None were more significant than the Walsiki breakthrough. Suddenly, dark matter was not a hinderance to interstellar travel! It’s hard now for a cadet to imagine the immediate impact this had, but to those who were used to the confines of shift passages it was nothing short of revolutionary.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


10th December 2481 AD (seventeen days later).

“This is the one,” Lightfoot said after taking several minutes to get a feel for the kink in the shift passage. “This is where we wait.”

His fleet was one third of the way along the Föhr-Holstein shift passage. On star maps, shift passages were almost always displayed as straight lines between one system and another. In reality, they were very different. The gaps in the dark matter clouds that filled open space between star systems were random and led to many fragmented and zigzagging shift passages. Given the shift drive only allowed a ship to travel in a straight line once in shift space, a ship had to enter and exit shift space many times as it traversed a shift passage. The Föhr-Holstein shift passage had two particularly tight kinks in it. They weren’t ideal spots for an ambush, but from what Lightfoot had seen of Karacknid shift passage behavior, their ships always travelled along the center line of each passage. That was a mistake Human ships had learnt not to make centuries ago. And perhaps one they have already corrected, Lightfoot thought. But it was his last option short of actually bringing his fleet into the Holstein system and tempting the Karacknid fleet to come out and fight. And such an action would be suicidal. “Pass the word to the rest of our fleet, all ships are to remain at battle stations. I want every ship cleared and ready to fight at a moment’s notice. Dispatch our scouts to Holstein as well,” Lightfoot ordered. Any raiding squadrons that wanted to come back to Holstein would have to pass through the kink his ships were in. It was likely to take a few weeks or even longer, but sooner or later some would pass by his ships. There was no other way to the Holstein system.

For several hours he sat on Argyll’s bridge and oversaw the arrangement of his ships into the best ambush formation. Then he checked in with Jil’lal and Gar’am and his Captains. Eventually, when Lightfoot could think of nothing else to do he nodded to Rivers. “The fleet is yours Captain,” he said.

“We’ll alert you as soon as we detect something,” Rivers promised. Lightfoot nodded again and left the bridge.

*

Seven hours later Lightfoot was startled out of a deep sleep by his bed’s COM unit. Even before he reached up and tapped it to answer, another sign drew his attention. The low thrum, thrum of Argyll’s heavy plasma cannons firing was unmistakable. For a moment Lightfoot struggled to make sense of the noise. He hadn’t expected the ambush to work for days. As soon as he grasped what was going on, he threw himself out of bed and sprinted across his quarters to the bridge’s access hatch. Not caring about his attire, he rushed in. “Status report,” he demanded.

“We’re engaging Karacknid warships,” someone shouted amidst all the other commands that were being passed back and forth.

Lightfoot turned to Argyll’s Captain’s chair to demand more. He shut his mouth when he saw Argyll’s First Lieutenant was sitting there. Rivers had obviously retired as well. Not wanting to be a distraction, he threw himself into his command chair and tried to make sense of the holo plot. Though the sensor readings seemed confused, at least one thing was clear. A small group of Karacknid ships had jumped out of shift space. They had been coming from Holstein. Lightfoot’s forces had been ready. Even as he watched they pummeled the Karacknid ships with fire from their energy weapons while maneuvering to fully envelop the enemy squadron. Within thirty seconds it was over. Every Karacknid ship had been destroyed for the price of one Human light cruiser.

“Begin rescue operations. See if there are any survivors from Dragonfly,” Lightfoot ordered as he eyed the point in space where the light cruiser had been. “How many were there?” he asked when several of his staff officers began coordinating the rescue efforts.

“Seven I believe,” Argyll’s First Lieutenant answered as he stood to let Rivers take his seat. “We have to check the sensor logs to be sure. They just appeared and as per your orders every ship opened fire on their own initiative.”

“Very good,” Lightfoot responded. “In fact, pass on my compliments to the fleet for their fast reactions. Then get me a damage report from each ship.” He had seen several of his ships take hits from the Karacknids’ energy weapons. They had reacted quickly as well. When everyone else busied themselves, Lightfoot pulled up the sensor readings and re-watched the engagement. There had been seven Karacknid ships. They were all destroyers. As expected, his ships opened fire first. Though only the closest twelve could actually engage. The others quickly moved to get into range. Most of the first volley of shots struck the destroyers for they were stationary. Nevertheless, the impressive armor of the Karacknid ships absorbed many of the plasma bolts. Only those from the larger cannons of his cruisers penetrated with the first hits. Something we need to replicate quickly, Lightfoot thought as he watched the armor resist the corrosive plasma bolts. He knew scientists back on Earth were already analyzing fragments recovered from destroyed Karacknid ships. It would likely take months or even years to fully replicate it, but the sooner the better.

Seconds after coming under fire, the Karacknid ships started evasive maneuvers and then they returned fire. Lightfoot nodded. The Karacknids had responded quickly, but it was their armor that had bought them the time to do so. They are not invincible, just well equipped. As damage reports came in, Lightfoot studied them. He decided to dispatch two more ships back to Earth with strict orders to travel through the German colonies in stealth. He didn’t want them to risk being discovered. Then he rearranged his fleet’s formation to make up for his reduced numbers. “Now all we can do is wait,” he said to Rivers. His tactic had worked once. The Karacknid ships had appeared right in the middle of the kink in the shift passage. It seemed they hadn’t changed their standard operating procedures. “If they are not going to learn, I’m happy to continue to oblige their folly.”

“It will likely take weeks for whoever is commanding the Karacknid forces in Holstein to notice the loss of these ships,” Rivers said. “We should get another ambush or two out of this tactic yet.”

“As long as we don’t encounter something bigger than we can handle,” Lightfoot replied. He had standing orders for all his ships to jump to shift space if a large Karacknid squadron appeared in front of them. Even so, it could still prove disastrous if it were to happen.

*

Argyll, 16th December 2481 AD (six days later).

The next group of Karacknid warships appeared when Lightfoot was on Argyll’s bridge sitting in his command chair. He was idly scrolling through the most recent Varanni frigate scout report from Holstein. When Flew’s ships had passed through the system they had kept a wide berth. With Gar’am’s approval, Lightfoot had sent two Varanni frigates much deeper into the system. Their findings made for an interesting read. A much closer look at the two hundred Karacknid warships in orbit suggested that nearly half of them were undergoing minor repairs. They had obviously been part of the fleet that had retreated from Earth. Not seriously damaged enough to require a properly equipped repair yard, they had been left behind to bolster Holstein’s garrison. It was useful information to know, but not something Lightfoot could act upon. Even with just one hundred fully operational warships, the Karacknids had a fleet more than large enough to stop him retaking the system.

It was in the midst of such thoughts that eighteen new contacts suddenly appeared right in front of his ships. Even as alarms began to go off, tactical officers on board Human, Vestarian and Varanni ships acted. Tapping their consoles, they gave permission for their ships’ automatic targeting systems to engage. Just three seconds after appearing, the Karacknid ships came under attack. Plasma bolts and laser beams zipped across space to strike them. This time, Lightfoot got to watch the engagement in real time. Not that he could do anything to affect its outcome, it all happened too fast. Six Karacknid ships detonated before they could maneuver or return fire. Then, as their surviving comrades began to do so, the battle turned from being one-sided. In order to cover the center of the shift passage Lightfoot had his forty-two warships reasonably spread out. Only half were in range of the Karacknid ships, though the rest were quickly closing. Until they did, the remaining Karacknid ships found themselves in a near even energy weapon duel. Of course, Lightfoot’s ships knew just what kind of duel they were in. As soon as they fired their first volley, they began evasive maneuvers. Many of the energy beams the Karacknids fired in return missed. Even so, some didn’t.

Lightfoot winced as two of his ships were blown apart by enemy fire. In the next ten seconds, as ships dipped, weaved and twisted, three more of his warships were hit. Two were crippled, the third detonated as one of its reactors was pierced by a laser beam. Four Karacknids were taken out in the same timeframe. Then, Lightfoot’s other ships arrived. The Karacknid ships found themselves almost encircled by enemy ships. Evasive maneuvers that dodged incoming fire from one direction left them open to attack from another. After just thirty more seconds the battle was over. Lightfoot lost one more ship while all eighteen Karacknid contacts were no more.

When the shooting stopped, silence descended on Argyll’s bridge. It seemed everyone was breathing a quiet sigh of relief. She had been in the midst of the fighting, though Lightfoot had been so focused on all of his ships that he hadn’t specifically noticed how badly. As he looked at Rivers, Lightfoot saw his flight captain wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. “That was close,” Rivers said in his American drawl. “Did you see that particle cannon shot? It must have grazed the outer hull. We are lucky to be here! Good flying Hanson,” he added as he looked over to Argyll’s navigation officer. “Congratulations Admiral,” he continued as he turned his head back. “We took some losses, but that was a very one-sided victory.”

“Indeed it was,” Lightfoot agreed. He knew he would mourn the ships he had lost later. But now he let the feelings of success wash over him. It was a close thing though, he said to himself. A handful more Karacknid ships and the energy weapon duel could have gone the other way. “We’re going to pull a couple of light hours back from the kink,” he decided. “We’ll carry out repairs, assess our damage and keep an eye on what Karacknid ships pass by before deciding what to do next. We can’t fight another enemy squadron of that size.”

“That sounds good to me Admiral,” Rivers replied. “We were sent here to show the Karacknids we’re not beaten yet. I’d say we’ve accomplished that.”

Lightfoot nodded. Rivers was correct but destroying a handful of Karacknid ships was not going to stop the Karacknids from raiding Human colonies. Nor would it lead to Holstein’s liberation. Lightfoot was all too aware that he had promised Major General Johnston and the marines he had sent to Holstein’s surface that he would return. Being so close to the colony and yet unable to provide any aid was deeply frustrating. We are not pulling out just yet, he said to himself. They would lick their wounds and see what other opportunities arose.

*

Karacknid frigate Scar, Holstein-Föhr shift passage, 24th December 2481 AD (eight days later).

Commander Hx-amon couldn’t help grumbling quietly to himself. Scar was his first command. When he had found out he had been given a frigate he had been elated. Then, when she had been assigned to the fleet invading the Human sector, his hopes of seeing fame and fortune had soared. A small, fast and agile Karacknid warship was just the kind of ship that would have excelled in raiding and pacifying the uncivilized Human colonies. Though he had arrived too late to join the main fleet that had been sent to Earth, it had proved to be a blessing in disguise. Now however, instead of using his warship to the best of its abilities, he had been assigned patrol duty. A raiding squadron was more than a week overdue and Lower Admiral Kiskheck had decided Scar could spend a week slowly traversing the Holstein-Föhr shift passage looking for them. Dull and irrelevant work if ever there was any.

“Eh? Commander, I think we’ve found something” one of Scar’s bridge officers said, contradicting Hx-amon’s thoughts.

“What is it?” Hx-amon asked irritably.

“Debris, and quite a lot of it,” the officer responded. “Shall I go active with our sensors?”

“No,” Hx-amon snapped. If the debris was the remnants of the squadron he was meant to be searching for, then it must have encountered a much larger force. There was a Human squadron known to be active in the vicinity, but it was too small. Either way, he didn’t want to encounter whatever had caused the debris field. “Get us closer to the debris. Confirm it is from some of our ships. Passive sensors only.”

Twenty minutes later there was no doubt. The debris was from destroyed Karacknid ships. Hx-amon’s claws were extended. His grumbling replaced with anger. There was some debris that wasn’t Karacknid. It was from Human warships. But there was hardly any of it. Whatever had happened here, his comrades had been decimated. They were ambushed, Hx-amon decided as he looked at the shift passage around him. The Karacknid squadron had exited shift space to reorientate itself and had been set upon by Human ships. Those sneaky dung piles!

“Commander, I’m picking up something else,” his officer reported. “Further down the shift passage. It’s faint and intermittent, but I think there is a ship out there.”

“Bring us to a halt,” Hx-amon ordered immediately. “The Humans might still be about. Send all the data to my command chair. Keep a keen eye on that sector of space.”

For nearly an hour Hx-amon carefully watched the weak signal his ship’s passive sensors were picking up. Though the sensor data wasn’t one hundred percent conclusive, given the other evidence floating all around his ship, he was sure. Whatever force had ambushed the Karacknid squadron, it was still here. “Back us up slowly,” Hx-amon ordered. “We’re going to slip out of here quietly and then head back to Holstein at maximum speed. Kiskheck needs to know about this.”

*

Argyll, Föhr-Holstein shift passage. 27th December 2481 AD (three days later).

Though it had happened many times during his career, Lightfoot still groaned when he was woken from his sleep by his COM unit blaring. “What is it?” he asked as he tapped it.

“Sorry to disturb you Admiral,” Rivers voice said. “But one of the Varanni scouts has returned. You’re going to want to see its sensor data.”

“Okay, I’ll be there momentarily,” Lightfoot replied. As he swung his legs out of bed, he couldn’t help but groan again. Then he rubbed his eyes, looked around for his uniform and forced himself to his feet.

When he got to Argyll’s bridge, the sensor data was already being displayed on the holo-screen. “Ninety Karacknid ships broke orbit three days ago. They are on their way here. Fortitude’s Captain reckons they are three to four hours behind her.”

“They know,” Lightfoot realized immediately. “I don’t know how, but they know about us. Signal the fleet, we are jumping out of here immediately.”

“Where to?” Rivers asked.

Lightfoot thought for a moment. Ninety ships were nearly all the fully operational warships the Karacknid commander had. We’ve been more of a thorn in their side than I realized. “The Beta system, if not Earth. I think that force has one goal. Our destruction,” he said to Rivers and Argyll’s bridge crew. “Only Earth’s defenses can stop them.” He didn’t want to lead another Karacknid fleet to Earth, but if they did follow him that far, he suspected they would get a warm welcome. Somerville and Gupta were bound to have more ships repaired by now and Earth’s defenses hadn’t been completely wiped out. “Pass the word to our fleet. We jump in sixty seconds.” There was no time to waste. Even with their upgrades, Karacknid warships were still slightly faster.

*

Argyll, New Berlin system, 6th January 2482 AD (nine days later).

As Argyll exited shift space into the New Berlin system, Lightfoot couldn’t help but feel a depressing sense of déjà vu. Five months ago he had jumped into the system leading a squadron of ships in full flight ahead of the massive Karacknid invasion force that had been destined for Earth. Then, as he suspected would be the case now, the governor of New Berlin had loudly berated him for abandoning her colony to the mercy of the Karacknids. Knowing he would have to do the same now, Lightfoot wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable COM message she would send his way when she saw his ships running.

“There are ships in orbit around New Berlin,” a sensor officer reported. “I think they are warships. They are Human.”

Lightfoot’s thoughts of New Berlin’s Governor evaporated. The Karacknid fleet was right on his heels. They had followed him through three systems already. His eyes darted from the projection of new Berlin to the Ulm shift passage. The ships in orbit around the colony wouldn’t be able to make it to the shift passage before his ships. If they tried, the Karacknids would catch them. Yet if they remained in orbit, the Karacknids could attack New Berlin and destroy them there anyway. They are either more UN ships that have been in hiding, or reinforcements from Earth, Lightfoot knew. If they were UN ships, they would be woefully under powered compared to Karacknid warships. Yet if they were reinforcements, they would be fitted with the most advanced weapons technologies Humanity had available. Lightfoot made a snap decision. He couldn’t just abandon them. “Set course for New Berlin. Maximum speed.” The German colony had twelve Peacekeeper battlestations and quite a few defense satellites. The battlestations had the equivalent firepower of a pre-Mindus technology Human battleship. With his fleet, the additional warships in orbit and whatever Spitfire fighters New Berlin had, it might just be enough to hold off the Karacknid fleet. If they want to attack us they might win, but it would cost them dearly, Lightfoot thought. But we will be trapped, there will be no way to break out. Not without being gunned down. At least we can give them a good fight. He was sick of all the running.

*

“Stalemate,” Lightfoot said, his voice full of frustration. The additional ships had turned out to be reinforcements. Commodore Dechert, their commander had spoken of three massive Kulrean ships arriving at Earth that had freed her ships to come to the German colonies. That was all well and good. But the Karacknid fleet had now fully surrounded New Berlin. “We are stuck,” he said to Rivers. “There’s no way out, and there’s no more ships coming from Earth. Not for months.”

“At least we are alive,” Rivers said as he shrugged. “And if those Karacknid ships want to waste their time circling New Berlin, at least they’re not attacking other colo…” Rivers broke off midsentence.

When Lightfoot turned to the holo-projector he saw why. Two squadrons of eight ships had just broken away from the main Karacknid fleet. One was heading to the shift passage to Ulm, another for the passage to Leipzig. They were going to carry out more raids! Lightfoot smashed his command chair and swore. There was nothing he could do. The Karacknids still had a powerful enough fleet to destroy his ships if he tried to break orbit. He punched his command chair again. He was stuck!




Chapter 11

When a new imperial colony is opened up to settlers there is almost always a rush for land. As a general principle the division is made by a lottery system. It protects prospective settlers from nepotism or bribery among the colonial administrators. One exception is made however, retired marines always get their choice of land. They are the settlers the Empire wants at the forefront of all of its colonies.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Holstein, 6th January 2482 AD.

Major Jeffers eyed the column of Karacknid troops heading north warily. She was two hundred meters deep inside one of Holstein’s thick forests. Even so, she knew the Karacknid troops would be on high alert. They always were. Her contacts in Landung City had informed her about the planned troop movement three days ago. One of the six regiments that formed a garrison for the colony’s capital was being re-deployed to bolster the troops hunting down the marines hiding in the northern mountains. The Karacknids had obviously decided Landung City was firmly under their control.

It had been three weeks since she had last launched any kind of operation. Even then, the last attack her special forces marines had carried out had been the bombing of a small Karacknid outpost in a minor settlement. They had killed perhaps four or five Karacknids. That was what she had been reduced to. With all of the marine’s sensor dampeners captured or destroyed, any attempt to move openly risked kinetic rounds raining down from orbit. Several marine platoons had been wiped out that way. When news of the reassignment of an entire Karacknid regiment had come in, Jeffers had jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to finally hit the Karacknids hard. Foolishly, the Karacknids had chosen the same route north their last regiment had taken. She was about to make them pay.

Unconsciously, she rubbed her thumb over the detonator in her hand. The forward screening elements of the Karacknid regiment had already passed over the charges her marines had set eight hours ago. Another sixty meters and the head of their main column would be well within the blast radius. As soon as the explosives detonated, her marines had orders to open fire with everything they had for thirty seconds. Then they would bug out. A fraction of the regiment’s strength would be killed at best, but their journey north would be severely delayed. It will buy the marines fighting up there some time, she knew. That was all she could hope for.

Jeffers’ thumb stopped when the Karacknid main column halted. Something was wrong. They know, Jeffers thought. Before she could open a COM channel to her marines, the long column of Karacknids pivoted. Half turned towards her side of the gravel road. The other half in the opposite direction. Then, a very familiar whistling sound was detected by her combat armor’s sensors. A split-second later, explosions erupted all around her position. Kinetic strikes were wreaking havoc among the forest. “Bug out,” she screamed over her COM channel. In the distance, beyond the Karacknid regiment, she could see more strikes raining down on the opposite side of the road. As they bathed everything around her in an orange hue, Jeffers froze. The kinetic strikes were trying to drive her marines towards the Karacknid regiment. Every Karacknid soldier had a weapon raised and ready to mow down any marines that fled their way. Thumbing the detonator, Jeffers detonated the charges. The explosion knocked down many Karacknids. She hoped it would confuse the orbital gunners. They might think they had hit their own troops and pause for a few seconds. Turning away from the enemy formation she had failed to ambush, Jeffers burst into a sprint. As she did, the sight in front of her almost made her pause. Flames were everywhere. The forest had been ignited. Squinting, Jeffers ran straight into the swirling inferno. Within seconds her combat armor began to beep warnings at her. The heat was quickly rising above temperatures it could tolerate. Jeffers ignored the warnings and focused on moving as fast as she could. The shockwave from a nearby orbital strike lifted her off her feet and smashed her into the trunk of a burning tree. Pain shot up her left forearm. She gritted her teeth together. Her old wound was supposed to have fully healed, yet it still gave her problems. The pain focused her mind though. As flames from the tree flicked around her, she sprang to her feet. In the blink of an eye she was racing away again. A part of her, the part where she held her responsibly for her marines, wanted to reach out with her suit sensors and locate them. She hoped they were all still running. Yet she knew that if she activated her sensors a kinetic round could land on her head within seconds. It was every marine for themselves. It went against every fiber in her body, but it was the only way any of them would survive the counter ambush.

For what seemed like an eternity, Jeffers sprinted through flames and explosions. She kept zigzagging in case an orbital ship or aerial attack craft was tracking her. Sweat from her exertions and the rising temperature of her combat armor ran down her chest, back and legs. She kept running and running. Eventually her body began to groan under the strain. Her mouth was parched, and she could feel the beginnings of a thumping headache coming. She was badly dehydrated. Slowing slightly, she extended her senses beyond just focusing on picking a path through the forest. Quickly she realized the aerial bombardment had stopped. In the distance, she could hear the whining of Karacknid troop shuttles. They were searching for whatever marines had escaped. Pulling up a map of the local area on her HUD she was surprised to see she was a full six miles from the initial ambush site. Something else on her HUD caught her attention though. The temperature of her combat armor was still dangerously high. Its stealth technology was struggling and failing to dissipate the heat. If she didn’t cool down quickly she would light up whatever infrared sensors the Karacknid shuttles had. On her map she searched for somewhere to hide. No known safe spots or caves were anywhere nearby. Something else caught her eye. A medium sized river. It was just another mile away. Despite her groaning muscles, Jeffers broke into a sprint again.

Soon she was at the river. Without a moment’s hesitation she dived in. Letting the weight of her combat armor pull her down, she sank to the bottom. She paused to allow her combat armor to quickly dissipate its excess heat into the water. Then, using her arms, she lifted her body off the river bed and allowed the current to take her downstream. The river headed in almost the opposite direction to the rendezvous point she had arranged with her marines. At the moment she didn’t care. She would get to the rendezvous point eventually. Now her focus was on getting out of the Karacknids’ search zones. Her marines had known they would have to scatter even after a successful ambush. It was expected that the survivors would trickle into the rendezvous point over the next week. If I’m last, I’m last, Jeffers thought as the current picked up speed. As long as I’m not the only one. The ambush had been a disaster. She had been outsmarted. It was obvious now that the troop movements had been leaked. They were waiting for us! Jeffers berated herself. It’s not just a disaster, it’s my disaster. How many have died under your command now? Jeffers had to blink back tears of shame. She knew the answer to her own question. One hundred and six normal and special forces marines had died in operations she had led since the Karacknid invasion. She knew that when she got to the rendezvous point, she would be adding to that number.

*

17th January 2482 AD (eleven days later).

Jeffers led what remained of her special forces marine platoon through the dark cave system with a weariness she had never felt before. Six days ago she had made it back to the rendezvous point. Only thirteen other marines had been there. Four of them had been badly injured. Eight had not made it at all. They were eight men and woman she had come to know well. Faces she could easily picture when she closed her eyes. In dismay and defeat she had led what remained of her forces from the rendezvous point into one of Holstein’s many cave systems. Major General Johnston had sent word for her to meet with him. She had hoped to arrive at their meeting point with a victory to report. Instead she was arriving with only a shell of her force left. Whatever Johnston wanted her special forces marines for, she wasn’t sure he would be able to find a use for them now.

Movement up ahead made her freeze. Switching on one of her combat armor’s lights, she blinked it in the prearranged pattern. A hundred meters further down the cave, a similar light appeared and returned the pattern. “We are here,” she said to her marines. “We should have food and supplies. You’ll be able to rest.” She doubted it would lift the spirits of her soldiers, but it was all she could offer them.

“Major Jeffers?” A marine in combat armor asked as she approached.

“Yes, Major General Johnston is expecting me,” she replied.

“I am Captain Higuaín, please follow me. My surgeon will see to your platoon,” the marine replied.

Jeffers wanted to correct him. Her special forces marines barely numbered more than a couple of squads now. She held her tongue. They would find out about her failure soon enough. “Lead on,” she said instead.

“Major Jeffers,” Johnston said as she entered the alcove in the cave system Johnston had obviously taken as an office. She saluted him and Johnston returned the gesture. “Your reply to my message spoke of an attack. How did it go?” Johnston asked.

Jeffers kept her face taunt. “It was a failure General. The Karacknids anticipated our plan. They were ready for us. I positioned my marines on either side of the route the Karacknid regiment was taking. I had explosives planted as well. The plan was to catch the head of their column in the explosion and then hit their troop trucks with hypervelocity missiles. Neither happened. They stopped before reaching my explosives and then all hell broke loose. There must have been hundreds of kinetic rounds sent down on our heads. I lost eight marines. Two more are badly injured. My force has been halved. We were defeated.”

Johnston bowed his head. When he looked back up Jeffers was surprised not to see disappointment in his eyes. “I’m sorry for your losses. You have proven yourself to be one of the most competent commanders of marines I have ever met,” he said as he held her gaze. “Don’t let this get you down. None of us can win every battle. It does confirm what I have been thinking though.”

Jeffers hesitated. She had been expecting a grilling. Instead Johnston was changing the topic. She knew what he was doing. He was trying to take her mind off her losses. Though she didn’t appreciate the effort, she took his bait. “What is that?” she asked, she didn’t want to dwell on them either. That was all that she had been doing for the last week and more.

“We need to end our resistance efforts,” Johnston said as he sat down at his makeshift desk and motioned Jeffers towards one of the seats.

“Surely not?” Jeffers asked, her own problems forgotten. “We cannot be defeated yet. What about our forces in the north?”

“They’re still fighting,” Johnston confirmed. “But they’re down to just a handful of dampeners. Sooner rather than later the Karacknid forces there will capture or destroy them and then our forces will be bombarded into surrender. The mountain passes have severely curtailed the Karacknids’ ability to outmaneuver our forces there, but our losses have been steadily rising. If I don’t pull our marines out now, they will be trapped up there.”

Jeffers turned away from Johnston as she tried to picture what it would be like. Three regiments had fallen back into the mountains in the north of the continent. There they had been fighting a slow retreat for months. The narrow valleys and high mountains had negated the Karacknids’ numerical advantage. Though if the dampeners were taken out, the same geographical features would trap the marines. Taking them out with orbital strikes would be like shooting ducks in a barrel. “What about our efforts to carry out raids and ambushes?” she asked when her mind returned to the many hundreds of marines who were hidden all across the southern part of the continent.

“I’m going to suspend all operations,” Johnston replied. “The Karacknids now outnumber us by a factor of ten to one. If not worse. Every raid we launch we are losing marines. Marines we cannot replace. You’ve seen the reports just as I have. We all thought the war would be over when that massive Karacknid fleet passed through the system. Yet barely half of them returned and most were damaged. We haven’t seen sight nor sign of them since. Our fleet must have won a battle. No doubt at great cost, but it means relief is coming. An invasion force will arrive to retake the planet. But if we are going to be around to help, we need to go to ground. We can start planning how best to hamper the Karacknids’ defenses when the eventual counter-attack comes. But if we keep fighting now, we won’t have the personnel or material to assist whatever forces come to retake the planet.”

Jeffers nodded. She understood what Johnston was saying. Yet there was another explanation to his analysis. The massive Karacknid fleet that had passed through the system could just as easily have destroyed Earth. The limited sensor readings the marines had been able to get of the fleet when it had first passed through Holstein had told them at least one thing. There had been no troop ships amongst the enemy ships. The fleet had not been on an invasion mission. And we know they nuked Jaranna, Jeffers reminded herself. It was just as likely that Home Fleet had been destroyed and Earth was in ruins. If that was the case, no help was coming. When she looked up to meet Johnston’s eyes she saw the doubts she felt reflected there. “Okay Major General, I understand. What part do you want me to play?” she asked in a tone that conveyed none of her emotions. If the Karacknids had won, there was nothing they could do about it. And if they acknowledged the possibility, what was left of the marines on Holstein would lose all hope. We need one last mission to focus on, Jeffers realized. Johnston was giving it to them.

“I’m giving you what’s left of 4th Battalion, 2nd Regiment,” Johnston replied. “They are currently in hiding twenty kilometers east of Landung City. Your special forces marines can rest up here for a few days. We’ll look after your injured. Then you can head out. You’re to make sure they are well dug in and supplied. Then you’re to hunker down with them until I send orders otherwise. We already have plenty of reconnaissance data on the Karacknid defenses. If and when we get indication that a counter invasion is coming, we’ll begin recon missions to update our intelligence. For now, you can focus on planning what attacks will be most effective to hamper their defenses. Taking out their ground-based anti-shuttle missiles will be our priority.”

“I understand,” Jeffers said as she nodded. “How many marines are left in fourth Battalion?”

“According to the last update, seventy,” Johnston answered. Jeffers tried and failed to keep her face straight. A typical marine battalion had six hundred marines. “You’ll have to scrounge together what heavy weapons you can,” Johnston continued. “I think they have a couple of hyper velocity missiles, but that’s it. You may have to prepare some makeshift IED’s and whatever else you can come up with.”

“At least it will give us something to do while we are staying out of sight,” Jeffers replied. “Where do you plan to hide the marines still fighting in the north?”

“I’ve had a couple of companies from third regiment preparing several locations. We’ll have to split the marines coming down from the north into more than a hundred smaller groups. We haven’t had time to check out all the hiding places the locals have shared with us, but we’ll have to make do. It will be better than staying in the mountains when the last dampeners are destroyed.”

Jeffers wasn’t going to argue with that. Still, it sounded like life was not going to be fun for those marines. They could get to some cave or other spot only to find it less than useless as a place to lie low. Marines could survive pretty much anywhere, but if they couldn’t keep out of sensor range of the orbital ships and Karacknid patrols, they would be wiped out. “I’m sure you will do what you can for them,” she said. Not for the first time, she was thankful she didn’t have Johnston’s responsibilities. It was bad enough carrying the guilt of all those who had died under her command. Johnston had overseen the deaths of thousands of marines over the last several months. And no matter what he does, hundreds more will be added to that number in the coming weeks. “If it’s okay Major General, I will take my leave. I want to make sure my injured are being taken care of.”

Johnston waved for her to stand. “By all means Major. We’ll talk more before you leave.”

Jeffers saluted again and quickly turned away from Johnston. As weary and downtrodden as she felt, Johnston looked worse. She needed to find a distraction from her despair or it would consume her and staying with Johnston wasn’t going to provide it.




Chapter 12

The Gift is a marvelous thing. Thought to be unique to our galaxy, it drove much of the second Interstellar Expansion Era. The first pre-FTL settlers who discovered it thought it was a gift given to them to allow them to escape Earth. They were right. Yet it was a far greater Gift given to the Empire. To date eight wormhole event horizons have been discovered and it is believed there may yet be more.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Regin shipyard, Maximilian system. November 15th 2481 AD.

Emilie couldn’t help but beam as she steered the shuttle into a slow spiral around Intrepid. The exploration cruiser was beautiful. The weapons systems, sensor blisters and stealth coating all looked pristine. They should, she thought as her smile widened. They are all brand spanking new. Of course, what was under the surface was what really had her smiling. Intrepid had spent the last five weeks with her hull open to space as engineers from Regin removed her reactors and replaced them with the latest designs Commander Scott had come up with before she left the shipyard. Many other components throughout the cruiser had also been ripped out and replaced whilst still more had been upgraded. Intrepid had been designed and built to be a fast, long range warship specialized in operating on her own. Now, with her upgrades, Emilie reckoned she was the fastest and one of the stealthiest ships in the Human fleet. Not that there’s much competition, a voice in Emilie’s mind reminded her. She pushed that thought aside just as she was suppressing the small amount of guilt she still felt. Whilst everyone else was preparing to face the Karacknids and help drive them out of Human space, she was heading in the opposite direction. She was determined that such thoughts wouldn’t spoil her moment. Intrepid’s hull had been put back together several hours ago and she was carrying out a final inspection. If everything was to her satisfaction, they would be departing within the next couple of days.

With a gentle touch on the shuttle’s joystick, she brought the shuttle in for a closer look. She nodded in approval. There was no evidence that the engineers had cut a hole in the cruiser’s hull to access her reactors. They had done a proper job of sealing her back up. As she continued her circle around the ship, a familiar face caught her attention. A tall muscular woman was standing in one of the observation blisters. As the shuttle approached, she waved. Emilie smiled and returned the gesture. Pretty much everyone on board the cruiser was unknown to her. Everyone except Lieutenant Shaw. Both before she left Earth, and then on Britannia when she had first stepped aboard Intrepid to take command, Emilie had been able to pick the cream of the officers and Navy personnel available. She hadn’t known any of them though. It will be good to have one familiar face on this voyage, she thought as her shuttle drifted out of sight of the marine Lieutenant. Of course, there is another, Emilie’s cheeks reddened. She tried to force those thoughts down too, but she wasn’t so successful. Alongside the cruiser’s normal complement of officers and crew, her uncle had assigned an intelligence team. Given their mission and the fact that they were going into a completely unknown area of space, having several experts on alien culture and other intelligence related activities seemed like a very wise precaution. She didn’t know whether her uncle was aware of the delicate relationship she and Lieutenant Alverez shared. Whether he was or not, he had picked the best man to lead the unit. Alverez had served as the Outer Defense Fleet’s intelligence officer for the entire time her uncle had commanded the fleet. There is no relationship, Emilie said herself. Delicate or not. As a Lieutenant, she had liked him. She suspected he had felt the same, but neither of them had acted on it and since the Outer Defense Fleet’s return from Jaranna, their paths had diverged. But now they have reconnected… Stop it, Emilie scolded herself as she refocused on Intrepid. She had a hundred and one things she had to devote her attention to. Alverez was not one of them.

“All right, that’s enough stargazing,” she said. As much as she would have loved to spend another hour taking in the beauty of her command, she had things to do. With another flick of the shuttle’s joystick, she turned it towards the cruiser’s shuttle bay. Ever so gently, she brought the shuttle in to land. After the hangar door closed and the bay was pressurized, she lowered the shuttle’s ramp and stepped back onto her cruiser’s deck. Unsurprisingly, First Lieutenant Owen Jones was already waiting for her.

“Well, how does she look?” he asked excitedly. “Maybe I should take a shuttle and have a peak myself. Two eyes are always better than one.”

“Are you suggesting I’m not competent to assess my own ship?” Emilie asked deadpan.

Jones’ enthusiasm died instantly. “No, of course not Captain. I was just, I thought I would like…”

Emilie broke into a smile. “Relax Lieutenant. I knew what you meant.” She winked at him. “I’m sure everyone would love to get a good look at her. She is beautiful.”

“Oh,” Jones said as relief washed over his face.

Emilie couldn’t help but laugh at him. “Don’t worry, I don’t bite Lieutenant. You can take out a shuttle another time perhaps. For now, I have other things for you to do. When you’re Captain you can take as many pleasure rides in your shuttle as you want. But you work for me at the minute.” She winked again. “Now, what did you want to see me about?”

“Right, yes” Jones replied with a start. Emilie knew he hadn’t quite got used to her familiarity yet. She had appreciated it in her uncle, and she intended to foster the same kinds of relationships; at least among her two senior Lieutenants. “I have the latest update on the final upgrades,” he said as he passed a datapad to Emilie.

“Great,” Emilie said as she reached for the datapad. “Come on, let’s go,” she added as she moved past Jones.

“Where are we going? Jones asked as he rushed to fall in step beside her. “There’s nothing on our schedule.”

“I’ve just finished my final external examination. Now we’re going to go through the whole ship. I want to see every nook and cranny. We’ll particularly take a look at these,” Emilie emphasized as she tapped the datapad. “I want to make sure everything is ship-shape before we request permission to depart.”

“Depart?” Jones repeated as his voice rose. “I thought we’d be a couple of weeks away from that at least.”

Emilie shook her head. “Not if I have anything to say about it. Anything that we can do en-route to the Gift we are going to do ourselves. I want to get this mission going.”

Jones fell into silence as he walked alongside his Captain. After a minute or so he spoke again. “What do you think we are going to find on the other side?”

“Who knows?” Emilie replied as she shrugged. “At this stage, your guess is as good as mine Lieutenant.” But whatever we find, it better help us defeat the Karacknids, she thought. She wasn’t heading in the opposite direction of the war for no reason. Whatever it took, she was determined to find something that would advance Humanity’s chances of survival. And we’re going to do it as quickly as we can.

*

Intrepid, the Gift. November 29th 2481 AD (two weeks later).

Intrepid, this is Gift control, permission to proceed has been granted,” a voice said over the open COM channel to the small orbital station that was Gift control.

“Well, there is nothing else for it,” Emilie said as she stared into the maelstrom of gravimetric eddies that was the Gift. “Take us forward.”

Most of Intrepid’s crew had travelled through the wormhole that led to Haven a handful of times. Emilie had done it more than twenty. She still remembered her first. Her belly had been a bedlam of nerves. That had been different though, she hadn’t been the first person to ever traverse the wormhole. Thousands had done it before her. This time, she was going to be the first. Her nerves had ratcheted up to another level. Despite the feelings swirling around inside her, she kept her face impassive. She was well aware that a number of Intrepid’s bridge officers were stealing glances at her. They too were nervous. It was easy for her to picture her uncle’s face as he had led the Outer Defense Fleet into a number of deadly space battles. Every time he had portrayed the same stalwart expression. It had given everyone a quiet confidence. She doubted her presence had such an effect, but at the very least, she didn’t want to scare anyone by letting them see her nerves.

Intrepid edged forward. As she passed Gift control, the station dipped its shuttle landing lights to wish the cruiser luck. Picking up speed, the cruiser passed by several small defensive forts. There were six of them, though eight more were under construction. No one knew what kind of alien threats might lie on the other side of the newly found wormhole. The Emergency Committee wasn’t taking any risks. Then, as the gravimetric eddies swirled around Intrepid, the holographic display darkened. Within the Gift Intrepid’s normal sensors were all but incapable of detecting anything. Only two faint signals were coming through. One was the navigational buoy at the mouth of the wormhole passage that led to Haven. The second was a similar buoy. Intrepid locked onto it.

Whilst the normal sensors were all but blinded, the gravimetric sensors went crazy. No one yet understood exactly what the Gift was. No natural source for all the gravimetric disturbances had been detected. Nor had anyone been able to recognize any distinct pattern to the appearance and disappearance of all the eddies. Even the Kulreans had been surprised by the data that Earth had shared with them. They are beautiful though, Emilie said to herself as she watched them swirl around her ship. It wasn’t the first time she had had such thoughts, but she allowed herself to indulge them as she watched the random patterns. She needed a distraction.

Intrepid’s navigation officer eased the cruiser towards the buoy while everyone else watched in silence. “Ten kilometers from the event horizon,” she announced. “Six… Four… two…”.

As she always did, Emilie closed her eyes tightly as the nose of her cruiser touched the event horizon. In an instant, the entire ship was sucked into the wormhole. Just as she expected, her insides felt like someone had shoved a fork inside her and whisked everything up. The sensation felt like it lasted nearly ten seconds, though the scientists kept assuring everyone that the journey from one end of the wormhole to another was instantaneous. Then the sensation stopped and Emilie opened her eyes. The holographic display immediately updated itself with the new data Intrepid’s sensors were getting. As a result, an entirely different starscape greeted her. On the gravimetric display a handful of eddies were visible, but they were few and far between. As Intrepid moved away from the event horizon, they quickly dissipated. Whatever the Gift was, the gravimetric disturbance was far higher on the other end of the wormhole.

Emilie took a deep breath and allowed her shoulders to relax. They had made it. Glancing around, it looked like everyone and everything was in one piece. “Systems check,” she ordered.

“All stations are reporting green,” Jones replied moments later. “There’s nothing to indicate traversing that wormhole was any different from entering the Haven one.”

“Very good,” Emilie responded with a nod. “Launch survey drones. Helmsman, set course for the A shift passage. Let’s get to work.”

From Intrepid’s modified underbelly, five automated shift space drones broke free and set off on their preassigned survey flights. The end of the wormhole Intrepid had just traversed came out in the middle of open space. Previous automated survey drones had detected several potential shift passages that might lead to star systems. Though none had been fully explored. One of them has to lead somewhere, Emilie thought as Intrepid jumped into shift space for the brief flight to the potential shift passage designated A. They can’t all be dead ends. If they were, she would be forced to return home in failure. The nearest star system was two light years away. Flying there in normal space was out of the question.

*

January 8th 2482 AD (six weeks later).

“We did it,” Maguire said in an excited voice. She spun around in her command chair and shot Emilie and Jones a wide grin. “We have discovered our first star system!”

Emilie felt a similar joy. “Pass the word to the entire crew. Let them know that the drone’s data was correct.” Technically drone four had discovered the end of the shift passage. But such a trifle meant nothing to Intrepid’s crew. It had taken longer than Emilie had hoped, probably far longer than many of Intrepid’s crew had thought. But when they returned to the rendezvous point to link up with the exploration drones for the fifth time, one had claimed to have successfully navigated a shift passage all the way to a star system. Now Intrepid was sitting on the very edge of that system.

“What are we looking at sensors?” Emilie asked to turn everyone’s attention back to their duty.

“It’s a white dwarf Captain. There are seven planetary bodies. One gas giant and six rocky worlds closer to the star. None are in the habitable range though.” The sensor officer clearly sounded disappointed at that.

“No matter,” Emilie replied. “There could still be a lot of other interesting things. Launch the survey drones. Program them to circumnavigate the system’s mass shadow to look for other potential shift passages. Then take us in to the system, plot a course to take us past as many of the worlds as possible. Let’s take a closer look at our discovery.”

For the next two hours Emilie watched with interest as Intrepid’s sensors gathered more detailed data on the system. Though she had visited more than a hundred different solar systems during her naval career, none held as much of a fascination as this one. This was hers. She had discovered it. Already she was thinking of names for the different moons that orbited the gas giant. Historically, the responsibility of naming new systems and planetary bodies fell to the governments of whatever ship discovered it. However, the suggestions of the crew of the ship that made the discovery were taken into account. Given the state of the British government and the UN, Emilie thought there was a decent chance the names her crew came up with would stick.

As Intrepid passed the second planet in the system her sensors carried out a detailed scan of the surface. To many of the officers’ disappointment, there were no immediate signs of valstronium deposits or any other precious minerals. Such a discovery would normally lead to a small but significant bonus to the entire crew’s pay. The sensor data didn’t lessen Emilie’s joy though. Precious resources or not, it was a newly discovered world. She was among the first Humans to ever set eyes on it. That gave it a beauty in its own right.

“Captain, I’m getting some interesting readings from the next planet,” Intrepid’s sensor officer reported.

“Rare minerals?” Jones asked.

The sensor officer shook her head. “No, it’s not from the planet surface. There’s something in orbit.”

That made Emilie sit forward in her chair. “Something natural, or an artificial construction?”

“It’s hard to tell at this range. There’s no energy readings. But there are light reflections coming from something in orbit. The reflection wavelengths suggest a metallic component.”

Emilie shared a glance with Commander Alvarez. He had been quietly allowing Intrepid’s bridge officers to get on with their duty. But this was exactly why he was here. “What do you think?” Emilie asked him.

Alvarez shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out.”

Emilie nodded. “Take us in,” she said as she turned to her navigation officer.

“It’s definitely not natural,” the sensor officer reported fifteen minutes later. “But whatever it is, it’s small and very irregular.”

“How so?” Emilie queried.

The sensor officer altered the view on the main holo-projector. “This is the shape of the anomaly. It’s the best estimate from this range at least. Who would build a station or a ship like that?”

Emilie could see what she meant. The ship was roughly cuboid but its edges were all frayed and fragmented and there certainly wasn’t any symmetry to be seen.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean very much,” Alvarez commented. “If this is the construction of an alien race, who knows how they think or like to design things?”

“And there’s still no sign of intelligent life in the rest of the system?” Jones asked.

“Nothing our sensors are detecting,” the sensor officer replied.

“That is strange,” Jones responded. “If it is a ship or station, why is it here in the middle of nowhere?”

Half an hour later the answer to Jones’ question became clear. “It has to be wreckage,” Emilie decided when Intrepid’s visual sensors were finally able to show them an image of the anomaly. It was definitely not a naturally occurring object. Whatever it had once been though, its fragmented edges and unusual shape suggested it was no longer whole.

“I’m starting to pick up trace energy residues from the anomaly,” Maguire said. “They’re consistent with energy weapon discharges.” She pivoted in her seat to face Emilie. “Karacknid energy weapons.”

“Cease all active sensors,” Emilie responded at once. “Put us into stealth mode. Navigation, bring us to a halt. Don’t get any closer to that object.” As her orders were carried out Emilie kept an eye on the passive sensor readings of the system. A Karacknid fleet could be hiding behind any of the planets. Even out in the open if they wanted. They had already shown their stealth capabilities were impressive.

“What are you thinking?” Alvarez asked in a low voice.

“It could just be some wreckage, or it could be a trap,” Emilie replied. “If it is an alien ship that was destroyed by the Karacknids, then we’ve stumbled into a war zone. One we probably don’t want to get caught in the middle of.” A thought occurred to her. “Maguire, is there any way to tell how long ago the object was destroyed?”

“It’s wasn’t recent,” Maguire replied. “Not within the last few weeks at least. Beyond that, the residual energy traces can’t tell us very much. Not at this range.”

“All right,” Emilie said as she came to a decision. She turned back to Alvarez. “I guess this is why you are on this mission with us. I want you to put a team together. Take a shuttle over there and see what you can find.”

Alvarez smiled. “Aye Captain. It will be good to finally get to do something. I’ll get my people ready,” he added as he stood.

Emilie understood. Alvarez was used to serving her uncle on his command staff. He had always had a long list of duties to see to. Sitting and watching Intrepid’s crew explore shift passage after shift passage had probably been deadly boring. “Contact Lieutenant Shaw, bring her and a couple of marines with you as well,” she called out after Alvarez. She had no idea what they were going to find, but it was always good to have a marine around. Emilie knew that from experience.

After Alvarez nodded to acknowledge her command, Emilie turned back to the holo-projected image of the debris. Whatever it was, it held the promise of a vast array of possibilities for her mission and her species. If they had stumbled upon a new enemy of the Karacknids, then they may have just found a new ally. Or they could have just jumped into a system the Karacknids already controlled. In which case they may have already discovered their end of the wormhole. That would not be a good thing. Suddenly Emilie saw her mission in a whole new light. The stakes were even higher than she had imagined.




Chapter 13

There are many alien races that hold client state status within the Empire. Twenty-seven to be exact. Some do so as a result of geography, for our territory completely encompasses theirs. Others as a result of war, for we could not allow them to retain their sovereignty. The final and largest group have voluntary submitted themselves to our oversight and protection. In all three cases, to maintain client state status each civilization must adopt the Imperial Charter that ensures client state citizens enjoy the same freedoms full citizens of the Empire do.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Commander Alverez rolled his shoulders as he sat in the shuttle and stole a glance at Lieutenant Shaw. He envied her poise. She and the two marines with her looked just as much at home in their EVA combat suits as in their off-duty slacks. Though he had trained in the use of EVA suits - every US naval officer had to if they wanted to graduate officer training, he was far from comfortable in them. And we haven’t even reached the anomaly yet, he thought, hiding a sigh from those around him. With Emilie having pulled Intrepid back from the wreckage, the shuttle’s flight time was forty-five minutes. Thoughts of Emilie made him smile. She was no longer the young COM officer she had been when they had served on board Golden Hind together. Her time commanding one of Scott’s new corvettes had matured her. And she had jumped ahead of him in seniority. Initially, when he had heard she was being given another ship he had resented it. He was still waiting for his own chance. Then Admiral Somerville had called him to a private meeting. The Admiral had promised him his own command when Intrepid returned. Somerville had then asked him to look out for his niece. Does he know? Alverez asked himself, not for the first time. His thoughts turned his cheeks red. Quickly he turned away from Shaw. The marine Lieutenant and Emilie were close. He didn’t want her guessing his thoughts. Technically there was nothing going on between himself and Intrepid’s Captain. Alverez had thought there had been the potential for something during their time in the Outer Defense Fleet, though knowing who Emilie’s uncle was had made him hesitate. Then they had been separated for a couple of years while they had all been on the run from the UN. He had thought the time apart meant they would have both moved on. But then Golden Hind had been destroyed by the Karacknids. Alverez knew he was lucky to be alive. He had been pulled from the wreckage unconscious. And Emilie visited me several times while I recovered. Despite being run off her feet.

You need to ask her for a meal you fool, Alverez said to himself as he remembered the quiet conversations they had shared by his bedside. Since coming on board Intrepid he had kept to himself. Partly because he had known Emilie would have had no time for him, and then, as the mission progressed, partly out of boredom and resentment. While she and her Lieutenants were actively leading Intrepid on her mission of discovery, he had been sitting around twiddling his thumbs. But now that you’re actually doing something, your thoughts are going to her, he pointed out. Fine, he thought. I’ll ask her.

“Just so we’re clear,” Shaw said, putting an end to Alverez’s imagination. “My marines are going in first.”

Alverez glanced at his team, specifically at Walker. The reserved man sitting to his left was a special forces marine on detachment to Alverez’s intelligence team. Walker could whoop Shaw and her two marines with one hand tied behind his back. Ever so slowly Walker nodded. “Of course, Lieutenant,” Alverez replied as he turned back to Shaw. “That is what you are here for.” There was no point getting into a pissing contest with Shaw’s marines in the middle of a mission. If Walker was happy, so was he. “Walker will follow you in, and then the rest of us will pick up the rear.”

“The far rear,” Seth Hassan agreed. “You guys can check the whole structure out and then give us the all clear. I’m ok with that.”

Alverez shook his head. Hassan was supposed to be a computer whiz kid. He hadn’t seen any evidence of it yet. But one thing was clear, the kid wasn’t too fond of risks. He had asked for Alverez and the others to retrieve whatever data cores they could and bring them back to Intrepid for him to look at. “We’re not waiting that long,” he warned Hassan. “And you won’t be at the very rear. I’ll be behind you to give you a prod or two if you need it.”

Hassan rolled his eyes. “I was joking boss, we’re ready to rock and roll, aren’t we ladies?” he asked as he raised his eyebrows to Spence and Matthews.

Alverez rolled his own eyes. First at Hassan’s bravado, which seemed to only appear in the company of the opposite sex. And then at the women’s response. Both looked away from the eighteen-year-old, taking care to avoid eye contact with him. Spence had PhDs in xenobiology and xenolinguistics, while Matthews specialized in Applied Physics. Alverez had been keen to learn that neither women were too uptight and proper – in his experience many PhDs were. It usually came from thinking too highly of oneself. From the tension in the way both of them were holding themselves, it was obvious they were nervous. It’s their first-time going EVA outside of training, Alverez reminded himself. And their first mission of any kind. Admiral Somerville had recruited Hassan, Spence and Matthews out of civilian life and assigned them to Intrepid.  All three had readily accepted. That hadn’t surprised Alverez, after the Karacknid’s attack on Earth, everyone had been more than willing to do their part. That had been four months ago though. He suspected the reality of where they were and what they were doing was finally sinking in. At least I don’t have to worry about Walker, Alverez thought. The British special forces marine was a veteran of several combat engagements, two of which were still classified above Alverez’s clearance.

“We’re ten minutes out,” the shuttle’s pilot called. “We’ll circle the wreckage a few times, get some more detailed readings on it and then find the best place to set you guys down.”

“Understood,” Alverez replied on behalf of his team. From his seat just behind the pilot, he watched as the small speck the shuttle was heading towards quickly got bigger. “It’s pretty impressive,” he couldn’t help but say. “How big is it?”

“It out masses Intrepid by a factor of four,” Matthews answered. “If it was a UN warship, it would be classed as a battlecruiser.”

“And that’s just a damaged section,” Hassan said as he let out a whistle. “How big was the whole thing?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Alverez reminded him. “So keep your eyes open.”

“Do you think it is a warship?” Hassan asked too quickly for Alverez’s liking. He obviously hadn’t taken his warning seriously.

“Perhaps, though given its size it may just be debris from a freighter, or even an orbital station.” Alverez answered. He guessed the latter was the least likely, there didn’t seem to be any good reason to put a station in orbit around the system’s fourth planet, there was nothing of interest on the planet. At least nothing Intrepid’s sensors had picked up, but it was still a possibility.

“My money’s on the freighter option,” the shuttle’s pilot called out. “Look at her.”

When Alverez looked back out the shuttle’s forward view screen he saw what the pilot meant. It was crystal clear they were looking at the remnants of some kind of spaceship. One that had come under heavy attack. There were several large holes burnt right through its superstructure and out the other side. As the wreckage rotated in space, its innards became fully visible. It was obvious the ship had once been a freighter for there were large empty spaces that could only have been cargo holds. What else was clear was that the wreckage was far from complete. “Just how big would it have been?” Alverez found himself asking.

“Without knowing the kinds of designs its builder favored, that’s impossible to know,” Matthew answered. “But I’d estimate we’re looking at no more than a tenth of what this ship once was. Look at its end there. That must have been its nose. There are no engines nor reactors, they must have been destroyed outright.”

“Or sucked down into the planet’s atmosphere,” the shuttle pilot suggested.

“Indeed,” Matthews agreed.

“This looks like as good a spot as any,” the pilot suggested as he pointed to a large open section in the ship’s hull. We can set you down there and you can see if there is a way in.”

“Sounds good to me,” Alverez replied after studying the opening for a couple of seconds. Even if the ship had external access ports remaining, it was very unlikely their shuttle would be able to dock with them. They would have to find another way in. For once Karacknid energy weapons were going to make life easier for them.

Far quicker than Alverez thought safe, the pilot spun the shuttle around and backed into the hole. The familiar sound of the rear access ramp opening soon followed. “There you go,” the pilot said. “Good luck in there. Bring me back a souvenir.”

“Let’s move,” Shaw said to her marines.

Alverez let them stand first and move to the back of the shuttle before he followed. When he got there, Shaw and one marine had already pushed off from the shuttle. They slowly floated across the twenty meters to the ship’s hull. When they were a few meters out, they spun around and then activated the magnets in their boots. With a soundless clunk, they both stuck to the alien ship. Thank goodness the ship is metallic, Alverez thought. I wouldn’t want to be doing this if it wasn’t.

Moments after Shaw gave a thumbs up, the third marine and Walker pushed themselves off. Then Matthews and Spence followed. “Now it’s our turn,” Alverez said to Hassan. When the kid turned and looked up at Alverez, the fear in his eyes was unmistakable. “Don’t worry, it’s easy,” Alverez assured him. “If you’re worried, just aim to touch down beside Walker. I’m sure if you miss your maneuver his enhanced reflexes will ensure he catches you.”

“Right, good thinking,” Hassan replied. “I’ll do that.”

“On three then,” Alverez said. “One, two… three.” Feigning as if he was going to push himself off, Alverez hesitated for a second to make sure Hassan was actually going to do it. When the kid pushed himself off, Alverez quickly followed suit. Moments later they were both standing on the alien ship’s hull. Hassan had even managed to land on his feet by himself. “Lead on,” he said to Shaw over the COM channel as he waved her forward.

Slowly, then with more confidence, Shaw began to move. As he followed, Alverez quickly confirmed they were in one of the ship’s cargo holds. The small opening that had been blown into the ship quickly opened up into a large empty hanger bay. “Over there,” Spence called out as she turned her EVA suit’s lights towards one of the corners of the bay. “That’s a hatch, isn’t it?”

“It sure looks like it,” Hassan said excitedly. “And there is a control terminal,” he added as he moved quickly towards it.

“Hold it,” Shaw said as she caught Hassan’s arm. “Let us check it out first. It could be booby trapped.”

“Right,” Hassan replied as he quickly stepped back.

Following Shaw’s instructions, Alverez stayed back until she waved them over. “Have a go at it,” he said to Hassan. Nodding, the kid moved up beside Shaw. He reached out and tapped the control terminal. The hatch swished open at once making Hassan jump back.

“I guess there is still some emergency power left in this hulk,” he said sheepishly.

“Which way?” Shaw asked as she ducked her head and moved through the hatch. It seemed that whatever species had built the ship, they weren’t quite as tall as humans.

Alverez looked through the hatch to see what Shaw meant. There was a corridor beyond that stretched off in two directions. Alverez pictured the remnants of the alien ship. “Left,” he said. It was the most likely to take them deeper into the ship. As they moved into the corridor, everyone in Alverez’s party had to stoop to make their way along the corridor. Here and there they encountered floating bits of metal and other objects of interest. Matthews and Spence grabbed and bagged some of them to be analyzed back on Intrepid.

“Ah, guys, I think you’re going to want to see this,” Hassan called out.

Alverez turned to find he had opened a hatch by himself without waiting for Shaw. When he followed Hassan in and saw what the computer tech had found, Alverez halted. There was a body floating in the middle of the small room. It was definitely alien. Though he had encountered a number of species in his naval career, he was still amazed by what he saw. Alverez counted himself as a twentieth century movie buff and if he didn’t know better, he would have sworn he had just come face to face with ET. The dead alien had all the features of the science fiction portrayals of the day for what an alien should look like. Its hairless body was small but otherwise very human, with two arms and legs. The creature didn’t appear to have any clothes on and its skin, fully on display, was a dull brown. Its head was dominated by two large round eyes which were still open and seemed to be staring right at Hassan.

“Don’t touch!” Spence snapped as she entered the room. Hassan had just begun to reach out towards the alien body. “It’s frozen. If you touch it, it will likely break apart. Let me take a 3D scan first. Then we can take some samples.”

“Samples?” Alverez asked in surprise. “Should we be desecrating a dead body like that?” Whoever the alien was, it had been a spacer. He knew he wouldn’t want anyone poking around his or his friend’s dead body if the roles were reversed.

“How else are we going to learn about them?” Spence asked. “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. And respectful.”

“Alright,” Alverez said reluctantly. “Shaw, can you leave one of your marines with Spence? We don’t all need to be here for this.”

“Higgins will stay with her. We can keep moving,” Shaw replied.

“Come on,” Alverez said as he guided Hassan out of the room by his shoulder. The computer tech seemed to want to keep staring at the alien’s eyes.

For ten more minutes they carefully made their way around the wrecked ship. Several times they had to double back when they encountered damaged sections or sealed doors they couldn’t open. “Hey, look at this,” Shaw said when they came to another sealed door with a small glass view port. “There is atmosphere in there, look at the smoke.”

Stepping up beside her, Alverez looked in. “You’re right,” he said when he saw several small tendrils of smoke snaking across the floor of the next corridor. He stepped back and took in the sealed door. “It must be an emergency airlock. When the rest of the ship began to vent atmosphere it engaged.”

“Do we try and open it?” Shaw asked.

“For sure. This is the first of these we have encountered. If it’s here, it must be protecting something important,” Alverez said. “Let’s get it opened up.”

“Right,” Shaw said as she moved over to her other marine. Reaching around the marine’s back she pulled out one of the devices she had brought with her. Setting it down in the corridor she engaged it. Within seconds an inflatable membrane sprung to life. It quickly expanded to seal off several meters of the corridor the team was all standing in. “Alright whiz kid get to work,” she said to Hassan after inspecting the seal to make sure it was snug.

Stepping up, Hassan touched the door’s control panel. Nothing happened. He tapped it a couple more times. When still nothing happened he pulled a multitool out of his pocket. After nearly twenty seconds he managed to get the front of the panel off. “Blimey,” he said when he saw what was underneath. “This is some strange tech.” He pulled out another device. First he scanned the panel, and then tried to connect two wires to various parts of it.

“How are you getting on?” Alverez asked when a couple of minutes had elapsed. “Made any progress?”

“Not really,” Hassan said as he stepped back. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. I might be able to get it, but I’m fumbling in the dark.”

“Alright, let’s try another approach then,” Alverez decided. “Walker, you’re up. Take it slowly though. We don’t know what kind of atmosphere is on the other side of that door.”

“Right boss,” Walker said as he pulled a plasma cutting torch from his belt. Everyone else stepped back at the sight of it. All three civilians blinked and took another step back when Walker ignited it. They then watched in fascination as Walker got to work. As soon as the blade of plasma passed fully through the door’s material, Walker jumped back and switched it off. A hissing noise followed as the air from the other side of the door filled the area Shaw had sealed off.

Matthews already had a scanner out. “It’s eight percent oxygen. The rest is nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. Nearly six percent methane in fact. I don’t think it would be the best for us to breath.”

“Nor would it smell good!” Hassan responded.

“We keep our EVA helmets on then,” Alverez ordered. “Walker it should be safe for you to continue.”

With a nod the special forces marines ignited his plasma cutter and got to work on the sealed door. Three minutes later they were on the other side. “I’m glad we kept our suits on,” Hassan said as he pointed to a partially decayed body. “Look at that!”

Alverez took a step towards the crumpled form and then stopped. It was in an advanced stage of decay, yet there was still some raw flesh visible. He quickly turned his head away, it wasn’t something he wanted to dwell on. Matthews, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have a problem. She moved in close and examined it carefully. “Spence is more of an expert in this kind of stuff, but I’d say the body can’t have been here more than a couple of months.”

Alverez took a deep breath. That changed things. It had been possible the Karacknids had destroyed this ship years ago in a long-finished war. A couple of months meant the freighter had come under attack around the same time Earth had been bombarded. They could have stumbled into the middle of another Karacknid war. “Right everyone, let’s split up. We have to be in an important part of the ship now. Let’s see what we can find. We’ll go in twos. Walker you take Hassan, Shaw you can come with me and private Evans can escort Matthews. Stay in COM contact.”

As they split up Shaw gestured for Alverez to take the lead, she kept her plasma riffle raised as she stuck closely to his back. After checking a couple of rooms that seemed to be storage compartments for maintenance materials the corridor they were in curved and came to a stop in front of a large hatch, double the size of the rest they had encountered. “What do you think?” Shaw asked.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Alverez replied as he reached for the access panel. With an almost silent whoosh the hatch retracted. It revealed a small but impressive circular room. There were just five seats in it but with all the control consoles arrayed around them, it was obvious what they were looking at. “An auxiliary bridge,” Alverez said in satisfaction. It looked too small to be the freighter’s main bridge, at least judging by human standards. But it was definitely a control center. “Hassan,” he said over the COM channel. “Get to my location. I have found something for you to work on.” Alverez had no idea what the computer tech would be able to make of the alien computers, but if there was any useful information on board the wreckage, it was likely to be here. “Let’s see what we can make of the place,” he said to Shaw as he moved forward and carefully experimented with some of the consoles.




Chapter 14

I still remember my first command. She was the frigate Metropolis. Fast and sleek, she was what most Lieutenants dream of during their meagre off duty hours. I quickly found out she was all that and more. Of course by the standards of the time period we are studying, her size would have had her classed as a light cruiser rather than a frigate. Certainly, she taxed my inexperienced command abilities to the full. That is how the Imperial Fleet likes to do things though, as many of you cadets reading this will soon day find out.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Intrepid, January 10th 2482 AD (two days later).

“I did it!” Hassan shouted as he came running into the bridge.

Emilie spun around in surprise, she wasn’t used to being startled on her own bridge.

“What he means is,” Debbie Spence said in a far calmer tone as she followed the younger man onto the bridge, “that we have done it.”

“Done what?” Emilie asked as she kept the annoyance out of her voice. She had to remind herself that Alverez’s team didn’t know any better.

“The computer cores we took from the Freighter’s auxiliary bridge,” Hassan said as he rushed over to Emilie and held out two small metallic cylindrical objects. “I got them to interface with one of our terminals. They were both partially damaged so the information on them was limited, but we were able to read some of it.”

“Read it?” Emilie asked. “What does it say?”

“Well read is maybe not the right word,” Hassan said, suddenly sounding far shyer.

“He means he was able to extract some of the computer code,” Spence explained. “But thankfully the Kulrean translation software has been able to make sense of some of the data. We’re still working out some parts, but we thought you’d want to see this… With your permission Captain?” Spence asked as she gestured towards the holo projector.

When Emilie nodded, she moved forward and brought up a new image. It was nothing more than a handful of dots connected by zig zagging lines. “It’s not… is it?” Emilie asked. She saw right away what it was.

“We think so,” Spence replied. “We believe we have translated the freighter’s flight manifest. There are no specific coordinates, but we believe this is the system we are in.” As she spoke one of the dots began to flash. “If the lines are shift passages, then we have a map of several nearby worlds.”

“Amazing work,” Emilie said as she stood in excitement. “Amazing. COMs, get me Alverez and Shaw, tell them I want them back on board immediately. “They’ll have to cut their current trip to the freighter short. We need to decide what to do with this new info,” she said as she turned back to Spence and Hassan. “This could be the breakthrough we need. The breakthrough our war effort needs.”

Hassan beamed. Spence merely nodded. “There is more data we’re still working on. If you don’t mind we should get back to it. Your navigation officer should be able to handle this data from here. If these dots do represent the worlds of a new species, then the more we know about them the better. There could be much more on the data cores we haven’t deciphered yet.”

“By all means get back to it,” Emilie said with a smile. She had met enough scientists in her career to know they preferred work to praise. Though from the look on Hassan’s face it seemed he would have liked to bask in the excited expressions of Intrepid’s bridge crew some more. “Just let me know immediately if you find anything else,” Emilie finished.

“We will,” Spence said as she took Hassan by the arm and turned him towards the bridge’s exit.

“Inform Lieutenants Jones and Maguire that I want them to report to my briefing room as soon as Alverez’s shuttle gets back,” Emilie said once Spence and Hassan had left.

“Aye Captain,” her COM officer replied.

“Now Navigation, let’s break this alien ship’s star map down,” Emilie said as she turned to Intrepid’s pilot. “Let’s check it’s data on this system with our scans to see just how accurate it is.”

*

“What is all the fuss about?” Alverez asked after following Shaw into Emilie’s briefing room and seeing Jones and Maguire already there.

“This,” Emilie answered as she switched on a holo projector. “Hassan and Spence finally managed to get some information off the data cores you guys found on your first trip to the freighter. Now take a seat. We need to figure out what our next step is.”

“Is that what I think it is?” Alverez asked as he quickly moved towards a free seat.

“It is. A star map of this system and six others,” Emilie explained. “I’ve had Sub Lieutenant Withers look into it. This flashing system is the one we are in. If you notice, when I enlarge the image, each blip is not a perfect sphere, there are some distortions. The distortions in the blip of this system perfectly match this system’s mass shadow.”

“So we can use the distortions to figure out where these other systems are,” Alverez said as he pointed at the other blips.

“We already have,” Emilie replied as she overlaid a map of the local star systems onto the alien data. “The nearest blip represents this star system, it’s only nine light years away. But it gets better. The alien data also included this.” With the touch of a button Emilie brought up the zig zagging lines onto the image. She smiled in satisfaction at the look on Shaw and Alverez’s faces. “Yes,” she said before either could speak. “We believe they are shift passages. Marked out in minute detail. We’ll not know until we actually go and investigate one. But given how accurate the marked star systems are, it seems a fair assumption the shift passages will be accurate too.”

“Not fair,” Alverez said as he shook his head, his mouth still open. “You could have sent this to us in a COM message to the shuttle instead of dumping it all on us here.”

Emilie winked at him. “Then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy your surprise. It’s not every day I get to drop a bombshell on an intelligence officer.”

Alverez rolled his eyes. “You said we need to decide what to do next. Surely that is obvious? We check out one of these shift passages.”

“And therein lies the predicament,” Emilie replied. “Spence and Hassan believe they have deciphered one more piece of information. This system,” Emilie continued as she pointed at another system that began to flash, “was the starting system for the freighter’s flight plan. It stands to reason then that whatever alien species built the freighter, their homeworld or one of their colonies is there. My head tells me that is where we should go. It’s the best chance we have of making contact with a potentially friendly species. We know from the decomposition of the bodies on the freighter that they have recently been at war with the Karacknids. But..”

“But what?” Jones asked. “Shouldn’t we set course to check out the shift passage towards that system immediately?”

“But, heading in that direction would take us towards the suspected edges of the Karacknid Empire,” Alverez finished for Emilie.

Emilie nodded. “If this species has been at war with the Karacknids, they may already have lost. We could head straight into a Karacknid occupied system.”

“Or worse,” Alverez added. “If they are still fighting, they may mistake us for some kind of Karacknid trick. If they don’t know about the Gift wormhole, they may not believe our story about how we came to be in their space.”

“So you think we should visit these other systems,” Shaw said as she pointed at the systems further away from where the Karacknid border was suspected to be. “We can investigate them and find out what is going on.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Emilie confirmed. “But I wanted to check with you all. I know it sounds overly conservative. But we may only get one chance at this. We need to be careful.”

“We could send one of our exploration drones down the shift passage towards the system the freighter came from,” Maguire suggested. “It could check out the system for us and then report back. We could wait here in safety.”

Alverez shook his head. “It would take too long. Those drones can only manage about half the speed we can in shift space, and even less in normal. We’d potentially waste weeks sitting here waiting for it.”

“But it is a good back up idea,” Emilie said when a look of disappointment crossed Maguire’s face. “If we go in the other direction, we could program the drone to go and very discreetly poke its nose into the system. Then, if we decide to head that way later, we can pick up the drone and check its sensor data to see if the way is safe.”

“I know one other thing we should do,” Alverez said. “We need to transfer this data to another one of our drones and send it back to the wormhole. If something happens to us, we need to make sure this data gets back to Earth. We’ve already discovered more than many thought we would. We can’t lose this information now.”

“Agreed,” Emilie said with a nod. “Maguire, you can program a drone to visit the freighter’s home system, and another to head back to the Gift once we are done here. Now, are there any other reasons why we should consider heading towards Karacknid space just yet?... Ok,” Emilie continued when no one spoke, “let’s start working on our plan for visiting these other systems. We have no idea what we’re going to find so we need to be ready for anything.”

*

Intrepid, unknown system, 23rd January 2482 AD (thirteen days later).

“I think we can safely say we’ve found something this time,” Jones said as he looked up from his computer terminal. “There is activity everywhere.”

Emilie nodded. The data was coming up on the holo projector. Intrepid was at the extreme outer edge of what they had called the gamma-4 system. The first two new systems from the alien flight plan had turned out to be devoid of any intelligent life. It was clear the third wasn’t. There was a vast amount of electromagnetic radiation coming from two of the planets in the system and from the orbits of three others. “It’s not as impressive as the Sol system, or several of the other alien systems I’ve visited, but there sure is a lot going on in there. Analysis?”

“It looks like two of the planets have been colonized,” Jones answered. “They’re both in the goldilocks zone, so it suggests the aliens like the same kind of planets we do. I’m guessing there are orbital trade hubs around both planets given how many freighters there seem to be going between both worlds. There also appears to be some mining operations in orbit above these three worlds. One is a gas giant, the other has a pretty impressive planetary ring. I’m guessing there is some kind of ground side operation on the third, though we’re not detecting anything yet. And then there are these,” Jones said as he zoomed out to show the outer edges of the system. “It looks like there are six different asteroid mining operations going on.”

“And militarily?”

“Both colonies have orbital defense stations,” Maguire answered as she took over. “They’re not too big, but given the energy readings coming off them, they have to be sporting military grade reactors. Then there are these two groups of ships,” as she spoke Maguire took over control of the holo projector and zoomed in on the two colonies. “Both are in geosynchronous orbit and appear to be in military formations. One group has twenty ships, the second thirty-six.”

“And there’s no indications of how powerful they might be, or what weapons they carry?” Emilie followed up.

Maguire shook her head. “We’re not picking up anything at this range that can give us any indications.”

“And they are definitely not Karacknid?” Matthews asked from where Alverez’s team sat.

Jones shook his head. “None of the readings, from the warships or freighters match anything we’ve picked up from Karacknid ships before.”

“All right,” Emilie said. “So we’ve found an alien civilization, one that looks pretty impressive, and hasn’t yet been conquered by the Karacknids. How do we proceed?”

“The way I see it, we have two options,” Alverez replied. “We could try and go in covertly. If we pose as a trader from a nearby alien civilization, we could try and get permission to dock and see what info we can pick up. There may not be any Karacknid warships out there, but we have no way of knowing if this species isn’t some kind of Karacknid ally. It might be best to test the waters before we reveal exactly who we are. That’s option one. The other is that we simply announce ourselves and be up front with why we are here.”

“What are the chances anyone would mistake a warship for a trader’s vessel?” Matthews asked.

“Probably not very high,” Alverez said. “But we could make some modifications to Intrepid’s hull to hide some of her weapons and mask her energy outputs. We could pass ourselves off as an armed trader. One designed for long trade missions, just the kind of mission that might take us to an unknown system.”

While Matthews asked another question, and Jones and Maguire joined in, Emilie threw the two options around in her mind. Whilst she wanted to hear her subordinates’ thoughts, the decision was hers. “We can’t hide who we are,” she said several minutes later. “Not when our mission is of such importance. There is just too much risk involved. If they find out, we could be damaging an important future relationship beyond repair. Take us out of stealth and set course for the planet with the thirty-six warships in orbit. One quarter maximum acceleration. At least that way if they turn out to be hostile we may be able to get away with a burst of speed. Begin transmitting our first contact message.”

“Yes Captain,” Maguire responded.

“This doesn’t mean we can’t hedge our bets,” Emilie said as she turned to Alverez. “I want you to take your team, Jones and Shaw and have a brainstorming session. I want a list of all the questions we would like answers too, and the best ways to ask them diplomatically. Then, think through the best ways we could ascertain them through other means. If they let us dock with one of their stations to take on supplies, we may be able to make contact with non-governmental organizations. We could buy or trade for some of the information we would like. Put together a wish list and figure out how we might go about getting what we want.”

“Right away,” Alverez said as he stood. “Keep us updated on how they respond to our presence.”

Emilie smiled. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that. As soon as something happens it will be all over the ship. We’ll call you back if we need you though. I’ll not let you miss any of the excitement.”

“Right,” Alverez replied as he returned her smile. “Let’s go,” he added as he turned to his team.

Emilie watched them go then turned back to the holo display to watch the alien warships. It would take an hour for their COM message to reach the nearest group, but they would be able to detect the gravimetric waves from Intrepid’s engines right away.  And we’ll stand out like a sore thumb, Emilie thought. There were no ships in Intrepid’s vicinity, it seemed the aliens had no mining operations in the part of their system near the shift passage Intrepid had just exited. And with nothing in the two systems we just came through there’s no reason for a freighter to be heading this way. When several minutes passed and there was no sign of a reaction from the alien ships, Emilie frowned. “Have any civilian ships reacted to us?” she asked.

Jones shook his head. “There has been nothing. Maybe they don’t have gravimetric sensors? But is that even possible?”

Emilie shrugged. “Gravimetric sensors are supposed to be pretty low-grade tech. Rudimentary even. Given how built up the system is, it’s hard to imagine they don’t have them.” Matthews would be able to tell them for sure. She quickly typed a query and sent it to her. A reply came back almost immediately. A space faring civilization not having gravimetric sensors made no sense to her. “Strange,” Emilie said after reading Matthew’s reply. “Maybe they are more used to traffic coming in system from this direction than we thought.”

For the entire time it took the first contact COM message to reach the nearest alien world, Emilie watched as the aliens didn’t react to Intrepid’s steady flight into their system. To her, their behavior simply made no sense. Even if they thought Intrepid was some kind of trade ship, they should have sent a patrol to challenge her.

“Look,” Jones called barely a minute after the first contact COM message reached the alien’s world. “They’re moving!”

Finally, Emilie thought. The alien squadron around their nearest world was breaking orbit and moving onto an intercept trajectory for Intrepid. At the same time, the second squadron moved to take the place of the first. They certainly are wary of us now. Thirty-six ships were a lot to counter one alien ship, especially when Intrepid had sent out a message of peace and friendship. “Bring us to a halt,” Emilie ordered. “They seem to have been spooked. Let’s do our best to not appear threatening. Inform Alverez and the others, they’ll probably want to re-join us when those ships get close.”

It took another hour and forty minutes for the alien ships to get into two-way COM range. Though the speed they had shown on their journey towards Intrepid hadn’t been overly impressive, Emilie was still relieved when just three ships actually approached hers. She did not want to have to try and deal with thirty-six all at once if things took a turn for the worse.

“They’re hailing us,” Intrepid’s COM officer reported. “It looks like the Kulrean translation software is able to make sense of their language. Though it is saying this species uses a different language to the one the destroyed freighter used.”

Emilie didn’t have time to fully process what that might mean. “Put them on,” she replied. She had no idea if making the alien wait for even just a few extra seconds would be viewed as rude or even hostile. “Greetings,” she said as soon as an unfamiliar alien creature sitting in a command chair appeared in front of her. The alien was the closest looking intelligent species to an insect she had yet laid eyes on. The Flex-aor were insect like in a way, but it was only a passing resemblance. The thing in front of her reminded her of one of the many beetles she had kept as pets as a child on the Alpha colony. The alien had a large oval shaped dark green body split into two sections that she could see. Two antennae protruded from a small head structure and several other appendages came out from what Emilie instinctively thought of as its thorax. They had to be arms or legs, but they were very long and thin. She had a hard time imagining how they supported the large size of the alien’s body. With a start she realized she was staring. “My name is Emilie Kansas,” she said hastily. “I am a Captain in my species’ navy. We are on an exploration mission. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The alien’s antennae swirled around several times before it replied. When it did, a hidden mouth opened, revealing a number of small mini antennae that began to move. Emilie had to remind herself to blink as the strange creature communicated to her. “Are you the representative the Karacknids said would come?”

Emilie’s eyes widened. A moment of panic ran through her as she struggled to figure out how to answer. She shared a glance with Alverez who was back in his command chair. If she said no, was her ship about to come under attack? If these aliens were expecting a Karacknid ship, were they allies of the Karacknids? If we say no, they might open fire immediately. But if we say yes, could we pull off the lie, at least long enough to run away? she asked herself. Not knowing what to say, she froze.




Chapter 15

Though the Empire has been involved in many wars since its founding, none cost as many lives as the War of Doom. In large part that is due to the Karacknid attack on Earth. To this day the civilian causalities outweigh anything else the Empire has experienced.  Yet the numbers of military personnel lost were also significant. Only our two major wars with the Antarians and the War of the Pretender have seen more military losses.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Apparently concluding that Emilie hadn’t understood the question, the alien repeated itself. “Are you here to speak on behalf of the Karacknid Empire? We were promised we would have more time to come to a decision.”

A decision? Emilie repeated to herself. That doesn’t sound like how allies treat one another. Her mind kicked itself back into gear. “No, we do not represent the Karacknids. We are an independent species. We come in peace. As I said, we are seeking new friends and trading partners.”

The alien’s antennae swirled around and around. Then its mouth opened and more than ten mini antennae appeared moving frantically. “You must be a long way from home. I apologize for my abruptness. However, your ship has appeared from a shift passage that leads to a dangerous area of space. You must excuse our caution. Let me introduce myself. I am Grand Admiral Tamkonna. I command my species’ warships in this system. If you come in peace, then you are most welcome. I must know though, what relationship do you have with the Karacknids?”

Emilie paused to think through her words carefully. “We are aware of them. They are a powerful neighbor of ours. May I ask, what is your relationship?”

“That is yet to be decided,” Tamkonna responded.

Emilie lent forward. “I do not understand.”

“The Karacknid Empire recently absorbed one of our trading partners into their territory,” Tamkonna explained. “They have requested that my species accept the same position. They wish us to become a vassal client state of theirs. Our political leadership is still discussing the issue. We feared they had sent you to obtain our answer before we were ready.”

Emilie struggled to get her head around how quickly things were developing. Her gut told her that she should go all in with the truth. “Your trading partner, were they absorbed by force? We encountered a damaged freighter on our journey and discovered the location of this system from data we managed to retrieve from the wreck. The freighter had trace energy signatures consistent with Karacknid weapons fire. My species is aware of the Karacknids’ aggressive expansion.”

“What system did you find this wreckage in?” Tamkonna asked.

“It was two systems away from here,” Emilie answered. “We will send you the data we have on the freighter. Perhaps you could transmit the location of the ship to its owners. There are still bodies on board they may like to retrieve and bury.”

Tamkonna bowed its head in a very Varanni like expression of respect. “We will handle this data with the utmost care and see it is sent to the people of the former Nanee Empire. Though it may take some time. We have not had contact with them since their war.”

“So they stood up to the Karacknids? I assume they lost?” Emilie asked.

Tamkonna didn’t reply. Instead it stared at Emilie for several seconds. It was the first time its antennae hadn’t even twitched. “You ask many questions whilst giving very little away.” Emilie made to reply but the alien continued before she could. “My subordinates have finished scanning your ship. It seems impressive. Yet not powerful enough to challenge my fleet. If you are willing, I will escort you to our colony; Betasaad. There you can converse with our political leaders. They will have more questions for you and will be in a position to answer yours. Your ship may set course for the world my ships were orbiting. We will escort you.”

“It would be our pleasure,” Emilie responded. “We are here to make new friends. I hope that today will be a significant point in the future of both of our species.”

“We will see,” Tamkonna responded, its antennae twitching only once. The alien then remained completely still until the image disappeared.

Emilie looked around at her officers. “I’m not sure how that went.”

“At least they were happy to hear we have nothing to do with the Karacknids,” Jones suggested.

“Yes,” Alvarez agreed. “Though that could be a double-edged sword. It sounds like the Karacknids have employed the same strategy they did with the Mindus. After conquering Jaranna they gave ultimatums to several single system species. They all caved in and accepted Karacknid overlordship. The freighter we found may have belonged to the most powerful species in this area of space. If they’ve been conquered, then the rest may soon surrender. Including our new friends,” Alvarez said as he nodded to the ships that were currently maneuvering to form up around Intrepid. “If they decide to join them, we could make a nice present to their new overlords.” Emilie swallowed hard. The same thought had occurred to her.

“We’re getting some good readings on their warships now,” Maguire commented as she zoomed in on the nearest alien vessel. “This is roughly the size of a destroyer. Look, these have to be missile ports and I’d bet these are laser cannons. Without seeing their missiles in action there’s no way to judge just how effective they are, but their laser cannons…”

Emilie nodded to her Second Lieutenant. The thought didn’t have to be finished. At such close ranges, a Human laser cannon from four centuries ago would have had enough power to burn through Intrepid’s armor. Now surrounded by the alien vessels, Intrepid was at their mercy. This is progressing far faster than I expected, Emilie thought. She felt way in over her head. Why couldn’t my uncle have sent someone with more experience? she asked herself.

*

Two hours later Emilie’s self-doubt had only grown. An alien shuttle - they still didn’t know the name the species gave themselves, had docked with Intrepid as soon as the exploration cruiser entered orbit of the alien colony. Emilie, Alvarez, Shaw and Walker were sitting in the shuttle opposite four of the beetle like aliens. Besides the request for Emilie’s party to board the shuttle, none of the aliens had spoken. Supposedly, they were on their way to meet the leadership of the alien colony. For all intents and purposes, it felt more like they were on their way to a prison camp. It may just be their way, she told herself, not for the first time. In one sense it was a happy coincidence that the Vestarians, Kulreans and Crians had all been mammalian species who shared a number of Humanity’s personality traits. The Varanni and Flex-aor were another matter. It seemed that this species was the same. At least I hope so, Emilie thought.

With a slight bump, the shuttle touched down onto the planet’s surface. “We are here,” one of the aliens said. It spoke so quick that Emilie didn’t actually see which one. “Our leaders will greet you,” a slightly different voice said. This time Emilie identified it as the alien raised a mandible and pointed to the shuttle’s ramp.

With a nod Emilie let go of the rope like material she had been clinging onto. The shuttle had no seats she or her team had been able to sit in and it had been a precarious ride. “Thank you for the lift.” Leading her group to the shuttle’s ramp, Emilie paused to take in the scenery. From Intrepid’s scans of the planet, she knew the atmosphere was breathable, though not likely to be entirely pleasant. It had also been evident that the planet had a very vegetation rich biome. The scans don’t do it justice, Emilie thought as she stared around her. In the distance there were several buildings that were at least ten stories high. Yet all around them, there were several thick layers of vegetation. One group of treelike plants reached up more than one hundred meters into the air. Below and amongst them there was another group of shrub like plants, though they reached up to thirty meters in places. Then there was a thick multicolored array of grasses and other plants. Moving between them and singing loudly were far too many flying creatures for Emilie to count. There were thousands of them. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It sure is,” Alvarez agreed, then he nudged her in the ribs. “Though I think our guests are waiting for us.”

Looking down, Emilie spotted a group of fifteen or so aliens waiting a small distance from the shuttle. They were all standing perfectly still, their antennae pointed straight up. Hastily, Emilie walked down the shuttle’s ramp. She didn’t stop until she was just a meter in front of the alien at the head of the group. To her surprise, the alien barely came up to her shoulders. From those who had been sitting in the shuttle, she had thought the aliens would be taller. It seemed their legs were a lot shorter than she had expected. Not knowing who should speak first, Emilie waited several seconds. When the alien didn’t speak she bowed her head deeply. “My name is Emilie Kansas, I am the Captain of the exploration ship Intrepid. My mission is to explore new systems and seek out new friends and trading partners for my species. It is an honor to be invited onto your planet’s surface.”

“The honor is ours,” the lead alien said as it bowed its head as well. “My name is Habalan, and it is my privilege to greet you. It has been over two hundred years since our species has encountered another species. You have caused much excitement among our people. Though I am afraid you have arrived at an inconvenient time. I believe our Grand Admiral neglected to ask you, what does your species call itself?”

Emilie had to stop herself from glancing at Alverez. A part of her desperately wanted to know the answer to the reverse question, but she hadn’t asked it herself as she didn’t want to give her own answer. If this species had met the Karacknids, there was a chance they had already heard of a species who called themselves Humans. And Emilie was willing to bet they would not have heard anything good. There was no getting around the question though, if she tried to weasel around it her hosts would know. And if she lied it would only come back to bite her later. “We call ourselves Humans,” she answered after taking a deep breath. She had to fight not to scrunch her face up as she awaited the alien’s reaction. Of course, as the alien looked from one of its companions and then another, it was impossible for Emilie to tell its reaction. Its facial features and body language were just too foreign.

“That is not a name known to my species,” Habalan replied. “This is indeed a momentous occasion. Though I fear it could be ominous for your species.”

Emilie’s eyebrows rose in surprise, she hadn’t been expecting such an overt threat. “What do you mean?” she asked. “I hope it has been made clear to you that my species does not desire any kind of conflict.”

“Neither does ours,” Habalan replied as its antennae went crazy. “I apologize, that is not what I meant. Grand Admiral Tamkonna told us he has asked you about the Karacknids. I do not know how familiar you are with them, however. They have recently decided they wish to extend their territory into our star systems. I fear that having come into contact with us may bring you into contact with them. How much do you know about this species?”

Here we go again, Emilie thought. Another question she had been wracking her brain for a way to answer. She was not a politician. She had no idea what impact her answers would have in a week’s or month’s or even a year’s time. Why did he send me here? she asked again. As panic from the stress of the situation threatened to make her freeze once more, Emilie closed her eyes. Something in her memory brought her back to her uncle’s office when he had given her Intrepid. He had explained himself then. He had wanted her to take command because she had served with him for a long time. Because she knew his mind. Suddenly it was clear how she should answer; just as her uncle would, with the truth. Her uncle rarely played games with his words. He is a man of honor. “The truth is,” she began as she locked eyes with Habalan, “we have come to know the Karacknids far too well over the last several years. We first encountered them when they sought to conquer a distant neighbor of my species. My species and several others sent war fleets to try and stop them. I was there during the battle for this species’ home system. Sadly, we failed and were driven back. Since then, the Karacknids have sought to conquer my species and their allies. Just months ago a fleet of over a thousand warships attacked my home system. We managed to drive them back, but at great cost. So, I understand all too well the predicament your species finds itself in.” Pausing, Emilie waited to see how the aliens would react. The antennae of all of the welcoming party had been slowly lowering and lowering as she spoke. Now they were all pointing right at her. As the seconds dragged on, she tried to think of something else she could say. There had to be some way she could show the aliens she was genuine.

Before anything came to her, Habalan spoke. “Your story is astounding. Almost unbelievable. Your species really has defeated the Karacknids in battle? No matter,” the alien continued without waiting for an answer, “we must hear more of this. But, you should come with us to a more private location. We have a reception room prepared for you. Some of our species will be glad of the news you bring. Others will fear it. We should not speak any more of this so openly. Please, come with us.”

Emilie nodded. “I understand the sensitive nature of our topic of conversation. By all means, we will be happy to speak more about this in private.” She shared a glance with Alvarez who gave her a slight nod. They were in, at least, the aliens were interested in hearing more of what they had to say. Given the overwhelming power the Karacknids had in comparison to their species, it was a start. “Shall we proceed?” Emilie asked as the aliens stood stationary, staring at her.

“Of course,” Habalan replied. Before it could move, another one of the aliens spoke, though it was too quiet for Emilie’s translator to pick up.

Whatever the alien said, it made Habalan’s antennae swirl around. “Those things your people carry,” he said as a mandible pointed to Shaw, “are they weapons?”

Emilie glanced at Shaw to see where Habalan was pointing. “Yes, this is Lieutenant Shaw and specialist Walker,” Emilie replied as she pointed to Shaw and then Walker. “They are highly trained military personnel. They have orders to accompany me on first contact missions for my protection. Their weapons are small and only designed for self defense. I hope we have caused no insult by bringing them. It is standard protocol for my species.”

Habalan turned and spoke quietly to the other alien who had brought up their weapons. They communicated back-and-forth for several seconds before Habalan turned back to Emilie. “We will permit your people to carry these weapons. Though we intend to summon our own armed guards who will remain nearby during our discussions.”

“That is perfectly acceptable to us,” Emilie responded, surprised that the aliens hadn’t already taken such precautions. “We hope to earn your trust, but given our experiences with the Karacknids, we do not wish to take any unnecessary risks. We are happy for you to do the same.”

“Then we will do so,” Habalan replied. “Now, if you and your people will come with me, we are heading to that building in the distance.” Habalan pointed to the largest building within eyesight. “It is the center of our government on this colony.”

As they walked, Emilie followed Habalan’s instructions and changed the topic of conversation away from the Karacknids. “May I ask, what is the name of your species?”

“We call ourselves the Folians,” Habalan replied.

“How long has your species had the capability to travel between the stars?”

“For three hundred and thirty years. We had just begun to develop our own shift drive technology when one of our neighbors, the Lomalns, discovered a shift passage to our home system. They helped us develop our space technology and accelerated our expansion.”

“You were lucky to encounter such a friendly neighbor,” Emilie responded. “My species discovered shift drive technology two hundred and fifty years ago. We have been slowly expanding our reach ever since. You have called this world a colony several times. Is this system not your species home system then?”

Habalan’s antennae swirled and two of his mandibles waved at the passing areas of vegetation. “No, it is certainly not. Our home system is far more developed than this. Betasaad has been inhabited for just one hundred years.”

“Well it is certainly a beautiful world,” Emilie responded. “How does it compare to your homeworld?”

“Compare?” Habalan repeated. “I’m not sure I understand the question. As I have just said, our homeworld is far more built up.”

“I mean the vegetation and the planet’s climate,” Emilie explained. “Is this world similar to your homeworld in that way, or are there differences?”

“There were many differences before we prepared this world. Now though, it is all but identical to our homeworld in every way,” Habalan answered.

“You mean you have terraformed this world to replicate your homeworld?” Emilie asked as amazement filled her. Looking around she saw the planet in a new light. She couldn’t help but wonder what it had been like before the Folians had settled on it.

Habalan looked down at an electronic device it was carrying. “Yes, I believe that is an accurate term,” it said when it looked back up. “We have conformed this world to our homeworld. My species is very sensitive to our surroundings. We would not be able to survive long on a world that had not been changed to suit us. Has your species not altered the biome of worlds it has colonized?”

Emilie nodded. “We have, but not in such a complete way. Usually we introduce our own flora and fauna, but the result is a mixture of native species and ones we have brought in. Only one world in our home system have we truly tried to terraform. But even then it is not quite like Earth, our home planet. Your terraforming processes must be impressive.”

“I am not sure how they would compare to yours,” Habalan answered. “But we have had to put much effort into them. If we hadn’t, my species would still be confined to our homeworld. Ah, we are here.” It stepped in front of the large government building. “This is the center of our government on Betasaad.

Emilie slowly raised her eyes as she studied it. The architecture was unlike anything she had seen before. The building appeared to be entirely made out of some kind of wood like material. Turning her head, she looked more closely at some of the large trees in the distance. Their trunks looked very similar to the building. Though when she looked back at the building she couldn’t see any lines or other features that suggested trees had been felled and used in its construction. Instead, it almost looked like the building was made out of one single piece of wood. “It is impressive,” Emilie said. “How was it built?”

“Built? You mean like our space stations are built? No,” Habalan said. “Our buildings are not built, they are grown. We have engineered our plant species so that we can use them to form whatever ground structures we need.”

Emilie had to stop herself from shaking her head at the Kulrean translators’ translation. Whatever word the Folians used for buildings obviously did not carry the same connotations that the Human word did. The translator had failed to communicate that nuance. “I’m very interested to see the inside,” Emilie said as she reached out and touched the exterior of the building. It felt strange, not like any wood she was used to, yet it certainly felt like it was part of a plant and not a piece of inanimate brick or permacrete.

“I would be happy to give you an extended tour after we finish our initial discussions,” Habalan replied. “For now I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about it as we proceed to the audience chamber.”




Chapter 16

Sensor technology is one of the few areas of science that have developed slowly over the course of the Empire’s history. The only major breakthrough was the use of tachyon pulses to map out a system in faster than light timeframes. To this day it is still extremely expensive to build a warship with a tachyon sensor array. Despite the strategic usefulness of these sensors, it was the shocking discovery of the Sun Gates that the development of the tachyon sensors will be remembered for.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

“Please, make yourselves comfortable,” Habalan said as a mandible gestured towards the table like construction in the center of the audience room. “We have gathered a wide assortment of the foodstuffs we eat. It may be that none of it is appetizing to you. We won’t be offended, but you may sample what you wish. We have also provided resting perches. Again, if they are suitable, you may make use of them. Once you have settled in, we can begin our discussions.”

“Your hospitality is very generous, thank you,” Emilie replied. Turning to her team she raised her eyebrows and gestured with her head towards the food. This should be interesting, she thought. For the next ten minutes Habalan took them around the table pointing out various different items of food. Emilie was content to let Spence scan each item and then try the ones that were edible. Alvarez and Shaw were a little quicker, but all four of them were careful only to try small bites. Walker refused to take anything. He was happy to stand slightly back and keep his eye on things. To Emilie’s surprise, more than a few of the food items were edible and some were even tasty.

“If it’s okay with you, we will have to arrange a trade so we can take some of these items home with us,” Emilie said to Habalan after enjoying a particularly pleasing mixture of plants and what she understood to be herbs. “There will be many on my homeworld who would very much like to try your cuisine. Perhaps we could trade some of our own foodstuffs with you?”

“I’m sure we can arrange that,” Habalan replied. “What kinds of food do you eat. Are your species carnivores?”

Habalan’s question made Emilie pause. Glancing at the different meals in front of her, it hit her that none included any kind of meat. They are herbivores, she realized. I wonder what they think of carnivores? I guess we’re about to find out. “Technically, we are omnivores. We eat both animals and plants in our diet.”

Habalan’s tendrils twitched. “That may explain some things. The Karacknids are carnivores. We believe that explains the source of their aggressive nature. If your species has such tendencies that may be why you were able to defeat them.”

Though Emilie disagreed, she nodded anyway. “It may,” she responded. A few years ago she had read a couple of papers that suggested a similar kind of thinking from some university professors. They claimed Humanity’s warlike history was largely based on the aggressive instincts developed over millennia of hunting and killing for food. Whilst it had been an interesting theory, Emilie had grown up on the Alpha colony. There she had experienced some of the worst sides of Humanity. She knew exactly where most wars and aggression came from. Humans were territorial, selfish and at times simply evil. Aggression and warfare weren’t traits Humanity had learnt, it was innate. But now is not the time for philosophy, she thought as Habalan’s tendrils spread to the sides. She thought it was a sign of agreement.

“Do you think your people have sampled enough of our foods for now?” Habalan asked.

“I’m sure we have,” Emilie replied. “We are eager to discuss things with you in more detail.”

“Then if you would make yourself comfortable, we may begin,” Habalan said as he gestured towards the chair like shapes that several Folians began to push towards the table.

“Of course,” Emilie said as she moved towards them. Pausing, she let Alvarez be the first attempt to get comfortable. She couldn’t help but chuckle at his attempts to conform his body to the shape of the chairs.

After trying a couple of different positions, he finally settled on the one that was the least uncomfortable. Looking to Emilie he shrugged and patted the chair beside him. “No one trained us for this before we left,” he said with a smile.

“How would that have gone?” she asked as she mimicked his position. “Perhaps a gymnastics lesson?”

Alvarez chuckled and then looked over Emilie’s shoulder. Emilie turned to see that Shaw and Walker had moved to stand behind each of them. It was Spence who had caught Alvarez’s attention though, she had hunkered down to bring her face level with Emilie’s. “I think they are asexual,” she whispered. “Look at the patterns on their backs, they are all identical. They look like some kind of inbuilt camouflage. From everything we know of such creatures from Earth and on the other planets we have discovered these kinds of patterns always change. The only species that don’t are those that are asexual and reproduce by making exact genetic copies of themselves.” Before waiting for Emilie to apply, Spence backed off and moved to take a seat herself.

Mentally, Emilie nodded to herself. Herbivores and asexual, that meant the Folians were likely to have very different dispositions to Humanity. Spence had insisted that she and Alvarez discuss in great detail a number of different theories on the differences between intelligent species. Humanity only really knew the Vestarians, Kulreans, Crians, Flex-aor and Varanni well, but there was enough data to ensure that many theories abounded. We are going to put some of them to the test now, Emilie realized. It dawned on her that there would be hundreds of researchers pouring over the reports she, Alvarez and Spence wrote of this encounter. Let’s hope we will have something good to say.

“If we may begin with introductions Captain Kansas,” Habalan said. One of its mandibles twisted and pointed to its chest. “I have, of course, shared my name with you, but I have not yet shared my position. I am one of four Elders who oversee this colony. These three are my equals; Aralan, Ramaln and Kabalan,” Habalan explained, pointing at each. As their names were shared, the insect like creatures’ antennae twitched. “Together we speak for our colony. Though we cannot speak for our species. After our discussions today and in the days that follow, we will send a report back to our homeworld with our recommendations. The six Elders of our species will then decide on how our relationship with your species will progress.”

“It is a pleasure to meet each of you,” Emilie said as she nodded to each of the aliens. “This is Commander Alvarez, he is my second in command on this mission. To my right is Doctor Janine Spence. She is an expert on xenobiology and linguistics. Behind us is Lieutenant Shaw and specialist Walker. As I’ve explained, they are trained to protect us.”

Habalan lowered its two antennae. “You’re all welcome here on Betasaad. I hope each of you will bring home good memories and stories to your homeworld from your visit here.”

“I’m sure we will,” Emilie replied on behalf of her team. “Now, where would you like to begin?”

“It would be helpful if you could share more about your species with us. You know about the location of one of our colonies. We have colonies in five other systems beyond our homeworld. Whereabouts is your territory in relation to this system? And how many colonies does your species have? You must be a powerful race to have fought off the Karacknids.”

Having already decided she would be as truthful as she could with these aliens, Emilie answered honestly. “At the moment Habalan those are not questions I believe I am permitted to answer in detail. I mean no offence and I hope none is taken, but for the protection of my species I cannot reveal too much. I will say that my homeworld is approximately two months journey from here, though it involves traversing some difficult galactic terrain. As to the size of our territory, we have far fewer systems under our control in comparison to the Karacknids, but we do have a strong enough industrial base to stand up to them. However, I must tell you that the fleet of theirs we defeated was but a fraction of their strength.”

Not for the first time, Habalan stared at Emilie for several seconds before replying. “Your reluctance to speak openly is understandable. If our species was to come under the control of the Karacknid Empire, we could find ourselves facing one another as opponents. Given that, I hope you understand if there are certain things I have to hold back from you as well?”

“Of course I understand,” Emilie replied as she pictured the Folian warships she had seen in orbit launching an attack against a Human fleet. Perhaps that was how Habalan foresaw a partnership with the Karacknids going. Emilie rather doubted that would be how it was. Everything they knew about the Karacknids said that they permitted no equals. The Folian fleet wouldn’t be added to the Karacknid one, it would be cannibalized for parts and dismantled. The Folians wouldn’t go to war with the Karacknids, they would become slaves on their planets, building and producing only what the Karacknids permitted. That is a point to bring up, Emilie thought as she took a mental note of Habalan’s misconceptions.

“With that understanding then, let us continue,” Habalan said. “Exactly what is it that your species desires from a relationship with us?”

Emilie nodded, that was the key question. “Initially, the hopes of my exploration mission were to find new trading partners, and, in the long term, potential friends and allies. It is not just my species that is at war with the Karacknids. There are more than ten other species fighting alongside us. We have all shared our technology and military capabilities. However, fighting the Karacknids has already strained our resources to the limits. Opening up new trading possibilities may be vital if we are to win the war. We have many technologies and other things that we could trade with you and your neighbors for the resources we need to continue to fight. Beyond that, we would be interested in trading whatever other things you may have.

“That was the initial scope of my mission. However, I have been given significant leeway in discussing future possibilities. We did not know what we would find when we began exploring this sector of the galaxy. I am confident that my government would be willing to help you defend yourselves against the Karacknids. We could provide military ships and technologies that would allow you to fight for your freedom.”

Habalan looked at the other three Elders. “That is a generous offer. One we will pass on to our superiors on our homeworld. Just what kind of chance do you think your species has of defeating the Karacknids? You have defeated one of their fleets. But I detect in your descriptions the expectation that you will have to fight more. How do you expect us to fight such a powerful enemy?”

“We do expect to fight more fleets, perhaps many more,” Emilie admitted. “Yet our allies have powerful fleets as well. Of the other species I have already mentioned, several control empires and battle fleets many times larger than my own species. Together we believe we can stand up to the Karacknids. With more allies, that possibility becomes even more likely. Your neighbors, the owner of the damaged freighter we discovered. Perhaps you could tell us more about them. Who were they and how did their war with the Karacknids go?”

Habalan’s antennae twitched. “War may be too generous a description. A Karacknid battle fleet of eight hundred warships rapidly advanced on the Nanee’s home system. In three one-sided battles, the Nanee fleet was destroyed. Their homeworld then surrendered. All this was because they refused to allow their territory to be annexed by the Karacknids.”

“Do you know what kind of losses the Karacknids took?” Emilie followed up.

“Perhaps one hundred ships were destroyed or damaged, maybe one hundred and fifty. The Nanee’s fleet numbered around two thousand ships,” Habalan answered.

“What about your other neighbors, if you banded together could you not stand against the Karacknids yourselves?”

“That is very unlikely,” Habalan said. “If we combine all our fleets we would perhaps stand a chance of repulsing a Karacknid fleet the size of the one that defeated the Nanee’s. But it would be impossible to gather our ships into one place. None of our neighbors would agree to leave their own territories defenseless. The Nanee were the most powerful species in this area of the Galaxy. If they could not resist the Karacknids, it is unlikely we can either.”

“So you just intend to surrender to them? To hand over everything your species has built?” Emilie couldn’t help but ask.

“That is a decision that has not yet been made. The Conclave of our neighbors will be held soon on our homeworld to make such a decision. It is not my position to predict the outcome of those deliberations.”

Emilie shook her head. “I cannot understand why any discussion would be necessary.  You do realize what will happen if you give into the Karacknids’ demands? They will enslave your population. Your species will have no future beyond that which the Karacknids allow you.”

“That is not the offer the Karacknids have made to us,” Habalan responded. “They wish my species and those around us to become vassals of their empire. We will pay a yearly tribute and in return the Karacknid fleet will protect our borders and maintain the status quo between our neighbors.”

“They are lying to you,” Emilie snapped. “They do not wish to have you as their vassals. As soon as you let their fleets into your territory, they will take complete control. I have seen it with my own eyes. The Karacknids deem every other intelligent species as beneath them. You will become slaves.”

Habalan watched Emilie for what seemed like nearly thirty seconds before speaking. “You speak with passion, that is understandable given the situation your species finds itself in. However, your description of the Karacknids is what we would expect from someone who is at war with them. It is in your species’ interest to paint them as being as evil as possible. Our dealings with them have not led us to such a conclusion.”

“Not yet they haven’t, but they are deceiving you. Isn’t that what would be in their best interest? To trick you into peacefully giving up your freedom? You have seen what they have done to the Nanee. You know their thirst for conquest.”

“We have seen what the Karacknids will do to those who oppose their will, yes. My species is very familiar with the aggressive attitudes of carnivores when they do not get what they want. However, if we can appease them, then things may go far better for my species.”

Emilie closed her eyes as she thought. Habalan didn’t understand. Perhaps it was not possible for a member of the Folian species to do so. If there truly was a difference between carnivorous and herbivorous species, then Habalan may not be able to grasp just how duplicitous Karacknids were. How do I convince him? she asked herself. Nothing came to her.

“Perhaps this will be a good point to bring our initial discussions regarding the Karacknids to a close,” Aralan suggested. “I am sure there are many other points of interest where our two species may have much in common. It may be more beneficial to continue our conversations in those directions rather than focus on the one point where we may diverge.”

“A good suggestion,” Emilie replied as she nodded, thankful for the opportunity to take some time to think about how to proceed with the Karacknid issue. She needed to convince the Folians they should stand up to the Karacknids. For their sake of course, but also for Humanity’s. This was the reason she had been sent through the newly discovered wormhole. If she could convince them to fight, it could be the distraction Humanity and the Varanni Alliance needed to win their war. “Perhaps you could share more with us about your culture and history. We would be delighted to do the same,” she said, as she continued to think through the Karacknid situation.

“Both are worthy topics of discussion,” Ramaln said. “But what you have said already regarding the Karacknids and your offer of assistance should not be passed over lightly. I intend to ensure that it is communicated to our Elders on our homeworld. It is a topic we should return to in the coming days.”

Emilie blinked in surprise at Ramaln’s words. From the twitching of the antennae of the other three Elders, she suspected they were showing surprise as well. So not everyone in their species is willing to roll over so easily, she said to herself. That was a pleasant revelation. “I would be happy for our offer to be sent to your leaders,” she replied. “My ship can remain here and await a response if that is acceptable to you. Your colony is beautiful, along with continuing our discussions, I’m sure my crew would enjoy being able to visit such an interesting world.”

“It would be a pleasure for us to show your crew around,” Habalan said. “There are many more things for us to discuss. Please, let us leave the issue of the Karacknids to one side for now and speak of more pleasant things.”

For now, Emilie thought. Only for now. She was determined to do whatever it took to convince the Folians they needed to stand up to the Karacknids.




Chapter 17

There have been many famous Senators, Representatives and Servants down through the history of the Empire. Perhaps none more so than Senator Garm Rodriguez. Rarely have prominent naval commanders transitioned into politics. Certainly never one with such a checkered past. Of course, in the early years of the Empire that was not the case.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Betasaad, 3rd February 2482 AD (eleven days later).

Emilie bit her tongue to keep herself from snapping at Habalan. They were walking around their tenth, eleventh or possibly even twelfth set of gardens Habalan wanted to show them. Emilie had lost count. She had tried to bring up the message Ramaln had sent to the Folian homeworld. It had been eleven days since the first discussion. “Surely you have heard back from your Elders about us?” she had asked. Habalan had all but ignored her and expertly changed the topic of conversation like it was the most natural thing in the world to do.

“This flower is very important to me,” Habalan was saying. “It was actually created by one of my distant ancestors. They cross pollinated three different species to produce this specimen. Maintaining its genetic purity has been a prized accomplishment of my family ever since. Does your species like to dabble in the genetics of your homeworld’s plant life?”

In different circumstances, Emilie would have smiled at the question. She hadn’t met any in person, but she knew there were many horticulturalists on Earth as passionate about genetics as Habalan. Thinking of Earth, put away any possibility of amusement though. No doubt hundreds of those horticulturalists and their plant species were dead. In an effort to convince Habalan of the evils of the Karacknids she had shared in great detail what had happened to her homeworld. The alien had shared its condolences but nothing else had changed. “There were,” Emilie answered. “I expect many of them are dead now. And those who aren’t have far bigger concerns.”

Habalan stopped walking and turned to Emilie. “Quite,” was all the response her statement got. Then the alien turned and pointed to another flower and began to discuss it. Emilie rolled her eyes behind its back.

As Habalan continued with its tour, Emilie fell back slightly as she moved closer to Alverez. “We are wasting our time here. How are your efforts going?”

“Not well,” Alvarez grimaced. “My team has had several opportunities to interact with other Folians. None have shown any interest in aiding us. Of course, we had to be very circumspect, but even so, none of them seem willing to step outside their area of responsibility. They will speak to my team about supplies and food and whatever, but not about politics or other useful topics.”

“So Spence was right,” she responded. The xenobiologist had predicted the Folian species would be very homogenous and collective orientated. No Folian was willing to step outside their area of responsibility.

“It seems so,” Alvarez agreed. “Unless they have permission, no one will share anything with us.”

Emilie ground her teeth together. Habalan had refused to share any star maps with her without permission from the Elders on their homeworld. She had knowledge of four more systems beyond Betasaad from the data retrieved from the Nanee freighter. Beyond that, Emilie had gained no more knowledge of the space surrounding Betasaad. If she left without gaining any, she could quickly run out of places to go. And if we leave here without permission and end up in another Folian system, we could find ourselves designated persona non grata. The more she spoke to Habalan the clearer it became that the Folians didn’t want to do anything that might upset the Karacknids. At least, not until the Elders had made a final decision. A ship belonging to an unknown enemy of the Karacknid Empire freely travelling through Folian space would not please the Karacknids. Habalan had hinted as much on several occasions.

“Perhaps we are speaking to the wrong person,” Alvarez whispered, he nodded towards one of the Folians who was in the party Habalan was showing around. “Ramaln is the only one who has shown any real interest in considering the option of fighting the Karacknids.”

“That was days ago,” Emilie countered, “it hasn’t said a word since.”

“Which means,” Alvarez pushed.

“Which means it has not thought it worthy to bring up again,” Emilie replied.

“Or…?”

“Or it has been unwilling to in front of their fellow Elders,” Emilie said as she saw where Alvarez was going. Turning her head slightly she stole a glance towards the alien Alvarez had nodded to. “How do you even know that is Ramaln, they all look alike?”

Alvarez smiled. “That they do. Call it a hunch, I’m not sure it is, but I think it may be. I’ve been watching them. For the last several days one has always seemed to fall to the back of the group. If it was a Human I’d say it is sulking, but with Folians, I don’t even know if that is possible.”

“Well… Maybe you should find out,” Emilie said, glancing behind her again. “If I go back there, Habalan will notice and join me. You on the other hand… Perhaps it’s time you started to put some of your spy skills to use.”

“Me?” Alvarez asked as his eyebrows rose. “I’m not a diplomat.”

“You think I am?” Emilie asked as she rolled her eyes. “All this is as new to me as you. Now go and be friendly Commander. Or do I have to make it an order?”

“All right, all right,” Alverez replied as he shook his head. “But, if this backfires, just remember you’re the one who sent me.”

“And you’re the one who came up with the idea,” Emilie countered. “We can both take the blame.” If this doesn’t work, it may get us into a little bit of hot water, she thought. But at this stage she was willing to take the risk. If this doesn’t work, we may have to try something the Folians might not like even more.

Alvarez took a deep breath and slowly allowed his pace to drop off. A couple of times he paused to smell a particular flower or feel one of its petals. After a handful of minutes, he slid alongside the alien he thought was Ramaln.

“Are the gardens not as much to your interest as the others, Elder?” he asked in a low voice he hoped none of the other Folians could overhear.

“Usually they are Commander Alvarez,” the Folian replied. “There are a number of species here that are important to my family. Given the threat my species currently faces, I fear I am not in the mood to appreciate them.”

Alvarez closed his eyes for a moment and passed on his thanks to the Kulreans for their ingenuity. Their translation software gave each alien a slightly different voice. To his ear, the clicks and clangs that came from each Folian sounded identical. Somehow, the translation software picked up enough of a difference. The voice speaking to him was that of Ramaln, at least, he was pretty sure it sounded the same “I understand your concern Elder, my species faces the very same threat. I hope that the offer of help that we bring will be received well by your Elders on your homeworld.”

When Ramaln didn’t immediately reply, Alvarez looked at the alien. It was staring at a small growth of multicolored plants. “The Karacknid missiles that struck my homeworld have caused an ecological disaster that will take generations to put right. I hope the same will not happen to any of your worlds,” Alverez prompted.

Ramaln stopped and swiftly turned to face Alvarez. The alien stared at him unblinkingly for several seconds. Then their eyes flicked forward to where Habalan was. Quickly it started moving again. “I fear that your offer may not be received by my Elders, nor the Conclave meeting on our homeworld.”

“You believe your people would rather be slaves than seek to fight for their freedom against such odds?”

“That is one thing I fear,” Ramaln confirmed. “I also fear that our leaders may not wish our people nor our neighbors to have an opportunity to consider your offer.”

“What do you mean?” Alvarez asked as his suspicions grew.

“Your Captain has been honest with us. You have not hidden the risks we face nor the failings in your own species. I believe we owe you the same in return. I do not know if Habalan has passed on to our Elders all of the offers your Captain has made. Nor do I know if those Elders will bring them before our people on our homeworld for them to consider. The Conclave has been called to decide whether or not to accept the Karacknid offer of vassalage. If it has already been decided we must accept, then the information you have brought would not be helpful.”

“What about your people, if your Elders would not accept our offer of assistance, what would they make of it? Or your neighbors, surely they have a right to know?” Alvarez pressed.

“My people? I do not know,” Ramaln answered. “At the moment, it does not seem like we have any option. The Karacknids are too powerful for us. I fear my species has already resigned itself to surrender. It is the only way we can see our species enduring. But you offer us something we have not had for months. Hope. I do not know how my people would respond to that.”

“And your neighbors?” Alvarez followed up.

“They are as different as we are to your species. Some already believe we should fight. Others are more cautious. I’m sure your offer of assistance would be warmly greeted by the former. Though the information you have regarding the Karacknids’ true strength could turn those who wish to fight away from such a course. We knew the Karacknids were strong, but they are more powerful than we imagined.”

“Is there a way to ensure that the information and promises we have brought are laid before the Conclave?” Alvarez asked. “Surely the fate of your species and your neighbors should not rest on Habalan’s decisions alone.”

“Habalan has put a censure on all information leaving Betasaad for our homeworld since your arrival. It does not wish news of your visit to our world to disturb the Conclave or cause panic,” Ramaln explained. “I have no way of countermanding their orders, it is the senior Elder.”

“Maybe you can’t, but we could,” Alvarez said as he stopped and turned to Ramaln. “We could take our ship to your homeworld. If we left now, could we make it to the Conclave in time? We could bring the information we have to share to your homeworld and your neighbors personally. They can hear first-hand the offer of help that we wish to make.”

“Habalan would not allow it,” Ramaln said as its antennae went rigid. “Many see you as threat as great as the Karacknids. They came with promises of peace and prosperity and then attacked the Nanee. Who is to say you are not the same? It could be dangerous for us to allow you to proceed into our territory.”

“You do not believe that,” Alvarez guessed. “You would not be talking to me if you did. And Habalan cannot stop us if we wish to go. We have analyzed your ships’ capabilities, if we want to leave, we can. But, we do not know where to go. We do not know where your homeworld is, or how to get there. If you could share that information with us, then we could bring our warnings to the conclave ourselves.”

“Commander Alvarez,” Habalan’s voice called out from further ahead. “Come up here and join us. There is a particular specimen I would like you to see.”

Alvarez held Ramaln’s gaze for a moment before turning. “Of course Elder, you have piqued my interest,” he called, keeping his irritation from his voice. As he looked towards Habalan, he thought he saw a strange twitch in the alien’s antennae, Habalan’s gaze was looking past him to Ramaln. Whatever the gesture meant, Alvarez didn’t know, but he doubted Habalan was happy.

“Well, how did it go?” Emilie whispered to him.

“I was right,” Alvarez replied. “But I don’t know if it will do us any good.” He gave Emilie a look that said they should discuss it later in private.

With a nod she showed she understood.

*

Intrepid, in orbit around Betasaad, 5th February 2482 AD (two days later).

“The time has come,” Emilie said as she clenched the hand that was resting on the briefing room table into a fist. “We have wasted too much time here. If the Folians won’t help us, then we need to press on. Perhaps we can discover one of their neighbors. Or maybe discover other new species. It seems the Karacknids have their eyes on this entire sector of space. There have to be allies out there we can find.”

“I don’t disagree,” Alvarez replied. “I just think we need more of a plan. The chances are very high that the other systems we know about that connect to Betasaad are also owned by the Folians. If we go charging off into the unknown we may cause more harm than good. We could end up getting stuck not knowing where to go. If we have to search out new shift passages it could take us months to explore them.”

“Then we head back the way we came,” Emilie countered. “We know of two systems that are in the direction of Karacknid space. The chances are at least one of them was owned by the Nanee. We can go there and make contact with them. I’m sure they would appreciate our offer of assistance. There may be some kind of resistance we could make contact with.”

“We could find ourselves surrounded by a Karacknid squadron. We’d have next to no chance of escaping and we would alert the Karacknids that Human warships can access this area of space,” Alvarez pointed out. “I’m not saying we should not consider the possibility, but it does have significant risks.”

“Greater risks than Earth facing another invasion fleet?” Emilie asked as her voice rose. Images of the scene she had witnessed with her uncle just hours after the nuclear missiles had detonated on Earth’s surface continued to haunt her dreams. She knew it was unfair to Alverez to use such an argument, but her patience was quickly running out. “Because you know that is what will happen if we fail here, don’t you? We have a chance to expand this war, to distract the Karacknids and draw away their strength. We have to take it.”

“I’m not denying any of that,” Alvarez said as he looked at Lieutenants Jones and Maguire, neither of them looked like they wanted to get involved in the argument. He didn’t blame them. “I’m just saying that we need to think carefully about how we make use of this opportunity. Habalan has appreciated our honesty to date. Perhaps we should share our frustrations with them. If we inform them that we intend to take our offers elsewhere, they may decide that their Elders need to hear what we have to say after all.”

“Or they will continue to string us along,” Emilie replied. “We are wasting precious time.”

“Ah… Captain,” Maguire said softly. “We may have another option.”

“What are you talking about?” Emilie asked in a harsher tone than she normally used.

“Hassan just sent me a data file. He noticed it in the latest supply manifests the Folians sent us to select supplies from. It was encrypted. That’s what caught his attention. He has just decrypted it,” Maguire answered, not meeting Emilie’s eyes.

Alvarez raised an eyebrow when she glanced at him. When she spoke her tone had returned to normal. “What was on the file?”

Instead of answering, Maguire reached forward and activated the briefing room’s holo projector. “This,” she said as she pointed. A star map had appeared, it contained more than sixty systems. “I believe this flashing dot is the Folian homeworld.”

“Ramaln?” Emilie asked as her frustration left her.

“Who else would it be?” Alvarez said as he jumped to his feet. He circled around the briefing room as he took in the star map. “Look, there’s not just the Folian’s territory on here. There are five other separate political markers. We have access to all of their neighbors. We could visit each of them if we wished.”

“But their leaders will all be at the Conclave on the Folian homeworld,” Emilie replied, she hadn’t taken her eyes from the flashing dot. “How far away is it from here?” she asked Maguire.

“It’s hard to say, we need to analyze this data more, but their homeworld is only three systems away. If the shift passages are short, it would not be far away at all,” the Second Lieutenant answered.

“Then there’s still time,” Emilie said as she joined Alvarez on her feet. “We can get there before they make their decision. “Come on,” she said as she moved out of the briefing room.

Alvarez shared a glance with Jones and Maguire, they knew where she was going, Intrepid’s bridge. Quickly following her, they found her already sitting in her command chair. “Bring us to battle stations, power up our reactors and engines,” she commanded. “Then open a COM channel with the planet.”

“Habalan is on the line Captain,” Intrepid’s COM officer reported less than a minute later.

“Elder, I wish to thank you for your hospitality. Your people have been most generous to us,” Emilie said when their face appeared in front of her.

“As I have said many times, you are most welcome Captain,” Habalan replied. The alien looked away for a couple of seconds before looking back. “My people tell me your ship is powering up its engines. Are you planning to depart? I thought we had a shipment of supplies scheduled to be brought to you later today.”

“Something has come up Elder, I’m afraid we must take our leave. I did not wish to do so without passing on my thanks one more time. I’m sure my people will send more missions to Betasaad to make contact with your people and speak with you. I will bring your greetings to my leaders.”

“I’m sorry to see you go Captain, perhaps you would like some of our ships to escort you back to the shift passage to your space? They could transfer what supplies you might need on your journey if you are in such haste,” Habalan suggested.

Emilie smiled, Habalan could be tricky when it wanted to be. “There is no need Elder, we are perfectly capable of looking after ourselves.”

“Then I will bid you farewell Captain, I hope we will have the pleasure of being in one another’s company again someday.”

“As do I Elder, it is my hope our two species can aid one another in the difficult days ahead,” Emilie replied. As she had come to expect, her covert reference to the Karacknids made Habalan’s antennae twitch.

“A friendship between our two species will benefit us both,” the Elder said in reply.

Emilie glanced at her COM officer to cut the COM channel. “Take us out of orbit,” she ordered. “Set course for the shift passage we took to enter the system for now.”

For ten minutes Emilie watched Betasaad recede on the holo-projector. A handful of Folian warships had powered up their reactors, but none had broken orbit. They are happy to see we are heading home, she suspected. That’s about to change. “Okay, change course, take us towards the shift passage to the Folian homeworld.”

Emilie smiled when she saw the Folians’ reaction. Ten warships broke orbit and put themselves on an intercept trajectory. Moments later her COM officer reported Habalan was demanding to speak with her. “Ignore them,” she said to her officer. “Take us to full speed,” she said to Intrepid’s navigation officer. In seconds, the Folian warships that had started to gain on Intrepid fell behind. Their propulsion technology was decades if not a century behind Intrepid’s. Technology we will be happy to share with you, Emilie thought to the warships’ Captains as she imagined their frustration. Hopefully, your Elders on your homeworld will be more open to our offers.




Chapter 18

Sadly Earth was not the only inhabited planet to suffer at the hands of the Karacknids’ willingness to use nuclear weapons on civilians. Any who stood up to them ran the risk of meeting the same fate.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Damial, Folian home system, 18th February 2482 AD (thirteen days later).

“What is our plan now Captain?” Alvarez asked from his command chair. “It looks like we’ve made it in time for the Conclave.”

Emilie nodded. Intrepid was sitting on the extreme outer edge of the Damial system. Her passive sensors had been sifting through every piece of electromagnetic radiation that was coming from the inner system for the last twenty minutes. The Folians’ home system wasn’t nearly as impressive as Sol, but it was still a significantly built up system. So far at least two hundred warships had been identified and the planet Damial had an impressive amount of stations in orbit. Of most interest were the five other groups of ships that were also in orbit. It was clear from their designs and emissions that they were not of Folian origin. “Take us in at one tenth maximum acceleration, we will remain in stealth,” Emilie said as she made a decision.

“They’re not going to take too kindly to us sneaking up on them,” Alvarez responded after Jones and Maguire carried out Emilie’s orders.

“No, I don’t expect they will,” Emilie replied as she turned to him. “But they’re just going to have to live with it. I’m done tiptoeing around them.”

Alvarez knew Emilie well enough to know the smoldering look in her eyes meant her decision wasn’t up for debate. Not for the first time, he wished he had acted upon his feelings for her. As daunting as she looked now, he couldn’t help but think she was cute. On board the Nanee freighter he had decided to open up to her. Yet with everything that had happened he had pushed such ideas to the back of his mind. Their feelings for one another, if Emilie thought as he did, were secondary to their mission. And you are afraid, he admitted to himself. It was one thing to resolve to do something, it was another thing entirely to carry it through. And now is not the time to second-guess yourself. They were sneaking into a possibly hostile system and he was thinking about his crush on Intrepid’s Captain! “When we do reveal ourselves then, may I suggest we try something other than our initial first contact message,” he suggested as he turned his mind to the matter at hand.

“Yes, I think that would be wise. We need to grab their attention,” Emilie agreed. “Let me put my mind to it and I’ll send you what I come up with.”

“Very well,” Alvarez replied. “Perhaps we should bring Spence into this as well, she is the xenobiologist after all.”

“Of course,” Emilie agreed.

Thirty minutes later Alvarez couldn’t stop his eyebrows raising, though he knew Emilie was watching him. He was reading the text of what she had prepared. Clearly, the fierceness he had seen in her eyes hadn’t dissipated yet. “Are you sure?” he asked. Emilie merely nodded and levelled her gaze at him. Alverez swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’ll send it to Spence and see what she thinks,” he continued. “It is strong.”

“Like I said, I’m not tiptoeing around,” Emilie responded.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Spence said a few minutes later as she rushed onto the bridge. She was waving a datapad about. “This is going to upset more than a few Folians. We’re already sneaking into the system. They could interpret that as an aggressive act. This this could send them over the edge.”

“I agree,” Alvarez said, deciding there was safety in numbers. “This forces them into a corner. People don’t react well when pushed.”

Emilie took a deep breath. “I understand your concerns. But I’m not speaking to the Folians. I’m speaking to the others. They will hear the broadcast as well.”

Alvarez had two other concerns he was about to share, but Emilie’s explanation cut him off. He looked over to Spence to gauge her reaction. The scientist looked deep in thought, beyond that her emotions were unreadable. “Well?” Emilie prompted. “You’ve both read the files on the other species Ramaln shared with us. How will they respond?”

Alvarez couldn’t help but smile. “It’s ballsy, but I see where you’re going. Spence?”

Spence shook her head. “There’s no way to know. Remember, those files are the Folians’ views on their neighbors. We already think their way of viewing other species is flawed. So we are looking at their neighbors through a flawed lens.”

“But it’s a lens with flaws we know about,” Emilie countered. “And the facts in the data file aren’t debatable. Three of the species are carnivores. Fine, that means little to us, but all three of them have been at war with one another or with the Folians in the past. At the very least, we know they are fighters. They cannot be happy with the idea of just surrendering to the Karacknids.”

“That does seem like the most logical conclusion,” Spence responded. “But we’re dealing with so many unknowns. We’d be throwing a match into a powder keg.”

“Sometimes that’s exactly what needs to be done,” Emilie replied. “My uncle sent me here after all, not some highly trained diplomat.”

“That much is true,” Spence conceded. “But I assume he also expected you to listen to what advice Alvarez, I and the others have.”

“So you both believe this is the wrong course of action?” Emilie asked as she turned to Alvarez.

Alvarez shrugged, “I don’t know. There’s so much riding on this, how can any of us really know?”

“And you?” Emilie said as she turned to Spence.

Spence set the datapad down. “I believe this is as likely to destroy any chance we may have of convincing them to join us as help. On the other hand, that means it may very well work. I just believe there are safer options we could explore first.”

Emilie nodded, “Your advice is noted. I agree with you both, I do not know for sure. But this is what my gut is telling me. And that is enough for me.”

Alvarez nodded, he had seen Emilie’s uncle act on a gut feeling more than once to the great benefit of those under his command. If Emilie’s gut was anything like his, then he was content to trust it as well. From the look on Spence’s face it was clear she didn’t feel the same. Nevertheless she nodded. “I will return to my station then Captain,” she said.

“Of course,” Emilie replied, “and please do look over what I have written, I do not wish to change the tone, but your input on the wording would be helpful.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Spence replied.

“Well,” Emilie said when Spence left the bridge. “I guess there’s nothing for it but to see what happens. Send the crew to battle stations,” she called out louder. “Prepare to bring us out of stealth when we get one light minute from Damial.”

Forty minutes later, when Intrepid’s COM officer nodded to her, Emilie took a deep breath and switched on the COM unit on her command chair. “People of Damial and all those attending the Conclave, I bring you my greetings. My name is Captain Emilie Kansas of the Human species. I and my ship, Intrepid, have spent two weeks in the Betasaad system liaising with the Folian Elders there. Now I have come to the Folian Homeworld to speak with you. I am aware of the demands the Karacknid Empire have made of you. My species is intimately familiar with the aggressive expansionist policies of the Karacknids. We and our allies are currently at war with them. Within the last six months a Karacknid fleet of over one thousand warships was driven out of my species’ homeworld. Before they fled, they launched nuclear weapons, killing hundreds of millions of my people. They are our sworn enemy and I am here in part seeking revenge.

“I’ve come before you all offering you the help of my species and our allies. We would not wish to see your peoples enslaved and your worlds oppressed. Rather, we would see the Karacknid Empire crushed once and for all. To that end we offer you technology, war materials, ships and personnel who will fight alongside you to help you keep your freedom. I’m here today as a living witness that the Karacknids can be beaten. Their strength and technology level is intimidating, but they can be beaten. With your permission I would like to address the Conclave you have gathered to discuss things further. My ship will not encroach further into the Damial system unless invited. Know this however, if you do not wish the assistance of my species, then I will move on from this sector of space. I have no doubt that there are others who need our assistance just as much as you. Moreover, if you do decide to bow to the Karacknids, then do not fool yourselves about what that will mean. You will be aligning yourself with an evil species that seeks to dominate and enslave all those it encounters. You will become culpable for all the atrocities you help them commit. You will become an enemy of my species. My people would much rather count you among our friends. We would happily bleed and die as we fight alongside you against our common foe. But, if it is necessary, we will crush all who aid the Karacknids.”

When she finished, Emilie closed her eyes and let her shoulders sag. She had meant every word. The emotion in her voice hadn’t been faked. She didn’t know if the translators the different alien species used would be able to pick up on it, but she hoped her words were enough. As she had said to Alvarez, she was done with tiptoeing around. The fate of her species was in the balance.

With one minute to wait until her message reached Damial, Emilie sat back in her command chair. She had no idea what was about to happen, but there was nothing more she could do. The die was cast.

“Energy spikes,” Intrepid’s sensor officer called seconds after the message reached the Folian’s homeworld.

“From what ships?” Jones queried.

“All of them,” the sensor officer said as she turned to Emilie. “Every warship in orbit is lighting off its reactors. They are all coming this way!”

“COMs?” Emilie asked.

The COM officer shook his head. “No reply yet.”

“Now that we’re getting more concrete energy readings, I think we can identify the ships,” Maguire suggested. “This squadron looks like they belong to the Gramrians, this other one to the Lalibrokes. I’m still matching the others to the data from the file Ramaln sent us.”

“Keep updating the holo projection as you identify more,” Emilie requested. The various groups of ships broke orbit and settled onto intercept trajectories. It looked like the Gramrian ships had taken the lead. She wasn’t overly surprised, they were supposed to be the most aggressive species. It made sense that their crews were more attentive and their engine technologies slightly ahead of their neighbors.

“We’re getting a message from the Folian homeworld now,” the sensor officer called. “They are requesting we power down our engines and weapons and prepare to be taken into custody. They’re saying we breached their territory when we left Betasaad.”

Emilie’s heart sank. The Folians had made their decision. She didn’t know if they would open fire on her ship if she refused, but she couldn’t take the chance. “All right, it’s time for Plan B,” she said reluctantly. “Prepare to turn us around.” Plan B meant they would seek to visit the homeworlds of each species in this sector of space. If they wouldn’t let her address the Conclave, she could at least meet with the leaders of the nearby species.

“Belay that,” Alvarez said quickly.

Emilie spun round to him. No one had the right to countermand one of her orders. Alvarez pointed to his command chair. “We’re getting a COM message from one of the ships in that Gramrian squadron. You are going to want to see it.”

“On-screen,” Emilie ordered as she forced her irritation at Alverez down. He could have simply told her about the message. When the image of the alien appeared in front of her, she was thankful it was a recording for she utterly failed to hide her shock. Ramaln’s short file hadn’t included any visuals of his species’ neighbors. She had known the Gramrians were reptilian in nature, but she hadn’t been prepared for their similarity to the thing she had always feared as a child. Dinosaurs had always fascinated her, but she had never grown accustomed to one particular species. Velociraptors gave her the chills. The combination of their teeth, long sharp claws and penetrating eyes was too much for her. Especially their eyes, Emilie remembered as she saw the same thing in the Gramrian. Every childhood movie she had watched that had depicted the apex predators had communicated a great intelligence in the eyes they gave their holographic raptors. The Gramrian looking at her gave the same impression.

“Human ship, I am Commodore Shraw of Strike Squadron. I have orders to escort you to Damial. My superiors wish to hear what you have to say in more detail. Please, fall into formation with my ships and we will escort you into orbit. You have nothing to fear from us.”

The message was in repeat and Emilie watched it one more time before cutting it off. “Open a COM link,” she ordered, taking a breath to settle herself. Commodore Shraw’s face appeared in front of her seconds later. As he stared at her, a forked tongue flicked in and out between his razor-sharp teeth. “Well Captain, what is your decision?” he asked when Emilie didn’t speak first.

“We would like to accept your offer of an escort, though you should know, the Folians wish to arrest us. It seems the Elders on Betasaad did not want us to come here.”

“My superiors are well aware of the Folian’s wishes. That is why I am here,” Shraw replied.

“Then I would be grateful for the escort, your offer is most kind,” Emilie replied. It seemed there were more fractures between the Conclave members than she had imagined.

“Do not read too much into our offer,” Shraw warned her. “My leaders wish to hear what you have to say, after that they may hand you over to the Folians. This is their home system after all.”

“I will keep that in mind Commodore, transmit the course you wish my ship to take and we will follow you in,” Emilie responded.

“I look forward to meeting you in person then Captain,” Shraw said. “You certainly do not fear risking your own life in pursuit of your goals.”

“I look forward to meeting you too,” Emilie replied, though she wasn’t sure she meant it. From what she could see Shraw’s body was covered in thick scales that looked like interlocking shields from an ancient European battlefield. She would have thought them impenetrable, but for the long razor-sharp claws that his two arms ended in. There were fingers there too, but it was each claw that had her attention. She had seen the brief images of Karacknid ground troops that had been sent out from Holstein before the planet was conquered. It looked like a Gramrian might be able to give a Karacknid a run for his money in a hand to hand fight.

“Gramrian ships are falling into formation around us,” Jones reported. “I’ve got the course details from Shraw’s flagship.”

“Follow them,” Emilie ordered.

“Those Folian ships aren’t slowing down,” Alvarez noted as he pointed at the holo- projector. Thirty Folian warships were still on a direct intercept course for Intrepid. The rest had slowed, but they weren’t too far away either. Emilie sat forward in her seat. “They’re playing chicken,” Alvarez added.

“Indeed,” Emilie agreed. Her respect for the Folians was growing. Whoever was commanding the ships was neither turning nor slowing. Someone does not want us addressing this Conclave, Emilie thought.

“They’re going to ram us,” Maguire all but squeaked.

Emilie sat back in her command chair. “Steady ahead,” she said as she projected an air of calm. She hoped Shraw knew what he was doing. As the Folian ships came closer and closer, Emilie couldn’t help but close her eyes when they were just seconds away from impact.

“They turned, they turned!” someone on the bridge shouted. Emilie snapped her eyes open. They were right, there had been no impact. Intrepid and Shaw’s ships hadn’t changed course. The Folians had scattered in all directions.

“He called their bluff,” Alvarez said. “Seems like this Shraw is not someone you want to get on the wrong side of.”

“No, indeed not,” Emilie decided. She had already been thinking along the same lines. It seems I’m not the only one willing to risk my life to do my duty.




Chapter 19

In space, ship design and technologies dominate the fighting prowess of a civilization. In ground wars, each species has its own innate capabilities that often dictate how it can fight. Technology can of course help; the marines’ combat armor allows Humans to do far more than they ever could alone. Yet it is not often enough to overcome some species’ natural advantages. Humanity’s real adversaries have always combined space based prowess with effective planet side armies. The result has been a long string of bloody wars.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


An hour later Emilie paused and tentatively looked down the shuttle’s access ramp. Lieutenant Shaw and six marines in full combat armor had already proceeded her out of the shuttle. They had formed a semicircle around the shuttle’s ramp. Facing them were more than thirty Folians, each armed with what Emilie guessed were laser rifles. Every Folian was standing rigidly still and their antennae were pointed straight at the marines. Despite the tension in the air, Emilie couldn’t help but marvel at how similar Damial looked to Betasaad. The vegetation, landscape and even the Folian buildings in the distance all looked like they came from Betasaad. Of course, she knew it was the other way around.

“Not quite the same welcoming party we received on Betasaad,” Alvarez commented from her side.

“Not quite,” Emilie replied. “I guess there’s nothing else for it, we’ve come this far.” Slowly, to match her words, she descended the shuttle’s ramp. When she got to Shaw’s side she placed a hand on the marine’s armored shoulder. “Don’t go too far.”

“We’ll be right here, one call and we’ll come get you,” Shaw promised.

From the look of the Folians, Emilie was pretty sure Shaw’s squad would get cut down before they got anywhere near the Folian government building in the distance. That was where the Conclave was being held. If something happened to her and Alvarez, the marines wouldn’t be much help. That is, if we even get there, Emilie reminded herself. It didn’t look like the Folians had any intention of letting her pass.

Even more tentatively than she had come out of the shuttle, she stepped past Shaw and towards the Folians. They didn’t raise their weapons, but neither did they stand aside. When she was just three meters in front of the nearest one, Emilie stopped. They were not going to budge. Now what? Emilie asked herself. She had taken a lot of risks to bring Intrepid into orbit above Damial. That was one thing though, trying to push past an armed Folian guard seemed like a whole new level of risk. She was as likely to be shot as allowed through.

Movement from behind the Folians made several of them turn. Emilie took half a step to one side to see around the Folian in front of her. As the source of the movement got closer, Emilie realized she needn’t have bothered. The two individuals who were approaching were at least half a meter taller than the Folians. That fact barely registered with Emilie though. What grabbed her attention was the speed and grace with which the aliens moved. Walking on two long legs, the aliens’ tails switched back and forth in a mesmeric fashion. Their long, clawed arms hung by their sides stationary, as if just waiting for when they would be needed to lash out with deadly force. With every other stride, their forked tongues flicked in and out, presumably as they tasted the various scents in the air. Gramrians Emilie knew as her attention focused on their eyes. Just like in her nightmares, the dinosaur like creatures had a very human like intelligence in their gaze.

“Stand aside,” one of them called when they were within earshot. “Stand aside,” he repeated. “These Humans are guests of the Gramrian delegation. Stand aside or there will be an official complaint.”

To Emilie’s surprise, the two Gramrians actually moved close enough to the Folians to push them aside. The Folians didn’t make it easy for them, though neither did they resist. As soon as a path was cleared, both Gramrians turned to Emilie. The tallest one, whose scales were a beautiful intricate green, brown and orange camouflage pattern held out an arm, palm up towards Emilie. “Greetings Human, I am War Chief Xamon. I am the Gramrian speaker at the conclave. You are now under my protection.”

“Thank you for allowing us to come to speak to you,” Emilie replied as she slowly moved her hand forward. Twisting her arm so her palm was down, she went to place her hand on top of the Gramrian’s when the Gramrian reached forward and grasped her forearm. Mimicking the gesture, Emilie grasped Xamon’s forearm. Though she had been trying to hide her aversion, she couldn’t help but jump when Xamon’s claw spun around her forearm locking their arms tightly together.

Xamon opened her mouth to show her teeth, “Do not fear Captain, it is a sign of trust within my species. To bear one’s wrist to another’s claw is a sign of courage. It also shows we mean each other no harm.”

Emilie forced herself to relax as much as she could. “My world shows such intent like this,” she said as she released Xamon and held her hand towards the alien as if they were going to shake. Xamon looked at Emilie’s hand for a couple of seconds and then mimicked the gesture. When she did Emilie slid her hand into Xamon’s and shook it up and down. “It shows that neither of us is carrying a weapon.”

“I see,” Xamon replied. She then looked over Emilie’s shoulder towards Shaw’s marines. “The same cannot be said for your companions.”

“No,” Emilie agreed. “They will wait here with the shuttle. I did not know what kind of greeting we would receive. The Folians on Betasaad were very welcoming, but after several weeks we realized they were stalling.”

“I’m not surprised,” Xamon said. “They and the Trac-kians have been the biggest proponents of accepting the Karacknid’s demands. They would not want anything that may tip the balance of the Conclave against them to interfere.”

“Then I am glad Commodore Shraw was able to escort my ship into orbit,” Emilie responded. “Do I have you to thank for that?”

“You do,” Xamon replied as she swished her tail. “Though I would reserve your thanks for now. I have allowed you here to speak to the Conclave. There we will decide the merits of what you have to say. After that I may not be able to protect you. Nor may I wish to do so.”

“Then I will have to make my case as best I can,” Emilie replied as she squared her shoulders. “Shall we proceed?”

“By all means,” Xamon said as she waved a clawed hand towards the Folian government building. “I am eager to hear what you have to say. As we walk, there are a number of things I should fill you in on regarding this Conclave.”

“I’m sure anything you can share with me will be helpful,” Emilie replied as she moved forward. She did her best to move quickly but it was obvious from the way Xamon was moving that the alien was going as slow as possible. I never want to face a Gramrian in hand-to-hand combat, Emilie thought as Xamon filled her in on the Conclave’s etiquette. Even if she tried to run, a Gramrian would likely catch her in seconds.

*

“Members of the Conclave, it is a deep honor you all bestow on me by allowing me to address this assembly,” Emilie began as she stood in front of the gathered representatives. “I recognize that each of your species faces the gravest choice in your history. You saw the strength of the Karacknid war fleet first hand when they conquered your neighbor the Nanee. I do not come here today to try to dissuade you about the threat that each of you faces. If the Karacknids wanted to, they could assemble their entire war fleet and they would be able to conquer all of your systems within weeks. There would be nothing that any of you could do to prevent this, whether you stick together or alone.

“However, I believe the fear the strength of the Karacknid fleet rightly causes us to feel, must be examined against the horrible future that giving in to such strength would bring. The Karacknids offer of vassalage to each of your species is a lie. They are warmongers and conquerors. Their species has no interest in gaining allies, friends or equals. Ask yourself this; in the war fleet that invaded Nanee space, were there any other species fighting alongside the Karacknids? The Karacknids have conquered hundreds of other species. Yet their people are nowhere to be seen. Do you know why? Because they are locked up on their own worlds or their colonies. They are not allowed to leave their planets, nor pursue their own interests, research, business or trade. They are slaves to the Karacknid war machine. You may ask how do I know this? In part because I was part of a fleet that fought the Karacknids in an attempt to stop them invading one of our neighbors. Sadly, we failed in that attempt. As we were driven out of our neighbor’s home system, we saw what the Karacknids do to those who they conquer. Their entire world, though it had already been conquered, was destroyed by hundreds of nuclear missiles.

“If that is not evidence enough, allies of my species called the Varanni have sent scout ships into Karacknid territories. They have made contact with other species that have been conquered. I have brought such information with me,” Emilie paused as she pulled out a datachip from her pocket. “I happily make it available to all of you to analyze. In here are scouting reports, battle overviews and anything else I can share with you about the Karacknids that is not sensitive. I hope this data will back up what I am saying today.”

Emilie took a breath as she gathered her thoughts. “In light of this I urge you all to carefully consider the decision this Conclave will make. If you give in to the Karacknids I believe your species will regret such a decision for generations to come. If you choose to fight it may be that you are defeated and conquered, that is true… But, will you be any better off than if you did not fight? And if you do fight, there may be a chance! The Karacknids are not omnipotent. They can be beaten. My species has defeated them on more than one occasion. And we will do so again.

“I bring you this offer on behalf of my people. If this conclave decides to resist the Karacknids we will do everything we can to aid you. We will share military technologies, we will share resources, including weapons and ships, and we will send our own warriors to fight alongside you. The Karacknids are our common foe. We should stand against them together.”

Emilie looked around at the Conclave members. She was hoping for some kind of response to her words. None seemed forthcoming. Only Xamon acknowledged her gaze, the Gramrian bared her teeth at Emilie but said nothing. Emilie closed her eyes and summoned more strength. A non-response didn’t necessarily mean anything. But given the passion she had put into her words, she had hoped for something. “I will happily answer any of your questions now,” she said as she sat down.

“Then let me begin,” the Folian speaker said. That it didn’t give its name was a sure sign that the Folian was not happy. “You say you bring data that proves your claims about the Karacknids. Yet that can be fabricated. You admit you are at war with this species. How can we trust you any more than we do they?”

“You cannot,” Emilie answered honestly. “Except by interpreting our actions. I have come here peacefully and willingly put my ship and myself under your control. The Karacknids have only come to you in force. They have conquered the Nanee. My species has done no such thing. I confess, I am here out of self-interest. I do not wish to see my homeworld bombarded again, nor my species enslaved. If you decided to fight the Karacknids then it would be to my species’ benefit. That is true. However, my species is not heartless. We do not desire to see any species enslaved. If we can help your species remain free, then we will happily do so.”

“Everything you say may be a lie. We do not know where your homeworld is, nor the size of your species’ territory. We do not know the strength of your fleet nor whether or not you are truly at war with the Karacknids,” the Folian countered. “Your entire story could be a falsehood. For all we know, you could be here simply because you would take pleasure in seeing our civilizations destroyed by war. You ask us to judge you by your actions. Well, where were you months ago when the Nanee were invaded? You say you have been at war with the Karacknids so clearly you have known of their empire for some time. Your ship is here now in our homeworld, so you are our neighbor, even if not as close as those gathered around this table with us. Why not warn us about the Karacknids before now? Why not help the Nanee? If we are to judge you by your actions, we might conclude that you have come now simply to cause havoc and sow dissension within this Conclave.”

“That is not true,” Emilie insisted. “My species knew nothing of yours until several weeks ago. As I explained to Elder Habalan, we happened upon a damaged Nanee freighter by chance. From its course we discovered the coordinates of your colony. You can send a ship to check, the damaged freighter is there. I am here now because this is as soon as I could bring the warnings I have shared. Though I would have been here earlier if Habalan had not intentionally waylaid me and kept me from this Conclave,” Emilie couldn’t help but add as she stared daggers at the Folian. It was one thing for the Conclave members to doubt her testimony and wish to examine her, but the Folian was actively trying to shoot down what she had said without giving it a fair hearing. Does it want its species to become slaves? Emilie shook her head, that can’t be it, it is just scared. Scared or not though, the Folian was dooming its own people.

“All we have is your word,” the Folian replied without changing its tone. It didn’t understand the look on Emilie’s face, or chose to ignore it. “The rest of the Conclave members may question this Human, but there’s nothing more the Folian people can learn from her.”

“I for one have many more questions,” Xamon said in a formal manner that ignored the Folian’s words. “To begin with, you have mentioned fighting the Karacknids several times. I would like to hear how you have fought them and how you have won. Up to this point our discussions within this Conclave have assumed that they cannot be beaten.”

Emilie shot Xamon a grateful look, though she was doubtful the alien could interpret it as such. Then she answered. Starting with the Mindus’ request for help, she detailed how her uncle had led a Human fleet to fight alongside the Varanni and their allies in Mindus space. She talked through the Karacknid invasion of her own species’ territory and the cataclysmic Battle of Earth. When she was done, Xamon and several other speakers questioned many of the things she had shared. To her surprise, more than one of them asked very insightful questions. They are not unfamiliar with interstellar war, she concluded. Some of the questions would have been far better answered by her uncle or Vice Admiral Gupta, but she answered as best she could.

“You have told us how your war went human,” the Lalibroke speaker said. “I’m curious as to how do you think ours would go? We have over eighty colonies between us to protect. Once we thought our warship numbers were impressive, but now we know they are not. You have spoken one truth, if the Karacknids concentrated their forces against us, our worlds would be quickly conquered. Even with your help, I do not see how this would not be so.”

Emilie kept her face impassive. The question was a good one. “I do not know enough about your military technologies or tactics to answer such a question with any detail,” she answered. “Even so, combined, I’m sure your forces are enough to fend off the Karacknids. However, if you go to war with them, you will not be fighting alone. As I have said, my species and ten others are currently fighting together against them. The Karacknids will not be able to focus their full strength against you. Moreover, we believe there are other wars the Karacknids are involved in as well. It is possible a war with them may end quickly for you. On the other hand, even the greatest of beasts can be taken down by many small strikes. Together we may be able to achieve that. You all must decide if the risk is worth taking.”

More questions quickly followed. Suddenly Emilie found herself carefully explaining the strategies and tactics Humanity had employed against the Karacknids, then she was speaking about engine technologies, then missile ECM. All the while she had to be careful not to give away any secrets. Talking up the impressive parts of Human, Varanni and Mindus technologies without actually giving them away was tough.

“So you expect us to make a decision without being able to see any of these promised technologies or ships in action?” the Trac-kian speaker asked. “It is all well and good you telling us about them, but we have only your word to go upon. We could be embarking upon a war completely reliant on aid that may not materialize or may not even exist.”

“Worse,” the Folian speaker said, re-joining the conversation for the first time since it had spoken. “From what you have told us, the Karacknids were at war with you when they conquered the Nanee. We know they have been hunting the Kalassai as well. That means they have been able to fight on three fronts simultaneously and, by all accounts, are winning on two out of the three, if not all three. I do not see how our species joining such a fight would make any difference.”

“I know I am asking a great deal of you all,” Emilie responded as she tried to hide her excitement at the mention of the Kalassai, whoever they were. “You each hold the fate of your species in your hands. This is not a decision I imagine you are taking likely. Nor, as I know, is it one you are seeking to make today. I hope to back up everything I have shared with you today with data and examples. Certainly, my ship Intrepid will be able to demonstrate all of her capabilities to you. We could organize some battle simulations and weapons tests in the coming days.”

“One ship will not prove very much to us,” the Folian said in a tone that Emilie could only take as dismissive. It looked away, not saying anything more. Grinding her teeth together Emilie turned to the next speaker that had a question.

“There is another point you have made upon which I am unsure,” Hura of the Lomalns began. “You have claimed on several occasions that the Karacknids have no allies nor friends nor even vassals, only slaves. Yet from what you have shared, your species is only familiar with other species who have resisted them. Species like our neighbors the Nanee. They were given the opportunity to surrender peacefully and chose to resist. The Karacknids have made a very different offer to us.”

“As I explained earlier, Varanni scouts made contact with a resistance group on a planet that was conquered by the Karacknids more than fifty years ago. They had data on their planet and several nearby worlds. All of them had been brought into the Karacknid Empire and all of them were treated the same,” Emilie answered.

“That proves nothing,” Hura replied. “They may all be species who fought against the Karacknids. Nothing you have said today may bear any weight on the situation we face.”

“You speak with great wisdom Hura,” the Folian speaker said. “Now perhaps the delegates understand why Elder Habalan chose to delay the Humans at Betasaad. Captain Kansas spoke true when she said that we hold the fate of our species in our hands. That means it is we who are responsible. Not her, nor her species. I therefore move to have everything she has spoken and shared with us struck from the official records of this Conclave. There is simply no way to verify the claims she has made. We have but a month to make our decision. We cannot waste more time discussing these things, not when they cannot be verified in the timeframe we are faced with. Without being able to determine the veracity of what this Human Captain has shared, our decision should not be swayed by her words. I call an immediate vote on this topic.”

Emilie couldn’t help but stare at the Folian. She had thought she would have had days to discuss, explain and layout in more detail the kinds of aid and technologies her species could help the members of the Conclave with. At the very least she thought she would have had time to answer more questions and let everyone think over what she had shared. Instead the Folian speaker was trying to shut her up and get rid of her. Glancing at the datapad she had brought with her, Emilie was surprised to see that only two hours had passed since she had begun to speak to the conclave.

“Let us vote,” the Folian speaker said as it looked around at the other Conclave members. Emilie, still on her feet, wanted to scream at the Folian. Though it was difficult, she forced herself to remain silent. Then slowly, she sat. Xamon had explained that anything else would be folly. When an official vote was called, it had to be taken immediately. It was one of the fundamental rights each species had at the Conclave. To disrupt it would turn all of them against her. I just have to trust in what I have shared, she said to herself to keep calm. Surely, they will want to hear more.

Within seconds Emilie got her answer. After speaking, the Folian raised one of its mandibles, “All in favor of dismissing Captain Kansas’ testimony?” Emilie’s heart sank as three more hands shot up immediately. The Folian had a majority. When a fifth hand was raised Emilie bit back a curse. Only Xamon had not voted against her. She had failed to convince any of them. When she turned to the Gramrian to at least give a nod of thanks, a squeak escaped her lips when she saw Xamon slowly raise her hand as well. The apologetic look Xamon gave Emilie did nothing to quell her emotions. “Fools, all of you are fools,” she snarled.

In anger she jumped to her feet. “Come on,” she said to Alvarez. “We’re not waiting around here for them to decide they want to detain us.” Tapping her COM unit, she opened a channel to Shaw. “We’re coming out, I don’t know if we’re going to be pursued or not. But we are coming to you. Warm up the shuttle”

“Acknowledged, we are ready,” Shaw replied immediately.

Without waiting to see what any of the speakers said, Emilie grabbed Alvarez by his arm and pulled him out of the large room the conclave was being held in. Barging passed several unarmed Folians, Emilie moved as quickly as she could without breaking into a jog. She didn’t know how far away any Folian guards would be, but she didn’t want to wait to find out. As she moved, she felt tears run down her cheek. She had put everything into speaking to the Conclave and she had failed. She had failed her species and her uncle.

“Hold on,” Alverez said as he caught her arm, spinning her around. Crashing into his chest, Emilie didn’t have the will to resist when he pulled them into a small alcove.

“What are you doing?” she asked when she looked up into his face. It was dangerously close to hers.

“Something I should have done already,” Alverez said as he lowered his lips to hers.

For several seconds every other thought evaporated from her mind. Then it all came flooding back. She quickly pushed Alverez back. “What… why?” she panted.

“You were inspiring in there,” Alverez said as he held her sides. “I know you well enough to know you did not fail. You spoke with elegance and conviction. Please, don’t blame yourself, you did all you could.”

“I… but why the kiss?”

Alverez smiled sheepishly. “It was the best way I could think of to make you pause.” His smile widened. “And I’ve been wanting to for months now.”

“Really?” Emilie asked as her lips threatened to crack a smile.

“Captain, Captain,” Xamon called from further down the corridor.

Alverez’s face changed and Emilie suddenly remembered where they were. “We need to get out of here,” she said. Grabbing his hand, she pulled him out of the alcove and broke into a jog again.

“Captain,” Xamon called out again, this time she sounded much closer.

Emilie didn’t slow, but she did turn to peer over her shoulder. Xamon was speeding down the corridor after her. For a second Emilie couldn’t help but feel like the lizard like alien was about to pounce on her and tear her to shreds. Though she felt a spike of fear run through her, she continued nonetheless, if it was going to happen, there was no way she could stop it.

“Captain,” Xamon said in a much sterner voice when she got closer. “Where are you going? Even if the Conclave won’t listen to you, there is much I would like to discuss with you.”

Emilie’s anger made her stop. “What difference would that make to the decision the Conclave will make?” she asked as she turned. “Even you voted against me! Why do you want to talk to me, so you can make the arguments I would have? They will take nothing I share with you seriously… Will they?” Emilie pressed when Xamon didn’t respond.

“I… I am not sure,” Xamon answered. “They may, or they may not. I fear they do not trust what you have to say.”

“They won’t trust it even if it comes from you,” Emilie replied as she forced herself to calm down. Remembering Alverez’s lips helped. “Thank you for allowing me to speak to your Conclave. It was worth a try. I’m afraid I have wasted your time as well as my own however.”

“But the Karacknids, they are still a threat to you and us. Where are you going?” Xamon asked.

Emilie didn’t know the answer until Xamon asked. She had been reacting on rage. But the answer came to her as soon as she thought about it with a level head. “I’m going to Nanee space. If you won’t believe what I have to say, maybe you will believe them. There are bound to be survivors on some of their colonies. I’m going find some and bring them here. They can address your conclave. Perhaps then you will listen and turn back from the path you are taking.”

Xamon stared at Emilie and flicked her tongue back-and-forth several times. “You would take one ship into Karacknid space? You would go alone?”

“If that is what needs to be done, then yes,” Emilie insisted as she raised her chin. “If that’s what it will take to stop your species throwing away their futures.”

Xamon nodded. “What can I do to help?”

Emilie turned and started walking again. Only then did she realize she was still holding Alverez’s hand. Smiling at him, she let it go. They would have much to talk about when they got back on board Intrepid. But now it’s out in the open, she thought. Maybe the day hasn’t been a complete failure. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked as she looked over her shoulder to Xamon. When Xamon caught up with them she rattled off a list of things that would be helpful. “One more thing,” she said as they stepped out of the Folian building, “Who are the Kalassai?”




Chapter 20

When it comes to the founding of the Empire, historians always like to put a year, day and even an hour to the momentous event. As my students may imagine by now, the reality is not so simple. The Empire’s birth was a long and protracted one, not without its hiccups. Yet we can point to a moment when the journey to Empire began.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Earth, 7th February 2482 AD, 8:45 am

“Thank you for coming on such short notice James,” Gupta said as James stepped into her office on-board Earth.

James nodded to Scott who was already there and took a seat. “No problem Admiral,” he said with a smile. “What is it?”

“I’m afraid I have some grave news,” Gupta said, not returning his smile. “Word has just reached us from New Berlin. The planet and Lightfoot’s fleet are being blockaded by approximately one hundred Karacknid warships.”

James groaned. “Has there been a battle yet?”

Gupta shook her head, “Not that we know of. Artaxerxes has just returned, Lightfoot dispatched her with the news. He ambushed a Karacknid squadron as they were returning to Holstein. The Karacknid commander there didn’t take too kindly to the attack. The fleet that is now besieging Berlin was dispatched to pursue Lightfoot. When he got to New Berlin the reinforcements we had sent him were in orbit. Rather than sacrifice them he brought his squadron into orbit as well. With the planet’s battlestations and his fleet, Lightfoot believes the Karacknids will not attack.”

“Perhaps not, but let me guess, they have dispatched more raiding squadrons?”

“Yes,” Gupta replied. “Artaxerxes witnessed two squadrons break off from the main Karacknid fleet. One of them chased her all the way to the Beta system. There, they turned towards Japanese space.”

James swore. “What forces do we have there?”

“Very little,” Gupta said as she activated her office’s holo projector. It sprang to life and displayed Japanese colonial space. “There are a handful of Japanese warships. Hopefully, they will be enough to prevent the Karacknid ships from raiding any of the main Japanese colonies, but the rest will be all but defenseless.”

“Chinese colonial space?” James followed up. If the Karacknids were willing to send squadrons through the Beta system they could just as easily hit Chinese space.

“The same,” Gupta answered. “I’ve already dispatched a frigate to bring news of the development to New Shanghai. If they concentrate their forces in the Wea system they may be able to push back any Karacknid squadron that tries to raid their colonies.”

“If they detect the squadron,” James couldn’t help but comment. He knew full well Gupta understood the implications of the Karacknid stealth capabilities. “What is your estimation of the situation? Do you agree with Lightfoot, will the Karacknids be content to just blockade New Berlin? If they crush Lightfoot’s fleet, we’ll have nothing to defend any of our colonies.” In the back of his mind James was already thinking about how he would have to bring the news to the Emergency Council. Those who had opposed dispatching Lightfoot would not be happy. Bernard would have a field day telling everyone how he had been right.

“New Berlin’s defenses are strong,” Gupta replied. “With the reinforcements we sent to Lightfoot, one hundred Karacknid warships would take a serious beating trying to take the planet. Lightfoot included all his battle reports and scouting data with Artaxerxes. He managed to send two Varanni frigates into the Holstein system before he was chased off. It seems many of the Karacknid warships still there are undergoing repairs. My guess is their damage is minor, the more damaged ships were probably taken back to Jaranna or further into the Karacknid Empire. Still, if the Karacknid commander at Holstein sent most of his battle-ready ships after Lightfoot, they are unlikely to risk all of them in one battle. Especially if all it will give them is a colony of limited importance.”

“Then we need to relieve Lightfoot as soon as possible,” James decided. “We need to get his fleet free to pursue the Karacknid raiding squadrons again. His ships are no use to anyone bottled up in New Berlin. What forces do we have to send to his aid?”

Gupta shrugged and shook her head. “There is nothing. We sent all the ships that were just out of the repair yards to New Berlin to join his forces. Home Fleet has already been cut to the bone. If we send a force to relieve Lightfoot and the Karacknid fleet at New Berlin breaks off the blockade and comes here, we’d be very hard pressed to fight them off.”

“They wouldn’t even have to attack here, they could circumvent Home Fleet and strike at Britannia or into the French or American colonies,” James said as he played out the possible scenarios in his head. “We’d have nothing to chase them down.” He swore again. They simply didn’t have enough ships! “What about the Karacknid raiding squadrons? Can we hunt them down?” he asked as he changed tack. There was no point wasting energy on impossibilities.

Scott shook her head. “Not at the minute, all the ships in Home Fleet are un-upgraded ships. None of them would have the speed nor the fighting capabilities to take them on. Every upgraded ship is with Lightfoot at New Berlin now.”

James nodded, he already knew that, his head was just so full of Emergency Council business that he had forgotten. “What about our construction operations, do we have enough ships coming off the assembly lines?”

Scott leaned forward and switched the view on the holo- projector. “Operation Overhaul is progressing on schedule. We’ll have seven warships coming out of the repair yards by the end of the month. Four destroyers and three medium cruisers. They’ll have to spend a week or so carrying out systems checks and space trials, but that would give us a small task force. Thirteen more warships will be ready by the end of the next month, and then another thirty-three the following month, but they all may be too late.

“Operation New Fleet is not faring as well. We’ve got four of our Python destroyers currently completing space trials, the next six will be complete in six weeks. Aurora our first light cruiser, is completing her space trials, if everything checks out with her, six more keels will be laid down by the end of the month. I’m afraid that is as far as we have come, however. It is proving difficult to retool our construction yards to produce our new designs. Regin in the Maximilian system is still producing most of them. Coordinating shipyards in British, Chinese, French, Russian and American colonies to produce the same designs is a logistical nightmare.”

“Operation Force Multiplier?” James queried, hoping there was good news there.

Gupta smiled, “That is one piece of good news I can share. We already have many factories spread around our colonies capable of producing Spitfires and missile pods. Ramping up production has had its difficulties, but it is progressing ahead of schedule. Finding the freighters to carry them has been the bigger issue. As you know, the demand for freighters for supplies for Earth and war materials is immense. We are still trying to source all we will need, but McCarthy has been very helpful with this. It turns out the missions we have in mind for these freighters are just the kind of missions McCarthy and his smuggler types enjoy. He’s been recruiting volunteer freighter crews to work with us.”

“How soon can we have the first freighters coming online?”

“I’m hoping that by the end of the month we will be able to begin live firing drills and active missions outside the simulators. But our forces will not be in a position to hunt down Karacknid raiding squadrons any time soon. Most of the freighters have yet to have their engines and reactors upgraded.”

“So what, we just allow the Karacknid’s free rein?” James asked as he looked from Scott to Gupta. “That is unacceptable.”

“We can send out our new destroyers and Avalon when they have all completed their space trials. It will only be six ships. But they will be the most advanced ships in our fleet,” Scott said. “They could take on a small Karacknid squadron.”

James closed his eyes as he thought. He was reacting as the Emergency Committee Chairman, he needed to become the Admiral he was once again. “No,” he said as he opened his eyes. “We can’t risk them, not yet. If we’re going to drive the Karacknids out of our space we need to build up a strong enough force to win outright. If we keep feeding our new ships into battle as soon as they come out of the construction yard we’ll never be able to do that. We’ll have to wait. If we combine our new construction with the ships that are scheduled to finish their overhauls in the next three or four weeks we should have enough ships to put together a strong squadron. Our colonies will have to fend for themselves until then.” As much as he knew it was true, James hated admitting it. Even more so because he knew how some of the Emergency Council members would react to such a reality.

“I do have one suggestion,” Gupta responded. “It’s the only thing I can think of that we can do right now. It may buy us the time we need to get more ships in the field.” She paused as she looked at James. “I’m not sure you’re going to like it, nor the Emergency Council. But we could take Home Fleet to the Beta system. If we set up patrols along the German shift passage we may be able to prevent, or at least deter, Karacknid raiding squadrons from passing through the system to Japanese and Chinese space.

“That would leave Earth almost entirely uncovered except for the Kulrean ships. What if a force slips past Home Fleet? Even a small squadron could cause havoc here or in our other colonies. Our freighter fleet is already being pressed to the limit. Just one Karacknid ship getting amongst them would set us back weeks, if not months.”

“It is a risk,” Gupta agreed. “But if Flew is willing to take her ships with us, Varanni sensors would make it much harder for any Karacknid ships to slip past us.”

“You think this is the best course of action?” James asked.

Gupta nodded, “My staff have had an hour or so to run some simulations. We’ll want to look at it further, but at the minute yes. I think the risk to Earth is acceptable.”

“All right, I’ll give you some more time to look things over. I’ll call an Emergency Council meeting for this evening to brief them on this,” James decided. “We can meet before it and you can share your final recommendations with me.”

“Certainly,” Gupta responded. “There is an upside to all this we should consider. As Scott has shared, over the next couple of months we will have more and more ships coming online. If the Karacknids continue to blockade New Berlin and we can limit the damage their raiding squadrons are doing, we may be able to catch them with their forces split. Once we have a large enough fleet we could attack New Berlin and defeat the Karacknid fleet there. Then with Lightfoot’s forces added to our own we could push on to Holstein. If the Karacknid fleet there is undergoing repairs they would be vulnerable.”

“If…” James replied. “That’s a big word. On the other hand, if they received reinforcements, or if their repairs are completed, we could be throwing away all the upgraded ships we have. We could find ourselves in the position we were in just after the Battle of Earth… “However,” he continued as he thought it through, “I like the idea. Even if we just hit New Berlin with enough ships to defeat the Karacknid fleet before falling back again, it would buy us more breathing space. Get your staff to start working on battle simulations for such an engagement. I want to know how many ships we would need to be assured of victory. Then we can start prioritizing what construction to focus on so as to get such a force together as quickly as possible.”

“We’ll get right on it,” Gupta said with a nod as she glanced at Scott.

“All right,” James said as he stood, “I need to put some thought into how I’m going to bring this to the Emergency Council and get your suggestion approved if we decide to go with it.”

“There’s one other thing before you go,” Gupta said as she stood. “We’ve received word from Intrepid. Emilie sent a recon drone back through the wormhole.”

“Yes?” James asked as excitement and fear ran through him.

“She has made a discovery,” Gupta said with a smile. She turned away from James as she continued, “By the way, I think we need to rename the wormholes. Talking about the Gift’s first and second wormholes doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I’d suggest we call the original wormhole the Haven wormhole and the second one can be named based on what Emilie discovers.”

James waved a fist at Gupta even though she couldn’t see it. “Stop stalling. Who cares what the wormholes are called, you can make any recommendation you want. What did she discover?”

Gupta turned and winked and then smiled as she leant over and altered the image on the holo-projector. It now displayed several points with dotted lines connecting them. “Can’t I have a little fun? When James glared at her she quickly continued. “She discovered a shift passage to a solar system. There she discovered a freighter that had been attacked and destroyed by Karacknid energy weapons. On the freighter she retrieved a star map of local space. It doesn’t look complete, she thinks it is the freighter’s flight plan, but it contained several new systems. She sent the recon drone back with this data before heading to explore the nearest one.”

“That’s it?” James demanded. “She sent nothing more?”

Gupta shrugged. “That’s all she had to report. The information is a couple of months old by now, but I imagine it will take weeks for anything more to reach us. If not longer.”

James shook his head. New systems discovered, at least one new alien race encountered, and the Karacknids were active on the other side of the Gift’s second wormhole! And, to top it all off, it would take weeks if not months for Emilie’s next update to come through. “What response are you planning?”

“I’ve already drafted orders to double the number of defense stations being built around the Gift. With the Emergency Council’s permission, I’d like to alter our future force allocation plans to assign a garrison squadron there as well. We should also think about putting together a small diplomatic squadron to be sent through to back Emilie up. When we sent her out, we didn’t know if she would find anything, and even if she did, we expected it to take months if not years. This discovery changes things slightly.”

“Slightly?” James asked. “That’s an understatement. Have your staff officers put together your recommendations and send them to me as well. I need to give this some thought. If there are other species out there fighting the Karacknids it may change the balance of things here. We may need to rethink all of our plans. At the very least we need to send a few more ships there to speed up Emilie’s reports. And perhaps…” James added as he winked at Scott, “We might need to send out our illustrious commander of Home Fleet. If for no other reason than to put an end to her pranks on me. Next time Admiral,” he said turning back to Gupta and made his tone as harsh as he could, “No playing tricks with my niece.” He winked at her as well. He didn’t appreciate Gupta’s mock concern about the wormholes, but he understood her desire to add a bit of levity into their meeting. Things had taken a turn, and not for the better, he thought as he left her office.




Chapter 21

Though this textbook is designed to give cadets an overview of the history of the Empire’s founding, it touches on many areas of the Empire’s history. Specifically of course we deal primarily with military and political ideas. That does tend to portray the Empire in a fairly aggressive light. While it is true our Emperors have acted swiftly to protect our citizens, there are many colonies who have gone centuries without seeing conflict firsthand. Most of the core worlds have been so efficiently protected by the Imperial Fleet that their populaces have forgotten the threats that are out here on the frontiers. One hopes their sense of security will never prove to be false. It is the duty of the Fleet to make sure this is so. Though there is still room for reminding the core worlds of just what life is like along the frontiers.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Geneva, Switzerland, 7pm

The shuttle banked around several Swiss mountains on its descent from orbit but James didn’t even notice them. Normally he enjoyed taking a few moments to soak up the beautiful scenery before attending an Emergency Council meeting. Six weeks ago they had moved their meetings from UNS Earth to Geneva. The city hadn’t been touched by any of the Karacknid nuclear missiles and it had all the amenities the council members needed to carry out their responsibilities. Though the scenery was just as beautiful as ever, this time, James’ mind was elsewhere. The coming Council meeting was not going to be a pleasant one. Word had leaked about the siege of New Berlin and more than one Councilor had contacted him to demand their ideas and suggestions be on the agenda.

James was so focused on his thoughts that he didn’t notice the shuttle touching down. It was only when the pilot took off his headset and gestured for James to proceed him down the ramp that he realized. Quickly gathering his thoughts, James unbuckled himself and exited the shuttle. He smiled when he saw Andréa was waiting for him. “You’re late,” she said in her typical matter of fact manner. “Everyone else is waiting for you.”

“I guessed as much,” James replied. “I had to finalize things with Gupta.”

“Well you’re likely to have one or two grumpy council members on your hands. And that’s even before we begin discussing today’s topics,” Andréa warned him.

“There’s nothing I can do about that,” James sighed. “So we may as well get going. Have you any idea how the vote is going to go?”

Andréa shook her head. “I’ve had my people reaching out to those of the Councilors. They didn’t reveal any specifics of what you plan to suggest, but they still tried to get a feel for what kind of action they might support. Your guess is as good as mine at this stage. Everyone seems to have different ideas.”

“Then we’ll just have to see,” James replied. In the last few weeks he had noticed a slow change in the tone of the Council meetings. As each nation was progressing further and further with its recovery strategies, there was less and less need for one another. Old rivalries and relationships were starting to simmer to the surface. Getting a consensus was becoming harder and harder. “On an issue like this we will pull together,” he promised Andréa. “This is too big to squabble over.”

“We’ll see,” Andréa said as she raised an eyebrow. “I hope you won’t have to eat your words when this is over.”

James eyed her for several seconds. It hasn’t got that bad yet has it? he asked himself. He hoped not.

Five minutes later he took his seat at the head of the oval conference table. After glancing around and nodding to a few of the council members, he lifted his gavel and brought it down. “Let’s officially open this meeting. I thank you all for attending on such short notice. I have just two items for the agenda. The first is our response to the information Captain Kansas has sent back from the newly explored Gift wormhole. Let me explain what we know so far.” Without a pause he shared his rehearsed summary. Then he outlined the response he and Gupta thought best.

There, that was easy enough, James thought twenty minutes later. It had only taken a brief discussion for the members to unanimously approve the plan. A small squadron of four destroyers and a diplomatic envoy would be sent through the wormhole to make contact with Emilie and determine if there were any species the envoy should approach to continue diplomatic dialogue. James fully expected Emilie to have made contact with whatever species she discovered, but she would need backup to progress things.

“Now, to our second and most pressing issue,” he said. “As many of you have already become aware, Lightfoot’s fleet has encountered some serious resistance. After several successful operations that resulted in Karacknid raiding squadrons being destroyed or chased away, Lightfoot and his ships were trapped at New Berlin. We must determine the best course of action in response to this.”

“The best course of action would have been not to dispatch Lightfoot and his ships to the German colonies in the first place,” Bernard said before James could continue. “Now we are facing a disaster on the same scale as the ambush at Holstein. We could have a repeat of the entire fiasco! If Lightfoot’s ships are lost the Karacknids could attack Earth once again. We must find a way to extract them at once.”

“You’re overreacting Sir,” Chancellor Hoffman rebutted. “New Berlin’s defenses are strong. Defending German colonies was the right decision. We should not abandon this course now when things suddenly get tough. I thought we were meant to be standing together!”

“Before this meeting breaks down into petty arguments,” James said loudly, cutting off any more responses. “I would like Admiral Gupta to apprise all of us of the specifics of what has happened. She also has a plan of action she wishes to bring before us for our consideration. This is a military matter, one that requires a strategic response. This is why we have appointed Gupta to command Home Fleet.” With a nod James gave Gupta permission to begin.

Quickly and professionally she outlined what Lightfoot had accomplished in the German colonies. Then she brought the council members up to date on the strength of the enemy force blockading Lightfoot’s fleet. To James’ surprise her staff officers had even had time to prepare a short simulation on what a likely Karacknid attack would look like. For a few minutes everyone watched an accelerated version of the potential battle. It ended with New Berlin being conquered but the Karacknids were left with barely a handful of battle worthy ships. “So you can see ladies and gentlemen,” Gupta explained after the recording finished, “something of a stalemate has developed in the German colonies. Yes, there are small Karacknid raiding squadrons still active, but they do not have the strength to seriously threaten any of the major German or Japanese colonies. They could do a lot of damage to our economy if they were to branch out further and begin to raid Chinese, British or other colonial space. It is also possible that the Karacknid fleet around New Berlin could abandon the blockade and push further into our space. They could carry out a raid in force against any of our systems, including Earth.

“Therefore, I would like to propose that Home Fleet be dispatched to the Beta system under my command. There we will use the Varanni ships of Commodore Flew’s Squadron to patrol the shift passage that leads to German colonial space. No Karacknid ship should be able to sneak past us and we could engage and turn back any squadron that tried to come through. Our presence may also discourage the Karacknids from attacking New Berlin. If they know another Human fleet is nearby they may not want to risk launching such a costly attack.”

“I am in agreement with Gupta’s proposal,” Koroylov said when Gupta sat down. “It makes the best sense militarily. Ideally we would have forces available to dispatch after the small Karacknid raiding squadrons. In a month perhaps, and certainly within two we will, but for now this is the best we can do.”

“This proposal is unacceptable,” Chancellor Hoffman said. “You’re talking about leaving New Berlin to be besieged and the rest of my people’s colonies will be all but abandoned. New Berlin is home to over two billion people. We cannot leave so many of our citizens at the mercy of these aliens. We know what they are capable of. Home Fleet should be dispatched to the German colonies immediately. If we combine our strength with Admiral Lightfoot’s, we can push the Karacknids back to the Holstein system.”

“In time that may be the best strategy to pursue,” Gupta replied calmly. “But now it could cost us this war. The ships that are battle worthy in Home Fleet have not been upgraded with any of our new technologies. The Karacknids could take out many of them for little cost to themselves. In truth, if the Karacknid fleet at New Berlin abandoned their blockade and tried to push past us at the Beta system we will have to fall back to Earth’s defenses. Moving the fleet forward is more of a ploy to discourage the Karacknids than an attempt to seek out actual combat. We are simply not ready for that possibility yet.”

“I too am concerned,” Rear Admiral Nogamoro said. James bit back a grimace at the Japanese Admiral’s words. He had hoped the experienced naval leader would have recognized the wisdom in Gupta’s suggestion. “I know we cannot risk Home Fleet, not yet at least. But we cannot leave the Japanese colonies undefended. We should dispatch what ships we can to hunt down these raiding squadrons.”

“I do not believe that would be a successful strategy,” James replied. “I’m sure you understand Admiral, if we send forward what modernized ships we have in dribs and drabs, they could become the hunted. Right now we only have four destroyers and one light cruiser completed as part of our New Fleet Operation. In another month’s time we might have enough ships to put together a squadron to hunt down some of the Karacknid raiders, but we are not in a position to do so right at this minute.”

“We could send them forward with some older ships to back them up,” Nogamoro countered. “There are Japanese warships in our colonies.”

James nodded, “We could, but that would cause a whole host of new problems to arise. We’d be assigning advanced warships to a sector where they would have to limit themselves. They wouldn’t be able to travel at their best speeds, or fight with their best tactics. Instead they would have to accommodate whatever un-upgraded ships were sent with them.” You are thinking as a political leader not an Admiral my friend, James thought sadly as he watched Nogamoro’s facial features. It was plain that Nogamoro understood exactly what James was saying, but he also had the political ramifications of allowing Japanese colonies to be raided to think about. James didn’t envy his position. It didn’t stop him being frustrated by the Japanese leader’s reluctance to put the greater good first.

“I am in favor of this strategy Admiral Gupta proposes,” Senator Nicholls of the United Colonial States said. “It may buy us some time without taking too much risk. With Varanni ships guarding the German colonial shift passage, the fleet should have ample warning if it needs to fall back to Earth. I understand that this is war, and our enemy does not play by our rules. Sending Lightfoot’s ships into German colonial space was the correct decision at the time. His earlier successes prove this. Now the enemy has reacted and we must respond.”

“Well, I am not,” Bernard said loudly as his face reddened. “Lightfoot’s current predicament shows us the folly of sending his ships forward. He did not have enough strength to face the Karacknids. He was forced to sneak around and that strategy failed us. What Admiral Gupta is suggesting is like going double or nothing after losing a bad bet. For all we know, Lightfoot’s ships may be lost to us. What is left of Home Fleet constitutes the only ships we have to upgrade and turn into a much more powerful fighting force. They need to remain here defending Earth and under the protection of our battlestations.”

“I concur,” Soult, the French interior minister responded. “To uncover Earth any further than we already have is madness. For all we know, the Karacknid fleet that has trapped Lightfoot is but the advance guard of another invasion fleet sent to finish us off. Our ships could be trapped in the Beta system, cut off and destroyed. Earth would then be a sitting duck. Varanni sensors are not fool proof. We should not bet the safety of our homeworld on them alone.”

James closed his eyes as more of the council members waded into the conversation. Barely one agreed with another. Beyond the surprising agreement between Bernard and Soult, every other council member had their own idea or strategy they wished to put forward. More than one seemed to favor their particular nation over the others. For thirty minutes James let the argument go back and forth. On more than one occasion he was forced to use his gravel to return order and allow the council members to speak in order rather than over the top of one another. “All right,” James said when a natural lull occurred. He had to really work to keep the strain out of his voice. “I think we have discussed this back-and-forth a number of times now. As it appears no ulterior option has gained acceptance by even a small group of you, I propose that we take a vote on Gupta’s plan to dispatch Home Fleet to the Beta system. If it passes we can refine the plan in the coming days so that it may better suit all of us. If it fails, then we will have to return to the drawing board. Let me remind you however that we founded this Council to take swift action to help all of our nations. At times that has required one or more of us to make sacrifices for the other. I believe we are facing a similar situation now.” As he spoke James looked over to Admiral Nogamoro. Though no one had said it, Gupta’s plan called for the Japanese colonies to sacrifice themselves to keep the Karacknids busy while enough ships were built and upgraded to push the Karacknids back. From the look on Nogamoro’s face, James figured the Japanese Admiral understood the meaning of his words. The way his eyes flared and he quickly turned suggested he hadn’t take them favorably. “Let us vote,” James said when no one opposed his suggestion.

Just a couple of minutes later James couldn’t resist raising a hand to rub some of the frustration out of his forehead. The vote was at tie. Five had voted for Gupta’s plan, five against and Admiral Allende had abstained.

“In the event of a tie the Chairman is to cast the deciding vote,” Christine reminded him. “How do you vote Chairman?”

James shot her a wearied look. She knew full well how he would vote, and what the response would be from those who had opposed the plan. “I’m reluctant to cast the deciding vote when such a significant decision is before us. As a Council we should be more unanimous as we strive to defend our people. However, I am an Admiral with many years’ experience. Gupta’s plan is the best option we have available at present. I therefore vote in favor. Admiral Gupta will immediately begin preparations for taking Home Fleet to the Beta system where she will seek to discourage the Karacknids from any further aggressive actions. In the days and weeks ahead we can assess this plan as more ships and options become available to us.” To cement the finality of the decision James brought his gravel down. “That is all the items on the agenda for our unscheduled meeting. We will meet tomorrow to go through the normal agenda as usual.”

“This is a farce,” Bernard said as he jumped to his feet. “You’re risking everything just to placate the Germans and the Japanese. It is not our fault the Karacknids chose to invade their territory.”

“Nor is it theirs,” Koroylov countered as he rose to his feet, anger rippling across the council room. “We must stand with them as best we can.”

“With us?” Hoffman sneered. “You’re sending your ships to our borders but no further. How is that with us?”

James stood and quickly made his way out of the meeting room. He had no desire to hang around and hear whatever other words would be exchanged. We did the right thing, he thought as raised voices followed him down the corridor. But at what cost?

“Well?” a grim voice asked him as Andréa stepped out of a side room. She paused and turned an ear towards the continuing arguments. “Perhaps that’s all I need to hear.”

James shook his head. “It’s done, Gupta’s ships are to leave for the Beta system as soon as possible. But it did not go well. I fear you were right. I hope they will have calmed down by tomorrow.”

“More words I hope you don’t have to eat,” Andréa said as she shook her head. “It never gets easier does it?”

James didn’t answer, he had nothing to say. “I’m going to retire to my quarters. I need to get some sleep.” Geneva was not among James’ favorite places to rest. He was too close to the source of all his stress, but he did have a large suite all to himself in a hotel across the street from the building the Emergency Council met in. It was already late and he didn’t fancy taking a shuttle ride back to Britain. Not when he had to return tomorrow anyway.

“Yes Chairman, try and get as much sleep as you can,” Andréa said. “There is a full schedule tomorrow. You’ll need to be up early to go over the various briefings we have for you.”

James closed his eyes in frustration as he kept walking. It didn’t seem to be getting easier at all.




Chapter 22

Whilst the Empire was founded to minimize political infighting and one up-man-ship as much as possible, it has not come close to removing it all together. It seems the game of politics is built into our nature.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Forty minutes later James was stopped from slipping into bed by the beep of his suite’s access hatch. With a groan he let go of his bed covers and straightened himself. He had just finished a short soak in his suite’s Jacuzzi bath. Sleep had just been a few minutes away. Quickly, he pulled on a jacket and pair of trousers before giving a command for his door to open. Without hesitation Fairfax, Koroylov and, to James’ surprise, Christine came into his room. They each nodded to him then, without being invited, found seats.

“We need to talk,” Fairfax said.

“Clearly you didn’t think it could wait until tomorrow,” James replied with a sigh.

“We wanted to catch you with memories of tonight’s Council meeting fresh in your mind,” Fairfax explained.

“You are already up to date then?”

Fairfax nodded. “Everyone who was in the building is up to date. Some of the council members weren’t exactly quiet about it.”

“Okay let me have it, how have I failed this time?” James asked, already aware that he was not going to enjoy the answer.

Christine smiled at his words and broke into a chuckle. “For once you might be pleased to hear it’s not you.”

“No,” Fairfax agreed. “It’s far more serious than that. I believe… No, we believe that the Emergency Council is reaching the end of its usefulness. The time has come to decide what will replace it.”

James shook his head. “We can’t be anywhere near there yet. Deciding how to respond to this latest setback was always going to be a difficult topic. It’s not surprising that there was such disunity.”

“The disunity is not our main concern,” Fairfax continued. “It’s the ferocity of it. We believe it speaks of what is to come in the days ahead. How closely have you been keeping an eye on the subcommittee to restore democracy?”

James was caught off-guard by the question. “Some, Andréa has been keeping me abreast of any significant developments. I thought there wasn’t much progress being made just yet?”

“Exactly,” Fairfax said forcefully. “Would you care to guess why?”

James sighed again, but it didn’t take much thinking to come up with an answer. “Because no one can decide how to go about restarting their democracies.”

“That’s part of it,” Fairfax explained. “There are many on the Committee who wish to see things restored to the way they were before in such a way that it ensures their re-election to whatever their specific system is. But there have been more difficulties, there is a push from Bernard and others to see a more open and democratic system being utilized by other countries. That’s not necessarily bad in itself of course, but it’s causing disunity. Worse, much of the discussion has actually revolved around how to replace the UN. Some would simply like to see it reinstated, others have various ideas. Some of which are downright suicidal. In the end, almost every discussion turns into a heated argument with no outcome.”

“What are you saying?” James asked.

“We’re saying that the democracy subcommittee and tonight’s meeting are harbingers of what is to come,” Christine answered. “You’re not completely blind, you have to have seen it too. The Emergency Council is becoming more and more fractured.”

“I’m not blind of course,” James said gruffly. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to encourage more compromise and bridge building. Isn’t that a part of my job as Chairman? But I still don’t see what kind of solution you are suggesting.”

“What Fairfax and Christine are trying to say more diplomatically than I,” Koroylov said, “is that it is time to do away with the Emergency Council and replace it with something permanent. Something that will be effective now in the midst of this Karacknid crisis, and for the future of our species.”

“The time to act is now James,” Christine said in a tone that almost bordered on pleading. “When we still have some goodwill within the Emergency Council and the support of our peoples. If we do not act soon, the window of opportunity may pass us by.”

“So they have recruited you to their cause?” James asked as he turned to Christine. Though he didn’t know the specifics, he knew Fairfax and Koroylov had been putting together a more concrete idea for Humanity’s future. Fairfax had been seeking to discuss it with him for several years now. Thankfully, he had had plenty of work over the last few months to give him a good excuse to avoid Fairfax’s constant requests for meetings to discuss his plans.

Christine nodded, “They have. Though I have added my own touches. I think we are ready to go public, but we need your support. Without it this will go nowhere.”

“I’m not that important,” James said with a wave of his hand.

Christine shot him a smile that he knew meant she was about to manipulate him to get exactly what she wanted. “Perhaps not as Admiral Somerville no, though I would be prepared to argue that. But as Chairman, you most certainly are. All of Earth looks to you to lead them. They’ve been hanging on your every word during your weekly briefings. Your face is better known than all of the other Council members put together. You are the hero of the Battle of Earth, and of many other battles. You are the focus of all of the plans we have put together. Without you specifically, the future of our species is in serious jeopardy.”

James made to roll his eyes. “Stop it,” Christine demanded in a far sharper tone. She had a finger pointed right at him. “You forget, I have known you for more than twenty years. You have one serious character flaw Mr. Chairman. You’ve always shied back from taking on responsibility.” James opened his mouth to protest but Christine’s wagging finger made him pause. “I’m not saying you don’t discharge your responsibility admirably once you have accepted it. But you always hesitate to take that first step. Especially when things are complicated. You wanted to stay Captain when flag rank was offered to you. You wanted to retain command of small independent squadrons rather than a large fleet. You wanted to remain an Admiral rather than become Chairman. In every case your skills and abilities have been desperately needed and yet you hesitated. Now is no different, except we have no time to waste any longer.”

James wanted to argue, but he knew there was no point, not with the three people in front of him. They would not be turned away from what they wanted from him. They were all too stubborn. He decided to change tack. Something the man Christine just described would do, a voice in James’ head warned him. “Fine let’s put that to the side for one moment. Why don’t you tell me exactly what you are talking about? You want me to ascend to the British throne I suppose?” Andréa’s best efforts to find someone closer to the line of inheritance had failed. On the other hand, Fairfax’s propaganda effort within the British Empire to promote him as the heir apparent had gained significant momentum.

Christine smiled victoriously. “That is something we can discuss in due time, but it’s not our focus at the moment. This is,” she said as she stood and passed a datapad to James.

Accessing it, he looked at the file that was already open. The title made his stomach turn.

The constitution of the Human Empire.

In what follows the constitution for a free and united Human species is laid out. This constitution will protect the freedoms of every individual Human whilst uniting us as one. We shall be one politically, culturally, economically and militarily. Under the leadership of an Emperor and an elected legislature, the rights of every Human will be upheld and protected from all those who would wish otherwise.

“Really?” James asked when he looked up at Christine.

She already had a finger pointed at him. “Just read it,” she replied sternly.

Obediently, James lowered his head again. He wasn’t an expert in ancient constitutions or the legislative customs of many nations, but he had a passing familiarity with British and American history. As he read, he found Koroylov, Fairfax and Christine had borrowed from both heavily. Which is not a bad thing, James begrudgingly admitted. Essentially the document laid out a system of government that was based on a series of fundamental rights each Human being should not be deprived of. The rights include the right to freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, the right to personal private property, the right to fair protection under the law along with several others. From there the document went on to lay out exactly how Fairfax envisaged Humanity governing itself. Essentially it would mimic the current system used by the United Colonial States with two exceptions.

Instead of a President there would be an Emperor who would inherit his position from his father before him. From the Emperor’s offspring, the Emperor and the three houses of elected representatives would select the heir. As James read the reasoning for such a role, he found he largely agreed. Humanity didn’t just need a figurehead, but someone who would make decisions for the long-term benefit of the species. Someone who did not have to think about re-election and the need to clamber and struggle for enough votes every time decisive action was needed.

The second exception came in the form of a third house of government. There would be a House of Representatives made up of Representatives elected from every Human colony based on population. Then Senators would form a Senate with one seat per colonial world. Earth was the lone exception, being allowed five seats. In addition to those two elected houses there would be something that, in James’s mind, was similar to the House of Lords within the British governmental system. Whereas Representatives would serve for terms of four years and Senators terms of eight years, those in the house Fairfax had called the House of Servants would serve for a term of twenty years. One third of the Servants were to be chosen by the House of Representatives, one third by the Senate and the final third by the Emperor. They were supposed to be experienced individuals in the fields of science, economics, religion and politics no younger than sixty years of age. The House of Servants could not propose new legislation, but they did have the power to amend and pass said legislation. They too are designed to not have to worry about prioritizing short-term popularity at the cost of long-term decision-making, James realized.

“You think this will work?” James asked as he looked from Fairfax to Christine, they were the two most familiar with the American and British forms of government. According to Fairfax’s constitution, a piece of legislation could be passed by a simple majority of all three houses or a two thirds majority of two of them. Like the American system, the Emperor also had the power to veto a bill, though the two thirds majority from two houses could pass it if the three houses did not like the Emperor’s amendments. “Think about how much haggling and back-and-forth there was between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, or the Senate and the House of Representatives in the United Colonial States? Surely this would just make things worse?”

Fairfax raised his eyebrows, “Read on,” he said with a nod.

As James did, he saw one key point in the constitution. It made him smile. The constitution specifically forbid omnibus bills. Any piece of legislation any house wished to bring would have to deal with one specific issue. There would be no adding on irrelevant spending items or meaningless secondary items. He knew historically that such bills had been the bane of many Human democracies. “So, you’ve learnt a little something from Haven then I see?”

“She may not have mentioned it to you, but I did correspond with your wife on the earliest drafts of this. Her input was always helpful. And after she passed, on more than one occasion when drafting this I paused to ask myself what your wife would think,” Fairfax said with a smile. “I hope she would be pleased.”

James couldn’t help but look at the constitution in a new light. If Suzanna had worked on it, then in a way, seeing it implemented would allow a piece of her to live on. And if she was here now, James knew for sure, she would recognize the need for us to make some radical changes. We can’t go back to the way things were.

“So, what do you think?” Christine asked when James was finally done reading.

“It could be worse,” he begrudgingly admitted. “Though I see a couple of problems that still need to be overcome.”

“Oh, suddenly you’re an expert, after just one evening?” Christine quipped.

“You seem to forget, though I may have been avoiding it, I do have a lifetime of experience of being frustrated by politicians,” James countered. “Present company included,” he said as he caught the gaze of each of his guests.

“Well then, come on, out with it,” Fairfax said.

“For one, I could never embrace this without one addition,” James said with a passion that surprised himself. “Politicians should be limited to two elected terms. Either two in the House of Representatives or Senate, or one in each. I’ve had my fill of career politicians. I get what you’re doing with having an Emperor and a House of Servants, but if you have Senators or Representatives who have served numerous terms and built a career around being a politician, they will always be compromised. If their livelihood depends upon it, they will never be able to act independently of their own self-interest. If they are limited to two terms, then it may be that being a politician will become something to aspire to. Something those who have already accomplished much in their lives then turn to, to serve their fellow man. As long as it can be a career in and of itself, it may always attract those who simply want power because they love to wield it.”

“My, my,” Christine responded with the widest smile James had seen from her for a few weeks. “We’ve had our own budding constitutionalist right under our noses all this time.”

“I’m not playing,” James said with the same passion. “I’ve had my fill of career politicians. I don’t know how you think my support will fit into trying to bring this about, but you will not have it without making that amendment.”

“Well… That is certainly something we can consider and discuss,” Fairfax said in a much more diplomatic tone than Christine had used. “You mentioned two points, what is the second?”

“I still don’t see how you expect to bring this about. The Emergency Council can’t simply declare this constitution and bring it into force. Colonies would be revolting left, right and center.”

Fairfax actually laughed. “You’re right of course,” he said after a few seconds. “We certainly don’t expect the Emergency Council to bring it into force. Could you imagine trying to pass this? It would make tonight’s meeting look like a family picnic by the seaside. No, that’s not how we see things playing out. Look around you though, who is here? Christine speaks for China, Koroylov for Russia. We believe we could convince Senator Nicholls to embrace this constitution as well. And… if we have the King of Great Britain on board, then we have the four most powerful Human nations. If we bring this constitution into force between our nations here on Earth and appoint an Emperor, then we would give every other nation a choice they could not refuse. Either they could join the Empire and benefit from the economic and military support joining us would bring, or they could refuse and find themselves facing the Karacknids and whatever else is around the corner on their own.”

“You mean to simply abandon the Emergency Council?” James asked, he had no idea if Koroylov and Christine could do what Fairfax was saying, nor did he understand why Fairfax wanted to abandon the Council so quickly.

“I believe the council has run its course,” Fairfax answered. “It has successfully navigated the aftermath of the Karacknid attack. Now something more, something stronger needs to rise from the ashes. A United Human Empire is the only way our species can face the future. The Flex-aor invasion should have taught us this, but it didn’t. Now the Karacknids have made it a necessity. If we continue to squabble among ourselves and view ourselves as separate nations in competition, we will be overrun by the alien species out there. If not the Karacknids, then something else will come along. As long as we are not united, we are weak. I believe that is clear now, what’s more, I believe our people see it. Many of the surviving politicians may not, but the people do.”

“We can have a referendum then,” James suggested. “Here on Earth, or at least in our nations. What you’re talking about is founding a constitutional empire that may last centuries. Should it not be founded by the will of the people and not just several national leaders?”

Christine smiled and winked at James. Fairfax rolled his eyes as he looked at the Chinese Empress. “You’re not the first to make such a suggestion Chairman,” he said.

“I would be quite happy to simply declare that the Russian Star Federation is being folded into this Empire,” Koroylov said, “I believe my people would happily accept such a declaration given the rights and freedoms that they would subsequently enjoy.”

“It would be a lot simpler to do it my way,” Fairfax said, “…but, I am willing to consider other options.”

“Then if we founded the Empire here on Earth, we could have a referendum on every colony afterwards. They could all vote to join or not,” James suggested. “Given the unswerving commitment to democracy this constitution implies, I don’t see any other way to bring it into being.”

“We…? So you are on board?” Christine asked. “I hardly believe it, but you actually sound excited.”

James paused to consider his emotions. “This sounds like a government I would like to serve as an Admiral. One I would happily fight and die for. That has me excited yes… Bringing it about democratically seems far more appropriate. Plus, it means you do not need me as a King or Chairman, such titles would become meaningless if this was adopted. That I could get on board for.”

Fairfax smiled a smile James did not like in the least. “I wouldn’t count on them being meaningless just yet Chairman,” he said as he raised his eyebrows. “If we were to found this Empire through a series of referendums, we would still need national leaders to embrace the idea of a referendum and to campaign for it. Having the rightfully crowned King of the British Empire formally endorse and vote for a combined Human Empire would be a very powerful image. And… If this constitution is to be embraced, an Emperor will have to come from somewhere. It’s not such a big jump from King to Emperor, not when said person has already made the jump from Chairman to King.”

James tried his best to hide his expression but failed. He had had his suspicions about Fairfax’s ultimate aim for some time but it sounded absurd. And far more work than any sane man would ever contemplate, he thought as he imagined what it would be like to have such power and responsibility. Essentially the constitution gave authority for the Imperial Navy and diplomatic relations with other species solely to the Emperor. Internally he had veto power over proposed legislation, but little more than that. As though being in charge of the navy and diplomatic relations isn’t enough! The Emperor was intended to take the lead in times of national crisis and war, but there would be more than enough peace time responsibilities as well. Is that why they had me become Chairman? James suddenly found himself wondering. To set me up for this?

“Have you nothing to say Chairman?” Koroylov asked. “Did you not understand? We would like you to be our Emperor.”

James kept his face impassive as he thought frantically. Whether Christine was right about him or not, he knew he didn’t want the role. Not one bit. He would fight and die for such an idea, but he did not want the reins of power. He was an Admiral. “I understood,” he said in a neutral voice. “Though I think it a very bad idea. I will however make you a bargain. If I agree to discuss the idea of laying claim to the British throne, can we table discussions of who should be Emperor until a later date? Such a decision will have momentous implications for our species and how the role of Emperor is fulfilled by all those who follow after whoever takes the role first. It should not be entered into lightly.”

Christine, Fairfax and Koroylov exchanged glances with one another then looked back to James. “We agree,” Fairfax said. “If you will allow us to actively pursue your ascension to the British throne then we will agree to consider other options for the position of Emperor. Though we are only agreeing to consider mind you,” Fairfax said as he raised a hand towards James. “You may have a hard time dissuading us. Our minds are already fixed.”

As Christine nodded in agreement, James held back a smile. Though Fairfax, Christine and Koroylov probably thought they had just won one over on him, he hoped he had gained a step ahead of them. He didn’t mind becoming King for a short period if his position was going to disappear within months. And then when the right person to be Emperor takes the position, I can fade into the background, James thought as he imagined his candidate sitting on a large, ornately decorated throne. It wasn’t hard to picture at all. He just had to figure out a way to make it happen.

When his three uninvited guests took their leave, James made a list of his closest friends. He would need to recruit their help if he was going to make his plan work. As sleep took him he thought of Becket. He hoped she was getting on alright, it was still weeks before she was expected back. Perhaps she would bring some good news, they certainly needed some.




Chapter 23

The history of our Empire shows us allies are hard to come by. In the early years, many of the species we now count among our closest friends were forced together with us. Friendships born of fire have proven to last the test of time. It is a pity so many other promising relationships have not borne similar fruit over the centuries.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

UNS Unicorn, Varanni Prime, 25th October 2481 AD (eight weeks after the Battle of Earth).

“They’re certainly in the middle of a war,” Captain O’Rourke commented as Unicorn cruised into the Varanni Home System.

Becket nodded. There were hundreds of shuttles fluttering between the warships and freighters in orbit around Varanni Prime. There were just as many shuttles ascending and descending through the planet’s atmosphere. Becket had seen more warships in the system on her previous visit, but there hadn’t been nearly as much activity. “I hope they haven’t been attacked too.” It had been a constant fear since James had dispatched her to Varanni Prime with news of the Karacknid attack on Earth. She was hoping to convince the Varanni Alliance to send ships and emergency supplies to help with Earth’s recovery and defense. Yet if they had been attacked as well, it was unlikely there would be surplus to go around.

“Two Varanni destroyers are moving onto an intercept course,” Unicorn’s sensor officer reported. “It looks like they are targeting us.”

“To be expected,” O’Rourke responded in a calming tone. “They want to make sure we are who we say we are before we are allowed to progress into the system.”

Becket glanced down at herself to make sure her uniform was straight and tidy. “On-screen,” she said when the expected request came through. “Varanni Captain,” she said, recognizing the rank insignia on the Varanni in front of her. “It is an honor to visit your system once again. I am Commodore Becket, I bring news from Earth and Admiral Somerville.” Bowing, Becket held the pose until the Varanni Captain spoke.

“Commodore Becket, you are welcome here. I am Captain Dami’ar, I will send news of your arrival to the homeworld. You have my permission to proceed to Varanni Prime,” the Captain responded. Then he too bowed. “You have my deepest condolences for the losses your people have suffered.”

Becket’s eyes widened. “You know about the Karacknid attack? How?”

“We do,” Dami’ar answered. “News reached us from the Kulreans four days ago. It saddened all of my species to learn of what happened. But we are glad you managed to win a great victory despite the losses. I’m sure my superiors will wish to hear all about the campaign your people have fought.”

Of course, Becket thought. Mentally she did the calculations. Jil’lal had sent a ship back to Vestar with news of the battle. Tak’ar had likely sent FTL communication to Kulrea and Varanni Prime. It would have taken just a handful of hours for the tachyon beam to travel to Kulrea and less than a day to reach Varanni Prime. “That is why I am here,” Becket responded. “I bring news of the attack and a request for aid from your people. Many of those who opposed joining forces with your Alliance in this war are now dead or out of power. My species is fully committed to fighting the Karacknids until they are defeated. We hope that we can stand beside the Alliance until this war has been won. May I ask, have your border worlds come under attack? There seems to be much activity going on in system.”

“There’s been no direct attack yet,” Dami’ar answered. “Though scout reports have been coming in that strongly suggest that the Karacknid fleets that have been amassing on our borders are preparing to move. We believe news of an attack is imminent. What ships we still have based here are preparing to depart to the front.”

“Then I have arrived just in time,” Becket said. “Hopefully, the battle report and technical data we have collected will prove useful to your commanders.”

“That is my hope as well,” Dami’ar responded as he bowed his head again. “I wish you swift passage to our homeworld Commodore.”

“May you remain vigilant on your patrol,” Becket responded as she mimicked Dami’ar’s gesture before he cut the COM channel. “Set course for Varanni Prime,” she ordered. “Let’s hope the Varanni are better prepared than we were.”

Four hours later Becket was filled with surprise when she stepped off one of Unicorn’s shuttles and recognized who had come to meet her. It wasn’t a Varanni, but a Crian in a Captain’s uniform.

“I must apologize, Commodore Becket, for the lack of a welcoming party,” Captain Maleck said. “The Varanni Senate is currently holding an emergency meeting and the High Command is also meeting. I’ve been sent here to escort you to High Command headquarters.”

“Do not worry yourself,” Becket replied. “I take no offence. I understand the difficulties of the times we face. It is good to see you again Captain. How is Handmaiden?” Handmaiden was Admiral Ya’sia’s flagship. When she had been James’s Flag Captain, she and Maleck had worked closely together on their campaign against the Flex-aor.

“She is doing very well Commodore,” Maleck answered. “Better than ever in fact. She has been fully upgraded with the best Varanni technologies and we’ve included one or two human bits of tech as well. She is actually in orbit at the minute.”

Becket shook her head as she smiled. “She must look very different these days. I didn’t recognize her.”

Maleck smiled. “She has changed somewhat since you last saw her. Now, if you’ll follow me, the Admirals are keen to speak with you.”

“And I with them,” Becket replied as she started to follow Maleck. “Ya’sia is among them I presume, how is she?”

“Well but stressed as you may imagine. She’s been given command of one of the fleets that garrisons Delta Fort. It commands the approaches to Cria, so she feels the responsibility for protecting our homeworld. News of the attack on Earth upset us all, but her especially. The Karacknids have been building up large fleets all along our border worlds. We believe the initial phases of their attack plan will commence soon. Most of our senior Admirals have gathered here for a final briefing.”

Becket nodded. To date, most of her experience with large intersystem wars focused on a handful of key systems that were fought over. Usually each side had one or perhaps two fleets to maneuver. The Varanni Alliance’s war with the Karacknids was something entirely different. There were more than thirty worlds along the Alliance’s border with Karacknid space. Whilst the Alliance had fortified six key systems that an attack was likely to come through, they were still spread out and it was quite possible the Karacknids would try to circumvent them and attack somewhere else. Either way, when the fighting broke out, there would be more than a dozen Alliance fleets operating independently of one another. The commanders would have to know each other’s minds intimately if they were to be able to coordinate their efforts over such vast distances.

“Do you think there will be any ships that can be spared to help protect Earth?” Becket asked. “Our fleet has taken a serious battering. If the Karacknids returned with something even approaching a sizeable force, we would not be able to repulse them a second time.”

“That is not for me to answer,” Maleck responded. “You will have to ask the Admirals about such things. Though I do hope you get the answer you are looking for. May I ask, how is your homeworld? The report from Kulrea said there were a number of nuclear strikes on the surface but no more than that.”

Becket closed her eyes. She hadn’t witnessed the missiles striking Earth, Golden Hind had been too seriously damaged, but she had seen the recordings before she had left the Sol system. Like many naval officers and civilians, she knew the images would be ingrained in her mind for the rest of her life. When she opened her eyes again, she began to share all that she had seen and everything that had happened since the attack. The death toll had been in the hundreds of millions but every estimate when she had left suggested it would rise still further. And that didn’t count the follow-on deaths that would come from the diseases and famines that would likely result from the nuclear fallout.

“You have my deepest sympathies,” Maleck said when Becket finally finished her story. “I would not wish such experiences on anyone.” Reaching into his uniform, he pulled out a small cloth. Without explanation he handed it to Becket.

Taking it, Becket stared at it for several seconds before realizing what it was for. Her cheeks were wet, though she hadn’t noticed the tears coming. “I hope none of the Alliance species will have to witness such events,” Becket said.

When she looked up at Maleck he had a steely glaze to his eyes. “Indeed,” was all he said in reply.

Slightly embarrassed by her emotions, Becket changed the topic. As they continued to walk, she engaged Maleck in a technical discussion about upgrades Handmaiden had received, inwardly though, her mind raced through the various items and questions she had prepared during her journey from Earth. It seemed like the Alliance High Command would be short on time. She wanted to make sure she covered everything as succinctly as possible.

“Admirals,” Maleck said after leading Becket into the room where the leading Admirals of the Alliance were meeting. “May I introduce Commodore Becket, she has just arrived from Earth.”

As Maleck had instructed, Becket walked into the center of the room and turned to face the raised dais where three Varanni Admirals sat. Behind her, and to her left and right three other smaller platforms seated a handful of other Admirals, but it was the three most senior Varanni Admirals who she needed to pay her respects to. Stopping in front of them, she bowed right over until her back was horizontal. “I bring greetings from Admiral Somerville and my species,” she said as she straightened. “But also grave news of a Karacknid attack on our homeworld.”

“Your presence here warms our hearts Commodore,” Admiral Jourm replied. “We were greatly saddened when we heard of the attack on your home system. We regret that we were not able to send ships to aid you. Your species has won a great victory despite your losses. On this I congratulate you. We are glad you and Admiral Somerville survived the battle. We are confident that in your hands your species will play a key role in this war as it develops. We are eager to hear how you defeated the Karacknid fleet that attacked you. I imagine Captain Maleck has already informed you that we believe a similar thrust into our space is imminent. Please, take a seat and join our discussions.”

“It is an honor to be welcomed among you,” Becket responded. She gave a second smaller bow and turned to look for a seat. She smiled at Admiral Ya’sia when the Crian waved and pointed to a seat beside her.

“Now,” Jourm said after Becket took a seat. “We’ve just been discussing our proposed response to the latest reports of Karacknid ship movements. The raiding fleets we sent out to disrupt their convoys seem to have delayed their initial attack by some weeks. Now, however, I believe our enemy is ready to move. We do not yet know where the strike will come, but we are discussing contingency plans. Before we continue however, I’m keen to hear exactly how Humanity’s territory was attacked and how they managed to defeat the Karacknid war fleet.”

After glancing around to nod to the other Admirals present, Becket described everything that had happened. From the Karacknids’ initial attack on the Holstein system and their ploy of hiding most of their fleet to lure Admiral Lam’s fleet to Holstein and its destruction. To Lightfoot’s short campaign in the German colonies as he tried to delay the Karacknid fleet and the eventual Battle of Earth and everything that happened afterwards. Becket laid out in detail how each battle had been fought and either won or lost. Numerous times she found herself interrupted and questioned at length about one detail or another. When she was finally done, Jourm and the other Alliance Admirals picked her mind about her views on the Karacknids’ strategy and how the tactics Lightfoot, Koroylov and James had used against the Karacknids had worked or failed. When she finally got a moment to glance at her datapad, she saw that more than two hours had passed.

“Let me thank you for your detailed report Commodore,” Jourm said when it seemed no other questions were forthcoming. “You have given us much to think over. No doubt our tacticians will pour over the battle reports you have brought. What has happened to your people brings me hope and yet fills me with concern. Though we already knew it, the Karacknid campaign against your homeworld confirms it. Our enemy is not just endowed with impressive warships and advanced technologies, they have competent commanders as well. At the moment we are forced onto the defensive and that gives the initiative to our enemy. If they have the commanders to exploit such an advantage, we may find ourselves in great difficulty. Yet your fleet has shown us the way. Despite the odds, our enemy can be defeated.”

“I’m glad that I have been able to bring hope in the midst of the dire circumstances we find ourselves in,” Becket responded. “If I may, Admiral Somerville asked me to pass on two requests to you. As you know my homeworld has been devastated and much of our freighter fleet was sacrificed to gain the victory that we did. Sourcing supplies and transporting them from our colonies is likely to be an ongoing issue for many months. If the peoples of the Alliance have spare supplies of the food and raw materials we would need to begin rebuilding, they would greatly be appreciated. We also fear that if they so choose, the Karacknids could send another fleet to ravage our colonies. It would not have to number more than a few hundred ships and we would not be able to stop it. When I left, plans were already in place to bring most of the orbital battlestations we have spread throughout our colonies to Earth to bolster our defenses there. Yet that will leave us weak everywhere else. If there are any Alliance ships that you could spare to bolster our defenses, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Jourm gave Becket a very human like smile. “Though my species cannot give you everything we would like, I am pleased to say that I should be able to send you back to Admiral Somerville with a positive answer to both of his requests. One of the raiding fleets we sent out to harass Karacknid convoys was scheduled to pass through your territory on its way home. It’s likely Commodore Flew reached your homeworld a short while after you left to come here. I will send you back to Earth with orders for Flew to remain in your territory to assist you. Though I suspect she may have decided to do so on her own initiative. As far as we can, we will send more ships to bolster her squadron, though I can make no promises as to when that may occur. With regards to your other request, work is already underway to meeting it. Since we heard about the attack on your homeworld from the Kulreans, we have been putting together a relief convoy. It is not much, for we have little to spare given the massive fleet increases we have been striving to achieve ourselves. Nevertheless, I hope you and Admiral Somerville find what we are able to send useful. I believe the convoy will be ready to depart in a few days. If you are willing, you could head back to Earth with it. I know I and the rest of us would like to continue to discuss strategy with you until then.”

Becket had to blink back tears. She stood and bowed even lower than she had when she first entered the meeting room. “My people will be forever in your debt. We will gladly receive whatever aid you can send us. We have not been defeated, but we have suffered a serious blow. I thank you for your generosity. I hope we can repay you someday.”

“Repayment is not necessary,” Jourm said as he waited for Becket to straighten. “A strong Humanity focused on defeating the Karacknids will be payment enough. I fear we will all need each other before this is over.”

Becket made to bow again to show her thanks but stopped when the doors to the meeting room burst open. A Varanni in a Commodore’s uniform quickly moved towards the central dais. It stopped behind Jourm, leaned over and spoke quietly to the Admiral and then placed a datapad in front of him. Jourm spun around and stared up at the Commodore before slowly turning back to the gathered officers. “I’m sorry Commodore Becket, but our time has run out. A fast frigate has just come from Delta Fort. The Karacknid invasion has begun. Commodore Framalan has had a few moments to look over the report, she will update us. Then we must call this meeting to an end. We are needed back at our command posts. Time is now against us.”

Becket glanced at Ya’sia. The Crian’s fists were balls in her lap. Delta Fort was her command. It had come under attack without her being there. Becket understood the anger all too well. She turned back to the room’s holo-projector as it sprang to life. It showed a largely empty system; the only signs of life were several large battlestations orbiting a gas giant and a fleet of one thousand warships keeping station with them. Then a new group of contacts appeared at the far side of the system, slowly accelerating. Within seconds their numbers became clear, there were fourteen hundred Karacknid warships. Becket couldn’t decipher the symbols that appeared around them, but she guessed there were at least a hundred dreadnoughts within the fleet. A powerful fleet, Becket conceded, but it certainly wasn’t all the strength the Karacknids had. The fleet that had invaded human space had been larger. A probing attack. Before the enemy fleet got half way across the system, the projector cut off. Clearly that was all the sensor data the ship that had been sent to bring warning had collected. Though it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next, Becket thought. The Karacknid fleet had been on a direct course for the Alliance fleet.

“That is all we know at this time,” Jourm said after the holo-projection faded. “This may be the first phase in a Karacknid push through Delta Fort, or the beginning of a wider offensive all along the front. You must return to your ships and prepare to depart for your stations. Updated orders will be sent to you forthwith. Everyone is dismissed,” Jourm added as he bowed. “Admiral Ya’sia, please wait behind,” he said and then turned to speak privately with the senior Admiral sat beside him.

“I’m sorry our time has been cut short,” Becket said as she placed a hand on Ya’sia’s shoulder. “Perhaps we will get to chat before you go. If not though, I understand. Your people need you.”

“Thank you Commodore,” Ya’sia replied, though it was clear that her mind was elsewhere. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Becket nodded and stepped aside to let Ya’sia go to Jourm. Outside the meeting room officers from all of the Alliance species were moving about in every direction. Becket stood still for a moment as she tried to get her bearings. Thankfully, Maleck appeared at her side. “I think it best if you return to your ship for now Commodore. The High Command will have to deal with this news before they can get back to your requests. I imagine the relief convoy they have put together for your homeworld will be delayed by a few days because of this.”

“That is understandable,” Becket replied. “You don’t need to worry about me. I can find my own way back to my shuttle. I’m sure you need to get to Handmaiden and prepare to depart.”

Maleck smiled. “She has been ready to depart at a moment’s notice since we arrived. My First Lieutenant has things under control I’m sure. Besides, my shuttle is parked beside yours. We can walk there together.”

“Then I would be grateful for the escort,” Becket said as she returned Maleck’s smile. “You’ve seen the data on the Karacknid attack I presume? You know the forces at Delta Fort, can they hold?”

“Unless the Karacknids have some kind of surprise, it would be an even fight,” Maleck answered as they began to walk. “Probably, our battlestations will have tipped the balance in our favor. Even so, with the numerical advantage the Karacknids have, we cannot afford to exchange forces with them on an even ratio. We have six fortified systems, if the Karacknids attack all of them and defeat all of our ships for an even number of theirs, they would still have a large enough fleet left to push into our colonies.”

“And that assumes the Karacknids didn’t bring any more ships in for that attack,” Becket thought out loud. Her mind went to the ambush at Holstein; the Karacknids had kept more than a thousand ships hidden in stealth and only revealed them when Lam’s fleet had been unable to retreat.

“It does,” Maleck agreed solemnly.

It has begun, Becket thought as fear for the people and the world around her started to grow within her. She had just left the devastation of Earth, had she arrived in Alliance space just in time to watch the same thing happen all over again?




Chapter 24

In many ways the structure of the Empire’s Fleet Command mimics what we learnt from the Varanni Alliance. They managed to mold the navies of six different species into one efficient command hierarchy.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Unicorn, Varanni Prime orbit (six hours later).

Despite being tired after her presentation to Alliance High Command, Becket went straight to Unicorn’s bridge after coming back on board the frigate. She passed the time watching Alliance warships and support craft make their preparations. Two small squadrons had already departed, and it looked like three others would soon follow. Pretty much every other ship in the system was making preparations to do the same. Becket was watching it all with a professional eye. Though it looked like mayhem had erupted in orbit around Varanni Prime, there was an order to the commotion that impressed her.

“Captain,” there is a shuttle requesting permission to dock in our hanger bay. “It’s four minutes out.”

“Do we know who is on board?” O’Rourke questioned.

The COM officer looked down at her command console before answering. “An Admiral Ya’sia.”

Becket sat forward in surprise. The Crian Admiral had to have a hundred other things to do. Why was she coming here? When Becket looked at O’Rourke, she saw the Captain was staring at her. “Permission granted,” she answered in response to his unspoken question. “I’ll greet her in the shuttle bay,” she added as she stood.

“Shall we prepare an official welcoming party?” O’Rourke asked. It was standard practice.

Becket shook her head. “No, whatever she wants I doubt she’ll have time for any pomp and ceremony. I’ll meet her alone.” As she walked through Unicorn’s corridors, Becket tried and failed to figure out why Ya’sia had come. If the Crian Admiral wanted to speak to her, they could have done so via COM channel. Meeting in person seemed like a waste of time, time that Ya’sia needed elsewhere.

“Welcome onboard,” Becket said as she offered a hand to Ya’sia when the alien stepped off her shuttle. “I’m afraid she’s not quite as impressive as Handmaiden.”

“She has a role to play in this war all the same,” Ya’sia responded.

“Would you like to join me in my briefing room where we can talk?” Becket asked. “I must confess, I am surprised you have come in person.”

Ya’sia looked around and shook her head. “No, here will have to do. I don’t have time to stay long.”

“I understand,” Becket replied with a nod.

“Then I’ll come straight to it Commodore,” Ya’sia began. “I want you to accompany me to Delta Fort as a tactical adviser. High Command has already agreed to give you a field commission as a Commodore in our Navy.”

“Me?” Becket asked as she took a step back in surprise. “I’m sure you don’t need me.”

Ya’sia smiled. “Now is not the time to be naïve Commodore. You’ve got more experience fighting the Karacknids than I. More importantly, you have more experience of fighting with these than any Alliance commander.” As she spoke, Ya’sia pulled out a portable holo projector and switched it on; an image of a small, sleek spacecraft appeared.

Though it looked strange compared to the Spitfires Becket was used to, it was obvious what the craft was meant to be. “You have developed your own fighters?”

“We have. You are looking at a first generation Pulsar fighter. They are based on your Spitfires and use your miniature inertial dampeners. Though we have gone in a different direction for their ordinance. Each Pulsar is armed with one heavy laser cannon. They have an energy output roughly equivalent to half of one of Handmaiden’s laser cannons and only have large enough capacitors to fire two shots before having to fall back to refuel and have their capacitors recharged by their motherships. But, if given the time, they can use their own reactors to recharge enough energy for another shot.

“At the moment we have just three squadrons of fighters. They were carrying out weapons tests here in the Varanni Prime system. High Command has just assigned their mothership to the reinforcements I am to bring to Delta Fort. Your input on how to deploy and fight with these fighters would be invaluable.”

Becket nodded as her mind raced. The small laser cannons on each fighter wouldn’t carry the same kind of punch a plasma missile would. Yet it would be impossible to intercept a laser bolt meaning they would get more hits. It was also likely the fighters could engage their targets at slightly longer ranges. They can even fire one shot, then close and fire the second before pulling back, Becket thought. That way they could finish off targets that had been crippled or even switch targets. With two well placed shots, one fighter could cripple two enemy ships.

“Well Commodore, what do you say?” Ya’sia asked, “Time is of the essence. I’m hoping to depart with my fleet before the day is over.”

Becket thought about what Admiral Somerville would do. It only took a second for her to decide. She had first served with him as a Sub Lieutenant, then as a Lieutenant and more recently as his Flag Captain. She knew exactly what he would do. He never hesitated to jump into the thick of the action. O’Rourke could take Unicorn back to Earth with the supply convoy the Alliance intended to send. “I’m in,” she said as she gave Ya’sia a slight bow. “It would be my pleasure to help you in whatever way I can. Let me gather my things and I will take a shuttle over to Handmaiden within the hour.”

Ya’sia held out her hand to Becket. “It will be a pleasure to have you along with us Commodore, I just hope we find Delta Fort intact when we get there.”

“Agreed,” Becket said. She released Ya’sia’s hand and nodded to her one final time before Ya’sia turned and quickly ascended her shuttle’s access ramp. Before the shuttle took off, Becket was heading towards Unicorn’s bridge. O’Rourke wouldn’t be happy, but he would understand. A part of Becket felt guilty when she thought about O’Rourke returning to Earth. She knew her people needed her. Yet so did Ya’sia. And, more importantly, I’m going to get to fight them, she said to herself as she pictured the nuclear missiles raining down on Earth. It would be her pleasure to help Ya’sia destroy as many Karacknid warships as she could.

*

Handmaiden, Delta Fort system, 20th November 2481 AD.

For Becket, the twenty-six day journey to Delta Fort was one of the busiest periods of her life. On top of having to learn Alliance military protocol and how to fit herself into a command staff that included six different alien species; she also had to familiarize herself with a number of Alliance weapons systems. Some she had seen in action before, others were completely new to her, like the Pulsar fighters. The fleet that left Varanni prime with Handmaiden numbered eighty ships. As Delta Fort protected the approaches to Crian space, Ya’sia had travelled there via her species’ home system. From there and two other colonies, they picked up an additional two hundred and twelve warships. The plan had been to link up with whatever ships might have retreated from Delta Fort and then attempt to turn back the Karacknid invasion. However, they didn’t encounter any retreating Alliance vessels. When Handmaiden did finally jump into the Delta Fort system, Becket felt a sense of anti-climax. Initial scans showed that the fortified gas giant still had many battlestations in orbit and there was a large Alliance fleet there as well.

“COM message from Rear Admiral Yarumm,” Handmaiden’s COM officer reported. “It’s a battle report.”

“Captain Maleck, Commodore Becket, will you join me in my briefing room?” Ya’sia asked as she stood. “Transfer the file there if you please,” she added as she nodded towards the COM officer. “Set course for the gas giant.”

Becket stood and followed Ya’sia out of Handmaiden’s bridge. She only paused to allow Maleck to go first. When they stepped into the briefing room, Ya’sia was already bringing up the holo recording of the battle. In silence the three of them watched things play out. Ya’sia sped up the replay until the Karacknid fleet got into range of Delta Fort. The Karacknid ships approached the gas giant without decelerating on a trajectory that allowed them to fire four missile salvos at the defenses before they moved out of range. In return, the defenders fired three of their own. The final damage reports indicated that two hundred and twenty three Karacknid ships were destroyed or abandoned while one hundred and ninety alliance ship suffered the same fate. Though the engagement had been brief, lasting just twenty minutes, Becket couldn’t help but notice how savage it was. Tens of thousands of missiles had been exchanged by both sides and just as many if not more individuals had been killed. And yet it looks like a brief skirmish compared to the Battle of Earth, Becket thought, though it was an opinion she didn’t intend to voice.

Then, rather than retreat back to the shift passage they had entered the system from, the Karacknid fleet moved towards the shift passage that led deeper into Alliance space. Instead of disappearing down the shift passage though, they came to a halt. For six days they simply sat there, goading Delta Fort’s defenders. Then, without any apparent reason, they turned around and retreated back towards their own territory.

“Well,” Ya’sia said after she and Maleck discussed the losses the fleet had suffered. “What do you make of it?” she asked as he turned to Becket.

“It was a probing attack,” Becket answered. “It has to have been. We know they have many more ships operating along your borders. They attacked your fixed defenses, then cut off the shift passage out of the system so word of the brief engagement couldn’t reach your High Command. They meant to draw more ships to this system.”

Ya’sia nodded. “My thoughts exactly. There are at least five other squadrons that have orders to rendezvous here over the next week. Squadrons that will have been pulled away from other worlds. This attack was simply meant to draw away our forces from some other sector.”

“What should we do?” Maleck asked.

“We send out fast frigates to meet those squadrons and turn them back, they may very well be needed where they were,” Ya’sia answered. “Then we assess what ships we have here. I want to send two reinforced squadrons to Gamma and Epsilon Forts. It may be that they have already come under attack and may need immediate reinforcements. Or it may be that other forts further along the line are hit, if so, our squadrons will free up other ships that could be dispatched to their aid.”

Becket brought a hand up to rub her cheek as she thought through the situation. “Is there something you wish to add Commodore?” Ya’sia asked in response to her gesture.

Becket leaned forward towards the holo projector. “May I?”

When Ya’sia nodded to give her approval, Becket rewound the recording of the battle. She then slowed it as the Karacknid squadron fired its first missile salvo and defended itself against the Alliance ships’ return fire. “Look at how they are defending their capital ships,” Becket said. “Their outer echelon of screening ships are very tightly packed together. I reckon such a formation would actually hamper the defensive weapons of the larger capital ships deeper in their formation. Many of the screening ships would get in the way of their anti-missile fire.”

“A typical problem,” Maleck responded. “We must get the right balance between the best formations where screening can defend our capital ships and yet not hamper our larger ships’ fire.”

“Of course,” Becket said as her mind went to the Karacknid fleet’s subsequent maneuvers after the engagement. “But the screening ships are more deeply packed than what we witnessed at Jaranna or Earth. It’s like they wanted to attack your fortifications, yet in such a way as to not risk their capital ships. Like they have an important mission they’re saving them for. And their behavior afterwards, they are screaming that this entire show was a probing attack. Just sitting there for six days, they are emphasizing that they never intended to actually overwhelm your defenses.”

“Isn’t that what we’ve just agreed upon?” Ya’sia said. “That’s why we should be dispatching ships to the other fortified systems.”

“Unless that is what the Karacknid commander wants you to do,” Becket suggested. “A double bluff. The fact that this was so obviously a probing attack means you are bound to send ships to the other fortified worlds. And look at what ships we’ll be sending, we’ve already pulled many ships away from the colonies immediately behind Delta Fort. If a secondary attack punches through here, there won’t be much to stop them advancing all the way to Cria.”

“If it’s not a double bluff and the real blow is going to strike elsewhere, then by holding ships here, we’ll be allowing their probing attack to accomplish its goal,” Maleck responded. “They’ll have successfully tricked us into bringing extra fleet elements here that are really needed elsewhere.”

“That’s why the positions of their screening ships gave me pause,” Becket explained. “If this was really meant to be a probing attack to draw more of your ships here, then why restrict the effectiveness of their capital ships? Why not allow the approaching fleet to dish out as much damage as possible to make this attack look more serious?”

“Perhaps the Karacknids simply find it much easier to construct new frigates and destroyers than capital ships,” Ya’sia suggested. “We know from the tactics employed against your Home Fleet that they were willing to sacrifice many screening ships to protect their capital ships.”

“That was because they feared our fighters,” Becket explained.

“Perhaps they are aware that we have developed some of our own,” Ya’sia replied.

“Perhaps,” was as far as Becket was willing to go towards agreeing.

“But it still sits uneasy with you?” Ya’sia asked

Becket nodded. “There’s no way we can prove it one way or another.”

“In that case, I must dispatch what ships I can spare to Gamma and Epsilon forts,” Ya’sia said. “At the minute there is no indication that they are needed here. However, that does not mean we can’t take extra precautions. If the Karacknids are planning to land a stronger blow against us, then we may need to rethink our strategy. The purpose of these forts is to provide fortified positions that the Karacknids have to assault if they want to push deeper into our territory. However if they are trying to pull our fleets out of position, that suggests they intend to strike one decisive blow against us. Much like what they tried against Earth. In that case, hiding behind our fortifications and allowing ourselves to be surrounded and destroyed makes no sense. We will dispatch the ships we do not need but plan for the eventuality you are correct Commodore. Now, if you will excuse me, I will write up the orders and we can meet later to work out some ideas.”




Chapter 25

The war with the Karacknids was the first war that can properly be called an interstellar war. Before the struggle for the survival of our species broke out, Humanity was used to fighting over just a handful of important colonies. Subsequent wars would dwarf even the War of Doom, but it was the first that required multiple Human fleets to fight over tens of systems thousands of light years apart.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Handmaiden, 16th December 2481 AD (twenty-six days later).

Becket scratched her chin as she stared at a star map in Ya’sia’s briefing room. A third report of a Karacknid probing attack had just come in. Beta and Gamma forts had already been hit and now Zeta had been added to the list. In each instance the Karacknids had struck hard and fast and then pulled back. The result of all the attacks was that confusion reigned among the Varanni High Command. Almost daily word was coming in of squadrons and fleets being moved around from system to system behind the line of fortified systems. From what sense Becket could make of all the fleet dispositions, it seemed Admiral Jourm feared Alpha Fort was going to be the Karacknids’ final target. Only it and Epsilon had not been hit. Epsilon guarded the approaches to the territory of the Hamkana, one of the smaller members of the Alliance. In contrast, if a fleet captured Alpha fort and pushed forward several systems further, it would gain a position from which to strike straight towards Varanni Prime. That seemed like the Karacknids’ ultimate goal.

Closing her eyes, Becket could picture the star map just as easily as if it was displayed in front of her. She had spent hours staring at it over the previous weeks. In essence, the border between Alliance space and the staging world the Karacknids had prepared was like a giant chess board. The six fortified worlds the Alliance had were like pawns screening the important industrial worlds of the Alliance species. Behind the forts were several large Alliance fleets that were stationed in readiness to either support the forts or repulse any attempt by the Karacknids to push past them. Each Karacknid probing attack made the back line of Alliance fleets shuffle one-way and then another. But which way are the Karacknids trying to make them move? Becket asked herself for the umpteenth time. She, Ya’sia and Maleck were all trying to discern a pattern in both the Karacknid attacks and the High Command’s responses to see if they could figure out the move the Karacknid commander was trying to trick the Alliance fleets into making. There were several areas that were becoming more and more exposed as fleets moved around but figuring out which, if any, were the Karacknids’ real target was causing a real headache. It didn’t help that there was no way to know if High Command was reacting in a way that the Karacknids wanted or was actually reacting in a way that compromised the Karacknid battle plan.

“Do you think they know about our artificial shift passages?” Maleck asked. “Perhaps that is why they are launching so many probing attacks, they are testing our response times. Maybe even using our artificial shift passages against us by causing us to move so many fleets here and there.”

“It’s a possibility,” Becket responded, “though I doubt there is a way for us to know.” Like everything else, she thought but didn’t add. The Alliance’s ability to make artificial shift passages gave them a great defensive advantage. While it would take weeks for the Karacknids to move a fleet from one of their staging planets to another, an Alliance fleet could make the same journey days quicker. What made figuring out the Karacknids harder was the fact that they were moving ships about. Ya’sia had orders to send scouting ships into the Karacknids’ systems almost every day. Most made it back, though some didn’t. Their data was patchy at best for those that did return were usually chased away by Karacknid patrols. They were also getting the scouting data from the other fortified worlds, but it was always weeks old. Just as it would be for High Command at Varanni Prime, Becket thought as she closed her eyes again. She was having a difficult time making sense of it all. She didn’t know how Jourm and the other Admirals not only tried to make sense of it, but then gave orders to so many different fleets and commanders.

“If only we knew where they were going to strike!” Ya’sia complained. “We could face them head on and give them a straight up fight. If we lost, I would accept it. But these cat and mouse tactics are infuriating.”

“Just as they are intended to be I’m sure,” Becket commented.

“Perhaps there is one comfort we can take in all this,” Maleck suggested. He continued when both Ya’sia and Becket looked at him with questioning faces. “If the Karacknids had an overwhelming number of warships, then wouldn’t they just attack us and get it over with? The fact they feel they need to employ such strategies suggests the match between our fleet and theirs is more even than we thought.”

“Maybe,” Becket said as she thought through the suggestion. “Maybe. If it was the Flex-aor we were fighting, I’d tend to agree with you. But the Karacknids have shown they are not simply bloodthirsty opponents. They are strategists and tacticians. I fear that even if they had an overwhelming force, they would still seek to outsmart us and defeat us with skill as well as numbers.”

“Hhmmm, I fear you may be right,” Maleck responded.

“The question remains, where are they planning to hit us?” Ya’sia asked in frustration.

*

Marauder, Alliance border world (six days later).

The time has finally come, Hurlang said to himself as saliva dripped down his razor sharp teeth. He lent forward in his command chair as Marauder jumped out of shift space. As the displays around him filled with sensor data, his lips widened to show more of his teeth. The enemy fleet was right where he expected them to be. And they are no match for my forces. For the last month, Operation Counter Claw had been playing out exactly as he had planned. Thousands of his ships had attacked and raided the fortified systems the Alliance species had set up. He had even sent several smaller fleets behind enemy lines to sow more confusion. Now, his main strike was about to fall and the Alliance ships were badly out of place.

Patiently, he waited until all of his ships reverted to normal space and formed up around Marauder. Then, with a nod, he gave his approval for the fleet to advance. Seconds later, with just five percent thrust, four thousand of the Karacknid Empire’s most experienced and battle-hardened warships silently cruised into the Alliance system. By the time they were detected it would be too late for the defenders to run. They would be crushed and then his fleet would advance. We’ll take their key industrial worlds and reduce them to ashes. Then they will be forced to surrender. Hurlang had no doubt about the coming success. He had pulled the Alliance fleets out of position and while they were still trying to figure out his tactics, almost all of his fleets were now moving to coalesce at this system. His current fleet would achieve the first thrust deep into Alliance territory, then, when the rest of his ships joined him, they would finish the war by taking the two largest capital systems of the Alliance.

*

Handmaiden, Delta Fort system, 22nd December 2481 AD.

Becket was sitting in her quarters reading a scouting report when the flash alert ran through Handmaiden. In seconds she was sprinting towards the battleship’s bridge. When she got there, Ya’sia and Maleck were already at their stations. “Our stealth surveillance drones picked up multiple anomalies passing them,” Maleck explained as she took her seat. He nodded towards the secondary holo display.

Becket watched as thousands of contacts slowly moved past the surveillance drones. They’re trying to sneak up to us, Becket realized. Given the numbers, it made perfect sense. The count was currently at three thousand, but it was still rising. If they just announced themselves, their quarry would likely just run away. She looked over to Ya’sia to gauge the Admiral’s mood. With the advanced warning she could pull her fleet out and fall back to join forces with the fleets stationed deeper into Alliance territory. No, Becket realized as she saw Ya’sia tense her shoulders. We’ll not be falling back today, at least not yet. The battlestations in orbit around Delta Fort had the firepower of more than one hundred Crian battleships. Ya’sia would not abandon them without putting up a fight. At least we’re prepared, she thought as she played out how she hoped the coming battle would go in her mind.

“Dispatch two frigates to carry news of this attack to high command,” Ya’sia ordered. “Send them out with five freighters. They’re to escort the freighters to the shift passage and then leave them behind. Make sure their Captains have the battle plan we intend to employ with them. High Command will need to know what is likely to transpire.”

Becket nodded. If a frigate suddenly broke orbit and raced for the shift passage the Karacknids would know they had been discovered. A convoy breaking orbit would not raise the same suspicions.

“Signal our Pulsar fighters, they are to launch and proceed to their jumping off positions. We will update their initiation times when we can,” Ya’sia added.

Four thousand, Becket thought as the number of ships passing the recon drones stopped climbing. This is no mere probing attack. This is it. Though she didn’t want to, she calculated the total number of Karacknid ships that had been seen operating against Alliance forces. Over twelve thousand. It made her swallow hard. She didn’t know exactly, but she reckoned the Varanni Alliance had somewhere in the region of ten thousand warships. But they were spread out all across their territories. It will take weeks for them to hear of this push and counter it.

With an effort, Becket put an end to her line of thinking. There was nothing she could do to change the realities of the war with the Karacknids. She could influence the coming battle, that’s where her mind needed to be. Activating the simulator built into her command chair, she played out different strategies. It would be hours before the Karacknids revealed themselves and she wanted to make the best use of the time.

“Contacts,” the sensor officer reported excitedly three hours later. “Hundreds of gravimetric signatures are lighting up the board!”

And so it begins, Becket thought as the Karacknid war fleet revealed itself. They had travelled roughly half way into the system under stealth. More than enough to make sure that Ya’sia’s fleet could not fall back to the shift passage that led to Alliance territory without being engaged. Now that retreat was impossible, they had no reason to hide. As she watched the Karacknid fleet split into six smaller groups that Handmaiden’s tactical officer designated Task Forces One through Six. Becket nodded, it was typical Karacknid battle doctrine. Each task force would operate independently and together they would spread out to envelop an enemy in multiple fields of fire. “They don’t think we have any fighters,” Becket said as she looked at Ya’sia.

“It would seem not,” Ya’sia agreed. “Hopefully, we can make them pay for that mistake… Task Force Six,” she said moments later. “That will be our target. It’s maneuvering to cover their right flank. I’d like to focus on Task Force Three, but that would give away our exit strategy. Work out our fighters’ attack timing based on their current course and speed. Assume they will remain at maximum missile range.”

“Yes Admiral,” Becket responded. She was responsible for planning out the fighters’ missions. She would work out the best attack strategy and send it to the fighters’ Wing Commander for final approval. After checking her plan for a third and fourth time, she shared it with Ya’sia and then Wing Commander Gaz’zam. Then she returned to watching the Karacknid fleet. For another hour it steadily approached Delta Fort. When Task Force Six settled into its final attack vector, Becket altered her plan slightly and transmitted it. Three salvos she thought as she looked at the massive wave of enemy ships. Ya’sia’s plan called for them to weather three salvos and then act. If we survive that long that is, Becket couldn’t help thinking.

“Missile separations,” the sensor officer called seconds after the Karacknids came into range. Becket held her breath as Handmaiden’s sensors counted the new gravimetric signatures accelerating towards the gas giant. The number didn’t stop rising until it tipped over seventy thousand. She couldn’t help glancing at Ya’sia. The Crian’s face hadn’t changed, but she had to be thinking the same thing as Becket. Seventy thousand missiles was an unheard of salvo. Becket hadn’t seen anything like it except in simulations.

“Return fire,” Ya’sia snapped in a crisp tone that carried none of the emotions Becket was feeling. “Then activate all defense satellites.”

From Ya’sia’s fleet, the battlestations of Delta Fort and the much smaller orbital missile platforms, thirty thousand missiles were launched from their acceleration tubes. All were targeted at Task Force Six. Good luck, Becket thought as she watched the missiles go. The advantage of the Karacknids’ battle doctrine was that Alliance point defense gunners would have a much harder time engaging their missiles. The disadvantage was that Ya’sia was able to target Task Force Six with all her missiles. Two other Karacknid task forces were close enough to engage Ya’sia’s salvo, but the rest of their fleet were not. Of course, that means that after this battle, Task Forces One through Five will be fully intact and undamaged. They will be able to immediately continue offensive operations. Becket didn’t know which strategy she preferred, the Alliance and Humanity’s or the Karacknids’, at the moment though, she didn’t like the idea of Task Forces One to Five being able to pursue them. Not while our ships are all going to face the incoming enemy salvo.

Before the first Karacknid salvo came crashing in, the Karacknids fired a second, and Ya’sia’s ships did the same. Then the real battle commenced as the Karacknid missiles entered range of the Alliance’s point defenses. Though she wanted to close her eyes, she forced herself to watch the estimated number of Karacknid missiles. Hundreds of thousands of defensive laser beams and counter missiles raced out to try and lower the number. They were quickly joined by electric pulses from the Varanni arc emitters installed on Handmaiden and the battlestations of Delta Fort. Even so, the number was not decreasing anywhere near fast enough.

“The fleet will take cover,” Ya’sia ordered when there were still ten thousand Karacknid missiles coming in. The thousand ships in her fleet maneuvered themselves behind the battlestations and other smaller defense satellites. In the seconds it took them to move, thousands more Karacknid missiles were destroyed. Then the remainder detonated among their targets.

When the alarms on Handmaiden died down, Becket assessed the situation. Seven of the orbital battlestations had been destroyed and more than one hundred and fifty of the defense satellites. Forty ships were gone and a number more were reporting damage. Glancing at Task Force Six, Becket saw that eighty ships had been taken out. At least sixty more were pulling back, having obviously suffered significant damage. She just had enough time to reassess the attack plan for the fighters before the second Karacknid salvo struck home. Hundreds more defense satellites, battle stations and ships were destroyed.

Again, Becket glanced at Ya’sia, trying to read the Admiral’s mind. Yet there were no discernible emotions visible. “Fire our third salvo!” Ya’sia ordered. As soon as the missiles were away she spoke again. “Begin fall back maneuver. All ships, maximum acceleration. Those that cannot are to stay and fight with the battlestations.” The order was harsh, but Becket knew there was no other choice.

As soon as Handmaiden moved, Becket switched her focus to the third Karacknid missile salvo. It was slightly less than the initial two as a result of the battering Task Force Six was taking, but not significantly so. As the missiles got closer, Becket selfishly willed them to target the battlestations and ships still in orbit. If they targeted Ya’sia’s retreating ships, many would not survive. Yes, she thought as the missiles did not alter their initial trajectories. The Karacknid commander was content to destroy Delta Fort’s last battlestations and then turn his attention to Ya’sia’s fleet. To drive home the Karacknid Admiral’s decision, all six Karacknid task forces accelerated as they settled onto intercept trajectories. Ya’sia’s order had her ships racing around the gas giant to use its mass as a shield from enemy missiles while they fled the system. With the imminent demise of the orbital battlestations, the Karacknid ships were closing with the gas giant to carry out the same maneuver.

Here we go, Becket thought as the Alliance’s third missile salvo closed with Task Force Six. Cruising in behind the alliance missiles were the thirty-six Pulsar fighters. They had begun their attack run twenty minutes ago and had been slowly building up momentum while keeping their reactors and engines at minimal power. As soon as the Karacknid point defense weapons opened up they went to full acceleration. If the Karacknids figured out what the Pulsars were amidst the maelstrom of other weapons fire, it was too late. Just as Alliance missiles began to detonate amongst Task Force Six, the fighters came into range with their own weapons.

Just before they fired, two were taken out by point defense weapons. Becket grimaced but it was replaced by a whoop when thirty-four laser beams reached out and struck Karacknid warships. Every beam was targeted at an undamaged ship’s engines. Within seconds, the gunners of Task Force Six realized what was assaulting them and turned their guns on the fighters with a vengeance. Six more were destroyed as they twisted and weaved through the Karacknid fire. Then their capacitors finished recharging their laser cannons and another volley of beams struck out. Each had targeted a new intact Karacknid ship causing more damage to their engines and reactors. The aim of the attack was not to destroy Karacknid ships, but to cripple them. Ya’sia and Becket knew that they would not be able to win this battle, but the more ships they could take out of action now, the better chance they would have of winning the next.

“Fighters are pulling back,” Becket called when the remaining fighters escaped the Karacknid point defenses. “They’re angling to rendezvous with us now.”

“Make sure they are refueled and recharged immediately,” Ya’sia commented. She then turned her attention back to the main holo plot and the display of the pursuing Karacknid task forces. Becket followed her gaze. Task Force Six had been ravaged, the three missile salvos had destroyed or damaged nearly three hundred ships and the Pulsar fighters’ attack had made another fifty fall out of formation. Half of the task force had been removed from the Karacknid fleet’s number of battle worthy ships. But there were five other task forces keenly pursuing Ya’sia’s fleet.

“Task Forces One and Three will round the gas giant in five minutes,” Maleck reported, “They’ll be able to open fire immediately.”

Ya’sia nodded but said nothing more, Becket was confident the Crian Admiral understood exactly what was happening. Ya’sia waited three more minutes before speaking. “Now, activate phase one mines.”

Suddenly, right in front of Task Force Three, six hundred new active sensors powered up and scanned space around them. As soon as they located targets, small maneuvering thrusters re-orientated the stealth laser cannons and capacitors discharged all their force into the weapons. Some of the mines were out of range of their targets, but many others were not.

The Karacknids reacted almost instantly. The lead ships of Task Force Three carried out rapid evasive maneuvers whilst their own energy weapons reached out to destroy the mines before they could fire. Even so, more than a hundred laser beams struck Karacknid ships. A handful were destroyed as critical systems overloaded, most suffered light damage but were nevertheless forced to pull up and away from their course. Before them a whole wave of mines had gone active looking for targets. As Becket watched, more and more were coming online. She couldn’t help but smile as the line of mines activating spread out from the gas giant for more than ten light seconds. They stretched out towards the shift passage that Ya’sia’s fleet was falling back towards. Not so fast, she thought with satisfaction. The ships of Task Forces Three and One were all decelerating hard and pulling away from the mine field. As they rounded the gas giant and came into view the other Karacknid task forces were doing the same.

“Your tactic worked well Commodore,” Ya’sia said as Becket turned to find the Crian Admiral looking at her. “We live to fight another day.”

“We do,” Maleck agreed, “Though I imagine our opponent will not be happy when he learns how few mines caused him to lose his quarry.”

Not too unhappy, Becket thought. For he will still have us in his sights. Each of the fortified worlds the Alliance had set up had been outfitted with stealth laser cannon mines. When Becket had arrived the mines had been placed in low orbit around the gas giant to prevent any Karacknid ships from closing to energy weapon range with their battlestations. On the assumption that Delta Fort was the likely target of the Karacknid’s main push, she had suggested they be spread out along the Alliance fleet’s avenue of retreat. There had been far too few mines to actually prevent the Karacknid fleet from chasing them but enough to bluff with. All the mines Ya’sia had in place had powered up their active sensors. However the Karacknids had no way of knowing that so they would have to assume there were more. And by the time they find out there are not, we should be long gone, Becket hoped. But they will be hard on our heels. And she knew no trick with a few mines would stop such a massive fleet from pushing deeper into Alliance territory.




Chapter 26

Retreating is never easy. Especially when colonies have to be abandoned. Yet every cadet quickly learns the importance of such actions. In the opening stages of any war, it is the fleets of each side that matter the most, not their individual worlds. Sometimes to preserve the fleet, a colony must be sacrificed in the hope it will one day be freed once again.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Handmaiden, Kalesh System, 23rd January 2482 AD (four weeks later).

“This is as far as we go,” Ya’sia said to Handmaiden’s bridge officers. “Take us three light minutes into the system and bring the fleet to a halt. We will form up into shield three formation. Captain Maleck, arrange a picket squadron to watch the shift passage.”

“Yes Admiral,” Maleck replied before turning to his staff to give out further orders.

Becket watched them go about their duties. There was a somber seriousness to all of Handmaiden’s officers that she recognized from before the before of Battle of Earth. They know it’s all or nothing now, she thought. For three weeks they had retreated from Delta Fort into Crian territory with the Karacknid fleet nipping at their heels. A constant wave of small fast attack frigates had been pecking at Ya’sia’s rear-guard. Though the losses had been relatively equal, any Alliance ships that got too damaged to keep up had to be abandoned. Ships Ya’sia couldn’t afford to lose. Along the retreat they had been forced to abandon two Crian colonies. Ya’sia had stripped the worlds of their warships, adding over two hundred to her fleet. It had done nothing to bolster the morale of Handmaiden’s officers. Never before had a Crian colony been threatened by another species, let alone abandoned to their mercy. And now we must fight them, Becket knew as she looked at the shift passage they had just exited, wondering how long it would take the main Karacknid fleet to appear. The Kalesh system was home to another Crian colony which had a population of over a billion. That was not why Ya’sia had chosen to fight, however. Three artificial shift passages had been made to the Kalesh system. One led directly to Cria, the Crian’s homeworld, another to Varanni space and a system just one jump away from Varanni Prime. The third led to the system the Varanni had given to the Mindus survivors. If Kalesh fell, it would be almost impossible to stop the Karacknids from striking multiple targets at ease.

“We’ve got movement in the inner system,” a sensor officer reported. “Multiple contacts are starting to accelerate.”

“My species’ Home Fleet,” Ya’sia said when Becket’s head spun in alarm. She had feared the Karacknids had managed to get ahead of them somehow. “I sent orders for them to rendezvous with us,” Ya’sia added. “Every ship that can should be racing here.”

Becket nodded, she already knew the call had gone out for every warship to race to Kalesh, she just hadn’t expected to arrive before them. “Signal them and send the coordinates we’re heading to, order them to rendezvous with us,” Ya’sia continued. “Request a full report on the number and status of their ships.”

When the report came in, Becket scanned it with interest. The Crian Home Fleet added another two hundred and sixty warships to their fleet. Two squadrons from nearby systems had arrived before them, adding another eighty. One thousand three hundred and forty, Becket thought as she added up the Alliance ship numbers. Not nearly enough, she concluded. Not when the Karacknids had more than three and a half thousand.

“Do not grow too concerned just yet,” Ya’sia said loudly enough for everyone on Handmaiden’s bridge to hear. When Becket looked up it was clear she was talking to her though. “This is where our artificial shift passages play out to our advantage. You will see.”

Becket smiled though she wasn’t fully convinced. She understood what Ya’sia was doing though, her bridge officers needed to believe they could win. And maybe we can, Becket said to herself as she tried to figure out just how that might be possible. There was no point wasting time wallowing in doubt.

*

It took the forward elements of the Karacknid fleet six hours to enter the Kalesh system behind Ya’sia’s fleet. After a brief skirmish with the picket squadron Ya’sia had put in place, they quickly jumped back out. To Becket’s surprise, the main Karacknid fleet did not appear right behind them. In fact, it took four days for the Karacknid fleet to jump into the system. What surprised her just as much was the number of Alliance ships that appeared in that time. Six squadrons added another five hundred ships to Ya’sia’s fleet. It was only when the third squadron arrived that Becket started to grasp the real significance of the Alliance’s artificial shift passages. Combined with the jump gates they used to push ships through shift space at extremely high velocities, key hubs like the Kalesh system were within two or three shift passages of tens of other systems. Systems that each had their own garrisons that were rushing to the scene of the coming battle.

“We do not have to beat them,” Ya’sia said to her Admirals and Captains in the holo conference she had called. Though Becket was invisible to those on the conference, she and the staff officers were listening in as well. “We just have to bleed them. Right now the fleets from our other Fort systems are racing here. If we can reduce the Karacknids’ numbers enough that they are not able to invade Cria or Varanni Prime, then our brethren will arrive in time to shore up our defenses. Every hour we delay them in this system gives more time for our reinforcements to arrive and for our larger fleets to get into position. Each one of us must give a good account of ourselves. Nothing less is acceptable.”

“We know our duty,” a Varanni Commodore responded. “We will all give our lives to hold back this evil tide.” The Varanni officers all bowed their heads to show their agreement while the Crians and others voiced their agreement with clenched fists or raised arms.

“Then let us be about our business,” Ya’sia responded. She saluted her subordinates and ended the COM channel. Without a pause, she turned to her staff officers and began to give out more commands. “Commodore Becket,” she said when she turned to Becket. “I want you to arrange a strike with the Pulsar fighters. Let’s remind the Karacknids that we still have them. Then pull them back. We’re going to hold them and the fighters from my species’ Home Fleet in reserve and use them only when necessary.”

“Yes Admiral,” Becket responded. She returned to Handmaiden’s bridge and got to work. The first thing she did was check on the Karacknid fleet. It had appeared just thirty minutes ago and was still forming up into its six taskforces. Becket’s eyes narrowed when she looked at Task Force Six. Its numbers had increased. There were six hundred ships within its formation. They have received reinforcements as well, she realized. That explained the Karacknids’ slight delay. They will have more ships following their main fleet too. Just as every Alliance ship was racing to Kalesh, she suspected the Karacknids were pulling all their forces into their main attack as well. Still, Task Force Six is the weakest they have, that will be our target, Becket decided.

*

Captain Xam’alan gripped the flight stick of her Pulsar fighter. She could feel her shoulders and arms tense up as her squadron approached the Karacknid fleet. At the battle for Delta Fort, she had tensed up as well. There it had been due to nerves. It had been her first combat experience. Now another fear gripped her. The massive Karacknid fleet in front of her was just one jump away from the last world where her species lived free. The Karacknids had nuked her homeworld of Jaranna and conquered every other Mindus colony. Only those who had been evacuated by the Varanni now lived in freedom. And they are going to remain free, she promised herself. Before the Karacknid invasion her species had never been involved in an interspecies war. Xam’alan had never contemplated becoming a warrior. Yet now she intended to kill as many of her species’ sworn enemies as possible.

“All squadrons, engines to full, turn to heading seven nine six point six,” Wing Commander Gaz’zam ordered.

Xam’alan acknowledged the order and checked to make sure her squadron of fighters complied. She had lost two fighters at Delta Fort, but the ten in her squadron were still more than enough to do some damage.

When the twenty-six fighters in Gaz’zam’s wing revealed themselves by accelerating towards the heart of Task Force Six, the Karacknids were quick to react. Eighty frigates and destroyers broke away from Task Force Six and spread out to form an outer shell around the larger Karacknid capital ships. Xam’alan smiled, it was just as the Human Commodore Becket had predicted. Moments later, Gaz’zam sent new targeting data to her squadron. Xam’alan assigned three fighters to each target and then flexed her arms and legs. The Human handbook on fighter combat she had read suggested a bit of tension was good, it kept a pilot’s focus, but too much slowed their reaction times. She worked her muscles until she felt she was ready.

“All fighters execute course change,” Gaz’zam snapped fifteen minutes later.

With her squadron, Xam’alan rolled her fighter and banked away from the center of Task Force Six. Instead, she aimed at one of the screening frigates. Then she gunned her engines to maximum. Just a handful of seconds later, the Karacknid frigates and destroyers that were in range opened up with their point defenses. Xam’alan already had her fighter twisting and weaving randomly.

She swore when a laser beam clipped one of her fighters and it disappeared from her Pulsar’s sensors. Then she forgot about it as the enemy destroyer came into range. As soon as it did she released her first laser beam at it. The three fighters around her did the same and in the blink of an eye the destroyer disappeared. Xam’alan sought out another target and sent its coordinates to the fighters with her. She continued her evasive maneuvers as she waited for her capacitors to charge the laser cannon again. As soon as it was ready to go, she turned towards her second target. Carefully she danced and weaved closer and closer until she could open fire. Only two of the three fighters with her had managed to follow her, but they both scored hits and a frigate was added to the list of her kills.

“All fighters pull back,” Gaz’zam ordered moments later.

Happily, Xam’alan complied. She had to continue her evasive maneuvers for a couple of minutes, but it was relatively simple to avoid the Karacknid fire. Their screening ships were so spread out that only a few could bring her into range at any one time. When she got to safety she checked on her squadron and she smiled in satisfaction. Her squadron had destroyed six enemy ships for the price of two fighters. She would mourn the pilots that had been killed, but she would not regret their sacrifice.

*

“It has begun,” Ya’sia commented as everyone on Handmaiden’s bridge watched the fighters engage the Karacknid frigates.

Becket didn’t reply, she was too focused on the small engagement. As a Captain she had fought in many battles and had many die under her command. Yet in all those battles she had put herself in harm’s way along with her crew. It was harder to watch others fight as they obeyed her orders. When the fighters finally pulled away from the Karacknid screening ships, she let out a sigh of relief. Their losses had been minimal. In the grand scheme of things destroying fourteen of the smaller Karacknid warships would count for very little but reminding the Karacknid commander that the fighters could strike at his capital ships at a moment’s notice would force him to be more cautious. And hopefully buy us a little more time, Becket thought.

Though she was responsible for making sure the fighters got back to the carrier and were rearmed and refueled, Becket was very aware that Wing Commander Gaz’zam knew what to do. As a result, she only kept one eye on the returning fighters and focused most of her attention on the battle. With no other responsibilities she found herself relegated to the position of observer.

After the brief fighter attack, a lull developed. The six Karacknid taskforces slowed their advance whilst they altered formation. Many small frigates were pushed out ahead of the fleet, their active sensors churning out megawatts of electromagnetic energy as they sought to ensure no fighters snuck up on their larger consorts. Then, when the Karacknid commander had his ships in order, they resumed their advance towards Ya’sia’s fleet. In response, Ya’sia ordered her ships to fall back slowly. She also split her fleet into fourteen squadrons and formed a pyramid formation with them. For two hours what Becket could only describe as a game of chess developed. Ya’sia expertly coordinated her squadrons as her overall formation fell back in a way that stopped the Karacknid taskforces from enveloping her fleet. At several points she reversed course and threatened to bring enough squadrons against one Karacknid task force to briefly hold a numerical advantage. Then, when the Karacknids attempted a counter maneuver to envelop Ya’sia’s fleet, she resumed her retreat. The constant maneuvering was buying more time, but there was only so much real estate within the Kalesh system for Ya’sia to fall back through.

“Reinforcements,” a sensor officer called. “A new squadron has just arrived from Varanni space. Ninety ships are accelerating to join us.”

“Inform them they are to take position on our left flank,” Ya’sia responded. “Additional orders will be sent to them forthwith.”

As the reinforcements raced across the Kalesh system, Becket focused on the Karacknid fleet. If its commander hadn’t already figured out what Ya’sia was doing, he could hardly miss it now. As if in response to her thoughts, the Karacknid fleet increased its acceleration. “They’re throwing caution to the wind,” Becket said in warning.

“We have no problem with that,” Ya’sia replied. She then began to give out a whole series of new orders.

One half of Ya’sia’s fleet suddenly increased its rate of retreat while the other half split away and accelerated towards the task force protecting the Karacknid’s left flank. They continued until they got into extreme missile range and fired a single salvo before falling back. The Karacknid task force, wary of being outnumbered, moved back after firing its own salvo. Forty-five Karacknid ships were destroyed for the price of thirty Alliance ones. After reforming the Karacknid task force resumed its pursuit. For another hour, the game of cat and mouse turned deadly as Ya’sia ordered her ships to turn and engage several times. Each engagement occurred at extreme missile range and only lasted for one or two salvos, but the losses quickly mounted. We’re now trading ships and space for time, Becket said to herself. Sixteen more Alliance ships had appeared to join the battle, but they didn’t make up for those that had already been lost.

“They’re here!” someone called out. “They’re here!” Becket along with every other bridge officer on Handmaiden swung around to look at the secondary holo plot. On it, six hundred new contacts had appeared.

“Varanni Prime’s Home Fleet,” Ya’sia said with a smile. “The fleet will pull back to their position,” she ordered.

An hour later both fleets squared off against one another again. Except the Alliance ships had nowhere to fall back to. If they wanted to avoid a full on battle, they would have to retreat into shift space. And that is not an option for us, Becket knew. So far the Karacknids had been ignoring the Kalesh colony, but if Ya’sia’s fleet left, they would no doubt turn their attention to its defenses and orbital industry. Then they would be able to head to Cria and wipe out the industrial base of the Crian civilization with ease.

“Signal the fleet,” Ya’sia ordered. “Transmit this message, ‘Now is the time to prove our honor.’”

Becket took a deep breath to compose herself as the Alliance fleet turned towards the Karacknids. She was about to witness the largest battle any Human had ever laid eyes upon. Probably the largest space battle the galaxy had ever seen. And she held little hope that she was going to survive it. Not when she knew Ya’sia intended to buy the other Alliance fleets time at the expense of her own ships.

When both fleets got into extreme missile range of one another the Karacknids released seventy-six thousand missiles towards the Alliance fleet. In reply the Alliance ships fired a volley of fifty-four thousand. Again, Ya’sia pulled her ships back to keep the Karacknids at arm’s length, yet she did not stay out of missile range. Instead, her fleet fired a second and then a third volley. As the missile salvos came crashing in all around Handmaiden, Becket watched the fleet formations as they danced around one another, jockeying for an advantage. Ya’sia had her ships split into seventeen squadrons and she was directing all of them as they maneuvered to assist one another and coordinate their missile salvos against Karacknid taskforces. As expertly as she wielded the elements of her fleet, the Karacknid commander was her equal. His six taskforces danced back-and-forth, supporting one another and seeking to envelop parts of Ya’sia’s fleet. All the while, hundreds of ships were destroyed or crippled as missile salvos washed over each fleet.

“There,” Becket shouted when the opening she had been looking for appeared. Task Force Two had just lost a significant portion of their screening ships and they were out of supporting range from Task Force One. Not expecting another Alliance missile salvo for several minutes they had ventured too far forward to get a better angle for their own salvo. “Our fighters can hit them.” Becket added as she zoomed in on the Karacknid task force on the auxiliary holo display.

Ya’sia stared at the holo-screen for a couple of seconds and then nodded. “Do it,” she ordered.

Becket’s fingers quickly got to work as she sent orders to Wing Commander Gaz’zam. Taking what was left of his two squadrons, the Varanni Wing Commander joined up with the two squadrons that had come with the Crian Home Fleet. Together the forty-six-fighters raced through the Alliance formation towards Task Force Two. The Karacknids saw them coming almost immediately and pushed out their screening ships. Gaz’zam used the fighters’ superior maneuverability to arch up and over Task Force Two’s formation and dive at the taskforce’s capital ships from above. Seven fighters were destroyed by screening ships that got off shots, but the rest closed with their primary targets. Though the wider battle still raged all around Handmaiden, Becket kept her focus on the fighters. The point defense fire from the Karacknid capital ships reached out towards the fighters as soon as they were in range. Instinctively Becket squinted to try and see what was going on, but the problem was not with her eyesight but with Handmaiden’s sensors. There was simply too much energy being released by point defense lasers and counter missile detonations for the Crian battleship to detect everything that was happening.

Becket punched a fist in the air when the first Karacknid battleship detonated. It was quickly followed by two dreadnoughts and then nine other ships. At the same time, almost as many began to fall out of formation. Come on, come on, Becket thought as she waited to see how many fighters would emerge from the hailstorm of Karacknid point defense fire. She didn’t get to see though, for thousands of missiles from several Alliance squadrons came bearing down on Task Force Two. Becket glanced over at Ya’sia, the Crian Admiral had planned her fire perfectly. Out of formation from the fighter attack and with half their point defense gunners still angrily focused on the pesky fighters, the missiles came crashing in with devastating effect. At least forty more warships were gutted.

Before a second Alliance salvo could come in and build on the sudden disarray, two other Karacknid taskforces closed to cover Task Force Two. Two then fell back and reformed under the protection of its comrades. When Handmaiden’s sensors finally made sense of the area of intense fighting, Becket saw that thirty fighters were returning. She had lost nearly a third of her force, but it had been worth it.

As the fighters returned to the carriers to refuel and rearm, Becket surveyed the rest of the battle. Despite the successful attack on Task Force Two, it was not going well. With equal numbers, Alliance ships outfitted with Varanni weapons technologies stood about an even chance in one-on-one battles. Slightly outnumbered they could still hold their own, but Ya’sia’s fleet was outnumbered more than two to one. No amount of dancing around with fancy tactics could negate such numbers. Though Ya’sia’s fleet was giving a good account of itself, already more than four hundred ships had been destroyed or severely damaged compared to the Karacknids five hundred and thirty.

For almost another hour Becket watched as both fleets traded blow after blow. Alliance losses mounted to eight hundred ships. Though the Karacknids’ losses were nearing a thousand, their numerical advantage was increasing rather than decreasing. Another one hundred Alliance ships had jumped into the system to join the battle, but they weren’t nearly enough to turn the tide. Then Becket saw the very thing she had feared from the beginning of the battle. Two Karacknid taskforces had managed to isolate one of Ya’sia’s smaller squadrons on the Alliance fleet’s right flank. She turned to the Crian Admiral to shout a warning, but Ya’sia was already barking orders. Becket spun back around to watch if the new orders would work. It was already too late though, both Karacknid taskforces had unleashed missile salvos at the Alliance squadron. Though three other squadrons moved in to fire their own salvos in return, the Karacknid taskforces ignored them and fired another salvo at the isolated squadron. Then, behind the two Karacknid taskforces, more ships appeared to attack the flanks of the additional squadrons Ya’sia had ordered in.

In the space of ten minutes the two Karacknid salvos decimated the Alliance squadron. It was reduced from one hundred and thirty-two, to just fifty-five ships. Most of those that remained look like they had suffered some damage and whoever the senior surviving commander was, they were pulling their ships back. The squadrons Ya’sia had ordered in were also being beaten back as the two Karacknid taskforces turned their fire upon them.

We are beaten, Becket thought as she looked to Ya’sia to see if the Crian Admiral saw it. It was clear from the look on her face that she did. If they had been fighting a lesser opponent, there might have been a chance to salvage the situation, but the Karacknids had already proven their capabilities more than once. Even as she watched more Karacknid ships maneuvered towards the gap that had opened up in the Alliance fleet’s formation. If Ya’sia didn’t react quickly, the entire right flank of the fleet would be enveloped by Karacknid ships. Their numerical superiority meant they could drive a wedge between the Alliance fleet and its right flank whilst fighting off any squadrons Ya’sia tried to send to plug the gap.

“Signal the squadrons of our right flank,” Ya’sia ordered. “They are to fall back to Cria immediately. All damaged ships are to be evacuated. The retreat must be at maximum speed. Then send orders to the rest of our ships. We are combining into one formation; Bulwark Alpha.”

Becket nodded, Bulwark Alpha provided the strongest field of overlapping defensive fire. Ya’sia was giving the Karacknids juicy targets to go for. The Admiral looked over at Becket. “Get your fighters over there. Buy them time to escape.”

“Aye Admiral,” Becket responded. Sending orders for the fighters to launch immediately, Becket watched the Karacknids pursue what was left of the Alliance’s right flank. Three hundred Alliance ships were racing towards the Cria shift passage. Behind them, the screening ships of Task Forces Two and Three were in hot pursuit. Nearly a thousand frigates, destroyers and light cruisers were gaining on the Alliance ships. Selecting the fastest thirty, Becket designated them as targets.

Over the next twenty minutes Becket watched as the fleeing Alliance ships lost fifteen of their number for the price of only six Karacknids. Then her fighters entered the fray. Striking the lead Karacknid ships head on they focused on the engines of enemy ships. Thirty were taken out of the chase for the price of six fighters. Then, ten minutes later, after letting their engines recharge their laser cannons, the fighters charged in again to fire another shot, taking out twelve more of the fastest Karacknid ships. With no other way of helping, the fighters fell back. The chase was far from over, however. It continued for another hour. In that time forty-four more Alliance ships were caught and destroyed. Thankfully, the rest made it to the shift passage and jumped to safety.

Only then did Becket turn her full attention to Handmaiden and her own fate. Whilst the Alliance right flank had fled, Ya’sia had kept the rest of her squadron together and slowly retreated towards the Varanni Prime shift passage, ensuring the focus of the main Karacknid fleet remained on her. When Becket checked the numbers she was appalled at the losses. Only six hundred ships remained in Ya’sia’s fleet. They had killed as many Karacknid ships as had been destroyed, but the losses were far more devastating to the Alliance fleet.

“We are beaten,” Ya’sia said to her officers moments after the right flank of her fleet jumped to safety. “We cannot hold the system. We must save what we can. Order a full retreat. The fleet will rendezvous at Varanni Prime.” When she finished speaking, Handmaiden’s officers looked away and busied themselves with their duties. Becket kept staring at the Admiral, she had nothing else to do. She was the only one who saw the look of loss and shame on Ya’sia’s face. When the Crian Admiral tilted her head her expression changed to one of sorrow. Becket followed her gaze and saw that Ya’sia was staring at the shift passage to Cria. When the Karacknids had broken their formation there had been no way for Ya’sia to fall back to Cria with her main fleet. Now the Admiral’s homeworld was at the mercy of the victorious Karacknid fleet.

And victorious they are, Becket thought as she looked back at the Karacknid fleet. Though just over one thousand eight hundred Karacknid ships had been destroyed or crippled, the Karacknid commander had more than fifty percent of his fleet intact. Whatever plans he had in mind for the next stage of his invasion, after carrying out repairs, he would be free to pursue them as he chose. Though she knew she had done her best, Becket found herself sharing Ya’sia’s guilt. They had failed and the future of the Alliance now hung in the balance.




Chapter 27

In the early years of the Empire there grew within the Imperial Fleet a spurious conception that Alien Admirals could not match the skill and ingenuity of Humanity. The War of Doom should have disabused us of such a notion, but in this regard the lessons from that devastating war were not learnt.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Marauder, Kalesh system (eight hours later).

Over Admiral Hurlang stroked his claws along his command chair. Despite the fact that his staff officers were waiting for new orders, he was deep in thought. He had won a stupendous victory against the Alliance fleet. They had been split in two and chased out of the Kalesh system with heavy losses. It had cost him many ships, but the system was his. Yet something had been bothering him for the last several hours. The Crian colony in the system was impressive, but it wasn’t that much more impressive than the two colonies the Alliance fleet had abandoned before the battle. He had been struggling to figure out why they had chosen to stand and fight in this system in open space without any orbital battlestations to support them.

What he was looking at now though gave him the answer he had been searching for. Both halves of the Alliance fleet had retreated along shift passages he had not known about. Centuries ago Karacknid long-range scouting missions had mapped this entire sector of space. Somehow they had missed two shift passages. Hurlang had thought the omissions had cost him the chance to finish off the Alliance fleet. One moment he had thought them cornered, the next they had disappeared. Except, now he knew the missed shift passages hadn’t been omissions. He had sent scouts along both shift passages for several light years. They had just returned with some very strange news. The shift passages did not have any twists or turns within them. They were perfectly straight and uniform. That meant only one thing; the shift passages were not natural. They have the ability to create artificial shift passages, Hurlang told himself. A nifty trick, something that the Imperator will be pleased to learn about. Especially when I bring him whatever device the Alliance species use to do it. Hurlang could easily picture the impact it would have on the Empire. With so many colonies spread out hundreds and even thousands of light years from the Imperial homeworld, having artificial shift passages would dramatically decrease the time for ships and messages to reach the outer territories.

And it explains why they stood and fought here, Hurlang realized when he projected the artificial shift passages beyond where his scouts had investigated. One led directly to the Crian home system and the second towards the center of Varanni territory. That is how they got so many reinforcements here so quickly. But it will also be their undoing. The system his fleet was now in was clearly a hub system connecting Crian and Varanni space. He had unknowingly conquered what Karacknid strategists called the central position. His fleet could now choose to strike out in several different directions. The Alliance, already spread out after their defeat, would find it impossible to gather enough ships to match his numbers. Wherever he chose to strike next, he would be guaranteed to hold the numerical advantage.

Unless, Hurlang thought as he zoomed out the holo- projection of Alliance space. Yes. If the alliance had artificial shift passages here, they likely had them all across their territory. Which means the fleets they had guarding their fortified systems would be falling back. That could actually cause him a problem. If they managed to pull their fleets back before his reinforcements arrived, they could actually put up a stiff defense if he attacked too early. Care must be taken, he said to himself. With the central position and a numerical advantage, one more decisive blow will finish them. The question was, where should the blow be struck? Retracting his claws, he prepared commands for more scout ships to be sent out. He wanted to check and see if there were any other artificial shift passages within the system and then confirm where the two he knew about led. His fleets that had carried out the various diversionary attacks would be arriving to reinforce him over the next three months. When they were in place and his fleet had finished licking its wounds, he would finish off the Alliance. He would strike them wherever they were weakest again and again until they were forced to surrender. They cannot defend all their worlds, not now, he thought as his claws extended again. He gave out a grunt of satisfaction. On the main holo display the last battlestation that orbited the Crian colony had just been destroyed. As he watched, his subordinates set about bombarding everything that looked remotely like it contributed to the planet’s heavy industries. It might just be a minor colony, but it would no longer play any role in the ongoing war.

*

Varanni Prime, Alliance High Command headquarters, 17th February 2482 AD (three weeks later).

As Becket followed Ya’sia into the large briefing room, the air felt thick with despair. News of the defeat had reached Jourm and the other Admirals of the High Command more than a week ago. Ya’sia had sent frigates ahead with the news while she had continued on at a slower pace with her damaged ships. Perhaps because they had spent the last several days dwelling on the news, none of the leading Admirals of the Alliance looked their normal selves. And now they have summoned us to hear first-hand what they already know, Becket thought as she looked up at Jourm. The Varanni Admiral did not acknowledge her.

Keeping her face impassive, Becket sat down behind Ya’sia and waited to see if she would be called upon. For a full hour she listened as the Admirals questioned Ya’sia, Maleck and the other surviving senior commanders of Ya’sia’s fleet about the battles at Delta Fort and Kalesh. Though the Admirals of High Command knew the details, they wanted to understand the reasoning of the various decisions that had been taken. Twice she was asked to speak about her input, though each time she kept her answers brief and that seemed to satisfy the Admirals.

“Very well, I think we have heard all we need to hear,” Jourm said after Ya’sia briefly summarized the retreat from Kalesh. He glanced at the other Admirals before turning back to Ya’sia. “It is the estimation of High Command that you all fought with honor and skill. Despite the defeat, no marks will be held against your abilities.” As she was sitting behind Ya’sia, Becket noticed the Crian Admiral’s shoulders relax slightly. Beside her, Maleck let out a breath. “However, we find ourselves in the gravest of situations. The future of our Alliance hangs in the balance. The decisions we make now will determine whether or not the Karacknid Empire fulfils their desire to conquer us.” As he spoke, Jourm brought up the holo-projection of Alliance space. The various fleets and their locations were all marked. “By now, news of the Karacknid attack at Delta Fort will have reached all of our outlying fleets. They will be falling back within our borders. I have already sent out frigates to direct our fleets to Cria or here. This is the best estimate of how our forces will accumulate.” On the holo projection the numbers of ships marked at Cria and Varanni Prime rose as the time counter progressed.

Becket struggled to keep her face impassive. In the first few weeks several hundred ships were expected to arrive at both Cria and Varanni Prime, but then it would take longer for the larger fleets to arrive. Even when they did arrive the number of ships available to defend the two Alliance homeworlds was not enough. If they could be combined, they would stand a chance against the Karacknid fleet at Kalesh. But as long as they were separated, the Alliance fleet would be defeated in detail. And those estimates don’t take into account Karacknid reinforcements, Becket thought as she stared at the unchanging estimated number of Karacknid ships at Kalesh. And the Karacknids had known where their main attack will go, they will have made plans to draw more ships to support the main thrust through Delta Fort. Their ships likely started moving weeks ago.

“We fear we have an impossible choice before us,” Jourm said when the holo projection stopped updating. “We do not have the ships to defend both Cria and Varanni Prime. If we try, both systems could be lost within the next few months. Strategically, losing one and protecting the other is the obvious choice.” Jourm lapsed into silence as everyone stared at the holo projection.

Becket wasn’t surprised, Jourm was talking about abandoning billions of people and trillions of credits worth of orbital infrastructure. There was no doubt the Karacknids would move into whichever system was left undefended and destroy everything they could. And that assumes the Karacknids will not strike a follow-up blow immediately, Becket thought. If Jourm planned to send orders to evacuate Cria and avert the fleets headed there to Varanni prime, the Karacknids could have taken the system before Jorum’s orders were received. The ships at Cria would be destroyed and any fleets falling back there would find themselves trapped. It is a disaster, Becket thought as she felt the same despair in the room seep into her own heart. She’d been so focused on the defeat at Kalesh and the losses of Ya’sia’s fleet that the full significance of the wider strategic situation was only hitting her now.

“What if we counter attack?” Maleck asked timidly. “Without artificial shift passages, some of our fleets should reach Cria and Varanni Prime before the Karacknids received reinforcements. If we launched a strike from here and Cria at the same time into the Kalesh system, we could drive the Karacknid fleet back. If we could take back Kalesh and hold it, the Karacknids could not threaten so many systems at once.”

“If our timing is off, even by just an hour or two, the Karacknids would get the opportunity to engage each of our fleets one at a time. They could crush whatever ships we send in from Cria, and then turn around and crush us as well,” Admiral Ellian responded. “Then we would lose Cria, Varanni Prime and, most likely, the entire war.”

“It is risky,” Maleck agreed, “but it would mean we would not have to abandon one of our homeworlds.” From his tone it was clear which world he suspected the Varanni dominated High Command would decide to abandon.

“It’s too risky,” Ya’sia said as she turned to her Flag Captain. “We are already fighting at a numerical disadvantage. We cannot keep our forces split. We must combine them. It is our only chance of pushing back the Karacknids and liberating whatever worlds they capture.” Ya’sia held Maleck’s gaze until he slowly nodded to acknowledge her words. “At the moment, our only advantage is that we are the defenders. That means we have orbital battlestations and defense satellites that can bolster our numbers. Another fleet on fleet battle in open space will only play into the Karacknids’ hands. They have the numbers to replace the losses, we do not.”

“So you approve of our proposed strategy?” Jourm asked Ya’sia.

Ever so slightly, Ya’sia nodded. “This is a war for the freedom of all our species, not just my own. I alone am responsible for the fate that will befall my homeworld.”

Becket wanted to reach out and shake Ya’sia. At the same time she had to fight back tears, the sense of loss filling the Crian Admiral’s words was too much. It wasn’t her fault, not in the slightest. And yet Becket understood the feeling of responsibility. She still felt responsible for what had happened to Earth, as she knew every naval officer who had fought in the battle did.

“What is it?” Jourm asked in an irritated tone that made Becket look away from Ya’sia. A Varanni officer had opened one of the doors into the briefing room and poked her head through.

“I’m sorry Admiral, but we have just received an FTL communication,” the officer explained.

“Unless the Kulreans have suddenly changed their minds and are sending a battle fleet to our aid, I believe it can wait Lieutenant,” Jourm replied.

“My apologies Admiral, I should have been clearer. The tachyon particle stream did not come from Kulrea, it came from the Sol system,” the officer replied.

At once, every face in the briefing room turned to stare at Becket. She knew the question they were all thinking. “I do not understand,” she said as she raised her arms. “There was no FTL communicator under construction when I left, nor were there any plans to build one. I don’t see how we could have possibly gathered the resources given what happened to Earth.”

Jourm was the first to turn back to the Lieutenant. “Well, maybe the mystery can explain itself. What is the message?”

With a nod, the Lieutenant walked into the briefing room and altered the image on the holo- projector. Becket couldn’t help but smile when Admiral Somerville appeared in front of them. Standing beside him was a Kulrean, she thought it was superintendent Hallock, but she hadn’t encountered enough Kulreans to be confident in her guess.

“On behalf of Earth and my species, I would like to bring you greetings,” James said as he bowed.

“So would I,” the Kulrean said. “You will be pleased to learn that I was sent to Earth to bring aid and help them construct their own tachyon FTL communicator. My species will not participate in this war of yours, but we do not wish to see our friends attacked either. We hope giving Earth and Varanni Prime the ability to communicate with one another will prevent another Karacknid attack on Humanity’s homeworld.”

“Included in this first transmission is a report on what has transpired since I dispatched Commodore Becket to you,” James said. “Hopefully, the information will allow you to assess what further aid and military support you may be able to send our way. We look forward to hearing back from you.” After another bow James’ image disappeared.

For several seconds no one spoke as they all processed the new information. Admiral Dur’ack was the first to speak. “It is very generous of the Kulreans to do this for the Humans. However I fear they will not take much comfort from the first message we will have to send them. We do not have enough ships and supplies for ourselves, let alone any to spare for them. All our fates are tied together, and I fear Earth is now at just as much risk as Cria or Varanni Prime. If the Karacknids think they are in the ascendancy they could dispatch a fleet to finish what they started at Earth at any time.”

Several Admirals nodded or made other gestures of agreement. Though there had been a ripple of excitement in response to the revelation of the new FTL communicator, it quickly faded when everyone realized it did not change the strategic situation.

“Wait,” Becket said as she stood, refusing to give into the mood in the room. Whilst others had been staring, she had accessed the report James had sent through. A brief scan had told her about the predicament Lightfoot’s fleet was in, but it also highlighted the information the Varanni scouts had collected at Holstein. “May I?” she asked as she gestured towards the holo projector. She stepped forward when Jourm signaled to give her permission. With a couple of taps she reverted the image back to the strategic map. Then she zoomed out to include Humanity’s territory. “The Karacknid fleet is here,” she said, pointing out the obvious as she gestured towards Kalesh. “They are on the verge of advancing into the heart of Alliance space. But look at how far their supply line now extends from Jaranna.” With a wave of her hand she took in the twenty-three systems that supplies, munitions and reinforcements would have to travel through to move from Jaranna to Kalesh. “The Karacknid fleets have already fought five powerful probing attacks and two outright battles. With all the moving and fighting they have to be using up missiles and fuel at extraordinarily high rates. What if we threatened Jaranna? There might be a chance we could force the Karacknids to pull back.”

“Attack Jaranna? It would take months for us to assemble a fleet and send it there. And we would have to sneak through the Karacknids’ defensive lines,” Ellian responded.

“It would take us months,” Becket agreed, “but not a force sent from Earth. If they left today, they could make it there in eight weeks.”

“There’s no way your people could have the forces to launch such a campaign,” Jourm said, “Could they?” he asked as a small sliver of hope filled his voice.

“Honestly, I do not know,” Becket answered. “I do not know how the repair and overhaul of what ships survived the Battle of Earth is going. But with Commodore Flew’s squadron there it may be a possibility. We can at least ask. If the fate of Cria hangs in the balance, I know my people will do whatever they can to help.”

“It would give us a chance,” Ya’sia said with a strength she hadn’t shown throughout the debriefing. “The Karacknids are far from Jaranna. We know it is their main supply depot. And, if we know it’s going to be hit, we could make matters worse for them. We could combine what ships we have here and at Cria and launch multiple probes against Kalesh. We would not have to fight, only skirmish with the Karacknids. Force them to use more missiles and fuel.”

“We could even carry out a more general counteroffensive,” Jourm said. “If we raid their border systems and force what garrisons they have left there to chase and engage us, we would make the situation even worse.” He nodded. “It’s a possibility. We certainly need to ask. Of course, it may be a moot point if the Karacknids strike before we are ready. But it gives us a chance. There is still hope.”

Becket allowed herself to smile at the look on Jorum’s face. It could all come to nothing, but she was pleased she had ignited a fire in the leadership of the Alliance fleet. It was still very likely that Cria would fall and that the war would be lost. But it was not over yet. There was hope.




Chapter 28

The Coronation of a new Emperor or Empress is always a momentous event in the calendar of the Empire. For weeks surrounding it, almost everything on Earth is brought to a standstill. Representatives from every colonial world are invited; the entirety of the three houses of government are present and more military officers than can be counted provide a guard of honor. On behalf of our entire race, all swear allegiance to the new Sovereign. Parties and feasting occurs on every Imperial world. Though some in our day continue to campaign for a republic, most understand what the Emperors have done for our species over the last six centuries.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Badminton House, Beaufort Estate, England, 18th February 2482 AD.

“It’s time,” Andréa said as she poked her head into James’ office.

When James looked up at her he couldn’t miss her grin. It made him grimace. “I look ridiculous,” he complained.

Andréa shook her head. “Not ridiculous, distinguished. Everyone will be able to see you, even from afar.”

“That’s not normally something I count as a good thing,” James countered.

“Well, after today that’s going to have to change isn’t it? A man of your position is meant to be seen, not just heard.”

“At least it’s only temporary,” James replied. “A necessary evil.” Andréa nodded knowingly. She had heard the same phrase from him several times. “All right let’s be about it,” he sighed. Standing, he glanced at himself in the mirror again and shook his head. He just about tolerated wearing his dress uniform. He thought it too flamboyant. What he had on now was downright comical in comparison. The design dated back a full six hundred years. Though it was a navy tradition, it was not one he appreciated.

“Just think of all those who have been similarly dressed,” Andréa said as James continued to stare in the mirror. “You’re in good company.”

James turned to her and smiled. “You’ve always been a glass half-full kind of person. Think of all the bad company I’m about to join.”

Andréa waved a hand over her shoulder. “That’s irrelevant. You know you are not them.”

“I’m sure they didn’t think they were like that either,” James rebuffed.

“Well, whatever the truth of it. I have complete confidence in you Admiral. You will make a fine King. Now, enough dillydallying about, your ride awaits.”

“Is that how a loyal subject is meant to address their Sovereign?” James asked as he turned away from the mirror and marched past Andréa.

“A sovereign that needs a kick up the backside to get to their own coronation? Yes, as a matter of fact, that’s exactly how are your loyal subjects should talk.”

James looked down at her as she fell in step beside him. “You know as King I will have a few more powers than I do now. How would you like to find yourself banished? Or worse, put in charge of restoring the monarchy’s financial records?”

Andréa’s eyes widened and she feigned terror. “No Sire, anything but that.” With the destruction of Buckingham Palace and so many other parts of London, it was almost impossible to know the specifics of what and where the British Crown had holdings and interests. Many documents and contracts that were hundreds of years old had never been digitized.

James chuckled, “Just be thankful I’m only doing this so I can nominate and support our new Emperor.”

“You say that now,” Andréa replied with a wink. “But once you get a taste for power, who knows…?”

“What is that?” James asked, distracted from coming up with a smart quip when he caught sight of the shuttle that had landed outside his ancestral home.

“I believe that is your coronation shuttle,” Andréa answered as her eyes twinkled in delight. Though James suspected it was a standard British shuttle, it was hard to be sure at first glance. The entire shuttle had been painted red and blue with gold livery. There were also lions, eagles and dragons painted around it. Like his uniform, he thought it needlessly comical. “Wait till you see your actual carriage,” Andréa warned him.

“He hasn’t, has he?” James didn’t need to hear Andréa’s answer, he saw it on her face. He groaned. He had known that putting Fairfax in charge of organizing the coronation would come back to bite him but he had done it anyway. Fairfax had insisted and he had had too many other things on his mind to bother arguing. Now he regretted it. He hated pomp and ceremony. So why are you letting them make you King? he asked himself for the umpteenth time. Just grin and bear it, he whispered. Just grin and bear it. It’s only one day.

Moving ahead of him, Andréa opened one of Badminton House’s rear doors. She then stepped aside to let James precede her. He rolled his eyes at her and moved past anyway. When he got to the shuttle, he wasn’t in the least surprised to see both pilots were in full dress uniform and that six marines suddenly appeared to provide a royal guard. Stopping to salute them, he then went in and took his seat. Andréa slipped in beside him and the shuttle took off.

Five minutes later a large wave of tents that stretched for as far as the eye could see came into view. Though they represented the loss and devastation that had overcome his country, James still smiled at the sight of them. They represented his one victory of the day. Fairfax had wanted his coronation to take place in Winchester or Lincoln Abbey. With London destroyed, the usual landmarks that played their roles in the coordination of British monarchs were no more. Both Abbeys had witnessed the coronation of one British monarch in the past and they had some historical precedent. James had refused. If he was going to be crowned King of the British Star Kingdom, he wanted to be crowned among his people. The refugees from London, Manchester and Edinburgh would witness his coronation procession.

“There it is,” Andréa pointed when a clearing in the tents came into view. A horse-drawn carriage with six large white Windsor Greys sat stationary, waiting for its occupant to arrive. “That’s not the original is it?” James asked. He hadn’t thought to check, he had just assumed it had been destroyed.

Andréa shook her head. “Not as far as I know. Though Fairfax had it built to the exact measurements. Even the gold leaf is real.”

In formation behind the carriage were a number of naval officers in the ancient uniform of the British Navy similar to what James wore. A nice touch, he thought. It was customary for a monarch who served in a branch of the military to wear the uniform on the day of their coronation. It seemed his carriage was going to get an honor guard of British officers as well.

When the shuttle touched down and he stepped off, a large orchestral band he hadn’t noticed suddenly struck up the national anthem. Though the music startled him, James couldn’t help but smile when he saw the faces of the officers behind his carriage. Scott and many other British officers who he had served with over the years were all there. Some had just been junior lieutenants with him for a short time, others he knew very well. Even Gupta was there. Fairfax must have asked her to come back from the Beta system just for the occasion. Stopping before the carriage, he offered them a salute. They all returned the gesture, smiling. James couldn’t help but think of all those who were not there. He would have loved to have seen his uncle there, or his two mentors, Admiral Jensen and Cunningham, or Romanov or Mallory. Other names and faces fluttered through his mind as he turned to his carriage. Over the years he had lost many friends and comrades. And now it is my duty to see that their sacrifices are not wasted, James told himself as the significance of what he was about to do truly dawned on him. With a final nod to Gupta and Scott, he stepped up into the carriage. Andréa quickly got in beside him.

At least Emilie and Becket are only missing because I sent them away, James told himself. He still had not heard any follow-up reports from Emilie, but he was expecting a message from Commodore Becket. Just yesterday the first FTL COM message had been sent to Varanni Prime. The Kulreans had built their tachyon array far quicker than even they had expected. A reply was expected within the next ten hours. As soon as the carriage began to move, cheers erupted in the distance. James forgot about Becket as he looked at Andréa in surprise.

His Chief of Staff rolled her eyes. “Oh come on. What were you expecting? These are the people you saved from London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Did you think they were just going to let you go by in silence?”

James couldn’t help but lean out the carriage window and look down the twisting road through the tents. Here and there refugees were waving at him, but in the distance the number of people lining the carriage’s route seemed much thicker. As the carriage drew closer, the noise only increased and soon James found himself looking out at groups of people four and five deep as the carriage passed.

“I think this is where you wave to your admiring people,” Andréa prompted. “I think it goes something like this,” she added as she held up a hand and twisted her wrist round and round.

I’m not a pansy, James thought as he screwed up his forehead watching Andréa’s wave. Leaning out his carriage window again, James pulled off his hat and waved it back and forth instead. His actions brought an immediate increase in the cheering from those nearest him. Smiling at them, he continued for several seconds and then sat back down in the carriage.

“You know they’ll not be happy with just one wave,” Andréa said as she tilted her head downwards while still staring at him.

James sighed. For the next ten minutes he did as he was told and periodically leant out to smile and wave at the crowds. By the time the carriage came to a halt in front of the large tent Fairfax had set up, the crowds were fifteen and twenty people deep. From the attire many of them were in, James suspected they weren’t refugees but had travelled to the camp for the coronation.

Stepping off the carriage, James found Fairfax standing waiting for him. The former British Prime Minister bowed deeply from his waist as James approached. His action brought more cheers from the surrounding crowds. “Where did you find this thing?” James asked as he stared up at the tent. Perhaps tent was a little unfair, he thought, pavilion or marquee was probably a better description. It was easily three stories high and had six large wooden poles poking through its roof holding the superstructure up.

Fairfax winked at him as he straightened. “You’d be surprised at what you can find when you’re trying to put together a coronation. Would you believe it was rented to us for free? The publicity was payment enough. Think of how many people will want to hire out the marquee the King of the British Star Kingdom was crowned in. But… Enough of that, everyone is waiting,” Fairfax said as he turned and gestured towards the pavilion’s entrance. It was lined by two ranks of British marines, their plasma rifles held pointed outwards at the ready.

Taking a deep breath, James nodded to Fairfax and walked through the honor guard. As he passed each marine, they snapped their rifle against their shoulder and held a salute. Before crossing the threshold of the pavilion, James turned and saluted the marines. It brought another rambunctious cheer from the crowd. Then he spun and entered the pavilion. On either side of the central walkway, there were at least fifty rows of seats. Each row looked to be fifteen or so seats long. It was immediately clear that he had entered a different social class from the crowds outside. The men were all in uniform or wore finely tailored suits and tuxedos. The women on the other hand were far more brightly decorated. Just looking at the headdresses alone made James feel like he was visiting a tropical garden. Every color of the rainbow shone brightly from amongst the crowd. Crossing the threshold made another orchestral band begin playing the theme of the national anthem. Slowly, in time with the beat, James stepped forward.

As he approached each row of seats, their occupants turned to watch him pass. James allowed himself a few glances but for the most part he stared straight ahead. He needed to keep his mind on what he had come to do. Ahead of him, the Archbishop of Canterbury stood waiting. When James locked eyes with him. He felt a flood in his stomach. He had been nervous for the past few days, but now, when the moment was before him, his stomach started to do somersaults. It took all his effort to keep his body rigid and face straight. He might feel like a nervous wreck on the inside, but he didn’t want anyone else to see.

When he got to the position marked with a small X just in front of the Archbishop, James stopped and turned to face the gathered audience. His eyes were immediately drawn to the front row where the members of the Emergency Council sat. Christine smiled and winked at him. Koroylov merely nodded while Senator Nicholls and most of the others made one gesture or another to great him. Only Bernard showed no positive emotion. James wasn’t surprised, when he had made it known he intended to press his claim to the crown, Bernard had lost it. Of course, James had understood his reaction and expected it. Having the Chairman of the Emergency Council also be the King of the British Star Kingdom put far too much power in his hands. Bernard hadn’t been the only one who had been uncomfortable with the revelation. Luckily, James had appeased them by offering to recuse himself from all future votes of the Council. As chairman, he would no longer have the deciding vote in a tie. The council had already begun to look for someone to replace him. Even so, James knew Bernard was not happy. Well, he’ll just have to live with it, James thought as his eyes passed over Bernard to take in more of the audience. There was nothing he could do to prevent it now.

“It is time,” the Archbishop of Canterbury whispered from behind James. Seconds later, the orchestra ceased. Taking another deep breath, James kneeled before the audience. From behind him the Archbishop approached and placed a large, thick velvety red cloak around his shoulders and then attached it in place by linking the two ends of the golden chain around James’ neck.

“Who has come here today seeking to lift the crown of the British Star Kingdom?” the Archbishop’s voice boomed throughout the marquee.

“I do,” James responded as he tried his best to project his voice. “James Somerville, Duke of Beaufort, Admiral of the Red, closest living heir to King William VI.”

“Your claim is found worthy,” the Archbishop responded. “With what oath do you presume to ascend to this highest of thrones?”

As he opened his mouth, the somersaults in James’ stomach went into overdrive. The oath sworn by every new monarch had been the same for three hundred years. He had been memorizing it for days, but the pressure of the situation almost had his mind drawing a blank. Hesitantly at first, he began.

“I, James Somerville, Duke of Beaufort, Admiral of the Red, do solemnly swear to defend the honor and glory of the British Star Kingdom; I will uphold its constitution and values; I will champion its goals and aspirations; and I will guard its people with my life and death. I commit myself to the service of the British people… and,” James continued as he added to the historical oath, “I will pursue the freedom of the entire Human race. I will not cease until the Karacknid Empire has been destroyed. I will avenge all those who the Karacknids have taken from us. This I swear as the King of the British Star Kingdom and a servant to our species.”

When he finished, James looked up at the audience to see that silence had descended upon them. Many were staring, some even had their mouths open. Clearing his throat, James glanced at the Archbishop. With a nod the Archbishop shook himself, turned to one of his aides and lifted the British crown off the red pillow it rested on.

“With this emblem of our monarchy I now crown you King James VII, King of the British Star Kingdom and all its colonies and territories.” Stepping forward to James’s side the Archbishop held out a large golden scepter which James took into his right hand. “With this scepter I bestow upon you all the authority and responsibilities of King. Arise King James VII.”

As James made to rise, his knees wobbled slightly before straightening. The weight of the crown and scepter caught him off guard. The Archbishop’s voice booming in his ear startled him. “Long live the king!”

“Long live the King,” came back the reply from the audience.

“Long live the King!” the Archbishop repeated a second and then a third time as he led the audience in the chant, the volume in the pavilion rising each time.

Looking out, James saw that many appeared to be heartily repeating the words, others, like Bernard barely moved their lips as they spoke, if they were even saying anything at all. James didn’t care, not about those who seemed overjoyed, nor those who were unhappy. His focus was on the sudden weight of responsibility he felt. Compared to it, the crown felt as light as a feather. Everyone in the pavilion, and everyone outside, was looking to him to lead them. He had meant every word of the oath he had sworn. He intended to protect the British people yes, but not just them. All of Humanity would fall under his care. Nothing was going to stop him from seeking revenge for what had been done to his homeworld.

When the chanting stopped, the orchestra began to play again. James knew it was his cue to turn and ascend the throne. It was a replica of the one that had been destroyed in Buckingham Palace. Still, as he stepped past the Archbishop and got a proper look at it for the first time, he suspected he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the two. Being careful not to trip over his cloak, he stepped up to the throne, turned and then sat in it. He was immediately greeted by cheers from the audience. Their cheers were heard and picked up by those outside the pavilion. Within seconds the orchestra was drowned out by the cheers of the crowds. Knowing that something special was happening, James did his best to take it all in. He knew the scene was one he would want to remember. There would be many dark days ahead so for the briefest of moments he allowed himself to enjoy what was happening. If only you could see me now Suzanna, he thought. He wished she was sitting beside him. As a Havenite she would have hated all the pomp and ceremony. Yet he had no doubt she would have pushed him towards staking his claim on the throne. The thought brought a smile to his face. More than likely, she would have been even worse than Fairfax about the whole thing. Well my dear, I’m here now. And though I have to do it alone, you will always be with me.




Chapter 29

Though many are envious of the life of the princes and princesses born to our Emperors, it largely comes from ignorance. Imagine the weight of responsibility for every one of the trillions of lives within the Empire on your shoulders from the moment of your birth. Every Imperial child is born to serve. Whilst only one sibling will ascend to the throne, the others must give their lives for the Empire all the same. I have known one royal who served alongside me within the fleet. Though I too was suspicious, in time they earned my respect and more importantly, my loyalty. The tradition of our royalty serving in the Imperial Fleet goes back to the founding. It has served us well.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Surreal was the only word James could come up with to describe how he was feeling. Just three hours after his coronation, he was back at Badminton House mingling with those Fairfax had deemed important enough to invite to the reception. His crown, scepter and royal cloak had all been left in the carriage to be removed for safekeeping. Now he was once again only dressed in his traditional naval dress uniform. The only outward difference to his appearance were the two small golden lions attached to his shoulders beside his rank insignia. They identified him as a royal serving in the Navy. Almost, it was as if he hadn’t left Badminton House at all. As if nothing had changed. The last three hours felt more like a dream than a reality. Except, everything had changed. It was obvious in the way people around him stared. In the way they showed him a deference he had never experienced before. As a Lord in the British Star Kingdom, he had held some authority in the eyes of British society. As an Admiral in the Royal Space Navy he had held the respect of his peers. Yet what he was experiencing now was something far more.

The British citizens attending the reception were all treading extremely carefully around him in both their physical and verbal interactions. James found himself feeling a sense of isolation. A gap had appeared between him and those who saw him as their King. Even those who he did not rule over were showing him a measure of respect he was not used to. Many foreign dignitaries he had interacted with a number of times over the last few months as Chairman of the Emergency Committee had come to congratulate him. He had detected a noticeable difference in their friendliness. At least, in their apparent friendliness.

Almost, James thought as he allowed a small smile to play across his lips, he would be sad to have to give it all up. For the first hour of the reception he had struggled to figure out where the new attitudes were coming from, then it had hit him. He had real power now, and it was a power that could not be curtailed or simply ignored. As an Admiral he could have been silenced, or events manipulated to get him out of the picture. Even as Chairman of the Emergency Council, he could have been outvoted or removed. Yet as King, he was no longer someone to be discounted or overlooked. Yes, his power was limited by the British constitution, but where he did have power, it was absolute. Suddenly, everyone who wanted to deal with him felt they had to give him a great deal more respect. They needed to gain his favor, they could no longer just manipulate him with political games to win whatever they were aiming for. Of course, he knew from experience they were still likely to try.

Now we are about to see just how far this newfound respect stretches, James said to himself as he saw Councilor Bernard approaching. “Your Grace,” Bernard said as he tilted his head barely more than a centimeter. The gesture made James smile. Clearly his new position didn’t impress Bernard too much.

“Councilor,” James replied as he returned the gesture. “I’m glad you were able to attend the ceremony and the reception today. Though I’ll be just as glad when it’s all over and we can get back to work. There is still much to do.”

“Indeed there is,” Bernard agreed. “I’m sure settling in as King and acclimatizing yourself to your new duties will take a great deal of your time. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. We should make finding your replacement as Chairman of the Emergency Committee our first priority.” Bernard held up his hands in a defensive gesture as he continued. “I know you told us you intend to continue to fulfil your responsibilities for a short period, but perhaps the realities of being King are starting to dawn on you now, are they not? You will need to sort out an official residence, hire a plethora of staffers and start to get on top of all the duties of our monarch. I do not envy you the task.”

“I’m sure you do not,” James replied as he struggled to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “But as I said to the Council, I do not intend to rush handing in my resignation. We should think carefully about who will replace me. It may take a couple of months or more to ensure a smooth transition occurs. The work we are doing is too important. As much as I know I will have a new sphere of responsibilities as King, my work as Chairman will not play second fiddle.”

“It is precisely because of the importance of the position of Chairman that I feel I must speak with you about this once again,” Bernard pushed. “You are the King of the British Star Kingdom now. You may feel your responsibilities to the British people and to Earth in general are of equal importance. But how many of the other Councilors will feel the same?” Bernard paused for a moment to let James think. He then continued as he touched his chest. “I for one have no problem with my King holding the position of Chairman. It can only be a good thing for the British Star Kingdom. But others will not see it so. The longer you remain Chairman, the more damage it may cause to the Council.”

James took a breath to steady himself. Bernard was either trying to ruin his day by intentionally starting a fight, or he was genuinely concerned. Though he suspected it was the former, James chose to believe it was the latter. That was the only way he could keep his temper. “I understand your concern Councilor. Yet every member of the Council knew where my loyalties lay when they elected me Chairman. I was already a British citizen, Admiral and leader in the rescue efforts after the Karacknid attack. That did not discourage them from appointing me Chairman.”

“On the contrary,” Bernard replied as he waved a finger James. “I am not forgetting anything. I think you are forgetting what it was like a few months ago. After the Karacknid attack, we needed someone to fill the job. You were the most apolitical among us. That was why so many readily accepted you.” Bernard waved his hands to take in all those at the reception. “That has changed. The Council members don’t see it right now. But they will in a week or a month. You must move to replace yourself. Simply giving up your voting rights will not be enough.”

Instead of replying, James glared at Bernard. If the Councilor had lowered his wagging finger, James could have kept telling himself he was acting out of concern. However, in front of everyone his finger was still pointed directly between James’ eyes. More than a handful of those nearby had stopped their conversations to look. Slowly, James counted to ten, all the while he stared unblinkingly at Bernard. It wasn’t till he got to seven that the Councilor began to lower his hand. When it was finally at his side James gave him a sharp nod. “I will consider what you have to say Councilor,” he said loud enough for those nearby to hear. Without waiting for a reply, he turned his back on Bernard and walked through the crowd. He didn’t trust himself to add anything more. He only stopped walking when he found a table with refreshments upon it. Taking a glass of the strongest drink available, he downed it in one sip. Closing his eyes for several seconds, he tried to relax and ease the tension from his shoulders. There was a lot of truth to what Bernard was saying. But it wasn’t what the Councilor had said that had angered him so, it was how he had said it, and where.

“I see you just had a friendly conversation with our friend the Councilor, what was he asking you about?” Fairfax asked as he stepped beside James and reached for a glass.

James turned to Fairfax and sighed, “A number of things, where I will set up my official residence, if I’m going to resign as Chairman tomorrow or not. You can imagine where his mind is.”

Fairfax rolled his eyes, “That man never changes. He is going to be a problem. Especially when we put the next stage of our plan in motion.”

“I thought you had a plan to deal with him?” James said as his eyebrows rose.

“I hope I do, we shall see,” Fairfax replied.

James didn’t like the sound of that one bit, but he didn’t get to follow up on it as another voice joined the conversation. “Did I hear something about an official residence?” Christine asked as she stepped up beside the refreshment table.

“You did, but I haven’t really given it much thought,” James answered as he turned to her. “Perhaps Badminton House would serve well enough. That would make things easier.” James rolled his eyes when he saw the look in Christine’s face. “I take it you have a thought or two about the issue?”

“Well… “Christine replied as a small smile spread across her lips. “I am a former British Princess. I do have some experience with the official residences. Perhaps you should look into Sandringham House. I recall my father having an auxiliary command and control bunker installed when I was young. I imagine it might meet the needs of your growing staffers. Plus, I remember the caretaker well. Clarence Witherington if I recall. He was always a stickler for ceremony, but behind closed doors he was nice to me. You need someone to keep you right when it comes to who bows to whom and just how long each citizen is meant to kiss your royal ring. Which, by the way, I see you have not put on yet.” Christine then raised a finger and waggled it in James’ face, mimicking Bernard. “Tut tut your Highness. If you don’t act like a King, others will not treat you like one.”

“And by others do you include yourself in this?” James asked as he raised his eyebrows. “If I wear the proper regalia will you show me more respect?”

The smile on Christine’s face broke into a wide grin. “You’re forgetting your Highness, I am no longer a British citizen. You are no more my King than I am your Empress.”

James couldn’t help but return her smile. “That is a relief I suppose. I wouldn’t want to be at your beck and call.” Christine feigned a look of hurt and then made as if she was going to punch him in the shoulder. James winked and took a half step back out of range.

“If you are quite done,” Fairfax said as he pushed his way between them and turned to James, “I did have a serious question for you. Your oath, it wasn’t quite in line with tradition?”

“No,” James said as his face turned serious again. “It wasn’t.”

“The bit about seeking revenge, that, I understand. It was actually a good addition,” Fairfax replied. “Many in the pavilion were likely uncomfortable, but the ceremony was broadcast all around the planet. Revenge is exactly what is on the people’s mind. There was something else you added as well though, what was it… Something about protecting all of Humanity?”

“Aye,” James said as he nodded. “I thought it appropriate.” He then paused and glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot. “Given the other things we have been discussing. I could hardly swear to uphold the British constitution and nothing else. Not considering the other constitution we have in mind.”

Fairfax smiled. “I thought as much. You are getting sneakier your Highness. Let’s just hope no one else starts putting two and two together.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Christine said as she placed a hand on Fairfax’s shoulder. “He is the Chairman of the Emergency Council after all. It makes perfect sense that his mind is on his responsibilities to all of our species. For now at least, I think our main concern is how quickly Bernard is going to make a move to oust him.”

“Ah, finally,” James said as he looked over Fairfax and Christine. Gupta and Scott were approaching. He had already had his fill of political talk for one day. “I can actually have some normal conversations. Please, tell me you two are not going to start bowing and agreeing with everything I say?” When his joke didn’t get the desired response, James felt his pulse quicken. Gupta and Scott both had the same serious look on their face. “What is it?” he asked.

“We received our first reply from Varanni Prime,” Gupta said as she handed over a datapad. “This was just transmitted from UNS Earth.”

James shared a glance with Christine and Fairfax as he took the datapad and looked down at it. In short direct sentences, Commodore Becket explained what she had been up to. The supply convoy from Varanni Prime had arrived several weeks ago so James knew she had gone with Ya’sia. Within the space of a few paragraphs Becket outlined the Karacknid probing attacks and their main thrust against Delta Fort. Then she recounted the retreat to Kalesh and subsequent defeat there. What followed was a very bleak description of the strategic situation. James wasn’t intimately familiar with the Alliances’ territory, but he knew it was not good. Several significant worlds were under direct threat along with Cria and Varanni Prime. Finally, Becket proposed the only way she could see the Alliance being able to save their worlds. James closed his eyes after reading it. She had to know what she was asking, yet she had asked anyway. “Is it possible?” he asked when he opened his eyes and looked to Gupta. Suddenly he was very glad she had come back for his coronation.

“The first stages, yes, perhaps. You’ve been keeping up with our simulations. In another week, preferably two, relieving Lightfoot may very well be doable. But everything she’s asking?” Gupta simply shrugged.

“We have to try,” James insisted. “We have to. We cannot let what happened here happen again. If this Karacknid battle fleet continues its advance, the war will be lost.” As he spoke, James handed the datapad to Fairfax. His mind went to the Emergency Council. One by one he ticked off how he imagined each member would vote. It would be a tie at best. Perhaps we could convince one or two to swing our way, James told himself. The stakes could not be any higher. He shook his head at his own naïveté. If we try to take Becket’s request to the Emergency Council it will likely fail. Even if he could pass it, it would probably take weeks to bring enough council members around. And there is no time for delay. “How many of us are here?” James asked as he looked to Fairfax.

“Us? You mean…” Fairfax responded.

James nodded.

Fairfax looked around the large reception room. “The majority I’d guess. What are you thinking?...” Before he answered, James looked around to see who was nearby once again. Clearly his action gave away his answer. “You don’t mean?... You do!” Fairfax responded. “You’re the one who has been pushing for delay after delay.”

“Things have changed,” James replied as he returned his gaze to Fairfax. “This is the only way I can see us getting the forces together in time. It is now or never. Gather everyone upstairs. Including Senator Nicholls. We’ll slip away one at a time. But we need to talk now, tonight.”

“Nicholls?” Fairfax asked. He shrugged before James answered. “All right, I hope you know what you’re doing.” He looked to Christine and nodded at her. “We’ll pass the word. Make sure you are the last to leave, otherwise people might get suspicious.”

James bit back a sigh. The last thing he wanted to do now was carry on more meaningless conversations with well-wishers. Yet he knew he needed to. “Go and see to your forces,” he said as he touched Gupta’s elbow. Do it quietly but start getting them ready. Scott, if you would, can you join us upstairs?”

“Of course Admiral,” Scott replied.

James smiled at her. At least she wasn’t calling him your Highness. It was a small thing, but it meant a lot to him. He was still her Admiral. And that is what I am, he said to himself as he imagined what was to come in the next few days. One way or another, he was going to answer the Alliance’s request for help. He had to. He had sworn an oath to protect Humanity at all costs.




Chapter 30

Even to this day the names of all the co-conspirators are not known to us. They have been lost to history.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


“Thank you for coming,” James said as he slipped into one of Badminton House’s upstairs drawing rooms half an hour later. He briefly surveyed the room to see who was there. Along with Christine, Scott and Fairfax, President Koroylov, Andréa, Senator Nicholls and Admiral Russell, who had been recently appointed to head up what remained of the fleet’s intelligence division, were all present. “You all know each other well. With the exception of Senator Nicholls, you are all intimately familiar with what we’re about to discuss. I’ve had a couple of conversations with the Senator over the last month. So she is not completely in the dark. Thank you for coming Senator,” James said as he nodded to her. “I know you have not made any commitment to what we talked about one way or another, but we cannot wait any longer. After you hear what Commander Scott is about to share, we must make a decision. If you would Commander?” James finished as he nodded to Scott.

“As you all know,” Scott began, “we sent the first FTL transmission to Varanni Prime late yesterday evening. Less than an hour ago, we received a reply…” As Scott explained exactly what had happened, James watched the faces of those in the group, particularly Senator Nicholls. There was a sense in which Fairfax’s constitution simply sought to extend the constitution of United Colonial states to every Human colony. There were one or two key differences, but, overall, there was a lot of similarity. Yet agreeing to it would greatly reduce the political power of what remained of the American parties, not to mention the individual power each American colony had. They would be one colony in more than a hundred, rather than just twenty. But we have no other choice, James thought, she has to see that.

“So…” James said when Scott finished her explanation. “The situation is dire. Yet there is a glimmer of hope. What Becket has asked us to do may be impossible. But we have to try. The war could turn on our success or failure. And…” James added as he caught Nicholls’ eye, “time is of the essence. I do not believe the Emergency Council will agree to dispatching all of our forces. And even if they could be convinced, it may take weeks to bring them around. If we are to respond to this imminent threat, Humanity must do so as one. One people, under one constitution, working towards one goal. Admiral Gupta needs one week, perhaps two to get her forces ready. Before then I believe we need to form our Empire. This fleet must be sent out to war by our Emperor. We must dispatch all the warships we have. There can be no dissention within the navy. Not now. If the council is split, some nations may refuse to send their ships. That is a risk we cannot allow.”

James had to stop himself from rolling his eyes when he looked to Fairfax, despite the gravity of the situation, the former Prime Minister was giddy with excitement. Andréa and Scott were both nodding while Koroylov looked deep in thought. “I believe you are right,” Christine said, James wasn’t surprised she was the first to speak. “If we do not try to aid the Alliance forces now, we may never get the opportunity to do so again. We cannot take the risk that the Emergency Council will obstruct us from doing what needs to be done. It was formed to serve our people, it’s time has now come to an end.”

“The suddenness of this will be more of a shock to my people than I would have liked,” Koroylov said. “We imagined we would still have months to lay the groundwork.” He paused for a moment and then nodded. “But this is what must be done.”

“So,” James said as he looked to Nicholls. “Britain, China and Russia are willing to form this Empire and adopt the constitution you have seen. Where does the United Colonial States stand?”

Nicholls shook her head. “This is too much for one person to decide. I cannot speak on behalf of my people. We are a republic. You are asking us to accept what amounts to a constitutional monarchy. Our country was born out of rebellion against such a system.”

“For centuries your presidents have gathered more and more power into the executive branch,” Christine countered. “This constitution gives no more authority to the Emperor than your constitution does to your president. In fact, in certain areas, the Emperor will have less authority. It will be the Senate, Representatives and Servants who wield the legislative power. For the sake of unity, could your people not entertain such a change? It will be no small change for my own nation.”

“And for mine,” Koroylov added.

“I don’t know,” Nicholls said as she shook her head again. “I understand why you want to do it now, I see what needs to be done with our fleet. But this constitution? I don’t know.”

“No one is asking you to know for sure,” Fairfax said in a far gentler tone than James was used to hearing. “You’re right, this is not a decision for one person. Your people deserve the right to decide for themselves. But that is what we wish to offer them. Has James spoken about how he insists this constitution be adopted?”

“Yes, we discussed it briefly,” Nicholls replied.

“All we are asking you to commit to is holding a vote on Earth. This is Tuesday, we can schedule the vote in each of our nations for Saturday. What we’re asking tonight is will you stand with us? Each of us are prepared to go before our people and support this constitution and our need to adopt it. Can you at least support the need for your people to consider it democratically? Surely that is the best approach.  It should not be up to you to decide whether the United Colonial States does or does not adopt this. Only your people can decide.”

“I see the argument you are trying to make,” Nicholls replied. “I understand it. But I am still unsure. I will need time to consider it. I cannot just make this decision in the space of ten minutes.”

“If time is what you need, then we will give you it,” James said quickly. If there was one thing he had learnt over the last several months, it was that pushing people into a corner rarely got the results you wanted. “At least as much as we can. I have my weekly Chairman’s briefing scheduled for tomorrow. With Christine and Koroylov’s agreement, I intend to address our people and explain just what has happened in Alliance space and what our response must be. You may have until then to decide.”

“Thank you,” Nicholls said as she stood. “I will give this decision the thought that it deserves. I’m sure you wish to discuss things further and it would not be appropriate for me to remain. Rest assured, I will keep your confidence.”

“Thank you Senator,” James said as he stood and held out a hand to Nicholls. “I sincerely hope we will have your support tomorrow.”

“We will see,” Nicholls responded.

“Well,” Christine said after the door closed behind Nicholls, “I think that went as well as we could have expected.”

“Should we have let her leave?” Koroylov responded in a very different tone. “If news of this gets out before we are ready, we could all find ourselves in a spot of bother, as you Brits would say.”

“She will not betray us,” James said with as much confidence as he could muster. “I’ve met with her twice before to talk things through. She is more sympathetic than she appeared tonight. At the very least, I think she respects our separate spheres of responsibility. If the three of us wish to suggest this to our people, she will not stand in the way.”

“Okay then,” Fairfax said as he clapped his hands. “We have a lot to plan and so very little time to do it in. Let’s get to work.”

Twice over the next hour and a half James had to slip out of the meeting to show his face at the reception. He moved through the groups of people, stopping here and there to say hello and then returned to the planning session. “We have just come to the issue of who will be nominated as Emperor,” Fairfax said when James returned for the second time. “If you are going to propose this new constitution tomorrow at your briefing, we will have to be agreed on whose name will be going forward.”

Here goes, James thought. “I thought we had already discussed this? Have any of you changed your minds?” Fairfax, Christine and Koroylov all shook their heads. “Then I will address this tomorrow as well. You can leave the specific wording in my hands. I want to speak from the heart.”

Christine’s eyebrows rose in surprise and Fairfax’s grin filled his cheeks. Even Koroylov sat forward in his chair. “So you’ve accepted the suggestion we have made to you?” he asked. “You did not seem very keen on the idea.”

“Commodore Becket’s news has relieved us of the opportunity to debate this in depth,” James replied. “I have thought over the arguments you shared with me before. I have made my decision.”

“Then that takes care of that,” Fairfax said as he slapped his thigh. “I thought it was going to be the most difficult item. Very well, let’s move on. We need to have a plan in place for how we are going to actually hold the votes. We’ll have to get our citizens on Mars and the orbital habitats to vote as well. The Emperor must be the Emperor of the entire system or we’ll start to run into legal and jurisdiction problems from the get-go.”

James nodded and let the conversation continue to flow. Here and there he joined in, but he also watched Christine closely. If anyone was going to catch on to how careful he had been with his words, she was the one. Yet she showed no sign of questioning him. She was too engrossed in everything else. “All right,” James said forty minutes later. “It’s getting late and we have a big day tomorrow. I think we have covered everything. We can meet again before the Emergency Council meeting and then I will address Earth’s populace.”

“You plan to go ahead with the Emergency Council meeting?” Fairfax asked. “Isn’t our entire plan to circumvent them?”

“They still deserve to know what’s about to happen,” James responded. “We are going to want their support sooner or later. At the very least I can let them know what I’m about to do.”

“You will have a revolt on your hands,” Koroylov complained. “Better to let them find out like everyone else. They will oppose us otherwise.”

“Don’t worry about that,” James said with a smile. “I have an idea.”

Koroylov shrugged, “Okay, if you say so.”

“Well, until tomorrow then ladies and gentlemen,” James said as he stood and moved over to Fairfax to shake his hand first. “Scott and Andréa, do you mind waiting behind for a moment?” he asked as his guests left. From the look on Christine’s face James suspected she wanted to stay behind and chat to him as well. “Tomorrow,” he assured her with a smile. “There is something else I need to take care of.”

“Tomorrow then,” Christine replied as she delicately shook his hand and then stepped back and gave him a small courtesy, “your Highness.”

Rather than complain, James let her go and waited until the door to the drawing room closed before he spoke again. “Do you have the latest polling data I asked for?”

“I do,” Andréa replied as she pulled a datapad out of her pocket and handed it to James. “It’s all on here. No one will be able to argue with your choice. So, you still plan to go ahead with it?”

James nodded, “Unless you have any new arguments to persuade me otherwise?”

“Emperor does have a nice ring to it,” Andréa responded. “It’s a step even above King, you’re not growing to like this authority business?” She quickly continued before James could growl at her. “All right then, I suppose Admiral is a better fit anyway.”

“It certainly is,” Scott agreed. “We’re going to need you out there. Now more than ever.”

*

Badminton House, 8 AM

“I appreciate you all agreeing to meet me here,” James said to the gathered members of the Emergency Council. “I’m sure you can imagine I had a late night and this news demanded our immediate attention this morning. Some of you are already aware, but I want Admiral Gupta to bring us all up to speed. Late yesterday we received an FTL reply from Varanni Prime. The news Commodore Becket transmitted to us is not good. Admiral,” James finished as he nodded to Gupta.

After Gupta had finished explaining things, James picked up the sealed envelope in front of him. “You all have one of these sitting in front of you, you may open it now. It contains how I as King of the British Star Kingdom, Empress Na of China, President Koroylov of the Russian Star Federation…” pausing ever so slightly, James levelled his gaze at Nicholls. She gave him a small slight nod that brought a smile to his lips, “and Senator Nicholls of the United Colonial States intend to respond to this new development.” With looks varying from concern to confusion, the council members lifted the envelopes and opened them “I will give the rest of you a few minutes to read over what is before you and then, if any of you wish to join your names to ours, you may do so.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Bernard asked a second later as he threw the printed document onto the conference table. “An Empire!” he shouted. His voice continued to rise. “You intend to declare yourself Emperor of our entire species! You’ve only been king for a day! This is preposterous!”

James held his tongue. He wanted to make it clear to the Emergency Council that he wasn’t acting alone. Christine quickly came to his aid, “If you would calm down Councilor and take the time to read the document, you’ll see that becoming Emperor is not a way to seize power. It is a way to serve our people. We have worked on this constitution for many months. It is designed to take the best of our collective governmental systems and provide something that will allow us to unite in a way our species never has before. James is not seizing power, he is giving his life in service to our peoples.”

“You can twist it whatever way you like,” Bernard spat as he snatched up the constitution again. “But I know what’s going on here.”

“Just read it and then complain if you still wish to do so,” Koroylov growled. “I think we’ve all had enough of your whining for now.”

Bernard’s eyes widened as he swung around to Koroylov. The Russian President had never spoken to him quite like that before. James had to fight back a smile when Bernard saw the threat in Koroylov’s eyes. Without another word, he looked back down at the constitution.

In silence the Committee members read through the proposed constitution. Then, one by one they set it down. “I’m not interested in an argument or a debate,” James said. “The situation has passed that. It is my intention to bring this constitution to the people of Earth today. I’m simply informing you about this out of respect for your positions. If any of you wish to join Empress Na, President Koroylov, Senator Nicholls and myself when we go public, you may. Otherwise, you may wait to have your say in the public sphere when we are done. I do want to make this clear however, the Emperor’s first act in office will be to dispatch our fleet to New Berlin to drive out the Karacknids. Then we will head to Holstein. The news from Varanni Prime demands that we act in this fashion. I will not let anything stand in my way.”

“So if you don’t get what you want, you will take the fleet anyway?” Bernard asked, his disapproval evident in his tone.

“Like I said,” James replied without showing any emotion. “I will not let anything stand in my way.”

“Spoken like a true dictator,” Bernard replied.

“I hope in time we will be able to prove the falsehood of that statement,” James said. “But I understand your fears. I expressed them myself when Christine and Koroylov brought this document to me. That time may come, but I have more important things to do now. So, does anyone wish to join us? We are leaving now.”

“You are leaving?” Soult asked. “Are we not?”

James smiled at the Frenchman’s perceptiveness. “Sergeant,” he called loudly. Through the doors that led into his large office, six British marines stepped in. “I am now the King of the British Star Kingdom, you are visitors at one of my official residences. Sergeant Armstrong will ensure your safety while I address the public. After that you will be free to go.”

“You will hold us prisoner?” Hoffman protested as he jumped to his feet. “Is this how you intend to steal power?”

James shrugged. “It’s a necessary evil. Like I said, in time I hope to win you over. For now, you may enjoy the refreshments I have ordered for you. Now, we are leaving, does anyone wish to follow?”

Bernard turned aside and spat onto the wooden floor. Both Soult and Hoffman vigorously shook their heads. To James’ surprise, Admiral Allende stood. “What you’re proposing is unprecedented, but so too is the Karacknid threat. I will stand with you when you address the public.”

“As will I,” Rear Admiral Nogamoro said as he stood. “Accepting this constitution will bring great upheaval to my nation’s society, but great upheaval has already struck us thanks to the Karacknids’ attack. If the Chinese people will accept this, then so too will the Japanese. At least, I will recommend it to them.”

James bowed deeply to Nogamoro, he was even more surprised by the Japanese leader’s words. “Your support honors us. Whether you choose to pursue the career of Admiral or politician, I’m sure your contribution to this new empire will bring great honor to you and your family.” Nogamoro returned James’s bow and then moved to stand beside Allende. James waited for several more seconds, but no one else spoke. Most would not meet his eyes. “Very well, it goes without saying this is the last meeting of the Emergency Council. Farewell to you all.” Without wasting another thought on them, James turned and led Christine, Koroylov, Nicholls, Allende and Nogamoro out of the meeting. He had much bigger fish to fry now.




Chapter 31

The wonder of modern technology is that we can still go back and watch what was said to the people of Earth during the founding. Not many today are keen to deal with the source material; it does require some expertise in archaic technology. Yet the benefits out weight the time spent learning how to access such material. In all my first year naval history classes I allow my students to hear the speeches that were given. We must know from where we have come it we are to live up the ideals of the Empire.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Badminton House, 10am.

“People of Earth,” James said as he rested his hands on the podium. “I’m speaking to you from my ancestral home. Many of you know that I was crowned King of the British Star Kingdom just yesterday. However, I do not speak to you now as Chairman of the Emergency Committee nor as a King. I speak to you all as a fellow human being, a fellow member of our species.

“Grave news has just reached us. Several months ago I dispatched Commodore Becket to Varanni Prime to request aid in our time of need. That aid arrived several weeks ago. I know we all rejoiced. Commodore Becket remained behind to assist the Varanni Alliance in their war with the Karacknids. I am afraid that war is not going well. Several weeks ago the Alliance suffered a major defeat. A Karacknid fleet several times the size of the one that attacked Earth has broken through the Alliance’s border worlds and now threatens several homeworlds of Alliance species. If the Karacknids can take or destroy these worlds, our war with them will be lost. Alone we will never be able to defeat the Karacknids, but with the Vestarians and the species of the Varanni Alliance, we can still prevail.

“However… this situation demands that we take decisive action now. The only way to relieve the pressure on the Alliance forces is to launch a counter offensive. We are the only ones in a position to do so. This means we must gather our forces and strike hard and fast. In this endeavor we will be seeking revenge for what has happened to our homeworld and attempting to bring relief to our allies. Such a move will be risky. If it fails, Earth will fall to the Karacknids. Yet if we do not act, we will be defeated anyway. Those are the stakes we now face.

“I’m telling you this now because I believe the Emergency Council has come to the end of its usefulness. If we are to act decisively as one species, we must do so under one banner. There must be no debate or squabbling or disunity. Everything we have must be thrown against the Karacknids. Not only in this battle, but in the war that looms before us. No longer can our species be hindered by internal strife between our nations, we must be united. United under one government, united as one people, led by one Emperor. This is why I, as King of the British Star Kingdom, Empress Na as Emperor of China, President Koroylov of the Russian Star Federation and Senator Nicholls speaking on behalf of the United Colonial States have written a new constitution for a new form of political governance for our entire species. One single democratic government that will span our entire species. One government that will end the constant squabbles between our differing nations. One government that will not do away with our cultures, our history or our values; but one that will embrace all these and forge us into a weapon that we will thrust into the heart of the Karacknids. When the Karacknid Admiral who attacked Earth retreated, he sent us all a message. You have heard it. He told us our doom was upon us. It is my intention that we will be the doom of the Karacknid Empire and all that it stands for. But, to be this, we must unite.

Therefore, I and those you see beside me intend to hold a referendum four days from now in each of our nations here on Earth and on Mars and on our other holdings in the Sol system. If this constitution is ratified then an Emperor will be appointed to lead our nation. The first act of this Emperor will be to dispatch our forces to launch the counter-attack that our Allies so desperately need. Even as I speak, the constitution we have put together is being made available on the data net. Every one of you should read it carefully and decide what is best for the future of our species. After our four nations choose their future, we will call on all other Human nations and all of our colonies to vote to do the same.

“Now…” James said as he paused and allowed a smile to spread across his face. “You may be wondering, who could possibly fill role of Emperor? When you read the constitution you will see that the Emperor’s authority is limited to military and diplomatic affairs. Nevertheless, it is an immense responsibility that this person will take upon themselves. They will become the figurehead for our species; the focal point our allegiance, loyalty and energies will work towards. They will also take on the responsibility for all of our hopes and dreams and freedoms. There is no one I would trust more with these things than Empress Christine Na of China.” As James revealed who he wanted to take the role, he had to fight not to turn to see Christine’s reaction. Instead he pressed on. “Already she unites the nations of the British Star Kingdom and China. The British Princess who now rules China as Empress. She is the one who can unite all of our nations as one. I will gladly swear my allegiance to her and serve her with my life and death… I will now let her speak to you all.” Turning, James finally caught Christine’s eye for the briefest of seconds. The surprise and rage he saw there quickly made him look away. Though he felt guilty about what he had just done, he didn’t feel that guilty. She had been pushing for him to be Emperor despite his insistence he didn’t want it. He had simply turned the tables on her.

Stepping back beside Koroylov and Nicholls, James did his best to keep his face impassive despite the emotion of the situation. As Christine walked past him, he sensed she was staring at him, but he kept his eyes on the floor. Only when Christine started speaking did he look at her. From her chest up, she held herself rigidly as she looked out over the podium towards the live broadcasting equipment. Her right foot, however, was tapping vigorously on the floor. James bit back another smile, so you’re not quite as composed as you always seem, he thought. His feelings of guilt swelled. It wasn’t every day someone got thrust into being Empress of the entire Human species. And certainly not without even a moment’s warning.

“I too wish to speak to you, not just as the leader of the Chinese people, but as a fellow citizen,” Christine began. James only half listened as she ran through her prepared speech. He had read it beforehand. When she came to the part where she had planned to nominate him as Emperor, he refocused his attention. He felt bad for putting her on the spot; she’d have to completely change what she had prepared, but he knew she could handle it. “And now, let me explain why the four of us feel we as a species must be united behind one Emperor. Too many times in the recent past and even over the last several centuries the political leaders of our nations have become too focused on the present. Long-term goals, policies and actions that would reap great benefits to our species in future decades have been passed over for short term political gains. The kind of strategic thinking that is needed to prepare for and face the many threats this universe contains our governments have failed to provide. Why? Because our leaders have been too focused on maintaining popularity, winning the next vote, and preferring what is expedient rather than what is for our good. An Emperor who does not need to win re-election, whose focus is on long-term goals and responsibilities; that is what we need to balance the democratic system of legislative governments our constitution proposes. Yet I am all too aware this is no small task. Growing up, I saw the pressures and responsibilities that my father, the King of the British Star Kingdom, faced. Then, as wife to Emperor Na and Empress in my own right, I saw what it takes to lead the Chinese people.

“I am therefore under no illusion that I could unite our differing nations alone. Nor would I wish to make the attempt. But, we all must do what is demanded of us in the face of the Karacknid threat. If you will have me then, I will be your Empress. I will commit my life to protecting the freedoms of our species. Nonetheless, I cannot and will not do it alone….” As Christine paused, James sensed she wanted to turn, instead she gripped the podium and continued. “That is why King James of the British Star Kingdom and I will be married. We will truly unite the peoples of China and Britain under one monarchy. Moreover, if you, the citizens of our species will have us, we will unite all of us together, and together we will rule as Emperor and Empress and stand against the Karacknids. James is one of the greatest Admirals the British Star Kingdom has known in its one thousand year history. He is the leader we all need if our species is to survive this war. I will gladly serve at his side and aid him in any way I can. To that end, I will be entrusting the future of our species into your hands this Saturday when we hold our referendum on this constitution.” Stepping back, Christine gestured for Koroylov to take his turn at the podium.

James stared at her open mouthed as she walked past him. For the briefest of seconds she shot him a grin and a wink before her face straightened again. A hundred emotions ran through James’ mind. There were so many he had to remind himself to breathe. She had completely turned his trick around on him. He couldn’t back out of being Emperor now! If he did it would cast a shadow on the entire constitution. No one would vote for it. And you can’t back out of the marriage either, he told himself. Christine had tied them together. To back out of one was to back out of both.

His mind went to Suzanna. Anger boiled within him. He loved her and no other! She was his wife. Christine had no right. Though he had been trying to ignore it, he knew Christine still had feelings for him. It had been obvious for months. But he didn’t feel the same. Yes, he still loved her, he had always loved her, but that was nothing compared to the love he had for Suzanna. “She has no right,” he growled under his breath as he ground his teeth together. A cough from off the podium made James look over. Fairfax was staring at him with a chiding gaze. For the sake of the broadcast, James forced himself to keep his thoughts and feelings off his face. As a coldness settled upon his heart, he barely registered what Koroylov and Nicholls said. As soon as the recording stopped, James stepped off the stage that had been erected and walked out of the room. Quick footsteps told him Christine was following, but he didn’t stop or slow down. Bursting through a reception room and then into the kitchens, James didn’t notice the cooks staring at him. Only when he walked out onto the rear patio that overlooked one of the artificial lakes did he stop.

“You had no right,” he shouted as he turned and raised a finger at Christine. “I am not yours to order around.” He spun back around and waved at the patio and lake. “This was our house, our home. Ours, not yours.”

Christine reached forward and grabbed one of his wrists with both of her hands. Gently she lowered it to his side. “I have no desire to steal any of this from you. Especially her,” she said as tears ran down her cheek. “She will always be your wife and your love. That will never change.” She blinked away her tears and looked up at James with a determined stare. “But don’t play the innocent with me. You have forced me into becoming Empress of our entire species without my say so. I think I am within my rights to force you into a marriage. I’ve already been compelled into one political marriage. I did it for my country. You can do it for yours. If I’m to be the Empress of Humanity, I’m going to do it with the man I love at my side. The man I have always loved.” Tears returned to her cheeks. “I cannot do this alone. You cannot force me into this and then abandon me. Please, don’t be angry. I know you love her, but can’t you love me as well?”

James closed his eyes at the pleading tone of her voice. He turned away from her. It was all too much for him to process. He hated the idea of being Emperor. He knew Christine would be far better at it than him. That’s why he had done what he did. Yet deep down he knew she would need help. And she does love you, he said to himself. That much was clear. Could he spurn her and jeopardize the new constitution before it even got off the ground? Could he jeopardize the need to counter-attack the Karacknids? Of course I can’t, he thought as his anger began to grow again. That was why she had done it. I can’t escape.

Gently, Christine let go of his wrist and reached up and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. She gave him a tentative smile. “I know how you’re feeling. Anger, betrayal, a sense of helplessness. Remember, I was in your shoes once. I’ve never told you because I knew it would have only hurt us both more, but I wanted to back out. With all my heart I wanted to back out. I even tried to run away. But my father... Eventually, I knew I had to put my country, my duty before my heart. I’m asking you to do the same now. I hope in time you will remember the feelings you had for me. If not, I still need you by my side. Our people need you. What do you say?”

With his eyes still closed, Christine’s words brought him back to the day he had heard about her marriage to Na. He had been so full of dreams and hopes of a future with her. The news had devastated him. He had been furious at her, and her father, and everyone. In the years that followed, he had come to understand why she had done it. Then he had met Suzanna and though their marriage had been born out of political necessity, they had developed a far deeper love for one another than he had thought possible. Opening his eyes, he looked at Christine and tried to hide his anger. “I do not know if there’s room in my heart for another. I miss her still, every day. But I know that what you did all those years ago was for your people. If you could do it then, perhaps we can do it again now.”

Christine beamed at his words. She grabbed both of his hands in hers. “I promise, I will make this up to you. I will never try to make you forget Suzanna. But I will make it up to you. I need you beside me and I want you beside me. Together we can do this. Together we can unite our people.”

Though James still felt anger, frustration and betrayal, he didn’t want to let them dictate his response. If he did, he would say something that he might never be able to take back. Instead, he simply nodded. “I hope that we can. It is our duty to our people and ourselves.”

“There you two are,” Fairfax’s voice called out as he stepped onto the patio. “Perhaps you want to explain yourselves? What is all this messing around? Somerville, you never once mentioned nominating Christine as Empress. Did you know about this?” Fairfax asked as he looked from one to the other.

James quickly removed his hand from Christine’s. “No, she knew nothing.” He pulled a datapad out of his pocket. “I had Andréa and Scott do some polling. Christine is just as popular a choice as I would have been. And she has far more experience. I never said I would accept the position. Just that I had decided what I was going to do. She will make a better figurehead for our people.”

Fairfax waved the datapad away. “What makes you think Andréa and Scott, or yourself for that matter, are a good judge of such things? And you,” Fairfax said as he turned to Christine. “If you didn’t know, then what is all this about marriage and an Emperor and Empress?”

Christine looked up at James then back to Fairfax. “What was I supposed to do? He just foisted this whole thing on my shoulders. I’ll not do it alone. We were in love once. We were to get married. Now we will, and it will serve our purposes. The two of us are better together than either one of us is on our own. James may not be a real politician, but I know it can only help our chances in this referendum.”

Fairfax shook his head. “This could be the most important moment in the history of our species, and you two are playing games with it? What will you be like as Emperor and Empress? Perhaps both of you were right. Neither of you are qualified.”

“Who else would be?” Christine asked as she raised her chin.

“What are our chances?” James asked quickly to cut off any argument. Fairfax’s words were causing him some genuine concern. “We haven’t messed this up, have we?”

The fury on Fairfax’s face disappeared completely and he actually burst out laughing as he shook his head. “Hurt our chances? Ha! A Royal wedding? Long lost loves reunited for the sake of an Empire? The darling of the Chinese people and Britain’s greatest living Admiral? Hurt our chances indeed,” Fairfax responded as he continued to shake his head. “I just wish I had thought of it!”

James breathed a sigh of relief, though his concern only grew, albeit for a different reason. He knew the look in Fairfax’s eyes. The former British Prime Minister was getting excited. He was scheming already. It will be like my coronation all over again, only worse, James thought with a groan.

“Well, come on then,” Fairfax said as they both stared at him. “We have a lot to do, elections to prepare for, a wedding to plan and then we have to figure out how both of you will rule together. And we need to let the Emergency Council members out, not to mention figure out how we’re going to get the other nations to hold their own votes. Come on, the work has only just begun! You two can hold hands some other time.”

James’ face reddened at Fairfax’s words, and his anger spiked again. Suzanna was the one he wanted to be holding hands with. When he looked down at Christine and saw her smiling though, his anger faded. For the first time since the Karacknid missiles had struck Earth, she looked happy. A small part of James allowed himself to be happy for her. After everything she had been through, she did deserve to be happy. He just didn’t know if he ever would be. But those thoughts had been following him ever since Suzanna’s death.




Chapter 32

One must always plan every detail of a naval operation. Then one bust be ready to throw it all out at a moment’s notice. Such is the skill of a true master strategist.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Intrepid, Rulen system, 10th March 2482 AD.

Emilie sat in her command chair on Intrepid’s bridge with her hands clasped together in her lap, casually flicking the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other. “I just don’t see it working,” she said to Jones and Alvarez. “There’s too many things that could go wrong.” Intrepid was currently in stealth mode, slowly moving along the edge of the Rulen system. Technically, it now belonged to the Karacknid Empire, but Emilie would not acknowledge that. They had stolen it from the Nanee, it was not theirs. On the holo display several routes into the system were marked out. Each was designed to bypass the Karacknid ships on patrol and sneak close enough to drop a team onto the colony’s surface.

They’d been monitoring the activities of the Karacknid ships in the system. There were two Karacknid frigates watching the shift passage into the system that Intrepid had arrived from. Emilie wasn’t worried about them, for the last three days Intrepid had been slowly looping around them. It was the ships patrolling the inner system that held her concern. In orbit around the Nanee colony there was a light cruiser. Two more frigates were moving back and forth from the colony to two orbital installations around other planetary bodies. All three ships had their active sensors permanently on. She, Jones and Alvarez had come up with a couple of potential routes past them. One relied on using a stealth drone as a decoy and another on slipping between one of the system’s gas giants and its largest moon at exactly the right moment. If either trick didn’t work perfectly, there was a very good chance they would be spotted.

And even then, it doesn’t solve our biggest problem, Emilie thought. If they managed to sneak close enough to the colony, they would have to deploy their team using covert insertion vehicles. That in itself was fine, Emilie had used one herself to sneak onto the surface of the Leipzig colony with Lieutenant Shaw a couple of years ago. The problem was getting their team back. They would have to borrow or steal a shuttle and that would alert the Karacknid cruiser in orbit. Even if the shuttle wasn’t immediately intercepted, Intrepid would have to take on the Karacknid cruiser to ensure the team made it away from the colony. One way or another, trying to sneak into the system would inevitably lead to them being discovered.

“So what do we do?” Alvarez asked in response to Emilie’s initial comment. “We could try slipping through this system and move onto the next?”

Emilie shook her head. “If there are this many ships protecting this small colony, whatever we find further in will likely be better protected. No, this is our best chance. If we can’t sneak in then we are going to fight our way in.”

“And reveal to the Karacknids that Human ships can venture this far?” Alvarez queried as his eyebrows rose.

“At this point, what have we got to lose?” Emilie responded. “If the Folians and the others won’t fight, then alerting the Karacknids to our presence here will at least make them paranoid. Besides, I’m not saying we just reveal ourselves willy-nilly, if we leave no witnesses, who is going to know?”

“No witnesses?” Alvarez asked as he turned back to the holo plot. “There are five Karacknid warships in this system.”

Emilie flashed him a knowing smile. “Your point Commander?” she asked in a tone that she usually reserved for when they were alone together.

Alverez shook his head. “You’re becoming more and more like your uncle every day. You think we can take them all?”

“What do you think Jones?” Emilie asked, turning to her First Lieutenant. “Is your Captain out of her mind?”

Jones looked between Alvarez and Emilie and then turned to the holo projection of the system. He cleared his throat, obviously buying himself a few seconds. “Altogether, they would overwhelm us. But one at a time; we might have a chance?” he said as he turned back to Emilie.

Emilie smiled and nodded. She leant over her command chair and typed in a series of course corrections and orders. “Run this,” she said as she sent it to Jones’ terminal. Seconds later a simulation of Emilie’s strategy played out.

“It could work,” Alvarez admitted. “But it is risky. We could lose the ship. It would be the end of our mission.”

“If we don’t get more allies, we could lose the war,” Emilie replied. “Like I said, we are done tiptoeing around. We’ve been training for months now. I have never known a ship better prepared for combat. Everyone on board is itching to get some payback for Earth. It’s time we scratch that itch.”

“Then let’s do it Captain,” Alvarez responded.

“Send orders for our two Spitfires to be prepped for launch,” Emilie ordered. “And ask Phelps and Cameron to report to the bridge, I want to speak to them before they launch. Navigation, lay in the course I have input, take us into the system.”

Two hours later Intrepid and her two Spitfires were in position. The exploration cruiser was sitting right where the flight paths of the two Karacknid frigates patrolling the inner system intersected. “Send the signal,” Emilie ordered when the moment came. “Launch missiles!”

As Intrepid’s COM officer sent the go order to the two Spitfires, Lieutenant Maguire tapped the button to launch the first missile salvo Intrepid had fired in anger. Twelve missiles were thrust out of their launch tubes and then ignited their engines. The gravimetric waves given off by their acceleration alerted every ship in the system to the threat. Just two seconds later, two more missiles appeared. Being much smaller and harder to detect, Phelps and Cameron had put their Spitfires right in the path of one of the Karacknid frigates. Their missiles took just six seconds to close with the enemy ship. When they were a second out, the missiles detonated, releasing two balls of superheated plasma. Though the Karacknid frigate had begun evasive maneuvers, there wasn’t enough time for them to have any real effect. One ball of plasma grazed the frigate, ripping a giant scar along its hull. The second struck home directly amid ships. As soon as the plasma reached the frigate’s reactors, the entire ship disappeared in a blinding flash.

Emilie nodded in satisfaction and turned to watch her own ship’s missiles. Intrepid had a compliment of one hundred and twenty multistage missiles along with two hundred and forty normal ones. With no chance she could have snuck up to a Karacknid ship close enough to fire normal missiles without being detected, Emilie had chosen to use some of her precious multistage ones. They had a flight time of sixteen minutes to their target. It would give the Karacknid frigate plenty of time to prepare, but there was nothing they could do about the fact they were facing twelve missiles.

“Second frigate is turning towards us, they’re accelerating,” Jones reported.

“Put us on an intercept trajectory,” Emilie responded. “Load normal missiles,” she added. If the frigate survived the first salvo, she would happily let it get into range to fire its own missiles if it meant she could fire her normal missiles in return. Their ECM and warhead payloads were significantly more devastating than those of multistage missiles.

“They’re engaging our missiles with point defense fire,” Jones updated everyone.

Of course, he needn’t have bothered, everyone on Intrepid’s bridge was watching the holoprojection. When two missiles were taken out almost instantly, Emilie feared she had wasted a salvo. But the rest continued unabated for several seconds. They just got lucky, she told herself. In the last minute of the salvo’s flight, six more were destroyed. That left four that got close enough to release their destructive energy. Detonating half a light second away from the frigate, each missile’s thermonuclear warhead released its energy. The laser focusing lenses converted the nuclear energy into a single high-powered laser beam. The frigate’s evasive maneuvers made two beams miss, however the other two did not. One punched through the frigate’s nose, melting missile tubes, point defense weapons and sensor blisters. The second struck further back along the ship. It took out a critical energy transfer conduit.

On the holo projection, the energy readings from the frigate flickered and then disappeared. Several officers cheered and pumped their fists. Emilie watched for several seconds to make sure the frigate really was dead in the water. When no backup reactors or energy reserves appeared to kick in, she nodded in satisfaction. “Target the frigate with two normal missiles. Fire as soon as we are in range,” she ordered. Unless the Karacknid ship transmitted some kind of surrender, she was going to make sure it could not be repaired to fight another day. Even if they did surrender, she wasn’t sure she would rescind her order.

“What is the Karacknid light cruiser doing?” she asked as she sought out the holographic representation of the larger Karacknid ship.

“It broke orbit as soon as we opened fire,” Jones responded. “It’s already on an intercept course. It will enter range with its missiles in twenty minutes.”

Emilie nodded, she hadn’t expected anything else. “Simulate their missile launches and send the data to Phelps and Cameron. Make sure they get in position.” Ideally, Emilie would love to bring the two Spitfires back to Intrepid and refuel and rearm them. Without a proper hanger though, it would take almost an hour to land them and get them ready to launch again. By then, the battle with the cruiser would be over. Instead, they would have to help as best they could. “Turn our starboard tubes towards the cruiser. Begin launching multistage salvos as soon as the cruiser enters our maximum powered envelope.”

Just four minutes later, twelve more missiles shot out of Intrepid’s missile tubes. Five minutes later, another twelve followed them, and then a third salvo was released before the Karacknid cruiser could return fire. Emilie couldn’t help but smile as she saw the three waves close with the Karacknid cruiser. Whoever its Captain was, it was very unlikely they had expected to face an opponent with superior missile range. Just wait until you encounter our proper missiles, she thought. Intrepid was one of the few ships in the Human fleet that carried Scott’s new Mark IV missiles. They had been designed from the ground up to make use of the new miniature inertial dampeners and were smaller and more agile than the standard anti-ship missile the UN had been using for the last several years. Yet, at the same time, with the infusion of Mindus and Varanni tech, they carried a warhead capable of releasing three devastating laser beams.

“Our missiles are entering their point defense fire,” Jones reported.

Emilie wasn’t surprised when all but one of her missiles were taken out. A Karacknid cruiser had significantly more defenses than a frigate. Even so, when the one missile that they got close enough to detonate missed with its laser beam, she pushed her lips out in frustration. Her frustration only grew when the two missiles of her second salvo that fired their lasers failed to get direct hits. The cruiser’s evasive maneuvers caused one beam to shoot wide, while the second, though it scored a hit, did so at such an angle that the cruiser’s armor appeared to absorb most of the force. When the enemy ship steadied itself again and fired its second salvo, Emilie swallowed hard. As deadly as she believed Scott’s new missiles to be, they still weren’t up to the standard of Karacknid antimatter missiles. Just one direct hit would knock Intrepid out of the fight.

When the final salvo of multistage missiles approached the Karacknid cruiser, Emilie wasn’t surprised to find she had her fists clenched. She was willing the missiles on. When only one got into attack range, she started to lose hope. Then its beam struck the Karacknid cruiser head on and she found herself shouting in satisfaction with her officers. As soon as Intrepid’s sensors could make sense of the damage, Emilie pumped her fist. It looked like the cruiser had lost at least two missile tubes.

“Phelps and Cameron are engaging now,” Maguire shouted.

Two new contacts appeared on the holo projection of the battlefield. After attacking the Karacknid frigate, both pilots had kept their fighters in stealth and slowly maneuvered into position. Just three seconds before the first salvo from the Karacknid cruiser passed them, they powered up their reactors and engines and accelerated hard. With a much higher starting velocity, the Karacknid missiles quickly caught them and began to pass by. For a full six seconds though, both fighter pilots were able to engage the missiles with their small plasma cannons. The Karacknid missiles, unaware of what the fighters were, did not react with evasive maneuvers. The pilots managed to shoot down four of them.

With just six left, Emilie rolled her shoulders and forced herself to relax. Intrepid’s gunners should be able to handle six missiles. They had trained to face many more. Even so, she felt a trickle of sweat run down her back as the six antimatter missiles entered range of Intrepid’s point defenses. Just one mistake and it would all be over. Ten seconds later she berated herself for not trusting her gunners, even as she breathed a sigh of relief.

As soon as the last missile was shot down, her eyes sought out the Karacknid cruiser. Intrepid’s first salvo of Scott’s missiles had just entered range of the Karacknid point defenses. There was already one more Karacknid salvo on its way, but if the cruiser survived Scott’s missiles, it would quickly release a third towards Intrepid.

Emilie looked to Alvarez and nodded when it became apparent the Karacknid cruiser was having a lot more trouble with Scott’s missiles. Either because of the missiles’ improved ECM, or because the Karacknid gunners had thought the multistage missiles were the hardest targets they would have to face, their point defense fire was failing them. Four missiles made it to attack range. Together they released twelve laser beams. No amount of evasive maneuvers could save the cruiser from all of them. Five appeared to score hits. Two actually punched holes right through the ship, spraying debris out the other side. Just seconds later a large secondary explosion ripped the Karacknid cruiser in half. Both sections started to spin away from one another.

This time, Emilie held back her desire to shout and cheer, though she allowed her officers several seconds to do so. “Focus,” she called. “They could still strike us from the grave.” At once her officers lowered their eyes and turned back to their command consoles. Emilie found she had her hands curled into fists again. This time they would be facing ten Karacknid missiles. Phelps and Cameron would not be able to help.

The first weapons to open up on the enemy salvo were Intrepid’s four flak cannons. Firing fifty exploding rounds each, they put up a wave of shrapnel in front of the Karacknid missiles. Eight flew through without hindrance. Plasma bolts, laser beams and counter missiles raced out to strike those that remained. It’s going to be close, Emilie thought as she forced her eyes to remain open. The enemy salvo was down to three, but they were seconds out. When one and then a second were struck by counter missiles, Emilie’s hopes rose. Her emotions wavered though when everything fired at the final missile missed. “Evasive maneuvers!” she screamed when it became clear there was little hope of hitting it in the seconds that remained.

Without hesitation, Intrepid’s navigation officer threw the cruiser into a wide corkscrew. The maneuver made Emilie’s harness tighten around her to compensate for the increased g-forces. Moments later a much stronger force flung her around in her command chair. For a couple of seconds her vision closed over as she fought the g-forces trying to make her blackout. Then the cruiser’s inertial compensators increased their output and her vision widened. Flashing lights and alarms greeted her increased sense of awareness.

“Damage report!” Emilie called as she tried to bring up information on her command chair and failed.

“Engines and reactors are still online, though they went into emergency shut down,” Maguire reported.

“I think we just skimmed the edge of the anti-matter explosion,” Jones said several seconds later. “The main damage reports are coming from the point defenses and sensors on our starboard nose. No internal damage has been detected yet.”

Emilie let out a breath as she glanced at Alvarez. They had been lucky, very lucky. The last minute evasive maneuvers had bought them just enough room to avoid being taken out. “Right,” she said as she stood. “Inform Lieutenant Shaw that it is time to depart. Alvarez take your team and get going. We don’t know how much time we have, so make sure everything we just accomplished was worth it.”

“Aye, Aye Captain,” Alvarez said as he jumped to his feet. He nodded to the members of his team on the bridge and gestured for them to get going.

As they left, Emilie followed them out into the corridor beyond the bridge. “Hold on a moment Commander,” she called after Alvarez. Stopping, he turned back to her. Emilie waited for a few seconds until his team were out of sight. Then she reached out and grabbed his hand, pulling him close. Raising herself up on her tiptoes, she planted a kiss on his lips. “Make sure you are careful down there,” she said gently.

Alvarez’s eyebrows rose in mock shock. “Me, be careful, after what you just did? That’s a little hypocritical isn’t it Captain?” He shot her a wide grin. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m coming back for,” he added as he gently patted her on the backside.

Emilie swatted his hand away and hardened her tone. “Don’t let me down Commander. That’s an order.”

“Yes ma’am,” Alvarez replied enthusiastically as he saluted.

Emilie watched him leave before re-entering the bridge. “What are our last two friends up to?” she asked as she moved back to her command chair.

“They have split up,” Jones reported. “One frigate is heading our way, the other is heading towards the system’s other shift passage.”

“How long until our reactors can be powered up again?” Emilie asked as she began to think. If Phelps and Cameron brought their fighters in to be refueled now, she didn’t think they would have time to catch up with the fleeing frigate. And the other one will probably turn and run as well if we launch another attack. If she could, Emilie didn’t want any word of her presence leaving the system.

“Five more minutes, they’re still cycling through their restart checklists,” Maguire answered.

“Tell Chief Harkness to hold off on a full restart,” Emilie responded. “In fact, tell him to try a restart and then abort it halfway through. I want it to look like our reactors have completely failed. We’re going to launch a missile and detonate it as close to the ship as we can. Then we’ll jettison any excess cargo we have. Those frigates will be watching and recording the visual images from our battle with that cruiser. They know we took a hit. Let’s see if we can’t make them think we have suffered a reactor overload.”

Within five minutes all of Emilie’s demands had been met so she nodded to Jones to begin the deception. First Intrepid’s number one reactor powered up to forty percent and suddenly cut off. Five seconds later the missile that had already been fired detonated. At that moment, hundreds of pieces of cargo containers, spent munition boxes and anything else that could be scraped together in such a short time were released out of the cargo hold. Less than a minute later, Intrepid’s two shuttles took off and made no effort to hide their descent to the Nanee’s colony surface. With any luck, they’ll think we abandoned ship, Emilie thought.

She settled herself comfortably into her command chair. It would take fifteen minutes for the electromagnetic energy from reactor one and the visuals of the explosion to reach the nearest frigate. When it did, Emilie couldn’t help but smile. “We have them,” she said in excitement. Both frigates were altering course, they were going to rendezvous with one another and investigate Intrepid together. Emilie understood their Captains’ intentions perfectly. Neither of them would want to return to a superior with news of a surprise attack that destroyed the rest of their squadron without specific details about the attack. Jaranna was on the other side of the Karacknid Empire. It was about six months travel away in shift space. It was possible the ships Intrepid had just fought were not even aware of who Humanity was. Well, they are about to find out the hard way, Emilie said to herself. A part of her was tempted to wait and see if she could lure the frigates into energy weapon range. She had already expended a lot of Intrepid’s missile compliment. Intrepid’s heavy plasma cannons would destroy the ships in a single salvo. But it was too risky, as much as she suspected the frigates would want to investigate Intrepid rather than destroy her, she didn’t want to take the chance.

“Go to full power,” she ordered when both frigates came into powered missile range. “Fire our first salvo.” The battle lasted just eighteen minutes. One frigate was taken out by multistage missiles before it could return fire. The second did not survive the first salvo of normal anti-ship missiles that came its way. Their two salvos of three missiles shot off in reply failed to penetrate Intrepid’s point defenses. Well, Emilie thought as she looked back towards the Nanee colony. We’ve cleared the system of Karacknid ships, now it’s over to you, she thought as she tried to imagine what Alverez was up to. “Put us in orbit and begin to scan the planet. If there are any Karacknid installations or troop concentrations down there, I want to know about it,” she ordered. If Alvarez needed orbital support, she intended to give it to him.




Chapter 33

Every world Humanity has chosen to inhabit is beautiful in its own way. That doesn’t mean some aren’t more beautiful than others. Usually it is not surprising to find one arguing for the merits of their own homeworld. Rarely is this the case with those who have been able to visit The Homeworld. Earth has a beauty to the Human eye that has yet to be matched anywhere else.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Rulen Colony

“I don’t think we want to touch down there,” the shuttle pilot said as they passed over the largest city in the Nanee colony. In reality, it was the only city. Their initial scans suggested the planet had not been inhabited for long. Perhaps a century or so.

“No,” Alvarez agreed as he looked at the city through the shuttle sensors. There looked to be three Karacknid military bases around the outskirts of the city. There were multiple targeting scanners tracking the shuttle as it passed overhead in orbit. If they got any closer, they would likely be met by a hail of hyper velocity missiles. “Let’s keep looking, find us a smaller town.”

“How about this?” The pilot asked a couple of minutes later. “It’s a reasonable size, but there only looks to be a small Karacknid installation.”

And there are no signs of nuclear strikes, Alvarez thought. Thankfully there didn’t seem to be any elevated levels of radiation coming from the planet. However, within the main city and at several other sites there were large craters, clear signs of an orbital bombardment. If the town below them had been spared such an attack, it was more likely some of their leaders were still alive. “Shaw?” he asked as he turned to the marine Lieutenant. When he looked over her shoulder, he saw she had a datapad out and zoomed in on the Karacknid base.

“It’s doable,” she said as she looked up. “But we’ll have to be fast. Land us here,” she continued as she tapped her datapad, sending the coordinates to the pilot. “We’ll take Walker with us and the rest of you can remain at the LZ.”

“I’ll come too,” Alvarez insisted. “I have the training. Don’t worry though, I’ll help lay down covering fire if you need it. That’s all.”

Shaw nodded. “Okay then. Just make sure you keep your head down. I don’t want to be the one to have to explain to Emilie if you don’t.”

“Taking us in,” the pilot reported. Suddenly Alvarez found himself grabbing onto his harness as the shuttle dove towards the planet’s surface. The sudden blare of an alarm told him something was locking onto the shuttle. Just seconds later it disappeared as the shuttle pulled up and levelled off. They had already reached the ground and ducked under the targeting radar. The rear access ramp immediately descended. “Go, go, go!” the pilot shouted.

Alvarez let the marines get out first, then he quickly ushered his team out of the shuttle. As he stepped off himself, he saw the second shuttle hovering a couple of meters in the air just to his right. The rest of Shaw’s marines were already out of it. “Move out,” Shaw ordered as the two shuttles lifted off. They quickly accelerated away from the Karacknid base. Looking around, Alvarez saw Shaw had picked an LZ behind a small hill. There was a collection of small shrub like trees at the very bottom of the hill, but everything else around him seemed to be cultivated land.

“Over there,” Alvarez said as he pointed towards the shrubs, “Take cover over there,” he said to Spence and Matthews. “We’ll be back to get you as soon as the fight is over.” Not waiting for them to acknowledge his order, he took off sprinting after the marines. Within ten seconds he realized his folly. The marines were all in their full combat armor. While he had his on, it was not quite up to their standards. Able to run more than twice as fast as he could, they were quickly disappearing out of sight. Shaw had split them into two groups, each was contouring around the hill to attack the Karacknid base from two directions. With a groan, Alvarez looked up to the top of the hill, then he lowered his head and focused on pumping his legs and maintaining a steady breathing rate.

“You can open fire any time Commander,” Shaw’s sarcastic voice came over the COM channel. “If you wait any longer, the battle might be over.”

Alvarez didn’t have the breath to reply, instead he kept running until he crested the hill. He threw himself to the ground and sighted his plasma rifle onto the Karacknid base just beyond the bottom of the hill. Even without the rifle’s magnification lens, he could see Karacknid soldiers within compound near the small three buildings and several more who were already outside the base moving towards cover. Aiming at those outside, he pulled the trigger and sent a spread of plasma bolts down the hill. He quickly changed from one target to another and another as they dove for cover. Then, as return fire started coming in, he pushed himself back behind the crest of the hill. On his hands and knees, he crawled sideways for several meters before bobbing his head back up. He was just in time to see Walker and Shaw’s marines begin their assault. The Karacknids, most of them looking to the top of the hill, didn’t see the initial attack. Those who were outside the base were caught in a crossfire and two quickly died. Then, in the blink of an eye, hyper velocity missiles zipped out towards the Karacknid base. Fire flared into the air. The marines who had fired were moving forward. A familiar sound made Alvarez look back over his shoulder. Both shuttles had returned. Using the hill to cover their approach, they barely missed his head as they raced past him and pummeled the base with their heavy laser cannons. In one pass they reduced what was left of the three buildings in their base to melted slag. As soon as the shuttles passed by, Shaw’s marines broke from cover and raced forward. Unsurprisingly, Walker with his enhanced abilities was the first there. Alvarez’s mouth fell open when he saw Walker hurdle the Karacknid base’s outer perimeter wall. Before his feet touched the ground, he began shooting. It happened too fast for Alverez to be sure, but he thought he saw three Karacknids fall to Walker’s attack. Then he disappeared from sight as he raced deeper into the Karacknid base.

Alvarez shook his head at the sight. He knew special forces marines were lethal killers. He knew they had enhancements, but he had never seen one in action. As Shaw’s marines poured into the Karacknids’ base, their efforts to root out the last Karacknids looked childish in comparison. For a couple of minutes Alverez watched the marines clear the compound. Then movement from the town itself caught his eye. The compound was about half a kilometer from the nearest Nanee building. A small group of Nanee were tentatively approaching Shaw’s marines. We are up, Alvarez thought. Jumping to his feet he hurried back down the side of the hill. “It’s all clear,” he said to Spence when he found them. “Time to meet the locals.” Instead of heading over the hill again, Alvarez led them around it. By the time they got to the Karacknid compound, Shaw, Walker and a couple of marines were standing face-to-face with the Nanee.

“This is the leader of our party,” Shaw said as Alvarez stepped up beside her.

“Greetings,” Alvarez said as he bowed his head slightly to the Nanee. “I am Commander Alvarez.”

“My name is Koran’ka,” the tall slender alien replied. His forearms remained motionless at his side but his head moved back and forth as it spoke. “You are enemies of the Karacknids?”

Alvarez nodded, “We are. They attacked our worlds and have tried to invade our space. I am from an exploration ship that is in orbit. We have come to this part of space to bring warning about the Karacknids and seek out new allies. We know your world was recently conquered by them. We have just come from Damial.”

“You know the Folians?” Koran’ka asked. “Then you know what has happened to my species. Have they too been conquered?”

“Not yet,” Alvarez replied with a shake of his head. “The Karacknids have given them an ultimatum. I believe their time runs out tomorrow. They and the other species in this sector of space were given an offer. Either accept vassalage or be conquered like your species was. My Captain and I tried to convince them of the folly of simply surrendering, but when we left, it appeared that was the course they intended to take.”

A strange shriek came from Koran’ka and the other Nanee at his side. “They are making a mistake.”

Alvarez glanced at Spence, it seemed the aliens and they were of the same mind. That was a very good start. “That is why we are here,” he said as he decided to lay his cards on the table. “As I said, we are looking for new allies to help us fight the Karacknids. We hoped your neighbors would band together to fight. When they would not listen to us, we came here. They know your species, they would listen to your people. We would like to bring some of you to Damial to speak to the Folians and the others.”

“You are not here to liberate us?” Koran’ka asked.

“I’m afraid not, we have only one ship,” Alverez said as he pointed to space. “One day it is our goal to liberate all species from the Karacknids, but we do not have the strength at the minute to aid you,” he explained. “We are in a war for our very survival. Without aid, my civilization may suffer the same fate as yours.”

The Nanee made the same shrieking noise, though it was louder and lasted longer. “We had hoped…” Koran’ka trailed off. “When you attacked their base… No,” he said after a few moments. “Our liberation has not yet come. We must face reality as it is. You have given us one pleasure at least. We have lived long enough to see these Karacknids killed. They have harassed us for months. Now we will take their weapons and make their brethren pay.”

“If I may ask,” Alvarez said, “how have they treated you?”

“When the central government on our homeworld surrendered, the Karacknids promised they would disarm us but otherwise allow us to continue our lives. They lied. As soon as our ships and weapons were gone, they began their true work. Ruel is a small colony on the edge of our territory, yet even here they have attempted to erase every historical record and defining feature of our culture. All of our communication devices have been confiscated and every town and village isolated from one another. Now, almost all of us have been reduced to menial laborers. I believe it is their intention to transform us from a highly civilized culture to savages in one generation. Our children will grow up in a world that we will not recognize. They will have nothing.”

“I fear they will do the same to the Folians and the others, despite the promises they have made,” Alvarez responded.

“Of that I have no doubt,” Koran’ka replied.

“Would you be willing to come with us back to Damial?” Alvarez asked. “The Folians would not believe us when we told them about the true nature of the Karacknids. They thought we were lying because they are our enemies. They will believe you.”

“I am a no one,” Koran’ka responded as he waved his slender arms. “I was a simple farmer before the Karacknids came. Now I help my people here yes, but to the Folians I am no one. The Triad still live in Salamac, the capital of our colony. One of them may go with you. If they would, the Folians would listen to them.”

“The capital?” Alvarez asked. Taking on the small Karacknid compound here was one thing, trying to go to the capital was another matter entirely.

“Yes, I can contact them for you,” Koran’ka showed his teeth. “The Karacknids have not confiscated all our communication devices. We must move quickly. They will no doubt have forces on the way here already. We should leave, I know somewhere where we can hide until we hear back from the Triad. Karacknid shuttles could arrive at any moment.”

Alvarez nodded, his shuttle’s passive sensors would give him some warning of approaching Karacknid forces, but it wouldn’t be much. “Then we will leave. Will your village be okay? There may be reprisals.”

“That is inevitable,” Koran’ka responded. “I’ve already given orders for my people to scatter. Whether we did this or not, the Karacknids will seek to make an example of our small town. None of us can remain here.”

Alvarez looked towards the town, it looked like it was home to at least a thousand Nanee. “I’m sorry,” he said as he thought of the people losing their homes and livelihoods. “We did not mean to cause such pain.”

“My species is at war commander, we understand that we are all in danger. The price of losing our homes is worth seeing these Karacknids dead.”

Without having to consciously summon the image, Alvarez was reminded of the visuals of Earth being nuked. “I understand completely,” he replied. “You will come with us and help us make contact with the members of this Triad? Your people will be all right without you?”

“They will,” Koran’ka responded. “If you’re ready to go, we can depart now.”

Alverez shared a quick glance with Shaw who nodded. “We are ready,” he said. “We shall leave now.”

Koran’ka turned to his people and spoke quickly and gestured wildly with his forearms. In response, they quickly split up and moved through the Karacknid compound, picking up weapons as they went. “They will collect what they can and then join my people as they flee,” Koran’ka explained. “We were not prepared for the Karacknids coming here. We had almost no weapons. Now that has changed. Even when you go, we will be able to make the Karacknids pay for harassing us.”

“Okay,” Alvarez said as he turned to Shaw and Walker. “Back to the shuttles.”

*

An hour and half later Alverez was staring at a holo-projection of Emilie. “You took out the last two frigates then?” he asked, not really surprised that she had managed it.

Emilie smiled, “They played along with my trap nicely. How are things going for you?”

“We made contact with the locals,” Alvarez explained. “They’re not happy with the Karacknids, not at all. We’ve got one of the local leaders with us, he says that the Triad, the three leading government officials of the colony would be willing to return to Damial with us. We just have to get them out of the city.”

“I presume you have a plan?” Emilie asked.

“It’s very simple, but it should work. The Karacknids haven’t evacuated their military bases around the colony’s capital. If you can return to orbit in stealth and take them out, Koran’ka, that’s the Nanee we have with us, assures us we will be able to fly in and pick up the Triad with our shuttles.”

“How familiar is he with Karacknid weapons technologies? Simply flying in seems a little easy,” Emilie queried.

“They’ve seen first-hand what the Karacknids can do,” Alvarez said as he shrugged. “I trust him. Besides, with all the commotion you’re likely to cause, no one will notice us.”

“What about collateral damage? Those bases are close to the city.”

“Koran’ka has already sent warning about what is going to happen. The Nanee are evacuating the area and taking cover. They know there are likely to be repercussions, they’re willing to face them.”

“Very well,” Emilie responded as she nodded. “We’ll get into position and signal once we are ready. Stay hidden until then.”

“Yes Captain,” Alvarez responded as he brought a hand to his forehead just before the image of Emilie disappeared. Standing up, he walked out of the shuttle’s cockpit and sat down between Spence and Koran’ka, they seem to be talking about Nanee culture, though they stopped when he sat. “It’s on,” he replied. “We’ll get the go-ahead in half an hour or so.”

“My people will be ready,” Koran’ka replied.

“Good, they will need to be well out of harm’s way,” Alvarez said. He paused and took a moment to look out of the shuttle’s view screen. It was the first free moment he had been able to enjoy since leaving the Nanee town. “This is quite the place,” he commented.

“It certainly is Commander,” Koran’ka agreed. “The initial survey team didn’t discover it. It was actually my father who did. Many in our town know about it, but we have kept it a secret from others. Often our families come here to camp out for a night or two. If we told those in the capital about it, it would be overcrowded.”

Alvarez nodded as he continued to peer out. Both shuttles were tucked snuggly about twenty feet down a narrow cave. They had landed at the point where the cave suddenly widened into a large oval. Cracks in the ceiling allowed small slivers of sunlight in. The few rays of light however were reflected again and again by the hundreds of blue quartz like stones embedded in the cave’s walls. Everywhere Alvarez looked, it seemed like the cave was sparkling. “It would be quite the tourist attraction for my people as well,” he said.

“Perhaps, a day will come when tourists from your species will freely travel here to visit,” Koran’ka said. “Your family would be most welcome.”

“Perhaps such a time will come,” Alvarez agreed. “It is something to hope for anyway.”

“More than that,” Koran’ka responded, “It is something to fight for.”

Exactly thirty-five minutes later Alvarez got the call from Intrepid’s COM officer. With a single command to the shuttle’s pilot, both shuttles powered up their engines and carefully traversed the mouth of the cave. As soon as they were out in the open, it was evident the bombardment had begun. The sky in the direction of the colony’s capital was filled with streaks of fire as ordnance rained down from Intrepid.

“We’re picking up a number of shuttles in the air around the capital,” the pilot called seconds later. “We’ll have to engage them if we want to proceed.”

Alvarez glanced at Koran’ka. “Continue on to our target,” he said when the alien nodded. Seconds later the shuttle’s sensors picked up missile launches from the planet’s surface. All but one of the Karacknid shuttles disappeared.

“I told you we did not have any weapons, but those in the capital have been hiding them,” Koran’ka said with an unmistakable air of pride. “They will finish what your ship has started.”

When the shuttles got close enough to see the capital, Alvarez realized Koran’ka hadn’t been exaggerating. Each of the Karacknid military bases had been reduced to a series of craters. However, many Karacknid soldiers and ground vehicles had escaped. Many was a relative term though, for they were being swamped by hundreds if not thousands of Nanee. He couldn’t tell what kind of weapons they were carrying, but thousands of bolts from some kind of energy weapon were peppering the Karacknid forces. Pinned down and isolated, the Karacknids were quickly overcome.

“No sign of that Karacknid shuttle Commander,” the shuttle pilot reported. “It must have bugged out. Permission to engage?”

“By all means,” Alvarez replied enthusiastically. The shuttles split up and methodically moved from Karacknid position to Karacknid position, strafing them with their plasma cannons. With their additional firepower, the Nanee put an end to all resistance in the space of just twenty minutes.

“You can land us over there,” Koran’ka said as he pointed at a large group of Nanee. As the shuttle approached, they stopped their advance and a particularly large Nanee dressed in a long flowing multicolored costume came and stood at their head. “One of the Triad,” Koran’ka explained. “She is willing to speak to you.”

She’s brave, Alvarez thought as he moved to the back of the shuttle. Coming to a battle in such attire was asking to be shot at. She stood out like a sore thumb. When he stepped off the shuttle she approached him. He opened his mouth introduce himself, but she beat him to it.

“I am Raloja, one of the Triad of this colony, you are here to take me to speak to the Folians and our other neighbors?”

“We certainly are,” Alvarez replied enthusiastically. “I’m Commander Alvarez. I can take you to my ship. Your soldiers have my respect, they certainly fight well.”

“They have many grievances to settle,” Raloja responded. “It tends to enhance one’s fighting prowess. My two contemporaries will ensure what’s left of the Karacknids are finished off. Koran’ka has explained what you wish from me. I am ready to depart if you are?”

“We are,” Alvarez said as he stepped aside and gestured for Raloja to approach the shuttle. She is very impressive, he concluded. If she was keen to get going, he wasn’t going to stand in her way. Well Emilie, it seems we have found your witness, he thought as Raloja walked past him. If the five species of the Conclave wouldn’t listen to her, then they would almost deserve what they got.




Chapter 34

The immensity of the Karacknid Empire was perhaps it’s greatest strength. It dwarfed all of its opponents. Yet it also proved to be a weakness that could be exploited.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Intrepid, Damial system, 27th March 2482 AD (seventeen days later).

“They’re still here!” Emilie said as she sat forward in excitement. The date the Karacknids had been expecting an answer from the Conclave had come and passed. And yet there was still a diverse array of ships in orbit around Damial. The Conclave members and their ships hadn’t departed yet! Emilie looked over to Raloja and smiled. “You’ll be able to speak to all of your neighbors.”

“Our arrival has been fortuitous then Captain,” Raloja replied. “I am glad we have come in time.”

“Captain,” Alvarez said in a tone that wiped the smile of Emilie’s face. “There’s something else in orbit.”

Turning, Emilie’s eyes immediately caught the image Alvarez had focused the holo projection upon. There was one ship that out massed all those in orbit by a factor of five. It was impossible to miss what it was. Emilie had seen more than enough of them charging into the Sol system. It was a Karacknid dreadnought.

“They are here,” Raloja said as she recognized the image as well.

“What are your orders?” Lieutenant Jones asked.

“We need to think carefully about this,” Emilie responded. “Keep us in stealth for now.” She then looked over to Alvarez. “What do you think?”

“There’s no way we could get to the planet, not in Intrepid. They’d detect us even if we tried to sneak up in stealth,” he replied. “A shuttle could maybe make it through.”

“What about a diplomatic envoy?” Raloja asked. “I still have the codes our envoys would use when they visited the Folians. Do you think they would let us enter orbit?”

“I don’t know,” Emilie responded. “The Folians might accept them. But they might just turn around and give us up to the Karacknids. If they’ve already agreed to become vassals, they may feel they have to. I’m struggling to see that we have any other choice though.”

“There is something else we should consider,” Alvarez suggested. “When we fought the Karacknid ships at Rulen, they didn’t seem to have any real idea about our capabilities. If they weren’t able to recognize a Human ship, perhaps this dreadnought won’t either.”

Emilie nodded, it was a risk. A pretty significant risk in fact. But they had been taking such risks for a while now. “What about other envoy codes?” she asked as she looked to Raloja. “Are there other species beyond the Conclave members who have visited your worlds? Could we use one of their codes? A different code might get us a foot in the door.”

Raloja pulled out an information device she had brought with her and looked through it. “Yes, I do. We could pretend we are a delegation from the Alamna. They are a small single system civilization a couple of hundred light years beyond the Lomalns’ territory.”

“That might work, Emilie replied. “When we get into visual range, they’ll know it’s us. But it might get us close. We’ll have to face whatever comes after that. Okay, let’s try and alter our electromagnetic signature so that it at least partially resembles something an Alamna ship might give off. Then we’ll head into the system.”

An hour later Intrepid was underway. The Alamna’s technological level was not very advanced so the cruiser had to head into the system at a speed barely above what Emilie considered a crawl. Initially, there was no reaction from any of the ships in orbit around Damial. Then, after an hour, a message came through welcoming them to Damial and assigning them a slot in orbit. Emilie noted that the slot was on the opposite end of the planet to the Karacknid dreadnought. Either the Folians didn’t want the Karacknids to interact with the Alamna, or more likely, they didn’t want the Alamna learning too much about the Karacknids.

“All right, I imagine they’ll start to get good resolution on us from their optical sensors any time now,” Emilie said two hours after receiving the welcoming message from Damial. “Let’s try contacting Commodore Shraw. Transmit the message.” The Gramrian fleet commander had given her an encryption code before Intrepid had left Damial.

“Transmission sent Captain,” Maguire responded a moment later.

Emilie nodded. Now we’ll see, she thought. Of all those present in the system, she hoped Shraw would make it possible for her to land. Though she wanted to start tapping her foot or flicking her fingers, Emilie forced herself to sit still. Either the Karacknid dreadnought would recognize who they were and break orbit to engage them. Or, the Folians would recognize them and give them up to the Karacknids. Or, they would let them land. There was nothing she could do now to influence things one way or another.

“Still no movement from orbit,” Alvarez commented ten minutes later. Emilie nodded to acknowledge his words. No movement didn’t necessarily mean anything. As Intrepid slowly drew closer and closer to Damial the tension in Emilie’s shoulders increased rather than decreased. No movement should have been an indicator that their ruse was working. Or at least that the Folians had chosen to pretend that it was. Yet it was also a possibility the Karacknids had ordered them to remain silent. Allowing Intrepid to get into energy weapon range of the Karacknid dreadnought would ensure the cruiser’s destruction. Or even our capture, Emilie thought. If the Karacknids powered up their weapons and ordered her to surrender could she in good conscience refuse and throw away the lives of her crew? She didn’t know the answer to that question. On the one hand, she had a responsibility to her people to protect them. Yet if Intrepid was captured, the Karacknids would undoubtedly learn about the wormhole. That was a secret worth more than all of their lives.

As Intrepid came closer and closer to Damial, Emilie found herself staring at the Karacknid dreadnought. She was looking for any hint of what its intentions were; the slightest movement or power spike that might give something away. She needn’t have bothered, the Karacknid warship remained perfectly stationary in orbit. In all the time Emilie watched it, only one shuttle left for the planet’s surface and then returned a couple of hours later.

Eventually, Intrepid settled into orbit around the Folian homeworld. There was no doubt in Emilie’s mind that the Folians knew exactly who she was. So too would the rest of the Conclave members. Their ships had all gotten good looks at Intrepid the last time she had been in the system. Yet there was no indication they were going to react to her presence. Then, just seconds after Intrepid finally slotted into her assigned position in orbit, a COM message came from the planet surface. It contained a set of coordinates for her shuttle to land at. That was it. Hopefully, that means Shraw responded positively to our message, Emilie thought. “I guess we are taking a trip,” she said to Raloja as she stood. “Jones, you have the bridge. Alverez, I think we better bring Walker and Shaw’s marines with us.”

“I think so,” Alvarez agreed as he unbuckled his restraints.

“If you care to come with us,” Emilie said as she gestured for Raloja to join her as they walked to the hangar bay.

The shuttle descended through Damial’s atmosphere without incident. When it landed, Emilie looked out a viewport and was not surprised to see a large group of armed Folian guards. Shraw, or any other Gramrians, were not in view. “It appears they might be thinking of taking you into custody Captain,” Raloja said as she looked out the viewport as well. “It may be best if I proceed from here alone.”

“Are you sure?” Emilie asked. “They may hand you over to the Karacknids just as quickly as they would me.”

“That is a risk I was aware of when I left Rulen. But do not worry, the Folians always held my species in high regard. I hope they will at least hear me out.”

“Okay,” Emilie said as she hit the button to lower the rear hatch. “Good luck out there.”

“The truth is what will serve me best,” Raloja replied. “But I will not turn away your luck either,” she said as she gave Emilie a slight bow. “Thank you for bringing me this far.”

Emilie gave Raloja a quick smile and turned to look down the hatch. As soon as the Folians saw her, they raised their weapons. Raloja quickly moved past her and placed herself directly in their line of sight. The response from the Folians was instantaneous. Their normally bland facial expressions all twisted into what Emilie presumed was surprise or shock.

“Greetings my friends and allies,” Raloja said as she spread her arms wide and gracefully descended the shuttle’s rear ramp. She was once again dressed in her radiant Triad attire and her long flowing robe trailed along the ground behind her. “I have come to speak with your leaders. I am Raloja, one of the Triad of Rulen colony. “I bring news about the Karacknid occupation of my worlds. News your Conclave must hear.”

One of the Folians barked out an unintelligible order. The rest of the armed guards lowered their weapons, then the same Folian pulled out a COM unit and spoke into it at a furious pace. Raloja turned her head slightly, not enough to look back up the shuttle, but enough to get Emilie’s attention. She gave a slight wave of her hand. Emilie understood. If she was going to get back into orbit unmolested, now was the time. Punching the button to close the shuttle’s access ramp, she quickly moved back towards the cockpit. “Take a seat,” she said to Shaw and her marines as she passed them. “Let’s hope you’re not needed.” As soon as she entered the cockpit she placed a hand on the pilot’s shoulder. “Take us back into orbit. Though be gentle about it. Let’s not look like we are running away.”

As the shuttle’s engines started to whine Emilie strapped herself in and rolled her shoulders to ease their tension. The Folians could order her shuttle to power down or they could just blow it up as it took off. Neither happened and within minutes Emilie found herself heading back towards Intrepid. It didn’t take long for the shuttle to dock and for her to make her way back to the bridge.

“How did it go?” Jones asked when she and Alvarez returned to their command chairs. “You were quick.”

“Raloja disembarked and spoke to the Folians who had come to greet us,” Emilie explained. “I think it’s safe to say they were not expecting to see her. We used the confusion to get out of the way. It’s over to her now.”

Jones nodded. It was something they had discussed on the flight back from Rulen. Many of the members of the Conclave had not reacted well to Emilie’s presence. They had seen her as an outsider who couldn’t be trusted. Raloja going alone to speak to the Conclave members was the best chance they had at convincing them. As Emilie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, she could easily imagine what Raloja was sharing. Raloja had spoken about the atrocities the Karacknids had committed on her planet often enough to her and Alvarez. If Raloja’s testimony wouldn’t convince the members of the conclave of the folly of giving into the Karacknids, then nothing else would. At least, Emilie knew her conscience would be clear. If the Conclave members still chose to accept vassalage, they would be doing so without any excuse that they didn’t know what would come their way. Of course, if they still accepted vassalage, it would likely mean Intrepid would be captured or destroyed. Opening her eyes again, Emilie sought out the Karacknid dreadnought. It could still open fire on her ship at any moment. She had no idea how long it would take the Conclave to listen to Raloja. But, however long it would be, she wasn’t going to enjoy the wait. Not when a fight with the Karacknid dreadnought could break out at any second. “Make sure the cook arranges meals for everyone while they stay at their stations,” Emilie said as she turned to Lieutenant Maguire. “We could be here a while. We may as well get a warm meal in our bellies.”

“Aye Captain,” Maguire responded.

Though she was intentionally not watching the chrono meter, Emilie figured it had to have been at least a couple of hours before something happened. “We’re getting an encrypted COM message from Commodore Shraw. It’s audio and visual,” Intrepid’s COM officer informed her.

“Put on the main holo projector,” Emilie requested.

“Captain Kansas, it’s good to see you again,” Shraw said when the COM link was established. “I’m glad you were successful in your mission. From what I hear, Raloja is making quite the impression with the Conclave delegations. I must say, even I was shocked to hear what she shared.”

“So, the Conclave is starting to see sense?” Emilie asked, hope stirring within her.

“Starting may be an apt description,” Shraw responded. “I’m afraid the Karacknid dreadnought in orbit is still quite a persuasive argument in and of itself.”

Emilie nodded. “I understand. What does this mean for my ship and my crew? The Folians haven’t given us up yet but you’re saying they still could?”

“The Conclave has taken a break; each species’ delegation is discussing among themselves. I’m here because my people believe the Folians and the others want to reject the Karacknids offer. Or rather, rescind our acceptance. We actually agreed to the Karacknids conditions several days ago. We’ve just been working out the finer details with their representative. My species intends to go back on the promises we made. Raloja has shown us they were made in bad faith on the part of the Karacknids. I fear the others are having more reservations. They now believe what happened to your homeworld. They fear if they go back on their word, the Karacknid dreadnought will nuke Damial as well.

“I can’t say I blame them,” Emilie found herself saying. It was exactly the kind of thing she expected the Karacknids to do. “What are you thinking? I presume you’re not just making a social call?”

“If we could get the Karacknid dreadnought out of orbit, I think the other Conclave members will all agree that we cannot simply allow the Karacknids to take over our territories,” Shraw replied. “I was hoping you might be willing to help me with that.”

Emilie smashed her lips together as she thought. “You do know there’s no way Intrepid can beat a dreadnought. If I had ten cruisers we might stand a chance, but not alone.”

“If you are willing to trust me, you’ll not be alone Captain. But you might not like what I have to suggest.”

“You may as well try me,” Emilie replied.

“If you break orbit now, I don’t think the Folians will give you up. They are genuinely shocked by what Raloja has revealed,” Shraw explained. “Then, when you are far enough away from Damial, you could reveal who you really are. I imagine that might upset the Karacknids just a little. If you draw them away from the Folians’ homeworld, my squadron will aid you in taking it out.”

Taking it out, Emilie repeated to herself. She wasn’t sure if she had heard a more absurd idea. Fighting a Karacknid dreadnought one-on-one in an open battle would be the end of Intrepid. Shraw’s squadron was impressive, but Intrepid would be fighting on her own. “If I’m being honest,” she replied, “I’d much prefer a plan that involved taking the dreadnought by surprise. Together, our ships could destroy the Karacknid dreadnought in orbit with our energy weapons.”

Shraw nodded. “We could, but could you guarantee they wouldn’t have time to launch nukes at the planet’s surface? They will detect our energy weapons charging before we fired. They might only get a few seconds, but that might be all they needed. They’ve made the threat more than once. I believe they have missiles targeting Damial’s major cities right now.” When Emilie remained quiet Shraw nodded. “As I suspected. Trying to take them out in orbit is too risky. We could succeed but if Damial is nuked the Conclave might decide to give into the Karacknids all over again. Slavery is still better than being wiped out of existence.”

“All right,” Emilie said reluctantly, feeling she had no other choice. “Let’s go over your plan in detail. I’m still not convinced it’s remotely possible. But let’s think it through.”




Chapter 35

Sometimes the foolhardiest decisions bear fruit far beyond expectation. Sometimes they are just what they seem, foolhardy. Sadly, it is impossible to tell one from the other in the spur of the moment. A naval officer can only find out the hard way.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Intrepid, Damial system

Still far from sure about what she was doing, Emilie nevertheless found herself watching Damial as it slowly shrank on Intrepid’s main holographic display. “All right, I think we’ve come far enough,” she said after seventy minutes. “Disengage our false electromagnetic signature and let’s show them who we really are. Go to seventy percent acceleration.”

Though it would take four minutes for the new electromagnetic radiation from Intrepid to reach the Karacknid dreadnought, the gravimetric waves given off by the cruiser’s acceleration rates were detected instantly. The Karacknids didn’t wait to act. Within seconds their engines and reactors powered up. Slowly at first, but with a sharply rising acceleration rate, the dreadnought broke orbit. Though Emilie had seen them in action before, she was impressed, nonetheless. The dreadnought out massed Intrepid by a factor of ten, yet it was still able to put out enough thrust to achieve an intercept trajectory. Emilie shook her head. If the dreadnought got off just one salvo her command would be wiped out. She scanned the rest of the Damial system. Two hours ago Commodore Shraw had taken his squadron out of orbit to carry out some training exercises. His ships were currently blasting away at an asteroid with their energy weapons. To the Karacknids, his actions were meant to look like posturing. Just like the Karacknids had threatened the Conclave with their nuclear weapons aimed at Damial’s cities, Shraw’s exercises were meant to be seen as an attempt to show the Karacknids strength in the face of their ongoing negotiations. It looks like they’re buying it, Emilie thought, or rather hoped. If the Karacknid Captain suspected Shraw’s squadron might turn hostile, it made more sense to take them out first. Yet Shraw’s ships were being ignored.

For nearly an hour Emilie let the Karacknid dreadnought think it would intercept her ship. Then, when it was far enough away from Damial, she gave the order to change course. As soon as Intrepid altered her trajectory, Shraw’s ships turned away from the asteroid they had been following. “Increase acceleration, take us to one hundred percent.”

Just as she and Shraw had predicted, the Karacknid capital ship also altered course. Except, it wasn’t turning to match Intrepid’s maneuver. It was decelerating and coming back towards Damial. Whether the Karacknid commander recognized Intrepid as a human warship, or he had just concluded that Shraw’s ships were up to no good, he had decided how best to respond. Damial was where he could do the most damage.

“We’re picking up a message from the planet,” Intrepid’s COM officer informed Emilie five minutes later. “It’s marked for Shraw, but the codes Shraw gave us can decrypt it.”

“Let’s see,” Emilie requested. On the screen an image of a Folian appeared. Emilie didn’t recognize it. Or more to the point, as it spoke, she couldn’t tell who it was. The Folians all looked alike to her.

“Commodore Shraw, what are you doing?” the Folian demanded. “You are antagonizing Captain Maralang. He has demanded to know who the unknown ship belongs to. He’s threatening to nuke the planet. Power down your ships and take Captain Kansas into custody. Now!”

“Shraw is sending a reply,” Intrepid’s COM officer said.

When Emilie nodded, Shraw’s face appeared in place of the Folian’s. “I know exactly what I’m doing Elder. You have heard what Raloja shared with all of us. The Karacknids cannot be trusted. They must be driven from our colonies. Captain Kansas and I intend to do just that. You can you order your ships to aid us, or, if we fail, you can risk what Maralang might do to your homeworld. Either way, I suggest you decide quickly.”

Emilie couldn’t help but smile at Shraw’s tone. She had taken the same tone with the Folians. It hadn’t worked then, but things were very different now. They were staring the destruction of their home planet in the face.

For several seconds Emilie watched the array of alien ships in orbit around Damial. For what seemed like an eternity they didn’t move. Then energy spikes were detected here and there. Within seconds the warships of each of the four Conclave species that were in orbit formed up into one fleet and turned towards the Karacknid dreadnought. Emilie looked over to Alverez and they shared a glance. They had done it! Some would probably say they had done it by force or trickery, but Emilie didn’t care. We’ve done it, the five species of the Conclave are going to fight!

“Now we have to see this through,” Alvarez said as he nodded towards the holo projection of the Karacknid dreadnought.

Emilie turned and followed his gaze. He was right. Shraw had sixteen ships in his squadron. His flagship was approximately the size of a human battlecruiser. The rest were smaller, they would be classed as destroyers and frigates in a Human Fleet. In terms of size, the Dreadnought out massed them all put together. “Launch our fighters,” Emilie snapped. “Slot us into the middle of Shraw’s formation like we planned.”

Just minutes after Intrepid joined the Gramrian ships, the Karacknid dreadnought opened fire. It released sixty-four missiles towards Intrepid’s position. Moments later, it turned and released another sixty-four missiles towards the ships coming towards it from Damial. Though Intrepid entered missile range of the dreadnought just a few minutes later, she was forced to hold fire until Shraw’s ships could join her. The dreadnought would easily swat away her missiles if they came in alone. By then, the Karacknid warship had another double salvo racing towards two groups of Conclave ships. “This is going to be a deadly fight,” Emilie said to her bridge crew. “But it will be quick. We just need to survive three salvos. Let’s make sure we do that, all right?” Emilie shared another glance with Alvarez. Three salvos was perhaps a bold prediction, but the Karacknid dreadnought had over six hundred missiles closing with it from two very different angles. Its point defenses were good, but she didn’t think they were that good.

Before the missiles from the Conclave ships reached the dreadnought, Intrepid and her consorts had to survive two Karacknid salvos. Four missiles dodged all the point defense fire Shraw’s ships could fire at them. Each missile easily shrugged off the last minute ECM the Gramrian ships tried to fool them with. Four of Shraw’s ships were wiped out of existence by the anti-matter explosions. On Intrepid’s sensors, it was like they had simply disappeared. There was no trace left of any of them.

Emilie took a deep breath and steadied herself for the next salvo. With four ships less, their point defense fire would be weakened. More Karacknid missiles would get through. Before the next salvo came, Shraw ordered another salvo from his own ships. Intrepid added her own missiles to the second wave of ordnance being directed at the enemy dreadnought. Then the Karacknid missiles came into point defense range. “Two are targeting us Captain,” Lieutenant Maguire shouted when there were still seven left.

In the blink of an eye Emilie did the calculation. There was almost no chance they would take out both missiles in the handful of seconds that were left. “Evasive maneuvers,” she screamed as she grabbed her command chair. Intrepid’s navigation officer threw the exploration cruiser into a twisting corkscrew. Point defense gunners still tried to hit the missiles but they failed. Both missiles got so close to Intrepid that on the display all three contacts merged. Emilie felt herself violently thrown around in her command chair. Then everything went dark.

Several seconds later Emilie regained consciousness. At least, she thought that’s what she was experiencing. She couldn’t open her eyes, but alarms were blaring in her ears. Pain was shooting through her chest where her restraints were biting into her. With as much strength as she could muster, she forced her eyes open. Only then did she realize she was still fighting g-forces. They weren’t strong enough to knock her out, but they were there. With her eyes no wider than slits, she looked around the bridge. Only the emergency lightning was on and it looked like most of her officers were still unconscious. On the holographic display, the image of space around Intrepid was moving wildly. We are in a spin, Emilie realized. That was good, it meant they were alive. But it also suggested Intrepid wasn’t doing too well.

“Jones,” Emilie shouted as loudly as she could. The forces on her chest made it more like a whisper. “Jones,” she called again. The First Lieutenant was the only person she could see who seemed awake. At her second call, the Lieutenant’s head twist slightly in her direction. “End the evasive maneuvers. Get the ship levelled off,” she wheezed. When Jones didn’t appear to respond, Emilie almost slumped over and let the g-forces take her again. Then Jones’ hand started to move towards his command counsel. It moved almost in slow motion as he fought the g-forces. With one last thrust he grabbed the console. Sliding his hand along it he hit a series of buttons.

Instantly the g-forces died. All around Emilie heads that had been lolling started to shake or rise up. “Wake up everyone! Wake up,” she shouted much more loudly now that she could breathe properly. “We need damage reports and our sensors back online. We are not done for yet. But there could be another Karacknid salvo out there.”

When she looked to her right Emilie was relieved to see Alvarez had his eyes open. He tried to smile at her when their eyes met, but it turned into a grimace. Emilie frowned. He had a large lump on his forehead. As she stared at it, it seemed to be growing right in front of her. “Don’t move,” she said as she held out a hand towards him. “Take it easy.” A part of her wanted to get someone to take him to the infirmary right away. Yet she knew she had more important things to do. Like find out if the infirmary even exists, she thought. “Don’t move,” she repeated and forced herself to turn back towards Lieutenant Jones. “Do we have any damage reports yet?”

Jones shook his head. “Everything is scrambled. I’m getting jumbled reports from most of the ship. Though several sections are ominously quiet.”

“Send repair teams to those sections immediately,” Emilie said, “we need to know what is happening. Maguire?” she asked, turning to her Second Lieutenant.

“Gravimetric sensors are down. I’ve got some electromagnetic ones working. This is the best I’ve got,” she replied as she nodded to the holographic display. On it the Karacknid dreadnought was still visible, there were two large groups of missiles closing with it, but there was no way to tell how many missiles there were. From the small flashes that appeared, it was clear the dreadnought was engaging them.

“I’ve got Commodore Shraw on a COM channel,” Intrepid’s COM officer reported. “He wants to know if we are all right.”

Emilie tore her eyes away from the Karacknid dreadnought. “Inform him we’re still here, but our internal communications are down. Ask if he can send us scans of Intrepid. We need to know what kind of damage we are facing.” As her officers turned back to their stations, Emilie’s eyes dived back to the dreadnought. She was just in time to see multiple missiles detonate all around it. The sudden release of so much energy blinded what was left of Intrepid’s sensors.

“They’ve been overloaded,” Maguire reported. “Re-setting them now.”

“Here are Shraw’s scans,” Intrepid’s COM officer said as a new image appeared on the holo projector. It made Emilie gasp. There were two large holes in her cruiser. The antimatter missiles had eaten two perfectly uniform spheres out of Intrepid. Both looked like they were several decks deep at their mid points. Missile tubes, power relays, bulkheads and so much more had once filled those holes. Now they were simply gone. Including the crew who were stationed there, Emilie knew.

“All right,” she forced herself to say as she took in the rest of her command. “It’s bad, but we still have most of our ship intact. Let’s get those holes sealed and the rest of our weapons and sensors back online. You all know what to do.” The image of Intrepid flickered a couple of times and then was replaced by that of the Karacknid dreadnought. Emilie’s mouth fell open when she saw it. The dreadnought was still there. And it was still accelerating towards Damial! Debris was streaming from multiple sites where missiles had struck it. Intrepid’s two Spitfires were zipping past it, presumably having already released their plasma missiles as well. Yet despite everything that had been thrown at it, it was still going. Worse, another salvo of missiles was heading towards Intrepid. There were only thirty of them. The dreadnought had clearly suffered a lot of damage. But thirty would finish off her ship with ease.

“Sensors are back online,” Maguire reported. “We’ve got movement! Shraw’s squadron is decelerating, they’re taking up station around us.” Emilie’s mouth remained open as she watched the Gramrian ships slow and form a protective cone around her cruiser. As the Karacknid missile salvo came into weapons range, they tore into the thirty missiles. Despite their heroics, three got through their defenses. Rather than break or carry out evasive maneuvers, they held their positions. Emilie swore as each Karacknid missile took out a Gramrian warship. Each had sacrificed itself to protect Intrepid. Anger filled Emilie. She was sick of watching others die. Turning back to the Karacknid dreadnought, she was about to give orders demanding that they fire as many missiles as they had ready when she saw the second wave of Conclave missiles catch up to the Karacknid ship. With so many of its point defense weapons already gone, hundreds of missiles struck the massive warship. When the energy dissipated enough for what was left of Intrepid’s sensors to see again, there was no sign of the dreadnought. It had been reduced to its constituent atoms almost as effectively as if it had been hit by one of its own antimatter missiles.

“It’s gone,” Maguire shouted. “It’s gone!”

“Yes,” Emilie said as her eyes returned to the image of Intrepid that was being displayed on a secondary holo display. The Karacknid dreadnought was gone. The species of the Conclave were in the fight. But the cost was going to be high. After so many months she knew all of her crew by name. She could picture every one of their faces. Many of them were gone.

*

Intrepid, Folian repair yard, 31st March 2482 AD (four days later).

“Well,” Emilie said to her senior officers. “The Folians have completed their survey of the damage. They reckon it will take them a couple of weeks to seal the holes in the hull. Then she will be ready to enter shift space again. They believe they can repair some of our internal damage as well. We have enough spares to replace two of our lost missile tubes and most of our point defenses and sensors can be rebuilt in system as well.”

“What are you saying?” Alvarez asked. “I thought the plan was to get patched up and head back to our territory to bring news of what has happened home. Intrepid needs a proper refit.”

“She does,” Emilie agreed as she held Alvarez’s eyes. “But if we go back, how long will that take? A month to head back to the Maximilian system. Then what, another couple of months in a repair yard? And that’s assuming there is one free. We’d probably be put to the back of the queue. It could be six months before we are back out here. And that’s if our crew aren’t all reassigned. The Folians can get us going again in one.”

“But… Your uncle needs to know what has happened. The Conclave species are going to need as much help as we can give them.”

“They certainly do. But Intrepid doesn’t need to be the one to bring word back to Earth.” Emilie very intentionally looked away from Alvarez. “Doctor Spence, I believe you are the best qualified to update everyone on Earth about our new friends. You understand each of their species the best. I have spoken with Commodore Shraw. He has agreed to send one of his destroyers to Earth with a diplomatic delegation. I’d like you to go with them. You can bring our reports with you and, of course, you’ll need our access code to go through the wormhole and not get attacked by the fortifications being built there. I haven’t told Shraw about the wormhole. He only knows that our territory can only be accessed in a unique way. You’re not to inform the destroyer’s Captain exactly where you’re going until you reach the wormhole. Do you think you’re up for travelling with the Gramrians on your own?”

“Certainly, Captain,” Spence replied. “I am sure I’d enjoy learning more about their culture. And I understand the importance of getting word of what has happened here back to Earth as soon as possible. We need to get technological and military support out here as soon as we can.”

“That is why we cannot wait,” Emilie said as she turned back to Alvarez. “Shraw’s destroyer will be leaving before the day is out. Spence, you’ll have to pack your things pretty quickly.”

“If Spence is going to bring word to Earth and we’re not going back for repairs, then what is your plan Captain?” Alvarez asked as he gave Emilie a knowing look. He knew he wasn’t going to enjoy her answer.

“The Kalassai,” Emilie replied. “We’re going to find the Kalassai.”

Emilie smiled when Alvarez closed his eyes and took a deep breath. She knew he wanted to argue with her. But equally, he knew there was no point. Both of them had been there when Shraw had told them about the phantom species. Both of them had discussed the possibilities finding the Kalassai might open. Some of the Conclave species thought the Kalassai were a myth. A nomadic species that supposedly inhabited this sector of space. One the Karacknids were rumored to have been hunting for more than a century. Yet if they did exist, then they had managed to stay alive despite the Karacknids’ best efforts to the contrary. They were exactly the type of species Emilie needed to make contact with. “We’re not going home,” Emilie said to her officers. “We came here to seek out new ways to wage war against the Karacknids. We found one, but there are others still out there for us to explore. And that is exactly what we’re going to do.”




Chapter 36

Today the construction of warships is entirely carried out by autonomous drones. Only the final safety checks require Human input. In the early days of the Empire things were very different. Drones were used heavily of course, but the intricacies of warship design meant constant supervision was needed.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Sandringham House, England, 25th February 2482 AD (seven days after King James VII’s coronation).

“We will seek to maneuver them into this position and strike from here,” Gupta explained to James, Christine and Scott. All four of them were staring at a holo projection of the New Berlin system. “If the Karacknids play ball, it should be a fair fight. We’ll take losses, but I don’t see how we can avoid that.”

James had his face screwed up. “I don’t like it. But with the limited numbers we have, we are going to struggle in any kind of fleet on fleet battle.”

“There’s no way we can combine Lightfoot’s fleet with Home Fleet for the battle?” Christine asked.

James shared a glance with Gupta. It was something they had discussed for hours already. He shook his head. “Not any way we can think of. Not one that would have a good chance of working at least. At best, Lightfoot can make a nuisance of himself. This is something Home Fleet will have to do themselves.”

A knock on the door to the briefing room stopped James from saying anything further. “Enter,” he called. The British marine who was in the briefing room guarding the door stepped aside and opened it.

“Your Highness,” Fairfax said as he rushed into the room. “I have news.”

This time James’ eyes went to Christine. The elections had been held yesterday. Up until the last votes, they had both been tirelessly campaigning. James had slept no more than twenty hours over the last week. What he had been doing with the rest of his time was a blur. He vaguely remembered a public debate with Bernard in the refugee camps about the merits of the new constitution and forming one governmental structure for Humanity. He had been grilled endlessly by a host of holo news outlets about how the new government and legal systems would work in practice. Alongside each of those recorded events, he had visited towns and cities up and down the length of Britain, and even spent a day on Mars, to speak with his citizens. Almost everywhere he had gone he had been welcomed with a love that he had not expected. Being King, if even only for a week or so, had elevated him in the eyes of most of the British populace. Yet there had been no real indication of whether that love would translate into votes.

When it had all finally been over James had returned to Sandringham House and slept for nearly half a day. He had awoken to find Christine had come to Sandringham House to visit him. They had spent pretty much all of their time discussing strategy with Admiral Gupta or new technologies with Scott or some finer points of the economy with Andréa. Anything to take their minds off the referendum results. “Well, are you going to tell us?” Christine asked when Fairfax moved up beside them but didn’t say anything. She stamped her foot as she spoke and raised an eyebrow.

“Of course, of course,” Fairfax said as he bowed deeply to Christine. “I am eternally at your service my Empress.”

“It passed!” James said as a weight lifted from his shoulders. A smile spread across his face. “We won?”

Fairfax turned and bowed just as deeply to James. “I’m afraid I am at a loss as to how to address you your grace. Your Royal Highness? Or Your Imperial Greatness?”

Christine reached over and thumped Fairfax hard on the shoulder. “Stop toying with us. What were the results?”

Straightening, Fairfax lifted a hand to rub his shoulder as he took a half a step back from Christine. “Okay, okay. I guess my fun is over. You know I’ve been working towards this for years? You could have played along a little.”

“Not when we don’t know what exactly has happened,” James countered.

“Right, well the vote passed in all seven nations. With a turnout of seventy-six percent, our constitution won sixty-eight percent of the vote. It was a little higher in Britain and China, the United Colonial States of America vote was just sixty-one percent in favor. But overall, the constitution has been adopted in Britain, China, USA, Russia, Japan, Australia, Canada and Mexico. Every nation that held a referendum has passed it.”

James found himself needing to sit down. “A seventy-six percent turnout and a sixty-eight percent share of the vote. That’s a real mandate isn’t it? No one can argue with that.”

“I’m sure some will find a way,” Fairfax responded. “But you’re right. The turnout was about what I expected. But the result? That was always in the balance. Now there can be no doubt. With such a win, I believe it will snowball from here. There will be other Earth nations planning to hold their own votes in the coming days and the colonies will have no choice but to vote as well.”

“What do we do now? Politically I mean, where do we stand?” James asked. “Is Christine now Empress of our Human Empire? Do we need to have another coronation?” When he looked over to Christine, James saw that she was still taking it in. He understood full well. It had been one thing to know he was going to be crowned King of the British Star Kingdom, but actually being crowned had been something else entirely.

“Yes and no…” Fairfax replied slowly. “Officially, our constitution has been adopted by the nations that have held their referendums. She is now the Empress of the land and citizens these formerly sovereign nations of Earth and Mars had. So she is now the Empress of much of the Sol system. Beyond that, I imagine the legal technicalities would be impossible to work out. Is she Empress of ships built in British shipyards in the Sol system that are now stationed in the British colonies? What about citizens of British colonies that are living in England? Or Americans born in the Continental United States that are now living in one of their colonies? In reality, there is no legal precedent. There’s no way to know. Until every colony has had its own referendum, we’ll be stuck with such realities.

“Besides, she’s not Empress until she is officially crowned. And we shouldn’t do that until referendums have been held in every nation here on Earth and on all of our colonies. Or at least as many as we can get to hold them. When she does finally ascend to the position of Empress of Humanity, we need to make sure it is as legitimate as possible. The more people who have adopted our constitution by then, the better. Only then can we have a Royal marriage. You’ll have to wait a bit longer to be Emperor I’m afraid your Highness.”

James lifted his arm like he was going to thump Fairfax’s other shoulder. “You know I don’t care about that. What I want to know is, do we now have enough legitimacy to launch our diversion?”

Fairfax turned to Gupta. “That’s really a question for our esteemed Admiral to answer. I believe Christine can now officially command the elements of your fleet whose nations have just accepted the constitution. Do you think the rest will follow?”

Gupta took a breath and nodded. “If James and Koroylov sign off on the order as well, then I believe so. What’s left of our fleet knows they are our two best Admirals. There will be some elements within the fleet, like the Indian and Argentinian officers, who will come under pressure from their governments to resist. But I do not think we will have any serious problems. Even a Junior Lieutenant can read the strategic situation in Alliance space. They know how important our mission is.”

“Very well,” Fairfax said as he turned back to Christine and looked at her expectantly.

Though James thought she still looked dazed, she blinked a few times and smoothed her expression. “As my first act as Empress, albeit uncrowned, I order you, Admiral Gupta, to take our forces to New Berlin and break the siege of the colony.”

“As you command my Empress,” Gupta replied as she gave a slight bow.

“You can return to the Beta system and join the Home Fleet as soon as you’re ready to leave,” James added. “They’ll need to know exactly what is going on. Scott and I will rendezvous with you in six days. That is when we will have the rest of our ships ready?”

“It is,” Scott said with a nod.

“Then our offensive will begin within the week,” Christine said. “When you depart, I will address our people to inform them of what is going on. Though, there is one problem with your plan James. I’m afraid you will not be accompanying them your Majesty.”

James’ head spun around. “What?”

Christine gave him a small smile. “You heard me just fine. You’re not going anywhere. Not when we’re in the middle of trying to establish an entirely new political order.” She waved her hand towards the meeting room’s door. “How many of the people out there voted for this new constitution because you are on the ticket? How many percentage points did your name win us?” When James didn’t answer she turned to Fairfax.

He shrugged, “We’ve no way of knowing for sure.”

“But if you had to guess?” Christine pushed.

“Five percent, maybe ten, heck, maybe even fifteen,” Fairfax said as he shrugged again. “There is no way to know if the people are voting for this because they want you, or James, or the constitution itself. Or if they are just angry and they want revenge on the Karacknids. I doubt we’ll ever know. But as the saying goes, you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“But it is significant,” Christine said as she turned back to James. “We won with sixty percent of the vote, take you out and it could go 50-50. It will be the same in our colonies as it has been here. You’re too important to risk on this mission. You need to be here to campaign for this. Whether either of us like it or not, we are both bound to this.”

“There will be none of this if this mission fails,” James said through clenched teeth. “I am a warrior, an Admiral. If our fleet is going to risk annihilation, then I am going with it.”

Christine sighed. “We’ve had this conversation before. Yes, you are those things, but you are more than them. You are a symbol.”

“Even symbols are meant to be used,” James countered. “I am not going to sit around here and do nothing.”

“Do nothing!” Christine repeated as her voice rose. “Do nothing. Is that what you think I’ll be doing?

“Of course not,” he said quickly. “That’s not what I meant. I am the one who would be doing nothing if I stayed. My skills would be wasted.”

“I think you sell yourself short your Majesty,” Fairfax said as he gently moved between the two of them. “Our Empress is correct. You cannot go. We have to see what we’ve started through to the end. If you go, most will not understand why it needs to be you. They’ll simply see you leaving at a crucial time. Admiral Gupta commands Home Fleet, and Admiral Lightfoot our forward fleet. Many will ask why they cannot lead this mission? Do you not trust them?”

James looked to Gupta for help. “His Majesty is the best naval commander I have ever known,” Gupta quickly said. “This mission is perhaps the most important a fleet of our species has ever undertaken. We need him at the helm.”

“So you doubt your own abilities?” Christine asked as she lowered her chin and stared at Gupta. “You could not defeat the Karacknid fleet at New Berlin?”

“Of course she could,” James said angrily. He didn’t want to admit it, for he knew how Christine would use his admission, but he didn’t want to see Gupta’s abilities questioned either. “We did not make a mistake appointing her commander of Home Fleet.”

“Then she is perfectly qualified to lead our forces,” Christine replied, just as James knew she would. “She has spent decades learning from you. She will have Lightfoot to aid her after New Berlin. He has already shown himself more than a match for the Karacknids. Your place is here. There will come a time when you will need to lead our forces. But when the time comes, you will be leading them as our Emperor.”

James let out a deep breath. He was defeated. He knew it. Though it didn’t mean he didn’t want to argue more. What stopped him was the reality that none of those in the briefing room with him had any time to waste. “So be it,” he said as he held Gupta’s stare. “If I cannot go, I would have no one else take the lead in my place. You should make arrangements to depart for the Beta system as soon as possible. You need to inform the other admirals of Home Fleet of our plan. Captain Scott can lead the rest of our forces to join you as soon as they are ready.”

Gupta nodded and glanced at Scott. “I’m sure she will be able to get everything in order.”

“Captain?” Scott asked. “I’m a Commander… Captain of what?”

“That is my one condition,” James said as he turned back to Christine. “Your first official order has been to sanction this mission. I would like your second to be to promote Scott to Captain. Misfit arrived yesterday from the Regin shipyard. She needs a Captain. Scott can take command and lead the rest of our forces that are still getting ready to depart.”

Christine gave him a deep nod and turned to Scott. “Commander Scott, as Empress of Humanity and commander-in-chief of our Navy, I promote you to the rank of Captain. You have earned it, may you do us proud. Misfit will make a fitting first command. You did design her after all.”

Scott looked from James to Christine and then back to James.

James couldn’t help but chuckle at the startled look on her face. “Do you remember our conversation back when you were a science officer, when you told me you wanted to transfer onto the command track?”

“Of course Admiral,” Scott replied, her mouth still hanging open.

“Well consider this my promise fulfilled. I guess there are a few advantages to being a King after all. And you have earned it.”

“Thank you,” Scott said as she smiled. “Thank you Admiral.”

James could see from the look on her face that her mind was already elsewhere. She looked just like Emilie had when he had given her command of Intrepid. Thoughts of his niece made James frown. There had been no updates from her for weeks. She would know nothing about the Karacknid invasion of Alliance space. She could return to find the war lost. Or not return at all. Given what he did know about what she was up to, he lived in constant fear that he had sent her into a more dangerous situation that he had ever anticipated.

*

Sandringham House, 4th March 2482 AD (six days later).

Have you ever seen a more motley fleet? James asked himself as he stared at the holo projection of the ships in orbit. It was hard to believe that the hopes of Earth and the Varanni Alliance rested on such ships. There were more than one hundred of them, but so many were half repaired, with the scars from battle still visible; or they were converted freighters that still very much looked like they would crumple with the slightest touch. Here and there were brand-new ships. Including Scott’s Misfit; but they were heavily outnumbered. The supply freighters and troop transports intermingled within the fleet added to its chaotic impression. It’s all we’ve got, James said to himself. Once the ships in orbit were added to Home Fleet, Humanity would be throwing everything they had at the Karacknids. It has to be enough.

Meanwhile, James thought as he clenched his teeth. I’m stuck here. Scott had just signaled to inform Christine and him that her fleet was ready to depart. James had already sent a reply giving her permission to break orbit. Whilst tens of thousands of his people would be going off to risk their lives, he was stuck in the underground command and control center of Sandringham House. It didn’t look like he would get to leave any time soon. Plus, if he did, it would be to campaign on the election trail once more. Several nations had succumbed to the pressure to hold their own referendums on the Empire’s constitution, including France and Germany. Fairfax had already scheduled several addresses for him to make in Paris and Berlin. At least, in the outskirts of the destroyed cities. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Suzanna’s voice said in the back of his mind as James thought of what his wife would think of him. This is your role and you’ve got to play it. At least, he said to himself as he tried to placate his own feelings, the crowds won’t be as hostile as the politicians. That was the one surprisingly pleasant thing his campaigning had taught him. The people of Earth were far more receptive to the idea of forming one Empire than the politicians. They were the ones who had suffered the most in the Karacknid attack, who were still suffering. James didn’t know if it would translate into votes, but there was a restlessness among Earth’s citizens. They were still scared. They never again wanted to feel as vulnerable as they did now. James didn’t blame them. Not at all. That is why you must remain here, Suzanna’s voice said.

With one set of emotions under control, another crept into his mind. Guiltily, he glanced to his right. Christine was standing there watching the holo projection. She was uncomfortably close to him, yet he hadn’t stepped away from her. Whether she sensed his glance or not, Christine turned and met his eyes. “It’s time,” she said. “Let’s go.” Still filled with thoughts of Scott and Gupta as they went off to war, James nodded, looked back at the holo projection to see Misfit break orbit, then turned and followed Christine out of the command and control room. A brief walk brought them to a small library that had been set up with a podium and recording crew. As Christine stepped up to the podium, James slotted himself in beside her. From the rise of her shoulders he guessed she had taken a deep breath. Then she nodded to the recording crew.

“People of Earth, citizens of the Empire,” Christine began. “Soon you will see images of our fleet in orbit departing to the Beta colony. Every warship we have available is being sent to the front. When King James and I spoke to you more than a week ago, we brought news of the Karacknid victories in Alliance space. We also promised to act. Since then all of us have taken a momentous step together. We have voted to bring in a new era for Humanity. Already many of us are united as one. The results of that can be seen above us,” Christine said as she raised a hand towards space. “Our fleet now goes to make war against the Karacknids. This coming campaign will determine the course of this war and the fate of every species in this sector of space. I therefore come before you asking you to send our fleet off with your hopes and prayers. For they will surely need all the help they can get.”

Pausing, Christine held a level gaze at the recording device. “For those of us who remain, we must honor their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. Only by working together as one, with an unwavering focus upon rebuilding our military and industrial strength, can we hope to defeat the Karacknids. That means every one of us is involved in fighting this war. Our economy, our education system, our research and development, they all must step up to meet the needs of our fleet. In this generation we must forge an Empire devoted fully towards war. For only then can subsequent generations enjoy the freedoms we have now. The freedoms that now hang in the balance. As you watch our fleet leave, may they be a reminder to you; we all must leave the past behind and forge a new path together. A path that will demand all of us to give of our best for one another. Let us put our hope in them as they leave. But let us also honor them. Let us rebuild from the ashes of the Karacknid attack an Empire that will end the evil of the Karacknids once and for all.”

“Quite the speech,” James said as he placed a hand on Christine shoulder when the recording crews signaled they were done. “Sometimes I forget I’m not the only one who grasps just how serious a threat the Karacknids are. I feel like I wasted so many years trying to convince the UN without accomplishing anything.”

“Those days are over,” Christine assured him. “The Battle of Earth saw to that. You agree with what I said then I presume?”

“Of course,” James replied. “Even if Gupta is successful beyond our wildest hopes, it will only buy us a short period of breathing space with which to prepare. We must use it wisely.”

“Exactly,” Christine said with a nod. “That is why our roles here are so important. Rage and anger are still the dominant emotions amongst our citizens. We can use that, but out of that rage we must forge an Empire that is willing and able to fight for years, if not decades. That is what it will take to defeat the Karacknids, is it not?”

James closed his eyes. “I fear that it is. No matter how many hundreds of their ships we destroy. They will have hundreds if not thousands more to take their place.”

“Then we must build thousands of our own,” Christine insisted. “As the horrors of the Karacknid attack fade in the memories of our people, they will return their attention to more mundane things. To the simple pleasures of life. Having a safe home, a secure job, time for friends and family and holidays. We must provide these for our new citizens, but we must also forge them into a weapon and point them at the Karacknids.” Again Christine waved a hand towards space. “You may feel your place is up there, and in time, it will be. But you need to be the Admiral of our entire species, not just our Navy. They need to see and hear you and be reminded of what needs to be done.”

“I know,” James said gently. “I know, it’s just…”

Christine smiled. “It’s just you are pig-headed and stubborn and don’t like being given all this responsibility. I know exactly what it is. Well, it’s a good thing you can’t back out of it. You’ve declared your intentions for everyone to see.”

James rolled his eyes. “Did you prepare that mini speech for me as well?”

“I didn’t have to prepare anything,” Christine said with a wink. “When it comes to telling you what to do, it just comes naturally. Now, come on, we have a small trip to take.”

“Where to now?” James asked in exasperation.

Christine held out her left hand towards him. “You publicly agreed to marry me once I was Empress. Well... I publicly volunteered you for the position. Either way, it’s about time you made it official. We need to go shopping for an engagement ring.”

“Hold on,” James said as he reached out and grabbed Christine’s hand. His mind went to Suzanna again. Though he felt a wave of guilt, he knew it was what she would want him to do. Reaching into his uniform pocket, he pulled out a small box. “I bought this years ago, just before your father sent me and Drake away to explore the Void. I threw it away when I learned about your marriage to Na, but Fox, my steward, found it and kept it for me. He gave it to me when I was last at Badminton House. Back then I had hoped it would be up to the standards of a Princess. I’m not sure it will suit an Empress though. If it doesn’t we can pick another.” Gently James opened the box to reveal a small diamond ring. He lowered himself to one knee and began to speak the words he had prepared. “Will you take this ring Empress, as a sign of our commitment to marry one another? Will you take it as a symbol of our intention to forge an Empire to defeat the Karacknids? Will you take it as a symbol of the love we once had for one another? And the love we may yet share in the future?” As he said the last line James raised his eyes to meet Christine’s. He didn’t know if he could ever love her like he had Suzanna, but he wanted to offer her that hope, for deep down, as much as he knew she needed it, he needed it as well. Just as I needed you Suzanna, I cannot do this alone, he thought as his mind was torn between thinking of his dead wife and the woman in front of him.

Christine blinked several times, a tear running down each of her cheeks. “I will take your ring King James,” she replied as formally as she could. “And I will pray that it will help rekindle the bond we shared when you first bought it.” Gently James took the ring out of the box and placed it on her finger. He then stood and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you,” she whispered as her lips touched his neck. “Thank you, I know how hard this is for you.”

“Bravo, bravo,” Fairfax’s booming voice said as it filled the library. Startled, Christine and James broke apart and spun to look at him, both of their faces reddening. “And we got it all on camera!” he said as he tapped the recording equipment that was still in the room. “This will make for a juicy press release indeed. I can imagine it now. We can play it alongside the old recordings of you two from when you were young and in love. You know, the one where you were making out during your secret rendezvous. That’s right,” he added with a wink. “Don’t think I’d forgotten the controversy you two caused when you were dating. I was with your father when that recording of you two first went public. He nearly blew a fuse. If James hadn’t already been on a ship out of the system he’d have had you thrown in the Tower of London. I’m sure we’ve got the recording somewhere.”

“Don’t you dare!” Christine said as she stomped towards Fairfax. “That was personal!”

Fairfax quickly stepped back, then raised his finger and waved it at Christine. “You’re Empress now, though you have been one for some time, you should already know, nothing you do is personal anymore.”

Christine swung round to James to look for help. As angry as he was about the prospect of Fairfax leaking the recording to the press, he shrugged. “Haven’t you been telling me that very thing for days now?”

Christine clenched her fists and thumped her thighs in frustration. She then opened her left hand and looked down at her ring. Turning back to James she held out her hand. “Come on, let’s ignore him. I want to talk to you some more. You have to tell me where you got this and the story behind it.”

“All right,” James acquiesced. He allowed himself to be led out of the library and, as he went, he did what Christine had instructed the people of Earth to do. His thoughts and prayers went out to Scott, Gupta and the fleet that was going to war.




Chapter 37

Nothing begets technological advances like a prolonged war. The War of Doom was no exception. In fact, with the infusion of Mindus, Varanni and captured Karacknid technology, never before or since were there such jumps in our species’ technological capabilities. The problem for our fleet however was that much of our shipbuilding and manufacturing capacity was lost in the Battle of Earth. Those losses dramatically slowed the speed at which new designs and technologies could be incorporated into the fleet.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


IS (Imperial Ship) Earth, New Berlin shift passage, 20th March 2482 AD (sixteen days later).

“All ships report ready Admiral,” Gupta’s COM officer informed her.

“Make the jump,” she ordered. A moment later she felt a slight jolt as Earth jumped into shift space. It was quickly followed by another as her flagship reverted to real space just two seconds later. The battleship’s active sensors powered up and filled space with electromagnetic energy. As soon as the Karacknid ships were detected, Earth and every other warship in range opened up with their laser and plasma cannons. In the space of just ten seconds, all five of the Karacknid scout ships were destroyed. One human destroyer was also lost while another cruiser had to pull back, badly damaged.

“Take us into the system,” Gupta said as soon as it was clear there were no more Karacknid scout ships. “Begin transmitting our orders for Lightfoot.”

Gupta’s COM officer initiated the gravimetric COM and it sent out gravimetric wave pulses that would immediately be detected by Admiral Lightfoot’s squadron in orbit around New Berlin. The one hundred and forty ships of Gupta’s fleet accelerated straight towards New Berlin. Now it’s over to you, Gupta thought as she tried to remember the last time she had spoken with Lightfoot face to face. It had been quite a while ago, but she had no doubt he would grasp what she was up to.

*

Argyll, New Berlin orbit.

Startled awake, Lightfoot blindly groped for his COM unit as it blared at him. “What is it?” he demanded. “Another probing attack?” By his count, the Karacknids had launched five attacks in the last several months against New Berlin’s defenses. Each time they had fired a single salvo and pulled back to safety. Eventually, he was expecting to get a call that they were making a full scale push.

“No Admiral, it’s something else. There are ships accelerating in from the mass shadow. Our ships! We are getting a gravimetric COM message as we speak,” an officer informed him.

Lightfoot jumped out of bed. “I’m on my way,” he responded. “Send the fleet to battle stations,” he added as he searched for his clothes. He recalled the last force projections that Commander Scott had shared with him before he had left on his mission. They were months old, but they couldn’t have changed too much. There is no way they have enough ships to relieve us, he thought as he exited his quarters and took just six strides to reach the bridge. Unless they’ve brought Home Fleet! he realized as he gazed at the holo projection of the new contacts. They are here for a fight! “Let’s see the message,” he requested as he sat in his command chair. When it appeared on a secondary holo- projector, Lightfoot quickly read through Admiral Gupta’s words. “All right,” he said with a nod. “It’s finally time to get back into action.”

Being cooped up in New Berlin for so long had been eating away at his fleet’s morale. Yet it had given them plenty of time to drill and drill and then drill some more. Lightfoot knew everyone was more than eager for a fight. “Put the fleet onto this heading,” he ordered as he tapped in a series of coordinates onto his command chair. “Formation battle four. Then open a COM channel to our ships’ Captains.”

“All right ladies and gentlemen,” Lightfoot said a few moments later. “The cavalry has arrived. We’re still in a predicament though. If the Karacknids combine their squadrons and race after Home Fleet, they will be in an even battle with our ships. Home Fleet will take heavy losses. We need to keep at least a part of the Karacknid fleet here fighting us. So we are pushing out, we’ll engage Karacknid squadron alpha. Let’s kick some Karacknid butt.” As soon as the COM channel ended, Lightfoot looked back to the main holo projector. The Karacknids had split their fleet into four squadrons to cover the space around New Berlin. Even before he had reached the bridge, they had reacted to the appearance of Gupta’s fleet. Each squadron was on a heading to intercept Home Fleet. It looked like the Karacknid commander intended to use typical Karacknid tactics. Keeping the four squadrons spread out, they would envelop Home Fleet in a withering hail of fire. Not today you won’t, Lightfoot thought. The twenty-four Karacknid ships in alpha squadron were outnumbered almost two to one by his fleet. If they wanted to rendezvous with their comrades, they would have to pass right by his ships. So… how are you going to play this?

It didn’t take long for the Karacknids to respond. What was designated beta squadron on his flagship’s holo display quickly decelerated and reversed course as it turned to the aid of alpha squadron. The gamma and delta squadrons also slowed, though they didn’t turn to engage. They’re holding position, Lightfoot guessed. It seemed the Karacknid commander wanted to wipe out his ships with alpha and beta squadrons while gamma and delta held off Gupta until all of the Karacknid ships could be brought against her. “Two missile salvos,” Lightfoot said to his command staff. “We’ll fire two salvos and then pull back. Target their light ships only.” Karacknid battleships and dreadnoughts could take a severe beating before they were destroyed. If Lightfoot’s guess was right, the Karacknid fleet would eventually have to flee from Gupta’s forces. When they did, the light ships his forces damaged would not be able to keep up with the rest of the fleet.

A series of beeps made Lightfoot grind his teeth together. Alpha squadron had just fired their first salvo. Though he gave the appearance of calm, inwardly his heart beat faster and faster as three minutes ticked by before his ships could return fire. Not for the first time, he wished his fleet had multistage missiles available. “Reverse course, maximum acceleration!” he ordered as soon as his ships’ missiles rushed out of their tubes.

Minutes later the Karacknids’ first missile salvo entered range of his ships’ point defenses. Despite everything that was thrown at them, four missiles made it through. One missed, the other three all destroyed their targets. A frigate, destroyer and light cruiser were all wiped out of existence by the missiles’ antimatter warheads. In reply, Argyll’s sensors detected seven hits from the bomb pumped lasers of his missiles. Though no Karacknid ships were destroyed outright. The second exchange of missiles was not quite as deadly for Lightfoot’s fleet. He lost two destroyers for the price of two Karacknid ships. Beta squadron followed Lightfoot ship’s long enough to fire a third salvo before pulling back out of range of New Berlin’s defenses. It proved ineffectual though for the point defenses of the battlestations and defense satellites shot down all of them. Now what? Lightfoot thought as alpha squadron turned to follow beta squadron and they joined the rest of their ships. The next move was the Karacknids’.

*

IS Earth

“All right let’s show our hand a little bit,” Gupta said as the Karacknid squadrons once again settled onto trajectories to rendezvous with one another. “Inform Avalon she is to launch all fighters. Our battleships are to launch theirs as well.” Avalon, the only carrier to survive the Battle of Earth, launched three squadrons of spitfire fighters and another squadron of bombers. From the three battleships in Gupta’s fleet, twelve more fighters joined the mix. They all moved away from the fleet and formed up into a wide formation.

“Lightfoot’s squadron is breaking orbit again,” a sensor officer reported. “They’re pursuing the Karacknid squadron they’ve already engaged.”

Gupta nodded. As long as Lightfoot kept nipping at the heels of alpha squadron, the Karacknids would never be able to properly join the battle. With her fleet charging straight for the rest of their ships, the Karacknids wouldn’t be able to combine their forces in time. Lightfoot’s initial skirmish against alpha squadron had already ensured that. Now he was just making a nuisance of himself. “Send targeting data to Wing Commander Forest, he is to take his wing around the main Karacknid force and strike alpha squadron. Prepare the fleet to reverse course as soon as his attack begins.”

Once again, Gupta found herself thanking the Haven inventor of the miniature inertial compensators. The spitfire fighters gave her a tactical edge that the Karacknids had been unable to match. If she didn’t have them, she would be at a severe disadvantage. Even though she held the numerical advantage for once, the Karacknid dreadnoughts and anti-matter missiles were just too dangerous to risk a straight up fight.

Racing well ahead of the fleet, Forest led his attack group up and over the two Karacknid squadrons that were facing off against Gupta’s ships. They swooped down behind them and closed with alpha squadron. From such a distance, it was hard for Earth’s sensors to make out exactly what was going on, but when explosions erupted amidst alpha squadron, it was clear Forest’s force got close enough to release its plasma missiles. Over the course of twelve seconds, nine Karacknid ships were destroyed.

“It looks like eight fighters didn’t make it,” the sensor officer reported.

Gupta nodded to acknowledge the report. Her ships had already decelerated to stay out of range of gamma and delta squadrons. Beta was still accelerating to combine with gamma and delta while Lightfoot was closing with what was left of alpha. The initial stages of her plan were coming together nicely. Her fleet was well into the New Berlin system and the Karacknids still had not consolidated their forces. “Signal Forest, he is to keep half his force with Lightfoot and use them to engage any missiles that might come Lightfoot’s way. The rest are to return to us to rearm and refuel.” Now, if I was in your shoes, Gupta thought as she imagined the strategic situation through the eyes of the Karacknid commander, I’d be pulling back about now. With alpha squadron understrength and Lightfoot’s ships close behind, the Karacknid commander had a tough choice to make. He could engage Gupta’s ships with beta, gamma and delta squadrons, or wait for alpha to join as well. Yet if he waited, Lightfoot’s ships would be able to join the battle. In theory, the Karacknids could turn and engage Lightfoot once again. His ships had moved far enough away from New Berlin that they couldn’t retreat in time. Yet doing so would give her fighters time to rearm and launch another strike. Then, she would be able to race in from behind and catch the Karacknids in the same kind of crossfire they liked to use against their opponents. No, Gupta thought, if I were in your shoes, I would be pulling back.

As if to make a point, the three other Karacknid squadrons maintained their position until alpha joined them. For several minutes, Gupta thought they were then going to charge her fleet. But then they turned and settled onto a trajectory for the shift passage out of New Berlin towards Holstein. “Follow them,” Gupta snapped, “eighty percent maximum acceleration. Let’s give Lightfoot a chance to catch up.” Forty minutes later, when Lightfoot’s ships slotted in around hers, Gupta gave the order to go to maximum acceleration. For an hour and twenty minutes they chased the Karacknids out of the system. Five damaged Karacknids ships couldn’t stick the pace and fell back under the guns of her fleet. The rest, with their superior engines, easily reached the shift passage before she could bring them to battle. “Good work,” Gupta said as soon as the last Karacknid ship jumped out. “We’ve hurt them today, now we need to get ready to finish them off. Dispatch Minotaur to the rest of our fleet and inform them it’s safe to jump into the system. I want a full assessment of battle damage within the hour. We need to lick our wounds quickly and keep going. And get me Admiral Lightfoot on a COM channel.”

*

Argyll

“Admiral look at this, there’s something strange about Earth’s markings,” a sensor officer said to Lightfoot as she waved to get his attention. When Lightfoot glanced to her, she gestured towards the secondary holo projector.

Lightfoot’s eyes narrowed when he saw what she had focused one of Argyll’s optical sensors upon. Along the underbelly of all UN warships was an identification number and the ship’s name. Earth’s name was there but the UNS had been replaced by an IS. “Earth is hailing us Admiral, Admiral Gupta wishes to speak with you.”

“Welcome to the New Berlin system Admiral,” he said when Gupta’s face appeared on the holo projector. “Let me thank you for relieving us. I thought we were going to be stuck in orbit for months yet. I have to ask though, what is up with your ship’s name?”

Gupta smiled at him. “A lot has gone on whilst you’ve been stuck out here Admiral. Let me fill you in and then we can get your ships ready to depart. We need to continue our advance as quickly as possible.”

“Advance?” Lightfoot asked. “You do know how many ships are at Holstein? There are as many as were in this system again. And that is only if they haven’t received further reinforcements.”

“I am well aware Admiral,” Gupta replied. “Yet advance we will. The Karacknids have launched their attack against the Alliance. It’s not going well for our friends. If we can’t cause a diversion, the war may be lost in the next few months. We are to push on past Holstein, no matter the cost. We have express orders from our Empress.”

“Our Empress?” Lightfoot repeated.

Gupta shot him the same smile. “Let me explain.”

*

IS Earth, Outer Holstein system, 3rd April 2482 AD (thirteen days later).

Janice has just returned,” the COM officer on Earth’s bridge reported. “She’s transmitting her sensor data.”

Gupta nodded and waited patiently while her tactical officers analyzed it. “It looks like there are about twenty ships patrolling the exit of the shift passage,” an officer informed her moments later as an image appeared on the holo-projector. “The rest of the Karacknid fleet is in orbit around Holstein.”

The rest that we can see, she thought but didn’t add. Everyone was all too aware of what had happened last time a Human Fleet had jumped into the Holstein system to confront the Karacknids. There was no point in her worrying about it though, if the Karacknids had enough ships to launch their invasion of Alliance space and plan a second ambush here, the war would be lost no matter what she did. “Jump us in three light minutes from the mouth of the shift passage, then the fleet will accelerate towards Holstein with ninety percent thrust,” she ordered. There was no point trying to hide, the Karacknids knew she was coming, and they had more than enough ships on patrol to make sure she couldn’t sneak past them.

Ten minutes later her fleet was cruising into the Holstein system. The twenty Karacknid scout ships boosting ahead of her fleet were keeping contact with her ships but staying out of weapons range. If she tried anything sneaky, they would detect it. Now we will see, Gupta thought. Her entire strategy hinged on the decision the Karacknid commander was about to make. If he made the wrong one, she would have to fall back and any attempt to retake Holstein would have to be abandoned. She had one advantage in the coming battle, for the first time the Karacknids were on the defensive. They hadn’t faced a Human fleet while trying to defend a planet before and they didn’t know just what capabilities she had. But those capabilities could only be brought into play if the Karacknid fleet stayed put.

“What are we detecting in system?” she asked to distract herself from wondering what the Karacknids would do.

“It doesn’t look like they have received any reinforcements,” her Chief of Staff replied as the holo projection of Holstein zoomed in. “There’s one hundred and eighty warships ships in orbit. We reckon these forty here are supply freighters. This repair yard looks like it is now complete and there is a second one under construction. There are six other orbital stations, but it’s hard to know if they are defense stations or supply depots.”

One hundred and eighty, Gupta thought as she imagined a battle against such a fleet. It was a minuscule number compared to the fleet that had attacked Earth, or the one the Karacknids had operating against the Alliance, yet against her current forces, they were a real threat. With Lightfoot’s fleet added to her own, she had two hundred and twenty warships. Another forty freighters were with her fleet, but in a straight up fight, their use would be limited. Stay put, she thought to the Karacknid commander. Stay put and protect your supplies. When an idea occurred to her, Gupta cursed herself. She should have thought of it sooner. “Launch Forest’s fighter wing from Avalon. Have them move away from the fleet but continue towards Holstein. Let’s remind the Karacknids that we can strike their orbital facilities even if their ships come out to engage us.”

That’s right, Gupta thought a minute later when the Karacknid ships still hadn’t moved. If you come out against us, I’m going to take out your orbital stations. “Karacknid ships are moving,” Gupta’s Chief of Staff called, breaking her thoughts. “Wait, they’re just reforming. It looks like they’re moving to cover the repair station.”

Gupta nodded with satisfaction. They were staying put. She waited another twenty minutes to be sure. “Okay ladies and gentlemen, it looks like plan Devastating Force is a go,” she said as relief washed through her. Their entire plan hinged on the success of this stage of the mission. “Signal the fleet, we are to begin preparations for Devastating Force.”

Just as they had practiced, the fleet continued towards Holstein for an hour while the ships readied themselves. Then they decelerated and came to a halt relative to the German colony. The forty freighters that were part of the fleet and the many converted freighters that still had sizeable cargo holds all opened their cargo bay doors. From about a quarter, spitfire fighters were released into space one by one from the racks they had been installed upon. Every fighter that had survived the Battle of Earth or been constructed since was packed into the freighters. From the rest of the civilian ships, hundreds of missile pods were unloaded. In the six months since the Battle of Earth, few new ships had been constructed, but the many orbital factories throughout the Human colonies that had been tooled to produce missile pods and fighters had not ceased production. For half an hour fighters and missile pods were unloaded. Then the fighters slowly moved to join Forest’s wing, while the missile pods were maneuvered into position.

“The fleet will advance,” Gupta ordered as soon as the preparations were complete. Leaving the missile pods behind, her ships resumed their acceleration towards Holstein. Forest’s fighters, their numbers bolstered to over two hundred and forty, kept pace. “Fire the missile pods,” Gupta ordered ten minutes later. Behind her fleet, one thousand six hundred missile pods accelerated each of their three missiles out of their launch tubes. Instead of igniting their own engines, the missiles continued on a ballistic course towards Holstein. “Fire,” Gupta ordered thirty seconds after the wave of missiles passed her own ships. There had only been enough multistage missiles in the Sol system for each ship to be equipped with three salvos. Gupta hoped they would only need one today.

From her ships, two thousand one hundred and ninety missiles were launched towards Holstein. Forest’s fighters powered up their engines and raced in after them. It’s too late now, Gupta thought towards her opponent as the Karacknid fleet slowly broke orbit. It was clear they wanted to engage Forest’s fighters before they could reach the orbital stations.

In silence, Gupta watched her attack unfold. Against a Human opponent she might have felt some pity for those she was about to slaughter. It was not so for the Karacknids. Many of the ships in front of her had been part of the fleet that had attacked her homeworld. They would receive no mercy.

As soon as the anti-ship missiles from the missile pods got close enough to engage their own engines, they announced themselves to the Karacknids. Suddenly, an incoming missile salvo of just over two thousand jumped to six and a half. Two thousand the Karacknids could have handled, six was beyond their defenses. Hundreds of missiles breached their point defense fire to release their bomb pumped lasers. Evasive maneuvers caused many to miss, but more than enough struck home. Thirty-two Karacknid ships were destroyed outright and at least forty more suffered hits. Laser beams took out missile tubes, sensor arrays and point defense weapons. Perhaps just as deadly, the Karacknids’ evasive maneuvers and losses completely disrupted their formation. Into the gaps swarmed Forest’s fighters. Plasma missile detonations quickly followed. In the space of just two minutes, the missile salvo and follow-up fighter attack decimated the Karacknid fleet. Gupta nodded in approval. Forest had targeted every Karacknid battleship and dreadnought. Not one had survived unscathed.

“Bring the fleet to a halt,” she ordered when the scale of the destruction became apparent. Barely forty Karacknid warships were left intact and none looked to be undamaged. “Let’s get Forest’s fighters back to Avalon. We are going to refuel and rearm as many as we can. Then we’ll move in and finish the job. Power up the gravimetric COM and signal the rest of our fleet, they are to join us and prepare for the invasion.”

As Earth’s gravimetric COM sent out pulses to the troop transports and their escorts in the outer system, Gupta watched the remaining Karacknid ships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they didn’t remain in orbit. Whatever commanders were left could likely guess what was coming their way. A follow-up attack by Forest’s fighters would obliterate them. As a result, most of them broke orbit and accelerated towards the shift passage that eventually led back to Jaranna and safety. The few that didn’t fell back to protect the repair station. Presumably, they were too damaged to try and escape. “Detach Flew’s squadron, they are to keep contact with the Karacknid forces and await Forest,” Gupta ordered. “We will continue on to Holstein.”

When her fleet came into range of the Karacknid defenses, Gupta kept one eye on the assault and one eye on the fleeing Karacknid ships. Commodore Flew had her own ships and the most recent Human designs of Captain Scott. They were the only ships in the fleet capable of keeping up with the Karacknids. After refueling and rearming fifty fighters, Forest set off after the fleeing enemy ships. When he closed with them, his fighters swooped in and caught the Karacknids in a crossfire with Flew’s ship. None of the Karacknids survived the attack.

“The orbitals are clear Admiral, what are your orders?” her Chief of Staff asked, bringing Gupta’s full focus back to Holstein.

“Scan the surface, locate every Karacknid military base and army formation, and begin bombarding them. Make sure we avoid all civilian buildings though. I imagine the populace has already suffered enough.” The many craters that littered Holstein’s surface were evidence enough of that. “Has there been any COM activity from the surface?”

Gupta’s COM officer shook her head. “No Admiral, it has been completely silent.”

Gupta nodded, keeping her emotions to herself. She hoped that meant that Major General Johnston’s marines were dug in and awaiting their chance to attack. It had been eleven months since the Karacknids had conquered the colony. She feared it might be more likely that no one was contacting them because none were left alive. “Signal General Jackson, he may begin his invasion.” The orbital battle had been won, but Holstein was still a long way away from returning to Human control. Even Gupta’s inexperienced eye told her there were a lot of Karacknid soldiers on the planet’s surface.




Chapter 38

In its infancy the Imperial Marines were largely confined to shipboard duties with just a handful of independent battalions. Now there are over forty million marines in active service. Most are deployed along the Antarian border. Perhaps even more than the Imperial Fleet, they are our greatest deterrent against that particular threat.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Holstein.

“General, general,” a voice gently said as Johnston felt someone shaking his shoulder. “General Johnston, Sir.”

“What… What is it?” he croaked as he cracked open his eyes. The small offshoot in the cave that he had turned into his quarters was flooded with light.

“There is something happening in orbit, I think you better come take a look.”

“Something? You mean a battle?” Johnston asked.

“I don’t know Sir. Corporal Winter just sent me to get you. He said something about the Karacknid fleet breaking orbit.”

“All right, I’m on my way marine,” Johnston replied as he brought a hand up to shield his eyes from the light penetrating his part of the cave. Having fallen asleep in the previous day’s uniform, Johnston didn’t bother to change. He only had two uniforms anyway. Carefully, he made his way through the small damp cave, trying not to tread on anyone or disrupt anyone’s personal items as he went. He had sixty marines crammed into the cave with him. With what supplies and weapons they had been able to save, there was barely room for anyone to move. As a result, tensions had been high for weeks. Right in the middle of the cave there was a metallic ladder that led up to a hole the marines had bored to the surface. After rolling his shoulders, Johnston started to climb. When he got to the top he gently eased open the camouflaged hatch. In a bunker just to his right, Corporal Winter was on watch. Climbing out, Johnston slipped in beside Winter, making sure to keep himself under the thermal camouflage.

“Look, there,” Walker said as he pointed through a small gap in the camouflage where they were able to look up to the sky through a break in the forest.

“Something is afoot,” Johnston said as he watched the glow from hundreds of engines light up the sky. It was night on Holstein and the Karacknid warships that had been in low orbit drowned out the stars as their engines boosted them onto a new trajectory. “They’re either leaving to go on the offensive, or we have a fleet about to attempt to retake the planet.”

“Our ships?” Winter asked as hope filled his voice. “You think they have finally come?”

Johnston looked at the corporal’s ragged uniform. Though it was very faded, it was easy to tell that he was wearing the uniform of the UN army rather than marines. That meant he understood even less about naval warfare than most of the men in the cave below. Searching his memory, Johnston reminded himself that Winter had once commanded a Hercules battle tank. It had long since been destroyed by the Karacknids. “It could be,” he said not wanting to shatter the soldier’s hopes. The last force projections he had seen before leaving Earth were twelve months old. Yet Johnston remembered them clearly. Given the number of ships the Karacknids had in orbit, and the massive fleet they had witnessed heading towards Earth after Holstein had fallen, he doubted there were any UN warships left in all of Human space. Never mind enough to try and re-take Holstein.  So then where are they going? Johnston asked himself.

With no way of getting an answer to this question, Johnston contented himself with staying in the bunker and watching the night sky. Within just five minutes the Karacknid ships disappeared from view. Then he was left with nothing but the stars and the slowly moving Karacknid repair station. Johnston and Winter jumped when it suddenly exploded above them. Suddenly the sky was filled with shooting stars as debris fell into the atmosphere and burned up. Johnston had to stop himself from jumping in joy. “They are under attack!” he shouted as he looked at Winter and grabbed the corporal by his shoulders and shook him. “They are under attack.” As quickly as he had grabbed him, Johnston released him and looked back up at the marvelous sight above him. For months and months the Karacknids had been hunting his people, killing them off one by one. Now they were the hunted. And they were losing! That thought kicked Johnston’s mind into gear. If the Karacknids were losing in space, it meant a landing force would come to retake the planet. He didn’t know how it was possible. He had accepted what had seemed like the inevitable conclusion. That the UN fleet had been destroyed and Earth conquered. And yet the Karacknids were under attack! With a start he realized he needed to get his marines ready and into position. At once he started to think through all the different tactical options he had analyzed. For months he had spent hours and hours every day planning and planning for this eventuality. Not that he had expected it, but he had needed the distraction. Now that it had come he could finally put some of it to use! We may have been defeated, Johnston said to himself as he thought of all the marines he had lost, but you didn’t wipe us out. Now it’s time to fight back. “Stay here,” Johnston said as he slapped Winter on the shoulder. “Keep watch, I’ll send word for you when we’re ready to depart.”

Jumping up, Johnston heaved open the hatch and almost fell into the cave. Holding each side of the ladder he slid right down to the bottom. “Listen up,” he said as his voice boomed through the cave. “There’s a fleet of ours taking on the Karacknids. If they win, they’ll be landing troops. That means marines are even now preparing to assault this world. We’ve all seen how many surface to air weapons the Karacknids have set up around the capital. It’s time we took some of them out. Get your gear and those of you who have combat armor still functioning, armor up. We are leaving in ten minutes. Go, go, go!” As soon as he finished speaking, pandemonium broke out as the marines and soldiers almost fought one another for space as they grabbed their weapons and combat armor. Johnston returned to his small alcove. He needed to retrieve his own weapons and one of his portable COM units. When he got his equipment, he made his way to the mouth of the cave. Captain Sancho, the senior marine in his group, was already there. “You know where to go Captain?” Johnston asked.

“Yes Sir,” the Captain responded as she gave Johnston a salute.

Johnston nodded in approval. As the only senior officers in the cave, they had spent many hours together in conversation. Over that time he had watched her slowly lose her sense of purpose. He guessed she had experienced the same thing with him. Yet now it was back. Her eyes were shining with anticipation. “Then get going Captain.”

“Move out,” Sancho shouted, then turned out of the cave and broke into a light jog. Johnston grimaced at her speed, though he understood it. Sancho was in her combat armor and could have maintained a jog of triple the speed for more than an hour. However, many of the marines were wearing nothing more than their camouflage fatigues. Their armor had been destroyed or run out of power reserves. With no generators powerful enough to recharge them, many had been abandoned. But they still have their plasma rifles, Johnston reminded himself. That was all they needed. As the marines, soldiers and a handful of Holstein’s militia filed out past him, Johnston counted them. Ninety was the final number. His initial force had numbered more than six thousand. It had been weeks since Johnston had any contact with other hidden groups of marines, but he doubted there were more than five hundred of them in total by now. And yet we are still here, and the Karacknids are going to know about it.

Johnston waited until the last marine was out of sight before pulling a COM unit out of his utility belt. He programmed it to wait ten minutes and then broadcast a signal into orbit. It contained the best landing sites his forces had scouted and the positions of the underground bunkers the Karacknids had constructed around Holstein’s capital. He was certain there were others that remained undiscovered, but if they could retake the planet, they would be found and dealt with eventually. Setting the COM unit down, he turned and took off in the direction of his forces.

It took just thirty minutes for his marines to get into position. During the long jog Johnston had half expected Karacknid shuttles or other ground forces to intercept them. It seemed that without their ships and stations in orbit, their ability to track any new movements was severely restricted. Of course, the lack of opposition could also have had something to do with the streaks of fire that had appeared overhead not long after his COM message went out. From when the first one had made contact with Holstein’s surface until Johnston’s forces arrived at their coordinates the ground hadn’t stopped shaking. Orbital strikes, Johnston had thought as soon as the first one had struck home. The fact they weren’t falling on his men told him all he needed to know. An invasion force had come, and the Karacknids were finding out what it was like to be the ones on the receiving end of such attacks.

“All right get dug in,” Johnston ordered when the jog finally came to an end. He pointed towards the edge of the forest that they had stopped just in front of. “Our relief force will be landing right over there. That’s our ticket home. We need to hold here and cut off any kind of counter-attack. This is it ladies and gentlemen, one last battle and then we are going home. Let’s give a good account of ourselves, for all those who are not here with us now.”

As his soldiers got to work, Johnston sought out Captain Sancho. “You take the right flank and I’ll take the left. If there are any Karacknids left out there, they’ll probably try and get into position to shoot down the shuttles before they land. They’ll get a nasty surprise when they find us already here. Whatever happens, we can’t fall back. We need to prevent them getting to the clearing.”

“I understand General, we’ve all come this far. They won’t let you down,” she responded.

Johnston saluted his subordinate. “I know Captain. I know.” He turned and marched over to the left flank of the defensive line his forces were setting up. After walking back and forth to check the positions his marines and soldiers had taken, Johnston found a suitable spot for himself and hunkered down to wait. Silence descended around them as no one dared speak. The only noises were the chirping of the local wildlife and the distant rumblings from the orbital strikes as they continued. The sudden ending of the strikes twenty minutes later told Johnston the landings were about to begin. The sun had just risen and the forest around him was becoming more and more visible.

Movement to his right made Johnston turn his head. A marine about fifty meters away had a hand in the air and was signaling. ‘Enemy ahead.’ That was quick, Johnston thought. They must have a hidden bunker nearby. It also told him that whoever was commanding the invasion force had received his COM message. They were sending landing shuttles to the clearing in the forest behind his defensive line. There was only one reason for the Karacknids to come this way. They had already detected the shuttles making their descent. As more movement caught his attention, Johnston lowered himself behind the fallen tree trunk he was using for cover. This time it was ahead of him. A Karacknid soldier was advancing quickly towards him. The soldier had some kind of large rocket launcher in its hands.

Ever so slowly he eased his plasma rifle against his shoulder and sighted it on the Karacknid. Pausing for a moment, he glanced left and right. Other Karacknids were coming into sight as well. He sensed rather than saw the marines and soldiers around him prepare themselves. Counting to three, he gave his forces enough time to line up their shots, then he pulled the trigger. Three plasma bolts shot out of his rifle in quick succession, killing the Karacknid. Up-and-down the line, hundreds more bolts zipped out, mowing down the Karacknids who had shown themselves.

As Johnston had come to expect, the Karacknid response was immediate. Those who were still in sight ducked and crawled behind cover. Return fire peppered his positions and grenades whistled through the air. The men and women under his command knew exactly what that meant and dove for cover. After the explosions, Johnston unbuckled the one grenade he had left and hurled it towards the Karacknids’ position. Then he popped his head up to find the expected Karacknid follow-up charge. In a flash he had his rifle zeroed in on the nearest Karacknid and quickly killed it. Two more fell to his rifle before the Karacknid charge faltered and fell back.

“Windas, Smith, Larson and Ivanov,” Johnston called as he sought out the marines who were still alive on the edge of his defensive line. “They’ll try and flank us next, extend our line a hundred meters further along the forest,” he ordered. He jumped to his feet and dashed to Smith’s position to fill in the hole in their line. Barely sixty seconds later shooting erupted to Johnston’s left. He couldn’t see exactly what was happening, but he had seen it often enough to know. A squad of Karacknid troops was probing the edge of his line to try and get behind them. And when that doesn’t work, he said to himself, they’ll throw everything they have at us. The shuttles had to be only minutes away if even that. There wasn’t any more time for the Karacknids to try any other fancy tactics.

As if to confirm the urgency of the situation, the familiar buzzing sound of Human shuttles was picked up by Johnston’s enhanced ears. They’re only thirty seconds away at most, he figured. The buzz was drowned out by a sudden Karacknid battle cry. It was taken up and repeated by many more voices. Far more than Johnston had thought possible. Raising his rifle, he readied himself for what was about to come. With no grenades or any other kind of heavy weapons left, his troops would have to hold the Karacknids back with their rifles alone. “Don’t let them past,” he shouted. “Don’t let them past!” If anyone responded, it was drowned out by the explosions and weapons fire that erupted as both sides engaged.

Trying his best to keep his body behind cover, Johnston kept firing. He basically kept his finger pressed on the trigger of his rifle. He downed Karacknid after Karacknid. All the frustrations of being cooped up for months erupted within him as he screamed his own battle cry. To his left and right he heard similar cries from the marines around him. Then, they started to disappear as the Karacknids’ fire found its mark. As he aimed and released a bolt right into a Karacknid’s face, Johnston saw a second Karacknid raise its weapon in his direction. There was no time to think or move. A bolt of energy flashed from the enemy weapon. It struck the tree trunk right below Johnston’s face. A wave of energy and splinters picked Johnston up and flung him several meters through the air. Pain shot through him as bits of wood penetrated his skin and his flesh melted from the heat of the weapon’s discharge.

With a groan Johnston raised a hand to his face. Touching his skin only made his groan louder. Forcing his eyes open, he blinked back tears of pain. Then a looming shadow made him look up. The Karacknid that had shot him had just jumped onto what was left of the tree trunk. Almost in slow motion, it raised its weapon to finish the job. Johnston’s hands desperately sought out his rifle. Anguish overcame him when he realized it had been thrown far from him. Then, just as he braced himself for the inevitable blast of energy, several plasma bolts zipped over his head and struck the Karacknid square in its chest. It fell behind the tree trunk and out of Johnston’s sight. Twisting onto his belly, Johnston looked up to see one of the happiest sights of his life. A full platoon of marines in fresh shining combat armor was charging through the forest, weapons blazing. Cheers arose from what was left of his forces. Johnston couldn’t summon the strength to join them, but he lifted a fist into the air in celebration. Then he slumped to the ground and closed his eyes.

Taking deep breaths, he tried to get control of the pain that was throbbing up from his chest up into his face. Slowly, the painkillers released by his implants lessened his agony. With another groan he opened his eyes and sat up. When he did, he found a marine major approaching him.

“General?” the marine asked as she bent over and peered at Johnston. “General Johnston, is that you?”

“Yes,” Johnston replied in a croak he barely recognized.

The marine quickly knelt and leaned in to examine him. “You’ve been hit General.” She looked up and raised her voice. “Medic! Get a medic over here now!” she called.

“It’s all right,” Johnston insisted as he lent forward onto his hands. “Help me up,” he ordered. For a moment he thought the Major was going to resist, then she put an arm under his shoulder and helped him to his feet. Johnston turned towards where the Karacknid attack had come from. There were bodies littering the forest floor. Both Human and Karacknid. As he looked, kinetic strikes burst through the atmosphere and struck the forest no more than half a kilometer from where he stood.

“They’re hitting the retreating Karacknid forces,” the Major explained.

“I know,” Johnston replied. “They’re getting what they deserve.” He then turned back to the Major. “What are your orders?”

“I’m to secure the LZ and make sure you and your troops are secured General. I’m glad I found you. But please, let me get a medic. You do not look well.”

Johnston turned to look back towards the LZ. More marines were filtering through the forest. “Don’t worry about me,” he replied. “Make sure this area is secure. Retaking this planet comes first. Do you understand Major?”

“I do general, but I have my orders. “I’ll be seeing to you as well as the perimeter,” the Major insisted.

Johnston wanted to argue, but he didn’t have the strength. And, if he was honest with himself, he felt his pain levels increasing. “What is happening in orbit? Has there been a battle?” he asked to take his mind off it.

The marine smiled at him for the first time. “There has General. The Karacknid fleet has been wiped out. The system is ours. There are ten thousand marines in orbit waiting to get revenge for Earth. Do not worry, we will not fail.”

Joy and relief flooded through Johnston. The Karacknid fleet was gone. There would be nothing to stop the Karacknids’ defeat. Not when there were ten thousand marines in orbit. Something else caught him up short. What did she mean about revenge for Earth? Even as the thought ran through his mind, Johnston felt himself losing consciousness. The pain was becoming unbearable. Without realizing it, he slumped over into the Major’s arms. At once, she called for a medic again.

“Don’t worry General,” she said as she held him up. “You’ve survived this long, I’m not letting go now.”




Chapter 39

The name of every Imperial marine lost in combat is displayed in their headquarters on the Moon. That honor was extended to all those who died in the War of Doom before the foundation of the Empire.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Landung City

A few loose stones tumbling over one another alerted Jeffers that someone was approaching. Silently, she pressed herself against the concrete slab she was hiding against. When a small figure ducked to crawl through a hole in the rubble, she reached out and plucked the boy into the air. “What are you doing?” she demanded as she twisted the boy towards her. His eyes widened in horror at suddenly being accosted. Jeffers pushed down her pity for him. Only a handful of people were supposed to know where she was hiding. “What are you doing? Don’t make me ask a third time,” she demanded.

“I was sent here, I was sent here,” the boy said quickly with a heavily German accent. “I have a message for the Major.”

“Well,” Jeffers said as she set the boy down, her suspicions decreasing. “What is it?”

“There has been fighting in orbit. Sergeant Harkin wants to know what your orders are?” the boy answered.

“Fighting, you mean a space battle?” Jeffers pushed.

The boy shrugged and looked around him. “That’s all I know.”

“Were you followed?”

The boy’s head shot back towards Jeffers. “No ma’am. No Karacknid can follow me.” He raised his jaw as he spoke.

Jeffers smiled at his petulance. “All right, wait here. I’m going to take a look.” Moving over to the hole the boy had crawled through, Jeffers reached down and lifted a massive block of rubble. She moved it to one side and let it lean against another pile of rubble. It opened the small hole wide enough for her to crawl through herself. For the last four months she and what was left of her special forces marine platoon had been hiding in the destroyed remnants of one of Landung’s buildings. The Karacknids had destroyed it in a firefight with a militia force weeks after they had first invaded the planet. The building had partially collapsed, covering the basement, but her marines had found a way in and had been hiding in the middle of it ever since General Johnston had given orders for the marines to go to ground.

Slowly, Jeffers crawled through the rubble until she could look up to the sky. She was just in time to see the large Karacknid repair station explode into a thousand pieces. Suddenly the night sky was lit up as hundreds of pieces of debris fell down into Holstein’s atmosphere and burned up. Jeffers’ mind went into overdrive. If the repair station had been destroyed, it meant the Karacknid fleet in orbit was under heavy attack, if not already defeated. That meant an invasion force was coming. Months of inactivity and boredom vanished from her psyche in seconds. She felt like a special forces marine again. Her thoughts turned to Hul’lixar, the Karacknid ground commander. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Holstein’s civilians were dead because of his harsh policies. Thousands more had been taken prisoner and exported off the planet for one nefarious reason or another. Hul’lixar needed to be brought to justice. This is the end for you, Jeffers thought to Hul’lixar. You are not getting away. She didn’t know whether Karacknids surrendered or not. She rather doubted it. But it didn’t matter, she wasn’t going to let Hul’lixar escape to hide in some cave for months and months. She was going to cut the head off the Karacknid snake. That was exactly the kind of mission she existed for.

Turning, she quickly crawled back to where the boy sat waiting for her. “Come with me,” she said as she led him deeper into the building’s basement. “Look alive,” she whispered loudly when she entered the open area her marines were sleeping in. “Up, every one of you.” As her people shook themselves, Jeffers moved over to where she slept and grabbed a pencil and some paper. It was how she had been forced to communicate with the other marine squads she was in contact with. Quickly, she scribbled some orders, assigning targets for each squad to attack. “Here, take this back to Sergeant Harkin. See that he passes it on to the others as well.”

With a nod the boy turned and scampered back out of the basement. “And see you get somewhere safe after you’ve delivered the message,” Jeffers whispered after him.

“Boss, what’s going on?” Private Jamieson asked as he put his arms out and stretched as far as the small space allowed him.

“The Karacknids’ repair station has just been destroyed. I saw it go with my own eyes. There is a fleet battle raging above us. Marines will be landing as soon as they’ve secured the orbitals. We have work to do.”

“What’s the plan?” Private Saul asked. “Haven’t we done enough already?”

Jeffers shot him a stern look. “Our duty is done when I say it’s done. We’re going to take out the heavy laser cannons by central plaza. Those babies look powerful enough to shoot our shuttles down as they enter the atmosphere. We can’t allow them to get their shots off. Then,” Jeffers paused and looked at the other marines. “We are going for Hul’lixar.”

“What? You can’t be serious,” Bedford responded. “He’ll be in the old Administrative building. It’s locked up tighter than Fort Knox.”

“Right now it is,” Jeffers agreed. “But when the shooting starts, they’ll need every soldier they’ve got. That’s when their guard will be down. We have a tight window, but we can do it. This is exactly the kind of mission we exist for. This is what we are trained to do. If he escapes and goes into hiding it could take months to find him. I don’t know about you lot, but I’d like to be there when justice finally catches up to him.”

“And if he resists, we will be the justice,” Rooney said as he warmed to the idea. “Heck, we’ve been through so much already. What is one more scuffle with these Karacknids? We may as well see this thing through to the end.”

“Exactly,” Jeffers agreed. “Now grab your stuff and let’s get moving. The landing could begin at any moment.” As she expected, Jeffers, Rooney, Saul and Bedford were ready to go within thirty seconds. “Take point,” Jeffers said as she nodded to Rooney. “We are going in through the Eastpoint Apartments.”

Under the cover of darkness, Jeffers followed Rooney through the rubble and out onto ground level. She had chosen the hiding place because of its proximity to one of the six heavy laser batteries the Karacknids had set up within Landung City. There would be no way for ships in orbit to take them out without destroying at least a block of the city. If they tried, civilian losses would be high. And if we don’t take it out, marine losses will be high, Jeffers thought as Rooney led them from cover to cover as they stalked through the city. As she moved, Jeffers was careful to flex all of her muscles and stretch repeatedly. It was the first time she had been out in the open for more than a month. She didn’t want to injure herself as soon as the fighting began. After just five minutes they reached Eastpoint Apartments. Further down the street, a Karacknid checkpoint was clearly visible. One of their light tanks was parked in the middle of the road and six soldiers were patrolling back and forth. Carefully, one by one the special forces marines slipped into the building. It was a four-story apartment complex like many of those in the area. Though none of the marines had ever been in it before, Rooney knew its schematics by heart. Quickly, he led them to the basement where an underground tunnel led to its sister apartment complex adjacent to the Karacknid checkpoint. Silently, so as not to wake or disturb any of the residents of the complex, the marines ascended the staircase to the roof.

Without a word, Jeffers led them over to the side of the complex that faced Central Plaza. What had once been a large shopping mall, with apartments on the top floors of the six-story building, the Karacknids had turned into a laser cannon battery. Of course, they had forced the residents to remain in place to provide Human shields. Stopping only to pull the grappling attachments from their utility belts and connect them to their plasma rifles, the marines raised them in unison. Firing together, their rifles shot the grappling hooks towards Central Plaza. In a neat line each bit into the building’s permacrete wall a floor below its roof. Grabbing the ropes, the marines jumped off the roof of the apartment complex and swung across to Central Plaza. In ten seconds they pulled themselves up the side of the building. Then, with an impressive jump only augmented marines could produce, they hurdled the last floor and landed on the roof of central plaza.

As they fell through the air their plasma rifles were already spitting balls of death. Four Karacknids were down before they knew what was happening. Splitting into two groups, Jeffers led Rooney and Jamieson to the left while Saul and Bedford sprinted right. Circling the four heavy laser cannons, they killed the remaining six Karacknids. “Clear,” Saul whispered from her side of the roof.

“Clear,” Jeffers confirmed from her side. “Set the charges.” She moved over to one of the doors that led to Central Plaza’s main staircase. Bursting it open with her shoulders she barreled in with her rifle at the ready. When no Karacknids were visible, she scanned for a fire alarm. It was right where the building schematics had said it was. Silently she prayed that the Karacknids hadn’t disconnected it as she reached out and pulled it. Moments later a satisfying siren blared from the stairwell. Without waiting to see if the residents of Central Plaza would respond, Jeffers turned and sprinted back to the roof.

Rooney was already waiting, he gave her a thumbs up. Jeffers nodded, just twenty seconds had passed and yet they had done what they had come to do. “Over the side,” she ordered as she sprinted towards the opposite end of the building. Without pausing to look, she took one large step up onto the roof’s parapet and jumped. Her speed, combined with her enhanced muscles, propelled her across the gap to the next building. It was two floors below Central Plaza, but she easily landed and rolled, absorbing the impact. Pausing only to make sure the other marines were with her, Jeffers broke into a sprint and propelled herself across the next gap to another building that was one floor lower. After rolling again she turned and crawled back to the small parapet that surrounded the building’s roof. Then she poked her head up and looked back towards Central Plaza. There was no sign of any Karacknid reinforcements, but she knew they were coming. Probably because of all the commotion going on within the building it took nearly two minutes for the first Karacknids to appear. As soon as they did Jeffers sent the detonation signal. She hoped the Human residents had all evacuated the building, but, if they hadn’t, she knew she had no choice. As soon as her thumb hit the button, the four explosive charges placed under the heavy laser cannons went off. They sent plumes of flames into the air that lit up the night’s sky. More than one Karacknid body was easily identifiable as it flew through the air, flung off Central Plaza’s roof by the force of the explosions. Then the roof itself collapsed and what was left of the heavy cannons fell through to the floor below.

“Come on,” Jeffers said as she tried not to think about what might have happened to anyone who hadn’t evacuated the residential floors. “Our work has only just begun.” Though they tried to descend back to street level without disturbing anyone, it proved impossible. The siren from Central Plaza’s alarm system could still be heard blaring and the explosions had no doubt awoken everyone already. Jeffers found herself having to push past several bleary-eyed German citizens before she made it outside. When she did, she had to duck back into the building. Karacknid soldiers were running across the street towards Central Plaza. One of them paused, then raised a weapon at the building’s main door as its residents started to pour out. It shouted something that was evidently a command to stay put. The residents ran back inside. “Back exit,” Jeffers said as she turned back to her marines. After pushing past several more residents, they finally found an exit that opened into a narrow back alley. Once they were outside and alone, Jeffers pulled out a datapad with a map of the city. “Troops will be headed this way from the Administrative Buildings. Let’s move four blocks to the west before we head towards them. Rooney, you’re on point.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Rooney snapped.

“Take it slow,” Jeffers cautioned. “They’ll be on high alert now.” As she spoke a low rumble washed over them. It didn’t sound like it had come from too far away.

“The others are following our lead,” Jamieson commented.

“It looks like it,” Jeffers replied. “It will give us more cover.” She had been in contact with three other groups of normal marines. Weeks ago she had tasked them with carrying out reconnaissance on three other heavy laser cannon installations. It seemed they were launching their own attacks. May lady luck be with you, Jeffers thought to each group as she followed Rooney. Without special forces marines and with the Karacknids already alerted, their tasks would prove a lot more difficult. As they continued to move, several more explosions and the familiar sound of weapons fire picked up in various directions.

“The city is coming to life,” Bedford whispered. “It’s about time.”

Evidence that Bedford was right quickly came into view. Just a minute later Jeffers’ squad almost stumbled onto a Karacknid checkpoint. They had fixed checkpoints around key sites, but others were randomly moved from place to place. A sudden burst of gunfire ringing from around a corner stopped them from coming face-to-face with the checkpoint. “Come and see this Major,” Rooney whispered as he gestured for Jeffers to join him.

Poking her head around the corner, Jeffers saw what was causing all the commotion. The two squads of Karacknids that were manning the checkpoint had come under heavy fire. German civilians were shooting down on them from the surrounding buildings and others were at ground level moving from cover to cover as they closed in on them. Along with plasma pistols it looked like the civilians had projectile weapons and a steady stream of Molotov cocktails were being lobbed over the Karacknids’ heads. In just sixty seconds the Karacknids were overrun. All but one was killed outright. When the last one threw down its weapon, the civilians took no notice. Plasma bolts, bullets and even a Molotov cocktail struck it. The civilians quickly grabbed the Karacknids’ weapons and scattered. They knew full well what was likely to come their way. But I think the Karacknids have bigger problems to deal with, Jeffers thought as she watched the civilians disperse. It was likely many of them were heading towards other Karacknid checkpoints and bases. Hundreds if not thousands of civilians were going to die as the city rose up, but from the ferocity of the short engagement, Jeffers almost believed the city’s populace could overthrow the Karacknids without the invasion force. Almost, she said to herself. But it would be a slaughter.

“Come on,” she called as she took point. “We’d better get through here before Karacknid reinforcements show up.” Breaking into a sprint, she zipped through what remained of the checkpoint and covered another block before diving into an alleyway to take cover and assess the situation. For another ten minutes they made their way through the city as stealthily as possible. As they went, the sound of fighting throughout the city streets grew louder and louder. Soon it was joined by the hum of Karacknid shuttles and the heavier fire from their tanks’ main weapons. The noise made the marines take extra care as they got closer to the Administrative Buildings and the Karacknids’ central command positions. When they got to the coordinates Jeffers had chosen, they gently knocked on the back door of what had once been a top end clothes shop.

It took nearly a minute for someone to respond. The door only opened a crack and a voice called out. “What do you want?”

“I’m Major Jeffers with the marines, we need shelter,” Jeffers said as she pushed her face in front of the door, so her uniform was visible. They had to wait another minute for the door to be opened. When it did Jeffers found herself staring down the barrel of two projectile weapons being held by a man and a woman.

“What are you doing here Major? There is an uprising going on,” the man said.

“I know what this place is,” Jeffers said as she held up her hands. Resistance cells had sprung up throughout the colony within the first few months of the Karacknid occupation. She had learnt that this house was one of their safe houses from General Johnston. “We need to lie low. We’ve destroyed one of the Karacknid heavy laser cannon batteries. There is an orbital invasion coming. We need to lie low until it begins. Then we’re going for Hul’lixar. He is not going to escape us.”

As she spoke, the weapons were lowered. “You guys are special forces marines, aren’t you?” the woman asked. “Only special forces marines would be good enough to try something like that,” she added when Jeffers nodded. “All right come in quickly. We’ll keep you here until you’re ready to launch your plan. You do know how many Karacknids are in the Administrative Buildings don’t you?”

“We know,” Rooney said as he shot the woman an overly friendly smile. “We’ll handle them no problem. Don’t you worry about that. We do this kind of thing every day.” Jamieson snickered while Bedford rolled her eyes at the woman who owned the safe house.

“We will not be in your way for long,” Jeffers assured her after the last of her marines stepped into the building. “We just need to lie low while the Karacknids send out ships to deal with the uprising. Once they’re distracted by the landings, we’ll strike. Most of the Karacknid soldiers should be out of the way by then.”

“Whatever floats your boat,” the woman said. “Wait in here,” she added as she gestured towards a side room. “I’ll have to put the word out that we are closed down. We can’t have our fighters falling back here if they get compromised. They’d draw too much attention.”

“Thank you,” Jeffers responded.

“Just make sure you get Hul’lixar, there are cells out there that were relying on this safe house. They’ll have to change their plans now.”

Jeffers understood what the woman left unsaid. Some of them might not be able to escape after launching whatever ambush or attack they had planned. Her arrival had compromised their activities. “We will get him, I promise,” Jeffers responded. Many thousands had died because of Hul’lixar’s occupation, thousands more were dying now. “We will get him,” she whispered so low that no one else heard her.

“Shall I go to the roof and keep my eyes out for the invasion?” Rooney asked. “I’ll be careful.”

“Make sure that you are,” Jeffers warned. “There’ll be Karacknid shuttles everywhere.”




Chapter 40

‘Everyone must do their part,’ that has been the rallying cry many times down through the history of the Empire. With trillions of humans and billions of other sentients from other species within the Empire, it is easy for some to get complacent. Yet there have been times when everyone literally had to pull together to defeat the threats to our survival. That was never truer than during the War of Doom.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

“I imagine you could all do with one of these,” the owner of the safe house said when she returned with bottles of water in her hands and a rolled up piece of paper under one arm. “My name is Olivia by the way. At least, that’s the name I’ve been going by. It doesn’t seem wise to change that just yet.”

“That’s fine by us,” Jeffers replied. “And thank you.” The night’s work had made her thirsty.

“Tell me,” Olivia said as she sat down. “What is your plan?”

Jeffers shared a glance with Jamieson and shrugged. “We burst in the back door, make our way to the basement and apprehend Hul’lixar amidst all the confusion.”

Olivia smiled politely. “I was led to believe the marines were usually a little more organized than that.”

“Normally I would agree with you,” Jeffers replied. “This is a rather ad hoc mission.”

“Well then, you might find this helpful,” Olivia said as she leaned over and rolled out the piece of paper she had on to the room’s coffee table. “It’s schematics of the Administrative Buildings. As far as we know, the Karacknid CnC is set up in the basement. If you want to get to it quickly, making a breach here might be your best bet.”

Leaning over as well, Jeffers studied the schematics carefully. “This here, it’s glass?”

Olivia nodded, “Nearly a foot thick, but I don’t think it will give your plasma rifles any trouble. I’ve sent out a couple of runners as well. If you like, I think we could provide a small diversion for you. A brief attack on the outer checkpoints?”

Jeffers could see a plan coming together in her mind’s eye. “That would be perfect. We just need to figure out a way to sneak past their checkpoints ourselves.”

“About that boss,” Jamieson said. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to try. We do it in basic training after getting our enhancements, but I’ve never seen it used in the field.” Jeffers guessed she wasn’t going to like Jamieson’s suggestion. She raised an eyebrow. “A window jump. With all the fighting going on out there, a window smashing isn’t going to attract much attention.”

Jeffers screwed up her face as she thought about it. The maneuver was a basic trick the medics and instructors wanted newly enhanced marines to try out as they were getting used to their enhancements. But it was actually something that might work. “All right,” she said as she laid out her plan.

When Rooney finally returned with the news that human warships could be seen entering orbit an hour later, Jeffers was confident they were as ready as they were going to be. “Okay, let’s get into position. We’ll wait until we hear the diversion,” she said to Olivia. She gave the resistance leader a nod of respect. “Thank you. Don’t worry, we’ll get him. He is not going to go to ground and hide.” Jeffers knew full well how hard it would be to root out Karacknid forces that weren’t captured or killed in the initial stages of the invasion. She had been avoiding being caught herself for months.

Just five minutes later Jeffers and her marines were alone in the fifth story of the apartments that were built above the clothes shop. The building directly across the road formed part of the perimeter of the assembly buildings. The roads on either side of it had Karacknid checkpoints but the building itself had been evacuated and locked up. Jeffers was standing beside the only window in the room they were all in. She had it slightly cracked and was doing her best to listen while not showing herself out the window.

When the explosion she had been waiting for came it was far larger than she had expected. There was no missing it. The crackle of weapons fire quickly followed. “That’s our cue,” Jeffers called as she swung the window open wide. “Jamieson, show us how it’s done.”

The marine nodded, then moved to the back of the room. Grabbing onto either side of the doorframe, he lowered his shoulders and kicked himself into a full sprint. In eight strides he crossed the large apartment, burst through the open window and leapt right across the road. He crashed into the window of an apartment one floor below theirs on the opposite side of the road. A moment later his face appeared with his thumbs up and a wide grin on his lips. Jeffers rolled her eyes, turned to Bedford and gave her a nod. Within a minute all her marines had made the jump and it was Jeffers’ turn. Moving to the doorframe, she took a deep breath and hurled herself across the room and out the window. Stretching out her arms in front of her and her legs behind her she guided herself through the broken window just as the rest of her squad had. As soon as her fingertips touched the floor of the building, she tipped her head under her shoulders and hit the ground in a roll.

“The stairs are this way,” Jamieson said as she got back to her feet. With a nod, Jeffers followed the marine down to the bottom floor of the building. There they found a room on the opposite side of the building, opened one of its windows and slipped out onto the ground. Between the abandoned apartment complex and the Administrative Buildings there was a small row of trees with shrubs and other flowers. The marines quickly moved amongst the shrubs and took cover. Jeffers signaled for the rest of them to remain under cover. Then she carefully raised her head through the shrubs. The Administrative Buildings towered high above her. The largest building was at least ten stories high. Pulling up the schematics of the building in her mind, she looked for the section of wall Olivia had identified for them. It was just twenty meters away. Ducking back down, she signaled for the marines to shuffle through the shrubs and plants towards their target. When they were roughly alongside it, she signaled for them to stop.

As soon as they did, Jeffers’ enhanced ears picked up heavy footfalls. Taking a risk, she poked her head out again. Two Karacknid soldiers were marching along the length of the building. Their presence made her frown. With the resistance diversionary attack, the Karacknid soldiers should all be moving to defend that part of the Administrative Buildings. Unless the commander ordered all the patrols doubled, she guessed. It would make the next stage of their plan a little trickier, but it meant there might be even less Karacknids actually in the building.

“Okay,” she whispered as she ducked down. “There’s two Karacknids out there. We can’t risk any weapons fire. Rooney, you’re with me. We’re going to show ourselves. No weapons.”

Rooney’s eyes bulged out of their sockets. “What?” he whispered back fiercely. “Did I hear you?”

Jeffers smiled at him. “You’re always boasting you have the fastest reflexes of the platoon. Now we’re going to find out. You think you can get to your knife before they can get their claws out?”

Rooney simply shook his head. “You’re crazy ma’am.”

“Maybe I am, but I’m not asking you to do anything I won’t. Come on,” Jeffers said as she handed her rifle and pistol to Bedford.

“Hey there,” she called as she stepped out of the bushes. Jeffers kept her arms wide apart and hands open. “Hey there,” she repeated, though she needn’t have bothered. Both Karacknid soldiers had already whipped up their laser rifles. “I think we are lost. Is this the swimming pool? We were hoping to get some exercise in.”

With a snarl both Karacknids slung their weapons over their backs and charged Jeffers and Rooney. Jeffers spread her lips wide to let the Karacknids see the whites of her teeth. She launched herself into a charge as well. She had come face-to-face with a Karacknid’s claws once before. Her arm was now fully healed, however, and she knew exactly what to do this time. As the first razor-sharp claws swung towards her she ducked under the Karacknid’s left arm. At the same time her right hand rose up to catch the Karacknid’s right arm just below where its claws protruded. Her move blocked the Karacknid’s second attempt to slice her in two. Pushing herself back up into a standing position she thrust up towards the Karacknid’s throat with her left arm. Her nano carbon knife easily slid through the gap in its armor. The Karacknid let out a gurgling noise and struggled for several seconds. Jeffers immediately let go of her knife, leaving it in place, and grabbed the Karacknid’s other arm. She couldn’t let either of the Karacknid’s clawed hands touch her. For what seemed like an eternity they struggled with one another until its life drained from it. As the Karacknid fell backwards she pulled her dagger out of its throat. Looking over, she saw Rooney had his Karacknid on the floor already. Both of its clawed hands were severed from its arms.

“What?” he said when he saw the look on her face. “I thought it might be easier to kill without those things getting in the way.”

Jeffers shook her head. She had no idea how he had done it. She’d have to ask him later though. Using two fingers she let out a small whistle. As the rest of her marines appeared and sprinted over to her, she could tell they were impressed from the looks on their faces. They didn’t say anything though. “Set the charges,” she ordered.

As soon as they were in place, the marines moved back into the shrubs and took shelter behind the nearest trees. For the second time that night Jeffers thumbed the detonator she had with her. The shaped charges blew a neat hole through the side of the Administrative Buildings. Before the dust settled she was leading her marines in. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t encounter any Karacknids in the first two rooms they rushed through. In the third room two were on their feet. Neither had a weapon though and they were quickly dispatched.

“This has to be quick,” Jeffers said as she stopped a moment to make sure her squad was with her. “The glass floor is on the other side of this door. Shoot anything that moves as we go.” When her marines nodded, Jeffers pulled out her last plasma grenade. Pulling out its pin, she ripped open the door and hurled it straight into the middle of the large foyer. Then she shut the door again and held it closed. The grenade detonated two seconds later. At once, Jeffers opened the door and sprinted into the foyer. Her rifle was up and she shot every Karacknid she saw. Most were on the ground taking cover. Before she had thrown her grenade, the foyer had boasted a large fountain in its middle that shot water into the air that then collected and flowed over a large glass panel that looked down to the floor below. Several corridors led from the foyer, including one that opened out into the main entrance to the building. The fountain was no more however, and as soon as Jeffers reached where it had been, she jumped through the melted glass. With a thud she landed on the floor below. There were several Karacknids lying around her, but none seemed to be moving.

Breaking into a sprint, she made her way to a nearby set of stairs and descended two floors to the basement level. As soon as she came out, she found herself in a large room filled with computer terminals. Karacknid technicians were sitting around them. Though several were on their feet. Instinctively Jeffers identified them as soldiers. One Karacknid sitting at a large holo projector caught her attention. It had to be Hul’lixar. Without breaking stride, Jeffers moved at full pace towards him. She focused her first shots on the armed Karacknids, and then began to dispatch the rest. Plasma bolts from her marines ripped into those she didn’t get. When she got close enough to see what Hul’lixar was doing she threw herself to her knees. The laser beam he had aimed at her barely went over her head. Her own shot, aimed at his arm, struck true. It blew Hul’lixar’s pistol out of his grip. Allowing her momentum to carry her back onto her feet, Jeffers raised the butt of her rifle and smashed it into Hul’lixar’s head. Though she knew almost nothing about Karacknid facial expressions, she hoped the look on his face was one of fear and shock. “That’s what a special forces marine can do,” she said to his limp body.

“Rooney, Jamieson, take his body. We’ll cover you. It’s time to get out of here before they realize what’s happening,” Jeffers called. “Rooney,” she repeated as she swung round when the marine didn’t reply. She swore at the scene before her. Rooney was on the floor, a large hole brunt through his chest. Bedford was at his side holding his hand. When the marine looked up at Jeffers she shook her head. Jeffers swore again as she ground her teeth together. “Saul, help Jamieson. Bedford and I will cover you. We have to leave him. There’s no time.” Despite her words, Jeffers had to reach down and pull Bedford away from Rooney’s body. “Come on, or we’ll all be joining him. He wouldn’t want that.” Picking Bedford’s rifle off the ground she shoved it into her chest forcing the marine to take it. “Come on, I’m getting us out of here.”

Taking the lead again, Jeffers moved back up the stairs. This time with more care and at a pace Saul and Jamieson could match. Only when she got to the third floor above the foyer did she encounter a Karacknid soldier. They almost bumped into one another as Jeffers turned a corner in the staircase, the Karacknid, with his weapon at his side, stood no chance. Two plasma bolts burnt through his armor. Hoping they could exit the Administrative Buildings the way they had come in, Jeffers signaled for Bedford and the others to wait in the stairwell. She poked her head out into the foyer. The stairs were on the opposite end of the foyer to where they wanted to go. There was a small handful of Karacknids in the foyer on their feet. Most were tending to the wounded. Jeffers looked along the foyer towards the building’s main entrance and swore under her breath. At least ten Karacknid soldiers were pouring into the building. It looked like there could be more behind them. They’ve realized the resistance attacks were a diversion, Jeffers concluded. The main bulk of the Karacknid troops defending the Administrative Buildings were returning. Even as Jeffers watched, the closest Karacknid soldier began to bring his laser rifle to bear on her. She immediately dove back into the staircase. “We’re not going out that way,” she shouted over the bursting pops of laser beams hitting the permacrete wall of the foyer.

“Where to then Major?” Bedford asked.

Jeffers looked around and then up the staircase. “The only way is up. Move it!” As Bedford took point, Saul and Jamieson followed, Jeffers poked her head back into the foyer. She fired three quick bolts at the charging Karacknids and ducked back into cover before seeing whether she hit anything. Then she backed up the staircase. Crouching at the top of the next level, she caught the first Karacknid to round the corner right in the chest. Then she backed up again. “Quicker, quicker,” she called up after the others. As they moved, she racked her brain for a way out of the Administrative Buildings. There were several other exits. She could go up, across the floor and head down another part of the building. There were at least three sets of stairwells. They could also break a window and rappel down. They just had to find a way to do it without the Karacknid soldiers detecting them. Otherwise they’d be sitting ducks.

“Stay here,” she said to Bedford when they got to the fifth floor. “Cover the staircase.” Without waiting for a reply Jeffers made her way through the floor’s corridors to the nearest stairwell to the one they were using. Before she even got to it, she heard Karacknid soldiers charging up. Realizing there was no time to warn Bedford and that their position was already more than compromised, she keyed on the audio on her COM unit for the first time in months. “Keep heading up!” she shouted to Bedford. “They’re coming up all the staircases. Keep heading up.” Breaking into a sprint once again, Jeffers raced back towards Bedford’s position. When she got there, two Karacknids were already heading up after her marines. More were coming up the stairs behind them. Jeffers downed both of them, and then blindly fired down the staircase as she ran up, hurdling the Karacknid bodies. “I’m coming up,” she said over the COM channel to make sure Bedford didn’t shoot her.

“What do we do Major?” Bedford asked, her eyes wide as she lifted her rifle to let Jeffers past. Further up, Jeffers saw Jamieson and Saul continue to drag the Karacknid commander up the stairs. Jeffers racked her brain for an answer.

“There’s only one way we can go,” she said. “Up, if we stop for a second we will be swarmed.” As if to prove her point, Bedford fired several rounds as a Karacknid poked his head into view. Jeffers grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her back up several more steps. “Keep moving, don’t stop.” Though Bedford didn’t ask, Jeffers saw the question in her face. What were they going to do when they got to the roof?

A sudden crackling on her COM unit distracted her. Reaching up, Jeffers flicked the frequency up and down to reset it to her squad frequency. For a millisecond she picked up what she thought was a Human voice. Frantically, she flicked the frequency up one again. It was a Human voice! It took just a couple of seconds to figure it was a shuttle pilot. They were speaking to a flight controller in orbit. The invasion has begun, Jeffers thought. Maybe… “Human shuttle come in, Human shuttle come in,” she said over the COM. “This is Major Jeffers of 34th special forces marine platoon. I’m requesting evac for my squad. We have captured the Karacknid general. Repeat we have captured the Karacknid general. Need immediate evac from the vicinity of Landung’s Administrative Buildings. Do you copy shuttle?”

“We copy Major. We’ve just dropped the first platoon of Marines outside Landung. There are no shuttles tasked with dropping troops into the city until the third wave. You’ll have to stay put until then.”

“Negative,” Jeffers replied at once. “We have five minutes at best here. We need immediate evac. We have the Karacknid general. If we are overrun, he will be freed again.”

The line went quiet for nearly twenty seconds. Jeffers continued to back up the stairs, firing again and again towards where the Karacknids were following them. Then the pilot’s voice returned. “Confirm your identification number Major.” Jeffers listed off her number and then added an extra code. It was one she was meant to give only if she was not under duress. “All right Major,” the pilot said, “I’ve been ordered to come get you. We’ll have to fly through the city. Many of the Karacknid weapons haven’t been taken out yet. I can’t guarantee we will make it to you.”

“Just do your best pilot,” Jeffers replied. “And hurry. We’ll be on the roof. If you come under fire from our position, bug out for we’ll have already been overrun.”

“Affirmative Major, on my way,” the pilot responded.

Jeffers switched the COM channel back to her squad. “Evac is on its way. There’s a shuttle heading for the roof. So keep heading up!” Jeffers jumped up several stairs as explosions peppered the permacrete steps she had been standing on. Quickly she moved around the next bend in the stairwell. Turning, she held her rifle around the corner and fired blindly. Seventh floor, she thought as she read the sign on the exit beside her. Two more to go. Glancing up she saw Jamieson and Saul were already at the next level. Bedford was beside her, her weapon raised and ready. “Take point,” Jeffers ordered. “Make sure there’s no Karacknids on the roof. Then go cover the other stairway that leads onto it. There will be Karacknids trying to get up ahead of us.

With a nod Bedford spun and sprinted up the stairs. Jeffers held her rifle out and fired blindly below her again. She then retreated back to the next turn in the stairs. This time she kept her head and rifle poked out. As soon as a Karacknid appeared she dropped it. “Roof is clear Major,” Bedford’s voice informed her. “Moving to the other stairwell now. No sign of the shuttle yet.”

“We are on the roof,” Jamieson reported a few seconds later. Jeffers had already taken out two more Karacknids. They were all but throwing caution to the wind as they charged her position. When a laser rifle appeared around the corner of the stairs below her and started firing blindly she had to duck back. When she poked her head back again, four Karacknids were already racing up towards her. Spinning, she retreated to the next turn in the stairs. She was now on the eighth floor. Before she could line up a shot, something round and metallic landed at her feet. With lightening quick reflexes Jeffers threw herself towards it, grabbed the object and hurled it back down the stairs. It exploded a second later sending shrapnel in all directions. Jeffers grunted as she felt several pieces slam into her leg and back.

Grunting at the pain, she rolled over and back onto her knees. There were several dead or injured Karacknids just below her. As more tried to climb over them she fired a hail of plasma bolts into the tangled mess of Karacknid bodies, then limped further up the stairs to take cover.

“You ok Major?” Bedford’s voice asked. “No contact with the Karacknids up here yet.”

“I’m still in the fight,” Jeffers assured her. “What about the shuttle?”

“No sign Major,” Jamieson responded.

“What is the roof like, much cover?” She asked.

“None to speak of, it’s flat and open,” Jamieson responded.

Jeffers grimaced. She was just one bend in the stairs away from the door to the Administrative Buildings’ roof. “I’ll hold here as long as I can, as soon as the shuttle comes, get on board. You can cover me from there.”

Leaning back out of cover, Jeffers fired another spread of plasma bolts down the stairway. There were no Karacknids in sight yet, but she didn’t want to encourage them. Come on, come on, she thought to the shuttle. They were almost out of time.

“I think I see it,” Jamieson said over the COM channel. “It’s coming from the west. It is flying low. Wwwoooo! It just dodged a hypervelocity missile!”

Jeffers poked her head out again but she pulled herself short when laser beams struck the stairs and wall all around her. I can’t let them past, she realized. As soon as the Karacknids got to the roof they would spread out and overwhelm the shuttle. “Get Hul’lixar out of here at all costs. That’s an order,” she said to her squad. She tried to fire another round of plasma bolts blindly down the stairs. Before she even got a shot off a laser beam struck her rifle and melted its front barrel. The heat made her throw the rifle away with a scream. Sensing the Karacknids were just a few steps from her corner, Jeffers reached for her plasma pistol. In the corner of her eye she saw a now familiar metal object bounce off a wall to land near her. Before she could react a second and then third appeared. With a scream of rage and defeat she threw herself to the ground, batting the grenades with her arms as if they were baseball bats. Her last thoughts were of all the marines who had died under her command. Please be worth it, she asked as the one grenade she missed detonated just a meter from her face.

On the roof, the simultaneous detonation of three grenades made Bedford stumble. Glancing away from the stairwell she was protecting, she saw smoke and debris flung out of the doorway to the other stairwell. “Major, Major,” she called over the COM channel. When no reply came, Bedford had to fight her instincts to rush over to the stairwell. Instead she poked her head down her own and released a hail of plasma bolts.

“The shuttle is touching down!” Jamieson bellowed over the COM channel. “We are boarding it now, pull back to us.” Bedford fired another string of bolts blindly down the stairwell and sprinted for the shuttle. As she moved, she kept her eye on the other stairwell. There was no movement from it. Then something emerged from the dust. But it wasn’t Jeffers. It was a Karacknid! With a snarl she peppered it with more plasma bolts than she could count.

“Cover both stairwells!” she screamed as she ran up the shuttle’s ramp. From weapons ports in the shuttle, Jamieson and Saul did just that. A steady stream of bolts kept anyone from emerging from either stairwell. Bedford was barely three steps up the shuttle’s ramp when it started to retract and the shuttle jumped into the air. Reaching out with her fast reflexes she grabbed onto a strut and clung for dear life. Just ahead of her, where Jamieson and Saul had dropped him, Hul’lixar’s body rolled about from the g-forces of the shuttle’s maneuvers. The only thing that kept Bedford from shooting him was the earnestness she remembered on Jeffers’ face when the Major had first suggested capturing him. She had thought it was worth risking their lives for. As tiredness threatened to overwhelm her, Bedford sunk to her knees. They had done it! They had captured the Karacknid commander from his own command bunker. With the invasion just beginning, it would sow confusion among the Karacknid forces. But was it worth Rooney and Jeffers’ lives? Bedford asked herself. She had no answer.




Chapter 41

Many who die in battle are remembered as heroes, and rightly so. Perhaps more so however are those who survive the horrors of war, and press on to fight for the Empire once more.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


IS Earth, 4th April 2482 AD (one day later).

“Thank you for joining us General,” Gupta said when Johnston stepped into her briefing room. She had to keep her emotions in check. The marine looked far weaker and frailer than she had been expecting. And his face was almost unrecognizable due to the burn marks. She had first met Johnston when she had been the First Lieutenant of HMS Drake. Then and every time she had met him since he had given off the impression of being an unmovable rock, bursting with muscles. Now he seemed like a slight breeze would knock him over.

“No problem Admiral,” Johnston replied with a brief smile that made him grimace. “I knew I was getting a little malnourished, but the way Earth’s Doctor has been going on about it, I didn’t think she’d let me leave except for your summons.”

“I was relieved to hear you have survived this ordeal,” Gupta said as she gestured for Johnston to take a seat. “I was shocked when I first heard the number of survivors.”

“We took heavy losses,” Johnston confirmed. “In the initial Karacknid landings, and then when we ran out of dampeners. Many marines and soldiers were lost to orbital strikes. Then, when we were hiding, if they discovered one of our groups, they hunted them down to the last marine. I intend to make sure every name of those we lost will be remembered.”

Gupta nodded. “A worthy endeavor. And yet those who survived deserve praise as well. Despite everything you went through, your strikes against the Karacknid defenses during our landings proved invaluable. Now,” she added to change the subject, for it was clear that she had struck a nerve. “I believe you know Admirals Lightfoot and Jil’lal as well as General Jackson, let me introduce you to Commodore Flew. She commands the Varanni Squadron that is part of our fleet.”

Johnston and Flew bowed to one another at the same time. “It is my pleasure to meet a warrior of such caliber,” Flew said. “It is my understanding that several of my allies’ colonies in Alliance space have been conquered by the Karacknids. It’s very likely they have landed ground troops. The knowledge and experience gained from your victories will aid us when we retake our own worlds. For that I honor you.”

“There is no need for honor,” Johnston replied. “We were simply doing our duty. My people came to hate the Karacknids for what they were doing to us and the civilian population. That was motivation enough. Now that I have learnt about Earth, I understand why we are all here. How is the battle faring General?” Johnston asked as he turned to Jackson.

“Better than our initial projections thanks to you,” the American marine answered, “we took less losses in the initial phases of the landings. We have mostly cleared Landung City and are expanding our control of the surrounding countryside. So far we have pushed out about forty kilometers from the colony’s capital. Elsewhere on the continent, atmospheric fighters and orbital strikes have reduced all the known Karacknid bases and military formations. What is left of their forces have gone to ground.”

“Do not underestimate them,” Johnston warned. “Nor Holstein’s topography. The entire continent is filled with a maze of caves and caverns. Many have been mapped out by the locals, though my forces found several that were not. No doubt there are others. Major Jeffers did us a great favor by capturing General Hul’lixar. If he was still in command we could be facing months of skirmishes and attacks and counter-attacks. I do not know the skill of whoever has replaced him, but if enough Karacknid soldiers can go to ground, they will seek to cause as much disruption as possible. I’m sure they have supreme confidence in their fleet’s ability to retake the planet.”

“Don’t worry my friend, we will not underestimate our enemy. Your brief report has already made clear how dangerous they are,” Jackson assured him.

“Which brings us to our main point of discussion very nicely,” Gupta said. “I’m sure you Generals have a lot to discuss. That can wait for now, however. At the moment, we need to decide our next steps. Liberating Holstein was the main goal of our mission. We were not even sure we could accomplish it. Now we have. However, everything we have done so far will not be enough to relieve the Alliance forces. We must press forward, yet Holstein cannot be left undefended, nor can General Jackson’s forces. If the planet is retaken by another Karacknid invasion force, Jackson could find himself reliving what Johnston and his marines have gone through over the last eleven months. So, how do we proceed?”

“My marines should not come into your consideration,” Jackson insisted. “We knew when we left Earth that this mission was bigger than us. It is bigger than Holstein. Your fleet must press on regardless of the situation here.”

“We will not leave you defenseless man!” Lightfoot said. “If we press on and even a small Karacknid supply convoy comes to the system. They could bombard you into the dark age.”

“Not all of us need to press on towards Jaranna,” Gupta said as she looked to Jil’lal. “We should leave a small detachment of ships here to guard Holstein and bring warning back to Earth if more Karacknid ships appear.”

“I agree,” Jil’lal said as she clasped her four hands together. “Your forces have the lightest ships. You could detach a small squadron to guard the planet. They could aid General Jackson’s attempts to remove what is left of the Karacknid ground forces. I, however, intend to press on with my ships. Our allies need us.”

Gupta gave Jil’lal a slight nod. She had thought to try to talk the Vestarian Admiral out of continuing with the fleet. James had impressed upon her the importance Jil’lal played in the Vestarian Navy. But it was clear from the Vestarian’s tone that she was not in the mood to be talked out of anything. “Attaching a small force would not make much difference to the outcome of our push towards Jaranna. And it would mean we are not leaving General Jackson without some support,” she added as she turned to the American marine. “Plus, if a Karacknid fleet does slip behind us, they can fall back and bring warning to Earth.” Gupta paused and took a breath as she turned to Johnston “I do also intend to dispatch our damaged ships and empty freighters back to Earth. They are no use to anyone out here. I was hoping, General Johnston, that you would take command of the squadron. We can load your marines and soldiers onto the freighters to return them to Earth. They have all gone above and beyond the call of duty here at Holstein. General Jackson assures me he does not need what’s left of your command to serve in any combat roles. You can delay your departure for a week or so to debrief Jackson and if some of your marines wish to volunteer to remain behind to act as advisers, that would be fine. But I would like to see the bulk of your force brought back to Earth.”

“I would like to stay and see this through,” Johnston insisted.

“I understand,” Gupta said quickly to cut off whatever argument he was about to make. “But I fear your people will refuse to leave here if you do not lead them. If you stay, they will stay and insist on fighting. Enough have already been lost. Besides, it was your special forces marines who captured General Hul’lixar. He is the only high-ranking Karacknid prisoner we have taken since this war began. It is only fitting that you be the one to present him to our Empress. And, I suspect, be involved in his interrogation. You have fought him for these last months, he may respond better to you than anyone else.”

“To our Empress?” Johnston asked as he looked around at the others’ faces.

Lightfoot was the first to speak. “We have a lot to catch you up on General,” he said with a smile. “Don’t worry, I know how it feels. I was in your shoes just a few weeks ago.”

“And catch you up we shall,” Gupta promised Johnston. “But we have to make preparations to depart Holstein as quickly as possible. If you are prepared to take charge of the squadron we will be sending back to Earth, then we can turn to our more pressing concerns?”

“I… All right, I will do it. For the sake of getting my marines to leave this hell hole,” Johnston agreed.

“Thank you General,” Gupta said with genuine warmth. “I know you want to see this through. But as you said, it may take months to run down all the Karacknids. Now,” she said as she raised her voice and turned to the other Admirals. “How quickly can your forces proceed?”

*

IS Earth, Jaranna shift passage, 9th May 2482 AD (thirty-six days later).

With a nervousness she had never known before, Gupta hit a button to pull up the sensor data Firefly had just brought back. She had sent the small frigate just close enough to the system’s mass shadow to get a glimpse into the former Mindus home system. As the holo projector powered up and showed her just what she was facing, she did her best to keep her face impassive. She knew every bridge officer on Earth would be glancing from the projection to her. It had been more than a month since she had left Holstein and more than two since leaving Earth. By now, the Karacknid force that had invaded Alliance space could have conquered another system or another ten for all she knew. Yet it didn’t matter. She had come here to wreak havoc, and that was what she intended to do.

As the holo-projector identified various groups of ships and structures, Gupta could only marvel at what she was seeing. Three years ago she had been with Admiral Somerville when they had tried to save the system from Karacknid invasion. The Karacknids had destroyed pretty much every Mindus orbital station and then nuked the planet. What they had built in its place almost took her breath away. What had taken the Mindus centuries to build, the Karacknids had almost replaced already. In orbit around Jaranna there were at least twenty large stations. A couple looked like battlestations, but the rest were clearly construction yards, repair yards and supply depots. Further out there looked to be a number of mining facilities both in orbit and on the surface of a number of the planets. There was also a sizeable asteroid mining operation going on in the outer edges of the system. They’ve turned it into a supply and industrial hub, she thought. One capable of sustaining a massive invasion. Of course, that was exactly what it was being used for. It just amazed Gupta that the Karacknids had been able to put it all together so soon. They’ve devoted a great deal of their economic strength to conquering us… That was a scary thought. The industrial might of the Karacknid Empire was believed to be on a scale Gupta couldn’t really grasp. Focus, she told herself as she forced herself to ignore most of the data and identify warships. They were her biggest concern right now.

In orbit around Jaranna there were sixty warships. It looked like there were another twenty or so patrolling the inner system and the same number patrolling ends of the three shift passages that led into the system. Gupta allowed a predatory smile to spread across her face. If the Karacknids combined their ships it would probably cost her half a fleet to defeat them. But they were spread out, and they had many targets to try and defend. Plus, it didn’t look like they were expecting an attack from Human space at all. No ships had escaped the slaughter at Holstein so no warning had reached the Jaranna garrison yet. “All right,” she said to her staff officers as a plan formed in her mind, “Here is what I want to do.”

Two hours later Gupta had to put a hand on her knee to stop it from bouncing. She never liked sending others into combat while she waited. Here we go, she thought as eighteen new blips appeared on the gravimetric plot, right on the edge of the system’s mass shadow, accelerating into the system. The six Karacknid patrol ships were suddenly joined by four more. Gupta nodded, she had expected the Karacknids to have some ships in stealth. Lightfoot could handle four more. As the action was happening twelve light minutes away from Earth, all Gupta could do was watch the gravimetric plot. Over the next five minutes two of Lightfoot’s ships stopped accelerating while five Karacknids disappeared. The rest of the Karacknid ships veered off out of missile range. As soon as they did, Lightfoot’s ships altered course. Instead of heading further into the Jaranna system, they turned towards the nearest Karacknid asteroid mining operation.

The destruction of the mining facilities would likely cause the Karacknids little more than a passing headache. Yet Gupta was betting it would hurt the system commander’s pride more. Sure enough, sixteen of the smaller Karacknid ships that had been patrolling the inner system turned onto an intercept trajectory. It would take them up to a couple of hours to reach Lightfoot. By then he would have had free reign to attack what mining facilities he wanted. But if the Karacknids wanted to stop him, they would have to chase him down. And if they manage to bring him to battle he'll be in trouble. Of course, that was why Gupta had chosen Lightfoot for that part of the mission. She knew he wouldn’t be outfoxed by the Karacknids.

Turning her attention back to the end of the shift passage where Lightfoot’s ships had first appeared, she watched the timer count down. As it came close to zero she held her breath. If the Karacknids had more ships in stealth in the area, they might detect her next move. When the timer reached zero, and began to count up again Gupta started to breathe, though her nerves didn’t go away. Only when twenty minutes passed did she allow herself to relax, at least somewhat. She waited another ten before turning to her Chief of Staff. “Begin phase two,” she ordered.

The rest of her fleet jumped to within half a light minute of Jaranna’s mass shadow. Then they split into two groups and, slowly, at an acceleration rate the Karacknid gravimetric sensors wouldn’t detect, moved into the system. Forty minutes later, the smaller group, under the command of Commodore Flew increased their acceleration rates. Her twenty-four Varanni warships settled onto a course heading straight for the system’s second gas giant. Two Karacknid gas mining stations were in orbit. Presumably, they provided most of the fuel that was shipped on to the main Karacknid invasion fleet in Alliance space. They were a juicy target, one that needed to be protected at all costs.

The Karacknid response was immediate. The ships that had been sent to pursue Lightfoot were too far out of position. The nearest ships were therefore those in orbit around Jaranna. Twenty broke orbit and accelerated hard towards the gas giant. The rest of the ships patrolling the inner system turned onto the same trajectory. For an hour Gupta watched the various fleets pursue one another. The only fighting that took place was the quick work Lightfoot made of the first mining operation he reached. Just a handful of missiles destroyed everything the Karacknids had built. Then Flew’s forces came into range of the gas mining stations. Rather than slow to bring them under a heavy hail of missiles. Her ships fired one salvo and then turned to avoid contact with the quickly approaching Karacknid ships. The Karacknids had put a number of smaller defense satellites in orbit around their mining facilities. Most of Flew’s missiles were destroyed by them, but three appeared to get hits and do at least some damage. Gupta wasn’t too concerned when she saw the outcome. The gas mining stations would receive the attention they deserved in due time.

Do you see it yet? she thought as she imagined the Karacknid commander trying to make sense of everything that was going on. Lightfoot’s fleet had just destroyed the second asteroid mining operation. Instead of turning towards a third, his ships were turning out of the system towards the mass shadow. They would easily be able to jump out before the Karacknid ships pursuing them could catch up. Similarly, it would require a very long stern chase straight across the system for Flew’s ships to have a chance of being caught. Both attacks had done minimal damage. Almost, they seemed a waste. Whether the Karacknid commander saw what was really happening or not, it was too late. The timer on the main holo projector counted up to the point Gupta had been waiting for. Suddenly, just thirty light seconds out from Jaranna itself, sixty Spitfire fighters revealed their location. For the past two hours they had been cruising into the system on a ballistic trajectory. Now their engines and reactors went to maximum power as they charged the two orbital battlestations. The twenty remaining Karacknid ships in orbit moved to intercept them. Eight spitfires were destroyed by their point defense fire, the rest got through to release their plasma missiles. In the space of just five minutes, both battlestations were vaporized.

“Time to let them know we’re here,” Gupta ordered. In response, Earth and the rest of the ships with her powered up their own reactors and engines. They were still an hour away from Jaranna, but none of the Karacknid ships in the system could get there in time. The garrison that was in orbit had a clear choice. Either they could fall back and allow all the supplies and orbital stations to be wiped out. Or they could stand and fight and try and save something. Ten minutes later they still hadn’t moved, Gupta nodded. “So be it,” she said. “Work out firing solutions for those ships. We’ll fire our last two salvos of multi-stage missiles at maximum range.” A part of her wanted to keep at least one salvo in case of an emergency. But even though she outnumbered the Karacknid ships in orbit three to one, she would take losses if she didn’t soften them up first.

When the first two salvos raced out in anger, Gupta’s respect for the Karacknid commander grew. He had sent their light ships forward to engage her missiles. If she didn’t re-target the missiles, the light ships would get a free pass at them with their point defenses. “Destroy the Karacknid screening ships,” she ordered. None of the fourteen Karacknid ships survived the two salvos. “Keep closing the range,” she said when the last of them blew up after getting hit by four laser beams.

As the ships charged forward, the Karacknid defenders of Jaranna opened fire. They had two salvos of four hundred missiles on the way towards Earth before Gupta’s ships could return fire with their own standard anti-ship missiles. Three of her ships were lost to the first Karacknid salvo. Then five to the second. By then, her first salvo had struck home. Point defenses built into the Karacknid supply stations and construction yards helped the Karacknid ships. Nevertheless, five were taken out, leaving just fifteen. It took three more missile salvos to finish them off for the price of eight more of Gupta’s fleet. Gupta felt the losses pierce her heart. But the cold calculating side of her mind told her it was worth it. “Get those fighters landed and refueled ASAP,” she ordered when the battle was finished. Bring us into orbit. Destroy all the shipyards and repair yards. Hold off on the supply depots for now. I want marines landed on them. Let’s see just what the Karacknids have been storing.” Scott would love to get her hands on some intact Karacknid tech. Thinking of her friend, Gupta pulled up Misfit’s battle report. The new cruiser hadn’t suffered any damage and from the sensor readings’ best estimate, her missiles had destroyed two Karacknid ships. A good start, Gupta thought towards her friend. “Contact Misfit, inform Captain Scott I want her to take charge of surveying what Karacknid supplies we have captured. Make contact with the planet’s surface as well, I want to know if there are survivors down there.”

As her subordinates busied themselves with her orders, Gupta turned her attention to the system at large. Lightfoot’s ships were nowhere to be seen. Presumably, they had already jumped out to safety. Commodore Flew’s ships were heading towards the system’s fifth planet. She would use the planet’s gravity to slingshot her ships towards Jaranna. She would make it back to the Mindus homeworld before any other Karacknid ships could come to harass Gupta’s forces. If what was left of the Karacknid ships in the system combined, they would have about sixty ships. However, most of them were frigates and destroyers. In terms of missiles, she reckoned she outnumbered them three to one. If you want to retake the planet, you’re welcome to try, she thought as she stared at the nearest group of Karacknid ships. The question is, what do we do with the next Karacknid fleet that arrives? Retaking the Mindus homeworld was all well and good in itself. It was more than she had thought likely when they had left Earth. But if they were forced to retreat within the next day or two or even a week, their attack would probably cause little damage to the Karacknid invasion of Alliance space. They needed to starve the main Karacknid fleet of supplies for as long as possible. We have come this far, now we need to figure out how to hold what we’ve gained.




Chapter 42

Many parts go into making a combat worthy fleet; technology, training, experience, strategy, tactics, good commanders, and a crew with a high fighting spirit. If any one of these falters it can spell disaster.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


IS Earth, Jaranna, 11th May 2482 AD.

“All right everyone, thanks for coming to meet in person. I know the last two days have been hectic,” Gupta said to the gathered Admirals and Captains. “We have accomplished much in these last two days. And Lightfoot, once again your tricks live up to your reputation.” Gupta said with a nod of respect. Lightfoot was only present because he had led his ships back into the system the previous day and slipped past what was left of the Karacknid garrison. “Now, an important decision looms before us. One I feel we all must play a part in deciding. We have hurt the Karacknids by taking the system, yes. We have disrupted their supply line. But have we done enough? An opportunity has presented itself to us that we must seriously consider. I’ve asked Captain Scott to give us a rundown of where we are at.”

“Thank you Admiral,” Scott said as she stood. “In short, we’ve made quite a haul. The orbital supply depots are overflowing with war materials. With Admiral Gupta’s permission I’ve already started transferring some of the more interesting items onto our own supply freighters. By my estimation, we’ve captured enough supplies to keep a Karacknid fleet of a thousand ships in operation for a year, if not more. Given the numbers we know are operating against the Alliance, destroying the materials will throw a spanner into the Karacknids’ supply lines. Plus, taking out the depots themselves will cause their own problems. One of our greatest finds however wasn’t a piece of Karacknid technology, but a work order. It was a routine memo sent from one supply officer to another so it wasn’t encrypted. We’ve been able to translate it. It seems the Karacknid supply officers were working to free up large amount of space in several depots. I believe they were expecting a supply convoy within the week. Given the amount of space that was expected to be needed, it could be carrying upwards of a month’s worth of supplies for the entire Karacknid fleet in Alliance space.”

Gupta couldn’t help interrupting. “Which makes the fact that we haven’t detected any Karacknid ships heading back towards their home territory interesting. It’s possible none of the commanders who survived the battle with us know about the coming convoy. And in turn, that it has no idea we are here.”

“Or,” Jil’lal suggested, “what’s left of the garrison here may not be the ones who wish to pass on bad news. It’s understandable they want to send word to their commander in Alliance space. They may want to let him be the one who sends news back to their own territory and, ultimately, their Emperor.”

“Perhaps, perhaps, Or…” Lightfoot mused as he paused to draw everyone’s attention, “the ships here know this convoy is coming with a large escort. Perhaps even a full fleet of Karacknid reinforcements. They may be waiting for its arrival so they can join with the convoy in attacking us.”

“All are possibilities,” Gupta agreed. “But we cannot make decisions based on wishful thinking. We do have this unexpected knowledge. The question is, what are we to do with it? Before we go further, can each of you update us on the state of your ships? I know not all of you are up to speed with each element of our fleet.” Gupta looked to Commodore Flew first as she asked her question.

“I have eighteen ships still fully battle worthy. Two others will need to be dispatched back to Earth, however. They’re too damaged to risk another battle,” the Varanni answered.

“I have twenty-two and three to send home,” Jil’lal answered.

“We have forty-seven including our carrier with just one badly damaged ship,” Gupta replied. “That gives us a force of eighty-seven warships. So, have we done enough damage, or do we try and hold the system for longer? What do you think Commodore? it has been more than forty days since we left Earth. It will take at least a month for news of our efforts here to reach the Karacknid fleet in your own territory. How do you foresee the fighting going there?”

Flew bowed her head slightly. “It may be that your guess is as good as mine. You all know the situation was dire. However, from the battle report that my High Command transmitted to us, we know the initial Karacknid fleet took a significant battering in the battle of Kalesh. It’s likely they have been repairing their ships and gathering more forces. They may be in a position to continue their offensive now, or it may have already begun. But my people will have been gathering their fleets to face the Karacknid thrust as well. Even if one more of our systems has fallen, there is still hope. The further the Karacknid fleet advances into Alliance territory and the more losses they take, the more significant cutting off their supply line is. It is my intention to remain here for as long as possible. I recognize the sacrifice your fleets have already made. You have sent all the warships your species has on this mission. If you feel you need to fall back to defend your own borders, I understand that. I would not ask you to do more than what you have done.”

“Thank you for your respect Commodore,” Gupta responded. “But we do not intend to leave you alone so quickly. At least, not without a serious discussion.”

“If we all stay, or even if Flew is on her own, how much more damage could we do?” Lightfoot asked. “From what Scott has shared, it sounds like we have already put a serious dent in their supplies. Holding the system for a week or even two or three, will it accomplish much more?”

“It will force the Karacknids to send more ships against us,” Flew insisted. “Every ship that is sent here is one not sent against my homeworld.”

“Yes, I understand that emotionally,” Lightfoot replied. “But all the Karacknids have to do is send seventy ships here and we would have to flee or be destroyed. We need to consider the wider strategic situation. Right now, Earth and all our colonies, including our entire industrial infrastructure, are unprotected. If we try and stay here for a month or more, it could all be lost.”

“If we pull back too soon and the Karacknid offensive continues, Earth and our industrial infrastructure will fall to the Karacknids eventually,” Gupta responded.

“Indeed,” Lightfoot agreed. “Whatever we choose, it is not an easy decision.”

“Perhaps we should attempt to take the bull by the horns, that is one of your expressions, isn’t it?” Jil’lal asked. She continued when Gupta nodded. “This supply convoy that we suspect is coming. If it is as large as Captain Scott believes and we destroy it, would that not cause enough of a distraction to satisfy you Commodore?”

Flew considered it for several moments. “If it is as large as we believe, then perhaps. Though I will never leave this system willingly. I am here to defend my people to the last if that is what is necessary. Taking it on has its own risks. As Lightfoot said, the convoy’s escort would destroy us. If we simply remained in the system, but let it pass we may end up doing more disruption in the long term. Though my preference is to attack.”

“If we pulled back to let it pass for fear of its escorts, the convoy’s escorts may simply break away from the convoy and pursue us all the way back to Earth,” Gupta responded. “No,” she shook her head. “If we’re not going to pull out, we have to go all in.” When she finished speaking, she turned to Lightfoot.

“If the convoy has an escort we can take on and destroy, then of course attacking it makes sense. But we do not know what we are up against,” Lightfoot responded. “Though perhaps there is a way to reduce that risk. We do have IS Blackhole with us after all.”

“Yes,” Gupta agreed as she saw where Lightfoot’s mind was going. Blackhole was the interdictor cruiser Lightfoot had brought back into service to hunt down Admiral Somerville when he had been a fugitive. The cruiser’s engines and reactors had been upgraded to allow her to join the fleet in the push towards Jaranna. “We could use her to pull the convoy fleet out of shift space early. Then, if they are too much for us, we could jump out to safety.”

“That sounds acceptable to me,” Jil’lal said.

“And I,” Flew added when everyone looked to her.

“Then it is settled,” Gupta said, surprised at how quickly they had come to a decision. “We will run some simulations to make sure we can do this without taking on too much risk before fully committing to this plan. We’ll also dispatch our damaged ships and what freighters we do not need back to Earth with news of our success to date. Let’s get to work people,” Gupta added as she stood. “This convoy could arrive at any hour now. We need to get ready.”

*

Twelve hours later Gupta gave the order for her forces to break orbit. As the ships left, charges went off on all the Karacknid supply depots and orbital stations that hadn’t been destroyed in the battle for the planet. Most of them were empty, however. There were still hundreds of thousands of Mindus survivors on Jaranna’s surface who were struggling to survive amidst the high levels of radiation throughout the planet. Gupta had authorized evacuating as many as they could take. The supply freighters of her fleet were fully laden with Mindus refugees. Even so, they were only able to save six thousand of them. Most were children. The rest at least would have all the Karacknid food supplies they could get their hands on. Gupta had ordered it all transported to the planet’s surface before destroying their depots.

After watching the destruction of the orbital facilities, Gupta turned her attention to what was left of the Karacknid garrison. Thirty-four Karacknid ships were in orbit around the gas giant with the two gas mining stations. It was the most important piece of real estate left in the system. Gupta intended to destroy the mining stations to further cripple the flow of fuel to the main Karacknid fleet. She didn’t want the Karacknid warships hanging around when they came to fight the expected convoy.

As her fleet approached the gas giant, the Karacknid forces did not move. Gupta couldn’t understand their actions. If the warships broke orbit and forced her to chase them, they would cause her a real headache. Sure the gas mining stations were important. Probably vitally so. But they would be lost anyway. She had been fully prepared to launch her remaining forty-seven fighters at the Karacknid ships if they started to run away. Her dwindling fighter numbers were her most precious resources, but she did not want to fight the convoy with another Karacknid force at her back. For the hour it took to close into missile range with the mining stations, Gupta pondered the Karacknids’ actions. She reviewed the fights at New Berlin and Holstein as well. Their senior commanders were formidable. At the battles of Jaranna, Earth and, from the accounts of the Karacknid push into Alliance territory, it seemed they had commanders who were the equals of the best Humanity had to offer. But perhaps not when those lower down the ranks are thrust into command positions, Gupta mused. There were lots of explanations for such a situation. Certainly, in Earth’s history different armies and navies had been plagued with similar problems. Either because a senior commander didn’t want any competition from his subordinates, or because a political leadership distrusted competent commanders or for a handful of other reasons, Human armies and navies had often found themselves being led by incompetent men and women. Well, if this is the first chink in your armor, then we will use it! Gupta thought as she stared at the unmoving Karacknid ships. “Inform Wing Commander Forest we will not be needing his fighters if everything goes to plan. Order Avalon to hold back out of missile range,” Gupta ordered. “The fleet will assume formation shield alpha.”

With no multistage missiles left, the Karacknids got off the first missile salvo. For twenty minutes both fleets exchanged salvos. With far more ships and therefore missiles and point defense weapons, Gupta’s fleet took minimal losses. Only four ships were destroyed and six badly damaged. The Karacknids were wiped out along with the two gas mining stations. Gupta spent an hour in orbit around the gas giant overseeing the assessment of the ships in the fleet that had been hit. When it was deemed they were all capable of heading back to Earth, she transferred them to the squadron that was waiting to depart. Then she sent the order for the freighters with Mindus refugees and captured war materials to head for the shift passage to Earth. With the Karacknid ships destroyed, there was nothing to hinder them. “Take us to the shift passage to Karacknid space,” she ordered after spending a few minutes watching the supply freighters begin their journey. It was time to get into position for the main engagement.

For the four hours it took her fleet to cross through the Jaranna system towards the shift passage the convoy was expected to take, Gupta reviewed the short battle her fleet had just fought. She was looking for weaknesses or patterns in the enemy’s missile fire that could be capitalized on. As a result, she was caught off guard when several alarms went off around her. Physically she had trained her body to remain still, but mentally she jumped at the sounds. “Multiple new contacts,” a sensor officer shouted before she could ask what was going on. “Ships have just come out of the Alliance shift passage.”

Gupta held her breath as the contacts accelerated into the system, giving away their numbers. The shift passage that led to Alliance space was where the Karacknid main fleet was. A tightness in her stomach suddenly started to grow when it was clear there were eighty new Karacknid warships. They were all accelerating towards her position. Quickly, she did the mental calculation. There was no way she could turn her ships around and flee back towards Human space. Her ships were completely out of position. Gupta dismissed any thoughts of attacking the Karacknid convoy. Her priority now was to get her fleet to safety. If they fought the Karacknid ships they would have almost nothing left. Certainly, she wouldn’t have a force capable of holding the system any longer. On her command chair’s miniature holo projector she brought up a star map of local space. There was a route through the shift passage in front of her that would eventually lead back to Earth. It would take more than a month longer. Probably closer to two, but she could get her ships to safety. Though we’ll be heading into enemy territory, she thought. And we will be hunted all the way. Yet what choice do I have?

Just as she opened her mouth to start to give orders more alarms cut her off. “More contacts,” the same sensor officer reported. “They are dead ahead. Repeat new contacts dead ahead.”

The new ships were so close that Earth’s optical sensors easily identified them. Within seconds Gupta knew she was looking at the supply convoy. There were more than a hundred large bulky freighters. To her amazement, there were no more than twenty warships. As soon as they saw her ships, the Karacknid convoy decelerated and turned back towards the shift passage. They would escape to shift space as soon as their shift drives could recharge. Blackhole, Gupta thought at once. If the interdictor cruiser could get close enough to the Karacknid fleet and power up its gravity well generators, they wouldn’t be able to jump out. Yet Karacknid ships were faster than hers. But they are freighters aren’t they! she said to herself. “All ships, full acceleration after that convoy. Work out how long it will take Blackhole to get into range of those freighters with her gravity well. Can we catch them before they jump out?”

Gupta held her breath as her officers gave the calculations. “It’s possible Admiral,” the reply came back just seconds later. “Blackhole can get them within range in just fifteen minutes. It will take us another two, maybe three hours to close to missile range if they keep fleeing. But we can get them within Blackhole’s gravity well and keep them there.”

We can take them, Gupta thought. Yet… Her attention returned to the first Karacknid fleet. It was already charging after her ships. In two hours they would catch up to Earth. We’ll be caught between the convoy’s escorts and the Karacknid battle fleet, she realized. Her ships would be slaughtered. They wouldn’t get a chance to hit any of the freighters. For a moment she contemplated just letting the convoy jump out. But the Karacknid escorts would probably remain behind. And even if they didn’t, if she tried to flee along the same passage the convoy was taking, sooner or later the escorts and the Karacknid battle fleet would trap her. There’s no other way, she realized. And there’s no other ship. Earth and her sister ship Zeus were the two most powerful ships in her fleet. Their point defenses were second to none. For a moment Gupta looked around at her staff officers and bridge officers. She had to blink back a tear. “Get me Captain Rogers on a COM channel,” she said in a clear voice that betrayed none of her emotions.

“Admiral?” Rogers said when his face appeared on her command chair’s holo projector.

“Captain, we cannot engage the supply convoy and that Karacknid battle fleet at the same time. We must delay the battle fleet. It’s the only way our ships have a chance of getting home. I need Zeus to join Earth in one last mission.”

Rogers stared at her for a couple of seconds as his mind thought through what she was saying. Then his face tightened, and he gave her a sharp nod. “Aye Aye, Admiral. I understand.”

“Follow us in then Captain,” Gupta said and cut the COM channel. “Earth and her escorts will turn to engage the Karacknid battle fleet,” she ordered. “Carry out the maneuver immediately. Get me Admiral Lightfoot now.”

“Admiral, what are you doing?” Lightfoot demanded moments later.

“You know full well,” Gupta replied. “The only thing I can do to get you all home safely. I’m putting you in command. Engage the convoy’s escorts and take out as many freighters as you can. If you flee up this shift passage you can eventually make it home. We’ll delay the Karacknid battle fleet. You can use Blackhole to delay them further.” Lightfoot opened his mouth to complain further, but Gupta cut him off. “That’s an order Admiral! We are not all going to die here today. I am doing what must be done. I expect you to do the same. Understood?”

Lightfoot looked down for several seconds but eventually looked back up and held her gaze. “I will do my duty Admiral.”

“That’s all I ask of you. Please, let James know that I do this confident in the knowledge that he will see us through,” Gupta responded.

“I will make sure he knows,” Lightfoot said.

“Now, see to your ships,” Gupta replied. “We have no more time to waste with farewells.” Before Lightfoot could add anything else, she cut the COM channel. She didn’t want to make it harder than it needed to be. When she looked back at the holo map of the system, she frowned. Alongside Earth, Zeus and their six escorts, there were twelve more ships following her. “Get me Commodore Flew!” she growled.

“Before you say anything Admiral,” Flew said calmly when the COM channel was open. “Let me remind you that I joined your fleet willingly. You have no authority over me other than that which I permitted you to have. So do not waste your breath. Your ships have taken a great risk coming here to aid my people. If a sacrifice must be made, then I will be making it alongside you. I’ve put Captain Gar’am in charge of the rest of my ships. He will ensure Admiral Lightfoot and the others get back to Earth safely.”

Gupta raised her hand to rub her temple. She hadn’t wanted to lead more people to their deaths than were necessary but she couldn’t order the Varanni ships to turn around. We may need them, she said to herself. If Earth was going to delay the Karacknids at all, they needed to not be blown out of existence in the first missile salvo. “All right,” she said as she lowered her hand. “We will do this together. Now, let us figure out the best way to hurt this battle fleet as much as possible.”

“Gladly,” the Varanni replied with a wicked grin that showed all her razor-sharp teeth.

With the Karacknid battlefleet and Gupta’s small squadron racing towards one another, it took just forty-five minutes to get into missile range. In that time Gupta watched Lightfoot use Blackhole to stop the convoy from jumping into shift space. No doubt its commander had been shocked by the interdictor cruiser’s capabilities. Confident that Lightfoot had his situation under control, Gupta focused on the first wave of missiles the Karacknids fired at her ships. One thousand four hundred missiles were closing with Earth. Instead of wasting missiles on the Karacknid ships, Earth and the other Human ships in her fleet fired their missiles at the enemy salvo. It was a long shot, but when the missiles detonated and released their bomb pumped lasers, sixteen Karacknid missiles were destroyed. Then, seconds before the Karacknid missiles came into point defense range, the Varanni ships did the same; except their missile warheads gave off extremely powerful thermonuclear explosions. The massive wave of radiation released from the simultaneous detonation of two hundred missiles fried the seeker heads of hundreds of Karacknid ones.

Even so, hundreds more charged into the point defense fire of Gupta’s squadron. Many of them were taken out by point defense plasma and laser cannons or AM missiles. Still, many continued. At her command, the Human and Varanni screening ships moved ahead of their larger consorts. Taking the safeties off their reactors and engines, they put everything into over drive. Their increased power signatures attracted many of the Karacknid missiles that had been programmed to target large enemy ships. As Earth’s pilot threw the large battleship into the best evasive maneuvers she could carry out, Gupta gripped her command chair, expecting death to take her. When not a single missile hit Earth, she had to close her mouth to hide her surprise. As she looked around at her bridge officers, she found more than one looking back at her with the same confusion.

When she looked to the main holo plot she started to request an update on her squadron. She cut herself off when she realized she didn’t need someone else to tell her. There were only six ships still under power following her. One human destroyer, Flew’s flagship Autonomy and three Varanni escort ships. There was absolutely no sign of Zeus. The rest of the ships in her squadron were either falling adrift due to heavy damage or likewise had been obliterated. Gupta couldn’t understand it; how had so many other ships been hit and yet Earth spared. She didn’t have time to figure it out though, for the next Karacknid missile salvo was almost upon them. With less ships and therefore less missiles, her squadron nevertheless tried the same tricks again. They had even less success. Then Earth’s point defenses opened up. As they did, Gupta glanced at the closing distance to the Karacknid squadron. If they could survive this salvo, her ships might get into energy weapon range. There Earth’s ten heavy plasma cannons and six laser cannons could do some real damage. Wishful thinking, Gupta thought as she berated herself. There were nearly eight hundred Karacknid missiles still closing with her ships. That was more than a hundred missiles for each of them. “What?” she said out loud when Autonomy and the other Varanni ships suddenly changed formation. They closed with one another to the point where they almost collided. Then they moved in front of Earth, forming a perfect cone around her. Before Gupta could give any orders, the Karacknid missiles started detonating. So many anti-matter warheads went off that Earth’s sensors lost all ability to detect anything. It didn’t take sensors to tell Gupta that her flagship was taking a battering though. She was thrown around in her command chair again as a number of things struck her hull, pushing her one-way and then another. Gupta held her breath as she tensed her muscles. The g-forces were threatening to make her black out. Her vision almost closed over. Then the g-forces ended and it returned. At once her eyes turned to the holo plot. Autonomy was gone. So too were all the Varanni ships. Badger, the destroyer that had been beside Earth was gone as well. Her flagship was the last ship left. “What hit us?” she demanded.

“Debris,” an officer reported. “We’ve got several sections open to space. But we are still operational.”

Gupta didn’t acknowledge the report. Her mind had already moved on. Flew had brought Autonomy so close to Earth that the destruction of the Varanni flagship had almost taken Earth out with it. But it didn’t. She has bought us a few more moments. When Gupta’s eyes settled on the Karacknid battlefleet she couldn’t help but swear. Every Karacknid ship was decelerating as hard as it could. They are scared of us, she thought as she clenched her teeth. Cowards! As she watched them, the Karacknids fired another salvo. At least, half a salvo. Six hundred missiles were racing towards Earth. The number made Gupta smile. It was overkill. Massive overkill. They are scared of us. “It has been an honor,” she said as she raised her voice for the entire bridge to hear her. “An honor.” There was no way Earth could outmaneuver six hundred missiles. They would not be getting into energy weapons range. “Let’s give them one last salvo!” she ordered. “Fire all functioning missile tubes.”

From Earth’s starboard side, thirty-two missiles were launched. Gupta watched them go and then turned for one last glance at the rest of her fleet. Lightfoot’s ships had successfully burst through the convoy escorts and were amidst the freighters wreaking havoc. Revenge, Gupta thought as satisfaction filled her. It wasn’t payback for what the Karacknids had done to Earth, but it was the best she could hope for. Someone else will have to see that the debt is finally settled, she thought as she turned back to the Karacknid missile salvo. It was seconds away. Gupta’s last thoughts were of James and Christine. She hoped her friend would find happiness with his new wife. When the missiles were an eyeblink away from detonating, a bunch of new contacts appearing on the holo plot made Gupta smile. “Eat that you scum,” she screamed as anti-matter warheads wiped her out of existence.

*

“Make every missile count!” Wing Commander Forest shouted over the COM channel to all his pilots. “Carve them apart!” He pushed his engines beyond their safety limit and began to duck and weave as Karacknid point defense fire opened up on them. His pilots needed no more encouragement. They had just watched an entire squadron of warships sacrifice themselves to buy them the distraction they needed. And what a distraction it was! Forest couldn’t help but think as Earth disappeared in hundreds of antimatter explosions.

With their attention focused solely on Earth, Forest had snuck his fighters right up to the Karacknid battlefleet before powering up their reactors and engines to full. As they charged towards their targets, the Karacknids were almost unbelievably slow to react. Here and there his fighters were blown apart in ones and twos. But forty made it close enough to release their plasma missiles. Normally his fighters would work in groups of four to take out a Karacknid capital ship. They were tough nuts to crack. His fighters were not going for kills, however. They only wanted to cripple their targets. Of the forty plasma missiles that were released by his spitfires, twenty-nine struck Karacknid ships. In one attack more than a third of the Karacknid battlefleet suffered serious damage. “The undamaged ships,” Forest ordered as he swung his fighter around in the midst of Karacknid defense fire and opened up on a battleship with his small plasma cannons. With Lightfoot’s fleet several hours away charging in the opposite direction, none of his fighters had enough fuel to return to their carriers. It had always been a one way flight. Just like Earth’s, he thought as he weaved and twisted his fighter whilst continuing to pepper the battleship with plasma bolts. “Take this!” he shouted when he saw he had burnt a hole through the battleship’s armor. Twisting his flight stick, he threw his fighter into the hole. Still holding the trigger, he filled the battleship with plasma bolts and his Spitfire came barreling in after them. In a flash Forest and his fighter were gone. In their wake they left a gaping hole in the Karacknid battleship that vented debris, atmosphere and bodies in a long plume behind it.

*

Argyll.

Though hunting down so many fleeing freighters demanded his full attention, Lightfoot couldn’t help but watch the attack on the Karacknid battlefleet. Rest easy my friend, he thought as the gravimetric signatures of Earth and then Forest’s fighters disappeared. I’ll get them home safely, he promised. He turned back to the Karacknid freighter fleet. He had no idea how he would keep his promise. Travelling into unknown enemy territory would be fraught with many unknown dangers. Getting home was going to be the toughest task he had ever faced. But that was for the future. Right now he intended to pay every Karacknid freighter back for the loss of Earth and her consorts.




Chapter 43

Admiral Georgia Gupta is remembered in history as the first Imperial Admiral to be killed in combat. For that fact, her name is known to most naval officers. Yet a close study of her career shows she should be regarded as highly as any of the great names of the Imperial Fleet. Certainly, a cadet would not need to look any further than Admiral Gupta for a mentor upon which to model their own sacrificial service to the Empire.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Handmaiden, outer Cria system, 10th June 2482 AD (one month later).

As Handmaiden exited shift space and her sensors scanned the inner system, Becket let out a deep sigh of relief. The Crian homeworld was intact and untouched. Nearly two thousand warships were in orbit defending the planet. The Karacknids hadn’t launched an attack in the two weeks it had taken Handmaiden to reach Cria.

Looking over to Ya’sia, Becket couldn’t detect any sign of relief on the Crian Admiral’s face, though she strongly suspected the emotions were there. With so many of the Alliance warships falling back to Varanni Prime from the Alpha, Beta and Gamma forts, Ya’sia had been dispatched to Cria to bolster the fleet. For the two week journey though, they had been out of contact with what was going on. Everyone was expecting the Karacknids to make their next push soon. It had been three months since the battle of Kalesh. Since then the Karacknids had been drawing all the forces from their border worlds to the system. An attack was inevitable. Becket couldn’t see any other possibility. Yes, she knew Gupta and a small force had been dispatched to raid Jaranna. But there was nothing such a small force could do to turn back the massive Karacknid fleet at Kalesh. The last Varanni scouts had reported there were now over six thousand warships in their main fleet.

“Send a signal to the fleet,” Ya’sia said as she spoke for the first time since Handmaiden had reverted to normal space. “Inform them I have been sent to assume overall command. I want every flag officer and Captain to report on board Handmaiden as soon as we make orbit.”

“Yes Admiral,” Ya’sia’s COM officer responded.

As Handmaiden and the three hundred ships Ya’sia had with her cruised into the system, Becket found herself studying the fleet in orbit around Cria. Outwardly at least, it looked like a hodgepodge of ships. There were designs from all six of the Alliance species. She was used to fighting with Varanni and Crian ships, now there were warships of all shapes and sizes mingled together. Becket knew the Alliance navies were used to fighting with one another. In reality they were one navy. Still, it looked strange and haphazard to her eye.

When Handmaiden reached orbit and hundreds of shuttles delivered their Captains, Becket’s feeling of disarray only increased. Each species had their own mannerisms and unique way of greeting one another. As she made her way past many of them, she lost track of how she was meant to respond to them all. Eventually she found herself sitting at the edge of the large semi-circular briefing room. From her vantage point she watched the Captains and flag officers file into the room and find a seat that was at least somewhat comfortable for them. When she first entered the room, Becket had thought it impossible that so many officers would fit in. Yet fit they did. The racket from them all speaking to one another was almost deafening. However, it cut off in an instant when Ya’sia stepped up to the podium in front of everyone. They certainly are respectful, Becket thought.

“Our Alliance is at a tipping point,” Ya’sia said, her voice easily carried throughout the briefing room. “This world, my homeworld is in imminent danger. So too is Varanni Prime and several other systems. High Command sent me here with reinforcements to take charge of this fleet. However, I come not to bolster the defenses of Cria. I come with orders to lead an assault on the Kalesh system.” Becket sat up in surprise. Ya’sia hadn’t mentioned anything of this plan during their two week journey. “In two days’ time we will jump into the Kalesh system to take on the Karacknid fleet. At the same time, our forces gathered at Varanni Prime will do likewise. If we can, we will attempt to combine our fleets. If not, we will fight separately. Let me be clear, this is our last hope. The Karacknids have a fleet powerful enough to overwhelm us here or at Varanni Prime with ease. If we do not face them now, together, our fleets will be defeated in parts. Our goal is to drive the Karacknids from Kalesh. We will do this by defeating them outright, or by inflicting so many casualties that they cannot continue their offensive. One way or another, it will likely cost most of us our lives. High Command has been extremely hesitant to take this step. But now, we have no choice. Almost every day new warships are coming out of the construction yards here and at Varanni Prime. If we can replace the losses we suffer quicker than the Karacknids, then we can grind their offensive to a halt. I’ve already assigned each of you into squadrons that will operate under my overall command. My Chief of Staff will now outline the specifics of what we must accomplish over the next two days before departing. Then we will split into our squadrons to prepare together further. This is the first and last time we will all meet in person before the battle. Let us make best use of our time.”

Becket found herself staring open mouthed as Ya’sia’s Chief of Staff talked everyone through the preparations for breaking orbit and heading to Kalesh. The Alliance High Command was committing everything they had to one decisive battle. If they lost, the Alliance would be conquered. No, Becket said to herself as she realized what the High Command were really doing. They will lose, that is the premise of their plan. But along the way they hoped to take enough Karacknid ships with them to stop the enemy from pressing on and conquering Varanni Prime or Cria. They’re willing to sacrifice their entire fleet to save both homeworlds. It was ballsy, that was for sure.

An hour later Becket found herself attending a more intimate meeting with Ya’sia and her senior Admirals. Ya’sia was taking them through her proposed strategy. “I’ve been working on this for the last two weeks,” Ya’sia was saying, “but no doubt there is room for improvement. We do not have much time, but your input will be invaluable.” Pausing, she looked over to Becket and gave her a slight nod. “I’m afraid this plan was kept top secret. Only I and my Chief of Staff knew about it. It is only today that Alliance High Command is informing their fleet at Varanni Prime. No undue risks have been taken with this role of the dice.” Becket nodded to show she understood. More and more reports had been coming in of Karacknid ships abducting people from the planets they had conquered and the ships they disabled. It seemed they were taking prisoners. Probably to interrogate. To Becket, it seemed far-fetched that the Karacknids would have learnt of High Command’s plan within the last two weeks. But she supposed it was possible. If a scout ship with officers aware of the plan was captured, the Karacknids could have been alerted. As Ya’sia turned back to outlining her strategy and the strategy the Varanni Prime fleet had been intending to use when they departed Varanni Prime, Becket listened intently. However, as optimistic as she tried to force herself to be, the more she heard, the less she liked their chances of victory. Even leaving the Karacknids with a pyrrhic victory where they took significant losses seemed out of reach. If the two Alliance fleets could join with one another in the Kalesh system, there was a chance. But Becket had seen first-hand the skill of the Karacknid fleet commander. He would not let that happen. As the other Admirals started to join in the conversation, Becket found herself pulling up data on the Kalesh system. She was looking for something strange or out of the ordinary. In the back of her mind she was asking herself what James would do in such a situation. Instinctively she knew, he would do just what she was doing; look for some other opening or novel tactic. She paused when something caught her eye. The system’s second gas giant; a planetary body the Crians called Halomead. It had an unusually large planetary ring. What was more out of the ordinary were the high deposits of zinc in many of the asteroids. Zinc was not the most useful heavy metal in modern industry so there was only a very small mining operation within the planetary ring. Yet zinc could play havoc with a ship’s sensors. By now Becket was intimately familiar with Alliance technology so she pulled up a file on their ship’s sensors. Then she accessed different R&D projects. It’s a possibility, she thought. With just a small modification, something that should not be too hard to carry out over the next couple of days, the fleet’s sensors could be made to function more efficiently in the unique situation she had in mind.

When a lull in the discussion occurred, she ventured her idea. To her surprise, Ya’sia put her in charge of making the necessary preparations. Suddenly Becket found herself with a team of engineers and scientists. In just two days they came up with a hardware and software update for each Alliance ship and oversaw their installation. Becket had barely signed off on the completion of the work when the order spread throughout the fleet to break orbit. Becket quickly hopped on a shuttle back to Handmaiden. She then went straight to her quarters. She needed to sleep before the battle commenced.

*

Handmaiden, edge of Kalesh system, 12th June 2482 AD (two days later).

With the element of surprise being so crucial, Ya’sia jumped her entire fleet out right on the edge of Kalesh’s mass shadow. Every ship was at high alert and within seconds missiles and laser beams crisscrossed between Ya’sia’s fleet and several Karacknid ships that had been patrolling the area. They were quickly dealt with and Becket’s attention switched to the main holo plot as Handmaiden’s sensors peered into the system. Forty-five light minutes away, at the edge of the Varanni Prime shift passage, Admiral Jorum’s fleet was immediately detected. Three thousand two hundred Alliance ships were accelerating hard towards their position. “All ships to full acceleration,” Ya’sia ordered as soon as the presence of Jorum’s fleet was confirmed.

“They know!” Becket called out. Her attention had been elsewhere. The Karacknid fleets deeper in system were already moving. Handmaiden’s sensors were still getting a firm fix on the numbers, but there were three blobs of ships on the move. One was heading towards Jorum’s fleet, the second towards Ya’sia’s, but, crucially, the third was angling to place itself right in between the two Alliance fleets.

At Becket’s words, Ya’sia swung her head to the point on the holo plot Becket was pointing to. “Project those courses forward in time,” she snapped. It took several seconds to get an accurate reading of the acceleration rates of each group of ships. As soon as a navigation officer had enough data, the movements of both the Alliance and Karacknid fleets were fast forwarded. Very quickly it became apparent that Jourm and Ya’sia’s fleets would be hard pressed to join up with one another. The two Karacknid fleets closing with each of them would get into missile range long before they could combine their forces. As each Alliance fleet was sucked into an engagement, the third Karacknid fleet would easily cut off any possibility of combining the Alliance fleets. Ya’sia looked to her Chief of Staff and then at Becket.

Becket shrugged. “They could have had a scout at Cria,” she suggested. “It may have detected our preparations to leave. Or at Varanni Prime. But it doesn’t look like they had much warning. Either way, they’ve made good use of the time they had.”

Ya’sia nodded as she turned back to the holo plot. She watched it for nearly ten seconds before finally speaking. “Belay the last order. Put us onto a new heading away from the Karacknid fleet pursuing us. Designate it bogie-1.” As she spoke, Becket could detect Ya’sia’s emotions, despite her attempts to hide them. Combining the Alliance fleets had been their best hope. Now they would have to fall back to secondary plans. Already things were going awry.

“We’re getting a gravimetric COM message from Admiral Jourm,” Ya’sia’s COM officer reported. “Proceed with plan Lightning Strike.”

“Inform Rear Admiral Kalem that his forces are to prepare to break formation,” Ya’sia responded.

Becket kept her face impassive as the Alliance officers got to work around her. Lightning Strike was what her American compatriots would call a Hail Mary attempt. If the Alliance fleets could not be combined, their strategy called for them to avoid a full fleet engagement for as long as possible. No one knew what, if any, damage Admiral Gupta’s raid against Jaranna had caused. But if it had been successful, it was likely the Karacknid fleet was low on supplies and fuel. If they could draw out the battle for several days or even a week with a series of hit and run skirmishes, there was a chance they could whittle away the Karacknids’ supplies. Possibly even to the point where they wouldn’t be able to continue the engagement. To improve the chances of such a strategy working, Kalem and a similar force from Jorum’s fleet were about to try the impossible.

For forty minutes or so Becket watched as Ya’sia and Jorum’s fleets decelerated and pulled away from the Karacknid forces. All the while they sent meaningless gravimetric COM pulses to one another. The third Karacknid fleet that had been moving to put itself between the Alliance forces split up, sending its ships to reinforce the fleets that were now pursuing the Alliance ships. By then, Handmaiden’s sensors had a good count of their enemy. In total, there were eight thousand four hundred Karacknid vessels maneuvering against the Alliance. For their part, there was five thousand three hundred Alliance warships in system. As bad as the odds were, Becket knew it would have been far worse for either Alliance fleet to have to face the combined Karacknid strength on their own at Varanni Prime or Cria. We just have to make the best of it, she thought.

Then, the first meaningful gravimetric COM message came through. “Message from Admiral Jourm, ‘Execute,’” the COM officer reported.

“Now,” Ya’sia ordered as she looked to her Chief of Staff. Moments later her fleet carried out what, hopefully, looked like one of several slight course changes they had continuously been carrying out. At the same time, Rear Admiral Kalem’s ships cut their engines and powered down their reactors. In their place, a bunch of survey drones powered up their own engines and reactors and started to give off energy signatures designed to mimic Kalem’s ships. In Jorum’s fleet, the very same actions were carried out.

Over the next half an hour Ya’sia kept her fleet on the same course. The Karacknid fleet she had designated bogie-1 kept up a steady pursuit. With a slight speed advantage, the Karacknids were creeping closer and closer. “Missile separations! Missile separations!” A sensor officer called out when bogie-1 fired their first salvo. Becket didn’t envy Ya’sia’s decision. If she returned fire, the Karacknids might know something was up. A whole squadron of your fleet not firing was a sure sign things weren’t exactly what they seemed. Yet if she didn’t fire, she’d be letting them get a free hit on her fleet. With the ships from bogie-3 still moving to catch up and join bogie-1, the enemy salvo wasn’t as powerful as it could have been. But two and a half thousand Karacknid ships had just opened fire on them. The count on the holo projector put the number of missiles at ten thousand. Becket swallowed as she took in the number. The ships of bogie-1 had only been able to fire their nose missile tubes. It would be the smallest missile salvo of the battle yet she knew it would overwhelm what was left of Humanity’s fleet several times over.

“Movement!” Maleck shouted. “Ships are breaking away from bogie-1.”

“What is their heading?” Ya’sia demanded.

Before anyone could answer her, one hundred and twenty new contacts appeared on gravimetric plot. Rear Admiral Kalem had already figured out where they were going. That, or he had guessed. Either way, his reactions were lightning quick. Kalem’s fleet had come out of stealth and was accelerating straight towards Kalesh. The Karacknids had more than eight hundred freighters in orbit around the colony. If even just a handful of Alliance ships could get amongst them, they would tear them apart. Somehow the commander of bogie-1 had detected Kalem’s squadron. It quickly became apparent that the three hundred ships breaking away from bogie-1 were moving onto an intercept trajectory for Kalem’s squadron. They know the importance of their supply ships as well, Becket thought.

“Return fire,” Ya’sia ordered. “We can’t help Kalem now, but let’s hit them when the numbers are as close to even as we’re going to get.”

With two thousand three hundred and fifty ships in her fleet, Ya’sia actually had a handful more ships than bogie-1. With another fourteen hundred ships moving to join bogie-1 it wouldn’t last, but Kalem’s sudden appearance had given them an opening. With her ships already accelerating back towards the shift passage, Ya’sia’s fleet fired two salvos from their stern tubes. The twenty-three thousand missiles destroyed or damaged ninety Karacknid ships. The two salvos from bogie-1 took out forty Alliance ships. Crucially though another twenty took heavy damage. Those that lost engine or reactor power fell behind their comrades. There was no way to help them and they were quickly finished off by Karacknid missiles or energy weapons.

Just minutes after the second Karacknid salvo burst in upon Ya’sia’s fleet, her ships crossed the system’s mass shadow. Those that could, jumped into shift space. Rather than head up the shift passage back to Cria though, they reverted to real space a fraction of a second later. Ya’sia had jumped them further around the Kalesh system. At once, they accelerated along the system’s mass shadow as they recharged their shift drives for another jump. The cat and mouse begins, Becket thought. The Alliance fleets had no intention of falling back. They were in the Kalesh system to stay.

As the Karacknid fleet chasing them crossed the mass shadow and jumped after them, Becket’s attention turned to Jorum’s fleet and Kalem’s squadron. Either because they too had detected the ships that had slipped away from Jorum’s fleet, or simply out of suspicion, four hundred ships had detached themselves from bogie-2. They were spreading out in a search pattern looking for the force Becket knew was under the command of Commodore Flamam. For nearly an hour they failed to find the Alliance squadron. Then a spaceship or a sensor probe must have picked up something, for the Karacknid ships altered course onto a trajectory towards one point. Moments later Flaman’s ships powered up their engines and boosted straight for Kalesh. Meanwhile, Jorum’s fleet had had a brief skirmish with bogie-2 before reaching the system’s mass shadow and jumping into shift space. Like Ya’sia, Jourm proceeded to jump in and out of shift space along the edge of the system. In theory, both fleets could hop along the system and meet at the other end. In practice, the Karacknids were careful to ensure that never happened. At several points, the Karacknid fleets pursuing the Alliance fleets jumped ahead of them to prevent such a meeting.

Whilst the action around the edge of the system cooled down, within the system things began to heat up. Kalem and Flamam each tried a different tactic as they attempted to reach Kalesh. Flamam redlined his ships’ engines, forcing them to accelerate at a rate even higher than the Karacknids could normally achieve. Within twenty minutes, the impact of such efforts started to show themselves. First one and then two more Alliance ships disappeared off the gravimetric plot. Given the range to Flamam’s ships, there was no way for Becket to know what had happened, but she could guess. Either the ship’s engines or reactors had cut out, or the ship might have been destroyed by an overload. Either way, they were out of the fight and sitting ducks for the Karacknids. Flamam’s tactic was working, however. The Karacknid ships pursuing her were not closing fast enough to stop her from reaching Kalesh. In response, the Karacknids split their forces. The small Karacknid screening ships pushed ahead of their larger consorts as they were able to beat the acceleration rates of Flamam’s squadron. For nearly an hour Flamam allowed the Karacknids to slowly gain on her, all the while more and more of her ships disappeared off the gravimetric plot. Then, she turned her ships into the face of the Karacknids. Though she was outnumbered by about forty ships, she had decided to fight. Becket understood her thinking. If she kept on toward Kalesh for much longer she might not have a fleet left when she got there. Yet she had worked up enough of a lead that if she took out the smaller Karacknid ships she could slow down and still reach her target.

In a short sharp engagement, Flamam’s fleet tore into the Karacknids. With heavier warships on her side, Flamam did a lot of damage. In just twenty minutes the Karacknid ships had disappeared from Handmaiden’s sensors. The cost however had been high. Higher than Becket had feared. Only thirty of Flamam’s ships remained. From the acceleration rates they put out as they turned back towards Kalesh, none of them were undamaged. Around her, Becket heard more than one Alliance officer grumble or let out a pessimistic sigh when it became clear Flamam wouldn’t make it to Kalesh. The ships that were pursuing what was left of her squadron were closing too fast. They caught up with Flamam’s squadron just five light minutes from Kalesh. It only took two missile salvos to finish Flamam off.

As the last of Flamam’s ships died, Becket turned her full attention to Kalem’s squadron. Rather than risk all his ships in one engagement, he had adopted a different approach. Over the course of the first hour of his pursuit, he had split his squadron once, then a second time and then third time. Each group of ships broke away and sought to take different routes to Kalesh. One group headed towards the system’s first gas giant, clearly intent on using its gravity to slingshot towards Kalesh. Another actually switched targets and set course for a small group of Karacknid freighters that were not in orbit around Kalesh but moving through the system. Only when another hour of the chase had played out did it become apparent what Kalem had been up to. When the Karacknid squadron finally caught up to one of the small groups of ships that had been detached and a missile duel developed, the number of missiles put out by Kalem’s ships seemed unusually small. For a few moments Becket was confused. From the gravimetric signatures given off by the ships that had broken away from Kalem’s squadron, it had looked like he had been diverting a group of capital and screening ships. It was a trick! Becket realized. Kalem had really kept all his large ships together. Immediately her eyes went to what was left of Kalem’s main force. He had fifty ships. They were being pursued by eighty Karacknid ships, the rest having been split off to pursue Kalem’s smaller groups. Can he do it? Becket asked herself. It was obvious what Kalem intended. With all his capital ships still together, they would have a chance of surviving several Karacknid missile salvos. In a stern chase, the Karacknids wouldn’t be able to fire all their tubes. If he could hold out long enough, Kalem had a chance of getting some of his ships to Kalesh.

For an hour, Becket and pretty much every other officer on Handmaiden’s bridge watched as Kalem’s ships tried to fend off the salvos that were fired at them. Initially, Becket’s hopes rose. The first two Karacknid salvos destroyed or damaged just three ships. Then Kalem’s losses began to mount. To be sure, he was hurting the Karacknids as much if not more than he was getting hurt. But the point of his maneuver was to reach the supply freighters.

A groan erupted all around Becket when twenty new contacts appeared as they broke orbit from Kalesh. The Karacknids had kept a small group of ships in orbit around the planet. They quickly settled onto an intercept trajectory for what was left of Kalem’s squadron. Refusing to give up, Kalem kept his ships on a steady course. He exchanged two missile salvos with the new Karacknid ships, and then both groups of contacts coalesced into one on Handmaiden’s gravimetric plot. Becket had seen enough energy weapon fights to know the death and destruction that was being dealt out upon both sides. To everyone’s amazement, seven contacts appeared out the other side heading for Kalesh. Sadly, none of them were Kalem’s flagship, but they were Alliance warships, nonetheless. The reaction from the Karacknid freighters was immediate. Like a startled flock of pigeons, they powered up their engines and took off in all directions. For a brief few minutes it was a turkey shoot. By Becket’s count, the seven Alliance ships destroyed up to one hundred freighters with missiles and laser beams. Then, one by one, the Karacknid ships that were still pursuing them picked them off.

Becket turned to Ya’sia. “What do you think?” she asked when it was over. “Was it worth it?”

“We can hope,” Ya’sia replied. “Only time will tell.”

Becket nodded as she turned back to the holo plot. Bogie-1 had been joined by half of bogie-3. Three thousand six hundred Karacknid warships were pursuing them. Unless their fuel was about to run out. The battle for Kalesh was only just beginning.




Chapter 44

For most civilians, the death of one close friend or relative is always a travesty. As it is for officers of the Imperial Fleet. The death of more than one in quick succession often shakes a civilian to the core. Yet in war, almost in the blink of an eye, officers can witness the deaths of tens of thousands of their compatriots. Many who may have been known to them. In the face of all this we must be capable of suppressing the anguish, of going on and fighting for those who still live. The coldness many naval officers show on the bridges of their commands as thousands die around them would likely shock a civilian. What no one else sees are the quiet times, alone, after the battles, where the steel barriers holding back the emotions crack.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Handmaiden, 14th June 2482 AD.

When Becket looked at the chrono meter she was startled. Two days! It had been two days since they had jumped into the Kalesh system. Closing her eyes, she tried to remember each time she had left the bridge. Three, four, maybe five? Three of those times had been to relieve herself. At most she had got four hours sleep. As she thought about it, her tiredness hit her. Her whole body felt weary. And I’m not in command, she thought as she looked over to Ya’sia. Maleck had taken charge here and there, but for the most part Ya’sia hadn’t left her command chair. She couldn’t. Over the last two days there had been three brief skirmishes with the Karacknid fleet as it nipped at their heels. One had been when Ya’sia had caught the Karacknids off guard, turning quickly she had got off a couple of missile volleys to their one. The other two had been when an impressive Karacknid maneuver had made it impossible to stay ahead of them without a brief engagement. Both sides had taken losses in each skirmish, and then the game of cat and mouse had commenced again. A similar pattern was playing out between Jorum’s fleet and the Karacknid ships pursuing it. Though there had been one particularly deadly engagement where both sides had lost several hundred ships. As Becket turned back to stare at the Karacknid fleet astern of Handmaiden, she tried and failed to fight back a yawn.

“If you want to retire for a few hours Commodore, you are perfectly entitled to,” Ya’sia said from her command chair, clearly not missing anything. “We can handle things without you, you know.”

Becket give Ya’sia an appreciative smile. “I know Admiral. It’s just…”

“You don’t want to miss anything,” she finished. “We all feel the same. But we can’t go on like this. We’ll start to make mistakes. I’ll make you a deal. You go get a few hours’ sleep and then when you come back, I’ll do likewise. You and Maleck can handle things.”

“Me?” Becket asked as her eyebrows rose.

“You do have a commission in the Alliance navy now. And you know exactly what we’re about. Just keep us ahead of the Karacknids like we’ve been doing.”

“Right,” Becket said in the midst of another yawn. “I’d better get some sleep then.” As she stood, Maleck gave her a smile. Becket simply nodded as she left. A small part of her was filled with jealousy for the Crians. It seemed they needed a lot less sleep to function than Humans. Though they still needed some. As soon as she got to her quarters she threw herself into bed without bothering to take off her uniform. Moments after her head hit the pillow she was asleep.

Becket groaned as she opened her eyes. It felt like she couldn’t have been asleep for more than a couple of minutes but something had woken her up. For a few seconds she lay still, listening, expecting the beep of a COM unit. Yet there was nothing. Groggily, she fished around in the pocket of her uniform and pulled out a small datapad. When she saw the time, she couldn’t believe it. She had been asleep for six hours! She hadn’t been woken up by something, her body had woken up naturally. Despite the fact she still felt as tired as she had when she had fallen into her bed, Becket forced herself to her feet. Briefly she checked her appearance in the nearest mirror and then went straight to the bridge.

When she stepped into the large oval command center, she was relieved to be met with an air of calm. Ya’sia and Maleck were both still in their command chairs. “What has happened?” she asked Maleck as she slotted in beside him. When the Flag Captain turned to her, Becket was surprised to see the weariness in his eyes. I guess you have to get tired some time, she thought.

“Not much,” Maleck replied. “We’ve been able to stay ahead of them. Though Jourm had another skirmish. They lost twenty-six ships.”

“Get yourself up to speed Commodore, then I will take my leave,” Ya’sia said from where she sat.

“Aye Admiral,” Becket responded as she looked past Maleck to Ya’sia. The Crian Admiral looked as alert and in control as when she had left. But then, she wouldn’t be leaving the bridge if that were true. Moving around in her command chair until she was comfortable, Becket scanned the various holo displays and information readouts. The fleet was almost on the opposite end of the system to the shift passage they had come in through. Jorum’s fleet was actually not too far away from them, but both Karacknid fleets were between the Alliance ships. As Becket stared at the Karacknids’ formations, something began to tingle ever so slightly in the back of her mind. She narrowed her eyes as she studied the ships further. Something seemed just a little off. She couldn’t figure out what was giving her pause though. Both fleets were doing what they had spent the last two days doing, doggedly pursuing Alliance ships. Their slight speed advantage meant the Allied ships constantly had to cross over the system’s mass shadow and carry out a series of mini jumps to get ahead. Typically, what Ya’sia had been doing then was turning back into the system in an attempt to close with Kalesh and attack the supply freighters once again. So far, she hadn’t been successful, but she was still trying. At present, her fleet was heading back towards the mass shadow after being cut off by bogie-1. The Karacknids were pursuing, but… Something just doesn’t seem right, Becket said to herself.

For a moment she closed her eyes and rubbed them to take the last bit of sleep away. When she opened them, she tried a different approach. Both Karacknid fleets were as close to one another as they had been since the Alliance fleets had jumped into the system. Instead of looking at each fleet individually, she looked at them as two parts of a whole. Doing so sent a warning shot through Becket’s mind. Leaning forward, she began to type a series of commands into her console. With a slight course change they could… As Becket projected the potential course of the Karacknid ships her hands froze. “Can someone send me the data on the Karacknid supply fleet?” she said slowly. Her tone made Maleck and Ya’sia look over to her.

“What is it? Ya’sia immediately asked.

“One second,” Becket said as she held up a hand towards Ya’sia. She needed to check something to be sure. When an officer sent her the sensor data on the supply freighters in orbit around Kalesh, Becket played it back. To her eye, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then she checked the data on the activity levels. There had been a small spike in shuttles moving back and forth from the freighters about six hours ago. Only a five percent increase. Then it had gone up slowly after that. Just by a few more percentage points each hour. Yet it was a pattern. “I think,” Becket said as she lifted her eyes back up to Ya’sia’s, “that the Karacknids are planning to leave.”

“Leave?” Maleck spurted out. “Where are they going?”

“Varanni Prime,” Becket said as she spoke her fear out loud. “If they altered course onto this heading in about an hour or so, we will be across the mass shadow. We will be unable to get ahead of them. With their speed advantage they could cross the system, reach the Varanni Prime shift passage and be a couple of hours ahead of us. They could raid the planet, or even nuke it and we couldn’t stop them.” Becket looked from Maleck to Ya’sia, the Crian Admiral was hunched over a small holo projector on her command chair. She was clearly playing out the scenario.

For several seconds no one on the bridge spoke. Then Ya’sia’s head snapped up. “Send a COM message to Jourm at once. Transmit the data from my command chair. I think you’re right,” she added as she looked back to Becket. “The question is, can we stop them?”

Becket knew the answer to that question. It wasn’t really what Ya’sia was asking. If her and Jorum’s fleets immediately turned and engaged the Karacknids, they would be forced to stay and fight. The only reason the Karacknid fleet could make a move towards Varanni Prime was the fact that their supply freighters were a lot closer to the Varanni Prime shift passage than the Alliance ships would be in another hour. If Ya’sia and Jourm made a move for the freighters now, the Karacknids would have to defend them. But that would all but seal the destruction of every single Alliance ship. Ya’sia was looking for another way to stop them. Becket racked her brain, but nothing came to her. With time running out, she looked back to Ya’sia.

“The planetary ring,” Ya’sia said as soon as their eyes met. “We have no other choice.”

Though she didn’t want to, Becket nodded. She had known from the moment the idea had come to her it would be a last resort. That Ya’sia was willing to try it without exploring other options told her how desperate Ya’sia was.

“Send another gravimetric COM message to Jourm. Inform him we’re going with plan Blindfold,” Ya’sia ordered. “Navigation set course for Nammal, we’ll use the planet to slingshot us towards Halomead. Execute course change soon as the fleet is ready to follow.”

The sudden course change caught the Karacknids off guard. Whether they didn’t believe what they were seeing, or thought it was some kind of ruse, bogie-1 didn’t turn to follow Ya’sia’s fleet for four minutes. It was a small thing, but it gave the Alliance ships a little bit more of a head start.

“Jourm has replied Admiral,” the gravimetric COM officer responded.

Ya’sia nodded and looked down to a screen on her command chair to read the Admiral’s message. “He is going to continue to evade bogie-2.” Ya’sia informed her bridge officers. “But he will engage when we do.”

And it will be a slaughter, Becket thought. Everyone had known it when they had left Cria. It was the last ditch option they had always considered could be necessary. The Alliance fleets would sacrifice themselves to take out as many Karacknid ships as possible. As Becket realized she wasn’t going to survive more than a few more hours, her mind cleared. She had done what she could over the last several months as Ya’sia’s adviser. If events had taken her to this, she would accept it. Her only regret was that she wasn’t in command of a ship of her own. She would much rather have gone down leading a ship into battle. Ya’sia’s fleet will be fighting using your tactics, Becket told herself. That will have to do.

Her clearness of mind continued for the next two hours as the fleet charged into the Kalesh system. It took the Karacknids most of that time to catch up with Ya’sia’s ships. Just ten minutes after the fleet used Nammal’s gravitational pull to redirect them towards Halomead, the Karacknids, carrying out the same maneuver, got close enough to open fire. With only their nose missile tubes able to fire, they released ten thousand missiles. Ordinarily such a number would be easily dealt with by the Alliance ships’ point defenses, but only their stern point defense weapons could be brought to bear. Twenty missiles got through and four ships were destroyed. Three more took damage that reduced their speed. They quickly fell back into the grasp of the Karacknids.

Over the next eighty minutes ten missile salvos were exchanged between the two fleets. Each salvo scored a handful of kills but nothing more. The Karacknids seemed content in staying at extreme range. It was obvious where Ya’sia’s ships were headed. Whether the Karacknids knew why or not, heading towards Halomead did not pose any threat to the Karacknid supply freighters at Kalesh so they seemed content to continue the long range duel.

As Ya’sia’s ships closed with Halomead, at her command they flipped over one hundred and eighty degrees and pointed their noses at the ships of bogie-1. Then they rapidly decreased their momentum. As soon as the fleet shot past Halomead, the gas giant’s gravity aided their deceleration. By the time the ships reached the outer edge of the giant planetary ring, they were going slow enough to slip in amongst the asteroids. “Fire!” Ya’sia ordered as soon as her ships were amongst the asteroids and in something roughly resembling a defensive formation.

The Karacknid fleet had mimicked Ya’sia’s deceleration move and opened fire at almost the exact same time. Suddenly over eighty thousand missiles were accelerating towards one another in two massive waves. “Now!” Ya’sia shouted when the Karacknid missiles were just seconds away from entering the planetary ring. From every Alliance ship laser beams reached out to vaporize thousands of asteroids. The asteroids disintegrated into tens of thousands of smaller chunks of rock and hundreds of thousands of pieces of space dust. Many of which contained high concentrations of zinc. The heavy metal played havoc with everyone’s sensors. The electromagnetic energy being thrown out into space by the Alliance ships, the warheads of the Karacknid missiles, and the Karacknid fleet itself bounced off the zinc particles returning a jumbled mess of contact reports.

The sudden cloud sowed confusion among the Karacknid missiles as their seeker heads sought out targets. Thousands of missiles completely lost contact with anything. Many more detonated amongst the asteroids thinking they had found their targets. The ships of Ya’sia’s fleet, equipped with sensors that, at least in theory, were able to partially make sense of the sudden heavy metal cloud all around them, were able to target some of the missiles with their point defenses. They were also better able to carry out evasive maneuvers. Even so, almost a hundred ships died to Karacknid missiles. Others started to take damage as chunks of asteroids struck them. There was simply too much debris and dust for the Alliance ships to keep track of them all, let alone avoid them.

Whilst confusion reigned within the planetary ring, the salvo of missiles Ya’sia had released suffered no such problems. Two hundred and twenty Karacknid ships succumbed to their destructive power though neither Becket nor anyone else on Handmaiden’s bridge was actually able to get such a definitive count with the ship’s sensors. “Keep firing!” Ya’sia ordered over the pandemonium on Handmaiden’s bridge. “Order all ships to keep firing,” she repeated.

With no specific duty, Becket was doing her best to analyze just how many losses the Karacknids were taking. The beauty of their position was that the Alliance ships, though not able to get a proper lock on the Karacknid fleet themselves, could fire salvo after salvo out of the planetary ring, confident their missiles could get their own locks as they cleared the clouds of zinc particles. Over the next twenty minutes Becket was astounded by how the Alliance ships fought. Every time a Karacknid missile salvo approached, they vaporized more asteroids. As they tracked and dodged the resulting clouds of debris, they also engaged the Karacknid missiles, carried out evasive maneuvers and kept up a regular fire of their own missiles. Becket found it impossible to keep a track of the Alliance fleet’s losses, let alone the Karacknids’, but she thought the tactic was working. At least, it seemed the confusion from the debris was cancelling out the Karacknids’ numerical advantage. The Alliance fleet didn’t seem to be withering away as quickly as it would in an open fight.

“They are moving!” Becket called out. “They are moving.” She repeated as she tried to get everyone’s attention. No one else had seen it yet. “They’re entering the planetary ring!”

Ya’sia stopped whatever order she was giving midsentence. She spun around and looked at Becket, then at the holo-projection. “I’m sure of it,” Becket assured her.

Ya’sia nodded. “The fleet will scatter,” she ordered. “One more salvo, and then we will break formation. It’s going to be a laser cannon duel. All ships are to keep hitting the asteroids even after the Karacknids enter. Their sensors are struggling more than ours.”

Before Ya’sia’s orders could be carried out, another wave of Karacknid missiles came flying through the planetary ring. More Alliance ships disappeared. Then the Alliance fleet returned fire. Their missiles hit the Karacknids just before they entered the field of asteroids. As soon as the Karacknids poked their noses into the planetary ring, chaos erupted. The fight developed into a close range knife fight. Both fleets became intermingled with one another and the asteroids as they closed to laser cannon range. The Alliance ships, still focused on using some of their heavy weapons to take out asteroids, weren’t able to put as much fire on the Karacknids. The shots they did take however were more accurate. Even so, Becket knew from experience that in a close-up directed energy weapon fight everyone took hits. Even as the thought occurred to her, Handmaiden vibrated as something, an asteroid or a laser beam, struck her armor. Seconds later another harder shunt threw everyone on the bridge around in their command chairs. Within seconds, the flagship’s officers were back to fighting their ship. Becket watched as a Karacknid dreadnought suddenly appeared in front of them. Four laser beams reached out from Handmaiden’s forward array and struck the battleship. Two return shots hit Handmaiden. Then the battleship was gone, out of sight of Handmaiden’s sensors. A Karacknid destroyer took its place as it appeared of the port bow. It fired its own weapons before being vaporized by Handmaiden’s.

Up-and-down the planetary ring the same encounters repeated themselves over and over again. Ships desperately tried to peer through the cloud of asteroid debris as they shot one another. Tens of thousands of laser beams flashed out in all directions as the fleet lost all cohesion. Within minutes Becket had no idea what was going on in the immediate vicinity of Handmaiden; let alone across the entire fleet. The Karacknids could be winning for all she knew, or the Alliance ships. She suspected both sides were crumbling to the devastating power of directed energy weapons. She was sure that Handmaiden was taking a beating for she could feel every energy beam that struck Ya’sia’s flagship.

*

Marauder.

Hurlang sat in silence as he watched the massive battle unfold around him. His flagship and the fleet directly under his command were pummeling the Alliance fleet that had come from Varanni Prime. The larger of the two Alliance fleets had been reduced by a third. More than a thousand of their ships had been destroyed. More importantly, he knew he could finish them off. When he did, the Alliance fleet would be done. Yet, the cost was mounting. He had lost almost as many ships of his own as he had destroyed. Worse, he had almost no idea what was going on with the other battle. Under Admiral Famagan’s ships had pursued the Alliance fleet into one of the gas giant’s planetary rings. At such a distance, Marauder’s sensors were unable to make any sense of what was going on.

Though he knew he was winning, Hurlang couldn’t stop going over the numbers again and again. He wasn’t fixated on the size of his fleet, or that of his enemy’s. But on the tones of fuel, missiles and replacement parts available to him. Four days ago news had come in of the Human raid on Jaranna. Then hours before the current fighting had broken out, another frigate had entered the system. This time it had brought news of the destruction of freighter fleet sixteen. He had been counting on the supplies being carried by the freighter fleet to push his fleet forward to conquer one or even two of the homeworlds of the Alliance species. To make matters worse, the Alliance fleet had struck at his freighters. The vast majority were intact, but he had taken losses. And they’ve been running us all over the system for two days. How much fuel has that burnt up? Do they know about Jaranna? It was impossible. Even if there was an artificial shift passage from Alliance space all the way to Human space; it was impossible. Hurlang had sent scouts out to search for such a shift passage, but nothing had been found. Even if it did exist, there was no way the Alliance fleets could know about the Human raid into his supply lines. He had just heard about it days ago. It would take weeks, if not months, for news to travel back to Earth and then around to Alliance space. And yet look at what they’re doing, Hurlang said to himself. The Alliance fleets had only committed against his own when they had figured out he was planning to give up chasing them and go after a juicer target. They hadn’t really come to fight him, just delay him. They were only fighting when he had given them no choice. If they didn’t come to fight, then they came to waste my fuel, Hurlang couldn’t help but conclude.

As another Allied salvo came crashing in and more of his ships were destroyed or forced to pull out of formation due to serious damage, Hurlang didn’t see the losses in terms of Karacknid lives lost. But in terms of the supplies that would be needed to repair the ships, and the missiles lost that were held in the storage hangers of those destroyed. It was impossible for the Alliance ships to know about the raid. Yet they are acting as if they know! His suspicion made Hurlang check the data on the targeting patterns of the Alliance ships. A sudden hunch told him what to expect. When that was exactly what he saw, he let out a growl of frustration. In previous engagements the Alliance ships had focused their missiles on his dreadnoughts and battleships. They always tried to saturate their point defenses and score killing blows. Yet, in the current battle, the Alliance had switched tactics. They were spreading the missiles out evenly amongst his ships. Rather than overwhelm one ship and score multiple hits in an effort to destroy it, they were scoring single hits on many more ships. They’re trying to damage as many ships as they can. “They can’t know,” Hurlang growled, his frustration making him speak out loud. If he won the battle but ended up with a fleet that desperately needed repairs, he would be stuck in the Kalesh system. He’d have no way of repairing his ships. Not for months. He didn’t even know if, never mind when, the Humans would be driven from the systems around Jaranna. They could continue to operate in his rear for weeks.. They are sacrificing themselves to cripple us. Hurlang had already guessed that, but now he saw the Alliance’s strategy in its fullness. Whilst he was stuck in Kalesh without support or resupply, their shipyards would churn out replacements for their losses. Their fleets that were still operating in other sectors would use their artificial shift passages to gather against him and force another battle in several months. One he would not be ready to face. It was impossible, but somehow the Alliance and the Humans had coordinated their attacks despite the hundreds of light years between their territories.

With another growl Hurlang considered his options. The Alliance fleets were still at his mercy. He could crush them and be done with it. Yet it would cost him many more ships. He’d have to pull back all the way to Jaranna or even further into the borders of the Empire’s territory. What was left of the fleet would need to be dispersed among several industrial worlds that had the capacity to repair them. Yet when he returned, the Alliance would not be able to withstand a second offensive. Almost, Hurlang committed to the strategy. One thing made him hesitate. The Imperator. If he fell back to Imperial space, even after such a victory, and only if it was to repair his ships before another push, the Imperator could still interpret it as failure. He could be replaced and banished to a life of ignominy. His other option was almost worse. If he disengaged and pulled back now, he could keep most of his fleet intact. He could then dispatch a force to secure Jaranna and send what ships needed to be repaired back there. He’d not suffer the shame of a full retreat, but he would still have to admit his offensive had been a failure.

Deep in thought, Hurlang missed the first report from one of his subordinates. The officer repeated it more loudly. “High Admiral, Famagan’s ships are coming out of the planetary ring.”

When the significance of his subordinate’s words hit him, Hurlang’s eyes snapped back to the secondary holo display of the battle raging around the planetary ring of the gas giant. “That damned fool,” Hurlang swore when he saw the number of contacts coming out of the asteroids. He should have known. He should have known! There was no way the Alliance ships would have fallen back into the planetary ring without a good reason. Not only had Famagan remained in missile range to engage them; he had actually entered the ring to continue the fight! There was a message from Marauder demanding Famagan pull back. Hurlang had sent it as soon as he had seen what the Alliance fleet was trying to do. But it was still half an hour away from reaching the Under Admiral. Stronger expletives escaped Hurlang’s lips as he turned his wrath towards the Alliance. They had some kind of gravimetric COM they’d been using throughout the battle! While he’d been forced to send messages at the speed of light, they’d been communicating with one another instantly! In his anger, something hit Hurlang. Yes… it makes sense. He had no idea how, but they must have a way! All of a sudden he understood how they were doing it. The Alliance had to have some way of communicating faster than light over much greater distances. That was how they were coordinating their attacks and raids. The realization that he had been fighting a much more prepared opponent than he had realized drained Hurlang’s anger away. He hadn’t been beaten in a fair fight. The Alliance had been cheating all along. They had artificial shift passages and FTL communication. How was he meant to beat an enemy who had abilities he knew nothing about?

As his anger cleared, Hurlang forced himself to assess the new situation. Even as he did, a wave of missiles appeared from amidst the planetary ring and came crashing in against what was left of Famagan’s fleet. The number of Alliance missiles was relatively small. That suggested they had few ships left themselves. Nevertheless, the missiles claimed more Karacknid warships.

There is no way we can continue this fight, Hurlang thought. If he did, he’d be left with nothing but a fleet of damaged and crippled ships. The Alliance would be able to repair what ships they had left and come after him. It was possible they could push him back all the way to Jaranna, or worse, back into Imperial space itself. That was not something his career could survive. A retreat was one thing but being beaten back was another. He doubted he would keep his life for such a failure. Releasing a growl of frustration that echoed throughout Marauder’s bridge, Hurlang thrust his claws into the padded side of his command chair. “We are disengaging,” he said to his officers in as controlled a voice as he could muster. “Transmit to both fleets. Disengage and fall back to the supply freighters. Repeat, disengage. This battle is over.”

*

Handmaiden

Becket couldn’t believe she was alive. The acidic smoke that filled Handmaiden’s bridge and the flashing lights and sirens almost made her think she wouldn’t be for much longer. Yet the Crian battleship was still here. It had taken multiple hits, but it was still there. Becket half expected to find there wasn’t much left of the ship beyond the bridge. But whatever was left, it was something. Even more amazingly, the fighting had stopped. The Karacknid fleet had pulled back. They were accelerating as best they could towards Kalesh. “They have given up on trying to finish us off!” she found herself shouting in excitement.

“And trying to launch their attack against Varanni Prime,” Ya’sia said in a much calmer voice.

“It’s better than that,” Maleck said from his command chair. He had several bruises on his face. “Look at the freighters around Kalesh.”

Becket could hardly believe her eyes. The freighters were starting to break orbit. Yet they were not heading towards the shift passage to Cria, or Varanni prime. But back along the path they had taken to invade the system. The Karacknids were falling back! Becket wanted to shout for joy but then her eyes fell on the display of Ya’sia’s fleet. Just behind what was left of bogie-1 pulling back, Ya’sia’s ships were coming out of the planetary ring. Almost two thousand had gone in. Barely four hundred were now visible on the holo plot. Instead of celebrating, Becket closed her eyes in dismay. Her tactic had worked. Bogie-1 had been decimated but so too had her fleet. She couldn’t help but think of all those Captains and Admirals crammed into Handmaiden’s briefing room. The vast majority of them were now gone. When she finally opened her eyes, her mood did not improve for her gaze fell on Jorum’s fleet. It had fared slightly better than Ya’sia’s ships. Nevertheless, barely half of his ships were left. Hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost.

“We did it Commodore,” Ya’sia said in a comforting voice as she raised a hand in a gesture of respect. “We did it. The war is far from over. But we have not lost it this day.” She looked around back towards the Karacknid fleet. “I suspect we have Admiral Gupta to thank for our enemy’s actions. Between you and her, we owe you a great debt.” Ya’sia looked back to Becket. “I’m afraid now is not the time for us to repay it. There’s too much to do. I need you to take charge of the search and rescue operations. There will be many damaged ships still in the planetary ring that need our help. They’ll be torn apart by asteroids if we do not act fast.”

“Of course,” Becket responded as she forced away her negative emotions. She would have to mourn their losses later. “I can handle that,” she added as she began to work on the problem. She needed every functional shuttle to go back into the planetary ring and start scanning for damaged ships and escape pods. Then she needed frigates and maybe even destroyers to head in to tow out the larger ships that could be saved. Even as she started to give orders, more and more things that needed to be done came to her. As Ya’sia had said, the battle was over, but the war was far from done.




Epilogue

Badminton House, 18th June 2482 AD.

Though he held an ancient hardback book in his hand, James was barely looking at the words printed on it. It had been one of a large collection of books his uncle had left him when he passed away. The book was about an 18th century British naval officer. Usually James enjoyed the distraction he got from reading the series. The novels had played a pivotal role in his formation as a young Captain. The ideals portrayed in the novels had worn off on him. He knew full well that was why his uncle had shared the novels with him. Yet, at the moment, James couldn’t bring himself to start reading. He had retired to the small upstairs library to get some peace and quiet from the constant demands being placed on him but it was eluding him. There were simply too many things on his mind.

Any day now the first election results from the British, American, Chinese and Russian colonies were expected. The polling Fairfax had carried out suggested many of the colonies would willingly join the Empire. Yet the same polling indicated there were going to be problems in some of the other national colonies. Many Indians and Argentinians were far from keen on the idea of a former British princess and the recently crowned King of Britain becoming the leaders of the new Empire. It was not too long ago both countries had been at war with the British Star Kingdom. James knew full well his actions in those wars hadn’t enamored himself to either population. Trying to figure out what to do with colonies who refused to join the Empire was giving him a headache.

A selfish part of him could only see it as a good thing if less colonies joined. It was a nightmare trying to establish all the legalization and governance structures needed in the Sol system. For weeks now he, Fairfax, Christine, Koroylov, Nicholls and many others had been working to set up the structures of the Empire on Earth. New obstacles and setbacks were all but a daily occurrence. And that was with just one solar system with two inhabited worlds. He had no idea how things were going to be rolled out smoothly in the colonies that voted to join. Though the Empire now existed in name, he feared it would take years of work to make it a reality. Years of work he would be expected to be involved in.

If all that wasn’t enough, the military situation was more daunting than the political. Just two days ago word had come from Varanni Prime via the FTL communicator of the 2nd Battle of Kalesh. The Karacknids had been beaten back, but at a great cost. According to Commodore Becket’s report, the Karacknids had fallen all the way back to the staging systems from which they had launched their invasion. Disaster had been averted, but the Karacknids still had a powerful fleet. Once they licked their wounds, they would be back with a vengeance. Neither James nor the Alliance High Command had any doubt about that. At least Becket and Ya’sia survived, James said to himself. Despite the grievous losses, that was something to hold onto. He had already sent a request for Becket to return to Earth. With the news Emilie had sent via Doctor Spence and the lack of any news from Gupta and Lightfoot, he needed every good commander he could get his hands on. Someone was going to have to lead a task force to aid the Conclave species and Becket was ideal for the job.

Thoughts of Gupta and Lightfoot turned James’ mind to Home Fleet. The supply freighters and damaged ships from Jaranna had returned to Earth three weeks ago. Yet, since then, there had been no sight nor sound of Admiral Gupta’s ships. The freighters had brought word of the planned attack on a Karacknid convoy. From what James understood, Gupta’s plan had been to fall back right after the attack. Yet three weeks had passed and there was no news. James couldn’t help the worry that was creeping into his heart. So many of his friends were with Home Fleet. He had lost so many already. He didn’t know if he could face more. And then there was Emilie. James didn’t know whether to be proud or furious with his niece. Rather than return home like any sensible Captain would do, she had sent word that she was heading off on a wild goose chase. One that was likely to bring her face to face with more Karacknid warships. Reading between the lines of her report, James was certain it was a minor miracle Intrepid hadn’t been destroyed by the Karacknid dreadnought she had fought.  Nevertheless, Emilie was determined to press on. She knew full well there was no way for him to stop her. Even if he sent a ship after her now, Intrepid would be long gone by the time it reached the Folian’s homeworld. Though James was irritated by his niece’s actions, he knew he couldn’t blame her. He had done some very similar things as a young Captain himself.

All that and more was going through James’s mind when someone gently knocked on the door into his library. When Christine poked her head through James wasn’t surprised. “I thought I’d find you here,” she said. “You said you were coming just to gather a few things. We were expecting you back at Sandringham House hours ago.” She looked at the book in his hand. “One of your uncle’s?” she asked.

James nodded. “How did you know?”

Christine flashed him a smile. “Believe it or not, you’re not the only one he sent those to. I got one or two over the years as well. At first, I thought it was a cruel joke on his behalf. After I married Na I tried to forget all about you. The books were a horrible reminder. But in time I came to appreciate them. They gave me a window into your life I couldn’t have any other way.” Stepping closer, Christine reached out and took the book from his hand. She then placed it back on its shelf. “Come on,” she said as she took him by the elbow, raised him to his feet and leaned her body against his. “You always said you wanted to show me around the grounds when we were younger. If your uncle’s books can’t distract you, then maybe a walk will.”

“A walk? Is that why you came here?” James asked.

“Not exactly,” Christine replied as she patted his back with her free arm. “There’s more word from the colonies. Britannia has joined the Empire. But we can discuss that later. I want to see where you grew up. Where you played as a child. Perhaps, one day, where our own children will play.”

James looked down at Christine as a mixture of emotions assaulted him. He and Suzanna had talked much about starting a family. About raising them at Badminton House, or on Haven. Losing that future had hurt him deeply. But now, perhaps he could entertain such hopes again. For the first time in months James found himself thinking of his future. A future where he might be happy. “All right,” he said as he led Christine out of the library. His mind was very much still focused on the Karacknids. There could be no future for Christine or himself or anyone else on Earth until they were dealt with. Whatever news he eventually received about Home Fleet or Emilie or even the Karacknid campaign against the Alliance, he would not waiver from his goal. For revenge, and for the slither of hope that was growing within him, he would fight the Karacknids until they were utterly defeated.

The end.

The story of the War of Doom and the will continue in Empire Rising book 9!

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