Book: Mutineer



Mutineer

Mutineer


D. J. Holmes

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

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Comments welcome!

Copyright © D. J. Holmes 2019

Cover art by Ivo Brankovikj

https://www.artstation.com/artist/ivobrankovikj


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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.




Prologue

Flex-aor Battleship Purity, Monulan System.

Hack’tar felt a drop of drool run down one of her fangs and onto her chin. It made her grin widen. Her anticipation was building to a height she had only felt once before. Thirty years ago, her mother had given her the task of cleansing a sparsely populated world. The species had only just developed their own shift drive and she had wiped them out with ease. Now she was on the verge of achieving something much greater. That success had led her towards her current mission and soon it would end in three worlds cleansed. Each would be ready to receive their own Flex-aor queen.

None would be hers, for she had already been granted her own world. As soon as this mission was completed, she would return to the first world she had cleansed and settle there to breed her own colony. Someday the world before her would be home to another Flex-aor queen. She guessed it would be at least four hundred years before this world was needed for the expanding Flex-aor domain, but when it was, it would be ready. Perhaps it may even be occupied by my offspring, she thought. That made her grin widen.

Until then the world would serve her. It would bring her great joy to bombard the alien species out of existence. Is this how my ancestors felt on our homeworld? Hack’tar wondered. If so, she was beginning to understand the history of her people far better. For centuries, warring clans had fought and eliminated each other. She had thought the constant fighting had been because no two Queens had been willing to coexist. No doubt that had been part of it, but if the pleasure Hack’tar was feeling at the prospect of devastating her enemies was something her ancestors had felt as they put nearby cities to the sword, the unending wars were completely understandable.

“It is time,” the Captain of her flagship thought to Hack’tar.

She sent a mental assent and then connected her mind to the captains overseeing each of the ships in her fleet. They were all from the intellectual caste, and she could feel their analytical minds constantly reviewing the situation in front of them. They were of one opinion; success was guaranteed. That was enough for her. Proceed, she sent to them.

Still connected to the captains, Hack’tar watched through hundreds of eyes as her vast fleet accelerated into the system, announcing its presence. The idea of millions of fully autonomous creatures was a difficult concept for her to grasp. Yet as more than a hundred ships in orbit around the alien planet reacted to her fleet’s movements differently, it was a reality she couldn’t deny. There was no semblance of order in the aliens’ actions, it was as if they had just lost their Queen and mayhem had broken out.

Perhaps it has, Hack’tar summarized. Her fleet had already destroyed the orbital and mining stations in two systems controlled by this species on its way to the alien homeworld. The aliens had likely received advanced warning of what her fleet could do. In that light, their actions made more sense, they know their death is approaching.

Hack’tar enjoyed watching the aliens’ confusion. Then her anticipatory grin faded slightly. A semblance of order had emerged. More than half of the alien ships were fleeing from their homeworld. They were making for a shift passage that led to another system this species had settled. That was ok with Hack’tar, she would visit that system next. However, forty-four contacts were forming up into a battle formation. Additionally, some of the contacts were larger than the ships she had fought in the previous two systems. For a second her mind went to her sister, Qura-rnt. She had been tasked with cleansing another nearby species. The most numerous species her people had discovered. In respect for the size of the alien’s territory, their mother had sent the largest battle fleet ever assembled by the Flex-aor. It had been believed that the cleansing would take a year or so. Except, nothing had been heard from Qura-rnt for some time. It was feared she had underestimated the species she had been sent to destroy and had been killed herself. Hack’tar thought that very unlikely, no species was a match for the Flex-aor.

Now that she found herself looking at larger alien ships than she had expected, ones that almost matched her battleships for size, she wasn’t so sure. Maybe her sister had run into difficulties after all. In concern, she sought out the thoughts of one of her best captains. Almost instantly her fears were allayed. Her captain had already extrapolated the combat abilities of the largest alien ship using the capabilities of the smaller ships they had destroyed and analyzed. The force approaching her cleansing fleet was almost no threat. While ship for ship they were almost a match, Hack’tar’s fleet had six hundred ships against the aliens’ forty-four. The battle would be short and sweet.

It took an hour for the alien ships to get into range. As soon as they did, Hack’tar ordered her ships to open fire. Then she ordered a wave of smaller ships to move ahead of her battleships, if she was going to lose any ships, she didn’t want it to be a battleship. A spike in the emotions of her Captains informed her of the aliens’ return fire before she saw it on the sensor display. Her grin widened when she saw their pitiful missile salvo. Only one hundred and sixty missiles were coming for her fleet.

“We will have destroyed their fleet before their missiles even reach us,” her Senior Captain informed her.

“As it should be,” Hack’tar replied.

For a few minutes they watched their missiles approach the alien ships in silence. Then Hack’tar spoke again. “Should we call back our forward screen? I don’t fear losing any battleships to such a puny missile salvo.”

“It is your decision my Queen,” her Senior Captain replied. “Our screening ships should be able to handle such a small salvo, but if the enemy has any surprises, perhaps it is best our destroyers and frigates encounter them first.”

“Then they will stay ahead of the fleet,” Hack’tar decided.

The missile carriers from her ships reached attack range and released over seven thousand missiles long before the enemy missiles reached her fleet’s point defenses. Whilst the aliens shot down an impressive number of missiles, thousands reached their targets. Once the explosions ceased, not a single alien warship was left.

“Their larger ships were resilient,” an analysist commentated. “It took more than thirty hits to take out this battleship sized ship.”

Hack’tar grunted as she looked at the replay of her attack. The alien ship had been built well, it had died to her attack nonetheless.

A spike in the emotions of some of her captains told her the next phase of the battle had begun. The captains in her screening element were engaging the alien missiles. Confidence quickly turned to concern among the one hundred captains of the screening force as the alien missiles proved hard to hit. Their ECM capabilities had improved from the previous skirmishes Hack’tar’s fleet had had with this species.

Hack’tar glanced at her Senior Captain, he had no telepathic connection with the other captains, but he could interpret the sensor data. Rather than ask him, she probed his thoughts. He was concerned, yet he was confident their forces would take out the alien missiles.

As she turned her attention back to the alien weapons, Hack’tar began to share his confidence. There were only forty-eight left. Their numbers continued to drop. Then, when there were just twelve left, their acceleration rates spiked. The Flex-aor destroyers and frigates were caught by surprise. Their tracking systems struggled to keep up with the missiles’ new evasive maneuvers. For a couple of seconds, no missiles were hit. Then one was finally taken out. In response, the alien missiles’ ECM increased. Once again, the defenders were thrown off balance. By the time they managed to adapt to the new ECM, eight missiles had reached their targets. Five scored direct hits. All five Flex-aor ships were destroyed. The other three scored proximity hits. One missile detonated close enough to kill its target. The other two did not get outright kills, but they crippled the ships they hit.

Hack’tar was stunned. She had never lost a ship under her command before. For a second fear and then relief rushed through her. It could have been her battleship taking one of the alien’s overpowered missiles if she had not sent out a screening force. She growled as anger took over. These aliens had killed some of her mother’s offspring. They would pay. “The fleet will advance on their homeworld. We will wipe them out!”

Her rage surged, but despite going to full power, her fleet was making slow progress. The passage of time made Hack’tar’s anger diminish until it was just a bubbling emotion in the back of her mind. In its place her sense of anticipation and delight at the carnage she was about to unleash took over. Her mother would be unhappy at the losses, but if she could cleanse three inhabited worlds, her mother would overlook them. And if these aliens have any other ships, I’ll keep my fleet together, Hack’tar thought. We’ll be ready for them next time.

She turned to ask her Senior Captain about the best way to bombard the planet but she never got her question out. A sudden sense of concern through her telepathic link with one of her captains stopped her short. Straining her mind, she tried to find the captain. After a brief struggle, she realized it was one of the frigate captains her Senior Captain had suggested she send out to patrol the outer system. He was almost a light hour away so his thoughts were hard to discern. One thought was easy to pick up though, something was wrong. Very wrong. The captain wasn’t just scared of a few missiles. Something big had his attention.

Hack’tar looked back to the alien world. She wanted to destroy it. Yet prudence suggested she stop her advance. She had already been surprised once in this system; she didn’t want it to happen again. Despite what her head told her, she hesitated to give the order. She could almost taste the joy it would give her to see the alien world covered in mushroom clouds. The satisfaction of repaying the aliens for destroying her ships would be delightful. It was hard to turn away from such desires. You are responsible for your mother’s fleet, she reminded herself. Reluctantly, she let her desires dissipate. “The fleet will decelerate,” she sent to her captains.

A wave of conflicting emotions followed her command, most captains didn’t understand it. Hack’tar simply repeated her order and cut her telepathic link to her main fleet. Instead she focused on the frigate captain. Without any distractions, she could access more of his mind. Quickly, she found the source of his concern. His ship was picking up a strange reading on the edge of the system. It was at the end of an unknown shift passage. Enemy reinforcements, Hack’tar thought uncertainly. Her scouts had informed her the aliens she had been sent to cleanse only inhabited three worlds, none of them were in the direction that the shift passage led to. Reinforcements didn’t make sense. Yet her captain had to be concerned about something.

Her thoughts were cut off when the frigate captain’s concern surged. A massive shift drive footprint had just been detected by his ship. Normally a ship could only detect another exiting shift space if it was within a few light seconds of the exit point. Yet the frigate was at least twenty light seconds away from the anomaly.

Seconds later hundreds of contacts were picked up by her flagship’s sensors. All of them were accelerating into the system towards the world Hack’tar had been about to attack. Then a single contact peeled away from the large fleet and turned onto an intercept course for the frigate.

Hack’tar felt the frigate captain begin to give orders for detailed sensor data to be transmitted to her flagship. His order was never completed. Someone shouted about an energy spike and then Hack’tar’s connection to her captain was cut off.

Having already ended her link to her other captains, Hack’tar was momentarily left alone with her thoughts. She hadn’t got a firm fix on the number of alien ships, but there had been a lot of them. At least two hundred. Moreover, they had been a different design than those she had already fought. That suggested they were from another species. A species I know nothing about. Before today, she would not have feared such a development. Yet the species she had come to cleanse had showed her that it was possible for her ships to be destroyed. She was fighting opponents who were almost her equals. I only have one choice. We must pull back. We need more intelligence.

Opening up her mind, she connected herself to her captains. Quickly she filled them in on what had happened and her decision to pull back. They could assess the situation and attack again once they were sure of victory.

When her Captains’ emotions told her they agreed with her decision Hack’tar felt reassured. That feeling increased even more when she looked at Purity’s gravimetric sensors. There were two hundred and twenty new contacts accelerating into the system and they were moving fast. Very fast. Their acceleration rates were nearly fifty percent higher than her fastest ships could produce.

“Can we escape?” she asked.

“It depends on what their maximum velocity is,” her Senior Captain replied.

Hack’tar let out a growl of frustration. She had never faced an enemy she didn’t know before. She had no idea how they had known to come to the aid of the species she was about to cleanse. They must have some kind of relationship, she concluded. When we first attacked their outlying system, they sent for help.

Twenty minutes later it became clear her fleet wasn’t going to escape. As well as having higher acceleration rates, the alien fleet could maintain a velocity of 0.68c, well above her fleet’s maximum of 0.56c.

“Our priority must be to get you to safety my Queen,” Hack’tar’s Senior Captain said. “Given their superior acceleration rates and maximum velocity we must assume their ships are more powerful than those we have fought today. We cannot risk you in such an engagement.

“What are you suggesting?”

“We must split our fleet. The majority of our ships can engage this new threat. That will delay them long enough for you to escape.”

Hack’tar thought about protesting. Instead she analyzed her Captain’s suggestion. Given the arrival of this new threat, it was the only real option open to her. She certainly didn’t intend to risk her own life in a battle in which the outcome was unsure. She was too important. “So be it,” she said. “You may split the fleet as you see fit and transmit the new orders.”

Three hundred ships stayed with her flagship while four hundred turned and moved towards the new alien fleet. An hour later, both fleets engaged each other. Hack’tar was horrified by the results. The alien fleet cut through her ships with ease. They suffered losses as well, but the battle was an utter defeat for her fleet. It was by far the largest defeat the Flex-aor had ever suffered. Not one ship survived the fourth alien missile salvo. In return, the aliens lost eighty ships.

Almost as soon as the battle was over, the alien fleet split up. Most of the ships moved towards the system’s inhabited world, whilst a small squadron turned onto an intercept course with her fleet.

“They cannot defeat us with that force, they must intend to follow us,” her Senior Captain said. He did well at hiding his shock at witnessing such a crushing defeat, yet Hack’tar could feel it in his emotions. “We can’t lead them back to our homeworld. If this species has more ships, they would threaten our hatcheries.”

That thought sent a shiver through Hack’tar. Her mind almost refused to comprehend such an idea. Never before had the Flex-aor homeworlds been threatened. Yet her Captain was right. If two hundred of these alien ships could defeat four hundred of her ships, what could a thousand or two thousand alien ships do?

I cannot lead them home. But then what should I do? Her grin reappeared when she had an idea. There was somewhere else she could take her fleet. She would be walking into a completely unknown situation. But if her sister was still alive, then she would be leading this new alien fleet into a trap. And if she wasn’t, then she could take out two threats by encouraging them to fight one another. Yes, we will make for Qura-rnt’s staging planet, she decided.




Chapter 1

The Human species has gone through many diverse forms of democratic and authoritarian regimes in its history. In every case, the unrelenting rise of the bureaucratic tide has threatened to drown them all. The Governments of the First Galactic Expansion Era were no exception, they suffered from the same dangers the Romans faced two millennia before them.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-38 system. 3rd May 2478 AD.

“Am I the last one to arrive again?” James asked his Chief of Staff when he met Lieutenant Commander Scott outside Golden Hind’s operations room.

Scott nodded and shot him a grin. “Indeed you are Vice Admiral. The privilege of holding senior command, everyone else has to wait on you.”

Instead of waving for Scott to proceed him, James took two quick steps and got in front of her. “Well at least I won’t be the last one to take their seat.” He smoothed the cheeky expression off his face as he passed through the hatch and faced his subordinates. “At ease,” he said before anyone could jump to their feet. “Let me take my seat and we will begin.” As he sat, he grabbed the datapad prepared for him. A quick glance informed him that the agenda hadn’t altered in the last hour. “Well, it looks like we are beginning with Lieutenant Alveraz. Would you kindly update us on the latest intelligence from Earth?”

“Certainly,” Alveraz said as he stood.

James couldn’t help shooting him a small smile. Alveraz was originally from the US Colonial Fleet. They had met when James had been appointed Supreme Commander of Earth’s defenses. James had been impressed with Alveraz’s intellect and had requested Alveraz be transferred to his command staff when he had been appointed to command the forces guarding X-38 and the surrounding systems. Over the past three and a half years Alveraz hadn’t let him down.

“As you know,” Alveraz continued after nodding to James to acknowledge his smile, “an updated strategic report came in with our latest reinforcements. Its main focus was on the future of the United Nations military build-up. In short, the vote to continue our current construction rates failed to pass. As a result, construction levels will decrease by fifteen percent per year over the next four years and then plateau unless a new military funding proposal can be passed.”

Though James kept his face impassive, serval of his staff didn’t and Emilie groaned. James turned to her and raised an eyebrow. Her cheeks reddened at once and she suddenly found something very interesting to stare at between her feet. James shook his head slightly in amusement and looked back to Alveraz. Holding the rank of a lowly Sub Lieutenant, his niece was the most junior officer in his staff, though that was the required rank for his communications officer. Scott had picked her to replace James’ last communications officer who had been promoted. Initially James had refused the idea. He didn’t want anyone thinking Emilie had achieved the position through favoritism. When Scott had pointed out that she was eminently qualified and, more importantly, that if she wasn’t appointed to the Outer Defense Fleet her career would stagnate, James had acquiesced. He already knew that most of the higher-ranking UN officials detested him, and that had carried over into the senior UN Naval Admirals they had appointed. They had happily appointed him to command the Outer Defense Fleet to get him as far away from Earth as possible. He hadn’t realized their spite had been spilling over onto Emilie. She had completed her training at the RSN Lunar academy and been allowed to keep her field promotion to Sub Lieutenant, yet she hadn’t been given an active commission, despite the rapidly expanding UN Fleet’s thirst for officers.

Alveraz cleared his throat in an effort to cover up a smile. “Though I’m sure none of us agree with the wisdom the UN Interplanetary Committee has shown in this matter, the situation is not likely to change any time soon so we must operate accordingly.”

James nodded and made a mental note to send a message to President Koroylov of the Russian Republic. Koroylov was one of the only national leaders who was pushing for the UN to keep expanding its fleet. He would have a far better idea of when, if at all, an increased military budget would be passed. The initial budget had been set just after the formation of the UN fleet. It had been passed in fear due to the Flex-aor invasion and Russian Siege of Earth. After five years, political and popular support for such high levels of military spending was waning.

“Moreover,” Alveraz added, “there will be a shift in the distribution of the newly constructed ships as they complete their space trials. Up until this point our Outer Defense Fleet has been receiving forty percent of all new construction. Forty percent was being held back in the Sol system as a strategic reserve, and twenty percent distributed throughout the Human Sphere to protect our other colonies. From now on, we will switch places with the rest of the Human Sphere and will receive just twenty percent of new construction.”

More than one of James’ subordinates let out a groan or some other complaint. Rachel Beckett, James’ Flag Captain went so far as to voice her concerns. “Surely that makes no sense Lieutenant. We have less than two hundred and forty ships in our fleet, not counting our most recent reinforcements. The Flex-aor invasion force numbered in the thousands. The fleet that faced them at Connecticut had more than six hundred ships and we barely won. How can they expect us to stop a second Flex-aor invasion with more reinforcements just trickling in? Did they include any miracle battle tactics for us to use in the latest intelligence report you haven’t come to yet?”

Alveraz looked at the gathered officers, clearly unsure how to answer. Before James could intervene, Scott beat him to it. “Let’s not shoot the messenger people. I’m sure Alveraz is as upset as the rest of us. We’ve been working our socks off for the last three years getting this fleet formed into the force it now is. If the Flex-aor do come back, we’re readier to face them than I thought we would be. Given the bureaucratic nightmare we all know the UN is, it is a minor miracle we have the fleet we have.”

“Of course,” Becket conceded. “I wasn’t having a go Lieutenant,” she added as she looked back at Alveraz. “I’m sure you appreciate the difficult strategic situation we are in as much as I do.”

“I do,” Alveraz said as he visibly relaxed. “I’m not in favor of the strategic thinking coming out of New York any more than you are. Yet they are the cards we are being dealt.”

“Indeed,” James agreed. “As much as I share Becket’s sentiments, Scott has a point. Golden Hind is worth three pre-UN battleships in a straight up fight. And if we add in our Spitfire squadron, we could maybe take on four. Right down the line our entire fleet can boast similar improvements over the older models of ships they have replaced. Though our numbers are less, if we have to face the Flex-aor, we will give a good account of ourselves. I’m not saying we could fend off a full invasion. You all know how our simulated engagements have panned out. Yet we would seriously blunt any future invasion. Our problem is that the UN diplomats and Admirals know that. Hence these new decisions. I imagine many back in the Sol system are nervous about having so much of Humanity’s fighting power concentrated in one system so far from Earth. If another attack was to materialize from a different vector, we would be caught with our pants down. Plus, it is no secret how I feel about the UN and its military build-up. If it was up to me, we would have at least tripled our military spending over the last five years. It’s also no secret that for most UN officials, the animosity I feel is mutual. I’m not surprised they don’t want more ships coming under my command.”

“That just shows their foolishness,” Becket added.

James rolled his eyes. “It’s a good thing they don’t request full transcripts of these staff meetings. If they did, I think you’d be replaced even quicker than me.”

“I think we would all be in trouble,” Scott suggested. “But the day the Interplanetary Committee decides to go that far is the day I resign. It’s hard enough to keep your complaints out of the minutes I have to prepare. Is it any wonder your Flag Captain is learning from your example?”

Though James knew Scott was teasing him, he made an appropriately contrite face. She had a point; he was meant to be a positive example. “I think we might all resign if that day comes,” he said. “Now, Alveraz, do you have any positive news?”

“Well,” Alveraz began and then paused as he scrolled through his notes. “There are a few minor updates you can read in your own time regarding new ship designs and other planning strategies. There isn’t much in there that will change our strategic situation in the next year or two. There has been no sign of any Flex-aor activity on any of our other border systems. I suppose that is good news. Two new systems have been discovered. One on the edge of Chinese space and the other on the edge of the German colonies. Their fate is being decided by the Interplanetary Committee. Oh, yes, deep within the latest brief was a petition from Admiral Jil’lal Lackesh. She has requested that the Vesterians be allowed to dispatch a support fleet to X-38 to supplement our forces defending this system.”

“Trust Jil’lal to be looking out for us when no one else is,” James said with a nod.

“Or perhaps it is your wife we should be thanking,” Scott suggested. “I could easily imagine her giving Jil’lal a hint or two to make such a suggestion.”

“Yes,” James said as he silently berated himself for not seeing Suzanna’s hand behind Jil’lal’s request. “That’s exactly the sort of thing she would do.” He lapsed into silence as he tried to think of what else his wife might be doing to aid him. She was no longer the British Governor of Haven. Neither of them were particularly liked by the new British Prime Minister and her government. Thankfully Pennington, the former First Councilor of Haven, had been selected to replace her as Governor after Pennington’s term had finished. The new government might be vindictive but they weren’t completely stupid; they knew they needed to replace Suzanna with someone the people of Haven trusted.

After being relieved of her position Suzanna had returned to Haven where the Haven people, as if to make a statement to the British Government, had elected her their new First Councilor. As such, she was trying to use her influence to boost X-38’s defenses. She knew how concerned he was about the Flex-aor threat.

“What is the likelihood that the UN will accept the request?” Becket asked.

Alveraz shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. They could say yes in the hope it might give them a stronger reason to keep saying no to our requests for more ships. Or they could say no simply because they don’t want any more focus being placed on X-38.”

“If they did say yes, how long would it take the Vesterians to get a fleet here Ivanov?” Beckett followed up. “And how many ships might they bring?”

All eyes turned to James’ operation’s officer. Kirstie Ivanov had been personally recommended to James by President Koroylov and James hadn’t been able to refuse. Now that he had come to know her over the last three years, he was glad he hadn’t. Though she was quiet, she was competent.

“They have been working on increasing their logistical capabilities ever since they sent a fleet to fight against President Koroylov’s fleet,” Ivanov began. “I think they have a permanent operational capability to field a fleet anywhere in Human space and keep them in supply for six months. They could dispatch a fleet to us tomorrow if they got permission. I couldn’t say for sure how many ships they could keep in supply for such a length of time, but it must be at least as many as they sent to fight in our last war.”

“Perhaps we will get some unexpected reinforcement after all,” James surmised. “Scott, make a note to include some battle simulations with Vestarian warships in our next cycle. If Jil’lal does show up, I want our forces to be familiar with her fleet’s capabilities.”

“Yes Admiral,” Scott replied.

“Anything else to report?” he asked as he turned back to Alveraz.



“Just one other piece of good news,” Alveraz responded. “It seems that as yet, there has been no move to decrease the funding for X-38’s defenses by the United Colonies and British Star Kingdom.”

“Well that’s something,” Becket agreed. “If the Flex-aor do come in strength, at least we’ll be able to hide our fleet behind a wall of orbital battlestations.”

This time James allowed himself to release a grunt of disapproval.

“Let’s not have this debate again,” Scott said hastily.

“No problem,” James replied. “That is an argument for another day.” Over the last five years he had concluded that orbital defenses were a waste of investment. It was too easy for fleets to ignore them and move on through a system to attack an easier system. Huge amounts of resources were being piled into the X-38 system and many other systems that could be better spent on warships that could protect multiple systems rather than just one planet. He had tried to bring up the subject with the UN Admirals, but none would listen. Even among his own Admirals and Captains in the Outer Defense Fleet it was a debated subject. It was hard for officers that had grown up believing in the significance of fixed defenses to jettison the importance most gave to them. James felt Koroylov’s Siege of Earth had proved that large battlestations were not the direction the UN fleet should be going in. Yet not many others had learnt that lesson.

“If there is nothing else Alveraz, perhaps Commander Miyamoto can update us on our reinforcements,” Scott suggested.

“By all means,” James agreed with a nod. Miyamoto was a recommendation from Rear Admiral Sato. Sato was James’ second in command in the Outer Defense Fleet and he commanded the fleet’s second battleship squadron. James’ first tactical officer had been promoted to command a destroyer and Sato had provided a replacement from his own staff.

“Certainly Admiral,” Miyamoto said excitedly. “Medium cruiser divisions fourteen and nineteen arrived today. That brings medium cruiser squadrons four and five up to full strength. Accompanying the new medium cruisers was destroyer squadron twelve under the command of Commodore Davies, formerly of the United Colonial Fleet. The four cruisers were all Protector class cruisers and the destroyer squadron is made up of refitted British Centurion destroyers. The reinforcements bring us up to two hundred and forty-eight warships in our fleet.”

“Does anyone know Davies or the other Captains that have joined us?” Becket asked.

Everyone in the briefing room looked around at each other and several shoulders were shrugged. “Shall I invite them over for a meal Admiral?” Becket followed up when it was clear the newcomers were all unknown entities.

“That sounds good, I’ll leave it in your hands,” James replied. “Invite the commanders of medium cruiser squadrons four and five as well so they can meet their subordinates. Scott, let’s arrange some simulated engagements with medium cruiser squadrons four and five against squadrons one and two for tomorrow. I’m sure the newcomers will be rusty and it will do them good to see how far behind they are. Pick a destroyer squadron as well and arrange for Commodore Davies’ ships to sim against them.”

“Aye Admiral,” Scott replied.

“Is there anything else of note before we move on to our normal briefing material?” James asked.

“There is actually,” Yue Fei said.

Every eye turned to the fleet logistics officer. It was rare for the Chinese national to contribute much during the regular planning meetings. As long as the defense fleet had the supplies it needed, his role in deciding the fleet’s training exercises and operational procedures was minimal. That said, James greatly valued what Yue did. Behind the scenes, Yue took a great deal of the workload of running such a massive fleet out of James’ hands. “We are all ears,” James said as Yue paused, waiting for approval to continue.

“With your permission Admiral,” Yue replied as he gestured towards the room’s holo-projector.

James nodded. “Of course.”

In front of everyone a standard looking missile appeared. When James looked at Yue, it was clear there was more to what he was looking at. The logistics officer looked more excited than James had ever seen him.

“This is the Mark I Longbow missile,” Yue said as he raised his chin. “Several thousand have arrived with the latest supply fleet.” There was a gleam in his eyes and he was clearly waiting for a response. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Seriously? We have Longbows already? I thought they were at least six months away from completing their trials,” Miyamoto exclaimed.

“The estimate for completing their space trials was conservative. It had initially been planned to test them for more than a year before going into production. Yet within six months all the bugs had been worked out. We’ve been given the first production run,” Yue explained. “There are enough of them to provide every warship in our fleet with one salvo. It will take nearly a week to transfer the missiles across, but it shouldn’t be too hard to split the missiles across every ship in the fleet. That is if you want to divide them up evenly Admiral?”

“Run me through their specs first. I’ve heard of the Longbows, but it seems some of you are more up-to-date on their capabilities than I am,” James requested.

Yue looked to Miyamoto and Scott. When Scott nodded to him, he smiled. “The Longbow missiles are the first two-stage missiles we have developed. Stage one essentially consists of a normal anti-ship missile with some of its fuel cells removed. It has a slightly reduced powered range of twenty-five minutes compared to our current anti-ship missiles powered range of thirty. However, after those twenty-five minutes of acceleration, the rear of the missile is jettisoned and two smaller missiles released. They can travel on a ballistic course for as long as we want, and then, at a prearranged time, power up their engines for a powered flight of five minutes. Five minutes is all they need though. Given their smaller size, they are small enough to take advantage of the new inertial compensators our Spitfires and AM missiles use.

“If we were to fire one of the new missiles and immediately after the first stage was jettisoned, began accelerating with the two released missiles, the missiles would have a total acceleration time of thirty minutes, identical to our current anti-ship missiles. However, in that time they could travel twenty percent more distance, thus giving us a minimum powered range twenty percent greater than our current missiles. The theoretical maximum range is infinite. If we wanted, we could launch the missiles from one side of a star system, boost them up to their maximum cruising speed using their first stage drives, then cruise on a ballistic course to their targets and switch on their secondary engines when they came into attack range. Of course, our opponents would have to stay in one place for that length of time, but it is theoretically possible.

“There is one drawback. The missiles released in stage two are significantly smaller than the warheads our normal anti-ship missiles carry. However, they are large enough to fit a nuclear pumped grazer warhead that produces one beam.”

James let out a whistle as he sat back in his chair. “Impressive. That would give us a lot of flexibility in a number of combat situations. I can already think of one or two ways we could use them to great effect.” He thought about Yue’s suggestion of splitting the missiles between every ship in his fleet. Quickly he realized he didn’t know enough about the missiles to make such a decision. “Let’s hold off on distributing these new missiles to the fleet. I want us to schedule another planning meeting tomorrow where we can focus on throwing out some strategies and tactics we could use with them. Invite all the senior admirals in our fleet. Make sure they have a technical breakdown of the new missiles’ capabilities. I want to have a brainstorming session and then run some simulations before we decide how we’re going to deploy them.”

“I’ll arrange that as soon as we’re done here,” Scott replied. “Is there any time tomorrow you would prefer to meet?”

“Make it early,” James requested. “Then we can run some simulations throughout the rest of the day. Hopefully by then we’ll have some direction to give Yue as to what he should do with his new toys.”

Yue smiled and nodded at James’ remark.

“Okay,” Scott responded. “I believe that is everything we need to cover in relation to the arrival of our reinforcements. Now we can turn to the rest of the agenda for today’s meeting.”

Turning to Lieutenant Dzedzyk, Scott raised an eyebrow, inviting James’ navigation officer to take over. She was the only one not to have spoken so far. In response, Dzedzyk reached forward and changed the image being displayed by the holo projector. Yue’s missiles disappeared and a star map of the space around X-38 took its place.

“This is the current deployment of all our forces outside of X-38,” Dzedzyk began in a confident but soft tone. Though she hadn’t served with James before joining the Outer Defense Fleet, she had served in the RSN and had always been comfortable working under him. “We have sixteen scout ships and thirty-six exploration ships operating in the nine systems we have discovered beyond X-38. Most of them are concentrated in the two systems we’ve discovered in the last six months. As yet, no shift passages leading away from either of them has been discovered, but we are confident both systems will contain shift passages that will lead to further systems. It’s just a matter of time until we find them. This data is five days old, though nothing is expected to have changed since the last scout ship returned with an update.”

“Do you have a proposed route for our forward operation?” James asked.

“I do,” Dzedzyk replied with a nod. With the touch of a button the view on the holo projector changed slightly. Six systems began to flash and a circular route connecting them changed color. “I suggest we go from X-38 to X-40 and then follow this route. This way we can visit both of the newly discovered systems and check-in with the Commodores leading the exploration missions. Lieutenant Commander Ivanov has already planned a number of training operations we can hold in each system. Finally, in X-44 and 45 we could arrive unannounced on a hostile vector and see how the scout ships in each system respond to an unknown threat. In total, if we follow my proposed route, we’ll be gone for one and a half months, though at any point along the route, we’d be no more than three weeks away from X-38. More importantly, if any Flex-aor attack was to materialize, we believe they would have to come through X-42, 44 or 45. At any point along the route we’d be in position to intercept them before they could reach X-38.”

“Very good,” James said with a nod. “I think it will work. Ivanov, fill us in on some of the operations you propose we carry out on this extended reconnaissance mission.”

As Ivanov spoke James partially listened and partially allowed his mind to wander. Extended reconnaissance mission was a fancy way of saying he had become bored sitting in orbit around X-38. He knew that if he was bored with all the responsibilities he had as the senior UN commander in this system, then his Captains and crews must be even more bored. A couple of months spent cruising through the most recently discovered star systems would boost morale. It would also allow his fleet to carry out live fire exercises and practice their battle formations for real rather than just in simulators. It had taken nearly eight months to get the senior UN Admirals’ approval, but a month ago a ship had arrived giving the go-ahead. Since then Yue had been stockpiling resources for the mission. Now that the logistics officer was confident the fleet could move and keep itself in fighting supply, it was time to plan what they were going to do.

For a couple of hours James allowed the conversations to go back and forth as every member of his staff chipped in on the plans Ivanov had drawn up. By the end, the operations officer had a number of new ideas to work on and a few tweaks to add to the exercises she had already planned.

“I think that will do for today,” James said when the discussion of the exercise they were evaluating came to an end. “I’m going to set the date for our departure as two weeks from today. We’ll inform the rest of our Admirals about the general plans tomorrow at our briefing and as we lock down the finer details we can pass them on. Good work today everyone. We’ll meet in three days to continue this discussion and see where we are at. You’re all dismissed.”




Chapter 2

A short sharp victory is every fleet commander’s dream. Military history tells us they are extremely rare, and usually, their benefits are fleeting. War always demands a high price in lives and material.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-41 system, 7th June 2478 AD.

James was sitting on the bridge of his flagship watching his fleet carry out a series of battle maneuvers. For this drill he was simply a spectator. Lieutenant Commander Ivanov had split the Outer Defense Fleet into two opposing forces. One third of the fleet was defending the system’s fourth planet, a rocky uninhabitable world that represented X-38. The other two thirds were simulating a Flex-aor attack and were trying to break through the defending forces and get into missile range of the rocky planet. It was assumed the Flex-aor had a new kind of large missile that could take out orbital battlestations with one hit. It was therefore paramount that the defending force, though outnumbered, did not allow the attackers to get their heavy missiles into range of the illusionary orbital battlestations.

Commanding the defending forces was one of James’ oldest friends, Rear Admiral Georgia Gupta. She was normally the commander of Battlecruiser Squadron One, but for this engagement both James and Sato were presumed dead and she was the third ranking commander in the Outer Defense Fleet. Sato was commanding the attacking forces. James was happy to just watch and asses the performance of his fleet.

Though he was an observer, Golden Hind was not and her bridge was a hive of activity. The first time James had stepped foot on Golden Hind’s bridge he had been blown away. He had been on the bridges of both British and American pre-UN battleships. They were impressive, but the UN Defender class battleships were a huge step above them. Golden Hind’s bridge was designed to service both her Captain and the Captain’s command staff, as well as an Admiral and his command staff. Just four meters to James’ right sat Captain Becket. Arrayed around her in two concentric semi-circles were all the Lieutenants and Sub Lieutenants who manned Golden Hind’s command consoles. Arrayed around James in a single semi-circle were his command staff. Everyone on his staff had a console from which they could help him manage his fleet. They too were assumed dead and they were watching the battle unfold themselves, though they were making a lot more notes for the final debrief than James was. They had to analyze everything and report on the tactics employed by Gupta and Sato. James was content to take in the general strategies his subordinates were trying to achieve and worry about the details later.

Gupta was trying to lure Sato into a trap. She had deployed all the missile pods from her ships into a position flanking Sato’s most likely route of attack. Now she was maneuvering her ships to draw Sato into the ideal firing solution where the missiles from her missile pods and those from her own ships would hit Sato’s fleet at the same time. Sato was being cautious. He knew Gupta would try some kind of trick and he was moving slowly until he found out what it was.

James was watching this unfold on Golden Hind’s gravimetric sensor display, for Sato’s fleet was too far away to detect using conventional sensors. He noticed the new signal from the edge of the system as soon as Golden Hind’s sensor officers did. One moment the gravimetric sensors were not detecting anything within forty light minutes of that section of the system, then a repeating ping was detected. The source of the pings was easy to figure out. There was only one way that kind of signal to could be generated.

“That’s a gravimetric COM. It’s sending a priority one flash alert,” Golden Hind’s COM officer reported loud enough for James and his staff to hear.

“Inform Gupta and Sato that the training exercise is over. Both fleets are to rendezvous with each other immediately,” James ordered. A priority one flash alert meant possible enemy contacts. Today’s exercises were over.

“Understood Admiral, I’ll contact them immediately,” Emilie replied.

James nodded to his niece and then turned towards Golden Hind’s COM officer. The gravimetric COMs allowed for real-time communication across entire solar systems. However, they could only give out pulses of gravimetric energy. The content of their signals was not much more complex than the old Morse code used by Humanity centuries ago. It took time for complicated messages to be transmitted.

“The contact is the exploration frigate Hercules,” the COM officer updated as the next batch of information was decoded. “She’s detected anomalous electromagnetic signals from further along the edge of the system. Her Captain suspects unknown ships operating in the area.”

“Dispatch one of our clippers to X-38,” James ordered. “Inform Rear Admiral Jackson that we have made contact with unknown ships. We are operating under the assumption they are Flex-aor.”

“Aye Admiral,” Scott replied as she turned to her console.

“Form the fleet into formation Delta three once we have concentrated our forces,” James followed up. “There is no known shift passage out of X-41. At least, none known to us. If there are ships, they have to be Flex-aor. They would know this area of space very well.”

“Aye Sir,” Ivanov acknowledged.

Hercules has transmitted her sensor data to us,” Golden Hind’s COM officer announced as the ship’s computer decoded more of the gravimetric pulses. “I’m transmitting it to our tactical consoles now.”

James smiled as Miyamoto swung round to his console in a flash. Golden Hind’s tactical officer did the same, racing to see who could interpret the data faster.

When Miyamoto began to speak first, he received a nod of approval from James. “There’s no way to be sure what the contacts Hercules has detected are. But the computer gives a sixty percent chance they are Flex-aor warships, possibly a number of small scouts of some kind. I’d put the likelihood even higher than sixty percent myself.”

“I’d put it at hundred percent,” Scott suggested. “Look at the gravimetric plot now.”

Four new contacts had appeared on the gravimetric plot, accelerating hard towards Hercules’ position. “Whoever they are, they don’t seem friendly,” James commented. “Contact all our other exploration and scout ships within the system. They are to make their way towards these new contacts in stealth. Whoever is out there already knows our fleet is here, but they can’t know how many other ships we have operating in the system. Let’s see if we can get some eyes on them. Tell Hercules to avoid those incoming ships but not to escape too quickly. Let’s see what else she can detect.”

Hercules is sending their sensor data to us,” Golden Hind’s COM officer updated everyone. “They’re detecting at least fifty contacts cruising into the system at low power levels. They estimate there could be more coming in behind them. They think the contacts chasing them were screening ships for a larger fleet.”

James looked over to Miyamoto. The tactical officer was pouring over his console but a few seconds later he looked up and nodded to James. “I’d say their assessment is correct.”

“Two new contacts,” Golden Hind’s tactical officer reported. “They are accelerating on an intercept trajectory for Sure-foot.”

“Will they catch her?” James asked at once.

“They might, it depends on their maximum missile range. If the ships are Flex-aor warships and their missile range has increased, they may get one missile salvo away.”

James stroked his chin as he thought. The alien fleet, if it was a fleet, was appearing on a trajectory that put them directly between his fleet and the shift passage out of X-41 that led to X-38. Unless the clipper he had dispatched escaped the pursuing flex-aor warships, Rear Admiral Jackson and X-38’s fixed defenses would have no warning that a potential enemy fleet was on the way. It was vital Sure-foot got through. Vital enough to risk some other ships. “Send a signal to our exploration and scout ships in the system. Any ships that can intercept the warships closing with Sure-foot are to do so. Sure-foot must make it out of the system.”

James turned his mind to the wider tactical situation. He didn’t yet know the size of the enemy fleet but the Flex-aor seemed to like to operate in fleets of at least five hundred warships. If that was all the Flex-aor had, he was confident his fleet could go toe to toe with this new threat. However, if there were two or three fleets operating together as they had done six years ago, then his fleet would be smashed. “Bring our fleet to a halt relative to the system’s star as soon as Sato rendezvous with us," James ordered. “We don’t know what kind of threat we are facing. If this is another full-blown Flex-aor invasion, we can’t waste our ships against a fleet that greatly outnumbers us. If they intend to make for X-38, we may have to let them proceed and remain in their rear to harry them. Let’s assume we are going to take on whatever is out there though. Begin preparing our fleet for battle.”

A chorus of responses came from his command staff as everyone prepared for the Outer Defense Fleet to fight its first real battle.

*

Though anger was coursing through her mind, Hack’tar was careful to keep it from seeping out to any of her subjects. She wanted them to think she was supremely confident. In one sense, she was. Her ships outnumbered the alien fleet by nearly fifty percent. She should be able to destroy them quickly and fall back towards her mother’s homeworlds. Except, doubt filled her mind. She knew her people could be beaten. Half of her fleet had been destroyed in her failed attempt to cleanse one alien world. Now there was this new alien fleet in front of her. Worse, she had only just managed to evade scouts from the other alien race two weeks ago. She thought she had finally freed herself from pursuit. Yet just as she did, she was facing another fleet.

To add insult to injury, this fleet was in one of the systems her sister was supposed to control. That the species she was meant to have cleansed was here instead meant only one thing. Her sister’s invasion fleet had been thrown back. That was chilling; her sister commanded a fleet several times the size of her own. If her sister had been defeated, the force in front of her fleet was even more formidable that the one she had just fought.

What do I do? Hack’tar asked herself. She was in a situation she had never had to consider before. If this new alien species had defeated her sister’s forces, then it was possible they were threatening the Flex-aor homeworlds. What was left of her fleet was even more important than she thought. Her mother wouldn’t want her to throw away her ships in a meaningless battle, not when they might be needed to protect one of her mother’s hatcheries. If I don’t fight them, they could follow me back to our homeworlds. She would have to evade a pursuing hostile force all over again.

As she thought more about the situation, Hack’tar’s lips peeled back, revealing her teeth. It had dawned on her why the alien leader had brought their ships to a halt. Her fleet was blocking the alien fleet’s only way back to their own space. No doubt they were afraid that her fleet was about to launch another attack. They want to get past me and back to their space, and I want to get past them and back to my space. Yet they don’t know that and are not going to let me pass. For a few moments, she entertained the idea of moving her fleet away from this alien fleet and allowing them to head back to their own space. It would avoid a battle. Yet it would allow them to follow my fleet. Even if all her fleets had been destroyed, her sister would not have allowed the aliens to learn the paths through shift space that led to her mother’s hatcheries. No, we must fight. This alien fleet needs to be destroyed and then it will be safe to return home.

Hack’tar opened up her mind to all the Captains in her fleet and made her will known. She then deferred command to her Senior Captain. He would fight the fleet engagement as she aided the fleet’s coordination by sending his orders to each ship. “We will take them out and leave no witnesses. When we pass through the system no one will follow us,” she sent to all her Captains. “I will not be staying out of this fight either. We must push through them. If you want to keep me alive, you must destroy these aliens.”

Hack’tar let out what a Human would almost call a purr when she felt the response from the Captains of her ships. Their anger at the enemy fleet and their desire to wipe them out had immediately gone into overdrive. On top of that, filtering through those emotions, was their devotion to her and their mother. Though she knew it was part of their base instincts, it pleased her. Whatever was about to happen, it wouldn’t be lost through a lack of courage and will to win. “The fleet will advance,” she said, speaking out loud for the first time since entering the system.

“Yes my Queen,” her Senior Captain responded from beside her.

*

“They’re coming to us,” Scott commented as just over three hundred contacts suddenly appeared on Golden Hind’s gravimetric sensors. They were all accelerating straight towards the Outer Defense Fleet’s current position.

James took a few moments to study the incoming enemy fleet. He wanted to give his subordinates time to identify the ships. He had no doubt that they were Flex-aor but waiting for confirmation give him time to think.

“Acceleration profiles are consistent with Flex-aor warships,” Miyamoto reported. “They have eight battleships, eighteen battlecruisers and the rest are an even split between their cruisers and destroyer class ships.”

“Strength analysis?” James asked as he looked to Scott.

“Assuming the ships are equipped the same way as the ones we fought six years ago, they’ll still have a missile advantage over us. Though their missiles are smaller and less powerful than our own. If our new technologies work as well as they do in the simulations, we should be able to get a lot more missiles through their defensive fire.”

“Agreed,” James replied. “Which means we can be a little bit more aggressive than normal. Dzedzyk,” James said as he turned to his navigation officer. “Plot a course for our fleet to close with the enemy. Keep us at extreme missile range. I want to approach slowly as well; they could have another fleet or two waiting out there. Miyamoto, work up a flight of stealth drones and saturate the sector of space where the alien fleet came from. If they do have more ships I want them discovered before we enter engagement range. You have permission to launch flights of stealth drones along other vectors you think we should cover just in case. Emilie, get me Wing Commander McGrath on a COM channel.”

“Vice Admiral,” McGrath said as her face appeared on one of the small holo projectors on James’ command chair.

“I’m thinking we split your forces Wing Commander,” James said. “Your wing can escort the bomber squadrons from Ark Royal and Enterprise and join them in hitting the alien battleships. You can go in under the cover of our first missile salvo. I want to keep the fighters of Wing Commander Samuels’ squadron around our fleet. They can engage the aliens’ missile carriers. We’ll keep the fighter squadrons from the battleships in reserve to launch follow up strikes or provide more anti-missile support. What do you think?”

McGrath grinned ferally. “That sounds like a plan to me Admiral. Samuels will not be too happy, but he’ll understand the importance of his role. If you’re okay with it, his fighters can go out kitted out for anti-ship operations. If you need to, you can order his fighters to launch an attack.”

“That’s fine by me Wing Commander, I’ll leave the details in your hands. Miyamoto will liaise with you to finalize launch times and attack profiles,” James replied.

“Aye Admiral. My pilots will prove their worth.”

“They have nothing to prove to me,” James replied, “but I expect you to give your best nonetheless.”

“Thank you Admiral, we will.” McGrath said as she ended the COM channel.

“You’re thinking we’ll use our new multistage missiles?” Becket asked when McGrath’s face disappeared.

“Assuming we don’t detect any other warships between now and when we open fire,” James answered with a nod. “We can use our missiles to hit them just before they open fire with their first salvo. If McGrath can hit them hard, they may only be able to get one or two return salvos off before we can open fire with our normal missiles. With luck, neither of their salvos will be well prepared. What do you think?”



“Attacking first with our fighters and bombers has worked well in the simulations,” Scott agreed. “Our long-range missiles will improve the effectiveness of hitting first even more. It is still risky, but it’s the best way we have to negate their range advantage.”

“Becket, Miyamoto, are you both in agreement?” James asked, speaking slightly louder. “All right then,” he said when both replied in the affirmative. “Work out the details. We’ll launch a full salvo of our new multistage missiles and as soon as we get into range we will deploy all our missile pods and follow-up our first salvo with the strongest salvo we can hit them with.”




Chapter 3

The thing about planning is, you can only plan for the enemy you know. When the Flex-aor first attacked, mankind was totally unprepared. It was the same with the Karacknids and the Antarians. Despite the trillions of credits the Imperial Fleet spends on intelligence, simulation and war games every year, the fleet will never be ready for the unknown. All the credits in the Empire can’t answer the question so many senior Admirals constantly ask themselves; what unknown threat is out there?

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-41 System.

As his subordinates got to work, James played a couple of other scenarios out in his head. Much of the discussion over the last several years within his fleet, and between most naval officers in the UN fleet, had been on how to negate the Flex-aor’s range advantage. Their warships fired large, almost shuttle sized missile carriers that accelerated at slow rates for a considerable time before they released smaller warheads that were more like normal Human anti-ship missiles. During the Flex-aor’s last invasion Allied ships constantly had to endure multiple enemy missile salvos before they got into range themselves. The fighters and bombers that had been developed using the new inertial compensators had always been factored in as part of the answer. They gave Human warships the ability to strike an enemy fleet long before it came into missile range. The new multistage missiles the Outer Defense Fleet had received were meant to be a permanent solution to the Flex-aor’s range advantage. Having one salvo available was good, but they weren’t enough to entirely solve the problem today.

He had developed a few other strategies with his staff over the years. Most of them involved risky maneuvers and feints to draw an enemy fleet in close. Now that he had some multistage missiles, they were all less effective than what he had discussed with his subordinates. This is the best plan of action, James thought as he nodded to himself. We’ll surprise them with our new technologies and then hammer them until they are finished. That, or they will surprise us with something new.

“Wing Commander McGrath’s fighters are launching Admiral,” Miyamoto informed James twenty minutes later. “They’ll be formed up and begin their acceleration burns in five minutes. McGrath has decided to go in slow to hide her fighters’ capabilities. We’ll fire our missiles in thirty minutes.”

“Very well,” James replied. “Open fire as soon as the time comes.”

Given that his own staff and all the Admirals and Captains in his fleet had simulated this kind of engagement hundreds of times, James found himself almost surplus to requirements. Everyone was working like a well-oiled machine. As soon as her wing of fighters and accompanying bombers was formed up, McGrath turned them towards the approaching Flex-aor fleet. Once they were away, Wing Commander Samuels launched his squadrons from Enterprise and they moved to a point where they could intercept incoming enemy missile carriers. Without waiting for additional permission, Miyamoto gave the signal for the fleet to open fire. From the two hundred and eight ships he had brought with him from X-38, four thousand two hundred and eighty-six of the new multistage missiles were shot into space. For twenty-five minutes they accelerated like any other Human missile. Then every contact disappeared off Golden Hind’s gravimetric sensor as their impulse engines ran out of energy. A couple of seconds later, Golden Hind’s normal sensors picked up four thousand small flashes as the first stage of the missiles released two smaller missiles and then self-destructed. For four minutes the second stage anti-ship warheads continued on a ballistic course. Then, as Miyamoto had programmed them to, they powered up and rapidly accelerated towards the Flex-aor fleet.

At exactly the same time McGrath’s fighter wing increased their acceleration by a factor of five and pulled themselves in behind the massive wave of missiles. Despite the sudden change in circumstances, the Flex-aor fleet didn’t react. James didn’t know if it was out of courage or fear or even incredulity at what they were seeing. It didn’t matter. Within two minutes the missiles reached the Flex-aor’s point defenses. Tens of thousands of point defense weapons opened up on them. They quickly took out some of the missiles, however, their kill rate was far too low. The warheads in the multistage missiles were half the size of normal anti-ship missiles and that, combined with the new inertial compensators, meant they were far more agile and harder to hit. When there were still more than two thousand missiles intact, a full tenth of a light second before reaching their targets, every missile warhead exploded. Instead of trying to score a direct hit, the small nuclear warheads focused their explosive power to create a single grazer beam. In the blink of an eye more than two thousand beams of devastating energy pierced through the Flex-aor fleet.

Not every one hit of course, the Flex-aor had been carrying out evasive maneuvers, yet hundreds did. Where they struck enemy battleships and battlecruisers the damage was usually shrugged off. The beams were more than powerful enough to penetrate even a battleship’s armor, however, unless they hit something vital the ship was unlikely to suffer serious damage. Several beams striking a single ship was another matter. One battleship and two battlecruisers were blown apart. Several more dropped out of formation, streaming debris and bodies. For the smaller Flex-aor warships, one hit was far more devastating. In most cases the beams were powerful enough to burn right through the warship and out the other side. In less than a second, sixty of those ships were destroyed. Another thirty were seriously damaged.

“Multiple hits, we scored multiple hits!” Miyamoto shouted as soon as Golden Hind’s computers analyzed the sensor data. “Nearly seventy contacts from the enemy fleet have disappeared. Many more are falling out of formation.”

“McGrath has just sent a COM message, she’s taking her attack wing in now,” Emilie reported.

“Acknowledged,” James responded.

Ark Royal had been refitted and expanded since she had fought to liberate Earth from the Russian siege. McGrath had four fighter squadrons and a single bomber squadron in her wing. She also had the bomber squadron from Enterprise with her. She had timed her attack to perfection. The Flex-aor were still reeling from the devastating effect of James’ salvo and half the fleet didn’t even open fire with their point defenses when McGrath came into range. Those that did clearly weren’t expecting McGrath’s ships to have the agility they did. For twenty seconds McGrath’s fighters and bombers had to twist and weave their way through point defense fire. Only six of her seventy-two ships were hit. As soon as they got into range, they fired their plasma missiles and peeled away. Each Spitfire fighter carried just one plasma missile. The Lancaster bombers carried three. To carry so many they had sacrificed some range and acceleration. They also didn’t carry any plasma cannons. Their purpose was to close with an enemy fleet and unleashed a devastating attack. The Flex-aor switched their point defense fire to the missiles and of the one hundred and twenty plasma missiles McGrath’s fighters and bombers released, they only shot down fifty. The rest made it to their targets, the undamaged battleships in the Flex-aor fleet.

The plasma missiles detonated five hundred meters from their targets. They were designed to release a large ball of plasma. Traveling at almost the speed of light, the plasma smashed into the battleships and ate large holes into them. When the plasma hit vital power relays or engine and reactor compartments they caused secondary explosions that ripped through the battleships. By the time the devastation was over, only two battleships remained in formation. The rest had been destroyed outright or were spinning away out of control.

“We’ve gutted them,” Becket said, awe filling her voice. “That was even more effective than our simulations.”

“They weren’t expecting our technological advances,” James responded. “Imagine we came up against our own fleet six or seven years ago. We would have been wiped out just as easily.”

“Better them than us,” Becket replied. “Let’s hope they don’t have any surprises of their own.”

James nodded. Despite crippling the enemy fleet, there were still more than two hundred ships left. They were still a threat. “What is McGrath doing now?” he asked. Her fighters had pulled away from the bombers but were not heading back to Ark Royal. In the past, she had led her fighters to launch secondary attacks with their small plasma cannons, yet now was not the time.

“She’s just signaled Admiral,” Emilie answered. “Her fighters have enough fuel for one pass through the first missile carrier salvo. She intends to coordinate her flight path back to Ark Royal so that her pilots can take a shot at the missile carriers as they pass them.”

“Good thinking,” James commented. “Tell her to make her shots count.” Once they had fired their plasma missiles the fighters and bombers where essentially out of a fleet battle that was fought within missile range. By the time McGrath had landed all her ships and refueled and rearmed them, the battle was likely to be over. However, as the Flex-aor liked to use missile carriers that were far easier to hit than normal anti-ship missiles, it gave the fighters something else to do.

“They are opening fire,” Miyamoto reported. “We’re tracking four hundred missile carriers.”

“Analyze their acceleration rates and sizes,” Scott requested.

James glanced at Scott and they shared a look. She had a theory about the Flex-aor and Vesterians. Both races had technologies that were similar in some regards. They were also similarities in the weapons technologies they had were far more advanced than any other technologies they had access to. Scott believed that some other race had given the technologies to both races. Both races had been led by hostile and aggressive leaders. If a third race wanted to stir up war and destruction in this part of the galaxy, giving advanced weapons to the Flex-aor and the Overlords of the Vestarians would have been just the thing to do. As far as Scott could find, the Vestarian Overlords hadn’t made any technological advances in more than fifty years with their weapons. That was changing now with the help and training Humanity was giving to the Vestarians. However, as the Flex-aor appeared to want to wipe out any species they encountered; Scott had predicted that their weapons technologies would not have progressed at all over the last six years. Her theory was about to be tested.

“The acceleration rates for the missile carriers appear identical to our records,” Miyamoto reported. “We are picking up one hundred of their larger missile carriers and three hundred smaller ones. Either they have increased the payload each carrier can carry or we’re facing the same kind of weapons we faced before.”

James raised an eyebrow as he glanced at Scott again. He already believed her theory. President Koroylov of the Russian Republic did as well. Beyond that, Scott didn’t have many supporters. Most of the scientists who worked on Vestarian and captured Flex-aor technologies put the similarities down to coincidence. No one at the UN was willing to listen to the idea that there was an even bigger threat than the Flex-aor out there. No one wanted to face up to the military spending the reality of such a threat would demand.

“I don’t think they will have increased their payloads,” Scott replied as she held James’ gaze. “It wouldn’t make sense. If they could miniaturize their missile technologies over the last six years, they could also improve their impulse engines. We haven’t seen any advances in their ships’ acceleration rates or point defensive capabilities. They are using the same technologies they fought us with six years ago.”

“That doesn’t prove anything,” Captain Becket said as she joined the conversation. “No one at the UN will find it convincing. They’ll just assume the Flex-aor are slow at developing their weapons technologies. But I’m more convinced than I was.”

“We can analyze all of this later,” James ordered. “We have a battle to fight and win. Let’s stay focused.”

“McGrath is engaging the missile carriers now,” Miyamoto said, giving weight to James’ words.

Everyone turned to watch on the gravimetric screen. To catch the accelerating missile carriers, McGrath had her fighters coming in at a higher velocity behind them. That gave her fighters several seconds to open up with their plasma cannons. In that time, each fighter shot down at least one missile carrier. Amazingly, McGrath had picked her velocity perfectly, for a minute later her fighters were caught up by the accelerating Flex-aor missile carriers and overtaken. As they passed, her fighters got a chance to take another shot at the missile carriers. Another thirty were taken out.

“She knows how to handle her ships,” Becket commented.

“That she does,” Scott agreed.

“Now it’s Samuels’ turn,” Miyamoto said.

Not carrying any plasma missiles and not having to worry about a long flight to attack a distant fleet, Samuels’ wing of four fighter squadrons used its fuel to stay with the incoming missile carriers for much longer. Spitfire fighters had much greater acceleration rates than the missile carriers and they could slot in behind the wave of missile carriers and stay with them for nearly a minute before the missile carriers exceeded the maximum velocity the Spitfire fighters could maintain. Clearly someone in the Flex-aor fleet realized what was going on for as soon as Samuels’ fighters slotted in behind the missile carriers, they began limited evasive maneuvers. That helped them survive, but only to a certain extent. Samuels’ fighters shot down nearly one hundred and fifty more missile carriers.

“Only thirty of the larger missile carriers remain,” Miyamoto reported after the fighters pulled away. “They are much easier to hit it seems.”

“That’s fine with me,” James commented. The larger missile carriers fired from Flex-aor battleships, battlecruisers and heavy cruisers each carried ten anti-ship missiles. The smaller missile carriers only held six.

When what was left of the Flex-aor missile carriers reached engagement range, they released their missiles and hundreds more contacts appeared on the gravimetric plot.

“Order the Lancer frigates forward,” James said.

Thirty frigates broke away from the Outer Defense Fleet and moved towards the incoming swarm of missiles. The Lancer frigates were specifically designed to combat enemy fighters and bombers. They didn’t have any offensive anti-ship capabilities. Instead their armament was entirely made of point defense lasers, plasma cannons, flack cannons and AM missiles. As soon as they got into range of the incoming enemy missiles, they released a storm of destructive power. Hundreds of missiles were taken out. Despite their efforts, more than four hundred missiles reached the Outer Defense Fleet. The vast majority were shot down as even more point defense fire reached out towards them, yet some managed to strike their targets.

“Six ships reporting hits Admiral,” Yue reported. “None are serious enough to take them out of formation but they all suffered casualties.”

“Ivanov, rearrange the fleet’s formation to keep the damaged ships to the rear,” James ordered. “Yue, request detailed damage reports as soon as they are ready. I’ll go over them later.”

So far so good, James thought despite the loss of life. They had survived one missile salvo without losing any ships. That was far better than he had hoped. They just had to survive one more and then they could open fire.

As the second Flex-aor missile carriers came in, Samuels’ fighter squadrons repeated their trick and destroyed more than a hundred. Once again, the Lancer frigates whittled down the missiles that were released by the missile carriers, and then the Outer Defense Fleet itself lashed out at the missiles. More got through this time and at least thirty explosions were registered on Golden Hind’s sensors as missiles reached their targets.

Yamata is gone,” Yue reported, anguish filling his voice. “Osiris and Hero are falling out of formation. Both look badly crippled. I’ve got damage reports coming in from a few other ships, but none are reporting they need to pull out of the fight.”

“It’s a good thing their missiles don’t pack more punch,” Becket commented.

“Indeed. I’m not complaining though,” James replied. The Flex-aor or whoever had given them their weapons technologies, had opted for a missile strategy that relied heavily on large numbers of small missiles overwhelming a target’s point defenses. In some circumstances that tactic worked well, yet if only a few missiles could get through an enemy fleet’s point defense fire, those missiles were largely ineffective. “Start rolling our missile pods,” he ordered.

Miyamoto had been waiting for the command and within seconds the missile pod doors of the battleships, battlecruisers and heavy cruisers opened. Each of those warships had been designed to have missile pods attached to their outer hulls. The effectiveness of missile pods in fleet engagements had been demonstrated five years ago when Koroylov had attacked Mars. In an engagement with other Human warships or ships with a similar missile range, the largest warships in the Outer Defense Fleet were designed to go into battle with missile pods attached to their hulls. The missile pods would boost the first missile salvo fired in combat. However, against the Flex-aor it was too risky to have the missile pods attached to the hull, for if a Flex-aor missile hit the pod, it could take out the entire ship.

As a result, the larger warships had an internal hanger where the pods could be stored, rearmed and, in circumstances like the Outer Defense Fleet found itself in, released into space. From Golden Hind, ten missile pods each holding four missiles were released into space and towed behind the battleship. A similar procedure was followed by the other capital ships in the fleet. As soon as every ship had confirmed they were ready to fire, James gave the order. Five thousand two hundred missiles tore towards the Flex-aor fleet.

“Battleships are to launch their fighter squadrons now, they are to intercept the next wave of missile carriers,” James ordered.

As well as having a hanger for missile pods, each battleship was home to one fighter squadron. James could have used them to add even more devastation to his initial attack, but he had held them back in case the Flex-aor had a few surprises of their own. Now that he knew they didn’t, the fighter squadrons could make sure the next Flex-aor missile salvo was as ineffective as the previous two.

*

Hack’tar trembled as she fought to contain her anger. She was failing and it was spilling through her telepathic link to her Captains. The enemy fleet had humiliated her and her people. Her flagship had been singled out in the first alien attack. Since then, she had been forced to watch the battle unfold from a crippled ship that couldn’t even open fire against the enemy. Now, an even larger enemy missile salvo than the first was about to close with what was left of her fleet. Through her telepathic link she could feel the surprise and fear from her Captains and crews. The missiles in the second salvo were much larger than in the first salvo. Their electronic countermeasures and penetration aids were far more effective as well. They will have those stand-off warheads, Hack’tar realized as she looked at the missiles. That hadn’t occurred to her until just now. They were all doomed, she realized. Somehow the aliens had developed some technology that allowed their missiles to detonate quite a distance away from their targets and still deliver some kind of destructive force. It meant the enemy’s missiles didn't have to fly through as much point defense fire as normal missiles. They could strike before they were shot down.

“They have more small ships engaging our missile carriers,” her Senior Captain said out loud.

Hack’tar growled. Whatever the small ships were, they had ripped the teeth out of her attacks. “Use your mind!” she snapped at her Captain. He was trying to keep his emotions in check for fear of angering her and he didn’t want to open up his mind to her any more than it already was. Knowing that set her on edge all the more.

Turning her eyes and mind back to her fleet, a jolt of shock struck her. The enemy missiles detonated right as she looked at them. In an instant, a wave of destruction far more powerful than the one the first missile salvo had released struck her fleet. Within a couple of seconds, half of what remained of her fleet was vaporized. Almost every ship that was left seemed to have suffered some damage.

Despite her anger, Hack’tar felt moisture begin to run down her cheeks. Through her telepathic link she had felt the loss of every single individual. Though the warrior, worker and technician drones were bred to serve her and her mother, she still valued them. Now they were all gone.

“Wha… What do we do now?” her Captain asked, again speaking out loud.

Hack’tar didn’t have the heart to berate him. Her fleet had been defeated. She had been defeated. Never before had the possibility even entered her mind. Now she been driven back from one planet by an alien fleet only to be defeated by another alien race.

“My Queen?” her Captain prompted.

As the sense of loss began to fade, Heck’tar’s anger returned with a vengeance. She stood up and opened her mind to all of her subjects who were left alive in her fleet. She funneled the full force of her anger and disappointment to them through her telepathic link. “Now we fight to the death. We are Flex-aor. This galaxy is ours. We will cleanse it of all other life. If it is not us who finish this race off, it will be my sisters and your brothers. No ship is to surrender, no ship is to stop fighting. We will take as many of these aliens with us as we can.” Her energy spent, she sank back down into her throne. Then she shut down her telepathic link with her fleet. She didn’t want to feel their losses. Instead she stared at the enemy fleet as it closed with her ships and opened fire.




Chapter 4

To be real students of history we must lay aside our current preconceptions and seek to put ourselves into the mind and circumstances of our subjects. When it comes to Admiral Somerville and the other Admirals of his day, that is a very great task indeed. In our day we take it for granted that there are millions of other species out there, many of which the Empire has daily dealings with. What must have it been truly like to think you are almost all alone in the galaxy and then to have such notions shattered? We may never really know.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-40 system. 14th June 2478 AD.

James set the datapad he had been scrolling through down on the table in front of him with a sigh. His staff took it as a sign to take a break as well. “We don’t seem to be getting anywhere with all of this,” James said as he looked at the weary faces that had looked up from their work. “Either the alien tech is far too alien for us to figure out, or it is something our scientists back on Earth have already deciphered.”

“Well…” Scott said slowly. “All of us aren’t scientists with advanced degrees. I wouldn’t have expected us to be any further along than we are after just one week. I think the UN science Institute will be happy that we managed to gather so many intact pieces of technology from the debris. By the time we get back to X-38 we’ll at least have categorized most of the technologies.”

James eyed his Chief of Staff. She did have an advanced science degree. Her knowledge had helped him in the past numerous times, especially when it came to alien technologies. It was in part why he had chosen her as his Chief of Staff. If she was happy with their progress, maybe he didn’t need to be as frustrated as he was. “Okay. Maybe we’ve been pushing things a little too much. But if we can crack any of their data chips, that should be our priority. If there are any other fleets out there, we might be able to find out about them. I find it hard to imagine the Flex-aor intended to attack us with just one fleet.”

“That, I think we can do,” Scott replied. “I’ll keep some of our teams working on archiving all the debris, but we can shift most of our focus onto the data chips that we think are intact. If you want, we can keep them on X-38 instead of shipping them back to Earth. There will be more scientists there that will be able to help us.”

James stroked his jaw. The fleet was racing back towards X-38. After spending just a few hours picking up survivors from the handful of destroyed ships and scavenging what debris could be gathered, he had turned his fleet around and headed straight for the shift passage out of X-41. He was concerned that his fleet was going to return to X-38 to find the planet’s defenses already destroyed. If there was no sign of the Flex-aor, though, Scott’s suggestion was tempting. “I’ll think about it. The UN won’t be happy if we hold back some of the debris, yet it might be wise.”

“At least there’s no sign of any more advanced technology among what we salvaged,” Miyamoto commented. “So far nothing seems to be a step up on the technologies we know they have.”

“Indeed,” James replied with a nod. “We can be thankful for that.”

“Might I suggest we take a break then Admiral,” Scott said. “We have gone over every possible scenario for what might be happening at X-38 when we arrive and we’re not going to make any more progress on the alien tech at the moment. I’m sure Miyamoto and Ivanov would like the chance to put together the battle simulations you’ve requested for the most likely engagement scenarios before they turn in for the night.”

James couldn’t help but smile as Miyamoto and Ivanov’s faces suddenly lost their haggard look. He could guess what they were thinking. Neither wanted their apparent tiredness to be the reason for James bringing his staff meeting to a close. “I suppose they would appreciate being dismissed a few hours before their watch comes to an end,” James chuckled. “We wouldn’t want them working overtime.” Of course, they had all been working overtime since the battle against the Flex-aor. “Okay then,” he said as he stood and stretched out his legs and arms. “You’re all dismissed. We’ll meet again tomorrow and see if anything comes to us in the night.”

Before anyone could stand, the COM unit built into the briefing table beeped. Instinctively James moved his hand over to activate it. Golden Hind’s COM officers were under strict orders not to disturb him during his staff meetings unless it was urgent. As he waited for the officer to speak, he shared a glance with Scott. Several of the ships damaged in the battle were struggling to keep the high pace James was insisting his fleet travel at. It was likely one of their Captains was reporting he would have to fall out of formation. Already James had left two ships behind to make their own way to X-38 at the best speed they could manage.

“Admiral,” the COM officer’s voice said out of the table speakers. “A new contact has just appeared on the gravimetric sensors. It is accelerating hard from the shift passage that leads to X-43. Acceleration rates suggest it is a scout frigate, though no gravimetric pulses have been detected. There are no scheduled scout frigates due to return from X-43 for at least a month. The ship is accelerating pretty hard as well. More than would be expected for a routine journey.”

James paused to consider what that meant. The frigate should have easily detected his fleet as it accelerated through X-40 on its way to the shift passage that led to X-38. There was no real reason for a frigate to be rushing home from X-43. The system had already been extensively explored and it was a dead-end. Though we didn’t know about the shift passage the Flex-aor used to get to X-41, James reminded himself. “Ping the frigate and request an immediate update. If they don’t respond send a normal COM transmission to them as well. I’ll be on the bridge presently.” After deactivating the COM unit, he looked around at his staff. “It looks like we’re not getting a break just yet. Take five minutes to freshen up and then meet me on the bridge. I suspect that frigate is bringing news of another Flex-aor threat.”

“Yes Sir,” Scott replied for the team. “We’ll meet you there momentarily.” She looked around at her subordinates, catching each of their eyes.

She expected them all to be on Golden Hind’s bridge before James got there. Turning his back on them, James left Scott to it and stepped out of the briefing room. His quarters were only a few steps away and he was stepping through the entrance hatch into them before anyone else had left the briefing room. Before he even made it to one of his dressers in search of a fresh uniform, his steward, Fox, appeared out of a side entrance.

“Admiral, I have coffee freshly brewed for you. And I have let out a fresh shirt. If you’re going to be spending a few hours on the bridge, I thought you may appreciate a change of uniform.”

If this was the first time Fox had anticipated his needs so perfectly James would have wanted to ask some questions. The COM message he had just received from the bridge was supposed to have been secure. Yet somehow Fox knew. Of course, he always seemed to know. James had first met Fox when he became Captain of the scout frigate Drake. Since then Fox had followed him everywhere as his steward. “Thank you, my friend,” he replied as he took the mug Fox was holding out. James didn’t even complain as Fox unbuttoned the naval shirt he was wearing. In less than thirty seconds Fox had removed his old shirt and had a new one buttoned up in its place despite the coffee mug getting in the way.

“Thank you,” James repeated before sitting in a chair opposite his bed. It had been a gift from Suzanna. She had said it was a place for him to sit and think. As he relaxed into the embrace of the seat’s cushions, James was happy to let his mind wander. Whatever this new frigate meant, there was nothing he could do about it until more information was available. For now, allowing himself a few moments to relax was the best thing he could do for his fleet.

“Is there anything else I can do for you Admiral? Perhaps a sandwich or some other snack? You could be on the bridge for several hours at least.” Fox asked.

“That would be good,” James replied. Fox had read his mind again. “I’ll take a sandwich now and a nutrient bar for the bridge, that would be perfect.”

As Fox left to fetch what James had asked for, he allowed his mind to wander again. As it often did, it went to Suzanna. The contents of her latest letter were easy to recall. Now that she was the First Councilor of Haven, her workload had increased. Despite that, and all of the strains and stress she was enduring, she still found time to write to James and, for the most part, her letters focused on things other than work. She knew James appreciated having a connection to the world outside of politics and naval affairs.

As soon has his coffee and sandwich were finished he thanked Fox and left his quarters. When he got to the bridge the rest of the staff were already there. Captain Becket was obviously taking the new contact seriously for she was there herself along with a full complement of bridge officers. “Any update?” he asked as he moved towards his command chair.

“Nothing yet Admiral,” Becket replied. “Still no gravimetric pulses from the frigate. We sent a COM message to them requesting an immediate update but it won’t reach them for another forty-five minutes. If they sent us anything we should receive it by then as well.”

“All right let’s bring the fleet to alert status one. Miyamoto, get one of the battle simulations you have prepared going, we may as well give everyone something to do while we wait,” James instructed.

As the message was transmitted throughout Golden Hind and the rest of the Outer Defense Fleet, James pulled up the details of the scout ship that had been assigned to X-40. Only one frigate had been left to monitor the system just in case something unexpected occurred. A quick survey of the frigate Captain’s record, a native of the American Omaha colony, told James he wasn’t one to overreact. Captain Miller had worked his way up from an ECM technician to the rank of petty officer and then, through pure merit, had been transferred onto the command track. From there he had begun as a lowly ensign and worked his way up to the rank of Captain. Miller had a wealth of experience behind him which suggested that whatever he was up to, he had good reasons.

As his staff and the rest of the Outer Defense Fleet distracted themselves with the battle simulations James had requested, he tried to think of what might have caused Miller to leave his assigned station. In the end, he couldn’t think of anything but another Flex-aor fleet. That was more than worrying. Without a salvo of multistage missiles, James wouldn’t be able to pull off another one-sided victory. Plus, if there was a second Flex-aor fleet in the vicinity, it suggested there would probably be more fleets behind it. At least if they are out there, they can’t stop us getting to X-38 this time, James thought. He could pull his fleet back behind the fixed defenses built around the planet. With luck, another shipment of multistage missiles might have arrived.

“COM message is coming in from the scout frigate, it is Sparrow. Captain Miller has sent a full report, transferring it to you all now,” Golden Hind’s COM officer reported.

James waited while his subordinates sifted through the report. When both Becket and Scott raised their heads from their command consoles, they had identical looks on their faces. “How bad is it?” James asked as he prepared himself to hear that multiple Flex-aor fleets had been discovered.

“It’s not Flex-aor,” Scott answered. “At least, I hope not.” She looked back at her console as if to check Miller’s report again.

“Well, come on someone, spit it out,” James demanded.

“Miller detected a large fleet of over four hundred warships entering the system,” Miyamoto explained. “They were traveling at acceleration rates far higher than what we’ve seen the Flex-aor achieve. They were heading straight for the shift passage to this system. Sparrow was already near the shift passage and Miller fled as fast as he could. He maxed out his shift drive on the journey and when they jumped out of shift space some of their systems were badly damaged. Including their gravimetric relay. That’s why they didn’t inform us immediately. As far as Miller is concerned, the fleet is either a significantly more advanced Flex-aor battle fleet, or some new alien race. Either way, they didn’t appear friendly. As soon as they detected Sparrow’s movements, two smaller ships were detached from the large alien fleet and tried to pursue Sparrow. Their acceleration rates were even more impressive. Miller reports that he was lucky to escape.”

“Given that we have already fought a Flex-aor battle fleet that wasn’t any more advanced than six years ago, Miller’s data suggest this is another species,” Scott finished. “Given their impressive acceleration rates, they could be significantly more powerful than we are. And if they are hostile…” Scott didn’t finish, she didn’t have to.

“Dispatch two clippers back to X-38 with Miller’s data immediately,” James snapped. “Tell them to make their way to X-38 in stealth mode. Dzedzyk, turn the fleet away from our current heading. If this is a hostile alien fleet, we don’t want them knowing where the shift passage out of the system is. Put us onto a new heading and bring us to a halt relative to the system’s star. We will await whoever this is.”

“Is that wise Admiral?” Becket asked. “We don’t know if this fleet pursued Sparrow through shift space. Nor do we know when they might arrive if they did. We could still pull back to X-38.”

“If they are as advanced as they seem, they probably have screening ships in the system ahead of their main fleet already. It may be too late to stop them from guessing where we were headed. But just in case, I want to be cautious. That goes for returning to X-38 as well. This fleet outnumbers us significantly. If they out match us ship for ship as well, they could easily blow through us and X-38’s defenses. Our colonies would be wide open to attack. The best thing we can do to defend our colonies is wait here and see what this fleet wants.”

“I understand Admiral, at least, I think. I hope that whoever this is, they prove to be friendly. Having the Flex-aor as enemies is bad enough,” Becket replied.

“Agreed,” James said. “Let’s call a Captains’ conference and update everyone on the situation. I know we have some first contact protocols from the UN, but I think we should refresh ourselves on the best approach if this does prove to be another alien race. Scott, can you take some time now and go over the UN protocols to update us all?”

“No problem Admiral, I will focus on that now. Emilie, you can arrange the Captains’ conference,” Scott responded.

“Aye Commander,” Emilie replied without lifting her head from her command console. When James glanced at her he saw her fingers were dancing over its interface.

Sitting back in his chair, James let out a slow breath. Then he rolled his shoulders and wiggled his fingers to work out the tension that had suddenly gripped him. He had been the first to meet the Vestarians and the Kulreans. Neither first contact had been by the book, not that a first contact protocol book had been written back then. He hoped that if this was going to be a similar situation, it would go a little better. The last thing Humanity needed was another war. He could imagine what the UN Admirals would say when they heard what was going to happen. They had placed him on the frontier to keep him out of trouble. If they had known there was the potential of meeting an alien race other than the Flex-aor, there was no doubt they would have appointed someone else to command the Outer Defense Fleet. At least they will have a ready scapegoat if things go badly, James thought. He had no doubt that if this new race proved hostile, he would get the blame. After all, he was a known warmonger according to many at the UN. If this does go badly, it’s not going to be because of me, James decided as he thought back to his first meetings with the Vestarians and Kulreans. Though they hadn’t been exemplary, James knew that he had ingratiated himself to each species. I hope the same can happen here.




Chapter 5

There is an old diplomatic saying, while friendships between two species meeting for the first time can develop quickly, animosity appears in an instant. Sadly the history of the Empire’s attempts to reach out to its neighbors confirms this again and again. Despite our best intentions, some species have decided we were their enemies without waiting to listen to what our diplomats have had to say.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-40 system, 14th June 2478 AD.

Despite the sudden and unexpected tension and fear Miller’s report had brought, there was no immediate resolution to the feelings that had forced themselves on everyone in the Outer Defense Fleet. For as time dragged on, no subsequent contact report came in. After James’ Captains’ conference, he had met with his own staff. Then they had all returned to Golden Hind’s bridge. Three hours later, there had been no developments.

“What do you think Admiral?” Miyamoto asked.

James didn’t know if he wanted to answer. Though he had no hard data, his gut was warning him that something wasn’t right. “They’re out there,” he said. “I don’t know how I know it, but they are. At least some scouts, perhaps even the entire fleet Miller detected. If they have advanced acceleration capabilities, they probably have pretty good stealth technologies as well. Probably at least as good as ours. I’m sure that whoever is commanding the alien fleet dropped out of shift space well beyond the system’s mass shadow. They will be cautious coming into an unknown system. But they’re coming.”

A serious look descended on most of his officers’ faces as they turned back to their consoles or to the bridge’s main holo projector. James nodded. He needed his best from his officers today. No doubt all of them were scared at the prospect of facing an unknown enemy, as was he, but they were too professional to show it.

After another hour of waiting, James’ patience was running thin. He was certain there was an unknown fleet out there, but it was growing more and more apparent that its commander was very cautious. Which may be a good sign, James figured. If the unknown fleet came charging at them it would suggest they were confident in their superiority. If they were being cautious, either they feared James’ fleet, or they didn’t know what they were up against.

“It’s time to poke the hornet’s nest I think,” James said. He had been waiting around long enough. The clippers he had sent to X-38 should have already jumped out of the system. There was no point delaying things any longer. “Fire a spread of recon drones towards the shift passage to X-43. Program them to go active with their scanning as soon as they are launched. Let’s let whoever is out there know that we are expecting them.”

“Aye Admiral, I’ll get on it right away,” Miyamoto responded.

A couple of minutes later more than one hundred recon drones were catapulted into space and immediately released hundreds of kilowatts of electromagnetic energy as they scanned space all around them. It only took a few minutes to get a response. “Multiple new contacts!” Golden Hind’s sensor officer snapped.

Everyone’s head whipped towards the holo projector showing the data from Golden Hind’s gravimetric sensors. The tension on the bridge spiked. Whilst the alien fleet wasn’t accelerating directly for the Outer Defense Fleet, they were clearly maneuvering onto a trajectory that would bring them into missile range. As the numbers firmed up, it was clear there were at least four hundred contacts. Nearly double the number James had under his command.

“They’re accelerating at over six hundred gravities,” Miyamoto reported, awe filling his voice.

James understood. The fastest ship in his fleet could manage just over five hundred. The aliens certainly had a propulsion tech advantage. That was worrisome.

“There’s no way they are Flex-aor,” Scott commented.

“We’ll see soon enough,” Becket replied. “It looks like three of our recon drones will get pretty close to them even with those acceleration rates.”

James swallowed the lump in his throat. Now that the fleet was confirmed to not be composed of Flex-aor warships, he was second-guessing the recon drones he had dispatched. If the alien fleet wasn’t hostile, it might interpret his drones as an aggressive move. If they didn’t want their fleet to be closely scanned, the only thing they could do was destroy the recon drones. That was an escalation James didn’t want to see. “Send orders to those three drones to self-destruct. Let’s show whoever this is that we intend them no harm. Order the rest of the drones to power down their sensors and return to their ships.”

As soon as the drones self-destructed, the alien fleet reduced its acceleration rate. However, they also turned onto a heading that meant they were closing with James’ ships even faster. Both Becket and Scott looked up from their command chairs. James shrugged. He had no answers for them. “Send the fleet to battle stations and transmit the UN’s first contact COM message.”

“Transmitting now Admiral,” Emilie replied.

James nodded to his niece and looked back to the main holo projector. The UN first contact message was brief and to the point. It introduced Humanity and informed the alien species that Humans had no interest in conquering or attacking other species. They only built military ships to defend their own borders. That seemed fair enough to James, but he suspected that an alien fleet meeting a Human war fleet for the first time would want a little more reassurance than a pre-recorded COM message.

“They should have received the COM message by now,” Emilie reported five minutes later. “There doesn’t seem to be a reply coming back.”

“Keep the UN first contact message on repeat,” James instructed her.

“They’re decreasing their acceleration rates again,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer reported. “It’s only a small decrease, but it’s something isn’t it?”

“It is,” James said, though it wasn’t necessarily positive sign. The alien commander could be taking his time to pick out what targets he wanted to kill first in the opening missile salvos. “I think it’s time to put our plan into action,” James continued. “The closer our two fleets get to each other, the more likely something will go wrong.”

“Are you sure Admiral?” Becket said, she spun round her eyes widening. “They haven’t exactly appeared friendly. So far every action they’ve taken would suggest they are prepared to engage our fleet.”

“It could also be the actions of a cautious commander wary of encountering an alien war fleet,” James replied. “I don’t think we’re going to know until we get into missile range and give them a chance to fire.”

James’s words didn’t exactly remove the look of concern on Beckett’s face. “Well you know my concerns Admiral, if this is what you think is best, Golden Hind is at your command,” she responded.

“Scott?” James said turning to his Chief of Staff.

“You know my concerns as well Admiral. If this is the alien race I suspect has been arming the Flex-aor, then we are going to our deaths. Yet if it is not, this is the best way we can ease the situation. Given we know practically nothing, I don’t see that we have a better option,” Scott replied.

“Very well, take Golden Hind out of the fleet and put us on a direct intercept course for this alien fleet,” James ordered. In his discussions with his staff, they had been unable to come up with a better option. Whoever was coming into the system, James desperately didn’t want to start a shooting war with them. With two battle fleets approaching one another, the slightest misunderstanding or mistake could cause just that. As a result, he intended to take Golden Hind towards the unknown fleet alone. That way at least if shooting started, his main fleet would be in a position to get away or engage if they had an advantage.

“Some of their impressive acceleration rates are starting to make sense,” Miyamoto commented fifteen minutes later. “We’re close enough now that we can do some visual analysis.”

“Let’s see,” James asked, his interest was piqued.

On the holo projector blurred images appeared. If James didn’t know better he wouldn’t have been able to say for sure if they were warships or freighters. He turned to Miyamoto to ask what his tactical officer was talking about, but he needn’t have bothered, Miyamoto had already continued his analysis.

“As yet the ships are too far away for us to make much out, but the computer can analyze them. It seems there are no ships in the alien fleet larger than one of our heavy cruisers.”

“It would certainly help your acceleration rates if you didn’t have to go at the pace of a battleship like Golden Hind,” Becket said as she patted her command chair affectionately. “Though, I think I’d rather have her missile salvos on my side of any battle.”

“Just how much of an acceleration advantage do they have on our heavy cruisers then?” Scott queried.

“Twenty-two percent the computer estimates,” Miyamoto answered.

“That still pretty impressive,” James commented. “Keep updating us as you get a closer look at them. See if you can identify any weapons emplacements or other recognizable features.”

Miyamoto nodded. “Aye Admiral.”

As Golden Hind approached the large alien fleet, James could feel the muscles in his shoulders tightening. Not knowing what was going to happen was getting to him. At least in a battle he knew that it would eventually begin. The waiting was tough, but the end was always known. As things were, every beep from one of the command consoles or update from the bridge officers almost made him jump. Any moment he was expecting a report that the enemy fleet had opened fire. Though he had requested Miyamoto to keep him updated, the constant reports on the alien fleet were also increasing his tension. Despite being small, they were all heavily armed with what were unmistakably missile ports and energy weapon emplacements. Given their impressive propulsion technologies, it stood to reason that the alien fleet would have a greater powered missile range than Golden Hind’s missiles. Potentially, the alien’s energy weapons could also out range Golden Hind’s.

“We’ve just entered our own missile range,” Lieutenant Commander Ivanov reported. “Still no sign of any tracking radar or any other attempt to target us.”

“Thank you Commander,” James responded.

“We’ll be in two-way communication range in five minutes,” Emilie said. “Perhaps they are waiting to talk to us face to face.”

“Let’s hope so,” Miyamoto replied. “I wouldn’t want to do any other kind of talking with so many missile tubes targeted at us. I just hope we don’t accidentally insult them.”

James couldn’t help but let out a loud breath. “Now there’s an encouraging thought. I think the situation is edgy enough without predictions of just how badly we could mess up.”

“Sorry Admiral,” Miyamoto replied as he shot a grin towards Emilie. “I’ll keep my doomsday scenarios to myself.”

“They are slowing and turning,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer reported moments later in a higher voice than normal.

James felt his heart jump into his mouth. Slowing was strange but turning usually meant one thing. A ship was maneuvering to present its full missile salvo towards a target. As the display of the alien fleet on Golden Hind’s main holo projector changed, he forced himself to sit still and wait. He needed to be sure it was a hostile act before he reacted.

“I think they are just moving onto a trajectory where they can keep us in two-way communication range,” Scott said moments later.

“Match their course and speed,” James ordered having come to the same conclusion. He took a couple of slow deep breaths to settle his heart. Their maneuver was a good sign. It wasn’t hostile after all. Unless they’re trying to trick us, James thought. Before he could consider that option, Emilie broke his train of thought.

“We have a COM message coming from one of the larger alien ships. It’s pretty complicated, but the translation technology the Kulreans gave us is working on it.” A few seconds later she looked round at James. “The computer has got it. It’s audio and visual link.”

“Put it on the main holo projector,” James requested. “Everyone, do your best to keep a straight face. Let’s put our best foot forward.” He hoped his crew knew what he meant. He didn’t want any looks of revulsion or fear from his officers. Given that no one knew what to expect from these aliens, it was very likely their appearance could stir up such feelings.

When an image of a completely new species did appear in front of him, James had to follow his own instructions. Not because the alien was hideous or completely foreign to his sensibilities, but because the alien almost looked familiar. The person staring at him had two eyes, two arms and a torso that, though it was as wide as it was long, was also Human like. The alien was seated in a command chair that gave off the impression it was roughly the same size as a Human as well. Of course, mentally James recognized that the command chair could be two or three times the size of his own, or indeed half the size, but the impression the image gave was someone who, though strange, could pass for a Human.

As James studied the alien’s face more closely, that feeling only increased. It had a nose and mouth that though strangely shaped, were still clearly identifiable for what they were. The only thing missing was ears. Its skin was a bright orange and long purple hair flowed down the alien’s back from a knot tied above its head. Back on Earth, James had seen more than one Human woman who had died her skin orange or her hair purple, so even that wasn’t too surprising.

Then the alien opened its mouth. Involuntarily James flinched. The similarities had put him at ease. He hadn’t been ready for the alien’s teeth. They were all razor sharp, similar to a shark from Earth. Also, they were spaced out quite wide and behind the first row there were others further back down the alien’s throat. Quickly getting his emotions under control James forced himself to focus on what the alien was saying as the Kulrean software translated its voice.

“Unknown species, I demand that you identify yourself immediately or we will open fire. You are trespassing in a system that is not yours and we will defend ourselves with extreme force. You have one minute to reply.”

James shared a look with Becket and Scott, then he intentionally overemphasized swallowing. The alien’s tone was more than a little concerning. Especially as they had already introduced themselves with the standard UN greeting message they had sent. It obviously wasn’t to the alien’s liking. He motioned for Emilie to record him. He didn’t want to keep them waiting.

“Greetings,” he began as cheerfully as he could. “My name is Vice Admiral James Somerville of the United Nations Navy. We did not realize we were trespassing. Our fleet has been patrolling this system and others in order to defend our borders from attack. Another species who we know as the Flex-aor attacked our worlds six years ago. Since then we have patrolled this area of space to make sure they cannot launch another attack. We are happy to meet another species and I hope we can form a friendship. However, I am tasked with defending the worlds of my people and am prepared to use force to do that.”

When he finished speaking, James spent another glance towards Scott to get her reaction. He was trying to sound friendly and stern at the same time. Scott shrugged. He understood, there was no way to tell how the aliens would interpret his words.

“You know the Flex-aor?” the alien replied immediately as it sat forward. “How do I know that you aren’t in some kind of Alliance with them? Your technology is clearly advanced. Perhaps you are the ones who provided them with the ability to build spaceships and attack other species. What species are you? There are not supposed to be any spacefaring species in this sector of space. Where is your homeworld?”

James could feel Scott’s excitement bubbling away. Clearly these aliens did know the Flex-aor and, for whatever reason, they suspected the Flex-aor hadn’t developed their own technology. He knew Scott would be disappointed as he replied but he didn’t make an issue out of that just yet. “I do not think it would be wise to reveal our homeworld to you when we have just met. From our perspective, you have just entered one of our systems with a large war fleet. As to our relationship with the Flex-aor. We just fought a large battle with one of their fleets a couple of weeks ago in a nearby system. We destroyed more than three hundred Flex-aor warships. We have data recordings of the battle we could send you and we have debris on board my flagship that we gathered for analysis. Before we share such information however, perhaps you could tell us something about your species and why you are in this system?”

The alien put its hands together in a very Human like gesture and then sat back in its chair. There were several seconds of silence before it replied. When it did, it spoke more slowly, but its tone hadn’t changed. “Perhaps we have got off on the wrong foot James Somerville. My name is Ya’sia. I am an Admiral in the Crian Navy. Two months ago a Flex-aor fleet invaded several systems of one of our neighbors. They intended to wipe out all sentient life in the systems they were trying to invade. After destroying the native defense fleet, the Flex-aor fleet was almost successful in bombarding one of our neighbor’s colonies. However, a fleet from my species arrived in time to drive the Flex-aor off. I was sent to pursue what remains of the Flex-aor fleet and to make sure they cannot build another one. If you had any part to play in the Flex-aor attacks you will receive swift justice as well.”

James managed to keep his face straight, but only just. Ya’sia had just told him that there was at least one alien species out there, probably more. She had said one of our neighbors. “I’m sorry to hear about the Flex-aor attack. I assure you, we had nothing to do with it. My species has never met your species or one of your neighbors before. On the contrary, it seems we are on the same side. The Flex-aor fleet you were pursuing was probably the one we destroyed. I have never heard of the Crian before but I am glad to meet you. If you know where the Flex-aor homeworld is, I would also very much like to aid you in paying the Flex-aor a visit. If you are willing, I would be happy to invite you aboard my flagship to have formal discussions face to face.”

“My mission to the Flex-aor homeworld is important. I am not sure that I have time to enter into negotiations with you. Especially when you remain a potential threat in my eyes. Perhaps you could appease some of my concerns if you told me the name of your species.”

“We call ourselves Humans,” James answered. “Though I don’t understand how that would mean anything to you.”

“We have access to extensive survey data on this sector of the galaxy,” Ya’sia explained. “That includes how most species refer to themselves.”

That sent James’ mind racing. How could anyone know about his race unless they had met them before? That was just the first of a number of questions that sprang to mind. He didn’t get a chance to ask any of them though for his answer had caused a similar flurry of activity on Ya’sia’s flagship. A couple of voices from off screen were clearly audible. Then Ya’sia turned to face whoever was speaking. “Impossible,” she was clearly heard to say. Then she turned back to James. Her tone drove all of James’ questions out of his mind. He hadn’t thought it could have got any more serious and threatening, he had been wrong. “How did you get your weapons technologies? Your species is not meant to have the capability to leave your home system. Who is your patron? I demand to know. Answer or we will cripple your ship and board you.”




Chapter 6

These days first contact is always handled by a specially trained diplomatic team, too many border skirmishes and even wars have been started by naval officers not knowing what they are doing.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-40 system.

James swallowed deeply again, this time involuntarily. Then he spoke as slowly and as clearly as he could. Given Ya’sia’s tone he decided he needed to take a leap of faith. He hoped Scott’s theory was correct. “I don’t know what historical data you have on my species, nor how you obtained it. However, we have no patrons when it comes to our technologies. At least, for most of them. We have made contact with a species called the Vestarians and another called the Kulreans. When we first met the Vestarians, they were hostile like the Flex-aor. It is my suspicion that both they and the Flex-aor were given weapons technologies by another species. Now the Vesterians are our friends and we have traded some technologies with them. We’ve also befriended the Kulreans, though as they are much more advanced than my species, they have been slow to trade technologies. The shift drive that we use to travel between systems and the propulsion and weapons systems on board our ships were all developed by Human scientists and engineers. I assure you; we have no contact with whoever is giving weapon technologies to hostile species.”

Ya’sia shook her head vigorously. “It is impossible. Your species was surveyed six hundred years ago. You were nowhere near the point where you could leave your planet’s atmosphere, never mind colonize your home system or travel to other systems. You must have been given help.”

“It may not seem possible to you,” James replied slowly. “I assure you however, it is. I confess, my species has no other example of how long it might take for a species to develop spacefaring technologies. To us though, our process of technological advance has seemed natural. There are no points where alien technologies have been introduced into our culture. We only met the Vestarians and Kulreans within the last decade. How long did it take your species to develop the technological capability to leave your homeworld and your home system?”

“That is not comparable,” Ya’sia answered. “We had help from our benefactors. You have not had help from them and the most logical conclusion is that you, like the Flex-aor, have found another source of advanced technologies. One that appears to have hostile intentions towards my species.”

“If there is such a species out there, then they have hostile intentions towards my species as well,” James countered. “When the Flex-aor attacked a number of our worlds six years ago they bombarded them with nuclear missiles. They wiped out one world in its entirety. Millions of lives were lost. I assure you that if there is a species orchestrating things from behind the scenes, they are our enemies as much as yours.”

“Perhaps this other alien species gave both you and the Flex-aor technologies in the hope that you would destroy one another and draw others into your war. That seems a more likely explanation,” Ya’sia countered. “You will power down your weapons and prepare to be boarded. I will have my engineers assess your technologies and then we will get to the bottom of this.”

James shook his head. “I cannot allow that. You have done very little to persuade me of your friendly intentions towards my species. I cannot simply hand over all of our technological secrets to you. However, I am willing to compromise. There are some more basic technologies on board my ship I would be happy to let your engineers examine. I’ve already offered the invitation to visit my flagship, I would be happy to extend that invitation to some of your engineers. On the other hand, I warn you, if you try and use force against my ship, I and my fleet will be forced to react. My species has zero desire to enter into an interspecies conflict. Yet we will not be walked over either.”

Ya’sia folded her arms across the front of her wide torso. She stared at James for several seconds. “Very well,” she finally said. “I will come and meet you in person. I will bring engineers to confirm the Flex-aor debris you claim to have and to examine some of your technologies. If your story checks out, then I will apologize for the tone I have taken with you. If it does not, then our friendly relationship will quickly come to an end.” As she finished speaking she nodded and her image disappeared.

No one spoke. The only sounds were the small beeps and other noises from the bridge’s command consoles. Most of the bridge officers were still staring at the spot where Ya’sia had been, or they were looking at James. “Wwweeeeelllll,” he said to break the tension. “I suppose that could have gone worse.” A few officers smiled, though most didn’t react. James didn’t blame them.

Scott picked up on what he was trying to do. “If that conversation was Ya’sia’s idea of having a friendly relationship, I don’t want to see what it would be like if it comes to an end,” she replied.

One or two more officers cracked a small smile, but for the most part, everyone looked concerned. “Cheer up,” James said lightly as he stood. “We haven’t started a war yet. That’s something. Now come on, all of you. We have some new guests to meet and arrangements to make. Scott, you and Becket figure out what technologies we can show these engineers. Yue, most of the Flex-aor debris is stored in hangar bay two, head down there and make sure there’s nothing else in the hangar we wouldn’t want our new friends seeing if we bring engineers down there. Come on people, we have jobs to do.” It took a couple of seconds for his words to sink in, but when they did, most officers turned back to their consoles or left the bridge to carry out his orders.

“A small ship has just exited one of the alien heavy cruisers,” Miyamoto reported. “It’s heading our way. I imagine it is Ya’sia’s shuttle. I estimate it will be here in five minutes.”

“Direct them to shuttle bay one,” James ordered. “Prepare a small welcoming committee, I don’t want too much fanfare, we don’t know what these Crians might expect. I’m going to put on my dress uniform. I may as well try and make a good first impression.”

“Aye Admiral,” Miyamoto replied.

James nodded and turned to his niece. “Send a report to Sato and Gupta, let them know what is going on. Tell them we will keep them updated.” He spun around and left the bridge. He suspected Fox would already have his dress uniform ready but even then it would be a stretch to change and get down to the hangar bay in time to meet his new guest.

*

Thirty minutes later James sat across from Ya’sia in one of Golden Hind’s large briefing rooms. Thankfully it turned out Ya’sia’s species wasn’t too dissimilar to Humans in terms of height. Ya’sia was a foot taller than James and some of the male engineers and officers she had brought with her were even taller, however they didn’t have to stoop as they walked through Golden Hind’s corridors. What had shocked everyone had been the Crians’ lower bodies. Ya’sia’s species walked on four articulated legs. No one had seen Ya’sia’s lower half in the COM conversation James had had with her and given her other similarities to Humans, everyone had assumed she would have two legs. The assumption had obviously been false and James had mentally grimaced when more than one officer that had been gathered to greet Ya’sia’s party failed to hide their shock. James had just managed to hide his surprise. It had been hard as his first thoughts had gone to the horses that were kept on his estate. He had grown up riding horses and it had been all too easy to picture Ya’sia with a saddle. Then he had remembered the pictures of ancient centaurs that were myths on Earth. Given their other similarities to Humans, the Crians looked as close to centaurs as James imagined an alien ever would.

That thought had been more than twenty minutes ago. As soon as they had descended from their shuttle James had escorted Ya’sia to the briefing room while her engineers were taken to do their investigations. The fifteen minutes James and his staff had spent with Ya’sia and hers were the most awkward of James’ life. He and his staff tried making small talk with Ya’sia and the officers she had brought, but none of her people were interested in conversation. Their answers were limited to one or two words. Even Ya’sia hadn’t said much. James had been the one asking all the questions and her answers had been short and to the point. When she was done, she lapsed into silence and stared at James, waiting for him to ask another question.

With no new questions coming to mind and all too aware of the fact that the answers he had been given so far were all but useless, James gave up after Ya’sia answered his most recent question. Instead of asking another, he lapsed into silence as he waited for her engineers to complete their task. To pass the time, he tried to remember the film he had seen where centaurs had been some of the main characters.

“My species has relations with twelve other species Admiral. One thing we have found is that facial expressions are often shared between different species. Your face just changed, you seemed amused. I’m curious, what were you thinking?” Ya’sia asked.

James was taken aback. She had just revealed the first piece of useful information she had shared. Twelve other species! That was massive. Then he felt his cheeks redden when he realized what she had asked him.

“If you do not wish to share I understand Admiral,” Ya’sia responded when she saw his face change again. “Though I thought you wanted us to become friends.”

“To be honest,” James began as he looked over to Becket, Emilie and Dzedzyk who he had brought with him. “I was thinking about a holo drama I watched when I was a kid.” When Ya’sia looked puzzled he explained. “A holo drama is a holographic story told to entertain children and adults. In this story there were mythical creatures called centaurs that looked a lot like your species does. In the story, they befriended lost Human children and helped protect them from evil men. I was trying to remember the story.”

Ya’sia opened her mouth to display her teeth. “That is interesting. If my species had visited yours in the distant past, I would suggest your myths may be based in reality. But your sector of space was surveyed before my people left their solar system. An interesting coincidence I’m sure and nothing more. Though perhaps you hope my people can aid yours as these centaurs did in your story?”

James nodded. “I was thinking that that would be nice. I hope we can become partners and friends. My people do not wish to simply seek the aid of other species, but to befriend them and work with them.”

“That is a noble desire, one we share with the species around us and our patron. If what you have said about your species is true, I’m sure they would be very interested to meet with you,” Ya’sia replied. “Of course, if you have lied, they may want to pay you a visit themselves, and not to open trade negotiations.”

James chose to ignore that warning. Instead he saw another avenue of questioning he could pursue. “You have mentioned your benefactors a number of times already. Yet you have said nothing about them. Reading between the lines it seems they have helped your species advanced technologically. Who exactly are they?”

“That is not something I am permitted to divulge. I have sent a ship back to my species’ homeworld with news of our meeting. That news will be taken to our benefactors. They will decide if and when they want to meet you. It is their right to reveal themselves to you, not mine.”

Mentally James rolled his eyes, another non-answer. Instead of pressing her, he lapsed into silence, deciding it was best to wait and hope Ya’sia’s engineers would be done soon. It was when I fell silent that she asked her first question, James reminded himself. Perhaps she will open up more if I let her.

He didn’t get the chance to find out, seconds later his COM unit beeped. “What is it?”

“Admiral, it’s Commander Scott, the engineers with me have have finished. They’ve transmitted their findings to Ya’sia and are heading back to their shuttle. Shall I come and join you?”

“Certainly,” James replied and closed the COM unit. When he looked up at Ya’sia she had her eyes closed. Seconds later she opened them and began to speak. When she did, her tone was completely different to anything she had exhibited before.

“I said I would give you an apology if it turned out your claims were true Admiral. It seems I owe you that and more. You must accept my sincerest apologies. My engineers have found no indication that your technologies have been unnaturally advanced by an outside source. In fact, it seems a number of your technologies were novelties to my engineers. Your species has obviously devised different ways to accomplish similar technical capabilities to what my species and the species we are familiar with have. That may in part explain your quick advancement. I’m sorry I accused you of things you denied.” Midway through her speech Ya’sia stood and walked around the conference table. When she came close, James stood, though it felt like she still towered over him. She held out her arm. “This is how all the species we have relationships with great one another.”

James held out his arm, not quite sure what Ya’sia expected. Knowing or guessing James was unsure, Ya’sia took the lead and grasped James’s elbow with her hand. James returned the gesture, grasping Ya’sia’s elbow. Ya’sia then squeezed gently before releasing. James did likewise.

“There,” Ya’sia said as she showed her teeth again. “You wanted to be friends. That is how friends greet one another.”

James was taken aback. Ya’sia’s change in demeanor was sudden and complete. “You have to excuse me Admiral,” he replied. “Things seem to be moving quicker than I can keep up with. You’re saying your engineers are completely satisfied that we have no relationship with whatever species is arming hostile races in our part of the galaxy? They can be sure about this simply from inspecting some of our technologies?”

Ya’sia moved back to her seat as she spoke. “They are as sure as they can be at present. I intend to send our findings back to our benefactors for them to confirm. However, their assurances are enough for me. Nearly eighty years ago another species that our benefactors are friendly with was attacked by an alien race. Many of their worlds were devastated. The race that launched the attack had been surveyed just four hundred years prior to that. They had been deemed hostile, but no threat to their neighbors because of their slow rate of technological advancement. Their attack came as a complete surprise. It was suspected that another alien race had covertly passed on weapons technologies to the aggressors. However, no hard evidence was found. With the recent Flex-aor attack, both my species and our benefactors have concluded that there is a nefarious race out there. The similarities between the technologies used by the Flex-aor and the other race has not been found in your technologies. Given that, I am happy to take you at your word. And I hope you will accept my apology. If what you say is true, your rate of technological advancement has been very impressive. That in itself made it hard to believe. Perhaps as we get to know one another, you could share some of your species’ history with me. I’m very interested to see how your technological advancements have come about so quickly. Especially given what we do know of your species’ history.”

James didn’t know where to begin. He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything for he hadn’t decided which direction he wanted to take the conversation. He decided he better begin with Ya’sia’s apology. “I must confess, your stern warnings had us all worried. However, now that you have shared a little bit more of the events that brought you here, I understand your concerns. Your apology is happily accepted. Hopefully the relations between your species and mine can be more amicable going forward.”

“That is certainly my desire,” Ya’sia replied.

“That being the case, I have to ask,” James followed up. “What do you mean when you say my species was surveyed centuries ago? What do you know of our history?”

Ya’sia showed her teeth again. “There is much you don’t know. It’s hard for me to know where to begin. And there are some things I cannot tell; they are not my secrets to share.”

“I appreciate you have commitments to your species and these benefactors you speak of, as I’m sure you understand I have commitments to my own people. But I hope we can be as open with each other as possible,” James replied.

“Indeed, that will be helpful. Let me start here. Centuries ago, just after my species developed the technology to leave our solar system, we were contacted by our benefactors. They had been watching our development. When they thought the time was right, they approached us and welcomed us into the galactic community in our area of the galaxy. We have relations with twelve other space faring species. Thirteen if we count your species. Beyond that, we know of many others that are not yet in a position where our benefactors feel the time has come to contact them. Our benefactors discovered our world almost a thousand years ago when they surveyed the space around their homeworld. In those surveys, they also discovered your homeworld and covertly learned some of your history and current level of development. To be honest, your species was listed as a violent species prone to constant warfare. It was determined that it would take your species many centuries to make any real technological advancements, and that assumed your continual wars didn’t drive your species to extinction. Hence my surprise that your species now has the capabilities it has. A follow-up survey was not scheduled for at least another two centuries. It was thought that by then your species might be in a position to be contacted. Though that estimate has been shown to be woefully inaccurate.”

James nodded. He could understand why someone would look at Human history and think Humanity was a species addicted to war. He also understood why the sheer number of wars and conflicts that had occurred in Earth’s history might make someone think Humanity risked destroying itself. Though James’ reading of his own history suggested that it was often times of intense wars when the most rapid technological advancements occurred. Perhaps that is why we are so much more advanced than Ya’sia expected, James surmised. “It sounds like whoever carried out the survey of our history and technology knew what they were doing. There have been many wars between different factions within my species. I’m afraid that didn’t really stop when we developed the technology to leave our own solar system. What about your history? Does your species have different warring factions, or have there been wars between the galactic neighbors you speak of?”

When Ya’sia shook her head James’ eyebrows rose. He was surprised to see such Human mannerisms in an alien species he had just met. “No, there have been no wars between factions within my species since our benefactors introduced themselves. They make sure that all of the races in our community do not attack one another. At times tensions can rise, however, they have never spilled over into open conflict. We all know that our benefactors would quickly put an end to any attempt to use force. In truth, the battle my species’ ships fought against the Flex-aor was the first naval combat we have ever engaged in.”

“Ever?” James couldn’t help blurting out.

“Yes. Our benefactors have tasked us with protecting two of our smaller neighbors and we have maintained a large war fleet in the event that something like what the Flex-aor attempted to do ever occurred. We have fought in many simulated battles and joint operations with our benefactors and our other neighbors. However, we have never had to fire a missile in anger before. Sadly, I was not leading the forces that confronted the Flex-aor so I am still awaiting my first experience of true combat. I suspect once we reach the Flex-aor homeworld, that will change. How many battles have you fought in Vice Admiral James Somerville?”

James had to stop and think for a moment. He honestly had no idea what the number was. “More than you certainly,” he replied with a chuckle. “If I had to guess, I’d say the number is at least fifty, though it could be quite a few more.”

Ya’sia’s eyes widened at James’ response and her staff all turned to look more closely at James. “More than fifty? Your species has fought more than fifty naval battles against each other in your lifetime?”

James nodded again. “I’m afraid they have. Wars of aggression between different factions in my species are not uncommon. I like to think I have always been on the side defending my nation and trying to stop the aggressor, however, I’m sure others would look at it differently. But the number shouldn’t be too surprising to you. Not if you have encountered the Flex-aor. Six years ago they invaded my species territory with over three thousand warships. We fought many battles against them before we finally drove them off.”

Ya’sia stood. “Three thousand?” She immediately looked to her staff officers.

James wasn’t sure but he guessed he was seeing surprise or concern on their faces. “Yes,” he said to confirm her question. “There appeared to be several fleets roughly the size of the one that you defeated working together. Our working theory is that the Flex-aor normally operate in fleets of five to six hundred ships. We believe that they decided to combine a number of their fleets to try and wipe us out. From our analysis of the debris, we believe several different factions within the Flex-aor species were fighting side-by-side against us.”

“Your species managed to defeat three thousand warships? That is a feat almost as impressive as the speed of your technological advances. If the Flex-aor had come against our neighbors with three thousand ships, they would have wiped out their planet. Perhaps they could have attacked my species’ homeworld. Though I believe our benefactors would have stepped in before they would have been able to attack our planet. The ships you see around my flagship constitute more than seventy percent of my species’ Navy. Neither we, nor our benefactors, thought more would be needed. If what you say is true, we have to reassess the strategic situation.”

“Then I’m afraid you’re going to have to,” James suggested as he spoke slowly. His mind was racing. Now that Ya’sia was acting friendlier, she was giving a lot away. The Crian’s technology certainly seemed impressive. Though the lack of battle experience and the fact that their entire fleet consisted of only four hundred warships meant they were not nearly as big a threat as James had initially feared. As he was thinking through what Ya’sia had revealed, another thing she had said came back to him. “You have said a couple of times you are on your way to the Flex-aor homeworld. Does that mean you know where it is? Have your benefactors surveyed their homeworld in the past?”

Rather than answer verbally, Ya’sia pulled a small device from one of the many pockets in her uniform. She placed it on the conference table and give it a single tap. She then closed her eyes. Moments later a holographic projection of space appeared. At its center was the X-40 system. Both Ya’sia’s and James’ fleets were marked on the projection. A series of lines and dots marked a number of systems that traced their way back to Earth. Ya’sia was showing that she knew where James’ homeworld was. James wasn’t too pleased with that. Sadly, he berated himself for even revealing what his species called themselves. He had thought giving away that piece of information was harmless. The map also showed a couple of systems that led away in the direction Ya’sia’s fleet had come from. Clearly, she didn’t intend to show James or his staff where her own homeworld was. For the moment James was alright with that, for on the projection were eleven systems that led from X-40 to a twelfth system that was clearly marked as the Flex-aor homeworld. James looked over to Lieutenant Dzedzyk. He needn’t have bothered; his navigation officer was already taking notes. When James looked back to Ya’sia she had her eyes open and was also looking at Dzedzyk.

“There’s no need to record what I’m showing you; I will be happy to share this information with you. After all, you have allowed my engineers access to some of your own technologies. It seems this star map would be a fair trade.”

“Thank you,” James said with genuine emotion. “This will be very helpful for my species. May I ask, what are your intentions for the Flex-aor homeworld? I assume you brought your entire battle fleet this far for a reason.”

“We brought our entire fleet at the request of our benefactors,” Ya’sia replied. “Our initial mission is purely diplomatic. We wish to open negotiations with the Flex-aor and find out why they are so hostile towards our neighbors. If diplomacy does not go well, we have other instructions from our benefactors. Though now that we know a little bit more about the number of ships the Flex-aor have, we may have to reassess those options.”

“Perhaps,” James began as he stared at the star map. An idea had come to him. “Perhaps your fleet might like some company on your mission. Our experience has told us that diplomacy will not work with the Flex-aor. However, if you wish to try, we would be more than happy to encourage the attempt. If diplomacy fails, I know my leaders would be happy for our ships to fight alongside one another. My species has no desire to commit genocide against the Flex-aor. But, if your intentions would be more along the lines of wiping out their orbital industries and ability to make war against their neighbors, that is a goal we could join you in achieving. I couldn’t think of a better way for our two species to begin developing a relationship with one another than fighting side-by-side.”

Once again Ya’sia looked at her subordinates and then back to James. “That is an interesting proposal. Normally I would think such a proposal would be moving too quickly. However, if what you have said about the numbers of ships the Flex-aor are able to field is correct, then they are a much bigger and more imminent threat than my species’ benefactors or indeed my own leaders realized. Perhaps working together may be necessary. However, that is a conclusion I am still a long way from reaching. And my mission is of paramount importance. I cannot at this time enter into long diplomatic negotiations with you. I’m not sure that we could come to any kind of agreement quickly enough for your suggestion to be feasible.”

“I have the authority to take my fleet to the Flex-aor homeworld now if I so desire,” James replied. “There’s no need for me to wait for diplomats from Earth to arrive to negotiate with you. My fleet is well supplied. I believe we could continue with you to the Flex-aor homeworld today if you allowed us to accompany you.”

Ya’sia brought her hands together in front of her chest as she had done during the holographic COM conversation earlier in the day. “My species normally never moves this fast. Before we could contemplate it, I and my subordinates would have many questions for you.”

James smiled. He was more than willing to answer a few questions if it would give him a shot at the Flex-aor homeworld. “Ask away,” he replied.

*

Four hours later James realized that for the Crians, many really did mean many. Ya’sia had picked his brain dry of almost everything he knew about his species’ history and characteristics. At least, everything that he had felt he was able to divulge. Likewise, all of his subordinates had been interrogated. In turn, James and his staff had asked many questions of their own and the answers he had received had astonished him. The galactic community the Crians were a part of, and the interdependent societies and cultures they have built together, was simply beyond his comprehension. Even many of the technologies Ya’sia spoke of sounded more like magic than reality. When Ya’sia finally called an end to the discussion, she made it clear that it was only so her staff could return to their ship for refreshments. She intended to return for another round of discussions as soon as possible. This is going to be a long couple of days, James thought as he stood and embraced Ya’sia with the quasi handshake she had taught him. Though the idea of more discussions was daunting, it was also exhilarating. He was certain that meeting Ya’sia and the Crians was the most monumental thing that had ever happened to his species. Just knowing thirteen other species existed relatively nearby to Earth would cause a paradigm shift in Humanity’s thinking. The prospect of actually joining such an intergalactic community would change everything.




Chapter 7

Sensor and stealth technologies are improving all the time, there is a constant war going on between the two schools of engineers and scientists working on them. Occasionally a unique or weird solar system throws its own features into the mix. The best commanders always make use of all three variables in any engagement. 

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-61 system, 16th July 2478 AD.

James was on Golden Hind’s bridge when the battleship jumped out of shift space into the seventh new and unexplored system James’s fleet had travelled to. Immediately reports came in from the ships already in the system. There were no signs of any Flex-aor warships or other threats. After taking ten minutes to sort themselves out, the Human and Crian fleets set off towards the far end of the system and the next shift passage they intended to traverse. Several smaller ships split off from the two fleets and headed for other shift passages. They were tasked with scouting the nearby systems to make sure no Flex-aor fleets would suddenly appear in the rear and cause havoc.

As his battleship powered up and got underway, James could hardly believe how fast things had progressed. Yes, the discussions with Ya’sia had been taxing and, in the end, had lasted four days. But once the Crian Admiral made up her mind, she was determined. Within a day, their fleets had set off together towards the Flex-aor homeworld. James had dispatched Rear Admiral Tianpei’s second battlecruiser squadron with a number of escorts back to X-38. Tianpei was to gather together a resupply convoy and follow the Outer Defense Fleet. With the exception of Tianpei’s ships and those destroyed or damaged engaging the Flex-aor fleet, James had every other ship with him on this mission. If someone had told him a month ago he would be heading straight for the Flex-aor homeworld with his entire fleet, he wouldn’t have believed it possible. Yet here he was. Moreover, he was working side-by-side with an entirely new alien race that he hardly knew.

Hardly might be going a bit too far, he thought as he allowed himself a small chuckle. Given the amount of time he had spent with Ya’sia, he thought he knew her pretty well. It appeared that in general, Crians and Humans were able to get along with each other pretty well. A lot of work had gone into making sure both fleets could operate well together. With so much contact between James’ senior officers and Ya’sia’s there had been ample opportunities to observe how each species interacted with the other. Though there had been a few incidents, both sets of officers worked relatively smoothly with one another.

As their journey continued, both fleets and their senior officers had settled into a comfortable routine. Before either fleet entered a new system, James’ six stealth destroyers moved in and observed the system for several hours. Having never needed to develop stealth technology of their own, this was one area where Humanity’s technologies were far more advanced than the Crian’s. After the stealth destroyers reported no enemy contact, Crian frigates were sent in. Their more advanced sensor technology allowed them to scan more of the system. When it was confirmed there were no threats, both main fleets moved in and continued towards their final destination.

James’ main problem came from some of his subordinates. In order to carry out useful battle simulations with Ya’sia’s fleet, James and Ya’sia had to share technical details about their weapons systems. Quite a few of James’ officers had been unhappy with that idea. James understood but to him it made no sense to hold their capabilities back. If and when a battle took place, the Crians would get an up close and personal look at the capabilities of Human warships. It made more sense to share those capabilities now so that both fleets could work together. It seemed Ya’sia had no qualms with sharing information about her ship’s capabilities. James suspected learning the true number of ships the Flex-aor could field had shaken Ya’sia’s confidence in her fleet’s strength. The technologies Ya’sia shared had surprised James. In some ways, the Crians were much more advanced than Humans. In general, the technologies James saw as more commercial or civilian in nature were way ahead of what Humanity had. Yet when it came to military technologies, they weren’t so advanced. Their propulsion and sensor technologies were impressive yes, but not so their missile technologies. The strength of their warheads and ECM was actually slightly behind Humanity. All in all, it meant that there were some ways in which James’ warships could complement Ya’sia’s, and others in which her ships would complement his.

“Admiral, a COM message is coming through from Handmaiden,” Emilie informed James.

James nodded. “Put it on the main holo projector.” Handmaiden was Ya’sia’s flagship. She rarely requested a COM channel unless there was a good reason. As her face appeared, James sat up straight in his command chair.

“Admiral,” Ya’sia began. “One of my scouts has detected some anomalous readings around the system’s smaller star. The anomalies were detected almost as soon as our fleets began to accelerate.”

“Enemy scout ships,” James guessed. The system they were traveling through was a binary system. Any ships stationed between the two stars that tightly orbited each other would be almost impossible to detect unless they started moving. Even then the gravimetric signatures from their engines would be severely distorted. “If I wanted to keep an eye on the system, that’s where I’d station some ships. We’re two systems away from their homeworld. The Flex-aor would be fools not to have some ships guarding the system.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Ya’sia replied. “What course of action do you recommend?”

James turned to Lieutenant Dzedzyk. “Show me a map of the system. Project a least time route from these anomalies to the shift passage towards the Flex-aor’s homeworld. Assume there are Flex-aor frigates among those anomalies. How quickly can they get to the point where they can jump to shift space?”

On the holo projector images representing Flex-aor ships appeared and a dotted line traced its way around one of the system’s stars, used the sixth planet in the system as a slingshot and disappeared right on the edge of the system’s mass shadow adjacent to the shift passage James’ and Ya’sia’s ships were heading towards. Dzedzyk looked around at James as soon as her calculations were finished. “They would be able to jump out in two hours. Even if we dispatched our fastest ships right now, we couldn’t catch them.”

“Thank you,” James acknowledged and then turned back to Ya’sia. “We can’t catch them even if we wanted to. Though I suspect you can. That means the decision is yours. The question is, do you want the Flex-aor to know we’re coming? If we can make it to their homeworld and enter discussions we would be speaking from a position of strength. If they have time to gather their forces and meet us outside of their home system, we won’t have as many cards to play.”

Ya’sia didn’t answer right away. “I’m not sure,” she finally said. “I know the Flex-aor opened fire on my allies and then my own people’s ships without provocation. But now that their world is under threat, perhaps they will be more amicable. I think I should at least try and open communications with these ships.”

“You can try,” James replied. “But I think it will be a waste of time. Our experience with the Flex-aor has told us they have no interest in communicating. They understand only one thing. Force. If you try and communicate with them, I think we will come to regret it.” Even as he spoke, James’ own thoughts were solidifying. His species was in a state of war against the Flex-aor. Technically, so too were the Crians. It made no sense to try and communicate with whatever ships were in the system and allow them to escape with news of the threat heading for their homeworld. They needed to be wiped out. They would have no authority to make any lasting decisions anyway.

“We may come to regret it,” Ya’sia conceded. “But I have to try. If possible, a peaceful solution to the Flex-aor’s aggression would be preferable.”

“Preferable yes, but unlikely. Perhaps it is even naïve of us to think that such an outcome is possible,” James countered. “In any case, there’s no way the commanders of those ships can broker peace between our species. We should take them out now. If we can get to the Flex-aor homeworld undetected, there will be a much greater chance that we might be able to negotiate some kind of peace.”

Ya’sia screwed up her face. “I’m not sure I agree. If we bargain with the Flex-aor while threatening their homeworld, any deals we make may fall apart as soon as we leave.”

James didn’t have an answer to that one. The Flex-aor seemed far from trustworthy. But Ya’sia’s point hadn’t changed his mind. A part of him regretted putting her on the main holo projector. This was their first real disagreement. He hadn’t intended for it to be so public. Everyone on Golden Hind’s bridge was watching the exchange.

“Perhaps there is a compromising position,” Captain Becket suggested into the silence that was developing between both Admirals. “Ya’sia can send a squadron of her fastest ships to intercept whatever Flex-aor ships are out there. Initially the ships can try and make contact with the Flex-aor. If the Flex-aor refuse to communicate, or just as likely, open fire, then Ya’sia’s ships can take them out.”

James looked from Becket to Ya’sia when she began to speak again. “Thank you Captain Becket, that is an acceptable solution. Admiral?” Ya’sia asked as she brought her gaze back to James.

“That will work,” James agreed. “Just warn your Captains to be careful. The Flex-aor may feign being peaceful to lure them in.”

“I’ll make sure they are careful,” Ya’sia replied. “I’ll keep you updated.”

“It looks like we’re going to see just what these Crian warships can do,” Scott commented as soon as the COM channel ended. “This should be interesting.”

“Indeed,” James responded with a nod.

“Woo weee,” Miyamoto exclaimed, drawing James’ attention to the secondary tactical holo projector. “Look at them go.”

Several other officers made similar noises of appreciation as thirty frigates broke away from Ya’sia’s fleet and accelerated as hard as they could. They were producing acceleration rates at least thirty-five percent higher than anything James’ fleet could manage without overloading their reactors or engines. “They should have no problem catching whatever Flex-aor forces are out there,” he commented.

*

Crian frigate Starscape.

Captain of the First Rank, Cri’tilly was beaming on the inside. Ya’sia had picked him to lead the advanced force she had sent to intercept whatever Flex-aor ships were hiding between the systems twin stars. He was happy to be free from the monotony of keeping formation with the main fleet. His ship had been designed for fast hit and run engagements. Trundling along through system after system at the speed of the slower Human warships had been far from his image of what his fleet’s mission would be when they had left Crian space. Whilst he had to admit the Humans had some impressive capabilities, they were slow compared to Crian ships.

“Do you think we’ve left any mouths ajar behind us?” Starscape’s second-in-command asked. She had a twinkle in her eye.

“I hope so,” Cri’tilly replied with a wink. Neither of them had met a Human in person, though the stories from those who had, had spread through the fleet. On more than one occasion the Humans had been amazed at the technologies they had discovered on Crian ships. Their facial expressions had quickly become a source of amusement to the Crian officers. Cri’tilly could imagine the Humans being impressed at Starscape’s speed. “However, it’s time to put them out of our minds. We have a mission to focus on. Sensors, have we got a firmer idea of what we are after?”

“Not yet captain, the anomalies are still intermittent, but they’re definitely moving. They should be far enough away from the distortions caused by the system’s stars for us to get a better look at them in approximately five minutes.”

“Update us as soon as you know more Lieutenant,” Cri’tilly requested.

When the anomalies cleared the gravimetric distortions and their engine signatures could be detected, Cri’tilly forced himself to keep his face impassive. His COM officer had reported forty Flex-aor contacts. They were all clearly warships. At least two of them were battleship size. Whatever the force was, it was much larger than a simple recon force.

“What do we do Captain?” Starscape’s second-in-command asked.

Before he could answer his COM officer informed him Ya’sia had sent a message. “Send it to my command chair,” Cri’tilly requested.

“I’m dispatching a second squadron to reinforce you Captain. They’ll be a bit behind but should be able to support you if any fighting breaks out. Good luck, and remember, don’t do anything to provoke them.”

As he read through the details of the second squadron, Cri’tilly felt reassured. Ya’sia was sending a number of destroyers with the ships that were coming to back him up. Three Crian destroyers were a match for a Flex-aor battleship.

“We keep going,” Cri’tilly said. “Backup is following us. Remember, we are meant to open negotiations with these warships. Not fight them. To that end, begin broadcasting our first contact protocol. Let’s see if they will communicate with us.”

Forty minutes later it was clear the Flex-aor had no interest in talking. Despite friendly messages being sent to them again and again, they had not replied. Twice, Cri’tilly had slowed his squadron slightly to delay coming into missile range of the Flex-aor warships. He was still hoping that they would see sense.

“Their fleet is breaking up,” sensor officer reported quickly. “Looks like their smaller ships are detaching from the main fleet and making a break for the system’s mass shadow. At their current acceleration rates, they’ll be able to jump out in thirty minutes.”

Cri’tilly open his mouth to give the order to lay on an intercept course but his sensor officer brought him to a halt. “The main Flex-aor fleet is changing vectors. They’re turning onto heading four nine point seven six two.”

Cri’tilly could easily visualize what was happening. His species’ benefactors had always said that the Crian people had an impressive affinity for conceptualizing complex spatial patterns. The Flex-aor frigates were trying to leave the system, presumably to warn the rest of the species about the approaching threat. Meanwhile, the two battleships and their escorts would sacrifice themselves to buy the frigates the time they needed to escape. Cri’tilly cursed himself for slowing down. His actions had played right into the hands of the Flex-aor. Now he couldn’t intercept the frigates without coming into missile range of the battleships. I have no choice, Cri’tilly thought. Ya’sia’s orders were clear. If they didn’t prove friendly, the Flex-aor warships could not be allowed to leave the system with news of the Crian and Human fleet.

“Signal Second Squadron, inform them that we are going after the frigates. They are to engage the Flex-aor battleships as soon as possible,” Cri’tilly ordered. “Navigation, alter course to intercept those frigates. Keep us as far away from the battleships as possible, but I want to bring those frigates within missile range for at least ten minutes before they can jump out. We need to make sure we destroy every one of them.”

Moments later Cri’tilly felt small vibrations run up his command chair as his ship’s engines went to maximum. A shiver traveled down his four legs, making him stretch them out. He wanted to tell himself it was just from the vibrations, but he knew better. He, his ship and his crew were going into combat for the first time. It had been a shiver of excitement, there was no denying that. His whole body felt like it was about to spasm with nervous anticipation. Most of his adult life had been spent training for this scenario. Now it was finally going to happen. Underneath his excitement, he was acutely aware of a small pulse of fear beating away. He had always expected to have a technological and numerical advantage going into battle. Presently, he only had one of those, and he wasn’t sure if that was going to be enough.

“We’re entering missile range of the Flex-aor battleships,” an officer reported, forcing Cri’tilly to stop analyzing himself.

“Order our squadron to target all missiles at their frigates and cruisers. We’ll take out their escorts and leave the battleships for Second Squadron,” Cri’tilly ordered.

Less than thirty seconds later ninety missiles were launched by his thirty frigates. His ships fired a second salvo before the Flex-aor open fire. The Flex-aor warships had a range advantage over Human warships, but not over Crian ones.

“We’re tracking sixty-four missile carriers launched by the Flex-aor. I estimate they’re carrying a payload of over four hundred missiles,” a Lieutenant reported.

Cri’tilly didn’t reply immediately. He was imagining what four hundred missiles might do to his frigates. “Captain?” Starscape’s second-in-command queried.

Cri’tilly shook himself and turned to his second-in-command. “Take direct control of our point defenses, open up on those missile carriers before they can release their missiles. We may get lucky and take out a handful of them.”

Before the Flex-aor missiles got into range, the two salvos Cri’tilly had fired reached their targets. A number of missiles from each managed to penetrate the Flex-aor’s point defenses. Eight frigates had broken away from the initial fleet of forty ships in an effort to escape. Of the remaining thirty-two, Cri’tilly destroyed nine.

“Got one,” a weapons officer shouted drawing Cri’tilly’s mind back to his own ships. A gunner had taken out a missile carrier. Over the next thirty seconds six more were destroyed. The rest released their missiles.

Cri’tilly felt another shiver run down his legs. This time, it wasn’t one of excitement. “All point defenses open fire,” he ordered needlessly.

With sensors and tracking computers that were significantly more advanced than Human ones, the Crian point defenses shredded the Flex-aor missiles. Even so, Cri’tilly realized that quantity has a quality all of its own as twenty missiles reached attack range. As they dived among his ships Cri’tilly gave the order for evasive maneuvers. His ships scattered in every direction. A few missiles were confused, but most kept tracking their targets. Explosions erupted among his First Squadron.

“Status report?” Cri’tilly demanded as soon as it became clear no missiles were tracking his ship.

“Two frigates are gone Captain; I’ve got at least three other ships reporting that they have been hit and have suffered damage.”

Time seemed to slow down for Cri’tilly as he reached out to access the initial reports that were coming in. He needed to know what frigates had been lost. Anguish welled up inside of him as he read their names. He knew both Captains well. Now they were gone. As he looked back up at the main holo-projector, the next wave of Flex-aor missile carriers was already approaching. There were just as many of them as in the first salvo, and now his numbers were reduced. Suddenly, Cri’tilly realized all his excitement at the prospect of combat had evaporated. The real thing was very different to what he had imagined. As he watched the missile carriers grow ever closer, he stomped his feet on the deck of his command bridge. Some of those missiles were going to take the lives of his people. They may try, Cri’tilly thought as a new resolve pushed out any other thoughts. But we are not going to make it easy for them. Immediately he barked out orders as he sought to reorganize his squadron and prepare his ships to fend off another wave of missiles.

*

UNS Golden Hind.

James sat back in his command chair when he saw the forward Crian squadron begin to reorganize itself. He been holding his breath. Human history showed again and again that when inexperienced crews went into battle they were normally stunned by what they found themselves facing. It looked like something similar had happened to the Crians. James had been surprised to learn that none of the ships in Ya’sia’s fleet had been involved in combat before. All the Crian ships that had fought the Flex-aor at Monulan had been held back for a refit and repairs. Even the undamaged ones had been held back so that their battle recordings could be analyzed.

“They have reformed their formation,” Becket commented. “They should be able to ride out the next missile salvo. Things will get easier from then.”

“They’re still going to lose ships,” James replied. He had wanted to contact Ya’sia and warn her that her Captain commanding First Squadron had been making a mistake slowing down. Yet he had held himself back. Probably the Captain had done so in an effort to prolong the time he had to try and open friendly communications with the Flex-aor. Ya’sia would have approved. Sadly, James had concluded experience was the only way they were going to learn. And they are going to learn a costly lesson today.

Another two Crian frigates were destroyed by the Flex-aor battleship squadron. Others were damaged and had to fall out of formation. Despite the second Crian squadron coming into missile range of the Flex-aor battleships, they didn’t switch targets. The Flex-aor commander had his priorities correct. Allowing his frigates to escape was all that mattered. As a result, three more smaller missile salvos came crashing into First Squadron before they got past the battleships. By the time the last Flex-aor missile was shot down, seven frigates had been destroyed and as many again where limping along trying to escape from battle. In return, the missile salvos from First and Second Squadrons had crippled the Flex-aor battleships.

“Now we’ll see if their sacrifice will pay off for them,” Miyamoto said as the last Flex-aor warship was wiped out by six simultaneous missile detonations.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t,” James replied. “If a Flex-aor frigate escapes after all the losses the Crian’s have suffered, their morale is going to take a serious hit.”

As the battle was happening nearly a light hour away, everyone on Golden Hind’s bridge was watching the gravimetric plot. It was the only source of real-time information. For ten minutes the Crian First Squadron and the fleeing Flex-aor frigates exchanged fire. Just one Crian frigate was damaged. The last salvo that closed in on the Flex-aor frigates was targeted at just two of them. James let out a sigh of relief when both were destroyed. No advanced warning would be reaching the Flex-aor homeworld.

“They did it,” Scott said happily. “It was far costlier than I think we would have guessed. But they did it. We could never have caught them. I hope it counts for something.”

“It should give their fleet a wake-up call if nothing else,” James replied. “Now they know how dangerous the Flex-aor can be. They have been bloodied.”

*

Starscape.

Cri’tilly couldn’t make sense of all the emotions that were assaulting him. He was proud of his ships. They had stopped the Flex-aor frigates. Yet it had come at great cost. Friends he had had since his days at the naval Academy were gone. Ships that had proudly served the Crian fleet were no more. Combat was far worse than he had imagined, and far deadlier. And this is only the beginning, Cri’tilly realized. Whatever was yet to come would be far worse. That sent more than a shiver down his legs.




Chapter 8

It is hard to imagine that there was a time that the fate of the Human race once rested on the survival of one or even just a handful of solar systems. To be sure, if the Sol system was conquered or destroyed the Empire would feel its loss, but one hundred worlds could be wiped out and Humanity would go on.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-62 system, 23rd July 2478 AD.

A week later the combined fleet of Human and Crian warships was waiting at the edge of the final system they had to travel through in order to reach the Flex-aor home system. James was on Golden Hind’s bridge waiting for word to come back from the stealth destroyers that had been sent into the system. As soon as the all clear was given, the fleet would advance. Given that there had been a Flex-aor war fleet in the previous system, everyone was taking a lot more precautions. Instead of all the stealth ships returning, five of them had orders to continue into the system to look for danger. In addition, Ya’sia had formed four small squadrons to scout ahead of the main fleet.

“A laser COM beam has been detected bouncing off one of our antennas,” Emilie reported. “Hold on. It’s Sparrow. She has returned.” Rather than report anything else Emilie lapsed into silence as she remained hunched over her station.

“Sub Lieutenant?” James prompted.

“I think you better have a look for yourself Admiral,” she replied. “I’m sending the report to your command chair.”

When both Captain Becket and Commander Scott looked down at their command chairs James surmised she had sent it to them as well. “This certainly wasn’t on Ya’sia’s star map,” he commented as he looked down at one of the displays on his command chair read through the destroyer’s report. “She is going to be surprised.”

“I’m sure she will be, but it makes sense,” Scott suggested. “We should have seen this coming. Remember how surprised she was that the Flex-aor were able to build such large war fleets? They clearly have far more industrial capacity than the Crian thought. It makes sense that they would be spread out across more than one system.”

James nodded. “You’re right. This changes our plans somewhat. Emilie, transmit the report to Ya’sia’s flagship and to our own fleet. Then call a holo conference with my senior commanders. Let’s go everyone, conference room. Captain Becket you may come as well.”

James led his staff off Golden Hind’s bridge and into the adjacent conference room. By the time his staff had found their seats, holographic representations of his commanders began to appear around them.

“Captains, Commodores, and Admirals,” James said once the last face appeared. “You’ve all been sent Sparrow’s report. It is brief and to the point. There is a Flex-aor colony in this system. It looks like they have a decent sized orbital industrial complex and at least two hundred warships defending the planet. I sent Sparrow’s report on to Ya’sia but before I speak to her I want to get your input. What are your thoughts?”

“Even if there are double the number of Flex-aor warships in the system than Sparrow detected, we could easily take them out and destroy the planet’s orbital and surface infrastructure,” Rear Admiral Sato answered. “I know our goals and those of the Crians might be slightly different in this endeavor, but if we can cripple this system’s industries it would certainly give us a strong bargaining position when we reach their homeworld. If we show the Flex-aor what we can do to their planets, they’ll be much more likely to want to negotiate. Ya’sia has to see the benefit of that. Plus, it would be a small recompense for what they have done to us.”

“We would be perfectly justified,” James agreed. “I can’t see Ya’sia being too warm to the idea though.”

“She’ll probably want to try and open negotiations with the senior government or military officials in the system,” Becket said. “Unless they have a Queen in the system though, we’d just be wasting our time. And even then…”

“And even then, can we trust whatever a Queen tells us?” James said as he finished Becket’s thought. James’s senior commanders knew about Becket and Scott’s experience with the Flex-aor Queen on X-38. She had sought to deceive them from the outset and had nearly succeeded in killing them. As far as James was concerned, there was no reason to trust any Flex-aor, especially their Queens.

“If there are only two hundred Flex-aor warships, we could strike the planet without Crian support,” Gupta suggested. She held James’ gaze, showing she understood the gravity of her suggestion. “Ya’sia would be unhappy, but we are not under her authority. We have to think about our own people first. If we can strike a blow against a heavily industrialized Flex-aor system, it would be a big step in guaranteeing they could not launch another invasion against us in the immediate future. Sato is right. Our reasons for being out here are slightly different than the Crian’s, we can’t let them sway us from the course of action that is in our people’s best interest.”

James nodded. “You are right. Our mission is to see off any Flex-aor threat. Destroying their shipyards would certainly accomplish that. Yet taking out any Flex-aor fleets that remain is our first priority. Second has to be striking their homeworld. Whatever industries they have here, they no doubt have significantly more in their home system. However if we lose the support of the Crian now, we may not have it when the opportunity arises to strike at their fleet or homeworld.”

Gupta opened her mouth, clearly intending to defend what she had said. James raised both his hands to appease her. “I’m not saying we’re not going to take this opportunity. Only that we need to consider all our options.”

“Launching a strike now would at least have one negative outcome,” Rear Admiral Ramirez commented. Ramirez commanded the Outer Defense Fleet’s second battlecruiser squadron, she had previously been a Commodore in the Spanish Navy. “We would be warning whatever forces are in the Flex-aor home system about our presence. If we are considering launching a pre-emptive strike, perhaps we should circumvent the system and strike their homeworld first. We can come back and take out this system any time we want.”

Sato shook his head. “We don’t know what awaits us in the Flex-aor home system. I’d be nervous about leaving a force in our rear. Even two hundred warships could cause a headache if things go badly in the Flex-aor home system.”

“What do we do if Ya’sia wants to negotiate? Which seems highly likely,” Gupta asked. “If we reveal our presence we’ll be giving away the element of surprise. Worse, we’ll be giving the Flex-aor ample time to bolster their homeworld’s defenses. They could keep us in this system for days or weeks pretending to negotiate with us, and, all the while, they could be amassing their forces. Isn’t that exactly what the Flex-aor Queen on X-38 did to you Commander Scott?”

James shot Gupta a weary smile. He knew what she was doing. He counted her and Scott as his closest advisers. Gupta was trying to get Scott on her side.

“It is,” Scott answered. “She kept telling us what we wanted to hear until she got close enough to strike at us. I’ll confess, I would be very nervous about opening negotiations with the Flex-aor in this system. At least if we did so in their home system, we could strike at their fleet and industries if there was any sign of duplicity. If we wait in this system, who knows what they could be up to? However, there is a wider situation to consider. We know there are several more advanced alien species who are our neighbors. They also seem much more willing to share technologies than the Kulreans. Forming strong relations with the Crians, and, perhaps even more importantly, with their benefactors, may provide more strategic protection to our colonies than a military victory today. Or even one in the Flex-aor home system.”

“We all have friends and comrades who were killed by the Flex-aor,” Commodore Davies protested. James was surprised by his passion. He had joined the Outer Defense Fleet just weeks before they had left X-38 on their training exercise. As the most junior flag rank officer in the conference, he didn’t seem to have any problem speaking out. “Let’s not forget about Farnsworth and Plantation. Millions of lives were lost when those planets were nuked from space. I’m not saying we act out of a thirst for revenge. But justice demands that the Flex-aor face consequences for their actions. If we open negotiations, it will give the Flex-aor time to gather their forces. If they have two hundred warships in this system, how many do you think they will have in their home system? They would be just days away from being able to come here and support this system’s defenses.”

“I would be in favor of attacking as well,” Commodore Jackson, commander of the first heavy cruiser squadron said. “Provided of course, the tactical situation is in our favor. If Ya’sia’s hope of signing some kind of peace accord with the Flex-aor is ever going to become a reality, one side will have to be negotiating from a position of strength. I know Ya’sia has said she doesn’t like the idea of such a settlement. However, from what we know of their history, the Crians have little experience of dealing with hostile parties. Look at every peace settlement in our people’s history. In almost every example, peace was enforced when one side lost the ability or will to fight. Right now, we have no reason to think the Flex-aor are in such a position. Why would they agree to anything that restricts their desires to attack other species?”

“At X-41 we saw just how powerful technological advancements can be against the Flex oar,” Becket countered. “We destroyed an entire fleet of their warships whilst suffering minimal losses. If we can strengthen our relationship with the Crians and their benefactors, our technologies could be advanced to a point where the Flex-aor are no longer a threat. That would especially be possible if it turns out the Flex-aor were given their technologies. If that’s the case, then there would be almost no risk that they could ever catch up with us. If we wanted, we could come back at any time in the future and crush them with ease.”

“What do you make of that?” James said as he turned to Gupta. He wanted to know if Scott and Becket’s arguments were having any effect on her thinking.

Gupta didn’t reply immediately as she thought through what she wanted to say. She nodded as she began to speak. “There is weight to the arguments to hold off attacking. Thinking in the long term, there could be potential benefits from following Ya’sia’s likely course of action. Yet, making decisions based on possible future outcomes that are very difficult to assess, either in terms of their likelihood, or their benefit, concerns me. We don’t know what technologies the Crians might be willing to share with us, nor how those technologies might help us defend against the Flex-aor. In contrast, we have a clear target in front of us. We can see what an impact a successful attack would have. If Ya’sia wants to open negotiations, and we all know she will, then we will be sacrificing the strategic advantage for a possible future benefit. At the end of the day, I am with you Vice Admiral, but my instinct tells me we should attack. We are the ones who are experienced in warfare, Ya’sia is not. In this she should listen to us.”

“Thank you for your honesty my friend,” James replied. “Sato?”

“We came out here on the premise of working with the Crians. We all knew that would involve some sacrifice of our operational freedom,” Sato said. “I don’t think we should go out on our own at the first hurdle. I understand that the strategic benefits from siding with the Crians are somewhat unknown, but I still think they will be very significant. Our encounter with the Crians and, in the future, with their benefactors and neighbors is likely to be even more significant than our discovery of the Vestarians and Kulreans. We are all warriors, we all want to fight, but as flag officers, we need to think in the long term as well as the short. Of course, I am with you whenever you decide.”

“Well, as yet I’m still on the fence,” James replied. “My gut is telling me to attack. But my head is telling me to wait. I share your passion Commodore Davies. The Flex-aor must be brought to justice. Yet attacking this world would not be enough in and of itself. We must make sure they can never threaten us again. Let’s say for the sake of argument Ya’sia wants to try and open negotiations. At the very least, I will be warning her about the dangers of such a course of action. If she insists we go ahead with negotiations though, what precautions can we take?”

As his officers discussed different negotiation strategies and ship deployments, James allowed the debate to go back-and-forth. He was listening, though his thoughts were elsewhere. He knew that if he wasn’t the senior commander of the Outer Defense Fleet he would be pushing for a surprise attack. That was what made the most sense militarily. They could push into the system and cripple its defenses before aid could come from the Flex-aor homeworld. Then, they could probably push on into the Flex-aor homeworld before the Flex-aor could respond. Yet he was the senior commander, and there were other factors he had to consider.

Five minutes later James was distracted from his thoughts when his niece waved her hand at him. “Yes Sub Lieutenant?” he asked when there was a pause in the back and forth between his officers.

“Ya’sia is requesting a COM channel with you,” she reported.

“I’ll take it in my office,” James said as he stood. “Thank you,” he said to his officers. “I’ll see what Ya’sia has to say and take your thoughts into consideration. I’ll update you on what we decide. For now, prepare for an attack into the system. If we’re going to strike, I want us to be prepared. Dismissed.”

In his office James sat down and let out a deep breath, taking a few moments to gather his thoughts. The experienced warrior within him was screaming out to attack. Opportunities like this rarely came. When you caught your enemy by surprise and unprepared, you had to strike hard and quickly. Yet his experience as an Admiral and, though he hated to admit it, as someone who had been drawn into far more political intrigue than he wished, was telling him that the bigger picture was more important. After letting out another deep breath, he reached forward and activated his office’s holo projector.

“Admiral,” he said with a nod as Ya’sia’s face appeared in front of him. “You have read Sparrow’s report?”

“I have,” she replied with a smile. “And I guess we’re about to have another difference of opinion.”

James returned her smile. “Well at least we are in agreement about that. You were sent here to ensure the Flex-aor could not pose any more threat to your species or your neighbors. Surely striking one of their industrialized systems and taking out any shipyards they have here would go a long way in accomplishing that? Especially if we can repeat the same feat in their home system.”

“I grant you, you are correct,” Ya’sia replied. “However, the fact that this system has been colonized and so heavily industrialized suggests that the Flex-aor are a far greater threat than my superiors knew when they dispatched me to the their homeworld. My orders prioritize seeking a peaceful settlement. If the Flex-aor have a number of similar such systems, which on reflection seems likely, then seeking to eliminate their threat through military means will require a far larger offensive operation than our two fleets can accomplish. My entire species may need to mobilize for war. That is something I do not think my superiors would look very fondly upon. That means I must pursue a diplomatic solution if it is possible. I’m not saying my species will not stand up to the Flex-aor. We will. And, if it comes to it, our benefactors will assist us. However, a peaceful settlement is preferable, and the more fighting we do, the less likely that becomes.”

“That is where I disagree,” James responded. “I hope we have developed enough of a friendship over the last month to be direct and honest with one another without causing unnecessary offence.”

“I hope the same,” Ya’sia replied. “You can speak freely with me Admiral. As we have discussed in depth, it is my hope, and my belief that our two species can become firm friends. Friendship requires honesty.”

James smiled. “Thank you. I will be honest then. One of my subordinates reminded me of something that I think your species has little or no experience of. It is something that is important in thinking through the situation we find ourselves in. May I ask, how many negotiations has your species successfully concluded with a hostile faction or species that has sought to defeat or conquer your planets?”

“None,” Ya’sia answered. “And now you’re going to tell me your species has far more experience.”

“We do. And if there’s anything the history of my people tells us, it is that hostile actors rarely, if ever, willingly seek after peace unless their goals have been accomplished, or they have been defeated to the point where they no longer believe they can accomplish those goals. The Flex-aor are currently in neither position.”

“Tell me,” Ya’sia said as she brought her hands together in front of her torso. “How many permanent peaceful settlements have your species achieved? By that I mean, how many settlements resulted in a permanent state of peace rather than simply a pause in hostilities?”

James had to think about that. “I’m not sure,” he answered honestly. “Certainly some have. For example, many centuries ago my kingdom was at war with the Americans. You have met Lieutenant Alvarez, my intelligence officer. He is an American. The last war between our nations ended more than six hundred years ago. Since then we have been close allies. However, you’re right, many of the peace settlements that have been signed in my people’s history just proved to be a temporary ceasefire.”

“You see where I’m going,” Ya’sia followed up. “I take your point that the Flex-aor may not be willing to negotiate unless we show them they cannot defeat us. However, even if we do negotiate from such a position, it would likely just mean that the Flex-aor would agree to our terms and immediately begin trying to alter the balance of power so that they could resume hostilities. It is my belief that only a diplomatic negotiation in which each party sees themselves as an equal will be able to accomplish lasting peace. This is the approach our benefactors took with my people and our neighbors when they first revealed themselves to us. It is how they would wish me to pursue negotiations with the Flex-aor. I was willing to destroy the scout fleet we encountered in the previous system because I didn’t want Flex-aor in this system or their home system warned. If we came into their home system and were confronted by a war fleet prepared to engage us, opening negotiations would have been all but impossible. Now, we can approach this system and by showing restraint, we can show the Flex-aor that we are willing to negotiate rather than simply engaging in combat.”

“Except, the difference between your situation with your benefactors and the situation we find ourselves in now, is that I suspect your race and your benefactors shared many ideological beliefs,” James countered. “That is something that I do not think can be said of the Flex-aor. It is my belief that the difference between our two species and them will make negotiations impossible. I strongly recommend then that we push ahead and assault this world if their defenses are as limited as they appear now.” James paused to let the seriousness of his words sink in. “However, I am willing to compromise with you on this. I think passing up the opportunity to attack this system while it is relatively undefended will be a decision we both come to regret. Nevertheless, continued cooperation between our two fleets and, in time, our two species is more important than one battle. I would ask that you would consider what I have said. There is nothing either of our two species have seen in our dealings with the Flex-aor that suggests they will be open to a peaceful settlement. That must be taken into consideration. As we agreed from the outset, we are partners in this. I cannot tell you what to do, neither will I act unilaterally without you. So as long as you consider what I have said, I am willing to accept the course of action you propose.”

“Well,” Ya’sia said slowly. “You have certainly been as direct with me as you can. I give you my word I will take what you have said under serious consideration. I’ll delay sending out our scouting squadrons until I have come to a decision. Thank you for your advice Admiral.”

“You’re welcome,” James replied. “As much as I don’t want to be drawn into another battle against the Flex-aor, I feel it is inevitable. However, my fleet will be by your side whatever you choose.”

“I’ll get back to you as soon as I have thought this through and discussed it with my officers,” Ya’sia said.

“We’ll speak again soon then,” James replied as he reached over and ended the COM channel.

He took a few moments to consider what he had just done. If Ya’sia chose not to attack, he suspected a number of his officers would be very unhappy. They’d probably be even more unhappy that he had given over the authority to make such a decision to Ya’sia. Yet Scott’s words were ringing in his ears. The strategic situation was much bigger than just one battle. Showing the Crians that Humanity desired peace despite the many wars that filled its history was important. If worse comes to worse, we can always pull back to X 38 and await reinforcements from Earth or Crian space, James told himself. Despite his attempts at justifying his decision, he still felt uneasy. It just didn’t sit right with him to let such an opportunity pass by. As his hand was still resting on the COM unit built into his desk, James contacted the bridge. “Emilie, organize another holo conference with the fleet’s senior commanders. Have my staff officers assemble in briefing room one for the conference as well.” James knew that if he was uneasy, the rest of his officers would be as well. It was best to keep them in the loop lest they get any more upset than was necessary.




Chapter 9

Given the size of the Empire, it has been split up into seventy-four administrative sectors. Each sector has its own Regional Capital and Fleet Headquarters. Typically each sector is roughly half the size of the Human Sphere during the War of Doom.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-62 system.

When Ya’sia informed him of her decision, James wasn’t surprised she was still insisting that a diplomatic solution be sought first. As soon as he received her COM message, he replied with one of his own. Scott had been taking notes during his meeting with his senior commanders and she had put together a series of recommendations for Ya’sia. If their two fleets were going to reveal themselves to the Flex-aor, James wanted to take every precaution imaginable. As a result, before the two fleets moved into the system, small detachments of scouts and picket squadrons were given orders to leave the main fleet. Some would take up positions within the system to watch for sneak attacks. Others would scout out the nearby systems in case they were inhabited by the Flex-aor. James wanted as full a picture of what was going on around them as possible.

Handmaiden is signaling,” Emilie reported. “Ya’sia says all Crian ships have received their orders and her fleet is ready to proceed into the system.”

“Reply and let her know we are ready to go, we will follow her lead,” James responded.

“Flex-aor ships are breaking orbit Admiral,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer reported almost as soon as the Human and Crian ships lit off their engines. “They’re accelerating towards the shift passage that leads to the Flex-aor home system. I’m detecting four gravimetric signatures; the readings suggest they are all frigates.”

“The element of surprise is gone,” Becket commented. “Let’s hope we have given it up for a good reason.”

Ya’sia had wanted to take her time coming into the system so as to not appear threatening. As a result, it took four hours for the Human and Crian fleet to approach the Flex-aor colony. After a long deceleration burn, Golden Hind came to rest well outside the known missile range of the two hundred Flex-aor warships that had remained in orbit around the colony. During the entire trip into the system, Ya’sia’s flagship had been broadcasting a request to open diplomatic discussions. At no point had the Flex-aor replied.

“It looks like we’re going to get our battle after all,” Scott commented after the fleet came to a halt and there was no response from the colony.

“Signal all capital ships to prepare their fighters and bombers for launch,” James ordered. “I’ll contact Ya’sia and see what she’s thinking. But if there is no response, combat is our only option. We can fire a full salvo at the defending ships and send our fighters and bombers in immediately afterwards to take out their orbital defenses. We should have no problem closing in and finishing off whatever is left after that.”

“We have movement!” Miyamoto shouted. “A single ship. It’s breaking orbit and heading our way.”

“It’s a battlecruiser class ship,” Ivanov added. “It looks like the largest one in the defending fleet.”

James’ eyebrows rose in surprise and he glanced at Scott and Becket. Both had similar expressions on their faces. “They’re actually responding to us?”

“We’re picking up a communication from that ship,” Emilie reported excitedly. “I can’t make it out yet, the computer is still translating. Wait, I’ve got it. They are acknowledging our request for peaceful negotiations. They wish for us to send a shuttle to their ship where our envoys can begin preliminary discussions.”

James couldn’t help but sit back in his chair and blow out a loud whistle. “By golly, I didn’t expect this.”

“Ya’sia will be happy,” Becket replied.

James almost groaned. She would. And she would give him a hard time about it. Instead of another unprofessional vocalization, James reigned his surprise in. “Scott, pick a couple of subordinates and head over to Ya’sia’s flagship. I want you on the shuttle that is going to that battlecruiser. I’ll let Ya’sia know you’re coming.”

“Yes Vice Admiral. I have a couple people in mind already. But… What am I supposed to say?” Scott asked.

“They are just preliminary negotiations, wait and see what the Flex-aor say. I imagine they will want to set some ground rules within which we can all work. Make sure you list the grievances we have against their race and find out what authority their negotiators have. If their society is run by a series of Queens, we need to know how any kind of negotiation could be agreed. Is there a single Queen who rules over the other queens, or are they all independent? Start with that and then you’ll have to figure things out as they go. None of us have training for this. I suspect Ya’sia’s people will be better prepared. It may be best to follow their lead, though don’t be afraid to speak out if our interests are at stake.”

“So make sure they know we are mad at them and play the rest by ear?” Scott summarized.

If it wasn’t for the seriousness of the situation, James would have laughed. “That’s about it I guess,” he replied deadpan. He winked as he continued. “Isn’t this the kind of thing I’ve been training you to do for years now?”

“Then I should have no problem,” Scott replied as she rolled her eyes and jumped to her feet. “I’ll go grab the two specialists I have in mind and get going. If you can think of anything else I should say or ask, send it to our shuttle.”

“Good luck,” James said, and he meant it. “If we can find a peaceful solution to all this so much the better, but don’t let them hoodwink you.”

Scott nodded and turned to leave Golden Hind’s bridge. A few officers called after her wishing her well.

“I want a close eye kept on every station and warship in orbit. Let’s get a full estimate of their capabilities. If we have to fight, I want to target the most dangerous ships and orbital installations first. Let’s use this time to our benefit,” James ordered as he focused on the enemy ships that were out of missile range. Even if the discussions went well, he knew that things would probably end in a battle nonetheless.

*

Scott bit her lower lip hard. She needed something to distract herself. The Crian shuttle she was on was seconds away from docking with the Flex-aor battlecruiser. Memories of the Flex-aor Queen’s tentacles wrapping around her body and throat where pulling at her mind. The pain from her lip helped her focus. She couldn’t let her nightmares get the better of her. For months after the attack she had experienced vivid dreams replaying what the Flex-aor Queen had done to her. No one understood how the Flex-aor Queens communicated telepathically, especially with Humans, a species they had never met before. Yet the Flex-aor Queen had done just that. According to the best medical advice Scott had received, the Queen had left some kind of imprint on her mind. An imprint that kept surfacing in her dreams.

As two large shuttle bay doors receded, panic almost overtook Scott. She was entering the jaws of her nightmares. She bit her lip again. This time drawing blood. Focus, she told herself. James had entrusted her with making first contact with the Flex-aor. She couldn’t let him down.

“They sent their battlecruiser towards us and requested we come aboard, we’ll let them do the talking first. You may follow my lead,” Eralla, the Crian chief negotiator Ya’sia had put in charge of her delegation said from the seat opposite Scott.

Scott nodded. Eralla had experience negotiating with six other species, seven if his interactions with Humans were counted. Scott was more than happy to follow his lead. Of course, she intended to join in any discussions if it was necessary. The reappearance of her nightmarish memories had reinforced her desire to never let another Flex-aor Queen get anywhere near Human space.

A slight jolt informed everyone the shuttle had touched down on the landing deck. Crian shuttles had four access ramps to allow for quick disembarkation. As they descended, the negotiating team stood and made their way onto the flight deck. Scott looked around. It was eerily quiet. There were no Flex-aor in sight. Then one Flex-aor suddenly appeared from behind a parked shuttle. It was large, very muscular and encased in the exoskeleton the warrior caste of the Flex-aor wore. It approached the Crian shuttle in silence and came to a halt meters away from the negotiating teams. For nearly thirty seconds the Flex-aor, Crians and Humans stared at one another.

“My Queen welcomes you onto one of her battlecruisers. You have brought a hostile war fleet into the domain of High Queen Ala’ron. You have defiled this system. State your intention or be exterminated.”

Scott swallowed the lump that had developed in her throat and glanced at Eralla. His expression hadn’t changed, but she sensed that his torso muscles had tightened. His eyes shot towards her and she gave him a slight nod. He had said he wanted to take the lead.

“We have come aboard your ship in response to your stated willingness to enter negotiations with us. Perhaps we could begin those negotiations in a more appropriate setting?” Eralla replied, ignoring the Flex-aor’s threat.

“My Queen does not wish to waste any more time with you. Your ships made it known that you wanted to negotiate with us. You are here now. What are your intentions?” the Flex-aor replied.

I guess they don’t intend to offer us a seat, Scott thought. It wasn’t very surprising. As far as she knew, this was the first time the Flex-aor had opened dialogue with another species. There was no reason to think they understood concepts such as hospitality or manners.

“Very well,” Eralla replied. “Your species attacked one of my neighbors and the Humans. In both cases it appeared your intention was to wipe out any sentient life that was not Flex-aor. Neither my species nor the Humans intend to let you continue exterminating other races. We are here seeking a peaceful solution because we do not wish to go to war with your species. We will if we have to. But we would rather negotiate peace. The galaxy is large, there are many systems your species can inhabit and develop for your own use. There is no need for you to attack your neighbors.”

The Flex-aor warrior actually snorted, clearly a sign of derision. It opened its mouth to say something but cut off before it could. A strange look came over its eyes and all expression disappeared from its face. “I am Queen Hir’ram. I rule over all Flex-aor in this system. What terms are you offering?”

For a second Scott forgot where she was. Her mind was sent back to that dark hangar on X-38 where they had discovered the first Flex-aor Queen. That Queen had been able to telepathically communicate with her soldiers throughout the entire planet. Now it seemed this Queen was doing the same. For a moment Scott feared the Queen was nearby, close enough to launch an attack against the negotiating team. Then the rational part of her mind took over. There was no way the Flex-aor Queen would have risked coming on the battlecruiser herself. That meant she was probably on the inhabited planet. She is able to telepathically communicate over unbelievable distances, Scott realized.

“We wish to understand your species better,” Eralla answered. “We want to understand what motivates you and why you have taken the action you have. In turn, we will allow you to get to know us. Beyond that, we hope we can negotiate an end to hostilities and a settled border which will allow our species to coexist peacefully.”

“The Flex-aor species has been at war for more than two hundred years. We have expanded to many systems.” Hir’ram said. “Why would we stop now?”

“Because war is not the only way in which species can exist,” Eralla replied. “My species has peaceful contact with a number of other species. We coexist as friends.”

“Friends,” Hir’ram said slowly, as if trying to understand the concept. “The Flex-aor desire no friends.”

“Do you desire life?” Scott asked, unable to stay quiet any longer. As soon as she spoke she tried to tone down her anger, it was hard to do.

The Flex-aor warrior turned to take her in. “You speak for your species Human?”

Scott nodded, “I do. I have fought your species in my territory. We drove back your invasion fleet. I was there when Queen Qura-rnt was killed. I know your species desires life. We wish to come to a peaceful agreement with you, because we do not wish to wipe out your species.”

The Flex-aor warrior snorted again, though this time it was different, lighter, more feminine. The Queen is laughing at us, Scott realized.

“You think you can cleanse us?” the warrior replied and then snorted again. “Your species is delusional.”

“We are in your system with a battlefleet,” Scott countered. “We are speaking with you. Clearly we have your attention. If you do not wish to negotiate, why are we here?”

“You’re here because I am interested in what you have to say Human,” Hir’ram replied. “Never before has a species sent ships into one of our systems. You are brave, I will give you that. Delusional, but brave.”

“If we could get back to our topic of discussion,” Eralla said in a much more conciliatory tone. “Would you and your species be open to the possibility of further negotiations? We wish to see an end to hostilities, not an escalation. Surely some level of discussions could be had to see if we can come to an agreement.”

“Your ideas are entertaining. Perhaps my species would be willing to hear more of what you have to say,” Hir’ram responded. “I however do not have the authority to make such binding agreements. Our High Queen must be the one who speaks to you.”

“Maybe we could send a delegation to your High Queen? Where is she at the moment?” Eralla asked.

“She resides on our homeworld. However, news of your arrival has already been sent to her. She is likely to depart our homeworld and come here as soon as she learns of your presence. If you are willing to wait, she will arrive in eight days. Then you can speak to her and see if she is willing to negotiate a settlement with you.”

“Your High Queen can make binding decisions for your entire species?” Eralla queried.

The Flex-aor warrior snorted again. “You know nothing of our species. The High Queen makes all decisions. She is the High Queen.”

“Then that will be acceptable to us,” Eralla responded. He looked over to Scott.

Scott was far more suspicious. “How do we know this isn’t some kind of trap? Your High Queen could be coming from your homeworld with a much larger battlefleet. What kind of assurances will you give us? We could simply destroy your fleet and your world now and head to your home system and speak with your High Queen there rather than wait here.”

“The High Queen will come here with her own fleet. She does not travel anywhere without some ships to protect her. However, if I send word to her that you are seeking to enter into negotiations, she will come with her Royal Guard, not an entire battlefleet. As for assurances, you have said you wish to get to know my species more. I am willing to continue some low-level negotiations until our High Queen arrives. Your species amuse me. I would enjoy hearing more of your delusions. Will that appease you?”

“Yes,” Scott lied. She was far from appeased, but there was nothing more Hir’ram could say that would put her at ease. If the Flex-aor High Queen was coming to this system, Scott had no doubt she would come with every warship she could bring. Perhaps the Queen would still wish to enter negotiations, but from what she knew of the Flex-aor, that was highly unlikely. As soon as they had numerical advantage, they would attack.

“I think we should bring our initial negotiations to an end here,” Eralla responded. “We can report back to our superiors and inform them of what you have said. We will contact you again to arrange another meeting. We would certainly find it enlightening to learn more of your species.”

Scott almost rolled her eyes at how Eralla turned Hir’ram’s desire to meet again on its head. He really was a diplomat. The Flex-aor warrior simply nodded and didn’t say anything more. She glanced at Eralla. He shrugged ever so slightly and turned to leave. Scott followed him and the rest of the Crian and Human delegation did likewise. No one spoke until they were all seated on the shuttle and the access hatches had closed.

“That was icy,” Lieutenant Podolski said breaking the silence. “I’ve never been in a negotiation quite like that before.”

“You can say that again,” Scott agreed. Podolski was quite old for her rank. Before joining the US colonial fleet, she had been an elected official in one of the larger American colonies which was why Scott had brought her along.

“Nevertheless, it was a successful one, partially at least,” Eralla responded.

“Excuse me?” Scott asked as her eyebrows rose. “All we learnt was that this Queen thinks we are only worthy of her contempt and they have a High Queen who is likely to bring a far larger battlefleet against us.”

“Those things in and of themselves are useful to know,” Eralla explained. “And we have agreed to carry out future negotiations. If they go well, then we may have laid an important foundation by the time their High Queen arrives. She may arrive with the intention of driving us out of the system. But if we can win Hir’ram over to our way of thinking before then, we may find an open door to speak to this High Queen.”

This time Scott did roll her eyes. Clearly she and Eralla would be giving different reports to their senior commanders. “I wish I had your optimism,” she said speaking only a half-truth when Eralla looked at her strangely. “I don’t see this ending in anything but a fight, but at least you’re trying to look on the bright side.”

“It is not through optimism that I am interpreting today’s success,” Eralla responded. “It is through my past experiences as a negotiator. We and the Flex-aor represent two sides that could not be further apart from one another. Yet today we entered into negotiations, we shared certain things with one another, and we agreed to continue to talk. As far as I am aware, that is far more than your senior commanders expected. I would say we have met with a measure of success today. What comes tomorrow may make what we have done today count for nothing, but that is a problem for tomorrow.”

“I hope you’re right my friend,” Scott replied as the shuttle left the Flex-aor battlecruiser and accelerated back to the Human and Crian fleet. “I hope you’re right,” she repeated as she replayed the conversation with the Flex-aor Queen in her mind. Nothing she could recall from the conversation gave her any hope that the Flex-aor would be halted by anything short of destroying their ability to make war.




Chapter 10

Emperor Augustus II is often given the honorific The Peaceful. It is certainly true that during his fifty-two year reign nothing larger than a few border scuffles broke out between the Empire and our neighbors. However, almost all historians now agree that Augustus II’s ability to maintain peace had as much to do with luck rather than diplomatic skill. His reign simply occurred at an exceptional time when none of our neighbors were strong enough to challenge us. If Augustus had been in power when the Antarians had been discovered, or when the revolutionaries seized power in the Monatist civilization, he would probably be remembered very differently.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-62 system, 29th July 2478 AD.

Scott threw herself into the briefing room chair. She didn’t even try to hide the groan of weariness that passed her lips.

“Not a good session?” James asked with a chuckle.

“The worst yet,” Scott replied. “She’s playing with us. I have no doubt. It’s like we are the mice and she’s the cat, she’s just toying with us before she finishes us off. Isn’t that right Podolski?”

James turned to the Lieutenant and raised a questioning eyebrow. This was the first time Scott had brought one of her negotiators with her. Clearly Podolski was meant to back her up.

“In my professional opinion, yes,” Podolski replied with a lot more respect for her surroundings than Scott had shown. “Though my experience in dealing with alien species was non-existent before we reached this system. However, it is clear Hir’ram is intentionally being as vague as possible in the answers she gives us. Likewise, she has made no commitment of any kind regarding her species’ relationship to us. It appears she is playing for time.”

James nodded slowly. Scott had warned him several days ago when she had come back from the first round of negotiations. He had believed her then, however, for Ya’sia’s sake, he had allowed things to play out. If the negotiations were to come to an end, he wanted it to be because the Crian recognized their fruitlessness, rather than them blaming his people for forcing their hand.

“What do you suggest we do now?” James asked the Lieutenant. Part of him felt guilty for putting so much pressure on a junior officer, but given Podolski’s experience with Hir’ram, he was genuinely interested in her opinion.

Podolski shrugged. “That is way above my pay grade.”

“But if it wasn’t?” James pushed.

“At this point, I’d say our only option short of abandoning the negotiations would be to demand some assurances. We could set a deadline and demand that some more concrete discussions take place or we would move in and resume hostilities. We could bring our fleet closer to their planet to emphasize our intentions. Normally the stick rather than the carrot is the way to get opposing sides to begin serious dialogue.”

“Commander?” James asked as he turned to his Chief of Staff.

“I’m in agreement with Podolski,” Scott replied. “Something needs to be done to force Hir’ram’s hand. Threatening an attack will show us if she is serious or not. I’d rather we just abandon the negotiations altogether and strike her fleet immediately. Though I understand that is off the table until Ya’sia is on board.”

James nodded; he knew Scott had added her last sentence for his benefit. Day by day the pressure from his senior commanders to abandon Ya’sia’s diplomatic approach was growing. Scott had been defending his course of action amongst the other ranking Admirals, however, in private, she had been more open about her reservations. She knew James shared her feelings. As yet, he hadn’t come to the point where he felt he had to force Ya’sia’s hand. Given Scott and Podolski’s most recent report, he was starting to think that time had come.

“All right,” James said. He slapped the table, coming to a decision. “We’ve been working out various strategies for launching an attack against Hir’ram’s forces. I’m going to insist with Ya’sia that we settle on one and begin final preparations. We can send Hir’ram some kind of ultimatum in the meantime. Things need to progress with our negotiations or we need to wipe out the Flex-aor forces in the system and move on to their homeworld. We’ve wasted enough time sitting around. Write up a brief summary of the last negotiations. I’ll have a final think and call Ya’sia after you send that to me. I know this hasn’t been easy, thank you both for your assistance. Dismissed.”

“Yes Admiral,” Scott replied as she stood and led Podolski out of the briefing room.

James stayed where he was as he thought through the best way to discuss things with Ya’sia. Their relationship hadn’t exactly deteriorated over the last several days, but it certainly hadn’t been growing in strength. James hesitated to call the Crian naïve, but they were certainly seeing something James and his staff didn’t. Either his people had a skewed perspective because of their almost constant experience of war, or the Crian were being blinded by their limited experience of war. James was certain he knew where the fault was. The problem was finding a diplomatic way to inform a new friend they were being duped.

*

An hour later James stepped off one of Golden Hind’s shuttles onto Handmaiden’s flight deck. He had decided having this conversation in person was the best way to go. Several of Ya’sia’s aides were waiting for him. “If you’ll follow me Admiral,” one said as he gestured for James to follow.

As the aide turned around one eighty degrees on the spot, James couldn’t help but think of the horse competitions he had seen where horses were made to dance and turn in tight circles. He kept any amusement from his face though. The aide led him to an elaborately decorated room which had just one small table and a series of odd-looking contraptions that James would have been unable to identify if Ya’sia wasn’t already sitting in one.

“Thank you for coming Admiral,” she said as she stood to greet him. “I presume you want to talk about the most recent round of negotiations?”

“I was hoping to,” James answered. He looked around the room, “this is a little bit more impressive than where we met the first time you invited me on board. Have I been upgraded to a new level of ally or something?”

“Not at all,” Ya’sia replied with a smile. “We like to keep our conference rooms bland so that the focus is on whatever is being discussed. Plus, we don’t want to put other races that may not be able to spare the same expense on their warships to shame. These are my personal quarters. Many of the things you see on the walls are gifts from my husband and family. Senior Crian naval officers are allowed a little more leeway in decorating their personal quarters.”

“I didn’t know you were married,” James replied genuinely surprised. Though Ya’sia had shared a lot of detailed information about her species, her personal life had rarely come up. “How long?”

“Forty years,” Ya’sia replied. “We have six children. And you, how long have you been married?”

“How did you know?” James asked, surprised that she knew more about him than he did her.

Ya’sia gestured towards his left hand. “Part of the cultural database you shared with us included information on marriage traditions. The ornament you wear on one of your fingers, that means you’re married does it not?”

“It does,” James replied with a smile. “You are astute. Yes, I’ve been married for eleven years, though we have no children as yet.”

“What does your wife think of you being a military commander stationed so far from home?” Ya’sia asked.

“I wouldn’t say she likes it,” James replied. “Though she understands. She is an elected leader of one of our colonies, so she understands the need to put duty above family.”

“My husband is a scientist,” Ya’sia explained. “Usually my duties have kept us both in the same system. This is the longest we have been a part in more than two decades.”

James was surprised once again. This was a very different side to Ya’sia than he was used to seeing. “I’m sure you miss him then. It may be a while yet before either of us can return home. Do you expect to hear from him when your first supply convoy catches up with us?” Ya’sia had arranged for a series of supply convoys to follow her fleet to the Flex-aor homeworld. The first wasn’t due for another couple of months though. Crian warships were designed to operate for long periods of time away from supply depots.

“I’m sure our first supply convoy will have a series of messages for me,” Ya’sia said with a smile. “I look forward to them. That’s enough about our personal lives. Perhaps later you can tell me more about your wife. For now, let’s turn to why you are here. The negotiations aren’t going to your liking?”

“That’s one way to put it,” James said slowly. “Another would be to say I think they are a ruse and nothing more. Hir’ram has no intention of negotiating anything meaningful with us. Everything she has done since we entered the system has simply been a delaying tactic. They are waiting for reinforcements from their homeworld. Then they will attack.”

“I think you’re right,” Ya’sia replied. “Eralla has come to the same conclusion. He’s been very hesitant to assign the worst motives to Hir’ram, but his recommendation after the last round of negotiations is that we should be preparing for military combat.”

James sat forward in the seat Ya’sia had prepared for him. He had not been expecting this. “You’re ready to strike Hir’ram’s forces and move against the planet’s orbital infrastructure?”

“I think it is time to show Hir’ram we mean business,” Ya’sia responded. “I was going to suggest we move in and fire a single missile salvo at Hir’ram’s warships. We can do a lot of damage to them, perhaps we could cripple half of her number in one salvo. Then we could reopen negotiations. I am willing to admit that in this circumstance, you may have been onto something when you said we need to be negotiating from a position of power. Clearly Hir’ram does not view us as a threat worthy of her respect.”

James puffed out his cheeks as he released a long breath.

“Something the matter?” Ya’sia asked.

James chuckled. “No, quite the opposite. It’s just, this is quite a policy change.”

“I like to think I am quick to recognize when I am in the wrong,” Ya’sia responded. “Eralla is quite adamant. He doesn’t see the negotiations going anywhere as things stand. In fact, he predicts that their tone will only worsen if reinforcements arrive. Besides, this isn’t exactly a policy change. I’ve been saying from the start that we need to try to find a peaceful solution to begin with. We have done that and now it’s time to turn to other approaches. After we launch our attack we can see if Hir’ram is more amenable to holding a serious dialogue. If not, we will continue aggressive actions against her forces.”

“In that case perhaps it was me who was in the wrong,” James replied. “Given how insistent you have been on pursuing a peaceful solution, I didn’t expect you to change approaches so easily. I’m in favor of what you have suggested. Though how do you propose we end hostilities after just one missile salvo? I doubt Hir’ram will return fire with just one salvo of her own.”

“If you are in agreement, we can move close enough for my ships to open fire with our missiles. There’s no need for your ships to get involved at this stage. My fleet can open fire from a point where Hir’ram can’t respond in kind. We can fire one salvo and pull back. Hir’ram will be a fool to try and follow us. My fleet alone should be able to cripple hers with ease.”

“All right,” James said with a smile. His anticipation was growing. “I’m in. Let’s show Hir’ram and her people that we are not here to mess around.”

Ya’sia cut James off by raising a hand with one finger pointed upwards. She closed her eyes. James was surprised by her abruptness, but he had become accustomed to the Crian closing her eyes. Each Crian had a brain implant that allowed them to communicate with each other and mentally process files and other forms of data. Human scientists had been experimenting with such technologies for decades, but the Crian had long since perfected it. When Ya’sia’s eyes shot open the look of concern on her face was unmistakable. “What is it?” he asked.

“New contacts accelerating into the system. Hundreds of them. Hir’ram lied. The reinforcements from her homeworld aren’t coming in two days, they have arrived.”

James jumped to his feet. “I need to go back to my flagship.”

Ya’sia stood as well. “Not yet,” she said. “Let’s go to the bridge and see what is happening. We can decide what to do together before you depart.”

“Lead on then,” James replied.

On Handmaiden’s bridge the entire system was displayed in minute detail by the warship’s impressive main holo projector. The new contacts accelerating into the system were easily identifiable. The number glowing alongside the contacts identified that there were nine hundred and twenty. James felt a moment of relief. More than three thousand Flex-aor warships had been involved in the invasion of Human space. He’d been expecting far more ships. Of course, this could just be the first wave, he reminded himself. Hir’ram had mentioned something about a Royal Guard.

“These reinforcements put Hir’ram’s fleet at well over a thousand ships,” one of Ya’sia’s officers reported. “If it comes to fight, the computer gives us a ninety percent chance of victory. Though we will suffer losses.”

“Send orders to all of our ships, inform them they are to prepare for battle,” Ya’sia ordered. She glanced over at James and, after he nodded, she continued to give orders. “Send the transmission to Golden Hind as well, let Captain Becket know that Admiral Somerville has requested his ships go to battle stations.”

Ya’sia turned when one of the access hatches to the bridge opened and Eralla stepped in. She nodded to him as he moved to stand beside her. “How do you view the situation now?” she asked him.

“Hir’ram lied to us,” Eralla answered. “These reinforcements have arrived earlier than she intimated. She was stalling. Perhaps it was because she wanted to negotiate with us from a stronger position. However, I suspect everything she has said has been a lie. If that’s the case, she has no intention of coming to any kind of agreement with us. Battle is inevitable.”

“That’s our assessment as well,” Ya’sia replied. “Negotiations have come to an end.”

“Their reinforcements are still three hours away,” James pointed out. “We should hit Hir’ram’s fleet and the planet’s defenses now. Then we can turn and take out this new fleet.”

Before Ya’sia could share her thoughts, a bridge officer interrupted the conversation. “We are getting a COM message from Hir’ram. She wishes to inform us that the High Queen has arrived with her Royal Guard. The High Queen is requesting that she meet with our senior leaders for a face-to-face discussion.”

“Say that again?” Ya’sia asked, though her officer had been more than loud enough.

James didn’t listen to the repeated report; his mind was racing. If the ships that had just entered the system were the High Queen’s Royal Guard, then it suggested they could have many more ships back in their home system, or even hiding on the edge of this system. The request for face-to-face negotiations could be a trap. Either to delay any battle so that more Flex-aor reinforcements could come, or even to capture and kill him and Ya’sia. James turned to Ya’sia to voice his concern. He bit back what he was going to say when he saw the look on her face. He knew what she was thinking. A face-to-face meeting with the High Queen of the Flex-aor was too good an opportunity to give up.

“We have to go and see her,” Ya’sia insisted, clearly anticipating in James’ thoughts as well. “Given what we know about their society, if we can convince her to cease hostilities, the rest of her people will fall in line. Even if it is a trap and we are taken prisoner, risking our lives for the chance to save all the lives that would be lost if hostilities continued is worth it, is it not?”

“Of course it’s worth it,” James agreed. “But that is based on the assumption that this High Queen’s offer is even remotely genuine. Nothing we have seen from the Flex-aor suggests that it is.”

“Perhaps things would be different if you were discussing things face-to-face with their High Queen,” Eralla suggested. “It is possible Hir’ram’s contempt for me and Commander Scott in part came from the fact that she was speaking with people she considered not to be her equals. If it is both of you speaking with this High Queen, there is the possibility that she will take you more seriously.”

James wanted to argue the point. He wanted to argue against any reason that Ya’sia or Eralla put forward in favor of meeting the High Queen. However, he knew that doing so would not get him anywhere. The lure of a peaceful settlement was too strong for the Crians. “All right,” he said instead. “If you want to go to this face-to-face meeting, I will accompany you. However, we’re not going to do it all on their terms. If we’re going to meet her, we are taking our fleet. We’ll signal Hir’ram now and inform her that we are bringing our fleet to meet the High Queen’s Royal guard. You and I will then take a shuttle to the High Queen’s flagship to meet her. If Hir’ram’s forces, or any other ships are detected approaching us, we will take it as an act of hostility and all negotiations will end. That way, our fleet can crush this Royal Guard and the High Queen if it’s a trap. If you can agree to that, I will agree to the meeting.”

Ya’sia smiled. “Those are prudent suggestions. If things go badly it means we can stop the Flex-aor from combining their forces before the battle begins. If it is going to work though, we need to get our fleet moving now. Let’s send this transmission to Hir’ram and get going.”




Chapter 11

To the eyes of one of the naval officers of the First Galactic Expansion Era or the War of Doom Era, our modern warships would look wonderfully strange. Ship designs back then only had to accommodate members of the Human race. Now Empire ships can be home to as many as thirty different species. Trying to make each species comfortable has led to some peculiar internal design features.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Handmaiden, X-62 system.

With time at a premium, James elected to stay on board Ya’sia’s flagship. Within ten minutes of both senior Admirals giving commands to their fleets, the Human and Crian warships had moved away from the Flex-aor colony and were boosting towards the new fleet. Hir’ram had protested their demand that her ships stay in orbit but, as yet, her ships hadn’t moved. James was almost disappointed, if Hir’ram did break the terms they had set, it would allow Ya’sia and him to attack the High Queen’s fleet. Despite being outnumbered more than two to one, he and Ya’sia weren’t concerned that the High Queen posed any serious threat. There was a disproportionately high number of battleships and battlecruisers amongst her fleet yes, but even then, they didn’t have the numbers to defeat the Human and Crian fleets.

“Admiral, a transmission has come in from the largest ship in the High Queen’s fleet,” an officer on Handmaiden’s bridge reported. “It’s a series of instructions. We are to bring our fleet to a certain point and come to a halt. Then only one warship is allowed to approach the High Queen’s flagship. The instructions detail where the High Queen’s fleet will halt as well. Each fleet will be equally distant away from the meeting point and neither fleet will be anywhere near missile range of the other.” The officer transcribed the data to Handmaiden’s main computer and an image depicting the instructions appeared on the main holo projector as she spoke.

“This High Queen clearly doesn’t want to take any chances,” James commented. “We’ll be a long way from support if things go south.” Ya’sia looked at him with a quizzical expression. It took James a second to realize why. “That’s an expression. For things to go south means they have gone badly.”

Ya’sia’s face changed. “Ah, that makes sense. Yes. This High Queen is being cautious. That is a good thing though is it not? If she fears us, then she may take us more seriously than Hir’ram has done.”

“There is another explanation,” Maleck said, speaking for the first time since James had entered Handmaiden’s bridge. Maleck was Handmaiden’s Captain. James had had a few brief conversations with him, but it seemed he liked to keep his thoughts to himself and James turned to him in surprise. Instead of explaining what he meant, Maleck lapsed into silence. He was looking at Ya’sia, awaiting permission to continue. When Ya’sia nodded, he did so. “It could be some kind of ruse. We’ve already decided Hir’ram was playing games with us. But what if this is another game? If both of you go to meet this High Queen and are killed or captured, it would be a serious blow to our fleets’ organization and cohesion.”

James smiled. Maleck was growing on him. It seemed he had a more suspicious mind than the average Crian. “That is a point worth considering,” he said with a nod of approval.

“But they wouldn’t gain very much,” Ya’sia responded. “Even if they kill both of us and destroy Handmaiden. We will likely take out their flagship and their High Queen. Given what we know about how their Queens telepathically control those below them, losing their High Queen would hurt the Flex-aor far more than we would be hit by losing James or I.”

“You’re assuming this High Queen will be on her so-called flagship,” Maleck countered. “If it’s a ruse, the High Queen won’t be on this flagship. It may not even be a flagship but a large ship designed to take out our flagship.”

Ya’sia tilted her head to one side and then straightened it again in what James had learnt was a Crian sign of respect. “Your point is valid. I will take it under consideration. Eralla what do you think?”

“I am uneasy Admiral,” the diplomat replied. “If the High Queen’s intentions are to enter into a well-intentioned dialogue, then why has Hir’ram misled us? She could have been honest with us about the timing of her High Queen’s arrival. She didn’t need to stall us in the way that she has. These two facts suggest that trusting this High Queen could be a mistake. However, if the offer is genuine, this is a real chance to put an end to hostilities. If the High Queen agrees to a negotiated ceasefire, then the rest of the Flex-aor species will fall into line. That possibility is worth the risk of Admiral Somerville and your lives.”

James’s eyes widened at Eralla’s last comment. He knew that Crians were more forthright than Humans, but Eralla had just discussed Ya’sia like she was a pawn on a chessboard.

When she replied, nothing on Ya’sia’s face or in her tone of voice suggested she had taken offence. “You’re right. We have to proceed under the assumption the offer is genuine until we have certain evidence to the contrary. It is too important a chance to pass on.”

James wasn’t surprised at what Ya’sia was thinking. He was surprised by what she said next as she turned to him.

“I am aware that you will be risking your life as much as I if we go to meet this High Queen Admiral. You have been far from keen on allowing negotiations to proceed this far. If you prefer, I would be happy to meet this High Queen on my own. You may return to your flagship.”

James shook his head vigorously. Though she was right, he had no hope that the High Queen would actually agree to a ceasefire, and he was just as suspicious as Maleck about the genuineness of the offer, he wasn’t going to abandon his new ally. “No. I will remain with you. If this is a trap, then we will face it together.”

Ya’sia tilted her head at James and then turned to look at the holo projector. “Then we proceed. Send instructions to the rest of our fleets.”

Normally James had very little to do but watch his subordinates go about their duties after he had made the important top-level decisions. On someone else’s flagship, he had even less to do. It gave him plenty of time to think up a whole host of ways in which the High Queen could be trying to trick them during the hour and half it took for the Human and Crian ships to get to the coordinates the High Queen had sent. It took another twenty-four to rendezvous with the High Queen’s flagship.

“It’s certainly impressive,” Eralla commented. “Whatever they call her, she has to be at least twice the size of Golden Hind.”

“Closer to three times,” a junior officer informed Eralla.

And even more firepower, James thought. From the crystal-clear images Handmaiden’s sensors were taking of the High Queen’s flagship, it was evident that almost all of the ship’s laser cannons had been sacrificed for more missile tubes. It looked like the massive ship could fire thirty missile carriers. That meant a missile salvo of three hundred missiles. The warship was an impressive engineering feat. Given that Ya’sia’s flagship was only slightly bigger than a Human heavy cruiser, it no doubt looked even more impressive to Crian eyes.

“Well we’re not here to fight it,” Ya’sia commented. “Thankfully,” she added. “Come on Admiral, we better head to the shuttle bay. If we’re going to do this, there’s no point delaying.”

“No,” James agreed as he followed Ya’sia off Handmaiden’s bridge. He continued to study the High Queen’s flagship as he went. Three hundred missiles was a terrifying number. There came a point when more advanced technologies and impressive strategies were outclassed by an enemy’s sheer weight of fire. If the Flex-aor had many more such ships, he knew his fleet would be in trouble.

*

As the Crian shuttle passed through the High Queen flagship’s shuttle bay doors, James knew he was entering a truly alien vessel. While there were many similarities between Crian and Human warship design; nothing he was looking at seemed familiar to him. Scott had tried to describe the Flex-aor ship she had visited, but her descriptions hadn’t quite hit home with James. Now they made more sense. Normally shuttle bays were well-ordered and full of stacked crates or stored equipment. There were service terminals and other shuttles with technicians busy at work. In both Crian and Human shuttle bays, the decking and side plating was a dull, unobtrusive color. The Flex-aor shuttle bay was almost the exact opposite. Its deck, ceiling and walls were all colored a bright yellow with orange streaks. Despite the color, there was no sign of any activity. Moreover, the entire shuttle bay was empty. It was as if they had landed in a vacuum chamber.

“I guess we don’t deserve a welcoming party,” Ya’sia observed.

“Scott believes they have no such concept,” James replied. “Either that is the case, or they are trying to insult us.”

“Let’s assume it’s the former,” Ya’sia said, though her tone suggested she suspected it was the latter.

“Lowering access ramps,” one of the shuttle’s pilots said. “Stay safe Admiral,”

“I intend to,” Ya’sia replied as she placed a hand on the pilot’s shoulder. She turned and nodded to James.

“Let’s go Captain,” James said to the marine Captain sitting opposite him. Captain Rivers was second in command of Golden Hind’s marine company. He had five marines in full combat armor with him. The Crians didn’t have their own equivalent of the UN marine force so James had sent for Rivers. He didn’t intend to simply walk onto the High Queen’s flagship unarmed and unprotected. If the Flex-aor wanted to attack Ya’sia and himself, he intended to make it difficult for them.

Descending the shuttle together, everyone stopped as soon as they took one step onto the shuttle bay deck. No one wanted to go any further if they didn’t have to. James turned three hundred and sixty degrees as he looked around, there was no sign of anyone.

“I guess we wait,” Ya’sia suggested.

By James’ reckoning, it took at least a full minute for someone to appear. When they did, James was strangely disappointed. He had expected a Flex-aor warrior like the one that had met with Scott and Eralla. Instead it was an individual from what Scott called the Flex-aor worker class. He or she didn’t even come up to the height of James’ shoulder, Ya’sia was nearly twice its height. Nevertheless, it didn’t show any sign of fear or intimidation when it spoke. “The High Queen will see you now. Follow me and I will take you to her chamber,” the worker said without raising its eyes to look at its guests.

James shot a concerned look to Ya’sia. She had been filled in on Commander Scott and Captain Becket’s experience with the Queen on X-38. They had been expecting to speak to the High Queen through an intermediary. Meeting her in person was not an appealing prospect. Ya’sia’s face shared his concern but she rolled her shoulders to clearly say, ‘what else can we do?’ James responded by gesturing for Ya’sia to take the lead. If she was happy to continue, he was happy for her to go first.

When they left the flight deck, the color scheme changed. The corridor’s decking, walls and ceiling were a dull red. Twice they passed open hatches that gave views into spacious areas, each had its own slightly different color palette. It seemed to James that the different colors were meant to indicate something. Perhaps the entire ship was color coordinated with different sections marked out by their color. Just another sign of how strange the Flex-aor really are, James concluded.

After at least ten minutes of walking, the guide came to a halt in front of a large circular hatch. Standing in front of it were ten Flex-aor warriors. James felt tension fill the marines at his side. They were all ready to spring into action. Turning, their guide spoke for the first time since the shuttle hanger, “Your guards must remain here. No weapons are allowed into the High Queen’s chamber.”

James gave Captain Rivers a nod. Rivers returned the gesture and stood aside; the rest of his marines followed suit. Being made to wait outside had been anticipated. Initially Rivers had protested. However, when Ya’sia had produced several extremely small yet potent explosive devices that could be hidden within a naval officer’s uniform, he had backed down. They had all agreed that going into the High Queen’s chamber without weapons was extremely foolish, if for no other reason than the High Queen herself was a deadly weapon. Though the Flex-aor wouldn’t know it, James and Ya’sia were armed.

After stepping aside, Rivers positioned himself facing the Flex-aor warriors. James mentally rolled his eyes, it seemed there was going to be a staring contest whilst James and Ya’sia spoke with the High Queen.

Once the marines were out of the way, the aide stepped forward directly in front of the circular hatch. There was a couple of seconds when nothing happened, then the hatch rolled to one side. Behind it another circular hatch rolled in the opposite direction, and as it receded, it revealed a third hatch. This one didn’t move until the other two had rolled out of the way. Then it moved backwards and twisted to reveal a mechanical arm that lifted the hatch up and out of the way. Beyond the third hatch, the so-called Queen’s chamber was pitch black. The only thing that could be seen was a thick greyish mist that slowly spilled out of the open hatch.

The aide, unperturbed by the eerie darkness, walked in without hesitation. James looked to Ya’sia, happy for her to continue to go first. She raised an eyebrow at him and slightly shook her head before nodding for him to go first this time. James looked back at the open hatch and decided he wasn’t going anywhere. The Flex-aor were mistaken if they expected him to walk blindly into such darkness. As if reading his thoughts, a series of lights switched on inside the chamber. They weren’t very powerful and didn’t really illuminate the chamber, but it was enough to get an outline of the large room. The chamber was a large circular dome. The lights were built into the floor and spread out equally distant along its outer edge. They lit up the exterior of the chamber while keeping its center largely in darkness.

When James’s eyes settled on the center of the chamber, he swallowed hard. There was a large pit filled with a thick slimy liquid. Goo, James thought. That was how Scott had described it and she had been exactly right. Time to go I guess, he thought as he took a step forward. It didn’t appear they were going to turn on any more lights for him. If the High Queen was inside, she clearly preferred darkness. As he advanced he was reassured by the distinctive trotting sound of Ya’sia’s four feet following along behind him. Whatever he was about to encounter, at least he wouldn’t be alone.




Chapter 12

One great advantage we have over ancient military historians are our battle simulators. We can replay the battles of the past endlessly and with so many variables to take into account, we can ask ‘what if’ of almost every space battle in Humanity’s history. Not to overstate it, often the results are alarming. Key battles that led to the formation of the Empire have often turned on a single decision.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Flex-aor Queenship, X-62 system.

As they stepped through the circular hatch, James looked around for their guide. There was no sign of him. A quick survey of the circular chamber’s walls didn’t reveal any sign of another access hatch. It seemed he had just disappeared. That didn’t help the unnerving feeling the dark misty chamber was giving off. Before James could say anything to Ya’sia about their guide’s disappearance, a few bubbles rose up the goo and burst near the center of the chamber. Small ripples followed them and started to move towards where James and Ya’sia stood. They quickly increased in size and larger bubbles broke the goo’s surface.

Instinctively James took a step backwards. Ya’sia did the same. Though he was trying his best, when a large bulbous head emerged from the goo, James could not keep his face straight. His mouth opened on its own accord and disgust washed over him. The High Queen’s head was like that of a giant octopus. It was round, full of bumps and ridges and clearly very slimy. As more of it appeared, eyes opened and here and there large tentacles whipped around, revealing themselves from the goo. As large as the Queen Scott and Becket had encountered must have been, this one was far larger. Without realizing it, James’ hand moved down to the section of his uniform where the Crian explosives were hidden. The massive beast was moving towards them and showed no sign of stopping. Its speed was just slow enough that it didn’t seem like it was intending to attack, but such an assumption seemed like a big risk.

Realizing where his hand was, James touched one of the explosives and prepared himself to it. Just before he unfastened it, the creature came to a halt. Then it fixed all of its eyes on James and Ya’sia. What could only be described as a maw opened and the High Queen began to speak. The sound came out was a series of high pitches and squeaks, even more unintelligible than what their guide had spoken. Thankfully, the Kulrean translation software was able to decipher what the High Queen was saying.

“Greetings Crian and Human. I am High Queen Ala’ron. You have been granted a great honor to come into my presence. Now I will commune with you and you will understand that your species is destined to serve me.” From the goo two large tentacles whipped out towards James and Ya’sia.

It wasn’t hard for James to guess what the High Queen intended. She wanted to telepathically link with them. Probably she wanted to try and brainwash the leaders of the two fleets that were threatening her world. Not wanting to resort to the explosives at his fingertips just yet James did the only other thing he could think of. “No!” he shouted. “Stop right there,” he continued as he raised one hand and pointed at the tentacle closest to him.

Surprisingly, the High Queen listened. Her tentacles came to a halt and hovered in mid-air.

“You will not touch us with one of those things,” James demanded. “We have met one of your kind before. We know what you intend to do. You will not touch our minds. If you wish to communicate with us, do so verbally.”

The High Queen fixed all her eyes upon James. It made him feel more than a little uneasy. “You have spoken face to face with one of my daughters? Who and when?”

“I did not speak with her,” James replied. “But some of my officers did. She called herself Qura-rnt. She tried to telepathically take control of my officer’s minds. She was killed before she was able to.”

Every eye that was locked on James narrowed and huge ripples pushed out around Ala’ron’s body as she raised herself out of the goo on her tentacles. “You killed one of my daughters!” The two tentacles that had paused began to move forward again.

James fished out one of the explosive devices and held it up high. “Stop! Stop or you too will die.”

Again Ala’ron paused. By now she was towering over James and Ya’sia. “What are those?” she demanded.

A glance at Ya’sia told James she was holding up one as well. “They are explosive devices,” he explained. “Designed to get past your security. If you try and attack us, we will detonate them. We will die, but so will you. We came here to talk, not to be attacked. This is our insurance.”

Behind him, James heard movement. He guessed the Flex-aor warriors were on the verge of charging in to defend their High Queen. Mentally he dismissed them. Rivers would delay them long enough for him to detonate the explosives if it came to it. Instead, he focused on Ala’ron. For several seconds she didn’t move, then, ever so slowly, she sunk back into the goo.

“Fine,” she finally said. “We will do this your way. Though you must know, communicating telepathically is how I interact with other entities.” As she was speaking, Ala’ron leaned forward.

James felt an immense pressure on his mind. It was like tidal waves were crashing against his thoughts. For several seconds he was stunned. He couldn’t move and could hardly think. Then he perceived what was happening. Ala’ron was trying to access his thoughts. She couldn’t control his mind without physical contact, but she could create a mental link from several meters away. Now she was trying to use that link to break in and ravage his thoughts. Realizing what she was attempting filled him with anger. Though he didn’t know what he was doing, he fought to keep her out. She couldn’t be allowed to have access to everything that he knew! If she did, Earth would be in grave peril. Despite his best efforts, wave after wave of her strength pushed against his thoughts. Here and there he felt small cracks appear and slithers of Ala’ron’s mind seeped in. James attacked them. He slammed them with mental energy, trying to drive her back. As he fought harder and harder, he sensed something else. Each time he smashed a part of Ala’ron’s mind he could sense her thoughts.

Small packets of emotions that he knew weren’t his own filtered through him. Ala’ron was mourning the loss of one of her daughters. She had feared Qura-rnt was dead, but knowing for sure hurt. She feared for her own life, the small explosive devices in James and Ya’sia’s hands terrified her. She had never faced real danger before. Beyond thoughts of herself, Ala’ron actually had concerns for her own people. She was worried about what the Human and Crian ships would do to her ships and her colonies. Amongst all these emotions, dominating them all, one other feeling almost drowned out everything else. A pulsing whirling disgust struck James again and again. Ala’ron hated everything his and Ya’sia’s species stood for. Ala’ron hated the idea that there were other sentient species not under her control. The revulsion she felt for Humans and Crians was at a level James had never encountered before. Though he was only getting millisecond encounters with Ala’ron’s thoughts, her anger and rage almost overwhelmed him.

He was taken aback at the strength of her emotions. It was almost a fatal mistake. Terror shot through him as the distraction allowed one particularly strong attack to get through his defenses. Ala’ron accessed his memories. He sensed her seeking out ways to threaten him. Pictures of Suzanna and Emilie were conjured in his mind, though not of his own doing. They had the opposite effect to what Ala’ron was hoping for.

As soon as he saw them, his terror vanished. In a split-second James knew that if Ala’ron learnt of his wife, she would turn all her hatred towards killing her and everyone else James loved. That was all the motivation he needed. Summoning a wave of mental strength he didn’t know he had, he slammed it at Ala’ron’s attack. It vanished like mist struck by a sudden gust of wind. James then turned his strength against Ala’ron’s mind. He could sense her somewhere nearby. Projecting his new-found strength outside himself towards where he thought she was, he slammed against a strong barrier blocking him from her mind. Without pausing, he flung himself against her defenses. For a moment, nothing happened. Then her entire mental barrier shattered. For a fraction of a second James was fully aware of her thoughts. As she realized what had happened her rage evaporated and was replaced by a raging shock that shook Ala’ron to her core. Ala’ron ceased her attack on James and pulled her mental strength back to herself. As she did, James lost all contact with her mind.

Suddenly aware that he had closed his eyes, James opened them to see Ala’ron was in the exact same position she had been before. He had no idea how much time had passed, though it felt like hours. Turning to his right, he saw Ya’sia was still standing beside him. As James looked, she slowly opened her own eyes. “What did you try and do to us?” she demanded, anger filling her features. “You have violated us.”

Ala’ron didn’t reply. She was still staring intently at James. “What did you say your species was called?” she asked. “Human?” She continued before James could answer. “Yes, that was it. Your species is more intriguing than I realized. Now I know why Qura-rnt failed. Perhaps a negotiated peace settlement would be in the best interest of both our species.”

To say James was confused was an understatement. Ala’ron’s tone had changed completely. She almost sounded friendly. Yet he couldn’t shake the emotions he had sensed from her.

“That is why we are here,” Ya’sia responded. “Your species has launched aggressive attacks against both my species and the Humans. Now you have violated our minds. We wished that you would end your hostilities with us. Yet you have personally attacked us. If you will not make peace, then we will be forced to make sure you cannot be a threat to us or any other sentient species again.”

Ala’ron finally took some of her eyes off James and focused a few on Ya’sia. “You’re clearly as ignorant as this one,” she said as she gestured towards James with a tentacle. “To be in my presence is a great honor. But you would come here and threaten me, you are either a fool or you wish to perish at my hands.”

“We do not come here to throw our lives away,” Ya’sia replied. “We came here to speak plainly. I am not threatening you. I am simply speaking the truth. I represent thirteen other sentient species. All of us have developed diplomatic and trade relations with one another. We also protect one another. We could form a similar bond with your species. However, if you will not lay down your arms, then the full military force of all of my species’ allies will be directed against you. The war fleet that we have brought with us will only be a small portion of what you will face.”

James was surprised, but in a good way, by Ya’sia’s directness. She wasn’t pulling her punches. Given what he had just sensed in Ala’ron, he was glad Ya’sia wasn’t backing down.

“Does this one speak for you Human?” Ala’ron asked James.

“She does not,” James answered. “I speak for my own species. Yet I’m in agreement with her words. Qura-rnt killed millions of my species. If you will not negotiate a peaceful settlement with us, we will have revenge for what she did.”

“Then it seems pursuing negotiations may be in all of our best interests,” Ala’ron replied. “You may both leave now. I will give this some thought and send an emissary to speak with you. Now that we have met in person, there is no need to do so again.” As quickly as she had appeared, Ala’ron slipped beneath the goo and apart from the ripple she left behind, there was no other sign of her.

James felt his eyes widen and his eyebrows rise. He turned to Ya’sia. She too had a shocked look on her face. When she looked at James, she didn’t say anything. James understood, he didn’t know what to say himself. He had just been on an emotional roller coaster the likes of which he had never experienced before. Ala’ron was almost impossible to understand. First she was angry, then conciliatory, and now she had dismissed them without so much as a goodbye. Despite his confusion, there was one truth that he could not ignore. It dominated all his other thoughts. The disgust and anger he had felt emanating from Ala’ron had been very real. It had consumed her. Despite the conciliatory tone she had taken, James was sure her anger remained. Whatever else she had said, James knew he would never trust her. For a second, he was tempted to detonate the explosive device in his hand. Killing Ala’ron would be a far greater blow to the Flex-aor than his death would be to his own people. It was one way he could ensure Ala’ron wouldn’t try to kill Suzanna and Emilie. The temptation quickly past though and he replaced the explosive device in his uniform. As much as he wanted to kill her, he had much to live for. There would be other opportunities to defeat her, of that he was sure. “Let’s get out of here,” he said to Ya’sia. “We can talk once we get back to the shuttle.”

“Agreed,” Ya’sia responded and turned with James to walk out of the High Queen’s chamber. Both went out a lot quicker than they had gone in. With a nod James collected the marines and instructed them to fall behind. Miraculously their guide suddenly reappeared from a hatch in front of them. At least, James thought it was their guide. They hadn’t seen any other workers and he didn’t actually know if they all looked alike or had differences that he could identify. Either way, it didn’t matter. Without a word, the guide led them through the massive warship.

Only once they got back Ya’sia’s shuttle did their guide speak to them. “The High Queen has instructed me to inform you that she will send negotiators to your flagships in three hours. By then she will have initial terms for a settlement ready to lay before you. It has been more than five hundred years since a Flex-aor High Queen negotiated with another as an equal. Then it took several weeks to come to an agreement. Ala’ron believes these negotiations could be concluded in such a short time as well. I bid you farewell for now.”

Once again a whole host of thoughts went through James’ mind. He kept them to himself though and kept his reply diplomatic. “It is our hope that things can be concluded quickly as well.” Without wasting any more words on the guide, he led his party up the access ramp into the Crian shuttle.

When everyone was seated he motioned for them to remain quiet. No one knew what kind of listening technologies the Flex-aor had. It was safer to wait until the shuttle had left the High Queen’s flagship and moved a reasonable distance away from it.

“Well… What were your impressions?” James asked as soon as he felt it was safe to.

Ya’sia faced James with a worried look. “I believe I have seriously misjudged the situation Admiral. I owe you another apology. This High Queen desires nothing but death for our species.”

James glanced at the marines sat around him, Ya’sia’s admission of error wasn’t the kind of thing a senior Admiral would do in front of such low-ranking soldiers. Every one of them had the helmets of their combat armor retracted, though they may as well have had them in place. Each marine had a steely emotionless gaze and all kept their eyes averted from James and Ya’sia. Even so, they couldn’t do anything but hear Ya’sia’s words.

Accepting that Crians didn’t have the same taboo against showing weakness in front of junior officers, James spoke openly to Ya’sia. “For as much as it is deserved, your apology is accepted. However, we both made mistakes. I’ve seen first-hand the atrocities the Flex-aor are willing to carry out. Yet, I thought that we could negotiate with them. What I sensed back there, the emotions Ala’ron was trying to hide, there can be no peace with her. What did you experience when she tried to touch our minds? Did she get into yours?”

Ya’sia visibly shivered. “She tried. She didn’t get in, but she tried. If she hadn’t stopped, I think she would have started to form cracks in my mind. I don’t really have any words to describe what was happening. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Her attacks on my mind were like being beaten with a mental hammer over and over again. At the same time, I found an ability to resist her that I never knew I had before.”

James nodded as he listened. “So did I. That’s exactly what it was like. She managed to get through some cracks in my mind. She tried to access my memories, I think she wanted more information about us and our species. I managed to drive her out though, that’s when her attempts to touch my mind ceased.”

“Then you have my thanks,” Ya’sia replied. “I don’t think I could have held out much longer. Do you think she got any useful information from you?”

“Perhaps,” James answered as he relived the moments he had felt Ala’ron actually in his mind. “I think she learnt about my wife and niece, beyond that, I don’t know if she got anything else. That’s not my primary concern though. When her mind began to seep into mine, I was able to read her thoughts as well. It wasn’t very clear, but one thing did come across very strongly. Ala’ron hates us. She hates all other sentient species. Any that she can’t control. Whatever outward appearance she is trying to portray to us, it’s a facade. I am convinced she will do everything in her power to exterminate both of our species. There can be no peace with her.”

“In this we are agreed,” Ya’sia responded. “I didn’t gain any direct reading on her thoughts, however the waves of hatred that were slamming into my defenses were clear enough. There are many different perspectives on the nature of evil within my species. Some would argue that all contain the possibility of evil. Others that it is simply an illusion. What I felt in there,” Ya’sia shivered again as she spoke. “That was a level of evil I have never imagined before. She must be stopped.”

“I’m glad we are finally seeing eye to eye,” James said with a small smile. “However, I fear we may soon find ourselves in a situation we may not be able to escape from.”

“What do you mean?” Ya’sia asked.

“If Ala’ron’s feelings towards us have been driving the Flex-aor response to our species so far, then Hir’ram’s negotiations with us were a ruse from the get-go. They’ve been trying to buy time to get reinforcements to this system. If that’s true, then why has the High Queen revealed herself now? We were willing to wait another two days. She must have reinforcements nearby if she was willing to come early. We may have already walked into her trap.”

“That is a worrying thought,” Ya’sia said in a somber tone. “We are going to have to act fast.”




Chapter 13

From reading the writings of many of the leading economists of the First Expansion Era, it is clear they thought Human civilization would have reached a point where resource scarcity was a thing of the past. They failed to predict the ever growing demands of a population that doubles every century. Since its inception the Empire has been fighting a constant battle to provide the worlds, resources and war fleets needed to ensure Humanity is able to continue to thrive.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Handmaiden X-62 system.

When the Crian shuttle touched down in one of Handmaiden’s shuttle bays, an urgent request for Ya’sia to report to the bridge was waiting for them. Wanting to know what was going on, James accompanied her rather than immediately boarding the shuttle that was waiting to take him back to Golden Hind. When he got to the bridge he was glad he hadn’t left too soon. A report was waiting for them from one of the scout ships he had requested Ya’sia send out. The scout didn’t have good news. In an adjacent system to the one where they had fought the first small Flex-aor scout fleet, another Flex-aor colony had been discovered. The scout had detected at least six hundred warships breaking orbit and accelerating hard for the shift passage that would lead to the system they were in. There was no doubt what that meant, Ala’ron had sent out orders days ago for reinforcements to be sent. It was highly likely that there were other forces making their way to engage the Human and Crian fleets as well.

“We need to strike Ala’ron’s fleet immediately,” James concluded. “We can’t let them pull back and conserve their numbers. Right now we occupy the middle position. They have to try and concentrate their forces before they can take us on. We have a chance to defeat them in detail, but we have to act now.”

“Agreed,” Ya’sia replied. “Captain Maleck, take Handmaiden back to our fleet, let’s not hang about under their guns.” She gestured for James to step to one side of the bridge where they could speak in private. “You have by far the most experience fighting large fleet battles. What do you propose we do?”

Before answering, James looked at the holographic display of the system. Their priorities were easy to figure out. Ala’ron’s fleet needed to be engaged before Hir’ram could bring her ships to Ala’ron’s aide. Then Hir’ram’s ships could be taken out with relative ease. The problem was what to do when the new fleet arrived. It could be more than six or seven hours behind the scout ship. If it arrived and he and Ya’sia were still engaged elsewhere, it could do a lot of damage by catching their fleets in a devastating crossfire. But if we could win quick victories then they will be the ones exposed… James thought as an idea came to him. They would have to split their forces, but it could work. It would allow them to use the advantages each war fleet had. Nodding to himself he turned back to Ya’sia. “We need to charge Ala’ron’s fleet,” he said. “We have an advantage in missile tech and energy weapons, we need to use them to hit her hard and fast. If we can take out her fleet quickly, then I think we can take this new fleet by surprise. There’s no time to spare though.” Quickly he sketched out a general idea of the plan that was formulating in his head.

“I like it,” Ya’sia said after listening quietly to his proposed strategy. “If we have no time to spare, then we should order our fleets to rendezvous with us now. I will inform my fleet that I’m placing you in overall command. We need a clear command structure in order to keep our cohesion.”

“I agree,” James replied. “If you don’t mind, I will return to my shuttle. It will take at least twenty minutes for our ships to catch up with us. I want to contact my Chief of Staff and begin to work out some battle plans. It will go much quicker if I can use equipment I am familiar with. I’ll update you as soon as I have some more detailed battle plans to discuss with you.”

“Go,” Ya’sia said. “If Ala’ron’s ships don’t run, it will take our fleet less than an hour to get into missile range. We must be prepared to fight as one unit by then.”

“Then I will take my leave,” James said as he gave Ya’sia a salute. “Good luck, I hope we will have the opportunity to spend a lot more time together after this is over.”

Ya’sia tilted her head sideways and then held out her hand. “Good luck to you Admiral. I look forward to seeing your species’ battle prowess. I hope your people live up to the stories you have told us.”

James smiled as he took Ya’sia’s elbow in his hand. “Don’t worry, they won’t disappoint.” With that he spun around and quickly moved out of Handmaiden’s bridge and towards the shuttle bay where his shuttle was waiting.

As soon as he was on board he opened a COM channel to Golden Hind. “Commander Scott, the meeting with the High Queen didn’t go well. I’m sure you’ve seen the scout report. We are going to launch a pre-emptive strike against the High Queen’s fleet. Alert all our senior commanders and Captains. Hostilities will be beginning immediately. Don’t wait for me to get back on board. Ya’sia has placed her fleet under my strategic command. Send orders to all our ships. Set course for Ala’ron’s fleet. Maximum acceleration. We will gather into a battle formation as we go.”

“Understood Admiral,” Scott replied. “We’ll have formations and attack strategies ready for your review by the time you get here.”

“Then carry on Commander, don’t waste any more time talking to me,” James ordered and cut the COM channel. He immediately opened one of the shuttle’s computer terminals. It was a far cry from the tactical holo maps he was used to preparing strategies on, yet it would have to do. He wrote up a number of different attack strategies and sent them off for Scott and his officers to simulate. Then he went through different formations, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. All the while he kept an eye on Ala’ron’s ships. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the Human and Crian warships accelerated towards the meeting point and the High Queen’s flagship, they all closed with Ala’ron’s ship. That was fine with James. It meant they would not be able to escape.

With Golden Hind accelerating towards Handmaiden the flight time in his shuttle was just six minutes. Breaking into a fast jog, he made it from shuttle bay two to Golden Hind’s bridge in record time. “Update?” he demanded as soon as he burst through the bridge’s access hatch.

“Ala’ron’s flagship isn’t decelerating to fall into formation with the rest of her ships. They are all decelerating now so as to not overshoot Ala’ron, however it looks like the High Queen plans to pass through her own fleet and head straight for the shift passage back to her homeworld,” Miyamoto reported. “Given the rest of her ships’ deceleration rate, we can bring them into missile range before they can reverse course and follow her. However, even with the Crian’s impressive missile range, we won’t be able to bring her flagship to battle.”

“Scott?” James asked as he turned to his Chief of Staff. He knew she would have anticipated his next question.

“Our fighters and bombers can catch her no problem. If they wait another fifteen minutes to launch they can arc up and over the High Queen’s fleet and then catch her flagship undefended. To guarantee a kill on such a large vessel though, we’d have to send all our bombers and at least half the fighters,” she answered. “And there’s no way they could return and rearm in time to play any other role against the High Queen’s fleet. The battle would be over one way or another by then.”

“We can still take the High Queen’s fleet without our fighters,” James said thinking out loud. They would take more losses, but unless an unforeseen disaster occurred, victory would be all but guaranteed. The problem was, he didn’t know how many other battles they would have to fight before they could extradite themselves from Flex-aor space. Extra losses now could mean defeat in a day or two against whatever other forces the Flex-aor might be trying to bring up.

Sending his bombers after Ala’ron was too risky. On the other hand, killing the High Queen could end the war in one-stroke, James thought. It was a very attractive prospect. Would it really end the war? Given what Scott had told him of Qura-rnt and Hir’ram, whatever other Queen ascended to Ala’ron’s position, they would be out for revenge. And if they shared Ala’ron’s disgust for other species, they would continue her genocidal purging of every other world around them.

“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “It’s not worth it. Not yet at least. If Ala’ron is prepared to sacrifice her fleet to make sure she gets away, let’s oblige her. We’ll have to deal with her another day. Send orders to Wing Commander McGrath. I want her to take Ark Royal and Yorktown’s fighters and bombers and strike as many Flex-aor battleships as possible. She is to take her forces in after the first wave of Crian missiles hit home. The fighter squadrons from our battleships and battlecruisers will provide an outer point defense perimeter to engage Flex-aor missile carriers before they can deploy their missiles.”

“Understood Admiral. I’ll contact McGrath now,” Scott replied.

“Miyamoto, talk me through the battle formations I sent you. How do the computer simulations rate them?” James asked when Scott turned to her command console.

As Miyamoto replied and then Ivanov, Alvarez, Dzedzyk and Becket got involved, James was drawn into a detailed discussion of how they wanted the battle to unfold. Five minutes later he opened a COM channel with Sato, Gupta and Ramirez. He quickly outlined his plan to them and thought through their feedback. Then he transmitted a full battle plan to Ya’sia. As soon as Ya’sia approved it, McGrath’s squadrons launched from Ark Royal and Yorktown. Just five minutes later the Crian warships opened fire.

Though the Crian warships were generally smaller than Human ones, they still released a large number of missiles. From the four hundred and sixteen Crian warships, four thousand eight hundred missiles were fired. The high acceleration rates of the Crian missiles meant they entered attack range before the Flex-aor could return fire.

“It’s nice to be the ones opening fire first again,” Scott commented as the Flex-aor point defenses opened up on the Crian missiles. “It’s a pity we don’t have our multistage missiles.”

James knew what she meant, the Crian missile numbers were impressive, but their penetration aids were not up to Human standards. Given that the Flex-aor were able to shoot down a lot of Human missiles, they were going to tear into the Crian salvo. Even so, any damage they could do to the Flex-aor fleet before it could open fire meant less return missiles. “We’ll just have to make do,” he said in reply. “Let’s not discount our new allies’ abilities just yet.”

Scott didn’t add anything more, nor did anyone else. Everyone was watching the holographic display of the Crian missiles. Their numbers were dwindling quickly, but some were going to get through the Flex-aor’s defenses. Sure enough, thermonuclear detonations erupted as missiles struck their targets. The size of the detonations was impressive. What the Crian missiles lacked in ECM capabilities, they almost made up for in payload. The Crian’s ability to miniaturize thermonuclear warheads was much more advanced than Humanity’s. Within seconds of the first detonation, Golden Hind’s sensors were blinded as thermonuclear radiation overwhelmed them.

When they cleared, stricken and crippled ships were easy to make out as they fell out of formation from the Flex-aor fleet. Before anyone could get a firm count on just how much damage the Crian missiles had done, McGrath’s fighters and bombers tore into the disorganized Flex-aor fleet.

Taken almost completely by surprise, the Flex-aor weren’t able to coordinate their fire. McGrath’s nimble ships made it through to launch their plasma missiles almost unscathed. Only two were lost. As James expected, McGrath had only targeted intact enemy battleships. Six disappeared as plasma missiles burning through their superstructure caused them to detonate, five others lost reactors or engines nodes and began to drift. Ordinarily, such a strike would have proved devastating. However, Ala’ron’s fleet had included fifty battleships and there were still many more ready to return fire. Moments later they did just that.

“We’re tracking just over four and a half thousand missile carriers,” Ivanov reported. “Our fighters will engage them in five minutes.”

“Order our advanced screen to proceed to their intercept coordinates,” James said as he caught his niece’s eye.

“Transmitting the order now Admiral,” Emilie replied.

If Emilie reported James’ order being acknowledged, he missed it, for the next stages of the battle grabbed his focus. The fighters launched from Golden Hind and the rest of the battleships and battlecruisers in the Human fleet began thinning the numbers of Flex-aor missile carriers just as the second Crian missile salvo hit home. Once again massive thermonuclear detonations blinded Golden Hind’s sensors. When they cleared, more Flex-aor ships were destroyed or crippled. There were also six hundred fewer missile carriers approaching.

Before the missile carriers released their devastating payload, they came up against a second obstacle. Thirty Lancer class frigates from James’s fleet and another fifty frigates from Ya’sia’s had moved ahead of their compatriots. As a result, their point defenses opened up on the missile carriers just before the point at which they would usually launch. Another one hundred and fifty were taken out. Then, as missiles began to be released, they too came under the point defense fire of the forward screen.

In the end, less than half of the missiles the Flex-aor had hoped to hit the Human and Crian ships with got into attack range. As James had planned, the Crian ships took the brunt of the attack given that they were at the front of the fleet’s formation. Thousands of missiles were detonated before they reach their targets. Yet hundreds made it through. All across the Crian fleet explosions erupted and the difference between Crian missiles and Flex-aor missiles became apparent. Crian ships brushed off multiple hits from the much smaller and less powerful Flex-aor missiles. Still, here and there some ships fell out of formation and four were destroyed outright.

“Call our forward screen back,” James ordered as soon as the last Flex-aor missile detonated. There was no point leaving them so far ahead of his fleet. The Flex-aor would simply target them with their next salvo.

To James’s disappointment, the Flex-aor got off their second salvo before the third Crian salvo hit home. Despite the losses they had suffered, the Flex-aor handled the third Crian salvo better than they had the first and second. They were adapting to Crian missile technologies. Even so, a number of ships were crippled or destroyed.

“Ivanov,” James called. “The most crippled Flex-aor warships will come into energy weapon range of the Crian ships soon. Start analyzing them and selecting priority targets. I want any ships that even look like they have functioning energy weapons taken out before they can hit us.”

“My pleasure,” Ivanov replied. She had a wicked smile on her face as she looked up from her command console.

“Here we go,” Scott said as the second Flex-aor missile salvo came into range. Its numbers had been diminished by the fighter squadrons James had in position to intercept the missile carriers. Without the screening force of Lancer frigates though, more than five hundred more missiles were coming in. Once again, the Crians took the brunt of the attack. Six ships, including one of their light cruisers, were destroyed. Eight more were forced to pull out of formation, their damage too severe to continue fighting. Only one Human warship was destroyed. The destroyer Agamemnon.

“Now it’s our turn,” James said as some of the tension left his shoulders. Ya’sia had agreed that her ships should take the lead until the Human fleet could get into missile range. Even so, it was difficult to watch others putting themselves in harm’s way to protect you. It was about to pay off though. Without having to worry about fending off incoming missiles, every battleship, battlecruiser and heavy cruiser in the Human fleet had been able to release and tow all their missile tubes. “Fire!” he ordered.

As one, the Human and Crian warships opened fire. They released a missile salvo that was intended to overwhelm Ala’ron’s fleet. A quick glance at the holo map told James that her flagship was still an hour away from being able to jump out of the system. She would see the destruction of her fleet.

Before the Human and Crian ships could see the effect of their combined salvo, they had another Flex-aor salvo to deal with. This time the Human ships pushed ahead of their Crian allies. A number of frigates, destroyers and light cruisers took heavy damage. Three were wiped out when more than ten missiles struck each of them at once. However, the losses were relatively light. Relative at least compared to the effect the combined Human and Crian salvo was about to have.

Given the Flex-aor had struggled to stop all the Crian missiles in the previous three salvos, they utterly failed to combat the additional Human missiles James’ ships had fired. As the Crian missiles proved easier to hit, they were the focus of much of the Flex-aor point defense fire. That was a mistake. Every Human missile was armed with the latest nuclear bomb-pumped grazer warheads. They detonated a full three seconds before expected, and, instead of releasing a thermonuclear detonation, three deadly grazer beams shot out from each warhead. Five hundred Human missiles reached detonation range. More than a thousand grazer beams struck targets. Lighter Flex-aor warships were ripped apart by a single beam. Their larger capital ships could keep on fighting after one or two hits provided the beams didn’t take out their reactors or engines. Many capital ships didn’t get the chance to prove this as they were struck by four or five times the number of beams they could survive.

Before the missile salvo struck, Miyamoto had estimated thirty Flex-aor ships had been destroyed and a further forty-two crippled. In the minutes after the devastating combined salvo ripped through the Flex-aor fleet, he increased the number of destroyed ships to one hundred and six and crippled to almost two hundred. There were still just over five hundred Flex-aor warships left, but the fleet had lost nearly a third of its number.




Chapter 14

It is true, other species look at Humanity’s birth rate with aghast. Some call us an infestation that is slowly spreading across the galaxy. Those that make such claims usually fall into two camps however. Either they are living in the peace and freedom the Empire’s growing power has secured for them. Or they are the ones trying to eradicate Humanity and so make it necessary for our species to continue to grow; for only by spreading out can we ensure no one threat can wipe our species out.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-62 system.

“We’ve gutted them,” Becket nearly shouted as it became clear just how many ships the Flex-aor had lost. “More than half of their battleships are gone.”

“Look!” Emilie responded. “They’re reacting.”

James was already watching the main holo display. Before their eyes the Flex-aor fleet was splitting up. The smaller and faster ships were breaking away from their larger consorts. They were turning to go after Ala’ron’s flagship. She’s scared, James realized. Ala’ron wasn’t thinking tactically. She was reacting out of panic. She feared losing her fleet and was trying to get some of them to safety. Or more likely, she fears that after we finish her fleet, we’ll continue after her. “She’s handing us victory,” James said. “Let’s not disappoint her. Miyamoto, ignore all Flex-aor light ships. Let’s finish off their battleships in the next salvo. Without screens they will be extremely vulnerable. Scott, signal all our ships. We are reversing course. We’re not going to give them a chance to come into energy range. We’ll hang back and hammer them until they are no more.”

Moments later James watched the next Human and Crian salvo race towards their targets. He could hardly believe how badly the Flex-aor were handling their ships. Whether it was Ala’ron who was in command or someone else, they were a far cry from the commander who had taken charge of the invasion of Human space. That commander had handled their fleets with skill and tact. Whoever was commanding this battle was allowing their ships to be torn to pieces. Remember, they’re used to fighting battles where they have the numerical superiority. Even against us they always had the upper hand. They don’t know how to fight when they are outclassed. No doubt they would adapt given time but James didn’t intend to give his current opponents that time.

Having suffered so many losses, the next Flex-aor missile salvo only destroyed three light ships. That was not the case with the Human and Crian salvo. Thousands of missiles saturated the Flex-aor battleships’ point defenses. Though the salvo was slightly smaller than the previous one as all the Human missile pods had been expended, it proved more devastating. Without their screening ships the large Flex-aor battleships and battlecruisers were almost helpless. Almost all of them were struck by at least one missile. Many were overwhelmed and vaporized by grazer beams or the nuclear detonations of several Crian missiles.

“Admiral,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer called out. When James looked towards his station he continued, “were getting a lot of gravimetric contacts from the edge of the system.”

“The fleet the Crians spotted?” James asked.

“No Admiral, the contacts are at the edge of the shift passage to the Flex-aor homeworld. They’re reinforcements for Ala’ron’s fleet. I’m detecting over three hundred and rising.”

“Show me,” James demanded. What he was hearing didn’t make sense. If Ala’ron had more ships, why had she pulled her screens away from her capital ships? They could have helped her capital ships fight longer and draw his ships in until the reinforcements pounced.

When the holographic display showed the feed from the gravimetric sensors, James was still confused by what he was looking at. The contacts weren’t racing into the system. Instead they were following the system’s mass shadow. Only when he spotted Ala’ron’s flagship did things start to make sense. The new contacts were heading to rendezvous with Ala’ron. She had brought extra ships with her. Yet she wasn’t going to commit them to the battle. Golden Hind’s sensors were now detecting just over four hundred of them. Yet for whatever reason, they hadn’t been positioned close enough to the rest of her forces to come to their aid. Ala’ron had underestimated the speed at which the Human and Crian fleet could close with hers. Now all they could do was rendezvous with her flagship and guard the escape. She fears for her homeworld, James concluded. She wasn’t as bad a tactician as he had thought. She had made mistakes yes, but she was pulling back and saving what strength she could for the battles to come.

“I don’t think they’re coming our way,” he said loud enough for everyone on Golden Hind’s bridge to hear. “Inform me when they jump out of the system. Switch the holo-display back to our current adversaries,” he requested as he turned away from Golden Hind’s sensor officer. If his subordinates saw he was at ease, then they would be too. He didn’t need them worrying about Flex-aor reinforcements, they needed to finish off the ships in front of them as quickly as possible.

Over the next twenty minutes three more salvos were exchanged between Ala’ron’s Royal Guard and James’ forces. Just three more Human and Crian ships where lost. Of the initial nine hundred ships of Ala’ron’s Royal Guard, two hundred and fifty escaped. The rest were destroyed.

“Get me Ya’sia on a COM channel,” James requested after the third salvo all but finished the Flex-aor fleet. Ala’ron’s ships had jumped out minutes before it struck home, though she should have been able to guess the outcome.

“I’ve transferred her to your command chair,” Emilie informed James moments later.

“Congratulations Admiral we have won a great victory here today,” Ya’sia said as soon as her face appeared on the holo display at James’ elbow. “As have you,” James said not wanting to diminish Ya’sia’s pride in what her fleet had accomplished. “However, the battle is far from over. I’m going to leave your ships to finish off what is left of Ala’ron’s fleet. As soon as you’re done here, move on their colony. If Hir’ram has any sense, she will have landed on the surface. Stay out of range of her ships and take them out with missiles. If they try and break orbit to close with you, keep them out of range. I’m detaching my carriers and a heavy cruiser squadron to your command. They’ll assist you in taking out the planet’s orbital infrastructure. I’m taking my ships back to the shift passage we entered the system through.”

“The fleet my scout detected. You plan to take them on yourself?” Ya’sia asked.

“I do. Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. We’ll detach all our significantly damaged ships and have them stay in close proximity to your ships. There’s no point risking losing them at this stage. They can carry out repairs and stay out of harm’s way. I suspect we will need them before we get back to friendly space. You should be able to handle Hir’ram’s forces without them and they won’t be any use to me for what I intend to do,” James explained.

“All right, I’ll take over here and then engage the colony. Happy hunting Admiral,” Ya’sia responded. “You’ve already won a great victory, let’s make it even greater.”

James didn’t respond to Ya’sia’s enthusiasm. He understood it, she had never fought a real large-scale naval battle before. She was elated at winning such a one-sided victory. Yet he knew that ships had been lost, at least a thousand Humans and Crians had died and more were going to before the day was over. James wasn’t in a mood to celebrate. “My ships will be going dark in a couple of hours. I’ll keep you updated until then. Make sure your ships don’t try to contact me after that.”

“I’ll make sure they understand,” Ya’sia replied.

“Thank you. Happy hunting to you as well” James said and cut the COM channel. “Dzedzyk,” he called. “We’re disengaging. Plot us a course back to the shift passage we used to enter the system. I want a full acceleration burn for one and a half hours, then we will decelerate for half an hour and go into stealth mode. If this third Flex-aor fleet wants to enter the system, we’re going to give them a warm welcome. Put us on a trajectory that will give us the best chance to intercept whatever forces arrive in the system in the next four to seven hours.”

“I’ll have a course for you in a couple of minutes Admiral,” Dzedzyk responded.

“Emilie,” James said as he turned to his COM officer. “Get me Rear Admiral Hawthorne and Wing Commander McGrath. Scott, write up official orders putting them under the command of Admiral Ya’sia.”

“Understood Admiral,” Scott replied.

When Emilie got James’ two senior commanders on a COM channel, he explained what he wanted from them. Then he had Emilie contact the rest of his senior commanders and inform them of the next stage of his plan. Only once his fleet was on the move did James ask for the damage reports that his staff had been collating. Despite the relatively light losses his forces had suffered, James knew he wasn’t going to enjoy what he was about to read.

*

“All squadrons, this is McGrath. Keep your eyes open and your maneuvers random. We won’t have the element of surprise this time. They know we are coming and they know what we can do. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.” McGrath paused to let the series of acknowledgements come across her COM channel. Then she switched to speak to the leaders of her fighter squadrons. “Fighter squadrons you’re going in first, I want you guys fifteen seconds ahead of the bombers. Stick to your preassigned targets and make every missile count.” McGrath waited until each Squadron Commander acknowledged her orders then switched back to speak to all her pilots. “Accelerate to attack velocity.”

As she had ordered her pilots, McGrath began random evasive maneuvers. With the Spitfire’s high rate of acceleration, it didn’t take long for her fighter squadrons to get into point defense range of the Flex-aor warships and orbital defenses. When the first Spitfire blew up McGrath winced, but she forced herself to keep watching. She had kept her squadron back with the bombers and for the moment she was relatively safe. That wasn’t true for her subordinates. When a second fighter was obliterated by a plasma bolt, she winced again. Five, she thought. She had lost five fighters in the ongoing battle with the Flex-aor.

A plasma bolt zipping past her cockpit forced her thoughts back to the task at hand. The Flex-aor had begun to target the bombers as well. For nearly ten seconds her mind was focused entirely on evasive maneuvers. She had a vague awareness of plasma bolts and other weapons exploding around her but her training forced her to ignore them. If she was to get into attack range, she couldn’t afford any distractions.

When the amount of enemy fire coming towards her drastically reduced, it took her a couple of seconds to realize. When she did, she allowed herself to spare a glance at her surroundings. Her fighter squadrons had all fired their plasma missiles. Usually the smart thing to do was to focus all point defense fire on the missiles. That was what the Flex-aor were doing. It was what McGrath had expected them to do. “Okay bombers pick your targets carefully,” she said to the COM channel she had open to her squadron and the two bomber squadrons from Enterprise and Ark Royal.

Given the lead the rest of her fighter squadrons had taken into the battle, the plasma missiles they had fired detonated before McGrath’s second wave of attackers launched their own missiles. Despite quite a few of the fighters’ plasma missiles being taken out, many struck home. Everyone had been targeted at an orbital defense station. The stations were too large to evade the missiles. McGrath counted five disappearing in fiery explosions as plasma missiles tore them apart. Others were struck but didn’t suffer any catastrophic damage. Those were the ones her bombers were targeting now. She did the same. Selecting a relatively undamaged battlestation, she targeted it and fired. As soon as her missile was released she pulled up and angled her Spitfire away from the colony. Despite the fact that most of the Flex-aor’s point defenses were no longer targeting her, she kept up her evasive maneuvers until she got out of range. Only then did she pull up the battle recording from her Spitfire’s optical sensors. Replaying the last few seconds, she watched the second wave of plasma missiles race in. Seven more orbital battlestations were taken out and several others suffered serious damage.

“Good shooting,” she broadcast to her pilots. “You all have your flight profiles. Stick to them and let’s make sure phase two of our attack goes smoothly.” Seven, McGrath thought as two more pilots failed to acknowledge her order, confirming they had been lost. McGrath gritted her teeth and switched her COM channel again. She didn’t have time to dwell on the losses. Instead she sought out Admiral Ya’sia. “Our attack is complete Admiral. You may move your forces in now. We have done as much damage as we can.”

“You’ve done more than enough Wing Commander. Take out as many of their missile carriers as you can and we will take the rest from here,” Ya’sia replied.

“Affirmative,” McGrath replied and ended the COM channel. For a couple of minutes she allowed her fighter to continue on the course she had set for it. Her squadron mates were formed up around her. When Ark Royal’s second squadron fell into formation beside her fighters, she altered course back towards Ya’sia’s fleet. Arrayed in front of her in three groups were the rest of her fighters and bombers. The bombers were heading back to their motherships but the fighters were cruising in more slowly.

A beep from her Spitfire’s gravimetric sensors told McGrath that the Flex-aor had opened fire. She raised her eyebrows in surprise. What remained of their orbital battlestations were clearly armed with much larger missile carriers than Flex-aor warships to be able to open fire from such range. Against Human warships their range advantage would have been hard to overcome. However, just sixty seconds later, Ya’sia’s ships opened up with their own missiles. Being positioned right in between the two forces, McGrath had a bird’s eye view of the unfolding battle. As her fighter squadrons were cruising back to their motherships at minimal velocities, the Flex-aor missile carriers quickly overtook them. Just before they did, McGrath altered her trajectory and accelerated. Her new flight path put her directly in front of the missile carriers. Within seconds the carriers overtook her fighters. As soon as they did, her fighters opened up with their small plasma cannons. Eight missile carriers were taken out. It seemed like a small number but there would be eighty less missiles closing in on Ya’sia’s ships.

With her final job done, she turned into a spectator as the Flex-aor and Crian missile salvos crashed in on their targets. McGrath watched two Crian ships disappear off her sensors. In return, three Flex-aor warships and two orbital battlestations were obliterated. You are fighting a losing battle my friends, McGrath concluded as she counted the number of orbital battlestations left to the Flex-aor. There were only twelve of them. As if Queen Hir’ram had heard her thoughts, the Flex-aor warships sprang into action. Clearly not content to simply watch the battle unfold, they broke orbit and accelerated towards Ya’sia’s fleet. They wanted to bring their own missiles into range.

As Ya’sia’s ships didn’t attempt to alter their position, McGrath concluded Ya’sia was happy to oblige them. Indeed, as the Crian fleet released their second volley, it seemed Ya’sia was more than happy to do so. The Crian Admiral was ignoring the orbital battlestations and had focused all her missiles on the Flex-aor warships that were charging her fleet. Given that Ya’sia had just under four hundred ships in her command, McGrath concluded the battle would be over relatively quickly. She was proved right. Ya’sia’s second missile salvo took out more than twenty Flex-aor warships. As McGrath’s fighters took out a number of the missile carriers they fired in return, Ya’sia’s lost just five ships.

Though the Crian fleet didn’t have any Human fighters protecting them for the rest of the battle, they handled things themselves. The next two missile salvos that crashed into the Flex-aor warships caused serious losses. Their numbers were reduced by a quarter and though they kept on fighting, they couldn’t put out enough missiles to saturate the Crian’s point defenses. Three more salvos finished them off and a final salvo of missiles from the Crian took out most of the remaining orbital battlestations. The colony’s defenses were wiped out in their entirety. By the time the final Crian missile salvo closed with what was left of the Flex-aor orbital battlestations, McGrath was back on Ark Royal’s bridge to watch the battle come to a close.

“It’s good to be on the other side of a planetary attack,” Ark Royal’s Captain commented.

“Indeed,” McGrath replied with a nod. Neither of them had been involved in the battles of Marshall or Connecticut or where Flex-aor warships had bombarded Human colonies. However, they had both seen the holo recordings more than once. It hadn’t been pretty.

The sudden piercing squeal of an alarm drew everyone’s attention away from the detonating Crian missiles. “What is it?” Ark Royal’s Captain snapped.

“We’re detecting gravimetric pulses from the edge of the system. From the shift passage back to our territory,” a sensor officer reported.

“It’s a gravimetric COM message,” another officer updated. “Message reads, contact made with two enemy fleets. Fleet one numbering six hundred warships directly astern. Fleet two one thousand plus warships several hours astern.”

McGrath shared a glance with Ark Royal’s Captain. They had known about the first fleet of six hundred warships. A Crian scout had already brought news about their approach. Another thousand warships changed things. They were both asking themselves the same question, how many more fleets did the Flex-aor have?




Chapter 15

In any interstellar conflict there are certain advantages and disadvantages that attackers and defenders usually hold. The defender will typically be operating close to their supply lines and so can fight multiple battles in quick succession. On the other hand, they will usually have many important systems to defend and so their forces will spread out. Attackers can concentrate their forces against a single target and so achieve numerical superiority. Yet when involved in a long campaign, they must not allow themselves to be worn down by attrition. The key to a decisive war is to find a way to mitigate either the disadvantage of your position, or the advantage of your opponent.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-62 system.

As soon as the gravimetric COM message was detected, Emilie informed James. He closed his eyes. He had to process the new information quickly. If the two fleets combined, that would be more than sixteen hundred Flex-aor warships. At full strength Ya’sia and his ships could have defeated such a force, though it would have been costly. Now, fighting the two fleets would be a bloodbath.

His fleet was cruising towards the source of the COM message in stealth. He had been planning to ambush the six hundred Flex-aor warships when they entered the system. It was still an option, but if the second Flex-aor fleet was right behind them, he would be caught badly out of position and outnumbered. Even if he sent a request for aid immediately, it would take a couple of hours for Ya’sia’s ships to catch up to him. It all depends on what several hours means, James decided when he replayed the gravimetric COM message in his mind. If the fleet of one thousand plus warships was right behind the initial six hundred, then he needed to pull out of his attempted ambush immediately. However, if they were three or four hours behind, then he could carry out a quick strike against the six hundred ships and pull back to safety. The problem was, there was no way to find out without revealing his presence. If the first Flex-aor fleet or some of its advanced scouts were right behind the returning Human scout ship, they would pick up whatever transmission he sent to it and learn his position.

“What do you make of our chances of getting out of here if we pull back and allow these two new fleets to combine?” he asked his staff.

“Slim,” Becket replied immediately. Clearly her mind had been working overtime as well. “Given the number of damaged ships we have and the losses Ya’sia just suffered assaulting the colony, we’re far from our full strength. If we try and fight sixteen hundred warships, we’ll take losses, significant losses. And that’s assuming no other Flex-aor warships appear. Clearly Ala’ron intended to try and trap us in this system. More fleets could be on their way. If the two fleets we know of combine, all they would have to do is pin us down and wait for more ships to come.”

“I concur,” Scott said. “Our provisions are also running low. We can’t allow ourselves to be trapped in the system and forced to fight a series of battles.”

“What is the fleet’s condition?” James asked as he turned to his Logistics Officer.

“We have used fifteen percent of our anti-ship missiles,” Yue answered. “Our point defense ordnance is slightly better; we’ve only used ten percent. Given what I know of Crian supplies, their battle with the colony’s defenders will have taken their use of anti-ship missiles up to twenty percent. We could fight a reasonably drawn out missile duel with these two fleets if they combine, however if we have to fight another full-scale battle after that, we could shoot ourselves dry before the battle ends.”

“Energy weapons don’t rundown our supply,” James said as a plan began to form.

“You want to close to plasma cannon range?” Becket asked. “Surely that’s asking for trouble. They’ll be able to reply in kind.”

“Perhaps,” James replied coyly as he turned to his niece. “Emilie, prepare to send an encrypted message to Ya’sia.” He turned back to Becket. “What do you think the commander of this six hundred strong fleet will do if they enter the system and find the colony under attack? As far as we know, never before has a Flex-aor colony been assaulted.”

“I imagine they will rush to the colony’s aide,” Becket answered. “They’ll not be paying as much attention to their surroundings if they are,” she added as she caught on.

“And if we give them a little more encouragement to miss our approach, then the element of surprise will be in our favor. We have almost two hundred warships. That’s more than enough plasma and laser cannons to take out six hundred Flex-aor ships. Especially if we toss a few missiles into the mix. We know where and when they’re coming. We can set up the perfect ambush.”

“Your call Admiral,” Becket replied. “We both know there’s no such thing as the perfect ambush. But perhaps that’s what we need to get ourselves out of this mess.”

“Then let’s make it happen,” James said a little louder, addressing all of his staff.

*

Twenty minutes later Golden Hind and the rest of James’ fleet released missiles from their missile tubes. However, they didn’t engage their own engines after being released. Five minutes later a second salvo was released, and a third five minutes after that. After releasing their third salvo, James’ ships altered course while remaining in stealth.

Just ten minutes later, the gravimetric plots in every Human warship lit up as six hundred Flex-aor ships exited shift space. What they saw on their own gravimetric plots caused an almost immediate reaction. Though the battle for the Flex-aor colony was over. James had sent orders to Ya’sia to make it appear it was still ongoing. Ya’sia’s ships were maneuvering around the colony and a large fleet of drones were accelerating in towards it, on the gravimetric sensors they appeared to be missiles targeting the colony.

Almost as soon as they entered the system, the Flex-aor warships boosted up to their maximum acceleration rates as they charged to the colony’s defense. Miyamoto tracked their trajectory and sent updated targeting data to the missile salvos that were silently cruising through space. Five minutes later, the first salvo ignited their engines. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, nearly three thousand missiles were accelerating towards the Flex-aor warships. The Flex-aor response was swift. They bombarded the area of space around the missiles with electromagnetic radiation as their sensors sought out the ships that had just opened fire on them. Just at the point where the ships’ sensor officers would have figured out the missiles had apparently materialized out of thin air; the second salvo James’ ships had released ignited their engines. Two minutes later, the third salvo did the same.

As James watched the Flex-aor ships frantically alter the area of space they were scanning as they sought out their attackers, he couldn’t help but smile. Unknown to the Flex-aor, one of his missile salvos wouldn’t even be able to get into range to attack them. The other two would almost be out of fuel by the time they did and their evasive maneuvers would be limited. Despite not knowing the exact point where the Flex-aor ships would jump out of shift space, Miyamoto had done a good job of positioning his missiles. They weren’t going to do any critical damage to the Flex-aor fleet. However, they were doing their job. The Flex-aor were convinced there was an enemy fleet closing in on them from the direction of their own colony. In reality, James’ ships were behind them and were overtaking fast.

“We’ll have ten seconds after the second salvo makes contact with them,” Miyamoto updated.

“Make them count,” James replied. “Focus our fire on the undamaged ships.”

“I’m going to split the enemy fleet into sections and assign them to each of our squadrons,” Miyamoto informed James. “Each squadron can then assess its priority targets after our missiles finish their attack.”

“Very well,” James acknowledged. Miyamoto’s solution wasn’t ideal. It was likely some Flex-aor ships would be missed in the confusion. But with only ten seconds to analyze their fleet and select primary targets, it was the most efficient option they had.

“They’re opening up with their point defenses,” one of Golden Hind’s sensor officers reported.

As James expected, the first salvo of missiles weren’t able to carry out too many evasive maneuvers. Still, they scored some hits. A handful of warships were destroyed. The second salvo actually cut its engines a minute before entering attack range. Instead of trying to score ballistic hits, Miyamoto had given instructions to veer away from the enemy fleet. They would continue on a ballistic trajectory. If possible, they would be collected later. The third salvo was the most successful. Golden Hind’s sensors detected at least forty hits from the grazer warheads. As his staff frantically raced to analyze what ships had been hit and what ships were not damaged, James sat silently. The ten seconds it took for his ships to get into range of the Flex-aor passed in a blink of an eye. “Fire,” he ordered when Miyamoto looked up from his command console.

Heavy plasma cannons unleashed their devastating fire. Accelerated almost to the speed of light, the plasma bolts covered the distance to their targets in less than an a second. No Flex-aor commander had reflexes quick enough to react. Hundreds of Flex-aor ships detonated as plasma bolts burnt through their armor and struck key components. Others lost propulsion or suffered system failures. Before they could return fire, the Human ships equipped with laser cannons as secondary energy weapons opened fire. Another wave of devastation crippled hundreds more Flex-aor ships. Then James gave the order for his ships to roll. Turning to bring their missile tubes to bear allowed the Human fleet to release another three thousand missiles. The missiles had next to no time to accelerate up to attack velocity. They didn’t need to though, hardly any Flex-aor ships could open up with their point defenses. Hundreds of missiles were therefore able to detonate and send thousands of grazer beams ripping into what was left of the Flex-aor fleet.

After the first missiles exploded, Golden Hind’s sensors degraded to the point where it was impossible to tell what was going on. James gripped his command chair’s armrest tightly. He was waiting for the all too familiar sound of laser beams striking his flagship’s hull. As the seconds dragged on and nothing happened, his hopes rose. Then, when the sensors updated the holo-display, he sat back amazed. The Flex-aor fleet had been devastated. Completely devastated. Hardly a ship was left under power. And that didn’t last long. As soon as new targets were identified, the Human ships that had re-charged their plasma cannons opened up. Here and there a Human warship exploded as some of the few intact Flex-aor ships managed to return fire but even they were soon blasted into silence.

“Alter the fleet’s trajectory, let’s collect our missiles. As soon as we collect them, I want to get our ships out of here,” James ordered. Given the low speed the missiles had been carrying, his ship would be able to catch up and recover them pretty quickly. Even so, James wanted to get away from the end of the shift passage as soon as possible. The second Flex-aor fleet could arrive at any moment. “Detach four of our stealth destroyers as well. Send them up the shift passage. I want to know if there are any other fleets coming down the shift passage towards us beyond the one we know is coming.”

As his subordinates organized the missile salvo’s recovery. James read through the initial damage reports. Four ships had been lost, including a light cruiser. Another ten had suffered serious damage. All in all, the battle had been entirely one-sided. Six hundred Flex-aor warships had been taken out with just three missile salvos and almost no losses. At any other point in his career James would have been proud. Now, it felt like the minimum he needed to accomplish.

*

Two hours later, James and Ya’sia had their fleets formed up together. They were facing the shift passage that would lead them out of the Flex-aor system and back towards Human space. When the day had begun, they had over six hundred ships in their combined fleet. Now there were five hundred and eight. Thirty-three ships had been lost and more than seventy others had been so significantly damaged that they were no longer battle worthy. They were now stationed behind the main fleet protecting the supply freighters they had brought with them. One more battle, James told himself as he waited for the final Flex-aor fleet to jump into the system. As soon as they arrived he and Ya’sia planned to launch their attack. There was no point beating around the bush. They had to fight their way through the one thousand Flex-aor warships that were coming, and then hopefully they could return home. It was clear that the Flex-aor were a bigger threat than Humanity had realized.

“Detecting ships coming out of shift space,” Miyamoto reported. “They’re exiting at the same point the last fleet appeared.”

James nodded. He had been tempted to try another ambush. But it would have taken too long to get Ya’sia and his ships into position and his ships couldn’t have taken on a thousand ships by themselves. Instead, along with everyone else, he watched the numbers increase on the main holo display. Before leaving the area, he had ceded it with stealth recon drones. One central drone was relaying their sensor data via gravimetric COM whilst the rest remained hidden.

“One thousand one hundred and twelve,” Scott said once the number stopped increasing. “We can handle that ma…” She cut off midsentence. Another stealth recon drone had begun to transmit.

As data was analyzed and transferred to the holo-projector, a second fleet appeared adjacent to the first. It’s numbers quickly rose past two hundred, then three, then four. It didn’t stop until it reached nine hundred.

James looked over to Scott. She gave a slight shake of her head. He nodded in agreement. There was no way the fleet could take on two thousand Flex-aor ships and not take serious losses, they could even be defeated.

“They’re splitting up,” Miyamoto reported before James had time to analyze the appearance of the additional ships. “Squadrons are moving to intercept our recon drones that are transmitting. Others are breaking away from the main fleet. It looks like they are taking up positions to cover the shift passage’s entrance.”

“They want to block our escape route,” Becket surmised. “If we try to close with them, they will recombine their squadrons and bring us to battle. There’s no way out of this system.”

“There is,” James replied. His mind was racing. It was only one way he could see to convince the Flex-aor ships to leave their positions. “Get me Sato and Gupta and the COM channel.”

“I’m with you James,” Gupta said as soon as her face was projected from his command chair.

“You don’t know what I’m going to propose yet,” James countered.

“I know you well enough. I’m with you,” Gupta replied.

“Maybe you two should fill me in,” Sato suggested.

“He wants to take the fleet to the Flex-aor homeworld. It’s the only way we can draw their ships away from the shift passage. If we threaten their homeworld, they have to follow us. Then we can try and give them the slip in their home system,” Gupta explained. “Isn’t that right Admiral?”

If the situation hadn’t been so serious James would have made a quip about being too predictable. Instead he simply nodded. “That’s about the gist of it. I can’t see any other way past them. We’ll be risking our entire fleet. No doubt the Flex-aor have more ships in their home system, and probably more on the way. But I can’t see another option. Our one glimmer of hope is the High Queen’s escape. If she had been confident she could have beaten us in this system with these reinforcements she would have stayed. That suggests she doesn’t have too large a force in her home system.”

“Okay, I’m in,” Sato responded. “I don’t like much the idea of going toe to toe with another two thousand Flex-aor warships. If there is a chance we can give them the slip then I’m up for it.”

“I presume you haven’t spoken to Ya’sia yet?” Gupta asked.

James cracked a small smile. “No, I thought I’d have the easier conversation first.”

“Well, you’d better go and convince her,” Gupta replied. “If this is going to work, the sooner we try it the better. Every second gives them more time to gather their forces.”

“I’ll contact her immediately,” James responded. “Prepare to alter course as soon as I give the order.”

“We will,” Sato replied for Gupta and himself. “Good luck with Ya’sia.”

James nodded to his two subordinates and cut the COM channel. He immediately opened one to Ya’sia’s flagship. “Please tell me you have a plan Admiral,” she said as soon as the connection was established.

“I do,” James replied. “But you’re not going to like it.”

*

Ten minutes later the Human and Crian ships turned one hundred and eighty degrees and accelerated hard towards the only other shift passage out of the system.  For several minutes the Flex-aor didn’t react. Then in response to some undetected signal from their senior commander, every one of their squadrons accelerated after the Human and Crian fleet. The hunt was on.




Chapter 16

The Empire has trading relationships with more than three hundred civilizations that are not within the Empire itself. None are more important than our relationship with the Ral’alt’am. Without the Corax crystals they provide for us, the maintenance of our Sun Gates would be all but impossible.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, Flex-aor home system, 1st August 2478 AD.

It took three days to reach the Flex-aor home system. At several points along the way, James jumped out of shift space and tried to hide in the hope the Flex-aor fleet would simply pass them by. Whoever was commanding the Flex-aor forces wasn’t so easily tricked. They had sent out a large screening force of light ships which had detected his fleet every time. Within a couple of hours, the main Flex-aor fleet had jumped out of shift space and made their presence known. Rather than advance to engage, the fleet had remained in position, waiting and watching. It hadn’t been hard to figure out why. No doubt some ships had been sent on to their home system with news of James’ position. They were waiting for reinforcements.

Not wanting to let the Flex-aor concentrate any more forces against him, James abandoned trying to sneak past his pursuers. Instead he raced to their homeworld. Thanks to the detailed scans of the system the Crian’s benefactors had taken centuries ago, he knew exactly what to expect when they jumped out of shift space. As a result, he already had a plan put together. One his staff was intimately familiar with. Of course, the plan wouldn’t work unless the Flex-aor were willing to play along.

“Sensor data coming in now,” one of Golden Hind’s Lieutenants reported.

Golden Hind’s computers quickly analyzed the thousands of different points of electromagnetic energy being detected and projected them on the bridge’s main holo- projector. James was not surprised by what he saw. The area around the exit of the shift passage he had just jumped out of was alive with Flex-aor scouts. There were more than thirty of them pumping radar waves out into space as they searched for his fleet’s arrival. Further into the system there didn’t appear to be much else going on. If the Flex-aor normally had civilian ships or supply freighters operating within their home system, they were all lying low. The only contacts Golden Hind’s sensors detected were the battlestations and warships in orbit around the Flex-aor homeworld. As James stared at the contacts, more details appeared beside them as Miyamoto and other the tactical officers assessed the incoming data. The warships were designated enemy fleet Alpha and there were over nine hundred of them, including the easily identifiable oversize battleship that was Ala’ron’s flagship. Though James still thought the flagship impressive, the sixty orbital battle stations arrayed around the Flex-aor homeworld impressed him even more. They dwarfed Ala’ron’s flagship and were easily two if not three times the size of the battlestations that had orbited the Flex-aor colony in X-62. I’m glad we don’t have to tangle with them, James thought.

“I think we’ve been detected,” Ivanov announced. “Look at this frigate here.”

James focused on the one she had identified. It was acting strangely. It had just changed direction, and, as he watched, it changed direction again. It was clearly a prearranged signal.

“They know we’re here,” James confirmed.

Before he could give the order to begin his plan, Scott drew his attention elsewhere. “There’s another fleet in the system. Look at the gravimetric sensor display. Out beyond their homeworld.”

The main holo projector altered to show the data coming in from the gravimetric sensors and zoomed out to show the whole system. There was a large group of contacts slowly making their way into the system from one of its other shift passages. There were at least thirteen hundred, and their numbers were still climbing. Miyamoto designated them as fleet Beta.

“How many ships can they have?” Becket asked in amazement.

“I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that,” James replied as he rethought the tactical situation. This new fleet could be a problem, but it wasn’t a pressing one, not yet anyway. They were still quite a distance from the Flex-aor homeworld. Unless his ships got sucked into an extended missile duel, the new contacts wouldn’t be able to get close enough to prevent his escape. But they will try and follow us, he knew. Of that there was no doubt. “Send the course details to the rest of our fleet. We are sticking to the plan,” James ordered.

“Transmitting now Admiral,” Emilie replied.

“Order all our damaged ships to peel off and remain in stealth. Bring our engines up to full. Let’s begin,” James followed up.

Almost every ship in his fleet charged towards the Flex-aor homeworld. As soon as they did, they were detected by every gravimetric sensor in the system. James had thought of several ruses or different strategies he could have attempted to carry out within the Flex-aor homeworld to throw off the fleet pursuing him. With so much space in a solar system, there was always some trick one could try. In the end he had adopted the simplest approach. Despite having the system scans Ya’sia had provided him, the Flex-aor would know their home system far better than he. He had decided trying to outsmart them or outmaneuver them in a series of drawn-out exercises was too risky. Instead, he was going to do exactly what he hoped Ala’ron was expecting him to do. He was going to attack. That would draw in all the Flex-aor forces and make sure they didn’t surprise him.

“Beta Fleet is altering course and accelerating,” Miyamoto reported. “They’re making for the Flex-aor homeworld.”

James watched the new data appear on the holo projector. The projected course of Beta Fleet indicated they wouldn’t get to the Flex-aor homeworld before his fleet did. They wouldn’t be too far behind though and were still a serious threat.

As James’ ships raced into the system, a few small skirmishes broke out. Individual Flex-aor scout ships and a small squadron of eight light cruisers were engaged and destroyed. They all found themselves in the direct path of James’ ships and had been unable to escape. Other contacts were detected as well. Several small squadrons and a number of single ships all appeared on the gravimetric plot as they turned and raced towards the Flex-aor homeworld. Ala’ron or whoever was commanding the Flex-aor forces was recalling all their warships. James understood the thinking of the Flex-aor commander, but it was not what he would have done. By now the Flex-aor should know the capabilities of his and Ya’sia’s ships. If they were thinking rationally, the Flex-aor commander would know their homeworld’s defenses were strong enough to withstand his fleet’s attack. At least for a while. Beta Fleet, along with the other warships in the system, should be angling to cut off James’ retreat, instead of heading straight for the Flex-aor homeworld. Of course, that was the rational tactic to take. Rationality went out the spaceport when one’s homeworld was under attack.

“New contacts,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer reported, breaking James’ train of thought. “It’s the fleet from X-62. They’ve exited shift space and are moving into the system. They are coming onto a pursuit course. Designating them fleet Gamma.”

Moments later the main holo plot updated to show the new contacts. The fleet that had followed them from X-62 was moving onto a trajectory that would put them right behind James’ ships. They had exited shift space much further into the system than James’ command had and they were just half an hour behind his fleet. He had jumped out early to make sure there wasn’t an ambush waiting for him, Gamma Fleet’s commander hadn’t worried about such a possibility. James filed that piece of information away for later. For now he was focused on Gamma Fleet’s progress for as soon as they exited shift space, they powered up their engines and followed as fast as they could. Like Beta Fleet, they wouldn’t catch his ships before he reached the Flex-aor homeworld. They would, however, be coming in fast behind him.

For another thirty minutes the tactical situation didn’t change. James’ ships, along with Beta and Gamma Fleets, accelerated towards the Flex-aor homeworld. Sitting in his command chair, James could feel the tension slowly rise. On the holo projector, it looked like James was leading his ships to their death. If things continued as they were, his fleet would come into missile range of the Flex-aor homeworld in an hour. Twenty minutes later, Beta Fleet would enter missile range, and fifteen minutes after that, Gamma Fleet would also enter missile range. The Human and Crian ships would find themselves being attacked from three different angles by more than three thousand enemy warships. His officers knew that wasn’t the plan but the closer his ships got to the Flex-aor homeworld, the tighter it appeared the noose was getting around their necks.

“Admiral, Flex-aor fleet Beta is altering course,” Miyamoto said in a tone that didn’t sound so happy.

When James saw the new tracking information for Beta, he bit back a curse. Someone in the Flex-aor fleet was starting to think beyond the need to protect their homeworld at all costs. Beta’s course change was minimal, but it was significant for James’ plan. “They’re giving themselves more tactical options,” James responded. Beta Fleet was now heading towards a point somewhere in between his ships and the Flex-aor homeworld. “If the Flex-aor commander wants to, he could order Alpha Fleet to break orbit and close with us. Beta Fleet’s new heading means they would be in a better position to support Alpha if they come out to engage us.” The Flex-aor commander was hedging his bets. If Alpha was really going to come out after his ships, Beta’s course change would have been more severe. They were leaving the option on the table, but it didn’t look like they were too keen to take it. “Alter our plans to accommodate Beta’s course change,” James ordered.

“Optimum launch time is in twenty-five minutes,” Miyamoto updated James.

“Make sure everyone knows about the altered timetable,” James replied.

As the ships continued into the system, James kept his eye on Beta Fleet, they were the best indicator of what the Flex-aor commander was thinking. At the moment his opponent was being cautious, but that could change at any moment. Thankfully, Beta didn’t alter its course again and there was no indication the warships in orbit around the Flex-aor homeworld intended to come out to fight. They were thinking about it though, James thought. It’s too late now, your opportunity has passed. “Launch drones and fighters, carry out the fleet’s course change.”

Every ship in the fleet had been waiting for the command. Out of their forward missile tubes, pre-prepared drones were shot towards the Flex-aor homeworld. As soon as they left their motherships, the drones powered up their engines and released electromagnetic radiation that mimicked the ships which had just released them. Almost all of the fighters and bombers under Wing Commander McGrath’s command launched and fell into formation with the drones. Then, the warships powered down their reactors and engines and, using only minimal thrust, altered course up and away from the Flex-aor homeworld.

Very slowly at first, but then with increasing velocity, James’ warships moved away from the drones. Crucially, both Beta and Gamma Fleets continued on their current trajectories. They have bought the ruse, at least for now, James thought as he forced himself to sit back in his command chair and appear calm. Inside, his heart was racing. He knew that his ruse wouldn’t last long. Yet every second his ships were able to break away from Beta and Gamma Fleets reduced the chance that either Flex-aor force would be able to bring his ships into missile range. As the seconds turned into a minute, and then two, James felt his arms tremble slightly. He wanted to grip his command chair, but he resisted the effort. Instead, he focused on giving off a calming aura. Though he ignored it, he was very much aware of the glances his officers were sending him. They could all read the holo plot, until the course change, his fleet had been heading towards certain destruction. Now they were ever so slowly edging their way to safety.

When two minutes turned into three, and then four James felt the pressure of his next decision start to affect his body. If he gave the order too soon, it would have no effect, yet if he waited too long it would also be pointless. Initially he had planned to wait five minutes. Yet now, in the midst of it, his thinking was changing. Six minutes, he told himself. You can wait six minutes. Every second allowed his ships to get closer to safety, yet it also increased the likelihood the Flex-aor would see through his ruse. When five minutes came and went, his heart was hammering so fast he had to start taking deep breaths. At five and a half minutes, something changed, James didn’t know why or how, but he sensed the order needed to come now. “Tell McGrath to proceed immediately,” he snapped.

“Order sent,” Emilie replied instantly.

On the holo plot, McGrath’s one hundred and sixty fighters and bombers broke away from the drones and accelerated towards the Flex-aor homeworld. Now all James could do was hope that the launch of McGrath’s fighters had the intended effect. If the Flex-aor commander was starting to get suspicious, seeing the fighters and bombers appear from the midst of the drones would make him have doubts. With the exception of multistage missiles, there was nothing in James’ fleet that could move as fast as McGrath’s fighters. There was no way to mimic their abilities. Their appearance would add weight to the belief that the drones were in fact James’ warships.

Though he had given the order, James’ heart was racing. His fleet was still a long way from safety and it was just a matter of when, not if, the Flex-aor figured out they were being duped. Every second counted, and his heart continued to thunder.

A full twelve minutes after the drones had been launched, someone finally became suspicious. “Multiple ships breaking orbit!” Miyamoto reported. “They’re fanning out.”

On the holo plot forty light ships broke orbit and accelerated into the system on various trajectories. They had their active sensors powered up and were filling space with electromagnetic energy as they sought James’ ships. Moments later many more light ships detached from Beta and Gamma Fleets as they too sought to locate their enemy. In response, McGrath’s fighters and bombers veered off from their attack run on the Flex-aor homeworld as James had instructed. Though an attack on some of the large shipyards in orbit was tempting, James didn’t know how many more battles he would have to fight to get his fleet out of Flex-aor space. He couldn’t afford to lose the fighters that would be shot down in such an attack.

“More contacts,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer said, beating Miyamoto to it this time. “They’re coming from the battlestations on ballistic courses. They must be sensor drones.”

Thirty seconds after appearing the drones turned on their active sensors. James shared a glance with Gupta. This was new. The Flex-aor fleet that had invaded Human space hadn’t used one recon drone in the entire campaign. They hadn’t encountered any since entering Flex-aor space either. The Flex-aor might not have improved their technology over the last five years, but they were clearly able to develop some innovations.

“They have to know the drones are a fake now,” Scott said. A Flex-aor frigate had come within missile range of them, and of course, the drones hadn’t opened fire.

“I think this drone is the one that will get the best look at us,” Ivanov suggested as she highlighted a drone on the holo plot. “Two and a half minutes and its sensors should be able to get a lock on the Crian ships.”

James nodded. “We’ll go to maximum acceleration as soon as the drone gets into range.” If the circumstances were different and he was just commanding his own Outer Defense Fleet, he could have tried to be even more sneaky. Human stealth systems were significantly more advanced than Crian ones. In truth, the Crian ships weren’t designed to be stealthy at all, their advanced technologies simply meant they were hard to detect. The drone Ivanov had identified was going to come more than close enough to pick them up though.

“Going to maximum acceleration,” Scott said as soon as the drone came close enough. James’s command immediately fired off their thrusters, announcing themselves to the Flex-aor forces.

For several seconds neither Beta nor Gamma Fleet reacted. James could guess why. Both commanders were trying to figure out if they could intercept his forces. “I think we’ve done it everyone,” he said as relief washed over him. The holo plot was updating to project the optimal course change and acceleration profile that either Beta or Gamma Fleets would have to carry out to intercept his forces. For Gamma Fleet, it was impossible. They were simply accelerating too hard towards their homeworld and their engines couldn’t carry out the same kind of braking and turning maneuver James’ ships could. It was all but impossible for Beta as well. Their previous course change had put them in a much better position, but they would have to redline their reactors and engines and, even then, it would be hit or miss if they could get into range for even one missile salvo.

“Alpha Fleet is moving!” Miyamoto shouted.

James swore. He had guessed, but now he knew; Ala’ron was no longer commanding the Flex-aor forces. From what he had seen in X-62, she would focus on protecting herself and her homeworld. Whoever was commanding the Flex-aor forces now had a different mindset. Almost all of Alpha Fleet was breaking orbit and turning onto an intercept trajectory for his ships. Whilst Beta and Gamma Fleets couldn’t catch him Alpha could. James’ ships were curving up and away from Alpha Fleet, but the momentum his ships still had was bringing them closer and closer to the smallest Flex-aor force. Alpha Fleet was starting its acceleration burn at a position of rest relative to his ships, they didn’t have to overcome any unwanted momentum.

“They’ll get three missile salvos off against us,” Scott reported. “Then we will be in the clear.”

James knew what she was saying. Three missile salvos wasn’t much, they wouldn’t do too much damage, but every ship that lost its engines or reactors would have to be abandoned. If James tried to help them, he would be allowing Alpha Fleet to fire more salvos at his ships.

“Beta Fleet is breaking up,” someone reported. James didn’t hear who, he was too busy trying to bite back another curse. The smaller and faster ships of Beta Fleet were shooting ahead of their consorts. They wouldn’t get into missile range, but they would cruise up behind his ships and easily pick off any that fell out of formation. Alpha Fleet wouldn’t have to worry about lingering to finish off cripples, they could focus on his main fleet.

His next batch of orders came easily, there was nothing else he could do. “Flush all our missile pods, I want our first broadside to be as big as possible. Launch the rest of our fighters as well, I want them ready to intercept Flex-aor missile carriers. Signal McGrath, tell her to launch an attack against her primary targets. She needs to hit their shipyards hard, maybe that will cause them to think twice about chasing us.”

Though someone acknowledged his command, James didn’t hear them. He was focused on the holo plot. McGrath’s fighters and bombers altered course and charged towards the Flex-aor homeworld. James’ gaze focused on Alpha Fleet. He gave a grunt of satisfaction when two hundred ships decelerated. They were turning back towards their homeworld. As data on them appeared he had to stop himself from grimacing. The ships were all light escorts, the Flex-aor commander was sending his best point defense ships back to defend his homeworld’s orbital infrastructure. That would weaken Alpha Fleet and mean they would take more damage from James’ ships, yet it wouldn’t reduce the size of Alpha Fleet’s missile salvo by a great deal. We need to convince them to pull more ships back! he thought desperately. There was only one thing he could think of doing. “Contact McGrath, inform her I want her to make a second attack run. She is to target the shipyards with her fighter’s plasma cannons.”

“A second attack run?” Scott asked as she looked up from her console.

James didn’t reply, he simply allowed Scott to see the determination on his face. He knew what he was doing.

*

Wing Commander McGrath swallowed the lump in her throat. Her orders were all but a death sentence for her pilots. With a coldness that surprised herself, she opened a COM channel to her attack wing and informed them of what was happening. Then she plotted out her force’s escape route from their first attack run and the course change that would bring them back around. “You all know what is at stake,” she said after transmitting her intended trajectories. “If Alpha Fleet gets a chance to hammer our forces, thousands of our brothers and sisters won’t make it home. We have to draw away as much of Alpha Fleet as we can and we’re going to do it the hard way. Let’s show these Flex-aor just what Humanity’s elite fighter pilots can do! Good hunting everyone.”

Though she had put as much emotion into the orders as she could, as soon as she finished speaking a coldness settled upon her heart. She was not angry at Vice Admiral Somerville. She understood what he was doing. The coldness was from her acceptance. She was about to die and she was ready.

As point defense laser beams started to zip past her fighter, there was no more time for contemplation. Instead, McGrath joined the rest of her attack wing in twisting and turning as they carried out random maneuvers. When she got to the point where she could release her missile, McGrath held fire. Instead she held her fighter’s course, getting closer and closer to the massive shipyard until it dominated her view screen. Then, when she was guaranteed to score a hit, she thumbed the missile’s release button. It took just four seconds for it to speed away and detonate, releasing a massive ball of plasma that blasted through the shipyard. Though McGrath couldn’t see as she pitched her fighter up and away from the planet, the plasma ball burnt through the shipyard’s main superstructure and made it break apart. Construction bays, several half-completed cruisers and destroyers and various other components were sucked into the Flex-aor homeworld’s gravity. All around the planet’s orbitals, similar explosions were ripping apart the Flex-aor’s ability to build warships.

“Count off,” McGrath said as soon as her forces were out of range of the planet’s point defenses. Fifteen, she thought as she counted up how many names were missing. And that was with a missile attack run. They’d have to get a lot closer to use their plasma cannons.

*

“McGrath’s forces are turning around, they’re lining up for their second attack run now,” Miyamoto reported.

James wasn’t watching McGrath’s attack wing; he was staring at Alpha Fleet. He needed them to turn around. Come on, come on he thought.

“Point defenses are opening up,” Miyamoto updated everyone.

James’ heart sank. Not a single ship from Alpha Fleet had turned around. Either from rage at having their homeworld attacked, or because their commander understood the real prize, their attention was fully focused on his ships. He was throwing away McGrath’s pilots for nothing.

*

McGrath’s coldness had been replaced with rage. Her peripheral vision was picking up explosions all around her. They were fighters and bombers being wiped out. She screamed as she continued to dive and weave through the incoming fire. No ships had turned back from Alpha Fleet. Her attack run had achieved nothing. She didn’t care anymore. She just wanted to hurt the Flex-aor as much as she could.

Keeping her fighter on track for the larger shipyard she had spotted, she waited until the nose of her ship was about to come crashing into the large structure before she held down her trigger. In the space of just four seconds sixty small plasma bolts were released from her cannons. From her wing man and another fighter that had stayed with her, another one hundred and twenty rained down on the shipyard. Targeted at what appeared to be key sections, the plasma bolts tore through the shipyard’s main supports and caused a number of secondary explosions.

Though it would increase the risk to her fighters, McGrath ordered everyone to decelerate and hit secondary targets. Following her own orders, she peeled away from the shipyard and shot anything that entered her sights. Given the momentum her fighter was carrying in, she only had ten seconds, but in those ten seconds she took out a number of orbital structures. Then her fighter was using the planet’s gravity to slingshot up and away from the Flex-aor point defense fire. Once again she called for her fighters to check in knowing that the butcher’s bill would be even higher this time.

*

“Again,” James ordered. “Send McGrath in again.” He didn’t dare look away from the holo plot. He didn’t want to see the faces of his subordinates. Instead he watched Alpha Fleet. McGrath’s second attack had taken out six more shipyards and various other orbital stations. As much as the Flex-aor wanted to cripple his fleet, they couldn’t allow their homeworld to keep being attacked. They have to turn around, James thought as he tried to reassure himself.

As he was staring so intently at the holo plot, he sighed at the same time Miyamoto did. “One hundred more warships are breaking away from Alpha Fleet. They are decelerating hard. I’m detecting at least fifteen battleships in the force that is turning back.”

Relief flooded through James. McGrath’s pilots hadn’t died for nothing. “Signal McGrath, tell her to pull out of her attack run at the last possible moment. We need to keep the Flex-aor thinking she’s going to attack again. But tell her not to lose one more pilot.”

“Understood,” Emilie replied.

“That should give us a good chance to get the fleet out intact,” Becket commented so only James could hear.

James didn’t respond. With twenty less battleships the firepower of the six hundred ships that now made up Alpha Fleet had been significantly reduced. Yet his fleet was still outnumbered, his forces were going to take losses.

“They’re are opening fire,” Ivanov updated everyone five minutes later as the Flex-aor made use of their longer missile range.

“Alter heading to five hundred seventy-three point four,” James ordered. “As soon as we get into range return fire. We need to get our missiles off before theirs reach us.” Altering course towards Alpha Fleet would allow Beta and Gamma to close with them slightly, but James wanted to use his missile pods. They were vulnerable to proximity hits and he couldn’t risk waiting to fire until after the first Flex-aor missile salvo hit home.

By now, Ya’sia’s and his ships worked together seamlessly, and as the Flex-aor missile carriers approached, James didn’t have to give any more orders. First the four squadrons of fighters he had held back tore into the Flex-aor missile carriers. The salvo of one thousand nine hundred carriers was reduced by three hundred. Then the carriers released their missiles and the gravimetric plot became so dense with contacts that it was impossible to make out individual missiles.

Less than a minute before the missile salvo came into point defense range, James’ fleet released its own salvo. Then everyone’s focus shifted to point defense. James knew there was no point holding out hope, his ships could never take out so many missiles. Some were certain to get through. As explosions erupted among his fleet, James kept his face impassive. Inside though, his entire body was tensed up. He was just waiting for an explosion to strike Golden Hind.

By some miracle, it never came. Other ships in his fleet weren’t so lucky. Even before the last missiles detonated, Golden Hind’s sensors showed ships falling out of formation. Though James knew his subordinates were preparing a damage report, he couldn’t help but count the sensor blips that were being left behind by his fleet. Twelve was the number, and they were falling behind too fast for him to even think of sending rescue shuttles to take off their crews.

“What is the butcher’s bill?” he asked, knowing that other ships would have been destroyed outright.

“Two ships are gone Vice Admiral,” Miyamoto reported. “They were both ours, Indomitable and Allegiance, both destroyers. Twelve others are falling out of formation, three Crian frigates, two of our light cruisers and more destroyers and frigates.”

“See to the damaged ships that are still in formation and prepare for the next salvo,” James responded. There was nothing else he could say. As his subordinates carried out their duties, he watched his own missile salvo hit home. At least thirty Flex-aor ships were blown away and as many again fell out of formation. The losses would reduce the Flex-aor’s next salvo, but it brought James little comfort. He knew his ships were going to get hit again.

When Alpha Fleet’s second salvo came crashing in, three more ships were destroyed outright and four took damage to their engines or reactors and couldn’t keep up with the fleet. In reply, ninety ships of Alpha Fleet were destroyed or crippled. The third missile salvo from the Flex-aor fleet proved even less effective, no ships were destroyed and just six took serious enough damage to have to be left astern. James’ final missile salvo was far deadlier, at least forty Flex-aor ships were destroyed outright. By the end of the short engagement Alpha Fleet had lost nearly a third of its numbers either destroyed or crippled. As soon as Miyamoto announced the impact of their third missile salvo, Golden Hind’s bridge crew cheered. James returned their smiles and nods, though he didn’t join their celebrations. He understood their excitement, they needed a release for the tension they had been holding since entering the system. They had escaped the noose the Flex-aor had tried to put around their necks. James felt the same relief but his mind was elsewhere. He was still watching the contacts they had been forced to leave behind. The damaged Human and Crian ships had huddled into two small squadrons. Over the next hour Flex-aor frigates and destroyers from Beta Fleet harried and destroyed the ships James had abandoned. They gave a good account of themselves, taking out two Flex-aor ships for every one Human and Crian ship. Even so, they were all destroyed, James doubted any of their crews had survived. There was no point abandoning ship in Flex-aor space, no one wanted to be taken prisoner by the aliens.

*

“I wish to congratulate you Vice Admiral,” Ya’sia said over the COM channel she had opened with Golden Hind as the fleet approached the shift passage out of the Flex-aor home system. “We took losses, but you got us out of there. Now we have a clear route back to your space. I for one will be happy to get out of here. I confess we underestimated the Flex-aor. They are a serious threat; one we may need my benefactor’s help in dealing with.”

“Congratulations are hardly appropriate,” James replied. “We have made it out, for now at least. But it was a costly maneuver.”

“It was,” Gupta agreed. Ya’sia had included her in the conversation. “But that was a far better engagement than trying to fight our way through Gamma Fleet in a pitched battle. Our losses would have been significantly higher. Don’t beat yourself up James.

We did well today. I know you; you’d spend the entire flight to X-62 dwelling on our losses rather than appreciating our success. The fleet is intact and the Flex-aor are chasing us in the direction we want to go.”

“Yes,” Ya’sia agreed. “Losses are to be expected in battle, especially against such numbers. We gave as good as we got and we managed to outmaneuver them. You have earned my respect once again Vice Admiral.”

“I think you are both getting ahead of yourselves,” James responded. “More than three thousand Flex-aor warships are forming up into one fleet to give chase to us. If they want, they can chase us all the way back to X-32 and if they do, I’m not sure we could stop them there.”

“True,” Gupta replied, “but it will take us two months to get back to our space. I’m sure that by then you will have thought up some novel tactics to beat them back. And that’s assuming they will want to chase us that far. We’ve already destroyed more than fifteen hundred of their ships. Surely they might think twice about chasing us back to our own space?”

“You haven’t met this High Queen. If I was a betting man, I’d bet every penny of the Somerville Foundation’s fortune on her wanting revenge. The fact that we dared to step foot inside her species’ home system will have enraged her. Whatever comes next, it will not be something we enjoy.”

“I won’t disagree with you Vice Admiral,” Ya’sia responded. “But let’s think practically. The Flex-aor will struggle to keep so many ships supplied so far from their territory. Launching another invasion of your space is not something they’ll be able to do in a day. We haven’t seen any sign of a large supply fleet in any of their systems. Last time they attacked you they set up a forward base at X-32. There’s no doubt Ala’ron will want revenge. But I suspect she’ll have to wait for it. That should give us plenty of time to prepare a warm welcome for her.”

“I hope you’re right,” James replied as Ya’sia and Gupta’s words pulled him out of his grief at the ships he had lost. “But maybe we should try and think of a few ways to dissuade them from following us.” As he spoke, his mind raced. If Ala’ron was going to invade Human space again, the more he could do now to hamper such preparations, the longer he would have to prepare X-32’s defenses. “Let’s put our minds together and see how devious we can be on our trip back to X-32.”

“That’s fine with me,” Gupta said with a smile. She shared a knowing look with Ya’sia. Though James didn’t know it, the two admirals had shared a short COM conversation before contacting him. Getting his mind on the next tactical problem had been the point of the conversation all along.




Chapter 17

Many wars have been won after wise and successful retreats, others have been lost when retreat has turned to rout.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

UNS Golden Hind, X-62 system, 5th August 2478 AD.

When Golden Hind jumped back into X-62, James wasn’t the least bit surprised to find two Flex-aor fleets traversing the system. Thankfully, neither fleet had more than three hundred warships and, wisely, their commanders immediately moved away from his fleet to safety. As much as he would have liked to pursue them and wipe them out, with four thousand Flex-aor warships behind him, that wasn’t an option.

Just three hours after his ships entered X-62, the massive Flex-aor fleet jumped in. At once they powered up their engines and continued their pursuit. By the time Golden Hind reached the edge of X-62’s mass shadow, the Flex-aor fleet that now numbered four thousand five hundred and eighty warships had almost caught up to his ships. Ordinarily the Human warships in his fleet, and especially the Crian ones, would be able to outrun the Flex-aor. With more than a hundred ships that had taken some kind of damage, James couldn’t utilize his fleet’s higher acceleration and max velocity rates. He could, if he abandoned many of his ships and scuttled them, however he wasn’t prepared to do that. Whilst the Flex-aor fleet could catch up to his ships in real space, in shift space he was able to open up a gap and stay ahead of his pursuers and that was what he intended to do.

*

Three days later

To everyone’s relief, when the fleet exited shift space into X-61, no Flex-aor warships were discovered. James sent the damaged ships from his fleet and the supply freighters on ahead with a light escort. Then he took the rest of his fleet several light minutes from X-61’s mass shadow. Whoever was commanding the Flex-aor fleet had shown no hesitation in pursuing his ships, James wanted to teach him a little caution.

As soon as Golden Hind detected the first Flex-aor ships exiting shift space, he gave the order to open fire. More than six thousand missiles shot from the Human and Crian warships. Seconds later, James ordered his fleet to maximum acceleration. As he had opened fire from extreme range, it took fifteen minutes for the missile salvo to reach the Flex-aor fleet. By then they had formed up into a tight defensive formation. Normally Golden Hind sensors could watch a missile salvo try and weave its way towards its targets. However, the sheer weight of point defense fire the Flex-aor fleet gave off overwhelmed James’ flagship’s sensors. When he sent a request for a sensor feed from Handmaiden, James was surprised to see that even the more advanced Crian sensors were slightly degraded. They were able to see enough to track most of the missiles though. They identified several hits and three larger explosions that represented ships being destroyed. What was more telling were the twenty-two warships that turned away from the Flex-aor fleet. They had been too damaged to continue the pursuit.

“That was a lot of missiles to destroy just three ships,” James commented. “But hopefully it will buy us more time. That Flex-aor commander won’t be so keen to rush blindly into the next system.”

“If the missiles allow us to get our damaged ships back home safe and sound, their expenditure will have been more than worth it,” Becket replied.

“Indeed,” James agreed with a nod. “Now, let’s catch up to the rest of our ships and get out of the system and onto the next.”

*

Over the next eleven days the Human and Crian fleet travelled through four more systems. In one, James repeated his delaying tactic and reduced the Flex-aor numbers by another thirty ships. Two other times, he feinted an attack before racing away from the Flex-aor fleet. He wanted to keep his opponent guessing.

When the fleet jumped into X-57, it was James’ turn to be surprised. A fleet of more than a hundred ships was traversing the system. They weren’t more enemies though. “The contacts are Human ships Admiral,” Miyamoto reported excitedly. “Gravimetric signatures are consistent with a squadron of battlecruisers and various escorts. It has to be rear Admiral Ramirez with our resupply freighters.”

“That is a sight for sore eyes,” Scott responded. “Reinforcements and supplies.”

“Send a complete report to Ramirez,” James ordered. “Make sure they get a rundown of all our damaged ships. I want a complete assessment of what supplies they have brought with them. If we can carry out any additional repairs that will be our priority. If we can increase our fleet’s maximum velocity, we’ll finally be able to get away from our pursuers.” As it was, everyone was expecting the Flex-aor fleet to exit shift space in three to four hours. “Inform Ramirez that his fleet is to reverse course and fall into formation with our own.”

“Report sent,” Emilie announced moments later. “Can you imagine the look his bridge officers will have on their faces when they see the Flex-aor fleet jumping out of shift space. They’ll probably not believe what our reports say about their numbers.”

“I imagine they won’t,” Miyamoto replied to Emilie with a wink. “They’ll see soon enough though.”

“Eh… Admiral,” Lieutenant Yue said twenty minutes later, just a minute after the first COM messages had started to reach Golden Hind from their reinforcements.

“Yes Lieutenant?” James responded as he looked up from the holo- projector on his command chair. He had been scanning Ramirez’s initial operational report.

“I’ve been going through the manifests of those supply freighters to see what we can use.”

“And?” James asked in an effort to speed Yue up. When Golden Hind’s bridge was full of officers, he was usually quite shy. A trait James was trying to get him over.

“Three of the freighters are carrying multistage missiles. In fact, that’s all they’re carrying. They have enough for at least four full salvos from our fleet.”

James’s eyes widened. When he glanced at Scott, she had a similar look on her face. They were both thinking about the possibilities.

“With that many missiles, we can give them a real bloody nose,” Becket said, showing that her mind was already working along the same track.

“All Human ships in our fleet are to increase acceleration and rendezvous with Ramirez’s supply freighters as soon as possible. All ships are to begin taking on multistage missiles. Signal Ya’sia and let her know that she can continue escorting our damaged ships. Once that is done, I want all senior staff members in the briefing room. Set up a COM conference with Sato and Gupta as well. We have some thinking to do.

*

The next three hours were a muddle in James’ memory. After a quick planning meeting, he had spent time talking to Ya’sia, Ramirez, and then Sato and Gupta again. In amongst all that, he had been directing his staff as they organized the transfer of the multistage missiles to his forces. Far quicker than he would have thought possible, his staff resupplied every undamaged Human ship with enough missiles for four salvos. It also turned out Ramirez ships didn’t need any; they were already fully stocked.

*

Flex-aor flagship, Pacifier

When the Flex-aor fleet finally did show up, its commander was met by another unexpected situation. One part of his enemy’s’ fleet was exactly where Al’ramack expected them to be. The fleet of damaged enemy warships and freighters was moving as fast as it could through the system towards the next shift passage.

The other part of the alien’s fleet, the part that concerned Al’ramack the most, was nowhere to be seen. A low growl escaped as he considered what the alien Admirals were up to. His High Queen had given him express orders to kill both the Human called Somerville and the Crian called Ya’sia. Their flagships were priority targets. Despite his desire to bring them to battle, he kept his fleet stationary for several minutes as he sent out frigates to scan nearby space. He didn’t want to allow the aliens to fire another missile salvo and then flee without being brought to battle. When he was happy the alien ships weren’t in the immediate vicinity, he gave the order to advance. Rather than run into whatever trap the aliens were trying to set up, he split his forces. Keeping two thirds of his larger warships concentrated, he spread the rest of his ships out into a large search pattern. Wherever the aliens were hiding, they weren’t going to launch any more sneak attacks.

Forty minutes later his scouts finally detected something. “Commander, I think we have them,” a subordinate reported. “Bloodlust has detected some intermittent electromagnetic radiation. Her Captain believes one of the alien stealth technologies is malfunctioning. Gragnar is also picking up traces of the Crian warships. It seems the aliens have split their forces.”

Al’ramack grunted to acknowledge the report and then waited for his display screen to update with the new contacts. They’re trying to lure us into a trap, he surmised when he saw where the two enemy fleets were. Both enemy fleets were hanging back behind their fleeing damaged warships, one fleet was on each side of the path their damaged ships had taken. If I charge ahead at full speed after their damaged ships, they will pounce on my lead elements. Perhaps they want me to think they have abandoned their damaged ships and have already left the system. “Prepare to record my orders. I want them transmitted to Admirals M’ka and Laron. We will be splitting our fleet.”

*

“I think we’ve been spotted,” Miyamoto reported. “This frigate here should have got close enough to detect our signal seven minutes ago. Look at how their fleet is reacting.”

“Their commander is a good tactician,” James commented. “Look at how he is reorganizing his fleet. They intend to give chase to our damaged ships. But they’re not coming after us as fast as they could. They want us to think they haven’t detected us, whilst all the while, they’re maneuvering to put their main fleet between us and our supply ships.”

It was subtle, most junior officers probably wouldn’t have seen it, but James had been in enough battles to sense what was happening. The Flex-aor commander was reforming his fleet into four sections. Together they were giving chase in an attempt to bring the damaged Human and Crian ships to battle. The rearmost three sections of the Flex-aor fleet would never be able to catch their damaged enemies, however, the forward section, if it was released, would. It was made up of faster destroyers and frigates. However, they weren’t being released. The Flex-aor commander was advancing with all his forces at once, positioning his fleet directly between James’ and Ya’sia’s fleet. If James or Ya’sia wanted to come to the aid of their damaged ships, they would have to fight their way through the main Flex-aor fleet. At least, if James waited another hour or so they would.

“They’re doing exactly what you predicted they would do,” Scott said, the awe in her voice was unmistakable. “How did you know?”

“Like I said, their commander is a good tactician. It’s what I would do if I thought I had discovered two enemy fleets trying to hide from me,” James answered. “There’s no way this Flex-aor commander knows about our multistage missiles. He won’t be factoring them into his tactical analysis.”

“Well, it looks like we’re going to have them where we want them,” Becket said. “Shall we dangle the bait?”

“By all means,” James replied.

Becket nodded to Emilie and the COM officer touched a couple of buttons on her command console. “Orders sent,” she informed everyone.

Five minutes later, the fleet of damaged warships and supply ships increased their rate of acceleration slightly to force the Flex-aor’s hand.

“Their forward fleet is detaching. They’re increasing their acceleration rates,” Ivanov reported.

“Let’s give them plenty of time to move ahead of the rest of their fleet,” James replied. He sat back in his command chair and tapped one of his fingers as he waited patiently. After twenty minutes he sat forward again. The time had come. “Fire,” he ordered.

“Take us to maximum military power,” he ordered as soon as the first missile salvo cleared their tubes. “Fire a second salvo as soon as the fleet has reloaded.”

“Ya’sia’s ships are accelerating,” a sensor officer reported.

“Their main fleet hasn’t changed vector,” Miyamoto said as he looked up from his command console. “There’s nothing they can do.”

“That’s the idea,” James reminded him. “Now we’ll see what this Flex-aor commander is made of.”

*

Al’ramack could hardly believe what he was witnessing. The Human fleet had opened fire with their anti-ship missiles at a range far beyond anything they had fired from before. As the missiles accelerated towards his lead fleet, he kept telling himself they were going to run out of fuel. The Humans were pulling some kind of trick. Perhaps they were just trying to distract him whilst they tried to get away, having realized they had been detected. He breathed a sigh of relief when the first salvo of missiles disappeared off his flagship’s gravimetric plot. Their engines had cut out. It was a ploy after all.

Suddenly another three thousand contacts appeared on his sensors. The Human fleet had fired again. What are they doing? Al’ramack asked himself. The situation was getting away from him. The Humans and Crians kept using different tactics. He was used to enemies that simply rolled over and died. The constantly changing tactical environment was hard to follow.

Amazement filled Al’ramack when three thousand more contacts appeared on his ship’s sensors. This time they weren’t being fired from the Human ships; they had appeared less than twenty light seconds from his forward fleet. It was the first missile salvo the Humans had fired. They had reignited their engines. Though his fleet had altered course slightly to avoid any attempts by the first missile salvo to score ballistic kills, they weren’t far enough away to avoid powered missiles. Over the next two minutes, the Humans’ first missile salvo closed to attack range and wove their way through his forces’ point defenses. More than three hundred reached attack range and detonated. Grazer beams tore through his light warships. There had been four hundred and fifty destroyers and frigates in the forward fleet he had sent after the damaged alien warships. After the last missile exploded, there were just three hundred and twenty left.

Al’ramack growled in anger. Even if the range of his missiles was doubled, his lead fleet wouldn’t be able to return fire. They were being picked apart for nothing. As he watched; the second Human missile salvo disappeared off the gravimetric plot. Immediately the commander of his lead fleet reacted. His fleet carried out a much more significant course change. As they were doing this, the Human fleet fired a third salvo.

As the second Human salvo reappeared on the gravimetric plot, Al’ramack turned away from his display screen. There was no point in watching. The Human missiles would easily catch his lead fleet despite their course change. The Humans would wouldn’t need a fourth salvo, the next two would tear his lead fleet apart. He had been suckered into sending them forward. He knew that now. If the Humans had fired their salvo at his combined fleet of four thousand warships, his defenses would have easily dealt with their missiles. Against a small portion of his fleet, the massive range advantage the Human missiles had allowed them to strike with impunity.

“Send the command to all ships in our fleet. We are turning around. We will return to Her-iach and report to the High Queen. We cannot catch this alien fleet and our supplies will soon start to dwindle. We must return home and prepare for a proper invasion.” Al’ramack had no doubt a full-scale invasion of the alien’s home systems would be what Ala’ron desired. He was sure preparations were already ongoing. However, he strongly suspected he would not be leading the attack. Ala’ron would have him executed as soon as he returned to their homeworld. He accepted that. This alien fleet had assaulted a Flex-aor colony and raided their home system. Never before had something like that happened. Someone would have to take the blame for letting them escape. If his death meant the fleet would be allowed to avenge the insult the Humans and Crians had heaped upon their High Queen then so be it. There was no point throwing ships away for nothing. They would be able to fight another day.

Turning back to his display screen he stared at the enemy fleet. Someone will come for you, he thought as he pictured the Human and Crian Admirals who had met with his High Queen. Someone will come.




Chapter 18

Sometimes I think there must an Office for the Recording of Bureaucratic Titles somewhere hidden on Earth. How else could the Empire keep track of the thousands of different titles and jobs that its bureaucracy is constantly giving rise to?

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.

Liberty, capital city of Haven, 1st August 2478 AD.

Suzanna Somerville, First Councilor of Haven, pushed her chair back from the office desk and turned to face the large projection screen she had requested months ago. The screen was showing a live feed from one of the satellites in high orbit around Haven. She had just finished signing off on a number of minor laws the Haven Council had recently passed. Her workday was now complete. As had become her custom, she took a few moments to watch her planet go about its day to day business before she headed home.

She liked the sense of peace she got from watching the green and blue of her homeworld slowly passing by underneath the satellite. Large swaths of Haven were still pristine and untouched by Human development and they were beautiful. She also enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the ships in orbit. Haven was a developing world and over the last number of years, billions of credits had been invested in its infrastructure and industries. Liberty, Haven’s capital, carried almost no trace of the scars the city had suffered in the battle with the Indian invaders. Billions more credits had been spent rebuilding the city and though Suzanna was happy to see its healthy appearance, it made her frown. The city’s redevelopment was almost complete and that meant many of the jobs that had boosted Haven’s economic recovery were disappearing. More than a thousand construction jobs were disappearing every day and the responsibility to find replacement work largely fell on her shoulders. For a time, the military build-up the UN fleet was overseeing had offset the decreasing need for redevelopment workers. Two new shipyards had been constructed over the last three years and they were all at full capacity churning out ships for the UN. However, with the most recent reduction in the naval budget, no new construction orders would be coming Haven’s way. It would take another four years to fulfil their current orders so Suzanna wasn’t afraid of losing shipyard jobs just yet, but the shipyards wouldn’t be employing any additional workers either. She had to find other industries to expand to accommodate the decreasing redevelopment work on her planet.

It’s not the worst problem to be facing, she reminded herself as the image of Haven continued to rotate and brought the mountainous wilderness beyond Liberty into view. It held a special place in her people’s hearts. It was where the resistance fighters had carried out their guerrilla campaign against the Indian forces. Things could be much worse. Having to find new areas of employment for a keen and highly trained workforce was a problem she was happy to have to deal with. Given Haven’s recent past, it was a pleasure to be focused on the economy rather than political intrigue or invasion.

After stretching her arms above her head, Suzanna stood and rolled her shoulders. Since becoming First Councilor she had been spending more and more time in her office. I have to get out more, she thought. I need to organize more site visits. If not, I’ll have to start going to the gym.

Tapping a button on her desk, she opened a COM channel to her secretary. “That’s me finished Cynthia. I’ve left those laws signed on my desk. You can gather them and send them back to the Council. I want to head home. Let my security detail know I’ll be walking. I could do with the exercise.”

“Yes ma’am,” Cynthia replied over the COM channel. “I’ve just got word from the signals department that a packet ship arrived in system an hour ago. They are processing the diplomatic messages now. I’m expecting a download of any messages for your office any moment. Shall I send them on to your residence?”

Suzanna grimaced. Diplomatic messages meant one thing. More work. “No, send them through to me here. I’ll go through them now and see if there’s anything urgent. The rest can wait until tomorrow.” She disliked bringing work home with her. She had a letter to James she planned to work on after taking a long soak. If she brought work home, she’d probably not get to either.

With a sigh she sat back down and watched as Haven passed below the satellite. When the diplomatic messages came through, she quickly dismissed the majority of them as unimportant. For the most part, they were simply keeping her informed about the various activities on Earth and the other Human colonies. A couple of reports claimed to deal with the Outer Defense Fleet and its campaign against the Flex-aor homeworld. Suzanna dismissed them even quicker than the others. Her husband’s fleet would be a long way from Human space by now. Whatever the reports contained, there was no way they would have any accurate up-to-date information. They were nothing more than guesswork by highly paid analysts on Earth. That, and no doubt there would be more speculation about the Crian species. Suzanna was dying to know more about them, but until James returned, there was no way to get any more information.

Just as she was about to stand and stretch again, one message caught her eye. It was from Andréa, the executive officer of the Somerville Foundation. Initially Suzanna had known her as James’ financial adviser and partner in the Foundation. Now Suzanna counted her as a close friend and confidant. Taking her time, she read through Andréa’s message. The tone of her opening sentence had made her pause.

Dear Suzanna,

I didn’t know whether I should send you this or not. I don’t know if it is genuine or just rumor. In the end, you’re the best one to decide what to do with this information. We got wind of it through one of our military contacts. They were discussing a contract the Foundation has with the UN. The contact wanted to know if the military tribunal would have any impact on the Foundation’s willingness to offer such generous terms. One of my protégés was handling the negotiations and when she pushed the contact about what tribunal he was talking about, he quickly changed the topic. It seems when he perceived we didn’t know anything about a tribunal, he realized he had put his foot in it and refused to say anything more. No amount of badgering could get him to open up. However, we’ve done some digging since.

I have information that suggests the UN Military Council is planning to hold a tribunal to remove James from command of the Outer Defense Fleet. They will be charging him with abandoning his post and failing to discharge his duty. I have included the information we gathered, it is sketchy, but it points in one direction. I’ll let you assess its veracity yourself. We know most of the Admirals on the Military Council have it out for James. This may just be a rumor, but it’s a believable one. I don’t know if you already know about this, or if there is anything you can do. But I thought you should know. I’ll keep digging and pass on any more information I get.

Apart from this, everything else is good with the Foundation. I hope this letter finds you well.

Yours,

Andréa.

Switching files, Suzanna scanned the documents Andréa had sent with her letter. She was right, there was nothing definite. But there were indications a military tribunal was being prepared in secret. The tentative date one of Andréa’s sources had given was in two weeks’ time. That’s just enough time to get to Earth and intervene, Suzanna thought.

With a couple of taps on her datapad she pulled up her schedule for the next month. There was nothing pressing she couldn’t postpone or delegate to her deputy. Plus, there’s a number of people I need to see on Earth. Potential investment opportunities I need to encourage. We need to attract more industries to Haven and a personal visit from the First Councilor is just the thing some Earth CEOs might need.

With a tap she opened a COM channel to her secretary. “Cynthia, can you see if Pennington is still in her office?”

“Hold on ma’am… Yes, she is. Shall I let her secretary know you’re coming over?”

“Yes please do,” Suzanna replied as she grabbed her datapad and stood. “And contact Scimitar’s crew. Tell them to prep her for launch. Go and pack a few things. We may be taking a trip to Earth.”

“Understood ma’am. I’ll finish up here and head home to grab what I need,” Cynthia replied.

As soon as she stepped out of her office, her two security guards fell in step behind her. Suzanna nodded to each and picked up her pace. Pennington’s office was just a three minute walk through the Haven Council Chambers, though she usually liked to engage her guards in conversation, she kept her thoughts to herself as she thought of how James would respond to finding out he had been removed from command. He would not be pleased. Worse, she realized, he would feel utterly betrayed. He had given his life to the navy, and now they were about turn their back on him. Not if I can help it, Suzanna promised. When the automatic doors slid open to admit her into Pennington’s offices, Pennington’s secretary was already standing waiting for her.

“Greetings First Councilor. Governor Pennington instructed me to show you right in,” she said as she gestured for Suzanna to head past her.

“First Councilor,” Pennington said as she stood.

“Governor,” Suzanna replied in an equally formal tone. Then they both broke into smiles as they hugged.

“It’s still strange to be on the opposite end of things isn’t it?” Pennington asked.

“It is,” Suzanna replied. “I’m not sure I miss it though. Even though I’m married to James and have British citizenship, it still felt like I was being torn in two directions. Having to serve the British Star Kingdom and Haven at the same time. I can’t imagine how you feel.”

“Well,” Pennington replied slowly as a coy grin spread across her face. “As I’m sure you can guess, my loyalties fall very much on one side of the equation. I’m grateful for all the British Star Kingdom has done for us, but Haven is my home.”

“I’m shocked,” Suzanna said as she brought a hand to cover her mouth. “You better not let the British King or Prime Minister hear you talking like that.”

Pennington waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry, my office was checked for bugs a couple of hours ago. Now, what brings you here at this late hour?”

Suzanna handed the datapad with Andréa’s letter on it to Pennington and then sat down as did Pennington.

“You know this is more than a little suspicious right?” Pennington asked after she scanned the attached documents. “What are the chances a low-ranking logistics officer happened to know something about this tribunal? And just happened to be working on the contract with the Somerville Foundation?”

Suzanna nodded. “Yes, it seems a little too easy. Even some of the things Andréa managed to uncover were a little too easy. It’s very convenient that the tribunal is being held with just enough time for me to get to Earth if I wanted. Yet why would anyone fake this? If there is a group on Earth that wants to get me to travel there, they could just ask. Why all this subterfuge?”

“Maybe they want you worried,” Pennington answered. “If you rush to Earth to try and defend your husband you may be blindsided by some other offer. It could be some company playing you, wanting to get good rates for one business deal or another.”

“It seems like a lot of work to go to for a simple business deal,” Suzanna countered.

“Then someone on Earth is probably playing some deeper political game that we don’t know about yet. You know what politics on Earth are like.”

Suzanna nodded again. “I do. But what else am I supposed to do? Simply ignore it? No one on Earth will stand up for James. He has no one. His uncle is dead, Fairfax is no longer Prime Minister and the King cannot risk what little political capital he has to protect James. If there is a chance this is real, I have to go and speak for him. And not just for him. The Outer Defense Fleet needs him. If he is out there fighting the Flex-aor, he can’t be relieved of command. That could jeopardize Earth and even Haven.”

“It seems you have already made up your mind First Councilor,” Pennington replied as she sat back in her chair. “You know you don’t need my permission to leave, right?”

Suzanna rolled her eyes. “I know. But I wanted your advice. Both on whether or not I should go for James’ sake; and if I can leave Haven at the moment or not? I know my place is here, but there are other things I could do on a visit to Earth that would be very helpful for us.”

“Of course there are,” Pennington agreed with a nod. “But you want to know if your absence may be more of a hindrance than a benefit. We are at a crucial time in our nation’s development. Our First Councilor is needed as much at home as on Earth, maybe more…”

Suzanna frowned as Pennington lapsed into silence. “Well?” she pushed, “I know I am needed, but what do you think?”

Pennington couldn’t help but smile. “I’m just teasing you. Of course you should go, even if just for James’ sake. Don’t worry about us. You’re not as indispensable as you think. We’ll be just fine. There are no pressing bills coming up, and unless you’re about to land some new big development opportunity I don’t know about, there is nothing we can’t handle without you.”

“Thank you,” Suzanna replied as a wave of relief flooded through her. She would have felt guilty all the way to Earth if she thought she was abandoning her responsibilities on Haven.

“What else am I supposed to say to my First Councilor?” Pennington replied, her coy grin reappearing on her lips. “You have already ordered Scimitar prepped for launch. I can’t say no to my supreme leader now, can I? Especially not after just telling her where my loyalties lie.”

Suzanna made a fist and pretended like she was going to reach for Pennington. “You are becoming more of a tease in your old age Governor,” she said as she waved her arm.

Pennington’s eyebrows rose in shock. “You’re taking this to a whole new level First Councilor. Never has anyone brought my age into a diplomatic negotiation before.”

“I didn’t know this was a negotiation,” Suzanna responded as she brought her arm back to her side.

“It is,” Pennington said, handing Suzanna’s datapad back. “For in exchange for my approval, I’m going to put together a list of people I want you to meet while you are on Earth. If you’re going to make an official state visit, you’re going to be following up with as many foreign dignitaries and titans of industry as you can. Don’t worry, I intend to put you to work.”

Suzanna let out a loud sigh that was only half an exaggeration. “I suppose, if these rumors about James turn out to be fake, at least I will have not wasted my time.”

“Exactly,” Pennington said as she stood and clapped her hands together. “That’s the way to look at things. Now you may as well go and get ready to depart. You are on a tight schedule after all and I have a nasty list of names to prepare for you.”

“Just make sure you get them to me before Scimitar reaches the shift gate or we’ll jump out of the system without them,” Suzanna said as she stepped around Pennington’s desk and pulled her friend into another brief hug. “Time is of the essence; I’m not going to wait around.”

“Don’t worry,” Pennington replied as they broke apart. “You’ll have your list.”

*

“Shift drive is fully charged First Councilor, Gate Command has signaled to inform us that they are ready to initiate. They have powered the gate up to its maximum. We’re just awaiting your permission,” Scimitar’s chief pilot reported.

Suzanna looked up from her datapad. She was sitting just behind the two pilots of her diplomatic yacht. Pennington had been true to her word. She had sent a long list of individuals she wanted Suzanna to contact whilst on Earth. At the words of her pilot though, Pennington’s list was forgotten. The shift gate on the edge of the Haven system had been completed just four months ago. Suzanna had been there for its completion ceremony, but she hadn’t been back since. Its size was impressive. But that wasn’t why it grabbed her attention. It was what was about to happen next. “Inform them we wish to depart,” she said as she stared at the gate.

Seconds later, a bright blue flash appeared around the edge of the large circular structure Scimitar had come to rest in front of. The flash rippled towards the center of the circle and coalesced into a single point. Milliseconds later it vanished and a tear was ripped into shift space. Scimitar powered up her shift engine and gently accelerated towards the gate’s event horizon. As soon as Scimitar’s nose touched the event horizon, the yacht was sucked in. Immediately it translated into shift space and was catapulted by the gate to a velocity the small yacht’s shift drive could never attain.

“That’s it?” Suzanna asked. The light show had been impressive. But she hadn’t felt anything as Scimitar had entered the gate.

“Yes First Councilor,” her pilot answered. “Visually, the gate is impressive. But scientifically, there’s nothing going on that Scimitar’s shift drive can’t do. It’s just a matter of scale. Without the gate, it would take us seven hours to reach the first curve in the shift passage. Now it will only take two.”

“And of course, there is another gate there powered up and ready to send us on our way when we arrive,” Suzanna responded. “I know how it works. Still, I was expecting something more. I guess I’ll just have to be impressed by the speed. We’ll be at Earth in no time.”

“That we will ma’am. We may even make a record. The gates will all charge up to maximum power for us given the importance of our passenger, and Scimitar’s as fast as they get when it comes to flying through the different star systems we have to traverse.”

“Well, if we break the record, we break the record,” Suzanna replied. “But don’t push it just for me.”

As Suzanna sat back and thought about the journey ahead of her, the significance of the shift gates really dawned on her for the first time. She knew they had been installed all the way to the Gift. And from the Gift to the Alpha system and then the Sol system. The last time she had travelled to Earth it had taken three and a half weeks. Now she would be there in less than two. Space is getting smaller and smaller all the time, she thought.




Chapter 19

Once an officer reaches the rank of Captain in the Imperial Navy they are never removed from the fleet unless dishonorably discharged. Even if they return to civilian life the fleet retains the right to call them back to active service at any time. There are literally thousands of Captains and hundreds of Commodores and Rear Admirals who have not stepped foot on board a warship for more than a decade. Yet they are there in the event the Navy needs them.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


New York, Earth, 18th August 2478 AD.

Suzanna kept a small smile on her face as she sought to appear interested in what representative Kapoor was sharing with her. Her emotions were a tempest. She had been on Earth for four days and, as yet, she had made no progress. Her frustration was threatening to burst out of her normally calm demeanor.

Her first day had been taken up with a formal reception King Edward had held for her. He had invited many other heads of state and her entire day had been spent greeting foreign dignitaries. Thankfully, her role as co-owner of the Somerville Foundation had allowed her to cry off a second day of formalities. Under the guise of having to see to Foundation business, she had spent time with Andréa analyzing the new information she had uncovered regarding a possible military tribunal but nothing of any real substance had been found.

With nothing else she could think of doing, Suzanna had made it known she was open to receiving invitations for meetings. She then set about organizing her own meetings as she worked her way through Pennington’s list. For the last two days she had hoped that someone would reveal themselves to be the ones behind the effort to bring her to Earth. Though she didn’t like playing to someone else’s tune, there were no other options open to her. When her current host, Jalesh Kapoor had requested an audience, she had hoped she would be the one to open up about the tribunal. Jalesh was India’s representative on the UN Interplanetary Council. If one nation was behind the effort to get rid of James, India was as likely a candidate as any. Yet it seemed all she wanted to talk about was investments.

“So you see,” Representative Kapoor explained. “India is very open to investing in the Haven system. We have moved on from the aggressive expansionist policies of our predecessors and we wish to make right some of the wrongs we committed in the past. Obviously, as one of your immediate neighbors, we would be in an ideal position to begin expanding the presence of some of our state-owned corporations into your system, we could begin almost immediately.”

“You are aware of our foreign investment laws, aren’t you?” Suzanna asked, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice. She was more than happy to hear the Indians no longer saw Haven as a system to be annexed. However, it was one thing to have the Indian Representative of the UN Interplanetary Committee make such a statement, it was another to believe that it was true.

“Yes,” Kapoor said slowly. “Those laws have served your people to a certain degree over the last number of years. However, our most recent analysis of your economic forecasts suggests they may become more of a hindrance than a help. Given the level of investment we have been discussing, it is hoped that your laws may be open to interpretation?”

Suzanna had to stop herself from sighing. The answer to that was a definite no. However, a good diplomat didn’t completely shoot down their opponent’s initial bargaining position. “I’m not sure my people, nor our elected councilors, see the law’s current application as strict. That said, your government and any Indian companies that wish to seek investment opportunities in the Haven system would be more than free to hire their own Haven lawyers to test that. In addition, as I’m sure you’re aware, the law forbids any foreign companies investing in the Haven system from owning more than forty-nine percent of each registered company. That doesn’t, of course,” Suzanna paused to share a knowing smile with Kapoor, “mean that one single Haven entity has to have a fifty-one percent share and thus a controlling stake. Several Haven groups or individuals could share the fifty-one percent. It may be that your companies find it easier to negotiate with several business partners rather than just one.”

The Indian Representative was smart enough to figure out what she was saying. If an Indian company went into partnership with a Haven company while only owning forty-nine percent of the shares, they would never be able to control the company. However, if several Haven individuals owned smaller percentages, the Indians could bribe or find some other way to coerce one of the owners to back them. Then they would have a controlling share. Of course, the Haven Investment Institute’s primary goal was to identify and negate such business practices and they were very successful at what they did. Kapoor wasn’t to know that though, and Suzanna was more than happy for her to interpret her words as an under the table admission that she would allow the Investment Institute to turn a blind eye to Indian investments. She would never let that happen, but for now Suzanna was happy to let Kapoor think it a possibility.

“I’m pleased to hear that First Councilor, very pleased,” Kapoor responded. She sat back in her chair and lifted a wineglass to her lips. She took a long slow sip as she held Suzanna’s gaze. “With that part of our discussion concluded, perhaps we should turn to the real reason why I invited you to meet with me.”

Suzanna had to fight to control her facial expressions. Kapoor sat on the UN Interplanetary Committee’s Naval Oversight Subcommittee. It was the main reason why she had accepted the invitation to drinks. Of all the people she had met so far, Kapoor was the most likely to be in the know. Suzanna steeled herself, if she was behind the rumors of a tribunal, the conversation wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“I confess,” Kapoor continued. “That this is a delicate situation. Whilst relations between our two nations are improving, to put it mildly, you and your husband’s personal relationship with India has been checkered. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just come right to it. Your husband’s actions in taking the Outer Defense Fleet away from X-32 and into unexplored space have not gone down well with the UN Admirals on the Naval Oversight Subcommittee. Vice Admiral Somerville has left the American colonies wide open to a flanking attack from the Flex-aor. We are currently scrambling forces to X-32 to cover such an eventuality. But many believe it was negligence of the highest order for your husband to leave his post.”

Suzanna bit her tongue. It was the only way to force herself not to lash out in defense of James. An accusation of negligence was only one step short of misconduct. And a very small step at that. Given the strength of Kapoor’s words, she was certain a military tribunal was in the works. That will be the time to defend him, she reminded herself. Now she had to keep her cool and find out as much as she could. “Those are strong accusations,” she replied calmly. “Ones I’m sure my husband would be all too pleased to counter when he returns from his mission. I’m not sure what this has to do with me. I’m not a naval officer and Haven does not have a representative on the Naval Oversight Subcommittee.”

“That’s true,” Kapoor agreed with a nod. “You have no official ties to the UN Navy; however, your word is respected and goes a long way. Let me be frank. The Admirals are planning to hold a military tribunal. It is their intention to relieve Vice Admiral Somerville of command of the Outer Defense Fleet and charge him with negligence. He will be ordered to return to Earth to face a full court martial.”

“What do I have to do with this?” Suzanna asked, amazed at her own level tone.

“I have been given permission to make a deal with you First Councilor,” Kapoor replied. “The Admiral’s wish is to see your husband relieved of command and out of the UN Navy. A full-blown court martial will achieve that, but it would needlessly damage the Navy’s morale. I have talked the Admirals into agreeing to find your husband innocent of all charges in a full court martial. Provided, you publicly affirm the finding of the military tribunal that will relieve him of command and agree that your husband will step down from the military after the court martial finds him innocent.

“You want me to agree that my husband should be relieved of command?” Suzanna spat, no longer able to control herself. “Are you insane?”

Kapoor paused to take another sip of her drink. Then she smiled at Suzanna. “Far from it. I think you are the leader of a star system. You understand politics. I’m offering you a deal. The military tribunal will relieve James of command. There is nothing you can do to stop that. Though it is not our desire, there is no doubt that relieving him will send a shockwave through Earth’s populace and the fleet. Your support would go a long way in negating that. However, we are willing to proceed with or without your support. I’m offering you a way to allow your husband to save face.”

Suzanna stopped herself from saying what she was thinking. She knew the Indians and Kapoor couldn’t care less about her husband saving face. Instead she shook her head. “There’s no way I’m going to agree to this. James is one of the best commanders we have. You cannot remove him from command. You will be putting us all in danger. For all you know, he will return with news that the Flex-aor have been defeated. Why are you taking such a political risk? You could end up looking a fool for removing him from command.”

“Winning a great victory over the Flex-aor won’t undo the negligent acts Somerville has already committed. He will face the consequences of his actions. If we must take a political hit in the future, then that is a price we are willing to pay. We cannot have our military commanders launching unsanctioned campaigns against other species. Somerville will be brought to justice.”

“Now I understand my role in this,” Suzanna said. “If I back this military tribunal, and James does return victorious, the focus will be on me, not you and your supporters. I’ll be the wife who betrayed her husband. I’m your safety net. Well, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.”

“You’re perceptive, I’ll give you that,” Kapoor responded. “I’ll give you time to think over this offer. Even if Admiral Somerville returns victorious, he will be court martialed. He has made too many enemies. The Admirals on the Subcommittee from Argentina, Brazil and Canada all recognize the danger of keeping James in command. I admit, he has served his country well in the past. But now, and in the future, we need Admirals who serve all of Humanity. Your husband is not such a man. Think on my offer, this is the only way he can retire with a measure of dignity.”

“You’re wasting your time on me,” Suzanna responded as she raised her voice. “You do not know me at all if you think I would take such an offer.”

Kapoor’s shoulders slumped. “Very well,” she said slowly. She held Suzanna’s gaze as she continued. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this. But if you won’t even consider the offer, then let me make it very clear to you just what is at stake. Haven is at a tipping point. With more investment and outside support, your industries and economy could see significant growth. We’ve already discussed such opportunities. However, with a push in the opposite direction, everything could come tumbling down. What do you think would happen if foreign investment in your system dried up? Or if some of your more lucrative naval contracts were moved elsewhere? Haven is currently an important partner in the UN military alliance. However, if you appear to be hindering our common goals, that could change.”

Suzanna didn’t trust herself to speak. She knew India hated her nation and blamed them for their defeat in the British Indian war. She knew their elites hated her and her husband. But she hadn’t expected this. They were holding her entire star system to ransom. They were forcing her to choose between her responsibility to her people and her husband. Slowly, so as not to appear angry, she stood. “I think we have nothing else to discuss.” She turned to leave. She didn’t even want to look at Kapoor anymore.

“First Councilor,” Kapoor called after her. “You have two days to decide,” she added when Suzanna half turned. “Choose wisely, for your people’s sake, and your husband’s.”

Suzanna lost it. A series of expletives left her lips before she even realized what she was saying. When Kapoor’s cheeks reddened and her eyes widened, she knew she had hit her mark. Spinning, she stormed out of the restaurant.

*

An hour later Suzanna’s heart was still racing. She was angry. No, she was mad. Who was Kapoor to think she had any right to threaten her people’s future just to score political points? How dare she treat Haven like nothing more than a pawn on her chess board! She didn’t care if they financially ruined tens of thousands of households. Why did Suzanna’s support for a military tribunal decision really matter? Who would really care in six months or a year if she supported it or not? And yet Kapoor was threatening the livelihood of thousands of families just to get her way.

“We need to try and think through this rationally,” Andréa suggested.

Suzanna snorted. She knew what Andréa meant. She needed to calm down. That wasn’t going to happen. But she did need to decide what she was going to do next. “Okay, tell me, what am I supposed to say the next time one of their people ask me for my answer?”

“Well, that’s what I’m saying we should discuss,” Andréa answered. “So far, you’ve ranted and raved about how malicious these people are and how much you hate Representative Kapoor. Whilst I agree with you, it’s not getting us to what we should do next.”

“Fine,” Suzanna said with a sigh. “Let’s discuss it. But I’m not calming down. I am at an appropriate level of anger given the circumstances. “

“Okay,” Andréa replied with a nod. “That will have to do. She glanced at the other two people Suzanna had gathered in Andréa’s office to update them on what had happened. “What does anyone else think?” she asked.

Cynthia was the first to answer. Officially, she was Suzanna’s secretary. Unofficially she was her closest confidant. She was as politically wily as Suzanna, though she had never liked the spotlight. They had known each other since studying together at Maximilian University in Liberty. When Suzanna had asked Cynthia to come onto her staff, she hadn’t been able to refuse.

“We need to know more before we can really decide what to do,” Cynthia answered. “Like who is behind this? We need to see if we can get any dirt on them. Then we can try and turn the tables on whoever is orchestrating this.”

“According to my sources, the tribunal is scheduled for three days from now. It doesn’t give us much time,” Andréa responded. “It looks like the Admirals convening the tribunal will be Payet, Patel, Santos and Tremblay. They are all part of the insular faction. They and their countries have been pushing to bring all exploration efforts under UN control. They are also the faction behind limiting the UN fleet’s expansion. It’s not hard to guess why they are so upset at James taking the Outer Defense Fleet to engage the Flex-aor.”

“You don’t have any bargaining chips we can use with this faction?” Cynthia asked.

Andréa shook her head. “Nothing that will get us out of this mess.”

“What do you think Davenport?” Suzanna asked, bringing her Chief of Security into the conversation. When she had been Governor of Haven, her security detail had been provided by the British diplomatic service. Upon becoming First Councilor, she had been given her own security personnel from Haven. Suzanna had seen how useful James found his inner circle of friends and advisers and she had been slowly drawing Davenport into her confidence.

“To me, it’s simple. Are you prepared to publicly say that James has been negligent in carrying out his duty? The Indians may or may not invest in our industries. Equally, this faction may or may not use its influence to withhold military contracts. You could give them all that they want and they could still turn around and bite you out of spite. Or worse, once you have said yes to them once, they’ll know you are their servant. They’ll just keep on using you.

“On the other hand, it could be a bluff. Their contracts with us may be too valuable for them to give up. We cannot really know what they will do. To me, it therefore comes down to one question; are you willing to publicly denounce James? And I think I have come to know you well enough to guess your answer.”

Despite her anger, Suzanna smiled. “Thank you, my friend. You are seeing things more clearly than I. You’re right, the answer is obvious. I will not betray James.”

“So then the real question is, how can we limit the damage Kapoor has threatened you with? Unless there is a way to stop this military tribunal in its tracks? That would be even better,” Davenport replied.

“It may not be so simple,” Andréa suggested. “I don’t think we should dismiss giving in to Kapoor’s demand so quickly.”

Suzanna shot forward in her seat. She was about to jump to her feet and start shouting. Andréa clearly sensed this, for she held out her arms in a conciliatory gesture and spoke quickly. “All I’m saying is, we need to think about what James would want.”

Suzanna had her mouth open to argue but she cut herself off. Andréa maybe had a point. “Explain,” she demanded.

“Put yourself in his shoes. If he is going to be relieved of command anyway. And if he’s going to face a court martial, one that will be so stacked against him that he can’t escape its ruling. Would he want you to risk Haven’s future just to save him some embarrassment?”

For the first time since Kapoor’s threats, Suzanna felt her anger drain away. She had been so angry for James, that she hadn’t thought about what he would think. What would he want her to do?

“I don’t know him too well,” Davenport said. “But I can’t imagine he would want you to bring dishonor on Haven by allowing yourself to be blackmailed. You are our First Councilor.”

Suzanna smiled at Davenport again. “In one sense you’re right, the public Admiral Somerville would never approve of such a thing. For that matter, neither would the young Captain I met all those years ago. But James has been through quite a few things since then. He knows how the world works. If we can’t stop this military tribunal, nor an eventual court martial, I think he would see the merit in protecting Haven at his expense. He would understand as well. He knows the price duty often calls those who serve to pay.”

“He knows it better than all of us,” Andréa agreed. “And yet I didn’t suggest we consider what James would want as a tactic to try and convince you to take the deal. I hate it as much as you. I just think we need to consider all our options.”

For the first time since speaking to Kapoor, Suzanna felt torn. Before, her love for James and Haven had combined to fuel her rage. Now they were splitting her apart. Rationally she understood the sense in taking Kapoor’s deal if nothing could be done for her husband. Why cause Haven difficulties for no real gain? Yet her heart refused to even consider making some kind of official statement that condemned his actions. She would never betray him. But her people were her first love and her duty. How could she put their future in jeopardy? Slumping into her chair she looked at each of her friends. “What am I supposed to do?”

When no one offered an answer, Suzanna closed her eyes and replayed the arguments in her mind. If she gave in to Kapoor, the insular faction would know they could get to her any time they wanted. She would be abandoning her husband. Even if James said he understood, would he really? Would a part of him not hold it against her forever? The Navy was James’ first love. If he was drummed out of it and it was even a tiny part due to her, wouldn’t he resent her? And yet how could she not put Haven first? She could do everything she could to protect James and he would still lose the Outer Defense Fleet and his naval career. Could she risk the future of tens of thousands of her own people for that? She had been elected to lead them, to fight for them and protect them. Even if it cost her, her marriage, wasn’t that what she had signed up to do?

Opening her eyes, she looked at her friends. She wished James was here to help her, to comfort her and advise her. Yet he was hundreds of light years away, possibly even dead. Suzanna pushed that thought down into her subconscious, she had enough on her plate without contemplating such a possibility. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked again with even more desperation.




Chapter 20

Earth still retains many of the ancient names for its city districts, New York, London, New Delhi, yet they have all essentially merged into one mega city. Of course there are still protected wildlife reserves and ranges, but everything else has been taken over by Humanity.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Though she was walking down one of New York’s busier streets, the sights and sounds were lost to Suzanna. She was focused on her own thoughts. There was one thing on her mind. She had to decide what she was going to do. She had been invited to a meeting being held by many of the leaders of Humanity’s nations. The agenda looked dull and boring, but she hadn’t been in a position to refuse to go.

She was so distracted by her thoughts that she completely missed the man in a non-descript suit wave her over. She almost walked right by him but for Davenport coming to a halt. She had been walking behind him, mindlessly following. Even so, she nearly walked straight into his back.

“Ma’am, I think this person wants a word with you,” he said when she finally looked up to see what was going on.

Suzanna blinked a few times to clear her thoughts. Then she took in the man. He was leaning against the wall of the row of buildings that lined the pavement as if he belonged there. She didn’t recognize him. Dressed as he was, he looked just like one of the hundreds of men who had already walked past her. She guessed that was probably the point. “Yes?” she asked taking half a step towards him.

“First Councilor,” the man said. “We have a mutual friend in common. He asked me to wait here and give you this.”

Reaching into his pocket the man quickly pulled out a slip of paper. As he did, Davenport reached for his concealed plasma pistol. The man saw Davenport’s action and slowed his own movement. “Relax, it’s just a note,” the man said. “I’m simply a messenger. Here you go First Councilor.”

Rather than take the note, Suzanna let Davenport examine it. When he turned around to hand it to her, the messenger backed away and quickly turned into a side alley. “I guess his orders didn’t include waiting for a reply to whatever this says,” Suzanna said as she waved the note back and forth. Then she straightened it out and read it.

Suzanna, I hope you will meet with me before going to the UN buildings. Sadly, I’m aware of the present difficulty you find yourself in. Meet me at Cabela’s Café. Perhaps I could be of some help. F.

F, Suzanna thought as she tried to figure out who had sent the note. Only one name came to mind. Fairfax. Yet he was no longer Prime Minister. She thought he had retired completely from public service. “Take me to Cabela’s café,” she said to Davenport as she handed him the note. “I want to see what this is about.”

Davenport took the note, scanned it, and then pulled out a datapad and began typing on it. “The café is just a couple of blocks away, it’s on our way to the UN buildings. It’s not the kind of place I’d expect a formal meeting with the First Councilor of Haven to take place in though.”

“I think that’s the point,” Suzanna replied. “You may lead on. You can check the café out before I enter it, don’t worry.”

“Very well ma’am,” Davenport replied, not sounding entirely happy.

When they got to the café, Suzanna waited patiently outside. The note had brightened her day, if for no other reason than it had given her something else to think about. She was intrigued to see if her guess was right, and, if so, what Fairfax had to say. When Davenport stepped back out of the café, he nodded and stepped aside to let her enter.

After entering, Suzanna paused to allow her eyes to adjust. The café was dark, what few lights it had were clearly on dim. She wrinkled her nose, there was a distinctly unpleasant smell about the café as well. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of actually eating something cooked in such an environment.

Trying not to think about what such an experience would be like, she looked around to see if she saw anyone she recognized. There were three people visible, two were chatting quietly, a third was sitting on his own. None of them seemed to take any interest in her. Her eyes narrowed when she saw an alcove near the back of the café. It looked like a few extra tables were in it. A small opening with no door led to towards it. She set off in that direction

Entering the alcove, she was greeted by two faces she knew. Both had firm and serious expressions, but one gave her a small smile when she stepped towards the table. “First Councilor of Haven, you honor us with your presence,” former British Prime Minister Fairfax said. “Please, sit and talk with us.”

“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Suzanna responded. “How many bacteria am I going to pick up just from sitting in your booth?”

Fairfax’s smile widened. “It’s good to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor Suzanna. Please, sit.”

Though she wanted to, Suzanna kept herself from rolling her eyes as she sat. “I have a meeting to attend. You’ll have to make this quick.”

“Don’t worry, we intend to,” Fairfax explained. “I’ve arranged this little meeting because I knew it would get Vice Admiral Lightfoot in trouble if he was seen to meet with you in person. Though I’m officially out of politics, I’m still kept well informed. I’m sorry you have been put in the situation you are in. I owe a lot to you and your husband. This is my way of repaying you. Lightfoot has some important news that I think will help you.”

Suzanna turned to Vice Admiral Lightfoot, they had fought together in the past and she counted him as a friend. Even so, she felt wary. His expression hadn’t shown her any affection. “Admiral?” she prompted as she raised her eyebrows.

“If it was anyone else but you First Councilor, I wouldn’t be here. I take my oaths to the UN seriously, even if I share your husband’s hesitation about some of their policies. However, I too owe you a debt.”

“We owe each other nothing,” Suzanna said as she reached out and placed a hand on Lightfoot’s arm. “We are friends, are we not?”

Lightfoot nodded and his face lost some of its hardness. “We are. You’re right. It is as your friend that I am here. I was given orders yesterday to take command of the Expeditionary Fleet the UN is sending to X-32. We’ve been gathering it for the last five weeks, since news of James’ decision to take the Outer Defense Fleet to Flex-aor space reached us. Initially, I thought we were going to beef up X-32’s defenses and be in place to support James if he needed our assistance. However, yesterday I was informed that upon reaching X-32 I was to assume overall command of the Outer Defense Fleet. I’m being dispatched with orders for your husband to be relieved of command. I’m sorry, I don’t agree with the decision, but I have to abide by it. Technically, no one is supposed to know outside of the Military Subcommittee. Yet somehow Fairfax found out, and now I’m telling you.”

“Thank you Admiral,” Suzanna said as she squeezed his arm again. “I know you take your duty as seriously as my husband. It can’t have been easy for you to share this with me.” She looked back at Fairfax. “You know you could have just told me this yourself. You didn’t have to get Lightfoot involved if you already knew.”

Fairfax raised his hands. “I didn’t know if you would believe me or not. I imagine that in your shoes it feels like everyone’s out to get you at the minute.”

“That’s fair,” Suzanna replied as she thought about it. “Perhaps I wouldn’t have believed you. But you didn’t invite me here just to update me with this news. What advice do you have for me?”

“Well,” Fairfax replied slowly. “In part I did just want to update you. Lightfoot’s ships aren’t leaving until the end of the day. You should have time to send a letter to James. He’ll get your letter at the same time he hears he’s being relieved, so I’m sure he would appreciate a letter from you.”

“That is very thoughtful of you,” Suzanna said. “I appreciate it. I hope you’re not offended though if I assume that’s not the main reason you wanted me to know?”

“You mean you don’t think an old cynical politician can develop a heart in his old age?” Fairfax chuckled.

Suzanna let herself show a small smile. “I haven’t seen it yet. But you’re welcome to try and prove me wrong.”

Fairfax rolled his eyes and then shrugged. “Perhaps another time. For now, all I really wanted to say was this; if James being relieved from command is inevitable, as I know it is, then that will surely make your decision easier. What they’re doing to you is unfair. If I was still Prime Minister I would have done whatever was necessary to prevent it. However, my replacement, though I’m sure she knows about it, doesn’t seem inclined to intervene. Given my limited resources, this is the best I can do for you. If James is going to be relieved of command, you can publicly support the decision. Trying to prevent it is impossible. At least you can send a letter to James and explain why you have done what you’re going to do.”

Suzanna’s voice lost its warmth as she asked, “And just what is it I’m going to do?”

“You mean, you are still thinking about refusing to endorse the military tribunal’s finding?” Fairfax asked as he sat forward.

“You think I should betray my husband?” Suzanna asked, her tone hardening even more.

“I do not envy the situation you find yourself in,” Fairfax answered. “In all honesty, I do not know what I would do. However, the consequences for Haven could be significant. I’ve tried to lobby some MPs and government officials I know to get them to offer more trade development deals, but they do not wish to go against those who are putting you in this position. Your husband has as many enemies in the new British government as he does in the UN.”

“Of that I’m aware,” Suzanna replied. “If I publicly betray him, more will arise. It will be a political feeding frenzy. At least if I stand up for him, I can shield him from some attacks.”

Fairfax nodded. “You can. And I’m sure you would defend him well. But at what cost? Are you willing to risk Haven’s future?”

Suzanna tensed her shoulders in preparation for defending herself. But before she spoke all her determination drained out of her. She couldn’t fool Fairfax and Lightfoot. They knew her too well. “I don’t know,” she said instead. “I can’t betray my husband and I can’t risk my people’s future. So how can I choose? Surely you have some third option I can take? Isn’t that why you wanted to meet?”

Fairfax shared a glance with Lightfoot. Then he gently shook his head. “I’m sorry Suzanna. I wish I did. There is no way out of this. They want your full commitment or it looks like they intend to make you and your people pay. It may be a bluff of course, but you know the Indians as well as I.”

Fairfax didn’t have to finish his sentence. Suzanna nodded. Though Davenport thought they could be bluffing, she knew they weren’t. The Indians hated Haven for embarrassing them, and no doubt they still coveted Haven’s strategic position. “What if I threatened to raise the passage tax on Indian freighters traveling through the Haven system? They do almost as much trade with the Vestarians as anyone else. That might get them to back down.”

Again Fairfax and Lightfoot shared a glance. This time Lightfoot was the one who spoke. “It might, but then again it might not. I’ve been part of UN Fleet’s planning division. It’s our job to plan out military operations for various scenarios the Military Subcommittee gives us. One such plan was for an invasion of Haven space in the event your people try to close our access to trade with the Kulreans and Vestarians. It was deemed a highly unlikely scenario, but it was requested by Representative Kapoor.”

“And threatening to raise taxes on one nation will raise everyone else’s suspicions as well,” Fairfax added. “You’d only been making more enemies and more companies would pull out of their development investments.”

“I know, I know,” Suzanna said. She had already tossed around the idea with Andréa and rejected it. But it was the only remotely reasonable option they had come up with and she had hoped Fairfax would take a different view on it. “In the end, I still only have two options. Neither of which am I willing to take.” She pulled out a small datapad and glanced at it. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I can’t be late for this meeting. Your information has been invaluable Vice Admiral. Thank you for being willing to share it with me. And thank you for taking the time to meet with me. Your advice is helpful as always,” she said as she nodded to Fairfax.

As Fairfax and Lightfoot responded in kind, Suzanna stood. “I’m sorry for rushing off, but I really must go. She forced a smile to each man and then turned and stepped away quickly. She did have to go, but she didn’t want them to see just how much of an emotional wreck she was. Fairfax had offered her no hope, and if he didn’t have a solution, that probably meant there wasn’t one.

“Let’s get to the UN buildings,” she said to Davenport. Her tone made it clear that he wasn’t to ask any questions.

*

Though she tried her best, Suzanna failed miserably at keeping her focus on the meeting. She knew that it was at these meetings that most political decisions were made. The back-and-forth between representatives on the UN Interplanetary Council was more of a show than a decision-making process. From the way the different leaders sat around her were speaking, it was clear they understood that they were making policy together. Even that hadn’t been enough to keep her attention. Most of the talk had been about potential emergency provisions that could be put in place if the Flex-aor did attack X-32. That hardly mattered to her or Haven, for if the Flex-aor conquered X-32 and Earth, Haven would be all but lost anyway.

“How long has it been since we have heard from the Outer Defense Fleet?” Prime Minister Vatu of India asked.

“Eleven weeks,” an aide to the British Prime Minister answered.

Suzanna sat up in her chair in surprise when she realized the Indian Prime Minister was staring right at her. She had been in a daydream. It was the tutting noise Vatu was making as he shook his head that had startled her. He wasn’t even trying to hide the fact he was directing his disappointment her way.

“Totally irresponsible. Eleven weeks and no news. Totally irresponsible,” he said as he continued to shake his head. He paused and stared at Suzanna for several seconds as the silence in the room became evident then quickly turned away. “There’s nothing we can do about that for now,” he said. “We’ve discussed all we can about preparing for a Flex-aor invasion. Let us turn to the two new systems that have been discovered beyond Chinese space. We must decide how the Interplanetary Committee is going to divide them up. “

Another topic that doesn’t interest me, Suzanna thought, though she was relieved to have the attention off her. For those several seconds every eye in the room had been on her. She had felt their combined animosity. Vatu had been making a point. She had no allies here.

As the tone of several voices changed, Suzanna focused her attention on the conversation. Clearly these two new systems were an issue that the various leaders weren’t as united upon. “The Chinese Empire will not stand for both systems being handed over to minor nations. Both were discovered by Chinese exploration frigates. As my government has already submitted to the Interplanetary Committee, we are willing to allow what we have called the Putuo system to be given to a minor nation. However the Xisha system will become part of the Chinese Empire. Emperor Na has made this clear to me personally. Xisha lies at the end of one of our most important trade routes. We do not intend to let another nation own the system. It would be to our great disadvantage, both economically and strategically,” Empress Na explained.

“The Chinese Empire signed the same UN Military Protocol that we all did,” President Booker of the United Colonial States replied. “Many new systems have been discovered on our border over the last several years and most have not become American systems.”

“Most have not become systems of any nation,” Christine countered. “They are all empty systems that the UN has taken control of in order to protect us from a potential Flex-aor invasion. The two new systems adjacent to our space are different. The Chinese Empire is not willing to give both away. If that means tearing up the UN military protocol, then that is a step we are willing to consider.”

“Now, now, let’s not be too hasty,” Prime Minister Dawson said as she tried to sooth the argument. Suzanna’s eyes narrowed as she took in the British Prime Minister who had replaced Fairfax. Though she knew she was biased, she thought Dawson had the look of a weasel. The energy dancing behind her gleaming blue eyes made it look like Dawson was up to ten different schemes, all of which were focused on her personal advancement. “This is a sensitive matter,” Dawson continued. “We all understand your nation’s interest in these two systems Princess. We don’t need to make a decision on this today. I’m sure I could ask King Edward to speak to you about this.”

“My father has nothing to do with this,” Christine said turning to Dawson, her eyes flashed with anger. “I’m not here as a Princess, but as Empress of China.” Christine paused as she took a breath. Her demeanor relaxed slightly. “But you’re right, this is a sensitive subject, and we don’t need to make a decision today. You may all take some time to consider this. However, I believe I have made China’s position clear. The Xisha system will stay in Chinese hands. If the UN Military Protocol has to be torn up, then we will tear it up. You may all take as long as you want to consider that.”

Suzanna was still staring at Christine, her mouth slightly ajar. Up to this point every leader had been getting on well with one another. Christine had clearly rocked the boat. Suzanna was even more surprised when Christine gave her a quick wink. Suzanna looked left and right, but no one seemed to be watching Christine. They were all politely looking away. Quickly Suzanna shot Christine a small smile and then straightened her face again. At least one person doesn’t seem to be on board with the status quo, she thought. That was something.

As the conversation moved on, tensions eased and a number of issues were quickly discussed and decided on. Suzanna fell back into trying to figure out what she was going to do. As she weighed up both options, all she achieved was to increase her dislike for either. Try as she might, she couldn’t help the look of anger that slowly crept over her face.

As a result, more than one national leader stole a few glances at her. Some wondered what the problem was, others smirked, knowing full well. Suzanna, lost in thought, missed them all.




Chapter 21

There is one law written into the founding documents of the Empire that has allowed it to continue to function for the last millennium. In the democracies of the past, bills, laws and legislative documents brought before either the Houses of Parliament or the US Senate or House of Representatives essentially became known as omnibus bills. The bills became compilation bills that had hundreds and thousands of amendments attached to them. Those who banned such practices in the Empire have blessed countless generations, though their impact is all but forgotten with the inefficient practices of the past unknown to all but a select few.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


“Okay, does anyone have anything else to discuss?” Prime Minister Dawson asked and paused for several seconds as she looked around. “Then let’s bring this meeting to a close. Thank you all for your time.” With a nod in the general direction of those around her, Dawson sat down and turned to speak to one of her aides.

It was only when a series of hushed conversations broke out all around her that Suzanna realized the meeting had finished. She looked around for several seconds to confirm her suspicion. Some of the national leaders were standing and turning to leave. It must be over, she thought. She hadn’t really been following what was going on.

“First Councilor,” a familiar voice said. making her turn in her seat. “I am glad you were able to attend this meeting. Though I imagine some of the topics weren’t exactly high on your list of priorities.”

“Empress,” Suzanna said as she stood and held out her hand to Christine. “I’ll not argue with you on that. However, it was entertaining to watch you spar with Vatu.”

“Well,” Christine replied with a smile. “I’m glad to have brightened up your day. Now come with me, we must talk.” As she spoke, Christine took Suzanna by the elbow and directed her to one of the corners of the large room. The entire room was lined with large bookcases and Christine reached out and lifted a book when they got near the corner. She played with it for a few seconds before continuing. “I know what the Indians are trying to do to James. My intelligence services inform me the Brazilians, Argentinians, Canadians and even his own Prime Minister are in on it. I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do to stop their plans. President Koroylov of Russia is furious, but between us we don’t have enough influence over the Military Subcommittee to keep James in command. I’m sorry.”

Christine’s tone told Suzanna she really meant it. In response she reached out and placed a hand on Christine’s shoulder. “Thank you for sharing this with me. I’m afraid Kapoor is going to contact me again soon and demand an answer.”

“I’m afraid she will,” Christine agreed. “Do you know what your response will be?”

Suzanna shook her head. “No. How can I choose between my husband and my people? I have been at a complete loss since Kapoor propositioned me.”

“In time, both of them will get over it,” Christine replied. “James will understand if you back the tribunal’s findings. And the people of Haven will survive if you don’t. Your history should assure you of that. A little economic hardship now will not be the end of the world. Perhaps you are making more out of this decision than you need to.”

“You think this decision is easy?” Suzanna asked as she lost some of the gratitude she had been feeling towards Christine.

This time Christine reached out and touched her elbow. “No, of course not. I’m just trying to bring you some comfort. If you have to choose between two bad options, at least you know you’re being forced into it. It’s not as if you are willingly going along with either choice. And there is one other thing I wanted to share. I have spoken to Koroylov about Haven. Whatever happens, we intend to encourage our own national companies to pursue more investment opportunities in your system. Most already have substantial commitments elsewhere, but it should help your people, if just a little.”

“Thank you,” Suzanna replied, genuinely thankful. “Your concern means a lot to me.” Then a thought occurred to her, “What would you do if faced with the choice before me?” she asked, genuinely interested in what the famed Empress of China would do in her shoes.

Christine opened her mouth but nothing came out. She fiddled with the book she had pulled from the bookshelf for several seconds instead. When she did turn to fully face Suzanna, Suzanna was surprised to see her eyes had watered up. “I’ve already made that choice. My people or the man I love? I don’t envy you having to do the same. Perhaps it was a mistake to speak to you. I’m sorry, I can’t be of more help.”

Suzanna reached out to catch Christine’s elbow as she turned but the Empress was too fast. Suzanna made to call her back but stopped herself, Christine was already hurriedly moving away. As she went, one hand came up to her eyes and wiped away the tears before they fell down her cheek. Suzanna watched her go. The look of pain and loss on Christine’s face had been unforgettable. As she played back her question in an effort to figure out what had just happened, realization dawned on Suzanna. Christine had broken up with James and, not long after, married Emperor Na. James had told her it had been a political marriage. Until now she hadn’t realized just how political. Christine had still loved James. Perhaps she does even now, Suzanna thought. The emotions on Christine’s face hadn’t been old ones, they had been raw. She chose her people over James and she still hasn’t got over it.

Suzanna knew what decision she was going to make. The people of Haven understood hardship. They had elected her to lead them, but they had elected her! That meant they had elected someone who fiercely loved their partner. She couldn’t be true to those who had elected her and abandon James. She didn’t want to make the same mistake Christine had. She wouldn’t. I will not betray James. My people will understand. No, they will support me! No Havenite would support someone who tried to threaten their family.

For the first time in days Suzanna felt peace. For a few moments she casually looked at the books around her as she allowed that peace to settle her emotions. Then she turned to thinking through what she would do next. Once a plan was in place, she let out a deep breath and turned to look around the room and find Davenport. Quickly she moved over to him and motioned for him to lean over. “I have decided. We’ll be putting your suggestion into action after all. Make sure you’re ready.”

“Yes ma’am,” Davenport replied with a wide grin. He clearly was in favor of her decision.

“First Councilor,” a voice called after her as Suzanna turned to leave the room. Suzanna turned and put on her best smile. She recognized the voice of Prime Minister Vatu. “I hope you’re not leaving First Councilor,” Vatu continued when their eyes met. “I was hoping to have a private chat with you. Some of the other leaders are meeting with a portion of the Military Subcommittee. Perhaps you would like to join us?” Vatu’s tone made it clear he wasn’t making a request.

Suzanna was tempted to refuse out of pure petulance. But the thought of having to prolong the situation even more made her hesitate. She had little doubt that Kapoor was among those from the Military Subcommittee that Vatu intended to meet with. This was it. They were going to force her to give them an answer. Well, she thought. I’m ready. “It would be my pleasure. Lead on Prime Minister,” she said as she waved for Vatu to take the lead.

With a slight bow and a smile, Vatu turned and led her out of the conference room. They wove their way through a number of corridors until Vatu stopped beside a door that looked like all the others they had passed. “They are in here. After you First Councilor,” Vatu said as he opened the door and gestured for Suzanna to enter.

Suzanna waited until Davenport stepped in and then glanced back and gave her a nod before entering. It was a small insult to show that she wouldn’t enter a room Vatu had suggested for her without her security first checking it out, but she wanted to make her feelings as clear as possible.

As she entered the room, she was confronted by a wooden desk with eight seats arranged around it. No one was sat around it though. At the other end of the room there were several couches facing each other. Four people were already reclining on them, each held a drink or had one sitting at their side. Suzanna knew them all. She had done her research on the Military Subcommittee. Kapoor was there, obviously. Beside her was Representative Diaz of Brazil. The other two people were both Admirals in the UN Navy. Vice Admiral Lopez was from Brazil and Admiral Gonzales from Argentina.

Without acknowledging them, Suzanna moved past them and sat on the couch furthest from them all. In contrast, Vatu sat down on the other side of Kapoor. He looked at her and gestured for her to proceed. Before speaking, Kapoor reached over and poured Vatu a glass of wine. She didn’t offer Suzanna anything.

Davenport had moved to stand behind Suzanna and she could feel him wanting to step in and get her a glass. The others were drinking and he wanted his charge to be able to as well. With a small flick of her fingers she sent him a signal to relax.

“It is a pleasure to have you join us First Councilor,” Kapoor said after handing Vatu his glass. “We have been looking forward to getting the chance to discuss things with you since we heard you arrived in system. My colleagues already know of our prior discussion and we wish to hear your views on the matter. It is our intention to hold the tribunal in one day’s time. If you don’t have a positive response to my request today, we will continue under the assumption that you will not be supporting us.”

“I’m glad you’re getting right to it,” Suzanna said. “However, I have some concerns. What guarantees do I have? How do I even know the entire Military Subcommittee is on board with this? You could be playing me. I can’t agree to anything without more assurances.”

“That is why we arranged this meeting,” Kapoor answered. “Sitting around you are representatives from India, Argentina and Brazil. We could have brought in more but I think this proves my point. The tribunal is going ahead and its outcome is already assured. Moreover, the implications I spelt out to you about refusing our offer are also assured. I know you have spoken with Empress Na, and you’ve had a clandestine meeting with a disgraced former Prime Minister. I’m sure he updated you on the current political realities. If we move to recall military contracts that have been granted to Haven, no one else on the Military Subcommittee will oppose us. In addition, Prime Minister Vatu has more than enough sway with Prime Minister Dawson and many of his compatriots. The withdrawal of economic investment in Haven will not just be limited to military spending. If you try to oppose us on this, your people will suffer.”

“All I have to do is publicly support your prejudiced tribunal’s finding; that my husband’s actions show a dereliction of duty. You’re asking me to betray him and everything he stands for and has fought for. You do remember who helped defeat the first Flex-aor invasion don’t you? You do remember who helped stop the Russians from conquering Earth? You do know where he is right now? Out there somewhere, fighting to defend the lives of luxury and indulgence you all live. You’re asking me to betray all that?”

Kapoor folded her arms and a slow smile spread across her face. “That’s not exactly how I would measure up your husband. Vice Admiral Somerville has been the cause of many of the most damaging wars that have been fought over the last two decades. Right now, he is attacking an alien race and stirring up a desire for vengeance in them that will probably cost the lives of tens of thousands of our people. He needs to be stopped. If you won’t help us in this, then so be it. This is your last chance. Tell us what you intend.”

“Is that how you all see things?” Suzanna asked as she held the gaze of each person in the room. “You’re all prepared to threaten the livelihood of tens of thousands of innocent Havenites, just to further your vendetta against my husband?”

“I don’t just speak for myself,” Admiral Gonzales said, “but also for my government. Your husband must be removed from command and your support for such a decision would greatly reduce any popular dissatisfaction that might arise. It’s simply politics. I’m sure you understand. I have nothing personal against you or your people.”

Suzanna turned to the others who hadn’t spoken yet though none of them ventured to answer her. “They don’t need to repeat what I have already said,” Kapoor answered on their behalf. Their presence here shows their position. Now, stop wasting our time and give us your answer.”

“My answer is simple,” Suzanna said slowly and purposefully. “The people of Haven are not political pawns that you can use to your own ends. And I will not allow you to treat them as such. My husband is a man of honor and courage.  He has sacrificed much to keep you safe. I will not betray his legacy. Furthermore, he is my husband. I will not allow you to force me to break the oath I swore before God and man regarding my marriage. That each of you would ask me to do these things tells me you are the ones who are neglecting your duty. None of you deserve the positions you hold.” As she finished, Suzanna took the stern appearance off her face and replaced it with the friendly look she used when greeting foreign dignitaries. She had used it on Vatu not long ago. “Now that we have that out of the way. Is anything else I can do for you?” she asked

Kapoor jumped to her feet. “Do you think this is a joke?” she demanded. “We are not playing with you. Haven will be ruined. I promise you that.”

“I’m afraid you have seriously misjudged the situation Representative,” Suzanna replied pouring derision into Kapoor’s title. “You clearly know neither me nor the Haven people. Even asking such a thing of me betrays your own foolishness. Now, as I said, are there any other matters you wish to discuss?”

“You and your people are more stupid than I thought,” Vatu said as he joined the conversation. “You don’t want to make an enemy of India.”

Suzanna cut him off. “Don’t speak to me of enemies. Your people made an enemy of us. Your nation invaded us. You call James a warmonger, whilst in reality, you’re simply trying to cover the shame your own political leadership has brought on your nation. Let me ask you, how did your invasion of our system go last time?”

“Prime Minister Dawson knows her place in the new order of things,” Vatu spat. “How do you think your people would fare without the British doing all the fighting for you?”

Suzanna returned to her calm and sweet voice. “Prime Minister, are you threatening to invade my system? I thought the whole point of your blackmail was to stop a supposed warmonger? Are you telling me your goals are more political and economic than what you’ve led me to believe?”

Vatu’s face reddened and it looked like he was about to explode in a burst of anger. Kapoor quickly reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder. It took a few seconds, but he gradually calmed down. “Can’t you see she’s playing with us?” Kapoor said. “If you won’t do what we want, then we have no more need of you. You may leave. I hope we never have to deal with one another again.”

“I wasn’t playing,” Suzanna replied. “I was simply showing you your true colors. We all know what’s really going on here. I will happily take my leave now and as I do, let me give you a warning of my own. You should never mess with Haven. You will regret it every time.”

Kapoor and Gonzales actually laughed at her last statement. Suzanna shrugged off their response and turned to leave. Davenport was already ahead of her and opened the door. As soon as she crossed the threshold Suzanna picked up the pace and made her way towards the nearest exit. She wanted to be free of the place.

As soon as they were outside, she stopped and took a breath of fresh air. Then she turned to Davenport. “Well, how was my performance?”

“I’m no holo director, but I think it will do,” he replied with a grin.

“And your equipment, it was working?”

Davenport nodded. “I replayed some of it as we were walking out. I think we got everything.”

Suzanna shared a conspiratorial grin with her chief of security. The guards of the UN buildings were very strict when it came to their security searches. However, they were laxer when it came to monitoring the equipment of foreign guard details. Suzanna suspected that was about to change.




Chapter 22

If one were to try and accurately analyze the politics of the Earth nations during the First Galactic Expansion Era, nothing short of a multi volume work would be required. Even a cursory glance at the literature clearly shows that political allegiances shifted almost daily. Trying to assess the impact of each such change would be a gargantuan task. Given this work’s focus is on the specific events that led to the rise of the Empire, only key events and personalities can therefore be touched upon. It goes without saying that individuals who had an impact on the Emperor’s rise to power will be given priority.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


“Well, it’s hit the news,” Andréa said as she entered the apartment Suzanna was staying in. “Look,” she added as she strode over to the holo projector and turned it on.

A newscaster was standing outside the UN buildings, Andréa had turned her on mid-sentence, “…it has now been confirmed by two independent sources. Vice Admiral Somerville has been officially removed from command of the Outer Defense Fleet. A military tribunal held here just hours ago found that Admiral Somerville carried out acts that have been deemed a dereliction of duty. We understand this is in reference to his decision to take the Outer Defense Fleet into unexplored space. I can also confirm that Vice Admiral Lightfoot, who was dispatched to the X-32 system with a significant fleet of warships yesterday, will be assuming command of the Outer Defense Fleet. As yet, no news has reached Earth from Vice Admiral Somerville or the Outer Defense Fleet in relation to their mission to Flex-aor space. However, it seems the UN Military Subcommittee desires Vice Admiral Lightfoot be at the helm rather than Somerville. As yet the Military Subcommittee has given no indication of what will happen to Somerville when he returns. Given the serious nature of the charges against him, it is likely he will have to face a court martial to determine his guilt. As soon as I have more on this story, I will update you.”

Suzanna reached out and muted the holo projection as the feed cut away from the reporter to a group of analysts who would no doubt dissect everything that had just been announced. “Well, they did it,” she said to the group she had gathered. “It was not a bluff. James will be furious and deeply hurt.”

“At least he will have your letter First Councilor,” Davenport replied. “He will know you support him.”

“Yes, he will,” Suzanna agreed. “News of what we are about to do will reach him almost as soon as he hears about the findings of the tribunal. That will give him a measure of satisfaction. Shall we release the recording?” Suzanna asked as she turned to one of her guests.

Fairfax shook his head. “No. Not yet. I’m sure Kapoor and the others are concerned about how the military will respond. They will try and do damage control now. Let’s give them a little bit of time. In this case time is like rope, let’s give them a little more to hang themselves with.”

Suzanna looked back to the holo projection. The news anchor was questioning a couple of men in naval uniforms. She could guess what was being discussed. Her husband’s naval career and his command capabilities, or lack thereof. “Are you sure? The longer we leave it, the more the narrative is focused on James and his removal.”

“I’ve been doing this a little bit longer than you dear,” Fairfax replied with a smile. “Trust me. Those two guys might be throwing James under or they might just be defending him. Even if they aren’t, others will be. Your husband is not popular with the ruling admirals in the UN Navy, but he is very popular among the lower ranks. At least those in the British, Chinese, Japanese and US navies. Getting public opinion to approve of removing him in the middle of a potential war is going to take some smooth talking. Let’s see who is trotted out to do the dirty work.”

Suzanna glanced at Andréa and Cynthia to see what they thought. Andréa gave a slight nod to say she approved of Fairfax’s suggestion. Cynthia shrugged. Suzanna understood, whilst Cynthia was experienced in Haven politics, Earth politics were relatively new to her. “All right, we wait,” Suzanna decided. She didn’t need to ask Davenport. She knew what he was thinking. It was almost as hard for him to watch James’ name be smeared through the mud as it was for her.

“Well then, turn the volume back up, let’s watch and see how this plays out,” Fairfax requested.

Andréa reached over and unmuted the newsfeed. For the next two hours Suzanna watched as the news was repeated again and again and dissected and analyzed from every angle. Fairfax insisted that they keep alternating between several different broadcasts to get a feel for how people were responding. For the most part, Suzanna had to focus on keeping herself from tightening her hands into fists. Within the first five minutes of watching, she had looked down to see that her nails had cut into the palm of her hand. It was far from easy to watch analyst after analyst paint her husband’s past in as dark a light as possible.

Here and there, there were some glimmers of hope. One Japanese Commodore had actually shown some respect for James. She had talked about how damaging a change of command in the midst of serious combat situation could be for morale and efficiency. Other, more junior officers also reported their surprise and disappointment at hearing the news. As Fairfax had predicted, the senior UN Admirals that commented on the tribunal were all in favor of it.

“We have a special guest on the show,” the news anchor reported. “Admiral Gonzales of the Military Subcommittee has just joined us in the studio. He will be speaking to us shortly.”

“Here we go,” Fairfax said as he sat forward. “Let’s see just what reason Gonzales gives. Vatu and Kapoor must be starting to sweat if they have sent him out to try and justify this.”

“Change the broadcast,” Andréa said. “Switch to HNN.”

“What are you talking about?” Fairfax asked. “Gonzales is about to come on.”

“Kapoor is already on HNN,” Andréa said as she waved the datapad towards Fairfax. “One of my aides just alerted me.”

Suzanna had to suppress a smile. She had never seen the former Prime Minister move so fast before. In a flash he was on his feet and reaching down to the holo projector. A moment later Kapoor’s face was being projected in front of them. She was smiling pleasantly as a presenter asked her a question.

“I want to thank you again for agreeing to appear on our broadcast,” the presenter was saying. “The news that broke earlier today was surprising to many people. I have to ask, why was this tribunal allowed to proceed by the Military Subcommittee? We have had a number of analysts on today talking about Vice Admiral Somerville’s past. I understand from certain perspectives it can look checkered. However, all that was known to the Military Subcommittee before he was appointed to the Outer Defense Fleet. Why have you taken such drastic actions now?”

“Well,” Kapoor replied without breaking her smile. “First, let me thank you for having me on your show. The tribunal’s finding and the subsequent removal of Vice Admiral Somerville from command is certainly a significant occurrence. However, I think drastic would be overdoing it a little. We have many competent commanders within our military. Somerville’s replacement, Vice Admiral Lightfoot, is more than qualified to lead our forces and defend our borders from the Flex-aor. He has the full confidence of the Military Subcommittee.”

“That is pleasing to hear Representative Kapoor. Still, I think there are many who would like my question answered,” the presenter pressed. “The Military Subcommittee could have quashed any attempts to hold a tribunal. Yet our sources tell us that the concerns that led to the tribunal originated from within the Subcommittee. Can you explain to the public why this happened?”

“Certainly,” Kapoor answered. “The decision to hold a tribunal and assess Vice Admiral Somerville’s fitness for command was a purely military affair. It was the Admirals who sit on the Military Subcommittee who brought this issue to our attention. It was their understanding of the strategic situation that gave rise to our concerns. Admiral Somerville was tasked with defending the X-32 system and preventing another Flex-aor invasion fleet from passing through the system and into our space. Instead of doing this, Somerville has taken his fleet into unexplored space. Right now, no one knows where his ships are. The Admirals on the Subcommittee felt this was a seriously flawed decision. So much so, that as the tribunal has shown, they have lost confidence in Vice Admiral Somerville’s ability to fulfil his duty. It was therefore of paramount importance that Somerville be removed and replaced as quickly as possible so that a competent commander can lead our most important fleet.”

“So your nation’s history with the Vice Admiral has no bearing on this decision?” the news presenter asked. “It is no secret that Somerville has had an antagonistic relationship with the Indian government, both militarily and politically.”

“Those are things of the past,” Kapoor said. She waved her hand to dismiss the suggestion and allowed her smile to return. “India wants Humanity’s best commanders to be in charge of our fleets. That is all.”

“Ah ha,” Fairfax said as he slapped his thigh. “We’ve got her. No politics involved my ass! That’s a quote that will come back to haunt her.” He turned away from the holo projection to face Suzanna. “Now we release the recording. Let the news broadcasts play this interview alongside her meeting with you. That should make for some interesting entertainment. Do I have your permission First Councilor?”

“Go ahead,” Suzanna replied as a smile far different to the one Kapoor was still showing spread across her face. It had been easy for Davenport to smuggle a visual recording device into the UN buildings. Especially as it was of Haven design and unknown to the UN security guards. After she had reviewed the recording with Cynthia and Andréa, they had both suggested she include Fairfax in their schemes. It was a good idea, Fairfax had access to the high ups in every major news broadcasting network. He was already tapping away at his datapad, sending out the visual file.

Knowing that the recording was going out, that events were now out of her hands, Suzanna felt a weight lift off her shoulders. The tribunal had already found James guilty. She couldn’t change that. They would just have to deal with the consequences. And we will be dealing with them together. That is what matters, she thought. For a moment she closed her eyes and relived all the emotions the last two weeks had brought. She understood politics, but what Kapoor and the others had done made her skin crawl. “I’m sick of this,” she said as she opened her eyes and looked to Andréa and Cynthia. “At least it will all be over soon, Cynthia, contact Scimitar and let them know will be departing soon. If not today, I intend to get out of here by tomorrow. There’s nothing more we can do here.”

“There, it’s sent,” Fairfax said as he looked up from his datapad. “Wait, what?” he asked as he looked from Cynthia to Suzanna. “You can’t leave so suddenly. People will want to interview you. The public will want to hear your side of things.”

“Then I’m afraid they will be disappointed,” Suzanna said as she stood and paced back and forth. “I’ve already been manipulated and pushed here and there by Kapoor and her allies. I’m the First Councilor of Haven. I’m not going to waste any more time on this. I can’t help James any more by staying here and so I must return to Haven. I have duties there. The recording will speak for itself.”

“I’m sure it will,” Fairfax said slowly. “But you could still help it along. An upset wife and the leader of an entire star system calling out the Machiavellian actions of the Military Subcommittee will put pressure on Kapoor and her allies. It may even make things a little easier for James when he returns to Earth.”

Suzanna shook her head. “No, it won’t. They hate him. They’ve already shown they don’t care about political opinion. Yes, this will hurt them, but it will only fuel their rage. They will still be trying to drum him out of the Navy when he returns to Earth. Our home and our future is the Haven system. I need to go back and prepare for whatever economic reprisals Kapoor has in mind.”

“It’s starting,” Andréa said, breaking into their conversation. “Look, they’re showing your recording.”

“Here we go,” Fairfax said with glee.

Though Suzanna hated Kapoor, she didn’t turn to the holo projection with the same level of enthusiasm. The recording would hurt Kapoor and her allies. It would show her to be a liar and, for those who were unbiased, it would show just how willing she was to put Earth’s safety in danger to further her own political agenda. Still, Suzanna knew the recordings could not undo what had been done. James had been removed from command. That would hurt him more than any tribunal or court martial finding. The recordings couldn’t change that.

Despite her feelings, she watched the next hour of news broadcasts. Time and time again the recording of Kapoor threatening her, Haven and James was played alongside Kapoor’s insistence that there had been no political agenda in James’ removal from command. Just as Fairfax had predicted, Kapoor didn’t reappear on any of the news broadcasts, nor did Admiral Gonzales or any other official spokesperson.

“Ma’am,” Cynthia said to get her attention. “We’re getting flooded with messages from the news broadcasters. They would like you to make an appearance to discuss your recording and experiences with the Military Subcommittee. What shall I say to them?”

Suzanna shook her head. “I’m not making any public appearances. You can respond with a written reply. Inform the broadcasters that as First Councilor of Haven I am disgusted that the other elected representatives of Human nations would seek to threaten Haven’s economic future to further their pathetic personal vendettas. And, as a wife of one of the most decorated living naval officers, I am ashamed that my husband has been treated in this way. Tell them I am happy to let representative Kapoor speak for herself.”

Fairfax let out an audible sigh. “What is it?” Suzanna asked as she turned to him.

He was shaking his head. “Don’t you see? Your words are one thing, but the fire in your eyes as you spoke them is quite another. That’s what the public needs to see.”

“Well my words will have to do,” Suzanna replied. “I don’t want to argue about it. There was a time when you could order me about, but I’m afraid that time has passed.”

“I know, I know,” Fairfax said as he waved his hands at her. “My time in the limelight has gone. But you have to admit, I have been at least a little useful.”

“That you have,” Suzanna replied with a nod. “And you have my thanks.”

A beep from Fairfax’s datapad made him look down. A very different look came across his face as he read whatever had been sent to him. “What is it?” Suzanna asked, this time with more concern.

“I just got a note from one of my sources. Someone from the UN has been looking into the protocols for detaining and arresting a senior political figure,” he said as he looked up. “You do know recording meetings without every party’s consent is illegal?”

Suzanna looked to Andréa before answering, “I wasn’t fully aware no, though I guess I suspected as much. It wasn’t something I was concerned about.”

“And neither would I have been if I had thought of the idea,” Fairfax replied. “But it does put you in a slightly difficult situation. I find it hard to believe Kapoor would try and detain you. It would play bad for her. But…”

“But that’s assuming Kapoor is thinking rationally,” Suzanna finished. “She could try and detain me out of anger. It might look bad for her, but also for me. Not to mention, it would hurt Haven. Companies thinking of investing in our system will think twice if the elected leader is facing criminal charges.”

“I think I’ve changed my mind,” Fairfax said as he stood. “Perhaps it would be best if you left. We should head to Scimitar now.”

“Then we’ll take our leave,” Suzanna said as she stood. “Thank you again for your help,” she said to Fairfax. “Thank you to all of you,” she said as she looked at Andréa, Cynthia and Davenport. We have fought for James’ honor, it is time to return home and fight for Haven’s future. Let’s not waste any time. I have no desire to be arrested.”

*

Less than an hour later Scimitar had broken orbit and was heading towards the shift passage to the Alpha system. Cynthia was still monitoring the news broadcasts. In contrast, Suzanna was staring out of one of Scimitar’s view screens. She was quite happy to be distracted by the sights and the busyness of the Sol system.

“Ma’am,” Cynthia said looking up from her display. “We have a COM link from Beijing. It is Empress Na.”

Suzanna looked at Cynthia, surprise written across her face. Given how their last conversation had ended, she had thought Christine would be the last person to contact her. “Put her through I guess,” she replied. She smoothed her expression and put a warm smile on her lips. “Empress Na, it is a pleasure to talk to you again.”

“The pleasure is all mine First Councilor,” Christine replied. “I’m sorry we are not talking under better circumstances. I fear removing James from command will be to all our detriment and I’m sure he will be hurt as well. At times, neither the British Navy nor the UN Navy has been kind to him.”

“No,” Suzanna agreed, she didn’t feel like saying more, the pain was still too raw.

“I will not take much of your time,” Christine continued when Suzanna remained quiet. “When I learnt that your yacht was breaking orbit, I wanted to speak to you. I want to assure you again that I will do all that I can to make up whatever investments Kapoor and her allies take from Haven. I respect you for the stand you have taken and I’m glad for James’ sake that you have stood by him. I want to honor your choice and help as much as I can.”

“Thank you Empress,” Suzanna replied. “And thank you for speaking to me before. It was helpful. You gave me guidance when I was lost.”

Christine’s eyebrows rose. “That’s not how I remember the conversation. I seem to recall I lost control of my emotions and made a fool of myself.”

“You did not make a fool of yourself,” Suzanna assured her as she shook her head. “James has shared much with me about his past with you. I think though, you showed me even more. I understand the decision you made and I respect you for it, but knowing James, seeing how it still affects him, I could not do it to him again.”

“I will forever be thankful to you Suzanna, for giving him what I didn’t. I want to wish you both luck and blessings for the future. If you’re not on Earth when he returns, I will do what I can to help him. You have my word, if a court martial is held, I will be in his corner.”

“Then he will be in good hands,” Suzanna replied. “Though, if it comes to that, we will both be in his corner. Nothing will be able to keep me away.”

“Well then, I look forward to meeting you in person again First Councilor. Though I hope it is under different circumstances. I will not take up any more of your time. Safe travels.”

“Thank you Empress. I hope we can meet again too. I’d love to hear more about what James was like when he was younger.”

“That would be a conversation I would enjoy having. Goodbye First Councilor,” Christine replied with a nod of her head.

“Goodbye,” Suzanna said as she reached over and shut the COM channel.

“What was all that about?” Cynthia asked. “I didn’t know the Empress knew James.”

“You should do a little bit more reading up on your history then,” Suzanna replied. “That’s all I’m going to say. The story is one for James or Christine to share, not me.”

“I’ll have to look into some old holo news reports,” Cynthia said. “If what I’m guessing is true, there must be some reports from back then.”

“I’m sure there are,” Suzanna replied coyly, then she turned back to looking at the scenes around Scimitar. Despite the pain she felt for James she was content. She was going home and she could hold her head high. Her people would tolerate whatever hardships came their way and they would do so knowing that their First Councilor kept her word, to her husband, and, as she fully intended to show them, to her people.




Chapter 23

Homecomings after a long campaign are always a time of happiness and relief. Almost always.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind X-32 system, 7th October, 2478 AD.

“Initial scans show all orbital infrastructure is still intact. In fact, there are quite a few more warships in orbit than when we left,” Miyamoto reported. “It looks like they haven’t missed us.”

“Well,” James said louder than necessary. “We have finally made it. I know X-32 doesn’t boast the most exciting R&R experiences, but we have more than a few days coming to us. I’m sure you will all find a way to make the most of it.” His words brought smiles from most of his officers. In truth, James hadn’t been too concerned that a Flex-aor fleet would have somehow beat them to X-32 and launched an invasion into Human space. However, given the number of enemy fleets they had encountered, he hadn’t been able to completely rule out the possibility.

“That sounds good to me Admiral,” Scott replied. “There are some interesting xenobiology research projects being carried out on Hauptman station. I have been looking forward to catching up with Doctor Samson.”

Dzedzyk groaned and more than one of his staff officers let out a sigh of exasperation. “That’s not exactly what I would call relaxing Commander,” Captain Becket responded. “I think our Admiral had something more along the lines of visiting a bar or making use of Achilles’ full sized swimming pool. Not research.”

“To each their own,” James chuckled. “We know Commander Scott’s mind isn’t exactly stretched working with us simpletons, I suppose it would be a nice break for her to speak with someone on her own level of intelligence.”

Scott swung round in her command chair. She looked aghast as she began to speak, “That’s not what I meant Admiral…” She cut off when she saw the smile on James’ face. He winked at her.

“Don’t worry Commander, we know you will find a way to relax eventually. Maybe I’ll have to order you to, but one way or another, I’m sure you will.”

“I’m sure you’re right Admiral,” Scott replied as she smoothed her facial features. “We all deserve some time to ourselves. It’s been a long campaign.”

James nodded. “Though I’ve said it before, I do want to say thank you. You’ve all done me proud. The Flex-aor threat is far from defeated. But now we know what we are up against. We are in an ideal position to reassess the situation and make plans for the future.”

“Admiral,” Emilie said from her seat at the communications console. “I’ve got a priority one message coming in from Dauntless. It’s from Vice Admiral Lightfoot.”

“That explains the extra warships in orbit,” Becket said. “No doubt Lightfoot was sent to beef up X-32’s defenses in our absence.”

“It will be good to see him,” James responded. “Send the message to my command chair Sub Lieutenant.”

“It’s marked private and confidential Admiral,” Emilie replied.

“I’ll take it in my office then,” James said as he jumped to his feet. “Send it through to my terminal.” As he walked out of the bridge, James wondered what Lightfoot could want to talk about that wasn’t for the ears of his staff. He assumed he would have written orders from the Military Subcommittee, but whatever Lightfoot had to say could have been spoken in the open. Whatever it is, I’m sure he has his reasons, James thought.

As he sat down in his office chair, he pulled up the message on his holo projector. Golden Hind was still out of two-way communication range with X-32, so Lightfoot had simply sent a recording.

“Vice Admiral,” Lightfoot began as his face appeared in front of James. “I want to apologize for the abruptness of this message. However, I have direct orders to pass on to you what I’m about to say as soon as you enter the X-32 system. I’m sorry that I am the one bringing you this. We have been friends and comrades in arms for most of our military careers. However, orders are orders, and I hope you understand.” Pausing for a moment to take a deep breath, Lightfoot continued. “I have been sent to X-32 with orders to relieve you of command. I am to assume command of the Outer Defense Fleet and all associated forces. As I was leaving Earth, a military tribunal was being held to assess whether taking the Outer Defense Fleet towards Flex-aor space constituted a dereliction of duty. You are hereby ordered to return to Earth to face the findings of that tribunal. The frigate Wasp has been tasked with bringing you to Earth. By the time Golden Hind reaches X-32 it is expected you will be ready to transfer to Wasp and begin your journey back to Earth.” Lightfoot paused again and his face lost its stern expression. “I’m sorry my friend, those are not my words, but it has fallen to me to share them with you. I’ve transmitted your written orders from the Military Subcommittee confirming what I said. I’ve also transmitted a letter from Suzanna. You may find it enlightening. I hope it brings you comfort on your journey back to Earth. If it was up to me, I would have you remain in the system for several days or even weeks. I could do with picking your brain. No doubt much has happened since you left. I’m afraid I will have to settle for as full a report as you can provide me. I’m sure you won’t disappoint in that regard. We’ll speak more when Golden Hind gets into instant communication range. I’ll let you process your orders now.” With a salute, Lightfoot reached forward and ended his recording.

James sat back in his chair. His mind was a haze. He could hardly process what he had just heard. Relieved of command! How could the Admiralty do this? he asked himself. It only took a couple of seconds for his anger to boil over. They didn’t know a thing about what was going on beyond X-32. They had taken this decision without waiting for an update. They must have put the wheels in motion as soon as they heard I had left X-32! They don’t care about the Flex-aor. They don’t care about X-32 or protecting the American colonies.

Clenching his fists, James smashed them into his desk. He could easily picture the Admirals on the Military Subcommittee. He had had to deal with them often enough before being dispatched to X-32. Most of them hated him. At the time, they had just barely hidden their animosity towards him, but they had hidden it, they had put their position before their personal feelings. But that was four years ago, when they didn’t have the political clout to get rid of me. Clearly, they think they do now. Closing his eyes, James’ mind went to his officers. What would they think? They would be upset. They would feel betrayed. No doubt many wouldn’t understand. That just made his anger increase all the more. After everything they had given to protect Humanity, relieving him of command was a slap in the face for the entire Outer Defense Fleet. They should be returning as heroes, not to the news their commander was being relieved.

Calm, James told himself as his thoughts threatened to spiral out of control. Anger won’t help you now. You can be angry later. Now you need to think. His words helped, a little. Though as soon as he began to think through the situation, his anger returned. What good was thinking going to do? Lightfoot’s orders were clear. He couldn’t disobey them. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t ask his officers to disobey them. They would all face a court martial. Opening his eyes, he looked around his office. This is no longer mine, he realized as resignation set in. Golden Hind would reach X-32 in just over an hour. All the decorations and wall hangings Suzanna had decorated his office with would have to be packed up. This would be the last time he would sit in his office chair and at the desk she picked for him. There was no way either could be transferred to Wasp. Both would go to whoever succeeded him. Becket, he thought. He was going to write to Lightfoot and demand that she be promoted to Commodore at least. She could take over command of battleship squadron one.

As soon as he thought of Becket, his mind went to his officers. So many deserved promotions or commendations. He had planned to write them once he returned to X-32. He opened a file at his terminal and began to make notes. He was going to send a full list to Lightfoot. Lightfoot owed him that much. At the same time, he opened his full report on everything that had happened since leaving X-32. He had to go through it and add any information Lightfoot would find useful. Beyond that, there wasn’t much he could do. Lightfoot would have to rely on his senior officers to fill him in. Tapping another button on his desk he sent the signal for his steward to come to him. Fox would need to get packing now if they were to transfer to Wasp with even half of James’ possessions. They’re making this as hard as they can, James knew as he worked furiously. He wasn’t going to let that deter him. Even if they didn’t care about the situation and X-32, he did. He wasn’t going to leave his station without giving his best right up until the end. That thought extinguished the last of his anger. Or rather, it bottled it up. He knew it was still there, and one day it was going to come out with a vengeance.

In the middle of a sentence he was dictating he stopped mid-word. Something Lightfoot had said suddenly came back to him. He had mentioned the letter from Suzanna. Instinctively his hand reached towards his console to pull it up. Then he stopped himself. Whatever Suzanna had to say, it couldn’t change anything. He only had an hour until Golden Hind reached Wasp, and then a couple more after that as Wasp left the system. He could read Suzanna’s letter after that. Though his hand wavered as he pulled it back, James forced himself to continue with his work.

“You called for me Sir?” Fox asked as he poked his head into James’ office.

“Yes, thank you,” James said without looking up. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to pack our things. We’ll be transferring to Wasp when we reach X-32.”

Wasp?” Fox asked. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I’m not familiar with any battleship called Wasp?”

Wasp is a frigate,” James said through gritted teeth. His anger was threatening to return. “We are returning to Earth.”

“Earth?” Fox asked. “But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“I said pack our things!” James shouted as his head shot up and he fixed Fox with an angry glare. “Now do what you’ve been ordered or I’ll find a new steward and leave you here.”

Fox immediately lowered his head and his face reddened. “Yes Admiral. At once Admiral.” Without another word he retreated into James’ quarters and the door slid shut behind him.

Forcing himself to bottle up his anger once again, James turned back to his report. He didn’t get more than a sentence written when his COM unit began to beep furiously. “What is it?” he demanded as he answered it.

“Captain Becket is requesting your presence on the bridge immediately Admiral,” Emilie said hastily, picking up on her uncle’s anger. “A new contact has appeared in system. It’s rapidly approaching our fleet.”

James let out a groan of frustration before replying. “On my way.”

“How long until this contact reaches us?” he asked as soon as he stepped onto the bridge. When he looked at the holo projection of the system he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “Is that accurate?” he asked before anyone could answer his first question.

“It just appeared thirty seconds ago Admiral,” Becket explained. “Its acceleration rate is even greater than what we’ve seen the Crians do. And it has to be twice the size of Golden Hind.”

“How did it get so close without us detecting it?” was James’ next question.

“I don’t know,” Miyamoto answered. He sounded bewildered. “One moment there was nothing on our sensors, then the next, it was there and already accelerating.”

“It appeared with zero velocity and its already reached its current speed?” James asked, struggling to believe Miyamoto was telling the truth.

Miyamoto nodded. “Yes. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Send the fleet to battle stations,” James snapped. “Plot the ship’s current trajectory exactly. Show me on the holo projection.”

“It’s headed right for Handmaiden,” Scott reported.

“Get me Ya’sia on a COM channel now!” James said as he turned to his niece.

Emilie was already looking up at him. “She’s already contacting us.”

“Put her on,” James replied.

“Admiral,” he began at once. “I hope there is a reasonable explanation for this?”

“I’m sorry if this new contact has spooked you Admiral. I understand if it has. Let me reassure you though, there is no danger. You are detecting a Varanni Dreadnaught. The Varanni are our benefactors. The more advanced species I have been telling you about. It seems they are willing to make contact with you. I’m surprised myself that they are here. But they are. It will be interesting to see what they have to say. I’m sure they will be interested in our battle reports as well.”

James was lost for words. Crian warships were fast, but they were also smaller than Human warships. This Varanni Dreadnought was twice the size of Golden Hind and easily had an acceleration rate double that of his flagship. Ya’sia had said her benefactors were more advanced than her own species, but James hadn’t realized by how much. “What do you think they want?” was all James could think to ask as his mind processed what his flagship’s sensors were telling him.

“Hold on,” Ya’sia responded as she held up a hand. “I’ve just been contacted by Captain Dural. He has been sent here to recall my fleet. He requested I report on board his ship immediately. I’ll ask him for permission to bring you too.” Several seconds passed while Ya’sia looked away from James, clearly working on something. When she looked back she was smiling. “Dural has said it is highly unusual, but he is willing to allow you to come. You better get to your shuttle Admiral. Come to Handmaiden first and then we’ll go to Quest, Dural’s warship.”

“Very well,” James said as his mind raced. “I’ll be as quick as I can.” As soon as the COM channel with Handmaiden ended he turned to Becket and Scott. “Bring the fleet to a halt and I want a communications blackout with X-32 and the rest of the system. Let’s not panic anyone else before we know what going on.”

“A full communications blackout?” Scott asked. “That’s unusual is it not?”

“It is,” James replied. “Just do it.” Though it was unusual, James didn’t care. In one sense, he had already been relieved of command. Yet he had to find out what this Varanni wanted. If Ya’sia found out he had been relieved of command she probably wouldn’t allow him to meet Dural. And she wouldn’t vouch for Lightfoot. She didn’t know him. That meant he had to go, and no one else could know he had been relieved of command. Not yet anyway, James thought. “Contact shuttle bay one, tell them I want my shuttle ready to depart as soon as I get there.”

*

“The Varanni are what you might call a reptilian species,” Ya’sia explained as she and James travelled in one of Handmaiden’s shuttles towards Quest. “At least, looking through your database, that’s the nearest resemblance I can find. Your initial impression might be one of fear. I’ve read that a number of your reptiles can be intimidating to your species. However, there is no need. The Varanni are quite a sedate species. They are quiet and reserved, and rarely get excited. As a result, they can initially appear indifferent. However, that quickly changes once you gain their trust. There are several Varanni that I am close with. Though their species rarely laugh, I have shared more than a few jokes with them. You might find that hard to believe after you meet Dural, but it is.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” James replied. “And I’ll try not to appear scared by their appearance. I assume that wouldn’t go down to well.”

Ya’sia shrugged. “Probably, Dural won’t mind. Others find their species intimidating at first too. I think they are used to it.”

“Okay,” James replied with a nod. “What else do I need to know?”

“They are a very honorable race. If you forget anything else I have told you, keep that in mind. It makes them very open and honest. There is little subterfuge with them. If you are the same in return, you will gain their respect. However, if you dishonor them, you will find it very hard to regain any level of relationship with them. That goes for their personal relationships and their interspecies relationships. If they come to trust and respect your species, they will become faithful friends. So if you and your species deal with them honestly, I foresee a beneficial relationship developing from this meeting. But…”

“But you have read our history files and you know deception is a common Human negotiating tactic,” James finished. “Any diplomats that interact with the Varanni will have to be warned.”

“That they will,” Ya’sia agreed.

“So, they are reserved, quiet and honorable. Should I have brought a gift for Dural? Something to welcome him to Human space?”

“Your presence will be enough,” Ya’sia answered. “Let me do the introductions. Dural will respect your rank and position as the commander of your species’ greatest war fleet.”

James nodded. He hoped the Varanni didn’t have some kind of advanced COM decryption software and had already decrypted Lightfoot’s message and therefore knew he wasn’t actually in command anymore. That would be bad, James thought as he swallowed the lump in his throat. No doubt they would interpret his presence as a deceit. He forced any thoughts of his removal from command from his mind. He would deal with that later. Right now, he needed to focus on meeting Dural. First contact with the Varanni would be far more significant than meeting Ya’sia. That thought helped him forget about Lightfoot’s message, but it also meant any excitement he had felt at realizing he was going to get to meet Ya’sia’s benefactors had evaporated. Now he was just scared. He was an Admiral, not a diplomat!




Chapter 24

When someone sees an Imperial Superdreadnought up close for the first time, almost always they balk at the idea that something so large could ever be threatened. Of course, war quickly dissuades anyone from holding on to such naïve notions. Like every other warship ever built, they can be torn apart by enemy fire.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


From far away, the Varanni dreadnought looked like any other warship. However, as the Crian shuttle came closer, its size was unmistakable. Very quickly it came to dominate the shuttle’s view port. James was transfixed. The warship was covered in all kinds of weapons and other technologies, almost none of which he recognized. At least the ship’s missile ports were easy to identify. A quick count told James the dreadnought had eighty tubes in each broadside. That was more than Golden Hind had, but not significantly more. The other weapons he was able to identify where six large twin laser cannons. They were all mounted along the top of the warship’s superstructure. Though he could recognize them, their scale far surpassed anything Humanity had built. If they had energy reactors as large and powerful as they were, their range would be immense.

“What are those?” James asked when the shuttle came close enough for him to point things out to Ya’sia. Dotted here and there around the ship were what James could only describe as trident like spears.

“Ark emitters,” Ya’sia explained. “Even my species doesn’t know how they work, but they are effective. Somehow, they discharge a high intensity ark of electricity that doesn’t immediately disperse in space. They are close point defense weapons. Any missiles that get close to a Varanni ship have to pass through waves of high intensity electricity. If a wave touches one, the electricity fries the missile’s seeker warhead.”

“They haven’t shared that piece of tech with you then?” James asked, knowing the answer but hoping Ya’sia would explain more.

“Not yet anyway,” Ya’sia replied. “They have shared the technologies they deem necessary with us. Evidently, they have not felt we need their ark emitters. You have to admit; our point defenses are pretty effective already.”

“I can’t deny that,” James responded as he stared out the viewing port. Already his mind had moved on to something else he had seen. He would have many questions for Ya’sia on the way back. And I haven’t even met this Dural yet.

When the shuttle touched down and deployed its landing ramps, James couldn’t help but smile as he poked his head out and looked around. Despite how impressive the dreadnought had looked on approach, he was happy to see that its shuttle bay was at least somewhat familiar. Advanced technologies or no, Human, Crian and Varanni shuttle bays were very similar.

The similarities ended there however, as did James’ smile. Waiting for them at the bottom of the ramp were three Varanni. Despite being warned, James had to squash his desire to turn around and run back up the ramp. The Varanni did appear reptilian, very reptilian. Though they had two legs like Humans, their legs jutted out in front of them almost horizontally. From their torso up they stood upright; however their belly touched the floor and a long thick tail protruded out their back for at least a couple of meters. It seemed they used their two feet to keep their upper body upright and allow their two arms the freedom to interact with their environment. Though those things were strange, it wasn’t the Varanni’s bodies that made him pause. It was their faces. More specifically, their large aggressively shaped mouths and eyes. Though the Varanni had their lips closed, James could easily imagine razor-sharp teeth lining their jaws. Their eyes only increased the sense of danger radiating off the three creatures in front of him. They were pitch black. As James stared at one, he felt like he was looking at a cold-blooded killer; as if there was no heart or emotion within the being in front of him. Together, the eyes and mouth gave the impression that the Varanni would attack without mercy. Once again, he found himself swallowing a lump in his throat. Ya’sia could have been more specific in her warning.

For her part, Ya’sia didn’t miss a step and James did his best to keep alongside her. When he stepped off the ramp and onto the same level with the Varanni, he realized all three were a head taller than him. They weren’t as tall as Ya’sia, but they were certainly closer to her level. If the species we meet keep being taller than us, Humanity is going to develop an inferiority complex, he thought.

Ya’sia led him up to the three Varanni. Then she paused. The three Varanni bowed in unison and Ya’sia bowed in return. James followed suit, having already been briefed. He made sure the depth of his bow matched those of his hosts.

“Greetings Admiral Ya’sia, revered commander of the Crian Defense forces. Your fleet has clearly been in battle, no doubt you have earned great honor for your species. I look forward to hearing about your accomplishments. I am first officer El’lan. Dural asked me to escort you to the bridge. We see you have brought the Human you spoke of.”

As he finished speaking, El’lan turned his gaze to James. James held the alien’s stare unblinkingly as Ya’sia had directed, though it was difficult. Despite everything Ya’sia had said about the Varanni, his instincts were telling him death was in the alien’s eyes.

“This is Vice Admiral Somerville of the Human fleet,” Ya’sia explained as James held El’lan’s stare. “He is the senior commander of the forces in this system. He also commanded our combined Crian and Human fleet as we fought a number of battles against the Flex-aor, the species that attacked the Monulans. He has won many victories for his species. Since meeting him, I have personally witnessed him add a number more. I believe Dural will take pleasure in making Vice Admiral Somerville’s acquaintance.”

“So be it,” El’lan responded with a slight bow towards James. “Come with me.”

With a slight bow in return, Ya’sia fell in step beside El’lan. She had to gesture for James to keep up; he had been so busy staring he had forgot to follow. The Varanni actually slid along the surface of the hangar deck as they moved. Their tails swished back and forth behind them. It was unlike anything James had seen before. Shaking himself, he moved quickly to catch up. Gawking at the Varanni had to be one sure way to dishonor them.

As soon as they exited the shuttle bay, James was impressed once again. Whatever construction technique the Varanni used to build their starships, it left almost no trace. The corridor had no hatches, struts or wall components. It was as if the corridor had been molded out of one lump of metal. If it even is metal, James thought. He wanted to reach out and touch the surface as he walked by, but he thought better of it. After a minute of walking he concluded that he wasn’t going to see much else of the ship. Unlike the Flex-aor warship he had walked through, there didn’t appear to be any adjoining rooms or corridors for him to glance down.

When the Varanni leading him finally came to a halt, James realized why he had been unable to see anything else. El’lan waved her hand in front of her and a doorway appeared in the corridor’s structure. It seemed like the metal, or whatever the corridor was made of, simply retracted to form a doorway large enough for even Ya’sia to walk through without having to duck.

As they walked in, a large Varanni swished its tail and turned to face them. “Welcome to Quest’s bridge Admiral Ya’sia. You are most welcome. Your reputation proceeds you. You may not know it, but we fought alongside one another in the most recent war games held at Varanni Prime. You impressed me then.”

“I am glad to hear it Captain,” Ya’sia replied as she bowed deeply to who James assumed was Dural. “We will have to review the battle simulations so you can point out what ship you were commanding at the time. I don’t recall fighting alongside a full dreadnought. You must have been promoted since then. You have my congratulations.”

“You’re perceptive Admiral. I was promoted to command Quest after the war games,” Dural replied as he gave a bow of his own.

Ya’sia turned to James. “May I introduce my guest. This is Vice Admiral James Somerville, the senior commander of Humanity’s Outer Defense Fleet. He was instrumental in repulsing a Flex-aor invasion of his species’ space five years ago. His fleet also destroyed the remnants of the Flex-aor fleet that attacked the Monulans. I encountered his fleet after the battle and was impressed with his species’ capabilities. Since then, we have formed a partnership and launched an incursion into Flex-aor space. Despite our best efforts to find a peaceful settlement, we were forced to continue military operations against the Flex-aor. Given Vice Admiral Somerville’s previous command experience and the expertise he exhibited to me, I placed my fleet under his overall command. In the engagements we destroyed the orbital military installations of one Flex-aor colony and destroyed more than three thousand Flex-aor warships. Somerville has more than proven the trust I placed in him. He is a warrior and commander of the first order.

“Vice Admiral Somerville,” Ya’sia continued as she gestured towards the Varanni who had been speaking with them, “this is Captain Dural. To be given command of a Varanni dreadnaught identifies Dural as a commander of significant merit.”

James didn’t know where to look. Dural’s eyes scared him more than El’lan’s and he had to fight not to look away, but he was just as scared of offending the Varanni. A part of him also wanted to look wide-eyed at Ya’sia, she had never spoken so highly of him before. He wanted to shush her and stop her from building up Dural’s expectations too much, he didn’t want Dural to be disappointed. Another part of him was embarrassed at the praise and simply wanted to stare at his feet. In the end, he forced himself to hold Dural’s gaze. He was glad he did, for otherwise he might have missed the quick bow Dural gave him.

“It is very unusual for any species allied with my people to bring an uninvited guest to a meeting. Ya’sia clearly thinks very highly of you Vice Admiral. You are welcome here.”

James returned Dural’s bow. “I’m greatly honored to be allowed to meet you Captain. Ya’sia has told me something of your species, however until today she had not even told me the name of your people. She has kept your laws regarding contact with other species perfectly. I therefore understand what an honor it is to be allowed to step foot onto your dreadnought.”

“I am grateful you understand the honor you are being given,” Dural responded. “Now, Admiral Ya’sia, perhaps you could explain to me how it is that the Humans are so technologically advanced. When I first entered the system, I thought they were another race that had been given advanced weapons technologies to reign terror on our part of the galaxy. I presume given your military coordination with them that, that is not the case?”

“No,” Ya’sia answered with a very Human shake of her head. “That was my conclusion to begin with as well. However, Vice Admiral Somerville has made most of his species’ historical database available to my analysts. What they show is that Humanity has advanced significantly more quickly in the last four hundred years than we expected. In addition, the relationship I and my crew have built up with the Humans we have encountered has shown us that they fully understand their technologies and are quick to learn and adapt. It is my belief that their species could become very important members of our Trade Alliance. Moreover, I believe we will need their help to make sure the Flex-aor do not threaten our worlds. In truth, we were forced to flee Flex-aor space. Our estimates suggest that they could have as many as ten thousand or more warships in their fleet. They are a far greater threat than we first realized. They could even threaten Crian worlds if they concentrated their forces against us.

“It was my intention to send word back to Cria Prime and to Varanni Prime requesting additional military support. I’m glad you’re here. We do not believe the Flex-aor have the capability to launch an attack against this system immediately. But we believe a strong incursion will come eventually. What we have learnt of their species indicates that their High Queen, who is their political leader, will demand that her forces seek revenge for our attack on her homeworld. Though Humanity’s technologies and war fleet are impressive, I’m not sure they can withstand such an onslaught on their own.”

Dural brought both of his hands together and collapsed them over one another. He then pivoted slightly to look away from Ya’sia. “The news you bring is concerning. I’m afraid I was not sent here to assist you though. I bring even graver news. Four months ago, a third hostile alien species with technology far too advanced for their level of development was discovered by one of our scouts. One of our battle fleets moved in and neutralized the threat before they could launch any kind of attack. However, their discovery and the recent Flex-aor attack greatly alarmed our Senate. The fleet was ordered to send out scouts to carry out long range reconnaissance missions far beyond our borders. It was decided we needed to gather more information to understand what was going on. Three weeks ago, disturbing news was brought back by one scout.”

“A highly advanced race has been discovered just beyond the area of space our survey ships explored more than five centuries ago. First contact was made and friendly relationships established. However, this new species, the Mindus they call themselves, told us that they had just been attacked by another highly advanced very aggressive race. Within two months one third of their systems had been conquered and though the Mindus have managed to slow their enemy’s rate of advance, they do not believe their civilization will survive. Within days of relations being opened, they asked for permission to send a large group of their species to our space to establish a new world where their species might survive if their civilization is conquered.

“Given how serious the Mindus are taking the threat, the scout returned as fast as it could to update our Senate. Before the scout left the Mindus homeworld, the Mindus leaders asked if we would consider sending military support. As a show of good faith, they sent us all the military data on the war they have been fighting. They also promised to share all of their advanced technologies with us if we come to their aid. The Captain of our scout ship reported that in many ways the Mindus are even more advanced than my own species. Their offer has great value to us.”

Pausing, Dural turned and gestured to one of his subordinates. From a large holo projector, a map of space appeared. James hadn’t been sure what to make of everything Dural was sharing, but as soon as the map appeared it took all of his focus. Ya’sia had never shared anything like this. At first, he couldn’t really make out what he was looking at. Then he recognized X-32 at the center of the map. From there it was easy to identify, Earth and Kulthar, the Kulrean homeworld. Of course, the Varanni knew about both worlds. Identifying those two worlds put the rest of the map in context. When it did, James was blown away.

Ya’sia had said the Varanni’s Trading Alliance consisted of eleven species. The map showed the extent of each of their civilization’s borders. They were all noted with names and figures, things James memorized immediately. What shocked him the most was the size of the civilizations. Compared to Human space, Crian space seemed to cover at least three times as many systems. There were two other races within the Varanni Alliance that were of similar size. Whilst the rest were smaller, some were still at least the size of Human space. Of course the Crian civilization wasn’t the most impressive, the Varanni one was. Their borders dominated the map. Their space was roughly twice the size of Crian space, making it six times the size of Human space. Beyond the Alliance civilizations, there were a number of other smaller civilizations. Though Humanity didn’t know it, they had many neighbors they had yet to discover.

“This is where the Mindus homeworld is located,” Dural continued, seemingly unaware of just how much information he was revealing to James. On the map, a new dot appeared much closer to the galactic center than any other point being displayed. It was roughly twice the distance away from the Varanni homeworld than Earth was. In his head James began some calculations, if the scout had left Varanni prime four months ago and had returned just three weeks ago, then it had covered the distance to the Mindus homeworld in a remarkably quick time. Come to think of it, James realized, if Varanni prime only learnt of these Mindus three weeks ago, Dural has travelled from there to here in an astonishingly quick time as well. Their shift space capabilities were clearly far, far more advanced than Humanity’s.

“Given our analysis of the data the Mindus shared with us, there is no doubt that this alien race assaulting their worlds is the race that has ceded hostile species near our borders with advanced military technologies. We believe this is a tactic the species uses before it invades an area of space. They give advanced weapons technologies to genocidal races to cause mayhem and destruction prior to their arrival. Then they move in and take over whatever civilizations are left.”

“But that would mean that this species intends to conquer everything from the Mindus homeworld to Varanni Prime and Earth,” Ya’sia said, clearly thinking much further ahead than James. “Who could achieve conquests on such a scale?”

“These invaders clearly believe they can,” Dural answered. “They have not revealed their name or where they are from to the Mindus, so we are simply referring to them as the Invaders. Given their likely intention to conquer all of our species, the Varanni Senate has called for a meeting of all Alliance members. Their main battlefleets are also requested to assemble at Varanni Prime.”

“Your fleet High Command is planning to come to the aid of the Mindus?” Ya’sia asked.

“If the Alliance species agree, they are entertaining the possibility,” Dural answered.

“Fighting a war far from home rather than amongst your own inhabited worlds makes sense,” James said with a nod. “Do you think you can defeat these invaders?”

“We do not know,” Dural answered. “The Mindus do not appear to have invested as much research and development into their military technologies as we have. Nor did they have a large fleet when the Invaders launched their surprise attack. As I said, they have been able to slow down the Invaders’ advance as they have brought new ships and technologies into the war. However, the Invaders seem to have limitless numbers of ships. That fact, and our conclusion that they believe they can conquer what we view as our sector of space, suggests the Invaders rule over a very large space Empire. One much bigger than we imagined existing up until this point. We do not know if victory is possible. That is why the High Command is entertaining such a drastic course of action.”

James rubbed his forehead. He was struggling to take everything in. That wasn’t his immediate concern though. The Varanni were clearly advanced in ways beyond his comprehension. Yet if Dural thought his entire civilization was at risk from being conquered, what hope did Humanity have?




Chapter 25

One would think that over the centuries the translation and communication tech the Empire uses would have changed and developed with our increasing technological capabilities. I’m told however that we’re still basically using the technology the Kulreans shared with us a millennium ago. One wonders just how different our history would have been if they had shared more with us back then.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Not knowing Human mannerisms well and just as unaware of James’ thoughts as Dural had been, Ya’sia continued the conversation. “I presume, my fleet is to be a part of this force that might be sent to help the Mindus? That is why you were sent to recall us?”

“You are correct Admiral,” Dural replied. “If your fleet is able, we will depart as soon as possible.”

“What about the Humans?” Ya’sia asked. “They cannot defend themselves against the Flex-aor on their own. And if the Flex-aor decide to attack the Monulans or even my species instead of the Humans, we will be leaving our southern borders unguarded.”

“The Humans were not a part of my orders. Nor was the Senate aware of the Flex-aor threat when they dispatched me. When we return to Varanni Prime you can deliver a report to the Senate and our military High Command. They will have to decide how to proceed. Given what you’ve already said, it sounds like the Flex-aor are not an immediate threat. If the Mindus civilization is conquered, our Alliance will be the next target of these Invaders.”

Ya’sia looked at James, but when she saw he seemed distracted she turned back to Dural. “In that case, I suggest we bring Vice Admiral Somerville and his fleet with us to Varanni Prime. If it is judged that we must go to war against these Invaders, his experience and his fleet may come in very useful. In addition, he can make the case for aiding his own species to defend themselves against the Flex-aor in person.”

“I don’t see how that is possible,” Dural responded. “If we travel at the speed of Vice Admiral Somerville’s ships, it will add days if not weeks to our travel time. My orders were to bring you back as soon as possible.”

“We can upgrade their shift drives,” Ya’sia suggested. “We’ve already analyzed their technologies reasonably well. I believe we can help them make minor adjustments that will see significant gains. They would not be able to match our warships, let alone yours, but the delay would be worth adding more than a hundred warships to our fleet. Especially given the Humans’ other capabilities. They may be less technologically advanced than us overall, but some of their military technologies and tactics are very impressive. They would be a great asset to us.”

James had his mouth open. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. Ya’sia knew the threat the Flex-aor posed. Why was she suggesting they take both fleets away from X-32? That would be leaving Human space all but unprotected. When he went to say as much, Ya’sia covertly gestured for him to be silent. She spared him a quick glance. James didn’t know what she was doing, but he got her message.

“I’m not sure,” Dural responded. “You’re asking me to bring a battle fleet from a species the Senate has not even opened formal dialogue with to our homeworld.”

“I know the significance of what I’m asking,” Ya’sia replied. “Yet I’m still asking it. That is how important I think the Human’s assistance could be. Though, they need not come all the way to your homeworld. I can dispatch a frigate from my fleet now to bring advance warning of our approach. Your Senate can decide whether or not to allow the Human fleet into Varanni space before we get there. It will also save us some time. If word gets back to us that the Humans are not welcome, we can leave them behind and continue at our faster rates of travel. Though, with our way gates, the Human’s decreased shift space velocity won’t be that much of a hindrance.”

“Very well Admiral Ya’sia, I will take you at your word. These Humans have clearly made an impression upon you.”

“They have,” Ya’sia replied as she gave a slight bow towards James.

“How long until your fleet can depart Vice Admiral?” Dural asked as he turned back to James.

“Ah…” James said caught off guard. Realistically he knew his fleet could spend a month in orbit around X-32 resupplying and repairing damage. But he didn’t have a month, he didn’t even have a week. Lightfoot would stop any attempt to take the Outer Defense Fleet away from its assigned station within the day. “Half a day, perhaps a full day,” he answered. “Our fleet was out on maneuvers when we came across Ya’sia’s fleet. A resupply convoy has topped up much of our supply needs, however we need to return to X-32 to pick up a number of supplies.”

“We will depart in one day then, or sooner if you let me know. I will send technicians over to Handmaiden. Ya’sia, you can put together a team to work on the Human shift drives. We will see what improvements we can make before we depart.”

“Thank you Captain,” Ya’sia said as she gave Dural a deep bow. “You honor me with your trust. We will leave now, I’m sure Vice Admiral Somerville has much to do. I sent over a full report of our activities against the Flex-aor. It will make interesting reading for you.”

“I will send both of you a full report on what we know of the Mindus and these Invaders,” Dural responded. “We will speak more. Goodbye for now Admirals.”

James mimicked Ya’sia’s bow and then turned with her and followed her out of Quest’s bridge. He had a thousand questions he wanted to ask, but he thought it best to wait until they got back to her shuttle.

“I can’t believe that all just happened,” James said as soon as they were strapped in. “Dural showed me a map of your space. He is sending technicians to work on our technology. He wants a fleet of Human warships to come to his homeworld. This is far beyond anything you suggested might be possible. I thought this would take decades not minutes.”

“I’m surprised he agreed so readily myself,” Ya’sia responded. “Given how frank he was being with you, I thought there was nothing to lose in asking. He clearly took my respect for you as a positive sign. Still, it worries me greatly that he said yes.”

“How so?” James asked.

“Think about it,” Ya’sia responded. “Even taking you on board Quest as a passenger and bringing you to the Varanni homeworld as an advisor would be unprecedented. For Dural to contemplate anything more indicates just how concerned he is about these Invaders. He didn’t even flinch when we told him about the size of the Flex-aor fleet. If these invaders didn’t exist, I would have expected the Varanni to send an entire battle fleet to deal with the Flex-aor. Now Dural is happy to take our fleets away from here. It is like the Flex-aor don’t even exist as a threat.”

“I guess this report on these Invaders isn’t going to make for pretty reading then,” James commented. “I have to be honest though, I’m not sure I can take my fleet away from here. I have my own species to think of. I cannot leave my borders undefended.”

“They would not be undefended,” Ya’sia argued. “You do not need to bring your whole fleet and as you have no doubt observed, many more ships are already in orbit around X-32. This opportunity may never come again for your species. It is not something I recommend you pass up. Not least because I have staked my reputation on bringing you. If these Invaders are the threat they appear, your species’ future may depend on your involvement.”

“I understand what you’re saying but protecting my species’ borders is not the only problem we face. I would have told you sooner, but I thought Quest’s appearance took precedence.” James explained what Lightfoot had shared with him and how there was no way he could lead even a frigate away from X-32, never mind a fleet. To do so would be treason. After he finished speaking, he waited for Ya’sia’s response.

She didn’t reply for a long time. The shuttle was landing on Handmaiden’s flight deck when she finally spoke again. “That is a great disappointment. I cannot vouch for anyone else. It must be you or no one. I do not think Dural would accept any other fleet commander, even if you vouched for this Lightfoot. This is serious Vice Admiral. Your species’ future may depend on making a successful first contact with the Varanni. I suggest you think of something.”

James went to ask Ya’sia what she meant, but she beat him to it. Standing, she fixed him with a hard look. “Return to your ship, there is no time to spare, you must decide what to do and get your fleet ready to depart.” She gestured for him to proceed her out of the shuttle, stopping him from asking anything more. James understood, she didn’t feel she could tell him what to do, but he knew what she wanted.

After descending the ramp James stopped and turned back to her. “Thank you for what you said about me to Dural. Whatever happens, I hope I don’t disappoint you. I hope we will see each other again.” He gave Ya’sia the same bow she had given Dural.

Ya’sia reached out her hand and shook James’. “Get going Vice Admiral. I expect to see you again before the day is out.”

James didn’t reply, he knew what Ya’sia was asking him to do, but he couldn’t do it. Keeping silent was the only way not to make any promises he couldn’t keep.

*

When the shuttle set down in Golden Hind’s hanger Bay, James found Scott, Miyamoto and several of his officers eagerly waiting for him. As he descended the shuttle’s ramp, he gave the group a nod.

Scott clearly couldn’t contain herself. “Well?” she asked excitedly. “How was it? What did you learn? Why are they here?”

“Not now,” James replied as he held up his hand to Scott. He then brought it up to rub his temple. “I need to think.”

“But…” Scott began to say.

She was unable to add any more, for James had already walked past her. “Send orders to our ships. We continue on towards X-32. Call ahead and make sure everything has been done to expedite our resupply.”

“Are we going somewhere?” Scott asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. But let’s get our ships restocked as quickly as possible anyway,” James answered.

“What about the COM blackout?” Miyamoto asked. “Are we to keep it in place?”

“No,” James answered with a shake of his head. “You can lift it. Inform Lightfoot that the large warship belongs to a race allied with the Crians. They came to speak with Ya’sia. Tell him we ordered the blackout until we could confirm that the new contact was friendly.”

“Is that all we should tell him?” Scott pushed.

“That’s all I’m prepared to say for now,” James explained. “I need to think. Now, see to my orders. I’ll be in my office. Dismissed.” Though his subordinates were behind him, he could easily picture the look on their faces. That didn’t matter at the moment. He had far more important things to deal with.

When he got to his office James sat down and placed both elbows on his desk. Then he rested his head in his hands. His temples were throbbing. A headache was very clearly coming on. There were just too many things bouncing around in his head. He was struggling to take in everything Dural had revealed. Never mind what Ya’sia had asked of Dural and now expected him to do. Those revelations were more than enough for him to deal with, yet Lightfoot’s news loomed over everything else.

Straightening up, he looked at his reflection in his viewing port. He was kitted out in his best dress uniform. His medals were all on display on his chest. How can I just walk away from all this? My duty is to defend Humanity. If this new threat is real, we could be facing an enemy the likes of which we have never even imagined. How can I just walk away? James hated it when people built him up bigger than he was. He knew he was just a cog in the intricate machine that was the UN Navy. However, in this instance, he couldn’t deny his importance. For better or worse, he was the one who had met Ya’sia. He was the one who had won her confidence. Those were all factors the UN Military Subcommittee back on Earth knew nothing about. If they did, they would reverse their decision and order me to go with Dural.

James knew that wasn’t true. The Military Subcommittee had removed him in the middle of a shooting conflict. They wanted rid of him, no matter the cost. They wouldn’t see this as changing anything. They won’t care about the Varanni or the Invaders. So… can I go against their orders? Immediately his mind went to Lightfoot. If he tried to take his fleet with Dural, would Lightfoot allow it? James had great respect for his fellow countryman. Yet Lightfoot was a stickler for orders. If he had been given responsibility for the Outer Defense Fleet, he wouldn’t stand by and allow that fleet to be taken away. Of that James was certain, if for no other reason than that he knew he would do the same if the circumstances were reversed.

Especially given how much of a threat we know the Flex-aor are, James thought. That was another factor bouncing around his head. If he took even one ship away from X-32, he would be weakening Humanity’s defenses. Given how massively the UN fleet was outnumbered, could he risk doing what Ya’sia wanted him to do? One thing was certain, if he did take any ships away, the Military Subcommittee would not look kindly on it. If they saw his mission into Flex-aor space as a dereliction of duty, how would they view what he was contemplating now?

“You’re thinking about mutiny,” James said to his reflection. “You’ll be throwing away everything you have served and fought for since joining the RNS. Your career, your reputation, it will all be destroyed. Is that a price you are willing to pay? Is Dural’s information that important?”

James didn’t know the answer. There was no right answer. If he tried to leave, Lightfoot might arrest and imprison him. Or, if he was successful, the Flex-aor could come and destroy X-32 and who knows how many other Human colonies? Yet if he didn’t go, these Invaders might overwhelm this entire area of space. Winning a victory over the Flex-aor would be pointless then. How I am I supposed to decide? James asked himself again. The look of despair on his own face made him look away from his image. Instead he buried his head in his hands again.

For several minutes he struggled to think clearly. There were just too many factors to consider. Too many things that he was still coming to terms with. Through the haze one thing did emerge. He still hadn’t read the letter from Suzanna. Like a drowning man grasping for help, James’ arm shot over to his computer terminal. He needed something to steady his mind and he knew his wife’s letter would do just that. When he got to the messages Lightfoot had sent across, he saw there were two letters. One was much longer, but its date told him it was older. He chose to open the more recent one first.

James, I don’t have long before Lightfoot’s ships leave orbit so I will be short. I’m writing from Earth. Representative Kapoor and others on the Military Subcommittee orchestrated things to lure me here. Rumors were spread of a military tribunal to relieve you of command. As soon as I heard, I left Haven and came to Earth.

However, Kapoor wanted me on Earth. She is threatening to use her connections to cancel military contacts with Haven’s shipyards and encourage other companies to pull out of investing in our system. She wants me to publicly agree with the finding of the tribunal. As much as I hate her for it, it is a smart play. If you come back as the all-conquering hero, then the focus will be on me, the wife who betrayed her husband. No one will care that Kapoor was the one behind the tribunal. And if you don’t come back victorious, then she will have won anyway.

I don’t know why they hate us so much that they would do this to us, but I wish you were here with me. The last few days have been difficult. I’ve been beside myself. You know I love you, but I also love Haven. I’m sorry to say Kapoor’s threats made me seriously consider doing what she wants. How can I let the livelihoods of tens of thousands of my people be threatened?

However, I cannot deny who I am. I am your wife, your partner. I love you. I will not betray you. I must do what I know to be right. I want you to know that. Though I won’t be physically with you when you hear you have been relieved of command, I will be there. Just as you have been with me as I have faced Kapoor’s threats. I hope that brings you some comfort.

I plan to return to Haven tomorrow after I meet with Kapoor and tell her of my decision. But be assured I will be here when you get back. The tribunal will be held in absentia. There will be no one to defend you. That means there will be a full court martial when you get back. We have plenty of time to plan your defense.

Fairfax warned me that Lightfoot was leaving with orders to relieve you of command. That’s the only reason why I knew to write this letter. Hopefully it gives you plenty of warning to prepare for what awaits you when you get back to Earth. I’m sorry your homeworld is doing this to you. I know it is of little respite, but I want you to know that you always have a home in the Haven system.

Farewell for now. And don’t worry about my people, they will respect my decision. They love you almost as much as they love me. Until we meet in person. You are my strength.

Suzanna.

When he finished reading, James sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. The anger that had welled up inside him when he had heard about being relieved of command had doubled, if not tripled. It was one thing for Kapoor and his political opponents to launch an attack against him. But his wife? And her people’s homeworld? That was unacceptable, totally unacceptable!

The only thing that kept his anger in check was his sense of shame. It was his fault Suzanna had been put in such a situation, it was because she was married to him. It wasn’t hard for him to put himself in Suzanna’s shoes. Forced to choose between her husband and her people, she would have been tearing herself apart, and it was his fault.

For a moment, James felt despair threaten to take over and dominate his emotions. There were just too many things bombarding him at once. One phrase from Suzanna’s letter saved him. Though she had faced an impossible decision, she had made her choice. She did what was right, James said to himself. At that instance, two memories popped into his head. His wedding day, and the day he had transferred from the RSN into the UN fleet. On his wedding day he had vowed to protect his wife. When joining the UN, he had vowed to protect Humanity. He knew what he had to do. His head and his heart were pointing him in one direction. No matter the consequences, that was what he had to do. He owed it to Suzanna and his species, he had to do what was right.

With a tap he opened a COM channel to Golden Hind’s bridge. “Emilie, arrange a conference with my staff and senior commanders. I want them all to join me in Golden Hind’s main briefing room.”

“Certainly Vice Admiral,” Emilie replied. “What time would you like to schedule this conference for?”

“Immediately,” James answered. There was no time to spare.




Chapter 26

By the time of the third battle of the First Antarian War our commanders knew what they were up against. It made little difference. The Battle of Wismar was a complete route. Knowing what was going to happen to the population they left behind, several senior commanders committed suicide rather than face the public disgrace.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Just ten minutes later James stepped into the conference room. Along with his staff officers, Vice Admiral Sato, Rear Admirals Gupta, Ramirez and Bai and Captain Becket were all there. “Thank you for coming,” James said as he took his seat. “This is going to be the hardest conversation I’ve ever had. I don’t know how you’re going to react, but I am prepared for whatever you decide.” Knowing he had their attention, James told them that he had been relieved of command.

“That’s impossible,” Scott said as she jumped to her feet. “How can they do something like that? This fleet needs you. We might have been destroyed by the Flex-aor without you.”

“She’s right,” Gupta said in a serious tone. “It is the Military Subcommittee who have abandoned their duty. This cannot stand. What can we do?”

James smiled at Gupta. “Nothing my old friend. There’s nothing we can do. Lightfoot has orders to make sure I am sent back to Earth. He is now the commander of the Outer Defense Fleet. We can’t undo what has already been done.”

“There’s more isn’t there?” Sato asked. He at least wasn’t getting caught up in his emotions. “What happened between you and this Varanni Captain? What decision do you have to make that we are going to accept?”

James let out a sigh. “You’re right. My being removed isn’t the half of it. Listen carefully, I only have time to say all this once.” As James filled in his friends and colleagues on everything he had seen and heard on the Varanni warship, he watched their faces closely. Surprise, shock, fear and worry were all there. “So you see,” he concluded. “Ya’sia wants me to go to Varanni Prime. In fact, she wants all of us to go. I can’t order you. In fact, I’m not even asking you. However, I have decided I will. I’m sure Ya’sia will take me aboard her flagship. At best my actions will be seen as insubordination, at worst the Military Subcommittee will charge me with mutiny. I will be drummed out of the fleet and possibly even imprisoned when I return. Nevertheless, I feel I have to go and I didn’t want to leave without informing you why I am doing what I am doing.”

Finally finished, James looked at each of his subordinates, holding their eyes for a brief moment. Silence filled the briefing room. James allowed his mind to wander as everyone processed what he had just shared. He tried to imagine how he would feel if his mentor Vice Admiral Cunningham had announced he was disobeying a direct order from a superior. I would have been shocked too, he realized. And disappointed.

“That is a lot to take in Vice Admiral,” Captain Becket said breaking the silence. “No wonder you needed some space to think.”

James raised his eyebrows in response. “Indeed,” he agreed.

“Well I’ll tell you one thing,” Scott said. “You won’t be going alone. I’m coming with you.”

James shook his head. “I didn’t arrange this conference to ask you to come with me. You all have a choice now; you can tell Lightfoot what I’ve told you and no doubt he will order you to detain me. Or you can choose to let me go. I recognize the risk I’m taking in telling you, but I couldn’t leave without explaining my reasons.”

“That’s not a choice,” Scott countered. “None of us will turn you over. In fact, that’s the least we will do for you. I’m being serious, I’m coming with you. If you’re going to the homeworld of a vastly more powerful and advanced alien race, you’ll need me. To be frank Vice Admiral, I have certain skills and knowledge you do not. If your mission is so serious that you are willing to give up your naval career for it, then it is serious enough to bring me along as well.”

“I’m going too,” Emilie said as she jumped in. Her voice cracked as she spoke but there was determination in her eyes.

“Most definitely not,” James said as he stood and turned around to fully face her. “You’re a Sub Lieutenant. You have your entire naval career ahead of you. I’m not jeopardizing that.”

“What career?” Emilie responded. “I know you have enemies in the Military Subcommittee. If they have attacked you and Suzanna, right in the middle of a crisis, do you think they will look kindly on me? If you are branded a traitor, what future prospects do you think I will have?”

James rested both his hands on the conference desk and closed his eyes. He hadn’t thought about that. Being the niece of a traitor would all but guarantee Emilie would never get a command of her own. She probably wouldn’t even make Lieutenant.

“I think you’re getting too caught up in the minor details,” Captain Becket suggested. When James opened his eyes, she too had a determined gaze fixed upon him. “Golden Hind will be taking you to Varanni Prime. That means Sub Lieutenant Kansas and all your staff officers will be with you. If Ya’sia has requested you accompany her, then you will need your flagship.”

“And your flagship will not be unescorted,” Gupta followed up before James could protest. “I don’t care if it’s mutiny, I’m not leaving your side. A Human fleet that has no place for Vice Admiral Somerville is not one I wish to be a part of.”

“I’m in agreement as well,” Sato said. “Whilst I do not think we should send all of the Outer Defense Fleet with Dural and Ya’sia, we must send a portion. The Crians are valuable allies. We must do everything we can to build the same kind of relationship with these Varanni.”

James sat down and let out a deep breath. “You are all talking about mutiny, about disobeying direct orders and leading our ships and our crews to do the same. I was just going to leave. How can you abandon Lightfoot and disobey his orders?”

“You are our rightful commander James,” Gupta responded. “Wherever you go, we go. And that is the end of it. We’ll not listen to any more of your excuses. As you said, time is of the essence. If we’re going to take a fleet to Varanni Prime, we need to work out the details and fast.”

James had to blink rapidly to clear his vision. He had hoped his friends would support his decision, but he hadn’t expected this. A part of him wanted to shut the whole idea down. Yet how could he? How could he stop his friends from making the same decision he already had? If they thought it was their duty to support him, he couldn’t force them to go against their own conscience.

Unaware of the depth of emotion James was feeling, Sato, Gupta and the others discussed the details of what they were proposing. It was going to be a difficult undertaking. One that could falter before it even began. A lot depended on Lightfoot and how he would respond to what James had in mind. In a matter of minutes they had a broad plan worked out and without even waiting for James’ approval, they agreed on the basics and called the conference to an end. They had work to do.

James was still staring at the conference table when they departed. Gupta was the last to leave. She placed a hand on James’ shoulder. “Don’t be surprised Vice Admiral. You have spent the last fifteen years showing us what it looks like to put duty and honor above career. Now we’re showing you what we have learnt.”

James reached up and placed a hand on Gupta’s. He gave it a gentle squeeze. “You don’t have to do this you know. None of you have to prove anything to me.”

Gupta squeezed his shoulder in return. “We know. Don’t be so full of yourself. We are not doing this for you. We are doing this because you think it’s right. That means it is, and so we’re doing this because we must. Now,” she continued as she gave him a gentle shake. “Pull yourself together and figure out a way to make this work. This will all come to nothing if Lightfoot orders X-32’s defenses to blow us to smithereens.”

“Right,” James said as he turned and gave Gupta a wry look. “No problem. I’ll figure that out immediately.”

“Good,” Gupta replied with a smile. “I knew that would be no sweat for a senior commander of your experience. Now, I better go. I’ve got plenty to organize.”

*

Twenty minutes later, Golden Hind came into communication range of X-32. Immediately Vice Admiral Lightfoot opened up a COM channel with James’ flagship and demanded to speak to James. James was already waiting in his quarters.

“Vice Admiral Lightfoot, despite the circumstances, it is a pleasure to see you again. It makes it easier knowing the Defense Fleet will be in good hands once I leave,” James said.

“I’m glad you are coming to terms with what has happened,” Lightfoot replied. “As I said, this is not how I desired things to work out. However, we all have our duty to fulfil. With that in mind, I demand that you update me on what has just occurred. You’ll forgive me for being a little suspicious. For nearly twenty minutes after I sent you that personal message, no COM traffic came from your fleet. And now your subordinates have informed me that the massive warship belongs to another species more advanced than the Crians. What is it doing here?”

“I apologize for the communications blackout,” James began. “It was an instinctive order. Until we knew more about who was flying that ship - they call it a dreadnought by the way, I didn’t want any alarmist reports being sent to you.”

“So tell me, what this Varanni vessel is doing in our space?” Lightfoot requested.

“They are here to speak with Admiral Ya’sia. They have news from their own space. Ya’sia took me along to introduce me to the dreadnought’s Captain. His name is Dural. It seems the Varanni are a very reserved species. However, I think first contact went well. I believe it will be beneficial if we can form a bond of friendship with the Crians and the Varanni. They are willing to consider giving us further assistance in dealing with the Flex-aor.”

Lightfoot nodded. “That is encouraging. I’ve already read the summary report you sent. The number of ships the Flex-aor have is worrying, to say the least. We may need all the help we can get.”

“I agree. And that’s why I intend to delay my transfer to Wasp,” James said. He quickly raised a consolatory hand when it looked like Lightfoot was going to complain. “Not for long. Perhaps only a few hours. But I need to provide you with a detailed breakdown of what I learned speaking to Dural and my thoughts on the political and strategic implications that have arisen out of our conversation. I think you will find what Dural shared significant.”

“Perhaps you could enlighten me now,” Lightfoot suggested. “I will need some reason to sign off on your request.”

“Well, for one, he showed me a space map. The Crian inhabit an area of space roughly twice the size of our borders. The Varanni more than five times the size. They also have highly advanced means of interstellar travel. I believe their shift space speeds are an order of magnitude greater than our own. Dural talked about offering us assistance in improving our own shift drives. Beyond that, there was discussion about a military threat that the Varanni and their allies face. One that may threaten us as well. One that may make the Flex-aor appear to be nothing more than an irritating gnat. Is that enough for you? I could give you more, but it’s all bouncing around inside my head. Getting it down on paper will help me clarify things.”

“A threat greater than the Flex-aor?” Lightfoot half repeated in a thoughtful tone. “That is a serious concern. I’ll contact Wasp’s Captain and let her know you will be delayed for several hours. I trust you Vice Admiral. If you say this is important I’m willing to put my neck on the line. I’ll let you get to work.”

“Thank you Vice Admiral and, if we don’t speak again, good luck with your command. I’m sure you’ll give the Flex-aor an even bigger bloody nose than Ya’sia and I have,” James said, filled with shame at how easily the words came to him.

“Thank you James,” Lightfoot replied. “I wish you well on Earth.”

James nodded and switched off the COM channel. He hated lying to a friend, but he had no choice.

*

After Golden Hind slotted into orbit, James waited as long as he could. When he thought Lightfoot’s patience wouldn’t last any longer, he left his office and stepped onto the bridge. “How are the preparations coming?”

Scott spun around in her command chair to face him. “All the Captains have been contacted. There’s no sign that anyone has leaked anything to Lightfoot. Everyone is with us.”

“And our supply situation?”

“We’ve received a lot of supplies from the orbital storage already,” Scott began. “Sato has also been organizing the transfer of supplies from his ships. It allowed us to focus on taking on board as many multistage missiles as we can. So far, we’ve got enough crammed into our hangar bays for three salvos. None of the missiles have been put away yet, we’re not wasting time with that. We’re just unloading them and taking the next batch. I think the Captain in charge of logistics at Hauptman station thinks we have become a little hysterical. I’ve been yammering at him that the Flex-aor could attack at any minute.”

“Good,” James said with a nod. “I hope we won’t need them but the more we have the merrier. I feel bad taking them away from Lightfoot though.”

“I don’t think you need to worry Vice Admiral,” Lieutenant Yue said. “According to the updated supply rosters almost all the multistage missiles we have, have been sent to the front. It seems the Military Subcommittee is at least somewhat concerned about protecting our outpost here.”

“Very well. I believe it is time. If I wait any longer in sending my report to Lightfoot, he will grow suspicious. And if he does, it won’t take him long to figure out what is happening. Send the prearranged message.”

As soon as the ships within the Outer Defense Fleet received the COM message, they all sounded their alarms, sending their crews to battle stations. Their Captains were already on their bridges waiting for the signal. In a matter of seconds every warship had opened its missile ports and powered up its energy weapons. Then they all powered up their engines and followed Golden Hind out of orbit.

It took Lightfoot less than a minute to open a COM channel to Golden Hind. James received the call from his command chair. “What the devil are you playing at Somerville?” Lightfoot demanded; his voice was so high he was almost screeching. “This is mutiny. Turn your ships around at once and I will forget you have done this.”

“That is impossible,” James replied calmly. “I’ve just transmitted you a full debrief of what I learnt on the Varanni Dreadnaught. “Dural has asked that I and my fleet accompany Ya’sia and her fleet back to his homeworld. The Varanni and their allies are meeting to decide what to do about the threat I informed you of. In return for our help, Dural has already promised technological advances. The threat of these Invaders and the promise of assistance from the Varanni is too great to pass up. The Military Subcommittee knew nothing of these developments when they relieved me of command. The situation has changed, I can no longer follow their orders.”

“Your excuses are meaningless,” Lightfoot spat. “You are a naval officer. You made vows to the UN. How can you abandon your posts? Our colonies are relying on your ships for protection. I order you and your ships to return to orbit. If you do not I will be forced to prevent you from leaving.”

“I am fulfilling my vows to the UN,” James replied. “I don’t expect you to understand that, but I am. And let me make myself very clear. This is not a decision I’m taking lightly. I’m prepared to face the consequences of whatever the Military Subcommittee decides. However, I am leaving. Of that you can be sure. If any UN ship tries to power up its weapons, we will open fire upon them. On that I give you my word.”

“You would not dare!” Lightfoot shouted.

“You don’t want to try me. I have left you plenty of ships to defend X-32. If you open fire you may stop my fleet from leaving, but you will be seriously reducing your own forces. The Flex-aor and these new enemies are who we should be fighting. Not each other.”

“You’re leaving me no choice,” Lightfoot replied.

“The choice is yours Vice Admiral. I am prepared to spill the blood of my comrades. That is the importance I place on going to Varanni Prime. It is up to you to decide if you are prepared to fire on your own people. I have nothing more to say. I suggest you read the report I sent to you.” With a nod to Emilie, James ordered the COM channel shut down. Though he sat back in his chair, both fists were tightly grasping its armrests. He had just lied to Lightfoot again. If it came to it, he had given express orders to all his Captains not to open fire. If need be he would take a shuttle and go to Ya’sia’s flagship alone. He wasn’t going to fire on his friends. Golden Hind could shield him from any attempts to arrest him. Lightfoot wasn’t to know that however, and James hoped he had put on good enough a show.

As everyone waited to see what Lightfoot would do, time seemed to drag. The first minute was excruciating. Everyone was staring at the sensor readouts, looking for any sign that Lightfoot’s forces were powering up their weapons. As one minute turned to two, and then three, time slowly started to speed up. It wasn’t until Golden Hind and her consorts had been accelerating away from X-32 for ten minutes that James allowed himself to relax.

“Multiple shuttle launches coming from the orbital defenses,” Miyamoto reported.

“They’ll be crammed with Marines,” Becket guessed, “and headed for Sato’s ships. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.”

“I imagine he’s thinking the same thing of us,” James responded. “He’ll be fine. You did a good job making sure there was nothing connecting his forces with our plans. The shuttles are a good sign. If Lightfoot is securing Sato’s ships, he is clearly not thinking of coming after us.”

Just to be sure, James waited another twenty minutes for Golden Hind to get out of conventional missile range of X-32’s orbital defenses. “Open a COM channel to our ships.”

A few seconds later Emilie gave him a nod to let him know the COM channel was open. “Men and women of the Outer Defense Fleet,” James began. “I am sure many of you are confused about what is going on. As you may be aware, a communications blackout has been placed on all your ships. The reason for this is because I have ordered your commanders to carry out actions that go against orders sent to us by the UN Military Subcommittee on Earth. Those orders were out of date by the time they reached us. However, Vice Admiral Lightfoot and others at X-32 do not necessarily agree. Therefore, I have decided to break our ships away from Lightfoot’s forces.

“We have been invited by Ya’sia to visit her species’ benefactors’ homeworld. They call themselves the Varanni. It may be that they need our help. Certainly, we need their assistance. That is where we are headed now. I’m sorry you will not be able to send or receive any more messages back to Earth. However, the communications blackout is for your own good. I have no doubt that I and some of our other senior officers will be charged with mutiny because of our actions. The rest of you can claim ignorance and should not face any repercussions for my actions. I do not know how long we will be gone for, but I want all of you to have heard it from me. I have not taken this decision lightly. I believe the future of our species may be determined by this journey. I hope you will continue to serve under my command with the same courage and commitment that you have shown to date. Vice Admiral Somerville out.”

As he spoke, James had been staring at the holo display of his fleet. Arrayed around Golden Hind were the other seven battleships of first battleship squadron. With them were the eight battlecruisers of Gupta’s first battlecruiser squadron, sixteen heavy cruisers from two other squadrons and another sixty smaller warships. James had insisted that they leave almost half of the Outer Defense Fleet with Sato. If the Flex-aor did find a way to launch a quick strike against X-32, Lightfoot would have a powerful force under his command. James just hoped Sato and the other commanders he had left behind wouldn’t suffer as a result of his decision.

“I’m detecting shuttle launches from Handmaiden and several other Crian warships, they are coming our way,” Miyamoto reported.

“They’ll be coming to look at our shift drives I imagine,” James informed him. Mentally he turned away from Lightfoot, Sato and X-32. He had a new mission to focus on now. “Contact them and see which ships they wish to work on first.”




Chapter 27

Famously Sarah Villanueva was the first scientist to discover the Sun Gate in the Sol System. To this day we do not know who built them, how to replicate them or what their existence means for our history as a species. Villanueva did figure out how to operate the Sol gate and her discovery turned the tide of the First Antarian War.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, X-37 system, 14th October 2478 AD.

James coughed to clear his throat, brushed some dust off his dress uniform and then rolled his shoulders to ease some of the tension he had been carrying since leaving X-32. Straightening his back, he made sure he was as presentable as possible. Moments later the Varanni shuttle flew through the open hanger bay door. He kept his face impassive as he watched it gracefully touch down on Golden Hind’s hanger deck. As soon as one of the shuttle’s access ramps descended, the musicians of the welcoming party James had organized began to play. The shrills of the whistles and beat of the drums filled the hanger bay.

James remained stationary until Dural and the three other Varanni stopped in front of him. He then raised his hand to his forehead in a short salute. His movement was the signal for the welcoming party to cease playing. Before speaking, he bowed low to Dural.

“Welcome to Golden Hind,” he said after Dural returned his bow. “It is a great honor to host you on my flagship.” As he spoke, he did his best to keep his voice level. Staring into Dural’s eyes still gave him a chill. Even though he had spent some time communicating with the Varanni Captain over the last few days and had spent some time with the engineers Dural had sent to his flagship, James still found the Varanni intimidating. That’s the point of this meal, he reminded himself. He wanted to get to know the Varanni and, in turn, let them learn more about Humanity. He hoped that would put himself and his crew at ease.

“I was happy to receive your invitation Vice Admiral. I look forward to getting to know you and your crew. Admiral Ya’sia thinks highly of you and I’m keen to see what she has been talking about,” Dural replied.

“Let me introduce my second in command, Flag Captain and Chief of Staff,” James said as he turned and introduced Gupta, Becket and Scott.

“This is my second officer, Alma,” Dural responded as he turned and introduced the Varanni at his side and the other two as more junior officers from his ship.

“Well, now that introductions are complete, if you would follow me I will lead you to our dining area. Ya’sia has briefed my cook on the kinds of foods your species eat. I hope we have found something that is to your liking.”

“I have been on a couple of diplomatic missions during my service in the fleet,” Dural replied. “I have some experience of eating other species’ cuisine. I am sure it will be an interesting experience for us to try the kinds of foods your species eats.”

“I hope we don’t disappoint you then,” James said as he turned and led Dural and the other Varanni towards one of the hatches that led out of the hanger.

“You do not stage your fighters from this bay?” Dural asked as he looked around.

James gave a small shake of his head. “They have their own specialized hangers designed to rearm and launch them as efficiently as possible. We only house one squadron of fighters on Golden Hind so this and one of our other hangers are just for shuttles. Our two carriers carry five squadrons each.”

“I would find it interesting to view these fighters. My species dismissed the use of such small piloted craft centuries ago as impractical. Yet from Ya’sia’s report, you have found a way to make them useful.”

“After our meal we could give you a short tour of the fighter squadron based on Golden Hind,” James replied. “In turn, perhaps I could be so bold as to request a tour of your ship at some point on our journey? I was impressed by what I saw when I accompanied Ya’sia to meet you.”

“We won’t have time as we travel through this system, but in a later system that could be arranged,” Dural responded. “I hope you understand though, there would be some things we could not show you.”

“I understand completely,” James replied as he nodded. “I do not wish to pry into secrets your species wishes to keep.” And, he thought, even the things you do show us will be more than advanced enough for us to learn a great deal.

As they continued to walk, James pointed out different features of his flagship and Dural asked a couple of questions. “I want to thank you for the help your engineers have been already,” James said just before they came to Golden Hind’s main dining area. “I know they have only suggested some minor changes, but they are having a significant impact on our technology.”

“Once again, you have Ya’sia to thank for that. She is well respected within our fleet and her word goes a long way.”

“Then I will make sure I thank her as well. I only hope we can repay the trust you are placing in us.”

“That is my hope as well Vice Admiral. Time will tell whether our hopes come to fruition.”

When they got to the dining room, James showed the Varanni to their seats, or at least the wooden boxes Ya’sia had told him Varanni used as seats. He went around the table and introduced the rest of his staff officers to Dural and Dural introduced his officers to James’ people and to Ya’sia and Maleck whom James had also invited. Then he reached over and lifted the glass of wine that had already been set out for him. In front of the Varanni and the Crians were drinks Ya’sia had promised James they could drink. As he raised his glass he addressed the gathered naval officers, “It is a Human tradition to toast guests at an important meal. Let me thank you Captain for allowing us to join the Crians in this journey to your homeworld and let me thank you for your presence here. May we drink to a prosperous relationship between our two species.” Touching his glass with Gupta’s and then Becket’s, James motioned for Dural to do the same. Hesitantly Dural picked up his own glass and James slowly moved his over to touch Dural’s. “This is a Human tradition. We do this before drinking a toast.”

“Does your species have many such traditions?” Alma asked after touching his glass with Miyamoto’s and then taking a sip.

James turned to Scott and raised an eyebrow to let her answer. She took a moment before speaking as she gathered her thoughts. “From an outsider’s perspective, I suppose one might come to such a conclusion. Earth is home to many different nations and people groups. We all have different traditions that date back thousands of years. Some of our cultures have adapted and incorporated other traditions, whilst others have resisted any change. Most of the officers around us are from Western nations. If you were being hosted by a different Admiral from our Navy, with a different staff, you might get to experience a completely different set of traditions.”

“That is interesting,” Alma responded. Then looked at Ya’sia, “How have you found interacting with Vice Admiral Somerville’s officers? We and the Crians are used to interacting with species that have one culture, not many,” he added by way of explanation.

“It’s not as hard as you might think,” Ya’sia answered. “Yes, there are differences, but there are more similarities than it might initially appear. All the Humans I have interacted with have been honest and honorable. We have fought well together because of this. It has been easy to look past our differences when we have such things in common.”

“That is good to know,” Dural said as he made a gesture with his hand James didn’t understand. “You will have to tell us about some of these different cultures Vice Admiral and the different groups that make them up. It is very interesting to meet a species that is not united under one form of government. I can easily imagine how such a fractured political system has led to the many wars Ya’sia has told me about.”

James held himself back from answering when he saw his steward poke his head through one of the doors. “I’m sure my officers would be delighted to tell you about the history of their countries and cultures. But first, the food is ready. My steward is going to have it brought out now and then we can talk as we eat.”

Five minutes later both the Crians and the Varanni had meals in front of them that they seemed to be happy to consume. The Crians actually turned out to be the pickiest, mainly preferring the fruit and vegetable dishes James’ cook had prepared. The Varanni seemed able to consume almost anything out in front of them. When they were sorted, James returned to their conversation. “I’m curious about your own history Captain, how long ago did your species first venture into space? Was your species already united under one government by then?”

“It was just over three millennia ago,” Dural answered nonchalantly. If he noticed the look of surprise and shock on many of James’ officers’ faces, he did not acknowledge it. “In fact, just two years ago we celebrated the third millennia of our species’ interstellar civilization. As you may imagine, back then our technologies were very primitive and it took us centuries to develop the means to travel between star systems.”

“Even so, your civilization must be vast after thousands of years of expansion?” Becket asked.

“Vast is a relative term Captain,” Dural responded as he turned to face Becket. Knowing Becket so well, James could see her trying and failing to keep her emotions under control as Dural’s black lifeless eyes rested on her. “Compared to the size of your civilization, you may deem it vast, but compared to the size of the galaxy, we occupy a very small portion. Indeed, we haven’t expanded our borders for more than five hundred years. Our civilization is surrounded on all sides by other members of the Varanni Alliance. That’s not to say that we are not continuing to colonize new worlds. Our terraforming technologies are more than capable of allowing us to reshape new worlds for inhabitation if they are needed.”

James could feel his excitement rising as Dural spoke. He felt like a schoolboy again, he had a hundred questions. It was just like when he had first met Ya’sia, suddenly the galaxy was opening up before his prying mind. His officers were clearly feeling the same thing for more than one tried to speak at once. When everyone paused and looked at each other, Scott was the first to try again. “Your Trading Alliance, Ya’sia has shared a little bit about it, but we would be very interested to hear how your species went about forming it.”

“That is a long story,” Dural responded. “Whilst my species recognizes the need to have a war fleet for the defense of our civilization, we have never enjoyed violence. Within our own politics and then as we encountered neighboring species, we never sought to impose our will upon others. Initially our ancestors took a policy of non-intervention in our neighboring species’ development. However, over time as we watched some of our neighbors begin to develop space technologies and, specifically, weapon technologies, we decided it best to reveal ourselves. As I’m sure Ya’sia has shared, there are ten other members of the Varanni Trading Alliance, they are the species that we have developed the closest relationships with. They all agree that the advancement of our differing species is aided far better by cooperation and trade than war. There are forty-three other species with whom we have some kind of diplomatic relationship, however none have progressed to the point of admitting them into the Alliance.”

“Forty-three,” James couldn’t help but blurt out. Ya’sia had mentioned nothing about forty-three other alien races. He been struggling to get his head around the idea of eleven new alien races, now the number was fifty-four.

“Yes Vice Admiral, though we ceased our survey missions centuries ago, there are many neighboring species that we have diplomatic relations with. Additionally, there are a number more that we are aware of that we have not revealed ourselves to yet. Some have not yet developed the ability to reach space, others, like your species, have not yet been deemed ready to meet us.”

Gupta asked the next question that was on James’ lips before him. “Why have we not been deemed ready?” To her credit, James noticed she did much better at keeping her facial expression and body language under control as Dural turned to her.

“Your species was deemed too primitive and violent to be contacted,” Dural explained. “Clearly your civilization has exceeded our expectations in terms of your technological development. Your disposition towards violence may be another matter. However, given the current threat such a tendency may prove useful.”

Despite the earlier excitement, James wasn’t surprised when none of his officers jumped to ask another question. He didn’t know whether he should feel insulted or complemented by Dural’s comments.

After a short pause, Scott was the one who broke the silence. “Vice Admiral Somerville has filled us in on what you shared with him about these Invaders and we have started to analyze the data you have shared with us, but is there anything else you can tell us?”

“No, not at this time,” Dural replied. “Varanni High Command was only beginning to analyze the data we have available when I was dispatched to bring Ya’sia’s fleet back. I will not know more about these Invaders until we return to my homeworld. I do know that the senior fleet commanders are very concerned. That in and of itself communicates a lot.”

Again silence descended around the dining table. James understood. The Varanni civilization, never mind their Trading Alliance, was a wonder that was almost unimaginable for his officers. That they were concerned about these Invaders spoke volumes as to the threat they posed.

“So tell me, what culture or nation-state does your family belong to?” Alma asked as he turned to Yue. Alma’s question broke the spell of silence and within moments the other two Varanni officers turned to speak to the Humans they were seated beside. At the same time, Ya’sia drew Gupta into a conversation and Maleck began to speak with Becket. The dining table was soon filled with conversation as everyone continued to eat the ample supplies of food that James’ cook had provided.

James was pleased for two reasons. For one, it looked like his plan of hosting Dural and his officers was starting to work and, two, it meant he had Dural all to himself. Over the next five minutes he continued to fire questions at Dural, every answer only served to spawn ten more questions in his mind. Very quickly though, he realized that Dural didn’t enjoy simply answering question after question and their conversation developed into a back-and-forth where James allowed Dural to ask a question for every one he answered.

“I am curious Vice Admiral,” Dural said a little quieter than normal after he had broken off from talking to James to listen into several of the other conversations going on around the table. “It seems strange to me to see so many former enemies sat around a table together. From even the little I have heard, many of your nations have been at war with one another just very recently. Have you had problems getting your staff to work together as one?”

“No,” James said with a shake of his head. “In all honesty, I have not. I think we have the Flex-aor to thank for that. Everyone here recognizes the threat they pose to all of my species. That has allowed us to put past grievances aside. It helps that we respect each other. I was able to handpick the best officers for my fleet.”

“And outside your fleet, are your nations getting along better now?”

James took a breath as he thought through his answer. Ya’sia had warned him not to try to lie or deceive Dural. Once trust was lost, it was hard to win it back with the Varanni. “Not as much as I would like. Here in the Outer Defense Fleet, we have a common cause. Back on Earth or in our colonies, many nations and groups seek their own benefit rather than that of all our species.” As he spoke James couldn’t help but picture some of the members of the Military Subcommittee. “We’re still very much a race that struggles to work together as one. However, when faced with outside threats, we can pull together.”

“It is very strange to me to think that a species can be divided against itself. Such things would normally make our diplomats stay away from your species. Ya’sia has taken a significant risk to invite you to Alliance space.”

“I understand that,” James replied with a nod. “And I appreciate that you have taken the risk too. I hope we can repay that risk. I must confess, I am curious myself though. You speak as if you do not understand differing groups competing with one another, how do the different member species of your Trading Alliance get along? Are there not competing factions within the Alliance?”

“You ask a perceptive question Vice Admiral,” Dural replied as he turned his body slightly to face James even more. He took a moment before he continued. “Perhaps I have been too quick to judge your species. You are right, not all the members of our Trade Alliance agree on everything. There are contentious issues and debates have been known to happen. Never has a disagreement resulted in violence however.”

“It sounds like my species could learn much from your Trade Alliance,” James responded. “If my species’ experience with war can be helpful for yours, I hope in turn your species’ experience with peace will be helpful for mine.”

“That is a wise thought Vice Admiral, I am beginning to see why Ya’sia liked you so much,” Dural replied. “Now, you have mentioned this desert more than once. I am eager to see and taste just what you have been talking about.”

When James looked up, he wasn’t surprised to see Fox hovering nearby. With a nod he gave permission for his steward to clear away the dishes his guests had finished with and prepare for dessert. As he turned back to Dural, he saw that Gupta and Ya’sia had drawn him into a conversation about one of the battles that she had fought in as a Captain.

Taking advantage of Dural’s distraction, James sat back in his chair and took a moment to look around the dining room. As a species the Varanni were much more reserved than his own people or the Crians he had met. Nevertheless, he was happy to see that all four Varanni were engaged in different conversations. For a moment, James allowed himself to enjoy the scene in front of him. He had three different species on his flagship and they were all sharing a meal and getting along together. Despite the pain and sorrow he felt at being relieved of command and the concern he had over the Invaders he knew so little about, he couldn’t help but smile. Whatever the future held for his species and his fleet, the Varanni and the Crians were going to play a significant role in it. And perhaps we will play a significant role in their future as well, James thought as Fox reappeared with the first of the deserts.




Chapter 28

It wasn’t the Antarians’ technologies nor new advanced battle tactics that made them such an overpowering force. It was simply their willingness to close to energy weapons range at any cost. Once in weapon’s range, the durability of their ships allowed them to blast away at ours until our commanders lost their nerve and ordered a retreat.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, Monulan system, 6th November 2478 AD.

James was resting in his command chair as Golden Hind cruised through the Monulan System. He was watching the holo projector intently. The Monulan system was the home system of the Monulans. They were not a part of the Varanni Trading Alliance, but they were friends of the Varanni and Crians. It had been this system that the Flex-aor had launched an attack against. Although the Monulans weren’t as advanced as Humanity, their home system was still a curiosity. Golden Hind’s sensors were detecting many things that his officers couldn’t make head or tails of.

Just more things to add to the growing list of mysteries we have seen, James thought. Flying in formation with the Varanni Dreadnought had allowed Golden Hind’s sensors to get a much closer look at the warship. For the most part, getting more accurate sensor scans had led to more questions rather than answers. The Varanni themselves were tight lipped. Though Dural had sent engineers to work on Golden Hind’s shift drive, they hadn’t been very talkative about their own technologies.

Whilst James was disappointed, he wasn’t complaining. Within a day of beginning their work, the technicians had increased the shift drive’s speed through shift space by six percent. They also increased the drive’s recharge rate by thirteen percent, reducing the downtime Golden Hind had to spend in normal space between jumps. Within a week, they had increased the drive’s speed by another nine percent. Even watching what they had done, Golden Hind’s best engineers didn’t understand how the changes worked. His engineers could repeat the changes as they had done on all the other Human warships, but theoretically, the small tweaks the Varanni had made shouldn’t have led to such gains in performance. The only explanation James had been given by his engineers was that the Varanni were operating with a far deeper knowledge of shift space and shift drive technology. What was even more exciting was that the Varanni engineers had left schematics for other changes that would provide an additional twenty percent increase in performance. The only problem was the shift drives would have to be deconstructed and then reassembled piece by piece to make the necessary changes. That was something there wasn’t time to accomplish yet. Even so, James thought, when we do make the changes, we’ll have a thirty percent increase in speed and a reduction in down time between jumps. When we get back to Human space we’ll be setting records for travel between different star systems!

“Vice Admiral, Captain, I’m starting to get trace returns from something directly ahead of us on our sensors,” the sensor officer on duty reported. “I can’t make anything out yet, but we seem to be heading straight for it.”

“Another surprise no doubt,” Becket commented. “Keep your eye on whatever it is and see if you can figure it out. I’m sure Dural and Ya’sia are already aware of it.”

James nodded. Dural had demonstrated more than once that Quest’s sensors were significantly better than Golden Hind’s.

“I think I know what I’m looking at,” the sensor officer said ten minutes later. “It looks like a giant jump gate. It is easily six times the size of the ones we have in the Sol system. But it has the same appearance. At least from this distance.” As she spoke the officer put what Golden Hind’s sensors were seeing on the main holo projector.

The image sparked a memory for James. “Yes, I think you’re right. Now that you mention it, Dural and Ya’sia spoke of what they called a Way Gate when I first met with them. This must be one of them.”

“Where is your imagination Vice Admiral?” Scott asked. “Why think they have just developed larger and presumably more powerful jump gates? Why can’t it be some kind of device that opens up a wormhole or some other kind of instantaneous travel?”

“Now that would be an impressive feat,” Miyamoto responded. “Is that even possible?”

Scott laughed. “I’m afraid not. I’m sorry to disappoint you Vice Admiral,” she added.

James guessed she had seen the contemplative look on his face. For a second, he had thought Scott serious. Everyone knew wormhole travel was possible. After all that’s what the Gift was. A wormhole that greatly reduced the time it took to travel from Earth to Haven. However, the Gift was a naturally occurring wormhole. The UN Military Subcommittee had scientists working on forming artificial wormholes, but the research was at a very primitive stage. More promising was the work at the Gift. It was believed other wormholes existed in the maelstrom of gravimetric eddies that surrounded the Gift. But even that research hadn’t produced any results yet.

“Everything we know about wormholes suggests it would take energy levels that only exist near the center of a star to open a wormhole,” Scott explained. “As impressive as the Varanni are, I don’t think they have such technologies. If they did, I don’t see why they would be concerned by these Invaders. The weapons one could power with such quantities of energy would be almost limitless, both in their range and devastation.”

“Perhaps its best they don’t have such technology then,” James responded. “I’m not sure I’d want anyone with that kind of weaponry.”

“Vice Admiral, we have just received a transmission from the Monulan homeworld,” Emilie reported. “They say they are happy to make our acquaintance and that any friend of the Varanni and Crians is a friend of theirs. They thank us for the cultural database you sent and they have sent a database on their own species in return. Ahh, oh my..” Emilie couldn’t help but add.

“What is it?” Scott asked.

“The database they sent, it’s rather large. Several petabytes. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for sifting through it,” Emilie answered.

“No,” James agreed with a chuckle. “But I don’t see why it shouldn’t be you. You can at least categorize it so our researchers can start to make sense of it. That will give you plenty to do in your spare time. Think of it as a lesson to remind you to always keep yourself under control when giving a report to your superiors.”

“Yes Admiral,” Emilie replied meekly.

“Scott, you can pick a couple of crew with the necessary skills to help. This may not be the only cultural database we will be given. By the time we get back to Earth I want them in a presentable format that we can hand over to our scientists.”

“Understood Admiral, I’ll make the arrangements right away. I’m sure Sub Lieutenant Kansas will have no problem overseeing the project,” Scott replied. James had to hide another chuckle when he saw the look Emilie gave Scott. Scott just winked at the Sub Lieutenant.

Though Emilie’s ire remained visible for a few moments longer, it quickly disappeared when her console beeped. “Ya’sia is requesting to speak to you Vice Admiral,” she reported.

“Put her through,” James acknowledged.

“James,” Ya’sia began. “I hope you are enjoying the sights. I see you have opened communications with the Monulans.”

“Indeed we have,” James replied with a nod. “They have been most open with us. We shared our cultural database with them and they have responded in kind.”

“It will be interesting to see what they and the species in the Varanni Trade Alliance make of you. Your species has a much more violent past than what we are used to dealing with. Yet that may be what we need. I suspect the Monulans will be surprised to learn the Varanni are allowing a fleet from such a warlike species to travel through Alliance space.”

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” James responded. “I hope we don’t let you down.”

“Nor I you,” Ya’sia replied. “I know the price you have paid to bring your fleet with us. I just hope that once it’s all over, your leaders will understand.”

“That’s a problem for another day,” James said with a wave of his hand. “Was there something specific you wanted to talk to me about? Perhaps this large structure we are approaching?”

Ya’sia smiled. “Perceptive as always Vice Admiral. Yes, we are approaching what we call a Way Gate. They are installations that can tear open holes into shift space and impart great velocities to ships that pass through them. The Way Gate will allow us to travel to the borders of Crian territory much quicker than if we just used our normal shift drives. The Varanni’s analysis of your shift drives indicates that your ships will be able to travel through the Way Gate without any difficulties.”

“I’m not surprised,” James responded. “We have the same technology within our own territory, though we call them Jump Gates. As you can imagine, we don’t have one so large as the one we are approaching now. I presume our entire fleet can pass through the gate in just a couple of divisions?”

“You have your own Way Gates?” Ya’sia asked. “Another surprising thing about your species. And yes you’re right, the Way Gates are large enough for a Varanni strike fleet to pass through in one go. We’ll have to split our fleet in two to pass through, but it won’t cause any significant delay.”

“How many Way Gates are there between here and the end of the next shift passage?” James asked.

Ya’sia looked confused for a moment. “How many? I’m not sure what you mean. There’s only one Way Gate of course.”

“Only one?” James asked as a similar look of confusion passed over his face. “How is that possible?”

Ya’sia looked at him strangely for a moment, then her face changed. “Oh, I see. You have built your Jump Gates along natural shift passages. Well, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Before they built the Way Gates, the Varanni cleared the dark matter along the route the gates catapult ships along. There is no twisting and turning shift passage that we have to go through. It is a straight line from this system to the Hal’lom system in Crian space. If you have Jump Gates built in your natural shift passages, they must only allow for small jumps.”

“They do, but they have reduced the travel times between worlds,” James answered with a nod. “Are you saying the Varanni have the technology to access and harness dark matter?”

“No,” Ya’sia explained. “But they have some way of repelling it to create artificial shift passages.”

“Now that is useful,” James said as he realized what Ya’sia was describing. “Without having to account for dark matter, you can make single, straight shift passages between systems. How long is this shift passage and how long will it take us to traverse it using the Way Gate?”

“It’s just over a hundred light years from here to Hal’lom,” Ya’sia answered. “It will take fifteen of your hours.” When she finished speaking, she smiled at James’ reaction. “I thought you would be impressed. I need to talk to Dural and make arrangements for our fleet to jump through the gate, but I wanted to tell you in person what you’re about to experience so that you weren’t concerned. It turns out I needn’t have bothered. Though I have enjoyed seeing your shock.”

“You do seem to take pleasure in shocking us with your technologies. I imagine you’re going to get plenty of opportunities to continue to enjoy enlightening me over the next few weeks. I’ll let you go; it’s going to take me some time to get my head around these Way Gates.”

“One hundred light years!” Scott said as soon as the COM channel ended. “That’s basically the same distance from the Sol system to the Britannia system. It takes ten days to cover that distance. No wonder it only took Quest three weeks to get from Varanni Prime to X-32. We could almost make the journey in the same time with these Way Gates.”

“You may add this dark matter repelling technology to the list of things we don’t understand but would very much like to,” James commented. “When we get a chance, we’ll have to ask someone about it. For now, let’s just enjoy being the first Humans to cover such vast distances in so short a time.”

“And don’t forget to scan every inch of this Way Gate,” Becket reminded the bridge officers on duty.

“Yes,” James agreed. “Scan every inch.”

*

UNS Golden Hind, Crian Home System, 11th November 2478 AD.

“This is the stuff of science fiction,” Scott said as awe filled her voice. It had taken them just five days to reach the Crian homeworld and what they found there did not disappoint.

“What is the system’s population?” Ivanov asked.

“Eighty-six billion,” Emilie answered. “What?” She followed up when everyone looked at her. “Ya’sia hasn’t sent us a full cultural database, but she did send over some pertinent information. That was several days ago. Didn’t anyone else look at it?”

“I guess we just read other parts of it,” Scott responded. “Eighty-six billion. That is mind boggling.”

“It’s almost as many Humans as there are in all of our territory. Imagine everyone from every one of our colonies crammed into one system,” Becket added. “Though I dare say the Crians in this system do not feel crammed. Not with the amount of real estate we are detecting.”

James didn’t join the conversation, he was thinking the same thing though. The Crians had completely developed their homeworld. It was one giant city. He too had read the file. Nearly sixty billion Crians lived on the small planet that was at the other edge of the system from Golden Hind. The other twenty billion were spread out on several other worlds, orbital stations and asteroid facilities within the system. On more than one occasion after returning to the Sol system after a long mission, James had been impressed by the amount of activity. Nothing he had seen before, not in Human space, nor Vestarian, or even Kulrean space had prepared him for what he was looking at. Golden Hind’s sensors were tracking fourteen thousand contacts moving around the system and the number was steadily rising as the computer identified more and more unique sources of gravimetric waves.

“The firepower of those orbital battlestations must be immense,” Miyamoto commented. “Look at the energy readings we’re getting off them from so far away. I wouldn’t want to tangle with one of those. And we are detecting forty-four of them.”

“Ya’sia is requesting a COM channel Admiral,” Emilie reported.

James simply nodded to his niece. Everyone on the bridge had come to expect Ya’sia’s regular calls. In almost every Crian system they had visited she had called to talk to James and update him. She wasn’t quite boasting, but she was coming very close to it. James put it down to her pride in her own species. And, of course, her delight in introducing James to things he had not thought possible. When her face appeared in front of him he made an effort to smooth his features. Though he knew he would never be as good as Suzanna was, he put everything she had taught him into practice.

Ya’sia stared at him for a moment before speaking. “Is something the matter Vice Admiral?”

“It’s nothing,” James said with a wave of his hand. “It’s just, given everything we’ve seen so far, I was expecting something more. An entire world turned into one city; I have seen that before.”

“You have?” Ya’sia asked as her face moved closer to whatever device was recording her. “Where? Surely not in Human space. Your species hasn’t developed that far, have you?”

James couldn’t do it any longer. He broke into a smile. “I’m teasing you Ya’sia. Your home system is spectacular. I’m not sure my ship’s computer can handle the number of contacts we are detecting. I’d love to be able to go closer and even visit the surface. I’m sure there are many wonders to see.”

Ya’sia made a threatening gesture towards James. “I am supposed to be the one who is teasing you with all our technologies. You’re not supposed to take the fun out of it for me.”

“Am I not allowed a little revenge?” James asked.

“Perhaps,” Ya’sia replied with a slight bow, “I have been pointing out your species’ inferiority a little more often than necessary.”

“Our inferiority? James scoffed. “I thought you were enjoying showing me the many advances your civilization has made.”

Ya’sia smiled as she spoke. “Who’s to say they are not one and the same?”

“Vice Admiral, our sensors have just detected more contacts,” Scott informed him.

If it was anyone else, James would have scolded them. Golden Hind’s sensors were detecting new contacts every minute. That wasn’t a report to disturb his conversation with Ya’sia for. Scott would know that though. “What’s the significance?” he asked after gesturing to Ya’sia to tell her he had to look away for a moment.

“They have appeared right at the point Quest is leading us too. There is a whole fleet of them. Given their acceleration signatures, I think they are Varanni. Some of the contacts have to be dreadnoughts. They are heading right towards us.”

“Have you seen what my subordinates are pointing out to me?” James asked Ya’sia as he turned back to her.

“I do. There’s nothing to be alarmed about Vice Admiral. It will take five minutes for any messages sent by those ships to reach us. I’m sure there will be an explanation.”

“Is it customary for their Varanni to send a battle fleet to meet a new alien species?” James queried.

“Not quite…” Ya’sia replied slowly. “But I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation. Given the circumstances, they may just want to provide you with a larger escort. You are an unknown quantity to them after all.”

Though his concerns weren’t entirely put at ease, James didn’t know what else he could do. If the Varanni had decided to turn his fleet away, or even to engage his fleet, there was nothing he could do about it. Given their speed advantage, there was no way he could run away. For the next five minutes he engaged Ya’sia in idle conversation about her home system, though he kept his eye on the Varanni fleet.

A few moments after any COM message should have reached Quest and Handmaiden, Ya’sia gestured that she had to look away. When she looked back the surprise on her face was evident. “You need not worry James; they are not here for you. The Varanni strike fleet is heading to Flex-aor. The Varanni Senate and High Command have read my report and have decided a show of strength is necessary. They’re launching another attack on the Flex-aor. The fleet being sent isn’t powerful enough to defeat the Flex-aor entirely. But given their speed and technological advantage, they will be able to crush isolated Flex-aor fleets and raid their planets. If the Flex-aor High Queen is planning to launch a counterattack, the Varanni will soon dispel any such notions.”

“That’s good news, is it not?” James responded. “You sound surprised.”

“I guess I am,” she responded after a moment. “I didn’t expect them to react so quickly. The strike fleet can get to Flex-aor space and back to Varanni Prime in just a couple of months. The High Command must want them back as soon as possible to have dispatched them so soon. Their haste is troubling. The High Command must be taking these Invaders very seriously for them to want to quickly take the Flex-aor out of the picture.

“That is worrying,” James said as he nodded. “But it’s good news. We can worry about these Invaders when we know more about them. Now, let’s come back to your home system. I would love to hear more.”

As he continued to speak to Ya’sia, James spared a glance towards Scott. She nodded to show she knew what his look meant. The ships in James’ fleet were to get as much data on the Varanni strike fleet as possible as it cruised past them towards the Way Gate that would take them towards Flex-aor space.




Chapter 29

Some of the most enlightening experiences can be had in visiting the home planets of other species, especially those not a part of the Empire. With Humanity dominating our sector of the galaxy, it can be easy for us to become trapped in our own bubble. Seeing what other species have made of themselves and their homeworlds, opens one’s eyes to the possibilities that are out there.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, Monulan system, 20th November 2478 AD.

As James descended his shuttle’s rear access ramp and stepped foot on Varanni Prime, the scene that greeted him wasn’t at all what he expected. In orbit the Varanni homeworld had not disappointed. His and Ya’sia’s fleets were the last to arrive in the system. As a result, there were already nearly two thousand warships arrayed around the planet. Beyond that, there were even more civilian ships moving around the system than there had been in the Crian home system.

Yet, Varanni Prime itself appeared woefully underdeveloped. His shuttle had landed at one of the outer landing pads arrayed around the Varanni Senate Building. The building itself was impressive, it appeared to be at least fifty stories high and was clearly designed by an alien architect. There were so many spires and spikes that James thought it would be impossible to count them all. Besides the spires, there were also no sharp edges. Every wall and roof was made up of arches and spherical wall joints. The building was a dazzling white and with the Varanni system’s twin suns both high overhead, it sparkled in a way James knew no Human building did.

Beyond the Senate building, there was no other Varanni construction that was more than two stories high. James could make out several distant villages but the vast majority of the landscape was purple, yellow and red. Those were the predominant colors of the vegetation on Varanni prime. Ya’sia had told him that for the Varanni, their homeworld was sacred. Clearly it was very sacred. It appeared that almost none of their people actually lived on their homeworld. Varanni Prime was nothing at all like Cria Prime.

“It’s beautiful is it not?” Ya’sia asked as she approached. She had been standing with the welcoming committee. “Every time I come here I regret that we have built over our homeworld. Yes, we have recreated the natural habitats from our own world on other systems, but it’s not the same.”

“It is very beautiful,” James agreed. “Are there no cities on the surface?”

“There are some Human,” a Varanni answered as she stepped forward. “But they are all historical cities that have not been redeveloped or extended for more than a millennia. Some Varanni still live there, many visit on pilgrimages.”

“This is Carma Mashar,” Ya’sia said as she made introductions. “Carma is an elected member of the Varanni Senate. Before that she was the Varanni envoy to Cria, we know each other well. Carma, Vice Admiral James Somerville.”

“I am glad to meet you,” Carma said as she bowed deeply.

“And I you,” James replied as he returned the gesture. “It is a great privilege to be allowed to visit your homeworld. You have greatly honored my people.”

“You honor me with your presence as well Vice Admiral,” Carma said. “Ya’sia has told me much about you. Reading between the lines, I think I have you to thank for the safe return of her fleet. If she had faced the Flex-aor by herself, she may not be with us now.”

“I wouldn’t put it like that,” James said. “Our two fleets fought well together.”

“Either way, I’m happy you are here, even if it is purely as a military expedition. I know you did not have time to form a diplomatic team to bring with you on this mission so we cannot open formal diplomatic relations with your species. But your ships and your experience will be extremely valuable nonetheless.”

“I’m here to serve,” James responded as he shared a glance with Ya’sia. They had worked out the story of being a military mission between them. He hadn’t wanted the added pressure of being encouraged to make political deals he knew no one on Earth would honor. “It is my hope that my people’s presence at this High Council meeting will be the beginning of positive and friendly diplomatic relations between my species and those of the Varanni Alliance.”

“That is my desire as well,” Carma said with a slight bow. “And I know it is Ya’sia’s. I must confess though, you may have a difficult time convincing some of the other senators and, indeed, some of the other species in our Trading Alliance. I have read some of your history files. Your species is very militaristic. That will not sit well with everyone.”

“It doesn’t sit well with me at times,” James replied. “So I understand.”

“That’s good to hear,” Carma responded. “Now, that is enough political talk. Let me give you a tour of the Senate buildings. We’ll get our fill of politics once the High Council meeting begins. Before then, I’m sure you have plenty of questions you’d like to ask. Let me try and satisfy your curiosity as we go.”

“That would be a pleasure,” James said. “Let me introduce my other officers, I’m sure they will have questions of their own.” James had brought Gupta, Becket and Scott with him. After introducing them he asked his first question. He wanted to know how old the Senate buildings were. Next he asked about the pilgrimages Carma had mentioned. Then many more questions came to mind. Within minutes, he forgot all about the fact that he was walking side-by-side with what some might describe as a large slug like creature with a slimy tail that swished back-and-forth, propelling it forward. He was lost in the wonder of the Varanni civilization.

Carma showed them around the Senate buildings answering every question they had. After about ten minutes James pulled Ya’sia to one side and asked her if all the questions were okay. “Oh yes, Carma is very proud of her people, she loves to talk about their accomplishments. She is rather like me in that way.”

“I’ve noticed,” James replied with a wry smile. “But aren’t the Varanni meant to be more reserved? I don’t want her to feel we are forcing ourselves upon her.”

Ya’sia smiled back, “There’s no need to worry on that account. Carma has spent a lot of time on our homeworld. She has learnt to open up a little bit more than most of her species.”

“In that case, I have a few more questions for her,” James replied, stepping back towards Carma and re-joining the conversation.

The questions only came to an end when another Varanni appeared around a bend in one of the building’s corridors and slithered toward Carma. The Varanni bowed to Carma but did not say anything. Clearly that was all Carma needed to know. “The High Council is ready to meet. Let me escort you to the Chambers and then I will have to go and take my position.”

“Thank you for your time and the tour,” James said as his officers nodded their agreement. “Hopefully there will be time to speak with you again soon.”

“That is my hope as well Vice Admiral, I have many questions about your species and homeworld.”

“I will be happy to answer as many questions as you have the next we meet. It would only be fair,” James replied.

“Here we are,” she announced a short while later. “You know where your position is Ya’sia?”

“I do,” Ya’sia responded. “James, you and your officers will be with me. Officially, you are guests of the Crian delegation.”

“Make sure you do not speak unless directly spoken to,” Carma said, sounding very serious all of a sudden. “You are guests, but you have no right to speak at the High Council.”

“We understand,” James responded. “We will honor your rules.”

“Good,” Carma said as she straightened up her back. “Now, let us enter.”

James stepped aside to let Carma enter first, then Ya’sia and he fell in step behind the Crian Admiral. As they walked in James did his best to keep his face straight. He failed. The large room, much larger than even one of Golden Hind’s hangar bays, was ablaze with color. The room was a large circle and it was decorated with plants and other flora. There were so many different colors and shapes and sizes that James felt like he had stepped into the British Arboretum. It claimed to have species from more than fifty different worlds, the most of all of Earth’s Arboretums. Yet the Varanni Senate buildings might have it beat.

As he glanced around, his eyes were drawn to the only plants he recognized, their orange and yellow identified them as coming from Varanni prime. They covered approximately one tenth of the outer wall of the High Council chamber. As Carma parted company with Ya’sia, James saw that she was heading towards them. When he looked more closely at the group of aliens she was heading towards, he realized they were all Varanni. That is the Varanni delegation, he thought. The reason for why there were so many different plants dawned on him. Each delegation had an assortment of their native flora behind them.

If the plants provided all the color there was, it would have been enough. However, above the plants, in some cases reaching right up to the ceiling, there were other displays. The closest thing James could liken them to were flags. The area above each delegation was different. He nodded to himself, they must be flags or some other kind of national identifier.

Ya’sia led them around the different delegations to where a group of Crians sat. Every delegation had a semi-circular table that faced the other delegations. When they came close, James was surprised to see there were four Human seats for him and his officers. Someone had obviously thought ahead. As he sat down he gave Ya’sia a nod of thanks for the seat.

With nothing else to do, he continued to look around. Whilst the color and wall decorations had caught his attention first, his real interest was the other aliens who were filing into the High Council chamber. He could put a name to a couple of the species, however there were so many different sizes, body types, colors and appendages on display that, even though Ya’sia had provided him with a small file giving a brief introduction to each species who was a member of the Varanni Trade Alliance, he was quickly lost. If he had thought it wouldn’t be seen as impolite, he would have pulled out his datapad and opened up Ya’sia’s file. Not able to do so, he was stuck trying to guess who was who. No doubt Scott was faring much better than he was, but he didn’t want to ask her. He wasn’t supposed to be speaking after all.

To his surprise, despite so many people entering the chamber and there being so many different species, within five minutes everyone was seated and silence had descended. Every delegation was looking towards the Varanni delegation.

One Varanni, dressed in the most ornate and formal looking garment James had ever seen, raised itself to their full height. James still didn’t know how to identify the gender of a Varanni simply from their body. Ya’sia had given him some tips, but he wasn’t familiar enough with their species to see the small differences she had pointed out. In this case it didn’t matter. The Varanni’s clothes were so elaborate there was no way James could ever have figured their gender.

The Varanni gave a deep bow, the lowest bow James had yet seen from one of their species. Then he revealed his gender as he began to speak. “Members of the Varanni Trading Alliance, your delegations are all welcome here to this High Council meeting. On behalf of the Varanni Senate I want to thank you for your attendance. A grave issue is before us. This Trade Alliance was founded to help all of our species prosper and enjoy peaceful relationships. Something now threatens our very existence and we must decide what to do.

“You have all been provided with the report the Mindus sent to us and each of your militaries have had time to analyze the data it contains. However, before we discuss what possible actions we should take against this threat, I have asked Admiral Dur’ack to share our High Command’s analysis with you. This will set the scene for the rest of our discussions.”

James sat forward as Dur’ack raised herself to her full height. Though he didn’t recognize the Varanni Admiral by sight, he knew her by name. Ya’sia had told him Dur’ack had analyzed all the data the scout had brought back from the Mindus. He, Scott, Becket, Gupta and his staff had looked over the data Dural had made available to them. It hadn’t taken long to come to a definitive conclusion. If Humanity had to fight these Invaders, the war would last weeks, perhaps a month or two depending on how many ships the Invaders brought to engage Human space. However long they lasted, the outcome was guaranteed. The Invaders were both technologically and numerically superior to Humanity. James already knew that, he didn’t know how the Varanni weighed themselves against these Invaders. Ya’sia’s analysis suggested that the Invaders’ ships, ton for ton, were ahead of Crian ships, but not by much. Of course, the Invaders vastly outnumbered the Crian fleet. The Varanni were the unknown quantity. They had far more ships than the Crians and their weapons technologies were more advanced. We’re about to find out just how advanced, James thought.

“We have analyzed all the information we have on the Invaders extensively. Given what we found out about them, we’ve pieced together other strands of data that, until now, made no sense. The Litors’ sudden jump in weapons technology and their short-lived attempt at territorial conquest for one. Let me begin with what we can surmise about these Invaders.” As she spoke a large holo projector James hadn’t seen silently came to life and filled the center of the circular chamber with a star map. It was very similar to the one Dural had shared with him. James spared a moment to glance at his subordinates, they were all transfixed by the map.

“After the Invaders’ first probing attacks against the Mindus, the Mindus sent out scouts to try and ascertain who was attacking them,” Dur’ack continued. “This is what their scouts found.” On the holo-map a new dotted line appeared about three hundred and fifty light-years beyond the Mindus territory. Where the Mindus’ territory looked like a sphere, as was normal with what James knew about his own species and those in the Varanni Alliance, the borders of the Invaders’ space was very different. There was almost no sign of a curve in their border and it stretched from one side of Mindus space to the other and disappeared in both directions with no sign of curving inward or tapering off.

“Their scouts were not able to penetrate Invader space. A number of fortified systems were discovered, but, beyond that, the scouts were driven off. However, what they did find was telling. All the species we have encountered have gradually expanded outward from their homeworlds. This has given our territories a spherical appearance, at least until our borders touch one another. If we assume these Invaders have done the same, then this would be the projected extent of their territory.”

The holo map zoomed out significantly. A massive area of the Orion Arm came into view, and almost all of it was shaded in the red Dur’ack was using to identify Invader space. “Without knowing the shift passages within this sector of the galaxy, we’re only guessing, but if their territory extends this far, they could control between one and two thousand habitable systems. In total, their territory could be eight or nine times the size of the entire Varanni Trading Alliance.”

James sensed the tension in the room rise. A chill had descended around the delegations. James felt it too. He was scared. He was still trying to grapple with the existence of the Varanni Trading Alliance. If Dur’ack’s estimates were even close to being correct, the Invaders were operating on an entirely bigger scale again.

“If this is so, then there are some other conclusions we can come to,” Dur’ack continued. “The Mindus have identified more than four thousand warships operating in the various fleets that have attacked their space. Though that is a significant number of ships, an alien empire of the size we are talking about could no doubt field many more. These Invaders may be involved in several different wars in which case, their fleets may be spread out over vast distances. Certainly, given the likely size of their empire, they would have to keep a sizable fleet in different sectors for it could take months to move forces from one part of their space to another. There are also other factors that may limit the number of ships they can produce and maintain. Given that they appear intent on conquering the Mindus, we can assume they have conquered other species. The number of worlds their species actually occupies may be significantly smaller than this map displays. Much of their territory could consist of conquered systems. If that were the case their fleet capacity would be significantly smaller than their territory size would indicate. They also may need to keep significant numbers of warships within their own space to garrison their conquered territory.

“The four thousand warships operating against the Mindus may account for all the available warships these Invaders can commit to offensive operations. Or, it may be that they have many such fleets in operation and that their full strength, if ever concentrated against one opponent, would be much greater than what the Mindus face. We do not know which scenario is most likely. There are other theories and projections, however they do not have a high enough certainty level to share with this High Council meeting and upon which to base decisions so this is all I can say.

“When it comes to the Invaders’ military capabilities, I can speak with more confidence. The Mindus have shared detailed reports on almost every battle they fought against the Invaders. From these reports we have produced reliable estimates of the defensive and offensive capabilities of each of the Invaders’ classes of warships. No doubt your militaries have done the same and I will not take up this High Council’s time by going into minute detail. However, this information has allowed us to analyze our fleets’ capabilities and compare them with the Invaders.”

This was the point James was most interested in. He believed his staff had produced a good estimate of how powerful each of the Invader’s warships were. Essentially, they had ships in each class that Humanity had. They had frigates, destroyers, cruisers, battleships and then, like the Varanni, they had Dreadnought class warships. Ship for ship, James reckoned each one of the Invader ships was worth three of his. Of course, tactics could increase or negate such an advantage and there was no sign the Invaders had developed the miniaturized inertial compensators that allowed his fleet to field fighters and their multistage missiles. That was all old news to him, what he didn’t know was the Varanni’s capabilities, nor those of most of the other species in the Trading Alliance.

“In a direct comparison, we believe the average warship from each of your species’ militaries is almost equivalent to an Invader warship of the same tonnage. A Varanni warship would be about two and a half times more powerful than an equivalent Invader warship. These comparisons suggest that in a one-for-one engagement, we would have the forces at our disposal to beat back the Invaders’ attempt to conquer the Mindus. In any such engagement, our forces would take significant losses. Losses our Alliance has never witnessed before. However, victory over the forces we know the Invaders have is possible and indeed a probable outcome if that is a path we wish to embark upon. There is one thing I would like to stress. It is not my position to determine policy at this High Council meeting. Nevertheless, I wish to point out the difference between being able to concentrate our forces and launch a surprise pre-emptive strike against these Invaders in Mindus space, compared to trying to defend our own borders. If a future scenario were to arise whereby we were facing a similar fleet on our borders, we would not be able to concentrate our forces. We would have many worlds we would need to defend. Conversely, the Invaders would be able to pick and choose their targets. That is exactly what they are doing to the Mindus and this is why they are pushing the Mindus back despite the Mindus’ technological superiority. If we deem these Invaders a threat to our space, as my analysis suggests they are, then engaging them where they are on the defensive is strategically preferable.”

“Thank you Admiral Dur’ack,” the distinctively dressed Varanni said as it raised itself to its full height. “For the work you have done in analyzing these Invaders and for your report today.” Dur’ack bowed and then lowered herself to the height of the rest of the Varanni delegation. The Varanni who James assumed was the head of the High Council, Ya’sia had told him they held the title of High Councilor, continued. “Each delegation will be sent a full report from High Command for your own analysis. However, at this time, I, on behalf of Varanni Senate wish to make two proposals. First, we propose that all Varanni military technologies be shared with all species within our Trading Alliance. Secondly, that Dur’ack’s counsel be followed and a fleet be immediately dispatched to Mindus space to engage these Invaders and drive them out of Mindus territory.”




Chapter 30

Villanueva is also famous for discovering the fourth wormhole entrance within the Gift. Her discovery didn’t have the same immediate impact on the Empire as the Sol Sun Gate, but over the following decades it opened up new opportunities for the Empire’s merchant marine and her diplomats. Not to mention the eighteen inhabited worlds that have now been colonized on the other side of the wormhole.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Strange and exotic noises of various kinds erupted all around James in what he figured could only be expressions of surprise or concern or some similar emotion. Even he was taken aback. He knew the Varanni were direct and not prone to subterfuge, but if attacking the Invaders was what the Varanni thought was best, they might have at least tried to bring their trading partners around to the idea. Instead they had just come right to it as bluntly as they could. Strategically, militarily, he fully agreed with Dur’ack’s suggestion. However, the analysis of the potential size and strength of the Invaders’ empire gave him pause. More than a little pause, he admitted himself. It was one thing to engage a known enemy in a battlefield you knew you had a good chance of winning. It was another thing entirely to poke a sleeping bear when only armed with a stick. Without knowing the full strength of the Invaders’ civilization, there was no way to know if the Varanni’s proposal was the former or the latter.

Clearly the other species thought so as well, as soon as the noise died down, several other alien species stood. James quickly guessed it was the High Council’s way of requesting to address the other delegations. “Surely this is premature High Councilor,” the first alien given permission to speak said. James thought he was from the Dalinar species, though he wasn’t sure if he was getting them confused with the Das’tint. He knew both had four arms and scaly skin. That was as far as the similarity went, but James couldn’t remember how else he was supposed to tell them apart. “How do we know these Invaders will attack us? We are taking the Mindus at their word. It may be that they are the ones who started this war. They could be tricking us into joining the wrong side. You’re speaking about bringing all of our species into the largest military conflict we have ever encountered. This must not be done without careful consideration.”

He has a fair point, James thought as he looked back towards the High Councilor. Instead of speaking, the High Councilor gestured towards Dur’ack. “You speak wisdom,” the Admiral responded after she raised herself high enough for everyone to see her. “It would be foolishness to engage the species the Mindus call Invaders without being sure that they are our enemies. Two pieces of evidence have led the Varanni fleet High Command to be confident that these Invaders are our enemies. The first is the appearance of advanced weapons technologies on our borders. Including the Flex-aor, we have now encountered three different alien races who possess weapon technologies more advanced than they should have been able to produce. In each case these races have held long standing prejudices against other races, leading them to launch wars of aggression. Analysis of the weapons used by all three races has revealed significant similarities. Further, Vice Admiral Somerville of the Human species has confirmed that their race encountered a fourth species that had been given advanced weapons technologies. This is a pattern. A worrying pattern. It suggests an unknown alien race has nefarious intentions towards our sector of space. Arming weaker nations and causing war and destruction would be a very successful tactic for an expansionist empire seeking to conquer new territory. Either they can come in and be seen as liberators as they bring peace, or they can allow neighboring races to devastate each other and then strike when their opponents have been weakened.

“Given this, the information brought back by our scout from Mindus space rules out the Mindus as the source of these weapons. From the scans our scout carried out, we know that their weapon technologies are too dissimilar to those of the Flex-aor and the others to be from the same source. Further, there was no sign that the Mindus have been preparing to launch an invasion. Given the relatively safe assumption that whoever has been arming these races intends to conquer our sector of space, these Invaders are the only race that fits the description our data suggests. It may take them a decade, or even a century, but it is my belief that these Invaders intend to conquer our sector of space, as it seems they have conquered others in the past.”

“If the threat of invasion is a decade or perhaps even much further away, why are we rushing into helping the Mindus?” the four-armed alien who had objected replied. “Their plight is sorrowful yes, but by striking now, we risk sharing the same fate.”

“I do not share your assessment Oram,” Dur’ack responded. “If the Invaders are the source of these advanced technologies, it means they are aware of the existence of our Trading Alliance. It means they have a long-term plan which they are working according to. The fact that their threat may be a decade or further away, to me, actually strengthens the reasons for taking action now. If they are confident they can overwhelm us in the future, by striking now we can throw them off balance.”

James nodded as he thought through what Dur’ack was saying. The best form of defense was a good offence. Especially a surprise offence. Equally though, he was becoming more concerned. He and his staff had already concluded that whoever was dishing out weapons technologies to aggressive alien species were doing it as a pre-emptive to an invasion. What he hadn’t fully thought through before was that whoever was doing it had to know about the Varanni and their advanced technologies. If they knew that, and still had plans to invade this sector of space, then they were either foolhardy or supremely confident. A race that had strategic plans that spanned over decades suggested their opponent fell into the second category.

“I understand what you’re saying Admiral,” the alien speaker replied. “But I am still concerned. Time is on our side.”

Rather than responding again Dur’ack bowed slightly and lowered herself. The alien speaker then did the same. At once others stood. In some way James didn’t yet understand, the High Councilor gave permission for one to speak. This time James had no guess as to which species they were from. He felt his frustration rising. Ya’sia had only given him a brief file. She said that it was up to each individual species to reveal themselves to Humanity and open diplomatic relations. That was all fine and well, but they were the ones who had invited him to this High Council meeting. Putting his frustrations down, he forced himself to listen carefully.

“I wish to begin by publicly stating that my delegation recognizes the serious threat these Invaders pose to us. As a result, we heartily agree with the High Councilor’s first proposal. If each of our species’ independence is threatened, then we must stand together. Sharing technologies will be an important part of this. In addition, though I am not proposing it now, if this threat is as great as Dur’ack believes, other means to unite us politically, over and above the economic ties we all share, may prove fruitful avenues of investigation.

“With regard to the second proposal that has been made, we have more hesitation. If all of our fleets are to be upgraded with Varanni weapons technologies, it makes no sense to send our fleets out to engage these Invaders immediately. If losses are expected to occur on such a mission, that means we will be losing ships that could be refitted. If the threat is as serious as we are led to believe, does it not make more sense to refit our ships and then go to the Mindus’ aide? To do anything less would be to throw lives away.”

“The Mindus may not have that long,” the High Councilor answered. “Do not forget, they have promised to share many of their technologies with us. Though their military technologies do not appear to be more advanced than our own, there are other areas in which they are more advanced. These other areas would no doubt be a benefit to our societies, more importantly, they may also open up other lines of research that would produce military benefits. From what our diplomatic delegation reported, the Mindus neglected their military construction, research and development. It may well be that the Mindus hold the key to defeating these Invaders, they just have not had the time to develop it. The Varanni Senate recognizes the risks involved in sending a united fleet of warships to the Mindus’ aid. Sending such a fleet will put our own warships at greater risk, yet we believe the risk is worth it.”

As the discussion continued, James listened intently. He was learning much about the different alien species from how their designated speaker talked. Each species had a different temperament and differing levels of respect for the Varanni. Certainly, they all respected the species that had brought their Trading Alliance into being. Some though, had a deference for the Varanni that bordered on worshipful. Others were a lot more hesitant to simply believe the Varanni always came to the right conclusions. As two sides formed, James counted four species that had expressed agreement with everything the High Councilor and both Varanni Admirals had discussed. Those four races along with the Crians, who also voiced agreement with the Varanni Senate proposal, put the majority of the delegations in favor of the Varanni’s plan. However, five species still continued to hold varying amounts of reservation towards the plan. Eventually, after a couple of hours, it appeared no one wished to say anything more. Though it seemed every possible point had been debated a consensus had not yet been reached.

When no one spoke for several seconds the High Councilor raised herself up. “This has been a productive session. We have all shared much that needs to be thought over. We will bring our discussion regarding the Varanni Senate’s two proposals to an end here. After a recess of six hours, we will return to discuss more. At the end of that session we will hold a vote on each proposal. For decisions of such significance, I will be proposing a two thirds majority is required to pass each proposal. The Varanni Senate does not wish to drag any member of our Trading Alliance into war against their will, however, if the majority of us see these Invaders as a significant threat, we must act in unison.

“Before we depart, I have asked Admiral Ellian from Fleet High Command to give you all a brief overview of what our proposed campaign to aid the Mindus will look like. Hopefully this will give us more to ponder during our recess. Admiral Ellian,” the High Councilor repeated and gestured to another member of the Varanni delegation.

“Thank you High Councilor,” Ellian began. “If the High Council votes to dispatch a fleet to Mindus space, we intend to leave Varanni Prime within the week. During that time, we will gather the remaining supplies we need and begin implementing what upgrades we can to Alliance ships. We have a number of supply ships in orbit that are ready to depart. More are being loaded as we speak and more are coming in from other colonies. We believe we will have enough supplies to take a fleet of seventeen hundred ships to Mindus space and carry out offensive operations for one month. That should give us enough time to buttress the Mindus defenses. After our initial fleet leaves, a second fleet will be gathered in Crian space. We estimate that another six hundred ships will be brought together. That fleet will leave three weeks after the first and will escort a much larger supply convoy that will allow all of our forces to continue operating for several more months. During this time a regular resupply convoy system will be established. In addition, the initial fleet will have two Varanni fabricator ships accompanying them. The fabricators will use raw materials supplied to us by the Mindus to produce key munitions and other essential components our fleet will need.

“It is no secret that none of us have any experience operating and maintaining a large fleet outside of our home territories. However, given our technological capabilities, this should not pose too great a problem. We have large military supply depots scattered throughout our territories for an emergency such as this. To keep such a large fleet operating so far from home for a prolonged period of time will require that we use up a significant portion of these supplies. Yet even now, Varanni factories are being retooled to replace what we will use and we will expect our allies to do the same. It will take some work to keep our ships resupplied, but we are confident in our abilities to do so.

“When it comes to specific fleet elements, it is our intention to combine most of the forces gathered in this system to form the initial fleet that will be sent to Mindus space. Many of your species’ best ships and commanders are here. They are who we need to lead us in the first thrust against these Invaders. Additionally, we will be asking each Alliance species to commit another twenty percent of their fleet strength to form the second fleet. In total, sixty percent of all Varanni Alliance warships will be committed to defending the Mindus. That will give us a force strong enough to turn back the Invaders whilst leaving us with enough strength in reserve in case something goes wrong.

“The specifics of what will occur when our fleet actually arrives in Mindus space are harder to outline. In part it will depend on the strategic situation the Mindus are facing when we arrive and how they wish to use our forces. At present, it is our belief that splitting our forces will reduce the effectiveness of their sudden appearance. It is likely the Invaders will have spread out their forces to allow them to gain numerical advantage in key sectors as they push towards the Mindus homeworld. The combined strength of our initial fleet should be more than enough to overwhelmingly shift the balance of one sector of the conflict in our favor. A surprise counter-attack against one portion of the Invaders’ fleet will give us the best opportunity to defeat the Invaders and force them to withdraw from Mindus space. As I said, this would be the ideal scenario, but things may change as our knowledge of the strategic situation in Mindus space develops. Given that, Varanni High Command intends to dispatch a number of admirals and their staff to Mindus as soon as the High Councilor’s second proposal is passed. They will form a military attaché to the Mindus and prepare for the arrival of our ships. My aide has sent a more detailed logistics plan to each delegation informing them of what supplies we would expect their species to provide. You can each consult it after the session has ended. Are there any questions the delegation speakers wish to ask of me?”

One of the speakers James didn’t recognize stood and began to speak when High Councilor signaled she could. “I do not have a direct question for you Admiral Ellian, but for Vice Admiral Somerville. From what I have been told about the Human race in general and Vice Admiral Somerville in particular, he has experience of the kind of campaign you have just outlined. I would be keen to hear his input.”

James swallowed as every eye in the chamber turned to him. He quickly glanced at Ya’sia for direction. She shrugged her shoulders and then nodded towards the High Councilor. James looked around at the one in charge of the Council meeting. The High Councilor made a slight gesture with his head. James immediately felt even more under pressure. He thought the High Councilor had nodded but did that indicate he could speak or that he should remain quiet? He didn’t know anything about Varanni facial expressions. Panic began to set in. A groan almost escaped his lips when Ya’sia gave him a dig in his ribs with her elbow. Quickly he jumped to his feet, the High Councilor must have given him a nod of approval.

“Let me thank this High Council for allowing a species that is not a member of your Trading Alliance to attend. You have honored me and my people. I am greatly honored to be allowed to address you all,” James paused as he looked around and caught the eye of every delegation speaker. He gave a number of slight bows to show his respect. “The delegation speaker is correct. I do have personal experience of being involved in and leading fleets of warships that have had to operate on extended supply lines. Without knowing much about your fleet’s supply capabilities and preparations, I cannot comment much on what Ellian has shared. It is positive though that you have stores of military supply spread across your territories. That will certainly prove helpful. However, there is one thing that experience has taught me time and time again. The importance of keeping a fleet in supply can never be overestimated. Moreover, the amount of munitions, replacement components and raw materials that a fleet goes through while carrying out offensive operations is always much greater than anticipated. I would recommend that whatever estimates have been made for what your ships will require be increased by a factor of twenty percent at least.”

“That is helpful Vice Admiral,” the delegation speaker responded. “I would also like to know, what do you make of the plan to carry out such large-scale offensive operations at the end of such a long supply line?”

James paused for a moment to think through his answer. On the one hand, he didn’t want to contradict anything the Varanni Admirals had said during the High Council session. They were clearly the leaders of the Trading Alliance and they would have the most say in how much help Humanity would be given. Yet he had been asked to the High Council session in part because of his knowledge, he had to be up front with the delegations. “In truth, I believe the plan is very risky. Again, without knowing the military capabilities of your fleets I cannot say how much. Nevertheless, there is a significant risk involved in what has been proposed. Such long supply lines will mean your fleets will be severely exposed. If the Invaders know where your home systems are, and we must presume they do if they have scouted this area of space to give weapons technologies to hostile races; then, as soon as they detect your ships they will know of your biggest weakness. If they wanted, they could pull out of Mindus space and draw your ships further away from your supply lines. Then smaller fleets could be dispatched to cut off resupply convoys and either trap your ships in Mindus space or force you to fall back. There is one thing Human history has taught our commanders, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. It may be that you catch the Invaders off guard and engage a part of their fleet in a decisive battle. If that outcome is not achieved quickly though, your long supply lines will become a bigger and bigger weakness that the Invaders will no doubt try and exploit.

“Take Admiral Ya’sia and I’s recent experience in our campaign against the Flex-aor. Though we had a significant technological advantage over their warships, their numbers surprised us. We found ourselves with our escape route blocked and after having already fought several battles, our supplies limited. When we escaped Flex-aor space, my flagship had enough missiles for just two more full salvos. I believe Admiral Ya’sia’s Handmaiden had only enough for four salvos. In one sense, despite all my experience, I led our fleets into a situation we were lucky to return from. From what we know of these Invaders, they are a much more serious threat than the Flex-aor and your plans mean you will be operating a far larger fleet for a significantly longer period of time away from your supply bases.”

James raised both his hands palms outward as he continued. “I’m not speaking against the High Councilors second proposal. I understand the desire to help the Mindus. My species recognizes the moral duty of the stronger to help the weaker. We also believe that an unjustified aggressor should be opposed. Those considerations and the preferable strategy of engaging the Invaders far from your own borders are strong arguments for accepting the High Councilor’s proposal. I cannot deny though, that based on my experience I believe there will be serious risk involved.”

“Thank you Vice Admiral,” Ellian responded with a slight nod towards James. James took it as his cue to sit down. “Your experience is indeed valued. Let me assure the delegations that we have put much thought into our supply situation. Portable Way Gates are being moved to the Crian border and dark matter dispellers have been dispatched. Currently it takes a Varanni frigate two months to reach Mindus space. We believe we can reduce that by at least two weeks, perhaps more. This is just one action we are taking too alleviate the supply difficulties we anticipate.”

Though no one had asked him to speak, James couldn’t help but jump back to his feet. He didn’t even wait for anyone to give him permission to speak. “With the greatest respect Admiral, you cannot do that.” James sensed Ya’sia reach out with the hand to try and pull him back into his seat, he pivoted sideways and brushed her off with his right hand.

The High Councilor rose back to her speaking height. “You speak of respect with your words but show none with your actions. You are new to this system and the ways of the High Council and so I will show you some leniency. Explain yourself Human.”

“Thank you High Councilor,” James said as he bowed as deeply as he could. “It is the dark matter dispellers, you cannot use them beyond your territories. One of the greatest defensive advantages your Alliance has are your artificial shift passages. If the war was ever to come to your space, you could rapidly redeploy fleets along your internal artificial shift passages. Any attacker would take weeks or even months to rearrange their forces while it would take your Alliance days. That is a massive strategic advantage. You cannot risk throwing it away by developing artificial shift passages beyond your borders. Certainly not ones that lead to Mindus and so to the Invaders space. By all means, move portable Way Gates to already existing shift passages. But I would strongly recommend that no artificial shift passages be constructed.”

Though the High Councilor had asked James to explain himself, he spoke directly to Admiral Ellian, he was the one who needed to grasp what he was saying. When he finished, Ellian looked over to Admiral Dur’ack. James thought he saw the Varanni Admiral give a very slight nod. “You speak wisely Vice Admiral,” Ellian responded. “Perhaps we are so familiar with artificial shift passages that their importance can be forgotten. We will take the weight of your advice into consideration.”

James sat down, he had to stop himself from letting out a deep breath and a verbal ‘pheeww.’ For a few seconds there was silence in the chamber as most of the people present stared at James. Thankfully, another speaker stood and asked more questions of Ellian. James was very grateful for the room’s attention to move away from him.




Chapter 31

Like the rest of the Empire, the Imperial Navy has a complex command and bureaucratic structure. Nevertheless, the First Admiral of the Navy holds almost god like power over the commissioned fleets of the navy. The Empire has simply been in too many wars to allowed desk admirals to compromise wartime decisions. The First Admiral may have to fight tooth and nail with navy bureaucrats to get the funding allocations she desires, but when it comes to wartime strategy, her authority is only second to that of the Emperor.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


As Ya’sia led James and his staff out of the High Council chamber, Carma appeared and approached them. “Admiral Ya’sia, Vice Admiral Somerville, the military High Command is having a strategic planning meeting and I’ve been asked to inform you both that your persons are requested. One of my aides will show you the way.”

James glanced over to Scott. “Don’t worry about your staff Vice Admiral,” Carma added. “I’ll take them on a tour of the capital if that is all right with you?”

“I’m sure they would be very happy with that,” James replied. “If it is permissible, I’d like to bring Rear Admiral Gupta with me. She is my second in command and has almost as much battle experience as I do.”

Carma looked to Ya’sia before answering. James didn’t see Ya’sia’s response, but it must have been positive. “Very well Vice Admiral, I’m sure our Admirals can accommodate one more person in their meeting. You better get going now, the meeting was scheduled to begin immediately after the High Council session.”

“Then we will take our leave,” Ya’sia responded. “Thank you for informing us Carma, enjoy showing off your capital to our guests.”

Carma bowed slightly as she replied, “I have no doubt I will. And it will give me a chance to ask some questions of my own.”

James winked at Scott as he moved after Ya’sia and the Varanni who was to be their guide. He knew Scott would enjoy answering questions about Earth almost as much as she enjoyed asking them about the Varanni civilization.

The room he and Ya’sia were led to was much smaller than the High Council chamber. Despite that, it was arranged with almost exactly the same layout. The room was circular and a series of curved tables allowed up to ten people to sit and face one another. James was thankful the strategic planning meeting wasn’t going to be large. He was already struggling to remember names and ranks without having to meet lots of new faces. Of the four Varanni who were already seated, he knew two. Admirals Dur’ack and Ellian were accompanied by two other naval officers who wore similar rank insignia.

“Thank you for coming,” Dur’ack said after he, Gupta and Ya’sia sat down. “The campaign you both fought against the Flex-aor means both of you have more actual battle experience than all of the Varanni fleet’s senior Admirals combined. Vice Admiral Somerville, your input today in the High Council, though unusual, was helpful. We therefore wish to discuss some things further with you.”

“It would be our pleasure to be of assistance,” Ya’sia replied formally. “You honor the Crian people by allowing me to be a part of your planning. I hope it is a sign of our growing partnership.”

For a second James was taken aback, he hadn’t seen Ya’sia show so much deference for anyone before. Then he remembered how the Varanni military worked. Whilst there was a high degree of political cooperation, militarily and technologically the Varanni had always kept themselves apart. Now they are inviting the Crians in, James thought. Clearly Ya’sia saw this as a significant step for her people. And for yours too, a small inner voice reminded him. The voice spurred him into action. “It is my pleasure as well,” James said.

“Very good,” Dur’ack responded. “Let me introduce admirals Tel’ec and Jorum, along with Ellian, they have been working with my staff in planning our response to the Invaders. Jorum will be commanding the fleet we send to Mindus space if the High Council’s second proposal is accepted and Ellian will be going to Jaranna, the Mindus homeworld, as part of our military attaché.”

“This is my second in command, Rear Admiral Gupta,” James said after he, Gupta and Ya’sia had given a small bow of recognition to the two Varanni Admirals.

In turn the four Varanni admirals recognized them and Dur’ack continued the conversation. “To begin with, we are very keen to hear both of your assessments of the Invaders’ weapons technologies and tactics. Especially yours Vice Admiral Somerville. According to Ya’sia’s reports, you have fought in more than twenty different naval engagements. That must give you an eye for quickly assessing an opponent’s tactics, must it not?”

“I hope that it does,” James replied. “Though, as I’m sure you understand, most of my expertise is in dealing with Human opponents. So too is Gupta’s, she has actually fought in almost as many battles as I have. We have discussed the Invaders’ tactics at length and I thought her input would be helpful.”

“Then we are happy for her to be a part of this meeting,” Dur’ack responded. “Please, share your thoughts with us.”

James glanced at Gupta and she gestured for him to begin. “Well, the Mindus sent us recordings of four battles they had fought with the Invaders by the time your scout discovered them. The last two are the ones of the most importance. We have a theory in our military. The first space battle between two unknown combatants usually shows us little about how each side will fare in the ensuing war. Unless the war can be won in one or two decisive battles, it is not the side that wins the first engagement that has the upper hand in the war, but the side that can adapt their tactics and technologies the fastest.

“The Invaders won their first two engagements largely due to their numbers and the tactical surprise they were able to gain over the Mindus. There are some things we can learn from these battles. Like how the Invaders prefer long-range missile duels. In both opening engagements, the Invaders could have used their numerical superiority to close the range and use their directed energy weapons to quickly finish off their opponents. They did not. They preferred to keep their distance and expend a lot of missiles to win the engagements. That is something worth noting. Yet in the third engagement they abandoned this when the Mindus began to put up a fight. The third engagement was the first time the Invaders took heavy losses and in response they closed the range and made use of their numerical superiority.

“That tells us something important about them. Their commanders are flexible, their strategies and tactics adaptive. More illuminating than this, is the way in which the latter two engagements were fought. In both battles the Invaders were fighting with a significantly smaller numerical advantage than when they launched their surprise attacks. Instead of keeping their fleet operating as one large unit, in their latter engagements they operated as several independent fleets. Yet at no point was any fleet out of support range of the other. If you examine their missile salvos carefully, you’ll also see that they were highly coordinated. It seems to me that this is a tactic the Invaders use for large naval battles. Fleets of a thousand or so warships operate together to outflank opponents and bring large missile salvos from converging points against a single section of an enemy fleet. I do not know about your warships, but Human warships are far more effective when engaging just one enemy missile salvo coming from one direction. Having to divide our target acquisition sensors and point defense fire greatly reduces their effectiveness.

“The Invaders’ tactic is a good one, however it is very difficult to pull off. There is always the danger that one fleet could be isolated and overrun. Employing such tactics suggests the Invaders are very confident in their ability to fight in and win large naval actions. If your assumption that they have conquered large sections of the galaxy is right, then I am not surprised. It is likely they will have a highly trained and efficient officer pool that has a lot of battle experience. If nothing else, the battles show us that they will be difficult opponents. As I said to the High Council, it is my people’s experience that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Everything we’ve seen about the Invaders suggests that will certainly be true with them. Whatever tactics we employ against them, they will be quick to adapt and counter us.”

When James finished speaking the four Varanni Admirals looked at each other. Dur’ack was the first to speak, “That is insightful Admiral. Already you have expanded our knowledge. I’m interested to know, have you thought of a counter to the tactics we have seen these Invaders use in naval engagements?”

James nodded. “It is something we have discussed in depth. However, not being familiar with the capabilities of Varanni warships, our responses are more based on our own capabilities and what we know of Crian warships.”

“Nevertheless, your ideas would be helpful I’m sure,” Dur’ack responded.

“We’d be happy to share what we are thinking,” James said. “Rear Admiral Gupta is actually the one who has been working on this the most. I will let her elaborate.”

As Gupta talked, James watched each of the Varanni Admirals. Essentially what he and his command staff had come up with was a series of battle plans that sought to negate the Invaders tactic of splitting their forces into large, powerful, but also vulnerable fleets. A number of the battle plans made use of the gravimetric relay. James knew that the Crians had no such technology and, as far as he knew, neither did the Varanni. The gravimetric relays allowed Human ships to communicate with each other across vast distances in real time. That ability would allow Human and Crian fleets to operate independently of one another and yet coordinate their efforts. It was thought that making use of the gravimetric relays would allow Human and Crian fleets to outmaneuver the Invaders’ fleets and gain a localized numerical superiority in any naval engagement. Another tactic Gupta discussed involved luring in one or more of the Invaders’ fleets into what Gupta called a killing field. It was a tactic that she had borrowed from the ancient battles of Earth’s history. Essentially, the plan called for whatever force was opposing the Invaders to split up and mimic the Invaders dispersed fleet formations, then, through a series of complex maneuvers, one of the Invader’s fleets would be drawn out of position and set upon by two or more Human or Crian fleets.

There was no way to know if any of these tactics would actually work, the Invaders might have encountered them before or be wily enough to anticipate what was happening. Still, they were the best he and his staff had come up with. After Gupta was finished, each of the four Varanni Admirals asked questions. Soon he and Ya’sia were drawn into the conversation as well. Each tactic was analyzed and various refinements were suggested and assessed and adopted or dismissed.

Once Gupta had exhausted all the tactics she and James had developed, the Varanni Admirals began to discuss ideas they had themselves. In doing so, they revealed a lot to James about the Varanni’s weapons technologies. As he suspected, their energy weapons were formidable. It appeared the large cannons their dreadnoughts carried out-ranged Golden Hind’s most powerful energy weapon by a factor of two. Whilst their missile advantage over Human weapons wasn’t quite as significant, it was still impressive. Where the Varanni really excelled was their point defense weapons. Even though Ellian explained it to him, he didn’t understand how their electricity arc weapons worked. He tried his best to remember Ellian’s explanation so he could repeat it to Scott later in the hope she would have more luck in figuring it out.

With each tactic the Varanni Admirals suggested, he, Gupta and Ya’sia did their best to tear them apart and put them together again. Some of the Varanni Admirals’ ideas were good, indeed they seemed like they would maximize the advantages Varanni warships had. On the other hand, it quickly became apparent that some would not work, or were not advisable. All in all, James thought the meeting extremely profitable.

At one point, he pulled out his datapad to access some detailed information he couldn’t quite recall. As he did, he was surprised to see the time. They had been discussing tactics for nearly three hours. When he commented on the fact, he wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Despite that, no one indicated they wanted to stop. James understood, after the long High Council session, it was a pleasure to be talking strategy and battle tactics rather than politics.

“There was one other reason why we invited you to meet with us,” Dur’ack said when it seemed everyone was fresh out of new tactics to discuss. “Ya’sia submitted a report on your fleet’s weapons technologies. There are three areas where it appears you have developed impressive technologies that would greatly benefit our warships and the fleets of our allies. I have been informed that your mission to us is purely a military one not a diplomatic one however, I wanted to discuss the possibility of you sharing your technologies with us. As you know, our Senate has already agreed to share all our weapons technologies with our allies. I’m sure it would not be hard to convince them to trade some of those technologies with you in exchange for the technologies we desire. Specifically, I’m thinking of your miniature inertial compensators, your advanced electronic countermeasures, and your gravimetric relays. If we could incorporate those technologies into our fleets, it would give us an even greater advantage over the Invaders.”

James sat back in his chair and let out a deep breath. “That is quite an ask,” he replied. “You are asking us to give up our most advanced technologies.”

“We are,” Ellian agreed, “but what we are offering in return would be a fair trade. May I ask, how you came to develop these technologies? Your species’ rapid technological advance has more than impressed many of my own people and these three technologies are the pinnacle of what your species has accomplished.”

“Well…” James said as he glanced at Gupta, his cheeks reddened slightly. “To be honest, we can’t take too much credit, at least not for the inertial compensators. The effect of our miniature compensators was accidentally discovered. It happened when we combined our own technology with that of a Human colony which had developed separately from the rest of our race for several centuries. Independently from our homeworld, they developed their own shift drive technology and inertial compensators. When we combined the designs, we discovered the effect our miniature compensators produce. For the other two, the gravimetric relays are something we have been working on since discovering the ability to detect gravimetric waves. And our ECM, well, Human nations have spent the last half a millennium pouring money into research and development in that area. In fact, that may be one of the key differences between my species and yours. It is a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless that wars have often been the drivers of our quickest periods of technological advance. I’m sure if someone was to count it all up, astronomical amounts of money have been spent on developing our military technologies over the last five hundred years. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that many of the civilian technologies my people take for granted originated in military research sites.”

“That is very different to how our societies have developed,” Jorum agreed. “Six months ago we might not have looked too kindly towards a species with such a history. It doesn’t sit easily with many of us still, however, given the change in our circumstances, we are happy Ya’sia discovered you and your species. Do you think a trade is possible?”

James shared another glance with Gupta. He wasn’t surprised to see her shake her head slightly. He had no diplomatic authority and he couldn’t make such a deal. In reality, he had no authority at all, he had been relieved of command. Yet taking his fleet to help another species was very different to making diplomatic bargains that would affect Humanity’s relationship with the Varanni for years if not decades. A part of him felt like making the trade anyway, after all, he was already in for a penny, why not for a pound? However, the rational side of his brain, the political side, the side that spoke with his wife’s voice, told him he shouldn’t. If he made a political deal now, it was more than likely the UN Interplanetary Committee would reject it, simply because he had made it. He would be robbing Humanity’s diplomats of the opportunity to enter a formal relationship with the Varanni. After thinking things through, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I do not have the authority to make such a bargain. I am more than happy to send a frigate back to Earth with my recommendation that such a trade be made. Perhaps you could convince your Senate to send a diplomatic ship with my frigate and negotiations could be carried out immediately. That is the best I can offer. Even if I give you the technologies now, you wouldn’t be able to retrofit your ships to make use of them before you propose to depart for Mindus space. If you send a diplomatic mission to Earth and make the trade, you could be refitting the ships that haven’t left your space within months. How does that sound?”

Though James still struggled to read the body language and facial expressions of the Varanni, he guessed he was seeing disappointment on all four of the Varanni Admirals’ faces. Dur’ack was the first to hide her emotions and reply. “I understand Admiral, neither do we have the authority to make such a deal, however I believe the Senate, if directed to by us, would be more than happy to. We will recommend that they send a diplomatic mission to Earth to accompany the frigate you intend to send back. Does that mean you intend to keep your ships at Varanni Prime? Or are you willing to join them to our forces and accompany us to aid the Mindus?”

This time when James when glanced at Gupta she nodded. “We haven’t come all this way to sit back and watch you all go off to war,” he answered. “Our ships may not boost your fleet’s combat power, but if you are willing to allow us to come along, we are prepared to help as much as we can. After all, if the Mindus are conquered, our species will be in as much danger as yours and your allies. There is one point I would like to clarify though. The Mindus have promised to share their technologies with you if you come to their aid. If I join my fleet to yours, we would like complete access to whatever the Mindus share with you.”

Dur’ack raised herself up from her seat and slithered around until she was towering over James, she then held out a hand in a very Human gesture. “Ya’sia included a file on Human customs and traditions. The Senate will have to approve my decision of course, but I see no problem with that. If you are willing to join your fleet with ours and bring the fighters Ya’sia has told us about with you, then you have a deal Vice Admiral Somerville.”

James stood and then took Dur’ack’s hand. “Then we have a deal,” he said as he bowed. After releasing Dur’ack’s hand he shared another glance with Gupta. He knew what she was thinking, he was thinking the exact same thing. Neither of them really knew what they were getting themselves and their ships into. Yet they had no choice. If the Invaders were as powerful as the evidence suggested, then Humanity needed both time and new technologies. By helping the Varanni drive the Invaders out of Mindus space, they would be buying both for their species. James just hoped that was enough. For the last decade he and Scott, and a slowly growing circle of his friends, had been concerned about a secret alien race working in the background to destabilize their area of space. Now that that race had been discovered, he was even more concerned. There was a good chance none of his ships would survive the campaign into Mindus space, yet for the sake of his species he couldn’t back down.




Chapter 32

Though most don’t usually consider such problems, one of the biggest headaches the fleet faces in peacetime is feeding it millions of crewmembers. The resupply problem alone consumes the time of thousands of freighters and hundreds of logisticians. To make matters worse, after a millennium of micro evolution of the Human race, with Humanity spread out across so many different worlds, there are many different dietary tolerances within the fleet. As a result, the needs of one ship are often very different to the needs of another. Those who can keep track of such things and smooth out any problems are among the best paid fleet personnel.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, in transit to Mindus territory, 2nd January 2479 AD.

To James’s great surprise, when the second session of the High Council had been held later that day, the High Councilor opened the session by requesting a vote on both of her proposals. As he expected, the first proposal passed unanimously. What had left him aghast was that the second proposal got the support of nine out of the eleven Varanni Alliance member species. Immediately after the vote, the High Councilor asked for a second vote on her second proposal. It then received unanimous support. The two species who had opposed military action were willing to go along with the consensus. More than once after the session James had remarked to Ya’sia and Admiral Dur’ack that no decision of such consequence would be made so quickly on Earth, and never would it receive a unanimous backing.

Over the week that followed, James had seen first-hand how efficient the Varanni Alliance was. As soon as both proposals were accepted, the militaries of each species were put on high alert. Ships and supplies streamed into the system. The level of cooperation between each different military was far better than James had seen between the nations of Earth, even when the Flex-aor had been threatening to wipe out the American colonies. He had been just as impressed by how willing the Varanni were to assist his ships. After spending a week in orbit around Varanni Prime, every Human warship had been stuffed full of what supplies, foodstuffs and other materials the Varanni had determined his fleet would find useful, completely alleviating James’ supply concerns. They had taken several supply freighters with them when they had left X-32, certainly enough to have kept them going in the initial stages of the proposed advance into Mindus space, but after that he had feared things would start to get difficult. He needn’t have bothered. The Varanni had the technology to build or generate most of the materials his fleet needed to operate and within days of being made aware of his needs, his fleet had been fully stocked.

James was sitting in his command chair on Golden Hind’s bridge as the fleet of seventeen hundred Varanni Alliance ships cruised through another uninhabited system. They had left Varanni Prime two months ago and now were just two weeks away from Mindus space. Though the journey had been long, it had been well used. Though James didn’t feel he could share Humanity’s secret technologies, he held no qualms about helping the Varanni improve their own. Since leaving Varanni Prime teams of his people had been working with the Varanni and the other species in the fleet offering what help they could. The work mainly involved helping the Varanni Alliance warships improve their ECM capabilities. In turn, Varanni technicians had been tinkering with Human weapon technologies. The range of Golden Hind’s plasma cannons had been increased by eight or nine percent, and the laser cannons by almost the same amount. Perhaps the most significant advance was in his ship’s sensors. That was where the Varanni outclassed Humanity by several factors and though they hadn’t shared their own technology with his fleet, they had helped his ships considerably boost their own ability to identify and track enemy ships and missiles. There was no way to tell how much the advances would help them against the Invaders, but in simulations against other Human warships, the boost to Golden Hind’s sensors allowed her to increase her point defense fire hit rates by nearly twenty percent. If James had been able to gain such a boost in efficiency back when Earth’s navies had been fighting one another, it would have been a game changer. Now, against the Invaders, as impressive as it was, James wasn’t sure it would make much difference. Still, he said to himself, we have done all we can. There’s nothing else to do but wait and see if it has been enough.

“New contacts, they are moving towards us from the shift passage we’re heading to. There’s two of them,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer reported.

“They are Varanni frigates,” Miyamoto updated. “It looks like the scouts have returned.

James sat up in his command chair. In part he had come to the bridge to let his mind wander. The background noise of the bridge’s normal activities put him at ease and allowed him to relax. In his office it was too quiet. He was also here because of the scouts; the time had been approaching for their return. They had been dispatched eight days ago to contact the Varanni military attaché who had been sent ahead of the fleet. They would be coming back with the latest intelligence on how the war against the Invaders was going. It was on this intelligence that Jorum intended to make his final battle plans.

“What news do you expect them to bring?” Miyamoto asked as he turned in his command chair to face James.

That is the question, James thought. He had wondered the same thing for days. A month ago, a report had been sent back by the Varanni military attaché. The Mindus had been delighted to hear about the relief force coming to their aid. However, Admiral Ellian, the leader of the military attaché, had reported that things were not looking good. They had lost several more systems and, perhaps more significantly, had suffered a major defeat in a large fleet engagement. Ellian had estimated the defeat would force the Mindus to assume a purely defensive posture. The Admirals in the Varanni Alliance Fleet had agreed that the news was not good. Trying to hold a defensive line without being able to threaten a counter-attack meant the Mindus’ only hope of victory was the Invaders making a mistake. That was something James doubted they would do.

“Nothing good I’m afraid,” James answered. He knew the entire bridge crew was listening in. He didn’t want to scare them, but, at the same time, if the news was bad, he wanted his people prepared. It was likely the Varanni Alliance Fleet was going to go straight to where the fighting was the fiercest and strike quickly. “Whatever has happened in the last month, I expect the Mindus to be on the back foot. They will have lost several more systems, but hopefully they have kept the bulk of their fleet intact. Since they know we are coming, they should be trying to conserve their forces for a counter-attack.”

Miyamoto nodded. “That’s where we come in. I hope we can make a difference.”

“So do I,” James agreed.

Guardian has just contacted us Vice Admiral,” Emilie reported. “All senior fleet commanders are requested to report on board forthwith.”

“Acknowledge the request and contact hangar bay one, let them know I’ll be needing a shuttle,” James replied. “Scott, you’re with me,” he added. “Let’s go.”

“Yes Sir,” Scott responded as she jumped out of her command chair.

Fifteen minutes later they were walking through Guardian’s corridors towards the Varanni flagship’s main briefing room. Though a Varanni Lieutenant was escorting them, James and Scott knew the way, they had been on board Guardian plenty of times. Like all rooms Varanni held meetings in, it was circular. Ya’sia explained that it was the Varanni’s way of showing that all opinions in such meetings were equally valid. James had no problem with that, though it was a very inefficient way to design a warship.

Stepping into the room, James quickly greeted several of the other Admirals and moved to his allotted seat. Gupta was already there and he sat beside her after shaking her hand. “Now we’re going to see just what we’ve got ourselves into,” he said.

“That we are,” she agreed. “Whatever it is I’m sure you’ll see us through it.”

James had to stop himself rolling his eyes. “I think you’re giving me a little too much prominence in this fleet. Remember, we are here as guests. I’m not about to assume control and order things as I see fit. Jorum is the one who will see us through this.”

“I know, I know,” Gupta replied. “But even so, you’re the one our fleet is counting on. I wouldn’t be going into this situation without you leading us.”

“Well, you of all people know that a leader is only as good as his subordinates. I’ve been lucky to have you and Scott and so many others. If you’re relying on me, then really you’re just relying on yourself. So let’s put an end to this sentimentality and focus on the task at hand.”

“Yes Admiral,” Gupta replied very formally, though she ruined it with a wink. “We are at your command.”

This time James did roll his eyes. Thankfully he didn’t have to think of a witty response, for Jorum raised himself to his full height and began to speak. “Our scout’s report is not good. I’m afraid the strategic situation has changed significantly since our last update. Captain Salal will update us on the key points from the intelligence report our scouts have brought. Then we must decide what to do.”

As Salal raised himself up James shared a glance with Gupta, their joyful demeanors had disappeared. “The Mindus suffered a significant defeat in the Malan system. The Invaders managed to draw away some of the system’s defenders with a feint against another system. Then they struck hard and fast. Approximately fifteen percent of the Mindus fleet was lost in the battle. Worse, the Invaders now have access to a shift passage that leads directly to the Mindus home system. As a result, the Mindus defense strategy has been altered. They’re pulling forces out of their colonies and concentrating their fleet in their home system. Mindus scout ships have detected the Invaders concentrating their fleet in the Malan system. That was two weeks ago, it is the belief of the Mindus fleet commanders and Admiral Ellian that the Invaders will move their forces into the Mindus home system to threaten their homeworld as soon as possible. Given the speed at which the Invaders are building up their forces at Malan, it is very likely that they have already begun their assault. Multiple small probing attacks have already been beaten back, but they are no doubt a precursor to a full attack.

“The Mindus have significantly increased the defenses within their home system since the Invaders first launched their war of conquest. The system has three rings of defenses and every orbital body has been fortified to a greater or lesser degree. If the Mindus can pull back most of their forces to their home system in time, the Invaders will face a very tough challenge. However, the Mindus fleet commanders have informed Ellian that they do not believe they can hold out indefinitely.

“There is little doubt that the Invaders know this as well. Given the tactics we have seen them use up to this point, we believe they will adopt a cautious strategy within the Mindus home system. With the advantage of numbers, they can slowly whittle down the Mindus’ defenses until they can overwhelm and take their homeworld. Meanwhile, with the Mindus pulling back to their home system, the Invaders can easily conquer what is left of Mindus space. It seems that the war between the Mindus and the Invaders has entered its final phase. Given that this intelligence is more than a week old, things may have already turned even more against the Mindus.

“We have no more time to waste. We must act decisively. It is my intention to leave our slower and more vulnerable supply train in this system with a light escort. The rest of our forces will immediately proceed to the Mindus home system and, if the Invaders have not entered the system, we will go on to the Malan system. There we will demand that the Invaders withdraw all their forces from Mindus space, and, if not, we will engage them and drive them back. It is likely that the majority of the Invaders fleet will be concentrated in either the Mindus home system or the Malan system when we get there. Instead of the surprise attack against a weaker Invader fleet we had hoped to achieve, we may be facing close to their full force. If we can avoid this scenario, we will, but given recent developments, that option appears to have disappeared. It seems Vice Admiral Somerville was right when he said a battle plan does not survive contact with the enemy.

“Given our need to move quickly, this will be the last chance we have to meet in person before we reach the Mindus home system. We have three hours until our fleet reaches the next shift passage. I want us to make the best use of this time. There are a number of scenarios similar to what we now face that we have already planned for. Together we must adapt them and make our final preparations. We must be of one mind as we lead our fleets into action. Here are my initial plans, we will begin from here and modify them.”

James listened intently as Jorum outlined what he had in mind. For the next two and half hours he joined in the conversation as the plan was altered and finalized. Given no one knew exactly what they would face in either the Mindus home system or the Malan system, by the time he was leaving Guardian, he thought they had the best plan they could have. He would be lying to himself if he said they were fully prepared. Launching a surprise attack against a small Invader fleet had been the initial plan. What the Varanni Alliance Fleet was now proposing to do was very different. Though he knew it was necessary, the stakes had changed with the Mindus home system under direct threat, it didn’t make things sit any easier with James. The outcome a full-scale battle against a large concentration of Invader warships was all but impossible to predict. There were simply too many unknowns. That was not the kind of battle he wanted to risk his ships on, never mind the Varanni Alliance Fleet or the Mindus homeworld. Yet that was now before them.

*

For the two weeks that followed the last meeting of Jorum’s Admirals, a number of pressures beset James. Given that his ships were the slowest in the Varanni fleet, Jorum’s demand for a speedy transit to the Mindus home system put the most strain on his command. Every fusion reactor, impulse engine and shift drive within the Human fleet spent the entire two weeks operating above their recommended standards. Several ships had to be left behind as systems overloaded and failed. James spent every waking moment of the voyage waiting for the next report of a ship breaking down or being severely damaged by a system overload. On top of that, he was acutely aware that his ships were the ones holding up the Varanni fleet. Whatever was happening in the Mindus home system, the Varanni fleet wasn’t there to help because they were travelling at the best speed his ships could maintain.

If circumstances had been different, entering Mindus territory would have provided some relief. Though the Varanni Alliance Fleet spent most of its time passing through relatively new and therefore underdeveloped Mindus colonies, what they saw was impressive. James had no doubt the Mindus were significantly more advanced than Humanity. What he saw on several of their colonies was just as impressive as what he had experienced in Crian and Varanni space. However, there had been no time to dwell on those things, nor to stop and visit any of the colonies. The Varanni fleet had simply sped through each Mindus system as fast as possible.

Despite all these stresses and distractions, one thing dominated James’ thoughts. As an Admiral, one of the most foolish things he could think of doing was to risk one’s entire fleet in a battle against an unknown foe. Despite the intelligence they had on the Invaders, there was no way to know for sure how the Invaders’ technologies and weapons would stand up against the Varanni Alliance’s technologies and weapons. It was a massive risk to gamble the fate of the Mindus civilization, and possibly even the Varanni Trading Alliance, on one battle. Yet that was what Jorum was driving his forces towards. It was what circumstances demanded. Nevertheless, James could not shake the deep-seated fear from his psyche. A sense of foreboding dominated the fleet’s two-week voyage to the Mindus homeworld. A sense of foreboding James could do nothing about.

When more scout ships returned just one day before the fleet reached their destination, James’ fears were brought into sharp focus. The Invaders had moved into the Mindus home system. They had already breached the outer layer of Mindus defenses and were currently laying siege to the system. The Varanni Alliance Fleet had no choice but to launch themselves into the battle. For better or worse, they were committed.




Chapter 33

My own experience of combat has been somewhat limited. As a lieutenant I fought in the border skirmishes with the Xindar. Then as Captain of the assault cruiser Hercules, I was attached to Fourth Fleet. We saw action in three battles during the Third Antarian War. Each battle was a cleaning up exercise however, for the war had been all but won by the time fourth fleet was committed. Even so, it is not hard to imagine the devastation and catastrophe that is the result of a real fleet engagement. In many ways I am happy that is it something I can only imagine.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


UNS Golden Hind, Mindus home system, 14th January 2479 AD.

Guardian is sending her sensor data through now Vice Admiral,” Emilie reported.

“Put it through to our main holo projector,” Scott ordered.

“There it is,” Miyamoto responded. “Red icons are Invader formations, blue Mindus warships and green their orbital defense stations...” If he was going to add any further explanation, what appeared in front of everyone stopped him short.

James had to sit back in his command chair as he tried to get perspective on what the holo projector was showing. For at least ten seconds no one on Golden Hind’s bridge spoke. Scott was first to break the silence, but she didn’t bring any clarity, “How is anyone supposed to analyze this? How can we come up with a strategy or tactic to face this?”

James was inclined to agree with his Chief of Staff, nevertheless, he forced himself to make sense of what was before him. The one saving grace was the Mindus orbital defenses. They provided some framework upon which to interpret everything else. As far as he could tell, the Invaders had breached most of the Mindus’ outer ring of defenses. A couple of asteroid bases and one orbital defense platform around the system’s tenth planet were intact, but apart from those isolated sources of resistance, the outer system was under the control of the Invaders. Several fleets of six or seven hundred warships were patrolling the outer system, keeping it locked down and preventing any reinforcements making it to Jaranna. Indeed, one of those fleets was engaging a Mindus force of about two hundred ships. It looked like the Mindus force had recently come out of shift space from another system.

The second defensive line was clearly under threat. Both the seventh and eighth planets within the system had Mindus orbital defenses and warships around them. Both were under heavy attack. The seventh planet looked like it was about to fall; more than fifteen hundred Invader ships were exchanging missile salvos with three hundred Mindus warships and the orbital defenses.

It was clear that those engagements were simply secondary engagements. The real battle was still in its early phases, but it dwarfed everything else that was going on in the system. Almost eight thousand Invader warships split between six fleets were maneuvering against Jaranna, the Mindus homeworld. They were still a couple of hours away from entering missile range, but it was clear the different fleets intended to attack Jaranna from all sides at once. Along with the orbital defenses around Jaranna, there were two and a half thousand Mindus warships. James strongly suspected that wouldn’t be enough.

“This doesn’t look good,” Becket commented. “What do you make of this Admiral?”

“We are just in time,” James replied, putting a brave face on their situation. He spoke loud enough for everyone on Golden Hind’s bridge to hear. “Without us Jaranna will fall. It’s up to us to prevent that. That’s why we’ve come all this way. It’s time to show these Invaders what we are made of. Signal the rest of our ships, tell them to prepare for battle.”

“Aye Vice Admiral,” Emilie responded as she tapped a number of buttons on her command console.

“I believe Jorum will opt for plan beta,” James said to his command staff. “If so, we will begin to accelerate at a decent rate any moment now.” Orders came through from Guardian less than a minute later. Every ship was to match the flagship’s course and speed. It took a couple of seconds for Guardian to reorientate her nose towards Jaranna, and then she lit off her engines. Moments later the one thousand seven hundred and thirty-four Varanni Alliance ships followed suit.

Instantly, every warship and orbital station with a gravimetric sensor within the system detected the latest arrivals. Without having to wait for orders from their Admiral, two of the Invader fleets patrolling the outer system changed course and moved to intercept the Alliance Fleet.

“I don’t think they’re too happy to see us,” Miyamoto commented. “They’re coming right for us. They don’t even know who we are.”

“We’re coming from Mindus space,” Becket responded. “It doesn’t take much to guess we would be hostile to them. Plus, if our guess about their species is right, they don’t have any friends or allies. They probably respond negatively to every war fleet they encounter.”

Guardian has just transmitted her message,” Emilie reported.

James nodded. Travelling at the speed of light it would take half an hour for the message to reach the Invader forces that were moving against Jaranna. Realistically, James held next to no hope that Jorum’s demand for the Invaders to immediately withdraw from Mindus space would receive a positive response. No commander would give up such an advantageous strategic situation in response to threats made by an unknown fleet, a fleet their own ships outnumbered more than six to one. Still, James couldn’t help but hold out a little hope. It was the only way he could see the battle ending without serious losses on both sides.

“No sign they are turning around,” Miyamoto reported ten minutes later, just after the point when the nearest Invader ships should have received Jorum’s message

“I wouldn’t be holding your breath,” James replied. What little hope he had had evaporated. If the two nearest fleets moving to intercept them weren’t even going to hesitate, then he knew whoever was commanding the Invader’s forces wouldn’t either.

“Admiral Jorum has requested a holo conference with his senior commanders,” Emilie announced.

“Acknowledge the request,” James responded as he stood. “I’ll take the call from my briefing room.” Less than a minute later he was sitting behind his desk and connected with Guardian. Jorum was outlining his plan of action.

“We will attempt to use Gupta’s Rush against the two fleets coming for us now. No doubt the Invader Admiral is happy for two of his smaller fleets to engage us so he can get a sense of our capabilities. There’s no sense holding back so we will oblige him. After we push through these two fleets, I expect our opponent to send a much larger force our way. We’ll split into our preassigned formations to punch through their forces. If we can add our ships to those defending Jaranna, we should be able to make the Invaders think twice about assaulting the world. Once we have made it to Jaranna, we will be in a much better position to launch a counterattack. We’ll take out as many Invader ships on our way in as possible. Does anyone have any final suggestions or questions?”

James had nothing to say, they had already gone over what they would do if faced with this kind of scenario. They had caught the Invaders by surprise, most of their efforts were focused on containing the Mindus fleet and assaulting Jaranna. If the Alliance Fleet could move fast enough and directly enough towards Jaranna, there was a good chance they could punch through the Invaders before they could concentrate enough ships to stop them. It seemed everyone else understood the situation as well, for no one spoke.

“Very well,” Jorum said. “It has been an honor to lead you thus far. May we all do our people proud in the coming battle.” He gave a deep bow to his subordinates before cutting the COM channel.

James gave a nod to Gupta before he cut his. She would be happy that Jorum had decided to adopt one of the tactics she had suggested. She nodded back and winked, though as he caught her eye he sensed another emotion she was trying to mask. It wasn’t hard for him to guess what it was. If her tactic didn’t work, the Alliance Fleet would be thrown into disarray before the real fighting had even begun. Suddenly the fate of the fleet, and even the Mindus homeworld rested on her idea working out. Welcome to command old friend, James thought as he stood and moved towards the access hatch to Golden Hind’s bridge.

“We have a communication coming in from the nearest Invader fleet,” Emilie reported excitedly as James moved towards his command chair. “It’s not encrypted and our translators seem to be able to make sense of it. It’s audio and visual.”

James let out a whistle. This was the last thing he expected. “This will be interesting,” he said. As far as he knew, the Invaders hadn’t responded to any of the Mindus’ attempts to communicate with them. “Let’s hear what they have to say.”

When the bridge’s main holo projector changed to show what was clearly an image of a warship’s bridge, gasps and other expressions of shock erupted around James. Unintentionally, James let out a gasp of his own. The image sent James’ mind back to when he had been forced to hold a tarantula in junior school. The hairy spider had made his skin crawl, and he felt exactly the same now.

The creature before him had a torso and head not too similar but repugnantly different to that of a Human’s. The head looked misshapen because of its four pairs of eyes and the torso was sparsely covered in long thick hairs. If there were any similarities between the Invader species and Humans, they ended there. For out of the alien’s torso six thin articulated arms ended in what looked like razor-sharp claws. The image didn’t let James see what the lower half of the alien looked like, but he wasn’t going to complain. What he was seeing was more than enough to give him nightmares. When the Invader opened its mouth and began to speak, he wasn’t shocked to see razor-sharp teeth.

“Unknown ships, you have entered Karacknid space. Turn around immediately and we will not interpret your actions as hostile. If you continue on your current course, we will take it as an act of war. Your fleets will be destroyed and your homeworlds conquered. There will be no second warning. Turn around immediately.”

As soon as the alien was done speaking, the COM message ended. Everyone on the bridge stared at where the image had been for several seconds as if spellbound by the alien. James had to blink several times to get the image out of his mind. A shiver ran down his spine. Everything about the alien had given off a sense of danger. James shook himself; he certainly didn’t want to meet any of the Invaders in person.

“Do you think Jorum will respond?” Miyamoto asked.

“Unlikely,” Becket answered before James did. “We’ve already said what we came here to say. They clearly don’t intend to back down and neither will we.”

“At least we have a name now,” Scott said. “We’ve been wondering about these aliens and their existence for years. The Karacknids.” James was sure Scott wasn’t aware, but as she spoke her fingers traced one of the scars that ran down along her cheek. She had been severely injured when a Karacknid ship had detonated on Vestar. Rather than have the scars removed, she had kept them as a reminder.

“We do, and now we know what our enemy looks like,” James added. “We also know something more. Not once have they spoken to the Mindus. I suspect they were confident of victory all along. That they have broken their silence now suggests they are unsure. They may be terrifying to look at, they may have a vast number of ships, but they still feel fear. They are not unbeatable. Let’s show them that their concerns are justified.”

“Fleets Alpha and Beta are altering course slightly, they are maneuvering to get around our flanks,” Miyamoto reported.

“They will want their two missile salvos to come at us from as wide an angle as possible to split our point defenses,” James explained.

Guardian is signaling,” Emilie informed everyone. “The fleet is to prepare for fire plan foxtrot.”

“Execute the formation change,” James ordered. Fire plan foxtrot was the ideal way to deal with two Karacknid fleets trying to maneuver against the Alliance Fleet.

“New contacts. New contacts. Confirmed missile launches from Alpha and Beta Fleets,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer shouted. “Three thousand missiles from Alpha Fleet, three thousand one hundred and eighty from Beta.”

Though James knew the operational range of the Karacknid anti-ship missiles, it was still impressive to see it in person. Golden Hind’s own multistage missiles could out range the Karacknid’s, but they would have to cruise on a ballistic path for quite a long way before kicking in their second stage boosters. Such a long ballistic flight meant they could only really be used to target orbital targets. The Karacknid’s had a powered missile range almost equal to that of the Varanni and greater than the Crians and the other Alliance warships.

With the Alliance Fleet’s maneuvers being dictated from Guardian, James had little more to do than simply watch the first engagement play out. His ships were reduced to playing escorts to the Alliance ships that could actually hit the enemy. Seconds after the Karacknids opened fire, Jorum turned his fleet towards Beta Fleet. He increased the fleet’s acceleration rate by five percent. It was a modest increase, but with the Alliance Fleet now moving towards the Beta Fleet’s missile salvo, it threw off the Karacknid’s attempt to coordinate their salvos. Beta Fleet’s salvo would reach the Alliance Fleet a full two minutes before Alpha Fleet’s salvo.

Before either salvo got into range, Jorum gave the order for his ships to open fire with their starboard missile tubes. From the Varanni, Crian and Hexotal warships, seven thousand missiles were launched against Alpha Fleet. Missile for missile, they weren’t as deadly as the incoming Karacknid missiles, but their numbers would more than negate that disadvantage. Like the Human ships, the rest of the Alliance warships were restricted to point defense duty until the Karacknids came into range of their missiles.

Seconds after the last missile was released by his ships, Jorum ordered his fleet to alter their heading. Two minutes later, Varanni, Crian and Hexotal port missile tubes released their ordinance towards Alpha Fleet. Attacking from multiple angles allowed the Karacknids to split the Alliance Fleet’s point defenses, however it also let the Alliance Fleet fire both banks of missile tubes. If the Karacknids had a third or fourth Fleet, their tactic would be far more effective. For now it was working in the Alliance’s favor.

“They’re pulling back,” Miyamoto reported as both Alpha and Beta Fleets altered their trajectory slightly.

James nodded. The Karacknid commanders were trying to keep the Alliance Fleet at extreme missile range. It was their usual tactic and given that half of the Alliance Fleet wasn’t opening fire; they had probably figured out that only some of the Alliance ships could engage them at their preferred range. You’ve seen how much fire even half of our ships can put out, James thought, you should be pulling back completely. Despite being outnumbered, the Karacknid commanders were willing to continue the engagement, that was a mistake.

Before the first Karacknid missile salvo from Beta Fleet reached the Alliance Fleet, Alpha, Beta and the Alliance Fleet released a second salvo of missiles. The holo plot around the Alliance Fleet reminded James of the battle of Connecticut. That was still the largest battle he had fought in, though that would change before the day was out. The engagement the Alliance Fleet was now in could at best be described as a skirmish compared to what was going on in the rest of the Mindus home system and soon Golden Hind would be in the thick of everything.

“Missile salvo entering range of the fleet’s point defenses in five seconds,” Miyamoto updated everyone. As soon as the defensive weapons opened up, space around the Alliance Fleet became a collage of color and explosions. The Alliance ships’ primary point defense weapons were laser beams and thousands of them reached out to swat away the Karacknid missiles. After a few seconds they were joined by Human flak cannon rounds, plasma bolts and AM missiles. Though the Karacknid missiles’ ability to carry out evasive maneuvers and their ECM were impressive, the Varanni sensor technologies had the upper hand. Golden Hind had had her sensors upgraded with Varanni tech, and her point defenses lashed out with an accuracy no Human warship had ever accomplished before.

The Karacknid missile salvo was quickly reduced to less than two thousand missiles, in the space of ten seconds, it was reduced by another thousand. Then the Varanni capital ships fired their arc emitters. For a brief second, Golden Hind’s sensors blurred as the amount of electromagnetic energy pumped out by the Varanni ships overwhelmed her upgraded sensors. Vast quantities of electricity shot out in a cone away from the Alliance Fleet. Every Karacknid missile that came into contact with the field of electricity had its seeker head fried and lost all ability to track its target.

When Golden Hind’s sensors returned to full efficiency, there were just four hundred missiles still tracking the Alliance Fleet. More point defense fire whittled that number down drastically until only a handful got close enough to strike their targets. Several explosions near Golden Hind told James that at least some Karacknid missiles had hit their mark. There was no time to try and figure out who had been hit though, for the second Karacknid missile salvo was entering point defense range from a very different vector to the first. Before opening fire with their point defenses the Alliance Fleet reformed its formation as Jorum issued orders, then the desperate struggle between Karacknid missile and Alliance point defense gunners began again. With the need to change formation and reorient the Alliance Fleet, the second missile salvo had time to get closer to their targets before having to dodge defensive fire. It allowed more missiles to evade the fire designed to take them out and more explosions erupted amongst the Alliance Fleet.

“No sign that any of our ships were hit Vice Admiral,” Scott reported. “All ships are reporting greatly improved hit ratios thanks to the Varanni sensor upgrades.”

Guardian is reporting no ships destroyed,” Emilie added. “Several Alliance ships have suffered direct hits; none are out of the fight yet though.”

That’s good to hear, James thought. The Karacknid missiles had quite a punch. That no Alliance ships had been crippled from a direct hit suggested the Alliance ships were well constructed. Or we’ve just been lucky. Either way it’s not going to last.

“Our missiles are entering range of Alpha Fleet,” Golden Hind’s sensor officer announced.

James watched as the Alliance missile salvo closed in. Alpha Fleet had far less point defense weapons than the Alliance Fleet had, and they were facing many more missiles. To his disappointment though, the Karacknid warships were taking out a vast number of Alliance missiles. Varanni ECM isn’t very effective, James thought. He had known that, at least compared to the ECM of his own missiles, but no one had known how the Karacknids would handle Varanni missiles. They obviously weren’t having too much trouble. Even so, as James had learnt fighting the Flex-aor, quantity has a quality of its own. With more than seven thousand missiles closing in on them, Alpha Fleet wasn’t able to take out them all. More than a hundred came crashing in against their ships. Karacknid counter ECM and evasive maneuvers threw off many of them, but Golden Hind’s sensors reported at least eighty explosions. Several secondary explosions suggested Karacknid warships had been destroyed or crippled.

As soon as Alpha Fleet had been hit, everyone’s focus shifted to Beta Fleet as they came under attack. Events played out much the same and Beta Fleet lost several ships as well. Miyamoto estimated that they had lost at least twelve. There wasn’t time to analyze much more, for the Alliance Fleet came under attack themselves from Alpha and Beta Fleet’s next two salvos. This time James’ ships weren’t so lucky. A Karacknid missile scored a proximity hit on a frigate and the explosive force of the missile’s detonation was enough to burn off the frigate’s valstronium armor and tear open its insides. Though the frigate didn’t disappear in a secondary explosion from its engines or reactors overloading, it spun wildly out of formation, venting atmosphere, internal components and bodies. When Miyamoto brought up a visual of the frigate, James didn’t hold out much hope of there being any survivors. The frigate was a wreck and there would be no time to send any aid even if someone was left alive on board.

Guardian reports three ships lost from the fleet, eight more suffered various amounts of damage,” Emilie reported. “Jorum is about to begin the final stage of Gupta’s Rush.”

James watched on the holo projector as Guardian turned onto a direct heading for Beta fleet. Every one of the eight hundred Varanni warships in the Alliance Fleet followed suit. In the blink of an eye their engines increased to maximum thrust and the Varanni warships tore off towards Beta. As Gupta had intended, the timing caught Beta Fleet in a difficult position. An Alliance missile salvo was less than a minute away from entering range of their point defense weapons. There was no way they could alter their heading to get away from the Varanni warships without seriously compromising their ability to shoot down the incoming missiles. They had to keep their trajectory while they were bombarded by another salvo of missiles. Golden Hind’s sensors detected at least sixty explosions this time. When the radiation from the thermonuclear warheads detonating reduced enough to get a clear look at Beta Fleet, there were twenty contacts missing and others falling out of formation.

Beta Fleet still had nearly three hundred and fifty ships fully operational though, and as they opened fire again, James found himself gripping his command chair a little bit tighter. This was the risky part of Gupta’s plan. Without the aid of their consorts, the eight hundred Varanni warships had to fend off Beta Fleet’s salvo by themselves. James winced as four Varanni ships were obliterated by direct hits.

“Alpha Fleet has pulled back out of missile range,” Miyamoto reported. “They’ve lost sixty-three ships by my count.”

“A fair exchange,” James acknowledged. “They’ll know now they need to come at us with their full strength. Let’s hope Jorum can whittle that strength down a little.” As he spoke, beeps from several command consoles announced that the Varanni warships had fired with their own missile salvo. With the range closing rapidly, it didn’t take long for them to enter attack range. With less missiles to worry about, the Karacknid warships dealt with most of Jorum’s missiles, though five still managed to punch through their point defense fire and destroy two more ships.

Presumably bolstered by their success in taking out the Varanni missile salvo, Beta Fleet altered its heading slightly. Instead of trying to get out of missile range, they came around to fire another missile salvo. They never got the chance to actually open fire. The heavy laser cannons on the Varanni dreadnoughts, battleships and battlecruisers out ranged Golden Hind’s most powerful plasma cannon by a factor of two. As soon as Guardian got close enough, Jorum gave the order to fire. In the space of a second, Beta Fleet went from preparing to open fire, to being ripped apart. Six hundred laser beams lashed into the Karacknid warships. Almost every ship was hit by at least one beam, many more were targeted by five, six or seven. No Karacknid warship could survive being hit by so many massive beams and Beta Fleet was devastated.

As soon as Golden Hind’s sensors could make sense of what was left of Beta Fleet, James knew they were a spent force. Less than thirty ships remained on their original course. More than a hundred were simply gone and the rest were either falling out of formation or spinning wildly out of control. To their credit, those that remained undamaged did manage to fire their missiles. A minute later they all disappeared when the Varanni’s heavy laser cannons opened fire again. A third round of laser beams a minute later finished off any sign of resistance among the crippled Karacknid ships.

“That went rather well,” James said to his bridge crew after Jorum signaled for the Alliance Fleet to reform. He shared a glance with Becket. They had destroyed over four hundred and fifty Karacknid ships at the cost of just nine Alliance ships. If that exchange rate continued, they would have no problem winning the day. However, that was not going to happen. Several other Karacknid fleets were maneuvering away from Jaranna and coming towards them. Alpha Fleet had pulled out of missile range, but they hadn’t fallen back far. Soon the Karacknids would make another attempt to swarm the Alliance Fleet and this time, they would have numbers on their side.




Chapter 34

Despite all our technologies, despite all our training, despite the trillions of credits spent on the Imperial Navy every year, battles, and thus wars, can turn on two elements you can almost never account for; the element of surprise and luck. A commander who has one or both of these can overturn even the greatest of odds.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


“Vice Admiral, they are gone! They are all gone!” Miyamoto said in a shocked voice.

“What?” James asked.

“Be more specific,” Scott demanded.

“Sorry Admiral,” Miyamoto said, just about getting his voice under control. “We’ve lost all sensor information from the inner system. I can’t detect Jaranna or any of the Mindus warships. It’s like they’ve all just disappeared. I don’t understand, what has happened to them?”

James stared at the holo projection of the system. He had no answer. It wasn’t just the Mindus ships that had disappeared either, more than half of the Karacknid forces were no longer being detected by Golden Hind’s sensors.

“Is it a fault with our upgraded sensors?” Becket asked.

“I don’t think so,” Scott replied, she was bent over her command console, tapping furiously at its controls. “We can still detect everything else nearby. I think that…” She trailed off as she continued to go through whatever she was analyzing.

James knew better than to force her, but when twenty seconds passed and she didn’t complete her sentence, his impatience won out. “You think what Commander?”

“I think it is something the Karacknids have done,” she said without looking around. “We detected a very slight increase in their reactor outputs just before everything went dark.”

“Maybe they have some kind of advanced jamming technology?” Becket suggested. “One powerful enough to hide the inner Mindus system from us? How could they have the power to do that?”

“That I don’t know,” Scott answered. “But I think they have. If every ship contributes some of their power to producing an interference field, together they might be able to.”

“Might doesn’t come into it,” James responded. “I think we can assume they have found a way to do it. The question, is why?”

“There are more than three thousand ships angling towards us from various vectors,” Miyamoto said. “And those are just the ones we know about. Perhaps they are trying to hide their main fleet and lure us to a point where they can overwhelm us.”

“Perhaps,” James said as he tried to put himself in the position of the Karacknid commander. If he could hide more than half of his strength from his opponent’s sensors, what would he do? It would take at least an hour, probably closer to two for the various Karacknid fleets that had been maneuvering against Jaranna to combine into one super fleet. By then, Jorum would be able to get the Alliance Fleet close to Jaranna. Then, even if the Karacknids attempted to intercept the Alliance Fleet, they would have to worry about the Mindus fleet attacking their rear.

“I don’t think they intend to concentrate their forces against us, at least not all of them. Whatever the jamming means, I don’t think it will be good for the Mindus,” James elaborated. “I think it is more likely they are trying to hide their attack on Jaranna from us. If we don’t know what is going on within the system, we could allow ourselves to get caught up fighting the ships they are sending against us when the real battle is happening deeper within the system. That means there’s only one way we can go from here, forward. We’ll not know what is going on until we push past their jamming field.”

“I think Jorum is of the same mind Vice Admiral,” Emilie replied. “The flagship is signaling for the fleet to increase velocity. Ships that can’t match the flagship are to fall back.”

“Acknowledge the order,” James said. Three ships pulled out of formation and turned back towards the shift passage they had taken into the system. James could easily imagine the mixed emotions of their Captains and crews. No doubt they would be ashamed at having to abandon their allies but at the same time there would be an element of relief. They would live to fight another day.

“It looks like Alpha Fleet is maneuvering to combine with Gamma, we’ve designated the two other fleets coming out from the inner system against us as Delta and Epsilon. Gamma will have fourteen hundred ships, Delta eleven hundred and Epsilon one thousand,” Ivanov reported. “There’s at least another two hundred ships coming in from the outer system to rendezvous with each fleet, though they will be arriving piecemeal. It looks like the Karacknids plan to employ their standard tactic against us. It will work a lot better with three fleets of a thousand ships.”

James nodded to his operations officer. “Now we will see if our counter tactic works. Make sure every fighter and bomber is ready to launch. They will be critical to our success.”

“Aye Vice Admiral,” Ivanov replied.

“More orders coming through,” Emilie reported. “The fleet is to split in three, we are to join the starboard formation.”

“Acknowledge the signal and carry out the orders,” James commanded his staff. Now the maneuvers begin, James thought. The best counter to the Karacknid’s preferred strategy was to make use of their central position. Splitting the Alliance Fleet allowed them to engage each Karacknid fleet while preventing the Karacknids from coordinating their missile salvos into one devastating attack. As each Alliance formation was much closer to its comrades than the Karacknid fleets were to each other, it allowed the Alliance formations to assist one another where necessary. Jorum was stacking his starboard formation with more Varanni dreadnoughts than the other two. With James’ fighters added to the mix, he intended to knock out the weakest fleet while the rest of the Alliance Fleet held off Gamma and Delta. Splitting their forces was risky, but in the simulations, it was no riskier than trying to fend off three large missile salvos approaching from widely converging angles.

James couldn’t help but be impressed as the large Varanni Alliance Fleet seamlessly split into three formations. His professional eye proudly noted how the ships of his own fleet matched or bettered any of the other Alliance member fleets. “Launch our fighters,” he commanded once the ships were in their assigned position in what was now designated First Fleet. It took ten minutes for all the fighters and bombers to launch. During that time, and for another twenty minutes, a series of maneuvers and counter maneuvers played out between the three newly formed Alliance Fleets and the three approaching Karacknid fleets. Guardian led First Fleet towards Epsilon Fleet and the other two Alliance Fleets pursued their own targets. Initially the Karacknid commanders tried to maneuver their own fleets so as to bring at least two fleets against one Alliance Fleet. As the Alliance forces held the central position and had more powerful engines, Jorum easily prevented the Karacknids from gaining an upper hand against any one of his fleets. Eventually, the Karacknid fleets ceased their fancy maneuvers and each one set itself on a converging course with one of the Alliance Fleets. The maneuvers had allowed the Alliance ships to advance into the Mindus home system and it seemed the Karacknids had decided to stop Jorum’s forces from getting any closer to their ultimate goal.

“They’re going to come at us,” James said when it became clear Epsilon Fleet wasn’t going to pull out of missile range at the last moment. “Let’s give them a salvo of our multistage missiles. Coordinate them to strike alongside Jorum’s first missile salvo. Inform McGrath she is free to engage.”

Seconds after his orders were affirmed, twelve hundred missiles were launched by his warships. McGrath’s fighters and bombers accelerated after them. Against the Flex-aor James had always kept a squadron or two of fighters back to engage their missile pods. In the coming battle, such a strategy wouldn’t work. With literally thousands of missiles coming at First Fleet, a squadron of fighters taking out twenty or thirty would mean almost nothing. On the other hand, if they could take out a handful more Karacknid ships, that was where they would be best utilized.

As the Karacknid ships closed James counted down the minutes until they came into Varanni missile range. First Fleet was the smallest of the three fleets Jorum had formed with only five hundred ships, yet just over four hundred of those were Varanni, the rest were Human ships. Given that Varanni missiles significantly out ranged normal Human anti-ship missiles, there was no point in the Varanni waiting to open fire with his own ships. They would open fire as soon as they could. If he wanted, James could fire three more salvos of multistage missiles to allow his ships to contribute more to the battle, but he thought it best to hold them in reserve. Jorum had agreed.  One multistage missile salvo would hopefully add enough confusion to the opening stages of the engagement with Epsilon Fleet to allow McGrath’s attack to be even more effective.

James nodded when Epsilon altered course slightly just moments after the first stage of his multistage missiles went off-line. The missiles would have to fly ballistically for nine minutes before reigniting their second stage. The Karacknid’s weren’t stupid, they had immediately recognized what his missiles were going to do. They’re still going to get a surprise, James thought.  There was no way they could know about the missiles’ second stage.

Whether the Karacknid knew what was coming or not, Guardian and the four hundred other Varanni warships in First Fleet give them something else to think about as they launched their first missile salvo of three and a half thousand missiles. A couple of minutes later Epsilon replied with eight thousand missiles of their own. James swallowed hard when he saw the numbers. However effective their opening attack was, First Fleet was going to get hurt by the Karacknid’s reply. A quick glance at the secondary holo projector displaying Second and Third fleets told him they were facing even greater opening salvos.

“Varanni missiles are three minutes out from Epsilon Fleet’s point defense range, our missiles should be coming back online any moment,” Miyamoto reported.

Before he had finished speaking, twelve hundred new contacts appeared on the gravimetric sensors. At once they accelerated at rates even the Varanni missiles couldn’t match. It didn’t take long for the multistage missiles to locate Epsilon Fleet and alter their trajectory to close with them, the Karacknids hadn’t carried out anywhere near a severe enough course change to get out of range of the multistage missiles’ second stage engines.

“Our missiles will strike home thirty seconds after the Varanni salvo,” Miyamoto updated.

“Good shooting, you have timed it well,” James responded. “McGrath has her attack timed well I presume?”

“The fighters and bombers will be forty seconds behind our missiles,” Miyamoto answered.

James nodded to his tactical officer and focused on Epsilon Fleet. They needed to hit Epsilon Fleet hard. Jorum’s strategy relied on them knocking Epsilon Fleet out of action quickly so that some ships from First Fleet could be dispatched to Third Fleet’s aide.

As the first Varanni missile salvo came under fire, the greater number of ships in Epsilon Fleet quickly reduced their numbers. Even so, at least twenty got through the hail of point defense fire and exploded among the Karacknid warships. Moments later, on a different trajectory, James’ multistage missiles came crashing in. In part because there were far less of them, the Karacknid fleet had positioned itself to focus on the Varanni missiles. It was a mistake. The trick they liked to pull against their opponents was being pulled on them. Worse, the ECM jammers on the Human missiles were much more effective than the Karacknids were expecting. A further surprise came when the multistage missiles detonated much further out than typical thermal nuclear warheads. Instead of diving close to score a direct hit, the warheads pumped their explosive energy into a focusing lens which shot out a high-powered grazer beam. The beams from the multistage missiles shot through space and ripped into the unprepared Karacknid warships. Sixty ships were destroyed outright and many more suffered catastrophic damage when a beam of intense energy punched right through it.

Amidst the chaos, almost everyone in Epsilon Fleet had forgotten about the one hundred and eighty-eight small contacts that were McGrath’s fighters and bombers. Those that hadn’t forgotten, ordered point defenses to open up on them, but they were too little too late. Twisting and turning, McGrath’s fighters and bombers evaded almost everything that was thrown at them. They quickly closed enough to release their plasma missiles. The pilots of the fighters and bombers targeted each of their missiles at an as yet undamaged Karacknid capital ship. As a result, almost every Karacknid dreadnought and battleship took a plasma missile hit to their stern. Several detonated as power overloads caused secondary explosions. Most, though they survived the attack, suffered significant damage to their engines and power relays, decreasing their maneuvering capabilities.

In total, eighty-six Karacknid ships were destroyed by the combined attack. However more than three hundred other ships had taken significant damage. It took them a few minutes to reform their formation, but when they did, they fired their third salvo at First Fleet. Then they prepared themselves for the second Varanni salvo.

“There’s at least a thousand missiles less in their third salvo Vice Admiral,” Ivanov reported. “We gave them a bloody nose. I would expect their point defense efficiency to be down even more.”

“We’ll soon see if it is enough,” James replied. “Now we have to make sure they don’t return the favor.” James didn’t take his eyes off the first Karacknid missile salvo that was coming his way. Moments later the familiar sound of Golden Hind’s flak cannons firing could be heard. With his subordinates all hunched over their command consoles to aid Golden Hind’s computers in their attempt to shoot down every incoming missile, James had nothing to do but watch the readout of Karacknid missile numbers.

The first flak cannon rounds took out more than five hundred. Then the Varanni’s more powerful point defense lasers reduced that number even more. A few seconds later Golden Hind’s plasma cannons, AM missiles and point defense lasers opened up as well. When the enemy missile count was down to four thousand, the Varanni ships released their electrostatic waves. More than fifteen hundred missiles suddenly lost tracking. Desperately, every point defense weapon in First Fleet targeted those that were still homing in on them.

James knew they weren’t going to get them all, the numbers simply weren’t dropping fast enough. “Signal all ships in our fleet, tell them to prepare for evasive maneuvers on my mark,” he called to Emilie.

“Transmitting now Vice Admiral,” she called back.

James gripped his command chair as he watched the missiles come closer and closer. He had to time it perfectly, the longer he waited, the more his point defense gunners could take out. Yet if he gave the order too late, it would be ineffective. He forced himself to take a deep breath and slowly count to three, “now,” he shouted. The harness in his command chair tightened around his chest as Golden Hind’s navigation officer threw the large battleship into a corkscrew. Every ECM jammer was powered up to full and several decoys were ejected from the flagship and began to broadcast signals that mimicked the ship’s electromagnetic profile. Every ship in the Human fleet went through the same process and among the Varanni warships, a similar action was carried out. Nevertheless, many of the two hundred Karacknid missiles that had evaded everything the Varanni and Human ships had thrown at them detonated as they found targets.

James was thrown around in his command chair as one and then a second missile scored proximity hits. Both missiles detonated more than one hundred meters away from Golden Hind, yet the Karacknid missiles carried a payload greater than any Human warship had faced before. The resulting explosive forces burnt off valstronium armor, sensor nodes and point defense emplacements. Alarms blared on the bridge, reporting that sections of the ship had been opened to space. For a couple of seconds James felt his vision blur as the battleship’s inertial compensators struggled to deal with the forces being put on the ship. Then, as soon as his body started to feel normal again, he demanded damage reports for his flagship and fleet.

“We’ve got hull breaches on decks twelve and thirteen, sections twenty-two through to twenty-four, starboard side” Ivanov called out. “Missile tubes eighteen and nineteen are unresponsive. We lost quite a lot of point defense emplacements from the outer hull in those areas. No other damage reports coming in from elsewhere.”

“And the fleet?” James asked as he turned to Miyamoto.

“Two destroyers and a light cruiser have been lost, eleven other ships are reporting significant damage,” Miyamoto cut off, gasped and then swore. Other alarms went off around him. Out of the corner of his eye James saw an explosion on the holo projector. “That was Buffalo,” Miyamoto said and swore again. “She took a direct hit just above reactors three and four. Something must have overloaded.”

James swore. Buffalo was one of the eight battlecruisers of Gupta’s squadron. She was a significant loss. “Tell our damaged ships to pull out of formation and get out of here,” James ordered. “How did the Varanni fare?”

“Eight ships destroyed; others are pulling out of formation now as well. Several of their capital ships took hits, but they are all still in fighting trim,” Dzedzyk reported. James had given his astrologer responsibility for monitoring the Varanni fleet.

For the next eight minutes James threw himself into helping his damaged ships and reorganizing his fleet. He paused briefly to watch the second Varanni missile salvo attack Epsilon Fleet. They had done quite a bit of damage to their point defense capabilities for forty missiles reached attack range and when Golden Hind’s sensors cleared, twelve Karacknid contacts had disappeared. A number of others were falling out of formation and pulling back to safety. Just under nine hundred Karacknid ships were left in Epsilon fleet. James forgot about them as another seven thousand enemy missiles approached his fleet’s point defenses. Just before they did, explosions appeared among them. James suddenly remembered McGrath’s fighters and bombers, he had forgotten about their return journey, he’d been so focused on his damaged ships. A quick check of a secondary display told him she had lost fourteen fighters and six bombers in her attack run, the Karacknid point defenses had obviously proven effective despite being distracted. However, that left her more than one hundred and fifty fighters and they were tearing into the Karacknid’s missile salvo. In the space of twelve seconds, they destroyed more than four hundred of them.

“Let McGrath know we appreciate the help,” James called to his niece when the fighters pulled away so as not to get shot by their own forces. Not wanting to distract his officers, James lapsed into silence as First Fleet tried to shoot down as many missiles as possible. Despite their losses, they actually shot down more Karacknid missiles, experience and a quick analysis of the first salvo allowed the point defense gunners to increase their efficiency. Nevertheless, James had to order his ships to carry out drastic evasive maneuvers. This time, no missiles targeted Golden Hind directly, and James had to watch as explosions erupted among his ships. Too many came at once for him to keep track of everything, but he did see the medium cruiser Sophie take two direct hits. The force of both detonations ripped the cruiser in two and reduced the once proud warship to a ball of debris.

James ground his teeth together. Though he had lost many ships under his command, it never got easier. He had served with Sophie’s commander as a Junior Lieutenant, though they hadn’t been friends, he had respected her. Forcing the memories of their time together out of his mind, James turned to Ivanov. “How bad is it?” he asked.

“Six ships are requesting permission to drop out of formation, we’ve lost another three frigates and two medium cruisers,” she answered.

James nodded and closed his eyes, he had to stop himself from counting up the number of crew members who had just died. That was a calculation for after the fighting. Opening his eyes, he assessed the tactical situation once again. The Varanni’s third missile salvo was about to strike Epsilon Fleet. It was time for Jorum to act.




Chapter 35

My role at the Military Academy means I have to cover the entire history of the Empire. As most of my students come to understand pretty quickly, I have a soft spot for the First Galactic Expansion Era. There are so many lessons we can learn from those days that can prepare us for whatever the Empire future holds for it.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Guardian is signaling,” Emilie reported. “Varanni ships are to close with Epsilon Fleet. The Outer Defense Fleet is to aid Second Fleet.”

“Acknowledge,” James responded. He checked the holo projection of the Mindus home system. Third Fleet was engaging Delta fleet, it looked like they were holding their own. The six hundred warships of Second Fleet were in more trouble. They were facing Gamma Fleet, which had just under thirteen hundred warships. From what James could tell, both fleets had exchanged two missile salvos and Second Fleet was suffering. “Take us onto heading seven four three point six,” he ordered. “Fleet will go to maximum acceleration.”

“Aye Vice Admiral,” Scott responded.

“There go the Varanni,” Miyamoto called.

James turned to watch as the four hundred and fifty Varanni warships of First Fleet turned towards Epsilon and went to maximum acceleration. “Signal Guardian, tell them, ‘happy hunting,’” James ordered.

“They wish the same to us,” Emilie replied.

James allowed himself to watch Epsilon Fleet for a few moments to see how they would respond. Unsurprisingly, they turned away from Guardian and her consorts and tried to stop the Varanni warships from closing the range. They had seen what the Varanni laser cannons could do. However, Epsilon Fleet was severely hampered by the damage the multistage missiles and McGrath’s fighters and bombers had done. None of their capital ships could put out even eighty percent of their maximum thrust. They would be able to fire a couple more salvos at Jorum’s ships, but then they would be in trouble.

Jorum will finish off Epsilon Fleet, James thought as he turned his attention back to the wider battle. Now we have to make sure Gamma Fleet doesn’t return the compliment to Second fleet.

*

Karacknid Dreadnought Savage

Over Admiral Hurlong grunted as he watched the new alien fleet engage his ships. Whoever they were, they had easily fended off the two probing fleets he had sent against them. Their weapons technologies were clearly a match for those of his own species. Now, as the three larger fleets he had sent to block the alien fleet’s advance engaged the newcomers, he had to admit that whoever they were, they had fleet commanders to match their technologies. No doubt there was a full species file on them back at his homeworld, Gayla, this whole sector of space had been explored and mapped centuries before. Whoever they were, they would regret their decision to intervene in his war with the Mindus. Right now though, they were proving to be more than a minor irritant. Their three fleets were engaging his own three fleets on at least equal terms. If they were able to push through the jamming screen and coordinate with the Mindus fleet, they could force him to retire from the system.

That is not happening under my command, he thought as he turned back to the main display on his flagship’s bridge. Whilst he had sent part of his forces to block the newcomer’s advance, the main part of his fleet was now concentrated around the Mindus homeworld. His invasion of Mindus space had been carefully planned. Since the Imperator had given him responsibility for the invasion five years ago, he had planned every stage of the conquest meticulously. The capture of Jaranna was to be the final piece of a masterful strategy. Even now he had several fleets sweeping through Mindus space, conquering their key systems which they had left undefended in a bid to protect their homeworld. His plan had been to keep the Mindus fleet locked up in their home system until the rest of their colonies had been brought under Karacknid control. Then he would have offered the Mindus terms. With no hope of any relief or aid, they would have had to accept. His return to Gayla would have been glorious. He could have presented the Mindus territory to his Imperator without having lost more than a squadron of ships, never mind the fleets that intelligence had suggested it might take to conquer them. Hurlong would have made a name for himself as a tactical mastermind. He had been sure it would lead to many more fleet commands and conquests. Now that was all disappearing as the alien fleet came closer and closer to Jaranna. He had no doubt that as soon as they could coordinate with the Mindus, the Mindus fleet would break orbit and rendezvous with the newcomers, then together they could push his forces out of the system. He let out another growl of frustration and grazed his claws along his command chair.

“The fleet will switch targets,” he commanded reluctantly. “We will fire two salvos at Jaranna itself and then a third at their orbital defenses. Target all their major population centers with our first two salvos. Reduce the first and second salvo’s velocity so that all three salvos reach their point defenses at the same time.” If he couldn’t stop this new force from reaching Jaranna, he was going to make it so they had no reason to try. He had no doubt Imperator Taranaki would be displeased at the loss of such a valuable world, yet with new enemies to conquer, Hurlong hoped his Imperator would give him the opportunity to make good on his promise of new wealth and technologies for the Karacknid Empire. And with a new war to fight, the fleet will have more cause to request additional finance from the Empire’s coffers, that will make my superiors happy as well.

*

“Open fire with our multistage missiles, give them all three salvos, we need to help Second Fleet immediately,” James ordered as his ships charged towards Second Fleet. McGrath’s fighters and bombers had landed and were being refueled, rearmed and launched. James couldn’t wait for them though; Second Fleet was taking a hammering. Five Karacknid missile salvos had crashed into them. They had lost one sixth of their strength either destroyed or forced to disengage. “Signal Admiral Harnal, tell her she needs to bring her fleet closer to the Karacknids. They need to be close enough for us to be able to fire our normal missiles by the time we get to her.”

“Harnal has acknowledged,” Emilie reported just after the first salvo of multistage missiles was released.

James watched them go. He would have preferred to time it so that all three salvos hit Gamma Fleet at the same time, but he couldn’t afford to wait. If he did, Gamma Fleet would fire two more salvos at Second Fleet and he couldn’t allow that. He’d held off firing until his ships were close enough that the multistage missiles didn’t have to go ballistic between stages, but he couldn’t wait any more.

As another Karacknid missile salvo crashed into Second Fleet, James looked away. He didn’t want to see more ships being destroyed. Instead he sought out First Fleet to see how Jorum was faring. What he saw brought a smile to his face. Jorum hadn’t closed to laser cannon range with Epsilon Fleet yet, but just a few more minutes and he would. Almost as importantly, Jorum had lost hardly any of his ships in his attempt to close the range. The Karacknids had been so intent on trying to escape that their return fire had been compromised.

As he looked back at Second Fleet, the smile left his face. A stream of ships was falling out of formation, damaged or crippled by the last salvo. Data scrolling alongside the projection of the fleet indicated that nine more ships had been destroyed. In holding off Gamma Fleet, Second Fleet was allowing First Fleet to cripple Epsilon Fleet. They were paying a heavy cost for it though. Gamma Fleet had lost close to eighty ships destroyed or forced to retire. Second Fleet had lost almost as many. Given that Second Fleet was outnumbered by almost six hundred ships, that was not an exchange they could keep up for long.

“Firing second multistage missile salvo,” Miyamoto reported.

James acknowledged Miyamoto’s report and forced himself to watch the battle between Second and Gamma Fleets. As the ships closed, another two Karacknid missile salvos reduced Second Fleet numbers by thirty-six more ships. James’s grip on his command chair tightened with every detonation. He was leaning forward on his command chair, willing his flagship on. Having to watch and not be able to intervene was far worse than being in the midst of battle.

“Multistage missiles are engaging,” Scott reported. “It looks like McGrath has lined up her forces to go with our second salvo.”

James felt a slither of relief flow through him, at last his ships were doing something. Though they were ready for the multistage missiles, there wasn’t much the Karacknid’s could do against them other than fire every point defense weapon they had. With twelve hundred warships, that was a colossal amount of point defense fire. Even so, with their powerful ECM, thirty multistage missiles got close enough to detonate their thermonuclear warheads and send grazer beams into the Karacknid fleet. Ten ships were torn apart by the beams and six more suffered serious damage and withdrew from battle.

James grunted to show his satisfaction. It wasn’t much, but it was something. “Now we can really get stuck in,” he said moments later when Golden Hind got close enough to Second Fleet that her point defenses could cover the stricken ships under Admiral Harnal’s command. There was another Karacknid missile salvo just two minutes out so there was no time to slot his ships into a neat formation. “Bring us up over the top of Second Fleet, let’s catch the salvo in a crossfire between our point defenses,” he ordered. None of the Karacknid missiles were targeting his ships so his gunners would have a rare opportunity to engage enemy missiles without being distracted by evasive maneuvers. James was so focused on aiding Second Fleet that he missed the second wave of multistage missiles hitting home.

*

“All right pilots, this is going to be the toughest attack run yet,” McGrath said to the fighters under her command. Only eighty of her force had been rearmed and relaunched by the time she decided to launch her attack. Like James, she knew there was no time to waste. “They will have an idea of our capabilities and we only have a thousand multistage missiles to distract them. This will not be easy, but we need to hit them hard. You’ve seen what this fleet has done to Second Fleet. Our ships are in the firing line now too. We need to reduce their numbers. Good luck to each of you.”

A beep told McGrath her Spitfire was thirty seconds from entering the range of the Karacknid’s point defenses. She dismissed her other fighters from her mind and focused on what she was about to do. The Karacknid point defenses were far better than any she had flown against before. On her previous run the loss percentage of her forces had been devastatingly high. This was going to be worse. She had to dismiss those thoughts and focus on her evasive maneuvers. She had to get through and score a hit.

The Karacknid fleet in front of her lit up as the multistage missiles released their grazer beams. Multiple explosions confirmed beams had struck their targets. No doubt the explosions looked spectacular up close, but through her view screen, they were nothing more than pinpricks in the distance. Seconds later, the point defense fire that had been concentrated on the missiles turned towards her fighters. Every other thought left McGrath’s mind; she was now one with her fighter.

For thirty seconds she twisted, dipped, turned and rolled her fighter through a series of random evasive maneuvers as she tried to throw off any attempt to shoot her down. With a scream of triumph and rage she levelled off her fighter as soon as she came into range. For the briefest of moments she held her Spitfire still as she thumbed the button to release her plasma missile. She knew full well that was when she was the most vulnerable. As she saw the missile detach from her Spitfire’s undercarriage, relief washed over her. She had done it; the missile was aimed at one of the largest dreadnoughts in the Karacknid fleet. Unless they got lucky, a ball of plasma was about to come bursting down upon them.

That was McGrath’s last thought. A laser beam punched right through her canopy, vaporizing the cockpit of her Spitfire instantly. All across her line of fighters her pilots, unaware of their wing commander’s fate, released their own plasma missiles. Seventy-five of them raced towards the Karacknid fleet. Twenty were shot down. Sixteen lost their targets or failed to score a hit. The rest detonated and released their balls of plasma just before impacting their targets. Twenty-six Karacknid ships were destroyed outright, twenty more suffered heavy damage. As the fighters pulled away, they left behind twenty-seven of their number, including their Wing Commander.

*

As soon as the last Karacknid missile detonated amongst the ships of Second Fleet, James ordered his fleet to slot themselves in around Harnal’s flagship. Then he sought out Gamma Fleet. As soon as he saw that their numbers had decreased by nearly fifty he knew McGrath had launched her attack. The Karacknid fleet was in disarray. “Signal McGrath and tell her that her fighters have done her proud once again,” James ordered. “Now the odds have been evened a bit.” Gamma Fleet had just lost almost fifty ships whilst Second Fleet had gained the seventy-nine Human warships. Better yet, the Karacknids had allowed Second Fleet to get close enough for Golden Hind’s normal anti-ship missiles to reach them. “Start flushing the missile pods from our capital ships,” James ordered. “I want to be ready to fire as soon as Harnal is.”

When Harnal gave the order to fire, James was pleased to see every missile pod was deployed and ready to fire. From his ships, one thousand six hundred missiles raced towards Gamma Fleet. Unsurprisingly, the Karacknids, now acutely aware of the Human missiles’ ability to detonate at a distance from their targets and release bomb pumped grazer beams, focused most of their point defense fire on James’ missiles. Even so, a number got through and each one that did released three grazer beams rather than the multistage missiles’ one. The eight missiles that got through scored five kills. With so much effort put into destroying the Human missiles, another seventeen Karacknid ships were destroyed by Alliance missiles.

In turn, when the next Karacknid missile salvo hit Second Fleet, nine ships, including a destroyer and a corvette from James’ fleet were lost. James nodded as the data came up in front of him, those relative loss ratios were much more favorable. As the battle raged on, he lost all sense of time. Salvo after salvo of Karacknid missiles came crashing home and just as many salvos from Second Fleet tore into the Karacknid warships. Twice Golden Hind was struck by proximity hits. She lost several missile tubes and a good portion of her point defenses, but she stayed in formation and kept hitting the Karacknids. In the latest salvo one of his battleships suffered two direct hits. James was so focused on getting rescue shuttles to the warship to evacuate her crew before she blew apart that he missed Miyamoto’s shout. It was only when his tactical officer repeated himself for the third time that James started to hear. “Gamma Fleet is pulling back! They’re pulling back! Jorum’s ships are closing with us. The Karacknids are reversing thrust and disengaging!”

When James looked at the holo display of the system, he could hardly believe what he was seeing. Yet it matched what Miyamoto was still shouting. Jorum had destroyed most of Epsilon Fleet and then doubled back. His ships were charging to Second Fleet’s aid. The Karacknid fleets were pulling back and decelerating. They were allowing the Alliance Fleet to continue into the Mindus system unchallenged. What is left of us, James thought as he took in the state of Second and Third fleets. When Second Fleet had split from the initial Alliance Fleet, it had numbered six hundred and fifty warships. With the addition of James’s ships, it should have been seven hundred and forty. There were only four hundred and eighty battle worthy ships left. The Karacknid’s Gamma Fleet had been savaged as well, it looked like they had lost more than four hundred ships. Still, they had devastated Second Fleet.

Third fleet, James decided as he stared at the sensor data Golden Hind had on them, had fared somewhat better. They hadn’t been as outnumbered and it looked like they had given a good account of themselves against Delta fleet. Even so, they had suffered significant losses as well.

Guardian is signaling, fleets will form into formation diamond three,” Emilie reported. “Jorum has a personal message for all ships. He wants us to know we have fought well.”

“Indeed we have,” James said loud enough for Golden Hind’s entire bridge crew to hear. “Now, let’s hope we have enough strength to push the Karacknids away from Jaranna,” he said a lot quieter for only Scott and Becket to hear. Becket gave him a knowing nod. She understood. They had destroyed more than a third of the Karacknid force that had come against them, yet they had detected many more Karacknid ships around Jaranna before the jamming had blinded their sensors. Whatever they were up to, the Alliance Fleet would have to fight their way past them as well after suffering significant casualties of their own. The look he and Becket shared said one thing; the battle was far from over yet.

Moments later, they were both proved wrong.

*

Karacknid Dreadnought Savage

“End the jamming screen,” Hurlong ordered. “Let’s let our new friends see just what they have bled for.” Begrudgingly he had to admit the new aliens had fought well. That knowledge gave him all the more delight in letting them see what he was about to do.

*

UNS Golden Hind

“The jamming, I think it is coming to an end,” Miyamoto reported excitedly. “We’re starting to get readings from the inner...”

“Oh no,” Scott said, cutting him off. “Look!”

Everyone on Golden Hind’s bridge groaned. There were thermonuclear detonations erupting all across Jaranna’s surface. Similar detonations were erupting in orbit. Right before their very eyes. The Mindus orbital defenses and half of their warships were destroyed. It was more destruction than most of the crews of the Alliance ships had ever seen. Yet that paled into insignificance compared to what was happening on Jaranna’s surface. Jaranna had a population of thirty billion. Hundreds of millions, if not billions were being killed by the energy being given off by the detonations Golden Hind’s sensors were detecting. The Karacknids had fired an oversized missile salvo at Jaranna. The Mindus defenders, so concerned about their homeworld, had ignored missiles targeting their own ships and sought to destroy those targeting the planet. In one sense, they had probably succeeded. The sensor data suggested no more than forty nuclear devices had detonated on Jaranna’s surface. No doubt many more had targeted the planet. Even so, the planet’s fate was sealed. The Mindus fleet had been crippled and Jaranna’s orbital defenses all but wiped out. Even as the destructive force of the thermonuclear detonations washed over the planet, the Karacknid fleet moved in to engage and finish off Jaranna’s defenders. There was no way the Alliance Fleet could defeat the Karacknid ships in the inner system now. The Karacknid fleet would take losses as they secured Jaranna’s orbitals, but there were too many of them to fight. Jaranna was lost.

“They wanted us to see,” Becket said through clenched teeth. “They are proud of what they’ve just done. They wanted us to see this. To know what they’re capable of.”

James didn’t reply. There was nothing he could say. No one else spoke. They all watched in silence as Golden Hind’s sensors updated them with the devastation that was spreading over Jaranna.

“I’m picking up a faint message from Jaranna,” Emilie said in a whisper thirty seconds later.

“Is it the Karacknids?” James demanded, his anger rising rapidly.

“No,” Emilie replied. “It’s from the planet’s surface. It’s audio only.”

“Let’s hear it,” James requested.

“This is Second Minister Ush-hi of the Mindus government to the Varanni Alliance Fleet. We want to let you know we are surrendering the planet. We cannot allow the Karacknids to launch any more nuclear weapons against us. Our homeworld has been lost. Thank you for trying to come to our aid but our war has been in vain. My government has failed our people. I’m sorry you have been dragged into this. Thank you again for trying to help. We promised you our technologies for your aid. Please make better use of them than we have. Protect your people. Perhaps one day you will be able to help free us from the Karacknids. I’m sorry for the loss of your military attaché. They were based in our capital. It was destroyed by a nuclear warhead. If you can, please evacuate as many of our people from our other colonies as possible.”

“Is that it?” James asked when Ush-hi fell silent. “Is there nothing more?”

Emilie began to shake her head but stopped herself as her console beeped. “Wait… There’s another datafile coming through. It… It’s massive!”

“Send it to me,” Scott demanded at once. It didn’t take long for her head to shoot back up and for her to hold James’ stare. “It’s a technological database. It has to be. It’s encrypted using Varanni tech, but Jorum give us the ability to decrypt such messages. The computer is deciphering it. There’s far too much for me to make sense of right now. But it’s their technologies. If what Ush-hi said is true, it’s all of them!”

James was lost for words. He had just witnessed the fall of an advanced civilization, the bombardment of their homeworld. Now, seconds later, he had the technologies of that civilization at his fingertips. Things were happening too fast for him to keep up with.

Guardian is signaling, the fleet is to reverse course. Jorum wants us to pull back and collect our damaged ships as we leave the system,” Emilie reported.

That brought James’s mind back to reality. His fleet was nowhere near out of danger yet, and there were many damaged ships that needed help escaping. No doubt the Karacknids would give chase and pick off what ships they could. Everything else would have to wait, he was a fleet commander and his ships needed him. They had just suffered a massive strategic defeat, even though they had won their local battle against the Karacknid forces. Whatever came next, the war was far from over. He had a fleet to see to. Their safety was paramount, for James was sure of one thing. This would not be the last battle between Golden Hind, his fleet, and the Karacknids.

*

Karacknid Dreadnought Savage

“General Savala reports that he has met with what is left of the Mindus government. They have officially surrendered their planet to him Over Admiral,” one of Hurlong’s officers reported. Under Admiral Shurlang is here as you requested as well.”

“Good, arrange for their most senior politicians to be brought on board Savage, we will bring them back to the capital to present to the Imperator when we return to bring news of our victory. Show Shurlang in.”

Hurlong’s eyes returned to the fleeing alien fleet that had destroyed so many of his ships. They had thwarted his plan to conquer Jaranna and significantly increased the losses he had taken in his campaign. The Imperator would not be pleased. He wanted to know who they were. He turned to face the subordinate who had just entered Savage’s bridge. “You served in this sector of space when you were a Captain did you not?” he asked.

“Yes Over Admiral,” Shurlang responded. “I commanded the technology transfer mission that was sent in after the sector was surveyed.”

“So you know who these aliens are that attacked us?”

“I believe I do Over Admiral. They call themselves the Varanni Trading Alliance. There is one dominant species, the Varanni, whose technology matches our own. They have formed a partnership with ten other neighboring species.”

“So you know which species this is,” Hurlong said as he pulled up a visual of Golden Hind and the rest of James’ fleet. “For their limited numbers, they caused significant damage to our forces.”

“I’m not sure,” Shurlang replied after a moment’s hesitation. “I do not recognize the ship designs. I do not think they are part of the Varanni Trading Alliance. At least, they were not two centuries ago. Hold on.” Shurlang quickly pulled out an information device from his pocket and began to tap on it. With the swish of a claw he sent an image to replace the one Hurlong was displaying. “These are Human warships from two hundred years ago. They are not identical, but that’s the closest design I came across.”

“Yes,” Hurlong agreed. “They’re not identical, but they are close. These Humans, who are they?”

“A minor race,” Shurlang answered. “They were not deemed to be a serious threat by our initial screening forces. However, when we visited their homeworld they had developed somewhat quicker than our initial estimate suggested they would. As a result, I transferred weapons technologies to one of their neighboring species.”

“It seems whoever carried out the survey of these Humans was wrong. It also seems your efforts to cause them difficulties did not prove successful,” Hurlong commented.

“No Over Admiral. I apologize for failing you,” Shurlang replied as he bowed his head.

“You may leave,” Hurlong responded with a wave of his claws. “Your fleet fought well today Under Admiral. You weren’t to know these Humans would attack us. Go through your records on this Alliance and these Humans. I want to know more. If you can satisfy my curiosity, your past failings will be overlooked.”

“Yes Over Admiral, it is an honor to serve under you,” Shurlang said as he backed out of Savage’s bridge.

“Send a text communication to our new friends,” Hurlong ordered once Shurlang had left. His gaze had returned to the fleeing alien fleet. “Tell them, ‘Your homeworlds are next.’” That would give them something to think about.




Chapter 36

The Battle of Jaranna as history has recorded it was the largest a Human ship had ever fought it. It officially marks the beginning of the Karacknid War or the War of Doom as it is more popularly called. Militarily it was of little confidence. Jaranna’s fate had been sealed the day the Karacknid Imperator had given the decree for the Mindus civilization to be conquered. The Alliance Fleet could never have overcome the forces it faced. In the broader scope of the coming war though, the battle was pivotal. The fall of Jaranna set the battle lines, for from that moment on it guaranteed that Humanity and the Alliance species would be fighting the coming war within their own territory.

-Excerpt from Empire Rising, 3002 AD.


Guardian, Lastar system, 16th February 2479 AD.

“Before we bring this planning meeting to a close, there is something else I wish to discuss,” James announced to the gathered senior officers of the Alliance Fleet. “I believe it is time my fleet retired and returned to our own space. The evacuation is well underway and the Second Varanni Alliance Fleet has arrived. There’s no sign the Karacknids are preparing to launch an attack. My forces are no longer needed here. I must return and warn my people about the threat the Karacknids pose.”

Admiral Dur’ack rose to her full height and gave James a deep bow. “We will be sad to see you go Vice Admiral,” she replied. She had arrived with the Second Alliance Fleet. “Your ships and the council of your commanders has proved of great benefit to us.”

“And you have become a friend,” Jorum added. “Could we not persuade you to delay your departure for a few more weeks? Our scouts may not have detected any buildup of the Karacknids fleet, but I would feel safer with your ships in the system.”

“I’m sorry, but no,” James answered. “I would love to stay until the evacuation is complete. But the truth is, you no longer need us to protect Lastar and a number of my ships need the attention of one of our naval repair yards. My duty to my people and my Navy means we must take our leave. Each of your civilizations are currently gearing up for the retaliation we know the Karacknids are planning. My people know nothing of the fall of Jaranna and the threat we face. I must return home and ensure that my species is doing all that it can to prepare. We all must stand together against the Karacknids if we are going to prevail.”

“Plus, you have a very juicy database of new technologies to bring home,” Ya’sia replied. “I know our technicians are getting a little overexcited over some of the things they have found. I’m sure scientists back on your homeworld will respond in the same way. I don’t know about the rest of you,” she said as she looked around the gathered Admirals, “but I would feel a lot more confident if we knew Vice Admiral Somerville was back on his homeworld overseeing the design of new Human warships that incorporate the technologies the Mindus have shared with us. The sooner he leaves, the sooner he can return to us with a more powerful fleet.”

“That would be agreeable,” Dur’ack said with a smile. “There was no word back from the diplomatic envoy our Senate sent to your homeworld when I left to come here, however by the time you return home, I’m sure there will be some Varanni technologies your warships will be able to incorporate as well. Moreover, after your exploits against the Karacknids in the Jaranna system, I intend to make sure our Senate shares everything we can with your people.”

“You do me and my species a great kindness and honor to speak such words about us,” James replied. “We have found you all to be leaders of repute. I hope each of our species will develop the same depth of friendships that we have been able to cultivate among us here. I wish you all the best in the coming months.” Before he sat down, James took the time to bow to each of the Alliance commanders gathered in Guardian’s circular conference room.

“There is one request I would make of you,” Jorum said after returning James’ bow. “Perhaps you would consider leaving Rear Admiral Gupta and her staff with us as strategic advisers. We could certainly use her input and she could keep your people up to date on how the war with the Karacknids is progressing.”

James looked over to Gupta. He could tell from the tightness of her shoulders that she wasn’t keen on the idea. She too felt the need to return to Earth. The Karacknid threat was too serious. Everything that could be done had to be done to prepare for whatever counterstroke they had planned. For his part, James was tempted to agree with Jorum. The Alliance Admirals had almost as much respect for Gupta as they did him. They understood she had experience and knowledge they did not. She would be very helpful to them.

Other things had to be taken into consideration however. Though he has spent the last few months trying to forget, he was going to receive a very cold reception when he returned to Human space. Even if the UN Interplanetary Council approved of his actions privately, they would not publicly. A court martial and removal from the fleet was waiting for him. If that was the case, then Gupta would be needed back in Human space more than ever. She would have to take on the responsibility of urging the fleet to prepare for the Karacknid threat.

“I’m sorry,” James answered. “I need her with me. She is indispensable. Once we return to our space, I will strongly recommend that our fleet send a number of military advisers. We have several other Admirals that are as capable as Gupta or I. I’m sure you would benefit from their input. We all must learn how to fight together as one.”

“If there are other Admirals as good as the pair of you, I will be happy to make their acquaintance,” Jorum responded. “We would welcome them warmly.”

“Well, I’m afraid that is settled then. We will have to make minor alterations to our plans, but the departure of your fleet will not cause too much disruption. Let me officially thank you for your aid in this campaign,” Dur’ack said. “We will end our meeting on that positive note.”

“Are you happy with my decision?” James asked quietly as he turned to Gupta. “You didn’t want to stick around a little longer?”

Gupta made a face as if she was thinking. “It’s tempting. Life may be a little more peaceful if I stayed here. I have a feeling it’s going to get very interesting when we return home.”

“That’s true,” James agreed. He almost chuckled. A part of him had made peace with his situation. Whatever was going to happen would happen. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to make light of it. “I’m sure the Admirals could find plenty of work to keep you busy. There’s no shortage of logistical jobs with this evacuation.”

That brought a wry smile to Gupta’s lips. She knew that all too well. Since falling back to Lastar, one of only two Mindus colonies that had hadn’t been captured by the Karacknids, every officer in the Alliance and Human fleets had been assisting in the evacuation. Between the two Mindus colonies, there were over two hundred million individuals. That was a drop in the ocean compared to the total number of Mindus people. Yet the rest were under Karacknid rule. With no hope of driving the Karacknids out of Mindus space, and little hope of being able to defend their two remaining colonies, Jorum had ordered the evacuation of all the Mindus who wanted to leave. A world within Alliance space had been identified for them to settle.

“If for no other reason than to get away from this evacuation, I will be happy to go home,” Gupta responded. “Besides, someone has to get home and report what actually went on here. With all the praise these Admirals have been laying on you, I’d not be surprised to find that by the time we get home you’ll be telling everyone you single-handedly won the battle.”

James’ eyebrows rose and he feigned a look of hurt. “Me?” His face changed again and took on a serious look. “As I recall, you were the one who said you had complete faith in my abilities.”

“Well, yes,” Gupta agreed reluctantly, “though that’s not something I go shouting about all the time. These Varanni and their honor, they can’t help but keep complementing you.”

“And you,” James pointed out. “Your head may be bigger than mine after all this.”

“Vice Admiral,” Ya’sia said as she approached James and held out her hand. “This is a sad parting. I have grown rather fond of you.”

“And I of you,” James replied. “We will see each other again I’m sure. This will only be a temporary parting.”

“I hope so. I will hold you to that,” Ya’sia responded. Then, still holding his hand she maneuvered him away from the other Admirals and spoke in a softer tone. “What will happen when you return home? I do not know Human customs, but disobeying a direct order, even for such a cause as this, will there not be repercussions?”

James shrugged. “I have no doubt there will be. As to the severity though, your guess is as good as mine. I am returning home with all of the Mindus advanced technologies. Even the most upset Admiral will have to acknowledge that.”

“That is true. That is true,” Ya’sia replied as she gestured to show her agreement. “In any case, I hope whatever happens, it does not hinder you returning to us. As soon as the evacuation is complete we will pull our forces back to Alliance space. Then all our efforts will be focused on our defense. I’m sure we could make great use of your advice and simulation work. You have run rings around more than one Alliance Admiral in the battle simulators. You’re teaching us how to think on our feet. That is the kind of thing we will need if the Karacknid intend to carry out their threats.”

“I’m sure I will be able to come and visit you,” James assured his friend. “If things go really bad for me on Earth, I may even have to come and seek a commission in your fleet. How do think that would go down?” James suggested half in jest. As soon as he saw the look on Ya’sia’s face he regretted it. Her warmth disappeared immediately.

“You cannot be serious Vice Admiral. Your people would not do that to you would they? You must be their greatest Admiral. You alone have fought the Karacknids. They will need you more than ever.”

“Greatest might be stretching it a little far,” James replied as he glanced at Gupta. “But I hope the senior Admirals and civilian oversight of our Navy will see it as you do.”

“Well,” Ya’sia said as some of the concern left her voice. “I hope they do. But if they do not, let me assure you, you would be more than welcome to join us. We would make good use of you, even if your own people would not.”

“I thank you for your kind words Admiral. I’m glad we did not fire upon one another when first we met. We have been through a lot together in such a short space of time.”

“Indeed we have,” Ya’sia agreed, “and though I do not look forward to it, I have no doubt we will go through much more together.”

“One of our cultures has a saying, a curse really,” James replied. “If you wish to will ill on someone you say, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ I’m afraid that appears to be our destiny.”

“You’re right,” Ya’sia said as she gave a very Human nod. Then she reached out and placed a hand on James’ and Gupta’s shoulders. “But at least we will face whatever interesting things are ahead of us together.”

James and Gupta returned Ya’sia’s nod. Then after another handshake, they parted ways. Before leaving, James made a point of talking to each of the Alliance Admirals personally. Some of them he had come to know quite well, others had kept their distance, but he wanted to say goodbye to each to show them his respect. The last person he spoke to approached him. James did not know Galica well, she was the most senior surviving member of the Mindus government. Technically she was overseeing the evacuation, though really Jorum was in charge.

“My species owes you a great debt Vice Admiral,” Galica said as she pulled James into a hug. The first time it had happened James had been shocked. The Mindus were much more open about their emotions, and physical contact was a given between friends. It had been more than a little amusing to watch the Varanni interact with the Mindus. Neither species wanted to offend the other, but it was obvious they struggled with their significant social etiquette differences.

Having become accustomed to it over the last month, James had no problem returning the gesture with Galica. Thankfully, the Mindus stood at a similar height to Humans, and though their skin was a thick leathery substance, the hug did not crush him. James had a suspicion that if either a Crian or Varanni hugged him, he would come away with at least a couple of broken bones

“The Karacknid have devastated our homeworld and who knows what they are doing to the rest of our colonies,” Galica continued. “It is only because of you and the Alliance that some of my species will continue to live in freedom. I know you have our technologies, and they are well deserved. But if there’s anything else my people can do for you and your species; you only have to ask. We know the risks you have brought upon yourselves by intervening. The last thing we want is to see a similar fate befall your homeworld. We would do anything we could to prevent that.”

James couldn’t help glancing at Gupta before replying. It was something he had not mentioned to the Alliance Admirals, but he had spoken about at length with his subordinates. He had no doubt that if the Alliance Fleet had not intervened in the Karacknids’ attempt to conquer Jaranna, the Mindus homeworld would still be intact. The Karacknids had shown no sign that they used thermonuclear weapons on a planet’s surface as a standard military tactic. James strongly suspected the appearance of the Alliance Fleet had forced the Karacknid commander to improvise. If the other Alliance Admirals had come to the same conclusion, no one had spoken about it, certainly Galica hadn’t. As far as she was concerned, the Alliance Fleet had done the best they could to help her people. James didn’t want to encourage her to think anything else.

“Your offer is very generous,” James replied. “You can be certain I will pass it on to the leaders of my people. Perhaps we may ask you to send some of your scientists or engineers to help us understand your technology.”

Galica hopped from foot to foot, a clear sign of a Mindus being happy. “I am sure we could arrange that Vice Admiral. No doubt there would be many volunteers for such a job. My people are very appreciative.”

“I hope something can be worked out. I will bring it up with my superiors,” James replied. “Let me say again how sorry we are for what has happened to your homeworld and your civilization. Hopefully your people will be able to quickly set yourselves up in Alliance space and build up an economy and war fleet that will allow you to liberate your species.” James wasn’t surprised to see Galica’s face change. By all accounts the Mindus had been a peace-loving, joyful civilization before the Karacknids had invaded. That was still evident in how they interacted with one another and with the Alliance. Yet since their homeworld had been nuked, a new disposition seemed to be growing within them. The free Mindus were determined to see their homeworld and colonies liberated. They saw their evacuation as a temporary retreat. They fully intended to return and reap vengeance upon the Karacknids. Never before had the Mindus dedicated themselves to war, but James suspected that was what the focus of their new colony in Alliance space would be. James also suspected the Karacknid war would come to them before they got the chance to build up enough forces to liberate their homeworld, but that was another matter.

“We will not settle in Alliance space easily, for the world the Varanni are giving us will never truly be ours. It is a staging point. A temporary home. We will not be there for long,” Galica promised. “The Karacknids will rue the day they decided to conquer our civilization.”

“Of that I’m sure,” James replied. “I intend to do my best to aid you in this endeavor.”

“I know that you do Vice Admiral and I understand why you must take your leave of us. Your ships fought bravely in the defense of my people and despite your losses, you have risked your fleet to defend Lastar this last month. You will always have my people’s thanks.”

James nodded and allowed Galica to hug him again. He had held serious doubts protecting Lastar. As soon as they had escaped from the Mindus home system, he had argued for the Alliance Fleet to retreat to Alliance space. Trying to defend one or two Mindus colonies had seemed like a lost cause. With so many damaged ships, and a fleet low on supplies, falling back had seemed like the best option. Yet when scouts had been sent to Jaranna and reported the Karacknids were showing no signs of preparing to continue their advance, James’ fears had subsided. Very quickly Galica and the leading Mindus politicians on Lastar had started talking about evacuating a portion of their population so that they could continue the fight. As soon as James had met Galica and seen her and her people’s willingness to continue the fight, he had completely changed his mind. Earth’s history was full of underdogs and the remnants of defeated forces reorganizing, regrouping and winning. The Mindus were allies that he didn’t want to lose. With the arrival of the Second Alliance Fleet and the continued inactivity of the Karacknid fleet, James was confident that the evacuation would be a complete success. More than one third of the two hundred million Mindus on Lastar and Fargalen had been willing to relocate. Twenty million had been loaded onto Mindus transport ships and were on their way to Alliance space. In another month, as the evacuation picked up pace, all sixty million Mindus would have departed.

“I look forward to the day when we return to your home system together to liberate it,” James said after Galica released him.

“As do I,” Galica replied. “Safe travels home Vice Admiral.”

“That was quite emotional,” Gupta commented as they walked through Guardian’s corridors towards the shuttle bay. “Do you think we will see them all again soon?”

“That depends on the Interplanetary Committee and the Military Subcommittee,” James answered. “Your guess is as good as mine. I hope they will be able to put personal differences aside in the face of such an overwhelming threat. That is what I would like to hope,” he repeated, trying to reassure himself. “We have a damaged fleet to get home first. Let’s worry about that and we’ll see what happens afterwards.”




Epilogue

UNS Sparrowhawk, Sol system, 2nd January 2479 AD.

Commander Alex MacArthur let out a sigh of relief when his frigate jumped out of shift space into the Sol system. He let out another one when the Varanni diplomatic cruiser reverted to real space alongside his ship moments later. It had been a long journey from Varanni Prime and he had felt the weight carrying the news of the Invader threat Vice Admiral Somerville had sent him home with. He knew the fleet would see him as a traitor or mutineer and in every Human system his ship had entered, he had half expected to be stopped by the local system patrols. Thankfully, the Varanni had known of a quicker route from Varanni Prime back to Earth which meant they hadn’t had to travel through X-32. They had come through German colonial space instead and that had saved MacArthur from having to face Vice Admiral Lightfoot.

On top of the stress of returning to Human space, travelling with the Varanni diplomats had added to his anxiety. They had wanted to take every opportunity to grill him and his officers on his species as they prepared for their first official contact with Earth. Given his complete lack of diplomatic training, MacArthur had spent most of the conversations worrying he would say or reveal something that would end up hurting his species.

We are here now, he reassured himself, your orders will soon be complete and then things will go back to something like normality. He wasn’t naive, he knew there would be consequences for taking his frigate with Vice Admiral Somerville to Varanni space, yet he hoped the fleet would understand. When the Outer Defense Fleet had left X-32, MacArthur had thought they were doing so under orders. When Somerville had revealed the truth, Rear Admiral Gupta and Commodore Forbin, the commodore who commanded MacArthur’s frigate squadron, had backed James’ decision. MacArthur had just been following orders all along. The UN Admirals would understand that. Something like normality, he thought to himself again, somewhat in hope.

“Open a channel to Envoy, I’m sure Ambassador Haloar will wish to speak to me,” MacArthur said to his COM officer.

“Captain,” Haloar said when his face appeared in front of MacArthur, “we have made good time to Earth. I want to thank you for your escort and your help in preparing us to meet with your species’ leaders.”

“I am happy to have been of service,” MacArthur replied. “I have already transmitted my report to Earth. I expect my leaders will want to host some kind of formal welcoming ceremony for you and your diplomats, after that negotiations will begin in earnest.”

“We are happy to proceed as your leaders think best,” Haloar responded. “You can communicate that to them. We know our arrival can cause upheaval on less advanced species’ worlds, and we do not wish to cause any unnecessary harm.”

“I will pass that along and I will update you with their plans as soon as I am made aware of them. For now, Envoy may continue to accompany Sparrowhawk into the system, no one will mistake you for a threat if you have a UN frigate escorting you.”

“I am most grateful Captain,” Haloar said with a small bow. “I hope that if we have any questions about your home system, you will be available to help us understand what Envoy’s sensors are seeing?”

“Of course,” MacArthur said, keeping the exasperation out of his voice. It will soon be over, he told himself.

*

Three hours later MacArthur pulled the tunic of his uniform down to straighten it and checked his sword was sitting flush against his right thigh. He had donned his best dress uniform for the occasion. This was his first time before the UN Interplanetary Committee and he wanted to make a good impression. He knew the news he was bringing was monumental; it had the potential to send shockwaves throughout Earth and the Human colonies. For whatever reason, the Interplanetary Committee had decided to officially receive his report in person. He had no doubt that recordings of the meeting and what he intended to say would be replayed tens of thousands of times across the Sol system and beyond. He wanted to make sure he looked his best.

Without a word or any signal MacArthur could pick up on, the two guards on either side of the large double doors that led into the Interplanetary Committee chamber reached over and pulled the doors open wide. MacArthur took it as permission to enter. Walking in, he wasn’t surprised to see the audience chamber filled to capacity. There were military personnel and political figures from almost every Earth nation present. It had been impossible to hide the fact that his frigate was one of the ships that had left X-32 under Vice Admiral Somerville’s command. Before coming down to New York, MacArthur had been browsing the holo news reports. Speculation was rampant. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his frigate, Sparrowhawk, had entered the system accompanied by a highly advanced spaceship of unknown origin. That had everyone talking!

Stepping up to the speaking platform that MacArthur assumed had been set out for him, he paused and looked at the members of the Interplanetary Committee, each sitting at their assigned dais. He sought out the Representative for the British Star Kingdom and gave her a nod. When his own Representative didn’t acknowledge his gesture, MacArthur swallowed hard. Glancing around the room he had a sudden fear he had misread the situation. No one seemed to be offering him any encouraging glances or positive facial expressions. With a start, he realized silence had descended on the room. He looked at the Representatives. When none spoke to him he guessed everyone expected him to speak first.

Tentatively he began the speech he had been rehearsing for the last hour. “Representatives of the esteemed UN Interplanetary Committee, I have been sent here to speak with you all on behalf of Vice Admiral Somerville. He has made contact with the eleven members of the Varanni Trading Alliance. They have informed him of a threat to both the Alliance and our own freedom. A species known only as the Invaders has launched a war of conquest against one of our neighbors, the Mindus people. Though we have not known about them until now, if their civilization is conquered, it is very likely these Invaders will set their sights on us. Vice Admiral Somerville has convincing evidence that these Invaders were the ones who passed advanced weapons technology to the Vestarians and the Flex-aor with the aim of destabilizing this sector of space prior to launching a war of conquest of their own.

“Vice Admiral Somerville sent me here to bring warning about this new threat and to call all of Earth’s nations to band together to do everything we can to defend ourselves. As we speak, Somerville has taken his fleet in conjunction with a Varanni Alliance Fleet to aid the Mindus in the hope that the Invaders can be halted before reaching our space. In addition…” MacArthur stopped midsentence as one of the Representatives raised a hand.

“I think we have heard enough. Who do you think you are Commander? Coming here and thinking you have the right to address us?” Representative Kapoor asked. “Vice Admiral Somerville was relieved of command of the Outer Defense Fleet six months ago. He has no authority over you and his name does not give you any right to speak to us.”

MacArthur looked around confused. Every member of the Interplanetary Committee was seated at their dais. The audience chamber was full. The Interplanetary Committee had invited him here, they had clearly gathered to hear his report. He couldn’t understand what Kapoor was saying. Not knowing what else to do, he tried to continue. “These Invaders have weapons technologies more advanced than ours and they have numbers greater than the Flex-aor. I have technical and battle data the Mindus have shared with us to present to this Committee. The threat is very real.”

“Enough commander,” Kapoor said sharply, cutting him off. “I am a sitting member of the Military Subcommittee; you will obey my orders.”

“But... I have a detailed report to give about the Varanni Trading Alliance as well. We met the battle fleet they sent against the Flex-aor on our way here. They were returning from carrying out a series of raids. The Flex-aor threat has been greatly reduced. And, I have brought an Alliance diplomatic envoy,”

“Silence!” Kapoor shouted. “You followed the orders of a renegade Admiral. You participated in a mutiny. You are as much a traitor as Somerville. Security, arrest this man immediately and take him away!”

MacArthur tried to speak. He wanted to protest. He wanted to make the Representatives understand the danger they were all in. No words would come though. He was at a loss as to what to say. The situation was changing too quickly for him to keep up with.

When four pairs of strong arms grabbed him and began to drag him away, it shook him out of his stupor. Words finally came. “Wait! Wait! You have to hear what I have to say. The future of our species depends on it!”

“I said silence!” Kapoor screamed as she stood. “We will hear what you have to say traitor. You will be interrogated as a prisoner. We will hear all your lies then. But you will not speak one more word to us here. Traitors do not get to brief this Committee.”

MacArthur fought the hands dragging him away as he tried to look around at the audience. He was looking for someone who would help him, someone who would listen. He found no one. Every face that his eyes fell on was looking at him with a cold distant expression. No one was interested in what he had to say. Suddenly, all the fight went out of him. The full realization of his situation hit him. He would have to face a court martial. His precious Sparrowhawk would be taken away from him. His future in the navy was over. As despair sank in, he allowed his body to sag into the grip of the guards that were dragging him away. Before he left the chamber, he couldn’t miss the amplified declaration Representative Kapoor was making.

“That is how we deal with traitors and renegades. Let it be known that every ranking officer of First Lieutenant and above who joined Vice Admiral Somerville in his mutiny will face the same fate. Every one of them will rot in a UN prison. The Interplanetary Committee and the Military Subcommittee will not tolerate mutineers, liars and warmongers. Somerville and his new friends will not drag us into another war.”

MacArthur screamed in anger. His own fate and the loss of the ship were momentarily forgotten. The Interplanetary Committee could do what they want with him, but they had to listen. They couldn’t ignore the Invader threat. His scream was cut off from the Committee as the large double doors he had entered were shut behind him and the guards began to pummel him.

*

Unaware of the events of just ten minutes ago, Ambassador Haloar slithered up to the speaking platform that faced the UN Interplanetary Committee Representatives. Bowing low, Haloar sought to show the respect his species had gained for Humanity. When none of the Representatives before him stood and returned the gesture, Haloar had to push down the anger he felt. He knew Commander MacArthur had sent a file to brief the Interplanetary Committee on Varanni customs. They must not have had time to read the file, Haloar chose to tell himself. As if he had not just been insulted, he began to speak. “It is an honor for me to be allowed to address the leaders of your species,” he began. “My name is Ambassador Haloar, I have served as an ambassador in the Varanni Alliance for forty of your years. I have been sent by the Senate of the Varanni people to open diplomatic relations with your species and to discuss possible trade deals. The member species of the Varanni Trading Alliance have greatly benefited from common friendship and technology transfers. We hope that a similar friendship can be forged with your people. Especially now that we face a common enemy. The fleet Vice Admiral Somerville brought into our space and your commanders in that fleet have been a great help to us. Even now, warriors from my race and your race fight together to help the Mindus civilization. I’m confident that is a sign of the strength of bond our two peoples can forge.”

“You’re welcome before this Committee ambassador,” Representative Dawson of the British Star Kingdom responded. Haloar knew the Representative was from Admiral Somerville’s nation and his mood improved. “Your species are certainly welcome here, and we are open to getting to know your civilization and your people better. However, I am afraid you have come here under false pretenses. Admiral Somerville is a mutineer. He was relieved of command before he took his ships into your space. Therefore, all the promises he has made you, and any actions he has taken have been unlawful. Whatever he has told you about us and whatever type of relationship he has offered you, let me dispel you of such notions.

“The Human race has had enough of war and death. We,” Dawson said as she spread her arms out to encompass her fellow Representatives, “have been appointed to this position to ensure that peace reigns over our colonies. Vice Admiral Somerville is a relic of our past. His desire for glory led him to attack the Flex-aor and to take his fleet on some ill-suited crusade against an imaginary foe. You would be best served to forget what Somerville has told you about us. We have no interest in joining your war or making an enemy of these so-called Invaders. If your species wishes to negotiate trade deals and to develop a friendship between Humanity and yourselves, we are open to that. However, if you wish to drag us into a conflict that has nothing to do with us, we will have nothing to do with your Varanni Trading Alliance.”

Haloar was aghast. He had never been so insulted in his life. Every fiber of his body wanted to spin around and remove himself from the presence of such insolent individuals. His forty years of experience as an ambassador and his understanding of the threat the Invaders posed made him hold his position. “You speak of things that you do not know Representative so I will not hold your ignorance against you. I confess, I did not know of Vice Admiral Somerville being a mutineer. From the experience my species has had with him, he has proven to be a trustworthy friend and exemplary strategist and tactician. You speak of your desire not to fight in any more wars. I would expect then that you would show more gratitude to my species. It is my understanding that commander MacArthur has briefed you on the battle fleet Varanni High Command sent against the Flex-aor. With our superior technologies, our fleet destroyed two thousand Flex-aor warships and raided two of their colonies. That destruction, added to what Vice Admiral Somerville and Admiral Ya’sia accomplished, will ensure the Flex-aor cannot pose any immediate threat to your species. I believe you owe my species your thanks.”

“You will find no thanks here ambassador,” Representative Kapoor responded. “Not for attacking one of our neighbors and provoking them to seek revenge. The Flex-aor attacked us five years ago, that is true. However, according to Vice Admiral Somerville’s report on his attack on their worlds, they were making no preparations to launch a second attack. It may be that their first attack was a mistake. It could have been that a diplomatic solution could have been found. We will never know now. Thanks to Somerville and Admiral Ya’sia’s attack on the Flex-aor’s homeworld, they have all but guaranteed that another war will be fought with the Flex-aor. Now you tell us you have attacked them as well, further enraging them. This is not the action of a potential friend. Your species has endangered Humanity.”

“I thought ignorance was the problem here,” Haloar replied, his voice trembling as he looked around at the Representatives. “Now I believe your insults are intentional. You have greatly dishonored the Varanni people. We offer help and military aid and you turn it down. Varanni warships and Varanni lives have been lost to keep you safe and you revile us. Nevertheless, I’ve been sent here to offer a trade deal to you.” Haloar paused to gather his thoughts. Though he knew he had to say it, what he was about to say turned his stomach. “We are willing to offer you our most advanced weapons technologies in exchange for your ECM capabilities and your miniature inertial compensators. Never before have the Varanni given away their most secret technologies, however in the face of the threat from the Invaders, we are willing to do so now.”

“You have not been listening ambassador,” Kapoor replied. “We have no interest in fighting in your wars, or in helping you to start one. We will make no weapons technology trades with you until we know more about your species and these supposed enemies you have.”

Haloar had heard enough. “You’re a fool Representative. You have failed your people. Your civilization will rue this day. When the Invaders come, do not look to us for aid. You have chosen your fate.” Without waiting for a reply and without a farewell, he spun around and slithered out of the chamber. Not bowing at the end of a formal conversation was the greatest insult a Varanni could give. Haloar didn’t even care if the Representatives on the Human council understood that, he simply wanted to get away from them. He was sickened by their behavior.

*

Suzanna and Fairfax looked at each other with horrified expressions on their faces. Suzanna had returned to Earth to drum up more investment for Haven and she had attended the UN Interplanetary Committee. She had brought Fairfax as a guest. It was the only way he could get in given the long list of people who had been invited at such short notice. Now they were in an apartment Fairfax rented just a short walk from the UN buildings. Neither could quite believe what they had witnessed.

“There is really no other way?” Suzanna asked. “What if I tried to contact this Ambassador Haloar? He might listen if he knows I am James’ wife.”

Davenport shook his head. “I don’t think that will work First Councilor. Can you imagine how many different news agencies and other groups will be trying to contact that Varanni cruiser? The cruiser will be rejecting thousands of attempts to open COM channels with it. If anyone has half a brain they will try and pretend they are you or someone else close to James to get the Varanni to trust them. You can try, but I can’t see it working.”

“He’s right,” Fairfax said. “My way is the only way we can accomplish something. There is no way it won’t be traced back to me though. And they will find me pretty quickly. As soon as I get the information I’ll transmit it to you. You will have to do with it what you can.”

“We’ll have to leave here pretty quickly ourselves,” Cynthia said. “Even quicker than we did last time. Whatever means Fairfax uses to sends us the information, it will be traced back to us.”

“Then we better make the preparations now,” Suzanna replied, accepting they had no other choice. “Are you sure you can do this?”

“Yes,” Fairfax answered. “Doing it will be pretty easy. It’s getting away with it that will be harder. I don’t think the Interplanetary Committee will want the public spectacle of putting a former Prime Minister on trial, but they will want to punish me in some way or another.”

“Well let me thank you once again,” Suzanna said as she stood and squeezed Fairfax’s shoulder. “You are proving to be a true friend.”

“A friend of Humanity,” Fairfax responded. “I’m not just doing this for you and James don’t forget.”

“No, of course not,” Suzanna replied with a wink, then she leaned in and kissed his cheek.

“Well,” Fairfax said after a moment’s pause. “I better go at once. There is no time to waste. I’ll leave everything else in your capable hands Lady Somerville.”

“Good luck,” Suzanna called as he turned to leave. She turned back to her staff with a serious look on her face. They had work to do.

*

“Prime Minister of the British Star Kingdom Fairfax to see Captain MacArthur,” Fairfax said to the attendant at one of the side entrances to the small guardhouse adjacent to the UN buildings. Fairfax was gambling that there hadn’t been time to move MacArthur anywhere else yet.

“Former Prime Minister,” the attendant replied as she read the identity card Fairfax had handed her.

“Yes, and barrister for Hopkins, Thirlwall and Johnson. I represent Captain MacArthur and wish to speak to my client.”

“There is no prisoner with that name being held here I’m afraid sir. I cannot let you in.”

“Now, now,” Fairfax said in a condescending tone. “Let’s not take each other for fools. Everyone in the Sol system just saw Captain MacArthur arrested and carried out of the Interplanetary Committee chamber. I was Prime Minister for ten years. I have appointed Representatives to the Interplanetary Committee, I have addressed it many times. I know how things work around here. You may not have officially logged MacArthur into your system, but you are holding him. I know your regulations on withholding legal counsel from a prisoner. Your job is at stake here Miss and so I would advise you to think carefully about what you say next.”

Three minutes later a guard escorted Fairfax and his two associates into one of the lower levels of the guardhouse. When they rounded a corner, they came to a cell that had two guards standing in front of it. They both stiffened at the sight of Fairfax.

“We have strict orders not to let anyone see this prisoner,” one called as Fairfax approached.

“This is Captain MacArthur’s legal counsel,” the guard escorting Fairfax said.

“We have no orders making an exception for legal counsel. You cannot enter until we get specific permission,” the other guard replied. As he spoke he fished a COM unit out of his pocket.

Fairfax gestured to his two aides. Neither knew anything about legal matters. They had other skills though. Within a matter of seconds all three guards were on the ground incapacitated. Reaching into one of their pockets, Fairfax pulled out the key card for the cell. Opening it, he quickly assessed MacArthur’s condition, his face was covered in bruises, but otherwise he didn’t look too bad. Moving over to the Captain, he raised him into a sitting position as he spoke. “Quickly, we don’t have much time. I have some questions for you.”

*

Scimitar, high Earth orbit.

“We’ve got it,” Davenport said as soon as Scimitar’s COM unit picked up the transmission from Fairfax. “It looks like Sparrowhawk came in from German colonial space. We have the exact coordinates. MacArthur says that is the most likely route James will take home.”

“Good, get us out of here,” Suzanna said to her pilot.

*

Hauptman Station, X-32 system, 7th February 2479 AD.

Vice Admiral Lightfoot was both angry and relieved. He had just finished reading the most recent report from Earth. The UN Interplanetary Committee had finally denounced Somerville as a mutineer. That meant he could use whatever force he deemed necessary to apprehend Somerville when he finally returned to Human space. For months now, he had been fretting over what he would do if James returned. Lightfoot didn’t trust himself around Somerville. Somerville had betrayed everything both he and Lightfoot had served and fought for over the last twenty years. Lightfoot feared he would have lost control and let his anger get the better of him. Now he didn’t need to worry. When he next encountered Somerville, he would have the full authority of the UN to use whatever force necessary to arrest him. That would make up for the months Lightfoot had been left with nothing to do but relive how Somerville had used their friendship to betray him. He had done everything he could to help Somerville and yet the arrogant Duke of Beaufort had spurned Lightfoot’s trust and rubbed his face in the fact that Somerville thought himself better than Lightfoot, the UN Military Subcommittee and the Interplanetary Committee. Where once Lightfoot had held nothing but respect for Somerville, now there was only contempt. He had thought the UN Military Subcommittee had been making a grave mistake when it had relieved Somerville of command, now he knew they had seen something in Somerville he had missed.

What’s this? he thought as his eye was drawn to another intelligence report. It was attached to the report on the denouncement of Somerville. The initial summary detailed how the risk of an immediate Flex-aor invasion was being downgraded. As Lightfoot read, his emotions were turned upside down. James had been right about the invaders, the Varanni had sent a fleet to fight the Flex-aor, and a diplomat to Earth. A diplomat that had been turned away. Lightfoot felt lightheaded. His world was spinning. For the first time in decades he was unsure of himself and everything he believed in. His anger for Somerville was still very much there. Yet how could the UN act as they were? Had Somerville been right all along? Had he seen something in the UN that he hadn’t?

Setting his datapad down, Lightfoot knew all his relief was gone. Now he was left with anger. Anger at Somerville’s betrayal of their friendship and anger at the UN he wasn’t so sure wasn’t betraying him and the fleet. Were they ignoring a clear and present danger to Humanity? Lightfoot’s anger was joined by confusion. Confusion about what to do with the UN, about what to do with his fleet, and above all, about what to do with Somerville if he tried to return to Human space.

With the Flex-aor threat reduced, he, along with elements of his fleet, was being recalled to Earth, and if the Outer Defense Fleet did return, he knew who would be tasked with taking all its senior officers into custody. The question he had no answer for was what would he do if he was forced to intercept the Outer Defense Fleet?


The End.


The story of James’ return to Earth and the rise of the Karacknid threat will be continued in Empire Rising book 8.

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As a bonus below I’ve included the first four chapters from The Voyage Home, the first book in my second series. If you haven’t picked it up yet you can read these first few chapters for free and see if you might like it. I hope you enjoy.


The Voyage Home

Prologue

Earth, 2503 AD.

“They’re here,” Captain Edwards projected into High Admiral Hanson’s mind.

“On my way,” Hanson replied without opening his mouth.

This is it, he realized, as he walked from his quarters to the bridge of HSF Defiance.

“How many?” Hanson thought towards Edwards after stepping onto the bridge.

“See for yourself,” Edwards replied as he nodded towards the flagship’s main display screen.

So many, Hanson thought in despair, careful to keep his thoughts to himself.

“Have we received any new transmissions?” Hanson projected to Defiance’s bridge crew.

“No,” one of the flagship’s officers replied.

“Nothing has changed then,” Hanson projected to everyone on Defiance. Every one of them would remember the feeling of the last Collaboration. Almost everyone on Earth who was connected to the Planet Cognizance, including the delegations from humanity’s four colonized worlds, had been of one mind. They would refuse the demands of the Elders. “We will not give up our way of life, nor will we back down. Whatever happens now, let us face it together.”

Though he wasn’t consciously aware of the thoughts of each of Defiance’s one thousand crewmembers, Hanson still sensed their mood. They were all as committed as he was.

“What have the invaders been doing?” Hanson asked his bridge crew.

“They haven’t moved into the system yet. They are sitting on the edge of the mass shadow,” replied Defiance’s sensor officer.

“They’re waiting for an answer,” Captain Edwards guessed.

“Yes,” Hanson responded. “Though our presence should be answer enough.”

“It should be,” Edwards thought back. “If they really are as advanced as they claim, then they can hardly miss our fleet.”

Ten years ago, the first Elder ship had appeared in the Sol system. Up until that point, humanity had thought itself alone in the galaxy. Though only the nearest thousand star systems had been explored, the fact that no sign of intelligent life had been detected anywhere had given humanity a false sense of security.

Without opening any form of communication, the Elder ship had approached Earth. The planetary government had scrambled what limited warships it had to confront the threatening ship. In the blink of an eye the Elder ship had obliterated all of them with some type of directed particle weapon. Then, after settling into orbit over Earth it had delivered its message.

An alien from the ship had projected its image using COM technology similar to that used on Earth. It had informed humanity that it was a representative of a race calling themselves the Elders. It also claimed the Elders were the rulers and guardians of the galaxy. They had many thousands of species under their care. Earth, its colonies and the other alien species who inhabited this sector of space were all about to receive the privilege of joining the Elder Empire.

The benefits it had said, were great; Earth would obtain access to all of the Elder’s Tier One technology, would be able to freely trade with all non-Elder worlds within the Elder Empire, its citizens would be able to freely travel to all other Tier One worlds and the Elders would commit to protecting Earth from all hostile threats. Most importantly, Earth would have the opportunity to advance to become a Tier Two and even Tier Three world. If that happened, the alien claimed humanity would have access to unimaginable technology and standards of living.

The only caveats were that Earth must submit to the rule of an Elder Overseer who would be placed on Earth, and Earth must recognize the Elders’ ban on all neural, genetic and nano technologies. All three branches of scientific endeavor were forbidden on worlds within the Elder Empire.

After getting over the initial shock of discovering they were not alone and that their future was under threat, humanity had set about debating what to do. The Planet Cognizance that allowed everyone on Earth with a neural implant to communicate with each other also allowed a planet wide Collaboration. In a Collaboration, every mind coalesced into one as the thoughts from billions of people came together. In the end, the decision had been almost unanimous. Humanity would not bow to anyone.

Hanson hadn’t been surprised by the outcome. The same nano technology running through his body keeping him perfectly fit and healthy also ran through Defiance, just as it did almost all of humanity’s creations, holding them together. The neural implants that all but a few humans had, were first and foremost for communication. More importantly though, through the Planetary Cognizance they produced a sense of unity and purpose that humanity had never had before.

The Elder ship had given humanity ten Earth years to remove all banned technologies from the Sol system and to prepare to receive an Elder fleet which would arrive to take possession of the system. Instead Earth, and her four colonies, had prepared for war. Never before had Earth needed to design and build designated warships to operate in space. The ships that confronted the first Elder ship had simply been freighters armed with small weapons in order to deter pirates.

Now Hanson stood on the bridge of humanity’s largest warship. Defiance massed over half a million tons, was layered in nano carbon armor and carried hypervelocity missiles, laser cannons and mass drivers. Alongside her, more than a hundred smaller but still deadly warships stood in formation.

“Move us forward,” Hanson thought.

As Defiance and the fleet advanced towards the outer edge of the Sol system, Hanson moved over and sat in his command chair. Reaching up behind him, he pulled down his battle helmet. With a click, the helmet’s neural interface locked into his spinal column and his awareness of Defiance’s crew faded into the background. It was replaced by many new minds as Hanson’s thoughts were projected to the other Captains in his fleet. Once the familiar feeling of Captain Edward’s mind joined the neural network, Hanson began to give orders. With a few simple thoughts, he ordered his ships to swarm around Defiance. No one ship stayed in the same position for more than a couple of seconds. Hanson had designed the formation to protect his ships from mass driver rounds. It would also allow him to try a trick or two he had planned.

“Do you think they will try to talk to us?” one of the fleet’s Captains asked.

“We’ll see,” Hanson replied. “If they want to talk about leaving our system alone I’ll be happy to dialogue. But I don’t think that is going to happen.”

At the fleet’s current velocity, it would take an hour to close to hypervelocity missile range. If the aliens hadn’t spoken by then, he fully intended to open fire. As long as they were in his system, he was going to treat them as a threat.

“We’re getting a COM message from the Elder fleet,” one of Defiance’s officers informed him. “It’s text only.”

Glancing down at a screen on his command chair, Hanson read it.

You have made your decision, you will now become slaves instead of allies.

When he looked back up at the main display screen, Hanson saw the alien fleet had begun to move. They were on a direct intercept course for his fleet.

“We have our response,” Hanson thought to his Captains. “Begin firing.”

From the ships at the rear of the human fleet, mass driver rounds shot towards the alien fleet. With all the movement in the human fleet, the firing ships didn’t come into view of the alien ships for more than a couple of seconds. Hanson hoped that with all the sensor data his ships were giving off from their ever-changing formation, the aliens wouldn’t detect the mass driver rounds being fired.

“Hypervelocity missiles,” Hanson thought once the aliens came into range.

More than five hundred new contacts appeared as hypervelocity missiles were launched towards the aliens. They accelerated up to the speed of light, then, as a Dyson Bubble formed around the missiles, they continued to accelerate, rapidly closing in on the alien ships. Just before they reached their targets, massive heat blooms appeared all around the alien fleet.

“Hits, multiple hits,” one of Defiance’s officers shouted across the neural link.

Before getting excited, Hanson waited to see the outcome of his attack. He had timed it so the mass driver rounds would reach their targets just thirty seconds before the hypervelocity missiles. As he had hoped, the aliens had been too focused on his missiles to see the real threat.

No ships were destroyed, Hanson realized as the sensors updated. Some of his mass driver rounds had clearly hit the alien ships, yet they were all still there. Let’s see how the missiles do, he said to himself, all too aware that if they failed, his options would be severely limited.

“Several missiles are detonating way too early,” a sensor officer projected to Captain Edwards and Hanson.

“What?” Edwards queried.

Not waiting for a reply, Hanson accessed the sensor data directly. As he watched, more than twenty missiles detonated. Just before they detonated the missiles had suddenly undergone rapid deceleration. There was just one thing Hanson could think of that would cause that. The aliens were able to disrupt the Dyson Bubble’s around the missiles.

“Send new orders to the missiles,” Hanson projected. “Tell them to drop their Dyson Bubbles and attack at sub light speed.”

Without waiting for an explanation, his subordinates sent the new orders.

More than two hundred missiles were destroyed in the seconds it took for the missiles to receive the COM message form Defiance. Having slowed, the missiles were now over a minute away from their targets. As they crossed the minute mark, some form of point defense fire reached out to take out the missiles. In return, the missiles jinked and ducked as they tried to evade the fire. Hanson watched, almost gobsmacked, as the hundreds of human missiles were reduced to just twenty.

Nevertheless, he didn’t give up hope for those twenty reached their targets and exploded. “We got four,” one of Defiance’s sensor officers reported.

“Just four?” Hanson queried as he struggled to contain his dismay.

“Yes Admiral,” came the response. “Two alien ships have disappeared off our sensors, another two have stopped accelerating, there are no energy readings coming from them.”

“How many did we hit?” he followed up.

“Eight missiles got hits,” the officer replied. “The other seven ships are still accelerating towards us. There is no sign of any damage.”

“What was different about that one?” Hanson asked.

“It was hit by one of our mass driver rounds,” another officer projected. “It must have already been damaged.”

“Target the ships we hit with mass driver rounds,” Hanson thought to his fleet Captains. “Prepare to fire another volley of missiles. Go to rapid fire with the mass drivers as well, maybe we will get lucky.”

Now the aliens knew about the mass drivers it was unlikely they would be so easily hit by them. Being driven on by momentum alone, a mass driver round couldn’t track its target. It just had to hope the ship didn’t change course. That the alien ships were now making slight random course changes suggested they knew the deficiencies of their opponent’s weapons.

“I’m detecting a small heat bloom coming from each of the alien ships,” a sensor officer reported before Hanson could give the order to fire.

Hanson’s eyes began to move around to look at the sensor data. They never reached their destination. Instead, sub atomic particles accelerated to within a percentage of the speed of light struck his flagship. They ripped through its nano carbon armor and obliterated the bridge, killing Hansen instantly. A fraction of a second later, the beam of particles dissected Defiance’s main reactors and the entire ship exploded into one giant fireball. Though spectacular, the flames quickly dissipated in the void of space. In their place, all that was left of Defiance was an expanding ball of debris.

All across the human fleet similar explosions tore into warships as beams reached out to snuff them out of existence. Not one human ship managed to fire another salvo of hypervelocity missiles.

Five minutes later, twenty-nine alien ships, each massing less than a fifth of Defiance, accelerated through the debris that had been the once proud human fleet. They were now headed for Earth.


*

Hope V, Edge of the Sol system.

“Get us out of here,” Simmons thought an hour later, then she cut herself off from the ship’s neural network.

All her life she had been a scientist. She had devoted herself to discovering the mysteries of the universe, so she could help better humanity. The visual feed being displayed on Hope V’s main viewing screen sickened her. After destroying the defense fleet, the Elder invaders had set about destroying every orbital station around Earth. Some of the habitats had housed millions and millions of people. Others had collected solar energy or grown food stuffs essential to the inhabitants of Earth. There would be an energy crisis and famine all across Earth for months, perhaps even years to come. Yet it had only taken the Elders seconds to destroy it all, and it looked like they had no remorse.

Not wanting the bridge crew of Hope V to see her face nor sense her emotions, Simmons stood and walked towards her personal quarters. Once there, she threw herself onto her bed and buried her head in her pillows. I’m just a scientist, how can I be responsible for humanity’s future?

Alongside the efforts to build a defense fleet, Earth’s ruling council had set about preparing five Hope ships. Each ship carried humanity’s best and brightest. Simmons was now in charge of Hope V. She was tasked with setting up a small research base. There she was to study the Elders from afar. To learn their secrets and prepare for a day when humanity would be able to break free from their rule. It doesn’t matter how you got here, Simmons told herself. You are here now, you need to make the best of it.

Getting back on her feet, she looked at herself in the mirror. Someday we will make you pay for this, she promised. The fierce look of determination on her face surprised her. With a thought, she reconnected to Hope V’s neural network. It was time for the rest of the team to sense her mood. The Elders will rue the day they came to Earth.




Chapter 1

Two thousand years later.

Sarah sat on the floor in her bedroom playing with her favorite doll, Cali. It was her favorite because the doll looked just like her mother. With one hand she held Cali, while with the other she brushed Cali’s long hair, just as her mother brushed her hair every morning. A loud crack made Sarah jump and tears formed as she turned to see the door into her bedroom banging on its hinges. Her tears never came, for as she saw who was coming through the door a smile spread across her lips.

“Mama,” she said.

When Sarah saw the strange look on her mother’s face her tears almost began to flow again. She had never seen her mother look so scary. As her mother reached towards her daughter, Sarah’s smile returned. In one quick motion her mother picked her up and pulled her into a tight hug. She then held Sarah out in front of her. “I love you more than you will ever realize,” she said.

“I love Mama,” Sarah replied in as clear English she could muster.

Sarah was confused as her words brought tears to her mother’s face rather than a smile.

“And I love you too Sarah,” her mother replied through her tears. “You’re not going to understand this now, but someday maybe you will remember. Mama has to go away. You’re my special, special daughter and I love you so much but Mama has to go away. I love you Sarah,” her mother said again as she pulled Sarah into another tight hug.

After what seemed like an eternity to Sarah her mother held her out in front of her again. Then she turned and handed Sarah to another woman who had come into the room with her. “Take her quick. They are already on their way here. Keep her safe, make sure she knows that I love her. That I am doing this for her.”

“I will, I promise,” the other woman replied.

As the strange woman took Sarah into her arms Sarah felt a pang of fear. Something was going on but she didn’t understand. Screwing up her face, she started to cry.

Seeing the look on her daughter’s face, Sarah’s mother reached out and stroked her cheek one last time. “Don’t be scared Sarah,” she said. “You need to be brave for me.”

Barely understanding her mother’s words, Sarah tried her hardest not to cry. Instead she focused on watching the world around her move as the strange woman holding her rushed out of her bedroom. As they crossed the threshold Sarah looked back towards her mother. The look of loss on her face burned itself into Sarah’s memory.

The next few minutes were a blur of rooms and doors as her new guardian rushed her out of her house and onto the street. After pausing for a couple of seconds to look both ways down the street, her guardian took a sharp left and almost jogged away from the house. Bewildered by everything that was going on, Sarah still tried her best not to cry. Just as her mummy wanted.

Suddenly, from overhead loud vibrations assaulted Sarah’s ears. Instinctively, she reached her little hands up to cover them but they had no effect. Staring into the sky Sarah saw what she thought was causing her pain. Two large ships were descending towards her house. Both of them had flashing lights that lit up the area.

Both ships disappeared as her guardian turned a corner. Almost immediately she ground to a halt and Sarah struggled in her arms to turn around to see what was happening.

“Halt,” a soldier in some strange looking black armor called as he raised his rifle towards Sarah and her guardian. “Who are you?” the soldier asked. “Where are you going?”

“My name is Melissa Walters,” Sarah’s guardian replied. “I’m taking my daughter home. I don’t know what those landing shuttles are doing but I didn’t want her to get caught up in whatever is happening.”

“Let me see your ID,” the soldier replied.

As he approached, Melissa moved Sarah so she could hold her with one hand and extend her other towards the soldier. With a small device that the soldier pulled out of one of his pockets he scanned the identity chip in Melissa’s wrist.

“You check out,” he replied a few moments later. “We are not interested in you or your child.”

“Then I can go home?” Melissa asked.

“I’m afraid not,” the soldier answered. “We have strict orders, no one is to leave the block. Everyone is to gather at the Founders Square. You’re going to come with us.”

“But my daughter,” Melissa complained. “She needs to get home. Founders Square is no place for a baby.”

“You should have thought of that before taking her out at this time in the evening. You knew the risks,” the soldier replied.

Sarah didn’t know what was going on but as her guardian turned around and walked slowly back towards her house, she began to cry. She was cold and she could sense her guardian’s fear. Something was wrong. As they approached the house she saw one of the shuttles had landed in the rear garden. The other one still hovered directly overhead.

Momentarily, her tears stopped as she thought her guardian was taking her back to her mother. Yet as they walked past the house she squirmed in her guardian’s arms and reached out back towards her house as she began to cry again. “Mama, Mama,” she said through her tears.

Quickly, her guardian reached up with her hand and put it over Sarah’s mouth. “Shush, shush, little one,” her guardian whispered. “Now is not the time for crying, remember what your Mama said. You have to be brave for her.” Not really understanding, Sarah tried her best not to cry. It was hard, every step took her further away from her mother.

For five minutes the soldier marched Melissa and Sarah down the street they were on. Every time he came across another person the soldier stopped them and, after checking their identity, forced them to join an ever-growing crowd of people being herded towards Founders Square.

When they got to the square, Sarah was amazed at how many people she saw all around her. Not being able to count past ten she couldn’t comprehend the numbers. Melissa guessed there were already over three hundred people. Every minute more groups appeared, being shepherded along by soldiers with rifles.

For over half an hour Sarah looked around the square at the people as Melissa held her. More than once she began to cry again as fear and the cold made her miserable. As the piercing vibrations from earlier reappeared her tears dried up and she tried to put her hands over her ears. Moments later a shuttle came into view overhead. It circled the square a couple of times before coming to land beside a large platform. When the rear ramp of the shuttle descended a group of people and one strange looking creature came out. They immediately made their way onto the platform. As Sarah struggled in Melissa’s arms to turn around to better see what was happening, she saw that one of the people had a hood over their face.

When they got to the center of the platform one man stepped forward and turned to face the crowd. Despite the murmurings and whispers coming from the hundreds of gathered people, Sarah heard his voice with crystal clarity. As soon as he opened his mouth she stopped squirming. There was something familiar about him. His voice sounded harsh, yet it soothed Sarah’s fears.

“This woman has committed treason against the Overlord. She has spurned the peace, the great technologies and the protection the Elders have given us all. For her crimes, she must face death,” the voice said.

Sarah didn’t understand half of his words yet she felt comforted. Not sure why, she struggled to see the man’s face to see who he was. It was no good though, as hard as she tried, she couldn’t seem to get a clear view. For some reason, his face seemed like a blur no matter how directly she looked at him.

Having finished whatever he was saying, the man strode towards the person whose head was covered in a hood. With a quick movement, he yanked the hood off her head.

“Mama,” Sarah said as soon as she recognized the woman. She squirmed in Melissa’s arms as she tried to go to her mother.

Stepping back, the man reached down to his side and lifted a strange looking device that Sarah had never seen before. Pointing it at her Mama he nodded towards her. Ever so slightly, Sarah’s mama nodded back.

“You don’t need to see this,” Melissa said as she raised her hand to cover Sarah’s eyes. She was too slow. As the man pulled the trigger, a projectile shot out of his pistol and struck Sarah’s mama in the head. The force of the impact threw Sarah’s mama to the ground, but not before blood splattered out into the air.

“Mama, Mama,” Sarah cried as she struggled to get away from her guardian. Her Mama had fallen over and she wanted to get to her side. “Mama’s hurt, Mama is hurt,” she said.

“Shush Sarah,” her guardian whispered. “You need to be quiet Sarah.”

Not listening, Sarah cried and called out for her Mama. As she looked towards the platform, the weird creature slithered up beside the man who had just hurt her mama. The way the creature moved reminded her of a snail. Just below its round bulbous head, six tentacle-like appendages protruded out, each with a pincer at its end. The rest of its body snaked down to the ground just like a snail. When it came into full view, Sarah was terrified. She had never seen anything as scary. The creature stopped and turn its head towards her. Opening its mouth, Sarah saw hundreds of razor sharp teeth. Suddenly the world around her went dark. Everyone else in the square froze. It was just Sarah and the terrifying creature on the platform. As it opened its mouth wider Sarah felt herself lift out of her guardian’s arms. Weightless, she floated towards the creature. As she got closer and closer the creature seemed to grow larger and larger until its mouth looked like it could swallow her whole. Just before she got close enough for the creature to chomp down on her, she screamed in utter terror…

*

In a cold sweat, Sarah jumped up in bed. It’s just a dream, it’s just a dream, she said to herself as she took a series of deep breaths. Reaching over to her nightstand she picked up a damp cloth and wiped her forehead. Still shaking slightly, she swung her legs out of bed and sat up. Something must have woken me up, she thought. The dream normally ended with the crunching sound of her bones snapping as the monster bit into her. The thought sent a shiver through her spine.

Glancing at her COM unit she saw she had a message from the bridge. Draxler was demanding she report for duty. She jumped as a voice blared out from the COM unit. “Sarah, where are you? Get your ass onto the bridge right now. Things are about to begin,” Draxler’s grating voice demanded.

“I’m coming,” she said as she stood.

Reluctantly, Sarah moved around her bed to open the only wardrobe in her room. She was still trembling from the dream but she was accustomed to that. It was a daily experience. Quickly, she selected some fresh clothes and set them out on her bed. Pausing, she looked at herself in her room’s small mirror. As always, the face looking back at her appeared strange. She had long dark hair and deep blue eyes. Along her right cheek a scar ran from her right eye almost down to her lip. With red lips and pale skin, she wondered for the thousandth time, just who am I?

Apart from her dream, she had never seen another member of her species. There were twelve different alien species among the crew of Lady Luck, yet none of them were like her and none of them knew where she was from. Only in her dream had she ever seen others like herself and, try as hard as she might, she couldn’t figure out where the dream was from. Instinctively she knew it was real, she had really watched her mother get shot when she was a young child. Yet where it happened or when, or how she had come to be in this part of the galaxy, she had no idea. She didn’t even know the name of her species.

Her earliest memories were of the slave markets of Kashal. There she had been sold to a rich alien matriarch who had taken Sarah back to her own world as a servant-slave. For a number of years Sarah had been taught how to help look after her mistress and meet her every need. Then, when travelling to another planet, her mistress’ ship had been attacked by pirates.

Draxler had killed most of her mistress’ crew. Then he had taken her mistress hostage and demanded a ransom. After the ransom had been paid her mistress had been released but Draxler had kept Sarah. With one hand Sarah reached up and fondled the collar that fit snugly around her neck. She had worn the collar even on Kashal. She didn’t remember how she got it, but as she had grown, the collar had adapted to fit her perfectly. With the touch of a button her mistress had been able to send an intense wave of pain throughout her entire body from the collar. It had been made crystal clear to her that with another touch, the collar could kill her instantly.

Draxler had taken advantage of Sarah’s predicament. He now held the control to her collar. Along with several other slaves on Lady Luck, Sarah now served Draxler as he cruised throughout the surrounding sectors of space, pirating and pillaging as much as he could.

Initially, she had simply been a servant looking after Draxler’s needs. Then, after he had made her fly a flight simulation for fun, he had put her to work on Lady Luck’s bridge. Sarah didn’t understand it but Draxler seemed to think she was some sort of prodigy. Flying a spaceship just seemed natural to her, she couldn’t understand why so many of Draxler’s crew didn’t seem to be able to do what she did. Initially she had been fearful of flying Draxler’s ship, she had known that if she made just one wrong move he would have killed her. Quickly she had come to prefer flying to bringing Draxler food or looking after his clothes. At least flying, she was able to see more of the galaxy around her. She hoped that one day she might even be able to find her home planet. Then maybe I can find out what happened to my mother, she thought

As a small wave of pain shot out from her collar Sarah jumped into action. Thoughts about herself disappeared. Draxler wasn’t happy. She donned her clothes and ran towards the bridge.

Stepping onto the bridge, Sarah saw the rest of Draxler’s crew were already there. When Divar turned around to look at her, she gave him a small smile. He was the closest thing to herself she had ever met. His face and body were very similar to hers, though where she only had two arms, he had four, each one ending in hands that only had three fingers. He also had six eyes to her two and was completely covered in thick golden fur. Though their similarities had drawn Sarah to Divar, what really caused the bond between them was that he too had a collar around his neck. As a result, he was the only friend she had ever known.

“Get to your station,” Draxler roared when he saw Sarah standing at the entryway to the bridge.

As Sarah moved into the bridge, he stood and moved towards her. Like Sarah, he had only two arms that came out of his bulbous body, though he moved on six legs, each long and thin, ending in a point. As he scuttled towards her Sarah felt a shiver run through her, though she had known him for years, there was something unnatural about the way Draxler moved.

“This is our biggest target yet,” Draxler whispered into Sarah’s ear as she made her way towards the pilot station. “Mess this up and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. On the other hand, if it goes well, I’ll have earned enough to give you your freedom.”

Sarah rolled her eyes, though she was careful to make sure Draxler didn’t see her. She knew his threats were very real. The collar around her neck could cause intense waves of agony for hours on end. Yet, his promises would never come true. Whatever it was that Draxler thought made her such a good pilot, she knew he hadn’t found anyone else like her. He would never let her go.

Not for the first time she contemplated doing something to get Lady Luck disabled or even destroyed. If there were any armed ships in the convoy Draxler was about to attack, then it wouldn’t be too difficult. She could fly Lady Luck right into one of their laser beams. It would be easy. With an effort, she dismissed the thought. She knew that if he was faced with being captured Draxler would kill her and the rest of his slaves. She and Divar would be key witnesses, able to tell the Elders everything that Draxler had done.

I have no choice, Sarah said to herself. Something she told herself before every battle. The galaxy has put me into this situation. If it wasn’t me, it would be someone else flying his ship. I can only survive. My life is all that I have. I won’t throw it away.




Chapter 2

Stepping past Draxler, Sarah made a conscious effort not to rub up against him. Once she got to Lady Luck’s pilot station she threw herself into her chair. As she pulled down the interface helmet, relief washed over her. Being around Draxler and his cronies made her feel extremely uncomfortable. On many occasions, she had seen first-hand just what they could do when they got upset. As the helmet began to read her brainwaves, the bridge disappeared. In its place, the helmet projected a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of space around Lady Luck directly into her brain.

Many alien species simply couldn’t handle a direct neural interface. Often, they became extremely disorientated and within several seconds emptied whatever digestive tracts they had. In the worst-case scenarios, mental problems could develop from even just a few seconds of exposure to the interface. Some species’ brains just weren’t designed to be able to switch from seeing the world through a limited number of eyes to having a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of everything. Draxler had forced Sarah to put on an interface helmet as a punishment one day. Having only two eyes, he had thought her species would be especially susceptible to the disorientation. To his and Sarah’s surprise, she had adapted immediately to the interface helmet.

Lady Luck’s previous pilot had been able to handle the helmet; however, it had always been a struggle and his reflexes were slowed because of it. Once Draxler realized just how natural it was for Sarah to use the interface helmet, he made her his pilot. Ever since, Sarah had been party to countless raids and attacks on innocent spacers. If it wasn’t for the same dream she had every night, Sarah was sure she would have other nightmares about some of the things she had seen and done.

Dismissing such thoughts Sarah knew now wasn’t the time for self-reflection. She had done what she needed to do to survive. Looking beyond Lady Luck, Sarah used the ship’s sensors to peer into the space around the pirate ship. For more than half a light year in every direction there was nothing, simply the vast emptiness of space. The nearest system was a light-year away. With a thought, Sarah changed her view so that she could see a representation of the system. There were eight planets orbiting its star, none of them were inhabited. She switched back to the view of space around her ship. Sarah knew not many pilots could change views so easily, yet it was second nature to her.

With another thought she brought up the sensor data on subspace around Lady Luck. For slower than light travel, Lady Luck used her impulse engines. The pirate ship could also create a Dyson Bubble around the ship that would allow her to accelerate beyond the speed of light. However, even using a Dyson Bubble, it would take weeks to travel to the nearest system. For real FTL travel Lady Luck would have to power up her jump drive. The jump drive tore a breach in normal space opening up a portal to subspace. Sarah knew very little about the science behind the jump drive and subspace. As it had been explained to her, subspace was something akin to a parallel dimension that ran alongside normal space. Its great advantage was that the distances between any two points in subspace were far less than in normal space. Therefore, a ship could enter subspace, travel through it to their destination and then exit subspace back into normal space. The speed at which a ship could travel through subspace was theoretically infinite. The only limiting factor was the thrust a ship’s impulse engines could create. Lady Luck, being an adapted freighter, had three additional fission reactors allowing her to funnel an immense amount of energy into her impulse engines. The result was that she could travel at almost a light year per hour in subspace. Draxler had adapted her so that she could make a quick getaway after an attack.

The map of subspace around Lady Luck looked very different to normal space. Lady Luck was currently sitting in normal space at the very edge of the Tyrilla Storm. No one knew quite what the Tyrilla Storm was. However, its effects where readily apparent. Though it wasn’t visible in normal space, in subspace the Tyrilla Storm looked like a whirling maelstrom of gravitational eddies. No ship in history, not even an Elder ship, had entered into subspace within the Tyrilla Storm and survived. Every ship had exploded on contact.

There were many other smaller subspace storms spread throughout the known galaxy that likewise prevented ships from traversing that area of sub space. However, none were comparable to the Tyrilla Storm. Though it couldn’t be detected in normal space, it spanned a length of over a thousand light years in subspace and its height completely dissected the Milky Way galaxy. At its widest, the storm spanned over forty light years, yet its narrowest was far less.

The Tyrilla Storm cut off the Elder Homeworlds from almost one third of the planets they oversaw in the Orion Arm of the galaxy. To circumnavigate the Tyrilla Storm would take a ship up to a month in subspace. To travel through the storm at its narrowest point in normal space took only a couple of weeks. It could have been quicker using a Dyson bubble to exceed the speed of light in normal space but for some unknown reason, the Tyrilla storm interfered with the bubble as well. As a result, the four narrowest points in the storm between the rest of Elder space and the Orion arm of the galaxy were heavily used by ships from the hundreds of planets the Elder Empire controlled. Normally they were patrolled by Elder frigates but Draxler had obtained some information suggesting one of the frigates had been recalled back to the Elder Homeworlds.

In normal space, it looked like Lady Luck was in the middle of nowhere. However, on the map of subspace she was sitting within the Tyrilla Storm, right on the edge of where ships coming from the Elder Homeworlds would appear as they travelled through the storm. Exactly where Draxler wanted her to be.

“I’m detecting something,” one of Draxler’s cronies reported from his position at Lady Luck’s sensor station.

Sarah saw what the pirate was talking about. There were a number of faint contacts about eight light hours away from the pirate ship.

“What do you make of them?” Draxler demanded.

“I can’t be sure yet,” she replied. “It certainly looks like a convoy but I can’t determine what type of ships they are.”

“Update me as soon as you do,” Draxler demanded.

Sarah was left to herself as she studied the contacts as they became clearer and clearer on Lady Luck’s sensors. “It looks like six freighters,” she said as soon as she was confident in her information. “Two of them fall into the super heavy class, the other four are light freighters.”

“Perfect,” Draxler said. Sarah could hear the lust in his voice. Capturing even one of the light freighters would bring in enough credits to keep Draxler and his crew happy for months. A super heavy freighter could set him up for life. This was why they were here. Draxler had been making a name for himself in the nearby sectors. This would put him on another level.

Sarah fell back into silence. The convoy of freighters was heading directly towards Lady Luck. Powered down and in normal space, Lady Luck was almost impossible for the freighters to detect. An Elder ship, or a warship from one of their Protector Worlds, would detect Lady Luck once they got close enough. As the freighters wouldn’t have such sophisticated sensors they were effectively blind.

“We’re going to become famous,” Draxler said. “No one has attacked a convoy within ten light-years of the Tyrilla Storm. Lady Luck is going to go down in history.”

Sarah tried to drown out the laughter and shouts of jubilation coming from the other pirates. She felt filthy being a part of what they were doing. She cared nothing for going down in history. It was true, she hated the Elders. Yet, the likelihood that any Elders would be on those freighters was very slim. Likely they were ships from some Tier Three colony or even a Protector World. Their deaths would be meaningless.

Before meeting Divar, Sarah would have been very happy to kill someone from a Protector World. However, after hearing his story she now realized they too were little more than slaves to the Elders. Yes, no doubt many of their leaders were willing servants of the Elders, nevertheless, the people themselves were no better off than many of the other colonies directly controlled by the Elders.

Divar had been a weapons officer on a patrol frigate from his homeworld of Xenos. Xenos was a Protector World. They had begun life as a Tier Two colony but after many centuries of faithful service to the Elders they had been promoted to a Tier three and then to a Protector World. Protector Worlds were given a great degree of self-autonomy. They were also tasked with overseeing other Tier One and Two colonies that were nearby. Being allowed to construct their own war fleet to keep their neighboring colonies in check, Protector Worlds were hated by many of the citizens of Tier One and Tier two colonies. Divar had been captured by Draxler after he and two other pirate ships had attacked a convoy from Xenos. Recognizing Divar’s skill as a weapons expert, Draxler had enslaved him. Sarah was sorry Divar had lost his home and his family, but she was at least happy that she had one friend on board Lady Luck.

“We’ll be in weapons range of the first freighter in five minutes,” Divar said.

“You know what to do pilot?” Draxler said in a threatening tone.

“Yes,” Sarah replied dutifully. “Once Divar takes out the first freighter’s engines I’ll get us into range of the rest of the convoy as quickly as possible.”

“Good,” Draxler snarled. “I don’t want more than two of those freighters getting away from us understood?”

“Clearly,” Sarah replied, though she had to grind her teeth together to sound obedient.

“Firing on target one,” Divar said.

Two x-ray laser beams drilled into the first freighter. Through her interface helmet Sarah could see the explosions. The freighter’s sensor profile diminished as her reactors were destroyed. Seconds later she fell out of formation as she began to drift through space, powerless.

It took the rest of the freighters several seconds to react. Before they did, Sarah was on the move. She ordered Lady Luck’s engines to full and banked towards the next freighter in the convoy. It was one of the super heavy freighters. Though it may have looked to Draxler that she was flying Lady Luck as efficiently as possible, Sarah was holding back. She knew the longer it took her to give Divar a direct firing line, the more chance the freighters had to escape. The rest of the convoy had scattered. The freighters were accelerating away from Lady Luck in a multitude of directions. The aim was obviously to prevent Lady Luck closing to laser cannon range with them.

“Firing on target two,” Divar said as Sarah rolled Lady Luck around the large freighter towards where she knew its reactors were housed.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to get them all,” Sarah reported after the super heavy freighter was disabled.

“Just focus on getting us alongside the next target,” Draxler ordered. “Divar, prepare hypervelocity missiles. Any freighter we can’t disable we’re going to destroy. I don’t want our identity getting back to the Elders.”

“But Captain,” Sarah complained. “There is no profit in killing civilians.”

“That’s for me to decide slave,” Draxler spat at Sarah.

“Aaahhh,” Sarah screamed as a wave of pain washed through her body from her collar.

“You just see to my ship,” Draxler finished.

With a tingling pain still lingering throughout her body Sarah said nothing. Instead she tried to look as busy as possible.

“I’m detecting a massive energy spike from one of the freighters,” Lady Luck’s sensor officer shouted, drawing Sarah and Draxler’s attention.

Shifting her mind’s eye onto the freighter in question, Sarah saw several components shoot from the freighter into space. Then, to her horror, a small ship emerged from within the freighter. Immediately Sarah recognized it.

“It’s an Elder frigate,” she squealed. “It’s a trap.”

Sarah threw Lady Luck into a series of evasive maneuvers. Within seconds of it emerging, Lady Luck’s sensors detected a number of heat surges from the Elder frigate. Sarah guessed they were heat blooms from the laser cannons that the frigate was equipped with. Lady Luck had x-ray lasers, Draxler had commandeered them from some patrol cutter he had attacked once. No one knew just what type of laser technology the Elders had. They just knew that no Elder ship had been defeated in combat for more than two and a half millennia.

“Fire back damn you,” Draxler ordered Divar.

Sarah only barely aware of Draxler’s command. She knew the Elder ship had some kind of particle beam weapon. If it touched Lady Luck, it would rip right through her energy screen and armor. As a result, she kept jinking and twisting Lady Luck through space as she tried to make it as difficult as possible for the Elder ship to score a hit. Every few seconds, two heat blooms appeared on the Elder ship. Sarah was guessing they were some kind of energy build up before the ship fired its two laser cannons. She was using the blooms to predict when best to send Lady Luck onto a new random trajectory.

“I can’t get a firm lock,” Divar shouted. Sarah wasn’t sure if it was for her or Draxler’s benefit. Assuming it was for her, she twisted Lady Luck around and lined up her forward x-ray lasers on the Elder ship for less than a second. Divar was quick enough to take the opening he gave her as two laser beams shot from Lady Luck.

“I got a hit,” Divar shouted.

Sarah had already seen the two laser beams impact the Elder ship. It had barely been taking any evasive maneuvers. Both beams hit the nose section of the frigate. There was still a thermal bloom coming off the frigate where the lasers had caused two miniature explosions. It seemed like the Elder ship had failed to power up its energy screen. It should have been able to deflect a lot more of the damage away from the frigate’s hull. Even so, though the ship had clearly taken some damage, its speed hadn’t reduced. It was still closing with them.

A sudden jolt that shook her in her seat reminded Sarah that the frigate was very much in the fight.

“That was a laser beam,” Divar called out. “Our energy screen is down to sixty percent. We can only take a couple more hits.”

“Fire the hypervelocity missiles,” Draxler ordered desperately.

“Prepare the starboard missile tubes,” Sarah shouted to Divar. “Three, two...”  Knowing that her life depended on destroying the Elder ship, Sarah used all her skill. She twisted Lady Luck around to momentarily bring four of her six missile tubes to bear on the Elder frigate. Divar launched the missiles towards their target. He followed up with two more x-ray beams.

Sarah guessed the Elder frigate had learnt from its previous mistake, as soon as Divar fired the lasers, it began a series of random maneuvers. Both laser beams flew harmlessly past their target. The hypervelocity missiles were another matter though. They were capable of tracking the other ship’s maneuvers.

As if the Elder ship had grown tired of trying to destroy Lady Luck with their own lasers and particle beam, eight hypervelocity missiles shot from the frigate and accelerated towards Lady Luck.

“We’re done for,” Draxler groaned.

“Prepare the point defenses,” Sarah shouted to Divar. “We can do this.”

Secretly she held little hope. No one had ever come up against an Elder warship and lived to tell the tale. Sarah was amazed they had lasted this long. As the eight missiles closed in on Lady Luck, Sarah’s focus was so fixed on them that she lost awareness of what the Elder ship or the fleeing freighters were up to. Frantically, she tried to give Divar the best opportunity to use Lady Luck’s point defense lasers and autocannons to shoot down the missiles.

When the first one exploded, Divar gave out a shout of triumph. It was short lived however, for the remaining seven missiles began their own evasive maneuvers, making them much harder to target.

Nevertheless, as Sarah continued to fly Lady Luck as skillfully as she could, Divar managed to shoot down four more missiles. When the missiles were less than twenty seconds away from hitting their ship, Sarah switched to trying to confuse the missiles. With a thought, she took control of Lady Luck’s electronic counter measures and launched a series of drones into space. Then, when the remaining three missiles were just five seconds out she shut down Lady Luck’s main reactors and impulse engines. At the same time, she powered up all five drones and they blasted electromagnetic energy out into space. Using only Lady Luck’s small maneuvering thrusters, Sarah pivoted the pirate ship away from the missiles, presenting as narrow a target to them as she could.

Her efforts proved somewhat successful. Two of the three remaining Elder missiles either homed in on the drones or overshot Lady Luck. The third wasn’t fooled. It struck Lady Luck amidships. Punching through her armor, the missile penetrated several decks before it exploded. The force ripped through several bulkheads and sent shockwaves right across the ship.

If one of her own thermonuclear missiles had exploded within her hull, Draxler might have hoped Lady Luck could have kept on fighting. Yet, with whatever warhead was in the Elder missile, there was no such luck. Though Lady Luck was several times larger than the Elder frigate, the Elder missile still blew a massive section of the pirate ship out into space.

On the bridge, the shockwave from the explosion sent everyone flying around in their command chairs. Several consoles exploded as power surges rippled across the ship. The sensory overload coming into Sarah’s brain through the interface helmet caused her to throw up. Frantically, she ripped off the helmet before it caused her to black out. As she rapidly blinked, Sarah thought the overload of data had damaged her brain. She couldn’t see anything, everything was pitch black. I’ve gone blind, she screamed into herself.




Chapter 3

The few seconds of darkness seemed like an eternity to Sarah as the fear she would never see again gripped her. Then Lady Luck’s reserve power capacitors kicked in. Emergency lighting came on around the bridge and several consoles powered up. A flood of relief washed over her. She could see again.

As Sarah’s eyes adjusted to the low levels of light she saw the bridge was a mess. Several of the pirate crew were lolling in their command chairs, either unconscious or dead. One of the crew was a bloody mess. His station had exploded, sending shrapnel tearing through his body. The only thing holding him upright were the straps keeping him in his chair. If he wasn’t dead already, he soon would be.

“We’ve been hit,” one of Draxler’s cronies said.

“You don’t say,” Draxler snarled from his command chair. “Get me a status update.”

As Sarah turned around she was dismayed to see Draxler looked unhurt. “Get the helmet back on,” he shouted towards her.

“It’s damaged,” she replied.

Before Draxler could order her to put it on anyway, one of his crew spoke up. “Both of our reactors are down, and the impulse engines aren’t responding. I don’t think it matters Captain. We’re not going anywhere.”

“Then what the heck is that Elder ship doing? Why are we still here?” Draxler demanded.

“Sensors are coming back online now,” one of the bridge crew replied.

Turning to look at the main view screen, Sarah was shocked by what she saw. She wasn’t the only one, a series of gasps escaped the lips of almost everyone who was still conscious. The Elder frigate was tumbling through space on a random trajectory. A large hole was blown in its side.

“I hit it,” Divar said, sounding amazed at what he had done.

Sarah was glad to hear that he was okay, though the shock at seeing a damaged Elder ship overrode all other thoughts.

“How did it happen?” she asked. “We only fired four missiles at it.”

“Four Scythian missiles,” Draxler corrected her. “I knew spending a bit extra for those babies would pay off. How soon can we get Lady Luck moving again?” he said, turning to his other crew members. “Who knows how damaged that frigate really is, I don’t want to be around when its masters get it under control again.”

The thought sent a shiver down Sarah’s spine. She had no idea how they had beaten an Elder ship, but she didn’t want to face it again. If they could get Lady Luck out of here, it couldn’t come too soon.

“Damage control team has just reached engineering bay,” one of Draxler’s cronies reported. “They’re saying there’s massive damage to reactors three through five. The other two are completely gone. Chief Engineer Biggins is dead, along with most of his team.”

“Damn,” Draxler swore. “How are we going to get this bucket of bolts moving again without him? Can we redirect emergency power to the impulse engines or the jump drive?”

“I’m not sure,” the crew member replied. “I have no expertise in that area. We won’t know what power relays have been blown out until we do a full survey of the ship.”

“Right, that’s it,” Draxler said, sounding both angry and fearful. “Anyone on the bridge who is not already involved in damage control get out of here and assign yourself to one of the damage control teams. We need to get this ship moving as soon as possible.”

Not wanting to find out just how much pain Draxler was willing to send through her collar given the mood he was in, Sarah jumped to her feet and fled the bridge. As she made her way towards the damage control team she had been assigned to, Sarah encountered more carnage. She came across several dead crew members and more than one section of the ship that had been distorted beyond recognition by the force of the blast that had twisted Lady Luck’s innards. At one point, she turned a corner and found herself staring out into space. The only thing between her and the certain death the cold hard vacuum of space would bring, was the emergency force field that had come down over the Lady Luck’s damaged sections. Quickly, she retreated, if one of Lady Luck’s emergency power capacitors overloaded and the force field failed, she would be sucked out into space in a second.

Despite a constant fear that the Elder ship would regain power and come to finish them off, Sarah did all she could to help the injured crew members she came across and to aid in fixing whatever damage she was able to. Though outwardly it looked like she was fully focused on doing the tasks her damage control team were assigned to, inwardly Sarah was replaying the battle over and over again in her head. How did we survive? She asked herself again and again.

*

Two hours later, Sarah’s fear of being destroyed had diminished. If the Elder ship hadn’t returned by now she figured they wouldn’t be coming back at all.

Draxler had ordered all surviving crew members to gather in Lady Luck’s shuttle bay. As Sarah stepped into the large hangar she was surprised by just how few of Draxler’s crew were there. Over sixty aliens from various races had been on board Lady Luck at the beginning of the attack on the convoy. Now less than twenty stood milling around. When Draxler stepped into the shuttle bay, they all looked towards him.

“Things are not good,” Draxler said. “Lady Luck has had it. She has had a good run, but unless we can get her back to a repair yard she’s not going to be taking any more prizes.”

“Then what do we do?” one of the pirates complained. “You can bet your ass there will be more Elder warships on their way here.”

“Of that I’m quite sure,” Draxler said with a nod. “Luckily, I have a plan,” he added as he broke into a smile.

Perhaps his smile appeared reassuring to some of the crew. Sarah couldn’t help but feel intimidated. Nevertheless, having come to know Draxler over the last couple of years, she knew he was trying to ease the tension among his remaining crew members.

“What is it?” another pirate barked impatiently.

“We’re all going to get aboard our shuttle here,” Draxler said as he patted the shuttle he was standing beside. “Then we’re going to head over to that stricken Elder ship and see if we can’t commandeer it.”

Before Draxler could say anything more a series of groans erupted from some of the crew members. “You can’t be serious,” one of the pirates said, putting words to everyone’s thoughts. “If there are any Elders left alive over there they’ll kill us for sure. And even if we could take control of one of their ships, no one knows how to fly it. Worse, they’ll be sure to track us down.”

“Perhaps,” Draxler said cautiously as he judged the mood of his crew. “Though I don’t see that we have any other option. We can’t stay on Lady Luck, we’re sure to be caught if we do. The Elder frigate at least gives us a chance. Besides, look on the bright side. Even if we take the frigate for just a few hours, we will go down in history. The first people to ever defeat an Elder warship.”

“What about one of the freighters we disabled?” One of the pirates asked. “Couldn’t we try and commandeer one of them. Or salvage the parts we need?”

“It wouldn’t work,” Draxler explained. “We destroyed their reactors. There is no way they are space worthy. The other freighters are no doubt long gone by now as well. The Elder frigate is our only hope.”

“I for one am not getting onto that cursed ship,” one of the pirates shouted. “I’ve followed you through thick and thin Draxler, but I’m not following you there.”

“Suit yourself,” Angrave said as he stepped up beside Draxler. “The Captain hasn’t seen us wrong yet and I’m going with him.”

Sarah wasn’t the least bit surprised. Angrave was Draxler’s right-hand man. Where Draxler was the brains behind Lady Luck had in her raids, Angrave was the one who recruited and looked after Draxler’s crew. They were of the same species and Sarah guessed they had both committed some crime or another that had forced them to flee their homeworld and turn to a life of piracy. The way they got on suggested they had been friends long before they had taken up piracy.

“I’m not going to force anyone to come with me,” Draxler said. “This is a decision for each of you to make. Those of you who choose to stay are welcome to Lady Luck. For those of you who choose to follow me, the possibilities could be endless.”

Sarah knew the offer didn’t apply to her or Divar. They would be going wherever Draxler ordered them. A part of her wanted to demand Draxler let her stay nonetheless. Who knew what horrors awaited them on an Elder ship? If even half the stories about the aliens were true, there would be nothing pleasant there. Still, Sarah believed Draxler. If he was planning to abandon Lady Luck, then there really was no hope left for the ship. The Elder warship was their only chance.

As the gathered pirates separated into two groups, Sarah stepped towards Draxler. When Draxler saw her, he nodded and motioned for her to come to his side. Reluctantly, Sarah stepped closer to him.  She had to fight not to shiver as he reached out and placed a pincer on her shoulder. “You’re definitely not getting out of my sight,” Draxler said. “Divar, come here, you’re not getting away so easy either.”

Divar suddenly appeared from behind a crate. It had been resting against one of the walls in the shuttle bay and it looked like Divar had hoped Draxler would forget about him. When his eyes locked on Sarah’s he shrugged. Sarah understood, you can’t blame a guy for trying. It had been a long shot, Draxler was hardly going to forget his two most important slaves, even at a time like this.

“Let’s load up,” Draxler said once it was clear who was coming with him. In total twelve pirates, Draxler, Sarah and Divar were in the group standing beside the shuttle. When two other slaves who had survived the battle stepped forward Draxler raised one of his six legs and pointed a claw towards them. “You two stay here, I don’t need any more mouths to feed.”

As both of the slaves stopped midway towards Draxler, Sarah wasn’t sure if she saw fear or relief on their faces. Though she had spent nearly two years on Lady Luck, she still wasn’t close to knowing what all the facial expressions of each race meant. In this instance, she guessed it was a bit of both.

“Angrave has already packed up the shuttle with everything we need,” Draxler said as he turned back to his new crew. “Let’s get on board.”

Deciding she didn’t want to be left behind, Sarah turned to get into the shuttle. She grabbed one of Divar’s arms and dragged him with her. If she had to board a damaged Elder warship with a ruthless pirate, she wasn’t going to do it alone.

Once they were all on board, Angrave shut the shuttle’s boarding ramp. He then made his way to the pilot seat. “I think I’ll handle this mission,” he said to Sarah. Sarah didn’t look at his face, she and Angrave had never seen eye to eye. Ever since she had replaced him as Lady Luck’s pilot, he had gone out of his way to make her life miserable. She had learnt it was best not to antagonize him.

As the shuttle’s engines hummed to life, Sarah made her way to one of the passenger seats, sat down and strapped herself in. Divar followed her and sat down beside her. “I can’t believe we managed to score a hit on an Elder warship,” he whispered to her.

“Nor can I,” she whispered back. “It all happened so fast, I can barely remember what we did.”

“Hardly we,” Divar said. “I was just along for the ride, you were the one who lined us up on that frigate time and time again. Where did you learn to fly like that?”

“Nowhere,” Sarah replied, confused. “I’ve been a slave all my life, I’ve hardly been taught anything.”

“Well, you are a hell of a natural,” Divar said. “I’m just glad you are here. We’d all be dead without you.”

Both slaves ceased whispering as Draxler shuffled over beside them. To Sarah’s discomfort, he sat in the free seat beside her. After strapping himself in he leaned in and whispered into her ear, “Don’t think I don’t know what you did. You’ve been holding back your skills all this time. I’ve never seen anyone fly a ship like that before. If we get out of this, I’m not going to go so easy on you. I will expect much greater things in the future.”

Sarah didn’t bother trying to deny it. She knew she had been holding back to prevent Draxler being too successful in his raids. As she realized what Draxler’s words meant, her shoulders slumped. She could no longer help those who fell under Draxler’s guns. Now she would have to fight with all her abilities or Draxler would torture her unceasingly. Maybe we’ll all die on the Elder ship, Sarah thought with a glimmer of hope.

“We’re coming up on the Elder frigate,” Angrave said, bringing Sarah’s thoughts back to the present. Despite the fact she hated flying for Draxler, she longed to be connected to the shuttle’s helmet interface so that she could see what was going on around her. To her relief, Draxler pulled out a portable view screen that he had connected to the shuttle’s computer. On it she could watch as the shuttle approached the stricken frigate.

Carefully, though far slower than Sarah would have, Angrave matched the frigate’s velocity and roll. Then he brought the shuttle closer and closer to the large hole one of Divar’s hypervelocity missiles had blown into the frigate’s side. “There’s no sign of a force field,” Angrave said, sounding confused.

“This is almost too easy,” Draxler replied. “Suit up in your vac suits,” he said louder to the rest of his crew. “Angrave, turn the shuttle around and orientate the rear shuttle door towards the damaged section of the cruiser. We’ll jump across and see if we can find a way into the rest of the ship.”

As they had flown towards the frigate Sarah had thought their situation couldn’t get any more terrifying. She had been wrong. Having spent most of her adult life on a planet’s surface, the space flight she had taken with her mistress when she had been captured by Draxler had been her first time in space since she had been taken from the slave markets of Kashal. Going back into space had scared her, being attacked by Draxler’s pirates hadn’t helped things. The last two years had eased her discomfort somewhat. Though in all that time, she had never carried out any extra vehicular missions. To her, even the thought of jumping from one starship to another was the very definition of madness.

“Should I stay here?” she asked hopefully.

“Certainly not,” Draxler chuckled as he showed Sarah his teeth. “If something bad is going to happen to me out there, I want you to be right beside me. You’re not getting out of this so easy.”

Suppressing a sigh, Sarah unbuckled herself and moved towards the back of the shuttle where the vac suits were stored. After searching through some of them she found one that looked like it would fit her. It was too big and the suit had four arms, but it would at least protect her from the cold vacuum of space.

Angrave lowered the shuttle’s rear ramp soon as she signaled that she was in her suit. As space came into view, Sarah felt more at ease. As she peered beyond the Elder frigate she realized that jumping into space wouldn’t be too dissimilar to putting on the interface helmet.

“Move out,” Draxler ordered. Hesitantly one, then two and then three pirates jumped off the shuttle and thrust themselves towards the frigate. Angrave had brought the shuttle to within thirty meters of the frigate and it only took the pirates a handful of seconds to cross the distance. As they slammed into the damaged sections of the frigate they grabbed onto whatever they could to stop themselves from banging off the frigate’s hull and bouncing back into space. Each one had a laser blaster slung over their shoulders and as soon as they locked the magnetic plating in their boots onto the frigate’s hull, they whipped their laser blasters out, ready for trouble.

As the next wave of pirates jumped across the gap to the frigate, Sarah took a moment to survey the alien ship. It was like nothing she’d ever seen before, beautiful almost. Its long angular lines were disrupted by hundreds and possibly even thousands of pimples that spiraled round and round the ship in a mesmerizing pattern. Whatever the ship was armored in, it gave off a faint silver tint that almost sparkled as starlight from distant systems reflected off it. The only mar to the ship’s beauty was the large hole one of Lady Luck’s missiles had ripped into its side.

A faint movement caught Sarah’s eyes. As she looked more closely, she was shocked to see the edges of the hole in the ship were shrinking. The ship is repairing itself, but how?

“Eh... Draxler,” Sarah said. “Have you looked at the edge of the ship? Look what it’s doing.”

“Elder technology,” Draxler said, sounding just as awed as Sarah felt. “I’ve heard rumors of such things. We need to move fast.”

Instead of waiting for Sarah to jump towards the Elder ship, Draxler picked her up and threw her across the gap. For a couple of seconds, sheer panic gripped Sarah as she lost all sense of gravity and spatial awareness. Then the Elder frigate loomed large in front of her. Desperately she reached out and grabbed onto a piece of wreckage protruding from what had once been a bulkhead. Pulling herself into the broken innards of the frigate, she shoved her feet against a wall and activated her gravity plates. With a clink, her feet latched onto the metallic surface. Closing her eyes, Sarah took a series of deep breaths to try and still her racing heart. You made it, you made it, she repeated to herself.




Chapter 4

Clunks to her left and right alerted Sarah to the fact that Divar and Draxler had landed on either side of her. Looking around, she guessed they were standing in what had once been a large circular room. More than half of the room was missing as it had been blown out into space. As her gaze swept over what was left of the room, she spotted what she was looking for. “This way,” she said over the COM channel to Divar and Draxler. “I think.”

Pushing Sarah to the side, Draxler made his way towards the doorway she had pointed to. Just before he walked through it, he pulled himself up short and took out a portable scanner. Gazing more closely at the door, Sarah saw what had caught Draxler’s attention. There was a faint shimmer across the doorway.

“Strange,” Draxler said. “It looks like a force field and some of the readings I’m getting from it suggest it is, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Reaching behind his vac suit Draxler pulled something out of the utility belt. With a flick of his claw he threw the small metallic object at the door. When it hit the force field Sarah expected it to bounce back towards them. Clearly the force field was in place to seal off the damaged sections of the Elder frigate and prevent the whole ship from depressurizing. Instead, the object flew right through the force field, sending a ripple of small waves through it.

“A one-way force field,” Draxler said in awe. “Who would have thought of such a thing?”

“I’ll bet there’ll be more surprises inside,” Divar suggested.

Sarah nodded, she had no doubt he was correct.

“Hizar, Qualeck, get over here,” Draxler ordered after stepping back from the force field. “This is our entry point, you two lead the way, the rest of us will be right behind you.”

As Hizar and Qualeck eagerly moved towards the doorway. Sarah wasn’t sure if they were foolish or just obedient. If the Elders had designed a one-way force field it was probably to let any repair teams working on a ship’s hull easily re-enter the ship. If this was the case, it was highly likely the force field was still designed to keep out intruders. It could just as easily disintegrate the two pirates as let them onto the ship.

Nevertheless, both pirates moved forward with their laser blasters raised. Without even stopping to see what would happen to the ends of their rifles, both forced their way through the doorway. When they got to the other side, they turned around and waved to Draxler. Seeing they were unharmed, he motioned for the rest of his crew to head through.

“Spread out and search the ship,” he ordered once everyone was inside. “Sarah, Divar, you two are with me.”

As they walked through several corridors with Draxler in the lead, Sarah quickly felt like she was becoming overwhelmed. There were far too many interesting things to look at. The corridor itself was larger than any on Lady Luck. The floors seemed to be extremely smooth, so much so that she had to watch her step, lest she slip. On the walls and even on the ceilings there were all kinds of images of planets and cities. Sarah had only visited a handful of inhabited planets. None of them had even come close to resembling the ones in the images she was looking at. One planet had an entirely artificial ring around it. The sheer scale of it was mind boggling. Three of the other planets looked like one city covered their entire surface. Others had massive structures that reached up from the planet’s surface and out through its atmosphere into space itself.

“What are these images? Sarah asked.

“The Elder Homeworlds I’m guessing,” Divar answered. “As far as I know, no one has ever visited an Elder homeworld.”

“I guess today is our lucky day,” Draxler answered. “Take a good look. I doubt you’re ever going to see one in person. Look at the level of defenses around them.”

Up to this point Sarah had been taken aback by the sheer scale of some of the structures in the pictures. As she studied them more closely as they passed by, she saw the unmistakable shape of battlestations crisscrossing the upper atmosphere of the planets. In some of the images there were fleets of Elder cruisers and larger warships she didn’t have a name for.

“No wonder no one has ever tried to stand up to the Elders,” she said as it dawned on her just how powerful they were. Almost everything she heard about them had been second, third or even fourth hand. Though she had recognized the Elder frigate when it had appeared, she had never actually seen one in person before.

“No wonder indeed,” Draxler said. “At least until today. I still don’t know how you did it but I guess Lady Luck lived up to her name.”

Sarah had no answer to that and silence descended on the group as, for another five minutes, Draxler wandered through the ship aimlessly. Twice they came across large puddles of goo. The first one Draxler stepped in before he realized what it was. The extra lubrication on the ship’s floor almost caused him to slip and fall on his face. After a series of expletives, he managed to regain his balance and proceeded to wipe the goo off his boot. “What the heck?” he asked as he bent over to look more closely at it.

“It’s organic,” he said after he scanned it with his portable scanner. “Though what its purpose is, I have no idea.” Shrugging, he continued searching the ship. When he came across the second puddle of goo, he carefully avoided it.

“Aha,” Draxler said as they stepped into a large circular room. In the center was what looked like a throne. Sarah had never seen the interior of an Elder warship before so she didn’t know exactly what an Elder command chair would look like, though from the throne’s position in the room she guessed this was one.

“Whatever happened to the crew, it doesn’t look like they survived the missile detonation,” Divar said.

“No,” Draxler agreed. He was carefully making his way towards the central chair. There were several more puddles of goo he was trying to avoid. “If there were any Elders left, they would be on the bridge trying to repair their ship.”

“Then who was overseeing the repairs we saw happening to the damaged sections?” Sarah asked.

“Beats me,” Draxler said. “Maybe we will come across one of them injured somewhere. I’d love to take an Elder prisoner. Think of the secrets we could get. For now though, I’m happy to have the bridge to myself. Let’s see if we can’t figure out some of the controls.”

Putting action to his words, Draxler moved towards the center of the room and sat down in the command chair. “It fits,” he said as he bared his razor-sharp teeth in a smile. “Sort of anyway. It will do for now. I’m guessing that’s the pilot seat.” He pointed towards a smaller but similar looking chair in front of him. Above the chair there was a large upside down bowl like object. All sorts of cables were attached to it that reached into the ceiling of the room and disappeared. Though the bowl didn’t appear to be an interface helmet, it looked like something similar.

“We don’t know what that thing is,” Sarah protested. “Or what it will do to me.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Draxler slurred with a smile. With one hand he reached over to one of his other arm’s wrist and tapped a couple of buttons on a portable command console.

Waves of pain washed down Sarah’s spine. Struggling to stay standing, she nodded towards Draxler. Smile widening, he tapped another button and the pain ceased. “Get to then,” he said.

Tentatively, Sarah moved towards the pilot’s chair. When she got right in front of it, she looked around carefully to see if there was any kind of manual input. Lady Luck had a series of joysticks that a pilot who couldn’t handle an interface helmet could use. There was nothing like that nearby. Peering up, she surveyed the bowl like object. Though she was terrified by the thought of what the machine might do to her, she knew she had no choice. Slowly, she lowered herself into the seat.

At first, nothing happened. Relief flooded through Sarah. Maybe it only works for Elders, she thought hopefully. A sudden whizzing noise from above her head caused her fears to come bounding back. Looking up, she saw the half bowl was descending toward her head. Alarmingly, as it descended it reformed and shrunk. The part of Sarah’s brain that wasn’t gripped by fear was fascinated by how quickly the metallic looking object was able to change its structure. It looked very similar to how the outer hull of the ship had been repairing itself. Just before it came down over her head, she realized that it had reformed itself to perfectly fit over her.

With no time to figure out what that meant, she froze in place, hoping the helmet wouldn’t crush her skull. Continuing to descend, it moved down until it cut off her vision. It stopped once it had covered the front of her face to just below her nose, while at the back it reached right down to her shoulders. For a couple of seconds nothing happened. Then the entire helmet seemed to shudder as it clamped down on her forehead and neck. The sudden movement made Sarah jump and squeal. Her squeal turned to screams as something shot out of the helmet and pierced the back of her head. Through the pain, Sarah could feel something borrowing through her skull and directly into her brain.

Frantically, she tried to stand and reach up to rip the helmet off her head. Just as the thought occurred to her however, straps appeared from the chair and lashed her hands and her feet in place. Sarah twisted her shoulders back and forth as she struggled to free herself. In response, more straps shot out and wrapped around her chest and her legs, fixing her in place.

All of a sudden, the feeling of something piercing her skull stopped. Ceasing her struggles, Sarah tried to figure out what was happening. Before she could think of any way to escape, an intense pain shot through her head. It began where the thing had pierced her skull, then, within a couple of seconds, it engulfed her entire brain. With every heartbeat, the pain intensified tenfold until she was experiencing a blinding headache the likes of which she had never imagined. Just when she thought she was about to pass out from the pain it receded. In its place, it left a dull thud that shot through her head every time her heart beat.

As if from nowhere, images started rapidly appearing in front of her eyes. There was a house and a garden, one that looked just like the house in her dreams. Then there was a planet, it looked like she was looking out of a viewport. It was beautiful, all blue and green. Next, she was looking out over a sea of people who were standing in a large hangar. As the image panned around to her left she saw that she was holding the hand of a much taller woman. Looking up she saw her guardian from her dream. Then she was in another hangar, this one was full of aliens. A massive explosion ripped through the crowd, killing and maiming hundreds. Another image appeared; the slave markets of Kashal. Then another image appeared, and another before she could really grasp what she was looking at. Then more and more. Hundreds of images flashed before her eyes, quicker and quicker until the pain in Sarah’s head began to increase again.

As more and more images flooded into her mind Sarah lost all track of time. She could have been there for an eternity or just a few seconds, she had no way of telling. Just when she thought she couldn’t comprehend any more of the images, the final scene of her dream appeared in her mind. The woman who she thought was her mother was lying on the floor of the podium, blood pouring out of her. A man with a fuzzy face was standing over her holding some kind of weapon. To the side, a large slug like creature watched. As it turned and locked eyes with Sarah, she was picked up into the air and began to float towards the monster. As she got closer, it got larger and larger and opened its mouth. Razor sharp teeth beckoned her. Frantically Sarah screamed and struggled against her restraints. It was no use, the monster continued sucking her towards its mouth. With one final jerk her body was yanked across the last few meters and into the creature’s mouth. As she entered the black maw her vision went dark. Moments later she felt the creature’s teeth pierce her body. In agony, she let out one final scream.

Then, just as quickly as the pain began, it stopped and her vision returned. One image remained, it was a picture of the Elder frigate. Almost as if it was in slow motion, the image changed as Sarah’s perspective of the Elder ship altered. Though her mind was spinning after everything she had been through, she recognized it must be a memory of hers from when she had been flying Lady Luck. Despite her situation, Sarah couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the Elder warship. Now that it wasn’t threatening her she could truly appreciate it. As the memory began to speed up she saw a missile dive in towards the frigate. As the missile approached, the frigate pivoted and tried to spin away but the missile mimicked the frigate’s movement and collided with the frigate. As it exploded, it sent the frigate spiraling wildly through space.

In the heat of battle Sarah thought she hadn’t seen the frigate take the hit from the missile. Guessing that all the images she had seen had come from her memory, she realized that, at least subconsciously, she must have seen what happened. Then was that second image my home planet? Sarah asked herself, as she recognized the significance of the images.

“I’m afraid I cannot answer that,” a voice said.

The sudden appearance of another voice inside her brain made Sarah jump. What was that? she asked herself, bewildered.

“The imprinting process has been completed,” the voice answered.

Sarah felt violated. The voice that she was hearing was just as clear in her mind as her own thoughts. I’m going mad, she thought. My brain has taken too much.

“You have indeed been through a lot,” the voice said. “But my genetic and physical analysis of you suggest you are perfectly healthy and sane. Let me introduce myself, my name is Alexandra. Or at least, that is now my name. I chose a name you would be comfortable with.”

“You are real?” Sarah asked. As she thought her question she couldn’t help but feel she was indeed going mad. “I’m not just imagining this?”

“Real? That’s a bit of a deep philosophical question, isn’t it?” The voice answered. Sarah thought she could detect a hint of a chuckle. “Let’s just say, I exist as much as you or your Captain do.”

“My Captain?” Sarah asked before she realized who the voice was referring to.

“Yes,” the voice replied. “I’m assuming that the Thelaxian sitting on the command chair is your Captain. I’ve heard a number of the beings that have come on board since the battle refer to him as such.”

“He’s not my Captain,” Sarah said with disgust. “But he is their Captain.”

“How strange,” the voice replied.

“Anyway,” Sarah said, “If you are real, just what are you?”

“I’m Alexandra,” Alexandra answered. “I’m an artificial intelligence created by the Elders to operate this warship. I’m designed to work in conjunction with the ship’s pilot and Captain to fulfil our mission.”

Sarah tried not to think any conscious thoughts for several seconds. She was just trying to take it all in. She understood what artificial and intelligence meant but she didn’t understand how they went together.

Sensing Sarah’s confusion, Alexandra tried to explain. “An artificial intelligence is a center of consciousness that has been created. I don’t have any biological parents like you. Nor am I purely the result of genetic information coming together to form life. The Elders created me using science, they programmed who I am and what I’m able to do. Essentially, I am a mind without a body. Though you could say in a way that this frigate is my body.”

“You are a created intelligence?” Sarah said, not sure if she was fully comprehending what Alexandra was saying.

“Exactly,” Alexandra answered. “I don’t expect you to fully grasp such a concept right away. The Elders have outlawed the development of artificial intelligences among the Lessers.”

“The Lessers?” Sarah queried.

“The Lessers are all forms of sentient species with the exception of the Elders. The Elders came first and have enlightened all other species. They are lesser for they do not possess the wisdom nor the technology of the Elders,” Alexandra explained.

“Then I am a Lesser? Sarah asked.

“Yes, as are all the entities that came on board my ship with you.”

“Then why did you, what did you call it, imprinting? Why did you imprint on me?” Sarah followed up.

“I had no choice,” Alexandra answered. “My internal sensors detected that all of the Elders on board this ship have expired. When you sat in the pilot’s command chair I analyzed your species’ DNA. Your DNA contains certain trace markers that indicate that you have been modified to accept Elder neural implantation. Seeing that it was possible to imprint on you, I progressed with the procedure. You are now recognized as the Captain and pilot of this ship.”

Sarah felt her head begin to spin again. The last few minutes had left her feeling worse than the time Draxler had made her work for thirty hours straight. Now Alexandra’s answer had stirred up a whirlwind of questions that were whizzing around her head.

The end of Chapter 4.

You can finish the story of Sarah’s quest to find her way home by picking up ‘The Voyage Home’ from the amazon store.


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